Cover Photo: Waking Up Marie by Clare Needham

Waking Up Marie

On the kitchen counter, within arm’s reach, lay a hammer and a pair of scissors: the instruments of murder. People did it all the time.

 

Marie awoke in a very cold room, her body half-tumbled off the bed, her left side tilted towards the floor. Where was she? The bed was too high, too wide to be her own. The curtains were thin and white, and lightly illuminated by a blank summer sky. It could have been six or ten in the morning, or three in the afternoon. What time was it? She didn’t have a watch. There was no clock in the room, nothing but a bed, and table, and a stack of books about art and painting. There was also a framed photograph of Naomi at a very young age, playing in a field with cousins, or friends. Naomi was an only child. 

Yes. Naomi’s. Were this a more dramatic time Marie would have rolled over and found a man sleeping next to her, but no, this morning, or whatever hour it was, this day she was alone. The air conditioner droned and droned, and made Marie feel weightless. She was wearing Naomi’s nightgown, a navy blue cotton dress with a deep dip in the back. The night before, Marie had spent time admiring herself in the mirror above the desk, trying to catch the truest glimpse of her back. Then she’d climbed into Naomi’s high bed – the guest bed – drawn the covers over her shoulders, and willed herself to sleep. 

She had dreamed about Asher. She had broken from a band of people, and run into a school, up and up a flight of stairs. There she’d found Asher, waiting for her in the hall. “Asher,” she whispered. He turned to face her. She pulled him into a room, pushed in the lock, stripped off her clothes. She pressed her naked body against his: “I’m here.” Too soon they were discovered. People gathered outside the door, and banged on the frosted glass, instructing her to come out immediately. They weren’t angry – they were just persistent. 

Marie felt sick, remembering the dream. Asher was gone. 

She shook her head. Where was Naomi? In her own bedroom, most likely asleep in a perfect dream, or no dream at all. Naomi: beautiful, unpossessed. Though wait, that wasn’t fair. Of course she had dreams, of course she did – but Marie couldn’t allow for it.  At the very least, Naomi was ready to give them away, to drown them. Last night she’d seen Naomi take a pill and announce herself drowsy and ready for bed. Perhaps she had done so to cut off Marie’s ramblings – the two hadn’t seen each other in years. Marie hadn’t felt entirely hurt by Naomi’s gesture, and was even grateful: soon Naomi would be knocked out completely.  Naomi had leaned forward and given her a last, loose hug, momentarily encircling Marie in her well-toned and perfected self, before easing her way down the pillows.

“Night-night,” Marie had said, turning once to give Naomi a little wave. 

Then she’d shut Naomi’s door tightly behind her and gone back to her room – the guest room – to change into the nightgown Naomi had lent her. Removing her clothes felt like a cleansing: she took off the denim skirt that would not stay still on her narrow hips, but inched its way upwards and around her body, so that sometimes the back pockets were almost at the front; she took off the linen shirt that had looked nice that morning, but now was stained with sweat and in need of ironing.  When she slipped on the nightgown, she felt a closeness to Naomi she hadn’t felt when Naomi had been sitting across from her, nodding mechanically to Marie’s stories of disintegration.

Marie discovered she was hungry. She walked into the kitchen, flicking on its yellow light that hung suspended over a round table and chairs. Then she looked for things to eat. There wasn’t much, as Naomi was allergic to wheat, or claimed to be. There was nothing Marie immediately craved, no cakes, no bread and butter. She settled on an expensive vanilla yogurt, the first thing she saw upon opening the fridge. It came in a cream-colored container, with an image of the organic farm where it had been made. Full-fat – that was satisfying. Marie would have liked to relax in a chair, to eat Naomi’s yogurt slowly while staring out the window at the apartment across the way, but she didn’t feel at ease: She feared at any moment Naomi might rise, zombie-like, and come into the kitchen to place her hands around Marie’s neck, and grip tight.

It was better to finish the yogurt quickly, hide the container deep in the garbage, wash off the spoon, put it back in the drawer. Marie turned off the light, and stumbled in the dark for the bathroom. She found it, and locked the door.

Marie always looked more attractive in someone else’s mirror.  She wondered if this were endemic to the human species, or even just to women. In Naomi’s mirror, her skin looked less bluishly bruised, more even; her eyes looked shiny and dark and mysteriously sunk. This was it, she decided, this was the appeal: the trying on of other lives. Here she tried on Naomi. She gripped the mirror’s edge and pulled. Her reflection slid away as she looked into the cabinet behind the glass. Marie unscrewed a tube of non-chemical toothpaste and squeezed a small amount onto her finger, swishing around the minty paste as she conducted her search. She found dental floss, and a few tools for picking one’s teeth. Marie shuddered. Oh, the thought of it…she should see a dentist, she had not been in a while. There were several pots of expensive creams and moisturizers, which she would help herself to later on – but that was it. Frustrating.  Naomi must keep her pills somewhere else.  Marie wanted to find out exactly what kind they were. 

A search through the contents of the shelves next to the shower yielded very little.  A line of French hair care products, a dizzying number of dryers and straighteners for one woman, and – here. This was the only interesting thing: a jar of “natural” laxatives called “Smooth Move.” Marie’s heart sank a little. The search was over. She threw the jar down in disgust. She stepped out of her nightgown, took a scalding shower, and soothed her skin with Naomi’s rich solutions. In the mirror, glamorous Marie shimmered into life once more: here was her potential.

 

Now Marie got out of bed, straightened the covers, arranged the six or seven pillows she had tossed aside, and bent down to pick up her bag of dark green leather – a nice bag, except for the coffee someone had once spilled on it, leaving a permanent dark stain, and a lingering hazelnut smell. Her phone was nestled somewhere near the bottom.  When she found it she was unsurprised to learn it was nearly eleven, and that her battery was close to dead. This would be an excuse to go knock on Naomi’s door. 

She knocked lightly. 

“Awake,” said Naomi. 

Marie pushed through. 

Naomi was sitting in bed, propped up by a great quantity of pillows.  A sleek laptop was positioned nearby, its lid half-opened, half-shut. “I was just talking to David,” she said, indicating the laptop, “he’s home on Wednesday.”

“Oh,” said Marie, stuck. She had met David once. He’d arrived at Naomi’s with his motorcycle helmet under one arm. Marie had extended a hand, and he’d paused before shaking it. He hadn’t liked her. 

Now, remembering the phone: “Do you have a charger for this?”

Naomi narrowed her eyes. “I don’t think so. That’s not the kind of phone I have anymore.” She pushed back the covers, and swung her unbruised legs out of bed. She wore a nightgown of shimmery material, in a color that changed from cream to beige to gold and back again as she pushed past Marie and opened the door. “I think there’s a charger someone left here once.”

They went into the living room, which was furnished by a circle of low, modern chairs. On the far end of the room was a leather couch. Naomi disappeared behind it, and returned with a woven basket of assorted electronics. She seemed upset that she should have to perform such a task on a Sunday morning, and yet, like everything Naomi did, she was equally resolved to do it well. When she produced a charger that didn’t fit Marie’s phone, she seemed disappointed.

“Well, then give it back now,” she said.

Marie handed it over. Naomi placed the basket on an upper shelf of one bookcase, as if to make a point that Marie were not to reach it. She walked out of the room, pausing once to look at her newest bit of home improvement: yes, the basket did look better there, on the shelf, and not hidden behind the couch. As Naomi admired her work, Marie nearly bumped into her, and found herself apologizing. 

“For what,” said Naomi. She turned her back to Marie. “Let’s have breakfast.” 

 

Naomi set out two small glass bowls, which she filled halfway up with yogurt – the same kind, Marie guessed, as she’d taken from the fridge the night before. Next Naomi placed on the table a packet of expensive granola. Marie took only a few spoonfuls, as Naomi would undoubtedly do, though she knew, by the depths of her stomach, that she could have gobbled up half the bag. Naomi was moving around the kitchen with graceful and precise movements: the dancer, yet the dancer at rest, projecting an air of ease as she made them coffee in a French press. 

“Why do you keep staring at me?” Naomi said as she set down the coffee.  

Here was the Naomi she remembered best, whose cold eyes she’d known since she was eight years old. 

“I wasn’t,” was all Marie could say. She raised her spoon, then lowered it. “Do you remember when...” – she didn’t know if this were a good path to travel, but she’d started on it anyway – “Do you remember when we were at camp, we were twelve or something, and you were always the star of...”

 “Yeah, sort of,” Naomi said. She wrinkled her nose, as if this were part of the effort to remember. “Not really, it was a long time ago.”

“And one day we were all warming up in that big studio, and all I could do was look at you, and then you said into the mirror, in front of everyone, ‘that retarded girl keeps staring at me,’ and I just couldn’t…and you knew my name…”

Naomi’s laughter was not with Marie.  “Did I say that? I don’t – but it’s funny, admit it. I mean you do, you’ve always been weird.”

Marie blushed. She lowered her eyes.

“I’m joking, Marie. Jesus,” Naomi yawned. She leaned back in her chair and pulled open a kitchen drawer, taking out two bottles of prescription pills.  She began to unscrew the caps.

Marie looked up. “What are those?”

Naomi shook her head. She swallowed a pill.

“I just want to see.”

“They’re mine.”

“I just want to know what kind.”

Without thinking, Marie pushed back her chair. She was at Naomi’s side, and trying to grab the bottles from her hand.

“Oh my God,” said Naomi, who had nimbly darted out of Marie’s path, and now barricaded herself behind the table, “you’re still just the same, the same freak you always were.”

“Give it to me!” said Marie, her voice rising with an urgency she hadn’t expected, “I want to see what you’re taking, you zombie!”

“No! No. You never change, Marie, you’re always – why did I let you stay here? I knew you’d – you haven’t stolen anything, have you? God, I was hoping you’d overdosed by now.”

Anger gave Marie clarity. On the kitchen counter, within arm’s reach, lay a hammer and a pair of scissors: the instruments of murder. People did it all the time. She wondered what it would be like to take the hammer and bring it harshly, swiftly to the back of Naomi’s head. 

Marie flinched.  The vision sobered her.  She sat down.

Naomi continued to scream. “And, so you know, these pills are nothing, they’re just to help me focus. Because unlike you, I do things with my life, and I need to focus.”

Marie began to massage her forehead, exorcising the vision from her mind.

“And what the fuck are you still doing here, sitting in my kitchen?”

Marie stood up and pushed in her chair. She said calmly: “Naomi. I don’t like you. You don’t listen. You never let me change. You think just because you knew me then, you know me now. You don’t.”

Naomi walked over to Marie. They faced each other. For a second, Marie didn’t know which way Naomi’s face would go – the dead gaze, or what she still hoped for, deep down: a look of pardon and mercy. 

“You bore me,” said Naomi. She walked out of the kitchen. A moment later, the door to the bedroom slammed shut.

 

Marie got ready quickly.  She changed back into her clothes from yesterday, and then – it came naturally, almost instinctively – she rolled up Naomi’s nightgown and stuffed the navy blue ball of cotton deep into her bag. 

Naomi, sealed inside her air-conditioned temple, had left Marie with an open field, entire rooms in which she could seek her revenge.  The kitchen, living room, bath – all were hers to turn over.  It would be fun, Marie thought, to uproot the place: to relieve the tubes and jars of their expensive pastes and wash them down the bathroom sink; to rearrange the furniture in the living room, to take the extra charger, and any extra thing; to smash a few plates and glasses in the kitchen. Oh, it would be fun, but Marie didn’t have the desire anymore. Instead, she smoothed back her hair and walked out of the apartment, closing the door gently behind her, so that it shut with a tiny click.  

 

Marie walked up the first few blocks of Boerum Hill with great strides, feeling the city air recycle through her body, replacing whatever she’d caught at Naomi’s. But after fifteen minutes of vigorous walking, and with no destination in mind, she could feel the sweat start to break through her skin, form little droplets on her scalp, collect in the space where her bag hung from her shoulder, leaving her shirt damp and stained. 

She was tempted to go inside a café.  But she was not ready for more people. Whatever had been stirred up inside of her at Naomi’s – the outburst, the murderous thought – might still be visible on her face. She needed to let these things sink to the bottom once more, and maybe, this time, disappear for good. 

She walked to Prospect Park.  She sat down under a tree she picked for its isolation, the unlikely chance anyone would come and sit beside her. She reviewed the events in her head. All her thoughts went to Asher. 

“You should have seen Naomi! Just as beautiful, but totally dazed.  Totally zonked-out zombie…she’s…I don’t know. I get there and at first I think things will be okay. Then we’re in her bedroom talking, and that’s when I see she’s totally off the rails, just staring at me with this spaced-out look, it’s like I’m not even there – she’s doing a parody of listening or something, she’s staring straight at me, her lips are sort of smiling, she’s nodding...but she hears none of it. She’s perched at the top of her bed, and I’m sitting at the foot, and I feel myself slowly start to slide down, till I’m looking up at her. It’s just how it always was – when we were growing up. Yeah, I idolized her back then, still kind of do, but I just dislike her so much, you know? She’s a bad person.”

She imagined Asher would be listening as he did that day, sitting across, leaning forward to better hear her voice. Asher was a tall man, and broad-shouldered, too. When they’d first met – introduced at a party – he had risen to greet her, and she’d taken in his body, unfolding. Marie had reached forward to shake his hand, and felt a momentary pulse of fear. Then she recognized the gentleness of his nature, his shyness, too. This had made it difficult for Marie to know how to act, as she was not used to gentle men. In the presence of Asher she became shy and gentle, too.

They had slept together, twice. Then he’d gone away. During their second night, Marie, startled out of sleep, had whispered to Asher sleeping beside her: “Asher!” – and he’d reached for her and pulled her towards him, into his arms. Marie had never felt anyone pull her towards them like that – usually she felt a push in the other way.

As it had been with Naomi, last night. 

After scanning the thin crowd at Prospect Park – the gray day seemed to have dulled everyone’s spirits, and kept them out of the park; there were none of the pleasure-seeking masses that populated the long meadow when there was sun – she turned her mind inward again, to Asher. She didn’t tell him any of the less decent things she’d done: she didn’t mention the yogurt, the rummaging through the bathroom; she thought about mentioning the nightgown, but only if she could do so in a lighthearted way; she certainly left out the part about her murderous vision, Naomi’s brains pounded in with a hammer. She couldn’t have Asher thinking she were strange.

            In her mind, he was sitting across from her the way he had that day, when she’d told him everything. He’d sat still, hadn’t once fidgeted or looked bored; he had listened to her in a way that made her feel expansive and smart and justified.  He’d drawn closer and closer, so that by the time she finished speaking their knees were touching.

In her mind, he prompted her to return to last night: “So, Naomi was totally spaced-out?”

“Yeah.  She was taking these pills. I tried to see the bottles, but she kept them away from me.”

“Well – ”

“I know, I know, but not like that.  I didn’t want to take her pills – just wanted to see. Even though I knew they were just sleeping pills, and Adderall or Ritalin, pills like that. But she was swallowing them like vitamins. Given my…it seemed disrespectful. At least I never acted like what I was doing was normal. I think that’s what bothered me the most. It was normal for her. She had no idea that – she said she was just using them to maintain her highly functional life. It wasn’t about discovery or expansiveness, she just took them to kill her dreams.”

“So you’re saying when you did drugs it was just about…expansiveness.”

“I don’t know, Asher.  You’re making my head hurt.” She stood up, brushing off her skirt. This was not the conversation she’d been meaning to have. 

After she’d walked for a while, she turned to him again. “She said she wished I’d overdosed already. She didn’t mean it, but how could she say it?”

“Oh, Marie.” In her mind they were sitting down again, knees touching. “Did you tell her what happened?”

Marie walked faster.

“I did. Nothing. Nothing from her. She didn’t seem to care, or maybe she didn’t understand...but I showed her my legs. I showed her where the bruises had been, and where they’d been on my arms, and I told her about my eyes. She didn’t….”

Here she broke off.

They had come for her. They’d come for her, two men she knew recreationally, from crushing OxyContin and snorting it up the nose. At first they approached her thinking it would be fun, all three of them, but when she panicked – when she panicked, that’s when it began. They held her down and took turns. At some point they started punching her. Then they’d panicked, too, and tried to say what they were doing was fun. By then she was bleeding and her vision had blurred. She had trouble forming words. They’d left her alone to put on her clothes, get up, limp, collapse, wait for someone else to find her. She’d been afraid to call the police.

Marie felt the pain of remembering return: the accelerated heartbeat, the sudden weakness in her legs, which threatened to snap under and take her down, making her easy prey. She found a bench and sat down, dropping her head towards her knees, hoping the increased blood flow would flood her thoughts and clean her brain. Asher alone had suspected things were bad, much worse than she’d first admit. He was the only one who’d gotten angry. He’d gotten up and slammed his fist against the wall.  Then sat back down, close to her, said, “what those pricks did to you, you didn’t deserve.”

Marie waited and waited until she was well enough to stand. Where was Asher now? She clicked back into her thoughts. Her mind was empty, Asher was gone. She had just herself. She adjusted her skirt, tugged at its hem.