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Vol. 2, No. 2

Erotomorphia
by Claire Messud

Isabella Greengrass put on a pair of red lucite cat-eyes: they gave her an expression at once vampish and dowdy, and accentuated the point of her delicate chin. The salesman nodded at her in the mirror. Isabella sighed, and took the glasses off. Next she chose an octagonal design, which lent her features an intellectual air. The salesman shot his starched cuffs and raised an eyebrow. But his client was not satisfied: her fingers roamed the selection laid out before her, and selected a heavy pair of horn-rims.
    "You tried those on earlier."
    "I know, I know. I just want to see--"
    "It all depends what, uh, effect you want. Chic, professional, a little bohemian, perhaps. . .?" The young lady had been seated at the mirror for forty-five minutes, and had peered at her image through almost all the frames in the shop. The salesman did not believe she would come to a decision, and was irked.
    "I just can't decide." Isabella's green eyes filled, and her curling lashes clumped, fetchingly, with tears. "I don't know what to look like."
    "Might I suggest, in that case--"
    Isabella pushed back the plum velveteen stool upon which she had been perched. "I have made up my mind," she said loudly, "not to make up my mind today."
    "It's up to you." The salesman's lips curled in a venomous sneer. "If you knew your own style, then we might be of service."
    Head high, Isabella strode out into the afternoon glare. Her vision was blurred by tears and myopia, but nothing in her dignified gait betrayed this confusion. She made her way to the littered plaza of Dupont Circle, and sat on one of the sagging benches there, as if to admire the murky fountain. Around her bustled clusters of people and pigeons. Cars whizzed around the circle, and in the distance the tootling pipes of an Andean band could be heard. Oblivious, Isabella Greengrass, of the luminous green eyes and the swan's neck, plucked at a hangnail and tried to quell her ragged breathing.
    Isabella, who had left her only pair of glasses on the plane the week before, did not know what she wanted to look like; but this aesthetic doubt was merely a symptom of her greater disaffection. At twenty-seven, newly and unhappily resident in her father's Georgetown mansion, she did not know who she was. Not literally, of course: she was the only daughter of the silver-haired Senator William Greengrass, controversial scion of Capitol society; the soon-to-be-divorced wife of Elliott Morton, the up-and-coming San Francisco lawyer, whose work on behalf of environmental causes (and against the policies of Senator Greengrass) was already all but legend; and the stage actress of small but certain reputation, whose Nina in The Seagull had garnered such praise the previous season--she was well aware of these facts, which seemed, so baldly, to sum up her life. No, her uncertainty was of a more profound and far-reaching nature, which rendered any vision of the future as blurred and bleak as the fountain before her eyes.
    In college, her best friend, Agnes, had coined a word for Isabella: an "erotomorph," one transformed by Eros. Isabella was a young woman impassioned and defined by love, who embraced and came to embody the passions of her lovers. "Clear this up for me, Bella. Do you choose the guys first," Agnes teased, "and then fall for their hobbies? Or pick a subject, then find someone to learn about it from?"
    When she arrived at university, Isabella had wanted, vaguely, to become a doctor, ministering to the poor; but an early entanglement with Ben, a hot-headed theater director, led her to the stage. She sacrificed organic chemistry for Chekhov and Ibsen, and anatomy for Miller and Albee. In her third year, she shucked the director for a lanky saxophonist named Ivor, and crammed her cupboards and her friends' ears with CDs of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Upon graduation, Isabella and Ivor settled in San Francisco, where she became, again, an actress; it was, after all, what she did best. But everyone around her knew that jazz was her central passion--or, rather, that Ivor's passion was her passion.
    After Ivor, there was, briefly, a solo sailor, who peppered Isabella's vocabulary with jibs and booms and compass readings; and an aspiring clothes designer, responsible for Isabella's chic, who taught her about bias cuts and shirring, and used her as a mannequin on his runway. Finally, there was Elliott Morton. He appealed to her in his sobriety and cutting wit, his gravitas; he charmed her with the force of his convictions and his impressive dealings with the dog-eat-dog world of the law. She pored over his discarded textbooks, joined Greenpeace, hugged redwoods--showed, in short, so devoted a commitment to ambitious Elliott's career that their union seemed inevitable.
    And, like all of Isabella's men--perhaps, Agnes slyly suggested, it was for this that she chose them?--Elliott enraged her father. Indeed, Elliott's arena of action ensured that he enraged Senator Greengrass far more acutely than some hapless musician or tony dress designer. The patriarch's blessing at their nuptials was so grudging that Isabella felt sure she had made the right match; that she would, hereafter, be free of her father.
    Only two years on, however, Elliott had fallen for a fellow lawyer, a snippy, thin-lipped representative of Shell Oil--the enemy! For the first time, Isabella Greengrass, the mutable beauty, the erotomorph, was dumped rather than dumping. She had no new passions, no eros to morph into, no education apparent; and she crumbled. When she found herself romancing a suicidal heroin addict in a seedy San Francisco bar, Isabella knew enough to leave town; and having nowhere else to go, she slunk home to her father, whose arms were unconditionally open, and whose hatred of Elliott now knew no bounds.

 

~

Even when there were no guests, supper at the Greengrass residence was served by a uniformed maid. This had been the case since the death of Inez, Isabella's beloved mother, when the girl was only eight. Meals at the Senator's table had long been a trial to his daughter, a tedium of squeaking knives and intermittent pleasantries from which she longed to escape.
    Aware of her discomfort, William Greengrass could do little to alleviate it. He adored but had never understood his contrary offspring, whose excitable temperament he attributed to his beloved Latin wife, and he sought refuge in the simplest of questions.
    "How was your day, then?"
    "Boring." Isabella played with her duck breast, pushing it around in its glutinous sauce.
    "Any luck with the glasses?"
    "I may have to go to New York to find what I want."
    "New York?" Senator Greengrass looked up from his plate. "Why?"
    "Don't start, Daddy. There's absolutely nothing here."
    "What's here is good enough for me, and for my colleagues, and for the world's most eminent diplomats."
    Isabella pointedly ogled her father's gray suit. "Do you want a critique of your fashion sense?"
    William Greengrass mastered his frustration by literally biting his tongue. The pair was silent except for the barely audible slurp as he drank his wine.
    "Any plans for the weekend?"
    "Ag's organizing a dinner party on Saturday. Mostly lawyers, and some USAID people. I don't know if I'll go."
    "She's a good friend to you, that Agnes."
    Isabella glowered, but her father didn't appear to notice.
    "You're free on Friday, then?"
    "Like every other day of my life."
    "Then perhaps--" The Senator daubed gracefully at the corners of his mouth with his linen napkin. "Perhaps you'd consider an evening out with me?"
    "Depends what kind of evening."
    Isabella's father permitted himself a wry smile. "Am I not right in quoting the theatrical adage that the first rule of improvisation is always to say yes?"
    On Friday afternoon, mere hours before dinner at the Baburshahnistani embassy, Isabella had her hair cut off. She did this not as an act of conscious rebellion, but because the hairdresser insisted it was the right "look" for her client. Her shorn black curls, the stylist gushed, were "simply divine"; but Isabella, peering at the discovered shape of her head as at a foreign map, was initially uncertain; and her father, when she appeared before him, grimaced.
    "You look like an urchin."
    "It's the style, Daddy." Isabella felt strengthened by his disapproval. "It's a relief."
    Her father shrugged. "What are you trying to accomplish?" he asked. "You won't attract any men this way."
    "Is that what you think I want to do? You think it's all about men?" Isabella snorted, flaring her fine nostrils and looking, in her fury, like a young matador. "If I never met another man I wouldn't care. I've got to concentrate on myself for a change. You ought to want that too--after everything that's happened."
    "Not all men are like Elliott Morton," observed the Senator, as he adjusted his bow tie. "I just want my baby to be happy."
    "Do I look like a baby to you?"

 

~

The Baburshahnistani ambassador's feast was given in honor of Prince Ravi, recently ascended to the throne upon the death of his honored father, King Then. The Prince had not visited the United States before. His tiny kingdom, under Then, had shunned the blandishments of that great empire; and the Prince's Anglophile education had instilled in him a contempt for America's crass capitalism. He had ventured to Washington only reluctantly, under pressure from his advisers.
    Ravi knew, in his compassionate heart, that they were right. He had studied economics at Oxford University; he had seen the bleak poverty in which most of his subjects struggled; and he conceded that the exploitation of Baburshahnistan's untapped oil reserves by American concerns might be the best hope for his people. But that didn't mean he liked it. He wanted, above all, to bring prosperity to his toiling peasantry, electricity to their sandy hovels, medical care to their children--and he would come to Washington, he told his councillors, to assess the cost of such advances to his country and his culture. He would be, as his education dictated, gracious; but he made no promises.
    Senator Greengrass had a particular interest in Baburshahnistan. To be sure, the country's oil was a lure; but he sought, too, to cultivate a strong ally in that region, and Baburshahnistan was the healthiest prospect. And again, William Greengrass was a patriot of the old school, who believed in exporting the world's finest principles wherever possible, and who saw, in Prince Ravi, a chance for demo-cracy, a bulwark against cowboy extremism. His own substantial holdings in Wexco Oil, prime bidders for the Baburshahnistan contract, were not--he would have sworn so under oath--his primary incentive.
    Isabella knew none of this. She knew only that her father had roped her into a black-tie event for which she had no ball gown. Scanning the embassy's crowded foyer, she noted with perverse satisfaction that she was the sole woman present with short hair and in a short dress. The ambassador's wife was draped, to her toes, in shimmering purple; and the other ladies, scattered like rare peacocks around the salon, their hair upswept in shiny coifs, glittered in gilt and sequins. The men--so many of them paunchy and cauliflower-nosed--looked, in their evening attire, like puffed penguins. Among the perfumed lilies and the delicate strains of the Baburshahnistani harp, Isabella could smell power, her father's kind of power, and she could hear it, in the lowered voices. She wrinkled her nose in disgust.
    "What is this, Dad? What's it for?" she asked, accepting a champagne flute from a passing waiter. "The cost of this bash would feed the country's hungry for a month!"
    "It's just a party, Bella. All you have to do is be pleasant--you might even surprise yourself and have a good time."
    "As if."
    "I've got to go talk shop, sweetie. Why don't you check in with Mrs. Whiting over there--ask about that drug-dealing dropout son of hers. You used to have your eye on him, didn't you?"
    "I hate it when you call me 'sweetie.'"

 

~

Isabella stood in a corner on her own long enough to down her champagne and trade her empty glass for a full one. She asked the waiter for the bathroom, and followed his directions down the corridor behind the central stairwell. The oversized room was plushly carpeted, and, once she shut the door, deliciously quiet. She opened the frosted glass window, letting in a billow of sticky air, and caught a glimpse of the embassy's manicured garden. A bird twittered in the hedge beneath the sill. Isabella sighed, put down the lid of the toilet, and sat. Rummaging in her evening bag, she withdrew a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a wilted book of matches.
    "Moron, entertain thyself," she muttered, and proceeded to blow smoke rings from her perch toward the open sky.
    When the door--which she had failed to lock--opened, Isabella started. She fumbled with her cigarette, spilling ash. As she turned to the intruder, she smushed the flecks of gray into the carpet with her sandaled foot.
    "Excuse me. I'm so sorry." A slight and rather hawkish young man with large, hooded eyes and a pouting mouth shook his head and made as if to withdraw. "The door was not locked."
    "I'm not--I'll just go--I was--"
    "I'm sure you are welcome to smoke at the party." The man's smile revealed impeccable teeth. His British inflection had a lilt to it, almost Welsh. He didn't seem like a politician.
    "It's not that. Quiet time, that's all." Isabella stubbed the cigarette on the window ledge and gathered her bag.
    "Stay, if you wish. I'm just rinsing a small spot--" he proceeded to the sink, where he liberally splashed water onto his embroidered waistcoat. "Well, a rather large one. I had a tussle with an aggressive shrimp and lost."
    Isabella stifled a snicker. "Dangerous events, these parties."
    "Not without their drawbacks."
    "Nothing but drawbacks, if you ask me."
    "You don't enjoy them?"
    "Not my idea of a good time. What's to enjoy? Don't you think? Our invisible host pops over here and blows his entire country's GNP in a single evening, buying up boatloads of aggressive shrimp to impress and confound us."
    "Indeed." The man brushed at his waistcoat with a pink hand towel. "But there are unexpected pleasures."
    "Such as?"
    "Such as this encounter."
    "And they say chivalry is dead! I'll go home saying I met at least one charming gentleman."
    "There. I think I'm presentable now. More or less." He looked down at his front, which was frankly wet. He made a helpless gesture, at which they both laughed. "You will excuse me? Stay as long as you like--but you might want to lock the door."

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