The Beauty of Fragile Things
by Emma Hartley
Margot DeWitt had it all—a gorgeous home, a lucrative career, and the love of her sweet, handsome husband, a renowned heart surgeon. When everything she’s taken for granted as a solid foundation in her life is destroyed in a single instant, Margot comes undone. Nearly a year later, although her physical wounds have healed, Margot’s heart is still broken. She is a ghost, mired in grief, questioning the purpose of her life.
Chase Goodwin owns the tattoo shop next door to the bar Margot has begun to frequent. After their volatile introduction, Chase and Margot embark on a tenuous working relationship. Intuitively, Chase understands Margot’s fragility, for he’s experienced a devastating loss of his own. As their relationship deepens, Margot slowly begins to reclaim her identity as a creative, strong, resilient woman.
When Margot is ultimately confronted by the full extent of her loss, something she has subconsciously buried in order to protect her own sanity, she faces her hardest test yet. Can Margot honor her lost loved ones by embracing her own survival or will her heart remain paralyzed, bound to her past?
Release Date: July 20,2021
Genre: Contemporary Romance
On the floor of her bedroom, Margot DeWitt sat alone with her back propped up against the foot of her bed. With the airy fabric of her bridal veil draped over her arm, Margot studied the familiar designs for the thousandth time. Passed down from mother to daughter for generations, this priceless family heirloom had been worn many times by many brides, all on the happiest day of their lives.
Though the designs in the lace appeared substantial, they were fragile as a spider’s web. Lace lied. It tricked the eye. It lured one near to marvel at its beauty, its solidity, its permanence. Margot, however, had finally perceived the truth: there was almost nothing there, a network of empty spaces connected imperceptibly by an insubstantial matrix, an identical deception to her well-constructed former life.
She could still see her wedding day clearly, the vision not dimmed by time’s passing. Sunshine had glittered playfully on the water as Margot gazed across the bay. The lace veil fluttered and billowed in the gentle July breeze, the Calendar Islands rose up like old friends and congratulated her. Set against the sea, Kevin was resplendent, confidently waiting for her in his satiny black tux, stark against the blue-on-blue backdrop. The love he had for her, so evident in all he did, was as powerful as the crashing waves, as firm as the ground beneath her feet. Margot felt her father’s loving presence as well, as though the sun itself was his blessing on Margot’s marriage, manifested in light.
When the musicians began the wedding march, Margot’s mother kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Margot.”
“I love you too, Mom,” Margot said, her voice thick with emotion.
Her mother gently took Margot’s arm and walked her down the grassy aisle.
Kevin’s voice wavered with emotion as they spoke their vows. His eyelashes glittered with unshed tears. Though their joined hands had trembled with the intensity of the moment, nothing could have been stronger than the commitment they made.
The echo of their vows still lingered in Margot’s broken heart.
Margot clutched at the delicate veil, its intricacy blurred by tears. The Point de Gaze lace was airy, its gossamer patterns and complex details hung suspended in an atmosphere of single thread netting. Elegant flowers and leaves were swept up in a tangle of swirls, yet the symmetry of the piece was precise. An inherent expression of mathematical universals had billowed out from creative psyches, the only outlet of the day for absolute feminine genius. Women had spent so much time creating beautiful things for themselves and for their daughters to be treasured for generations to come.
Margot’s grandmother, a Belgian immigrant, had sung to Margot in her low, sweet voice the pride of the old country, as her lace needle flashed. Throughout her childhood, Margot had marveled at how her grandmother could draw designs into existence from nothing but thread and imagination. It had seemed to Margot like slow-motion magic. The creations sometimes took years to complete, but her grandmother’s patience never waned. By the time she was old enough to learn, however, Margot had chosen a different form of self-expression. As her passion for music took root, her fascination with lacemaking dissipated in equal measure. The value in preserving the old ways was lost on the teenager, whose punk rock sensibilities could no longer muster interest in her grandmother’s lace-making tutorials. Lace was dinosaur-stuff, best left in the past. When her grandmother passed on, her knowledge passed on with her.
Oblique sunlight blazed against the gauzy lace, highlighting the intricate trace-work of threads over Margot’s skin, white-on-white. Lately, the pattern had become a physical part of her, etched not only into her psyche, but into her self, like a scarification. Too much time alone had stripped her of the ability to judge whether this was a crazy thought or not.
Margot meant to box up the veil for good this time, to wrap the delicate antique lace in white, acid-free tissue, to cocoon it against the ravages of time and the elements and her own desperate compulsion to relive a moment that was forever gone. The ghosts of her ancestors clung to it somehow, still perceptible, grieving with her, for this veil had seen its last bride. In the fading light, yellowed with age and proximity to night, the veil reminded Margot of all she had lost, of all she continued to lose.
The pain in her heart, in her deepest places, was acute, as she kissed the fragile lace, held it to her cheek, and closed the box. She had christened it with her tears all too often these last months. It was time to put the veil aside, to let it join its memorial counterparts in the past. Margot’s scars and lingering anguish were her only mementos now. She had no idea how to box those away.
In her pearl-white bedroom, Margot stood before the vast walk-in closet—such a selling feature when she and Kevin had looked at the house—and gazed up. With the bedroom’s high Victorian-era ceilings, the top shelf of her closet rose to a staggering height of nine feet. Margot hoped it would be enough of a deterrent to her constant perusal of the veil, for her fixation with it was becoming disturbing. She climbed up and teetered unsteadily on the top step of the ladder she’d lugged up from the basement. While tucking the box safely between Kevin’s winter sweaters and a tote of family photographs from her childhood, she almost lost her balance. With her heart racing, Margot grasped a shelf to steady herself, took a deep breath, and climbed down. She couldn’t imagine doing that again any time soon.
As Margot awkwardly reinterred the stepladder in the basement, she bashed her hand against the cellar doorframe, bruising herself to the bone.
“God damn it,” she called out, dropping the heavy ladder and rubbing her hand. The physical discomfort jolted her from her mire of emotional anguish so she focused on it, relishing it, surprisingly thankful for the momentary abatement of grief.
Recently, bodily discomfort would induce an immediate change in her emotional state. It came coupled with a distinct sensation of relief. It was disturbing. Why would one pain erase the other, even temporarily? After massaging her bruised hand, she picked the ladder up once more and returned it to its place in the basement.
The remainder of Sunday, with its burgeoning twilight, fed Margot’s melancholy as the ache in her hand was supplanted once more by the only other emotion she seemed capable of anymore. The cable bill had lapsed long ago, resulting in a large TV in her den with nothing on it. Its black hole of a screen mocked her whenever she entered the room, so she rarely did. Instead, she sat in the formal living room, with its white walls and white trim and white couches punctuated with hints of pale color, exactly as the design magazines had suggested. The stark beauty of the space was devoid of human feeling, which is why Margot gravitated here nightly with her cooling mug of tea. She sat in silence with her memories until ten, when she forced herself to stop looking out the window at the streetlights beyond and get into her cold white bed.
Staring at the ceiling, Margot remembered how happy she’d been with the house, with her careful attention to the details in every space. How proud she’d felt when Kevin complimented her taste. How meaningless it all seemed now that she was alone, surrounded by white walls and white duvets and white curtains, shrouded in an elegant tomb of her own design. At least Monday would bring work, and with it, the distraction she had come to crave.
Forensic accounting sounded more glamorous than it was. The numbers kept her mind busy at least, and Margot found some comfort in the ocean of statistics she sorted through each day, looking for patterns in the static. By late Monday afternoon, Margot felt thankful the day hadn’t dragged by as badly as some days did. Margot turned off her computer, but as she did so, dread settled like lead in her belly. The last thing she wanted to do was meet her friend Ginny for drinks. Unfortunately, Margot had backed out of meeting Ginny too many times recently to do it again.
Outside, Margot reluctantly traced the same path she walked each morning and evening, past a vintage clothing store, past an inordinate number of restaurants, past the tattoo shop next door to the bar. Her heels usually clicked purposefully against the brick sidewalks, unwavering.
Lately, however, the tattoo shop had begun luring her in. Pausing at its window for a little longer each evening, Margot studied the fascinating images: daggers driven through bleeding hearts, bouquets of sentimental lilies and roses, lurid pin-ups, and leering skulls. Between the pictures against the glass, she sometimes caught a glimpse of the tattoo artists inside, working at their craft. Margot had missed the first wave of tattoos that had swept through her circle during college. Now, she couldn’t even imagine getting one.
People of every description came and went, flaunting their newest works of art. Margot could almost feel their judgement hot against her skin, like they knew she was a coward. Still, she silently catalogued the graphics in the window. The people, the artwork, the place itself, all seemed surreal, parts of a fluid museum she did not have an invitation to, a language she could not understand.
Margot dallied before the window display once again, intentionally delaying her inevitable date with Ginny by analyzing a page of vintage swallow drawings, her forehead resting against the cool glass. The startling sound of clanging bells heralded the emergence of a young, pink-haired woman from the tattoo shop. The woman stopped on the threshold and stared at Margot with disdain. Was it Margot’s fine, blush-pink blouse, combined with her overcast bearing, that gave the woman pause? When their gazes met, Margot spoke without thinking.
“Does it hurt?”
The pink girl smiled and said sarcastically, “Yeah, Mom. It does.”
“Good,” Margot had replied softly, unintentionally insulting the girl who, looking pissed, turned on her heel and strode away. The word Mom twisted in Margot’s heart, as she stared back into the shop window. The pink girl, who couldn’t have been more than twenty, had meant it as a derisive indication of Margot’s age, a ripe thirty-two. The insult, however, had burned deeper than the bloody daggers she now regarded.
As she steadied her breathing and brushed a stray strand of hair from her forehead, one of the tattooers exited the shop, eliciting a gentler tinkling of bells, and leaned against the doorframe. Margot watched his reflection in the window glass. Unruly brown hair framed his handsome face, the sleeves of his tattered flannel shirt were rolled up, myriad designs mapped his muscular arms. With a distant expression, he watched the passersby. Reflexively, he patted his shirt pocket, as though looking for a cigarette. He seemed to realize his mistake and gave up in an instant, his hand falling idly to his side. Margot accidentally caught his glance for a startling moment as he looked her way. When their gazes met, it was like she’d been electrocuted. Knowing her anguish was all too obviously written in her expression, she dug her fingernails into her palm and headed into the bar next door.
The vintage neon light in the entryway glazed Margot’s skin a deathly blue as she entered. The coveted window booth was available, so she sat down, noticing then avoiding her own reflection in the window glass, her emaciated frame mirroring her decimated spirit. She was more like a ghost than a woman.
When Ginny finally walked through the door, her lively golden curls made Margot feel even deader inside than she already had. Her heart was not in this visit, if she even had a heart anymore. The empty smile she proffered was reflected in Ginny’s darkening expression.
“You don’t want to be here.”
“Hello to you too, Ginny,” Margot replied, trying for her friend’s sake to muster her energies.
“I shouldn’t drag you out. But I worry about you.” Ginny reached out and squeezed Margot’s shoulder before taking the seat across from her.
“Nothing to worry about. I’m still breathing, right?”
Ginny sighed. Pity oozed from her skin, from her lacquered pink nails, from her expensive handbag. Even her lengthy eyelashes seemed to say, “You poor thing. You have nothing.”
“You want your regular?” Ginny asked, trying to sound light.
“Yep. Thanks, next round is on me.”
Ginny went to the bar and returned with a tall scotch and soda for Margot and a neon-yellow lemondrop martini for herself.
“Is that top new?” Margot asked, trying to make small talk.
“Nope. In fact, I think I wore it the last time we went out.”
“Sorry. How’s work?” Margot asked.
“It’s work. It pays the bills until I find a man to pay them for me.”
Margot cringed. “Why don’t you do something you like better?” she asked, trying not to show her feelings about Ginny’s attitude regarding men. “You could easily find another job.”
“Why bother? Running the agency is as good as anything else and at least I already know how to do it. People are so full of shit, though. You know?”
“I guess. Some of them are.” Margot thought of Kevin. He had only been full of shit some of the time.
Ginny took a long sip of her lemondrop, then set the glass down next to the cardboard coaster instead of on top of it, which annoyed Margot. She looked back out the window, but felt Ginny staring at her. She lifted her glass to her lips, trying to avoid Ginny’s gaze.
“You ready to double date with me yet?” Ginny said loudly.
“Fuck no,” Margot replied, nearly spitting out her scotch. “Please don’t ask me things like that. You know I’m...”
“Yeah. I know,” Ginny said, absently swirling the sugared lemon rind into her drink. “But I keep hoping you’ll rejoin me on this side of the veil, Margot.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
Ginny took a long swallow. “Fine. You know I’m here if you ever...”
“I don’t.” Margot looked out into the night. “No amount of talk can bring him back, Ginny.”
“No,” her friend agreed. “But it might bring you back.”
Silence settled between them as the crowd thickened. The scotch was corroding Margot’s empty stomach. The discomfort gave her courage. She leaned back in the booth and stared up at the strange, curved ceilings that made it seem as though they were inside an antique train car. Margot liked this bar. It was living proof that punk rock existed, once upon a time before Greenday. The bartenders here weren’t afraid to play the real deal, thereby ensuring that the casual businessmen wandering in after work only stayed for a single drink, freeing up the bar for the regulars. Margot strained through the ruckus of the revelers to catch a few bars of an old, familiar song, involuntarily humming along. Fine day, if you’re not me...
“How’s your work?” Ginny asked, clearly hoping to change the subject.
“It’s a whack-a-mole. I’m always busy.” Margot drummed her fingers absently on the table along to the beat of the song.
“Tax season’s over, why is it still crazy?”
“I landed a big corporate audit. They’re all freaking out, and rightly so. Somebody hasn’t been exactly honest, and I’m going to figure out who.”
“Number detective.” Ginny smiled mischievously.
For a moment, Margot could almost see the girls they’d been, so long ago.
“Numbers are incapable of deceit. The truth is in there somewhere,” Margot mused aloud.
“Good. I’m glad you’re busy.”
“It helps.” She took a sip. The scotch burned Margot’s throat on the way down.
While they talked, Ginny unabashedly scoped out the scene at the bar. From her expression, however, Margot surmised she wasn’t finding anyone appealing enough to hit on.
“Slim pickins,” Ginny murmured with chagrin.
“Your dating sites aren’t pulling in droves of rich hotties?” Margot asked, watching her friend watch the bar.
“Nope. Apparently, there’s a serious dearth of available dashing lawyers or rich brokers in Portland. It doesn’t seem possible that they’re all taken, does it?”
“Wait ten more years and you can clean house on divorcees.”
“They have to pay alimony. It’s not worth it.”
Margot had been joking, but Ginny’s response made it clear where her friend’s priorities lay lately. “I thought Robert and you were getting closer lately.”
“I guess, but it never hurts to keep your options open.” Ginny looked at her phone. “I’m meeting him for dinner, actually. Gotta go.” Downing her drink and gathering her purse, she hopped out of the booth and came over to Margot’s side. She bent down and kissed Margot on the cheek. Then she whispered, “Margot, you know I love you but maybe antidepressants would help. You might feel better.” She straightened back up. “You’ve gotta do something. I want my friend back.”
Margot regarded Ginny sadly and said, “See you soon.”
Ginny walked out of the bar, waving behind her. She was not the same person Margot had known when they were teens. She wanted her friend back too. All through high school, college, and into their twenties, Ginny had been a joy to be with, vivacious and bubbly, the life of any social experiment. Now, she was more preoccupied with finding the right man. Maybe she wanted to settle down. Maybe she even wanted kids. Maybe she was right about the antidepressants. Maybe Ginny was on them. It would account for her newfound air of detachment.
Over a decade before, they’d shared a tiny apartment in a rundown part of Dorchester before it got gentrified. Ginny had always been outgoing and boisterous, bringing the introverted Margot along to parties. Margot, in turn, had introduced Ginny to all her musician friends. Ginny had snagged a few of them over the years. On more than one occasion, Margot had awoken to a hungover bando in her kitchen, helping himself to the coffee.
For ages, Ginny had been like a sister. When Margot had moved to Portland with Kevin, Ginny was not far behind. She was one of the only people from Margot’s old life who knew her for the surly little punk she used to be. Time had changed Ginny into someone unrecognizable, though. Time had changed them both.
Outside the window, the show went on. People in suits rushed past, late leaving work, dreading the wrath of a spouse upon returning home. A couple of perennially drunk people fought with each other, a hunched man with a shopping cart full of bottles shuffled by, and the paintings in the galleries across the street glowed in their own tiny spotlights.
When a waiter finally wandered over to Margot’s table she ordered another drink, despite the risk. The term lightweight had taken on new meaning since she’d barely eaten in the past year. The drink was good, though, and the alcohol was beginning to have its intended effect. The red pleather seat emitted an indelicate noise as Margot relaxed in her booth. Her limbs felt disconnected, her consciousness dimmed enough to dull the anguish.
Suddenly, an angry woman stormed past the bar; tears streaked her pretty face. She was followed by a big guy. It was the same man Margot had seen standing outside the tattoo shop earlier. He called to the furious woman plaintively, his expression alarmed, his words muffled by the bar window. The woman turned on him and yelled, then shoved him aggressively. He tried to reach out and pat her arm, but she flung it away, said something else, and with a last nasty glare, she stomped off.
As the woman left, Margot noticed the man’s posture deflate. His expression transformed as sorrow washed over him. As he turned back toward the tattoo shop he chanced a glance upwards, inadvertently meeting Margot’s gaze. Margot’s own sadness must have showed, for he was her mirror in that moment. Then he was gone.
A feeling she hadn’t experienced in ages welled up within Margot. It was gratitude. Even though it hadn’t been forever like she’d prayed and hoped it would be, her relationship with Kevin had been peaceful, loving, and respectful. Had she taken it for granted that everyone could be so kind? The gratitude was a welcome change from her usual gnawing grief, and she reveled in it for as long as she could, allowing it to momentarily warm the frozen recesses of her heart.
Not long after, she threw back the remainder of her drink, paid her tab, and left. A lonely electric guitar strummed out a haunting melody from somewhere above as Margot stood outside the bar. She took a breath of sea air and looked around. The tattoo shop was dark inside, but its presence lingered with her as she walked home, filling her thoughts with images in dark ink, their patterns swirling and connecting through her mind like living things.
As she entered her house and locked the door behind her, the delusion of gratitude still clung to her like gossamer. She almost called out in greeting, but the truth wrapped its cold tendrils around her heart, aborting the “Hello” before it left her throat.
Grief hit Margot so hard it knocked the wind out of her. She struggled for breath as she staggered into the foyer, her heels scrabbling unsteadily on the marble floor, echoing lonely in the cavernous dark.
Margot sank to the floor and was swallowed up by the chill stone beneath her. It was never supposed to be like this.