Fiction — March 8, 2011 13:47 — 1 Comment

The Descent – Lis Anna

The prince who awakened me from my slumber was not my husband.

Samuel is sitting on the sofa reading The Times.  “Penny for your thoughts.”
I point to my day planner. I’ll give you a nickel if you just go away.
“Oh,” his eyes say, dropping back to the page.

Need, Want & Desire play a game in my head.  I follow them out to a dark labyrinth where they talk gibberish and take shape.  The fire sings a song. They take my hands, laying them against my own skin and they chant, rattle, shake, across dark skies with no moonlight.  They part my legs and plead.  I obey. They dance into ferocious cries of pleasure.

Everything happens in reel time now.  I am starring in the French Film that is my life. Sometimes it is black and white with no sound.  I turn the volume up. When I open my eyes, my lover is watching me.  He says, “I had to get up in the middle of the night to get a blanket because you had the sheet wrapped around you.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
“Because you look so good in it.”
We are making the film of us.  The unrated version.  You get the picture.

My bathroom mirror has become my psychologist.  I don’t understand, I am whining to my other self.  I am confused.  I am driven to live my life at the expense of destroying another.  Driven.  I hear Larry Adler backing his car out of his driveway next door.  He is tall, blonde, dazzling and doesn’t cheat on his wife.  “Not me,” I say, confidently looking the psychologist in the eye, applying gloss to my cheating lips.  “I am having an affair,” I hate myself for being so flip about it but today at 3PM I am having a board meeting in room 504 of the Waterford Inn.  Naked.

The curtains are pulled so tight that I can only see an outline of my lover’s face.  “I have to be back before dinner,” I say, rolling over, biting into his neck.  His hands ride up to my hips.  I am scaling the tower walls.  We begin making sense.

Out in the cool, evening air he wraps his arms around me.  The French film that is us drifts off around the corner.  Then we cut.

We’re having defensive behavior for dinner again.
“I’ve seen you for two hours all week,” Samuel says, squeezing his wine glass, laying blame.  “I wish you’d never taken that job, Marla.”

I think I am an incomplete human being cloned from an earlier version of myself that was damaged.  I want to think I’m on the verge of a breakthrough but what I’m really doing is cheating on my husband.  I’m not stupid.  I do it everyday, habitually, like a chain smoker, sneaking out back, or upstairs, or to the broom closet for my fix. I want to travel across the distance of my lover’s chest, and ride a caravan down to his lips where his tongue waits like an oasis.

At a dinner party a few days later Samuel is droning on.  “Charles was listening to Chet Baker the other night and he hummed every note in a perfect pitch.”
“That’s our Charles,” I chime in.
Clarice unfolds herself from the sofa, wobbling on martini legs.  “Yes, it goes without saying,” she says, dismissively.
Samuel reaches out a hand to steady her as she passes.  In a fit of irreverence she waves her cherry lacquered nails, “So what.  I know all of the words to Amazing Grace. Nobody ever makes that the topic of conversation.”
Charles is in the kitchen pouring a fresh one when I walk in with the empty tray.  I set it on the counter and he turns with that wayward smile that captivates people.
“Can I ask you a question?” I ask.
“You just did.”
“Then, can I ask another?”
“Fire away.”
“Have you ever cheated on Clarice?”
“That’s a loaded question.”
“Not as loaded as you.”
“Hmmm,” he wonders aloud, raising his glass in a toast.  “Why on earth would you ask such a thing?  Have you been following me?”

On Wednesday I am in my perfect house, with its perfect smell, and it’s perfectly placed furniture and I begin to cry.  The sensation is overwhelming, crushing, like the news of death knocking the wind out of me.  I have been jerked from my current fantasy back to the original reality I don’t want anymore.  My knees begin to crumble.  It is dark.  The Grandfather clock chimes.  I will do anything not to feel the way I felt before.  The phone is ringing.  I answer it because I am trained to be polite. “Hi,” Larry Adler is saying, so chipper.  “Hey, Judy and I were wondering…”
Blah…Blah…Blah…Judy and I were wondering why we don’t ever seem to be as simultaneously miserable and ecstatic as you.  We’ve hired a landscaper and boy has he done wonders for our marriage…Uh, I mean, lawn.  Ha-Ha.  Samuel looked a little blue the other day so we bought him a wine roasted chicken.  You must have been off at that new job of yours.  He feels better now.  We all feel better. Ah, chicken…
“Can we borrow the hedge trimmer?”

In the moments between then and now I learn that the imperfections of my life form a perfect puzzle.

The tile in my hallway is jade green.  The color of envy.  I set my shopping bags down, turning on the lamp.  The messages play one by one.  Message deleted…next message.  The sound of Evan’s voice echoes in my head.  Like a sniper, my eyes scan all directions looking for my husband.  “I am sitting on the floor in the ER,” Evan is saying.  But he’s not really saying it because this is a recording .  It is reel time.  Words catch in the back of my throat.  I hear his tears slap against his cheeks, burning.  Somehow I kneel, letting his slow cry ring in my ears.  I am stunned into a silence that hums inside my head joining me forever with him in tragedy. The words ‘heart attack’ and ‘father’ leap out through the sobs.  ‘Dead’ comes later.  But this is just make-believe and we are just a fantasy and real things like this don’t happen to people who are living in French films without any sound.  Desperate to live out this moment I rewind and replay the message seventeen times before I stop counting.  I don’t know what to say.  I want to be there, out beyond flesh and memory in that final thread weaving itself into the fabric of circumstance.  In the middle of this inexcusable, habit forming addiction that forms a craving in the pit of my stomach I am touched.  I am touched because I am the called and not the caller.  I am the needed and not the needy.  I am whole and smart and wise.  I have abandoned a marriage of matching towels and suicidal howls of boredom to descend into the body of another for a fraction of infinity.  This is reel time.

The stoplight is red.  Samuel’s fingertips dance over the steering wheel.  I glance over at him.  Then I really look.  This time I am looking at the angles of his face, the well-defined cheekbones, nose, eyelashes the color of bleached wood, the flecks of green and gray in his eyes, the seductive way his eyelids lay languidly amid his face.  I am chronicling in some way the beauty of all that he is and all that he is not.  I need to freeze it into my mind’s eye so that I can take it out on long train rides away from him.
“I have to go away on business for a few days.” I say, replaying the phone message over and over in my mind.
His jaw tightens.  “Where?”
“Utah.  A conference for work.”
I close my eyes and nod, unable to utter another lie in such a confined space.

“Oh, god, Marla.  Strangers at work trying to make eye contact is so much better than some woman standing in line at the grocery store bitching at you because you’re taking too long to write a check.”  Clarice throws her legs on the table like a cowboy after a long day. I tell her about Evan because I have to tell someone.  I tell her because I must.  In order to make it actual I must make it known so I tread out in shark filled waters. But I don’t tell her everything.  I tell her he’s a stranger at work who flirts with me but Evan isn’t a stranger anymore.  For instance, I know the scars on his chest are from a motorcycle accident in England.  Memory is liquid…Listen. I tell her more. Clarice stares at the ashes floating to the tabletop, looking for the shape to form a message. I let my face fall into my hands trying to stop this feeling that I have to escape or destroy another to become whole.  Clarice taps me with her toe. I float out into the green of her eyes. “Marla, it’s okay.  Change only comes to you when you’re changing.”  Her smile is so broad and beautiful that for a moment I am completely stumped.
Tears fill my eyes.  “I don’t know what it means…”
“Sure you do.  Think about it, Marla.  You’re on the verge of an answer.  That’s a powerful place to be.”

I am ascending the staircase of my childhood home.  The stairs creak.  The plaster  ripples.  Something comes into focus.  I walk to the very top, up and out onto the roof.  I am on top of the tallest building in the world.  I jump.  I am falling, falling, falling … When I wake in the hotel room in Salt Lake City, Evan is holding me tight. I watch his chest rise and fall until I drift back into dreams.

Charles is drunk again.  And clever.  He rouses a spirited hand in the air, musing, “Zen koan for the day: If one grain of rice cries, does it cause the others around it to expand?”
Clarice is on the other side of the doorway and I hear her mumble, “Asshole…”
I step into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.  I ask her if they’re having marital problems.
“What?” she asks, astonished.  “Are you telling me that I’m married to that asshole?”

Reel time.  Friday afternoon.  Two shots of espresso.  Three cups of coffee and a pack of cigarettes.  I am ready to take over a small third world country.  Evan opens the hotel door, naked, scotch and soda.  Sex on too much caffeine is like riding on an out of control Ferris wheel.  Tense, grinding, now, numbness.  I cannot fly.  I cannot soar.  I cannot let go of the last stupid thought I had.  We are facing the wall, doing primal things, growling, tempting.  The rhythm is hypnotic, everywhere, all over, in front of us.  Snippets of earlier conversations flash across the screen of my mind.  If you want to work for the most corrupt institution ever, then work for the military…I’m too generous, too naïve…My first wife…I’m a Virgo with a Scorpio rising but I don’t’ know what that means…I moved from Kansas…then my girlfriend left me…God, all I wanted was a cup of coffee and I was stuck in line for over an hour…I cannot focus.  There are only pieces.  I am dizzy with the pieces.  I should leave.  I do not feel good about this part.  My brain is the autobahn.

I begin to think that cars are like thoughts.  We create them and drive them obsessively over and over.  Then we trade them in for what someone from an advertising agency tells us we should want.  Factory rebates.  Too much caffeine.  What everyone else wants. It’s all the same thing.

“What do you need?”  Evan says, logging out of the system.
“I need those reports.”
For the first time he swirls around in his chair and we make eye contact.  I am not thinking I will leave my husband.  I am not thinking anything when I close the door.  I am carefully watching his starched white shirt rise and fall with his breath, the top of his tie pulled away from his neck, the way his suspenders lay against his chest.
Lifting a file from a plastic tray, he says, “I’m one step ahead of you.  I finished the reports. Why don’t you come have a drink with me?”

3:19 PM.  I am supposed to be sending a quarterly sales report but instead I am pricing edible body paint online.

It is the feeling of the heat and not knowing where his mouth will land that is so disorienting.  Words travel across great distances to hold me.  The sounds beyond the hotel window are like the blood swishing in my veins.  These moments twist and surrender to a thin blade of light looking to feast on anything.  Like this, I keep telling myself.  Then I am racing to catch up again.  I am whispering words I have never heard before and they bubble out into the air where he sucks them into his mouth, repeating them back to me word for word.  My clothes fall from my body like drops of rain.

We are all god’s children making that voyage down into a descent of our own design.

Clarice’s eyes dart around the housekeeper like an animal at the zoo that’s been taken from the wild, forced into captivity.  “I’ve been volunteering at a homeless shelter.”  She crosses her legs, then uncrosses.
“It’s probably good for you,” I say, because maybe it is.
“That’s what everyone says.”  Then she pours a drink at 11AM, distracted.  “God, Marla, I just…Charles stays up all night pacing, staring at those damn windows.  When he finally comes to bed, he dreams and dreams, tossing and turning.  It’s like sleeping with an angry beast.  His dreams give me nightmares.”
Chills run up my spine. Dark circles swell like a current under her eyes. “Charles has always been listless,” she says. Smoke spirals into the air.  “It’s like he’s killing off parts of himself  he no longer wants. I watch the parts die, starved, abandoned and it drives me to the edge.”

On Tuesday I enter to find Clarice’s body slackened over the toilet, vomiting blood.  The kitchen has flooded because of a faulty pipe.  Candles have melted down all over the floor.  We hold hands, praying, singing old church hymnals the nuns taught us in school until Charles finally gets there. Two hours late. Stinking of gin.

“I didn’t expect him to be so attractive,” Evan says, pumping gas.
“Who?”  I ask, digging through my purse for change.
A gunshot rings out in my mind, blasting every thought into outer space.  I am watching my reflection in the window, “What did you say?”
“I mean, he’s not just attractive, he’s incredibly handsome.”
“Where did you see my husband?” I sputter.
“I was introduced to him at a cocktail party last night. I shook his hand with the same hand I use to take your panties off.”  He leans against the car as the gas pumps.  “I didn’t know he was English.  He sounded like Jude Law.  Proper.  I kind of liked him.”  He turns, leaning over the hood of the car, trailing a finger out to meet me.  “I had to like him.  He has what I want.”
“You went to a party without me?”
“I drove over to The Regis to book our room for tonight. A friend of mine was having a party in the lounge. He talked me into one drink. I’m glad I went. It’s nice to meet the competition.”
“You don’t have any competition.”
He raises an eyebrow. “None?”
“The minute I looked across that room and saw you there was only you.”
“Even if being with me is complicated?”
“Being with you is easy. Everything else is complicated.”

We profess our love in parking lots in-between yellow lines.  We tell secrets that the streetlamps overhear.  Housekeeping attendants become the kindly mothers we never had.

When the call comes at 3 AM Samuel is actually the one who answers it.  I roll over, horrified it might be Evan.  Samuel turns on the light, reaches for his jeans, says, “Yes…yes…I know the place,” and then hangs up. My heart is still, my blood is placid, floating. I feel faint. “Who was that?”  I manage.
Samuel stands, naked, pulling his jeans up from his ankles.  I look at him in his nudity, his vulnerability, his manliness.  He looks out over me like a shadow, grinding his teeth.
“Samuel,” I say, sitting up, exposed.
His eyes travel the distance of my body softly, evenly, stopping on my face.  For a moment he is my husband and I am his wife.  Then he says, “Clarice stole a baby from a woman at the homeless shelter.”

Sometimes when I am all alone I sit at my desk and pretend that the world is ending.  People are dying outside my windowless office.  I do not hear them.  They die quietly because there is no more air for them. I do not know them.  I sit in my office with my artificial air and I breathe.  Gripping my hair tight in my hands, I pray and plead and beg myself to go back to my husband.  I bribe myself.  I tell myself that for the rest of my life I can have anything I want.  Then I look up and Evan is standing in the doorway, smiling, asking me if I’d like to go to Rome.

Charles is beside himself, pacing, swearing, smoking in the police station even though he’s been told by a fat cop to stop about a hundred times.  I sit on a wooden bench not made to be sat on while Samuel works out the details at the desk.  Charles stops, pulls his fingertips together, looks to be on the verge of some philosophical revelation then stops, grinds his teeth and growls, “Damn you, Clarice.”

When a woman emerges from a side office I realize that it must be her.  She has been crying and doesn’t look homeless but is wearing old clothes, a faded poofy jacket from the late 70’s with a matted faux fur collar.  Samuel is the first to make eye contact with her and something close to a smile weaves itself across her face.  I look in my purse for lip gloss, eyeliner, anything to avoid looking at her.  But I do look, slyly, the way a con man watches a pool game.  Charles stares at her like she’s from another planet.  It’s embarrassing.

Clarice is put in a room with no mirrors, dainty, removed, oblivious.
“We were going for ice cream,” she says so cheerfully that it forms tears in my eyes.
“You were at the fucking airport,” Charles screams.
Samuel squeezes my hand as if to say, at least we don’t have these kinds of problems.
“So what?  Maybe I was.” Clarice swings her legs around, standing up, ready to leave.  “Fuck you, Charles.”

I am dreaming again.  I walk to the very top, up and out onto the roof.  I am on top of the tallest building in the world.  I jump.  I am falling, falling, falling…

Samuel is snoring, wheezing really.  My jerking awake doesn’t startle him.  I don’t know what to do because a few seconds before I jumped from the tallest building in the world so I go to the musty basement and watch reruns of Wheel of Fortune until I collapse on a cot.  Samuel finds me the next morning.  The starch on his shirt is shiny.  I get up to go to work.
“It’s Saturday,” he says.
“So it is,” I say, glancing at the digital face of my cell phone.
“I thought maybe we could have brunch.”
Brunch.  Really?  And maybe some dessert.
“I don’t know why you’re so hostile.  I’m your husband.  It is natural for me to find you desirable.”
“Desirable,” I snort.

Clarice’s attire consists of flannel pajamas with pink bunny rabbits chasing each other and fuzzy slippers.  She won’t look at me because she’s too busy painting her fingernails with liquid paper while a very large orderly stands to the side watching like a hawk.  She is thinner, frail, more beautiful if such a thing can be true.

“Clarice,” I whisper, leaning across the metal table. Her green eyes drift to the tall windows covered in bars.  I touch her hand.  “Clarice,” I say, so quietly I can barely hear myself, “I’m having an affair.”

A wistful smile curls over her face in waves, delightful waves of ecstasy, and she claps her hands together in such a joyous way that for a moment I forget her court ordered psychiatric care for stealing the babies her own body denies her. The angels come to us, flapping their wings against our cheeks until we are drunk with delight.
“Really?” she says, clasping my hand and I know my best friend is back.  “The one from work?  The one with scars on his chest?”
“Yes,” I nod, pinching my excitement into a tiny whisper.
“Do you have a picture of him?”
“No, I don’t keep anything around…No, wait.  I do.”  Digging through my purse I find a company photo of several people, Evan is in the background to the left.
“Oh God,” pulling her hand to her mouth, “does he take off your panties and make you scream his name and give you diamonds and champagne?”
“Yeah,” I say, thinking about the answer, exhaling, looking for the truth.
The nurse on duty wheels a cart over, dispensing meds.
“God, Marla, I’m so happy for you,” Clarice says, swallowing the rest of her afternoon away in a little white pill.

Reel time.
“Can we go away?”
He rolls over so fast in bed there is wind against my cheeks.  “Are you serious?”
“For how long?”
I am so taken by what I’ve just said that I cannot swallow or move. I am suspended out in wild time where life changing decisions are made.  In the dark I can see his face, so touching, so elegant, barely breathing, reaching into his carrying case for something.  I am so naked I am nude, completely revealed. He slowly slides a ring onto my finger.  Neither of us says anything.  We just know.  For the first time in my life I am not just making love, I am making sense.

From sun up til sun down we swim in a shot of vodka.  The man who feels everything and the woman that felt nothing.  People call it love.

On a very normal Thursday afternoon Evan drives us over to my well manicured neighborhood to tell my husband that I am leaving.  It’s the way it should be.  A passing of the torch.  Man to man and all of that shit. Samuel thinks about hitting him.  I can see it in his eyes but in the end he steps aside, instructing, “Her stuff is in the bathroom, in the bedroom.  You’ll know what’s hers.  Take whatever you like.”
Watching all of this from the car at the curb feels like reel time.  It occurs to me that I may never have silk wallpaper or a pool house but now I have Rome.  I step out and lean against the car wearing my big Audrey Hepburn sunglasses and I smoke a long cigarette.  Samuel is watching me from the window in his study.  I blow smoke in rings but really I’m telling him to go blow something else.

Clarice does a striptease in the lounge to celebrate and the orderlies put a straitjacket on her, dragging her kicking and screaming down the hall.  This is the first time Evan has ever met my best friend.
Before they have a chance to stick her with the shut up stuff she yells, “Screw the revolution.  I want a man who makes me sing.” She may be crazy, but she’s right.

Evan’s lips press against mine in the parking lot.  Now our secret is something else.  Now our secret is safe.

Charles calls my cell phone just before Evan and I board the plane.
“I thought you knew I was cheating on Clarice.  That night in the kitchen.  You restless little devil.  Samuel is very angry.  I think he needs a psychiatrist…” That’s funny, don’t we all.

The boarding gates are empty.  Fluorescent lights buzz.  There is beauty everywhere.

That night, on the plane, I jump in my dreams and I am falling, falling, falling and an angel with iridescent wings floats up to me and whispers, “Why don’t you use the stairs?”

When I wake, we are hovering twenty thousand feet above the Italian skyline.  I am starring in the French film that is my life.  Primal, restless, hungry.  The unrated version.  You get the picture.  Static crackles.  The Captain’s voice comes over the loud speaker, “Please fasten your seat belts.  We are beginning our descent.”
I feel like I should scream, howl, but I look around and see that everyone is sleeping.  My blood is wine.  I am reel.


Lis Anna’s short fiction, films, screenplays, and novels have all been nominated and won awards. She is a five time WorldFest winner, a Wurlitzer Grant recipient, a New Century Writers winner, Second Place Winner of the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Award, First Place winner of the 11th Annual Poet Hunt Award, a four time Accolade Film Competition winner, and a finalist in the Nicholl Fellowships, the Doris Betts Fiction Award, Chesterfield Film Project and the William Faulkner Competition. Her fiction has been published in Word Riot, The Blotter, Petigru Review, Hot Metal Press, The Smoking Poet, Eclectic Flash, Paper Skin Glass Bones, 491 Magazine, and The MacGuffin Literary Review. or

One Comment

  1. Tere Barrett says:

    Lis, I just wanted to let you know that I love your unique use of words. I love to read writing that tastes good when read out loud. The running themes are beautiful – the silent french film of your life, reel time. Certain phrases make me smile to read, i.e., your brain is the autobahn, and I can so relate to that. This is poignant, thought provoking, and pulls one in to where you have to finish in one read. Delightful.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney