• Laura Preble

Anna Incognito Chapter 1


On this germ-infested dirtball called Earth, creatures called humans eat, drink, shit, and otherwise play elaborate games of hide and seek. All of these things carry with them enormous risks. Food-borne illnesses account for a significant number of deaths each year, and forget about water. Heard of the cholera? Typhoid? Flint, Michigan? Water. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. And don’t get me started on shit. Hence, the game. Hiding, seeking, hiding again…on and on, an endless cycle.


All of that hiding and seeking eventually kills you. Because whatever you do find, even if it’s incredibly precious, will be washed away, buried, tucked into a forgotten shoebox and hidden again, and you’ll never, ever find it. And this will break your heart.


I am currently hiding from a small, cream-colored envelope printed on high-end paper stock, the kind you find in the quaint stationery store in a quaint neighborhood that stopped being affordable two years ago.


It’s lying on the counter next to the sink. It’s an invitation, actually; I haven’t opened it. I haven’t opened it for two weeks. It catches at the corner of my eye every morning, taunting me. If I don’t open, I don’t have to answer, and if I don’t answer, I am not committed to attending anything. I hate crowds.


This fancy cream-and-gold envelope bears a stamp in the corner, with one edge partially folded up, that has a drawing of a duck on it. Why would anyone design postage stamps? Why do we need art on postage stamps in the first place? With economic times the way they are, it certainly seems that we could do away with something as unnecessary as waterfowl on our government documents. Stupid duck.


“Anna?” I hear the nasal whine from below my kitchen window. My downstairs neighbor, Petra, is waving to me from the alley where the trash cans lie, ready to assault me with bacteria. I know that sounds paranoid, but seriously…they are full of dog hair and flea detritus and god knows how much fecal matter. Petra owns a grooming salon for pets, and the stuff she throws out in those tin cans should be categorized as hazardous waste. I am probably breathing a toxic mixture of dog doo and flea cancer every time I open the window, which I don’t. Unless she yells at me, in which case I can’t avoid it.


I slide the aluminum frame up, and hold my breath, waving.


“Anna!” she yells again, motioning for me to open the window wider. I shake my head, and she sighs loudly, exasperated. “I’m coming up.”


Petra comes up to my apartment about twice a week, usually to complain about a client or a boyfriend. We’re not exactly friends; I’d say that it’s more a kidnapper-kidnappee relationship. I cannot escape. When she decides to bluster into my rooms, it’s like a Macy’s parade float escaped from its moorings and I just duck, hoping not to get run over.

I hear the inevitable galumph of her broad ass up the stairs, the click of the tiny patent flats she somehow wedges onto her hippopotamus feet.


“Anna?” she says, sing-song. I won’t escape, I know, so I open the door and she hurricanes in, a sweep of spicy perfume, yards of red crepe flowing like a pirate flag from her massive chest. Tiny purple bows dot the neckline, nicely framing her turkey wattle. She tries to hug me, and I dodge it.


“My god, this day!” She throws herself onto my sofa, and tiny motes of anti-bacterial talcum powder rise up like dust devils from an arid polyester desert. “I think it’s going to get up to 90, easy.”


“It’s summer,” I mutter, backing into the corner by the fireplace. Petra’s orange hair, straw-dry, could ignite at any moment.


“Of course, it’s summer,” she says, nodding, using the ends of her red shirt to mop the fat lady sweat from her forehead. I imagine salty drops embedding themselves into the fabric of my couch cushions, and I shudder. “Everybody wants their poodles clipped, their cats de-clawed and such. I’m so busy I can’t even take time to eat.” I see her notice the fancy envelope. She jumps up with the alacrity of a rubber band and grabs it, ripping it open.


“Oooooo…what’s this?”


“I’m calling the police,” I warn.


That stops her. “Why?”


“You opened my mail. That’s a federal offense.”


She rolls her eyes at me, and continues serrating the edge of the envelope with her blood-red nail. “Please. As if you’d let a bunch of smelly policemen bust in and root around your place.” She slips the invitation out of the envelope. Her face goes pale. “Oh.”


“What is it?” Now I want to know. Now that it’s out of the protective envelope—


“Nothing.” She hides it behind her back. “Nothing. Just junk mail.”


I frown at her. “Nobody mails junk mail in that kind of envelope.”


“Oh sure.” She’s edging toward the door, envelope in tow. “Nigerian princes, you know, all the scammers. That’s how they get you to open it.”


I cut her off from her exit, brace my body against the door.


She panics. “There might be anthrax in it?”


I’m too fast and she’s too big. I snatch the invitation from her. I read it.


Sound is sucked into the vacuum of crisis, crumbs of birdsong and motorcycle engines and ice cream truck jingle-jangle mixed together into a heady cocktail of nothing. A rush of thunder hits my ears, and the next thing I know, I’m flat on my back, looking up into the untended fields of Petra’s nose hairs. “Ohmygod, Anna, are you with us? Darling, come on! What happened?” She’s fanning me with the sweat-stained pirate flag shirt. Jesus! I’ll be fully engulfed in infectious disease before mid morning!


“I’m fine,” I mutter, waving away her swollen sausage fingers.


“You don’t look fine. You look like you passed out.”


“I did pass out.”


“It might be the heat,” she offers, motioning toward the window, the sun, the conspiracy of God and the Weather Channel.


“It’s not the heat.” I struggle to stand, and I still feel woozy. My wig is askew, I can feel it, so I try to tug at it without her seeing. “Excuse me for a minute.” Weave a path to the bathroom, close the door, turn on the bare bulb above the sink, and in the mirror there is a pale woman, 42, with a dark, straight bob of a wig perched on her head sideways. Bad, bad, really bad. Dr. Denture’s wedding. That’s what the goddamned invitation was. I’d tell myself I never would have guessed, but that would be lying. Of all the things it could have been, I mean, an invitation to the inaugural ball of Howdy Doody would’ve been more predictable, but Dr. Denture’s wedding?


Tap, tap, tap. “Anna?” From the other side of the door, Petra’s whine fills my hallway. “Honey, are you okay?”


I dab a cloth at my eyes, which are round dark spheres, planets lacking anything to orbit, root beer jawbreakers rolling around in the gumball machine of a head attached to my narrow shoulders. “Dr. Denture. Married.” The statement rings through the bathroom, echoes off the scrubbed white tile, swipes silver off the mirror, and lands in the back of my throat, where it swells and threatens to choke me.


My translucent skin stretches over my skull like a balloon, moon-white and thin to the point of breaking. That skin, that balloon, tethers my soul to the Earth, the germy dirtball full of disease and disappointment. I guess this is why I pick at my skin incessantly, trying to breach the membrane that holds me in. I bite at my fingers until I turn the geography of my hands into a bloody bas-relief map of my sins and transgressions. I’m hoping for release.

That doesn’t mean I want to…leave. I think I resent my balloon. I don’t like being that committed to something physical.


“Anna?” Petra stands sentinel on the other side of the door. A frightened tap-tap, a jiggle of the door handle.


“I’m washing my face,” I call, violently turning the tap on so the water gushes into the porcelain bowl and onto my pants. I splash some water to support the story, pump some soap into my palm, but the soap stings and finds all the ragged crevices in my fingers, the cracks and fissures I break open anew every day. I am my own Prometheus. It heals, I bite it, it heals, I bite. Rinse and repeat.


Soap stings like a bitch. I try putting Band-aids on my thumbs, but they get wet, and then the skin underneath looks like a fish belly, bloated and white and dead. But if I don’t put on the Band-aids, I constantly pick at the ragged edges, trying to smooth them down with the imperfect instrument of my teeth, which are, ironically full of germs.


Whoever designed this life had a wicked sense of humor.


“I’ll come back later,” Petra says as she clip-clops away. “I hear my client’s cockapoo having a panic attack. Hang on, Sugarbucket!” She’s yelling support to the dog, not to me. At least, I assume I’m not ‘Sugarbucket.’ Plus, a dog panic attack is a much bigger deal to Petra than a neighbor panic attack since I’m unlikely to crap on her carpet. But then again, this has been an unusual day.


I don’t go very many places due to the unusual demands of my trichotillomania. That's the uncontrollable urge to systematically yank every hair from your body. It’s a very high-maintenance disability, actually, and when you combine it with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, things can often become downright unmanageable. My problem with mental illness is that most people see it as something of a choice. Just think about the context of comments like “that’s crazy!” or “that’s nuts!” You just don’t hear people saying things like “that’s diabetes!” or “that’s epileptic!” when something is cuckoo and considered weird.

Somatic psychologists like Dr. Denture would have you believe that mental illness is absolutely the equal of physical illness, that they are simply twins born of the same womb (that being the frailty of the human condition, otherwise known as that germ-ridden meat bubble, the body.) Dr. Denture preaches that the body and its engine, the brain, are the physical manifestations of all of our flaws, psychic, spiritual, and dermatological. If there were some efficient way to Botox your brain the same way you can your wrinkles, probably everybody would feel better, and our collective cerebellums (cerebelli?) would look and feel younger.


That would be great, but so far, it’s much easier to fix the paint job than the computer navigation system in the ol’ soul sedan. Minds are a terrible thing to waste, but in order to make sure they work, we have to pump them full of pills and potions, and wear wigs, and stop biting our fingers, and cry about our mommies, and analyze our collective penises (Peni? Penne?) for obvious signs of cigar burn.


So, my point is, I don’t go out much. You can probably see why. My version of small talk tends to frighten people, men especially.


Edward Denture was an exception. He was exceptional.


Counting the rough, uneven tan and gray stones in the wall opposite my apartment, I think of the time six months ago when Edward and I first met. It was at the laundromat. I know that’s an unusual place to meet someone who would change the course of your life, but we both had run out of underwear, so it seemed very practical, and Edward was nothing if not practical.


The Fluffitorium was the closest washing place to my apartment, and, through special arrangement with the management, I had thoroughly cleaned the facility after hours with a potent mixture of Lysol and volcanic pumice. Some people with more sensitive noses complained that they lost consciousness, but in general, I think that had more to do with the proximity of the Whistle Stop bar and a certain absinthe Happy Hour special than with my cleaning solution.


Although I had cleaned thoroughly until two in the morning (the kind owner who lived above the shop had locked me in so I could stay as late as I wanted), I had slept later than I intended, and since it took me nearly three hours to sort my clothes, I didn’t get to the Fluffitorium until nearly one in the afternoon. Luckily, I had had the forethought to stripe yellow caution tape across the best washer and the best dryer before I left for the evening, just in case I wasn’t the first one in, so I knew that, despite my lateness, I’d have a sparkling clean machine with which to launder my clothing. It took a lot of stress out of my day, I have to tell you. Washing at a laundromat is one of the most frightening things a germophobe can do. You’d think it would be fine, with all the soap and hot water…but you have to factor in the low socio-economic level of the launderers, and the fact that with that lower socio-economic status comes poor hygiene habits. You might be talking about full-on poopy pants spinning about, undersoaped, on a delicate cycle. With cold water. It’s all just a wild card, and I’m not willing to gamble with my life.


So, I walked into the shop carrying my hypoallergenic Egyptian cotton washbag with super micro-hepa filtration, and there was Edward Denture, wantonly using the machines I had cordoned off with caution tape.


“Excuse me.” I whispered, a nearly inaudible croak, to this tall, ridiculously handsome man who hovered like a folded preying mantis over my washer. He didn’t hear me at first.

A rage, familiar only to those with a hair-trigger temper and a familiarity with psychotropic drugs mixed with premenstrual hormones, overtook me, and I closed in on him, coming within two feet of his massive shoulder. Stretched over it was one strap of a pair of suspenders patterned with a black-and-white negative print of Sigmund Freud’s face.

The preying mantis man turned to me, and I stared up into a ferret face, a weasel idol carved of alabaster, studded with greenish sapphire eyes wild-white at the edges. His eyes reminded me of the horses I frightened at my father’s stables when I was a child; they expressed just a hint of panic edged with the desire to run like hell. "Yes?" he asked expectantly.


"These are my machines." I said it sub-audibly. With my mind. He just stared at me.


"Did you say something?" He asked in a deep velvet voice, British, cultured.


I nodded. I felt my wig shift slightly. He noticed. He noticed! I felt flattered.


Again, he said, "Did you say something? I thought I saw your mouth move." He was looking at my mouth. That put me in such a state of excited fear that I nearly bolted out of the place despite the fact that my underwear was in desperate need of washing. Underwear. He would see my underwear. And that's when he touched my arm.

I felt like someone had lit a rocket under my wig.


I stared at his hand. You can tell a lot about a person from their hands, actually; whether they work outside, whether they're married, whether they wash properly. This man had the most perfectly manicured fingers of anyone I'd ever met. It made my heart leap with joy. No nasty germs under those fingernails, certainly. Curved on top, perfectly spatulate nails (a sign of intuitive insight), a healthy shell pink, crowning long, slender pianist fingers. The skin was smooth, white, almost doll-like in its perfect porcelain texture. Seemingly no pores. Perhaps he didn't even sweat.


"Could we sit for a moment?" His voice snapped me out of the hand-xamination. When I focused on his face again, the wild look was gone. His eyes were calm, and slightly crinkled at the edges like the crust of an unbaked apple tart. I felt hungry suddenly. "Could we sit?" he repeated in that lovely baritone. I nodded.


He gently steered me by the elbow to a wooden bench trimmed with iron scrollwork. Before I could sit, he took a package of wet wipes from his pocket, efficiently plucked one from the pack, and he cleaned the seat and back before gesturing toward it. I sat, ecstatic.


He didn't clean his side of the bench, but he did sit down next to me, keeping an appropriate distance. I clutched my bag of underwear nervously.


"My name is Edward," he said, smiling. He waited, and I guess I was supposed to introduce myself, which I did, sub-audibly. "Could you say your name aloud?"


"Could you tell that I said it in my head?" In my amazement, I forgot to be paralyzed with my fear of strangers.


He grinned, those beautiful blue-green eyes crinkling again. "I sort of thought you might have. But it would help if you said it out loud."


An awkward pause. So many remarks were swirling around in my head...but I couldn't say any of them. So, Edward spoke again. "Listen. I'm sorry about the machines. I came in and all the others were being used, and I was in kind of a hurry. I just started a wash cycle, though, if you'd like to put your things in with mine. As long as they're permanent press, of course."


He grinned congenially as my insides melted. The thought of my underwear co-mingling with his clothing nearly caused me to have a syncopic episode (that's fainting. I prefer the term syncopic episode because fainting sounds like something a Victorian lady does on a fancy couch, and I am far from Victorian, and I am far from being a lady.)


"Could you look at me?" he asked. I turned to face him. He smiled again. "You have very lovely eyes." I felt a hot blush rising from my neck to my face, and I stared down at the floor again. "You do. Well, anyway, I can see this is making you uncomfortable, so I'll just take my things and get out of your way." He rose and stretched, and when he did, my face was parallel with the snap of his khaki pants. I felt the blush intensify as I thought about the snap of his khaki pants.


He was going to go away if I didn't say something. I watched him walk to the washing machine, open the door, and scoop out a pile of wet oxford shirts in a rainbow of colors. He piled them into a white plastic basket, turned, and tossed me a casual wave before he scoped the laundromat for another open washer. There weren't any. The place was packed. He shrugged, turned to me again, and waved as he snugged the basket against his hip and started to walk toward the door.


"Wait!" I heard myself yell as I bolted straight up from the bench.


Edward turned, and standing in the doorway he was framed with a golden corona of pollution-filtered sunlight from behind. It was as if we were alone, as if everyone else faded into the dark shadow of a movie scene. Just as I took a step toward him, a 400-pound Samoan woman trailing a cloud of children muscled through the door, knocking Edward inward with the force of a brown-flesh tsunami.


And then she made a beeline for our washer and dryer.


This is how I knew it was love: I went right to his side. I paid no mind to the underwear, or the other people and their various germs. I knelt next to his prostrate form, fanned him with a circular from Pests-R-Us, and saw nothing but his injured body. "Are you alright?" I whispered. I nearly took his hand.


He sat up, shook his head, and blinked twice. "What happened?"


I gestured toward the brood of flip-flop wearing Samoans who were loading the washer with the efficiency of a surgical strike team. "I guess they needed to do their laundry."


And then he smiled at me. He looked into my eyes. "What's your name?"


I tried to tell him, but I couldn't. My own name stuck in my throat, a boulder of insecurity.


"Okay," he said, a slight grin tugging at the side of his mouth. "Want me to guess? How about Matilda?"


I shook my head. I felt my wig slip slightly. I couldn't do too many more of those shakes or I'd lose it all together.


"Cleo?"


"Anna. " My voice sounded like a distant recording of a weak, wispy spirit trying to communicate across the divide between the worlds. Plus, it squeaked. I cleared my throat slightly, and tried again. "My name is Anna." Better that time. Clearer. Now I sounded like the wispy spirit of a large Samoan woman with many children.


"Anna. Nice name." He pointed to his suspenders. "That was the name of Freud's daughter, you know."


"Hmm."


"Anna." When he said my name, it sounded like music. I felt something stir, somewhere below my belly button, and it really disturbed me.


"I have to go," I muttered, gathering up my things to make a dash for the door, dirty underwear be damned.


"Wait." He blocked the door. With his height, it was easy to do. "Listen, if you ever want to talk, give me a call." He fished his business card from his wallet (Moroccan-red eel-skin) and handed it to me. My fingers brushed the skin of his hand; an invisible zing of electricity traveled up the length of my arm as if I'd been hit by lightning. I couldn't even look at the card. I tucked it under my wig and scampered out of the Fluffitorium, watching the dirty ground with every pace, monitoring the hurried steps of my immaculate canvas shoes.


"My name's Edward," he called after me. "Call me if you'd like to."


I didn't look back. My heart pounded, oxygen disappeared, colors ran in party-bright streaks as I followed my shoes back home. Not until my door, my good solid door, was shut behind me, and my laundry was safely stowed in the antibacterial hamper, did I pause for breath, pause to really look at his business card.


My pulse beating in my ears, I traced the edges of the card, and examined every molecule. Ivory, thick stock, with a sage trim (a wonderful color for mental illness: it denotes a non-threatening atmosphere as well as growth, as in plants.) His name was embossed in sans serif letters (very non-pretentious): Dr. Edward Denture. Beneath his name, in smaller type, it read Somatic Psychologist/Life Coach.

Married. Dr. Denture. Edward. Married.


The same words keep pinging through a dark field of emptiness, neon streaks that you pass on a freeway when your bus drives really fast through barren nighttime desert. I try to ignore them, close my eyes, hum, curl up on the sweat-infested sofa, but I still see, eyes open or closed, the words streaking by as if speeding toward the inevitable end of the world. The invitation, crumpled in my hand, mocks me.


Petra clomps up the stairs again; presumably Sugarbucket is either subdued or deceased.


"Anna?" she calls as she raps her pig-sausage knuckles on the door.


If I don't answer, she will not go away as most people would. Petra and I share a bond, despite our polar opposite habits regarding hygiene and wild animals: we were both clients of Edward Denture. Because of this, she feels the need to protect me and I feel the need to try and avoid her as much as possible. This, I believe, is one of God's roguish jokes: pair an obese, codependent woman blithely unaware of infectious disease with a thin, reclusive germophobe cursed with an obsessive-compulsive desire to be left alone. God probably works for cable television.


"Anna, I know you're still in there," she wheezes. "It's hot as blazes out here. Don't make me go downstairs and come back up. I might have a stroke." She's also a hypochondriac.

Might as well unlock the door and let her in. In my careless freak out, I only locked one of the twenty bolts on my door, so it’s a snap to open. I retreat to the sofa.


She sits next to me. "Honey," she says gently as she attempts to pat my hand. I bury the hand between couch cushions. "Let's talk about this."


I shake my head.


"Here." She pries the wrinkled invitation from my left hand; I hadn't realized I was still clutching it. "Now. I know this must be a bit of a shock, hmm?"


I nod.


"When was the last time you talked to him?"


When was it? Suddenly, I feel hot and dry, scratchy and unbearably dirty. "I need to take a shower."


Petra, who is somewhat used to my idiosyncrasies, sighs heavily and pulls a fashion magazine from the ponderous, pet-hair festooned bag she carries everywhere, which is now shedding on my clean floor. "I'll wait."


In the bathroom mirror, my reflection seems older than I am. Ah, the wig. It's so wonderful when it comes off and I can pass it off to Annabelle, my wig head. She's shiny porcelain, decorated in a pattern of mosaic colors and shapes, like someone on an LSD trip threw up hippie rainbows. He bought it for me, as a present. He named her, too, I remember, when we were sitting at a picnic in Collier Park.


* * * *

"Open it." He shoved a big box wrapped in blue-green-gold striped paper toward me. The gold satin bow waved in the breeze at me, looking like a willowy naiad or dryad from Greek mythology.


Spring. I had been his client for a year, nearly, and he knew how much I hated being outdoors. Too unpredictable and full of contagion, but he had made me do it because it was my birthday.


"Could we just go inside?" I squeaked, eyeing the nearby homeless man scratching at the living creatures in his beard-condo. Ants crawled in the dirt at my feet, and despite the fact that I had worn a black hypoallergenic leotard and leggings, and neoprene boots (germs do not like neoprene, just so you know), I felt uneasy.


"Just relax and breathe," Edward said, leaning against the rotted bark and probable termite detritus of an old oak tree. "Come sit by me."


Shuddering inside, but excited about sitting next to him, I moved incrementally closer, scanning our plastic picnic blanket for dirt or, especially, animal feces. Oh, what the hell, I thought to myself. It's worth it. I snuggled close, and his long, dampish arm draped across my shoulder, releasing an invisible scent cloud of Aqua di Gio, glycerin soap, and burnt matches. The scratch of the pink oxford broadcloth of his shirt, the feel of his chin resting on my wig, our hips nearly touching. It was as if a bubble of wonderful enveloped me, and I was blissfully able to just forget. To forget the world, the germs, the tree, the ants, the homeless beard-condo and its residents. Well, I couldn't totally forget, but enough that I could simply feel…something.


Was it pleasure? As I thought about it, it rolled through my mind, down to my tongue like a delicious cold fruit, a frozen cherry, foreign and exotic. I felt good.


"Open your present," he insisted.


"I don't want to move."


I heard him laugh, I felt it, a wave of sound from his chest to my body. "I'll do it, then."


He very slowly and carefully slipped his finger through the shining lines of tape that held the wrapping together, careful not to rip it. When it was done, there was a large, sage-colored box with a square lid.


"There. Now open it," he said.


I lifted the lid and saw the top of a glassy sphere, riotous with color. "What is it?"


He lifted it from the box and turned it so I could see the blank features. "It's a head. For your wig."


I didn't know what to say. I slept in my wig. I never took it off, except to shower, and he knew that. "Why would you get me that?"

He smiled gently, put the head back in the box. "This is Annabelle," he said. "She's your relief pitcher."

"Hmm?"


"You know baseball?"

"I've heard of it." I unconsciously stroked the top of the glassy, colored head. Smooth.

"In baseball, when the pitcher gets tired, he gets a reliever. So, Annabelle is your reliever."


"What does she relieve?" I took the head from him and brought it closer, just slightly, so I could see the face...a nose, mouth shape, indentations for eyes, but no eyes painted there, just more of the amorphous paisley shapes of turquoise, amber, deep blue, copper, forest green. I noticed patterns in the colors: a spiral swirl, a Celtic knot, a star, a crescent. "What are all these things?"


"Ah. Sacred symbols, from bunches of religions. I know you're not religious," he said immediately before I could protest. "This isn't about religion. These are all...like, lucky charms."


"Magically delicious."


"Exactly."


I lifted Annabelle from the box. Now that I really looked at her, I saw the range of colors, and they were all my colors. And smooth, so smooth.


"Do you like it?" He grinned expectantly at me. I turned to look into his eyes, those aqua-sapphire eyes I could never really look into for any length of time.


"I do."


He sighed, contented. I felt something. I just stroked Annabelle's head until the feeling went away.


* * * *

"Anna!" Petra pounds on the bathroom door as I sit on the toilet, staring at my wig perched on Annabelle.


"What?"


"You've got to come out of there." She shifts her weight; my floorboards groan. "It's not that bad. Can we talk about it? Anna?"


I open the door.


Petra hovers like a fat fish, gasping for air. "Your hair." A statement, fact, said with astonished admiration. "Your hair."


Mmmm. The fuzzy baby duck near-baldness of my ravaged scalp catches the breeze from the hall fan. "You've seen it before."


"I have not," Petra says, shaking her head, still staring as if she expects to see a special message from Yahweh spelled out in dying follicles. "Can I touch it?"


"No." I brush past her, into the hall and to the kitchen, my scalp still breathing delicious freedom. "I need to eat something."


"Oh." Petra's latent Jewish mother tendencies roll right over her need to feel my hair. "Sure, honey, if you need to eat. Got anything chocolate?"

She follows me into the kitchen, which is, as usual, immaculate. As if she's my personal Martha Stewart, she opens the fridge and starts rooting around for yummies. "Got any of the Nutella? I love that stuff." All I see is her massive haunches sticking out of my refrigerator, as if an unlucky beast had collided head-on with a shiny white semi. Removing herself and closing the door, she says, "What are you having?"


"I think I'll have this." I pull a large tin of Belgian-chocolate-covered cookies from my alphabetized pantry (the cookies are between Baking Chocolate and Bisquick) and pry off the green-gold lid to reveal a pristine landscape of un-nibbled butter cookies drizzled with milk chocolate. Petra hums in delight, picks out a striped delicacy, and extending one red-nailed pinkie, she takes a chomp, then spits it out.


"How old are these?" She discreetly takes the piece of cookie to my trashcan and shoves it in.


Looking at the bottom of the tin, it appears that they are a bit past the best-buy date. "They were made in 1988."


"Well, sweeties, that's not edible." She grabs the tin and purposefully sets in on the counter.


"You could get some kind of disease from that!"


"Like what?"

"I don't know!" she burbles. "Like worms, or something."


"You can't get worms from cookies." I grab the tin and pitch it neatly into the trash receptacle, and Petra gasps as if I've committed a heinous sin even though she refused to eat the ancient goodies.


"Well, what else have you got? Want a drink?" She opens the cupboard over my stove as if she's hunting. "You must have some cognac."


I stalk over to the pantry and part the gray curtains in front of my alphabetized foods. "I don't drink."


"Why not, for god's sake?"


"I don't know." A box of water crackers. I think if they're sealed they're still okay. I hand them to her.


"Sweeties, listen." She pulls my arm until the rest of me follows, and she plants me in one of my chairs. She sits in the other, and it groans in protest. "This just can't derail all your progress."


"What progress?" I take the box of crackers from her, rip the end off the package savagely, and extricate the plastic-covered wafers from their coffin. Ripping it with my teeth, I ease a handful of crispies from the sleeve.


"Don't use your teeth!" Petra screeches.


"Why not?"


"You could break them!" She grabs two crackers and starts to munch noisily, dropping crumbs like snow onto my clean floor.


"What progress?" I ask again.


Her large brown eyes (one with a severely drooping eyelid) focus on me sadly. "You were just getting over him."


"No." I shake my head. My bald head.


"Yes, you were." Petra touches my hand and I instinctively jerk it away. "After he left...I was kind of worried, to be honest." She leans forward, the parasail shirt flapping open to reveal the upper slope of her Alpine breasts. I'd hate to have to carry around anything that big, especially without some kind of mechanical support, a winch and pulley system or something. She's still talking. "Now, maybe you should just forget all about this. Forget about the wedding. I don't even know why on earth he sent you an invitation."


"Because we were friends." I'm still staring at the crinkles and wrinkles and fine lines traversing Petra's chest. It's almost like photos of Mars I've seen, the dusty red soil crisscrossed with dessicated river valleys, the ancient memories of liquid and the flow of life. "We were friends." I'm trying to convince myself.


She pats my hand. "Sure you were, honey. But why torture yourself? Even people who aren't crazy don't do that."


Crazy. I really hate when people use that word.

* * * *

That day in the laundromat, Edward gave me his business card. I kept it for a long time before I actually called. I set it on my counter, and each day I would have a staring match with it. I sat on my sofa and tried to watch some inane television program, but the card kept calling me like an unwanted telemarketer. (By the way, if you really want to get rid of unwanted telemarketers, one of two strategies has worked for me: one, tell them you are deceased and cry hysterically about how much you miss yourself. Second, tell the person on the other end of the line the truth, the absolute truth, about how crazy you are. If most people were honest about this, it would scare the living scat out of anyone.) And still that business card stared at me, no matter how many times I cried or told it I was crazy.

So, in the end I called him.


"Golden Hill Associates," a smooth female voice greeted me. I hung up.


Who was this woman answering his phone? What kind of a whoremonger was this man, Edward Denture? Why did he have wanton women with smooth voices answering his phones? And what else were they doing for him? Rage. Rage bubbled up from beneath my wig.


Petra came to visit that day. "Everybody has a secretary, sweeties," she said. "That's nothing. Call back."


The next day, I went through the same routine with the sofa, the inane television shows, and the business card, which taunted me from the counter. I ate nothing; I didn't even put on my wig.


At exactly 2 p.m., I called again. "Golden Hill Associates," the same voice answered, in the same sweet, smooth, soothing tone as yesterday.


"I'm calling for Dr. Edward Denture." My face felt hot, flushed.


"Are you a client?"


A client? I had no idea how to answer her. A client of what? "I have a disability advocate," I blurted.


Miss Smooth Voice paused. The open space over the phone line filled with disapproving frowns, wry arching of eyebrows, internal chuckles. I knew she was laughing at me, probably making that stupid cuckoo sign to some other secretary sitting next to her. "Oh. I meant, are you a client of Dr. Denture's?"


"No."


Another pause full of hilarious contempt. "Would you like to make an appointment?"


"Well, I certainly didn't call to order a pizza."


"No, of course not." Smooth Voice woman chuckled. "He makes lousy pizza anyway. Don't tell him I told you."


She'd eaten pizza with him. The skin on my face grew hotter by degrees.


"So, you'd like an appointment," she said smoothly. "When would you like to come in?"

"Whenever he wants to see me."


Now Miss Smooth Voice sounded confused. "So, you have been in before, or no?"


"No. Are you deaf in addition to being condescending?"


A choking sound. Ms. Smooth Voice apparently gagged on her own superiority. "No, no. I apologize if you...if I didn't answer your questions. Could I have your name?"

"Anna."


Pause again. "Anna. Last name?"


"Beck."


"Alright Ms. Beck. What about coming in...tomorrow? We have a cancellation at 10:30 in the morning. Would that work for you?"


"Yes." A date! I had a date with him! Heart racing, pounding, and my face started to pulse as if the blood was rushing in rivers all around my body, at hyper speed.


"Alright, Ms. Beck. We'll see you tomorrow. Could you come a bit early to fill out some paperwork?"


"Of course." The phone call ended with a click, and Ms. Smooth Voice was snuffed out, just with the depression of a button. I imagined that it was attached to a tiny nuclear device that exploded in the confined area around her desk, vaporizing her and the other good-looking secretary next to her. My nuclear bomb, unlike conventional weapons, would have no fallout. It would be untraceable.


As I replaced the phone on its cradle, something snapped in my chest, something small and intangible but real nonetheless. I had to tell somebody.


Since the only person I actually spoke to in whole sentences was Petra, it was the pet grooming salon or nothing. Ugh. The smell of the place nauseated me. Old, wet dog mingled with cat pee and cabbage to create an unforgettable scent sensation.


I carefully settled my wig on my head, adjusted it, picked my way down the creaking stairs to the first-floor landing. The wooden boards were full of pockmarks, pits in the dirty grain of the dark wood. Sunlight just emphasized the tapestry of stains and footprints and food spills and who knows what else, an archaeological record of all of the nasty human and animal detritus that had landed and bounced on that floor over the years. Even with shoes on, I flinched.

I had to walk outside to get to Petra's salon. I hated going outside and avoided it whenever possible. It smelled of people and gasoline and garbage, and I always felt that when I left the house, especially in the daylight, all the smells and stains were waiting to pounce on me, a passel of bloodshot-eyed corruption perched, vulture-like, on the edges of trashcans and fire hydrants. Light made them stronger.


The blue and green sign read Petra's Pet sPot. I had told her when she first put it up that is sounded as if she were cooking poodles and Pekinese in a big cauldron, but she thought it was unbearably clever, so she ignored what I said. The screeching of a devil cat emanated from the salon; I grimaced and grabbed the door handle with my sleeve, pushed it open as wide as I could, and dodged inside before I had contact with the door.


Petra wore a navy-blue sailor suit with what had been a pertly tied red bow around the collar. Unfortunately, some beast at some point in the day had smeared a yellowish substance along one sleeve, and the current feline client had clawed through the red bow, leaving it shredded like the fringy scrubbing strips inside an automatic car wash.


When Petra saw me, she gasped. "Anna?" She dropped the evil cat, then dropped a lid over its bathing area so it couldn't get out. "What happened? You're all flushed."


I was unable to speak. I just stared at her, words sticking in my throat. “Anna? Did something happen?” She came to the door, ignoring the screeching cat.

She stared into my eyes as if I’m inanimate. “Can you hear me?”


“Of course I can hear you.”


“Oh, good.” She backed up a step. “I thought maybe you were having one of those, you know, one of those spells. What are they called? Dish Disorders?”

“Dissociative disorder?”


“Yes, that’s the one.” Petra went back and peeked into the cat bath, frowning at the yowling of the detained feline. “You remember, we talked about it the last time, when you were sitting on the curb not moving? After I came back from the dermatologist who burned off that mole? That was terrible. I hurt for days after.” Since the fact that I answered her implied that I was not having an episode, Petra started moving bottles and brushes around, pulling a huge pair of yellow rubber gloves from a drawer so she could wrangle the wet cat.


“No. I’m not dissociative. I just…I just made an appointment.”


“Hmm.” She tipped the lid of the cat bath, and a large drippy paw swiped at her. “Bad tempered little shit. I should drown him and help out the owner.” Her brain caught up with what I just said. “You made an appointment? With who?”


“Whom. With whom.” I had almost reached my exposure limit and felt the tug of my apartment. But I had to tell her. “I made an appointment with a doctor I met.”


“A doctor.” She said it slowly, as if it were a magic spell. Her eyes widened. “You mean, like, a therapist? But that’s wonderful, sweeties!” She grinned, bounded over to me, and threatened to hug me, but I stopped her with one very firm hand placed in space between us. “Oh, yes. Sorry. I’m just so happy for you. You’re going to see a therapist? How did that happen? I’ve been telling you that for months!”


“We met in the Fluffitorium,” I began. But then I realized I didn’t want to share all the details. I wanted to keep this secret, this private joy, to myself, to be sure it stayed fresh and pure. “I’m going tomorrow.”


“Oh, Anna. That is excellent news. Do you need a ride or anything?” She went back to the cat bath, ready to extricate the understandably miffed kitty.


Did I need a ride? I had no idea. “I might.”


“Well, you let me know. I’ll be glad to close up and give you a ride. What time?”


“10:30.” I really didn’t want a ride, but I had no idea where the office was. I must have been excited. I never leave such things to chance. But obviously, the universe planned for this to happen, so all the details would be worked out.


Dr. Edward Denture. He would save me.


* * * *

I have to save him.


I realize this in the middle of the night. I'd spent the afternoon avoiding the invitation, but it stares me down. No matter where I go in the apartment, its eyes are on me, but when I confront it, it would lie there innocently on my kitchen counter. I realize that it wasn't really talking to me. I'm not crazy. Not in that way, at least.


But it has been on my mind all day. I couldn't think of anything else. And now, at 4:40 in the morning, I'm unbearably jittery, anxious, my legs won't stay still, and I have the sense that I'm out of phase with my body, vibrating at a frequency that isn't within the realm of the normal world.


I go to the kitchen for some water, and take the opportunity to open the kitchen window. The only time I can safely do this is in the middle of the night when Petra has sealed up the day's pet poop in bags and closed the can lids. There's still a bit of a smell, but it's manageable. And the night air feels so good, so unlike the day. I'm really a creature of the night, and except for my dreadful eyesight and fear of flying, I'd most likely be a vampire.


Mmmm. Baking bread smell. Also something slightly spicy, maybe curry, yellow, exotic, wrapped in a sun-splattered sari like an Indian princess. I must be hungry.


But then it's back to obsessing. He's getting married, and it is clear that I have to go. I've never been more clear on anything in my life, other than the fact that I loved him, do still love him, and I know that we were meant to be together. How to get there, that's the question.

I pick up the card where the gold-trimmed curlicues of information are stamped. Have to switch a light on, of course. And get my glasses. I'm so tired of everything being a three-step process, no matter how simple the thing is. I can't read pill bottles, directions, invitations, anything, without light and glasses. "Doctor Edward Patterson Denture and Doctor April Fennimore-Klein...couldn't she at least have the good grace to have an ugly name? cordially invite you to witness their marriage on Saturday, June 22nd, 2 p.m. June. How original, April Fennimore-Klein, you bitch. You are obviously a bride who never conforms to convention Ceremony and Reception to follow at The Broadmore." Inside the card was printed the address, somewhere in Colorado.


How thoughtful of Edward.


He knows I don't travel. I can't travel. Planes...just watching the news is enough to make me stay put. I could never take my shoes off in front of strangers, and the idea of getting patted down by one or more over-zealous Filipino men with latex gloves makes my upper lip sweat. Not to mention the planes themselves. A system of ventilation that would kill people if they had the good sense to breathe deeply. Germs just re-circulate on a plane, so whatever hideous disease your plane-mates have, you are likely to contract it as well. Oh, and the bathrooms. Well, I can't even discuss that without feeling absolutely vertiginous.

Colorado. Why would he get married in Colorado? Maybe she's from there. April. Dr.. Fennimore-Klein. Perhaps a train? No. It would take so long, and it's almost as germ-ridden as the aircraft. Driving. I would have to drive to Colorado to attend the wedding of Dr. Edward Denture and his lovely fiancee, Dr. April Fennimore-Klein.


I do have a driver's license, oddly enough. Edward helped me get it reinstated. I suppose in a more literate world, that might be considered irony, but Petra would just say it was a sign from God. Either way, with the blessings of God or irony, I would have to find a way to drive to the accursed state of Colorado, and I would have to do it soon, because time and Edward Denture wait for no woman.


I have to stop that wedding.

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