Joyland

New York |

Invisible Woman

by Michelle Sierra Laffitte

edited by Michelle Lyn King

My eyes follow the grape-sized snowflakes that tumble on the red sandstone of the Washington Place townhouses, on Dorsey Park’s Christmas spruce tree, and on the peaks of its iron gate. Every winter I watch the snow fall on this perfect street from my chair by the window, a cup of Earl Grey in hand. From my room the chaps below look like toy soldiers, small, like the lead figurines of my brothers’ childhood games. There are seventeen floors in this Salvation Army home for women. Thirteen come between my feet and the ground. The free fall almost inviting.

I am taking a short break from my mission. I type, pull and crumble, type, pull and crumble. I’ve been working on this poem for days, but I don’t mind. I want the words to be perfect. I yearn to write something so imperative, that Wilfred will have no choice but to love me. Time is precious.

I rest my fingers on the typewriter’s icy keys. I type.

Time…

Suddenly a pang, a sharpshooting wrench in the gut. I can’t remember when I last ate. Has it been hours? Perhaps days?

Body says: I’m famished. I head downstairs to find nourishment.

The dining room is empty besides two other women having breakfast. Amber Pierce, the big lady from across the hall, and her posh friend Rachel Lieberman, sit at one of the tables.

“Good morning.” I say, dashing towards the kitchen.

They don’t even look at me.

There is no kitchen queue. The young cooks are gone. Herta Faust, the German hostess, who makes sure Parkside residents don’t grab more food than the allotted on our pre-paid weekly fee, has finished her shift as well.

It must be later than I thought.

I exit the kitchen and walk to my favorite table in the back by the windows. I like it here when it is empty, amid the purple wisteria bushes that flank the clock, the long pink curtains draped to the sides by complementary tiebacks, the high, tin ceilings and the clover-colored tabletops. The mason mantle clock on the fireplace, which has marked the same hour, half-past-four, for thirty years, or since 1975, the year I arrived in this place, reminds me of the timepiece atop the cast iron stove at my parents’ kitchen back in Stoke. The ghosts in the mirror usually stay behind the glass, where there is no present or future, just past. Male and female, but mostly female,; stagnant souls of those who have died in this place. I can sense when they’re around. My clue is a sudden falling feeling, the sensation similar to the involuntary twitch that occurs just as you’re beginning to fall asleep. The feeling terrifies me like nothing else, especially since I do my best work in those hours when the sky turns a deep purple and only the insomniac or the poets are awake. The fact that ghosts avoid crowds is my consolation. They also respect Erato, my muse, never daring to come close when she’s around.

A young lady and her daughter walking on the pavement distract me and I abandon my food. The lady is long and beautiful. Her hair is black as bad luck, her smart clothes matching with precision. She’s guiding a pushchair shielded with a lavender canopy and an oversized umbrella. Talks on her mobile, smiles at the image of herself she tracks on every other glass window, more watchful of her appearance than of her infant child. If that were my baby, I would wink at it and talk and smile. Anything to hear her giggle, watch her toothless smile.

At the corner of 20th and 3rd I lose sight of the woman. But my eyes have landed on something harder to miss. The massive Christmas tree the Dorsey Park Conservation Society sets up each year in the middle of our park. Yankees take their holidays seriously. Maybe their big celebrations are an overcompensation because holidays make them sad. The bigger the party the less they’ll ponder how much happiness or love their lives lack.

Perhaps it is this unconscious effort that makes people easily offended. A week ago, for instance, at the Carlson, Winslow, Jacobs and Price holiday party in our midtown office, Gerry got upset about the drawings I made in the women’s restroom.

The idea seemed brilliant: write with red lipstick Wilfred’s name all over the mirror, the toilet stalls, the white tiles on the floor. I felt exhilarated, riding the top of the wave, my creativity at its zenith. The euphoria had lasted days. A month before I had stopped taking the Lithium. Forgot it one day, then the next and I still felt well. Two weeks went by without it and the sadness didn’t come back. I thought perhaps I’d been cured. Erato hated them too, never showing up before I finished the prescription.

People at the law firm had dimmed the lights on the entire floor, everyone was drinking, flirting and laughing, so I thought a little let out up on my part would be equally fine. Someone must have found my doings distasteful and complained to him, because Gerry did his research, and brought the subject up before our final conversation a week later.

“Why did you do that, Miranda?” He stood up from his senior-partner leather chair.

“Do what?”

“That crazy graffiti you drew.”

“I did what?” I asked, playing dumb.

“Miranda, you were caught on camera coming out of the bathroom,” Gerry said. “You were wiping red paint from your fingers with paper towels.”

“Oh, what’s the big deal?” I asked. “I was just trying to do some art.”

He didn’t say anything else but asked me to wait a minute and stepped out of the room to make a phone call. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in the office of a minuscule woman on the 12th floor. She wore thick black plastic frames, her hair up in monastic ponytail.

“Are you getting help, Miss Davies?”

“I beg your pardon?” The windowless office made me think of those stringent glass boxes where scientists store lab rats. “Help for what?”

“Just help, Miss Davies.”

Her words confused me so I looked for clues in her monolid eyes. The small horizontal slots were, however, devoid of any sadness, anger, fear or doubt. She looked like a stern young child, like one of those three uptown kids from haughty upbringing I found so hard to love decades ago while working as a nanny on 70th and Park.

The woman said the firm could not keep me and pushed an envelope across the table. “Carlson, Winslow, Jacobs and Price hopes this will help you get back on your feet.”

“But…”

“Miss Davies, Gerry wanted me to make sure that you understood he’s been more than patient with you. This is not the first time you’ve scared us in such a way. We’re not helping you by keeping you here.”

My mind went cloudy, a murkiness impaled in my mania. I recalled scattered episodes of brightness when I, too, had felt I could accomplish anything and my intentions were misunderstood. The night I stayed at work and cleaned Gerry’s office on hands and knees, hours of dust and papers, until I was so exhausted I fell asleep on the floor. The time I showed up to an important partners’ meeting wearing my secondhand purple satin strapless and a blazer, which HR suggested that I go home to change.

It wasn’t different this time around. The woman’s manicured hands shook as she reached into her drawer, the tremor on her limbs giving away she wasn’t a robot. She didn’t wear a ring, and no pictures of family warmed her shelves. I felt a kinship with the young, likely single, childless, female. Maybe she’d left her home country too.

I almost didn’t mind she was sacking me.

She pulled out a deck of business cards. “Here Miss Davies.” she said, handing me one. “He helped my mother.”

I took the card.

She walked towards the door, and opened it. She waited, one hand on the knob, the other resting against her thigh. Quiet and stiff, her posture invited me to leave.

“Good luck,” were her final words.

On the lower floor of the dining room, outside the kitchen, there is a stainless steel grid where I drop my breakfast tray. I rush back to my room to join my muse. The elevator is taking too long. I choose the stairs instead. My energy is high. I could run a marathon.

On my way to the stairs I see him. Wilfred talks by the front door with the postman, who is handing him an envelope. Little did I anticipate that I would see my love today. My heartbeat soars. My breathing shallows. I fix my hair, regret not wearing lipstick. All composure lost.

Wilfred has his blue suit on, his thick grey curls cut short. My insides hurt again and I know for certain it’s not hunger for food but for his skin. I gaze at the laugh lines on his cheeks, his chipped front tooth, the dark pink patch that runs from his nose through his right cheekbone. My favorite imperfection. My heart is close to blasting. Could this be our moment, the day we’ll finally surrender to our love for each other?

Just when I think our time has arrived, Mary Ellen Abbas, the older woman with the glasses who works in admissions, steps out from behind the front desk to greet him. I keep walking towards him.

“Good morning,” he says.

“Good morning Major Adams,” says Mary Ellen from behind me.

She walks too and stops beside me. I remain there ten, twenty seconds smiling coyly, waiting for him to choose. I stand paralyzed. Mary Ellen, behind me, an absolute nuisance, a fly in the soup.

But her presence doesn’t change a thing. His love for me has grown so big it’s become impossible to mask. His gaze shifts from my lips, to my eyes, to my lips, to my eyes as if Mary Ellen weren’t there.

“Hello Major,” I say.

“I’ll find you later.” He goes into his office.

Will he really find me later? Where? When is later? My heart flutters with the excitement of a teenager as I waltz, humming The Blue Danube, towards the elevator down the hall. Every cell in my body is alive and reacting to Wilfred’s presence.

All flustered, I head to my room.

My muse is already there, sitting on the shabby chair by my secretary desk ready to feed me. Her blonde hair is combed up, loosely held by a crown of jasmines. Her velvety breasts wrapped inside an ivory draped dress.

“Where have you been?” There’s disapproval in her voice.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I say. I know she loathes being taken for granted.

Her eyes smile and I know she’s forgiven me. She grabs my hand and brings it to the typewriter. Her caress gives me the encouragement I need to continue.

Time seeping…

Erato knows I’m the most comfortable here. This corner room is my sanctuary, my refuge from the world. It is small, but homey, with my faithful typewriter, the pink patchwork quilt that has covered my bed since I moved in, the Singer sewing machine I bought from a neighbour with the first check I received from my nanny job.

“Come on, my child.” My muse says. “Let’s finish.”

I go on.

Time seeping out of your bones…

Wilfred’s watch still sits on my bedside table, a bittersweet reminder of the mad love I feel. The day I got laid off, after cashing my severance check at the bank, I took the six to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy Wilfred a present. Something nice that he would wear always. I wanted him to remember me when he had it on:a sharp stainless steel Rolex with a shiny bezel, sapphire arms and a chocolate leather strap, with a four thousand dollars price tag. I was euphoric.

The people at the law firm had been generous. No other employer had ever offered me such a rich severance after parting ways with my services. Five thousand dollars was plenty of money. It would have afforded me seven or eight months of rent at Parkside, a small laptop on which `to write and save my poems.The money could have helped me get by for a few months while I looked for another job, which I didn’t expect to be easy for a 56-year-old gal. But any material benefits paled in comparison to the promise of reciprocity in love.

I walked out of the store with my bag, feeling hunky dory. I had a little money left so after my purchase, I stopped at my favorite second-hand store on First Avenue. I bought a suede blue dress, a pair of red satin shoes with scratched heels and a purple bow that were two sizes too big but beautiful enough that I could not pass, and a top hat with a big peony. I was planning to pair this with my peacock-coloured jumper, the one that highlights my turquoise eyes, when I gave Wilfred his present. As soon as I returned to Parkside, I asked Mary Ellen Abbas for a meeting with him. That same night I dyed my hair black to cover the grey in my temples.

When I look back at the chair, my muse has taken off. It could be weeks before she returns, so I leave my room to retrieve her. It’s imperative that I don’t waste more time. She couldn’t have gone far as I was only distracted for a few moments.

*

I start at the top, on the 17th floor. I look first in the rooftop terrace. She’s not there. I walk barefoot over the synthetic grass along the red and white polyester tulips. I look up, towards the edge of the brick fence through the green chicken wire, which screens the blue and the clouds. Some previous administrator installed the fence to discourage jumpers. Conversely, he didn’t put iron bars on the rooms. He probably thought it was more theatrical to ride the elevator up to the building’s terrace, extend one’s arms like a superhero and fly over the city, than to commit suicide in the comfort of one’s home.

It’s vital that I find Erato. If sadness conquers me I don’t know what I would be capable of. It’s only under her guidance that I’ll be able to finish my poem. So many years I yearned for an opportunity, to love and be loved again, only to get it now. An end-of-life gift. From the gods or the heavens or, perhaps, a lucky strike. Could Good Fortune, who has always been a fugitive, have chosen me this time? Me, the awkward, the undeserving?

Inside the building’s small gym on the seventeenth floor, there are a few exercise machines: sets of weights, like the ten-pound ones I stole months ago, a sitting area, a bike, a small TV. All is covered with dusty white sheets, as if the all the Parkside ghosts had gathered here to do sports.

I leave the gym and walk towards the end of the hallway, to the emergency staircase. I only know about the secret staircase to the roof because I overheard someone talking on the building’s public phone the other day. It goes one floor up to the ceiling. I’ve never bothered to search for it. But it is the type of place where my muse would hide. A naughty child, she likes playing tricks. I try my luck.

She’s not there.

Change of strategy. I take the elevator down.The telly has disappeared from the 4th floor parlor. Someone must have stolen it. More white sheets cover the wing back chairs and sofas arranged in the shape of a horseshoe. She’s not there. I leave. There’s no time to lose.

I’m moving quickly, at the speed of light. I appear and disappear, move swiftly from room to room, as if my arms were wings. I fly.

The building feels empty, a holiday that I’ve somehow overlooked. No clothes hang from the laundry racks. The washing and drying machines sleep. No scents of detergent and fabric softener. It smells, instead, of stale air and garbage. No cooks prepare for the dinner shift in the kitchen or smoke cigarettes in the building’s entrance. I only see Augusta Jackson, the black woman with red claws, checking the mail plot. When I call Erato her name tumbles against the walls once, twice, three times until it fades.

Forty-five minutes later I return to the dining room. I sit in the back at a spot by the window where I ate this morning. Voices, and the two other old women again. Amber strolls with her walking aid. Rachel wears gloves and a hat. This time Augusta Jackson joins them. They’ll eat dinner before they head back to their rooms or the fourth floor parlour where they get together in the evenings. Even though they ignored me earlier, I still avoid the direction of their gaze.

I was never a guest at their gatherings. Once, when I was sitting alone at the table besides them, I overheard them say that I was odd, that I spoke about scary things. They thought I wasn’t listening. The ghosts were one thing, but many also disliked that I talked about death so naturally, as if I were attracted to it. They said I was too negative. I depressed them.

It doesn’t hurt. For years, decades even, I wanted to be seen, valued, and understood. I wanted it the way some people want to be taller, thinner or have thicker hair. But just like one can’t change the color of one’s eyes, I couldn’t change my invisibility. I accepted long ago that I am—and have been—nothing. My existence is an error, an experiment that went bad. An itch to my parents, to my lovers. I’ve learned to enjoy the feeling as it gives me the freedom to do exactly as I please: for the Invisible Woman there are no expectations, no disappointments, no ties whatsoever.

I pity these women for in their arrogance they fail to see how afraid they are of me. They pretend not to see me because my sole presence feels to them like a spit in the face. They avoid me because I’m life yelling, screaming, at them that, just like me, they’re dragging their bones to the end of the line. When I walk past them, life points out at me with her cruel finger to tell them that when their old bodies and minds finally give up, no one’s tears will soak their graves. As insignificant in death as they were in life, they’ll go and no one will notice.

I look up from the table and Erato is soaring above me.

“Where were you?” I ask.

“I’m always close,” she says.

I don’t push.

“See you upstairs.” She floats away.

I follow her.

As I exit the Parkside dining room, a miracle happens. I rush out of the room, and I fall into Wilfred’s arms.

Twice in one day. And what a way! I feel my insides stew as I touch his strong muscles, draw in by the cigarette smell in his breath. An electric current makes way through my hands and legs and arms and lips and ears. I push my head against his jawbone, cuddling like a child under his arms, my lips almost kissing his neck.

“Are you alright?” Mary Ellen Abbas, who came rushing behind me almost crashes against me, asks.

That cow again.

I separate.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

“I have never been better in my life!” I say. I dare to cup his head with both my hands. “Thank you.”

Wilfred scratches his chin.

“Hi.” Mary Ellen Abbas massages his arm. The ease with which she addresses him bothers me.

“I’ll come and get you later,” he whispers.

A date? A rendezvous? I then jump into the elevator, too shy to stay, leaving him wanting more of me, of our moment.

*

I do not want to fall asleep. Words are finding me easily. Erato is swirling on my bed like a hound chasing a tail. She flies under my arms, around my neck, between my legs. We’re giddy, like two schoolgirls. She’s happy for me, for what happened today.

My muse guides my hands.

Time seeping out of your bones

it hurts…

It is snowing outside but my window is wide open. The cold from the late January night doesn’t bother me. I feel energy, pure energy, still jolted by Wilfred’s touch.

My muse, who has had enough of my distractions, lets go of my hands, which fall flat on the keys of my typewriter. I watch her float towards the wide-open window, taking her precious syllables with her. Once again she is leaving, weary of me and my ephemeral talent. She cannot leave before I am done with this. “Please, please, please don’t go,” I beg.

My words come out late. And off she goes, into the night towards the snow.

“No, no, no.” Standing by the window I watch her leave.

In one last effort to stop her I rush to the east window. There is my muse, still, soaring over Washington Place, extending her arms. Who will take care of my plants and books?

Knocks at my door interrupt my efforts. The noise of a key moving inside the keyhole alerts my senses. Who is behind my door?

I pull back from outside the window my legs and my arms. Once standing on the carpet comes the twitch and I feel like I’m falling. The hair on my arms puffs and I know the ghosts are here. Aware Erato left, they’re coming after me.

Fight, for there’s nowhere to run. I can try to endure, make time while my muse comes to my rescue. I push my back against the door, use a chair to barricade myself.

Time seeping out of your bones

it hurts like…

A man walks in.

“Fuck’s, freezing here.”

He’s sturdy, and is wearing an orange vest. A scar cuts through his cheek, his skin has acne holes and scars. My stomach jolts. He doesn’t look like a ghost. I’m being robbed.

“What are you doing here? You are trespassing.” I try to block his way with my body.

“Shit. Thought all the rooms were empty,” says a second, a shorter and thicker man who looks like a tapered bottle cork.

“Not this one,” says the first man. “Bitch left in a hurry.”

I stand in front of my bookshelf, as if protecting an unborn child.

“Do not touch my belongings!”

The men ignore me just like everybody else.

“What do we do with all these books?” says one. “And the drugs.”

“Who cares? They’re all expired,” the other answers.

“Look at this beauty,” says the first man, who has found Wilfred’s watch among the old antidepressants on my bedside table.

“Don’t you dare,” I say.

“Leave it. This witchcraft shit,” says the second man. “This gotta be the dead woman’s room. The jumper. Remember? There was a story in the Post a year ago.”

Truth then strikes like a cruel lighting. I look around my room, my sanctuary, and I see the dust, and the dryness and the dead plants under individual imaginary spotlights. It’s as if those details, and the empty building, and the white sheets and dormant machines I had only just seen, had come together to reveal their secret.

The realization brings my mind back to the day of my appointment with Wilfred, holding the watch box in my hand. Wearing my suede blue dress, my heels and peacock jumper. I knock on his office door; rice powder on my cheeks, black eyeliner and burgundy lipstick. I feel beautiful. He greets me and asks me to sit on his couch by the window, the one that faces his wooden desk. I sneeze from the dust in the curtains. Wilfred walks back and forth over the brick-colored carpet from the fireplace to the wall, his hands perched behind, looking down. He is visibly nervous. I want to say: “Do not worry my love. I am anxious too.”

“Miss Davies, what can I do for you?”

“I know.” I say.

“Excuse me?”

“I know what’s going on.”

“With the building?”

“I’m talking about us.”

“Miss Davies, what us are you referring to?”

Words gush up my throat, one pushing against the other, toppling dominoes when a hand has knocked the first down. The phrases I’d rehearsed in the shower, on the subway, walking on the street; the lines, I had repeated in my head, in front of the small mirror in my bathroom, on and on for months.

I cling to his shoulders. I tell him I know he loves me. From the way he looks at me, I can read it in his eyes. We’re wasting time. I don’t mind the age gap, or that he’s married. I give him the watch. He doesn’t want it and takes a step back as if to catch his breath. His hands hold on this his desk, looks around the room. His face is pale like a ghost’s.

“Enough of this nonsense.” He raises his voice, shakes me from the shoulders.

The watch, from the blow, falls on the floor.

I cannot describe the pain that ensues.

I kneel to pick up the watch. While I’m down I hug his legs and beg he open his heart to me. “You’re confused.” I insist. “You’re always kind to me.”

“This is crazy.” He shows no sympathy for my tears.

I cry. Plead.

He shakes his leg as if to push away a rabid dog. I fall back. He offers to help me but I run out seeking the only refuge I know.

When I arrive in my room my muse is waiting for me as if she’d anticipated how much I would need her.

“Your hand.”

She takes over, and writes.

Time seeping out of your bones

it hurts like love.

I find in my drawer the ten-pound weights I stole from the gym upstairs, the strap-on wrist and ankle weights that were waiting for me on the bed. In case melancholy came back. I tie them around my wrists and my feet. People will judge, but it won’t matter.

My muse is soaring above me now. I fear nothing. I’m with her, she is with me. “Goodbye, goodbye,” sings Pink Floyd.

“Everything will be okay, my child,” she whispers.

I climb the windowsill.

There is a thump when my head hits the floor. Snow splashes over me, around me. I wear no coat but I feel no cold. The full January moon has a blood red halo. The stars come closer, as if they were checking on me. My limbs loosen up. My muse hovers above me.

“Don’t go.” I try to reach out to her but my arm is nailed to the ground.

“Let go,” my muse says.

“But, I didn’t finish my poem,” I say.

“Love.” She smiles, kisses my forehead. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

I surrender my task and my thoughts. My sorrow lifts like a sheet from my mind and my heart. My fists and eyes open and a bright light erases the moon and the stars. And, for the first time in my miserable life, I am free.