She was worrying at the burnt cheese on the cookie sheet like it was a metaphor. I knew to leave her alone for a little bit, but something tugged at me just the same, so I sat at the kitchen table in full view of her and pretended to do a crossword. This was when we lived in the first-floor apartment with the sliding glass doors that faced out into a courtyard, an oak tree surrounded by bare earth and dog turds. Across the way lived a slightly autistic teenager whose mom let him smoke cigarettes. He was out there all the time, looking blankly in our windows, troubled, probably, but also troubling. I often thought of us through his viewpoint, framed in glass, living our little aquarium life. It may have been part of the problem.
She finished up with the cheese, rinsed the cookie sheet, set it off to the side. Sometimes I would look at her and she would have a stranger’s face, someone who seemed tired, someone I couldn’t find a reason to be attracted to. It started hailing just then, not violently or anything, just a tink-tink-tink against the concrete of the walkways outside, a rustling of the oak tree’s leaves. It’s the kind of thing that rarely seems important but always seems worth noting. The stupid specificity of that weather. The kid on his stoop looked up.
I didn’t like the betrayal of her stranger’s face, even though I knew it was my own mind doing the work. It felt like something she was doing on purpose, being this other person, in these flashes and these long moments, most often in the process of chores or errands, this person that I didn’t much like to look at. I thought, not for the first time, that something might be wrong with me, or with her, or with the both of us.
I turned back to the crossword in earnest, but it didn’t break the spell. She kept at the dishes. I realized she couldn’t see outside, that the running water was too loud, so I said, “It’s hailing.” And she said, “Huh?” And I said nothing. She looked over at me, then out the window, and it was both her and not-her at once. I thought: another, an other, a not her.
Of course, this is what I was thinking about when the hail stopped, when she said, “oh,” when the light coming into the courtyard turned a sickly shade. It’s what I was thinking when the sudden drop in pressure shattered the glass door, when she turned to look at me and screamed and in screaming gave me again someone else’s face. I heard that her scream was the boy’s name, the boy across the way, but didn’t comprehend it. Meaning had stopped meaning.
In that stuck moment before we were rankled and bloodied, before we learned of the terror the world kept hidden away in its pocket like a mugger’s knife, was this: that I should try to say something real. I opened my mouth to speak, but I found no air and of course no voice and of course no words either, because there were no words to save us, no words to act as bulwark or relief against what’s coming. Language is its own betrayal, and still we clutch and grab at it. Speaking would only make me accomplice to a lie. Instead I closed my mouth and waited, and I wondered where she went when she wore a stranger’s face, if she liked herself better there, and if one day she would go and not come back.
Zach VandeZande is the author of Apathy and Paying Rent (Loose Teeth, 2008). His work has recently appeared in Hot Street and Local Lore, and is forthcoming in the Adroit Journal and Crack the Spine. He is currently a PhD student of fiction at the University of North Texas.
Tornado damage, Udall, Kansas (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATornado_damage._Udall%2C_Kansas_-_NARA_-_283885.tif) via Wikimedia Commons.