Ophelia, Act V
Never mind what you may heard from a certain “promising young man”—one who, in this generation, read Catcher in the Rye a time or seven too many. My name is Ophelia: fifteen years after all that, I’ve stitched myself together from the scraps, the bits of twisted ribbon and ancient lace and yellowed tulle, into a patchwork tapestry.
I remember everything.
I’ve wept a willow’s worth, to be sure. And I drowned a fair number of years in an eddy of cheap hooch and off-key karaoke. Something is rotten in the state of Wisconsin. But… reports of my death verged on the hysterical, even in my recounting. In truth, I unpicked all my worms before the rot set in entirely.
My nameplate at Acuity Insurance reads “clerk.” My studio overlooks the public library. My cat, Mermaid, doesn’t ask much of me. I know what I am. I’m not particularly bothered about what I may be. Can’t that be enough?
My father died fifteen years ago today. Would that he had given me half the good advice he offered my brother. He only considered that I borrowed trouble… and lent my ear to a certain someone altogether too often.
The internet offers better distraction than Yorick.
He sent me a friend request. On Facebook.
He’s set his profile to private; I can’t determine which slings and arrows he’s selected to adorn his personal masochistic hell.
I can ignore it. Better not to peel back the shroud.
The photo… He looks exactly as I would have expected, had I expected anything at all. He’s filled out, of course, but neither face nor body have softened. His expression remains… aloof. Poised. Regal.
Every inch his father’s son.
He reached out, planted the seeds of a reunion for two.
I am already regretting agreeing to meet; I can only allow that Insatiable, Pandora-esque Curiosity trumped Noble Reason.
Why am I here? I spent countless days wiping away all those trivial, fond records, burning smiling photos and consigning a dried bouquet to the flames. Or: I endured thousands of hours commending my spirit into the hands of self-improvement texts, and endless fluorescent-lit nights trying to peel the non compos mentis sticker from my file—none covered by insurance. Or: simply wishing that my own too-solid flesh would melt.
And now, he’s in town for a panel discussion. At his suggestion, we’re meeting at some horrific hipster gastropub in a repurposed factory, haunted (I imagine) by the ghosts of its mistreated laborers. (Or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, presuming they’re not off chasing Godot through the afterlife.)
Now he’s Making An Entrance. Like a fêted actor, or a ghost. Twenty-two minutes late.
He’s brought me a box of Godiva chocolates, a flicker of gold wrapping encasing a mostly hollow shell.
He has not brought me any flowers.
Arguably I have given him too many.
I wait for him to pour his particular brand of poison into my ears.
“You look… well,” he says.
I look like Girl, Interrupted-and-Only-Recently-Able-to-Resume. I humbly thank you; well, well, well.
He looks just like his photo. I attempt to draw breath, before my mind is overthrown. (Again.)
The play within the play: we re-enact those first budding moments. Picture this: the boy, fresh from the ivory tower, a face like springtime. The girl, a nymphet in the classical-not-Nabokovian style, imbued with every conventional grace. Dancing around one another…
He smiles, and smiles, when I tell him about the job, the apartment, the cat.
He’s a political pundit now, delivering incisive takes on everything from politics to pop culture (with signature acerbity, but also charming self-deprecation) on CNN and MSNBC and Slate. He’s clearly a little deflated that I haven’t heard about any of this. Or his much-publicized relationship with a Hollywood starlet. Or his award-winning podcast.
I tell him I’ve been living, as he suggested, like a nun.
In my orisons, each and every one of his sins have been remembered. But so too those times when I was blasted with ecstasy, just to hear his voice—
“You want an appetizer, too?” he asks, eyebrow arching. “It’s just… you always used to be so… careful.”
The poet once composed paeans to my beauty.
I change the subject. We talk of music—our opinions forever in harmony. I allow my shoulders to drop. His eyes seem alight: we began thus, in remembered twilights with etch-edged clarity…
“You’ve never had this with anyone else.” He smiles.
The truth of this smites me—its accuracy, and its implication. Because we once enjoyed a marriage of true minds…
…and yet, from one turn in the conversation to the next, he swore he loved me—and then that he didn’t.
Reader, in spite of everything, I never reversed myself.
More the fool I.
I have to ask. I hate to ask. “Why did you want to meet me?”
“We had such a—connection, and—you knew me, then.”
In every sense.
“You knew what I had suffered.”
Absolutely. I, too, had lost a father. In untimely fashion.
“I missed that. And really, because… I was… concerned about you. You—abruptly took leave of…”
Everyone? My senses?
“I know I wasn’t perfect, but I wanted to make certain you weren’t… holding a grudge,” he concludes, in his oh-so-resonant voice.
I cannot, for a moment, absorb this. My breath is stolen. In my innocence, I thought some… fragment, even, might have caught his conscience.
What a piece of work, this man.
“Thank you for that,” I say, blandly.
He stares as though he has never seen me before, incredulous—hurt?—then incensed. I proffer the unflappable smile of an interviewer abruptly dismissing an under-qualified applicant. He served once as my brother’s foil, and now I am his.
“Good night, sweet prince,” I murmur, and set down two twenties.
The rest is silence.
I stride out into the night, the hoary shrubs brushing against my coat, the cold pleasantly stinging, the firmament humming something bonny and sweet in waltz time. I stop at the grocery store and buy myself a bouquet of giddy gladioli. I too am my father’s daughter, to mine own self true.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred fifty literary magazines. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.