Volume 68, Number 2 · Spring 2019

Perfume for Girls

At one of the casinos, I bought a perfume for girls. eau de toilette fille, it said in silver script, butterflies caught mid-dip, flowers snaking around the Ls. My boyfriend was off somewhere and had sent me shopping. He was probably imagining me going from store to store: a blowout, a day dress, a pale pink lip, and bags up and down my arms like women in movies about California. He’d probably imagined me in heels; the clicks of them echoing off the walls and vaulted ceilings. He handed me a neat fold of bills and said he would see me for lunch in our room. He had an appointment at nine. Whether he was really at a meeting—“a business gathering,” the words he had used—or whether he was at one of those table games, is anyone’s guess.

The bottle was small and square and green and displayed at the register. I had almost left without smelling it. It was powdery, flowery, everything you would expect. Cheerleading practice. Homecoming. French lessons. Maybe. I don’t know. It had been a while since all of that.

When I was tired of shopping with his money, I went to a café by the pool. I spread the bags around me on the chairs and I pushed them in like little children. Lingerie and shoes, because he had asked me to. A dress to wear that evening to dinner and a show with people from work. His work. A pink, leather-bound, blank book. A few pairs of socks: one, jokey, with cartoon breakfast items and one with stripes at the top that he would ask me to pull to my knees. A tie, because there was no reason why I shouldn’t seem thoughtful. But I was most excited about the perfume. I kept lifting my wrist, breathing. I waved my arm in front of me like I was brushing hair away from my face, so when I would smell it, it seemed almost accidental. A surprise.

It was near noon, well over 100 degrees. I watched people swim, people sun themselves feet away from me on the deck. A woman in a cap did the backstroke. A tan man did laps. A family of three stayed by the edge: the man acclimating a child to the water, the woman holding a mimosa by the glass’s stem. She leaned back, the upper half of her body on land, her hat pulled down over her face. She kicked the water, moving her feet slowly. I saw her rings shining in the sun. Her watch and her earrings, shining in the sun.

Even though I knew it would be an issue later, I asked the waiter for a mimosa.

“Cut me off at two,” I said when he brought it. I smiled when I spoke, so he would know I was joking, so he would smile along with me. He didn’t.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a fraction of a bow. “Anything else right now?”

“An unsweetened iced tea, please,” I said. The ma’am was a problem.

I was still watching the swimmer when I heard the scrape of the chairs at the table next to mine. At first I thought I recognized the male. It was a strange jolt I felt, a strange sizzle inside. Where do I know him from, I thought. I tried to imagine places I had been recently, places back home where I could have seen him. Vacations work that way sometimes, where you see someone unexpected from home. Maybe he had been next to us on the plane. Maybe a waiter from the restaurant where we went some Saturdays: Italian with a New American touch, they said. Mediocre, though. Some place in the mall? High school? My doctor’s office? I was still trying to figure it out as he sat down and pulled his chair closer to the table and took the menu from the hostess and looked up at the girl with him and smiled at her, all his white teeth in a straight row, his stubble camera-ready, his squint just so. And then I realized it wasn’t him at all. It was her. The girl he was with looked exactly like me. She was putting her hair over her shoulder at that very second, putting her handbag on an extra chair. Coffee, I heard her say, need coffee now. She said it in a robot voice and the hostess smiled and said someone will be right with you. I sat up straighter, self-conscious. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m a strange-looking person or exotic looking, even. But I had never before then seen anyone who looked like me, living or dead. It was unsettling, I guess. I was staring.

She must have felt it. The way the weight of my eyes changed the air around us. She looked over and we made eye contact and she put her mouth into that thin line of a smile that we all give strangers and then she looked back at the menu. Just like that.

I figured I could have one more mimosa. So I could stay and watch. Even though it was almost twelve thirty and my boyfriend did not like to lunch any later than one. But, I thought, maybe he’ll like it if I show up a little late, a little drunk, with the perfume on and willing to let him do any number of things to me. The socks, too. Maybe he would overlook it. Maybe I wouldn’t have to hear about it all day and then throughout the evening. The waiter did not hesitate when I asked for a third drink and he bowed again when delivering it to me.

Her mannerisms were similar. The way she held her coffee cup with both hands. The way she looked over her shoulder and puckered her mouth to the side. Her collarbones, too. Her hair in the light. The redness I saw appearing on the tops of her cheeks, warm and puffed from the sun. I’d say she was my age, give or take. No, maybe exactly my age. Him, he looked like a student. Like he ran a school newspaper. He could have been anyone. I wondered if he would confuse the two of us. If we stood side by side, he would look for a landmark to differentiate. He would make us say a certain word to know which one was his. He’d look for the tattoo on her hip, the clover or the script letter, the swallow with its wings spread in small flight. But I had the same one. I knew without seeing that we had the same one.

By the end of that third drink, I was waiting for the phenomenon that would allow me to talk to her. Whichever phenomenon, I wasn’t particular. When her napkin dropped, I leaned forward, not allowing a second to pass.

“Excuse me,” I said. They stopped talking and turned to me. “Hi,” I said. “I think you dropped your napkin.” I leaned back a bit—triumphant, relieved—and waited for her to say something.

“Oh,” she said and looked down. There were birds at our feet, pecking at crumbs, fighting over the thin end of a croissant. Their black backs were shiny in the sun. “Oh, I did. Thanks so much.” It came out like one word. Thankssomuch.

She picked it up and smoothed it out over her lap and turned back to him. “Wait a minute,” she said and looked up at the umbrella over their table. She shook her head and put her hands on her cheeks and I found myself doing the same thing, mimicking, like our limbs were attached with strings. Twin marionettes. “I was just going to say something to you.”

There was a wait for a patio table, I could tell by the crowd at the front of the place.

As I stood, while I collected my bags, making a show of how many, how cumbersome and awkward, how flush with products I was, I wondered why she didn’t look up. You don’t feel that? You don’t sense the energy changing? I willed her to look. And when she didn’t, I took a picture of her. So I could show my boyfriend. I knew he wouldn’t believe me. Or if he did, he wouldn’t understand the extent of the resemblance.

“I’ll see you again,” I said as I walked away, whispering, hardly moving my mouth. Don’t ask me what I was talking about. I don’t know. I was half-drunk. I thought that something was happening.

My key card didn’t work so I had to knock and I heard him huffing through the door as he came to open it. I pulled the front of my shirt down a bit, pulled the excess fabric toward my back and tucked it into the waist of my shorts, making it tighter.

“Wait until you see,” I said when he opened it. I leaned forward. I gave him my best smile, the Kathy Ireland Smile he liked to call it. I held the bags out in front of me and waved them. I wouldn’t give him a chance to start because once he did, he wouldn’t stop. I kissed his cheek and walked past him to the bed. “Wait until you see what I got.”

He loved the socks but said he could take or leave the perfume. I didn’t have the chance to show him the other things.

“You know, the strangest thing happened,” I said, yelling a bit. He was in the bathroom. “I saw a girl who looked exactly like me. At the café.” I was thinking of her. I had been thinking of her the whole time.

“What were you doing at the café?” He called back over running water.

“I was having a little breakfast,” I said. “But that’s not the point. She looked just like me. I took a picture of her. Come look.” He came back out, taking his time as he threw the towel onto the desk chair. He wanted me to see his body. This was a thing with him. And it’s true, he did look good for his age. He had the body of someone much younger. He knew his way around the bedroom. He had had a string of young girlfriends before me and would have more when we were through. I knew that.

“You think?” he said, squinting at my phone. “I can’t make anything out. It’s all blurry.”

I took the phone from him. I zoomed in and looked at the way her hair hit her shoulder, or just at her breast, just like mine. She had been in the middle of saying something when I took the picture, so her mouth was open. It was something with an L, because the tip of her tongue was tensed against the bottom of her top front teeth. I tried it out. I mouthed the word lobster. Lobster Benedict, babe. Maybe she was saying that. Maybe something about laundry. Or saying it was too loud. Maybe Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But she would say pee ay. Back in good old Lancaster, Pee Ay. It didn’t matter what my boyfriend thought, I know what I saw.

“Let’s eat and then go take a walk,” he said, standing in front of the mirror. He ordered fruit and cold cuts, no bread, no mayo, black coffee, flat mineral water. “But no bananas,” he had said on the phone with room service. “No pineapple or bananas.” Then he whispered to me, “Too much sugar” and winked.

He smeared the turkey with mustard, then rolled it up and sliced it, eating it with a fork, savoring it like it was a piece of good steak. I turned toward the window and looked at the layers of drapes. I had to. I had to look at something else. And this was one of our problems: I hated him or I had to have him inside of me, nothing in between.

“Time to change,” I said and got up.

▴ ▴ ▴

I had no idea who they were, the people we were having dinner with. And I didn’t note their names or try to follow the conversation. He had mentioned it was for work so I knew what that meant. It was two other men and the women they were with, though no one spoke of their own lives, so I assumed none of them were married. To each other, anyway. My boyfriend was ordering bottles of wine for the table and the waiter was keeping my glass full and the dress I had bought that morning fit well, surprisingly well, so I was pleased enough. I just let everything happen around me.

He was asking about the desserts. He always had questions about desserts. Made in-house or off-site? Do you have anything dairy-free? Do you suggest the panna cotta or flourless chocolate? The waiter said panna cotta and that’s when I saw her. She was alone at the bar. It’s not unusual to see the same people over and over out there, a rotating cast of cameos. It is, after all, a speck of a town in the middle of a desert. Remote. Condensed. A speck.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I have to use the ladies’ room.”

“Gentlemen,” I heard him starting behind me as I moved away from the table. “Can I interest you…” But I couldn’t hear the rest. I was gone. Too far away.

As I walked over, I tried to inhabit myself. The hair brushing against the skin of my neck, the bones moving in my knees. My crooked eyebrow. The scars in my armpits and the crown on my bottom right molar and even the nail polish I had chosen especially for this trip: Miami Mischief, a cotton-candy pink. I tried to understand everything of me so I would present it properly. Authentically.

There was an open spot next to her, of course. A very small space. A mousehole chewed through a wall just for me.

“Hello, again,” I said. “Again.” I was nervous and drunk. Talking nonsense.

“Oh, hey,” she said. Like we were sorority sisters pulling up chairs to the same kitchen table after a long night, our ponytails still tucked into the backs of our sweatshirts.

“Is someone sitting here?” I said after I sat, though I had no intention of moving regardless. Couldn’t.

“Ha,” she said. “Ha ha ha.” Each syllable was the word not the laugh. She rolled her eyes. My eyes. She waved her fingers near her head: the conjuring of a spell, the sprinkling of a special dust. “No. He’s gambling somewhere. He said he’d meet me here.” Her nails were red and short, but this difference was incidental. Completely unimportant. “So we shall see.”

They had been married the week before in a small California town I’ve since forgotten the name of. She wore a vintage skirt suit, ivory, and gardenias in her hair and she allowed the photographer to arrange the wedding party in various scenes between the trunks of western yellow pines. This one: you put your hands on your cheeks, pretend to be surprised. This one: turn your backs to each other, prepare for a lifetime of little fights, bickering. I’m kidding, kidding guys. Here, now, flower girl up front, close your eyes while they kiss. Say ick. Perfect. She cut the cake with a butter knife because the caterer had misplaced the server.

A sudden alchemy in soft tissue, fissures, electric made me speak. “Isn’t that funny,” I said. “That’s so funny. We just got married too.” I gestured behind me at the room full of tables. I had ordered another drink, a greyhound for some reason, and I was almost done. “We must have the same exact anniversary.”

Ours was a small ceremony: no siblings, all four of our parents dead. No flowers, no rings, engagement or otherwise. We went to a judge, we posted a photo with the caption we did it!, we went out to dinner. Fat red steaks, side of mushrooms, side of spinach, not a starch in sight, two bottles of wine. Then he carried me over the threshold of his home—our home, finally—and with every kiss he whispered a reason why it was the best decision he had ever made.

“But the one thing I could not forego,” I said, “was that underwear with the word bride sewn across the ass. I don’t know why. It was just a thing with me.”

“I had those too!” She said and it came out a squeal. I know you did, I thought. I could look at you all day, I thought. I had to get back to my table. I knew he’d be looking for me, but I couldn’t walk away. She was tracing the rim of her glass with her fingertip. I admired our long nail beds, the elegance of our slim fingers. The bones in her wrist. She was delicate, small-framed. I knew what it would feel like to hold those wrists, to wrap my fingers around them and squeeze, as tiny things popped and shifted inside. I knew what it would feel like to put my arms around her chest, to sink my fingers into the spaces between the ribs and press, press. I had done it to myself however many times. Her earlobes. How soft. How downy and soft. I had held them, rubbing my thumb along the back and my pointer on the front, a nervous habit, an intrinsic tic, a trick for self soothing I’d had since childhood. She had a pattern of freckles on her shoulder, looked like a fish if you squinted. She had a small scar on her abdomen, appendectomy at eleven. Hollowed umbilicus a.k.a innie. Smooth skin of the flat place below that and then. It tilted up just so, the slight raise, the flesh, the bone, the flesh, shaved or waxed, but smooth, just as smooth as mine and—

She snapped her head to me.

“We should have dinner. The four of us. Tomorrow maybe? The Italian place on the other side? That would be so much fun.” I had never noticed the redness of the inside of my mouth.

“Oh, my God, yes!” I said. I let my hand go to her wrist, feigning excitement. But I wanted to touch her. I expected her skin to be too hot. That I would recoil and look at the pads of my fingers to see what had happened. That my prints would have been dissolved or rearranged into strange shapes. That her eyes would sparkle at me and then she’d smile or vanish or take the shape of a genie or take another sip of her drink.

But of course we couldn’t. There was no way I could explain to my boyfriend why I had said what I’d said. He wouldn’t understand. I feel like this is just another way for you to talk about marriage with me, he’d say. I don’t want to feel pressured, sweetheart. I told you I don’t want to feel rushed. I thought you were okay with everything the way it was going. I thought we just had this discussion.

“Take my number,” she said.

And then he was behind me, my boyfriend, his hand on my shoulder, the weight of it, the heft. He had found me. I felt myself flush, heat coming up from inside my dress. With it, the smell of the perfume, soothing. A plume of calm.

“What’s going on?” he asked, pretending to be stern. “We miss you over there.” He faked a sad face, the corners of his mouth pulling so far down it had to be painful for him. I needed to speak before she did.

“Oh, we were just talking,” I said. “Girl stuff.” I gave him the face I saved for occasions such as this one. It was: eyes wide, brows raised, the corner of the lip bit. He looked at both of us and I could see his mind chugging away.

“Is this him?” she said. “Hi.” She held her hand out.

But I didn’t want names. I didn’t want small talk or mention of dinner or anything else. I stood up. I was a little unsteady but I put my palm on the small of his back and tried to press him away.

“I was just saying we should do dinner tomorrow,” she said. “You two and us. Me and my husband.”

“Perfect, then,” I said. I had to get us out of there quickly. “That’s great. Perfect. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Congratulations, again, guys!” she said and clapped one of her hands on my shoulder and one on his. I pulled on his arm.

“Okay, okay, see you!” I said moving away. We were almost back at the table, we had almost made it back—I could see the shining bald head of one of the men, I could see the ice in the drink of one of the girls—when my boyfriend said something.

“What’s congratulations?” he asked. We were holding hands. He had a way of wrapping his pinky around my wrist but otherwise holding my hand normally.

“That’s the girl from this morning,” I said. “The one I told you looked like me.”

“Right, but why is she saying that?” There was aggression in his voice. A touch of it somewhere in there. He was becoming bored of me. We had been together too long, longer than he was usually with girls, women. He was annoyed with my asking him about our future and what I meant to him. You never used to care about this, he had said. Where’s that girl I met, the one who did all of those crazy things and didn’t even call me back the first few months? He was tired of it. I’m too old for drama, he had said again and again.

I could have said something right there in the middle of that restaurant. I could have said, Let’s start a life together and not worry about what happens after that. I thought of saying, It will make everything easier. Let’s just try. I could have swept my arm, motioning around us. All of these people are trying.

We got back to the table without my answering. He pulled out the chair for me and handed me my napkin. Regardless of what was happening between us at any given point, he always remained a gentleman.

He resumed. His wine, his martini, his port. They were almost done with dessert. One of the women had dropped cake on her dress; there was a smear of brown across her chest. I kept drinking with the rest of them. I helped the woman with a wet napkin. I dabbed at her gently and leaned in close and could smell her: musky and warm, the scent of wet heat. Too much. I hoped she could smell me too. The lightness of me. The flowers and the youth, the pure joy rising from behind my ears and the crook of my elbow.

The girl who looked like me was still at the bar, still alone. She leaned over her drink and I thought I could see the vaguest sway, her head bobbing just a bit.

▴ ▴ ▴

I don’t know what he did that night. I don’t remember going back to the room. And in the morning, the bed was a mess with things I hadn’t remembered him packing.

I was still lying down when his breakfast arrived. He didn’t like that. He was an early riser. But my head. I wasn’t well. I had asked for french fries and a bacon sandwich but he said, That junk won’t make you feel any better, sweets, trust me.

He hadn’t dressed after his shower. He stood facing the plate glass, hands on his hips so I could see his lats, his ass. He knew about all the water droplets that he had missed, about how his tan looked in the light.

“So, pool for a while. Then some shopping. It’s our last day here, we can take the car, go out into the desert, look at the mountains. We can have lunch in a restaurant, I guess. You choose. But for dinner we’re going to that Japanese place next door. Impossible to get a res, but I know the hostess. Tangentially, I mean.”

Who says res anymore, I wanted to say. I wanted to scream it. Why are you this way?

“Put on those socks again,” he said.

▴ ▴ ▴

At dinner I let him feed me mackerel dipped in soy sauce, just the way he liked it. Its fishiness would have made my stomach turn if I hadn’t had enough to drink.

“Your friend,” he said just after the waitress brought the check, like he had just remembered something. He managed to sound alarmed, troubled. His timing, always so good.

“My friend,” I said and closed my eyes a little, cocked my head. Though I knew what he was doing. He was not happy. “Oh, the girl, you mean.”

“The girl,” he said, almost rolling his eyes. “Look, you want to pretend we’re married, what do I care,” he said. “As long as it’s not me who has to hear it.” He assessed the bill, then signed his name, the loops of his tall consonants overtaking the receipt. Insuppressible flourishes. “You’ll never see her again anyway.” He waved his hand like he was brushing a bug away from in front of him. “You two didn’t even look alike. You know that, right?”

I looked at him and made a face, my lips kissing the air.

“You make me feel so lucky,” I said.

▴ ▴ ▴

One night shortly after we got home, he asked me to sit on the gear shifter of his Range Rover. Yes, he said as I eased down, that’s it. The windows had started to fog. That’s a girl. We were in a parking lot, cars in and out around us. This was just before dinner. He didn’t move to touch me or himself. Keep going, he said, slide up and down, just like that.

One night when we were out for Greek with my parents, he leaned to me, whispering, asking if I couldn’t put my hand in his lap under the table. While he ordered grilled halibut with a heavy char he moved in his seat so I would get a better angle. He timed his toast to coincide with the small shake he made. It was the type of precision, the type of calculation, that he really enjoyed. He was a perfectionist. Everyone else was busy sipping and didn’t see anything. I had been foolishly hoping that the toast would turn into a public proposal, hoping that he had my parents in on it beforehand. That he had planned everything, an elaborate show. That he would hold the sides of my face in bed that night and say my future wife, my future wife. Weeping, moaning, realizing—finally—that nothing would have to change for him, that we could just move forward. But that’s not what happened. I was ridiculous even to consider it.

One night he asked me to make him tea with lemon and brandy and to bring it to him in bed. He was achy, he said. I leaned on the carved wood of the king-sized headboard and watched as he took the first sip, wincing at the heat. From where I was standing, I could see the lines around his eyes and his stubble coming in gray at his sideburns and jaw. I could see the shape of his body beneath the blanket, though the depth of the down made some areas monstrous and overgrown, misshapen. When he relented, said I could go ahead and spend the night, the fireworks of a minor holiday exploded in me. Later, I watched him sleep, feet of bed between us. I stretched my arm toward his face and let it stay there, cupping the air around his cheek, careful not to get too close. The warmth of me would wake him, and then forget it. But the fingers, the arc of the palm, the veins of the forearm. Blue in the light of the moon. Look at that. I watched our hand move closer. I watched the tips of our nails touch his chin. I watched his eyelids move.

After all this, we went back to our lives and acted like we had never been gone, like nothing had happened. And that’s fine. I feel fine.

Vanessa Cuti’s fiction appears in the Kenyon Review, the Indiana Review, the Cimarron Review, the Cincinnati Review, the Rumpus, Hobart, and others. She received her MFA from Stony Brook University and lives in the suburbs of New York with her family.