Taut Red Ribbon
by Sarah Langan
There was a girl. Not me. I wasn’t this girl. I’m another girl. You’ll learn about me later. But this girl, she took his heart, and broke it in two. She left it on the corner of the street, all runny like an egg yolk. The rain washed the best parts of it down the sewer. That’s why my hands are reaching through the gutter even though I’m afraid of city rats, I’m looking for the best parts of his heart.
I lived next door, you see. Thin walls in this city, old tenements with kitchens lost in closets and closets made of plastic blocks. I could hear them through the walls. He talked on the phone a lot. Blah blah blah he said most of the time until eleven o’clock reruns were on television. I don’t know what she did. Maybe she smoked and looked sultry. Brunettes can do that. He wore corduroys and sometimes I walked to the subway with him: swish, swish, was the sound of his pants. He liked Matthew Sweet, which made me wonder if all the good men were taken, and someone had forgotten to inform me of the sale. The girl, we’ll call her Serena. She was sad most of the time, so I guess that’s why he liked her. A brooding kind of sad, like the world owes you something but you just can't figure out what it is. If I pinch the skin on my thighs hard enough, maybe it’ll look like I’m brooding, too.
She left one day while he wasn’t home. Some girls do that, I am told. The mysterious kinds of girls. I think there are different kinds of girls, and some are made of desire and hope. Then there is the other kind of girl, and I think she is made of thick metal or mercury. So this girl full of metal, she left him one day, and in her bags, she intended to steal his heart. Maybe he forgot to carry it with him, he didn’t know that it needed protecting, and he left it on his bedside table where she could steal it away. But it somehow got lost in the shuffle, and beat its way out of her suitcase. As she traveled through the city streets, it lay on the sidewalk, where I found it one day, and tried to give it back to him.
The shadows came apart, like a zipper being pulled.
For the first month after she left he had a frantic look about him, like someone who’s lost his firstborn child in the Ramble of Central Park. He would knock on my door, asking for help with his computer, or how long to bake a potato and at what temperature, or what the heck were those little bugs that now crawled all over his bread? He would ask these things while ruffling the brown hair on his scalp, like a man whose gears won’t stop spinning.
“You have pretty eyes,” he told me after I gave him the super’s phone number, because his tub had been leaking, and he returned the favor with a book that rang especially true for him these days, Darkness Unraveled, which he thought I should read, “They’re not quite blue.” I smiled patiently at him, like a girl who knows where it’s at. Cardinal Rule Number Two (Number One is never date a married man): never date a man who’s still crying about somebody else. “No, I’m pretty sure they’re blue,” I said.
I cried that night for no good reason. My father called in the middle of a sob that sent cartoon musical notes through the air, all in A flat. He told me that being thirty-one isn’t easy. “I remember what it was like. You’ve got friends, you’ve got a decent job, but still, it ain’t easy.”
Do you really know, dad? I wanted to ask. It’s a nest of bees in your stomach that won’t go away. It’s feeling like the whole world is living happily and you’re just not doing it right. The instruction booklet got lost in the mail because unlike everybody else, you’re rootless, and without a permanent address. “I guess everybody feels this way,” I said.
“No. Just people like you,” he told me, “You’re sensitive.” The musical notes fell to the floor all at once, and I got the distinct impression I’d just been called bipolar. “Are you coming home for Easter?”
The shadows were talking, but I couldn’t hear what they said.
After a night of dinner and drinks and then dancing, but we never got to the dancing because some guy with a lot of hair (whom I sure was really a werewolf Lon Cheney style) had a thing for my friend Justine and kept buying us rounds at the bar (Justine shrugged when the two of them got in the cab together and whispered “There’s always electrolysis”), I came home to find him sitting outside his apartment with his head in his lap. “Deep thoughts?” I asked, shifting my weight from foot to foot because of the blisters my fuzzy pink high-heels had given me.
“No. I locked myself out. I’m waiting for the locksmith.”
“Oh, good. I thought you were contemplating ending it all.”
“No. You have a good night?”
“No. Want to wait in my apartment?”
We sat side by side like eighth graders at a school dance, and watched Saturday Night Live on mute. “It’s better with no sound, “ he said, “You don’t have to listen to them beg for a laugh.”
I raised an eyebrow, to show that I was vaguely amused. “Tough talk from Mr. Darkness Unraveled.”
He inched a little closer. I looked behind us, and saw that our shadows were touching. “You’re like one of those sirens that lure men to their deaths, aren’t you?”
I thought we were going to kiss, and was trying to decide whether kissing him would make me eligible for the dysfunctional-women-who-can’t-make-one-right-decision-club, when the bell rang, and the locksmith arrived, and we gave each other chaste nods farewell.
I had a dream that night, that my Fairy Godmother was a crone. Her nose was one big wart, and she kept waving this black magic wand at me, shouting, “Disappear! Disappear!”
The shadows came together, like a ball of black.
The next day I found a red thread that was shiny like a ribbon under his door. It was pulled taut, and led outside the building. I followed it to the street. In the gutter, I saw the thing he’d lost. It was mostly dried up by then, and looked like a shriveled Easter egg, all red and brown with just a hint of blue.
“Here,” I said when he opened his door, “I think this belongs to you.” I held it carefully, wrapped in tissue paper from a present I’d bought for myself: we single girls do that every once in a while. We buy little trinkets we know we cannot afford because we deserve them. We deserve nice things like earrings and scarves just like everyone else. And so I held out this piece of him. When he took it back from me, I saw that it started to bleed through the tissue paper, and drip on the floor.
“You really are pretty,” he told me. “Serena used to spend hours in the bathroom before we went anywhere, but she always looked tired.” There were tears in his eyes, but I don’t think they were for me.
I stayed over that night. And the night after that. And the night after that. Perhaps I’m a good Samaritan. My mother always told me, you see a heart bleeding, remember to pick it up and deliver it to the lost and found. Someone will want it one day. But the thing is, when you pick up someone’s heart, sometimes you’re the one who wants it. Maybe that is the real problem. Maybe I am the one who has lost my heart, only I’ll never know it, unless I cut myself open and look. For all I know, it could be a clock beating in there.
The shadows were creeping all over the walls.
It became a routine. I went to his apartment, which I had secretly named depression central. We sat on his couch, it was once their couch, and watched television. Blah blah blah said the screen. We made love every night, only we called it sex. And then I got up and made dinner, some single girl special like pasta or grilled cheese. In return he rolled his eyes in ecstasy, and told me he had never eaten anything better than what I had laid before him, and then he got up and washed the dishes. In bed while we slept, he sometimes reached out and held my hand.
When he wasn’t paying attention, I liked to watch our shadows. They whispered, hands cupped to each other’s ears, as if they knew something we did not. They lingered in the kitchen, near the couch, over the bed. They were soft, and yet substantial, like a definite future. I once shined a flashlight against the wall, trying to trap them like fossil against rock, but they fled.
Three months after she left, Serena, he still did not like to say her name. I made a list of ways I was like her: we both had dark hair, we both used the same styling gel, which was nice, since she had left some behind in his shower, we wore the same shoe size, though I would never don her stilettos, nor could I throw them away, since this was not my apartment, so I just let them sit there in the corner of his bedroom, as if one day she’d appear back inside them.
I made a list of ways I was not like her, because after all, there were parts he wanted to forget: I did not cut out depressing photos from magazines and tape them to the wall for inspiration, I did not mark my kitchen calendar with events I planed to attend, I did not eat like a bird, all nuts and grains, I did not have smoldery eyes, I could not ease away his pain with just the touch of my hand or the croon of my voice.
I took both lists and folded them into paper airplanes. Out his window, I set them free. They hit a little girl in a red cloak who carried a basket. A pretty girl with long, dark hair. “Be careful!” she said.
“Sorry. I was sending them into space.”
She shrugged. “Paper can’t go into space. Only rockets.”
“A letter to the cosmos. What’s in the basket?”
She smiled, and I saw that her teeth were rotten. “You know,” she said.
“No really, I don’t. What’s in the basket?”
She reached inside, and hurled something at me. It smashed against my face, and cut my upper lip. “Eggs,” she laughed. “Easter eggs!”
The cut on my lip did not heal, and looked like one big herpes sore. When he asked me how I got it, I told him I’d taken up boxing. I felt this was very close to the truth.
The shadows were smiling, I saw their black teeth.
We went for a walk one Sunday morning in Central Park. I showed him my favorite place to sit, the trunk of a fallen tree overlooking the water. “Leave it to you to have a thinking place. I’ve always wanted one,” he said.
“Why? What are you thinking about?” I asked. In the dirt, some pigeons were fighting over a half-eaten chicken bone. A man on a bench ate a sandwich wrapped in foil. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the girl with the red cloak. She was dropping eggs on the ground and kicking them into the water where they skidded lightly before they sank.
“It’s not like I miss her anymore,” he said.
“So you tell me.”
He smiled like he was trying to make a joke, “I feel like somebody turned me around, like that movie, ‘Singing in The Rain,’ where suddenly the floor is the ceiling.”
I fingered the cut on my lip. “I feel that way all the time.”
He nodded at me, as if I could not possibly understand.
For weeks I searched the gutter near our building. It was full of leaves and dog shit. I washed my hands with bleach when I was done, so that he would not guess what I had been up to. The last time I searched, I closed my fingers around the thing I was sure he had lost. I pulled it out, and found a shoe. The shoe was far too big, and painted red with white spots, and so I wore it for days, until he asked me if I planned to join the circus.
The shadows were talking, and I do wish they’d stop.
I got up one night, because I heard a noise. I put my ear to his locked bedside table, where his heart bled through the wood. Drip, drip, was the sound, like the swish of his pants.
Against the walls, I saw that the shadows had taken on a life of their own. I saw them merging, and then coming apart. They danced a Waltz. Maybe a wedding Waltz. It was his dream. I was inside his dream.
I raised my two fingers, and tried to make rabbit ears, but my fingers cast no shadow. I stood and saw that neither shadow belonged to me. I walked through the room, searching, but I could not find my shadow. I had no shadow. I hid her stiletto heels in the closet, but the way they sat so expectantly beneath her silk robe made me think that they would fill with flesh, and so I hid them under the bed. The shadows danced in slow motion. The shadows lurked, ten feet tall. I waited for a very long time, watching them merge and then separate. I waited for a very long time, hoping that she would disappear. And then I got up, and shut the door behind me, and made everything dark.