I was sitting at a long table with a lot of nice things on it. There was a large pitcher of water with an ornate handle that looked like it was made of real silver, and there were forks and spoons. There were apples and small, round appetizers, and a big dead cooked goose. There were so many things that the table underneath was eclipsed entirely; the visible objects obscured even more food, more tableware beneath.
My mother and father were sitting next to each other on the long side of the table, and a man I didn’t recognize at all was sitting next to them. I sat across on the other end, alone.
I was looking at all of the things and trying to notice connections between them. Why this table, why now? Why these things and not others? Many of the things were round. Except the goose. I tried looking from object to object: fork, butter, spinach, hand, napkin, apple, cup.
It was then that I noticed none of the others seated at the table were looking at the table or its contents. They were all looking at me. They were looking continuously; there was no sense that they would soon be looking away. They had these looks on their faces. Especially the man. He had a look like he just would never ever get enough of looking. His eyes were like two little identical stones, the bare minimum of a face, just enough to make you look twice to check if you were looking at a person.
You were announcing your engagement, said my father helpfully.
To who? I asked.
I felt a strange sense of ownership for all the objects on the table, yet I did not want to claim them.
To us, they said. All of you? I said.
No, only me, said the man in the button-up shirt, whom I did not recognize.
I find it increasingly difficult to speak of my feelings at will.
I am announcing my engagement to you? I asked, gesturing at him. Yes, exactly, he said, looking satisfied. It seemed impossible to phrase the question in a way that would yield a perfectly unambiguous answer.
Who am I engaged to? I asked.
To me, he said, no longer looking satisfied.
The whole situation felt as unreal as something could while also feeling sorely, mortally dangerous. It seemed to draw strength from my speech, as in: The more I spoke within it, accepting its premises, the more I spoke into it without screaming at it, the more it made me whomever this position demanded.
Has anyone carved the goose? I asked. We’d better carve it before it gets cold, or hard. Before it reverses. We’d better do something before it changes.
Stay on topic, darling, and try to be polite, my mother replied. We were having a discussion, and it’s only a family discussion if you participate.
There was no way out. All the doors were far away and in the line of sight. I don’t think it’s unrelated, I said, or I don’t think it’s impolite. I am going to make one or both of those arguments, I said.
My suitor looked at his watch.
I think you’re being difficult, my mother replied. I think you should sit down and finish the announcement you started. There’s ice cream for after the announcement, and it’s already in the dishes, melting.
The doorbell rang and I went to the door.
Standing outside was a man who looked almost entirely unfamiliar, like someone I had met maybe once through an acquaintance or a circumstantial friend. Hi, he said. Oh hi, I replied. Who are you? I wanted to say. But instead I just looked at him, at his medium-size mouth, his large-size nose, his normal-size face.
I’m your boyfriend? he said, helpfully, holding up a fistful of flowers.
I would have asked a follow-up question, but instead I felt myself begin to slow down as if I had been filled up with damp sand. I thought about the person in the other room who said he was my fiancé, and I wondered if I had been designed to function within this situation or, instead, to somehow undo it.
I remember a proverb that I once found carved into the body of an old tree: Whether the knife falls on the melon or the melon on the knife, the melon suffers.
Oh, hi, I said. Sweetheart?
I guided him into the kitchen and pointed him to the table. Mother, Father, fiancé, I said, this is my boyfriend. My fiancé immediately began to look uncomfortable but did not voice this discomfort except by a soft gurgling sound in the throat. I seated the boyfriend across from the fiancé and watched. Perhaps they would cancel each other out. How do you do, said the boyfriend to each member of the table in turn. He shook my father’s hand, kissed my mother’s, and nodded sharply to my fiancé. The gurgling escalated, but my mother politely switched on the dishwasher, and soon we heard mostly the sound of machinery rather than that of a person’s feelings surfacing.
He has some manners, said my father to no one in particular.
Perhaps we should carve the goose? said my boyfriend, rifling through the pile of silverware on the table. Where’s the knife? he asked. I remember an infomercial for a set of knives, their blades fortified with diamond powder. They were advertised as “the only knives you’ll love to need, need to love, need to need, et cetera!” In the advertisement, anonymous hands wielded shiny, shiny blades that chopped through butter and animal bone as if they were the same thing, through ice and tendon and untreated wood as if there was no difference between anything in the world—only a slight variation in grain, visible once something has been split in half.
All eyes turned toward me, and it was at this moment that I realized I was in my own house, and these things were my things.
I just don’t know, I said to everything.
At that moment, men were beginning to file into the room from somewhere else. They took positions in the corners of the room or in strategic corridors. Strange furnishings, they filled the space without filling the silence. They shuffled and stared; their silence had an eagerness.
Won’t you introduce us? they said.
I began to form a sentence beginning These are, but I lacked the words to complete it.
Who are you? I asked.
We’re your boyfriends, partners, paramours, they responded in a broken chorus.
I thought I would go first to check on the door; I must have forgotten to shut it. More might come if I didn’t close it quickly. There was a tension between the demands of the suitors and the capacities of the home, the structure of furnishings, plates, food that I had woken into. At the same time, there was a strange reciprocity between them, as the presence of a suitor seemed to demand the performance of hospitality, even as the presence of surplus plates, chairs, napkins seemed to draw more strangers into the house.
I arrived to find the entryway empty, save for a man in what appeared to be a uniform stepping across the threshold.
I’m just the postman, he said. Oh, I said, please come in.
. . . Since you broke up with me, he finished.
Oh, I said. There was a stiff feeling in the air. If only I could remember one thing about him I could say it out loud. Nice shirt, I said.
Yes—since you broke up with me, he said.
There was a hazy, damp film in his eyes that I recognized from emotions in old movies, projected large on darkened screens.
But, then, you’d hardly remember, would you? he said bitterly.
What sort of person was I? I had a rich store of memories, recent ones and much older ones, their edges rubbed smooth over time. I could remember that I was certified to perform CPR and that I spent summer afternoons in third grade swimming at the quarry, where they sold ice-cream bars shaped like the heads of cartoon animals. But I had no idea who this person might be, or who any of the people might be who sat at that table and watched me at the door and claimed to have feelings not exactly for me, but at me. When they smiled, the skin around their eyes and mouths bunched up. I had the distinct sense they were all made of the same material, by someone who owned a big bolt of fleshy cloth. At some point I must have met them, loved them, had fine times. But now all they evoked was a sense of responsibility, a vague and resentful crust.
When I led this new man back to the table, the suitors had already begun to compete in earnest.
I’m her fiancé, one said. I’m her boyfriend, said another. Me too, said the third. They glared at one another across the table, and one took a roll from another’s plate and ate it with anger. There doesn’t have to be a conflict between those things, I said hopefully. They glared at me. Was I going to have to choose? Here, now, in front of all these people, in an exposed and public scene? And if they made me choose, how could I? I didn’t know anything about any of them, in fact I could barely tell them apart. When I looked at them I struggled to note subtle differences in hairstyle, which I cross-referenced to well-known television actors with distinct names that I applied mentally to each suitor for sorting purposes, though I kept these names within quotation marks to remind myself that they were only temporary. “Patrick,” “David,” “Jason,” “Rob.”
“Michael,” “Marco,” “Carl,” “Jack.” Most of the time when I looked at them I couldn’t even see their faces or if they had faces: Was this Love?
I turned to my mother; I wanted to ask: Couldn’t I just choose none of them? Swiveling her head sharply, she gave me a look with her lips tightened. She breathed quickly in and out, nostrils flared. I knew the answer would be no.
The structural similarity of men and their ability to be represented both as ideal, like the Vitruvian of Da Vinci, and as average. Man being the measure of all things, and therefore a sort of standard and interchangeable unit of length, breadth, intelligence, emotion. We could lay them end to end to measure the distance between the continents, the distance to the moon. We could use them to calculate the weight of the weather, or to buy things at the grocery store. With such an abundance of men, we could gauge anything we chose.
I knew I was behaving badly. I could barely attend to the words on a sonic level. The suitor on the left who kept trying to hold my hand, I had offended by replacing my hand in his with a dinner roll. As they went around the table listing nouns and adjectives that corresponded, somehow, to whole persons, I tried to focus my thinking not on the world of men, the superfluity of men, the community of men, or their etiquette and social contracts, but on men in the particular. Men replete with difference.
All right, said my mother. Whom will you be choosing?
Well, he brought flowers, I said, pointing at the one who had brought flowers.
The flowers in their wrapping gave off a trapped and fragrant odor.
It’s true, he said, standing up. And I have to confess, I love you very much. I think you’re perfect for me. But I will tell you something soon that will make you wish you could change your mind.
Why don’t you step into the kitchen to talk this through? my father suggested. It sounds personal.
OK, I said.
He took me by the elbow and directed me out of the room, turning back briefly to wink roguishly at the table of parents and men that watched us still. I tried to wave or gesture, as an apology for my own lapse of manners, but with his thumb on the inner joint and his palm wrapped firmly around the back, I found I could do little more than wriggle the limb.
In the kitchen he turned to me and held me close. He brushed a strand of hair from my face and traced the jawline with two long fingers. And you? he asked, smiling softly. How are you feeling, my darling?
I’m confused, I answered.
Yes, yes, he said thoughtfully. You want to know my feelings, my constitution. You want to know that I care about you, you want assurances that I love you, that I think of you deeply, he said.
I thought about this, which seemed less than I actually wanted to know, but also a step toward knowing anything at all. That sounds good, I said.
Well, yes, it sounds good, he replied chuckling, and it is most certainly true, but it should also be known to you, as it is known to me, that I came here with the intent to kill you.
What? I asked.
Also, I came here to kill you, he clarified.
He was already rooting around in the kitchen drawers looking for a knife to put through my chest. It wasn’t the right time to bring this up. Maybe there would be a right time later.
Are you really the only person who doesn’t have a knife, any knife of any sort, in their kitchen? he asked with a note of irritation in his voice.
That’s what it looks like, I said. I meant this in an earnest way, free of sarcasm, but I could tell I was sounding like a bitch.
Listen to you two. You sound like an old married couple, said a suitor who had wandered into the kitchen by accident. He chuckled to himself.
Help me, I said to him.
Help you what? he answered.
Escape from this guy, I said, who is trying to kill me.
Help you please, is what I was waiting to hear, said the suitor wryly.
A few feet away, my killer looked at his watch.
The man I had chosen was going to find something sharp and come after me and stab me with it. He would not tell me his reasons, and in the meantime I would have to tell him mine, my reasons for not wanting to be stabbed. Being stabbed would interfere with the general harmony of my body, with its function, with its status as a self-containing vessel, whole and protective. It would interfere with my nervous system and my circulatory system, with my respiratory system and, to a lesser extent, my immune system. It would spring a leak in me. It would leave me open to the world.
The helpful suitor, in the meantime, had located a door to another room.
In here, he said.
Now we were in here. In here was my bedroom, still decorated with the poster of Minnie Mouse that I had owned since middle school. Didn’t I ever get rid of anything? Had I been born into this house, and had I ever left it?
Lock the door, I said. Like this? he said, wiggling the knob. No, lock it, I said. Lock it so it can’t be opened, I explained further.
He looked distracted. Use the lock, I said, more sharply and loudly.
You don’t have to snap at me, he said. I went to the lock and turned it, but it went around and around. He had found the only room in the house with a nonfunctional lock. I heard footsteps slowly coming up the stairs.
Then the one I had chosen burst into the room. He was holding an armful of things he had found in the linen closet, which I assumed he was planning to use as weapons. First he took an armful of mixed towels and washcloths and attempted to drive them into my back. Then he grabbed a collapsible laundry hamper and threw it in the direction of my head. He picked up some containers of fabric softener and lobbed them at me, and then tried repeatedly to jam a feather duster through my chest. He picked up a long cushion that had come from the couch.
At this rate it would take forever.
He paused, breathing heavily. OK, look, he said. I give up. I love you and I don’t remember why I’m trying to kill you. Can we just start over? I thought about it. What would we do? I asked. We could watch a movie, he suggested.
I didn’t know what to say. I knew I had a big choice to make. I could let it all go and try to love him, try to trust him, try to make something lasting and good. He obviously had strong feelings for me or about me. And he wasn’t being so bad right now. We could build something strong, beautiful. Or I could try to make a dash for the door by crawling under the dining-room table.
There was a good chance he would kill me later, either way.
I dove under the table and scrambled toward the door.
He was still behind me, cursing over the fallen chairs that lay before him and the ten-foot lead I had. But when I reached for the knob, it wouldn’t turn. The lock was on the outside. Who ever heard of the lock for a door being on the outside? It would be up to another, possibly a total and complete stranger, to decide whether you’d ever be allowed to leave.
I knew it was time to run again. He was looking around the room for a better weapon, and he would probably find it. I was so tired. I just wanted to curl up with someone, anyone, even him, and sleep until work on Monday. I wanted to feel someone’s, anyone’s, hands on me, even if it was in that way I hate, the fingers all over my face and jaw.