On the coldest morning of the year, when the breath escaped Margaret's mouth like a ghost, Margaret and James forgot to leave the water running. Their pipes froze, and no water at all came out when they turned on the faucets. It was a Friday in January, only a few days after New Year's, and people still carried around lofty ideas about hope and change, Margaret and James included. Margaret had quit smoking and James had quit eating so much candy. James had also told Margaret he wanted to give her an engagement ring, but that he wanted her to choose it herself at the store this weekend. He didn't know what kind of ring she would like, and did not want to impose his own aesthetic on her. Margaret appreciated this choice James was giving her, because she felt it was a small feminist gesture, but she also dreaded having to make a decision. The frozen water pipes did not fit with Margaret's expectations for the new year or the beginning of her engagement. Nothing should be broken at a time like this.
Margaret and James lived on the second floor of a large, old house that had been divided into four apartments like chambers of the heart. The other three apartments had been empty the entire time they had lived in the building, because they were in need of renovation and deep cleaning. The landlord was drunk all the time and did not seem in a hurry to do this. Margaret and James had never been in any of the other apartments, which felt strange to Margaret, since they shared walls. Margaret and James were sealed off in their own little section of the big house. Their section was mostly updated, although it still had a broken oven, no heater, and several holes in the walls for insects to crawl through.
They called the plumber, but he would unfortunately be unable to come until Monday. "Sorry," the landlord texted. He also said the couple was welcome to use the bathroom in Apt. 1 downstairs.
"Dick," James said. James always dealt with the landlord, whose weird gaze and jokes about sex bothered Margaret. James went to get the keys. James and Margaret took care of each other. They were a team.
Margaret was in her first year as a tenure-track professor of Gender Studies. She was still on winter break. Although she did not plan to leave the house all day, she still insisted on showering downstairs, as she was a woman who measured her self-worth based not only on her professional accomplishments, but also on how she looked, even on days when she saw no one. It bothered Margaret that her personal feelings did not always line up with her intellectual beliefs. But she couldn't help it.
So after James left, Margaret put her towel and her bottles of soap and shampoo in a plastic bag. The keyring for Apt. 1 had about a dozen keys. Margaret could not imagine the reason for this.
She had to go outside and down a staircase to access the downstairs apartment. She tried the main door first. None of the keys on the keyring opened the main door, or at least, they didn't work when she tried. Perhaps she was not inserting the keys correctly. In general, she worried she did not do enough things correctly. She was in a sour mood due to the water being broken, and became more and more annoyed with each failure to open the door. She went to the side door, above which wasps had been building nests all summer. But all the wasps were now dead in the cold. She had success with the door.
The apartment felt much larger than it looked from the outside and it was very open, with a huge kitchen and two living rooms. The landlord or previous tenants had left some items there: two large mirrors, a nude painting of a woman, and a large sculpture of a man's head on the mantle. Margaret turned on the main light, which was attached to a ceiling fan that began to rotate. Its blades sliced the cold air and stirred up something that had been lying in the apartment, very still as if sleeping, for a long time. The blades clicked as they cut the air, like a record player still on after the album's end, rhythmically skipping over the silence, waiting for someone to come change it.
The ceiling fan made Margaret uncomfortable, so she walked away from it, into the bathroom. She lifted the toilet seat and saw that it was covered with a thick layer of dirt. Margaret did not like dirt, and furthermore, she liked everything to be in perfect order all the time. She had rituals that made her wonder if she was insane. Margaret wiped the dirt off with a wad of damp toilet paper, then washed her hands. The toilet seat now looked clean, but was obviously not clean, as there were no cleaning products there for her to use. She hovered above the seat, and winced as she urinated.
When she looked down, she noticed that she was once again bleeding, though she could not possibly be menstruating again already. She never had irregular bleeding like this until she started dating James. Other people had irregular bleeding for lots of different reasons, but she knew hers was related to the harmful strand of HPV that James had given her.
James's ex-girlfriend had cervical cancer, something James had neglected to tell Margaret until they'd been together for several months. He waited until she was in love with him, when she would not be able to reject him because of this. Everyone has HPV, Margaret had thought at first, and this was basically true, but not everyone had this kind. James tried to convince Margaret that he did not understand the severity of cervical cancer or its link to HPV. He also tried to employ a bizarre line of reasoning in which Margaret was a magical, beautiful creature who was immune to the same infections that harmed other women.
Margaret had gone to the doctor a year ago when James told her about the cervical cancer. She had an abnormal pap smear, but no cancer, at least not yet. The doctor told her to keep an eye on the bleeding, and to come back frequently for check-ups. But Margaret had not gone back since, and didn't plan to anytime soon. She did not like doctors. They could tell if you were dying, and they would let you know.
Margaret washed her hands again and let the thoughts of bleeding seep out of her mind. She did not think of the bleeding except when she saw it. She mostly thought of how nice James was to her now, unlike the other men she had dated. His bad behavior from the past did not fit with Margaret's current idea of James, just like this cold water did not fit Margaret's hopes for the new year. She looked into the bathtub. It was dirty, and filled with several insects. They were mostly dead, but one was apparently still alive. It lay on its back with its legs kicking and struggling in the air, gasping. Margaret shuddered. She did not like insects any more than she liked dirt. She turned the water on and washed them down the drain. She heard a faint screaming from the old pipes, as if the dead insects were in pain. She heard a deep breathing from the other room, or at least, her mind told her she heard it. She had had hallucinations her whole teenage and adult life, mostly auditory hallucinations of creatures breathing or growling under her bed while she tried to sleep. It used to disturb her, but she was used to it now.
Margaret's father had insisted she did not have hallucinations, but just saw and heard things other people couldn't. "You were born with the umbilical cord wrapped around your neck," he had said, "so I knew you'd be special." After Margaret's mother died when she was four, her father raised her to believe in ghosts, but to not be unnecessarily afraid. Some ghosts were good and some were bad, he explained to her, just like people. Margaret's father taught her that the way to get rid of ghosts she didn't want was to burn sage next to her bed at night. She found this never worked for her. So she learned to ignore or at least tolerate the ghosts or hallucinations, whatever they were.
Margaret did not go out of her way to notice ghosts now, but she did sometimes feel them. She kept this secret from most people, for fear of ridicule, even though she did not personally believe the idea of ghosts was any stranger than, for example, God.
Margaret tried the hot water and it did not work, so she stuck with the cold, which barely dripped down in a tiny stream. Pain is beauty, she thought to herself, and considered whether or not she believed this. She removed her clothing and hung it over the open bathroom door rather than putting it on the dirty floor or counter. She got into the shower despite the dirt, which she could feel contaminating the soles of her feet. She thought about the strangeness of contaminating oneself in the shower, where the objective was to become clean.
The bathroom was set up so that she could see her whole body in the mirror as she showered. Her own apartment had just one small mirror, in which she could see herself only from the waist up. She was now faced with her entire naked body, which looked thinner than it had a year ago, but still not how she wanted it to look. When she was a child her father had noticed her looking in mirrors too often and for too long. He gave her a warning. "Some women go crazy that way," he had said. "I don't want you to be crazy." Margaret's solution to this was to avoid full-length mirrors. She never developed an eating disorder. But she spent just as much time looking in small mirrors, at her face, applying the same makeup over and over every time she used the restroom, for fear that it may have faded and her imperfections would show through.
Margaret watched her body shiver and hunch over in the mirror as she showered. She shaved her legs every day, and so she shaved now, although her legs were covered in goosebumps and it stung when she moved the razor blade across them. She was careful, but still made a tiny cut on her ankle. The blood flowed down the drain with the insects.
As she leaned her head back to rinse the conditioner out of her hair, trying not to let it drip onto her back for fear of developing acne there, she was forced to move her gaze from the mirror to the open bathroom door. Through the door, the ceiling fan still rotated. Some little dangling strings with beads on the ends clicked against each other. The fan reminded Margaret of time, how she'd always thought of weeks and months and years as circles, not lines. The fan rotated again and again, oblivious, as if the miracle of this order meant nothing to it. The strings disrupted this order. Margaret wanted them to just hang there, straight and still like icicles, but they insisted on being affected by the fan's rotation, and spun about like the stupid swing ride at the fair, clicking. The sun shone bright through the bathroom window like a voyeuristic intruder. The water burned in its coldness, a knife-like icicle being thrust into her. She shut the water off. She shuddered again.
The towel on her cold skin felt like another razor blade. She tried to dry off quickly, and forgot about the cut on her ankle. "Fuck," she said when she noticed the red stain on the towel. She blinked her eyes in rapid succession, a nervous habit she'd developed in childhood. Each time she blinked, it was like a blank slate: she was looking at the world with new eyes. She would do this when she stared at her father's framed picture of her dead mother, a woman she could imagine to be perfect because she did not really remember her. Margaret wanted desperately to be like this perfect woman.
As she put her clothes back on, she thought about how different it was the last time she got engaged, without rings (for ideological reasons), to Andrew, who ended up throwing himself off his rich mother's third-story balcony in a psychotic episode on Christmas. He didn't die, but broke many bones in his back and neck, which necessitated a dangerous surgery and several months with a back brace. That Christmas, Margaret had gone to another state to visit her father for what she knew would be the last time, because of how bad his lung cancer had gotten. When Margaret heard what Andrew had done, she got in the car to drive back, saying goodbye to her father. When Margaret walked into the hospital room and saw Andrew lying there in a crumpled heap, slurring meaningless words through a mouth of broken teeth, she knew the relationship was over. If Andrew wanted to die, he clearly didn't want to be with Margaret. But it didn't end right away, because Margaret held a great sense of guilt inside her and also drew satisfaction from the fantasy she could save someone. Andrew was now living alone in a weird house he built deep in the woods, not working, shooting deer and squirrels for food, and making "experimental sound art."
Andrew would accidentally refer to the period after his suicide attempt as "After I died" rather than "After I tried to die," which had worried Margaret. She would lie awake while Andrew slept, trying to pinpoint what exactly it was that had changed in him. It was true, some part of him had died, and something worse had taken its place. Andrew would jolt straight up in his sleep and scream. Margaret stopped having sex with him.
Since that time, Margaret had developed a new compulsion of repeating the phrase "I'm going to kill myself" approximately every sixty seconds in her mind. This was automatic: she did not do it on purpose, and she could not stop. She also developed involuntary, violent daydreams in which, instead of slitting her wrists, she cut her left arm off with an axe, then cut her right arm off as well, although her left arm was already detached and could not possibly hold an axe. It bothered her that this daydream did not make sense. At times when she felt particularly anxious, such as now, shivering in this cold and obviously-haunted apartment, these thoughts and daydreams increased in frequency until Margaret developed a piercing headache.
Margaret hurried out of the apartment, turning the ceiling fan off before she left.
James came home from work while Margaret sat on the edge of the bed, her arms outstretched in front of the space heater, the electric blanket he'd bought her to help with menstrual cramps on her lap. She was not menstruating, but was bleeding, she suddenly remembered, and she also felt very cold. "I've been sitting here for hours," she said, sharpnessin her voice. "I can't get warm." He sat next to her and kissed her cheek. "I accomplished nothing on my article today. It's too cold," she said. Margaret knew James thought she was too hard on herself. He probably thought now, since she was on a break, that she should take it easy, but she did not see it this way.
"It's okay," he said, stroking her hair. "How was the shower downstairs?"
"Bad. The hot water doesn't work, only the cold. And everything's dirty." She did not tell him about the ceiling fan or the breathing. She couldn't find the words to describe these things. She blinked in rapid succession. James always noticed when she did this. None of her other boyfriends had ever noticed. It was important to her that James noticed.
"Are you okay?" he asked her. He held her hand.
"Yes, I'm sorry. It was just really cold. I'm still cold." James rubbed her arm. She thought of a story her father had told her the last time she saw him: that shortly after her mother died, when his anger problems were at their worst, he had gotten upset with Margaret for being too needy, grabbed her, and dislocated her arm. He took her to the hospital and they fixed her. I've never been so sorry for anything, he had said. It was the last bad thing I did. Margaret could think of a lot of bad things her father did, but she did not remember this story actually happening.
"Well, in that case," said James, "I think I'll wait until tomorrow. I need to look good for the jewelry store." He smiled at her, then got another blanket from the closet and wrapped it around her shoulders. He kissed her. She felt lucky, and like she should be less mean to him.
The next morning was even colder than the last, and Margaret and James took several minutes to get out of bed. It was painful to remove the blankets and walk away from the space heater into the kitchen to make coffee.
James was afraid of dark and unknown spaces, so Margaret entered the abandoned apartment first. James switched on the main light, so that the ceiling fan began once more to rotate. Margaret felt like a sharp, metal instrument inside her was beginning to turn, catching her organs on its edges and pulling them in the wrong directions. James put his hands over his ears as if he heard a loud screaming. "I do not like it in here," he said.
"Exactly," said Margaret.
James had also been engaged once before, to the woman with cervical cancer. That engagement lasted only one day, because James suddenly realized he was in love with Margaret, who he'd been friends with for years. James had bought a ring for the other women after dating her for only two months, because he had reached a point in his life where he wanted to stop sleeping around and "grow up," meaning, get a wife. In a way, Margaret was offended that James had waited a reasonable amount of time before wanting to get engaged to her, when he had done it so quickly with the other woman, even though she knew this way was healthier. She also worried that this past behavior meant James was irresponsible and would not make a good husband. But it gave Margaret a small, sick pleasure to know she had broken someone's engagement. She hated herself for this. Maybe she deserved to have this woman's cervical cancer, a bloody reminder of James's past, the other woman always standing right behind her like a red shadow.
James got in the shower, turned on the cold water, and screamed. "I don't think I can do this," he said. "Your pain tolerance must be higher than mine."
Margaret got in with him. They shivered, but together they laughed.
As they climbed the stairs outside back to the top floor, Margaret noticed a single icicle hanging off the roof. It was pathetic compared to the icicles she had gotten used to growing up in another state, sharp icicles several feet long hanging off the roof of her father's house, threatening to crash onto Margaret when she walked underneath them, returning from school. This icicle was cute in a disgusting way, like a teenager's dangling rhinestone earring. She thought of diamonds. Her understanding was that diamonds were strong, just like, ideally, the love of an engaged couple. Diamonds were strong enough to cut glass, and they lasted forever. This was why engagement rings featured diamonds. That and because they were expensive, thus proving the man's dedication to the woman. Traditionally, proving to the woman's father that the man had enough money to take care of her. Margaret thought this was a load of capitalist crap, and that it was also sexist. The ring was supposed to signal to other men that the woman was taken, but the man was not expected to wear a ring until marriage. Despite his faults, there were things Andrew had understood about Margaret that James never would.
Margaret held the door open for James at the jewelry store, waiting for him to go inside first, even though she knew he always insisted she go first. They stood there gesturing at each other for several moments while sophisticated store employees waited to greet them. Margaret averted her eyes. "Hi!" said a middle-aged woman wearing a lot of makeup and no wedding ring. "What can I help you with today?"
Margaret smiled meekly and glanced at the woman, then quickly moved her gaze to the floor. Her shoulders hunched into her body, as if she were a scared little turtle and not an adult professor of Gender Studies. James waited several seconds, as if he still expected Margaret to answer. Then he said, "engagement rings."
"Great! Follow me," said the woman.
Margaret and James sat down in some armchairs in front of a long glass case of rings. Margaret felt suddenly unprepared. She had never tried on an engagement ring, did not know how much diamonds actually cost, and did not understand the rules about which types of gold looked good on which skin "undertones."
"So," said the woman, "do you have any idea what sort of ring you're looking for?"
Margaret scanned the endless collection of rings, arranged in lines like rowsof corn. "Not really."
The woman nodded. Margaret knew the woman could sense how uncomfortable she was. She feared the woman would interpret this to mean she did not love James.
The woman removed the glass lid off the case and picked up a ring. Another woman appeared behind the first, holding a tray of chocolate and nuts. "Would you like some snacks?" asked the woman. "How about something to drink?" Margaret felt as if she were in a hotel she couldn't afford, and again, the woman could tell. Margaret also wondered why they would offer chocolate to customers trying on rings. The rings must get smudged.
"No, thank you," said Margaret, as James reached for the almonds. Margaret put the ring on. She turned her face from side to side. She looked like a grandmother. She was not used to seeing any rings at all on her fingers.
The woman laughed. Margaret felt obligated to try on several more rings and to pretend to like some of them. Margaret learned that diamonds cost several thousands of dollars, even the ones that weren't that big. She communicated with her eyes to James that she wanted to leave, so they did, after the woman wrote down all the rings Margaret pretended to like, and James's phone number. Margaret knew they would not call James.
On the way home, they passed a row of houses with the Christmas lights still up. Margaret used to like Christmas, like most happy people. Now, when she saw Christmas decorations, she felt a moment of acute panic, like when she saw Andrew's mangled body on the hospital bed, blood and dirt covering his broken teeth. He was hideous. Margaret had the sense he was possessed by a demon. Now, when Margaret felt the cold in winter, she thought of the head-shaped dent Andrew had made in the frosted ground beneath his mother's balcony. Margaret had told Andrew's mother she would fill the dent in with dirt; the mother didn't want to see it. The mother closed the drapes on the sliding glass door to the balcony, and didn't open them again. Margaret had put her hands in the dent and felt the cold dirt every way she could. She even put her head in the dent, imagined how that would feel, falling from so high up.
"What's wrong?" James asked.
Margaret didn't answer right away. Sometimes she had trouble forming words. James understood this problem, and was always patient with Margaret, but she could tell that this time he needed her to answer. He knew she was upset, and he probably needed to know it wasn't his fault. He was probably worried she'd changed her mind and didn't want to marry him.
"I love you," she said, in an attempt to buy time, try to figure out what was wrong so that she could tell him. She rubbed his leg and smiled. He smiled back.
"I love you, too."
"I'm sorry," she said, "but I don't know what's wrong." She noticed that she needed to urinate, and dreaded going home, where she'd have to use the bathroom in the cold, haunted, abandoned apartment downstairs before going up to sit idly in front of the space heater like a cat.
James glanced at her sympathetically, like she was a child he was glad to take care of. He gave her this look often. Margaret had dated bad men in the past, then finally listened to her friends and pretended to value herself and find a respectful partner. Because James was not an asshole, or at least, not anymore, Margaret sometimes took this as license to stop trying and just act like a child. For this, she felt guilty.
"Margaret, if you don't want to get engaged right now, that's okay," he said. "There's no rush. The point is that we love each other. We can wait as long as you want."
She couldn't believe how nice he was to her. "No, no," she said. "I want to. I just have some things to think about. Maybe we can go to another store tomorrow."
He put his hand on hers and smiled. They drove the rest of the way in silence.
At home, James went upstairs while Margaret used the restroom in the abandoned apartment. He had offered to go with her because it was scary, but she told him she could handle it on her own. She insisted. James always wanted to be where she was. He looked a little sad to leave her, that she said she didn't need him.
It was now dark, and Margaret reluctantly turned on the main light/ceiling fan, which once again began to spin.In her mind she heard the sound of sharpening knives. She imagined sharpening icicles, diamonds. She thought for a moment about the problematic diamond industry, why someone in Africa should die just so some white American woman could have a pretty stone in her ring. She shrugged the thought off, and was surprised how little this idea bothered her. She thought of eating meat, how it secretly gave her a small, sick pleasure knowing an animal had died so she could have a meal. She thought of the slaughter, blood pouring out of a fresh throat. She wanted to hunt, like Andrew had taught her to do. She wanted to kill something. Killing was decisive, final. Andrew had joined the Marines not out of some dumb patriotism, but because he wanted to be a killer without going to prison. And he was a killer. He still sent her text messages regularly, saying nothing, saying, It's raining hard, saying, I killed a deer. I ate her heart. She took her time responding to the messages in order to feign disinterest, when in reality she read the messages over and over until she had them memorized and could repeat them to herself in her mind.
She kept the bathroom door open as she urinated. Again, she noticed she was bleeding. The first time she slept with James, he didn't wear a condom. She had asked him to. He tore open the condom wrapper, turned away from her, did something with his hands. She was very drunk and had assumed he put it on. She was too drunk to realize that he didn't, until the morning, when he told her he was sorry, and that he thought she knew he didn't put it on. And, because he said he didn't have any STD's, and because she was used to men being even worse than James, she forgave him at the time. She did not learn about the cervical cancer until months later.
Men were carriers but they did not suffer. They took something sinister from one woman, and passed it onto the next, maybe even without noticing or caring.
Margaret heard a deep breathing. She thought of Andrew, how he had wanted to stop breathing. While he was in the hospital, he held his breath, still trying to die. He didn't know this wouldn't work. The body knocks itself unconscious, then breathes normally. The body wants to live. Andrew was bad for her, and Margaret hated him. After Andrew moved back in with Margaret after four months in the fancy mental hospital, he never washed the dishes, the laundry, or his own body. He slept until 2 pm, restlessly. He crushed Margaret's body when he rolled over in the night. Margaret was now committed to hating Andrew the same way successful spouses were committed to loving each other: she worked on the hatred every day. It gave her a small, sick pleasure to know he still loved her.
The breathing in the apartment got louder and heavier, and seemed to radiate from the ceiling fan. The apartment was cold and Margaret could see her own silent breath. "You don't need to breathe anymore," Margaret said to the ghost. "You're dead." There was a soft laughter. Margaret rolled her eyes. She flushed the toilet and washed her hands. As she looked in the mirror, she again noticed she had become thinner. She felt something like two hands, one on each of her thighs, rubbing her. She smacked her thighs and the hands stopped. She shivered, watched her breath take shape in the mirror like an icicle melting into a cloud, a diamond spreading into a stain on the air. She left the bathroom, glancing at her ass as she left, just to see what it looked like. Again the hands rubbed her. She smacked them away. She thought of the time her father asked her if Andrew was good in bed. She told him never to ask that again, and finished cooking lunch for him. It was strange to think Margaret's father had never met James, and instead died thinking she would marry Andrew. And her mother died knowing nothing of her, not really.
Margaret entered the main room and saw that the annoying little strings that had dangled from the ceiling fan were gone. Instead there were several bones, like a rib cage had been taken apart and the bones hung up like sick ornaments. The ribs dripped blood onto the floor, making a sound like a leaking faucet and staining the floor red. "Good," Margaret said. "Something for the shit landlord to clean up." She spit on the blood stain, and rubbed it in with her foot. She remembered her father telling her not to spit. "Your mother wouldn't have liked that," he had said. She wished she could have heard her mother say it herself. It was not her father's fault that her mother died, but Margaret did not like that she learned how to be a woman from a man.
The laughter turned to growling, then to choking, gasping. Margaret wondered why it was so difficult for people to commit suicide. Her own body felt so fragile, like she could die at any moment in any number of ways—her veins cut open, her bones crushed by a heavy truck. Why was it so hard for Andrew to take his own life? He killed whole crowds of people just by throwing grenades, like baseballs. Easy. The ghost continued to choke, now in an obviously fake way, as if mocking something.
The door to the apartment opened. It was James. "The water's back on, sweetie," he said, standing in the doorway, not coming inside. He looked beautiful, not like a boyfriend but like a painting, like the nude on the wall. He looked sweet. He loved her, and she would love him in a committed way, working on it daily. She was done with killers. What was so bad about trying to heal?
Margaret went to James and kissed him. She pulled him inside the apartment and shut the door. She planned to have sex with him in the awful place, but quickly realized she could not. Instead, she said, "I'm bleeding again."
James took her hand and closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm so sorry." He hugged her and stroked her hair. She had trouble understanding how someone could change so much. He kissed her forehead, then said, "I think you should go to the doctor again."
Margaret looked at the ceiling fan, which still dripped blood, although it was obvious James could not see that. She wanted to slap him for not seeing. She wanted to slap him for not being a killer, for being some half-assed version of a bad person, not able to fully commit even to evil.
"Why should Igo to the doctor?" she asked. "It's your fault. You should have to go to the doctor, not me. But you don't have to worry about anything."
"I know," he said, lowering his gaze like a dog who's done something bad. "It's not fair—"
"Shut up," she said. She had to marry James. She couldn't go back to dating. She didn't want to risk giving any other men this disease; they could give it to other women. Women like her, who would probably be better off just focusing on their careers rather than trying to find husbands. Husbands had been proven for centuries not to make women happy.
"I don't want to talk about this anymore," she said. "Get outside."
Margaret waved her hand for James to leave. "I'll be right there." James went out the door.
She switched the light and the ceiling fan off. The darkness extinguished the dangling bones and dripping blood, silenced the breathing. She locked the door behind her, sealing off that part of the house. She imagined plaster filling in the small gaps below the door, so that not even an ant could get in. She would never go back there. In her new life, she would have neither the need nor the desire for a place like that.
James stood there in the dark, waiting for her to come closer to him.
She saw an ant crawling towards the door. She squashed it with her foot.