Another one of her husband’s business functions tonight and it was her job to play the wife. She loathed these things but faked it admirably well for short durations. Mark — her husband’s name was Mark — thought she might enjoy this one: “Samson will be there.”
Everyone expected she and Samson got along, for obvious reasons.
Introverts, she reminded herself, expend energy in social situations, whereas extroverts draw energy, ingest it. So it’s not that there’s anything wrong with me, per se. Nor does their ingesting of my vital energy automatically mean that extroverts deserve to be treated like sycophantic vampires. She took a deep breath.
“Don’t worry so much,” Mark counseled her.
“I’m not worried. I just need to get ready.” She kissed him on the cheek and disappeared upstairs, settling in front of a vanity mirror.
“Who’s the fairest of them all?” Rapunzel said aloud, running her hands through her famous hair.
The hair unfurled around her, spilled out of the bedroom, trailed down the stairs and flowed through the rooms of the house like she was a fountain. Most days, she didn’t even brush it. “Silky locks slip.” Every morning, she’d sit up in bed and coil it in armfuls, like a sailor’s rope, and through the day, she’d maneuver her home by reeling the hair in and letting it out again with gentle swings of her arm. She had gotten so adroit at managing it that she barely noticed herself doing it: stirring pots, sipping from her drink, talking on the phone, all the while winding and unwinding the lengths of her golden hair — passing the wooden spoon, the glass, the telephone, back and forth between her hands while unfurling her hair and coiling it back up — the delicate footwork, stepping over and around the masses of it that flowed from room to room: Mark watched her sometimes, the unconscious beauty of this dance, the native grace of her. She was the most beautiful woman in the land, and it was impossible to separate the image of her from that cascading wonder of her hair.
“It’s a pain in the ass,” she’d say, just before cutting it off. Mark would come home to discover her wearing an angular bob, cut above the shoulders, sharp and sudden across her face, she gleeful with the lightness of it. But sad, too, with loss — sad from the lightness.
No matter, because within days, the hair replaced itself: it grew out of her with unstoppable force, overrunning everything. “Where does it come from?” She’d sigh, but without anger, at the inevitableness of it — like someone who has come to the end of a too-short vacation — and begin again wrapping it into manageable shapes.
“If that hair is your worst burden in life,” he’d say, “at least it’s a beautiful burden.”
“At least it doesn’t tangle.”
The truth was she wasn’t sure she liked her husband. She loved him — that was easy enough. It’s not hard to love someone so known and so close for so long: she loved him, but maybe because what we mean by “love” is sometimes a nice, portable word to describe the shorthand, the easy easiness that we’re lucky to experience with a few strangers over a lifetime. Love: a lack of the typical discomfort. Love: that which trickles in through the otherwise impermeable solipsism.
She imagined fairly precisely how the evening would play out among his colleagues and their wives: bravado and laughter and some of both not false. Inevitably, Mark would tell the story of how the two of them had met — the one story everyone knew already. “I was a petty thief!” he’d brag. “I broke into her home to steal from her!” He always ended the story the same way: “But as soon as I laid eyes on her, she robbed me instead: she stole my heart.” He said this with a mix of syrupy storyteller’s sweetness and also sincerity, such that she couldn’t tell how much of it he truly believed. Maybe even he couldn’t tell. That’s the danger of recycling your best stories, rote: habituation numbs everything.
She had an aversion to fruits and vegetables and it embarrassed Mark at these dinners. To him this was uncomfortably close to admitting a true character flaw, so he’d confide to anyone: “When she was a baby, her family traded her for a bunch of rapini.”
“Not rapini,” she’d have to correct. “Rampion.”
“Sorry. I knew it was rampion, I just said it wrong.”
“Rapini is a broccoli….”
Since her twins Hercules and Tabitha had been born, she’d tried to reconsider her relationship to the produce aisle. It was difficult. Lately, Rapunzel found the simple act of grocery shopping to be stressful to the point of apoplectic paralysis: it offered a multiple choice set with nearly infinite questions and no correct answers. Salted or unsalted peanut butter? Fresh or frozen blueberries? Farmed or wild salmon? Low-fat or fat-free cream cheese? NutraSweet or refined sugar? Carbs or fat? She just didn’t want to poison her family with whatever happened to be carcinogenic this week.
It occurred to her that so much of life is arranged like a multiple-choice test with no correct answers.
Too often, she came home with nothing but frozen pizza, red velvet cupcakes, and a case of wine. The pizza tasted like cardboard, but comforting cardboard, at least. Though she was mortified that time a girl in the preschool unpacked a Ziploc bag of fresh cherries and her daughter Tabitha asked, “What are those?” Since then, Rapunzel made a point of buying whatever fresh fruit was in season, setting it prominently in a bowl in the kitchen, and then forgetting it there until it rotted and was replaced the following week. “The Bowl Where Fruit Goes to Die,” Mark called it.
She pinned up her hair with relative ease. “Product makes perfect!” she’d joke, but in fact, she rarely used any, and the apparent effortless grace with which she managed her coiffure was a result of plain old practice. A few pleats and layers were all she needed to create striking dramatic effects. In general, she avoided ostentation, but for their wedding, she’d sculpted her hair into the shape of a castle, which, set upon her head, floated like it had been built upon a cloud. When her son Hercules first learned to crawl, she began fashioning her hair into elaborate mazes, and they’d make a game of his finding his way out, till one time a structural incident resulted in the collapse of one section of the labyrinth, and Hercules was suddenly buried under an avalanche of it. It scared him as only a child can be scared — no pain, but a deep feeling of betrayal at a world he’d trusted too completely — and that was the end of that particular game.
Lately, she’d taken to draping large sections of her hair up the sides of the walls, to get it out of the way, mostly, though it reminded her nostalgically of the ivy that grew around the tower where she’d spent her childhood. But once birds came and began nesting in it, Mark asked her to take it down.
Her real guilty pleasure, and where she spent her time, was her eyebrows. They grew suddenly, relentlessly, with the fierceness of a desert cactus hungry for its short spiny burst of life. She’d pull up to the mirror to tweeze her eyebrows into neat groomed shapes, plucking at them deliberately one at a time, and by the time she finished, they’d already have begun growing back. So she learned to tend them the way one tends a garden — that is, tending the garden that exists now, and also the garden that will grow in later. Studying the pattern of where they wanted to grow, she anticipated it, and rather than feud with it — it was a force of nature — she plucked in a way that she hoped would be complementary. The precision that this required was such that she could spend literal hours in front of her mirror — not, in the end, out of vanity, exactly, but more because of the calmness it afforded her. Staring so closely at her own reflection, she found she disappeared. Her worries receded into the simple task: tweeze and pluck. Tweeze and pluck. So close to the glass, her face ceased to be hers, and instead became its own landscape — her own face, a faceless alien landscape of pores and follicles, and staring longer, this dissolved further into just shapes, colors, no labels, no words.
She looked at the flush of her cheeks in the mirror and tried to imagine what her brain knew to be true, that it meant blood circulating under the skin in an almost infinite fractal of veins and capillaries: she imagined it like a magical river of lava, flowing underground through miles of unexplored tunnels. She imagined little boats coursing along this river, delivering their payload of globular vitality. “Hemoglobin.” Little packets of oxygen. Oxygen, which she needed to live, and which also is a poison that ages and eventually kills us. We oxidize. Blood races through the bloodstream, gives us life and speeds us toward death. Aging is just rusting to death.
She tried controlling the flow by holding her breath, by breathing faster, watched for subtle changes in her complexion’s mood, as if her complexion were a friend and they were playing a child’s game of hide and seek. “Come, oxygen. Come out come out wherever you are. Come, death.”
She breathed deeply. When she let herself be very still, her breath always touched up against some anxious part of her and jolted her out of the stillness, brought her back to the day and its worries: she’d been shopping all day for shoes with her friend Goldilocks — its own special Hell. “Those look nice,” Rapunzel had said encouragingly.
Goldilocks wrinkled her button nose. “Too big.”
“How about those? They’re cute.”
It never ended.
Goldilocks had a new lover and wouldn’t stop talking about him, but she was fickle with men and everything else, and Rapunzel doubted the poor fellow would last the week. She smiled politely, thinking of all the couples she knew, and wondering if any of them were happy. One by one, she held them in her mind like an imaginary police lineup and tried to picture which ones were cheating on their spouse. As a game, it helped her to pass the time, but she conceded that without any real information, it was just wistful conjecture, impossible to know, like trying to guess someone’s birthday, or how they trim their pubic hair.
“Psychiatrist says nannies turn young boys into future adulterers,” Goldilocks read aloud from the cover of a fashion magazine.
“The single leading cause of adultery,” Rapunzel answered, “is marriage.”
Her therapist had asked her once if she’d ever considered cheating. “Well, that depends on your definition of ‘cheating’ — .” She’d found there was little point to being cloying with her therapist, but she kept at it anyway.
“What’s your definition of cheating?” he asked.
“Would I ever consider cheating? Is that what you asked? Ever is such a horribly long time….”
“What’s your definition of cheating?”
He wouldn’t let up. Fine. “There are certain… How do I say it? Our marriage — I mean: any marriage — it’s based on certain expectations and assumptions…. some of which aren’t spoken. Aloud. So I mean there’s a lot of room in marriage — any marriage — for misunderstanding….”
That hung in the air for an extra few moments. The air was thick in her therapist’s office.
“Don’t you agree?” she asked.
“What do you think are the misunderstandings in your marriage?”
For Christ’s sake. “Where to begin? No, I’m joking. I was, you know, speaking generally. There aren’t any particular disappointments in my marriage.”
“Yes. No. Wait, what?”
“I asked you about misunderstandings in your marriage, and you said disappointments.”
They stared at each other, the perennial overpriced blinking contest. On it went, hour after hour, week after week. Why did she even go?
[When you spend your childhood locked in a tower, when that tower is all you know, you don’t consider yourself trapped, particularly. This is the boundary of your world. So, when someone breaks into your tower and seduces you with rescue, well, “Rescue from what?” you ask. He says there’s a bigger, more enticing world out there, full of possibilities, and you say, “What are possibilities?”
It’s not his fault: he goes to some trouble, this liberator-thief: he has mainly good intentions. He even incurs some injuries bringing you into this new world. But being trapped is all you know. It’s the only place you feel like yourself. You get a fresh start in a new, expansive garden, and the first thing you’ll do, every single time, is build a wall. To make yourself feel more at home.]
Since she’d stopped being able to sleep, she’d been taking long walks in the night. Mark hated it. “Who walks? You look like an indigent person.” But he was worried too about her safety, and as a concession to him, she strapped reflective strips to her ankles to flash back the lights from oncoming cars. From the distance, she imagined they looked like two very small, very low-flying, very skittish UFOs.
He also bought her a ridiculous can of Mace, which she did not bring with her and which she thought was not even legal in their state.
The anxiousness wasn’t background noise. It was the air itself.
The walks got longer.
In the beginning, just looping through her own neighborhood at 4am felt exciting and forbidden. In the low light, even common things looked refreshed: she’d notice pocks in a tree, or a crack in a neighbor’s house that she’d never seen before. Imperfections are everywhere, she began to think, but mostly invisible during the bustle of the day. Also, imperfections are where things become unique: the pocks and cracks are the main things that distinguish us from one another. So she’d quest for them, the flaws and subtle breakages, and once she saw them, then her perception of that object would be altered, and she’d carry this new knowledge back with her into waking hours, like a secret. “Secrets make us stronger,” Goldilocks had said to her once, while gossiping about her lovers. Rapunzel thought: secrets make our autonomy stronger.
Soon, like everything else, her furtive late night wanders fell into the familiar, and lost their excitement, and she found herself investing more time and more risk in her excursions. She’d go farther. She climbed the fence at the edge of their neighborhood and strolled the nearby golf club. By day it was overrun with men in pink shirts. By night, coyotes. Both were dangerous, she laughed, but lately she preferred coyotes.
What terrifies children? Big-clawed monsters so strange and unique that grown-ups don’t even have names for them. Drowning. Supernovas. Being left behind.
What terrifies adults? Being passed over for promotion. A declined credit card. Getting sick from food past its freshness date. The loss of comfort. The chance that we’re missing out.
At what age do we become so banal?
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.” To let down your hair is to run wild. Did she ever do that, really?
What excites children? Sugar. Swimming pools. Bunk beds. Eating. New things. Familiar things.
What excites adults? She didn’t claim to know. Tomorrow, maybe. Always the sense that tomorrow would be better. She’d do this tomorrow, she’d do it all tomorrow, because tomorrow there’d be sunshine and energy and money and time. When was this tomorrow? Why not anything today? Because today was always filled up:
“Hercules, do you want pasta or edamame? Pasta? Are you sure? You had pasta for lunch.”
She loved them so much she could choke on it. She didn’t even perceive them as separate from herself. Is this love? If I were to die today, I wouldn’t die at all, as long as they continued.
She wondered how long her hair would grow, after she died.
“Tabitha, what are you eating, honey? No, mommy doesn’t want a cherry. But you’re sweet to offer. Here, spit out the pit, baby-girl.”
She entertained the notion that perhaps Medea had killed the children less from rage or despair and more as a way to escape the exhaustion of so much feeling.
Rapunzel realized her children sprang from the same place as her hair: they both arrived, it seemed to her, from the future, from the great void; and they grew like her hair, too — unstoppably, as if the future had already fully imagined them in a realized state, and was sending incremental updates to the present. This came as some relief to her: if her life was unpredictable and vaguely dissatisfying, then at least it was also preordained, and not her fault.
She could go on pretending it was real, this life, despite whatever evidence to the contrary. She’d keep at the eyebrows — not till they were finished (they never were or would be), but adequately reckoned with. She could disappear, the way she’d disappeared tonight, into the mirror, into the rituals of her hair. She could disappear into whatever task was at hand. She’d put on elegant clothes, pin up her hair, wear all her finest charms. Her efforts would become focused, diligent, even aggressive — maintaining and expanding the illusion of her perfect happy life. This was her purpose. No matter that she didn’t believe in it: it wasn’t for her. “Happily ever after” was never for her. It was for the others, in their moments of feeling small or tired, a hope there’s more and it’s nearby, reachable, something that can be had and held. The stories we tell our children are terrible, but not for the reasons we assume: a fairy tale is a series of small truths used to tell big lies — not the other way around — and people swallow them like sugar. And she was complicit, she knew. It was her highest purpose: to go to her husband and children day after day, and lie to them about love, and joy, and happily ever after — so they could go on living.
“I’m ready,” she called.