ELISA WAS PARTICULAR ABOUT WHERE SHE PUT THINGS IN JEREMY’S KITCHEN. She put the green foods—lettuce, basil and celery in one drawer in the fridge, and carrots, bologna and brown eggs in another. All of the food, all of the silverware, all of the plates had to be organized according to color.
______Preparing dinner always took the longest. Tonight she made a bowtie pasta with a marinara sauce. She cut red tomatoes on one board and green basil on another, but when she reached the onions, which were yellowish with a greenish core, she didn’t know which cutting board to use. How could she cut yellow-green onions next to tomatoes with red juices? How could she cut green basil next to an onion, which had yellow? Eventually, she separated the vegetables into bowels and rewashed the cutting board so that each item (she still had lettuce to cut for the salad) could be separated by color. Once they were cooked, she decided, it would be acceptable for them to mix.
______She set the table with the red placemats, the red-handled fork and knife set, and the two wine glasses for the red wine. She placed Jeremy’s placemat with a view of the television, and hers with the closest access to the kitchen.
______Jeremy came out of his room dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. He turned on a baseball game and put on his shoes. It was almost 6:00.
______A year ago, Elisa and Jeremy rarely saw one another. Even though they were roommates (she answered an ad in the classifieds), and they were around the same age (Elisa was 33 and Jeremy 30), he had a way of coming in and out of the house when she was in her room or at work. But six months ago everything changed. She was leaving work, carrying a box of fabrics across Main Street. It was a cold night with a slight drizzle and a wind that stung her cheeks. A driver ran a red light. Elisa never saw the driver’s face, or a look of shock or remorse. She only remembered his headlights, his long honk of a horn, and all of those beautiful fabrics, possible dresses, possible dress shirts, possible skirts, ruined in muddy puddles. She broke her back, collarbone, hip, arms, wrist and her left leg—seven bones total. The right side of her face was permanently scarred with thick white marks.
______Elisa reached for the top shelf for the olive oil. She reached as high as her arm could, but ever since the accident, she felt sporadic pains all over. A sharp pain shot into her hip. “Jeremy, could you reach the olive oil?”
______Jeremy rushed towards the kitchen. He took the olive oil down from the shelf. “What’s for dinner?” he asked.
______“Pasta.” Elisa smiled. She sat down and massaged her hip.
______Jeremy finished setting the table. He put the washed vegetables on a plate, brought out the salad dressing, and grated parmesan cheese.
______“They’re going to win,” Elisa said.
______Elisa pointed to the television. “The Giants.”
______Jeremy brought the salad and pasta over to the dining table. He poured two glasses of red wine.
______“Dinner’s ready,” he said.
______The next day, Jeremy called to say he would be missing dinner. Jeremy sold insurance—auto, life, health, and most recently, insurance for natural disasters. His message said, “I’m meeting the guys for a drink. I’ll be home late.” She replayed the message several times, trying to figure out if meeting the “guys” would be an occasional or frequent thing. Ever since the accident, Jeremy and Elisa always ate dinner together at 6:00 p.m.
______That night, she went back to her windowless room and sat in front of her sewing machine. The thread was loose, the needle sharp. It faced downwards ready to strike. She pushed a scrap of fabric through the machine, imagining the way the doctors had sewed her wounds together. They used a string just like this to connect her skin, pushing the needle in and weaving it out, until her skin grew together like two fabrics of beautiful material. Unlike cloth though, skin can connect when pressed tightly together. Things learn to grow as one when forced to.
______She traced the thick white scars on her cheeks that ran in three crooked branches from below her right eye to the bottom of her chin. The grooves were so deep that the extra skin bulged over like fat constricted by a belt. One branch pulled the bottom of her right eye, stretching the eyelid so it revealed a hint of pink flesh; another branch, pulled her upper lip towards the bottom of her nose, exposing the tops of her gums even when she was not smiling.
______Realizing her disfigurement always made her appreciate Jeremy’s companionship. She would make him a gift.
______She walked into his closet to look at his row of dress shirts. Jeremy wore a button up shirt everyday for work. Most of his shirts were either light blue or off-white, except for one, which was pink and dressy, made by Ralph Lauren. She pressed her nose against the pink fabric inhaling the smells of Jeremy, cigarettes and a cologne whose name she did not know. The shirt was a medium, although Jeremy had broad shoulders
______She walked over to his dresser and sprayed the different colognes onto her wrist—Polo Sport, Roberto Cavalli and a tinted bottle titled Blue. She took the pink shirt off the rack and the bottle of Blue back to her room.
______The night she had first gotten out of the hospital, Jeremy let her sleep in his king-sized bed. It was soft with lots of pillows and a puffy down comforter. She was on many painkillers. She never opened her eyes fully to let Jeremy know that she was awake. He would move around his room without his shirt on or in a towel, wet from a steamy shower. With her eyes barely opened, she studied all of his contours, all of the blemishes and freckles on his skin. Jeremy had a birthmark the shape of Florida on his back. He also had a belly.
______Jeremy had many shirts, but Elisa wanted to make him one that was different. She used a soft blue material. She carefully cut the sleeves, the pockets, the collar, the cuffing and pinned all the loose pieces together. She matched the new fabric to the pink shirt in shape and size. She held up the pinned-up shirt to see how it looked. It still looked basic. Just a shirt. A shirt he could buy at the Gap or Macys. And she wanted so badly for this shirt to be unique. In her basket of extra fabrics, she had reds, greens, pinks and patterned stripes. But, she said while nodding her head, “All too flashy. They’ll clash harshly with the blue.”
______Outside her room, she heard the sound of the door unlocking followed by footsteps. It was nearly 12:00 a.m. and Jeremy had just come home. She heard him open the fridge, pour a glass of water and walk down the hallway. His footsteps became louder and Elisa held her breath. Her light was still on and she wondered if he would knock on her door. Would he be curious about why she was still awake? Would he tell her what he had eaten for dinner? Would he say good night? The sound of his footsteps disappeared down the hallway.
______Jeremy’s shirt with its unseamed edges and pins poking in all directions rested in the lap of Elisa’s maroon nightgown. The nightgown once belonged to her mother. It was made of silk, trimmed with thin pieces of lace along the edges and reaching all the way to the floor. Her mother made it herself. She taught Elisa how to sew when Elisa was just six-years-old. Elisa first learned how to attach missing buttons (Remember, to leave extra string for the knot before your loop it through the last time.). Then she learned how to patch up old pants (Don’t pick a pattern too bright or everybody will know it’s a patch!). And then she learned how to make complicated spring dresses (Iron, iron, iron. The secret to sewing is ironing after every seam.).
______The color of the gown was faded in just a way that made the soft blue look harmonic. Elisa took off her nightgown and sat naked before the machine. She cut up her gown into strips of maroon, and pinned them to the shirt.
______Jeremy called again the next day and told Elisa he would be out. “Don’t worry about dinner,” he had said. Elisa did not replay the message. She made herself dinner from leftovers, went back to her room and surrounded herself with maroon and blue strips.
______On Saturday, Elisa had an appointment with a woman who had answered her ad for a
skilled seamstress. Over the phone, Mrs. Rampton sounded elegant and wealthy like a character from a Jane Austen novel.
______Elisa had stayed up until 4:00 in the morning, making sure that all the colors of Jeremy’s shirt were balanced, that each collar, cuff, sleeve and pocket were the right length.
______Mrs. Rampton rang the doorbell exactly at noon. She was dressed in a large sun hat, and a cream-colored dress and coat made of polyester. She was pulling a rolling suitcase behind her.
______“Nice to meet you,” Mrs. Rampton said. She held out her hand covered in a white-laced glove. “I am Mrs. Rampton.”
______“I’m Elisa, but you can call me Lisa.” She smiled and pressed the right side of her face to her shoulder, a habit she had inherited after the accident.
______“Could you fetch me a cup of tea?” Mrs. Rampton asked in a slight British accent.
______Elisa hurried to the kitchen to boil some water. She set two teacups in saucers.
______“Do you sell insurance?” Mrs. Rampton asked, looking at a picture on the wall of Jeremy at a conference.
______“No,” said Elisa, “That’s Jeremy.”
______Elisa handed Mrs. Rampton her portfolio of gowns and suits with comments from clients, who had been impressed by Elisa’s attention to detail. Even the way she had laid out the pictures revealed Elisa’s meticulous nature. She had a short description next to each photo that explained the different measurements and types of fabrics.
______Mrs. Rampton flipped through the pages, and nodded her head in approval. She wore large diamond earrings and a pearl necklace. Her clothing looked freshly pressed and starched. Everything from her behavior, proper accent, and gold jewelry, made her a person from another world—a place of laced collars, satin bodices and grand pianos.
______“Do you have any of these items here?” she asked.
______“No,” Elisa said.
______The kettle whistled and Elisa hurried towards the kitchen. She poured the water into a teapot and brought the cups to the living room.
______“Do you have sugar, dear?”
______Elisa went to grab the sugar.
______“And a pinch of milk?”
______Elisa went to the fridge for the milk. The rushing back and forth to the kitchen made her left hip ache. When Elisa returned, Mrs. Rampton put the book down. She said, “What happened to your face?”
______Elisa pressed her cheek against her shoulder.
______“My dear, don’t be shy,” said Mrs. Rampton, “I’ve seen scars far worse than yours.”
______Elisa stood up and went to her windowless room. Scraps of blue and maroon littered the floor and table. She grabbed Jeremy’s shirt.
______Mrs. Rampton grazed her fingers over the lines of the nearly invisible thread that blended the soft blue material into the faded maroon fabric. She held the shirt in the air and gently shook it as the soft material rippled in little waves. The colors were woven together so tightly they looked like the same material. Born together. Not plain at all. But beautiful and delicate.
______Mrs. Rampton handed back Jeremy’s shirt. “I have many dolls,” she said. She unzipped her suitcase revealing a clear glass box with a miniature porcelain woman dressed in a fancy ball gown. “I would like you to help them.”
______Mrs. Rampton booked Elisa for the entire project. She promised Elisa a substantial sum, even left her a $2,000 deposit. She explained that the dolls were heirlooms passed down from several generations of Rampton women. They were valuable and Mrs. Rampton planned to auction them off on eBay. She no longer wanted the responsibility of owning a collection that defined her. The detailed little faces, the intricate ball dresses reminded her of a family that was consumed with collecting. She thought about donating them to a museum. Certainly the Museum of Dolls in Washington DC would be honored to own a collection as valuable as hers. But she wanted them sold. She wanted to make a profit. She knew that making money off the collection was in every way the kind of thing her family would disapprove of.
______That afternoon when Jeremy came home, Elisa gave him the shirt. She sprayed it just once with the Blue cologne. It hung on the hanger like a waterfall of silk.
______“Wow,” he said. He ran his fingers over the material. “What color is this?”
______“Blue,” said Elisa.
______Jeremy kept his eyes on the fabric. “I’m sorry I missed dinner.”
______Elisa pressed her cheek against her shoulder. “Try it on.”
______He unbuttoned his shirt and slipped out of his work clothes. He was wearing a white undershirt with a v-neck. He had yellow stains along the armpits. He lifted his arms and his belly poked over his belt. When he slipped his arms into the blue-maroon sleeves, he was instantly transformed into a smoother, sleeker Jeremy.
______“Thanks, Lisa.” He looked at himself in the mirror smiling.
______Elisa went for her daily afternoon walk. She picked up some milk and a bouquet of fresh lilies. She enjoyed the way the Midwestern leaves turned orange in the fall. They floated down from their branches, covering the sidewalk and lawns with color. Elisa loved how the leaves brought color to the bland cement gray. Fallen leaves were the sprinkles on a plain sugar cookie.
______By the time she returned to the house, it was already dark. Although Jeremy’s door was closed, she knew that he had left for the evening. She went into his room. The smell of his Blue cologne lingered. She went into this closet, and as she expected the blue and maroon shirt was gone. He was wearing her shirt now. Every time someone asked him where he bought his unique shirt, or why he looked so different, so handsome, so stunning, he would mention her.
______Mrs. Rampton left all the materials for the first doll—lace, velvet, little pearls for buttons. She even gave Elisa a Barbie set on a stand. She didn’t want Elisa harming her dolls and instructed her to do all of her work on the Barbie instead. The plastic toy was the only object on her table. It stared at Elisa, naked, its arms to its side, its hips and shoulders glaring from the lights.
______Elisa was told to make a duplicate of each outfit, down to the lace, miniature gloves, and bows in each of their hairdos. Mrs. Rampton wanted to sell the dolls, but she did not want to part with the dolls’ original clothing. She even wanted the material to seem aged and worn. Elisa had never made clothing that small before. She had to use a thinner thread and do much of it by hand. She used special scissors to cut the material into small patterns.
______As she worked into the evening, she couldn’t stop thinking of Jeremy’s shirt. It hid his belly and covered his birthmark. The colors of the shirt brought out the blueness in his eyes and the reddish tints in his dark hair. The Barbie had blue eyes. They were cobalt blue. A painted blue that was more artificial than naturally blue eyes. She draped a strip of blue material over Barbie’s shoulder. She took a piece of maroon silk and wrapped it around Barbie’s bare breasts. She cut Barbie’s hair into short spikes and colored it with a red and brown marker. She began piecing the thin straps of blue and maroon into a shirt. When she was done, she had a Barbie with short reddish-brown hair, wearing a bluish-maroon dress shirt. Barbie was still naked from the waist down.
______The next day, Elisa took the bus down to Main Street to a small toy store. She returned home with a new set of Barbie and Ken dolls. Although Barbie’s shoulders were narrower than Ken’s, the shirt still fit Ken perfectly. She kept Ken’s khaki slacks on to cover his lower half. She sprayed him with a spritz of Blue cologne. On his lower back, she drew a small mark the shape of Florida.
______On Monday, Jeremy called to say that he would be bringing home a guest for dinner. Jeremy never brought home guests. Elisa would make a basil and sun-dried tomato casserole. Casseroles were perfect for three people. At 4:00, she walked to the Safeway to pick up her groceries and fresh lilies. By the time she got back, the lights were on and Jeremy’s bedroom door was shut. She put away the groceries and walked to the end of the hallway. She walked into his room and found him sitting on the bed with a woman. They were not touching.
______Elisa tilted her face to the side. She didn’t move from the doorway.
______The woman sat up straight.
______Jeremy said, “This is Mary. She’s an agent with State Farm.” Jeremy had taken off his shoes, but he was still dressed in his work suit. Mary was dressed in a collared white shirt, a gray skirt and nude panty hose.
______“Mary just moved here from Canada,”said Jeremy. He put his arm around Mary and she relaxed at the gesture.
______“Do you like casserole?” Elisa asked.
______Mary squinted at Elisa. “What’s on your face?”
______Elisa covered her scars with her hands. She could feel her cheeks blushing a crimson red. “Dinner will be ready at 6:00.” She closed the door.
______After Elisa finished cooking dinner, she set the table for two. She used the blue-handled forks. She left a note near the oven that said, “Enjoy!” She went back to her room and sat at her sewing machine. At 6:00, she heard Mary and Jeremy come out of his room. She worried that they might insist that she join them, but instead she just heard the sounds of them talking, followed by the clinking of dishes being washed. She went back to sewing for the dolls.
______When the dining room was silent, Elisa came out of her room. Near the oven there was a note that said, “Thanks! That was delicious!” It wasn’t Jeremy’s handwriting.
______On the dining room chair, Mary had left her jacket. Jeremy’s bedroom door was completely shut. She grabbed Mary’s jacket and went back to her room. It was a basic black sport’s coat; the kind of coat an insurance agent would wear. Elisa noticed traces of a cheap perfume. She pulled off a single strand of one of Mary’s shoulder-length hairs and placed the hair on her desk.
______Elisa searched through her basket of fabrics and dresser for anything that was black. But the only black she could find were a pair of stockings and a ragged pair of underpants. She used her scissors to cut the lining of both coat pockets. She cut off the sleeves and a little material around the waist. She removed an inch from the shoulder and made the waist of the coat narrower. She loosened the buttons across the chest. She reattached all the parts in the same way it was made, but she had turned the coat one size smaller. The linings of the pockets were still empty and Elisa sewed her underpants into the lining. She placed the leftover wool and black lining in the bottom of her drawer.
______Elisa tiptoed into the dining room and placed the coat where she had found it—resting over the chair collar first.
______The next day, while Jeremy was at work, she made a new outfit for his new girlfriend. She cut the Barbie’s hair short, colored it brown, and used the material of Mary’s coat to make a short dress. The thin black lining became the spaghetti-strapped top. Elisa sewed Mary’s hair into the inside of Barbie’s dress.
______When Jeremy called that afternoon to say that he wouldn’t be coming home for dinner, Elisa kept working on Mrs. Rampton’s dolls. She worked for so many hours without a break, that Elisa’s back and hip ached from sitting in the same position. After the accident, the doctors had warned her that the pains would never leave.
______When the ambulance had taken Elisa to the hospital, the nurse couldn’t find her emergency contact information. “It’s an administrative error,” she claimed, “Everybody must have an emergency contact.” The nurse called Elisa’s home number and Jeremy came rushing over.
______Elisa couldn’t remember the weeks that had followed, but according to Jeremy, the nurses and doctors had been impressed by her persistence. They said that she would have permanent trouble walking. They said that her face would never look the same. But Elisa kept at it, inspired by her roommate’s new interest in her recovery. During the month after the accident, Jeremy had visited her so often that her physical therapist called him her “charming boyfriend.” When he visited during dinnertime, Jeremy would bring her a burger from Wendy’s or Burger King, or a book he brought from home. Once, on an especially sunny Thursday, Jeremy, with an energetic bounce to his step, bought her fresh lilies from the gift shop.
______She could remember that Thursday clearly, because that was the day Jeremy had her sign a bunch of papers. That was Jeremy’s thing—dealing with accidents and health insurance, explaining the different clauses, bi-clauses and settlement options. She must have looked terrible with thread sticking out of her skin, blue bruises all around her eyes, a large bandage that covered her nose. But Jeremy, at that moment, was so excited to see her that Elisa mistook this look to be love. She smiled so hard that she tore a stitch.
______Jeremy insisted that she stay living with him. Subletting at Jeremy’s house was supposed to be just a temporary living situation, but once Jeremy encouraged her to stay, promised her that he would take the best care of her, she began to feel like it was home. As roommates, they began to fall into a routine. They woke up at the same time, they watched baseball games together, and for two months, Jeremy helped her bathe, washing her legs and toes and all the other places she could not reach.
______When Elisa became more mobile, Jeremy no longer assisted her with basic tasks. Elisa began to cook, creating a menu for each day of the week. Monday’s Lasagna. Tuesday’s Fajitas. Wednesday’s stir-fry…. And every night at 6:00, she would have dinner warm and ready for Jeremy when he returned home from work.
______After Elisa completed the gown for the first doll, she dipped the material in water and let it hang dry to appear worn. Mrs. Rampton was pleased with her work and gave her a $500 bonus for the project. She reminded Elisa that, “Precision means quality and perfection requires patience.”
______Elisa spent the money on material. She brought silver and gold, maroon and blue and a beige khaki. She decided that she would make Jeremy a pair of pants. She went into his room and selected a pair of his dress pants. She did the same as she had done with the shirt, cutting the material to the right size and pinning it together. When she was through, she held up the pinned-together pants. It looked simple, and she wanted it to be different.
______But what kind of person wore fancy pants? She could not imagine Jeremy in leather pants, or silk pants, or plaid pants. If she kept it khaki, he would wear it more often. To make it unique, she would sew something into the seams, something subtle, something colorful, something just hers. She looked through her dresser of clothing and found a pair of aquamarine-colored underpants. She had always liked that color—it reminded her of the ocean. She cut up the material and sewed it into the lining of the pants pockets. She put a small square of aquamarine to put behind his front button. She pulled out a few of her blonde hairs and sewed them into the seams of the khaki’s waist.
______When she was done she sprayed the pants with a spritz of Blue and wrapped the pants in a box. She left them on Jeremy’s bed with a note that said, “Enjoy!”
______One evening, while Elisa was working on the blouse for the second doll, Mary came into her room to ask her to sew on the front button of her coat.
______“Do you mind?” Mary showed Elisa her coat. “I can’t sew worth a damn.”
______Elisa took the familiar coat in her hands.
______“Jeremy says you’re good at sewing,” Mary said. She looked around Elisa’s room—the pictureless walls, Elisa’s faded quilt, the contents in the open closet.
______“How did the button fall off?” Elisa reached into her drawer for some black thread and a needle.
______Elisa threaded the needle into the buttonhole, noticing Mary eyeing her room. Elisa asked, “Is it tight?”
______Mary said, “No, it’s new.”
______“Not even along the waist?”
______Mary pinched her sides and sucked in her stomach. “It’s almost brand new.”
______“Probably just got loose then,” Elisa said. She moved the thread in and out of the button, thinking that the coat was made with a cheap wool.
______Mary said, “I haven’t seen one of these in years.” She picked up the Barbie doll on Elisa’s desk. It was naked and pinned to a stand. The bottoms of its feat were ripped in half.
______“It’s for work,” said Elisa. She grabbed the doll from Mary’s hands and shoved it into her bottom drawer.
______“Must be nice to work at home.”
______Elisa tied the last knot of the button and cut the thread. “I used to have a shop,” she said.
______“Was it a doll shop?” asked Mary.
______“No, I made wedding dresses,” Elisa said, “I made the dress for my own.”
______Mary looked surprised. “I didn’t realize you were married.”
______Elisa handed Mary’s coat back with the button secure. “He was a lawyer and he died.” She tidied up the material on her desk. Mary shifted her weight to one side.
______“I had no idea,” said Mary, “Sorry.” She took the coat and left.
______Elisa didn’t know why she lied to Mary. But the feeling was exhilarating. Mary’s apology was an object that she could store in a box for later. She took the doll of Mary out of the bottom drawer; Jeremy’s doll was in the top. “Aren’t you pretty?” she said, cradling the doll in her hands. Little Mary was dressed in a sophisticated power suit. She wore her own little black, sports coat.
______Mrs. Rampton took off her glasses and held the fourth and last doll closer to her eyes. She said, “You have really out done yourself.” This doll wore a dress with a floral pattern that Elisa had recreated with a tiny paintbrush and a thin thread she used for embroidery. Each doll had taken her two weeks to complete, but this final doll took her over a month. The focused work had been hard on Elisa’s lower back.
______“A buyer has offered me more than I had expected,” said Mrs. Rampton, “so here is the share, I feel you deserve.” She handed Elisa a check, trying to cover up a smile.
______Elisa looked at the amount and put it in her pocket. “Do you want some tea?”
______Mrs. Rampton sat down. “You are not surprised?”
______“I am,” said Elisa, but as she said this, she was already off to the kitchen to boil some water.
______Mrs. Rampton said, “You should take a trip.”
______“I can’t be away from my machine.”
______“Buy yourself a new machine.”
______“This one’s my mother’s.”
______“Take a man on a cruise. There’s something very empowering about a woman giving a man a travel allowance.”
______“He’s seeing another woman.”
______Mrs. Rampton leaned back in her seat. “Don’t forget the milk and sugar.”
______Elisa went to the kitchen and poured the Earl Grey into her favorite tea set. Unlike the rest of the cups and dishes, this set was hers, not Jeremy’s. When she returned with the tea tray, Mrs. Rampton had removed her lace gloves and scarf.
______“One summer, my husband and I went to Andalusia to renew our vows,” Mrs. Rampton said, “We were younger back then, married just ten years. We saw the most lively parades and all-night festivals. We would dance until dawn and splurge on the finest bottles of Tempranillo. One night, I dropped a $1,000 on a bottle whose vineyard I could not even pronounce.” Mrs. Rampton laughed, although the memory didn’t seem to make her happy. “We finished it, of course, and we even ordered another one.”
______Elisa stayed silent, not sure if Mrs. Rampton was done with her story. Mrs. Rampton stopped talking, looked past her at something on the wall.
______“You never told me,” Mrs. Rampton said, “what happened to your face.”
______Elisa pressed her cheek against her shoulder. She knew that she couldn’t hide the scars, but she wanted the overall affect to not be so hideous.
______“He steals from me,” said Elisa.
______Elisa nodded her head. She knew that Jeremy started stealing when he asked her to sign the insurance papers. She knew that he bought a laptop and flat screen TV. She knew that he replaced his old Volkswagen with a Lexus. She knew that he bought new suits and fancy colognes.
______Mrs. Rampton asked, “How does that make you feel?”
______Elisa shrugged her shoulders.
______“My husband had a mistress, the nanny. She was Polish or something, didn’t even speak English.” Mrs. Rampton smoothed her hands over her hair and let out a sigh. “She wasn’t even attractive, but I guess I am not one to speak.”
______Elisa was about to say something, when Mrs. Rampton cut her off. “No need to be polite.”
______Jeremy’s picture hung on the wall behind Mrs. Rampton. He was at a State Farm conference in Las Vegas—the Bellagio hotel was in the background. He stood in the middle of a group of colleagues. None of the people were touching. He wasn’t smiling or laughing and Elisa always wondered why he chose to enlarge and frame this photo.
______“God gave certain gifts to all of us, and yours was to sew,” Mrs. Rampton said, “If you use it in the right ways, you may land on something special.”
______Elisa covered her scars with her hands. Her cheeks turned red. “How?”
______Mrs. Rampton poured milk into her tea. “Men don’t know what’s best for them.”
______“But he has a girlfriend.”
______Mrs. Rampton leaned in, “so did my husband.”
______Elisa traced her finger along her scars from the bottom of her eye to the top of her lip. “But I am ugly.”
______Mrs. Rampton sipped her tea, lifting the cup with steady hands, her pinky finger pointing towards the ceiling. “Sometimes a woman has to do, what a woman has to do.”
______“Are you still married?”
______Mrs. Rampton made a sipping noise. She puckered her lips and dabbed the corner of her mouth. “My husband would be nothing without me.”
______Elisa couldn’t stop studying Jeremy’s framed insurance picture. It was just a group of men who worked together. Not friends on vacation. Not people he met while traveling. They were just State Farm agents on a business trip to Las Vegas. Maybe some of them had families and wanted a chance to get away. Maybe Jeremy went to learn more about his job. Maybe he was lonely, too.
______Come to think of it, even before her accident, Jeremy didn’t have that many friends. He wasn’t the kind of person who stayed out late on the weekends, or talked to people on the phone, or had friends over for dinner. Jeremy was glad to have somebody depend on him. Without her, he would be driving the same old Volkswagen, dressing in the same cheap suits, eating the same Hungry Man frozen dinners. Without her, he would never have met Mary.
______Elisa decided to go for a long walk. She would walk to the edge of town, past the Greyhound bus stop, past the town cemetery. This walk would be her longest walk ever, a way to make up for all of the hours she spent sitting in front of her sewing machine. It was a time for her to clear her thoughts, a time for her to warm up to a new beginning. When she came back things would be different.
______The temperature was beginning to drop. Winter in the Midwest would mean that branches would be bare and the evenings would begin earlier. She bundled up tightly. The sun was setting. She had moved in with Jeremy around this time last year. She remembered seeing her breath when she carried boxes in, seeing the sun about to set over the other houses. She had carried all of her boxes and suitcases on her own. But she didn’t have much. The heaviest box was the one that held her sewing machine.
______By the time she left the Safeway, the streetlights had been turned on, the moon was shining overhead. Elisa stayed on the sidewalk and paused to look both ways before crossing. She was acutely aware of every oncoming headlight. Even when they were distant and tiny, growing larger at a safe speed, she felt uneasy.
______When she got home after her walk, her back and hip ached more than usual. A deep throb pulsated down her spine. Her two bags of groceries seemed especially heavy, so heavy that when she saw Jeremy and Mary sitting at the dining room, she was in too much of a rush to properly greet them. Elisa went straight to the kitchen and unloaded the bags onto the counter.
______Mary came over so often that Elisa and Jeremy rarely had dinner just the two of them at 6:00. He stopped calling to cancel or announce that he would be bringing home a guest. As a couple, Jeremy and Mary often ate take-out food. Elisa would find leftover Chinese to-go boxes in the wrong section of the refrigerator.
______“Elisa?” asked Jeremy, “how was your walk?” His question made Elisa aware of Mary’s stern expression.
______Elisa said, “It was nice, but it’s getting cold outside.”
______Mary murmured words to Jeremy then said, “hmph.”
______Jeremy stood straighter. “Did you make these dolls?”
______On the table lay the little Mary and Jeremy dolls. They lay next to each other, parallel, as if sharing a little bed.
______Elisa said, “They were samples for Mrs. Rampton.”
______Mary cringed her eyebrows. “They’re weird.”
______He held up the Ken doll dressed in the blue-maroon shirt and khaki pants. He lifted up the shirt, revealing the light brown birthmark the shape of Florida.
______Mary said, “They’re like voodoo dolls,”
______Elisa reached into her bag of groceries and pulled out a bag of dried, bowtie pasta. She smiled. “Pasta tonight?”
______“What are you retarded?” said Mary.
______Jeremy put his arm around Mary and whispered, “Remember what I said.” He looked up and asked, “Why us?”
______“I thought you liked that shirt,” said Elisa. She put the white milk in the fridge next to the white eggs.
______“I do,” said Jeremy.
______Elisa pulled out a to-go box and threw it in the garbage. She pinched her nose to show that their food had spoiled.
______“It’s not about the fucking shirt, you psycho,” Mary said, “It’s about you. You’re creepy and weird. And you lie and make weird dolls.”
______Elisa turned and faced her. “When did I lie?”
______“You’ve never been married.”
______“Who told you that?”
______Mary poked Jeremy in the side and he spoke up, “You’ve never mentioned it before.”
______Elisa walked towards the dining room table. She thought about Mrs. Rampton’s collection of dolls. She thought about Mary’s cheap wool coat. She thought about them sitting in those chairs as she stood towering over them, scared face with pink flesh protruding from her eyelid. She said with articulation and calmness, “Jeremy, there’s a lot about me that you don’t know. And there’s a lot about you that I do.”
______The presence of the dolls created an unusual feeling in the room, as if they truly were voodoo dolls and if you poked them with a pin someone could get hurt.
______Mary noticed for the first time that the skin on Elisa’s face was not all there. Pink gums exposed. A full tooth. An inner nostril. A red vein under her eye. Mary shivered.
______“When the doctors found me, I looked like a book with the cover torn open. This tooth is made of porcelain. This skin and flesh were removed from my thighs. I don’t have any feeling on the right side of my face and sometimes when I eat, I’ll taste blood not knowing that I have chewed the entire inside of my cheek.”
______Mary covered her mouth and gasped. “You’re disgusting.”
______Elisa reached down and ironed Little Jeremy’s shirt with her palm. “You asked.”