David Hockney, Tyler Dining Room from Moving Focus, 1984. David Hockney, London.
Written by Gina Chung
Something keeps moving my things around when I’m not looking. A crystal vase Ed gave me for our tenth anniversary frequently migrates from one end table to the other. One of my footstools recently vanished and then reappeared inside the hallway coat closet. The other day, I found all the wine glasses arranged stems up in the bathtub and my lipsticks strewn across the couch cushions.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, it can take me a while to notice. One time it took me about a week to realize that all my books had been rearranged. I left them alone, and the next morning I woke to find that the books had been removed from their shelves and piled in teetering columns around my bed, as if whatever it is that’s doing it was saying, Try ignoring this. “Very funny,” I said, and the air in the house seemed to ripple, as though it was pleased with itself.
Lately it’s been tampering with my perfume bottles. I collect them, unusual ones. Frosted, crystalline bottles shaped like stilettos, ducks, ships, flowers opening. Ed used to bring them back for me whenever he had to travel. It likes to place my bottles in unexpected spots around the house, including on the edges of tables, in the foyer, underneath my dining table. Marie-Louise accepts all of this with her characteristic equanimity. I’m sure she thinks it’s my doing. She tut-tuts at what she assumes is my naughtiness, the vagaries of an old woman. I watch her return the bottles, humming cheerfully, to their usual posts on the wide wooden dresser I brought with me when I married Ed.
Marie-Louise comes a few times a week to cook, clean, and make sure I’m not dead. My son Julian pays for her visits with the money he earns from his extremely busy and important banking job, and I know he pays her well. It makes him feel less guilty for how seldom he comes to see me. At first, I thought she was the one moving my things. But that woman doesn’t seem to have a mischievous bone in her body. She barely speaks to me, just smiles in that irritating way people do when they are trying to placate the very young or the very elderly. I’m not sure which I am. Some days I feel I must be the oldest woman in the world, while on others, I feel about sixteen again, impatient for someone to notice me, to kiss me. I wish I could remember the last time I was kissed.
Some days I feel I must be the oldest woman in the world, while on others, I feel about sixteen again, impatient for someone to notice me, to kiss me. I wish I could remember the last time I was kissed.
I do not know what will happen to my collection of perfume bottles when I’m dead. Julian’s wife has no interest in things of the past, she with her sleek haircuts and modern handbags, and my daughter Claire and I rarely speak. She claims that I was a bad mother to her, and she only calls to ask for money or harangue me with new revelations about her childhood she’s discovered in therapy. It’s true I was distracted, that I could have been more attentive. She was five and Julian was two when I left Ed for Anthony, one of his business partners, a man who I’d thought was more exciting than he turned out to be. Julian doesn’t remember much of that time, but Claire does.
“You left,” she often says, accusingly, as if there is anything I can do about it now.
“But I came back,” I say. “Doesn’t that count for something?”
“I can’t believe you,” she says, before hanging up.
Ed eventually forgave me for leaving, though we rarely spoke of it after I returned. He developed lung cancer at 57, even though he hardly ever smoked. It was always me bumming cigarettes from our friends, buying packs on the sly. He died just a few days before his 60th birthday. Sometimes I miss him, his quiet steadiness. I never knew why Ed took me back. I wouldn’t have, if I were him, but I suppose he’d missed me too, in his way. Marriage, like any habit, is a hard one to give up.
I fall asleep easily these days, though it’s hard to stay asleep at night. I wake at the slightest sound. Sometimes I imagine I feel small hands brushing against mine, stifled giggles. While it doesn’t frighten me, it is irritating. Come find me then, I think. Show yourself.
One night I wake to find my clothes, the evening gowns and cocktail dresses I wore back when Ed and I were often called upon to attend social engagements, carpeting my bedroom floor. I study the trembling sequins, the complicated hooks and zippers, the no-longer-fashionable shoulder pads and necklines and ruffled sleeves. I wonder if Claire will want some of them when I am gone. On a whim, I shrug on one of the dresses, a dark green silk number with a plunging neckline. It no longer zips all the way up, but I do not care. Downstairs, the lights seem to be on. Marie-Louise must have forgotten to turn them off. I tread carefully down the stairs and notice how long the dress seems to have become on me. Perhaps I have gotten shorter over these last few years.
The last time I wore this dress was the night I left Ed. We had just come home from yet another party, where I’d once again said something that had offended one of the wives. They were always “the wives” to me, even though I was technically one of them. He sat down on the edge of our bed and watched me throw my clothes into suitcases, listened to me rail about how desperately unhappy I was.
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” he told me. “You’re drunk.”
“I should get drunk more often then,” I said.
“You already do,” he said, in a voice so weary I wanted to throw something at him. Anthony was coming to pick me up. I was leaving, finally. Claire, woken by the shouting, came into our room and clung to me. I peeled her off me, as gently as possible—children are surprisingly strong—and then I was gone.
Later on, there was another child. I was going to name her Matilda. I was never quite sure if she was Ed’s or Anthony’s, but in the end it didn’t matter, because she was never born. I came home shortly after that, straight from the hospital. In the years afterward, as Claire and Julian grew too old for my haphazard mothering and their relief at my return hardened into wariness, I would sometimes feel a little hand insinuate itself into mine. I would whirl around only to see no one there. I saw flashes of a small pale face in the reflective surfaces of the house. I told no one, and then it stopped.
Downstairs, the dining room is ablaze with light, and it appears the dinner table has been set. “Marie-Louise, what is all this?” I call. But it is late, and Marie-Louise went home hours ago. The forks and knives wink at me, and the table, gleaming as though it has been hand-polished, looks inviting.
I sit down at the head of the table and close my eyes. For a moment, I am young again, so full of energy and certainty about my life, in possession of a body that mostly does what I ask or require of it. I hear faint music, the clinking of silverware, laughter. My children are upstairs, sleeping, their lives not yet marred by me and what I will do, and this other child, the one who will never be, is just a wish, a prayer I have not yet memorized. There is still time, so much time.
Gina Chung is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in New York City. She is the author of the novel Sea Change (Vintage, April 11, 2023) and the story collection Green Frog (Vintage, February 2024). A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, she is a 2021-2022 Center for Fiction/Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow and holds an MFA in fiction from the New School. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Catapult, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, and Idaho Review, among others. Find her at gina-chung.com.