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My gown was beautiful. It was the kind of garment that looks precisely as expensive as it is. I did not hate it, because it was beautiful, and I did not love it, because it was cruel. I wore it because wearing it was the thing this night demanded of me.
I bought it six months before the Neufmann Banquet, and, miracle of miracles, it still fit me exactly as well as it had when I’d tried it on the first time. Everything had changed in those six months. Everything except for my body. That, at least, was the same.
Still, I nearly dislocated my shoulder trying to get the buttons on the damn thing done up. Fifteen minutes of trying not to swear, fifteen minutes to do something that would have taken ten seconds if someone else had been there to do it for me. But I did it on my own, in the end. The help would have been convenient, but I didn’t need it.
Twice in my life, now, I have buried myself in finery. Twice I have arranged myself within a great complication of fabric to prove that I understand the importance of a moment. It’s clothing as contrition, a performance of beauty I have put on to pay penance to the people gathered to acknowledge me. They are here to see me, and I must apologize for requesting their attention, must make up for the weight of my demand by ensuring that looking at me will be a pleasant thing. Never mind the suffocation of the outfit, never mind the expense, never mind the impracticality. The transaction must be made: my efforts at beauty in exchange for their regard. And so, twice in my life, I have worn the cost of that recognition.
The process of defeating the buttons distracted me, and so it was only after I had my shoes on that I realized I had no way to see whether I’d achieved enough loveliness to satisfy the demands of the occasion. I used a kitchen knife to cut the packing tape away from my full-length mirror, feeling at once foolish and resourceful. After I’d peeled the layers of protective plastic wrap from the glass, there I was.
I allowed myself a breath of satisfaction: it was enough.
The gown was black silk. The skirt fell perfectly, the darts at my waist making the fabric bell over my hips before draping into crisp pleats. I, inside the silk, was the same person I always was, but the gown was a costume that gave me the right to be notable. It justified the evening I was about to face.
I tilted my head to see that my earrings weren’t too much, ran my fingers across the high bateau neckline.
The task was accomplished. The result was good.
By the time I turned away from the mirror, it was six o’clock. My car was due in four minutes. I turned the lights off in my house and walked into the gray light of early evening to wait.
My wedding gown had also been beautiful, and expensive. It had been nothing at all like my gown for the Neufmann Banquet. Satin instead of silk, and suffocatingly tight. It had been white, gently cut, with a low neckline trimmed in Alençon lace. It had been aggressively soft, determined to be hopeful.
It had been vulnerable, where my Neufmann gown was severe. It had been tender, where my Neufmann gown was pitiless.
On the day that I had worn the kinder of the two gowns, Nathan had snuck into the suite where I was dressing. He walked in with exaggerated stealth, his tuxedo shoes squeaking as he minced pizzicato across the waxed wood floor. He gave me a velvet box with a necklace in it. The pendant floated perfectly above the dip of the lace. He wasn’t supposed to see me—he’d bought the necklace to give me after the ceremony, but he said he just couldn’t wait. He’d wanted me to have it sooner.
He clasped it behind my neck and kissed my cheek and fled before I could scold him for breaking the rules. Before I could bring up the traditions that neither of us cared about, but that both of us had been so determined to follow. When I walked down the aisle, the sapphire of the pendant caught an errant sunbeam and refracted light across the arm of Nathan’s father’s suit.
After the ceremony was over, Nathan touched the hollow of my throat and smiled, a small secret smile that was just for me.
I can’t remember ever wearing that necklace again. It had been a ridiculous extravagance. When would I ever wear a sapphire?
But I watched for that smile. I watched for it every time I dressed up for a date or an event, every time I came home from a conference, every time we made up after a fight. I filled my pockets with that smile. I tucked it away for later, to get me through the lean times when we couldn’t look at each other.
Even then, I think I knew I’d need it.
* * *
Three and a half hours after I put the Neufmann gown on, I was ready to be finished wearing it. The silk was fitted closely through my ribs and waist, flattering enough, but as uncompromising as an ethics committee. I couldn’t seem to get a deep enough breath. The banquet hall was full of people, all of them looking at me or talking about me or thinking about me. Or worse: not thinking about me at all. I kept catching people’s eyes by mistake, flashing smiles that felt raw and strange on my face.
I wondered if there was enough oxygen for everyone present. I wondered if maybe there was some problem with the ventilation system, and whether the carbon dioxide levels in the room were rising. Everyone in the room exhaled once every few seconds. There was no avoiding that. They had to respire.
Every time they did, I felt the air grow a little heavier.
People were talking to me, endlessly talking to me, and I knew that there were hours still to come, hours and hours of people looking at me and moving their mouths and raising their eyebrows and waiting for me to say things back that would satisfy their vision of the person I was supposed to be. Hours of their opinions and compliments and complicated insults. Hours of smiling.
There were seven other people seated at my banquet table, their wineglasses kept in a perpetual state of half-emptiness by a series of bored waiters. The man seated to my left was a senior jurist from the selection committee. He was talking to me, just like everyone else, and I arranged my face into a shape that would seem pleasant and interested. He was important. I should have known his name.
David? No. Daniel?
“I’ve been terribly impressed,” the man was saying, “by the finesse your technique displays. I’ve never seen such singular control of the acute hormonal mode of neuropsychological conditioning.” I smiled and nodded, pretended to take a bite of risotto as though I could possibly have swallowed it. It rested on my tongue like a pill. It tasted like nothing at all, like the flesh of the roof of my mouth, like the edge of the wineglass in front of me. I could not eat it. I had to eat it. The man on my left (Douglas?) was looking at me, waiting for me to accept his compliment.
There were hours still to go.
After much too long, the risotto slid down my throat and the name appeared fully formed in my mind. “Thank you … Dietrich,” I replied. “It’s been a team effort, of course—”
“Nonsense,” he said, and my throat clenched the way it always did when a man in my field interrupted me with that word. “You have a fantastic research team, there can be no doubt of that—but no, Dr. Caldwell, this is about your work. Your legacy. You get the credit, yes? You are the pioneer of the Caldwell Method. It’s all right to bask in it, at least for tonight.”
He lifted his glass. I obligingly raised mine to meet it, because don’t be a bitch, Evelyn. The movement caught the eyes of others around the table, and soon, everyone held their glasses aloft, their faces expectant. Dietrich led them in a toast. “To Dr. Evelyn Caldwell, changing the world.”
Federlauer, his last name came to me at last, Dietrich Federlauer, how could I have forgotten? Stupid, stupid.
Six people repeated my name, and they touched their glasses together, and the heavy air rang crystalline. The woman across from me exhaled as she drank, the glass near her nostrils fogging. She caught my eye and smiled, and I looked away before I could even try to make myself smile back.
The lights in the room began to dim. A spotlight illuminated the podium at the front of the room.
The air was so heavy.
I held my breath for a few seconds before swallowing my mouthful of wine, willed my heartbeat to slow down. There was no reason to be nervous. There were no surprises coming to get me. That silver helix up on the podium had my name engraved on it. The speeches that would take up the next hour were already written, were about me and my work. My face was the one on the posters lining the banquet hall. An evening to honor and celebrate Dr. Evelyn Caldwell, that’s what had been on the engraved invitations.
Everything was good. Everything was already decided. Everything was for me.
Nothing would go wrong.
Your legacy, Federlauer had said. This, tonight, this would be what I was remembered for. This would be the focus of my eulogy. Not the other thing, not the shameful disaster that my life had briefly become thanks to Nathan. No one would be talking about that—about Nathan and his weakness. It would be this, just this, my work and my research and my success.
I lifted a hand to tuck a strand of hair behind my ear, then arrested my arm in the middle of the movement, Nathan’s voice ringing through my memory. Don’t fidget. You look exactly like your mother when you fidget.
He’d been right. He’d been cruel about it, cruel on purpose, but he’d been right to remind me. I already looked so much like my mother that, in my graduate program, the jokes wrote themselves. Wow, it looks like the cloning research is going well! It was bad enough to have the same colorless hair, the same dishwater-gray eyes, the same thin mouth as that woman. I wouldn’t act like her too.
I’d left that behind long ago—being anything like her, doing the things she did to get to the end of each day intact. I’d left that behind and I’d never looked back.
Poise, that was the way. No twitching. No fidgeting. Poise.
I lowered my hand to my lap, curled it into a fist and nested it inside my other palm. No one would be able to see me clenching that fist, digging my nails into the soft valleys of flesh between the tendons of my hand. Even to the forgettable Federlauer, I would seem composed.
The room was full of eyes, and I reminded myself that I could hide from every single one of them. I knew how to walk quietly. I knew how to slip by unnoticed. I knew how to be the thing they wanted to see, the thing they wanted me to be.
I knew how to hide when I needed to.
I had gotten through the previous year of impossibly hellish obstacles. I had survived the discovery and the betrayal and the fallout. I could handle this banquet.
On stage, a woman I’d never met was talking about my early research. She clutched the microphone in a white-knuckled stage-fright grip, and described the initial stages of my work in glowing terms. It was, quite frankly, mortifying. Neuropsychology, neurobiology, hormonal conditioning—it seemed so entry-level now, so sophomoric. At the time, it had seemed like the biggest thing in the world. It had seemed worth every late night in the lab, eating takeout with Nathan while samples spun in the gravity centrifuge.
The woman onstage called that work brilliant, and I choked back a startled laugh. We were so young then, balancing notebooks full of handwritten lab notes on our knees, trying not to spill noodles on the pages. Falling in love. We had dreamed of a night like this: me in a ball gown, him in a tuxedo. Two names engraved on a silver double helix.
I caught myself balling up my napkin in my fist, reflexively clutching at the fabric. I smoothed it out, creased it carefully, and set it next to my plate. I folded my hands. Poise, Evelyn, I repeated to myself. Poise.
This banquet was supposed to be my night. It was not a night for regret; it was a night for satisfaction. After everything that had happened, didn’t I deserve that much?
I crossed my legs, drank my wine, arranged my face into a gracious smile, and pointed my chin at the podium. There was no point in dwelling on the things that the Evelyn of a decade ago had wanted. I told myself that I had been a different person then, practically a child, with a different life. Different goals.
And now, here was a banquet hall filled with intellectual luminaries. Wine and waiters and flowers and programs. Rented gowns and uncomfortable shoes, speeches and seating charts, all to celebrate me. All for me.
I did not allow my hands to tremble. I did not grit my teeth. I did not climb up onto my chair and tear the silk from my ribs and scream at the top of my lungs about everything that was wrong and broken and missing.
There was nothing to feel upset about. Not a single thing.
Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Gailey