Read More: A brief interview with Lisa Julin Sharon
Lars went missing on May third. Jill and Lars’s Beagle, Tip, was the first to notice. It was time for his walk and there was no Lars to take him. Tip alerted Jill by plunking down in front of her with his tail sweeping an arc on the floor and an expectant look in his eyes.
“Where’s Lars?” Jill asked in a high talking-to-a-pet voice while she rubbed Tip’s head and ruffled his ears.
Jill didn’t really begin to worry until about an hour later when Lars still hadn’t come home from work. His office phone was picked up by the answering machine, and he didn’t answer his cell. She thought about calling her daughter, but Becca would surely transform the situation from one of “hmm, what could have happened?” to an emergency with a potentially tragic end.
She imagined calling the police. “So, your husband’s late from work?” the person who answered the phone would say. A police car would pull into her driveway. They’d surely ask if she and Lars had any problems, had had a fight. “Not a fight, exactly,” she imagined herself saying. The cop would look at her inquiringly, waiting for her to elaborate.
“Not a fight,” she’d say. “I just told him I was having an affair.”
The imaginary cop—Officer O’Donnell, Irish, fat wife, six or seven kids—would sigh. He’d know all about marital problems and hysterical wives. “So you were having an affair.” Irish brogue would become more prominent as irritation grew.
She wouldn’t make this conversation real. Instead, she poured herself a glass of Tempranillo and sat in the armchair by the front window so she’d see Lars’s car if he pulled in. She looked down at Tip whose eyebrows asked how her efforts to find Lars were going. “Well, all we can do is wait,” she said reassuringly.
She probably shouldn’t have told Lars she was having an affair with Stuart. Lots of reasons not to have said anything, most important of which was that she wasn’t having an affair with Stuart. In fact, she wasn’t having an affair at all. She wasn’t sure why she had said it. It had been the culmination of many small things. It wasn’t that she wanted to hurt him, exactly. She simply wanted to free herself from the burden of him, the sense she was yoked to loaded cart. She had lit a stick of dynamite under him and, following the principle of unintended consequences, had lost him. Or was that the intended consequence? She wasn’t sure. Maybe they could have talked.
She thought about calling Stuart, even went so far as to look for his phone number in their address book. It wasn’t there. It occurred to her that she’d never actually called him. Lars had always made the arrangements when the three of them got together. It had been years since Stuart had been to the house.
That first night Lars didn’t come home, Tip didn’t get his walk, and Jill went through wild swings of emotion. From certainty that he had left her—causing a weird mix of relief, terror, and misery—to dread that he had been murdered and his body would be found in some back alley, his head bashed in and his wallet and identification gone.
The next day, Jill had the conversation with the police. Not a fat Irishman, but a lanky, young man, innocent of the intricacies of long-term marriages. Officer Stashower’s investigation ended when Lars’s boss told him that Lars had asked for a couple weeks’ vacation. Lars would not have asked for time off in order to allow himself to be murdered, so the cop and Jill agreed that he was on a personal adventure of some sort. “He’ll probably show up at your door when he gets it out of his system,” Officer Stashower said wisely.
The next day, still no Lars. Jill pulled on the rope and lowered the steps to the attic. Lars used the attic as his workshop, spending hours up there sometimes. With his absence looming in the empty house, Jill had developed a growing urge to enter his space. As she climbed the narrow stairs, she thought about the last conversation she and Lars had had before he disappeared. It was Sunday evening and Lars had been reading the newspaper in the living room.
“I ran into Marcy Andinolfi at the grocery store,” Jill said.
“Marcy. She lives down the street? Her kids went to school with Becca? She wears sweats all the time and dyes her hair red?” Jill pulled cans of diced tomato out of the grocery bag. “She and her husband just got back from a three week trip to Spain.” She put the cans on the counter as if crushing cockroaches.
Jill knew her anger was irrational but enjoyed satisfaction from indulging it. Her parents had fought loudly and often viciously. When things were quiet it was all surface. Underneath was magma, roiling, liquid fire, ready to boil up and fill the air with smoke, ash and heat. There was no placidity in her childhood home. Her parents’ arguments had simmered beneath the surface of her life giving piquancy to the mundane. Jill had left home as soon as she could to escape the turmoil. But some part of her needed to feel that the engine was hot and ready to go, that there was potential movement, excitement.
Lars was cool, solid, predictable and averse to conflict. And over the years, especially once Becca was grown and gone and Jill had taken early retirement from the library, Jill’s increasingly rash attempts to prod him into action had led not to passionate arguments ending in ardent reassurances of love, but into cold silences and Lars’s disappearances on walks with Tip, or up to his workspace in the attic. Marcy Andinolfi’s smug description of traveling with her husband had ignited a fuse in Jill.
She went to the living room and leaned against the doorway, looking down at Lars where he sat reading the paper. When he finally glanced up, she said, “Maybe I’ll plan a trip with my boyfriend.”
“I only have one.”
“That’s a relief.”
“You know him.”
“Stuart? You remember him? The artist?” She had a growing urge to convince him that what had begun as a joke had led to truth.
“Stuart, huh?” She sensed rising tension. He put down the paper and gave her his full attention. “You’re telling me that you are having an affair with Stu?”
“Is that so hard to believe?”
This infuriated her. She turned and went back into the kitchen. She crushed a cereal box putting it in the cupboard, banged a jar of olives against the shelf and wondered if either jar or shelf had cracked. When she turned, Lars was standing in the kitchen doorway, arms crossed, frowning. The sight was gratifying.
“So, it’s impossible to believe that I could be having an affair,” she began.
“I don’t think you’re having an affair. I don’t know why you’d tell me you are.”
“You are so goddamned complacent. So sure that you know everything there is to know about me. Your feeble imagination can’t grasp that there might be something you don’t know. That’s all. You’re perfectly satisfied with the little world you’ve got in your head, reality doesn’t matter.”
“What are you so angry about?”
“I’m sick of it. That’s all. I’m sick of the sameness. We don’t travel, we don’t go out, we don’t do anything, we are walking through life like a couple manikins. As long as you have your newspaper, your walks with Tip, your workroom, you’re fine. Well I need more than that. That’s all. I’m sick of it.”
The argument had not resolved. Lars took Tip for a walk. Jill fumed. He’d expect the whole thing to have blown over by the time he got home. She’d suppress the anger until the next time it exploded. In all their years of marriage they had never learned how to fight.
The next day, he didn’t come home from work.
She climbed through the hole into the attic, brushing a strand of white hair off her forehead as she felt around for the light pull. The bulb shone through its hexagonal shade and bathed the space in dull light that brightened as the bulb warmed. She had put a dust rag in the pocket of her apron but the attic was surprisingly cobweb-free. Except for the cleanliness, though, everything was much as she imagined it. Lars’s collection of small appliances—toaster oven that burned everything including the countertop, alarm clock that couldn’t be set and was obsolete in any case, fan that had lost its ability to oscillate—on a workbench under the window at the front of the house. Seeing the forlorn, useless appliances, Jill felt sorry for Lars. What did he imagine himself to be when he brought them up to the attic and placed them on the workbench? What ambition of masculine competence did he seek to fulfill?
She pulled aside the curtain that hung at the window overlooking the front yard. Natural light bathed the workbench. She could imagine Lars plodding up the attic steps with valiant intentions of bringing the toaster back to life, then, easily distracted, opening the curtain and gazing instead at Mrs. Applebaum’s garden across the street. She studied the curtain. It was a heavy beige material. Not like anything else in the house. It looked new. Didn’t there used to be a sheer at this window? She looked around the attic until she found it folded on top of one of the wooden boxes. Odd.
She took a deep breath. The air was musty, infused with age, decay and . . . something else. Lavender? Jill thought of her grandmother, Ethel. Jill had gotten Ethel’s thick white hair and high cheekbones, her sense of drama. Jill remembered her tiny grandmother, in a high-necked, lace-collared dress and white gloves, lipstick perfect, two circles of rouge that grew more defined as Grandma Ethel aged. Ethel used to love to talk about the artist boyfriends she’d had, before she met grandpa—THE BANKER, she’d say, referring to her husband, her voice heavy with mock gravitas. Ethel had not approved of Lars. She had wanted Jill to marry an artist. Grandma Ethel would have liked Stuart.
Stu was a graphic artist by profession and occasionally painted and sold his own pieces. Jill was an amateur painter herself. She painted in oils, he in acrylics. Jill and Stu used to talk about painting, about base coats and impasto and keeping up with drawing. When Stu was over for dinner, he’d study her most recent painting and offer real critique instead of safe, bland praise.
Jill liked the gentle way Stu teased her about the white streaks in her thick hair, feeling that his notice was more flattering than his comments. She liked how he’d help clean up after dinner. Lars would wash dishes at the sink while Jill and Stu cleared the table, working together without the awkwardness that often accompanied Jill and Lars’s attempts to do anything kitchen-related together. No reaching for the same dish at the same time, getting trapped in the awkward dance of someone entering while the other was leaving the room. He’d pick up a plate and remove the silverware in time for Jill to add another plate and so on until he had all the plates and Jill all the silverware. They’d talk about art the whole time.
“You have to learn to explore the negative space,” Stu once told her. “The space that appears empty. So much happens in the negative space.”
She had always been a little surprised and slightly offended by the fact that Lars never expressed any jealousy about her relationship with Stu, that he never seemed to notice the mild flirtation during dinner, or that Stu would look more at her when he was talking than at him. She felt sure she merely had to bend a little toward Stu—maybe touch his hand when she handed him a plate, or press her knee against his under the table—and they’d fall into an affair. She told herself Lars’s lack of insecurity was due to her fundamental honesty and steadfastness, but she suspected it was due to Lars’s fundamental lack of imagination. He rarely saw what was not right in front of him. She recognized that she married him in part because of that lack of imagination. She wanted to avoid the barbs and jealousies that had flown between her parents when she was growing up.
But apparently she didn’t really want to avoid those issues. She wanted him to be jealous. Or maybe she wanted the affair to be true. Now that Lars was gone, she didn’t know what she wanted.
She had always wondered what Stu saw in Lars. Stu had social ease that Lars lacked. Lars, who worked in IT, had no artistic interests or talent, and who stammered slightly under duress. But she saw they had a rapport. They laughed at the same things. Jokes she recognized as such but did not truly appreciate, sometimes didn’t even understand. To be fair, though, Lars had a certain musical grace. When they were first married, before Becca was born, he had suggested they take tango lessons. He had smiled shyly as if expecting a rebuff. But Jill said, “Sure.” Their teacher, Ubaldo, was short and slender and carried himself like the strong, flexible stem of a flower. After the first class, Jill bought a black, ankle-length, body-hugging dress. They found a short, bolero jacket in a vintage store and Lars wore it over a white shirt with slim black pants. In the store, he snapped his fingers above his head and did a twirl that made the saleslady clap. Jill had been mortified for him.
Now, with Lars several days gone, Jill wished she had clapped. She wished she had spun with him for the entertainment of the saleslady.
At the opposite end of the attic was a wardrobe with large plastic boxes neatly stacked around it. A flash of red between the wardrobe and the boxes caught her eye. She lowered herself carefully to the floor where she sat with one leg bent and the other, the one with the bad knee, stretched out straight. She leaned forward, couldn’t reach it, scooted on her bottom and reached again. It was a shoe. Shiny and scaly, like dyed alligator skin, with a high, thin heel. She turned it over. The bottoms were lightly scuffed. She smiled at the younger version of herself that might have worn this shoe.
Hmm. The shoe was large. She found the size in tiny gold lettering inside it. Ten. She wore size eight. Her mind flitted briefly over the image of a tall, big-boned woman in this shoe, stepping out with Lars, dancing a tango, studying Matisse at the museum, sipping whiskey at the new bar on Euclid Avenue. These shoes would be for a woman of style, confidence, a woman with an artistic bent. A woman like Jill, actually.
Jill looked around for its mate. Not finding it on the floor, she opened the wardrobe again. Lined up at the bottom, beneath the men’s suit jackets and overcoats, were Lars’s old shoes. Shoes he would have worn to work, replaced but saved. There were also shoe boxes stacked in the back of the wardrobe. Jill pulled them out and opened each one—women’s shoes, size 10—until she found the mate.
She took off her own flat made-for-walking shoes and put on the sparkly red shoes. She managed to get one foot upright on the floor but when she tried to transfer her weight to that foot her ankle teetered on the narrow heel. She sank back on her knee and took off the shoes. She stood, leaned over, put the shoes on over her ankle-length socks and steadied herself on a stack of plastic boxes. Near the wardrobe was a full-length mirror with a corner where the glass was missing and part of the wooden easel broken off. She studied her feet in the mirror. Her ankles were not as slim as they used to be. She kicked the shoes off and went back to the wardrobe. She pressed her face against the hanging jackets. She was surprised at her reaction to the smell of him on his clothes. Her breath caught and she choked back a sob.
He had left her. He had left her.
She heard Tip bark and she closed the wardrobe door and headed downstairs.
After dinner and a walk around the block with Tip, Jill found herself back in the attic standing in front of the mirror wearing a multi-colored dress with an uneven hem, a hat with a feather in it (a feather!), and the red shoes. She had found the dress folded over a hanger under one of his suit jackets. There were dresses within the folds of all the jackets. This dress struck a chord in her memory. She and Lars had seen it at an outdoor market when they were in Switzerland before Becca was born. She had thought Lars was considering buying it for her and she discouraged him. Too long, she had said.
The lace of her slip showed above the neckline making the outfit almost sexy. There was a sequined purse hanging with one of the dresses under the jacket Lars had worn the season they got opera tickets and realized neither of them liked opera. Jill did a half turn in front of the mirror trying to get the hem of the dress to fan out but succeeded only in nearly toppling over. She contented herself with holding her arms out at her sides and gazing. This was what Lars did. He stood in front of this same mirror, wearing this same dress—she could smell him on it—teetering in these same shoes, purse slung over his broad shoulder. She pictured his narrow nose and full lips, his thinning curly hair peeking out from under the hat. She thought of how, when his interest was ignited, his eyes would become active, somehow sharper. She remembered the small smile that meant he saw a joke hidden in ordinary conversation. What was the joke, she wondered now.
Jill had heard something about cross-dressers (is that what they were called?) on the radio. Not necessarily gay. But maybe gay. Or bi. Was it the thrill of a man exploring a woman, or the thrill of a man being a woman? It was a distinction Jill thought mattered, but then wondered. Had Lars been dissatisfied with their sex life? Jill had been proud of the fact that she and Lars had occasionally closed the ever-increasing distance between them to make love. But now she questioned whether they were really together even during sex. For all she knew he was imagining himself a woman. The thought was disturbing. Disturbing and a little exciting.
She took off the shoes and pulled the dress over her head. Before she returned the purse to the hanger, she opened it. There was a tube of lipstick, pinkish, much too light for Jill’s skin color but probably a good shade for Lars’s Scandinavian complexion. There was even an old-fashioned compact with a pad for powdering Lars’s nose. Under the compact was a piece of paper. A ticket stub. Jill took it out and walked over to the light. She held it at arm’s length but still couldn’t read the writing without her reading glasses. She tucked it in her sweater pocket and got dressed in her own clothes. As she pushed the stairs back up to the ceiling, she felt as if she were locking Lars away.
She’d go alone. After all, who could she ask to go with her? She was nervous imagining sordid characters and uncomfortable situations. What if someone mistook her for a lesbian? How could she explain her presence there without seeming like a voyeur? Was she a voyeur? Into her husband’s life? She was a fifty-eight year old, white woman. Would she be as invisible at the Saucy Cat as she was at the grocery store?
She called first to check on hours, make sure the place even existed still. “Show starts at 7:00,” said the business-like, gum-chewing, voice on the phone. Jill could hear dishes rattling in the background and voices, but no music and nothing to suggest she was calling anything but a restaurant or hardware store.
She went up to the attic to get dressed. She pulled out the dress that hung under Lars’s gray suit. It was silver, thin-strapped, and slinky. She folded her own clothes neatly and placed them on a box. She started to slip the dress over her head. It stuck, her arms in the air, her face covered. She wriggled out, found the side zipper, unzipped it, put it on and zipped it up, nervous about pinching. Standing in front of the mirror, she examined herself, turning to the left and to the right. She sucked in her belly then let it out again. She put on the red shoes then took the barrettes out of her hair and let it fall to her shoulders. She looked nice. Beautiful, actually. If only there were someone to see her. She found Lars’s purse and opened it to take out the lipstick, then the mascara. She no longer looked like herself. She was glamorous.
Before going downstairs, she took off the sparkly red shoes lest she fall and break her hip and put on her own flat, black shoes.
She knew the neighborhood generally, but not where to park or what building the Saucy Cat might be in. She drove past the spot twice before she saw the low brick building with the sign out front, a dancing cat with a cane and top hat, surrounded by round lightbulbs only half of which were lit. She was able to park just around the corner, though she wasn’t sure she’d feel safe walking back to her car after dark. She’d stay for no more than half an hour. It’d still be light when she left.
There was no one in sight outside the place. She pushed through the heavy door to enter a dark room. When her eyes adjusted, the first people she saw were two men at a round table with mugs of beer in front of them. One was wearing a jean jacket and the other a light-colored sweater over a turtle neck. They could be library patrons for all their normalcy. Jill was relieved, then a little embarrassed by her own outfit.
A woman in a short black dress, thick eye-liner and a tattoo of what looked like a donkey on her shoulder, held out her hand and said, “Twenty dollars.” […]
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Lisa Julin Sharon’s stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Cleaver Magazine, Gemini Magazine and The Painted Bride Quarterly, among others. Lisa holds a law degree and a Master’s in English. Her novella, Glen Willow Gardens, is due to be published in 2018 by GusGus Press.
Read More: A brief interview with Lisa Julin Sharon