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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Exhibition of Persephone Q

A Novel

Jessi Jezewska Stevens

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


One night, I woke up to find I no longer recognized my husband. The room was dark and still and blue. The computer in the kitchen glowed. I had woken, as I sometimes do, in a fit of desire that was usually reciprocated, as if Misha and I were wired to the same internal alarm: we woke up as one. This was often how we began to make love. We reached for each other through the film of separate dreams and then fell back in states of mutual surprise, nonverbally reaffirmed. That night, however, he slept. The thin light spilled through the air shaft and onto our bed, and in it he looked strange. Not less attractive—if anything, more so—but also not quite like the man I’d married not so long ago. His chin was slack. His brow furrowed with some small concern. I rubbed my eyes. Misha was older than I was by only a few months, but in that moment it seemed a whole decade had intervened. I reached out to touch his cheek across a stretch of time. He didn’t stir.

* * *

He always was a wonderful sleeper. On trains, in waiting rooms, sprawled across the slanted floorboards as he lay down to perform the stretches the chiropractor had prescribed for his back. Once, in July, when all the stores were filled with crowds, I left him at the deli counter to wait for meat, and when I returned, I found him dozing on a stool before the domed cases of salads and cold cuts and spreads, our order long since priced and wrapped. I tugged at a stripe on his sleeve. Then, too, he hadn’t stirred, and I’d felt frustrated and alone, all on my own in the crush of the holiday crowd, freighted with grapes and milk and womanhood. I was embarrassed to find how much I cared about what the deli men would think, how to get the ice cream home. Really, I thought, is this the sort of woman you’ve become? I felt similarly disappointed in my humorlessness now, in bed, where Misha lay unresponsive to stimuli. I imagined what I’d say to him come morning. You were out cold! Nothing doing! He loved his idioms. I shifted in the sheets. I said his name, though I don’t know what I would have done if he’d woken up. I had no agenda. It seemed to me that if only he moved or responded, then everything would be as it was before. I could go back to sleep. For now, I missed him acutely. I touched his face. My fingers skated across the hard, hot plane of his cheek, down the bridge of his nose. Then, in a small and violent impulse I still don’t understand, I pinched his airways closed.

* * *

I am not a violent person. When I was a girl, my father often told me I ought to stick up for myself a little more. I remember he used to try to wrestle with me to impart the importance of self-defense, ignite in me some passion for survival. The only move I ever really mastered was to twist against the thumb whenever an attacker grabbed my wrist, and after this, to run. Misha, too, felt distressed by my lack of indignation. I was like damp wood that will not spark, he said, no matter the heat applied. Once, while we were walking along Central Park, after dinner, a child stole my purse. I watched him dash away down the street, his small red cap tracing a lovely, bouncing pattern along the gray stone of the boundary wall, like a paintbrush loaded with red paint. Misha threw up his arms in exasperation. What was I doing? Run! But I stood still and calmly stunned, watching the red cap fade. It didn’t seem important enough.

* * *

This is all to say I was as surprised as anyone by the situation I found myself in now. I pinched Misha’s nostrils. He held his breath. I waited for him to wake, protest. And then? I didn’t know. It was as if the two of us had been reversed. Because, to my amazement, Misha did not struggle. He did not inhale or fight or push away. Never opened his mouth to gulp. I held on for a few seconds, a minute, two, I don’t know how long. The blood mounted quietly in my ears. Still he did not stir. I don’t know which of us frightened me more, Misha or myself. Then a door slammed down the hall, footsteps dissipated on the stairs. I watched my hand float away from Misha’s face. I slunk out of the bed, to the edge of the room, into the corner of the kitchenette, the farthest possible point from my husband, in case that unbidden impulse tried to exercise itself again.

* * *

I hovered in the dark. I felt slightly lifted out of myself, like an acrobat suspended just above the stage. The waste bin stood solemnly in shadow. I raised the lid. The test was still there among the rest of the trash, brandishing its positive result: I was six weeks pregnant, more or less. I looked across the room at Misha. What a way to begin, I thought. I hadn’t even told him yet.

* * *

I stood very still. The kitchen tiles were cool against the soles of my feet. The stove was a cold white tomb, and it shone when a taxi passed. I drew a glass of water, ran the faucet over the insides of my wrists. As I stepped away, my foot met something sharp. I looked down. There, in front of the sink, I found what had likely woken me. It was a serving bowl that had belonged to my mother, fallen from a high shelf. The large, pale shards lay scattered across the tiles. I thought of the soap operas I often heard unfolding on the TV in the apartment next door, the clatter of clichés. And that’s just what Misha and I were, clichéd! Newlyweds with growing pains. I made a mental note to do something completely extraordinary as soon as he woke up. Then I crouched and ran a finger through the ceramic silt. The mess had not been there earlier, I would have noticed. I looked around the apartment for an explanation. It was withheld. Misha’s desktop, the deep reds of the carpet, the cupboards, the oven, the door were all variations on the same black box. The speakers were upright, the books silent and orderly. Clean glass jars stood on the shelves in rows. The furniture seemed innocent, sanctimonious, a coven of children wrongly accused. I held my breath, listening for another presence in the quiet room, something tall and menacing, to step forward and claim responsibility. I heard nothing but the hum of the building itself, the pulse of a car radio in the street.

* * *

I pulled the chair from the credenza and stepped onto the seat, feeling along the high plank from which the bowl had fallen for some evidence of trauma to the wood. For a moment, as my hand disappeared farther into the shadows, it seemed very possible that whoever had done this would grab me by the wrist, and I would be pulled through the plaster, through the shelves, into some secret prison, like the original Persephone into her underworld. And like her, I’d probably stay. Although in my case winter would not fall to mourn my absence, the tilt of the earth would stay the same—I was not such a narcissist as that. Still, I’d always thought of that myth as having a happy ending. She hates Hades at first. Then adapts. Sometimes I think Persephone took those six pomegranate seeds deliberately. She wanted to stay— But I’ve always had a gift for extrapolation. In the real world, sometimes pottery just falls from shelves. A broken bowl was a perfectly acceptable reason to wake up in the night. That’s what Misha would have said. I replaced the chair, got a broom, dutifully swept up the dust and shards, wrapping the larger pieces in a cloth in case they might be of some later use. Then I lay down on the floor and waited for morning. Unusual things happen all the time, I thought. Everyday, inexplicable things.

* * *

And yet: I relapsed. A few nights later, I went to sleep full of good intentions, only to wake up and turn to Misha. Before I could stop myself, I pinched his nose. I held his breath. We both held it, until the moment I was stunned into remission, into guilt, and became myself again. I poured a glass of water. It happened maybe four or five times in all. I didn’t know what to do. I loved Misha. I even began to wonder, was it really so bad? He rose unharmed. It frightened me, however, that Misha did not struggle. I would have liked for him to struggle. I would have liked for him to shove me into the door. To yell, What are you doing? Instead he slept. Maybe it would have been better to confess, but it was impossible to bring up my momentary murders now. They were too much a part of me. I was afraid to go to sleep. I no longer went to bed. Our schedules drifted gradually apart, like continents into different time zones, until there was hardly any overlap at all. I went to sleep when he woke up. I lived nocturnally and slept alone. Still my husband did not respond.

* * *

I am fully aware that Misha’s and my decision to marry will strike—did strike—the people close to us as rash. We’d tied the knot only recently, in late October, when Lower Manhattan opened its gates to the general public again. I checked my horoscope; the day was auspicious for love. Other people must have felt the same. At City Hall, the queue spilled through the doors and onto the municipal steps, and I felt at one with the crowd, which I imagined to have gathered like us on the whim of proposals not yet twenty-four hours old. Traffic cones were placed every which way, trees released poisoned leaves to the green, a light northward breeze perfumed the air with drywall dust and soot. The proceedings were efficient, almost abrupt. The witness clapped when Misha and I exchanged our tarnished rings—rings that Misha himself had found buried in the Rockaway sands—and it was only then, as we were emerging from the courthouse, hand in hand, that I felt the first stirrings of surprise. I looked around. There ought to be some other queue to join, I thought, for the only just married. But there were no more forms to fill, no more lines in which to stand. We were free to go. I took Misha’s arm.

* * *

(The nebula, only recently conceived, would also have been present then.)

* * *

At the time, I’d known Misha all of four months, long enough to understand that he was not, as they say, “all there.” Then again, neither was I. I was suspicious of anyone who still claimed a stake in normal. Who was to say what constituted “all there” when we looked south and saw the great gap tooth against the gullet of the sky? I admired the way Misha sank beneath the surface of a day to reach a deeper kind of calm. He carried a metal detector as casually as a cane, rode the A train to the end of the line to sift through the tiny treasures that the Rockaways, like some obliging oyster, betrayed. He eschewed mail order and raffles and instant messaging (they’ll steal your data, he said) and spent his afternoons bowed over the altar of the keyboard, tapping out lines of code. He lay motionless on the floor for hours, thinking up new problems to solve. As is the habit of a mathematics Ph.D. I respected it. Though it raised for me questions of an epistemological nature: Did the problems already exist before Misha articulated them, or did he instead conjure them into being, ipso facto making the world more problematic than before? Be careful of your karmic balance, I warned. My psychic says— Misha cut me off. I know what your psychic says. I will point out to her that I am solving your problems all the time. This was true, I was often a problem to solve. For thirty-three years I had been bringing problems into the world simply by breathing and responding sentiently. Misha calmed me down.


Copyright © 2020 by Jessi Jezewska Stevens