A Portrait in the Attic

By H. V. Chao


When Whit came back from the Seattle meeting to an empty apartment, the first thing he found himself doing was cleaning. He dropped his laptop bag from his shoulder, shrugged off his London Fog coat, and set to the dishes in the sink. He wet his cuffs before remembering to roll them up and put his watch on the counter. As he soaped, his gaze swept the open plan from kitchen to king bed and beyond, out the wall of windows to Manhattan's lighted skyline, and he still felt a burst of pride in his apartment before noticing how bare it was with all Maud's things gone. It wasn't that she'd had so many—after all, everything had fit into the two suitcases no longer in the hall closet—but that she'd spread them everywhere.

His hands still wet, he walked to the middle of the newly empty space and stood there, as if to plant a flag on a shore. When she'd lived here, Maud had thought it sexy to leave, strewn across the carpet, her clothes which to him in their flimsiness and color had at first seemed exotic as species of undersea life. Then, wading half-asleep through a flora of underthings, he'd tripped on a thong and fallen face first into the bathroom: the end of that enchantment.

Perhaps it was just some foreign habit, unfathomable like so many of her other French whims, or perhaps it was part of that general laisser aller women went through when they were sure of their men. She teased him about not shaving her armpits like the française of stereotype; one night he felt bristle on her shifting legs, and as she moved over him, her long, luxurious hair seemed hot and smothering.

Yet it was the first thing he'd loved about her, that hair—the way it swung, the weight and luster of it. He'd wanted to hold it in his hand, and had asked her half-jokingly for a lock. Probably the gallantry and anachronism of this had charmed her. French men were nothing like American girls thought, she'd said. They were so vulgar.

Never again now would he bend to pluck a filmy dropped top or shed dress from the floor. Whit squatted, ran his hand over the carpet. He brought it up to find fine strands of her hair stuck to his fingers. From there it was a short step to vacuuming, which drove out the silence no one would break with a phone call.

On the pillow was a small envelope with his name on it. He unfolded the note inside, read its cramped purple script, shuffled through a few enclosed polaroids. He couldn't place at first the faint black stains, like an early stage of mold, on the white pillowcase; then, seeing a faded outline of dried tears, knew them to be mascara traces. He stripped the case, replaced it, and spotted across the room the broad shelf, second from the top, completely cleared of her belongings, bare but for that lock of hair she'd given him, in a ziploc bag. This he placed in the envelope, with her letter. When he looked up it was two, and he had to go to work the next day.

Despite waking at six, he was still late to the office. When suds and tepid water pooled disobligingly around his ankles, he spent twenty minutes on his knees, pulling hair from the clogged drain with hooked fingers, enough hair for a drowned woman, a sodden mess with no resemblance to the silken tresses that he admired even now, in memory. Ugh—so this was her parting gift. He snuck into the morning meeting half an hour late, coat in one hand and briefcase in the other, flattening himself against the wall in apology, avoiding Pemberton's glare.

Pemberton pinned him afterwards. "Feeling all right, are we, Felman?"

"Sir? Yes, sir," Whit said. It was no place to bring up the breakup.

"Actually—" Whit blinked. "Actually, I feel great, Mr. Pemberton."

He himself was surprised—but for the first time in months, it was true.

#

It had all started going wrong, Whit thought, the night he'd taken Maud to that Italian seafood place. They'd sat outside in the late summer on that narrow sunken patio lined with tables for two, waiters passing back and forth beneath the giant lighted neon fish. Whit sank his fork into his squid-ink linguini and twirled.

"I don't believe squid ink actually tastes like anything," Maud said. "Does—"

He sneezed violently into the cloth napkin, sat back in surprise. "Waiter!"

Startled, Maud set down her wine. "À tes amours!"

Whit smiled, eyes still watery as the waiter replaced his napkin. "It's nothing. Probably just the season."

"Your hay fever." From beneath her neat brown bangs her eyes sought his. "You never told me what you were allergic to, exactly."

Behind Maud passed a couple coming down the patio steps from the sidewalk. The girl was slim and her long golden hair lit up when her date opened the restaurant door, letting out a glow warm as firelight, which the moving bodies in between made flicker. She took her date's hand needlessly, for the final step, wrist delicately arched, and it seemed Whit could see the fine sheen of hair on her forearm. Her short summer dress was slit up the side. She vanished into the restaurant.

"That old story," Whit waved it away, "I really never told you about how I got tested as a kid?"

Dr. Babitz, in gloves and a face mask, had scratched, pricked, or daubed with liquids from a tray of clear vials every square in a grid careful as a garden she'd drawn on his back. In under five minutes his skin began to burn, though just like in that science experiment when his class had poked each other in the back with pencils, he couldn't tell where, exactly, it itched most. Dr. Babitz stuck her head into the room again, blanched at the hives and blisters rampaging across her neat rows, and made him down two antihistamines just before his throat swelled up.

"Cats. Dogs. Rabbits, hamsters. Mold, pollen, flowers, trees, even grass—turns out I was allergic to everything besides horses." Shoes scuffed the pavement, and Whit turned to glance at ankles flashing past in flats and heels at eye level. The restaurant's railing rose like the bars of a cage; up top clung a planter of geraniums, poised to clobber like a flower pot in a silent comedy.

"I was happy, because I thought I could still be a cowboy, until someone pointed out I'd have to feed my horse hay." Maud found the story charming, as though it were perfectly natural every American not already a cowboy should dream of becoming one, and laughed her little French laugh that had until so recently enthralled him. How long had he been seeing her for now? Longer than any other girl, perhaps perilously so. Was it only because she was French the fascination had taken longer than usual to wear off? Her delight, like his own story, bored him, and he reached for his wine. His throat seized up.

When he grabbed the table the mussel appetizer in the middle gave off an accusing clatter. A waiter made for him across a floor suddenly slanting, draped napkin swinging from his cuff. At the E.R., a young doctor drew a needle from Whit's arm and told him to stay away from shellfish, as though implying he were old enough to know better.

"I've never been allergic to seafood," Whit insisted, but his stuffed nose made it sound petulant. "I've never had any food allergies, only respiratory."

The young doctor shrugged. What else could it have been? On the way through the sliding glass doors Maud clung to Whit's arm and leaned into him.

"You poor poor man," she murmured, "don't you see? You need someone to take care of you."

She'd moved in the next night.

#

Whit looked younger than his years and traded on it at work as with women. When asked how he kept his preternaturally collegiate looks, he grinned and said, "I've got a portrait of myself rotting in the attic." In his thirties now, he found himself, during lunches and greetings, across a table or even the space of a handshake, studying the faces of his bosses to gauge the price of success as registered in facial wear, the better to assess its worth. In this he proceeded as though from the almost backward assumption that the lines of age conferred status, rather than being the effect of effort spent in achieving it. He was distracted from currency considerations by a crease in a senior forehead, from annual reports by bags under a director's eyes, wondering what financial triumph was fair trade for a wrinkled cheek.

With Maud's departure, sleep seemed once more to smooth from his brow the lines left by those long hours at the office of which she'd so often complained. This rejuvenation turned Whit's wariness to relief. Moreover, when he checked his face carefully in the morning, his complexion had cleared up almost completely. He crowed aloud in vindication, hopping on the bathmat.

Maud had never been shy, in that Gallic way of hers, about her disappointment, but still it had taken her two weeks in his apartment to ask why he now shied away from the press of her cheek or forehead. He'd tried to dodge the topic, but in the end his embarrassed excuse had slipped out.

"Mais non! How can you say such a thing?" Freshly showered, she straightened up from where she was bent and combing over a trash can in the middle of the carpet. Her wet hair hit her back with an indignant slap.

"I don't have oily skin!" she fairly spat.

He stopped her en route to the bathroom and her arsenal of creams and said, "No look, maybe it's not that—"

"Feel!" She stuck her cheek out as she did for the kisses of greeting she insisted on in front of his friends.

"Okay, it's not that," he said without touching her cheek. "It's just I'm breaking out all the time now that's you're around. I never used to."

She peered at his forehead.

"But this is nothing," she clucked. "You're working too much. I tell you to come home, but…"

She shook her head, arms crossed. "You're a hypochondriaque."

"No, I'm not. My dad was a hypochondriac. Maybe you're just—bad for my skin."

She'd decided he couldn't really mean anything so ridiculous, and let the humor of it defuse the situation.

Whit peered at his nose now and was startled to see a few hairs poking from a nostril. How many times, poring over in-flight magazines, had he snorted at the poor schmucks who needed to throw money away on so inherently embarrassing an invention as a nose hair trimmer, a gadget whose possession was indictment? That evening he bought one, uncomfortable in Sharper Image as an adolescent purchasing his first condom. He flicked it on right after shaving the next morning; the motor gave a whir discreet and reassuring as a Brooks Brothers clerk discussing silk boxers. Step by step he followed the unfolded instructions, rinsing the blade when he was done, then watched the shaving cream and specks of hair bob in the clouded water that was clearly not going anywhere.

He was hurrying, head down, around a corner when he ran right into Pemberton.

"Felman, is this going to become a habit?"

"It—it's my drain, sir, I'm sorry."

"It was your drain last week." Pemberton flicked an irritated glance at a potted plant.

"That was the tub—it was the sink this time. Sir." He could not adequately have conveyed the astonishment, mounting minute by minute, with which he'd tugged the unending ugly clog of hair from the drain, like a magician plucking a crepe streamer from his mouth. Could it really all have been hers?

"Well get the thing looked at, Felman. They're all connected." Pemberton leaned forward, frowning. Whit shrank back.

"What's this?" Whit's boss plucked, from Whit's clipboard, a long, luxuriant brown strand that glimmered in the light.

"It's—"

"Busy morning, eh Felman?" The end of the strand was caught in the clip and Pemberton gave it a quick tug that snapped it. "Marvelous creature, that girl of yours."

Whit didn't have the nerve to tell him the truth.

"Save a little of that spunk for work, son, and you'll go far. Remember, business before the old ooh-là-là!"

"I couldn't agree more, sir." Whit felt Pemberton's eyes on his white shirt, and looked down to see another hair clinging just above his pocket. He picked that one off himself.

#

The first time Whit and Maud made love, they fell asleep entwined, his nose plunged in her hair as in a treasury of flowers, seeking every last whiff of her shampoo. The third Sunday after she moved in, he woke with a sneeze.

"Are you cold?" She stirred sleepily beside him, and snuggled closer. "I'm warm, come here."

He rolled away. Often now she woke to find him on the far side of the bed, a white expanse of sheet between having cooled glacially in the night. She tried to close the gap, her head seeking the curve of his shoulder. Her scented hair tickled his nose and cheek, and he marveled that he'd ever slept soundly with his face buried in it. He sneezed again. Then the sniffles started.

She sat up. "Is it your allergies?"

"Yeah, must be." Throwing the blankets aside, he climbed out of bed. His suspicion that it wasn't allergies, but a cold, was confirmed as the day dragged on by an unmistakable trickle of backdrip in his throat that made drinking water unpleasant, so he went instead from mimosas to screwdrivers. There was a company gala that night, an occasion whose importance he had anxiously impressed upon Maud. It was said, to Whit's public denial and private pleasure, that Pemberton had fixed his sights on him. Whit was convinced the old man would use the occasion to rummage about in his personal life for evidence of his probity. The evening promised to be trying, so Whit kept his cold to himself, preferring to save mention of it up as ammunition.

It was difficult, by cocktail time, to tell if his headache was caused by cold or drink, but all through the chatter he wore it like a halo advanced to him in martyrdom.

Pemberton himself seemed to have tied on not one but several by the time dinner started. Whit didn't know whether to take this as a sign to relax, or fret more and be on his best behavior—an indecision brought to crisis when he found himself seated near the cantankerous partner. Thinking to help, Maud inserted herself between them.

It was hard to tell which was more tonic to the elderly bachelor: the freely flowing wine or Maud, who sat prettily with her gauze shawl slipped from bare shoulders. It wracked Whit's nerves to be unable to supervise, or often even overhear, her conversation.

Whit was convinced that the restaurant was frigid and complained bitterly to the waiter several times while Maud looked on in concern. The breeze of the waiter bringing the tray of desserts seemed to snake down his spine between damp shirt and moist skin, rooting him to his seat. He started to shiver. The slightest shift in the air caused his skin to prickle and his flesh to crawl. Maud put a cool hand on his forehead. When she pulled it back, she set down her dessert fork with a resigned clink.

"Monsieur Pemberton," she sighed, in tones of infinite forbearance, "it was so nice to meet you at last. I'm afraid Whit is not feeling well. Perhaps you'll excuse us for the evening?"

Maud was walking Whit to the coat check when Pemberton came up behind them and clapped them on the shoulders, popping his aged face between theirs.

"It delights me to see two young people happy," he said with a leer at Maud that put the lie to his benignity. "It's all one wants, at my age."

The taxi, too, was an arctic compartment. It seemed to Whit that if he held himself very still he would tremble less because he would be in less frequent contact with air that rather treacherously kept moving. Once in the apartment he made straight for bed, leaving Maud in the hall still taking off her shoes to call after him.

"Can I make you anything? Tea?"

He woke to her sitting at his desk. The sheets were soaked. He tried not to move, to keep the cold from setting in along the damp edges of where he lay, but he felt warmth streaming outward as from somewhere deep inside his body, and had stopped trembling. His fever had broken.

She set her book down, in the circle of light from the lamp. "I was sitting here, watching you suffer. You were absolutely still but you were grinding your teeth, and I couldn't keep my mind on my book. You moaned once."

Slowly she uncrossed her legs, her tense vigil over. "I realized—I love you."

#

The bathroom wasn't the only place her hair turned up. It seemed every time he rolled over in bed, a few tangled strands showed on the white sheets. Every morning, there were more to pick off and carry, trailing between thumb and finger, to the wastebasket. He feared those moments of transit when they swayed in the air, became invisible, and might slip from his pinched fingertips without his knowing. He moved the wastebasket closer to the bed. He didn't trust the hair not to waft out when he walked by, so he pressed the trash down firmly each time, then brushed his hands off to be sure no strands stuck to his skin.

Hair turned up, at work, in the folders of reports he fanned territorially by night across the kitchen table to disguise its bareness, between the papers he pored over late beneath the kitchen lamp. He excused himself from meetings when his back itched, and pulling off his shirt in the men's room, invariably discovered an offending strand. He found hair curled, finer than the thinnest ribbon bookmark, in the pages of his paperbacks, and in the cupboard among the cans and cereal. He found it on the newly laundered towels folded in the closet, in the corners, on the counters, along baseboards, tangled up with dust bunnies. He wore out a lint roller cleaning it from collars and dark sweaters he scrutinized, inch by inch, beneath the desklamp. He swept it with crumbs from surfaces. Incredulous, he spotted it dangling from the slits of the heating vent as if it were creeping in through the air ducts. He bought a hand vacuum so he could patrol the apartment untethered by a cord, and mounted the recharger on the wall.

Whit didn't wonder where Maud was. The best part of being rid of her, it seemed, was being able to recollect in tranquility uninfringed upon by this or that importunate habit, the initial heady days when he'd been utterly under her spell, surrendering at each insouciant toss of her head to her charms. She had, all along, gotten her way, from moving in to moving out, but the living together had clearly been a disaster; what else did people do after a bad match but shake hands, good sports? It was only gentlemanly to think the best of her, and that was easier without her around. Besides, he had a secret.

At night she came to him in dreams, not of reproach or remorse, but rapturous eroticism. The floor was once again littered with her things, that satchel of a purse with its mouth soft as an anemone's, a view down to the miscellany of its gullet. On the same warm current to which the purse gently opened and closed, she wafted to him, past the jellyfishes of dresses tossed on mild tides of dishabille, ribbed torsos and skirts belling below, past the flora and fauna attending her, gauzy and sheer, until at the edge of the bed she floated, naked, wreathed luxuriously in hair like Venus rising from the waters, her endless tresses modesty's demure resort, and opened her arms to him, calling his name.

He reached for her, a drowning man. She fell into the bed, but her limbs remained curiously inert while her hair—so much hair it spread to cover the entire surface of the bed—slowly writhed, shifting like the tendrils of a beckoning squid but dense, too, and everywhere, dark and suffocating as a cloud of ink, without scent or taste.

"Who are you?" he marveled, searching for her lips. "I don't know you at all."

She fixed his eyes with her own. "Why won't you hold me when you sleep?"

Her body turned clammy at once and Whit thrashed his way to waking, drawing a huge breath as he surfaced from his sheets. He always got out before it turned bad. At least it was only a dream, and there was work.

#

He was leaving for a plane at 8 that morning. She stood with her arms wrapped around her waist as though holding herself, and not just her dressing gown, together. Nothing outside hinted it was six and not the middle of the night: not the hard lights, glinting as though mined from the dark, nor the glowing windows of deserted offices.

"But why?" she pleaded. "I don't understand."

He worked his London Fog onto his shoulders, then from the collar where it had brushed the back of his head, dusted a veritable blizzard of dandruff. Even in the incandescence of the kitchen bulb—a dim unflattering domesticity—her hair, mussed by sleep, kept the silken gloss that had once made it seem to him the only thing in all the world worth having. Women, he thought. If you could just take the good parts, and leave the rest—

"Why do you always pick the worst possible times for a fight?" He fumbled in his pocket for a tissue. It wasn't just the early morning—his nose ran all the time now. He ran a hand through his hair then, disgusted, sought something to wipe his hand with, settling on the crumpled tissue. His hair felt perennially greasy lately, his skin dotted with more pimples than he'd ever had in school. His lips were usually chapped and the corners of his mouth cracked. A sallowness, a haunted lavender, resided under his eyes.

"You think I won't do it. You think I won't go."

"Look, Christ—I'm barely going to make the plane as is." He was aware he sounded like a whiny child, even to himself, with his stuffed sinuses.

She threw her hands up, letting the gown fall open.

"I've been such an idiote," she said, turning and pacing away. "Every accommodation, everything I did, I thought it was because you—"

Whit had hoped he wouldn't have to say this, but it seemed like the only way he was going to get out the door. "Please don't take this the wrong way—

"I mean this literally," he said, buttoning his jacket, "and not figuratively, because I would never say that, though I know how ridiculous it sounds, and it can't literally be true, though who knows? Maybe it is, I don't know, with science today maybe they could tell us about something in your DNA, or mine, but—

"We just aren't right for each other." He straightened, one hand on the knob, suitcase in the other. She always made him feel loathsome when he was merely, he seemed, being matter of fact. "You make me sick."

Her look then was one of pure hatred, last night's mascara running at the corners of her eyes.

#

Whit leaned into the mirror, trying to angle the nose hair trimmer just right. It would not do to show up at work with unseemly nostrils. The motor's whir abruptly stopped, as though the trimmer had caught on something. A long chestnut tress dripped from his nose. First one side, and then the other; the ends were pooling in the sink. Hair poured like honey from his ears, spilling on his shoulders to trail down his sides. He stepped backward from the mirror and onto the glossy mass now piled in ribboned layers on the tiled floor, snaring a foot in its slick lengths. The thick hair filled his nostrils; when he opened his mouth to breathe he choked, coughing out a gathered bun that unraveled on his tongue and fell in lissome folds from his lips, hiding teeth and chin. His head sagged forward with the weight. He tugged at it, as if at a fake beard, but his fingers slipped through the curtain of hair to comb it, lovingly, beneath the light it turned to stunning sheen. Panicking, he knotted fingers in the locks and yanked and felt, from deep inside his belly, the flow of glossy coils jerk and quicken, as if he were nothing but a hollowed doll filled with hair, with a crank a child could turn to make it spew forth.

Whit woke up.

His hands leapt to his face, finding smeared across it like a cobweb a few strands of hair, which he tore away.

He struggled upright, sweating as he had from fever, to find across the room the desklamp on. A book lay open, facedown in the circle of light, just below the shelf that had been hers: the shelf whose emptiness seemed to persist behind the books he'd filled it with.

He rose and almost fell, surprised to find himself unsteady on his feet. His mind was remarkably clear, but his legs felt weak, his skin moist, and his clothes thin upon him. There was no wall to reach out for in the open space, so on hands and knees he advanced across a floor that seemed to slant like the deck of a ship. Reaching up, he slid from the shelf the envelope with its letter, its Polaroids, and its lock of hair. He threw these in the trash. Still on his knees, he gathered the bag, though it was half-empty, sealed it with a knot, and dragged it to the hall where, with it swinging from one hand, he stepped out of the apartment in bare feet. He ran past the elevators, the emergency stairwell, to the small room that was never locked, with its cable box and bundles of cardboard for recycling, opened the small square door of dented metal, and tossed the bag down the dark chute.

#

Life is haircuts. Life is bills. Life is paychecks, and picking up the milk with its sell-by date, and a new tube of toothpaste when the old one surprises us by running out suddenly and at last. More faithfully and meaningfully than calendar months, time's passing was brought personally home to Whit by nothing so outlandish as looking up, in line to buy a subway pass, at the memory of how four weeks ago he had stood in this exact spot, thinking: already? Six haircuts later, Whit Felman told the barber to go ahead and cut it short; it was getting warm out.

"How short, sir?"

"Surprise me. Go hog wild. I'm in the mood for something new." His eyes were on the barber, but the mirror beamed his grin back at himself. "I just got a promotion."

"Congratulations." The barber, hands folded behind him, gave a courtly little bow in his white jacket.

A short Romanian with a salt and pepper mustache and something of the Old World in his manner, he was as deft of movement as he was sparing of words. The lack of chatter suited Whit just fine. He was soon done, and Whit, who liked to close his eyes for the duration, opened them on the mass of his own hair, rough and scrappy on the checkered floor. Briefly, he almost expected it to jump up and bite him, like a dog, but with a swipe of the barber's broom it disappeared into a dustpan.

"What do you think?"

The barber held the hand mirror behind Whit's head, but it was something Whit saw dead on, in the reflection before him, that caught his eye. Without shifting his gaze he reached back, took the mirror from the barber, and brought it right before his face, staring all the while at what the clippers had uncovered. From under the gown then, his other hand reached for his gently lowered head, as though to certify, with the touch of his fingers, his first gray hair.


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