The Possessions

By: Sara Flannery Murphy


The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick. The color is exactly wrong for me. Deep, ripe plum, nearly purple, the type of harsh shade that beautiful women wear to prove they can get away with anything. Against my ordinary features, the lipstick is as severe as a bloodstain. I feel like a misbehaving child trying on her mother’s makeup.

In the photo of Sylvia Braddock that lies on my bedroom floor, the lipstick looks perfect.

Most of my clients send only a handful of images: yearbook head shots, studio portraits against amorphous fabric backdrops. I prefer the candids slipped in as afterthoughts. Ordinary, tender images with tilted frames, red pupils, murky lighting. Unstaged photos offer less space to hide. I make note of the strata of clutter on a living room floor, the prickling distance between a husband and a wife when they don’t realize anyone is watching, and I know everything I need to know about these strangers’ lives.

Mr. Braddock has sent dozens of photos, enough to retrace the full six years of his marriage to Sylvia. Their wedding day, sun-washed beaches, landmarks scattered across the continents; work events with careful smiles, parties with blurred laughs. Nobody is more present in the chronology of Sylvia’s life than her husband. At my job, I order the world into patterns with the incurious efficiency of a machine, and the Braddocks’ pattern is a simple one. They’re in love. A showy love, drawing attention to itself without necessarily meaning to.

Sylvia only wears this exact shade of lipstick in a single image. I’ve checked and checked again, struck by its absence. In the photo, she’s naked. She lies on a bed, unsmiling, propping herself on her elbows. Against the deep plum of the bedspread, her body is so pale it seems lit from within. Details stand out with startling clarity. Her areolas, precisely delineated as the cheeks painted on a doll. The winged origami of her hip bones. The lipstick.

I arrive early at work before our encounter, the tube clutched warm in my palm. Mr. Braddock is my first client of the day. He’s scheduled his encounter on a Thursday. It’s the middle of March, a time when the Elysian Society traditionally experiences a slow period. No sentimental holidays, no blooming flowers or first snows to breed guilt and nostalgia. Just the unbroken lull of late winter.

Opening the door, I assess Room 12 with a practiced gaze. The suites at the Elysian Society hint at familiarity without fully resembling anyone’s home. Dark hardwood floors; a framed painting of water lilies floating on gem-bright water. Two low-slung, armless chairs face each other in the center of the room.

Anything that could disturb this impression lies hidden in plain view. For instance: the small white pill in its crimped paper cup and the larger paper cup of room-temperature water, both arranged on the end table. These designate the chair I’ll take.

Outside, the latest snow of the season clings to the curbs in an exhaust-glittered crust. The air inside the Elysian Society hovers at sixty-five degrees. I’m barefoot. My work uniform is a white dress, so fine my flesh scarcely registers its touch. I hold myself steady, suppressing the urge to shiver.

The door swings open before I can respond. I turn, thinking that Mr. Braddock is already arriving. After memorizing his face in the photographs, I’m curious to see him in person.

Jane stops in the doorway. “Everything’s all right, Eurydice?”

“Of course,” I say. “Come in.”

As an attendant, Jane has the luxury of dressing more warmly than the bodies. She’s jarringly mundane in her lint-speckled cardigan, like somebody intruding on a dream. “The lipstick,” she says, sketching a quick line around her own mouth. “It’s a little uneven.”

“I didn’t realize.” I hesitate, then hold out the tube. “Do you mind?”

The lipstick on my mouth is a soft, intimate pressure. Its tip is blunted from use. There’s a subtle taste lingering beneath the medicinal sweetness. Sour and human. I think of the saliva and skin particles that must linger on the lipstick’s surface.

Nausea clenches at my jaw.

“You’ve worked with this client before?” Jane asks.

“First time,” I manage. The nausea dissipates as quickly as it came. “He sent the lipstick ahead of time.”

Jane is silent. We both know this goes against routine. Most clients bring their loved ones’ possessions in person, lending me the effects for the duration of our time together. The fact that Mr. Braddock has given his wife’s lipstick to a perfect stranger creates an impression of either unusual trust or unusual carelessness.

“It’s really some color.” Jane caps the lipstick. “Girlfriend? Mistress?”