It start with the hat. But before the hat there sometime a cap, and before that just hair, thick brown beautiful and long. Then it short but beautiful still with a cap without a cap. And before? The way they talk, like pulling the string on a top. Spin for an hour or two or three and go off the table. And sometime still there just her words her voice like a pool for him to stare at, fall into, be face down in, her voice to float face down in.
She want him to be what and where and she want a young him and an old him both there both what and where. They want and mostly get a full and be around nice and easy them, a fully fed and feeding, a took and giving, a gave and taking them.
And she say and he does and he do and she say and they do and she say and he do and they love it it doesn’t matter they just do they love it.
One day as they going out she say hold on I just want to show you I got this great new thing I gotta wear this it great. She put it on as they go through the door and he just staring. Then he see it a joke a put on and he laugh. But she say what so funny and he think what? She don’t know? But he know better than to say what and say he just thinking of a joke from work and she say what and he say you know I tell jokes bad and she say come on and he say skip it.
But the thing on her head. The hat it look he can’t really believe how wrong, it look so bad can’t really believe since she not in a band or going to a hat party but just wearing it going to wear it wear it out she he and it. Out in public.
Just what sort of person would wear it outside or inside for that matter it doesn’t matter it matters what sort of person would say that about that terrible movie that incredible song would wear that outside or inside? Doubt the her-in-his-brain which before say “for being so this, for being so that” now replaced by “what about that hat what is it about what is it about that hat what if what if that what if that hat would oh I don’t know . . .”
He notice she wear it day after day after day and it too late for him to say that hat a big mistake. He just have to bear it while she wear it. He just have to get used to it and wait for her to spill juice on it or something.
But then one cold winter night alone at the pizzeria he realize something been following him around for a while quiet almost like a cell on vibrate and he understand it his brain calling him trying to tell him something. So at the pizzeria he finally take it listen to it saying what if some he she or they tell her to wear something put it in her head to put it on tell her head to wear that hat? Because it so not like her to wear it he’d laugh and she’d laugh they’d laugh at that hat but no she really wearing it wearing it out. Because something put it there and say do this and do that and she say okay but it so not like her to say okay to that so not like her to wear something like . . .
And now something in him feel strange something saying maybe she don’t have maybe she maybe she not such a top-notch person to partner with to be a part of, a part from maybe but a partner with? Maybe but maybe not maybe maybe not maybe but maybe not.
The hat it mean she not the same one he start with the one he thought she was. The hat it may make him mean may not want to be but he want to be mean to not be next to that hat. He mean to be next to her without that hat make him be mean to that hat.
So one night he tell her not to be to him like she do. He doesn’t say “hat” nothing about that but say not to say do this do that.
She stop. She say wait that’s not right not part of being a partner what’s wrong, what’s wrong with you? What wrong with me he say because she going on all around him. It used to be good to be surrounded smooth and rounded off but now he feel jagged and want to jag right through her words they’re wrong and she say what the hell what the hell’s wrong with you?
He tell her it’s a knot it’s not just his brain, it’s why, why do you wear that you wear that that— What? she say. That hat he say why do you think you can wear that hat and say do this and do that. What? she say. I can’t believe you you . . . you of all I can’t what? Think all of what? Of all the low, why didn’t you Jesus you mean you hate you hated my hat the whole time and didn’t say . . . you what the why didn’t you and he have wide popping eyes and say what I can’t fucking believe this that’s just a bunch of crap and she say okay listen calm down and she say but see look she say she dislike him telling her—there’s a tone of voice he use—what or what not to tell her to tell him what she want to do or not do or wear for that matter it matters it fucking does.
And she say what made him decide he dislike doing this and what make him think she doesn’t know what she want when she fucking well does.
She say what she want him to do to make it up for being so mean to make it up to her it’s up to her about what he need to do and to do it four or five times take your pick.
And he say you oh Jesus what do you what the fuck do you mean? I never said—And she say okay okay calm the fuck down Jesus just cool it, okay? And he say why the sudden change what him her he she or it convinced her that hat was so special so great—Oh fuck she say you’re one to talk what he she or they got him to think something was whatevering her when maybe some he or she or they made him think something was telling her to say do this to him and made him tell her to not tell him to do this do that. And he say Jesus Christ can you make some sense for a change like maybe try English I mean what the fuck are you trying to say? What am I trying to? Shit she say you’re the one spewing all this incomprehensible bullshit garbage about maybe some he she or it what the fuck is that? What? he say. I can’t fucking believe this. You. Who are you to talk. You parading around with that fucking hat on your head.
Oh my god she say all this stupid shit it can’t really all just be that can it? Is all this really just about the hat and he just stare at her and she start to cry. And she crying and finally she say her brain she say it ache it ache since he tell her so precise how much he hate her, hate her hat but that the hat is hers hers to do with as she please and she will but now it aches to know how he ruined it fucked it up oh screw you she say just fuck off and leave oh just fucking leave us. Us? he say leave us the fuck alone she say, and he gape at her how truly insane she is.
Did she always think of the hat as if it were a person? One that she took with her everywhere? It wore him out thinking about it. And it impossible it place him in this impossible really stupid fucked up position of having to feel, what, he can’t even think about it. He ask, where’s it from and how much? She refuse absolutely refuse to say so stubborn she says have you considered therapy?
He leave and try but can’t figure out what happen and think about the hat and then he think of her how her eyes are and her voice in her body is and how her body without the hat is and now he want to kill the hat kill it.
But then he remember when his brain and body telling him they loved what her brain and body were telling him and he remember that on and off all day.
So he come back and they talk calm and they talk long and finally there silence. And then it just too confusing he can’t can’t just pretend it okay, okay with that hat and how she like it better than and he can’t say okay and make it be okay. He have to leave because this—
Don’t leave, she say.
Let’s just stop.
And he say, I’m saying let’s just stop at the same time.
And they say, let’s just stop at the same time,
stop talking about it. They stop talking
about it at the same time.
And now she always say she going out for an hour or two and he don’t look up anymore since he know she wearing but not mentioning her hat. Not mentioning, why would she, it on her head isn’t it? She only wear her hat when she go out by herself now, when she and her hat go outside together. And when he and she go out the hat stay home. It like that movie they saw about a ménage a trois which sort of cool but what would this be a ménage a hat? How sad is that? And he and the hat hating each other. But no, he tell himself, the hat not a person it just fabric, fabric on her head. He and the hat hate, he know it just crazy. But he see that hat lord it over him. Sometime he think it smirking from on top her head when she and it going out. It because she seeing someone who appreciate her and hat, isn’t it. Someone she like and hat like, no, the hat it just fabric but she seeing someone, someone good at lying and saying, “Oh yes, I like your hat. I like your hat very much.”
And when he and she go out now something, no, almost everything missing, and also when they go in. And he think she and hat probably have more fun together than she and he. And he try to make himself feel better but the best he can do is think how good it is that no one ever have to know the kind of things he think. But he think, I know. And hat probably know. No, the hat just material on her head.
And he start to realize but can’t even think about the truth. He put it down shut it out and turn around. But it always run around in front again. And it talk to him in a voice low and slow and what it say is, You jealous, jealous of a hat. Sure you think hat ugly but deep down you think it better than you. You don’t see you on her head, do you? Yeah come on you know you jealous of that fucking hat just admit it. And it say all that in different ways over and over and he getting so sick of it he finally say, Yeah okay I jealous of a hat, all right? Satisfied? I jealous of that fucking hat now shut the fuck up and leave me alone and then he look around to see if anyone see him talking to himself.
So finally he decide to tell her and one night they out and her hair almost a crew-cut and it cool out even getting cold. And he turn to her and say you know your hat? And she look at him. And he say you know you know um your hat? And she nod. He want to say something but he know better, no, uh uh he feel himself about to start sputtering out, how come you have more fun with your hat when your hat when you and your hat than when you and me when we together? So uh uh no way he know better than that. Say something else. But all he say is you know your hat?
And she just look at him now and not blinking not smiling stopped smiling long ago she just look at him.
And when he finally understand she not going to speak he say, and he can’t believe he do but it just blurts through him, he say maybe we can you know have fun like you do with well maybe you know um if you wore your hat we could—
Which hat? she say and he notice her eyes big and staring, popping out at him.
Oh you know which hat that hat the one you not wearing now that hat that hat—
And now she smile big big as the world and say, Oh, that hat, I thought you didn’t like—
And he say, Are you seeing someone who like that hat? Who like you and even that hat?
I seeing lots of people, she say. Lots. And everybody like the hat except you. Everybody happy that I happy about the hat . . . except you.
He silent and just look down at his feet as they walk down the street past the shops noticing how she not answer his question at all. How he know as little now as ever. Maybe less. How she seem to enjoy keeping him in the dark. He look at her and she looking at him still smiling. Wait a second, she say stopping. She open her purse and unzip a special section pull something out and it the hat!
He ask, You carrying hat around all this time?
She just look at him cool holding him with her eyes while she carefully expand it and there it is the hat. She put it on and he watch her fingers feel the material, moving slowly, her palm running slowly down over it, it just fabric on her head. He watch her hand touch it lightly she rub it so running her hands her fingertips down it slow. How long since she touch him like that? He hate hat. Hate it more than ever. But now she looking at him intense and she stare at him while she touch the hat. He keep watching, her and hat, like voyeuring. I love my hat, she say to him then and walk over to a storefront window and begin studying her reflection. I love the way it make me look and feel. I love what my darling hat does for me. She turn back toward him, and her gaze move up and down him and he feel the swell below and it slowly spread through him and she start smiling. I love my hat she say again. I gonna wear it all the time. It make me feel so sexy, and she turn back to her reflection. And he think my god . . . that hat . . . I . . . and it feel like a fresh layer of life descend over them and he think I . . . the hat . . . it . . . and he don’t know what.
She walk back then right back up to him and she seem taller than he do now but maybe it the hat the hat definitely taller. She look right into his eyes and ask, How do we look?
We? he think. It make him insane it so crazy but oh my god he can’t help it he feel so he don’t know what she just looking at him and asking him this question. You look great together, he say.
That’s the first correct thing you’ve said in ages, she say.
He say, yes. Yes, he know.
When we go home, she say, you’ll be in charge of one thing: upkeep of hat. You see that it maintained properly, dusted, I want hat always looking good. It your job to pamper hat. Maybe the most important job you ever have. You be able to do that for me?
She smile and put her arm in his. As they near home he hear her murmur something—he not sure if she talking to him or to herself.
What’s that? he say.
And she say, I love my hat so much.
Editor’s note: “Hat” was previously published in Mad Hatters’ Review in 2007.
Steve Gilmartin is the author of a chapbook of mistranslations of Emily Dickinson from the German, Comes Up to Face the Skies (LRL Textile Series, 2013). His fiction and poetry have appeared in many print and online journals, including and/or, Big Bridge, BlazeVOX, Café Irreal, Eleven Eleven, Otoliths, Rivet, Sein und Werden, Terror House Magazine, and Unlikely Stories. He lives in Berkeley, California.