Featured Prose | March 13, 2018
Becky Mandelbaum: “The First to Leave is the Winner”
Becky Mandelbaum’s pitch-perfect story “The First to Leave is the Winner” features a jilted fiancee who, in the very long run, gets her revenge. The story appeared in our winter 2017 issue. Mandelbaum also talked with the TMR staff about writing fiction and about her story. You can read that interview here.
The First to Leave is the Winner
For a brief period in my late twenties, I lived alone on a horse ranch at 9,500 feet in the San Juan Mountains. The closest human heartbeat was thirteen miles away, the nearest airport two hundred. The altitude gave me vertigo and headaches and months of spectacular, disturbing dreams, but it was worth it for the sky, which was grandiose and constantly changing, a lava lamp let loose of its goblet. Never had I seen a sky like that, and I haven’t seen one since. Granted, I haven’t been looking.
The ranch belonged to an ex-boyfriend of mine who was spending the year in Asia to find himself. From his itinerary, I concluded that finding oneself was best achieved in boutique hotels, five-star resorts, and spas named after rare tropical plants. To be fair, his beautiful young wife had just died from a brain bleed. One moment she was chopping a sweet onion, saying she felt funny, and the next she was dead. Just like that, an opening in the earth.
“I’m so sorry, Ellison,” was what I told him when I got there. I was in a mild state of shock at the beauty of the place. Not only had he left me for another woman, but he’d been out here, living with her in paradise. There were mountains and fields of desert lupine and, just across the gravel road, the Rio Grande, which shone in the sun like a great diamond necklace cast down by a jilted lover. This was autumn, the aspens dripping with pompous starlight. Not to mention the house, which was something from a page of Country Living. The kitchen was all blond wood and chrome, multicolored vases filled with dried baby’s breath and sage. My own kitchen, in the little apartment I’d left behind in Denver, had stacks of bills and boxes of Grape Nuts from 2004. The only decoration was a plaque above the stove that read live, love, laugh, a mantra that made me genuinely gag if I read it after having a bad day, which, at this particular juncture in my life, could be any day. Once, I smashed a pregnant spider on the plaque and the babies went everywhere; instead of trying to kill all one thousand of them, I went out for a cheeseburger.
I was surprised and a little annoyed to find that, despite his dead wife, Ellison looked as handsome as ever. He had always been like a human cinnamon roll, bronzed and sweet. Standing in the ranch kitchen, he wore his grief like a glaze that made you want to put your tongue against his neck and keep it there. I thought of the time, early in our relationship, when I was trying to decide what to eat for dinner and the thought legitimately crossed my mind that I was hungry for him, Ellison—that I wanted to put him in a bowl and eat him like soup. I made the mistake of telling him about it. “That’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said and refused to kiss me for a week. It had disappointed me that he mistook my romance for cannibalism and also made me wonder if there was something wrong with the way I loved.
“You don’t have to pretend to be sad,” he said. “I know you never liked Gloria.”
“To be fair, I never knew her—you never gave us the chance.” As far as I knew, nobody from our old life had met her. Their wedding was a small, Pinterest-inspired affair that took place primarily on Instagram.
“Maybe you would have liked her then. Everybody liked her. She was one of those people.”
“Well,” I said, astounded that there was still a part of my heart he could break, “it’s possible she wouldn’t have liked me. But I guess we’ll never know now, will we?”
Once he was gone, without a hug or even a good-luck-living-on-your-own-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-for-ten-months squeeze on the shoulder, I found traces of Gloria all over the house. A tub of buttercream hand lotion here, a leather sandal there. In the shower, her eucalyptus shampoo sat on the metal caddy and her hair clung to the drain like a sea urchin. I figured the least Ellison could have done was remove these artifacts before my arrival, but perhaps he was hoping I would do this for him, before he returned in July.
The problem was that Gloria had been more beautiful than I was and probably kinder, which did not make it easier when she stole from me my favorite person in the world. She had long black curls, and there was a time when, if you Googled the word chignon, you’d find an image of her on her wedding day. For a living, she taught children with disabilities how to ride horses—the same horses that now stood dumbly in the pasture, eating the carrots I fed them each morning, their eyes registering my presence as a sign that their lives would never again be the same. Their beautiful human was gone, never to return, and the soft, weightless children who rode them were never coming back either. Poor horses. Part of why Ellison had gone to Asia was to determine what to do with them. The ranch belonged to Gloria, whose dream it had been, ever since she was a little girl, to own land in the mountains and fill it with ponies. Ellison had never exactly shared this dream, but he did like to ski and mountain bike, so he happily left Denver for a quiet life on the ranch.
Ellison asked me to take care of the place not because I knew anything about horses but because I was unemployed and was, as far as I kept telling other people, at work on a novel. What Ellison did not know was that, ever since he’d left me, I had been trying to find ways to win him back: by earning an online degree in marketing, by running a half marathon, by entering a contest where, if I kept my hand on a Lexus for long enough, I would get to drive it home. In the end, I failed out of my first semester of school, twisted my ankle in the tenth mile (which, anyone will tell you, is much worse than twisting it in the first), and forfeited the Lexus when I wet my pants during hour six (the other contestants, I later discovered, were wearing adult diapers—stupid me). The book idea was more recent. Before I wrote a single word, I posted about it on Facebook. The way to write a novel, went the post, is one word at a time. Included was a picture of my laptop and a latte with a leaf etched into the foam. I spent the next few hours checking to see if Ellison liked the post; he never did, but he must have seen it because it was, as I mentioned, the main reason he proposed my staying at the ranch. “You can finish your book,” he wrote in the initial email, which I took to mean: I want you to be the first person I see when I get back from my travels. I imagined him returning home, weary with jetlag, his grief having sloughed off him like a layer of dead skin. He would see me in his kitchen, preparing something warm and fragrant—green chili stew or mashed potatoes with truffle oil—and understand, all at once, that he had never needed Gloria. “Look at you,” he would say, and I would only nod, understanding everything. After we made love, I would read to him from my novel, which by then would be all the talk among the major players of the literary world. Publishers would be throwing bricks through one another’s windows, attached notes reading: Jackie’s novel is mine! Back off! The novel, by the way, was about a colony of asexual aliens who came to Earth to learn about love and capitalism. As far as I could tell, it was either absolutely terrible or absolutely brilliant. How does anyone know whether something is good or bad? Somebody else has to tell you, that’s how.
The day after Ellison left, I drove three hours to the nearest Costco so I could stock up on everything I would need for the months to come: a 500-count box of tampons, a ten-pound bag of rice, olive oil and toothpaste and soap. I liked the idea of hunkering down, of having everything I needed. I would write my novel and generally reverse all the reasons Ellison gave for leaving me: that I was lazy, unfocused, without direction. Jealous. That I did not have a solid center, an accusation that made me view myself as a Cadbury egg, my tummy filled with liquid caramel. I would use my time at the ranch to become a superior version of myself, one Ellison would have no choice but to love. My greatest dream was to one day leave him as abruptly and coldly as he had left me and then, having punished him, take him back.
When I returned to the ranch, my car loaded with provisions, I found a note on the front door. I’m very sad to have missed you, the note read. But I will see you in the spring. xoxo. ☺
I thought about calling Ellison to ask who could have written the note, but he had told me not to call unless it was an emergency, so I decided I’d simply wait until the spring to find out. In the meantime, I would get to work on the novel, or whatever it was I was supposed to be doing out there in the middle of Ellison’s life.
And then, as if stepping off of a mountain, I was alone. The days, then weeks, then months began to blur together, a watercolor of time. Every other day was so similar to the one prior and the one following that at some point I stopped thinking of the year in terms of the calendar, with its tidy honeycombs of bounded time, but rather as a great empty wardrobe box filled with stale air and dying moths.
Of all the days, only the holidays stood out. The New Year arrived like a grand piano from the sky, bringing with it snow so deep the horses could hardly walk to their trough. I had a plan to spend the holiday reading the dictionary, searching for all the most beautiful words to use in my book. In reality, I spent the day watching video footage from Ellison and Gloria’s wedding and crying so hard I burst a blood vessel in my right eye. The truth was that working on the novel felt like trying to cut a lawn with tweezers. The only feeling worse than the guilt of not writing was the terrifying discomfort of actually sitting down to do it.
On Valentine’s Day, I woke up to the sound of icicles crashing onto the porch outside my window. I said to the empty room, “What have I done? Where am I?” When I imagined the hollow months still ahead of me, I wanted to get in my car and return to Denver, leave the horses to starve or cannibalize each other. But then I thought of Ellison, of how disappointed he would be that I was unable to stand my own company. And so I imagined taking all my negative thoughts and throwing them down a well so dark and deep that anything that entered would never return. The trick would be to never look inside. Sometimes I would imagine myself walking up to the well, tapping my fingers along its rustic stone lip, wanting nothing more than to peer inside. And then, my head high, I would turn and walk away.
Unless you count shoveling horse manure, the ranch was not exactly abounding with recreation, and so, for fun, I snooped. With the zeal of a mother reading her daughter’s diary for signs of a secret sex life, I probed every drawer, closet, and cabinet only to discover I’d raised a prude. The most scandalous find was a used condom, located in a junk drawer behind the usual cast of characters: playing cards, batteries, duct tape.
One day, while rummaging through Gloria and Ellison’s bedroom, I happened upon a stack of wedding cards. I sat and read each card, right there, on Ellison and Gloria’s bed—queen sized, with too many pillows and a stiff floral quilt. The cards were appropriately maudlin and congratulatory except for one, from an Aunt Brunhilde Meriwether who hailed from Soda Springs, Georgia, and whom I mentally dressed in hard leather pantaloons and hiking boots, dark braids thick as bread. A mouth like a pig’s snout. On the front of the card was a drawing of a rose, one red petal drifting to the ground.
My dear Gloria, the letter began, How incredible, that you have found love in this world. It is no easy feat. Let me share with you a secret about love, one that my mother passed down to me because her mother passed it down to her and etc. etc. all the way back, I am assuming, to the origins of women dispensing wisdom to one another on matters of love and life. My secret is this: In love, the first to leave is the winner. In whatever ways you can, leave him. Be the first to exit bed in the morning, the first to close your eyes at night. Deprive him of you, so that he might have opportunity to miss you. Return if you must, but make sure you are always the first to leave. Then her name, signed in sprawling, audacious cursive.
All day and into the next I wondered over the message, which looped in my head as I searched Gloria’s closet, where her clothes were organized according to season and then color. I tried out on outfit after outfit, disappointed to find that Gloria was two sizes smaller than I was. Standing before the mirror, her jeans squeezing my hips, I decided to begin a diet. By the time Ellison returned, I wanted to be the same size as her—or smaller, even. I wanted to wear her clothes. I wanted to wear her life.
Before happening upon “Kelly Jo’s Heart Healthy Stationary Workout,” I experimented with a handful of videos, each more aggravating than the last. They were too easy or too difficult, too long or too short, or—don’t ask me how—too bourgeois. In the case of one Pilates workout, the white-leotard-wearing instructor had a camel toe of such cataclysmic proportions that I couldn’t bear to watch for more than a minute.
And then there was Kelly Jo, a perfect bowl of porridge, blonde ponytail bobbing as she jogged in place. Pink spandex and white tennis shoes. Lime green socks over thin ankles. For as much as she seemed to despise the two pretty back-up girls who jumped and crunched and push-uped behind her—she hated Tina especially, for reasons not even I could surmise—she adored her audience unequivocally. I could have stood before my computer, strapping explosives to a puppy, and still she would have stared me down with her big blue eyes and shouted, Get those knees up, you beautiful heart-warrior! God, I love you! And then, to Tina: This is crunch time, Tina, not nap time.
With the help of Kelly Jo, a routine developed. Each morning, I would feed the horses, stare at the opening pages of my novel, and then perform my workout in the kitchen, where I set my computer on the island, next to Gloria’s fruit bowl with the painted apples and pears. Like magic, my calf muscles tightened. My pants grew loose, and my sports bra sagged. The weight disappeared quickly, as if someone had snuck up behind me and removed a ten-pound cloak from my shoulders. Come St. Patrick’s Day, I’d lost ten pounds and written about that many pages of the book.
In this way, at least, I made progress.
How does it feel, to be alone for months at a time, without company or activity? I will tell you how it feels: like pouring an ocean into a thimble, or carting a great, craggy mountain range down the corridor of a defunct hospital. Time was everywhere and nowhere at once, as ubiquitous and immaterial as the clouds that boiled and swirled and dissolved above me, sending down snow then sun then snow then rain.
Every other week I’d drive to the small town and buy exactly two weeks’ worth of carrots and some produce for myself. A salt lick block for the horses, some wire to fix a snag in the gate. Otherwise, I did not leave the property.
Many people think they know what it’s like to be isolated. They buy a one-bedroom apartment and think: here I am, by myself. They go camping in the woods and think: look at me, a pioneer of solitude. But they have not gone weeks without touching another human being or days without hearing a live human voice. They have not learned what parts of their personhood are for themselves and what parts exist solely for others. In the world, I was a rather serious, matter-of-fact person, afraid of the future, anxious about all the ways I might continue to fail, but at the ranch, a strange goofiness overtook me. For social exercise I carried on conversations with inanimate objects. “My God, Tea Kettle,” I’d say as the fat red appliance whined and howled like a hysterical stage actress. “Calm down. I’ll be there in a moment.” And then, rolling my eyes at the clock radio, “Somebody needs to see a therapist.”
You might be thinking I was lonely, but this is not the case. In my heart, things were better than ever. Some mornings I would wake up singing. There was nobody around to hurt me, and in this way I was invincible.
And then, the day after Easter, just as the snow was melting in earnest and birds the exact color of the afterlife began alighting onto the barn, I heard a knock at the door. A human knock. Aside from the UPS man and the large-chested woman who refilled the propane tank—neither of whom attempted to speak to me—I had encountered not a single visitor during my tenure at the ranch. Paralyzed by the sound of human presence, I stood dumbly in the kitchen until the door to the mudroom swung open, revealing a man so tall his Stetson brushed the doorframe. He seemed to take up the whole house, filling each room with a different body part. He was handsome in the way men who perform manual labor are always a touch handsome: big shoulders, strong jaw, thick skin.
I said, “Have you come to chop me up into little pieces?”
A look of horror washed over his face. Once upon a time, I too would have feared this kind of joke. Now, it seemed harmless. So what if he was there to chop me into little pieces? There wasn’t much either of us could do about it.
“I’m the farrier,” he said. “I came a few months ago, but nobody was home.”
When he saw that this word, farrier, did not register anything to me whatsoever, he added, “I trim the horse’s hooves. Is Gloria not here?”
“Gloria?” I asked. “The Gloria?”
The look he gave me suggested he had not heard the news. “The thing about Gloria,” I said and then explained the current state of Gloria’s existence.
I expected him to be sad in the way all humans are expected to be sad about the death of one of their kind, but he was suddenly reaching for the counter to steady himself. For a moment he gasped for air, and then the tears began—quiet, manly tears, like perfectly formed bullets. After months of solitude, I did not feel equipped to handle a crying cowboy; I simply stood there and watched him cry, admiring his belt buckle, where a small white scorpion was suspended in amber. He looked at me with great earnestness and asked, “She’s really dead?” as if I might admit it was all a big joke. Confetti and gag snakes would fall from the ceiling. Gloria would emerge from the pantry and shout, “Gotcha!”
“Yes,” I said. “She is no longer of the earth.” Why I said it this way, I can’t exactly say, except that months of solitude had altered my lexicon.
“We were lovers for seven years. I live two hours away, in Durango, but every four months, I’d be here, and she’d be here, and . . . and . . .”
“Seven years?” I asked. Ellison and Gloria had met only three years before, six months prior to Ellison dumping me.
He nodded, eyes closed, and then said he needed to sit down, or he might faint.
Taking his arm, I led him to the couch. Aside from the time at the Kentucky Bell Grocer when the cashier had accidentally touched my wrist while handing me my bag of carrots, I had not touched another human being in months.
“Were you her friend?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” I said. “I knew her husband. I’m house-sitting.”
“That’s the one.”
“All these years, I never met him—Gloria always made sure he was away. Getting horse feed in Alamosa, or visiting friends in Denver.”
“He went to Denver?”
The farrier nodded. “Sometimes Gloria could get him away for a week at a time. Those were special days for us. Here, on the ranch. Right here on this couch.”
“Right,” I said, assessing the couch in a new light.
Ellison had never once told me he was in Denver. Before Gloria died, the last time I’d seen him was at a mutual friend’s wedding, where we shared an awkward dance during which he asked if I was doing okay and I told him I’d recently won fifty dollars on a lotto ticket. He thought I was being sardonic, and perhaps I was, but I was also just being honest. Not many good things had happened in my life since Ellison, but that lotto ticket was one of them. At some point, I’d come to accept that my life was unlikely to shine even momentarily the way other people’s lives shone on a continual basis. Nobody would ever adore me. Riches and success would never land at my feet. The most I could hope for were small, reliable pleasures—nice food, good movies, the occasional one-night stand with a guy who left before sunrise with some of my jewelry in his pocket. All of this was hard to learn—nobody wants to be a dud—but now that I’d learned it, I felt okay with my lot in the world. Sometimes I would think, We can’t all be kings and queens, Jackie. Somebody has to be the jester.
“You know, you look kind of like her,” the farrier was saying. I knew the rest of the thought in his head: but less pretty. I’d seen it myself, in the pictures Ellison had posted on Facebook when he and Gloria first started dating. When I brought it up to a friend once, she told me about a website where you could upload your picture and discover all of your “twin strangers” around the world—people who look exactly like you but who bear no blood relation. According to the website, everybody has at least six twin strangers. Perhaps Ellison was on the other side of the world, searching for Gloria’s.
“We both have black hair,” I said, “and are tall.”
“Your hair is very nice,” he said, and I could tell, even though my hair was greasy and dirty and in a sloppy bun, that he meant it. He was sad and lonely, and I was a woman who looked a little like his dead lover.
“Look, I was sort of in the middle of something,” I told him. When he arrived, I had been counting, not for the first time, the number of tiles on the kitchen floor.
“I understand.” Lip quivering, he said, “I’m not a weak man, but I don’t think I can be alone right now.” He then gave me a look that suggested he might, if left alone, do something dangerous to himself and that if he did, I would be to blame.
“If you need to,” I said, “you can stay here. With me.”
As if I had given him permission, he swung in like a wrecking ball and kissed me. His mouth tasted like old coffee and salt. He was a decent kisser, and I tried not to pull away, even though I wanted to. If I closed my eyes I could imagine Ellison, although Ellison had a beard and this man, the farrier, was clean-shaven. Under his shirt was a flat, hairy belly that made me a little queasy. His hands were like two separate people attached to his wrists.
Once in bed, I was glad for the company. Perhaps no woman realizes how lonely she is until a two-hundred-pound man is on top of her. I’d always liked the feeling of weight on me. When we were dating, I would make Ellison stand on my feet, or lie on me like a plank while we watched movies. I liked that the farrier—I had not learned his name and never would—was a big man and that he had been Gloria’s secret thing. Perhaps I looked more like her—was more like her—than I gave myself credit for.
During all this, a flare of fear rushed through me, that I might never love again, that the big sad farrier would be the last man I ever touched, the last man who ever touched me. That Ellison would return from his travels with another new bride, even younger and prettier and kinder than Gloria. That I would be alone for the rest of my life. I could see now that love was easily the greatest thing in the entire world, and how terribly unfair, that some people got to have two doses of it at once while others went without. Why, I wondered, was I one of the people who kept having to go without?
At some point in the night, after we had both fallen asleep and woken and fallen asleep again, I put a hand on the farrier’s neck, savoring the warmth of him. Under my palm, his heartbeat ticked off the seconds. “Will you stay?” I asked him. “Just for a couple days? I’ve been alone here—it’d be nice to have someone around.”
For a moment there was only silence, and I wondered if he was still asleep, but then he said, in a voice so small it almost wasn’t real, “We’ll see.” Then he turned from me, taking his heart with him.
Outside the window, the sky was the color of nothing, and soon we were both asleep.
He was gone before sunrise, the bed humming with his absence.
When I went to feed the horses, I discovered a series of horse fingernails in the paddock. They were gigantic and thick, exactly what you’d expect a horse’s fingernail to look like. The wind picked up, and the horses came over on their brand-new feet, slowly and with their big strong heads swinging, not wanting to rush the greatest point of pleasure in their otherwise monotonous day. I wondered whether they dreaded a wasted life the way we did, or whether they assumed they would live forever, that time, like the hay in their hay feeders, would miraculously replenish itself each morning.
Back in the house, I couldn’t stand the feeling of the empty kitchen. What was I supposed to do here, all day, by myself? What had I been doing all these months behind me? I thought of the big empty days still ahead of me: the pasture walks, the workouts, the sunsets over the mountains. Three whole months until Ellison returned, and what was I supposed to do with them, here on my own? A sense of vertigo overtook me, and I had to reach for the counter to steady myself. Suddenly, I missed my old life in Denver: the rock-hard Grape Nuts and the pregnant spiders and the sound of the woman who lived in the apartment above me. How she cried every Saturday night, after talking to someone named George on the telephone. But then I thought of Ellison, of the look that was certain to bloom on his face when he returned and found me thin and beautiful—as beautiful as Gloria, even, and twice as good, for Gloria had betrayed him and I had not.
Like this, I kept myself going.
Not a week later, I heard a car rumble up the driveway. Thinking it was the farrier, I raced for the bedroom and threw on nicer clothes, Gloria’s clothes: a low-cut red blouse with bohemian stitching along the neckline and a pair of jeans that were, by now, gloriously loose at the waist. I would often pause before the mirror, thumbs at the waistband, pulling the extra fabric so that I could peer into the void between pants and skin.
In the kitchen stood Ellison, bag in hand, a casual look on his face, as if he’d been there all these months and I simply hadn’t noticed him. “Hi,” he said, and then smiled.
When I was certain my heart wouldn’t fall out of my chest, I went to him and gave him a hug—an innocent hug, like a mother receiving her son after a bad day at school. I tried to feel sexy, but there was only the sweat, and Gloria’s clothes, and the persistent film of sadness that clung to Ellison like the powder of a butterfly’s wings. When I released him, I could feel it on my arms, my neck. Coating my fingertips. “Is everything okay?” I asked. “Did something happen?”
“Yes and no,” he said. He was wearing khaki cargo shorts and a T-shirt that said ski aspen. His hair was shorter, his skin darker. Everything about him screamed misery.
“Want to talk about it?”
He put down his bag and took a seat on the stool where, not a week before, the farrier had sat. “The problem was nothing happened,” he said. “I couldn’t feel anything. Gardens were in black and white. The food tasted like wet newspaper, the air smelled like trash. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed.”
“And now you’re home.”
“And now I’m home.”
For a moment we stood, assessing one another. Something flickered in his eyes—Regret? Jet lag? Hunger? More than ever, I wanted him back.
“I realize I should have called, but it all happened so quickly. One minute I’m in downtown Tokyo, eating a forty-dollar bowl of octopus, and then the next I’m in a taxi, headed for the airport.”
“Wow,” I said. Who was this Ellison, to eat forty-dollar cephalopods? When we were together, he subsisted on frozen pizzas and two-for-one tacos. I wondered, for the first time—how had I not considered it before?—whether he’d inherited a large sum of money from Gloria.
“Somewhere over the Pacific I realized it must be Gloria, calling me home.”
The word I managed was, “Remarkable.” It occurred to me then that his premature arrival might require my premature departure. That he had not returned to be with me. That soon I would be forced back into my old life, with the pregnant spiders and the stale cereal and the piggy-bank-shaped water stain above my bed.
“You’re wearing her clothes,” he said. His beautiful eyes were fixed on my chest, where the low-cut shirt’s bohemian design melted into a labyrinth of flowers and stars.
“I’ve been losing weight. Her clothes fit better than mine.”
He nodded in approval, his eyes still trained on the shirt. “You look good.” He was not looking me in the eyes, yet still my heart began to lighten. “Maybe you don’t want to hear this,” he said, “but she was wearing that shirt the day we met.”
I had often wondered about this day, which, from what I had gathered, took place in August of 2014, exactly six months prior to Ellison dumping me in the parking lot of a Petco. We were about to go in when he turned to me and said, “Jackie, I can’t buy a hamster with you, because I’ve met someone else and I love her deeply.” Before the tears could come, I went inside and, using a coupon I’d printed from the Internet, bought my own hamster, which I named Boyfriend and which died two weeks later from a diarrheal disease known to those in the pet-rodent trade as wet-tail.
“You never told me how you met,” I said.
“I figured it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d want to know.”
“What if I wanted to know now?”
His eyes went from my shirt to his own feet. His shoes, as always, were immaculate. Brown leather loafers, the laces tied into perfectly symmetrical bows. I could imagine him removing them at the airport, putting them back on after security. “I had gone to buy you an engagement ring,” he said, this first admission like a karate chop to the throat. “On the way to the store, I got a flat. Gloria pulled over to help—she was only in Denver for the day. She had a flight to make, in the morning, to visit her sister.” He looked up then, to meet my eyes. This second blow, like a brick to the heart. “She was only in town for the day.”
He had never mentioned the engagement ring or the flat tire. I could see it all now. Man in distress. Cars whooshing by, each driver more callous than the next. In a rush of gender reversal Gloria would appear, hair blazing, blouse damp with sweat, smelling of lavender and vanilla. Freckles on her shoulders and a mosquito bite on her neck. Purring with the heat of the outdoors. And where was I? Probably somewhere inside, savoring the air conditioning, craving a donut. I had never learned how to change a tire. Had someone lined up a series of automotive parts, I might not have been able to identify a jack. Now here we were, in dead Gloria’s kitchen, standing by the painted ceramic bowl. I had left a banana in there, and it had turned a deep, fecal brown. Each time I’d looked at it, I thought about throwing it away but hadn’t brought myself to do it.
“Can we sit on the couch?” Ellison said. “I need to lie down. I’m so tired. I took a sleeping pill on the plane but couldn’t fall asleep.”
“And you drove here?”
“I told you,” he said. “I needed to come home.”
On the same couch where, not a week before, the farrier had sat, Ellison took up more space than necessary. Although I knew it was technically his couch—his ranch, his horses, his blouse—I had come to feel that all of it was mine. I had taken care of it, and now here he was, waltzing in as if he were the one who had spent six months living deeply in these rooms, breathing deeply of this air, studying every book, utensil, and gewgaw, every iteration of the hyperactive sky.
On the couch, I wanted very much to set my entire body directly on top of his but refrained from doing so. I crossed my legs and then my arms. I watched him close his eyes and wondered what, at that moment, the farrier was up to, if he had escaped from his quagmire of grief.
“Tell me,” said Ellison. “What have you been doing here?”
For a moment, I was unsure how to answer. “Waiting, mostly,” I eventually said.
“For someone to ask me that question, I guess.”
“What about the writing?”
“Yes,” I said, “that, too.”
“The book. Tell me about it.”
“My book,” I said and then couldn’t think of anything honest that would make me sound remotely successful.
“Is it done?”
“In some ways, yes. In others, not even close.”
“Can I read it soon?”
“If you want,” I said, stupidly, thinking only that this request suggested we might still be together, in contact, in the near future.
“Could you read it to me now?” he asked. “I think I’d like that. I’m very tired, and I’ll probably fall asleep, but don’t take that as an insult.”
“You don’t want to hear it. It’s unedited—it probably makes no sense.”
“I don’t care. Read it to me. Please.”
Trying to remain calm, I went to retrieve my computer, where I found the mostly blank word document staring back at me, cursor blinking as if also in panic. The first sentence read: On the planet Septimus Nine, there were neither corporations nor coitus. Reading it rang a tiny black bell in the center of my heart, a bell that said: You’re doomed. And then, remembering a favorite story from one of my high school English classes, I quickly searched the title and was happy to find it online. Luckily, I hadn’t told Ellison, or anyone else, the premise of my nascent novel. As far as anyone knew, it could be anything. It could be the greatest book in the world. I returned to the couch and situated myself so that he couldn’t see the computer screen. Then, I began to read.
Unlike most culture encountered during adolescence, the story was even better than I remembered. It took place long ago, and involved an upper class woman whose upper class husband dies suddenly, in a hunting accident. In her grief, the woman convinces herself that the town’s pauper is actually her husband returned from the dead. She follows the pauper from street corner to street corner, petting and kissing him as he shakes a soup can filled with coins. Unsure of what else to do, the pauper plays along, returning the woman’s affection. He kisses her palms and sings to her at night—he is poor, and uneducated, but has a voice like a harp at twilight. As these stories go, the two fall in love. The pauper has never loved or been loved, and so he allows himself both luxuries, despite knowing their love is a dream and that all dreams, however sweet, must come to an end. When the dreaded day finally arrives, the woman wakes from her illusion and sees the pauper for who he truly is. She accuses him of taking advantage of her and, using the clout of her former status, has him executed via guillotine, as these kinds of stories always take place in France and always, in some way, involve a guillotine. By the end of the story—or the chapter, as I told Ellison—the beggar’s head rolls to the woman’s feet where, in his newly unmoving eyes, she finds the face of her first husband, now dead twice, never to return.
From the other end of the couch, Ellison sighed, as if in pain. “Jackie,” he said. “I had no idea you could write that way. It’s so—literary.”
It was true that over the course of our relationship he had never read my writing, at least nothing more creative than a list of groceries or a note explaining I’d gone out to get Chinese food and would he please take out the trash?
“Thank you,” I said, feeling not at all like a fraud. The story genuinely felt like my own. A part of me could even remember writing it, could anticipate the chapters to come: how the woman would leave town, in search of something, anything, to erase the image of her dead lover’s face. How she would ford rivers, climb mountains, and enter caves in search of something to ease her pain, and yet still, each night, she would fall asleep to the visage of her lost love’s face—her husband and the pauper blended into one.
Ellison closed his eyes and sat very still, as if listening for something. “You know, you’re more like her than I remember,” he said. “You even smell like her. It’s the strangest thing.”
I did not want to tell him that I’d been using all of Gloria’s toiletries: her shampoo, her lotion, her cold cream.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “to remind you of her.”
He laughed a laugh that hung in the air, a silver ornament, all sharp edges and twinkle. Then he opened his eyes—beautiful blue, beautiful Ellison—and slowly, one small movement at a time, cancelled the empty space between us, put his head in my lap, and pressed his nose to the fabric of Gloria’s pants. There, he inhaled deeply, his fingers digging greedily, painfully, blissfully into the meat of my thighs.
“Darling,” he whispered. Then he lifted himself so he could properly kiss me.
In bed, he repeated her name. Gloria. Gloria. Gloria. His style of lovemaking had changed, for the better. He was gentler than he had been when we were together, but also more aggressive, as if he were trying desperately to hammer a nail with a feather. On the floor, Gloria’s clothes lay in a colorful, mocking pile. When he’d gotten to her panties—mint cotton with a faint stain on the crotch—he’d begun to weep, and then caught himself. This was no time for sadness. He was with me, his Gloria. He was home.
I did not sleep well that night, or any of the nights after, my head crackling with fear that he might wake to find he was in bed not with Gloria, but with me. Meanwhile, in a dark cave in my heart, the farrier glowed dimly, a genie lamp waiting to be rubbed. I knew that, when the time came, I would tell Ellison everything, feeling not a trace of remorse as Gloria died for a second time in his heart, leaving that much more room for me.
Becky Mandelbaum is the author of Bad Kansas, which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in the Georgia Review, the Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Salt Hill, Great Jones Street, Hobart, Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Washington and works in North Cascades National Park.
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