Gurney Norman Prize for Fiction: 1st Place
I almost felt grateful for the experience of being somebody’s mistress, Sylvia rolling off of me and springing up from my mattress around 5:30p.m. the afternoons I got to see her, the working day over. It made me feel great kinship with Mrs. Wilson from Gatsby, and I thought about her a lot, and how the room must have felt utterly abandoned each time Tom left it.
Fiction by Amarlie Foster
There was a time in my life I dreamt very literarily. In the morning my mind would be full of misplaced authors and texts which I would then extrapolate onto my life. They were the kinds of dreams that required few lateral steps, like dreaming of missing your flight. This one was no trouble at all. It was my mother delivering a single sentence which in the dream struck an enormous blow, that The Great Gatsby had actually been written by Sylvia Plath. The woman I was sleeping with was named Sylvia. It was not difficult. It was also my first experience being somebody’s mistress, and the apartment where I lived was in a cheap and grimy part of Providence.
Sylvia Plath also accounted for the queerness of it all, and how it was to be an intelligent woman, or at least a grittier version than the famously wealthy, clear-faced cookbook writer my Sylvia was married to. Sylvia wouldn’t leave Daisy. This was the reality of my life. Daisy knew about me, but my mind went mute whenever I thought about her. I could not make any measurement of her character, and I liked to think of Daisy as a subatomic particle, which was what my research concerned itself with, indeterminate unless I elected to look at them. It was easy not to look at Daisy, as she and Sylvia lived in Jamestown, on the other side of the bridge.
I almost felt grateful for the experience of being somebody’s mistress, Sylvia rolling off of me and springing up from my mattress around 5:30p.m. the afternoons I got to see her, the working day over. It made me feel great kinship with Mrs. Wilson from Gatsby, and I thought about her a lot, and how the room must have felt utterly abandoned each time Tom left it. When I closed my door to Sylvia I felt very aware of myself as someone having nothing to do, the whole evening an empty container I would fill with small activities, rattling around until I could go to bed.
My mother knew about the affair. Everyone did. This too gave it the flair of a 1920s man smashing up things, and I didn’t know why I didn’t care about anyone’s feelings. I found them impossible to imagine. The research position was only eight months long, perhaps this accounted for it, however I fully intended never returning home to Australia but guaranteeing myself a further post-doctorate after this, and on ad infinitum, until I assumed I would have met somebody and then the course of my life would take care of itself.
Sylvia and I met in the copy room three weeks into my position. I saw her wedding ring. It was thick, silver, on her right hand, and looked like it had been picked up in Thailand.
‘No one’s here on a Sunday,’ was what Sylvia said, upon seeing me.
It was sweltering. They didn’t turn on the air-conditioning at the weekends. My top was stuck with sweat to my ribs, turned see-through, and I had pulled all my hair off my face.
‘I needed these by tomorrow morning,’ I said.
‘Don’t let me disturb you,’ Sylvia said. She moved to sit atop the desk by the photocopier, sliding the chair out from underneath with her feet, before placing them on the seat. I looked at her legs. They were sturdy and brown, with blond hairs racing all over. I had never seen Sylvia before, but the department was small.
‘Do you have an office here?’
‘No, but I have a key,’ Sylvia said. For a moment it crossed my mind Sylvia was a murderer. But she went on. ‘The machine here works better. So I come in when no one’s around, except.’
‘Well I can’t figure it out,’ I said.
Sylvia hopped off of the desk and came up to stand behind me. Her billowy white shirt leant into the curve of my shoulders. I padded at the screen ineffectually.
‘Where’re you located?’ I asked.
The cognitive and linguistics building was a block over, I think there was a parking lot between the two buildings. Sylvia held her thumb down hard on the part of the screen which said Exit.
‘I know very little about quantum computing,’ she said. ‘Tell me about it.’
I gave Sylvia the simple metaphor I gave to everybody, about pool balls moving across the surface of a pool table. By the end of my story I still couldn’t get the scanner to send things to my email.
‘You should have this,’ I said. Sylvia had moved to lean against another desk in the time I had been speaking about pool.
‘I’m in no rush,’ she said.
‘I have to go meet somebody.’
‘That somebody is very lucky,’ Sylvia said.
I asked Sylvia her name and forgot it immediately. Then I asked her again, and she smirked, and I told her now we’d had a conversation about it I’d always remember.
Sylvia would beat the shit out of me in bed. I would beg her to hurt me and she would oblige, restraining or asphyxiating me with a skill she seemed fed-up with, or played she was. It is unclear to me who first let who know this was desired. With Sylvia I felt I had reached the peak of my life’s sexual becoming. Ten days after I had seen Sylvia in the copy room there was an official start of semester faculty get-together in an airless classroom which was quickly side-stepped by the kind of select group common to all workplaces, those who were young, or who considered themselves knowledgeable in the realm of fun, or however it is decided a good time happens out-of-sight and elsewhere, and I found myself included. We relocated to a bar four blocks from campus, Durk’s. Sylvia had a coy relationship with my supervisor. They were similar in age, about ten years my senior, and seemed to really admire one another. I didn’t know how they had met, but I assumed gradually.
I ended up directly opposite Sylvia at the long table we had sequestered, my supervisor on Sylvia’s other side, and for the first hour Sylvia and I held conversations with anyone other than each other. When we did finally face one another, however, it was with the air that this was the moment we had been building toward, as if the muscles in my neck had been straining against their proper angles all evening.
‘So, you build computers,’ Sylvia said. Everything Sylvia ever said was something levelled against me. I had to climb up and out each time; this was our dynamic.
‘I don’t build computers,’ I said.
‘What do they do? Make the calculator work even faster?’
‘No, I,’ I laughed at Sylvia. ‘Quantum computers don’t deal with stuff that regular computers do. So comparing them is,’ I stopped. ‘I don’t build them. I make,’ I steered around, seeing I couldn’t win the conversation anyway. ‘predictions. I make predictions about what they will do.’
By the end of our second meeting Sylvia was making another joke, the guise that I was too drunk to walk myself home. I was drunk. My arms felt tingly and any time I moved it was like great birds shuffling their wings in my chest. We meandered for twenty minutes past the high school, through the park and down the alley.
At the stairs to my door Sylvia said, ‘So you should invite me up for coffee.’
‘Oh that’s how they do those things,’ I said.
‘I’m married,’ Sylvia said.
She did come up for coffee. I boiled my kettle and made Sylvia a cup of tea. She sat down on my bed. There wasn’t anywhere else in the apartment to sit. I sat beside her. I did not want my drink, the china was scolding my palms, and I placed it on the floor quickly. Sylvia and I spoke for a little while and then, at some point—I was drunk—Sylvia lent back onto my mattress, her boots still planted on the floor, and started talking about music. I was clumsy with music, uneducated in the subject, and I leant back hesitantly, staring up at the ceiling with her, but also curving my cheek in toward her. It was a staccato-ey kind of conversation as a result, and when Sylvia mentioned a band I reached forward to get my phone, then lay back to google the name with her, and together we learnt that the band had played a show in Providence that very evening. It was too late now, but in my mind I pretended we discovered this earlier, and had gone to the show, and I thought about how serendipity could have led to something significant, and that it would have made a great story if Sylvia and I ever ended up together.
‘Are we going to have sex?’ Sylvia said. She was already starting to move her body upwards.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said, placing my elbows out to leverage myself.
‘No. Then I should go,’ Sylvia said, but before I could move my body up along with hers, she rolled over on top of me and kissed me, and we did not have sex, and then she did eventually leave, around midnight.
Because we worked together—if tangentially—Sylvia and I had our own set of friends. This was also in keeping with Gatsby, and any time I was drunk and looking across a table at Sylvia I felt full of debauchery. I had escaped the Australian winter for the end of New England summer, the air rose heady and smelt like flowers, though I didn’t know much about flowers either, and I felt everybody present was happy Sylvia and I were together. Sylvia would wrap an arm around me, or kiss me (full on my mouth) and it was like Daisy did not exist, or she did, but in a locality separate to the one my colleagues and I partied in. Ignorance is bliss wasn’t a perfect analogy for what was happening between Daisy and I, but at that stage of my life I was using stories to explain things like this, until I discovered they broke down, somewhere. On these nights I’d arch my face up to the sky and close my eyes, my brain swashing to the back of my head, and all the scenes I’d ever seen in movies of kids standing in their sunroofs screaming and waving, while another friend drove them recklessly along a highway, occurred to me.
Not that I was having a good time. The silences between when Sylvia wanted to conduct our affair had me over my toilet with uncomfortable bowel movements. I was not determining the fate of my own existence. Once, I vomited, waiting for her. It was odd my body responded this way, inasmuch as I could see Sylvia was very quickly in love with me, whereas I had only ever been in love once before. In retrospect, it might have been that I wanted to do something for which there was no possible explanation. I have one photo of Sylvia and I during this time. You cannot see my face because it is turned to Sylvia, but Sylvia is looking at me, and her eyes are crumbly and indistinct under the weight of her own adoration.
One afternoon I learnt an important lesson while I waited for Sylvia, which I have called upon ever since. It was a painful afternoon where I lay in my bed, jumping up to the toilet regularly, certain something was about to come out (nothing ever did), and guaranteeing myself Sylvia would arrive within the next fifteen minutes. Then an entire hour would pass, and I’d have to re-evaluate and cross-out the assumptions I’d been living under, and re-determine Sylvia would arrive within the next fifteen minutes, and so on. It was after two and a half hours, listening to the tinkling of keys as others accessed their apartments, or the scraping of footsteps, the way a car door was shut, and thinking that must be Sylvia when it wasn’t, when I realized there was no point questioning sounds for the person you wanted to arrive. When the person you wanted did arrive it was always very definitely them; they made sounds of irrefutable proof, and all their steps had purpose which you knew, instantly, as soon as you heard them, was zeroed in on you. So it was when Sylvia finally approached my door at approximately ten past three p.m., and entered without knocking.
‘Hi,’ I said, propped up against my pillows, trying to look like I hadn’t been waiting all day.
Sylvia didn’t say anything but wheeled around, dumping her bag which I could see was full of marking (she made her students submit everything in paper format) and crossed into the kitchen, where I heard her open the fridge then shut it again.
‘You don’t have anything,’ she called.
I tried to imagine Sylvia at home with Daisy. Now I was in the picture I wondered if I had turned their house into a place where words were thrown around with great energy, if I was missing out on colorfully-lit arguments in gorgeous, stately houses—I saw stained-glass windows and wind billowing through curtains in one end, out the other as in Gatsby—which Sylvia then closed the door on any time she came to see me.
Sylvia would bring me things from her home, things I assumed she and Daisy no longer needed, like linen sheets, which I slept in without feeling the least bit strange. Life was one great experiment. The sheets were an expensive, raw fabric, not soft, but inside them I felt very clean, cool and alone, and close to nature. I thought of Mrs. Wilson in the hotel room, Tom drinking his alcohol in silent fury, and how he made these accommodations to align the comfort of his second life as closely to his first. That day Sylvia brought me a set of knives.
‘Give me money,’ she said, handing me the box. The knives had never been opened.
‘I can’t use this,’ I said. I wanted the knives. The handles were a severe, polished red. ‘They’re brand new.’
‘We got multiple sets at our wedding,’ Sylvia said. ‘We forgot to update the registry. Give me money. A dime will do. It’s bad Feng Shuai.’
I knew this already, that to gift knives was apparently to ask to have somebody cut from your life, unless the receiver gave something in return. Something exotic grew in my chest fast and briefly, the idea that Sylvia would be forcibly removed from my life, and I would get the beautiful knives. But I handed Sylvia a dime.
was glad Sylvia had chosen me, and thanked me for what I brought to their marriage.
This is what Sylvia said to me, when I asked what Daisy thought of our
arrangement. Part of their agreement was that Sylvia told Daisy the details of the
sex we had together, and when Sylvia had described the cane she bought then
used on me, Sylvia said Daisy had looked incredulous, and asked, ‘She likes to
be hit?’ This sentiment, combined with Daisy’s gladness at Sylvia’s having
chosen me, led me to believe Daisy lived on some shelf I could not aspire to,
let alone shake. It sickened me, a little, to think of Daisy hearing the
intricacies of my kinks with wide-eyed curiosity and no animosity, that Sylvia
and I could share nothing private, and that though I prized my intelligence
above all else this was of no threat nor interest to Daisy. I thought of Sylvia
and Daisy at home together, I pictured them always in the kitchen, which I
imagined as white and rustic wood, as Daisy was photographed in similar sets in
all her books. I saw Daisy’s sure hand coming down on a chopping board as
Sylvia talked her through her days in the city with me, and Daisy prepared their
dinner, her face thoughtful, except when she laughed, her two perfect dimples
the ends of an elastic-band smile.
‘Why won’t you leave her?’ I asked Sylvia, once.
It was a Friday afternoon. Our arrangement had been going twelve weeks. Sylvia wouldn’t see me at the weekends. She and Daisy were headed to a musical performance that evening, cutting our time together short. We were lying atop the sheets on my bed, not having gotten properly inside them before Sylvia fucked me. Sylvia stayed laying down, and I turned to face her on the pillow. Sylvia’s lips were thin, not at all decorative, in keeping with the little allegiance she held to mine and Daisy’s shared femininity, I thought. Sylvia’s mouth slackened and puckered as she tried and discarded words invisibly, her tongue making strange appearances on the cusp of her lips before it receded again.
‘I need someone simple and kind,’ Sylvia said inevitably. She enunciated the words slowly, as if each word belonged to another language, one not capable of expressing many things. ‘I have not thought of having someone for their mind.’
‘Why not?’ I said.
‘Daisy and I look after each other,’ Sylvia said. She was not comfortable, and I could not understand what Sylvia did for Daisy. I thought then that maybe Sylvia made up for the brains in their relationship, like Sylvia and Daisy were actually two sides of the same coin, and that though I might have had things in common with Sylvia, this was not the kind of recognition she looked for.
‘I love Daisy very deeply, and I will never leave her.’
When Sylvia left (at four thirty p.m.) I video-chatted my mother. It was her Saturday morning and she was in her ratty blue dressing gown. She looked old and unattractive. I knew I was going to age along those same lines, and I felt very sad, and not ugly, but that I would one day be ugly, and I needed to do something about it. I had terrific welts along my backside from where Sylvia had flogged me and in some places the blood vessels had burst and snaked to the surface of my skin, like a cartoon earthquake right before the land gives way.
‘Sylvia just left,’ I told my mother.
‘Oh! I should’ve never let you out into the world,’ she said.
My mother’s face was bobbing in my screen as she prepared a cup of tea. As she wrangled the kettle her phone flicked upward and I saw the hard corners of her kitchen ceiling. I always wanted very much for my mother to unpack my romantic entanglments with me, and to be wise and understanding, and to tell me what to do, but she guided me only by speaking about that which she felt was important, and ignoring the rest.
‘How’s your supervisor?’ she said.
Nowadays I only thought about my supervisor in the context of Sylvia, and any time my supervisor and I were alone together I felt my relationship with Sylvia like a large, colorful animal, not disturbing anything, but just an obvious fact of every room. I tried to explain what we were up to. I told my mother in order to understand she needed to think of electrons like two people who had never met but remain utterly connected, or even as an alien on Mars wholly dependent on the birth of a baby sparrow in Norway. It was strange, but I was someone for whom the language of quantum mechanics had never been any bother.
‘It all seems utterly strange,’ my mother said, agreeing with me.
There was one day I saw Daisy. I was not due in my office until three p.m., and I had spent the morning scuttling around my apartment, half-doing my work and half-not, because Sylvia had said she would collect me at lunch, and we would walk back to the university together. I made assumptions, crossed them out, and inevitably left my door ajar as if my apartment were throwing a party. Once it was down to the wire (2:30 p.m.) I flopped face forward onto my bed and pulled out my phone, deciding to read the entire history of Sylvia and my text message exchange. This is how both Sylvia and Daisy found me, my bum poking into the air, when they entered fifteen minutes later.
‘Look who came with me,’ Sylvia said.
If I was surprised to see Daisy, I do not remember it. Instead I watched her cross the threshold of my apartment, like all was natural, and it seemed in that moment Daisy must live a life of very sweet, brave terror, and that we could only look at one another like a film had been placed over both our eyes, and this film was made up of Sylvia, and of the shared womanhood between Daisy and I, and of the three of us there together, and, for me, Gatsby.
Daisy was exquisite in a different way to me, with red hair which would be called ‘wild’ or ‘flaming’ in a story, though it wasn’t and hair rarely is, and naturally darkened as it reached her waist—it looked like it had never seen bleach or color a day in its life—and she had eyes shaped like insightful, little almonds but were a cool-green in color, the whites of her eyes white as fresh sheets, and all of her the clean brightness of people who are healthy. She had large, flat feet which were wrapped in leather sandals.
‘I came to use your bathroom,’ she said to me.
She was serene as she spoke, her voice the kind of light and airy that instantly made me think of the quality of my skin and my cheeks. Her voice was like a magnetic pole of the earth, and like two same magnets her voice could not touch the ground where I was, but only float above it. I came to see my wife’s whore, she said.
‘Of course,’ I said. The apartment was tiny. No one needed to direct her.
Even though I was calm my mind must have been full, because I have wracked my brain since this day and I cannot remember hearing the toilet flush. Now I live my life picturing beautiful Daisy standing dainty and straight as a ballerina in my dingy bathroom, the mirror of which I never wiped once, not using the toilet but measuring the appropriate number of seconds it takes to use the toilet, while Sylvia and I eyed one another, and also spoke of normal things, like university.
We all walked down the steps of my apartment together. Sylvia and Daisy’s car was parked out front. Daisy did not look back at me. Once the car was in sight I could see Daisy had vanished me from all her thoughts, unlocking her door and climbing in, moving things from the driver’s seat which had nothing to do with me. And Sylvia now had body language only for me, and like our bodies for the rest of the afternoon Sylvia and my fates were tuned in to one another, and soon Daisy would disappear back to wherever she came from. None of it would last. Sylvia and Daisy would stay together. For months it would seem like I was learning nothing, but then one day I would look back and realize my thinking was different. I would return home, four years from then, single, after another post-doctorate at MIT, and then a fellowship in Albuquerque, but in Australia I would meet somebody, somebody almost immediately, somebody who had been in my orbit since my mid-twenties and it would work, because when it was love, it was easy.
‘Drive safely,’ I called to Daisy.
Amarlie Foster is an MFA candidate in fiction and teacher at the University of New Mexico. She grew up in Australia and is published in several Australian literary journals. Amarlie is currently working on a book of short stories. You can find Amarlie on Instagram and Twitter @amarlief