When we were kids on the cusp of 10, I took it for granted that I would marry my cousin Lexi. Our parents—her father, my mother—were brother and sister. Lexi lived practically around the block, and our families spent most weekends together. But, because I was in love, I never quite lost my shyness with her. On our last night together, after we left our parents to their drinks and gossip, ran up to my room, and shut the door, Lexi gave me a look that cut my heart like a razor.
“I heard that cousins who get married are doomed to have monsters for children,” she said. I winced, feeling queasy. Doomed? What did I know about taboos? Then she asked for my crayons. “We need to draw pictures of monster children.”
The beast babies I drew were heavy-headed and thick-limbed, fanged and clawed— imitations of the creatures from Where the Wild Things Are. Lexi drew a pair of adults—a man with a mustache and a woman with a curvy figure and a pile of red hair. Both grownups had Xs for eyes, because, she said, “Monster babies are born old and have dead eyes.”
* * *
The first night we sleep together, Talia tells me that the theme connecting her tattoos is that she’s a gopher tortoise burrow: her body art depicts the creatures dependent on that habitat.
“So you’re not the tortoise—you’re its home?” I ask.
“Right,” she says. She’s over six feet tall and rail thin, long and naked on the bed. Her tats mottle her white flesh. “And also the home to three-hundred-sixty other species. They’re called ‘obligates.’ They need me.” She looks smug, or proud, or maybe committed.
“But a burrow is air—it’s space.”
“I’m solid space. I get a new tattoo each month. I’ve got over a hundred already. In another twenty years, I’ll have them all.”
I grip her ankle, right over the rattlesnake twined around it, while she rambles on about how tortoises and their burrows are protected in Florida. “Lots of other states, too.” Talia’s breasts are small, boyish. A line of tattooed ants spiral down from her nipple. Under her right breast a worm dangles from a baby bird’s beak. My own nipples are like tree stumps hidden in a thicket of chest hair.
* * *
Lexi and I worked on our monster-baby pictures. “We’re moving,” she announced without warning.
At first I thought she was starting a new game—maybe the room was a spaceship, and we were flying our monster brood to another planet. But then she clarified:
“We’re moving to Wisconsin. Dad is getting a better job. They’re going to tell your parents tonight.”
The floor disappeared beneath me, and I was falling. Beast babies, OK, but leaving? Neither of us spoke. Our parents’ merriment downstairs leaked under the door like a muffled laugh track. Had the telling happened yet?
* * *
Spying on Talia while she leads Book Babies for toddlers at the public library has become a regular thing for me since we’ve become a serious couple. I watch her through the glass-paneled wall that separates the activity room from the rest of the children’s section. While I sneak to a tiny chair at a miniature table in a hidden corner, I listen to her control babies, moms, and nannies with a song. At work, whatever the outside weather, she smothers herself in leggings and a long-sleeved turtleneck shirt: the library director says Talia’s tattoos might spook the children, though it’s probably their parents that concern her. Talia’s latest tattoo, the only one that isn’t a critter, is my name in minuscule gothic script across her heel: “Sinclair.”
Talia is singing about hugs and the arms that give them: Open them, shut them, open them, shut them, give a little clap. She has a masters in library science, but wants to be a singer. She’s posted some of her original work on the Internet. Her songs are kind of “goth-punk-folk.” I’m a DJ, and Talia’s music is not the type of thing I get requests for at bar mitzvahs and wedding receptions.
* * *
Lexi and I drew in silence. If I didn’t mention the news about her moving, if nobody did, maybe it would never happen. But then I had an idea:
“Maybe we could have a secret life. After you leave. We’d grow up and have our own real lives with our own families, but maybe, just between us, we could make up another one. We’d have a made-up house and made-up kids and made-up jobs. We could take turns adding details: vacations, holidays, pets. We could invent kids and give them names like Doug and Sarah. A whole secret story of our own.” My voice cracked as I grew more and more excited about my plan. I didn’t lift my eyes from my beasts. I was finishing their horns and blushing so hard my cheeks felt like bags of hot soup. “We could do it forever,” I mumbled. “Even if we can’t see each other much.”
“Pretend we had a fake life?” I looked up to see Lexi wrinkling her nose, like she smelled something rotten. “Forever? While we had our own families?” She shook her head. “That’s dumb.”
I bit my lip. Tears welled. Then Lexi told me to take my shirt off.
* * *
I take Talia to a club downtown where I sometimes work. It’s open mike night, and she wants to try out a couple of her goth-punk folksongs. But the recorder full of her backup music doesn’t work, and when she tries to sing without accompaniment, she gets through only a couple of verses before some kind of fight breaks out on the street. There’s shouting and breaking glass and sirens. Nobody’s listening to Talia, and eventually she just gives up.
“Not my night,” she says with a wry smile and moist eyes as she rejoins me at our table.
When the streets clear, we head back to her place, where Talia curls up on her sofa. We drink wine from mugs until she drags herself to bed. I stay up with my laptop and surf the Web. I drift around, searching out the names of ghosts from my past. I Google Lexi for maybe the thousandth time; the search-engine cupboard has always been bare, except for a mention of her Wisconsin high school volleyball team and a church club field trip to Beloit. But tonight Lexi materializes on Facebook, and the sight of her name sets my head spinning.
Lexi either lacks the skill or hasn’t had the time to do much with her profile. Her cover picture is of a starving polar bear on an ice floe. Personal photos or other information isn’t available unless I “friend” her. Her only post, “liked” by her handful of friends, displays a ring and an announcement of the time and place of her wedding. “Finally!” she’s written, followed by a smiley face. The wedding is in a month at a venue less than an hour away. How long has she been back in the area?
I slide the trembling cursor onto the “Friend” invitation, but I don’t click. I wonder if my cousin has searched for me. I’m not hard to find.
“Sinclair—” It’s Talia from the bedroom, half-awake, half-drunk. She calls me in, and I shut down my laptop. Talia wants to sing to me, and I listen to her croak her lyrics through her tears.
* * *
When our parents opened my bedroom door, they found me stretched out on my back on my carpet, my arms lifted in the air as if I was being robbed. Lexi lay on her belly. Her chin dug into my ribs as she kissed my nipple. I stared at the line of scalp where her hair was parted. My mother shouted my name, and I banged my head on the floor so hard I saw stars.
* * *
While I soothe Talia, I’m aching to get back to Lexi’s profile. But Talia falls asleep spooned against me, my arm stuck under her, my fingers numbing. The sheet she’s wrapped in hides her tattoos: she could be anybody. Drifting off, I lose all feeling in my arm, and I imagine I’m fading away, limb by limb. What if Lexi has forgotten me? What if we become a little less real each time we fall from someone’s memory?
I wake before Talia, who’s rolled off my arm and slipped out from under her sheet. Her spotted skin looks like blue cheese. The room stinks of hangover and disappointment.
But Lexi’s profile is waiting, and I creep out of bed, eager to get to my laptop. There’s a problem when I log in—everything is gibberish, impossible to follow. Somehow, I must have triggered an automatic translator, and I’m looking at Croatian or phonetic Chinese—nothing makes sense. I restart the computer and step into the kitchen to make coffee. On my way to get milk, I glance at the refrigerator message board, thinking to write something to cheer up Talia: maybe a line from one of her songs to show I’m a good listener. What had she sung to me in bed last night? I’m hungry, a baby beast suckling up a feast./ Forgive my fancy fangs—I’m wearing them for you. Perfect for a refrigerator note board.
But as I start the message, I freeze. I waggle the marker, not sure what to do with it. Baby beast, I think, waiting for reflex to kick in. Baby beast, I mutter under my breath, but I haven’t any idea how to begin. I know that words are made of letters, but which letters do I need? I shake my head. How much wine had I drunk last night?
I hurry back to my computer. Every picture has a jumbled caption. Icons have inscrutable labels. I click and scroll, click and scroll, and soon I’m lost. On the table in front of me is a paperback with Jonathan Franzen’s picture on the back cover. “I’m having a hard time getting into this,” Talia had complained last night. I flip the book over. What’s the title? What is the title?
I can’t read—I’ve lost the ability. I’m soaked in panic-sweat by the time Talia appears in the bedroom doorway, wearing one of my T-shirts and nothing else. I’ve flipped through a hundred pages of books and magazines, clicked my way to a frozen laptop screen, and I’ve understood nothing. The Cheerios box is labeled with hieroglyphics.
Talia yawns and rubs mascara-ringed eyes. The tattoos on her arms and legs stand out like bruises.
“I’m a flop,” she says.
“You’re not,” I say. I clear my throat. “You just had bad luck. You’re a star.”
My words lack conviction, and Talia notices. Should I tell her what’s happened to me overnight? But as sick with worry and confusion as I am over my condition, my thoughts keep turning to Lexi. And a secret life. Though I haven’t been able to return to Facebook, I slap my laptop shut as if I’ve got something to hide. Talia frowns.
“What are you doing? Looking at porn? Already? On a Sunday morning? Let me see—”
I lean over my laptop protectively. “Talia,” I start. I don’t tell her I can’t read. The wrong confession spills out: “I’m cheating on you,” I say. “It’s been going on forever.”
* * *
Lexi sliced a last glance my way as her parents yanked her out my bedroom door. My mother’s grip tightened on my arm like a blood pressure cuff. Everything ended between our families that night. We never spoke about Lexi or her parents—it was easier to pretend the family never existed. On what basis had the adults parceled out the blame? What conversations had I not been privy to? For years, whenever there was a long silence at dinner, I’d feel my parents’ eyes melting over me and I’d duck my head, waiting for questions I should have known they’d never ask. If there had been more than the crime of two kids that caused the breach, no one was talking.
My father died from cancer when I was in college. I stood by my mother near his casket at the funeral home. I shook hands and accepted condolences, but my focus shifted between Dad’s rouged face and the parlor door. Finally, my mother leaned to me and whispered, “They won’t come. She won’t be here.”
* * *
The doctors refer to my condition as “acquired alexia.” They say if I’m lucky other parts of the brain will compensate for what I’ve lost. How? What do I look for? I picture myself with thought bubbles over my head, like in comic strips, but the bubbles are full of nothing that makes sense. Shouldn’t my illiteracy at least hurt?
For someone who can’t read, a library is a house of horrors, but I need to talk to Talia, and she can’t ignore me here without causing a scene. I loiter in the area outside the children’s section. I hear Talia singing inside. She’s leading “Old MacDonald.” A late-arriving mom guides her toddler toward my ex’s voice, but the little boy veers off to the fish tank near the entrance. The child squashes his face against the glass and slaps it with both hands. Blue and white fish scatter, settle, and resume cruising.
“Gentle,” his mother cautions. Her son jerks his hands back as if the tank is electrified, but his eyes stay riveted to the fish.
“Arf-arf,” he squeaks.
“‘Arf-arf,’ is doggies, Elton. Fish are ‘bubble-bubble.’”
Elton’s mother takes his hand and pivots him from the tank. He blinks, still seeing fish. His mom catches me looking, and I glance away. She scoops up her son and hurries toward “moo-moo here and moo-moo there.” The boy makes bug-eyes at me over her shoulder, and I swear I can see fish swimming around in his head. I wonder if he “arf-arfed” not because he was unsuccessfully mimicking a fish, but because he was pretending to be a dog. Maybe he thinks he is a dog.
Talia and her crowd oink for old MacDonald’s pigs as I make my way to the tiny furniture in my corner. The mothers and nannies on Talia’s carpet hold their babies on their laps and gaze up at the singing librarian, their faces like flowers following the sun. I squint, imagining how the clothes Talia is wrapped in would wriggle if her tattoos came to life. Hadn’t her creatures crawled from her flesh to mine when we held hands or made love? The little table and chair make me feel gigantic. I spread out some picture books of trucks and trains and pretend to read them. On the wall behind me is a poster of Sendak’s “Wild Things.” The fur-covered beasts are looking at books. I feel the breath of the monsters on my neck while I prepare to win Talia back. I need her. My mother’s been driving me everywhere lately, but I couldn’t possibly tell Mom I need to get to Lexi’s wedding.
* * *
“You can’t read?” Talia whispers. She sits across from me on a little chair, her legs folded like a grasshopper’s. She wears a fake smile as she glances around to make sure we’re not overheard. A scorpion creeps out of her collar onto her throat. Centipedes leak from her cuffs and race over her fingers. “And you made up that cheating stuff? That was all invention? Because you ‘panicked’? Why should I believe you?”
“I did panic,” I hiss. Out of the corner of my eye I see Elton waddling out of the children’s section, heading for the fish tank, his mom in pursuit. “I wanted to protect you. Finding out you can’t read is traumatic. I couldn’t think straight. I thought you’d be better off without me. I swear, I never cheated.”
It’s easy to convince someone who wants to believe you. Talia purses her lips and searches my eyes, then asks if maybe my condition is psychosomatic.
“The MRIs showed there are lesions in my brain,” I answer. She wants to know the names of my doctors, and I tell her. What I don’t tell her is that when the doctors mentioned lesions in “places of interest,” I had an epiphany: the lesions are the scar tissue of the secret life I once hoped to live with Lexi. That life is growing on its own. No doubt monster children I don’t even know clog my brain; they’ve already gobbled up my ability to read. Who knows what I might lose next.
“Old rhythms,” I say. “The doctors told me I need to get back to old rhythms.”
“I’m an old rhythm?”
“They meant routines, like work: I can’t DJ with my condition, but I should seek out familiar environments, like bar mitzvahs—and weddings— where I had to understand print.” The time and place of Lexi’s wedding are fixed in my brain—the last things I’d been able to read.
“I got a call from a venue,” I lie. “They needed a substitute DJ. I told them I couldn’t do it, but maybe I should go anyway, just to watch the ceremony. The event manager told me the date. It would be healthy, right? But I can’t drive. You want to be my date?”
* * *
Talia and I find aisle seats in a middle row of the wedding hall’s chapel. I’m not worried about being recognized—it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve seen Lexi or her folks, and I’m wearing a full beard. Besides, Talia has commanded the attention of all the guests. In her spiked heels, she towers over all of us. Her blonde hair is woven into a crown, and she’s squeezed into a sleeveless black dress that stops at mid-thigh. Her tattooed arms and legs gleam like Chinese porcelain. The looks she draws rattle off her like hail.
But it’s rain, not hail, that drums on the roof and runs in sheets down the chapel’s long windows, blurring what would have been a lovely view of undulating pastures and distant hills. I slap my palm nervously with a rolled program, and for a moment I lose track of why I’m in this particular place at this specific moment.
“It’s too bad about the weather,” Talia whispers. She smells like honeysuckle. “It’s good luck, though, isn’t it?”
I raise an eyebrow—I don’t know much about luck. There’ll be no live music at this ceremony—I’ve spotted the DJ, no one I know, in a back corner. To cover the drone of the rain, he turns up the volume of the harp recording so high that the notes sound like jangling nerves. There’s movement at the front of the chapel—an officiant in a black robe emerges, followed by two men in tuxedos, obviously the groom and best man. I can’t make out their faces.
The DJ punches in the processional staple, “Pachelbel’s Canon.” Heads swivel in unison to the back doors. Talia’s arm glides over mine like an eel.
“Your hand is sweaty,” she murmurs.
A solid young woman in a lavender gown bursts like a bowling ball through the double doors and rolls up the aisle. Wearing a wreath and a gaping smile, she creates a breeze as she hurries past our row. In her wake a tiny girl appears. She’s dressed in pink from head to toe and spikes fistfuls of crushed rose petals on the red carpet with each step. By the time she reaches our row, I’m short of breath—the flower girl is a miniature version of the cousin I’ve come to witness. She’s got the brown hair and sly look I remember—though when she stops at my row I see that one of her eyes is covered by a patch with a daisy drawn on it. The child blinks her good eye at me, and I think, Lexi?
As if answering my thought, the child sets down her flower basket and spins to the open chapel doors, where two figures wait: a bride in white and her dark-suited escort, an old man braced on metal crutches. I strain to deconstruct the bride—is that really my cousin?
There’s a brilliant flash, an explosion of thunder, and a collective gasp. The overhead lights spasm and fail. Light fades; sound, too, except for the pummeling rain. The child sobs, and there’s a bleat from the chapel doors. Where are the professionals? The event manager needs to find an emergency generator. And the DJ, instead of fluttering over his dead equipment, should be making a joke.
A stab of pain—as Talia pushes past, she accidentally drives her heel into my foot. She kneels in the aisle before the flower girl and whispers something I can’t hear. The little girl rests her head on my date’s dappled shoulder. Talia hoists the child, steps back into our row, and sidles back to her seat. The flower girl’s chiffon dress brushes my jaw.
All the guests are standing, listening to the rain as if it exposes their private histories. Then Talia begins to sing: she picks up the processional, the “Pachelbel,” and her voice fills the chapel. My nape hair tingles. She closes her eyes; her mouth is a dark oval. The flower girl tucks her head under Talia’s chin. I notice a pink hearing aid wedged into the child’s ear.
I watch Talia’s lips as she sings. The sound engulfs me like a warm ocean current. But just as I begin to believe that receiving Talia’s voice may be the sole reason I stand in this chapel, I feel a shift. Talia’s “Pachelbel” has released the bride—she’s advancing.
Is this bride who floats to my row and pauses really Lexi? Is her crippled escort my uncle? She’s drenched in white: her dress and its puddling train; the gloves that reach above her elbows; the veil covering her face. She turns to me, and I look down, busying myself with the program I can’t read.
Talia sings. I peek at the bride. Her veil is a blank page. My own face feels compressed, and my vision is fuzzy, as if I’ve pulled a stocking over my head to disguise myself. Then I realize that this bride isn’t looking at me. She’s looking through me. Relieved, I lean back, out of the way.
“Sarah,” the bride calls to the child in Talia’s arms. The little girl squirms, then offers a flower petal wink.
Talia has never stopped singing, and now opens her eyes slowly as if she’s waking from a dream. As she jostles the flower girl, a single note wavers. Then she faces the bride and nods to reassure her—the little girl is fine. Talia nods again, directing the bride to the front of the chapel where her groom awaits.
I look back and forth between the women. The flower girl nibbles on Talia’s shoulder. The bride hesitates, then sets her empty face forward and glides off, her escort a clumping shadow.
As Talia watches the ghost-bride fade away, she offers each note of “Pachelbel” as if it’s a bite of the last apple from an enchanted tree. She rocks the child, looks at me, and lowers her lids. The processional swells; finally, I hear—I feel—what Talia has been singing in her heart from the beginning: I’m hungry, a baby beast suckling up a feast./Forgive my fancy fangs. I’m wearing them for you.
She is solid space. I accept my place among her obligates. Will she carry me to the reception? Will we dare to perform?