I was afraid to go into the ricotta shop down the block from my new apartment. The blue tiles looked like they had been there for a long time, unlike me, and those who entered the storefront looked like they knew exactly what they wanted, unlike me. But one day after passing it three times, I went in, knowing that if I did, I would eventually become someone who did.
“Welcome,” said the shopkeeper. “What can I do for you?” I looked at all the ricotta in tubs under the glass case, like ice cream, all the names and origins and prices. I hesitated.
The shopkeeper pulled a paper menu from below the counter and asked my name. She wrote it at the top. “You will try each kind – not all at once. We will check off each ricotta as you try it. Then you will tell me your favorite at the end. Where will you begin, my dear?” She knew I didn’t know where, and picked a delicate one that she told me to eat with blueberries. I told her I would come back each week. She shrugged. “Come back when you need ricotta.”
That late summer and into autumn, I went back every time I needed to know that I am someone who shops here, who is remembered by other people, who has good taste. At home, I focused on dipping the knife into the tub of ricotta, soft, a little grainy. Your life is beautiful when no one is looking. I made ricotta pancakes tinted with saffron and flecked with Swiss chard. I spread ricotta on toast topped with spinach. I focused on the scrape of the knife against the bread I drizzled ricotta with honey and ate it with a spoon. I felt creamy and indulgent. I was a pastry filled with cream. I gained several pounds.
In October, I was a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding. The bridal party went to a salon in a fancy part of town to have our hair done while we drank champagne. The salon, which gave the impression of having been something before, was wood-paneled and copper-ceilinged. On the many shelves, boxes of useful things like combs sat next to jars of useless and pretty things like rose petals, letterpress type, and buttons. The bride and other bridesmaids chatted with one another and their hairstylists in a seamless, elegant patter that I have never attempted. I cannot suspend my disbelief that a stranger would care about my life, and I assume that silence is far less a burden than listening to me. My stylist, a tall woman with angular, red hair, was not chatty, and at first I felt relieved: I could sink into a tingly champagne bubble and listen to my friends ringing like bells. But my stylist tugged at my hair like she was trying to get a wild animal to behave and I spent the appointment tensing my shoulders, bracing myself for the pain. Once, with a mouth full of bobby pins, she said something I didn’t understand. “Sorry?”
“Oh, nothing,” she said.
The other bridesmaids said their stylists hadn’t hurt them at all, but everyone agreed that my hair looked the best.
The wedding was in an old brick warehouse, covered in ivy, made romantic by strings of lights, candles, and the sweet perfume of paperwhite narcissus. I was glad to have a role, glad to be in the same pale pink dress as five other women, and I was prettier to be among them like I was in a disguise. Nothing I did could be wrong because I was in that dress. This began to wear off during dinner when I dropped an ice cube from my water glass down my chest and into my lap, when I stopped listening to the conversation at my table because there was no room for me in it. I was anxious about my speech, which I sailed through with a slippery glass of wine in my hand. Then the dancing started and I decided to loosen my grip on myself, I did lose myself. During one dance, all of us bridesmaids danced with the bride and we told her how beautiful she looked, that she was glowing, that we loved her. We all cried but I cried not enough and in the wrong way. At home, I drank several glasses of water, tried to wash off my make up, and pulled half the pins out of my hair before falling into the deep sleep of drunks, ashamed, relieved, and grateful for oblivion.
The next morning, I sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor in the front of the mirror to take the rest of the pins out. I counted 46 in all. My hair was sticky and stiff with hairspray, but smelled lovely, like sweet oranges and seashells. All the pins came out but one: it was at the nape of my neck – I wasn’t even sure what part of my hairstyle it was creating. The hairpin was in tight, and tugging on it pulled my hair so badly my eyes watered grey tears, inked with leftover eyeliner.
In the shower, I washed and conditioned my hair, hopeful the pin would loosen its grip, but, though tugging on it was a little less painful, it still wouldn’t let go. I left it. With my hair down, it was unnoticeable. With my hair in a bun, it looked like I was simply trying to control flyaways. I held up a hand mirror to peer at it in the bathroom mirror behind me. While the 46 other bobby pins were black, the stubborn pin at the nape of my neck glinted a reddish gold in the light.
Like a sty or a sore throat, I could never quite forget about the hairpin. I slid down the subway steps one rainy morning, catching myself on the railing before I hit the ground, and I felt it. Like the harsh mistress of finishing school, the hairpin hurt me when I spilled me drink, when I laughed too loudly, when I misjudged a turn and bashed my hip into the edge of a table, and when I forgot this train doesn’t run on weekends. I learned not to attempt to pull it out.
Just after Halloween, in an overstuffed consignment shop, down a half flight of stairs from the street, I found a cloak. It was made of wool and some other fabric, so it was warm but soft. It was a deep scarlet, the color of a Valentine’s rose on February 20. It had a hood, deep pockets, and it came down to my hips. It had no label. The proprietor looked at it admiringly when I brought it to the counter. “Isn’t this incredible?” he said. “Look at the stitching – it’s all done by hand.”
At home in my apartment, I took all my autumn dresses from the closet and tried them on with my new cloak. Turning to view myself in profile, I slid my hands into my pockets and felt something slice into my left palm from pinky to pointer finger. I pulled out my bleeding hand. How can this be happening to me.
I rinsed my hand in the bathroom sink still wearing the cloak with the sharp thing in the pocket, my head throbbing from shock, with each throb the hairpin tightening around my hair and digging into my neck. The cut went through the fleshy part of my hand just above what I think is my lifeline. I never paid attention when my friends read my palm.
When you live alone, you have to kill the cockroaches yourself, all the messes are your own, and you have to bandage yourself up. I did not have a proper first aid kit with gauze and medical tape. I poured hydrogen peroxide over the cut, watched it foam, and then put on four band-aids in a row, their sticky parts traveling up each of my fingers.
Once bandaged, I cautiously pulled the sharp thing out of my pocket: it was an old knife with a rough wooden handle and a short blade that tapered quickly to a thin point. Blade and handle combined were a bit less than six inches, and it seemed like a tool designed for one specific thing, though what it could be other than slicing my hand open I didn’t know. I tossed the knife into my kitchen trashcan but then I had a vision of a sanitation worker grabbing the trash bag on the street and being sliced just like me. This man needs his hands to do his job, he needs his job to feed his family. If I allowed this knife to leave my possession, I was responsible for the hands of sanitation workers, for the seagulls and raccoons and rats that would die as they scavenged for food scraps, for the arms of the poor woman reaching for bottles and cans to bring to a recycling center. This curse would end with me, I decided. Feeling brave, I washed the knife as thoroughly as I could one-handed, dried it, and stuck it in the middle of my magnetic knife strip. The other knives seemed to fade into the background in deference. Its use was a mystery I would solve another day. I took a painkiller and tried to ignore the angry hairpin.
Feathers of gold
I would like to be seen but not to notice the seeing. I wish I could be a woman in a fairy tale who everyone in the kingdom is in love with, the arresting woman in the movie who hushes every room she walks into. I dress for this: I line my eyes to draw everyone in, I underline my hips with just the right skirt, and then I go down to the street and become porous, spongy, with each step I feel myself tripping. I squirm beneath someone’s gaze. I feel caught in the moment of the photograph that captured me in the process of smiling. No matter what you imagine or pretend, you’re always yourself.
Sometimes I prefer to blend in. I dress in grey to camouflage myself against the city. I brush my hair down around my face and over my neck. I’d like to become anonymous as a house sparrow. All this to avoid penetration. All this really a desire to be seen by the right person only, all this to expose only certain of my insides. But when I went out in my cloak, I felt the city changing around me. Instead of feeling its neutrinos and its exhaust and its curses were headed straight for me and through me, I felt the city bend and ripple around me. The city in the fall is awake and studious. I walked in step with the throb in my head and up the museum’s grand staircase.
My favorite part of the museum is the Damascus Room, one of the period rooms that you can’t quite enter but can lean into over a chain and imagine you are inside, imagine your home had such a room of low plush benches and mother-of-pearl and marble and polar and a fountain in the center. I had time before I was meeting my new boyfriend so I spent some time at the Damascus Room, wandered past hanging Persian carpets the size of swimming pools, and into the ancient Etruscan artifacts, my boyfriend’s favorite part of the museum: not the monumental sculptures but the little objects in glass cases labeled with small numbers in circles. He likes the coins, and was looking at some when I found him.
I liked this man for his gentleness, which was not a timidity but seemed liked an active, continuous choice. He had an unathletic softness, but nice broad shoulders and an elegant posture. When I told him things, he would say “mmhmm” almost inaudibly, not an affirmation of hearing for my benefit, but the sound of his mind ingesting my words.
“You have to see this,” he said, pulling me by my hips. “It’s a new acquisition or they just put it on display because I would have noticed before.” He placed me and my hips in front of a case inside of which hung four feathers of gold, each looking impossible and pliable. It was just as astonishing that they had survived for so long as it was that they were made so long ago. Or made at all. Each feather was several inches long with unique patterns of feather fingers. The gold was warm and rich, and it looked like light was emanating from them.
I leaned against my boyfriend’s chest. “These are beautiful, but how did you know I would love them so much?” I had a strange feeling of wonder and nostalgia, not like I had seen these feathers before and forgotten them, but like I had once imagined seeing them when I was a child. Without knowing it, I had always wanted to feel precisely this way while looking at something. I forgot about the hairpin completely.
Back downstairs at coat check, my cloak was gone. We waited as they searched and searched, my plastic disk with the number 341D in their hands. It was closing time, and the racks emptied of jackets and scarves, but my cloak never revealed itself. I had wanted my boyfriend to see me in it. I had wanted my new city feeling to remain all season.
The cloak wasn’t ever really yours, said the city. You don’t deserve the cloak. It let you imagine that you belong here and you do not. You are a flea on the back of the city. This is a ballet audition and you are too fat. This is real life and you thought you were in a romantic comedy. I was silent. The city looked to me like the angular hairstylist from the wedding.
My boyfriend wanted to come to my rescue. “This is ridiculous!” he said. He said, “I want to speak to the manager.” He said, “Well, then I want to speak to your manager.” He said, “Someone stole my girlfriend’s coat. It was expensive. It was one-of-a-kind. It was irreplaceable. Your employee let someone take my girlfriend’s coat. This is unacceptable. She didn’t just do her job poorly, she did the opposite of her job. What do you think would happen if I did the opposite of my job? I would be fired, that’s what would happen. I wouldn’t have a job anymore.”
My boyfriend had singled out the woman who had taken my cloak initially and had been searching for it the hardest. She was young, probably a college student or just out of college. She had freshly painted pale pink nails and rings on most of her fingers. I imagined her picking out each one this morning. Maybe some were gifts from her parents, maybe some were supposed to be good luck. This woman had gotten out of bed today, had brushed her hair and made herself a sandwich for lunch. She had smiled at me when I stepped up to the coat check counter. It was difficult for me to leap from silence to speech, from stillness to movement. Hello, My Name Is Helpless, but I am not helpless.
I smiled, I pleaded with my face, I said to my boyfriend in a low voice, “You’re my knight in shining armor. Will you go outside and get us a taxi? I’ll be right out.”
My boyfriend, like a Labrador, just wants to help, and I had stopped his barking. He rushed outside.
I turned to the coat check woman with her rings and her boss and his boss. “I am sad about my cloak, but I would be so distraught if someone were fired or punished. I understand that mistakes happen.” I looked at each boss. “This museum is the best thing in the city, and I will continue to come here and pay the suggested donation.” I looked at the woman with the rings. “I’d like to give you my phone number, and if someone finds the cloak, you can call me.” I stepped close to her to give her my phone number. “If you find it, please call me. But then I want you to have it.”
I stepped out into the evening chill with nothing on my arms or shoulders. My boyfriend was standing next to a taxi looking very proud. “Your stead, my lady!” he called to me. I felt lonely. I got in.
Kissing on the Ikea couch in his white-walled apartment, my boyfriend ran his hands through my hair, found the hairpin, and toyed at it with his fingers. “What’s this?” I told him it was a good luck charm, and maybe the hairpin was angry because I lied, or because of his stupid joke about me “getting lucky” that night, but probably it was because he tugged at it: a tightening ripped through my scalp from the nape of my neck, radiating outward; my vision grayed, then whitened, and I fainted.
I slumped off the couch, bumped the side of my forehead against the coffee table, and slid onto the floor. All this, my boyfriend told me later. I dreamt of going somewhere on a train. Of course, unless one is in a train museum, one is always going somewhere, taken somewhere, when in a train. Like in so many dreams, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go where I was being taken. I was unconscious for less than a minute, my boyfriend told me. When I woke up I started crying because being vulnerable is a state that continues until you will it to stop. I didn’t want it to stop; being looked after is such a rare pleasure. I was too dazed to sob, so it was a pretty cry, I hope, with tears glistening down my cheeks and a lightly trembling jaw. Someone should have taken a picture.
My boyfriend put his face on the level of mine, looking concerned but also suspicious. “Are we in an urban legend?”
I slackened my vulnerability slightly. “What?”
“You’re like the girl who always wears a scarf and one night her boyfriend takes it off and her head falls off.”
“My head didn’t fall off.” I felt like he was accusing me of being too emotional. I decided to make him take care of me. “Can I have a glass of water?”
“Of course!” He jumped up and ran to the kitchen.
Earthen Pot, Pomegranates
I didn’t like being accused of being an urban legend so I left after drinking some water and listening to my boyfriend tell me exactly what happened. He seemed relieved when I left. I walked home, the night’s chill preserving me like a jar of mayonnaise in the door of a refrigerator. I mean: I also had some preservatives within me. It was like my boyfriend had always been backlit and now the light had changed and was pointed directly at his face. His dimples had been so endearing and now they made him look afraid. I saw that the ricotta shop was still open so I went in. The shopkeeper was not there, but her mother was. She smirked at me kindly, and pulled out the menu with my name on it. “What do you need, my dear? It seems you have tried almost all the ricotta.”
My grandmother died when I was too young to remember. She loved to brush my hair, my mother told me. Now I think I will never get my hair cut again.
“I don’t know what it is that I need,” I told the shopkeeper’s mother. “But whatever it is, it is very specific.”
“Or a spell.”
“Ah.” She went into the store’s back kitchen. On the wall, I noticed a framed, sun-bleached poster of the four Etruscan feathers from the museum. She returned with an earthen pot filled with four pomegranates, three garnet, one a deep purple, almost black.
“Choose one of these,” she said, “and I will give you your last ricotta. This one is thick, and I suggest you eat some with tomatoes when you get home.”
I was frightened of the black pomegranate, so I picked it. The shopkeeper’s mother’s estimation of me seemed to improve.
“My mother told me that every pomegranate has 613 seeds. But is that true for a black one?” I asked.
“You could count,” said the shopkeeper’s mother.
At home, I sliced tomatoes and ate them with the last ricotta standing at the kitchen counter. I cut open the pomegranate in half with my cloak knife. Pomegranates, unlike apples and peaches and grapes, seem like they are food created specifically for one kind of animal, possibly endangered, with delicate fingers and lots of patience, but we eat them anyway. I sat by my window and ate the seeds, counting, the hairpin loosening, strength growing in my stomach like brambles across a forest floor. Not everything happens for a reason, but that doesn’t mean it has no meaning.