Julia Dixon Evans
It’s going on the second hour of pressing my ear to the kitchen wall for the day, listening for the same frightened, illegible whisper, idly scrolling through my phone when I see the picture of Beth on the beach.
If she knew that for every picture she posted of herself in a swimsuit, I’d go the rest of the day without eating, I think she probably wouldn’t post pictures of herself in a swimsuit.
Which is why I’ll never tell her. And I’ll never tell Joseph because he’d probably tell her and they’d probably have a conversation about how sad it is, how pitiful I am.
And I don’t want to know that she’s nice.
I look at her and think about her effortlessness and I think about Joseph looking at her too, and then when he puts his hands on my waist, on my hips, is he thinking: I wish she were harder like Beth. I wish she were smaller like Beth.
If I’m the only one thinking that, it’s still enough for ruin.
I met Beth in New Orleans, when she sat next to me at the bar where Joseph was playing on tour and she bought me a vieux carre, promising me I’d never want to drink anything else.
“I’m Beth,” she said, but not until we’d both finished the first drink. “I knew Joseph from school.”
“Avi,” I said.
“Pretty,” she said.
“It’s a man’s name.”
“No, I mean you. You’re pretty.”
“Oh,” I said. “Thanks.”
“I’m not exactly into girls,” she said, each vowel longer than the last as the whiskey took hold. “But I’m gonna tell you you’re pretty.”
“You’re pretty too,” I said. “Your name’s just kind of boring though.”
Within a year, she took a job at Joseph’s company and moved ten minutes away from our house.
Short list of things I can never tell Joseph:
- There is a voice inside the wall, the one between the stove and the pantry.
- I think about him and Beth constantly.
- I have seen two other photographs of Beth in a swimsuit and the first time took a while to sink in: I went to the fridge and ate one whole block of tofu and six baby carrots but nothing else that entire day. The second was immediate and I stopped eating at 11 a.m., right when I was getting hungry for lunch. The hunger felt like progress at first and then I stopped noticing.
I can’t tell Joseph any of this because it’s been going on too long and I just don’t want to hear him say “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” all disgruntled and put-out.
The first time I heard the voice was a year ago, on Joseph’s birthday. The month after our wedding. Two months after we moved in. I was sitting on the kitchen floor, cake flour beneath my fingernails, basking in the warmth of the stove like a cat in a sunbeam.
A woman. A language I didn’t know but seemed vaguely familiar, a Latin language, something rounder than sharp. She whispered everything. She seemed so afraid.
The timer dinged, cake done, I burned my hand on the stove handle.
A phone call.
“Hey baby. How’s your birthday going?”
“Good. Busy. We’re just wrapping up here. I think we’ll go get a drink after work, maybe somewhere with dessert.”
“Wanna go? Beth will be there, I know she wants to hang out with you.”
I turned off the stove.
“I’m pretty tired.”
“It’s my birthday. I gotta go get some cake, don’t I?”
I heard her again, louder but still whispering. Louder but she seemed even further away. Further in the wall. Further in the house.
“I made you a cake.”
He was quiet for a few seconds, long enough to prove he didn’t know what to do. I wondered if he was weighing the options. It’d be perfectly nice to come home to me, share cake together, a quiet night in celebration.
“Bring it with you,” he said.
The second time I heard the woman in the wall, the wall next to the stove again, Joseph was over at Beth’s house, working on some dumb collage art thing with a group of friends he sort of explained to me but all I heard was Beth Beth Beth and all I imagined was their heads, leaning close together, nothing happening except the two of them wishing something could happen. All I imagined were the almosts, the things unsaid, the things undone. Her hips. The slope of her breasts.
When the voice in the wall spoke—words beginning with Ms and Ws and Ps and long words or compound words or maybe her language had no sentences, no punctuation, no breaks, just on and on and on, relentless, never ending—she seemed as desperate as I was. But she spoke for no more than twenty seconds.
Joseph came home from Beth’s drunk.
“Did you drive?”
“Yeah but I’m fine. Just a little buzzed.”
He fell asleep, crashed really, in his clothes that smelled like her house: lavender oil and freshly ground coffee. When he woke at three am to piss he climbed back into bed on top of me, pressing his dick against my thigh. “I want you,” he said, and I fucked a man who smelled of lavender oil and coffee.
Beth is on vacation, back on the Gulf Coast, and I’d like to say that’s the reason she posted a bikini picture in the first place, but they’re weirdly common for her. We’re up to three. And it’s never really a selfie, it’s always someone else taking the picture, probably because she looks so unassumingly great that friends drop what they’re doing to take a picture of her in a swimsuit, of her waistline, of her hips. I wonder if Joseph has ever wanted to take a picture of her in her swimsuit.
“What are you doing?” Joseph asks. I lift my ear away from the wall but there’s no hiding the fact that I’m sitting on the kitchen floor.
“Just. I don’t know. Resting. Looking at my phone,” I said. “I felt faint.”
He starts to leave the room, but before he touches the door, he turns around, shoes squeaking on the tile. “You okay?”
I smile at him, mouth closed, no teeth. When he leaves I bring up the picture again. I try to focus on the other elements in the frame. I try to give this picture meaning beyond how perfect she is. Beyond Beth. There’s part of someone else’s family off to the side: a toddler squatting in the sand to dig or maybe to pee. A mother bending at the hips, ass in the air, talking to her kid. A dog in the surf, mid-leap, pure joy. The blue of the sky is clearly enhanced by a filter, probably Lark because it looks almost purple. The sand shimmers, golden in one shining, reflective spot. Beth’s breasts: not too big, maybe even on the small size, but that just means she’s not packing any extra fat. Beth’s skin, glowing. Beth’s hair, somehow simultaneously simpler than mine and more cool than mine. Beth’s pedicure, immaculate but neon and weird. Beth’s waistline Beth’s waistline Beth’s waistline.
The first of the other bikini pictures was in this same spot, a year ago. She’s a girl of routine, always visiting her family at the beach towards the end of summer. The second was on a different trip, with her brother and his friends, all men. I noticed Joseph didn’t give that picture a like. And I couldn’t tell you any other details about those pictures, just Beth.
I hear the toilet flush and then I hear the voice again, whisper quiet, not peaceful. I tap my fingernails on the wall.
“I’m here,” is all I can think of to say.
I hear steady, swift movement coming from the bathroom. Joseph is jerking off. I wonder which bikini picture of Beth he’s thinking about. I wonder if he has them saved on his phone. I close my eyes and try to think of the family off to the side or the sun’s golden shine on the sand but all I see is her body.
“Can you hear me?” I whisper to the wall, my mouth so close that my lips touch the plaster at the almost-purse of my “h” sound.
She murmurs something.
“Can you understand me?”
She murmurs again.
“Knock twice if you can understand me.”
She knocks. And again.
“Are you trapped?”
She doesn’t answer. I hear a muffled grunt, an exhale, stillness, a rustle of toilet paper, another flush.
“Are you always here?” I whisper, quickly, before Joseph comes out.
“I’ll find you again,” I say and I rush to my feet, I busy my hands with pots and pans and normal. I’m okay and this is okay and we’re okay.
I climb out of bed, barefoot, no slippers, no noise. I don’t want to wake him. The ache in my head, sharp and everywhere, seems curious more than anything. In the kitchen, all the digital clocks and displays—toaster, microwave, oven, fridge, coffee pot, dishwasher, our phones charging on the countertop—cast a dim blueish haze across the room. I crouch.
“Are you there?” I ask.
Nothing. I sit, my head resting back against the wall. Her wall. I’m drowsy again and I let my eyes close and my shoulders slump a little and then—
“Can you speak?”
She talks and it’s more of a groan than anything, grotesque and strange, quiet and chilled. I can’t understand her. “I can’t understand you.”
My phone buzzes and lights up. I reach for it, and it’s a message from Beth and I realize it’s not my phone anyway. It’s Joseph’s. I set it back down on the countertop without reading it. I don’t want to know what she tells Joseph at two in the morning or maybe it’s three or maybe the sun just went down. It feels like nothing.
A highball glass. Whiskey. Cognac. No need to mess with a lemon twist right now. No need to fuck with whatever else goes in this drink. There’s only a once-melted mass of old ice in the fridge so I drink it warm.
“How long have you been trapped there? A long time?”
No answer. I take a long drink.
“You’re not trapped.”
“Are you scared?”
“I’m not scared,” I say. “Right?”
“I’m not trapped,” I say.
I slide down the wall, my cheek cold against the porcelain floor and I can’t remember the last time I mopped right here and I curl my spine and if only I could snap it, make a corner, an edge, a fold in my backbone and make myself foldable, portable. Smaller. I want to fold up. I want to fit in tiny places.
“I’m not trapped,” I say to the floor. “I like it.”
Silence. No knocks.
“Beth isn’t real,” I say.
I stand up and I’m loud now. I don’t want to hear anything through the wall. I don’t want to hear knocks or no knocks. Remember the family, off to the side of her beach picture? They looked so happy. Did they not know what she’s capable of? How powerful a person is when they can ruin without even trying. Did they not fear her? That toddler, so close to her. The sun, shining so close to her, our entire solar system at risk.
In our bedroom, I fill my work bag with a sweater and some clothes and I put some shoes on.
I grab a swimsuit. I can’t remember the last time I wore it.
I unplug both phones. I take them both. I know without question that Beth would be the first person Joseph calls when he realizes I’m not home. I know without question that she will be truly concerned, for me, for both of us, for all of us. She’ll tell him, “I love her like a sister,” or some shit, and most of the time I think she does. I don’t lock the door on the way out because I don’t want to take a key. I don’t want a key to this.
“Bye,” I whisper to the woman in the wall.
I sit in my car in the driveway for hours and then come back inside before Joseph wakes up. I plug in both phones in the kitchen. I climb into bed.
“Mornin’, darling,” he says to me.
He leaves that afternoon for band practice and while he’s gone I am a woman determined, I am a woman not okay. I pull on the swimsuit. The elastic crunches as I pull it over my hips. I tie the string behind my back and the cheap fibers crack and break, a gummy film left on my fingers. I twist my torso in the mirror. I see folds of skin in the twist of my waist, I see stretch marks on my hips, the shimmery lines a topographic map of decades of never-ceasing weight change. I see acne scars on my shoulders. I see nothing perfect.
In the tool drawer in the garage I rummage around until I find a hammer, and it’s not big enough so I rummage some more and there it is: the mallet-head hammer, age-softened hide wrapped around crushing steel. Almost like a sledgehammer but not quite as big. It’ll do. I think the crowbar is in Joseph’s car so I grab a bunch of flathead screwdrivers instead. Arms loaded, hammers and screwdrivers cold against my bare stomach, I storm back into the house.
It’s easy at first, then nearly impossible. The backsplash tile above the stove stretches across this wall, her wall, and it shatters on the first strike, satisfyingly, but then the ninety-year-old glue or mortar or whatever keeps most of it stuck in place. I switch to the plaster, which crumbles, horsehair-packed clumps falling to my toes. I’m glad I’ve never tried to hang shelves in the year we’ve lived here. I hit wood. I wonder if this is a load-bearing wall and I strike again, and again, until I can see inside. I can see inside the wall. She should be right here. I lick my lips and they taste of plaster and I shout “WHERE ARE YOU?” and there’s no knocking.
I’m out of breath or maybe I’m hyperventilating or maybe this is dying or maybe the plaster is in my lungs. I swing the hammer up high above my head but I still. I hold it there.
“Did I ruin what you knocked against?”
Nothing. No knocks. No unintelligible language.
“Did I ruin it?” I shout, a cry, a plea. “Where. Are. You.”
“Avi…?” a woman’s voice. From the doorway.
“Beth,” I say, and I can feel it, how this looks. I can feel the wildness of my eyes, the plaster dust in my hair, on my face, on my clothes. The ruined wall. I can feel what she’s thinking: Joseph’s wife has lost it. Joseph has a crazy wife. I wish Joseph had a normal wife. I am normal. I could have been his normal wife. Poor Joseph to not have me as his normal wife.
“Avi.” Her face softens and I can tell she’s trying to diffuse me. I don’t ask her why she came over.
“Don’t,” I say, and I drop my arms, swinging the hammer into the wall. The wood frame splinters, bends, gives. The creak is disturbing. I want the house to fall down on top of us both. I want to bury us both with this house, with the woman in the wall.
I swing until I’m tired, until the muscles on the underside of my arms burn, but the house doesn’t fall down. Nothing changes. Nothing happens. Until Beth says, “Enough.”
Until Beth says, her lovely fingers wrapping around my wrists, “You’re okay now.” She lowers the hammer to the ground. She pulls me against her body and I think about her hips. “There’s nobody there. You’re okay now,” she says again and again.
“There’s nobody there.”
And then it’s faint but it’s there: a knock.
Julia Dixon Evans is author of the novel Other Burning Places, forthcoming from Dzanc Books. Her work can be found in Paper Darts, The Fanzine, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. She works for the San Diego literary non-profit and small press called So Say We All. More at www.juliadixonevans.com and on twitter: @juliadixonevans.