Monstrous Femme

I’m Not the Daughter

I’m Not the Daughter

When she finally made it home to her apartment, she slammed the door shut, then had to lean against the wall for a moment to gain her composure. Disoriented, her pulse was racing dangerously and she feared she might faint.

She still had the thing clutched in her arms. It was wrapped in some old supermarket flyers, because that’s all she had in the car at the time, and she had to cover it up with something to make it across the parking lot and through the courtyard without anyone seeing. When she got to her entrance, the round-faced young preschool teacher who lived on the first floor was there, too, carrying a large cardboard box that said Play-Doh on the side. She held the door open with her rump, to let Erica in. She had been about to make some friendly comment before she actually turned and saw Erica: a wild-eyed divorcee in her fifties, paper-wrapped bundle clutched to her chest, with large blood stains spreading across the front of her business-casual ensemble of cropped khaki pants and seersucker blouse.

The girl staggered back a couple of steps with a muffled cry as Erica rushed past her and up the stairs. At the first turn, Erica had a fleeting impulse to turn around, to apologize. To reassure the girl that this isn’t what it looked like, that everything was okay. But then she felt the shuddering pulse that the thing emitted, the thrumming life and heat from beneath the (now) sodden and bloody store flyers…those pictures of Fruit Loops and tomato sauce and canned soup, those familiar brand names she had known all her life, now unrecognizable, smeared with gore.  The thing in her arms was alive, it was hers, and it gave her a strange erotic thrill in the pit of her stomach that felt like first love. And suddenly, all at once, she was so very, very sick of apologizing all the time.


That day, Erica had only been doing her job.

The assignment was in a neighborhood that she once knew, but it had taken her some time to realize it.   She had been steering her battered Kia Sorento through the streets like a woman in a narcotic daze. (But she never used drugs! not even a sleeping pill!)  More and more, since hitting her fifties, she would find herself lost in the murky recesses of her brain and forget where she was, or what she was doing. Sometimes sitting in a room staring at nothing, for hours, until the light died and she had to turn the lamp on.

True, it had been thirty years, and the neighborhood had changed. Many houses had been bought up by investors and broken up into apartments with sad, rickety fire escapes tacked on. Lawns were spiky and overgrown. Shingles missing from roofs. The wind tunneled in such a way that litter blew and collected, fluttering in the chain link fences that she didn’t remember being there before. An abandoned shopping cart lay on its side in the little gully ditch, one wheel balefully spinning.

Back when she had lived here, she had been a new mother of twin baby boys. She and her husband had rented a little clapboard house with a magnolia tree in the front yard, it was darling, and it was just…there! Just up the street and around the corner! She could envision it now, shimmering like a mirage in her head. She could easily loop around and look at it if she wanted to.

But she was afraid. Afraid if she looked at the house, she might see her own self, an overwhelmed girl of twenty-two. Peeking out the window like a trapped ghost.  Hypervigilant, face thin and pale with anemia, but the eyes! Burning with fiery conviction.

Or more likely, with judgement. With pity. To see what Erica had become: a lost woman who didn’t even know who she was anymore.

She forced these distressing thoughts out of her head. Being alone with too much time to think was dangerous. Anyway, it was the last stop of the day, and she was exhausted, and after this one she could go home. She squinted blearily at the dashed off note on her clipboard: 15 Calder Lane. Mrs. Elizabeth “Betty” Murphy, 90 years old.

It was the daughter, Adrienne, that had called Adult Protective Services. She reported that her mother was confused and living in squalor, that she needed help but wouldn’t accept it. She’s always been independent. She and my father were sort of bohemians, artists. Marched to their own beat, you know?  My father disappeared when we were small, she raised us all on her own, she was always so strong, so, you know, I feel like a traitor calling you people, but I’m just…so afraid. Afraid she’ll forget who I am. Sometimes she forgets who I am, and I feel annihilated…

Erica had been working at APS for the last two years.  Much of her job was spent on paperwork, or, more often, on the phone, put on hold by various agencies. And then there were the home visits. People always thought she had more power than she did. But she wasn’t law enforcement, she would explain, before going into the spiel about capacity evaluations, conservatorships…

Social work, her late-in-life career. What was she thinking? This line of work burned out women half her age. Now it seemed such a foolish notion that she had wanted to do good, make a difference. It was like pushing against the tide. And she was so, so tired.

15 Calder Way. When she pulled up, she remembered the house. A Queen Anne Victorian with a steeply pitched dormer, like a witch hat, one street perpendicular to her own old address. It wasn’t the house itself that stood out, but the garden.  An explosion of an English-style garden. Asters, anemone, foxglove, snapdragon. Trellised vines, catmint and pale blue iris. The front fenced lot seemed like it could barely contain the riot of color.

Erica parked and opened up the swinging metal gate. She had admired this garden many times as a young woman, pushing an unwieldy double stroller down the sidewalk, trying to get the twins to sleep. And now, it was the one thing about the neighborhood that seemed to have stayed the same.

Except . . . maybe it was a bit wilder now. The walkway was swallowed, choked off. The stone steps cracked and broken and mossy. A pile of rolled newspapers sat neglected on the veranda. Erica took out her small digital camera and snapped a photo for documentation. Took a breath, squared her shoulders, and rang the bell.

After a long, tense pause, an old woman opened the door. Small, bent over. Her wispy white hair was scraped up into a top knot. Her housedress was a deep purple floral print with a wide pointed collar and a zipper with a large pull ring in the front, obviously homemade. She gazed up at Erica through thick plastic framed glasses. Erica smiled warily, expecting to be told to get off her property, as often happened at these unplanned visits.

Instead, the old woman preempted her by asking, “Where have you been?” in a peevish tone.

Erica widened her smile ingratiatingly. “My name is Erica. I’m here from Adult Protective Services and I just wanted to come in and ask you a few—”

“Where have you been? Did you forget me? I’ve been waiting a lifetime!”

Erica’s smile faltered. Surely, she was confusing her with the daughter. “You don’t know me, Mrs. Lewis. Can I come in to talk? For just a few minutes.”

But the old woman had already retreated back into the house, muttering to herself. She took it as invitation to follow. She passed a large gilt framed mirror in the foyer and glanced at her own reflection. The glass was so aged it was tarnished like murky water, her face submerged under the surface.

The living room was dark as dusk. Heavy velvet drapes were pulled shut. A table lamp with a red bubbled glass shade was switched on. When her eyes adjusted to the gloaming, Erica was startled to see a large painting on the wall above the mantelpiece: It depicted a woman, dark hair pulled tightly back, chin tilted up, eyes closed, her face blank and impassive. Cool and stylized, except that there was a fat trickle of blood flowing down from a wound on the crown of her head, down her alabaster face, and into the collar of her white blouse…

The sight was so strange, so unexpected, that she looked quickly away in confusion. Her eyes scanned the room for something, anything, else to focus on, to anchor her: she chose the pile of clutter on the coffee table. Pamphlets, tax returns, recipe cards, empty tissue boxes, orange RX bottles…took a picture with her little camera, then turned to her host.

“Mrs. Lewis, I won’t take up too much of your time. Can I have a seat so we can get to know each other?”

The old woman blinked at her. She looked like a little barn owl as she slowly shook her head, uncomprehending.

Erica sat down on the dusty red velvet sofa, after moving aside a pile of antique dolls. She took out her pen and notebook from her tote. “Can you answer a few questions for me?”

The old woman remained standing, fidgeting her hands, then after a pause, said, “I can answer lots of questions. Just not the ones you’re asking.”

Erica laughed nervously. “So . . . you live alone?”

“Fifty years, going on.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sure it wasn’t easy, raising your kids by yourself.”

The old woman turned her head away. Looking at the floor, she said, “My husband was an artist. Very well known in some circles. I was an artist myself, until our daughter was born. Then we moved out of New York, to this place. That’s when, you know, he found family life to be . . . unfulfilling.” She paused, and when she looked up again her eyes shown with a fierce light: “It wasn’t easy for him, being a genius. Or so he told me. He was a slave to his passions. But I tried to save him and that was my mistake.”

“Is that painting…” Erica gestured at the strange image of the bleeding woman, unable to finish he sentence.

“Yes. It’s a painting of me. I was his muse. There are other pieces of me, on that wall over there.”

Erica stood and walked to where the woman indicated, above an antique sideboard. On the wall were several mounted and framed photographs, silver prints. Two were collages of shots of a nude woman bent at different strange and painful looking angles. Her skin was pale to the point of phosphorescence, glowing under the harsh flash. Another larger one showed the woman nude but for an apron, her wrists bound together with the cord of an iron, her face as blank of expression as a mannequin.

“Oh. Well, you were certainly beautiful.” Erica felt her face flush. All at once she felt dry mouthed. She pulled a water bottle from her bag. The water tasted of metal. “He must have been interesting to live with…so, you raised your children alone?”

The woman suddenly gave her a reproachful look: “Enough with this nonsense, young miss. It’s time to get what you came for. Come on!”

“Wait, wait, Mrs. Lewis!” The woman was stronger than she looked. When she pulled on Erica’s arm, she nearly lost her balance.  “Y-you can give it to me after I’m done. I promise, just a few more questions. I-I just need to know that your home is safe and you have everything you need!” She smiled, inanely, at the old woman, who was becoming very agitated now, eyes rolling back and forth, breath coming in and out of her harshly. “I need to see the kitchen. Can you show me the kitchen? Is it . . . this way?”

Erica started down a hallway, which had great stacks of old books piled on the floor each side (Made a mental note; hoarding conditions, unclear walkways.) She noticed on one wall was a mounted cabinet. It was a gun case, velvet lined, with three pistols in it, all aimed in one direction.  And a blank space, an empty gun-shaped impression in the velvet; one had been taken out.  Without realizing it she had stopped in her tracks, staring, until the old woman said sarcastically, “Yes, yes, they were his babies. Yes, that is a custom-built case. So, get a move on, missy, and go.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Lewis. You know…I don’t talk about this much, but my husband left, too.” She didn’t know why she said that, but had no choice but to barrel on. “After thirty years of marriage. We have twin boys. They’re twenty-four, both in the army. They don’t even take my calls, they say I’m too intense, like what does that even mean? They were my whole life. I’m just saying, I know it’s hard…” She had never uttered such words to anyone. She wasn’t thinking straight. She was exhausted. She visualized her bed in her little apartment, with its smooth cool sheets and rose print comforter. She would lay in it with a glass of zinfandel with ice and watch her giant bedroom TV. It wasn’t a home, she never deluded herself that. But it was a comfortable series of habits, at least. Sometimes, that was enough.

The old woman regarded her coldly, with one lifted eyebrow, and answered: “Who said he left?” She smiled a strange crooked smile.

Embarrassed now, Erica did not answer, and hurried to the kitchen, suddenly all business. Looked inside the refrigerator, which held only a carton of eggs and a loaf of bread. “If you have no one looking in regularly there are a lot of options, services. See, I have a pamphlet right here in my bag, somewhere. Meals on Wheels. You see”–

“You always were an obstinate child, Adrienne.”

“But, Mrs. Lewis, I’m not . . . the daughter . . .” She was beginning to feel ill. Nauseated. Suddenly the rancid smell of old age was everywhere. It was suffocating, choking her, like grave dirt in her nose and mouth.

“You were prideful, Adrienne! Arrogant. Those babies. You thought love itself was under threat, and you alone could save it! Too much for any woman. No one can love that hard, without breaking…”

Erica desperately made notes in her head to take down later. Client is oriented to self only. Periods of confusion, speaks in word salad and loose associations. Cannot answer a question logically.

To fight back the feeling of increasing panic, she began to speak robotically, by rote: “There are many home care options, even for someone on a fixed income. There is a Medicare waiver that–”

“Christ almighty, you never did listen, child!”

With that the old woman lunged at her, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her towards the back screen door: she was preternaturally strong. Her feet, in chubby Velcro sneakers, sure and steady. Erica didn’t fight anymore, and could only try not to trip as she was jerked out the back door, down a small set of concrete steps and into the late summer afternoon.  A damp breeze lifted the hem of the old woman’s purple floral dress, blew loose strands of her wispy white hair.

The woman was making muttered asides as she pulled Erica along. What sounded like The hummingbird can still fly in the wind, tiny heart in its throat. It’s a hurricane party. Playing cards, jitterbug. It’s a three-quart storm. Nothing but to stay blind.

The backyard was as overgrown as the front. Tall spikes of delphinium were casting shadows as the sun began to lower in the sky. The first whiff of September in the air. A bank of rambling rose badly needed pruning. Its ruffled pink blooms were overblown and heavy. They look like bonneted faces, Victorian baby faces, Erica thought absurdly as she was yanked along.

Then they entered the woods, and Erica started to become afraid. She wasn’t sure whose property they were on anymore. The trees were thick, shutting out the sun. Large, florid mushrooms grew in profusion. There was no path, there could be animals out here, things with jagged teeth and yellow eyes. And still, they did not stop.

“Mrs. Lewis, maybe we should go back now.”

“Not until you get what you came for!”

At one point, the old woman slowed down, closed her eyes and breathed deeply, seemed to mouth a silent prayer before stepping carefully over the low remains of an old stone wall.

Then they came to upon a strange spot that was clear of the fern, moss, vines and thorns that covered the rest of the forest floor. It was a long, oblong shaped, raised swatch of dirt. As though someone were preparing to plant a small garden. But there was no sun there…

It was there that the old woman finally stopped, let go of Erica’s wrist, and slowly sank to her knees.

Erica squatted beside her. “Oh, Mrs. Lewis! Are you okay? Are you lightheaded? Why don’t we go back and get you a glass of water…”

But the old woman didn’t answer.  She began digging into the loose dirt with her hands. She was breathing hard now. Her face was flushed, her eyes alight. Her gnarled hands sank deep into the rich looking soil, clawing away great scoops of it.  Deeper, deeper. Until she paused, her face in some kind of ecstatic trance, as her fingers seemed to feel the shape of the thing she sought.

“If you’re giving me a bulb or a…a plant, I have nothing to put it in. And I don’t have much of a green thumb these days.” She had an image of the sad little ficus tree in the corner of her too-quiet apartment, and it gave her a twinge of despair.

Mrs. Lewis was concentrating, working her fingers under the edge of…something. First rocking it a bit, then pulling at it hard; what emerged from the earth was something that, at first glance, looked like a great clod of dirt about the size of a pot roast. Tendrils of root dangled down from it.

The woman held it to her chest, crouching protectively around it. She looked at the thing with an expression that was tender, bewildered, and regretful all at once.

“What is it?” asked Erica in a faint voice, hovering to peek.

The old woman thrust the thing into Erica’s arms.

“Now it’s yours!”

“I can’t! I kill everything I touch!” Her voice broke a bit at the truth of this. She remembered the last time she spoke to her ex-husband. He said, Erica, you always ruin what’s good in your life. It’s like you can’t even help yourself.

She held the thing tight against her chest. She became aware of a dampness beginning to soak into her blouse.

When she looked down, Erica cried out to see that the dampness was blood. “I’m bleeding!” she gasped, though it made no sense.

“You’re not bleeding! You just THINK you are. You are a girl and it’s time to become a woman. Now take what is yours now and go home! Now, don’t look at me like that. My girl, sometimes enough is enough, and it is time to cross that line. You do what you need to do. Now go!”

Erica felt a scathing sense of shame wash over her. It was the same feeling she had when she was twelve and got period blood on her clothes at school. There was nothing to do but run away, out of these woods and back to where she came from. Back to the house, though it was hard to see, her vision had narrowed down to a small tunnel. Back to her Kia Sorento that was still parked in the street. As she ran, she almost threw the thing into the bank of rambling rose. But she got the irrational sense that whatever she held in her arms was alive, and she couldn’t do it. No mother could do it.

She opened the door of the trunk and put the thing on top of a pile of sales flyers and old mail. Envelopes she was too afraid to open. Hurled herself into the driver’s seat and drove off fast, tires squealing, without even fastening her seatbelt. Through the drumbeat of fear and panic, she swore she heard the faint hiss of a police radio somewhere in the street, could see the flash of revolving lights in her rearview mirror.


She stood at the sink and lifted the (thing) up into the light, turning it this way and that.  Most of its bulk was dirt and twined root. It had obviously been in the earth a long time. She began to gently crumble the dirt away, and she could feel a pulsing beat between her palms. Beneath the dirt, it felt soft, yielding, spongy. Like flesh. It had a startling heft to it as though it was filled with milk. Or blood. It bespoke an intimacy that repulsed, and yet hypnotized her.

A sudden summer storm raged outside, and it sprayed a spate of hail against the window, making her jump. The little kitchen radio that usually burbled beside her and kept her company as she did the dishes had lost its signal and there was only the staticky high-pitched whine of a dead station. She brought the (thing) close to her face, closed her eyes and inhaled its scent. It was a mix of wet earth and something else. Something sweet and implacable that stirred up a memory. A distant sense-memory that she could not name or place.

When she turned on the faucet and began to wash it, the thing began to beat and pulse quickly, like a butterfly or a moth trapped in a screen door. And when the last of the blood and mud was washed away, it at last became recognizable. It was a human heart. Like from the page of an anatomy book, the veins, the arteries, the pumping chambers. It was a large heart. Not a healthy looking one, either. Tender and flaccid, she could put her finger right through the flesh it if not careful.

She dug around in a bottom cabinet and pulled out a wide-mouthed Mason jar, which she had acquired before the marital house had sold. Back when she thought she would can the last of the summer tomatoes, and never did. She unscrewed the lid and slid the heart inside, where it made a sucking, squelching noise as it settled into the bottom. She screwed the lid on loosely, in case it needed air. Then not knowing what else to do, put it in the kitchen cabinet with the other jars that held sauces and almond butter and whole wheat pasta. She shut the cabinet door, because she just couldn’t deal with this anymore right now. It was as though her brain and nervous system had reached critical overload. She would simply have to walk away. Pretend this wasn’t happening.

For a while she did put it out of her mind as she threw herself into cleaning up the blood and dirt, wiping everything down with disinfectant. Then she put on her virginal looking white summer nightgown with eyelet edges. She poured a large glass of zinfandel and got in bed to watch a movie.

She settled on some silly rom com involving mistaken identity, a kidnapping, and a makeover, culminating in a party with a ridiculous synchronized dance sequence. The scenes felt jumbled and confusing. She couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t care.  She switched it off and tried a relaxation technique that her therapist taught her where she pretended to be using a typewriter with her feet, but this made her feel both foolish and more anxious than she was before.

Was the heart…okay? What if she had killed it, just sticking it in a jar like that? What if it had stopped beating and it was all her fault…

She couldn’t take it anymore, got up, rushed to the kitchen: the cabinet door was still closed, but there was blood leaking out of it, dripping onto the freshly washed tile floor. She opened the door and saw that blood was everywhere, the boxes of cereal and quinoa all had a rim of spreading dark crimson at the bottom…

But: the jar, itself, was vibrating. A pounding, living thing was inside it, and her own heart responded in unison. She unwound a great wad of paper towels and wiped it off, put it on the kitchen table, and pulled out a chair and sat down, just looking at it, weak-kneed with relief.

She sat for a long time in the silence. It was the dead of night. It felt unreal. She had experienced insomnia many times, churning and desperate, feeling as though she would burst into flame. But this was different. The silence was deep and resonant. The whole world was still, and the air seemed to shimmer. She felt she was living multiple timelines simultaneously, and her brain was a matrix.  After a while, when she was still enough, she had a sensation of the top of her head opening up like the petals of a lotus flower. And she could hear what the heart was trying to say.

She knew, for some reason, that it was a man’s heart. This made her both frightened and giddy. Though she had been a homemaker, married to a man for decades, she never truly knew him. Only in those short hours before and after work. And what did those amount to? She had rarely interacted with other men, except her friend’s husbands.  Never alone with an unfamiliar man. Maybe she feared them, and that’s why she had focused on the home, building a refuge from the world which felt so dangerous.

To hold a man’s heart in her hand was unspeakably intimate. It reminded her of holding her newborns directly after birth, still wet and blue-tinged, taking their first shuddering breaths.  She could feel a lifetime of accrued emotions in the heart. Despair and elation. Wild swings, turbulent moods. No wonder it bled so much. She couldn’t say she enjoyed what she felt. But it awed her. It made her feel alive in a way that she had not in a very long time.

She put the jar on her nightstand, and set her phone alarm to wake her every two hours to drain the blood. And then the steady, pulsing rhythm of its beating put her right to sleep.

The dreams she had were incredibly vivid. Dreams in which she inhabited a man’s solid stocky body and strode briskly down the street. Wearing a rumpled suit, hands jammed in her pockets, fedora cocked on her head. Dreamed a craving for cigarettes and whiskey and guns. Holding a gun that smelled like oil, the barrel heavy and cool, it fit into her hand like the grip was made for her . . . dreamed the feeling of sitting at the easel, painting a study of a woman’s body: squinting one eye, the woman explodes in a torrent of anger from the brush onto the canvas. Pulling the trigger, the blast vibrates through her body . . .

Waking late Saturday morning, she felt hungover, the taste of ash on her tongue. She couldn’t say she felt good, because she didn’t. She felt that she had lost something beautiful, essential. But at least she wasn’t lonely, now that she knew a man’s true heart, his fear and longing and joy and anger. For the first time, she didn’t think about her ex-husband. She didn’t think about her sons. She had no urge whatsoever to leave multiple messages on the twin’s voicemail, she wouldn’t cry, she wouldn’t beg.  Because she didn’t need them any more…

Because what did it mean, to be a wife and mother, she thought to herself as she blundered around getting the coffee ready. You give and sustain life. You feed and feed! (She slammed her mug down on the counter hard enough to crack it. Poured the coffee in anyway, spilling everywhere, then drank it even though it was too hot.) And to what end? It had no meaning, really. Love was a conceit. Unless you could hold it in your hand. Put your hands around the big wet mason jar with its shuddering brimful of life. That was real. Everything else was a lie.

Quickly, before she lost her nerve, she dialed the number of her supervisor and told her that she wouldn’t be in on Monday, or ever again, because she quit, effective immediately.  Then she shut her phone down.

She could not decide what to do next. Time stretched before her, and she felt jittery, as though going too fast on a highway off-ramp. She needed to do something, she had started this thing and needed to commit. She got in the Kia and drove around aimlessly, until she was compelled to stop at a tattoo parlor called The Mystic Needle. There, a young girl with green hair and a necklace of bullets handed her a binder book of designs. Erica found that when she tried to speak her tongue was clumsy and leaden; girls this young were a foreign territory to her, unknowable. But she managed to ask for a tattoo on the inside of her wrist.  She chose the picture of a hummingbird with a ruby red throat.

She kept her eyes closed the whole time. It felt like a hot knife on her skin. When the pain was worst, it made her see little embers of sparks. When she grew faint, the girl offered her a sticky lollipop to suck.

Amazingly this took only an hour of her day, and then she was home again, only now her wrist was radiating heat like a painful sunburn. The heart was in its jar where she left it, in the kitchen sink. She held her wrist up to show him, hoping that he would approve of her daring.  She picked him up, enjoying the slosh and heft of him in her hand.

Anxiously, she listened for his thoughts, to feel again that transcendent connection they had shared the night before.

And when the heart finally spoke, he said to her, Christ, woman, you need to get out more.

There was a place with live music, down near the university, called The Night Shift. She’d heard it mentioned by the young interns at work. That was where she would go. She spent a lot of time trying on outfits before deciding on jeans, a sequin trimmed black tank top, and a pair of leopard print flats that she’d never worn before.

There were logistical issues involved with bringing the heart to the venue with her, but separation was beginning to feel as impossible as cutting off her own oxygen supply. She needed him. She would just have to use her big nylon shoulder tote that she used to take to the beach when the boys were little. She put the jar into a gallon sized zip lock bag, wrapped densely in paper towels.  It would be her secret, no one’s business unless she made it their business.


She entered the sprawling warehouse. When her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw large brewing tanks in the back, exposed pipes across ceiling and above the bar. Myriad voices, all talking at once. She followed a throng of people who seemed to know where they were going, and found herself in the outdoor beer garden, where strings of fairy lights twinkled and a band was setting up on a stage. She went to the bar and ordered, at random, something called an Equilibrium Flux. It tasted like beer full of grass clippings. That didn’t stop her from drinking it down fast, just to calm her nerves

The resulting buzz somehow made it easier to hear what the heart was saying, even  from deep inside the tote bag resting next to her at the scarred wooden picnic table. It said, in a mocking voice,

What kind of a pussy drink is that?

Chastened, she went back to the bar and ordered tequila on the rocks.

The band was called Yeti. The music was a noisy drone without words. Fuzzed out guitars, and so much distorted echo and reverb that it sounded like an attempt at time travel. She put the nylon tote on the ground, between her feet, so she could be constantly touching it with no one seeing.  Nearby, a circle of girls were smoking cigarettes, turning to give her a curious glance now and then. When she accidently made eye contact with one of them, a petite young woman with painful looking gauges stretching her ears, she yelled out, “Can I have a cigarette?” The girl frowned, uncomprehending, so Erica gestured her over, feeling loose and expansive, and then yelled in her face, “Smoke? Can I bum one?” The girl looked bemused, asked, “Are you okay, ma’am?” but shook one from a pack and lit it for her.

She hadn’t smoked since she was nineteen, right before she got married. Somehow it didn’t feel as good as it used to, and she coughed out acrid smoke. Someone in the crowd started laughing and called, “Easy, there, mama!” Another person chuckled, “Someone needs to come get their mom home before her lights go out.”

“Fuck off,” Erica snarled. She could feel the heart in the jar beat faster in approval. There ya go, tell those fuckers, it said, and the validation gave her a rush of euphoria. She wanted to be there, it was her choice. She belonged there.

She smoked and tried to sway to the music, except the sound of it was swampy and primordial and didn’t exactly have a beat. She became aware that someone had taken a seat on the end of her bench and was watching her. It was a young man, a boy, really. Probably about the same age as the twins, or younger. He had long blonde hair and wore a knit beanie. He had a narrow face with delicate bones. Wide, deep-set eyes. He nodded at her in greeting when he saw her looking.

They sat for a while this way in amicable silence, not saying anything. Then the boy leaned over and said something to her that was hard to hear.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, this band is awesome. I saw them play at the Maze. They made a song for this video game so now they’re going big.”

She couldn’t respond at first. It was like he was speaking another language. So, she nodded. Brought her cigarette back to her lips but then realized she had already smoked it down to the filter and flicked it away.

“Is that new ink?” the boy asked, pointing at her wrist, which was covered in a clear bandage like shrink wrap.

“Yeah,” she said, peeling the bandage back. “I got this today. It’s my new era.”

He narrowed his eyes and peered at it. “Hummingbird?”

“It represents renewal. I did it for myself. I don’t give a fuck anymore.”

“Rock on!” he said, raising his own beer in a salute. “I mean, I consider myself a feminist and all, so…”

“I’m burning it all down. I’m going to do it all. I’m starting my life over, you know.”

“Wow. It’s like, age doesn’t mean anything, I guess…I mean fuck the patriarchy or whatever…so what do you do?”

“I’m an artist. I do paintings. Photography. Mostly I do studies of the… human form.” She hiccupped.

“Wow. I’ve never known a real artist.” His tone was hushed and reverent. He seemed abashed for a moment and went quiet. But he did not leave. He did not get up to join another circle of people. Maybe he didn’t know anyone else. She began to sense his strong gravitational pull of need. When she glanced at him again, she saw that he was completely focused on her. His eyes were hopeful, yearning, like a dog’s. What did he want? She already felt responsible for him. So she cut her eyes away and asked, “How old are you?”

“Eighteen? I have a fake ID, so…”

“If it’s fake, how do I know you are actually eighteen?”

“I, um… guess that you just… don’t?”

They became quiet again, and sat together this way for the whole set. She drank a scotch and soda and listened for the heart. The heart said to her,

Take him, he’s asking for it.

She was repulsed by the suggestion. Then she tried to imagine what it would be like to touch the boy’s chest, how it would be narrow and hairless. He would be skittish as a young colt. It would be so strange, to touch a hard young body.

She knew at this point she was likely too buzzed to drive, but she got up, put her tote over her shoulder, and breathed deeply before she asked, “Are you coming with me or what?”

His eyes flared for a moment as though in panic, but he stood up and hurried to follow her as she walked back in through the building and out the front entrance to the gravel parking lot.

It was darker now without the fairy lights, and she was parked at the far end. The boy walked one pace behind, and said, “Wow, I thought you probably wanted to get rid of me.”

“Why?” she asked, feeling with a sudden lurch just how drunk she truly was. Wondering if he had a drivers license.

“I don’t know. I would if I were you, I guess.”

Now that they were alone, she could smell him. An odor of mildew, and unwashed body. And she noticed how rumpled his clothes were, as though they had been slept in. And the way he was looking at her, a fixation in his gaze. It made her wonder if the boy were metally ill.

“You can trust me,” he said. Then his words began to tumble over each other. “I mean, I feel like I trust you. It seems kind of like, you’ve been through a lot? I mean you have to be, to be an artist. I think we could be good for each other. I-I’ll d anything you want,  I won’t bother you when you’re working, we can, you know…you can teach me things. You can paint me, if you want.” He swallowed audibly. “And I would never hurt you. Because I know you wouldn’t hurt me.”

They weren’t so very far from the venue. But here in the darkness it seemed very far away. Sounds of voices, happy shrieking, like a children’s carnival that had happened in a distant memory.

Erica stopped, tried to steady herself. Looked at the trembling boy. He had a strong life current coursing through his lean, nerved up body. She felt the steady dark pulse of the jar hidden deep in her bag. She thought of what it was to live a woman’s life, and all the contortions it had always required. The everlasting poise. Overriding of impulses. To control hunger, to control rage. How freeing it would be, to be a villain for once, to do something terrible and not care.

There was a quiet moment where all felt suspended. The earth was still on its axis, hanging in cold space.  A clear line between dark and light, who she had always been, and the person that she was turning into. If she crossed this line, could she ever come back?

Quietly, she said to the boy, “Before you go home with me, I have something to show you.”

She led him to a spot where the utility lights were brighter. She reached into her nylon tote, opened the plastic storage bag, and lifted out the jar from its nest of sodden bloody paper towels. Opened the jar and let the lid drop and clatter to the ground. Reached in and took the heart into her hand, she had to grip tightly it was so slippery, her fingers felt like they could puncture the flesh, but she had it and she held it up high, dripping rubies, in all of its terrible and obscene glory. The heart, abruptly wrenched from its wet nurturing darkness, began to beat very fast and erratically, like a car with a thumping flat tire. Blood ran down her forearms and dripped onto her leopard print shoes.

The boy went very still, concentrating hard on what he was seeing. She could see the knowledge dawn on him, of what it was. But instead of screaming or recoiling in disgust…he merely unfocused his eyes. Expression shut down, like the grating coming down on a closed storefront. Looked behind her, like he was scanning a crowded room for a face he wanted to see. Put his hands deep in his pockets and slowly walked away, back towards the lights and the happy voices, leaving her behind.

Erica had the queerest feeling just then that she didn’t even exist. She wasn’t even there, that the sad boy was the only one that had really seen her. Somehow, without meaning to, she had lost her soul.

She quickly began to search out the jar and lid. Put the heart gently back in, hoping it hadn’t been hurt.

I’m sorry, she said. I wasn’t thinking straight.  Do you want to go home? Let’s go home.

The heart said to her only one word: Coward.

The cold silence that ensued made her frantic and desperate. A million stammered apologies trembled on her lips. The instinct to fix things, to make things better, was so great that if she could open up her own ribs and put the heart into her own body next to hers, she would do it.

But then she stopped. She had an unbidden flashback: all at once she felt transported back to old Mrs. Lewis’s house. She remembered seeing her own face in the old woman’s dark spotted wall mirror.  She had a swift sudden feeling, a certainty, that she had left her reflection behind. She hadn’t lost her soul. She had exchanged it for a strange gift she hadn’t asked for. My girl, sometimes enough is enough, and it is time to cross that line. You do what you need to do.

It did not belong to her, if she didn’t accept it.

She couldn’t go home again. Wouldn’t hide again. She took one long look at the thing in the jar. Something must have changed in her expression, because the heart said, What? Why are you looking at me like that?

It began to beat faster as she walked swiftly towards a drainage ditch that ran along the side of the parking lot.

No! It cried as she pulled her arm back to hurl the jar down, down, where the glass jar fell, then shattered, and the heart was slashed by the broken glass. It lay there, bleeding all over the jagged rocks.

Erica did not linger to watch the life drain out of it. She was not feeling guilt, not exhilaration…but something different. She walked away, her brain in a spin, thinking of all kinds of things, children, husband, home… the way everything she once thought was solid was ephemeral and fleeting. It made her happy and scared, all at once. She looked up at the unfamiliar stars spread across the sky. They looked like patterns, like maps, so bright and so, so cold.