Just like Lily

by a contributor

Susan Rukeyser

for Frida

The Broken Column

Every day, Lily’s kidnappers left food on the table. Today was a small stack of tamales, each wrapped and tied in corn husk, and guava nectar in a glass greased with fingerprints. Next to the food, as always, was the book. On the day she was locked in here, a note on the book said: OPEN. But she didn’t, not until today.

For the first few days of her captivity, Lily rarely left the mattress. She thought she’d been drugged. She fell into blurry sleep, then soundless black, free of memory. Surfacing at last, as if from underwater, she saw another note near the book: SPEAK.

Today Lily sat at the table and considered the blue walls. They reminded her of the view from her childhood bedroom, its glimpse of the Long Island Sound. Those were noisy years, her parents’ arguments drowning out all else. Some weekends, Lily was put on a Manhattan-bound train to stay with the grandmother who took her to the Met and bought her things from the gift shop, like The World in Art and a set of colored pencils. While her parents raged downstairs, Lily kept her eyes on the blue she knew was the Sound. She held up pencils to compare: Cerulean? Cornflower? If she could get that right, maybe everything else.

Remembering, Lily’s chest went tight.

The day she met Jon was almost Halloween, but the skies were sunny and blue. Lily was on her lunch break from her job at the hospital, where she dispatched janitors from a basement cubicle. She walked past several restaurants with tables on the sidewalk. Jon sat with friends outside an Italian place, all of them wearing coats. As Lily passed, Jon said, “Trick or Treat?” Lily stopped, unsure if he was addressing her or someone else. She held his gaze long enough that he took her to be flirting back. There were misunderstandings between them from the beginning.

When Lily recalled that day, she thought of the Edward Hoppers in The World in Art. Those lonely figures, eyes averted. Those shadows. Jon would say that’s just like Lily, to take a good memory and sour it.

Maybe Lily’s kidnappers knew Jon. Maybe they wanted to teach her a lesson because she broke Jon’s heart. Or, wasted his time. But was she to blame that Jon mistook confusion for flirtation, and Lily for someone she wasn’t?

Things were okay, their first and only winter together, when they didn’t know each other well. Most nights they were a tangle of limbs in search of something they couldn’t explain and didn’t find. They rented the top half of a house by the Stamford train station, above an old hamburger joint. Lily played with pastels and charcoal, dabbled in oils, but her hands never said what she meant. All day and into the night, trains rattled past, to and from New York City. A meaty stench filled the building.

Jon worked the floor at Best Buy. He liked to say, “Tell people what they want, they don’t know.” He suggested Lily make stuff she could sell, so she tried woodwork. Hunched over a little table on their porch off the back, she made dollhouse furniture. She did enjoy that, building households, everything contained. She asked Jon once, had he ever dreamed he was a god, a world in his control? He asked if she was drunk.

By spring, they sold her furniture at weekend flea markets. Lily arranged the displays but Jon did the talking. He said Lily needed to try harder with people. He was practical, and she needed that. Didn’t she?

Lily was happiest alone, on the porch, deeply focused on carving the tiniest objects, like the fruit she glued into walnut-shell bowls: bananas, pears, Red Delicious apples. Painted and placed on screens to dry, the apples resembled drops of blood. Lily wanted to illustrate that, somehow, the connection between blood and apples. She remembered a page from The World in Art: Masaccio’s mortified Eve, stumbling from Eden. Suddenly ashamed, knowing the blood to come, the suffering ahead for every daughter. Adam was beside her, but it was Eve’s fault. Lily turned to this page so often it was ruined by fingerprints. She imagined the taste of apple still on Eve’s tongue. But to express her feelings about apples and blame and blood and punishment, to even understand them, Lily would need time to sketch, and think. Jon didn’t like it when she retreated into herself, what he called “daydreams.” Oh, frustration. How swiftly it became rage.

Lily and Jon began to argue about her reluctance to engage potential customers or hang out with his friends. To make conversation, be normal. He said, “Why are you so weird? So quiet?” Lily realized he didn’t know her. Or like her, much.

When Jon ended it, as he rubbed on sunscreen before heading to a Memorial Day BBQ, he said, “You’re a miserable girl. No, worse: angry.”

Mostly, Lily felt relief.

Lily hadn’t seen her kidnappers or heard their voices. She assumed they were women. She felt them watching, through the mirror Lily suspected was one-way glass. There were microphones in here, and cameras, she was sure.

She felt their disappointment, each day she didn’t open the book.

Today, she did. It looked a lot like The World in Art. Lily paged through, leaving fingerprints. She came to a halt at Frida Kahlo. Lily hadn’t suffered a devastating traffic accident, but she felt that broken column-spine. That fractured support. Lily knew Frida’s brace like a cage. She knew that closed mouth.

She cleared her throat. Gathering her whole voice, so her captors would hear without difficulty, she said: “YES, I’m angry. Sometimes miserable. I’ll figure out how to say it.” Cradling the book against her chest, Lily rose and moved to the door. She wasn’t surprised to find it unlocked.

Susan Rukeyser writes stories because she can’t stop. Believe it, she’s tried. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from MonkeybicyleSmokeLong QuarterlyPANKThe View from Hereand WhiskeyPaper, among others. She has one novel out for consideration and another in a drawer. Find her here: www.susanrukeyser.com

See Susan’s list of 5 Things You Should Read tomorrow in our ongoing contributors’ series.