The Bride in the Rowboat
Dylan Brie Ducey
A man sits in the barber chair with a white drape around him, snippets of red hair falling to the floor. Tony circles the chair laboriously. He’s probably one hundred pounds overweight, and wears huge black orthopedic shoes and a blue smock.
The man in the chair watches me. He has freckles, and fair skin. His green eyes catch mine a few times. He doesn’t conceal the fact that he’s watching me.
I’ve brought a book, “Le Spleen de Paris.” I should be in graduate school, I guess, so I’m re-reading the classics. I scan the pages but it doesn’t hold my interest. Nothing does. I can’t concentrate lately. I have nightmares every night.
Tony finishes with the man’s hair and whisks off the drape with a flourish.
“Your Royal Highness,” he says, feigning an English accent, and drawing out the words portentously. Tony used to act in a local community theater. Now his stage is the barber shop, where he rattles on with his monologues, his pauses, his timing.
Tony rolls the “r” dramatically, and bows as low as he can, which isn’t very. Richard seems amused, but also perplexed. Possibly he hasn’t read much Shakespeare. I can see where this is going. Tony is going to launch into a monologue, or at least a quote or two. Maybe “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Or, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” But Tony doesn’t say this, or any other quote, which is surprising because he’s in a performing mood.
Richard slides out of the big chair. He’s wearing jeans, and a t-shirt with a photo of a bicycle on it. He reaches for his wallet and heads for the cash register, but Tony shakes his head slightly. This is the first time I’ve seen Tony refuse payment. Richard doesn’t argue with him. He and Tony exchange a few quiet words and Tony pats him on the back. A paternal gesture. I expect Richard to leave now, but he doesn’t.
Six or seven of us wait in a row of small chairs, and I’m next in line. When it’s my turn, I get up and leave my book on the chair. Richard drops promptly into my vacated seat.
“My lady,” quips Tony. He makes a show of swiping a towel over the barber chair. “It’s clean, very clean. I assure you, madame. Our standards are very high.”
I sit, and am swathed in the white drape. Tony begins cutting my hair with small shears, exacting little snips. Bits of my brown hair fall onto the drape, onto the floor. I hear Tony breathing his exhausted breaths. He asks how I am doing. I say I’m okay. The last time I came for a haircut was just before my breakup. I know that Tony remembers this, but he doesn’t say anything about it.
While Tony cuts my hair, Richard peruses “Le Spleen de Paris.” I can’t really lean forward, but I squint, trying to see what page Richard is on. I decide it’s page 200. “Cette vie est un hôpital où chaque malade est possedé du désir de changer de lit.” Life is a hospital, that’s for sure. A hospital where everyone wants to change beds.
Tony shaves the back of my neck and I feel the clippers buzzing over my skin. He hands me a mirror, and I hold it up so I can see the back of my head in the larger mirror on the wall. Tony has tapered the hair on the back of my head perfectly. My hair is parted on the side, it’s very short like a boy’s. My ex-boyfriend freaked out when I first got this haircut. Before, my hair fell way past my shoulders. But I got sick of him always looking at other women, talking about them and how beautiful they were. I wanted to make a statement, so I cut off my hair.
Tony brushes the hair off my neck. I pay him, and when I go to collect my things Richard stands up. I’m mildly attracted to him, I notice. Nothing earth-shattering, but it’s there.
He hands me the Baudelaire book and asks me, ingenuously, “Are you French?”
The expression on his face is so serious that I have to suppress a giggle. “No,” I say, gravely. “No, I’m not.”
“Would you like to have lunch?” Richard says this under his breath, but Tony is listening. For that matter, everyone in the barbershop is listening. This doesn’t seem to bother Richard.
Tony nods at me, indicating that Richard is okay, a good person. I suppose Tony remembers my description of my boyfriend, who’s very different from Richard.
Last night I woke up in a sweat, heart slamming. I fought to get out from under the damp duvet. It was the same dream: A man trying to get into my apartment. I recall now the intense fear, the feeling of being cornered, and the exhaustion when I got out of bed for a glass of water and lingered at the sink, waiting for the dream to dissipate. Every night is like this for me. Maybe I’m going crazy. Why shouldn’t I go out to lunch?
As the door of the barbershop closes behind me and Richard, I hear Tony say “Was every woman in this humour wooed?” I look behind me, and the men in their chairs are listening patiently. Watching Tony perform is part of the deal here. You want a haircut, you’re expected to listen to some Shakespeare.
Richard and I go to a Chinese restaurant down the street. It’s two thirty, but they’re still serving lunch. I smell garlic and beef and hoisin sauce and realize I am very hungry. I haven’t been eating much since my breakup. I don’t do this on purpose. I just forget.
Richard’s manners are clumsy. He orders two Tsing Taos without asking me if I want one, then orders lunch the same way. At first, I’m incredulous and annoyed. Then I think, “So what? I’ll have a beer with this Richard, who cares.” I think about what it took to stop my ex-boyfriend from breaking down my door. I think about how I can’t remember my own phone number, because I had to have it changed because he wouldn’t stop calling me. I wonder if the reason that he accused me of cheating on him was that he himself was cheating on me. He was obsessed with the idea that I was cheating on him. Every time the phone rang he answered it himself, watching me suspiciously. I was deeply in love with him. It never occurred to me to cheat on him.
“What kind of book is this?” Richard asks. He points at Le Spleen de Paris. Yes, Richard is still here, sitting across from me. I’m barely aware of him. I should pull up a chair for my invisible ex-boyfriend.
“Oh. What’s your favorite one?”
“Well, I could narrow it down to two. The first one is ‘Anywhere Out of the World.’ It starts like this: ‘Cette vie est un hôpital ‘–” I hear myself reciting in French, and I stop. I’m acting like I’m inside a classroom. This is stupid. I graduated from college two years ago, and I’m still trying to show people what I learned in college. Most people couldn’t care less.
“Anyway, in English it means, “This life is a hospital where every patient wants to change beds.” I want to elaborate, because I really love this poem, but Richard shudders slightly. He has a peculiar expression on his face.
“I’m not crazy about hospitals. Can we do the next one?”
“Okay. It’s called “Enivrez-Vous.” That means, “Get drunk.”
“Really? It’s a poem about getting drunk?”
“Sort of. ‘On wine, on poetry, on virtue, it’s up to you. But get drunk.’”
Richard fixes his green eyes on me. “You studied French, huh?”
I nod. My ex-boyfriend’s eyes were blue. His hair was blond.
“Well,” says Richard. “You can have the first poem. I’ll take the second one, and I’ll take that French guy’s advice. I’ll get drunk on you.”
I’m not really listening to Richard. I’m drinking beer on an empty stomach, and I’m a little buzzed.
The waiter brings an order of Mongolian Beef. I have never smelled anything so good in my entire life. As we eat, Richard tells me he is a ceramicist. He keeps a studio at the State University in Hayward. Sometimes he goes there and throws clay all night. Interesting, I think. He’s an artist.
“What else do you do in your life?” I ask.
“Not much,” he says. “I mean, I work at a bike shop, which is great because they took me back after my accident.”
I look at him quizzically.
“Yeah, last year I was riding in the Oakland hills, and I got hit by a truck. I never saw it coming. Medium-sized truck. I was unconscious, so I didn’t know my back was broken. The guy didn’t have insurance, but he called an ambulance. I was in a coma for three weeks.”
I’m about to express my amazement and sorrow, when Richard adds this:
“He was Vietnamese.”
Is this significant? I’m confused. Is Richard going to tell me that the driver was wracked with guilt, that he visited Richard in the hospital and brought banh mi made by his wife? Is he going to say that he and the driver are now best friends?
“Then I finally came out of the coma and I had a bunch of surgeries. First a hip replacement, because my hip was shattered. Then they put metal plates in my back, then they fused two vertebrae.”
“Jesus. How long were you in the hospital?”
“Three months. And it was a public hospital, because I don’t have medical insurance, but then a few weeks after I got home, I got a bill for $150,000.”
Richard tells me that what he does in the bicycle shop, besides manning the cash register, is make wheels and repair bicycles. He earns barely enough to support himself. He can’t pay the hospital bill.
Richard’s story distracts me from my own troubles, and, let’s face it, underlines the fact of their insignificance. I shouldn’t be so worried about my ex-boyfriend. I wasn’t in the hospital, after all. I don’t owe anyone a huge sum of money.
By now I have finished my Tsing Tao and I feel that I need another. Richard waves at the waiter. More beer appears on the table.
Richard ruminates about his situation, saying that he had nothing before the accident, and that now he’s in debt and not fully recovered. He tells me all of this freely. It’s a terrible story, but there’s something appealing about his honesty.
My ex-boyfriend was cold, calculating, and violent. I had to call the police to get him out of my life. Before the police, he was not receptive to the idea of a breakup. He was determined to stay with me, no matter how unpleasant it became. Compared to him, Richard looks like a saint.
After lunch, we go for a walk, but it takes a while because Richard has to walk slowly. Then he drives me home to Berkeley and, against my better judgement, I invite him in. It isn’t that I think Richard is a nut; rather, I can see that he is vulnerable.
I, too, am vulnerable. I’m just not discussing these vulnerabilities with Richard. Actually, I’m not discussing them with anyone. I don’t need to discuss them. That’s what I think.
It is now eight o’clock at night, a Saturday in September. My apartment has a small back porch. Richard and I go out there with two glasses of wine. It’s warm outside, there’s a summer smell of flowers, someone in the apartment downstairs is playing blues guitar. Richard appeals to me with his green eyes and when he asks if he can stay, I say yes.
I haven’t slept with anyone in three months, since I kicked my boyfriend out. Every night this man is the star of my nightmares. It is a certainty that he will appear when I close my eyes. It is like a standing date. I’ve gotten so I dread going to sleep, and at this point I think that sleeping with someone else is the only way to break his hold over me.
I’m nervous, but disarmed by the way Richard reacts when I take off my clothes.
“What a beautiful woman,” he says sincerely. “I’ve never seen anyone so beautiful.” For my part, I get chills when I see the scars on his back. Still, at least Richard is not hiding his scars.
That night I sleep heavily. When I wake up in the morning I think for a moment and realize: I didn’t have a nightmare. It’s the first peaceful sleep I’ve had in months.
I roll over and find that Richard is watching me.
“I’m going to marry you,” he says.
Oh, God. Did he really just say that? I rub my eyes.
“Did I tell you about the wedding?” he asks.
“No. What wedding?” I’m not fully awake yet.
“My wedding. I thought I mentioned it to you yesterday.”
“I don’t think you did,” I say. I’m cringing on the inside.
“Well, the bride is dressed in an ivory ball gown,” says Richard. “The gown has a v-neck bodice and fully draped skirt made of hand-cut bias organza flanges and tulle swirls. She also wears a grosgrain sash, a cathedral-length train, and a two-tier veil with raw edges and lace appliqués.”
I appear to be having an out-of-body experience. Richard speaks with casual expertise, as though he’s fashion designer or a textiles specialist, as though he’s visualizing the garment while he describes it. I don’t know what a hand-cut bias organza flange is, or a grosgrain sash. I have no idea. Richard seems to know, though. He seems to have spent a lot of time working out these details. This is astounding. Upon reflection, I suppose he pays attention to the visual aspect of things, because he’s a ceramicist. Sure. That makes sense. I notice that I’m flexing the toes of both my feet. Richard can’t see this, because my feet are under the covers. I make a conscious effort to stop.
Richard continues describing the wedding attire. “The groom wears a black tuxedo with a black silk handkerchief in the pocket, black vest, black cummerbund, and black patent-leather shoes.”
All black, then.
Richard explains that he and the bride will sit in a rowboat, and that he will row the boat to an island, where they will wed. He actually says “wed.” He doesn’t say if the island has a name, or where it’s located. He doesn’t say who’s officiating, or how many guests there are, or if there are any guests. I get the sense that there are no guests at all, that it’s just Richard and the bride. And Richard hasn’t said who the bride is, but a minute ago he said he was going to marry me.
Marry. Me. Alone on an island with Richard. Wearing a dress chosen by Richard.
My toes are flexing again. It’s like I have no control over them. Also, I’m gripping both my elbows.
I’ve never thought about what my wedding might be like. I’m a woman, so I’m supposed to be preoccupied with a frothy white future. But I’m not interested in that. I’m just trying to forget the past and get myself through the present, and that’s difficult enough.
I let go of my elbows, trying to remain calm. I tell Richard that his wedding sounds very nice, but that I hardly know him, and that I’m not ready to get married. He says he understands. He doesn’t seem upset at all. With perfect equanimity he asks to see some of my poems. I shuffle through my extra copies and choose a few for him. He folds the sheets carefully, and before he leaves, he puts them in his back pocket.
For the next two nights my ex doesn’t appear in my dreams. I sleep peacefully. On the third night he returns, and it’s the same dream but a little worse. Maybe he’s mad that he hasn’t gotten to me the last two nights. He tries every window, and rattles the doorknob so hard that finally it falls and hits the ground. The door is useless now, it won’t protect me from anything. I watch, knowing that all he has to do is push it open. As in real life, my ex is a tall, muscular man who outweighs me by forty pounds. In the dream, the physical threat he poses feels as real as the pillow under my head.
That day, Richard calls me from his ceramics studio and invites me to his house for dinner. I consider, and my brain is slow and fuzzy because I’ve slept badly. I’m starting to think that Richard might be a bit unhinged, what with his wedding fantasy. I know that he’s still recovering from his terrible accident, and possibly depressed about his situation. Still, he’s a good man, and I think his presence calms my nerves. I don’t know what the connection is, why his presence negates my nightmares, but I crave more of that peace. It’s very important that I keep the nightmares at bay.
Richard rents a room in a house in the Oakland hills, from some woman who’s always at work. I don’t have a car, so Richard picks me up. We arrive at his house, and I see that he’s already laid out the ingredients for whatever he’s making.
“Oysters Rockefeller,” he says.
It’s quite a production. On the cutting board are green onions, spinach, and watercress. Richard chops energetically.
“I used to work as a line cook,” he says, by way of explanation. “Could you get the Pernod?” He points at a cabinet, and I fetch the green bottle and set it on the counter.
“Thanks,” he says. “Ever shucked an oyster?” I shake my head. A dozen oysters rest on a platter, on top of a layer of ice. They look impossible to open. Their little doors are definitely sealed shut.
“Kidding,” Richard says. “Please. Make yourself at home.” I think of his awkward behavior at the Chinese restaurant. He’s more relaxed here, not on the defensive. Of course, I think. He lives here.
I wander around the house and find the garage, with Richard’s four bicycles and his many helmets and cycling shoes. I find his bedroom, neat and Spartan, just a bed and a dresser and a chair. On the dresser are half a dozen bottles of prescription pain pills, and the poems I gave him. On each one Richard has written I LOVE YOU with a red felt-tip marker. Also, he’s drawn some hearts. This gets my attention. I’m quite startled. How can Richard think he loves me? This is our second date. He hardly knows me. If he did, he’d know I can’t deal with commitment. I look again at the I LOVE YOUs and the hearts, and I want to run away. Maybe his bike accident didn’t just break his back, maybe it blew off the door of his heart so that any marauders could gain entrance. Coming and going as they please. He’s more vulnerable than I thought he was; it’s as though he has no defenses at all. I’m relieved that my own heart is locked securely. No one needs to go in there. And if they try, I’ll light them on fire.
From the kitchen, I hear the whir and buzz of a food processor. I think about the logistics of my situation. I’m up here in the Oakland hills and have no way to get home except with my two legs. It’s a long way from the Oakland hills to Berkeley. It would be an impossibly long walk, and Richard would be crushed. I’ll have dinner with him, I decide. I’ll have Oysters Rockefeller and I’ll be patient with him. I’ll be kind, I’ll take everything into account. It’ll be fine. Later, after I go home, I’ll decide what to do.
That night I have the dream again starring my ex-boyfriend, only this time we’re on an island, just the two of us. He taunts me, saying he knows I can’t swim. I wake up in a panic and am convinced that I’m actually on an island with my ex-boyfriend. It takes me a few seconds to understand that I’m in Richard’s house. Next to me, Richard is snoring. His leg is flung over mine. He is so much bigger than I am that I have trouble getting out from under him.
It’s four o’clock in the morning. I walk around the house in the dark, waiting for the dream to evaporate. I’m so shaken that I want to get my things and walk home in the dark. I want to call a taxi. I cannot spend another hour in this house. If I use the phone it will be loud and Richard will wake up and he will try to get me to stay. I don’t want drama. Drama is the last thing I want. But if I walk home, I’ll get lost and I’ll probably get mugged.
Then I remember the garage, where Richard keeps his bicycles. I tiptoe back into the bedroom and find my jeans and my jacket and my shoes. I take it all out to the living room and get dressed. My heart is thumping. I feel like a criminal. I’m only borrowing a bicycle, I tell myself. He can have it back right away.
I go into the garage and choose what looks like the oldest and most beat-up bicycle. Not a fancy ten-speed that Richard would obviously use for racing, but a mountain bike. I wheel it out of the garage, then slowly through the house to the front door.
It’s dark outside, and not too cold. A light fog drifts over the cars and rooftops. I have to hurry. I’m worried that Richard has awakened, that he’ll come out the front door and try to stop me. I hang the strap of my bag around my neck and turn up the collar of my jacket. There’s a light below the handlebars; I switch it on. I can hear the beating of my heart. I coast down the hill toward the freeway. Pretty soon I reach Mountain Boulevard. There are hardly any cars, so I don’t bother stopping at red lights and stop signs. I zoom under a freeway, going much faster than I should. I feel so relieved. Every block takes me further away from Richard. Soon I’m next to another freeway, on MacArthur Boulevard. I stop at a gas station and ask for directions, which I write down on a scrap of paper. When I make it to Lakeshore I finally know where I am, and I stuff the directions in my pocket. My nose is running, but I’m only four or five miles from my apartment. I’m in bed at six o’clock, long before sunrise.
A few days later, Richard comes over. He’s wearing a white button-up shirt instead of his usual t-shirt. We’re supposed to go out to dinner. My living room is tiny. I’ve propped Richard’s mountain bike against my couch, so there’s no room in there. It’s a bit claustrophobic.
“Richard,” I begin. “Let’s go in the kitchen.” He follows me, and I offer him a chair. I remain standing, and I keep a distance of seven or eight feet. I feel pretty calm. Richard, however, is suspicious.
“Julia, wait a minute,” he says.
“Look. I can’t do this. I’m sorry.”
“You’re breaking up with me.”
When I don’t answer right away, a hopeful look passes over his face and I’m forced to say it.
“I’m breaking up with you. I need to be alone.”
Richard immediately starts bargaining. “You don’t have to do this. Do you need space? I’ll give you space. I’ll go home right now, you’ll have some space, we can have dinner tomorrow night. Are you free tomorrow night?”
I know that Richard is constitutionally incapable of giving me space. Richard is damaged, and Richard is a black hole of need. I cannot fix Richard. I’m feeling pretty nervous now. I instruct myself to remain calm, but my eyebrow starts twitching and I’m doing the thing with my elbows again.
“I’m not free tomorrow night, Richard. I’m not free, period.”
“But I feel strongly about you. I love you. We’re meant for each other.”
Resentment simmers in my chest. I look at the linoleum floor. I hold my elbows tightly. “No.”
“You need some time. I’ll give you as much time as you need.”
“I don’t need time,” I snap. “I need you to go.” I feel dangerously close to boiling over. Yet Richard remains in his chair.
“But what about that –that French guy? What about getting drunk? I’m drunk on you! Remember when you told me about the two poems? And we decided one was my favorite and one was your favorite? And your favorite was something about a hospital? And I told you I had a bad experience with a hospital?” He talks as though this happened months ago.
“Richard, please. It’s over.”
Richard stands up. He approaches me, his hands extended, and I realize that he’s going to touch me. I stumble backwards and bump into the wall.
“Get out,” I say. My voice is low, but the words are clear. When Richard doesn’t move, I say the words again, and I’m screaming.
Richard stops negotiating and goes obediently to the living room. I follow him at a distance. He takes his bicycle, and at the front door he turns and looks hopefully at me. I want to turn my back on him, but I’m nervous. I’m afraid he’ll come back inside if I do that. I look away and watch him leave out of the corner of my eye. When he closes the door, I run over and lock it. Then, still leaning against the door, I reach over to the window and draw the curtains before Richard has gotten down the front steps. I sit on the couch, dry-eyed, heart hammering. I shouldn’t be so upset. All he did was refuse to be broken up with. I listen to the silence all around me. Now I can get on with my life.
Some days later, Richard commences dropping by my apartment, at night. Usually, it’s early in the evening when I’m eating dinner in the kitchen, and I ignore him. One time, though, he does it at eleven o’clock at night. I’m in bed, reading, and I’m so startled that I drop my book. I ignore him, but the knocking goes on and on, and he starts saying my name. “Julia. Julia.” I get out of bed. I talk to Richard through the door and I quietly make sure that it’s locked. I refuse to open it. I tell him he’s waking up my neighbors. I tell him to go away.
RICHARD SHOWS UP at my workplace in San Francisco with a dozen red long-stemmed roses. He gets past security easily. They believe him when he says he’s a bike messenger. He looks the part. One minute I’m answering a phone call, the next minute I’m staring across my desk at Richard, dressed in his ridiculous bicycle costume and wrap-around sunglasses.
“Hello?” says the person on the phone. “Are you there?”
A few minutes later, Richard is gone, and there’s a large bouquet next to my keyboard. People walk by my desk, smiling. Isn’t that nice. You have a nice boyfriend. Is it your anniversary? Wait, did he propose?
I’ll say this about Richard: He’s pretty thick-skinned. I’ve said no to him one hundred times, but he keeps calling and filling up the tape on my answering machine. “I love you,” Richard says plaintively. “Call me, please. I love you.”
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Dylan Brie Ducey is the fiction editor at Anti-Heroin Chic. Her work appears in Gargoyle, Superstition Review, Truffle, Five on the Fifth, and other places. She received the Carlisle Family Scholarship to the Community of Writers Workshop (formerly Squaw Valley WW), and her MFA from San Francisco State University. Read her commentary on the story in our Miscellany section.