He was married. Mark Byron. He would never take off his wedding ring, even when he cut his hand helping her open a can of sardines and blood was gushing all over his palm, his love lines, head lines, will, sorrow and spirit, he would not. “I am afraid I am going to lose it, my love.”
“You won’t lose it, it will be here, I’ll give it back to you,” she kept saying, skillfully working the needle.
“Yes but in the meantime, I would have to lie to my wife, and I don’t like doing that, I live an honest life.”
When she saw him out, his wound stitched up and bandaged like a boy who fell off his bicycle, she paced from one closet to another, opening doors like visiting old friends, thinking and rethinking her collection, switching hangers from velvet to plastic to iron and back, arranging by color, rearranging by season. Did they ever love her back? The Albert Nippon jacket? The Givenchy dress? Did they caress her like a lover? Could she count on them to bring her a glass of water on her death bed?
She was already banned from Bloomingdale’s, Barneys, Bendel, Bergdorf. It was always the same scene, three managers summoned over a walkie talkie wearing gray suits, “She has a return, what do we do? There is a red flag by her name, ma’am, please step to the side, we have a lock on the system.” They would inspect all the tags, look for counterfeit labels, deodorant stains, sniff for the perfume like trained sniffing dogs. None of it was ever worn, and with grave disappointment, they would inform her they had services for people like her, that an 80% return rate was crippling the economy, that a personal shopper could be appointed to her if she was clueless about shopping, or confused about sizes. She would stand there, silently, solemnly, with her head down, palms pressed to the sides, letting them shame her. She was a good little criminal.
She could have lived with the bare minimum – slacks, jeans, no one noticed what she wore in the dark room, underneath a doctor’s coat. “Please cover your left eye, look ahead and read me the letters at the bottom, shh…don’t help your sister.” There were two of them, Nanette and Odette, ten years old, wearing identical dresses. The way they were hanging on to each other they looked more Siamese than identical, they wanted identical glasses too, but only one of them needed it. Their father was outside making a phone call, and when he walked into the examination room, he said, “I am Mark Byron,” like he was in a 19th-century drawing room about to present his calling card. She said hello, diminishing into a smaller body, like a turtle going into its shell. She felt he expected a better reception, maybe a curtsey.
“Hello,” she repeated, about to put the solution into a girl’s eye when he grabbed her hand and gently steered it towards the other girl, Nanette.
“We call her Nana for short,” he smiled.
“Oh, like the book?” she said, barely audible.
“Just like the book,” he winked.
Watching them walk away down the long corridor of the clinic she thought the girls, who now demanded Juicy Couture frames in teal and raspberry, were cute, with a subtle hint of the twins from “The Shining,” and the father, well…he turned around to look at her, twice.
Iris became an optometrist because she wanted to see things clearly. But after eight years of schooling and two years of residency, her vision was more blurred than when she was a little girl who knew things instinctively – this boy was bad, that girl had prettier dolls, that dress was ugly, this day was long. She has been working at the Langston Eye Care Clinic on 79th and Park for the past seven years. Her boss, Dr. Leonard Langston came from a long line of doctors who made house calls on Park Avenue. He took over the clinic from his father some forty years ago. Hailed as “The Eye Doctor to the Rich,” he preferred to live far away from them, on a secluded estate in Westchester. She had a dream about Dr. Langston once – she was sitting on his lap, he reached inside her doctor’s coat, fondled her breast and said he was too old for her.
Returning from a dinner party on the Upper West Side one night, she saw people camped outside in lounge chairs and sleeping bags. They looked like Vietnam veterans in some kind of a midnight protest, or hippies waiting for The Grateful Dead tickets.
“What’s going on here, guys?”
“It’s a Goodwill store, sister, tomorrow at 8 am they have a window sale. See that bag?” She looked up at the illuminated storefront and saw a Céline bag, propped up on a podium, like the Hope Diamond.
“That Céline bag costs $4000 bucks and they are selling it for $400,” explained the man who looked like Jerry Garcia. She was amused that someone who didn’t know how to pronounce the name of the bag was willing to sleep outside for ten hours to buy it.
“Hope your lady really enjoys it!” she laughed.
“Hell no, my old lady doesn’t need it, I am going to Ebay it. Damn fly off at $2000.” Someone yelled “$2500.” She left them arguing in the middle of the street at midnight, businessmen of America.
But next morning she showed up at 8.15am, on a Saturday. There was a line of fifty people. The Céline bag was already gone together with the Grateful Dead group. The remaining secondhand items in the window were disappearing fast. She stood dutifully until her turn came and there was only a pair of Ferragamo shoes left, two sizes too small, and a fake Louis Vuitton wallet.
She had rediscovered thrift stores. She used to love them when she was in college and strapped for cash. She even took a boy she was seeing, David, to one of her favorite haunts in Williamsburg. The son of well-to-do parents from Connecticut, he wasn’t taken aback, he picked out the most ridiculous beige checkered jacket and wandered around the store from the mirror to mirror modeling it, and she thought – that’s what love is, not being ashamed of poverty. Later that spring he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
There were out of the way cellars with bed bugs and moss-eaten clothes. There were posh consignment boutiques with Dior in plastic, Yves Saint Laurent behind the glass. She wondered if these were the remains of old ladies who lunched and died, or the young suddenly terminal women who walked in Louboutins down the marble floors in Milan? When her grandmother died, grief-stricken, she went into her grandmother’s closet, put on her oversized dress and cardigan and wore her lacquered shoes and walked out with her immigrant suitcase from thirty years ago to make her mother laugh and she did, for the first time in weeks. But she said, “Not the shoes; you can’t walk in the shoes of the dead.” Her grandmother’s shoes would never be on these racks, not among Jimmy Choos and Giuseppe Zanottis. Maybe she was overdramatizing, no one really died here. This was Upper West Side. Socialites would rather die than be caught in the same outfit twice.
Mark was married to a socialite, an heiress, Cassandra or Clarissa. She was listed in the New York social diary, grew up on Park Avenue, went to Vassar and majored in something vague, her family endowed grants, ships and libraries were named after them. Wife of poet Mark Byron. Mother to twin girls, Nanette and Odette. She googled their address – one of the city’s premier white-glove buildings. She was a handsome woman; some men would even find her attractive, the ones who had an affinity for horses, wardrobe cabinets with sturdy doors, and tree stumps left after a forest fire.
Every other Saturday in line at the Goodwill Window Sale, Iris saw the same faces – the eBay entrepreneurs, the broke fashionistas, a young man in a beaver and too much eye shadow, the poor who came from the other side of Park Avenue, all the way in the Bronx. She even made a new friend. She wasn’t sure if Ana was a nurse to a wealthy gentleman or a governess to children whose parents were always away. She spoke with a thick Colombian accent and had an over-the-top vitality of an ambitious immigrant. Once Iris confessed to Ana, she was afraid some of these clothes might belong to the dead, how she avoided the Memorial Sloan Kettering Thrift Shop down the street, and the Arthritis Second Chance next block on 83rd. But Ana screamed, waving her hands in the air, “Dead? Who cares! One woman’s death is another woman’s Prada!”
Iris preferred large warehouses, the musky smell of other people’s collective skin. She would start out slowly, indulge in the fabric’s past, imagine life stories, losing herself in the physicality of looking, touching, then speed up, shuffling hangers, making bold strategic decisions with the confidence she often lacked in real life. She could spend hours there; the only downside was not having a bathroom, she had to run across the street hoping her cart would still be there when she returned. She was mortified that someone she knew might see her, rummaging through secondhand, picking out things in the “one pound for one dollar section,” the shame, but then again that person too would be shopping in the same embarrassing establishment. One time she saw a man snatch up a beautiful hand-carved highchair. “Your baby will be so happy sitting in this chair,” she said, but he responded, “Oh no, it’s for my plant. It will be a plant stand.”
He was the Chanel of all men – timeless, with a caviar finish and gold that would never rust, designed by a French woman at the turn of the century. Mark Byron…Byron? When did he change his name? She pondered. After all, he was a child of Eastern European immigrants, the Baranovskys, who lived in Queens and shopped at Key Food. His parents’ frequent ailments made it possible for him to see her often without arousing his wife’s suspicion. Did he choose this name when he decided to become a professional poet? When does one decide to become a professional poet? She kept asking herself. When he meets and marries an heiress! She concluded. An equation so easy to solve – the answer had simply escaped her.
She went to his poetry reading once at the Players Club in Gramercy Park. His poems were lackadaisical and addictive. I am as lonesome as an aquamarine, in the shell of your tears, your arms push me out to sea, he read on stage in fluorescent light, no one would ever accuse him of not being handsome. She sat in the back, even though she wore a perfectly nice Marc Jacobs dress, she reeked of working class. She could never manage the coined look of the rich; it was more than just clothes, it was the air of carrying the cross of unlimited money, the casualness of extreme thinness, the ease of exclusivity. Mark joked that he was the Jerzy Kosinski of Park Avenue, a Polish writer who came to study at Columbia and married an heiress to a steel fortune, Mary Weir, they lived at 740 Park Avenue.
One day Mark asked her how much she was making, simply and earnestly, like inquiring if she wanted more Foie gras before her main course. He questioned her about the status of her optometry school loans, the prospects in the clinic, how soon Dr. Langston was planning on retiring. A minute longer and he would have demanded her W-2. After that conversation, he disappeared for months.
Sometimes after hours of searching, there was still nothing to buy. She comforted herself with the thought that not buying anything was also a form of shopping. Or she would buy a trinket. In a bin of cold creams and hair clips with broken teeth, she would find a headband, a rusted ring with the face of a lion, a keepsake box in the shape of a seashell or a calamari, engraved “Happy birthday Iris, you will be loved eternally by a girl named Bri Bri.” All that love in a rhinestone box, a child’s promise. Was it someone she knew? The one gift she lost? It could have been short for Britney, Bridget, Brenda. Maybe the girls had a fight. If this other Iris really hated her friend Bri Bri she would have broken the shiny thing, thrown it out the window, stepped on it with her heel, but instead she put it in a donation bag. She imagined girls around the world, from preschools to universities, sending each other keepsakes, promising to love eternally.
Every winter she searched for a coat, in every thrift store, every consignment. She only saw it once. Five years ago she bumped into Frances at the Metropolitan Opera. They had not seen each other since college. They were lab partners, Frances wore large goggles and expertly poured solutions from one beaker to another while Iris, the less intelligent of the two, wrote down all the data. Frances went on to NYU Medical School and became a cardiologist. It was late at night and snowflakes the size of lollipops were hitting the pavement, but Frances wanted to grab a cup of coffee and catch up. Iris would have lied that someone was waiting for her at home and bailed if it wasn’t for the coat. Frances was decked out in the most magnificent form-fitting long shearling with a round fur hood.
She couldn’t help but ask, “Where did you get this magnificent coat?”
But Frances was dismissive, “Oh I don’t know. I can’t remember, somewhere downtown, maybe.”
A year later Frances was dead, and Iris was too scared to go to the funeral.
What happened to the coat? The question gnawed at her with the onset of every winter. Did Frances’ family arrive from Seattle, sweep up her condo, pack up all the valuables, donate the rest? She imagined men from Goodwill coming in to pick up her belongings, carry them out in a black bag, the magnificent coat crammed together with shirts, strangled with a pair of pantyhose. She would examine every coat on the rack, some so old the fur was crumbling under her touch like sand, coats that traveled from Communist countries, from better epochs, coats from Banana Republic filled with feathers like pillows. Frances’ coat was not here. She remembered a beautiful poem Mark wrote called “The Quiet Coat,” about the coat of a dead relative that just hung in the hallway underneath other coats and no one noticed. She decided to befriend Frances’ sister Sophia. She reasoned there was nothing wrong with that, but Sophia never responded and somewhere deep in her heart Iris was afraid she had been found out.
No one would ever find out about her. Mark was a very thorough lover, meticulous, organized, the accountant of affair-keeping and love-making, nothing passed him, every inch was covered with due diligence, every curve massaged, caressed and prepared to pass any IRS examination. On her birthday, he sent her a bouquet of long-stemmed roses from a Queens florist with a card that said, “To my coy mistress, had we but world enough, and time.” She put the roses in a vase by her bed and threw away the box. Next morning taking out the garbage in the dispensary room she saw the box turned upside down, taped to the bottom was a receipt with the word CASH written across it.
Valentine’s Day always belonged to his wife. He would vanish so completely Iris wondered if he was a figment of her imagination. She filled her basket with gowns, getting ready for future balls in Waldorfs and Plazas. She hoped that if she had the right dress, the right invitation would follow. In one of her favorite Goodwill’s she stumbled on a gorgeous red Valentino – a strapless satin ball gown with a beaded bodice and a long drape, she saw a tear on the hip, but it was nothing a good tailor couldn’t fix. She stood outside the fitting room as two exasperated Latino girls tried to zip her up, speaking Spanish and laughing hysterically. A delivery guy with a thin mustache and a bouquet of lilies walked into the store and headed for the pregnant cashier girl. “You look gorgeous in red, mommy,” he winked as he passed her.
She didn’t buy it, they couldn’t zip her up, she left, empty hands, empty heart, like an Edith Piaf song.
Two days later she decided if the dress was still there she would buy it, with no occasion to wear it and a zipper that wouldn’t close. If it was gone, she would be okay with it, but as she turned the corner, there it was – the Big Red. She ran into the dressing room. The new salesgirl told her that ConEd had shut off electricity; she slipped it on in a freezing dark room, and there was so much pleading in her eyes that the petite salesgirl gathered all her strength and pulled the zipper up, and it went all the way. She was wearing the dress; it was hers; she was in it; she was red. Waiting to pay, Iris watched a lopsided African woman show off a bracelet she just bought for $3.99. “It real!” she boasted, “they say old woman bring this morning, say she doesn’t want no more…my friend bought earring here, 5 dollars, take to jewler, $800!” A tall blond woman in line kept saying, “Let me see the bracelet, put it on my hand, I’ll give you twenty bucks for it.” But the other refused, “No! Imagine if it real.” A voice chimed in from behind, “It doesn’t matter if it’s real or not. It’s new. We all want new, no matter how much we already have; something new always makes me feel new instead of the boring old me.” Iris turned around but couldn’t see who said that.
One night just before closing, the bell rang. Mark’s wife stood in the middle of the optics store, like a ghost. For a second, Iris was convinced the woman had a gun.
“I am looking for Dr. Langston,” she said.
“He is not here, he works only Wednesdays and Saturdays” Iris answered, piously.
“Can’t you help me? I am Cresandra Byron.”
Cresandra like Sandra was writing a letter and hid it in the mahogany credenza, or was Sandra staring at the crescent moon? Cresandra Byron had prettier dolls. She thought about her closet; it probably had a remote control and hangers sliding down the conveyor belt, like in the dry cleaners. Even if her entire wardrobe was at the Goodwill in a 99¢ bin, she would not buy it, would not even look at it.
“The twins, my girls need new glasses. We were in Newport this weekend and had to rush home, and the nannies left the glasses by the pool,” the woman complained.
Iris already knew that. Not about the glasses, but about the wife and kids coming home early. They had gone away to Newport; Mark said the wife was especially looking forward to a soiree at the Rothschild’s, but he begged her permission to stay at home and write, “the muse visits me less and less these days.” He recited Neruda, “no one else will sleep in my dreams, no one else will travel through the shadows with me, only you.” An hour after they left – the wife, kids, chauffeur, two nannies and a cook, he sneaked her into the penthouse through the staff elevators. He was unusually excited and wanted to try out every corner, the kitchen table, the little bench in the master bedroom, even the hamstring machine in the home gym. He walked around with a bombastic erection, past sculptures of naked men purchased at Sotheby’s. They heard the doorman pounding, “Mr. Byron, Sir, are you okay? Your wife has been trying to reach you since yesterday.” After checking his phone which was on silent all this time, he saw 60 missed calls and 20 messages. He was done for the day.
“No matter how much help you have, you just can’t trust anyone,” the wife whined. “Now the girls are as blind as bats.”
She wanted to remind the doting mother that only one of the Shining twins needed glasses but all she said was, “Nanette and Odette, such lovely names! Did you pick them out?”
“No, my husband did, he is a poet. He said they were important characters in French literature. I just love all things French,” the wife smiled for the first time.
When she was gone, Iris ran into the nearest store like a lunatic, like a woman in love and about to smother her lover, like a woman starved and skinned and about to scream. Skimming through hangers, looking for a spark of color, chasing the high of glamour, the elusiveness of fabric, she returned to her senses, as if a drug long withheld was pumped back into her bloodstream. What did she buy? A Japanese kimono, a shirt, two belts, one with a black satin bow for the good little girl in her, the other – with chains and spikes for the dominatrix. She left the store feeling incredibly fulfilled and when she came home and tried everything on in front of the big mirror, and as she soaked the clothes in the basin she still felt satiated, but when they were all in her closet, she was empty again. At night she clenched the sparkling calamari in her fist like a rosary, you will be loved eternally by a girl named Bri Bri.
She was running out of hangers, and space. She could buy more hangers but space was valuable, space meant room for possibilities. She didn’t want to become like her Aunt Rita whose children grew up, parents died, husband left, she spent her days scouting the flea markets. She called on Aunt Rita when she was in Baltimore for a convention, “Surprise! I am in town for a day. Can I come in?”
Her aunt’s face contorted through a crack in the door, “I don’t think so. It’s not a good idea; go away.”
When she finally pushed her way in, the door could only open a quarter of the way, and she had to maneuver in sideways. What was once her aunt and uncle’s spacious living room was now a gigantic pyramid of stuff – microwaves, TVs, writing desks in the Rococo style of Louis XV, foggy chandeliers. The staircase and what she could make out of the second floor were stacked with books, clothes, clocks. The old woman stood small, haggard and silent, her head down, hands pressed to the sides.
Iris came back to New York and set up a strict policy: one item in – one item out. As new pieces went on the hangers, old pieces were thrown into donation bags. She mused about what she would do if she came across one of her own pieces on the rack at Goodwill? Would she buy that Bebe jacket she had cast off a month ago just because in a cosmic circle of secondhand processing, it had returned to her?
“You know, Jerzy Kosinski killed himself,” she blurted out one evening. This was her daring attempt to tell Mark he must leave his wife and marry her. The closest thing she ever came to an ultimatum.
“I am not half the writer he was,” he sighed. He was right, they both felt defeated.
One day she woke up and realized she had nothing. She could rearrange all her closets and throw things out and buy new just to keep this whirlwind of activity going, but who was she kidding – she was standing still and only the hangers, like rocking horses were rotating about her to looped circus music. She promised herself not to shop anymore, at least until summer, she called it the shopping diet. But they came after her, like a drug dealer who lived in your building and smiled in the elevator and called you by your name and asked about your cat and the plumbing until you broke down and begged for a fix. They arrived in the mail – glossy postcards announcing spring fashion parties, ornate catalogs that opened like pop-up books. Her favorite store sent an email about a St. Patrick’s Day sale, 35% off everything green. In the morning she decided not to go, she was strong; she would not go; she was a winner; she could hear the birds chirping. After lunch, she began to waver. She barely had anything green in her closet.
“What are you doing on Friday?” Dr. Langston’s voice came over the intercom.
“I have patients back to back, why?” she answered, cleaning the lens in the phoropter.
“I have two tickets to the fundraiser for glaucoma. Mary hasn’t been feeling well. It’s a dreadful event, black tie. You need to wear a ball gown. Do you have a ball gown?”
Iris stopped cleaning and pursed her lips – did she have a ball gown? Every time she opened her closet – the Big Red, the Valentino, its tear operated on by the best tailor in town, was giving her the hairy eyeball, it demanded an audience, a fancy grand affair.
Friday night, her hair in a dramatic side sweep to match her cascading red Valentino, she was Cinderella in Cipriani. At $10,000 a plate, the banquet hall was soaring with benefactors clinking champagne flutes, aristocrats with sparkling nose jobs air-kissing each other among ice sculptures. The theme of the gala was New Eyes. Everywhere she looked she saw oversized photographs of eyes – eyes of an infant, eyes with crow’s feet, eyes staring from behind the burka. Dr. Langston was overjoyed to win one photo at a silent auction. He saw someone in the crowd, offering Iris his arm, they headed for the carving station.
“Cresandra, good to see you.” Dr. Langston lowered his head, like an aging womanizer.
“Good evening, doctor. Have you met my husband, Mark?” Cresandra Byron, dressed in black organza, looked on regally as the two men shook hands. Mark, dapper in a navy blue tuxedo.
“May I introduce my colleague Dr. Troste?” All three now turned to her. Her boss, her lover, his wife.
“Oh my God, it’s a Valentino!” the wife shrieked. “I used to have the same dress; it’s shantung silk; it had a brooch of Swarovski crystals right here at the waist. But my girls latched on to the sparkler and pulled so hard, it just ripped. A huge tear on the side, such a shame.”
“Thank you,” Iris forced a smile, pressing a jeweled clutch to the side of her dress.
She spent the rest of the night in a daze, the room spinning uncontrollably, then stopping with a sudden jolt. She danced a Viennese waltz with Dr. Langston, stepping all over his feet. She didn’t react when he broke the news that Mary wasn’t really sick and he had invited her to the ball as a thank you, that he was retiring and selling the clinic and would give her a glowing recommendation if the new owner didn’t want her. She was in a stupor when Mark winked at her by the buffet, or when he tried to pinch her bottom while his wife was meeting with the fundraising committee. Restless, he started chatting up the guestbook girl who wore a name tag “New Eyes” on her dress. What did he possibly have to say to her? She imagined him quoting Byron, the real Byron, Lord Byron, “with her heart on her lips, and soul within her eyes, soft as her clime, and sunny as her skies.”
Next morning Iris found herself at the usual Goodwill Window Sale. How she got there, she wasn’t sure. She thought she heard Ana’s voice yelling about a Tory Burch bag right there on the left, but when she turned around, it wasn’t her. She picked out things on auto-pilot and went into the dressing room to try them on. Someone had left hangers on the floor, a slew of pants, jeans cluttered the bench. There was a thermos bottle, and she assumed someone had forgotten their coffee but when she picked it up the stench of urine hit her in the face, stinging her eyes. She sat down on the bench, and among secondhand pants and discarded Armani jeans of all those, either dead or alive, she cried.
Marina Rubin’s work had appeared in over eighty magazines and anthologies including Asheville Poetry Review, Dos Passos Review, 5AM, Nano Fiction, Coal City, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Lillith, Pearl, Poet Lore, Skidrow Penthouse, The Worcester Review. She is an editor of Mudfish, a literary and art magazine. She is a 2013 recipient of the COJECO Blueprint Fellowship and the author of the critically acclaimed flash fiction collection Stealing Cherries.