He left her over and over.
First, it was for a round faced brown-eyed girl, who, in turn, left him for a drummer in a rock band.
“I can’t stand it,” Sophie says to herself.
She looks in the mirror. A wrinkle. A line across her forehead.
He left her the second time for a younger girl, a student whose hair fell over eyes like Veronica Lake, thick hair, dyed dark, almost black, a curious contrast to her light blue eyes. Sophie found her photo on his computer on his desktop, labeled Pretty girl. The girl’s thin twiggy legs and arms are akimbo; she confronts the camera, challenging it. In this one, her hair looks like a wig. Her small face lost in the tumble of jet black curls, too perfectly dark not to be dyed. Raul would say that she was jealous. Sophie’s own hair is a frizz of dirty blonde.
The third was the blonde tiny girl he met in New York, who drove a black SUV. He came home from that trip laughing about her tiny head barely reaching the window, and how her pink fingernails pressed into the wheel leaving permanent indentations as she screeched around corners, yelling into her cell phone at the same time.
He left her a fourth time, when the first child was only one year old. Sophie didn’t even realize he had left her. Raul left her for the first girl, who he had married once before.
Why did he go back? She never knew. She also never knew why he came back to her.
This is Sophie’s truth; he leaves her and returns to her, never really admitting he has left her, and never admitting that he loves her. It is easier for him to stay with her, she thinks while his work takes him around the country, the city, the countryside, Europe. Someone can walk the dog. When he took off his first wedding ring, she left relief , but then he started wearing it again a few weeks later, telling her he had grown used to it.
So there is Sophie lying in her bed, wrapped in the shocking pink comforter, purchased when she was so sure she would be a spinster, and had decided to fill her flat with bright feminine furnishings. There is her red sofa, a bright tinted red that verges on shocking pink. She lies on thick pillows covered with sequined and embroidered scarves that she had found in a flea market somewhere. She stares at the a tall white high chair she uses to hold tea towels. They had bought this together on their first anniversary, the day that they had met on the broken glass streets of Tallinn.
He says he has never left her. These women are only friends, or colleagues, offering only friendship, or a job. But this is what Sophie once was. The truth is somewhere in between.
She whispers to herself, begging him not to leave her. Not to walk away. He sleeps on. His back turned to her. His is skin so soft that sometimes she cannot bear to touch him.
She sees him walking away on the farm, walking away from her on the street.
Dressed in a thin sweater, his hair thinning with age, his eyes tired, he walks away without a word. His left hand tosses away a cigarette.
Sophie keeps seeing her around the city. She sees her in the grocery. In the bar. In the coffee shop. She has left the children at school, and is sitting in the café, drinking a small cup of coffee. It is watery. The cake a bit bland. She runs the spoon across the cream filling.
Kadi is sitting near the window. Her hair falls across her face. She is smoking a thin cigarette. She draws circles on a napkin.
Sophie remembers suddenly, she recognizes her. The first wife. The last girlfriend. Years ago, Sophie was walking home. She had passed an ex-pat bar, she passed the corner shop. She turned left, past the funny thrift store buried in the basement of an office building, which you had to enter through the courtyard. She had in fact, found the red skirt that she was wearing. Not really her style, this was a full red skirt, which he always thought flattered her hips, even if it was a big large around the waist. SO, she kept it on with a thick leather belt. This skirt that she later threw away, unable to wear without bringing up that memory.
She turned right again, and walking past the Nokia phone store, she saw his car. It was very distinctive. She remembered it instantly. She could never describe it , but she remembered it as a white sporty car, low because she always banged her head on the doorframe.
The store was modern, with its front window a huge plane of glass. Inside was a long sleek steel and glass counter and a row of phones. A bored clerk was staring out the window.
Sophie turned her head slightly.
There was Raul just leaving the store.
Without thinking she ran up to him and blurted out a greeting in English.
Raul frowned and looked behind Sophie.
Sophie, who had her arms out and was about to embrace Raul, looked back.
There she was, the tall thin woman, the first wife. Kadi in her white fur trimmed boots, and with her perfect new black wool coat swinging around her slender hips.
Sophie turned around. She slipped, catching her hands on the side of the stone building, nearly falling.
Sophie muttered something, turned and walked away.
Kadi looked at her. ” Is that the American friend?” Sophie heard as she walked too fast, almost slipping on the ice. At the corner, she turned and looked over her shoulder.
Kadi held his arm. He shook it off. Sophie stopped, and then started walking again.
She walked quickly, rounded the corner, and slid on ice. She fell on her knee. Tearing a hole in her new expensive wool tights, blood collecting in the hole.
She glances now at Kadi and thinks of the way he left her over and over.
He left her for work, for weeks in the countryside with his friends. He said he was building a sauna. Yet, when he came back, he looked rested, and glowing. Helping him bring in his bags, she found a thin green scarf in the back seat. It smelled slightly of a powdery perfume. She tucked into her coat pocket, but didn’t ask. She knew it would belong to a friend.
The first marriage with this arty model, Kadi, had lasted one year.
Sophie imagined what Kadi would tell her. The marriage was week after week of emotional neglect. He would come home expecting dinner, while she was modeling here and there, trying for a part in a television show. She would be thrilled and he would come home frowning. Tell her she was too smart to model underwear, but would then ask where dinner was.
On the weekend, they would pool their money. He would come home with expensive red peppers, and thick blocks of chocolate. She would sigh, wondering how to make the kilo of potatoes last.
Sophie looked over at Kadi ,who looked straight through her, and then blew out a perfect stream of smoke. Then she put out her cigarette as another woman, a small blonde wearing a fantastic pink feather boa over her black wool coat, sat down.
They huddled over something.
Sophie craned her head to one side so she could see, just barely what they were studying. It was a round purple leather make-up case. Kadi opened it and drew out make-up pieces, one after another. First there was a silver expensive looking compact. Kadi laughed, drew out the powder brush and started to wipe the powder over her already flawless skin.
No, Kadi wasn’t unhappy that she had lost Raul.
Kadi then picked up a thin tube, a silver lipstick, and drew a line of red, a true red, lipstick along the fold of the napkin, and then lifted lined her own mouth. The two women giggle, and then see Sophie staring, her mouth slightly open.
Sophie startled, embarrassed, pulls her coffee cup too quickly toward her, and it sloshes onto the table, a drop quickly falling off the tabletop onto her lap, onto her new trousers, grey cashmere.
Sophie watches Kadi twirl her hair, throwing her bangs in front of her face, and then tossing her head back.
At home, she rubs at the coffee stain. “What happened at the agency? “ Sophie asks.
Silence. Just the sound of him chopping onions.
While he chops onions silently, she steps backward, and then sits at the table. The computer is on, and then suddenly, goes quiet, and then black. Raul has accidentally pulled the plug out when he stepped backward to throw away the peels.
Sophie waits a few minutes but he has turned back to the counter, whistling and peeling carrots. Sophie scrapes her chair back, as he reaches over to plug the adaptor back in.
This was going to be a scene, she knew. But a scene with Raul was always a quiet one. It was almost a non-scene. It was one where he made her the angry one. The scene where she would accidentally knock over the soup pot, spill boiling water on her foot. Then yelp. It would be a scene in which he would stand back, chewing on a potato peel, Somehow he would make sure Sophie knew that she was supposed to be the one chopping onions, slicing potatoes.
She wasn’t supposed to return to Estonia, after all. She recalled the small airplane from Finland, crammed with Russians and Finns, and the occasional tourist from America, who was carrying an oversized but brand new nylon bright green knapsack, anxious to avoid the luggage crush. The time wasted on watching the luggage carousel, when you could be already out, at the bar, or looking the old walled city, or eating plates of fried potatoes in a tiny cafeteria.
It started with the lost mustard yellow hat that she left on the seat of the phone booth. She saw it was a sign.
It continued with the post card from Raul with the impersonal happy holiday printed on the back and her name, abbreviated, on the front.
She supposed it was all a sort of karmic fault line.
Or perhaps it started, the day, she wore her inherited mink coat to the Goodwill. She bought nothing, leaving instead five boxes of unworn designer clothes, some with labels, and heavy textbooks. The boxes were breaking at the sides, and one broke completely as the clerk was hauling it away, forcing him to throw the pink lacy slips over his shoulders as he dragged the boxes back down the hall. She felt like an old hippie, out of place in time and space.
She wondered how she got here. Last week, she had spent an entire day sitting, reclining, and standing on a broken armchair in the middle of a field. He was shooting her portrait to use in an ad. She saw the proofs on the table. She could see his careful airbrushing of her bruises, and spider’s web lines on her face.
That day she had spent over four hours in the field in the midday sun. She still had a slight red sunburned nose. She had sat on the arm of the chair, the dress pulled under her. Then he pulled the dress down tight over her thighs, very lightly, as if he didn’t really want to touch her. She was suddenly happy. She sat up. He barked, slide down.
Sophie slid down the chair, the dress catching behind her, framing her. She then sat on the ground with her legs on the seat, lying back, looking at the clouds. She spun in the field, catching her hands on the back of her chair suddenly dizzy. The grass was nearly four feet high. It was old in places, Yellow tipped. She slipped on one patch that he had smoothed down. They ate a picnic lunch quickly. A tomato salad, red tomatoes gone a bit sour and mushy in the heat. Shared a limp cheese sandwich. Three small sour apples.
The day was quite long, and by the end she had a long grass stain on her skirt, and a small scratch on her leg from running through some amazing sharp tall grasses.
He had smiled at her several times; she caught him staring at her legs once. Her ankles were still slender.
Yes, it started with that mustard hat. Her friend from the volunteer center had knit it for her. He was boasting about yarn of real wool, dyed mustard yellow with real dyes. She wore it the day she knew she would see her friend on the bus.
At work, she would quickly toss it in her bag.
And one day she left it accidentally in the phone booth; she stopped in to call her sister. She had just come from the post office, had just sent off her new contract. She was about to move back to Estonia. She had disconnected her phone, boxed up her books, sold her chairs and dishes.
And then the day she met him again in Tallinn. She had just accepted a teaching job in a small school. Seven sections of Basic English would pay for a tiny one bedroom apartment. She bought a ticket immediately after signing her contract, and then emailed him the news. She emailed him again when he didn’t respond. And then a third time, thinking perhaps her email had gone into his spam folder by accident. Finally she sent him a note by mail. It arrived the day she flew into Tallinn.
He had emailed her when he received her letter. She knew because of course, the laptop was the first thing she set up in her new flat. He would be waiting at their usual haunt, a bar in the old city.
She called him. Left a message telling him, yes, she’d be there.
Sophie remembers that she waited for an hour. She had several cups of coffee, strong sugary coffee, and was writing lists in her notebook. She needed to buy so much for her almost bare apartment. She looked over and saw Kadi again. Sophie turned back. She felt wrong, wearing her Capri pants and black shoes. Her jewelry was silver and too understated. She was sure her mascara had run into the many fine lines under her eyes.
There Kadi is in the corner eating fried potatoes, with her new boyfriend, a gangling boy who sits there, smoking, and staring at her with love. Kadi had on a brilliant orange scarf and a loose turquoise sweater, tucked into thin leather pants, and high heeled boots of soft brown leather. None of it made sense but on her, it looked right.
Sophie turns away just in time to see Raul enter. He stops as he does, carefully
studying the room. He pauses, his loping walk. He pauses at the door, looks around. He sees her. His mouth tightens. They nod at each other. Raul doesn’t even smile.
To Sophie, it was a dance. She strained not to laugh. Not even a giggle.
Kadi frowns and then turns away. Her new boyfriend sighs, and leans over to pat her hand.
Raul then turns and sees Sophie. He walks over carefully staring straight at her. Sophie stands up, reaches over, and kisses him on the cheek as she always did. Sophie feels her eyes on them.
" Well, hello,” he says.
Sophie smiles at this phrase, so like old times. The lilting British accented but pronounced with the Estonian emphasis on the first syllable.
“So, want a beer?”
She watches him walk away, He doesn’t stop to say hello to anyone. He is surprisingly businesslike at the bar, not even joking. He brings her a beer, wrapping a napkin around the sweating glass.
They drink in silence for a few minutes. Then
He turns in his chair just an inch. He reaches out and puts his hand on Sophie’s hand for a moment.
For just a moment, he smiles.
He pulls away, and lights a cigarette.
Behind them chairs squeak, dragged across the floor. Raul leans back, drinking his beer in lazy swallows.
They talk of nothing. He says he ate already.
He asks about her new flat.
She says, ” It’ s small.”
" How small,” he asks, staring at her, holding his cigarette carefully over the plate.
“Just big enough for the cat, and me, ” she laughs. “Okay,” she says. “Maybe big enough for two if the two people don’t live there at the same time.”
“My last flat was so small,” he said, ” that I could turn on the Tv with one hand and eat popcorn with the other. ”
Sophie said, Okay.”
That was it.
The flat is somewhere off the main road, in an old building. It doesn’t have the polished floors and counter space Sophie dreamed of owning but a small gas stove and a tiny refrigerator. The floor was scarred wood. But the windows overlooked a small weed chocked yard. And the flat was on the corner of the building.
While she opened the curtains, wiped off the counter tops, he sat on the couch, leaning back. Suddenly she heard him snore a little. He muttered something.
The rug was a dirty orange flowered one that Sophie hastily rolled up and put in the closet. A small purple vacuum, and broom without bristles. She had one large dish, and three small white bowls. One had a chip.
Now, in a very different apartment. One with a full set of living room furniture, and a complete set of dishes, white, flat, Nordic. Sophie opens her diary while he chops onions. Her dairy that she labeled with an innocent date, this document she carefully password protected has been breached. She must have left her computer on and the diary open. He must have read it while he was reading his email.
The window is dirty. I walk my fingers down the pane of glass. Thin glass, warped inside, warped twisting into a wide radius.
He’s gone for a year and i here alone for a year, trading the great country of plenty for a chilly winter with a thin radiator for comfort. He won’t even leave me his blankets, telling me to buy new. But on the bed I find his blue comforter, Blue. Worn near the hem, and a pillow he has rolled and unrolled.
The rug goes in the closet. I run my fingers along the shelves, leaving a streak and think splinter in my index finger.
I’ll make some pancakes tonight. Thin egg pancakes with lots of onions in the mix, the sauce. A thin white sauce. The pancakes friend in lots of butter. The edges probably burned. Never having mastered the timing, I think the salad will wilt and the butter not is soft by the time I set it all out on the narrow table, one leg propped up by a matchbook.
The chairs don’t match either. Three of them do .the fourth is blue, missing a chair cushion.
I check the bathroom, one towel, white and smelling of bleach.
Or the fact-finding trip to Estonia in the early fall. The leaves turning yellow already the wall on old town of limestone. The hotel. Thinking calling and not calling nad then calling. Doesn’t meet me at the airport.
I came back on August morning. It was a cool overcast day. I hadn’t expected him. The email sent saying I was arriving went unanswered.
Sophie turns back to the kitchen. He’s eating the ends of a green spring onion, smiling at her.
He sees, and turns back.
The computer is blurring its screen saver. She had thought it was off. The diary is open and she reads an entry for the day he is due to return:
He opens the door, his bag behind him.
My glasses barely on my nose. I run my hand through my slightly ragged hair. I need to cu it. The circles under my eyes are like black eyes. I haven’t been sleeping again.
I leap up when I see him. I reach to kiss him but he pushes me aside.
He pulls away.
The rice is burning he tells her.
Sophie laughs. Then she frowns. Then she deletes the entry.
“So what did the minister tell you?”
It is too early to apply, he says,
The onions are burning. She turns down the stove, and pulls out the bag of rice.
He likes to goad her. Telling her it is easy to make her angry.
“You are too emotional. All I hear is half thought out ideas and emotions.”
" Sorry, I won’t mention my opinions anymore. ”
He frowned. ” That is what I mean.”
He is the ministry of culture, she types.
How did she get to this place? This job, this life. She was never the one to wear heels or shop for hours every day. Instead, she makes a new skirt from an old blue dress. She chops it above the large burn. Had she brushed against someone smoking a cigarette in a bar? The hole was impossible to conceal. Just at the knee, not even a long shirt tail could cover the hole. She couldn’t hold her hands down far enough, either. So, Sophie tore the hem off at knee level, which is perhaps the most unflattering hem length ever, unless you are almost six feet tall and rail thin.
Sophie looks around. There are six glasses, all mismatched, sitting on the drain. She had bought a set of dishes, deep pink , almost red orange dishes for pasta and potatoes. There is a green stain on the faucet. The refrigerator clunked on and off very loudly, sounding almost like someone was whacking it with a hammer.
How did she reach this point? Never apprehending. Never taking control of her life. Never. She believed them then they said she couldn’t write. She believed them when she said she couldn’t write. She stopped her journals.
She stopped writing.
Only now in Estonia did she write, but in English. She froze if she tried to speak Estonian around him. He never discouraged her, but his eyebrows would lift a little if she’s even start with a hello or a good bye.
She was always thinking in Estonian. Before she meet him, and after.
She didn’t wait for him.
She went back alone.
She refused to tell him.
She left an email. She met him for coffee. It was all the same.
She called him when she goes there. She didn’t call. She called. She made plans. She bought a new dress.
It was all the same to him.
This is what Sophie thinks. She shouldn’t have called him when she returned.
He turns from the stove, asking her how much rice she wants.
The computer screen turns to black again.
Expect that the scenes with him were never really dramatic scenes but instead these chilling nerve wracking moments of waiting. And then the scene would never happen.
Or it would rather be her, sobbing while running a bath, or accidentally nicking herself with a knife while slicing bread, or banging her head as she’s getting up from putting away the cleaner under the cabinet. Those accidents that meant she was angry with herself. Or him.
She thought about the day she came home from a long day of teaching. When she flung her coat, down, she also knocked over the tin of cookies that had been sitting on the magazines she had gathered over the months. She imagined somehow using them to compose a calendar or several calendars. Collages of abstracted women and cakes.
The cookie tin was red. The lid was silver. They didn’t quite match. She remembered the red tin had held candies. She had made and backed those cookies last night. She wondered why he didn’t take them with him on his trip. She had left them there with a note. The note was there, under the tin. Maybe he had put the cookies in another bag, and left the tin. She could see how the tin might be too awkward.
She put down her new purse, a yellow purse made from PVC. It was new, a gift sent her from her sister in the states. She put it down and picked up the tin. The lid was tight and she tugged it off, one corner would not move. She could see that the first layer of cookies were those sugar cookies with a bit of strawberry jam on the top. They were slightly melted, sticking to a layer of tissue paper lining the tin. When she yanked harder on the lid, the whole tin went flying, flipping past her legs, and lying on the floor. The lid rolled away. The tin was upright and only a few cookies fell on the floor. She picked them, shook off the dust and laid them carefully on the table. She sat on the floor, and rearranged the cookies. There were none missing, except the few on the floor. Inside were the jam cookies, a layer of plain sugar cookies, and few long rolls, like biscotti but with white powdered sugar over them. She had spent an hour crushing sugar in the coffee grinder.
She slowly ate the cookies sitting on the floor. Then standing up, she stepped backward and crunch went the strap to her purse.
He walked in.
”Time to talk of china, cats, and China,” Sophie said, thinking of Lewis Carroll.
“China?” he asked, putting the mail on the cookie tin. The lid was still loose, crooked.
She watched the mail slide to the floor. One had a stamp from the United States.
“China,” he asked?
She nodded. “ The last big dinner plate broke when I was washing them this morning.”
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