A Letter to Lizzy From the Unfurnished World

Alison Livingston

     The first thing a man does when he falls in love with a woman is badmouth her to his wife. But it’s time for the truth, Lizzy. Lizzy the ghost. Lizzy-in-the-can.
     I told you she misfiled my drafts. I told you she had a pestering voice. I told you she let her hair fall from her bun by the early hour of eleven-o’clock.
     At times I said I would get her fired.
     Don’t be offended by this. Don’t be cross because I call you Lizzy-in-the-can either. It would have made you laugh. I know it would have. And I wonder if you still laugh anyway.
     I used to sit and try to pinpoint the moment I knew it was happening. She kept asking me what records I listened to. She bullied me. I sighed as she went through my collection. Can you believe she had never heard of Gillespie? I put it on for her and she didn’t even sway. She just stood like a scientist and tried it out on her ears. It was during “A Night in Tunisia” when she said, “We’re going to find a place.”
     “What place?”
     “A place only we know about.”
     And in case you’re wondering what she looked like, you should know I hardly remember. There was something to do with brown hair and dark brows. She had freckles. And her eyes were a class of green. But the way all those parts went together scatters like stardust in my memory, and there are days when I can’t believe I forgot.
     But the place. She had mentioned this place. And since I thought she was referring to a hotel—or perhaps a broom closet—I stood up to leave. The nerves were firing. It scared me.
     But then I discovered the note folded into the inner lining of my hat that I kept on the hook by the door. The note read, “This is our place," and, "Hi.”
     I won’t lie to you and say it didn’t give me a thrill, this note. I wrote back a truthful answer: I was tired. You see, Lizzy, our son had not slept for the entirety of his life, and you did, but I never could.
     Her hat was red. She only wore it when it rained. It was a spare hat, really. It never left the hook. I hid my answer in there. The next day my hat held her reply.
     “I’ll have to wake you up.”
     I thought I caught her meaning. And I have to say, the nerves fired. But after she poured water down my back—ice cold—I wondered if I knew at all how to take her. Who has that kind of brass, Lizzy? I sat in the wet for the rest of the afternoon bemused and confused and the nerves were firing.
     “Why don’t you wear your wedding ring?” I asked.
     “I pawned it to buy a guitar,” she answered.
     She loved poetry and music. I had forgotten I liked poetry and music too. I used to obsess over them. It had been years since I obsessed.
     It wasn’t that you weren’t beautiful too. I could see your charms. But your charms were painted cartoons. Too familiar—same as the Sunday paper. Hers I could see from across the crowd at the fair, where I imagined her standing there, watching me. But she wasn’t. But I swear I saw her.
     We always destroyed the notes. I tried to change my handwriting. I treated her indifferently in public. And did anyone know? If they did they had the sense to look away.
     But you never knew it. I complained about her to you. It was easy to twist violent attraction into violent annoyance. Violence either way.
     But Lizzy-in-the-can, it was frustrating. Some days I thought I should move away from her and try to forget. Other days I thought I might die if I didn’t see her. And I grew tired. And when I would recede into rigidity she would pull me back, wake up my cement bones and push me to live.
     One day I wrote, “I am going home to measure my life with coffee spoons.”
     “I don’t know what that means,” she replied.
     She never asked about you. I never asked about him. We touched only by excuse. I let my fingers gloss hers when we passed papers. I looked earnestly for papers to pass. There were never enough papers.
     And I felt old then. I thought I knew the realness of age. But now—now I’ve lost most of my hair, and the rest has turned white. My skin is thin and tack-board. I used to like my muscular legs. I used to like my smile. Now each has collected dripping skin and when it rains I feel so tired.
     And too soon she stood in front of my desk before the green wall.
     “I took another position,” she said.
     “You—?”     “It’s the right thing.”
     It was strange how her image hovered against that slime-green like a cheap pop-out. “Wait—another job?”
     Were those tears? Oh my God, she was crying. I was foreign, shocking—like glimpsing her naked for the first time.
     “I’m—I’m—” She shook her head and wringed her eyes. “But it isn’t right and I’m not going to do it.”
     “Where? Where? Where?” I was repeating myself. I was repeating myself.
“It’s a great little company. I won’t have to drive so far.” And then her tears went away and she smiled as if to comfort a child. And I got angry.
     Violence either way.
     And I can’t remember what I said, what I did, or what I thought. All I remember was the look and the silence. They lasted so long they might still be enduring somewhere in some unfurnished world.
     “There will always be that question,” I said.
     I thought of the note I had left in her red hat weeks before. “If I ever kiss you, it will make me young again.”
     “Indeed,” was all she replied.
     “It will make you young again too.”
She was thirty, married at nineteen. She never got to be young. She never got to be much.
     After I wrote it, my hat was empty for the first time in months. In spite, I didn’t write back. It was a game of agony, and I am sorry to say I lost.
     I am a mess,” I finally wrote.
     “Not enough coffee spoons,” she replied.
     After she left, the office was drained of life. I sought other girls to fill the place up again. I wanted it back. But they weren’t her, and I couldn’t. I am ashamed that I tried.
     And I went home to you and thought about you constantly. I watched you with our son. I saw how your age was showing. You wore that mustard-colored cloche nearly every day even though it had gone out of fashion. You laughed easily. You were smart. I remembered you, Lizzy.
     And I never had the courage.
     Then, months after she left (a hot day, I remember) a car matched my speed as I drove home. I looked over and it was her. She smiled at me. I motioned for her to pull over and she nodded. We chased each other down the highway for miles and when she took an exit I turned on my blinker, but I let the exit pass by.
     Other things you should know: I sewed a button from her dress into the lining of my winter coat. I bought records I thought she might like, but never opened them. I began to read poetry again. I let my finger smudge her and her husband’s listing in the phone book. Years later, someone in the office said she had left him.
     And you would think me so foolish, but I always looked for the note in my hats. You never knew this, Lizzy. You never knew any of it. And at times I would thank God you never knew. Because I didn’t want to hurt you, Lizzy. I wanted your happiness more than I . . . wanted.
     But now Lizzy, where are you? Are you in this can on the table? Are you hovering over me, smudging my soul? Where are you, Lizzy, and what are you? Do you know what I am writing? Do you know that just last week someone new took the room down the hall? The room that Hector died in. They say he choked on his own vomit. Do you know who took the room where Hector choked to death on his own vomit?
     As soon as I can gather my bones I am going to walk down that hall, Lizzy. I am going to knock on the door. I am taking the exit. I am going into the unfurnished world. And she will be sitting in florals and pill cups, and she won’t remember, perhaps. But I am going to be young, Lizzy. I am going.