In her night clothes, and yes, the wig, Maddie traversed Noah’s gaze to reach the fridge.
“What’s up, Nance?” he asked.
“Do we have any soy milk left?” Glowing hollow box: obviously not.
She went with a bagel and honey, breaking off two or three two-bite pieces at a time, dipping a spoon in the jar and drizzling it on them.
Traversed was the wrong word. His attention was a pool, a flood. Swam through. Treaded.
One of his extra-bonus pauses. “You know that thing’s got to go.”
“Woy? Woyyy? Well, let’s see.” He stood for it, tucking his hair behind his ears: his shtick with nagging was to go “comically” overboard. “First of all, Maddie—I may address you as Maddie?”
“Let the record show that I adore you. And by you, I mean, of course, Madeline Grossman. Whose hair, according to these documents“—photos from the fridge in his fingertips: Killington, Manhattan—“is long, brown, and extremely curly, and gets tangled in my beard and stuck in my mouth. After a certain amount of taming, a crowning glory, many might say. Which really must be pretty uncomfortable crammed up under that little wig. What is it, in a bathing cap under there? Doesn’t that totally cut off your circulation?”
“You’re getting out of character, Noah.”
“I’m getting–Aha! My point exactly! And how does that make you feel, when I get out of character? Disconcerted, no? Therefore—“
“It’s not your business. Any more than if I just cut and styled it this way. How long have you been wearing those jeans?”
“Not ten days. And they’re not my Halloween costume.”
She took a double-bite in one mouthful and held off on any more breaking off or drizzling.
“You’re freaking me out, Maddie. That’s got to count for something.”
“Only if it’s a real threat. Not neurosis.”
He waited until she swallowed, as if next it was her turn to speak again. So the lump went down like the striking of a clock.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’m moving the hives.”
But he was already in the doorway with his NASA beekeeper onesie and mesh-faced helmet, November chill funneling through the room. He didn’t slam the door, but the wind did.
Hives. Sleeping beneath the house. Sleeping beehives beneath the house. That he was going to haul inside in, what, his arms? And he was freaking out at a little blonde bob cut. The Naughty Nurse.
She went upstairs, changed into a vintage dress and took a picture of herself.
Then she took the dress off. Stripped it off. Her skin was soy milk-colored and decorated with small moles. And goosebumps.
Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.
This, like the rest of the time since Halloween but more so, was something not just different for her but unexpected. Wearing this wig was like stalking a stranger. Spy stuff.
But also hearing the stranger’s thoughts. Primarily about her virginity–that central enigma, as far as certain people seemed to be concerned, of her adulthood. That tangential nothingness that didn’t matter, never did, really. Probably.
There is nothing TO wait for. What you’re waiting for is that itself!
And: Just a habit at this point, honey.
Now dressed in her painting sweats, plugging the camera into the computer. Now across the screen like a deck of cards across a table. Dirty playing cards. Blurring the eyes and selecting for shapes on space. The printer’s yipping. Tack in plaster: the digging nose; the rocking wrist twist, punctured paper sandwiched. Brushes in a roll like a chef’s knives; paint in tackle box. Background maroon on recycled canvas with a housepainting brush. Squeezing colored worms onto wood while the maroon dries.
Shiny wet. Wait.
She’d met Noah through painting, at UVM. With the rest of the group, they’d surrounded naked models with the scrutiny of gods. He’d traversed that concentrated air to her, Maddie, admiring. When she reciprocated, it somehow took her ages to notice the penis he’d added to his. She had been caught by other distortions: poor butch pear of a model; Maddie had never seen her before and would never see her again. So what if the shoulders are wrong?
“What do you think of my piece?” he asked. He was only referencing hushed earnestness, but it was all she heard. Then she couldn’t stop giggling.
Now it was to be their second post-grad winter together. All the paints had become hers.
She deleted the photo set from the computer and looked at Nancy across the blank canvas, the possibility of her.
* * *
At the bookstore, she made a round of hellos before waiting to be visited, and made herself a new name tag: “Nancy.” She felt on. She hunted for aspects of people and found them. The spines of their books were sideways name tags, as always, but also, their energies flared as if unfiltered. Eyes like open oven doors. “Nancy” talked and liked the talking, both the voice coming through her and all it drew. She pruned its aggression with her own laugh, minus the habitual extention of it into giggle fits.
At five o’clock, she met Tad the Undergrad. He wore baggy jeans and a rhino shirt and spent until 5:20 with her among the Tarot books. A radiator, she thought. A space heater. Meaning: by leaning forward or backwards just a few inches, she could sense the edges of her attraction to him as one senses heat.
“What are you doing later?” he asked. It seemed to be in more than one set of quotation marks: she’d read it enough, heard it in movies, couldn’t possibly trust him yet.
“Seeing my boyfriend.”
“Well,” she said.
“Well, sort of.”
“Is that like ‘sort of pregnant’?” he joked–and instantly she lost interest in his mind, but that turned out not to matter.
“Sort of me definitely has a boyfriend,” she said, and met him after work.
She ordered a latte, he a vegetarian sandwich and tap water. They watched the sidewalks and commented. It was the last days of people before the hibernating started. Maybe the last few seconds. She asked for a Tarot reading but he didn’t have his cards; her hunger for it surged and punched her through to an old, personal sadness.
She was afraid of being noticed by someone she knew, and afraid of being not noticed by anyone.
“I eat meat,” he admitted halfway through the sandwich. I just didn’t want to offend you in case you didn’t.” She gave him credit for sweetness. Again debited him his youth.
“Think you might be up for an adventure?” he asked.
She stared at him in a way she wouldn’t have. Ever.
“This is a one-time thing, Tad the Undergrad,” she said. “Understood?”
On the way home, smiling, she took it as a good omen when the season’s first snowflakes kissed the air around her, and her, too.
* * *
Noah was watching a Dr. Who. He’d made tabouli, left a pair of IPA bottles on the kitchen table. When she cleared them, one stung her; she yelped and dropped it but it didn’t break. A bee hovered at knee height. Her hand, in the curve between her thumb and index finger, flashed with the heat. Burned. She shrieked as she stomped and clapped at it until she got it. By now Noah was behind her. She spun and froze him in her sights.
She’d pictured it differently, her first sting. Of course it was a matter of time, with the apiaries. Colonies. Hives. But he was to have ice for her in a cool washcloth, and soothing words; she would be babied. Her first, after all.
She marched upstairs on pounding feet, alone.
* * *
That night, spooned against his back, she considered allowing them to have sex. Like actual for real. She did need something big.
We both do.
Back turned, but here. Always here. And worried about her, had to be something of it. He knew the past of hers that only her family really also did. But this, “Nancy,” wasn’t that. Nancy was new, and probably mostly good. Wasn’t she?
Maddie Grossman took the blonde bob off, put it under her pillow, rubbed her scalp and lay as the source of her old hair.
Hive-ernation, she thought.
The window frost made triangles. Above the grid of them hung a pair of stars like eyes. Two stories down, bees in boxes could be sneaking out one by one. Tad the Undergrad, Tarot Tad. Shaggy college boy’s hands probing the elastic lip of her panties, ducking in. The feel of him in her hand—the pulsing. Shiny dots of his semen on the pigeon-shitty floor of the church bell tower. Like the little bubbles below thought bubbles. She squirmed and said “Oh, God.” Noah’s back in his maroon sweatshirt was soft, but she couldn’t reach around it. Not actually empty, though.
He had the comforter clenched to his chest in two fists.
* * *
It was gone in the morning. There was nothing to do but play the game. That didn’t stop the anger—quite the opposite.
“Morning, Maddie,” he said in the kitchen, musically. “Long time no see.”
Brother with a kidnapped teddy bear. She wasn’t sure whether to pretend she didn’t care or give him her anger. She foraged and sat. There was soy milk, so: cereal. Sound of chewing blocking out light like the anger. Blotchy, right now. The tea kettle joined it.
It was only a wig.
“I’m sorry you got stung yesterday,” he said, when her spoon hit the honey for her tea.
“Bound to happen. No biggie.”
“Looked like a biggie. First sting.”
Although he was pushing his luck, she went generous, teasing him: “I hear it hurts worst the first time.”
He had once told her that he believed that every sentence in the English language should begin with “I want.” “So what do you want?” she asked.
“Oblivion,” he said. “But I want you to stay.”
A sentence, she thought, without extra quotation marks, anyway. They had that. Those.
“That’s a physical impossibility. I play Nancy. You might remember me from such roles as The Naughty Nurse Gets Stung…”
“A physical impossibility or a mental one?”
It, the argument, went on that way, which is to say basically in bitchy little circles, for three days.
Then it really snowed. The darkness, unchippable ice, pale skin, cold feet, stuffy house air; the touching under heavy blankets—winter was back. So high up on the globe we spin. It was too late to make your trades. The season would be theirs to share.
They came up with the idea of a mediator together.
* * *
They settled on a friend’s therapist, whom neither of them had met. The therapist was a man, but Maddie allowed the choice. She’d known the friend first.
Noah returned the wig a day before the appointment, to allow her to ease back into it. He fetched it, of course, from the basement, among the bees. His minions. Workers. She wore it to work, then around the house all night, then to the appointment itself.
Eight days had passed without it.
They filled out paperwork, waited, were sent in. His name was Dr. Cohn: Steve Cohn. He wore a broad smile, a well-tailored suit, and the most flagrant toupee that Maddie had ever seen.
“Oh my God,” Noah said, and literally slapped his head as Maddie rushed to shake the doctor’s hand with both of her own.
* * *
Thanksgiving was at a friend’s. A good crowd–several generations; faces and even types unfamiliar and familiar—and an atmosphere of gluttony. Some very smart people, some oversized personalities. Maddie’s wig spurred talk of Halloween: how long ago it seemed and how crazy it had been.
It’s true, Maddy thought. I didn’t know Nancy then at all.
Holding hands with Noah beneath the table as he told his joke about the bee who wore a yalmuke to the Bar Mitzvah so he wouldn’t get mistaken for a WASP, she met eyes with other male friends. She laughed without giggling, stood when she liked and moved with purpose, anywhere.
In a side bedroom, an old friend hit on her, saying the wig turned him on. She called him drunk, pulled the wig off and fanned him with it, laughing. Noah appeared in the doorway, face red. There was nothing going on but laughter, but when he walked away, he closed the door behind him.
* * *
That night, drunk in their own bed, Maddie stripped naked and climbed atop Noah as Nancy. He took off his clothes, too. The air was icy, so they huddled close. It was snowing outside. The sheets had come untucked, so the bed had no orientation, no head or sides, quite. Maddie shrugged the covers completely over them, making a tent. Settling too slowly.
They ground against each other like Maddie liked, though Noah was a little rough and moody. But they didn’t stop there—or didn’t keep going with just that one thing. Instead, Maddie leaned out of the covers, gulped air and opened Noah’s dresser drawer. Cold a force like heat. His hopeful old condoms were still there. Back in the tent, she pressed one into his hand. Her fingers escaping his as his closed. Hygenic. He sat up a little, opened it and put it on.
“Maddie,” he said.
Then–not soon enough but then–it was starting to happen. Clumsily, but with force. Then it was happening.
“Maddie,” he repeated.
“Uh,” she replied. Past the point of no return. Really. Done; happening.
“Maddie”—but not moaning it: saying it more like her Dad or something: trying to get her to answer to it.
“Who?” Then: “Omigod.”
Maybe she just needed this first time as Nance. Or maybe it was the name itself, Maddie, Madeline, that was no good, never had been exactly right, special enough in the same way as she was…
Now Noah in the happening blackness was taking her head, the wig, in both hands–even as his beard scrubbed her side, rolled her ribcage under it, with a temporary lunge surrounded her mouth.
He’ll take it off, she assumed. Ease her off. But he just stroked it for now.
She could ignore it. There was more to focus on. All pretty tender. She wouldn’t cry, as she had aways expected.
“Maddie,” he said for the umpteenth time.
They stopped moving at the same time. She wanted to pull the covers off and breathe. To ask him if that was enough–if he was actually through or just pausing. But she couldn’t yet. She wasn’t supposed to.
Instead, she felt a bead of sweat roll between her breasts, smelled Noah’s smoky odor and the honey shampoo, and waited, feeling his fingers probe the elastic lip of the wig—and listening and listening to his smiling in the dark, and then to her own, theirs.