The Tiger Earring, by Emily Glossner Johnson

September 2067

This is how it ends: Elsa is an old woman with thin papery hands, brown spots dotting her skin, and white hair in a loose, wispy bun. She sits quietly on her front porch, in her lap a book that she’s not reading. Sunlight slants across her from the west. Filtered through the leaves of the silver maple, the light dapples her face and body. She’s waited for one hundred years but nothing has come of it.

She closes her eyes and thinks about herself as a young woman, and then she fantasizes: she is encouraged by her husband Nicholas to attend graduate school. Nicholas sees her as an artist, so she writes, writes, writes and finds her way to publication. He drinks too much and sometimes becomes sad, thinking she doesn’t love him as much as he loves her, but she does. This is the way of it because she’s independent, self-sufficient, well. But she adores him. He is the one who truly looked at her, looked into her open face and trusting eyes and saw what she needed. She knows she is his treasure. Chosen. He has given her two babies whom they are raising together. They make love and live with passion. Her hands will become thin and papery one day, brown spots dotting her skin, but she will wear her hair in a long white braid. She will wear scarves and feather earrings and lapis lazuli. She will outlive him and reach one hundred years without regret.

But none of this has happened.

*

October 2049

Nicholas is an eighty-six-year-old man holding an earring in the palm of his hand. The earring is a tiny plastic tiger that hangs from a thin wire. Many people might find it garish, but it wasn’t in 1985, and it isn’t in the present for Nicholas. He looks at it closely, this beautiful, cherished thing. It’s all he has. He has no pictures of her, no letters, nothing but the earring. For sixty-four years he’s kept it. It’s all he has to prove that Elsa had been real—that for a brief time, she’d been his.

He has never married. He devoted his life to his work, running the architectural firm he started in Pennsylvania after college. He has won awards and earned accolades for his architecture. He has designed nearly half a city. But he has done it all alone. He holds the earring to his chest. Several hours later, he dies.

*

May 2013

Elsa is a middle-aged woman married to an insurance executive named Mark. Mark, her high school and then college sweetheart. There have been no babies—Mark didn’t want children. Elsa feels more and more alone. She’s stopped having orgasms on the occasions when she and Mark have sex. She pulls her hair into a ponytail and runs, runs, runs towards something she can’t define. Her breasts sag; her hands begin to show age spots. She uses Rubbermaid containers, plants impatiens in the yard, and cooks chicken breasts that have soaked all afternoon in an Italian marinade. She works in the main office of a high school, filing, typing, drinking too much coffee, aware that there wasn’t much she could have done with a bachelor’s degree in English. She works five days a week. She tries to keep herself in shape. She writes a little, but nothing like she used to. Nothing like she did in college when she was with Nicholas. She has published nothing.

*

May 1985

It starts to rain.

“You have to decide,” Nicholas says to Elsa. They’re sitting in his car in the parking lot by the bus station that has busses running back and forth between the north and south campuses of their university, sodium vapor lights shining down on the slick asphalt. She can get on a bus and return to her north campus dorm, or she can go with Nicholas to his apartment, and by going with him, she will have made her decision to be with him for good. They both know that this is it—the moment.

“I don’t know what to do,” she says. She’s crying. She thinks of Mark back at the dorms. She wonders if Sean, her orange-haired skater punk friend from the room next door, has had to cover for her since tonight is Friday, a night she typically spends with Mark.

“You have to decide once and for all,” Nicholas says.

“How would we do it? Long distance?”

“I’ll move to Buffalo. I’ll marry you.”

“I’m eighteen.”

“Do you love me?”

“Yes. So much.”

“Then let’s do it.”

Elsa looks out the car window. Nicholas is leaving for Pennsylvania the next day, only to return to the university for graduation, and then he will start his life after college. Elsa is at the end of her freshman year. The next day, she’s going home for the summer only to get ready to return to the university for three more years. The same is true for Mark, and they will go home for the summer to the same hometown and friends. They will live with their similar families, both of whom envision Elsa and Mark married one day.

“Please come with me,” Nicholas says.

“I can’t,” she says, sobbing now, wiping her face with her hands.

“Oh, God, don’t let this be happening,” he says, crying as well.

She gets out of the car. For a moment, nothing moves, not her, not the car, not the trees or the flag that stands next to the bus shelter. It has stopped raining. And then Nicholas begins to pull away.

It’s at this moment that she changes her mind. She wants to be with him—somehow, they can make it work. She’s a woman now and can do what she wants. She wants Nicholas. She reaches out and touches the side of his car as it passes slowly by her, but Nicholas doesn’t notice and drives off into the night. And she thinks, too late. Forever too late. She won’t be able to pick up the phone or write a letter. She will never drive to Pennsylvania. She gives up, gives in. She believes in fate and that Mark must be the one. She’s been cheating on him for a semester and now she owes him her loyalty and fidelity. Fate dictates it.

On the bus, she cries and doesn’t care who sees. On the stairs outside of her dorm room, she cries while her roommates sleep, and then there is Sean with a bottle of vodka.

“I lost my wallet tonight,” he says, sitting beside her and handing her the bottle. He doesn’t ask why she’s crying. She takes a swig from the bottle and then gives it back to Sean. He shakes his head. “What a fuck-up I am. My parents are going to kill me.”

She says nothing for a long while. Then finally: “I changed my life tonight.” And for a moment, she is an old woman with a wispy bun. Sean must see this; he hands the bottle back to her.

They sit on the stairs until dawn, until they have to brush the taste of vodka out of their mouths and get ready for the arrival of their parents. They’re done with their freshman year. They’re packed and ready to go, hung over, hiding it well. Elsa never gets the chance to say goodbye to Sean, to thank him for sitting on the stairs all night and waiting with her for something that will never be.

*

April 1985

It was perhaps Nicholas’s mouth that Elsa noticed first, his lopsided smile and the crease that formed on the left side of it. It was his hands. It was his eyes, blue and searching, and his dark hair that she runs her hands through. The flannel shirt that she unbuttons, the t-shirt underneath. He is small town and she is white bread suburbs and tract houses and sedans. His Levis come off, her elf boots and miniskirt, her tights and panties, her sweater and bra. She wears bracelets like Madonna and hair spray in her long layered hair. These are nights that repeat, fresh and new. Sean covers for her. If Mark comes looking for her, Sean will tell him that she went to her friend’s house off-campus for the night. But Sean always reports that Mark didn’t come looking for her.

This is where it happens: the floor of his apartment, the couch, his bed. A single bed with a quilt his mother made. Underneath it, they hide like children and laugh. She is free for these hours slipped into her nights—Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays—nights when she studies quickly and he picks her up in his car and takes her away while Mark is at the dorms, oblivious.

One day at the beginning of their psychology class together, he fishes in the front pocket of his backpack for something. He looks down at the earring and smiles. “I found this in my bed this morning,” he says, holding the earring out to her. It’s a little plastic tiger dangling from a thin wire.

She smiles back at him. “Keep it,” she says. “Keep it as a souvenir from last night.”

*

February 1985

Their first time together begins with a black and white movie on his small television that, though they are both staring at it, neither is watching. He leans towards her, turns her face to his and kisses her. The only light in the room comes from the television. They strip out of their clothes quickly. On the floor, they lay together, their clothes serving as cushioning.

“You’re so beautiful,” he says, touching her body, running his hands over her skin.

Tentatively, she touches the hair on his chest. Cautiously, she looks at him, at all of him. He is only twenty-two, but he is a man to her. He’s not a boy like Mark.

They kiss and hold each other close. “I want to make love to you,” he says. The television picture flickers, casting light and shadows over them, the walls, the ceiling. Yes, she decides. Yes.

The condom makes it real. The semen caught inside of it when he carefully takes it off, semen that would be inside of her if they hadn’t used the condom. She thinks about making a baby with him. “I love you,” she says.

“I love you,” he says.

This is the first time they’ve exchanged the words. She realizes that she has changed everything. She wants to be with Nicholas forever. Her thoughts are consumed by him, as is her body. She feels him in her veins, her bones, her soul.

“I want to marry you,” he says.

She laughs, but it is earnest laughter, happy and pure. “You’re proposing to me?”

“What if I am?” he says.

“What would I say?”

He grabs and hugs her, holds her close to him. “You’d say, yes, Nicholas, yes, I will marry you tonight. I will be your wife forever.”

This is how it happens: their first time, their declaration of love, her knowledge that nothing will ever be the same. But then there is Mark, back at the dorms. She thinks of him only peripherally at the time, but she knows that she is supposed to belong to him.

*

January 1985

The earrings are little plastic tigers hanging from thin wires. Elsa sits next to him in the lecture hall of their psychology class, a few seats down but with no one in between them. They’ve both been sitting in these places since the first day of class a week ago. She knows his name is Nicholas. With her peripheral vision, she can tell that he is looking at her.

“Tigers,” he says, leaning towards her. It’s the first word he’s ever spoken to her.

She turns to him. “What?”

“Your earrings. They’re little tigers.”

She laughs and fingers one earring. And this is how it begins.

***

Emily Glossner Johnson has had short stories published in the journals Lost Coast Review, The Outrider Review, The Literati Quarterly, Lynx Eye,Literary Brushstrokes, The Linnet’s Wings, Dinosaur Bees, Cobalt Review,Breath & Shadow, The Round Up Writer’s Zine (two publications),and in the anthology Postscripts to Darkness. She’s also had two short stories published by Musa Publishing in their Erato (LGBT) imprint. She has two nonfiction pieces, both about mental illness, forthcoming in an anthology to be published by Lime Hawk Literary Arts Collective and in the journal The Ram Boutique. She has a B.A. in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo and an M.A. in English from the State University of New York College at Brockport. She lives with her family in central New York.

Emily Glossner Johnson

Emily Glossner Johnson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: