It started, you remind yourself, as a love marriage. He courted you carelessly, leaving another lover to twist in the wind the first time you kissed. You erase that part. Guilt has no place messing with what’s meant to be. You were so young. He lined you up like a sniper’s shot, wooed you with all the once-upon-a-time in his arsenal, made you laugh like the dickens. Passion, it turns out, is just another word for what crimes are made of. Amazing what all you can cloak under the mantle of destiny, how much you can sweep under the fancy rug of fate.
Lifetimes ago, crying in the bath when he wouldn’t come home or take your calls, you tried to scratch your way out of that feeling with your own blunt, ragged fingernails. How could you know you’d carry around the sting of those long red welts on your thigh all this time?
You are still so young.
Dimly, you think: If he makes you feel like this, you have to leave. But like a child with a secret, you know if you tell an adult like you’re supposed to, they will take this away from you, this beautiful dangerous thing that glitters like love. You carefully put this shining thing in a sheath to hide its knife edge. You bathe it only in flattering light until you can no longer imagine slitting open the secret. You let what happen to you? Anyone who thinks that’s okay must deserve it. And you know you must. Pull it together, you tell yourself. You can’t have everything you want all the time. Love doesn’t mean someone’s life stops for you. Sometimes you have to hear a no, sometimes you’ll feel rejected. Grow up. Lives later you learn a surprising fact. Love is supposed to be an island without rejection, like Ireland is without snakes. That can’t be real, you think. How could anyone have driven that out? If a place like that exists, why didn’t I know? You mean I could have been living there instead this whole time, stepping through tall grass without fear?
At night you lay curled on the mattress together until he’d suddenly unfold his arms, dropping you off the bed onto the rug below. Sometimes he’d catch you before you hit the floor. Not always. When you fell, he’d laugh. Horseplay, you think, this is playful, this is how we love each other. Learn to take a joke.
He likes to brag: the improbable summer he rode horses; his godfather’s Tuscan villa; a thousand absurd teenaged circuses. But when you ask how many people he’s slept with, his jaw latches tight. Tell me, you say, I don’t care, I’m just curious. I love you no matter what. He slams the door of his face and refuses to give you anything. Respecting each other’s boundaries is what love looks like, you tell yourself, and you let him have his privacy. Later you realize he must have refused to give you a number so that you’d never know if it changed. Or maybe he denied so many things, it was impossible for him to count.
When you bump into people he knows, he doesn’t introduce you, though you cook his dinners and pick up his socks. When you pick him up from his bookshop shifts, none of the other clerks believe you’re his. Too pretty. You glow under this spotlight. You like the imbalance because you think it will keep you cherished, keep you safe.
In another life, you run into him on the subway, his arm around another girl. You extend your hand to her. You introduce yourself, you tell her who you are in relation to this man. You tell her to run. You slip her your card and ask her to call if she ever needs a getaway car, if she ever wants to know more about what he really is.
You know his type, and you know you aren’t it. He’s a breast man, and you’re the wrong kind of turkey. He tells you about the gym teacher who griped to the class that his wife barely had a handful: a raw deal. You laugh because the rules say you have to find this funny. It’s possible you are naked when he tells this story. It’s certain you cover your chest. When you get the courage to confess your fear he’s not attracted to you, that you’d never be the one he picked out across the room, he tells you you’re right. The first time you had sex he looked up at you and called you gorgeous, and you slapped his cheek. You don’t need to use lines with me, you said. We both know you only like me for my personality. It feels good to be right. Now when you ask him to repeat a compliment, he tells you not to get greedy.
When he tells you how to dress, you listen. Your wardrobe starts to resemble a stranger. He begs you not to cut your hair, threatening you with a long-ago flapper bob you actually remember liking until he corrects you. When you take up running, he looks up from his neverending book and sighs, makes you promise not to become a health nut, makes you promise not to lose your ass.
He vigilantly points out when you look bad— shoes, face, posture, attitude — so when he scatters crumbs of praise, you know he really means it.
How lucky, you think, to have someone who sees you exactly as you are in all your unworthiness and loves you anyway.
You think your whole life is laid out in front of you. You think you get to choose. You think you’re telling this story for the first time. Ha. Time eddies around you, doubles. This story was written long before you were born. It lay in wait for you to grow old enough to pick it up, to turn the page, to fall in, to play your part. How many times have you been here before? You think you’re so original. How many times have you fallen for this trick? You float and paddle, drifting in the tide of Is and mes and mys. You flip back and forth, searching for the place where you get to do it over, do it better. You really think you get to choose. Ha! If you only had the distance, you could see the scarred canyons and the fault lines, the layers of time like stuck-together pages. It’s easier to tell this story if it didn’t happen to you. But it certainly happened to someone.
It’s not like he’s especially handsome. You go to the penny-theater together and neither of you can take your eyes off the leading man. You love watching this actor’s beakish nose, his flashing eyes and mobile mouth, the rangy expressive lines of him. You keep forgetting you’re watching an actor at all, and only when his co-star flubs a line do you remember. You wonder what it must be like to share a life with someone so electric. When the show ends, your husband says, awestruck, He’s such a good actor. He knows how to act handsome and we all just believe him. There’s a whisper of resentment at the edges of his comment. Your husband hoists his suspenders, thumbs grazing the jellybean of his thick belly. He runs a hand through his sticky, thinning hair, works his soft jaw to spit on the ground. You can’t help it: you still love the ropy musculature of his forearms, his ice-green eyes. When he smiles at you all is sunshine. When he chooses to, he can make you feel like the only light in the room. Focus on that.
You put on lingerie — garter belts are involved, the whole deal — and he says no. He goes to bed, he talks about a stomachache, he farts at his computer instead. You slink to the bathroom to quietly rub one out so you can sleep. When you come, what bubbles up from your chest along with the crescendo of release feels so much like a sob.
On the hottest day of the year, he rubs an ice cube down your bare back, and you melt together from there. Afterward, outstretched and contented as cats in the sun, sweat cooling on your skin, you realize you’re hungry. You get up to make quesadillas naked in the stifling kitchen, which you bring back to eat in bed. How lucky are we, you beam at him. A flash of clarity: everything beautiful you see here, you made yourself. He’s just the mirror. All the goodness he shows you is only your own, refracted. Quickly, you chew this thought and swallow it.
You have trouble sleeping when he doesn’t come to bed. He doesn’t come home, or he stays up in front of some screen or other. He makes a show of tucking you in. He flings open the bedroom door, bellowing about how you made him feel stupid for asking him to abandon the simple manly pleasure of playing video games until four AM. How he was looking forward to it, and you ruined it.
Why does it always have to be about what you want, he grumbles. He tells you frequently how selfish you are. You try to ask for less. You try to learn to meditate, to learn how to stop wanting what you want, to stop wanting things all the time. If the things you wanted were only reasonable, maybe then he’d give them to you.
You learn to give yourself what you can. You hide the receipts. You thank him instead. You can both pretend.
He punches holes in bookshelves. He dents a wall. He never wants you to see that side of him, he says. Reassurance: he punches things, but never you. He punches things because he never wants to punch you. It’s sweet, you think, that he wants to protect you, that he loves you enough to be afraid of hurting you. You cover the holes in the plaster so they won’t look ugly. He gets so high he doesn’t recognize you and insists on sleeping on the floor so he won’t be violent with you. You smile indulgently and say, But baby, you’re just lying still. You’re not moving at all.
Here and there, like a cloud passing over the sky of your life, you think about abused women and how sad it is that they stay. If he ever hit you, of course you’d leave. Who would put up with that? You feel so lucky you’re not in one of those relationships. You’re alone when you think this, but in the memory you can see your own face and it looks smug.
Is it a real memory or is it a dream that once he punched a wall when you were standing right next to it?
You make a pact about whether the first one of you to die is allowed to haunt the other. No spooky stuff, you agree. God, he made you laugh. The things you’ll overlook if only someone is funny enough. He asks what you might do if you ever had to live without him. Needles you about all the handsome men you’d date. You’d clean up, he spits. But I’d be so sad, you say, and mean it. He hisses the names of friends he insists have crushes on you; swears he sees the way they look at you. If you ever realize how hot you are, he rails, you’ll leave me. When you ask what he’d do without you, he doesn’t hesitate. Probably kill myself, he shrugs.
In another life it turns out at least one of these friends did have a crush on you, loved you even, and you will always wonder how much would have been different if you’d known how to accept that love instead.
When you wake in the night with a fear you can’t shake, you wonder what counts as spooky stuff. But by now you know he never meant to honor any pact.
He disappears for work. He comes back with gifts, once a beautiful ring set with sapphires. He won it in a card game, he claims. It’s much too small for your finger, but you keep it safe in a drawer. Another pair of rings appears on the kitchen counter one afternoon after you’ve been out, simple stacking silver bands. He’s breathless when he tells you he found them on the street and brought them home for you. These don’t fit either, and you drop them in the drawer with the other.
You catch him in lies, but they follow such a strange dream logic tied in looping denials, impossible knots, that you become exhausted before you can untangle them. They’re often about such inconsequential things that you just decide to accept this. Okay, so he likes to lie. A harmless habit. What’s art anyway if not a pack of beautiful lies? It’s not until later you realize good art is all true. When he tells you the person on the phone is his mother, you just nod. You’re conditioned to swallow suspicion like a dry pill. Impressive! Good girl.
You don’t write much in the lives you spend with him. In the lives where you do, he makes it clear he is uninterested and unwilling to read any of it. His fear is always the same as yours: what if he read it, and it was bad? You don’t realize until it’s too late: the deal you made was that same old enchanted curse. Trade your voice for love.
You dream that the two of you killed someone, and swore never to tell. Together, you hid the evidence and got away with it. You wake up gasping, terrified that the dream wasn’t a dream at all but the undead fist of memory punching up through the soil. Even though you know precisely which scary book before bed fueled this, you are afraid for weeks that maybe it really happened, too dense to realize the dream was actually trying to tell you something else entirely.
The night of the knives. Let’s not open that drawer yet. The next morning you blame the spent ashes of your face on a New Years Eve hangover. You can’t eat a bite at brunch with your friends, whose cheeks are shining with love for you. Eat something, you’ll feel better. But you know you won’t. It’s not that kind of hangover. You keep your sunglasses on and you feel yourself drifting farther and farther away from them. To tell them about this, there’s so much else you’ll have to tell them first. It seems important that when you tell them, they must not be shocked.
You ask him if he’d consider going to therapy. He says he doesn’t trust therapists. He doesn’t see the point, since they’re so easy to outsmart. Someone made him go when he was a child, and he tells you how he dodged and weaved so their fishing expeditions sent them home empty-handed. Eventually the therapist was able to certify that he was just fine, just peachy, the very rose of healthy boyhood. It’s so easy to give them the answers they want and walk away clean. He sneers with the pride of talking his way into or out of anything — the only gift of his he was ever truly confident in.
Which is the worse lie: that this isn’t how it happened, or that it never happened at all?
You know you aren’t the only person this has happened to, right? There are only so many stories in the world. There are spaces in time like a cold spot in the ocean. Places where it’s easy to get stuck on repeat. What is now and what was then blurs, and nobody’s there to tell you which is which. If they haven’t been there, they can’t say. Watch your step.
For the first time in many lives, your husband takes you out. You’re festooned impeccably in that dress he loves. You’re looking forward to the cabaret. You get sozzled in all the excitement, delighted to let a little loose. You have hoped that on this special occasion, you could lighten your limbs on bubbles and gin while your husband for once stayed solid, tethered to the ground, and swung you around the dance floor. But he can’t stay sober, and when a chorus girl runs her fingers along his shoulder he follows her like a delicious scent. You try to be game, you try to be modern. You don’t own him! Let him dance with a chorus girl if he likes. He is gone so long you begin to wilt, hiccupping at your table, watching those arms you love so well wrapped around the chorus girl’s waist. You slumpingly notice she has the hairstyle you’d wanted to try, one he told you wouldn’t suit you at all.
Before you know it, the clock strikes midnight. Confetti fills the air, the band strikes up, and 1917 begins with your husband kissing the chorus girl and not you. She was there, he argues, I couldn’t get to you in time, and what am I supposed to do, not kiss somebody at midnight? I forgot who I was dancing with, all right? I thought she was you. By the time you stumble over your own threshold, both slipping out of your wet shoes, you’re both roaring drunk and screaming a scene. He yanks out the kitchen drawer in rage; all the contents clatter to the floor. You blink as your clean silver lays there, shining loud as a warning. Before you can react, he picks up the biggest, sharpest knife. All the blood in your body rushes to your head. This is the moment you have been afraid of. Blood thrashes and slams in your ears. It is finally here. A yelp escapes as you press yourself against a wall. Get out, a strange icy voice says, with your mouth. Drop the knife and get out of this house.
It’s not for you, he shouts, disgusted. You think I’d ever hurt you?
He dashes for the door and you slam it behind him, fumble for the bolt. I can’t believe you think I’d hurt you! he slurs, and bangs the door so hard it shakes. Through the frosted pane, you watch him flail. If he goes out into the frigid night with a knife, barefoot and sobbing, someone could turn up dead. It hardly matters who.
There are lives where you answer a policeman’s knock or a summons to identify him. In some, no word ever again — poof! But in this one, he returns quickly, like a child who has only feigned running away. You persuade him to hand you the knife, handle first, and bundle him into bed. He is snoring within minutes. You go back to the kitchen and clean up numbly, drink a glass of water that trembles as you bring it to your lips. You lie awake all night next to this foreign body, wondering what to do now that you know a monster lives in your house.
In spring, you stroll beneath magnolia trees and the United States agree to go to war. You continue to wage your own private one but in June, the world comes knocking. A draft letter arrives for your beloved. He is a coward, but his hands are tied. You kiss your doughboy goodbye at the port of embarkation. You can see the fear in his eyes, and he makes you swear you’ll write him. By way of comfort you want to tell him not to worry, that you’re certain he has what it takes to kill. That he might even find he likes it. Instead you just nod and make a joke about how you’ve always wanted to go to France, always wanted to receive love letters from overseas. Be safe, you warn him with a tenderness that surprises you. Come back in one piece.
Heaven, hell, or Hoboken, he promises grimly. Well, two out of three’s not bad.
You find new homes for your attention in his absence. Clean sheets on the bed, just for you. A warm bun from the bakery only you like. Your body develops strange appetites. You are undressing in the mirror when you catch a glimpse of your flesh, your tender breasts, and notice your pulse echoing between your legs. You watch as you pull down your bloomers, spread yourself, peer at the neat pink oyster shining there. You look into your own eyes. You miss him. He loves me, he loves me not: your mind back and forth between the two, your fingers moving in the same rhythm until it doesn’t matter anymore.
Certain smells start to repulse you. Some days your cheeks grow rosy and full, other mornings you wake drawn and queasy. What is this strain of grief called, you wonder?
Not long after your husband leaves for France, a woman appears on your doorstep, looking for him. She says her name is Rose, like yours. She is as surprised to meet you as you are to meet her. She is tall, sturdy, ruddy; curls are escaping her pins. You tell her she has the wrong apartment, and slam the door.
The other Rose returns the next day and asks for him again. She says it’s an emergency, she really has to speak with him. You tell her he is not at home. If she’d been just a little quicker trying to put her fingers in the jamb, you’d have crushed them.
The third time the woman comes to call, you glower, hand on your hip. When you finally tell her your husband has gone off to war she blinks for a long moment and then sticks her hand out to you. We may as well get this over with, then, she says. I’m just as sorry to tell you as you will be to hear it that I’m pregnant with a baby who’s apparently your husband’s. You try to press your lips together, but your strange voice tells her to come in, asks her how she takes her tea.
You write your husband a letter. Congratulations. You’re going to be a father. You promise to enclose a photograph next time of a young mother-to-be in the bloom of health.
I won’t lie to you, sweet-heart, his dirty scrawl replies. It pretty much sucks in the foxhole. Send a picture Q-U-I-C-K, my love.
As you lick the airmail stamps, you picture his face when he sees a photo of the other Rose in the muck and stench of some French trench. For you, my love: I toss this wrench. Good luck. I hope you came buckets, you write on the back of the photograph. You lick the unassuming white envelope addressed to his mother next, with a second copy of the photograph. Putting them in the postbox you imagine what it feels like to pull a pin from a grenade and lob it. Duck and cover, boys. Or maybe you’re not ready to make jokes like that, even to yourself. You can’t wait for the cell phone to be invented so you can block his number.
It’s the other Rose who breaks your own pregnancy to you, notes the betrayal of the timing. You wonder how many other half-twins your child might have. You say this to the other Rose, and you can’t think of another living person who might get as close to knowing how you feel. She makes you tea, belly bumping against the counter. She asks you what you want to do.
To do? Today?
About the baby.
Does one have to “do” anything? Motherhood, you always thought, happens to women, like weather. You can hide, but you’re still liable to get soaked through.
There are doctors, she whispers. You ask why she came to you instead of going to one of them, then. She shrugs and tells you about a friend she used to have, Eleanor, clubbed on the head through a doctor’s blindfold so she wouldn’t feel anything and couldn’t say where she’d been. How Eleanor woke up with an egg on her noggin and blood down below. But, the other Rose says, it’s an option.
You never ask the other Rose to stay. But your threshold asked the minute she stepped through it, and the locked room within you, begging for a single yes. A small flicker asks from within the intelligent machine of your dumb animal body. And the other Rose never asks to stay, either. She doesn’t have to. You both know she doesn’t have anywhere else she can go.
You and the other Rose go together to be fitted for new brassieres, just because. The other Rose sews her own clothes. She knits hats for the babies, and soft little boots. You ask her to teach you how and she is patient with your clumsy stitches. You brush each other’s hair. The other Rose tells you stories about how she used to chop her own wood, hunt her own food, put out fires, ride horses and freight trains. She tells you about everyone she has ever touched. She tells you about leaving home far too young for reasons far too dark. You are embarrassed to tell her how you left your wealthy family to live here with some charming Irishman who made charcoal sketches and how the charm wore off around the same time the money did, how the worst thing that ever happened to you is the thing you have in common. She listens, asks questions, tells you it’s not a contest. You’re both here now, aren’t you?
You sleep in the same bed, swelling bellies pressing together, and some nights you talk about names. What if you name them all Rose? You could tell each other apart by how you said the name, each would press its own fingerprint to your ears. Or you’d take on nicknames: Red Rose, Dark Rose, Baby Rose, Boy Rose. You fall asleep and dream you give birth to snakes: sometimes in a writhing tangle; sometimes just one, long and thick, slithering out of you in shining coils, forked tongue flashing.
You hear from him at night. The ping of the texts wakes you up.
Him: it’s not what you thikn
Him: how long are you going to be mad at me???
Him: why do you hate me??
Him: it’s honestly more insulting that you even think I’d be capable of something like this
Him: everyone thinks you’re being ridiculous
Him: WHY WONT YOU ANSWER ME
The letters stop only when he dies, still lying to you, between the first birth and the second. You wait to be haunted, but nothing comes, except a folded flag, a federal pension. Not even a note from his mother. You dream of snakes eating themselves, over and over. You dream they swallow you whole, and you have to slice your way out.
What happens when the snakes are gone? Who starves? What proliferates?
You ask her finally, Did he really come buckets?
She shakes her head. A nothing little dribble, but he always fucked like someone with something to prove.
Was he good in bed, you ask her, because the other Rose knows things you don’t.
She shrugs. Depends on what you mean by good.
Did he ever really love us, you wonder? Or did he love you so much that he couldn’t really ever leave? You work it between your fingers, between your teeth, until all that’s left is dust, and dust doesn’t answer questions.
The births are horrible. The other Rose says later that it was the most beautiful experience of her life. But you saw: she almost died. Even the midwife was shaken, damp with sweat and effluvia. The baby was born blue but soon grew fat and pink and smiley. A girl, thank God.
Your baby is born a few weeks later, and the world puts down its weapons. Rose delivers your baby on her own. It is an agony, it is a miracle, and if she hadn’t been there, you could have believed you dreamed the whole thing. The boy is healthy and whole, but looks just like him. This scares you less than the swell of love you feel when his gurgle of laughter spills over you for the first time, less than the tenderness and trust of his reach, automatic as a blossom toward the sun. You raise them as twins, feeding each other’s babies from your own breasts. You think of Rome. You think of yourselves as she-wolves. What a strange family. A house with no knives. Your thorns and claws are sharp enough.
We never would have had this without him, Rose says to you in a moment of tenderness. We never would have had this with him, either, you snap, and leave the room.
Time passes and you start to sense a larger history forming just beyond your grasp; to sense that what you are experiencing now is a stitch in a tapestry too large for you to see. There is no way to tell whether you’re coming or going. You start to feel that you are ignoring the forest of some larger story of consequence because all you can see is the single bent sapling of your life.
When the babies are weaned, the other Rose tells you it’s time for one of you to find work. It doesn’t need to be spoken that your hands are too soft for anything like a job, and so soon you are alone with the children. This is more than enough work. The boy is gentle and curious. The girl is a riot of noise. You would do anything to keep them both like this forever. Rose comes home each evening from the cigar factory in coveralls and cap. She walks differently, leading with her shoulders. Though the work is tedious and the bosses nasty, she looks more alive than you’ve ever seen her. The wages of care sneak in on her cuffs, in the half-moons of her scrubbed fingernails. The children run to kiss her. Through the open window, the curved clipping of moon winks. All that light, shining from such a tiny, faraway sliver.
You don’t realize how lucky you have become until a cough becomes the single sharpest sound of fear you know, threatening to knock it all down. The children bark and the other Rose wheezes, pants. Somehow you become the battlefield nurse. You spoon them broth, you wipe their brows. The radiator blasts heat, and you open the window for relief. You put your head on their laps and weep. It pretty much sucks in the foxhole. Curled together against the threat, how many foxes are there? The other Rose, in fever sleep, still gently strokes your hair.
You close your eyes and see the imprint of his face against your eyelids, bright as a bloody shroud. Imagine if that were the person you were trapped with when the shit went down. You shiver. You dream of blighted gardens, of overgrown roses that choke out all light.
When you turn on the television, which you do more often now that you are not supposed to leave home, the worlds inside seem to have even less to do with you than usual. It’s the storm of the century, on the heels of a war. Hear the endless marching footfalls of a war that began when you were a child, a war whose end you can never remember if you’ve seen yet or not. When you hear a wail rise up from the street, you know what it means, though not who it’s for. The timeless daze of loss. The echo in the ecosystem. Everything collapses.
You wonder if this is how you will die. You wonder if this is how you will die. You wonder if this is how you will die. Everything happens at once. Everything happens again. The tall grass rustles as you step through, unsure but unafraid, willing to risk the venom.
Sarah Bess Jaffe is an award-winning audio producer and undecorated writer. Her work has been featured by NPR, Fusion Fragment, The Belladonna, Montez Press Radio, and countless Penguin Random House Audio productions. She is currently at work on a short story collection, a novel, and her ongoing quest for the perfect sandwich.