The house is quieter than you’d imagine for how many people are inside of it. The women keep looking over their shoulders like actresses waiting for whispered lines from off stage. They smile at each other constantly, whenever they meet another pair of eyes. It sets off a chain reaction of teeth unveiling across the room, their budding maroon and coral and cherry red lips blooming into fresh grins.
Finger food and desserts lay untouched on the table: gleaming fondant and stacked pastel macrons and a board of cheese spiraled into an eye, with buttery crackers as its frame. They all know how to cook and arrange food into art and praise each other’s work, but they don’t know how to eat.
A flock of women clusters together around the velvet sofa, not wanting to sit down unless someone else does first. They murmur about the weather even though they haven’t been outside.
“Your dress is divine,” Gigi tells Eleanor, who curtseys in her beaded and fluid flapper dress, its fringe tickling her ankles.
“Thanks, I was born to wear it,” she jokes, and they all titter nervously, unconsciously reaching to touch their own outfits they’d woken up in. “Anyone want to dance?”
They quickly shake their heads, as if even hearing the suggestion makes them complicit.
“Spoil sports,” she pouts.
Their faces have gotten heavier and seeing how threadbare everyone is under the impeccable surface makes Gigi too nervous to stand still and comment on décor and waistlines. She sneaks into the bathroom to breathe where she isn’t on display, running the sink so people will think she’s washing her hands and not sitting fully in the bathtub in her blue crepe dress and suede heels because she feels safe in it.
“I want to go home,” Gigi whispers to herself before laughing out loud because she doesn’t have a home. This house is all she knows and all she’ll ever know unless she can keep her chin up and play her part. She would be happy to stay in the bathtub the rest of the party but that’s not acceptable behavior, so she drags herself out, pats down her dress, and heads back into the lion’s den.
When she enters the room, Eleanor is grabbing a flute glass from the tower of champagne and raising it toward surprised faces. Gigi thinks the alcohol is the biggest test of the evening. Best case scenarios are to leave them untouched and sparkling, or to hold a glass like a prop and sip slowly to display restraint. But showing thirst and sloppiness is impermissible.
Eleanor gestures at someone and liquid spills from her glass onto the carpet and her dress. There’s a hushed gasp that shuffles through the room. She only laughs, a full-bodied one, her head leaning back to make room for the size of it.
“To tell you the truth, girls, I don’t like this dress one bit,” she says, eyes sparkling with mischief. “I’ve only seen the real ones in videos, but I can tell this is a cheap imitation, like a Halloween costume. Some man has poor taste.”
Eleanor begins dancing on her own, slinky and bubbly and clearly enjoying herself. The women pointedly look in other directions. For a while, the party remains settled, the waters tranquil despite Eleanor throwing herself into it like a giant rock. The women are on edge, sharing glances and waiting for the harmony to crack open and spill its guts onto the hardwood. But nothing ever ruptures. There is no shouting or door slamming or dragging her away. She simply moves about the room humming to herself and slurping more champagne, body loosening like the alcohol is eroding her bones.
But not every rift makes a big scene. Sometimes a crack starts small, branches out across the vase until the whole piece looks like it’ll shatter just by looking at it. It’s broken, but there are no pieces on the floor to clean. That’s how it happens with Eleanor. Nothing happens for so long that the women ease up, forget the tension they’d kept in their shoulders, and it isn’t for another hour until they realize Eleanor isn’t at the party anymore.
Gigi notices first, or at least she’s the first one to be obvious about it, whirling her head around and counting the women. When she meets their faces they smile at her on cue, and she wonders if that politeness means anything if it stops there, glistening, performative, and ignoring the loss of one of their own. Smiling instead of biting back.
Heart hammering, she excuses herself to the bathroom to check if Eleanor is there, but it’s empty inside. The women are only allowed in the parlor and kitchen and bathroom. The other rooms and the whole second floor and basement are off limits. They are lambs grazing in a fenced field.
Gigi waits at the bottom of the winding staircase, and it feels like looking up at a long throat, fitting because she needs to find the stomach where the voracious appetite hides in the dark. From where she’s standing, she can only see the living room and part of the kitchen. There are no other doors or closets visible which means no one is watching her. She takes a timid first step and then rushes up the staircase.
At the top, she spots a second bathroom and scurries inside. She doesn’t close the door because it wasn’t closed when she entered, and they’d know she was in there. Gigi backs up while keeping her eyes on the hallway. She has no real plan but figures making brief stops in unattended places will keep a target off her back longer. Once she gathers her courage and is sure there’s no sound at the end of the hallway, she’ll go there next.
The back of her thighs meet the cold porcelain of the bathtub, and as her back presses against the shower curtain, her hair catches on something. When she turns to look, her hair pulls out of whatever clung to it. Long and soft lines of fringe fall onto her shoulder and brush against her neck. She notes a faint scent of champagne. She turns fully and sees Eleanor’s flapper dress flung over the rod like the molted shell of a snake.
Gigi covers her mouth to hold in her gasp. Eleanor was such a loud presence that she can only picture a loud end for her, and her mind cruelly presents a kaleidoscope of Eleanors, every version of her naked and distorted and in agony, one screaming mouth opening into another.
She’s too afraid to leave for several minutes but finally decides she’s in more danger the longer she waits, and she will move quick and tread lightly. She pulls off her heels, hides them in the bathroom closet under a stack of plump towels, and sneaks down the hall. There’s a door that’s slightly ajar at the end. She fits her eye to the thin view and sees tall men with their hands filled with something fleshy. Her first thought is she’s grateful there are only a few men in there, no doubt the fewest needed to deal with their insubordinate so the rest can continue to hover behind doors downstairs. She takes it all in without breathing: the racks of dresses and skirts, the pristine wigs from sleek bobs to tight curls. There are empty spots everywhere and she reaches to touch her own hair, the stiff and precise finger waves on the top and the rolled curls at her neck. Her second thought is the stuff in their hands is fleshy because it is flesh.
One man pours what’s left of Eleanor into a woman-shaped mold and then shuts its lid. He drums his fingers against the metal, as if he is bored. Gigi must look at anything else or she will throw up and get caught. The back wall is covered with television screens. Gigi remembers them from her first day, though the room was empty then. James sat her in front of black and white 1940s films with witty, fast-talking heroines and PSAs where a calm, male narrator instructs women to preserve the charm of dinner by not monopolizing conversation; to not let her socks sag around her ankles because a hair out of place means you are not the type of woman to make a man behave like a human being; to be aware that emotions spread like spores, so if the man of the house is angry, she must not allow for an induction of behavior and become angry too, as it is a violent emotion.
Gigi noticed the fabricated women in the films were cool and sexy and freer than the women depicted in the training videos and was confused by this disparity between silver screen fantasy and what men expected in their homes. The actresses sizzled and the housewives were stifled by rules. James sat with her while she watched, murmuring between videos that these would help make her a much better second wife for him.
In the corner of the room, a man fiddles with towering machinery that’s hooked up to the mold with thick wires. Gigi doesn’t understand the science, how to make and unmake. All she can think about is how much money and intelligence goes to waste within these walls in the service of anger and desperation.
The mold begins to steam, and someone pulls it open to reveal the slabs of skin have been fashioned into a slick and featureless woman, smooth and bald as baby skin. Another man brings over a bucket of sensory parts: eyes and tongues and other wet things. Gigi turns away from the door, feeling woozy. For one moment, she feels too sick to even be scared, but then a hot hand presses against her mouth while the other arm latches around her waist.
“You’re lucky I’m the one who found you,” he whispers, and she recognizes James’ even voice. “Because I like you too much to start over.”
He smells like bourbon, and he presses against her anywhere there’s body. He’s never touched her, at least not the way a man touches a potential wife. If tonight goes well, he’s sure to touch her anywhere and everywhere he wants, but not before she’s proven her respectability.
“If I let you go, will you run back down with the hens and behave yourself?”
Gigi can’t speak with his hand holding her mouth, so she nods. He slides his hand down to hold her shoulder and squeezes it in a way that is outwardly comforting but hurts a little.
“Good. No more missteps. We’re so close. I’ll see you down there,” he says, grinning without including the implied comment that she won’t be seeing him. “Speaking of which, I noticed your posture could use some work, so keep that head up and try not to look so much like a rag doll. Off you go.”
He releases her and Gigi rushes back to the party. If anyone noticed her absence, they don’t show it. She sidles up to Nancy and blurts out that her poodle skirt is gorgeous, eager to get back in the social flow where she can safely tread water. Gigi wishes she could be brave like Eleanor, but when brave meant dead, it was hard to force herself to act against her own interest, even if the shape of life James had in mind for them likely wasn’t worth it.
When he first introduced himself, he explained almost everything. How his first wife had left him for a better job across the country because he wouldn’t leave his career to follow her ambitions. He told Gigi how he’d found a group of men looking for old-fashioned ideals in a woman. He touched the hem of her dress and said he’d always liked the charisma of 40s starlets.
Margarite eyes Gigi’s feet with concerned surprise. Gigi looks down and sees her toes under sheer black pantyhose. She left her heels upstairs. Going back is way too risky, but she knows walking around without shoes is unladylike and she’s meant to stay in her heels the whole night. Disobeying is just as risky. But she looks down again at her bare feet and realizes the lack of heels will make running easier.
She can see the front door isn’t locked and assumes it’s because they anticipate no one would try or get far. The knowledge buzzes through her body until it is all she can hear, the whining sound of a bad idea she doesn’t want to resist. Gigi looks around and feels like she’s in a room of mirrors, all these women reflecting each other. For the first time since she’s been alive, Gigi wonders what women outside the house are like. She catches Margarite’s eye and the woman frowns at whatever Gigi’s expression has morphed into.
“C’mon,” she says quietly but forcefully before hooking her arm around Margarite’s arm and then Nancy’s, simply because they are closest to her, and she pulls them toward the door. She knows it’s stupid to bring anyone along when they would slow her down more than heels. But she if she hadn’t tried to save someone other than herself, it would weigh on her for the rest of her life. She gets to the door, throws it open, and feels the cool night air on her face. One woman tightens her grip as they step out into the lawn, but the other hand loosens and drops. The soft grass is wet and seeps into the thin fabric on Gigi’s feet. She turns her head and sees Margarite standing in the doorway, a slumped shadow against the bright house interior. It’s dark but not too dark that Gigi can’t see the devastating look of regret on Margarite’s face. Gigi watches long enough to see the placid party fracture, the voyeur men pouring out of their hiding places and towards the front door.
Gigi tightens her grip on Nancy’s hand, and they turn down the road, running through people’s yards until they need a break. They rest against a tree, wide-eyed and breathless.
“Do you think they’ll find us?”
“Not if we start up again in a minute and keep going. And one of these days we can switch out our wigs,” Gigi says, tugging at the thing glued onto her head.
Nancy touches her bouncy ponytail and laughs. “I didn’t know this wasn’t real,” she says, and then her face falls a little as she adds, “Maybe no part of us is real.”
“Hey, that’s not true. We’re alive and thinking and talking to each other, aren’t we?”
She visibly cheered. “Sorry, you’re right. I’m being silly. But listen, what are you going to do now?”
“Anything,” Gigi says, though she hasn’t thought about how she’ll fit into a world she doesn’t belong in.
They rest as long as they dare and then race through the blue evening, bursting into giggles at odd moments, like when a neighborhood dog barks or when they catch the moon swimming behind rooftops. Eventually they find shelter at a public park’s gazebo, just to sleep for the night until they come up with something better. They chat about finding jobs and sharing a home and it feels possible under the night sky.
Down the street, music floats from an open door where dancers whirl around in a dim bar. Gigi imagines herself saving up enough money to buy a genuine flapper dress in Eleanor’s honor and then dance with abandon in a room of strangers who don’t care how she moves.
When Gigi drifts to sleep, she is amazed at how much easier it is to do when there are no walls covered in eyes.
At the grocery store months later, Gigi almost drops the case of strawberries in her hands when she sees Margarite, all sleek curls and rosy skin, wearing a knee-length dress with a matching fabric belt. And she’s with her man from the house. Gigi wonders if either of them will recognize her with a bald head and crop top and high-rise jeans. She doesn’t want to get spotted, but she can’t stop watching. Margarite’s husband has his hand on the small of her back. She’s pushing the cart and he’s pushing her.
Gigi is rooted to the floor by a new fear: seeing James in public, arm around a woman that only exists, only suffers, because she ran away. She freed herself and Nancy, but two more women were born to fill the gap. The house appears in her mind as a yawning pit, girls tossed in like dirt to fill it.
Margarite’s eyes meet hers and she can feel the intensity across the fruit kiosks. And then the man looks at her too and Gigi’s body tenses, prepares to run, but his glance skims past her and just like that she was not recognized. The relief is so strong it’s almost painful, her stomach going through whiplash. Margarite still stares and Gigi guesses she’s doing the same thing in reverse: seeing what she almost had. Gigi wants her to know she can leave with her now if she wants, that it’s a second chance. She reaches out a hand, but Margarite looks at it for a beat before simply turning her head. It splinters through Gigi so much more brutally this time.
She holds tight to her strawberries and forces herself to the self-checkout line. Since running off on her own, she has learned how to eat, and to eat for pleasure, and not just fruit, but meat and sugar and bread. The whole world became a feast when she left that house and she’s indulged ever since. On olive oil and sweaty night clubs where glittering girls hype each other in the bathroom because they want to and running through freshly mowed grass and watching families toss frisbees to panting dogs. Everything is so vibrant and pulsating and the thrill of it all is even more fierce knowing she almost experienced it as a paper doll. Gigi leaves with her strawberries and doesn’t look back at Margarite because it will only make her sad to see her contortion, to watch her trying to be more food blending into the aisle.