Conjunctions:26 Sticks & Stones

Is Anybody Listening?
She was under it all: knees raised and knobbed, the sheets a tent—stakeless, laundered—a house she had not built. “Not,” she said, “mine”—this voice of hers a hum, little more, a seepage of breath; it sounded to her as if located nowhere, spleenless. Here is where it was: beneath a hand. There was hair on her face. A fan up somewhere shaved the air, its blades old wood. All curve, she was. She always had been—fetal, tight and later rather ladylike and somewhat amiss. “Straighten yourself,” her mother had said. “Chin up!” Words, ink. Things had been balanced on top of her head. Britannica. Step by step, A to Z, a headache of knowledge, of what she did not know. What a nomad she was, well-thumbed—this house not hers, this fan refreshing nothing, useless, circling itself. She heard a flap of a sheet. A voice she heard, not hers, said, “You,” said, “You?” She rolled, stilled, cheek against fabric. “Yes,” she said in answer, and, answering again, said, “Do I what?”

Her hair was wet. She sat half-sunk and puckering. She heard the knock. A piece of soap, papery, a peeling, a little bit of nothing, really, floated. There was something quite abrasive in her hand. She was loosening skin. Sloughing was what it was properly called. Gray in the tub, this stuff of her, rubbed off. Her legs were pink. Or nearly. Or rather what they were was not so white. She lowered herself. The door—”Open up!”—was being worked. “Today,” he said. “Open, I said.” How not to hear it? She opened her mouth. Let in the slurry. Down on the bottom, she felt the ring of dirt.
“A sliver, please,” she said—made-up and pinned, the hair in a particular elaborate twist—”less, please, half of that,” she said. Her fork was to the crystal. A toast was under way—lucky twosome!—the chandelier aglow. It was all of it heirloom, all hand-cut. “Only a drop,” she said, “for me.”
     Applause in the ballroom.
     The bride, aswoon, was drunk.
     She was not the bride.
     “Must you?” he said.
     She was pinching the flowers. She had been trained. Discretion was the better part. She’d learned their names, promptly forgotten. Arms crossed over a flattened chest: “It’s close in here,” she said. “Is it not? Do you think?”
     The fountain in the cake had gone askew.
     What were they, in fact? Severely exotic genus of flora? Purpled herbs? Bent grass?
     She was at a doorway, a threshold—intemperate, the pain—hungover, and under a throw.
     “Why can’t you just stay put?” he said. “No faith,” he said.
     “Dear God,” she said. A click of the jaw; she ground her teeth, averted—her glance, a long-lost blow. This last trait was handed down, it seemed to her. From where? It was not nice to look. Locked out one night, she had bloodied a window, scarring a girlish fist. “Under my roof …,” her father had said. The key ring, glasses: chronic, this misplacing jag. She did not look. A Gypsy might have read her distant past, all skin and fold. Her fortune: travel; tall, dark gent.
     “Tell me am I right?” he said.
     “You’re right,” she said. “I think.” Although what was the question? Faithless in what? She was smoothing a wrinkle. Easy this, synthetic that, perfect for washing; cooling herself with a wooden sun. Still, it was humid, wasn’t it?
He was chin into hands.
     There was some kind of rule, some test. Was it fibers-per-inch? These were quality issues.
     She had a woman’s sense of things.
     Lovely, she’d said, regarding whatever. Rounds of bread, the roe atop; pumps to the floor squares, crossing her legs. A napkin with which she had tidied herself. The kiss was in her palm. Blotted. There were no two prints alike. She had been born this way, like this, for this, pledging allegiance, singing, or rather mouthing, like a scout: Heigh ho, nobody home, meat nor milk nor money have I none, still I will be … what? Buffed to a finish, holding her body like a glass of sand; she would not eat that cake—”Very lovely,” she’d said, a shade below whispering, running out again. So here had come attendants, here came the inadmissible aunt, convex and verbal, inviting a not-nice look. The voice no flute—the voice is like an instrument for cutting, apportioning a serving to itself. Oh, aunt! Oh, florid relation!
     She, herself, not loose with words, had trusted in posture, relying on the value of a face. Intuiter: She’d kept the house. She’d minded his appearances. Sidelong, she saw him, rubbing himself.
     “Headache?” she said. “Eye ache? Toothache? Ingrown nail?”
     They’d been hospital corners, primly tucked.
     “Some wedding,” he said.

“Help me,” she said. Let it be said that she was a woman who used herself, what gifts she had received—nose to the cream pot, pinky in the air, as if seeking or maybe calling for judgment, hand to the disinfected phone.
     He had given her perfume, bath salts, mints.
     When he was gone she would stand on chairs—mother of necessity. The ladderbacks as if in a salute to grand ancestral dead, not hers, and no, not his, retrieved from some false past. The rugs were Oriental.
“Help me, please,” she said again, inventing, as ever, a need.
     She stood at the sink.
     She splashed herself.
     When he was gone, she would cripple a bureau. Wall-to-wall, knots per blinding, knotty foot; inscrutable frictions, always, it seemed. She was always dragging something: her life in her head, her finger in a drawer, a little toe on the varnish—impossible to get to where she would.
     She was that short.
     “I believe it starts with s,” she said, still in the bathroom. “Statice or something. A lavender bud.”
     He sat on the tub lip.
     “Iris?” he said.
     “Not iris,” she said.
     He had often told her this: How often had he told her this: How was he to know? The things she asked! Was it cream? Taupe? Puce? Was it poly-whatever?
     What was it that she smelled?
     Whatever had she said?
     What was she thinking?
     “Reach me a towel, please,” she said.
     Was he to read her mind? Receded, as if in an emotional crease. Days, years. The hair in the face, no pride. Or was it shameless?
     He gave her what she asked for.
     She patted herself. She was still in the bed, why not? It was the place she had begun—a rosy, absorbent, a purely subcutaneous creature. Flesh, bone, labor—she had made this tent. Encamped herself, again, again, tent after tent, as if devoted to the enterprise: ghost town.
     It was the body reformed.
     He was questioning her.
     There was all of her knowing at the tip of her tongue. Her breath, let out, dispersed.
     She had listened to the whirring.
     She was her witness.
     It was she who, after all, had answered yes.

Dawn Raffel is the author of The Secret Life of Objects (Jaded Ibis) and Carrying the Body (Scribner).