AN INTRODUCTION BY AIMEE BENDER
I’ve been trying to figure out lately why I really love to read about tasks I do every day — and Lisa Locascio’s stunning story “Hundred Mile House” is a perfect example. Why do I like to hear her talk about Isobel making dinner, and doing laundry? And yet I do. Why is it so compelling to see her go shopping at the swap meet and bargain for a bonnet? Why do I so enjoy hearing about how the frozen chicken dish when thawed is not to Isobel’s taste but is fine for her husband?
There is a honoring gesture in this — in giving our daily lives the care of such attention. Lisa Locascio observes, and considers, and lovingly renders these experiences into language. Everything is given equal weight, in a way that does not feel wishy-washy but instead contains a love for the small things that accumulate to make meaning. The arrival of a dress in a closet unbeknownst to its owner has as much wonder and strangeness as the husband’s unknown pain over bumping into a tragedy that is not his. Her longings and his solitude live and breathe alongside the making of milk tea. And when she, the writer, cares so much to write a milk tea description this beautifully, she is taking care of the reader, too.
We are tended to by the language. We are allowed entry. The larger questions, of the distances that arise in a marriage, the yearnings unspoken in both husband and wife, and differing cultures nestled up next to each other, can exist and grow in the reader’s mind because of the milk tea: “The sensation of his cold hands against her warm body was exquisite, almost painful,” writes Locascio. “Their mouths bled together, tasting of tea. In the chilly room she could see their breath meet the tea steam and the cloudy heat from their bodies.” Everything deserves our attention and care. Everything. It is an impossible task, but the story reminds us of that potential for dignity.
– Aimee Bender
Author of The Color Master
Aimee Bender Recommends A Short Story by Lisa Locascio
“Hundred Mile House”
by Lisa Locascio
Three months after Isobel’s husband stopped making love to her, she bought a bonnet.
It was grand and black and white. Lined in matte cream linen with a grain of taupe thread, covered in opalescent pure black. It stood on its own, without support. Isobel suspected there was a hard shell beneath the fabric, but when she felt for a form — delicately, her thumb and index finger curved like pincers — the bonnet bent in her hands.
In all light the bonnet shone darkly, like water at night.
Its shape reminded Isobel of a covered wagon: a little Conestoga rolled right into her living room. Her childhood love of pioneers come back to her. Nestled among unlabeled CDs, neon paperclips, and the smiley face mug of pens on her messy desk, the bonnet looked judgmental and uncomfortable. Isobel adored it.
The bonnet’s ties were not made of ribbon, as Isobel had originally thought, but from the same heavy fabric as the bonnet. At first she was disappointed: she had imagined two long, shining strands that she would leave loose, like tiny twin scarves. But when she felt the ties between her fingers, the rich fabric rebuked her.
The bonnet has history, Isobel thought. What do I have?
Every morning after her husband left she took the bonnet in her hands and stood with it in front of the bathroom mirror.
“The purpose of the bonnet is to be Plain,” she said to her reflection.
“It is not an item of beauty but necessity.
“It will keep my face from the sun and hide my hair.
“In the bonnet, when I am hurt by unkindness, I can turn from the one who hurt me and be shielded from his eyes.
“’The bonnet will remind me of the pitfalls of vanity, of earthly things.
“Of the limitations of this world and of the flesh.
“Of my flesh.
“Of my husband’s flesh.
“O God give me the power of this bonnet, let it come into me, let it guide my hand and my heart.”
By the time she stopped speaking her reflection had become strange to her. She felt outside of it, somewhere else, able to look without sentimentality at the pear-shaped woman in the mirror. Thin curls of muddy hair and strange gray eyes. She was a body only, not pretty or un-.
She had cribbed together her affirmation from things she found on the internet, where she had gone looking for information about the bonnet. She had wanted to know how old it was. Instead she found women who wore bonnets: women all over the United States and some overseas, who pulled bonnets over their hair every day and kept public diaries about bonnet life. Once she found these journals she read them, with a gnawing hunger behind her eyes. The bonneted women were different from the friends she followed online, whose news of babies and promotions hit Isobel in daggers of self-pity. They never complained, never posted needy, pouting photographs. Instead there were storybook pictures: simple, clean women in straw bonnets and gingham dresses, walking the borders of their property. They all owned property. Sometimes the women were pregnant beneath their old-fashioned dresses, and sometimes there were little girls in matching outfits. There were images of jarred fruit, needlework, intricate puzzles done on tables as weekend recreation. The women were intelligent, educated; Isobel didn’t understand half of what they wrote, even though she thought herself pretty smart. From them she learned the difference between plain and Plain. From them she received the gift of a seed of faith, glowing inside her like a promise.
Not faith in God — Isobel knew too much for that. God seemed as precious and unlikely as the angel she had prayed for when she was a little girl, a mauve-haired princess with rainbow wings who would appear in her bedroom and make her feel not safe but awed. That was what Isobel always wanted, not comfort but possibility. Magic. She had never had either. Now she was too far gone for God or angels. But Isobel believed in the bonnet, in the power it would give her.
Isobel and her husband had been married for eight years. They lived in a house in the country, six miles down the road from the unincorporated town of Cazenovia, which had an estimated population of seventy-three souls. There was a big city three hours away where they never went. Both of them had grown up in other cities, and they had no fond memories.
Her husband had found her at a community college in the exurbs of a decaying city in upstate New York. Successive financial crises had stripped the exurb of all but the barest infrastructure; the police department was shared with three other exurbs, the paramedics and firefighters were volunteers, and the dollar store was the only food source within a five-mile radius. Once, long ago, the city had been a bustling industrial hub; but then all of the companies left, taking most of the people with them. Those who stayed in the exurb looked as if they were slowly dying. The whites of their eyes were yellow, their hair and fingernails thin. Trails of green slime hung beneath their children’s noses. Once, at the dollar store, Isobel watched a woman cough a viscous purple egg yolk into her palm. The woman glared at it and shook it to the floor.
Lack of funding had closed all but one of the exurb’s public schools. Isobel passed the surviving school each morning on her two-mile walk to the bus stop. White trailers surrounded it; these, according to her husband, back when he was still her boyfriend, were “portable classrooms.” The school too had reminded her of pioneers, of wagons: it was the way the trailers were circled up, huddled protectively around the slumped brick building. A chilling, not comforting, resemblance. Children stood outside, waiting for the school to open. She never saw them play. They just stared at the road, little faces like closed windows.
When she recalled her life in the exurb, Isobel remembered walking to the dollar store in driving gray sleet, wearing a flimsy coat on which she insisted because she believed it looked “sophisticated.” She walked against traffic, squinting into the fading light, a blind panic of sadness rising in her chest with every step. By the time she rounded the final corner and the strip mall appeared, windows gleaming yellow and warm, she was half-mad with anxiety and despair. It felt triumphant to march into the blinding fluorescence of the dollar store, to buy with a handful of limp fives milk, cocoa mix, cookies, and every single herbal tea that claimed to have relaxing properties.
Survival tactics, Isobel thought as she dropped the items into her basket. Right now I am surviving.
She brewed the teas and sipped them constantly, as if her red mug contained tincture of laudanum. She watched funny movies and slideshows of beautiful landscapes on her computer. She organized everything meticulously, resorting pens and sweaters in an elaborate cubby system made of cheap plywood. She tried to learn knitting, sous vide cooking, and Jazzercise, failing roundly at all three. She started making up songs and whistling them and snapping her fingers as she walked, just to have something to listen to.. She knew she looked crazy. That was part of why she did it: who would attack a woman shuffling along the side of the rural route, gesturing and jerking like the victim of an obscure palsy?
The songs all had the same lyrics. Right now I am surviving. Survival tactics.
And then, she met her husband. She knew who he was from the very beginning. He was her husband. He throbbed at the center of her life. His pink vitality lit every room. He was tall and wide, with milky skin, iron arms, and a teddy bear’s face. Best of all, he knew she was his wife. The knowledge of his love swelled into a cushion of hot air beneath Isobel’s feet. Beside him in bed she felt his blood moving in his body. She wanted to harness that velocity, follow it to his heart. For a long time after they found each other, Isobel was always a little wonderfully light-headed.
They were married at City Hall a year to the day after they met. Isobel wore a yellow sundress, her husband khakis and a green plaid shirt.
For the next five years they both worked two jobs. They lived together in one medium-sized room with a closetlike bathroom and no closets. Isobel cooked all their meals on a hot plate on top of a miniature refrigerator. Often the only time they were home together was the middle of the night, so that was when she made dinner. Her husband’s favorite dish was spaghetti in meat sauce; hers was fried frozen potstickers with plum sauce. They kept a gallon jug of red wine on the floor next to the refrigerator and drank it with dinner at three, four, or five o’clock in the morning. After they went to bed and made love until dawn. Isobel was happy, even though she worked sixteen hours a day, even though she was often so tired that she had to set her phone’s alarm to make sure she didn’t sleep through her bus stop.
As soon as they were able, they packed everything into his truck and her sedan and moved west. They bought a house between two old trees on three acres off a rural highway. Inside, it had a stone hearth and lovely beamed ceilings in a state of dusty disrepair; outside, it was covered in hideous aluminum siding and a cheap mansard roof. Isobel and her husband planned renovations: the removal of the aluminum siding and restoration of the wood underneath, the addition of a third floor which would also take care of the mansard roof, bigger windows in all of the rooms. Isobel’s husband could do anything with his hands. And soon, they were sure, Isobel would find a job, too, and they could begin work on the house. At the beginning she even dreamed of a widow’s walk.
Isobel’s husband was employed by a garage that ran a lucrative roadside assistance service. His specialty was solving mysteries; back in the exurb his friends had joked about it, called him the Car Whisperer. Often, his cell phone rang in the middle of the night, its lit green screen illuminating a tiny square of their bedroom wall, and Isobel’s husband rose good-naturedly to go help a stranger. When they first moved into the house, Isobel had welcomed these interruptions.
She would pretend to be asleep as her husband stepped into his work clothes and zipped up his parka, waiting for the sound of him locking the front door. Once he was gone she sprang into action. She brushed her teeth and hair. She rubbed tinted balm into her chapped lips. She went to the kitchen and chopped gingerroot into paste. She poured whole milk from a glass bottle into a red enameled cast iron pot. They bought their milk, cheese, and eggs from the boutique dairy five miles away. The thickness of the milk, its cream top and total opacity, never failed to thrill Isobel. She had spent the first two decades of her life drinking thin, bluish milk that smelled chemical and unclean. The country milk was palpable evidence of the improvements she had made in her life through force of will alone.
She added the ginger paste to the milk, along with a lump of candy sugar, four tablespoons of spun unfiltered honey, and two heaping scoops of cardamom-scented black tea, fine as dust, which she bought from a mail-order catalog and kept in a clay jar in the cupboard. She brought the mixture to a simmer slowly, beating it with a ball whisk, with the gas on the lowest setting. When steam rose from the surface of the milk, she doubled the intensity of her whisking, creating a foam two shades lighter than the liquid beneath. Isobel beat until the foam was thick enough to coat her finger, and then she covered the pot with its lid and turned off the heat.
She went back to their dark bedroom and stepped out of her pajamas — sweatpants and a T-shirt from a retreat she had been forced to go on in her previous life in the exurb — and put on a negligee and a peignoir. She had three matching sets, one emerald, one sapphire, one diamond-white. They had been wedding gifts, items she had specifically requested when people asked her what she wanted. Her old friends in the exurb had made fun of her.
“What is this,” they asked, “the nineteen-twenties?”
Yes, she had thought but said nothing. Yes, that is when I want it to be. She hadn’t heard from any of them since the move.
In the mirror in the dark, she was just a pale oval surrounded by a corona of coarse hair. Satisfied, she went back to the kitchen and microwaved two tall glass mugs with elaborately engraved handles. These, too, had been wedding presents. She turned off the light in the kitchen and waited for the sound of her husband’s truck scattering the pebbles in their driveway. When the first scratching started, she ladled the hot glasses full of milk tea and brought them into the bedroom, putting one glass on each bedside table.
He came in smelling of night and smoke, of gasoline, of the open road. No matter how recently he had shaved, his face was prickly against hers. She loved the feel of his rough skin against the silk negligee. She rarely let him take off his work clothes before it began; she liked how the fabric held the outside chill. The sensation of his cold hands against her warm body was exquisite, almost painful. Their mouths bled together, tasting of tea. In the chilly room she could see their breath meet the tea steam and the cloudy heat from their bodies.
He was rough with her. He stripped off the peignoir and nosed away the straps of the negligee so that he could press his wet mouth into the dry hollows of her throat. He wrapped his arms around her torso and held tight, kissing and kissing. His erection pressed into her thigh and his hand shambled at her underwear. He hurt her. He fixed her.
In the morning she was never tired, no matter how late they stayed awake after, drinking the lukewarm tea and laughing in the dark. The caffeine in the tea had no power over her. All she needed for sleep was his warm chest against her back, his slack penis nestled between their bodies. No other man had ever slept completely naked with her. All five of her previous lovers said they were scared of what would happen to their vulnerable genitals unprotected by underwear. She might roll over on their testicles, pinch their foreskins between stiff sheets. But Isobel’s husband wrapped his arms around her and fell immediately asleep, his cardamom breath rustling her hair. She opened her mouth to breathe it in.
Their life was enough for Isobel, enough to distract her from her many failings, from their money problems, from the way she was sometimes nauseatingly, terrifyingly lonely. If she couldn’t be happy in the life they had worked so hard for, she reasoned, then happiness was impossible for her. She was simply not made for it. This was a thought she could not bear. So she clutched at her happiness, wore it close, and was careful never to complain.
It was like that for three years: middle-of-the-night tea, the joy of bodies in the dark, days spent in careful homemaking. Isobel had almost perfected the discipline of not thinking too much. She only called her mother once a month and was perfectly capable of not feeling guilty after. She took books out of the library, hard books, read them with athletic determination, and returned them on time. She went for daily walks. She experimented with new recipes. She rented the black-and-white comedies her husband liked and made herself like them, too.
Then, one baking two A.M. in September, her husband came back from a call and climbed immediately into bed, ignoring the tea and her peignoir. He lay on the clean sheets, his work clothes breathing heat into the stagnant room.
“Sweetie?” Isobel said. The diamond-white negligee, soaked with sweat, clung to her crotch.
Then, to Isobel’s horror, her husband coughed out three great sobs.
“I can’t,” he said. “I can’t.”
When she touched him he flinched and turned away.
Only after an hour had passed and her husband’s breathing had slowed did he tell Isobel some of what he had seen on the road.
Since that night he had not laid a hand on her. Now, when she went to kiss him, he presented his sealed lips to her with a resolve that reminded her of a child bracing himself for an injection.
Isobel bought the bonnet from a Mennonite woman at a swap meet at the county fairgrounds. The woman’s goods were neatly spread on a card table covered with green felt. She wasn’t selling handicrafts, as Isobel had hoped, but cheap souvenirs, each embossed with a tiny “Made In China” stamp: miniature snow globes mounted on the backs of leaping pink dolphins, light-up fairy wands with flashing stars and glowing hearts, hard plastic keychains printed Princess Comin’ Through! I’m A Freak, Touch Me! and World’s Greatest Dad…Until The Money Runs Out! There were a handful of plastic bas-relief puzzles, the kind that, as a child, Isobel had often received in birthday party “goodie bags”: thin cellophane bags stuffed full of cheap crap, distributed to a room of shrieking children by gray, exhausted mothers. That sort of thing was why they had left their cities in the first place.
Not that she ever questioned their decision. It filled her heart with gladness every day.
The bonnet stood on the far left corner of the Mennonite woman’s table. It had a long, stiff brim that extended out in a cone, like a megaphone — this was the part that reminded her of a covered wagon — and, in the back, a gathered bunch of the black fabric. This, Isobel figured, was where the wearer’s hair went.
She looked at the woman behind the table. A small white disk was pinned to the back of her head.
There were many Mennonites in their area. She saw them at the grocery store, at the movie theater (there was one in a mall, forty minutes’ drive from her house), and at the library. It was impossible not to notice the Mennonites: the women in their little white caps and long, colorful dresses, the men in overalls and straw hats. At first Isobel thought they were Amish, a word she knew from television. But then one day she left the grocery store at the same time as a family of these strange people: a woman in a deep purple dress and two little girls in gray, all three of them wearing the white disks on the back of their hair (how did they get them to stay there?), and watched them climb into a car, not even an old car, but a new sedan that looked to be in better shape than her station wagon.
At home, she had excitedly told her husband that she had seen Amish people being naughty.
“I wonder if maybe they’re trying to escape,” she said, hefting a pot of water onto the stove for his spaghetti. “Maybe they’ve gotten fed up with their cult and want out. Maybe they already escaped.”
“Those aren’t Amish, Isobel,” he told her. “There aren’t any Amish settlements around here. The people you saw were Mennonites. They can drive cars. Sometimes they are the people I go help at night.”
He told her everything he knew about them. Mennonites had certain things in common with the Amish but they were more liberal. They could have telephones, computers, televisions. They were Anabaptists like the Amish but less cloistered, less likely to speak English as a second language. Some of the men whose cars he had healed had been to places he and Isobel would only ever read about in books: Sri Lanka, Germany, Mexico.
“There’s a lot who work farms up in Canada, too. Sometimes they travel between there and here. They have simple lives, but everywhere they go, they go to help people,” he told her. He admired these Mennonites. She was embarrassed by her ignorance. She hoped he would think her cheeks were red from the spaghetti pot’s steam.
“That’s interesting,” she said, searching the cupboard for canned tomatoes.
“They call themselves plain,” Isobel’s husband said. His eyes took on a dreamy look as he stroked his short beard. “Amish and Mennonite both. Plain.”
She thought it sounded stupid, affected. She had known women who took great, snotty pride in being unattractive. The thought of an entire community of such people made her shiver.
Her husband came up behind her and kissed the top curve of her ear. His work clothes crunched against her back, releasing smells of motor oil and sweat.
“I swear you smell different at night than during the day,” she said in a low voice.
He laughed, a sound like the barking of a great friendly dog. Back then he had laughed all the time.
After dinner Isobel’s husband took down his big atlas. He had bought it for a course at the community college and, Isobel thought, never looked at it again. She felt a weird jealousy as she watched him confidently page through the giant book, the biggest they owned; when had he had time to become so familiar with it?
He opened to a map of western Canada.
“I met a Mennonite man who came down from here,” he told her, pointing at a place called Red Deer. “He’d been all over, up to Edmonton, down to Lethbridge and Cranbrook. To Kamloops. Even up here, to Hundred Mile House.”
On the map the name had a number in it — 100 Mile House — but in her mind it was three words. He went on talking, but she got stuck on that place. A house one hundred miles long, full of people and doors. They walked from side to side, they walked all their lives, opening doors and going in, turning on lights, turning off lights. Up there in the north, with nothing else around, where plain people lived in a house one hundred miles long…
The Mennonite woman at the swap meet wore an orange dress identical to the other Mennonite dresses Isobel had seen: full puffy sleeves that ended just below the elbow, a high square neckline, and a thick waistband above an A-line skirt. And there, on the top of her head, was the little white cap with its dangling thin ties. But while her outfit was the same, the rest of her was subtly different from the other Mennonite women Isobel had seen. Her skin was darker, and her hair was densely curly. If not for the outfit Isobel would have taken her for a Jew, or maybe Greek.
“Hello,” Isobel said just above the level of a whisper, half-hoping the woman wouldn’t hear.
“Hi.” The Mennonite woman looked up sharply, revealing the large cell phone in her lap. She was texting with her thumbs. She typed a very long sentence, then looked up and covered the phone with the palm of her left hand. “Yes?”
Isobel felt herself blush.
“Sorry, I, well — ”
Too sensitive, she thought, you’re too sensitive. Why couldn’t the woman be a little nicer? She thought she might cry. She tried to remember her husband’s face, his voice. “You’re the customer,” he would have reminded her. “She wants to sell, right?”
The woman’s green eyes moved over Isobel’s outfit — high brown leather boots, dark wash jeans, a purple T-shirt printed with silver lightning bolts under a gray jacket — and up to her face. Isobel had smudged shimmery beige eyeshadow above her eyelashes. Her hair was down, moving slightly in the breeze.
“How much for the bonnet?” she asked, staring at it instead of the woman.
The Mennonite woman put her cellphone on the table face down and leaned back in her seat.
“This bonnet?” she asked, lifting it in her small hands. The black fabric caught the light.
Isobel was annoyed. There was no other bonnet at the swap meet; she had checked.
The Mennonite woman turned the bonnet to and fro, considering it. Finally she said, “A hundred.”
Isobel bit her lip, sure now that she would cry. She had less than two hundred dollars in her bank account. Her husband made a good living, but she hadn’t been able to find another job since the dollar store in the next town had closed. She had worked there for two years, had even been assistant manager at the end, but since then it was as if she didn’t exist. Not even the Wal-Mart an hour away would hire her. Every week she posted new flyers at the library and post office, offering her services as a house cleaner, babysitter, tutor, cook, or home aide. No one ever called. Her husband said that it was fine, that they would manage.
She hadn’t worked in over a year. They managed, just barely.
Isobel had earned an associate’s degree in drug and substance abuse counseling at the community college where she’d met her husband. Everyone at the community college had insisted it was a growth field. She was frequently told that she would never lack for a job. And while she lived in the exurb, she hadn’t. She had been employed as an intake counselor by both the government and a private life-coaching company. She spent her days asking unanswerable questions of twitchy, pale ghosts trying to dose themselves out of existence with opiates designed to mute the pain of dying. When did you begin abusing substances? What do you seek escape through an altered state? Tell me about your past; is there anything that it troubles you to remember? What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
Isobel had been told over and over again that addiction to prescription drugs was a national epidemic. She had once planned to return to school for a bachelor’s degree, had even dreamt distantly of graduate school. She didn’t believe that she was capable of helping people, not for one instant, but she liked the idea of always having a job, of being able to steadily advance for the rest of her life. In one of her favorite fantasies, she was fifty years old, sitting behind a desk beneath a framed poster of encouraging aphorisms, in a well-appointed office with two facing green recliners. This was the dream of success that made her giddy and embarrassed: a client list, her own office, her own schedule.
She did not know anyone for whom this dream had come true. Her mother, the only parent she had ever known, had worked a lifetime of service industry jobs, one after another, her uniforms of apron and hat replaced by a black polo shirt and matching baseball cap over and over again, back and forth, for Isobel’s entire memory. She was sixty now. Not one phone call passed without her reminding Isobel that she would never be able to retire.
But while her husband had immediately found the same kind of work he had done in the exurb, Isobel’s only option had been the dollar store — another dollar store, after all her years of shopping for hopeful potions at the one in the exurb. There was only one counseling center near their house, seventy-minutes’ drive away. Everyone on staff there had a master’s degree. They had accepted her résumé with a smile, but Isobel couldn’t shake the feeling the receptionist had shredded it as soon as she left.
In the time she had been unemployed, Isobel had never asked her husband to put money in her bank account. Although she thought of him as a generous man, she feared it would anger him. But she did not admit this to herself; to herself she said she was ashamed. She did ask for cash to buy groceries, but that was different. Her husband always had a bundle of fives, tens, and singles from the strangers he helped on the road. Being rescued made them generous and grateful. The cash was soft and limp as he counted it out into her palm. She always hoped he might give her a little extra, make a joke that she should buy herself something she liked — a hope that made her immediately guilty — but this never happened. The cash he gave her had been creased so many times that it no longer had edges. It wasn’t really money, Isobel told herself. Just tips.
If she only ever spent tips, if she agreed to let her husband handle all of the bills, the balance in her account stayed the same. She checked it rarely, feeling like someone in remission receiving the results of a test.
“Can you come down? How about twenty?” she said, surprising herself.
The Mennonite woman shook her head without even thinking about it.
“This belonged to my husband’s great-grandma,” she told Isobel. “It used to be in the Mennonite Heritage Society Museum. When they closed, they gave it back to us. We had the opportunity to sell it to a big collection in Washington D.C., but we decided having a piece of family history was more important.”
She put the bonnet down on the table, as if the matter was finished. Its ties fell over the edge. For a moment, Isobel feared it would fall. The thought was physically painful.
“If family history’s so important, why are you selling it now?” She couldn’t believe herself.
The Mennonite woman narrowed her eyes. But she looked impressed instead of offended. “Hard times,” she said. “You know.”
Isobel nodded. “Yes.” She thought about just taking the bonnet and running. But that was impossible; her car was parked far away, and she knew many of the people at the swap meet. Her neighbor the dairy farmer was at the next table, turning over an antique trivet in his hands.
“I can give you thirty, but that’s it,” Isobel said. “I only have two hundred dollars in the bank. Not even. One ninety-four. Do you want to see my checkbook?”
This was a tactic she hadn’t used in years, not since she was a teenager in the city. Once, on the bus, she had shown a beggar her empty wallet to make him stop bothering her. She was sixteen, on her way back from her afterschool daycare job. It did the job; he rolled his eyes at her and then moved on, glaring as if she had hurt his feelings.
After the man got off the bus, two older women on the train had lectured Isobel about how vulnerable she had made herself.
“That easily could have gone bad,” a woman in a business suit had told her.
“You should be more careful,” added another one, in a jogging suit. “You can’t go opening your pocketbook up to just anybody.”
But Isobel had been proud, not afraid.
“No, ma’am, I don’t want to see your checkbook,” the Mennonite woman said, looking at her evenly. The cell phone beeped and vibrated against the felt. She cut her eyes at it longingly.
“Give me seventy and we’ll call it a deal,” she said.
“Fifty?” Isobel said. There was her little-girl voice again, her almost-whisper.
The Mennonite woman lifted the bonnet, then looked around, as if to check if anyone was watching.
“Fine, but do it quick,” she said. “Write a check. And put your driver license number on it so I can find you if it don’t clear.”
Isobel was too elated to be offended. The Mennonite woman dropped the bonnet into a green grocery bag and handed it over the table. Isobel scribbled out the check, tore it off, and dropped it, snatching the grocery bag. She walked quickly to her car, trying not to run. As soon as she was inside, she took the bonnet out of the bag and propped it on the passenger seat, its brim pointed out towards the road. It stayed there, perfectly still, until she got home.
For the first week, Isobel just watched the bonnet on her desk. It looked serene, dignified. She liked to imagine it exuded a certain calm control over the entire house, that with its help she became more efficient, more patient. It had been hard for her to relax since her husband stopped wanting her. But with the bonnet in the house she was back to her old self. She began ironing their sheets again, something she hadn’t done since they moved into the house. In their old life in the one-room apartment in the exurb it had seemed a necessary civilizing gesture, a small way to make their life a little better. The sheets were smoother if they had been ironed and felt softer under her body. She had stopped when they moved, first because she was too exhausted after her shifts at the dollar store, then because there didn’t seem to be any point.
But now there was a point again. The bonnet infused Isobel with a thrumming nervous energy. One day she reorganized all of the cabinets and drawers. The next she culled the closet of unloved clothes and left the collected rejects on the front stoop of the Mennonite church in Cazenovia, confident they would be impressed by her anonymous generosity. She learned that the internet was full of useful cleaning tips and wiped down all of the baseboards with dryer sheets. She cleaned the tub with a paste made of baking soda, dish soap, and lavender oil. She cooked and froze three gallons of meat sauce for spaghetti, five pounds of cowboy beans, and six baggies of baked boneless skinless chicken breast for later use in casseroles and salads. Isobel couldn’t stand the texture of frozen-then-thawed cooked meat, but her husband didn’t notice the difference, and he needed the protein. He worked all day in the garage, and at night he went out on calls, as he always had.
The worst thing that could happen, Isobel thought, would be if her husband stayed this way forever. If one day he was simply kind, no longer in a mood, and nothing changed at all.
The first thing her husband told her about what had happened out on the road didn’t make any sense.
“He had green skin, Ibbie, green skin,” he said, voice breaking on the second “skin.”
She rubbed his back through his jacket until he caught his breath enough to continue.
He had been called out to fix an old truck that had broken down on a gravel road that ran between two farms.
“It wasn’t a highway or even a rural route,” he said. “Just a stretch of rocks with some meaningless name. And the weirdest thing is I can’t even remember. Where it is, what it’s called.”
It was unusual, but not unheard of, for Isobel’s husband to be summoned to work on elderly vehicles. The roadside assistance company was connected to several warranty plans, so he mainly saw cars that had been manufactured in the last five years, but on occasion the company would sell an individual policy to someone who had an old, broken-down car. It was expensive, but cheaper than buying a new car. When Isobel heard the beginning of the story, she thought it was about one of those people. But it wasn’t.
He had arrived to find a man and his son in the cab of a 1968 Ford F100. He didn’t have any affiliation with the company at all. He was just desperate.
“The engine was smoking, and there was nothing I could do, really. I realized that right away. I didn’t have the parts. I don’t know who would. I knew that before I even opened her up. But then, while I was trying to figure out how to tell the guy that he would have to pay for a tow, I saw the kid. In the passenger seat, all wrapped up in Indian blankets. Even from outside I could tell he was panting.”
It was a little boy, he told her, maybe nine years old. He was the one with green skin. Or it wasn’t green, exactly, more like a bleached-out gray. Not the right color for a little boy’s skin. He didn’t have much hair, and his facial features were “hazy,” her husband said.
“Like somebody took their thumb and blurred out his face.”
Isobel was surprised at this leap into intimate language; her husband made it his business not to get too involved, not to get personal.
“The dad was a farmer type,” her husband said. “Suspenders, hat, old clothes. He came out and asked me what we needed to do to get the truck going again. Then he saw me looking at the little boy. Up close it was even worse. He looked dead, honestly. The little boy, I mean. The dad just looked scared. ‘That’s my son,’ he told me. ‘He was in a fire when he was a little boy and now he has cancer.’”
As he said these words, Isobel’s husband rolled over and showed her his face. She could make out the hollows of his eyes, the deep creases around his mouth, his cleft chin under the beard. The dark made these familiar shapes terrifying. He settled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. She, too, stared at the ceiling, trying to follow his words there. She wished that it was cold, that there were clouds of breath.
“The dad had some kind of accent. I don’t know, maybe German or something. He told me that there was a fire in their barn and the little guy ran in before anyone could stop him. A long time ago, not recently. He was four and wanted to save his cat. ‘The doctors didn’t think he would survive, but he did,’ the dad said. ‘Now they say the cancer is because of the burns.’”
“Jesus,” Isobel said. Her husband blinked away tears that glittered in the dark. “What did you do?”
“I called the garage and told that son of a bitch Jerry to come tow them. I said he had a choice: he could be a good person and do it free, or he could be asshole and charge me in hours. So he complained some, but then he came out there and got them. The last I saw, the dad was loading the little boy into the cab of Jerry’s tow. He picked him up like he weighed nothing at all.”
She waited for him to say more, to tell her what had happened next, but he was just quiet after that, with a finality that chilled her.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Isobel said, confused. She stroked the inside of her husband’s elbow through the sleeve of his jacket. “That sounds rough.”
But did it, really? Why was he so upset? Her husband did not respond. They lay in the dark for a long time. Isobel searched her mind for a silver lining.
“At least Jerry wasn’t an asshole, though, huh? For once.”
Her husband gave a hoarse laugh. “Oh, no, he was. He charged me in hours. I have to work it off.”
“But…isn’t a tow really expensive? Especially in the middle of the night, for an old car like that?’
Her husband stiffened.
“The age of the vehicle doesn’t matter, but yes, it is expensive. Like I said, I have to work it off.”
It was clear that he didn’t want to talk about how much. Would it eat his whole paycheck? More than one? Isobel tried and failed to remember an exact figure. She had never had her car towed. Her husband made sure it was always in the best working order.
They lay in silence for another long time. An irritation grew inside Isobel’s tender regard for her husband’s sadness. He never had any sympathy for her when she was upset about something silly — that was what he always told her, that it was silly to be upset about things that had nothing to do with her. That happened to strangers. She kept trying to bend her mind to feel empathy for the burnt little boy, for his father, for the broken-down truck, but all she could think about was the rabbit she had hit with her car a few weeks earlier. It had run out from the tall grass on one side of the rode just as she was accelerating into a wide turn. Isobel didn’t like driving fast, but all afternoon other drivers had been honking at her for driving the speed limit, aggressively passing her. It was stupid, but it hurt her feelings: the noise, the obvious irritation of strangers. So, just after sunset, she turned up the radio and went fast, faster. Just as she began to feel comfortable at the speed, the little gray bunny darted into the middle of the road. She didn’t even try to brake, knowing it might cause an accident. There was a delay, and then she heard the bump. She hadn’t even told her husband about it because she knew what he would tell her. Silly.
For a moment she thought she might talk about the bunny, might cry. This would annoy her husband. Then she had an idea.
“Do you think they were Mennonites?”
“I mean, you said the father was wearing suspenders and a hat. That he had a German accent. So maybe — ”
“I know you’re obsessed with those people, but really, Isobel.” Isobel’s husband humped his body over so that his back was to her again. “Did you even hear what I told you?”
She pulled her knees into her chest, trying to control her breathing. If she started crying now he would be furious. There would be no sleep that night for her. She would be on her own in the living room with the hideous overhead light and the internet full of grinning assholes.
Those were the last words he spoke to her that day. Isobel’s husband slept in all his clothes, even though it had to be close to ninety degrees in their bedroom.
“Do you think it bothered you so much because you’re worried about us having a child?” she asked in October, after several days of hyping herself brave. “Because I totally understand that. I mean, I know we haven’t really talked about it, but it scares me too. Babies. Being a parent. That makes sense. Completely.”
Her husband looked at her like she had been lobotomized. “No.”
In November she tried again.
“Maybe it has something to do with your dad. I kind of think it’s about dads, you know?”
He was across the room when she said this. He did not turn, just dropped his shoulders in disappointment and stood like that for a long moment, sinking his hands into his pockets.
“Can we not talk about it?” he said finally, crossing to her. “Please. Not tonight.”
Now it was December, the last week of the year. After Thanksgiving he had asked what she wanted for Christmas, and she had given him a list: cheap earrings, an old movie, a funny sweatshirt. She wanted to write “sex” at the end of the list, had even gotten out a green pen to make it funny, thinking she would draw big bubble letters like a teenage girl, something fun and unserious, ha ha, how silly: SEX! But at the last minute she lost her nerve and drew a pine tree instead.
On her eighth day with the bonnet, Isobel tried it on. She pulled her hair back into a bun, secured it with an elastic, and lowered the bonnet over her face. It didn’t look right: her hair had pushed forward and puffed out around her face. She took it off and brushed her hair back as hard as she could, then put the bonnet back on. That was better — the hair stayed out of the way — but it still wasn’t right. She blinked at the mirror, feeling desperate.
She remembered a scene from a film she had been shown in grade school, a long time ago: a novitiate entering a convent. The other nuns cutting her hair with sharp silver scissors.
Isobel took her scissors — neither shining nor silver, simple black metal scissors with a red plastic handle — and took down her bun. She found a thick lock at the center of the back of her head and without hesitation snipped it off. But when she looked up into the mirror she was no better, not even with the (oddly lighter, hanging askew) bun reinstated and the bonnet pulled down.
It was her clothes: gray sweatshorts and a ratty yellow undershirt. Of course. She undressed and went to the closet, trying to find something that would look right. Not jeans. Not pants at all. That left her three skirts and four dresses. All of them were old work clothes, nylon-spandex blends in tan and washed-out black, sprung in the seat and too tight in the thighs. No, she would not wear the bonnet with a knee-length khaki dress that had too much material around her bust and not enough at her waist. No, she would not wear the taupe pencil skirt, or the black A-line with a ruffle down the front. Isobel pushed disconsolately through her closet until a stretch of cobalt fabric caught her eye. She pulled at it, puzzled, and out came an ankle-length dress with long sleeves and a high Peter Pan collar.
Where had it come from? She turned the dress over in her hands, trying to remember. But Isobel couldn’t place it, couldn’t remember ever seeing it before. It was made of cheap jersey and unadorned, save for the collar. There was no label inside.
She pulled it over her head and purposefully refrained from looking until she had secured the bonnet. Then Isobel turned around.
In the mirror another woman waited. It was the feeling she got when she said her affirmation, amplified tenfold: the total strangeness of her own image. Isobel’s face was pale and serious under the bonnet, her body unappealing under the dress. She chewed a piece of dead skin on her bottom lip until it bled.
Turning to see her profile, she noticed that the back of the bonnet was not appropriately inflated. It sagged around her small bun. She closed her eyes and remembered the Mennonite woman’s small headcovering. In the days since she’d bought the bonnet she had learned from the Internet that these were called kapps.
As if in a trance Isobel went to the linen closet and withdrew a small white handtowel. Her husband liked to give himself spongebaths with these; he had a tendency to leave them, soiled and soaking wet, on the edge of the sink. She liked washing them, making them white again. Now the pleasure she took from this task made sense, as she cut the handtowel into a small circle perhaps six inches in diameter. Now every part of her felt like cogs clicking together, sinking into place, as she pinned the circle into place over her hair with black bobby pins. When she pulled the bonnet over, the back inflated like a little balloon.
For hours she paced her house happily, going about her business. She cleaned everything. She took a brick of frozen beans out of the freezer and put it into the sink to thaw. When there was nothing else that could be done in the house she went back to her computer and looked at picture after picture of Plain women. Mennonites, Amish, Old Order River Brethren, Conservative Quakers, Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Shakers, the Nation of Islam, Russian and Ukrainian Baptists, Mormons, and the online congregation of the faithful who knew not the name of their order or god but were moved still to cover their hair, to disdain bright colors and fancy frills, to arm themselves against disappointment and pain with the sturdy vestments of the past, of the soul. Of the desired soul.
Isobel was thrilled to return to her mirror, to repeat her affirmation over and over, until she was swept into an exhaustion so total that she had no choice but to go to the couch and sleep, bonnet and all.
This is what it feels like to be denied sex by the person you love. It is not like the rejections of dating, or of drunken promiscuity, or even the rejection of your own body, refusing you orgasm as culmination of the act of masturbation. Those experiences are predictable, staid. They are always the same. But a sexless marriage is different. It is an act of travel. You are taken to another world, where sex is not a possibility. The only other human on your planet does not know it exists. While he may take you lovingly in his arms, or hold your hand for the better part of a block you walk together, or kiss you mutely on nonerogenous zones of your body, that is all. You will expect more, but it will not come. You will drape your nude body everywhere for the person you love to find it, and they will step over it politely, or lift it gently to crawl under, or simply walk around.
If you ask — if you say, please touch me, I am here, I want you to touch all of me, to notice my nakedness and pay it respect, I want your body to respond to the sight of my body — or if you force — if you take that loved person by the scruff of their neck and lift them to your face, or clamp your thighs around their waist and refuse to let go, or kiss and kiss and kiss them, dreaming what will come next — or if you ask to talk — if you sit on the couch and quite reasonably say, I wonder why this is happening, are we okay, is everything all right, do you want to try something new, can we schedule, can we pay more attention, can we make time, a conversation that will be one-sided and quickly degenerate into abject begging, please give yourself to me, please, please, you have promised me, do not withhold, do not deny me — if you do these things you will earn the sight of the person you love shriveling, recoiling, laughing nervously and then with real pain, stiffening, shrinking under your touch, refusing, refusing, saying no, maybe later, tomorrow, I promise, and you will never forget the look of utter disinterest on their face, their tired recognition of your stubborn enduring desire.
If you do these things, the way they will get away from you is by opening your stomach with their hands, separating your body into parts, and passing through the new space.
Isobel dreamt that her husband came to her.
“Take off your clothes,” he said.
Off came the dress, her wool socks, her ratty pink panties and washday bra. She could see her own face. She was wearing dark lipstick, deepest aubergine, almost black. Soon she was naked save for the bonnet. He put her on her hands and knees and moved behind her. She felt his erection and smiled, cracking the lipstick. He reached for her face and gripped her mouth like the muzzle of a dog, then pulled his hand roughly back, smearing the lipstick across her cheek, into her eye. He ripped off the bonnet, tearing the ties. He rent it two and threw the halves to the floor. He took giant scissors and cut away her headcovering, cut off her bun, leaving her with a monastic crop. She braced herself for what she knew would come next: the blades of the scissors entering her, opening her.
When Isobel woke it was night. She squinted at the digital clock under the TV but could not read the numbers. She heard her husband in the kitchen, cooking. He was whistling, quite as he used to. For a moment she was sure this was how things would resolve. This would be the night when everything changed, when they began to heal.
Then she felt the bonnet’s absence. She looked around the room for it, but it was not on the table, or behind her on the couch, or on her desk, or on the bookshelf where they kept movies. She rose as quietly as possible, trying to muffle her footsteps, and went to look for it on the bedroom. In the kitchen, her husband’s whistling became more cheerful, louder.
Isobel searched and searched, but the bonnet did not appear. She wanted to cry but shook instead. From the kitchen came the smell of potstickers in plum sauce.