Portraiture in Time

by Elizabeth Earl

1. Platitudes

You never got tired of dressing up. Fingers familiar with the tired curvature of your hair, I run the tips of them over your shoulders and down the nape of your neck, once young.

A blue bow used to hold the severity of your bun in place, constantly threatening to escape into chaos; a wrecked version of your dignity. Your students knew you were coming by the swish of chiffon. I told the time of the month based on which of your shoes was left on the doormat.

The bus driver, Janus, asked me often who my wife was seeing. Painfully through my plain teeth I chuckled, dropping quarters into the bus till like pleading punctuation. He laughed and turned his head back the way he’d always done, like a platitude for all the years he saw me.

I kept an image of you in pearls from the week before our wedding on my desk for all thirty years of my life at the bank and moved it to my dresser in our bedroom when I retired, like my old friend constantly gazing at your aging cheeks and graying hair with that gentle curiosity I love. We’d go to bed with her there, the glass over her face winking as I shut off the light and curled into the covers beside you.

You haven’t worn shoes in awhile. I keep all of them neatly in our closet as I shuffle to and from our bedroom over the under-plushed rugs. I’m electric when I go to touch your skin and I shock you, and when the weak voice in my throat apologizes, you do not reply. I can do anything to you now with impunity. But instead, I close my mouth and brush your hair.

2. Bitterness

I stare at me endlessly. Why would you put me there? Those pearls I began to hate as the photo stank in chemicals are now a permanent etching on my neck and thus your mind. Always on your desk, always in the back of your eyes. Here forever in these sheets, I have lost all feeling of my present, constantly staring at my own impermanent permanence.

But you, my love, come and go, a reminder of what I am — a living corpse. When you kiss my forehead, my dry lips flex, impotent. We become nothing but the chaste friends who greet one another in the snow-dusted foyer at church, passing with nothing but routine, no surprise, nothing more than tapping the mezuzah with numb fingers.

I lie here, a withered thing, and dread your beloved steps with all my withered heart.

She is my constant company now, making me a grim shadow of my proprioception — a strange idea for one who studied the interior structure of bodies for decades. You sheepishly kissed her breasts, not these hanging things I now bear; you braided her hair in the bathtub when she was pregnant, not the strings of my skull. I search for her body inside of this me that is left, an invisible evaporation of what you once found beautiful. Was it my skin, no; the dignity of my legs painstakingly pulled into nylons, no; the sweat I gave to fight decay, no.

The burden on my shoulders now is heavier with each time you come, crushing all words of love from my chest. She hears them, all we say alone to one another.

 

 

Elizabeth Earl is a journalist at a daily paper in Kenai, Alaska.