by Arya F. Jenkins
It was easy to get out of bed when Lucinda was not in it, easy to greet the day in which the most pressing responsibilities were to her. Everything was for her. She had given how many years?–helping raise her son Michael through his teens, helping put him through college by taking on a job as legal assistant at a lucrative law firm. They had been through the loss of both Lucinda’s parents and her mother, Lucinda’s kidney stones, her bouts of anxiety, the whole kit and caboodle.
In some ways her marriage to Lucinda was no different from what her marriage to Robert had been, in that they were always together. But Robert had choked her every effort at independence, been jealous even of her relationship to her mother, and kept her from every male association, even her best friend Jim, who was gay. She and Robert had met when they were both students at NYU, she studying literature, and he, history. After graduation, she became an adjunct and he, a tenured professor at the community college in his hometown in Jersey. Their marriage had lasted until he fell for one of his students–five years. In retrospect, she could thank Robert for helping her close the door to men, who were, for her, generally uninteresting, the easy, predictable sex.
A few years out of her marriage to Robert, while feeling enamored of her independence and studying for her doctorate at Columbia, she met Lucinda, an artist. She was staying at her Uncle Mel’s apartment on West 10th for the semester while Mel visited a boyfriend in Greece. She had been invited to a party given by one of her teachers, a well-known author, whom it turns out Lucinda had once dated.
She was drawn immediately to the tall, bold, zaftig blonde. As they reached for the hors d’oeuvres tray together, Lucinda popped an olive into her mouth and introduced herself. Come talk to me, she said, drawing her into a corner, I don’t go to bars anymore. And only minutes into the conversation, When was the last time you slept with anybody? Ever slept with a woman?
They slept together that night, and the night after that, and after that. It had been 20 years two months, a week and a day now of helping Lucinda grow, which she had, in every way—successful art shows, then a catering business, which she had organized as a partner. Now Lucinda was back to painting, which she also felt would help her lose weight. When Michael married and left his East Village studio, she and Lucinda painted it off-white, adding a skylight. It was Lucinda’s now, her own private space in which to work.
Lucinda painted all day while she arranged their apartment, went shopping, planned and prepared meals. Once a week, on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, Lucinda treated her to lunch at Prune’s, where her favorite dish was asparagus bathed in butter, and Lucinda’s, baked mussels. As they savored their meal and Lucinda expounded on her latest painting, she observed how her lover’s face had grown broader with time. She now had lines at the corners of her eyes, which had grown smaller.
So, what’s going on? Who called? Are we having the kids over Friday? You have to make your special stuffed ravioli and broccoli rabe. I’ll pick up some tiramisu for dessert on the way home. How does that sound?
Fine dear. Her gaze drifted to people on the sidewalk, some strutting purposefully, others moving fast but seemingly unaware, going where? She herself sometimes felt she was moving fast in place. There was so little change to their routine. Everything Lucinda did was predictable and everything she did in response to her was too.
Lately, she thought of her mother with a great welling of sadness, her mother who had raised her and two cousins, after her aunt and uncle died in a car accident together. Her father had been a boor and her mother had put up with him gracefully, without complaint. As a young woman, she had won academic awards and even an endowment to study at Oxford, putting it all aside when she married. Her mother, who could have been a great artist or writer, had withered internally long before dying of cancer, she thought.
When Lucinda was away in her studio, she sat at their kitchen nook, contemplating the light outdoors as it deflected off buildings and fell on objects in the room. For once, her fingernail-bitten hands came to repose near her cup of tea on the table. She inspected the deepening lines of age around her knuckles and her frayed fingertips from chores she had never thought to do for herself as a young woman, contemplating light on her hands as if watching time mark her literally. When the phone rang, it was Lucinda requesting her forgotten box lunch or suggesting they take a walk later. Or Michael making a few superficial inquiries before getting to the point of his call, asking for an early birthday or Christmas present of money or a loan.
Whenever she made calls it was usually to inquire about her father, who was in a nursing home in Jersey, close to 80, with dementia. Now in her 50s, she herself had crossed an invisible threshold of age and dwelled more on impermanence. She did not regret not having had a child herself, but gazing at her restless hands felt a niggling sense of a void inside. It perturbed her to realize it was not enough having a perfect, ordinary life.
She realized that like her mother she had missed her calling. Like her mother, who had been burdened by love, she had settled into first one, then another marriage. And while she was not unhappy with Lucinda, in her absence, she was aware of time taking its toll. It was no fault of Lucinda’s, but her own.
She had nurtured only one hobby over the years–collecting stationery. She was drawn to it and amassed it the way some people do coins or stamps. That lovely empty space of a page represented so many possibilities. One entire section of a shelf on their bookcase was devoted to boxes of stationery from Blacker and Kooby, JAM and other places like them she liked to peruse avidly.
One morning she brought a section of colored Japanese paper to the kitchen table, where she had just set down her tea. She took a pen and drew her name in large letters, then Lucinda’s, feeling slightly mischievous, like a child. Then she began to write, an ordinary diary of daily events and feelings, which she read aloud to herself in the afternoon. The next day she repeated the ritual.
Soon she began to write very short stories. They concerned characters she knew in the Village–the flamboyant Indian who ran the magazine store down the street, Michael’s overweight and spoiled wife from Jersey, a neurotic neighbor and her dog. The feel, color and quality of paper inspired her. Only after she felt satisfied with what she had written did she type her stories on her laptop.
At times she was so immersed in writing, she let the phone ring without picking up. Where were you, Lucinda complained later, face reddening, barely able to contain her ire. I was hungry, where were you?
Just taking a walk, window shopping, she lied, not wanting to elaborate or reveal what she was up to just yet. It felt important to keep her activity private.
One day while taking a stroll, she stepped into Arjun’s shop and picked up a magazine for writers.
Taking up a new hobby, eh? Arjun wagged a finger at her as if she was guilty of some impropriety. He was wearing heavy rouge and had added a loop to the line of studs tracing his left ear.
It’s for Michael, she said, surprised she should feel compelled to lie to him.
Yes, fine. Well, tell your son I said, hi–he’s such a handsome lad.
She began submitting her stories to magazines and was elated when some were accepted for publication. Still, she felt reluctant to share this with Lucinda. She wanted to give her writing more time. It was like a cave of art she had discovered and felt driven to explore even if something about her drive frightened her.
One evening, after they’d gone to bed, Lucinda confronted her, what have you been up to lately? You’re like in another world. Dinner was burnt, babe.
The bitterness in her voice stung. I’m sorry, she said, truly meaning it. Just distracted is all.
What’s going on? Do you need to get checked? Maybe dementia is hereditary.
No, it’s not that. She turned away, annoyed.
Lucinda placed an arm across her stomach, then with the third finger of her hand made a few rounds of her right breast before encircling it completely.
Please don’t, she said.
Why. What’s up? Tell me you’re not seeing someone? What is it?
Nothing. Just been wrapped up is all.
In what? Lucinda raised herself on an elbow, peering at her. She felt Lucinda had not looked at her so intently in ages.
I’ve been writing, she said quietly to the darkened ceiling.
Writing? Writing what?
Are you telling me the reason you’ve been distracted, I quote, and not answering my phone calls and basically out of it these past months is because you’re writing?
Jesus Christ, what are you writing about? And when there was no immediate reply, Lucinda fell back on her pillow with a sigh. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Lucinda’s chest rising and falling under the sheet, moving in counterpoint to her own breathing.
OK, said Lucinda as if acquiescing to something. I hope it’s fulfilling.
Was there a sardonic turn in the last word?
She thought the conversation had ended, then she heard–Read me something then.
Sure. Then she turned on her side away from Lucinda to sleep.
Read something now. You don’t have to get up early, neither do I. Please, pretty please, she began to mime begging.
She got up automatically as she had so often before as if to get a glass of water or snack for her beloved, but went this time into the living room to the box on the shelf where she had stashed her completed handwritten stories, and brought back a favorite.
As she switched on the overhead light, Lucinda said, is that the paper I got you at MUJI’s?
I don’t know.
Yes, it is. That’s supposed to be used for letters. Have you used it all up?
OK. Never mind. Read.
She hesitated, feeling as if she had picked the wrong piece for her audience. A few sentences in, Lucinda squealed, what the hell does surreptitious mean?
May I finish please?
OK. I’m all ears.
The story was only five pages long, but at the end of the second page, she noticed Lucinda had drifted, her eyes closed, so she stopped reading and with a sigh, more of relief than disappointment, returned her story to its place on the shelf and slipped back into bed.
Over breakfast the next day, Lucinda said, So look, just in case you decide NOT to pick up the phone, let’s plan now, OK.
She had envisioned a long writing day without breaks but relented, feeling it would be wise to relent. OK, she said.
Let’s do Cherche Midi for dessert. Lucinda gave her a sloppy kiss and grabbed her vest to go. Prune’s at one. Only after the door had closed behind Lucinda did she wipe the dampness from the corner of her mouth and cheek with the side of one hand.
She was unable to write. It was as if an intruder had broken into the house and was making itself at home while admonishing her.
What are you doing, the voice said. You should be cleaning the apartment, paying bills. My god, Lucinda will blow a fit. She felt herself blush, embarrassed at her own hubris and poured herself a glass of wine. Ideas about what to write were interrupted by a compulsion to do chores. On the one hand there was the pull of characters; on the other, duties.
She turned her glass with Chablis while contemplating light on the pink page resting in front of her. She should do laundry, she told herself, her fingers flicking away invisible lint, as if preparing to work. But she wanted to write too, about everything, even the street below, the way it changed, endlessly transforming from moment to moment, like every life, including her own. Could she? Dare she? Her mind mulled the destructive effects of sunlight on paper that ultra violet rays would disintegrate eventually. There was no time to lose. She grabbed a pen, feeling as it made its way across the page that she was testing time, racing to see if she could beat it.
* * *
Arya F. Jenkins is a Colombian-American whose poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and zines such as Anti-Heroin Chic, Black Scat Review, Brilliant Corners, Cider Press Review, The Feminist Wire, Front Porch Review, The Matador Review, Metafore Literary Magazine, Mojave Literary Review, and Provincetown Arts Magazine. Her fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017 and garnered three nominations in 2018. Flash is forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine. Her poetry chapbooks are: Jewel Fire (AllBook Books, 2011) and Silence Has A Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016). Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key was published by Fomite Press November 2018 and is available here: www.aryafjenkins.com.