People with Wings by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Gideon’s knife moved softly, swiftly, over the white card. My hair was wet from the post-work shower and I stood way back so as not to splotch my husband’s work. It always looked less like cutting and more like stroking. Apparently, a repeated caress was more effective at creating a clean break than a single swipe.
“Gideon?” I asked.
“Mmm.” He’d set up on our kitchen table. The X-ACTO knife was in his left hand and his right steadied the cardboard. His sleeves were rolled up, and his exposed elbows looked small and tender and rabbit-nose pink. I liked their delicacy.
“I’m taking the eight-thirty train tomorrow,” I said. Once a month, work required that I go to our Edinburgh branch office.
“That’s good,” he replied, attention on the card. After all, this information did not pertain to him. Not once in five years of marriage had he taken me to Kings Cross. But Gideon was an academic. On non-meeting-non-teaching days he set his own hours. It was perfectly possible for him see me to the station.
Then again, I’d never asked. I had a routine. I permitted myself the luxury of a cab. Inside, I sipped from my thermos of jasmine tea. It was thin and tall, like the baton in a relay race. As a schoolgirl, I’d enjoyed the relay and now I ran alone in the park. Strange at thirty-nine to long for things I did when I was nine. But there it was. I remembered the feel of the baton smacking into my open palm, the faith I had that it would land.
The wish to be escorted was unfamiliar. And yet—
He lifted the card to the light. Our halogens shone through the knife’s path but the separation was incomplete. He began again. I’d seen enough of his mockups to know the finished model would be pristine. My husband’s first degree had been in architecture; his second in architectural history; and his PhD had so many qualifiers it was hard even for me, his wife, to remember. The work he did now was cross-disciplinary—art history with philosophy, sociology and psychology slopped on top. The model was so delicate that it was hard to remember that it was a prison he was reproducing. He modelled each site he studied, before he began to write anything. He said it helped him understand spaces without the photographer’s bias. I’d seen the photos of the small dark room, of which this was supposed to be the miniature.
“Fuck,” he said. Blood budded on his index finger. He jammed it in his mouth.
I grabbed tissues from the kitchen counter. “You should stop,” I said. “You’re tired. You need to eat.” Even to myself, I sounded like the impersonation of a wife.
My phone buzzed, and I turned it face down on the counter.
I lived in a wealthy city in a rich-ish country. I had my own secretary. And yet I wanted Gideon to offer to take me to the station. It was a lot to want, but also not so much. I wasn’t asking for jewelry, or for him to pay our mortgage—that was my job. Just a smile, and an I’ll miss you, shall I take you to the station?
“Shakshuka alright for dinner?” I asked, “The BBC’s recipe looks pretty good. And it shouldn’t take too long.”
“I can cook if you give me a minute,” he said.
“I’ll start, you can finish.” I laid out the onion on the chopping board, waiting until the very end to cut the roots. It was a trick I’d learned that helped me not to cry. I clicked on the convection stovetop and as always it was smokeless, flameless, lightless, emitting only invisible heat. Bell peppers and tomatoes I disposed of with the efficient rock of the knife my mother had taught me. I heard the shuffle of cardboard being laid to the side. Then he was next to me, so close that I could see the white down of his earlobe.
I said, “I’m staying with Marie as usual.” Marie was a colleague who Gideon had never met but who I’d often told him about. She was in Marketing. She collected llama stationery. She made her own hummus.
“That’s good,” he replied. “Are we adding sausages?”
“The recipe doesn’t call for it. But we could.”
Gideon took over the stovetop. His brown hair was embroidered with white threads. My own hair was still black. The Chinese side of my family had good hair genes so I had reason to hope it would stay dark for at least another decade. What would Gideon look like if I didn’t know him? Middle-aged men were strange creatures. Some were boyish while others stooped like old men. Gideon was lean and tall. He even had good feet. I glanced down on them they splayed on our terracotta tiles. They were large and clean, the toenails well trimmed. Even his clockwise stirring had an exactitude that I admired.
I chopped then dropped in the meat. The smell of sausage thickened the kitchen’s air. White diamonds of fat gleamed from the pan. My husband was a kind man who was cooking dinner by my side.
I could be a better wife, a kinder wife, if only he’d take me to the station. I glanced across to the corner where my packed case stood. The russet suitcase held exactly two days of clothes, a file, my laptop, heels, and a snack for the train. For the first time, I thought it was the exact colour of a Polish sausage.
My mother always said that the key to making a relationship work was not asking for what the other person couldn’t give. I found that it was best to take care of things yourself and then you didn’t have to ask for anything at all. Still the request slithered on my tongue. To smother it I asked, “How long do you think the shed will take?” The white cardboard model was to be a mock up of the shed deep in Finland, where a man had locked up his daughter for fifteen years.
My husband’s first book was on the architecture of genocide: prison camps, human-testing laboratories, deadly communes. It was a topic that was in great demand at conferences. He’d been commended for the Public Appeal of his work.
“Maybe sometime tomorrow. Then I can start writing properly. I think Hildie’s going to be the best way into the book. People find it easier to sympathize with an individual.” All the tabloids had printed her face—each eye a teaspoon of misery.
I swept away the tatters of card from the table, collecting them in the cup of my hand. Was there any good to be had in recycling such small fragments? It was hard to know what was worth saving.
He swilled in the canned tomato. The red bubbled and the kitchen fan gulped up the steam. The book in progress was on decoration by captives— The Ornament of Rebellion. The idea had come from the gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp gate, which announces—Jedem Das Seine, to each what they are due. The guards forced an inmate Franz Ehrlich to design gate and slogan. He picked out the letters in an art style the Nazis had declared degenerate. The sinuous Bauhaus seems to promise quite a different message than the one intended.
“Even Hildie, a little girl in a shed, who’d never been allowed to learn any history, who didn’t know anything about anything, she still tried to make her walls her own.” Gideon often sounded out sentences that I’d later see in print. He went on for a bit outlining how he thought the chapter might go.
“It’s almost ready,” he said.
He gestured to the pan. “If you wouldn’t mind getting the plates.”
Gideon had chosen the plates. They were rimmed by a thick blue band and were heavy in a good way, the way the weight of a lover’s arm looped around one’s shoulder should be a little heavy.
Take me to the station thrashed in my mouth, but it seemed gauche to bring it up after his mini-lecture on the universality of the struggle between captor and captive. It was just that maybe if he came for that first step of the journey, I’d have the strength to leave Lachlan. Gideon hit the eggs one by one against the edge of the bowl then splayed them in the sauce. The yolks glistened bright as the grease on a teenager’s forehead. I wondered if Hildie had acne by now. It was a horrible thing to think, the sort of question that would never occur to Gideon.
“I love you,” I said.
Gideon took a spatula from the jug. We had three different spatulas and I never knew which was right to use. He always did. Gideon plated up and I poured tap water into our tall drinking glasses. I took two beers from the fridge and cracked the caps open. He sprinkled a few extra grains of salt on my eggs, as I liked them. And then the duet of dinner making was done. I thought, see how Gideon loves you, see the eggs.
“I love you too,” Gideon said, after he’d swallowed half the plate. A full five minutes had passed. That was married love: he could afford to take five minutes before replying. He knew I would wait.
“This is delicious,” I said. “You always say that,” he said.
“It’s always delicious.”
Our friends marveled that we didn’t have children. We were so perfect together. But I wanted to concentrate on my career, and Gideon didn’t want to bring daughters into a world where girls were locked in sheds.
“Do you think if I leave at seven that will be enough time to make the train?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said.
The problem was that it was so stupid. Why did I think one cab journey would make a difference? What would it accomplish, other than a slog home for him? But as we ate, I couldn’t help imagining our knees touching in the cab. The dawn that I always saw alone would fall across his face too. He’d prop the little red case between us, and keep it from rolling from side to side.
“Another beer?” I asked.
“I’m good,” he said and leant back in his chair. Our flat was in a converted council house. It had been cheaply and quickly built. Draughts came in from holes we could not see. But the window was vast and let in a great sweep of pinkening sky.
Thank you for covering for me again, I texted Marie.
You owe me, she replied. The next text was a martini image. Did the victims of familial imprisonment use emojis the same way the rest of us did? That could be Gideon’s third book.
“You know what I can’t get over?” he said, “Hildie painted angels. She sat in the dark and painted angels. What do you think she had to do to get him to give her the paints? If she were Catholic, they’d probably make her a saint. Can you imagine it? Angels? I mean if I was trapped in the dark, I’d paint demons.”
“How do we know they were angels?” I asked.
“I mean they’re people with wings, right? But you say the girl won’t talk to anyone.
So how do we know they’re angels? Maybe they’re just people with wings. Maybe they’re her flying away.”
“You’ve got a point.”
For a moment, I thought of the girl’s face. It was such a normal looking face, far too boring for torture. It was the sort of face you expected to see on your least popular school-friend.
“Darling?” I said. “This is stupid, but would you mind coming with me in the cab tomorrow?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it.”
“Do you have to carry something?”
“Just the usual.” I gestured to the case, which waited calmly as ever.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about it. It was just a stupid thought.” I stood and grabbed the pan. The cold water shouted out of the tap. “Don’t want this to coagulate,” I yelled over the gush.
“I love it when you use big words.”
We were only two years away from the seven-year itch. But look how happy we were.
He came up behind me, and kissed my neck. The flat was a little cold and his mouth was warm. It made me think of ice cream and hot chocolate sauce, neither of which I had eaten for years. I stood with my hands on the sink’s edge, and curled my spine so our bodies pressed together, like the leaves of a book bending as one. His hands moved under my shirt. He snuffled my neck. Gideon always got more energetic before I went away, as if marking me. But no one in Scotland had ever smelled him on me no matter how vigorous his efforts.
“Bedroom,” he said. And we walked there. In all my relationships, and all my years of marriage, I’d never found a good way of getting to the bedroom. The drama of desire gave way to the practicalities of going to the bathroom or removing the laptops from the bed. And in that intermission, the whole endeavor felt ridiculous.
Once, when we were only dating, Gideon and I had taken the train together for a long weekend away. I wondered if he remembered the view. The whole journey he had run his hands up the inseam of my jeans back and forth, back and forth. And here above me, Gideon moved back and forth and back and forth. And all the blood rushed through my body, as I looked at Gideon now and thought of Gideon past.
In our sweat-hot bed, I said, “Come with me to the station tomorrow.”
“I promised Alexia a call at nine about that panel she’s chairing,” he said. “I mean do you need me to?”
“Don’t worry about it. It was a stupid idea.”
“If you’d given me more notice,” he said, “I’d have been happy to go.”
I looked at his face, and thought that I could see the love there. It was in the way his eyebrows were pushed together. It was in the loose smile, the way it dawdled on his face.
“I think, I’m going to run the chapter idea past her,” he said. “I just want a woman’s opinion on the whole Hildie angle—an academic woman I mean.”
When Gideon had shown me the photos, it was the bucket that the girl had to squat over to shit in that I noticed first. I wondered if she’d balanced on the edge. I felt for a minute the way a semi-circle of cool metal would dig into my own skin. Maybe she knew how to crouch and had grown strong calves in the dark. Did she think of angels then?
“When we fuck, are you thinking about her?” I asked.
“Who? Alexia? She’s a billion years old.”
“No, not Alexia. Do you think about Hildie and her angels?”
“Of course not.”
“Why? She’s pretty. She’s twenty-two.”
“She’s a trauma victim. She’s had a terrible life.”
“So? It’s not like you’re hurting her, if you think about her while you fuck your wife. She’ll never know. She doesn’t even know who you are. Doesn’t that bother you sometimes? That you spend all this time thinking about these people and most of them don’t even know who you are?”
“They’re dead, darling. They are mostly dead. And you’re being crazy.”
“Fine. Yes. I’ll go brush my teeth.”
The electric toothbrush was advanced. It beeped to tell me that I was done, and that my teeth were as clean as they were going to get. I kept brushing. I waited to see if Gideon would come check in on me. But he didn’t. Of course, he didn’t. I was in the wrong, and I knew that. Of course, my husband didn’t think about Hildie while we were having sex. None of the girls in the vanilla porn videos saved on his computer looked even a bit like Hildie.
When I came back into the bedroom, my husband had turned off the light. I sat on the edge of the bed, and looked at the Z of his maybe-sleeping body.
See you tomorrow, I texted Lachlan.
Isn’t it today already?
The phone told me that it was 00:03.
I always thought that people who texted their lovers were trying to get caught until I had one of my own. And then it was just something I slipped into. Also, the word lover always made me think of an Italian with a white silk scarf. Lachlan was skinny. He worked in management. He pronounced office off-us and his idea of a romantic night out was eating chips on a park bench together and sucking the salt off my fingers.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Gideon rolled around. I wondered if Hildie could see her father’s eyes in the dark. I continued, “Sometimes, the problems you look at, they just feel so big. And I feel really small. You know? Like what right do I have to want you to come to the station with me or to eat shakshuka or to have nice stuff, or want anything at all.”
“The world is shit,” Gideon said. “And we’re all trapped in it.” His hand found the back of my hand. “But you’re my angel.”
I slipped deep down into the sheets, and took hold of his arm, wrapping my whole body around it. He still hadn’t offered to take me to the station.
I woke up before Gideon. Hildie’s prison lay half constructed and untenanted on a kitchen chair. I considered doing something awful to it. Instead, I filled the thermos. As I waited on the curb for the cab, the rim of the moon broke through the sky. It took a while to come and I stared at our tower block, amazed as always, at how hard it was to know which window was mine.
The work in Edinburgh was easy. Lachlan had been giving me updates, and I was up to speed with most of what was going on. This gave us plenty of time. We went back to his place, which smelled of his cat: Adam Smith, a big ginger tom. I thought always with a name that Scottish, Lachlan should be ginger, but he was wheat-blonde.
I sat on his sofa, cat hair crisscrossing my tights, while he cooked. Soon the smell of tomatoes was swirled into the smell of cat.
“What’s for dinner?” I asked.
“Shakshuka,” he said. “Got it from this recipe on the BBC.”
The second rule of having an affair is not to tell your lover that you spend time with him in the same way you do with your husband. (The first rule, of course, is don’t tell your husband anything at all.) I considered texting Marie, but Adam Smith was sitting on my handbag. He was so fat that the only thing that could be seen was the strap.
“What do you think of the Hildie Nylund case?” I asked.
“What?” Lachlan said. “Was that the guy who stole all the money from that fund?” “No,” I said, “That was someone else.”
Who was in Lachlan’s pantheon of horrors? Maybe he didn’t have one. Advantage of having a lover, I thought: new monsters. That didn’t seem like a very good perk, so I got up and went to him and kissed his neck and blew on the sauce. It tasted sweet and salty and fruity, with only the slightest overtones of Adam Smith.
“Perfect,” I said.
He turned off the sauce and we fucked on the sofa. Adam Smith watched us through golden eyes. Afterwards, Lachlan stood to finish cooking, but I waved him away, telling him that I wasn’t hungry. There was an ache that grew from just under my ribs to my pelvis, but I didn’t want to eat the cat-rank eggs.
“Would you take me to the station tomorrow if I asked?”
“Of course,” my lover said. “Do you want me to?”
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is a Japanese-British-Chinese-American writer. She is the author of Harmless Like You. Her short writing has appeared in, among other places, the Guardian, Granta, Guernica and The Harvard Review. She has a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is working on a PhD at the University of East Anglia. She has received a Margins fellowship for the Asian American Writers Workshop, and residencies from Gladstone Library, Hedgebrook, and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony.