The Strange Case of Ingrid P.

Johanna Stoberock

I lived with my husband at the edge of Manhattan. At night in the winter when the trees were bare we looked toward the Hudson River. We cherished our view and waited all year for the cold when the leaves that hid the river would turn and swirl to the ground, the water revealing itself like a mountain behind mist: gray, silent in the distance. We lay in bed together in the morning and stared at the low clouds gathered in the sky and at the dull slate line beyond the hill and waited for the room to fill with more than just the flimsy specter that passed for light.
       As we lay there, silent, side by side, I wondered if he led multiple lives as well. Instead of coming back from the store in the morning in the same state of completion in which he left, did part of him stay and stock shelves and speak Spanish and give back incorrect change? Did part of him leap into the newspaper’s stories, across the ocean to Europe, to work to broker peace? Or was he somehow able to contain himself wholly within himself? Was he able to come back to me complete, and feel no longing strong enough to pull him away when he stared with me out the window at the river?
       One day as I walked toward the cathedral on the wide avenue along which I lived, I looked to my right and saw the sun setting pink over the water. The bare, silhouetted trees formed a web, and the pink light was almost obscene in its intensity. I thought, Right now, right now is one of my other lives. In this life I turn off my path and just keep staring at the icy river until the sun is gone from the sky. In this life, a man will approach me, and my dress will be long and a shawl will cover my shoulders instead of this bulky coat. The city behind us will be strangely silent, cars and electricity not yet invented, and the man will say… But a bird cooed, a car’s breaks shrieked, and I found myself again in my regular winter coat, tapping my way across the cracks that striped the sidewalk.

In one life I left my husband for the handsome young man at the post office, the one who at that time stood in line behind me every other Tuesday and who had recently begun to make idle conversation as we each waited for a window to become free. “You look tired today,” he said. I blushed and looked down, flustered to have someone notice the shadows on my face. “It’s going to be a long week,” he said and, “All these letters—doesn’t it overwhelm you to think about so much communication around us, so much communication, and all of it silent?” I smiled and agreed, and when we each nodded goodbye and stepped up to our separate counters, I realized that we could leave together if we chose. Another shape for my life to take. And as I watched, another Ingrid peeled off and left, arm in arm with the young man, laughing.

My aunt came to visit one afternoon in another life. She brought a box of cookies. I made tea, and we sat together in the living room—this was the life in which my living room was filled with overstuffed furniture and the lace curtains at the windows fluttered constantly, my life as the single woman I have always wondered whether I would be. My aunt put three spoonfuls of sugar in her tea, and then bit into a cookie. Her white hair was pulled back in a braid, the braid knotted intricately upon her head. The cookies were covered with powdered sugar. When she pulled the pastry away from her lips the red was covered in white. I tried not to look at her as I stirred my own tea, and when I ate a cookie I made sure to place it directly between my teeth, my lips pulled archly back. The sweetness of everything was overwhelming.
       “Have you met anyone?” she asked me, and I could see that her tongue was coated with sugar as well. “Have you met anyone you like?”
       “I’m not really looking,” I said. I couldn’t tell her about Daniel, who had left the apartment, his shoes still untied, minutes before she arrived. “I’ll let you know when something happens, I promise.”
       “Just so you’re not shutting yourself in. Just so I know you’re getting out from time to time.”
       “I go out.”
       “Of course you do.”
       “I do.”
       “Have another cookie, Ingrid. You look too thin.”
       It was always that way with my aunt. I couldn’t tell her about my adventures, and she couldn’t believe that I was the type of girl who would have adventures. I thought about Daniel as I took another sip of tea, about how I’d placed my hand on his shoulder and turned it like a knob so he faced me in bed this morning, and how his face, blurry as it moved in close to mine, would be echoing in my mind all day, maybe all week, and I nearly choked when the tea went down my throat too quickly.
       “You be careful,” my aunt said. “A single girl. You watch out.”
       When she left, I took another shower in my bathroom where all the towels matched—a perfect, rich cream color against the light blue walls—and where all the soap smelled of flowers. My single girl’s apartment. Mine. I thought about Daniel in the shower earlier in the morning, and about how there’s no way to share a shower without one person getting cold, and about how I’d washed his hair and he had washed mine. I loved living alone. I loved the hot water rushing on my shoulders, and dreaming.

There were several types of lives I knew I could lead. There was the life in which my husband died, and I spent five years grieving, but secretly couldn’t understand my inability to feel a thing. In this life, after he died, it was as though I distanced myself from my body and anything connected with feeling, as though I was able to float five inches away from anything that caused a reaction. My husband had passed away, and I was alone, and the apartment filled with his absence. Then there was the life in which I was forty five, not thirty two, and I still had my figure, and thought nothing of sleeping with younger men. And the life in which I owned a cat…

As I walked that day along the avenue away from my apartment with the river at my right and the sun fading soft, the street was silent except for a flock of pigeons haplessly cooing from the top of a wall. Ahead of me, an elderly woman reached down and took a girl’s tiny brown hand. The little girl was wearing a bright yellow parka. Hot, I thought, in that coat. Hot, and then I walked on, alarmed by the inarticulateness of my thoughts. A car swerved around the corner, a horn blared, and then the street lapsed into silence. In this life, I thought, in this life I live in a quiet world interrupted only occasionally by the cooing of doves and the blaring of horns. In this life my thoughts are not fascinating. In this life I have left behind a dirty apartment and am heading towards the bank machine where my balance is dismally low. Which life is this? Does this life belong to me? This is not the life that I would choose, given a choice among the many lives of mine that I am certain exist. Give me my aunt. Give me the post office. Give me my husband in bed in the endlessly early morning when the river is still flat and gray and the trees are still naked. This was my life of despair. The street remained quiet as I walked. If nothing else, this life seemed consistent. I told myself it couldn’t be a life in which I spent much time.
       But the sky, even in this humdrum life, was beautiful, the pinks so bright they hurt my eyes, still caught in the gauze of the trees. The woman and child disappeared into a church. A car slowed down beside me, and, though I tried to look straight ahead and ignore it, the sound of someone whispering soon reached me. “Hey baby, hey baby, hey baby,” came hissing over the curb and into my ears. “Hey baby, climb in with me, come and take a ride.” It was all I could do not to look, but I balled my hands into fists and kept my eyes focused straight ahead.

The young man from the post office was a dancer. He invited me to a performance and I was certain that the audience was padded with other women who had met him in circumstances similar to my own. I looked back and forth through the audience before the performance started to see if I could spot other women who wished to go home with him afterwards. There were too many for me to count.
       When the house lights dimmed and the purple stage lights rose, I shivered. His costume, just a sleeveless T-shirt and loose pants, showed how strong his arms were. The loose fabric of the pants clung to his legs. I felt as though I was watching for things I shouldn’t be. He picked up another dancer and held her on his hip with one arm wrapped around her waist. Would he be able to do that with me? Would I feel as light to him as she did? She was a tiny thing. Were they in love? I clapped with the rest of the audience when the piece was over. I knew his arms would stay in my mind forever.
       Afterwards, we went out for a drink. “Did you like it?” he asked. “Did you love it?”
       “I loved it,” I answered.
       “Even the part where I turn away?”
       “Even that part. I loved it all.”
       We talked about what there was to love and the possibility of loving everything until the ice in our glasses melted and our drinks were warm.

Occasionally my husband made me breakfast. Sausages fried in a cast iron pan. Orange juice in a wine glass. The window shades pulled up high. Occasionally my husband and I curled up on the couch his parents had given us and read The Sunday Times. Occasionally the children playing in the park that separated our apartment from the river yelled and laughed like angels. Occasionally I fell asleep at night with my head in his lap, his fingers playing around my ear.

Along with my life as a single girl, my life as a widow, my life with a cat, my life of despair, and my life with the handsome young man from the post office who invited me to his dance recitals, I had another life, and was not at all certain where it fit in. In it I took my elderly neighbor’s dog for a walk in the park one afternoon. I’ve always hated dogs. I thought my neighbor was dying. He stopped me in the laundry room one day, and it took him five minutes to ask me the favor because he was doubled over with coughing. I could not say no when he asked. “Ingrid,” he said, his hand cupping my cheek. “Ingrid, that dog will watch out for you. He’ll take care of you, don’t worry.” I nodded, but I thought I would get my husband to do the task for me. And then I paused—I was no longer sure if this was a life in which I had a husband.
       That afternoon when I took Alexander for a walk, I could not help but shiver. He was a middle-aged great dane and I felt like a child beside him. Our feet made crunching noises as we walked in the park through the snow. I watched Alexander’s swaying tail until I suddenly realized that we had lost all remnants of daylight. The wind moaned through the trees. The snow swirled in narrowing spirals around us. Alexander, as big as a giant, began to chase ghosts. He pulled me behind him and we lunged through shadows, growled into the dark, tore around trees, almost touching the invisible world, but always just missing. I tugged at Alexander’s leash, and even as he pulled me forward, I felt myself chased by the same ghosts that, scared by the dog’s loud bark, had circled around to terrorize us from behind. I called to Alexander as loudly as I could through clenched teeth, tried to pull him in tightly, cursing my too thin arms, resisting the shiver creeping up my spine. He lunged forward and bolted, but we never caught a ghost that we could hold. When we finally got back to the building and I knocked on my neighbor’s door, there was no answer. I had keys. I let us in. On the counter was a note saying he’d had to go to the hospital, could I feed Alexander? This is what my elderly neighbor was like—he thought of everything even as the ambulance waited.
       The walls in his apartment were covered with paintings. I tiptoed through the rooms, waiting for my heart to still, quiet as a nail. His bed was made. His bathroom sink looked as though it had just been wiped clean. What are his other lives? I wondered. Am I the only one who peels away? Am I the only one who’s not complete? There was a card on his refrigerator from a niece. “Uncle Roger,” she called him, and signed it, “Love, Mary Anne.” To me he was just Mr. Anderson. How could he live a life where he had a niece? Why wasn’t Mary Anne here walking his dog? I thought of his hand on my cheek. How could he live a life without me?
       I sat down on a couch and listened to Alexander lapping water. The paintings glowed as if lit from within. If I lived here, I thought, I’d dream myself walking through painted forests and stroking painted faces. I’d listen to painted music and through my listening, it would come free from the flat surface to which it was condemned. If I lived here, my lives would be laid out before me; I would have them all in front of me to see at once. When Alexander jumped onto the sofa beside me and licked my cheek, I shook my head. It was time to leave. The multiplicity of available lives can be dizzying. I needed my warm bed to wonder at the wealth.

As I walked toward the cathedral along the avenue, and felt a part of myself tear off to go to the park by the river; I trembled here, in this life, with the hope for what that part of me might find, and with the agony that it might find nothing, and with the question that even if it found happiness in that life, would I ever truly know about it in this? I whispered to myself, You have a husband at home making dinner. You have a ticket to go to France next spring. You have a full year’s subscription to The New York Times—this life is not so bad. Just then a car drove by, stopping briefly at the light before skidding away. A woman sat in the back seat, her black hair knotted in a bun. That is me, I thought, that is me and I just watched myself leave and part of me will never come back. How can I remain whole even when that part of me has left? How can I remain and not be whole? The bells at the cathedral rang. The sun set beyond the river. My husband called me home.

Johanna Stoberock is the author of the novels Pigs (forthcoming, Red Hen Press) and City of Ghosts. Her work has appeared in Catamaran, Copper Nickel, and the Best of the Net Anthology, among others. In 2016 she was named runner up for the Italo Calvino Prize. She lives in Walla Walla, WA, and teaches at Whitman College.

“The Strange Case of Ingrid P.” was originally published in fall of 2011 by Eclipse, Vol. 22.