The Cassandras

By EMMA SLOLEY

 

The cemetery where she meets him after work is both vertiginous and claustrophobic. The graves are crowded closely together, like huddled children cowering from punishment, then there is a short stretch of lawn tilting to the cliff’s edge, and beyond that a sickening void she imagines rushing out to meet her. Why would it occur to someone to build a cemetery on a steep escarpment above the Pacific Ocean? The weed-hemmed tombstones are cracked and bleached. No one has been buried here for ages; they’re all in the fashionable new cemetery out near the airport. The paths are strewn with shards of glass, the torn petals of sad plastic flowers, scraps of trash, and shriveled cigarette butts, and the whole thing might have an air of tawdriness if not for that view: blinding blue sky sliced horizontally by the cliff edge, the wild ocean below. The audacious, swaggering drama of it.

“Oh, God, come away from the edge!” Alyssa calls out to him. It’s one of their regular places, but she has always felt dizzy in the vicinity of that void. He laughs in an antic way, his longish surfer’s hair whipping around his face. There’s something different about his mood, she can tell before she even gets close, something anticipatory, like the held breath before a storm.

“It’s an optical illusion, remember?” When she’s close enough, he pulls her into his chest and kisses the top of her head. “The edge is actually way over there.” She glances toward the clearly visible precipice and wonders at how two people can see the same physical object in such different ways.

Her American friends are all jealous, because he’s such an archetype of Australian masculinity—tall and droll and outdoorsy. Uncomplicated. The guys she’d dated previously were all ambitious and neurotic, or, if circumstances had capsized their ambitions, bitter and neurotic. Dan doesn’t seem to have those yearnings to be someone, and that’s what attracted her initially. There’s nothing radical about him. And yet there is something radical about his tranquil silences. When he talks, there is an implied conversational space he is keeping free for her, like a door he’s holding open for her to pass through, and she has never met anyone like this before. This generosity. She is so used to codeswitching in relationships—being one person with her friends and colleagues and another with her partner. With friends she feels at liberty to complain or take contrarian stances, while she’s always been more careful to perform amenability with boyfriends. She thinks of herself not as pliant exactly, just eager to keep things pleasant.

“I used to think you were a weirdo,” she says, pulling him in while averting her eyes from the edge. “Bringing me here for our first date. But I don’t know—I decided it was charming instead. Love among the tombstones. Kind of gothic.”

“Did we have a first date? We don’t really do dating here in Australia. Per se.”

“What do you do, then?”

He laughs. “We just kind of start hanging out until one or both of us realize it’s serious.”

“That sounds… inexact.”

“Yeah. It can definitely backfire. Anyway, it’s not morbid; I just come here for the views. Not for, like, the dead people.” He pauses. “The dead people are a bonus.” They both laugh as if they invented it, but he recovers first, glancing at her with uncharacteristic shyness. “Anyway, I guess I’m saying it’s serious now.”

When he produces the little box from his pocket, she is genuinely surprised and presses her hand to her chest, a gesture that registers in her mind’s eye as actorly. But that’s the thing with new situations: there are no precedents available to suggest how to act. The default is to reach for responses other characters have lived out in movies.

“Oh my God. Is this…?”

“Yep.”

The lopsided grin revealing the one old lead filling in his left back molar; the rumpled shirt (he hasn’t bothered to dress up, although she has to assume he knew in advance what he intended to do); the weeds pushing up through the cracks in the gravestones, life aggressively shoving death out of the way. None of the details fit with how she might have imagined a proposal. Yet she’s never imagined one at all, so why not this one? There is rain coming, the wild, savage smell of ozone on the breeze, and the mood infects her, catching in her chest as a joyous inhalation. She wraps herself around him, nose pressed against his neck, breathing out and muttering, Yes, yes, OK.

Obviously they need to take a photo to mark the occasion, so he pulls her toward the cliff edge as she strains against his insistent grip, half-laughing, half-terrified, her heels digging in, then slipping in the damp grass. Her lips are shaking as he presses the button, his full arm outstretched, but you’d never know it from the photo. In spite of the chaos of their commingled hair whipping across her face and the nightmarish void at their backs, she looks serene, glowing with happiness, a woman betrothed.

Almost as soon as the moment has been documented, the sky cracks open. Sheets of rain obliterate the view. There is squealing from the beach below as people make a run for shelter. When they are safely back in the dry bubble of the car, laughing and pushing their soaked hair off their faces, she feels it enter her. Just a small physical sensation at first. Like a twist of indigestion, or a moment of heart arrhythmia. Indistinguishable from the thousands of tiny fleeting signals the body sends every day. Ignorable. And yet. As they drive home through the quiet, slick streets, the feeling grows. Her stomach is fluttery, panicky. She presses her hands together between her knees, skin stippled from cold and something else. She has always loved driving in the rain, the way it feels like being inside a car wash, soothing and cocooned, but today it is almost unbearably oppressive. She has always been a person to look at someone when they’re talking, and she does this now, feigning interest by turning her body toward him. It doubles as a way to give herself some breathing space: she has wedged her body as far against the door as she can, as if readying for her big exit. Dan chatters on, oblivious.

In the kitchen that night, trimming the puckered fat from lamb chops, a preposterous thought arrives in her brain, an alien transmission: her own body is nothing but meat. A patchwork of cuts like the ones you see on a butcher’s poster of a placid animal in profile: tenderloins, rump, shanks, and flanks. The thought is revolting. She puts the knife down, goes to wash her hands, as if to press pause on some mounting catastrophe. Nothing is happening, she tells herself, nothing at all. You’re just tired. It’s the excitement of thinking about your new life; the new life the two of you might make together someday. The new bodies that don’t yet exist. She already hopes for girls.

Remember the IVF doctor who secretly used his own sperm to impregnate his patients?

They informally announce the engagement at a barbecue in Elizabeth Bay. The event takes place in the thirteenth-floor apartment belonging to Dan’s boss: a Weber barbecue smolders on the expansive deck, hip-hop pumps out from hidden speakers, and bottles of wine are wedged into piles of ice in the bathtub. Sydney Harbour sparkling in the distance, the giant twisted fig trees in the botanical gardens like an enchanted forest from some antediluvian dream. Cam, one of Dan’s co-workers, sidles over to stand beside her, gripping the bottom of a frosty wine glass in his fist. (Cam; Dan: everyone here has a shortened name, always something missing at the end.) He congratulates her on the engagement, glances with studied masculine indifference at the ring, then says with jokey solemnity: “So, Alyssa, a group of us were talking about frequency of sex. You know, a poll type of thing. Scientific research. And old Dan claims you guys have sex nine or ten times a week? And, frankly, I’m not calling Dan a liar, but I needed to confirm that number.”

It is all presented as lightheartedness, the kind of thing ironic, liberated people like them can talk about freely, and she laughs and goes along, but secretly she’s a little shocked Dan has confided such an intimate detail. She can well imagine how it went down, though—the pressure to show you can take a joke, mate, it’s all in good fun.

“So, you really do it that often?” Cam is insistent on prying the information from her.

“I’d say so, haha. Sometimes. That sounds about right.”

“You lucky bastards.”

“Oh, well,” she says. “Ha. I suppose so.” This sounds ungrateful somehow, so she adds, “Yeah, I really lucked out.” They both glance across the room at her fiancé, this incredible stud walking among them. He grins back at them, and somehow the grin is the most humiliating thing of all. She excuses herself and flees to the bathroom.

None of it is untrue. They do have sex often, and she has no complaints and has never had any complaints about either the frequency or the quality. He is an excellent and adventurous and generous sexual partner, but she feels flushed with anxiety about what it might say about them that they have so much sex. Or at least more than some other people. It makes them seem unserious somehow. Like those sex-crazed primates on nature documentaries.

When she returns from the bathroom, a group of them have moved on to discussing Dan’s future buck’s party and how epic it’s going to be. Cam is pressing Dan (pressing seems to be Cam’s primary mode of communication) about the location for the already legendary future event, peppering him with suggestions, all of which are in Southeast Asia—Koh Samui, Bali, some island off the coast of Malaysia—and all of which are discussed in detailed, lascivious code. “She will fucking eat you for dinner, man!” “That one’s a corker. I’ve heard of guys who barely survived a roll in the hay with her.” “God, I’d love to shred the fuck out of that.” It takes Alyssa a moment to crack the code and realize they’re all talking about surf breaks. At least, she hopes so. Dan just grins and shrugs with affable equanimity. He knows it will be fun no matter where it happens.

Remember when the twelve-year-old girls were marched out the front door during the sting at the sex-trafficking brothel in Bangkok and the men were escorted out the back?

Back home in bed, at the moment when Dan reflexively reaches out for her nearest breast, Alyssa has to stop herself from saying something like: “Better make sure we reach the quota!” It’s not like he’d be offended—he’d probably think it was funny—but she is hyper-aware now of the habits of their shared life in a way she had never been. Perhaps this new anxiety is all to do with the engagement, a natural reaction to the prospect of spending the rest of one’s life with the same person. That must be it. But that night, when he is thrusting inside her, she experiences a strange dissociative sensation, as if the body being enthusiastically penetrated in the bed no longer belongs to her in any meaningful way. As if her mind is walling itself off from some physical threat.

It only gets worse over the next few days. Every time he initiates sex, her whole body tenses up and then retreats. He doesn’t seem to notice, or at least he doesn’t say anything. She starts making excuses whenever sex is on the horizon—cramps; a headache; she’s too tired—and she sees it hurts his feelings, this sudden pulling away from their physical life. But it is she who worries the most about getting hurt. Not just feelings, either. She has developed an inexplicable fear that while they’re fucking he will try to crush her with the weight of his body, so when they do have sex now, she maneuvers until she’s either on top or on her side. She imagines his big, capable hands around her neck, crushing her windpipe like a soda can. It’s one of his party tricks, crushing and twisting the empty can until it transforms into a neat, squat sphere.

They have been engaged for two weeks when it becomes apparent she can no longer shower with him. It has to do with the shower stall itself, the enclosed nature of it. It’s one of those walk-in-and-slide-the-door-closed-behind-you ones. She’s afraid that if they’re in there together, he’ll hold the door shut, refuse to let her out, and then do… what? Something unspeakable. It doesn’t help that the razor blades are kept there, either. She keeps a subtle distance from him even when they’re doing something benign, like watching a TV show someone at the party in Elizabeth Bay recommended, a sitcom about a hapless gay plumber looking for love in all in the wrong places. Dan laughs appreciatively when an attempted drain-snaking operation goes predictably awry: “That’s hysterical.” She knows it’s just an Australian colloquialism, but hard not to be put in mind of the word hysteria itself, the assumption that only someone with a womb could suffer in such a pathetic way.

She tells Dan she’s having coffee with Brendan, her therapist whom she still has trouble accepting as a therapist. There’s no coffee involved, but she just prefers to consider Brendan a kind of distant friend to whom she can open up. He looks like someone’s disheveled suburban dad, in cozy, shapeless zippered jackets and pleated pants, and he has mesmerizingly, almost impressively terrible teeth, jumbled and stained with patches of yellow. His accent is so broad, his vowels all slurred together, that she often has trouble understanding his occasional pronouncements. But he’s kind and cheerful and easy to talk to, and there is something soothing about his ordinariness and his eager desire to be a provider of solutions.

“Have you heard of Capgras syndrome?” he asks, in this eager spirit.

“No.” She senses it can’t be good, but he looks pleased. It’s always nice when the opportunity arises to educate someone, especially when that person is paying you several hundred dollars an hour and you have some residual shreds of working-class guilt about the essentially frivolous nature of your profession. She can tell he worries he is in the snake oil business, the oil in this case a fantasy he sells patients about there being a better way to live, a room of happiness and fulfillment they are free to enter but only if he can help them work out how to unlock the door. She has always been able to quickly get a read on people.

“Yeah, well, it’s a very interesting condition, actually. Sometimes called imposter syndrome. Basically, the person becomes obsessed with this idea that someone they’re close to has been replaced by an imposter.”

“Do you think that’s what I might have?”

He scratches the side of his bulbous nose. “Hard to say. It doesn’t fit with your profile. Usually you see it with patients who already suffer from a neurodegenerative disease, or in schizophrenics. What you’re experiencing sounds more like common or garden-variety anxiety disorder to me. But I’d like to hear more about these thoughts you’ve been having about your partner. Why you think he suddenly feels like a stranger.”

“I don’t think it’s that he feels like a stranger. He feels like the same person. I’m just a little scared of him now.”

He stiffens his spine. These words have caused his training to click into place, like a vending machine receiving a coin.

“Has he ever hurt you? Physically or in any other way?”

“No, no, not at all. He’s the kindest man.”

He looks as though he doesn’t believe her. “Any manipulative behavior, gaslighting? Demeaning statements? Attempts to undermine you or diminish your achievements. Things like that?”

“No. Nothing like that. He’s really supportive. It’s just… I don’t always want to be near him.”

“Sexually?”

She shrugs. “In all ways.”

He asks her more questions about their relationship, trying to ferret out some other, perhaps subtler, way in which Dan could be a danger to her, and with every denial she can feel his frustration growing. It sounds ridiculous to her as well, this accusation devoid of evidence, but there is something about his frustration that strikes her as wrong-noted. His voice takes on an edge of professional menace, as if he’s testing something he’s been thinking about for a while. When the time is up she thanks him and they shake hands, a ritual that always struck her as funny, as though they are honoring a gentleman’s agreement to forge on together in the noble quest of trying to unfuck her brain. This time he presses his clammy palm against hers for a fraction of a second too long, like he doesn’t want her to leave just yet. She shakes her hand free.

“Does it ever turn out to be real?”

“What do you mean?”

“Does the person ever turn out to actually be an imposter?”

Brendan begins to smile then stops, flustered. He can’t tell whether she’s joking or not. “Ah, I shouldn’t think so? No. I shouldn’t think that would be common.”

“Oh. OK.” She can’t tell whether she’s disappointed or not. “See you soon.”

 

They celebrate the engagement more privately by going camping. It’s his favorite thing, or one of them anyway, in the top three certainly, and she has begun to cautiously enjoy the trips as well, though she’s never been a fan of roughing it in the woods. Back in the Pacific Northwest, where she’s from, there are brown bears and serial killers. Here there are fewer hazards, as long as you don’t mind snakes too much. They take off on a Friday evening and drive for several hours, until the city is long behind them and the land has flattened out into fields and stands of eucalyptus trees. She lowers the window and draws the wild, astringent scent into her lungs. Dan finds his way, like a homing pigeon, to a winding dirt lane that leads to a clearing beside a stream.

“Yo, Dan, have you been here before?”

He glances at her as he kills the ignition, amused. Perhaps he assumes she’s jealous, imagining him bringing another woman here. When what she’s imagining is something darker: a struggle beneath the ghost gum tree, a flare of rage and then something extinguished, slender red threads dragged downstream. She pushes the thought away. They assemble the tent together, then he goes to collect firewood. He takes his small axe with the red handle, the one she always thought was so adorable—a tiny axe, just for camping! It doesn’t seem adorable anymore.

Remember when those missing girls were discovered in the big forest north of here, their faces pressed into the damp leaves the whole autumn long?

With a skittering heart she starts unpacking plastic containers and ziplock bags out of the ice-filled cooler he calls an “Esky.” There’s a bottle of wine, and she can hardly wait for her shaking hand to uncork it. She pours to the brim of the silver anodized metal cup and takes a big swig. A placebo, surely, but it calms her a little, and soon she’s absorbed in the meal preparation, in the sounds of the bush settling, the birds and insects chattering. White cockatoos explode out of some nearby trees, screeching blue murder across the darkening sky. She hears rustling in the bushes behind her and, when she turns, sees a slim black snake, glossy as an oil slick, gliding through the undergrowth. She leaves it be: snakes don’t bother her, in spite of knowing how venomous the ones here are.

Dan returns cradling an armful of twigs, branches, and kindling. He is flushed with pleasure at being back in his happy place, but the sight of him entering the clearing sets off an alarm of panic in Alyssa’s chest. She turns her head and coughs, certain that fear is written on her face. He squats down and stares intently at the pile of wood as if trying to puzzle out a chess opponent’s strategy. When he glances up and catches her looking at him, he describes a love-heart in the air. She tries to smile in a normal way, but it’s hard to remember what’s normal.

“Isn’t it fire ban season?” she asks. Her voice comes out high and squeaky.

“Technically. But I’ll be careful—you know me.”

Ah, but that’s just the question, isn’t it? The question vexing her as she sits on an old tree stump across the clearing from him, trying to hide her growing unease. Does she in fact know him? Can one know another person, really? If so, why would all those people through history have been so shocked to find their loved ones had turned into villains—or, worse, been villains all along?

She finishes her wine too quickly, and when she stands up the world spins. “I’m just going to pee.”

He nods, distracted. She goes off into the trees, still too shy to pee in front of him, although he will whip his dick out without an ounce of shame whenever he needs to go. She has brothers, so it’s never bothered her, but now it begins to. This insistence on pissing in front of everyone, doesn’t it after all carry a whiff of territoriality? Like a warning to ward off other males. When she returns, he is triumphant, an incendiary god looking proudly on his work. The fire is roaring, flames tearing up through the perfect pyramid of twigs and branches he has assembled.

“Wow, my hero,” she says with a big girlfriend smile, because this is the way they have settled upon to talk to one another, this jokey ironic affection that never skirts too close to sincerity. He gives a lazy salute and strides to the Esky to retrieve the meat. They have made kebabs in advance, chunks of lamb impaled on skewers interspersed with onion, peppers, and huge woody sprigs of rosemary he found at the market. He sets up the little portable mesh grill over the flames and lays the kebabs lovingly on top. The sight of his face lit red from beneath by the glow of the flames, the smell of the meat cooking—fat spitting and sizzling in the coals—it all fills her with a cold dread.

When she crawls into the tent after dinner and he is outside performing the territorial rite, she does something she’s never done before. She takes out her phone—still receiving a signal, somehow, thank God—and looks up the Australian version of 911. Easy to remember: three zeros. A trilogy of absence. That night, inside their synthetic cave, she dreams of being held under the water and drowned.

 

On her next visit, Brendan agrees, somewhat reluctantly, to prescribe anti-anxiety medication. Unlike her shrink in the U.S., who was pill-crazy and no doubt underwritten by some shady pharmaceutical company, Brendan expresses a preference for cognitive therapy over medication. But he admits she’s exhibiting fairly classic symptoms of anxiety disorder, so he writes her a script. It’s her first time. The late-night TV ads have given her to believe there will be some fairytale transformation, an overnight recovery, but they don’t seem to work, apart from taking a slight edge off situations that normally make her nervous, like stepping into the road to hail a taxi or entering a room full of strangers. They have no effect on the problem with Dan.

“Is everything alright, babe?”

They are sitting on separate couches, scrolling through Netflix trying to find a movie they both want to watch.

“Of course, everything’s fine.”

“OK. No worries. You just seem kind of quiet.”

“I’m just a bit tired, I think.”

A flutter of panic. She has used this excuse too many times. She feels him looking at her, really staring hard at the side of her face; she keeps her eyes resolutely turned toward the screen, and she tells herself to calm down—he is just trying to work out what’s wrong with his suddenly silent fiancée; he isn’t contemplating picking up the ceramic vase on the table next to him and cracking it over her skull. She is swallowing too much, like there’s an obstruction in her throat.

“Just going to the bathroom. You keep looking.”

Sitting on the closed toilet lid, she knits her fingers together and squeezes her eyes shut, trying to remember the calming meditation techniques Brendan has suggested. But the scrim behind her eyelids blazes red, like she has been looking into the sun, and she flicks them open again.

“All good, Lyss?” Dan says when she re-enters the room. His face shows only genuine concern. It is a face completely devoid of murderous intention.

“Yeah. I think I might be getting a UTI, that’s all.”

“Ouch.” He screws up his lean, handsome features in sympathy. “More blow jobs for me, I guess.”

She blinks ferociously, trying to remember how to smile. She would have thought this was funny once upon a time, might even have volunteered the quip herself.

“Hopefully it’s a false alarm.” She forces herself to sit next to him, leans her head on his shoulder. The scent of him is both familiar and overwhelming. She hasn’t been this close to his body in weeks. She feels his gratitude and happiness for their renewed closeness in the way he relaxes and rearranges his limbs to slot into hers, but she feels something else as well, something dark and hidden. A kernel of potential harm waiting to germinate. It takes every bit of strength she has not to flee.

He surprises her a second time. This time with plane tickets, to a city in Spain near the ocean, where the houses are built from pitted white stone and bougainvillea spills onto cobblestone streets. He calls it a “pre-wedding honeymoon,” because he’ll be too busy at work after the wedding to travel. She leans over his shoulder to feign enthusiasm about the scrolling gallery of images on his screen; she is thinking not about the beauty of this place but about how she is going to endure two weeks alone with him. She cannot think of a way to get out of it. Who would turn down such a gift? But it feels like he’s testing her: their future as a couple is in jeopardy if she doesn’t make the right decision. There is something aggressive, too, in the nature of a gift too good to refuse, the implicit threat: Don’t even think about refusing. He is still kind and solicitous of her feelings, but he has his breaking point, like any other man. She talks to herself as if she is her own recalcitrant child: You’ll go on this vacation and you’ll enjoy it, you hear me?

The flight is long, and she stays awake through it all, her insides churning with an admixture of tedium and terror. He sleeps beside her like a cat, deeply and with great commitment, head tucked into the crook of his shoulder. Every now and then he wakes with a violent jolt as his neck snaps forward, then he falls straight back to sleep again.

Remember when the woman petitioned for her husband’s freedom and the first thing he did on being released from prison was put a hammer in her skull?

The room he has booked is small, stifling in the afternoon heat. The hotel is a strange arrangement, housed in a section of a working convent. The nuns live in the far reaches of the building, adjoining the chapel, with its red-domed, pigeon-sullied roof, and their quarters are sealed off from the hotel guests by a set of heavy, locked iron doors at the end of each hallway. Dan has booked a room on the third floor, and from their balcony Alyssa can look along the building and see glimpses of the nuns in their walled-off garden, walking or sitting, heads bowed, on the wooden benches in their thick, off-white habits and veils. Some of them wear frumpy grey cardigans in spite of the heat, and they all wear cheap white sneakers. There is something so peaceful about their lives as seen from this distance, like they are part of a gentle sorority. Alyssa observes a nun speaking to another, younger nun, and whatever the older one says, it causes the younger one to literally lean on her for support. They stand like that for a long moment, the one’s head on the other’s shoulder, and tears spring to Alyssa’s eyes.

They go out for snacks at a restaurant on the plaza, but she has no appetite, pushes the food around on the plate.

“No good?” Dan asks, his mouth full of jamón.

She shrugs. “There’s a little grit in the salad, that’s all.”

“Send it back.” She looks sternly at him, and he grins. “Oh, yeah, you don’t do that.”

“Listen. I wanted to make a suggestion.” Her heart is throbbing so fast she thinks she might be having a heart attack. He looks up expectantly, with trust and anticipation. “I wondered if you could go to Seville without me?”

“What? Is something wrong?”

“Nothing, um, physical. But I thought I could stay here, if that’s OK with you? I need some time. Just a day or two. Just to think things through before the whole wedding stuff.”

He looks hurt, but he doesn’t try to argue with her, just reaches out to take her hand. She flinches. He pulls the hand back, and she can tell she has really hurt him now, in a way that there may be no coming back from.

“I don’t get it. What have I done?”

“That’s the thing: you haven’t done anything wrong!” This irrationality bursts out with too much eagerness, but it appears to work, because he shakes his head as if shaking off some unwanted visitor and his whole body softens.

“OK. I get it, babe. Whatever you need to do. You know where to find me.” He gives a little miserable smile that almost undoes her. Maybe it’s not too late to put it all behind them, she thinks. This has all been ridiculous, after all; she has invented a crisis that doesn’t exist, and it is making both of them desperately unhappy. He is the nicest man in the world, no one has ever treated her better, and he has done absolutely nothing wrong.

A happy idea takes root: it’s not too late to take it all back. She could tell him she’s been on some bad medication that’s been fucking with her moods, and then promise to throw away the pills so that things can get back to normal. They could even laugh about it, once enough time has elapsed. It is almost unbearably tempting to do this, knowing the words would summon his broad smile, his instant forgiveness, and that afterward they could go drink rosé and eat paella in the shadow of a medieval bell tower, and maybe, later on, dance in a dimly lit square by a fountain. The vision is so powerful and beautiful she almost succumbs to it.

But then she thinks again about his hands, their strength and size, about what it has felt like these last few weeks to have his body pressed against hers—the rush of panicked nausea; the irresistible urge to run as far as she can—and she knows she has to go. The fight-or-flight response is already uncoiling like a snake in her brain. She can feel her neck going red and beads of sweat forming behind her ears.

“I’m so sorry, Dan. I really am. Everything will be OK, I promise. I just need… some time.” These meaningless words pour out of her like water.

“Well, I’m going to take the train to Seville, like we planned. No point wasting the tickets and the hotel.”

“Of course, yes, you should definitely go.”

“So where will I find you when I get back? Or don’t you want to tell me?” In the awkward silence that follows, a dark expression comes over his face. It’s the first time she has ever thought he looked ugly. “Right. Guess I’ll see you in a few days then, yeah?”

He rises abruptly from the table, catching the salt shaker with his forearm. It clangs like doom on the cobblestones, and she winces. He bends to pick the shaker up—still so considerate—and after he turns it upright again, he grips the table edge and looks at her, really studies her face. “You chicks, man.” He laughs in that way of someone who can’t even believe it. It’s not just the white-knuckled grip he has on the table edge, but the way he says You chicks that makes her entire head go cold. He strides off with his hands balled in his pockets.

It is strange to feel so unhappy and yet so light. As she watches him walk away, an unburdening occurs. She stays out until early evening when she is fairly certain he’ll have left, and then she returns to the hotel, packs her small case, and walks the entire length of the exterior building until she is standing on the street outside the entrance to the convent. The gates are locked now against the outside world. With some hesitation, she lifts the great brass knocker, worn to a greenish patina. The clanging echoes through the courtyard. Soon there are soft footsteps—those comfortable, cheap, rubber-soled shoes—approaching, and then a little door set inside the bigger door, which she hasn’t noticed before, slides open. She sees an eye, part of a cheek, silvery hair pulled back from the face.

Alyssa has practiced. “¿Disculpe? ¿Puedo pasar la noche?”

The nun shakes her head with a small, unsure smile. Alyssa persists. “¿Puedo pasar la noche aquí, en el convento?”

The woman hesitates, glances skyward for a moment, as if soliciting advice. “Are you in trouble, lady?” she asks in halting English.

Now it’s Alyssa’s turn to hesitate. Is she in trouble? It feels petty now, the concentrated anxiety and discombobulation of her parting from Dan already diluted by solitude. She presses her lips together, then blurts out: “Yes.”

The nun nods, as if that’s all the evidence she needs, and she leads Alyssa back inside toward the arched cloisters. They climb two flights of stairs, then walk together along the long, shady corridor in silence until the nun stops in front of a small wooden doorway identical to the rest they have passed. She takes a ring of keys from a belt hidden beneath her flowing habit, shakes the keys until she finds the correct one, and opens the door. She steps into the room and turns to smile at Alyssa, who hovers in the doorway, feeling foolish now that she has come to it.

She expects it to be a monastic space but is surprised by the bourgeois ordinariness of it. She’d visualized something more timeless and beautifully austere: a hand-embroidered white bedspread; terracotta tiled floors; a simple iron crucifix hanging above the bed. Instead, she sees a gaudy patterned quilt made of some cheap flammable fabric, a white plastic chair, a flimsy clothes rack on wheels, and pages torn out of a book and tacked on the wall like posters of pop stars in a teenager’s bedroom, except they’re biblical scenes, like from a children’s version of the bible. At the window, she again has a view of the nun’s courtyard garden, but this time she looks directly down on it. She undoes the latch and opens the window. The smell of gardenias drifts up.

The woman stands in the doorway, watching her.

“Thank you so much, Sister,” says Alyssa. She has never thought before about how nice it is to be known as a sister, how comforting it might be to dwell among these gentle women. The nun steeples her hands in front of her heart, smiles, and leaves without speaking. Is this normal? Do they think her appearance here strange? She imagines it might be within the purview of the convent and the faith itself to take in waifs and strays and orphans, but surely those waifs and strays aren’t dressed as she is, in a striped linen minidress, Repetto ballet slippers, and gold earrings she’d paid too much for in Florence. There is something fraudulent about her acceptance of these women’s hospitality and silent generosity. I have spiritual need, she counterargues with herself. They see that. They see me.

Now that she’s all alone, she realizes she can do anything she wants: nap, read, dance around naked. Although, on second thought, the nuns might disapprove of that. She realizes she’s tired, apocalyptically tired, so without undressing she pulls the flammable comforter over herself and has the best and deepest sleep in months.

After waking, she washes her face and goes down to the garden, to see it for herself. It feels like this space she has coveted is hers now too, because she has been accepted into the sisterhood without question. But almost immediately a sadness descends, as she thinks about how she is going to have to leave this place. Soon she will have to meet up with Dan again, try to explain herself somehow, and the thought of this future encounter is deeply exhausting to her. She would infinitely prefer to just stay here beneath the almond tree, burrowing her bare feet into the long grass, smelling the gardenias, and listening to the soft burred voices of the bees as they lurch drunkenly from one flower to another. This place where nothing bad can happen.

It has turned cold in the shadow of the trees, and she hurries back to her room. She reads for the rest of the evening, until the bells of the chapel ring out. She unzips her suitcase and rummages around until she finds two squished power bars, and she lays them down on the garish bedspread like a picnic. Strange how eating by herself makes every mouthful feel deliberate, as though she is eating with intention for the first time. Or perhaps that’s just the effect of her surroundings—in this soporific atmosphere, a space opens up in which to contemplate. It is exciting to anticipate going back to bed, the solace of deep sleep. The feeling of being protected inside this womanly fortress.

Remember when the civil war broke out and the nuns were some of the first women to be raped?

When she wakes after another refreshing dreamless sleep, she goes to the window in just her flimsy camisole and underpants, standing to the side so the curtain partially conceals her body, in case the nuns look up and see. She wouldn’t want to abuse their trust by flaunting her young and sinful flesh. But there are no nuns in the garden today. Instead, a man is there. He looks to be tending the garden. He is dressed all in khaki, head to toe, with a soft white hat shading his face. A black trash bag gapes open beside him, half full of leaves and debris. The opening flutters like a loose flap of skin in the breeze.

The man doesn’t look up, doesn’t look anywhere but down, intent on his work, yet she feels like he has been waiting for her to come to the window. An instrument flashes in his hand. A weapon. The heads of grass fall at his pitiless feet.

 

Emma Sloley’s work has appeared in Catapult, Literary Hub, Yemassee, Joyland, Structo, and The Masters Review Anthology, among many other publications. She is a MacDowell Fellow, and her debut novel, Disaster’s Children, was published in 2019. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the United States and the city of Mérida, Mexico. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley and EmmaSloley.com.

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The Cassandras

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