Because it is 1918. Because there is flu called Spanish. Because you are delicate. Your lover keeps you locked in your third story apartment to keep you safe.
“A damsel in a tower,” he says as he runs his fingers over your unbrushed hair.
He brings news of Spokane to you, but only tells you the things that won’t make you think worrisome thoughts. He bakes you complicated cakes and pretty petite fours. He dotes, cajoles, worships, smothers.
At the beginning of the epidemic, you rouge your lips, braid your hair, dress in Chinese silk pajamas—jade for day, ivory for evening. It feels like a novelty. Soon you switch to cotton union suits the color of dirty bathwater, let your white-blonde roots go dark, stop braiding your hair, stop wearing color on your lips, stop looking in the mirror.
The days accordion into each other, each a replica of the one before: wake; drink coffee; eat toast; wash dishes; take a bath; brush your teeth and your hair; read; eat chocolate; nap; listen to records on the gramophone; eat a quarter of your lover’s steak, a sliver of cake, drink half a glass of basement-pressed red wine; wash dishes; sleep. Make love every other day, but always on Sunday.
You weren’t always this dull, didn’t always feel this morose, this useless, this lethargic—but being inside, all day, everyday has taken its toll. You stare at the same four walls for hours on end. If you walk into another room, you see four new walls. The sameness of each day has stolen you from yourself.
You used to be wildly irreverent, daring, unconventional, a mad flirt. In the life you lived before moving to Spokane you were a photographer in Seattle. You worked for Asahel Curtis in his studio in the basement of the Stuart Building. Made lantern slides of the city: its buildings, streets, people. You went to art lectures and political rallies; slept with painters, poets, and labor organizers; drank too much gin.
You came to Spokane to photograph the city. Mr. Curtis booked you a room at the Davenport Hotel. Elegant, you telegraphed. After dinner, you wandered the hotel’s halls, walked its staircases. You took photos of songbirds in cages, women manning the elevators, gilded mirrors holding sentry at the end of hallways, beautiful people crowding beautiful rooms. You peeked into a party in the Marie Antoinette room and saw that dessert was being served. The sugar embraced you, the butter invited you to stay. You smoothed your dress, straightened your spine, lifted the tipped end of your Scandinavian nose a little higher in the air. You found an empty seat, and excused yourself to the table for being late. A lie, but you will do anything for sugar. A waiter placed a slice of cake in front of you: a staircase of marzipan, cake, custard, cream, and jam. It was pink, green, white—royal. You ate it quickly, asked the waiter for another slice for everyone at the table. The women nodded, the men laughed. “Please,” they all said.
The pastry chef was called.
“If a man ever makes me feel the way your cake does,” you said, “I’m marrying him.” He smiled and thanked you, then returned to the kitchen—leaving you and the table of sugar-drunk revelers to return to your merrymaking.
The next night, there was a wedding in the Hall of Doges. You spied the pastry chef and waved. He motioned for you to wait. He disappeared and then returned with a slice of cake and a glass of champagne. He put his finger to his lips when you asked where the champagne, now forbidden, came from. Then asked, “Dinner? Tomorrow?” You looked at the cake, the perfect waves of pearlescent frosting; the champagne, its gold-white bubbles rising to the surface of your glass. He was not someone you could see yourself seducing, but what he did with sugar, butter, and vanilla turned you on. In his hands they became holy.
“Okay,” you said.
“Meet me in the lobby at 7:00.”
You lifted the cake from the plate and took a bite. Your knees buckled with the pleasure of it.
“Tomorrow,” you said as you walked away.
It was the end of you singular and the beginning of you plural.
The flu hits the city hard. Spokane closes on a Tuesday: schools, theaters, movie houses, churches. Weddings are banned, funerals and cigar shop poker games are too. On Wednesday, the first death is reported. The news of two hundred deaths follows on Thursday. Halloween is cancelled. Spitting is illegal. Wearing masks is law.
The only person you see now besides your lover is the apartment’s caretaker. You wave to him from your window, mouth a silent hello. The only person you talk to now besides your lover isn’t a person at all. It’s a crow who sits on the neighbor’s roof directly across from your bedroom window. You talk, it answers. It talks, you listen.
Your lover says Spokane is empty, haunted.
“I want to see it,” you say. “Photograph it.”
“It’s not safe,” he warns.
“I’m lonely,” you say. “I miss my life.”
“How can you be lonely?” he asks. “You have me. Your life is with me now.”
You nod and bite the inside of your lip. Do not tell him the only thing keeping you here is the pandemic. Do not tell him that a life devoid of laughter is more lonely than being alone. Do not tell him that treating you like a caged songbird isn’t love. Do not tell him he does not feel like home.
You go out to the garage. Pull down a box from your long ago life. A life your lover wants you to erase, to forget. Inside, there is a goodbye gift from an unrequited crush. A man you could not conquer. It is an art magazine from Berlin—an issue dedicated to Marc Chagall.
“I saw his work in Paris,” he told you. “It reminded me of you—radical, otherworldly, fanciful. Women flying away from men. Men flying away from women.” He moved his hands through the air to illustrate his point. “Untethered by the prosaic and the pedestrian. Just like you.”
He is young, you are growing older. You understand that time is unfair, unjust. You tear the image of a woman floating away from a man from the magazine; take it upstairs and tape it to your vanity mirror. Every time you look at it, you wonder where the you he saw went.
One Friday morning, after your lover leaves for work, you triangle a scarf, and tie it over your face. Your reflection is a wild west bandit, a bank robber. You walk to the streetcar and take it downtown. No one is allowed to stand or hold the strap or lean into one another, everyone must face forward, everyone must wear a mask. You get off the streetcar at First Avenue. A strange stillness shrouds the city. The streets are close to empty. It reminds you of Pioneer Square after midnight—the place and hour you miss the most. You point your camera at the Lion Hotel on First and Lincoln. Now a temporary hospital to house the indigent, the flu’s worst cases. You click the shutter. Here death is visible—it dances in the windows and on the roof. You see a nurse standing near the hotel’s front entrance. Her face is etched with exhaustion, bruises half moon her eyes.
“May I take your photograph?” you ask. She nods.
You thank her and smile. Remember your mask, aren’t sure your smile reaches your eyes. You move quickly away from the reality of the plague playing out beyond the hotel’s walls. The flu’s victims on stretchers draped with white. Your hunger for a downtown escapade now feels reckless. Dangerous. You are shaken, ready to go back up the hill. Fear has stripped you of your boredom and bravado. You put your head down, and walk as fast as you can back towards the streetcar. A hand on your arm stops you.
“What are you doing here?” It’s your lover. “Are you insane?” he asks. His eyes are bulging—a marriage of anger and fear.
“Why aren’t you at work?” you ask. He holds up a bag from the Crescent Department Store in answer. A present, you realize, for you.
“I’m going mad,” you say. “I had to get out.”
“Don’t you understand?” He takes you by the shoulders and looks into your eyes. “You could die. And then,” he says pointedly, “I would be alone.” The strangeness of his comment flutters, drops, splatters on the sidewalk. The extreme nature of his adoration suddenly makes sense. It sickens you. You are his plaster against loneliness, the chronic aloneness of bachelorhood. He grabs you by the arm and pulls you toward the car.
“Let go of me,” you say.
“I’m taking you home,” he says. He pushes you into the passenger side seat. Drives you silently up the hill. You are a child being punished. The next morning, he goes to the hardware store and buys three locks. One for the front door, one for the back, one for the window that opens to the fire escape.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Making sure you don’t get out again,” he answers.
One week knits into three, three into five. You write long letters to the short list of people you miss the most. You ask your lover to bring you something alive to love. You imagine a cat, black and mystical, or a poodle with clouds of curls. He brings you a jade plant that you unimaginatively name Jade. You carry it from room to room and talk to it. Like the crow it becomes a friend—the keeper of your secrets, your dark thoughts. The flu bullies the city. Your lover worries that he may lose his job. He brings home his woes, lets them pour over you, lets them crush you under their weight. His worry wakes him at two, at four, at six. He turns and tosses, gets out of bed and paces the long hallway of your apartment. You wake each time. Are exhausted by the time you get out of bed at seven, exhausted before your day begins. You do not love your lover the way you wish you could, but do not want him to be felled by sorrow. You try to lift his spirits, try to make him laugh.
“Let’s drink whiskey,” you say. “Dance.” You pull him toward you by the waistband of his trousers, throw your head back and laugh.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “We have nothing to celebrate.”
“We’re alive,” you say. “Isn’t that the best reason of all?”
“Enough,” he says as he pushes you away, leaves you standing in the middle of the living room.
You have forgotten why you said yes to your lover. Agreed to live with him here in a city not your own, far from friends and family. You only remember that after a string of unkind men, his adoration astonished, his attention delighted. Normalcy felt like an adventure. He does not make your heart skip beats. Does not make you laugh. Barely speaks to you. Why you ask yourself did you give up your life for this? Why becomes an endless echo.
You yearn for deep discussions about the quiet culture of aesthetics. Your lover does not read, does not worship at the altar of art. When you introduce topics that interest and excite you, a look of disdain lightenings across his face. Is followed by, “What are you talking about?”
As an act of personal protest, you utter a single word for seven straight days, varied only by your intonation: “Oh. Oh? Oh!” The only oh to garner a reaction is the flat one. To which he replies, “Oh, what?” His question colored with disgust. You are flummoxed that he doesn’t notice, then furious.
You crave sex, hot and dirty. Your lover is lean, muscled, exceptional for his age, now slanting into forty, but the sex is as dull as his wit. He presses his closed lips to yours, presses you into the sheet, into the mattress. It is vanilla ice cream on a winter day. You want to melt, drip, be licked—instead you are pressed. He is Victorian in a modern era. He, you realize, is a prude.
Your loneliness becomes an extra appendage. You strap it down, hide it, pretend you are happy, pretend you love him.
As your sadness grows, you find that you start to float. At first it is an inch off the floor, then three. Soon you drift from room to room—your shins hit the kitchen counter, the bathroom sink. You have to hold onto furniture to moor yourself. Eventually, you spend entire days pinned to the ceiling.
Your lover does not lose his job. Instead of working less, he works more. Fearful of the flu, two-thirds of his staff quits. He leaves every morning before nine. Is gone for ten hours, eleven—works six days a week, sometimes seven. When he comes home at night, he brings dinner from the hotel. Always steak, medium rare; a baked potato, buttered and salted; a slice of cake, chocolate. You eat in silence at the dining room table. The only conversation, the scrape of a knife, the shriek of a fork.
The weeks hopscotch from November to December. It’s Tuesday. Your lover is working late, making cakes for the holiday season—stacked, filled, frosted, fancy. In spite of the danger, people continue to celebrate. A misguided nod to normalcy. Your lover bakes their cakes, the hotel pretends not to notice their parties.
You put on a record on the gramophone, Puccini’s La Boheme. Take your red silk pajamas out of the drawer—from a shop on King Street in Seattle’s Chinatown—from your life before. Before you moved in with your lover, before the flu, before you were sugared with sadness. You sit in front of the mirror: braid your hair, crisscross it over the top of your head, pin it into place. The moon strokes it with her long fingers of light. You paint your lips red. It shocks after a string of colorless weeks. You spritz perfume on your throat, your wrists. You study your reflection, wish someone else could see you painted and dressed. You open a bottle of champagne and drink it straight from the bottle—the pop and fizz of the bubbles enliven you. The music’s notes knock against the glass. You open the window to a rush of snow-frosted air. The aria invites you to follow its crescendo out the open window. You and it float out over the city—away from your lover, away from the apartment, away from the sadness. Away, away, away.
Carla Crujido, a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is a writer of Filipino, Norwegian, Mexican, and German descent. Her work has appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, Ricepaper Magazine, Tinfish Press, The Ana, and elsewhere. Originally from San Francisco, she now calls Portland home.
From Special Features Guest Editor Toni Jensen:
In her short story, “The Tower,” Carla Crujido tells the tale of a woman who finds herself stuck—in a hotel during the Spanish Flu epidemic, with the affection of a man who believes he’s delivering everything she could possibly want. The tensions woven through the fabric of this story pull the reader into the beauty and struggle of this time and place. In lyrical, lush language, Crujido’s writing makes strange or unfamiliar what we think we know about epidimics and safety and loss.