"This Other Us" by Deborah Willis, from Vanishing, and Other Stories
THE THREE OF US lived together for six years, in a two-bedroom suite on the bottom floor of an old house. We had a deck, a compost bin, and a herb garden we neglected. Like most young people in that coastal town, we rode our bikes everywhere, ate tofu, and went to bed early. We had two cats, many shared appliances, and we'd forgotten whose dishes were whose. We never kept track of who paid the biggest share of the hydro bill-it all evened out in the end, we decided-or who had cleaned the bathroom last. In fact, we hardly cleaned at all. We were used to each other's unruliness.
We also had routines that we shared. On Thursdays, Lawrence would bring home a Polanski or a Kubrick and we'd have a movie night with popcorn and vodka sevens. Karen had travelled for a year in India, so sometimes she'd get dressed up in a sari and cook curry in a big pot on the stove. She used whatever was in the fridge and every spice in the cupboard. It didn't always taste great, but Lawrence and I loved her so much that we ate it anyway. For days we'd eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so the three of us even shared digestion problems.
Sometimes we'd have friends over, or Karen and Lawrence would try to set me up with a boyfriend. But for most of those six years, it was just the three of us. It was as though we were all married to one another. Except that only two of us slept together.
One of us-that one was me-slept alone.
WE'D MET BECAUSE we'd all studied impractical things at the small university that was just outside of town. Karen had studied conceptual art, Lawrence political science, and I'd studied comparative lit. We continued to live together after we graduated, and into our mid-twenties-a time of anxiety and self-indulgence and poverty. Karen worked at the MAC makeup counter in the mall, Lawrence worked for Blockbuster, and I got casual hours at the library. None of us knew what we wanted to do with our lives. We only knew that we didn't want to return to the big eastern cities where we'd been raised-places where the air was not as clean and the weather not as warm. We considered our little suite home, and we considered one another family.
It's hard to explain what a perfect match we were, just like it's hard to explain what makes you love your boyfriend or your girlfriend. We were so different that people often said they couldn't believe we managed to get along at all. Karen wore fake eyelashes that made her green eyes look as perfect as the kind of doll's eyes that roll shut when you tip the toy backwards. She accentuated her nose with a gold ring, and her heart-shaped mouth with perfectly applied lipstick. She had red hair that she dyed even redder, and she looked improbable. Her skin was improbably pale and her hair was improbably red and she was improbably tall. She was the kind of person you never forget and you never get over.
Lawrence was one of those slouchy urban guys who wears tight jeans and witty, used T-shirts. He was skinny in an intellectual way, his 140-pound body a protest against conventional forms of masculinity like manual labour, going to the gym, and eating steak. His hair hung in his eyes, his jeans were frayed, and his sneakers were falling apart. He liked to watch cult movies and read the newspaper and take long naps in the afternoon. He was a hipster who was probably meant to become an instructor in a small-town college somewhere. If I were to imagine his future-though I've learned not to make predictions anymore-I would guess that he'd eventually trade the ironic T-shirts for sweaters and corduroys and unkempt, receding hair.
If you were in a room with the three of us, I would be the last person you'd notice. You might notice our cats, Percy and Beau, before you noticed me. I was almost a foot shorter than Karen, and I had dull brown hair. It brushed the tops of my ears in a style someone's kid sister might have. I wore flowing skirts and blouses because I was not proud of my body. It was-it is-scrawny and flat-chested. Sometimes generous people would say that I had a dancer's body, but I'd never been able to dance. And I didn't like to look in the mirror because, when I did, it seemed that all my features-my eyes, nose, mouth-were of one nondescript colour.
But somehow, we were all happy together. At least, two of us were.
I HAD PREPARED MYSELF for something bad to happen, because I'm the kind of person who thinks ahead. I'd imagined that, one day, Lawrence and Karen would sit me down and tell me that they were engaged or they were pregnant, and they wanted to live alone, as adults, as two people in love. I had never been in love, so I didn't know much about love's progression. I thought it might increase, grow until it got so big that there wasn't room for it and me in one house.
I was not prepared for what actually happened. I was not prepared to come home from work one afternoon and see, parked in front of the house, a pickup truck with the words Revolution Now! spray-painted across the back. I was not prepared to find Karen and Lawrence and the owner of the truck-a big guy with a goatee and a polite smile-in Karen and Lawrence's bedroom. I was certainly not prepared to see Karen shoving clothes into a backpack as Lawrence watched, and as the Revolution Now! Guy scratched Percy behind the ear.
"Hey," I said. "What's up?"
Karen looked at me. "Oh god. Oh god, Lise, I'm sorry."
I picked up Beau. He was fat and cross-eyed and the best thing to hold on to when there was a crisis. The cat and I stood in the bedroom doorway and watched Karen grab things from the closet-a pair of flip-flops, a handful of underwear-and stuff them into the backpack. I held Beau so tight that he started to squirm and dig his claws into my arm, but I didn't let him go.
Karen also took her pillow and her sketchbook, and she held up a T-shirt that said I am a sports fan. "This is mine, right?" She was asking Lawrence, because sometimes they shared clothes. I guess sometimes they forgot whose was whose.
"I don't know." Lawrence said this so quietly that I hardly heard him. "I don't remember."
Karen looked at him and blinked. "I'm pretty sure it is." Then she put the T-shirt in the backpack and said, "Okay, babe, let's go."
This time she was not talking to Lawrence. She was talking to the other guy, the Revolution Now! guy.
The two of them walked out of the house while Lawrence and I stared after them. We heard Karen kick the door shut with her boot, and we heard their steps on the deck. Then we didn't hear their steps anymore. We didn't hear anything. Then it was just me, Lawrence, Percy, and Beau, who had scratched me so deep that I was bleeding.
THAT FIRST WEEK after Karen left, Lawrence and I were sure she'd come back. We said, "She probably just went to Seattle to go shopping." We said, "She'll come in here dressed like Rita Hayworth and holding Chinese takeout and it'll be hilarious."
Because she had done hilarious things before. She had once come home holding a gigantic white wedding cake with the words Happy Common-law! written across it in pink icing. This was to celebrate the second anniversary of when we'd all moved in together. And she had once found an old electric guitar on the road, had it repaired, and learned to play a very fast, very rock-and roll version of "Puff the Magic Dragon." She and I had also shared a secret love of Rod Stewart. When Lawrence was out, Karen would take her boyfriend's artsy CDs out of the stereo, put on Rod Stewart's greatest hits, and say, "Take that, Radiohead! Fuck you, Mercury Rev!" Then we'd dance in the kitchen to "Tonight's the Night" and "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?"
Karen was the only person I'd ever allowed to see me dance. Sometimes she'd take my hand and spin me, and I'd twirl through the kitchen without worrying about how dumb I looked, or that I might kick over the cat-food dish. When Karen danced with me, I felt like myself, or like the self I wished I could be.
And almost every day, I'd come home from work to find her wearing something outrageous??she might be dressed as a goth Barbie or a sad clown. She had all these M?A?C samples that she was allowed to take home-lipsticks and foundations and eyeshadows- and each day she looked like a different person. It was as though there were a lot of Karens living inside her body. In a way, it scared me.
It didn't scare Lawrence. When Karen dressed up, he would say, "You look great, sweet pea." Then he would take her hand and they'd go into their bedroom and I would have to turn up my music.
THE SECOND WEEK AFTER KAREN LEFT, Lawrence and I didn't go in to work. He told the manager at Blockbuster that he'd had a family emergency and I faked a scratchy voice and told the librarians that I had laryngitis. Then we spent the whole week in our pyjamas. We ordered pizza, drank all the beer in the fridge, and smoked hash from an old, sticky Sprite can. We let the cats crawl all over us, we didn't shower, and we didn't smell very good.
THE THIRD WEEK, we did go to work because we realized that there were now only two of us to pay this month's bills. We picked up as many extra shifts as we could and we ate canned beans or Ichiban noodles for dinner. We didn't have enough money to go out, so we spent every night at home, watching Seinfeld on DVD.
Once, during the Bizarro-world episode, Lawrence started to cry. I had never seen Lawrence cry before, but I remembered that Karen said he sometimes did.
"At least you know you'll be okay." He wiped his eyes and nose on his sleeve. "At least you were just the roommate. I thought I was going to marry her."
I knew this wasn't true. I was not okay. I wasn't good at making friends, so even if such a thing existed, I wouldn't be able to go out and find a Karen-replacement. My heart was broken, like Rod Stewart's when he sings "I Don't Wanna Talk About It." And like Rod, I didn't want to talk about it, so I didn't say any of this. Instead, I said, "If Elaine left-I mean, just up and walked out- what would Jerry do?"
Lawrence did that thing where you start to laugh even as you're crying. "?What Would Jerry Do?'" he said. "That would make a great T-shirt."
But then, as the credits were rolling, he said, "He would kill himself." He said this as quietly as he'd said I don't know when Karen asked him about the sports-fan shirt. Then he said it again: "Jerry would kill himself."
Of course, Jerry wouldn't. But still, I took the Advil and Sinutab and Gravol out of the bathroom, and all the knives except for the dull one out of the kitchen drawer, and I hid everything under my bed.
KAREN WAS GONE FOR WEEKS. She was gone for months. She was gone so long that it started to seem like she'd never lived there at all. The stuff she'd left behind-the clothes and half-used tubes of lipstick-started to seem like it'd been forgotten by some previous tenant whom we'd never met. Her stuff seemed like it was up for grabs, so I began to wear her weird architectural shirts and her vintage skirts and her wool hats. I didn't fill them out properly, but they made me feel like a different, glamorous person. And I only wore them around the house, and only when Lawrence was out. That is, until one Tuesday he got off work early and came home to find me in a pair of Karen's purple tights, a long shirt Karen used to wear with a belt, and Karen's little beret. Lawrence stood in the doorway and let his eyes travel up and down my body. I was so ashamed that I couldn't move. I couldn't even make a joke out of it. I felt like a man who'd been caught trying on his wife's underwear.
Lawrence said, "You look hot, Lise."
No one had ever said that to me before. People had told me, "You look pretty today." Or, "But you're so cute." Or, "Nice shirt." But no one had ever used a word like hot. So I started wearing Karen's stuff more often. Just around the house at first, then on the occasional errand, then to work. I hemmed the skirts and pants that were too long for me, and I wore extra socks so I could fit into Karen's tall boots. I even started to wear her pyjamas and her lacy bras. And in secret, I would lock myself in the bathroom and apply her makeup: the iridescent pressed powder, the Pleasureful blush, the Cinnamon brow finisher. That's what I was doing one evening when Lawrence knocked on the bathroom door.
"Lise, can I come in?"
We were the kind of roommates who were so used to each other that we could pee with the other person in the room. We could shower-the curtain was not transparent-while the other person was brushing his or her teeth. So when I said, "No," Lawrence was understandably annoyed.
"What? Are you popping a zit in there or something?"
"No. I'm tweezing my private part."
"Stop being weird, okay, Lise. I need to take a piss."
I had lined my eyes with Karen's black Liquidlast liner and brushed on the Sweet Lust shadow. I had used a concealer under my eyes and, most importantly-most sacrilegiously-I'd put on Karen's Lady Danger lipstick. This was her favourite colour-a bright, deep red. Wearing her clothes was one thing, but I knew this was too much, this was too far. When I opened the bathroom door and Lawrence saw me, he looked like he'd been smacked in the face.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I was just goofing around." I took some toilet paper and started rubbing the lipstick off. It looked like blood on the paper.
"Stop it," said Lawrence.
I kept slapping at my mouth with the toilet paper, but no matter how much I rubbed, there was still a stain on my lips. I thought of when I'd visited Karen at work and heard her use her salesperson's voice. It's such a great colour on you, and this product is very long-lasting.
"Stop it." Lawrence put his hands on my shoulders. "Please."
Then he turned me around to face him. It was weird to have him touch me??we'd only ever touched when Karen was around, when we gave each other group hugs. His hands made my shoulders feel tingly, and I only let them stay there because I was wearing the makeup. With all this stuff on my face, I felt like a different person. And this person, this other me, was not afraid to be touched.
Lawrence picked up the Lady Danger lipstick and looked at it. It had been worn down to a stub and I wondered how Karen was managing to live without it. Then I wondered if maybe she wasn't. For the first time, it occurred to me that maybe Karen was dead. Or rather, it occurred to me that maybe I could act like she was. This thought must have occurred to Lawrence too, because he said, "Stand still." Then he held my face with one awkward male hand and held the tube of Lady Danger with the other. Slowly, gently, he reapplied it to my lips. He didn't do a good job, and we both laughed when we looked at me in the mirror. But that didn't matter. We both knew the lipstick would get smudged anyway. He took my hand and led me to their-his-bedroom. That first time, and every other time, we didn't bother to take Karen's clothes off my body.
MONTHS PASSED, and I stopped wearing any of my own clothing, using my own meagre hair and beauty products, or sleeping in my own room. I couldn't even stand to look at my old, single bed. So I went to a garage sale and bought a set of vintage wooden chairs and a lace tablecloth. Then I pulled my bed out from the wall, covered it with the tablecloth, and arranged the chairs around it.
"Now we have a dining room," I said to Lawrence. "Now we can have dinner parties."
We put candle holders in the centre of the mattress and came up with an imaginary guest list for our first dinner party. This list included, but was not limited to: David Lynch, Frida Kahlo, Lord Byron, John Wilmot, and Jane Jacobs.
We talked about these dinner parties while we lay in bed-our bed??and I rested my cheek on Lawrence's chest. I was used to his smell now, and the taste of his skin, and the way one of his ribs dug into the side of my head. I was not only used to these things-I liked them. I liked them so much that I thought about them all the time. As I shelved books for eight hours every day, I thought about Lawrence's body and his laugh and the way air whistled throughhis nostrils very quietly while he slept.
It was while we lay in bed and talked about whether Van Gogh would accept our dinner invitation that I said, "It's better now. It makes more sense. Two rooms, two cats, two people."
"For sure," said Lawrence, and he reached his hand under the pink negligee I'd found at the back of Karen's old closet. "For sure it does, sweet pea."
I'M NOT SAYING there weren't things that bothered me. I didn't like to come home and find Lawrence listening to "The First Cut Is the Deepest," and not just because of the song's implications. Karen and I had loved Rod Stewart. He'd been our thing, our guy, and I didn't want to share him with Lawrence.
One other thing that bothered me was this: Lawrence never told his family that Karen had left. He said he didn't want to worry them. So when his parents phoned, he'd say, "Yeah, Mom, everything's fine. Same old, same old." He said that while he was beside me on the couch, his hand resting on my leg. I sat completely still and completely silent, even though I'd started to cry. This was something I had always known how to do: I could cry without making any noise. My eyes would form only a few tears, and these could be blinked back before my liner got smeared.
"Yup, Karen's fine," Lawrence would say. "She says hi."
But Karen had not said hi. And I had not said hi, even though I wanted to. I wanted to get on the phone the way Karen used to. I wanted to say, the way Karen used to, "Hey, Mrs. T. How are ya?"
Also, I was getting sick of Karen's clothes. None of her shirts fit right, I didn't like walking to work in high heels, and I felt a little stupid in all that makeup. But I'd noticed that when I wore my own clothes-things that seemed so soft and girlish now- Lawrence's eyes passed over me as though I wasn't really there. If I wore my own flowing skirt or my own argyle sweater, at night Lawrence would run his hands through his hair and say, "I'm wrecked. Today's shift was hell." Then he'd go into the bedroom and fall asleep before I'd even had time to floss.
That wasn't all. Things got worse that winter, and maybe winter was to blame. Those coastal Januarys are awful in their mild way: there's no sun, there's always rain, and the mould along the windowsills really starts to assert itself. Maybe that's why Lawrence started to act funny. He called in sick to work so many times that his manager had to talk to him. He never did dishes or picked his dirty laundry up off the floor. I had to work so much at the library to make up for his lost shifts that I didn't have time to clean either, so our place went from being pleasantly disordered to plain disgusting. He had no desire to see any of our friends, and he didn't care about our dinner party anymore. When I suggested that we add Leonard Cohen to the list, he said, "Who cares? Who cares about a stupid fantasy?"
And once, I came home from work to find him at his computer in only a pair of boxers and unzipped jeans, scrolling through pictures of models on the M?A?C website. He was looking at the Fall/Winter Trends, jerking off to girls with sculpted eyebrows and glossy, open mouths. He was so captivated by those Perfect Pouts that he didn't hear me come in.
"Lawrence," I said.
"Hold on." He didn't even look at me. He wanted to finish. So I took off one of the stilettos I was wearing and threw it at him. The heel caught the side of his head and he jumped up, tucked himself back into his jeans, pressed one hand to his temple. "What the fuck? What's your problem?"
"My problem? My problem is that we have bills to pay! My problem is that we have dishes to do!"
I'd never screamed at anyone before. I'd never even raised my voice. It felt even newer and stranger and better than sex.
"My problem is that I'm the one who does everything around here!" I took off the other shoe and threw it, but he managed to duck. "Do you think it's easy? Do you think I like looking like this?" I tore off a set of fake eyelashes, dropped it, and ground it into the carpet with my toe. "It's like I'm ripping off a layer of my own skin, Lawrence. Every single day I'm ripping off a layer of my own skin."
This was true and it was also not true. There was part of me that loved looking the way I looked, loved wearing those clothes and those eyelashes. But there was another version of me who couldn't breathe under all that foundation. This was the me that was screaming. The me that was crying so hard she could barely breathe. This me didn't give a shit about her eyeliner.
"I wish you had killed yourself." That wasn't true, but I liked saying it. "I wish you'd killed yourself the way Jerry would have."
Lawrence didn't say anything. He just slid his jeans down-he hadn't had a chance to zip them up-and kicked them off his feet. He did the same with his boxers: dropped them down his legs and left them on the floor. He wants to fuck, I thought, and I hoped he would spontaneously combust.
But then I realized this was the first time I'd seen him without anything on. He slept in underwear and a T-shirt and that's what I was used to. It was the first time one of us had been in front of the other entirely naked. He stood there, slouched and quiet, and let me look at all the flaws of his body, all the things makeup could never hide: patches of uneven hair on his abdomen, arms that were too skinny, feet that were too big, and that stupid-looking thing between his legs.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Then he bent and picked up a pair of tights I'd left on the floor. They were red, and Karen used to wear them with flats, an A-line skirt, and her beret. Lawrence put them on and pulled them up along his calves, over his thighs, above his hips. He was about the same height as Karen, so they fit him better than they fit me.
Then he slipped on the shoes I'd thrown at him, placing one red foot in, then the other. They were too small for him, and he looked pained and wobbly in them. He looked idiotic in the whole getup. He looked like a pale, straight man in drag. A pale, straight man in drag who missed his girlfriend. "Lise," he said. This was the first time in months he'd used my name. "Lise, I'm sorry."
And he might have said other things too-other sweet, kind things-but I interrupted him. I walked up, stood on my tiptoes, and pressed my mouth against his so hard that I thought our teeth would crack.
THINGS GOT BETTER AFTER THAT. Spring arrived, the rain was replaced by sunshine and cherry blossoms, and we scrubbed the mouldy windowsills with bleach. Lawrence got fired from Blockbuster, but that turned out great because then he got a job at the independent video store. This video store was beside a farmers' market, and he would bring home something delicious every day-heirloom tomatoes or goat cheese or local pears. I gained a bit of weight, but Lawrence said he liked that, and it meant that I was beginning to fill out Karen's clothes. In fact, I didn't even consider them Karen's clothes anymore. They had been worn against my skin so often that they even smelled of me.
And I think Lawrence felt the same way about me as I felt about him. Sometimes he woke me in the middle of the night, gripped me in his sweaty arms, and asked, "You aren't going to leave me, are you, Lise? Promise?"
Of course, I promised. I had spent six years on the outside, excluded from this kind of love, so I knew I would never leave. Especially because I couldn't foresee any serious problems for this new, other us. I knew that Karen would eventually come back for her stuff, but I imagined that Lawrence and I would greet her together. I imagined that we'd hold hands, invite her in, and seat her at my old bed. "This is our dinner table," we'd say. "This is our life."
I was not prepared for what actually happened. I was not prepared when I came home from work one evening and saw Lawrence and Karen in the kitchen, drinking Slurpees.
"Holy shit," said Karen when she saw me. "Great outfit!"
I was wearing my own denim shorts with her green velour blazer and her ankle-high boots. I was also holding two bags of groceries. Inside these bags there was enough pasta, eggs, tofu, apples, and canned cat food to last two people and two cats for exactly one week.
Karen came over and hugged me. I didn't hug her back because I was holding the groceries and because I couldn't breathe. She said, "I missed you guys so much."
"Karen called from the ferry," said Lawrence. "She asked if I could pick her up."
Then he gave me a look. I don't know what that look communicated. It might have been apology. It might have been collusion. He might have been begging me to keep my mouth shut.
Then I noticed that the living room was full of wooden chairs. So he had dismantled the dining room and turned it back into a-my-bedroom. He must have taken the chairs out, pushed the bed against the wall, and thrown the tablecloth in the garbage.
"Where's Revolution Now! guy?" I said.
"What?" Karen tugged at the sleeves of the blazer. "This is a bit big on you."
She was wearing a layered skirt, a tank top, and a fake red flower in her hair. She must have stepped off the ferry like that- looking like the hottest, most badass flamenco dancer in the world. Lawrence must have forgotten all about me. Karen looked so great that even I wanted to make out with her. She looked so great that I wanted to cry.
"I know." I looked down at myself-my narrow hips, bony knees, all the evidence that I was still the old me. "Nothing fits right."
Then I did cry. I dropped both grocery bags, not caring if I broke the eggs or bruised the apples, and Karen said, "Oh, no-your mascara."
Lawrence obviously hadn't told her anything, and that's why she put her arms around me. She held me, pressed her cold Slurpee cup against my back, and I cried into her improbably red hair.
"It's okay," said Karen. "It's okay, Lise."
And the way she said that made me think that maybe Lawrence had told her. Maybe he'd told her everything. And maybe she wasn't upset about it. She saw it as something that could be fixed or painted over. It's okay. She'd said it with confidence-confidence in herself, in her ability to make everyone in the room feel happy and lucky, her ability to bring beauty to life.
"I'm back now," she said.
Then Lawrence came up and put his arms around us both, and it was just like before. Except better, because Karen held me the way Lawrence never had. And I stopped crying so ostentatiously, so passionately. Instead, my tears came out in that small, silent way. I could hear Percy, or maybe it was Beau, batting one of the fallen cans of cat food around on the floor. And when Karen said, "Everything's going to be okay," I thought maybe she was right.