I’m not the kind of woman who would participate in a threesome, which is exactly why I went. I’m lately trying to be a different sort of woman—one who can pull off an edgy haircut. A sort of Brooklyn-blonde pageboy kind of haircut. I’m Jean Seberg from Breathless in my mind.
I’d also heard, from a friend more reckless than me, that threesomes are the new rebound. This friend said that her threesome hookups with a coworker and his partner made her feel loved and accepted and taken care of—and I wanted to be taken care of. My friend honestly did seem better after the whole thing, too. She met a guy who makes gourmet corndogs, and when I go to the upscale food hall where he sells them he always gives me one for free. Only if I’m alone, though. He’s a really nice guy.
It felt like nothing much had been happening, and it was time to make something happen. Like dumping out your purse on the counter to make sure you aren’t carrying around any unnecessary burdens.
And not that I’m rebounding from anything in particular, except for maybe the death of Grammie Carla, which hasn’t happened yet, but could, at any time.
But all this wasn’t the only reason I was driving from Portland to Los Angeles for a threesome on Labor Day Weekend. Cliff, the male in the equation, had my Drive jacket.
Cliff and I used to take improv classes together back when I lived in LA and was still trying to pretend I wanted to live there. Once, he asked to borrow my Drive jacket for a sketch so I let him, even though it was the only article of clothing I wore every single day and was a sort of comfort object for me. After the show, Cliff kept the jacket on and we all went to the bar we always went to and drank as much as we normally did. Before we all left I asked Cliff if he could give me back the jacket. I had waited to ask until my UberPool pulled up, and was standing next to the car with the back door open, shivering in the nighttime breeze that shook all the tall palms in the Scientology courtyard. Cliff pouted and zipped up the jacket and said, “But I look so much like Ryan Gosling in it. Can’t I keep it?”
Cliff didn’t, and doesn’t, look that much like Ryan Gosling. But this doesn’t change the fact that he is of above-average attractiveness. You can tell he’s used to people wanting to hear him talk, to people asking him lots of questions about himself. You can tell he has been this way for a long time—an adorable child who slipped effortlessly into adolescence and adulthood—his body parts always proportional, his jawline always masculine, his skin always clear of imperfections, his teeth always white, his hair furiously thick into his thirties. He’s so good-looking that at first all you want is for him to like you. Until you know him, then you want him to be distracted by someone else. There was something about the way he smelled after a show—like 5th of July garbage, coleslaw and macaroni salad gone bad.
But this incident with the jacket was back before I really knew him. And so I said “Ok,” and got in the car and hated myself all the way home. Another passenger asked, “Did you know that guy?” and for some reason I shook my head. No.
I figured if I ended up at Cliff’s house at some point I could get the jacket back, but it turned out I never wanted to end up there and then I moved.
Then a month ago, three and a half weeks after my 26th birthday, Cliff messaged me on Instagram saying this: “Hey Bianca! Happy bday! So cool about the clothing line and the launch. I checked the website…I see there’s no stuff for men. Yet, I hope (crying/laughing emoji). I showed Ilsa and she wants a dress. That black tent-like one, I think? Can we get one? Be in touch!”
This conversation led quickly to me maybe coming down for a visit soon, because I’d already been planning to visit at some point anyway, and fitting Ilsa while I was there (and rubbing my hands on her body as I did it). I could stay with them (in their bed), even though they knew I had other friends I could stay with, because it would be more fun (potentially sexy), and they’d provide everything (drugs). All I needed to do was bring the fabric and supplies.
Nothing was ever explicitly arranged, of course, but everyone knew Cliff and Ilsa were swingers—or, no, that’s not right. Not swingers so much as they were into inviting younger girls into their relationship dynamic. In fact, their friend group consisted almost solely of younger women and I’d never seen them hang out with any guys, ever. And improv was mostly guys so I don’t know how they managed it.
I don’t need to tell you Cliff’s an actor. “Actor.” Of course he is (and more often isn’t). I’d overheard him say on many occasions, “I really see myself as a leading man.” He was bad at improv because he wasn’t funny at all, but he still insisted on inserting himself into every scene. He was constantly tapping you out right before you reached the climax, and then scrapping everything you’d built and doing something of his own. The places where he’d tap me would tingle in an almost painful way—sometimes for the rest of the show—and I’d always feel my ears turning red under the bright lights.
For his real money-making job he worked at the Jones in Hollywood, with the pleather aprons and all the pictures in the bathroom of women in the early 2000s flashing and mooning a film camera, sometimes at the table you’d just been sitting at. I’d never been able to spot any dick pics, but I always looked. I really liked going to Jones because you could order spaghetti and calamari there at all hours, and Cliff normally gave me a discount to display his power as a waiter.
Ilsa sells crystals. Or at least that’s what I think she does based on her Instagram Stories. I think she might also nanny sometimes, because she posts pictures of babies who don’t look anything like her or anyone she could possibly be related to. She’s northern European in the six-foot tall, white-blonde kind of way. She’d ended an eight-year relationship when she met Cliff one night at a bar when he was “backpacking” through Europe on inheritance money that was definitely bestowed upon him too soon. (Cliff’s possessions were a weird mix of expensive things he’d bought in his twenties that were now wearing out, and cheap things with which he’d filled in the gaps in his thirties. Instead of a projector, he still had a cumbersome and thick flat-screen television perched atop an IKEA particle-board media console. Instead of a duvet set, he had a comforter from the college-dorm section of Target thrown on top of a stained Tempur-Pedic mattress.)
I never figured out how old Ilsa was, and it didn’t seem to matter after a while. She could be thirty-one or forty-five. There was just no way of knowing—at some point we’d all known her too long to ask and could only make ballpark guesses by cobbling together pieces from her backstory. I always used to bet on her being much older, since I believe humans in northern Europe age at a much slower rate. She doesn’t have a single crease anywhere on her neck or face, but she carries her weight in her hips like a woman who has birthed three athletic boys.
I arrived late Saturday night, around 10:30 pm. I told Ilsa that I’d already eaten on the road, even though I’d only had a family-sized bag of Cheez-Its with malt balls dumpe*d in—a combination I’d conceived of at a gas station in Sacramento six hours before.
Ilsa asked me all the polite and expected questions. “How was the travel?”
“It was good! I listened to the Golden State Killer podcast and the trip aligned almost perfectly with his expansion of his hunting grounds. I see you guys don’t have blinds—we’d have been a target for him here.”
The house was a small, one-story bungalow with a shared driveway. It was positioned on the least shady spot halfway up a steep hill, meaning you still had to put in a lot of work to climb up there without the benefit of a good view when you finally made it.
The place was filthy. A twenty-pound cat named Raisin was sprawled out on one of several piles of Easter grass that littered the carpet, even though Easter was six months ago, was six months away. I heard the pug, Pancho, wheezing and snorting from the hallway before I saw him. He ambled around the corner to investigate me, deemed me an intruder, and snarled maliciously through congested nostrils.
“Pancho! Practice niceness!” Ilsa motioned for me to crouch down. She said in a softer voice to me, “You see, you need to get down on his level. Lower, lower. Ok, now lay all the way down and let him come be friendly with you.”
I hesitated and she said, “It’s the only way.”
So I sank back on my haunches and then lowered myself onto my back. Pancho tramped all over my hair and poked me in the eye hard with his gunky snout.
“There, look. Friends.”
I sat up and wiped at my eye with the back of my hand and it came back smeared with mascara. “Where’s Cliff?”
“He’s finishing up his shift. He’ll be home in a couple hours. Do you need help bringing anything in?”
“No, that’s ok. I can wait to bring the rest in when we start the fitting process tomorrow. But would you mind if I showered?”
Of course I didn’t expect people who don’t vacuum their floors to deep-clean their bathroom, but it was worse than I could have imagined. I’d been in the car since dawn and had dog snot mixed with black mascara caked on my face and there was no choice but to go through with it. I turned on the shower and then went through all of their cabinets and drawers, because it was a habit of mine when left alone in people’s bathrooms. I noted that there was only one severely depleted roll of toilet paper left.
“Hey Ilsa? Ilsa? I don’t think the shower is getting hot…” I said with just my face sticking out from behind the door, even though I hadn’t even undressed yet.
“Oh yeah. Not hot today. They’re doing something to the pipes. Sorry!”
I suffered greatly, and didn’t get to do all the thorough shaving I’d been planning on, but I lived. I changed into my ¿Porque No? Taco tank, pajama shorts decorated with ice cream cones, and high-top library-card socks. I hadn’t thought to pack my own towel. All the clothes clung to my body.
“What are you watching?” I combed my hair out standing next to the couch, not sure if I should sit down or not.
“It’s called Grizzly Man,” she said. “This man, he really loves those bears.”
Eventually I sat down on the chaise next to the couch, and woke up the next morning to Cliff following along to aerobic exercises he’d casted from YouTube onto the television.
I didn’t let him know I was awake for a long time. I just stayed motionless, my eyes open, watching him scissor his arms and legs in a boat pose. Eventually Pancho started making his loud guttural noises by the window.
“Is that damn stray here again?” Ilsa entered the room holding a bundle of lit sage. “Away! Away!” She made figure eight movements with the sage by the window.
Pretending to yawn through it, I said, “What’s going on?”
“You’re awake!” Cliff turned his head to me but continued expanding and contracting the angle of his boat pose.
“Yeah, sorry. I must have fallen asleep before you got home. What happened to the Grizzly Man?”
“They ate him.” Ilsa kicked at the window pane a couple of times with a Birkenstocked foot. “Shoo!”
“They ate him?”
“Yeah, the bears ate him.”
Pancho was starting to really have an episode.
The YouTube Abs Plus video finally concluded and Cliff crawled over to Pancho, flipped him over on his back and covered his whole face with his palm. “Pancho! Relax, man!”
Because this was the current activity of the household, I walked over and feigned curiosity over the disturbance. A skinny little black cat had its paws propped up on the window sill, head tilted at an angle, tail whipping back and forth, taking in the scene of us all.
“This cat is trying to seduce Raisin.” Ilsa pointed down at it with her sage.
At the sound of his name, Raisin mewed from under a dirty pile of designer athletic wear on the floor.
“She’s trying to lure him outside!” Ilsa knelt down and used her other hand to push the laundry aside and vigorously petted Raisin with one of her crystals. She whispered to Raisin, “You’re so stressed out, this is stressing you out,” then turned to me and said, “Do you understand? Is the situation clear to you?”
It may have been judgemental of me, some toxic form of cat-shaming, but I didn’t buy that the stray had any interest at all in twenty-pound Raisin.
“Aw, I don’t know. She’s probably just hungry…” I crossed my arms over my braless chest.
Pancho put up a fight for a bit, then relented, and his breathing slowed. When he was mostly quiet, Cliff finally took his hand off and Pancho rolled over onto his side, recovered, then got up and walked back to the bedroom. I wanted to follow him, but didn’t, so I don’t know where he went to hide or what he did after that.
“I swear to god I’m going to drop that cat off at a kill shelter. She’s a bad influence on Raisin!” Ilsa turned to the cat and said to its face, “That’s right. I’ll tell them you’re trying to infect my cat with feline AIDS. Then that’ll be the end for you.”
“Alright, enough of this.” Cliff got up from the floor and held his arms wide open. He was much taller than I’d remembered. “Bianca, baby. How are you?” He threw his arms around me and scrunched me up to him and kissed my head. He was already trying to get us going in the direction we’d need to go in order to make the threesome happen.
“I know it’s been forever, but it feels like no time has passed at all. When you know each other like we do—after being in the pits together—you can just pick right back up where you left off.”
He brought me into the kitchen still latched to his body and sat me down at the table, fashionably set with mismatched china.
“You hungry? Ilsa and I made breakfast.”
Ilsa was still playing with her sage by the sink and Cliff came up behind her and said, “Ilsa, will you please get the mugs out and pour the coffee?” but he said it like it was something she was supposed to know to do—something she should have already done.
After the coffee I hadn’t asked for was poured, the big flourish came. Cliff pulled a large Le Creuset pan out of the oven with a grin on his face.
“Shakshuka!” Cliff said.
“Shakshuka!” Ilsa said.
“Wow!” I tried.
I’d only had shakshuka a couple of times, but I knew for sure the egg whites at least were supposed to be cooked through. The sauce had brown pieces of mystery meat buried in it. Like a Wonder Ball of failed bougie brunch attempts. I stirred my helping around with a piece of stale bread to soak up as much as I could. The pan was very large.
Ilsa said, “This was so easy. Last week I cracked all the eggs and mixed it all together and set it in the fridge and today it’s so easy. Right into the oven! Easy! Bam! And done.”
I said, “I didn’t know you could do that with eggs.”
“Oh yes, of course. Eggs are eggs.”
Maybe northern European eggs were different.
Cliff got right into it. “So I was thinking, maybe we could do a little bit of roleplaying tonight. After we do all the dress business. Like a sketch! For old times’ sake. Like at improv, you know.”
Around Cliff, around everyone, I pretended to be younger and more naïve than I was. “Oh, yeah? What were you thinking?”
Ilsa slammed her hands on the table and said, “Ooh, ooh, how about Princess Diana? And Charles and Camilla? I’ve been practicing my accent after the Bake Off.”
She did her British accent but it was hard to tell if it was any good or not, because she already had an accent to me, and I didn’t know what she was doing differently besides saying, “That’s a good bake.”
Cliff suggested Three’s Company, which I thought was obvious and lame, and then I found my strategy. “What about Rebel Without a Cause?”
“That doesn’t make sense. That’s two guys and a girl.” Cliff brushed his hair back with his hand, and I knew I’d sway him if I gave him a good part.
“I think it still makes sense, or it would be fun that way. You can be James Dean and I’ll be Plato and Ilsa can be Judy. It will be funny. You can wear the Drive jacket. Hey! And maybe we could even go up to the Observatory tonight.”
“So I’m Natalie Wood? The one who drowned? I don’t want to be the one who drowned.” Ilsa kicked her feet under the table and one of her clogs skidded over to my side. I kicked it back.
“She didn’t drown, actually. She was murdered. By Robert Wagner. Christopher Walken was there.”
“Oh, you Americans. Always with the conspiracies. Sometimes a woman just drowns.”
I’d started plowing the shakshuka into tight crop circles on my plate. “What if we did the night of Natalie Wood’s murder? You can be Walken, Cliff will be R.J., and I’ll be Natalie.”
Cliff had a tennis ball-sized glob of egg yolk rolling around in his mouth. “Yeah, come on, Bianca. Not everyone is out to murder ladies all the time. My mom told me about that Dr. Phil special and I listened to some of that podcast too, but bottom line she was wasted out of her mind on like eight or nine glasses of champagne and she fell in and drowned. That’s it.”
“Maybe I should start drinking now to prepare for the role, then.”
That’s about when it started happening. Cliff got this scared look in his eye and got all still like something was taking hold of him, then he excused himself. Ilsa was ok for a moment, then she gripped the table with both hands, said, “Oh dear now, here comes a bit of trouble” in what I think was her British accent, and left to lock herself in the half-bath in the hallway, because Cliff was already in the main bathroom connected to the bedroom.
It didn’t take very long to figure out they both had a bad case of Monty’s.
I sat at the table for a few silent minutes, wondering what I should be doing. Then I thought that maybe I could run out and pick them up something for their stomachs, and get food while I was out. I wouldn’t tell them about the getting food part, though.
I grabbed my keys and for some reason all of my stuff—my entire bag of everything I’d brought into their house, even taking the time to unplug my phone charger from the wall and wrap it up and replace it in the outer zipper pocket—and headed out to my car. But when I got there someone was parked behind me, trapping me there. I walked around our cars twice in both directions to process the situation. Finally, I bent down, dumped out my bag on the street, found the Cheez-Its-and-malt-balls receipt and a pen and wrote, You’re blocking me in—Kindly text me when you plan to leave? and my number.
I repacked all of my things into my bag and brought it back inside, then made three trips back and forth to my car, bringing in everything I would need for the dress fitting. I piled everything by the front door at first, before I realized I’d need to make some space on the kitchen table to work. I started by just clearing off the table of the shakshuka breakfast disaster and washing all the dishes—then I couldn’t stop. I cleaned the whole kitchen, wiping down all the surfaces and reorganizing their pantries and shelves. When I was done there I moved on to the living room. I worked quickly. I found a vacuum by the washing machine and sucked up all the Easter grass and rearranged the couch pillows, fluffing as I went.
I heard the shower running. Ilsa was no longer in the half-bath in the hallway, so they were showering together. The door to the master bedroom had been left open, so it only made sense for me to continue on with my cleaning in there. I made the bed, reorganized their closet and drawers in the Marie Kondo method, and collected all the dirty clothes on the floor all over the house and sorted them into multiple loads of laundry.
This was how I found the jacket. It was balled up in a corner of their closet, and even though it smelled like Cliff hadn’t washed it since it came into his possession that night after the show, I crumpled into prayer position and held it in my palms and nestled my face in it. After I washed the ivory silk it would be as good as new, and I started the delicates load first.
I fed both Pancho and Raisin and even left some of Raisin’s food out for the stray after I swept the porch. I organized Ilsa’s rock collection into size, shape and color.
The shower water eventually turned off—it was a very long shower—but then I heard the tub filling up and for some reason the sink running at the same time. The whole house was starting to feel clammy from the steam emanating from the master bath. It was really starting to bother me that it was the only room I couldn’t get to, and I was hoping they would hurry up and clear out and give me space to work in there.
As I was setting my supplies out on the kitchen table, I noticed a trail of ants making its way along the baseboards, up to the sink, and into the cupboards. This wouldn’t do. Because I’d gone through their whole house, I knew that Cliff and Ilsa didn’t have what I’d need to combat the ants. I looked up the nearest convenience store—a seventeen minute walk away, which was certainly manageable, so I finished arranging my supplies and did one more round through the bungalow to make sure I was leaving everything in order. The jacket was still in the washer—it would be done by the time I got back, and then I could hang-dry it. I waited until I was on the porch to slip on Ilsa’s clogs, noting that the stray hadn’t touched the food yet, then I headed out. I was already too far from the house when I realized I’d never changed out of my pajamas.
They were filming some sort of police shootout on the next street. I’d mistaken real police standing in front of a real crime scene being interviewed for the news with a TV cop scene before, so this time I knew to check for the trailers. I’d thought this neighborhood was quaint, and back when I lived in Los Angeles I used to sometimes drive through it on the weekends to imagine a life of domestic bliss. I didn’t understand why someone thought it would make a good backdrop for this shootout. As I made my way down the hill, fake gunshots rattled off. I’d be caught in the crossfire, if it was real. I paused to take a picture of some flowers dipping over a fence. I added it to my Instagram Story following the one I’d taken of my supplies geometrically arranged on Cliff and Ilsa’s kitchen table, and the one I’d taken of the outside of their bungalow after I’d cleaned the porch.
An old woman with a messy bun piled on top of her head stepped out of a trailer and I knew her. Or I knew who she was. I recognized her. Maybe many people wouldn’t recognize her. She plays a crotchety old lady in the type of sitcoms you watch when you’re in the company of more than one generation of family. She’s a sort of mean/funny grandma character. Not someone they’d pay to be in a full season, but the one they bring in for the Thanksgiving special, or something.
I thought to wave, but instead said “Hello” in the high-pitched voice of an elementary schooler as I passed. She said “Hello” back, sweetly, and it was nothing like her characters and that startled me. That everyone thought she was one way, when she was really another, but this was her job and there was nothing she could do about it. It didn’t make sense that she’d be involved in a police shootout. Or maybe it would make sense in a year or two, when the movie came out.
I took a different way back from the convenience store, because I wanted to relax and not be shot at, and stopped for a quesadilla from a taco truck. On the way I passed an open house. I was so obviously not in the market for a house—holding two bags of groceries in one hand and a half-eaten quesadilla in the other, wearing ice cream cone drawstring shorts and clogs. But I went in anyways, and scoped out the rooms. I wondered what it would be like for Cliff and Ilsa and me to come look at this house together. I planned out where all of their furniture would go in this new house, and which pieces we would get rid of. I assigned everyone places to sleep. I found a good place for Raisin’s litter box. I didn’t consider bringing any of my own things from Portland.
When I got home every single window was open all the way. I heard Ilsa running a blow dryer in the half bath. Cliff was lying on the couch watching an animated show and smoking weed out of some sort of wall plug-in contraption I’d never seen before. It looked like a power tool. All he said was “Hey” and I didn’t know if he still wasn’t feeling well, if he was embarrassed about having diarrhea, or if he was mad at me for touching all of his stuff. I agonized over this as I sprinkled baking soda and cinnamon strategically around the house in the little swirling paths of the ants.
I checked on the delicates in the wash and they weren’t in the washer and they weren’t in the dryer and I felt a surge of panic. I acted like I was going back into the bedroom to use the bathroom—I flushed and ran the sink and everything—and saw that Cliff hadput the clothes in the dryer (which would shrink the jacket) and then tossed them on the top shelf of the closet when they were done. His effort at a chore stuck out glaringly now next to the articles of their clothing I had tightly folded and stacked. The sleeve of the jacket hung limply over the side (help me) and I stroked it, but now was no time for a rescue mission with Cliff sitting right out there on the couch.
I heard Pancho wheezing and hacking and then the blow dryer cut off and the half-bath door open and slam.
Ilsa shouted, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong with him? What is this stuff!”
I slinked out of the closet like a kid who doesn’t want to get caught fondling her father’s rifle.
Cliff had Pancho on the porch and was spraying his face with a garden hose. Ilsa was dragging the vacuum out to start sucking up the trail I’d made.
I’d frozen in the hallway and she saw me and said, “Look at this! Look at the mess you made!”
“I’m sorry Ilsa—I’m so sorry. It’s just there were ants and I didn’t think about Pancho and I’m just—”
“It’s fine. It’s fine.”
“Please let me clean it up. Here.” I motioned to take the vacuum.
“No! Let me. I want to do it.”
I sat at the kitchen table quietly, not wanting to do anything else unless I was told. Ilsa sloppily dragged the vacuum over the trail, effectively scattering the baking soda and cinnamon everywhere and grinding them further into the carpets. Cliff sat on the porch holding Pancho under his left arm and the hose in the other hand and kept spraying the dog’s face with the water, long after he needed to.
Eventually Ilsa and Cliff both tired of their activities and they went into the master bedroom and shut the door behind them. They must have had a talk, because when they emerged and came into the kitchen where I was still sitting, they both acted like everything was normal. Or that everything was as it had been before—at some point before.
“Sorry about this afternoon,” Ilsa started.
“Yeah, we got shakshuka-ed!” Cliff said. The script had obviously been rehearsed. They both laughed.
“Ilsa’s got us on this all-natural thing where we don’t take any medicines anymore, so everytime we’re sick we ‘sweat it out,’” Cliff said.
“Yes, it’s much better for you. To steam out the toxins,” Ilsa said.
“The main problem is that it makes the mold in the bathroom so much worse,” Cliff said.
I said, “That’s ok. Do you guys want to start on the dress?”
“Yes, of course.” Ilsa untied the robe she was wearing and let it fall into a messy pile on the floor. She was naked underneath. I pretended not to notice as I slipped the dress over her head. Cliff watched, and I pretended not to notice him, either.
“Cliff, why don’t you light some candles? It’s starting to get dark,” Ilsa said, which I knew was also a part of the plan. Cliff obeyed and lit them all, then retrieved more from where I knew they were under the kitchen sink. He and Ilsa then got into an involved argument over how many candles were too many to light, and where they should all be placed. I stayed out of it as I worked away on the dress, even though many times they asked me to weigh in.
I knew I was good at what I was doing—I’m good at draping fabrics over people. I’m good at determining whether people want to hide or stand out, or what parts of themselves they want to hide and what parts of themselves they want to stand out. I started off by trying to conceal Ilsa’s hips, the hips that gave away her age, but then by the way her stance shifted I could tell she felt uncomfortable with the way the dress was falling on her, and I understood that she liked this part about herself, even loved it, and I switched gears and bunched up a fistful of fabric, pinned it, and marked it for removal. After the adjustment, she straightened her posture, and I felt her power in that moment coursing through me. I always wanted softer angles, but Ilsa wanted everything sharp, in focus. I subtracted large swathes of fabric until it was an entirely different dress altogether.
After Cliff finished with the candles he decided to make us all drinks, even though I told him I wouldn’t be able to drink while I was working. He spent a long time measuring and mixing ingredients and dumping them into a huge pitcher. The final touch would be pineapple wedges, apparently, and from where I was on my knees next to Ilsa I could see him assaulting a whole pineapple with a rusty butcher knife. He obviously had no idea what he was doing, but Ilsa and I seemed to be in silent agreement that we were going to allow him to be the man of the house when it came to the pineapple.
Neither of us were surprised when he cut himself, but I was surprised at the amount of blood spilling out over the mutilated fruit. I knew the juices would be stinging his wound, but he shrieked and held his hand like it was engulfed in flames.
I told Ilsa not to move, or all progress would be lost, and I brought him over to the sink to put the fire out. I requested an Uber to take him to the nearest Urgent Care. Since there were no paper products left in the house, I butterflied a maxi-pad over his cut, which was in the soft place between his thumb and index finger on his left hand; he’d chopped right into it. I secured the pad with packaging tape, then double-bagged his hand in the shopping bags from my solo adventure earlier, and tied them tight around his wrist.
I got him settled in the back of the car. Before it pulled away he grabbed me with his right hand and said, “You’re not coming with me?”
I said, “If we stop now there won’t be a dress.”
I knew he didn’t care about the dress at all, but I was eager to get back to it, so I thrashed free of his grasp and shut the door on him. He started sobbing really loud before the car pulled away.
Once I’d altered the dress to perfection, and Ilsa agreed that everything about it was right and exact, I carefully removed Ilsa from the dress and went to work on it. I worked in silence. At some point a Korean sweet potato pizza appeared.
“Do you think I should check on Cliff?” Ilsa said. I looked up and she was sitting across from me at the table—still naked—greasy pizza in hand.
“I think he’ll be ok.”
“Was it bad?’
“No, it wasn’t really all that bad.”
“Do you want some of the drink he made from the pitcher?”
“Is there blood in it?”
“Only a little.”
“I think I’m good.”
“Alright. I’m going to have some. I think if we rinse the pineapple off it should still be good, too.”
She plopped the bloodied pineapple directly into the sink and started hosing it off. Pancho hobbled in, finally awake from the long siesta he took after the waterboarding on the porch. Ilsa tossed chunks of pineapple for him onto the floor and when he’d swallow them there’d be wet, little red stains left behind, which he would lap up. I hadn’t seen Raisin for a while, but I’d also cleaned up all of his favorite hangouts, so maybe he was avoiding me.
Ilsa and Pancho ate most of the pineapple as she was rinsing it off, then she sat at the table and drank most of the pitcher as she watched me work.
“Would you like a free tarot reading?” Ilsa said.
“Right now? For free? What’s your typical rate?”
“That changes. It won’t take long.”
“Ok, sure. I’ve never done one before.”
“Oh, this will be such fun, then.” She left and returned with her deck, which she fanned out on the table to make sure all the cards were facing in the same direction. Then she stacked the deck back together and handed it to me and said, “Here, now shuffle and think of your question.”
“Yes, a question. You have to ask the deck a question. How else will it know what to do?”
I didn’t know what I wanted to know. A chill started to seep outward from a point in the middle of my chest, like a blue-black blot of watercolor on white copy paper. This needed to be contained, so I decided to go with a small question: Will I ever get my jacket back?
I shuffled for a long time, because Ilsa didn’t tell me to stop, then I finally made eye contact with her and she said, “Now spread your cards out on the table.”
I had to stand and lean over to spread the cards on the half of the table where the dress and my supplies and the pizza were not taking up the space.
“We’re going to do a Celtic spread. That means now you pick ten cards and hand them to me one at a time.”
I did as she said and as I handed them to her she arranged them on her side of the table in a diagram, every so often going “Hmmm,” or saying, “That’s interesting.” It was infuriating.
When I was done she studied the diagram for a couple minutes.
“So? What does it mean?”
“This is a very thorny reading. Very spiky. Lots of swords. Very rare to draw this many swords from a deck.”
She walked me through my past (what lies behind), my hopes and goals, my central issue, my near future, my current self image, how others see me, my warning, my environment, my fears, and my overall outcome (what lies ahead).
“You see, you end up in this really guarded place. Look, see. This little man is running off with all the swords. But he’s looking back at camp, back to the past. He has no friends, no family. Nobody. Just swords. Are you generally a defensive person?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t answer, but not answering seemed to provide her with all the answers she was after, anyway.
“You need to embrace your Queen of Cups. See here? Look at her. She’s having a good time, on her throne, just letting it all flow through her. You need to be better about the flow. Like go with it. Or else you end up alone. With all these swords but with nothing else. Nobody.”
Cliff came home then and broke the spell of the reading. He was angry at us for not coming to the Urgent Care with him, you could tell, so instead of responding when we asked him how he was, he dumped out a jigsaw puzzle in the middle of the floor and started working on it with his good hand. He lay on his stomach in front of it, kicking his feet like a child.
We spent the rest of the night like this. I worked on the dress, Cliff worked on his puzzle. Ilsa studied her Celtic cross deck for awhile, then joined Cliff on the floor. He didn’t seem to notice that she’d never bothered to get dressed after the fitting. She worked on the corner pieces and the border while he impatiently went after the central image. Ilsa made little piles next to him of the pieces she knew he would need as they worked, and he kept snapping at her to stick to the border.
At some point Cliff went to bed, complaining under his breath about his hand and popping too many of some sort of pill that would surely knock him out for a day and a half.
Ilsa finished what she could of the puzzle, but there were a lot of pieces missing, so I tried my best not to look at it because I found this incompleteness incredibly disturbing and I worried that I’d spend the rest of the night searching the house for the missing pieces instead of finishing the dress.
Ilsa tiptoed around the house, blowing out each candle that had been lit during a more hopeful time of the day. She brought one of the larger candles over near me, as though I would need its light to work, even though the overhead light in the kitchen was still on. The gesture made my head and neck and spine tingle. Then she went to bed too. I knew that after how much she’d had to drink that night that she’d sleep just as heavy as Cliff would with his pain medication.
I don’t know what time I finished the dress. Sometimes it’s hard for me to even know exactly when I’m done. It’s like all of a sudden I’m shimmying the finished product onto a hanger and displaying it before I even know what’s happened. But I didn’t have a hanger in the kitchen, so when I was done I went to Cliff and Ilsa’s bedroom closet for one.
When I got to their room, dress slung over my arm, their bedroom door was open. Both of them were sleeping ravishingly. They looked like mythical gods, there next to each other like that. There was space between them, and without thinking about it too much, I climbed in and scooted my feet up to their pillows and my head down to their feet. I curled the dress around me.
I used to sleep between my parents like this sometimes when I was younger. But now I never would again. There would never be a reason to.
In the morning it was Labor Day. I woke up to Pancho biting a strand of my hair that was dangling off the edge of the bed. Cliff and Ilsa were still asleep, like really knocked out. Ilsa was snoring; Cliff had his bloody hand thrown over his face.
I crawled from the bed onto the floor, then slowly pulled the dress out from the covers and hung it up in the closet. I knew I wouldn’t be charging them anything for it, and that they’d never offer to pay me. I said goodbye.
In the kitchen as I was packing up all of my stuff I received a text message from an unknown number saying, “So sorry about that! My b.! Pulling out now!”
I finished packing everything up as quickly and quietly as I could, and by the time I started taking the loads out, the car behind me that had been blocking me in was already gone. I made four or five trips, triple-checking the house that I hadn’t forgotten anything. Once I was sure that I’d packed everything I’d brought with me into my car, I went back into their bedroom and into their closet. I pulled the jacket down by the sleeve and the rest of the pile came with it, crashing down on top of me. Everything made multiple thumps as it toppled to the carpet, but no one woke up. I checked. I zipped the jacket over the pajamas I’d been wearing since Saturday night, since the last time I showered. The jacket was a bit smaller from Cliff putting it in the dryer, but it fit me even better than it had before. And it would never fit Cliff again.
I fled. On my way out the door I accidentally ran over the jigsaw puzzle, forgetting it was there. On impulse I turned around and destroyed the rest of the thing, tossing pieces all over the couch where they would surely be lost in the cushions for eternity. Pancho watched from the chaise, but let me get away with it.
I didn’t lock the door behind me because I didn’t know how. Raisin was on the porch and so was the stray. I didn’t know how Raisin got out there, but I knew he wouldn’t get very far. I knelt down and picked up the small black cat and brought her to my chest. I held her there for a moment and knew that yes, she wanted to come with me. I unzipped the jacket and zipped her up inside, then got in my car and we made for the highway.
LINDSEY SKILLEN is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Southern California. She is on the editorial board of Ricochet Editions. She received an MFA from New York University, where she was a Goldwater Fellow and the Managing Editor of Washington Square Review.