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House of CardsMinal Hajratwala
How I loved her -- but we had our problems. Then there was her body.

Made of cards, yes, colorful and playful, with lines I admired the first time I saw her. Not stiff or boxy, as you might imagine, but supple and light, draped over one another with the artistry of a Henry Moore or some Spanish surrealist.

With her I felt like a master player, a stud -- to stroke and even rearrange her cards! To make a joke and watch her entire body reward me with laughter. To slip my fingers and limbs between hers in the most wondrous and ecstatic intertwinings. In those first weeks I too became airy, and learned to float; the lightness of us was a revelation.

I had yet to learn everything her cards concealed; what emptinesses they were constructed around; how fragile they made her.

The first time it happened, I was stunned.

I had said something, I believe, about the color green. Her jack of hearts flipped out, and suddenly she crumpled, became a quivering heap on the floor.

Weeping, filled with guilt, I stood over her, she was all fury and sorrow, I didn't dare to say another word. I wanted to touch her, to show her I was there and would not leave her, I knelt slowly, I moved my right hand toward her.

Don't touch me! she seethed. Don't you dare touch me.

It took us hours, days, and thousands of tears, to understand where the rupture had occurred, what had caused it, how to repair it. Even she did not know where all her cards belonged (the jack of hearts, it turned out, was her crucial left knee, scraped on a soccer field at age eleven, the green of Astroturf, a gleam in her coach's eye, and her father's green car -- so often, I would learn, it came back to her father, who had made her).

When at last she stood reconstructed and gleaming before me, I felt triumphant -- and aroused. We made love, our passion informed by danger, desire anger, beauty, her limbs sliding between my fingers with a new fluidity, a kind of frictionless heat.

A reward, that what we had built together was good.

And so we grew closer. But as we did, the crises grew more frequent. By our six-month anniversary I was constantly afraid. It seemed my slightest gesture, or unaccounted-for silence, could crush her to the ground.

Of course I tried to be careful, though in her grief she often accused me of cruelty.

And I learned some of what I had not known: how she hated the body I had adored from the beginning. How she hated, sometimes, the very way she was built.

I thought of my last girlfriend, she was made of nails, how at the end she had blown apart in one murderous explosion. Sometimes I still find shrapnel in my clothes, in my house, in my skin, glinting.

And the one before that was made of walls; trying to talk with her was like traversing an endless dizzying maze. If you kept looking up you could catch a glimpse of sky, but then you would invariably walk into bricks. I broke my nose so many times on her, it is still crooked.

So I was used to suffering in love, it wasn't as though I had only dated cotton-candy girls, velvetine girls, women constructed of rubber and fleece.

Still, she realized that the constant anguish, the strenuous work of building and rebuilding, was unfair to me.

Sometimes she asked me to leave her alone, so that she could reconstruct herself, slowly, painstakingly, card by card. On these occasions I would let myself out and walk to the subway, hating myself -- for being so clumsy yet again, for lacking the courage to stay and help, and for feeling such relief to be out of that apartment with its oppressive smell of talc, laminated paper, saltwater. The cool, crisp streets of Manhattan seemed to me, that fall and winter, to be more refreshing than a dip in any azure sea.

It was a strangely mild winter, and by the end of January, birds were building their nests in Central Park. I was an assistant to an assistant in an office nearby, and during lunch I sat and watched the sparrows weave together twigs, string, candy wrappers. It was interesting how strongly they were built, how the nests usually outlasted the birds, remaining visible even through the first snowfall.

There must be a way, I thought, for her to strengthen herself. Glue, perhaps, I suggested gently once or twice; or twine. She only shrugged.

On Valentine's Day I cooked dinner for her: basil salmon, wild rice, a flourless chocolate torte. Over its remains I pulled out a small, gift-wrapped box.

No, she said, you made dinner, that's enough.

She was smiling, though. Open it, I said.

Oh, she said, rubber cement?

We can do it together, I said, Sweetie, it might take a while, but--

Her eyes went cold, her lips hard.

I'm not your fucking home-improvement project, she said. She was trembling; I was afraid she might collapse. But anger could also hold her together, a kind of centrifugal force.

I know, I said lamely.

Either you love me as I am, or you don't.

The trembling became more fierce, the dishes on the table began to clatter.

I do love you, I said. Very much. I just want you to be happy --

I am happy, she said. She did not sound happy.

I was afraid to look at her, to say or do anything. So I looked down at my lap, at the brown smears of chocolate on our forks, its crumbs on our plates, her lipstick on the napkin, the rubber-cement bottle with its little brush inside, like a fetus inside a womb, all sticky and golden.

She picked it up, and held it out to me. I took it; I looked at her. A small, sad smile was on her face.

Maybe you can get your money back, she said.

Everything was still.

Over time I got better at seeing it coming. I became more cautious, treaded lightly over areas we had suffered before.

But, frustrating to me -- and surely to her -- there were always new tripwires, new faultlines. We could only find them, it seemed, by my stumbling over them.

And even when, like an amateur seismologist, I could detect the early warning signs--a tremor in the lips or eyes, a certain twist of the neck, the way she had of shifting her hair behind her ears when she was upset -- I could do nothing to prevent the earthquake.

She said, If only you would embrace me at those times -- reassure me --

But I was too afraid to touch her, in my clumsiness. So I turned away, tried to shelter myself and give her privacy to regain her equilibrium. But this, she said, made her feel more alone, rejected, unlovable -- more likely to collapse.

Or I tried to offer suggestions, but I was too critical, she said, she was not my problem to solve.

I became afraid of what I would do, of completely destroying her.

I can always rebuild, she said.

But what if, one time, you can't?

But I can. I always have.

But what if --

Then I stopped, because there was no answer, but I was still afraid.

Sometime after our first anniversary, she moved into a new apartment. We went shopping for a mirror for her bedroom. In one small store were crowded hundreds of mirrors -- gilt frames, rough painted wood, wrought iron, ovals and rectangles and squares as large as dining tables.

Looking at our reflections over and over and over, surrounding us, I saw how my face and fingers were covered with paper-cuts and band-aids, and how her cards were looking tattered from so much handling. Some areas of her body had been soaked with tears and dried so many times, they were beginning to warp.

And neither of us was sleeping well. Even our good times together were colored by fear and caution, doing everything we could to avoid any possible collapse.

That evening I asked her, Is this worth it? Why do you put up with it?

Because I love you, she said. Her voice was like a child's, small and helpless. Then it became stronger: Because I love you, and you're worth it.

For a time this was enough.

Then it wasn't. Why do I put up with it, I wondered. Was she worth it?

I didn't know, but still I couldn't leave.

One day we went to brunch. It had been a hard night but we were talking. We ordered French toast, eggs, orange juice, then somehow she began to become upset again.

They were just quiet, early vibrations. But because she hated to collapse in public, and she knew I hated it too, she went to the restroom.

The food came. I sat staring at my eggs for a long time. I knew she was in there trying to keep herself together, washing her face, blowing her nose, waiting for the redness and the shivering to subside.

I looked at all the other couples having brunch; they seemed calm, and some were even joyous.

I thought about our first few dates, the lightness and freedom of them, and how different things were now.

I looked at our waiter pass by once, twice, three times. I thought, If he comes one more time I can leave.

When he passed again, I stopped him and said, I have to leave, this should cover it, please tell my friend her bag is there.

I stood. I walked out the door.

I did not know where to go but as I walked through the streets I began to notice how every building was composed of rectangles, patterns, symbols and numbers and colors, skyscrapers of red and black and white, private clubs and diamond stores and how inside them were hundreds, thousands, millions of smaller houses of cards, and with one huff and puff and I could blow them all down, it was all so delicate, with one clumsy word or misstep, rectangles upon rectangles would fall on top of me, crush me, cut me to shreds.

This vision woke me from my sleepwalking, and I stopped suddenly, for clearly it was clearly too risky to keep moving, far better not to speak or even breathe -- so I sat on the curb, I wept.

And then I felt it, the hollowness inside me, my own limbs and organs collapsing in on themselves -- ten, jack, king, queen, ace.

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