by Jen Michalski
They found her in the coat pile. After the guests left, one by one, cashmere and wool double-breasted coats plucked from the bed, the arms of parkas flying, she appeared under a herringbone overcoat, her face pressed into the duvet.
‘Oh, dear,’ the lady of the house said. She felt the woman’s forehead. There was a coolness not expected. She grabbed the woman by the shoulders and sat her up. ‘Are you ill?’
‘It feels good to be free,’ the woman sighed, shaking her hair, black, curly, and the lady of the house smoothed it like a blanket.
‘Who did you come with?’ The lady of the house guided the woman downstairs. Such a fine woman, she marveled. Only her spackled white skin, her worried brow, marred her—but who wouldn’t be marred, who wouldn’t be, under a coat pile?
‘I was the first one here,’ the woman explained. ‘I was having the most delicious sleep.’
‘Could it have been the Jamiesons?’ the lady of the house wondered aloud. They always had stragglers in tow. ‘Or the Paulsons?’
‘I remember a night aboard a ship.’ The woman, as light as a coat hanger, palmed her ear as if to shake out water. ‘A steamer trunk. Mothballs.’
‘You were probably dreaming.’ The lady of the house patted the woman’s hand.
‘Who’s this?’ The man of the house sat up from the couch, scotch rolling against his glass. He arched an eyebrow and smiled. ‘Your sister?’
‘Trapped in the coat pile,’ the lady of the house explained, as if the woman were a scarf or a glove. ‘What’s your name, darling?’
‘I’m the lady of the house.’ The woman stood taller. Her worried brow disappeared as she drew in breath and let it out. ‘You know who I am, don’t be silly.’
The lady and man of the house exchanged glances, silences, fisted coughs.
‘Why don’t I make you some tea?’ The lady of the house departed toward the kitchen. ‘Before we call you a cab? Or do you have a car?’
The woman responded from the study, but the lady of the house was not listening, banging cabinets, looking for the sugar cubes, the tea leaves. The slate tiles beneath her feet seemed to lurch, and she gripped the quartz countertop and thought she saw the black curl of waves, like shark fins, splashing against the windows.
When she returned, the woman was sitting in the lady’s favorite chair, by the window. She had filled out some, her body, like a bicycle tire half inflated.
‘The air has done you some good,’ the lady of the house remarked. The man of the house crossed his legs, tilting the rest of the whiskey into his mouth.
‘She says she knows us,’ he remarked dryly, setting the glass on the table.
‘Of course she knows us—she’s here, isn’t she?’ The lady of the house set down the tray with the teacup and sugar cubes and creamer. ‘I only wish I knew who brought you.’
‘The ship.’ The woman took the teacup in her still-white hands. ‘Such a rough passage.’
‘Well, wherever you are living now, please let us help you on your way—once you’re able.’ The lady of the house clasped her hands. The cut of her diamond ring, flickering in the light, hid the shadowy spots on her skin, the watery blue veins that surged underneath. She clasped her hands harder, to stop them from shaking. She had a name once—before her married name, before they called her the lady of the house. But she couldn’t remember.
‘I’m bushed.’ The man of the house stood up and stretched.
‘Me too.’ The woman sprang up, leaving the tea on the table, and followed the man of the house upstairs. The lady of the house collected the abandoned tea and the whiskey with haste and placed them with a clatter in the sink. Even so, by the time she got to the bedroom the man of the house was already lying on his back, snoring, the woman curled next to him, her face pressed into the sheet, the position the lady of the house had found her in earlier.
‘You simply can’t stay.’ The lady of the house tugged at the woman’s arm. But she was the weight of a lion, her mane of curls spread over the lady of the house’s pillow. The lady of the house pulled again.
‘I thought she already left,’ the man of the house murmured in his sleep when the lady of the house pleaded for help. Finally, after tugging and nudging a few more times, she sighed and crawled into the sliver of bed the woman had allotted her, stared at the ceiling all night. She noted, with surprise, a whisper of a crack in the ceiling.
When the lady of the house woke up, she was on the floor. Her back ached. She pulled herself up by the edges of the bed and was surprised to find it empty. She smiled. The man of the house, surely, had put the woman in her place. Wherever, the lady of the house thought as she showered, that place was.
When she got downstairs, she gasped at the woman, sitting at the table, drinking coffee. She was wearing some of the lady of the house’s clothes. Not things she wore anymore—a black turtleneck, a loud scarf, one she had loved once, things she had packed away years ago, when she came back from Europe. When she was engaged to be married to the man of the house.
‘I’m glad that you have had a restful sleep, and have helped yourself to some of my castoffs.’ The lady of the house drummed her fingers on the countertop. ‘But I’m afraid you must go now.’
‘Don’t you think I’ve tried?’ The woman wore her hair young, pushed away from her face by a headband. Her cheeks were as plump as a Thanksgiving turkey. ‘I was having the most delicious sleep when you woke me.’
‘I woke you?’ The lady of the house laughed. It was all so absurd, dreadfully so. But it was possible she’d woken the woman up. She had been careless with the coats, throwing them on the bed with a force that they perhaps hadn’t deserved. She had been angry about something, angry with the man of the house. Whatever it had been, she couldn’t remember now; surely it wasn’t important.
‘Well, there’s no point now.’ The woman stood up and stretched. The lady of the house’s own back, curving under the weight of things, the hardness of the floor by the bed, pursed her lips in envy.
‘Where is the man of the house?’ The lady of the house pressed her hand to her chest, felt a hummingbird fluttering about. She wondered if she would have to call the police herself.
‘He went to the club.’ The woman rolled her eyes. The lady of the house began to smile but caught herself. At one time, maybe she thought the club was a lot of puffery, but she had come to appreciate the fundraisers, the luncheons, the spa—things the lady of the house should.
‘Why would he leave me here with you?’ The lady of the house wondered aloud. She looked outside. Had it rained? Water, although, calm, flat like a plate, surrounded them like a moat. How had he gotten out? How would she? The woman pulled out a pack of Gitanes from a beaded shoulder bag, lit one.
‘You can’t—’ The lady started, but the smoke crept in her nostrils and she inhaled deeply, closed her eyes. Her senior year of college in France, when she had taken the ship over and back, thinking it chic—she had thought about so many different things then. She marveled at what she wanted then was so different than what she wanted now. It was almost as if she were two people in her life. She wondered whether one was real and the other an imposter.
The lady of the house sat across from the woman, pulled a Gitane from the cellophane. She let the woman light her cigarette with a beat-up Zippo, which had also been in the steamer trunk, surely—a French boyfriend had bought it for the lady and had her name inscribed. And what was her name again? The lady peered at the light swirls of etching, thought she saw something there.
‘So what do we do now?’ The lady of the house laughed nervously and smiled. ‘Am I going to have to kill you?’
‘Not if I kill you first,’ the woman smiled back.
The woman and lady of the house shared coffee. They talked about the man of the house. ‘I always thought he was terribly charming and sophisticated,’ the woman said. She had put on lipstick, a dark red shade that the lady of the house hadn’t purchased in years. A crescent of it smudged red the rim of the coffee cup.
‘He was charming,’ the lady of the house agreed. ‘He never liked that scarf, by the way.’
‘Do you like it?’ The woman twirled a bit of the purple silk in her fingers.
The lady of the house did like it. She had always liked it. It was hers, after all. She reached over to pull from the woman’s neck. It tightened the fleshy cords of the woman’s neck underneath, but the woman did not struggle, lift her hands to fight. The woman’s neck, the lady thought, had been folds of skin the night before. Now it was smooth, muscled, like a horse. The lady gripped with both hands now, pulling tight. But the woman’s neck only seemed to grow softer and thicker.
The lady stopped. She understood now.
Quietly, she said to the woman: ‘Put your hands on my neck.’
The woman smiled. She leaned over and stroked the lady’s hair, her fingers catching in the lady’s curls before resting on her neck. She pressed her lips against the lady’s. The lady opened her mouth and relented, felt the woman in her throat.
The man of the house came home. His face was blotchy from scotch and sun. They waited in the hallway, twirling their scarf. He stopped in the foyer, blinking his eyes.
‘You’re still here?’ He looked cross, dropping in keys in the bowl by the door. Behind him, they could see the water level pushing against the windows, droplets seeping from the frames into the wall. ‘I thought we’d gotten rid of you.’
Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Summer She Was Under Water, The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press, 2021), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and three collections of fiction. She is the Editor in Chief of the online lit weekly jmww (@jmwwjournal). Find her @MichalskiJen.