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  • 50. Belinda

    By Amity Gaige

    Amity Gaige, author of the luminous novels O My Darling and The Folded World, is one of my favorite young writers. She allows us so far into the yearning hearts of her characters that it is a wonder when—as she does in this quietly captivating story—they manage to surprise us still. The twin moments at the end of the story bring us to places of release and bittersweet solace, wholly earned by character
    and author alike.


    In other news: Some have asked, will we carry on past fifty-two? The answer: yes, yes, happily yes. The clock will restart in January, with new fiction and new features. Watch this space.

    For John Updike

    He was sweet, her first husband. Karin met him fresh out of college, at an office party. He was a friend of the boss; she wore an intriguing vintage dress. Looking back years later, the spree of youthful follies seemed almost blameless.

    Her first husband was from a moneyed New England family. When Karin first met her in-laws-to-be, it was all she could do to keep up with their jokes and apocryphal stories. She kept looking face to face for clues. The family seemed to have stepped as a cast right out of the same bawdy play: there was the boozy, likeable mother, walking around with her apron and her smudged glass of Tempranillo, the red-faced father whose life was marked by acts of accidental heroism, as when he saved a woman by walking into a building he did not know was afire, and finally the boisterous sister, who came home to stay after her second divorce, and who liked to amuse them all with nihilistic half-truths.

    Sometimes, until you laugh, you do not know how buttoned-down you’ve been all your life, how reverent, your sense of pleasure asleep like a leg. Around her in-laws, Karin felt veils lift. She felt oppressive laws of the spirit repealed. She felt consequences inconsequenced. In her in-laws’ presence, her suspicions about who she might be at her best were confirmed. Yes, she thought, this is where I was always heading. And whenever it got a little windy—for sometimes, it did get a little windy, the mother too drunk, the sister too black—her husband was there to guide her through it, through whatever it meant to join a family that was not originally your own.


    He was a sensualist, her first husband. He lacked desperations. He had small, comprehending eyes, a pat of soft pale hair through which he would stare at her roguishly. A kernel-sized birthmark sat below his eye like an ironic tear. When he was around his family, her husband was quieter than usual, playing the straight man, an act that belied the tenderness he felt for them. Sitting close together on the ottoman, he would whisper into the softness of Karin’s neck, I know, I’m sorry. They’re crazy.

    What? his mother would crow, wiping the ash from her apron. What are you saying over there?

    I said you’re crazy! cried her husband, laughing.

    Despite the fact that she did not see her in-laws more than a half a dozen times a year, Karin thought of them often. They occupied a disproportionate space in her mind. She sent her mother-in-law postcards with irreverent photographs. She thought long and hard about a gift that would amuse the sister, or flatter the father. When shopping for her own clothes, she unconsciously chose things her in-laws might compliment. For their own home, she bought Alsace stemware, a nativity calendar, and various other artifacts she had studied in her in-laws’ household. The first two lovely years of marriage passed. She and her young husband walked the snowbound streets of their bohemian neighborhood, lying long hours in bed, her torso his fingerboard—the future, chatter.

    Karin was not entirely sure how her in-laws had made their money. She had inquired about it before the marriage but never received a conclusive answer. They had for generations owned a foundry, which produced iron doorstoppers. How iron doorstoppers paid for their large, slate-roofed home remained unclear. Their politics were also obscure to her. Her in-laws spoke of politics often, and heatedly, yet at the end of such debates, Karin remained unsure of what was being put forth. As a group, they seemed to change positions based on some unseen rhetorical surge, like a school of fish. Finally, she decided that the rule was as follows: Whoever put it best was right. The truth ate its lonely snacks in the kitchen, and nobody missed it. After a while, Karin herself did not miss it. In fact, very shortly, she stopped having the sort of anthropological insights she’d had when she first met her in-laws. She was a member of the family.


    Then, in her third year of marriage, she began to wonder about their influence on her. Her doubt was a slow leak. For after years of admiring their sangfroid, she had of late seen unpleasant echoes in her own behavior. She began to catch herself in contorted poses of self-justification, persuading herself that it was perfectly all right to disavow this or that sin—a lack of charity, or a forgetting of a loved one’s misery—due to the beautiful fug of mirth that was the present. She noticed that she had taken to making friends purely on their capacity to amuse her, spending small sums of money to host elaborate dinners parties that, afterward, left her strangely bereft. The same sangfroid that suited her husband’s family was perverting her own sincerity. At first she was only disappointed with herself—she was unfun. But soon, the disappointment spread. One rainy Easter, while visiting her in-laws, she caught her reflection in the warped glass of an antique buffet and realized that, in the end, none of it mattered. Her in-laws loved her, but they also didn’t give a damn about her. It wasn’t personal. They didn’t care about anything, including themselves. That Easter was the beginning of the end for her. After she had seen the curtain go up on it all, it seemed to her that she couldn’t imagine a lifetime membership—a lifetime of backgammon and sidecars and wordplay and wooden toys passed from generation to generation. It just wasn’t skeptical enough. And her husband, too, was he not bored with the riddle of suffering? Hadn’t he always been? And what was life, Karin asked herself in the middle of the night, but an investigation? Why go on through the day if one isn’t following the scent of something, a whiff—smoke—out in the hills of the evening—a fire. A fire in the back of the mind!

    There were tears on both sides. Everyone vowed to keep in touch after the divorce. She was like a daughter to them. In his quiet way, her husband was forgiveness itself. On their last night together as a married couple, he sat with his head hanging between his shoulders, winding his undershirt around his hand. I could never keep you from your happiness, Karin, he said. From whatever it is you’re seeking. When he looked up at her, his expression was of such magnificent sobriety that she saw keenly that she had done the wrong thing. She turned back to her closet, hanging her dress. People who let you go that gracefully never take you back.


    Soon after the separation, she found herself drowning her sorrows in a roadside pub she had never frequented before. A rowdy group of men and women entered, teasing each other. The women wore tight jeans and had long, careless hair. The men hung back until the women settled, removing their canvas coats. They all seemed to have come from the same place. A baseball game was in progress on the television over the bar. The pitcher stood erect on his mound, waving off the calls. One of the men at the bar muttered something, and the group exploded in laughter. Even the bartender lifted a corner of his slack mouth, wiping the bar with a rag. To be so at home, Karin thought boozily, to be at ease! There were a thousand forms of English, and here, she saw, in this bar, despite the different colored faces, they all spoke the same English—Guinness English, baseball English, gearshift English. And just when she felt her fingers go numb with drink, her toes numb in her impractical shoes, a sinewy man in a business suit walked through the door. One of the men at the bar noticed him immediately.

    Alfie! the man called. Come over here you prick!

    Alfie! called the women, turning, their voices whiney with affection.

    The man in the suit yanked at his tie, a forelock of black hair falling over one eye. The way he looked around before approaching made it clear that he had planned to drink alone. He caught her eye in the dark corner.

    What’ll you have? he said, once he’d made his way over.


    Karin and Alfie moved in together quickly. Divorce papers from her first husband had to be forwarded. Theirs was a hot little floor-through on a top storey, the steaminess calling to mind ingestion by a large mammal. The windows were squat, battlement-shaped, and the narrowness of the floor plan drew the space into a kind of obliged intimacy. Chairs faced chairs. One could turn around from the table and fetch a pan off the stovetop without getting up. Alfie made a good salary as a financial consultant, but there were loans, familial obligations, and Karin herself had refused to fight for a large divorce settlement in a sincere gesture of goodwill.

    But they had barely finished unpacking the boxes when tensions arose. Alfie, it so happened, was a man of many jealousies, and to suppress them felt, to him, like lying. He was jealous of her books, jealous of her diary, he was jealous of her jewelry, and of her stemware and her nativity calendar, he was jealous of her locked drawer, jealous of her unlocked drawer, and jealous most of all of her first husband, a man whom, even in sending divorce papers, was somehow trying to get her back. Alfie seethed so about her possessions from her previous life that Karin finally packed up the goblets and wedding china in bubble wrap and left them behind the Salvation Army. She kept possession of an iron doorstopper by claiming she’d won it in a raffle. She had no choice there—their apartment was so old, the doors never stayed open or shut. By the end of their first month of co-habitation, she was exhausted. Yet she did not flee. Instead she watched her new lover, steadily. For somehow, she knew that when he spent himself, the real Alfie would be revealed, some post-apocalyptic Alfie who kept his dreams wrapped in a tiny square of velvet.

    Which is what came to pass. They awoke one morning and it seemed the fever had broken. Their love had made it through the winter season. It was springtime. The strengthening sun glanced into the squat windows. Each day thereafter revealed a new aspect of Alfie’s personality. As it turned out, he was handy around the house, skilled with drill and adze. He had a beautiful, sad singing voice, like some old woodcutter in a forest. Their lovemaking was delicious, gymnastic, spanning hours—entire weekends even—broken only by forays into the kitchen to feed like bears out of dumpsters. These sessions were better even than the angry rounds with the old jealous Alfie, and Karin would leave them completely loosened, all her fixtures and bolts rattling. She was so physically satiated that she had forgotten change as the only constant.

    Marry me, Alfie said one afternoon in bed.

    Hearing this, Karin stifled a yelp.

    You okay? He leaned toward her.

    Yep, she said. This cough.

    Marry me, he said again, kissing the slope of her naked shoulder.

    I— she said. Alfie I’m hardly divorced. She looked at him searchingly.

    I don’t care about the chances, he said. I don’t care about the odds. Fuck the past. And fuck the future while you’re at it. I don’t feel like thinking straight. Tell me what I can do—what in the world I can do—to convince you to marry me. Be mine. Marry me.

    Karin fastened her bra. She thought about it. She was silent for some time.

    Well, she said finally, Don’t you think I should at least meet your family first?


    She and Alfie had grown up only ten miles apart. His hometown, Karin had never visited. Girls like her were warned away from it. She’d seen the town out of the window of the family car a thousand times, its skyline crisscrossed with wires. It seemed that every bald white man in a truck and every leering youth with flags and spoilers chose that exit off the highway, descending down into the pit of it, out of sight and into the orgy of imagination. Despite the fact that Alfie had long ago escaped this town and had become a successful in his work, this town, she knew, was still his town, the town where his mother, father, and two brothers lived together in a banana yellow house that smelled of arnica.

    She was interested.

    Tell me about them, she said.

    My mother taught me to make soda bread, he told her.

    That’s sweet, she said. And your father?

    My father lost an eye in Viet Nam. And my brother Karlo, Alfie continued, has a wife in a wheelchair. MS. He cares for her. Day and night. He hand washes her fucking underthings. They live in my parents’ basement. My oldest brother, John, supports all of them.

    Then he broke down weeping.


    By the time they pulled up to the Day-Glo exterior of the house, Karin was unnaturally excited. She had never been invited to a house quite like it. The house was shutterless, drapeless, and you had to park on the street and walk around the side, where an aluminum door banged in the wind. The half dozen figures sitting in the kitchen all arose when Alfie entered. The father’s voice boomed, the little mother moaned lovingly, as one by one they came up and kissed them both. There was none of the cordial armslengthness she’d felt with her previous in-laws. The house, too, was inviting on the inside, with dark wood paneling and doilies, and a plate of sausages and gherkins sitting on the arm of the recliner in which Karin was begged to sit. Until she heard the mother speak, Karin had not even realized that she was foreign—Romanian, as it turned out—and it was from this woman that Alfie had gotten his black hair. The father wore a sweatshirt with a faded state university decal, and his friendly, injured squint gave him the look of someone who’d already achieved some satisfying revenge. When the whole family was arranged before her, and even the crippled wife had squeaked her way up the ramp into the drawing room, Karin was overcome with a rush of adrenaline. There were so many of them! It was exciting. It was a convocation—a big, multi-ethnic summoning of people who shared a common goal—to be the same, she supposed, while still being separate people?

    This kid, began the father, grabbing Alfie by the collarbone, This kid is the greatest goddamned son you could ask for. We are goddamned proud of him. The man turned a thick finger at Karin. Anyone he loves, we love.

    And you’re so preeetty, piped the mother.

    You could be a fucking axe murderer, said the father, and we would still love you. Tell us about yourself.

    Well, Karin replied, shy with excitement, I’ve never murdered anybody.

    The group laughed.

    Except that one time.

    They laughed again.

    I— I grew up not far from here. In S______.

    This brought a thoughtful pause. In S______, nobody would ever live this many people in one house. In S______ nobody spoke anything but English, and had largely avoided the draft through educational exemptions. She was surprised she even said the name of her hometown aloud. It was a place too ahistorical to bear mention, a place neither here nor there, and yet ubiquitous. It was a place she hardly thought of and effectively never visited. Her audience floated away for a moment, then loyally came back to her.

    Very nice town, pronounced the father.

    Nice place, said the mother. Nice people.

    Down the hall, a toilet flushed. The mother turned to Alfie. Your brother took the night off to see you, she said.

    The sound of footfalls approached, and a man in work boots arrived in the doorway. He looked strikingly like Alfie, but taller and more handsome. A large, European nose, incongruous with his Pink Floyd concert t-shirt. He slid his hands into his front pockets.

    Karlo, murmured Alfie, rising.

    The man tromped over to Alfie, grinning with emotion. The two embraced long and without embarrassment. Everyone teared up, no one more than Karin.

    That night at dinner, Karin was seated between Karlo and the father. Refilling her wine glass, the father regaled her with hilarious gossip about the hard luck people that they knew. Perhaps her senses were afire, with the exotic smells of the food, the rum-soaked raisins popping on her tongue, the heat of them all in the low-ceilinged room, the windows white with steam, or perhaps it was just the charge of this newness, this foundness, this secret joy in this secret town, but she felt in Karlo’s presence a particular beauty. She watched his hands as he served her from each dish. A spoon of potatoes, a flank of meat grasped between thumb and fork. He served her with a kind of brusque, unbroken male humility she had never seen before. In these gestures, she could almost see him carrying his limp wife to the toilet in the moonlight, night after night. Across the table, Alfie grinned, the little prince of the family. Why would you run from this? she thought, tenderly. The fact that Alfie looked so much like Karlo made her love him all the more.

    She had never known loyalty, really. Her own capacity for it, she soon realized, had been sleeping in the ground like a bulb in some springless lifetime. It took Alfie’s family to teach her. For she would never have suspected that love was best evidenced on streets like these, in towns she had never had the guts to visit. She had never known that true love—filial and romantic—did not need sloping lawns and elaborate landscaping, but could grow in the smallest plots, window boxes of city dirt. Love had a straight back. Love never left a man on the field. But when it needed to, love wept. Was not its occasional sentimentality a sign of life? True heart? This true heart found its expression in the inflatable holiday lawn ornaments of the sort she used to sneer at before meeting Alfie. That Halloween, soon after Karin and Alfie’s engagement, the family filled the small yard with a half dozen of these glowing balloons, tied down in an elaborate system of wires and stakes. The yard was crowded with them, obscuring the house. It was a kind of announcement: Alfie’s finally found someone! And via some form of socioeconomic telepathy, the neighbors always knew when Karin was there, and would come over for another reassuring look at her.

    During one balmy evening visit, Karin excused herself for a little fresh air, and found herself standing on the empty street, staring at the lawn decorations. Bursts of laughter were coming from inside the house. Out of nowhere, Karlo appeared beside her.

    Cheesy? He asked her, gesturing to the decorations. Or beautiful?

    Beautiful, she said, smiling up at him.

    Mom can’t contain herself these days, he said. She has a calendar, in fact, where she marks down the days to you and Alfie’s wedding. I sure hope you like mamaliga. She’s making a truckload.

    Laughing, Karin turned to face him. She opened her mouth— had she intended to speak? To reassure him that she loved mamaliga, whatever the hell that was? Time slurred; too much of it had passed before she had a chance to account for it. The air between them charged. Suddenly she was dreadfully aware of a glowing inappropriateness between them. A breeze slipped her shawl from her shoulder, and lifted her hair off her neck. Karlo slid one work-cracked hand down her naked arm. She covered his hand with her own. Their fingers entwined. Soon, she found herself in his arms. After several minutes, the aluminum storm door banged. They stepped apart.


    It all ended very badly. Wedding invitations had to be revoked, followed by a rather awkward letter full of punctuation errors. The mamaliga rotted; money was lost; the little mother was unable to get out of bed. The cordial parting between herself and her first in-laws now seemed like a fairytale. Alfie himself stalked the shadows of her increasing sense of fear and wrongdoing. At the beginning, he telephoned and screamed and wept, demanding an explanation. Karlo had come forward, but the brothers had long achieved peace after exchanging a couple minor fractures. It was only, after all, an attraction. Was that the whole story? Was that reason enough to end an engagement? Karin could add nothing. She could not even explain to herself the quality of her disillusionment. She endured Alfie’s anger. She had hoped for it, for she agreed that she deserved it. But too soon there followed an ominous silence. The phone calls ceased. She would glimpse Alfie’s phantom face beneath a hooded sweatshirt on the street. Although her new apartment on the other side of town was clean and freshly painted, it often had the sense of having been hastily abandoned, and she would walk through a cloud of Alfie’s scent, only to retrace her steps and smell nothing. One night, her key in the lock, she heard a thud inside before entering. She ran out to the car and called the police, only to have them come strolling casually along on foot, a half hour later. She didn’t know her new neighbors. She did not know whom else to call. She contemplated calling her first husband, but soon thought better of it.

    A year passed of mysterious glimpses and visitations. It was a time of half grief: a year to love him, a year to suffer for it. And then, almost mystically, one dry winter day, she had the sense that it was over. Such was her one-time connection to that family that she could almost feel them welcoming the new girl—the good girl, half-Romanian perhaps. Such the better. She knew then that she had never truly belonged, and that perhaps loyalty was only clannishness. Feeling weary, she wished him well, knowing perhaps she had been the loser in this war of limitations, and she felt a kind of old person’s sorrow that drove her into hopeless silence.

    There followed a long period of work and repentance. She found a new job with longer work hours. She cancelled travel plans. She bought a footbath. She stuffed back each curiosity—each leaning forward, each tendency to look just left or right of the given subject. The guilt was not the worst part. Without her guilt, she would have been much lonelier.


    The most amazing thing about fiancé number three was that he got through to her at all. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t trying. He and Karin were casual friends, introduced through a cousin. She felt downright brotherly toward him. This feeling lasted long into the courtship without troubling her. He looked younger than his age. He hid his boyish face under a close-cropped beard spiked with red hairs. He was a schoolteacher, the crush of scores of ninth graders who fought over him and were hurt by him without his knowing. He would tell funny stories about it. In the faculty room, his continuing status as single was an outrage; older women loved him, as a son and as a remote possibility. Karin liked how the front of his pants was always creased from sitting, how even if he had his nose deep in a book, he was game for an outing. Even hiking up the mountains he wore a collared shirt, and in the summer, a brown linen jacket, like a poor French student. She cared for him very much, with a strange and increasing depth as time passed, but whenever she felt a flash of passion, she backed away from it. And she was careful, most of all, not to inquire about his family. No more families, she had decided. It was best, she thought, to accept one’s essential orphanhood, in the sense that we are all orphaned by misunderstanding. He would be her favorite orphan. They would take it day by day. Whenever he offered information about his family, she hushed him. In the bits she allowed herself, she learned only that the father was in orthodontia, and the mother worked with children with disabilities, and what he admired most about them was that “they didn’t complain much.”

    Karin resisted his family’s invitations for longer than was polite. After being a couple for more than a year, it had got to the point that one more refusal would be a sign of hostility. She contemplated faking a psychological condition but instead she reluctantly accepted an invitation to lunch. No dinners, she told her lover, No holiday celebrations or big to-dos. Lunch, it was innocent enough. Even the lumbering word, “lunch.” Turkey sandwiches, perhaps. Soup.

    A quick visit, she told him. In and out.

    He shrugged. As opposed to what? her lover asked. Moving in?


    The days leading up to the visit to her lover’s family were difficult for Karin. She kept having the urge to jump onto a rapidly moving vehicle. As a child, in her boredom, she had invented a country—Lilibarnia. She wanted to flee and finally cross into Lilibarnia, where they spoke their own murmuring language, and ate shape-changing fruits. Instead, she got into her lover’s car, and drove an hour across the state border, arriving at an unremarkable town. A lean town square dissolved into rows of chain stores, frittering away into suburban streets, until Karin stopped observing altogether. When the car stopped, her lover cut the ignition and leaned his elbow against the sill. He rubbed his face with his long-fingered hands and looked at her. It was May, and warm air floated over them.

    Unfortunately, he said, I don’t think Mom is going to bring our lunch out on roller skates. I think we have to actually go in.

    He nudged her. She came to and smiled. She turned to look at the house. She froze. It was a modest, ordinary colonial, split-leveled, the top floor protruding like an overbite. The shutters were beige, the first floor bay window a perfect square, through which one could see the back of a plush couch, and a further on a mantel and a mirror, and beyond that the moving shadow of a woman; Karin could almost hear the skish of the soft-soled shoes, she could smell the scent of Meyer lemons as the mop was wrung out once more and put away. In front of the garage, two garbage bins sat in a rack with wheels. The lid of one bin had fallen off and was rolling around the driveway, the sole disordered detail in this neatened landscape. The clouds broke. The house was bathed in sunlight, glowing as only white clapboard can. It blinded her.

    You all right in there? her lover asked, tapping her head.

    Sure, Karin said. I’m fine, she said.

    She got out and followed him up the walkway, her steps getting shorter and shorter without moving her forward as if by some eternal halving. Sensing this, her lover turned and scooped up her hand and looked into her face.

    I am not my family, he said. I’m a grown man. My own person. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like them, or they don’t like you. And you are your own person, who I love. You know that, right?

    I know that, she said.

    The front door opened. The mother emerged, looking youthful like her son, in a lemon yellow sweater and no jewelry. She wore her curls of fine hair uncolored. As they embraced, her lover’s mother gave Karin a fit couple slaps on the back, and Karin lingered one moment—was it White Rain hairspray, this scent that she knew with her bones?

    She stepped into the foyer.

    My husband’s upstairs, the mother said. He’ll be down in a sec.

    Karin did not need to be told this. She knew. She knew without knowing that the father would be upstairs, and she knew he had no real task, only tinkering, dreading company on his day off, wanting to be alone. She knew that the father would descend at the last possible moment. She even knew what he was doing—comparison shopping online, or notching something small with a small tool, or tweezing something small from something slightly bigger.

    While her lover and his mother chatted amiably, Karin stepped further into the house. The house was done in naturals, and had the sense of being newish but not new, redecorated dutifully once a decade. Her heart began to pound. Uninvited, she moved into the living room, and from there, rashly, efficiently, unchaperoned, to the dining room, where an overlarge table was moored, the one relic of history, the walls art-free unless you counted the sponge paint, and off to the side, she saw the wallpapered Florida room, featuring its large, dark TV, and plugged into the outlet, the discreet, suppository shape of an air freshener, and photographs, and no plants, and a row of ceramic ducklings traipsing across the coffee table. She had to be called back, but not before she had glimpsed the half-bath with its bottle of hand sanitizer atop the cabinet sink, and she thought, walking back to them, No, no, no, this will never do. It will never work out between us. Her heart throbbed, because she understood then that she loved him, she loved him more than the others, with that strange trust with which one wades into a lake, but it would never work out because she had secretly sworn never again to return to a world like this, a world so normal and so beige, and in the end, so intolerant, a world of people who, like dead engines, could no longer turn over to themselves. This was a world defined by the useless attempt to become. Karin remembered it. Her mother calling up the stairs, up where she lurked, trying on passions, Break-fast! And the coffee percolator and the television and the racket of the icemaker all of which at times she suspected were powered by the heat of her sleeping body, by that energy in her which she needed to make her escape. And on that morning she had tried, coming down the stairs wearing a belted trench coat she’d bought in a nearby city, planning to tell them who she was—an eccentric who was, if not fascinating, then at least untidy, and that she had aspirations, by which she did not mean plans, she had aspirations for meaning, and that she was angry, in fact, that she had been angry for years, timidly angry, angrily timid, and that she was leaving, if not physically, soon, and how before she could say any of this her parents had smiled upon seeing her and said, Oh what a great costume! She had looked down at her trench coat. At her body. O strange, faraway monument. It had made her want to kill herself. The next incomprehension would do it. One more blank look. Yes, she remembered them all, the hollow hours, the blameless estrangements, the cold fluorescence of the places they went to from here, and most of all the shame. A unique shame. For how could you collapse under something so benign? How could a house like this imprison you? But it could. She turned helplessly to her lover. No, no, it would never do.

    Karin sat down to the lunch automatically and accepted a Diet Coke. Her lover’s mother placed a hand on her shoulder. Tomato soup okay? she asked. Karin looked up, nodding. By then, father had joined them, shaking her hand. He and his wife conferred about something over the sink. The mother passed the father a plate of potato chips. He disappeared with it down a hall she had not seen. Karin assumed he was going off to eat lunch elsewhere. Instead, he returned indifferently, without the plate.

    She suffered through the lunch, barely there. The soup drained out of the bowl through a hole in the table. The sandwich was eaten by some other sad girl. She would do it. She would tell him she was leaving him. You only had to stand it a month or two, the worst of it, before the solitude stopped being a surprise.

    She was enlivened only by the sight of the plates being cleared. She stood up to help, and soon all four of them were moving around one another easily in the kitchen. It was easy for Karin to move about the kitchen because it was the exact same floor plan of the kitchen across which she had carried plates every day of her youth, and she even guessed correctly in which cabinet the trash bin was hidden. After the table was cleared, her lover drew a stool up to the kitchen counter and beckoned her. She came and leaned against him.

    You see? he said. Why were you so nervous to visit? There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re all pretty normal. We’re only ourselves.

    We each get our own space, said the father, rinsing plates. We each do our own thing. Like Belinda.

    Karin raised her head. Belinda?

    The mother shut the refrigerator door and looked at her son.

    She wants to meet Belinda?

    Actually, said the father, reddening, I think Belinda is busy.

    Oh, said Karin. Don’t bother her. Is she asleep?

    All three looked at her.

    Her boyfriend sighed. Belinda doesn’t sleep much.

    She’s not asleep, echoed the father.

    She’s working on her rocks again, said the mother.

    Oh? Karin casually spun the top onto the jar of mayonnaise that sat before her on the counter. Who was Belinda, she wondered? She could feel her lover looking at her.

    What sort of rocks is she interested in? Karin asked.

    Crystals. Rocks. Well, geodes, said the father. To his son he said, She’s got this special light down there now. It’s a kind of laboratory.

    Her lover shrugged. I haven’t told you much about my sister, he said to Karin. You haven’t wanted to know.

    Yes. That’s all right, said Karin. Well, I don’t want to bother her.

    You said already, noted her lover.

    The father’s face sagged, then brightened, as if remembering some hope he’d left in the near distance.

    Well, let’s see, he said. Let’s see if Belinda’s available to meet you Karin.

    He disappeared down the hall through which he’d carried the potato chips.

    Belinda! he shouted. Belinda!

    And although no response was audible, the father came back into the kitchen and said, You two can head on down. Sure, go say hi to Belinda. Why not?

    Karin rose quickly and followed her lover down the hall, which ended at an accordion door. He paused and smiled at her, and she found herself irrationally wanting to push the door open herself, shouting Don’t smile at me, the need to open the door beating up against her throat like a bat. She felt, in fact, that she was already in the basement, she was the one in the darkness, looking up, and it was also her shoes she would see at the top of the stairs, her neat, unremarkable feet, descending to her from the future. The door parted, casting hall light down onto a set of carpeted stairs.

    Belinda? called her lover.

    Karin stepped down and pulled the door shut behind her, and they stood now in complete darkness. She stumbled down another stair or two, eyes wide and blind.

    As her eyes adjusted, she saw something mysterious: floating lights, parcels of light about the space, colored glowings— pink, green— as if she were in an underground planetarium, a mineshaft, the place which, having always wondered about, one finally goes. Something moved. A bowl of blackness, filled with a purple fluorescence. The bowl approached, weaving through the darkness.

    Now Belinda, said her lover, How can we have a proper meeting in the dark? Turn on the lights, would you?

    The glow stopped approaching.

    The lights are on, replied a voice, the simple, husky voice of an adolescent girl. They’re just not the lights you expected.

    Well, I’d like you to meet Karin.

    I’m Karin, Karin said. I’m Karin.

    Karin spread her hands against the darkness, searching for the girl in the dark, wanting to find her with her hands, wanting to find her and hold onto her in the black light. Her hands touched a wall, the back of a chair, but could not locate the girl. Just her existence awakened in Karin some flash of knowledge, some chance of reformation, of home-going, to go back now, with her adult heart, and say It was not a costume.

    The voice of Belinda came from an unexpected corner of the room.

    A lot of ordinary things fluoresce, murmured Belinda. You’d be surprised. Club soda. Laundry detergent. Why, look at yourselves.

    Her lover caught her arm.

    It’s true, he said, laughing. Karin. Look. Look at us.

    Karin stopped. She looked down at her lover’s body. Although she could not see his flesh, only the dim yellow of his teeth and eyes, she saw that his body was covered in tiny white wires—ordinary lint—glowing like filament. When she surveyed herself, she saw that she was covered with the same infinitesimal lights, large beautiful jolts of it in her mohair sweater, and all the way down her body, her breasts, and her legs. A night sky on her body, the inversion she had sought, her inside, out; the self, visible.

    You see, said Belinda in the darkness. You’re really very beautiful.


    Karin and Peter were married in August. August—a month of magnolias and jazz concerts, a month of campfires. The wedding was informal, light-hearted, and populated with drunken middle school teachers. Guests sat on bales of hay during the ceremony. During the reception, it was decided that the hall was stuffy, so they moved the dancing outside. By evening, the sky was arrayed in lavender, and faces glowed, white and black, with that reckless inner joy that one feels sometimes at weddings.

    Karin’s parents were there. She had not seen them in some time, for they had recently retired to Cocoa, Florida, and did not like to fly. They stood contentedly by the crudités, and they danced to certain songs. She was attuned to their movements. No matter where she was, she could sense them, and always knew where they were, and each time she glanced a cheek or a shoulder, the fact of their presence became slightly less puzzling. Her father had not yet asked her for his dance, but perhaps he was waiting for her cue.

    She would go over there when she was ready. She would say, How are you? And they would say how they were, and it would be true, because that’s what they were like, and she would say, Cheers.

    What had they given her? Well, look—they were still there, dancing stiffly. Despite the general lack of instruction they had offered, there had been the occasional intimate lurching. Once, unprompted, her father had said to her, Karin, you know why you ought to get married? Same reason cops work in pairs.

    Smiling, Karin rubbed her cheek against the rough breast of Peter’s wedding suit.

    Funny, she said. The only time I see my folks these days is at my own weddings.

    Her groom gave her a little shove. Wouldn’t it just be cheaper to invite them for the weekend?

    She pulled back, laughing.

    Let’s dance crazy, he said.

    She took his hands. They swung each other around in a parody of dancing, and the guests who were sober enough assumed they were dancing with joy.


    Later that evening, when she was being carried on somebody’s shoulders, Karin could see very far away. A range of lovely, unexpected mountains in the distance. The closer hillsides were dark with shadow, asphalt gray, but the furthest slopes were still lit with the very last of the sun. And she was glad, for the first time, to know she would never go there.


    © 2009 by Amity Gaige. Used by permission of the author.

    Belinda first appeared in the Yale Review.

    Visit Amity here!

    And don’t miss her novels, O My Darling . . .

    and The Folded World!

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