One morning I tell Charlotte my father's shadow has fallen across her face. She has stumbled into the kitchen, holding her head, wincing at the rising sun. I have already begun with the eggs and rice and Excedrin
. There is an unhappily married
rhythm to all we do, though we are merely roommates. She cuts her hair at midnight; I wake and sweep it off the bathroom floor. I call in sick when she won't wake for work. I cut off her booze supply when necessary. I hold back her hair when my attempts to circumvent acute alcohol poisoning fail.
When her room was Keeton's studio, and my room was Ours, there were, not infrequently, cupboards' worth of broken teacups on our floor. Once a broken window. Once, my broken arm. I locked the liquor cabinet and Keeton broke it open.
Here is one explanation. Though on paper it is hardly satisfactory, it is closest to the truth. I am not inclined to caricature; I do not believe people are walking stereotypes. When I meet one who is, I assume there is something I don't know. I could not believe Keeton was the one-dimensional joke he appeared to be: He painted. He drank. He flew as easily to vanity as he did to rage. He was boorish and condescending in public. In private, he held me by the throat - literally and otherwise.
I replaced him with Charlotte. She wakes up and blares AC/DC at 4 a.m. She is silent for weeks at a time - a tiny, angry storm. She takes all my kindness for granted. She is difficult at best. But I know this much is true: She is not my father leaving without so much as a note, and returning with as little explanation. She is not Keeton flicking a lighter in my face, lighting my pillow on fire. She says, Marlene, thank you, when I slide the eggs from the skillet to her plate. She takes my hand.
I don't make excuses for Charlotte like I didn't make excuses for my father. I never said I walked into a door when I'd walked into Keeton's hot fist.
She intends to teach me how to swim, as her mother taught her: by way of immerson, by way of struggle, by way of panic and claustrophobia and water in my lungs.
She took me on my first bender. She taught me to blow smoke rings and to catch men's eyes in bars. Knowing I did not go to parties, avoided groups of more than three and extended conversation, Charlotte threw me into a frat in a plaid mini and fishnets. Just to watch me squirm. To watch their eyes on me, which men's eyes never are.
When I wake up with Simon, I am sure it is Charlotte's fault, though only some details are clear to me now.
There was the reefer-and-patchouli-stinking hippie bar she took me to, the one that looks like a log cabin. The natty white-boy dreads and beards and me alone at the pinball machine.
There is a beard and a pair of glasses at the end of the bar. The eyes are interested; I am alternately fixated on him and pinball. Before I was consciously thinking of him, my body was.
There is the sidewalk lined with picnic tables, under awning, for smokers. There are the flashes of lightning on the street. Twice in the same place, in this town where lightning never strikes.
It's a beautiful cliche, I say to Simon. I may already be talking into his beard. Twice. In the same place. Taking it just slightly further than necessary, I whisper, In the same place. Me and you.
Maybe he says, Aren't you glad we are both here to see it. Maybe he does not speak, swallowing me up in a long and comfortable silence.
It would be the first of many. We know where to look for the forks in each other's kitchen, the measuring cups, the wooden spoons. I don't have to express my gratitude that the only knife play here involves cream cheese and peanut butter and bagels. It's true that one day I will wake from a lucid Keeton nightmare, sweating, shivering, and I will have to lean into Simon and explain. At present I count Simon's freckles, and marvel that we allow ourselves this kind of silence after one week, two weeks, three and four.
Charlotte, the perpetual devil on my shoulder, says After the third or fourth heartbreak you will toughen, you will know you are going to be OK. I will add this - cruel honesty - to the list of Charlotte's unpleasant habits. I am afraid I am about to make the same deer-caught-in-the-headlights face Charlotte always makes, and turn tail. But I don't.
One morning as I leave Simon's house for work the sun makes what I call a cameo, in this city where time of day is gauged by the shade of the gray of the sky, no spectacular orb in sight. It is clean, winter-wet sunshine, bouncing off the deep puddles and all over the slick wet houses with the slick white picket fences and the slick young boys delivering the morning paper.
There is a woman in our neighborhood who wears a ski mask at all times, regardless of the weather. She does know my name, because I worked at a soup kitchen. She does not know that Charlotte and I used to joke that this town is so quaint, even the homeless were hired to provide local color. She approaches me on the sidewalk. I smile and greet her and wait for her to say something crazy, slightly profound or perhaps merely ribald. It is scripted thus. The young woman, falling in love, seeks the counsel of a local bag lady. I am every corny movie I have ever seen.
She says, Marlene, Marlene, speaking in italics, speaking in a stage whisper. She opens her palm and reveals a monarch, rubbed raw by last night's violent rain, its wings transparent but for the black trim. It flaps its wings a couple times, futilely, leaps up and down her arms. Marlene. The woman's eyes are weak blue pools and lock with mine for just a moment before she walks away.
In a flash I know this butterfly is the reason I will stay with Simon - if in fact I stay. If in fact he stays with me. I know I will tell Charlotte about it tonight while she is pouring wine for dinner. She will grin momentarily and dismiss it. I will tell my friend Gina from high school, and Gina will overread it as an omen for my new life. She will tell me what each piece of the metaphor means and kill it, leave it limp as that poor creature's wings. I will tell my brother and he will say, "And?" And Simon will know to greet it with Buddha-like, grinning silence. I will tell him the story again and again, talking into his beard, into his lobes, into the hair on his head. And he will listen.
This one is not my life, by the way, in case you were wondering.