I

It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend, Morgan Mallow. This was a subject on which it was, to the best of his belief, impossible, with veracity, to quote him, and it was nowhere on record that he had, in the connection, on any occasion and in any embarrassment, either lied or spoken the truth. Such a triumph had its honour even for a man of other triumphs—a man who had reached fifty, who had escaped marriage, who had lived within his means, who had been in love with Mrs. Mallow for years without breathing it, and who, last not least, had judged himself once for all. He had so judged himself in fact that he felt an extreme and general humility to be his proper portion; yet there was nothing that made him think so well of his parts as the course he had steered so often through the shallows just mentioned. It became thus a real wonder that the friends in whom he had most confidence were just those with whom he had most reserves. He couldn’t tell Mrs. Mallow—or at least he supposed, excellent man, he couldn’t—that she was the one beautiful reason he had never married; any more than he could tell her husband that the sight of the multiplied marbles in that gentleman’s studio was an affliction of which even time had never blunted the edge. His victory, however, as I have intimated, in regard to these productions was not simply in his not having let it out that he deplored them; it was, remarkably, in his not having kept it in by anything else.

The whole situation, among these good people, was verily a marvel, and there was probably not such another for a long way from the spot that engages us—the point at which the soft declivity of Hampstead began at that time to confess in broken accents to St. John’s Wood. He despised Mallow’s statues and adored Mallow’s wife, and yet was distinctly fond of Mallow, to whom, in turn, he was equally dear. Mrs. Mallow rejoiced in the statues—though she preferred, when pressed, the busts; and if she was visibly attached to Peter Brench it was because of his affection for Morgan. Each loved the other, moreover, for the love borne in each case to Lancelot, whom the Mallows respectively cherished as their only child and whom the friend of their fireside identified as the third—but decidedly the handsomest—of his godsons. Already in the old years it had come to that—that no one, for such a relation, could possibly have occurred to any of them, even to the baby itself, but Peter. There was luckily a certain independence, of the pecuniary sort, all round: the Master could never otherwise have spent his solemn Wanderjahre 1 in Florence and Rome and continued, by the Thames as well as by the Arno and the Tiber, to add unpurchased group to group and model, for what was too apt to prove in the event mere love, fancy-heads of celebrities either too busy or too buried—too much of the age or too little of it—to sit. Neither could Peter, lounging in almost daily, have found time to keep the whole complicated tradition so alive by his presence. He was massive, but mild, the depositary of these mysteries—large and loose and ruddy and curly, with deep tones, deep eyes, deep pockets, to say nothing of the habit of long pipes, soft hats, and brownish, greyish, weather-faded clothes, apparently always the same.

He had ‘written,’ it was known, but had never spoken—never spoken, in particular, of that; and he had the air (since, as was believed, he continued to write) of keeping it up in order to have something more—as if he had not, at the worst, enough—to be silent about. Whatever his air, at any rate, Peter’s occasional unmentioned prose and verse were quite truly the result of an impulse to maintain the purity of his taste by establishing still more firmly the right relation of fame to feebleness. The little green door of his domain was in a garden-wall on which the stucco was cracked and stained, and in the small detached villa behind it everything was old, the furniture, the servants, the books, the prints, the habits, and the new improvements. The Mallows, at Carrara Lodge, were within ten minutes, and the studio there was on their little land, to which they had added, in their happy faith, to build it. This was the good fortune, if it was not the ill, of her having brought him, in marriage, a portion that put them in a manner at their ease and enabled them thus, on their side, to keep it up. And they did keep it up—they always had—the infatuated sculptor and his wife, for whom nature had refined on the impossible by relieving them of the sense of the difficult. Morgan had, at all events, everything of the sculptor but the spirit of Phidias—the brown velvet, the becoming beretto, the ‘plastic’ presence, the fine fingers, the beautiful accent in Italian, and the old Italian factotum. He seemed to make up for every thing when he addressed Egidio with the ‘tu’ and waved him to turn one of the rotary pedestals of which the place was full. They were tremendous Italians at Carrara Lodge, and the secret of the part played by this fact in Peter’s life was, in a large degree, that it gave him, sturdy Briton that he was, just the amount of going abroad he could bear. The Mallows were all his Italy, but it was in a measure for Italy he liked them. His one worry was that Lance—to which they had shortened his godson—was, in spite of a public school, perhaps a shade too Italian. Morgan, meanwhile, looked like somebody’s flattering idea of somebody’s own person as expressed in the great room provided at the Uffizzi museum for Portraits of Artists by Themselves. The Master’s sole regret that he had not been born rather to the brush than to the chisel sprang from his wish that he might have contributed to that collection.

It appeared, with time, at any rate, to be to the brush that Lance had been born; for Mrs. Mallow, one day when the boy was turning twenty, broke it to their friend, who shared, to the last delicate morsel, their problems and pains, that it seemed as if nothing would really do but that he should embrace the career. It had been impossible longer to remain blind to the fact that he gained no glory at Cambridge, where Brench’s own college had, for a year, tempered its tone to him as for Brench’s own sake. Therefore why renew the vain form of preparing him for the impossible? The impossible—it had become clear—was that he should be anything but an artist.

‘Oh dear, dear!’ said poor Peter.

‘Don’t you believe in it?’ asked Mrs. Mallow, who still, at more than forty, had her violet velvet eyes, her creamy satin skin, and her silken chestnut hair.

‘Believe in what?’

‘Why, in Lance’s passion.’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “believing in it.” I’ve never been unaware, certainly, of his disposition, from his earliest time, to daub and draw; but I confess I’ve hoped it would burn out.’

‘But why should it,’ she sweetly smiled, ‘with his wonderful heredity? Passion is passion—though of course, indeed, you, dear Peter, know nothing of that. Has the Master’s ever burned out?’

Peter looked off a little and, in his familiar, formless way, kept up for a moment a sound between a smothered whistle and a subdued hum. ‘Do you think he’s going to be another Master?’

She seemed scarce prepared to go that length, yet she had, on the whole, a most marvellous trust. ‘I know what you mean by that. Will it be a career to incur the jealousies and provoke the machinations that have been at times almost too much for his father? Well—say it may be, since nothing but clap-trap, in these dreadful days, can, it would seem, make its way, and since, with the curse of refinement and distinction, one may easily find one’s self begging one’s bread. Put it at the worst—say he has the misfortune to wing his flight further than the vulgar taste of his stupid countrymen can follow. Think, all the same, of the happiness—the same that the Master has had. He’ll know.’

Peter looked rueful. ‘Ah, but what will he know?’

‘Quiet joy!’ cried Mrs. Mallow, quite impatient and turning away.

 

II

 

He had of course, before long, to meet the boy himself on it and to hear that, practically, everything was settled. Lance was not to go up again, but to go instead to Paris, where, since the die was cast, he would find the best advantages. Peter had always felt that he must be taken as he was, but had never perhaps found him so much as he was as on this occasion. ‘You chuck Cambridge then altogether? Doesn’t that seem rather a pity?’

Lance would have been like his father, to his friend’s sense, had he had less humour, and like his mother had he had more beauty. Yet it was a good middle way, for Peter, that, in the modern manner, he was, to the eye, rather the young stockbroker than the young artist. The youth reasoned that it was a question of time—there was such a mill to go through, such an awful lot to learn. He had talked with fellows and had judged. ‘One has got, to-day,’ he said, ‘don’t you see? to know.’

His interlocutor, at this, gave a groan. ‘Oh, hang it, don’t know!’

Lance wondered. ‘”Don’t”? Then what’s the use———?’

‘The use of what?’

‘Why, of anything. Don’t you think I’ve talent?’

Peter smoked away, for a little, in silence;. then went on: ‘It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that—as we’ve been beautifully told—is bliss.’

‘Don’t you think I’ve talent?’ Lance repeated.

Peter, with his trick of queer, kind demonstrations, passed his arm round his godson and held him a moment. ‘How do I know?’

‘Oh,’ said the boy, ‘if it’s your own ignorance you’re defending———!’

Again, for a pause, on the sofa, his godfather smoked. ‘It isn’t. I’ve the misfortune to be omniscient.’

‘Oh, well,’ Lance laughed again, ‘if you know too much———!’

‘That’s what I do, and why I’m so wretched.’

Lance’s gaiety grew. ‘Wretched? Come, I say!’

‘But I forgot,’ his companion went on—’you’re not to know about that. It would indeed, for you too, make the too much. Only I’ll tell you what I’ll do.’ And Peter got up from the sofa. ‘If you’ll go up again, I’ll pay your way at Cambridge.’

Lance stared, a little rueful in spite of being still more amused. ‘Oh, Peter! You disapprove so of Paris?’

‘Well, I’m afraid of it.’

‘Ah, I see.’

‘No, you don’t see—yet. But you will—that is you would. And you mustn’t.’

The young man thought more gravely. ‘But one’s innocence, already———’

‘Is considerably damaged? Ah, that won’t matter,’ Peter persisted—’we’ll patch it up here.’

‘Here? Then you want me to stay at home?’

Peter almost confessed to it. ‘Well, we’re so right—we four together—just as we are. We’re so safe. Come, don’t spoil it.’

The boy, who had turned to gravity, turned from this, on the real pressure in his friend’s tone, to consternation. ‘Then what’s a fellow to be?’

‘My particular care. Come, old man’—and Peter now fairly pleaded—I’ll look out for you.’

Lance, who had remained on the sofa with his legs out and his hands in his pockets, watched him with eyes that showed suspicion. Then he got up. ‘You think there’s something the matter with me—that I can’t make a success.’

‘Well, what do you call a success?’

Lance thought again. ‘Why, the best sort, I suppose, is to please one’s self. Isn’t that the sort that, in spite of cabals and things, is—in his own peculiar line—the Master’s?’

There were so much too many things in this question to be answered at once that they practically checked the discussion, which became particularly difficult in the light of such renewed proof that, though the young man’s innocence might, in the course of his studies, as he contended, somewhat have shrunken, the finer essence of it still remained. That was indeed exactly what Peter had assumed and what, above all, he desired; yet, perversely enough, it gave him a chill. The boy believed in the cabals and things, believed in the peculiar line, believed, in short, in the Master. What happened a month or two later was not that he went up again at the expense of his godfather, but that a fortnight after he had got settled in Paris this personage sent him fifty pounds.

He had meanwhile, at home, this personage, made up his mind to the worst; and what it might be had never yet grown quite so vivid to him as when, on his presenting himself one Sunday night, as he never failed to do, for supper, the mistress of Carrara Lodge met him with an appeal as to—of all things in the world—the wealth of the Canadians. She was earnest, she was even excited. ‘Are many of them really rich?’

He had to confess that he knew nothing about them, but he often thought afterwards of that evening. The room in which they sat was adorned with sundry specimens of the Master’s genius, which had the merit of being, as Mrs. Mallow herself frequently suggested, of an unusually convenient size. They were indeed of dimensions not customary in the products of the chisel and had the singularity that, if the objects and features intended to be small looked too large, the objects and features intended to be large looked too small. The Master’s intention, whether in respect to this matter or to any other, had, in almost any case, even after years, remained undiscoverable to Peter Brench. The creations that so failed to reveal it stood about on pedestals and brackets, on tables and shelves, a little staring white population, heroic, idyllic, allegoric, mythic, symbolic, in which ‘scale’ had so strayed and lost itself that the public square and the chimney-piece seemed to have changed places, the monumental being all diminutive and the diminutive all monumental; branches, at any rate, markedly, of a family in which stature was rather oddly irrespective of function, age, and sex. They formed, like the Mallows themselves, poor Brench’s own family—having at least, to such a degree, a note of familiarity. The occasion was one of those he had long ago learnt to know and to name—short flickers of the faint flame, soft gusts of a kinder air. Twice a year, regularly, the Master believed in his fortune, in addition to believing all the year round in his genius. This time it was to be made by a bereaved couple from Toronto, who had given him the handsomest order for a tomb to three lost children, each of whom they desired to be, in the composition, emblematically and characteristically represented.

Such was naturally the moral of Mrs. Mallow’s question: if their wealth was to be assumed, it was clear, from the nature of their admiration, as well as from mysterious hints thrown out (they were a little odd!) as to other possibilities of the same mortuary sort, that their further patronage might be; and not less evident that, should the Master become at all known in those climes, nothing would be more inevitable than a run of Canadian custom. Peter had been present before at runs of custom, colonial and domestic—present at each of those of which the aggregation had left so few gaps in the marble company round him; but it was his habit never, at these junctures, to prick the bubble in advance. The fond illusion, while it lasted, eased the wound of elections never won, the long ache of medals and diplomas carried off, on every chance, by every one but the Master; it lighted the lamp, moreover, that would glimmer through the next eclipse. They lived, however, after all—as it was always beautiful to see—at a height scarce susceptible of ups and downs. They strained a point, at times, charmingly, to admit that the public was, here and there, not too bad to buy; but they would have been nowhere without their attitude that the Master was always too good to sell. They were, at all events, deliciously formed, Peter often said to himself, for their fate; the Master had a vanity, his wife had a loyalty, of which success, depriving these things of innocence, would have diminished the merit and the grace. Any one could be charming under a charm, and, as he looked about him at a world of prosperity more void of proportion even than the Master’s museum, he wondered if he knew another pair that so completely escaped vulgarity.

‘What a pity Lance isn’t with us to rejoice!’ Mrs. Mallow on this occasion sighed at supper.

‘We’ll drink to the health of the absent,’ her husband replied, filling his friend’s glass and his own and giving a drop to their companion; ‘but we must hope that he’s preparing himself for a happiness much less like this of ours this evening—excusable as I grant it to be!—than like the comfort we have always—whatever has happened or has not happened—been able to trust ourselves to enjoy. The comfort,’ the Master explained, leaning back in the pleasant lamplight and firelight, holding up his glass alooking round at his marble family, quartered more or less, a monstrous brood, in every room—’the comfort of art in itself!’

Peter looked a little shily at his wine. ‘Well—I don’t care what you may call it when a fellow doesn’t—but Lance must learn to sell, you know. I drink to his acquisition of the secret of a base popularity!’

‘Oh yes, he must sell,’ the boy’s mother, who was still more, however, this seemed to give out, the Master’s wife, rather artlessly conceded.

‘Oh,’ the sculptor, after a moment, confidently pronounced, ‘Lance will. Don’t be afraid. He will have learnt.’

‘Which is exactly what Peter,’ Mrs. Mallow gaily returned—’why in the world were you so perverse, Peter?—wouldn’t, when he told him, hear of.’

Peter, when this lady looked at him with accusatory affection—a grace, on her part, not infrequent—could never find a word; but the Master, who was always all amenity and tact, helped him out now as he had often helped him before. ‘That’s his old idea, you know—on which we’ve so often differed: his theory that the artist should be all impulse and instinct. I go in, of course, for a certain amount of school. Not too much—but a due proportion. There’s where his protest came in,’ he continued to explain to his wife, ‘as against what might, don’t you see? be in question for Lance.’

‘Ah, well,’—and Mrs. Mallow turned the violet eyes across the table at the subject of this discourse,—’he’s sure to have meant, of course, nothing but good; but that wouldn’t have prevented him, if Lance had taken his advice, from being, in effect, horribly cruel.’

They had a sociable way of talking of him to his face as if he had been in the clay or—at most—in the plaster, and the Master was unfailingly generous. He might have been waving Egidio to make him revolve. ‘Ah, but poor Peter was not so wrong as to what it may, after all, come to that he will learn.’

‘Oh, but nothing artistically bad,’ she urged—still, for poor Peter, arch and dewy.

‘Why, just the little French tricks,’ said the Master: on which their friend had to pretend to admit, when pressed by Mrs. Mallow, that these æsthetic vices had been the objects of his dread.

 

III

 

‘I know now,’ Lance said to him the next year, ‘why you were so much against it.’ He had come back, supposedly for a mere interval, and was looking about him at Carrara Lodge, where indeed he had already, on two or three occasions, since his expatriation, briefly appeared. This had the air of a longer holiday. ‘Something rather awful has happened to me. It isn’t so very good to know.’

‘I’m bound to say high spirits don’t show in your face,’ Peter was rather ruefully forced to confess. ‘Still, are you very sure you do know?’

‘Well, I at least know about as much as I can bear.’ These remarks were exchanged in Peter’s den, and the young man, smoking cigarettes, stood before the fire with his back against the mantel. Something of his bloom seemed really to have left him.

Poor Peter wondered. ‘You’re clear then as to what in particular I wanted you not to go for?’

‘In particular?’ Lance thought. ‘It seems to me that, in particular, there can have been but one thing.’

They stood for a little sounding each other. ‘Are you quite sure?’

‘Quite sure I’m a beastly duffer? Quite—by this time.’

‘Oh!’ and Peter turned away as if almost with relief.

‘It’s that that isn’t pleasant to find out.’

‘Oh, I don’t care for “that,” said Peter, presently coming round again. ‘I mean I personally don’t.’

‘Yet I hope you can understand a little that I myself should!’

‘Well, what do you mean by it?’ Peter sceptically asked.

And on this Lance had to explain—how the upshot of his studies in Paris had inexorably proved a mere deep doubt of his means. These studies had waked him up, and a new light was in his eyes; but what the new light did was really to show him too much. ‘Do you know what’s the matter with me? I’m too horribly intelligent. Paris was really the last place for me. I’ve learnt what I can’t do.’

Poor Peter stared—it was a staggerer; but even after they had had, on the subject, a longish talk in which the boy brought out to the full the hard truth of his lesson, his friend betrayed less pleasure than usually breaks into a face to the happy tune of ‘I told you so!’ Poor Peter himself made now indeed so little a point of having told him so that Lance broke ground in a different place a day or two after. ‘What was it then that—before I went—you were afraid I should find out?’ This, however, Peter refused to tell him—on the ground that if he hadn’t yet guessed perhaps he never would, and that nothing at all, for either of them, in any case, was to be gained by giving the thing a name. Lance eyed him, on this, an instant, with the bold curiosity of youth—with the air indeed of having in his mind two or three names, of which one or other would be right. Peter, nevertheless, turning his back again, offered no encouragement, and when they parted afresh it was with some show of impatience on the side of the boy. Accordingly, at their next encounter, Peter saw at a glance that he had now, in the interval, divined and that, to sound his note, he was only waiting till they should find themselves alone. This he had soon arranged, and he then broke straight out. ‘Do you know your conundrum has been keeping me awake? But in the watches of the night the answer came over me—so that, upon my honour, I quite laughed out. Had you been supposing I had to go to Paris to learn that?‘ Even now, to see him still so sublimely on his guard, Peter’s young friend had to laugh afresh. ‘You won’t give a sign till you’re sure? Beautiful old Peter!’ But Lance at last produced it. ‘Why, hang it, the truth about the Master.’

It made between them, for some minutes, a lively passage, full of wonder, for each, at the wonder of the other. ‘Then how long have you understood———’

‘The true value of his work? I understood it,’ Lance recalled, ‘as soon as I began to understand anything. But I didn’t begin fully to do that, I admit, till I got là-bas.’

‘Dear, dear!’—Peter gasped with retrospective dread.

‘But for what have you taken me? I’m a hopeless muff—that I had to have rubbed in. But I’m not such a muff as the Master!’ Lance declared.

‘Then why did you never tell me———?’

‘That I hadn’t, after all’—the boy took him up—’remained such an idiot? Just because I never dreamed you knew. But I beg your pardon. I only wanted to spare you. And what I don’t now understand is how the deuce then, for so long, you’ve managed to keep bottled.’

Peter produced his explanation, but only after some delay and with a gravity not void of embarrassment. ‘It was for your mother.’

‘Oh!’ said Lance.

‘And that’s the great thing now—since the murder is out. I want a promise from you. I mean’—and Peter almost feverishly followed it up—’a vow from you, solemn and such as you owe me, here on the spot, that you’ll sacrifice anything rather than let her ever guess———’

‘That I’ve guessed?’—Lance took it in. ‘I see.’ He evidently, after a moment, had taken in much. ‘But what is it you have in mind that I may have a chance to sacrifice?’

‘Oh, one has always something.’

Lance looked at him hard. ‘Do you mean that you’ve had———?’ The look he received back, however, so put the question by that he found soon enough another. ‘Are you really sure my mother doesn’t know?’

Peter, after renewed reflection, was really sure. ‘If she does, she’s too wonderful.’

‘But aren’t we all too wonderful?’

‘Yes,’ Peter granted—’but in different ways. The thing’s so desperately important because your father’s little public consists only, as you know then,’ Peter developed—’well, of how many?’

‘First of all,’ the Master’s son risked, ‘of himself. And last of all too. I don’t quite see of whom else.’

Peter had an approach to impatience. ‘Of your mother, I say—always.’

Lance cast it all up. ‘You absolutely feel that?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘Well then, with yourself, that makes three.’

‘Oh, me!‘—and Peter, with a wag of his kind old head, modestly excused himself. ‘The number is, at any rate, small enough for any individual dropping out to be too dreadfully missed. Therefore, to put it in a nutshell, take care, my boy—that’s all—that you’re not!’

‘I’ve got to keep on humbugging?’ Lance sighed.

‘It’s just to warn you of the danger of your failing of that that I’ve seized this opportunity.’

‘And what do you regard in particular,’ the young man asked, ‘as the danger?’

‘Why, this certainty: that the moment your mother, who feels so strongly, should suspect your secret—well,’ said Peter desperately, ‘the fat would be on the fire.’

Lance, for a moment, seemed to stare at the blaze. ‘She’d throw me over?’

‘She’d throw him over.’

‘And come round to us?’

Peter, before he answered, turned away. ‘Come round to you.’ But he had said enough to indicate—and, as he evidently trusted, to avert—the horrid contingency.

 

IV

 

Within six months again, however, his fear was, on more occasions than one, all before him. Lance had returned to Paris, to another trial; then had reappeared at home and had had, with his father, for the first time in his life, one of the scenes that strike sparks. He described it with much expression to Peter, as to whom—since they had never done so before—it was a sign of a new reserve on the part of the pair at Carrara Lodge that they at present failed, on a matter of intimate interest, to open themselves—if not in joy, then in sorrow—to their good friend. This produced perhaps, practically, between the parties, a shade of alienation and a slight intermission of commerce marked mainly indeed by the fact that, to talk at his ease with his old playmate, Lance had, in general, to come to see him. The closest, if not quite the gayest, relation they had yet known together was thus ushered in. The difficulty for poor Lance was a tension at home, begotten by the fact that his father wished him to be, at least, the sort of success he himself had been. He hadn’t ‘chucked’ Paris—though nothing appeared more vivid to him than that Paris had chucked him; he would go back again because of the fascination in trying, in seeing, in sounding the depths—in learning one’s lesson, in fine, even if the lesson were simply that of one’s impotence in the presence of one’s larger vision. But what did the Master, all aloft in his senseless fluency, know of impotence, and what vision—to be called such—had he, in all his blind life, ever had? Lance, heated and indignant, frankly appealed to his godparent on this score.

His father, it appeared, had come down on him for having, after so long, nothing to show, and hoped that, on his next return, this deficiency would be repaired. The thing, the Master complacently set forth, was—for any artist, however inferior to himself—at least to ‘do’ something. ‘What can you do? That’s all I ask!’ He had certainly done enough, and there was no mistake about what he had to show. Lance had tears in his eyes when it came thus to letting his old friend know how great the strain might be on the ‘sacrifice’ asked of him. It wasn’t so easy to continue humbugging—as from son to parent—after feeling one’s self despised for not grovelling in mediocrity. Yet a noble duplicity was what, as they intimately faced the situation, Peter went on requiring; and it was still, for a time, what his young friend, bitter and sore, managed loyally to comfort him with. Fifty pounds, more than once again, it was true, rewarded, both in London and in Paris, the young friend’s loyalty; none the less sensibly, doubtless, at the moment, that the money was a direct advance on a decent sum for which Peter had long since privately prearranged an ultimate function. Whether by these arts or others, at all events, Lance’s just resentment was kept for a season—but only for a season—at bay. The day arrived when he warned his companion that he could hold out—or hold in—no longer. Carrara Lodge had had to listen to another lecture delivered from a great height—an infliction really heavier, at last, than, without striking back or in some way letting the Master have the truth, flesh and blood could bear.

‘And what I don’t see is,’ Lance observed with a certain irritated eye for what was, after all, if it came to that, due to himself too—’What I don’t see is, upon my honour, how you, as things are going, can keep the game up.’

‘Oh, the game for me is only to hold my tongue,’ said placid Peter. ‘And I have my reason.’

‘Still my mother?’

Peter showed, as he had often shown it before—that is by turning it straight away—a queer face. ‘What will you have? I haven’t ceased to like her.’

‘She’s beautiful—she’s a dear, of course,’ Lance granted; ‘but what is she to you, after all, and what is it to you that, as to anything whatever, she should or she shouldn’t?’

Peter, who had turned red, hung fire a little. ‘Well—it’s all, simply, what I make of it.’

There was now, however, in his young friend, a strange, an adopted, insistence. ‘What are you, after all, to her?

‘Oh, nothing. But that’s another matter.’

‘She cares only for my father,’ said Lance the Parisian.

‘Naturally—and that’s just why.’

‘Why you’ve wished to spare her?’

‘Because she cares so tremendously much.’

Lance took a turn about the room, but with his eyes still on his host. ‘How awfully—always—you must have liked her!’

‘Awfully. Always,’ said Peter Brench.

The young man continued for a moment to muse—then stopped again in front of him. ‘Do you know how much she cares?’ Their eyes met on it, but Peter, as if his own found something new in Lance’s, appeared to hesitate, for the first time for so long, to say he did know. ‘I’ve only just found out,’ said Lance. ‘She came to my room last night, after being present, in silence and only with her eyes on me, at what I had had to take from him; she came—and she was with me an extraordinary hour.’

He had paused again, and they had again for a while sounded each other. Then something—and it made him suddenly turn pale—came to Peter. ‘She does know?’

‘She does know. She let it all out to me—so as to demand of me no more than that, as she said, of which she herself had been capable. She has always, always known,’ said Lance without pity.

Peter was silent a long time; during which his companion might have heard him gently breathe and, on touching him, might have felt within him the vibration of a long, low sound suppressed. By the time he spoke, at last, he had taken everything in. ‘Then I do see how tremendously much.’

‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Lance asked.

‘Wonderful,’ Peter mused.

‘So that if your original effort to keep me from Paris was to keep me from knowledge———!’ Lance exclaimed as if with a sufficient indication of this futility.

It might have been at the futility that Peter appeared for a little to gaze. ‘I think it must have been—without my quite at the time knowing it—to keep me!‘he replied at last as he turned away.

 

John’s childhood ambition was to be a pilot. Let’s sit with that a while. A boy grew up, like so many other boys all over the world, watching the skies, imagining himself in the endless blue. What do all these boys dream of? Of watching the world from above, of air starts and power-off glides, of aerial somersaults, of moonlit sorties, of racing through the clouds in 15,000 tonnes of machinery, of the attractiveness of being a man in uniform? Universal dreams, and not only boys dream them, of course. As universal as love, as family loyalty, as friendship, as kindness, as fear. And like love, loyalty, friendship, kindness and fear, the dream of being a pilot – however universal in its outlines – must exist and play itself out in very particular circumstances. In John’s case, the circumstances start with place – the country of his birth and upbringing _______. And ______ is where he started the story, when we met in London in a room made smaller than it needed to be by the excessive furniture – round table, too many chairs — crammed into it.

‘I’m from _______,’ he said. ‘It’s a small country. The_______ government is a kind of a dictatorship. It used to be a military dictatorship before supposed democracy came back in but it isn’t really a democratic country. The President has been there for a very long time. So things are not as outsiders would see.’

When he started to speak in his ordered, concise sentences I knew immediately that he had told this tale before, and had learnt how to shape it. It came as no surprise, near the end of our time together, when he said that telling his story was part of his CBT therapy. As a writer, I know the usefulness of stories when confronting our lives. Stories allow us to structure our experiences into beginning, middle, end, and decide which parts to skim over, which to go into in detail; stories allow us to put forward our own points of view and interpretations; stories, in short, allow us a measure of control over our memories. In lives such as John’s, when control is so often in other people’s hands, the value of that must be enormous. It must also be difficult to achieve. As we sat together and his tale unfolded, the ordered re-telling began to fracture, gaps appeared, the story doubled back on itself. At various points, John cried. I didn’t ask him to fill in gaps or expand on details – the reasons should become clear, if they aren’t already.

I am delaying here. I want us to sit with John, the boy who looked at the sky and dreamed of flying through the constellations. But when we met, John did not stop on that any longer than it took to say, ‘When I was young, in primary school, my ambition was to become a pilot. So that was my childhood ambition — to be a pilot. But my Dad was involved in politics.’ And so we hurtled into the lover’s tale.

John’s father was not a politician himself, but he financed opposition politicians. This didn’t stop John from wanting to join the air force — just as it hadn’t stopped his step-brother from joining the army. The route to the skies went through a school that was difficult to get into for anyone who wasn’t rich or well connected, but John scored some of the highest marks in the country’s national exams and was admitted. The school was close to the army barracks, which meant John went to live with his step-brother, the soldier, who was stationed there.

Soon there was another exam, and John was among those ‘selected’ at the end of it. Like the others selected with him, he assumed he had scored well — ‘We thought, OK, because we’re brilliant,’ he said, and I briefly glimpsed the confident, bright, would-be pilot — but instead of entering classrooms for the gifted, he and the others were taken to the countryside and made to undergo rituals, such as drinking dogs’ blood. They were cadets now, they were told, and each one of them was assigned to an army officer who had them clean their shoes, their houses, and ‘do the dirty things that rich people will not do.’ They were being taught obedience, and its flip side: fear. At what point, I wonder, did all the brilliant young men who’d been specially selected realise they belonged to the same tribe — the largest tribe of______, which was not the President’s tribe, and from which significant opposition to his rule arose? At what point did they realise they had been selected to spy on, and betray, their own people? ‘Gradually we were getting the sense of what was happening,’ John told me — gradually, their ‘responsibilities’ increased from cleaning shoes and accompanying their officers on patrol to befriending people from their own tribe, discovering where their loyalties lay, and reporting them to the authorities if they didn’t support the government. Other times, the ‘responsibilities’ would include planting evidence – ‘a pistol, a gun’ – in the home of someone they had befriended, just before the police arrived with a warrant to search the house. ‘People are picked up and disappeared, they kill them, they do whatever they do to them. I wasn’t happy with it. A lot of us weren’t happy with it. That wasn’t why we were there.’

By now, John’s father was dead but his brother had taken up his political activities. It wasn’t John but his step-brother, the soldier, who was ordered to bring that brother in for questioning. The step-brother told a friend he wasn’t prepared to do it. For this act of familial loyalty he was imprisoned in a room called ‘a punishment room’. John, recounting this, gestured around the room we were in, made crowded by a table that could seat at most eight people around it — ‘If you divide this room into four, that’s the punishment room. You can be in there for weeks.’ Within this room, the step-brother fell ill. John was allowed in to see him, and given some medication for him. ‘I didn’t know it was poison so I gave it to him, and he died.’

This is only the beginning.

Words like leaves can fall so easily off our tongues, but John had ‘nowhere to go’, which may be another way of saying ‘no way of going.’ After he was turned into his brother’s killer, he was given several different assignments, moved around from one place to another. Eventually he ended up assigned to one of the sons of the President. He was there when there was a day of celebration in honour of the President. In the evening, after the official celebrations were over, the President’s son returned to his house ‘to have fun’, along with his men, including John.

A woman was brought into a room where the men were gathered. They were ordered to strip her naked. A certain unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘It was really, really bad. It was really bad,’ John said, his voice very low, and cried for the first time.

The girl was taken away, ‘put in a room to die – or whatever happened’ and then her brother was brought in. Another unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘There was blood everywhere. He was really… emotional.’ All this, it later turned out, because the girl hadn’t complied with a Presidential demand. So a message had to be sent – to all the girls who might think to refuse such a man, and to all their family members, too.

This was, said John, ‘the turning point.’ He asked to be re-assigned – if this involved a personal risk he didn’t say so; at no point in his story did he pass judgements of praise or criticism on his own actions. He merely recounted events.

He was assigned the job of guarding an elderly couple. He guarded them for ‘a very long time,’ and as he says, ‘the man became like a father to me. He tells me, “you’re like a son.” He talks to me like a son.’ One day when John was with the couple, soldiers came in and shot them dead. ‘I thought I’d lost my dad. I was going crazy,’ he said, crying again.

The couple had committed no crime. Their son, though, was wanted by the government — John never knew exactly why. The couple were being held to lure the son out of hiding. It didn’t work.

And finally — after all the spying, the murder of his brother, the torture of the girl and her brother, the death of his second father – John fled______ , for a life in a country nearby.

This is nowhere near the end of the story.

Homesickness and hope can be a dangerous combination. John had some kind of life in this other country – he taught at a school to students who taught him English in exchange – but he was lonely, and when there were demonstrations in______and the President promised reform, change started to seem possible. John returned to______ , but he kept himself hidden, staying with a friend. On Sundays, though, he went to church. It was here that he met Sarah.

‘Met’ is the wrong word. They knew each other already. Sarah’s father was an important government financier who lived within the protection of the barracks where John had once been posted. John’s life was separate from that of Sarah and her family – ‘I couldn’t talk to them; they were the rich people’ — but there was obviously some contact, some connection, because when Sarah saw him she called him by the name he’d had when he was in the barracks. This name was not his traditional name, and it was not the name ‘John’ which he later took on. It was a name given to him by the army during his initiation, and inscribed on a bangle that he had to wear on his wrist at all times. He was terrified to be recognised, and it couldn’t have helped to hear her say that everyone had been looking for him.

He could have run, at this point, though he never said so to me – perhaps it never suggested itself to him as a possibility. Instead, he told her everything. He told her why he had left, and of the loneliness that had brought him home. She was sympathetic. She gave him money. He told her, ‘My name is John now.’ Every Sunday he would wait for her to come to church. She brought him food and money, and eventually they became, in his words, ‘very intimate’.

One day he was standing by the church with two other men when a jeep pulled up, followed by a car. Someone in the car asked, ‘Who is John?’ He knew, even before this, that something was wrong. Knew it as soon as the car pulled up. Sarah was in the car. She gestured to him to run. But the men caught hold of him and took him back to the barracks. Here he found out that Sarah was pregnant and her father knew.

Her father — the government financier — was angry for reasons beyond the usual reasons that make certain kinds of men angry when they discover their daughters have a life beyond their control. He was a leading member of a tribe that practiced female genital mutilation. But his daughter had not been ‘cut’, and now he believed her pregnancy would alert people to this fact, and he would be shamed. He wanted the foetus aborted. First though, he came into the cell where John was held, and slapped him. Then he went away but John remained in the cell where he was ‘very maltreated.’

While he was being held, Sarah went to a man she knew – a soldier, who was a friend of her father – and told him what was happening. The man said he couldn’t stand by while his friend forced an abortion on his daughter, but there was a limit to how much he could — or would — do. He smuggled John out of the barracks in his car, gave him the equivalent of £25, and said, ‘Whatever happens to you after is not my problem.’ Still, what he did was enough. John met Sarah at a pre-arranged location — a drinking hole — and together they returned to the country to which John had fled.

This still isn’t near the end of the story.

While in exile, John met an American soldier he knew – a logistics expert called Frank who had been assigned to assist the army in______ when John was serving. He said John should be leading a different life – he suggested emigrating, and offered to help with the costs of getting a visa. Frank’s first suggestion was that John go to a particular country in mainland Europe, but John was adamantly opposed to the idea. ‘I didn’t trust them because I know that whatever happens in______ , they know it; from A to Z they know everything, but they wouldn’t stop it. I didn’t trust them, I didn’t want to go there. I don’t want to.’ Instead, John went to the British Embassy.

In order to get a visa from the British Embassy, John had to prove he was from the country to which he had fled. The passport that Frank was able to procure for him didn’t get past the British visa official who handed him over to the immigration authorities. Once again, he was imprisoned and told he had to stay in a cell while the authorities sorted his case out.

Then, without explanation, he was released. ‘Why?’ he asked, and they only said, ‘You are free to go.’

He walked out of the prison, and a car was waiting for him. He was kidnapped, and driven back to_______.

‘That was really horrible. I thought that was it. I really thought that was it. It was difficult for me. They nearly killed me.’ At every other point when John cried he carried on speaking through the tears but this time he stopped, apologised, took some time before he was able to continue. It wasn’t Sarah’s father who had him picked up this time, but someone far worse – the President’s son, to whom he had once been assigned. ‘He has a house like a stadium, and it has prisons and all the torture things you can think of.’ That’s all he said the first time, before moving on to the next part of his story. Later, when he had finished his tale, but it was clear there were things still to say, things that he hadn’t worked into a narrative over which he had some control, he went back in his mind to that place, to the house like a stadium, with ‘all the torture things you can think of’ and said some of the things that were done to him. I will not write them here. I’ll only say there were many different ways of inflicting pain, and he couldn’t have known if it would continue on for weeks or months or years.

After they were done – at what point do torturers decide they are ‘done’? – they sent him to an army camp to become a Commando. Perhaps they thought they’d tortured enough fear and obedience into him. The Commandos were men without families, expected to kill or die without a second thought because ‘there’s no one for you.’ He was taken to the Captain of the Commando camp – and the man turned out to be an old friend of his, who had been recruited to the army at the same time as John. John told him he wasn’t a man without a family, a man ready to die, but that, instead, he had a wife and a child he needed to get back to. And this friend – ‘He just wanted to help me,’ John said. ‘And so he said, “OK”. Well, he put his life at risk for me. He let me go.’

For the third time, John returned to his country of exile.

How could this possibly be the end of the story?

Because he allowed John to escape, the Captain’s hands were placed in wet cement, which was left to dry, and he was dropped into the sea. His dead body washed up on a beach. John received news of this when he was in exile.

Frank, the American, must have known that his earlier attempts to get John out of the country had gone disastrously wrong. When John was returned Frank came to him again. This time he had a signed document from a friend who worked in the high court to verify that John had renounced his original nationality and was from his country of exile. With this document, John was able to apply for — and receive — a six month UK visa.

This is the beginning of the end of the story, but only the beginning.

John’s brother – the one who his step-brother was supposed to bring in to the barracks for his role in opposition politics – had long since escaped to mainland Europe and, from there, had come to England. John met up with him, in London, and told him of his intention to apply for asylum. But his brother talked him out of it – he’d applied himself, and been rejected, and was adamant that John couldn’t trust the system, never mind how many supporting documents he had. So John moved in with his brother, and didn’t seek asylum. His greatest concern was sending money back to Sarah, who by now had had another child. His brother kept saying he would help out, but he didn’t, and finally John started to work illegally as a kitchen porter. One day while he was working, the police arrived and arrested him. ‘I told the police officer, what’s happening to me? And all the police officers just said to me, “Well, you are one of them.” I was put in a car, and they took me to the police station, and I applied for asylum there. By that time, too, I had incontinence through the torture I had back home. They [the men who tortured him] tied my penis and then I had to drink something that makes you want to urinate, but you can’t urinate. When that happened I passed out.’ John was in prison for six months. From there he was sent to a detention centre and placed on his own in a disabled cell. ‘I was on my own,’ he said, twice, remembering that time. But he also recalled ‘some good people’ from his period of detention. In particular, he mentioned a priest who supported him when he thought of killing himself, and who also found people to help him with his incontinence.

His asylum application was rejected. He appealed. An Australian professor, based in America, who had done a lot of work on______, came to know of his case. This man first spoke to him on the phone and then wrote to the Home Office detailing the situation in_______ and said that if John was sent back there he would be killed. ‘He really saved me,’ John said. He was granted asylum.

But in all this, John had lost track of Sarah. Their lives in exile had always felt fearful — they moved every month, never let anyone get close enough to ask questions about their lives – and while John was in the UK someone came around to where Sarah was living, asking questions. It was enough to make her flee with her three children — John hadn’t known when he left for the UK that Sarah was pregnant again.

In John’s tale, there is great brutality but there are also stories of kindness, sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from acquaintances and strangers. A charity in the north of England started to work with Frank who was now back in America, to try and trace Sarah. When they found her where she was exiled she was ‘in a hospital, dying.’

Of all the parts in the story that he didn’t want to tell this is the one he most completely skimmed over. ‘They are here now, they are here,’ he said in response to whatever look I gave him when he uttered the word ‘dying’. I was left to surmise that someone who is ‘dying’ in one hospital can turn to ‘recovering’ in a place with better facilities.

Sarah is well now. She is in England, with John and their three children aged 7, 8 and 11. After all their years of being together, and apart, and together while apart, they married in London. The Church has become their family, and the Bishop who married them is someone they count as a friend. There’s even been some kind of rapprochement with Sarah’s father. A cousin of Sarah’s, who she found via Facebook, was the intermediary in this — when he heard about the wedding he said Sarah should get in touch with her father. She did; she wrote to him about her wedding, and her three children, and he gave her his blessing. They haven’t seen each other, but they speak on the phone. And John is a full-time undergraduate maths student in a London university and hopes to be a teacher one day — ‘That’s all I love doing,’ he said. He gestured around the room we were in, which was located on the King’s College campus. ‘I’ve applied to a teacher training programme,’ he said. ‘I’m waiting for the results.’

It isn’t easy, though. Torture and imprisonment don’t let go of a man that easily — ‘I’ve come a long way,’ he said, but the trauma is still there. ‘So many things happened to me. I don’t like looking at it anymore, I just don’t like looking at it anymore.’ But the counselling makes him look at it. ‘It helps,’ he said, ‘but it’s hard, it’s tiring, it’s tiring.’ Then he started to talk about the torture. Telling me this story brought things up again. But he said again, yes, there are things he has to sort out, but the CBT is helping and he’s fortunate in his wife and his family and his church who are supportive of him.

I turned off the recorder, at this point. The story was over, I thought. The life will carry on with its struggles and its hardships, but the worst of it is done, a certain kind of narrative of his experiences has come to an end, and his mind can work towards recovery now. I shook his hand, and thanked him, and then he said — I don’t remember how exactly it came up — that earlier in the year he had applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, and been denied.

I switched the recorder back on. The whole family applied, he said. His wife and children received Indefinite Leave to Remain but his application was rejected on the grounds he’d been in prison. For working illegally, all those years ago. He would have to wait another 15 years before he could apply again. Surely not another 15 years? He must mean 15 years in total from the time his asylum application was accepted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it starts this year, so another 15 years.’ From his wallet he pulled out the Residence Permits for himself and his children. ‘We keep things around,’ he said, and I understood he meant that he always had the cards on his person to prove he and his family were legal. The permits for his children all had ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ written on them. Soon they’d be able to apply for citizenship. John’s card said ‘Refugee Leave to Remain’ — he will have to keep re-applying for an extension every 3 years, for the next 15 years. Every re-application bringing with it the threat of a rejection.

‘The system is bit…’ He doesn’t have the words, and neither do I. ‘I don’t understand it.’

He’s confused. Too shy. His sister died of leukemia when he was thirteen. He’s not over his wife yet. He’s intimidated by your sarcastic sense of humor. You’re smarter than he is and he can’t handle it. He’s lost. He doesn’t know what he wants. He’s never had a long-term relationship. He’s young. He works too hard. He’s brilliant, contemplative, needs to learn that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Immature. Terrified. He needs to grow out of his Peter Pan syndrome. But you know what? She really hurt him.

Remember when he pushed your hair out of your face and tucked it behind your ear just like in the movies? And worked hard to make the perfect tuna casserole, sweat gleaming from his forehead under your kitchen light. He admired the dew on the spider webs and knew his fauna well. That one time, he said something so funny you almost peed your pants. Remember when you studied together at the Café Gourmet and you pre­tended to read The Color Purple and he was so beautiful, look­ing down at his book, his hand resting on his cheek, writing in the crooked left-handed way of his. He admired your Bettie Page poster.

He says your name before he comes. He’s affectionate after. You both love Woody Allen films, making fun of stupid movies, sushi, Indian food. You agree you’re not sure what happens when you die, but the two of you verge on hopeful atheism. He said you are the sexiest woman he’d ever met. He did the dishes without you asking. He’s not bad in bed. If only he would read something besides Nietzsche or Jack Kerouac.

He’s in medical, dental, law, graduate school, trying to finish his dissertation on Chaucer. He can’t leave Maggie, his golden retriever, overnight. He once had major surgery. He doesn’t real­ize he’s homosexual. They moved around a lot when he was a kid. His mother was a bitch, cold, too protective, insane, unsteady, emotionally abusive, demanding, a martyr. His father made him play football when he didn’t want to. He’s an only child.

He taught you how to identify a deciduous tree, appreciate the artist Lempicka, comprehend Aristotelian philosophy, admire alternative country music, pick a good avocado, appreciate vintage Spiderman comic books.

His parents divorced and he still blames himself. His parents have been married for thirty-five years and he’s afraid he’ll settle for a love less bright or some shit. He’s an Orthodox Jew. He’s moving to New York in three months. He has a yet-to-be diagnosed personality disorder.

He would never hit you. He’s a feminist, a vegetarian, a fallen Catholic, a poet, a canoe-maker, a yogi. He said, You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met. He bought you a beautiful red dress and took you out to dinner and then fucked you over a chair. He knows how to talk to babies. You look prettier without make-up, he said. His life—it’s too complicated right now.

You shouldn’t have slept with him the first night. You shouldn’t have waited. You confessed too much. You didn’t tell him how you really feel. You shouldn’t have said that thing.

It’s not him; it’s you.

 


*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Aimee LaBrie from Wonderful Girl

My lover’s fingers are long. When he stretches them out, they bow in the middle. When they bend, he can span five frets. He sits on the wide window sill, the guitar resting on his bare legs. The blond wood so much lighter than the hair on his arms, his chest, his thighs.

The room is warm. He turned up the heat as soon as we walked in. That way we could toss aside the sheets and the blankets and duvet of which the hotel is so proud. Their bed is a heavenly body, but for us, it has no wings. Those heavy sheets and blankets and duvet would keep us tamped flat. We sit and we stand and we twist and we bend. In a chair, over a table, on the floor. The bed is a prop, a place to find balance, but we rarely lie flat.

I sit on the floor below my lover on the wide window sill. My hand wraps around his ankle, but my thumb and fingers cannot touch. His guitar notes slide down.

“It’s almost four-thirty,” he says.

I let go of his ankle. “I have to go.”

My plane takes off late. He was in the shower when I left. This is how we say goodbye. Kissing at the curbside is how others go. We do it with him naked and me dressed. Steam fills the bathroom. When I step into the hotel hallway, my lover is tucked away deep. There is snow on the ground.

I arrive home after midnight. The bedroom is cool and dark. A black cat purrs on my pillow. I undress and slide underneath the quilt.

“When did you get home?” My husband’s voice, cloudy with sleep.

“Just now.”

He turns on his side and puts his arm around my waist. His hand rests on my belly. I fall back into his curve.

I am paid to pry. I ask the questions their lovers will not. Their wives, their children, their moms. I ask about the drugs and the sex and who inspired that song. What did you want to be when you were six, or twelve, or last week? Did your father hit you or your mother love you, and what about that groupie who looks underage? And what about your death, what do you think that will be like? I’m not going to die, they say. Or, I’ll probably die next week.

I interview them in Los Angeles and New York and Atlanta. Philadelphia and Boston. Seattle. My lover is a troubadour. Sometimes he’s in these towns. Sometimes he’s not.

My lover’s hips are sturdy and strong. I squeeze them tight with my thighs. We’re on the couch, because the chair has arms. It has casters, too.

“We’ll roll,” I had said.

“Sounds fun,” he said. “Let’s try.” He sat bare in the chair. Tried to keep it still by holding onto the wall.

I shook my head. “My legs won’t fit.”

He dropped his arms over the sides. “Like this.”

“Then I won’t be able to move,” I said.

“Well, we can’t have that.” He went to the couch. He sat, legs together, and I slid on.

The couch is against a window. Over his shoulder, through the glass, is a rooftop garden. A wrought iron bench, potted plants. All the flowers in bloom.

“Jesus,” he says. “Sweet Jesus.” He doesn’t even believe in God.

Later, he reads to me out loud. An article about the Kuiper Belt. Astronomical objects, far away. Cold.

She’s an attorney, tall and tan, smart and kind. My husband married her the day after college graduation. They were sweethearts in high school. Lovers in college. Divorced by thirty.

“I’m friends with my ex-wife,” my husband said on our third date.

“That’s fine,” I said. I’d dated men who weren’t friends with their exes. They were full of hate.

She came to our wedding, wore a dress that shimmered gold. She brought a date—I don’t remember his name. She and I danced together. The foxtrot, I think.

Two years ago she told us she’d met a musician. “Maybe you’ve heard of him,” she said.

I had. He was that kind of guy.

“You should interview him,” she said, and I would.

Fifteen-hundred words and a picture. His guitar in his lap. Fingers spanning across five frets.

They’re in town for the weekend. He plays one show tomorrow night, but the rest of their time is for my husband and me.

We cook on the grill, eat on the patio. The summer corn is sweet. Butter drips onto his chin, and she wipes it away. My husband’s hand rests on my thigh. We talk about work, about where he’s playing next. My lover says Phoenix and Austin and L.A.

“You’ll be in L.A., too, won’t you?” my husband asks.

“Really?” my lover says. “Then we should have dinner.”

My husband’s hand is heavy. Hot.

I usually pry in living rooms, or recording studios, or hotels. But with him, it was near the pit of a fire. We arranged for the interview by e-mail, and I flew to their town. She was having a party at her house, on the beach. He suggested I come by.

She had hugged me hello. Too bad my husband couldn’t come, too.

“It’s just work,” I said. “I’m here today, gone tomorrow.”

We cooked fish over a fire, corn in the coals. We drank Long Island Iced Tea. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s do this thing.”

We sat in the sand. My tape recorder rolled. I asked the questions no one else would. And then he asked them back. We stood over the fire and warmed our hands. We talked about camping, in the mountains, as kids. His fingers were hot in my hair.

“Ash,” he said. He held the gray flake between us. It dissolved in his fingers. Back inside, I hugged her goodbye. His eyes had more questions from across the room.

The next morning I e-mailed him from my hotel. Thank you for the interview, I said. It should be out in six weeks. And by the way, my hair has that smell of toasting marshmallows and cold mountain air and stars sprinkled like wildflowers in the sky. It was a good interview, he wrote back. I’m looking forward to the article. As for your hair . . . perhaps the less said the better. But I feel like there’s more to say.

I was in Denver alone. My lover was at his home, at the beach, with her. I interviewed this band at Red Rocks, in the hills. They smoked a joint while my tape recorder rolled. When I got into my car, there were a thousand stars in the sky. Burning far away, bright.

The black cat purrs at the foot of our bed. I undress and crawl under the sheet. I roll over, try to see my husband in the moonlight. His back is white.

“It’s hot in here,” I say to the ceiling, but it doesn’t respond. “There’s a leaf stuck to your boot,” my lover says.

I sit on the edge of the bed. He peels it away from my three-inch heel. It’s large and red, from a maple tree. His hand slides up the black leather. Onto skin. Into wet.

“No panties,” my lover says. He stands straight, unbuttons his jeans, pushes them to the floor. He pulls off my skirt and grabs my ankles. My back is flat.

The black leather slides and slides and slides. Across his shoulders, slick with sweat.

He sits on the edge of the bed. My chest is pressed against his back, my legs wrapped around his waist. His guitar rests on my ankles. Boots on the floor, unzipped.

He plays three notes. Long, short, long. He says, “They’re having an affair.”

Long, long, short.

“I know.”

He sets down his guitar. On top of my boots. “They write love letters.”

Our e-mails are guarded. Short. Everything unsaid. But they don’t seem to know what you hold on to. What you never say.

“Is it because—?”

“No,” he says. “They did it all on their own.”

He stands. My crossed ankles fall away. He walks to the thermostat, turns down the heat. Then he starts at the foot of the bed. He crawls to the top. He makes himself flat.

“Come on,” he says.

I am flush with his thighs, his belly, his chest. His arm reaches down. Long fingers grab onto the sheet. He pulls it up, over our heads.

 


 

*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Baby’s on Fire: stories by Liz Prato

The first time Heloise saw Mitch, he was standing beside the vending machines in the hospital cafeteria, angular and fresh in his puckery clean white scrubs. She had come in for a Coke and chips, not that she wanted either, only the excuse to escape her rounds with the hospital chaplain and her classmates from the Divinity School. It freaked her out how much she was attracted by the misery of the people in those rooms. The stumps. The scars. The pins. Unlike her classmates, she couldn’t force herself to ask a patient’s name, sit by a bed, and hold a hand. All she wanted to do was stand by the door and stare.

She fled to the cafeteria and stood sipping her Coke, trying to remember why she had wanted a degree in religion in the first place. As an undergrad, she had taken courses in paintings of the Renaissance, the poetry of Donne and Blake. The next thing she knew, she was a student at Harvard Div, tagging along behind a stocky Congregationalist minister and a bunch of sincerely devoted ministers-to-be, all of whom wanted to offer dying people the comforting words of Christ.

She looked up and saw Mitch. He twisted apart an Oreo, scraped the icing with his teeth, and studied her as if he were diagnosing some disease. Absently, he curled his wrist to stroke the shiny head of the stethoscope around his neck. She suspected he could put that instrument to her chest and discover things about her that she didn’t know herself. Like maybe she had a better heart than she thought she did.

“So you really believe in God?”

She must have looked startled.

“Upstairs,” he said. “I saw you with the other student ministers.”

She knew that the accepted way to eat an Oreo was to split the layers and lick the icing, but she always had preferred biting the entire cookie. Not that she had eaten an Oreo since she was five.

“So, do you?” Mitch asked again. “I’ve never met anyone our age who believes in God.”

“I’m trying,” Heloise said. “But sometimes I have to wonder if God believes in me.”

Opposites attract. Everyone said it. Mitch was tall and she was short. He was fair and she was unfair. Mitch had never had a girlfriend, while Heloise had been having tortured romances since her senior year in high school, when she had instigated an affair with the witty bisexual black man who taught history in her town. She tended to earn good grades, but each success came hard. Mitch was healthy, handsome, smart. He had grown up in a loving family and won scholarships to MIT and Harvard Med. He was a non-believing Jew who put his trust in antibiotics and NMRs; she was a half-assed Unitarian trying to justify her faith in a supposedly loving God.

So yes, opposites did attract. The question no one ever asked was: How long can they stay attracted? What were people, magnets? That was why so many marriages fell apart. For a few years, in your twenties, you thought you could be your opposite. People who were weary of their madness married people who promised peace. People bored with their own stability married spouses who were sure to shake things up. But souls could only stretch so far, for so long.

Still, their marriage might have worked. She admired Mitch. She loved him. She hoped his goodness might rub off on her. Really, there was nothing wrong with the man except that he had never suffered, and what kind of flaw was that? She might have survived forever as a sort of Persephone in reverse, tolerating three seasons a year with Mitch in his cheery sunlit world, if only she had been allowed an occasional brief fling in Hades. But she depended on Mitch for everything. They moved when he got his fellowship, and later when he got his first job, and still later when he became chief of anesthesiology at the largest hospital in Troy, New York. She finally found the time to work on her dissertation, an overly ambitious attempt to understand the appeal of martyrdom in Judeo-Christian art. But this meant she stayed at home mired in confused ideas about sex, despair, and strange deaths, while Mitch spent his days and nights in an unambiguously bright OR, where everything was clean and measured—the rise and fall of a patient’s chest, the unwavering needle on a clear-faced dial.

They moved so many times that she misplaced her friends along the way, like the measuring spoons she had inherited from her aunt and the tablecloth her mother had embroidered before she died. With no friends of her own, Heloise was forced to borrow Mitch’s. Like Mitch, they loved to hike. All that greenery and dirt made up for their sterile days in the hospital’s harsh blank corridors. Most of Mitch’s friends had been Boy Scouts in their youth, and even in their thirties they still radiated the boyish confidence and sincerity Heloise associated with that group. Camping or not, Mitch acted as if nothing could go wrong so long as he made sure to carry the right equipment and keep a clear head. At least once a month, the surgeons and dieticians planned some sort of trek, and Mitch and Heloise trekked along with them. On regular weekend nights, everyone got together for potluck dinners, although the two-doctor couples could have afforded to cook—it drove Heloise nuts, the way Mitch’s friends pretended they weren’t rich. Still, she always prepared a dish and went. And when everyone else got pregnant, Heloise and Mitch got pregnant, too.

 

***

 

A year after Eunice was born, Heloise and Mitch planned a trip with another couple. The other mother, Deb, showed them a brochure that had been printed on recycled paper. “It’s called Sunshine Lodge,” she explained. “It’s on a mountain up north. Everything’s solar powered. The owners keep llamas, goats, and sheep. There’s a playroom for the kids, a sauna and hot tub for us, and an orchard with miles and miles of cross-country trails.”

Later, Heloise scolded herself for not knowing better than to spend her vacation at a petting zoo. She hated cross-country skiing. Why make a sport of the exhausting horizontal slog a downhill skier was forced to endure from the parking lot to the lift? But Mitch was too deliberate to enjoy skiing downhill. He loved getting out in the woods, pouring cups of cocoa, and watching the snow sift prettily through the trees. Oh well. You couldn’t crash down a black-diamond slope with a toddler on your back.

“We have an extra kiddie-pack you can borrow,” Deb offered. “That way, you can ski with Eunice, and Hank can carry Inga.”

Deb and her husband, Hank, were a warm good-natured couple. Heloise didn’t dislike them. They signed petitions. They volunteered. They were just a little too earnest. It wasn’t as if their lives were untroubled. Deb’s father was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and Hank’s parents were dead. Deb was a neurologist; Hank specialized in eyes. They saw heartbreak every day. But these troubles didn’t seem to trouble them. It was as if they were standing in the rain, talking about how wet they were getting, but you could see the water rolling right off their Gore-Tex shells.

It was five in the afternoon before they left. An hour north of Albany, Hank steered the Volvo off the highway and maneuvered it past a shabby snowmobile showroom and a general store and bait shop that sat clustered around the exit like hoboes around a fire. Hank drove for another hour up a narrow gravel road that ought to have brought them somewhere more worthwhile—San Francisco, say, or Heaven—than the remains of a barn and silo and a sign that said SUNSHINE LODGE with a smiling sunflower-face below.

The buildings were squat and dull. A ski lodge ought to be quaint, oughtn’t it? Oughtn’t it have a gable or two? Some gingerbread? The man behind the desk was as round and timid as a friar; he even had a tonsure like a monk’s, although it turned out he had struck it rich with a computer start-up, then left the whole technology rat-race and gone back to simpler things.

“Greetings, wayfarers,” he mumbled, then inked their names with a quill pen in a ledger. Showing them their rooms, he barely said a word, but later, when he took them on a tour, he couldn’t seem to shut up—organic this, self-composting that, vegetables kept warm and lush beneath their Plexiglas pods, a hot-tub kept hot with power from the sun. Index cards in lavender calligraphy were tacked beside each fixture, detailing what a person should or shouldn’t throw in, the proper way to stoke a stove, what lotions and perfumes mustn’t pollute the tub.

Heloise and Deb carried their children to the game room while Mitch and Hank lugged in the duffle bags and portacribs, the collapsible highchairs, the diaper bags, wipes, and diapers, the juice boxes, bottles, snacks, and pacifiers. A mother, Heloise decided, was a woman who remembered to bring her daughter’s six favorite stuffed toys but neglected to pack underwear for herself.

“Isn’t this place just perfect?” Deb said, tugging off the hiking boots she wore whenever she wasn’t at the hospital. She settled on the rug, swirling her skirts around her. Heloise tried not to hold it against her that she still styled her hair in a pageboy and never tweezed her brows. Inga, a chunky blonde toddler nearly twice Eunice’s size, although both girls were eighteen months, grabbed a wood spindle and began setting one hand-carved ring atop the next, from the largest to the smallest. It amazed Heloise, the way Inga always seemed to know what a toddler was supposed to do. Eunice clumsily grabbed the smallest ring and jammed it in her mouth. To avoid suffering further damage to her illusion that her daughter wasn’t developmentally delayed, Heloise wandered to a table where a guest had pieced together a puzzle of a busy New England town. Heloise finge ed the centermost piece, which bore the image of a parson. When Inga began to wail, Heloise slipped the parson in her vest pocket before turning to convince her daughter to give up the smallest ring.

Another child came in. She was eight or nine, with a pasty face and lank brown hair. “Hello,” she said, “I’m Alice,” and began to tell the new arrivals about her sisters. “They’re twins,” she said. “But they’re special twins. Everyone who meets them loves them.” Something in her voice brought to Heloise’s mind a carnival barker, or God help her, a pimp.

The door to the game room opened and Alice’s sisters tumbled in. They wore identical purple stretch-pants and yellow shirts. They were hugging, Heloise thought. Then she realized their connection was more intimate than that. They were joined by a thick band of flesh from their navels to their necks; they held their inner arms draped around each, with the rest of their bodies opening outward like a book. The sister on the left seemed flushed with life and strong, but the other sister’s skin was as transparent as tracing paper and her head lolled to one side.

Alice ran across the room and threw both arms around both girls. “Here they are! This one is Sarah”—she indicated the stronger of the twins—“and this one’s Meribeth.”

“Yesterday was our birthday,” they said together. Or maybe not together. Meribeth spoke first and Sarah echoed, although sometimes Sarah spoke first and Meribeth chimed in. At other times, one girl pronounced the first few words of a sentence and her twin sister completed the idea.

“We’re having a party when we get back home.”

“We’ve got so many friends—”

“We can’t hold it at our house.”

“We had to rent a restaurant.”

“But we like to play in the snow.”

“And go sledding.”

“We can’t do that in Boston.”

“So our parents brought us here.”

“They have a special sled,” Alice explained. “They can sit on it side by side.”

“We have a special tricycle, too.”

“One of us pedals.”

“And the other one rides for free.”

Mitch and Hank came in, smelling of snow and smoke. With his curly pale hair, delicate face, and silver glasses, Hank wasn’t a bad-looking man, just surprisingly insubstantial; even at forty-two, he seemed to delight in his gawky innocence. He was followed by a boy whom Alice introduced as Jarred, the innkeepers’ son. Mitch leaned against the door and studied Sarah and Meribeth the way he had studied Heloise the day they met. The four children started playing a card game called Uno. It didn’t seem fair to Heloise, as if one sister might guess the other’s strategy. Of course this made no sense; the sisters didn’t share a head. Yet weren’t their cells patterned by identical DNA? Hadn’t they shared the same experiences from the moment they were born? What was an individual if not a single set of experiences bound inside a skin?

“It’s so upsetting,” Deb whispered behind a hand. “I see sick kids all the time. But usually there’s something I can do to help. This just goes to remind us all how lucky we are.”

Heloise nodded. How could she not feel blessed by her daughter’s brutish good health? But Deb’s view of the twins seemed limited. It was as if she thought that Sarah and Meribeth existed solely to make the rest of humankind feel blessed. But the girls weren’t symbols of misfortune; they were people in their own right. If Eunice, Inga, and Jarred were to grow up with the twins as their only playmates, they would assume that some kids came in ones while other kids came in twos. They might even be jealous that their own bodies were so plain. Besides, the twins seemed happy. It was Alice who seemed forlorn, which was probably why Heloise’s attention was drawn to her.

A bell chimed. “That means dinner is ready,” Alice informed them. “The food here is good, so long as you don’t want hot dogs.” She led the parade of guests down the stairs to the dining room, where the innkeeper’s wife, Eleanor, was ladling out the food.

Eleanor was small and neatly made but even shyer than her husband. “Hello,” she said in a voice as thin as a wisp of steam. Then she ducked back in the kitchen. Heloise got the sense that Eleanor and her husband would have preferred to run the lodge for the theoretical beauty of the self-composting toilets and manure-heated pods, as God might have preferred to run Heaven for Himself.

But the woman could cook. Heloise had never seen such food. She didn’t even recognize the ingredients. Nuts, but what kind? Exotic forms of grain. Rich velvety pools of cheese. Mushrooms nestled in flaky crusts, as sweet as pecan pie. No additives, no funny colors. This was food you needed a spiritual license to be allowed to eat. Probably, if you ate it long enough, it endowed you with eternal life.

The dining room was arranged in two long tables, with benches on either side. Heloise, Mitch, Deb, Hank, Inga, and Eunice took up one end of one table, with a pair of tall gaunt lesbians named Carol and Kim in the center, and Alice, Sarah, Meribeth, and their mother holding down the other end. The twins’ mother turned out to be a soft pear-shaped woman with flowing brown hair and a face that bespoke great patience. Gently, she laid a hand on Alice’s arm and cautioned her not to eat so fast—it occurred to Heloise that Alice felt the need to eat twice as much as normal to make up for being an only child, or rather, for being only one child.

After everyone finished eating, Alice, Sarah, and Meribeth came over to pat the toddlers and admire Inga’s dress. Alice gestured toward their mom. “She sews my sisters’ clothes.”

Now that she mentioned it, Heloise noticed that Sarah and Meribeth’s shirts were cleverly designed with a sort of cloth tunnel where their bond of flesh connected them.

“She used to be a teacher,” Alice said, “but now she stays at home and takes care of my sisters and me. But I don’t really need much taking care of.”

Deb and Hank could only nod. But Mitch, bless his heart, pointed at the sliding glass doors and sang out: “Look, everyone, snow!”

Sure enough, the flakes were battering the glass like weary travelers trying to get inside.

“Snow!” Alice shouted.

“Our mom worries when we go sledding,” Sarah said.

“She thinks we’ll die sooner,” Meribeth added.

“But we’d rather go sledding now than live a long time later.”

“Girls?” their mother called. “Don’t make nuisances of yourselves. Come over here and eat your tofu pudding.”

Heloise desperately wanted a drink, but the lodge served no liquor. Instead, Eleanor lectured the new arrivals on the importance of sorting the remains of their dinner into color-coded bins for compost and recyclables. After the twins’ family had left, Mitch, Deb, and Hank reached the opinion that Sarah and Meribeth shared a single heart and Meribeth was not getting enough oxygen, which was why her lips and skin looked blue. Eventually, Meribeth’s lungs would fail and she would die, and, not long after that, Sarah would die as well. Heloise wondered if the twins’ parents knew this. They must. But did the twins?

Everyone migrated to the game room, except the twins’ father, who, despite the girls’ plot to sneak up to his bed, tickle his feet, and wake him, didn’t appear that night. Alice, Sarah, Meribeth, and Jarred played Uno while Deb and Hank traded the task of keeping Inga occupied. Mitch rarely minded Eunice, not because he didn’t want to, but because Heloise spent so much more time with the baby that she knew Eunice’s needs better than Mitch did. Mitch was fine when Eunice was happy, but he seemed unable to understand her discontent or imagine a remedy. A vicious cycle, Heloise thought. A vicious cycle that kept producing vicious wives.

Deb, Hank, and Mitch stood whispering in the corner. Their plan, it turned out, was to put the girls to sleep and get naked in the hot tub. Heloise could see by Mitch’s face that he wanted her to say she would go with them. But it gave Heloise the creeps the way Deb and Hank liked to take off their clothes. Whenever they went hiking, Deb and Hank would plan the day’s adventure to include a pond. Oh, just look at that pond! they liked to giggle. Don’t you feel like taking off your clothes and jumping right in?

They loved their naked selves and wanted Inga to do the same. How could Heloise object? But she did. “I object!” she felt like shouting every time they tried to shame her into taking off her clothes. Hank owned a guidebook that listed every nude beach in America. Heloise had nothing against swimming nude, as long as it was done at night in a forbidden place with someone you hoped to fuck. But how could she explain such reasons?

She lied and said she was reluctant to leave Eunice by herself.

What could happen? Deb insisted. We’ll be a few yards out the door.

Well, what if the inn caught fire? Heloise would be outside while Eunice would be sizzling in her portacrib.

Come on, Hank said. What were the chances the building would catch fire during the hour they were in the hot tub?

Heloise looked to Mitch. Wasn’t he Mr. Logic? Hadn’t every parent who had ever watched a baby go up in flames thought nothing bad could happen in just the one hour they had left the kid alone? But Mitch wore the defenseless pleading face that Heloise always found it impossible to refuse.

She changed tactics. What if the girls started crying?

Deb had already thought of that. They could ask the lesbians to come and get them.

The lesbians? If the lesbians wanted to be minding kids, they would have brought some of their own.

“Please?” Mitch said. “For me?”

But she was angry at how many times he had come home late and fended off her advances. He consented to sex infrequently, as a form of recreation, like a hike or a bad TV show. And it bothered her that he thought he could fix their marriage so easily, with a trip to Sunshine Lodge and a midnight dip in a hot tub.

“I can’t,” Heloise said. “I’ve got my period.” This wasn’t technically true, but she expected it at any time. And she hadn’t packed protection. This truth hit her like a punishment. She hadn’t packed tampons, and the nearest store that sold them was thirty miles away.

She put Eunice to sleep while Mitch took a towel and slumped off to the hot tub. Heloise sat on a chair outside their room, considering whether to ask Eleanor for some tampons. No, a woman like that probably used some weird environmentally friendly product like peat-moss napkins or reusable rubber cups. Heloise might have tried Carol and Kim, but they passed in the hall just then, so entwined about each other that Heloise didn’t have the heart to interrupt.

“It’s spooky,” Kim said to Carol.

“Don’t worry,” Carol said, “I’ll protect you.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

The two women quickly kissed and clattered down the stairs. From the second-story window, Heloise saw them heading off. Both were dressed in thick blue parkas, identical striped wool hats, and jeans. Did lesbians still do that thing where one pretended to be butch while the other was more femme? Was it kinkier to make love to someone like yourself, or to someone very different?

The two women vanished down the path, at which Heloise discovered that the window allowed her to glimpse the hot tub; it was surrounded by a fence, but, looking down from that angle, she could just make out three heads. She heard Mitch’s laugh, then Deb’s. Oh, why not go down and join them?

She peeked in the room and saw that Eunice was asleep. But instead of going out, Heloise put on a nightshirt and crawled beneath the scratchy blanket. Sometime later, Mitch came in, but by the time Heloise had struggled up to consciousness, his eyes were already closed and his breathing as regular as if he had given himself a whiff of whatever anesthesia he used to knock out patients.

She slipped on Mitch’s boots and hobbled down the stairs and out the door. The air was so frigid it made the hair on the back of her neck stand up, or maybe that was the effect of seeing who was in the hot tub.

He was swarthy, with broad flat cheeks and a prominent crooked nose—he might have been an Indian, or an Arab, or maybe a Jew like Mitch. Even though his nipples cleared the water by several inches, the ends of his long black hair floated on the surface like some sensual ooze.

“Hi,” he said. “Join me?”

Her plan had been to yank off her nightshirt, simmer herself back to some semblance of relaxation, then slither back to bed. “I didn’t think anyone would be here.”

His shoulders lifted. “I’m not anyone. Anyone was here before. I’m nobody. Who are you?”

How could it matter if a stranger whose name she didn’t know, in a town whose name she also didn’t know, saw her with no clothes on? As she unbuttoned her nightshirt, he made no effort to look away. She stepped out of Mitch’s boots and tossed them over the fence so they wouldn’t be standing there tapping in disgust while she sat naked with another man. Without looking, she climbed in the tub. It was like lowering her body into a roiling tub of sex. She could sense the stranger’s cock twitch. Even his armpit hair turned her on. Women! Men got turned on by women’s breasts, which everyone knew were beautiful, and women got turned on by armpit hair. Or maybe only Heloise did.

“Are those your girls?” she asked. “Sarah and Meribeth? And Alice?” She could sense his cock deflate. Did he expect her to say something thoughtless? “They’re beautiful,” she said, then winced. Using a man’s twin daughters to get his cock to stand back up!

“That they are. They are beautiful. All three of my girls are beauties.” He let his head drop backward to expose a vulnerable throat; with his arms along the rim of the tub, he seemed to be waiting for someone to shoot him full of arrows. Like St. Sebastian, Heloise thought. St. Sebastian of the Hot Tub.

“So, this is your first time at Sunshine Lodge?”

Heloise said it was.

“Like it?”

“It’s all right.”

“Just ‘all right’? I don’t think you’re allowed to say it’s just all right.”

“No?”

“You have to say it’s perfect.”

She laughed. “Okay. It’s perfect.”

He ducked beneath the surface, then reappeared and shook his head, wringing water from his hair. “Don’t all the little signs and compost bins and all that healthy food make you feel like shooting up?”

“Well,” she said, “now that you mention it.”

“I have some heroin in my jeans. But you have to supply your own needle.”

“Oh,” she said, “I always bring my own needle.”

As they laughed and talked, they kept inching around the tub until they were sitting side by side. She had to remind herself this was someone else’s husband. She had a toddler named Eunice. The naked man beside her was father to a girl named Alice and twins named Sarah and Meribeth. He loved all three of them, he said. “I love all three of my daughters.” He said the sentence twice. He was just tired of being good. “People think just because you have disabled kids, you somehow become a saint.”

Under normal conditions, she doubted he would have been the self-pitying kind of man. But the hot tub brought it out, like some torture pit from Dante, broiling him until he confessed his sins. It broke his heart, he said. How could it not break his heart that his girls would die young? But every now and then he caught himself looking forward to not having to spend every waking moment worrying about their pain.
Before the twins were born, he had been planning to leave his wife. But how could a man leave a woman who had given birth to Siamese twins? Not that she wasn’t strong enough. She was stronger than he was. The twins had given her life a purpose. But it had robbed him of his. If a sacrifice was given grudgingly, in his wife’s book, it didn’t count. He taught music in the public schools. Squeaks and squawks. Lost tempers. The constant abuse of strings. Before the girls were born, he had been planning to make it as a jazz clarinetist. But with all the extra bills and the need for someone to stay home with the twins …

Heloise shifted around and stroked his knee. He put his hand a few inches below her breast, which was more arousing than if he had put it on her breast. Their nakedness, thank God, was anything but wholesome.

“I’d better go,” she said, although really, she didn’t want to go. She got out and found Mitch’s boots, clutched her nightshirt to her chest, and darted to her room. Eunice was still asleep. Mitch lay curled to the wall. She got in and sniffed his neck, which smelled like bubblegum and vanilla icing. “If I ever run away, come after me,” she whispered. She had said this to him many times when he was awake, but she didn’t trust that he would come. She would run away, remembering everything he’d ever taught her about blazing signs along her trail. But Mitch would be too proud and hurt to follow.

 

***

 

The next morning, she woke to the sore breasts, bloated stomach, and intense pressure to commit multiple gory homicides that indicated her period was about to come. She sucked down her pride and asked Eleanor if she had some tampons. Without a word, Eleanor pulled a cardboard box from beneath the sink. Sifting through a litter of sunglasses, condoms, deodorants, and mismatched boots, the innkeeper’s wife lifted out a single linty tampon, the old-fashioned kind that came in a cardboard tube. Heloise only hoped it didn’t date from the Age of Toxic Shock. Well, one tampon was better than no tampon. She would horde it until she absolutely needed to borrow the Volvo and drive the sixty miles to the general store and back.

After breakfast, the twins’ mother bundled them in a snowsuit she must have designed and sewn. Packed in its padded double womb, the twins went out to play. With Alice’s help, they built a snow mother, a snow father, and, thank God, instead of a set of Siamese snow-twins, a lopsided snow-dog. Then they instigated a war against Jarred; the twins windmilled snowballs at the boy while Alice packed ammunition. Heloise was so incensed at the way the twins took advantage of their Siameseness she almost enlisted on Jarred’s side. They rushed him, tore off his hat, packed it full of snow, put it back on his head and pulled it down, at which Jarred lunged their at knees and Sarah and Meribeth went over backward.

Heloise screamed.

“Do angels!” Alice cried, and the girls lifted their arms and lowered them, then struggled to their feet, leaving the indentation of a two-headed angel when they went inside.

 

***

 

At lunch, Heloise overheard the twins’ family argue about their plans for the afternoon. The twins wanted to go sledding, but their mother insisted they were too tired. “We can do it if Dad carries us,” they said. “Like that last time, in Vermont.” Their mother shook her head; she had promised their father he could take the afternoon off to ski. But the twins’ father assured their mother that he would enjoy nothing more than carrying his daughters up the hill; while their mother zipped the girls inside their snowsuit, he turned to Heloise and shrugged.

The six of them—Mitch and Heloise, with Eunice on her back, and Deb and Hank with Inga—spent the next few hours skiing. Heloise enjoyed the way Eunice caught her breath and screeched and grabbed Heloise’s ears whenever they skied downhill. And something about the melancholy landscape—the bare apple-trees, as hunched as old women, surrounded by rows of firs like pinheaded guards just waiting, waiting, waiting, their hands behind their backs, for someone to escape—moved her more deeply than the magnificence of a vista from a mountain might have done.

Around and around she skied, and each time she and Eunice circled back, Heloise saw Vincent carrying his girls uphill, hugging them awkwardly to his chest like bags of groceries. Up and up, like Sisyphus. Alice pulled her own sled, looking wistfully at her sisters, and if Mitch could extrapolate from Meribeth’s blue lips the twins’ future, or rather, their lack of a future, Heloise could look at Alice’s expression and imagine the story she would one day tell her therapist: I once had twin sisters. They weren’t ordinary twins. They were conjoined twins. I loved them. I really did. It was just that I was jealous of the attention and love they got. The grace they had that I didn’t have.

The irony, Heloise thought later, was that she and Mitch had one of their best afternoons ever. Mitch plodded around the trail, and whenever Heloise and Eunice lapped him, he would lift his fist and curse. “You miserable rutabagas! You bungee jumpers! You foghorn leghorns!” He took to weaving among the apple trees, and every time their paths crossed, Mitch would snowplow around Heloise’s skis, kiss her, then kiss Eunice, who bounced happily in her backpack.

When they stopped for hot chocolate, Mitch leaned against a stump and poured two steaming cups. Just as Heloise took hold of hers, Eunice began to whimper. “Mumma, dog!” Heloise turned and saw a fox quivering at the forest’s edge. It lifted one paw daintily and sniffed, like a society queen uncertain if the party she was about to enter was beneath her pride, then flicked its tail and trotted off.

“It’s good luck to see a fox,” Mitch said.

“Really?”

“Aren’t fox’s feet lucky?”

He was so pleased with himself that Heloise didn’t have the heart to say he meant rabbits.

“Why don’t you go for one last run, without us slowing you down?” Mitch said.

She felt as if he were sending her off to sleep with another man. “You don’t mind?”

No, no, go on, Mitch said. He took Eunice from the pack— getting the baby out of that backpack required more effort than the doctors had required to extricate Eunice from Heloise’s womb. She kissed Mitch and took off, legs pumping as strenuously as if, even without the aid of gravity, she might yet achieve the blind happiness of flight.

Near the woods she stepped off the trail to catch her breath—literally, her breath was curling past her face and she snatched at it with her glove. The sun was watery pink and blue, like the colors in a nursery. Vincent passed her hiding spot, skiing backwards, encouraging someone to try to reach him. Alice plodded around the bend, red faced and out of breath. “You can do it,” he kept repeating. “Slide those skis. Skate.”

Heloise waited to give Vincent and Alice a decent length of time to ski back to the lodge, but she came upon them not a hundred yards down the trail, Alice frozen at the top of a tiny incline, her father at the bottom.

“I can’t, Dad. I can’t! I’ll give you fifty dollars if you don’t make me ski down this hill!”

“Damn it. Why can’t you be as brave as Sarah and Meribeth?”

He might as well have shot her, that’s how quickly Alice crumpled. She must have been crying, but Heloise didn’t hear a sob; the child was crying in that way that goes beyond mere sound.

Vincent sidestepped up the hill, took off his skis, and held his daughter in the snow. At first she writhed away, but then she let him comfort her. He helped her take off her skis, then carried the skis downhill and went back for Alice. He helped her put the skis back on, then towed her by her poles, bent double, like a horse. His suffering wrenched Heloise’s heart. But it also turned her on. And what did that say about her? If you fell in love with a person’s suffering, you’d never try to cure it. Deb, Hank, and Mitch weren’t nearly as shaken as she was by suffering, but neither were they attracted to it, and that allowed them to get on with the business of easing people’s pain.

No wonder she couldn’t bring herself to finish her degree. If she had ever found the courage to state her thesis clearly, it would have been this: Suffering is erotic. That was at the heart of her attraction to Christianity. Maybe it was true of most people’s attraction to Christianity. Why build an entire religion around Christ’s suffering on the cross, instead of, say, His miracles? Why the whips and thorns, the punctured ribs and palms, not to mention all the martyrs His suffering had inspired, all those men with pierced chests, the women with hacked-off breasts, the smiling, genderless innocents, flayed alive or burnt?

She shook her head to clear the images. Wasn’t that a howl she heard? It couldn’t have been. But the woods’ shadowy darkness filled her soul with dread. She forced herself to give Vincent and Alice a while longer. Even so, when she reached the lodge, he was still hauling Alice, trudge by laborious trudge, up that final hill.

 

***

 

By the time Heloise and Mitch had showered and dressed, everyone but the twins and Alice were downstairs waiting for their meal. Heloise and Mitch had just settled beside Deb and Hank, with the kids on their mothers’ laps, when the door at the top of the stairs opened and Alice and the twins came in.

“Watch what we can do!” they cried. With a little help from Alice, the twins ended up on the banister, not straddling the rail but side by side. Their mother shouted “No!” but Alice gave them a push. The twins slid a few feet down the rail. Then one twin tottered backward and the other twin slid forward, arms and legs flailing.

Their father leapt the stairs three at a time, scooped the twins in his arms, then sat cradling them on the step while Alice threw herself across her sisters’ backs, crying, “I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to!”

Everyone tried to get back to normal, but the mood was too subdued. Deb suggested charades. Carol and Kim declined so they could take their turn in the hot tub, but the twins and Alice were all for it. The problem was that Sarah and Meribeth performed their clues in unsettling synchronicity, and when it was their team’s turn to guess, they shouted “‘Over the Rainbow’!” and “‘Willie Wonka’!” in such eerie unison that the game ended after only a few rounds and each family went up to its room far earlier than was normal even for parents with children that young.

 

***

 

Heloise liked to think she fell asleep that night with the intention of staying asleep until morning, and it was only a case of nerves that made her startle awake at two and led her outside to the steaming tub. But when she saw no one was in the water, she admitted that her nerves had been crying out for more than relaxation. She passed the indentation in the snow where the twins had made their angel. “Baa,” called a sheep, or maybe it was a goat. How odd that the two creatures sounded so much alike in the dark.

She slid down the hill on the soles of Mitch’s boots, then headed toward the woods. Not twenty yards in, she saw Vincent against a tree, wrapped in one of the heavy blankets the innkeepers kept beside the hot tub. With his raven-black hair and the wings the blanket gave him, he looked more than a little vampirish.

She walked over and leaned against him. He moaned, then wrapped Heloise in his blanketed arms and held her. She rested that way, breathing the horsy odor of the wool, the sandalwood of his skin. Then her mouth found his chest, and—she hadn’t planned this—she slid to her knees in the snow. The cold seeped through her leggings, but the pain was almost pleasure. A few minutes later, as Vincent lifted his arms above his head and cried out, Heloise turned and saw the fox’s eyes glittering in the moonlight not fifteen yards away. She gasped and struggled up. Vincent remained against the tree, eyes closed, arms lifted as if someone had pinned his wrists to the trunk.

The fox shook itself like a dog and trotted off. Panting, Heloise looked down and saw a steaming clot of her menstrual blood. Had the fox scented it? Was that why it had come? She was tempted to reach down and taste her menses. Instead, she lifted her chin and howled.

 

***

 

The marriage didn’t end that winter. After they left Sunshine Lodge, Heloise never saw Vincent again. But once she started hurting Mitch, she couldn’t seem to stop. A year after their divorce, she read about the twins in the Sunday supplement of the local paper. As Mitch and Deb had said, the girls shared a single heart—a defective heart at that; it had only three chambers. Meribeth died first. Sarah survived another hour. Most conjoined twins died at birth, the reporter wrote. The luckiest lived a year. But Sarah and Meribeth had celebrated their eighth birthday a few weeks earlier.

“They had the sunniest disposition,” their mother was quoted as saying. “I don’t think it bothered them a bit. On alternate days, Sarah or Meribeth got to make decisions. They argued, but they made up. If you’re attached to a person, you have to figure out a way to get along. You can’t just stay mad.”

The girls died at home, surrounded by their parents, Kathleen and Vincent Black, various grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and their older sister, Alice. They were buried in a single casket. Donations could be sent to build a playground for disabled children in a park near where they lived.

After reading the obit twice, Heloise picked up the phone to call Mitch. Then she remembered that Mitch had asked her never to engage him in conversation unless it concerned their daughter. If Heloise tried to talk about that weekend at Sunshine Lodge, Mitch would hang up. Her infidelities had made him suffer, and his suffering had turned him into a person she could love. But Mitch couldn’t forgive her disloyalty. He refused to take her back.

She put Eunice to bed, patted her on the back until she closed her eyes, then tried to write her homily for the week. Since finishing her degree and taking her first assignment—as chaplain at a women’s college outside Schenectady—Heloise had fallen into the easy routine of using an incident from the news or her personal life to serve as a guiding metaphor for a larger spiritual truth to be explored in that week’s sermon. She wanted to compose a tribute to the twins. But what kind of metaphor could Meribeth and Sarah provide if not, as Deb had said, a reminder of everyone else’s sublime good luck at not being them? Maybe what they symbolized was the beauty of suffering gracefully. But the twins hadn’t suffered. Not until the end. Their father and sister had suffered, but not in ways that seemed particularly enlightening.

No, the twins stood for nothing. Maybe nothing stood for anything. Pain was what it was. The pieces of people’s lives fit together to make a pattern like the puzzle of that town, the central piece of which Heloise now discovered in that long-neglected vest. But there was nothing beneath the surface. No deeper, third dimension. She was left with nothing from Sunshine Lodge except a lost-and-found of images: a two-headed angel; a fox’s glowing eyes; a dark red clot of blood steaming in the snow. And she knew it would be a sin to stand before her congregation and try to weave these images into a symbol for the perversity of a woman who, for no reason she could defend, would destroy her marriage to the man she loved and, in the process, condemn herself to spend the remainder of her life with the corpse of her better self joined to her like the angelic twin sister with whom she once had shared a single three-chambered heart.

 


 

*Eileen Pollack, “Uno” from In the Mouth – Stories and novellas. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.

Rita Loomis had fallen asleep at her own retirement party.

Her colleague Amelia Monroe noticed this from the back of the room, embarrassed for Rita, and grateful for herself. Because until that moment, Amelia was sure she had been the most embarrassing aspect of the program. After all, as principal, Amelia had hired Rita thirty years ago. And here Rita was departing first? Rita, who’d looked not much older than her sophomores that first year? Granted, Rita was retiring young, at just fifty-five, but people could do the math if they cared to: If Rita is retiring, what’s Amelia Monroe still doing here? Goodness, she must be 107 by now, or close to—

Amelia was not. She was sixty-one. An active, alert sixty-one. Active enough, for example, that were the impossible to occur—that Amelia would retire, that she would allow a party to be held in her honor—she would most definitely not fall asleep, not during the requisite slide show, not during the cutting of the sheet cake, not during the presentation of the certificate and frame that they’d spend less than a latte on.

Amelia favored a particular spot during mass gatherings in the auditorium (always standing, always back left, near the fire doors). She was on the verge, however, of going forward to nudge Rita awake. But it turned out that Bob Meinert, biology, would get that honor. He was sitting next to Rita. And so when Rita really lost it—let herself slump onto Bob’s shoulder—Amelia hung back and watched as a series of questions materialized and dimmed in her head, just like the slides Rita was now missing:

 

Why hadn’t Rita ever married?

Why didn’t I ever marry?

Did Rita ever have a thing for Bob?

Wait, is Rita—

 

She was. Dead. Because it turned out that even with a master’s degree in biology and twelve years’ experience teaching the subject, Mr. Meinert could no more rescue Rita Loomis from a massive stroke than could the paramedics who soon arrived.

These things happen.

Amelia brought up the lights. She locked open the fire doors. She made a path for the gurney. She felt like everyone was watching her, but they weren’t. They were watching Rita leave. Behind them, at the front of the auditorium, the slides continued to bloom and fade on-screen until Amelia finally went forward and turned them off.

I don’t want to die.

She could, of course, just write that on the questionnaire, since it was true: “What are your goals?” the sheet asked.

But Amelia didn’t want to startle anyone at the shiny, antiseptic new fitness center. She’d watched the facility go up not a mile from school, passing it every day on her way to work. True, she had daily scoffed at the notion that anyone, most of all she, would go there. For one thing, her townhouse complex had a gym. Free. She’d never been inside the place, but she’d seen the picture on the brochures, and back when she’d served on the owners’ association, it seemed like they were always approving this or that expenditure for the facility. Someone used it.

Yet here Amelia now was, about to make her own expenditure and join this completely superfluous gym. But that was the only way, she’d read in a magazine at the doctor’s office (another post-Rita errand): If you pay for a gym, you’ll go to the gym. Besides, the first month was free.

But gyms had changed. It wasn’t just barbells and those odd machines that seemed to place a dozen pulleys and gears between you and the weight—they had all that business at the high school. (When she’d asked him to recommend a gym, Mr. Burbush, the phys ed teacher, had offered her the use of the school’s weight room, which only confirmed her opinion of him: truly dense.) This new gym was like a dance club. Not just the music—and she’d have to see to that straightaway, get the volume turned down and the selection changed—but the lights, the mirrors, the colors. Television and computer screens everywhere, and on sale in a cooler by the exit, a bizarre, tropical-aquarium-worthy spectrum of bottled and canned drinks.

Maybe she would look into her townhouse complex’s gym after all. It was certainly convenient.

“No cheating!” came a voice from behind her, and she turned around, flustered that she’d made so little headway on the questionnaire. The saleswoman had asked her to fill it out while she went and fetched a “personal trainer” for an introductory tour.

“Ms. Monroe,” the boy addressed her, although he wasn’t a boy, of course, not now. He was a responsible adult, had a job—personal trainer—and a name: Tim Prado. Tim had graduated a couple years ago. Amelia had an excellent memory, never forgot a name.

“Mr. Prado! How’s college? Are you on break?”

“Graduated.” He smiled. “About ten years back, I’d say.”

Was she still capable of blushing? That is, did she color, Amelia wondered? She knew what blushing felt like, of course. She just was no longer sure what she looked like when she did. But Tim made no sign of noticing; he just kept smiling. Ten years out of school—out of college—and looking well, she thought. She’d never have pegged him for this life—he seemed to be the promised “trainer”—but she’d learned that one could never tell. Tim had begged her for extra funds for the spring musical. At least she thought that’s how she remembered him.

“I saw you looking around there, Ms. Monroe,” Tim said, “and I thought, that’s just like me, that time I was taking a test outside your office. And you saw me looking around and thought I was cheating.”

“Were you?” Oh, Tim, she thought. You may think you have the drop on me, but you don’t, none of you ever did or do. She smiled, but stopped when she saw Tim involuntarily flinch.

“No,” he said. “I mean, I wish I had. I got a bad grade if I remember.”

“Well,” Ms. Monroe replied, having learned long ago how to apply ice after the sting, “I certainly don’t.”

And then Tim Prado blushed.

Amelia went ahead and signed up for a full year. Membership plus six months of personal training services. How could she not? In addition to the free month, they happened to be having a 50-percent-off special that very day. It wouldn’t have made sense to not join, and what was the purpose of going to this fancy gym if she didn’t try some of the fancier things? If young Tim Prado could show her how to, say, climb onto, or into, that standing eggbeater thing or whatever it was and stay balanced, that would be lovely.

 

Tim had told her that she didn’t really need to finish that initial questionnaire, but she’d told him straight out that her goal at the gym was improving her health. And then he’d asked how old she was—quite impertinent of him, she’d thought, but he’d waited for an answer, not looking the least ashamed, and she’d finally figured out that he had some professional reason to need to know this, that it would affect how he shaped her fitness regimen.

Fifty, she’d finally told him, finding it fun, even necessary to joke. And when he said, Wow, she said, Fifty-seven, and when he said, quite earnestly, You look fabulous for fifty-seven, she hadn’t really been able to say anything at all in reply. She couldn’t really remember if he’d been a handsome boy—he was handsome enough now—because she never really noticed that, not about any of them. There were so many years of so many students, and other than names, the most information she could ever really store about each was “good” or “bad.” Tim had been good.

So it was strange, really, that he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Perhaps he was gay? Which was fine. For him. She knew people had wondered as much of her: all those years, unmarried. But she wasn’t gay. She was hard to please, is what she was. It made her an excellent principal and a lousy date. There had been two or three men over the years who had interested her in a specific sort of way, and there had been Frank, a shipmate from the first and last cruise she’d ever go on, but in general, the problem with men her age is that they wanted more of a pet than a partner. Someone to tend to, a bit of warmth next to them on the couch while they watched TV.

Frank, yes, still sent the occasional card. He’d not cared about her being so headstrong, not cared so much as all the others anyway, but that was apparently because alcohol softened everything for him. (Everything.) Nevertheless, he was a charming man, enjoyed a slow dance. That’s how he got his exercise.

Tim made her buy new sneakers. A ridiculous expense. The soles on the ones she had were hardly worn, even after however many years it had been. But Tim seemed serious, and so she followed his advice, bought the sneakers. And the stretchy clothes. And even, on occasion, the drinks. There was one in particular he recommended, and she acquiesced; it didn’t look quite as ghastly as the other bottles in the cooler. Truth be told, it did give her a little pep. At $1.95, she wasn’t going to spring for one every day, but it was nice to see it glowing there in the cooler each day as she left. A treat, ready when she wanted one.

 

Tim, too. She’d remembered so little about him from his school days, and she now marveled at this. How could this one have escaped imprinting upon her memory? He was kind, thoughtful, assertive when appropriate. Always complimentary, and not falsely so. Just last week, he’d mentioned that she was acquiring good tone, and even though it had taken her a bit too long to figure out what he’d meant—surely he wasn’t talking about her humming? her tan? her hair?—she’d accepted his kind words gladly. If she were thirty years younger, she’d be trying to figure out a way to get him to ask her on a date.

 

Good thing she wasn’t, because he figured it out all on his own. She wasn’t even quite sure if it was a date, in fact. But here she was, seated in the grass in the park, listening to a summer concert with Tim Prado beside her. And some of his friends, too. Luckily, none of them were former students. And if they wondered at her tagging along, they thoughtfully breathed not a whit about it, not even allowing their faces to silently betray what must have been their utter mystification.

But she was the truly mystified one. After the concert, there was that reading by that author that he’d thought she’d like (she’d not, but that was beside the point). There was that annual festival in the historic quarter that she’d never managed to get herself to, at least not until someone had asked her along. There were the dinners out. Movies. A play. All of it quite normal, and apparently normal was a big goal for Tim these days.

Tim had had an unpleasantly busy life since leaving high school. He’d gotten a girl pregnant the summer after graduation, had married her, had joined the army to get money for college, had lost the wife and child to another man, had left the army, had started one school, then another, had tried New York and then Los Angeles. Had found exercise was his salvation. Had found his way back to his hometown. Had found all his old friends were gone.

And then, had found his former principal walking into his gym one day. Imagine that, he suggested, and she’d tried to. She’d tried to imagine how it all ran together, how it could possibly be true that, after thirty-nine years in education, after thirty years as principal, after handing Tim his diploma some fourteen years ago, she could find herself sitting not two miles from her house in a restaurant she’d never tried (never would have tried), at a table for two with a man she’d never, ever, have asked out on a date. It was a date.

 

In the end, the problem wasn’t that the waiter—actually more than one—asked, or suggested, or insinuated, that she was Tim’s mother.

It wasn’t the evenings out with his friends when she finally was able to detect some indecent curiosity, or confusion, behind their otherwise blank faces and smiles. It wasn’t Amelia’s friends, either, not the ones in town—indeed, she’d not quite mustered the courage to introduce him around—nor her real friends, out-of-towners, flinty folks she’d met at conferences over the years. That’s where their self-adopted nickname came from, flintsters, because that’s what they were, flinty women who were never, or were no longer, married.

Amelia never used the term flintsters herself; she wasn’t quite sure why Myra and Janice, who’d coined it, felt the need to separate themselves off like some rare and failing species.

“He’s just a gold digger,” said Myra. Janice murmured assent. They met for monthly conference calls.

“Whatever the county or TIAA-CREF has in store for me,” Amelia said, “I doubt it’s enough to attract him. He could do better.”

“He wants a mother,” Janice said.

“Is he an orphan?” Myra said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Janice said. “That’s what they start with; it’s what they all want to end with, men: a mother.”

“He could do better there, too,” Amelia answered and looked at the clock to see how long it would be before they hung up. And she sat back and let them do the rest of the talking, because, for all of her gym-going, her toning, her smiling, her laughing, her holding hands, and—my Lord, it had been perfectly wonderful, hadn’t it?—kissing (and more, everything, but she was not, would never be, the type who talked of such), she had to sit down, catch her breath.

Because she’d finally figured out that thing, that thing that had been bothering her all along, that little dark rivulet that ran through her every conversation with Tim, their every date. Especially every movie.

And now that she’d figured it out, she’d have to cancel her gym membership, hug Tim tight, kiss him extra close, one final time.

 

It was Rita Loomis. Rita hadn’t been sixty-one when she’d died. Not even fifty-seven. But death had lurked for her all the same, had come and snatched her after the lights went low and the slides of her life began. She’d had a massive stroke; she’d slumped onto Bob Meinert, who, Amelia learned, had loved her from afar, had daydreamed of her head lying on his shoulder, just so, in the dark. And she’d died on him.

We grow up, we graduate, we retire. Old and young, we die.

It had always been this way, Amelia knew, and that had always been just fine with her. Students might cry and complain, but the facts were facts, and the more facts you knew, the more likely you were to get an A.

But now Amelia knew this new fact, that she was in love with a former student, with Tim Prado, who was kind and handsome, who’d stumbled in his life but now stood and had somehow found it in his heart to court her, woo her, make her heart pump like she’d never known it could.

And knowing that—well, that made dying impossible. Unbearable. And yet, here was Rita insisting she would. Amelia could go to the gym every day for five hours, for ten. Amelia could eat right and live right and kiss great, and she’d still find herself in an auditorium one day, sitting beside her Tim, holding hands in the dark as the music began, as the photos of her life swelled on screen and her death drew near.

Except it didn’t. She didn’t die, just like Tim hadn’t left and locked the door behind him when she’d told him her real age, sixty-one. All he’d said was Really? And You amaze me every day. Or something like that. They were walking out of the gym at the time. Tim started to set up a date for the weekend.

 

“Tim,” Amelia interrupted. “You don’t understand. That’s old. I mean, this—this is old.”

“I wasn’t the best math student, it’s true.” “I’m serious,” she said.

“About what?”

And then, finally, Amelia Monroe surprised herself. She’d never mastered the eggbeater exercise machine, she’d never gone and bought another of those weird fluorescent drinks, but she did do this, this one startling act: she spoke.

 

“Serious about you,” she said.

Rapturous young love, rock climbing, fathering and mothering a family—that sort of thing would be left to other, longer—and altogether ordinary—lifetimes.

For Tim, for Amelia, for them both, there would be the gym, there would be dinner, there would be the still-electric pleasure of holding hands and discovering how nicely they fit.

But for tonight, there would just be this improbable retirement party, Amelia’s very own, complete with interminable slide show. The organizers had asked—actually asked—if it would be okay to include a shot or two of Amelia with Rita, in younger days.

Of course Amelia had agreed. And she’d liked the result. She’d liked Rita; she’d liked the photo they’d found, both of them smiling real smiles, a photo Amelia knew and had occasionally wondered about, because she could never remember what was, at that moment, bringing the two of them joy.

But now, with Rita smiling on screen and Tim smiling beside her, Amelia knew. Here she was, Amelia, and there she was, Rita, and between them now, this moment—who knew how long it would last and who cared?—found the two women together, aglow, alive.

 

She wriggled, squirmed, just a little, but a little was too much. It started as a shimmy at her hips and twisted up through her shoulders, reminding her of the rippling way a wet dog shakes itself dry. Her eyes were closed but she could see herself all the same: her feet in white cotton socks, her solid, good-looking legs, and the dark blue dress stretched lewdly tight across her hips.

She opened her eyes. What she saw in the dressing room mirror confirmed her expectations except for one thing, the slack, drawn look on her face, jarring because it did not match the view of her face that she carried around inside her, which was freckly and kindly and had always been that way.

The next thing she knew she was reaching for the zipper, the too-tight dress pulling upward in a way that was quite appalling in the mirror, and she yanked on the zipper and it went up though she quit a few inches from the top. Why did I even do that? she wondered.

It looked like a shrunken, perverse Sunday school outfit, complete with sailor-suit trim around the collar. On the hanger it had been a conservative, navy blue linen dress, but every woman knows: the dress when it’s on the hanger is not the dress when you put it on. The tag scratched her; she scraped it free of her neck and looked at it—the price was obscenely high. Something obscene about how her hips looked, too, in that dress, and she thought how her hips, at that moment, looked the way her cousin Roberta’s hips used to look, but this was a silly, strange idea so she thought of the price of the dress again, and then the oddest memory came to her, of the rehearsal dinner for her wedding twenty years before and something Roberta had said there: he must have more money than you think, because why else would you marry a man twenty-five years older than you?

She hadn’t thought of her unkind cousin Roberta in years—unkind, always, perhaps because she had an ugly name and resented this—this is what she had thought when she was a child and Roberta was a child too, a very unkind child.

No, Roberta, you were wrong—but had she said this at the time? She couldn’t remember. The rehearsal dinner had been held at a restaurant overlooking the ocean in Maine, in a big dark stone house on an old estate. She remembered the dinner better than the wedding, not the food, but the setting (just as she remembered the site for the wedding better than the wedding itself, which was, in memory, just a blur of bodies in tuxedos and bright dresses, like a photograph taken of the scene, where the people were out of focus because they were moving, while the clean white hotel and the too-pretty village of Boothbay Harbor were frozen sharp and colorful).

She wondered what it was about the big stone house on the cliff that moved her so much more than the picture- postcard charm of Boothbay Harbor. She thought of the stone of the inn as the same stone rising out of the ocean beneath it, that dark rock with the waves crashing on it, looking so wet and black as each wave receded, but she wasn’t sure at all it was the same stone, and she couldn’t actually visualize the building, though she could sense it around her and feel the power of the waves crashing below and the mystery of the gray sea extending mistily forever. Her parents had given her this, this wildness, this roughness, the evening before her wedding, then spirited her to the protected waters of Boothbay Harbor, to that page from a picture calendar of the quaint hamlets of Maine, to be married.

Even though she was twenty-five years old at the time, her parents had insisted on paying for everything, keeping her childlike in those final moments before her marriage began to the fifty-year-old man she’d chosen.

And now she was forty-eight, and he seventy-three, and they had two kids in college, and here she was all alone in this white, high-ceilinged dressing room, down a long corridor of dressing rooms in a city department store once fashionable but now in a long decline. It was too brightly fluorescent-lit, with pins and lint across its bare tile floor and a door that banged like the door of a toilet stall.

She knew people had assumed she was marrying a father-figure. She reminded herself that she had never thought of him that way.

She thought, I did think of him as handsome and older. Who’s to say what was working in the deeper layers of my psyche and so what who cares?

She started to reach to unzip the dress, but hesitated. She’d always figured they were simply jealous—jealous of her handsome groom, jealous, even, of the chance to marry someone taboo in that way—and she shared a coy smile with herself in the mirror.

Then her face was back to business: and I always put it down to a quirk of fate, she told herself, that the man I was destined to marry was older than I was. Destined, as in absolutely destined, as in the first time she saw him she said to herself here is the man I will marry, though he was her fiancé’s uncle. She had known even as she thought it (here is the man I will marry) that the situation would cause a lot of fuss, though she had been as surprised as anybody when the ex-fiancé cut his uncle’s bicycle in half with a hacksaw. It couldn’t be helped, theirs was a fairy tale love, and in her girlish way she’d assumed that everyone would have to see this. Their love had seemed grand but it had also seemed simple, the love of a girl and a boy, though he was much more a man than a boy, and she was more a young girl than she could know at twenty-five.

The drama of the ex-fiancé and the sawed-apart bicycle had passed from personal memory into family mythology— her boys had heard the story, and that’s what it was to them, a story, an old one from another time, an unremarkable part of who they were, and she decided now that something had been lost in translation. She used to think, when they were little, how wonderful it was that they were the accident of their parents’ accidental love. She wondered whether they ever thought about that, now that they were so grown. She imagined not. They might think of it, if they ever had children of their own. She couldn’t picture herself as a grandmother—she felt much younger on the inside than that. And their father . . . That was another thing they took for granted—the age difference between their parents, it was as if it were something that simply was, that had always been, and there had never existed the possibility that things could have gone differently.

The ex-fiancé did not come to the wedding. It hadn’t bothered her at the time, but it seemed a little sad now. All that craziness was in the past—he had married, had kids of his own. She was always relieved to think of this.

She tried to remember her husband’s face, how he had looked on their wedding day, and she couldn’t, it was a blank—she could see his tux, the crispness of it, the way he held himself—he’d always had a way of looking completely

relaxed standing completely straight—and she could see his beautiful hands, although maybe this was because his hands were one part of him that had not changed. They were perhaps less firm, a little less there between the skin and the bone.

She had a better picture of herself at their wedding, but that’s what it was, a picture, because that long-ago day had become a photograph. In it, she was running down the hotel steps, her magical one-day-only dress lifting like a snowy butterfly’s wings behind her, and she was floating on the arm of her new husband, whose face was turned to her in laughter, while she faced the camera, eyes dark and wild, her mouth open, excited, wondering.

The photographer’s work had made it last forever even as it turned it into a confection, with the same sugar-white, impossible, inedible look about it that wedding cakes have. It sat on her dressing table, behind other pictures from the years since. She wondered, what did her husband remember of her? Was it, for him, the way it was for her—a grasping for memory, but coming up, only, with the things that hadn’t changed—for her, the tall and easy way he held himself, and his beautiful hands.

If she forced herself, she could picture the way he was now, as clearly as any objective observer. But it required effort—the reality did not match the idea of him she carried around inside her, just as her own face, caught by surprise in the mirror, had not matched. She thought, isn’t that strange? And she wondered if it was that way for other people, for other women when they looked at their husbands.

This was the exact opposite of how it had been with her children, who instead of persisting in outdated images were in the business of constantly replacing old ideas of themselves with new ones, so effectively that she could never remember quite how they had been before. She had realized this just a couple of years ago, when her elder son’s then girlfriend asked her what he’d been like as a baby. She had resented the question at the time, partly because she suspected the girl was not so much interested as trying to impress, and partly because she couldn’t really say. And also because she never really liked that girl. She offered that as a boy he was always outside, always so busy with his friends, never wanted to come in except for dinner, but this obviously did not satisfy the girlfriend who leaned forward waiting for more. How could she explain that as he grew, each phase obliterated the one before it?

This, she suspected, was why parents kept all those framed pictures of their children at different ages—to remind them, to help them keep from losing those certainties completely.

But wasn’t it strange that a grown mother like herself, with two grown kids, would be standing here in this overpriced ugly dress that didn’t fit, thinking about her wedding? Thinking about things like her cousin’s fat hips from twenty years ago, and the way the sea crashed on the rocks at her rehearsal dinner?

She stared at herself, steady in the mirror—the fact is he is still healthy, he is still handsome, he is still in damn good shape, and the fact is he is getting old the way everybody knew he would, he is at last getting old, and I don’t know how these two things can be true at once and yet they are.

She reached for the zipper, to get out of that dress and get out of that place, and she took a breath in, anticipating the relief of it as her fingertips grasped the little tongue of metal, and then she tugged on it, gently, but the zipper was stuck.

She paused, just a second, and tugged down again, harder, and it was still stuck.

And then, without a thought, she did the logical thing: she pulled upward on the zipper just a bit, to see if this would free it. It slid upward with liquid ease; she was careful to take it up only an inch. She relaxed her fingers, preparing to reverse direction, and in that moment before she tried again she felt a small, apprehensive tingle. She tugged. It stayed stuck.

She dropped her arms to her sides. She breathed more quickly. A flurry of thoughts ran through her head, confusing, too fast to figure: how if her husband were there he would fix it, how absurd this was since he would never be there, in a women’s dressing room, how when he was gone someday, she would have to fix stuck zippers herself, how the world was full of widows with the same problem, how, when you reach a certain age, being a widow is the norm.

Something came back she hadn’t realized she had forgotten, a small, terrible episode—their trip to the home improvement store the weekend before. It was an enormous store with endless aisles where it was impossible to find anything, and as they had stood waiting to talk to an employee who was busy talking to someone else, she’d wondered where had all the regular-sized, ordinary hardware stores gone? But looking at her husband, she saw that he was feeling good there, happy in hardware-land; he had an I-can-wait-all-day look on his face as he gazed down the long aisle of light bulbs and electrical outlets and switches and wire. She turned her attention to the salesperson, to his bright orange apron, his bright young face, his head-full of dark chaotic hair—that was the fashion now, hair that was short but looked as if it had tumbled straight from bed—and she noted the genial way he talked to the man he was helping, the way he called him “buddy” and, a moment later, “bud,” a big wide open grin on his face the whole time. Done at last, the sales clerk turned to her husband (not to her, she noticed; she was just tagging along, standing by, not a participant but a wife). The young man’s body transformed—it came over him, she thought, like some lightning-quick costume change in a play—he lost his brash, straight posture and his big grin, and his face fell serious, all patience, a bit dubious, and he made his voice too loud and nodded a lot and bent forward as if speaking to a child. Her husband just kept talking, gesturing with his hands, asking, agreeing, qualifying. And she was glad then to be standing by, to be allowed to be invisible, because she could not bear to be more a part of what she saw.

Tears were starting to her eyes—she had to concentrate on the zipper. She grasped it, prepared to ease it up a quarter of an inch—she would have to move it just a little at a time. It started to slide; it went up, slippery, easy, more and more, all in one slick movement, all the way to the top where it locked, settled, stopped cold.

Oh dear, she thought. Oh no.

It had happened so suddenly. Too fast for her to stop herself.

She pulled at the zipper, down and up and sideways, every angle she could, pulling so hard that her fingers slid off it again and again and stung where the bump on the little metal blade dug into her fingertip. In the mirror her hips spread in battle-stance over her stocking feet planted wide on the floor. No! she thought, please! Her face hardened as she watched her own struggle reflected back to her. No! she thought, no!

She caught her eye in the mirror and her face was fierce and exhausted and ugly. She stopped, blinked at her reflection. She did not try to make her face look nice. All of a sudden she needed to sit down, but there was nothing around her but four bare walls and if she sat on the floor she would split that dress. She wanted out of there, but she couldn’t go out, not dressed like that, but how could she stay? Her eyes, in the mirror, gave her back her only option, and it was horrifying—to walk out, in that dress, look for a sales girl, look and hunt and wander around, in front of all those other women milling about the store, watching her while they pretended to be interested in pawing at blouses on racks.

Look at me, she thought. I look just awful. She stared at herself, but was addressing her husband: you used to tease me how marriage to me would keep you young, and I used to tease you back, how maybe it would make me old instead. And now look. Look at me.

She reached again for the zipper, because there was nothing else to do, and it was still stuck, which did not surprise her. She indulged an image of her husband’s hands—his beautiful, strong hands at her neck, grasping the errant zipper, working it free. She could see the gentle way they moved, see the thin skin, the blue veins, the bony knuckles she could picture kissing.

Oh, sweetheart, she thought, look at us, look at the two of us.

Her eyes stung again but she stopped herself, stopped any tears before they came. She thought, I must do it, I must ask him, what does he remember of me from long, long ago? Only the unchanging things? Yes, I’ll ask him, what do you remember?

She would tell him what she remembered. She would tell him how it was, how if she closed her eyes—like this— she could be back at the inn above the sea, the horizon lost in mist as she stared into it, into her future. The waves rolled in on the black rocks, crashing there into white froth and into spray that drifted upward, reaching her lips with its salt.

 


 

*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Piranhas & Quicksand & Love by Sally Shivnan

She didn’t look a thing like his girlfriend. This alone should have been a sign that she was just a fling, a diversion from what he had known for the past five years. She began to think of his girlfriend as Guess Who. Guess Who was at the opening, people would say. Guess Who RSVP’d yes for the party. Guess Who was wearing a half-shirt and showing her midriff. Guess Who got a dye job.

The city had never been smaller. Everywhere she went she saw him, saw her, or worse, saw them together. They looked wrong together, that was obvious to everyone, but still, when she saw them and when she would look down and pretend not to, it made her stomach wrench. Guess Who was small, terribly small, small like illness, which, she thinks is all part of the reason why he felt he should stay. Guess Who looked like she might just fall over at any minute. Sometimes she thought of flicking her—just walking up to her and flicking her shoulder with her long pointer finger and Guess Who would go toppling forward, knocking her teeth out on the sidewalk.

He was solid, too solid probably, more like thick. He had some bad points, which she tried to focus on. Grooming was an issue, although sometimes it was sweet—the little tufts of nose hairs that crept out in a laugh, the way his hair stuck up like enthusiasm—but certainly this sweetness would pass and she would be left with him, disheveled and thick. Although, after five years, Guess Who didn’t seem to mind, or at least, didn’t seem to think that they were points important enough to let him go over. Maybe she even liked his faults. Maybe they kept him with her. Maybe he looked in the mirror sometimes and thought, No one else would have me. Insecurity can make you feel safe, sometimes.

She would have him, though—faults and all. She liked how he was tall like her, not like other men who just kept shrinking. No, he was tall (it was all in his legs, but even so), and when they walked hand in hand she didn’t feel at all like she was walking a dog—stopping to allow him to keep up. They had the same rhythm, and sometimes, after coffee, they both got crazy and laughed and bounced down the street and talked about things that last forever—houses, kids, friendship. That’s how it started, see, with the friendship, that was how she was able to get so close without Guess Who getting territorial. She wasn’t trying to mess things up, she just heard how sad he sounded whenever he’d say, I have to go home now.

He is still confused, however. He still calls sometimes and just says, Hey. It is a small city, after all, and so it happens quite often that he sees her. Mostly she is walking alone and quickly because she has things to do, many many things. She keeps herself very busy which he admires. Guess Who doesn’t have a job. Guess Who used to bake but worked somewhere where termites fell from the ceiling into her cakes and so she quit. Lame, she thinks. Guess Who couldn’t cut it. She bakes too. He used to love her baking because it always flopped but tasted like heaven. He told her every cake should fall apart and every pie should sink, otherwise they’re just too pretty to eat. Guess Who makes beautiful cakes.

The last she heard through the network of friends involved in the matter was that he’s not with Guess Who anymore. (Not that there is any matter anymore for her, she dropped out. She said, Have him, and walked away—she was tired). Fantastic, she thought, just what I need. After all the back and forth and back again, now that he was forth, she wanted him to stay that way—just to keep her sane. Didn’t he at least owe her that, a little bit of sane?

She was going to a party, it was one that she had every right to attend. Unfortunately, it was also one that Guess Who had every right to attend. It was a party of Mutual Friend. She got her hair cut. She bought a new shirt. She wore the shoes she sometimes felt bad for being so fancy in the back of her closet. She put sparkles on her eyelids and gloss on her lips. She had a good smile and was going to use it that night. She practiced at home telling jokes to her sister’s iguana. You guana go to? I guana have a shot of Jack before I leave.

At the door, she rang the bell and Guess Who just happened to walk up behind her. Guess Who said Hi, like she meant it. Funny, she thought and grumbled something. All things considered, they shouldn’t be talking. All things included the fact that she slept with Guess Who’s man and she fell for him and she waited—not so patiently—for him to choose her, which he didn’t. Guess Who was well aware of the facts, but was friendly as fire there at the door. Guess Who said, He’s not coming. I haven’t talked to him, have you? She just grumbled something and then ran inside the door as fast as she could. Guess Who yelled behind her, I like your shoes!

She immediately drank enough to feel comfortable and then alternated a drink with water so as not to lose her edge completely—she felt somewhat on the defensive lately. She noticed Guess Who drank quite a lot. She was a little afraid that Guess Who would become the life of the party and so she kept an eye on her. She tried to laugh a little bit more and a little bit louder. She laughed at a guy who looked like ‘Where’s Waldo’ and who explained to her that he liked natural women. By this he meant hairy and so she was out of the picture. She also laughed at a man who was visiting from Cali, as he called it, and said her aura was all flipped out. Come to Cali, he said. We have yard sales.

She left him and headed for Mutual Friend when guess who appeared at her navel. Guess Who said, Hey and What’s up and other odd and bothersome things. Again she grumbled and tried to talk to Mutual Friend, whose eyes grew wide like fright when she saw her standing next to Guess Who. She could never tell whom Mutual Friend sided with more, which made her a bit uneasy. She’d like to be able to talk about Guess Who when the subject came up. She would like to say something like, I had a dream that I was carrying a beautiful old carpet bag and when I opened it Guess Who was inside and so I closed it up and sold it at a vintage store; but she didn’t. She would like to say (mostly when she saw him and Guess Who walking all out of sync holding hands) that she could eat two Guess Whos and still not be full, but she didn’t. Instead, she tried to walk away from the situation but Guess Who followed her. She walked away quickly and sat on the floor, which was a mistake because then guess who had a better vantage point to talk to her face. What do you want? she finally said. Guess Who just smiled.

She is an artist and is known for putting stickers on people at parties—kind of like walking, talking public art. This time she had some that said, THIS SIDE UP, and everyone got a kick out of finding them on their pants pockets, shirt sleeves and shoe tops. One man took it off of his shirt and put it on his groin. He just wanted a reason to point there, she thought, men like that sort of thing. She was just about to begin to have a good time when she noticed Guess Who following her again. Your hair looks good—Guess Who said that. dyed mine; can you tell? Guess Who’s eyes were droopy and she looked like she’d be even easier to topple over. She thought maybe if she just blew in her general direction, Guess Who might fall over, and jam her eye in on the end of the table. This was the kind of thing she thought but didn’t say out loud. She felt someone touching her back and she turned and Guess Who was there. What are you doing? she asked the little illness, but Guess Who just laughed. A few minutes later, Mutual Friend walked over and risked the appearance of taking sides by telling her that her back was covered in stickers that said, THIS SIDE UP. Who did it? she asked, although she already knew. Guess who? said Mutual Friend.

Guess Who.

She went into the bathroom and took off her shirt to remove the stickers. One was flattering, meant you were a part of things; many were humiliating. She looked in the mirror and decided that she still looked good and went back into the party. Guess Who was outside the door. She was leaning on the wall and looking like she might fall over all by herself. Guess Who said, I haven’t talked to him have you? and started to cry. She said nothing and tried to walk away but Guess Who grabbed her and pulled her down to her face. She’s trying to kiss me, she thought and she pulled back fast. Guess Who fell down. Mutual Friend came over and gave her an evil look. She tried to kiss me, she said, and then, realizing that would never be believed said, she tried to hit me. Mutual Friend arranged to have Someone take Guess Who home. Someone was short and stocky and put Guess Who’s arm over his shoulder and walked her out. She looked like a child—her feet weren’t quite working like they should. She felt bad for her and yelled up that, no, she hadn’t talked to him either. Guess Who just lifted her head and looked at her and smiled.


*Licensed from Press 53, LLC. Copyright 2018 © Walk Back from Monkey School by Kate Hill Cantrill

 

 

The restaurant is crazy busy and my entire head is engulfed in the heat and steam and smell of all the dishes being cooked and readied on the line. I am tired. I am always tired but this is where I like to be. Where I belong. Everything seems to be as it always is but when I look up from the trout I am just about done sautéing and see someone I don’t recognize standing where the servers stand while waiting to pick up their orders, I think I am hallucinating.

He is young, maybe thirty, slight, not smiling. But his lips are parted and his teeth—very white—are clenched down in a hard bite. He is too handsome. There is menace in the way he is looking at me.

“You need some help,” he says.

I am thinking the same thing. I need some help, I should call out for some help, because despite the kitchen heat my skin is cold and I know the hairs standing up on the back of my neck have nothing to do with the kind of fear I normally have when I am feeling threatened. This is something else.

But maybe I am dreaming. God knows I am exhausted and no one notices anything is amiss. Waiters use their hips to back him out of the way as they reach for plates and he disappears but then like a wave, he rolls back up after they’ve gone. I close my eyes, open them fast and there he is. I want to swallow but my breath is in the way.

“You need help,” he repeats, morphing through the steam this time into a lost boy, his forehead the kind you want to brush hair off of.

I hear myself say, “I don’t know, do I need help?” and when it comes out it sounds like flirting. Someone is flirting with this stranger-boy on my line in the middle of my dinner rush. The trout is overcooked, beyond saving.

His face relaxes then. “You look like you do,” he says.

There have been some things I wish I’d had the prescience to understand before acting on and when I remember them, I want to set myself on fire. But right now time is moving too fast for memory to intrude. When I don’t answer, he says, “I put in an application for a cook. Your ad said you needed some help.” That is true. Then he looks around the madhouse that is my kitchen and says, again, “You look like you need help.”

What do I look like? It has been so long since I have thought about it, since I was pretty. I have been sweating behind the line for two hours, for too many years, and sweat makes my small face wet and a bright red. At the end of every dinner shift, when I go into the employee bathroom at midnight to splash cold water on my face, I find my morning mascara, that small homage to vanity, has left my lashes and settled into the deep cups of skin beneath my eyes. I am forty-five years old, always bone-tired yet plagued with nervousness all the time, even when I sleep. I am married to my South Beach restaurant, entering it in the dark mornings and leaving it in the darker nights so I never see what I am supposed to look like, the public I might be compared to were I ever to put myself among them. I hardly see the daylight. I wear chef whites every day, stained with grease and sauce. I know exactly what I look like and feel surprised, and then ashamed, that I am so sorry about it right now.

*

“Why did you do that?” I ask him. It is the next morning and he is here to fill out the paperwork.

“Do what?” he asks. He is wearing the same jeans and black t-shirt he’d had on last night but now, somehow, they are miraculously clean.

“Just show up,” I say. “Come into the kitchen like that, at the height of the dinner rush.” I sound like a punishing mother, someone trying to teach someone a lesson.

“Because I knew you’d be here then.”

I have to admit that makes some sense. I look at his application. He has left the space for his address blank.

“Where do you live?” I ask.

“And it’s true,” he says. “You need me.”

I am not afraid anymore. Last night, when I finally got a hold of myself and told him “Fine, go back to the prep kitchen and help,” it felt like I was doing something that absolutely needed to be done. It felt like we both needed help. Now he tells me that when the restaurant closed, he had gone to an all-night Laundromat and convinced two drunk girls to let him throw his clothes in with theirs. While his jeans and shirt washed and dried, he sat in his boxers reading the newspaper. They had given him two beers. I can imagine the whole scene, him charming them with his good looks and serious stare, their wanting to help him.

I hire him for a two week probationary period. I don’t know him, don’t know who he is or who he’s been so I try to watch him when I can. I can tell he has worked in a restaurant like mine before, can tell by the way he handles the equipment in the prep kitchen, by his movements and his focus, by the fact that he never asks anyone any questions. But there is so much to do when you own a restaurant and today I am all over the place—in my office planning menus, then working on the books, in the stock room taking inventory, then the walk-in cooler doing the orders and much of the time I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t forget about him but I’m not always sure where he is.

In the late afternoon, I find him on the line. He has made a shimmering pea mousse to serve under my house salmon. I am surprised but then I am angry. I ask him who he thinks he is. I ask him how he made the mousse and he won’t tell me and that is how I discover he is a trained chef. I am a trained chef and never share the recipes I’ve invented with anyone. I know all about the relationship between privacy, thievery and pride. Still, I find the secrecy insulting until he gives me a bite and I am whisked away on the pleasure of peas.

After the two weeks, I let him keep the job because there were mashed potato cups filled with foie gras, the pineapple-jalapeno salsa and Serrano Ham panini, the roasted marrow toasts, a peach bombe, old customer raves, new customers—younger and so hip—forming a line outside at night, willing to wait however long it took to be seated. In my restaurant.

He is quiet, never late. I don’t know where he lives. Or what he does when he is not at work and sometimes I forget about him but then when I realize that he is at the restaurant during every shift, even the ones I don’t pay him for, I start thinking about him all the time. This is my restaurant, I am the boss, so I ask him questions, try to figure him out.

He answers everything too vaguely. I think he thinks his life is none of my business. Maybe he is right. He is a good worker, that’s all I need to know. Or maybe he is shy. I am shy, I get that. Then one day, out of the blue, he says he thinks we should close between 4 and 6, that that would give the kitchen time to regroup, the staff a chance to have a meal together. He’s already prepared it—lentil soup, spinach salad, grilled ham and manchego cheese with roasted tomatoes and pesto. The food is so good, comfort food but with an indefinable touch. He tells me to sit down, next to him at the table with the staff, and I do. We eat.

I start to like him, and then I discover I like having him there. Everyone else likes him, too. He does his job in the back kitchen but then when I’m not looking, he helps everyone else with their jobs. He shows the waiters a new, more sophisticated way of laying the napkins on the tables. He teaches the bartenders to make a drink with vodka, shaved ice and shards of fresh ginger; they start to offer it as a house specialty and we can’t keep up with the demand. He asks me if we can serve our scallop appetizer on the ceramic spoons I only use for private tastings. He cooks the staff meal, the family meal, every night.

One night he sees me struggling over the books in the office and he tells me he can help. He was right from the start, I need help. I let him install a program in my aging computer that transforms my bookkeeping into some-thing I actually like to do. He smiles. He works the day shift but is still here for the whole night shift and the hostesses tell me the customers love him. At night he greets them, sometimes walks them to their tables. I can’t explain why I didn’t know he was doing this, how he managed to do so many things without my knowing even though I knew he was there. I am not sure why I am letting it happen except that I am so much less tired than I ever was before he came. And business is booming.

Last night I found a stack of our linen napkins layered and folded into the shape of a pillow in the basement storage room. It was on top of an oversized garbage bag he was obviously using for a blanket. When I confronted him, he said I saved his life.

And when I wake up one morning some weeks after to the sound of the water running in my shower, I wonder what has happened to my own life. For the first time in ten years, I am sleeping in my bed. We drink our coffee there. He shampoos my hair, reads comic books out loud, makes love to me as if I am something precious, rare and fragile, something he must take care not to break, as if he knows me. After, he rubs his white teeth barely over my skin and I am afraid that he will bite me but he never does and because he never does, I relax. I know I should be at least a little frightened but I’m not.

When we are not at my apartment, we are both at my restaurant working. All I know for sure about his past is that something he won’t talk about happened and when he came to me, he was jobless. Homeless. But instead of wondering how on earth I’d let a stranger, practically a boy, infiltrate my small life, I fall headfirst into the supreme relief of not having to do everything myself in order to keep everything going. I fall into having someone to sleep with at night. Now I never look for him, wonder where he is. Like magic, he appears without warning beside me wherever I am—the line, the prep kitchen, the salad station—puts his arm around my waist and presses into me. Kisses me on the mouth. I do not know who I am. I think I am falling in love.

I discover he is a wizard with numbers so I let him oversee the purchasing. He is a whirlwind of energy and sometimes everywhere at once—the bar, the walk-in, the prep kitchen, the front of the house. I start to forget that he has not always been here, that we did not build this restaurant together. That I used to be alone.

Before he came, once in a while a guest would request to see the chef, and I’d tuck the wet sweaty hairs back into my headband, wipe my hands on my apron, and go out into the dining room to accept the compliments. But I had forgotten how to be social, comfortable only with people who worked for me and slipping in and out among the strangers in places I needed to go—the pharmacy, the grocery store, the dry cleaners. But he is so different, as easy and happy in his chef whites in the prep kitchen as he is in a suit in the dining room. Every restaurant needs someone like that.

He has even made some friends. A group of guys who eat dinner in the restaurant every Saturday night. He joins them. They are all unemployed chefs. I ask him if he thinks we should hire any of them but he says they are looking to start their own restaurant. At first, I like the stories he tells me about them. They are easy to listen to and I remember what it’s like to have pals and I am happy for him. I never expected to be enough for him. But then one morning, over coffee before work, it hits me.

“Are these people you are going into business with?” I ask.

“Honey,” he says, “I’m with you, aren’t I?” He frowns, as if I am hurting him. “You’re acting crazy.”

Because I am crazy. I am living with someone fifteen years younger than I am, someone who appeared in my restaurant and knew exactly what was going to happen, assumed things I didn’t know myself and was right. I went from working 15 hours a day without a break to spending an hour in the ocean every day at 3:00. I went from sleeping alone on my couch to spending nearly every waking and sleeping minute with a stranger who I thought was an illusion. I feel like he has always been here, that he is solid and I am safe. I didn’t know I needed that kind of safety until it was there everyday.

I have a right to be crazy. I am middle-aged, bony. My face is thin, drawn. There are a lot of wrinkles. But this man touches it. He wipes it when it sweats, he moves the stray hairs from it, he looks right into it. He kisses it all the time.

“Maybe you are crazy,” I say because when I think about this life, I know I don’t understand. And then I don’t want to think anymore so I say, “Maybe they are crazy. You don’t really know these guys. They could be thieves.”

I know an assortment of psychotics and thieves. They go anywhere they want with the extraordinary self confidence of the desperate who have nothing to lose or the stupidity to believe they will lose nothing. If they want money or liquor or sex, if they want to scare someone for real or just for kicks, if they merely want something to eat for free, they walk into places they don’t belong and demand to be seen and to be served. In South Beach, where bums and drunks share the streets and beaches with celebrities and wealthy tourists, it is often hard to distinguish between the real threats and the mere expressions and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Once I barred a mogul from entering my restaurant because he looked like a thug. Once I let a pair of thugs stay late in the bar because they looked like moguls; after we closed, they robbed two of my waitresses on the street. Some killers look only like thieves. Some thieves are a special kind of killer. I know these people, and I watch out for them.

So it makes me nervous to hear about these guys he eats dinner with every Saturday night, makes me wonder who they really are. I become afraid for him, start to think that he is being conned. I know he picks up the tab for their dinners. I don’t care about the money. I tell him to be careful because I want to protect him. He says, “don’t worry. I think people are basically good. You gave me a chance, didn’t you? And I know them better than you knew me.”

This is true. He’d come from a mystery I still know nothing about to the places—my restaurant and my home—that I know best. And he knew I would take him, and then trust him. His instincts are good.

I don’t have any friends. I tell myself it is by choice though, truly, I have morphed into this solitary person without realizing it. After my husband left, I didn’t know how to turn myself back into someone who could trust anyone again. I threw myself into culinary school and then into work. I like the people who work for me and I am glad to have them near me but before he came, I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.

Just like a thief, while I wasn’t looking, he took away all of the things I had been afraid of. And he replaced them with the things I had forgotten ever wanting, like coming home and having a brandy and listening to music with my aching feet in someone’s lap instead of falling asleep on the couch in my chef clothes, having sworn off my bed years ago. Like having someone to walk home with after work, to scramble late night eggs for, someone to touch, who wanted to touch me. Slowly, subtly, bit by bit, he took me and left me fearless.

I think I am lucky, blessed. That somehow someone or something divine decided that I deserve this life I am living, really living, now. But then the spell is broken because the one morning, I wake up alone. I want it to be a dream. It isn’t the first time I close my eyes to conjure back what I think I can’t live without but before him, I had sworn it would be the last time. Back then, before the restaurant, before the work, when I learned that I was the kind of woman it was easy to leave, I had crumbled. Then I had begged and pleaded and promised to do anything to fix myself, to make myself right. Even though I did not know what was wrong.

This time, I am ready for a fight. By the time I get to the restaurant, my teeth are rattling. It is a steamy summer morning but I am shivering. I go back into the kitchen and he comes out from behind the line; it is clear he has been there for hours. He’s reorganized the walk-in cooler and now everything we need is in clear view. He’s dusted all the bottles in the bar. He’s taken the crate of lemons that had begun to spoil and made forty individually-sized citrus cakes for the dinner service. It is seven in the morning and the rest of the staff won’t be in until ten. In the dining room, he’s set a table for two with a bottle of champagne chilling. He pulls lobster burritos from the oven and feeds me mine while he explains that sometimes when he can’t sleep, he just needs to work. I understand this because it is true for me too but it doesn’t take away the ache and panic. I am so angry. After the first bite, I say, “Feeding me is hokey,” because I am so unsettled by the way I love it. But he is undaunted. He says, “You think this is hokey?” and leads me downstairs to the office where he has blown up an air mattress and lit candles.

The last time I had felt this way was the first time and I knew nothing. I was so young, thought it would last forever, didn’t understand how love can be consumed by fear and instead of stomping it out like a fire, I stoked it, tended it, fed its restlessness bite by bite so that it could never be satisfied and never be finished. I was so frantic trying to keep the fire alive that I didn’t see it growing out of control.

He says, “Look, I know I scared you. I’m sorry. But everyone comes to everyone with a history. We’re learning how we are together, but we’re still who we were before.”

I don’t know who he was before. And I had left who I was before a long time ago. I replaced her with someone who saved her heart for taste and texture and smell. Who used her head for everything else. Who made things make sense. Making sense is what saved me, sustained me. It’s what pulled me out of the ashes and wed me to a career that relies on all the properties of fire. It’s what recreated me into a person surrounded by people, by cooks and waiters and bartenders and dishwashers and vendors and customers, so I didn’t know I was alone. What I learned, in addition to how to cook, was that every time something went wrong, if I could make sense of it I could make it right. I didn’t take chances until I let a stranger into my kitchen, into my bed.

I made sense of him. He was young but already too tired. He wanted stability. He wanted to make a life with someone in an industry he loved and understood. He knew how to operate every piece of equipment, how to increase profits, how to train cooks and servers. He was a fabulous, inspiring, inventive cook. He could butcher meat, he could skin a Dover sole in one move, he could suspend caviar in sabayon as easily as he could make grilled cheese. These things made him happy and they made sense to me. He knew that by just giving me a bite of something I hadn’t had before, I would cave. That my heart would take over. He knew how to get there.

So when I get to the restaurant this morning, after having been with him for over a year and a half, and my key won’t turn in the lock, I know I am dreaming. About banana pancakes. I was not surprised that he left me in the middle of the night because since the first time, it has become a ritual and one I celebrate like a teenager. This morning I showered and shaved, put on lotion, per-fume. I hope he is making banana pancakes because that’s what I have a taste for. Banana pancakes with pecans and caramel syrup. I will let him feed them to me, bite by sweet bite, because I always do. Because I am certifiably hokey in love.

I try the key again and again and then so hard it actually snaps off in the lock. I look like a thief, trying to break into my own restaurant. It is only seven in the morning and no one is out on the street yet. I cup my hands to either side of my face like blinders and peer inside. The lights are all out and so it gives the illusion that nothing is there, that my restaurant is an empty room. Like when I first started, when I had been emptied out and bought a space I could fill. The tables and chairs seem to have vanished. Maybe he moved them. Maybe he is redecorating the dining room or washing the carpet. I knock. And wait. I knock again, and call out his name. No one comes. So I knock again and again and again, each time harder and then harder than that so that he will hear me, emerge from wherever he is and make the fear starting to smoke and smolder inside me curl back into ash.

A police car cruises by and the officer gets out and asks to see some ID but I have nothing that says this space belongs to me. My key is broken in a lock where it didn’t fit. My face is wet so I know I am crying and my teeth are clenched and they hurt—everything hurts—and then without seeing it coming, I start screaming, appear crazy, delusional, all the kinds of crazy I know, like someone to fear. Me. Someone to fear.

The cop pats my shoulder and asks me to calm down. When I do, he looks through the window and then asks me to tell him what is inside my restaurant. My description does not match what he sees. “There’s no stained glass hanging there, maam.”

“What about the coffee station?” I say. “In the back corner? The espresso machine, regular coffee maker, two pots, one for decaf…” I rattle off my inventory like an auctioneer.

“Nothing back there, maam. Nothing at all. Is there someone we can call?” Of course, there is! I think. Call him. We’ve been robbed! He is probably tied up somewhere in the restaurant, waiting to be saved. Why didn’t I think of this before? How much time have I wasted? He trusts everyone. He would have let anyone in. He could be dead in there!

I recite his cell phone number and while the officer dials, I wipe my eyes and gather my strength and stand up straight. I’m coming, don’t worry. I’m here. I’m coming, but a message on his cell phone says it’s been disconnected. I paid the bill last week.

“Is there anyone else?” he asks me.

Anyone else? No, no one. There is no one else.

“Uh, ma’am?” he says, because I have not answered him and am staring into the black window, my place. “An employee maybe? A manager?”

Yes, there are employees. Waiters and dishwashers. There are hostesses, line cooks, two sous chefs, busboys, a sommelier on the weekends. There are day managers and night managers. Sometimes there is a harpist in the dining room, a quartet in the bar lounge. There are lots of people, really nice people, who come here every day and night to eat. An entire world of wonderful people.

I want to tell him this but don’t know how when I look up and see Adele, the night manager, standing there. I hear her identifying herself, asking what’s wrong. I hear her identifying me. I hear her saying she is here early because she left her cell phone in the hostess stand last night and needs it now to call her mother. I wonder why she didn’t just call her mother from her home. I wonder what would have happened if we had been naked on the air mattress in my office, eating banana pancakes with our fingers, hearing someone upstairs rummaging around the hostess stand. We would have thought we were being robbed. We have been robbed.

Another policeman comes and together the two men bust open the door and Adele and I walk in. Adele says “oh my God oh my God” over and over again. I do not speak. Adele starts walking around the dining room, touching the walls, moving one hand over the other as if the missing tables, chairs, linens, vases, flatware will miraculously reappear from behind the dusky pink wallpaper I put up myself. In my lonely days. When I thought I was safe. Poof. Everything has disappeared. There is nothing in the dining room, the bar, the lounge. All the plates and glassware, the water pitchers, the creamers and sugar bowls, the cream and sugar. Gone. The kitchen is an empty stainless steel vault. The huge Hobart to the tiny paring knives, the pots and pans, the tongs and spatulas and slotted spoons, and strainers, everything has vanished. The food is gone, the steaks and chops and fish and ribs, potatoes and onions and garlic, all the oils and vinegars, the spices and herbs, the truffles, pates, flour, butter, yeast, milks, the extracts. The walk-in cooler is cleaned out, except for a crate of rotting lemons.

I pull one out and my fingers fall through the soft blue and white mold to the decomposing flesh with its rancid sorry smell. How did he ever use these to make cakes? He was a magician. I sit down on the cooler floor, the terrible lemon in my palm, and try to turn magic into sense. Sleight of hand.

The police are asking me questions, but their words are jumbled and meaningless so I can’t answer. They turn to Adele, who is crying. I hear her say his name, describe him, but the description doesn’t sound like anyone I know.

The bigger of the two policemen very gently slides his hands under my arms and lifts me up. He walks me into the dining room, forgetting there is nowhere to sit, and just as gently settles me onto the carpet that apparently could not be pried up in time.

“Is there anything I can get you?”

But what can you pull out of thin air?

“Can we call someone else?” the officer asks. I try to conjure up the image of his Saturday night friends, men I never met. He could not have done this alone. I hear Adele rattling off names and numbers.

“Ok. Good,” I hear the officer say. “We’ll call them. In the meantime, do you want to go get your boss something? A cup of coffee? She needs something.”

What do you need when everything is gone?

Something small. Just one small thing, something that I could make disappear, something irreplaceable that would be gone for good. The tip of a finger. The bottom pearl of an ear. A toe, something I could run my teeth across and then bite off, clean and fast. a real thing, a real loss, that by being gone would say over and over again, forever, that I had been there.


 

*This story is taken from: Party Girls by Diane Goodman, Autumn House Press, 2011.

*Copyright © 2011 by Diane Goodman.

 

 

Margaret Mahuntleth, in the corner of the big settle, basked in the hearth-glow like one newly come to heaven. Warm light reddened her knitted shawl, her white apron, and her face, worn and frail. It was as if the mortal part of it had been beaten thin by the rains and snows of long roads, baked, like fine enamel, by many suns, so that it had a concave look – as though hollowed out of mother o’ pearl. Some faces gather wrinkles with the years, like seamed rocks on mountains, others only become, like stones in a brook, smoother, though frailer, in the conflicting currents. Margaret’s was one of these. And though she was a bit of a has-been, yet her face, as it shone from the dark settle-back, seemed young and almost angelic in its irrefragable happiness. For Marg’ret had never dreamed (no, not for an instant!) as she fought her way to Thresholds Farm through weather that made her whole being seem a hollow shell, that she would be invited into the kitchen. Usually she did her work in the barn. For Marg’ret was a chair-mender.

She travelled, on her small birdlike feet, all over the county, carrying her long bundle of rushes. With these she mended chairs at farms and cottages and even in the kitchens of rectories and in parish rooms and at the backs of churches where the people from the almshouses sat. She mended chairs mostly for other people to draw up to glowing fires and well-spread tables. She made them very flawless for weddings. For funerals she made them strong, because the people who attend funerals are generally older than those who attend weddings, and the weight of years is on them, and they have gathered to themselves, like the caddis worm, a mass of extraneous substance.

For dances Marg’ret also made them strong, knowing that in the intervals young women of some twelve stone would subside upon the knees of stalwarts rising fifteen stone.

Marg’ret knew all about it. She had been to some of the dances years ago, but people forgot to ask her to dance. Her faint tints, her soft, sad, downcast eye, her sober dress, all combined with her personality to make her fade into any background. She was always conscious, too, of the disgrace of being only a chair-mender; of not being the gardener’s daughter at the Hall, or Rectory-Lucy. So people forgot she was there, and she even forgot she was there herself.

She worked hard. She could make butter-baskets and poultry-baskets through which not the most centrifugal half-dozen fowls could do more than insinuate anxious heads. She could make children’s ornamental basket-chairs, and she could do the close wicker-work of rocking-chairs for nursing-mothers. Winter and summer she tramped from place to place, over frozen roads and dusty roads and all the other kinds of roads, calling at farms with her timid knock and her faint, cry, plaintive and musical, soon lost on the wind – ‘Chairs to mend!’

Then she would take the chair or basket or mat into the orchard or the barn, and sit at her work through the long green day or the short grey day, plaiting with her pale, hollow hands. Within doors she never thought of going. She would have been the first to deprecate sheeding rushes all o’er. The warm kitchen was a Paradise to which she, a Peri, did not pretend. Its furnishings she knew intimately, but she knew them as a church-cleaner might know the altar and its chalices, being, if such a thing were possible, excommunicated. Under the bowl of the sky, across the valleys she came, did her work featly as an elf, and was gone, as if the swift airs had blown her away with the curled may-petals of spring, the curved leaves of autumn.

If night drew on before she had done her work, she would sleep in the hayloft. Nobody inquired where she usually slept, any more than they concerned themselves about the squirrel that ran along the fence and was away, or the thistledown that floated along the blue sky.

So Marg’ret had never dreamed of being invited to the hearth-place. It was the most wonderful thing. Outside, the wan snowflakes battered themselves upon the panes like birds, dying. The night had come, black, inevitable, long. And to those who have no house the night is a wild beast. In every chimney a hollow wind spoke its uncontent. There were many chimneys at Thresholds Farm. It was a great place, and the master was a man well-thought-of, rich.

Marg’ret trembled to think she was here in the same room with him. He might even speak to her. He sat on the other side of the hearth while the servant-girl laid tea – the knife-and-fork tea of farms, with beef and bacon and potatoes. A tea to remember.

He sat leaning forward, his broad, knotted hands on his knees, staring into the fire. The girl slammed the teapot down on the table and said–

‘Yer tea, master.’

Marg’ret got up. She supposed it was time now for her to creep to bed in the hospitable loft, after a kindly cup of tea in the back kitchen. It had been wonderful, sitting here – just sitting quietly enjoying the rest and the dignity of the solid furniture and the bright fingers of the firelight touching here a willow-pattern plate and there a piece of copper. It was one of those marvellous half-hours of a life-time, which blossom on even to the grave, and maybe afterwards. She had never dreamed–

She softly crept toward the door, but as she went the master lifted his gloomy, chestnut-coloured eyes under their thatch of grizzled hair, and so transfixed her. She could not move with that brown fire upon her, engulfing her. So he always looked when he was deeply stirred. So he had looked down at his father’s coffin long ago, at his mother’s last year. So he had looked into the eyes of his favourite dog, dying in his arms. The look was the realization of the infinite within the finite, altering all values. Never once in all fifteen years during which she had been calling here had he seemed to look at Marg’ret at all.

In the almost ferocious intensity of the look she felt faint. Her face seemed like a fragile cup made to hold an unexpressed passion which was within his soul, which must find room for itself somewhere, as the great bore of water that rushes up a river must find room, some valley, some dimple where it may rest, where it may spread its strangled magnificence. She stood. Firelight filled her hollow palms; her apron, gathered in nervous fingers, so that it looked like a gleaner’s ready to carry grain; the pale shell of her face.

The servant-girl, perturbed by some gathering emotion that had come upon the kitchen, remained with a hand on the teapot-handle, transfixed. Marg’ret trembled, saying no word. How shall a conch-shell make music unless one lends it a voice? She was of the many human beings that wait on the shores of life for the voice which so often never comes.

Suddenly the master of the house said loudly, with his eyes still hard upon her–

‘Bide!’

It was as if the word burst a dam within him.

Her being received it.

‘Bide the night over,’ he added, in the same strange thunderous voice.

She took that also into her soul.

‘And all the nights,’ he finished, and a great calm fell upon him. It had taken all the years of his life till now for the flood to find its valley.

Then seeing that she stood as mute and still as ever, he said–

‘Coom then, take bite and sup.’

And when she was seated, like a half-thawed winter dormouse at its first feast, he said to the servant-girl, who still remained holding the Britannia-metal teapot (which seemed to mock Marg’ret with its inordinate convexity)–

‘Make a bed for the Missus!’

He was determined that no misunderstanding should vex his new-found peace, and when the girl had gone, breathing hard like an exhausted swimmer, he remained staring at Marg’ret in a kind of hunger for giving. And she, perfectly receptive, empty-handed as a Peri, let his flaming eyes dwell on her face, let his fire and his food hearten her, and so gave him her charity. And this was how Marg’ret Mahuntleth, the poor chair-mender, without will of her own or desert of her own, as far as she could see, came to be the mistress of the house and lawful wife of the master of Thresholds.