I was out when Lisle found the pictures. She was gone by the time I got home.
Leaving was unlike her, but she did it anyway, packing her things and taking off while I was out doing the Saturday afternoon shopping. She’d left me a note on the kitchen table. I sat down to read it, bags of groceries forgotten as I stared at the slip of pink paper with my envelope tucked underneath.
The note was definitely hers. Lisle wasn’t the kind of girl for a flowery farewell, but she loved scented notepads and pens shaped like watermelons. She coveted stationary that begged you to lick it and she used it regardless of the circumstances. Her note did its best to smell like a strawberry and it said Goodbye in glitter-shot green ink.
The envelope was definitely mine: yellowing and bent from its years behind the filing cabinet, just wide enough to hold a handful of photographs. It smelt like dust and mildew, left stringy threads of spider web attached to the orange tablecloth. When I touched it dust puffed up, dancing in the light filtering in through the curtains. I could feel the solid ridge of the photographs inside and I traced their outline in the dust with a fingertip.
After a while it sunk in: Lisle had left me and I missed her. I put the groceries away and considered that. I hadn’t expected to feel anything.
It wasn’t until later, when I lay in bed not-sleeping, that it occurred to me to wonder how Lisle had found the envelope. It took some doing to push aside the filing cabinet; it was heavy at the best of times, even before the tax receipts and bank records added their weight to its bulk. I thought it’d been the perfect place to hide my past, all those images and memories I shouldn’t have let myself keep. I hadn’t moved the cabinet in years myself, not even to dust behind it or chase down the rubber bands that disappeared into the darkness when I got bored at my desk.
Maybe it didn’t matter. It still came down to the same thing: Lisle was gone and I’d loved her.
I lay awake trying to figure out how that had come to be.
* * *
Photograph One: I took this shot while we were on holidays, three weeks before Christmas in a Disneyland parking lot. Meddy is standing in front of the ticket booth, a tower of black skin against the barrage of pinks, reds and greens. She’s well-dressed, as usual; a blend of business casual with comfortable fit. Her jacket was the dark grey of campfire smoke and her snaky locks pulled back, corralled in an undulating ponytail by a black ribbon. It’s a good shot, one of the best I’ve ever taken. The camera loved Meddy’s poise, the way she caught good light without trying. She loved being photographed and I loved to capture her on film. Looking through the lens was the only way to stare into her black eyes.
That night, blindfolded, I’d pull the serpents free of their corral. I’d run my tongue along their coarse scales, tasting salt as they writhed beneath my touch. Meddy would pull me back, holding me, running her fingers across my face.
“Careful,” she’d whisper. “Careful. I can’t control them if they’re excited.” And I’d run my hand through her hair and let the snakes loop around my fingers, the sensation of muscles tensing as they prepared to constrict. Their tongues tickled the tips of my fingers as they tasted the air. I loved them, the way they felt, the danger of their kiss.
“You’ll control them,” I’d tell Meddy. “I mean, you love me, don’t you?”
I was twenty; she wasn’t. It didn’t matter at the time.
“I like you,” Meddy would tell me. “So do they, well enough. Anything past that and you take your chances. Consider yourself warned.”
I took my chance and it didn’t work. That hurt for a long time.
* * *
Lisle stopped answering her mobile, but she called the landline three days after she left. Her voice on the phone sounded sad. It cracked a little as she said hello. “I’m not coming back,” she said. “I just want to get a few things I left behind.”
“I’ll be gone Tuesday evening,” I said. “You come can take whatever you want then.”
I wrote the date on the kitchen calendar with a thick, black-ink pen. It was Lisle’s calendar, really. She’d decorated it herself. Tuesday’s square was filled with stickers, little rainbows and black cats.
“Make sure you’re out,” Lisle said. “I don’t want to see you.”
I told her I would and I hung up the phone. I scratched at Tuesday’s stickers with my thumb and peeled them off, one by one.
When Tuesday night came round I was sitting on the front step, waiting to Lisle to arrive. She showed up in someone else’s car, an old Safari van I didn’t recognize. Gave me a sad look when she saw me, like she knew a fight was coming. I hadn’t shaved since she left me and still she hadn’t changed her mind.
“A Safari?” I said. I was dressed to leave, ready to play my part. I stared at the van, trying to work out where it’d come from.
“You’re supposed to be out,” Lisle said. “You said you were going to be out.”
“I’m running late,” I told her. I made a show of lacing my right sneaker, sneaking quick peeks at the driveway.
“Well?” Lisle said. She waited, rubbing one eye. When I didn’t move she sniffed a little, put her hand on her hip and glared. I started lacing my other sneaker, taking my time.
Lisle said, “Are you going or what?”
I shook my head and tried to smile. “Come out for a beer,” I said. “Let’s talk about this.”
“No beer,” she said. She sighed. “I just came for my stuff, okay?”
I stood up. I looked at her. Her eyes were bloodshot beneath her glasses.
“Just a beer,” I said. “You and me, we can talk things out. Or not, if you’d prefer. Just come have a drink and a game of pool, we can catch up and I can apologize.”
Lisle shook her head and looked away. She had a blunt face when you saw it in profile. Freckles and glasses, a flat nose she’d hated since childhood. She wasn’t pretty, but she was beautiful. She smelt like soap. I wanted to touch her, to brush her check. I clenched my fist and resisted.
“Come for a beer,” I said. “One beer. Who could it hurt?”
“No,” Lisle said. She took a deep breath, looked me in the eye. “There’s nothing to talk about. I’m leaving, Deacon. You’ve just got to deal with that.”
Then she turned around and left, disappearing into the Safari and keying the ignition. It coughed twice, spluttering to life when she put it in reverse. I watched her go. I took a deep breath. The Safari disappeared down the street.
Someone once told me that marriage is a process of compromise, a little bit of give and take. Lisle and I were good at that, once upon a time, before the ceremony and the dress. She was curious about the past, of course, everyone is in the beginning. She even asked about the others once, brought it up while we were driving home after a movie.
“Does it matter?” I said. “The women I’ve dated, the good and the bad, they led me to you. That’s enough, right?”
Lisle nodded and bit her lip. The answer didn’t make her happy, but it seemed like she was satisfied. We didn’t talk about it again, not for a long time, but we had an understanding. I’d lived a full life before we met and so had she. That kind of thing is a given these days. Everyone has a past and you do your best to pretend it doesn’t matter. Digging up history only leads to trouble.
We’d been dating for three years when I asked her to marry me. No-one was surprised when Lisle said yes. Friends took us out to celebrate and let Lisle show of the ring. She picked a karaoke bar and we sang Endless Love, Lisle flashing her left hand at the stage lights as we warbled off-key. We were drunk and we were terrible, but people cheered us anyway. No-one could miss the ring, or the way we’d make out in the corner before we started the song. We were young, in love and happy. You couldn’t ask for more than that.
The Karaoke finished at midnight and everyone went home. Lisle and I were lying in bed and she asked me the second time. “Who was there, before me? I’m wearing the ring now, you’ve got me for good. Don’t I deserve to know?”
“No,” I said. “It’s still not a good idea.”
Lisle pouted, then she kissed me. She ran her fingers down my back. “Tell me,” she said. “Tell me about them. Who did you love before I came along?”
And the third time she asked I told her, because there’s rules about things like that. I told her about all of them, and then I held her as she cried.
* * *
Photograph Two: I took this photo in her workshop, catching Ari at her loom. She’s focused on her weaving, legs dancing among the threads. She was all pale silk skin and ridges of black chitin; curves like an hourglass and red facets to her eyes. We’d met at a craft fair two weeks earlier, Ari slipping me her card while my girlfriend haggled about price.
“Come see me without her,” Ari told me, whispering in my ear. “We can keep things clandestine.”
Ari’s lips tasted like poison, acrid and smoky on the tongue. I loved the feel of her chitin under my fingertips, the way she’d cage me with her spider legs and pin me down during the night. Her voice was soft and dark; a song-song lilt that that soothed me while I slept. She made me forget about the guilt that marked our nights together.
In bed Ari’s legs would brush my back, all feather-light ecstasy. I would kiss her curves and her as she spun webs and tied me down. I loved her. I thought I loved her. Sometimes I think of my girlfriend and sigh.
“I’m leaving her,” I’d tell Ari. “I love you. This isn’t fair to anyone.”
I was twenty-three; Ari wasn’t. I should have known better this time.
“You don’t love me,” Ari said. “You’re here because I want you to be, anything else is just a lie.”
I lied to myself for a long time. The knots took longer to untie.
* * *
I walked into our bedroom the week before the wedding and found Lisle crying, curled up in a tight ball with wet cheeks and puffy eyes. I sat down on the bed and waited. Lisle sniffled and did her best to smile. “I want to love you,” she said. “I want to love you so much.”
Then she sniffled and a tear leaked out. I leaned over and touched it, kissed it off my finger with a smile. I kissed her cheeks, then her eyes, then her cheeks a second time. “What’s wrong?” I said and Lisle sniffled again. She sat up, rubbing an arm across her eyes.
“I want you to be mine,” she said. “Really mine.”
I hugged her and she nestled under my right arm, held me tight with her spindly arms. “Then I’m yours,” I said. “Heart and soul, until the end of time.”
“But you’re not,” Lisle said. “You can’t just say it. All those girls, Deacon. All those other girls. How can you love me after them?”
And that time I didn’t say anything. I kissed her and waited, she stroked the edge of my elbow with her right hand; my shirt grew damp from her crying.
“What can I do?” I said. “What do you need me to do? What will make you happy?”
Lisle looked up. It’s the first time I’d seen her without glasses, the first time I remembered anyway. Her eyes were blue and bright. “If I had one wish,” she said, “just one, I’d wish that you’d never dated any other girls before you met me. I wish I didn’t have to share you, not even with their memories.”
“Then I won’t,” I said, and I meant it. I loved her, I really did. It didn’t seem a big thing to ask at the time.
So that weekend we exorcised them, all my former loves.
We tossed out the books they’d inscribed and the furniture I’d inherited, all the teddy-bears and the knick-knacks that infested my wardrobe. I stopped using the recipes they’d taught me and stopped visiting the restaurants we’d discovered together. I forgot all the moments I might remember with fondness, all the happy memories and the bittersweet ones that followed. I gave them up, wiped away their fingerprints, and I scoured off the permanent marks they’d left behind.
The only things I kept were the photographs, hidden behind the filing cabinet. A handful of memories shoved into an envelope and left somewhere secret in case I needed them sometime. Then I forgot the envelope as best I could, until Lisle found it and left it on the kitchen table as she prepared to walk out of my life.
Lisle came and collected the last of her things under the cover of daylight, raiding the house while I was at work and leaving her key in the letterbox when she was done. I came home and spent a few minutes pacing through the house, feeling out the empty spaces where things used to be.
The television was gone, along with one of our couches. She’d taken the coffee pot and the vase with a puppy painted on it. I still had our bed, but she’d taken all the pillows. The envelope and the photographs were still sitting on the kitchen table, half-spread out like she’d gone through them and then changed her mind. I gathered them up and straightened them into a neat pile, wondering how far she’d gotten before she was sorry that she’d looked.
Lisle had left me her wedding ring and a number scrawled on pink paper. I waited a few days before calling her, shuffling through the photographs to fill the time. I’d forgotten so much, but I remembered them now. I remembered those girls and it made my mouth turn dry.
* * *
Photograph Three: I took this in my bedroom, that first morning I’d lured her there. Phix curled up on the bed, a paw across her nose. The black hair on her head glossy and lush in the daylight, her wings her wings curled up tight around her like a quilt. Her fur is tawny and sleek, a lion in repose. Her soft purr would have echoed through the room, a noise like distant thunder. Soon she’d wake up and stretch, and I’d admire the arc of her back.
She’d see me with the camera and she’d pounce on me in an angry whirl. Phix had this weird thing about photographs; she loved posing for them but she hated the click of the camera. Catching her off-guard was a challenge, but I did with this picture, snapped off on that first morning when she’d stayed the long night.
I’d met her on the Internet, chatting via e-mail. We used riddles as foreplay, running through the same conversation every time: Four legs, two legs, three legs. Who am I?
“The riddle,” Phix would whisper. “I want you to answer.”
I’d ask her what would happen if I got the answer wrong.
“Then I’ll strangle you,” Phix would purr, and she’d give me a wicked smile. “But you’ll like it, I promise. I’m that kind of girl.”
And I’d answer her, incorrectly, to move onto the good stuff. We both knew the answer was man, but she never seemed to mind. “I love you,” I told her, and she’d wrap her hands around my throat.
I was twenty-nine, she wasn’t. It seemed normal this time.
“I love you too,” she told me. We were happy for a while.
* * *
The phone rang three times before Lisle answered. I didn’t recognize the number.
“It’s about time,” she said. “It’s been four days Deacon, you should have called earlier.” And when I closed my eyes I could see her saying it, the soft twist and hard lines of her sneering lips and scowl.
“If you were here, right here, I’d kiss you right now,” I said. “I’d kiss you and you’d taste like a slice of ripe mango. You’d smell like soap, like you’ve just climbed out of the shower. I miss the way you smell, Lisle. I’d kiss you because I miss you.”
“Stop it,” she said. “Christ, Deacon.”
“Come home,” I said. “Tell me it’s not over. I’ll destroy the photographs. I’ll do it properly this time.”
I remember the pause then, the moment when she considered the offer. I remember opening my eyes and looking around our living room, the empty spaces where the couch used to be, the stale-cheese on the pizza boxes that had been piling up where the television had been. I remember holding the envelope in my hand, all the photographs inside.
“It’s not enough,” Lisle said. “It’s more than the photographs, Deak. It’s always been more than that. You were distant. Distant and sad. I couldn’t deal with that anymore.”
I told her I loved her. I think I believed it, but she didn’t believe me, not this time.
“Why me?” Lisle said. “After all that, what led you to me?”
“You were ordinary,” I told her. “I needed that, I think, after…”
I didn’t say it. She said it for me.
“All those girls?” she said. “Christ, those girls, Deacon, they were monsters.”
I shrugged, though she couldn’t see it. I spread the photographs out on the couch, arranging them in a pile. “We always love the monsters after they’ve broken our heart.”
“I’m not a monster,” Lisle whispered. “Not even close. I was good to you, Deacon.”
She was, but I didn’t say it. And sometimes she wasn’t, but I didn’t say that either. Neither of us said anything for a really long time. Then Lisle said goodbye and hung up her phone. I held my phone to my ear and listened to the dial-tone change, wishing I had a photograph of Lisle to add to the pile.
Peter M. Ball lives in Brisbane, Australia, where he writes documentation for an events management company. He attended the 2007 Clarion South workshop and he can be found online at http://petermball.livejournal.com