husband is in love with Ruby Thompson. He comes home and I
rush to kiss him in order to catch traces of her on his neck.
I can almost see her face, in profile, in both his eyes, as
though he’s wearing cameos instead of contact lenses.
Ruby Thompson, our friend, lives twenty city blocks away in a
building with old Spanish tiles on the walls of the entrance.
When Ruby used to greet me, she kissed both my cheeks with half
her mouth and held my hands close to her heart, as though they
were important. Her husband, Leonard, is a collector and
everything they own is valuable, except for the leaves Ruby dried
and placed in small square frames. We think they’re
rich but Ruby cleans her apartment herself, because their
possessions are too precious to be handled by strangers.
husband’s in love with Ruby Thompson and I don’t
blame him. No matter how close I stand to her, she’s
perfect, like a small tree, deliberately planted. Her arms,
uncovered in the summer, curve like limbs in a painting by
Renoir. My husband can’t believe his good fortune, he
always considered himself ordinary.
don’t really rush towards Dan. I move as though I’m
simmering with resentment when I’ve been waiting with
excitement. I’ve always described my life aloud to
myself, in my head. As a child, I didn’t walk a block
without imagining I crossed a perilous tightrope. Inventing
make-believe danger was a habit I developed during Saturday
afternoons that hung over me, as still as the dust particles
above my bed.
Danny says as he pulls my arms from his neck. He knows my
interest is the price he has to pay. Every time we touch
now I feel like we’re in a movie, all our exchanges have
become important. He’s wearing the black jeans and
sweater I bought him. Danny doesn’t care about
clothes but everything looks good on him.
you hungry?” There wouldn’t have been time for
them to eat because Ruby has an eight-year old son, Thomas, who
needs his dinner. Ruby and I, more connected than ever,
don’t see each other anymore.
thanks,” Danny says, as though he has to hide his hunger
from me because he’s no longer entitled to the food I’ve
prepared. I follow him into the bedroom where he collapses
on the bed, fully dressed. I wonder if he’ll notice
that I cut my hair.
mother called, “ I tell him. “She wants to know
if we’re coming for Thanksgiving.” Both Danny
and I are only children and our presence means everything to his
mother, less to mine. Danny rolls on his side and groans.
He rubs his face with his hands, as though he’s removing
the echo of Ruby’s mouth with his palms.
didn’t say anything,” I tell him, as though the two
of us are in collusion. He groans again, smothering his
impatience with me. I watch him squirm because everything
revolves around him and Ruby now. An unseen bed has become
the axis of our lives.
and I have been together for fifteen years, since college in
Denver when I lived in a house that included his girlfriend who
wore perfume and worked as a model for a local department store
during Christmas. I had the habit of gathering my hair in
barrettes without looking in a mirror and I was surprised when he
chose me. My face is long and narrow and if I don’t
have some color on my lips people asked me if I’m tired.
All my life I’ve heard that my eyes are my best feature and
why don’t I smile more. We’ve been married for
ten years but I forget that he’s handsome until someone
college we agreed that man was innately good and civilization
inherently evil. We agreed that great things were achieved
in between the selfish twists and turns that profited few and
enslaved many. We were in no hurry to have children, but
neither of us wanted to be old and feel we missed out on
something. We connected in parts. When we made love,
I pictured myself as a magician’s assistant in a box rolled
on stage, separated and put together again with no harm done.
Danny made friends for us but we rarely entertained.
met Ruby first, when she admired the bird of paradise embroidered
on the back of my felt coat. She spoke to me in the
elevator of the building in Manhattan where we worked for the
same magazine, Ruby, upstairs in the art department and me, on
the second floor, in subscriptions. I had the card with the
designer’s name in my pocket and I gave it to her. A
month later she stopped on my floor and suggested we meet at a
crafts fair. I didn’t tell Ruby I only purchased the
exotic coat because of a birthday check from my parents, or that
I kept it in my bedroom closet for weeks before I had the courage
to wear it or show it to Danny. Danny had laughed at me
when I bought a pastel green dress, saying I looked like a mint.
He said fashion was a form of oppression.
day at the fair, I watched Ruby handle each object as though it
was meaningful, boxes made of exotic wood so thick there was
little room for anything inside, transparent blouses of
iridescent fabric and embroidered slippers with soles like paper
that wouldn’t last a week in an uncarpeted apartment.
Danny would have described it as clothing for rich people who
wanted to look like peasants.
and I couldn’t find the woman who made my coat but we
stopped at the stall of a hat maker whose booth seemed part of a
bazaar in a foreign country, the lightweight hats incongruous in
the winter chill. The woman shook her head when I picked up
a delicate black hat with silk flowers and said, “Not for
you.” I picked up another and she shook her head
again, without looking at me, “Your face too long.”
unidentifiable accent made her words seem like a pronouncement.
She reminded me of my mother who always advised me to look in the
mirror as though I was a stranger to myself. My mother was from
Hungary and embarrassed by her accent, preferred to speak in
short sentences when we were in public. My father was an
engineer for an oil company and lived far from us most of the
time. Despite my parents’ connection to exotic
places, there was nothing foreign in our home. My father’s
frequent absences made our life oddly quiet but whenever he
joined us, I was eager for him to leave. My mother worried
about his meals, his clothes, and how he slept. At the
dinner table, as I listened to him chew and swallow, my mother at
his elbow, I heard the sound of trains wheels, urging him to get
out, get out. It was Danny who taught me how to swim and
drive a car.
wouldn’t have the nerve to wear the hats anyway. When
I was eight, I desperately wanted a raincoat covered with small
turquoise cats and dogs that I saw in a store. My mother
bought me the coat, but on every rainy day, I refused to wear it,
certain I’d be a figure of derision. The hat seller
nodded at Ruby whose dark gold curls slid under each hat she
tried on, every brim an appropriate frame for her small-featured
face. The woman nodded at Ruby. “For her.
Good for her.”
tilted her head and examined my face. “Too frivolous
for you, Natalie. You’re so Modigliani.”
She bought a straw hat with seed pearls embroidered around the
brim. “Totally useless,” she said and grabbed
my hand. “Let’s find a scarf for that gorgeous
work, I would wait for Ruby to stop by my cubicle, instead of
going out with the few women I sometimes had lunch alongside of
at the coffee shop downstairs. I met Thomas for the first
time when Ruby brought him to work. He sat between us in
the restaurant, a miniature Ruby except for cheeks like small
apples. I admired how Ruby gave Thomas choices, as though
he was another adult, important to please. Over his head,
Ruby told me he had begun his own collection of metal trains, all
manufactured before he was born. When we reached the
sidewalk, he walked between us and connected our hands.
There was a table of toys being sold on the sidewalk outside of a
subway station. I picked up a small train and offered it to
Thomas who examined it carefully before returning it to me.
“No thank you,” he said.
makes his father shudder,” Ruby told me.
it was a cheaply made piece, the windows and wheels painted on
the side, I stuffed my hands in my pockets, as though I had made
a mistake. Ruby, darting like a bird, kissed me quickly on
the cheek. “You’re very generous, Natalie.
Saturdays, I’d meet Ruby at specialty food stores where I’d
follow her around and duplicate her purchases. She taught
me how to twist my hair on my head with tortoiseshell ornaments
that Danny called chopsticks. Ruby knew something about
should wear your hair short, Natalie. Your face deserves to
be framed,” Ruby said, as though it was a fact and not a
compliment. I didn’t tell her I wouldn’t
because Danny hated change, no matter how small.
arranged to meet for drinks with our husbands. I was eager
to introduce Ruby to Danny, as though I had accomplished
something special. Ruby wore the hat that we bought
together at the crafts fair. “Leonard, this is my
Natalie,” Ruby told her husband as the four of us stood on
the corner of an intersection, the city traffic unusually muted.
I was embarrassed, certain Leonard wouldn’t see anything
special about me. Although Danny and I were tall, Leonard
was taller and he took Ruby’s arm as we crossed the street.
our dinners together, I remained shy with Leonard, who made his
living by putting a value on things he’d never seen
before. Often we’d meet at Ruby’s apartment
where she cooked for us. After we’d eaten and the men
were in another room, the heat of the kitchen would mix with the
smell of roasted meat and the extra wine we shared, until we were
encased in a small burgundy cloud. She would laugh when I
opened the cabinet doors in her kitchen in order to see the
shopping bags, neatly folded and put away, upright, like files.
afternoon, we played a board game with Thomas on the floor of
their living room. Ruby, who was sitting cross-legged,
stretched out her legs and lay back on the gold patterned rug
that was so old we had to take our shoes off when we came into
the room. The tiny red flowers of her long skirt merged
with the faded blooms of the carpet. Thomas came back from
the bathroom carrying an open umbrella decorated with small
firemen. I lay down and whispered to Ruby because I didn’t
want to scare him, “That’s bad luck.”
is just anxiety, Natalie,” she said, and reached across the
board game to pick up my hand as though I was Thomas, needing
reassurance. There were sharp metal pieces from the game
under my arm but I didn’t want to move in case she took her
hand back. Her skin felt warm and cool at the same time.
We lay without speaking until Thomas wriggled between us, pushing
the game away with his feet. We tickled him as he squealed,
little warm puffs of his breath reaching our faces. Then
Ruby stretched her arms and sat up, shaking her head, like a
delicate dog rising from a nap.
husband has become pale, he’s afraid to leave her while he
travels for business. I know this from Danny, who has no
choice but to answer my questions. Yesterday, Leonard
walked past me on the street, quickly, as though I was the one
who hurt him. For the first time I feel we have something
were eating in a noisy dark restaurant the evening I found out
about Danny and Ruby. Leonard had recounted the story of a
recent acquisition to Danny, who’s a history teacher in a
private high school. The restaurant was small with a
cavernous ceiling dangling elaborate chandeliers that gave little
light. The waiters moved around the tables, their upper
bodies bowed by the weight of the large plates they carried in
their hurry to reach us. The bold colors of the walls and
food wrapped around the four of us like fabric.
described a tiny jug purported to having been owned by a pharaoh
whose symbol of a snake was engraved in the pottery.
Leonard wore a gray jacket without a collar or buttons and said
he would sell the piece at a silent auction because there may
have been archeological improprieties. It was fitting,
Danny said, that the bits and pieces that belonged to the
original sons of bitches should be dug up and possessed all over
again by new sons of bitches. He said there was a comfort
in world history being reduced to an episode of the Twilight
Zone. Leonard looked annoyed when Ruby and I couldn’t
stop laughing. We had drunk a lot of wine. When Danny
reached across the table with both hands, touching our faces at
the same time, I felt Ruby’s cheek through the warmth of
dinner we went home to our one-bedroom apartment that Danny’s
grandfather had first rented over fifty years ago. An ugly
white railing separated the foyer and a sunken living room that
made the few visitors we had exclaim about the possibilities.
I had planned to replace the railing with something made of
bamboo and turn the living room into the inside of an Arabian
tent but I never did. Once I bought red and gold striped
pillows to place on the floor but Danny complained until I
night Danny sat on the end of our unmade bed, still wearing what
we called his all-purpose sports jacket, and said, “Leonard’s
a pillager. He’s a Roman sacking the Greeks.”
come, easy go, was what Danny and I used to say to each other
about money. I squatted in front of him, backwards, so he
could unzip the dress I had worn because we were meeting Ruby and
Leonard. Ruby and I thought Japanese women were the best
dressed in the city, with their slim suits and expensive
sorry, Natalie,” Danny said.
thought he couldn’t get my zipper open.
it again, Danny, just try it.” But he stood and
putting his arms around my shoulders, gently pushed me down until
I sat on the bed. I felt guided, like a child. Then
he moved away and told me he was in love, really in love, with
not going to leave you,” he said. “Nobody’s
first I thought he referred to another woman that just happened
to have Ruby’s name. Then I realized he meant our
friend, Ruby, who we had just left in the expensive restaurant
where Leonard insisted on paying the check, perhaps because of
the archeological improprieties.
is something that just happened,” Danny said. “We
don’t know where it’s going or how it will play out.”
knew I should ask if Leonard knew and if they had already slept
together. But I couldn’t say anything. Speech
felt like a foreign language.
feels terrible about it, Natalie,” Danny said as he paced
the few empty feet on the side of the bed. “She says
hurting you is the worst part. Worse than hurting Leonard
or her marriage.”
pictured Danny and Ruby discussing my feelings as though I sat
between them. Knowing I had something that Ruby wanted made
me feel like a stranger to myself The more Danny watched
me, the less I was able to speak.
you want me to sleep on the couch?” he asked, “Because
told him to stay in the bedroom. I wanted to run to the
phone but realized there was no point. Ruby already knew
what I was going to tell her. I sat in the living room,
pulling at the threads of the Indian print bedspread that covered
the couch, unraveling my only attempt to brighten the room that
Ruby rarely visited because I preferred to visit her apartment
that was like a museum, every item worthy of inspection.
day before Ruby and I had stood in a crowded store waiting for
our coffee beans to be ground. People were moving around
us, hurrying to get their shopping done. Ruby had put her
arm through mine and leaned her head against my shoulder. I
could feel her breathing and I stood still, like a column,
upright and exposed after the walls of an ancient house had
collapsed. I had imagined my life with Danny dropping away
like the walls of that house, our past being buried until the
college years were weeds in the ruins.
went into the bedroom and stood above Danny as he slept.
They must meet in Ruby’s apartment while Thomas was at
school, Danny’s dark hair mixing with Ruby’s curls on
her beautiful linens. I imagined Ruby’s small white
hands where mine had been. I felt her pleasure at the
surprising silkiness of the skin under the hair on his chest.
Very quietly, I lay down beside him, and imagined his familiar
hands carrying an impression of my body as they covered Ruby’s
I was eleven years old, in summer camp, I became infatuated with
a teen-ager who had tanned skin and an opal earring. He
worked in the kitchen and let me follow him around, helping fill
trays with paper cups of dessert. I told everyone he was my
boyfriend and embroidered his name on my shirt. I wrote my
mother and asked for an opal earring for my birthday.
night I left my bunk and climbed the stairs to his room where I
had never been before Carrying the bowl I made in the
pottery shop, his initials and mine glazed on the bottom, I heard
laughter and recognized the voice of the riding instructor, a
grown woman with short red hair who was impatient with my fear of
the horses. I ran away on tiptoes as though my steps could
be heard on the grass. I broke the bowl and ripped the
letters from my shirt, leaving an imprint of holes that still
spelled his name. At the end of the summer, when I returned
home, my mother knew something was wrong. I didn’t
tell her what happened because she would say it was my own fault
for wearing my heart on my sleeve and not looking before I leapt.
morning after Dan told me, I put cloth napkins on the table with
breakfast, like Ruby would, even though it was only coffee and
toast. That’s when everything we said became
important, as though part of a play that would be seen by other
people. Danny watched me as if I might do something
horrifying, or amazing.
this mean Ruby and I can’t be friends anymore?” I
finally asked. Danny was angry because I’m not.
He thinks the space Ruby occupies between us is new. I
don’t tell him it’s different because it’s Ruby
and not a stranger.
the months since Danny told me, we haven’t spoken much to
each other. But there’s always been a natural silence
in our home. We still sleep together because there’s
no reason not to. Afterwards, I lie awake in our bed that’s
surrounded by piles of books because neither of us puts things
away. Through the open window, the streetlight shines on
the dark furniture that belonged to his grandfather.
Everything has changed, but nothing is different.
afternoon I call her from the market where I never see her
anymore and we arrange to meet at the playground near her
building. Thomas, wearing a bright red scarf, is playing
with some boys when I arrive and doesn’t see me Ruby
is sitting on a bench holding a container of coffee in both hands
as though she has to warm herself. When she sees me she
stands and throws the coffee in the garbage where it splatters,
some of the liquid reaching her navy wool coat. She runs to
put her arms around me.
so sorry, Natalie. I’m so sorry,” Ruby cries as
she holds me tightly, the gold curls wiry, not soft as I had
imagined, against my mouth. I pat her back gently and she
pulls her head away. She seems frail, the beautiful skin
translucent instead of porcelain-like.
don’t know what’s going to happen, Natalie.”
She uses the same phrase that Danny does and I realize they must
repeat these words to each other.
something, Natalie, before I burst.” She blows her
nose with a handkerchief embroidered with blue stitches.
“Are you miserable? You have every right to be.”
wait to answer. I have that feeling again, as though
there’s a camera on me and I want to find words worthy of
the attention. I don’t tell her that I miss her
pulling my hands to her heart, as though that was where we were
connected. I don’t say that I miss her collection of
old teapots, standing like an idle army, in a corner of the
dining room where I was once welcome. Instead, I say that I
misses you,” she says, but I don’t know if it’s
true. “Do you want to say hello?”
yet. Let’s walk a little.” Walking beside
Ruby still makes me feel strong.
cut your hair,” She reaches up to touch my hair and I pull
my head back, surprising both of us. Ruby puts her hands in
her pockets and looks down at the ground. “I’m
sorry.” She seems disappointed. “You look
beautiful,” she says.
thinking of getting my own place,” I tell her, imagining it
for the first time.
Daniel know?” she asks. I’m confused until I
realize my Danny has become her Daniel. He occupies her
thoughts now, like Thomas and Leonard.
just decided this minute.” I imagine an empty room
with pale wood floors, without Danny’s grandfather’s
old furniture that never had anything to do with me. “It
would be nice to have my own place.” I don’t
say it would be a relief. “You and Thomas could visit
after I fix it up.”
looks very upset. “Natalie, please, don’t let
me ruin your life.”
crying again and I bring her back to the bench, as though she’s
an older relative who needs my help. I think it would be
better if I left without Thomas seeing me. Ruby and I don’t
know how to say goodbye to each other. I put my hand on her
shoulder briefly, as though I’m in a hurry to leave.
of the playground an old Chinese man is sitting on the steps of a
laundry. He’s selling paper kites and small figures
covered in brightly colored fabric and feathers. The dolls
are flimsily made and I buy two of them, a purchase Danny would
consider foolish. For now, I’ll keep them in my
closet with the bird of paradise coat.