Imaginary Men by Margaret Pritchard Houston
Followed by Q&A
“Have you ever seen a landscape destroyed by greed?” Daniel asks. “It’s the ugliest of all sins. Wasted fields, tufts of grass among a sea of mud, insects crawling everywhere.” He is looking through a book of Earth from the Air, and is stuck on the page of Brazilian rainforest-turned-wasteland.
“I’ve asked you not to smoke in front of the baby.”
“Pride is much prettier. Taj Mahal, that’s pride.” He draws in another deep breath and lazily swirls it around in his mouth. “This flat here—pride and envy. Keepin’ up with the Joneses.”
“Thank you.” He said it was pretty.
Mornings with Daniel are always like this; I hold the baby on my lap and he goes off on something, which he usually ends up blaming “people like” me for. He leaves when the baby starts crying.
“Fill a place with lust, though, and it’s actually filled with something. It’s a decadence; even pride and envy can go minimalist if needed. Lust soaks you.”
I hadn’t wanted the baby. There’s a certain grudging affection for the thing now; he’s pretty, and fun to play with, and I love going shopping for him, but he still irritates me, and I absolutely hate how he never ever ever leaves me alone. Min and I take him out to the park and watch the boys. Min usually goes home with someone. I go back and wait for Peter, float aimlessly in my stockings and miniskirt through our unbearably fashionable flat, listening to the baby fuss in his crib, thinking that I have too much room and time to myself. I hate the soft little bulge in my stomach, the teething rings and sterilized pacifiers in my purse where condoms and cigarettes used to be. I’ve gone to bed with Peter only twice since we’ve been married, and both times have been boring and fussy. I want Daniel to come over and then I resent him when he does.
Daniel always seems a bit more alive. I adored that once, fed off of it, tried to suck that kind of living from his body and hope it would shoot through my veins and become part of mine. Now I hate it; it seems like a different life, only around to remind me of what I don’t have, what I’ll never have, the tantalizing possibilities that were always so vague as to be unpursuable and which had never come to fruition.
We have the days to ourselves; there’s another world that comes out when everyone has gone to work. It’s an odd collection: the unemployed, the night workers, the nannies, the stay-home mums, the pensioners. As though we’re all playing hooky, we sneak through the parks or stare out the windows watching the hours.
“I’ve got a job,” Daniel says, glancing at his watch as Min and I follow two steps behind him through the park. I because the baby slows me down, Min because she likes me more than Daniel. Her hair’s in pigtails and we’re both in short dresses. The minute I discovered I was pregnant I ran out and bought piles of mini-skirts and low-cut tops and shoes with long spiky heels, and then came home and threw them all in my closet with the tags still on.
“I’ll go with you,” I say.
He shrugs and takes me to a run-down set of rowhouses somewhere in a little forgotten set of streets, and knocks on the door. It’s so old he has to duck to get through the doorway, and the hall smells of damp. A wrinkled woman in a long dress sits in a chair just inside the door; she looks sad. She doesn’t say anything. Daniel greets her and the thought of his sleeping with her makes my skin crawl. I want to grab her and shake her and beg her to leave her dress on, not to expose the body that looks like it’s been dragged unwillingly through too many years. A small bit of me wants to tear my own clothes off, to say my flesh is not like that, look at how the skin is smooth and the breasts still heavy and ripe with milk for my baby, look at how my hair is not brittle and how I still bleed each month; only things that are alive can bleed.
But I don’t; I stay quietly in Daniel’s wake, and the woman still says nothing as a door at the other end of the hall opens, and an old man wanders in. He is walking, so he is not dead. A wave of panic hits me because that’s the only way I know he’s alive. Because I looked at him and figured it out. Daniel strolls up to him, and I understand, and the thought of being left here in this place with that desiccated old woman who’s watching Daniel, who’s paying Daniel, terrifies me. There is a back door; it leads to a small public square; I reach them just as it closes, and I say, “let me come too.”
They are both silent, and I follow them out to the square; Daniel gestures to a bench near a crumbling dried-up fountain and I sit down with the baby on my lap, and Daniel follows the old man to another bench inside a grove, inside a weeping willow that is sick, and the old man sits down with his back to all of us, to the night-bus drivers and the toothless old women and the frustrated young men waiting for their dole checks and me in my schoolgirl dress with my overflowing breasts, and he wraps his coat around Daniel kneeling in the dirt in front of him, and I’m across the square and nobody else notices, but I almost imagine I can hear the scraping sound of his zipper and the small wet sounds of Daniel’s mouth.
And then it is as though I am wrapped in darkness until we are on the train home, on rails elevated above the dingy streets, so that we pass by the upper-story windows of decrepit buildings filled with unwashed dishes and charity-shop clothing, and I am watching my own reflection in the window as Daniel talks.
“All this judgment—this middle-class judgment.”
I haven’t said a word.
He keeps talking, and I let his anger wash over me, let myself sink and arc into the flow of his words without hearing what he’s saying. I watch my reflection and it smiles a little.
Next time, it’s a businessman on his lunch break, and I sit in the hall outside the hotel room, singing idly to the baby as I listen to the rhythmic squeak of the bed and the low, monotonous moaning.
Daniel says nothing as he comes out, shoving his wallet into his jeans and pushing his hair back, but he gestures with his head for me to follow, and he strokes the baby’s cheek and kisses the top of its head in the lift.
The next day, it’s another hotel, hidden in the twisting streets of the oldest part of the city, all uneven brick and hand-hewn wood, and they’re not in the bed but up against the door. I reach out my foot and feel the door moving in its frame. Peter doesn’t exist. This noontime world is empty and anarchic and full of winding corridors where no one can see you. I slide one hand gently between my thighs, and squeeze them together, then lie next to my baby as he sleeps, as he fits perfectly between my chin and my hunched-up legs.
“Let’s go,” Daniel says, lighting a cigarette as we walk down the hall and through a boarded-up Chinese food shop to a back door that lets us outside.
I don’t ask him anything. I don’t want to know what he thinks. We walk hand in hand through the wooden stalls of the farmers’ market, and I stroke the smooth peaches and dig my fingers into the moist cheeses, and we talk about school and the baby is asleep in his carrier strapped to my chest.
We laugh at things that don’t really seem funny, because it’s such a relief to laugh, to have a secret again between us, a world that is ours that is in plain sight and yet perfectly hidden. I imagine him drawing me onto the bed with him and his men, or sliding his hand under my shirt in the lift. If he nipped at my breast, he’d get milk.
He calls me the next day, because he’s had a last-minute appointment made, and he wants me to come along. I am summoned and I go, tense to the breaking point because the baby has screamed all morning and he won’t stop, won’t let me have this thing I need, this venture into Daniel’s secret, this tumble through the looking glass.
This time it is someone’s home, and I sit in the kitchen with the baby’s mouth hungrily sucking at my sore nipple, and I listen to the shattering sounds of men in bed with each other, the reality obscured by my distance from it, half-fantasy half-commerce, and the relentless aching moans that move like a sigh over my skin—something in me breaks, shatters, tears into a million pieces like shards of glass in my body, and I am crying and racked with wanting, with wanting something I don’t understand, something I can’t have, something I can’t name.
I pull at the hem of my skirt—I want a man to do that—and hold the baby so close I’m half-afraid I’ll suffocate him. I claw half-heartedly at my own flesh, at the smooth curves and the dark places, and when Daniel comes strolling lazily out of the bedroom with his dampened chest only half-covered by a white linen shirt, I am disheveled and runny-nosed and the baby is asleep with his mouth open around my nipple but not sucking.
This is not my life. This is all a mistake.
“Let’s go,” he says.
And I still say nothing.
Margaret Pritchard Houston is an American expat living in London. Her play, “Alexander,” received critical acclaim at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, despite the flooding of the theatre, an actor getting mugged on opening night, and the cast twice locking themselves out of the rehearsal venue. She is active on the London performance poetry scene and has previously been published in The Brains Trust and Clean Sheets. Her work will also appear in upcoming editions of The Floorboard Review and Interrobang.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: This story developed out of a dream I had about six years ago. The characters, setting, and emotions sprang fully formed into my subconscious and hung around until I developed them into a usable form. I did have to cut the bit about the city-wide cable car system wired off of fire escapes, though—that was just weird.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: For the money. And the wild parties.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: I couldn’t come up with an answer for this, so I asked my mother. Here’s her reply: “You’re not an instrument—you’re a voice. Nobody plays you. You sing your own tune.” Since I always agree with everything my mother says, I’ll go with that.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: The beginning—when you have the exciting new idea, or the passion that makes you want to find out more and write about it—or the end, when the story or poem is finished and you’re satisfied with what you’ve done. It’s the middle that causes all the problems.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m nearly finished with a novel set in 19th-century France—it’s called “A Merry Requiem,” full of sex, laudanum, and revolutionary politics. And I’m about to start another novel—this one will be set during the Holocaust. My grandmother was living in Holland at that time and became involved in the underground movement rescuing Jews, so I’ve been hearing stories of that time period since I was very young.