By Ashley Hand
Sometimes I was Melissa. Other times I was Alexis, or Estelle. One night I was Shelby because we’d just watched a Pierce Brosnan movie where he drove a 1967 Shelby GT. By the end of the night the name felt natural and you were slinging an arm around my shoulder and calling me Shelbs. You were always yourself. You were Mac. I wore wigs. I wore peel-and-stick nails. I did elaborate makeup. One night in October we went to the Albuquerque balloon festival and wandered around at dark on the fringe of the crowd, watching the torches gas up into the hollows of the parachutes like they were big paper lanterns, and I was made up in the spirit of Día de los Muertos, a pompadour of blood-red roses that we’d trimmed from the yard crowning my head, and we held hands in public and my face was stiff from paint but I felt like a queen gliding through the stalls of the outdoor fair in my black bodysuit, unrecognized. It smelled like roasted corn and the grass was wet from a rain and the night was warm and it felt like we were free.
At first we stayed in all the time. We played gin rummy and did crossword puzzles and had sex. We grilled on the patio for dinner. In the evenings we would drink wine and the house was quiet and we would listen to Taps play out over loudspeakers across the Air Force base and watch the last vestiges of violet light disappear behind the wall of cypress trees that blocked out the power lines and concrete buildings. After the final peals of the bugle call, the clicking of the cicadas would resume. We’d slick our legs and necks with bug spray and light a citronella candle and share a cigarette. We talked politics and books. We played mancala and cribbage. I’d tell you stories from my childhood and you’d pet my hair and tell me my father was a bastard.
I worked late into the night on weekdays and slept on the floor of my office. My job exhausted me. I felt drained and stressed around the clock. Friday nights were magic. Friday nights meant there were two whole days before I had to think about work again. I’d leave the office promptly at five and go to your house still in uniform. I’d take off my blouse before I got out of my car so no one could see my rank. I kept a slouch leather bag in my trunk with the exact same clothes from the weekend before, crumpled and unwashed. You’d take my bag and undress me and set me up on the couch and let me take a nap. When I woke a couple of hours later you’d be sitting with me, watching a documentary or a sitcom, and I’d hear my clothes turning over in the dryer and smell hatch green chile roasting in the kitchen or pork percolating in the crockpot for a posole stew. You’d hand me a gin sour and I’d breathe in the spruce of it and the first ice-cold sip made me feel well and whole.
I loved that house. It was all musk and wood and leather. You had an American flag and a POW flag hanging on the wall in the living room and rough wool blankets on the couch. You gave me my own key. I scattered candles and plants around. I put a terra cotta pot on your stoop and filled it with yarrow and phlox. You let me rearrange the furniture. We spent many weekends there before the days started to get repetitive, before we got cabin fever and needed something more than the house and each other. In July it was bright and sunny outside and the light would come through the shades and it felt wrong to be sitting on the leather couch with the AC on, cooped up, trying to invent new ways to entertain ourselves. Sometimes we took road trips to change the pace. We went to the white sands near El Paso. We visited the bat caves in Carlsbad.
You teased me because I could never stay awake for movies. I had to have the captions on or I would fall asleep. You didn’t like captions. You said, I can’t look at anything but the goddamn caption. One Friday you handed me a cardboard package and I slit the tape and inside was a screenplay of Good Will Hunting. I’d never seen the movie, and you said, you don’t have to watch, you can just read along. You can watch the movie in your head. I laughed and threw the book across the room and we made love and showered and then sat in our underwear on the sofa. When it got dark I turned on the floor lamp and got my reading glasses and leafed through the screenplay. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had written it together in a VW van while they took turns driving cross-country, New York City to Big Sur. In the front you’d written, for my bookworm Amelia, the love of my life, and I teased you for being sentimental.
We got on a Robin Williams kick. We watched Patch Adams. We watched Dead Poets Society and Mrs. Doubtfire. We watched the scene where Robin Williams was made up like a drag queen as he experimented with different looks so that his ex-wife would hire him on as nanny to his own children. I said, why don’t I get a wig? Then we could go out in public. You laughed. You were folding laundry. You were trying to quit tobacco and had gone from loose pinch to small bags of snuff. You’d forgotten to take the can out of your pocket, and you’d washed and dried your jeans. I watched you pick little teabags of chew off of your clothes. You flicked one at me and I caught it and threw it back. I took a pen cap and dragged it from my nose to my scalp so my hair was parted down the middle. Normally I wore it parted on the side because of a cowlick. I took your reading glasses from the table and put them on. I said, don’t I look different? I stood on the sofa so I could see myself in the mirror that hung on the opposite wall. You said, Amelia, we can plan a vacation. We can get out of town. I said I was tired of sleeping in hotel beds and hitting the road when I was spent from the work week. I said, let’s just try. Let’s just see.
You were nervous at first, though I was the one that would get in trouble if we were caught. You were enlisted and I was an officer. There was an order to things. It was my neck on the line, not yours. But you were cautious. You said my red hair was too bright. Anyone would be able to pick me out of a crowd. We went to a wig shop in midtown that sat between an auto parts store and an insurance office. I wore a baseball cap and movie-star sunglasses that covered the apples of my cheeks. The woman behind the counter ran her French acrylic nails through my hair and asked me what I wanted a wig for. She said, mija I would buy this hair off your head to make my own wig. She clicked her tongue. She said, so wavy. So curly. Pretty girl. I said we were just trying to spice things up. She said, like role play and she winked at you standing near the window by a neon sign lit up in script that said WIGS GALORE. I said yes like that. She set me up with a brown wig that brushed my shoulders. I looked in the mirror. I was a different woman altogether with the straight hair. You stood with your hands in your pockets and gave me a thumbs-up when I asked for your opinion. I bought the wig. I bought a hairnet and special glue to keep it stuck to my head.
At first we delighted in the small things. We went to Trader Joe’s and browsed the aisles side-by-side and planned our dinner. We bought sushi from the grocery store and took the plastic containers to the river and sat on a bench and watched the muddy water swirl by. We went to an outdoor market and bought peaches and cherries and ate them on a blanket in a park in front of a live mariachi band. Eventually you relaxed. You grew comfortable. I asked you to take me dancing and you touched my nose and you said okay.
We got brave with it. We would make up a story together about who I was and what I did for a living. It was a collaborative effort, building my identity. You’d sit on the toilet seat in the bathroom while I got ready for an evening out. Sometimes I was a nurse. Sometimes I was a carpenter for an interior designer. Sometimes I was a Fulbright scholar just returned from Bolivia. The fun was bantering at dinner, over drinks, seeing how well I could embody the persona we’d picked out for me that evening. I got better with practice. I slid into new identities like they were a second skin.
I grew my wardrobe until I had a closet full of disguises. I spent thousands of dollars. I was a captain and had cash to blow. I normally never spent money on clothes because I was always in uniform. We went to antique stores and pawn shops. We went to estate sales and I came away with turquoise opera beads and art deco bracelets, rose-gold stone pendants and citrine starburst rings in velvet-lined boxes. I would get dressed to the nines. You liked to wine and dine me. There was a mystery to it, an excitement, the thrill of newness. Sometimes I wore full-frame typewriter glasses with clear lenses. I ordered another wig to add variety, this time off the internet for fifty dollars, but you could see the weave. I graduated to wigs made of human hair, ones you could straighten and curl and tease. When I wore the brown wig I was Liv Tyler. The blonde was Olivia Newton-John. I bought a strawberry blonde wig and became Rita Hayworth. I became a pro at my disguises. I’d put a shower cap over my hair before I started getting ready. The trick with wearing a wig was not to let any moisture get trapped in the fine mesh silk, otherwise you could get a bacterial infection, a little rash that broke out along your hairline. I swabbed my skin religiously with witch hazel.
We spent our nights on Nob Hill floating from one bar to the next. We liked going to bars with live music, bars that had gum under the tables and beer puddles on the floor. I wore full faces of makeup that erased my freckles. If we were seen together, no one would know who I was. The one time someone did notice us, you played it so cool. He saw you first. It was a pilot we’d both met before. He’d flown us around Africa when we were deployed. We were playing tic-tac-toe on a cocktail napkin at Tractor Brewing and he came over and clapped you on the back and said it was good to see you. He turned to me. He squinted a little. You introduced me as Blythe. I put on a British accent. This wasn’t the skit we’d practiced for the night, but I was already tipsy and got nervous. A barmaid came to take our empty drinks and asked if we needed anything else and I ordered a London fog and she looked at me confused. You ordered a whiskey neat and said she’ll have the same. I excused myself to the restroom. When I came back, he was gone. You laughed and laughed and I kicked you under the table. If he ever recognized me, we didn’t hear about it.
Sometimes I felt like a wobbly colt learning to walk, smoking and drinking around you. I grew up under your gaze. I buzzed electric when I was on your arm. We’d go to country bars and people would notice us on the dance floor and it felt risky and glorious being twirled around on the parquet with my dress spinning and heels clicking and hair flying. At closing time we would walk outside and there would be people pissing on the sidewalk and a van with a hole cut out of the side panel vending tacos and cinnamon rum horchata and you’d take my hand and lead me through the crowd back to the car and the whole world felt like disco and glitter, seedy and sexy and ripe. There could be fights and protests and sirens, finger-painted signs on bedsheets, people enraged because of war, vaccines, abortion. There was no telling what Albuquerque would be like on any given night. None of it mattered. It felt like the world was rolling out a red carpet for us. You moved through it all steady and sure-footed.
You were the best drunk driver. We’d roll through the Federico’s drive-thru on the way back to base. They had bad coffee but it was the only thing still open at two in the morning. You kept Altoids in the center console of the Jeep and would pop one a few miles out from the gate so that it would dissolve by the time you made it to base. You had to be smart about being stupid, you said. If the guards saw a fat mint sitting on your tongue when you pulled up and smelled a fresh spritz of cologne to drown the whiskey, you put a target on your own forehead. We always sailed through without issues. When we got home we would go out to the patio and sit in stacking green plastic chairs and share a cigarette and I’d put my feet in your lap. Sometimes you would play the ukulele and sometimes you would ask me to read to you. You loved my reading voice. I would read biographies and magazine articles and you’d rub my feet and say my voice was so sexy and sad, that I could make anything sound sad. You said I could read the owner’s manual to the toaster aloud and the rhythm and timbre of my voice would make the thing feel like it had grown a soul.
One night I was dressed like an Egyptian, some mythologized woman pharaoh with bangles, angled eyeliner, black blunt bangs. We’d gone to a party in a hotel ballroom and we danced until midnight. I’d sweated off all my makeup. We went back to your house and a Tracy Chapman song came on the radio and we were feeling it, singing along to the lyrics. There was a radio over the sink that was always tuned to the classic rock station, a background noise because your ears sometimes rang when it was silent. We were feeling moved and you picked me up to take me to the bedroom but I was on my period. We were drunk. We got in the shower together. My heart felt so big and sloppy it might come out my throat. I’d forgotten to take my wig off and the hot steam melted the glue. It slid off my head and got caught in the golden hoop of my earring. It was heavy with water, dangling on my ear. I cried out and you helped me get it unstuck and then it was lying there against the porcelain of the tub like a drowned muskrat. You re-pierced my ears for me the next day with rubbing alcohol and a sewing needle and the raw half of a potato, so I wouldn’t have to use the sagging hole anymore. That was the kind of love we had. I held onto that love so tight it burned holes in my hands.
The night you ended things, I was making a roast chicken. I had sensed a shift between us and I wanted to make a meal and sit at the table across from one another and light candles and eat and drink and restore our happiness. It was February. There was gray slush on the roads. You were antsy. You said you wanted to go skiing that weekend. You said you had no one to go with. I said what about me. I loved to ski. I said we could rent a cabin in the woods just us. You said well if you come then no one else can come. I said I thought you didn’t have anyone else to go with. You said well I’m not feeling it, Amelia. My heart bottomed out into my stomach. I said what do you mean not feeling it, and it went on from there. I snapped the rim of my wine glass when I bit down trying not to cry. I spit a mouthful of blood into the porcelain sink.
Six months later you were married to someone else. I saw the photos from your wedding on the internet and the next evening I was on a flight to Marrakesh. I needed to go somewhere far away. I told my boss I was ill with a violent flu and couldn’t come into work. I wore my sunglasses in the cab on the way to the airport and then on the plane. My first connection was in New York. I cried and looked at the photos. Your bride was so beautiful it made me sick.
The graying woman in the seat next to me asked if I was okay. I told her about you. I needed somewhere to put this thing that had happened to me. I said you were the love of my life. We had talked about running away and getting married in secret and never telling a soul. I said I didn’t know how you could move on so quickly. She laid a hand on my arm and said sweet girl. Have you ever heard the story of Echo and Narcissus. She said every woman has a story of a man like this, a man of two faces. Men like this could take their faces on and off like a mask. It was an illusion. It was subterfuge.
Her name was Selena, your bride. You called her Lina. I’d been Selena once too. We’d watched a documentary that day about the singer that had been shot. The bullet had shattered her shoulder and torn her lung. That was how we picked the name. Humor me and say you remember.
I became obsessed with finding out everything there was to know about her. I found her basketball records from high school, and then her stats from a city league team she’d played on as an adult. Her height and weight was listed: 5-5, 120 pounds. She had eight rebounds once against West Mesa. I obsessed over the numbers. I stood on the scale and then wouldn’t eat breakfast or lunch until I was ravenous and delirious in the evenings and then I’d consume popcorn by the fistful and string noodles into my mouth with my hands. I found photos of you together online. Her graduating from her nursing program, you sitting in her lap and trying to kiss her, her laughing and trying to push you away. She was a blur of gleaming teeth and glossy hair. Photos of you on vacation in Hawaii with her family, one in the evening light of a luau, your shirt unbuttoned down your chest, her wearing a crown of flowers. There was a photo of you both at the fair, her on your back, her arms around your neck. I had sick dreams of breaking in on you in the night, you making love to her in the bed we’d shared. I wished you ill. I wished you would die in a fire. I was crazed with pain.
The night I was Selena, it was New Year’s Eve. We went to a masquerade ball at the Hotel Andaluz in downtown Albuquerque. I was wearing a Venetian half-moon mask. You found a Spanish gold signet ring left behind on one of the tables and you popped it onto my middle finger. You pulled me into your lap for the countdown. I sat on one knee and the other knee bounced up and down to the rhythmic shouts around us. You smelled of charcoal from your bar soap, vetiver from your aftershave. You called me your señorita. There was confetti erupting around us and people kissing and throwing up and acting fools. You tucked my wig behind my ear and leaned in and kissed my cheek. The room was crowded. The band was playing a New Orleans mix. Brass, percussion, falsetto, a singing voice that was black magic. I was sipping on a drink that was all sugarcane.
You were married on my thirtieth birthday at the Hotel Andaluz. You got married in the ballroom where we danced, me in that emerald luxe gown with a pair of kitten heels and you in a fastidious tuxedo. You took photos with your bride on the rooftop where we’d gone to smoke a joint and look out over the city, escape the New Year’s noise of the ballroom, watch homemade sparklers and firecrackers popping off in the city streets, see the ghost-gray streaks their tails left behind. We listened to the clanging of pots and pans. We leaned over the railing. There was a carport below. There were buses, taxis, women bathed in garnets, peacock feathers, tulle, silk, cobalt crepe, their faces hidden behind masks, and you and me up above it all. We could hear the highway noise and see the blinking logo of the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street and the rusted scaffolding encasing construction on faraway buildings in the fourth ward district, the mountains against a purple-smog night sky, and we laughed and you kissed my neck and I could swear in that moment we were seeing the world in the exact same way.
You fraud. You showman you bastard you fake. That is the place you married Selena. There were photos of her with her mother and sister getting ready in a hotel room, a replica of where we’d stayed together that New Year’s night, the declan gold damask curtain panels over the casement windows, the fleur-de-lis wallpaper and brass bed frame. I wondered if you thought about any of that on your wedding night. I wondered if her neck looked as elegant as mine did when you pushed her onto the Egyptian cotton sheets and I wondered if you remembered that once I too had worn a crown of flowers and I wondered most of all if you laughed I wondered if you laughed with her in that big bed in that big room with the big windows and the big Albuquerque skyline that fell onto your chest at sunrise.
Ashley Hand is a service academy graduate and spent her twenties as an Air Force officer deploying around the world. She left the military in 2018 to pursue an MFA at Cornell University. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Five Points, and many other magazines. She is currently at work on her first novel.
Originally appeared in New Ohio Review 29.