The Vessel

By Alice Kaltman

When Doris saw the swan earrings twinkling in the window of the jewelry store, she became a woman possessed. The kind of shop she’d never imagine entering, much less buying anything from, but here she was nose-pressed, heart thrumming, and here were her wind-chapped hands on the door, her body beelining past shoppers and solicitous salesclerks to the display.

Beneath the illuminated case stood the magical beasts: gold-plated swans with graceful curves, one faux emerald embedded in each bird’s belly, a line of rhinestones edging the suggestion of wings, a sparkle of imitation sapphire denoting each eye.

Doris had never been one to strut. She lived a modest, bowed life, a selfless creature catering to the needs of everyone but herself. These other people skittered around in her psyche, like a tinnitus of human disappointment and constant judgment. Her daughter Greta for one, an unemployed actress out in Los Angeles, perpetually aspiring, perpetually on edge, perpetually broke. Doris’s husband Ned, the buffoon of every party who’d never taken the time to so much as learn how to toast a slice of bread. The gossipers at the accounting firm where Doris had been a bookkeeper for over twenty years. A bunch of lazybones who, she knew, considered her an old fart.

But all this drag fell away as the salesman deftly unhooked one swan from its perch. He held it to Doris’s bare lobe while positioning a mirror to catch the optimal light with his other hand.

Made for you, Doris heard. Lovely with your complexion, whispered like a mantra. Live a little, a gentle prod.

The earrings barely cost more than the coffee maker she came out to replace after Ned left theirs on overnight, cracking the glass pot and frying the poor machine into an early grave. A bargain, one could say.

Doris took the swans home. She didn’t dare wear them in public. But at night, Ned sleeping something off in the den, the dishes long done, the laundry sorted for hours, she’d go into the bathroom, lock the door and put them on. There they dangled from her lobes, a pair of pendulous, glittery things. She felt as if she’d been inhabited by another woman, a woman who took fashion risks. A pair of flashy earrings wasn’t exactly a rebellion, or an adventurous trip down the Nile, but every time Doris held the swans to her ears her heart did a little loopty lou, and to the naysayers, Doris imagined saying: fuck you too.

Doris usually wore the swans facing inwards, so they could gaze at each other across the flesh of her neck. But occasionally, she’d switch earlobes so the pair face outward and imagine the swans squawking in fearsome but glamorous warbles, protecting her from the harsh world that lay beyond her shoulders.

Days past and Doris grew bolder. She left the confines of the bathroom and wore the earrings while Ned boozed and snoozed. She sauntered in regal strides about the house, and the swans swung about, playfully poking her jowls. Doris journeyed past the foyer mirror, tilting her head this way and that, watching the earrings catch sunlight through windowpanes. She tiptoed down the carpeted hall to admire herself in the bathroom vanity. “Take a look at us.” Doris blew a kiss to the beautiful woman who beamed back at her in clandestine celebration.

The swans’ reflection in the stainless steel refrigerator door gleamed. Aluminum pans were their echo. The precious birds were gorgeous in any light. But it was Doris who truly shone. A filled vessel. Her body swirled with newfound succulence, washing away the bashfulness that had been her life-long shroud.

Greta’s calls became more desperate, Ned’s beer-fueled naps became longer, tax season loomed, and the nightly news was all doomsday gloom. But that ceased to bother Doris; in her private world, everything sparkled. It might have been the science of compliments and contrasts, that the sapphires brought out the blue in her milky eyes, that the rhinestones accentuated the platinum tones in her thinning grey hair. Maybe the emeralds made her sallow skin appear less jaundiced just by virtue of proximity.

But Doris knew it was magic. An unearthed life force. The magnificent swans had vanquished the naysayers and pierced the brittleness of middle age, filling her with vibrance, coating her in a luminous sheen.

She’d don the earrings and her neck would elegantly elongate, the creases smoothed, the skin taught. Cheekbones appeared where cheekbones had never been before. The lank grey hair curled, framing Doris’s face in thick silver spirals.

Everything formerly loosened in aged despair tightened with youthful vibrancy; her breasts plumped and cleavaged without the help of underwire. Her waist synched. Her swollen ankles became a delicate pair.

Doris’s little secret. Her two little secrets. Together, they made three. Before she left for work each morning she’d reach into the recesses of her underwear drawer where the swans rested, hidden but comfy, in a tufted satin jewelry box. She’d crack the lid and whisper, “Later my beauties, later,” as the slight breeze of her hot breath jostled the swans into a brief restlessness. In the evenings, while Ned yup-yupped along with the talking heads on Fox, as if he were also a deluded expert able to stop the chaotic tides, she’d sneak upstairs for a cygnine visit. A speedy slip of earring wires through waiting lobes, a glance in the full length mirror hanging on the inside of Doris’s closet door. There was only beauty in the bedroom. The swan earrings the brilliant source, Doris unearthed. Together their radiance was blinding, if furtive, and the disappointing, deflating world retreated; it was light years away.

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