At first, she thinks the flowers are just a mistake, a gift sent to the wrong address. They appear at her doorstep, tied bunches of roses, tiger flowers, Hungarian irises. There is no name or card attached. At first, she is scared, then intrigued. She is tempted to keep the roses and tiger flowers in the house. Instead, she keeps the Hungarian irises. Her husband asks where did they come from? Do you have a secret you need to tell me?
She says You’re my only secret, kisses him on the cheek, and leaves for work. She teaches fifth graders the names of faraway places, strange animals. The names of trees and flowers. Even the non-indigenous ones like Gasteria or Ghost Aloe. The boys rest their chins in their hands, bodies rocking to keep from sinking into total boredom. The girls wear fuzzy expressions.
Then come the packages full of clothes—shawl neck sweaters, ruffle cashmere cardigans, a navy beaded ruche dress, a ¾ sleeve red scoop dress, a 2-piece lavender crotchet. A pair of slippers and some underwear. Everything fits to form. Nothing is too large or too loose.
She checks the sender’s address. It doesn’t exist. With each shipment, the name is different.
Her husband asks again if there is someone he doesn’t know about.
“You mean an affair?” she said.
“Call it what you want,” he said.
She studies him for a long time, her eyes following his, aqua-blue and revealing nothing. They remind her of precious stones, something full of superficial beauty, and under that—perhaps years of pent up resentment. Maybe long before he met her.
He looks scared. Or maybe it’s her glaring into him—so penetrating—as if to say What do you take me for?
For a second, he looks away.
“Maybe we should get the police involved,” he says, sheepishly.
“I have to go to work.”
“For Christ sake, they know your exact dimensions and where you live.”
She swings around at the door.
“I have no idea,” she says.”But whoever it is, they have good taste. They have my taste.”
She starts waking up in the middle of the night with an overwhelming thirst. Feeling transparent in her bare feet and nightgown, a chemise maxi-gown from one of those mysterious packages, she feels her face in the mirror. It’s warm in some spots. Forehead. Chin. Neck. Her cheeks burn. She hates herself for wearing the nightgown. It isn’t hers. It isn’t something she bought with her own money. She didn’t earn it, she thinks. Then she closes her eyes, walks on tiptoe and imagines that she is someone else. An actress. A rising starlet. A woman, a silhouette, who one could not help but love or believe in.
During lunch recess at the school, she strolls the noisy grounds, children in various formations, trying to tag one another out or to catch a ball too big for one hand. She feels the child’s eyes upon her. He is snaking behind some old tree stump. Something tells her his eyes are dark and tiny. He disappears again. She pretends to look elsewhere, but walks in the direction of the stump. One eye peeks out, then a flash of face. He runs as if he sees the devil. Maybe he is the devil. He had been watching her for weeks. Perhaps she reminded him of someone he lost.
She wonders if it was the same boy who knocked at her door and ran. After she answered, she looked down, picked up the white and brown puppy, a Welsh Terrier.
For weeks, her husband and her argued over it. She didn’t exactly want to keep it, but then again, she didn’t want to give it away.
Her husband said it was not hers.
While she was at work, he drove the dog downtown. It acquired a new home.
For weeks, she hated him for that.
My dog, she kept saying, you didn’t have the right.
She keeps receiving a ton of junk mail. Then the envelopes addressed to Mar Stapleton. That was what her first husband called her. Mar. His nickname for Mary. The envelopes are empty, but they smell pretty.
She never tells her present husband when she visits the ex-spouse in the hospital. A more dangerous love. She always has to psych herself in some way before visiting him. She imagines the strangest things. Suppose, she thinks, if he wakes up someday. Like in the old movies. Well, it can happen. And what would she say? Would she act the part of the wife of a soldier given up for dead, returning home after years? Would she tell him to come in from the rain or hand him an umbrella and tell him he’s at the wrong address?
He’s comatose, a big man whose thick legs the bed can hardly contain. He’s made to smell nice. Some kind of aftershave that smells of mint or of morning dew. The nursing aides do a good job grooming him, especially when they know she’s coming to visit. Sometimes, Mar wipes his face of perspiration or holds his hands when he starts to tense and seize. He’s a high spinal injury.
She thinks: It’s me who’ll never recover.
While they were married, he was a notorious womanizer. He told her what his father once told him: the more women I wear out, the longer I will live.
There were so many women, all sizes, all shapes. They had red cherry lips and long tongues. At night, she tried to imagine their faces, what she would say to each inside a room. Her cheeks felt flushed.
She gave him ultimatums. But in the end, she decided she couldn’t give him away. She had to share him.
He divorced her on the grounds that one is not enough, that she couldn’t give him enough life. With her, he told her, he would not live long.
She signed on the dotted line.
The car overturned in the rain on a four-lane highway. Mar wondered if the passenger’s breasts were exposed at the scene of the accident.
The thought of it was funny/sad/hysterically sad. Those poor twisted bodies.
Then, she couldn’t see the woman’s face. The hurt.
The gifts keep coming: perfumes, more flowers, love notes addressed to no one, abstract paintings or ones by her favorite Expressionist: Shiele.
The husband keeps interrogating her. Who is stalking you?
She says not to talk with a mouth full of mash potatoes. It makes him sound like a stuffy British actor.
She has this recurrent dream, or several versions of the same one. She visits the ex-husband at the hospital. She sit downs and watches the lump growing, moving under the sheet. The boy sticks his head out. It’s the same boy from the school.
She says Who are you?
He says You don’t know? I’m the son you once gave up.
You mean the son I never had.
No, he says, the son you gave up. You did and didn’t want me. Maybe you weren’t ready.
He dives back under the sheets.
The husband opens his eyes. He rises halfway in the bed. His eyes stare out straight ahead.
She says, Do you know who I am? Do you remember?
His lips part slightly.
She places a hand over his chest.
Do you feel any pain? She asks. Do you feel anything?
Pain, he mumbles, then smiles. Or maybe it is the boy playing under the sheets.
She starts to cry, hugs him, calls for the boy to come out. Then she says Where is my dog? Where is my little dog?
The dog they took from me.
The dream dissolves.
One night, driving home late after grading papers, a woman cuts her off at an intersection. Before she dies, before she enters the gates of Nothingness, she recalls the woman’s face from a picture of a wreckage. Her husband’s car, which was also her car.
And she is sitting on a throne. All her ex-husbands’ lovers, mistresses, present her with gifts—perfumes, flowers, dresses, precious stones of electric blue topaz or fire opal, a brand new puppy.
Each woman in waiting presents a gift and curtsies before Queen Mar. They address her as Your Highness.
She asks Where is The King?
There is a distant sound of shattering glass. No one moves.
They tell her that he will be arriving shortly.
They tell her that in eternity nothing arrives late.