Not all of Marguerite’s thoughts turn to violence. Why don’t I have a pet? Why must I dream about the children of celebrities? Dingbat. Celery. Bicep is incorrect. But, in the dull shimmer of her brain, it is this thought — slap me — that bursts fluorescent. It flexes when she is having her hair cut, fingers skirting her skull, or when a boy points up at her and says “woman.” It flexes now. Before sex.
Sitting in the Chinese restaurant, with its aquarium in the corner that her date had called “pointleth,” Marguerite examines him. Jean-Francois has the windowless office beside Marguerite’s boss and a very slight lisp. His cheeks are ruddy, his hair curled, and just when you would deem him a clown, you would be wrong. While he does exude the sadness of a man who lives alone in a trailer sinking in the wet mud of a forgotten field, she has seen him walk barefoot across broken glass — her kitchen light twitching, his face not. Marguerite thinks him a shark in a birdcage and that, despite its manners, their courtship is really about negotiating pain. She pictures their bodies after dinner. The hard skim of him. How he will fall asleep and then in the metallic grey of early morning, go home to change because people in the office do not know that they are together. How Marguerite is excited by the secret. How like a private play, she exaggerates their distance.
Marguerite works at a job her mother would call “under” her, but Marguerite is not ambitious. She is an exceptional typist, and has what her boss calls “the right decorum.” This makes Marguerite imagine a room wherein everything matches. This is enough for her. A bonus: she can lock her desk drawer. In her single fit of exoticism, Marguerite decides to wear the key around her ankle on a chain. She wears it over her tights. The act of locking makes for acrobatics and, she is sure, leads to Jean-Francois’ dinner invitation. When Marguerite says yes, she closes her eyes slightly and unpracticed, for too long.
They share dumplings, their lips and fingertips smudged with grease. Outside, the wind. Marguerite often feels chosen by the wind. This is not the first time they have had dinner. It is the tenth. She knows Jean-Francois has a red birthmark just below his belly button and calls it Constantine. She has licked a circle around his anklebone, and once cried after she came. Slap me. Stained glass in her mouth. She wanted his palm against her cheek, loud as a cellar door slamming shut, the two of them hidden in the must and dirt of the underground. Instead, it dropped to his chest to pound out a rhythm she could not hear. She thought she might love him, which, as if heading into a gale, she strove against because the people she loved had both died.
Marguerite had taken two risks in her life. The first was participating in a séance. Her brother, Guy, begged, and she hated to disappoint him; it was dangerous. Deadly. Their mother, Marie, had died standing up, the word “you” halfway out of her mouth. Like starving hounds met with a slender cut of meat, Marguerite and her brother had fought over the “you.” Marguerite knew that her mother’s life had forked away from her own at an early age. When her mother was at work, Marguerite checked under her mother’s bed to see if two other, more obedient children were lying there, still, as they had been told. Or perhaps a dust-coated man she might call “father.” Her brother turned out the lights, lit every candle in her mother’s apartment, her brief life boxed around them, the church van due in the morning, and asked: “Was ‘you’ Marguerite? Or was it me?”
Tonight, Marguerite wears Marie’s hoop earrings. The only contents of her locked desk drawer, they dangle nearly to her shoulders. They are bronze and too heavy and once her mother hung them from the Christmas tree. Marie forbade Marguerite from piercing her ears because, she warned, earrings can be pulled clean through the flesh of a lobe. The crack of the gun that made the holes. How Marguerite wore fake gold studs to her mother’s funeral. How her mother wore none. Marie had the strictness of two parents. Marguerite liked this because it drew sure lines across a world that was otherwise too loose. Permission was everywhere.
The second risk she took was having sex with a stranger after a brief conversation waiting for a traffic light to turn green. Her cheek pushed into the brick of an abandoned factory, her black dress and raincoat bunched, a bouquet in her shaking hands. His bicycle propped alongside the wall falling over part way through. The racket against the pavement. The smell of sopping animals. How she had just buried her brother in his white suit; this, his single instruction, penciled beside his body, slurred like wax over the open oven door. How she had found him there. Who will find me?
Marguerite wants to kick in the aquarium, catch the fish in the net of her dress and swim into the lake. Slap me. She remembers how her eyes were instantly glassed-in and despite their wetness, how the world was not blurred but a cut and a crisp place. She could not understand why, with this linearity, her mother would not return. Her brother, too.
It had been a winter evening. She, her brother and mother sat tight together making a pew out of the couch, staring at the television. A war was being declared. While the president spoke in his dark suit, Marguerite’s mind turned to a program called Dance Fever. She took the converter and flipped through channels stopping at the sequined bodies in the air. Her mother’s hand fast across her face. The sound under a bridge. Ears full of water. The prickle of her skin. Her mother’s voice, “Need, need, need.” Marie switched back to the president who was now concluding his address. Marguerite looked away from the television to the window, their reflections fixed in the glass: Guy, Marie, and Marguerite — the red swell of her cheek — on a couch meant for a bigger family. How soon it would be just her. The snow was falling in the living room. They were not wearing enough clothes for winter.
“Thall we go?” Jean-Francois says, and presses her hand in his.