Shredded Women

Callie had red hair. So did her mother and three sisters, but one sister had dyed hers a more-strawberry-than-blonde shade of yellow, and the remaining sisters and the mother tinted theirs darker to reach the safe haven of all red heads, auburn. But Callie let her orange-red hair grow long, and every taunt of “ginger” or “carrots” or “leprechaun” made her tilt her nose higher and vow never, ever to change. Her friend called her Cherry Bomb, a nickname she wore with pride and not just stubbornness, since it fit her well: a big personality in a small package, with flame-colored embellishments. Callie loved her friends, because she had the sort of personality that brought out extreme reactions in people, so she knew the ones that stuck around were true blue.
After college Callie moved to Boston for work as a market trends analyst, because girls weren’t supposed to be spectacular at math or business and there were few things Callie savored like proving people wrong. She rode the Green Line twice a day between her Brighton apartment and Back Bay office. It was on one of these rides when she came to a conclusion, “I think it’s time to fall in love again.”
She had been staring at the bulky sweater emblazoned with a fuzzy red heart on the granny sitting across from her. And just like that, she swept the moderately crowded subway car with her eyes. She discounted most of the businessmen immediately, not ready for her accessory-to-a-midlife-crisis phase, and eliminated any of the boys who reminded her of ex-boyfriends: the ripped jock in the college varsity jacket, the hipster whose earbuds were color-coordinated with the belt buckle on his skinny jeans, and of course the slightly-short, slightly-stocky, dark-haired, Sox-lovers that made up the majority of the male population.
This task of appraising all men in sight aboard the 5:11 B-Line Outbound made a bubble of happiness well up in Callie’s heart. It combined two of her favorite pursuits: impulsiveness and statistics. She read once that, given the massive world population and a basic compatibility on personality traits and social values, any person could have a very happy relationship with a selection of approximately 10,000 potential mates. Some of Callie’s friends found that number ridiculous – what happened to the idea of The One? Others used it like a handkerchief, handy and comforting after a tearful break up, a consolation that there would be another, better relationship soon. But Callie had taken on that number as a dare, an exhilarating challenge to find a match for the girl she was now and the one she’d be next. Callie had announced that she would try her hardest to fall in love with every single one of her designated 10,000. Her friends tried to point out that if she successfully dated, and presumably broke up with, all 10,000, she would have defeated the purpose of the statistic altogether, but Callie didn’t pay that any attention.
So this train of thought, and her self-satisfying stream of ratios, dividing the men once and again to narrow down potential soul mates, had inadvertently produced a radiant smile on Callie’s face. Such a display of emotion was a risky act on the Green Line – better to look politely bored and draw no attention to yourself, otherwise some crazy person might take as a sign of provocation or invitation. Lost in thought, Callie had forgotten that bit of street smarts and let her face reflect the true and private enjoyment she was feeling.
And then the speeding subway train shot into a dark tunnel, and like the flick of the switch the window turned into a mirror. And instead of beaming absently out into nothing, Callie was suddenly making eye contact in the reflection with a boy further down the row. For a beat Callie’s exuberant expression began to morph into one of surprise at finding this young man staring at her in the glass, but then he returned a smile just as sincere as hers. A mere moment later the subway barreled into a bright station and the mirror turned back into a window, but Callie knew there was nobody else on the subway car that day that she could fall in love with.
In the confusion of exiting commuters clogging the entrance for passengers waiting on the platform, and the passengers on the platform blocking the egress of the exiting commuters, Callie slid through the crowd to get closer to her smile-boy. His seat was vacant, though, except for a paperback book. Looking at the slowly thinning mass by the doors, Callie caught sight of the boy just outside the car, patting his pockets and peering into his messenger bag. Still seized by the bliss of impulsiveness, Callie wrapped on the window with her mittened hand. The boy turned at the dull pounding, and smiled again when he saw Callie holding his book. Emboldened, she joined the push-and-pull of boarding and disembarking passengers, a yellow streak in the mass of black wool. She caught up with the boy on the platform and they stood facing each other while commuters flowed around them in a river of dark winter coats.
“Here you go,” Callie said, extending the book.
“Thanks,” the boy said back. “That was nice of you.”
“I didn’t have a choice,” Callie responded solemnly. “Neil Gaiman is one of my favorites. It wouldn’t be right to make you miss out on the ending.”
The boy laughed and asked her, “How can I ever make it up to you?”
“You’ll think of something,” she assured him.
In the warm pause that followed, two curious strangers in the midst of an important introduction, Callie realized how still everything had become. It was one of those periodic peaceful city moments, when the trains had all come at the same time and the passengers had all dispersed, and the street stood empty and calm until the next wave of travelers and traffic.
“How do you feel about winter ice cream?” he asked.
She smiled. “That sounds perfect.”
The boy led the way across the road and down a side street to an ice cream shop she had visited a few times before, with a bright awning and the cheery murals of cones, sundaes and splits along the walls. Callie found out that her companion’s name was Will, that he worked as a research assistant in Cambridge, and that he liked photography, probably more than he was letting on. He seemed reserved, but sweet, and she liked his choppy laugh and the way the corners of his eyes crinkled.
Back on the sidewalk, each carrying a cone (Callie’s with rainbow sprinkles), they reached the point in the conversation when one of them needed to leap from vague, polite, stranger-proof topics to the intimidating, convoluted, exhilarating process of really introducing themselves. Callie, practically a pro at this, held her tongue. She usually had more fun if her date demonstrated a willingness to keep up with her vivacity, and so she began a measured pause that would be long enough for him to think of something to say but not so long that he panicked and talked about the weather to fill the void. She was about a breath away from initiating when he took up the charge.
“Do you have a type, Callie?”
She looked away and bit her bottom lip to stifle a laugh of triumph. Not only had he taken the conversation to a very personal level at just the right time, but he had asked the most scintillating question, and remembered her name on top of it all! She was so pleased she almost forgot to answer.
“When it comes to men, I mean,” Will clarified as she composed herself.
“Yes, a very strict type,” she responded, and even though she had only been acquainted with his face for less than an hour, she could tell that he was interested in the answer. “My type is that I have no type. I never date the same guy twice.”
Will’s mouth curled into a sideways smirky sort of smile that Callie couldn’t interpret yet. “Well how do you know which guy you’re dating until you’re dating him, and get to know him?”
Callie rolled her eyes. “Well as far as character traits in the boys that I get along with the best, they tend to be kind of mellow, I guess? But that’s not what type really means—it’s all about physical attraction, isn’t it? Or what your gut instinct reading of a person is.” She took a deliberate lick of her ice cream cone. “And I make an effort to find distinct, unique boys to spend my time with.”
“So what’s the logic behind that? Unless I’m mistaken I hear a theory coming on.” Will nudged her with his elbow. She almost giggled.
“I just like to see how I react in situations I haven’t encountered before. I’ll put it in your terms—introducing new stimuli to illicit different, unpredictable results.”
Will’s smile now was easier to read. “What’s the name of this experiment?” he asked with amusement.
“Love,” Callie answered. “Or self-discovery.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” he said thoughtfully.
Surprised by how much she was enjoying this conversation, Callie interrupted his quiet moment of reflection. “So what’s your type? If you have one.”
“I do have one,” Will told her with an expression that Callie had decided meant playfulness. “And it is much stricter than yours.”
She felt emboldened by the flirting, and boldness was her forte. “Oh yeah? Are you going to share it with me? I hope I fit it to the letter.”
“You do,” he said, stopping short. For the slightest moment Callie felt a flicker of apprehension at his seriousness. Then he broke the tension with a smile. “I only date readers.”
She laughed along with him, and smiled anew when he held out his hand to help her over the frost heave that gaped in the sidewalk ahead of them. She wouldn’t have minded jumping it, but there was something intoxicating about the gesture, and when he grasped her hand in his it felt as if he knew exactly how it ought to be held.
And so Callie and Will arranged to meet for a dinner, and then another, and tried harder and harder to catch the same subway car whenever they could, and soon they were talking everyday, and faster than even Callie could have anticipated they were hardly talking to anyone else every day. She reveled in the intense connection she felt to Will, an attraction with its own gravitational pull so fierce that it began to polarize the other relationships in her life. Callie reflected on this fact with surprise some months after the subway day as she lugged her duffle bag up to Will’s fifth floor walk-up. When her landlord had sprung the quasi-emergency plumbing repairs on her that morning with the notice that she had to spend the weekend elsewhere, Callie had immediately called Will, even though she knew he wouldn’t turn his cell back on until his lunch break outside the lab. In her state of panic, she decided to try arranging back-up accommodations, in case somehow Will’s place was off-limits this weekend. And it was at that moment that she had realized the two things that were still nagging at her, a whole workday later: first, that she had spent so little time with anyone besides Will lately that she felt uncomfortable calling any of her friends and asking this favor, and second, that although she had eaten the occasional meal at Will’s place or watched a movie there, she had never actually stayed more than a few hours.
When Will swung the door open a moment after Callie’s knock, he stood there, deer-in-the-headlights, for just long enough to make Callie’s skin prickle. Then he hurriedly swallowed the spoonful of cereal that had frozen mid-chew, plopped the bowl onto the corner of the counter, and heaved Callie’s duffle off of the floor.
“I would’ve come to help you, but you didn’t buzz,” he said, clipping his words a bit.
“Someone was leaving and held the door for me.” Callie trailed him as he dragged the duffle across the living room and into his room, moving unusually quickly. When Callie reached the room, the duffle lay upside down on the bed and Will was nowhere in sight. She wavered for a second in confusion, then he shot out from behind the door, appearing suddenly directly in front of her. Now it was Callie’s turn to stand in a doorway looking surprised.
“Sorry” and “It’s nothing” they said at the same time, then simultaneously, “Huh?”
They both laughed a little, and the tension broke. “I was just, uh, cleaning a little, it’s nothing.”
“Hiding your old sex tapes?” Callie chided.
“Something like that,” Will responded, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly.
“Sorry I didn’t buzz. I didn’t realize I was so early.” Callie stepped closer, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her face in his tee shirt. “Thanks for offering shelter to a damsel in distress.”
“Anytime,” Will said, his words muffled with his mouth pressed against her red hair.
It wasn’t the first time a moment of tension had sprung up like that, but such instances were so infrequent and brief that they were easily forgotten. Now, holding her in his arms, humming gently so that his throat gently buzzed against her forehead, he was just her reserved, mild-mannered, sweet boy.
In no time Callie’s banishment to Will’s apartment for the weekend began to feel like a much-needed impromptu vacation. She was surprised by how quickly it felt like home, and even once or twice entertained the idea of staying permanently. The thought gave her a shiver. Her relationships tended to burn hot, and by the time a more normal girl would be considering the living together phase, Callie was already rising from the ashes, feeling new and changed, and ready for the next challenge.
When she awoke on Sunday morning, Callie had decided she absolutely could not leave. She could not even get out of bed. With bright light streaming in the windows, she lolled in the bright, fluffy bed. Never had a boyfriend’s bed been so exquisitely soft! No threadbare cowboy sheets here – Will’s bed was all down and fleece and combed cotton.
Then the sun shifted just enough to catch the corner of something silver, and a shaft of bright light drew Callie’s attention away from all else. In that flash she remembered that she had been waiting for an opportunity to investigate Will’s room, a place she had never been alone in before. She paused for a few seconds, calculating how long it would take him to come back from the bakery down the street, then deciding to risk it she burst from the bed in an explosion of pillows, blankets, and duvet. First she was gratified to realize that the reflection came from a silver framed picture of her. It was the first photo Will had taken of her, and she glowed to see it displayed in prominence atop the bookcase in the corner by the door.
Quickly she scanned the spines of his books, and emitted a little squeal of delight when she saw the copy of Neverwhere Will had been reading the first time they met. She slid it from the shelf and flipped it open. Its spine gave a sharp crack, which struck Callie as odd. She turned it and ran her finger down the glossy paperback, which revealed no sign of ever being opened before, let alone being read in entirety. This made no sense. Callie’s eyes searched the shelves for another, more worn copy. But had she ever seen him reading it? And had they actually ever talked about it together? Well, maybe she had talked about it, with Will nodding along accordingly… No, it was crazy to think like that! There were a million explanations: maybe this wasn’t his copy; maybe he had started reading it and didn’t like it, but didn’t want to hurt her feelings by trashing a book she obviously cared so much about; maybe he had in fact loved the book so much that he had demolished the other copy and this was his fresh replacement. She laughed to herself, having only gotten through three of her “millions of explanations” and had already reached the absurd. She tried to shake off discomfort that had started to set off her spiky temper, and resumed her inspection of the bookcase. There were photography books, a few old novels that looked like they’d first shown up as high school required reading, and odds and ends like lab goggles and a beaten up baseball. Feeling calmer, Callie turned to poke around Will’s desk, or maybe just flop back into bed, when she realized she still held the pristine copy of Neverwhere in her hands. She flipped it around to orient it back on the shelf precisely as she had found it, and an index card slipped out. Leaving the book jutting out from the shelf, Callie knelt to retrieve the card, and along the bottom of the bookcase she noticed a narrow drawer. It was slightly ajar, but was probably meant to be shut, because the small clasps of its lock grasped upwards towards a catch it wasn’t quite aligned with. Callie grasped the tiny knobs on either side and slid the drawer open.
Its shallow bottom was covered with shards paper, most of it white but some of it colored with streaks of green, blue, and red. Callie dipped her hand in to scoop some out for a better look, and jerked it back when a sharp tip pierced her finger. These were photographs, sliced into haphazard rectangles and triangles. Looking for a big piece, Callie gingerly fished one out and brought it up to her eyes. It showed a pale torso in a yellow bikini, with waves crashing in the background. A fraction of smile gleamed in the upper point, and a stream of long red hair curled over the girl’s shoulder. Callie flipped the fragment over, but the blank back held no explanation. Unable to repress the impulse, Callie yanked the drawer out and poured its contents onto the floor, assembling the ruined photos like dozens of little puzzles.
As Callie sorted the pieces, an awful feeling made of guilt, apprehension, and something worse blossomed in her stomach. She did not analyze it, but mechanically picked out shards of faces and bodies from the irrelevant background images, rushing as fast as she could. By the time she heard Will’s key turning in the front door, she had created seven little stacks of pictures from the chaos of shards. Each portrayed a different girl, as far as she could tell from her hurried analysis of facial features, height and season. A couple were taller than her with fuller figures, one was very tall and lanky, the rest her height or slightly shorter. All had long red hair.
She was throwing items back into her bag when Will entered the room to serve her breakfast in bed. He opened his mouth to form a question when his shoe skidded a little on the photographs, and at once his expression turned from confusion to something darker. For a beat he and Callie froze, sizing each other up, waiting for an indication of what was to come. Bursting with anger, Callie finally struck first.
“You never read the book,” she spat at him.
This had clearly not been what Will had expected to hear, because his eyebrows contracted into surprise once more. He continued gaping at Callie, half-dressed in a pair of tights and one of his work shirts, each of her hands balled into fists around unpacked items.
“Neverwhere. I found it. You never read it. Why did you have it? Why did you let me think we shared it?” As his silence grew excruciating, she flung her toiletry bag and yesterday’s jeans into her open bag and screamed, “Why did we meet, Will?”
His voice came out quieter than she expected it to, after her reverberating yell. “We met because I wanted to.” Now it was Callie’s turn to stand silent and still. “Because I noticed you. And I thought I would like you.”
“Say it,” she shot back at her full volume. He looked at the floor, and she dropped her voice, though it still resonated with anger. “Because I’m five-foot-three with red hair.” She zipped up the bag and heaved it onto her shoulder. Will flinched out of her way as she barreled out the door.
“Don’t act like you didn’t do the exact same thing,” he muttered, and she was unsure whether or not she had been meant to hear him, but she spun on her heel all the same. He turned to face her, too, looking readier than she expected. In a louder voice he said, “Don’t act like you didn’t pick me out because of all the traits you hadn’t checked off your cosmic to-do list yet.”
“That is so unfair, and completely untrue.” Her cheeks burned, and she knew she must be looking red all over now, which made her blush even harder. “I thought we had something real, and you were just looking for the hundredth replacement for whatever red head screwed you over, like some sort of serial killer. How many versions of me have you tricked into caring about you?”
“I know that’s why you’re really upset—because you’re always trying so hard to convince everyone that you’re nothing like anyone else, but you know you really are.”
Before he could say another word, Callie strode out of the apartment and slammed the door.

Speak Your Mind