A Single Sparrow

Last Thursday I watched my best friend kill herself.

Not in the literal sense, you understand. This was a metaphysical death, a sparrow that made a hell of a lot of noise before its neck was snapped.

Her husband Victor had never known me by any other name except Anais; the first time I met him was at a Halloween Party, and when he first discovered I was Anais Nin, he spoke to me in French. Not that I understood French -- albeit, I should have in order to be like the woman herself -- but I could do a damn good French accent. And this was acceptable to him.

That was a large part of the problem. He probably never would have tolerated any such similarity with Anne, no. She was his wife; she was expected to be perfect, completely immersed. On Victor's calendar, today is November 1, 1968. On hers, the one she keeps hidden in her drawer next to her peignoir set, it is November 1, 1998. That's where all the trouble starts.

Victor is a movie director who makes independent films -- in real life, and when I first meet him, anyway. Later on, I will find out this is true but it is exaggerated. Isn't that the way it always is when you first meet people? In the rustling leaves and daylight, by the roaring bonfire, he takes my hand and kisses the back of it.

"It is a true pleasure meeting anyone who would be dressed as their mania," he says. I see the flickers of the bonfire dancing in his wide blue Germanic eyes. He looks like a cross between Bob Crane and Colonel Klink: Hogan's Heroes. A show whose memory had died when Daddy had.

"And who are you?" I ask, expecting to be introduced to my best friend's husband whom I'm never met.

Instead, I am introduced to Peter Cushing.

"Incidentally, I was fascinated with your description of men's shirts in 'A Journal of Love.'"

I know what he's talking about and thrill to it. This person does not think I am the great enigma as most men; this one has me all figured out. "Yes," I breathe, in a thick French accent. "Henry left. And just after the other leaves there is something incredible in the emptiness of his clothes."

"I know." He nods, and the brightness, the thrill in his eyes vanishes.

I catch Anne near the spit, where a pig who had died hours before is turning, maybe trying to figure out whether heaven is up or down. I see her light a cigarette, watch the exchange. I look back at him, suddenly unsettled.

"How did you know I was Anais?"

"June would not wear such beautifully kept velvet; her clothes were shoddy." He reaches up and caresses the red velvet on my beret, and then he laughs, deep and roiling and from somewhere within him that probably only Anne has ever been before. "Anais married a banker. June married a writer. That much, I know."

And then is cloaked in the shadows beyond the firelight, cob pipe and fisherman's V- neck sweater, green turtleneck and all, and I watch him kiss Anne's neck, and he watches me while he's doing it and she stares, straight ahead, just sort of empty. I admire her polka dot dress, of the June Cleaver variety, and wonder what had ever attracted her to that daily regimen of tedium that she would want to live up to that.

Not that Anne did not love her husband. Not that she didn't adore having their friends over to stand around the fondue pot and sizzle bits of meat and watch them sit on their orange- cushioned mission-style furniture. Not that she didn't adore the haze of marijuana smoke and scotch residue and living on the fantastic level. That was what she had married him for. It was all so intense, so glitzy, so apart from her own world that it was glamorous.

And it should have been. At the same party, I meet Marilyn Monroe.

"I'm with Arthur Miller," she says. "I mean, not this evening. Just, you know, because that is the way life is."

And then I meet Cleopatra, and Amelia Earhart and George Palmer Putnam, and Bonnie and Clyde, and Barnabas Collins, the erudite vampire from the old TV series Dark Shadows. (God help me, although I would not mind if he should suddenly alight on my neck.) But I do almost get the chance later when Victor brings us for an annual walk through the cemetery whose last body had been interred over one hundred years ago, but there is something about making love near gravestones that frightens me. I dismiss the thought of sex as Victor plays a Bernard Herrmann score from a hand-held cassette player and wonder if that music would frighten me if it were passing over my head accompanied by the sounds of drunken giggling.

And then the party ends and the next day, head throbbing, rising with an awakening that I had been overwhelmed with magic last night but not sure how, I think of the litter that must be on Anne's lawn. I call her.

"Oh, just cleaning up," she says into the receiver, and I can almost see her with that forced smile. "Victor's friends are as intense with messes as they are with everything else."

"I can imagine," I answer. "He's wonderful, Anne. A trip."

There is a silence that lasts long enough for me to file all the nails on my left hand. "I'd like for it to be over now," she whispers against the hum of the dishwasher. And that is when I know she needs help. --

She's been dating Victor a week the first time she tells me about him. We're out for a cruise in my Jeep. It's a warm day, one of those days in early May when the entire summer's still ahead of you but you know some of those days are going to be filled with green skies and heavy rain storms.

I light up a cigarette.

"Victor really doesn't believe in anything that happened past 1975," she says.

Her hairless, tanned legs are hanging out the passenger window. I want to tell her not to do that -- if someone broadsides us she's liable to lose her feet -- but I don't. "Why is that?" I ask.

She studies me, her blue eyes masked by whipping blond threads. "He says no good art of any form was made after that. He says that's when we started our descent into deadness. That's when we started to become fat and lazy. We'd forgotten the wars, and we became self- centered on our own satisfaction. The last of the great exotic characters became extinct."

"Great characters?" I look in my rearview mirror and some guy is tailgating me. I slow down.

"Yeah. He makes movies, you know, in his spare time. He has a studio upstairs, and in the basement he has all these set pieces. I think that's why he pretends to be other people."

I don't like where this is going. The idiot behind me finally passes me -- on the inside.

She notes my silence, but I don't fill it with any words. I let her do that.

She pulls her legs from the window. "Sometimes he's Sherlock Holmes, or The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, or Christopher Lee. He has a closet full of costumes. He likes me to dress up and pretend to be the female counterpart. I'm working on my collection."

I swallow.

"I think you'll like him. You like to pretend, too."

"There are limits." I murmur. I think I'm losing my voice. Out of the corner of my eye I see her dig into her little backpack. She pulls out her suntan oil, the kind that smells like coconuts. She squirts some in the palm of her hand and props her bare feet on the dashboard, working the oil onto her shins.

"Oh, I don't think limits are something you can put on intensity." She giggles.

I don't think it's funny. "Sounds like a sicko," I say.

"He's not. He's intense. He likes to play. He's not so serious all the time."

Since when, I wonder, is seriousness a quality you don't look for in a mate?

"Be careful, Anne. Sounds like he doesn't know who he is."

"No, he does. That's why he can pretend with abandon." She throws the bottle of suntan oil in the back seat. "Besides, sometimes you have to be willing to give up who you are for who you might be." She laughs and punches me playfully on the arm.

The gas gauge is creeping toward E, and I remember we're on a road that doesn't have any stations for quite a ways yet.

"Will you stand up for me at the wedding?"

I knew she was going to ask this. I consider her out of the corner of my eye, thinking I should not accept; it is a choice between disappointing her and disappointing myself.

"Anne," I sigh. "I have rescued you from drug addicts, assholes, rapists..."

She settles her delicate hand on my thigh and I throw the stick shift into fourth gear.

"I thought you promised," I say, taking a drag from my cigarette. "No more men."

"No," she says, trying to gather her hair back and tie it in an elastic. "Victor breaks the mold."

Sure, I think bitterly, they all break the mold until you find out which set of rules they want you to follow.

She reads the expression on my face and leans over in my ear. "Come on," she purrs. "We'll have lots of great parties." -- The day of Anne's wedding dawns warm and full of desperate attempts to continue parties from the night before. The streets of Newport thrum with the sounds of loud Reggae music from one house on Warner Street, another with punk from a house on Newport Avenue. I sit on the front porch of the Victorian house and chain smoke and wonder if my new boyfriend will actually show up or blow me off. I know in my heart it will be the former; in my mind, it is the latter. Don't trust any of them, bastards. If you're not perfect, they try to change you. Or they just bitch and moan.

Anne is decked in a heavily brocaded gown. She says she is Marie Antoinette, because that is what Victor had asked her to be. We had to be at the hall -- a marvelous castle that overlooks the sea -- at three o'clock, to get dressed and take photos. The wedding is at six. I do not like weddings that begin at six -- triple it it's the Mark of the Beast -- or four -- the number of death in the Shinto religion. I would have preferred seven -- lucky number, number also of Christ -- or three -- the number of chambers in a frog's heart. But Anne is not superstitious. And perhaps this is her problem.

Now it nears five. The gnats are emerging from their nests to suck our blood, and I curse myself for having worn strong vanilla perfume.

Victor has not yet arrived.

Anne is upset; not because the possession has escaped, but because she is suddenly empty, bleeding, hurt. Abandonment cools the flush on her cheeks.

Light from the ceiling-high open window filters in in dusty shafts. I fix her hairpiece and re-braid her blond hair. "He's just late now," I lie. "He'll come."

I am taller than most of the bridesmaids. Anne has chosen to dress each of us differently according to our personalities; I am in a floor length periwinkle blue gown with a train. It is plain; there are no ribbons, embellishments on it. She says that is how she thinks of me, elegant and tall.

That is not how I think of myself. The dress wrinkles as I sit on the velvet couch, and I curse myself for worrying less about Anne and more about the wrinkles someone might notice. Right now I cannot afford for anyone to see me less than perfect.

I rise and wander to the window. I see him emerge from the rose-shrouded pathway to the entrance; he looks like a fine southern gentleman in a tan suit and aviator glasses. My boyfriend. He's here.

"Is it him?" She asks, the tension choking her.

"No," I say.

A striking blond woman appears in the doorway. Later I will come to know her as Marilyn Monroe.

"Anne?" Her timid voice rings.

I turn from the window. "What is it?" I answer for my friend.

"Never mind," Anne sniffs. "I know."

I glide across the parquet floor to her side and settle a hand on her shoulder. "What do you want to do?"

One of the other bridesmaids drops a brooch. The echo startles me.

Anne smiles through her tears and looks up at me. "We'll have lots of great parties," she whispers.

At 6 p.m. I alight on the red carpeted staircase. My dress billows as I run down it, the silk touches my calves, and I pinch the sides of it like I am Cinderella, mimicking a mental image of the woman herself in a Disney book and record I had seen many years ago. I look down at my feet and see white shoes instead of glass slippers, and wonder what will happen at midnight.

Strangely, most of the guests seem undisturbed by this lavish party for no reason; they mill about and talk about Wall Street and wars, poetry and painting. They dance with drinks in their hands.

The green beans almondine are limp; the fish has been dead for days, maybe weeks. I leave the dead food on my plate and drain the red wine, the only thing on the table that is unchanged with age. I move to the bar, where the bride sits, her cream gown like The Shroud of Turin.

Anne cradles a margarita in her right hand and watches the mahogany for answers.

Someone told me once I was really good at dancing the high wire between love and hate. That even if it were strung between the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building I could dance it just as well and never miss a step.

Now I think I am about to plunge to my death.

"So," I say, pulling a cigarette from my slim gold case, "how you feeling?" The tip of my lighter bursts into flame. Its reflection is the only thing glittering in her eyes.

"You were right," she says, and licks the salt from the rim of her glass.

"The truth, Anne. Not the answer I want to hear." I finger my pearl choker.

She flashes me a tight-lipped smile. "We'll have lots of parties."

I stare at her through the ribbons of the smoke from my cigarette, and for the first time all evening I am not concerned my boyfriend should catch me smoking. He'll get sick when he smells the smoke in my hair. Well, fuck him. I don't care. I am with Anne in this Versailles- esque golden darkness, with these high ceilings, and frankly, if it makes him that ill he should leave me. I am tired of pretending.

"What do you think?" She asks me, and her blue eyes are so deep and warm I don't know what to say. What do I think. I think that all men are fuckers right now, that's what I think, but this is a wedding and it is a perfectly inappropriate place to say such a thing.

"I think," I exhale, and crush the cigarette out. Christopher is coming around the corner. He will taste it on me, but he will not see me with it in my hand. "I think you should write this off, Anne. Take lots of notes if you haven't already, write it up, and write it off."

And I see the tell-tale signs of oncoming tears, and then Christopher sets his hand on my shoulder and kisses my neck. I keep my eyes, full and wide, trained on her despite the onslaught of wetness between my legs at his touch. "Write it off, Anne."

And then the deejay begins another slow set of music and Christopher takes my hand. He leads me to the dance floor without complaining of the smoke because he is drunk, and I think that alcohol is the mediator and translator of the entire human race. Over his shoulder I glimpse Anne watching me, and the only thing I see in her eyes is hurt.

Tomorrow the train of her wedding gown will be dirty from footprints, mud, and dew, and she will take it to the dry cleaner. --

A week later she calls me and says she is a married woman.

"What? Where are you?" I chuckle despite myself. It is that wonderful flightiness that I love about Anne.

It makes me pray God Victor will respect it and not abuse it.

"I can't tell you," she says. I cannot tell if the roar in the background is the cheap pay phone line or the crashing of waves, perhaps. I think that pay phones on beaches are rare. "It is possible that my brother Roderick would find out."

"Roderick?" I try to remember her having a brother and cannot place one.

"Yes. Roderick. Roderick Usher."

Usher. "As in Poe? Fall of the House of Usher?" Christ. "Wasn't that the one where the entire house is decaying? The end of the line or something like that?" I turn my back and lean against the kitchen doorjamb for support. A small blackbird lands on my windowsill, but resists the bird-feeder's offers.

"Anne," I settle into the vinyl kitchen chair, moving my handbag to the table to rummage for my cigarettes. I'm going to be a while. "What's going on. Victor abandoned you at the altar, I mean, it was my understanding you never wanted to see him again."

"Oh, it was merely a misunderstanding," she says. "I should have known he would do that. He's very self-aware and couldn't possibly be married on a day when he had convinced himself he was Sherlock Holmes." She chuckles. "He does think he's Hollywood, you know."

I glance at the window as I flick the lighter to ignite the cigarette. The bird is gone now, but I suddenly notice the branches on the tree closest to the house are barren of leaves, dry, brittle, dead. When had that died? Recently? I make a mental note to get the tree cutters here to remove it before it crushes the house. "So what happened? Where are you?" I want to match her elation, but I know what I really want to ask is "Who are you?"

"Victor awoke yesterday morning and said that he was Philip, come to rescue me from The House of Usher and take me back to Boston to be married. So here we are." She giggles. The laughter does not sound like hers; it sounds forced, iced with Victorian politeness. "Oh, you should have seen the dress he had especially made for me! The finest red velvet, full-length. He looked so dashing in his top hat."

I want to say that it's still early September and it's too damn hot to wear velvet and top hats, but then I realize there isn't probably much in the way of weather that could affect her circumstances right now.

"It's beautiful here," she says. "The mansion even has a chapel. I spent some time in it this morning before the ceremony. We were joined before two flickering candles. My Victor is such an intense person. He made sure everything was as close to an adventure as possible."

I shudder. The girl is obsessed with death. I am haunted by the fact that she will hate herself later for much of this, but then I remember when you're in love -- or when you think you are -- your senses are so acutely heightened that your mental processes are actually dulled.

Perhaps that was my own mistake with Anne from the very beginning. An inability to overcome the primal instinct that was built into me.

"When are you coming back?"

"Oh, I'm uncertain. For now," I hear male laughing in the background, "I have been confined to my bed." And then she giggles, and I can feel my own cheeks burning.

"Yes," I say. "I'm sure you have been."

Click. The connection is broken.

I wonder if he hears her scratching on the inside of her own coffin even as he has worked with the intention of setting her free, taking her away. I crush my cigarette out in the ashtray, burn the tip of my index finger on the scorching head. And I realize that he has not done anything to her; she has let her own walls collapse, and I weep for who she used to be. -- Secretly, we all long for normalcy. That's why we get married, have kids - not because we want what everybody else has, but because that's what society teaches us we should have. Never mind that we may have published 5,000 novels...a hyperbole, for sure. But how many novels did Hemingway publish? Or Henry Miller? And what were they doing? Nothing. They were searching for normalcy. Which is why I married Christopher.

It's the day after the soiree with the pig roast where I've met Victor for the first time, and this is all I can think while I'm filing my nails: Anne's spending this glorious September afternoon picking up the litter that Marilyn Monroe and Cleopatra have left on her lawn. I call her.

"Oh, just cleaning up," she says into the receiver, and I can almost see her with that forced smile. "Victor's friends are as intense with messes as they are with everything else."

"I can imagine," I answer. I envision my husband's empty Styrofoam cup laying drained and moist on the back seat of the car on a trip to Georgia that I never wanted to go on and have no idea why that image should be connected with scenes from the party last night. Perhaps, I think, it is still the fog of that awakening that I have been overwhelmed with magic last night but not sure how.

I hear her espresso machine come on. She must be talking on the cordless phone, wandering from room to room. "Isn't it wonderful? I'm so happy I finally have someone who understands me."

No, I think, not someone who understands you - someone who understands what he needs you to be. Which is why she‚s getting burned right this minute, picking up gum wads and cigarette butts that have fallen from the lips of complete strangers.

"Christopher wasn't with you last night," she says. "I would've liked to have talked with him."

I sigh. "No, you wouldn't," I hear the ball game blaring in the next room. Dallas Cowboys, probably. "He's boring." I envision him at the party last night, not knowing what to say, drinking his Budweiser and staring open-mouthed at the creative types like they are exhibits in a zoo on The Twilight Zone. Thank God he had declined because of some drinking outing with the one friend he does have.

"Then why are you with him?" She asks. She sounds so innocent. Anne was never innocent.

Until Victor made her that way.

I lament the loss of her cock sure self.

Shit, I think. It is hard to paint your nails with your left hand. Red polish fills the crease around my index finger. "Well," I say. "We all get what we settle for." My neck cramps as I reach for the bottle of the remover and settle it between my knees on the bed. There is silence on the other end.

"I'm glad you love him, though," she says, confident.

I pause, because I do not know if I am glad that I love him. Or if I love him at all. "I'm...I'm glad you're with Victor," I say. "He's wonderful, Anne. A trip."

There is a silence that lasts long enough for me to file all the nails on my left hand. "I'd like for it to be over now," she whispers against the hum of the dishwasher.

And that is when I know she needs help.

Then she sighs. "I really need to see you," she says. "Sit and talk with you." Then I hear a pantry closet door slide closed, and the effort of her sweeping is in her voice. "I suppose that makes me a bad girl."

I shift. I'm not quite sure what she means by this. Would Victor keep her like Rapunzel in a tower and not let her go out?

"No," I say. "You're not a bad girl. You're just being human." Yes, I think. Wanting what we had before, or what we should have had.

Silence. I hear the water running - I think that's what it is. It is static, loud and distracting, drowning her alto. "May I come over?" she asks.

I sit forward in the bed. The nail polish spills all over the strawberry-patterned comforter. "Shit," I breathe.

"What?"

"Sure." I say. "Yes, come over."

There is silence. Almost like the tension between two lovers at a first meeting after they have crossed that initial line, when both are wondering if they would have sex again, if this will be new, different, better...or worse. "Should I bring my copy of Little Birds?" she asks.

I catch my reflection in the bureau mirror. It smiles, tight-lipped and dreamy. "Little Birds." It has been years since I read that story; I had only ever shared it with Anne. In it there is a man who scares away the innocence of girlhood with the flash of his erect penis beneath a splendid kimono. That's all I remember of it. And something about birds, filling the man's porch. Birds that attract the little girls on their recess. Yes, we could read that again. It will teach Anne a lesson, a thing or two about men and their plumage.

Ah, that Nin. She was brilliant. All the fucked up ones are.

"Yes," I say. "And I will go find my copy of Atlas Shrugged."

She giggles. I think both our worlds are falling off our shoulders. "And will you make lemonade?"

"Yes," I say, remember that I had bought fresh lemons only yesterday. I hope Christopher did not use them for something like sticking them in glasses of iced tea or chasing shots of tequila. "And we'll sit under the big tree in the yard."

"Near the rabbit hole?"

I try to remember if Christopher had sealed up the rabbit hole last year. He said the damn thing was digging up the lawn and he was getting tired of buying grass seed year in, year out, despite the fact I tried to explain it was the melting snows in spring.

She sighs. "It will be just like Alice in Wonderland." She hangs up the phone.

I shudder. It frightens me to think that Anne's idea of fantasy is the freedom to be herself.

But I know that she always looks beautiful in light blue. --

She shows up at my door two hours later looking crisp and fresh in a light blue silk pantsuit with a white poet's shirt and a black ribbon gathering her long, blond hair away from her face. She stands in the foyer and admires the towering, winding staircase to the loft level and the enormous framed reproduction of Dali's Persistence of Memory that guards the gateway to the upper rooms.

"Lina," she says, throwing her arms around me, embracing me as though I would become a wisp if she failed to move fast enough. She pulls away, glances about. "This is beautiful," she says.

"I like it," I say. I delight in watching her face sweep the surroundings; I have just had the foyer re-done. She has not been here since. I rub my hands against the polyester of my black pants and close the front door, and lead her through to the kitchen. I do not interrupt my husband's intense train of thought, because I think the Dallas Cowboys might be winning. Or losing. Or something. He's just quiet and I don't want him jumping up and asking his usual battalion of annoying questions for which he does not listen for answers.

Her Mary Janes pad against the tile floor, filling the silences between the clickings of my boot heels. In the kitchen I have a pitcher of fresh lemonade and some cookies set on a tray. She wanders to the window, looks out at the tree.

"The tree is as I remembered," she says.

I glance up. I do not know if she notices its mate is gone -- the tree men removed it just last week -- but I am relieved she says nothing.

"That's the great thing about trees," I say. "They don't change. Only your opinion of them does." I set some sugar cookies on a plate and realize my opinion of the taste of them hasn't changed since I was five. I plunge a metal spoon into the crystal pitcher and stir.

She turns from the window, watches me.

"Or what you like to do beneath them," she says, rummaging in her handbag to produce her dog-eared copy of Little Birds. "The adult version of swings," she laughs. --

On the lawn, the grass still feels like summer: cool and welcome to make marks on your legs or stain your clothes. The lemonade is tart, but Anne does not complain; she is busy reading to me of people who wear each other out with emotional scenes, of people who claim not to remember doing something that has caused them to be ashamed. The story is called "Lina," and Anne says it is as though Nin dreamed of me. I never agreed with that, but it was always our favorite story in the book, and we had memorized what little dialogue existed to exchange secretly while sitting under the trees in the dormitory courtyard.

She proffers the book between her hands like she's reading in church; her eyes flirt with the page and with my own. "I want you to not have lovers," Anne reads. "I hate it when I see you with men."

I smile. I know what line comes next. "Why do you hate men so?" I break a cookie in half, lick the crumbling center. It is gritty on my tongue.

"They have something I don't have. I want to have -"

and then she closes the book and doubles over with laughter. I laugh, too. "What?"

"I can't say this to you anymore." Her Scandinavian cheeks redden.

I shift. My eyes fall to the grass; I do not want her to see that my expression has descended to one of disappointment. "Why not?"

"It's just sort of-- " another laugh. "Inappropriate."

I look up and smile. I feel like I'm drawing curtains on a brightly lit room.

And then she abruptly stops laughing, and her expression searches mine. She sets the book down next to her, on a tree stump. "Did you ever have wrinkles on your heart?"

"I don't know," I say.

"You should." Her smile is rueful. She rips a dandelion from the earth, rubs and smashes the downy-soft flower with her fingers. "It's what happens to it when someone takes it and tries to force it into a shape that isn't natural."

A primal war cry erupts from the house: my husband screams at the television.

I pour myself another glass of lemonade and sip. The chill makes my teeth hurt. I chew on an ice cube. "We all have to give up something to get something."

She pops the head off the dandelion, thumbs what's left of the mutilated head and buries the stem under her shoe, watching the plant plasma leak out when she steps on it. A limp, green, oozing worm.

"Why'd you do it, Anne?"

She fingers the buckles on her Mary Janes. "He made me feel beautiful." I see the corners of her mouth tighten, like she is going to cry. I remember her telling me on a lawn not unlike this one many years ago that she truly believed when she felt total acceptance, when she felt completely beautiful, she would fall in love with the man who had accomplished the task.

I wonder if dressing like a character out of Vincent Price's House of Wax had made her feel complete acceptance, completely beautiful.

I see a tear spill from her eye. "You know," she says. "I'm afraid to have parties. He'll make me dress up as someone and have a list of things for me to do, and then he'll embarrass me in front of my friends." She cries now, a child whose birthday party was canceled by a snowstorm and has to sit and watch a melting ice cream cake.

I let her cry.

"I bet you think I'm ridiculous, playing these games with him."

She does not look me in the eye. I reach for her hand and lace my fingers with hers, my skin tingling as it brushes against the silken material of her light blue pants. "I'm your friend, Anne. I love you no matter what you do."

She sniffs and looks at me through swollen eyes. A bumble bee flies between us.

"See," I continue. "That's the problem with love. Men never love you for what you are already - they love you for what you will be for them, in bed, mostly."

I see her crack a wan smile.

"No, that's what they consider most important. That's all it is. For them, it is not about anything but who we can pretend to be in between the sheets."

A tear creeps down her cheek again. I brush a strand of damp, sweaty hair from her forehead. "Anne," I whisper. "You can be yourself except when you're in bed with him, do you understand?"

There is a glint of happiness in her eyes, a recognition of something, and she falls against my shoulder and wraps her arms around my upper back as though I am a seraph, a great burning angel of love, of light, of fire.

Except that I don't feel like an angel at all, and if that were true were she to look upon me her eyes would be smote.

I shiver at the image.

"Did you have fun at his party?" Her lips pout a little.

I only want to give her the answer she wants to hear, but I know that I cannot; I have to tell the truth. "Yes, Anne, I did," I say. I reach up and touch her cheek. It feels silken, caressed with baby powder. "When someone teases you with an indulgence of your fantasies, it's hard not to have fun."

Then her eyes water again, and in the tears I see the truth. I wish I had a tissue to offer her. Instead, I offer, "That's it, isn't it? That's what you meant, saying he made you feel beautiful."

"Yes!" She whispers, seizing my understanding as a corkscrew in a wine cellar.

We laugh for a moment, reveling in this new understanding. The grass ripples in the late summer breeze.

Then her expression saddens.

"I would like to have a party too, of my own," she says. "I still have friends." The sentiment is clipped, as though she thinks I would have pity on her, so she adds, "-- of my own, I mean."

"Let's invite them," I say. "We can have it here, if you like."

"No, I want it to be in my home," she says. "It's half mine, and I mean to have parties there when I want."

She pulls away from me slightly and runs her delicate fingertips over my chin. They are cold and wet from having stroked the sweat from the side of the crystal pitcher of lemonade.

I think that perhaps the face she sees in mine now is that of a man. A mortal savior. I am satisfied with myself: I am the fix-it chick. I feel her assertion in my chest.

"So when should I have it? The party?" she asks. "We have lots of plans to make."

I hear the phone ring from inside the house; Christopher calls to me.

He says it's for Anne. -- The day of Anne's party I stand at her kitchen sink peeling an avocado, absorbed with its firm, then yielding, flesh under my fingers as I stare out the window at the mountains that look like piles of brightly-colored maple-sugar candy. I feel Victor's eyes on me. "That's the most sensual texture there is in food," he says. "It's wonderful."

I dig my fingers into the flesh and feel it, cool and soft, as it packs itself under my nails. I bore into his gaze. "I wouldn't know," I say. "I've never eaten it before."

His hand works its way into the fruit I hold. I stop peeling and stare at him, meet his gaze. "That's a shame," he says. I catch the mischievous sparkle in his eyes. "You are missing so much zest!" He punctuates the last three words with a bang of his hand on the Formica countertop. "Avocado is the spice of life!"

He reaches over to a canister in the corner and retrieves his leather pouch of tobacco and Meerschaum pipe. "Ahhh!" He sniffs the air and bunches up the sleeves on his fisherman's sweater. "Who shall I be today?"

He's making me nervous. The avocado slips from my hands and falls in the sink. I want to say, "No one, Victor, you shouldn't be here," but this is his home, his sink, his avocado. Then I want to say, "Yourself, Victor," but then I look at him, puffing away, and as the rich scent of smoky chocolate drifts to my nostrils, I see the wheels of 19th century inventions turning in the sparkle in his eye and realize that he would not know what that meant. He's got visions no one else can hope to glimpse.

He expects me to say something in response to his musings, but I say nothing.

"So," he takes a deep breath. "What kind of wine will you be serving today?"

"I don't know." I set the avocado in the bowl to the left of the sink and slice the other another in half, ready to plunge my fingers into the depths of its innards.

"There's a wine for every mood," he says. "I trust we will all enjoy each other's company tonight."

I feel his fingers alight on my arm. I jump, slice the tip of my finger with the blade of the knife. "Shit!" the knife clatters in the sink. I reach for the spigot to get the cold water running.

"Honey, leave her alone."

I turn and look, sucking the blood off my index finger. It's Anne, graceful and commanding, her arms folded against her chest, leaning against the cabinet.

Her blond hair is swept, high and severe, into a tight bun; she is clad in a black catsuit. I have never seen her look so - stunning before. I almost don't recognize her: her jaw is chiseled; her cheekbones are shadowed. Her eyes pierce Victor's with a sharp look haunted by some kind of emotional layer underneath that I'm convinced only I can see.

"Dear," he says, motioning with the pipe. "I was only being - friendly."

Her expression does not change. "I said, leave her alone." She slinks toward him. "Go up to your study."

He puffs on the pipe, blows a cloud of smoke in her face.

She fingers the amulet around her neck.

I feel my heartbeat in my cut finger - three beats, four....

"Dear -"

"Oh, come on. You wanted me to say that." She stops advancing, leans against the kitchen island. "Didn't you."

It is not a question. I look down in the sink, and there are spots of red on the white porcelain. I study the shadow of the banana curls of my bangs against the spots.

He hesitates, takes a breath before he responds, as though he knows what he's going to say because he's already asked the question twice in his head, silently, where there is only the safety of his imagination to answer him. "Why, yes, darling."

She smiles, tight-lipped.

"Good." She says. "Now go up to your study. You won't be sorry."

Victor considers this, and his eyes fill with delight, and then he takes his Meerschaum pipe and his tweed jacket and brown turtleneck and vanishes up the knotty pine staircase in the dark, and Anne and I stand there in the silence and listen to his footsteps go up to the third floor.

She rolls her eyes to inspect the ceiling, as though she expects to see the boards give underneath his weight. We hear him climb another flight of stairs, the one that goes to his studio. "It's almost like there's a ghost in this house," she says.

I wrap a white, wet dish towel around my finger; wipe my other hand on the dry end of it. "There are lots of ghosts in this house, Anne," I say. "It's just a matter of knowing which ones you can see and which ones you can't."

"Mmmm." She nods, presses her lips, deep red from lipstick, together. Then her blue eyes fall to my cut finger and fill with concern. "Let me see, Lina."

"It's fine," I protest.

"Let me see."

I feel the pressure of her hand on the dish towel. I open my hand and spread my fingers, and she hisses through her teeth when she sees the blood. "Good God." She spins on the balls of her feet and pads her way over to the bathroom. "Curse you, Victor, your wretched distractions."

"It's fine, Anne," I say. "Forget it."

I hear a container of toothpicks splatter on the floor, followed by the thud of what sounds like it should be a bottle of shampoo or conditioner. "Shit!"

"Anne -"

"No, here." She emerges with a couple of bandages and some drawing salve. "Here." She comes over to me and sets the items in my good hand, enfolding hers over my open palm.

Her touch is warm.

Her fingers are so delicate. I wonder how many volumes of poetry have been inspired by touches like this.

She slides her hands off of mine. I see she has gotten some streaks of blood on her palm, and then in one swift motion she pivots and follows Victor upstairs.

I watch her leg muscles flex on each stair.

And then I notice my hand is throbbing. --

I jump as the clock strikes six. Dammit, there's that number again...

I have heard nothing from the upstairs rooms for two hours; I was left to fend for myself amidst the broom closets and chips, left to find the bowls, spoons, wine glasses on my own. In moments as these the worst part is that you are left to feel like a voyeur, somehow dirtied by the fact that you are peering into cabinets full of boxes of Stove Top stuffing, canned sardines, and crystal punch bowl wedding presents that haven't been doing anything since the wedding day save collecting dust. It is like you are stealing a look at their private culinary lives.

It is the same feeling I get when I am in a guest bathroom and need to open up the vanity to try to find another roll of toilet paper and am confronted with Lysol tub and tile cleaner.

Or, God forbid, a box of condoms.

But there is something far more terrifying than your average toilet paper in the closet.

From the stairs she rushes at me, a flurry in a cream and purple Victorian frock, her hair in long curls, disheveled, soft around her face, sweaty.

"He's impossible," she rants, grasping her skirts and turning back to cluck at him. "You are an IMPOSSIBLE beast!"

There is no response.

"Oooh!" She frets.

I do not want to know what has been going on upstairs. "Anne," I say. "It's - um - time for you to get dressed. People will be arriving soon."

Her gaze is still transfixed on the staircase.

"Anne?"

"MMM?" She turns finally.

"You need to change, Anne. Unless this is how you plan on greeting people."

There is a change in her eyes, a flash of consciousness. "Oh. Lina." She smiles. "Of course." Her cheeks flush red. I want so desperately to see her hair in braids at this moment.

Lifting her skirts, she trundles up the stairs.

The doorbell rings.

I gulp half a glass of burgundy.

Now it begins. -- There is something about seeing people in an environment that does not suit them: they are paper dolls. The Marilyn Monroes and Cleopatras that I had known are now Barbies belonging to a child whose mother is on welfare.

And there is not much to look at, really. Marilyn Monroe actually has dark hair and has a five-year-old child, who clings to her leg; Cleopatra is overweight and does not have a sense for fashion or even for colors that match.

I sip my wine and light a cigarette, and hover in the kitchen. I watch Anne, who seems to be having a lovely time chatting about volunteering at the town library or sharing her recipe for Chicken Les Tourelles. For the first time in a thousand nights, I see the warmth around her. This is her White House. There is no Victor, she can see everyone clearly, and she does not need magic to get at the core of them.

"Jim's fine," says one woman. "He's working on developing some plans for a new mall now."

"Oh, really? I didn't care for what she was reading the children," says another woman.

"I was thinking of volunteering my talents to work toward restoring that mural in the town hall," says another, braiding her long, black hair. "I have all of the supplies to restore, and since I've left the museum I haven't touched them."

As always, there are some women who do not fit. These Anne does not talk to.

And the responsibility falls to me.

The one I had met who was Cleopatra comes to stand next to me under the guise of bringing in an empty platter. "Where do you want this?" She asks me, as though I am in charge of the kitchen.

"Over there, by the toaster," I say, motioning with my head. I do not look up from the dish I am washing.

I hear her set the platter down. I finish the dish and turn off the faucet, drying my hands on a dishtowel.

"You must be - Anais?" She asks, her stellar blue eyes narrow. Her red lipstick is too red for my liking.

I make an attempt at a warm smile. "The last time you saw me," I say. "Lina," I offer her my hand. "We haven't met." I reach for the bottle of red wine to re-fill my glass.

"Dorothy," she says, smiling, revealing perfect teeth. There is a freckle on her cheek. "This is a nice affair."

"Yeah," I say, my eyes trained on her filling a wine glass with chilled Chardonnay. She knocks her head back and guzzles the entire thing. Then she begins to tell me about her life - her two-year-old, her husband. She says, the one who plays Marilyn -- Helga, is her real name -- wants to have a second child. It hits me, then, that these party-goers are truly intense in every sense of the word.

And suddenly I wonder if they are part of Victor's world to the point where they do not belong here.

That this is not intense enough for them.

"Anne always threw such peaceful affairs," Dorothy says, pouring another glass of Chardonnay. I can almost see her weave as she begins to talk.

I am watching Anne pull a ribbon from her hair. It cascades about her shoulders.

"So, are you really a writer? In real life?"

I almost do not hear her. "Sort of," I say. Anne runs her fingers through her hair. "I'm a reporter."

"And you're not taking notes?" She laughs. She has drained the glass again.

"It's my day off." I see Anne set her hand lightly on a redhead's shoulder. And suddenly I am granted a glimpse at Anne's secret world, the one she wants to live in, and as though she feels my eyes on her she turns and looks at me, winks, goes back to her conversation.

"Oh, come on," says the Dorothy-voice, floating. "I'd like to see you make some notes. It would be very intense."

I pull away from the spectacle in the living room and glance at Dorothy. "Actually, a friend of mine once accused me of being too intense."

She rolls her eyes, lifts her wineglass. "Oh, come on!" She is flippant, as though she could never imagine anyone being too intense, and that this person who told me this must surely have no fun in life and must only be exposed to true intensity to understand how absurd his opinion is.

And yet I am nowhere near as intense as the people that surround Anne at Victor's insistence. In this house, I am guilty by association.

And then there is a gasp and a child screams. The room falls silent save for Vivaldi's Spring (Allegro) in the background.

Oh, God.

Victor stands at the bottom of the stairs. Only I cannot see his face. It is sheltered behind a hideous, plastic mask, frozen in a twisted grin. He wears a red velvet bathrobe, is completely calm, composed. "Welcome, visitors," he says.

Those who know Victor do not know which game he is playing. Those who don't are not sure this is a game at all. Those like me are trying to place which movie he's making now. Come on, Victor, give me a clue.

"Victor," Anne whispers, stern, a mother reprimanding her three-year-old for snatching candy bars from the supermarket shelf faster than she can put them back. "You promised."

There is a gasp. Some of the ladies move back, clearing a way for him to walk.

I move in toward the living room, ready to protect Anne from him -- or from what she might do to him.

"I hope you're all having a wonderful time," he says. He moves to a woman in a suit jacket standing by the couch, touches her chin. "There is a wine for every occasion, did you know that?"

The woman does not move.

"Victor, stop!" Anne grabs his arm.

He shrugs it free, seizes it tightly. She whimpers. I inch closer. "And this pain, Madame, is only a sample."

"What, you want me to say lines from this goddamn movie?" She roars. I jump. I have never heard her really raise her voice before. "Is that what you want? Well, guess what, this is one I had forgotten to study. Why don't you go into your monologue, you fiend? The one where you explain to my dear Robert how you became the monster you are!"

I hear the kitchen door slam. One of the women has sneaked out. This has not made the temperature rise or drop, although I cannot quite tell which it is doing right now...or which it should be doing.

Movie...movie...I try desperately to identify it. I study his mask, his robe, his demeanor. My childhood at drive-ins and movie houses flips through my brain like Viewmaster reels.

Dorothy laughs. "Oh, he's great," she says, elbowing me. I shrug her away. I do not want her to touch me.

"Movie," I say instead. "What movie?"

"Sardonicus, I think," she says. "We had a Sardonicus party last year and that was the outfit he wore. It was so cool. They actually re-created the scene where he digs up the body of his dead father to retrieve the winning lottery ticket."

I search my memory. Sardonicus? Yes. That was the film. I recall something about the name "Sardonicus" being Latin, and that it was the medical term given to victims of lockjaw. Or something to that effect.

Appropriate.

And how had that movie ended? Sardonicus' lips are sealed shut, and he cannot eat any of the food before him - like an anorexic who is too a slave to control to even place a morsel in her mouth. She meets the same fate as Sardonicus.

Who could have opened his mouth if he'd only had the courage, not been so horrified by his own actions.

Essentially, he'd died of his own hand.

I have a feeling there are a lot of us in this room that are about to die by Victor's hand. Right now.

He moves to each woman in the room. They are flames in his oil lamp.

"Over the years," he begins, "I have evolved a kind of explanation for my strange affliction. That some devilish force from beyond the grave had reached out to stab my face, that heaven had placed a curse upon me to punish me for violating my father's rest."

"Oh, God," Dorothy breathes. "He's doing the whole monologue!"

Ah, yes. The Devil comes in all forms, and now he is next to Anne. Her back is to me and I only see it heaving within the confines of her pale green slip-dress. "But at length I began to believe it was massive shock that forced my face to this state, and that my great guilt had also helped to shape even as my dead father's face was shaped. Shock and guilt."

Silence. He and Anne are locked in defiance. He pulls from her, makes tracks to me. He reaches to touch my hair -

-- then thinks better of it. His hand hovers between us. "Strong powers not from God above, nor the fiend below...but from within my own heart, my own brain, my own soul."

More than anything it is Victor's mask that frightens me.

It is not the mask itself. It is the fact that Victor is a man of so many faces he does not need one. It is chocolate mousse cake served just after white chocolate truffles and homemade fudge. And none of it tastes any good.

A shiver runs up my back.

A glass shatters on the kitchen floor, spraying my legs.

"You..." Anne's voice is deep, trembling. Her eyes burn with hatred for him. She comes between us, swats his hand away from my face. "We had an arrangement," she hisses.

He turns on her. From behind his mask, he says, "I never agreed." He says. "I implied. That, my dear, is different."

Anne falls silent; I see her lips trembling, maybe even turning blue - perhaps she is going into shock. But my lips won't move when I try to speak, to intervene.

She rushes up the stairs. I listen for the second floor boards to creak.

They don't. --

I just stand there and stare at Victor, shocked that at one time I had participated in his sick game of let's not even recognize reality, living lives I couldn't have lived any other way. But now those few fleeting moments are rendered empty: somebody's pulled the plug on the electric light parade in Disney World.

The other women are trying to make small talk, trying to pretend they haven't noticed. It amazes me that people can see people get hit by cars in front of them and they know how to act; that people watch movies so intense and gory they are driven to nausea and that's all fine. But when they're in a room and a couple fights, they're speechless. They hide their eyes like they're watching their own deaths, or something, or if they hang around these people long enough they'll surely catch whatever it is they have.

They are dead birds in the middle of a playground.

I can not bear to look at them. I cross my arms and search for Anne.

I find her in the bedroom upstairs, shivering, staring at the oak floorboards. I do not approach her or say anything; my presence, I think, should be enough: that I have divorced myself; that I am very good at dancing the line.

I lean against the doorjamb and shudder once in a breeze that rushes past me.

But the window is closed.

"Are you here to look at the freak?" She mutters, sniffing. I can barely hear her. Her pale skin is flushed, her eyes are swollen. She shakes beneath the weight of her pulverized heart, and her shame and embarrassment choke her vocal chords. I am certain she is too weak to move.

"No," I say, moving away from the door and walking toward her. "The freaks are all downstairs. I came up looking for sanity."

"You won't find it here," she says, wiping her eyes. "Welcome to the funhouse."

I step lightly and settle next to her on the bed. It groans under my weight, and I am glad they do not live in an apartment where others can hear the bed make noises in the middle of the night.

She says nothing.

I reach out and squeeze her arm, softer than it used to be; she rests against my shoulder and wraps her arms around my upper back. I wonder if Victor is as compassionate as I am, and somehow I know that he is not and suddenly I hate him. He has taken a jackhammer to my Stonehenge.

"Do you know," she whispers, "what's it's like to get into bed with someone every night and the way he makes love to you is so bizarrely, extremely different from the night before you wonder if maybe you're in the wrong room?"

I inhale. Yes, I think, but the man never exists. He is faceless, a product of my imagination. This I do not say. What I say instead is, "No. I don't."

"It violates your belief," she says. "You think you've found him -- the one -- the one that completes you, or at least the one who is in between extremes -- and you find out that not only do you not know him at all --" she sniffs. The cotton of my chambray shirt is getting damp and cold. "-- you wonder if the person you met exists or if he was some desperate move on the part of your imagination to rescue you from emptiness."

"I don't think that's true, Anne," I comfort. Her hair is soft as cornsilk. "In the beginning we may see more of what we want to see than of what we don't, but it takes time to get to know a person. To integrate their lives with ours."

"Yes," she says. "And then they change."

They change. Yes, that's true. Social chameleons, that's all we are. If we're in the west, we pretend to be cowboys. If we're in the south, we pretend to be tourists. Neither extreme is appealing, but we do it anyway because in reality none of us knows who he really is.

Her back heaves, her breath is hot, damp on my neck. "Everything has to change," I murmur. "Otherwise we would all be dead. Those of us who can't deal with change, adapt to it, are the ones who die."

She lifts her head off my shoulder, peers into my eyes, holding them with something between terror and frustration.

"Then I must be dead then. He's killed me!" She pulls completely away from me now, slams her hand against the mattress. The coils on the inside sproing, hollow, an echo. "I come home every night I'm somebody different. Mary Shelley or Ophelia or the Bride of Frankenstein or some crazy damsel from some film I've barely heard of. He doesn't even know who I am!" She gets up, folds her arms, paces to the window. She traces her hand down the pane, following the pattern the raindrops are making outside, rivers going nowhere. "I don't even know who I am. I've worn a million different costumes, and none of them fits quite right."

I rise from the bed and move to the door. "Maybe they do fit right," I say. "Just a little too tightly."

She turns on one heel and glares at me. "That's it. I'm going to kill him before he kills me." And in one second she runs toward me, blur in a pale-green slip-dress, pushes me aside. My shoulder blade hits the molding and pain rockets up my right arm.

"Anne!"

But she is gone, racing up the stairs to Victor's studio two at a time, and I catch my breath and decide whether or not to follow her --

Crash!

Decision made. -- A crack of thunder startles me, galvanizes me. I race up the stairs, nearly slipping on the burnt red carpet runner.

There is a wailing from downstairs; it is Victor, crying in the wake of the shattering of things he cannot see yet and can only imagine.

"Maybe I'll just have to change him, then!" Anne cries. There is a thud on the floor above me.

I emerge from the stairwell; rain is loud on the roof above us. I remember suddenly that Victor did not insulate the roof up here, so he could hear the sounds of torrential rain, of birds padding on the roof while he worked. I stand and watch her fly about, her blond hair once in a neat bun a rumpled mess. She grabs an Invisible Man poster and shreds it down the center. "Fuck his imaginary world! I will make him see the walls behind these fucking posters!" She screams and shreds another one: It Came from Beyond.

I survey the scene: a mahogany desk, complete with Meerschaum pipe, magnifying glass, sets of leather-bound books; a rocking chair, empty save for a shawl tossed over one corner of it. It rocks in an imaginary breeze.

"Darling!" Victor is at the top of the stairs. He has removed his mask to reveal a sweaty, flushed face. "Stop it, now! Stop! My work!" He rushes at her, tries to seize her arms, throws the mask to the ground.

She steps on it.

Thunder rumbles.

She shoves him away, takes her hand and swipes at the glass and test-tube contraption on the drafting table.

"That's acid!" He screams, trying to seize her wrist. "Please, you'll destroy the lab!"

She wrestles her body away from him, knocks through the glass. It tinkles, wind chimes over grandma's front porch. I cover my eyes with my hands, feel glass pour on my black boots.

And something wet on my bare leg: the acid Victor spoke of. I jump back, brush my leg...get it off me...

I realize I feel nothing. I touch the blue spot, lift it to my nose.

It's colored water.

"Stop it!" He manages to grip her arms violently, shake her. I rush at him, seize his shoulders.

"Victor!" I shriek. "Don't you touch her!"

She squirms from his grip, races to the walls. "Fuck you!" She yells. She grabs framed photos, one at a time, smashes them on the cold tile floor. I catch one glimpse at her face.

Purple.

Like it will pop.

And then I watch her fall.

"God!" Victor says, backing away. "A year's worth of research!"

"Shut up," I breathe. I push him aside, kneel next to her. I feel for her pulse. "She needs to go to the hospital." I say. I fear something terrible lurking in her brain that could burst any minute.

I touch her cheek. Dorothy, Helga are precariously balanced at the top of the stairs, poised between interfering and turning their backs.

I glare up at one of them. "Call an ambulance," I demand. Helga does nothing, just purses her full red lips. Dorothy nods and turns on one heel. Victor reaches out, seizes her arm.

"No," he says. "Dorothy, she is fine. She has just been overcome with melancholia, that's all."

I touch Anne's cheek. Hot and moist from tears, from exertion. I touch my fingers to her lips; her breath is irregular. I tense, look at Victor. "Melancholia. You've driven her to hysteria."

His blue eyes are wide, all innocence. "It is a tiff, nothing more." He straightens his back, reaches to his neck to untie the ribbon that secures his sweeping velvet cloak. His delicate fingers are spider legs. The plastic mask lies in two shattered halves at his feet.

A frustrated scream rises in my throat, is about to surge up my windpipe and out my mouth. Instead, I relax my neck, let the tip of my head settle against her chest, swallow. I squeeze her wrist, stand up. My knees are liquid. I force them to support me. I push the sleeves of my jacket to my elbow. "If you won't take her to the hospital, Victor, I will."

He settles his cloak on the vacant rocking chair, steadies its motion. The room's shadows crack in two with flickers of lightning. "You would defy me in my own house?"

I shift my gaze to Helga, who leans quietly against the wood paneling.

I notice Dorothy is gone.

I bite my lip, clench my fist. I want to push him down the stairs, force him to take Helga with him. "It's her house, too, and she's dying in it." I fold my arms across my chest, stand against him.

He sighs and stares up at the ceiling, runs his hands through his hair. "My work," he mutters. "I would let them come in and destroy my work and then clean their wounds."

I study the carpet. I do not know who he is trying to be right now, and do not care.

I think I hear him actually whimper. I think I actually see him shed a tear.

Dorothy reappears and nods at me.

"If she does have to go," he murmurs, "I will drive her."

Victor approaches Anne's body, studies her. For a moment I think he is going to kneel down and touch her chest, or perhaps lift her into his arms like Frankenstein to Elizabeth and carry her. He hangs his head, crosses himself --

-- and steps over her. He kneels before the shattered test tubes and colored stains on the tile floor and cups his hand. He lifts slivers of glass. They clink.

On the way home, I am in shock. I guess that's what this is; I don't feel a damn thing, and the neon signs suddenly have become beacons of life as opposed to icons of tack. Everything dark pulls at me with such intensity it is attractive.

Right now, everything dark is the only everything that makes sense.

My husband doesn't say anything to me when I come home. He just stares at me with that expression that warns he knows I've been doing something I shouldn't.

"You shouldn't spend so much time with these people," he says. He takes a swig from his bottle of beer. "I think you're forgetting who you are."

I start washing the dishes. No, I think, he means I am forgetting who I am supposed to be, doesn't he?

I go upstairs and fill the tub and light a scented candle. Roses of Cliffwalk, it reads on the label. What a joke. I watch the tub as it fills, floods. I consider immersing myself, clothes and all, and drowning. After all, it would only take the addition of the letter E to make it a tube. The tube they use to suck babies from the womb. The tube of hot oil that makes my hair lustrous and shiny. The tube. That's what life is all about, isn't it? A silent E. It's what you don't hear, what you don't see, what you don't know or feel. It's the silent E clause. All the things going on underneath the surface of a person, of your life, that you're unaware of until they suddenly pop up and change the way everything sounds.

E is the cruelest letter in the English language: extricate. Evaporate. Emulsify. Error. Empty.

I settle into the water and the exposed parts of my skin -- my stomach, my legs, my breasts -- prickle with goosebumps. I imagine a world where the letter E means everlasting. Elevate.

Enchanted.

I realize it doesn't exist.

And I fall asleep in the tub. -- I stand tittering at the nurses' station in the hospital where they've taken Anne. "She was brought in last night. Emergency Room, probably."

I study the gray-blue rug and the plain oak desks and wonder if hospitals were built by automatons: humans would want places built to die in to be comfortable, would they not?

I shift my heavy leather bag on my shoulder; the strap is drawing painful lines in the soft flesh of my shoulder.

"Screaming?" The nurse makes a note on a paper in front of her with a pencil.

I nod. There can't be too many screaming women being admitted to the Emergency Room on any given normal Saturday night. At least, not in this town. "Yes, that would be her."

"That would be the eighth floor," the nurse says.

"Eighth floor." I repeat. Then I remember. "That's the psychiatric ward."

"Well," the nurse slams her chart closed with a clack sound. "We certainly wouldn't put her in the burn unit." She slips the pencil behind her ear and strides away. The bun in her graying hair is too perfect to be real.

I turn on one heel and walk to the elevators; I am not alone when I step inside. "Where to?" Asks a young boy in a grubby T-shirt that reads: "What's the problem NOW?" A ketchup stain sits in the middle of the 'o' in problem. He shoves his hands in his baggy blue jeans. He looks to be about 14 or so.

"Eight," I say.

He smiles. There's a stud in his tongue. "No kiddin'. That's where I'm goin'." He bounces a tennis ball on the floor. "My sister's there. You been here a lot? I don't recognize you."

"Um -- no," I hesitate.

"You will be, don't worry."

The doors swish open and the kid gets out. I just stand there and wonder if I should let the doors close again, pretend I was never here, walk away from this sterile, violent world.

I rub my lips together and taste the wax from my lipstick on my tongue. Anne does not belong here. She does belong in the burn unit. It is no fault of hers she became the way she is...

I step out onto the tile, adjusting the leather strap of my bag on my shoulder. I turn right and study the walls, painted in pastel hues. Here and there a child-like rendition of a bird done lovingly in finger-paints adorns a bare wall. A television in the lounge sports an episode of Wheel of Fortune. "Spin the goddamn wheel already!" Shouts a woman in her bathrobe. A cigar dangles from her hand, but I cannot see her face. Her back is turned to me and she is slumped in one of those institutional vinyl chairs. It's orange. I catch a glimpse of a ratty fuzzy slipper, lying cold, discarded on the tile floor.

I keep walking. I shudder to think of delicate, sensitive Anne in the same vicinity.

Other than that, the halls are silent. There are no voices, no sounds.

Except for one laugh, a chortle that bounces down the halls and sounds hollow somehow, as though emitted from a mechanical clown you might find in those old sideshows like in Carnival of Souls. I walk toward it, certain it comes from a ghoul possessed by the souls of one thousand imaginary men.

When I push open the last door on the right, it gives under my fingers.

There are painted faces in this room, alright, and they do not belong to tin monkeys or mechanical clowns or laughing fortuneteller machines.

No, one face instead belongs to a deranged leprechaun who would dance on muddy ground and sink in if his jovial heart did not make the ground seem solid and his boots light. And Anne is under his spell -- one that doesn't make pots of gold.

The other belongs to a showgirl who has overdosed on sex, booze and depression. Anne sits at the edge of the bed, clad in the torn remains of the costume she had worn last night. She stares at nothing but the crumbling of her universe, her delicate mouth smeary around the edges, her nose is red, raw; her eyes offset by deep pouches and pouches of black mascara.

"What do you think, Lina? Doesn't she look wonderful?" He slips his hands in the pockets of a physician's coat he's gotten from somewhere, but he doesn't have the pained look of a doctor who must deliver bad news. His eyes are wide, curious, almost twinkling. Victor's face is alive with glee.

I furrow my brow. "Oh, God, Anne." I whisper. I want to go to her, crush her against me, protect her in the folds of my silk blouse. Let my breasts become pillows, safe havens. My heavy leather satchel slips off my shoulder. I step forward. My boot clicks on the tile floor.

"They say she'll be better after this," Victor says, nodding his head like an over- dramatic television actor. "Back to her old self."

I want to say he does not know her old self, but I say nothing. I am near her, now. I pinch a lock of Anne's straight blond hair and rub it between my fingers, smoothing it. It feels oily, slick almost. I settle a hand on her shoulder. "Victor, you bastard," I mouth.

"Now, now, language around the patient," Victor says.

I turn to him, mouth open. I had only mouthed the words; there is no way he could have heard me. A swallow's cry from six blocks would have been louder.

He motions jovially.

"Don't worry," he says, getting up with a flourish. The olive corduroy cording on his pants makes a soft brushing noise as he saunters toward me. "I didn't hear you. I just simply assumed that is what you would say." He pulls out a tobacco pouch of dark brown stamped leather and thrusts his pipe inside. I watch the creature burrow around. It is in such desperate need of nicotine. "You don't understand, Lina." He saunters to the window, folds the flap on the pouch and shoves it in his pocket. He looks out the window. "We needed this to happen. the poor dear was tired -- she was going to crash sooner or later, and it would have been devastating." He lights the pipe, suck-puff, suck-puff. The tobacco smells like cooked cherries.

"She's not a model airplane, Victor," I slip my hands into my pockets. In my right pocket there's an old Smarties candy wrapper. I crinkle it between my fingers. "And she's not your little wind-up doll, either."

"No, but she does dance beautifully." He chortles.

I stamp my foot. "You are SUCH an asshole!" The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them; they feel good.

Victor stops laughing.

"You goddamn son of a bitch. You fucking NEVER loved her. You loved an idea of her. A little Freudian playmate, a mind-fuck. Well, there were some people who wanted to love her for REAL. Who would have loved the REAL Anne and fucked the REAL Anne and not an invention. It isn't 1968 anymore. Do you know what year it is? Do you?"

Victor throws his pipe on the floor with a hollow clatter. Ashes spill from its womb; smoke drifts up from some hot embers. What I smell now is what I tasted once when I was five and ate the contents of my father's ashtray.

"Is this YOUR fantasy now, Lina?" His eyes are those of a praying mantis: bulging, hungry. "You want to be ME? Or maybe you want to be a man -- maybe you think you know what's best for Anne." He crouches down, picks up his pipe. He leaves the ashes, the embers.

I sigh. I stick out my lower lip. "You're right, Victor." I look at the floor, run a hand tiredly through my hair. "You're so RIGHT." I trace my fingers over my lips. "Leave us."

Victor just looks at me blankly, as though shocked I would give him a command. But I am as much a part of his family as Anne; he is the one who would say no when I say yes, and vice-versa.

"Get out, Victor." I fold my arms across my chest. "I would like private time with my wife."

He stares. I raise an eyebrow.

"Come on," I say. "Can't you appreciate a good fantasy?"

He pulls his lips tight.

I see the velvet curtains in his eyes being torn from their proscenium. "Of course," he says. He turns and leaves.

Then I go to Anne.

I crouch down before her. "Anne," I murmur. I reach up, touch her cheek. "Anne, Where are you?" In her eyes I see the girl with the suntan oil. The princess at the wedding that never happened. Alice in Wonderland with her lemonade.

And I see someone who cannot recall any of that.

"Which hallway are you wandering today, Anne? Is it carpeted with discontent? Are your dreams like broken toys, thrown in corners?" I swallow. "Because mine are."

I force a wan laugh. She does not respond.

"Are you trying to decide which shadows to hide in?"

No response. I sniff, blink back tears. "Or is it full of lights, because for once you're all alone in there. Anne."

I'm crying now. My nose runs. I wipe it on my sleeve. I hate this. I hate the world. I hate Victor, and I hate my husband, and I hate all of the people in my life that have died or that I have had to leave because they treated me badly and I think, for God's sake, we're all going to DIE, can't we just play fucking nice?

"Fuck you! It's MY goddamn turn to spin the wheel!" A woman out in the hallway screams.

There is some high-pitched screaming, a crash. I think the lady in the fuzzy slippers has decided which world she wants to be in.

My shoulders tense. "No matter which world you're in, Anne, I wish I were in it with you."

Then I just watch her, and I pick at my lower lip and tear off a piece of skin. I taste blood on my tongue.

I do not know how much time passes before I feel the warmth of a soft hand on my head. I look up.

Anne is smiling sadly. "Hi." She whispers.

"Hi," I say. I am still crying, but am so happy to see her smile the corners of my mouth move by themselves. "How do you feel?"

"Tired." she says. "But...glad you're here."

Her voice is a cracking whisper; I lean in to be closer to her.

She shivers a little, hugs herself, rubs her arms. " I need...you...to understand."

I reach up, brush her hair aside, try to tuck it behind her ear.

She grips my hand, stops me. Settles it back down on the bed next to her.

"Things at home." She shudders, takes a deep breath. "They're unbearable."

I nod, mouth the words, "I know," but cannot quite make them louder than a whisper. I look up into her eyes, expecting to see freedom; I see only my own reflection, and a little sadness. And I think, this is it. I should celebrate. She is leaving Victor. That little tantrum, that display not dissimilar to my husband when I have begged for fairness and he storms off to the shower, has made her see how horrible her life is and how she needs to leave. Somehow, his violence penetrated her vacant eyes, and she is coming back to my world.

In the hallway, a door slams; I hear the shuffle of nurse's shoes. Anne does not continue right away; she takes a deep breath. The silence is long.

"Do you have a cigarette?" she asks.

I study her swollen lips. God, I want one, too. I wish we were not in this room. I wish we were in a field in the middle of a forest, where we could destroy each other in the middle of nature.

"We can't, Anne," I say.

"Give me one." She gulps. "Anyway."

She reaches out to me with two trembling fingers. An unreliable tuning fork.

I reach into my skirt pocket and pull out a cigarette.

Then I pull out a second cigarette for me.

Anne smiles; her teeth are pieces of white corn. She takes the cigarette, holds it delicately between her fingers. She puts it in her mouth, lets it hang there.

I finger a box of matches in my pocket. God, I want to use them.

Anne is studying her cuticles. I see her eyes begin to glimmer with tears. "Something - needs to change in my world, I -" she twirls the end of the cigarette in her fingers. "I've - known this for awhile."

I notice that she has begun to rock back and forth. She wipes her nose with her sleeve, and I wonder how long it will be before she washes that sweater. "When I am with Victor, there is so much magic." The bedsprings creak beneath her. "I need him - like I would need any kind of wonderful drug. But." She sighs. She turns to look out the window. The late autumn has sent leaves falling to the ground like parchment. "I can't keep up with the addiction."

Yes, Anne, I think. Yes. Leave him. You can stay at my house...I'll clean out the guest room...visions of bottles of wine and full ashtrays dance in my head. I settle a hand on her knee. "Don't worry," I say. "We'll get you out of this."

"No, I've made a decision."

My knees are beginning to hurt from kneeling on the cement floor. Tobacco is falling out of the loose end of the cigarette in my hand, landing around my knees like dead leaves.

"They said - well, the doctor says I'm just having a little trouble adjusting to married life. That lots of brides in the first couple of years get depressed. There's -" she takes the cigarette from her mouth, squeezes the soggy filter. I do not know where this is going.

"-medications."

Oh, fuck. No. "No, Anne -"

" - that will make me less anxious, more accepting of what I'd like to become."

"Why do you have to become anything!" I stand up. I choke on sequestered tears.

The cigarette trembles in her hand. Her face is puffy, red. "I don't want to be a DEAD person but I can't live like this!"

"So leave!" I scream back. My nose is running; I feel the mucus cooling on my upper lip.

"No!" She barks. "I won't leave my soul mate. He completes me."

"He's destroying you, DAMMIT!" I throw the cigarette on the floor and grind it into the tiles.

"And that's the price I pay!" She says. She is crying again. "I made a mistake. I married my soul mate. When that happens, the love burns so hot it sears your heart and scalds your eyes."

She takes a deep breath. She is calmer when she says this: "And then, it burns itself out. Unless one soul will give to the other. I will have to be the one who gives."

I cross my arms and turn on one heel to study her. Her back is to me, her shoulders are slumped, her hair is stringy, unwashed. The back of her shirt is damp. She sinks wanly to the bed. "You don't have to do anything." I see myself walking down the aisle to meet my husband, knowing that he was not necessarily the best choice for sex, for the match that sets flames in my heart, but the one who would make my life most stable, so that I could explore. I remember thinking, I cannot really talk to you, but you are sometimes fun to be around, and there is so little conflict...you are the best choice to marry.

And I think of the soul mates I had to leave behind, for their love was overwhelmingly sparkling, but violent. And addictive. I think of their stories I will never finish, the closure with them I will never reach because the dying star fizzled to the point of a space- rock devoid of weather and life. I miss them.

But I carry them in my heart.

And sometimes, they are in the bed with me.

I settle my hands into the pockets of my skirt. "This is why people go to their marriages all banged up. Why there are -- secrets their -- spouses never know. They don't marry their soul mates. Just someone who can love them, or fuck them, or laugh with them, buy gifts for them, or just be around. So that they can preserve their identities, their work, their passions, their friends. Themselves."

She sniffs. I see her shoulders heave as she begins to cry again.

"It's life's way of ensuring the world works. If we all married our soul mates, Anne, we would become co-dependent mad-men." I walk to her. "That is what you've become."

I hear her whimper, the cries of a child who does not want to hear that her cat has been hit by a car. I kneel down. I rest the palms of my hands and my chin on the soft curve of her knee. "Why fight nature, Anne?"

"Because I have to. It is so powerful, now, this hold on me. I can't BE without it!"

I try to swallow the knot that is blocking my windpipe.

I see only what lies ahead when she is gone: copies of Little Birds packed in a box where I do not have to see them; photos of her tucked away in a suitcase; phone calls that will never be from her; driving past her driveway and thinking, "someone I used to love lives here, but I am no longer welcome,"; all my journal writings about her, stored in my basement; everything that is her: lemonade, cookies, blond women...out of my life. Golden afternoons. Her voice. Gone. I grasp her cold hands. "I know. I know it's not fair. But you can be without it. I'll help you -- "

She shakes her head. "No." She wipes tears from her eyes with her sleeve. She is suddenly jumpy, like I have never seen her before. She shifts around on the edge of the bed, crosses her legs, then uncrosses them.

Then she begins to rock back and forth. And I see the drugs in her system and I see that this is how she will rock forever. Morning, noon, night. She is dying in front of me, and they will kill her, and she will be a corpse in a rocking chair of her own design.

I hear her breathing. Every second I think that it will end, that she will say more, say something to give me hope, but she says nothing, with each passing moment her breaths get deeper and my heart rips and I try not to panic. I open my mouth. I want to protest. To stop her.

But I cannot argue with the quiet creak of the bedsprings.

I feel dizzy. The world is melting, falling into a swirling pile of Neapolitan ice cream at my feet. Stop this carousel. Stop spinning! A cacophony of voices: you did this to yourself, Lina. You did this. Anne was your whole life, and now she's leaving and there is nothing left -- no friends. A husband who watches football. Parties. Could you go to any more parties with these people? I slide down her legs and set my head on the floor. The tile is cold on my cheek, glued there by my salty tears.

I feel a warm, wet splash on my head.

"Oh, Lina," she whispers. "Nothing is the end of the world."

Yes it is, I think. It is the end of one thousand worlds. Right here. Right now.

I look up at her, and my lip trembles, my heart breaks with the lie she has told on my behalf. But some lies, I think, make things harder; they force you to accept things you don't want to accept.

Or things you shouldn't accept.

I set my head on her knees. And of all the old selves I could have back, I want mine the most, because I will need her when I want to speak to Anne and Anne will be gone, lost in another world. Our circles have broken away from each other.

I look at her.

She wraps her baby-blue cardigan more tightly around her frail chest.

Leave, Lina. Go. Do not look anymore. It is over. Go.

I turn and leave the room, hear the door swoosh closed behind me. The halls are filled with women in white, creating sounds with the bodies they push on gurneys, with the clatters of the clipboards on which they were making notes.

Every day we mourn many deaths. Little ones in ourselves. Milestones are shattered in their wake. All these things I think as I escape into the waning autumn dusk and drive home.

Kristi Petersen