the writing disorder


New Fiction


by Caroline Rozell

      Friday morning, the mirror reflects a face that no longer feels like mine. My bottom lip is swollen to three times its normal size. I look like I got in a fight with a vacuum hose and lost. If I squint, I can see angry teeth marks below, just where membrane turns into skin. He bit me hard. He bit me for hours. That was not a kiss; that was consumption. I wonder how long this will take to heal.
       It was my birthday, and I am old enough to know better. If I’m honest with myself, I did know better. I thought I was mad to imagine there could be anything but purest friendship with a man like that but really — I knew. He was the last man on earth who should have kissed me. He was the last man on earth who I would expect to look at me. There was a very good reason why he should never look at me but I can’t tell that. Some parts of this story can never be narrated. They aren’t necessary anyway. What matters right now is that last night should not have been possible but I knew that it was. Parts of me always knew where we were going. A few days ago we grabbed a drink in a dim pub and his eyes stayed bright. When we said good night, he took my hand and I think, I think he reached out for my chin. That might have been my imagination; it might have been that his stare felt like a touch. Imaginary or not, even with all the platonic ideals running through my head, I knew. Knowing only lasted for a half a second. Once I’d turned the corner I was sure I’d seen only compassion in him. Once I reached the end of the block I thought I’d dishonoured him by imagining interest and I scolded myself all the way home. There were little things before that, too. He grated on my last nerve the first time I met him and everything I feel seems to start with irritation. Once, we went for dinner with a group of other people but talked as if we were alone. He left when I did. A couple of times I was in a crowded room with him and even though I wasn’t looking for him, I knew where he was. Whenever I saw him alone, he smiled and stalled like he didn’t want me to leave. With a little more vanity, or a little more anger, I could say he pursued me. It would be a defensible claim, but that’s not what happened. That was not a pursuit. We were playing chicken, and, thank God, I swerved. I declined to think that’s what we were doing. I ordered myself to think that nothing with him could be less than right, but I knew. That was how last night happened. I knew, but I actively refused to know.
      I’ve got a long day ahead, and I don’t know how to get through it with my mouth swollen like this, maimed like this. I try five different lipsticks and an array of powders, looking for something that will hide the evidence. It doesn’t work at all. Colours and shine just make me lurid, like my mouth is not bruised but diseased. Maybe it is. Maybe only some sort of disease would make a man like that want to touch me. I wash it all off and go on to work.
      I don’t remember who proposed it, that we spend the day together. I may have been hinting but if I was, he took that hint and ran with it. We decided to get out of town and indulge in — something. As the train pulled away, something else was pulled off. A restraint, a boundary we’d been pressed against for weeks dissolved and left its residue on the tracks. We said we should go away for the weekend. I let my hair down. He commented. When that friendly man selling tour tickets implied we were together, we just laughed. We got on that ridiculous tour to pretend to be different people, tourists out for a good time, and it worked. He gave me a wink like he was trying to pick up a girl he’d just met and I batted my eyes back at him. It was all in good fun. Nothing could be wrong with a man like that. I didn’t see it, but all day long, we created a climate. I shouldn’t have been surprised when a storm broke out.
      All morning, my students stare me out of countenance. They see the swelling, they see these marks, and they are curious. In some, the boys, I see concern. They’d never ask, and I’m sure they don’t dare imagine. When I’m working I am the picture of distance. I know how to enforce boundaries, but yesterday they were all just gone. I’m kidding myself saying it was just yesterday. I’ve been neglecting my walls with him since we met and yesterday was just the day they fell. I ask myself why. I really don’t know, except that there was that in his face which seemed to demand openness. I was compelled to give it. I think that man gets anything he demands.
      We left the tour and went for dinner. He said I was dwindling without food and I think we were both glad to get away from all the voices. The restaurant was empty and we sat side by side at the counter, watching the sushi revolve. My edamame stuck in my throat and grew bigger as I chewed. It was tough and salty, but the wine helped. I told him that I liked that he was quiet and that most people would have bored me by that point. I truly meant it in friendship, but I wonder now how he heard it. I wonder if it was an invitation or an admission. He said he didn’t want to talk about going home, and I said I wanted to run away to Belize. He told me to give him my hand and I did without a thought, without hesitation. He slid his thumb across the backs of my fingers and then he turned to me. He asked me or maybe he told to kiss him. I pulled my hand away and sat stiffly, wrenched between want and terror. I tried to say that I was shocked and I tried to say that I never expected this from him but he knew that it wasn’t true. It wasn’t a lie. Part of me, my conscious mind, was shocked but the rest of me was not. I didn’t kiss him then. We walked off to I hardly knew where. First he was a few steps ahead of me, but then I caught up and passed him. We were trying to run away from each other, but not trying hard enough.
      I struggle through my classes, and I know that they know there’s something wrong. He told me last night that I had sad eyes. If he could see them now. There’s more, worse. I’m stumbling over sentences, struggling to speak like myself. It’s because of all this swelling and cracking. My teeth catch on the raw spots inside my lips and it hurts. I never thought any man could stop my mouth. I’m not usually like I was last night. I don’t respond to people, especially not people like him. Snobbish. Demanding. Male. I think, for the thousandth time, that I must be the dumbest, blindest girl in the world to have expected different from a man. Then I think that I must be the wickedest, most intrinsically debased girl in the world to have found a touch of earth in a man like him.
      We wandered into some sort of restaurant or bar or something, I didn’t notice. I said I wanted coffee but there was wine in front of me and he warmed his cold fingers against my feverish wrists. I talked and he just looked at me with something between impatience and curiosity. Finally, he kissed me or I kissed him or both. I don’t know and I don’t think it matters. What I know is that his kiss was hard and searching, and he bit me. I liked it. I liked it for a long moment until the pain became too much and, all unwillingly, I pulled away. I didn’t go far, and his hands lingered on my arms, my knees, my hair. I thought it strange that his touch could be so gentle and his lips so insistent, but I was past caring. I leaned into his hands. I wanted more because I knew there couldn’t be much. He looked at me as if I were already far away and he wanted to bring me back. I just wanted to stay close and still. When he kissed me, I saw with surprise a kind of delicacy in his skin. Around his eyes, it looked thin, tender. I touched his cheek, shocked at my own daring, afraid of the contamination in my fingers. He kissed me again, and I stayed with his bite for as long as I could take it. We talked, and he said a lot that I’d like to remember and a few things I wish I hadn’t heard. He said I needed to be tamed and even though I wasn’t sure what he meant, that scared me. It scared me because if he wasn’t the last man who should ever touch me, he could do it. He asked if we had to go home that night.
      Friday afternoon, my boss stares at my face with undisguised wonder. He’s always had a soft spot for me, a little too soft, and I hear something between compassion and resentment when he asks if I’m in a bad relationship. He asks if someone hurt me. I tell him it was nothing. He sees the scab forming on my lip and shakes his head. He watches me talk through my hands, covering my mouth, and tells me he’ll do anything for me. I know that I could tell my boss this story in a different way. I could tell him this story in a way that would infuriate him, make him go and punch that man for me. I don’t. That’s not the way it happened and, even though it was nothing, I don’t want to make it something it wasn’t.
      We left in a hurry. He stopped to give a pound to a boy with a guitar and I watched him. I thought, furiously, and I tried to stop feeling. I couldn’t. I had to decide where we were going to go. I wanted so much not to decide. I wanted not to want him, but I couldn’t. I knew that I wanted to be there with him, and I knew that in the morning I would want to be a thousand miles away from myself. I didn’t dare think about the state of my lips or my conscience if we stayed. I told him I wanted to stay with him. I told him that I wanted to stay and pretend tomorrow would never come, and I told him that we had to go home. He pulled me to him and for a moment I thought he would try to change my mind. I wondered if he knew how easy it would be. He didn’t say anything. He would have gone as far as I was prepared to take him, but I think he was relieved. He saw the morning coming too and the irrefutable fact of tomorrow was working into his lips when he bit me again. He took my hand and we walked away.
      Friday night, I look in the mirror. I’ve imagined all day the swelling is getting worse, but I can see the outline of my own mouth again. I still look beaten. There are dark spots and indentations on my lips so that, from a distance, it looks as if I’ve been guzzling hot chocolate or red wine. I touch my mouth, and feel something between pain and a peculiar numbness. Running my tongue along the inside, I taste blood and feel the roughness his teeth left behind. I wonder if he tasted it too. I wonder how much of me that man consumed. I wonder how quickly and with what a sense of cleansing he will disgorge me.
      We were at the tube station before I knew it. I fumbled in my bag for so long and was so befuddled with remorse and wistfulness that I couldn’t get through the turnstile until he was out of sight. I feared and I hoped that he would go on without me, but he waited at the bottom of the stairs. On the platform, he watched as I rubbed my lips and asked if it hurt. I told him I liked that. He didn’t know how true that was. I was already thinking that the pain would force me to acknowledge what I’d done. I was already thinking that I deserved for this to hurt. I wondered if that was why he did it. I thought he must know I ought to be marked, damaged. Still, he wrapped his arm around my waist and kissed me again, not ungently. There were so many people around that a mad part of me was surprised no one stopped us. Of course, no one else knew that he was the last man who should ever touch me. To them, we must have seemed almost normal. Looking through their eyes, I saw a thousand embraces end that would never begin. Looking at him, I thought there might have been something past his teeth and beneath the fast-approaching morning and wondered if the softness that I’d seen in his eyes was not just the lighting. On the train, he bit me harder and more insistently than before. We had only one hour before home and all the remorse waiting there. We knew nothing much could happen on a train, so he bit me and gripped me tight, as if he could break away from the pain of morning by breaking me. He held me close, and I don’t know what was desire and what was despair. I didn’t want to stop him. I wanted all the same things. When the train stopped and I kissed him, tomorrow wasn’t just coming into his lips. It was there. He didn’t bite me.
      Saturday, I wake with a dull ache in my mouth. My stomach, too. I haven’t eaten since that indigestible edamame, and the thought makes me queasy. I am downing water by the bucket, though. I just want something cold and clean. I make myself look in the mirror and the swelling has subsided, but it might be worse this way. At least the swelling drew the eye away from the scratches beneath my lips. They are more present now, darker and uglier and a hard crust forms over them so they no longer look like teeth marks—just a gash. It stings a little when I brush my teeth.
      I check my email in the library, and it is there. I thought it would come today, but still I’m surprised by what is in it. The first thing I see is an attachment. He’d like me to edit one of his reports. For a minute, I want to jump through my netbook and strangle him. He wants me to work for him? He thinks he can ask me for help, now? Then I read the rest. He hopes he hasn’t harmed me. He thinks we should talk because he wants to be very honest. He tone is clipped, curt, and I think everything about him was hard. From his mind to his lips to this message, he could crack a diamond, and I was never that. I know what he wants to say. I fret, playing with my mouse and scratching my lips while I decide how to respond. My first thought is that I should tell him to write to me, if it’s really necessary. I should tell him it isn’t necessary because I know. I don’t think I can face him. Even though I know what he will say, I think also that reading is not the same as hearing. I don’t know how he will say it. He could say it with contempt. He could say it with disgust. If he’s the man I thought he was, he might even say it with regret. Maybe I can’t understand his message unless I read what he doesn’t say. I tell him I can see him tonight and edit the report. I’m still mad about that, but maybe he thought he needed a pretext. Besides, that man gets whatever he demands.
      Saturday afternoon, I study myself anxiously in the library bathroom. I shouldn’t have worn this dress. It’s too short, much too short for a conversation like I’m about to have and I cannot find anything to tie up my hair. I ought to wear rags. I ought to shave my head. He’s going to think I wore this on purpose, as a message to him. I wish I had time to go home and change but I don’t. It might not be all bad, though. There are advantages to a dress like this for a talk like this that he couldn’t understand. He’s only a man, after all. It will make me blush while I’m talking to him, but it might help later. I hope it will help me go home, look in the mirror, and tell myself that it wasn’t me. It could help me tell myself that I’m not scratched and sore right now because I’m only worth a bite, and nothing more. That’s what I hope and that’s what I’m going to say but I already know I won’t believe it. I look at my lips and wonder whether I should try to cover it up. The gash is terribly obvious in this fluorescent light. I rub my lips as if I can rub the darkness off, but only raise sharp little flakes. It looks worse than if I’d left it alone and now they are stinging again. The numbness was better. I press the hardening gash and turn it red again. I put my lipstick away; he probably won’t even notice.
      When I see him, I lie through my teeth. I tell him I’ve been very productive, very focused as I always am. I haven’t done a thing. I sat in the library trying to lift the cold lump that’s been bearing down on my heart. I tried to breath. I even tried to stop my watch so the time wouldn’t come when I had to meet him. Now, it is all I can do to keep from running down the street, away from him and away from this autopsy, this post-mortem analysis of a bad decision that we are about to perform. I will myself to keep walking and I wonder if he knows I’m lying. He asks when I’m leaving town and the one thing I am grateful for tonight is that I can honestly say, soon. He says he’ll miss me and I fight not to laugh. I fight even harder not to slap him. If there is one thing I know without doubt tonight, it is that that man cannot wait to see the back of me. We find a restaurant, we order. He says he is going to be a teetotaller now and I think that’s perfect, because I’m going to be an alcoholic now. He asks if I have anything to say to him. If I knew what I wanted to say to him, I would have said it already. I can only tell him, that I’m awful. I tell him that I am full of guilt and shame, and I wonder if he understands all that encompasses. He tells me I ought to get married and asks why I don’t have a boyfriend and now, now for a second I hate him. I wonder if he thinks he’s my pimp now. I imagine that he thinks I’m a tramp with no discrimination and that I’m happy to flit amongst men until I find one that sticks. I think he thinks that because I’m not a man like him, I am not real or whole. All I tell him is that I don’t want to be married, that it’s because I don’t want to feel. That is entirely true, but what I don’t say is “and damn you for making me.” He’s about to give me a lecture on how that’s not a life, on what he saw when I felt something for him, and I stop listening. I can’t hear this from him. I can’t bear to hear him say that I felt something for him. This man doesn’t know the meaning of saving face; he’s not supposed to assume that. I would never take such a liberty of imagination with him. I desperately believe that he could not possibly have felt anything for me, and I wish he could show me the same courtesy. I want to tell him he’s wrong, but I don’t. He wouldn’t hear me; he thinks this is his story. I work up the courage to ask him if incidents like the other night happen to him often, and he doesn’t understand what I mean. He thinks it’s a pointless question, and I want to explain why it matters. I would like to explain that girls like me are only toys. Toys are replaceable, interchangeable. I would like to tell him that when I ask if incidents like that happen often, I’m asking if he understands that I am a person, but I don’t. He says things like that never happen, but he hasn’t answered my question. He never could because he could never hear it. He is, after all, only a man. He starts talking about what happened then, and he tells me, that it was not only lust. He asks if I agree, and I say yes, but I want to say no, I want so badly to say no. I wonder if he has any idea how much it troubles me to admit that. I understand “only lust”. That is a familiar narrative, and I know exactly how to respond to it. If this was only lust, I know exactly what to think and have no need to feel. I wish he could leave me that, my comprehension, my unfeeling response.
      He tells me he feels dead. He looks dead. I have been trying to meet his eyes since we got here, but I can’t. Whatever you call this thing in his face, this remorse, this death, I can’t look at it. I really must be the stupidest girl in the world not to have guessed this. I should have understood that, to a man like that, I could only ever be death in a short skirt. I know that isn’t really what he means and the deadness I see now is bigger than that. The death he is talking about is something I can scarcely comprehend but I can’t think about that right now. Instead, I let him remind me of things I haven’t heard in a long time. I had a lover once who called me a femme fatale and said my eyes were deadly. It was flattering, but this is different. I have never heard what is in his voice now and I pray I never will again. He is talking about my eyes too. He says I have a way of looking at people, or maybe it is a way I look at him — but he can’t describe it. I honestly don’t know what he means this time. I wish he could describe it so I could stop. Never mind. I will never look at him again.
      When we leave, he says he is going to walk with me to the bus stop, to wait a while. I don’t understand. I know, I know with an absolute and unshakeable certainty that that man wants nothing more than to get as far away from me as possible and to be sure that he will never see me again. While we walk he tells me, for the second time, that we ought to keep in touch. He says it would be a shame if we couldn’t stay friends. I say, I agree. I say, of course we will keep in touch. I have never kept “in touch” with anyone in my life. I don’t just burn my bridges. I bomb them into oblivion and I poison the river so nothing can live there again. I do not believe that anyone means it when they say you should stay friends. I don’t think that has ever, in all of human history, been backed with a true sentiment. I sometimes think that I am the only person on earth who understands that this is cruel. He should understand that it would really be kinder to tell me to never contact him again. It would be kinder because, if I were dumb enough to believe him and I did get in touch with him someday, I would only be shaken again when I realized that he never wanted to hear from me. I’m not that dumb, though. I will never reach out to anyone if I’m not sure that they are reaching back. I’d rather cut my hands off. Still, there is something in that man’s face that makes me think I could think again. I wonder if, maybe, he is setting a historical precedent. I wonder if maybe he means it and if maybe, if I did get in touch with him someday, he would actually be glad. I thought that he was no ordinary man and maybe it is just possible that I was right. I’ll think about that tomorrow. I’ll think about the way he said it, his tone and his eyes, and I’ll try to decipher what he might have meant. The skeleton of this bridge could stay standing but what would I really want with an uncrossable old construction? I don’t know. I’ll think about that tomorrow too.
      I say something that makes him turn his head and chuckle with what might have been irritation or sadness or both. He leaves quickly and rounds the corner before I see him move. I’d always thought he was serene, unflappable, but he flies away from me. Not five seconds after he’s gone, a dishevelled man weaves towards me down the sidewalk. I smell the whiskey ten paces away. “Hey, beautiful,” he leers, and wavers closer. I duck my head, but he’s still coming. “Come on”, he says. He’s got me backed against a wall and his words are rank and stinking on my neck. “You can’t just look at me like that and turn away,” he grunts. I didn’t mean to look at him, but maybe it was like the look that man couldn’t describe. I wish he had stayed just a few more seconds so this drunk would have walked past me, so I wouldn’t have his sour breath in my face. I wish I had a burqa, the kind with netting over the eyes. I clench my shoulders, I clench my fists, and the drunk punches the wall over my head. I’m too cold and lifeless to move, and I don’t care what happens next, this drunken wretch is exactly what ought to happen next. I don’t scream; no one would come anyway. He leaves, but my nails keep digging into my palms. I bite my own mouth, wishing I could finish what that man started. I try to bite through the stinging and rip my lips clean off. That would keep me out of trouble. At home, I look in the mirror and my eyes are too blurred to make out much besides shapes and colours. I can’t see lines or features, and I’m not sure I have a face anymore. I can still feel though, and the scabs are beginning to prick and scratch my fingertips when I touch them.
      Sunday morning is cold and white and I am not getting out of bed. I am not going to look in a mirror, because I am done. I am done with life and long past done with feelings. I touch my face, press my lips together, and scarcely realize I’m doing it. The scab, the gash, all the scratches have turned into a hard film of dead cells. It’s like the transparent layer of cow’s horn that was once used to coat children’s spelling books. It’s thin and you can barely see it, but it is impenetrable. You cannot touch or damage anything underneath. I think I like this encrustation, this armour. If I cannot feel my own pressure, if I cannot find a sensation in my body, then nothing can touch me. That man gave me precisely what I have always wanted, in his own backhanded way.
      I have to get up; I am not so numb that I can stave off the headaches of 72 sleepless, starving hours. When I stumble into a cafe, the eggs that end up in front of me make me slump with exhaustion. They seem insurmountable, a pile of greasy normality that I will never be able to climb. I smoke instead, scowling at my eggs like they are the only thing wrong today. My cigarette feels different against these unassailable lips of mine. I can smoke it past the filter, suck it down into a flaming scrap and it doesn’t burn. When the butt falls apart in my fingers, I sigh and approach my plate again. The first bite won’t go down, and I cough. I make them a little too salty, just enough to make me wince and it helps. My fork feels strange against my lips, as if my hard coating has disrupted my hand-to-mouth coordination and the tines bump and jab against me. I am so concentrated on trying to swallow that I stab myself in the lip, and a small corner of the hardness falls off. I pick it up to examine, curious and a little wary. It is transparent, colourless, and thicker than I’d imagined. There are teeth marks on it, the unmistakable impression of a sharp incisor. I’ve had flaking lips in the winter before, but this is different. This simply falls off in one sharp-edged piece. I find the spot it came from with the tip of my tongue and it is a little sensitive but smooth. My eggs are almost a third gone now, and I decide that’s enough for today.
      Sunday afternoon, I take a rambling walk. This park is my favourite place in town. The rowers on the river beat out an even tempo that calms my agitated pulse. I breathe to their strokes, and I think for a moment that something evaporates in my chest. I used to run here every morning even though I hate running. I hated my thighs more, and this is the perfect place to outrace emotion. I sigh as I remember my thighs and wonder if I can slim them down by simply not eating. Of course I can. I have before, but it’s been a while since I had the will to do so. Maybe that man gave me more than I thought. I find a bench in a green corner by the river and I decide that I’m going to think. I try to think about why I did what I did and I can’t come up with anything. That was not who I am. I am not impulsive or reckless; at least, I haven’t been in a long time. I like to think, to fret, to worry over every last detail of my plans. I like to conceal. The normal me, would never have gone anywhere with him. In my right mind, I would never have responded to him. At least, not these days. There was a time when who I was that night was who I was every day. I used to feel everything deeply and display everything I felt. That did not work out well. This was not the first birthday to leave me bloodied and heartsick. For years, I have guarded every inch of me, inside and out, with such success that I thought no one would ever touch me. I have rationed my words too, never giving anyone too many and never letting them signify too much, but then I met that man. Something snapped in my head whenever I was around him. A filter broke, and before I could think of stopping myself, I told him anything and everything. I felt anything and everything. I knew I should never, ever touch him, never look at him, but I did. I flung myself between his teeth and sighed as he bit down. I examine myself for a reason but can’t find anything.
      I give up on me, and turn to him. I try to read his eyes, his voice as they were in all my memories. I start with the time I met him. He came over, asked me a few questions about my work and my life and dragged me into a pointless argument about Emily Dickinson. I hate Emily Dickinson, but he wouldn’t let up. Once he’d disposed of Dickinson and treated me to a self-satisfied little lecture on the crudeness of bourgeois tastes, he started in on the nature of God. Nothing he said made any sense at all. He grilled me, interrogating my muddled concepts with an infuriating, superior calm. I could only stare and shake my head at his questions, but he didn’t back off. I ask myself now what he was really trying to ask me. All I know is he baffled me. I think back to an evening we went for a drink. I was too personal, too unreserved. I found myself telling him things I should not. I remember his looks of surprise, of bemusement, and try to make them add up to an explanation. I can’t. Then there was that night. I replay the details in my head and I try to scan every word and every touch for a reason. I’m still stuck. If there was any reason in what we did, it was too frail for my benighted brain to capture. Saturday just made it worse. His expressions cycled so fast between remorse , fake cheer, and lingering kindness that I could not capture any of them. I don’t even remember what he said, only that it was pained and final. I should never have gone. I thought it would help me understand and forget that night. Maybe it would, if I had been able to read past his inadequate words.
      I’m chewing my lips and watching the river because my thinking is only making things worse. I will never get anywhere asking why so I back up, and try to ask what. I ask what I feel now, if I hate him. I try to say yes, but can’t. I would feel so much better if I could label him a manipulator, an unscrupulous seducer, but it will never do. Every time I try, I remember what I felt beneath his teeth and my bitterness flees before it. I will never understand him, but I will never hate him. I ask myself if I like him and still can’t answer. I would like to say yes but I cannot forget that he was the last man who should ever have wanted me. I’ve been breaking my head for days trying to figure out what that means about me. Now, I wonder what that means about him. I make a last effort and ask myself how, exactly, he has marked me. I ask how I am going to fit that night into my story. I pinch my lips and concentrate as a few more flakes fall off into my fingers. These are smaller, finer, and I let them slide to the ground with only a cursory look. Stories are important to me, more important than almost anything else. I have believed, and argued at some length, that every story matters. However tragic, however wicked, however strange, I believe that there is value in every story if we only know how to frame it. I have thought and written that no narrative need be discarded, that everything we are has value when we find the right story for it. It is not impossible that there is something in this story too. I try to believe that these marks on my mouth can encode more than pain and a punishing kiss. I search for it, search for that meaningful something in my scraps of a story with him. Perhaps it would help to find a precedent, and I review the saddest, strangest stories I know. I know far too many stories, but I can’t think of an exact fit. My interpretive efforts are moving along now, nonetheless. At least this is the question that I really want answered, not why I have stiff and splintering lips or how long they will take to heal, but what will lie beneath when they do. I go home and I still can’t sleep but I can lie quietly. My pulse stays with the rowers’ rhythm even as my mind races and I unclench my fists. All night, my lips tingle.
       Monday morning, I look myself. My reflection is a pale, sharp-angled version of my face, but recognizable. My lips are back to a normal colour, all redness gone. They may be even more wan and thin than they were, or maybe the last bits of dead shell just make them look that way. The gash beneath my mouth is smooth now and only a little pink. It’s not that bad, really, almost interesting. I try different angles in the mirror and wonder if the pinkness doesn’t add shades and depths to my lips that were slightly missing before.
      At work, I review my notes and either laugh or cry, I’m not sure which. This is really not the day for Daniel Deronda or, maybe, it is exactly the day. I wanted a precedent, and this could be it if I will let myself read it as such. The trouble is that I don’t like Gwendolen. She’s self-involved, spoiled, parasitic. I’ve always thought that if I were Deronda, I would have shaken her off, told her to find another semi-lover/mentor to harass, to stalk, to suck dry for her spiritual awakening. Deronda, too, strikes me as either more or less than a man. He is so very fastidious. He recoils from the vulgar and the small with such instinctive dread that I have never believed in his compassion and wonder if he was not just chasing an aesthetic thrill. He is so nearly monk-like in his enthrallment to the sublime that I am always surprised that he can marry any woman at all. Then again, I am not sure if Mirah qualifies as one. Perhaps that is the real reason it was not Gwendolen; with all his grand talk of love, Deronda’s love is a strange self-emptying, almost cruel in its loftiness. But, there is that letter. My students always want to know how it will be better with her for having known him, and I never have an answer. I believe her, though. I think that may have been the first entirely true thing she ever said. It may not be visible but somehow, in the sequel that was never written, it is better with her for having known him. I wonder what could be better with me. Almost everything, almost anything could be better with me. Everything has been so static with me, so pinned back and impenetrable, that maybe even a bite or a bruise is better.
      One of my students is entranced with Deronda. She’s a bright girl and she looks at me like I can open the doors not just to this book but to the world of unknown meanings that made her want to read it. She was disappointed; she hoped for Deronda and Gwendolen to walk off the page together, and is a little annoyed with Mirah. She calls her bloodless and thinks she is unappealingly austere beside Gwendolen’s battered, vital humanity. I know how she feels, but this is not the way I want her to read it. I press her, I push her, willing her to understand why Deronda and Gwendolen can’t see each other again. I ask her over and over again, what Deronda gave Gwendolen. I make her think about what could have been better with her. I remind her that she is truly changed and we talk for an hour about what is visible in her at the end that was not in the beginning. Finally she smiles at me and cries, in her youthful voice, so clean and hopeful that I drop one more tear for myself, “It’s better than a love story!” She’s excited, exhilarated with her own interpretive skill. “No one will ever love her, but what he gave her is better than love.” I knew she was a bright girl, but I wonder where she found this reading. We are both delighted now, and the last dead flake falls from my lips. When I tell her she’s a good reader and I am very proud of her, her glow of boundless feeling touches even me.

Originally from Harlingen, Texas, Caroline Rozell just completed a DPhil in English from the University of Oxford, focusing on eighteenth-century women’s writing. Her thesis was entitled “Women and the Framed-Novelle Sequence in Eighteenth-Century England: Clothing Instruction with Delight.” She also has an MA in English from St. John’s University in New York, and studied English at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. She has not previously published any fictional work.

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