He loved them, caressed them, talked to them, understood them. From the carillon in the steeple of the transept to the great bell over the doorway, they all shared his love.
Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The fence was wooden and went like this: slat, picket, picket, slat, post. Slat, picket, picket, slat, post. The girl’s name was Mary. The fence’s name was Paul.
In the house where Mary’s family lived, there were many objects: the banister that led upstairs, the pillars of the porch outside, the railing on the landing. But Mary’s love attached itself to the fence. On cloudy afternoons, she’d run her hands over his coarse wood. If a splinter slid into the pad of her finger, she treasured it, a little piece of Paul under her skin.
The fence was old and unremarkable. It served its purpose fine: it kept their Labrador, Bartleby, inside its perimeter. It delineated the property line. It bracketed her father’s tool shed and mother’s squash garden. Once she caught her sister flinging mud at him and insisted she stop, that she was hurting him.
Her sister twisted her face. “Who?”
“Nobody,” said Mary, but in her breast, she said Paul.
Bartleby’s brown fur tinged into gray. Snows fell and melted, and Mary’s sister met a boy who had his own car. He called the car Delores, and for a moment, Mary’s heart surged: he understood. He loved his car like she loved Paul. But when she mentioned it, his face corkscrewed in confusion and Mary swallowed her mistake.
Mary could hear the boy and her sister behind the door of her sister’s bedroom. Mary heard the spitty noises of their kissing and her sister’s phony protests of no, not there. Not yet. Mary walked out into the backyard and laid her hands on the tines of Paul, gripped his sturdy posts. She was taller now. She put one foot on the lowest board and swung her leg over. She straddled.
She knew Paul enjoyed it, too.
When her parents went to bed and her sister was out driving around with her boyfriend, Mary drifted out to the backyard. Bartleby wagged his tail and she shushed him, ignored his pleading eyes. She could feel Paul’s love for her, could feel his joy at her recognition of him as something more than a collection of wood and nails. She caressed his fine slats and pressed her lips against his grain. She would kneel in the dirt and lay her forehead against him, sighing. Bartleby watched and panted.
She doodled Paul’s likeness in the margins of her algebra homework. She wrote his name and admired the curvature of the letters, the swing of the u, the sturdy l. She felt a kinship, a swooning, an elation and contentment she could barely restrain.
Mary was in love.
Then she came home and found her father with a passel of bulky men, armed with shovels and hoes, pulling Paul from the ground. New posts went up; a tall, impersonal, flat thing that promised privacy. Mary fled upstairs and wept into her pillow until dinnertime.
She would not cry again until the death of Bartleby, who had gone blind in both eyes; even then, her sadness was pale and forced.
Eventually Mary’s sister moved away to study nursing in Seattle and Mary took a bus into the city. Puget Sound sparkled bright through the windows; downtown spiked into view. Mary had shelved her feelings by then, remembering her affair with Paul as a distant and strange dream, odd and unreliable. She skimmed magazines promising new and fulfilling sex positions with names like Triple Lindy and Amazon Cowgirl. She licked her finger and lingered on some. London Bridge. Pile Driver. Wheelbarrow.
Mary had never slept with a man and had no desire to.
Mary’s sister toured her through Seattle. They bought oranges in Pike Place Market, spooned chowder on a pier overlooking Mt. Ranier, tapped the glass at the aquarium. On her second night, Mary booked a table at SkyCity, the rotating restaurant at the top of the Space Needle. “You’ll love it,” she promised.
When evening came, the sisters took a cab downtown, and Mary stepped out. She’d fussed as dressed—she hadn’t brought anything to wear for a nice dinner, and her sister had lent her a too-tight skirt riddled with sequins, a blouse that shimmered. She felt gaudy and unreal, but as she exited the cab and tilted her head up and up, she knew she was beautiful, because he told her so.
He was tall and slim, balanced and elegant. He was charming, debonair, sleek and lean. He dominated the skyline, iridescent and magnificent. He was urban, a thin gentleman, spindly and dashing. Mary’s knees trembled under her hem.
Her gaze raced to the disc spread above, his antenna pricking the night sky. His legs were slim and shone white, lit by enormous lanterns around the grounds. She swooned.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” her sister teased, and she grabbed Mary’s hand and led her to the doors.
In the elevator, the operator prattled about paint colors, Orbital Olive and Re-entry Red, the 1962 World’s Fair. Mary watched Seattle shrink beneath their heels. Her face flushed and her palms went damp.
Mary hardly ate. She placed her hand, palm-flat, on his window: cool, firm, and thick. Somewhere deep beneath her belly, something stirred and woke.
Afterwards, her sister took her a floor further to the observation deck. Mary reveled in the placards posted on the curved walls: On a hot day, the Space Needle expands one inch. Twenty-five lightning rods are stationed on the Space Needle’s roof. In high winds, the Space Needle moves approximately two inches. He lived. He breathed. He moved.
Her sister fed quarters to the telescope and spied on apartment windows. She squealed when she found anything naughty: a man undressing before a mirror, a woman in a slip smoking on her balcony, a group of teenagers in a Jacuzzi. Mary disregarded her, slowly circling the Needle’s halo.
Her hands could not touch enough: his steel barriers, his smooth glass, his sturdiness. She was lifted into the heavens, exalted, held safe and fast by him. Mary leaned hard against the freezing railing and felt the wind toy with her hair.
In later years, her sister would joke about the obsession. Mary would relocate to be closer to him, an overpriced downtown loft overlooking his silhouette. She would draw him, photograph him, keep his likeness in replica beside her in bed. She would spend hours on his observation deck, inside his elevator, she would sample the entire menu at his rotating restaurant. She would pledge her devotion to him and love him in all seasons: the gray autumn, blanching winter and wet spring. He never aged. He never changed. His love was solid and constant, large, iconic.
And when her sister set her up with a nice boy she’d met through a friend of a friend, Mary would ask to be taken to the Needle. They’d share a ritzy meal, a glass of wine, a stroll around the deck. He’d take her home and she’d let him kiss her on the doorstep, close the door, and reunite with her real lover, who watched her, eyeless but all-seeing, as she slept.
Rachel Richardson was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "The Object of Her Affection" is one of 50 pieces comprising her book STATE, currently seeking a home. She lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina with a small dog, a large dog, and a midsized man. She lives online at www.rachel-richardson.com and on Twitter @pintojamesbean.