[TRIGGER WARNING: Some readers may find this story disturbing]
Every lining has a cloud, be it a worn spot, a mended seam, or an unraveled thread. They are neither perfect nor impenetrable, no matter how much we wish it so. People will tell you that damage makes the fabric stronger.
It depends on the damage.
After the storm has passed, I look down at my arm, just above the elbow. The new tear in the lacework of my lining is small. I pull myself up from the floor and sit on the sofa, breathing hard. I feel as if I’m made of dandelion fluff, as if one puff will blow me into a million pieces, but this feeling, this small weakness, will pass.
I hear a cabinet open and close and wipe the last trace of tears from my eyes. Alan comes back holding a needle in his hand, but he doesn’t meet my gaze, doesn’t say a word, as he plucks a strand from his own lining without flinching, threads the needle, and stretches out my arm.
I turn my head away. The first stitch is always the worst, but this pain is different. This pain links us together even more. I stare at the wall, at a photograph of the two of us taken a few weeks after we met. Our hands are clasped, our shoulders touching. I can see a hint of the tempest hidden in his eyes, but it isn’t his fault. I must have said or done something.
I know better now. Tonight was a mistake. A stupid mistake.
He finishes, puts the needle aside, and strokes his fingers over the new repair. He’s skilled. The stitches are barely visible; it will be easy to hide. And it doesn’t hurt much.
Not this time.
His hand moves up and he traces my lower lip, then he cups my jaw. “I love you,” he says, his voice hoarse.
“I love you, too.”
He pulls me to him, hard against his chest. His lips crush mine. Maybe tonight we’ll love everything away and the needle and thread will be a thing of the past.
His lining is burlap. Rough and strong. I trace it with my fingers when he sleeps. There are repairs here and there, but I don’t know if he fixed them himself or if someone else’s hand wielded the needle.
I asked him once. I won’t ever do it again.
At work, I answer the phone, make client appointments, and deliver messages, but I watch the clock. I can’t help it. The hours seem to drag, even when the office is busy.
At the end of the day I rush home into Alan’s arms; when he kisses me, I feel as if time has stopped. For us. For love.
I am lucky, so lucky.
Renee is sitting in the back of the coffee shop, her mouth turned down, checking her watch.
“I thought you were going to stand me up like the last time,” she says.
I feel my cheeks warm. I’d forgotten about that. Alan and I had been talking and I’d lost track of the time.
“It’s not a big deal. You’re here now.”
As always, her lining is shimmery. Perfect. It matches the light in her eyes. When we first met in high school, she held mine up to the light. She didn’t laugh at the worn edges, the threadbare center. She didn’t ask how, but I told her anyway. We’ve always told each other everything.
“I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages,” she says.
“I know, I’m sorry. We’ve been busy.”
She gives a small nod. She talks about her job. I tell her about the restaurant where Alan and I went last weekend. She raves about a book she recently read. I mention a new movie Alan and I want to see. We both order second cups of coffee. I scratch my arm, lifting my sleeve, and her eyes follow the motion. Her brow creases.
I pull my arm back and manage a smile. “It’s nothing. I’m clumsy, you know that.”
“You’ve never been clumsy before.”
She stares at me for so long, I feel like I’m withering. Then she looks away and a strange hush hangs over the table. Eventually we fill it, but our voices hold a strange weight. Maybe we just don’t have that much in common anymore.
We call in sick and spend all day in bed. He makes breakfast. I make lunch. We watch movies and, in between, make love.
“I love you,” he whispers in my ear. “I’ve loved you since the first minute I saw you. I knew you were the one. You are everything to me. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.”
“You’ll never lose me,” I say.
“Promise me. Promise you’ll never leave me.”
And I mean it. He is my everything, too. We make love again. My thighs ache; my heart aches even more. This is real. This is love. It’s supposed to hurt.
I know I’ve said the wrong thing the second the words are past my lips. The apologies spill out like buttons from an overturned jar, but it’s too late.
His mouth sets in a thin line, and his eyes go flinty dark. The storm rushes in. Pulls the breath from my lungs. Wind scours my cheeks; the crackle of electricity dances in the air. I want to run, but there’s no way to escape and if I try, it will only make things worse.
The first rip comes fast and hard, so quick it takes a moment for the pain to catch up. And again, the fabric splits with an ugly sound. I fall to my knees and pray this storm will have a quick end. I smell a sharp tang of metal and salt.
“Why do you make me do this?” he says over and over.
But we both know why. If my lining were made of denim, not lace, this wouldn’t happen. Maybe if I’m torn apart and stitched back together enough, I’ll be strong enough to make him happy all the time. I know he doesn’t want to hurt me. Not really. He wants me to be strong.
After the shriek of the wind dies down, he goes to fetch the needle. His hands are gentle, and when we kiss, I taste a ray of sunlight on his lips.
Maybe one day I’ll be his sun.
“I love you,” he says.
I know he does. I have three new sets of stitches as proof.
In the dark, I run my hands across my lining. Trace one fingertip along the new stitches. A part of him, now a part of me. I wonder if there are other women with threads of him still inside them, but I push away the thought before it can take hold.
It doesn’t matter anyway. I am his everything.
“You shouldn’t have to work so hard,” he says one night when I come home late from the office. “We don’t need the money anyway. I make enough for both of us.”
My boss doesn’t say anything when I tell her I’m leaving, but her eyes show disapproval. Or maybe it’s just jealousy because she doesn’t have anyone to take care of her.
“You don’t need anyone but me,” he says.
“I love you,” he says.
“Promise me,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” he doesn’t say, but the needle and thread says it for him.
He takes me shopping.
He picks: A red dress, a black dress, a nightgown trimmed with pink ribbons.
Renee calls. I reach for the phone, but he kisses me until I forget about everything and everyone else.
I cook his favorite foods. Pour his favorite wine. Breathe him in. Trace the stitches in the darkness. His. Mine. His. Mine.
Renee calls again. I don’t answer.
“I don’t need anyone but you,” I say.
“I love you,” I say.
“I promise,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He presents the ring one night after love. I hesitate a moment too long, but I don’t mean to. The word yes gets caught in my throat, all tangled up in the want and the need and the thought of forever.
The storm blows in and out again, leaving behind a neat line of stitches below my right eye. The first I won’t be able to hide. But it’s okay because now everyone can see that I belong to him.
I sneak out to surprise him with coffee and bagels and as I walk in the cafe, Renee is walking out. She stops. Pulls me aside. Touches my face.
“It’s nothing,” I say. “I bumped into —”
“Stop this,” she says.
“What are you talking about?”
I step away because I need to get back before he wakes up. I should’ve left a note.
“What did he do?”
“Nothing, he did nothing. It was an accident.”
She shakes her head. “What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing is wrong.”
I need to hurry. I wish she’d shut up. When I take another step, she grabs my arm. Sees the ring.
“I don’t know why you stay with him, but this isn’t love. This is something perverse and broken. You are better than this.”
I wrench my arm from her grasp. She doesn’t know anything. She doesn’t know the shape his mouth makes when he says my name, the spark in his eyes, the way I feel his touch on my skin for days, the way his stitches are making me whole. Of course it’s love. If she were truly my friend, she’d be happy for me.
And she isn’t right.
I’m not broken.
“For always?” I ask.
I touch the ring to my lower lip. Gently, so as not to tug on the stitches there.
When he comes home from work, I see the gathering clouds. I keep my voice low. Tiptoe through the room. I don’t ask him what’s wrong. He’ll tell me if he wants to, and if he doesn’t, it isn’t anything I need to know.
After we eat, I put on the beribboned nightgown, tug my hair from its ponytail, and give him the smile he likes best.
The clouds swirl anew. For the first time, I scream. He covers my mouth so no one will hear. One, two, three tears, and I feel the rips deeper and wider than ever before. He plucks threads from himself with a grimace, slides the needle in. He doesn’t speak. Doesn’t kiss me when he finishes, just tosses the needle aside and glares at me with empty eyes. No storm. No sun. Nothing.
The stitches are crooked and I find a piece of lace on the floor. I hold it in my hand. This is the first time he’s torn a piece free. I replay the night, trying to figure out what I did wrong.
When he falls asleep, I reach out my hand. The burlap is so rough, my lace catches. This pain is new. Different. But I don’t make a sound. I know better.
“For always?” I ask.
“Finish your coffee,” he says.
I sense, not see, the clouds almost every day. His words hold the echo of thunder, the weight of a tsunami. The house fills with a hush. It hurts, this waiting.
I find strands of burlap on the counter. Entwined in the carpet. Stuck to the shower curtain. I collect them all and wish I could thread them back in while he sleeps but I’m afraid to try. I twist them together and tie them around my wrist instead.
I find bits of lace, but I throw them away.
He reaches for me in the night. I taste the heat of ozone on his lips. He pushes my face in the pillow and we pretend to make love.
In the morning there is a new tear in my lining. He sees the rip, I know he does, but he doesn’t pull a strand of himself free. He doesn’t get the needle. I don’t know how to fix it, so I cover it with a scarf.
I remember our first date — wine and roses. A perfect cliché. After dinner, he walked me to my door, brushed my hair back from my face, and kissed me. He left so quickly, I barely heard his footfalls on the pavement.
He brought me a single rose on our second date. And on our third and our fourth. I don’t remember how we went from there to here. I don’t remember who I was before I met him.
(Would she recognize me?)
I call Renee, but when she answers, I hang up. She calls back, but I pretend not to hear the phone ring.
When the storm finally comes, there’s no warning. There are no words. He pushes me to the floor and rips and rips and rips. I can’t cry or scream, the pain is too big. I’m drowning in the waves and every time I come up for air, the wind pushes me back down.
I beg him to stop, to let me go. I hate the sound of my voice. I hate the taste of my tears. And I go under again.
When the water recedes, my head is in his lap. He touches my cheek, my lip, brushes my hair back from my forehead.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
But it’s too late. I see pieces of lace caught between his teeth and under his nails. I pull free and try to crawl away, but he won’t let me go.
He brings out the needle.
“No,” I say. “No.”
“Shhh,” he says, and plucks a strand free from his arm.
I stare at the wall as the needle slides in. It doesn’t even hurt anymore. I didn’t know it would be like this.
But I love him
He kisses me on the forehead before he goes to work. I curl up in the middle of the bed and trace my fingers over the stitches. I can’t even see where he ends and I begin.
I pluck one of his strands free, and it leaves an ugly mark behind, all twisted and uneven. Maybe love always leaves scars. I reach for the needle, but my hands are shaking. I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t know how to fix me. And inside, I am cold, so cold, as if a blizzard blew in when I wasn’t looking.
I pull another strand free. Then another. And another. Snowmelt blurs my vision, but my fingers don’t stop. His strands aren’t strong, they’re sharp, cutting the soft pads of my fingers. The pain is bright. Hard. My mouth works, but not a sound emerges.
He would be proud of that.
The bed is littered with a hundred pieces of him and a hundred pieces of me that broke off in the process. My lining is full of holes, like a dress left too long in an attic trunk.
I climb out of bed. Arrange all the loose threads in the shape of a woman. She has no voice, no opinions, no needs. I slide the ring from my finger and slip it on hers. Maybe he won’t even notice the change.
I wipe the tears away, but they won’t stop, and my heart is a tangled knot. I struggle to catch my breath. Stumble as I try to walk. I think of calling Renee, but I’m afraid of what she might say. I’m afraid she might want to help, and I don’t want her to see who, what, I’ve become.
Threads are still unraveling, falling to the floor in a trail of broken. He can have those, too. I leave the front door open behind me because if I touch it again, I might change my mind and I know I can’t. His threads were never meant to hold me together.
The clouds outside are grey, like my heart. I turn my face up to the sky and rain mixes with my tears. I make it to the end of the street, turn right, and keep walking. More threads drift free. Am I a patchwork doll leaking from the seams or a snake shedding the old to reveal a new?
I don’t know how far I’ll get before my lining gives way completely. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to face a sun. I don’t know if there’s anything left of me at all.