by Charlotte Freccia
Clara Richardson had two sisters, and of the three of them, Clara was the least beautiful and had the least interesting name. Clara’s older sister, Eliora, had a long neck and symmetrical, almondine eyes. Clara’s younger sister, Opal, had generous, well-lit brown hair and the most elegant nose anyone had ever seen. Their mother, Violet, herself quite beautiful, had evidently distributed pretty names and genetic gifts unevenly among her three daughters, though of no real predetermined fault of her own. However, as the light came up on the long entr’acte of the Richardsons’ shared girlhood, it became abundantly clear that Violet, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps helplessly, had allocated her affection for her daughters proportionally to their beauty, and to the beauty of the names she’d chosen for them. Clara didn’t consciously catch on to this pattern of preference until she was about nine, and now, thirty years later, the moment when it dawned on her was blurry around the edges. She remembered walking down Clinton Street toward Radio Park Elementary School, her sisters side-by-side, in step, their gleaming hair and gleaming tin lunch boxes catching the watery September sunlight as it peeked cautiously through the canopy of ancient, reaching oaks which shaded their street. She remembered walking behind her sisters, uncomfortably close, stepping on heels in order to enforce her own inclusion, because the sidewalk was not wide enough for three girls to walk across it together. Her own lunch box, as she remembered it, was scuffed where her sisters’ were shiny, a hand-me-down, cast off by a neighbor’s wasteful only child. There had also been the times, in childhood, when Clara would wake up in the bedroom she shared with her sisters and one or more of them would be out of bed, and she would stumble from the room and stand on the stairs and listen to Eliora or Opal or sometimes both sitting at the kitchen table with their mother, slurping juice, and Clara would calmly acknowledge her frank segregation from this loose coalition of feminine alliance as if it was another person, another less-loved sister, in the room with her.
Clara had grown up relentlessly utilitarian, and as an adult she figured that her pragmatism was a result of not being spoiled by sponge-soft adoration in her childhood. In a way, she liked to think, she had been spared from a more unhappy adulthood by the lovelessness she had experienced as a young girl. Retroactively, she thought, and with tongue placed firmly in cheek, she ought to thank her mother for loving her so haphazardly, so incompletely, that she would never be let down or disappointed when she looked for love in the real world. Retroactively, she admonished herself for believing that there was a real world of romantic love out there for her to yet discover. Retroactively, she wondered if she’d broken her own heart by believing that her mother had really loved her less than her sisters: in her worst moments, she fretted that she made it all up, that the moments she remembered from her childhood hadn’t happened to her at all but were merely things she had seen done to unwanted children in fairy-tale movies.
No one in Willoughby had to know this, though. No one in Willoughby had to know any of it.
Clara worked part-time at Cup & Caboodle, the charming, well-lit coffee shop where Willoughby wives stopped mid-morning for post-yoga, pre-tennis cold-brew cappuccinos, one part almond milk, one part fat-free foam. Clara couldn’t think of anything more specific or more professional-sounding than Worker when Facebook asked her what she did at Cup & Caboodle, because she felt she was too old to self-seriously identify as a barista. Despite––in fact because of––its unremarkable implications, Clara appreciated her job at Cup & Caboodle, because every day the stakes of her personal performance were about as low as they could possibly be. Clara had really only ever wanted to work in coffee shops, bookstores, and ice-cream parlors, because she had never had any career ambitions beyond providing people with their simplest and most durable pleasures.
In fact, the only thing she could really remember wanting to be when she was a girl had been quickly and convincingly talked down by her mother herself. Enamored of the look of her dull-brown hair in a hairnetted, bobby-pinned, lopsided bun and her spindly limbs contorted into some contrived posture in a wall-to-wall panelled mirror, Clara had for a time nursed dreams of becoming a ballerina. She had been, at the time, conventional enough to believe that a ballerina was the most glamorous thing a girl could be. She must have believed that the glamor of her chosen profession would imbue her with the kind of beauty that her sisters had simply been born with. The ideas of beauty and balletic talent were constantly negotiated and renegotiated in her own mind. She was ironically encouraged by the child at the helm of The Nutcracker, every budding dancer’s favorite ballet, with whom Clara shared a name as well as an overactive imagination. Her sisters were in many visible respects more special than Clara, but neither of them shared a name with a balletic heroine. Clara could––and did––hold onto that.
Understanding this, and somewhat sympathetically fearing the fate of her unloveliest daughter who so affectionately harbored dance dreams, Clara’s mother yanked her out of lessons at age six, signing Clara up for gymnastics at State College Family YMCA in dance’s stead. This change to Clara’s burgeoning artistic life proved inconsequential. The differences between a ballet leotard and a gymnastics leotard, and how an unbecoming child looked in both, were scant enough to replace Clara’s fondness for ballet with a tolerance for gymnastics. Both involved mirrors and padded floors and the making of the body into something more powerful and more beautiful and more frightening than it already was. She had actually been quite good at gymnastics: she had the kind of compact, muscular density that suits a gymnast’s body better than a dancer’s, and at night she stretched her rectangular back while her mother rolled her little feet over a sealed mason jar filled with boiling water so she could evolve in both flexibility and stamina at once. She competed in gymnastics until the seventh grade, when early puberty widened her hips so that her balance suffered, and she fell off a beam onto an ancient, petrified blue plastic mat at a competition site in Lewiston and damaged her rotator cuff, ending her gymnastics career preternaturally and permanently.
Nearing middle-age, Clara appreciated her job at the Cup & Caboodle because it gave her ample free time to explore interests she’d pushed aside in her pursuit of an adult life. She lived in a one-bedroom studio above a hair salon down the block from the Cup & Caboodle with new carpeting and lots of light and the smell of sodium thioglycolate moving in through the cracks in the floors which did not require too much housekeeping. Between her small, well-kept apartment and her undemanding entry-level job, Clara made plenty of time for what she called her extracurriculars, and slowly they became the most reliable thing in her life.
Clara had recently engaged with an extracurricular named Peter Price. He was the seventh-grade science teacher at Eastlake Middle School, and he came to her apartment twice weekly: Monday afternoons, just after the final bell rang at the middle school at 3:30, and Thursday evenings, after he finished coaching the boys’ seventh-grade basketball team at 7:20. Peter fucked the way a seventh-grade science teacher might be expected to, with the glaring exception of his active katoptronophilia. Clara did not mind indulging this taste, and furnished her apartment with panelled mirrors of the kind she had loved to dance in as a child. Peter appreciated this touch. Peter had spectacular ear hair and a concave chest, and he unselfconsciously wore long-sleeved polo shirts. Peter’s wife, Erica, was a teacher, too––eighth-grade U.S. History––and as such drank her coffee in the teacher’s lounge at Eastlake, so Clara had never met her. She could imagine her well enough, though.
Another extracurricular Clara enjoyed was named Caleb Bunting. He was the most successful residential real estate agent in Willoughby, or at least the one whose name and face appeared the most frequently on for-sale signs planted in yards throughout town. Caleb came to her apartment three or four times a week. He was fond of afternooners, and she could easily fit him in on Mondays at 2 before Peter, ever reliable, came over at 3:30. Caleb fucked the way a man who would willingly invoke his own smug face in strangers’ lawns might be expected to. He loved Clara’s breasts, and she let him. He appreciated her amenability, as far as her own breasts were concerned. Caleb had thinning sandy hair and a stubby little dick, and he drove a fire-engine red Mazda Miata. Caleb’s wife, Bethany, had a pinched little face and long white-blonde hair which she wore clipped back in barrettes, like a middle-school girl. Bethany owned the dog-grooming service which operated adjacent to the salon below Clara’s apartment, so she had seen her coming and going many times. Caleb himself had to have had seen his wife coming and going many times, but Clara got the feeling that such frequent narrow misses made his involvement with Clara so much more thrilling to Caleb. Bethany was a conventional Starbucks bitch, so Clara had never had to suffer the vaguely pleasant indignity of pouring Bethany’s coffee at the Cup & Caboodle. Recently, Caleb had begun floating the idea––he must have thought that he was being subtle––of a threesome, and Clara could only imagine the way that Bethany would react to that.
Clara’s most demanding extracurricular was named Eli Nicks. She wasn’t entirely sure what he did but she knew he worked in the city because he often came to her apartment, sweaty and harried and swinging his briefcase, at 1 or 5:20 PM, saying out of the corner of his mouth that his escape from the office was only temporary. He fucked the way a man who was always in a hurry might be expected to––he took very little to wind up, but quite a long time to wind down. Clara spent the majority of the time which constituted their frenetic trysts with Eli’s face buried in her breastbone, feeling clouds of condensation bloom over her heart as he inhaled and rapidly exhaled. He often asked her if she could use suspiciously specific nicknames as she guided him through sex: sugar bun, licorice, honeydew. Eli had a heavy, expensive watch which he didn’t take off when he fucked her and a big house out in the subdivisions and wiry hair on his back. Eli’s wife, Lena, was beloved in Willoughby because she had spearheaded the Lake Cleanup Initiative and the Moms Against Animal Testing Coalition, and everyone said she was a serious activist. She was appropriately honey-haired and long-limbed and trim, but her ass still moved like Jell-O on a plate in her yoga pants which she often wore when she stopped by the Cup & Caboodle after Samira’s 11:30 Tuesday/Thursday yogilates class.
Clara regularly had sex seven days a week, and sometimes more than once per day. It was a tricky game she played, like a high-stakes, sexually-charged version of Tetris, fitting each man, with his own specific demands and constraints, into her daily schedule. As for herself, she had no particular preferences but that her meetings with her various men occur only in her space. Each had, at some point, suggested some sort of romantic getaway––Peter wanted to bring her to a campsite in Cuyahoga Valley where he’d once led his son’s Cub Scout troop on a camping trip; Caleb proposed an afternoon at the Renaissance Cleveland; and Eli offered to take her out to his vacation home on the lake––but the idea of moving her sexual life out of the protective boundaries of her own apartment shook Clara. Then again, she hated to think of her place as a pleasure palace. Her little shampoo-scented apartment, decorated with the extensive collection of hummingbird regalia she’d sustained throughout her marriage, the only operative brothel in Willoughby! But she had to admit she did little to prevent this conception from developing. It was a funny thing how open secrets in small towns were only open to certain people, while remaining closed, or at least closeted, to others. She knew that the men of Willoughby knew that if you wanted to cheat on your wife, you could get away with doing it with Clara Richardson. She knew it by the way wives––in their recognizable getups of yoga pants or frumpy sundresses or ancient corduroy pants with the asses worn saggy––moved away from her in the supermarket, at the car wash. She knew it in the way their husbands looked at her while looking over the lunch meat, while unhooking the vacuum tubes. It was like she couldn’t help it: peoples’ husbands were drawn to her. She had started seeing Eli––his words––when they met across the vitamins aisle of Sweeney’s Pharmacy. Her relationship with Caleb––his words––developed after he came into the shop for a cup of coffee with a client. Peter had simply approached her in the street.
Nothing shocked her anymore. This was Willoughby. She knew it like a dog knew a fire hydrant––innately, intuitively, indifferently. She had come here with her husband and she remained here without him. After her divorce but before she began engaging so enthusiastically with her extracurriculars––there had been a little window of time––she had had little reason to stay in Willoughby, but she took it as a sign that she had chosen to rent the apartment above the salon before the divorce papers were notarized that she should not go away. She had nowhere to be, really, but here, and she would stay here indefinitely. She would not wait until heartbreak or boredom chased her away. She had, already, in certain senses, had her heart broken. She had, already, succumbed to boredom. And here she remained. Among the men who wanted to fuck her and the women who drove them, panting and desperate, to her apartment door. The women who believed that a ring, a ceremony, a solemn promise meant they could finally give up the dieting and the waxing and the pushing the progressively bluer pills through clear plastic and the long nights of masturbation and the short nights of anorgasmic sex and the men who knew that the women would never actually give up on any of these things because even after the marriage there was no way to call off the competition among women to get picked first, picked fast, picked well, and stay picked. Clara knew that men would always continue the hunt no matter how many women threw their bodies against theirs, gave their bodies up as prey. She knew the Willoughby wives knew this too, but they had more reasons to keep quiet about it than she did. And with her extracurriculars, she never had to worry about staying picked. She knew the terms of her trysts not by heart but by body, and they were the only terms she had ever trusted.
Clara fucked reliably and patiently and sufficiently. When she had sex she was almost without fail on the bottom, where she could fix herself exactly and expertly according to the certain gaze of whichever man hovered waitingly above her. She had a low, sweet voice and a very expressive face, and both of these augmented her sexuality greatly. She took care of herself. And, besides, she had that apartment! So pretty, so fragrant. The men she fucked often swore she was the perfect woman before kissing her sinking cheeks like an unmarried aunt with bad breath and returning home to their wives.
Clara loved divorce. She loved the defensive, savage vocabulary of it: loved the words alimony, condonation, corroborative witness. She loved the easy out of it––to others, marriage may have seemed like the biggest and most important commitment one could possibly make in their whole life, but Clara failed to see how marriage was protected or protectible when divorces existed and in fact colonized marriages with such reliable speed and frequency. “You shouldn’t refer to divorce as an ‘easy out,’” admonished her sisters when they went to Clara for advice in dealing with their hapless, handsome husbands and she urged them to divorce, as she was, she believed, inevitably going to do one day, as she, eventually, did. “I think most people who have been through divorce would argue that it’s anything but easy.” Clara only smiled, close-lipped, polite, when her sisters tried to lecture her.
Clara believed in divorce. She believed in it the way some people believe in love or money or God. She believed that she had married just so she could one day divorce. Clara did not care about getting picked, which was, she thought, the whole point of marriage: picking someone and expecting that they picked you in return. She had, after all, never felt picked in childhood, and she had expected this lack of being picked to be rectified in that larger world she saw of men and women and the unspeakable things between them. As it happened, she had been picked out in that world, and it didn’t do anything but put her off to the idea of picking entirely. Like the way babies, who had no identity or experience were given names or beauty or dancing lessons, the way that people tripped into marriages on the basis of loose pickings seemed distastefully arbitrary to Clara. Not picking required flexibility and stamina while picking, and being picked in return, required nothing––no nerve or wit or beauty––except a mindless desperation to prove that you meant something––anything––to at least one other person on Earth.
When she married, Clara’s older sister’s name became Eliora Ransom. Clara thought that the poetry of Eliora’s name was moving from the admirable to the unfair. She placated herself by reciting her sister’s full name, first-middle-last-married last: Eliora Renee Richardson Ransom. She stumbled purposefully over the three recalcitrant Rs, standing immobile as mountains. She felt satisfied at the gracelessness of this four-part moniker, just one letter away from spelling the word “error” in monogram. When she married, Clara’s younger sister’s name became Opal Flood. Clara thought that the sheer natural beauty of Opal’s nomenclature was becoming, to use her mother’s word for all that was contemptible or inappropriate, a bit much. She placated herself by thinking this. She thought about her own name, in mutable variations: Clara Richardson. Clara Kulwanoski. Clara Price. Clara Bunting. Clara Nicks. Clara Richardson, again.
When Clara married Alek, she kept her name. Alek’s last name, Kulwanoski, was liberally pronounced by his colleagues, Clara’s disinterested relatives, and anyone asked to repeat it over the phone. It also sounded vaguely like “colonoscopy,” even when pronounced accurately. Alek was a generally gentle and understanding man, and was characteristically accepting of Clara’s decision to keep her name. You’d have to love me a whole lot to change your name for me, he said, and he thought it was a joke, but Clara remembered the couple in the house next door to the one she grew up in, the Hookers, and how she had watched from their adjacent kitchen windows as Mr. and Mrs. Hooker grew old and bitter together, silently and mournfully: she watched Mrs. Hooker cleaning up the kitchen after dinner and retreating upstairs while Mr. Hooker let the blue light of the television lull him to sleep; she watched Mrs. Hooker clip Mr. Hooker’s undershirts, yellowed under the armpits, to the clothesline at the end of each week; she watched the racoons and neighborhood strays search through the Hookers’ trash cans in the alley behind their houses for Mrs. Hooker’s bloodied, curled sanitary napkins, once a month for twenty-three years. Yes, Clara said to Alek, I don’t love you nearly enough to do that, and he laughed, and it was all she could do to smile with her lips stretched tightly over her teeth.
Alek Kulwanoski was an in-house accountant at a small firm which marketed technologically sophisticated baby strollers. He had a massive facial blemish, sustained in a difficult passage through the uterine canal, which swallowed up his eye and dripped down his cheekbone, angrily blood-red, so it looked like he was always balancing a raw steak on the right side of his otherwise unremarkable face. Dogs loved him. Clara loved him, for a little while––after all, he was generally gentle and understanding, and he fucked in a kind of gentle and understanding way which did not surprise or intimidate or offend her, and he was employed. They met in college, in Principles of Business Economics in their sophomore year. At least that was the story that they had told people. Really they were set up on a half-blind date by Alek’s RA, Clara’s friend, Julianne. It was half-blind because Alek had noticed Clara sitting by the door in Principles of Business Economics and had connected her to Julianne and begged his RA to set them up, so she did. This story mortified Clara, and she had managed to subdue him into simplifying the memory, when people used to ask. Clara was Alek’s first. Alek never asked Clara if he had been her first. He hadn’t been. But he was the first man she loved, and she had loved him in spite of his face. For a while, she’d wondered whether she was a bad person, bad woman, bad wife for loving him in spite of his face and not because of it, before letting the thought dissolve noiselessly in the back of her mind.
When Clara married, Clara’s sisters stood at the altar with her. In honor of the occasion––the wedding, and her sisters’ presence at it––Clara intentionally picked the plainest bridesmaids’ gowns she could find. They were high-necked and boxy through the bodice, in an uninspiring blush-pink, even though it was an August wedding and all the flowers were vivid late-summer oranges, golds, and greens, because the color did little for the sisters’ clotted-cream complexions. Still, her sisters outshone her, impetuously, on her wedding day, radiant and warm-skinned and smiling in their pink gowns while Clara gleamed dully in her floor-length white, her lacy veil drawing attention to her wide, prominent forehead and all bunched up in the back.
Before she married, Clara’s sisters privately remarked that her apparent love for such a distinctly marked man proved the oft-reported depth of Clara’s generosity of heart. Once, Clara overheard them, and privately agreed. Before they married, Clara and Alek had had that brief, decisive conversation about her name, and Alek had assumed that she would not take his name because of its coarse, un-American sound. He had only been partly correct in his assumption: it was as if Clara sensed, even before the orange and gold and green August ceremony, that the marriage would eventually expire and that the last thing she’d want to be left with as an immovable talisman of the futility of love was a last name as dubious as Kulwanoski, dead-bolted to her forgettable first name with all the permanence and unloveliness of a license plate dead-bolted to a car.
It was Alek who had led them to Willoughby, and Clara who had followed. They had lived in Philadelphia with everyone else who had attended their college for a few years after graduation, but after a while Alek tired of the sooty history of the city, the groups of high-school students, who moved between monuments in their school-color polo shirts and their long rectangular tour busses. As a grotesquely birth-marked and fundamentally uncompetitive child growing up indoors outside of Allentown, his favorite film had been Major League, and Clara remained convinced that this juvenile proclivity was what put the idea of Cleveland into Alek’s head to begin with. Alek had never mentioned the connection between the film and his desire to move, Clara thought, because even he knew that it would sound absolutely unjustifiable to argue for a move to a city based upon an affection for a Charlie Sheen movie. Instead, he invented a parade of reasons for the move, each one more absurd than the one that came before.
He told Clara he no longer wanted to live in a city on a river and wanted to relocate to a city on a lake. “There’s a river in Cleveland,” Clara had told him as he raved. “It’s actually kind of famous because it was so polluted with chemical waste that it caught on fire, a couple of times.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” said Alek. “Where do you come up with this stuff, anyway?” He wasn’t being cruel when he said it. He was just being positive. Then he told her that they should move while they were still young, explore the world a little. Clara flinched at the thought that moving to Ohio constituted a global adventure in Alek’s mind. He insisted that his employment as an accountant was elastic because people needed accountants everywhere. Before they moved, Clara had worked in the bookshop at the Museum of Art, and Alek had suggested that her employment was mobile too. “Cleveland’s got a great art museum,” he told her. Eventually she tired of trying to convince him otherwise. Her desire to remain in Philadelphia, an unspecial, violent city which she would never love, was just as groundless as Alek’s desire to leave it.
They married shortly after they landed in Willoughby, at Abundant Life Community Church. Clara had not been raised in any religion, and Alek, by birth a Polish Catholic, told her he’d forsaken God as a small child because he could not believe that God would give him a face so damaged without also giving him a superpower. He had told her this on their third date, over ice-cream sundaes brittle with ice in the Student Union. She had not known him long or well enough by this point to know that such a epistemologically consequential decision was radically uncharacteristic of Alek. She also did not know that by that date that Alek had already fallen in love with her. She took his virginity that night, because she guessed that Alek was the kind of boy to lose his virginity after an ice-cream date. Just as he was the kind of boy to insist on getting married in a church on a rocky peak above a lake he pointlessly worshipped, despite his high claims of atheism. Abundant Life was one of those terrifying non-denominational churches common to the midwest, with parking lots like wastelands and cavernous entrances. The most beautiful thing about the space in which Clara and Alek had married had been Clara’s sisters.
Clara had never got around to making friends in Willoughby after she was married, and now that she was divorced, she’d managed to make one. Her name was Claudia and she was a shift manager at Cup & Caboodle and a student at the Institute of Art and sixteen years younger than Clara. She had all manner of exotic facial piercings and no tattoos, though she frequently drew trees and people and fire hydrants up and down her arms with Sharpies. She knew all about Clara’s extracurriculars, and she was the only one who did. Despite her flamboyant appearance, Claudia was actually rather conventional when it came to sex––she had, after all, been raised in Cuyahoga Falls by overweight, evangelical parents named Burt and Rhonda––and asked Claudia innumerable questions about the state of her affairs.
“Why do it?” was the most common one which Clara had only answered once. They had been sitting over chipped mugs of house coffee one morning before their shift started.
“I don’t like monogamy,” Clara responded, because it was the simplest true answer she could give in the fewest words. “Is that so wrong?”
“No,” Claudia had said, drawing back. “I know a lot of kids at art school who are non-monogamous. But they’re all in their twenties, and it’s art school.” Clara shrugged. “What I’m saying is it’s okay to be non-monogamous in certain social spaces,” said Claudia, pushing her pink cat-eye glasses with the non-prescription lenses up her freckled nose. “But this is like suburban Ohio. All the dudes you’re ‘non-monogamous’ with are other people’s dads. And you’re….” She trailed off, suddenly enthralled with something at the bottom of her coffee cup.
“You’re not in your twenties, is all I’m saying.” Claudia had not lifted her head from its dropped position, staring intensely into the depths of the mug.
“So maybe I should get out of suburban Ohio, is what you’re saying. I can’t be free to pursue my sexuality because I live in suburban Ohio, and there’s a certain code of conduct that mandates monogamy in suburban Ohio,” Clara said, affectless.
“Where did you grow up?” Claudia asked, tracing the new Sharpie tattoo she’d drawn in the shape of the state of Ohio on the inside of her wrist. The lines that formed the shape had blurred and bled as Claudia stood over the steamer earlier that morning, so the state now took the amorphous shape of an a-frame house tipped over on its side.
“Pennsylvania,” Clara said flatly.
“Pennsylvania,” Claudia repeated, seeming to chew the word in her mouth. “I’ve never been there. But from what I’ve heard it sounds like a pretty monogamous place to me.” Clara squinted into her coffee mug at the distorted, big-eyed reflection of her own face in the oily, blank blackness. “Why did you come here?” Claudia asked. Her voice filled up the room, sounding hollow and far-away by the time it reached Clara’s ears.
“Monogamy,” Clara said, and swallowed a voluminous mouthful of coffee, feeling the gritty dregs crawl along her tongue.
When Clara and Alek divorced, Clara coordinated meetings in family court, found an apartment to move into, and signed some paperwork. She did not book a venue or buy a dress or worry about the bloody politics of seating arrangements. She was the only one of her sisters to get a divorce. They had transcended her cosmetic, limited beauty all their lives, at her wedding even. But they would not surpass her in this. As far as she was concerned, the divorce was one of the easiest things she could have ever claimed to accomplish. Far easier than the wedding, or the marriage itself.
About the Author:
Charlotte Freccia is a third-year student of English, Creative Writing, and Women’s and Gender Studies at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where she also enjoys an associateship with the Kenyon Review. She is a 2016 winner of the Philip Wolcott Timberlake Writing Award, and has recently published poetry in Zaum Magazine, short fiction in Potluck Magazine, and creative nonfiction in Newfound. Her short story “Young Enough To Be Afraid” was published in Adelaide Literary Magazine in July 2017.