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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