Until She Speaksby Joel Fishbane
Iris Callaghan stands before her wardrobe, selecting an outfit with eyes firmly shut. She runs her hands across the clothes, discarding anything that's flimsy, rough or otherwise unpleasant. Iris has never been a tiny girl. She is a long and elegant stem that widens on its way down. This has been her shape for years, and she's grown accustomed to it, even (dare she admit?) to like it a little. Now she has other concerns. Today she is focused entirely on texture and scent: how she feels and smells will be more important than what extenuates her curves. After some indecision, she selects the softest things she can find: a silk slip, a cotton skirt, a sweater she hasn't worn in months. She leaves for work with this outfit over her shoulder, pinned to a hanger and carefully guarded by plastic film.
Halfway to the bus, her cellphone hums. It's a text from Gibb's sister. They'll be meeting Gibb together and Deidre - Doctor Deidre, as she is more recently known - wants to know when Iris will be finished work. Iris writes back. She is still waiting for the bus when the phone vibrates again.
pop flyin in hes going to stay with me still think Gibb should too
Iris bristles, then brightens like a flame. Her response uses only capital letters: it's the only way she has to convey tone: he's staying with me.
The response is in undercase: a wish for peace.
its not fair to you
This isnt a discussion.
Unable to throttle Doctor Deidre in person, Iris finds a twig and snaps it. It's a poor substitute. This conversation is one of the only ones she has had with his family since he left. They live here in Montreal, but they have never liked her. She rides the bus in a stormcloud, her face fixed in such a dark scowl that passengers opt to stand rather then sit next to her. When she gets off the bus, she forces herself to relax and follows her carefully planned route, one that does not force her to walk through clouds of exhaust or the rank aromas of ethnic cuisine. At the store, she buys an extra pack of Juicy Fruit, just in the case her breath needs a little help.
When she reaches the Dupont's porch, Iris stops to check her reflection. Not the one in the window, of course. Her other reflection. She checks her lipstick by brushing her fingernails across her mouth. She checks her nail polish without ever looking at her hands. She smells her breath, spits the gum into a piece of newsprint and stuffs it in her pocket. Normally, she would let herself in through the back door, but Mr. Dupont changed the locks after Mrs. Dupont left him and Iris never did get her new key. Now it's too late and she must announce her arrival with a coded knock: Rat. Tat. Tat-tat-tat.
From beyond the door Monet begins to bark - he has never broken the code and doesn't know it's her. Mr. Dupont shouts something. Then the door opens, just a crack. The chain is still firmly in place. Such paranoia, but then it's to be expected - Mr. Dupont hasn't lived alone in years. Normally Monet stops barking at her scent, but today he appears confused. Even Mr. Dupont frowns and she remembers that her perfume is new - or rather new to them. She repeats her coded knock, this time on the doorframe, but she knows he won't be satisfied until she hands over one of her carefully lotioned hands. Mr. Dupont's touch is a soft breeze as it moves from wrist to tip, pausing at the index finger. Now he relaxes. Coded knocks and thin hands can be faked, but how could any of the world's ruffians know that the real Iris Callaghan always wears her wedding ring in the wrong place? If all else fails, this is her defining feature.
Satisfied, Mr. Dupont removes the chain and opens the door. Iris slips inside so quietly that he doesn't know she's there. This is her curse: unable to speak, the rest of her body has inadvertently followed suit. "Iris?" says Mr. Dupont in his marvellous voice, the sort that probably once belonged to God. She'd like to stay invisible just to hear it again, but she touches him lightly on the shoulder to let him know where she is.
"Monet's a little testy today," he explains. "We had to run to the store. It's supposed to be his day off and he knows it." The dog is wearing a harness and a sign that says ne me touchez pas: je suis travailler. Please do not touch me. I am at work.
Iris laughs, the voiceless laugh of a heroine from the silent screen. Mary Pickford, say. Or Norma Shearer. She slips out of her shoes and sweeps into the house. The plastic of her second outfit hums as it swings by her side.
"We picked up things for lunch," Mr. Dupont goes on. "I believe you promised me something in a club sandwich."
In the kitchen, she finds chicken breasts, bacon, lettuce, fresh tomatos. Mr. Dupont loves food he can eat with his hands, but these days he especially loves food which would not have Mrs. Dupont's approval. Enter the enriched bread, the bottle of Coke, the high-fat mayo. The Duponts aren't divorced - not yet, anyway, right now it's just a "temporary disassociation" - but Iris does not foresee a happy end. She is well schooled in the art of divorce, having learned it from her parents, and she's glad she's leaving before she can be dragged into court and asked to choose one Dupont over the other. (If she had to, she knows who she'd pick. She has always found Mrs. Dupont to be the sort who knows she has particular tastes but hasn't yet decided exactly what they are.)
"My Club House Farewell," says Mr. Dupont. "We're going to miss you, aren't we boy? Monet, tell her we're going to miss her when she's gone."
Monet stays silent until Mr. Dupont unbuckles his harness. Instantly, his demeanour changes. Iris has always wanted to make Monet another sign for these moments: Touchez moi! Je suis libre! - Touch me! I'm free!. If he was the sort to sit back and put his feet on the couch, he would. But he's the sort who likes to put his feet on Iris. She staggers a little - Monet's a German Sheppard and he strikes with the force of a bullet.
"Did he pounce?" asks Mr. Dupont.
Iris snaps her fingers once.
"Oh, Monet. Leave the girl alone or she might not take you for your last walk."
Monet drops. Does an imitation of a lawn ornament: back straight, head raised. Iris washes her hands and folds a fresh stick of gum into her mouth. She digs an apron out of the drawer. The first task of the day is always the remains of Mr. Dupont's breakfast. He eats oatmeal like a religion. The residue has caked into the pot: he likes it thick so he can spread it on his toast. After the dishes she tidies the kitchen and then goes into the bedroom to collect the laundry. She strips the sheets and hunts for stray socks. She's looking under the bed when Mr. Dupont wanders in, the dog trailing him like a shadow. Monet's collar jiggles like a siren. Iris is aware that she's in an unflattering pose, her nose under the bed, her bottom poking high into the air. It's a fool's concern, of course, for Mr. Dupont can barely distinguish between light and dark. But this is easy to forget because she only sees him in this house, which he navigates with eerie grace. Even now he walks right to the bureau and hardly fumbles at all as he retrieves his cellphone.
"I don't think I'm crazy about the new smell. Is it a gift for Gibb?"
Iris knocks twice.
A single knock.
"He's still coming home tonight?"
A single knock.
A single knock. Although scared is not quite the right word. Panicked, terrified, packed tight with an overwhelming sense of dread. But some things are hard to explain with a knock.
"Forget I said anything," he says. "The perfume's perfect. He's been surrounded by dirty soldiers for months. He'll love it."
No he won't, she thinks. Neither of us do. That's why she wore it. It was a gift gone wrong, a perfume he had liked in the store but hated when she opened it on Christmas Eve. It's a smell that will help her to be recognized; it is an aroma characteristic of no one but her.
Throughout the morning, Mr. Dupont comes and goes, wearing down a path between the office and the kitchen. Such a big man, she thinks, so broad in the shoulders. And that suit, like something out of a 1950s sitcom. Ever since his vision began to fade, Mr. Dupont has had no use for colour. No sense anymore, he likes to say. I'll only get it wrong anyway. Iris wonders if Gibb will be the same. He'll definitely want new clothes. Probably need them, since he's been wearing nothing but uniforms for as long as she can recall. She thinks about these shopping trips and quickly invents a system to make them work: she'll hold the left wrist if a shirt is too much, the right if it's cheap. She'll kiss him if something's on sale.
Eventually, she slips on her ear buds and lets her iPod shuffle. The narration feature on Mr. Dupont's computer is always on and the voice bothers her. They've tried to make it sound human but the effect is merely creepy, like a doll that's just a few steps shy of being real. The computer also reads his emails and Iris doesn't like to eavesdrop, though this isn't out of concern for Mr. Dupont's privacy. But Iris often sends messages through her phone, even when she's only downstairs. This means that if the house is quiet enough she can sometimes hear the computer's voice reading her words out loud. And all of the sudden there she is: male, sterile, a slight British accent. Having never spoken, this is all she has. This is what she sounds like, even to herself.
Iris met Gibb through an online forum and for the first three months she didn't tell him she couldn't speak. Not that she was the only one with a secret. All the while that they debated the war in Afghanistan, "Corp_Gibb" failed to mention that he was messaging her from within the war itself. They danced around the idea of meeting in person but both clung to anonymity and neither offered their real name. It was Corp_Gibb who cracked first. A surprise assault by insurgents led to the realization that if he died, "Eye_24" would never know why he had stopped writing.
Enough's enough, he wrote the very next day. I'm buying you lunch. He signed the letter Master Corporal Gibson Callaghan, Special Operations Regiment. His rotation was almost up and he spent the last ten days terrified he'd never make it home.
Eye_24 hesitantly agreed to the date. She had already resigned herself to the fact that she would eventually have to tell him the truth. This didn't worry her. Instead, she was plagued by the same fears that plague anyone who falls in love with someone they've met online: namely, that reality will never equal the thing they she had invented in her heads. Oh he had sent a picture. But in the days of Photoshop, a picture is only a thousand airbrushed words.
Only after writing back did Iris remember that she had already made plans for the day she and Gibb were to meet. Her mother was a fevered participant in charity causes and on that particular day, she had helped to organize a bachelor auction as a fundraiser for Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. For weeks, her mother had been begging Iris to put herself up for sale and she had at last relented. She quickly rearranged her appointment with Gibb but made a fateful mistake when she told him the real reason why. It did not occur to her that Gibb would take pains to learn the place and time of the auction, but that was because she did not know that he worked in the field of intelligence and knew all the advantages that spying can bring. The knowledge that she would be on the auction block was a unique opportunity that he couldn't resist.
The auction had a unique element that had been injected by Iris's mother: as the event was meant to support those with visual disabilities, no candidate would be allowed to get by on their looks alone. Each bachelor and bachelorette were expected to deliver a little pitch. This meant that Iris was forced to write a personal profile that her own mother would then read to a crowded room. This hampered her creativity. Her sales pitch showed none of the wit of her emails to Corp_Gibb; they were as drab as a technical report. She did not expect an enthusiastic response. Her one hope was that she would fetch more than the defence attorney who had come before - the man had retailed for a little under fifteen bucks.
She was rather surprised, then, when a bidding war emerged between two men in the crowd. A light was in her eyes, so she knew nothing of her suitors other than that one had a gravelled voice and the other was deep and strong, like a practiced baritone. The bidding had started at ten dollars but within moments it had reached triple digits. Two hundred, two-fifty, do I hear three? She couldn't understand it. Instead of feeling glorious, she felt like a cheat. Perhaps the men didn't realize she couldn't speak, she thought. They must think they're bidding on something else.
Of course she had Gibb to thank for all that followed - he was the practiced baritone, driving up the bids so she wouldn't go the way of the defence attorney. He never meant to win, but he accidentally hit a number the gravelled voice could not surpass and he soon found he had paid four hundred and twenty-four dollars for a woman he would already have seen for free.
Monet follows her throughout the day, obediently staying off the areas she has cleaned. Iris talks to him in sign language, the same she uses with Gibb. She likes to think he understands her, fooling herself with the same illogic that allows old women to have conversations with their cats. She spends most of the morning dividing her time between checking her reflection (without a mirror) and washing the windows, furniture and floor. Mr. Dupont has insisted she polish everything to a shine. Not that it matters to him, of course, but Iris knows a shiny floor is one of Mrs. Dupont's obsessions. Mr. Dupont refuses to let the house become a sty. Mrs. Dupont will see it again and he wants her to see that nothing has changed, that he can get along just fine on his own. And so Iris has been instructed to keep the house in the manner that Mrs. Dupont prefers. Yesterday, she had to explain this to her replacement - a young thing, highly recommended, small and round like a grenade. She was a talker, a habit developed from years with a blind parent. Iris remained rabidly jealous only until the girl left: as soon as the door closed, Mr. Dupont had produced a terrible shudder. "Noisy little thing, isn't she?" he said. "I'll have to institute quiet time, like they used to do in school." The remark pleased Iris, almost thrilled her really. She felt she had just been complimented, as if her silence was a blessing, a trait as desired as beauty or wealth.
At noon, she goes into the kitchen to start on lunch. She cooks both bacon and chicken in the oven - she's afraid if she frys the meat, the smell will seep into her clothes. She lathers the bread with mayo, tears some lettuce, slices a tomato. For a side dish, she decides on rice, with a little saffron for flavour. Waiting for the water to boil, she remembers to fetch her knife roll from the drawer. The Duponts were woefully understocked when she arrived; her chef's knife, paring knife, even her Y-peeler have all lived in this kitchen for almost a year. Did she tell any of this to the noisy grenade? The girl will have to buy new supplies. She'd better leave her a note. What else, she thinks. The grinder. The garlic press. That saucepan is mine, but they can have that. At last she remembers her old cassette player, installed over the sink for the sole purpose of playing a mix Gibb made when they first married. Music to Cook By, he had called it and now she knows all the songs by heart.
When she goes to collect the tape, though, she sees it resting on the shelf. Iris picks it up and frowns. The tape was in the player yesterday - or was it? She quickly sees it has been replaced. A new cassette is inside the player, unlabelled and with the clean gloss of something recently pulled from cellophane wrap. It never occurs to Iris that the tape has been placed there by Mr. Dupont. She knows he threw out all his cassettes because she's the one who had to carry them to the curb. In that moment the cassette has no owner. It's a mystery and when she presses play, she's not sure what to expect.
A rhythmic pulse fills the kitchen, steady and strong like a message from outer space. Then Mrs. Dupont's voice. Intense and clear: one mighty trumpet calling to another.
"Allo Bear. Yes, it is me. Alors, I could have sent an email but I did think you should have something of the physical. I am guessing you do not recognize the sound you are hearing. It is a heartbeat. A girl. Our own jeune fille. I do not know…well, I thought that you would like to hear. Before we decide what to do. Telephone me, yes? Or e-mail. Or, yes, just…"
Mrs. Dupont trails off and the heartbeat returns. It's underscored by the oven timer - the water has boiled, the bacon is ready. Iris turns from the stove to see Mr. Dupont standing by the screen door. The heartbeat hasn't stopped: maybe Mrs. Dupont looped the track so that it would fill the whole side of the tape.
"If you listen, you can hear that she's under water," says Mr. Dupont. "That's why it sounds the way it does. I think it's the, what's the name? Amniotic. It's the amniotic fluid. You ever hear anything like that?"
Iris knocks twice.
His face is alert and she knows he's trying to figure out exactly where she is. He can predict everything in this house except for her. This once excited him as it once excited her. She remembers that singular afternoon when she stood still and let him search for her with his outstretched hands. Then, just at the moment when he almost had her, she had quietly stepped aside. Eventually the mischief was discovered and he had called her cruel and to apologize she had taken his hands and placed them on her shoulders. And they had stood like this for a time, his blank stare boring into her, both of them deciding what to do next. Now that blank stare has returned: he's staring into the kitchen at where he thinks she might be as his daughter's heartbeat continues to fill the room.
"I found it in the mailbox," he says. "Cassettes are how we used to send letters. I didn't listen to it at first. I thought it was just another rant. She likes to rant. I almost threw the tape away. I didn't want to hear her voice. Her voice is what gets me into trouble. It's voluptuous, don't you think? I hear it and I forget who I am. That's how this whole thing happened. She started talking and I forgot all the reasons we were apart."
Iris is making three sandwiches: one for now, one for later, one for herself. She thinks about the Duponts in bed - or had it been a passionate thing right here on the floor? She knows that Mr. Dupont needs sex to be a tactile experience. But it occurs to her that with Mrs. Dupont it can be loud too. That's the real difference between them. She thinks of her own sex with Gibb and realizes the old ways will no longer do. No, she cannot help but be stoic. But, as with Mr. Dupont, her hands will have to stay on him the whole time.
"Things just get so toxic," Mr. Dupont continues. "After Easter, I told her I didn't want to hear her for a while. No visits, no phone calls. That's why we've been using email. Her voice does things to me. I don't know what to do."
Iris is certain she will be asked for her opinion and positions her knuckles over the table, ready to strike. Are you angry I didn't tell you? One knock. Should we get rid of the child? Two knocks. Iris has all the answers ready. But Mr. Dupont has started tearing at his sandwich, rolling the chicken between his fingers and not saying a word. Does he not think her capable of giving something as complex of marital advice? She who has been married longer than him? Or does he not think her mature enough to discuss his wife just because of that singular afternoon when, as it always with Mr. Dupont, one thing had led to another? She feels an old frustration, like she really is Mary Pickford trapped in a silent film and clawing to get out. Not for the first time, she tries to will herself to make a sound. There's nothing wrong with her throat. Or her tongue or her palette. They think its something in her brain and she has always liked to believe this means she can change it, that in some Hollywood moment when her voice comes to her just when she needs it most.
This is not that moment and annoyed at his silence, she knocks several times, answering questions he never asked. Then she storms out of the kitchen, brushing his hand as she leaves so he knows that he's alone.
Iris spends the remainder of the afternoon in the kitchen, freezing soups and lasagnes and stews. She feels compelled. A polished floor, a stocked freezer: all evidence that Iris Callaghan once was here. At a quarter to four, she collects the last of her things: her cooking supplies, Music to Cook By, a stray sweater, a book she loaned Mrs. Dupont months before. She piles them by the door, then goes into the bathroom to change. She uses caution when preparing her face. Too much make-up and the skin starts to feel like a cat's tongue. A layer of gloss for those cracks in her lips. A few drops of moisturizer to give her hands a soft coat. Last, she sprays a cloud of his perfume and darts through the air. Now you see her, now you don't, now you smell her from across the room.
At the door, she hugs Monet around the neck, but he's the easy one, they said their proper goodbyes during their walk in the park. Mr. Dupont, on the other hand, has a funereal look. He takes her carefully lotioned hand and draws her to him. He smells of musk and laundry soap and brandy, which she knows he's been quietly adding to his coffee ever since his wife left.
"You know that I'll miss you," he says. "God, what a lonely time. You're lucky yours is over."
Is it? Iris isn't so sure. Gibb will be different now. And what if she tells him about her singular afternoon with Mr. Dupont, what if she confesses as she was taught to in her youth? What would happen then? She stares at Mr. Dupont's hairy knuckles: there are flecks of grey, just like in his stubble. She remembers that his chest hair is the same, that his entire body had that greying look as if pulled from an old film.
"Now don't you worry about me," he goes on. "You just focus on Gibb. And don't let his damn family walk all over you. Mrs. Dupont's family, they tried to walk all over us. We moved to a different town. You do the same, you understand?"
Iris kisses him once on the cheek.
After she leave, Iris stays to watch Mr. Dupont and Monet through a window she cleaned just a few hours before. She can see straight into the kitchen where Mr. Dupont is standing by the cassette player over the sink. She has left it behind, not wanting to deprive him of his daughter's heart or his wife's voice; later, when she hears that the temporary disassociation has indeed been temporary, she will be surprised by the swell of pride and the silly conviction that the reunion was something she herself has caused.
Doctor Deidre drives a new car that is exactly like her: slick and loud with a top that easily comes down. "You told me four," she says.
Iris knows she told Deidre four-thirty, but she shrugs in apology and gets into the car. Doctor Deidre's medical bag is open on the seat. The contents are a mess: the medical gloves are withered hands, the stethoscope pokes through like a mocking tongue. Does she really need to carry these things around? Doubtful. Like the car itself, it's probably just for show.
"So today was really your last day?"
Iris his the dashboard once.
"You didn't have to quit, you know. We could have paid for someone to look after him."
She speaks in sign. I owe it to him.
"You know I don't understand it when you do that." Doctor Deidre shakes her head and lights a cigarette. "He's not going to understand it either anymore. If you want my medical opinion, I just don't see how it will ever work. It'll be nothing but yes or no answers for the rest of your life."
They drive in silence and Iris folds a fresh stick of gum into her mouth. She slouches in the seat and thinks of Mr. Dupont standing over the sink, listening again and again to his wife's voice. Could a synthesized voice ever do that to Gibb? Iris stares at the floor of the car, at the crushed soda can, the empty cigarette boxes, the doctor's bag splayed open at her feet. She wonders if she's thought of everything. A Braille keyboard, screen reading software. One knock for yes, two for no. A kiss if something's on sale. But is any of it enough?
When she and Doctor Deidre come to the place where Gibb is waiting, they find him pacing the room in full dress uniform, guiding himself by running a hand along the surface of the wall. Deidre hugs her brother. His eyes are bandaged, but the rest of his face is not as badly scarred as they had feared. Iris shuts her eyes and checks her reflection. Lipstick, nails, breath. She runs a hand across the great expanse of her body and moves her wedding ring onto the proper hand. But despite her plan to announce her presence with texture and scent, she can no longer shake the fear that until she speaks he might never know she's there.
Gibb says, "Deidre, where's Eye? Is she here?"
Iris' heart is racing, which is just the way she wants it. From her purse she produces Doctor Deidre's stethoscope and places it around her husband's neck. He frowns as she puts the ear buds into his ears before putting the bell to her chest.
"Eye, is that you?"
Iris knocks once, hoping that it will be enough, that after this, there will be nothing else to say.