Music was playing; she’d never heard Marc play music before.
“Is this your music?” Clara asked Clem.
“Yeah,” she said.
“What band is this?”
“This is Sorry About Dresden.”
“Isn’t that name a little flippant?” asked Marc.
Clara had never heard of this band, and again, she felt relieved. Clara had calculated that Clem could be as old as 7 and ¾ years younger than her, or as young as 8 and ½ years younger than her. She was even more relieved that like an old curmudgeon, she, too, found the band’s name to be potentially offensive.
“What else do you like listening to?” Clara asked Clem, in hopes of further confirming the generation gap between the two of them.
Clem listed the bands she liked, many of which had names that were complete grammatical sentences: “We Are Scientists” and “Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin.” “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah” gave Clara a little difficultly, until she mentally diagrammed the sentence and determined that it was actually two imperative sentences, both with implicit subjects.
Marc had fixed stuffed poblano peppers, Clem had made guacamole, and dinner was surprisingly civil. Clara had long since divided the people in her life into allies and enemies, and thought that Clem would either want to be her best friend because she was so young, or that Clem would despise her for it, but Clem didn’t seem to have strong feelings either way. Marc drove Clara back to her cabin before eight o’clock.
“You’re the first woman who’s met my daughter,” Marc told her on the drive home.
“You’re the first man whose daughter I’ve met,” Clara replied, lighting a cigarette.
On one of their trips to the farmers’ market, at the stand that sold homemade jams, Clara saw three kittens clawing the sides of a large shoebox. The man and woman behind the booth were Mennonite, probably not Amish because the woman wore a periwinkle dress. Clara called Marc away from the piles of squash and eggplants and asked him how he felt about getting a kitten.
“Where will it be kept?” he asked.
Translation: Will it be yours or ours?
Clara picked up a kitten by its underarms and feigned incomprehension. “We’ll keep it in the empty dining room!”
“I don’t want a cat,” Marc said.
Clara ignored him. She felt that she had never really asked much from Marc. The kitten she chose was a gray tabby, soft and warm as her favorite sweater. “Let’s name her Cashmere,” she said.
When they discovered that Cashmere was a he, not a she, Marc wanted to change his name to something more masculine. Clara lied and said that she named him Kashmir after the Led Zeppelin song. For the first time, she borrowed Marc’s car to drive down the mountain to visit the vet’s office to get the cat neutered. While registering the kitten at the vet’s, Clara defiantly wrote “Cashmere.”
Clara had thought that Marc would be just a tangential character in Cashmere’s life, but Marc loved the cat more than she. Every morning, after the kitten awoke Marc by walking on his chest, Marc went to the bathroom to take a shit and the cat followed him, twirling figure eight’s around his legs, purring. Clara was becoming jealous of her own cat.
When Marc started feeding him three or four times a day, Clara said, “You’re slowly killing him.”
“At least he’ll die happy.”
“I don’t want my cat dying.”
“Your cat or my cat?”
The cat slept on Marc’s crotch every night, kneading his paws into Marc’s abdomen.
“It’s the warmest part of the body,” Marc explained as he stroked the cat lying atop his genitals. Once Cashmere settled down, Marc wouldn’t move for fear of disturbing him. The cat was like a weight on his chest, pinning him down. This cat is ruining our sex life, Clara thought.
“You’re callous,” Clara said to Marc once, before going to bed. As Marc picked the cat up and walked to his living room, Clara ran after him.
She explained that she didn’t mean to call him callous, exactly. But then, she did not know what it was that she meant to call him. She would’ve gone on a scavenger hunt for synonyms, she explained, if only she owned a thesaurus instead of, or in addition to, the Spanish-to-English language dictionary she bought when she thought that moving to Quito was the only thing that could ever make her happy.
She told Marc that she thought that there was something quixotic about Quito, and something equitable about Ecuador, where the Northern Hemisphere converged with the Southern Hemisphere. She imagined herself in Ecuador, straddling the Equator.
“I was horrified to learn that Ecuador’s national currency was the U.S. dollar,” she told Marc. Ecuador was where all her old bills went to retire, the twenties with Andrew Jackson still trapped inside that oval. Ecuador was where currency is no longer current. It troubled her that the same dollar could buy so much more in Ecuador than in America.
“It’s as if the meaning of the dollar breaks down, a subprime semantic crisis, and like my Spanish words, all the dollars get lost in translation.”
“You’re a strange woman,” Marc said, and holding her right hand with his left hand, like he was about to kiss it.
“I need a new job,” Clara said.
She spent the next week trying to explain herself to Marc:
“It’s not about you, it’s about the job.”
“I wanted butterflies, and I got moths.”
“I want to quit smoking.”
“I’m taking the cat with me.”
“I’ll stay if you cry,” she told Marc.
“I’ll cry if you stay,” he replied.
“Write me a recommendation,” Clara stated, not asked.
When she applied to be a docent at the Fairbanks Museum in Vermont, Marc helped her rewrite her resume, explaining, “It’s like rearranging furniture. It’s about presenting the same things in a much better way.”
The Fairbanks Museum, in the state where Clara had always wanted to live, featured “insect portraiture”—intricate mosaics formed by interweaving the metallic shells of beetles and the wings of butterflies, the insect Clara had always wanted to study.
In the museum, there was a portrait of George Washington, iridescent from the beetles’ carapaces. His powdered wig was composed of moth wings. The dark eddies on the white feathery wings perfectly simulated the soft coils of the First President’s coiffure. Clara realized, after two weeks of passing by the same portrait every day, that Washington’s thin lips reminded her of Marc.
Clara had difficultly reconstructing Marc’s face in her mind. All the photographs of him had been taken with the lab’s camera, and therefore remained the lab’s property; their relationship archived among the pictures of dead moths. She tried to form a mental image of him by remembering the metaphors she had once used to describe his face, like his Adam’s apple that looked as though he had swallowed a Scrabble square.
She finally realized that it wasn’t as if she had forgotten what he looked like, but rather, she remembered him all too well. She remembered his face from every angle, every perspective, and when she tried to put it all together, his face fractured like a Cubist painting.
She was the one to re-establish contact after the break-up. Cashmere’s vaccination records were in his house; she wrote him a letter asking him to send them. She mentioned that Cashmere was very happy living with her. After moving, Cashmere began to love her as much as he ever loved Marc, if only because there was no one else to love. Love is an exchangeable currency, Clara learned.
Clara received the papers a week later, and read Marc’s attached note, in which he mentioned that he read about the museum in the Arts and Culture section of Entomology Monthly. He offhandedly recommended that Clara should get herself “tested,” specifically for herpes, because he believed that he contracted Herpes Simplex Virus Type-1 from her. Clara was convinced that he was lying. She remembered his testicles, as lumpy and uneven as the ventricles of a heart, suspended like peaches from a branch. She wondered if they were now mottled with oozing abrasions, as soft and gooey as rotting fruit.
GENITAL IS ALMOST GENIAL, BUT NOT QUITE.
Walking to the bathroom, she rubbed her tongue along her gums. In the mirror, she examined the ribbed palate on the roof of her mouth and the purple sinews beneath her tongue. She stuck out her tongue and touched it, slick and amorphous, with a white film coating it, downy as peach fuzz. She gargled with mouthwash the color of antifreeze and made a doctor’s appointment.
The doctor explained that 95% of all people have HSV-1, but that the majority of people who have herpes don’t express the symptoms thereof.
(WE ALL HAVE HERPES, ALMOST!)
All your symptoms are latent, the doctor explained, and Clara left her office confused. Though she told Clara that she had a clean bill of health, Clara still didn’t know if that meant she had herpes or not. What she had was silent herpes, a road not taken, a might’ve been . . .
IF THE VIRUS IS LATENT . . .
IF A TREE FALLS IN THE WOODS . . .
IF THE GLOVE DOES NOT FIT . . .
IF THE SKIN IS NOT INFLAMED, YOU CANNOT BLAME.
IF THE MOUTH DOES NOT ACHE, YOU MUST EXONERATE.
Clara began to date Henderson, a chubby blonde waiter, loud and goofy, all the wonderful things that Marc was not. Henderson was like a vaccine for Marc, strengthening her emotional antibodies. The first time she told Henderson about her herpes predicament, he said that herpes was worth it, and before she could ask him what the hell he was talking about, he kissed her.
Henderson liked to dance with his face while listening to music, contorting his face, grotesquely, yet elegantly, every facial twitch synchronized to the song. His facial expressions would become progressively goofier, with bulging eyes, blown out cheeks, and a flailing tongue, until he lost all muscle restraint and Clara and Henderson both convulsed with laughter. Henderson wore Christmas ties all year long. Henderson used her vagina like a ventriloquist’s dummy, softly lifting the lips, and making it speak with a deep Bronx accent. “This is what smokers sound like, toots.” If Cashmere was lying on Clara’s belly and Henderson wanted to mess around, he had no problem throwing the cat off of her.
Occasionally, Clara still thought about Marc. She imaginesd Marc’s thin lips, scabbed with sores, leaking seepage. If she had accidentally infected him with Chlamydia, she could at least take solace in the fact that unlike the herpes, she, too, would have to endure Chlamydia.
But Chlamydia can be cured.
Herpes was forever.
Clara felt that some sort of reparation was in order, an equal punishment she could inflict upon herself. She tried to imagine a befitting punishment, as clever as if Dante himself had divined it. She wondered if she should send some sort of nice gift basket, with cold cream and herbal ointments. But even if that helped Marc, it wouldn’t really punish her. She thought very carefully about what the opposite of giving someone herpes unintentionally might be, and decided that as her punishment, she should intentionally not give someone herpes.
She liked Henderson, yet she began to fantasize about celibacy. She checked out a book from the library about the Shakers, a religious group that almost died out due to their belief in lifelong abstinence. She learned that instead of sex, the Shakers channeled their energy into spasmodic dances and woodworking. She fell asleep, mentally designing an oak dining room set for Marc’s empty house. She imagined it filled with chairs, an armoire, and bookshelves. However, she knew how she could fill the empty dining room. When she opened the closet to find Kashmir’s cat carrier, she stared at her favorite sweater, fallen to the floor, and noticed tiny holes, where the fabric had been eaten away.
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