Charlie was wearing Amanda’s nylons with her black skirt that swished at the knees. For some reason, his feet fit in her black shoes with spikes for heels, the shoes that murdered her toes and twisted her ankle with every step, the shoes she’d jailed in the darkest corner of the closet because they were so painful. Amanda rubbed her mouth with the back of her hand. “What?”
Charlie opened his mouth but no words came out. Mascara slid down his cheeks.
“I thought you were with someone. Sierra, maybe.” The ex whom Charlie had once said, when he was slightly tipsy, had always understood him, no matter what. “But you’re not.” Amanda knew what she was going to do when she had found Charlie with Sierra on the bed. She’d shout. She’d scream. She’d go to the dresser, rip the drawer from the frame, and dump everything in a suitcase. She’d slam the door, buy a train ticket, and – then she had seen Charlie, mouth red with lipstick, sporting a poofy blouse like a pirate, a corset slipping and sliding across his chest, empty without breasts, loose because it wasn’t tied properly. He posed in front of the mirror like a model, leg bent and slender. In the mirror like that, smiling, shoulders straight and tall, he was prettier than she. Amanda slumped against the wall, her own feet crooked against the floor, too tired to stand straight in those pinching pumps she wore to work.
Charlie’s voice shook. “I wouldn’t cheat on you, Mandy.”
It wasn’t a matter of who, her mother had said, it was a matter of when. Not with Charlie, Amanda had told her, not ever with Charlie. Amanda laughed. She’d been right. There was no other woman. There was just Charlie in front of the mirror, black nylons slipping down his knees. “Then what are you doing?”
Charlie’s eyes crawled across the floor and up the walls to the ceiling. “This is me.”
Amanda had bought the corset so that Charlie could rip it off her like men tended to do in bad romances. But he had just looked at it, Oh, that looks nice. She’d put it away in the dresser with the rest of her lingerie. “Playing dress up?” When she was seven, she had put on her dad’s old suit, looping a broad black tie slashed with silver around her neck. It had brushed her knees. His loafers had been too big for her feet and they slipped and slid and tripped her when she tried to walk. Maybe Charlie just wanted to know why she kicked her shoes off every day after work. Why she rubbed them until the aches dulled to a flat pain, like the broadside of a sword. He was trying to understand her better.
“No.” Charlie heaved a shuddering breath. “This is me, Mandy.”
“You in my clothes.”
“It’s not that. It’s something else. It’s more than that.” He folded his arms in front of himself, his shoulders hunched. He looked so short in those five inch heels.
“You’re not playing dress up? Not fooling around?”
He dropped his head. “No.”
Amanda put her hand on her stomach because something was wringing her intestines like a wet rag.
“I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.” The words tumbled out of his mouth faster and faster until they were linked to together. “Everybody said that I wasn’t trying hard enough, and I wanted to be good, to do the right thing.”
“You married me so that you could feel more like a man.”
Charlie lifted his head, saucer eyed and saucer mouthed. “No. Never. That’s not the way it was.”
Amanda’s lips kept twisting into a smile. It hurt her face, it was so big. “Right.” It sounded more like a laugh than a word. Amanda raked her fingers through her hair. Her father had tickled her mother sometimes. Then her mother had flung the back of her hand against his jaw, laughing until mascara mudded her cheeks, and he had never done it again. Amanda clenched her jaw.
“Sierra gave me the makeup, she said to give it a try, and I did, and…” And Charlie stopped talking, his eyes slid to the floor, and the nylons slipped into a puddle around his ankles.
“Your ex?” Amanda blinked her eyes, her fingers curling and uncurling, finger nails biting into her palms. “Sierra?” Her voice sounded so high, caught in her throat which was too big, and her eyes stung. “You went to her?”
“Mandy, I –”
“No! Don’t call me that. I’m Amanda. I am your wife, goddamnit!” The minister had said so, had blessed them as husband and wife.
“I’m sorry – I.” He took a deep breath, looked her in the face. “I should go.” He sat on the bed, pushed the shoes off.
“No. I’ll go. I have to go anyway. I’ve got things to do.” Amanda’s cheek twitched as she left the room, left Charlie sitting in that bed, one shoe on, one shoe off.
“Wait – Amanda, let me explain, please!”
She stopped. “Didn’t you just?”
Amanda cradled her head against the steering wheel. Cold wind whistled through the doors. Charlie had painted it red with black dots when they were dating because it was her slug bug and she was his lady. How could she be his lady now?
She squeezed her eyes shut, gunned the engine. Baby Jesuses gleamed in the night, Marys and Josephs shining white, heads bowed. The perfect family. Colored lights lined the roofs like gumdrops on a gingerbread house. Sometimes, Santas red and jolly like an oversized, roly poly ornament, kneeled beside mangers.
Her mother’s house had wisemen and shepherds, though the wind had scrubbed their faces clean away. Baby Jesus still had a trace of a smile in his chubby face. As if Amanda hadn’t known that her father walked to the Christmas Eve service, snow dusting his loafers, while her mother drove, fingers throttling the steering wheel and her lips moving wordlessly, her voice trapped tight in her throat. Amanda had been in the back seat, nose pressed against the cold window, breath fogging the glass so that she couldn’t see anything.
Her mother opened the door, her arms opened wide. “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” Her breath smelled like an empty wine bottle.
Amanda hung onto her, so warm against the cold wind. She put her head on her mother’s shoulder.
Her mother said, “Are you still driving that old thing? For heaven’s sake.”
“Used to be so rusted and old. But Charlie –” and her voice broke – “made it pretty.”
“He made it into a cliché, dear heart, and that is hardly forgivable.”
“I can forgive Charlie anything –” Amanda said out of habit.
“ –Because you love him so much. Yes, dear, I know.”
“Right.” Amanda hugged her mother tighter. “Right.”
Arm draped around Amanda’s shoulder, her mother guided her through the door. The house was dark except for a Christmas tree that flashed in patterns of red and green, blue and white, over and over like a yuletide disco ball. Silent Night tolled from the radio.
Red wine splashed into her mother’s glass. “This is about Charlie, isn’t it? You have that look about you – like Rapunzel, trapped in her tower, the walls closing in, pushing your shoulders down, your head to your knees.” She touched Amanda’s shoulders with the tips of her fingers. Her nails were painted soft pink. “Your heart is bald and shorn inside.” Her other hand traced the shape of Amanda’s face. “It shows, right there.” And she gestured at Amanda’s eyes.
It was too hard to speak. The words were too big and her throat too small and not enough air in her lungs. Amanda’s eyes stung instead.
“Oh, baby girl,” her mother crooned. She handed Amanda her glass, wet with condensation. “I told you this would happen. I warned you didn’t I?”
She had, when she had brushed blush onto Amanda’s cheeks on her wedding day.
“But you didn’t listen to me.”
Amanda had told her mother that she was wrong like people so often are. She had just patted Amanda’s arm and dropped the veil over her head.
“Just like your father – he never listened to anybody. Much less himself.” She took the wine glass from Amanda and swallowed a small sip.
Amanda swung her legs over the arm rest of a fat, squishy recliner and let her head hang over the side. Gravity tugged at her mouth.
Amanda’s mother took out a pair of spectacles and said, “So, who’s the slut?”
Amanda closed her eyes. “It’s not like that.”
Her mother handed her the glass of wine. “No sense in denying it, dear. Spit the name out. Let’s slander her together.”
The air was so heavy against Amanda’s chest, flattening her lungs, squishing her heart.
Her mother sighed hugely. “You have to be a star, Amanda. You have to outshine them all because men are like moths.” She withdrew a small, pocket mirror and, with the tip of her littlest finger, she fixed her pink lipstick and patted her curls into place.
“I don’t need to be a star,” Amanda said. Her mother pursed her lips in the mirror. Had Charlie ever found her attractive? Is that why he never minded that she didn’t wear makeup? That she didn’t wear the short skirts or the blouses that showed off what little breasts she had? Amanda wished she had changed out of her work clothes, that she was wearing her baggy pants with the black boots and her plain black tee.
“You don’t need to be the jilted wife, either. It was Sierra, I’m presuming. That sly little slut, weaseling her way between the two of you. I’m not sure who’s worse – her for the seducing or you for allowing her the opportunity.” She shook her head. “This is why I told you to stop seeing Peter – because these sordid things happen all the time.”
“Peter and I would never have –”
“And the next thing you know Charlie is accusing you of sleeping with Peter and he goes after Sierra with a misdirected sense of vengeance that will never end in a happily ever after.” She leaned forwards and smoothed Amanda’s hair. “At least, with Peter out of the picture, you have the moral high ground and that is worth something? Because not everybody can claim the moral high ground – not everybody’s strong enough to endure all that struggle or to suffer at the very top where there’s no one but you on top of that high, snow topped mountain with the wind whistling in your ears and your heart broken –” Her voice skipped and she coughed into her palm, fingers smudging the liner around her eyes.
Amanda clutched her mother’s hand. “Charlie was wearing my dress.”
“That’s –” and she took a hasty swallow of wine – “that’s very irregular.”
“There was no one else. No office flings. No Sierra.” The skin stretched so tight across her chest and blood rushing to her head made it hard to breathe properly. “No moral high ground. Just Charlie.” She sucked on her lips and nodded her head. The ceiling was a wild kaleidoscope from the flashing Christmas Tree. “In my dress,” Amanda whispered. Her throat hurt and her eyes were scratchy.
“Amanda. Men don’t wear dresses.”
“Well.” Her mother refilled the glass with wine. “Can’t he just take it off again?”
Amanda rubbed the back of her hand against her eyes. “He didn’t want to.”
“Does that really matter? Of course not.” She leaned forward in her chair, finger pointed like a baton, wagging up and down as it punctuated every word. “People don’t get what they want. I wanted a husband, you know.” Her twisted the ring on her finger, multi-colored in the Christmas light. “Why should Charlie get what he wants? Why should anybody get what they want?” Louder, she said, “It’s not a fair world, Amanda.” She slapped her thighs.
“I want to be happy,” Amanda said. “Shouldn’t I get what I want?”
Amanda’s mother patted her hand. “Of course you should – right before the credits roll.” She laughed without smiling, drained the glass of wine, and reached for the bottle. No wine came out when she tilted it upside down. “Charlie’s a man. Does he or does he not have a –”
Amanda clapped her hands over her eyes. “God, Mom!”
“Well, then.” Her mother settled back into her tall, hard backed chair, her lips quirking. “I rest my case.”
“Excuse me,” her mother said. Then, raising her eyes, “Forgive her, dear Husband in heaven. She knows not what she says.”
“It’s Father, Mom. Father who art in heaven. And it’s not that simple.”
“Of course it is. You’re married. He’s your husband. You’re his wife. Two and two equals four.”
Amanda wasn’t sure if she laughed or cried. Whatever it was, it made her stomach muscles hurt.
“Maybe it doesn’t feel that easy right now, but it’s simple biology, really. Maybe he just doesn’t feel like a man right now. Maybe he doesn’t feel like a husband.” She took Amanda’s hand, kissed the back of it. “Maybe you need to help him?”
“How? If he doesn’t want to be Charlie –”
Her mother pressed her finger against her lips. “Shh. You’re his wife, Amanda. Would it be so hard to take his name? You’re not an Ellesworth anymore.”
Amanda squeezed her eyes shut. “Mom, I –”
Her mother cupped Amanda’s cheek in her palm. “Would it be so hard, baby girl? I did it – you can too.”
“Would I have to be patient, would I have to wait for him, like you did?”
“Of course, that’s love, sweetheart.”
Amanda’s cheek twitched. “Would I have to stand next to him, pretending to be the perfect family, like you did? Would I have to make sure that nobody ever found out and bear the shame and pity when they inevitably do? Would I have to endure the whispers?”
“What about the sex? Like you ever enjoyed having sex with dad, not knowing where he’d been, not knowing if you were just another –” Amanda pumped her hips. “Would he have to have sex with me when he didn’t want to, like you did, because that’s what husbands and wives do? Would I have to be a captain on a sinking ship, like you? Christ, would I have to –”
“Don’t say that! Don’t take my Husband’s name in vain!”
Amanda stopped and the Christmas Tree twinkled and winked like a wonderland.
“Now look at what you’ve done,” her mother said.
Amanda glanced up. Her mother uncrossed her legs and took a mirror and a tube of pink lipstick from her pocket. Hands shaking, her mother attempted to fix her wine smudged lips.
Her mother pursed her lips into the mirror and smacked. “You have to shine, women always have to shine. We are brides, each and every one of us. Every day is our wedding.”
“Dad’s dead. He’s been dead for years.”
“You are young. What do you know? Nothing, that’s what. That’s why Charlie has to dress up. Because you don’t understand.” Fingers trembling, her mother pulled a white hanky from her pocket and dabbed at her eyes. “Carry on. The minister pronounced you man and wife and that’s the end of it. Every wife needs a husband and every husband needs to be a man. He’ll remember that he’s supposed to be like Jesus when he made the Church his Bride, and God knows that Jesus was a little baby boy and not anything else, no.”
Amanda flexed her toes in her tight shoes. “Charlie’s not a Christian, Mom, you know that.”
“That does not change facts, dear, because facts are unchangeable. Did the earth stop revolving around the sun just because people thought the sun revolved around the earth? No, I don’t think so.”
“You’ll never be happier, I promise.”
Her mother picked up the bottle of wine, tried to pour it again, but nothing came out. She banged it down on the table.
“Come here.” She licked her lips. “Come on, come here.” She patted her knees.
Amanda eased herself onto her mother’s lap. Her feet could still touch the ground, and she towered over her mother’s head. Her mother wrapped her arms tight around her waist. “My little girl,” she whispered. “You’re going to be alright.”
“I’m not,” Amanda murmured. “Charlie’s gone.”
“He’s not. He’s right where you left him.”
Amanda’s face was wet. “In my shoes and stockings and skirt and corset?”
“And he’ll step out of them. And you’ll make passionate, kinky sex-love on the bed. And everything will be okay.”
Amanda didn’t tell her mother that Charlie had never done that. That the sheets were barely wrinkled when they were done. “I don’t even remember when Charlie last kissed me with tongue.”
“He’ll do it again. You’ll see.”
Amanda squeezed her mother’s hand. “Can I stay here tonight?”
The guest room was cold and white. Her mother hadn’t had time to decorate it yet.
The next morning, Amanda left before her mother woke because she never could manage to get up before noon when she had drunk a bottle of wine the night before. Instead, she left a note on her liqueur cabinet with nothing but an x and an o scratched across the pale yellow surface.
She parked in their driveway and cradled her head on the steering wheel of her bug. She breathed deep until her lungs could hold no more air, until they ached and she had to cough out the excess. She couldn’t stay in the bug forever.
The wind was cold against her face and blew her hair in her mouth. One day, she’d get it cut short enough so that she wouldn’t accidentally sit on it or get it tangled when the wind blew or when she headbanged with rock so hard it made the walls tremble.
When she reached for the front door, it swung open, and Charlie pulled up short. His briefcase banged against his knees. His tie was knotted against his throat. The pin stripe slacks boxed his hips, hid the curve of his calves, and was he wearing her nylons underneath all that?
“You’re back,” he said, breathless. “You came back.”
Amanda’s jaw jutted, and she looked for a mascara shadow around his eyes, the remnants of a red glow on his lips.
Charlie said that he was sorry. That he was so sorry. Amanda shoved past him so that she was out of the cold wind that made it hard to breathe.
Pressed against the door, hair sticking up in the wind, Charlie clutched at the handle of his briefcase. “You weren’t supposed to find out. I didn’t want to find out.” He bit his lips so hard they turned pale. “But when I did – I. I tried. To do the right thing.” Charlie outstretched his hand to her.
“Sneaking around. Lying to me.” Amanda shoved her fingers against her sternum. “I knew something was wrong. Because you never wanted to fool around on the couch or in the car or anywhere.” Laughter, twisted and wrong, burst from her mouth. “And I was right. You were cheating. Maybe not by doing the dirty with Sierra – but you cheated on me because you told her the truth and not me. You lied to me. Since day one.”
“I didn’t know. I didn’t know!”
“How can someone not know? How?”
He was very still. His pant legs flapped a little in the wind. “I need to go to work.”
Amanda almost asked him when he would be back.
“I made you breakfast. It’s being kept warm in the oven,” he said. Halfway down the sidewalk, he faced her. “I don’t expect you to forgive me –”
Amanda closed the front door, her mouth and teeth biting back the flood that would seep out her eyes. Her stomach twisted again when she found golden waffles stacked on a blue china plate. They were still warm. “Goddamnit,” she whispered.
She called work and told them she was sick with the flu because her stomach and her heart were nauseous. When she hung up the phone, she climbed the stairs up to their bedroom, dragged the suitcase from under the bed, and flipped it open. There was dust in the corner and the faint smell of peppermint schnapps that Charlie had smuggled with her underwear.
They had gotten drunk off those schnapps in a cheap motel. She had been in one of his t-shirts, barely reaching her knees. He had been in her bathrobe because he had forgotten his, and they had drunk together. He told her he wanted to visit Europe, China, Egypt, the Moon, Mars. She’d asked him if she could come with him in his space ship, and he had encircled her with those thin arms of his and whispered yes in her ear, giggling. But they were still on earth, still stuck in reality.
Amanda pressed her palms to her temples. Her bathrobe. Did he like the smell of her lotion? Because she wore it, did it feel more right if he wore it too? Had he really forgotten his robe or had it all been a ruse?
Amanda shook herself and focused on the empty suitcase. She dumped her entire drawer of socks and underwear into it. They piled into a towering mountain.
Today was Saturday. Charlie should have been home with her, eating waffles with her. But he had left, just like she was leaving now. She sat on the bed and wondered why she never had a pet, why she had been too busy to see her friends. She fished her phone from her pocket and dialed Peter’s number. He answered and when he sang her name like he’d always done before, it was easier to talk.
He told her that he was traveling across America with just his guitar, playing in bars, nursing homes, even street corners, just like he had always dreamed of doing, of being a wandering bard, like Taliesin. Amanda forced herself to say that she was glad for him.
When the conversation stalled, Amanda said, “Why did you never ask to marry me? We grew up together. We kissed each other.”
“Marry you, Amanda Ellesworth? I thought, who could ever marry Amanda Ellesworth? But then somebody did and I thought that must be some boy who could marry you.”
Amanda hiccuped into the phone. “If you had asked me – I would have.”
“I know. I would have been a happy man.”
“I don’t understand.”
Peter laughed like the toll of a bell at the top of a tower. “Why did you marry Charlie?”
“Because that’s what people do when they grow up – they fall in love. They get married. They have kids. A house. Grandkids. The whole package.”
“You are so old! Is that why I don’t see you anymore? Because you are too old to putter out of the house so that you can shake and dip to my guitar?”
Amanda plucked at the waist of her skirt. The elastic snapped against her skin, stinging. “It wouldn’t have been proper because of Charlie. You know that.”
“If I had asked you, would you have stopped being with Charlie? Being friends with him? Loving him?”
Amanda opened her mouth, but no words came out. She tried again.
“See – I couldn’t do that. Poor sweet girl, so lost in the woods, with only a wolf for company.”
“Charlie’s not like that. Charlie never asked me to –”
“Of course he’s not. It was you who stopped seeing me.” And then he laughed and they talked about people other than about the three of them, while Amanda wondered what he’d do if he ran out of money, where he’d sleep if he couldn’t find a bed, if she’d be packing a suitcase if she had married Peter instead. Then he said goodbye to her and Amanda stood with the phone buzzing in her ear.
After a few minutes, Amanda turned on the stereo and put up the volume until the music buzzed in her bones. If she left, she’d have to have the music on every day. If she left, she’d have to turn on the tv so that she could hear voices. If she left, she could listen to Peter’s guitar without her mother frowning at her over the rims of her spectacles, shaking her head. If she left, she wouldn’t see Charlie again because the exes didn’t see each other, just like she couldn’t see Peter after she married Charlie because that’s not what a wife did.
Amanda kicked off her high heeled pumps. The carpet was cool and open against her cramped toes. She peeled off her nylons, unbuttoned her skirt so that it fell into a puddle at her ankles, and shrugged out of her blouse. Then she remembered that she hadn’t showered yesterday and her scalp was crawling like her insides. Naked, she went into the bathroom and waited for the water to get hot.
Amanda looked in the mirror. Her breasts were insignificant and she couldn’t see the dip of her hips because her stomach was too big. She looked down at her feet. Red marks from the shoes rutted her skin. She flexed her toes against the cool tile. Amanda cradled her breasts in her palms. It wasn’t because they weren’t buxom enough that Charlie had never fondled them like she had heard men did to women, but because he wasn’t a man inside. It wasn’t because of her. It wasn’t because of Sierra. It was because of Charlie.
Amanda had married Charlie like her mother had married her father. She had gotten a job as a secretary wearing pumps and skirts because they needed the money to pay for a house because married couples needed a house with a room for a great big bed and a room for a nursery painted blue for a boy and pink for a girl.
Amanda still hadn’t told Charlie that she didn’t want kids. That she hated the house because it was so large and took so long to clean. She wondered if Charlie hated it too.
Would she be like her mother, alone with just a bottle of wine, a wedding ring still reflecting gumdrop lights in the gloom, waiting for her husband to come home? What did her mother want to do before she married her father who had been dead for so long?
Amanda twisted the ring with its small studded diamond from her finger and put it on her right hand. There was a circle of pale skin where it had rested. She let her arms fall to her sides. She stood straight, her shoulders squared, head high, hair curling from the steam rising from the hot water. “Hey,” she said.
Amanda waited for Charlie on the bed in a black tee and baggy cargo pants. The corset was in her lap. When he came in, shoulders bent so low, eyes on the floor, she said his name.
He looked up at her. “Amanda…”
“It takes two to put on a corset,” she whispered.
Charlie kissed her forehead and touched her hands. “I am so sorry.”
Amanda slipped the corset over his shoulders. “Like this,” she said, as she smoothed the wrinkles out of his shirt. She tied it tight and proper and, turning Charlie around, she said, “There.”
Amanda was curled up on the hard, brown couch, watching the tv on mute. It was always so quiet when Charlie was gone, when she was out with a guy with broad shoulders and military fatigues and a beret cap. His name was John and he didn’t mind that Charlie, as friends were allowed to call her, was Charlotte now on all her official documentation.
Sometimes, when Charlie was away, Amanda would wear some of her old, pinstriped suits. They still smelled like Charlie before she started wearing perfume.
Amanda traced a single, silver pinstripe with a finger. If she sniffed hard enough, she could smell the numbers Charlie had figured, the neutral shampoo and soap – so different from the flower and fruit scented ones she used now, and a faint whiff of peppermint in the pockets. She kissed her ring because Charlie wasn’t there.
The doorbell rang and, unfolding her aching legs, Amanda stumbled to the door. Peter waited for her, arms opened wide. His guitar was slung over his back. “Hey there, Sweetheart. What’s the plan?”
“You and me. Charlotte and John. And two large pizza pies.”
And then she kissed him.