The Madison Review Extended Cut: no. 17
Hello and welcome back to The Madison Review's web series, the Extended Cut, where we showcase exceptional work that was not selected for the Fall or Spring editions of our journal. This week, please enjoy "Pickle Dish" by Alessandra Occhiolini, a short story we loved, exploring reconciling with a lost love and the gripping relationships.
Alessandra Occhiolini has published work in The Modernist Review, Back Patio Press, and Palo Alto Weekly. Occhiolini is currently pursuing their PhD at CUNY's Graduate Center.
It was very unfortunate that Robert remained the great love of my life. I had been waiting for another but they had yet to arrive. There were moments and angles where it seems he had been displaced, but the primacy of the wound unfortunately festered, dilated him into something more real than he was in life. Of course he is still alive. Just largely—not to me. Until I came here to this university town that believes itself a city. It would be very much more bearable if it admitted it was a suburb, I felt, but this opinion did not make me a delight at parties.
Doing my duty as a spinster of the upper middle-class variety, I began shopping at the organic food Co-Op once a week. This Co-Op was of the Wisconsin sort and so of course had much beer and cheese, but thankfully also had the bran muffins and hot bar that characterized organic nonsense the world over. As a Californian I find these pretensions very comforting, although I despise health food. I’m not keen on food in general, truth be told. I persisted in shopping at the Co-Op, until one day in the bulk foods aisle I ran into Robert, who was examining the bulk maple syrup dispenser with some interest.
I did of course make a motion to leave the store entirely. I did not particularly want to see his corporeal form again in this life. But then he caught my eye, and I could tell he saw me, and somehow recognized me. People tell me I haven’t aged at all—which seems most peculiar to me, as I look very much the dreary professor. Or at least this puzzled me until I realized the implied meaning that I had always been in fact dreary, never been awash with youth and fecundity and all the qualities that apparently he had found in this younger blonde who I had in fact once located between my own sheets.
Helen. I thought about her the most, more than Robert. Her creamy body against my sheets, her cornsilk hair all over my pillows.
He’d married her.
“Elaine!” Robert called out to me from that dratted bulk syrup dispenser, recalling me to the present crisis. I tried to make myself forget how all my memories pooled in the wrong places. Then I realized with sudden horror that the fleet of children crowding the aisle, sticking their hands into the bins with abandon to eat raisins and oats, were in fact his. “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it’s you! You look wonderful!”
If only he hadn’t been so nice, I likely wouldn’t have softened, let him bound up like a Labrador and hug me. So I didn’t look the same—I looked wonderful. Over the entire course of our relationship he had never once called me pretty. It had been a sore point, as I was only eighteen at the start and still set on such luxuries. But when I complained to my friends, they seemed to think this was a rather naïve kind of desire. What I should have taken from this incident was to never discuss intimate relations with your feminist reading group, but instead I thought I was a little fool who was a traitor to the cause and persisted in this belief for some time.
Robert’s arms felt nice and warm, and I found myself hugging him back with a fair amount of genuine care. But there was an absence of that thing there used to be, nothing loosening my limbs into a kind of drunken abstraction.
“It’s nice to see you,” I said, muffled by his shoulder. His kids were all looking at me. They were all blonde. Of course more people in Madison were blonde than I felt there should be, but all the same the effect was kind of uncanny. “I had no idea you lived here.”
“Outside of town! Helen and I have a farm now. But are you visiting? Giving a talk at UW?” Robert asked, and I tried not to laugh at his audible hope that I was in fact not here to stay. I took great pleasure in informing him that unfortunately we were all stranded in the great state of Wisconsin—together.
“No, they hired me. Tenure track, not just another VAP position.” I said, with a certain amount of pride. I’d been very lucky. By all rights, at this point I should have been adjuncting, or picking up an office job that had nothing to do with my PhD. I did not understand myself to be particularly genius, my research particularly necessary. “I’m afraid,” I said, smiling with teeth and attempting a monstrous bravado, “You’re stuck with me, and I’m stuck with Madison.”
“Never!” Robert said, looking actually shocked that I saw myself as an imposition on his own home, or his own home as an imposition on me. “This is the best of luck; Helen and I will have to have you over for dinner. Are you free on Friday?”
If only I had lied! If only I had been virtuous and decided in fact to go to one of the many departmental lectures! There were always lectures on Fridays, they collected on the bulletin board near the elevator like flies. They piled up so fast you could hardly tell which was which and which was when. But of course, startled by this pastoral vision standing between me and my bad hot bar health food, I faltered.
“Sure,” I said, “I’ll bring some wine, that sounds great.”
“Actually,” he explained, wincing, “maybe don’t bring the wine. We’ve given it up for lent. Helen and I decided to raise the kids Catholic.” His mouth twitched up at this, and I studied the floor very hard and tried not to laugh. In college, he’d been a young socialist who had called religion the opiate of the masses. We’d had fights about God and once he and my father had gotten into a “very serious conversation” about whether or not Judaism required belief in a higher power. This was a very stupid conversation to get into with the only son of a rabbi, I felt, but it was exactly the sort of thing Robert was apt to do. At the time, I’d found this pigheaded certainty unfortunately attractive. I remembered suddenly that I had to respond and not keep laughing internally.
“No problem!” I chirped, my voice an octave up. I happened to believe in God, but in the kind of supremely Jewish fashion—you know, this is Hashem, he sucks. I didn’t know how to interact with the deeply religious. Even my own kind. My feelings about Hashem and his foolishness had in fact kept me from services for some time, even when the more out-there rabbis felt the same way. “Just text me the address and time.”
At this he offered his phone. I took it, my fingers grazing his. There was a surprising lack of eroticism in the contact. I wanted so badly to feel something, anything. It honestly felt more intimate to hold his unlocked phone in my hands, flip to the contacts to put in my number, see the names of the people who made up this new life of his. There was one entry that linked a number and email to a gentleman by the name of “ALAN FOR BARN.”
“There!” I said, relinquishing the phone. “I’ll see you then. It was so nice to see you.” I paused, looking at all the little blonde heads. “And to meet all of you!”
Their smiles at being included were somehow much more disarming than their grimaces at being ignored, their sticky adventures into the bulk bins. And so I put a smile on too, and scared myself, pushing my cart past them and waving. I gathered my dinner up at the hot bar, and selected an extremely fibrous muffin. I immediately wondered what on earth one wore to the farm of one’s newly Catholic ex-boyfriend. I suppose everything I have told you about my life so far sounds very judgmental, but I have to recommend judgement as its own pleasure, particularly when you are so much alone as I.
When the day arrived, I settled on another one of those loose and uncaring dresses that signaled nothing so much as a lack of care for my appearance, the prominence of my collarbone.
The drive out was ripe with methane from all the manure of the dairies. Cows plodded about beside the road. These were real farms, unlike Robert’s, which was a hobby farm. He’d texted me the directions, timing, revealing he worked at Epic and hadn’t gone full farmer. At least not yet.
At the end of a long driveway with a mailbox in the shape of a chicken, I encountered a farmhouse with a literal chimney puffing out little clouds of smoke, and a barn with a quilt square pattern painted on one side. Calculated. I was glad I had worn my winter boots, as the ground had finally ceased to be frozen and was welling up with mud. When I knocked on the door, Helen answered.
Satisfying, to see how she had changed since I found her in my bed all those years ago. She was still of course a great beauty, there was no avoiding that. The many children seemed to have exhausted her. There were lines around her eyes, and dirt on her sleeves. A relief that she did not seem so alive as she did at eighteen. Somehow even though she’d been in my bed, her body was the one to accuse me. By which I mean to say the whole thing was confusing, and I’d never wanted anything as much as I’d wanted to be her in that moment.
“Elaine!” she said, very graciously given that I had not been particularly in the spirit of my feminist reading group when I kicked her out of bed and started screaming at Robert. We had not conversed since, for fairly obvious reasons. “It’s so good to see you.”
“You look well!” I said, understating the case, “and the house is really something.” She nodded in agreement, which made me want to laugh but I had promised myself when I parked outside that I couldn’t betray my own delicious judgments. She introduced me to the children: Louise, Lily-Cate, Peter, and Karol. All of them Catholic names, I thought. I kept looking at Louise and Lily-Cate, wondering if the alliteration had been planned for the whole bunch but abandoned at the advent of boys.
“Elaine is a professor at the university,” Helen explained to all the children, and her genuine attempt to communicate that I was important somehow was startling. “She knows everything about books!”
“What kind of books?” Lily-Cate asked, peering up through her eyelashes. She was wearing a tiny hand-sewn apron over a princess dress and a winter coat.
“I know more about plays,” I said. I stooped down to her level. You’re supposed to do that with children. “Have you heard of Shakespeare?” She nodded, which I took as at a sign that whatever schooling she was getting wasn’t completely daffy.
“We saw we saw his play this summer outside mommy didn’t we except he wasn’t there?” she asked, and Helen nodded. I took this to mean they’d been to one of the outdoor productions by the Madison Shakespeare company. They did them in the summer, but had managed to pull off a production of A Winter’s Tale despite the seeming seasonal obstacles. Ithad been up when I arrived in August, but I came down with a fever on the night I had tickets and honestly didn’t much mind. It was my least favorite of his plays, and I was set to teach it to my grad students in a few weeks. The sincerity of Helen and this too-blonde child unnerved me. I almost wanted to hug Lily-Cate despite her affected little name. Helen reached out a hand to help me up. I took it, wondering what it would be like to be her child.
I did not expect the flash of desire I felt at contact. Of course I had thought I would feel something—but not that, not exactly. It ran through me, disturbing a winter of loneliness in my chest, all the way down to my thighs. I shivered.
“Oh gosh,” Helen fretted, “it’s so cold in here, the fire just got going. Have one of my coats.” I should have said something at this point to arrest the feelings that were blooming inside of me but I was quite hungry for any sensation and so when she returned with this ridiculous jacket that was made of an actual quilt, like a cut-up quilt, and drew it onto my arms, I nearly collapsed with the feel of it.
“It’s a pickle-dish quilt, isn’t it?” I asked, and she blinked. For a moment it seemed as if the electricity in me passed into her.
“Yes,” she said in a low voice, “I made it myself, but the kids wore it out till it was a cutter. How do you know about quilts?”
“My mother quilted,” I said, “she taught me how. But I don’t make them anymore.” Her brown eyes flashed down, examining me again as if to find what she had missed in her first evaluation.
“It looks great on you,” she said, “you’re so skinny.” I was supposed to tell her she looked wonderful and that there was no coat that could ever look better on me, but I realized as I began to protest that it would sound far too true. Far too—wanting. I was caught in the moment, the desire to melt in the want right here next to her, the feeling of the pickle dish quilt against my skin, and then the door opened.
“Ah!” Robert said, shaking the slush off his shoes as the children crowded around him, “Elaine’s here!” He had finally made it after a classic effort at being late. Helen’s hand, for a moment still on the sleeve of the jacket, pulled reluctantly away. She went over to kiss him on the cheek.
“Yes!” she said, “Isn’t it wonderful to have an old friend over for dinner?” She had this put-on voice, or at least it seemed put-on after hearing her talk to the children. How often strangers are able to pick apart situations with an accuracy born of not having investment in the outcome. But that wasn’t me—not a stranger, or an old friend. An old ghoul, maybe. Haunting their lovely farmhouse kitchen.
When we finally got to the table, Robert and the kid next to me, I think it was Peter, took my hands up so we could say grace. It was very bad luck that it wasn’t just a kind of spoken grace but a whole song, to which they knew all the words and I knew none. It repeated itself, and I tried to catch the tune, but mostly I just flapped my mouth to simulate participation. And with that, my body settled back in to its usual nonexistence.
“Elaine,” Helen said to me, as Lily-Cate whispered something into her ear, “do you think you could explain A Winter’s Tale? I’ve got a special request for some clarification.”
There was some solemn nodding from Lily-Cate, profound disinterest from Robert (“I never can understand,” I remember him saying when I was applying to grad school, “why you insist on writing on all these little human foibles in old plays when you could be doing real Marxist readings of something like Joyce”), and a wink from Helen.
“Well,” I began, wishing for a better play to recount, a better life to have lived, “There are these old friends, see. And they’re both kings, because of course they are. Well the main king, Leontes, gets mad because he thinks his wife Hermione loves his friend better than she loves him. Which is uh, sinful. And then he gets very mad and says he’s going to imprison her even though she’s pregnant with his child—which you know, looks bad because of all the adultery. I mean, shit.”
Robert laughed at me, but Helen motioned that it was okay.
“But she didn’t do anything bad, Hermione. Everyone’s all confused as to why Leontes is doing this to her. She’s got this friend, Paulina, who takes her new baby to Leontes and tries to figure out what’s up and get him to stop being so awful. But that backfires, and Leontes says the baby has to be abandoned in the wilderness.”
At this there were some actual gasps from the children, so I began to figure that the play might be better than I thought it was, or I might not be messing the whole thing up too badly.
“Luckily!” I said, trying to not prolong the suspense—no one likes babies getting exposed on hills and dying, not even the Greeks—“a nice sheepherder finds the baby after the guy who’s supposed to abandon it gets chased off by a bear.”
“A bear!” Peter shrieked, banging on the table. Robert looked grim, and checked his watch again. “A bear, a bear!”
“Yep!” I replied, ignoring Robert’s unamused glowering. “Very famous bear, that. Top literary bear. Anyway, the girl is named Perdita and she doesn’t know she’s a princess. A prince falls in love with her, but she looks unsuitable because she’s just the daughter of some shepherd. Then all is revealed, and it turns out the prince is the son of that friend Leontes thought Hermione was in love with!”
This seemed to interest them not a whit; I felt they were somewhat fair critics in this regard. I’d have preferred more bears myself.
“And all the while, Leontes is back home being sad. Because after he said to give the baby away, Paulina comes back. She tells him his other kid died because he was being so mean, and so did Hermione! Then he mopes forever. Until Perdita and her prince come by and he kind of wants to marry his own daughter for a minute. Which is, uh, not a very popular part of the play. Anyhow, Leontes says sorry to his old friend, Perdita and the prince get married, then Paulina has a surprise.”
“Elaine,” Robert said, clearing the table, “Just get to the point.”
“This is the point,” Helen informed him, not making any move to help.
“Paulina shows Leontes this statue of Hermione that looks just like her—except older, like if she’d lived. And then the statue comes to life, and Hermione is with all of them! She finally gets to meet Perdita, and boom! Happy ending!”
The children seemed satisfied, there were no questions of whether or not the statue could come back to life. Disney had probably covered that territory fairly well. Robert pointed out it was maybe time for me to go, he complained of a headache. Helen offered to walk me to the car while he angrily washed dishes, upset at some failure of attention on our part.
In only the pickle dish coat, I shivered as we walked out to the barn in the night air. I followed Helen dizzily. How was I dizzy, I wondered, when it was so cold? It occurred to me that I might occupy a similarly large and mythic spot in her own imagination as she did in mine. I had always afforded her all the power in the story of us. For she was the winner. But what had she won? And at what cost?
“You should keep the coat,” she said to me as I tried to pass it back to her at my car. “I’m working on another now, and it suits you better.”
“No,” I said, pulling at the sleeve, twisting my arm to see the pattern. “I couldn’t, it’s too much work in here. Too many hours.”
“Do you quilt?”
“My mother quilted,” I told her. “She came to America to live with some cousins. They taught her to quilt while she was waiting for her parents to come over from Vienna, and kept quilting new squares.”
“They never came, did they?”
“No,” I said, and she kept going and going on it even after they didn’t make it.”
“Well,” I said, “they died the Shoah.” Helen looked distraught, but this wasn’t really the
end of the story. “And then she died too,” I said, without understanding exactly what I meant to confess, “when I was thirteen. I haven’t quilted since she left for the hospital.”
I didn’t know what I meant to do in telling her. I was trying to tell her something else. Was I really that lonely? But then she was hugging me, and her hair smelled like lavender and yes, milk, somehow it smelled like the frothy milk from the cow out in her barn.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “You must miss her so much.” And at that moment I realized I did, that it hurt my chest, and that I was still very hungry. I had not eaten enough at dinner. And I did not let Helen go. It was then that she kissed me, and I kissed her back. She slid her hands under that coat, under my sweater. I pulled her closer in the cold night air, breathed her foggy breath, and kissed her again.
Only after an eternity did she glace up to check if Robert was at the window, if there was light on the driveway, if this was really happening.
“I’ve got to get home,” I lied, “I have papers to grade, I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah,” she said, releasing me. She stumbled back, and I finally took a step back myself. “See you later.”
When I got home that night, I realized I’d driven off with that damn coat on my back.
I decided I would forget all about the lot of them. I considered returning the coat and making a speech about it, but I knew how that would end. I considered leaving town, but given that this job was the Hail Mary of my entire research career, I figured that would be fairly deranged.
I saw myself supporting her infinite children with their seeking hands on an adjuncts’ salary as we fled Robert’s wrath to warmer climes. I shuddered at the thought, and at having had it at all. The need in me was showing. Not in the way I had feared it might—I felt no desire to have taken Helen’s place, for it to be me out there—but in how a simple hand on my arm, a hug, a kind word, a kiss, could denature my brain into a kind of soup of hopes that were not my own.
I tended to my own preparations for my grad seminar that Monday. I tried to release the night behind me, and to not dream that night of Helen between my sheets, then or now.
She was nothing, Helen. Just another hope I couldn’t hold too close.
Madison is difficult and so it made sense that in the course of only a few days I would nearly collide with her as I hunched down State Street in the cold. I was headed to Michelangelo’s for coffee. Of course, like some lovesick thirteen-year-old, I was still wearing her damn coat. There she was, her hair sweeping around in the wind as she reached out and grabbed me, smile on her reddened face.
“Elaine!” she said, and why were her hands always on my arm, so warm and nice, “It’s so good to see you. Would you like to get some coffee?”
“Yes.” I said with a certain seriousness, without the necessary hesitation. I blushed hard. Thankfully, my face was already so red I couldn’t imagine this showed. We went inside, she went first and held the door.
After ordering one of those large and somewhat useless pastries from the case at her urging, I joined her at a little table in the back. I tried to concentrate on the situation at hand, calm down, generally act normal. And in doing so, as my breathing steadied, I found that she seemed a bit feverish even in the warmth of the coffee house. I had a feeling, perhaps completely baseless, that this had been less of a coincidence but a premeditated accident.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” she informed me, which didn’t exactly settle my suspicions. I let out a kind of ha-hah-ha-hah completely unbidden, and she looked unnerved.
“I’m teaching The Winter’s Tale tonight,” I said, because something had to be said and I wasn’t about to say what I should. This seemed close enough to an admission that we both seemed less jumpy.
“A sad tale’s best for winter,” she replied, and I smiled, remembering the eponymous line, spoken by a son who will not survive the course of the play. “Seems true of Wisconsin.”
Of course she would know this play, I remembered with a start. She had been in our college Shakespeare troupe and played Perdita in that very play. I’d never auditioned. I was not stage-friendly, I felt. But I attended every show the troupe put on. She’d been in so many of them—I had the vague memory that she had wanted to be an actor. If she’d wanted to act, and Robert had wanted to have no god and no children, who had robbed who of which dream? But such thoughts were not useful in the immediate present, with my legs shaking so that I had to cross them, the heat of desire pooling between them.
“I forgot that you were in it,” I said, everything jumbling in me, “you could have explained it, why didn’t you stop me when I went on that horrible rant?”
“I never understood that play,” Helen said, and I doubted it but let her go on, “it seems like Hermione should just kill Leontes at the end for being such a terrible jerk.”
“Seems like you understand it perfectly,” I said. “And I remember you being very good in that. I loved those plays, the ones you did at school.”
“I did too,” she said, “I miss it. But I always worried some of the plays went over my head a bit. Like it seems impossible that Hermione really is born again a la statue, isn’t she just hiding out with Paulina and pulling a trick?”
“See that’s a very interesting question,” I said, “I actually recently published a paper on the queer potentialities in The Winter’s Tale in Renaissance Quarterly.” She looked both confused and uncomfortable the combination of “queer” “potentialities” and “Renaissance Quarterly,” and so I tried to break it down into words that would not make her get up and leave the table. “What I mean is, like people care about this question, it’s not just you. Did the two women lived together in secret for sixteen years, is there magical statue business?”
“And what do they think is most likely?” she asked me, seeming to believe that we would all have come to a consensus after these many years of reading and writing about the play. I supposed this was the most sensible assumption one could make.
“A lot of people think it’s just literally a statue,” I said, trying to control myself and this feeling of overflowing that threatened to push tears out my eyes, this wanting, “like, that it seems crazy that they could commit to something so intense together for sixteen years. Which I’ve always found strange, myself—though magical statue tricks are typical of the Shakespearean romance, there’s a literal god in Cymbeline.”
“I don’t think it’s crazy really. Makes a lot of sense to me.”
At that moment I was not sure what was going to happen next. It seemed as if this part of our interaction had come to some type of closure. That she would either get up, remark on the time, and continue shopping, or that something was going to happen. I sat there in the possibility. I wondered what I wanted. I wanted her to go away, very much so, but I wanted her even more so to stay.
“You should send me that article,” she said, “when it comes out. I don’t know if I’ll understand it, but it seems like something I’ve got to read.”
And then my hand was on her leg under the table, and then her hand was on her arm, and then her lips were on my lips. I did not consider how this would end or if it was right. I reached my tongue into her mouth as she sighed open her lips and tasted her for a moment, and then she pulled away.
“Do you have a car on campus?” she asked in a low voice, and I nodded.
For many years I had wondered what kind of clay this woman was made of, this woman who I shaped myself against, who defined my life from her one short appearance in an extra-long twin bed in a college dormitory. But it was not until I was holding her, inside of her, that I realized that building myself against her meant we fit together perfectly, that my angles met her rolls and curves so kindly. As I sucked at her tit I felt for a moment the same voice that searched for symbolism so profitably all day ask if this were not a bit overdetermined, but I only laughed until I cried because this was not the time for literary analysis, this was life and that was text and it was time to keep the two separate. Warmth spread through me, as if all of my want for Helen was released outside of me and I was lying in its vibrancy. And her long blonde hair across my sheets, how she bit her lip as it all continued, how I reached deep inside of her until she cried again but better.
Hello, I wanted to say, hello, it’s okay, I’m here, I’m never going away again. But who was I speaking to? And why was she getting up, putting on her clothes? Why was this passing so quickly now that I had stopped tracking the grain of life before me, the pure experience of it slipping away?
“I’m so sorry,” she said to me, “I’m really sorry, I don’t know—I just don’t know—”
And I didn’t know either, but it seemed so unkind to reproach her and so I kissed her again, and she kept crying, and I drove her back to State Street where Robert had promised to pick her up. She clung to me. I didn’t know if it felt bad because she thought it was wrong, or because felt too right. But I was familiar with such conflicts, and felt such insensibility sensible. Getting what you wanted, I usually thought, was its own devastation.
But when I left her waiting for Robert and went to teach my evening class, I found myself still in the flood of the moment. All of their faces, the students, looked so remarkably different, precious. One with pink hair! I was thrilled to be there and to teach my least favorite Shakespeare play, which seemed to shock and delight them in response. I suppose I had not made for the most exciting semester.
“It’s interesting,” pink hair articulated near the end of class, practically bouncing in her seat at the actual discussion we’d had together, “that when Hermione comes back to life, she doesn’t address Leontes, just her daughter.”
“I mean serves him right,” another countered, and I laughed with him. When our time was over, they regarded me with a kind of intermixed happiness and reproach—they hadn’t known that I could be fun, why had I concealed it for so very long? And then I wondered if this was all about mothers and daughter again before I just drove to Culvers, got a burger, and decided to turn my brain off entirely.
Back in my bed I could smell her. I changed the sheets, and the blankets too. I realized that now that it was getting warmer, and I was getting hopeful, maybe I should exchange the comforter for something lighter. So I took a step ladder to the closet, and climbed up so I could reach the high shelf in the back. Reaching in, I took down the quilt at the very back, the one I had been hiding. Then I pulled it out, shook it free.
The yellows were still bright, unfaded by sun and time. The fabric fell to the ground, a rainbow kaleidoscope dizzying me with its color. Colors—they seemed not be in abundance here in Wisconsin, not the bright ones, not like these.
Pulling it around myself, I crawled into bed. Unfaded because it had gone without use, this was my marriage quilt. My mother had finished it only a month before she died. We chose the colors together. Yellow, for a happy marriage. The interlocking rings for forever. She said that I needed to choose a man who could make the promises of the quilt good. I had never for an instant thought that would be Robert—yellow happy forever. I knew then that I wanted more than a man but I kept my mouth shut because how wonderful it was to be loved. This was an act of hope, this quilt, that the love she could give me then would be something I could hold through the decades after her passing, a material object to pass on to my own children. But I had no children, and I had not held well to her love. Or any love, in fact.
Should have ended there, but life unspooled less simple. Maybe I’d have seen her from a distance, across the supermarket. Should have adopted a dog, put my love somewhere appropriate. But in fact I married her. She showed up on my porch one day, and didn’t go home, and now there is another house. Now there are so many beds, so many of them with quilts in various stages of decay, and one spilling yellow fabric.
I asked her once about it, how we really shouldn’t have made it, how this should have been an anecdote and not a life. By then I knew more about what happened, that I was not an isolated incident in the decay of their marriage. Yet I was the one that stuck.
“You were my Paulina,” she said, “and you brought me back to life.”
“I was always Hermione,” I protested, but she pulled me under the covers, “Or was I Perdita, or was I the bear, or was I the playwright, or was I—”
“If I let you keep going you’re going to end up saying you were the pickle dish,” Helen pointed out, and I thought this was true, it had real psychoanalytic potential—
“Hello,” she whispered, and I came back to her.