Abstract Magazine International | A Strange Place by Lucas Mautner
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A Strange Place by Lucas Mautner

19 Apr 2018, Posted by admin in Short Fiction

Art: Dark Sea Serie by Carole Jury

A STRANGE PLACE

I was in bed with my wife the first time he appeared to me in my sleep. I can’t explain how I knew it was him, only that I felt a certain change in the air. My psyche was finely attuned to his, maybe, even though he had fled from the world. I didn’t—and don’t—know. I knew only I was dreaming. The room was exactly the same as it always was: whitewashed walls, leather upholstery on the armchairs by the fireplace, our own bed, the color of bone. I could see through the open window that the moon was full. A branch scraped against the glass, held in sharp silhouette, and yet I could still see the leaves, and would have counted them, too. If it hadn’t been for him.

He was seated at the foot of the bed, cross-legged, as he sat in life, and from here I could see the dark play of shadow that was his beard, the crinkle in between his brows come much too early. But many things had come to him early. I saw him, I saw him and knew it was him.

“Were you sleeping?” he said, and even though his voice was off, his smile was the same. I gestured—at the room, at my pajamas, at my wife—and he grinned, in that telling way he had of acknowledging my unspoken thought.

If it weren’t for the darkened bedroom, for the tree tapping at the pane, for the sleeping form of my wife at my side, I would have believed that we were together again.

He was seated before me, and yet I knew he was dead. I had been to his funeral some weeks ago. I told myself I’d forgotten the date, but I saw the number in my mind unvoiced, and shivered. I’d told myself many things over the years, most of them untrue, and yet I’d never tired of this habit of lying to myself, of somehow thinking it possible to withhold information from my own mind. The funeral was the 17th, it had been a Catholic service, the priest had worn dark robes, his mother a veil. These were details; these details had happened.

“Give me your hand,” he said, and I leaned forward, eager to feel him again. But when our hands touched it, too, was off, like a copy in wax of a great marble statue. “You know why I’m here.”

I did.

But I wasn’t going to acknowledge it. Not yet. I pulled my hand away and for a moment he resisted, kept his long fingers twined around my wrist.

“I’m dreaming,” I thought, or whispered, to myself, and shut my eyes, pulling the heavy down comforter over my face.

I felt him there for some time still, and I tried to keep my breathing shallow, so that I could hear if he’d gotten up to leave, but I’d underestimated the silence of a dream-phantom. I only knew he’d gone when, the next morning, the sun spilled over into my room and I woke up, blinking and stretching, to feel the too-soft body of my wife beneath my hands.

 

 

“Daddy will be fine,” my wife said to me, as we stood underneath our building’s awning. Our doorman was in the street, watching for a cab. “He’s not going to bring up stocks, for God’s sake. He knows you’re grieving.”

“Catherine, I’ve told you—he would have brought it up at the funeral, if he’d been there,” I said. I wanted to be in the cab already, where I knew she’d occupy herself with her phone instead of trying vainly to reassure me her father didn’t hate me.

“It was one stock, he lost some money, so what—Daddy’s reasonable, he’s never hated you,” she said, with that trick she had of unknowingly speaking my thoughts aloud. Catherine was insightful, but she was better at judging situations than character. I don’t know how she always knew what I was thinking. I was never open with my thoughts. Something must have slipped through the dam I’d constructed around my inner self, some trickle of water whose existence Catherine had managed, unawares, to divine.

“I wasn’t even trying to argue with you, I just made a stupid comment,” I said, knowing that my voice was rising, approaching a whine.

“Daddy loves you,” she said as we climbed into the cab, “and that’s another thing. You’ve got to call him ‘Father.’ It was fine while we were engaged but now it’s a bit glaring.”

Catherine’s three brothers called him “Father” and I’d often been encouraged to do the same. I knew it for what it was, a deliberate act of emasculation, meant to keep his kids and their spouses under his thumb. It was too patriarchal for this modern world, but for Mr. van de Kamp there was no other way to project himself. He asserted his masculinity over other men around him, and especially over those who were related to him.

“You can’t keep calling him Mr. van de Kamp, it’s stiff, and to be perfectly honest? it’s a little ridiculous,” Catherine said.

“Fine,” I said—to no one in particular, as she was already on her phone.

It was one of those restaurants that Catherine’s and my social circle eschewed—linen napkins, tablecloths, real silver, a tiny rose budding in a glass at the center of the table. There was plenty of light from the street and hardly any stray noise, though I did catch a fly bumbling in after a young man with snug-fitting pants. We met Catherine’s parents at the bar: Richard and Kittie van de Kamp. Catherine was named after her mother, although she’d never taken the diminutive.

Kittie was Kittie, even to her children, and everyone in New York knew her, from the mealy-mouthed Trustees at the Met to the gallerists in Chelsea whose spaces were more glass than walls. I’ve always believed she had an inner curiosity that directed the rest of her being. Sometimes it pointed toward intellectual curiosities—and so she’d gotten her Ph.D.—and other times toward cultural curiosities—which manifested in her extensive private art collection. I think Kittie, amid the great comings and goings of her life, had never had enough time to give growing old a thought, and so it had passed over her. She reminded me of something Charlotte Bronte had written: I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.

Mr. van de Kamp was her opposite. Where Kittie was fluid, a river, ever-changing and yet somehow still the same, Mr. van de Kamp was a rock in a featureless landscape that had looked the same since the beginning of time. In his heyday, he had been an executive of a Big Five publishing house, where he’d successfully managed the merger of two houses. Now there were only the Big Four. But he’d retired the year before Catherine and I had gotten married. I don’t know how he spent his time but I can guess: investing, golfing with crusty old men, micro-managing his children’s lives.

“I’m going to introduce you to my stockbroker,” Mr. van de Kamp said to me, when we’d been seated at the table. “A boy like you should have a better mind for the market. I think I lost, what, twenty thousand? On that botched pharma company.”

I blushed. More emasculation—I was always “a boy” to him. “I’m really sorry about that, a brother from my fraternity passed along the tip, I haven’t seen him since college, but he worked at Goldman for two years so I thought it was good,” I said.

“Leave him alone,” Kittie said to her husband. “And how are you holding up, dear?” she said now, to me, reaching across the table to grab my hand. “It’s been a month now? I think?”

Great. Just what I wanted to talk about. “Three weeks,” Catherine said, “and the service was so beautiful.”

“Hmm?” Mr. van de Kamp said, swiping on his phone. I could see the stock prices, in green and red, flashing by on the screen.

“His childhood friend,” Kittie said. “Remember, the one who passed?”

“What?”—more prices, percentage points, DOW up, Apple down—“Oh, that’s right, the bosom companion…” Mr. van de Kamp said.

“Daddy,” Catherine said.

He looked up from his phone, apologized, changed the subject. They talked about the Boy Scouts, Mr. van de Kamp had been an Eagle Scout and now he was a prominent donor, but I said nothing. I saw visions of boys, two to a tent, I smelled the campfire and heard the snap of burning logs, I felt the heat from two bodies pressed close together—and I thought only of him.

 

 

We’d grown up together, him and I, in the same suburb on Long Island. Our houses were across the street—mine yellow, his a pale blue. We were both solidly middle-class. Our stay-at-home mothers had been very close. His father was a policeman, mine a high school teacher, although they were never really friends. I’d done everything with him: biking down the road by the beach, our first beers in the parking lot behind a pizza place, nights spent watching porn on a glowing screen, our hands beneath blankets, stealing looks at each other; and one time, on the beach at night, hidden behind a screen of tall grass, enveloped by clouds of weed-smoke, drunk on Red Stripe, when our lips had touched and then—

We left each other for college. I went to Yale on scholarship, but his grades were lower than mine, and he didn’t get in. He went to a public university upstate. After college, we’d both lived in New York City, although by that time Catherine and I were living together in Chelsea. She knew him and loved him, even though I think that maybe, in some nook or cranny of her brain, she suspected us for what we were. Catherine was a brilliant woman, nothing went undiscovered with her, she really grasped how people thought, the motives behind their movements, she could always see right through to the heart of the matter. She must have known.

I loved him, loved him more than anyone, certainly more than I loved Catherine. I felt a fondness toward her, of course, I couldn’t have been with her all those years without feeling anything. I liked how inquisitive she was—when it wasn’t directed toward me—and I liked her firmness, her resolve of character. Catherine was not one to make a quick decision, she made me agonize over her process, she would examine every angle, every possible repercussion. She never even bought clothes without finding out what the labor conditions were in the factory that produced them, she had binders of information on her favorite brands, she knew where they sourced their material, whether they used best practices to protect their workers. But once Catherine had made a decision, it was final. Which is why I was so paranoid that she knew, because she had to know, if she could name those Bangladeshi factories she could understand my relationship with him.

Our relationship was—how can I say it?—it scares me to write it down, and I feel like I should be looking around for Catherine, lurking in the shadows, an accusation always on the tip of her tongue. I’d loved him and he’d loved me, yes, as a bosom companion, as Mr. van de Kamp was fond of saying; but we’d known each other as lovers, too, all throughout the years: in college we would meet in the city, incognito, and spend nights together, wild, wreathed with sweat, wrestling, grappling, locked together in a cheap hotel on St. Mark’s Place.

I never told Catherine and she never caught us. He wanted me to tell her. He wanted us to be together, to go public, and he didn’t see why I stayed with her. He put aside all my excuses: my parents were too religious, my bosses too conservative. Even now I can remember the panic clawing at my ribcage when I imagined telling the entire world that I loved him. But I never had.

I’d been expecting to dream of him, and in fact I’d been closely guarding my thoughts before bed, afraid to murmur something incriminating to my wife while I slept. But it never happened. I’d dreamed up strange landscapes, swamps and marshes nestled against skyscrapers, fan-boats that propelled themselves through rivers of asphalt, even an inverted circus, where clothed animals whipped naked people. But I hadn’t dreamed of him, and never thought it would be like this.

He came to me again, maybe a week or two after seeing my in-laws. Again I was in my bed, next to Catherine, her delicate arm draped across my chest. I sat upright, her arm fell, he stood before me, beckoning me. I got out of bed and moved over to him, although it felt more like gliding than walking…

…and we were on the roof of my building, a seamless transition, although we weren’t on the deck, we were on the tiled slope that faced the street. I saw a few people below: a delivery-man smoking by his bike, two women walking towards the corner-store, but up here we were alone.

“I miss you,” I said, and thought for a moment I would cry. “Why did you have to—”

“Stop,” he said, and put a spectral finger to my lips. “It happened, it’s over with. There was nothing you could have done. You know that. He was drunk, way too drunk. The roads were icy. I know it was sudden. But I’m dead and buried and—who was that poet, the one who wrote about the dead body eaten by worms? Was it Donne?”

“Marvell,” I said, and then: “Thy beauty shall no more be found; nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound my echoing song; then worms shall try that long-preserved virginity, and your quaint honor turn to dust, and into ashes all my lust…”

“Well, I have turned to dust,” he said, “and to be honest, it’s not so bad. I didn’t realize, when I was alive—and the longer I think about this, the more I think it applies to everyone—just how invested we are in our bodies.” He was silent a moment.

“Why are you here?” I said, suddenly filled with rage—rage that he’d died, that we hadn’t seen each other for nearly a year when he’d died, that I’d been too cowardly to leave Catherine for him while he lived, that even now I knew I must wake in the morning and resume the life that I wasn’t supposed to have, the life in which everything I was fated to have done with him was done instead with Catherine.

“You know why I’m here,” he said, his words echoing around him, distorted, like we were in dark water.

“I don’t,” I said, “only that you’re here to accuse me. I’m sorry I couldn’t leave her—I couldn’t—you didn’t understand, and you still don’t, and in a thousand years, when we’re both dust in the earth, you still won’t understand.”

“No, you don’t understand,” he said, facing me, again grabbing my wrist. “You are a coward—a coward then and a coward now. In fifty years, when you’re old and sagging and everyone you sacrificed your happiness to impress is dead, you’ll understand and realize: you wasted your life, you wasted our love. What we could have had.”

“But you died. You died. You can’t say now that we could have had a future.”

“Who knows how fate works? Maybe if you’d left her and built a life with me, it wouldn’t have happened. Maybe we’d be living together in Brooklyn. I wouldn’t have been in Albany at all.”

“That’s speculation.”

“And now, instead, I just wander through the night—it’s a strange place, forlorn and sad, and sometimes I think I sent myself here just to punish you,” he said, taking his hand away. I shivered.

“Oh, god!” I cried, “what do I do?”

“You already know,” he said.

 

 

I avoided thinking about him for weeks. Catherine and I went on a trip to Montreal, where she tried to practice her French. I went sailing in the Hamptons with a coworker, drank too much, and puked over the side of the boat. I spent a weekend with my mother, watched her knit and froth over her television, ranting about liberals or some conspiracy Rush Limbaugh had put forth. Still, no matter where I was, surrounded by les québécois or schools of fish or right-wing news, thoughts of him and I constantly stung and burned the inside of my skull.

“You’ve been so distant,” Catherine said to me one night, when we were eating at home. “What’s wrong? Is it him?” She’d never said his name if she could help it when he’d been alive, something I half-noticed but never wondered about until after his death, when she’d stopped speaking it entirely.

I felt a pang of anger—or was it hunger for a body that no longer existed, except in my dreams?—course through my stomach, my chest, my heart.

“Why are you always bringing him up?” I said. “Not everything is about him. Maybe I’m tired or burned out or sick of your father always fucking picking on me. Maybe it’s any of a host of things, did you ever think of that?”

“God,” she said, “calm down. Stop baiting me. If you want to yell at someone go do it on your own time. I’m sick of being your punching bag.”

Oh, it was just like her, to accuse me of—what was she accusing me of, anyway? Was I abusive? Did I yell at her, hit her, do any of those things an abuser would do? No, of course not. If anyone was acting inappropriately it was her. Snooping around, I’m sure, whenever he and I were alone. Was she there on St. Mark’s, peeking out from under a dollar pizza store’s awning? Was she outside our Airbnb in Mattituck, peering through the blinds, hoping to catch a glimpse of us in flagrante delicto? This was a betrayal on her part. I was mourning. He was dead. What did any of it matter, anymore?

I think some trace of my agony must have registered on my face, because Catherine stood up and came around the table to wrap her arms around me. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I don’t mean that,” she said, and I could smell her perfume as it wound into my nose, down my throat, into my lungs, and I choked for breath, flinching involuntarily.

She pulled me closer, kissed my cheek and it burned, not like his kisses had, but the burn of cold, searing ice. And then she was in my lap, pressing herself against me, I felt her breasts, her hands on my back, her lips to my lips.

I was never attracted to Catherine. I’ve never felt attracted to any woman, really, not in a physical sense at least. But I did my duty to Catherine, eventually, I mean, after I couldn’t put it off any longer. I never initiated it, and often she was reluctant for it—thank god her sex drive was low. Or maybe she knew how much I dreaded it. When she acted like this, though, there was no resisting, not without upsetting her or giving more credence to the suspicions that, I thought, must always be coursing through her mind.

Now, with the memory of his touch still fresh, I couldn’t rise to the occasion, and I pushed her away, stood up from the table, and told her, my voice low and as steady as I could make it, that now wasn’t a good time.

“It is him,” she said, and I could hear in her voice years of anguish, of denial, of disbelief that I really was the kind of man her deepest subconscious had warned her about. I knew what I dreamed, but never what Catherine dreamed, and I thought that if either of us were likely to be dreaming about him it wasn’t I but her: phantom images, brought to the surface only in—what had he called it?—that sad and forlorn place where dreams occurred.

“I’m going to sleep,” she said, pausing before she went into the bedroom, waiting for me to speak. I said nothing.

 

 

Mr. van de Kamp asked me to lunch and when I met him, he was already seated. It was another of those places he liked, where everyone was over fifty and white, and they wore their cufflinks, their pearls, and all the other trappings of their class that only served to remind me of my inferiority. I know that Mr. van de Kamp chose this place in order to put me in my place, to remind me that I wasn’t worthy enough for his daughter. This was his world, and hers as well: credit cards without limit, pedigrees that stretched back to the old Dutch colony, the sense that all this finery and elegance wasn’t anything special, or even out of the ordinary. In fact it was invisible because they all expected it, had grown used to it, even demanded it. And now Mr. van de Kamp had tossed me here, like a deep-water fish with no tolerance for the light, thrust up from the shade and pressure of the dark waters.

“I want you to know,” he said, spearing me with his eyes, steel-gray, “that no matter how close you were with that boy, you need to act like a grown man, and not take it out on your poor wife.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Catherine told Kittie she was horribly upset, you’d been moping for weeks, you were, ahem, refusing her intimacy and accusing her of things with no good reason. Well, of course Kittie told me, don’t look so surprised, she wanted us to talk man-to-man. To get these things sorted out so my daughter isn’t miserable in her own home.”

“If Catherine’s miserable it’s no fault of mine,” I said, sounding more defensive than I liked. “What can I say? He was—it was just—”

Mr. van de Kamp sighed, waved a hand to cut me off. I froze. “I never told you—why would it have come up?—about Larsen. He was, how can I say this, he was the best man I’ve ever met. We were in Vietnam together. One night we were in the jungle, god-knows-what kind of insects making noises around us, buzzing, sawing. We were crossing a river, for what reason I don’t know, I’ve forgotten now, but it was just Larsen and me. I went first, since I was a better swimmer, and I was taller, too. It was fine until the riverbed dropped off—we wore heavy equipment back then, I had a radio held over my head, and when I lost my footing I just went under. There was nothing around me but dark water, mud, I lost the radio and I felt my boots pulling me further down. I thought I was dead, either drowned or captured, in that moment both were the same to me. Then I felt something touch me, two arms around my stomach, I was moving rapidly upward, my head broke the surface, I choked on water, felt silt on my face, and then I opened my eyes, I turned my head and it was so bright I could see him. He was floating under me, legs hooked to mine, arms around me, and we sailed down that river until we found a friendly checkpoint. He saved my life that night, I’ve never forgotten it. That man was my everything. We served together for four years after that, and on our last patrol together he—well—” Here, Mr. van de Kamp’s voice broke, his eyes clouded, I looked away but listened, enthralled. “—he fell into a well-concealed pit of Punji spikes, and I saw—I saw him…”

I waited a moment as he took a sip of his water.

“I saw him die, son, I held his hand as it happened, I had to lie on my stomach and stretch my arm into the pit. He was the kind of man you only meet once. The love between us was strong, unique. We only get one love like that, do you understand? Only one. But we are men, we have duties. Duties to our wives, to our children. Do you think when I came back from the war that I turned my face from my wife to grieve alone? Do you think I rejected her touch because her arms weren’t the ones who had saved me that night, the only peaceful one of my life, where we’d floated together down the dark and raging waters? No. I am a man, I acted like a man. You need to act like one too. You cannot fail my daughter.”

“I am a man, van de Kamp,” I said, finally, “and I may not be the kind of man you so obviously admire, but I’m still a man, and I won’t let you talk to me this way.”

“I’m your father-in-law. I want you and Catherine to be happy—”

“Did you ever think,” I said, not caring that I’d interrupted, not caring about what he had just told me, “that she and I weren’t meant to be happy? That despite what you might think, despite your Cold War reality of how a marriage should be, it never has and never will apply to us?”

“That’s bull, boy, and you know it. You caught her up, stayed with her, married her, for god’s sake—why? Why all of this? Why didn’t you just—”

“You know why,” I said, tossing my crumpled napkin onto the table. “You and Catherine and Kittie, my mother, everyone—you know why.”

I stood up, and Mr. van de Kamp did as well. “Sit down, stop being ridiculous,” he said, but I’d already turned and was walking toward the door, into the street, into god-knows-what.

 

 

He hadn’t come to me for months, and I felt the tender hurt of his absence anew, like he’d been buried only yesterday. I’d lost him twice, and I was in danger of losing Catherine as well. Not that it would be any particular tragedy on a personal level. But then others would know, the cracks in our marriage would be visible to them, I would be one step closer to being discovered for who I was. Whispers would fly, people would talk, they would remember how close I was to him, and surely Catherine wouldn’t be eager to defend my manhood.

I slept fitfully at night, blissfully unaware of Catherine at my side, and often when I awoke she was already up, so that I didn’t have to hide the swelling in my pants or find an excuse to avoid sex while half-asleep. Now I thought about him constantly, and I didn’t care if I spoke about him while sleeping, or called out his name on a moonless night, or even sleep-walked to the roof where we’d sat together.

I knew what he wanted me to do, and I knew also that he wouldn’t show his face to me until I had.

But to do so was impossible. To leave Catherine, to divorce her—oh, god, my mother!—to tell my mother and the world who I truly was.

And who was I? I wasn’t like the gay men in the sitcoms. I wasn’t flamboyant, feminine, I didn’t go to Fire Island, I didn’t want to hang out in bars with men in skirts and teenage boys with fake licenses. To me it was exotic, scary, and I felt a primal revulsion to the entire thing. My love for him had been pure, the distilled essence of my being, all that was good in me and all that wasn’t, too, mixed together in an alchemical mystery. How could I contrast that with a sweaty, darkened bar, vague figures pressing against me, a tryst in a back-alley or bathroom? I was aware how much of a cliché these thoughts made me, I took a queer literature class in college, I know history is speckled with men just like me. But it doesn’t make it any easier.

No, it was impossible, the games were too difficult to win, the prize not worth it, though to see him again, even in dreams, was more valuable than gold or marble. I knew I was doomed for the end of my days to walk in a liminal state, neither here nor there; that I’d see him in every shadow, every crevice, and yet never truly, because I’d never do what he’d wanted in death—and in life.

I’d reconcile with Catherine, endure her touch, her perfume. I’d call Mr. van de Kamp “Father,” I’d go to work for his old firm; Catherine would get pregnant, and Kittie would throw her a baby shower; we’d buy a house in Long Island, or maybe Connecticut, and Mr. van de Kamp would give us the down payment; the baby would grow, would go to lower and middle and high school, off to college—to Yale, like his mom and dad, and he’d be the spitting image of a man, perfect in every way, not tied down to a woman he didn’t love, with the ghost of his soul’s fevered dream at his back.

I knew, as surely as I’d ever known anything, that in my own time, in my own way, I’d come to be with him again. I had no faith, not in men or their idols, but I believed in entropy, I knew that at the end of days we would all be muddled atoms in a primordial ooze. And I knew, then, when the time came, when whatever atoms that remained of him and I had met, I’d be ready to face him, to whisper, not to the world, but to him, the secret of my being, and my love for him.

 

 

I found myself with Catherine and Kittie some weeks later at the Met, in the south wing where the 19th-century European paintings were exhibited. Catherine and I were supposed to meet Kittie for lunch, but at the last minute she’d called and explained that she was still full from her late breakfast, and wouldn’t we rather go to the Met and take a stroll through the old oils rather than waiting for a table at Bella Blu? For me it was worse, as Kittie’s Ph.D. was in Art History, and while she wasn’t a show-off about her knowledge, she certainly wasn’t tight-lipped.

I suspected this was just a ruse to get me alone with her, because Catherine was notorious for wandering off on her own at museums. I was right. The three of us hadn’t been in the south wing more than a few minutes before I’d turned around from examining a Villers and noticed that Catherine was gone.

“How are you holding up, dear? Catherine tells me you aren’t sleeping,” Kittie said, touching my elbow, drawing me aside. We were alone in the gallery. All I could hear was the scuff of sneakers from the next room.

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

“But Catherine told me what the doctor said. You should take the pills. They’re only to help you sleep.”

“I’m a little afraid of Ambien,” I said.

“You know, I don’t blame you. I have a girlfriend who took them once with her before-bed glass of wine. The next morning she found out she’d bid on—and won—a John Deere at public auction. They have them online now, you know,” she said, smiling. “But seriously, you do have to take care of yourself.”

“I mean, I am taking care of myself. Work is fine. I’m editing a monograph. I’m exercising. I eat well.”

Kittie looked at me for a moment, waited. Then she cleared her throat. “This is difficult for me to say, but there have been times through my marriage when I’ve felt underappreciated, alone, ignored, even. I’ve always thought that my husband had certain interests I couldn’t share in. It was tough knowledge to accept, but I did. And by the time I’d figured it out, I had two kids already. I had a life with him. And besides the aloofness, I had nothing to complain about. He’d kept up his end of the bargain, I’d kept up mine, and we’ve done it ever since. Now you know I’m not old-fashioned, I’m as progressive as anyone these days, but I do believe spouses have sacred roles to play. To be there for each other, when one spouse is hurting, even when the pain of the one triggers an even more agonizing pain in the other. I’ve been there, I’ve been that woman.”

“And you think Catherine is like you. A woman in pain.”

“I think Catherine is just trying to hold up her end of the bargain. She knows you’re in pain. She feels pain simply because you feel it. But there is a secondary pain, a pain that comes with the knowledge of what your pain means. It can be difficult to balance the sensations of feeling all of those pains at once.”

“I have upheld my end of the bargain,” I said. “Catherine’s not homeless. She’s not hungry. She’s got everything she needs.”

“Emotional intimacy is a need too,” Kittie said, and finally her voice cracked, her blue eyes watered. But then Catherine rounded a corner, her face lined and tired, to frog-march us to the café. She was hungry.

Later that night, Catherine and I were in bed. I was browsing the New York Times, she was pretending to read a book. I could tell by the steady, practiced rhythm at which she turned the pages, rather than her usual stop-and-go pace. She shut her book, turned to me, I put down my phone and looked over at her.

“I saw a painting today,” she said, and I felt immediately disarmed. I thought she was brooding over another accusation she was ready to lob at me. This was unexpected, and the talking points I’d prepared were useless.

“Oh?” I said.

“It was a Degas. A woman, naked, seated on the floor. Her back is to the viewer, her hair is tied up, exposing her neck and the side of her breast, and her face is hidden. She’s just sitting there, brushing her hair,” she said, raising her eyes tentatively to meet mine.

“I don’t think I’ve seen that one.”

“I couldn’t understand why she was naked. At first I thought she was alone, that it was some sort of private ritual of hers. But that can’t be it, because her back is arched to the viewer, she’s exposed herself willingly to whoever is watching her from behind. Who’s watching her? Is it her husband, her lover? Is she trying to seduce him, or has he caught her unawares?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe Degas just liked painting figures.”

“Then I realized what was happening. She isn’t alone, but she isn’t being watched. The painter, the viewer, yes, they are both watching, I suppose. But the man in the room with her, the one lurking beyond the edge of the frame, he isn’t looking at her. That’s why she’s naked, that’s why her neck, her breast, her lower back is exposed. She wants him to look at her, she desperately needs him to look at her, and so she’s crying out to him with her hairbrush. He never sees her, or he sees her and doesn’t care, she can’t decide which is worse. That’s why her face is covered—she’s ashamed.”

I didn’t respond.

“You’re keeping things hidden,” she said, after a pause. “Can’t you see that? I just want it to be like in the old days. When we were all happy, when we were worried about silly stuff. Before I knew.”

My heart went cold. “Before you knew what, Catherine?”

“Before I knew you were a fucking coward, that’s what!” she cried.

“Goddamnit, Catherine, what do you want to hear from me?” I said. “That I’m sorry I have secrets? That I’m sorry I’m not brave, like your father, or insightful, like your mother? Are you pissed that our relationship is going down the same tracks as theirs? Oh, don’t give me that look, you and I both know what this is about. Your father knows, your mother knows. So why do you insist on keeping it hidden? On acting this way?”

Now she was rising from the bed, swatting the book off the nightstand. Towering above me, her robe open, her breasts spilling out. She moved to cover herself. “I married you because I trusted you, because I believed we could build a future together. Because I was fond of you, and I loved you, and you loved me. I knew we’d have problems, but we’d work through them. That was the deal, and you’re not upholding your end.”

“You sound like you got your talking points from your mother,” I said.

“You want life to be so easy, so numb, that you cease to feel until one day you realize you’ve died. Is that what you want? Am I that horrible?”

The last sentence was a whisper. Catherine’s nostrils flared. She sniffed. She got back into bed, turned off the light. The only glow came from a news alert on my phone screen. “I’m going to get through this,” I said.

“You’ll never realize that this isn’t just about you,” she said. “I don’t know what he saw in you. You’re a narcissist.”

I lay awake for several more hours. I listened to Catherine breathing and judged how close to sleep she was by the way her angry exhales became more silent and less pronounced. Her back was to me, the sheets were down to her waist, her hair was twisted up, exposing her neck, like the woman in the painting. But Catherine was clothed, her naked form was forbidden to me. Catherine had sunk below the level of the woman in the painting, she was no longer desperately trying to attract her husband’s attention.

Catherine, the great gatherer of facts, the verifier of all things unknown. Nothing passed her eye. And I realized, then, that it didn’t matter if she had been peeking in the blinds or not, that even if she’d never once seen us so much as peck each other on the cheek, surely she knew. She knew. A violent rage swept through me, so quickly it left me out of breath, a rage directed toward Catherine: why hadn’t she stopped this, why had she agreed to marry me, why hadn’t she helped me come out of the closet when she’d realized what was going on. But of course I would never say these things to her. To do so would be to risk coming too close to the truth.

That night I slept fully for the first time in weeks. I’d been staying up until I was too frazzled to dream, sleeping only a few hours at night, trying carefully to avoid deep sleep, where the dream-phantom lurked. I didn’t want to see him again, I was too ashamed, I was too guilty, because of course what had happened was my fault. I was a coward. If I’d broken up with Catherine, moved somewhere with him, anywhere but that icy street in Albany, with the drunken twenty-year-old barreling down the road, then we would be happy, both of us living. Now one of us was dead and the other was merely half-living, and our only hope of being reunited for any significant amount of time was a bellyful of sleeping pills.

I turned to my side, found the bottle the doctor had given me, and dry swallowed a pill; I felt fog tickling my ankles, drifting up my thighs, pooling on my chest; and while I slipped into sleep, I watched the branch tap against the windowpane, waiting to see whether he would visit me again.

 


About the author:

Lucas Mautner is an MFA student in fiction at The New School in New York City.

Art: Dark Sea Serie by Carole Jury

In the artist’s words:

Born in Lyon (France), Carole Jury lives in New Jersey. She is an abstract painter who likes playing with textured strokes, nuances of color and brightness and to work with all kind of mediums and tools. The majority of her series is inspired by her photos, which give her a guide for sheen, brightness and reliefs. Her Dark Sea series had been presented at Clio Art Fair this fall and NY-Artnews featured it. Carole Jury’s paintings give new life to the classic oil on canvas. Her Dark Sea series features paintings that are heavily layered to the point of abstraction. With the suggestion of the “dark sea”, images of a bleak stormy body of water quickly come to mind. But on their own, the paintings stand up as studies in layering and abstraction. The nervous energy of the brushstrokes and incredibly dark color palette suggest an immediately ominous feeling. The thick layers change the look of the paint, giving it a
reflective, plastic quality. This treatment of oil paint makes Jury’s works worth a second look.

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