Costumes by Amber Blaeser-Wardzala
From the startling opening of Amber Blaeser-Wardzala’s “Costumes,” which begins with the sentence, “He likes to wear a cowboy hat when he fucks her,” the reader is inexorably drawn into a story that, according to the author’s note, is based on people’s “love for cowboys and old westerns,” but transposes the “trope of cowboys and Indians” from the so-called American frontier into the bedroom. Blaeser-Wardzala unfolds a story of first love for an eighteen-year-old Anishinaabe female character who falls for the white male art student with “blue eyes” she meets one night at the library during her freshman year in college. Both characters are unnamed. He has been drawing her without her permission, but she doesn’t mind: “He is Johannes Vermeer, and she is his girl with a pearl earring.” Not long after the couple meet, what appears to be a love story quickly takes a turn that is both disquieting yet somehow disturbingly familiar.
The prose contributes to this sense of unease by using a matter-of-fact, almost impersonal, third-person narrative voice against which the narrator chronicles their relationship, lulling the reader into complacency, so that when Blaeser-Wardzala weaves in depictions of historical violence and assault, fetishization and racism, each instance of these offenses has the impact of water spattering on hot oil. As the author notes, “There was a distance from the narrator and a lack of emotional expression…but I wanted to lean into that distance, that dissociation.” The clever use of color and objects further unsettles the reader. In one passage, color imbues everyday objects with layered significance as Blaeser-Wardzala describes the “red condom,” “brown thighs,” “white tissues,” and “gray sheets” in concise sentences. Similarly, the cowboy hat worn by the male character initially seems like an odd proclivity, but this object takes on a more sinister role as the story progresses.
Each scene ratchets up the tension. The subplot of the arguing “upstairs neighbors” echoes the main narrative and punctuates the pressure, further enhanced by the repeated rhythmic phrases in the prose—such as “she wonders” and “she imagines” and “his Indian”—an effect which resonates like a warning cadence. Throughout the story, the reader can’t help but wonder where the relationship is headed, how it will evolve, never suspecting its stunning and perhaps inevitable conclusion. —CRAFT
Content Warning—domestic abuse
He likes to wear a cowboy hat when he fucks her. She is eighteen, wears her hair traditional—its length snaking down her athlete’s body, a body slowly giving way to womanly curves. She doesn’t know enough to be afraid of him.
They meet at the library at the beginning of her freshman year. She hunches over her econ books, the string of her headphones knotted in her long hair, her fingertips red with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos dust. He doesn’t say hello, doesn’t introduce himself, just taps her shoulder. She takes out an earbud and looks up at him. He smiles at her, showing off his one crooked tooth. That tooth is one of the things she will love about him—the way that it is uniquely him. She smiles back, and he asks to draw her.
No one has ever asked her that before. “Yeah, go for it,” she says.
He sits down in the chair across from her, turning it around first so he sits on it backward and rests his arms on its back, his legs spread wide apart. She tries to keep her gaze from going to the space between his legs.
“Good,” he says, “because I already have.”
He passes her his sketchbook, and drawings of her fill the pages—nearly two dozen at least. Some of them she recognizes. The one of her leaning against a tree that is slowly giving way to autumn is from three days earlier. One is from a week ago when she played basketball with a group of other girls from her dorm—or “rez ball” as they call it back home. She is midlayup, a triumphant smile on her face, as if she already knows it’s going in.
Others are unfamiliar, some not even real. The one of her wearing a feather standing erect at the back of her head never happened. She doesn’t think too much about it though, is too busy staring at just how beautiful he made her. Her cheekbones don’t look as severe as she has always thought they were. Her face doesn’t look as square, as squat, as it looks in the mirror. The sharp angle of her nose looks dignified. She never felt beautiful before, not the way that looking at these renderings makes her feel. He captured something in her she hadn’t realized was possible. He is Johannes Vermeer, and she is his girl with a pearl earring.
She hands his sketchbook back. He draws her until the library closes. She doesn’t get much work done, keeps peeking at him from the corner of her eye. As they leave the library together, side by side, he asks her out for the following night, and she says yes. They become official within the week. He tells her he loves her by the end of week two. They sleep together by the end of month one.
She doesn’t tell him she is a virgin until they are done. It hurts more than she expects. After, blood soaks the condom and her inner thighs. He doesn’t say anything about it right away. He uses a handful of Kleenexes to remove the condom and tosses it into the plastic trashcan next to his bed. The red of it looks unnatural, out of place, among all that white. The two of them shower together without talking. The arguing of the upstairs neighbors echoes through the bathroom.
In towels, they walk back into his bedroom. There is a distinctive bloodstain on his gray sheets. She helps him change them. They curl up on the fresh sheets with the laptop between them to finish the movie they had been watching.
The movie is almost done when he asks, “I’m your first?”
“Huh. New frontier,” he says.
They never speak of it again.
She doesn’t learn much about him until month two. He is two years older, smokes real cigarettes instead of e-cigarettes, is majoring in Art. He meditates in the nude every morning, collects crystals to suck up the negative vibes, can recite Wordsworth in any condition—sober, drunk, stoned. His favorite movie is anything with John Wayne.
She doesn’t like westerns but pretends to like them, because it seems important to him.
They watch The Telegraph Trail together. He spoons her on the bed, the computer in front of her. He gets more distracted the longer the movie goes on. It starts with his mouth on her neck then his hands under her shirt. Then her clothes are on the ground. She turns her neck to kiss him back. She tries to enjoy the feel of his tongue teasing hers, but she is too aware of the Indians riding across the screen in the corner of her eye.
He strokes his hand down her butt-length hair. “Why do you keep your hair so long?” he asks her. His voice comes out husky, and she feels the hardness of him pressing against her from under his jeans.
“Cultural thing,” she says. “Has to do with the Anishinaabe teachings about hair.”
He turns her body so she is facing him. He runs his hand down her naked skin.
“Tell me about them,” he says.
His mouth is on her ear. She likes that normally, but she doesn’t like it now. She doesn’t like any of it, and she doesn’t understand why.
“Tell me,” he says into her ear.
“Let’s watch the movie,” she says and tries to pull away from him.
He laughs and moves his mouth to her high cheekbone. He bites it lightly. “We can watch it later. This is more interesting. You’re more interesting.”
He unbuttons his pants.
She doesn’t know what else to do so she tells him the teachings. He tosses his clothes onto the ground. They land on top of hers, covering them. A corner of her purple panties peeks out from under his white T-shirt. His hands roam her body, growing greedier with each word she speaks. When she stops talking, he asks her if they can try something new. She nods.
He goes to his closet. She stares up at the ceiling, counts the cracks. She hears his upstairs neighbors screaming at each other. She hears something shatter on the ground. She thinks she sees one of the cracks grow. She wonders how long until the building collapses around them.
He returns to bed wearing a cowboy hat. He shuts the computer and sets it on the ground and then he crawls on top of her.
He thrusts himself into her. She isn’t wet. Her body isn’t ready. It hurts more than when she lost her virginity to him.
He puts one hand next to her head. The other one holds the hat down. She reaches up to take it off.
“No,” he says.
“Why?” she asks.
“All cowboys wear their hats when they’re riding animals,” he says.
She doesn’t try to take it off again. She turns her face away from him, because she can’t keep the pain out of her expression, and she doesn’t want to make him feel bad by not enjoying herself.
He grabs her chin and yanks her face back.
“Look at me,” he commands.
She does. They maintain eye contact for the rest of it. She imagines she’s not there. She imagines she’s upstairs watching the neighbors fight. She imagines the woman holding a lamp, holding it like a sword to keep the man away from her. She wonders what causes this fight. She can always hear them fighting. She wonders if he comes home drunk. She wonders if he’s a mean drunk, if he hits the woman. She wonders if the woman loves him. She wonders if the woman thinks she can change him. She wonders if the woman thinks he’s worth it. She wonders why.
He hits a sensitive part of her. She grimaces, and he finishes. She doesn’t bother to pretend to finish. When he rolls off her, there’s blood on the latex again. She can feel it on her brown thighs. She watches him use the white tissues to remove the red condom.
She doesn’t join him in the shower this time. She puts on her bra and her shirt and pulls her underwear and pants back on over the red on her legs and goes back to her dorm room.
She doesn’t know enough to leave him, to dump him. She remembers the way her parents scream into the night at each other. She remembers the bruises on her auntie’s arms. She remembers her grandmother laughing at her grandfather’s funeral. She thinks of the upstairs neighbors. She thinks all relationships have problems. Theirs could be worse.
He wears his hat in bed from then on.
During winter break, he visits her reservation for New Year’s Eve. Her family doesn’t like him. Her family tries to be nice to him. He tells her father that he always felt such a strong connection to the Indian people—that it makes sense, him ending up with her. He tells her father he burns sage every day, uses it to purify his crystals, and bought a dream catcher off Amazon for his bed after they started dating. He tells her father he wants her to feel comfortable in his apartment since she spends so much time there. She sits next to him, his arm wrapped around her shoulders, and wishes she was able to stop him, get him to close his mouth.
Her father looks at her. “Seriously? This chimookomaan? You could have at least chosen one that doesn’t buy his sage from Urban Outfitters.”
She can’t make eye contact with her father. Her boyfriend doesn’t even realize he’s been insulted.
That night after her boyfriend goes to bed, her mother says to her, “So many Native boys at that college of yours. Why couldn’t you have dated one of them? It’s not too late.”
She wishes they could see the side of him that only she sees. How he brings her Wendy’s during her work shifts. How he stocks his fridge with Pepsi for her, even though he is morally opposed to soda. How he calls her beautiful, tells her how special she is.
She takes him to the New Year’s Eve sobriety powwow. He insists on wearing his cowboy hat even though it’s inside the high school gym. He watches her dance from the bleachers. After one dance, she looks up, and he’s gone.
She leaves the gym to find him. Her parents exchange glances.
She finds him smoking his cigarettes outside the building next to the No Smoking: Tobacco Is Sacred sign.
“There you are,” she says.
He turns and smiles at her. “Sorry, just needed a nicotine fix.”
“You can’t do that here. Powwows are a spiritual ceremony, and you’re literally abusing a sacred medicine,” she tells him.
He grins, revealing that crooked tooth, and flicks the cigarette away. He wraps his arms around her waist, pressing some of the jingles of her dress deep into the delicate skin of her back. He’s hard against her stomach. He bends down and kisses her in the shade of his cowboy hat. She kisses him back, wraps her arms around his neck. He moves his lips to her ear.
“You’re so beautiful,” he says. “I love you in braids.”
She smiles into his neck. “Thank you.”
He pulls away slightly and runs a hand across the top of her head. “All that’s missing is a feather up here.”
He continues to draw her. It turns into an obsession. Sketchbooks upon sketchbooks filled with her. Every assignment he turns in has her in it. For his landscape painting class, he paints an entire Wild West scene enclosed in the rendered lips of her vagina, cowboy and all.
When he shows her the painting, he tells her, “My professor asked me where the Indian was. All I could do was laugh.”
He draws her after sex. He’s always on top, one hand holding his hat on, the other holding her chin in place so he can watch her face with every thrust. He says he needs to see her eyes to create his art. She feels wrong telling him no.
The moment he finishes, he rolls off her and grabs the sketchbook next to the bed. He draws what he remembers of her expression during sex. He doesn’t even take off the condom, sits there cross-legged on the bed wearing the used latex. She lies there and counts the cracks in the ceiling as he works. She listens to the neighbors. By this time of night, they’re fighting again.
When he’s done with his sketch, he labels it with a date and a number—the number standing for how many times they’ve done it. Then he gets up. He folds the condom into a wad of tissues and tosses it into the trash by the bed. He picks his phone up from the chair he uses for a nightstand. He opens up the news app. She lies there on the bed and continues to count the cracks. Twenty-eight, so far.
He glances up from his phone then to look at her. “Do you…you know, need anything?”
She looks away from the ceiling. He’s still wearing the hat. Something breaks in the apartment above them. She gives him a small smile and looks back up at the ceiling. “No, it’s fine.”
“Okay,” he says and then he sits down next to her to read the news.
Sometimes, instead of the news, he draws her nude body too, not just her face. He gives her instructions for how to pose naturally, how to make it look like she’s not aware of what he’s doing. She thinks she prefers this, the naked drawing of her as opposed to the immediate disassociation from her. She’s not sure. It all makes her feel like a commodity.
In March, he’s trying to find the perfect position to draw her in. His junior portfolio review is next month. He wants something new, something groundbreaking, to show his committee. He’s been trying to find that for the last couple weeks. Nothing satisfies him.
He has her lying on the bed, reading House Made of Dawn, her hair streaming off the edge of the mattress. He signs and sets his sketchbook down.
“No, no, that’s not it,” he says.
She closes the book and sits up. “You want to try something else?”
He studies her. He takes off the cowboy hat and sets it on her head. It’s too big for her. Falls low, blocking her eyes from his view. He chews on the end of his pencil as he considers her. After several minutes, he shakes his head and yanks the hat off her, ripping out a few strands of her hair in the process. He tosses the hat on the ground.
“No, no, no! Fuck. You look all wrong with that on,” he says.
She smooths down her hair. She wants to cry. It’s the first time he has called her anything but beautiful and perfect.
He gets up and paces the room. She lies down to count the ceiling cracks again. She’s up to sixteen when he sits down on the bed again and picks up his sketchbook. He flips to a new page.
“Braid your hair,” he says.
She sits up, pulls her legs to her chest. “Why?”
“Because I want to sketch it. Come on. Do it.”
She stares into his blue eyes and wonders what would happen if she said no. She’s never told him no before. She wants to tell him no.
There’s something in that blue that scares her. She does what he tells her to do. Legs still pressed to her chest, she separates her hair into three sections and begins to weave them together. She feels like a whore.
He reaches out and grabs her ankle, yanks it toward him. There’s a small popping in it. She cries out.
“Stop covering yourself up with your legs,” he says. “I want to see all of you.”
She spreads her legs, exposing her still-growing breasts and the small patch of dark hair on her stomach. She keeps braiding, not looking at him.
“Two braids. I want you to do two braids, not one,” he says.
She pauses for a moment. Then she undoes the beginnings of her braid, splits her hair down the middle, and begins to braid one half. His hand sketches away, but his eyes never leave her body—like she is a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and he has paid his dime to consume her.
She doesn’t speak to him for a few weeks. She ignores his calls. She goes to the doctor for her ankle. It’s sprained. The doctor gives her a brace. She lies when they ask her how she hurt it.
He texts her what’s wrong? the first week. The second week, he comes to her dorm and bangs on the door. He pleads with her, begs her to just open the door. She puts in her earbuds. She doesn’t let him in. The third week, he texts her i’m sorry. i messed up ik. please please just talk to me? i love you. it won’t happen again.
She misses him. They’ve been together long enough that the absence of him feels wrong. They’ve been together long enough that her body craves his. They’ve been together long enough that she can’t see just how fucked up they’ve become. She answers, tells him to come over and they’ll talk. He does. They don’t talk about anything. He just kisses her, and she lets him. And like that, they’re back together.
Things get better after that. The cowboy hat disappears from his room. She doesn’t know where it goes. He gives her daily small gifts. Sends her sweet little text messages. He comes with her for her ankle follow-up appointment. He starts to grow his hair out for her, because he knows she likes longer hair, and he makes sure she knows it’s for her, makes sure she knows he cares and listens. He stops drawing her after sex. He makes sure she finishes too. After sex, he doesn’t grab his phone. They curl into each other, sticky skin pressed to sticky skin. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they just lie there. She enjoys this part the most, the tenderness of it.
The school year ends. She goes home to the reservation and gets a job at DQ. He stays in his apartment near campus. They have daily video calls. They fall asleep with FaceTime on and wake up to dead phones. He visits her a few times. By the end of summer, she has never been more in love with him.
Their reunion in the fall is everything she wanted. He helps move her into her new dorm room. Afterward, they go back to his apartment and have sex. He makes her dinner. They watch a cheesy movie in bed, his head in her lap. The neighbors are silent for once. She plays with his hair. It’s almost down to his chin now.
He looks up at her and grins. “I know what I want for my birthday,” he says.
“What’s that?” She twirls a lock of his brown hair around her finger.
He flicks her nose. “Shh. It’s a surprise.”
She laughs. “But it’s your birthday, shouldn’t I be the one surprising you?”
He looks back at the computer screen. “Traditions are overrated.”
For his birthday, she makes him a homecooked meal of tuna casserole, his favorite food, and a Pillsbury chocolate cake. He draws her as she cooks and convinces her to wear nothing but the apron. She doesn’t mind, likes that he’s drawing her again. It feels like how it did in the beginning.
She puts her dress back on as they eat. He tells her the cake is the best he’s ever had, and she knows he’s lying and she likes that he lies.
She gives him her gift once the leftovers are put away. He sets it aside without opening it. He takes her hands in his and kisses each knuckle.
“I love you,” he says.
“I love you too.”
“There’s only one thing I want for my birthday,” he tells her. “Promise me you’ll say yes? No matter what?”
Her heartbeat increases, not from fear but at the promise of adventure, of possibility. She thinks he is going to ask her to marry him. She wants him to ask her to marry him.
“I promise,” she says.
He kisses her. “Thank you. I love you so much,” he says. He motions to the bathroom. “It’s in there.”
He smiles at her, revealing that tooth she loves. “Just trust me, okay?”
She goes into the bathroom. He follows her, stands in the doorway. Sitting on the toilet is something in lime green wrapping paper. Her heart sinks. It’s too big to be a ring. She picks it up and rips it open. The paper flutters to the ground. She stares at the cardboard insert inside the clear plastic.
He comes up behind her and unzips her. He kisses the back of her neck. “You promised.”
She lets him undress her, strip her down to nothing. She lets him braid her hair into sloppy twin braids. He takes the gift out of her hand and opens the plastic. He pulls out the clothing. He kneels down. He lifts one leg after the other and pulls the tight, fawn-colored dress with the fringe up her body. He laces up the corset top. The dress is so short some of her pubic hair mixes with the faux fur edging. He wraps a plastic bone choker around her neck. He secures it so tightly she can barely breathe. He pulls out the last piece. He lets the plastic casing fall to the ground. Reverently, religiously, he positions it on her head, pulling it down onto her forehead. The mock eagle feather sits erect at the back of her head.
“Absolutely perfect,” he tells her.
He takes her hands and leads his Indian to the bedroom. The cowboy hat waits on the chair next to his bed again. His Indian feels nothing as she lies down on the bed. His Indian feels nothing as he crawls on top of her wearing only that cowboy hat. His Indian feels nothing when his mouth moves between her legs. His Indian listens for the neighbors, but it is silent again. It has been silent for weeks. She wonders if they broke up, if the woman finally left him. She wonders if the man let her leave. She wonders if the man left bruises on the woman. She wonders if the woman is dead.
AMBER BLAESER-WARDZALA is an Anishinaabe writer, beader, fencer, and Jingle Dress Dancer from White Earth Nation in Minnesota. A current MFA Candidate in Fiction at Arizona State University, her writing is forthcoming from Passages North, Tahoma Literary Review, and a Penguin Random House anthology. Her work has appeared in Ruminate Magazine, Jet Fuel Review, and others. Blaeser-Wardzala is a 2022 Tin House fellow and a 2021 fellow for the inaugural Women’s National Book Association’s Authentic Voices Program. Her novel-in-progress was shortlisted for the 2022 Granum Foundation Prize. She is the current nonfiction editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Find her on Twitter @amber2dawn.
Featured image by Megan Bucknall, courtesy of Unsplash.