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JOANNA
RAFAEL
GOLDBERG

2 STORIES








1.



    ALMA MAHLER
    ATTENDS A PARTY
    THROWN BY OSKAR KOKOSHKA
    FOR HIS SEX-DOLL






The invitation made the plans explicitly clear. My ex, though I loathed to call him that and thereby legitimize the brief and embarrassing affair I had with the Austrian painter, was hosting a party to celebrate the loving partnership he has forged with a life size anatomical double of me. I'd skip the event altogether if I had thought my absence would be felt, but I needed to go flaunt my realness as a reminder to everyone of the true Alma Mahler.

Part of me was thankful that he had moved on, but another part wanted him to be infatuated with me forever. Every creepy move of his somehow validated my lovability. For years, whenever I felt lonely and unkind and disgusting and unlovable; at least, I thought, Oskar loved me, as disgusting and annoying and not for me as he was. For awhile after we broke up, I'd let him see me sporadically. I would make eyes at him like he was something I loved to see and not a homely little creep whose kisses I’d wipe off my mouth. For a long time, those intermittent teasing glances reactivated his affection. Then he got the new Alma.

As soon as he got the mannequin, Oskar had stopped bothering me with expressions of loving devotion and suicidal threats. He had my double commissioned by a master doll maker I had never met. Hermine Moos based the dummy on a few pictures of me. Until the party, I had never seen what the doll looked like, but I’d heard about her through Oskar and my mutual friends. His new relationship was the talk of our community.

The evening of his soiree, I walked onto his driveway, taking fawn-like little steps on cripplingly uncomfortable dress shoes. As I approached his house, I heard live music in full swing from inside. The song playing was familiar. The coat check girl had already taken my stole when I realized the hired quartet was performing my composition. Over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, party goers mingled. They talked about Oskar’s new girlfriend, the other Alma, as though she was real person and not a toy. I schmoozed a bit, but resisted the urge to bad-mouth the new literal object of my ex-lover’s affection. I did not make a peep about her until I spoke to the host himself.

From a large mirror with a gold frame on one side of the room, I watched him bask and glow in all the attention. When he saw me looking, he excused himself from a conversation with one of his collectors and started toward me. From behind, he placed a hand on my lower back. I turned around to kiss him on one cheek and then the other, speaking instead of pulling back from the embrace.

“Where's the lady of the hour? She whom you did all this for?” I said, making eye contact with my own reflection.

“She'll be down soon.” He crooned.

“I can’t wait to meet her.”

“She’s a treat. Everyone adores her.”

“Yeah?” I took the toothpick out of his martini and slid two olives and a cocktail onion into my mouth.

“Alma treats me so kindly. She doesn't leave when I fall asleep.” Was he praising her or criticizing me for leaving his house whenever he passed out?

“Dance with me,” I snarled into his ear with my briny mouth full of his garnishes. A waiter took my empty glass on a round tray and I put my empty hands over Oskar’s shoulders and sunk a little of my weight onto him.

He said “no” and “excuse me” and he held up an index finger when he walked away from me, like I was nobody and not a woman he stalked and obsessed over, like I was anybody and not the original Alma.

Two or three cocktails later, the party split into two sides of the room to make an aisle down the center. The lights dimmed and ushers lit flashlights to direct our attention to a dumbwaiter. Proud as a parent, Oskar stood outside the little door to the elevator, brandishing in one hand a big untarnished skeleton key he must have had made just for the occasion and a magnum bottle of champagne in the other.

“She has arrived.” He said. Then he turned around and stuck the key in the lock. He twisted it and pulled the door open. A light glowed inside the dumbwaiter, illuminating the other Alma. There she was, my alleged likeness slumped over, all gussied up like a Christmas Goose.

Imagining Oskar writhing in bed with the thing made me chortle. I did not stifle my laughter and the other guests, some my friends and colleagues, looked at me in horror. He was always overly romantic. The last time I let him have sex with me, face to face, one of his tears dropped into my mouth. I wished it had been sweat.

“It’s not a wake!” I rolled my eyes at one of Oskar’s expressionist friends.

The other Alma looked nothing like me. If I had found that doll maker in the crowd of that party, I would have scratched her face. This attempt at anatomically cloning me was offensively bad. Hair two shades too dark. Massive arms. The cheekbones all wrong. And the ass? This thing had feathers on her bottom half.

Oskar lifted her into his arms like he was lifting a toddler. He closed his eyes and looked elated as he twirled her onto the dance floor. They danced to the music I wrote and the other guests looked on with swollen hearts. They murmured and gasped.

“Isn't she beautiful?”

“You can just tell they’re in love.”

“I love her gown!”

She was wearing a poorly sewn knockoff of my own. No one had complimented my dress all night.

I continued to drink and danced with everyone who agreed to dance with me. The party had not slowed down, but I moved outside to have a cigar I snuck out of Wilhelm, a conductor friend’s pocket for some serenity. The garden had been decorated with thousands of white tea candles. I tipped one over and let the wax drip on my wrist. The white wax solidified on my skin. I held my hand over a flame to get the wax to melt again, but then, the music stopped. The glass doors from inside opened and all the guests moved into the garden. Oskar and the other Alma demanded all eyes again.

He propped her up on a rattan chair and grabbed another magnum bottle of champagne that had been hidden away for this moment. Using his teeth, Oskar removed the cork and let the froth spew out, wetting his tuxedo as he filled the flutes of the guests nearest to him and the other Alma. The last few drops were reserved for me. Instead of pouring them into a glass, Oskar put the bottle in my mouth, pushing past my lips until the neck punched the back of my throat and I gagged. He tilted the dark glass magnum up until foam burned my nostrils, but I choked back as much as I could.

Once it was empty, Oskar raised the bottle up into air and struck down over the other Alma’s head. Like a child behaving badly, deliberately hoping to be caught, he looked up at his audience with a grin before turning around and hitting her again. Feathers flurried around the air as though we were witnessing a pillow fight. He did not stop when her skin cracked off. He did not stop when her stuffing started showing. He stopped pummeling her with the bottle once she no longer retained a human shape, but was just a pile of pink material covered tenuously in a black dress. Finally, I could see the resemblance.








2.


    VALENTINE






I took a pair of scissors out of a bin marked “medical waste,” bloodied, probably from a previous patient’s visit and cut my shirt down the front from collar to bottom hem. Using a sharpie, I drew a dotted line in the shape of a heart under my left breast.

The doctor knocked, so I hopped on the table and presented myself splayed flat on my back.

“My darling needs a new heart,” I told the doctor.

My ex boyfriend’s heart was broken. I had shredded it myself using another man’s hand and was dead set on getting him a new one. The squashing of his was a mistake I had desperately tried to apologize for. I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew exactly what I was doing. It could never happen again. What had I done? My darling would not let me mend the one I damaged. He swatted away attempts I made at repairing the break. Eventually I stopped picking at his scabs and scar tissue had already started to develop around what could not be unbroken.

The doctor rolled up his sleeves, exposing a Sailor Jerry style tattoo on his forearm of a sexy World War II nurse poised to administer a big injection. The good doctor washed his hands.

“This one should do.” I tapped my ribs, “I don’t need it. It’s vestigial.”

After a few tests, the doctor called me on the telephone.

“You might be a match,” He broke the bad news, “but the recipient denied the need for an operation.”

He hung up. So, I performed the surgery myself to harvest the private donation.

I prepped for open heart surgery the way I would have had I been going into a procedure approved by the medical community: I did not eat the night before. I removed my nail polish. I cleaned my body with antibacterial soap. Without proper surgical tools, I used what I had on hand, his multitool that he, at the time, had yet to ask me to give back.

Focused and emotionally estranged as a real surgeon, I was able to see my heart as an object and not part of what made me a human person. My emotional condition worked more effectively at numbing me than local anesthetic ever could. Carving the heart out was easy; I had already lost feeling in the area. The membrane that stretched between the outside world and my insides proved to be so delicate that I just had to make a few nicks here and there and the heart popped out with little coaxing from the tongs. I placed it on ice to rest while I packed my gaping area using a crispy old come rag in lieu of gauze.

My heart was still beating. The organ twitched and convulsed, expanding and contracting furiously. Big. Small. Big. Small. So slippery, it wriggled out of my hands when I picked it up from the ice, and quickly scooped it up off the floor. I put my lips together and blew on the side that had touched the ground, but it tumbled out again. The fall had woken my heart from a snoring slumber in a temperamental mood. The crabby little thing did not want to cooperate. My heart was strong and upset with me.

As we wrestled, I held it as far away from me as I could while trying to keep it still. It yanked me around the room. One moment, I thought I had a handle on it and then the heart jerked out of my hands and launched itself at my head, knocking me to the ground and bouncing toward the exit. On my hands and knees, I raced it to the door. It almost made its way out before I pinned it down, but I nailed the slimy blob to the rug. It squirmed in my clutches until it tuckered itself out. The beat calmed from frenetic spasms to infrequent pulsations gentle enough I could lovingly swaddle my donation in paper like a butcher packs cuts of meat for the market.

Blood pooled in the corners of package, spattering red juice on the floor from my house and all the way to the post office. My hands left red smudges on everything I touched. Dried blood stained my cuticles even after I washed my hands.

My new valentine shaped hole stung. I had forgotten about pain killers and antiseptic entirely. I opted to ignore the potential for infection and avoided tending to my wound right away, too consumed with what was no longer beating in my darling’s chest to care about my own.

When the package was out for delivery, I waited in the bushes to spy. I was so eager to see his face when he opened his parcel to find a heart just for him. The postman rang twice and he signed for it expressionless. Along with a small stack of letters, he took the brown paper package inside and opened it privately.

Through the open curtains of his kitchen window, I can see my heart on his counter, out of the wax paper and onto a cutting board. It’s sitting there like an untouched refreshment at a sex party. If he wasn’t going to use it right away, he could have at least popped it in the freezer or put it on display in a bell jar. He needed to decide what to do with it quickly or it would bleed out; it would stop beating for him.

Instead of acknowledging the gift with a phone call or thank you note or a wet kiss on the lips, he just toyed with it for awhile. He had a catch with himself, tossing it up and down and up and down, then he added two-three-four yellow apples and juggled all five at once. He took it outside and used it as a lawn bowling ball, he put it between his lower back and the wall and used it to massage out a knot. When he put it down his pants, I felt a little hopeful.

The sun went down, he and my heart retired to his living room. I crawled around the outside of his house from window to window to get the best view. My newest vantage point, is obscured through shutters. Although my eyes strained at the angle, I could see the blur of my heart as it vibrated on his lap. He was treating it like a purring kitten. I couldn't stand to look at him anymore. I sulked home.

My bell rang once some time after I got home. I ran as fast as I could, straight to answer the door, but my darling was not at my doorstep. He had ding-dong ditched my heart on the porch swing. Afloat in a baggy like a carnival goldfish my heart bobbed up and down in the water. The organ had undergone significant changes since I had seen it last. I brought it inside for inspection.

It exhibited many symptoms of death: color change, temperature plummet, no beat. There were rug burns and bite marks and lesions all over. At once it was crusty and wet. It had started to stink. No one would want to use it now. I untied the bag and dumped the contents into the sink. Too large to fit in the drain, I had to force it down deep enough with a fork like scraps of a meal I did not finish. I flicked the switch for the garbage disposal, the only kitchen appliance originally intended to grind up corpses. One grinding whir pulverized my rotting heart into bits puny enough to be washed into the sewage system.

There was no obituary for my heart, no funeral, no one sent flowers. I grapple with the grief in private. I might say I am doing swell, but I am not—I am not faring well at all. I am not right. Although I have healed with minimal cosmetic scarring, normal sensation never returned to the area and I am still internally defective.

While I healed from surgery, I did not do much except starve myself and stare at relics, celluloid and love letters, from when I was capable of love. Since recovering, my ribcage has been an archive for my departed heart, inaccessible unless I want to unstitch my scars and reopen myself to more complications.

Without a heart to pump vigor through me, I have become unprovokable, unflinching. I am lacking. I have nothing to race, nothing to flutter, nothing to skip a beat. Save from the intermittent phantom murmurs, the only sensation I have is a haunting of disappointment that keeps me clammy and stiff like ungloved hands in a blizzard.

The aching numb is quieter and less violent than the heamorrhage had been. I do not miss shrieking and crying, but I miss missing him. I am missing something that cannot be replaced. Human hearts cannot grow back. There is no viable substitute, just that one and only.






Joanna Goldberg lives and writes in New York City.





2017.