Playing House

by Mary B. Sellers

 

Clara can only remember three things before the green flash happened, before her face was burnt off when her kitchen lit up with fire. It was started by the old, faulty stove she’d nicknamed ‘Tin Man’ one night after too much Merlot, because of its perpetual rust that made even the yellow curtains she’d hung over the kitchen sink look melancholy.

 

These are the things Clara can, could, will only ever recall:

  1. The flash itself—extraordinary and emerald and the exact shade of the glass eyes in her favorite childhood baby doll.
  2. The boom that followed the flash—quick and loud, like interrupting thunder.
  3. The peculiar stink of skin catching fire.

 

Afterwards, there was only a great, long darkness, until at some point she woke up to an eggshell-colored ceiling and a nurse and doctor looking down at her.

There had been a long surgery—nearly twenty hours, the doctor said. Face swapping—the successful face transplant that comes out all smooth and even with the seams tucked tight—was still groundbreaking stuff, after all. And then the nurse, a blonde, intentionally pert in white uniform, explained that Clara had a new face now, and how wonderful was that? How could anything be better, a more perfect happiness?

 

Both the nurse and doctor cradled their expectation so that it pressed in like fog and all Clara could think about was how her head hurt like hell. The nurse said something sweet and infuriating, like how the surgery probably had something to do with her head hurting. And then there was some fiddling with an IV pumping something milk-blue, an almost-solid, like liquid clouds, Clara thought, before she lost herself again for a while.

When she looked into the hand-held mirror the nurse gave her for the first time, Clara saw someone beautiful: great lagoons for eyes, their color reminding her of those balmy beige and blue beaches found on drugstore postcards. A gorgeous, generic blue. So unlike her other, former eyes. They’d been the color of moss, like something found near the bottoms of forest trees. Trampled on, too soft for the bark with its mean serrations. The color of dead things, or the nearly dead, in-the-process-of-dying things. So incredible in their difference to this new, smooth blue. And the face—her face—was valentine shaped, and the skin—her skin—was as clear as cellophane. There were new angles to her—she felt the prick of power in their sharpness. Clara tried to remember her former face and when she did, it felt heavy in her mind. She’d been a clever woman, a lonely woman who drank red wine at night when the day was done and she came home from her tenured desk job, but not a pretty one.

The nurse said that the husband of the woman’s face she now wore wanted to meet her. Clara felt she had to meet him—this man whose wife was dead without a face, so she said yes, that would be fine. When the nurse left, she took up the mirror again and tried her first smile with her new mouth. It was curious how familiar it felt. She’d expected it to be like trying on a new pair of shoes, but it wasn’t at all. Riding bicycles, she decided, one of those things impossible to unlearn. But the thing is, Clara did forget—about almost everything for days—she was busy with the peculiar pleasure of self-discovery found in reflections.

Weeks later, when Clara had recovered and was out of the hospital and had slept a few nights in her old bed with her new, lovely face, she looked into her bathroom mirror which reflected her new, lovely face, and said to the mirror, Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Then she stopped, feeling a clumsy mixture of silly and exposed, as if she didn’t have the right to admire her face or say these words found in fairytales. She slipped the piece of paper the nurse had written the husband’s address and phone number on out of her purse and called him.

 

Clara looked into her car’s rearview mirror and tried her second smile, idling for time outside of the husband’s house. It was the sort of overcast day with an oily gleam behind it that hurt her eyes. She’d taken a guilty pleasure in spreading lipstick over her full lips that morning. She’d tried on six different shades bought on a whim from the drugstore the previous evening. It felt greedy, buying makeup for herself. She hadn’t bothered picking up the kiss-stained tissues that littered the bathroom floor because she liked the idea of them being there. Knowing they were there made her feel glamorous, a little reckless; she wouldn’t have been able to bear leaving them there with her old face. They were her beauty’s small casualties, she decided, thinking that sounded nice. Her skin was cream and peaches, and she still wasn’t used to the red burn of a blush in her cheeks. Her old face had been sallow, a mild shade of yellow prone to drying out, and not nearly as frail as it was now—shaped in just the way for two hands to cup it on both sides. It was the kind of face perfectly suited for being framed by men’s hands. She liked the feeling of being frail and so ready for framing, of doing silly things like trying on shades of lipstick.

 

Could she afford to be cruel now? She thought of all the pretty girls she’d known and remembered their coolness, the aloof, elegant way they could walk beside you but at the same time above you. There was something marble and ancient about them.

 

The husband opened the front door after five minutes of patient knocking. He was pale, ill shaven, with a once-was-handsome face that now looked wrecked and criminal, like those mugshots she’d sometimes see in the papers. Clara caught a whiff of the rubbing-alcohol smell that vodka gives off. It hung, stilled, in the space between them. His gaze was slippery but thorough, quicksilver in the grayed afternoon light. She let him drink her in and take his time without the structure of minutes, until he finally said, I didn’t believe in ghost stories until I saw you just now. His arm twitched towards her, but he stopped himself. His eyes were guilty with habit. It surprised her when he let out a shock of a laugh, chin tilted skyward, and looked back at her with rough eyes, saying, Do you want to see her things?

The husband took her to the bedroom, and there were half a dozen outfits already displayed on the bed—pristine, coordinated with shoes and handbags. Doll’s things. His own version of playing dress-up, she thought. There was a still-hot iron plugged in and laid sideways on the dresser, forgotten about. He began at the farthest corner of the bed, pointing at the matching pantsuit the color of a thunderstorm, and started telling the story of his wife in the only way he knew how.

 

There were three things he needed to tell her:

  1. He’d loved her. No, did love her. He was transformed into a man in love with the dead.
  2. She’d been adorably nearsighted and liked old-lady glasses with bright, beaded chains, because she was like that—she took pleasure in the silly, the novelty, of making ironies out of things.
  3. She’d died of one of those freak, tragic things you sometimes read about, that’s buzzed about and goes viral for a week until boredom sets in, or something wilder and weirder occurs. Something complicated-sounding, Clara thought. He’d been at the Whole Foods buying ingredients for their ritual Tuesday Spaghetti Night, and the last thing she’d said to him had been so mundane he’d forgotten it. Something like, don’t forget your car keysor let’s leave out the bell peppers this time in the sauce.

 

Clara scanned the many photos of the wife: one where she’s mid-laugh, a berry-stain for a mouth, the camera angled and catching the white blur of sun in the top-left corner; of her wedding day with the husband—looking giddy, a little goofy with all that love in her eyes; of her sweat-streaked, mascara pooling a little under her eyes, her prettiness for once masked by sweat’s thick film—having just come in third in her very first 3-K marathon.

 

And then at some point, Clara was drinking with the husband. She didn’t remember asking for a gin and tonic, and it was warm and she could see some lime pulp floating near the surface. They sat at the kitchen table. It looked like the kind of table you’d inherit from grandparents because it was scarred and a creaky sort of solid—the kind of old that made her feel good and warm on the inside. The husband sat sprawled in his chair with his legs stretched long and loose, looking at her from over the lip of his beer. This’ll sound funny, maybe even perverse, but I’ve gotta tell you—you wear her well, he said. And then he gave another one of those shotgun laughs that sounded too quick, too precisely aimed to come across as good-humored. The kind that left sad aftertastes in mouths.

This comment surprised her. It was the sort of thing easily mistaken as inappropriate. But it wasn’t, really, the more time you spent with it, she realized. A clumsy compliment that implemented no one, really, except for one man’s sadness. It was a simple fact: her face once belonged to this man’s wife but now it belonged to her. It was a still-pretty face, but the prettiness was the independent variable in it all. She’d done nothing to make it happen. She woke up one day and simply found herself that way, just like all the rest who end up being born beautiful. But it was the sort of beauty that lacked intention and existed, alone, on luck. This was the cruelest beauty with its streamlined cuts. And this was when Clara first felt the nervous energy and power of the female form.

They continued on drinking through the afternoon, past the violet edge of twilight. It felt like waking from a dream when Clara, at some point past dark, sat up straighter and saw the smudged glasses crowding the table, the limes bent like crescent moons and picked on by the big housefly that’d been their companion for so many hours. She felt giddy and an idea began its bloom. Clara wondered if he’d drugged their drinks with something because the whole of everything was dreamy with all the edges dulled down. The husband still sat in the same chair stretched long and lean. He wrapped his knuckles once on the table and looked up towards her, like he too felt the dream.

And then it went something like this: Clara getting up, reaching for his hand, him giving it. Walking together, three of his fingers clutched in Clara’s fist while leading him, shuffling in the glooms of a house bruised by the deep settling of night. No light necessary, at this point, really. And there, too—the bedroom again—both of them setting aside the wife’s outfits like museum curators with precious artifacts. Gentle hands, the slight give of the mattress, the decent softness of a bed worn in by unfamiliar bodies. Clara stretched herself out on the right while the husband took the left, both on their backs. The right had been the wife’s side—Clara knew this somehow. Maybe he’d told her, but that didn’t seem right. Maybe habits were transferred like osmosis—her inheritance handed down. Maybe this was merely her picking up where the former left off. She didn’t know, but it was a quiet night, and she’d forgotten how nice a man’s warmth felt on her skin. Only their elbows touched, but it was enough. And so Clara kept still next to the man on the bed, allowing herself to pretend.

 

It happened quickly after that initial night. There were the visits at first—extending incrementally into longer and longer hours. With every visit, more of her possessions came too. Things began collecting in the bathroom, on the bedside table: the lotion she used at night on her legs, the six tubes of drugstore lipstick, the old coffeemaker from college, her set of wineglasses, and carefully, finally, the closet too.

He let it happen. He often sat in the same chair at the kitchen table and watched Clara go about the house with growing, buzzing confidence. Sometimes, though, she saw him doing crossword puzzles. She’d never seen a man so still. It was as if he could leave the room for hours at a time without his body. She began to worry at his strangeness—his silences and metallic laughs. It was unbalanced—all of it—so she decided to fix it.

 

Clara began spending long afternoons researching the wife—hours inspecting each aspect of the woman’s life. Things got complicated when you looked too close, and sometimes it ended up with her doing things she felt ashamed of later. The dead had their privacy, too, she knew. There were grave-robbers of many types: the ones who stole materials and the ones who stole much more. But everything had consequences—sometimes there were necessary evils to contend with. But the research soon became more than a hobby, less a desire to help the man sitting at the kitchen table day after day. There was a part of her, Clara knew, that wanted to consume the remnants of the woman whole—swallow her down so that the bits of her could finally settle and disperse in their proper places. This was the business of mending memories to fit within the seams of her new life.

And maybe this was a sickness, a bit extreme—but it’d been born with pure intentions, she told herself when her nerves began to sing and the doubt broke through. She was sacrificing herself for the greater good of this man, after all. This was her inheritance, and this was as clear to Clara as if it’d been written in the dead wife’s own will. It was cosmic, it was fate, and she could nearly taste the destiny on it.

This was, Clara decided, the role she’d been reborn to play.

 

Eventually the husband got sick from all the beer and sitting he’d done over the past few months. The paler he became, the surer Clara felt. She put him to bed, finally, when he grew too weak to sit up. She took the phone off the hook, and made him soups from scratch, shredding and scraping the skins off vegetables past midnight. She caught her own fingers with the knife once, and instead of rinsing away the blood, she kept going, intent on mixing herself deeper into the meal. She would give blood and sweat and tears to this man who was hers. After all: that’s what all good wives, good women, do.

During the husband’s illness, Clara took to wearing the dead wife’s things. She particularly liked the plain pearl studs and so she slipped them into the holes in her ears and didn’t take them back out again. There were also all those photographs she’d found—the hairstyle was simple, a little straighter than her own natural wave. She practiced placing each strand of her hair just right until she realized what was wrong. A day later: Clara was a honey blonde. The shade really did bring out the blue in her eyes. It was like finding out a secret after all this time. Now, only one thing was left—mastering the makeup. But that was easy, the final check in her narrow, ordered list.

That night, Clara took particular care in dressing herself. She chose a taffeta dress in deep rose which she’d found pushed far back in the closet behind the coats and dry-cleaner’s hangers. She would be perfect for him tonight. This was for him, she told herself, this was all for him. It’d become a mantra in the last few days, like bands of ticker tape across her brain. She faced the bathroom mirror and for a flash—the slight tilt of chin, the pulled skin of neck—there was her old face, her first face, the eyes licked with green flame. But it was one of those sudden, quick-leaving things that must just be shadow and the light pulling tricks. Clara had become skilled at willing things away. She willed this away too, replacing thought for thought: how she hoped he’d smile for her tonight. It would be the start of something wonderful.

Before the final step—one spurt of Chanel from the half-full bottle that the wife hadn’t finished—Clara stood back to examine herself. She’d moved mirrors—down the hallway to the guest bathroom. The light was less harsh so that she looked only as she’d expected: all smooth, the blur of blush and coral lips—matte—like velvet. This was what hard work and dedication looked like, she told herself. She was flushed prettily, and the dress did wonders for her waistline. It hid the few stubborn edges of her past life fantastically well. She’d need to start that diet on Monday, though, to shed those final seven pounds. The wife had been 132 on her last doctor’s visit. With her drive, Clara could be anyone, she realized. But really, what’s a two-week diet in the face of such success?

She couldn’t believe she’d done it, almost. There was always that slick tendril of doubt that crept in if she wasn’t paying attention—but no, she was really there, standing before herself, lovely, a vision, they’d all say. After all these weeks of work. After nearly three decades Clara felt like herself, and so she turned off the light and went to him.

 

 

 

Originally from Jackson, MS, Mary B. Sellers  is a recent graduate of Louisiana State University’s Creative Writing MFA Program. While there, she worked on her Frankenstein of a thesis, a hybrid novel, RAPUNZEL HAS INSOMNIA, which is part story collection, part fairy tale vignette, and part personal memoir. She is also the founding editor of Awkward Mermaid Lit Mag. Her stories and essays have been featured or are forthcoming in: Flash Fiction Magazine, Sidereal Mag, Moonchild Mag, Crab Fat Magazine, Literary Orphans, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and others. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @marybsellers
-Twitter & instagram: @marybssellers
Art by Art Editor, Michelle Johnsen
Michelle Johnsen (art editor) is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.