“You can get a wax.” She rubs the stubbly black fuzz on my calves, nodding. “A little long.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s been cold.” I feel the need to defend myself to the woman painting my toenails. Suddenly my mother has somehow teleported herself into the salon, kneeling at my feet, reminding me that I’ll never be doing it quite right.
I look down. The hair is long on my legs. I could braid it. French braid my armpit hair too, but I’m wearing a sweater, so she’ll never know.
The guy waiting for his haircut laughs into his palm. I wonder if she’ll comment how the hair on top of his head is short and wispy. You can get plugs. No, probably not.
The nail technician clucks at my toes, shaking her head. I have left the polish on for so long that my nails are now spotted with white blotches. They look hideous, with bleached streaks bright on a yellowish hue. She files them aggressively.
Summer is sundress and sandal season, but where I live no such season exists. July and August are cold months, freezing even. The sky is a permanent slate gray from sunrise to sunset. The wind is blistering against my nose and ears, turning them pink as rose petals. And there are roses blooming in my neighbor’s garden. I stare at them longingly, fooled by their bright coral colors. It’s summer. Their splayed ballet slipper pinks and furious magenta faces insist over and over again, It’s summer. I wonder if I can make it so if I believe it enough. The dark mist would lift, the sun would shine on my shoulders, and a tiny speck of dewdrop on the roses would quiver ever so slightly, winking.
Summer means the damp embrace of the fog. I remember the music festival in the park with Bryce, laughing at the girls so obviously from Southern California. With their flower crowns and their jorts, exposing thighs and butt cheeks, tinged purple from the frigid air. We laughed and clasped gloved hands, happy and high in our puffy down jackets because we knew better. The taste of foamy golden tangy beer was on our tongues. He let go of my hand. I’ll be right back.
So my nails are horrid and discolored, and my skin is not smooth. I’ve been rushing lately. Rushing to work, rushing to the gym, rushing to cook, rushing to take care of the dog. I don’t shave. I don’t put on makeup. I need to try harder, not yet abandon my heart, which seems so heavy and brittle. The world senses my hopelessness and wants to comment. Let me know that it has taken notice.
But I haven’t completely given up. I have a date tonight and I will wear my black leather boots. The Rag & Bones that remind me of the Yeats poem. I must lie down where all the ladders start…in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. I try to push my worry away. His name is Kurt and it will be our second date. Second dates still hold promises of things to come. Possibilities. But then dread fills me to the brim, overflowing soot that will cover my feet in a light blanket of dust and ashes that I cannot scrub off my five-hundred-dollar shoes. My mother’s voice echoes in my head. You should have worn heels.
“Letty, you’re too picky,” she says when I call her. I am weepy from dinner with Kurt. “You always find something the matter with them.”
“How is that helpful, Mother?”
“I’m not allowed to be honest? What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t tell you the truth?”
I bite my tongue so I won’t say something I’ll regret. There’s only room for one honest person in this relationship. I learned this many years ago. There has never been space for my truth, my opinion, or my choices with the two of us.
You can make your own choices now, Letty. This is what I’m supposed to say to myself. The tools from therapy slipping through my fingers like hammers covered in slick silk. I can never quite hold on, quite grasp when I’m supposed to push forward. But haven’t I made my own choices? I’m here, thirty-eight and single. I didn’t want a cookie-cutter life. I never did. Don’t settle has morphed into don’t be picky. And somewhere Bryce is baking star-shaped gingersnaps with his wife in a house that smells like Christmas.
Kurt had taken me to a new and trendy place called The Hug. This is something one should want to do with their date. Hug them. Kiss them. Possibly have sex with them. I had let hope get the better of me.
He is forty-five, divorced with a kid, and according to his profile, looking for someone to laugh with.
“My ex has no sense of humor,” Kurt says as he unabashedly checks out our waitress.
Gee, I wonder why.
It’s not an actual question. I know the answer as I stare down, eyes concentrating on the menu. It’s French fusion. If I were here with Bryce, I would order the burger with blue cheese. But I’m not with Bryce. I haven’t been with Bryce for years. He married the first girl he met after me, a kind-looking nurse with long dark hair. I stared at her online profile for hours, memorizing every photo, wondering. Why, why, why? Why wasn’t it me? He never really explained why. I just wanted to know the reason. There had to be a reason. There could be a million reasons.
But the truth is I knew the reason already. He just didn’t love me the way that I loved him. We want different things. His words, not mine.
I glance at Kurt, at his crisp checkered shirt and rugged reddish brown shadow. He’s addicted to Core Power Yoga. I love the sculpt classes. He told me this last week over drinks, on our first date. I had thought it was cute. Now I realize he probably loves the twentysomething blondes lunging and twisting all around him. Sculpted bodies. It should be a Met exhibit. Women chiseled out of marble who never age, never show any imperfections. She makes me feel young. My father had said this once, describing my stepmother Ingrid. I had always found this surprising because Ingrid is so young. Younger than I am. So wouldn’t that make him feel old?
Kurt orders something. I’m not paying attention.
“I’ll have the Niçoise salad,” I say finally, curling and uncurling my toes in my boots. It was the dream itself enchanted me…to engross the present and dominate memory.
Kurt flashes me a grin. His canine sticks out slightly, rotated just so, giving his smile imperfect charm. If he were a woman, they’d call her snaggletooth.
“It’s Niswaaazzzzz.” He corrects my pronunciation loudly, seemingly for the waitress’s benefit or maybe just because he’s an asshole. She is around 25 with dimples, a curly beehive bun, and a ballerina body. “Because of the ‘e’ on the end.”
I roll my eyes. I can’t help it. Does it really matter how I say Niçoise? I have an MBA. I make six figures. I pay all my own bills, can snake my own drain and drive my stick-shift car up every hill in this city. But because I’m single, there is something wrong with me. Don’t you want to get married? It’s a question I get so often I’ve stopped counting. I don’t know is my usual answer. I want to be happy. And why does one have to be conjoined to the other? I don’t know…many happily married people. This is what I want to say to their smug faces. Their underlying question is always the same. Don’t you want what I have?
I sit here, arguing to absolutely no one that I am right, that Kurt made the correct choice when he swiped right. I want to cry. I want to text Bryce, tell him I miss him, tell him whatever it is that couldn’t make him stay. But I have no audience. The past is gone. The seats are only filled with versions of myself I long to correct. This is what my mother means when she says that I’m too picky. Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems.
“I speak French,” Kurt continues. “And German.”
I can’t help it. I roll my eyes right in Kurt’s face, which I’m sure reminds him of his unfunny ex-wife.
He talks through dinner, about his Porsche, more about his ex-wife, about biking to work. He can’t wait for Labor Day weekend and life on “the playa.” I eat my Niçoise salad, wishing I’d ordered the burger.
“Ever been to Burning Man?”
I watch the candle flame flicker on our table. Burning. I wish I were on fire—metaphorically. But there is no spark. Not even a hint of warmth. What is here? I think of brown grocery bags, wet and sopping.
“No.” I brace myself.
“Oh, you have to go,” he drones on. “It breaks you open.”
I clear my throat. “Does it?”
I could point to one thing. I could point to many things. But I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have to explain why this date is terrible. It just is. And yet I find myself in the same predicament time and time again: justifying and explaining to my mother.
“I’ll never have grandchildren,” my mother digs now, as I tell her about Kurt. “I’m just sayin’.”
I grimace. It’s not a new line. She’s said it many times before, twisting my life and making it about her own. Why do you talk to her so much? Why can’t you cut the cord? My best friend Gemma always asks me this. I am consistently envious of those who so easily cast off the iron cages of family. Responsibility. History. I owe her for everything. Don’t I? She is my mother.
“Riley and Keith might adopt. Or get a surrogate,” I say. My mother seems to forget about my brother and his husband during these conversations.
“Pffft. It’s not the same, Letty. You need to try harder.”
“I am trying!” I explode. “Can’t you just say one nice thing to me? Can’t you just make me feel better?”
The long-distance line tightens, stretches, and groans under our weight. After years of never speaking my mind, never standing up for myself, I do it badly. I know this.
“Letty. You’re the only one who can make yourself feel better,” my mother says carefully. And then again, her oft repeated excuse. “I’m just being honest.”
My mother has long conflated honesty with tactless observation. But there is no point in arguing. The battle is over. She won it the day I was born.
I say good-bye. I need to let the dog out. But mostly, I just want to be alone with my loneliness.
And I am tired. So tired as I wipe off my mascara. I dim the light in the bathroom and for a moment I am 28 again. But then I hit the switch and time leaps forward. Thirty-eight. I stare for a long time at the fine lines around my eyes, thinking about what my mother said. She’s only a little wrong. I am not too picky. I was too picky. I waited and waited for one person to cross the finish line, to hand me the baton, knowing deep down he didn’t want to finish the race. The signs were all there, and yet I stood there, filled with dreams. Why are some of us lucky and some of us not? The tiniest infinite crack in the sidewalk that stretches forward, dividing these two camps, the lucky and the unlucky in love.
It’s all gone now, forgotten by everyone but me. I can shut my eyes, but I can’t shut out his face. The feelings. The way I wanted it to be. I hitched my wagon to the wrong star. I watch this image in my mind as I close my eyes, the dying ember burning out, and there I am, riding in a runaway carriage. I cannot be a passenger now. I have to steer it myself. And then I finally fall asleep.
It is Sunday. I wake up by myself. Coffee for one. Pancakes for one. The conversation with my mother is still ringing in my ears. A sob rises in my chest like a fountain before sinking back down again.
The dog traipses in while I’m cooking breakfast, licking her chops. Her eyes are watery brown and big. People usually comment on her eyes. They are both mournful and joyful. I wonder if she still thinks about Bryce. I kept her after he moved out. I stir and stir, watching the thick beige batter bubble. That was four years ago.
We named her Daisy after my favorite flower. Daisy slides down into puppy pose and then plops herself at my feet. I give her a piece of cheese from the fridge. This means she will only beg for more, but she looks so happy I can’t help myself.
As I eat my pancakes, light shines through the windows. The sky breaks open and begins to melt from gray to blue. The sun is peeking through the fog. I leash Daisy and we walk up the incredibly steep incline to the next neighborhood. There is a breeze, and when I turn back, I see the water dotted with colored sailboats, waving in the wind. The bridge shines brightly in the distance and tourists snap pictures. I often do too. I wonder if people tire of the view—if they stop seeing the magic spread out in front of them. It happens. There are moments when I can only see the piles of human shit, the needles, the detritus, old milk cartons and wet cigarettes. The city covered in a film of filth. We can make something as beautiful or as ugly as we want it to be. This is the power of the mind. I can make someone as important or unimportant as I want him to be.
I remember the morning I woke up and saw Bryce had friended me. Friended. It was a verb now, part of the lexicon. We were “friends” who hadn’t spoken in over three years. The last time I had seen him, it was a rainy December day. He had taken all his things and packed up his Subaru. We stood on the stoop, our jeans wet from spray. It was the directionless kind of rain that blew north and south and east and west. This is really happening, I thought. The air smelled clean, metallic. Daisy watched us from behind the door, her tail sweeping the floor like a broom. I turned to her, the unbearable questions on her sweet face. Where’s he going? she asked. What’s he doing?
The answer swelled in my throat like an enormous balloon made of cement—solid but somehow continually expanding. He’s leaving.
Then he kissed me. I cried in his mouth. He wiped my cheeks.
I’m going on this trip. I need some time to think.
Think about what? Think about what?
The last time we spoke, he had called to say he missed me. He was drunk. I told him I loved him. Come see me. Please. But he never did. He wrote to say things had gone on long enough and it was best to say good-bye. I deleted that email, slamming my computer shut. I have some pride. They say love is stronger, but the shame was so powerful it could have been a hurricane coming through the screen. The truth was, I had written him first. I had begged, just like a dog. Just like Daisy for a piece of sliced Sargento Swiss.
I had sat there, breathing heavily, a knot in my stomach, acid tearing through my veins. He’d signed the note with Best. I was an acquaintance now. I was nothing more than a chapter he’d clearly finished. His underlying message was as clear as the crystals I’d bought at the swap meet that day. It’s over, for good.
See, I was down in Joshua Tree, supposedly getting over him. Moving on, letting him go. I just remember that there was nowhere to go to escape the heat. I felt my insides burning, roasting me from my organs out to my skin so that when I rubbed my flesh with my fingers, I thought it might peel right off, pink and rubbery in my hands.
That happened once. I was 20, home from school on spring break. My friends had all gone to the Bahamas. Or was it Jamaica? I do remember all the pictures, grainy film developed at Walgreens from disposable cameras. They wore matching bikinis, posing on rocks, a party I had not attended. But really, I hadn’t wanted to go and they sensed it. I hadn’t wanted to buy a plane ticket to paradise, which was really just bad touristy bars crammed with the same people we saw every day on campus, only this time we were all in bathing suits, all just a little bit more wasted, a little bit more wild. It was Cancun actually. Or maybe Key West? I can never remember.
Go, I thought. Go and drink fruity drinks without me. I am no longer even there anymore. I have gone so far away, I can barely see them.
So while those sisters I had pledged loyalty to for all eternity danced on tables with beads layered around their necks, I sat on the front porch of the house where I grew up, watching the sunset. I was reading The Magic Mountain.
“What’s it about?” Riley asked. He was still in high school then.
“Everyone goes to a mountain to die,” I say. “Basically.”
He frowned. “Sounds terrible.”
“The book or the dying?”
I close my book and walk through the woods, down our path to the pebbled beach, staring out at the Sound. The slight sway of the water laps back and forth around my ankles. I press the arch of my foot into a large polished stone, enveloped by the quiet calm. We’ve lived out here in Strongs Neck my entire life. My parents bought the house when they married. It was just a little shack then, but they fixed it up, built it out into the charming two-story with cedar shingles and the guest cottage out back. But then Dad left. I guess you can only put so much into something for so long before giving up.
I wade further into the water and drift away—lying on my back, letting the soft current take me further out as I stare up at the golden ball of sun fading into twilight. I rock back and forth, uncertain where I belong. Rushing the sorority had always been my mother’s idea, repeated so many times, implanted like a chip in my brain, so deep that I had come to think of it as my own. I want to rush. But I didn’t. I didn’t know what I wanted. I wasn’t allowed to know what I wanted. You want what I tell you to want. My mother’s face looms over me, blocking all the light.
It was the next to last night before I went back to school. We always had tea after dinner. I had gone running right before and was still wearing my shorts. The weather had turned warm, and I liked to run just before dusk, when the day was beginning to slip away and the smell of earth and leaves were strong in my nostrils. But back inside the house, I turned cold, the sweat freezing instantly and the heat vanishing with every passing second. I put on a sweatshirt and ate pasta with asparagus and peas. I remember the richness of the butter and the tartness of the lemony sauce cradling the noodles I twirled and twirled around my fork. My mother was laughing at something Riley had said as the kettle whistled.
“Chamomile or mint?” she asked.
“Chamomile,” I said. Chamomile had always been my favorite.
I remember the steaming mug sitting quite normally on the table. My sleeves were so long, flapping over my hands, moving like great big wings while I talked. I took a sip but it was too hot. I put it down on the table, and my sleeve caught the mug.
There is no way to describe real pain until you are actually in real pain. Things hurt. They are uncomfortable. But then there is brutal agony. It begins as a sting, like an ant bite, but it’s quite a large ant. And then there is a searing flash that unleashes on you like a demon seeking revenge, sinking its fangs deep into your body with a wicked, steaming poison. I scream, a scream that rips from my lungs and out of my mouth, and I think the windows shatter, but only in my mind.
“Get her in the tub!” my mother is shouting. “Get her in the tub.” And I’m whimpering as she strips me down, and my brother is talking to the doctor on the phone.
“Get her out of the tub,” Riley is shouting. “Get her out of the tub.”
And then my mother said, “Why can’t you be more careful?”
I’m in the backseat wearing my mother’s sack dress, writhing and moaning. I’m looking out the window counting the stars peeking through the trees. They might be airplanes. All I see are white flashing lights. I am naked underneath my dress and my tampon string hangs free, but I’m too helpless to be embarrassed. The IV barely registers, and finally there is a sweet rush from the numbing drugs as the EMTs bind my legs with bandages. Third-degree burns. I can’t walk for a week. My mother changes the dressing, helps me recover, holds my hand.
“It doesn’t look so bad, Letty.”
Scars on my thighs I can see. Scars on my heart I can only feel. Daisy and I return from the walk and I collapse on the bed, letting the tears flow freely. Daisy runs over, concerned, licking my cheeks. Her nose is ice cold against my skin. Cold nose, warm heart.
My pillow seems soaked with salt, caked with white residue. I open my eyes, staring at the boots lined up next to the mirror. Rag and bone shop of the heart. I can learn from my mistakes. I can be different if I try.
My hands trace the slightly discolored skin on my legs, imperceptible to most. I can see my flaws so easily. And I want to change. I want to change so much. I want to try harder until I can no longer remember Bryce’s face or hear the echo of his voice. He will disintegrate into fine sand and then disappear into the far corners of my mind that I can no longer reach. It is an abandoned alley, so dark and strewn with rust that I never, ever travel there. Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can…
And things can change, I think. This time it could be different. The wounds healed after all. Everything heals eventually.
Cynthia Singerman is a writer living in San Francisco with her husband and rescue dog, Barnie. Her work has been published in Herstory. She recently completed her first novel. You can follow her on Instagram @cynthiasingermanauthor.
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