the terrarium

She runs away before winter solstice, is gone through Christmas Eve and Christmas, comes home right before New Year’s, looking ruddier, more vibrant.

Home being relative, and in this case referring to the place she keeps the most stuff. The most jackets and the most boots and the most dresses and the most diaries.

Also her cat and her dog.

Augustus is there when she walks in, a few hundred Spanish tiles away, working at the huge mahogany table she got for him last summer.

While never there when she flees, he somehow always manages to be at home when she returns, always manages to have a fresh plate of food waiting for her upon her arrival, beautiful in its presentation.

This evening it is an assortment of meats and cheeses and olives—a charcuterie board, he once told her it is called—alongside a glass of sparkling rosé of a delicate pink color. She tries not to think about how many consecutive plates of food and glasses of wine were disposed of before this one. It makes her feel guilty. A feeling she once promised herself not to have.

“Guilt is a neurotic emotion that Christianity was to exploit to its fullest economic and political advantage,” she’d read in a book as a girl, and liked it so much that she tore out the page and taped it to her armoire. And just like that, rewrote the laws by which she’d been living.

Before that awakening, guilt had been sewn into her constitution like weighted sandbags into a corset. But afterwards, she felt empowered and free. Years and years of empowered freedom.

Decades, even, of laughter and gaiety and loose love, of estrangement from all those that didn’t approve, or simply couldn’t keep up.

Her golden age, if you will.

And while she doesn’t feel all that far from that mindset, it is nonetheless true that the last couple of years have been a bit of a backwards slide. She is not sure why that is, just that it’s directly associated with Augustus, and followed hot on the tracks of her sister’s early death.

“I’m here,” she announces, as if it weren’t obvious. Her voice lacks the necessary volume or enthusiasm to really carry such an announcement, and she immediately wishes she had refrained.

Augustus does not rise to greet her. Augustus never rises to greet her. It’s a trait to which she originally struggled to adapt.

Augustus followed the entrepreneur in Delilah’s litany of lovers. The entrepreneur, who always rose and crossed the floor to meet her. By now she has mostly forgotten how she trembled in his big embrace, and how he laughed it off for her, or offered her a bourbon to calm her nerves, or kissed her hard and took her right to bed.

Because it’s not as though that situation was without its challenges, too.

Still, when she and Augustus first got together, his lack of a welcome was a painfully stark contrast. She once drove a hundred miles to meet him in a remote, little cottage. It was obvious when she arrived. The headlights of her car shone right in the cottage’s dark windows. She was wearing a new dress and feeling very sprightly, and stood eagerly out front of the cottage, waiting for him to come out and fawn over her.

Which didn’t happen.

Eventually she went in, and Augustus barely looked up from what he was doing. Her excitement over her own appearance plummeted.

Augustus believes it makes her feel like less a stranger to be able to enter without fanfare.

Augustus believes he loves her, and states it factually, unequivocally, and even sternly any time the notion is contested.

She sees no point in arguing with him about it. First and foremost, it’s hardly a topic that interests her anymore. But secondly, she knows what she knows. Sure, she imagines, there are nuances of her that he loves. She’s hardly unloveable. But she is so far from her untamed self when she is with him—the manifestation to which she herself is the most drawn—and it seems unlikely that she got that way all on her own.

Sometimes it hurts her to return. The transformation. When she’s away, she goes into such a state of charmed isolation that it’s difficult to unriddle the person this display demand she be. She is unrehearsed, and it makes her feel raw.

Perhaps that is what he likes: the complete wild filly-ness of it. The discomfort, the lack of ease. He likes the embarrassment she suffers. He likes the unbrokenness of her.

She sighs. Removes her coat. Feels nearer to naked and so slides it back on. Stands at the kitchen counter, steeling herself.

When she finally approaches, hesitantly, he pivots in his seat and extends an arm across the back of his chair.

“Don’t be shy,” he tells her. Which halts her.

“Don’t be shy,” he told her, all those years ago, when she was his student.

What he failed to notice, both then and now, is that it isn’t shyness.





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