Love amongst the famous & young

Postscript Short fiction contest: first place winner


Congratulations to Grace O’Connell, ArtSci ’06
“Safe as Houses”

There is applause and the rustling that follows the breaking of a collective silence. House lights come up and the critics stuff their rotted little notebooks away, trying to blend in as human beings. Suburbanites rush back to the cars they assume have been keyed or stolen. From her box, Karen watches the activity. Ted’s new show was good—very good, even for Ted, who is always good. He will be pleased. All the same, Karen will wait in the box for a little while, let him catch his breath. He will be more tired tonight than the actors, more tired than the runners. He is the most important, and therefore the most exhausted. He will see to that.

So she stays put. Her private box pleases her; these little tidbits of status mean something, although maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe enjoying the box (with its red velvet and imitations of imitations, still grand for this city) is immoral. Something to do with starving children elsewhere, the errors of capitalism. Although isn’t this art? Sometimes art gets to fly under the radar, sometimes not. Karen used to think about these things more but for a long time now, Ted has filled up her thoughts. Also their son, who has recently moved out of the house. He spent the first six months doing his laundry with fabric softener instead of soap until Karen found out. She was half amused and half horrified; had she failed as a mother? It was hard to pay attention to Jason, even when he was small. Ted took up so much room, in her head.

After a while, Karen goes backstage. She finds Ted in the centre of a circle of people, holding some roses and smiling tiredly, like a woman who had just given birth. She pecks him on the cheek, squeezes the hand without roses. Then she retreats.

Ted is talking to people, mostly to the producers but also to a few of the actors and one or two sanctified critics. There is a girl Karen knows, who played one of the parts. Not the female lead, but something meaty enough: somebody’s daughter, someone in a lot of pain and very thin clothes. Already Karen forgets the finer details, although she was watching, she was trying to watch. The girl’s name is Carolyn and she is gazing at Ted. The distinction is obvious—not a look but a gaze. So full of worship it is almost unfocused, cross-eyed. Ted is trying not to look at her too much, which is worse than if he were staring. The avoidance is what worries Karen. She joins the group and says hello to Carolyn, who she has spoken to now and then. She’s a bright enough girl and doesn’t show up drunk at rehearsal. If Jason brought a girl like this home, Karen wouldn’t mind.

There is less talking now that Karen is there. “Don’t let me interrupt,” Karen says, and Ted says, “I’m just tired.” Carolyn says “I should get going.” “Let us drive you home,” says Ted. He looks sideways at Karen. She nods.

“It’s so late,” she says in agreement. And it is.

But Carolyn shakes her head no. “It’s only one streetcar and a few blocks,” she says.

Karen doesn’t want her to walk home; she worries about rape and mutilation and so forth. Shadowy new crimes she hasn’t even heard of yet. Brains yanked out through noses and stuffed into orifices; horror movies from the future. Carolyn thinks she knows everything, Karen muses. They all do. Really she knows nothing, nothing at all. Maybe less than that. But you don’t need to know anything to feel pain, or to inflict it.

Anyway, she knows better than to insist on Carolyn coming with them. At her age, the harder you push, the worse it gets. She still goes through it with Jason sometimes. Karen was once that age; she told herself then that she would remember what it was like. She believes that she does. So she only says “goodbye” and Ted does too. She lets Carolyn walk out the door. She is wispy, an insubstantial girl. There is appeal there, of course. Ted follows her with his eyes—looking at her has been his job for many weeks. It could just be habit. There is the thing and there is the thought of the thing, Karen remembers from her philosophy courses, a long time ago. Theoretically, they were the same. Karen does not feel very theoretical tonight.

She puts her hand on Ted’s arm and he holds it. She looks at him and wants to say something, an invocation, a binding, as in witches. She wants to say don’t, not because she is blameless herself, over the years, but because they are older, because time is getting faster. Things can be done too quickly now, all in a tumble, with results spraying all over the place like ink stains. She wants to say Jason because somehow this has to do with him as well, as though this could damage him in ugly, gangrenous ways. She wants to say mine, a base thought, from somewhere in the back of her throat. But she says nothing, and Ted kisses her lightly, on the top of the head.

In the morning the reviews are out. Karen scans the papers in the dull light. She always gets up to read them before Ted, so she can get to him first and smooth a place on him for them to land in the right shape, the right texture. Not that she has to worry very much anymore—he has paid his dues and anyway one review couldn’t break him at this point. But everything is positive, some even glowing. The old relief floods her.

There is a photograph of Carolyn, large and in colour. She was not the most important but she looks the best on the page. Up and coming, they say. This worries Karen; it makes Carolyn sound like she could be anywhere. It sounds threatening: up and coming. Like a thief at the window. Or instead, comically sexual. Carolyn the giant penis. Karen laughs to herself. These mean thoughts comfort her, and who do they hurt? Certainly not Carolyn, who is busy being up and coming and beautiful. Who is busy being young, impervious to the stalking night forms that had surely frightened Karen at that age.

Ted comes into the kitchen and sees Karen at the breakfast table. He pours himself some of the coffee she has made and refills her empty cup at her elbow. He scans the reviews— he hardly ever bothers to read them all the way through. Yes or no? he said to her once, a long time ago, when she was afraid. He was a man of decision.

“Looks like we did okay,” he says sleepily, pleased. Karen nods. The photo of Carolyn shines up at him.

“I’m glad she got home alright,” he says. “I worry about the young ones.” Karen doesn’t say anything, but how does he know? How does he know she got home alright?

“Do you want some eggs?” Ted shakes his head. “You know I hate eating in the morning,” he says.

He shakes out the paper to refold it and leaves it neatly on the table. “Shower,” he says, giving Karen a quick squeeze on his way out of the kitchen. She says nothing but he is already gone.

Maybe she doesn’t say enough. Maybe she should drag him out of the shower, throw him on the bed, say my needs, and climb aboard. That would surprise him. But in a good way? Maybe not.

Karen stands up, agitated, knocks over her coffee. It gets all over the papers, so she has to throw them out. After she wipes off the table, she rinses the dishcloth. She opens the sugar bowl and eats a pinch, furtively. Then there is nothing to do for a little while. She can hear the shower in the background and can see the glass door fogging up as if she were in the room with him. There are white lines around Ted’s eyes these days, from smiling into the sun.

After what seems like no time at all, the shower stops. Somewhere in the bowels of the house, Ted is stepping out, naked and flushed. There’s a window in the bathroom—who can say what is seeping in? It seems like there are more holes, more entrances and exits, than there ever were before. Karen tries to cover them all but she can’t. What about her own mouth, her own eyes? The thumping noises from upstairs could be anyone’s and Karen is alone with nothing to defend her but the wet newspaper, growing soggy in the garbage. A door closes, muffled. Karen smiles, and the scream inside her head is silent.

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