To the Dressing Room
Because he simply had to have some coffee first, Elizabeth stood outside the lush Calypso Coffee House waiting for Michael to search, and to find, and to park the car, and to walk, walk, walk, people and cars up and down the street, up and down, indefatigably, and she listened to the music pouring out from the terrace, and rolled her hair-tie on off her timeless wrist, bare wrist, she’d lost her watch, and her sister Leslie was to be married, today, it was happening, and Michael had lost his shirt for the wedding (because of course), and they’d run into some ex of his some Melissa last night (because of course), and Elizabeth had gotten into grad school (certainly not of course) and how did that happen the younger sister married first, what a travesty, Mom said, did say would continue to say until Elizabeth was waiting for Michael not to park but at the end of an aisle of her own, and her wrist, her body, was raw, exposed, bare, barren, infertile, unfertile, as-of-yet-not-suitably-proven-to-be-fertile, time left to fall about her with no regulation minutes and hours running this way and that in total chaos, carved from the marble of antiquity, Michael said one night, about her wrists, in vino veritas, quite funny almost charming at the time, anyway, now just strange now he says nothing don’t tell Elizabeth, don’t ever mention lost shirts, or lost exes, or lost plans in life, Leslie was to be married, and the wrist had no watch, and Michael was taking his time (what an odd phrase, who else’s would it be?), most assuredly not allowing himself to think that his parallel parking skills needed any work, even as he forwarded and reversed, forwarded and reversed.
Elizabeth stared ahead at an apartment building directly facing her, tall for the street and old for the decade. It was the same, almost, as it had been—had it really been seven years?—when she’d strolled down the street with Michael, blind and happy with the novelty of the act, stumbling by chance upon Calypso, making swift habit of it for days and months and years (seven!) on end. It had been the fall then (autumn, if one were writing a story), and Elizabeth had worn a denim jacket, very much the thing, with buttons, not snaps, and Michael had commented that he liked it as they walked. He evidently no longer felt the need to offer little compliments like that. And she had put her hands in the pockets and bent a little against the wind, more than was necessary, really, but it’d had the inward effect of some Annie Hall-type characterization, and she’d looked over at the old building with the windows and the drapery. Where was Michael? But the drapery. It was still there; she could see it now while waiting hungover without a watch in the sun. The windows on an upper floor were open, and a bit of antiquated drapery blew out in a dash for freedom. All the people who had looked out that window—what had they been thinking when they did so? What were they thinking now, if they still thought at all? She was not too old, they were not too old. They couldn’t be. There were so many more windows to look out, drapery to push aside, glances to steal down the street.
They were slender, the wrists, as she looked down at them. Rather tan. Read something once about how the ancient statues had been painted, reds and greens and blues, only to fade over the centuries into a pale, familiar stoicism. What to make of such a thing? Venus with arms was one thing; Venus holding a red handbag was quite another. She laughed again, this time almost audibly—but no, laughing aloud, fully and without regard is too much, too full of expression, here on this sidewalk inhabited by watchful strangers.
Elizabeth pondered her wrist again, looking a bit flushed, really, as Michael finally made his way across the street and towards her person—a person rather tired now, and thinking of coffee. She smiled, wearily (so many smiles in a day, think one would run out after a while), and walked with him into the bustling Calypso.
Inside, still Saturday, it seemed, despite the momentousness of this one, bringing with it the smartly dressed, the whitewashed patrons, scores of people with happy, undiscerning faces, women picking lightly at their toast as their young men, pleased to be seen in such company, watched them. The music was on, the night before undiscussed, even as Melissa insisted on her reality in Elizabeth’s memory, a reality of some other woman making hints and allegations towards Michael, about Michael, even the night before this long-sought wedding. How nice to sit outside on such a day, everyone obligingly said, Michael obligingly said, evidently unconcerned with the unlikelihood of their finding a suitable shade of blue, appearing quite pleased with the direction of the day, asking about coffee, asking about juice, asking in humor and levity about “inner organs of beasts and fowls. That’s always good here,” Michael said, his grin someplace between schoolboy and impish.
Elizabeth rubbed the tablecloth between fingers. So difficult, at times, not to smile. “With relish, I suppose?”
“At least vigor."
Michael was all ease and smiles, despite the hangover and all that’d come with it. What was he hiding behind that bleary-eyed expression? How many Melissas lingered in the chambers of his past? If he had wanted that life, that Mrs. Wallace Fever Dream Life, once, with Melissa, why not now? Who was to say those seven years of sweet nothings and obscure references didn’t amount to anything beyond Elizabeth-Placation-Tactic?
Elizabeth watched the waitress give her name, cast a glance at Michael—not at Elizabeth but at Michael—and meander in the brightening day. They were served aggrandized, porcelain-inspired mugs, while Michael made some joke to the waitress about the rugs, laid in calculated dilapidation about the floor and impeding Elizabeth from moving her chair. The waitress exploded in laughter.
Banging on tables and scraping on floors and tapping with feet and sipping with lips and Calypso always grew so crowded on the weekends, crowded with glimpses into life’s endless stream: young couple smiling through their toddler’s meltdown and newlyweds displaying their happiness like they’d earned it and middle-aged parents entertaining their prospective daughter-in-law, sipping mimosas slowly so as to not enjoy it too much. All so neatly packaged and presented, displayed like coveted jewels in a fine store for what else, after all, could one possibly wish? Sit straight to fit in and tap foot to keep time and what had happened since yesterday, since seven years ago, washed up in front of this bustling cafe with eager ambitious supportive inventive brilliant floppy-haired and unconcerned Michael—still unconcerned not concerned with losing shirts or forgetting dates or omitting unbeknownst former lovers. Simply drink coffee and say nothing at all, unaware Unaware UNAWARE of waitress and unaware of arguments and unaware of the future, and the hole burning through Elizabeth’s chest these last seven years of idyllic captivity stranded in stagnation moving nowhere in total comfort UNAWARE and UNCONCERNED with the grinding nagging gnawing pull of real Elizabeth far off down the shore across the sea and unaware of the location of that unfortunate shirt in the precise shade of blue and unaware of the location of heretofore hidden ex-girlfriends running into his fiancée at last night’s bar.
“Man, this is fun, huh,” he said, the smile lying. The smile always lies. It was quiet now that the patio had hushed. Take a breath before starting again. The sun fell on the smiling waitress and on uninformed Elizabeth. It was her time to respond.
“Crowded, today. Guess it’s Saturday.” Elizabeth sat back and splashed out some coffee, pressing her slim back into the iron frame. Each nuance of The Conversation was an entity, a portrait hung on an over-white wall, something to be considered in real-time, restless in its repose. Conversations were things to follow around at times in quiet nights, to replay, to consider the divergent paths they might have taken had the coffee spoon been placed somewhere else. Elizabeth sipped her coffee and looked around and where had all these people been, before now, ducking in and out of each other’s lives, finding answers without meaning behind questions they’d forgotten to ask? Michael, studying the menu, really looking at it. He always—for seven years now—ordered the same thing. Seven years of freedom, seven years spent in Calypso’s cocoa bean Purgatorio, comedic indeed, the freedom that binds one to life, seven years since that stale party and rushed conversation, seven years since taking a walk to cure the mild (how young they were!) hangover, stumbling upon Calypso the next morning. Time runs so quickly when allowed to go unchecked.
Elizabeth bumped her coffee mug into the bottle of olive oil, thick black heat bleeding quickly into fine, soft skin, and where had she gotten, where had she gone, what was her life, and where was its meaning? Just like everyone else in the end, a footnote in a margin, a brushstroke placed brusquely against the edge of the canvas, a scene enhancement in final edits. What did it matter? What was the point of it all? What had the last seven years gotten her, really, if she was to be trapped in endless Saturday mornings blithely dissecting brunch and talking about nothing at all? Like her mother, her sister—like them all. It was so useless fruitless POINTLESS there was NOTHINGNOTHINGNOTHING she would ever do or ever be, but then but then she’d been accepted that was done YES she could think on that level she WAS capable and DID belong, brilliant thoughts even here in timeless Calypso with tepid coffee and unaware fiancée.
“You know, I was gonna say earlier…” Michael put in, energized, it seemed, with remembrances. Odd, the things that slip in and out of mind, with no rhyme or reason. Why did the Calypso bring it out in her?
Her turn again.
“Yes?” It was nice to have a jolt when the conversation waned.
“Maybe I forgot to pack that shirt after all.”
Elizabeth set down her coffee, deeply black, confident in its darkness. “Is that so?”
“I think. Can’t say for sure.”
“That’s marvelous, Michael.”
Elizabeth swirled a spoon around the mug, stirring up nothing. Smiling customers sipping coffee and slipping comfortably into senescence. That was not the topic to broach—who cared now where the shirt was—with a far more important topic hanging over them like the burning sun. Yet, what was one to say, trapped in a stuffy café with demanding, unwanted errands spilling out from the seams of the day, with the ceremony later? She was not Michael, not Melissa, she could not slide in and out of conversations with ease. How could she bring it up now, with the day swelling and the sun coming straight down like rain, leading them to Leslie’s wedding of all things? How could she now dive full-on into the hidden chambers of the past? There was no time, not on the timeless wrist, not with the day moving along so inexorably and the evening holding so much, for years to come. No, there was only time for brief, lukewarm coffee before moving on.
Elizabeth put down her mug. “Nothing, forget it.”
He never seemed to notice a thing—not the goddamn blue shirt, not Melissa strolling up like a spirit from some hidden past. Elizabeth watched a small bubble drift around the edge of the mug until it burst unceremoniously. Who was this person sitting in her chair, Elizabeth’s hair falling about her shoulders and Elizabeth’s voice in her throat, who was so concerned, so unsure, so unspoken? Was this what her life was to be—should she finally acquiesce, finally settle down? And who was the man facing her, smiling blithely and examining the menu like it was up for auction? How many more unrevealed secrets lay beneath the flopping mop of hair across the table? One couldn’t simply go on, talking of nothing and thinking of everything, for all time.
“Alright. Big day today, Lizzie,” he said, affecting her mother. “Should be fun.”
Elizabeth laughed. He was easy to be around, and rather nice, and still handsome.
It was absurd, really, to go on obsessing over it.
It was hot on the patio, and the time could not be found, and Elizabeth’s hair whipped about, and Leslie would marry in mere hours, and the shirt was gone, and the past seven years along with it, and the next five decades they had once been aiming towards was built on a foundation of dreams, and the ten years she’d spent waiting to begin life—LIFE—now threatened to end in disaster, stifled in a hot stale Saturday, without meaning, without resolution, in unnoticed defeat.
But grad school, that was real, that had happened.
Michael grinned, leaned, sipped. There was that familiar lopsided glance again. Elizabeth didn’t mind it, really. She watched the smile drag itself up and almost, it seemed, beyond the left ear, the way it had seven years ago for the first time on their second date, telling her some story. A line of sweat emerged from Michael’s hair, advanced across his forehead, and crept down his cheek before falling unceremoniously to the table. How many drops of sweat had fallen over the last seven years, leaving invisible stains on perfectly adequate tablecloths?
Elizabeth fruitlessly attempted to itch a mosquito bite on her left ankle with her right, sandaled foot. Perhaps it was malarial. So, this was it, then; married life would be one extended early afternoon in advance of errand-running. Blithely not commenting on winking waitresses or secret exes, and examining menus as if they held new and improved topics of conversation. Elizabeth glanced around the patio full of tepid coffee and bad puns, clogged like an artery with people who hadn’t been coming to the Calypso for seven years, who hadn’t spent countless hours tucked into its ambrosial smell of eucalyptus with Austen and Dickens and Hardy. How could they all stand it: the endless onslaught of their lives with nothing to come but more of the same, until the bitter end, with nothing to look forward to but nothing at all? And Michael, too, was he secretly of their number—had he been all along?
“What, precisely, should be fun?” she asked.
“The wedding. It’s finally here. I hope your mom’s alright.” Michael grinned, the grin he used intentionally, the one that Elizabeth knew Michael knew caused her to smile, to be struck dumb, to let it go.
“Oh, positively delightful, I’m sure.”
Michael returned to the menu. He would order nothing, besides his coffee. The eucalyptus offered no shade here, in the café’s exposed center, where waitresses named Polly and young mothers named Responsible could examine Elizabeth’s advanced age, wondering when she’d finally stop with all this nonsense and settle down already. Yes, it was the exact table for such fun.
“Shirt shopping—I’m so excited,” Michael quipped from behind the menu.
To hell with it all. The wedding photos would still have to be taken, the shirt still bought.
The promenade was enveloped in sunlight and inhabited by terribly busy people doing terribly busy things, people that positively had to be where they were going right up until they had to be someplace else. Elizabeth looked once more at the skin of her wrist, discovering nothing.
“We really have to hurry, Michael.” Elizabeth turned to walk up the street. She did not slip her arm in his; she walked beside him, slowing her stride a bit, but she did not put her arm in his. Perhaps everything could not be discussed, but it could be hinted at. She transferred her bag to the other shoulder, its book-shaped form bouncing off her hip, marching in time with Michael.
“What am I supposed to do about the parking situation?” he asked.
“Not lose the shirt that my mother insisted you wear for the most important day of her or anyone’s life and that, should we not be able to replace it, the absence thereof would cause that same mother of mine to murder us with hotel linen, maybe?”
Michael stroked an invisible beard. “Yeah, that could’ve worked.”
She did not slip her arm into Michael’s to continue up the street.
Michael walked (how many steps it always took to get anyplace at all) next to her, alongside her, so many noises on the street and there it was, Michael’s shoes rhythmically, on a plain, falling, falling, on the stone pavement.
“But then we wouldn’t have this great adventure.” Michael laughed and laughed, a nice laugh (sonorous, the word might be, encompassing her like a heavy blanket she could wear around the apartment on a cold day), and nudged her with his elbow (for she had not slipped her arm in his), nudged her in the slender arm that flew up from the slender wrist, bare of time.
“Idiot,” she said, trying to keep the affection out of her voice. She couldn’t remember when he’d mentioned the thing about the ancient statues having color.
Cars were tumbling along in every direction Elizabeth looked, with the wind, against the wind, it did not matter to them. The wind did matter to her; it blew her hair around and paid no mind to her constant adjustments and consultations. She tried to flip it; it would not stay. For just a sliver of a heartbeat, just a breath, it seemed that Michael must be terribly put off, walking alongside a girl with hair all akimbo, who wouldn’t put her arm in his. Mad, the little things that dash around one’s mind, simply mad!
He did not look it, not at all. Of course, he could always walk with Melissa if he liked. She had gotten into school, and the street had sounds like music, and she had to find something in the way of a purpose, something worth believing in, worth building her life towards, and couldn’t it be with Michael like they’d planned, and with her parents’ silent acquiescence like it always had been, and with Elizabeth finding some shred of self-respect after so many years of play acting? The wind came, and her hair blew, and to hell with it all.
“Where would I get a shirt?” Michael asked, from somewhere to Elizabeth’s right. The color had to be blue, a cornflower blue, a remembrance for fallen soldiers, a remembrance for fallen Elizabeth, here in the street between Calypso and the sea where seven years of stagnation had caught up and drowned her.
Look for a shirt. That’s what they were doing. It was no more ridiculous than any other thing. Elizabeth walked quicker now; they were looking for a shirt. Going shirt shopping. This was what people did, then, on plateaued Saturday afternoons, walking along with or without their arms entwined, handing out measured and affected composure all along the boulevard. He had to have that blue shirt (how does one lose a shirt? Elizabeth had never lost a shirt in her life. Not that she could recall, anyhow) for the photographs. This was suitable, this was A Thing To Do. Terribly dull, though, to spend one’s day looking for shirts on crowded streets in the windswept sun, pointedly not talking about things. Well alright, this once, they would go along with it. There must be a place—all these people had to be going somewhere. Michael seemed to have found a store. Elizabeth found herself following him into it.
Inside, Elizabeth looked at Michael look at Michael in the mirror for the ninth time. Nine shirts. Nine long shirts she sat through, clinging to scraps of energy like a drowning man to splintered wood. It was at present indeterminate who, and for what reasons, had devised so many varying shades of blue to exist not only generally, but in largely identical patterns stitched among the various shirts of whatever store they’d finally found. The decision could not possibly be that difficult, although the results were of the utmost importance. The cursory bench, left to malinger in the changing room hall was not strong-willed enough for Elizabeth’s frame and slid backward every so often, slowly, like an old man slipping into a claw-footed tub. Far more irritating than not having a bench at all. Above all else, it was crucial to be comfortable while reading, lest the words dissolve from the page into all manner of outside disruptions. Such a conducive posture was not easily achieved on such a bench. Had it always been this hard? This, surely, could not be age, creeping up from its resting place. Michael walked back to the dressing room and so Elizabeth put down her interested glance and picked up her book again.
All around the store, the denizens were engrossed by their errands. So, was this what Life had to offer, should one turn with the tide, go with a life of mild contentment, go with her mother—should one finally give way and go against the vibrant struggles of art and mind? Errands run with unspoken, uncomfortable conversations? Mindless domestic duties at the forefront of an increasingly enfeebled mind? In a word (or two, rather), shirt shopping? No, it couldn't be, it was unthinkable, and surely Michael still felt the same, as he once had. But if not, if by some frightening stitch in their fated tapestry, he proved amenable to the crowd (it couldn't be, surely), all her brilliant English luminaries—Austen and Woolf and all their milieu—would be there, offering salvation in careful reading and close conversation. To reach old age, if she must, in a hovel of books maintained by candlelight.
Elizabeth blinked, and dear god, stay awake, Leslie is to be married, and the time is impossible to know, and yes, mother, I know I’m a terrible disappointment risking it all for something she may not even be good enough to do but NONSENSENONSENSE I got in you understand, Mom, I have to and was it maybejustmaybe possible to let both daughters live the way they wished, the music plays and the pages fall and hurryuppleaseitstime, and the comfort of normal life or the banality of ordinary life one in the same how can you not see this is what I must do or at least try to do, and go down as a great and bold failure, but NONO, I’m in it must count for something simply half the battle of getting in says something itself all apologies, mother, sincerely, soon doctor Elizabeth now show them all don’t you die on me now endless confidence, look at that brash young woman youcanbesoarrogant Michael, or no, Michael be bold whatever comes with the alternative is nothing the alternative is just like everyone else—
“What about this one?” Michael was saying, to the mirror and to himself.
By the time Elizabeth looked up, he’d gone. The words slid off the page again and onto the floor, and, because Elizabeth could not lean down to pick them up without the bench sliding completely across to the wall, she left them. Far too loud to read, the Pallisers would have to go home. Then, cutting through the noise of the shop and of her mind, sirens wailed, pouring in through a door flung open to the day, past inexplicable coat racks and milling, dispassionate patrons offering no reaction. It was as if no one else heard, as if they were blind and deaf to the world beyond. But out there was a trace, a glimmer of a place where great and terrible and memorable things happened, things that required thunderous sirens, screeching out their unmistakable call to be dealt with. Elizabeth rose half up off her bench, staring towards the sound. To run out the door and through the crowds and towards them, towards whatever those sirens called out. To run from all the banalities and insanities and lukewarm tragedies that kept her mind from pausing and kept the words from focusing, to run and run…but no, one could not simply go around running after tragedies—life bound one tight to the regularity of the mundane. And it always would, if she let it. There was far too much to do here, in the world she’d been given—there were, evidently, shirts to buy, shades of blue to discriminate between. So she wouldn’t run, no, no, not today, but come what may she was committed convicted dedicated. Melissa and Michael could run off and play house but notElizabethnotElizabeth she was SOMETHING she was GOING for it she was ALIVEALIVEALIVE here in the hot day on the stiff bench just before her sister’s wedding.
The sirens faded and the bench slid as Elizabeth looked up and Michael walked over.
“What do you think of this one?” he asked, yet agoddamngain.
“It’s not bad,” she said, with printed words curved around her finger, holding her place.
“You really like it?” Michael repeated, looking over at her this time.
“Honestly, I haven’t really been able to tell the difference between the last few. But, yes, this one is nice. We really have to go.”
Michael looked at her for a moment, and the laugh returned. “Alright, let’s do it.”
The end was invigorating, and Elizabeth stood up forcefully, sending the bench into a final retreat towards the wall. The shirt was found, collected her grandmother would have said, long ago (such a strange phrase, “don’t forget to collect your coat, dear”), and now they’d really accomplished something, it seemed. The store was energetic, everywhere all at once, as the workers moved around to ask, and prod, and pursue, and withdraw, and this was what there was to look forward to, a life of rote tranquility, running errands amongst everyone else and planning small extravagances to build a life around. It was no way to live, enmeshed in the mundane. It was an illusion, transitory, a trick of the light.
Up the street towards the yawning day, the noise was everywhere, a brilliant melody of daily existence. Out the door of somewhere, the same record played, high low loud quiet, and yes, dear, where did you sleep last night? A couple passed with heat in their voices, a winding vocal in intimate argument. The crowds pressed, now wide and now thin, cacophony arising from formless depths. Storefronts spilled out metallic songs, and vendor carts rolled in backing symphony. In the restaurant across the way, busboys ran between rickety outdoor tables, and waiters checked indifferently on meticulously placed orders like rogue keyboards tossing out random notes. Bursting families like great orchestral drums bangbangbanged on through the fullest part of the day, caravans of shopping bags and worn-out children. Listless teenagers mingled in groups of sullen interest, a bass guitar plucking idly by to laugh and to diminish in the painted margins of the sunlight. Occasional bicyclists came falling down the sidewalk towards the ocean like an exploding solo. Birds scattered high, soaring cymbals resting on open-air and watching for moments of opportunity. It all pulsed and shattered and quiet and loud and quiet and loud, and Elizabeth could feel everything, all the years in Calypso and by the sea, her apartment far away and ever so close, and she had to find her way through this untamed world but really, it was all very lovely, for a moment.