Valerie looks at a heart-shaped frame, carved from dark mahogany, the grain forming waves around its perimeter. It encloses a photograph she would rather forget, but cannot bring herself to discard. Two people gaze confidently from the picture, the man sitting, the woman on his lap. The picture of a long-ago wedding.
Valerie is mesmerized, not only by the picture, but by the frame. It is perfectly cut and stained, symmetrical and precise, encircling the picture in a dark wooden heart.
Valerie considers the frame. She considers the picture. Her sister, Rita, and her sister’s new husband, Neil. She thinks about Neil. She often does.
Valerie met Neil first. He made an impression, but not enough to make her date him. She remembered him when Rita started seeing him.
“Do you think he’s attractive?” Rita said the night after she introduced him, when she was getting her sister’s reaction.
To Valerie, Neil was tall, too tall, basketball-player tall; long fingers; thin, shoulder-length blond hair; skeletal shoulders. “If you do, Rita, that’s good enough,” she said diplomatically. She remembered Neil. Neil had approached her at a bar. Valerie went to bars often. She liked the anonymity.
Neil bought her a drink even though she already had one. He tried a line. “Have you ever,” he said, “gazed upon a creation so exquisite, so perfect, that your life sloughed away, leaving you only with that one moment? You are that creation.”
She stifled a laugh, but remained silent. She knew she could reduce men to whimpering creatures with a look. She trained that look on Neil. He slunk away. If he remembered it when Rita brought him over, he didn’t betray it. She told Rita nothing about the encounter.
Neil taps his fingers sullenly. Rain paints Portland gray, a smeary black washed-out gray, running together all colors and thoughts. He — they — live in an apartment in Milwaukie, and they can see the Willamette and downtown. Neil is thinking of Rita, as he often does. He tries to remember the details. Rita, one long curve, from her neck to her shoulders, her breasts to her hips, her legs. Rita, the snake-woman, hair like a willow, eyes like an adder. The rain reminds him of Rita, just as most things do.
He knows some things about the woman he married. Some things will forever be lost to him. How it ended — gone. How it began — a glance across a newspaper, a sly look, a coy smile — was that really Rita? He thinks of his wife — both wives, actually, his past one and his present one, but to Neil, they are the same person — and tries to remember. He’s late for work.
Valerie knew about Neil. Rita came to her, a week before she died, and talked about Neil.
“Have you ever been with a man who has power?” she asked Valerie. “Not power in society. Power like … Who was that crazy Russian guy?”
“Do you feel it? Am I the only one?”
Valerie remembered the wedding. Neil shook her hand and danced once with her. He said very little to her, but she could tell. He had some hold on Rita.
“He says to me, ‘Rita, you are a star.’ ‘You make me want to dance and sing and cry all at once.'” Rita’s lips were thin as she said it. “You think he’s good-looking, right?”
“You worry too much about what other people think.”
“You know that picture of us, right after the wedding? The one on our mantel in the heart-shaped frame? I remember when they took it.” Her eyes gazed beyond Valerie, at something far away in the past. “I felt him, powerful arms around me — he’s strangely strong — and he was clutching me. I felt like a deer, like a trophy. He would never say that, probably never thinks it. But instinctively … I shiver whenever I see that picture. It’s a nice picture, but …”
“He looks at you,” Valerie said, “with those … slate-blue eyes. I don’t think he realizes. You’re right — it’s instinct.”
Rita grinned. “You want him, don’t you, Val? You want to steal my husband.”
“I don’t think you have to worry.”
Rod McQueen came to Valerie in her darkest hour, not long after Rita’s death. She recognized that her feelings for him were tied up in the tragedy, and could never flourish into a real relationship. He gave her something, however, and she took it. It didn’t last, but it was important for her while it did.
Rita had been dead for three months. Valerie and Rod lay naked on his porch in the West Hills. Rod was an architect, and he designed his home with a spectacular view of Mount Hood and downtown Portland but with enough pines around the outside to allow them to lie unclothed.
Valerie looked at Rod’s body. She saw a landscape of tight muscle and downy hair, legs taut and lean, chest and shoulders broad and strong, abdomen with a small paunch but still attractive, arms long and powerful, clean-shaven and aquiline chin, calm yet passionate green eyes, and closely cropped brown hair. He felt her gaze.
“I was just thinking … If you were a god, you’d be Apollo.”
“Apollo — rising above humanity, but somehow always involved in the most squalid of humanity’s dealings. Apollo the dawn.”
Rod loved to hear Valerie talk. He propped himself up on his elbow and looked at her. She was tall, with blue-gold eyes like a Valkyrie, a sweep of sienna hair down to her shoulders that made her look like a bird of prey, a long neck, small and perfectly round breasts, a barely noticeable curve into her hips and long legs. “Let’s see … you’d be Artemis, I think.”
“Wasn’t Artemis a virgin?”
“You’re beautiful and desirable, but furious and proud. Drives the men wild.”
Rod thought of sex with Valerie. She made love urgently, like she was trying to escape a cold death. He blinked. Sometimes when he was with Valerie he thought of Rita. The talk of gods had brought something back to him. A moment with Rita, when they were together, before she married Neil.
“Do you ever wonder about gods?” he asked Rita, one day as they were hiking through Silver Star State Park. “I mean, not just God, the big God, but all the other deities floating around the cosmos? Greek, Norse, Celtic, Hindu, Chinese, Native American, all those gods. Wasn’t there something to it?”
Rita was twenty-three, and thought about God only as an enemy. Something Rod said stirred in her, however. She stopped walking and looked at the tall foliage. “I saw a lightning bolt once pass through a tree and obliterate a child sitting at its base,” she whispered, so much that Rod had to lean in to hear her. “The tree was unharmed. In the cinders of a small human being I saw Zeus. And he was terrible, and proud, and ignorant.”
Rod had never told Valerie about that moment with her sister. Looking at her now, he reached out and brought her close to him. In his kiss, Valerie felt fear.
Coincidentally, Valerie thought of the same lightning bolt the night she found out her sister was dead. The prickly cactus of electricity came and went in an instant, but it scarred both Rita and Valerie. They were teens, Valerie sixteen, Rita thirteen, and were playing out by a dusty gulch near their home in eastern Oregon when the thunderstorm struck, suddenly, like a car crash. It wasn’t unusual; the strange thing was their next-door neighbor, Kyle Helf, sitting under the twisted, brown-leafed tree in his back yard, a tree considered by many to be cursed by whatever deity curses trees.
“Kyle!” the girls shouted, but the wind snatched their words away.
They both swore he waved. It was burned on their brains as indelibly as the bolt an instant later.
Then, the flash, a nuclear bomb, concentrated into a crazy etch-a-sketch pattern in the blood-black sky, and no time to scream. Then, the thunder, sonic boom. Then, a silence. Quick, barely perceptible, but forevermore part of the girls’ nightmares. The still of death.
Kyle was fourteen. Rita had a crush on him.
It was that moment, that silence after the bolt, that space in which a soul left the earth, which wrapped Valerie in its velvet embrace the night Rita died. A premonition, since she didn’t know it had happened yet. A chill, “someone walking over her grave,” except the grave would be her sister’s. Then, it passed. An hour later, she got the phone call.
For Valerie, it all comes back to the picture. After Rita died, Valerie made sure she acquired the photograph, a token reminder of a life snuffed early. To her, there was something alive about the whole picture, the frame included. The heart-shaped frame, the dark wood. Valerie sees more than simple symbolism. The mahogany takes her back to that day, when she and Rita witnessed the presence of an ancient god, and felt their own deaths. Rita would often say, “Death knows who we are.” Valerie thought there was nothing more terrifying than death knowing who you are, which was ridiculous, as Rod pointed out.
“Of course he knows,” he said. “He’s death. Nothing escapes his gaze.”
“But Rita …” Her voice trailed off. Rita had been dead for five months. “She knew him. We both knew him, which is the scary part. Of course death will find you, but if you recognize him, it should count for something, shouldn’t it? It didn’t. Not for Rita.”
Neil often wonders if he intentionally killed his wife. He honestly doesn’t know. He thinks, maybe, he could have. He admits that he is capable of it. But the details still elude him.
All he possesses of his life with Rita are flashes. The accident excised portions of his memory, leaving scraps. He remembers the courtship, the wedding, the honeymoon, the first blissful two months — then, fragments.
An argument. Rita, eyes thin with hatred, hissing, “You pig, how could I ever love you. I hate you.”
Rita holding his hand, telling him, “It’s beautiful, Neil. It’s full of love.” (He remembers the words, not what was being described.)
A vacation in Victoria, walking along half-deserted beaches at sunrise, wrapped in thick Irish sweaters, sharing warmth, Rita saying, “There’s so much left for us. I love you and the world and everything in it.”
A fistfight, Rita striking out (she was always volatile, and remarkably strong), Neil retaliating, blood from a cut (whose lip? both?) trickling down, curving along the jawbone, despair.
“It always amazes me, Neil. How much you know, how little you understand.”
That was almost the last thing she said to him. The same night she died. The last important thing she said. Any explanation she had was crushed into her dead lungs.
The accident is the same. Only fragments. A fight in the car, shouting and swearing, louder and louder, the cause forgotten, pride at stake. Darkness, darkness — of course he remembers the darkness, a shroud of black, dead time: night. The quiet time, when death is traveling alongside. Somehow, the car turned over, over and over, down a slope, metal wrestling with gravity and dirt, ultimately losing, screams from somewhere (his mouth? hers?), a small, sickening crunch of bones, and then — unconsciousness. When he awoke, his wife was gone.
Except on days like today, when he smells her, actually smells her subtle scent, and swears she is there.
Two days before she died, Rita ran into Rod in downtown Portland. They hadn’t seen each other in over a year, and had been broken up for almost two, so they walked and talked.
“The thing is,” Rita said as they walked toward the waterfront, “I love him. And yet … there’s such a deep feeling of animosity, like I should hate him, too. Does that make sense?”
“Is there any reason for you to hate him?”
“Well, my sister doesn’t like him, my mother doesn’t like him, I haven’t met anyone who really likes him, even his friends, although they say they do. I can tell. There’s something … ugly about him. Twisted.”
“Why are you with him? You don’t need that in a man.”
“There’s so much love and hate wrapped up in this relationship. He’s only violent when I am, and I can take him, anyway — I’ve always been tough. It’s like … I don’t know.”
“Batman and the Joker.”
“Just an example. Nemeses. He’s your nemesis, you’re his. It just so happens you’re married to each other.”
“Would you like to have sex?”
She stopped. “Did I hear you right?”
“Certainly. We were once fantastic, and you look great, so I’d be satisfying some sort of hormonal urge. Do you have to meet him soon?”
“N-no, he’s in Salem today; won’t be back until this evening. I can’t believe you asked me that.”
“Would you like to know how much you love Neil?”
“Then have sex with me.”
The man in the picture stares out at Valerie. She sees the face of humanity and the face of divinity. She sees Neil’s face, Rod’s face, the face of Kyle Helf, the face of her lover, the face of her husband. She hates it and loves it. She understands Rita, finally. It has taken so long.
But she still has questions. She wonders why Rod came to her, why she got married, why Rita cheated. She does not know how hate become love, how love continued to be hate, how the bolt of lightning continued to sizzle in her head, how a childhood friend could still be alive, how Rita could be dead. It is evolution, consummation, fruition.
Neil comes home early. Their place is usually dark. They both like the dark.
Today, she is thinking about Rita. “Rod had sex with her right before the accident,” she says to Neil after they kiss.
He nods, sadly. “I know. Or I guessed.”
“Why can’t I ever know what happened? Don’t I have the right?”
Neil has never fully recovered his memory. “You do. But you also have a right to remember it the way it the way I do, and then let it go.”
As she sometimes does, Valerie shudders slightly in Neil’s embrace. If he notices, he never says.
She knows part of him will always be the man in the picture.
[I think the timeline fits together in this one! I like this story, although it’s not as good as some of the ones I wrote later in life. This is just weird and inexplicable, and as you can see so far, I kind of dig ambiguous stories. I don’t know if it works for you guys, but I like it.]