The proxy returned to the car with the dress in Emma’s suitcase. He made no mention of his selection, and she did not ask. From there the two resumed the short jaunt to his house.
The queasy woman, with luggage in hand, plodded upstairs for a lie-down while the host took a detour through the kitchen in search for a bowl suitable to display his earlier-purchased Halloween candy. He doubted many trick-or-treaters would turn up on his stoop that evening, but the activity was principally to buy time for what awaited him upstairs.
He wondered how Emma would react to the wedding gown. His choosing it was too much like a crush note made in his callow youth. Was he stupid to believe she would sensibly work out the meaning of it in his absence, and then, once he appeared in the doorway, throw herself into his arms with an emphatic yes? A proposal of marriage was surely implied by his selection of the dress, but the fashion-plate girl was used to wearing the formal gown in informal situations. It was not certain the dress, or his choosing it, would have enough gravitas on the occasion to leave little doubt about interpretation. Yet was his intention entirely dependent on Emma’s interpretation?
He thought to grab Jacques’ envelope from the car before coming in, so set it on the kitchen counter while he rummaged through cabinets. The scrawled note on the bulky package was something out of Rosemary’s Baby: The name is an anagram –J
With bowl located, Aloysius tore open the envelope to confirm his suspicions about the contents. He grabbed a cruddy bottle of Pepto-Bismol from the refrigerator before removing bowl and candy to the living room, whereupon he trudged upstairs to face the consequences of his rashness.
Emma sat shriveled on his dark bed; the suitcase was in the floor and still unopened. Her voice was feebler. “I need help.”
The man sank beneath the pitiful cry to her knees, offering amelioration. “I brought you some Pepto-Bismol.”
The half-closed fingers of her hands resembled wilted petals turned up in her lap. One unfurled slowly to reveal a sliver of crumpled paper: It was Amber’s phone number taken from his dashboard.
This was Emma’s symbolism—not his; and for all its starkness he was bound to perceive it with as much ambiguity as what he intended in his selection of the wedding dress. Aloysius looked into her forlorn face, keenly feeling her gaze even as he labored to read it. If she wanted him to renounce Amber and pledge undying love to her, wouldn’t she remove all doubt by saying as much? It was perhaps left for him to pluck the note from her possession and allay her anguish by answering the gesture with a wordless kiss. Such bold presumption was not in his nature. Even if reciprocity of feeling was certain on her part, he could not imagine how he should act on it. Critical seconds, like cold blood pumping through his chest, lapsed in his silent, futile deliberation.
The fingers on her second hand opened, revealing a utility blade lying in the center of her palm. Aloysius looked to the candle and ceramic plate still resting on the night table, seeing where she found it. The blade’s juxtaposition to the scar on the same arm could not have been more striking. This second attempt at symbolism did nothing to remedy his predicament, and the combination of the two symbols, side-by-side, beyond being objects conveniently lying in her path, were incongruous to reason. Her snatching the phone number was the more willful act, yet picking up the razor suggested she was beyond a point where love could save her. He was no more in her suicidal thoughts than was the baby she carried.
And yet, was there another way to see it? Was the blade, which she deliberately held back, added second to her message purposefully? Was it to underscore the meaning implicit in the crumpled phone number? That she could not live without him… There must be logic in this sequence of gestures.
Emma was compelled to return the scrap of paper and blade on the nightstand, and the opportunity to act was lost: lost like so many fateful moments in his life when he knew what to do yet could not act.
Her stained dress was unzipped, and she began to wiggle out of it without assistance. Aloysius eased back when the garment dropped from her flushed bosom. Touching her now, even in a helpful way, would be different. One lost opportunity rescinded all other opportunities. Momentum was no longer his.
Emma rose unsteadily to her feet to push the gathering folds of chiffon down over her beautiful hips; her briefs and bra were the same improbable shade of pink as the Pepto-Bismol bottle at the foot of the bed. With dress pooling at her ankles, she returned to her high perch to stare and shiver.
Aloysius found nothing in her face but blankness. He ran away from his half-baked plan in the suitcase. “Do you want a sweater?”
She drooped in the direction of the pillow with an outstretched hand, pleading dolefully, “Nap with me.”
The suitor stood up, shaking more than she, and looked down at the line of her long body on the bed. It was half in light and half in shadow: half gangly girl and half sensuous woman.
She took his fingers. “Keep me warm.”
A knee was raised to stop him toppling, but he yielded. Aloysius faced her from the other half of a pillow and dipped in and out of her drowsiness. The proximity and dimness made them roughly equivalent in a kind a horizontal logic; and maybe this was her thinking. He wanted to believe a single skin flowed between them, and their life together was settled; yet nothing was settled. He looked down at her smooth, flat stomach, so late to see what others saw, so alone to see what only he could see.
A vein in Emma’s palm pulsed down his wrist: a thought for each of his, though none were likely to intersect. “I have been cruel to you,” she said.
“But no,” answered he.
“You must think me a faithless woman.”
“Of course not.”
“I have been faithless.”
“Only in losing faith.”
She smiled at the comforting words. “I want to be a good person, Aloysius. If I’ve been bad, then it’s because I want to be better. If I’ve been cruel, then it was to be kind.”
In other words, he thought, she sought to kindly dissuade his interest by her treatment of him. She never explained the ring—had assumed it served its purpose in warding off his heart. Her only cruelty was in supposing him to be a man of sense.
Emma felt him going distant. “I have sent you no mixed signals. I have tried to be honest with you from the beginning. As honest as anyone can claim to be when everything is changing around them.”
So much exposition boded no good. His hand went ice cold in hers.
She sighed. “Can’t you see what I’m getting at?”
He was gone. A shadow. Past hearing her.
She tugged his hand. “Can’t you see?”
He spoke in the direction of truth. “I am blind, Emma.”
“Blind…? Blind how?”
He saw nothing of her below him in the narrow stairwell, yet felt her fingers entwine tighter around his. He could not elaborate.
“When you are at your easel,” she began tentatively, “do you see where you’re going?”
“Are you lost?”
She was trying to pitch him forward in the darkness and send him tumbling, so he replied, “It’s different.”
“Art is less logical.”
“Less logical than this?”
He knotted between the close splintery walls, looking into blackness where more stair steps were presumed to lie. “Yes,” he answered.
“Should this be logical?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Should this be more like art?”
“In what way?”
He plumbed. “It should be true like art.”
He expanded on the term. “Good.”
She coaxed him down an unseen step, closer to what he wanted to say. “Then logic cannot impart what is most good?”
“Yes,” said he.
“Then what is most good, most true for you about this?”
The question entered his head sideways. “There is a commitment.”
Seizing on a cue, Aloysius pinched the engagement ring around her finger. It moved him down another unseen step.
Thump. Thump. A rap of knuckles rose from the front door downstairs.
He lagged a second or two behind it, skittishly crossing back over the step. “That might be trick-or-treaters,” he muttered. “I should go down and answer it.” He groped for the side of the passageway—It was gone.
Emma squeezed his hand, steadying him before easing him back down the given-up step. Her voice was warmer, womanlier in the dark. “What does the ring mean to you?”
“Duty,” he said weakly.
“No,” she responded. “Not duty.”
Thump. Thump. The knocking bounded louder up the remaining steps.
He teetered over them, dizzily. “Not duty,” he agreed.
“Not friendship,” he ventured to add.
“Yes,” she agreed.
What was it to her if not friendship?
Thump. Thump. The summons was closer—in the house.
Her grip was both distraction and anchor. “I can’t see, Emma.” Using his free hand, he pushed against the yielding dark. “I can’t see.”
“What does the ring mean?” she gently pressed.
“Hello up there?” came a booming voice from the bottom of the well.
It was much further down than he supposed; he trembled.
She waited patiently.
Time was again slipping away. Women looked back at him from across time, from across tables in restaurants, waiting for him to say or do something.
There was a tender tug.
He gripped her hand harder, not wanting any more grains of sand to escape his grasp while he tried to resolve his dilemma. A logical solution was required: a solution worked out by his head where his heart would not be broken. There had to be…
“Hello…?” The voice rebounded over both of them.
A draft rose with the salutation, enlarging the folds of Emma’s gown. They arched over her head to become feathery wings. She would not pull anymore—would not act for him. “What does the ring mean to you, Aloysius?”
Logic could not save him. His shaking foot dropped into the abyss, and with a prayer she would catch him. “That I love you,” he answered.
Tears, unbeknownst to him, streamed down his cheek to the pillowcase. Her hand lifted to dab them, and he once more saw her on the bed, only with a far-in-coming smile. “Then it is a commitment—a love—we share,” she whispered sweetly.
Aloysius took hold of her grazing fingers, covering them with tender kisses; his joy instantly dissolved with a last caress. No scar was on her wrist. He shrank away, murmuring, “This is a dream…”
Her concise reply lit delicately on his half of the pillow. “You are on your left side. You cannot fall asleep on your left side.”
Again came the call from downstairs. “Hello…?”
Confused, the man slipped out of the tangle of soft limbs to trail off over the edge of the bed. Snagging one of his cardigans from the headboard, he draped it over her shoulder, yet could think of nothing more to say—nothing that needed to be said. He inched backward to bump the suitcase in the floor; a glance revealed the fasteners were unclasped. She had looked inside it.
Even in the dark, her limpid eyes pierced him with purpose. “The rest is just details to be worked out,” she reminded him.
Aloysius, slow to release her, turned toward the light in the hallway.
Omar stared up from the bottom of the stairs.
Chapter Twenty-five, Section Three/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.