POTEMKIN GIRL • by Isabella David McCaffrey

She tells him she’s going to learn Arabic today. She reclines on the couch like an odalisque in sweats, the slim red book clasped artfully in her white hands, her black, silky curls tumbling around her bare shoulders where she’s cut the neck of her gray college sweatshirt away. He wants to kiss one bare shoulder as smooth and gleaming as marble, but he knows it’ll annoy her. She looks sleepy, sulky enough as she always does whenever she takes up that pose on the couch, whatever the time of day.

There’s a gas fire going in the faux-fireplace. Outside it’s faux-winter. He’s from the Deep North as compared to the Deep South. This moist, gray weather is therefore faux-winter to him, used to as he is the white-out, gelid months of ice and storm.

He sees her shiver as if she can read his thoughts. As in the old days, once she could.

“Are you cold?” he asks her solicitously.

He’s always solicitous. Rachel’s so much softer, weaker than he, after all.

She looks up from her book, responding irritably as he knew she would.

“Oh no, no. I thought you had class?”

One long, pale finger lies on the page like a white bookmark, one inky eyebrow lifts quickly—a quirk she’s practiced, he knows, copied from a Sex and the City actress, her blue eyes a flat green, squinty with tiredness as if she’s watched another television marathon, as if she couldn’t sleep again, roaming around, waking him, too.

Last night, though, it was genuinely cold. The house was once a shed built by the town’s tombstone maker in 1875, and it can’t withstand genuine cold fronts. It’s a plain brick domicile, which the current owners have somehow renovated into a charming modern cottage, very cool in the summer but useless against the cold. A cold which comes nearly never, though. It’s oddly narrow, a Potemkin village house almost with its tall, spindly windows, its two sets of flimsy double doors for carrying coffins in and out no doubt. Incorporated here and there, are steles gardeners unearthed in the backyard.

“Steles are another word for tombstone,” the owners explained, as if that excused the inclusion of the smooth gray rocks into the bar that divides the open living space.

In theory, it makes for a beautiful design. Then Rachel noticed one day that her own initials would be on the bar if she and Michael married. Tracing the letters with one hand white as bone, she’d confessed that the letters gave her ideas, fantasies of her own death, that she’d been thinking about doing it again, only sometimes at night when he worked very, very late in the law library.

He’d brought her to such a sleepy town, she said, not accusingly or bitterly but sadly. There were no jobs, no graduate schools other than his law school. Across the street from them is a cemetery where a famous civil war general is interred. All day sometimes she’ll watch flocks of tourists gather in their bright, polyester shirts and loose Bermuda shorts, expensive cameras slung around their necks.

“They’re more ghosts than the ghosts,” she said once oh so archly like that Sex and the City actress; he’s forgotten which one is which. That used to make her laugh at him.

“Ghosts?” he only said then.

“Don’t you feel it? This place is lousy with them.”

He couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not. He didn’t tell her, of course not, and she didn’t read his thoughts any longer as in the old days, but sometimes he imagined running his fingers through those soft, black, silky curls until he could feel the fine marble shape of her skull and then just crushing, crushing down.

Does he want to kill her? Hurt her? No, oh no! Possess her simply; that’s all. She’s like water running through his fingers.

He curls his hand into a fist now as if to contain the elusive image of her once and for all. Standing behind her, she can’t see him, doesn’t care to look. What are his thoughts to her now? Nothing. Resolutely, she’s bent her head over her book again, dismissing him. The hair parts; the nape of her smooth neck with the faint, coarse black hairs forming a v half-way down the back reveals itself, her animal self, he thinks with a shudder.

“I have to tell you something,” she says, still looking at her book.

The neck’s so thin to support the weight of the head. Where did Michael read about that? That the head is like a bowling ball supported by a pencil. The neck is so slender with the wild, black, curly head above it. But what’s she saying? She’s shut the slim red book over one finger again. Another complaint? He feels so tired suddenly. Resentful. It would be nice to curl up on the couch by the gas fire with a book, a cup of tea.

What does she have to complain about? She still won’t look at him. He just wants her to look at him, dammit. Why doesn’t he speak then, command her? Why can’t he be a man with her? She’d like that. He knows it, but… he’s fascinated by the white flame of her neck, hypnotized by its fragile beauty. The itch in his fingers, curled up in a fist.

“Fine.” She’s annoyed by his silence, he thinks. He begins to speak, but she doesn’t see him open his mouth, take another step closer.

That’s why I’m in love with someone else,” she snaps.

And then so does he.


Isabella David McCaffrey is a writer, poet, and mother to a menagerie in the New York area. Her stories have also appeared here under her maiden (and nick) name: Izzy David. For more on other stories, poems, and essays, please see www.IsabellaDavid.com.


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 average 3.5 stars • 2 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    A bit overwritten and devoid of action for my tastes.

    • isabelladavid
      Hi Paul! I appreciate the feedback, and you made me think of something. I started reading Edith Wharton's "The Art of Fiction" this morning, and almost the first paragraph states the exact opposite of your comment, which I thought was interesting and hope you don't mind me sharing: "Modern fiction really began when the 'action' of the novel was transferred from the street to the soul; and this step was probably first taken when Madame de La Fayette, in the seventeenth century, wrote a little story called "La Princess de Clèves," a story of hopeless love and mute renunciation in which the stately tenor of the lives depicted is hardly ruffled by the exultations and agonies succeeding each other below the surface." Actually, I think I will take a bit from both your ideas and split the difference. I tend to write a lot of poetry, so I try to be conscientious about plot. I like a good story, too! I'm only half-French, only so much "hardly ruffled" emotional talk I can take myself :). Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking about how to strike a better balance between the two!
  • Paul A. Freeman

    A bit overwritten and devoid of action for my taste.

    • isabelladavid
      Hi Paul! I appreciate the feedback, and you made me think of something. I started reading Edith Wharton's "The Art of Fiction" this morning, and almost the first paragraph states the exact opposite of your comment, which I thought was interesting and hope you don't mind me sharing: "Modern fiction really began when the 'action' of the novel was transferred from the street to the soul; and this step was probably first taken when Madame de La Fayette, in the seventeenth century, wrote a little story called "La Princess de Clèves," a story of hopeless love and mute renunciation in which the stately tenor of the lives depicted is hardly ruffled by the exultations and agonies succeeding each other below the surface." Actually, I think I will take a bit from both your ideas and split the difference. I tend to write a lot of poetry, so I try to be conscientious about plot. I like a good story, too! I'm only half-French, only so much "hardly ruffled" emotional talk I can take myself :). Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking about how to strike a better balance between the two!
  • Astrid

    Ooo big words.

    • isabelladavid
      Ooo burn :). I learned French and English at the same time, so I can sometimes use some peculiar terms, I admit. I do appreciate your point, though! I've been writing for a lot of literary reviews, and it's almost like you have to insert big words here and there in order to get taken seriously, which is pompous nonsense and one reason I love the stories here on EDF-- it's all about the art of storytelling and getting that direct feedback from your audience, which is especially nice for me as I can't ever go do that with real live people these days! I agree with you (if that was the point you were making) that really good writing and really good storytelling explain complex things in as simple terms as possible, though. I will keep your comment in mind next time I'm trying to tell a good story! Thanks, Astrid, for commenting!
  • Astrid

    Ooo big words.

    • isabelladavid
      Ooo burn :). I learned French and English at the same time, so I can sometimes use some peculiar terms, I admit. I do appreciate your point, though! I've been writing for a lot of literary reviews, and it's almost like you have to insert big words here and there in order to get taken seriously, which is pompous nonsense and one reason I love the stories here on EDF-- it's all about the art of storytelling and getting that direct feedback from your audience, which is especially nice for me as I can't ever go do that with real live people these days! I agree with you (if that was the point you were making) that really good writing and really good storytelling explain complex things in as simple terms as possible, though. I will keep your comment in mind next time I'm trying to tell a good story! Thanks, Astrid, for commenting!
  • Samantha Memi

    Oh my God, that ending made me shiver. All week I’ve been tired, unshivery, and at last a story to wake me up. It so gracefully builds a faux cold edifice for the reader to live in and get to know the characters as they slowly strangle each other.
    I love the nuances; his wanting to kiss her shoulder but knowing it will annoy her, which says so much of their relationship – where a kiss brings irritation and unease. And the imagery of the cemetery and the tombstones and the coffins: forewarning perhaps – we will never know, because the ambiguity of unknowing and pretence is essential to the tale.
    I love stories where I learn something, and with this I learned what a Potemkin village is, which of course throws necessary illumination on the title.
    This is a story for me to savour again and again. Thank you Ms McCaffrey; I will send a barrel of fruit for your menagerie.

    • isabelladavid
      Thanks, Samantha! That's exactly what I was trying to convey. I'm so glad to hear it worked for you. And as for fruit, that's about all the baby wants to eat these days (not that that is stopping me from rapidly expanding in size). Well, fruit and chocolate. (Of course.) How'd you guess?
  • Samantha Memi

    Oh my God, that ending made me shiver. All week I’ve been tired, unshivery, and at last a story to wake me up. It so gracefully builds a faux cold edifice for the reader to live in and get to know the characters as they slowly strangle each other.
    I love the nuances; his wanting to kiss her shoulder but knowing it will annoy her, which says so much of their relationship – where a kiss brings irritation and unease. And the imagery of the cemetery and the tombstones and the coffins: forewarning perhaps – we will never know, because the ambiguity of unknowing and pretence is essential to the tale.
    I love stories where I learn something, and with this I learned what a Potemkin village is, which of course throws necessary illumination on the title.
    This is a story for me to savour again and again. Thank you Ms McCaffrey; I will send a barrel of fruit for your menagerie.

    • isabelladavid
      Thanks, Samantha! That's exactly what I was trying to convey. I'm so glad to hear it worked for you. And as for fruit, that's about all the baby wants to eat these days (not that that is stopping me from rapidly expanding in size). Well, fruit and chocolate. (Of course.) How'd you guess?
  • Erin Ryan

    The way this is written, I could not tell if “he” is “Michael,” or if “Michael” refers to a third person who is not in the story.

    Also: “Standing behind her, she can’t see him, doesn’t care to look” – a dangling participle, unless she is some kind of supernatural being who can stand behind herself … which, for some time reading this, I thought she might turn out to be.

    So basically I spent most of this story confused about what was going on and who was doing what.

    • isabelladavid
      That's an interesting point about "he", Erin. There were only two characters, so it didn't occur to me that there could be confusion, but I will take another look at that. Maybe if I had said his name earlier confusion could have been avoided? And are you sure that's a dangling participle? Does it perhaps suit the style of this piece? Not that you can bend grammar rules that way, but sometimes style can convey meaning. Obviously, it didn't in your case, so I will double-check with an editor friend. Thanks for pointing that out and commenting!
      • MPmcgurty
        If it's not technically a dp because of the style, it's as close to one as can be without being one. I am on the side of breaking grammar rules if the voice demands it, but in this case I agree with Erin. It sounds like "she" is standing behind "her".
      • Erin Ryan
        Thanks Isabella. I don't mean to be harsh. I am an editor ... so just trying to be helpful. I think saying his name earlier would help, yes. I can see what you meant to do poetically, but grammatically, "Standing behind her" modifies "she," while it's meant to modify "he." Good job on evoking a mood here (and on the publication)!
        • isabelladavid
          Hi Erin, I didn't think you were harsh at all! I appreciate learning anything I can. I went to a giant university and, because I tested out of Freshman comp, was lost in the mix. With that and juggling multiple languages, I had to learn the niceties of grammar later. This site has been great for that, and I'm just catching up on my classics now, too-- English and American ones, I mean. I'm eager to become as proficient in English as possible. Anyway, thank you for the heads up and the lesson. I will be more aware of this sort of pitfall in the future. All the best, Izzy
  • Erin Ryan

    The way this is written, I could not tell if “he” is “Michael,” or if “Michael” refers to a third person who is not in the story.

    Also: “Standing behind her, she can’t see him, doesn’t care to look” – a dangling participle, unless she is some kind of supernatural being who can stand behind herself … which, for some time reading this, I thought she might turn out to be.

    So basically I spent most of this story confused about what was going on and who was doing what.

    • isabelladavid
      That's an interesting point about "he", Erin. There were only two characters, so it didn't occur to me that there could be confusion, but I will take another look at that. Maybe if I had said his name earlier confusion could have been avoided? And are you sure that's a dangling participle? Does it perhaps suit the style of this piece? Not that you can bend grammar rules that way, but sometimes style can convey meaning. Obviously, it didn't in your case, so I will double-check with an editor friend. Thanks for pointing that out and commenting!
      • MPmcgurty
        If it's not technically a dp because of the style, it's as close to one as can be without being one. I am on the side of breaking grammar rules if the voice demands it, but in this case I agree with Erin. It sounds like "she" is standing behind "her".
      • Erin Ryan
        Thanks Isabella. I don't mean to be harsh. I am an editor ... so just trying to be helpful. I think saying his name earlier would help, yes. I can see what you meant to do poetically, but grammatically, "Standing behind her" modifies "she," while it's meant to modify "he." Good job on evoking a mood here (and on the publication)!
        • isabelladavid
          Hi Erin, I didn't think you were harsh at all! I appreciate learning anything I can. I went to a giant university and, because I tested out of Freshman comp, was lost in the mix. With that and juggling multiple languages, I had to learn the niceties of grammar later. This site has been great for that, and I'm just catching up on my classics now, too-- English and American ones, I mean. I'm eager to become as proficient in English as possible. Anyway, thank you for the heads up and the lesson. I will be more aware of this sort of pitfall in the future. All the best, Izzy
  • ryan

    I love it! The whole story had a hue of malice, and reminded me of one of those great horror stories where you pull the covers up over you a little tighter while you read late at night.

    • isabelladavid
      Thanks, Ryan! That's exactly what I was experimenting with here. I don't usually write thrillers, so this was new ground for me. I'm glad/ sorry it scared you :).
  • ryan

    I love it! The whole story had a hue of malice, and reminded me of one of those great horror stories where you pull the covers up over you a little tighter while you read late at night.

    • isabelladavid
      Thanks, Ryan! That's exactly what I was experimenting with here. I don't usually write thrillers, so this was new ground for me. I'm glad/ sorry it scared you :).
  • The closing line is clever. I also liked “She reclines on the couch like an odalisque in sweats,”

    • isabelladavid
      Thanks for commenting, Derek!
  • The closing line is clever. I also liked “She reclines on the couch like an odalisque in sweats,”

    • isabelladavid
      Thanks for commenting, Derek!
  • Description is fine, but when you only have so many words to tell a story, too much description can kill it. And that’s what happened to this story for me. I don’t think flash is a good medium for the writing style used in this story.

    Honestly, the only line I liked was the very last one. But even that was a little flat because the story is written in present tense (another style I just can’t get into).

    I’m sorry I don’t have much good to say about the story. It just didn’t work for me at all. Thanks for sharing.

    • isabelladavid
      That's an interesting point, Scott. I first started this story as an experiment in writing a thriller, so perhaps that's what you're sensing-- the initial intention was for a longer piece, I mean. Then, I killed her off so quickly that was that :). I sure enjoyed the surprise of that last line myself. Glad you felt the same way!
      • Yes, it definitely feels like it's a part of a much longer story. I love vivid description, and I use a lot of it myself when I'm writing something intended to be longer than flash.
  • Description is fine, but when you only have so many words to tell a story, too much description can kill it. And that’s what happened to this story for me. I don’t think flash is a good medium for the writing style used in this story.

    Honestly, the only line I liked was the very last one. But even that was a little flat because the story is written in present tense (another style I just can’t get into).

    I’m sorry I don’t have much good to say about the story. It just didn’t work for me at all. Thanks for sharing.

    • isabelladavid
      That's an interesting point, Scott. I first started this story as an experiment in writing a thriller, so perhaps that's what you're sensing-- the initial intention was for a longer piece, I mean. Then, I killed her off so quickly that was that :). I sure enjoyed the surprise of that last line myself. Glad you felt the same way!
      • Yes, it definitely feels like it's a part of a much longer story. I love vivid description, and I use a lot of it myself when I'm writing something intended to be longer than flash.
  • Some beautiful writing here, Isabella. Absolutely wonderful. My only quibble: too many adverbs. They tend to telegraph emotion to the reader instead of letting the dialogue and action do that job, which I think your prose does quite well. Of course that’s just me…lots of people are fine with them.

    Love to see more of your work.

    • isabelladavid
      Thanks, Christopher! I'm going to reread the story with that in mind now. I appreciate your comment very much!
      • isabelladavid
        Ah, yes! I see what you mean. Especially towards the beginning. I liked the repetition (and kind of sliminess of "solicitous" for example to try to establish he's a creep early on), but I don't really need it twice.
  • Some beautiful writing here, Isabella. Absolutely wonderful. My only quibble: too many adverbs. They tend to telegraph emotion to the reader instead of letting the dialogue and action do that job, which I think your prose does quite well. Of course that’s just me…lots of people are fine with them.

    Love to see more of your work.

    • isabelladavid
      Thanks, Christopher! I'm going to reread the story with that in mind now. I appreciate your comment very much!
      • isabelladavid
        Ah, yes! I see what you mean. Especially towards the beginning. I liked the repetition (and kind of sliminess of "solicitous" for example to try to establish he's a creep early on), but I don't really need it twice.
  • MPmcgurty

    I have mixed feelings about this piece. I don’t think it rises to the level of a couple of other stories, found in the archives, from this author, but it does have some lovely language (“…sometimes he imagined running his fingers through those soft, black, silky curls until he could feel the fine marble shape of her skull and then just crushing, crushing down.”). Then it has some rocky moments (“As in the old days, once she could.” “Standing behind her, she can’t see him…”) On the whole, it seemed a little too precious, and I think perhaps the style delayed the suspense. It wasn’t until very late in the story that we’re let in on the fact that he’s considering killing her.

    • isabelladavid
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, MP. I generally write literary sort of pieces, and this was an experiment in writing a thriller-style story for me. Perhaps I didn't quite marry the two styles. It spurs me to try harder next time :).
  • MPmcgurty

    I have mixed feelings about this piece. I don’t think it rises to the level of a couple of other stories, found in the archives, from this author, but it does have some lovely language (“…sometimes he imagined running his fingers through those soft, black, silky curls until he could feel the fine marble shape of her skull and then just crushing, crushing down.”). Then it has some rocky moments (“As in the old days, once she could.” “Standing behind her, she can’t see him…”) On the whole, it seemed a little too precious, and I think perhaps the style delayed the suspense. It wasn’t until very late in the story that we’re let in on the fact that he’s considering killing her.

    • isabelladavid
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, MP. I generally write literary sort of pieces, and this was an experiment in writing a thriller-style story for me. Perhaps I didn't quite marry the two styles. It spurs me to try harder next time :).
  • S Conroy

    This certainly worked for me. Her fakeness, coldness, the distance between them, his subliminal violence, the coffin house they lived in. Ugh. I felt we were in the head of someone very slowly, but surely losing touch with a stable, sane persona.

    • isabelladavid
      Yes! That was exactly the effect I was going for. Thanks so much for your comment. That meant a great deal to me.
  • S Conroy

    This certainly worked for me. Her fakeness, coldness, the distance between them, his subliminal violence, the coffin house they lived in. Ugh. I felt we were in the head of someone very slowly, but surely losing touch with a stable, sane persona.

    • isabelladavid
      Yes! That was exactly the effect I was going for. Thanks so much for your comment. That meant a great deal to me.
  • The last two lines together are an excellent (if evil) image.
    Moral of the story might be … never end a relationship with your back turned (and exposed).

  • The last two lines together are an excellent (if evil) image.
    Moral of the story might be … never end a relationship with your back turned (and exposed).

  • Junior Ess

    I enjoy reading present tense stories. This one was interesting, especially the ending. Kudos to you, Isabella.

  • Junior Ess

    I enjoy reading present tense stories. This one was interesting, especially the ending. Kudos to you, Isabella.

  • Katherine Lopez

    Yes, good story, well written. I could tell you were a poet.

  • Katherine Lopez

    Okay, reading the comments, it seems that some of the posters don’t care for the way this line was written:

    “Standing behind her, she can’t see him, doesn’t care to look.”

    I don’t see a problem. We are deep inside his POV, his thoughts, his projections. This is obviously deliberate done by the writer as part of the effort to draw the reader further in, deep into his perception.

  • Love the last two lines. Normally I skim over the verbal qualifiers, but to make one lead into the next line–and the last line!–nice touch. A little author-intrusion, perhaps, so maybe the story could’ve been in first-person, but memorable nonetheless.

    Distant, static storytelling = distant, static relationship.

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