Delicately Feeling

The following is from Amina Cain’s short story collection Creature, forthcoming Nov. 1 from Dorothy, A Publishing Project.

If the air is cold enough I feel something. It might only be on my arm or my hand, but it is there. All last year I wore a brooch pinned to my coat. I was conscious of it. When I walked down the street, I was lifted by the brooch. I was still walking on the ground, but some part of me was floating up, a small part of me.

These days it’s colder and colder and I feel more. My skin is warm where my clothes touch me, and I sit in front of a heater like it’s a fire. I bought a silk robe and it is the most beautiful thing I own. It’s silver with faintly colorful flowers.

In the mornings my students lumber through the snow, trailing their bright mittens and hats, dropping them on the ground. I can see them coming a long way off, these different parts of them. In class I am bored and I talk and talk until my voice is its own separate thing. I don’t know what children like. I have to watch cartoons or movies if I want to understand anything about them.

Last Saturday I saw a play about a war. Next to me sat a man and a woman. I had the feeling they wanted me to share the experience of the play with them. The woman’s hair was braided and looped around her head. She looked expectantly at the stage, and sometimes at me. “Do you like this play?” she whispered. I whispered that though it was violent, I felt some affinity to it.

During intermission I went to the bathroom to reapply my lipstick and then I drank champagne in the lobby. The room was warm with people and I felt connected to them. I looked in their eyes and they looked back at me, sometimes for a long time.

Then the lights flickered, calling us back to the theater. Drunk from the sensations, I found my seat. This time the man was seated closest to me and he nodded at me as I sat down and he tried to hold my gaze. I nodded back, but didn’t look at him for long because the play was starting and I didn’t want to miss anything.

Now I felt an affinity so dearly to the actors that everything inside me was heartbreakingly connected. My experience of the moment heightened, but outside I remained calm.

Toward the end of the play the stage became chaotic, like fat horses were galloping over it. Men knocked each other down and struck each other in the faces and heads. Several women stood on the sidelines, screaming. I found myself getting angry at the screaming. “This is a play!” I yelled as loudly as I could. It was already so loud it didn’t matter that I had yelled it. Then, when everyone was dead, including the women, the play was over. “Fuck you,” I said, weakly. Everyone clapped. I started clapping too.

“Are you okay?” the man next to me asked.

“Yes.”

“What’s your name?” He asked me this question with more curiosity than I was expecting.

“Josephine.”

“What a beautiful name. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Josephine.”

I put on my coat and gathered my things. The belt to my coat was tied very tightly around my waist.

“Yes, a pleasure,” the woman said.

“You too.” I kept tightening my belt. I didn’t know if I should stay or leave, but finally made my way toward the doors. I turned around and the two of them were holding hands, watching me.

At the edge of a field, carrots grow in the dark soil. Green leaves mark them. A small animal moves in and out among the vegetables, eating. In my kitchen I prepare rice. I soak black beans. This is when we are most vulnerable; when we eat, when we prepare to.

When I was a child, I was nothing like my students. I wanted to see neon lights clustered near an ocean. In Shanghai, this came true. I walked along the Bundt and the air was like a thousand ovens. Late at night I lay in a bed “feeling the room.” I must have been looking for something when I walked back and forth next to the water. Though there are many ways in which I am the same now as I was then, I don’t understand who I was as a child either.

In class, I ask the children to put on a play. Because they like the theater they are excited by this idea. One little girl is a trash truck. I tell her it would be better to play a person. She says she’ll be a hobo. The children make fake snow out of cotton balls glued onto posterboard. They have so much fun building the set they are angry when they have to perform.

When they do perform, I get bored. There are seven of them “on stage” and two of them are reciting their Christmas lists. I pay attention as long as I can and then I stare at the blackboard and then at the clock.

“Are you watching!” the children shriek.

The bell rings and they drop everything, scattering into the hallway. Out in the street I cry because I know I am a bad teacher, but there is nothing else for me to do with my life. A huge pink doll sits in the window of a toy store in the middle of a miniature village, a train circling around her. I hate this scene.

I think about the couple. At night, when I read in my bed, or in the old armchair next to the window, it doesn’t take long before the book is resting in my lap, closed, and I am aware of nothing but the inside of my mind. There the couple looks at me and I look at them.

When I pull carrots out of the soil, or snip chard from its pink stems, I imagine what their house must be like. I am sure there are drawings hanging on the walls and that a strong female dog guards them and keeps them safe. A dog they walk and let onto the couch on chilly evenings. If I want this kind of night it is mine.

When the weekend comes I go back to the theater. There, surrounded by other theatergoers, is my couple, just as I had imagined they would be. The woman gets up to meet me. She is wearing a dress made of a soft material. I let myself fall into her.

“Your skin is cold,” she says.

“Too cold?”

“No.”

The man takes my hand and holds it against his cheek. “I’m just going to come right out and ask. Are you married?”

“Not at all.”

“That’s terrific.”

“Sit down,” the woman says, motioning to the chair between them.

On stage is a man in a kitchen, putting groceries away. I sit there feeling the stage, feeling the whole theater. I can feel its history.

Because it is much quieter than the play before it we in the audience can hear each other breathe. The actor breathes too. He and I look at each other. Then he looks at the man next to me. The theater has turned into a living room.

“This is the front hallway. This is the bathroom. This is the bedroom.” I say these things in a fragile voice.

The couple lingers at the door of my bedroom. “Would you like to go in?” I ask.

“Yes,” the man answers.

They asked if they could visit me and now they are here. I freeze in front of my bed, a statue in my own rooms.

“We don’t mean to frighten you,” the woman says.

“I’m often frightened.”

“Why?” the man asks.

“Life is frightening.” I sigh. “But it is also tender.”

“It is,” the woman says. “And sometimes it becomes new.”

“Should I change into something more comfortable?” I ask.

“Oh, yes,” she says.

I take off my clothes, enjoying the feeling of being naked in front of the couple. I think they are finally scared. I pull the robe around me, closing it with its silk belt. Now nobody knows what to do. I kiss the woman and then I kiss the man. Then we stand there, terrified.

At school, I try to be present for my students. We make turkeys out of paper plates and construction paper, and after the children have drawn all over them in colors like pink and light green that are nothing like the colors of turkeys, they take off around the room, running with their new birds, sometimes slipping on them.

“Be careful, be careful,” I yell.

On my walks I whisper to myself, “This couple, this couple, this couple.”

“You’re different than the others,” the woman tells me.

“I’m different from myself,” I say cheerfully, patting her hands with mine. The man is lying in my bed, waiting for me.

“Can I give you something?” she asks.

“I don’t deserve anything.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

She takes out a black velvet jewelry box. Inside the box is a delicate gold bracelet made for someone with much finer wrists than mine, someone with noble blood.

“It’s pretty.”

“Will you wear it?”

She puts the bracelet around my wrist and it shines in the lamplight. The gold is both yellow and white.

“But what does it mean? Are you asking me to be in a relationship with you?”

The man comes out of the bedroom and stands in the hallway.

“Yes, we would like to stay with you forever.”

I’m very warm now, especially around my wrist. I don’t think I’ve ever been this warm before.

I wear the bracelet every day. I sleep with it, and I leave it on my wrist when I am taking a bath. I have told the couple that forever is a long time, and they don’t seem to mind my lack of commitment.

“I am so much in the present,” the woman says, “that it doesn’t bother me to let go of the future.”

“The future,” I repeat dreamily. “I guess I wouldn’t mind if it were an extension of this. It’s just that I never imagined I would be in a long-term relationship with a married couple.”

“We never thought of it either,” the man says. He’s wearing a wintery sweater. Everything is wintery now.

When I go to the grocery store I see the bracelet when I reach for things on the shelves. I see my whole arm. Even the children are drawn to its delicate nature, and one of them stares at it when he is supposed to be taking a spelling test. After the test is over the students go home and I stay behind to catch up on my grading. It is dark outside by the time I finish. The turkeys are stapled to a long bulletin board. When the heater kicks on I can hear the air come through the vents.

The school is over 100 years old. Time moves and the building stays still. The first students who went to this school are dead. I look at the turkeys and feel tender toward the children. The children like making things. They like the holidays.

At home, late, the woman calls.

“I just wanted to say good night.”

“Are you going to sleep now?”

“Yes, I’m lying in bed. I’m thinking about you.”

“I’m in my robe,” I say. “I’m thinking about you too. Both of you.”

“It’s never just the two of us anymore,” she says. “Whenever we’re together

you’re here also.”

I feel it, that I am there in that house; but I am here in this house too.

It’s as if the couple has softened into one creature—what I am drawn to is singular. I move toward a relationship, not two. It’s not the woman I crave, or the man.

But, still, it’s three bodies in a bed.

“Is this your life, Josephine?” I ask myself. “Are you here or are you there?”

But here or there is a tapestry of happiness and pain and joy and terror, so it doesn’t really matter, a tapestry so large and colorful you can’t see it all at once. It’s hard to take in the number of lives imprinted upon it. If you get close you see one life and something of another, touching it.

The next time I go to the couple’s house only the man is home, but as the woman has already proclaimed to me, she is present too, everywhere, even on the very tip of the man’s shirtsleeve.

“Yes, yes,” he agrees, “Gabby is with us.”

In their dark bed I’m not even sure it’s the man’s body I’m touching or that is touching me, and when she comes home, hours later, her body doesn’t feel so very different from his.

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