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Princess of Desire
I was merely his customer: That’s what she said. Although she had briefly fantasized that a baby girl could sleep through rehearsals in a Moses basket or later, color or read books while she learned her lines, she had finally set aside any thought of having a husband or family and instead traveled as an actress. She bought carpets, like the Pakistani one on her table that she rubbed, her palm on its fine nub, and she’d taken lovers. Now, she faced the policeman, a silver letter opener spinning over and over and over in her hand, and answered his questions.
For many years, she’d had a crush on a merchant in her town, a seller of carpets, and so her home was filled with carpets: Carpets covered her tables as well as her floors, and when the soft spring light came through a window, she sat at one of these tables and imagined he would walk through the door and she’d turn her head and the light would glance off her pearl earring. When she was home, she went to the market every Saturday to see him, this rather rotund fellow with a tendency to light one cigarette from the stub of the last and to blow his nose into a large handkerchief—nothing glamorous about him and no way to explain the attraction but there it was. Her informers had informed her that he was happily married to his childhood sweetheart and that together they’d had ten children. Perhaps his happy marriage and love of his family—whose pictures adorned his market stall—was part of his appeal? Still, she did try to break that marriage apart, to dent it, to bend him. First she wore a tight dress of pale blue silk, then she wore a dress of silver brocade, and finally a golden dress embroidered with all the colors of the rainbow that she thought he’d especially like—his carpets were so colorful. Each time, she’d spent half an hour settling her breasts into the cups of her brassiere perfectly so, and each time he rejected her—gently—but still he tossed her back the way a wise fisherman tosses back a fish that’s too small and forgets about her. Although she had done all this, although she tucked her feet into carpet slippers when she came home and she packed a carpet bag when she left again, although she saved the softest carpets to cover her bed, she was merely his customer—that’s what she said.
Of course she had other lovers. She was shy around the rug merchant but not around other men. Different towns, different lovers, but after her own lightning bolt of orgasm she was bored. She knew she should be trying to please them as much as they had pleased her, but instead, staring at the ceiling or the wall or the pillow, she tried to make as many different words out of the word “boredom” as she could. Bedroom, of course, and bed and rod and do, as in “do her.” Then bore, as in “bore into her,” bore out the ore, as well as bore her, here in her dorm where she roomed with the other actresses, deep in their REM sleep. No true Romeo, no white robe, no church dome, no oboe music. No doe, she, producing no roe, no brood to brood over. Just this mode of being, this demo she’s doomed to redo. Another boor to deal out the cards for ombre, pick more brome grass for, visit the rodeo with, use the broom to straighten the room, hope she’s not booed off the stage or out of bed. If she’d had that baby girl she’d fantasized about, she’d be sleeping now in the Moses basket beneath the window or sitting in the dining hall downstairs filling the pages of a coloring book, and she imagined that after the man left her, she could turn to the child’s special sweet warmth, but she had set aside any thought of having a husband or family and instead traveled as an actress.
She worked in one town or another, three months here, a month there, sometimes just a week or two of work with a hiatus at home in between. She started out playing Mary in the local Passion Play (not the Virgin but the other one), then Ophelia (but not for her the mad maiden), Viola and Rosalynd, Cordelia (that ornery queen), and then broadened her roles from Shakespeare to Ibsen to Brecht—the farces, the musicals, and the epics. City to city, she played Nora and Hedda Gabler, the Bride in A Respectable Wedding, both the Fly and Lilian in Happy End, and Kattrin, the mute daughter in Mother Courage. She imagined that one day she’d play Mother Courage herself. Finally she joined a repertory company in a city far from home—a whole year’s contract—and was playing Lady Macbeth for the first time when she met a man who interested her more than the others. While learning her lines, she thought of the rug merchant and his wife and whether their relationship was as passionate as the relationship between Macbeth and his wife, but the young man she’d started seeing made these thoughts less urgent than they had been. At least he distracted her more than other lovers had. His appeal lay in his jolliness, in the cleanliness of everything he touched, and in certain bedroom techniques I won’t describe. He was a manufacturer and purveyor pickles—sweet and sour, garlic and dill, fruit and vegetable—and his great and serious knowledge of them amused her no end. It amused her no end that she was spending time with a pickle merchant—the affair couldn’t possibly be serious. He even imported pickled eggs from the far-off Far East, though after tasting one, she couldn’t imagine who would actually buy the things in this provincial town. She humored him though, tasting each of his wares and telling him exactly what to say in order to make them more enticing to his female customers. She found that between performances, she liked best to settle on a stool in the back of his shop, his realm, and watch him turn the jars on his shelves just this way, just that way, so that the pickles inside—the dark green cornichon, the light green watermelon rind, the purple beets and plums, the yellowish asparagus—all caught the light. The way he rubbed his rotund stomach reminded her of something though she couldn’t say what. She spent so much time with him, in the shop during the mornings and in his home after her performances at night, that he began to speak of their future together—forgetting that she would be leaving town at the end of the season. He spoke of the children they might have—jokingly at first, asking if they might be weaned straight from the breast to pickle juice. She laughed weakly at these jokes, for she was nowhere near as young as he thought, and it seemed unlikely that she’d ever have a baby. Still, she didn’t dissuade him of his ideas, merely hoped that she would lose interest in him and he in her before she needed to turn down a proposal. But then he began to call her princess, because of the golden ribbon she sometimes wore in her hair and the straight seat she took on the stool, and she found herself succumbing. At home she had constantly bought carpets, because she never tired of visiting the merchant’s market stall and listening to him discuss warp, weft, woof, knots per inch, and patterns. She bought carpets from Spain, Persia, New Mexico, and India and she dreamed of traveling to those places with him—or really of his discovering her in a theater in one of those distant places when he arrived to acquire more carpets, but it had been a long time now since she’d bought carpets or considered other lovers.
He was joking—or was he joking—when he told her that if she stayed she’d be a princess? One afternoon as she sat in the back of the shop, happy to be out of the rain, happy to have an hour off between rehearsal and performance, his cell phone rang and out he went, reminding her to mind the store as if she were already its mistress. At first there was a steady stream of lady customers, eager to buy the last side dish to go with their dinners, and then a steady stream of gentleman customers, eager for something sour to cut the greasy fish and chips they’d bought in the shop next door. Soon, though, the customers stopped coming, and it was almost time for her own light dinner before heading to the theater, and she wondered where her man had gone. In the manner of all stories, the surprising information came as a surprise. As she pulled cheese and crackers from her bag and ate them with pickles, she flipped through his desk calendar, or the mailman walked in with a letter she needed to sign for, or a fairy disguised as an old hag came in and told her—out of the blue, or a pickle jar broke and she needed to retrieve sponge and mop and cleaning fluid from under the sink where she discovered some papers. Just then, the jar slipped from her hand, a shatter of glass, a scatter of pickles, brine everywhere! Under the sink, she finds carpet samples, the carpet merchant’s name and address, a birthday card addressed to her man and signed “love, Dad.” I know you don’t believe this—that after traveling miles from home, she’s taken up with the son of her old crush—but stranger things happen every day.
She doesn’t tell him that she knows his father, and although she tells herself her new knowledge should change nothing, of course it does. Of course it does. At night now, in bed with him, she no longer delights in his vinegary smell because beneath the sour, she thinks she can smell dust, the dust of old carpets and the faraway places where those carpets were woven and even the dust of her closed-up apartment back in the other city, where carpets cover every surface. When he sighs above her, she imagines his father’s voice, and her only pleasure comes from imagining that his penis is a puppet and his father’s penis is inside it. It all becomes so unbearable that she must leave, but she returns, and when she does, he tells her that his father is dead. He’s only just heard. The police think it’s suspicious. She faces him now, the policeman, a silver letter opener spinning over and over and over in her hand.
There were more receipts from you than from any other single person, the policeman says. Yes, she says, I know. Numerous times the policeman comes, and she answers his questions the same way each time. I wasn’t a real ruler, she insists, not even a real princess. I just thought I was the princess of desire. I was merely his customer.
Maya Sonenberg’s first story collection, Cartographies, received the Drue Heinz Prize, and her second, Voices from the Blue Hotel, was published in 2007. More recent work appears in Fairy Tale Review, upstreet, New Ohio Review, and Hotel Amerika. She lives in Seattle and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Washington.