I had vowed if I ever moved back home, that I would source my own clay, something to replace the industrial grey slabs that had always come shrink-wrapped in plastic, delivered by next-day air to our apartment in New York. Three weeks after I returned to Wisconsin, my sisters had found the place, a tip from a friend of a friend: fifty yards from where the Brule River merged noiselessly with the south shore of Lake Superior, there was virgin clay, pure enough for potting.
That morning, the morning after I found out about her, my sisters sat on driftwood, watching me like birds as I made my way across the rocks that covered the lake’s shallow belly. The horizon was still and flat and the water, dark as ink, numbed my feet. Sure enough, some softness began to emerge between the smooth rocks, until, farther out, just as my sisters had promised, there were no rocks at all but soft clay that sunk beneath my feet and squished between my toes. As my sisters watched, I dipped my arms into the water and dug my fingers into the earth and lifted two fists of dripping red clay, from darkness into light.
My sisters knew about the clay, but they knew nothing of my husband’s infidelity. I told them everything, just not that.
She was a recruiter he had met right before we left New York. When I looked her up the night before, I saw that she looked nothing like me. I guess I had always thought that what he might want one day was a better version of me, but what he wanted was something altogether different; he wanted blond hair and a narrow, smiling face. With my cheek pressed against the cool of my studio floor, the floor panels still smelling like lumber, my husband’s mistress multiplied before me like a string of paper dolls, each copy begetting another, each copy as perfect as the last. She filled my studio and taunted me with her multitudes, hanging herself across the new cedar beams and extending herself out, across the lake that spanned until the horizon through the double pane of my window. With my husband banging on the door, I reached up for the trimming tool I knew was there and pressed its dull blade into the tender skin of my wrist and watched as the pain ebbed her, momentarily, away.
I told my sisters everything, just not that.
That morning, I crossed the beach and sat back down next to my sisters. The sky was blue and cloudless and the clay dripped as I worked it between my hands, picking out tiny flecks of rock and dropping them at our feet. As I worked, my sisters talked, their voices a low hum of neighborhood gossip. All the while, they watched me, my fingers moving self-consciously under their communal gaze. Potting was something I had always done alone. Even in art school, I would reserve the late night slots in the studio, when I knew it would be empty. Alone and unrushed, I pushed the clay up and pulled it down until it was perfectly center on the wheel, before I could see what it might become, what shape laid beneath its shapelessness.
“Will it work?” my sister, the eldest, asked. I pushed my thumbs into the middle of the clay, which was now warm and soft and free of imperfections. My thumbs stepped over one another, taking turns to widen the base: first one, then the other, then the other. I worked the clay until it bowed gently and evenly outwards, revealing the shape of a small bowl. I nodded as I handed it to her, glancing at my wrist as I did, the one I had cradled the night before, but the sun had already dried the clay that streaked my forearms, the small cut on my left wrist hidden under a thin crust of earth.
When I had unlocked the door of my studio the previous night, my husband had been waiting for me, his long legs bent to fit the width of the hallway. He rose and took me in his arms, pulling my body into his. I knew I should pull away, but it was easier to let him hold me. I let him hold me until my arms, which hung between us, began to tingle. At last he released me and led me to the kitchen and put the kettle on.
“We can fix this,” he said, reaching for the tea box that sat on the counter. I watched him pull out two envelopes and rip the top off of both in one swift tear.
He had said the same thing when a shelf had broken in my studio in New York, spilling a year’s worth of work on the floor a week before my biggest show. It was he who had discovered kintsugi, the ancient Japanese art of joinery, and it was he who had ordered the golden epoxy I needed to put all the bowls back together. It was he who nodded when I showed him the first one, the one I hadn’t let dry properly so that streaks of gold radiated out from the cracks and smeared across the surface of the ceramic. In time, the bowls got better, the epoxy holding the fragments just far enough apart to display each piece’s brokenness, but close enough that the shape of each bowl was whole and recognizable.
The show went on as scheduled, and all the bowls had sold, and sold quickly. What people wanted, evidently, as they gazed at the golden scars that crisscrossed my ceramics, wasn’t beauty, but beauty broken down and put back together: a mere shadow of what had come before.
He dropped the tea bags in two mugs and slid one across the counter. I touched the mug with my fingertips and felt the heat through my skin. I thought about the nights that he had stayed out too long, about how I had never questioned it, how I had never questioned him. I had believed him blindly, like a child. Now I both hated that child for her sweet unknowing and mourned her, because that unknowing would never be known again.
“How?” I asked.
When the sun was high, my sisters and I packed up and walked back towards the path that had brought us there. Behind us, the Brule snaked one last lazy dogleg before melting into the lake. The rocks of the beach were wide and warm and filled the arches of my feet as we walked in silence. I wondered if he would stay or I would go. I wondered what I would do without him. I wondered, with some flicker of hope, if my sisters carried secrets, too, too heavy to share.
At home, I left the bowl to dry in a patch of sunlight that covered our front porch. My husband was still at work but as I stepped into the darkness of our new home, his mistress greeted me, as I knew she would. She moved past me with her paper thin body as I crossed the kitchen, and made space for me as I climbed the stairs to our bedroom. There, in the length of our mirror, I undressed before her, and let her see the imperfections she already knew I had: my skin pale, my breasts small, my face shadowed, my wrist seamed with blood the color of clay. I let her see the brokenness that she had only begun to create.
Sandra Carlson Khalil was born and raised in northern Minnesota but has called Dubai, UAE her home for the past twelve years. She studied French and English Literature at Middlebury College and got her MBA from Northwestern University. She began writing her debut novel in 2020 as a means to escape from home-schooling her two children. When she’s writing, she’s exploring themes of belonging, identity, and of crossing over. When she’s not, she can be found turning paint into art, running next to camels, or daydreaming about her next travel adventure.