MICROMOSAICSby Shira Dentz
April watches Anne’s hand alternate between her forehead and her hair, then wave what-to-do. Her rings gleam all over the place. April’s always deflected by their light so she never gets todistinguish details like the shape of Anne’s nails or their length. She’s sure they are short. Perhaps the rings are a charm to ward off eyes like hers. April wonders what culture. Maybe the rings summon an occasion in her early youth; or defy not having a wedding band.
One day April concludes Anne’s despair is histrionic. Anyone who complains more than she does has got to be histrionic. April sympathizes; Anne’s someone whom the nature of things has in tears. She hates repetition. April would like to help her, comfort her, to show her she only thinks the earth is bottomless.
The subway stops because an aged black man caught his shopping bags in the doors. A policeman tries to get his name; the man procrastinates. The policeman tells someone the man might try to kill himself. It’s hard to get stuck in the doors; they usually bounce right open at resistance. Eventually the train is rolling again; they never got his address.
April takes a vow to care.
Imagine if the train smelled of bread instead of urine.
Anne’s a professional here, April guesses a little over 35. April’s a secretary. Anne doesn’t like children; April hasn’t heard her call them kids. Anne says a sense of beauty is very important to her. She buys herself expensive suede jackets after heartbreakers.
Today April overhears Anne say that snow in the city is beautiful at first, but then it should all be hauled away.
I am a secretary because I have nothing else to be. I’m on hold from deciding anything in life; what job to have, whether emotions between people really can be a satisfying thing, whether to believe in God or not, and, quite concretely, whether it’s worth taking care of my appearance one more day so I will look suitable at work. After all, with all these questions unresolved, it’s much better not to throw out the baby and the bathwater. So I am cautious around the tub.
It’s not such a bad thing to be, there are worse things. You’re with professionals. You can think that maybe you’ll become a professional.
There’s a lady on April’s right who just told her she feels like she’s doing a dance in a very small space and one foot keeps tripping the other. She’s a consultant here, a technical consultant. Her degree’s in library research, and she’s working on a machine, setting out a scheme to organize data. Someone else will organize it.
There aren’t cubicles on the first floor of this U.N. publications office; wooden desks are planted on wall-to-wall forest-green carpeting outside each executive’s office. By mid-morning all the overhead lights haven’t yet been turned on, since the English editor-in-chief prefers dim light during the first half of the day.
Anne illustrates the dance by putting one hand on another, saying it reminds her of that game children play—her hands climb on themselves, rising higher. April likes watching the way her fingers spread out and snap a box over the back of her other hand. Anne’s stomach jerks with her one swift move to press them into conjunction, like a mechanical artist who’s trying not to smear.
April likes watching what she does with her hands. The vigor with which Anne turns them reminds April of her father in his shop, clanging through his metal toolbox for the right piece. Anne’s fingers are scarily thin and she wears a minimum of three silver rings on each, except the thumb. Cobra-like. South American skin, olive electrocuted by moonlight, but she is native American, from Washington, D.C.
April knows what that feels like, when your intention is to keep two hands apart.
Someone in the office calls her “Lady Godiva”—she has hair to the back of her knees. It’s the texture of decor willows you buy at Azuma or Izumi. In the bathroom Anne places her hair front, uses her stomach for a plate, splits it into pieces almost as narrow as her fingers, brushes downward. April watches her in the mirror, wishes she could stare freely. April takes it slow passing by the mirror. Anne has a small Pointdexter face and purple Annie Hall glasses.
When Anne works, she winds her black hair up, and a wide gilt barrette is like thread between the edges of a spool. April hears a snatch of Karen Carpenter singing. The radio’s been replaying her songs nonstop; it’s the date she died.
Anne takes headache pills when she first sloshes in. Today her colors are purple and yellow. Her clothes are always particularly vivid, elusive because they make people’s eyes buzz. Hot pink, gold sparkling through magenta shawls, turquoise, red, emerald—no dilutions. All of it big on her. Her accessories include two big plastic lavender pins, the faces of comedy and tragedy.
When she comes in from Washington, she stays at hotels. April notices that on each of Anne’s visits she’s wearing different boots. Today they are purple suede cowboy, heels long like her hair.
Would Anne care if she knew April thought about her like this?
Dr. Jay T. Silver is large and imposing: tall and obese, surrounded by two wood-colored leather chairs, an imported desk, sofa, some tchotchkes and oil paintings in his Central Park West studio apt.-turned office. He commutes in his green Volvo from the suburbs, where he lives with his wife, Sandy, who collects bottles of sand from around the world, in a house in which he also has an office and sees patients two days a week plus Saturdays. His large head’s balding; he’s in his sixties. He guffaws at people who wear designer initials—he wears a belt with an ‘S’ on its buckle together with his suit every day. Paired with the sturdy, mammoth chairs are equally hardy footstools. Dr. Silver almost always stretches his legs out and crosses his Wallabies on a stool in the midst of listening and talking to his patients, sometimes nodding off. A phone rests beside his chair, which he answers no matter what.
Anne groped for the scarf in her bag, her head bent sideways to keep watch on the passengers around her. The noise the bag made was outlandish, like crushing potato chips, though surely no worse than the squealing baby a few seats up. They should divide the planes the way they do for smokers and non-smokers. She kept a sardonic smile on her face, though she looked directly at no one, but positioned it towards the aisle, where she thought most of the passengers could see it.
The grand effort to accomplish so little. She was sure everyone could sympathize in their own way, felt amply reassured, and free to thrust her hand in to aggressively to snatch the bag once and for all, which contained the scarf she bought today in Manhattan.
She lets it out like an animal with its own natural form and strokes its silk fringe. Looks at her watch, a big masculine-scientist one. It tells everything except the temperature. Around the face a moveable circle tells time in different parts of the world.
When she gets out of the taxi in front of her apartment building, Ted the doorman opens the door for her but doesn’t help with the luggage. Ted’s thin blond hair trails out from underneath his black cap; he offers his arm energetically, his eyes concentrated on something in the distance.
“Coming back from New York again?” Ted says. “Like some help with your luggage?”
“Already got it,” Anne says, shores her valise up against the grate below the elevator buttons and strips her hands of long lavender gloves. Her hair flush on the back of her neck. All hats give her hair static snap; she’s never found one that was good to her.
Coming up inside the elevator, she closes her eyes, counts one, two...
Anne divides things into the steps they take to be accomplished, records and files them, the way a blind person might get around on their own. In this way, she’s a World Research Librarian, not a Congressional Research one.
The elevator hums like a stifled alarm—she lets her mouth slacken. Her lower jaw climbs up and out from under the upper jaw; the contraction makes brackets form on either corner of her mouth. Her cheeks swell into squares; an artist could compose Anne’s physique by overlapping squares.
The elevator opens just when Anne announces “25.” Raising her head after feeling the solid chunk of keys in her hand, Anne sees an orange blur at her door.
A fat manila envelope. A padded one, she thinks, as in bras. She hates them, but wears them sometimes. She smiles, giving in to her feelings for an instant.
The package now open-mouthed. At bottom are dark, rubbery things. Confused, she pulls one out. A snake. She drops it, angry. Shuffles the contents of the package around, takes another. A tarantula, many thin legs fringing. She sweeps one finger across the bottom of the fringe, enjoys the texture. One feeling made of tiny pinpoints. Like her hair. It’s Ralph, she thinks, fondly at first... almost with love. The emotion spreads forward and back, like water eating on a shore.
“Why is he doing this to me?”
I don’t look like the sleek women who appear to have spent their weekends tanning and sipping martinis: lardy water from triangular glasses mimicking heads, supple green olives at their tangents.
April knows her clothes have to match: she doesn’t want them to. She’d much rather wear jeans and a big shirt; especially since having a boyfriend she’d gained weight. She’d wanted a relationship for a long time; it was, she claimed, the missing piece. Now that you’ve got the ticket, she thinks, what do you do.
A gray tower, no one in sight. Breathing hard, air thin—she feels herself rise to it, a counter-gravitational pull; it was worse when someone was talking to her. She’d feel faint, know she couldn’t tell, had to look calm; no one could help her back. Rising, she feels the pain one feels from certain sounds. She wants to drown in feeling love.
She likes her face moisturizer; it makes the skin below her eyes more comfortable so she can smile more easily.
A man on the subway claims to be just out of the hospital, shot at a few days ago. A gray-tweed overcoat droops open on his lanky body, his ash-brown hair frizzed electric past his shoulders. He has a dixie cup. The bullet, and he names which kind, its measurements, lodged in his right arm. “I lost use of my arm.” When he got out he went to the men’s shelter where he was beat up. He has no parents or anyone and disability doesn’t start until March 1. “Will you help me out?” He needs $20 a night to stay at his hotel. When he passes her, he announces he only has $14 to go. “Thank you, you’re very kind.” He’s young, and as he flails from post to post she thinks he’s beginning his evolution into a thing. “I know, times are hard.” She doesn’t put anything in the cup, though she believes him.
An operatic, high-pitched note sounds again and again. It’s a human voice, and everyone looks for its source. No one’s mouth is open or moving now, and as the passengers’ eyes circle the car, their glances dart like small fish. Each time the train comes to a halt, so does the aria, and each time the doors close it rises again. She notices a man who’s a bit unkempt, leaning on the orange seat beside him, as if in conversation. He’s smiling to himself, eyes gleaming moist, delirious. His smile broadens while she pauses on his face; she flinches, looks away. Thinks, he’s having fun at everyone’s confusion; then maybe it’s a compulsion and he can’t help himself. And/or maybe he was or is a great ventriloquist.
She drags on a cigarette as if the point of inhaling is to hurt the back of her throat.
April is thin, usually dresses androgynously, and is one of Dr. Silver’s patients; this is year five. When she first was referred to him, her family’s insurance paid his fee, but since then she couldn’t afford it. A few weeks into her treatment he told her he’d adopt her, that now that he was in her life things would be different, and though he wouldn’t reduce his fee she could owe him the money. He offered to refer her to someone low-cost if she wanted, though “to everyone else you’d be just a job—no one will care about you as I do.”
She had dropped out of college during what would have been her senior year because of a chronic face pain that precipitated her blacking out for a few minutes while she was on the phone with her father, as he screamed at her for worrying her mother who was planning to drive down to Long Island (where she lived then) to accompany her for some brain scans that a doctor she had consulted thought she should have. Once she regained consciousness, she felt exceedingly weak and disoriented, as if she had lost, for instance, the coordination to drive. Coincidentally, her friend from Iran was visiting her, and Abia drove them both to her family’s home. After a spinal tap, brain scan, and a test that included squirting ice water into her ears showed no tumor, the neurologist she’d consulted said that her symptoms were most probably psychosomatic, and he offered her the names of three psychologists, all male.
Dr. Mayan, the neurologist, prescribed Elavil, but April felt worse almost immediately. She felt even more lethargic and wooden, like one of the elderly people who sit on park benches all day. She was after more energy. She stopped taking the drug pretty soon. Her depression felt like a deep mourning, her body floating and heavy at once. It was as though the world she inhabited were a silent movie. She had a recurring dream in which she was locked not fully dead inside a coffin, and at the same time she was a figure who was trying to tell people she wasn’t dead.
She didn’t know what to expect on her first visit to Dr. Silver, and chose formal, muted clothes, slightly mannish: grey wool pants and blazer, maroon v-neck sweater. Her experiences talking to men didn’t include the sense that a conversation was in fact taking place.
As the train races through the mine-dark tunnel, you can see your own reflection, like a shadow, when looking out. Staring at the glass is a young Polynesian-looking woman, her original luster mostly stripped, a squealing baby in her lap. Repeatedly the mother offers him a plastic straw that’s poked into a grape juice box, repeatedly the baby rejects it. A coiffed woman in a silky dress sits beside her, and offers the baby the light in her necklace. She lifts the beads around her neck, waves them closer to the child, who stops crying and smiles. This play continues until the woman exits at her stop, not having bequeathed her necklace.
Then again, she used to seek and liked reading about psychologists, mostly men—Freud, Jung, Rank—their theories, and their artist-patients. She’d tried to see into herself. Such was the ideal therapy scene she visualized: cultural and creatively stimulating. Last year, she had a few sessions with a woman doctoral student (who looked like the TV actress who played Cinderella) at University counseling, reaping neither loss nor gain. A few childhood visits to a marriage counselor who her parents were seeing stuck in her mind. Mrs. Kaplan had wanted to see her. They’d played board games together (specifically, she remembered a Beatles game) the whole time; once when April broke her silence and told Mrs. Kaplan about the game she and her younger brother (who had died not that long ago) made up and played often, Mrs. Kaplan told her mother that April was “selfish” because when she and her brother played this game, April was almost always the older of the game’s duo, its leader. Her mother brought that up to April.
When she arrived at his penthouse apartment, Dr. Silver was already holding the door open for her. She had expected someone stern and distant, not friendly like this. Nor someone whose middle bobbed out that far; she thought of Kojak. “April?” he said and put his hand out to her. “Hello. I’m Dr. Jay Silver.” Ushering her into his living room- sized office, he pointed to a big brown leather recliner, and sat down in one opposite to it. She absorbed the room: a couch—did people lie on it? A dark heavy ornate desk, a cork-lined wall by the door on which artwork hung above a bookcase, and a big cubist-style oil painting on the wall to her left, of a woman’s naked torso.
Remembering waking up on Long Island, the tone of the air.
As Sandy, his wife, does all the bookkeeping, Dr. Silver periodically tells April that Sandy’s demanding to know why he’s treating her, and that he says in his defense, “I believe she can make a contribution to the world, and if I can’t treat people like her, my job is meaningless.” Their arguments reminds her of her parents’, a deja vu sensation that leads her to conclude she’s divisive. His hands are tall and rectangular, Leger-like, and as he waves an arm for punctuation, his hand glides through the air and closes in on itself like a Chinese dragon. Almost whatever Dr. Silver asks April to do she does eagerly, in the system he lays out: she scrubs dishes (don’t forget their undersides) when otherwise she’d be sitting in his waiting room (he can’t stand wasted time), she takes out the garbage, she stays after session to rearrange the books on his shelves or compose letters for him, as he is also the director of a well-established psychology program. Her sessions are usually scheduled early morning or evening since she works in an office during the day. A few things she hasn’t agreed to, that hover over their sessions: she didn’t move in with his mother when she broke her hip, and didn’t move in with another one of Dr. Silver’s patients who ushers men into her apartment who steal things. Times Dr. Silver gets angry with April, he doesn’t like her static cling, he says derisively, “If I told you jump from the terrace, you probably would.”
And the memory mixed with the present was so much more grave and rich than the present without the memory.
This evening when April arrives, a kettle’s whistling as Dr. Silver opens the door. He heads to the kitchen to undo the plastic wrapped tightly around a yellow box and takes out a bag of Earl Grey, his favorite, asks, “Would you like any?” The kitchen’s tight—not an eat-in—and after answering, “No thanks,” she observes from behind how he rewraps the plastic meticulously and the juxtaposition of the small pink packet of Sweet and Lo with his giant fingers as he daintily strips off the top. He waddles a bit from side to side as he takes a stride, breathing thickly. “If I order Chinese food, will you keep me company?” His voice slightly nasal, balancing between professional and coy. She feels relief at his presence, but is so attenuated from moment to moment to his pleasure or displeasure that she can’t dwell long enough in her own recesses to experience any other sensation, including the taste of food. She says “yes” and he hugs her, his belly a plate she can rest on. She feels embarrassed, but since his belly extends outward quite a bit, she feels safely distant from him.
It’s hard to keep remembering when you’re trying. Memories are best when they prickle your skin all by themselves.
After eating and cleaning up, she sits on his lap while he watches TV and talks on the phone. He sits with his feet on the ground, not the footstool, and her motion is by now reflex. One day when she was leaving he had asked her to hug him, and when she complied, stiffly, he decided she’d learn to embrace like she meant it. Now she presses her face into his jacket shoulder, to the dark.
Then Dr. Silver pats the fabric covering her breasts.
So I tried to keep remembering.
Inside the office, Dr. Silver lumbers in a zigzag. His brown Wallabies strike April as ponderous, their tips flip up then dip, his own shape walrus-like. “Do you realize: I’m jeopardizing my career for you! What am I, crazy? I think to myself: she keeps a journal, she tells her friend Kristen everything—how do I know who reads her journal?! Maybe she lets Kristen read it! I’ve always had a rule of thumb: Never do anything I wouldn’t do out in Times Square. I’ve broken my rule for you.” April flashes to the daylight coming through the glass wall opposite her, through her.
“You need a boyfriend,” he says. “ If you had a boyfriend, I wouldn’t have been doing any of this.”
“This apple looks like a tulip, don’t it, hon?” Ralph says, takes a bite and faces Anne dead-on as she swings open the door to her apartment. On his palm the apple served on display.
“Raaaalph!” She shudders. “You scared me. What are you doing here? I thought you were in Rome, digging. You got a tan. Speaking of, flowers would’ve been nice—” She lowers the mouth of the manila envelope at him, a pout.
“Anne. Baby. Your witchy hair’s wonderful. You give me too little credit. Whatcha think ya got in there?”
“Not just creepy crawlers?”
“My lips are sealed.” He comes over and presses his lips on hers.
“For how long?” She sticks her tongue at his pursed lips.
Ralph used to be a folk rock guitarist, told Anne he’d written a song Robert Flack sang. He’d written the song title, “The Lady’s Sometimes Wrong,” on a scrap of loose leaf and handed it to her one day while he was desperately wooing her, which included showing up out of nowhere, sprite-like, when she went out for a walk.
Ralph looked different to her at first almost every time she saw him. As if time were a slant of light, his face an opal. Jesus, organization man, country boy, James Dean, swarthy Hispanic, hedonist, sleazy, faggot; sexy, seedy. She was unsure whether the shine in his eyes was hope, or a razor’s edge. She remembered the Alexandrite he’s shown her, how it changed from day to night from bluish green to raspberry red. She knew he worked in the jewelry business.
He takes hold of a denim jacket draped on an orange chair, retrieves some pictures from its pocket, and asks child-like, “Want to see something really cool?”
Anne’s instantly captivated and practically puts her nose into the photos he holds out for them to look at. At first she doesn’t know what his fuss is about, but closer examination reveals highly detailed scenes inlaid into old-looking rings, bracelets, and brooches. Miniatures. Castles, meadows, sky, rivers, trees, animals, battles—like paintings, only twinkles. She was always trying to get a fix on what exactly Ralph did at his job.
They’re mosaics made out of bits of colored glass so small you need a microscope to see ’em— micromosaics. When I was in Rome, they were digging up ones from the 9th century made out of bits carved from gems. Emeralds, rubies, pearls.”
He lifts the black tarantula up from where it still lies on the carpet. From an end table, he swipes a gold Gothic-looking papercutter with an enthroned angel below its blade, pierces the tarantula's body a few times, zigzagging to make a larger hole. Then he holds it over the glass coffee table, crouching and patting the creature as if it were ketchup. A very tiny ring taps the surface of the clear glass as it lands. Next a tiny magenta object floats downward; homemade envelope, or origami? Ralph nabs it in mid-air before it has time to drop too low. "See, I sent you a postcard." He returns to his jacket and fishes out a loupe. Hurriedly he places the magenta pouch on the table to unfold it. Through the loupe, he scrutinizes what's inside, his breath steadying. "Check this out!" he says to Anne, offers her the loupe. Splaying the wrapper open, he gestures where to position it. While with one hand Anne twists her hair up, the other pins the papercutter through the Medusa-black roll of hair. The wrapper seems empty, but she peers anyway: glass fine as thread. "Pretty wacky, eh?" he chortles.
Anne fondles the tiny ring: a butterfly, multi-colored. Light opened in it like the ring at the top of redwoods. On its sides are micro-bubbles of gold, definitely letters; psyche and eros in Ancient Greek, she imagines. " From Melos," Ralph says. "I met someone who let me have it. We were hangin' out lyin' in the sun, drinkin' ouzo on the beach. Someone entrusted me with this and I'm sworn to secrecy not to divulge anything else." He pulls her closer, parts her mouth with his, hungrily tugs at her pants. They squeeze each other's rumps, his hands gliding on her curves; a fierce want pulls him closer.
Her insides roiling, her head filled with the rainbow-white sound that resonates after the pluck of a tuning fork.
A man is coming down the subway stairs, his foot bandaged by a sandal. The leftover straps flap on the cement as he walks up. He wears short khaki socks, twisted. Skin flashes between them and pants. He's facing the ground, saying something. His speech rides up and down with s sounds. A small blonde-haired boy gets up and grips a pole, twirls endlessly around and around it as his father bellows, "Sit down, Ethan!" The train lurches back then forward. Four Rastas carrying tall bongo drums enter from the next car, move deliberate as mimes, and place their drums down to sit on them. Then from the opposite door, three boys swing in with an extra-large boom box and stools that unfold. Usually a certain amount of time elapses from when the doors close and a show begins. A sign above warns, "No music playing," "Don't give money to panhandlers, give instead to the charity of your choice," "Be prudent. Don't flash your gold jewelry on the train." One of the boys lays a piece of cardboard on the floor and flips upside down into a headstand on it. The two other boys clap and one holds out a can; a girl reaches to slip in some change. When the gymnast is finished, all three file towards the next car, giving this one up to the bongo players. "Ladies and gentlemen!"
As the train approaches the next stop, the Rastas set their white drums silent and waiting, empty plates on a table.
Light shoots under the front door to the apartment, strips the carpet in the darkness, a white leg at the edge of her room, band of moonshine across her pillow through a crack in the window blinds.
She puts her cheek on the light.
SHIRA DENTZ is the author of three books, black seeds on a white dish (Shearsman), door of thin skins (CavanKerry), and how do i net thee (forthcoming), and two chapbooks, Leaf Weather (Shearsman), and FLOUNDERS, new from Essay Press, free & downloadable at: essaypress.org/ep-62/. She is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets’ Award and Poetry Society of America’s Lyric Poem Award and Cecil Hemley Memorial Award, and her writing has appeared widely in journals & anthologies including in The American Poetry Review, jubilat, The Iowa Review, and great weather for MEDIA, and featured in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series (Poets.org). She currently lives and teaches creative writing in upstate NY.