by: E.B. Taylor
Claudette went to the Halloween party as a slutty nurse, the only costume she could find at the last minute, and ate canape in the corner as Marshall mingled with the neighbors. He kept hitting people in the face with his camera as he bent over them in their chairs. He was a photographer. In the old days, she would’ve gone over, adjusted his strap for him, but tonight she stayed in her corner, moved on to the whipped fish tartlets.
She watched a younger woman dressed as a cat lean into Marshall and laugh. A high, tinkling sound. Her costume was a black, spandex jumpsuit and ears. A man standing next to Marshall asked if she was Catwoman or just a black cat? Claudette didn’t hear her answer, but watched the young woman get down on all fours, rub her face against Marshall’s upper thigh. Marshall laughed uncomfortably, his eyes meeting Claudette’s and skittering away.
Claudette shoved another tartlet into her mouth. The girl looked like a cat, with her slim, feline features, angular eyes. But she wasn’t one of those beautiful cats you saw on tiny cans of cat food. She had bucked front teeth, wide with a gap in the center, acne around her mouth. A stray cat.
But better a stray cat than a giraffe, her mind whispered. She thought of the giraffe mask Marshall had bought her for the party, on the bedroom floor where she had hurled it a few hours earlier.
Marshall had seen the giraffe mask in a costume shop window, brought it home as a surprise. Claudette could still feel her face sweating beneath its layers of fake, spotted fur, starring at herself in the dresser mirror. Her long neck and arms, slightly hunched over posture, all made for an excellent giraffe, as she knew they would. All of her old insecurities had come flooding back, hitting her in waves.
They’d begun resurfacing these last six months, poking out of the water like the hump of a sea monster, before going under again.
Marshall had been disappearing at night, creeping out of bed like a burglar when he thought she was asleep and leaving the house.
She lay in bed very still and counted the stars on the ceiling while he was gone, three-hundred-forty-seven, peel-and-stick, glow-in-the-dark stars. Marshall had been buying her stars since high school. He’d bought her a pack on whim while standing in line at the gas station. They used a ladder to stick them above the bed, shaped them into messy constellations, scurvy tails, cockeyed W’s, callow houses.
They glowed down at her with little reassurance. She thought he was having an affair. He’d found someone with more regular features, without moles, droopy eyes, long teeth. Someone who did not look like a giraffe.
She wondered where they went at two in the morning. A cheap motel probably. Marshall didn’t like to spend money. In high school, all their dates had been in the woods. Marshall would snap pictures of her weaving through patches of sun, leaping and contorting her body like the dancers she saw on television, bending into ovals, scissors, broken swans. He’d said she was his Edie Sedgwick.
When the sun went down, Marshall would put his camera away, and they would stretch out on a blanket in the back of Marshall’s station wagon and listen to the old, movie-star voices from the drive-in over the hill. Gloria Swanson’s rich, velvety voice in Sunset Boulevard was Claudette’s favorite. She liked a voice that had smoked a few hundred packs of cigarettes. It made her think of permanently waved hair, cupid’s bow lips, long cigarette holders.
She had always wanted to slink around in a fringed flapper dress like a movie star from the 20’s, but never had the guts. She would look ridiculous. Her mother used to tell her she had an “earthy” beauty, and to avoid anything bright, sequined, or that showed any part of her shoulders or knees.
“Stick to neutrals and calf-length skirts, if you know what’s good for you,” had been a common bit of advice from her mother.
“But calf-length skirts make me look like an old woman.”
“Better an old woman, than a trussed-up hussy.” Her mother had only used outdated words as a rule.
Claudette still found herself using them in her mind: hussy, dead hoofer, golddigger, eager beaver, chrome dome, anchor cranker, crumb. Her mother had been gone several years now, cancer had eaten up her insides, stomach, liver, lungs, with no regard for Claudette’s feelings.
Claudette used to picture the cancer chomping away at her mother, little, evil, glutinous Pac Mans gorging themselves on her every atom and cell. She remembered her mother’s oncologist pointing at the blobs on the CAT scan with his fat index finger, saying they “hadn’t been eaten up yet.” He meant eaten up by the chemo, but Claudette had never been able to keep her mind from thinking of Pac Man zipping through the canals and tunnels of her mother’s body, eating away at the malignant, phantasmal blobs.
Claudette sat in bed beside Marshall, listened to the furnace kick on, thought of nasty names for cat woman: bats, bim, blister, broad, floozie, frill, gilly, grouse, jizzie, split.
“Why are you smirking?”
“I’m trying to think of old-fashioned words for whore.”
“For your Catgirl friend.” Marshall sighed.
“She was just being friendly. You hate any woman who doesn’t huddle in the corner like you do. Would it have killed you to speak to a few people?” Claudette watched him fiddle with his glasses. Wire-rimmed and flimsy, they were always bent too far one way or another, making him look slightly ridiculous.
“Yes. Annie Brown spent an hour complaining about her lawn care company at the last party, and I barely pulled through.” She had described how she wanted each blade of grass, pointy, spry, but not too short that her lawn looked like it had had a buzz cut. Who thought of that? A buzz cut?
“And I didn’t realize rubbing your face near someone’s crotch was the new handshake.”
“You’re being ridiculous.” He reached across the nightstand and turned off his lamp with a snap.
“I could hear her purring at you from across the room.” Claudette felt the bed shift as he turned on his side.
Silence. He was done talking to her.
She sat in the dark, listened to the even cadence of Marshall’s breathing as he fell into a light sleep, thought of the hideous giraffe mask, catwoman, Marshall’s nightly escapades.
Maybe he was a burglar. She’d watched an Oprah once where a completely normal woman started burglarizing her neighbor’s homes after she lost her job. She waited until they went to work, let herself in with a spare key, and stuffed anything that fit into reusable shopping bags: red sling back heels, lobster book end, brass shoe horn, pulegoso ash tray, pack of 1950’s baseball cards, bird thermometer. Then she hid it all in a closet under her stairs.
Claudette had seen Marshall skulking around the basement steps last week. He’d claimed to be setting spider traps, said he’d seen a few crawling on his photographs. That’s where he stored all his unsold pictures, even though their basement had a tendency to get damp. She was always telling him to rent a climate controlled storage locker, that his photographs were going to get ruined, but he said that under the basement steps was fine, that a storage locker wasn’t worth the hundred bucks. Now there were spiders crawling all over his pictures.
Claudette pushed the duvet off of her legs and slipped out of bed. The hardwood was cold on her feet as she made her way across the room and down the steps. She had insisted on hardwood floors even though they had been more expensive than carpeting, and they could barely afford the carpeting.
Goosepimples prickled her skin from cold as she made her way down the basement steps. They had come home last month to a broken window in the basement. Cracks rippled from a small hole in the center of the glass, pointy shards hanging down like icicles, as if someone had punched the window and left. Marshall had taped the glass with duct tape “temporarily,” but had not yet installed a new window.
She pulled the chain light above her, and peered under the steps. Stacks of photographs leaned against the cinder block wall, dusty and topped with tacky spider traps. She averted her eyes from the dead spiders, looked for anything that didn’t belong. But there were only the pictures and hedge shears that she’d been missing.
Marshall was not a burglar. Her heart sunk. She picked up the hedge shears to put with the other gardening tools, turned to go back upstairs, when a picture leaning in the far corner caught her eye.
She walked over, crouched down to look at it more closely: it was a picture of her on their honeymoon. She was standing in front of a Mexican storefront, turquoise-painted brick, circular yellow awning that had reminded her of half a lemon wedge, holding the ceramic bull Marshall had just bought her. The bull was handmade and covered in quarter-size sunflowers, lizards, and alligators. A large yellow-gold ring hung from its flared nose.
Marshall had drained their savings to buy the bull for her. It was the only extravagant gift he’d ever given her. Usually, he just gave her tulips for birthdays and anniversaries, slim, yellow-orange bunches for $5.99 at the local Food Mart.
She hadn’t seen the bull for years, had accidentally knocked it over while dusting, shattering it into a thousand pieces. She’d felt terrible, but Marshall hadn’t even gotten mad at her. He just said accidents happen, and helped her try to glue it back together. They managed to glue half of its face before giving up.
She had the sudden urge to see the picture hung up again, to have the bull’s black eyes and intricately, painted sunflowers reassure her each day. She wiped cobwebs from its frame, placed the spider traps on the floor, averting her eyes from their stiff, cragfast legs, and dragged the picture up the steps.
The living room was dark when she got to the top. She hadn’t bothered to turn any lights on coming down. She groped around for the light switch, felt the cat weave between her legs, clicked it on.
She dragged the picture across the living room to the fireplace and propped it against their ugly paisley couch, inherited from Marshall’s grandmother when she died. It smelled faintly of jasmine if you leaned into the pillows, as if his grandmother had continually spritzed it with her favorite scent or dumped a bottle on the cushion by accident. Marshall said he found the smell comforting, but it just made Claudette think of his grandmother’s jasmine-permeated corpse.
Claudette made her way to the kitchen junk drawer and dug out a hammer and a nail. She dragged a kitchen chair under the fireplace, climbed on top of it, and began hammering. The nail sunk into the drywall quickly, but the picture was off center. She tried again, but that wasn’t quite right either.
“What the Hell are you doing?” Marshall was standing behind her in his wrinkled sweatpants and t-shirt. His belly strained against the elastic waistband of his sweatpants. They’d both just turned thirty-eight last month and were starting to fray around the edges.
“Hanging this picture up.” She stepped off the chair.
“Couldn’t it have waited until morning?” He stared at the picture, shook his head.
“I really needed to hang it up tonight.”
“That bull could’ve been a down payment on a house.” He climbed onto the chair, hammered the nail two inches left from where it had been. “There.” He stepped down, handed her the hammer. She gripped it by its claw, watched him open the coat closet, grab his camera from one of the shelves.
“I’ll be back in a little while.” She glanced at the clock. 2:00 AM. He always left at 2:00 AM.
“But it’s the middle of the night. How can you take pictures in the dark?”
“It’s this little invention called a flash.” He kissed her cheek. “Go back to bed.”
He made his way to the front door, shut it behind him. She was jolted by its soft “click,” surprised to suddenly find herself alone in the middle of the foyer. Her heart squeezed painfully in her chest as she thought of him rushing to meet another woman. She thought of him standing in front of her on their wedding day, looking her straight in the eye as he said his vows. An unwavering gaze. She always thought of that gaze when she attended other weddings, how the grooms eyes all seemed to flicker and jump all around the bride’s face, never quite landing.
She had been proud of her husband’s gaze, so steadfast, better than all the other gazes with their twitchy leaps and darts. The universe had seen her pride and judged her.
She made her way to the stairs, walked up them quickly, taking short, precise steps, wondered if they had a regular meeting spot. When she reached the top, she pivoted, went back down again. This is what she did when something was bothering her. She wanted her heart to pump out her anxiety. Up and down. Up and down. Marshall, when he was home for her spectacle, would shake his head and ask her if she wanted to talk about it. But she didn’t. And he really didn’t either. They had both learned to say and do the expected things.
When she couldn’t walk another step, she collapsed on the bed, breathing heavily as the cat came and sniffed her head. He was probably just making sure she wasn’t dead. They had found Diego living in their shed last winter. He’d gotten in through a loose board, but the board had fallen back into place, and he hadn’t been able to get back out. Marshall had heard him crying while shoveling snow.
She turned over and stared up at the stars on the ceiling. They glowed down at her with their greenish-yellow light. She imagined her atoms filling with their celestial energy so that she too was luminous and serene, floating inside herself like she was once again floating on her back in the ocean. Floating was the only time she felt beautiful, except for when Marshall was taking her picture. Long hair splayed out, sun beating down on her salty skin, lanky limbs resting on the lapping waves. Marshall used to watch her from shore, intermittently scanning the water for sharks as he filled buckets of wet sand for sandcastles. He used to make grand sandcastles when they went on vacation, huge three-story palaces with turrets and moats and drawbridges that always collapsed. It had been his goal to make the world’s largest sandcastle, until he found out the record was over fifty-seven feet. Then he gave up, because fifty-seven feet seemed insurmountable.
She wondered if he felt repairing their marriage was also insurmountable, if that was why he left at night. Her body felt heavy from the thought, burdened. She closed her eyes and wished for sleep, but sleep eluded her.
She got up and made her way to the bathroom for a glass of water, nearly stepping on Diego. She bent down to rub his ears, but he wasn’t there after all. It was the giraffe mask she’d stepped on. It stared up at her in the dark, flat and gaping like roadkill.
She picked it up, stared at its long face, spotted fur, tucked it under her arm to shove in the attic later, whenshe saw a flash of light out of the corner of her eye. She walked toward the bathroom window. Maybe it was heat lightening. She stared into the night until she saw it again: Marshall was crouched in the backyard snapping pictures.
Her heart leapt at the sight of him. She wondered if he had been there the whole time, wandering around their backyard in the dark like a prowler. Waves of relief flooded her. He had actually been taking pictures. She watched him lean in again and waited for the burst of his flash. It filled the darkness for a split second, bursting, bursting, bursting, so quickly, filling her up with hope, before going black again.
Her mind whispered that he could have been out with another woman, just gotten back. She pushed the thought aside, murmured reassuring words to herself. Her husband was a man of character, had loved her for twenty-two years, she had no proof he was cheating. She watched him take three more pictures before making her way downstairs.
He was still kneeling in the same spot when she crouched down next to him. He turned and smiled at her. She noticed the creases around his eyes had gotten deeper since the last time she’d been this close to his face.
“It’s a rosy maple moth. I found her out here one night months ago when I couldn’t sleep.”
She watched the wind gently flutter the moth’s wings. It was tiny, no bigger than her thumbnail, with bright, yellow wings tinged with fuchsia. She stared at them, reminded of her mother’s domed butterfly collection. Her mother had started collecting butterflies when she got diagnosed, as a reminder that death could be beautiful. But the tiny, vibrant rosy maple moth was so much more beautiful than any dead butterfly with bits of gobbed glue stuck to its wings.
“It’s beautiful. Really, really beautiful.” She leaned in, noticed the moth’s woolly body now that the wings were closed, which was yellow and fuzzy like a duckling. It’s legs, in contrast, were delicate and pink, like brightly colored eyelashes. She wanted to sit with Marshall and watch it all night. Marshall smiled again, took her picture with the moth. The flash covered her in its blinding, white glow, penetrated her insides like an X-Ray, made her skin tingle. She’d forgotten how it felt to be seen through his lens, a rare, exotic creature, part woman, part giraffe, kneeling beside a moth. She thought of what her mother would say, her daughter posing in her negligee next to a moth in the middle of the night. Then leaned her face into the moth so they were almost kissing, and posed again.
E.B. Taylor is a writer and graduate of The University of Pittsburgh’s English Literature program. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her husband, Lee, and menagerie of animals. Her work has appeared in The After Happy Hour Review and Tiny Molecules journals