I wear a long white gown, a Cleopatra wig, black with heavy bangs, and a veil. I put clown-white on my face and stand on a wooden box, the gown draped over the sides, covering it entirely. I appear taller than I am. I move very little, except to blow an occasional slow-motion kiss. Then I become still, as Ray’s expression when he wanted to show me he was completely unplugged from me, which I now understand is a potent form of engagement. I’ve been a street performer, a living statue, for fifteen years.
People are fascinated by powers of concentration. They’ll pay to be ignored. And to be ignored by a bride, it’s an emotional thing. There are women who give me offerings, not just tips but offerings, in the belief that husbands will be delivered to them. And men—a couple of them have left notes and phone numbers in the silver urn that sits at my feet. When we first moved in together, Ray used to count the weekend haul in bundles and rubber-band them up. One man wrote on a bank deposit slip: Will you marry me? I spent the better part of that evening trying to recall the faces out in the park.
—Tell me Ray won’t move out, Cynthia said.
—He called me an angel of death, I said.
—I’m not an angel, I’m a fucking bride.
Friend, our Australian shepherd, came in from the kitchen and got up on the bed next to me. I listened for subtle clicks and whirs over the phone as Cynthia talked. I caught Ray listening in once after things started to fall apart. He was pacing in the kitchen in his checked boxer shorts, the extension to his ear, a look on his face that told me any last affection had vanished. Our adhesives were rent control and Friend, and I refused to give her up.
Cynthia leveled with me. She said that remaining in the same apartment while breaking up with Ray was ruining my polarities, eating into my electrolytic balance. I think she even threw Tesla in there somewhere.
—You could probably hold a raw light bulb in your hand and make it glow, she said.
Cynthia likes to sit at her dressing table, headset buried in her hair, cosmetic brush in one hand, pumping a rubberized weight in the other, flipping through a magazine—like a god with nothing but arms.
She was determined that I house-sit her saltbox in Vermont for a couple of weeks to get away from him. I considered the map she had drawn on the back of a yoga schedule. Her roads connected to make one long blue vein. I tried to grasp the directions; there was no sense of scale to the map—a square marked “grocery store” was equivalent in size to Albany, New York.
—The snow is virginal, she coaxed. There are icicles four feet long. Wood is stacked. And Betsy has already gone round to the local market, filled the refrigerator. Kielbasa. I know you love kielbasa. Chardonnay. Chocolate ice cream?
She does that to people—she gets them with indulgences.
Cynthia is a good and trusted friend, but she said I was filled with an overload of current. I don’t understand that kind of talk. At least she hated Ray. I drew my fingers up Friend’s soft ears as if they were Kleenex popping out of a box. She sighed through her nostrils, put her head down.
—My hair came out in big clumps over Edward, Cynthia said.
—Is Les letting you know where he’s taking you this time? I said, with an impulse to veer off.
When they go on vacations, her husband, Les, does all the planning. He simply tells her to pack heavy or light clothes and to be ready by 7:00 a.m. on such and such a day. I think it’s like selecting sugar for his wife’s coffee (while suggesting that the cream is too fattening)—but she adores his taking charge. Cynthia and Les live on a series of interlocking trusts which keep them perennially afloat, and they have sex every morning—almost a second breakfast, Cynthia reports. I’ve never asked if they have their eggs before or after. She has claimed, many times, that she could never love anyone the way she loves Les. Who’s to know? They have been married for twenty years, and she says they still get paralyzed with adoration.
—You think people change? she asked.
I was searching for something to say, other than a knee-jerk response, when there was a knock at the door. I hoped it was Ray and that he had locked himself out. I could hear myself calling through the keyhole: We had two sets of keys when we moved in, Ray.
But he was in the kitchen at his desk, shoulders to his ears, feet pushing in and out of the fuzzy red slippers I had given him for Christmas. His last will and testament up on the computer screen; I was the beneficiary in a state of removal.
Without turning around he said: I leave you alone, don’t I?
I got off the phone and let Cousin Frank in. He lived a few blocks away and came over frequently. We kind of grew up together. I told him I was packing in the bedroom. Friend led the way, Cousin Frank followed, I took up the rear. Frank is tall and wide and walks with his head down—just a moving coat from my vantage point.
He brushed snow from his shoulders and wedged into that space between Ray’s mother’s old dresser and my Salvation Army set with matching mirror, which is a god-awful pain to move. Frank gave Friend the pat she hoped for, the kind of benediction only Frank can give—he’s a little stingy with his blessings. Then he asked about the map that was out on the bed, along with my suitcase, and why I was taking so many sweaters.
—Do I look like my wiring is off? I asked.
Frank was used to me.
—The stress of living with the enemy has all but shut down my circulation system, I said.
He removed his big brown gloves and took one of my hands in his. I think of Silly Putty when I think of Frank’s hands.
—You’re a refrigerator, alright, he said.
Frank sat down on the lid of my suitcase so I could work the zipper. He’s someone who understands the physical world. He was a mechanic for a while, worked on an assembly line at Rand McNally, the company that makes road atlases. He even spent a year up in Detroit putting Chevys together before he moved east. I was just engaging the metal teeth when he grabbed the map and leapt up—stockings and a fresh tin of clown-white sprang from the mouth of the suitcase. He made no comment about my taking the wedding dress. That’s one thing I’ll give Frank: you don’t have to explain.
I looked at his dark, comic mustache, the raised shadows under his eyes like packets of sugar.
—Oh, I know this place, he said. Maybe I’ll come up and visit.
—There’s only one bed.
I assumed he was kidding.
—You know me, just breeze in and out for the evening. Maybe we could barhop, scare up a couple of locals.
I saw that he was memorizing the phone number, his lips moving.
—There aren’t any bars—just trees and snow, Frank.
—Well…, he scratched the stubble along one cheek, we’ll see.
It’s hard with relatives. I adore his mother and she always says we have to put up with Frank for harmony’s sake. I asked him to call ahead—this was not the time for drop-ins. He asked if he could borrow fifty bucks. I told him I could give him twenty. To Frank, loans are like small sinkers that break free from a fishing line and settle to the bottom of a lake, independent of the hook.
He helped me with my bags. He said goodbye as if I would never return. Frank suffers from terrible depressions. He stood in a mound of grey snow, placed my extra coat on the passenger side and pushed the door shut, sealing me into my icy Toyota. I couldn’t see the world outside the car until the defroster did its job. I glanced in the rearview at Friend.
My plan was to lay low, to heal the broken nerves and heart. Walks along the quiet, immaculate roads, dinners cooked together, in that way that another presence enables you to want to cook—I hoped Friend would help me forget about love.
There was a feeling of never quite arriving—the recurrent dream I often feel when traveling alone—as we pulled up to the house, where Friend eagerly made her small yellow bowl in the snow. Cynthia had told me where to look for the key, buried in the loose soil of a pot. Friend must have thought I was fishing for a bone when I began to root around. She nosed her way in and knocked the pot over. The soil tipped out onto the fresh white walk. The dirt looked like the face of a man with a beard or maybe it was a rabbit standing on its ears. Cynthia would have made something of this. She would have called this a sign. She would have pronounced that a man who raises rabbits was about to work his way into my life.
There was a note on the kitchen counter: Miniature bookstore in the miniature town, one grocery store which is also a general store (will always leave you wanting)—one butcher/wine/whatever shop, gas station and a restaurant, open three nights a week, but they’re always changing the nights so be sure to call ahead. The house across the way is owned by a woman named Patricia, who lost her husband last year. She rarely stops over and if she does she won’t stay to talk.
And here, my dear friend, is a stolen photo of the man I am sending your way. Perhaps the ideal man. His name is Tom.
When I panic, I feel pockets of heat travel through my body. Mary Shelley wrote about this condition. It happened to Dr. Frankenstein—when the monster ran amok and the doctor understood what he had released in his own psyche. He suffered terrible bouts of fire in his muscles, sensations of current long before the first light bulb was ever illuminated.
Cynthia flutters with matchmaking energy (her yoga teacher, Helen, would call it kundalini, which has to do with some kind of subtle energy that’s released at the base of the spinal cord and works its way up into the light show of the brain). Cynthia works on the belief that if you aren’t in a solid relationship you’re a stray who needs warm milk and a new home. You require prodding and a friend’s arrangements. She was the one, it occurred to me, who had stolen my photo—the only one ever taken of me in my Maid Marion outfit, before I settled on the bride costume. I had assumed Ray sealed it into a box and put it into storage.
Tom was a little blurry in the photograph—squinting into the lens, drawing his hair back with one hand—I imagine he didn’t want his picture taken that day, any more than he wanted it stolen later on. A decent looking guy, even if he was a bit of a puppet like me.
Friend and I ate kielbasa; I drank a good deal of wine. Ray insisted on feeding her dry food. I snuck her treats.
Before I went to bed, I let Friend out and she poked about while I stood in Cynthia’s doorway—half cold, half warm, observing the house across the way. A plain white structure ringed in outdoor lights. Clothes line which ran between the house and a steel pole in the yard. Stockings hung from the line. All blue in the frosted light. There were dresses pinned at the shoulders as well. I considered how stiff the dresses on her line must get in the winter air before she reels them in—immobilized. Icicles long as small children clung to her eaves.
Friend pushed past me and returned to the hearth. Ray and I had had a fight or two over Friend’s stomach, her intestines, the bacteria that can build up on the soft linings of a gut—Ray likes to break it down where he can—but our troubles weren’t over Friend. It was my wondering aloud one day if we’d ever get married. I wasn’t asking him. It was more the idea that people do that kind of thing, get married. Before that day, I think we were reasonably happy. He appreciated my carefree nature, I admired his ability to cope in the real world. Well perhaps not happy, but we were delusional for a while.
Ray was a freelance accountant and a fiscally cruel man. We met in the expansive summertime, when he tested out his wild side. He courted me heavily, in his mute way. He had some nectar. But the winter months are difficult for street performers and Ray knew this when he suggested we part company.
Every time I left the apartment he got empty boxes down at Hannry’s Market—he liked the sturdy liquor boxes the best; he removed and flattened the inserts first. Then he packed something of his, maybe something of mine, sealed it with tape and locked it in our storage unit down in the basement, near the boilers and the oil drums that feed the radiators. He said he was just reducing the clutter; he claimed he wouldn’t touch my stuff. There had to be more than thirty boxes down there. Ray used rolls of tape to seal them—each rip of the tape dispenser was like an electric shock on my nerves.
Ray packed but he wasn’t going anywhere. He was adamant about staying. His name was on the lease, he reminded me. I threatened eviction. He walked into the kitchen and made noise—knocked glassware in the sink, printed something out from his whiney printer, farted aloud—something he never used to do. I stood by the kitchen door and asked for the key to our storage unit in the basement. He said: You have your own key.
I kept a cool head.
—The padlock came with two keys. I kept one, you kept the other, he said.
I had no memory of an extra key.
—I’d like to borrow yours, I said politely.
—This is what you always do, he said, going off to have a shower in the middle of the afternoon, leaving me to wonder what I always do. He took his keys with him. He locked the bathroom door from the inside and the water ran like Niagara Falls.
I thought of the odd dip in the back of Ray’s skull—the way I used to touch it when we made love. He was hit by a ball from a Skee-Ball game when he was a boy.
I had failed yet again to have a divine relationship.
Friend and I had our morning tea early—hers a soup of egg and milk with bits of bread floating on top. We had discussed the day and followed an impulse to walk to town. There was a veiny map for this as well, with the little stores bulging from it, a note about the gas being expensive. The chicken and baked goods were supposed to be much better at the butcher’s shop than the grocer’s.
As if Cynthia had shoved him toward me by remote control, I ran into this Tom—the living, breathing man, pushed out of his picture frame, up on two legs, walking toward us along the road.
Even with a hat and gloves to disguise him, I understood Tom’s stolen quality from the first. He looked like a man robbed of a parachute, the kind who found soft places to land in, who skipped the gravity factor. He was studying a piece of paper, which he quickly folded and shoved into his pocket. More of Cynthia’s cartography, I imagined. Perhaps he was out to find the small attraction drawn in blue ink: the bride who’s come down off her wooden box.
The minute I recognized him, I laughed aloud as if Cynthia could hear me out on the ranging planet, and I became self-conscious that I was wearing long underwear under my jeans. Friend circled up and back, hoping to achieve some form of echolocation with Tom.
I wasn’t going to stop, but he drew Friend toward him, reached a gloved hand down to her chest and scratched.
—Beautiful dog, he said.
—You’re the guy, I said.
—I’m the guy, he repeated. His words steamed out ahead of him in the cold.
Hadn’t shaved. Good mouth. Sunglasses.
—Do you have a photograph of me in a Maid Marion outfit?
—I have that one, he smiled, and I have one of you sitting at a kitchen table.
—Oh, from his dresser, I said. I only received one of you. There’s a lot of snow in it, I said.
—That explains it, he said.
He kicked the snow from his boots.
—Well, I said.
—Well, he said.
—So, he said.
—So…what’s in your pocket? I said.
Strictly teenage stuff, shuffling back and forth, tracking a lone car going by.
Then a conversation about USGS maps followed. That’s what he had tucked away—a USGS map. He showed me, right there on the side of the road, how to figure out elevations.
Tom was a surveyor. I hadn’t thought much before about a surveyor’s take on things: their theotolytes, plot points, a kinship with things both natural and technical. He said he sometimes fell into a different feeling about time when he was out in the field. He looked a little embarrassed by this idea.
—You can lose yourself in small adjustments, he concluded.
—I understand small adjustments, I said.
He asked what I did and maybe it was the cold that drove us inside. But I offered to show him. We went back to Cynthia’s. Friend was disappointed by this, though she liked having someone else around expressing adoration. I dug the key out of the flower pot again, feeling foolish for putting it back in the same place.
—You all right? I said, not exactly sure what I was asking.
—I’m great, he answered.
I filled Friend’s water bowl; she curled up in a corner and went to sleep, exhausted by my pursuits. I made a fire which took a long time to catch. I offered him cold kielbasa, wine, pie. We’re fully stocked, I said, pulling open kitchen cabinets to show him. He kissed me in front of the canned vegetables. A little soon but I didn’t mind.
Tom told me about his parents. I told him about Cousin Frank. And somewhere during our conversation I noticed the widow across the way—bringing in the dresses and stockings from her clothesline.
I told Tom to wait downstairs—to talk with Friend for a while.
I returned in the wedding dress, wig, clown-white. I stood up on the coffee table, kicking magazines to the floor. I ignored Tom and tried to fall into a trance. There are times, when I’m up on my wooden box and a light breeze picks up the veil of my outfit. I have arranged my gloved hands into a pose; and after a while, they seem like something separate from my body. The hands disappear, everything does. I was eager for that kind of thoughtless condition with Tom. I couldn’t get it right away, but for the longest time I tried not to move while he made love with me.
I’ve often wondered if Les and Cynthia were truly happy. Les was generally lost in the clouds; he sequestered himself in his study and thought weather, discerning the frequent, subtle shifts of atmosphere and pressure from the glint of his computer screen. She told me he checked the weather daily from a wide variety of sources, as a gambler checks his tip sheets at the races. She was never caught in a downpour without her duck boots on a single one of their surprise vacations, she said.
Tom and I fell asleep on the couch and woke up in heart-leaps to Friend’s sudden barking. We both sat up in the dark. Tom grabbed me. What? What? There was a good deal of fumbling for the lights, searching for eyeglasses. I told Friend to calm down. I pulled on my wedding dress without getting the zipper up the side, Tom threw on his pants and shirt.
In the dark, on the other side of the door, the outline of a hat, the heft of a bulky coat. He stood there like an entire family filling one body.
—Jesus Christ, Frank, I said.
He came in and talked to Friend.
—You said you’d come in the afternoon if you came at all, I said, the cold air pouring into the opening of my dress.
Frank stared as if I’d done something to set him on the wrong side of things.
—Car broke down, he said, taking his hat off. He hit it against his pant leg as if it had been snowing. But the snow had set up like a soufflé the day before, around Cynthia’s house and in the surrounding fields, and no new snow had fallen since.
—Fucking battery. I forgot I loaned out my cables.
Frank closed the door, the men introduced themselves just shy of shaking hands. I whispered to Tom that there was a shower upstairs. He kissed my cheek in a familiar way and went up; I heard the water run. I confronted my cousin’s beefy face.
—I’ve been walking for hours. Starved, he said.
He looked in the refrigerator. I looked at the stove, with the built-in clock. It was only eight at night. He held up a jar of capers, a slab of Brie.
—Funny stuff, he said.
He took his coat off. I knew what he wanted: pot roast. His mother, my Aunt Lu, makes the best goddamn pot roast. I asked him to step aside. I pried a gallon of rocky road ice cream out of the freezer, dropped it on the table in front of him and said I’d be right back. He was welcome to use the phone.
I left the impoverished spirit of my cousin and went upstairs, where I entered the bathroom steam and got in the shower with Tom. He talked to me about soap. I realized I had never understood the way soap figures into the history of the world, the melting of lye, I hadn’t considered how little cakes are formed, the difference between the moisturizing bars, the deodorant kind. I was soap naïve, soap deprived.
His hands, full of suds, lathered the small dimple at the base of my spine.
He turned to wash off and I lay my cheek between his shoulder blades. He could have run a giant hoop over the length of my body and not found a single wire holding me up.
—I can’t find a spoon! Cousin Frank shouted just then, outside the bathroom door.
—That’s absurd, I tell Tom. The kitchen is filled with spoons.
—Maybe he just wants a little attention.
—Wait until it melts and drink it! I shouted back.
—Look, I need some help here!
—You’re being a baby, search the drawers!
—I just walked two miles!
Tom and I looked at each other, the water pelting our chests, our eyes slightly bloodshot.
—There’s a woman across the way, I said.
I told Tom about the widow. We dried off, excited by the prospect.
—Maybe she has a tow-bar on her car, I said.
We returned to where Cousin Frank sat, one hand wrapped around the carton of ice cream. I handed him a spoon and he dangled it over the carton; let it drop. He fished out the hard nuts, never took his eyes off Tom. He gripped a mini-marshmallow between his teeth.
—You’d save a drowning man, Cousin Frank said, biting down on that bit of white.
—When I was a kid, we had lilies of the valley growing in the shade—along the side of our house, he told Tom, spooning ice cream into his mouth. One time I put my head down on the ground so I could hear them break through the soil. My cousin was there—she can tell you. My mother saw me with my face in the dirt and ran to tell my father. When he didn’t respond, which he never did, she got out her trowel and dug the bulbs up.
—Makes you wonder, Tom said.
I could see Frank was working himself into one of his moods. That’s when I told him there’s a beautiful woman who lives across the way. Frank considered this.
—You could ask her if she has a jumper cable, Tom suggested.
My dog sensed that Frank was about to go for a walk and sat up eagerly.
We lent him a flashlight and watched the shape of him evaporate into the dark, reforming against the lights of her house, Friend right there by his pant leg. When the widow opened the door, Frank beat his hat against his pants. I saw her briefly under an outdoor spotlight. Her dress was hallucinatory blue. There’s a kind of bird up in the Sierra Mountain range that gathers in large flocks; they loom through a canyon and disappear into the chaparral. It was the color of those birds. She had long dark hair, a handsome shape. Cousin Frank entered with Friend and she closed the door.
I sat down at the kitchen table and began to eat the melted ice cream. Tom rearranged the logs, set a match, got the tinder going. I think the whole thing had finally caught up with me, meaning Ray.
—Does your despair come out when you sleep? Tom said, intuitively. Mine does, sometimes.
—Sometimes it does.
—He’s been over there a while.
—A half-hour, I said.
It’s easy to think about other photographs when you get started. There are plenty that were stolen early on. My parents when they were still together, Aunt Lu, and my weird uncle whose name I like to forget—he turned out to be a real jerk. All looking cocktailish, smart, about to take over the world if it would only remain fixed in place. I’m staring into the camera from a playpen in the background, Cousin Frank is close by, on his black and white bicycle, as if someone’s asked him to keep an eye on me—maybe he was driving round and round the playpen; I seem to recall him doing that. We had no idea about love, none.
Lise Haines’s fourth novel, When We Disappear, will be published by Unbridled Books in June 2018. Her three earlier books are Girl in the Arena (Bloomsbury USA), a 2011 South Carolina Book Award Nominee, optioned by HBO; Small Acts of Sex and Electricity (Unbridled Books), named a Book Sense Pick in 2006 and one of ten “Best Book Picks for 2006” by San Diego’s NPR station; and In My Sister’s Country (Penguin/Putnam), which The Rocky Mountain News selected as one of twelve “Stellar Debuts” for 2002. A past finalist for the PEN Nelson Algren Fiction Award, she is senior writer in residence at Emerson College and a former Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University. Her stories and essays have appeared in AGNI, Ploughshares, Post Road, Crosscurrents, The Barcelona Review, and elsewhere. Visit her at lisehaines.com. (updated 4/2018)
Read “A Conversation with Lise Haines” by [Sherry Ellis] in AGNI Online.