Ariel Katz | Fiction
The first sale I made was the amber shirt. I photographed it from every angle in my empty living room, laid out on the hardwood, with the weak sunlight coming through the windows. Then I chose the best pictures and uploaded them to my Dresser. Vintage!!! I wrote in the caption. Bought on France Honeymoon in 1998, pristine condition, Still Has Tags!! Within a day the amber shirt was gone, sold to someone named _feisty_avocado who lived in Toledo.
I read online that you should package the clothes up nicely so people leave you good reviews in the app. If your Dresser has good reviews, you make more sales, and I had a garbage bag full of old clothes to get rid of. Nice packaging meant colorful tissue paper, ribbons, and a personal note on pretty stationery. So when I picked Angie up from school I told her we were going to the craft store.
“You’re selling your clothes online?” she said. “That’s depressing. Not to mention kind of cliché.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Just, it’s like, what the suburban divorcée would do in a movie. There would be a montage of her selling all her old clothes, set to a cathartic score. It would be the beginning of a great adventure. Then she’d go fall in love in Bulgaria or something.”
“I’m just doing some spring cleaning,” I said, trying to match her deadpan nonchalance. “Anyway, you don’t find your dad and Marlena cliché?”
Marlena was Ted’s new wife. She, like him, was a marine biologist, and an old friend of his from graduate school. When she used to come over for dinner, she always found a way to insult my intelligence in terms that only I would notice. In the middle of a technical, scientific conversation that was over my head, she would turn to me with a simpering smile and say things like, “Ana, I just love that little salt cellar. I wish I had an eye for these things. I’ve been so busy with tenure I haven’t been shopping in ages.” I would be obliged to smile, and say something about how I might have an eye for kitchenware, but she knew about different layers of the ocean, like the disphotic zone, which I had never heard of before she spent a whole dinner party monologuing about it.
Angie shrugged. “Dad and Marlena are just living their life.”
“Well, I’m just living my life. I guess my life just isn’t as original as brilliant Marlena’s.”
“She’s not brilliant any more than Dad is.”
“Your father is the smartest man I’ve ever met,” I said, and meant it. “Whatever else happened, that’s still the case.”
Angie sighed, and turned her eyes to her phone. She was watching rotating video clips, the images moving so fast I couldn’t tell what they were.
“What is that?” I said, but she started speaking at the same time.
“You always act like you’re not smart,” she said. “It’s not that you’re dumb, Mom.” The video clips flashed on her phone, reflected in the passenger window. She didn’t move her eyes. “You just gave up really early.”
A familiar sensation—a kind of sharpening—started in the pit of my stomach. My heart was suddenly quick, breath shallow, hands clammy, and the world seemed very small. The disphotic zone, as Marlena had explained at that dinner party, was a layer of the ocean where the sun still reaches, but there’s not enough light to grow anything. When she’d described it, I could feel it on my body—the cool, half-lit, lonely water. I had felt like I was there, suspended. Now, I took a breath to steady my voice.
“You interrupted me,” I said to Angie. “I asked you what that is on your phone.”
“It’s just my Stories.”
“What are they about?”
“Oh my God, Mom, you need to get out more. Stories are things my friends record and post to their social media.”
“Fine, but what are the Stories about?”
“They’re not about anything. They’re just clips. Like, a clip of a cat who refuses to eat organic food, or a clip of—” Angie started laughing abruptly, “a clip of my friend doing this dance but there’s a blanket on her head and then like her mom comes in and freaks out—”
“So they’re not about anything.”
“That’s not the point. They’re just life.”
We drove in silence, Angie enveloped in her friends’ lives. I knew the internet wasn’t good for her, but I was jealous. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt enmeshed like that. Maybe in college, when I’d sung in Glee Club. We performed at school functions—alumni events, homecoming. The girls wore floor-length black gowns and the boys wore tuxedos. As we pulled into the parking lot of the craft store I could feel the weight of the gown, the fabric clinging in a flattering way to the skin I used to have. In college, I thought that was what life would be, standing on a stage in beautiful clothes, my face lineless, surrounded by other people who were singing the same song, who were singing in harmony. I thought that I would continue to stand tall and people would continue to look at me. All those times I’d gazed out into the audience with such a sense of control. They were watching me, but I couldn’t see them. And somewhere in the faceless audience was Ted, who didn’t know me yet, who would find me afterwards, when I was still lit up from the singing. My wedding gown had been like the Glee Club gown, heavy and sleek, and Ted and I had vowed to take care of each other. That was what my mother had emphasized about marriage: it was about choosing someone decent and taking care of each other. I parked the car and wished my mother wasn’t dead. I wished she were still alive, so I could tell her how wrong she had been. I wanted to see her again at her ugliest, frail and sick and small, lapsing frequently into Romanian or Yiddish, the languages she’d always wanted to abandon, the languages of her life before me. She’d wanted to disown the phrases of her own mother’s life, and her mother’s deportation to Transnistria. She’d wanted to forget the language of her short-lived affair with my father, who had decided not to leave Romania at the last minute, once she was pregnant and the plans had been made. At the end of her life my mother was always speaking those disowned languages, the family language and Ceaușescu’s language, and her self-betrayal gave me smug pleasure. For her, the beautiful thing about Michigan was that you didn’t have to be Jewish there. She’d spent her American life commuting from the suburbs to General Motors in Detroit, and had an engineer’s sensibility, numerical and stern. She had her certainties, her rules. She made marriage sound simple and pure, and it hadn’t been that way at all. In the rearview my face was blotched red with the guilt and urgency of everything I wanted to say to her. I could’ve driven to her old subdivision in twenty minutes. The thought filled me with fondness and disgust.
A stooped-over woman shuffled out of the craft store, whose roof was still dusted with dirty snow.
Angie’s voice came lowered and cautious from the passenger seat.
“Are we going in?”
“Of course,” I said. “What do you think we’re here for?”
Everything was floral in the craft store. Bunches of fake blue and orange daisies erupted from the aisles. The walls were printed with peonies in faded pink against a yellow background. A woman with gray hair asked if she could help us—she wore a velvety handmade vest with embroidered crocuses.
“This place is gross,” said Angie, making a beeline for Paper Crafts. “Who even goes here?”
“It’s nice to have a hobby,” I said absently. We came to the rolls of tissue paper, and I picked a scorched red and muted yellow that I thought would go nicely with the amber shirt. For good measure, I took a roll of lavender and blue-green, in case the red and yellow clashed with the other clothes I planned to sell.
“Jesus, are you getting rid of your whole closet?” Angie said, watching me load the rolls into the cart.
“Just old things,” I said, but my voice faltered. Even I could hear the sadness sliding under the sentence. When I looked up at Angie she was looking away. Recently this had been happening: I could glimpse a watchful, brooding side of her that I hadn’t seen before the divorce. Before, she had inhabited all the American tropes of growth and disobedience that my mother never tolerated in me. Angie was always disagreeing, running out the door without explaining where she was going. Now she sometimes made a face like the world unsettled her.
The first time I saw the face was on a day I wanted to forget. Ted had come to pick up the living room chairs—he’d salvaged them from the old public library, and so he wanted them in his new home with Marlena. I was alone in the house, and kept the conversation pleasant. I talked about the weather (unbearably cold), I talked about my preschool students (learning watercolors), and I talked about a new strip mall sushi restaurant (the tuna was wrong, a bruised pink, still partly frozen). At first he listened in the old way that I loved, nodding, warm-eyed, attentive. But by the end of the conversation he looked at me like I was confirming all the obscure reasons he’d decided to leave.
After he took the chairs I went up to my closet to change. In an hour I had to get Angie from soccer, and I wanted to be in sweatpants. But as I stood in my closet, something seized me, an impulse that I thought had died when I was a teenager. How stupid it suddenly seemed, that I had kept all these old dresses and little linen button-down shirts hanging nicely ironed, some still in their dry-cleaning bags. As if the clothes once loved, by the person I once was, would still fit me or please me now. It seemed girlish to me, to keep them like souvenirs, so pretty and clean in protective plastic. What was I waiting for? I was never going to wear these clothes again. I started tearing them from the hangers. I just tore them from the hangers onto the floor, knocked the folded shirts from the shelves. Maybe it was because they reminded me of Ted, but I think it was because they reminded me of myself, of all the hopeful people I had once been, and of the person—consequential, collected, charming—I had kept thinking I would one day become.
I even ripped a few shirts. Just cheap ones, cotton tees from vacations or Angie’s school. When the seams broke they made a surprising amount of noise, a sinewy, spinal sound, like ripping bones out of a piece of fish. Some of the shirts I just twisted in my hands until my hands went white. That was how big the unfamiliar feeling was, that was what it took to get it out of me. I was twisting a shirt when I looked up and saw Angie in the mirror.
The mirror was floor-length, positioned near the entrance to the closet. Angie, reflected there, was standing in the doorway to my bedroom. She could see me, but she thought I couldn’t see her. She stood tall and stoic in her nylon shorts and a tee shirt we’d bought on vacation to the Outer Banks, one with dolphins and a cheesy sunset. Her face was flushed, her hair knotted with sweat from practice. And in her eyes was the look, the new look, the look she was giving me now, in the craft store, like she knew something she wasn’t supposed to know yet. She had seen something I was supposed to keep from her, and as a result, she was beginning to understand her surroundings in a colder way.
“I was just doing some cleaning,” I said when I came towards her.
She stared at me like she used to when she was an apprehensive child at swim lessons, waiting for me to tell her not to be afraid of the water. Then she composed herself and said,
“We got off early, so someone gave me a ride. Now I’m starving.”
I took her to the fondue place at the mall, even though it wasn’t a special occasion, and she skewered small pieces of bread in a half-hearted way, resting her cheek on the heel of her hand. That night I put the clothes on the closet floor into a garbage bag, and a few days later I made my virtual Dresser, so the clothes wouldn’t remind me of Ted, or myself, or the look on Angie’s face in the mirror.
At the craft store I spent almost a hundred dollars on tissue paper and ribbons. Angie, watching me with a twisted mouth of suppressed distaste, made me buy her three packs of gum at the register. She didn’t even wait until we were back at the car to begin chewing furiously. The watermelon smell made her frustration seem wholesome, manageable, and so I gave myself permission not to ask if she was all right.
Once I had a few reviews, the clothes started selling fast. GREAT color, LOVED the packaging, only A LITTLE pilled, a buyer said about the pleated flannel skirt I’d worn for my thirty-seventh birthday, which I had wrapped in lavender tissue paper and tied with a blue ribbon. Between sales, I got more involved in the Community. There was a Community tab, and people also talked in the comments sections of listings. Most of the people selling clothes were women, and many were in some kind of extremity. The description of one department store sweater read, I would ask less for this but my son is going thru chemo and so we need all the help we can get……..husband is Military and so am doing my best. I came across a widower selling his wife’s wardrobe, which seemed at once opportunistic, devastating, and understandable. Some of the big sellers were girls in college, or just out of college, trying to pay off student loans or make it as an artist or break away from an emotionally abusive boyfriend. Their captions were cool and cryptic: if you like swimming in mountain streams this dress is your destiny. that is its spirit. 100% polyester. Some women spent their days at Goodwill, combing the racks for designer clothes and selling them on the app for a profit. This seemed industrious and sad.
Suddenly, I was packaging up the last item from the garbage bag in my closet: a rayon camisole. As I folded it for shipping, I had the tearing urge again, but suppressed it. Angie was in the other room doing homework. She was waiting for Ted, who was picking her up at noon to go camping for the weekend with him and Marlena. I wrapped the camisole in tissue paper, tied it with a bow, and felt immediately bereft.
While Angie was away I went on the app even though I had no more clothes to sell. I scrolled through the Community tab, reading about other people’s troubles. I knew I should go buy new living room chairs, but it seemed I could do nothing but wait for Angie to come home. I cooked dinner, mopped the kitchen, made lesson plans for Monday, but underneath it all I was waiting for Angie to traipse across the threshold and tell me about the trip, waiting for her callous, caring voice, waiting to see her move quickly through the house again with her sure stride and her brisk default hopefulness.
When she came home she was wearing an unfamiliar sweatshirt. It was a pristine white zip-up with Sherpa fleece on the inside.
“Where did you get that?” I said as she put her bags down on the porch. Ted’s car was still idling on the curb.
“Oh,” she said. “It, well, I forgot mine here, so—”
The car door slammed, and Marlena came trotting down our front walk, dark braid hitting her back rhythmically. She was a few years older than me, but looked like she could still be in graduate school, with her dark jeans and fitted flannel shirt, the big loose smile across her teeth, like she had spent her whole life outside, in fresh air, and had never smelled the stale cheese in the mall’s fondue restaurant, had never pushed a cart through flower-coated aisles at the empty craft store. She wasn’t a mother, and it sometimes seemed as if she’d never had a mother. There was something marine about her, oceanic, a fluidity and impermanence that was unsettling. I could tell, when I first met her, that she hadn’t grown up somewhere landlocked—call it intuition. I had been landlocked always, from the time I was born. Maybe that was the big difference between us, why Ted wanted her and not me. When she got to the porch she was slightly red-cheeked.
“I figured you would want this,” she said to Angie, holding out her phone.
“Oh my God,” said Angie. “Thank you. I don’t know how I forgot.”
“The conversation must have been scintillating,” I said to Marlena. “Angie’s usually connected to the phone like it’s part of her arm.”
“Mom,” Angie said. “Can you not? Sorry, I really have to pee. Bye, Marlena.”
Marlena waved, and lingered on the porch as Angie disappeared into the house.
“She’s a great kid,” she said. “So mature.”
“She needs to learn how to focus,” I said. “She really is always glued to the phone.”
Marlena nodded, her gaze too intent. Her eyes looked tired, and it occurred to me that I knew nothing about who she really was. Curiosity passed through me briefly, but then she spoke.
“We don’t have to do this, you know.”
I kept my voice even, innocent. “Do what?”
“We don’t have to be cold with each other. It’s kind of outdated and cliché, isn’t it?”
My sternum tightened with nauseous recognition, but it took me a moment to place the familiarity of the comment.
“Funnily, you’re the second person to call me cliché this week,” I said, trying to smile. I figured Marlena, in her highly original everyday life, must call things cliché left and right. Angie must have absorbed the terminology from her, as well as the intellectualized, ironic tone. I tried to keep my face very still as Marlena went on.
“I just mean, what a boring dynamic, the wife and the ex-wife who resent each other. I don’t want to do that. I’d like to be your friend again.”
“I don’t resent you.”
“Oh, come on, Ana.”
The tearing urge was bubbling up in me, and I was glad that I was far away from the rayon camisole, that it was already safely in its packaging. Marlena spoke again into the silence.
“Things change. Things happen. We have to adjust.”
When I responded, my voice sounded ugly and mean, not like me. “And you had no hand in this particular change?”
She nodded, briefly closing her eyes. “Of course I did. But mostly, you and Ted had a hand in it. Long before anything happened with he and I, you resented him, just like you resent me. Resentment kills everything.”
“That’s ridiculous. Why would I resent him?” My voice was still monstrous.
Marlena gave me a look that wasn’t unlike Angie’s new expression, a sort of sad knowing.
“I don’t know. That’s your stuff to figure out.”
“I have to make lunch,” I said. “Thank you for taking Angie this weekend. It seems like you had a good time. But I have to go make my daughter something to eat.”
Marlena nodded, looking at the ground, and went back to the car, arms crossed over her chest. I was satisfied that she walked, rather than trotted: like our conversation had taken something out of her.
Inside, Angie was still wearing the Sherpa fleece sweatshirt.
“So Daddy bought you that sweatshirt?”
Angie looked up from her phone. “Oh my God, why are you so fixated on my sweatshirt? It’s just a sweatshirt.”
“So Marlena bought it for you.”
“Why does it matter?”
“It doesn’t matter, I’m just curious.”
Angie narrowed her eyes. “No, you’re not.”
“You’re never curious. I wore that new romper last week and you didn’t notice. You didn’t interrogate me.”
“You can tell me if she bought it for you. I think that’s nice. It’s nice of her.”
“Well, Marlena didn’t buy it for me. It’s hers, okay? She lent me her sweatshirt.”
I tried not to say anything. Somehow this was worse. I imagined Marlena shrugging out of the sweatshirt, making herself cold for the sake of Angie’s warmth. I could see Angie accepting the sweatshirt, thanking Marlena with a smile that was sheepish and kind. I could feel her nestling into the Sherpa fleece that smelled like Marlena’s lemon moisturizer, which wafted around when she used to come over for dinner, and which she sometimes offered to me. I could see Angie sleeping in the sweatshirt, and wearing it the next day because it was so warm and soft and new. And Marlena was saying to Angie, you keep it, sweetheart, it’s yours. These images were like knives. I tried to change the subject.
“I am curious,” I said, “about school, and your friends. I just don’t always notice your clothes.”
“You want to know about school and my friends just to check that everything’s normal. If something wasn’t normal, you wouldn’t like it.”
“I would want to help.”
“You would want it to go back to normal.”
“Isn’t that what everyone wants?”
Angie ate forcefully, tearing into her sandwich emphatically, mustard smudging her cheek.
“Some people want to be happy,” she said. “Some people want to feel, I don’t know, fulfilled, or alive. They want to go on adventures.”
“And you don’t think I want those things?” I said. She kept eating, and the question hung in the air until I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I asked it.
A few nights later I went into her room. She was at a sleepover, and I had been reading reviews people had left for my clothes, and perusing the terrible stories in the Community section. I have no foot anymore, one woman wrote. So I have a lot of sox to sell LOL.
The screen was hurting my eyes and so I cleaned the house. Room by room I swept and vacuumed until everything looked new and warm and clean, until the carpets were soft and the light pooled on the hardwood floors. Angie had been staying late at school most nights, getting dinner with friends, sleeping at their houses on the weekend. I scrubbed and dusted until it looked like the sort of place she would want to come home to, a place with light and air.
Her room was last, in what used to be the attic. It looked, as usual, as if a tornado had struck: clothes everywhere. I picked up sweaty soccer tees and school jeans, sweaters that stank in the seams, period-stained underwear. I threw them in the hamper and vacuumed.
I opened the dresser drawers to put away corduroys that had been slung over a chair. I rifled through gently, looking at her things. I had been messy like Angie when I was in college. But that was before Ted, before we were married. That was before I was told I should take care of him.
Because that was what my mother had really told me. When I recounted the story at dinner parties, to friends, I changed my mother’s advice to make it charming and modern, heartwarming and equitable. I told everyone that her advice was that Ted and I should take care of each other. Really, what she’d said is that I should take care of him. The night she gave me the advice there was a bulb out in the living room, so my apartment was half-darkened. I was rehearsing for an audition, pacing the kitchenette as my mother’s sarmale reheated in the oven. I’d been lost in breathing exercises, nervous for the audition, twisting the engagement ring on my finger, chafing the skin. The audition, for a local musical, was the next day; the wedding was in three months. My mother, over for dinner, had said little about the audition. She couldn’t stop talking about the wedding. She was trying to remind me of who I really was: a person with responsibilities and limits. She wanted to make sure I didn’t forget what was important. In marriage, she’d said, some things should be the same, and other things should be put away. You’ll be his family now. That night, I listened closely. It didn’t seem to matter that she’d never been married, that my faceless father had left before that. I was starving, and the bitter cabbage-and-meat smell of the sarmale was making me hungrier. I loved sarmale with embarrassed ferocity—my mother and I both did, we grinned the same grin when it was ready. As we ate, I tried not to look at her, sitting stiff and certain, her voice weighed with the accent of the languages she refused to speak. She had only ever wanted to be like her neighbors, the generationally Midwestern, who she presumed to be perpetually cheerful, with their Crisco and their daffodils, with their smudgy portraits of German farm ancestors lining the foyer walls, as if no one in the world had ever been sent to Transnistria, as if lovers never changed their minds, as if everyone was entitled to an unbroken lineage. She adored those neighbors who couldn’t place Romania on a map, who didn’t know Ceaușescu’s name. Ted hadn’t known Ceausescu’s name. My mother was always complimenting his manners, his poise and attentiveness, his conviction that I was a steadying force. That night in the kitchenette her hunger for my stability was thick in the air. She caught my arm to stop the pacing. And where is this going, anyway? she said, gesturing to the sheet music on the table. I already knew that I wasn’t good enough to be professional, I had no delusions. So I just shrugged. She grabbed my hand and made me stop twisting the ring.
Only now, rifling through Angie’s dresser drawer, did I wonder if there had been something Ted’s mother said to him about marriage in those young days. Had she said it was about care, or love, or happiness? About duty, or fulfillment, or family? My mother had hoped our marriage would be some kind of erasure, a blank slate, everything dead and irrelevant forgotten, all departure and abandonment left behind on another continent. Most likely, Ted’s mother, a ponytailed Methodist who worked at the health department, had said little about marriage. Ted was in graduate school; he was spending his summers kneeling in mud, studying fiddler crabs. Probably they talked about that, the mess and delight of his research.
Only now, as I searched more intently in the dresser, did I know the answer to the question my mother had asked in the half-lit kitchenette, about the singing, about where it was going. The answer was that I didn’t know where it might’ve led, and that had been the point of it.
I didn’t find what I was looking for in Angie’s dresser, and so I went to the closet. It wasn’t there either, in the tumble of sweaters and skirts. Maybe Angie had returned it to Marlena herself: the thought filled me with joy. Then, just as I was turning to leave the bedroom, there it was.
The white Sherpa fleece sweatshirt was folded tidily on the cushioned window seat, Angie’s favorite spot to do her homework. It was folded as I had folded the corduroys, lovingly, with intention.
In the moment, I didn’t care if she noticed its absence. I took the sweatshirt up from its window, shook it out, and spread it on the carpet. I took the pictures hastily, and the lighting wasn’t as nice as I would’ve liked. PRISTINE Sherpa fleece sweatshirt, I typed into my Dresser. Lovable and comfy. Barely worn. Like new. I uploaded the photos and waited. The light fell beyond the windows and I waited. I folded the sweatshirt and waited. Then I unfolded it and stretched it over my shoulders, zipped it to my neck, nestled my hands in the pockets. It was soft and good, just as warm as it had looked. Like Angie, I didn’t want to take it off. But I could already imagine exactly how I would package it. It would be nice in the fiery red tissue paper, with a silver ribbon, neat and pretty, demure, sent with a pleasant note to somewhere far away.
Ariel Katz is a writer from North Carolina. Her stories have appeared in Colorado Review and Copper Nickel. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently at work on a novel.