“As long as there’s the sun … the sun!” the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly near the doorway of the low, dark, basement apartment. “Leave it to God,” answered the humble and faintly cheerful voice of his wife, Rosa, from inside; she was in bed, moaning in pain from arthritis, complicated by heart disease, and, addressing her sister-in-law, who was in the bathroom, she added: “You know what I’ll do, Nunziata? Later I’ll get up and take the clothes out of the water.”
“Do as you like, to me it seems real madness,” replied the curt, sad voice of Nunziata from that den. “With the pain you have, one more day in bed wouldn’t hurt you!” A silence. “We’ve got to put out some more poison, I found a cockroach in my sleeve this morning.”
From the cot at the back of the room, which was really a cave, with a low vault of dangling spider webs, rose the small, calm voice of Eugenia:
“Mamma, today I’m putting on the eyeglasses.”
There was a kind of secret joy in the modest voice of the child, Don Peppino’s third-born. (The first two, Carmela and Luisella, were with the nuns, and would soon take the veil, having been persuaded that this life is a punishment; and the two little ones, Pasqualino and Teresella, were still snoring, as they slept feet to head, in their mother’s bed.)
“Yes, and no doubt you’ll break them right away,” the voice of her aunt, still irritated, insisted, from behind the door of the little room. She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it, to the charity of her sister-in-law, although she didn’t fail to add that she dedicated this humiliation to God. She had something of her own set aside, however, and wasn’t a bad person, since she had offered to have glasses made for Eugenia when at home they had realized that the child couldn’t see. “With what they cost! A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” she added. Then they heard the water running in the basin. She was washing her face, squeezing her eyes, which were full of soap, and Eugenia gave up answering.
Besides, she was too, too pleased.
A week earlier, she had gone with her aunt to an optician on Via Roma. There, in that elegant shop, full of polished tables and with a marvelous green reflection pouring in through a blind, the doctor had measured her sight, making her read many times, through certain lenses that he kept changing, entire columns of letters of the alphabet, printed on a card, some as big as boxes, others as tiny as pins. “This poor girl is almost blind,” he had said then, with a kind of pity, to her aunt, “she should no longer be deprived of lenses.” And right away, while Eugenia, sitting on a stool, waited anxiously, he had placed over her eyes another pair of lenses, with a white metal frame, and had said: “Now look into the street.” Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy. On the sidewalk, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with powdered faces, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters, white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes; and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, their bodies painted red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a café with red and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the café, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. A marvel. Transported by all that splendor, she hadn’t followed the conversation between the doctor and her aunt. Her aunt, in the brown dress she wore to Mass, and standing back from the glass counter with a timidity unnatural to her, now broached the question of the cost: “Doctor, please, give us a good price … we’re poor folk ..” and when she heard “eight thousand lire” she nearly fainted.
“Two lenses! What are you saying! Jesus Mary!”
“Look, ignorant people …” the doctor answered, replacing the other lenses after polishing them with the glove, “don’t calculate anything. And when you give the child two lenses, you’ll be able to tell me if she sees better. She takes nine diopters on one side, and ten on the other, if you want to know. She’s almost blind.”
While the doctor was writing the child’s first and last name—“Eugenia Quaglia, Vicolo della Cupa at Santa Maria in Portico”—Nunziata had gone over to Eugenia, who, standing in the doorway of the shop and holding up the glasses in her small, sweaty hands, was not at all tired of gazing through them: “Look, look, my dear! See what your consolation costs! Eight thousand lire, did you hear? A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” She was almost suffocating. Eugenia had turned all red, not so much because of the rebuke as because the young woman at the cash register was looking at her, while her aunt was making that observation, which declared the family’s poverty. She took off the glasses.
“But how is it, so young and already so nearsighted?” the young woman had asked Nunziata, while she signed the receipt for the deposit. “And so shabby, too!” she added.
“Young lady, in our house we all have good eyes, this is a misfortune that came upon us … along with the rest. God rubs salt in the wound.”
“Come back in eight days,” the doctor had said. “I’ll have them for you.”
Leaving, Eugenia had tripped on the step.
“Thank you, Aunt Nunzia,” she had said after a while. “I’m always rude to you. I talk back to you, and you are so kind, buying me eyeglasses.”
Her voice trembled.
“My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it,” Nunziata had answered with sudden melancholy.
Eugenia hadn’t answered her that time, either. Aunt Nunzia was often so strange, she wept and shouted for no good reason, she said so many bad words, and yet she went to Mass regularly, she was a good Christian, and when it came to helping someone in trouble she always volunteered, wholeheartedly. One didn’t have to watch over her.
Since that day, Eugenia had lived in a kind of rapture, waiting for the blessed glasses that would allow her to see all people and things in their tiny details. Until then, she had been wrapped in a fog: the room where she lived, the courtyard always full of hanging laundry, the alley overflowing with colors and cries, everything for her was covered by a thin veil: she knew well only the faces of her family, especially her mother and her siblings, because often she slept with them, and sometimes she woke at night and, in the light of the oil lamp, looked at them. Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister, Pasqualino and Teresella, were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils: when they slept, they made a strange noise, as if they had wild animals inside them. Sometimes Eugenia surprised herself by staring at them, without understanding, however, what she was thinking. She had a confused feeling that beyond that room always full of wet laundry, with broken chairs and a stinking toilet, there was light, sounds, beautiful things, and in that moment when she had put on the glasses she had had a true revelation: the world outside was beautiful, very beautiful.
“Marchesa, my respects.”
That was the voice of her father. Covered by a ragged shirt, his back, which until that moment had been framed by the doorway of the basement apartment, could no longer be seen. The voice of the marchesa, a placid and indifferent voice, now said:
“You must do me a favor, Don Peppino.”
“At your service … your wish is my command.”
Silently, Eugenia slid out of bed, put on her dress, and, still barefoot, went to the door. The pure and marvelous early morning sun, entering the ugly courtyard through a crack between the buildings, greeted her, lit up her little old lady’s face, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails. Oh, if only at that moment she could have had the eyeglasses! The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn’t see her face very well—it was a whitish oval patch. Above it, some purple feathers quivered.
“Listen, you have to redo the child’s mattress. Can you come up around ten-thirty?”
“With all my heart, but I’m only available in the afternoon, Signora Marchesa.”
“No, Don Peppino, it has to be this morning. In the afternoon people are coming. Set yourself up on the terrace and work. Don’t play hard to get … do me this favor … Now it’s time for Mass. At ten-thirty, call me.”
And without waiting for an answer, she left, astutely avoiding a trickle of yellow water that was dripping down from a terrace and had made a puddle on the ground.
“Papa,” said Eugenia, following her father, as he went back inside, “how good the marchesa is! She treats you like a gentleman. God should reward her for it.”
“A good Christian, that one is,” Don Peppino answered, with a meaning completely different from what might have been understood. With the excuse that she was the owner of the house, the Marchesa D’Avanzo constantly had the people in the courtyard serving her: to Don Peppino, she gave a wretched sum for the mattresses; and Rosa was always available for the big sheets; even if her bones were burning she had to get up to serve the marchesa. It’s true that the marchesa had placed her daughters in the convent, and so had saved two souls from the dangers of this world, which for the poor are many, but for that basement space, where everyone was sick, she collected three thousand lire, not one less. “The heart is there, it’s the money that’s lacking,” she loved to repeat, with a certain imperturbability. “Today, dear Don Peppino, you are the nobility, who have no worries … Thank … thank Providence, which has put you in such a condition … which wanted to save you.” Donna Rosa had a kind of adoration for the marchesa, for her religious sentiments; when they saw each other, they always talked about the afterlife. The marchesa didn’t much believe in it, but she didn’t say so, and urged that mother of the family to be patient and to hope.
From the bed, Donna Rosa asked, a little worried: “Did you talk to her?”
“She wants me to redo the mattress for her grandson,” said Don Peppino, in annoyance. He brought out the hot plate to warm up some coffee, a gift of the nuns, and went back inside to fetch water in a small pot. “I won’t do it for less than five hundred,” he said.
“It’s a fair price.”
“And then who will go and pick up Eugenia’s glasses?” Aunt Nunzia asked, coming out of the bathroom. Over her nightgown, she wore a torn skirt, and on her feet slippers. Her bony shoulders emerged from the nightgown, gray as stones. She was drying her face with a napkin. “I can’t go, and Rosa is ill.”
Without anyone noticing, Eugenia’s large, almost blind eyes filled with tears. Now maybe another day would pass without her eyeglasses. She went up to her mother’s bed, and in a pitiful manner, flung her arms and forehead on the blanket. Donna Rosa stretched out a hand to caress her.
“I’ll go, Nunzia, don’t get worked up … In fact, going out will do me good.”
Eugenia kissed her hand.
Around eight there was a great commotion in the courtyard. At that moment Rosa had come out of the doorway: a tall, lanky figure, in a short, stained black coat, without shoulder pads, that exposed her legs, like wooden sticks. Under her arm, she carried a shopping bag for the bread she would buy on her way home from the optician. Don Peppino was pushing the water out of the middle of the courtyard with a long-handled broom, a vain task because the tub was continually leaking, like an open vein. In it were the clothes of two families: the Greborio sisters, on the second floor, and the wife of Cavaliere Amodio, who had given birth two days earlier. The Greborios’ servant, Lina Tarallo, was beating the carpets on a balcony, making a terrible ruckus. The dust, mixed with garbage, descended gradually like a cloud on those poor people, but no one paid attention. Sharp screams and cries of complaint could be heard from the basement where Aunt Nunzia was calling on all the saints as witnesses to confirm that she was unfortunate, and the cause of all this was Pasqualino, who wept and shouted like a condemned man because he wanted to go with his mamma. “Look at him, this scoundrel,” cried Aunt Nunzia. “Madonna bella, do me a favor, let me die, but immediately, if you’re there, since in this life only thieves and whores thrive.” Teresella, born the year the king went away and so younger than her brother, was sitting in the doorway, smiling, and every so often she licked a crust of bread she had found under a chair.
Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room, where Mariuccia the porter lived, looking at a section of a children’s comic, with lots of bright-colored figures, which had fallen from the fourth floor. She held it right up to her face, because otherwise she couldn’t read the words. There was a small blue river in a vast meadow and a red boat going … going … who knows where. It was written in proper Italian, and so she didn’t understand much, but every so often, for no reason, she laughed.
“So, today you put on your glasses?” said Mariuccia, looking out from behind her. Everyone in the courtyard knew, partly because Eugenia hadn’t resisted the temptation to talk about it, and partly because Aunt Nunzia had found it necessary to let it be understood that in that family she was spending her own … and well, in short .
“Your aunt got them for you, eh?” Mariuccia added, smiling good-humoredly. She was a small woman, almost a dwarf, with a face like a man’s, covered with whiskers. At the moment she was combing her long black hair, which came to her knees: one of the few things that attested to her being a woman. She was combing it slowly, smiling with her sly but kind little mouse eyes.
“Mamma went to get them on Via Roma,” said Eugenia with a look of gratitude. “We paid a grand total of a good eight thousand lire, you know? Really. my aunt is .” she was about to add “truly a good person,” when Aunt Nunzia, looking out of the basement room, called angrily: “Eugenia!”
“Here I am, Aunt!” and she scampered away like a dog.
Behind their aunt, Pasqualino, all red-faced and bewildered, with a terrible expression somewhere between disdain and surprise, was waiting.
“Go and buy two candies for three lire each, from Don Vincenzo at the tobacco store. Come back immediately!”
She clutched the money in her fist, paying no more attention to the comic, and hurried out of the courtyard.
By a true miracle she avoided a towering vegetable cart drawn by two horses, which was coming toward her right outside the main entrance. The carter, with his whip unsheathed, seemed to be singing, and from his mouth came these words:
“Lovely … Fresh,” drawn out and full of sweetness, like a love song. When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. Although the sun touched only the highest balconies (the street a crack in the disorderly mass of buildings) and the rest was only shadow and garbage, one could sense, behind it, the enormous celebration of spring. And even Eugenia, so small and pale, bound like a mouse to the mud of her courtyard, began to breathe rapidly, as if that air, that celebration, and all that blue suspended over the neighborhood of the poor were also hers. The yellow basket of the Amodios’ maid, Rosaria Buonincontri, grazed her as she went into the tobacco shop. Rosaria was a fat woman in black, with white legs and a flushed, placid face.
“Tell your mamma if she can come upstairs a moment today, Signora Amodio needs her to deliver a message.”
Eugenia recognized her by her voice. “She’s not here now. She went to Via Roma to get my glasses.”
“I should wear them, too, but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to.”
Eugenia didn’t grasp the meaning of that prohibition. She answered only, ingenuously: “They cost a great amount; you have to take very good care of them.”
They entered Don Vincenzo’s hole-in-the-wall together.
There was a crowd. Eugenia kept being pushed back. “Go on … you really are blind,” observed the Amodios’ maid, with a kind smile.
“But now Aunt Nunzia’s gotten you some eyeglasses,” Don Vincenzo, who had heard her, broke in, winking, with an air of teasing comprehension. He, too, wore glasses.
“At your age,” he said, handing her the candies, “I could see like a cat, I could thread needles at night, my grandmother always wanted me nearby … but now I’m old.”
Eugenia nodded vaguely. “My friends. none of them have lenses,” she said. Then, turning to the servant Rosaria, but speaking also for Don Vincenzo’s benefit: “Just me. Nine diopters on one side and ten on the other. I am almost blind!” she said emphatically, sweetly.
“See how lucky you are,” said Don Vincenzo, smiling, and to Rosaria: “How much salt?”
“Poor child!” the Amodios’ maid commented as Eugenia left, happily. “It’s the dampness that’s ruined her. In that building it rains on us. Now Donna Rosa’s bones ache. Give me a kilo of coarse salt and a packet of fine … ”
“There you are.”
“What a morning, eh, today, Don Vincenzo? It seems like summer already.”
Walking more slowly than she had on the way there, Eugenia, without even realizing it, began to unwrap one of the two candies, and then put it in her mouth. It tasted of lemon. “I’ll tell Aunt Nunzia that I lost it on the way,” she proposed to herself. She was happy, it didn’t matter to her if her aunt, good as she was, got angry. She felt someone take her hand, and recognized Luigino.
“You are really blind!” the boy said laughing. “And the glasses?”
“Mamma went to Via Roma to get them.”
“I didn’t go to school; it’s a beautiful day, why don’t we take a little walk?”
“You’re crazy! Today I have to be good.”
Luigino looked at her and laughed, with his mouth like a money box, stretching to his ears, contemptuous.
“What a rat’s nest.”
Instinctively Eugenia brought a hand to her hair.
“I can’t see well, and Mamma doesn’t have time,” she answered meekly.
“What are the glasses like? With gold frames?” Luigino asked. “All gold!” Eugenia answered, lying. “Bright and shiny!”
“Old women wear glasses,” said Luigino.
“Also ladies, I saw them on Via Roma.”
“Those are dark glasses, for sunbathing,” Luigino insisted. “You’re just jealous. They cost eight thousand lire.”
“When you have them, let me see them,” said Luigino. “I want to see if the frame really is gold. You’re such a liar,” and he went off on his own business, whistling.
Reentering the courtyard, Eugenia wondered anxiously if her glasses would or wouldn’t have a gold frame. In the negative case, what could she say to Luigino to convince him that they were a thing of value? But what a beautiful day! Maybe Mamma was about to return with the glasses wrapped in a package. Soon she would have them on her face. She would have … A frenzy of blows fell on her head. A real fury. She seemed to collapse; in vain she defended herself with her hands. It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious because of her delay, and behind Aunt Nunzia was Pasqualino, like a madman, because he didn’t believe her story about the candies. “Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl! And I who gave my life for this ingratitude … You’ll come to a bad end! Eight thousand lire no less. They bleed me dry, these scoundrels.”
She let her hands fall, only to burst into a great lament. “Our Lady of Sorrows, holy Jesus, by the wounds in your ribs let me die!”
Eugenia wept, too, in torrents.
“Aunt, forgive me. Aunt .”
“Uh . uh . uh .” said Pasqualino, his mouth wide open.
“Poor child,” said Donna Mariuccia, coming over to Eugenia, who didn’t know where to hide her face, now streaked with red and tears at her aunt’s rage. “She didn’t do it on purpose, Nunzia, calm down,” and to Eugenia: “Where’ve you got the candies?”
Eugenia answered softly, hopelessly, holding out one in her dirty hand: “I ate the other. I was hungry.”
Before her aunt could move again, to attack the child, the voice of the marchesa could be heard, from the fourth floor, where there was sun, calling softly, placidly, sweetly:
Aunt Nunzia looked up, her face pained as that of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows, which was at the head of her bed.
“Today is the first Friday of the month. Dedicate it to God.”
“Marchesa, how good you are! These kids make me commit so many sins, I’m losing my mind, I …” And she collapsed her face between her paw-like hands, the hands of a worker, with brown, scaly skin.
“Is your brother not there?”
“Poor Aunt, she got you the eyeglasses, and that’s how you thank her,” said Mariuccia meanwhile to Eugenia, who was trembling.
“Yes, signora, here I am,” answered Don Peppino, who until that moment had been half hidden behind the door of the basement room, waving a paper in front of the stove where the beans for lunch were cooking.
“Can you come up?”
“My wife went to get the eyeglasses for Eugenia. I’m watching the beans. Would you wait, if you don’t mind.”
“Then send up the child. I have a dress for Nunziata. I want to give it to her.”
“May God reward you … very grateful,” answered Don Peppino, with a sigh of consolation, because that was the only thing that could calm his sister. But looking at Nunziata, he realized that she wasn’t at all cheered up. She continued to weep desperately, and that weeping had so stunned Pasqualino that the child had become quiet as if by magic, and was now licking the snot that dripped from his nose, with a small, sweet smile.
“Did you hear? Go up to the Signora Marchesa, she has a dress to give you,” said Don Peppino to his daughter.
Eugenia was looking at something in the void, with her eyes that couldn’t see: they were staring, fixed and large. She winced, and got up immediately, obedient.
“Say to her: ‘May God reward you,’ and stay outside the door.”
“Believe me, Mariuccia,” said Aunt Nunzia, when Eugenia had gone off, “I love that little creature, and afterward I’m sorry, as God is my witness, for scolding her. But I feel all the blood go to my head, believe me, when I have to fight with the kids. Youth is gone, as you see,” and she touched her hollow cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a madwoman.”
“On the other hand, they have to vent, too,” Donna Mariuccia answered. “They’re innocent souls. They need time to weep. When I look at them, and think how they’ll become just like us.” She went to get a broom and swept a cabbage leaf out of the doorway. “I wonder what God is doing.”
“It’s new, brand-new! You hardly wore it!” said Eugenia, sticking her nose in the green dress lying on the sofa in the kitchen, while the marchesa went looking for an old newspaper to wrap it in.
The marchesa thought that the child really couldn’t see, because otherwise she would have realized that the dress was very old and full of patches (it had belonged to her dead sister), but she refrained from commenting. Only after a moment, as she was coming in with the newspaper, she asked:
“And the eyeglasses your aunt got you? Are they new?”
“With gold frames. They cost eight thousand lire,” Eugenia answered all in one breath, becoming emotional again at the thought of the honor she had received, “because I’m almost blind,” she added simply.
“In my opinion,” said the marchesa, carefully wrapping the dress in the newspaper, and then reopening the package because a sleeve was sticking out, “your aunt could have saved her money. I saw some very good eyeglasses in a shop near the Church of the Ascension, for only two thousand lire.”
Eugenia blushed fiery red. She understood that the marchesa was displeased. “Each to his own position in life. We all must know our limitations,” she had heard her say this many times, talking to Donna Rosa, when she brought her the washed clothes, and stayed to complain of her poverty.
“Maybe they weren’t good enough. I have nine diopters,” she replied timidly.
The marchesa arched an eyebrow, but luckily Eugenia didn’t see it.
“They were good, I’m telling you,” the Marchesa said obstinately, in a slightly harsher voice. Then she was sorry. “My dear,” she said more gently, “I’m saying this because I know the troubles you have in your household. With that difference of six thousand lire, you could buy bread for ten days, you could buy… What’s the use to you of seeing better? Given what’s around you!” A silence. “To read, maybe, but do you read?”
“But sometimes I’ve seen you with your nose in a book. A liar as well, my dear. That is no good.”
Eugenia didn’t answer again. She felt truly desperate, staring at the dress with her nearly white eyes.
“Is it silk?” she asked stupidly.
The marchesa looked at her, reflecting.
“You don’t deserve it, but I want to give you a little gift,” she said suddenly, and headed toward a white wooden wardrobe. At that moment the telephone, which was in the hall, began to ring, and instead of opening the wardrobe the marchesa went to answer it. Eugenia, oppressed by those words, hadn’t even heard the old woman’s consoling allusion, and as soon as she was alone she began to look around as far as her poor eyes allowed her. How many fine, beautiful things! Like the store on Via Roma! And there, right in front of her, an open balcony with a lot of small pots of flowers.
She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and going … like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God, with the wind, the sun, and out there the purifying sea, so vast … She was standing there, her chin planted on the iron railing, suddenly thoughtful, with an expression of sorrow, of bewilderment, that made her look ugly. She heard the sound of the marchesa’s voice, calm, pious. In her hand, in her smooth ivory hand, the marchesa was holding a small book covered in black paper with gilt letters.
“It’s the thoughts of the saints, my dear. The youth of today don’t read anything, and so the world has changed course. Take it, I’m giving it to you. But you must promise to read a little every evening, now that you’ve got your glasses.”
“Yes, signora,” said Eugenia, in a hurry, blushing again because the marchesa had found her on the balcony, and she took the book. Signora D’Avanzo regarded her with satisfaction.
“God wished to save you, my dear!” she said, going to get the package with the dress and placing it in her hands. “You’re not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won’t have opportunities for evil. He wants you to be holy, like your sisters!”
Although the words didn’t really wound her, because she had long been unconsciously prepared for a life without joy, Eugenia was nevertheless disturbed by them. And it seemed to her, if only for a moment, that the sun no longer shone as before, and even the thought of the eyeglasses ceased to cheer her. She looked vaguely, with her nearly dead eyes, at a point on the sea, where the Posillipo peninsula extended like a faded green lizard. “Tell Papa,” the marchesa continued, meanwhile, “that we won’t do anything about the child’s mattress today. My cousin telephoned, and I’ll be in Posillipo all day.”
“I was there once, too …” Eugenia began, reviving at that name and looking, spellbound, in that direction.
“Yes? Is that so?” Signora D’Avanzo was indifferent, the name of that place meant nothing special to her. In her magisterial fashion, she accompanied the child, who was still looking toward that luminous point, to the door, closing it slowly behind her.
As Eugenia came down the last step and out into the courtyard, the shadow that had been darkening her forehead for a while disappeared, and her mouth opened in a joyful laugh, because she had seen her mother arriving. It wasn’t hard to recognize that worn, familiar figure. She threw the dress on a chair and ran toward her.
“Mamma! The eyeglasses!”
“Gently, my dear, you’ll knock me over!”
Immediately, a small crowd formed. Donna Mariuccia, Don Peppino, one of the Greborios, who had stopped to rest on a chair before starting up the stairs, the Amodios’ maid, who was just then returning, and, of course, Pasqualino and Teresella, who wanted to see, too, and yelled, holding out their hands. Nunziata, for her part, was observing the dress that she had taken out of the newspaper, with a disappointed expression.
“Look, Mariuccia, it’s an old rag … all worn out under the arms!” she said, approaching the group. But who was paying attention to her? At that moment, Donna Rosa was extracting from a pocket in her dress the eyeglass case, and with infinite care opened it. On Donna Rosa’s long red hand, a kind of very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae glittered in a pale ray of sun amid those poor people, full of admiration.
“Eight thousand lire … a thing like that!” said Donna Rosa, gazing at the eyeglasses religiously, and yet with a kind of rebuke.
Then, in silence, she placed them on Eugenia’s face, as the child ecstatically held out her hands, and carefully arranged the two antennae behind her ears. “Now can you see?” Donna Rosa asked with great emotion.
Gripping the eyeglasses with her hands, as if in fear that they would be taken away from her, her eyes half closed and her mouth half open in a rapt smile, Eugenia took two steps backward, and stumbled on a chair.
“Good luck!” said the Amodios’ maid.
“Good luck!” said the Greborio sister.
“She looks like a schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” Don Peppino observed with satisfaction.
“Not even a thank you!” said Aunt Nunzia, looking bitterly at the dress. “With all that, good luck!”
“She’s afraid, my little girl!” murmured Donna Rosa, heading toward the door of the basement room to put down her things. “She’s put on the eyeglasses for the first time!” she said, looking up at the first-floor balcony, where the other Greborio sister was looking out.
“I see everything very tiny,” said Eugenia, in a strange voice, as if she were speaking from under a chair. “Black, very black.”
“Of course: the lenses are double. But do you see clearly?” asked Don Peppino. “That’s the important thing. She’s put on the glasses for the first time,” he, too, said, addressing Cavaliere Amodio, who was passing by, holding an open newspaper.
“I’m warning you,” the cavaliere said to Mariuccia, after staring at Eugenia for a moment, as if she were merely a cat, “that stairway hasn’t been swept. I found some fish bones in front of the door!” And he went on, bent over, almost enfolded in his newspaper, reading an article about a proposal for a new pension law that interested him.
Eugenia, still holding on to the eyeglasses with her hands, went to the entrance to the courtyard to look outside into Vicolo della Cupa. Her legs were trembling, her head was spinning, and she no longer felt any joy. With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand; the carts piled with vegetables were falling on her; the voices filling the air, the cries, the lashes, struck her head as if she were ill; she turned, swaying, toward the courtyard, and that terrible impression intensified. The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. It was Mariuccia who first realized that the child was sick, and she tore off the glasses, because Eugenia, doubled over and moaning, was throwing up.
“They’ve gone to her stomach!” cried Mariuccia, holding her forehead. “Bring a coffee bean, Nunziata!”
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” cried Aunt Nunzia, her eyes popping out of her head, running into the basement room to get a coffee bean from a can in the cupboard; and she held up the new eyeglasses, as if to ask God for an explanation. “And now they’re wrong, too!”
“It’s always like that, the first time,” said the Amodios’ maid to Donna Rosa calmly. “You mustn’t be shocked; little by little one gets used to them.”
“It’s nothing, child, nothing, don’t be scared!” But Donna Rosa felt her heart constrict at the thought of how unlucky they were.
Aunt Nunzia returned with the coffee bean, still crying: “A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” while Eugenia, pale as death, tried in vain to throw up, because she had nothing left inside her. Her bulging eyes were almost crossed with suffering, and her old lady’s face was bathed in tears, as if stupefied. She leaned on her mother and trembled.
“Mamma, where are we?”
“We’re in the courtyard, my child,” said Donna Rosa patiently; and the fine smile, between pity and wonder, that illuminated her eyes, suddenly lit up the faces of all those wretched people.
“She’s a half-wit, she is!”
“Leave her alone, poor child, she’s dazed,” said Donna Mariuccia, and her face was grim with pity, as she went back into the basement apartment that seemed to her darker than usual.
Only Aunt Nunzia was wringing her hands:
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!”
*The story is taken from Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese. Pushkin Press, 2018.
Waythorn, on the drawing-room hearth, waited for his wife to come down to dinner.
It was their first night under his own roof, and he was surprised at his thrill of boyish agitation. He was not so old, to be sure—his glass gave him little more than the five-and-thirty years to which his wife confessed—but he had fancied himself already in the temperate zone; yet here he was listening for her step with a tender sense of all it symbolized, with some old trail of verse about the garlanded nuptial door-posts floating through his enjoyment of the pleasant room and the good dinner just beyond it.
They had been hastily recalled from their honeymoon by the illness of Lily Haskett, the child of Mrs. Waythorn’s first marriage. The little girl, at Waythorn’s desire, had been transferred to his house on the day of her mother’s wedding, and the doctor, on their arrival, broke the news that she was ill with typhoid, but declared that all the symptoms were favorable. Lily could show twelve years of unblemished health, and the case promised to be a light one. The nurse spoke as reassuringly, and after a moment of alarm Mrs. Waythorn had adjusted herself to the situation. She was very fond of Lily—her affection for the child had perhaps been her decisive charm in Waythorn’s eyes—but she had the perfectly balanced nerves which her little girl had inherited, and no woman ever wasted less tissue in unproductive worry. Waythorn was therefore quite prepared to see her come in presently, a little late because of a last look at Lily, but as serene and well-appointed as if her good-night kiss had been laid on the brow of health. Her composure was restful to him; it acted as ballast to his somewhat unstable sensibilities. As he pictured her bending over the child’s bed he thought how soothing her presence must be in illness: her very step would prognosticate recovery.
His own life had been a gray one, from temperament rather than circumstance, and he had been drawn to her by the unperturbed gayety which kept her fresh and elastic at an age when most women’s activities are growing either slack or febrile. He knew what was said about her; for, popular as she was, there had always been a faint undercurrent of detraction. When she had appeared in New York, nine or ten years earlier, as the pretty Mrs. Haskett whom Gus Varick had unearthed somewhere—was it in Pittsburgh or Utica?—society, while promptly accepting her, had reserved the right to cast a doubt on its own discrimination. Inquiry, however, established her undoubted connection with a socially reigning family, and explained her recent divorce as the natural result of a runaway match at seventeen; and as nothing was known of Mr. Haskett it was easy to believe the worst of him.
Alice Haskett’s remarriage with Gus Varick was a passport to the set whose recognition she coveted, and for a few years the Varicks were the most popular couple in town. Unfortunately the alliance was brief and stormy, and this time the husband had his champions. Still, even Varick’s stanchest supporters admitted that he was not meant for matrimony, and Mrs. Varick’s grievances were of a nature to bear the inspection of the New York courts. A New York divorce is in itself a diploma of virtue, and in the semi-widowhood of this second separation Mrs. Varick took on an air of sanctity, and was allowed to confide her wrongs to some of the most scrupulous ears in town. But when it was known that she was to marry Waythorn there was a momentary reaction. Her best friends would have preferred to see her remain in the role of the injured wife, which was as becoming to her as crape to a rosy complexion. True, a decent time had elapsed, and it was not even suggested that Waythorn had supplanted his predecessor. Still, people shook their heads over him, and one grudging friend, to whom he affirmed that he took the step with his eyes open, replied oracularly: “Yes—and with your ears shut.”
Waythorn could afford to smile at these innuendoes. In the Wall Street phrase, he had “discounted” them. He knew that society has not yet adapted itself to the consequences of divorce, and that till the adaptation takes place every woman who uses the freedom the law accords her must be her own social justification. Waythorn had an amused confidence in his wife’s ability to justify herself. His expectations were fulfilled, and before the wedding took place Alice Varick’s group had rallied openly to her support. She took it all imperturbably: she had a way of surmounting obstacles without seeming to be aware of them, and Waythorn looked back with wonder at the trivialities over which he had worn his nerves thin. He had the sense of having found refuge in a richer, warmer nature than his own, and his satisfaction, at the moment, was humorously summed up in the thought that his wife, when she had done all she could for Lily, would not be ashamed to come down and enjoy a good dinner.
The anticipation of such enjoyment was not, however, the sentiment expressed by Mrs. Waythorn’s charming face when she presently joined him. Though she had put on her most engaging teagown she had neglected to assume the smile that went with it, and Waythorn thought he had never seen her look so nearly worried.
“What is it?” he asked. “Is anything wrong with Lily?”
“No; I’ve just been in and she’s still sleeping.” Mrs. Waythorn hesitated. “But something tiresome has happened.”
He had taken her two hands, and now perceived that he was crushing a paper between them.
“Yes—Mr. Haskett has written—I mean his lawyer has written.”
Waythorn felt himself flush uncomfortably. He dropped his wife’s hands.
“About seeing Lily. You know the courts—”
“Yes, yes,” he interrupted nervously.
Nothing was known about Haskett in New York. He was vaguely supposed to have remained in the outer darkness from which his wife had been rescued, and Waythorn was one of the few who were aware that he had given up his business in Utica and followed her to New York in order to be near his little girl. In the days of his wooing, Waythorn had often met Lily on the doorstep, rosy and smiling, on her way “to see papa.”
“I am so sorry,” Mrs. Waythorn murmured.
He roused himself. “What does he want?”
“He wants to see her. You know she goes to him once a week.”
“Well—he doesn’t expect her to go to him now, does he?”
“No—he has heard of her illness; but he expects to come here.”
Mrs. Waythorn reddened under his gaze. They looked away from each other.
“I’m afraid he has the right….You’ll see….” She made a proffer of the letter.
Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal. He stood staring about the softly lighted room, which a moment before had seemed so full of bridal intimacy.
“I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “If Lily could have been moved—”
“That’s out of the question,” he returned impatiently.
“I suppose so.”
Her lip was beginning to tremble, and he felt himself a brute.
“He must come, of course,” he said. “When is—his day?”
“Very well. Send a note in the morning.”
The butler entered to announce dinner.
Waythorn turned to his wife. “Come—you must be tired. It’s beastly, but try to forget about it,” he said, drawing her hand through his arm.
“You’re so good, dear. I’ll try,” she whispered back.
Her face cleared at once, and as she looked at him across the flowers, between the rosy candle-shades, he saw her lips waver back into a smile.
“How pretty everything is!” she sighed luxuriously.
He turned to the butler. “The champagne at once, please. Mrs. Waythorn is tired.”
In a moment or two their eyes met above the sparkling glasses. Her own were quite clear and untroubled: he saw that she had obeyed his injunction and forgotten.
Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal
Waythorn, the next morning, went down town earlier than usual. Haskett was not likely to come till the afternoon, but the instinct of flight drove him forth. He meant to stay away all day—he had thoughts of dining at his club. As his door closed behind him he reflected that before he opened it again it would have admitted another man who had as much right to enter it as himself, and the thought filled him with a physical repugnance.
He caught the “elevated” at the employees’ hour, and found himself crushed between two layers of pendulous humanity. At Eighth Street the man facing him wriggled out and another took his place. Waythorn glanced up and saw that it was Gus Varick. The men were so close together that it was impossible to ignore the smile of recognition on Varick’s handsome overblown face. And after all—why not? They had always been on good terms, and Varick had been divorced before Waythorn’s attentions to his wife began. The two exchanged a word on the perennial grievance of the congested trains, and when a seat at their side was miraculously left empty the instinct of self-preservation made Waythorn slip into it after Varick.
The latter drew the stout man’s breath of relief.
“Lord—I was beginning to feel like a pressed flower.” He leaned back, looking unconcernedly at Waythorn. “Sorry to hear that Sellers is knocked out again.”
“Sellers?” echoed Waythorn, starting at his partner’s name.
Varick looked surprised. “You didn’t know he was laid up with the gout?”
“No. I’ve been away—I only got back last night.” Waythorn felt himself reddening in anticipation of the other’s smile.
“Ah—yes; to be sure. And Sellers’s attack came on two days ago. I’m afraid he’s pretty bad. Very awkward for me, as it happens, because he was just putting through a rather important thing for me.”
“Ah?” Waythorn wondered vaguely since when Varick had been dealing in “important things.” Hitherto he had dabbled only in the shallow pools of speculation, with which Waythorn’s office did not usually concern itself.
It occurred to him that Varick might be talking at random, to relieve the strain of their propinquity. That strain was becoming momentarily more apparent to Waythorn, and when, at Cortlandt Street, he caught sight of an acquaintance, and had a sudden vision of the picture he and Varick must present to an initiated eye, he jumped up with a muttered excuse.
“I hope you’ll find Sellers better,” said Varick civilly, and he stammered back: “If I can be of any use to you—” and let the departing crowd sweep him to the platform.
At his office he heard that Sellers was in fact ill with the gout, and would probably not be able to leave the house for some weeks.
“I’m sorry it should have happened so, Mr. Waythorn,” the senior clerk said with affable significance. “Mr. Sellers was very much upset at the idea of giving you such a lot of extra work just now.”
“Oh, that’s no matter,” said Waythorn hastily. He secretly welcomed the pressure of additional business, and was glad to think that, when the day’s work was over, he would have to call at his partner’s on the way home.
He was late for luncheon, and turned in at the nearest restaurant instead of going to his club. The place was full, and the waiter hurried him to the back of the room to capture the only vacant table. In the cloud of cigar-smoke Waythorn did not at once distinguish his neighbors; but presently, looking about him, he saw Varick seated a few feet off. This time, luckily, they were too far apart for conversation, and Varick, who faced another way, had probably not even seen him; but there was an irony in their renewed nearness.
Varick was said to be fond of good living, and as Waythorn sat despatching his hurried luncheon he looked across half enviously at the other’s leisurely degustation of his meal. When Waythorn first saw him he had been helping himself with critical deliberation to a bit of Camembert at the ideal point of liquefaction, and now, the cheese removed, he was just pouring his cafe double from its little two-storied earthen pot. He poured slowly, his ruddy profile bent above the task, and one beringed white hand steadying the lid of the coffee-pot; then he stretched his other hand to the decanter of cognac at his elbow, filled a liqueur-glass, took a tentative sip, and poured the brandy into his coffee-cup.
Waythorn watched him in a kind of fascination. What was he thinking of—only of the flavor of the coffee and the liqueur? Had the morning’s meeting left no more trace in his thoughts than on his face? Had his wife so completely passed out of his life that even this odd encounter with her present husband, within a week after her remarriage, was no more than an incident in his day? And as Waythorn mused, another idea struck him: had Haskett ever met Varick as Varick and he had just met? The recollection of Haskett perturbed him, and he rose and left the restaurant, taking a circuitous way out to escape the placid irony of Varick’s nod.
It was after seven when Waythorn reached home. He thought the footman who opened the door looked at him oddly.
“How is Miss Lily?” he asked in haste.
“Doing very well, sir. A gentleman—”
“Tell Barlow to put off dinner for half an hour,” Waythorn cut him off, hurrying upstairs.
He went straight to his room and dressed without seeing his wife. When he reached the drawing-room she was there, fresh and radiant. Lily’s day had been good; the doctor was not coming back that evening.
At dinner Waythorn told her of Sellers’s illness and of the resulting complications. She listened sympathetically, adjuring him not to let himself be overworked, and asking vague feminine questions about the routine of the office. Then she gave him the chronicle of Lily’s day; quoted the nurse and doctor, and told him who had called to inquire. He had never seen her more serene and unruffled. It struck him, with a curious pang, that she was very happy in being with him, so happy that she found a childish pleasure in rehearsing the trivial incidents of her day.
After dinner they went to the library, and the servant put the coffee and liqueurs on a low table before her and left the room. She looked singularly soft and girlish in her rosy pale dress, against the dark leather of one of his bachelor armchairs. A day earlier the contrast would have charmed him.
He turned away now, choosing a cigar with affected deliberation.
“Did Haskett come?” he asked, with his back to her.
“Oh, yes—he came.”
“You didn’t see him, of course?”
She hesitated a moment. “I let the nurse see him.”
That was all. There was nothing more to ask. He swung round toward her, applying a match to his cigar. Well, the thing was over for a week, at any rate. He would try not to think of it. She looked up at him, a trifle rosier than usual, with a smile in her eyes.
“Ready for your coffee, dear?”
He leaned against the mantelpiece, watching her as she lifted the coffee-pot. The lamplight struck a gleam from her bracelets and tipped her soft hair with brightness. How light and slender she was, and how each gesture flowed into the next! She seemed a creature all compact of harmonies. As the thought of Haskett receded, Waythorn felt himself yielding again to the joy of possessorship. They were his, those white hands with their flitting motions, his the light haze of hair, the lips and eyes….
She set down the coffee-pot, and reaching for the decanter of cognac, measured off a liqueur-glass and poured it into his cup.
Waythorn uttered a sudden exclamation.
“What is the matter?” she said, startled.
“Nothing; only—I don’t take cognac in my coffee.”
“Oh, how stupid of me,” she cried.
Their eyes met, and she blushed a sudden agonized red.
Ten days later, Mr. Sellers, still house-bound, asked Waythorn to call on his way down town.
The senior partner, with his swaddled foot propped up by the fire, greeted his associate with an air of embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, my dear fellow; I’ve got to ask you to do an awkward thing for me.”
Waythorn waited, and the other went on, after a pause apparently given to the arrangement of his phrases: “The fact is, when I was knocked out I had just gone into a rather complicated piece of business for—Gus Varick.”
“Well?” said Waythorn, with an attempt to put him at his ease.
“Well—it’s this way: Varick came to me the day before my attack. He had evidently had an inside tip from somebody, and had made about a hundred thousand. He came to me for advice, and I suggested his going in with Vanderlyn.”
“Oh, the deuce!” Waythorn exclaimed. He saw in a flash what had happened. The investment was an alluring one, but required negotiation. He listened intently while Sellers put the case before him, and, the statement ended, he said: “You think I ought to see Varick?”
“I’m afraid I can’t as yet. The doctor is obdurate. And this thing can’t wait. I hate to ask you, but no one else in the office knows the ins and outs of it.”
Waythorn stood silent. He did not care a farthing for the success of Varick’s venture, but the honor of the office was to be considered, and he could hardly refuse to oblige his partner.
“Very well,” he said, “I’ll do it.”
That afternoon, apprised by telephone, Varick called at the office. Waythorn, waiting in his private room, wondered what the others thought of it. The newspapers, at the time of Mrs. Waythorn’s marriage, had acquainted their readers with every detail of her previous matrimonial ventures, and Waythorn could fancy the clerks smiling behind Varick’s back as he was ushered in.
Varick bore himself admirably. He was easy without being undignified, and Waythorn was conscious of cutting a much less impressive figure. Varick had no head for business, and the talk prolonged itself for nearly an hour while Waythorn set forth with scrupulous precision the details of the proposed transaction.
“I’m awfully obliged to you,” Varick said as he rose. “The fact is I’m not used to having much money to look after, and I don’t want to make an ass of myself—” He smiled, and Waythorn could not help noticing that there was something pleasant about his smile. “It feels uncommonly queer to have enough cash to pay one’s bills. I’d have sold my soul for it a few years ago!”
Waythorn winced at the allusion. He had heard it rumored that a lack of funds had been one of the determining causes of the Varick separation, but it did not occur to him that Varick’s words were intentional. It seemed more likely that the desire to keep clear of embarrassing topics had fatally drawn him into one. Waythorn did not wish to be outdone in civility.
“We’ll do the best we can for you,” he said. “I think this is a good thing you’re in.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s immense. It’s awfully good of you—” Varick broke off, embarrassed. “I suppose the thing’s settled now—but if—”
“If anything happens before Sellers is about, I’ll see you again,” said Waythorn quietly. He was glad, in the end, to appear the more self-possessed of the two.
The course of Lily’s illness ran smooth, and as the days passed Waythorn grew used to the idea of Haskett’s weekly visit. The first time the day came round, he stayed out late, and questioned his wife as to the visit on his return. She replied at once that Haskett had merely seen the nurse downstairs, as the doctor did not wish any one in the child’s sick-room till after the crisis.
The following week Waythorn was again conscious of the recurrence of the day, but had forgotten it by the time he came home to dinner. The crisis of the disease came a few days later, with a rapid decline of fever, and the little girl was pronounced out of danger. In the rejoicing which ensued the thought of Haskett passed out of Waythorn’s mind and one afternoon, letting himself into the house with a latchkey, he went straight to his library without noticing a shabby hat and umbrella in the hall.
In the library he found a small effaced-looking man with a thinnish gray beard sitting on the edge of a chair. The stranger might have been a piano-tuner, or one of those mysteriously efficient persons who are summoned in emergencies to adjust some detail of the domestic machinery. He blinked at Waythorn through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and said mildly: “Mr. Waythorn, I presume? I am Lily’s father.”
Waythorn flushed. “Oh—” he stammered uncomfortably. He broke off, disliking to appear rude. Inwardly he was trying to adjust the actual Haskett to the image of him projected by his wife’s reminiscences. Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice’s first husband was a brute.
“I am sorry to intrude,” said Haskett, with his over-the-counter politeness.
“Don’t mention it,” returned Waythorn, collecting himself. “I suppose the nurse has been told?”
“I presume so. I can wait,” said Haskett. He had a resigned way of speaking, as though life had worn down his natural powers of resistance.
Waythorn stood on the threshold, nervously pulling off his gloves.
“I’m sorry you’ve been detained. I will send for the nurse,” he said; and as he opened the door he added with an effort: “I’m glad we can give you a good report of Lily.” He winced as the we slipped out, but Haskett seemed not to notice it.
“Thank you, Mr. Waythorn. It’s been an anxious time for me.”
“Ah, well, that’s past. Soon she’ll be able to go to you.” Waythorn nodded and passed out.
In his own room, he flung himself down with a groan. He hated the womanish sensibility which made him suffer so acutely from the grotesque chances of life. He had known when he married that his wife’s former husbands were both living, and that amid the multiplied contacts of modern existence there were a thousand chances to one that he would run against one or the other, yet he found himself as much disturbed by his brief encounter with Haskett as though the law had not obligingly removed all difficulties in the way of their meeting.
Waythorn sprang up and began to pace the room nervously. He had not suffered half so much from his two meetings with Varick. It was Haskett’s presence in his own house that made the situation so intolerable. He stood still, hearing steps in the passage.
“This way, please,” he heard the nurse say. Haskett was being taken upstairs, then: not a corner of the house but was open to him. Waythorn dropped into another chair, staring vaguely ahead of him. On his dressing-table stood a photograph of Alice, taken when he had first known her. She was Alice Varick then—how fine and exquisite he had thought her! Those were Varick’s pearls about her neck. At Waythorn’s instance they had been returned before her marriage. Had Haskett ever given her any trinkets—and what had become of them, Waythorn wondered? He realized suddenly that he knew very little of Haskett’s past or present situation; but from the man’s appearance and manner of speech he could reconstruct with curious precision the surroundings of Alice’s first marriage. And it startled him to think that she had, in the background of her life, a phase of existence so different from anything with which he had connected her. Varick, whatever his faults, was a gentleman, in the conventional, traditional sense of the term: the sense which at that moment seemed, oddly enough, to have most meaning to Waythorn. He and Varick had the same social habits, spoke the same language, understood the same allusions. But this other man…it was grotesquely uppermost in Waythorn’s mind that Haskett had worn a made-up tie attached with an elastic. Why should that ridiculous detail symbolize the whole man? Waythorn was exasperated by his own paltriness, but the fact of the tie expanded, forced itself on him, became as it were the key to Alice’s past. He could see her, as Mrs. Haskett, sitting in a “front parlor” furnished in plush, with a pianola, and a copy of “Ben Hur” on the centre-table. He could see her going to the theatre with Haskett—or perhaps even to a “Church Sociable”—she in a “picture hat” and Haskett in a black frock-coat, a little creased, with the made-up tie on an elastic. On the way home they would stop and look at the illuminated shop-windows, lingering over the photographs of New York actresses. On Sunday afternoons Haskett would take her for a walk, pushing Lily ahead of them in a white enameled perambulator, and Waythorn had a vision of the people they would stop and talk to. He could fancy how pretty Alice must have looked, in a dress adroitly constructed from the hints of a New York fashion-paper; how she must have looked down on the other women, chafing at her life, and secretly feeling that she belonged in a bigger place.
For the moment his foremost thought was one of wonder at the way in which she had shed the phase of existence which her marriage with Haskett implied. It was as if her whole aspect, every gesture, every inflection, every allusion, were a studied negation of that period of her life. If she had denied being married to Haskett she could hardly have stood more convicted of duplicity than in this obliteration of the self which had been his wife.
Waythorn started up, checking himself in the analysis of her motives. What right had he to create a fantastic effigy of her and then pass judgment on it? She had spoken vaguely of her first marriage as unhappy, had hinted, with becoming reticence, that Haskett had wrought havoc among her young illusions….It was a pity for Waythorn’s peace of mind that Haskett’s very inoffensiveness shed a new light on the nature of those illusions. A man would rather think that his wife has been brutalized by her first husband than that the process has been reversed.
“Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure
“Mr. Waythorn, I don’t like that French governess of Lily’s.”
Haskett, subdued and apologetic, stood before Waythorn in the library, revolving his shabby hat in his hand.
Waythorn, surprised in his armchair over the evening paper, stared back perplexedly at his visitor.
“You’ll excuse my asking to see you,” Haskett continued. “But this is my last visit, and I thought if I could have a word with you it would be a better way than writing to Mrs. Waythorn’s lawyer.”
Waythorn rose uneasily. He did not like the French governess either; but that was irrelevant.
“I am not so sure of that,” he returned stiffly; “but since you wish it I will give your message to—my wife.” He always hesitated over the possessive pronoun in addressing Haskett.
The latter sighed. “I don’t know as that will help much. She didn’t like it when I spoke to her.”
Waythorn turned red. “When did you see her?” he asked.
“Not since the first day I came to see Lily—right after she was taken sick. I remarked to her then that I didn’t like the governess.”
Waythorn made no answer. He remembered distinctly that, after that first visit, he had asked his wife if she had seen Haskett. She had lied to him then, but she had respected his wishes since; and the incident cast a curious light on her character. He was sure she would not have seen Haskett that first day if she had divined that Waythorn would object, and the fact that she did not divine it was almost as disagreeable to the latter as the discovery that she had lied to him.
“I don’t like the woman,” Haskett was repeating with mild persistency. “She ain’t straight, Mr. Waythorn—she’ll teach the child to be underhand. I’ve noticed a change in Lily—she’s too anxious to please—and she don’t always tell the truth. She used to be the straightest child, Mr. Waythorn—” He broke off, his voice a little thick. “Not but what I want her to have a stylish education,” he ended.
Waythorn was touched. “I’m sorry, Mr. Haskett; but frankly, I don’t quite see what I can do.”
Haskett hesitated. Then he laid his hat on the table, and advanced to the hearth-rug, on which Waythorn was standing. There was nothing aggressive in his manner; but he had the solemnity of a timid man resolved on a decisive measure.
“There’s just one thing you can do, Mr. Waythorn,” he said. “You can remind Mrs. Waythorn that, by the decree of the courts, I am entitled to have a voice in Lily’s bringing up.” He paused, and went on more deprecatingly: “I’m not the kind to talk about enforcing my rights, Mr. Waythorn. I don’t know as I think a man is entitled to rights he hasn’t known how to hold on to; but this business of the child is different. I’ve never let go there—and I never mean to.”
The scene left Waythorn deeply shaken. Shamefacedly, in indirect ways, he had been finding out about Haskett; and all that he had learned was favorable. The little man, in order to be near his daughter, had sold out his share in a profitable business in Utica, and accepted a modest clerkship in a New York manufacturing house. He boarded in a shabby street and had few acquaintances. His passion for Lily filled his life. Waythorn felt that this exploration of Haskett was like groping about with a dark-lantern in his wife’s past; but he saw now that there were recesses his lantern had not explored. He had never inquired into the exact circumstances of his wife’s first matrimonial rupture. On the surface all had been fair. It was she who had obtained the divorce, and the court had given her the child. But Waythorn knew how many ambiguities such a verdict might cover. The mere fact that Haskett retained a right over his daughter implied an unsuspected compromise. Waythorn was an idealist. He always refused to recognize unpleasant contingencies till he found himself confronted with them, and then he saw them followed by a special train of consequences. His next days were thus haunted, and he determined to try to lay the ghosts by conjuring them up in his wife’s presence.
When he repeated Haskett’s request a flame of anger passed over her face; but she subdued it instantly and spoke with a slight quiver of outraged motherhood.
“It is very ungentlemanly of him,” she said.
The word grated on Waythorn. “That is neither here nor there. It’s a bare question of rights.”
She murmured: “It’s not as if he could ever be a help to Lily—”
Waythorn flushed. This was even less to his taste. “The question is,” he repeated, “what authority has he over her?”
She looked downward, twisting herself a little in her seat. “I am willing to see him—I thought you objected,” she faltered.
In a flash he understood that she knew the extent of Haskett’s claims. Perhaps it was not the first time she had resisted them.
“My objecting has nothing to do with it,” he said coldly; “if Haskett has a right to be consulted you must consult him.”
She burst into tears, and he saw that she expected him to regard her as a victim.
Haskett did not abuse his rights. Waythorn had felt miserably sure that he would not. But the governess was dismissed, and from time to time the little man demanded an interview with Alice. After the first outburst she accepted the situation with her usual adaptability. Haskett had once reminded Waythorn of the piano-tuner, and Mrs. Waythorn, after a month or two, appeared to class him with that domestic familiar. Waythorn could not but respect the father’s tenacity. At first he had tried to cultivate the suspicion that Haskett might be “up to” something, that he had an object in securing a foothold in the house. But in his heart Waythorn was sure of Haskett’s single-mindedness; he even guessed in the latter a mild contempt for such advantages as his relation with the Waythorns might offer. Haskett’s sincerity of purpose made him invulnerable, and his successor had to accept him as a lien on the property.
Mr. Sellers was sent to Europe to recover from his gout, and Varick’s affairs hung on Waythorn’s hands. The negotiations were prolonged and complicated; they necessitated frequent conferences between the two men, and the interests of the firm forbade Waythorn’s suggesting that his client should transfer his business to another office.
Varick appeared well in the transaction. In moments of relaxation his coarse streak appeared, and Waythorn dreaded his geniality; but in the office he was concise and clear-headed, with a flattering deference to Waythorn’s judgment. Their business relations being so affably established, it would have been absurd for the two men to ignore each other in society. The first time they met in a drawing-room, Varick took up their intercourse in the same easy key, and his hostess’s grateful glance obliged Waythorn to respond to it. After that they ran across each other frequently, and one evening at a ball Waythorn, wandering through the remoter rooms, came upon Varick seated beside his wife. She colored a little, and faltered in what she was saying; but Varick nodded to Waythorn without rising, and the latter strolled on.
In the carriage, on the way home, he broke out nervously: “I didn’t know you spoke to Varick.”
Her voice trembled a little. “It’s the first time—he happened to be standing near me; I didn’t know what to do. It’s so awkward, meeting everywhere—and he said you had been very kind about some business.”
“That’s different,” said Waythorn.
She paused a moment. “I’ll do just as you wish,” she returned pliantly. “I thought it would be less awkward to speak to him when we meet.”
Her pliancy was beginning to sicken him. Had she really no will of her own—no theory about her relation to these men? She had accepted Haskett—did she mean to accept Varick? It was “less awkward,” as she had said, and her instinct was to evade difficulties or to circumvent them. With sudden vividness Waythorn saw how the instinct had developed. She was “as easy as an old shoe”—a shoe that too many feet had worn. Her elasticity was the result of tension in too many different directions. Alice Haskett—Alice Varick—Alice Waythorn—she had been each in turn, and had left hanging to each name a little of her privacy, a little of her personality, a little of the inmost self where the unknown god abides.
“Yes—it’s better to speak to Varick,” said Waythorn wearily.
“Earth’s Martyrs.” By Stephen Phillips.
The winter wore on, and society took advantage of the Waythorns’ acceptance of Varick. Harassed hostesses were grateful to them for bridging over a social difficulty, and Mrs. Waythorn was held up as a miracle of good taste. Some experimental spirits could not resist the diversion of throwing Varick and his former wife together, and there were those who thought he found a zest in the propinquity. But Mrs. Waythorn’s conduct remained irreproachable. She neither avoided Varick nor sought him out. Even Waythorn could not but admit that she had discovered the solution of the newest social problem.
He had married her without giving much thought to that problem. He had fancied that a woman can shed her past like a man. But now he saw that Alice was bound to hers both by the circumstances which forced her into continued relation with it, and by the traces it had left on her nature. With grim irony Waythorn compared himself to a member of a syndicate. He held so many shares in his wife’s personality and his predecessors were his partners in the business. If there had been any element of passion in the transaction he would have felt less deteriorated by it. The fact that Alice took her change of husbands like a change of weather reduced the situation to mediocrity. He could have forgiven her for blunders, for excesses; for resisting Hackett, for yielding to Varick; for anything but her acquiescence and her tact. She reminded him of a juggler tossing knives; but the knives were blunt and she knew they would never cut her.
And then, gradually, habit formed a protecting surface for his sensibilities. If he paid for each day’s comfort with the small change of his illusions, he grew daily to value the comfort more and set less store upon the coin. He had drifted into a dulling propinquity with Haskett and Varick and he took refuge in the cheap revenge of satirizing the situation. He even began to reckon up the advantages which accrued from it, to ask himself if it were not better to own a third of a wife who knew how to make a man happy than a whole one who had lacked opportunity to acquire the art. For it was an art, and made up, like all others, of concessions, eliminations and embellishments; of lights judiciously thrown and shadows skillfully softened. His wife knew exactly how to manage the lights, and he knew exactly to what training she owed her skill. He even tried to trace the source of his obligations, to discriminate between the influences which had combined to produce his domestic happiness: he perceived that Haskett’s commonness had made Alice worship good breeding, while Varick’s liberal construction of the marriage bond had taught her to value the conjugal virtues; so that he was directly indebted to his predecessors for the devotion which made his life easy if not inspiring.
From this phase he passed into that of complete acceptance. He ceased to satirize himself because time dulled the irony of the situation and the joke lost its humor with its sting. Even the sight of Haskett’s hat on the hall table had ceased to touch the springs of epigram. The hat was often seen there now, for it had been decided that it was better for Lily’s father to visit her than for the little girl to go to his boarding-house. Waythorn, having acquiesced in this arrangement, had been surprised to find how little difference it made. Haskett was never obtrusive, and the few visitors who met him on the stairs were unaware of his identity. Waythorn did not know how often he saw Alice, but with himself Haskett was seldom in contact.
One afternoon, however, he learned on entering that Lily’s father was waiting to see him. In the library he found Haskett occupying a chair in his usual provisional way. Waythorn always felt grateful to him for not leaning back.
“I hope you’ll excuse me, Mr. Waythorn,” he said rising. “I wanted to see Mrs. Waythorn about Lily, and your man asked me to wait here till she came in.”
“Of course,” said Waythorn, remembering that a sudden leak had that morning given over the drawing-room to the plumbers.
He opened his cigar-case and held it out to his visitor, and Haskett’s acceptance seemed to mark a fresh stage in their intercourse. The spring evening was chilly, and Waythorn invited his guest to draw up his chair to the fire. He meant to find an excuse to leave Haskett in a moment; but he was tired and cold, and after all the little man no longer jarred on him.
The two were inclosed in the intimacy of their blended cigar-smoke when the door opened and Varick walked into the room. Waythorn rose abruptly. It was the first time that Varick had come to the house, and the surprise of seeing him, combined with the singular inopportuneness of his arrival, gave a new edge to Waythorn’s blunted sensibilities. He stared at his visitor without speaking.
Varick seemed too preoccupied to notice his host’s embarrassment.
“My dear fellow,” he exclaimed in his most expansive tone, “I must apologize for tumbling in on you in this way, but I was too late to catch you down town, and so I thought—” He stopped short, catching sight of Haskett, and his sanguine color deepened to a flush which spread vividly under his scant blond hair. But in a moment he recovered himself and nodded slightly. Haskett returned the bow in silence, and Waythorn was still groping for speech when the footman came in carrying a tea-table.
The intrusion offered a welcome vent to Waythorn’s nerves. “What the deuce are you bringing this here for?” he said sharply.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but the plumbers are still in the drawing-room, and Mrs. Waythorn said she would have tea in the library.” The footman’s perfectly respectful tone implied a reflection on Waythorn’s reasonableness.
“Oh, very well,” said the latter resignedly, and the footman proceeded to open the folding tea-table and set out its complicated appointments. While this interminable process continued the three men stood motionless, watching it with a fascinated stare, till Waythorn, to break the silence, said to Varick: “Won’t you have a cigar?”
He held out the case he had just tendered to Haskett, and Varick helped himself with a smile. Waythorn looked about for a match, and finding none, proffered a light from his own cigar. Haskett, in the background, held his ground mildly, examining his cigar-tip now and then, and stepping forward at the right moment to knock its ashes into the fire.
The footman at last withdrew, and Varick immediately began: “If I could just say half a word to you about this business—”
“Certainly,” stammered Waythorn; “in the dining-room—”
But as he placed his hand on the door it opened from without, and his wife appeared on the threshold.
She came in fresh and smiling, in her street dress and hat, shedding a fragrance from the boa which she loosened in advancing.
“Shall we have tea in here, dear?” she began; and then she caught sight of Varick. Her smile deepened, veiling a slight tremor of surprise. “Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure.
As she shook hands with Varick she saw Haskett standing behind him. Her smile faded for a moment, but she recalled it quickly, with a scarcely perceptible side-glance at Waythorn.
“How do you do, Mr. Haskett?” she said, and shook hands with him a shade less cordially.
The three men stood awkwardly before her, till Varick, always the most self-possessed, dashed into an explanatory phrase.
“We—I had to see Waythorn a moment on business,” he stammered, brick-red from chin to nape.
Haskett stepped forward with his air of mild obstinacy. “I am sorry to intrude; but you appointed five o’clock—” he directed his resigned glance to the time-piece on the mantel.
She swept aside their embarrassment with a charming gesture of hospitality.
“I’m so sorry—I’m always late; but the afternoon was so lovely.” She stood drawing her gloves off, propitiatory and graceful, diffusing about her a sense of ease and familiarity in which the situation lost its grotesqueness. “But before talking business,” she added brightly, “I’m sure every one wants a cup of tea.”
She dropped into her low chair by the tea-table, and the two visitors, as if drawn by her smile, advanced to receive the cups she held out.
She glanced about for Waythorn, and he took the third cup with a laugh.
High up, stretching into the sky, loomed the tower of the fair princess. It was made of pure crystal and its pinnacle was bedecked with gold and precious stones. All around it, a multi-hued, large rose garden spread out. From amongst the thin net of narrow golden paths, perfumed flowerbeds, with countless roses, looked out; red as the setting sun, white as the wings of the Cabbage Whites, pink as the heavens at the brink of dawn, and yellow as the golden curls adorning the fair head of their mistress, the princess. Both beautiful and humble. Each one ten times more glorious and pleasing to the eye than the diamonds, sapphires and aquamarines bejewelling the tower’s crystal. Every single one, a little sun.
And glorious fragrances rose into the sky from the flowerbeds, like wondrous sounds of music, and blended together to become one choir, an ode to beauty. And for all those who saw this glory with their own eyes and listened to the song of fragrances – be they gloomy and their sorrow was forgotten; be they anguished and their torment was unheeded; be they dead and they would come back to life. The garden was surrounded by a tall, thick marble wall that distinguished it from the world around. Roses coiled against the wall, but not one of them dared ascend to the edge and raise her head beyond the kingdom of flowers. And the gate to the garden was locked shut, and hard metal bolts were always suspended across it.
Every morning, bright and early, as the sun rose, the first beams cast their light on the top of the tower, making the crystal glimmer and glisten and glow in a multitude of colours, and as the soft breeze moved the silver bells hanging in the window of the princess’ bedroom, she would walk down to her garden. Her little feet would stroke the ground as she walked, and the rim of her white, light, fragrant dress caressed her pink heels. She would reach the well, draw water from it, and, with her own two narrow hands, as delicate as the wings of white doves, she would water her flowers, one row after the other, flying from one flowerbed to the next, pouring fresh water over the buds, and they would bow to her in gratitude. When she was done, she would walk amongst the flowers to see that nothing had happened to them during the night. And if a rose was bent, she would straighten it; if it had been uprooted, she would plant it once more; if it had wilted, she would snip it off the bush and cast it far from her. And after combing the flowerbeds for thistles, brambles and weeds, she would scatter golden sand along the paths. This was how her day passed.
And when the sun started setting and pink mist began drifting through the air, the wondrous one would again walk the length and width of her garden and kneel next to each rose; and with her lips, which were as sweet as the taste of cherry nectar, she would kiss every flower. And after her kiss, the flowers were ten times as splendid and as beautiful, and their fragrance twenty times as powerful and intoxicating. The princess, dazed by the scent of her own flowers, would go up to her room in the tower and surrender herself to a blue night, full of dreams.
And beyond the wall was a large city, crowded and squalid. Long, narrow and grimy streets twisted through it like snakes. Tall grey houses with small dirty windows and rusted roofs stood crammed together, making it seem as if each one wanted to push the other and take its place. And thousands of factory chimneys raised their heads upwards, piping the black smoke into the sky. Outside of town, there were green pools of water that reeked, desolate fields whose crops grew low and meagre, and old, pitiful ramshackle houses. And only the wonderful scent of the roses, which emanated from the princess’ garden and lingered in the air, would shed a bit of comfort on this rancid city.
Every morning, when the clouded sky turned a little brighter, and all the factories’ chimneys roared their awful roar in one wild chorus, the inhabitants of the city would leave their houses. Their hair was unkempt, their eyes reddened with tears and sleeplessness. Their lips were pale and withered, their clothes made of a rough fabric, torn and grey like the dust of the roads. Even the heads of the children bowed down, and no one dared raise their voice in laughter. Group after group they would walk to the workshops and factories to toil away. And then each one would stiffen in his task. One hunched his back over a needle throughout the long grey day, another incessantly turned the wheel of a machine, the next dug a hole in a ground as hard as stone, another kept throwing wood into the mouth of a burning furnace, large drops of sweat rolling down his sooty body. And in the evening, when the yellow street lamps were lit and their murky light washed over the whole city, the people, dead tired, left their work and went outside, hurrying to their homes to quickly satiate themselves on a dry slice of bread, fall asleep and forget everything, everything.
And on their way home, they were accompanied by the factories’ second roar.
And three times a year only, on the days of the great holidays, the city would transform itself. The narrow streets were cleaner then, a strange smile appeared on the houses and in the little windows white curtains gleamed. On such days, the factories’ chimneys would remain silent and people would stay home until late. And then they would come out, fresh and with a smile on their lips, washed and wearing festive speckled clothes. They all hurried to the field outside the princess’ garden, and there they would stand and wait in anticipation.
At twelve noon, the princess, in all the glory of her beauty, would appear on the wall, her white attire coming down in folds on the wall’s marble, and within her soft face, between her eyelids, two blue eyes glistened, like pools of water among the reeds. On her arm hung a large basket and in it wonderful roses from her garden. For a while she would look down at the speckled field, where thousands of bright, eye-fetching colours burnt in the light of the sun, and then, with her long fingers, she would take the flowers out of her basket and throw them one-by-one to the expectant crowd below. And they would grab each flower and tear it into tiny pieces; and whoever came across even one petal would be elated.
And after the princess had shared her gifts, she would step down off the wall and into the garden, and there she would listen to the songs of joy sung by the dispersing crowed. The notes were powerful and full of hope. They rang through the clear air like the laughter of thunder in a spring sky and grew silent only as evening descended.
The next day the princess would resume her work in the rose garden. And, on the other side of the wall, the hard day-to-day life would also recommence.
Once there was a drought. The barren soil outside the city yielded only very little, and the low, meagre crops were singed as they budded. The wells and pools dried up, the tiles that paved the city streets burnt like coals, and the dust rose high up, enshrouding everything. The people despaired from hunger and thirst. They hunched their backs even lower. Their faces were pale and bleak, their eyes were on fire and their fists became clenched. And when the holiday arrived, none of the city’s inhabitants wore their speckled clothing. Sooty and dirty, wearing torn clothes, they gathered on the field outside the princess’ house and waited impatiently for her arrival. She was a little late that morning: “How beautiful the flowers are this year! And the basket so full. How happy they will be when I bring the roses to them,” she thought. But the strange voices that she heard from beyond the wall startled her. “What is it?” she wondered, “For I have never heard sounds such as these before, and why haven’t I?” She finally made her mind up and started climbing, and as she climbed strange wailing reached her ears – the sound of children crying, and women groaning, and roars which came from the parched throats of the men, and when she lowered her gaze to look down at the field, she was so startled she could barely hold herself, for it was so black and ugly. But still she placed her hand in the flower basket, meaning to throw the flowers to the crowd, but a wild laughter that rose from everyone’s throats stopped her.
“Enough!” they shouted from below. “We have no need for your gifts! We shall not let you go on dwelling safely beyond the wall, enjoying the scent of your flowers. See our poverty! How thin our arms, how white our hair. Look how ugly we are, how filthy our city. We no longer want a dog’s life. We need wonderful flowers in our gardens, not behind your wall! Come out to us! Walk among us. Be the gardener of our gardens. Open the gates! And if not… Well, we will tear down the wall, shatter your towers, and trample over those roses of yours with the soles of our boots. Open the gates!”
And the princess lowered her hand helplessly, twisted her dresses with anguish, and large shimmering tears rolled down from her eyes. Then she climbed down the wall and opened the gate.
The inflamed mass barged into the garden trampling and collecting the roses, destroying the crystal tower, and they took the princess away with them.
And from that day on she began planting the roses in their gardens, in their barren soil, but the buds that grew were pale and lifeless, their scent was so faint that no one sensed it, and the magical qualities of the roses in the garden beyond the wall were gone. The princess persisted in her efforts to retrieve their former glory, but to no avail. Even the kisses from her warm lips could not revive the roses.
Then the city’s inhabitants said: “Why did you deceive us? We have plenty of roses like these, we never asked you for trickery. We begged you for remedy and comfort. Grow the roses you once grew in your garden on our lands!”
And she replied: “I cannot. For the roses I once grew bloom only beyond the wall.”
And they would not believe her.
A woman is workspace when will someone love you? Have you ever stayed seated in your chair until lunchtime, you drink lots of water- your body took the shape of a chair. A woman in workspace, the space changes, the work changes, companies rise and fall. You can close the door behind you but you will still hear the three-dimensional printer working, it assists in the manufacturing of single models, it saves time, and the cost is low. I remember, I once had a job interview, they designed and built three dimensional-printers like this one there, I didn’t remember they made so much noise. The interviewer looked at my resume and, after asking me a few professional questions, said to me, so, have you ever shot a gun? I told him that I had but only at cardboard targets. A woman in workspace, have you ever loved?
You no longer hear the sound of the three-dimensional printer, it’s the kind of sound you get used to after a few months, the walls are all made of plaster. You can hear everything. You can hear the others sigh. You hear the gate beeping, the entrance gate for suppliers, customers, clients, workers. Some lose their patience and honk their horns, complementing the rhythmic beeping of the gate, at some point one of us opens it. A woman in workspace, sometimes I think I should begin the story here: a woman in workspace with the shape of a chair. A woman in workspace, have you ever loved? The space changes, the people change, the workload is heavier or ends. Sometimes they refurbish the office. They bring potted plants. Launch new software to control the inventory, the processes, to control the files, to control everything really – A woman in workspace, can you hear me?
The CEO jumped on the table and hollered at us. He said: You are not working hard enough. The CEO jumped on the receptionist’s desk and stabilized his. Long white (the desk). He said: We are losing time and you are not meeting the group’s goals. Said: You must retain your focus. He emphasized: Our success is dependent on you and on you solely. Also: You must increase your speed. Then he said: The time is crucial, and I won’t let us enter stoppage time. We stood and looked at him silently. Then he added, over my dead body. Some of us exchanged looks with some of the others. He stood very stable on the desk, with his legs straddled. He talked for half an hour, maybe more. The majority of the things he said was addressed to us, the technology department team. He repeatedly warned us of last minute smugness. His eyes were shining. Then he said, we are one step away from realizing the dream, there is no time to rest. You’ll sleep when you’re dead. He repeated the same sentences over and over again. And all the time he stood on the receptionist’s desk, his legs firm, his hands moving at the speed of his speech, which grew faster and faster. We scattered as soon as he was done. I went back to my cubicle. I passed my manager’s cubicle on the way. He was busy on a conference call. He spoke loudly into a microphone and his ears were covered by large headphones.
We must push up the delivery time, he yelled, his face glued to his computer screen. We must push up the delivery time. I continued to walk toward my cubicle. The open space was very noisy, keyboards and conversations. The coffee corner was empty. When I got to my place and sat in front of the computer, my inbox filled with a lot of new emails. I remembered that I should never start with the emails. I once read a newspaper article about it. Ten Rules to Increase Productivity at Work. Rule number one, never start your day with answering emails. I opened the notebook and flipped through the pages until I got to the last page I wrote in, the one with the to do list. I started to prepare for the meeting. I opened the relevant computer files. One of the neighbors in a nearby cubicle relentlessly pressed his keyboard keys. He was hitting it hard. I was still able to focus. I hit the keys quickly myself. Mine too. The fingers were hitting hard. At the background his fingers were hitting his harder and harder, almost breathlessly. Mine too.
A woman in a workspace Are you breathing? All those lists are going to eventually nail you to the office floor (blue linoleum flooring from the eighties, like the one you had at elementary school, in the gym, I remember how much I liked to high jump, breaking a new record every week.) At least this office has outside windows, the air comes out of the AC but the light is natural. A woman in workspace who since winter began can’t get up in the mornings. A woman in workspace. Do you bleed? I think you’re bleeding and that it’s out of your ordinary dates. Everything always comes on time with you, even though with the years things turn stickier, filled with more life, you don’t excrete it out of your womb, for a while now it’s been coming out of your irises, and every time you look at something it drips off you, you’re shedding salty tears of blood in front of the double screens of the work station. A woman in workspace do you remember how once, not so long ago, you liked meetings and long processes, and to see how they are validated, the things, and your projects, become alive –
A woman in a workspace I tried to take the woman out of the workspace and talk to her when I am in a space that isn’t work.
She didn’t answer.
Around midnight my head hit the pillow and I remembered the fish. I couldn’t remember whether I fed it or not. I got out of bed and took it out of the aquarium. I immediately put it inside a deep plastic box. I went to wash the aquarium, which was very dirty. The fish might have been sick. When I washed the aquarium the bowl slipped through my fingers and broke inside the sink. I left it like that in the sink. I added some food to the plastic box, the fish’s new abode, and it swam. It seemed content, that was always the kind of impression it made. I manage it like I manage all other things. I made a habit to feed it Mondays and Thursdays. The problem is, sometimes it gets difficult to remember when is Monday and when is Thursday. When is the time of the fish. I always confuse dates and schedules. Like with my period. It has always been very regular and I knew how to identify it when it came. Atomic nervous breakdowns, no pain. At some point I downloaded some sort of an application which tells me when it’s due. I write in it what kind of symptoms appear before, during, and after my period. And when I have sex, if I had it, and with whom. The company gave me my cellphone. It also covers my monthly phone bills. Sometimes they switch my phone for me. Not only me, for everyone. The reason is almost always an upgrade. Some other times, when the phone is stolen or broken, they also agree to get another. With some employer’s participation, of course, which is deducted from my wage. A lot of numbers were lost or deleted because of the upgradings. Or the opposite, were doubled or tripled. Mostly I don’t notice it in real time. The main problem remains the dates. The period application synchronizes the last update but sometimes it’s not close enough. In these cases I lose track of it completely.
A woman in a workspace do you get bored? What are you thinking now. I noticed you have 37 unread emails in your inbox. There are also tasks on the whiteboard, it’s your handwriting, and you tried to write clearly. Someone enters your room I think, he’s talking to you now, have you noticed? He puts his hand on your table, reclines, now he’s getting close to your computer screen, he looks at the screen, you talk about a file, now he asks something from you, he asks about something which is under your sole responsibility, he’s asking a very simple question, your lips should have already delivered the answer, it’s time to speak now because he has stopped talking, a woman in workspace, now he’s been quiet for at least five seconds, I know, because it’s approximately the time it takes to say: A woman in workspace –
*An excerpt from Company by Tehila Hakimi, Resling publishing house, Israel, 2018.
When Glory’s parents christened her Glorybetogod Ngozi Akunyili, they did not foresee Facebook’s “real name” policy, nor the weeks she would spend populating forms and submitting copies of her bills and driver’s license and the certificate that documented her birth on September 9, 1986, a rainy Tuesday, at 6:45 p.m., after six hours of labor and six years of barrenness. Pinning on her every hope they had yet to realize, her parents imagined the type of life well-situated Igbos imagined for their children. She would be a smart girl with the best schooling. She would attend church regularly and never stray from the Word. (Amen!) She would learn to cook like her grandmother, her father added, to which her mother countered, why not like her mother, and Glorybetogod’s father hemmed and hawed till his wife said maybe he should go and eat at his mother’s house. But back to Glorybetogod, whom everyone called Glory except for her grandfather, who called her “that girl” the first time he saw her.
“That girl has something rotten in her, her chi is not well.”
Husband pulled wife out of the room to prevent a brawl (“I don’t care how old that drunk is, I will fix his mouth today”) and begged his father to accept his firstborn grandchild. He didn’t see, as the grandfather did, the caul of misfortune covering Glory’s face that would affect every decision she made, causing her to err on the side of wrong, time and time again. When Glory was five she decided, after much consideration, to stick her finger into the maw of a sleeping dog. At seven, shortly after her family relocated to the US, Glory thought it a good idea to walk home when her mother was five minutes late picking her up from school, a choice that saw her lost and sobbing in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot before night fell. She did a lot of things out of spite, the source of which she couldn’t identify—as if she’d been born resenting the world.
That’s how, much to her parents’ embarrassment, their Glory came to be nearing thirty, chronically single, and working at a call center in downtown Minneapolis. She fielded calls from disgruntled home- owners on the brink of foreclosure, reading from a script that was intricate and logical and written by people who had never before spoken on the phone to a human being. In all their calculations about her future, Glory’s parents had never imagined that on April 16, 2013, after receiving yet another e-mail denying her request to restore her Facebook page (the rep refused to believe any parent would actually name their child Glorybetogod), their daughter would be the sort of person for whom this flake of misfortune set rolling an avalanche of misery that quickly led to her contemplating taking her own life.
She called her mother, hoping to be talked out of it, but got her voice mail and then a text saying, What is it now? (Glory knew better than to respond.) A call to her father would yield an even cooler response, and so she spent the evening on the edge of her bed, neck tense as a fist, contemplating how a bottle of Moscato would pair with thirty gelcap sleeping pills. The note she wrote read, I was born under an unlucky star and my destiny has caught up with me. I’m sorry, Mummy and Daddy, that I didn’t complete law school and become the person you’d hoped. But it was also your fault for putting so much pressure on me. Good-bye.
All of this was true, and not. Her parents did put pressure on her, but it was the sort of hopeful pressure that might have encouraged a better person. And she was unlucky, yes, but it was less fate and more her propensity for arguing with professors and storming out of classrooms never to return that saw her almost flunk out of college. She eventually graduated, with an embarrassing GPA. Then came law school, to which she gained entrance through a favor of a friend of a friend of her father’s, thinking that her argumentative tendencies could be put to good use. But she’d managed to screw that up, too, choosing naps instead of class and happy hours instead of studying, unable to do right no matter how small the choice. These foolish little choices incremented into probation, then a polite request to leave, followed by an impolite request to leave after she’d staged a protest in the dean’s office.
Glory fell asleep after a glass and a half of wine and woke to find the pills a melted mass in her fist. In the morning light, her melodramatic note embarrassed her and she tore it up and flushed it down the toilet. At work, avoiding the glare of her supervisor and the finger he pointed at the clock, she switched on her headphones to receive the first call: Mrs. Dumfries. Her husband had died and she had no clue where any paperwork was. Could Glory help her keep her house? Glory read from her script, avoiding the no they were never allowed to utter. Then Glen, who was actually Greg, who was also Peter, who called every day at least four or five times and tried to trick the customer service reps into promises they couldn’t keep. Little did he know that even if Glory promised him his childhood home complete with all the antiques that had gone missing after the foreclosure, she would only be fired and he would still be stuck in the same two-bedroom apartment with his kids. All day the calls came in and Glory had to say no without saying no and the linguistic acrobatics required to evade this simple answer wore away her nerves.
At lunch, she ate one of the burritos that came three-for-a-dollar at the discount grocery store and a nice-looking sandwich that belonged to one of her coworkers, and checked her e-mail again. Then she walked by the lobby of the advertising agency that dominated the top two floors of the building. To the right of the glass lobby doors were mounted the logos of the companies the firm had branded. She paused and took a photo of herself in front of the logo of the jewelry megachain. If her Facebook page was ever restored, she would post the picture, with the caption “Worked on my favorite account today. The best part is the free samples!”
Then her cousin in Port Harcourt would like her post, and another friend would confess her envy, and others still would say how (OMG!) she was sooo lucky. And for a moment she would live the sort of life her parents had imagined for her those many, many years ago.
After her lunch break, she sank back into her seat and was about to switch her headset on when he walked in. Glory knew he was Nigerian right away by his gait. And when he spoke, a friendly greeting as he shook her supervisor’s hand, her guess was confirmed. He wore a suit, slightly ill fitting, but his shoulders made up for it. He joined a group of trainees across the room.
He had an air of competence she found irritating, reading from the script as though he had it memorized, managing to make it sound compassionate and genuine. At one point he noticed her staring, and every time she looked at him after that he was looking at her, too.
She culled bits and pieces of him over the rest of the day, eavesdropped from impressed supervisors who sang his praises. He was getting an MBA at the U. He’d grown up in Nigeria but visited his uncle in Atlanta every summer. After his MBA he was going to attend law school. His parents were both doctors.
Glory knew what he was doing, because she did the same: sharing too many details of her life with these strangers, signaling why she didn’t belong here earning $13.50 an hour. She was better than “customer service representative”—everyone should know that this title was only temporary. Except in his case, it was all true.
He smiled at her when she was leaving, a smile so sure of reciprocation that Glory wanted to flip him off. But the home training that lingered caused her to avert her eyes instead and hurry to catch the bus.
Her phone dinged. A text from her mother. Why did you call me, do you need money again? No, she wanted to respond, I’m doing fine, but she didn’t. After a week, her mother might send $500 and say this was the last time and she’d better not tell her father. Glory would use the money to complete her rent or buy new shoes or maybe squirrel it away to be nibbled bit by bit— candy here, takeout there—till it disappeared. Then, when her mother couldn’t restrain herself anymore, Glory would receive a stern, long-winded lecture via e-mail, about how she wouldn’t have to worry about such things if she were married, and why didn’t she let her father introduce her to some of the young men at his work? And Glory would delete it, and cry, and retrace all the missteps that had led her to this particular place. She knew her birth story and what her grandfather had said, but it never made a difference when the time came to make the right choice. She was always drawn to the wrong one, like a dog curious to taste its own vomit.
The next day, Glory arrived at work to see the man sitting in the empty spot next to hers.
“Good morning.” “Hi.”
“My name is Thomas. They told me you are also from Nigeria? You don’t sound it.”
“I’ve been here since I was six, I hope you don’t think I should have kept my accent that long.”
He flinched at her rudeness but pressed on.
“I don’t know many Nigerians here, maybe you can introduce me?”
Glory considered the handful of women she kept in touch with who would have loved to be introduced to this guy, still green and fresh. But they saw little of her real life, thinking Glory to be an ad exec with a fabulous lifestyle, and any introductions would jeopardize that.
“Sorry, I don’t really know anyone either. You should try talking to someone with real friends.”
He laughed, thinking she was joking, and his misunderstanding loosened her tongue. It was nice to talk to someone new who had no expectations of her.
“So, why are you slumming it here with the rest of us? Shouldn’t you be interning somewhere fabulous?” “This is my internship. I actually work in corporate but thought I should get a better understanding of what happens in the trenches.”
“Wait, you’re here voluntarily? Are you crazy?”
He laughed again. “No, it’s just . . . you wouldn’t understand.”
“I’m not stupid,” Glory said. “So fuck you.” Then she switched on her headset, ignoring his “Whoa, where did that come from?,” and turned her dial to the busiest queue. The calls came in one after then other, leaving Thomas little chance to apologize if he wanted to.
An hour in, he pressed a note into Glory’s palm.
I’m sorry, it read. Can I treat you to lunch?
Her pride said no, but her stomach, last filled with the sandwich she’d stolen yesterday afternoon, begged a yes.
She snatched up his pen. I guess.
Mom, I’m seeing someone. Glory typed and deleted that sentence over and over, never sending it. Her mother would call for sure, and then she’d dissect every description of Thomas till he was flayed to her satisfaction. Her father would ask to hear the “young man’s intentions.” The cloying quality of their attention would ruin it.
Thomas would have delighted them. He went to church every Sunday—though he’d learned to stop inviting her—and he had the bright sort of future that was every parent’s dream. He prayed over his meals, and before he went to bed, and when he woke up. He prayed for her. Glory despised him. She hated the sheen of accomplishment he wore, so dulled on her. She hated his frugal management of money. She hated that when she’d pressed him for sex he’d demurred, saying that they should wait till they were more serious.
Glory couldn’t get enough of him. She loved that he watched Cartoon Network with the glee of a teenager, loved that he could move through a crowd of strangers and emerge on the other side with friends. He didn’t seem to mind her coarseness, or how her bad luck had deepened her bitterness so that she wished even the best of people ill. He didn’t seem to mind how joy had become a finite meal she begrudged seeing anyone but herself consume. She wanted to ask him what he saw in her but was afraid his answer would be qualities she knew to be illusions. A carefree attitude that was simply carelessness. Bluntness mistaken for honesty when she was just mean.
They talked of Nigeria often, or at least he did, telling her about growing up in Onitsha and how he wanted to move back someday. He said we and us like it was understood she’d go back with him, and she began to savor a future she’d never imagined for herself.
She’d been to Nigeria many times, in fact, but she kept that from him, enjoying, then loathing, then enjoying how excited he was to explain the country to her. He didn’t know that what little money she could scrape together was spent on a plane ticket to Nigeria every thirteen months, or that over the past few years, she had arrived the day after her grandmother’s death, then the day after her great-aunt’s death, and then her uncle’s, so that her grandfather asked her to let him know when she booked her ticket so that he could prepare to die. Thomas still didn’t know she was unlucky.
She kept it secret to dissuade any probing, unaware that people like Thomas were never suspicious, as trusting of the world’s goodness as children born to wealth. When she visited her grandfather, they’d sit together in his room watching TV, Glory getting up only to fetch them food or drink. Nobody knew why she made the trips as often as she did, or why she eschewed the bustle of Lagos for her grandfather’s sleepy village. She couldn’t explain that her grandfather knew her, saw her for what she was—a black hole that compressed and eliminated fortune and joy—and still opened his home to her, gave her a room and a bed, the mattress so old the underside bore stains from when her mother’s water broke.
Near the end of her last stay, their conversation had migrated to her fate.
“There is only disaster in your future if you do not please the gods,” he’d said.
The older she got, the more she felt the truth of it: the deep inhale her life had been so far, in preparation for an explosive exhale that would flatten her.
“Papa, you know I don’t have it in me to win anyone’s favor, let alone the gods’.”
They were both dressed in shorts and singlets, the voltage of the generator too low to carry anything that cooled. Glory sat on the floor, shifting every half hour to savor the chill of cooler tiles. Her grandfather lounged on the bed. When he began one of his fables, she closed her eyes.
“A porcupine and a tortoise came to a crossroads, where a spirit appeared before them. ‘Carry me to the heart of the river and let me drink,’ the spirit said. Neither wanted to be saddled with the spirit, but they could not deny it without good reason.
“‘I am slow,’ said the tortoise, ‘it will take us many years to reach the river.’
“‘I am prickly,’ said the porcupine, ‘the journey will be too painful.’
“The spirit raged. ‘If you don’t get me to the heart of the river by nightfall and give me a cup to drink, I will extinguish every creature of your kind.’
“The tortoise and the porcupine conferred. ‘What if you carry me,’ said the tortoise, ‘while I carry the spirit? We will surely make it by nightfall.’
“‘I have a better idea,’ said the porcupine. ‘These are no ordinary quills on my back. They are magic quills capable of granting any wish. The only condition is that you must close your eyes and open them only after your wish is granted.’
“The tortoise and the spirit each plucked a quill, eager for desires out of reach, and closed their eyes. That’s when the porcupine snatched the quill from the tortoise and jammed it into the flesh of his throat. He filled the spirit’s hands with the tortoise’s blood, which it drank, thinking the gurgling it heard to be from the river. But spirits know the taste of blood. It lashed out at the porcupine, only to find that it could move no faster than a tortoise. The porcupine continued on his way.”
Her grandfather’s long pause signaled the end. “Are you hearing me?”
“Yes, but what does it mean?”
“If you can’t please the gods, trick them.”
Glory’s time with her grandfather had eased pressure building in her, but the relief had been short-lived. A stream of catastrophes greeted her stateside: Keys left on the plane. A car accident, her foot slipping on the pedal made smooth by the car insurance check she’d forgotten to mail. A job lost for lack of transportation, which after many fruitless applications had landed her in the petri dish of the call center where she’d met Thomas.
Thomas, on the other hand, was a lucky man. He always seemed to find money lying about the street, although never so large an amount as to induce alarm or guilt. He always got what he wanted, always, and attributed it to ingenuity and perseverance, unaware of the halo of good fortune resting on his head. When Glory had him write a new request to Facebook, her page was restored in a day. He would have been appalled to know she sometimes followed him when they parted ways after work, watching with fascination as he drew amity from everyone he encountered.
Some of his luck did rub off on her and she found herself receiving invitations to long-standing events she hadn’t even known existed. Igbo Women’s Fellowship of the Midwest. Daughters of Biafra, Minnesota chapter. Party, Party, a monthly event rotated among different homes. Sometimes, as she watched Thomas charm a crowd with little effort, she wondered how it was that one person could be so blessed and another not. They’d been born in the same state to parents of similar means and faith. Even accounting for the privileges of his maleness, it seemed to Glory that they should have been in the same place. She began to think of his luck as something that had been taken from her and viewed their relationship as a way to even her odds.
At last they were serious enough for Thomas, and the sex was not mediocre exactly, but just good, not the mind-blowing experience she’d expected it to be. But Thomas was moved and thanked her for trusting him, and she said, “You’re welcome,” in that cutesy, girlish way she knew he would like, even though what she really wanted was for him to stop being such a gentleman and fuck her silly.
And the more he said us and we, the less quickly she deleted that Mom, I’m seeing someone text. One day, instead of sending it, she posted a picture of her and Thomas on her Facebook wall, setting off a sequence that involved her Port Harcourt cousin calling another cousin who called another and so on and so forth, until the news reached her mother, who called her. It took thirty-seven minutes.
Glory waited till just before the call went to voice mail to pick up.
“Who is he? Praise God! What is his name?” “Thomas Okongwu,” and at Okongwu her mother started praising God again. Glory couldn’t help but laugh and felt a blush of gratitude. It had been years since any news she’d delivered over the phone had given her mother cause for joy. She told her about Thomas and his ambitions, getting more animated the more excited her mother became. She ignored the undercurrent of disbelief on the other end of the line, as if her mother couldn’t quite believe her daughter had gotten something right.
After that, it was like everything she did was right. Her job, long pilloried, was now a good thing. The fact that she had no career, her father wrote, meant that she could fully concentrate on her children when they came along. Her ineptitude at managing money no longer mattered. You see, he continued, she’d picked the perfect man to make up for her weaknesses. Kind where she was not, frugal where she was not. Successful.
Glory stared at her father’s e-mail, meant to comfort but instead bringing to mind the wine and pills and what they could do to a body. She moved the message to a folder she’d long ago titled “EVIDENCE”— documents gathered to make her case if she chose never to speak to her father again.
When Thomas asked her if she’d like to meet his mother, Glory knew the right answer and gave it. But she panicked at the prospect of having to impress this woman. Her parents had been easy. Thomas was impressive. She was not.
“Why do you want me to meet her?” she asked. She knew the question was a bit coy, but she wanted some reassurance to hold on to.
Thomas shrugged. “She asked to meet you.”
“So you didn’t ask her if she wanted to meet me?”
After a patient rolling of eyes, Thomas gripped her shoulders and shook her with gentle exasperation.
“You’re always doing this. Of course I want you to meet her and of course she wants to meet you. You’re all she ever talks about now. Look.” He dialed his cell phone. Glory heard a woman laugh on the other end of the line and say something that made Thomas laugh too. Then he said, “Hey, Mum, she’s right here. I’ll let you talk, but don’t go scaring her off.” The warm phone was pressed to her ear, and a voice just shy of being too deep for a woman’s greeted her.
Glory tried to say all the right things about herself and her family, which meant not saying much about herself at all. She wanted this woman to like her, and even beyond that, to admire her, something she wasn’t sure she could achieve without lies. On Facebook, she’d pretended to quit her job at the ad firm—a “sad day indeed,” an old college friend had written on her wall, making Glory suspect he knew the truth. (She unfriended him right away.) But Thomas’s mother could not be so easily dismissed. Glory trotted out her parents’ accomplishments—engineer mother, medical-supply-business-owner father—to shore up her pedigree. Then she mentioned more recent social interests of hers, like the Igbo women’s group, leaving out Thomas’s hand in that. All the while her inner voice wondered what the hell she was doing. Tricking the gods, she replied.
The day Thomas’s mother flew in, Glory cooked for hours at his apartment. She’d solicited recipes from her mother, who took much joy in walking her through every step over the phone. By the time Thomas left for the airport, his apartment was as fragrant as a buka, with as large a variety of dishes awaiting eager bellies.
His mother was tall and Glory felt like a child next to her. His mother was also warm, and she folded Glory into a perfumed, bosomy hug.
“Welcome, ma,” Glory said, then wanted to kick herself for sounding so deferential.
“My dear, no need to be so formal, I feel like I’ve known you for years, the way my son goes on and on. It’s me who should be welcoming you into the family.”
She complimented each dish, tasting a bit of one after the other and nodding before filling her plate. It was a test, and Glory was gratified to see that she had passed.
Thomas squeezed her leg under the table, a reassuring pressure that said, See? Nothing to worry about. But what did a person like him know about worry? When his mother questioned her about her work, it was clear she assumed Glory worked in corporate with Thomas, and neither of them dissuaded her. Yet it rankled Glory, who couldn’t decide whether Thomas had stretched the truth into a more presentable form or hadn’t realized what his mother would assume.
Thomas used the pause that followed to excuse himself on an errand. Glory, knowing there was no such errand, gripped his hand tight, pleading. Thomas pried his hand away while his mother busied herself adjusting her coffee to her liking.
He leaned over and whispered, “Just be you. She likes you already, relax.”
Thomas pecked Glory on her nervous, trembling mouth and kissed his mother on the cheek. As soon as the door closed behind him, the older woman spoke.
“Well, it’s just us girls now, what should we chat about?” She smiled an invitation at Glory, who took a long sip of water to mask her anxiety. When she didn’t say anything, Thomas’s mother took the lead.
“So you two are supervising a group of three hundred? You should have no problem with a family then. Thomas says they are like a bunch of unruly children.” She laughed.
Glory knew she should laugh, too, make light of the notes posted around the call center asking people not to steal food. But her contrary nature stirred.
“Actually, I am one of those unruly children. I work the floor.”
“Oh.” Then seamlessly, “Well, it’s no matter at this point, is it. I’m so happy that you will soon leave the US to come and stay with me in Nigeria. It’s so important to bring up the children there. Thomas’s father and I are delighted that you both agree.”
This was something Glory and Thomas had never discussed. If he’d been there, he would have squeezed her leg, a silent Please don’t argue with my mother. Glory felt it then, that peculiar knot at the back of her neck that tensed whenever she came to a crossroads. The prospect of disappointing Thomas so boldly was the only thing that stayed her tongue. Unfortunately, that reticence extended to the rest of their exchange.
“So, no siblings.” “No.”
“You didn’t enjoy that, I’m sure. Kids need companions, don’t you think?”
Every minute that passed without Thomas by her side, Glory felt as though a veil was slipping off her, revealing more and more of her true nature. With every question his mother asked, and every terse answer she gave, Glory felt his mother close off a bit, leaning back as though to consider what manner of girl she was. Her interior was frantic, grasping for something interesting to say, but monosyllables were all she could manage.
After thirty minutes, his mother’s pleasantness had cooled to politeness and Glory excused herself to the bathroom before it chilled further.
You have to come back now, she texted Thomas. Now! And he did, just as his mother grew serious and leaned in to have some say. Perfect timing as always.
With Thomas there, the ease between the two women returned, but the more they talked, the more his mother touched on the expectation that Glory would drop everything and go back to Nigeria and live there with her hypothetical children, in her mother-in-law’s house. Thomas was most comfortable in Nigeria and would move back when he was done with schooling to join Glory, who would already be settled. If the idea had been hers, or if she’d even been asked, Glory might not have minded, but all this was delivered as a given, not a choice. All Thomas’s talk of we and us felt less like a collaboration now and more like a general commanding his troops. It surprised Glory to realize that she had not been the only one scheming.
After they took his mother to her hotel, Thomas and Glory idled in the parking lot, each waiting for the other to break the silence. Then, offering neither apology nor explanation, Thomas placed a box on Glory’s lap. She opened it, the hinge levering to reveal a ring that, just a year ago, she would never have imagined herself receiving. The tension returned to her neck.
A part of Glory had always thought to win her parents’ good graces by her own merit. She held out hope that one day all her missteps would stumble her into accomplishments she could hold up as her own, that the seeming chaos of her life would coalesce into an intricate puzzle whose shape one could see only when it was complete. That this ring was to be her salvation—she couldn’t bear it. And yet, salvation it was. Acceptance into many proper folds. Lies she would never again have to tell. She could lose herself in the whirlwind of Thomas, golden child become golden man.
But then Glory thought back to that first time she’d turned her luck with a truly reckless move, the thing with the dog. There was her uncle’s dog, napping. She’d felt antsy all over and a thought wormed into her head, that the tension would go away if she touched the dog’s tongue. It suddenly seemed the right and only thing to do. She rubbed the scar now, thinking of all the times she’d picked stupid over sensible, knowing, just knowing, that this time she’d gotten it right. She could not afford to get it wrong again.
Looking at the ring, resentment and elation warred till one overcame the other and Glory made another decision.
On dark, stormy nights they would run through the sleeping streets, burning torches in their hands, and no one saw their faces and no one knew their names. And the echoes of the steps of fourteen feet and the flicker of the torches unnerved the slumbering town. And the mighty wind that was blowing, and the streams of rain pouring down could not blow out the torches’ yellow flames. They would swiftly pass through all the narrow, crooked alleys and run across the long bridge, whose iron would bend under the weight of their bodies, and they would stand in front of a small old wooden house and wait. And the low door would slowly open, and a small and hunched little woman would appear in its frame. With a deep bow and without a word, she would let one of the seven come into her quarters. And each day, a different one was called upon. And she would shut the door behind her and the remaining six would blow out their torches, and bow their heads, and wait.
The woman would bring the chosen one into her room, caress him with her burning little body and kiss him, and she would not utter a word and no smile ever passed her lips…
And the rain would trickle into the house through the decrepit roof, washing the two of them, and the wind would burst in and howl through the empty room and make the shutters shudder from outside. And they did not notice a thing…
And when the darkness would disperse and the grey and rainy morning twilight gazed through the windows with surveying eyes, the woman would wake up and take the head of the one who was beside her in both hands… And she would bring her face close to his and look into his eyes, and her mouth would twist with torment and her lips would whisper: “But no, it is not you!” And she would push him away from her, and go to the corner of the room and peer out from there with empty cold eyes, and he would get up and leave the house.
And again all seven would cross the bridge, and crawl like shadows through narrow and crooked alleys, secretly crying and sighing.
And on gloomy days, when the skies were one big block of lead, heavy and dark dreary days, the little woman would wander through the streets of the town. Her back was hunched and her dress was grey and soiled, and the rims of her grey sweater would flutter in the air. Her face was pale and there was no sparkle in her black eyes. She was like a wounded bat that could not find a place for itself. And everyone saw her face and no one knew her name. She would always hurry through the crowds of people and look at the face of every man who crossed her path. And no one graced her with a smile.
And then once the skies were a little higher and the air a little purer and colder. And she ran in the evening across the long bridge leading to her house, and the painted iron mocked and laughed under the steps of her little feet. And the woman suddenly raised her head and saw someone before her, who stood opposite and looked at the waters. He was tall and spruce. A white ferret fur shawl descended from his back, fold after fold. Light blue eyes brightened his young face and silver hairs adorned his cheeks, and a wreath of bluish luminance shimmered on his head. She went to him and looked at his face and he smiled. She took him by the hand and led him to her derelict house. And he, handsome and wonderful, followed her…
And the night was cold, and the first butterflies of snow came down from the skies, quivered in the air and then nestled on the ground. And seven men holding burning torches stood in front of the door of the old house on the other side of the river and waited. But the door did not open and no one came to greet them. And they started banging and banging on the doors and windows and there was no reply. And the wind blew out the flames of their torches, and the cold became greater and greater from hour to hour, and they began to freeze…
And when the darkness dispersed and the fresh morning brightness laughed gaily in the windows, the woman awoke from her sleep. She took the head of the one who was by her side in both hands and put her face close to his and looked into his eyes and her lips whispered: “Why, it is you!” and her cheeks turned rosy and her eyes and hair gleamed all at once and she raised her head and saw that the ceiling above her grew high and her room was glorious and all aglow and her heart was light and she laughed.
And when the townsfolk awoke and left their houses, they all saw with surprise and amazement a wonder on the other side of the river. Seven statues with torches in their hands were guarding its gates. And the ice torches laughed and glistened in the sunlight in thousands of colours.
(A true story)
Since she was beautiful and foolish —and she became more foolish when she was beautiful and more beautiful when she was foolish — and since he loved her, and since he had nothing to give her but the position of commissar, he made her Commissar of the Circus.
And so the beautiful Nina began to chair regular and special meetings while holding her beautiful infant. When she had to give a small speech, she handed the baby to her neighbor on the right – the “he” of our prologue — or to her neighbor on the left (on the side of her heart) — a Hungarian horse rider who might have been half as powerful as the one on the right but was, it must be said in his favor, half his age. The baby preferred this one, since the rider didn’t have a beard. But the child also loved the all-powerful man, since a certain object glittered and danced between that one’s myopic, trusting eyes, the object called a “pince-nez” in my country. The infant pinched the nose of the Commissar and tugged at the pretty curl of the Hungarian. So the clever little baby had two favorite past-times with both nannies of the male gender.
But while this was going on, what was her husband doing? Yes, there is also a husband in our story. The husband was elsewhere, at the other end of the city on the lawn in front of the former mansion of the former Counts Sollogubov, now a “Palace of Arts,” where he was writing poetry, or to be more precise — ruminating on writing poetry — at some point, when he had time, inspiration and so on, in short: on one fine day when “all this comes to an end.” But there was no end to “all this,” and he did well to be elsewhere, at the other end of the city, since the baby, occupied with the pince-nez and the curl, didn’t have an extra hand for or interest in the red beard of Nina’s husband. He, Nina’s husband, had a red beard that was endless and pointless (as all beards are pointless), a beard that he let grow as God lets the grass grow, but which — the beard — grew faster and longer than grass. And so, redder against green, flame on emerald, beard on grass: Nina’s husband dreamed. He dreamed and drank straight from the bottle.
The Revolution had broken all the glasses and the Restoration, that great Atoner and Mender, had not arrived yet, so he really did drink “straight from,” just like a baby drinks milk and just as greedily — in fact, even more greedily. Certainly the beard made him thirsty. When he noticed the bottle becoming empty, Barbarossa 1, the true son of a Russian merchant, was troubled by the sight of its emptiness and felt remorse over the emptying he had done, and he began to whisper prayers. Which prayers? All of them. Even for the repose of the soul. If the sun was too hot, he’d go through a little door into the former family chapel of the former Counts Sollogubov, which had been turned into a Museum of Cults, whose director and sole visitor he was, and busied himself there for hours with icons and crosses of all sizes.
Toward evening Barbarossa exchanged the green carpet and baking sun for an ordinary chair and the only candle, and, sitting at the table in front of a bottle that would fill up as soon as it was empty and empty as soon as it was full, he would tell anyone who would listen to him the same story, the only story in his life: how he abducted the beautiful Nina.
“In Crimea, you know, my friend, how black the nights are. So not a drop could be seen (“glug-glug” and swallow). And the roads, you know, all lead down (the level of liquid in the bottle also went down)… of course, there are roads up, but then you find yourself on the top of the mountain, and there’s nothing there — nothing except a dreadful peak, absolutely bald, with an eagle that pecks your eyes out. So it looked like we had to choose the roads that led down, since we decided to go to… Well, now I don’t remember where. In any case, we decided to go to the place you could leave from, seeing as I abducted her. Aha! I figured that the ones that led down — see where I’m going with this? — led to the sea and the ones that went up — got it? —led into the mountains. And since we soon decided to take the ferry — you see? —we naturally needed water… but the driver was really drunk… really very drunk. The car tore off… with Nina inside… and Nina tore off since she’d abandoned her father and mother because of me (tender emotions; a long “glug-glug”). So the car sped off with Nina, who sped off inside… You wouldn’t believe how fast it went, that car! The night was black, the roads ran off in all directions, the wheels slipped, the driver was drunk, drunk as the black night!”
The faster the car sped along in the story, the slower the storyteller spoke; the faster the story went, the more the storyteller abbreviated it.
“You see, Nina inside… the driver – drunk. The night – black… Potholes. Gouged… the car sped… it sped…the car at top sp—(“—eed.” His mouth open on the last syllable, the storyteller fell asleep.)
Meanwhile, Nina, dressed in all her finery, like a jinn, put one hand, wide with rings, on the hands of the all-powerful one and used her other hand to throw a red flower across the red railing of her theater loge to the Hungarian rider, who once again basked in glory, flowers, smiles, and sweat.
The clever little baby lay deep inside the loge and slept.
* * *
Every morning we humble people, who had fetched up here in this former neighborhood of the nobility, watched raptly as Nina, like the rising sun, glided between two rows of ancient linden trees in a yellow cabriolet on two enormous wheels that turned like two suns, pulled by two horses that were also yellow.
A poet would say: Aurora in her chariot.
We all said, “Look the Commissar of the Circus.” Or “Look — the wife of Barbarossa.” Everyone, poet or not, expressed one profound thought: “Such good fortune! In these times, for one woman to have ten legs…”
We were not envious since we were Scythians — or Sarmatians — or Slavs (captives, Tatars, Barbarians) — in short, since we were Russians, we weren’t envious and were able to take pleasure from the beauty gliding past us.
(What would I, who called up this vision, do in my actual poet’s garret with two yellow horses, two wheels — also yellow — a husband with a red beard, a commissar in a pince-nez, a red-headed Hungarian rider, and who knows whose baby? No thanks. I’d change nothing. To each their own!)
And so, every morning Povarskaya Ulitsa turned into the pagan firmament and Nina became Aurora.
But also every morning, on the same street, in a lovely, large, round and very old white church dedicated to the brothers and martyr princes Boris and Gleb, an old and stubborn priest held Matins.
And also every morning the Red Army replied to the church service right there in front of the white church with a marching band.
It is a Sunday morning in sunny May. All hungry Moscow is out on the street to taste the scent of the lindens, drink in the blueness and especially – to imbibe the music, that regimental music that is always so soothing, exactly like the sight of a beautiful horse or two beautiful horses, especially yellow ones, especially driven if not by the masterful hand of the man who kept them, at least by the hand of his kept woman.
But what is happening with our two yellow horses today? Have they been lit on fire from the beard of Barbarossa? Or did the sprite of the linden trees addle their minds? Instead of stopping by the Palace of Arts next to the automobile that was already waiting for the all-powerful one to make his morning visit, they galloped to Kudrino Square, where, even more skittish, they ran around in circles, in circles around the square, not heeding Nina’s heart-rending shouts or obeying the reins in her hands, which were growing weak.
Spin ‘round, spin ‘round, wooden horses! But these horses are not made of wood, and they should run straight. But these… have they finally gone mad? They spin around like whirling dervishes, turning their necks, swinging their chestnut manes over the old cobblestones of the old square, with no mercy for the cabriolet or rider, who was standing on legs turning to wood with arms shaking spasmodically and a mane wilder than those of the horses.
This will not end well! Being the Commissar of the Circus, throwing flowers to the Hungarian rider, suckling a baby who also might be from the Hungarian — that does not make her Hungarian or a rider.
A poet from the Palace of Arts shouts: “It’s a race from hell!” An artist from the same palace pronounces: “Phaeton.” Everyone else, like people always do everywhere, watched and did nothing but comment: “It’s the end of Nina. The all-powerful one is witness to his own powerlessness… The Hungarian rider is witness to his absence…” Suddenly a shout goes up: “Barbarossa!”
Yes, Barbarossa, Red Beard, verily risen from his crypt of grass, Barbarossa in flesh and beard, running out and jumping like a kangaroo, holding an enormous silver cross. He holds it right in front of the horses’ noses, shaking it at them. They suddenly come to a halt, since they are horses and they can halt suddenly. But that is not all. They kneel down. Yes, both of them — and they do it gracefully, like people. And that is not all. They bow. They bow with dignity, like people, as the Commissar and Barbarossa take Aurora, weeping copious tears but already breaking into a smile, into their united, or rather, separate hands.
And from the people, from us — people who don’t know envy, people who don’t know irony — from the people come only exclamations: “It’s a miracle! How can you say that there is no God, if even horses believe in Him?”
Caught up in the heat of events, or rather, by the events of the heat, I forgot to say that the end of the horses’ race coincided with the end of the music — the ceremonial and daily march from former times in the recent past when they were still just simple circus horses who did not have to pull a cabriolet with a Commissar astride.
But if in past times their bows were intended for the public, couldn’t their current bows — considering the extraordinary circumstances — be intended for God?
And since the horses kept on bowing, we applauded.
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
I’m going to a funeral, and for the occasion, I’ve chosen a knee-length black Donna Karan dress (Flashy Trash, $15), black lace bra and panties, garter belt, sheer black stockings and brown snow boots with my “For Funerals Only” black pumps stuffed in a Hello Kitty backpack. If I didn’t care at all what people think, I would have added purple elbow-length gloves and a hat with a dotted veil. I would’ve used brown eyeliner to paint a mole on one cheekbone like Marie Antoinette. I wear the garter belt in memoriam of the guy who died. He would have appreciated the effort. I also like the shiver that comes when the wind whips under my dress and tickles my bare thighs. It makes me want to squeal and bend my leg at the knee.
It’s not often I can dress this way. The people at Mitch, Saunders, Mitch and Saunders are Republican lawyers whose idea of a fashion risk is a Wile E. Coyote tie.
At the first bus stop, raincoat-wearing passengers line up at the door. I sit in the front row of seats thinking, don’t you dare sit next to me. No, not you either—when this guy steps on who looks just like the man in the Levi’s commercial. I beam thought rays at him. Fuck me. Fuck me now. The fat guy in front of him heaves into the seat next to mine. My man passes by, leaving a whiff of lemony cologne.
For the rest of the ride, I try out scenarios for how it could happen. The bus stalls, no—the bus driver has a diabetic fit and my Levi man takes control, yelling, I’ll drive! Everyone (except me) shrieks. His manly hands grip the steering wheel. I must finish this route! I run to the front of the bus, pushing people out of my way, Excuse me, excuse me, the skirt of my dress riding up my thighs. I must help him because he’s injured his left hand (it’s been sprained somehow by the fat guy), and I have to steer for him, and the only way to do that is to sit on his lap.
It’s too close to the premise of Speed, and anyway, I’d no doubt block his view and we’d crash and my mom would have to identify the body and she would be mortified to see me wearing a black lace thong.
I exit the bus at Michigan Avenue, casting one last meaningful glance at my almost-lover. He doesn’t even turn his head to look at me while I stand at the crosswalk, wishing a breeze would come along and blow my hair across my cheek.
I have a minor panic attack as I enter the church foyer, because I have forgotten how to genuflect.
Then I see the guy from Divorce Law in the last pew. I usually don’t find him attractive because his face is dented with pockmarks and he walks on the balls of his feet with his hands in his pockets, but when he turns, his gaze skimming over me, I notice he has the bluest, bluest eyes and you can’t help but wonder what he looks like naked. Maybe underneath his starched button-up oxford he’s hiding a chest rippled with muscles. Maybe he has excellent technique, very adept fingers that would make me arch my back and lose complete control, and, at our wedding, our guests would line up to congratulate us, dying to ask me what I saw in him. I would look over at his long thin, talented fingers, one now circled with a gold band, smile and say, Oh, yes, thank you for coming.
The service begins with the horn-like opening bars of “Morning Has Broken.” I squeeze in next to my friend, Jennifer Sanantini, who works as a receptionist for Fred Cornell who smokes cigars and chews gum at the same time. The casket sits in the front of the church, and all you can see of the body is the tip of the nose, sticking into the air like it’s testing the smell of the white orchids in large baskets on the floor.
The organ music falls silent when the priest approaches the pulpit. He is not your typical, sixty-eight-year-old holy man with a shaky voice and bald head. He’s about Jesus’ age when he died and he appears heterosexual. His hair springs around his head in neat whorls and he has the chiseled features like a religious figure from a stained glass window. Strong jaw, defined cheekbones, sensuous wide mouth, and sweet hands now making the sign of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Holy Mary, mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. I want to crawl under the podium and slip between his legs while he says, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. While everyone prays, he would look down at me, there, prone on my knees. He’d push my head away, his face white. For the love of God, what are you doing? I would bow my head and say, Forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin and then I would take him in my mouth and his hands would tighten on the podium and he’d whisper, No, no, you must cease and desist, but I wouldn’t, and he would respond against his will.
Jennifer Sanantini is frowning at me and I realize I’m wiggling and I stop.
Sometimes, I worry that God listens to my thoughts and will answer stray fragments of them one day, causing me to be gang-raped in an alleyway by a pack of eighteen-year-old construction workers with Irish accents who resemble J. Crew models. I try to keep my prayers very explicit. Please let Jonathan Pervival Simmons from Accounting whom I know only to say hi to through Brenda Lesley in P.R. show up at my apartment one night, banging his fists on the door and shouting, Katie! Open up! I can’t go another minute without touching you! This, God, must happen on a night I’m wearing my red short nightgown instead of a yellow-pitted white T-shirt and my kitty-cat flannel pajama bottom and glasses. And I have definitely not picked my face and my eyes are not puffy from crying over long distance phone commercials and my bed is actually made, and he’s wearing—but, you know, sometimes I never make it beyond the door-knocking. The details are exhausting and the struggle to make it real is too tedious and so the rest of the story doesn’t seem worth the effort.
After the ceremony ends, we must file past the body and pay our last respects. I follow Jennifer Sanantini whose slip peeks under the hem of her dress. This is my first dead person in a while. I can’t stop chewing my fingernails. When I finally see him, it’s not that bad. He’s wearing a suit I don’t recognize from work. He looks the same, more or less, except it’s as though his face is made of wax, like if you took a wet washcloth and rubbed a little circle on his cheek, it’d turn shiny.
A bunch of us meet up at a semi-professional bar in Lincoln Park to drink a beer in his memory.
We’re there for about fifteen minutes when I spot this man at the end of the bar who reminds me of a boy I was in love with in college. Jon Preston. You had to say his full name, in whispered tones. He sewed patches on his jeans before it was even cool and I thought, Damnit! Why didn’t I think of that? Now I can’t wear patches because it’ll seem like I’m copying him.
I stood in awe, every moment with him was unreal, like this gift from heaven. I’d think he didn’t even know my name and then catch him staring hard at me while I was doing something stupid like trying to open the door without using my hands.
The most lucid memory I have of that time is lying on his mattress covered with dinosaur sheets. I was wearing a heavy metal square my friend gave me from Afghanistan. It hung on a leather strap around my neck. I said, Do you want me to take it off? He said, No, leave it on, and the cool gray metal thumped between us while I rocked on top of him. He looked at me with clear blue eyes, his pupils large and black with a dot of gold in the center. I wish I could draw them to show you how perfect they were and how much I wanted inside those eyes to switch places with him and know what he was seeing in me.
Three Heinekens later, this look-alike Jon Preston stands next to me. His eyes are closer together than I first thought. He says, It’s loud in here. It’s hard to talk.
I yell, What? As a joke. He repeats, It’s loud in here. That’s ten points off for not knowing how funny I am.
Then I discover he loves Annie Hall and he quotes the line about the raccoons and I believe we could fall in love and raise adorable children without pretentious names and move to the country and buy a golden retriever and name it Janet and in the winter he’d wear soft flannel shirts and heavy boots and he’d chop wood and also cook oatmeal and when he’d come in from the snow carrying an armload of wood, his cheeks would be so rosy I’d want to bite them. I ask him who his favorite artist is. Norman Rockwell. What music does he listen to? Phish. What toy did he like best when he was growing up? Huh?
I say I have to go find my friend now.
Jennifer Sanantini is listening to one of the junior lawyers tell about a messy divorce case involving a box of Penthouse Forum letters that the wife found to be harmful to their children. Jennifer laughs and nods and shakes her head and, when she sees I’m watching her and the guy is not, she wrinkles her nose and sticks out her tongue a little.
Our group has suddenly grown alcohol-maudlin, in part because someone put “Seasons in the Sun” on the jukebox and also because, after all, we did just come from a funeral. The junior lawyer starts telling another story, this one about the deceased and how he used to crack everyone up because he’d always forget to zip up his pants and once he walked around at a convention with his shirt tail hanging out of his crotch. Gary, the guy who’s always loitering by the water cooler, throws his head back and laughs and tries to put his arms around me but I see it coming and duck to inspect a non-existent run in my stocking.
I wonder what the dead man’s family remembers about him, or maybe he lived alone in an apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. Maybe he played old Frank Sinatra records over and over and only ate Swanson pot pies. Maybe he wore checkered grandpa-pajamas and thick mule slippers and maybe he looked out the window and thought, Is this everything?
I count six baseball hats and three men in Cubs T-shirts. I search for one guy I would take home with me, just one; I have to pick one or else God will kill my entire family. There is no one. This makes me want to go home, turn off the lights, lie on the floor and listen to Counting Crows’ “Omaha,” even though it makes me sad because it reminds me of my grandma, whom I miss but never call.
Jennifer acts overly concerned when I tell her I’m leaving. Are you sure you’ll be okay? Are you sure? Out of the corner of her eye, she’s looking to see if Brad, the married guy in Damage Control, notices how good of a friend she is. Brad is not; he is guzzling a beer and involved in a serious conversation about the Bulls. I admire his leather suspenders, but only because I really, really hate them.
While hailing a taxi, I pretend I’m “That Girl.” A cab zips to the curb and stops without a screech. I give the driver my address, squirming in the seat to see his dashboard ID photograph and name without him becoming suspicious.
The cabby’s neck is smooth, vulnerable, and his ears stick out. Please don’t talk to me, I pray. He says, It’s starting to snow, huh? The wiper blades squeak across the windshield.
Yes, it is.
He says, You are coming from a party?
I press my legs together. The skin sticks. I feel like he can tell what kind of underwear I’m wearing. Maybe he can even smell me. Yeah, I say. Somebody died.
We drive the rest of the way in silence. When he pulls up to my apartment, I tip him extra for not being better company.
The snow is falling in huge white flakes, God sifting great puffs of flour from the sky. The cabbie waits to see if I make it inside okay. I want to run over to his window and say, Would you like to come up for a cup of hot chocolate? Instead, I hold out my hand and catch a snowflake on my mitten, turn, and spin for him so that my skirt flares out a little.
I look back, and he is still watching me, almost smiling. He waves and starts to drive off. I say, Thank you, and run down the sidewalk to the warmth of my building.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Aimee LaBrie from Wonderful Girl
During the early years of the Ming Dynasty, one young woman in particular was praised for her beauty. Of course there were other beauties, but wherever Liling went, admirers clapped, as if she were on stage rather than in her own life, or they bowed— and sometimes they did both—for they were captivated by her coiffed hair, her straight, small shoulders, her perfect, blushing skin, and her hands—so exquisite, so delicate, able to express everything in the most minuscule gesture. Liling leant on silken pillows embroidered with all the colors of the rainbow.
But she could not walk. At least not very far. Her feet had been bound at birth and now the deformed stubs at the ends of her legs could barely support her. Slaves bore her where she wanted to go, the poles of the litter supported on their shoulders, which in warm weather were oiled to glisten. In that case she would drape silk scarves over her face to prevent the sun from damaging her skin.
The purpose of binding women’s feet, as I’m sure you know, was to make them attractive to men. The bound feet grew no longer than three inches. The permanent contortion of the foot excited the men, but why, I cannot say. Then again, with such small feet, the women’s bodies swayed, sometimes precariously. The men liked that, found it erotic. It also allowed them to think that the women needed their strong arms. Parents bound their daughters’ feet to ensure that they would find husbands with money.
Liling was happy, but, she thought, she would be so much happier if she could walk without always being about to tip over. She longed to explore the city on her own. She wanted to dance, if only for an hour. Her younger brother told her of his adventures in the city. How he ran and jumped and leapt over obstacles. How he climbed stairs and played games with his friends.
One day Little Brother came home wet. His hair was wet, there were drops of water on his hanfu. His feet were wet, his black cotton shoes soaked. “Where have you been, Little Brother?” Her voice was sweet, lulling, as it always was.
“Swimming,” said Changming.
Liling knew that people who lived near the shore often swam, but her family were not near the shore. She knew that fishermen fished in the sea. She knew that fish and octopi swam in the sea. But—had Changming gone swimming in the sea?
“I’m learning,” her brother said. “At school. At school I am learning to swim.”
“At school? I thought you were studying letters and numbers at school.”
“I am. But there is also swimming. We swim in the pool at school.”
“The pool at school,” she repeated, as if it were the most astonishing rhyme in the world. “The pool at school,” she said again.
When her mother and father called Liling and Changming to dinner, she made up her mind.
“Papa,” she said. “I want to learn to swim.”
Her father’s eyebrows went up. As if each were a little springbox or a rolled scroll.
“Females do not swim,” he said, and his voice was low, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear it. Maybe he thought a servant would overhear.
Liling adopted her calmest manner but she did not lower her voice from its natural range.
“I want to. I believe it will be good for me.”
“Females have no need to swim,” her father countered.
“I am female, Papa, and I have a need to swim.”
Her father laid down his chopsticks and propped his chin on his hands. The rice in the centered bowl was still steaming. He brought his teacup to his mouth and sipped. At last he spoke. “What is this need?” he asked. “Have we not provided you with everything you need?”
“No, Papa,” she said, not so much stubbornly as assuredly. “You see, my Lotus shoes”—by which she meant her deformed feet—“prevent me from learning about the world. And I am desirous of learning the world.”
“Desirous,” Papa said. “Perhaps you mistake the world for a husband. You will find a husband.”
“Yes, Papa, I know. But first I must learn to swim.”
Mama and Little Brother were as still as statues as this conversation continued. They were afraid Papa might stomp out of the room or lash out at Liling for her unconscionable request. Did she think she was above the rules? She was her father’s favorite, yes, but he had to conform too. He too was bound—to convention.
“Must?” her father said.
“I am telling you the truth, Papa. You must take my word for it.”
“Must and must again.”
She said nothing.
“Your need is strong.”
She looked straight into his eyes and did not flinch.
“So be it,” he said, whereupon Mama, Little Brother, and even Liling relaxed their shoulders and sighed with relief.
The first time she dipped her foot in water she thought the water was like silk that moved of its own volition. It seemed as if a silk scarf were draped over her foot. She sat on the edge of the pool, that one foot—the right foot—dangling in water, and not until she became accustomed to the sensation did she lower her left foot. The water seemed to be cool and warm at the same time. Her brother demonstrated dog paddling, and then her father taught her to float.
She closed her eyes and she was floating on air. When she opened them again, she almost went under, but her father held her up with his strong arms and hands. Changming taught her the breast stroke. After she learned them, she practiced the breast stroke, the backstroke, the butterfly each day. It did not happen overnight, but eventually she had the hang of it. Now she felt as if she were crossing miles, though it was only the length of the pool. Freedom, she thought. I now know what freedom is.
Her small shoulders strengthened. She thought she might grow wings, because swimming was a kind of flying.
Did Liling drown? Her family may have thought so, but no, she did not drown. She swam the Yangzi. She swam the Nile. She swam the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence. She swam the Panama Canal and the English Channel. The Volga. The Dnieper. The Rhine. The Baltic Sea and the Vistula and the Seine. The Po and the Tiber. The Zambezi. She swam so far and so much that in time she forgot the names of some of the places she’d visited.
She skipped the Amazon. She had no wish to be nibbled to death by piranhas.
She never returned. She did not want a husband. She wanted to see the world.
Her parents missed her. Papa scolded himself for letting her learn to swim. Mama scolded Papa for letting Liling learn to swim. Little Brother would inherit all their earthly riches, which he would have gladly given up if only Liling came back. He missed his sister! Indeed, he missed her so much that he never again wanted to swim, not even in a pool. He thought it was his fault that she had gone away, and he’d been so proud of his big sister, her beauty, her intelligence. Her power, because he had felt that. Her power. Her strength. But he also thought: She must never have loved us. Any of us.
Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Temporium by Kelly Cherry.