Conspirators — Fiction by Judith Serin
When Clive broke up with Clara, who worries if she is intelligent, he told her that their relationship was only sexual. When he left me, always unhappy with my body, he said I didn’t really turn him on. Our common hurt was what brought us together. We felt he’d negated us, body and soul.
We met at a party in my cousin’s backyard. Bonnie steered me past her overpoweringly fragrant jasmine vine to a small woman sitting on the shaded bench.
“Celia, my dear, you must cheer Clara up. She’s feeling rotten about a man.”
“Really?” I stared at the beautiful, flower-like woman. “Me too,” I added after Bonnie strode away. My cousin was too close to my our family for me to let her know about the failures in my personal life.
“Aren’t they fuckers?” Clara’s voice was low and slightly guttural.
The obscenity put me at ease. “Christ, yes, and this one you wouldn’t believe.”
“Mine was worse.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
We compared notes. Clara’s story of a blissful beginning, uneasy middle, and final betrayal was familiar, similar to my story, to the stories which many of my friends tell about their one or two disasters. Then she mentioned the name Clive. The dates of our relationships overlapped. We discovered the depths of his treachery.
We became friends. There was an immediate intimacy between us. We could talk endlessly about Clive with a degree of obsession we hid from others. Clara didn’t say, annoyance tingeing her voice, “Why don’t you just forget him?” She knew the answer.
We did things together to distract ourselves. We discovered that we liked the same movies, the same parks, the same cafes. We spent much of our days together, since we both worked part-time. I taught art classes to small children and their mothers. She was a secretary to a psychologist who once a week good-naturedly tried to seduce her, while she good-naturedly refused. Jerry was remarkably easygoing. She told me that he didn’t protest when she pulled the filing cabinet down on herself by opening the two top drawers at the same time, the day after Clive broke up with her. She sat sobbing, surrounded by papers, until her employer returned from a long lunch and helped her straighten up.
Events take on significance later. Once Clara appeared in the doorway of my classroom, her face streaming with tears. The mothers shifted in their low childs’ chairs.
“Clar,” I ran to shield her from them, “are you O.K.?”
“Yes. Get back to work; I’ll wait in the hall.” She slid her back down the wall and landed sitting, her knees drawn up, as though she were pulling into a shell.
I returned to the classroom and busied myself mixing paint, my back to the mothers. God damn their eyes, I thought, for the first time understanding the phrase. I didn’t want our sorrow to be observed.
“Hope your friend feels better,” Mrs. Gruber remarked at the end of class as she pushed Johnny out the door.
“I’m sure she’ll be all right,” I answered brusquely. Clara huddled in the hall, staring through the passing procession of knees. “Did you notice the figure Johnny drew today?” I continued. “He’s really developing fast. The blue painting…” My eyes were drawn to some movement or change. Had Clara left? I didn’t see her. Then she was there again, crouching motionless.
Mrs. Gruber coughed delicately. “The blue painting,” I responded, “is very, ah, thoughtful, sophisticated.”
I watched Mrs. Gruber click down the stairs, her firm hand on Johnny’s wrist as he thumped from step to step. “Come in,” I called to Clara. “I’ve got to clean up. What happened?”
“I just needed to see you.”
I put my arm over her shoulder, holding my paint-crusted hand away from her mauve flowered blouse. “We clash,” I said, fingering my red apron.
“It’s a disguise. So people won’t know how close we are.”
She smiled slowly. “Yeah, it’s us against Clive and the world.”
Another time she lost me for a moment. We were at an art opening I felt obliged to attend. I edged the crowd with Clara, trying to seem absorbed in Billy Sagan’s slick, expensive paintings. “So this is how he does it,” I gestured at a large canvas of geometric shapes. “The colors this year; it’ll go with any room your decorator designs.” I glared at the genial drunk in the center of the crowd. He saw me, flopped his hand, and smiled lopsidedly. “Nice work,” I shouted.
I turned back to the wall. There were too many people there that I recognized and might have to speak to, and they were dressed too flamboyantly. What had I been thinking of, coming to an opening without jewelry, a hat, or a period costume? I felt conspicuous. I hated the crowd for their successes, for the way they chatted and laughed, the way they slid, plastic wine glass in hand, from one conversation to another. There was Laura Rogers moving toward us like a ship. I knew what our exchange would be like. I would admire her ponderous ceramic necklace, which, of course, she had made herself. She’d ask me what I was doing and I’d answer that I was still teaching kids and finding time for a few drawings. I’d ask her what she was doing: another grant, a new show opening soon, a choice teaching job.
“Celia?” Clara turned slowly, peering through the crowd.
“I’m right here.” I put a hand on her shoulder.
“Huh?” She whirled around. “That’s funny. I didn’t see…”
“Oh Celia, and who is your gorgeous friend?” Laura bore down upon us.
A few days later we sat in a cafe. I played with the sugar in the bowl. I wanted to relate last night’s dream: Clive chasing me into a public bathroom, my terror as I waited in the gray stall, knowing he would enter when the other women left, knowing he had a knife in the pocket of his pale blue jacket.
I wanted to hear how Clara would interpret this, what sexual connotations she would catch. I wanted to spill the frightening dream onto the white tablecloth between us, letting her rearrange it into a daylight phrase.
But a man was watching us. I was angry at the intrusion, angry at his arrogant expression, angry because I was sure it was beautiful Clara who interested him.
“What’s wrong?” Clara asked me.
I leaned toward her. “That man’s looking at us.”
She turned. Her eyes met his. “Are you looking at us?”
He half rose. “Yes, you look too good to ignore.”
“Well please stop. We want to talk. You’re making us uncomfortable.”
He slumped back into his chair.
“Clara, that was fantastic. I never know what to say to them.” The man gulped his coffee and left. “I just get so flustered.”
“It’s O.K. Men looking at us has been bothering me lately too.” Her shoulders drooped.
I poked the spoon into the sugar. “I wish we were invisible.” I looked up. Clara was gone.
“Celia?” I felt a hand grope for mine.
“Clara, are you there?” The table where our hands were clasped was empty.
People looked in our direction. What would they do to invisible women? I heaved Clara’s weight toward the back door. A small strip of grass behind the building. I crumpled, panting.
“Clara, what should we do?”
A gasp or stifled giggle.
I lay back on the grass. I held up my hand and looked through it at an alligator shaped cloud. My breathing slowed, sank. The sky darkened. I saw the flesh of my solid hand.
Clara sat nearby, her legs crossed tailor-fashion. She had lost her air of exhaustion; she looked alert, interested.
“Celia,” a smile of greeting, “you’re back. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. It just happened. I didn’t feel anything. It just sort of happened.”
“Let’s try it again.”
I stared at her.
“Come on. Think about something you want to get away from. I know, that dinner party I told you about, the one when Clive talked to that woman photographer all night and I didn’t know anybody.” Her shoulders sagged; her image wavered. She was gone.
“Clara, come back!”
“It worked.” Her voice was exultant. “Come on, Celia, try.”
“I don’t want to. Please come back.”
“In a minute.”
I felt scared, lonely. I thought that there had been plenty of times when I would have loved to be invisible. The high school dances, before I knew better and stopped going. Oh God, trying not to stare at Walter Griffin as he sauntered in my direction, but also not looking away in case he did want to ask me to dance.
I started. I couldn’t see myself. I reached for Clara’s hand.
We went in and out of being invisible. Our lives didn’t change much. Lighter and more pliant than most people, we floated in this new element, entering museums and movies for free, watching others unobserved, though it was hard to remember not to talk, and more than once our voices puzzled or scared some passerby.
Before, we had avoided going anywhere near Clive’s house, though we were drawn to it, imagining the blue shutters, the brick stairs, the one pine tree in front. Now, invisible, we walked past it often, gorging ourselves on pain and the freedom to feel it. Once, we peered in the kitchen window.
“Wonder If he still keeps a jar of caviar in the fridge,” I said.
“And green olives.”
“Ugh,” I responded. Clara liked to eat bitter things. I loved everything fattening, sweet or salty.
“You know, he keeps the back door key under the third geranium.”
“I know.” I thought ruefully of Clive’s luck; I had never let myself in while Clara was waiting for him in the bedroom room with a book.
“Let’s go in.”
“Why not? I’m hungry.”
The key clicked, scaring me. We entered cautiously. The house reeked of his presence and I wanted him. I also wanted to smash the antique porcelain fu dog in the hall, to kick the Oriental rugs into a heap, scrawl on the etchings, and, most of all, to batter the shiny, inscrutable suit of armor that stood on the landing of the stairs. His perfection, his horrible self-sufficiency.
“Clara,” I whispered. I had gone into the living room without her. I called into the doorway of each room except the bedroom. If I didn’t find her soon, I knew I would wait, visible, on Clive’s bed for his appearance, probably with a startled woman holding his hand.
“Hi,” she answered in the kitchen. “I’m eating.” An enormous sandwich, several layers of cheese and meat, lifted into the air.
A few evenings later we felt restless. There were no movies we wanted to see and Clara’s television bored us. The summer air settled on my shoulders. I stretched my arm; it was like moving through soup. “I wonder what he’s doing.”
“We could go see.”
“Okay,” I surprised myself by agreeing.
He was alone. He lay among his colored pillows, the sheets crumpled around him. His body was thin, long. He looked vulnerable, yet closed. We stood several feet from the bed, holding hands, trying to be angry. Clara sobbed once and he stirred, an uneasy sleeper.
“Should we go?” I whispered.
“Yes. Oh, he looks so innocent.”
I pulled her toward the door, my stomach furry. She reached out as we passed him and laid her fingers on his thigh. He sprang up.
We clattered down the stairs and fumbled with the front door lock. In the uproar of our escape, I can’t be sure I heard his voice, higher than usual, shouting behind us.
At my apartment we fell into the two fat chairs. Clara finally spoke, “I bet he was really scared.”
Her face twisted between a smile and a sob. My mouth twitched and we laughed.
“Oh God, can you imagine? He must be petrified.”
“Celia,” Clara looked at me eagerly, her full-lipped mouth half open, “Let’s go back; let’s really scare him.”
“Yes.” My tongue lay in my mouth like a pastel lozenge. Evil had a delicious taste.
For a week we didn’t talk about that night. We stayed visible and saw several movies. On Friday we went to a department store. The number of customers surprised us until we realized it was lunch hour. I felt uneasy among the crowd. Clara gasped. “Look.” She pointed and vanished.
Clive stood by a table, examining a bolt of blue cotton printed with enormous red roses. The blue matched his eyes and, possibly, his living room curtains. In the daylight, I saw he had gotten very tan.
His head turned, and I disappeared, reaching for Clara’s hand. We stood still. I was afraid the shoppers would bump into seemingly empty space, more afraid to try to push through them. Clive bought several yards of the fabric and left with the parcel under his arm. The store began to empty; lunch hour was over. “Let’s get out of here.” I pulled Clara into visibility.
That evening we went to his room. It was sunset, the sky a tender pink-tinged blue. Colors fluoresced in that light — the geraniums by the door, the roses on the new cloth draped over the living room sofa. We climbed the stairs quietly. Clive lay against his pillows, his right hand resting on an open book by his side. He was looking at some treachery, his eyes reflective, inward. He wasn’t thinking about us.
Clara gripped his arms. I sat on his legs and unbuttoned his shirt.
His mouth, like an O, floated above us, the screams issuing from the cream colored ceiling, the round moon scaling the window.
Judith Serin has taught Literature at CCA for many years. Her books include the poetry collection, “Hiding in the World” (Eidelon Editions), and an artist’s book featuring Serin’s poetry in collaboration with book artist Nikki Thompson, “Days Without (Sky)” (Deconstructed Artichoke Press). She has published numerous short stories and poems in journals and anthologies.
image courtesy of Raphael Koh via Unsplash