“Heart-Scalded” by Daphne Kalotay
Daphne Kalotay’s sensitive depiction of a terminally ill woman bravely attending a party where she knows she’ll run into her ex is not your usual Halloween-party story, but within this narrative of emotional pain and acceptance, we find intimations of magic–and mortality. “Heart-Scalded” first appeared in our summer 2021 issue (44:2). You can read our interview with Daphne here.
by Daphne Kalotay
Twilight’s hazy glow, the world covered in gray lint. Viv hailed a ride and set out toward the crumbling edge of town. Though it was nearly November, leaves still clung to branches, some in the blazing colors of life, most a parched brown. Odd how warm it is, her driver said, as they rose over the bridge that just months ago she would have crossed on her bike. A cluster of figures slipped toward them along the walkway, dressed strangely, like characters in a play. She turned to look, but they were already past.
Fun plans for the evening? her driver asked. The streetlamps weren’t yet lit, and the fading sky looked thick enough to touch.
I’m going to a pig roast.
Parties at Len’s always began early and went into the wee hours. Viv told herself she was just stopping by, didn’t have to stay long, though she had taken time on her makeup—smoky eyeliner and a thin, feathery pencil for her brows. She had even considered false lashes, since they seemed to be in fashion even for women in their thirties like her. Slid silver hoops through her earlobes, draped her favorite twisty cotton scarf around her neck, found her silver cuff bracelet and pushed it up to her biceps like a sort of amulet.
It’s here on the right, she said. A house like a wilting wedding cake where Len rented rooms to a few former grad school friends who, like him, had yet to convert to more standard arrangements. She thanked her driver and stepped out into the gloaming.
Voices wafted from the backyard, where winking orange bulbs dipped along the fence and the pig smoldered in its box. The company called it a Chinese box, Len had told her, while Viv had held back any commentary on corporate opportunism or Len’s naïveté, tried not to be so Viv; no one liked being forced to see the truth. A dozen or so thirty-somethings looked vaguely her way. There was something odd about them, or maybe it was just her nerves.
Hey, stranger! Len came to envelop her in one of his hugs. He was wearing a chain-mail getup, like a knight in armor. His embrace was awkward.
Viv didn’t find it odd that he was wearing chain mail; he ordered the new limited-edition Lego set each year and still liked to play dress-up. The orange bulbs reflected in the lenses of his glasses. On-off, on-off. He said, I love your look. You’ve got the heroin chic thing down.
She laughed, though she’d used bronzer and lip tint, had even purchased a sparkly body cream. Probably she should pull her sweatshirt on. She was wearing loose crepe pants, because they were the baggiest she had, and a silvery T-shirt, and black canvas sneakers with the anklet she still wore, even though it was from Aziz and she had rid herself of most things he had given her. The anklet had a small silver starfish that had once seemed to her to be good luck. These past two years had not caused her to remove it.
Around her, the air was sticky, smoky. She said, How long until you think it’s ready?
Should be done about now. Can I get you a drink?
I’ll get it, she said, already searching warily, though Aziz often arrived later to these things. A head taller than most, he was usually easy to spot. She wondered if he would look the same or if, like Len, he would have gone thicker in the face.
At a table crowded with bottles and stacked plastic cups and a bowl of melting ice cubes, she poured herself a lukewarm soda water, squeezed a tight wedge of lime. Up close she saw that the fence was covered in a thin fuzz of the vivid green mold-like moss that had overtaken everything after the summer of too much rain. Despite its dire warning, a stunning color. Even in the dusk, it glowed, bright with rejuvenation. A few times, she had tried mixing her paints to match it but always ended up with neon yellow.
Hullo, said a frowning man plucking a can of beer from the plastic cooler. Cyrus, he said. I work with Len.
Their parent corporation had been caught falsifying data concerning waste disposal at their factories, Viv knew from texting with Len the other night. Len said he just had to pay off his student loans and then could look for a new job.
I’m Viv. The bubbles in her glass sped upward, exploding at the surface.
Cyrus moved to take a sip of beer but had to pull down a long white beard strapped to his chin. Viv realized he was in costume, too—some sort of wizard. She said, Is this a costume party?
He laughed. A Halloween party!
But—Halloween isn’t until—
Oh! She had lost track of time. Except for her friend Laurel, who worked in New York but still hadn’t fully moved there, she had mainly spent these past months alone in her apartment, painting watercolors when she wasn’t woozy or watching movies sideways on the sofa. The institute where she wrote educational pamphlets and other communications had hired a freelancer to cover the hours she missed.
Not big on Halloween, eh? Do you know anyone here?
She nodded. She used to come here all the time when she and Aziz were together. I actually met you before, she said. I came with Len to a Christmas party a couple of years ago, up in Prudential Center.
He looked at her more closely. Ah, right, you’re the artist. You’ve cut your hair.
She said, I remember you telling me how your wife used to be a competitive ice-skater.
The man shook his head mournfully, his artificial beard swaying from his neck. He said, Viv, I have the worst marriage in Massachusetts.
He had an explanation for what had gone wrong, something to do with his wife being a descendant of Mayflower pilgrims. Viv glanced up when she could, to see if Aziz had arrived.
She had been warned that the fiancée would be with him. Though Viv had known about her for a year already, it mattered to have to see her for the first time. Just as it had mattered when, after Len broke the news, he had added, perhaps thinking it would make her feel better, She’s not as pretty as you. That was when Viv’s heart had shredded to bits because it meant the fiancée was real. That even if Viv could have her old prettiness back, it wouldn’t matter, because Aziz loved someone else now.
They had taken the pig from the Chinese box and laid it out on the picnic table. A few vegetarians acted briefly repulsed.
Will you look at that, the man with the worst marriage in Massachusetts said. A mosquito. In October. He flicked it from the back of his hand.
Perhaps sensing she was toxic, the insect avoided her. The man said, The apocalypse really is coming if mosquitos are out this late.
But she could tell from the way he said it that he didn’t believe it.
Viv! It was Joe and Jerry, Aziz and Len’s soccer friends. They were at least a decade older but never missed Len’s parties. She wasn’t sure if they were in costume or not. Joe liked to cross-dress and tonight wore a slender black dress awink with sequins, while Jerry wore a dark suit over a white shirt. Viv began to make introductions, but everyone had already met.
Viv, Joe said, I was just saying to Jerry the other day—I swear—I wondered whatever happened with that garden plot you’d been on the waitlist for forever—
I got it.
She got it! What are you growing? You always had such a green thumb with Aziz’s poor dejected plants.
It was true she had resuscitated the houseplants Aziz’s mother had bought to brighten the affectless bachelor pad, with Viv feeding and pruning them until some even needed to be repotted. After Viv moved in, an entire wall of the apartment became jungle-like, plants practically climbing out of their pots, the air in the apartment fresh, moist.
Well, she said, this wasn’t the best growing season, actually, with so much rain.
Of course, of course. God, I mean, look at this thing. Joe gestured toward the cement planter beside him, which held the stubby remains of a bare, clearly dead plant. Or maybe he meant the cement tub itself. It was covered in a light fuzz of that alarmingly bright green moss that seemed to be growing on so much else, giving an eerie glow to the decorative pattern embossed on the planter: a circle of figures dancing. Perhaps because the original cement mold was cheap, the figures’ faces were blank. The thing somehow struck Viv as sinister.
Exactly, she said, rather than add that there had been stretches where she could not make it to her plot at all. She saw the way everyone was looking at her, realizing. As if to compensate, Jerry said, Your hair looks fantastic!
Viv wanted to hide, wished she hadn’t left her sweatshirt on the folding chair by the picnic table. People were tearing into the pig now, stripping off the meat and piling it onto big oval platters. Yearning to hide, Viv lowered her gaze. There was the cement planter, the neon fuzz. It really was eerie, the way the faceless dancers glowed beneath those spores or lichen or whatever that green fuzz was, while inside the planter lay nothing but the finality of death. Desperate, trying to think of some diversion, she said, Are you in costume?
We’re that Bryan Ferry video, the one with the models! At Viv’s reaction, Jerry turned to Joe. I told you they’re too young to know it.
She saw them then. Aziz and the fiancée. They must have just arrived, because Aziz was carrying a six-pack of the hard cider he liked. He and the fiancée were dressed as Daddy Warbucks and Little Orphan Annie. Even as a joke, it still seemed to Viv repulsive; everyone knew Aziz had sold out to Len’s corporation and now had a corner office in Kendall Square. Len said it was one of those new constructions, sky high, with lunch ordered in daily, delivered by unseen couriers at a back entryway.
Just seeing them made her feel briefly dizzy. She had to remove her scarf. Jerry said, Come on, let’s eat!
Along with the oval platters of meat, there were broad aluminum trays of sticky yellow cornbread, of dusty buttermilk biscuits, vats of barbecue sauce and gravy, coleslaw, and gooey baked beans. Viv scooped clumps of the food onto a paper plate. It was tricky because she was trying to keep her arms folded to hide the bruises where the nurse struggled to insert the tube into her veins. For a long time now the nurses, beleaguered, had been urging her to get a port.
Well, look who’s here. A warm hand touched her arm.
Oh—hi, Aziz. She let herself be kissed on the cheek, Aziz bending down to her. His lips were warm.
Cute haircut! Annoyingly handsome in his crisp black suit and bow tie, Aziz did not look very disturbed to see her transformed. Len had probably told him what to expect. Hey, meet Stacy.
So good to meet you, Viv, I’ve heard so much about you! She seemed genuinely pleased. As much as Viv wanted to appear composed, she had to set her plate down. The fiancée shook her hand, her palm, like Aziz’s, much warmer than Viv’s. And Viv felt herself smiling, heard herself speaking, thought, I am chatting with Aziz’s fiancée and, later on, when the air had cooled and she had found her sweatshirt, as they sat in chairs around the woodstove on the patio and ate from the paper plates on their laps, I like Aziz’s fiancée; she’s pleasant.
The drugs made the food taste strange. The compostable utensils seemed to be decomposing in her hands. She wondered if it was the toxins, glanced around her to see if others were having trouble. Len was at least right that the fiancée wasn’t as pretty as Viv. Well, how could she be in an orange Orphan Annie wig?
Aziz told Viv she looked fetching with her eyes all circled in black like a raccoon.
That wasn’t the look I was going for, Slim, but thanks. The humidity must have smudged her makeup. She used her paper napkin to dab the skin below her eyes, secretly grateful for Aziz’s teasing, as if nothing had changed.
You called him Slim, Stacy said.
Oh—I call him that sometimes.
It gave Viv a small pleasure to know this was something Aziz hadn’t shared, that he also would have kept to himself his pet name for Viv. Sometimes she ached to hear him call her Beep again.
Hmm, now I’ve smeared it. I’ll be back. Viv stood to make her way to the bathroom, passing a woman dressed in scrubs, with gloves, protective goggles, and elastic booties, like a nurse in a toxic emergency. Or maybe that really was her job, and she had simply worn her work clothes as her costume.
There was a line for the restroom. Viv leaned against the wall, unzipped her sweatshirt. She had avoided these gatherings for a long time, but Len must have known that telling her the fiancée would be here would dare her to come. And, he had added, I miss you.
He was the only one among them to whom she still spoke. Gave updates. But she knew he told the others. There were emails from a mutual acquaintance who practiced acupuncture, enclosing a diet she suggested Viv follow, along with a mantra: You can choose bliss! Though Viv never responded, the messages continued to arrive in her inbox.
She listened to the conversation ahead of her, whispers about Len’s corporation and its ties to one of the candidates in next year’s election.
Elections don’t matter—
What do you mean, don’t you vote?
No, I don’t vote! The voice sounded offended. But the bathroom door had opened, and the speaker disappeared inside. The interlocutor turned in bafflement to Viv. Can you believe it?
It was one of Len’s renters, or former renters. Viv tried to recall her name. She was dressed, it seemed, as a sexy witch, an excuse, Viv supposed, to wear—along with the pointy black hat and green face paint— fishnet stockings, thigh-high boots, and nothing across her midriff, which (this Viv did remember) she had always spent a lot of time on at Pilates classes. She said, Viv, wow, hi! I love your hair!
It wasn’t her hair, but it was true it looked better than her real hair ever had. Same bronze color, but short and flirty, with a little curl at the ends. The witch said, It looks French.
Her face paint was not the usual witch green, more like the color of the worrisome mold outside. Viv asked if she still lived in the house.
I moved to Atlanta for work, can you believe it? I’m just here for the weekend, I have to go to a memorial service tomorrow. She shrugged. I still have that drawing you did of the blue jay. I love it.
Viv said, I like the color of your face paint.
Thanks—it was actually a darker green, but I use this serum and it made it turn this color. Oh, my turn. The bathroom was free again.
Viv waited, voices reverberating off the walls.
. . . teaches this like adult ed class it’s called Time for Terrariums and like people actually take it.
We made a pact; next year we’ll go to the DR if this year he comes with me to Iceland.
Len said she has some rare kind of cancer, there’s no real treatment, they just try whatever until it stops working, then try something else.
Viv tried not to listen. Tried not to think of Stacy in her red dress with the white collar. The costume said it all, Viv supposed. Deep down Aziz must have longed for someone like that, who could be ironic and fully participate in the rituals of the masses. Unlike Viv, who on the night they met had bonded with him over having grown up in the suburbs without any sense of fitting in. As much as Aziz said he liked that Viv looked at the world askance, clearly what he had needed was a Stacy.
Stacy wouldn’t chide him for taking start-up money from a developer who opposed the bill to stop illegal fishing off the Cape. Wouldn’t dare ask if smart technology was always necessarily smart (knowing full well his company was based on the premise). Wouldn’t have set off their worst fight by calling his approach to business remorseless.
How you holding up? It was a mutual friend of Viv and Aziz, dressed as Mary Poppins. For a moment it seemed she knew how hard it had been for Viv to come here tonight, to see Stacy in the flesh, and to be seen herself, looking like this.
The truth was, in order to come here, Viv had actually allowed herself to think of the party as somehow perversely restorative: a trial-by-fire cure. Because if she could live through this—seeing Aziz and his fiancée together, and all the while being witnessed, by everyone else, seeing them—then surely she could survive anything.
I’m fine, how about you? She said it by rote.
Mary Poppins said, I didn’t realize Stacy was pregnant. I’m always the last to hear these things. Still, I imagine it kind of sucks.
The floor dropped from under Viv’s feet. Viv looked for the bathroom door to open, managed to stammer something. Oh, yeah, well. She thought of the gentle confidence she had noted in Stacy, reassessing it as a pleased smugness.
Thank god, here was the witch. Viv escaped into the bathroom, leaned against the sink. In the mirror, her face shocked her. She didn’t look ugly. But with the dark eyeliner and circles of fatigue below, she looked skinny and strung out.
There was a phrase Laurel had taught her, back when Viv and Aziz first split up and Viv, alone in the attic studio she had found, felt a despair she hadn’t known possible. When each night her thoughts followed the same looping circle—that as much as Aziz had loved her, she had not been what he thought he wanted, that she should never have expressed those thoughts that had hurt him. When her mother, trying to be helpful, said, It’s not the end of the world.
You’re heart-scalded, Laurel had explained. A term from the British side of her family. An anguished, active grief. Viv’s dictionary said it meant tormented by bitter disappointment, sorrow, or remorse.
Not just grief at the loss, but the ongoing torment of her regret. The sense that if she could have been different, could have tamped down her horror at human obduracy, Aziz would have loved her as she had loved him: wholly, unstintingly, enough to have endured.
She went to use the toilet, trying to tell herself not to dwell on what she had just heard. What did it matter? She would be gone, she already knew quite well, before any baby arrived.
Someone knocked on the bathroom door.
Be right out! Viv flushed her toxic pee into the sewers. Washed her hands. Did not look in the mirror. Time to leave. There was nothing left for her here.
She was still making her way through the narrow, echoing hallway when someone stopped her. Like Viv, he did not appear to be in costume, just dark jeans, black T-shirt, and sneakers. And while he seemed to know Viv, she could not quite remember him. How are you feeling? he asked, and the pity in his voice made her want to slug him.
He swallowed his swig of beer, not waiting for a response, said, Seeing her with him must be hard. Aziz doesn’t deserve her or you. That guy just gets things handed to him.
It wasn’t true. Aziz had worked until late every night to get his company going. Plus lunches and dinners with investors who made him feel that all he did was beg, a nonstop cycle of schmoozing. He’d even confessed to Viv that he couldn’t stand a good half of those guys, whom he suspected wouldn’t deign to speak to him if they didn’t think he was worth something to them. And now that he’d partnered with Len’s corporation, he was basically trapped.
Anyway, I put a spell on him for you.
Viv would have raised her eyebrows if she had any. What’s that supposed to mean?
A curse. On Aziz.
Um, that was actually unnecessary. I don’t harbor any ill will toward Aziz. In fact—
Sure you don’t. He gave a closemouthed smile, his eyes becoming narrower.
No, really—but the guy tilted his head and said, Be honest with yourself, Viv. It’s okay to want it.
But she didn’t want it. At least, she didn’t think so. Whenever she glimpsed the starfish anklet around her bony ankle, she still thought of how Aziz had noticed her admiring it in the shop at Wellfleet and gone back for it while she was napping on the beach. He called her Beep from early in their relationship, when he came out dancing with her, which he had pretended to enjoy, but Viv could tell he didn’t like bumping up against other sweaty bodies. She kept trying to carve out a space for just the two of them, to discreetly elbow away all the others. Beep beep! he had said when he noticed what she was doing, to which she had countered, Mister open-source communal tech guy needs his personal patch of dance floor! And he had danced with her until late, because he saw she was happy.
God, I was awful, she thought now. Shaking her head, she asked this guy who so clearly envied Aziz, What do you know about spells?
I took a class! Looking insulted, he added, I’ve been practicing.
In that case, how about a cure, huh? Instead of a curse?
An interesting premise, he said. If you had a choice of being cured but no longer having Aziz in your life, versus no cure but getting Aziz back, which would you choose?
Well that’s a ridiculous question. Obviously—
Is it really?
She nearly added that it was obnoxious, too. Instead, she just said, Look, I don’t need your help.
But he just winked and said, It’s already taken care of.
Viv did not thank him. I’ve got to go now, actually. She looked around the room as if someone were waiting to escort her out. There was the You can choose bliss woman, in some sort of superhero attire. Viv quickly turned toward the kitchen to make a beeline out the back door.
Outside, the woodstove spat sparks at the circle of guests in chairs, still digging into their soggy plates of food. On the ground around them were half-empty bottles of alcohol. The pig carcass lay on the picnic table. Viv meant to slip away—she would text Len tomorrow to thank him—but someone tapped her arm.
Have you seen Aziz?
It was Stacy. She had removed the orange wig, exposing a short hairdo not unlike Viv’s: pixie bangs and little commas in front of her ears. She said, I can’t find him anywhere.
Hi, no, I haven’t seen him. He must have gone to use one of the upstairs bathrooms.
I already asked. Frustration showed on her face, and she did not bother to continue but went to ask someone else. Viv heard Len’s voice sifting through an upstairs window, Aziz, hey, you up here?
She was glad people were huddled around the woodstove, that they wouldn’t see her slinking away and not helping to look for Aziz. Starting down the slate path, she reached up to loop her scarf.
It took a moment to remember where she had discarded it. Back at the table where the drinks had been, there were now just empty bottles and used plastic cups. Ah, there was the scarf, under the winking orange lights. She snatched it up, relieved to have remembered.
A sound startled her. She felt herself tense; she knew there were rats around. There it was again. A kitten? Not quite a squeak, not quite a mew. A small, weak sound.
She moved nearer to the winking lights and heard it again, the muffled sound of some tiny being. Less a cry than a hum. The sound seemed to be coming from within the cheap cement planter.
She bent to examine it—difficult with just the light from the porch. But she must have frightened the tiny creature. There was only silence. The porchlight illuminated the side of the planter, so that even in the dark, Viv noticed something in the raised pattern. One dancer whose shape did not match the others.
Taller and thinner. The pattern of the cement mold must have gotten cut off halfway. Viv took out her phone to turn on the flashlight, shone it on the pattern. Unlike the other dancers, covered in mossy green, this figure had a face.
A nose protruded from the cement, creases where the corners of lips met. And the edge of an eye. Viv touched the lips—quickly drew back her hand. The lips were warm.
She hurried away, out to the street. Did not linger to hire a car. She had stayed too late; her scalp prickled hot with sweat. Removing the wig, she decided to walk the three blocks to the bus stop. She would call a car there, or just take the bus.
With each footfall on the cracked pavement, the thought became clearer. That sound she had heard. It had sounded an awful lot like a beep.
Just one more hypersensitivity. A side effect, like the thrush and the fevers and nausea—some hearing mirage, with warping of vision. He was on her mind, after all. That must be why she had heard it.
Felt that heat burn her fingertips.
But such things simply weren’t possible.
She thought of Aziz’s choices. Caught in his own devil’s bargain each day, simply by going to work. The perpetual dance he had willingly entered into. Wasn’t any so-called curse one he had brought on himself? Well, who hadn’t, really, so many daily pacts and just this once-s. Little excuses on the collective march toward the end of the world—even if no one ever seemed to realize it.
The other week she had heard a conversation not meant for her. As she sat in the chair with the tube in her arm, behind the curtain that separated her from the man who had come to take his seat in the next bay, an oncologist, with the aid of a social worker, told the man that his time on earth had come to an end—the treatment was no longer working, there were no more remedies, it was time to go home and plan for the “next step.” Something about the doctor’s voice made it absolutely clear that she had never paused to contemplate her own mortality. And though Viv knew from other overheard conversations over the weeks that the man had been sick for years, it was evident even through the curtain that only in that moment did he understand that all this was to end. His voice shook awfully when he asked the social worker how best to break the news to his children.
At the bus stop, under the streetlamp, Viv took a seat on the bench to wait. She wondered if Stacy had found Aziz yet. A few meters away, two punk-looking kids, or maybe addicts, skinny in their worn-out hoodies, turned to observe her. They seemed about to approach her, maybe thinking her one of them: a lanky teen with her head shaved and needle marks in her arm. But after a moment they seemed to see more clearly and turned away.
Daphne Kalotay’s books include the award-winning Sight Reading and Russian Winter, the fiction collection Calamity and Other Stories — shortlisted for the Story Prize — and the new novel Blue Hours, a 2020 Massachusetts Book Awards “Must Read.” Published in 20+ languages, her work has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, and Bogliasco, among others, and her story “Relativity” was the 2017 One City One Story Boston pick. She teaches for Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing but makes her home in Somerville, Massachusetts.