A Heartbeat, Reversed
It was a childless marriage, childless by choice; his choice. A choice about which she had no misgivings, usually; or, if she had any, Edna would soon forget them in his arms.
Leaning her head against his broad shoulders she would take in his smell, a mixture of shaving lotion and a trace of sweat, and think herself happy.
But tonight she was lonely. Ethan was not there. Edna tried to imagine him coming close, even whispering some sweet nothing in her ear. She waited for the whisper to dissolve, then tried to force another one—but again, the voice was vacant. She rose to the tips of her toes, as if longing for a kiss. She could almost feel him. His embrace was tight, she nearly fainted—but there was no breath, no warmth in his lips. It was, to her, like a kiss through a handkerchief.
Is it too much to ask, to be protected by a strong man, to be desired? To be adored, even pampered? Edna held her breath, thinking she heard someone at the front door. She ran excitedly through the corridor to meet him; but no, there was no one there. On the way back she caught sight of her reflection, hanging there in the mirror.
For a second, it looked like her older sister. Edna stuck her tongue out at her, thinking, Oh well, those wrinkles are just a play of shadows, just shadows in the murky glass. She could make them disappear, simply by tipping her head backwards. She leaned over the cabinet for a closer look. The eyes looked somewhat blurry; so did her mouth. It seemed like a smudge, perhaps because the lipstick had been wiped, or else because she was too close.
In her youth, she was so weak that she could easily fall for something, easily laugh for anything. But that other woman, on the other side, seemed as if she could easily cry for nothing. There, see? She rubbed the corner of her eye. So did Edna, thinking it was hard to know, anyway, if someone was crying or laughing. The features of the face contorted in much the same way.
There were walls around her, on both sides of the mirror; walls waiting for something to happen, for anything really; waiting there with great patience—with stability—as if they were home. Edna looked away, unable to escape that feeling, the feeling that there was no motion, it was all an illusion; and that in reality, both she and her reflection were absent. She was lost and could not be found.
She counted the beat of her heart, counted it aloud as if she were a child, a small child playing hide and seek. Nineteen... Eighteen... Seventeen...
When, she asked herself, will he come? Will he ever come? Will he be looking for me? I am not here. I am not there. Not anywhere. I cannot be found.
It would be impossible to sleep tonight. She thought about the frequency of his business trips, which for some reason had increased lately, and decided that if he came in just this minute, if he called her name, she would stick her fingers in her ears, pretending she could not hear him.
I cannot hear you! I cannot hear you...
She became increasingly more anxious, opened and closed several drawers, shuffled some supplement packs, some medicine bottles from here to there. These wrinkles are no shadows, Edna said to no one in particular. Given time, they will deepen, spread, gain more hold, more definition. Time must be stopped. I cannot grow old, cannot waste away. It is too frightening, really. I must stop wasting my time. Stop wasting it using cheap, old remedies.
Tomorrow, she decided, she would allow herself to splurge: Yes, she would buy that expensive, celebrity endorsed anti-aging miracle cream, which contained powerful moisturizing agents; these had sensational skin firming effects. The thought of it made her cheerful. She could be young again, tomorrow.
She pushed hard against the drawers, even though they gave some resistance, and the second she shut the last one, something creaked and the cabinet doors flew open. She peered inside and could see, deep down on the bottom shelf, a box. It smelled of dust, of forgotten things. What she was about to discover would move her life in an entirely new, unexpected direction.
She pulled the box out and lifted the flap, under which was a thing, a hard thing covered with an obscure plastic wrap, through which she could already recognize what it was: The silent movie projector, which she had used frequently until moving to this place, nearly thirty years ago.
Now Edna recalled how the very act of projecting had been a special ritual, a special game for her: Watching the reels turn, listening to the sound they produced, gauging the contrast between the blackest black, the whitest white—and above all, playing with different speeds, both forwards and back. It made her marvel at how the brain would merge separate images, to create the illusion of motion.
Giddy with excitement, Edna carried the box to the living room. She used her elbow to clear the coffee table and then, very carefully, set it down. Inside, tucked under the machine, she found two reels: One empty, the other heavy with celluloid. The filmstrip rolled down her fingers. Thrilled at the familiar touch, the touch of perforations, she threaded it as best she could, up and down through several guides, until it locked into place. Then, aiming the projector at the wall, she fired it up.
At first, it stirred into motion, casting a glowing, larger-than-life face into the darkness. The eyes sparkled, and from the lips came a laughter. It was giggly, yet utterly silent. Edna smiled back at this girl, the spirit of her youth. The eyelashes fluttered and then—with a sudden stutter—something took over the machine; for stuck on that single frame, it started rattling uncontrollably.
Even worse, Edna noted something strange about the image. It was disrupted in places by some small, underlying things, some pictures which—in her haste—she had neglected to remove from the wall. Right there between those eyes, which were as big as lampshades, hung an old picture of her, locked in arms with her pregnant sister; and under that forehead, which was as wide as the entire room, hung another picture, showing three of her sister’s grandchildren. Looking at them, Edna felt empty. Empty and barren.
She rose to her feet, took the pictures off the wall and stared blankly, for a moment, at the nails. Standing there with her back to the light, her shadow sharpened, cutting into the image. There was no motion. Stop. She turned off the machine. Something was wrong. There must have been some mistake in the way she had set things up.
Edna studied the two reels: One empty, the other heavy with celluloid. It occurred to her that they were suspended like scales between joys and sorrows. Like herself and her sister, they could achieve balance—but only when they were both empty.
She should start by rewinding. This way time would start ticking, ticking in reverse: As if she were running back the clock, regaining her youth, her lost opportunities.
Edna looped the filmstrip again, properly this time. A number appeared in the darkness, vibrating on the wall, right in front of her: Ten... Nine... Eight...
In a flash, up there between those two nails, there she was: A fragile doll, dressed in a flowing wedding gown trimmed with pearly white lace. Suddenly, rising behind her was a large, tilted shadow.
It was him; every motion—reversed. Ethan gathered her to his chest, his face dark with effort, his brow dripping with sweat. He swept the bride off her feet, and carried her in his arms, walking backwards. He backed away from the living room, out through the corridor. Edna shouted, Look out! She sucked in her breath; somehow she was quite sure that in a snap, the veil would ensnare him.
And indeed, it did. Ethan nearly stumbled—but then made it, somehow, across the threshold. You could see him framed by the door, his outline dark against the streetlights out there. He balanced his burden, and climbed down a flight of stairs without a snag, and without toppling over. He managed to hold the bride steady—more or less—and must have felt lucky, for he did not even bother looking down at the next stair behind him.
By the time he had reached the landing he was no longer perspiring; neither was he breathing heavily. Like an army in retreat, he became lighter on his feet. All the while, clinging to him for dear life, the bride kept smiling pretty, as if oblivious to perils of moving in reverse.
She surrendered nothing, not a hint of distress—but looking at herself, Edna wanted to cry, Stop! Let me down! At which point the clip came to an abrupt end. Without missing a beat, a new one began.
In this scene, the bride was facing a group of her girlfriends. She opened her arms to them; but the girls stayed shoulder to shoulder, frozen and remote. From afar, they seemed to be giggling at her. Then—without warning—one of them raised her hand, took aim and thrust something directly at her.
Into her arms it flew: A huge bouquet of roses. Before Edna could move, before she could say, “No, don’t,” the bride clutched it. She pressed it to her breast and—with tears in her eyes—kept smiling pretty. She took a little step back, a little stumble, which suddenly blew ripples in her wedding gown. A drop of blood lifted from the lace. It squirted up as high as those fingers, where it glistened for an instant; and then, evaporated into thin air.
The bride took a deep, sensuous breath, smelling the sweet fragrance as if she had already forgotten the pain, forgotten the thorn lurking there, underneath the rosebuds; at which point—like a memory—the scene gradually faded.
The next scene opened with black leaves floating across the surface. No, not leaves but rose petals, some of which had already started to wither. They were swaying, scattering all over, all around her feet, making her feel unstable. Edna whispered, let it pass. Let it be over, soon. The moment was ripe with tension:
Ethan and the bride had just separated out from a kiss and stood still, facing each other. The silvery light could barely filter through the wedding canopy. Gathered around them were members of both families. They bore witness, in a serious and ceremonious manner, to the unravelling of this union.
Edna could see clearly how he kept tugging at that ring on his finger, as if it did not fit, no, it did not feel quite right, now did it. She caught herself hesitating, wavering there under the gray shade, between one nail and another. Finally the bride took back her vows and set him free. With great gentleness, she recovered his ring. Ethan, in turn, recovered hers.
The scene started fading, as if white veils were falling, one layer over another, over her. She held on to her sister, and started circling around him. Seven times she circled, as if rewinding a filmstrip.
Seven... Six... Five...
In a daze she backed away from him, tracing her steps back into her own footprints, erasing them; erasing herself. Glistening in the fog, rose petals drifted across the path. One by one, they were plucked from the air, from the ground, from soles of shoes and hems of dresses, and heaped into a basket. Keeping in step behind her sister, the bride withdrew even farther.
The wedding canopy shrank away and after a while, vanished into white mist. So did he, he whose name she forgot.
Her eyes fell shut—but only for a moment. She opened them and was surprised to see, somewhat out-of-focus, her sister looking at her, lips moving. There was no sound; but even if there were, Edna knew the words would come out garbled, as the syllables would surely clash, if uttered in reverse. Yet by the sight of it, she could suddenly recall that conversation, which had taken many years to forget.
Her sister gazed at her with moist eyes, saying, “Look at you! How radiant you look today!”
To which the bride begged, “Say you don’t hate me?”
“Why should I hate you? It’s over now. He is yours. He is no longer mine.”
“But I love you. Really, I need you—”
“You need me for one reason, and one reason only: To baby you.”
“Oh stop! That’s a lie!”
“From now on, it’s his turn. I do wish him luck.”
“And me, what about me? Wish me luck, too!”
“What a pity,” said her sister, in a rare moment of cruelty. “You do not have what it takes to become a real woman.”
Edna grew sleepy. The scene went blank before her eyes. She could hear, faintly at first, the mechanical hum of the projector. It went on faster and faster, spinning its reels—but at this point she could not make up her mind whether she was dreaming or not. There she was, lost in the middle of a strange story; her life, rewinded.
It felt like evening, noon, morning, and suddenly night again; winter, fall, summer, and suddenly spring again. Edna touched her body. It seemed more agile, more slender. A change was upon her; she could sense it despite her drowsiness. She turned over. By some strange twist, she fancied that she was suddenly flat chested.
Curiously, the sleepier she became—the more her body awakened. It ached with desire. She must have boxed up this feeling and now, it could no longer be denied. To her surprise, there was a certain tenderness in her nipples, such as she had not felt in a very long time—ever since her early teenage years, come to think of it.
Edna could hear the sound, the maddening sound of celluloid sliding across and over itself; like air sucked in, whistling between the teeth. It made her head reel. Scenes raced through her mind in quick succession. This was no longer a game: She was helpless to stop this mad rush, a rush towards something unknown, towards the beginning.
People came in and out of her life: Men, women, children, all of whom she had long forgotten. They were not the least bit embarrassed about walking in reverse, like circus acrobats on a tightrope. For the most part they managed to do it without bumping against each other or taking a fall.
Like prunes in water, old men lost their wrinkles and gained back their plump skin. They spat out their medicines, and were instantly healed. They promised her love—love for eternity—but soon after, started to backpedal.
Middle-aged women became young again, detaching themselves, in the process, from one boyfriend after another until even the first one backed away. Then they found themselves turning into wide-eyed virgins.
Children became smaller. They forgot all their words, cried longer, the pitch of their voice rose higher and higher until finally slapped by a nurse; at which time—guided by an umbilical cord—they disappeared into a void, into their mother’s womb.
The prospect of finding the end of life at the beginning seemed contradictory at first; but then, she figured, it was so much better than finding it at the proper end. It would be scary, either way—but when time draws near, you need all the help you can get. At least, as a baby you are cute, irresistibly so; which makes people want to take care of you. Not so when you are old.
Edna slipped to the floor and cuddled herself. The machine kept on humming above her—but at this point she had no idea how to stop the thing. She turned her attention to that other sound, which echoed around the room: The beat, the wild beat of her heart. A heartbeat, reversed.
Then, in the distance, a scrape could be heard, like that of a key turning in its lock.
The front door opened. A sudden gust of air blew in, carrying an unfamiliar smell, a mixture of shaving lotion and a trace of sweat. Someone stepped over the threshold. He walked forward, which by now she found rather unusual, maybe even disturbing. Why won’t he stop? Why won’t he reverse his course?
When will he go? Will he ever go?
The thud of his footsteps came to her, closer and closer, louder and louder through the floor boards. It startled her, but she had no wish to open her eyes. Edna curled over her knees, and listened. Her heart was pounding so hard, so fast! Could he hear it? How could he not?
Willing her heart to slow down, she tried to relax, tried counting it down. Before she knew it, she found herself so close—so terribly close—almost there, at the beginning. Three... Two... One...
“Where are you,” he cried out playfully. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
I am not here, she said to herself. Not there. Not anywhere.
He passed through the corridor, calling, “Where are you? I cannot see you!”
I am lost, she mumbled. I cannot be found.
He entered the living room and at first glance all he could see, in the ghastly light of the projector, was celluloid; clips and clips of celluloid snaking, curling one over the other, all over the coffee table, all over the floor.
“Edna?” he cried.
He bent over to turn off the machine, and it was there—in the darkest dark, right under that beam of light—that he stumbled over her. He brushed away the celluloid and, guided by nothing more than a sense of touch, passed a hand over her forehead, her eyelid, her ear, trying to piece together how she looked, and what had happened here.
“Wake up, babe,” he whispered.
Her breathing was barely audible. He took a guess—by the grip of her fingers over her nose, and the subtle movement of her cheeks—that she was hiding a smile. Was it a game? Was she toying with him? He went down on all four, hanging over her, and could not believe his eyes. He must have been blinded, a second ago, by the glare. What he saw was unlikely. It was, perhaps, an illusion; a false sense of motion.
“Stop it, Edna,” he shook her. “Wake up already!”
In her sleep she gave a faint cry. He rocked her, much gentler now, much more tenderly. Normally, after a long absence, it would take a bit of pampering for her to warm up to him—but so far, she seemed to remain cold. If he did not know any better, he would say she was under a spell. She would not wake up. She was lost. Lost to him. The closer he came, the farther away she shrank.
Trying to deny a sense of fear—for what was he fearing, really?—he considered whether or not he should give her a kiss.
“Can you hear me? Edna, can you hear me?”
Why was she so tightlipped? Look: She clasped a hand over her mouth as if her tongue had been bitten. The fingers were trembling, too. He took out a handkerchief and wiped them, for they were moist. There... There. To his astonishment, he sensed it again: Ever so slightly, that movement, still.
He wiped her chin. At once she froze, as if it was something forbidden, a pleasure she was hiding.
Ethan called her name again, this time in a soft, cooing sound, trying to pacify her. He whispered sweet nothings in her ear, raised her head to his lips, and gave it a quick peck. She uttered something: A vague, muffled moan with no words. It reminded him of the little sounds she would make in bed. He cradled her in his arms, tried playing with her fingers—but she fell back, away from him, pushed his hand away and, lost in her dream, went back to sucking her thumb.
|Uvi Art Gallery|