I think of my mother on the train. Nichola and I are seated in the last row of the Metro-North on our way home to Larchmont, huddled together as though we’re trying to hide. Nichola rests against my shoulder. Sunlight floats across her face. Her color returns like something in bloom. I keep her antibiotics safe in my oversized messenger bag. If my mother were here, she too would worry about Nichola. Like me, she’d adjust the cashmere shawl around Nichola’s shoulders even though Nichola’s wearing a sweater over her dress and has twice insisted she prefers cooler temperatures. I wear my mother’s niceness like a dominant gene.
“Are you up for a drink?” Nichola says.
“I don’t know. You should probably go home and rest.”
Nichola’s procedure was in Manhattan. I avoid the city save for book signings and lunches with my agent. I sat with Nichola in the waiting room, squeezed her hand when they called her name. I even booked a hotel room should she need additional rest. I told her she’s welcome to stay with me for as long as she needs.
It’s not that she has no place to go. Her lawyer boyfriend Charlie reveres her. If you ask Nichola, this is his sincerest downfall. I now imagine Nichola packing her things without a word, Charlie’s heart steeping in the silence, the lilac bush they planted as a couple rubbing against Victorian glass to witness the bleak separation of its gods, and regret my offer.
We pass Woodlawn, Pelham, and New Rochelle. I long for Larchmont. If niceness were a town it would look like Larchmont. I rent the second floor of a modest house with a brick terrace shaded by chokecherries. It’s just me and my German shepherd who barks a lot and steals food right off my plate. I author children’s books.
Larchmont’s too small for Nichola. She’s twenty-eight, like myself, but doesn’t know what she wants. My phone buzzes. Charlie’s been texting me nonstop. Nichola has turned off her phone and refuses to speak to him. I’m afraid to answer Charlie, but I’m more afraid to tell Nichola to call him back. I write, She’s okay, we’re okay and hit send.
“I know you’re texting Charlie,” she says. “Tell him to fuck off.”
“I’m not writing that.”
“I know. Even if you thought a text like that were justified, you’d never send it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know you, Charlotte. You never say what you’re really thinking. I love and hate you for that.”
My phone buzzes and buzzes. I’m beginning to see what Nichola means about Charlie. I feel a little bad about this.
“We should celebrate,” Nichola says. “I mean, look at this country. It’s a miracle I got an abortion today. Have a drink with me.”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Fine, forget the drink,” Nichola says. “Tell me what you’re really thinking. Just this once, pretty please?”
I don’t like the way Nichola’s been treating Charlie, but I don’t say anything. That’s the nice person’s way. People are disrespectful and you still behave well. I keep my head held high and write award-winning books. I let my stinky dog sleep in my bed. I don’t tell my friends what I’m thinking. I don’t tell because thoughts are like turbulence my conscience must jet through until there’s nothing but stillness and clarity and acres of blue sky.
“Maybe one drink can’t hurt,” I say.
The train stops at Larchmont. I gather our things and stand up. Nichola doesn’t move.
“This is our stop,” I say.
“Not today. We’re getting off at Old Greenwich.”
“You want to grab drinks in Connecticut?”
“We’re not grabbing a drink. We’re going to a bird party.”
I sit back down and look at her. She unzips her backpack and removes two leather masquerade masks coated in acrylic. She places mine in my lap. It’s a deep blue with faux, sparkly feathers and a shiny little beak. I’m handed a tube of lipstick, liquid blue eyeliner, and a wig with long aquamarine curls.
“See?” Nichola says, as though I’d understood her but did not believe. “A bird party.”
Nichola puts her mask away. Her wig’s an ultraviolet bob. She puts it on and applies silver lipstick.
“My friend Beatrice owns this huge house in Old Greenwich down by the water. A few years ago, she started this artists’ residency. At the end of each summer the artists showcase their work dressed as the previously agreed upon animal of choice. Last summer it was beavers, so we should count our blessings.”
I stare at my mask in silence. I think of the events this morning that now seem so long ago—the lemony scent of the clinic, the sound of Nichola’s knobby pencil as she filled out paperwork, how I stood up when her name was called. At the hotel, Nichola slept while I watched daytime television. When she rose, she was focused and pleasant. I’d expected bad weather in Nichola, a dreary sort of landscape. I was told she would feel sad afterwards. I’ve been told a lot of things.
I don’t want to go and I can’t say no. Nichola thinks I’m an agreeable person, but that’s not entirely it. Truthfully, I can’t refuse those who live by risk and self-interest. They light a fire beneath my quiet demeanor. I admit I wish I were more like them.
We get off at Old Greenwich. Nichola spies a line of cabs waiting in the parking lot. At the clinic, she’d squeezed my hand and said, “Charlotte, I’m afraid.” I’d never heard her speak like that before. Now she’s energized and unstoppable, so different from who she was this morning. She’s the most visible person I know. I want to protect her. Who can withstand being seen all the time?
Nichola heads for the station’s stairs and I ask her to wait.
“Hey,” I say. “We don’t have to go to this party. If you want to stay out, we could go for drinks in town then maybe order in pizzas at my place.”
My phone buzzes and I fish it out of my bag. We both see it’s Charlie again.
“Jesus, he won’t quit,” Nichola says.
“He’s worried about you.”
“He’s worried about himself.”
“No, you listen to me.”
She steps toward me and grabs my arm. Her grip is tight but not threatening. It’s as though she’s holding on for balance.
“He’s got me under a microscope,” she says. “He’s all over the place. Some days he’s gentle and kind. Then he’ll say and do some real fucked up shit. He shook me once. He’s done other things. Like hell I want to go home after today.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I just want to have fun and pretend like nothing’s off, you know?”
I think of the small Connecticut town where I was raised. We lived in a tiny furnished duplex owned by retirees. My mother was a housekeeper and my father was a mail carrier. My mother loved the theater and wanted to act in plays. She was once cast as the lead in an original play to be produced by the community theater. When she told my father, he said they’d have to discuss it. Mother never starred in that play. To make it up to her, he purchased tickets for the opening night. Since then, I’ve tolerated my father with a child’s measured and disciplined love bred to survive something. When I discovered art, I drew in secret.
I take out my bird mask and put it on.
“What are you doing?” Nichola says.
“I’m going to a bird party.”
Beatrice’s home is a waterfront manor with walls of glass. Sunlight spots the water.
My mask is large but lightweight. I stare at the world through tiny holes of light. I turn my head slowly so I don’t miss a thing. Women dressed as swans steer paddle boats and wave. Music plays from a grand piano cocooned in fairy lights. The peacock is a natural. His fingers touch the keys absentmindedly as he chats with the giggling young woman at his side. Two children kick around a giant Styrofoam egg. There are large, wiry nests filled with blankets and beautiful women. Men in matching raven masks crowd a bird bath filled with vodka punch. A few bend over and dip their leather beaks in jest. Even the caterers are dressed as birds. I can’t tell what’s production or pleasure. There are watercolor portraits and ceramics for sale. A large bird feeder shaped like a human voodoo doll dangles from a clothing line. An overweight man dressed as a crane walks a tightrope between two trees while his friends record him on their phones.
“I don’t get it,” Nichola says.
“Maybe it’s a statement on art itself,” I say. “Absurd, messy.”
“They’re overcompensating. The art sucks.”
“I think they’re brave for putting themselves out there.”
I truly believe this. Nichola hands me a glass of wine. I don’t drink much so the effects are immediate. We remove our masks and rest them on top of our heads. Our faces are flushed and damp.
“Why are there children here?” I say.
I stare at the women in the nests. They are college-aged. Their beauty dazzles and alienates me. I had this problem at Sarah Lawrence where I encountered wealthy heroin addicts and intelligent prep school types. My parents never went to college and didn’t have the money to send me. I worked full-time and lived in a single. My peers admired me from a distance. I waded through those icy four years on merit scholarships and the solace I found in my own work. A mercifully debunked undergraduate magazine published my first drawings. I wrote comic strips under a pseudonym, a wise act of foresight given my content. My first comic featured a new mother rocking her baby. “Mommy drinks to find the things you say interesting,” the caption read.
Laughter pours from the nest. I wonder how many of those girls dream of becoming famous artists. When I was their age, it was all I wanted. I started illustrating children’s books my senior year. I worked hard in secret until my art professor asked to see a portfolio. My professor had connections with the New York literary world. She reviewed my portfolio in silence then looked at me with the warmest eyes. “Charlotte,” she said. “Do you have more?”
I love what I do. Children’s literature is where magic meets confrontation. I’ve mastered my own formula: Darkness is short-lived and all things end in contemplative beauty. No one is rising and no one is falling. There was never any real danger.
A woman in a strapless feathery dress approaches. Her wedged sandals sink into the grass as she walks. Nichola nudges me and mouths, “Beatrice.” She’s a few years older than us, maybe more. Her dark curly hair is pushed back by a headband decorated with a silver swallow. Beatrice and Nichola hug. They giggle over a private, unspoken joke. Nichola introduces me.
“So good to finally meet you,” Beatrice says.
“You too,” I say. “Your house is beautiful.”
“So, you guys decided to dress as birds this year,” Nichola says.
“Isn’t it a gas?” Beatrice says. “You two look adorable. The wigs are a nice touch. I’m glad you could join in on the fun. Artists take themselves too seriously these days. You have to learn to let go and just be in the flow. I don’t have to tell you that, Charlotte.”
“No?” I say.
“Your books are brill. I love them. The one about the family of peaches that must keep trekking after the orchard goes bankrupt had me bawling. Oh, and those illustrations. You’re like Bosch meets Mother Goose.”
“Dear, you must talk to some of our artists. These girls have talent but they’re lacking direction. Perhaps you could offer some feedback this evening. Give it to them straight. Don’t hold back.”
“Careful, Bea,” Nichola says, delighted. “No one crushes dreams like Charlotte.”
“That is excellent news,” Beatrice says. “Char, dear, go chat with those girls over there. The ones in the nests, see?”
I excuse myself and head inside. The manor is vast and warm. The kitchen’s stocked with yellow daisies and lined with cream marble countertops. I open the fridge and pour myself a glass of iced tea. I look out the window and watch the party. I toss my wig into the trash then rest my mask on top of my head. I’ve never understood the human desire to dress up. We’re already dressed up. I’d rather unzip my earthly skin and roam this life in my truest form. Outside the children watch the adults—these human birds—with wide, joyful eyes, their hearts like porcelain.
When I was in high school, my parents needed help paying the bills so I got a job at the general store. The manager liked to run his hands over my body like a physician searching for early signs of death. I never told because I figured he wasn’t so bad. Once he let the employees take home a jar of local honey. Mine wouldn’t open. I tried and tried but it wouldn’t budge. Alone in my room I’d stare at that jar. Some days my lower back bruised from the manager’s grasp. I thought about asking my parents for help. With the honey, I mean. I decided against it. I reasoned that if I stayed quiet and diligent and kind, one day I’d be strong enough to open anything. There was no need to make a fuss.
My characters are quite different. In one of my books, a girl is kidnapped by giants and tossed into a bubbling cauldron. The heat is low, but the pain’s unbearable. She begs for mercy and the giants laugh. They love it when she cries. They spare her on the condition she serves them for the rest of her life. She spends her days cooking and cleaning and tending to the giants’ every need. After the girl earns their trust, she gets supernatural powers. She learns she can control the giants with her mind. In turn, they make her their queen. On the last page, the girl rules from a tiny throne and the giants have fallen to their knees.
I’ve never shown this book to anyone. I worry it’s too dark. Still, I find myself returning to those pages. A damaged girl chooses to rule not because it’s right but because she says so.
I explore the house and find myself on the top floor. At the end of the hall is a ladder that leads to an old, chestnut door. It strikes me as so out of place I can’t help but wonder what’s behind it. There’s a sign hanging from the door handle: “Look Don’t Touch.” I climb the ladder and go inside.
A man and woman are getting dressed. The woman’s in a blouse and black crow mask. Her bottom’s covered in bruises. Damp hair sticks to the back of her neck. The man’s crow mask is at his bare feet. He stands in faded blue jeans and turns his t-shirt inside out. An open trunk is positioned by the window. A leather belt hangs from the side. There’s no bed. At the center of the room is a massage table with buckles and straps to hold a person in place.
“Hey,” the man says. “We were just leaving. All yours.”
The woman, now dressed, brushes past me without a word. I expect the man to put on his shirt and leave but he doesn’t. He just stands there, smiling at me.
“Sorry to barge in like that,” I say. “I’ll go.”
“You look familiar. Have you been to one of Bea’s parties before?”
“No, but a friend of mine knows Beatrice.”
“Anyone I know?”
“I come here every year. I’m a performance artist.”
I look at the massage table. My parents now keep one in their living room. There are no buckles or straps, but my father is at its mercy. Mother has changed. She now regards my father with impatience and distance, a small blip of love. On my last trip home, I stood in the kitchen and overheard him offer Mother a massage. She accepted in a flat, cold voice. I peered into the living room. He massaged her neck and shoulders, his hands searching for the woman she was, for ways to deepen that blip. Mother never had more control in her life. In that moment, she ruled our house. Face down on a table.
“Why’d you come here?” the man asks.
“Because my friend wanted to go to a bird party.”
“No, I mean this room.”
“The sign caught my attention.”
“Theresa, the woman who just left? She started putting that thing up. It means we’re open for visitors.”
“I never would’ve come inside had I known. It’s a filthy invitation.”
“I do. There are children here.”
“They know the top floor is off limits. Besides, they live with their dad most of the time.”
“’Look don’t touch.’ I think it says a lot about people.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I worked at a museum, we had ‘Look don’t touch’ signs everywhere. It’s a fine rule for a museum but terrible for life. People are so robotic, cautious to a fault. That’s why I love performance art because I’m free to engage.”
Sunlight warms his bare chest. He’s got a blooming boy’s smile on a grown man’s face. I want to run my hands through those gold-dusted curls. I look around the room—the buckles and straps on the massage table, the leather belt glimmering in the sunlight, the air of degradation—and feel a glimpse of power.
“Performance art,” I say. “Is that what they’re calling it these days?”
“Is that what you’d like to call it? ‘Performance art?’”
“Maybe,” I hear myself say. “I’m free to engage.”
Without taking his eyes off me, he lifts himself onto the massage table. He sits down and lets his legs swing back and forth.
“If this were, ‘performance art,’” he says, “I’d ask for your help. I’d have you strap me to this table as tight as you could. But since it’s not, I’m going to do it myself. Just to show you.”
He straps in his ankles and legs. He lies on his back and looks at me. His arms are spread wide.
“Then what would happen?” I say.
Recognition sweeps his face. His eyes shine with the eager determination of some headstrong youth. He turns his face toward the trunk.
“Pick your poison.”
Another Charlotte, a foreign, better Charlotte, walks to the window. She kneels before the trunk and dips her hand inside. She runs her fingers over spikes and clamps and streams of leather. She settles on an electric wand and returns to the massage table.
“Nice,” he says. “Ever use one of those before?”
I step toward him. He tells me to lower the wand onto his forearm and press the button. The spark is quick and celebratory. It seems to light the whole room. He asks me to do it again, again. I move the wand over his heart and stomach. The sparks leave little pink dots on his skin.
“Thanks,” he says. “Keep going. I’ll let you know when I’ve had enough. The safe word’s Armantrout.”
“Like the poet?”
“She’s a genius.”
I do as I’m told. He closes his eyes. His breathing deepens as if he’s falling asleep.
“So, what’s your name?” he says.
“Are you an artist?”
“I write and illustrate children’s books.”
“Any I know?”
I tell him and he opens his eyes. I stop zapping and hold the wand at my side.
“That’s why you look familiar. I recognize you from the book jacket. We love your stuff back home.”
“I read your books to my kids. Damn girl, those peaches? What a trip.”
“Are you married?”
“To a remarkable woman.”
“And she’s okay with your ‘performance art’?”
“More than okay. She’s probably tied up somewhere herself. Man, I can’t believe I’m getting electrocuted by Charlotte Merriweather. Wow.”
He looks at me like royalty. My guardedness shivers apart. I descend into my body and sense its magnetism.
“Shut up,” I tell him.
“I said shut up.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You heard me. Don’t make me say it again.”
He grins. Not many people actually grin, but he does. His eyes are a hopeful leer.
I grab his mask and put it over his face. I put mine on too.
“I don’t want to look at you right now,” I say.
Sighs of pleasure rumble behind his mask. I turn on the wand. I begin with gentle zaps then ease into more force.
“You’re something else, you know that?” he says.
This wand is like a superpower, an extension of myself. I’m exposed in ways I’ve never been before. My life has been marked by a loathsome fear. What was I so afraid of? My mother has been more afraid than kind. At one point her bones were made of light, but she was running from something, always running. She stayed small. I stayed small. Anger surges through me. I never thought I was “something else.” I thought I was something to permit. I raise the electric wand and thrash.
“Armantrout, Armantrout!” he says.
I drop the wand and cry. The man sits up. He removes his mask and I remove mine. He unstraps himself from the table and kneels beside me on the floor. “Hey,” he says. “What’s wrong?”
I could tell him it’s nothing. I’ve met men who would accept a “nothing” and move on. Instead, I tell this man the truth. I tell him that most of the time I live outside myself. People can walk straight through me. I tell him I’m more messed up than I let on. I’m pretty on the outside and all mashed up beneath the skin. I move through life like a ghost haunted by her body.
“I’m the queen of looking,” I say. “I never touch.”
We sit in silence. Music and laughter float up from the backyard. He puts his arm around me and I lean against him. His heart beats with a beautiful rigor. I take his hand. His palm is sewn with sweat. He kisses me on the cheek and my blood hums. “I like you,” he says. I tell him I must get going.
He looks down and laughs. His torso is covered in pink slabs.
“What’s so funny?” I say.
“I just thought of the title of your future biography.”
“The Life and Times of Charlotte Merriweather: One Sadistic Bitch.”
I exit through the front of the house and find a wishing fountain on the lawn. I sit along its edge and peer into the shallow waters. The bottom’s spotted with pennies. Wishing fountains elicit promise or beauty, but all I see is a watery graveyard. Haunted dreams. The pennies are like tiny mouths that sing out everyone’s secret: I wish for the things I could love about myself.
The sun’s setting and soon Nichola and I will go home. My body is still warm from the man’s touch. I think of who I was on the top floor of that house. I loved that person’s transformation, her newly made skin.
I go inside to look for Nichola. I look out a window and see my friend near the bird bath. The ravens stand in a half circle and listen to her. A few have removed their masks. They’re tall, handsome men with thick jaws and gracious smiles. Nichola’s hips sway as she tells a story that ends in unanimous laughter. She’s got an irrefutable strength that would burn at the touch. She’s going to be okay.
I return to the kitchen and find the man from upstairs. He’s making a sandwich, offers me half. Candles burn on the counter. I sit down at the bar and we talk. The conversation is dull and sweet. I tell him this is the dumbest party I’ve ever attended. He laughs and says the party’s okay. He’s at ease with himself. I think I might be too.
The kitchen’s warm and well-lighted. People dressed as birds move in and out of the house. They say hello to us like we’re friends, like we’ve always lived here. It’s strange. I’m beginning to feel at home. There’s a room in me that burns brighter than the flames. I want to slip inside and never leave. It’s the place wherein life stretches toward me. It’s the place, I think, wherein I start.
Emily Collins is a queer writer living in Missoula, MT. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The South Carolina Review, The McNeese Review, The Chicago Review of Books and others. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and other anthologies. She is a fiction candidate at The University of Montana where she also teaches.