A Conversation With Mary
by Sascha Fink
I’m not particularly sure how she got into my house. Sitting at my long, antique dining room table was a beautiful woman my age (or so she appeared) emitting a radiance and a dignity that I can’t remember ever having, even in the moments of my most shining achievements. She was confused. I could tell. But it was such a deep confusion I struggled inside trying to find a way to help her. It didn’t help that I had no idea why she was so distressed; as if that would help. Her plump pink lips were screwed into a frown distorting her soft cheeks, causing the smooth skin on her forehead to furrow. It seemed unnatural, her face. It seemed wrong. I wanted nothing more than to hold out my arms and hope she would rest her head on my shoulder and allow herself to be held by my affectionate embrace; the embrace I often gave to my sister when she was like this.
When I finished examining her face I noticed her clothing. It was nearly noon and she sat in what seemed to me to be a lace and silk peignoir. It was pale pink and became almost nude against her skin. She was topped with thik blonde hair upswept in a beautiful chignon, gentle curls framing her face. Her slippers were delicate, beaded with small flat heels. I wondered from where she had wandered. I read about such tragedies in the news but they never seemed to involve people so young. They were often the elderly; their minds ravaged by time and disease, their memories fractured in some cases and missing in others. But she didn’t seem so removed. Just lost.
“Your hair is cut short,” she said, “was it in punishment?” It was an odd way to start a conversation, especially when it was in my life she had intruded. The question caused my cheeks to fill with blood and become flushed with embarrassment. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the idea that she believed I was being punished because of my hair. It wasn’t so far removed from the life I live. Only fifty years ago women who were incarcerated in mental institutions had their hair cut off to prevent lice (and to prevent individuality and beauty). Did she think I had been in an insane asylum? Did I project the air of someone who was mentally unstable? Why did I feel as though she could see into me? How did this woman, this unknown woman sitting at my dining room table provoke such notions inside my quite stable mind. I was fond of the pixie cut I received only a week ago but I absentmindedly drew my hand up to the nape of my neck, perhaps to try to cover the lack of hair.
“No,” I said, “I just had it cut the other day. Don’t you like it?”
“You did this because you wanted to? To look like a man?”
“No,” I said, annoyed, insulted. “I just think it looks pretty.”
“If you did it of your own free will,” she said, the color in her cheeks brightening, “then I think it is beautiful as well.”
“Are you married?” she asked.
“Were you ever?”
“Yes, but he found someone else,” I said sadly. The pain was still too near to consider my past objectively. There hadn’t been enough time to put it into perspective. There hadn’t been enough time for me to become “friends” with my ex-husband and his new wife as he hoped would someday happen. I hadn’t been divorced for ten years. Barely two. The woman sitting in my dining room gently nodded her head as if she sympathized with my fate and had witnessed it in others.
I began to wonder why I was giving such personal answers to questions asked by a woman I didn’t even know. I might have been certifiable at that moment. The notion of calling the police, or a hospital crossed my mind briefly but never moved beyond a wisp of a thought. My cell phone remained in my purse across the room. I didn’t feel frightened or in any danger. I felt calm and was almost eager to share my life with this stranger.
“How do you manage?” she asked. “I see toys here. You have a child?”
“I have a young daughter and we manage the best we can. I work; she goes to school. It’s our way. I get money from my former husband to help with expenses. It’s never enough though.” Honest truth. It was never enough. I went without so she wouldn’t. My new haircut, the one that only moments ago embarrassed me, was the first thing I had done for myself in the last few months. A precious sixteen dollars (the price of three nights of homemade dinners) wasted on a selfish whim.
I wanted to be home with my daughter all the time but that was not the life chosen for me. Through no fault of my own I found myself alone. Even had it been my fault I didn’t think this stranger would have found fault in it. She tilted her head slightly to the left contemplating my words. She seemed to display a sense of awe as she considered the story I had told her up to that point.
“Are you educated? How did that come about? Did you have a good father?”
“I had a terrible father. But I did go to school. College, too. I’m a dental hygienist.” I knew instinctively that I had to explain my profession. “I help people keep their teeth clean.” It seemed like such a basic definition but I knew this woman would understand. She was intelligent and at that moment I realized that she didn’t belong here. She was out of phase. She was a shadow. She was the reflection that you try to sneak up upon hoping to see someone else in the mirror other than yourself. She was me. She was not me. She was no one yet someone.
“Are you in love?” she asked, placing her delicate hands together and laying them gently in her lap. This time her question was not timid. She wanted to know if I was in love. I did not find this odd and was eager to answer.
“Yes. He’s a good man.”
“When will he return?” she asked.
“Maybe Friday,” I replied. His work schedule didn’t allow us to spend much time together. Perhaps one day if we married we might see more of each other. Sometimes I felt desperate to see him. I ached inside and cursed his job. But over the last few months I grew content with our schedule. It was dependable and there was a passion that erupted after being apart for so many days; a passion that didn’t exist in any other relationship I had ever had.
“You live alone. This is extraordinary!” she exclaimed. “What do you do when you are alone…after your child is tucked away?” she asked.
I thought for a moment. There were several things I did. I was lonely after my husband left. Filling the days was a trial. Watching TV was all there was; watching children’s shows that required no thought. Sometimes I would eat. Most often I would just drink tea. Slowly I began to remove him from my life. I found possessions he had either left or had yet to take and I boxed them up. I took photos off the walls. They were simple steps but a necessary. I had to give up the fantasy that he would ever leave the young skinny blond to return to me and the life we once shared. It was that life that was the illusion.
Eventually I redecorated. I made it a way to remove him from this home, the home that had been mine from the day we saw it, and truly make it my own. I painted every wall a new color, rearranged books and tchotchkes, purchased new furniture…I decorated in precisely the manner he had hated the entire time we lived here as man and wife. I did everything he hated and never let me do. I did it to spite him…and it felt good.
“I guess now I spend my time reading. I take a few night classes. I write. I used to think it was lonely but I think I like it now. At least for the moment. It might change one day but I’m at peace now.” She smiled; the apples of her cheeks now completely filled with a rosy color that brightened the room.
“You do what you want, when you want. You depend on no man. You love your partner and want him and enjoy being with him but you don’t need him. Quite an important distinction, would you not agree?” I did. It was an odd way of thinking about it but she was right. I wanted to marry my partner. I loved him deeply, but though I wanted to be married, I was content being unmarried and in love. He was my friend and my lover and a complete inverted afterimage of the man who had left. We were destined to grow old together and we knew it deep inside. He enjoyed watching me explore who I was and I enjoyed watching him explore who he was and together we explored each other. We were old enough now that life was not a tangled, passionate mess that ended in broken dreams and broken hearts. There were no illusions. There was no pressure.
“What is your name?” I finally asked. There was no particular reason to ask at this point. I had opened my life to a complete stranger and knowing her name seemed so insignificant. Still, I wanted the name. It was a power over this shadow of myself. I wanted to know what part of me was able to draw such conclusions and make sense of my life. I wanted to know the name of the person who was satisfied by the woman I was. I wanted to know the name of the woman who seemed genuinely thrilled that I was an independent, intelligent woman.
“Mary,” she said. And then she disappeared.Last Updated: 4/12/12