INTRODUCTION BY DANIELLE LAZARIN
One of the first things I noticed in Emma Duffy-Comparone’s “Exuma” was the suggestion of many sharp objects: a slashed chair back, a strip of film that could be scissored out, the ribs of an animal splayed open on a buffet table, and how these images sit alongside the acts of violence at the story’s center: a toddler killed by a car, the many ways Gina, the toddler’s nanny at the time, envisions ending her own life. How the emotional violence, that unresolvable-ness of what Gina has wrought acts as its own blade in perpetual motion against the character and the reader.
Yet this story, like all the stories in the collection, is in equal measure funny, without undermining that violence or sadness. Because we do both at once. Grieve and live. Avoid and embrace. Show our anger and let it recede, like the waves on the shore of New Hampshire where most of this collection’s stories are set. Gina is trying, and she isn’t. She is healing, and she isn’t. Gina is not okay, and she’s not trying to be.
“So depressing,” says Eric, Gina’s self-anointed knight in shining armor. He’s referring to modern movies. He says that he doesn’t need help into a bad day. Gina counters that those movies are “true to life,” and says that she likes them. I like these kinds of movies, too, these kinds of stories. I need them, often. At one low point, Gina “trembled and held her own hand. There was no one else to hold it.” Don’t we all want someone to hold our hand through what is messy, through what there is no way out of?
In life (and, according to many reader reviews on the internet, in short stories), we want a happy ending, a straight line: this leads to this leads to this, this being a sensible conclusion to what has been troubling, something that makes the tragic capable of balance or erasure. But life isn’t like that, and the best short stories aren’t like that either. More often, as Gina does after she spots the mother of the child she was responsible for when he died, your body gives out from under you, and you get carried out of a crowded place, a hole in your underwear exposing “a tiny hedgehog of pubic hair,” making a grand scene when you have been thinking for months about the various small ways you might make yourself disappear. Often, you just move clumsily into a different part of the story of your life, carrying what you have picked up along the way, some heavy, unsolvable thing.
This is where Eric, though a Prada-slipper wearing manchild, is right, because in visiting others’ tragedies, we can too easily remember that we are always this close to inhabiting them ourselves, that we’re all on the edge of loss at any moment. I thought, when reading this collection, about what it means for a story, for a character, to be unapologetic, a label we slap mostly on female characters who are making choices we hope we don’t ever make ourselves. Duffy-Comparone never lets us forget that we could make those choices, too. She asks us to be with these characters as they hold their own hands, exposed as we hope never to be, laughing even as we can still see the tip of the blades coming for us.
– Danielle Lazarin
Author of Back Talk: Stories
Dating After the Worst Day of Her Life
by Emma Duffy-Comparone
Gina wasn’t big on kids, but on an individual basis, like dogs, they could be all right. So when she got fired from the nursing home where she was the activities director, she decided to become a nanny while she looked for a new job. She interviewed with mothers and asked to hold the babies: Aidan and Hayden and Braden. She cooed and smiled to her molars. She called them honey bunnies. She asked if they were silly billies. She insisted she didn’t mind—No, really, I love it!—when they ripped fistfuls of hair from her head.
“I’ll certainly read them something,” she said, when asked if she liked Dora the Explorer. “I’ll keep them safe.” Parents liked that she was thirty-four. They liked it very much.
A family in town hired her. The boy was nineteen months. His name was Malachi, which Gina thought was unfortunate. She called him Mallie, and Kye, and sometimes Malocchio, but it was only a joke!
He shrieked all day like a bad oboe, and it made her sweat.
Her left pit always smelled worse than her right: it had since middle school. She lugged him around on her hip, the family collie bursting past her on the stairs, and shakily sang, “It’s okay, it’s okay, oh, I know it, it’s okay.” He wouldn’t quiet, not even when bribed with an extra bottle of warm milk, not even when she tangoed to the “Baby Beluga” song for him and blasted her shin on the dishwasher door, not even when she let him suck on his binky outside of naptime—which, the mother told her, eyes wide with disapproval—risked binky addiction.
The shrieking never stopped. Neither did the lime-colored mucus that sat in his eye like a slug.
Now and then she could get a little loose. Sometimes, when he woke up early from his nap, she didn’t go in right away. Not for that long: five minutes, maybe twenty. One day, she grabbed a bottle of vodka from the top of the fridge, shook it like a trophy, and yelled, “Why don’t we just have a big drink!”
Once she gave him the finger.
But she was conscientious! She chopped food twice so he wouldn’t choke. She wiped the green thing from his eye with warm washcloths. She kept him away from her cell phone, for fear of baby radiation. And on a December noon, after a blizzard, she dressed Malachi in his snowsuit (with two hats!) and put his mittens on (before his jacket so they would stay on better!) and propped him in the blue sled she found in the garage. His parents did not encourage her to take him outside. It was too messy, they said. It was too high-maintenance.
It was good snow, the kind that stuck, blown into swells like a frozen sea. A baby had to see that, Gina thought. A baby had to smell it. She pulled him down the sidewalk and pointed to things: ice on branches, little red berries dropped in the snow, a cross-country skier, a shovel in a bank, a blackbird. When she crossed the street, to Prescott Park, where she would build him a fort, a car scissored around the corner, hurtling toward them sideways. As she tried to yank the sled out of the way, she watched a bit of blue vanish under the bumper.
Two hats did nothing, nothing.
It made sense, Gina thought, that she lived in a house wrapped in ivy. She was a gnome. A forest gnome, living on the third floor. A Bertha Mason forest gnome, with a fire escape. Now, in June, the house was disappearing altogether: just a big leafy thing with double doors.
It was a brick Federalist house, down the street from Strawbery Banke, the settlement from 1650, where volunteer actors walked around in elfin shoes and whisked eggs with sticks. When Gina moved in, she had been excited. She had planned to water the flower boxes each morning through the window, like something out of an opera. She had a bright galley kitchen with a pantry. She had a fireplace and a window seat, perfect for quiet, self-possessed reverie. But the flower boxes just had dirt in them, and she mostly ate soup out of a can, and she wasn’t into quiet, self-possessed reverie these days.
She was into TV.
Her friend Joanne came over a lot and watched with her. She worked for the Human Rights Campaign, a nonprofit for marriage equality, and spent her days driving around New Hampshire, badgering pastors. Joanne was gay, or gayish: she wasn’t sure. She liked men fine, but she had begun dating a woman from work. She had sex, she said, but only half of it. She could only receive so far. Couldn’t handle giving yet.
“Surprised the ladies aren’t banging down your door,” Gina said.
Joanne was afraid she’d be bad at it. She wasn’t even a good masturbator. Why wasn’t she a good masturbator? There was something symbolic about that, she thought, some gross deficit of self-awareness. “I’m working up to it,” she kept saying.
“Down, baby,” Gina said. “Work down.”
After work, Joanne brought ziplock bags of homemade soup and pints of lemon sorbet, which she put in Gina’s freezer. She brought movies from the library in tote bags. Sometimes in the bottom was a self-help book or the folded classifieds with a few yellow circles on it.
Once in a while, Joanne drew a bubble bath and made Gina sit in it while she kept her company, painting her toenails on the toilet seat or standing in front of the mirror and studying her hair. “Look at this,” she had said last week, pulling at tufts and moaning to herself. “Do you see this?” She took out scissors and began clipping indiscriminately, dropping hunks into the sink. “You know those old wigs with the hanging things here?” She held her fists by her cheeks. “I look like fucking George Washington.”
Now they were sitting on the couch passing a sleeve of water crackers back and forth. Gina liked Channel 3, which didn’t have any shows except a montage of images from the Seacoast to attract tourists—crabs poking in and out of holes, lighthouses, maple trees. You didn’t really watch it. You just had it on.
A lobsterman in waders was tossing traps from his boat, but then the image changed to the shoreline: a mother, a baby squatting to touch a shell.
Joanne lunged for the remote and changed the channel. Jane Fonda from the eighties appeared in a belted leotard. She had a sweat going, walking in place with five-pound weights. She was asking the women behind her if they were ready for buttock tucks.
They watched it for a while in silence.
“The one in the back,” Joanne said finally. “That’s her step-mother. I think she’s younger than Jane.”
“The one with the crazy wedgie. Frontal action. What do you call those?”
“Should I be calling them something?”
“Shit, what was it? Donkey something.”
Gina looked at her.
“Or camel—camel toe!”
“Yeah,” Joanne said. She tried to demonstrate with her hands for a minute. Then she stood up and pulled the elastic of her sweatpants up near her chin. “See?” she said, nodding toward her crotch. “Like a hoof.”
Gina chuckled. Joanne was a good friend.
“Thanks,” Joanne said, straightening her pants. “Thanks for laughing.”
After Joanne left, Gina trudged down to the fish market to buy a six-pack of beer. She drank all of it. Her mother called but Gina didn’t answer. She ate Joanne’s minestrone and put the rest of it in a pot; there was something terrible about soup in a bag. It made her think of a hospital—of Ringer’s solution, of blood. She went to bed and tried not to dream, but did.
Joanne’s girlfriend was the manager of the old theater in town, and they needed a projectionist. Gina had worked as one at her college movie theater for a few years after she’d graduated. “This will be good,” Joanne said to Gina, who had used up the last of her savings on rent. “You have to get out.”
Over the past five years, a board of millionaires had sponsored the hall’s restoration and renovation. It had velvet seats and a large rotunda with a mural of cherubs on clouds.
“They recently restored the artwork,” Joanne’s girlfriend said. Her name was Veronica Messenger, and she wore glasses with green lenses. “It was painted in 1914. Isn’t it magnificent?”
“Oh.” Gina looked at all the naked babies on the ceiling. She suddenly could not walk, could not do the left and right of it. She would have to wear a floppy hat to work, with a big brim, so she could see only her shoes. Or one of those suits for beekeepers with the metal face shield. She could wear that.
Or she could wear both and then jump off a roof.
“You know, Veronica,” she whispered, “I don’t think I can work here. I don’t even like the movies. I forgot all about that.”
“Joanne said you were funny,” she said, and motioned for Gina to follow her up the carpeted staircase, which was burgundy and soft. Gina held on to the golden ropes that ran along the walls. She looked at framed pictures of Pavarotti and Sting and Wynton Marsalis. A few retired Nutcracker rat masks hung there, too. At the top of the stairs, people in silver vests were making popcorn behind a counter. They smiled and said hello.
Veronica introduced them: Jerry and Marge. They were volunteers.
“Nice to meet you,” Gina said.
The projectionist’s booth was on the third floor, behind the balcony. The ceiling dipped, and Gina had to stoop. A large copper padlock hung from the door. “Sorry,” Veronica muttered, yanking at it for a second and then fishing in her pocket for a key. “That was Henry’s thing. He was the guy before you. He locked it from the inside.”
“Anyway, the restoration didn’t make it this far. Ran out of money.”
The projector stood in the center of the room. The booth had a leather chair with wheels. Stained cotton poked through a long rip in the back, as if the cushion had been slashed with a knife.
Veronica showed her how to lace up the projector. “We only have one, so we do an intermission while you change the reel. It’s sort of our claim to fame. Increases sales, too, because they liquor up at the bar. Makes a night of it, like a play.”
“Smells like Henry was enjoying a few butts in here,” Gina said.
“I’m sure he was enjoying lots of things in here,” Veronica said. “I’ll get that lock off the door and we’ll clean the place up a bit.”
“It’s all right,” Gina said. “I don’t need anything special.”
Each night Gina arrived early and scurried up to the third floor. She threaded the film in long loops and drags like a big sewing machine. Then she sat in her chair, listening to the quick shudder of film, and watched its beam shoot through the rectangular window, a bright tunnel of dust in the dark.
Sometimes, during a showing, she sifted through broken filmstrips that Henry had saved in a shoebox. Time was frozen in a little square, like a postage stamp, laid out for you to consider. If you liked a moment, you could linger there. Otherwise, you could skip over it. You could cut it out with scissors. You could rewind before you got to it. You could pause it and stay forever in the second before, when you were just pointing to a blackbird in the snow.
You could say, I choose not to watch this fucking movie at all, and put a lit match to it.
Every Wednesday they showed an oldie. On those nights they gave out black licorice and opened up the balcony, where Gina peered out from her booth. She had begun using Henry’s lock on the inside of the door—partly for the novelty of it, partly because she had truly reached gnome status. She decided to embrace the role. Celebrate it. She would wear it like a cloak.
Rear Window was one of her favorites. Grace Kelly had brought slippers in a compact handbag and Jimmy Stewart was breaking out the telescopic lens. Gina thought about getting one for herself. After all, she had begun opening her blinds.
She saw a woman sidestepping past knees toward the aisle. People were standing up clutching popcorn buckets. Gina recognized Malachi’s mother: hair curled in a rock at the neck, shoulders stooped, a smooth little nose. Her husband wasn’t with her. Gina remembered hearing he had moved out and was renting a room downtown over the brewery.
Gina ducked and dropped hard onto her knees. She trembled and held her own hand. There was no one else to hold it. The first reel ended, and the tail flapped as if tied to a bicycle. She rocked on the floor. Five minutes passed, or more. She rocked like that, and rocked. She heard people calling up from the seats. A strong voice was yelling, “Is everything all right in there?” Someone was banging on the other side and jiggling the knob. Henry’s lock bounced. The room was silent for a moment. Then the door was suddenly struck, gave way at the top hinge, and spun crashing into the room. A man was groping for switches: the projector, the house lights.
A pair of pointy blue shoes was asking her, Gina, if she needed a tissue or an ambulance or a drink. Hands were on her shoulders, and when she did not speak, they slipped around her, under her knees, across her wing bones—she felt thin and clumsy, sexy as a hat rack—and lifted her up. She was pulled from the booth and carried down the carpeted staircase, her head bumping the wall, her cheek grazing the hanging witch mask, her long legs emerging from her skirt and dangling— they were so hairy they could be a man’s, Gina realized—over the golden ropes. She grew hot in the face. “Put me down, please,” she said, pushing at the man’s chest, but he only held tighter and continued to walk. “This is really fucking bizarre.” People milling downstairs looked at her, at those legs, perhaps even at her underwear, which, she had absently observed that morning but was now remembering with acute accuracy, had a hole that a tiny hedgehog of pubic hair poked through.
The crowd murmured, taking in all that Gina had become, and parted like water to a prow.
His name was Eric and he looked about forty. He had all his hair, which was black, and a red beard. His chest was wide, which made up for the height he did not have, and he whisked her—he appeared to have whisking issues—down the street to a bar she had never been to, where he called the waitress by name and ordered two fancy-sounding martinis before they even sat down.
“I’ve had them in Exuma,” he said.
“No, Exuma. Like, you know, to exhume.”
“Never heard of it.”
“They have these colorful fish there that you can swim with. Parrot fish. They just swim around you. Sometimes you just can’t believe how fucking beautiful the world is. You know what I mean?”
“Well,” he said. “It’s the perfect escape.”
They were sitting at their third table. The first one, Eric declared, was too close to the bar and the second had too much light. “You’re very particular,” Gina had said, padding behind him from booth to booth.
The waitress placed their drinks on the table. “Thank you, my dear,” he said. He spoke loudly, with importance. “Let’s take good care of our Gina.” Our Gina. He was an asshole. A whisker, too, a loud one. She would drink her eczema martini quickly, Gina decided, and then crawl out the bathroom window.
Eric was the new president of the theater’s board. He said he had worked for fifteen years as an independent producer for Pixar. Now he had lots of money he didn’t know what to do with, so he funded things.
“That must be nice for you,” Gina said.
“I write these checks, and they want me to show my face. But the movies! It’s all incest and abortions these days.”
“I like those movies,” Gina said hotly. “Those movies are very true to life.” She couldn’t remember the last time she had been in a restaurant. She felt overexposed and paranoid. Her eyes were sore, shot from too much TV. All around her were Grecian-looking busts of women with hair tied at the neck. They were in the window and on pedestals next to plants. She could not stay in this restaurant. She could not stay in this town. She would move to Fort Myers and live with her mother. She would play Bingo. She would become the youngest Bingo player in Florida. Then she would die. She would ask that her ashes be scattered over something ugly, like a parking lot.
“So depressing,” he was saying. It seemed he was still talking about the movies and using his hands to do it. They were big hands. They had touched her back and the skin of her legs. “I mean, Christ, I can have a bad day on my own, no problem. I don’t need any extra help, you know?”
“Sure,” Gina said, drinking with both hands now as if out of a goblet.
“Of course,” he said, winking. “You’ve had a beauty of a day, yourself.” She let the wink slide—the man had hauled her hairy legs down the stairs. “You should eat something,” he said, holding the menu but not looking at it. He was looking at her. When he blinked, it was catlike, imparting meaning that she couldn’t quite interpret.
“I should go,” she said. “Thanks for the drink and before with—with the thing.”
“Don’t go,” he said. “You don’t have to explain. I get like that during my annual physical. Nothing like a finger up your ass when you’re wearing a paper dress. The nurses have to carry me in sometimes.”
“Really,” Gina said. She stared at him.
“I’m joking!” he said. His teeth were so white they were blue, with an impish gap between the front ones.
“I realize that.” She put her drink down hard and it tipped over, breaking. The olive rolled off the table and across the floor like a tiny head.
“Oh, boy, there she goes again,” he teased, grabbing a cloth napkin to push the glass into a pile. Gina took one, too, and ducked under the table to wipe up the floor. She looked at Eric’s Shakespearean shoes. “It’s just a drink,” he was saying from above. “I’ll get you another one. I’ll get you five!”
“Eric,” she said, sitting back up. “You seem to be wearing slippers.”
“Slippers?” He lifted his foot up over the table. They were suede and pointy and baby blue. “These are Prada,” he said, grinning. “I paid too much for them and they can’t get wet.”
“That’s nice,” she said.
He put his leg down and sighed. “Where are you?” he asked. “What can I do?”
“Nothing,” she said. “But thank you.”
“What if I held your hand?”
“My hand?” she said. “Oh.” She set one on the table and looked at it, as if it were something at a yard sale. “That would be all right.”
They spent most of the time at Eric’s place. He was living at the Wentworth by the Sea, a rambling hotel on New Castle Harbor. Teddy Roosevelt had stayed there once, and the royal family. Eric had been working on a divorce for a few years and hadn’t gotten around to finding a real place.
“I’ve grown to love it,” he said. “There’s something cozy about coming downstairs for a real dinner. I never had that as a kid. I just made myself cornflakes and cold cuts.”
He was staying in the Turret Flag Officer’s Suite, in one of the two towers of the hotel. The second floor had a raised canopy bed with a dust ruffle and lots of crimson tassels. Each of the four walls had a little porthole window. The room had a chaise longue, too. “I just sit in it so I can say I sit in a chaise longue,” he said. “It’s probably from IKEA.”
Sometimes Gina let him come to her apartment. He helped with little things: the dust bunnies churning across the floor, big as Ferris wheels (“Down, girls, down!”), her rank sponges, the laundry under the vacuum. Gina had started a pile of it on the bottom of her closet and used that instead of drawers, wearing the same thing over and over, shaking out the wrinkles once in a while, putting deodorant on the outside to make it smell fresh.
“What do you mean, on the outside?”
“It’s fairly straightforward, Eric,” Gina said one late afternoon, a little edgy from watching him flutter around her house in his fancy shoes. She showed him—lifting her arm, dragging the stick across her shirt.
“Oh, the crime!” he cried, and fell dramatically onto the couch. He brought her down to her basement by the hand. “We’ll do a sock load first,” he said. “We’ll start with white ones.”
She stood there in her bare feet. The basement was unfinished, with a boulder in the middle of the floor. “I don’t think I understand.”
“Take all of your socks and put them in here,” he said. “Socks? Oh, no,” she said. “I just do it like this.” She shoved clothes into the machine. Then she stomped on them with her foot. “Like that. I just put them all in together.”
He washed her windows with newspaper and vinegar. He planted begonias in the flower boxes. He even bought a bergamot candle and trimmed the wick for her. “Burns funny, otherwise,” he said.
“I didn’t know straight men bought candles,” she said, sniffing it for a long time. Then she hugged him, the warm animal of him.
She didn’t tell him about her past and he never asked. “You were a stray cat stuck in a tree,” he liked to say. “You just climbed too high!” He often narrated the story as if she hadn’t been there: “And then I was carrying your beautiful body down the stairs, and I had been working out lately, luckily, so I was only sweating a little. Just the pits!”
Sometimes, when Gina was at work, Eric would sit in the balcony. “All the movies look better when you do it,” he said. He had screwed the door back into place (“That was pretty manly, if I may say so myself”) and brought in an old fashioned fold-up stretcher, which he stuck in the closet, just in case. He thought that was very, very funny. When the movie began to play, he would clap. “That’s my Gina!” he’d yell out to no one, his hand happily dawdling in his popcorn.
Afterward, he would stand at the top of the stairs while she closed up the booth, thanking people for coming: “She has such a touch, doesn’t she?” he’d ask them. They would smile, confused and slightly alarmed, and push their way down the stairs.
Gina grew to like Eric’s tower and its constant sense of occasion: the soaking tub as big as a rowboat, the white-gloved room ser- vice, the bleached sheets, changed too often for them to smell of anyone or anything. She spent more and more nights there and left her clothes in the nineteenth-century chifforobe. At night, she peered out the porthole windows at the harbor and could have been anywhere at all.
Joanne came over to the hotel now instead of Gina’s apartment. If Eric was around, he’d head to the library to give them privacy. Then he came home hours later bearing takeout and little gift boxes of cannoli, and the three of them played gin rummy.
“You haven’t fucked him yet?” Joanne said.
“Do you feel you’re in a position to ask me that?” Gina said.
Veronica had dumped her. “Do you even like him?”
“Sure,” Gina said.
“The guy’s besotted.”
“I say this with love, Gina,” Joanne said, “but I really don’t see why.”
She would have to sleep with Eric eventually, Gina knew. He had been kind enough not to push it, though she wasn’t sure if she should have been grateful or insulted. She some- times practiced her explanation out loud: “It doesn’t do it for me, really.”
“I’m emotionally celibate.”
“I’m a eunuch.”
At the top of the tower, they would lie in Eric’s bed. In the dark he touched her body. He dressed the wound of her, attended to things in silence: a nipple, a knee, the soft coin at the bottom of her spine. At times she gave into it, but then her mind wandered somewhere unsafe—to a tiny coffin packed in snow—and she would turn from him, grateful for the weight of his arms.
On the last Saturday of October, the theater was having its annual sponsorship gala. All of the wealthy art appreciators would be there, with their berets and neutral-colored shawls. Eric, as the board’s president, was in charge of picking the location. He had reserved the Wentworth Banquet Hall downstairs and had spent an agitated afternoon in his tower, rearranging the furniture in his boxers. He would push a couch to the other wall. Then he would stand in the middle of the floor, eating a package of gummy bears, considering his decision. Gina watched this process from the bathroom, where she was filling the tub.
“I liked the couch where it was,” she called over the running water.
“It was all wrong,” he said, his back to her. “If you sat there you felt like you were in time-out!”
“You’re very busy,” she said, lowering herself into the bath. Sometimes it got so hot in there she thought she was going to vomit.
“I know,” he said. He dragged a wingback chair over by the gas fireplace. Then he slumped into it. “It’s just—what if no one has a good time? What if people hate the hors d’oeuvres? They always hate the hors d’oeuvres.”
“All you did was reserve the room, Eric,” Gina said. “Give yourself less credit.” She had put bubbles in the bath. She liked that. She also liked to let her hands float in the water. She let them float like that until she couldn’t feel them anymore, but only see them, as if they were mannequin hands.
The party started at six o’clock. At two, Eric left to pick up his suit from the dry cleaners and do a few other errands. “Will you be okay here?” he asked Gina, standing by the door.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. She was doing a yoga program she had found on TV. She had begun to return to her body a little. It was an old body, tight and dry as a corkboard. She looked at him upside down, framed between her legs, as if he were someone on a postcard.
“You look good like that,” he said, a little sadly, and walked out the door.
At four o’clock, Eric rushed in with his suit in a plastic sleeve and a large shopping bag with two gift boxes in it. “Open them,” he said. She did. Inside were a black dress and a pair of high heels. “They’re just Nine West,” he said, pointing to the shoes. “I wanted to get you Prada, but you would have hated them.”
Gina held the dress up to her body. It had long sleeves and a simple, sweeping V-neck. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “How did you pick it out?”
“I had one of the saleswomen help me. I told her you were no-nonsense. ‘Gray or black!’ I told her. ‘She only wears gray or black. She’s not showy—I’ve never seen her look in a mirror!’” His blue teeth shone.
“Thank you for this,” she said. “It’s very kind.”
“Yeah, but will you wear it?” he said, pulling her to him, grinning. He hummed frantically—something with no melody—and led her in an awkward jig around the bed.
“No,” she said finally. “I can’t go to that thing. I don’t want to be in public.”
“Right,” he said. “You never want to be in public.” He let go of her arms. “Fucking Jesus.”
He seemed to be thinking. “You really could consider trying once in a while,” he said finally.
“Try—I don’t know! Do you even like me?” He made a face and put up his hands. “I didn’t mean that to sound as whiny as it did.”
“Of course I like you,” Gina said.
“I get hugs. Sometimes I don’t even get those.”
Gina was quiet.
“I don’t know where you are, Gina, but you’re not in the world. You need to be in the world.”
“Don’t tell me where I need to be,” she snapped, running down the spiral staircase. Downstairs, she shut herself in the bathroom. There was a little nook for the toilet with a pocket door. She shut herself in that, too. She put the seat down and sat on it. There was a phone on the wall. You couldn’t even take a shit anymore without being in the world.
Minutes passed. Gina heard a gentle knock on the outer bathroom door. When she didn’t answer, she heard Eric’s feet pad away. Then the phone rang. In the small space, it was as loud as a siren. After five rings, she picked it up.
“Please come. It would mean a lot to me if you were there.”
“Look, I’ll tell you what. Come to the party and I’ll fly you to Exuma.”
“Exuma. Remember, with the fish? Tomorrow I’m going to get us two tickets. Forty-eight hours from now you’ll be floating in a turquoise sea, numb from a margarita. You won’t even remember your name!”
“Oh,” she said. She had never liked her name. “That does sound nice.” The nook was growing hot and close, like a tomb. A tomb with a toilet, no less. A toilet with a fancy gold handle.
“Everyone needs an escape, Gina,” he said.
After she hung up, she sat for a long time. An hour, maybe. Then she pulled back the pocket door. In the larger bathroom she stood in front of the vanity. The sink bowls were copper. There was a stack of small white towels. It was the kind of sink you wanted to wash your hands in just for the sake of it.
So she did.
By the time Gina stepped out of the elevator, she was an hour late to the party. She walked into the banquet hall, where people were milling with drinks and greasy napkins in hand. A long table ran along the back wall with silver serving platters. The hors d’oeuvres had been picked down to the nubs— severed shrimp tails, yellow pepper seeds, felled toothpicks with colored hats. Now people were helping themselves to slices of meat, the ribs of its animal bared and open on the table. It made Gina sick—the hostility of it, the shame. She ate a warm square of cheddar and a few grapes with browning navels. Then she situated herself behind an ice sculpture of the Greek masks of Comedy and Tragedy, popping her heel in and out of her shoe, feeling displaced and panicked, like a penguin on a plane. She looked for Eric but didn’t see him anywhere. She smiled at a few people she had never seen before and scanned the room for the booze.
After three glasses of champagne, the roof of her mouth dry-walled with cracker, she finally saw Eric’s back. He was talking to a woman with sexy braids—they were messy and relaxed, as if thrown together at a stoplight. She watched them for a while. Gina didn’t understand those women, those women who could look good like that. Eric was holding up one foot, showing his blue shoe, and they were laughing.
Braids weren’t that great, Gina decided. They were just tails sticking out of your head. It was like saying, I have two assholes on each side of my head. She went back to the elevator, to the tower, to the room with the portholes, straight to the IKEA fucking chaise, where she lounged, and where she drank a lot of wine.
“You never came,” Eric said, at ten o’clock, draping his suit jacket over the plasma TV. He was in a good mood. Gina was under the covers in her dress and shoes.
“I came,” she said. “I came and went.”
“You did?” he said. “You should have found me!”
“Who was that woman?”
“I have no idea. Was there a woman?”
He thought about that while he took off his tie. “Oh, that was Amy. She’s on the board. She’s a glassblower. She blows glass.”
“Oh,” Gina said. “She blows glass.” She flipped her pillow and smacked it. “Well, in that case.”
Eric turned off the light and got in bed with her. “Can this place make a bed or what?” he whispered, kicking his feet joyfully under the covers. He turned on his side and tried to drape a leg over hers. She felt his foot bump her high heel and then yank back. Then he touched it again, tentatively, and pulled back. She yawned.
“Honey,” he whispered. “You got your shoes still on.”
“I know that, Eric,” she said.
“Oh,” he said. He was quiet for a long time. She could feel him studying her in the dark. Seagulls wailed from the roof. “I like it,” he said. “I think it’s hot.”
“Hot,” she repeated.
“Really hot,” he said. He moaned softly and made a show of buffing her shoe with his foot. His leg hair made an animal scratching sound under the sheets.
“No, you don’t,” she said.
When she woke up, Eric was gone. It was four in the morning. Gina got out of bed and looked around. His suit jacket was no longer on the TV. The closet was open. She looked in all the obvious places for a note—the door, the bathroom sink, on top of her shoes—but couldn’t find one anywhere. She could see from the window that his Porsche was missing from its parking spot. She called and called but he didn’t answer. She got back in bed and lay there, stiff and alarmed, until the porthole windows whitened with sun.
At ten, Gina ordered a three-egg omelet, an oily beret on a silver platter. She watched a game show where obese people weighed themselves and then clapped ecstatically.
By two, Eric still had not been in touch. Gina called him twelve times, but he didn’t answer. She drank three beers and fell asleep.
She woke up an hour later, logy and trembling. She thought about Eric’s raucous, solo applause from the balcony, about his quiet humming as he scrubbed her tub, about the way he stroked her fuzzy legs from knee to foot, “with the grain,” he called it. And the more she thought about it, the more she felt she could have tried to let him love her.
Or, for Christ’s sake, let him do a sock wash. Why hadn’t she just let him do a sock wash?
She hadn’t had enough socks. Maybe four pairs. Why didn’t she have any socks?
She wanted to raid T.J.Maxx of their argyles and knee-highs, their low-cuts and hiking wools, and run to him, hold them all up in the air—Wait! I’m here!—like a woman too late for a train.
Gina took off the dress and draped it on the bed. It was five o’clock. She put on jeans and a sweater, stuffed the rest of her clothes in a grocery bag, and closed the door of Eric’s tower room behind her. On the ground floor, she pulled the outer cage of the old-fashioned elevator open, passed two bellhops with their gloves and silver buttons, and stepped through the main double doors.
It was four miles back to town. The road wrapped along the marsh, with its battlefield of cattails. Gina could see touch-me-nots growing in the reeds. Her hands were cold, everything growing cold now, the seasons always lurching into the next: trees had only half their leaves, and soon it would be winter.
It would be winter again.
Gina walked through a section of woods, where the wind had scattered pine needles across the road. She walked on, over the wooden bridge that sang out, the river churning under her, pushing its striped bass out to sea. There were three bridges to town. On the third, the sky offered up its final strip of light. Across the water, Gina saw the old port, colonial houses clustered together on the hill, the steeple of the North Church.
At the outskirts of town, she smelled fruit burning. Jack-o’-lanterns were lit on stoops. Gina had forgotten about Halloween. It was dark now. Groups of masked children fled up the street, clutching buckets and bags and pillowcases, stumbling up stairs and down again, peering at their loot. There were witches and cats and gypsies. There were pirates and ghosts.
Some porches had cobwebs draped from the roof. Cardboard gravestones slouched in the white grass. Gina heard a cackle come from a haunted house somewhere. As she walked farther into town, she saw the quick flicker and dash of flashlights across the trees, silhouettes waiting in front doors with bowls of candy in their arms. Everyone was scuffing through the leaves.
As Gina made her way down her street, she saw the dark windows of her apartment up ahead. The ivy had dropped, baring its brick. As she looked, a group of toddlers ran around the corner. They shrieked, darting around her like quick fish, and as Gina sidestepped out of the way, one little skeleton slammed into her legs and collapsed to the ground.
“Oh!” Gina said.
She dropped her bag and stooped to pick up the little boy. “Oh, buddy.” She set him on his feet and adjusted the bones on his suit. “Are you hurt?” He shook his head. She held his arms for a moment and looked him over. “Are you?” she said. He shook his head again. The rot of crab apples was thick as a hand towel in her mouth. “What hurts?” She pulled him against her breasts. He puffed short candy corn breaths in her ear. “I tried to get out of the way,” she said.
She heard people walking around the corner, laughing. Flashlight beams skimmed the leaves. She clutched the boy. “I’m so sorry,” she said into his neck. “I tried to get out of the way!” She held him gently by the sides of his head and looked at his face. “Honey,” she said. She was weeping now. “Do you hear me?” The boy began to squirm. What happened? Parents were standing around her now, flashlights on her. Is he all right? She gripped his little face. “Honey,” she whispered, blinking into the light.