★ ★ ★ ★
Photos by Tihana Romanic
‘The Other Woman’
A single curl tickled Maya’s nose, making her lips pout and her nose wrinkle. A second later, she blew the curl back to where it once rested. Maya made a decision to straighten them. Later. She closed her left eye and squinted at the midday sun splashing across her bedroom. Then, with a resolute move, she pulled the cover up over her sleepy body, exposing her left foot.
There was an unbearable stillness in her bedroom, wrapped up in a layer of summer heat and the distant noise of someone’s air-conditioning. Hardly any traffic was passing through the town.
At that very moment, an overweight young shop assistant leaned against the counter of a hardware store to read the local paper. Simultaneously, a lanky teenager with bored eyes walked out of the Public Library carrying three DVDs in his hand. (Today, he would watch them all.)
Oblivious to the outside world, a fly landed on Maya’s left foot and she felt a sudden itchiness, which definitely needed scratching. “My foot’s too big for a dancer,” whispered Maya, and yawned, wiping the sleep from her eyes. She curled her toes and stretched her larger-than-large left foot. Already, she’d done a mental check of her life, just as she did every morning before jumping out of her bed, straight into the shower, fooling herself there was somewhere to go, someplace to be, someone to see.
Maya was still neither here nor there when it came to adulthood, neither feeling at home nor being a stranger, in a small town on the Jersey coast, and not quite in New York, where she really wanted to be.
And off she jumped.
Two large feet, one larger than the other, landed on the wooden floor of her bedroom. As she looked down on her pink toenails, she suddenly felt a shift in the air. A thought rushed through her mind, so fast it did not feel like a thought at all. More like a feeling. Something—or someone—was coming.
* * * *
A fly landed on Maya’s father’s left toe and he rubbed his feet, one against the other, in a slow, lazy movement. Feeling the morning breeze, Peter decided to pretend he was still asleep. It took him a moment to remember whose body was next to his. He chose to believe it was the other woman’s. Lingering on this fantasy for a little longer, he defiantly remained with his back turned to the woman, who was shifting her weight from one hip to another in an evident attempt to be noticed.
Then, as his wife cleared her throat, the fantasy evaporated. He gave a little grunt in protest. The reality of his failed life landed on his consciousness with such velocity that he felt it like a dull punch on his chest.
“How did we end up in this mediocrity?” mumbled Peter, as if to himself, knowing his wife would hear him.
* * * *
It was pointless trying to name the day things had gone wrong. Things had actually never been right to start with. Eva could feel Peter’s despondency as he pretended to be asleep next to her, and was grateful for it. They were both doing exactly the same thing, with their backs turned.
Soon he would give up on this marital game and she could remain, finally, and enjoy the bed to herself. Those precious moments, when he went to work and she stayed in their marital bed, had become her highlight of their shared life.
Things had changed recently. He’d started working less, and she’d lost the opportunity to examine her body in his absence, masochistically, always fooling herself she’d harness these imperfections in the end. Now, with Peter pretending to sleep with his back to her, she was rendered immobile.
Though her face remained resistant to the wrinkles most of her peers already had, there were other signs. There was the skin around her wrists and that betraying triangle between her breasts, as well as a patch just below her earlobes. And then, there was the consistency of her breasts themselves.
The oncologist had explained the change in the density of her breast tissue with an exceptional ability to make her visualize her decaying femininity. Referring to it as “changes in the grandular structure of the breast”, the oncologist explained that it could result from normal hormonal fluctuations induced by the menstrual cycle (and, yes, admittedly, age-related hormonal changes, of course…)
While benign and not officially linked to breast cancer, the condition had a rather unpleasant aesthetic aspect. Once pleasant to the touch, even if they weren’t the largest of their kind, Eva’s breasts started feeling strange. As if there were several tiny marbles playing around inside. Marbles only she would play with these days. Because unlike those women that start developing fibrocystic breasts in their thirties, the marbles came to rescue her from her invisibility. Now, she had her regular trips to the clinic.
This train of thought suddenly came to a halt as she realized it was more than a year since he had last touched her breasts. That’s right, this was her second six-monthly check-up at the Breast Clinic. Anyway, it had been much longer than that since their physical contact was anything more than just emotionally detached intercourse.
It wasn’t about that, anyway. It was more about this stale feeling that encompassed their entire shared life. It reminded her of a thick layer of make-up, applied in order to hide the blotchiness of once pure and clean youthful skin. Their relationship was that infected skin, covered in impure patches and pimples. Pimples. She used to get them as a teenager and would remove them with disgust in a mechanical movement of her fingernails. Just like their lovemaking these days, she thought, when the question hit her.
“How did we end up in this mediocrity?”
Did she just hear her own thoughts spoken from somewhere outside? Her body jerked and she suddenly found herself standing outside the bed on her own two large feet.
“I should paint my toenails,” she heard her own voice declare.
* * * *
A young woman walked into the local hardware store to get away briefly from the sizzling heat. Small beads of perspiration were starting to form on her upper lip. The cool air inside the store made her shiver a bit. She started walking through the aisles, aimlessly at first, then suddenly changed her attitude. There, on the counter where a shop assistant was leaning with all his mighty heaviness, reading the paper. She was determined to see what was in the round glass jar on the counter, next to the man’s newspaper.
Honey. Local, homemade honey. Her eyes gleamed in a moment of satisfaction and her hand reached for one. The man watched her closely, as she counted coins she had no understanding of. American dollars made sense only in their green paper shape—these dimes were utterly unfamiliar—and she finally gave up and asked the man for help. He kept his thoughts to himself as he helped her pick the right amount, and then watched her walk away with such an intoxicating self-satisfaction in her step that it made him gasp.
As for her, suddenly an aimless walk around this small American town made perfect sense. The absurdity of buying a jar of honey from a hardware store! The day could not have started better.
* * * *
Maya showered quickly, letting the cold water awaken her senses and boot away the thoughts of her large non-dancer feet. She wrapped her towel around her body and made her way from the bathroom to her bedroom, before letting the towel slip silently to the floor. What was the perfect outfit for Monday? As soon as she had decided, she changed her mind, putting different garments on only to take them off just as quickly. Finally, when she had reached the desired effect, she pulled her hair in a high bun, and decided to face the kitchen. She paused for a moment to listen for sounds coming from the rest of the house. There were none. Comforted by this fact, hoping that a soundless house meant an empty house, she opened the door and walked the short distance between her room and the kitchen. There was a lingering smell of coffee and tea, one that indicated that her father and his second wife had been here. Everyone was gone. She could have her breakfast alone and slip out of the house unnoticed. Chewing on some home-made granola, Maya realised she knew exactly how to spend this day. She would go down to the hardware store, tease Mike about his honey jars, and then walk around the town until she could stand the heat no more. At that very moment, she suddenly felt one of her curls slip out of the bun and tickle her left ear. Again, she had a strong feeling of someone, or something, coming.
* * * *
The young woman who only knew American green paper bills was tightly holding a jar, a jar of honey that she had paid for in dimes, homemade honey that a hardware store assistant had sold to her, after he’d picked the right amount of dimes from her heap of coins.
Underneath that jar, and underneath her skin, she was holding something else much tighter. A secret, tightly cushioned, under her skin. A secret, screaming to come out. She looked at the door of the house she was standing in front of, and with an absolute determination to keep on smiling, she finally rang the doorbell. She shifted her weight from one hip to another in a slightly uncomfortable movement of anticipation, and let her heart skip a beat. Someone’s footsteps came all the way to the door before it opened to reveal the two large feet and the small nose of a never-to-be-dancer, who looked at her with a question mark in her eyes.
* * * *
‘Was that his daughter?’ thought the young woman.
‘Was that Father’s lover?’ thought the never-to-be-dancer.
Telepathically, these two thoughts bounced off each other as these two women continued smiling and staring at each other.
Perhaps somewhere deep down, they each realized, one was never meant to be a stepmother, just like the other one was never meant to be a dancer. The young woman cleared her throat and said, “I’m afraid I’ve got the wrong house.”
Then she turned around on the tips of her toes and walked away. Tightly holding a jar of honey under her arm, releasing her secret from under her heart.
After deferring to the point of no return her PhD on an obscure Czech philosopher whom she still finds fascinating Tihana Romanic moved from London to Berlin in 2007 where she plans to live happily ever after. When she is not teaching she cannot be found anywhere because she is either training for a marathon, writing, or taking photographs.
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