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life in excess

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“I just wish you’d bear it better.”
“You don’t have to feel sorry for me, Amy, you’ll feel the same one day.”
“No. I’d be respected if I couldn’t be loved.”
(2019)

 

“I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, [...] and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end.”
(1868)

 

 

 

Jo never comes over to the Laurence house. That, as a great many things, she decides for them.

When Jo politely declines Laurie’s invitation at dinner (when Meg and Marmee put down their forks at the palpable tension), Laurie speaks up, once again, gets as far as “Please, come over, would you, Jo, for me.” He speaks in the slow, pleading voice Amy knows well. She observes the scene with a detachment previously unknown to herself. There is nothing for her to fix there.

When Jo declines again, her resignation written all over her, citing a very good reason as to why not this week, why not this month, Amy nudges Laurie under the table. Not this month is obviously code for not this century.

Laurie turns to her, his eyes a deep grey, and it strikes her that he knew Jo would refuse. He still asked.

 

 

 

The walk back home is silent. It’s comforting, after such a rich evening to be let alone. She spares him a look: Laurie’s half a step behind her, his hands in his pockets, a crease between his eyes. Amy halts in her step. She wants to have it out.

Laurie’s hand comes to the small of her back, heavy and hot even through the layers of winter clothing. Her body twitches. It’s a small thing, for him to put his hands on her. She wishes he wouldn’t do that. If he can’t play his part right, he shouldn’t bother with the small things.

 

 

 

As little as Amy had to compare it to, she still knew how to recognize gentle. She knew it as Laurie kissed her, as he circled his arms around her waist and held her there, all electricity, little heart. She tried to soften against him, to meet him halfway yet her arms wouldn’t bend and her knees were shaking and she wished for him to acknowledge that this was a dream, that this still wasn’t certain, that there was a reason she’d said no before refusing Fred too. That the fragile thing between them would not survive coming back home.

The terrible truth has always been that they had their roots in grief.

Her skin tingled where he pressed his palms against her ribs. He didn’t acknowledge anything. He married her instead.

Laurie was very convincing. That far from Concord, he didn’t have to pretend.

 

 

 

They move into the Laurence house. It is full and empty at once and Amy revels in all that space. With considerable determination, she learns as much of it as she can, as fast as she can manage. Amy walks down the corridor, through the tall doorframe, to all that empty room for her to make and remake.

She rearranges the paintings on the wall in her spare time: from one era to another, she distills the layout of the house into a pathway, a labyrinth of sorts, that follows her Parisian curriculum precisely. Amy prepares a space for herself in the very center of it: a tall room giving to the east. The light is perfect there.

 

 

 

There’s never a dull evening, she doesn’t allow for them. She has tried, once, and didn’t care for it.

They had dinner in the house, Mr. Laurence leaving the two of them soon after. Laurie sat down at the piano and Amy stretched out on the sofa. They suit each other, she’d thought, observing the fine picture they made. Yet instead of admiring the gentle features of Laurie’s face, Amy found herself studying it. The crease between his eyes, the cut of his jaw, the unfocused gaze. He has become familiar to her.

His fingers hovered over the instrument. It happened in the early days after Beth, before Friedrich played for the family. Laurie’s hand came up to the keys, and a weight settled over his shoulders, spreading to his arms. He stumbled over the same cord twice and stopped abruptly.

Suddenly, the fine picture Amy had envisioned seemed drained of color: she looked at him and herself in that big room and noticed the outlines of the life to come. A well-defined contour trapping them inside the big house she didn’t know, a house Laurie had always wanted to leave.

Interrupting her discovery, Laurie had started playing the same four keys in a loop. Maybe he could guess at her too, reflecting Amy’s frustration back at her. Maybe an unnerving repetition was all it took. She found herself stunned by the realization that maybe, she had become familiar to him in turn.

“Would you stop it,” she threw at him, toying with her necklace, her fingers inching towards her throat.

 

 

 

She sees what Laurie sees, how could she not?

Jo and her hands in constant movement, ink stains on her wrists, a flower and a leaf tucked behind her ears, catching at the strands of wild hair, a splash of gold against the stark white face. Life seeping out of her in excess.

That has always been Jo, only now it’s a bitter image. Amy sees it through Laurie’s eyes and it’s different: where Jo is messy, she is wild, and where she is inconsiderate she’s her own. Through his eyes, Amy can’t help but draw a comparison, and realizes, almost to her relief, that she is not that. She’s— Happier.

It’s just that Jo takes up so much space. There are traces of her all around the big house even if she still won’t come over. It’s in the empty spaces on the bookshelves in the library, in Laurie’s comings and goings, in the easy way her voice rings out in the room at the family dinner.

Amy doesn't want to hate so much of the world.

 

 

 

Then, Jo publishes her book and Amy stops painting.

When the book is done, Jo brings a few of them home. Bound in red leather, gold letters glowing on the cover, they are impossible to miss. Laurie circles around the table where Jo has laid out the books. Amy watches him pick one up and open it near the middle, his eyes hungry and searching. She wonders whether his name imprinted on a page would force his heart to skip a beat, equal to Amy’s when she catches him look.

She wonders whether the ending of the book matches reality.

She decides she’d rather not know when Jo appears before her. There is a genuine bliss about her, an unstoppable force in place of a woman. Jo’s fingers are long and pale as they clutch at the red cover before handing it over.

“Here, sister, dear,” she says almost kindly. She has fingers just like Laurie’s. Just like Amy’s.

 

 

 

She grieves for Beth. For her good nature, and that it was taken from them. That she took herself away from Jo. Having never lost a sister, maybe Jo’s loneliness wouldn’t be as palpable. Having never known that grief, Amy would never have agreed to have as little of Laurie as he had offered.

If only there were enough of anything to bring the dead back. Marmee has tried with pain and Meg has tried with tears and Jo has tried too, with all that ink. The paper was soaked through and it still wasn’t enough.

Amy grieves for Fred. For the simplicity of his gestures, for his gentle features and the unambiguous future he had offered. For the life she could have had further from home, further from the helpless feeling that tugs at her insides. Laurie, Laurie, Laurie, everywhere, just like before but brutal.

My husband, Amy practiced on the way home, the shape of the word unfamiliar in her mouth.

 

 

 

He would surprise her sometimes. Walking in the afternoon forest, Laurie picks up a flower. Instead of giving it to her, he puts it in his hair. It matches the pink of his mouth perfectly, and Amy thinks Laurie knows that. He’s presenting her with a composition.

Amy still won’t paint yet for a second she considers it. Laurie smiles wide at her and winks. There is a grace about him she could not copy but wants to maybe try.

 

 

 

She goes to Marmee’s house to pick up a book Laurie asked after last evening, forgetting that he’d lent it to Jo. The house is warm, seeped through with sunlight and the smell of freshly-baked bread.

“Hannah, it smells delicious!” Amy calls to the kitchen, approaching the table. There is a cake in the center of it, a two-layered contraption covered in cream flowers. The book is there too, open on the table, a bookmark not twenty pages away from the end.

Amy picks a cream flower from the cake, a coral and yellow creation, like the skin of a peach in a still life. It’s too sweet on her tongue but she swallows it whole.

Jo walks out of the kitchen. She has this silly dotted apron on, and three forks in her hand. “Amy! What do you think?” Jo asks, nodding to the cake.

Amy’s eyes go wide. She examines the flowers again: the color on them, the deep corals and bright yellows, shades blurring together around the edges. The cream turns bitter in her mouth. Jo is painting, is the only thing she can think of. Jo has inserted herself into something that’s supposed to be just Amy’s.

Jo glances at the cake too, her smile fading. “You took it!” she attacks, pointing to the empty spot in the center with her three forks.

“I want and I take,” Amy says in turn, all bite. Her palm lands flat on the table, just left of the book she neither lent nor wants.

 

 

 

When Amy imagined herself married, she expected there to be a past that belonged solely to her husband. She knew there would be heartbreak unknown to her, that she could then choose to uncover.

She didn’t expect it to be Laurie’s. For the pain to be hers too.

 

 

 

Amy’s working on a letter to a Paris acquaintance when she the ink spills out on the page. It smudges her middle finger black and Amy stares at the mark before tending to the damage.

It’s ridiculous that it strikes her as Jo’s doing. Honestly, it’s such a small thing to have a pen that won’t work properly. Yet, without fail, Amy makes the connexion. Despite herself, Jo has claimed it all as hers: ink stains, painting, her childhood home, and Laurie, and Amy wants it off her skin.

She keeps it.

Late in the evening, she studies her face in the mirror before putting her brush away. Like this, her hair tangled up after a wash, Amy finds she has that familiar wild air about her, that life in excess.

That’s how Laurie finds her, with hair unbound and her fingers stained with ink. She sits up in bed to allow him a better view and watches for recognition.

He halts in his step. For a moment he seems frozen, his expression suddenly vacant, eyes intent on her hand. He’s always had a way of looking at her, at anyone, like he knew the darkest reason for anything, like he could pick out the most horrid explanation and stick with it. Amy has always feared he had a way to make the reason true.

Laurie approaches the bed, his steps faltering and heavy on the wooden floor. He looks stunned: that she’d dare to unearth it like this when neither of them speaks it. He leans over, propping a knee on the bed, eyes bright and judging. Like with Meg not being Meg at the ball, his mouth falls open at the betrayal. That she would do that to him. That she would do it for him.

He kisses her like he wants to kiss it off her, like with her hair unbound she’s a different person and he maybe wants to get to the one underneath.

She doesn’t care. He’ll take what she gives him. Amy presses a palm to his chest, a careful thing, but her fingers fist around his shirt and she wants for this to get easy already. It’s too much effort. She doesn’t really care for it either: she second-guesses and falls short, she doesn’t know whether when he looks at her he sees anything at all. Right now, for once, she’s sure: Laurie doesn’t let his eyes off her.

He props himself on one hand, as she leans back on the bed, her fingers pulling down his shirt, while Laurie’s undoing the buttons of his trousers.

There’s a relief to be found in the fact that he didn’t ask. That they didn’t owe an explanation to each other. To touch on that, she’d have to unearth too much of herself. His hands are quicker than hers with the buttons and he helps with the shirt, his fingers covering hers. She doesn’t know what to make of it, how to excuse the fact that this is something they both want, that this want will have to be dealt with. She sets her jaw and wraps her hand around him. This part is almost easy. She likes him like this, pliant and almost serene. Yet there is a thing that grows in the corner of her mind, a thing that inquires after how easily he has accepted.

The way Laurie’s looking at her is unnerving. When he looks to her hand on him, his mouth’s set into a thin line, so that he would stay silent against her. There’s ink there.

Amy puts her hand away and lifts up her hips as he settles himself inside her, she doesn’t care. He bites at her shoulder and at that moment she does not care for him at all.

Maybe it was just like this, Amy thinks. Jo’s smudged hands locking over his neck, all that ease and electricity, Laurie’s wicked black eyes following the shape of her shoulder, to her breast, to her middle— The thought is jarring and sudden, and it knocks the breath out of her, along with his cold hands on bare skin under her shirt.

Amy wants to be selfish again, selfish, and greedy and vain beyond recovery. She wants to be wrong. Instead, all she can do is dig her nails and open her mouth wider. She scratches and claws and doesn’t mind him, clutching at her with equal force.

Her hips move to meet his, and she didn’t account for the ache building up in her. It scratches at her skin, clawing at her heart: a dull ache she has nothing to do with. A thing in her that’s not hers. Just like Laurie. It has settled so deep, she can’t pinpoint the exact location. She’d cut off a finger but she can’t tear a heart out.

His weight on top of her, his body solid and his skin warm, she finds she would take him any way he would give himself. Even if in parts. They were friends too, once, she could extend him a kindness. Amy doesn’t trust herself to be kind with anyone else.

She can feel herself becoming undone. His hands on her thighs, his hair beneath her fingers, his mouth on her shoulder— Her breath catches, her arms cling to his shape. Yet she feels this pleasure from a removed place, not quite here, not quite her. Figures as to how she is not being herself.

The red book lies on the table in the far corner of the room, mocking.

 

 

 

“Forgive me,” Jo says to her.

Laurie’s just gone outside, to their house, fetching a book they have been arguing about. Jo bites her lip as the door closes behind him, and her hands grip at her skirts when she notices Amy looking.

Her smile is impenetrable. Yet Amy knows well how Jo lies, how she gets when she’s playing at happiness. Her shoulder blades drawn together, and the tap of her finger on her palm. Forgive me, she offers instead of behaving, forgive me, instead of having it out. Amy stares at her for a long moment, her expression carefully blank. She could so easily be cruel.

“There’s nothing to forgive.” Amy takes up drawing again.

 

 

 

No. No, she’d said to him in Paris, her mouth going slack. She didn’t want him then. She didn't want him like that.

Amy doesn’t want to burn pages. She has no desire to read Jo’s book. Her finger traces the contours of Beth’s name on the very first page, and she weeps.

 

 

 

Meg throws a party. It’s her self-proclaimed turn and so she spends the day cooking and shopping and cleaning as if proving something to herself.

Everyone is seated closely at the small dining table. There are ten of them, so Jo ends up squeezed between Meg and father, while Amy has her side pressed into the wall. Laurie, in turn, is leaning on her.

John Brooke is late, he arrives when they’re almost done with soup. Meg makes room for him on her left, her ribs digging into the corner of the table. She beams at her husband, helpless against the relief of having him near. It doesn’t sit well with Amy, how easily she recognizes all of this in her sister.

Just over this evening, Amy has watched Meg’s regret over the size of the cake melt into gratitude, into satisfaction, into a certainty that she has enough. The tenderness in her eyes reads a lot like Laurie’s grief. At the thought, Amy pinches herself under the table.

Laurie’s eyes shift between his plate and Jo, right across from him. Jo smiles and talks, her voice very loud and her words very pronounced. She’s very pretty, Amy thinks. She looks like she has finally grown into herself.

Amy wishes for nothing more at that moment but to be consumed by a wave of pride for her sister. She wants to read the second page of her sister’s book. To look at Jo and not wonder, in spite of herself, what Laurie sees. Amy wonders whether this pain will indeed last a lifetime, whether every time he gets on top of her, she’ll guess at the same thing.

Amy grows very aware of the tight collar around her neck. She wants to go home. She wonders whether this helplessness is a permanent state for Laurie, for Jo. Whether it’s even love when it eats away at you with such force.

She hates how much of Jo is in her.

And she doesn’t. The same thing is in Meg too. It’s Marmee and the March name, it’s Beth. It’s hers.

 

 

 

They go back to the house on foot. Amy walks last and Laurie tears himself away from the lively conversation, joining her, his shoulder brushing against hers before he offers his hand.

She considers not taking it. Amy looks to his outstretched palm, the bend of his elbow, the sharp line of his suit. He makes a fine picture all on his own. He can live out the rest of his life like this. Laurie won’t name it. He won’t fight her on this. He’d do to her what she’d planned to do to Fred.

She has been molding herself into a perfect woman for the better part of the decade. Her life doesn’t allow for a change of mind. Amy had thought she could wait this out too, to leave it out of herself, yet there he is with his eyes that grieve and his hands that touch her but don’t mean to. She finds she can’t give it a rest.

“You need to sort this out.” The words slip out before she turns to face him, before she even settles on a verb. She’s grateful for how polite it came out, that it would mean nothing to a stranger yet Laurie drops his hand. His face twists into a mean thing.

“No.” It’s simple, the way he says it. It’s almost funny too, and she can feel the corner of her mouth rising. She wouldn’t know what to do with his sadness. But this, she understands.

“No, I don’t think you would want me to.” Laurie’s smile is all teeth, matching her own. As she prepares her next angle of attack, Amy thinks that this, at least, is something that would be unfamiliar to Jo.

Amy goes on, careful this time, deliberate in carving a different future for herself with a single sentence.

“Laurie, you have to.” Her voice’s bordering on sincerity, so she scales it back, lets it run indifferent and cold. He gives her a long look, his expression suddenly curious. They’ve always been careful around each other. But he has given up the pretense, doesn’t bother or wouldn’t dare lie. Where she has discovered there could be a place for love in a marriage, he has learned to view it as business.

“I have to what?” Easy as that, he takes the weapon she’s hit him with and points it at her.

She doesn’t want to name it. She doesn’t think it’s Jo. It’s Laurie, who takes everything, everything, and ruins. Who watches the life around him from a distance, who grieves for a life he never lived. It is Laurie who has failed to understand that this is permanent.

She stares back into his black eyes. “I’m tired of having it touch on me.”

 

 

 

Yesterday, she used up all the red. Today she paints everything green: she starts with the shadows, the edges, and it seeps into everything. It’s easy then, to paint over the Florence Cathedral she’d copied from the Italian catalog, to make it into ruin, to make trees grow from the tower, heavy branches cascading down the ancient walls that Amy paints in broad strokes.

She changes in her bedroom; “You have a— smudge,” she hears him before he speaks.

She looks to the trace of olive green on the sleeve of her white shirt. She fists her hand around it: Laurie looks almost guilty for having pointed it out and she can’t be sure how he meant it. Whether he meant anything by it.

It doesn’t suit him, this determined look he’s trying on. She watches the corner of his mouth, she watches him close the door and approach. There are words to be had between them, but he doesn’t give her words.

Instead, he pulls at her skirt.

In a flash she covers his hand with hers, her nails scratching at her dress when he doesn’t stop.

Amy looks at him, unconvinced. There’s an urgency about him, and she lets him apply it to her. She stands there, watching his hands on her, as he undoes the lacing on her skirts. She doesn’t know what to do with herself like this. Of the two of them, Laurie might actually have a better idea.

The intricacy of her dress falls to the floor. His fingers on her hip are soft and gentle, angling her. As if there were parts of her she could soften. As if that wouldn’t unmake her.

He presses a hand between her legs and it’s terrible how she wants to writhe and struggle against it, to pull him closer. Amy recognizes the urge as greed, as hunger, and she wonders whether there’s even a way for him to satisfy it. The moment calls for slang, for the worst insult she could deliver yet she settles for his name. She has other words, crueler words, but Laurie handles her well at her meanest, he fights back and he bites. She doesn’t want him to bite now, she wants him to keep at it, to keep his fine hand exactly where it is.

Her fingers close around his wrist when he glances up. The look on him knocks her breath out. The easy way he wants her now, the familiar ache inside that used to threaten to take her apart, that he now takes and tends to. She wants so badly to trust it. That this could be enough.

Laurie starts to move his hand in earnest, and she lets out a whine. Her hand fists into his shirt, another landing at his hip, keeping him close. She trails kisses down his jaw, to his neck. “Amy,” he says, startled. It’s so easy for her then. The shape of his shoulder under her mouth, the taste of skin and the smell of soap, and she doesn’t think, this should belong to another. His other hand comes up to her breast and she thinks, please.

“Amy,” she echoes back at him, assures herself that that is what she’d heard. That it’s her name that caused him to stutter on one syllable. Her name in his mouth.

“I love you now,” he says as if to offer proof. It’s a mean promise, it’s the way his voice catches on the now that makes her think it might even be true. To Amy, that presents a challenge. Finally, this is something she could work with. Her hair twisted into a tight knot, her fingers unmarked by paint, all of it in broad daylight, she gives herself to him as herself. This, she believes, is hers to take.

 

 

 

Amy reads the book. Jo comes over to Laurence house.

 

 

 

“I don’t know how you manage it,” Jo says. Her face is wonderfully sincere.

“As well as you would,” Amy answers in turn. There’s an understanding between them now, a knowledge that they can both bear what seems impossible to another.

 

 

 

At night, Laurie curls up against her, her husband, the neighbor boy. Jo’s friend, Amy’s— there is a word for what he is to her. There’s a word but Amy’s sure she doesn’t have the right one, that it doesn’t mean what she thinks it means. That she is twelve again and should ask Jo whether she got it right.