by Isabella Mansfield
Isabella Mansfield is a writer whose work has appeared in Hu Magazine, Vent Mag, Aquarius Mood, and others. She lives and works in Chicago.
Jamie and I met one night when I was out with my sisters. I had seen him before, many times, but I don’t remember ever speaking until that night when I was dressed up like a woman and he a man. He spoke to me in lines that were easy to remember and I recited some myself thinking: don’t you recognize me from the background of your life in this town? Why am I suddenly at the center? All those past people I had wanted to try but now would never know fell away and I married Jamie. His long face became as large and familiar to me as the couch in my parents' living room where I was photographed for the first time as an infant, naked on a white blanket over its dusky twisting roses. He became my friend.
Jamie worked helping out my father. I moved out of my family home but really, it just got bigger, with more compartments. The hallways of my father's house extended out into the road that led to my new house and garden, it was just another room, but it was mine to decorate. I became a woman through the things I chose to buy. My sisters tried to help me, helping themselves to the latch in my gate the way they used to help themselves to the bathroom when I was on the toilet, clutching their wicker baskets, carrying their magazines and crocheting. I let them in but denied them, hating their taste with vitriol simply because I preferred my own. Still, they kept coming.
My days were tolerant and confined to the materials and rituals of domestic work and paid for in company that never ceased nor grew contemptuous. Perhaps because of this, my body summoned pain for me. It gave me something to talk about, the shivering heat and impenetrable knots that I lived in constant anticipation of. When it left for a while and I caught myself at peace, I would prepare for pain's next arrival. My mother and sisters kept track of me, my illness was a planet and the women in my family were astrologers, charting its movements. They called the episodes of peace “progress”. It was only for me to know that these were phases just like the pain, taking turns like the bad songs on the radio that one is forever forced to sit and listen to.
Whatever episode I happened to be in, it was the interest of my family to put into words what it felt like, what it meant. I shifted between hope and frustration at random, I never believed myself. Soon I couldn’t tell which episode I was in for sure, if it was pain or the anticipation of it, if I jinxed it by having hope or tempted it by fearing it. Soon my family was no longer satisfied with analyzing my condition themselves and to help my body they decided to move it.
I was sitting up on the edge of my bed, sweating and nauseous, while my older sister laced up my boots. My younger sister packed my suitcase. Jamie sat beside me with his arm around me. My mother wept in the doorway. My father was outside starting the car.
The drive was long, up through the mountains. I was thankful then for my father’s characteristic devotion to silence and the passing trees and towns I had never seen before.
The boarding house was covered in brown shingles and had a wrap-around porch. I imagined myself sitting out there on one of its lawn chairs in the sun, wrapped in wool, shivering out a chill, curing me.
My father checked me in and kissed me on the side of my mouth. I watched him get into his truck and pull away. I felt nothing but a pang of horror at the image of him a month later returning, perhaps with mama or Jamie, and being again forced to put my condition into words.
The house and my room and its strangers were blank. They welcomed me like clean sheets.
The first two days I did nothing but sleep, listen to the radio on my bed and look at the window. It framed the wooded mountain that stood in a stiff mound, like a slice of pound cake. I let the songs pass over me good and bad and waited for the meals to be called.
I avoided nothing on my plate or cup, I had never been so hungry. I drank coffee, milk, and wine. I ate potatoes and steak, no matter how it was cooked, it felt good to eat it. I let others speak to me, not wondering why no one asked me questions, if they did I answered briefly then asked them one right back. Soon I was surrounded by the noise of other people revealing themselves without having to contribute. My pain was no longer pain without the words for it, the realization remained unjinxed without having to verbalize it. Instead, I received, I ate.
On the fourth day, Daniel materialized. He had been a shadow of foreign colors like the others at the boarding house, like me, that never spoke. Out of the men and women, both alone and coupled, I neglected to notice him. He did not look like a writer or an artist or even an eccentric like the others who were willing to share themselves with each other. He always seemed to be smiling, pleased, so no one asked him any questions. This I noticed in order to try it out myself, but I had chosen some of the louder, more colorful ones as my potential companions. It was on the fourth day I sat with one of them out on the wooden chairs after breakfast. A failed writer who wouldn’t admit it except in his self-deprecating references to the past. He spoke like he wanted someone to write down his words. I nodded at him, experiencing his stories as he presented them, listening, pretending it felt like learning. I didn’t notice Daniel in the threshold behind us until he stepped forward. He leaned on the deck railing, facing the non-writer with his cheeks up. His eyes flashed at me falsely, I was found out. It was revealed to me then that his smile was not pleased at all, but cruel and mocking. I had not before then seen his eyes, dark and dull. Open but impenetrable.
I felt suddenly I was acting too old and womanly for my face, my clothes and body. What had been enough in the realm my sisters and Jamie I could now see was not protection enough from the world. I had not lived. I had remained the sexless child I had been before Jamie had decided on me.
Daniel’s gaze on me lasted only a lingering moment before he began to steal my false teacher away from me. The man was suddenly sitting up taller, apparently unprepared. Daniel was polite yet challenging, he questioned him. The man became haughty, for Daniel he could not self deprecate. I was no longer there for either man. Their talk became lengthy, disjointed and unbearable. With an impatient sigh and excuse no one heard, I went inside. An empty, metallic feeling had made its way into my gut, but it was not the familiar fever. I went to my room but its clean welcoming air was no longer enough, I sat on my bed and all around me were harsh lines. I picked up one of the books I had brought in order to entertain and distract me through my recovery, a novel. I started to read but I still felt Daniel’s gaze. I saw what it revealed about my life. The girl in the novel could not help me. She just seemed like something someone invisible and indifferent had summoned up to give blank girls like me ideas on how to be something. I put the book down and went up to the mirror above the bureau. I examined myself from all sides. Of course, I was not pretty. But I saw that creature that had always been with me, that I could always locate within my eyes, who had watched and laughed with me in secret at what everyone else was, that knew everything that I knew. What we had always shared was something I had now recognized for the first time on a body I did not belong to, on Daniel; a smile personal and deceitful. The opportunity of having someone to reveal that to, I, having lived nothing, read nothing, having only my body and its creature to offer, thrilled me. I imagined him alone with me. I looked at myself until they called us for lunch. I didn’t go down. I played my radio and unpacked, assessing my dresses and shoes.
At dinner I went down feeling sugary but calm. Daniel came to dinner a few minutes after me. I felt him watching me, even though he told me later, he wasn’t. I tried to maintain the knowing that came from the mirror I had met with upstairs, but I failed fast. I met Daniel’s eyes only after being caught looking at him. Again I was that sexless child.
That night I wrote my first letter to Jamie, telling him I missed him. I made my handwriting big so I could have less to say. That night I slept with the window open, not fearing my chills or fever, perhaps tempting the pain to choose me again. I shifted in my blankets until I was warm, pretending the warmth was from a body I had yet to know.