ALL SONNETS DISSOLVE IN FORMALIN
Masha thought of the game, of course — the terrible messages she got on dating apps were a constant in our gatherings, the four of us laughing at the usual creeps who “liked ethnic food” or complimented her tits as we passed the phone around in a circle. I finished the last message and set it down next to Anna’s glass, wine circles staining the wood with a complete history of our evenings. Masha tugged at the top book of Jo’s to-read stack, now so tall it served as a side table. The book of poems reminded me of something.
You know the Bluebeard story? I asked. With the chamber of dead maidens.
Jesus, Jo said.
It was one of those moments on the edge of intimacy, and had the stars aligned differently or whatever, had I not become gripped by a need to find air no one else was breathing, maybe I’d have kept talking. My favorite Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet had always been a retelling of the Bluebeard tale, with poet as “murderer” and the chamber merely a request for privacy… but I went to the kitchen instead of elaborating. I poured a glass of water, taking a long time with it. I found a little lemon and cut it with a knife, squeezing juice and pulp into the water, stirring with a spoon, washing both utensils. I repeated the opening lines of the poem to myself. This door you might not open, and you did; so enter now and see for what slight thing you are betrayed… Here is no treasure hid. When I returned to the living room, Masha’s eyes were fever-bright with mischief.
A fake dating profile, she explained. A game, for all of us. Her arms waved wildly, gestures large with what we figured for some innate Russian intensity. The idea was to write loveletters, the four of us together in a Cyrano-cum-Catfish style we’d keep up just long enough for the thin membrane of human connection to form. Nurturing investment while seeing how big a secret one could keep, what kind of information could be hinted at but withheld from someone while maintaining their attention. We can call it Bluebearding! I blurted out, and Masha looked at me with admiration. The parallels were perfect, though I wasn’t sure anyone else noticed or cared.
Our first try was pretty embarrassing, to be honest. We started that afternoon, defrosting pelmeni from when Masha made us help with a giant batch, folding dough around little balls of meat until Jo’s freezer was filled with stacked cookie sheets. Interested messages came in quickly; the photos we’d selected for the account were attractive enough, and it was summer. What else was there to do? Jo had picked a child as the Bluebeard “secret” for this round, a common enough thing that reliably pissed people off when not mentioned up front. There were hints in the profile — not too explicit, something that could read both as a childless adult’s quirk and a parent’s complaint. Seeing Frozen too many times. Fish sticks. So when we started messaging back, we only replied to accounts that specifically didn’t want kids. A front-runner emerged within a day, some younger guy whose photos showed him surrounded by smiling people. Playing pool in a crowded bar; passed out first at a party, Sharpie scrawled on his face; Spring Break trip somewhere warm and forgettable.
Despite the pictures his messages stank of loneliness; the boy slid open like a hinge. One creak and the whole thing falling from the frame, leaving nothing to even close. He told us in detail about his emotionally unsupportive family, the worry of losing a job and perpetually being one decision away from fucking things up irreparably. He spoke candidly about his high-functioning depression, a precipice he was shit-scared to look over. And Laura, our group account, was opening up too — about leaving school, moving in with her parents to save money. They bonded over that stuff, naturally. It was intoxicating. To connect with someone like that, connections normally these mysterious things, existing or not based on their own whims... Yet here we were, pulling them from air like alchemists.
Hey Alex, sorry I didn’t reply sooner. Was helping with dinner; we made the spaghetti recipe you sent yesterday but then Mom and I fought. I think she doesn’t want me here, honestly. Not like I want to be here either, but there’s no way I could afford a two-bedroom right now. Nope. So here I am, waking and eating and working and eating and sleeping as the present moves across the water like a goddamn skipping stone. To what end, any of this? Yours in existential despair xx Laura
Alex! A missive for you to wake up to. I hope you dreamed of me… I definitely dreamed of you. And I want you to know how much I treasure our conversations, ok? You can tell me anything, I promise. I won’t run. Everything is dark sometimes and I was never any good at camping, but maybe together we could figure out how to light the fire. S’mores or burning it all down, your choice! (And I can’t get a studio, believe me, I would if I could) xx Laura
Slowly the talking and listening lost balance, a teeter-totter coming down to rest on one side as we struggled to keep Alex’s attention while remaining sufficiently distant.
Please drop it, ok Alex? It’s not a big deal, truly.
And, at the very end:
Hey, where’ve you been?
The reply never came. Laura’s suitors all lost interest, every time. Some didn’t even push back against the door of our narrative — they slowly messaged less, deleted their profile. I swear we all became a little addicted to the sensation, each new person unwrapping themselves for us, lying down naked on a plate. The dinners at Jo’s got quiet, and eventually we kind of stopped going over there and would check the Laura profile from our phones at home, whoever wasn’t busy typing the next message. You have to understand: I grew up in AIM chat sessions and LiveJournal entries. Digital communication always felt real enough, and there’d been so many years when all possible confidantes were states away that none of this registered as out of the ordinary. I loved our game, a world created anew with each message then snuffed out as possibility’s doors slammed closed. See for what slight thing you are betrayed… You can’t pretend you wouldn’t have liked it, too.
One morning I found the account filled with its usual new messages, both from suitors and in Laura’s outbox which held our anthology of co-authored loveletters. Initially I was able to pick out our individual writing styles — I audited a forensic linguistics class once and, unlike everything else from that quarter, the coursework stuck. Typical. Can’t remember anything useful to save my life, but obscure language facts and dead poets? I’ve got it covered. That day, though, Laura Palmer’s blue face from the Twin Peaks DVD cover kept pushing in front of everything else — who had picked that name, anyway? Our storylines and voices ran together as if Laura had been up all night, hadn’t slept in days or weeks. A digital slurring of speech. The liminal syntax of not-quite-showing up. I tried to recall how long it had been since the four of us were in a room together, but couldn’t.
I switched the phone to my left hand and wiped the right on my pants. It was clammy with sweat. Laura Palmer retreated to the background as the app closed, replaced by a vision of Bluebeard’s chamber. Of a door opening reluctantly to a small key. Bodies on the floor. Would they be posed, or half-obscured with screens and tapestries? Why open the door, I thought angrily. It’s ugly to see something like that, walked in on instead of confessed with wine-loose tongue. Why were we playing with people? I was ashamed. I tapped into my chat with Masha, typing before inhibitions caught up with fingers. I miss you, I wrote. ImissyouImissyouImissyou.
The read receipt engulfed the screen with its anxiety-inducing timestamp. Being seen but not acknowledged, a gassy insecurity in my gut. Even literature’s most neurotic narrators avoided the fallibility of the human body when it came to anxiety but I knew I’d always be too late to save the world, a no-good hero for a young adult novel puking or shitting my fear into some public toilet as Earth’s citizens experienced one last moment of connection and then blinked out. I pictured someone opening the door of my stall. I pictured my knees on the floor and drool on my lip and our eyes meeting for the last second there ever was. A person should have a choice how they remember something. It felt unfair. I stared down at the phone in my hand until I realized I wasn’t breathing. I put it down, looked around my room. Remembered a particularly severe panic attack, a night I had spent pacing from desk to bed and back to desk, pulling books off shelves by the spine and reading whatever could hold me from falling back into my head and being swallowed by my heartbeat. I found Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets tucked under a book about the Anatomical Venus and opened to the first dog-eared page. Time does not bring relief; you all have lied.
Unblinking on my bed, the phone lay still with no new texts or chats, no reply from Masha. When was the last time I heard her voice? We’d known each other since childhood, I’d gone to her house after school and watched her scolded for inviting guests without warning. “I have no food prepared!” Masha’s mom said each time, accent thick and eyes warm as she took dish after dish out of the fridge and arranged them on the kitchen counter in front of us. Meats, cheeses, brown bread. Mayonnaise-based salads I avoided but which Masha ate gladly. Cabbage rolls with rice, fish pies, pelmeni with butter and vinegar and black pepper. And, once we were teenagers, a little glass of vodka and a pickle. It was like a fairytale compared to my empty house with its white bread and lunchmeat, parents divorced and mom working long hours that left me reading alone more often than not, slowly consuming every bookshelf we owned. Masha’s family was overbearingly present, and it just made me love Masha more. Where was she?
I heard my phone vibrate, buzzing against the laptop and briefly disorienting me. I grabbed it: Masha’s name lit up the screen. Mash, I said. But the silence that followed was long and awkward in a way our conversations had never been before. ImissyouImissyouImissyou, I thought. Imissyou. Eventually, I realized her mother was talking to me. Please don’t call anymore, she kept repeating. Please don’t text. I’m sorry. And the line disconnected like a slap. I didn’t understand. The confusion was dizzying. I tried to recall my last few conversations with Masha, running each word through my overthinking sieve to trap any possible hint or clue, any error of socializing on my part. Sure, she’d been reserved lately — but all four of us had. I frantically scanned the dating app for Masha’s distinct speech patterns, past group loveletters to Mikes and Sams and Marys and like a mantra or a curse, the Bluebeard sonnet came to me unbidden. I thought about doors opening and closing. Keys dropping. A body on a floor. I’m sorry. The voice on the phone sharpened with a sudden seasick clarity: not anger, but pity. For what small thing you are betrayed. What small thing. A person should have a choice how they remember.
Sonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist with too many feelings on the inside and too much cat hair on the outside. They are the author of Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015), a debut poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival, as well as the chapbook My Heart In Aspic from Porkbelly Press. Find them by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at sonyavatomsky.com and @coolniceghost.