Only the threat of nakedness persuaded Vera to do laundry. Hugging a mound of clothes, she lifted, lowered them in the washer, closed the lid…and they floated around and around. For a moment she considered climbing in with them, but that seemed redundant, or parallelistic, since she already felt like she was swimming inside of herself. Her scientific hypothesis: it was the wine. Best to repeat the experiment to prove the hypothesis. She walked away from the washer and dryer – which had started rattling spare change like Lucy at her psychiatric booth – and into the kitchen, to fill her glass.
The freezer was still there. She opened it, just a little bit, and the carton of chocolate hazelnut ice cream saw her. She laughed once, at it, at herself, at herself for laughing at it. There was no longer a reason to crave it, no longer a reason to cave in to the craving. Gripping the carton, she held it over the trash until her hands were numb. She thought about it. She thought about not thinking about it. She thought, it takes more effort to think about not thinking about it than to just think about it. So she started thinking about it.
Well, not about it. But about the night before.
It began with her having a staring contest with her wardrobe. They both won – the closet didn’t blink and she found something to wear: a pair of tailored trousers, a collared blouse. It was sort of Marlene Dietrich. Maybe it was just lesbian. But pretty lesbian. Vera didn’t like ugly lesbians. She never admitted to herself that she didn’t like them, she just avoided them, like spilled tomato juice in a grocery aisle. Not that she knew lesbians by sight. Just the ugly ones. Anyway, the pants fit, and that was important.
A large painted sign on the theater read “Carneville.” Now this was not a new word; Shakespeare made new words. This was a hybrid word, a half and half word. Of course it was supposed to be a fusion of carnival and vaudeville, but Vera thought it sounded more like a very festive town of carnivores.
After reading that sign, the bar sign seemed earnestly simple. Vera smiled at her waving friends, Ron and Louise, and ordered a glass of white wine, a gin and tonic and a screwdriver. Carrying all three drinks over to them, she said, “you two fight over the cocktails; the wine is for me.” They were married, Ron and Louise, but that was incidental; she had known them both individually before that. Their tastes were different but complementary; their mutual interest in this show convinced her to accept their invitation.
Most of the show was rather tedious, the juggler accidentally catching the balls and purposely dropping them, the fat singer punching the stuffing out of every consonant, a strong man who could bend a license plate but couldn’t do a proper victory pose.
But Vera was not prepared for the masochist.
The title “masochist” irritated her. Yes, it presumed credibility, as though he had earned a degree and did his clinicals and now he was an -ist of some kind. An -ist with tattoos stitched all over his skin, and a vest stained with thread, and black grease clinging to his teeth. What was that for? She didn’t know. He rubbed his cheeks with a clear liquid and swished it in his mouth. What was that for? She didn’t know. Long needlenails were held high, one end sparkling with beads, the other gleaming with sharpness. What were those for? She knew.
The first one went in easy. Through one cheek, through another.
The second one was a little harder. Angled from one corner of the mouth to the other. Why was she watching? She couldn’t understand why she was watching. She stopped watching.
The third one was very hard. She could tell from the audience’s reaction. She couldn’t understand why she looked up, but she did.
On the underside of his chin, the needlenail was pushing to poke through, raising a steep teepee of skin.
She looked away again. It felt as though there were millions of miles between her and the floor, and she was afraid of heights. One of her hands attacked the other, squeezing and blanching and cracking.
She looked up again. It was through. People were clapping. The masochist, smile glinting with metal and grease, was leaving the stage. There was a woman waiting in the wings, holding out a baby to him. Taking it from her arms, he held it high, whooped, danced, the poltergeist of a primitive.
Something shifted and clicked in Vera’s mind. Legs lifted her body, fingers curled into fists, neck extended head forward. A mangled growl of words came out of her mouth:
“Put down the baby.”
Louise looked up at her. “Vera – ”
“Put down the baby.” People, and the masochist, were staring now. Her voice was crumbling in pieces, and everyone was afraid one would fall on them.
Louise reached out a hand. “Please. Let’s go. I’m sorry.”
“Put down the baby!”
She dropped the ice cream carton in the trash. There was no longer a reason to crave it, no longer a reason to cave in to the craving. She thought about losing the weight. It was pitiful to people who knew what happened. But the weight held her in place.
Why hadn’t the dryer buzzer gone off? She hadn’t set it. She hated being reminded. Sometimes when someone reminded her of something she had forgotten, or even worse, something she hadn’t forgotten yet, she would imagine herself as a criminal in an interrogation room, developing the most contemptuously decadent lie that irrefutably proved her superior intelligence. She was getting damn good at it.
The dryer buzzer went off. She hadn’t forgotten. Opening the dryer door extinguished the invisible fire – sent a little flood of light into the dark hall – and out came the clothes, scorched and limp and pure.