On their first date, a so-called blind one, Megan took Gregory by the hand and he let her. She led him into a space afflicted with mood lighting and for a moment he though it must be a bar, a remarkably empty one, but no, it was not a bar but an art gallery. Or, rather, the cloakroom of a gallery, with a row of hooks on the left wall of the narrow room. On those hooks were a series of what he thought were sweaters but which, as his eyes adjusted, he realized were shirts. So, maybe not a cloakroom after all. She was tugging at his hand, pulling him forward and then he was there, glimpsing beside the row of hanging shirts a small, unobtrusive card glued to the wall. He bent down, squinted. “Shirts.” read the card.
But she was already heading through the doorway and what, blind date or no, could he do but follow? So he followed, out of that room and into the next. The same narrow room, the same series of hooks, nothing hanging from them this time. And there, just there, just beyond, another unobtrusive card. “No shirts.” it read.
Correct, he thought, ludicrously.
There she went, heels clopping. Why had she worn heels? It was a blind date but they had agreed to a casual date, during daylight hours. Didn’t casual preclude heels? Was she the kind of girl who would wear heels on a casual date or was she on a different sort of date than he was?
He followed. Same room, same row of hooks, a few shirts scattered on them. With dread, he moved toward the small white card. “Some shirts.” it read.
What the fuck? he wondered.
She had circled back and caught hold of his hand, and now tugged him forward, through a door at the far end of the room, one with a metal bar in the middle of it. She pushed down the metal bar and an alarm went off, screeching, and he stopped, but no, she dragged him through. And then they were out in an alley behind the gallery, blinking in the sunlight. A man was sprawled there, in a mound of trash. He was wearing a coat, zipped closed despite the heat, and a pair of mismatched sneakers, but had no pants. His flaccid penis curved sleepily to one side. Shirt or no shirt? Gregory wondered about him. With the coat, he couldn’t tell.
He looked for a white card. He turned to her, confused. “Is this part of the exhibit?” he asked.
He was surprised when Megan became happy, inordinately so. “Yes,” she said, her face lighting up in a broad smile, “exactly!”
A week later they had moved in together. Gregory couldn’t help but feel that their relationship had been established on a misunderstanding. He still couldn’t figure out what had happened at the gallery exactly, nor behind it, nor why the sequence as a whole had led to him having what could only be described as profound difficulty asserting his own personality and desires when he was with her. It was as if, their relationship having gotten off on a particular foot, the other foot—the more independent, healthier one—had been lopped off, and so now he had to hop. Not just the foot, he sometimes thought, but the whole leg. When he was with her, there was less of him and what was there she was somehow in charge of.
She was older than him as it turned out, though she had lied about her age when they had first met, and, indeed, continued to lie about it. But he had glimpsed her proper age, the year anyway, on her driver’s license when she had been buying liquor at the grocery store. Her age wasn’t, he told himself, a problem in and of itself except to the degree that she felt entitled to run the relationship. For it was she who decided where they would go, what they would have for dinner, how they would spend their day. When they had decided to move in together it had been, in fact, she who had decided they would move in together. And he, even though a part of his mind was screaming the whole time at him to run, had simply gone along with it.
Have I always been like this? he wondered. Passive? That, as much as anything, was what worried him. But no, he didn’t think so. He’d had relationships in the past. They had, admittedly, all been bad—or at least had all ended badly. But he’d been able to assert himself, to make his will known. For instance, in those other relationships he hadn’t, as he now did in this relationship, taken up running because she ran every morning and simply took it for granted he would too. He hadn’t, as he did now, been willing to sit for two or even three hours at a stretch watching marathons of a formulaic and unbearable dramedy about a perky New Yorker who moves to Alabama on a channel inexplicably called “the CW”. The whole time he had felt himself going crazy inside. What is this relationship doing to me? he wondered. What will be left of me once it’s done?
“You’re the best,” she said, during the commercial break, leaning over and stroking his cheek in a way that made him want to flinch. “You’re my favorite boyfriend ever.” A part of him tried to smile weakly back at her, but it hardly mattered; the commercial had ended and her eyes were already glued to the screen.
On their six-month anniversary, over a dinner that she had chosen the recipes for but insisted he make, she brought up the art show again. Now that he’d lived with her as long as he had, he had an even harder time understanding why she’d taken him to it. It didn’t fit, at least to his mind, with the other sorts of things that she liked. They hadn’t gone to a gallery together since.
“Wasn’t it wild?” she was saying, “I mean: shirts?”
“Umm,” he said.
“And that guy, in the back, his junk all out?”
“I,” said Gregory, and straightened. “Was he an actor? Was he part of the show?”
She laughed, in a way that he had rapidly come to think of as forced. “Yes, exactly,” she said.
Yes? Exactly? What did that even mean? he wondered. A dull rage began to rise in him. He seemed liked such a nice, normal guy, he imagined the neighbors saying. But then he just snapped. He lifted his wine glass and drained it. When he reached for the bottle, she playfully batted his hand away.
“Slow down, cowboy,” she said, and smiled glubbily. It was like being smiled at by a mudskipper.
He was not a cowboy. Why would she call him that? When she got up to powder her nose, he poured himself another glass, filled almost to the brim. By the time she was back at the table, she had managed to drain it.
It was that, probably, the wine. And drinking it so fast. Before he knew it, he was talking, parts of himself coming out that she had until then kept battened in. “I didn’t like it,” he said.
She snorted. “You cooked it,” she said. “It’s your own fault.”
“No,” he said, “not that. The art show.”
For just a moment he saw the naked hurt in her face, but it was quickly gone, submerged beneath a more practiced expression.
“You loved it,” she said.
“I hated it,” he claimed. “I really hated it.”
“No you didn’t,” she said, her lips pressed in a line.
“You’ve had too much to drink, and now you’re saying things you don’t mean.”
“You’re just being mean,” she said. “And on our anniversary too.”
He stared at her, confused. No, he knew, he was being honest, much more so than he’d been through the rest of the relationship. Was he? Or maybe she was right—she was always right, in the end. Maybe—
“I want to break up,” he managed, while he could still speak his mind.
“No,” she said.
“You heard me,” she said. “No.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, voice faltering. “I don’t want to? Or that I can’t break up with you?”
“Both,” she said.
In the morning, he had awakened, head throbbing, and stumbled downstairs where she was already sitting at the table, sipping her coffee. He sat down beside her, ready to be scolded, but she pretended like nothing had happened. Instead, she proceeded to recount a glowing version of their six-month anniversary the night before that had, he knew, no resemblance to what had actually happened. This scared him much worse than her anger would have. She had already started to shape the event, make it what she wanted it to be, kill what it actually had been.
Just as she had shaped him, and would continue to do so, he knew, until they reached the point where he wouldn’t recognize himself at all.
“Your turn to cook breakfast,” she said.
It was always his turn to cook breakfast. And always, he knew, would be.
It was like looking at his life through a smaller and smaller window. Like he was watching it but helpless to control anything. In the end, he couldn’t help but think, it would be like she was having a relationship with some sort of version of herself as he tapped his finger on a tiny but thick pane of soundproof glass, calling silently for help.
He needed friends, friends would help. But he didn’t have any friends. As a couple they had friends, true, but these were really her friends—she hadn’t found his friends suitable. It was as if she had carefully and systematically trimmed away everything that he was connected to except for her.
But why couldn’t he be honest with her? Wasn’t that his fault? And now it had gone on so long that it was impossible for him to end it. How could he end it? Just say, “Megan, I’ve been unhappy since the moment I met you” and then walk out? What did that say about him, the fact that he’d allowed her to go not only for days but for months—and now years—without revealing to her his real feelings?
No, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it—and even if he did, she’d just say “no” and go on pretending that they were still in a relationship, as if nothing had actually happened.
She was older. Maybe she would die first. Maybe he’d even get a few years to himself, eventually, three or four decades from now.
During the fourth year of their relationship, she let him know that they were engaged and lifted her hand to show him the ring she had taken the liberty of buying on his behalf (“I have the receipt here; you can pay me back in installments if need be”).
“We’ll get married in the spring,” she said. “I’ve always wanted a spring wedding.”
But I don’t want to be married to you at all, Gregory thought, but said nothing.
A day later she arrived at the apartment with a huge stack of bridal magazines, and demanded he sit with her as she went through them one by one. He dutifully did. He even tried to make comments, until she made it clear that it was not his job to make comments. His job was just to sit and listen, not to react.
Kill me now, he thought, as he had thought many times over the last four years.
“Oh, and look!” she said, finishing one magazine and lifting it away to reveal a blue flyer between it and the magazine below it. She passed it to him. A name he didn’t recognize, dates, a location.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s our artist,” she said, and squeezed his hand. “The one you took me to on our first date. He’s back in town—new show. We’re going!”
All the way to the gallery she babbled on. It’s the same artist! It’s like renewing our relationship! Was it the same show? he wanted to know—or didn’t want to know exactly, but felt he had to say something. But no, of course it wasn’t the same show, she told him—how could it be? Don’t be an idiot. But it would be even better! Just as their relationship had matured and become even better.
He felt a growing sense of dread. She held his hand, dragged him along.
And then they were there, going through the door. She had been right: it wasn’t the same show as before, not exactly, but it was close enough. That same initial dark, narrow room. A series of hooks with dim shapes on them—a little higher on the wall. He thought: Shirts. But no, as his eyes adjusted, he realized that they weren’t shirts after all—the shape was wrong and they were too long. He reached out and touched one and found it soft and dry to the touch. Leather. Where was the card? There it was. “Skins.” it read.
He turned back to the hooks with a sort of wonder. It was like a series of men had peeled off their skins and then hung them up. Where were—but she was giggling, pulling him forward and out.
The same narrow room, but no hooks this time, only a series of statues of men, complete except for the fact that they had been flayed. “No skins.” read the card. Or maybe not statues after all. Were they real, bodies preserved somehow? He wanted to think they were, but didn’t know why. Megan was still laughing and giggling and now had taken him by the hand again and was tugging him on. It was like she was not seeing what he was seeing, like she was in a completely different exhibit altogether. Or as if she had already decided what the experience was going to be and was enjoying that instead of what was actually there.
Her heels clattered against the floor as she walked. A third room, just as narrow. A sequence: hook with skin, body, hook with skin, body, hook with skin. Skin tingling, he moved toward the small white card. “Some skins.”
Yes, he thought, exactly.
She was gesturing back to him, moving toward a door at the far end of the room, one with a metal bar in the middle of it. Fire exit, he thought.
“Come on,” she said.
“Right behind you,” he said, and when he took a few steps toward her, she pushed at the bar and opened the door. An alarm went off. Light poured in and then she was through. As soon as she was, he pulled the door shut from the inside. He was alone.
Her heard the sound of her trying to open it. A moment later she began to pound on the door, calling his name. Slowly he backed away from the door and faced the skins, the bodies. He reached out.
She would find him eventually. He knew that, sure, he wasn’t fool enough to think he was free. But for a moment at least he could pretend, could enjoy the glorious feeling of crouching alone beneath someone else’s skin. Maybe it would give him something to look back on. Maybe it would give him enough to sustain him through at least one or two of the long and bitter years to come.
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Brian Evenson is the author of a dozen books of fiction, most recently the story collection A COLLAPSE OF HORSES (Coffee House Press 2016) and the novella THE WARREN (Tor.com 2016). He has also recently published WINDEYE (Coffee House Press 2012) and IMMOBILITY (Tor 2012), both of which were finalists for a Shirley Jackson Award. His novel LAST DAYS won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009. His novel THE OPEN CURTAIN (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship. His work has been translated into Czech, French, Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Persian, Russia, Spanish, Slovenian, and Turkish. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.