The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue

Excerpt from Parakeet

The Uncanny Bride

On the morning of my wedding at an early and incorrect hour that makes good people appear menacing the hairdresser says I am the calmest bride she’s ever done.

“How do you be a bride?” I say. “This is the first time I’ve been one.”

Most brides, she says, are filled with words and energy. A few moments later she adds, “Opinions.”

The room is wide with flaking paint and so cold we summon breath. She winds my hair around an iron and cheers for a chugging coffeemaker. She apologizes for the chill, the coffee’s delay. I can hear but not see my friends, sitting on peeling stools and radiators improvised for chairs among stacks of boxes. The coffee maker mutters, a soothing sound. I leave another message for the reception planner.

“A wedding should exist in its own world,” the hairdresser says. “Undisturbed by the petty crap that goes on in ours.”

“That hasn’t been my experience,” I say.

Her lips are colored a shade of red that’s meant to be fun yet her downturned mouth creates the tributaries of some sad river that deepens her forehead. She’s copying me; the tendency humans have to mirror another’s pain.

“You’re so calm,” she says, thinking I haven’t heard.

“I’m calm like a bird is calm,” I say.

“Ugh,” she says. “Birds.”

“Why does everyone hate them?” I say, continuing an earlier thought.

She says she once watched a seagull wrench a sandwich from a woman’s fist. The woman held on. Tug-o’-war. “Eventually she gave up, the woman. The bird flew off with the sandwich.”

I tell her that I once saw a woman mail her shoes. I don’t mean in a package. She walked up to a mailbox, leaned against it for support while with a free hand took off one shoe then the other. She opened the box’s door and slid them in, listened to them flack against the metal bottom, checked that they were gone the way you do a letter, and walked away, barefoot.

The story stops the hairdresser’s talking, the desired effect, so I am free to consult the window and think of birds. I want to see a woman in a flattering trench coat hunched against the cold. I want to see a winter animal. But the day insists on parking lot and this corner of dumpster. Except for a car slugging by carrying its own weather system, the window never varies its point of view. Most people think you need shoes but that woman thought she was fine without them. I’m thinking, trauma is an elevator. A portal, I mean. An Internet.

The day requires me to get married. From another part of the house where she has been pinned and ironed, Rose arrives to say she is excited. Am I excited?

The salon has found its heat. Those who can, shuck sweaters to reveal short sleeves.

“Yes,” I say.

She is the third friend to scoot around boxes to ask me this question. I’ve answered yes each time, but a particular tilt of the head makes it clear I’ve answered incorrectly. As the others did, Rose ticks through supplementary questions (How excited?) or makes a statement she believes is innocuous (I’d be excited too if I were about to marry the greatest man on Long Island), then leaves, shelving her confusion.

My phone buzzes on the counter. The tables came in, the reception planner says, the linens the correct shade of neutral. We are unaccustomed to talking to each other because I preferred to leave bridal opinions to my mother and mother-in-law. “Will you please add one person to table nine,” I say.

“One person,” she says in a way that means, At the last minute?

“Simone,” I say. “A dear friend.”

I hear the rustling of aggravation as she hums, fusses. “Simone…?”

“Then it’s set,” I say. “I’m grateful.”

“Who is Simone?” says Antonia, who has crept behind me during the call.

“A friend.”

Antonia asks if I’m excited and I say yes.

I sit at that vanity for years, my mother and friends orbiting, offering barrettes, bronzers, taking them away, asking if the coffee’s burned, convincing my shoulders down, discussing where they hold stress, Mother fretting over the carpet, referencing their lower backs, offering me a bite of whatever they’re eating, fingertipping a eucalyptus mask over the apples of my cheeks taking care to avoid the vulnerable under-eye area, placing a phone to my ear so I can hear a questioning voice, taking it away, halving a flagel and offering it to me, someone at the door, a mistake, a new delivery, crumbs on my shoulder, this heel or that, this bracelet’s sheen, these stockings have silk in them you can tell, a matter on the other side of the Inn, heartrending delicate empty boxes, mother in new makeup, new mother, clerk at the door, something blue and something old (my heart) unable to rise to the occasion (my heart), a forgotten idea winks outside my periphery, can’t catch it, mutterings on the edge of my hearing, don’t tell her, tell her, a bouquet of laughter (my heart) tossed over the carpet, caught, mother-in-law fretting on the other end of the phone, matter settled, matter unrelated, updated eyelashes, the desire to crawl into one of these boxes and draw vellum over me, with a damp washcloth whisk the mask away, show her the flowers, look at them, look at me, rise, heart, please, these are good people, rise before they see you in the mirror, such a beautiful. Girl, don’t you think? Is that James with more flagels? Flowers hold stress in their stamens. Couches hold stress in their cushions. Barrettes gather hair. Gather the gathering items back into the boxes, offers retreating over the carpet, rejected jewels rewind into their cases, but there is one more commemoration—from a profound box, the hairdresser reveals the veil. Everyone is wild over this dash of lace on pearlized combs that possesses such gravity it pulls all the women from their chairs. All week everyone has been treating me like I am eggshell and the veil is the graduation of that feeling. I have become. So fragile it could be soiled by breath yet the veil persists across the room. Antonia won’t hand it over. I’m not ready to stop touching it, she says. Center the breathless ecru comb at the nape. As the hairdresser presses it against my scalp, they unfold the veil out from underneath itself, look at her eyelashes against it, the rose rising on her dark skin, the scallop flush along my collarbones, black hair against the bone-colored everything, the most correct earrings, eyes in another place no matter, mind in another place no matter, the woman removing her shoes and lifting the door to the mailbox isn’t worried, the bodies of my friends surround me, switch places, smooth the crinoline, what a morning, the sun is here ancestors be praised, couldn’t have wanted, couldn’t have wished for, I’m not ready to have this feeling, this feeling is not finished halfing me, the veil is buckled hard against my scalp, such a beautiful. A finished bride brown in the mirror. Lined in striking pencil, articulated in ebony and red.

Antonia holds up a mirror so I can see myself from every angle. I cannot be mistaken for anyone else. The hairdresser gives a low whistle of approval. “She’s the calmest bride.”

Several moments pass, perhaps a century, until everyone is called by voices deeper inside the salon to their beautifying processes and I turn into a feather and collapse onto the salon seat maybe I am still there now.


Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novel 2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS and the collection SAFE AS HOUSES and was the 2017 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Fellow in Cork, Ireland. Her third book, PARAKEET (FSG), is out June 2020. For more information:


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

All Issues