(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.
My lover’s fingers are long. When he stretches them out, they bow in the middle. When they bend, he can span five frets. He sits on the wide window sill, the guitar resting on his bare legs. The blond wood so much lighter than the hair on his arms, his chest, his thighs.
The room is warm. He turned up the heat as soon as we walked in. That way we could toss aside the sheets and the blankets and duvet of which the hotel is so proud. Their bed is a heavenly body, but for us, it has no wings. Those heavy sheets and blankets and duvet would keep us tamped flat. We sit and we stand and we twist and we bend. In a chair, over a table, on the floor. The bed is a prop, a place to find balance, but we rarely lie flat.
I sit on the floor below my lover on the wide window sill. My hand wraps around his ankle, but my thumb and fingers cannot touch. His guitar notes slide down.
“It’s almost four-thirty,” he says.
I let go of his ankle. “I have to go.”
My plane takes off late. He was in the shower when I left. This is how we say goodbye. Kissing at the curbside is how others go. We do it with him naked and me dressed. Steam fills the bathroom. When I step into the hotel hallway, my lover is tucked away deep. There is snow on the ground.
I arrive home after midnight. The bedroom is cool and dark. A black cat purrs on my pillow. I undress and slide underneath the quilt.
“When did you get home?” My husband’s voice, cloudy with sleep.
He turns on his side and puts his arm around my waist. His hand rests on my belly. I fall back into his curve.
I am paid to pry. I ask the questions their lovers will not. Their wives, their children, their moms. I ask about the drugs and the sex and who inspired that song. What did you want to be when you were six, or twelve, or last week? Did your father hit you or your mother love you, and what about that groupie who looks underage? And what about your death, what do you think that will be like? I’m not going to die, they say. Or, I’ll probably die next week.
I interview them in Los Angeles and New York and Atlanta. Philadelphia and Boston. Seattle. My lover is a troubadour. Sometimes he’s in these towns. Sometimes he’s not.
My lover’s hips are sturdy and strong. I squeeze them tight with my thighs. We’re on the couch, because the chair has arms. It has casters, too.
“We’ll roll,” I had said.
“Sounds fun,” he said. “Let’s try.” He sat bare in the chair. Tried to keep it still by holding onto the wall.
I shook my head. “My legs won’t fit.”
He dropped his arms over the sides. “Like this.”
“Then I won’t be able to move,” I said.
“Well, we can’t have that.” He went to the couch. He sat, legs together, and I slid on.
The couch is against a window. Over his shoulder, through the glass, is a rooftop garden. A wrought iron bench, potted plants. All the flowers in bloom.
“Jesus,” he says. “Sweet Jesus.” He doesn’t even believe in God.
Later, he reads to me out loud. An article about the Kuiper Belt. Astronomical objects, far away. Cold.
She’s an attorney, tall and tan, smart and kind. My husband married her the day after college graduation. They were sweethearts in high school. Lovers in college. Divorced by thirty.
“I’m friends with my ex-wife,” my husband said on our third date.
“That’s fine,” I said. I’d dated men who weren’t friends with their exes. They were full of hate.
She came to our wedding, wore a dress that shimmered gold. She brought a date—I don’t remember his name. She and I danced together. The foxtrot, I think.
Two years ago she told us she’d met a musician. “Maybe you’ve heard of him,” she said.
I had. He was that kind of guy.
“You should interview him,” she said, and I would.
Fifteen-hundred words and a picture. His guitar in his lap. Fingers spanning across five frets.
They’re in town for the weekend. He plays one show tomorrow night, but the rest of their time is for my husband and me.
We cook on the grill, eat on the patio. The summer corn is sweet. Butter drips onto his chin, and she wipes it away. My husband’s hand rests on my thigh. We talk about work, about where he’s playing next. My lover says Phoenix and Austin and L.A.
“You’ll be in L.A., too, won’t you?” my husband asks.
“Really?” my lover says. “Then we should have dinner.”
My husband’s hand is heavy. Hot.
I usually pry in living rooms, or recording studios, or hotels. But with him, it was near the pit of a fire. We arranged for the interview by e-mail, and I flew to their town. She was having a party at her house, on the beach. He suggested I come by.
She had hugged me hello. Too bad my husband couldn’t come, too.
“It’s just work,” I said. “I’m here today, gone tomorrow.”
We cooked fish over a fire, corn in the coals. We drank Long Island Iced Tea. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s do this thing.”
We sat in the sand. My tape recorder rolled. I asked the questions no one else would. And then he asked them back. We stood over the fire and warmed our hands. We talked about camping, in the mountains, as kids. His fingers were hot in my hair.
“Ash,” he said. He held the gray flake between us. It dissolved in his fingers. Back inside, I hugged her goodbye. His eyes had more questions from across the room.
The next morning I e-mailed him from my hotel. Thank you for the interview, I said. It should be out in six weeks. And by the way, my hair has that smell of toasting marshmallows and cold mountain air and stars sprinkled like wildflowers in the sky. It was a good interview, he wrote back. I’m looking forward to the article. As for your hair . . . perhaps the less said the better. But I feel like there’s more to say.
I was in Denver alone. My lover was at his home, at the beach, with her. I interviewed this band at Red Rocks, in the hills. They smoked a joint while my tape recorder rolled. When I got into my car, there were a thousand stars in the sky. Burning far away, bright.
The black cat purrs at the foot of our bed. I undress and crawl under the sheet. I roll over, try to see my husband in the moonlight. His back is white.
“It’s hot in here,” I say to the ceiling, but it doesn’t respond. “There’s a leaf stuck to your boot,” my lover says.
I sit on the edge of the bed. He peels it away from my three-inch heel. It’s large and red, from a maple tree. His hand slides up the black leather. Onto skin. Into wet.
“No panties,” my lover says. He stands straight, unbuttons his jeans, pushes them to the floor. He pulls off my skirt and grabs my ankles. My back is flat.
The black leather slides and slides and slides. Across his shoulders, slick with sweat.
He sits on the edge of the bed. My chest is pressed against his back, my legs wrapped around his waist. His guitar rests on my ankles. Boots on the floor, unzipped.
He plays three notes. Long, short, long. He says, “They’re having an affair.”
Long, long, short.
He sets down his guitar. On top of my boots. “They write love letters.”
Our e-mails are guarded. Short. Everything unsaid. But they don’t seem to know what you hold on to. What you never say.
“Is it because—?”
“No,” he says. “They did it all on their own.”
He stands. My crossed ankles fall away. He walks to the thermostat, turns down the heat. Then he starts at the foot of the bed. He crawls to the top. He makes himself flat.
“Come on,” he says.
I am flush with his thighs, his belly, his chest. His arm reaches down. Long fingers grab onto the sheet. He pulls it up, over our heads.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Baby’s on Fire: stories by Liz Prato
He comes into the café, eyes peering over his glasses, obviously in search of someone. And then because I am sitting with only time in front of me—
I nod. He hasn’t said a name, so no lie has been spoken.
He looks relieved. He slides into the seat in front of me, the other half of my booth. It’s my favorite seat in the café, one I often have to wait for, settling for a loose table somewhere in the meantime.
Ah . . . he says. Well, shall we . . .?
Mmmm, I nod.
He isn’t good-looking. He’s overweight and aging—I wonder why I’ve allowed myself to be taken in by him (but isn’t it the other way around, he is my own victim?)
I think I’ll start with coffee, he says.
Yes, by all means, I tell him.
Would you like anything—?
I smile at him. I’ll have another coffee.
I watch him wait in line. He’s very impatient.
He keeps rocking back on his heels and trying for the waitress’ attention, though there are at least four people ahead of him. I realize suddenly there’s a woman probably in search of him. What did they do? Respond to each other’s personals? I look around for her—a woman on the hunt for him—but I don’t find her. For a moment I feel sorry for him, waiting impatiently to buy himself and me coffee. Ten years ago, he could have been my father, but I’m too old for that now. It’s a shame how age spares no one. On the other hand, I’ve stopped celebrating birthdays. They used to be so important to me—a day for wonderful things—but I’ve realized it’s better to ignore them. My actual number is vague to me . . . I’m in a fluid state, not counting.
He arrives with my coffee.
That was very kind of you, I offer. He can’t know how much I mean that.
Well, he says. These things are awkward.
Yes, aren’t they? Let’s just enjoy our coffee.
He looks relieved. I wonder what my role is. I look around for the other woman, cannot place her.
It’s a nice café, he offers. Do you come here often?
I don’t want to reveal myself. No, it’s my first time here.
Ah, me too. He smiles at me.
I begin to feel bored, impatient. I don’t want to feel trapped by him. Well, I might as well let you know, I tell him, I’ve decided not to go through with it.
You can’t mean that.
But I do.
But on the phone you said—
Yes, but I’ve changed my mind.
I see. But—
He wants to ask me something else, I can tell. The question is hard for him. I’m not sure what I am denying him, but I can see I’ve made it difficult. I do feel sorry for him, I won’t pretend I don’t. His hand is on the table, fingering a napkin. I place my own over his, grip his fingers. They feel soft and pudgy, younger than the rest of him. Don’t feel bad, I tell him. It isn’t because of you, exactly.
His eyes hold mine. I think I see water filling around the edges, but I’m not sure about that. With his glasses on, it’s hard to tell. You’ve gone back on your promise, he says. I can’t let you do that.
Even promises can be broken.
I can hear the heartlessness of my own reply. My eyes rest on the specks of dandruff on the shoulders of his suit jacket. His shirt is open at the collar; curls of greyish-white hair poke through. I sense he’s recently divorced, teetering on the brink of something. Are there children in the picture?
You’ve disappointed me tremendously.
His voice trembles with the word tremendously, a tremor, a crack in the human landscape.
I gave you nothing to go on. You shouldn’t have counted on me.
I don’t see how you can say that.
It isn’t hard.
He stares at me. The pools in his eyes seem to have steadied; if they’re a well, it’s full by now.
You lack humanity.
I don’t see how you can say that, you barely know me.
It isn’t hard, he says.
He’s quoting me. That makes me want to smile, but I stop myself. Smile, and we’ll be starting all over again. I want my booth back to myself. I’ve missed the afternoon sun, the way it comes in through the window to warm me. I wonder if I’ll have to leave first to get rid of him. I don’t want to have to do that.
I scoot myself out from behind the table to stand before him. I’m going to the Ladies Room. I’ll say good-bye to you now, since you may decide to leave before I come out. I take his hand in a handshake, press his fingers against mine to make it heartfelt. I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I did enjoy meeting you, even so.
He stares at me. He hasn’t figured out what to say yet.
Now, if you’ll excuse me. I try a smile on him, one that’s both winning and that asks for forgiveness.
I take a long time in the Ladies Room, brushing my hair, re-applying makeup. I wash my hands and let the electric dryer dry them, down to the last bit of moisture. I like the bathroom; it’s clean and spacious. There’s even a changing table for mothers with babies; it’s very thoughtful. And the dried flowers look new, as if the management just replaced the arrangement. It’s an unusual café that has such a pleasant bathroom.
He isn’t there when I come out, just as I predicted. I slide in my booth, close my eyes to the afternoon sun. It’s waning. I hear the buzz of voices, people talking, too loud to make me very happy. Perhaps it’s time to leave after all. The day seems to have gone by without me. I open my eyes to take in my surroundings. He hasn’t left me anything. Only his napkin, twisted into a tight strand, shredded at the end.
*Jessica Treat, “Waiting” from Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters. Copyright ©2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
The first time Heloise saw Mitch, he was standing beside the vending machines in the hospital cafeteria, angular and fresh in his puckery clean white scrubs. She had come in for a Coke and chips, not that she wanted either, only the excuse to escape her rounds with the hospital chaplain and her classmates from the Divinity School. It freaked her out how much she was attracted by the misery of the people in those rooms. The stumps. The scars. The pins. Unlike her classmates, she couldn’t force herself to ask a patient’s name, sit by a bed, and hold a hand. All she wanted to do was stand by the door and stare.
She fled to the cafeteria and stood sipping her Coke, trying to remember why she had wanted a degree in religion in the first place. As an undergrad, she had taken courses in paintings of the Renaissance, the poetry of Donne and Blake. The next thing she knew, she was a student at Harvard Div, tagging along behind a stocky Congregationalist minister and a bunch of sincerely devoted ministers-to-be, all of whom wanted to offer dying people the comforting words of Christ.
She looked up and saw Mitch. He twisted apart an Oreo, scraped the icing with his teeth, and studied her as if he were diagnosing some disease. Absently, he curled his wrist to stroke the shiny head of the stethoscope around his neck. She suspected he could put that instrument to her chest and discover things about her that she didn’t know herself. Like maybe she had a better heart than she thought she did.
“So you really believe in God?”
She must have looked startled.
“Upstairs,” he said. “I saw you with the other student ministers.”
She knew that the accepted way to eat an Oreo was to split the layers and lick the icing, but she always had preferred biting the entire cookie. Not that she had eaten an Oreo since she was five.
“So, do you?” Mitch asked again. “I’ve never met anyone our age who believes in God.”
“I’m trying,” Heloise said. “But sometimes I have to wonder if God believes in me.”
Opposites attract. Everyone said it. Mitch was tall and she was short. He was fair and she was unfair. Mitch had never had a girlfriend, while Heloise had been having tortured romances since her senior year in high school, when she had instigated an affair with the witty bisexual black man who taught history in her town. She tended to earn good grades, but each success came hard. Mitch was healthy, handsome, smart. He had grown up in a loving family and won scholarships to MIT and Harvard Med. He was a non-believing Jew who put his trust in antibiotics and NMRs; she was a half-assed Unitarian trying to justify her faith in a supposedly loving God.
So yes, opposites did attract. The question no one ever asked was: How long can they stay attracted? What were people, magnets? That was why so many marriages fell apart. For a few years, in your twenties, you thought you could be your opposite. People who were weary of their madness married people who promised peace. People bored with their own stability married spouses who were sure to shake things up. But souls could only stretch so far, for so long.
Still, their marriage might have worked. She admired Mitch. She loved him. She hoped his goodness might rub off on her. Really, there was nothing wrong with the man except that he had never suffered, and what kind of flaw was that? She might have survived forever as a sort of Persephone in reverse, tolerating three seasons a year with Mitch in his cheery sunlit world, if only she had been allowed an occasional brief fling in Hades. But she depended on Mitch for everything. They moved when he got his fellowship, and later when he got his first job, and still later when he became chief of anesthesiology at the largest hospital in Troy, New York. She finally found the time to work on her dissertation, an overly ambitious attempt to understand the appeal of martyrdom in Judeo-Christian art. But this meant she stayed at home mired in confused ideas about sex, despair, and strange deaths, while Mitch spent his days and nights in an unambiguously bright OR, where everything was clean and measured—the rise and fall of a patient’s chest, the unwavering needle on a clear-faced dial.
They moved so many times that she misplaced her friends along the way, like the measuring spoons she had inherited from her aunt and the tablecloth her mother had embroidered before she died. With no friends of her own, Heloise was forced to borrow Mitch’s. Like Mitch, they loved to hike. All that greenery and dirt made up for their sterile days in the hospital’s harsh blank corridors. Most of Mitch’s friends had been Boy Scouts in their youth, and even in their thirties they still radiated the boyish confidence and sincerity Heloise associated with that group. Camping or not, Mitch acted as if nothing could go wrong so long as he made sure to carry the right equipment and keep a clear head. At least once a month, the surgeons and dieticians planned some sort of trek, and Mitch and Heloise trekked along with them. On regular weekend nights, everyone got together for potluck dinners, although the two-doctor couples could have afforded to cook—it drove Heloise nuts, the way Mitch’s friends pretended they weren’t rich. Still, she always prepared a dish and went. And when everyone else got pregnant, Heloise and Mitch got pregnant, too.
A year after Eunice was born, Heloise and Mitch planned a trip with another couple. The other mother, Deb, showed them a brochure that had been printed on recycled paper. “It’s called Sunshine Lodge,” she explained. “It’s on a mountain up north. Everything’s solar powered. The owners keep llamas, goats, and sheep. There’s a playroom for the kids, a sauna and hot tub for us, and an orchard with miles and miles of cross-country trails.”
Later, Heloise scolded herself for not knowing better than to spend her vacation at a petting zoo. She hated cross-country skiing. Why make a sport of the exhausting horizontal slog a downhill skier was forced to endure from the parking lot to the lift? But Mitch was too deliberate to enjoy skiing downhill. He loved getting out in the woods, pouring cups of cocoa, and watching the snow sift prettily through the trees. Oh well. You couldn’t crash down a black-diamond slope with a toddler on your back.
“We have an extra kiddie-pack you can borrow,” Deb offered. “That way, you can ski with Eunice, and Hank can carry Inga.”
Deb and her husband, Hank, were a warm good-natured couple. Heloise didn’t dislike them. They signed petitions. They volunteered. They were just a little too earnest. It wasn’t as if their lives were untroubled. Deb’s father was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and Hank’s parents were dead. Deb was a neurologist; Hank specialized in eyes. They saw heartbreak every day. But these troubles didn’t seem to trouble them. It was as if they were standing in the rain, talking about how wet they were getting, but you could see the water rolling right off their Gore-Tex shells.
It was five in the afternoon before they left. An hour north of Albany, Hank steered the Volvo off the highway and maneuvered it past a shabby snowmobile showroom and a general store and bait shop that sat clustered around the exit like hoboes around a fire. Hank drove for another hour up a narrow gravel road that ought to have brought them somewhere more worthwhile—San Francisco, say, or Heaven—than the remains of a barn and silo and a sign that said SUNSHINE LODGE with a smiling sunflower-face below.
The buildings were squat and dull. A ski lodge ought to be quaint, oughtn’t it? Oughtn’t it have a gable or two? Some gingerbread? The man behind the desk was as round and timid as a friar; he even had a tonsure like a monk’s, although it turned out he had struck it rich with a computer start-up, then left the whole technology rat-race and gone back to simpler things.
“Greetings, wayfarers,” he mumbled, then inked their names with a quill pen in a ledger. Showing them their rooms, he barely said a word, but later, when he took them on a tour, he couldn’t seem to shut up—organic this, self-composting that, vegetables kept warm and lush beneath their Plexiglas pods, a hot-tub kept hot with power from the sun. Index cards in lavender calligraphy were tacked beside each fixture, detailing what a person should or shouldn’t throw in, the proper way to stoke a stove, what lotions and perfumes mustn’t pollute the tub.
Heloise and Deb carried their children to the game room while Mitch and Hank lugged in the duffle bags and portacribs, the collapsible highchairs, the diaper bags, wipes, and diapers, the juice boxes, bottles, snacks, and pacifiers. A mother, Heloise decided, was a woman who remembered to bring her daughter’s six favorite stuffed toys but neglected to pack underwear for herself.
“Isn’t this place just perfect?” Deb said, tugging off the hiking boots she wore whenever she wasn’t at the hospital. She settled on the rug, swirling her skirts around her. Heloise tried not to hold it against her that she still styled her hair in a pageboy and never tweezed her brows. Inga, a chunky blonde toddler nearly twice Eunice’s size, although both girls were eighteen months, grabbed a wood spindle and began setting one hand-carved ring atop the next, from the largest to the smallest. It amazed Heloise, the way Inga always seemed to know what a toddler was supposed to do. Eunice clumsily grabbed the smallest ring and jammed it in her mouth. To avoid suffering further damage to her illusion that her daughter wasn’t developmentally delayed, Heloise wandered to a table where a guest had pieced together a puzzle of a busy New England town. Heloise finge ed the centermost piece, which bore the image of a parson. When Inga began to wail, Heloise slipped the parson in her vest pocket before turning to convince her daughter to give up the smallest ring.
Another child came in. She was eight or nine, with a pasty face and lank brown hair. “Hello,” she said, “I’m Alice,” and began to tell the new arrivals about her sisters. “They’re twins,” she said. “But they’re special twins. Everyone who meets them loves them.” Something in her voice brought to Heloise’s mind a carnival barker, or God help her, a pimp.
The door to the game room opened and Alice’s sisters tumbled in. They wore identical purple stretch-pants and yellow shirts. They were hugging, Heloise thought. Then she realized their connection was more intimate than that. They were joined by a thick band of flesh from their navels to their necks; they held their inner arms draped around each, with the rest of their bodies opening outward like a book. The sister on the left seemed flushed with life and strong, but the other sister’s skin was as transparent as tracing paper and her head lolled to one side.
Alice ran across the room and threw both arms around both girls. “Here they are! This one is Sarah”—she indicated the stronger of the twins—“and this one’s Meribeth.”
“Yesterday was our birthday,” they said together. Or maybe not together. Meribeth spoke first and Sarah echoed, although sometimes Sarah spoke first and Meribeth chimed in. At other times, one girl pronounced the first few words of a sentence and her twin sister completed the idea.
“We’re having a party when we get back home.”
“We’ve got so many friends—”
“We can’t hold it at our house.”
“We had to rent a restaurant.”
“But we like to play in the snow.”
“And go sledding.”
“We can’t do that in Boston.”
“So our parents brought us here.”
“They have a special sled,” Alice explained. “They can sit on it side by side.”
“We have a special tricycle, too.”
“One of us pedals.”
“And the other one rides for free.”
Mitch and Hank came in, smelling of snow and smoke. With his curly pale hair, delicate face, and silver glasses, Hank wasn’t a bad-looking man, just surprisingly insubstantial; even at forty-two, he seemed to delight in his gawky innocence. He was followed by a boy whom Alice introduced as Jarred, the innkeepers’ son. Mitch leaned against the door and studied Sarah and Meribeth the way he had studied Heloise the day they met. The four children started playing a card game called Uno. It didn’t seem fair to Heloise, as if one sister might guess the other’s strategy. Of course this made no sense; the sisters didn’t share a head. Yet weren’t their cells patterned by identical DNA? Hadn’t they shared the same experiences from the moment they were born? What was an individual if not a single set of experiences bound inside a skin?
“It’s so upsetting,” Deb whispered behind a hand. “I see sick kids all the time. But usually there’s something I can do to help. This just goes to remind us all how lucky we are.”
Heloise nodded. How could she not feel blessed by her daughter’s brutish good health? But Deb’s view of the twins seemed limited. It was as if she thought that Sarah and Meribeth existed solely to make the rest of humankind feel blessed. But the girls weren’t symbols of misfortune; they were people in their own right. If Eunice, Inga, and Jarred were to grow up with the twins as their only playmates, they would assume that some kids came in ones while other kids came in twos. They might even be jealous that their own bodies were so plain. Besides, the twins seemed happy. It was Alice who seemed forlorn, which was probably why Heloise’s attention was drawn to her.
A bell chimed. “That means dinner is ready,” Alice informed them. “The food here is good, so long as you don’t want hot dogs.” She led the parade of guests down the stairs to the dining room, where the innkeeper’s wife, Eleanor, was ladling out the food.
Eleanor was small and neatly made but even shyer than her husband. “Hello,” she said in a voice as thin as a wisp of steam. Then she ducked back in the kitchen. Heloise got the sense that Eleanor and her husband would have preferred to run the lodge for the theoretical beauty of the self-composting toilets and manure-heated pods, as God might have preferred to run Heaven for Himself.
But the woman could cook. Heloise had never seen such food. She didn’t even recognize the ingredients. Nuts, but what kind? Exotic forms of grain. Rich velvety pools of cheese. Mushrooms nestled in flaky crusts, as sweet as pecan pie. No additives, no funny colors. This was food you needed a spiritual license to be allowed to eat. Probably, if you ate it long enough, it endowed you with eternal life.
The dining room was arranged in two long tables, with benches on either side. Heloise, Mitch, Deb, Hank, Inga, and Eunice took up one end of one table, with a pair of tall gaunt lesbians named Carol and Kim in the center, and Alice, Sarah, Meribeth, and their mother holding down the other end. The twins’ mother turned out to be a soft pear-shaped woman with flowing brown hair and a face that bespoke great patience. Gently, she laid a hand on Alice’s arm and cautioned her not to eat so fast—it occurred to Heloise that Alice felt the need to eat twice as much as normal to make up for being an only child, or rather, for being only one child.
After everyone finished eating, Alice, Sarah, and Meribeth came over to pat the toddlers and admire Inga’s dress. Alice gestured toward their mom. “She sews my sisters’ clothes.”
Now that she mentioned it, Heloise noticed that Sarah and Meribeth’s shirts were cleverly designed with a sort of cloth tunnel where their bond of flesh connected them.
“She used to be a teacher,” Alice said, “but now she stays at home and takes care of my sisters and me. But I don’t really need much taking care of.”
Deb and Hank could only nod. But Mitch, bless his heart, pointed at the sliding glass doors and sang out: “Look, everyone, snow!”
Sure enough, the flakes were battering the glass like weary travelers trying to get inside.
“Snow!” Alice shouted.
“Our mom worries when we go sledding,” Sarah said.
“She thinks we’ll die sooner,” Meribeth added.
“But we’d rather go sledding now than live a long time later.”
“Girls?” their mother called. “Don’t make nuisances of yourselves. Come over here and eat your tofu pudding.”
Heloise desperately wanted a drink, but the lodge served no liquor. Instead, Eleanor lectured the new arrivals on the importance of sorting the remains of their dinner into color-coded bins for compost and recyclables. After the twins’ family had left, Mitch, Deb, and Hank reached the opinion that Sarah and Meribeth shared a single heart and Meribeth was not getting enough oxygen, which was why her lips and skin looked blue. Eventually, Meribeth’s lungs would fail and she would die, and, not long after that, Sarah would die as well. Heloise wondered if the twins’ parents knew this. They must. But did the twins?
Everyone migrated to the game room, except the twins’ father, who, despite the girls’ plot to sneak up to his bed, tickle his feet, and wake him, didn’t appear that night. Alice, Sarah, Meribeth, and Jarred played Uno while Deb and Hank traded the task of keeping Inga occupied. Mitch rarely minded Eunice, not because he didn’t want to, but because Heloise spent so much more time with the baby that she knew Eunice’s needs better than Mitch did. Mitch was fine when Eunice was happy, but he seemed unable to understand her discontent or imagine a remedy. A vicious cycle, Heloise thought. A vicious cycle that kept producing vicious wives.
Deb, Hank, and Mitch stood whispering in the corner. Their plan, it turned out, was to put the girls to sleep and get naked in the hot tub. Heloise could see by Mitch’s face that he wanted her to say she would go with them. But it gave Heloise the creeps the way Deb and Hank liked to take off their clothes. Whenever they went hiking, Deb and Hank would plan the day’s adventure to include a pond. Oh, just look at that pond! they liked to giggle. Don’t you feel like taking off your clothes and jumping right in?
They loved their naked selves and wanted Inga to do the same. How could Heloise object? But she did. “I object!” she felt like shouting every time they tried to shame her into taking off her clothes. Hank owned a guidebook that listed every nude beach in America. Heloise had nothing against swimming nude, as long as it was done at night in a forbidden place with someone you hoped to fuck. But how could she explain such reasons?
She lied and said she was reluctant to leave Eunice by herself.
What could happen? Deb insisted. We’ll be a few yards out the door.
Well, what if the inn caught fire? Heloise would be outside while Eunice would be sizzling in her portacrib.
Come on, Hank said. What were the chances the building would catch fire during the hour they were in the hot tub?
Heloise looked to Mitch. Wasn’t he Mr. Logic? Hadn’t every parent who had ever watched a baby go up in flames thought nothing bad could happen in just the one hour they had left the kid alone? But Mitch wore the defenseless pleading face that Heloise always found it impossible to refuse.
She changed tactics. What if the girls started crying?
Deb had already thought of that. They could ask the lesbians to come and get them.
The lesbians? If the lesbians wanted to be minding kids, they would have brought some of their own.
“Please?” Mitch said. “For me?”
But she was angry at how many times he had come home late and fended off her advances. He consented to sex infrequently, as a form of recreation, like a hike or a bad TV show. And it bothered her that he thought he could fix their marriage so easily, with a trip to Sunshine Lodge and a midnight dip in a hot tub.
“I can’t,” Heloise said. “I’ve got my period.” This wasn’t technically true, but she expected it at any time. And she hadn’t packed protection. This truth hit her like a punishment. She hadn’t packed tampons, and the nearest store that sold them was thirty miles away.
She put Eunice to sleep while Mitch took a towel and slumped off to the hot tub. Heloise sat on a chair outside their room, considering whether to ask Eleanor for some tampons. No, a woman like that probably used some weird environmentally friendly product like peat-moss napkins or reusable rubber cups. Heloise might have tried Carol and Kim, but they passed in the hall just then, so entwined about each other that Heloise didn’t have the heart to interrupt.
“It’s spooky,” Kim said to Carol.
“Don’t worry,” Carol said, “I’ll protect you.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
The two women quickly kissed and clattered down the stairs. From the second-story window, Heloise saw them heading off. Both were dressed in thick blue parkas, identical striped wool hats, and jeans. Did lesbians still do that thing where one pretended to be butch while the other was more femme? Was it kinkier to make love to someone like yourself, or to someone very different?
The two women vanished down the path, at which Heloise discovered that the window allowed her to glimpse the hot tub; it was surrounded by a fence, but, looking down from that angle, she could just make out three heads. She heard Mitch’s laugh, then Deb’s. Oh, why not go down and join them?
She peeked in the room and saw that Eunice was asleep. But instead of going out, Heloise put on a nightshirt and crawled beneath the scratchy blanket. Sometime later, Mitch came in, but by the time Heloise had struggled up to consciousness, his eyes were already closed and his breathing as regular as if he had given himself a whiff of whatever anesthesia he used to knock out patients.
She slipped on Mitch’s boots and hobbled down the stairs and out the door. The air was so frigid it made the hair on the back of her neck stand up, or maybe that was the effect of seeing who was in the hot tub.
He was swarthy, with broad flat cheeks and a prominent crooked nose—he might have been an Indian, or an Arab, or maybe a Jew like Mitch. Even though his nipples cleared the water by several inches, the ends of his long black hair floated on the surface like some sensual ooze.
“Hi,” he said. “Join me?”
Her plan had been to yank off her nightshirt, simmer herself back to some semblance of relaxation, then slither back to bed. “I didn’t think anyone would be here.”
His shoulders lifted. “I’m not anyone. Anyone was here before. I’m nobody. Who are you?”
How could it matter if a stranger whose name she didn’t know, in a town whose name she also didn’t know, saw her with no clothes on? As she unbuttoned her nightshirt, he made no effort to look away. She stepped out of Mitch’s boots and tossed them over the fence so they wouldn’t be standing there tapping in disgust while she sat naked with another man. Without looking, she climbed in the tub. It was like lowering her body into a roiling tub of sex. She could sense the stranger’s cock twitch. Even his armpit hair turned her on. Women! Men got turned on by women’s breasts, which everyone knew were beautiful, and women got turned on by armpit hair. Or maybe only Heloise did.
“Are those your girls?” she asked. “Sarah and Meribeth? And Alice?” She could sense his cock deflate. Did he expect her to say something thoughtless? “They’re beautiful,” she said, then winced. Using a man’s twin daughters to get his cock to stand back up!
“That they are. They are beautiful. All three of my girls are beauties.” He let his head drop backward to expose a vulnerable throat; with his arms along the rim of the tub, he seemed to be waiting for someone to shoot him full of arrows. Like St. Sebastian, Heloise thought. St. Sebastian of the Hot Tub.
“So, this is your first time at Sunshine Lodge?”
Heloise said it was.
“It’s all right.”
“Just ‘all right’? I don’t think you’re allowed to say it’s just all right.”
“You have to say it’s perfect.”
She laughed. “Okay. It’s perfect.”
He ducked beneath the surface, then reappeared and shook his head, wringing water from his hair. “Don’t all the little signs and compost bins and all that healthy food make you feel like shooting up?”
“Well,” she said, “now that you mention it.”
“I have some heroin in my jeans. But you have to supply your own needle.”
“Oh,” she said, “I always bring my own needle.”
As they laughed and talked, they kept inching around the tub until they were sitting side by side. She had to remind herself this was someone else’s husband. She had a toddler named Eunice. The naked man beside her was father to a girl named Alice and twins named Sarah and Meribeth. He loved all three of them, he said. “I love all three of my daughters.” He said the sentence twice. He was just tired of being good. “People think just because you have disabled kids, you somehow become a saint.”
Under normal conditions, she doubted he would have been the self-pitying kind of man. But the hot tub brought it out, like some torture pit from Dante, broiling him until he confessed his sins. It broke his heart, he said. How could it not break his heart that his girls would die young? But every now and then he caught himself looking forward to not having to spend every waking moment worrying about their pain.
Before the twins were born, he had been planning to leave his wife. But how could a man leave a woman who had given birth to Siamese twins? Not that she wasn’t strong enough. She was stronger than he was. The twins had given her life a purpose. But it had robbed him of his. If a sacrifice was given grudgingly, in his wife’s book, it didn’t count. He taught music in the public schools. Squeaks and squawks. Lost tempers. The constant abuse of strings. Before the girls were born, he had been planning to make it as a jazz clarinetist. But with all the extra bills and the need for someone to stay home with the twins …
Heloise shifted around and stroked his knee. He put his hand a few inches below her breast, which was more arousing than if he had put it on her breast. Their nakedness, thank God, was anything but wholesome.
“I’d better go,” she said, although really, she didn’t want to go. She got out and found Mitch’s boots, clutched her nightshirt to her chest, and darted to her room. Eunice was still asleep. Mitch lay curled to the wall. She got in and sniffed his neck, which smelled like bubblegum and vanilla icing. “If I ever run away, come after me,” she whispered. She had said this to him many times when he was awake, but she didn’t trust that he would come. She would run away, remembering everything he’d ever taught her about blazing signs along her trail. But Mitch would be too proud and hurt to follow.
The next morning, she woke to the sore breasts, bloated stomach, and intense pressure to commit multiple gory homicides that indicated her period was about to come. She sucked down her pride and asked Eleanor if she had some tampons. Without a word, Eleanor pulled a cardboard box from beneath the sink. Sifting through a litter of sunglasses, condoms, deodorants, and mismatched boots, the innkeeper’s wife lifted out a single linty tampon, the old-fashioned kind that came in a cardboard tube. Heloise only hoped it didn’t date from the Age of Toxic Shock. Well, one tampon was better than no tampon. She would horde it until she absolutely needed to borrow the Volvo and drive the sixty miles to the general store and back.
After breakfast, the twins’ mother bundled them in a snowsuit she must have designed and sewn. Packed in its padded double womb, the twins went out to play. With Alice’s help, they built a snow mother, a snow father, and, thank God, instead of a set of Siamese snow-twins, a lopsided snow-dog. Then they instigated a war against Jarred; the twins windmilled snowballs at the boy while Alice packed ammunition. Heloise was so incensed at the way the twins took advantage of their Siameseness she almost enlisted on Jarred’s side. They rushed him, tore off his hat, packed it full of snow, put it back on his head and pulled it down, at which Jarred lunged their at knees and Sarah and Meribeth went over backward.
“Do angels!” Alice cried, and the girls lifted their arms and lowered them, then struggled to their feet, leaving the indentation of a two-headed angel when they went inside.
At lunch, Heloise overheard the twins’ family argue about their plans for the afternoon. The twins wanted to go sledding, but their mother insisted they were too tired. “We can do it if Dad carries us,” they said. “Like that last time, in Vermont.” Their mother shook her head; she had promised their father he could take the afternoon off to ski. But the twins’ father assured their mother that he would enjoy nothing more than carrying his daughters up the hill; while their mother zipped the girls inside their snowsuit, he turned to Heloise and shrugged.
The six of them—Mitch and Heloise, with Eunice on her back, and Deb and Hank with Inga—spent the next few hours skiing. Heloise enjoyed the way Eunice caught her breath and screeched and grabbed Heloise’s ears whenever they skied downhill. And something about the melancholy landscape—the bare apple-trees, as hunched as old women, surrounded by rows of firs like pinheaded guards just waiting, waiting, waiting, their hands behind their backs, for someone to escape—moved her more deeply than the magnificence of a vista from a mountain might have done.
Around and around she skied, and each time she and Eunice circled back, Heloise saw Vincent carrying his girls uphill, hugging them awkwardly to his chest like bags of groceries. Up and up, like Sisyphus. Alice pulled her own sled, looking wistfully at her sisters, and if Mitch could extrapolate from Meribeth’s blue lips the twins’ future, or rather, their lack of a future, Heloise could look at Alice’s expression and imagine the story she would one day tell her therapist: I once had twin sisters. They weren’t ordinary twins. They were conjoined twins. I loved them. I really did. It was just that I was jealous of the attention and love they got. The grace they had that I didn’t have.
The irony, Heloise thought later, was that she and Mitch had one of their best afternoons ever. Mitch plodded around the trail, and whenever Heloise and Eunice lapped him, he would lift his fist and curse. “You miserable rutabagas! You bungee jumpers! You foghorn leghorns!” He took to weaving among the apple trees, and every time their paths crossed, Mitch would snowplow around Heloise’s skis, kiss her, then kiss Eunice, who bounced happily in her backpack.
When they stopped for hot chocolate, Mitch leaned against a stump and poured two steaming cups. Just as Heloise took hold of hers, Eunice began to whimper. “Mumma, dog!” Heloise turned and saw a fox quivering at the forest’s edge. It lifted one paw daintily and sniffed, like a society queen uncertain if the party she was about to enter was beneath her pride, then flicked its tail and trotted off.
“It’s good luck to see a fox,” Mitch said.
“Aren’t fox’s feet lucky?”
He was so pleased with himself that Heloise didn’t have the heart to say he meant rabbits.
“Why don’t you go for one last run, without us slowing you down?” Mitch said.
She felt as if he were sending her off to sleep with another man. “You don’t mind?”
No, no, go on, Mitch said. He took Eunice from the pack— getting the baby out of that backpack required more effort than the doctors had required to extricate Eunice from Heloise’s womb. She kissed Mitch and took off, legs pumping as strenuously as if, even without the aid of gravity, she might yet achieve the blind happiness of flight.
Near the woods she stepped off the trail to catch her breath—literally, her breath was curling past her face and she snatched at it with her glove. The sun was watery pink and blue, like the colors in a nursery. Vincent passed her hiding spot, skiing backwards, encouraging someone to try to reach him. Alice plodded around the bend, red faced and out of breath. “You can do it,” he kept repeating. “Slide those skis. Skate.”
Heloise waited to give Vincent and Alice a decent length of time to ski back to the lodge, but she came upon them not a hundred yards down the trail, Alice frozen at the top of a tiny incline, her father at the bottom.
“I can’t, Dad. I can’t! I’ll give you fifty dollars if you don’t make me ski down this hill!”
“Damn it. Why can’t you be as brave as Sarah and Meribeth?”
He might as well have shot her, that’s how quickly Alice crumpled. She must have been crying, but Heloise didn’t hear a sob; the child was crying in that way that goes beyond mere sound.
Vincent sidestepped up the hill, took off his skis, and held his daughter in the snow. At first she writhed away, but then she let him comfort her. He helped her take off her skis, then carried the skis downhill and went back for Alice. He helped her put the skis back on, then towed her by her poles, bent double, like a horse. His suffering wrenched Heloise’s heart. But it also turned her on. And what did that say about her? If you fell in love with a person’s suffering, you’d never try to cure it. Deb, Hank, and Mitch weren’t nearly as shaken as she was by suffering, but neither were they attracted to it, and that allowed them to get on with the business of easing people’s pain.
No wonder she couldn’t bring herself to finish her degree. If she had ever found the courage to state her thesis clearly, it would have been this: Suffering is erotic. That was at the heart of her attraction to Christianity. Maybe it was true of most people’s attraction to Christianity. Why build an entire religion around Christ’s suffering on the cross, instead of, say, His miracles? Why the whips and thorns, the punctured ribs and palms, not to mention all the martyrs His suffering had inspired, all those men with pierced chests, the women with hacked-off breasts, the smiling, genderless innocents, flayed alive or burnt?
She shook her head to clear the images. Wasn’t that a howl she heard? It couldn’t have been. But the woods’ shadowy darkness filled her soul with dread. She forced herself to give Vincent and Alice a while longer. Even so, when she reached the lodge, he was still hauling Alice, trudge by laborious trudge, up that final hill.
By the time Heloise and Mitch had showered and dressed, everyone but the twins and Alice were downstairs waiting for their meal. Heloise and Mitch had just settled beside Deb and Hank, with the kids on their mothers’ laps, when the door at the top of the stairs opened and Alice and the twins came in.
“Watch what we can do!” they cried. With a little help from Alice, the twins ended up on the banister, not straddling the rail but side by side. Their mother shouted “No!” but Alice gave them a push. The twins slid a few feet down the rail. Then one twin tottered backward and the other twin slid forward, arms and legs flailing.
Their father leapt the stairs three at a time, scooped the twins in his arms, then sat cradling them on the step while Alice threw herself across her sisters’ backs, crying, “I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to!”
Everyone tried to get back to normal, but the mood was too subdued. Deb suggested charades. Carol and Kim declined so they could take their turn in the hot tub, but the twins and Alice were all for it. The problem was that Sarah and Meribeth performed their clues in unsettling synchronicity, and when it was their team’s turn to guess, they shouted “‘Over the Rainbow’!” and “‘Willie Wonka’!” in such eerie unison that the game ended after only a few rounds and each family went up to its room far earlier than was normal even for parents with children that young.
Heloise liked to think she fell asleep that night with the intention of staying asleep until morning, and it was only a case of nerves that made her startle awake at two and led her outside to the steaming tub. But when she saw no one was in the water, she admitted that her nerves had been crying out for more than relaxation. She passed the indentation in the snow where the twins had made their angel. “Baa,” called a sheep, or maybe it was a goat. How odd that the two creatures sounded so much alike in the dark.
She slid down the hill on the soles of Mitch’s boots, then headed toward the woods. Not twenty yards in, she saw Vincent against a tree, wrapped in one of the heavy blankets the innkeepers kept beside the hot tub. With his raven-black hair and the wings the blanket gave him, he looked more than a little vampirish.
She walked over and leaned against him. He moaned, then wrapped Heloise in his blanketed arms and held her. She rested that way, breathing the horsy odor of the wool, the sandalwood of his skin. Then her mouth found his chest, and—she hadn’t planned this—she slid to her knees in the snow. The cold seeped through her leggings, but the pain was almost pleasure. A few minutes later, as Vincent lifted his arms above his head and cried out, Heloise turned and saw the fox’s eyes glittering in the moonlight not fifteen yards away. She gasped and struggled up. Vincent remained against the tree, eyes closed, arms lifted as if someone had pinned his wrists to the trunk.
The fox shook itself like a dog and trotted off. Panting, Heloise looked down and saw a steaming clot of her menstrual blood. Had the fox scented it? Was that why it had come? She was tempted to reach down and taste her menses. Instead, she lifted her chin and howled.
The marriage didn’t end that winter. After they left Sunshine Lodge, Heloise never saw Vincent again. But once she started hurting Mitch, she couldn’t seem to stop. A year after their divorce, she read about the twins in the Sunday supplement of the local paper. As Mitch and Deb had said, the girls shared a single heart—a defective heart at that; it had only three chambers. Meribeth died first. Sarah survived another hour. Most conjoined twins died at birth, the reporter wrote. The luckiest lived a year. But Sarah and Meribeth had celebrated their eighth birthday a few weeks earlier.
“They had the sunniest disposition,” their mother was quoted as saying. “I don’t think it bothered them a bit. On alternate days, Sarah or Meribeth got to make decisions. They argued, but they made up. If you’re attached to a person, you have to figure out a way to get along. You can’t just stay mad.”
The girls died at home, surrounded by their parents, Kathleen and Vincent Black, various grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and their older sister, Alice. They were buried in a single casket. Donations could be sent to build a playground for disabled children in a park near where they lived.
After reading the obit twice, Heloise picked up the phone to call Mitch. Then she remembered that Mitch had asked her never to engage him in conversation unless it concerned their daughter. If Heloise tried to talk about that weekend at Sunshine Lodge, Mitch would hang up. Her infidelities had made him suffer, and his suffering had turned him into a person she could love. But Mitch couldn’t forgive her disloyalty. He refused to take her back.
She put Eunice to bed, patted her on the back until she closed her eyes, then tried to write her homily for the week. Since finishing her degree and taking her first assignment—as chaplain at a women’s college outside Schenectady—Heloise had fallen into the easy routine of using an incident from the news or her personal life to serve as a guiding metaphor for a larger spiritual truth to be explored in that week’s sermon. She wanted to compose a tribute to the twins. But what kind of metaphor could Meribeth and Sarah provide if not, as Deb had said, a reminder of everyone else’s sublime good luck at not being them? Maybe what they symbolized was the beauty of suffering gracefully. But the twins hadn’t suffered. Not until the end. Their father and sister had suffered, but not in ways that seemed particularly enlightening.
No, the twins stood for nothing. Maybe nothing stood for anything. Pain was what it was. The pieces of people’s lives fit together to make a pattern like the puzzle of that town, the central piece of which Heloise now discovered in that long-neglected vest. But there was nothing beneath the surface. No deeper, third dimension. She was left with nothing from Sunshine Lodge except a lost-and-found of images: a two-headed angel; a fox’s glowing eyes; a dark red clot of blood steaming in the snow. And she knew it would be a sin to stand before her congregation and try to weave these images into a symbol for the perversity of a woman who, for no reason she could defend, would destroy her marriage to the man she loved and, in the process, condemn herself to spend the remainder of her life with the corpse of her better self joined to her like the angelic twin sister with whom she once had shared a single three-chambered heart.
*Eileen Pollack, “Uno” from In the Mouth – Stories and novellas. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.
I made a request of no crying, for I had the grand task of handling the cat.
No crying, I said. Do whatever it takes to wait until I’ve gone.
He agreed to blame his contact lenses and to leave once I’d passed through security, but not before. Just in case the cat didn’t fly.
This cat can fly, I said. He will.
Like a superhero, he said. The sort of comment I could count on him for.
I said “this cat” to avoid saying “our” or “my.” That dog looks concerned. I had said this earlier as I stacked my bags by the door of that home. Don’t forget to water that plant.
This street is still asleep.
These neighbors haven’t woken yet, he said.
I looked at him and snort-laughed, swallowed stones. The cat curled drugged and dense inside the fabric carrier. I sought to bring him on the plane surreptitiously, to avoid explaining the fact of him. It could lead to talk of my oneway ticket. It costs eighty dollars each way to carry him aboard. Someone might say that up and back costs a pretty penny, and then what? I’d have to correct them. No no, just up. Then the panic might set in.
I was ready when the wide-belted woman by the metal walkthrough hollered that I must remove the animal from the carrier and walk him through. I had thought ahead and worn white because I knew I’d have to hold the great fluff to my chest. I unzipped the bag and glanced over to my husband, who fooled with his contacts on the other side of the security lines, rubbing and blinking his eyes. I looked forward to pressing the soft whiteness to my chest. I planned to push him hard into my solar plexus to keep that hot swell down.
I pulled him out of the bag. It was snug on him. It was as if he wore the bag more than the bag held him. For a week I’d take a measuring tape to his hugeness as he slept, willed him to lose some length, some girth. He was supposed to be able to stand up and move around in there, but come on, what good’s a cat so small he can turn around in 16x9x10? Besides, I knew his ways and his ways were not that active, so I bought the bag and told him to hunker down for a few hours. Catch some Z’s, I said.
I clutched him into my chest. I thought of ten years earlier when we found him in the basement of a highrise in which our friends lived—our friends who were a “one-cat couple,” they said, when they were still a couple—and whose one cat used the toilet and fetched the paper from the hallway, no lie. I thought these friends were the sort to look up to. I had slipped the gray kitten inside my coat and we walked the ten blocks home and thought of names for it. My husband suggested Concrete or Slate, but after we washed him we started to lean more toward the clean and banal, like Cotton or Snow. I pressed my face down into the cat’s nape when I thought of this time, and when I thought of the name on which we had finally settled—the name of the month in which we had met; the month in which we had married. That cat was like a calendar. Friends teased us by mixing it up, calling him January, September, ridiculous months like July.
The detector buzzed when we crossed under. The wide- belted woman ran a wand over me—my front, my back—and then over the cat—his collar, my left hand holding the softness under his arms, where my ring shone through his downy fur. I knew it was his ID tag that did it, but how appropriate, I thought, if the ring had sounded an alarm.
All right, she said. Let’s see him in action.
Did she want him to dance? I bounced him and then stopped. He’s not a big performer, I said.
Put him in the carrier, please.
It’s regulation, I said, leaning over and using the cat’s paw to point to the tag that said, Compliant with Aviation Standards.
I’m checking the fit, Ma’am. Place the animal inside the case.
I looked over toward where my husband stood, but couldn’t see his face through the people in line. I caught sight of a bit of his shoulder, though, and wanted desperately to tap it, say, What of the fit? How many points off for an ill fit? He’d know. It’s the sort of thing I could always count on him for.
Ma’am, she said. Place the animal inside.
I held the bag beneath the cat’s rear; his rear that slung like a potato sack due to the sedative. Why was I here? Why was I taking our cat?—my cat, that cat? Why had we decided this was the way? Every morning the cat waited to eat until the dog was ready. Who would he wait for now? We had no children, we had decided, so now’s the time to separate, reassess our situation for a year or so.
If ever there’s a time.
It was the or so that killed me. It woke me at night. Me and that cat, shoving his nose into my eye telling me to wake up already.
The cat’s arms stuck straight out as I slipped the bag over his enormity. I tucked his paws inside, zipped the front. I shook the bag as if he might settle into some mysterious crevice, make some room for him in there.
Nuh-uh, the wide-belted woman said. She shook her head. Her eyes wide like saucers.
He likes to be contained, I said, and pushed the palms of my hands together to show what? To show, held together. To show, held.
Nuh-uh, she said again.
To show, Please.
I felt a thumping in my chest. I looked over to my husband, who had committed to the parting, who said the pain of the very moment of leaving would subside, yet the continuation of stagnation would last forever.
I had asked him if he might graph that for me.
Now I saw him rubbing his nose as if it had wronged him.
You got someone who can take this cat?
What? I asked.
You got someone—
I can take him, I said. This cat can fly. Like a superhero, I added.
This cat can’t fly, she said. This cat too huge—
He likes to be contained, I said.
This cat too huge to fly. She shook her head, reached for the cat that slept so unaware inside his carrier. You got someone—
I got someone, I said. I do, but when I looked he seemed so far away I said, He’ll never reach! And what I meant was that his body—so hunkered now and shaking—it could never reach out and grab the cat that couldn’t fly. Not unless I threw the cat, or left the line and started over. Not unless I missed my flight and stayed instead within stagnation. We’re young, we said. We have no children. Now’s the time.
Now’s the time, I said to her. The cat is fine. He likes to be contained.
He ain’t happy in there, she said.
What’s happy? I said. Nothing’s happy. Nothing’s more or less OK with what they’ve got, and what we’ve got is quite OK. It’s really very much OK.
OK ain’t compliant, she said.
She grabbed the handles of the carrier, started to lift him somewhere different.
You’ll see it when you return, she said.
It’s a one-way! I said, maybe shouted, waved my boarding pass.
Ma’am, this is not the place to lose it. She held the cat up, away from me and headed for the place where confiscated items went.
I looked toward my husband. I caught a wisp of hair and what seemed to be his hand upon it. Is OK fine? I wanted to ask. Is OK perhaps the final goal? Where might familiar factor in? Where might: we like the same ice cream. Where might:
I know you.
I grabbed at him, the cat inside the carrier. I grabbed at him and said, Don’t take him from me!
Ma’am! she said with some conviction, although she looked away from me, toward another, who locked me then within his eyes as he walked forward. Is there a situation here?
Yes, I thought. No, I said. My husband by now had noticed the hold-up and had maneuvered himself into a position of receiving the cat over the black zip-line. I saw this in slow motion and something burst behind my rib cage; as it did my body filled with dense, hot liquid that added weight, that gave me a gelatinous pull upon the earth. I felt too heavy to move toward gate 34, let alone to lift up off the ground and fly to the place I had previously thought of as home, where my new life—temporal, or so—awaited my landing.
Hands guided me away from the security line and I heard myself tell the wide-belted woman of the cat hole my mother had so kindly cut into her basement door, and now for what? I looked back at my husband, saw the weight in the bag tipped him to the left. His eyes looked very sorry. He stretched open the palm of his free hand to show, what? To show he had nothing. I envied that cat. I, too, felt too huge to fly. I wanted to be contained. Just reach for me. Grab for me over the zip-line.
When we planned the wedding nearly a decade before, I had argued with the caterer because he insisted we provide more main dish choices than we had wanted to.
We’re not looking to feed these people for the entire weekend, I had said. We’re young and can’t afford it. I looked at the man who would soon be my husband, and he agreed, although he did so non-committed-like, with a nod and shrug of his shoulders. Who are you people? I thought then of men.
Perhaps you should wait until you’re older, the caterer suggested, until you can do it correctly.
I felt defiance well up within me. Had I not been doing it for love I would have married out of spite at that moment; but later I remember waking at night and thinking of it, only in my half-sleep state I heard the caterer grumble that it’s a long life—not a long reception—and people get hungry.
Perhaps you should wait until you’re older then. Until you can do it correctly.
My husband had turned away by now. He walked with that cat slung in that bag toward the exit door of the airport. We’re still young, I thought, as I saw the lovely leanness of my husband’s waist, as I slid my own weighted legs over the slick terrazzo, toward gate 34.
There once had been a superhero doll weighted just like this, his rubber arms filled with a gelatinous goo that stretched when you pulled and reformed when you let go. If you pierced the skin with scissors it would leak. What was he called, that heavy, stretchy superhero? He wasn’t the caped sort—he was earth-bound and tortured. He did good things reluctantly, not due to bravery. It hurt his body to do what needed to be done. It ripped his clothes and made him feel very much alone. What was he called?
He would know the answer, I thought. As I pulled my weighted legs over shiny terrazzo and walked passed the twenties, toward the mid-thirties, I made a mental note to ask him about this later. We’re from the same time and all— he and I. For years we had counted on the other for just this sort of vital, vital, vital thing.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Walk Back from Monkey School by Kate Hill Cantrill
You spotted the trapeze rig in the spring, where it seemed to have sprouted, like a flower, from its otherwise concrete surroundings. It was pitched on a medium-sized plot of grass in what counts as a park in your Midwestern city, and you passed it as you drove across town to go to the new international food market for ingredients for a complicated Asian noodle dish. You are at an age— thirty-three—at which all of the sudden you aspire to be thought of as a foodie.
It was empty that day: There were no other hints of circus around—no jugglers, no fire-eaters, no high-wire act—and the trapeze looked lonesome there all by itself, nobody swinging into its net, nobody sitting in the half-ring of bleachers that surrounded it. You didn’t think about it as you and your husband ate dinner that night, your noodles fragrant with Thai basil and delicious, a rare success (except for two varieties of grilled cheese sandwich, which you do very well, you are not a good cook). But the next week when you drove by, this time with the goal of homemade sushi, there were figures swinging delicately to and fro from the contraption, and you nearly rear-ended the Toyota in front of you. You found the trapeze school on the internet, where you learned that they give performances on Friday nights and lessons on Saturdays. Experience the thrill of the flying trapeze! All levels welcome! And so that Friday you dragged your husband to the spot, half-expecting the whole thing to have vanished, like a mirage. But there it was, beautiful at night in the glow of white lights. You took note of the fact that the bleachers were halfempty in only a peripheral way, watching in awe as the aerialists tossed their lithe bodies from bar to bar. “It was okay, I guess,” said your husband, who has very specific preferences—romantic comedies with unhappy endings, partially finished basements, steak only if he doesn’t have to see it raw first—and then the two of you went out for pizza. But the next afternoon you tied your hair into a ponytail and fished out a pair of old spandex shorts and went bravely back, determined to try this thing for yourself.
You didn’t know that it would feel a little bit like sex—the bodily connection, the fitting together of parts—the small oh! you released when Isaac, the catcher, grasped you by the wrists and held you swinging through the air, an incredible three or four seconds of weightlessness until he dropped you gently to the net. You didn’t know that when the sweet, fresh-faced college student behind you in the fly order, also taking her very first lesson, cried thank you! and that was wonderful! as she landed on the net after being caught by Isaac that you would know exactly how she felt (amazed, grateful). You didn’t know that when Isaac, halfway up the ladder, turned back and said I want to catch you again that it would feel like your heart leaving your chest.
He is so beautiful you almost cannot believe it. As a girl you were used to boys who were sweaty and awkward, who you developed crushes on despite their tendency to talk too loud and too quickly, despite their outfits picked out so obviously by their mothers. They were boys whose over-long limbs seemed not a part of them; boys who touched you with clumsy sweaty fingers and then waited eagerly for their turn. At some point these boys became men who worked in marketing and knew a lot about microbrews and played kickball on weeknights, who took you out to reasonably nice restaurants before touching you with clumsy sweaty fingers and then waiting, only slightly less eager, for their turn. With his black eyes and dark curly hair, Isaac is beautiful in a nearly Biblical way: You think that he would not have looked out of place in the Garden of Eden, a banana leaf over his crotch.
You didn’t know that you’d be back the next Saturday, and the next Saturday after that. You didn’t know that you’d fake severe menstrual cramps to get out of a trip to the vineyards with friends two Saturdays later. You didn’t know that you’d take such pure and unsullied pleasure in leaping from a board two stories above ground, in learning how to get upside down, how to arch your back to look for the catch. You even like the terminology that the aerialists use, even before it makes any sense to you, those beautiful strange words: planche, whip, salto. Every action of your adult life is a measured, careful decision, even things that are supposed to be fun—what kind of frozen yogurt to buy, whether to go to the movies or rent one on demand—and you take an uncomplicated joy in your uncomplicated accomplishments on the trapeze. Joy is not a word you can use to describe any other singular thing in your life. You work for a company that assesses the competency of call center agents—which agents do a good job solving customer problems, which do a poor job, and which do very subtle gradations of jobs in between. None of you, except a plumpish, forty-something woman who always declines your invitations to go for drinks, care anything whatsoever for your jobs.
You didn’t know that when you didn’t tell your husband how much you love the trapeze that this would feel like a small betrayal, and you didn’t know that you’d fall in love with Isaac the way you fell in love with Mike DeCarmo sophomore year of high school—recklessly, carelessly, with the hot spark of adolescence. You didn’t know flying on the trapeze would make you realize things about your marriage, like how you wish your husband read books, how you hate that he suspects a conspiracy in everything— even the price of ice-cream cones—how when you’re with him you turn into a sly, sneering version of yourself. You didn’t know that on the eve of your thirty-fourth birthday, one month after your first trapeze lesson, you would realize that you didn’t want children, despite the plan you and your husband meticulously plotted out, the first pregnancy at thirty-five, after you are both established in your careers, the (admittedly small) college savings already socked away. You didn’t know that when you told your husband this that he would say that’s okay and then take a pair of pruning shears to the bushes around your house until they looked small and sad and eventually one of them sort of shriveled up and died. You didn’t mean for that to happen.
You didn’t know that Isaac would like you back. That he’d notice as your old training from high school diving practice came back, more relevant than you would have guessed, muscle memory returning slowly from wherever it was stored away (forever, you thought) and push you to learn harder and harder tricks on the trapeze, back-end straddle whips and penny rolls and then layouts and double-backs, performing catches with you himself (always), lifting you by your hands your ankles your waist, the two of you a perfect match with your strong lean bodies and dark hair, like brother and sister, almost, except that the parts of your body he touches pulse white-hot for days, until finally the part of you he touches is your lips, and you think you might die, immediately and without warning, from happiness.
But you don’t die. You keep flying, every Saturday, except now Isaac meets you some weeknights, too, at the company’s indoor rig. You do catch after catch, his hands wrapped firmly around your wrists, and when you finally sleep with him (quietly and urgently, on the trapeze net) it doesn’t occur to you that this is a worse transgression than what you have already done.
You didn’t know that when the owner of the trapeze company offered you a job that you would accept, that you’d leave your job, your 5 percent 401K match, your seventeen paid vacation days per year, to make thirteen-fifty an hour as a junior-level aerialist at a trapeze school, that in the third decade of your life you’d start anew, having discovered pieces of you that you didn’t know existed, sparks and flashes of something presumed long dead. When you tell your husband about your decision he registers the shock quietly, mostly in his eyebrows, and does not challenge you.
On the night of your very first performance, you change into your leotard in a trailer dashed away on the edge of the patch of grass and do your own hair and makeup with the other female aerialists. When you gaze at yourself in the mirror, at your hair pulled back tightly and your eyes dark with mascara, you think that you have never looked so beautiful, not even on your wedding day. Isaac has slicked his dark hair back and when his face appears behind yours in the mirror your breath catches in your throat at his loveliness.
You didn’t know that on that night you’d look out into the crowd, glittering with cameras, and see your husband’s face. You didn’t know that you’d be able to hold his gaze as you climbed up to the platform, hands chalked, ready for Isaac, who waits for you on the other side, and think only of the uprise forward-over you are about to perform. You didn’t know that you were the kind of person who would let go of something, but you are swinging now, and there is Isaac, ready to catch you if you are ready to reach toward him, to let his hands grasp your forearms. You didn’t know this, but there it is, and there you are.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Becky Adnot-Haynes from The Year of Perfect Happiness
And, Madame Blanchard, believe that I am happy to be here with you and your family because it is so serene, everything, and before this I worked for a long time in a fancy house—maybe you don’t know what is a fancy house? Naturally … everyone must have heard sometime or other. Well, Madame, I work always where there is work to be had, and so in this place I worked very hard all hours, and saw too many things, things you wouldn’t believe, and I wouldn’t think of telling you, only maybe it will rest you while I brush your hair. You’ll excuse me too but I could not help hearing you say to the laundress maybe someone had bewitched your linens, they fall away so fast in the wash. Well, there was a girl there in that house, a poor thing, thin, but well-liked by all the men who called, and you understand she could not get along with the woman who ran the house. They quarreled, the madam cheated her on her checks: you know, the girl got a check, a brass one, every time, and at the week’s end she gave those back to the madam, yes, that was the way, and got her percentage, a very small little of her earnings: it is a business, you see, like any other
—and the madam used to pretend the girl had given back only so many checks, you see, and really she had given many more, but after they were out of her hands, what could she do? So she would say, I will get out of this place, and curse and cry. Then the madam would hit her over the head. She always hit people over the head with bottles, it was the way she fought. My good heavens, Madame Blanchard, what confusion there would be sometimes with a girl running raving downstairs, and the madam pulling her back by the hair and smashing a bottle on her forehead.
It was nearly always about the money, the girls got in debt so, and if they wished to go they could not without paying every sou marque. The madam had full understanding with the police; the girls must come back with them or go to the jails. Well, they always came back with the policemen or with another kind of man friend of the madam: she could make men work for her too, but she paid them very well for all, let me tell you: and so the girls stayed on unless they were sick; if so, if they got too sick, she sent them away again.
Madame Blanchard said, “You are pulling a little here,” and eased a strand of hair: “and then what?”
Pardon—but this girl, there was a true hatred between her and the madam. She would say many times, I make more money than anybody else in the house, and every week were scenes. So at last she said one morning, Now I will leave this place, and she took out forty dollars from under her pillow and said, Here’s your money!
The madam began to shout, Where did you get all that, you? and accused her of robbing the men who came to visit her. The girl said, Keep your hands off or I’ll brain you: and at that the madam took hold of her shoulders, and began to lift her knee and kick this girl most terribly in the stomach, and even in her most secret place, Madame Blanchard, and then she beat her in the face with bottle, and the girl fell back again into her room where I was making clean. I helped her to the bed, and she sat there holding her sides with her hanging down, and when she got up again there was blood everywhere she had sat. So then the madam came in once more and screamed, Now you can get out, you are no good for me any more: I don’t repeat all, you understand it is too much.
But she took all the money she could find, and at the door she gave the girl a great push in the back with her knee, so that she fell again in the street, and then got up and went away with the dress barely on her.
After this the men who knew this girl kept saying, Where is Ninette? And they kept asking this in the next days, so that the madam could not say any longer, I put her out because she is a thief. No, she began to see she was wrong to send this Ninette away, and then she said, She will be back in a few days, don’t trouble yourself.
And now, Madame Blanchard, if you wish to hear, I come to the strange part, the thing recalled to me when you said your linens were bewitched. For the cook in that place was a woman, colored like myself, like myself with much French blood just the same, like myself living always among people who worked spells.
But she had a very hard heart, she helped the madam in everything, she liked to watch all that happened, and she gave away tales on the girls. The madam trusted her above everything, and she said, Well, where can I find that slut? because she had gone altogether out of Basin Street before the madam began to ask the police to bring her again. Well, the cook said, I know a charm that works here in New Orleans, colored women do it to bring back their men: in seven days they come again very happy to stay and they cannot say why: even your enemy will come back to you believing you are his friend. It is a New Orleans charm for sure, for certain, they say it does not work even across the river… .
And then they did it just as the cook said. They took the chamber pot of this girl from under her bed, and in it they mixed with water and milk all the relics of her they found there: the hair from her brush, and the face powder from the puff, and even little bits of her nails they found about the edges of the carpet where she sat by habit to cut her finger and toe-nails; and they dipped the sheets with her blood into the water, and all the time the cook said something over it in a low voice; I could not hear all, but at last she said to the madam, Now spit in it: and the madam spat, and the cook said, When she comes back she will be dirt under your feet. Madame Blanchard closed her perfume bottle with a thin click:
“Yes, and then?”
Then in seven nights the girl came back and she looked very sick, the same clothes and all, but happy to be there. One of the men said, Welcome home, Ninette! and when she started to speak to the madam, the madam said, Shut up and get upstairs and dress yourself. So Ninette, this girl, she said, I’ll be down in just a minute. And after that she lived there quietly.
*Katherine Anne Porter, “Magic” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.