Now that Mitzi's back from the Galápagos with her father, I'm the only one of us who hasn't done it.
We knew right away it had happened when Mitzi arrived late to Female Physics class wearing her white gloves. She toyed with us at first, hiding her gloved hand inside the skirt folds of her school-issue plaid jumper, then caressing her cheek and forehead with her balled-up fist. Finally, she turned to us and spread her hand so that her nose was pressed into her palm. She looked like a woman at a masked ball, like a not-so-beautiful woman enjoying her one evening as a swan. She grasped her white glove by the index finger and pulled, so slowly that we felt our stomachs turn queasy with a strange, misguided pleasure. Just before her fingers were revealed, she paused.
Johannah grabbed my kneecap under the desk and squeezed. I felt her breath abandon her as Mitzi unveiled her hand, now missing its smallest finger.
After the conclusion of our Global Female Finance class we went to the cemetery. Mitzi climbed the sap pine by the westernmost gate and affixed her white glove--its little finger rust-stained from her new wound--to its Nail of Conquest. There were five nails in all, two horizontal, three vertical, using as an axis a hollow in the pine where we kept our library--Pretty Girl, Vamp, Glowing Bride Quarterly,and various other women's magazines; The Complete Works of the Brothers Grimm; Oedipus Rex; a collection of abridged essays by Freud. Mitzi climbed down after hanging her glove, her thigh black and sticky with sap, and regaled us with tales of her Conquest. She'd done everything as planned--packed a negligee stolen from her mother, douched with rice vinegar and chamomile leaves the morning of the flight, chewed her lips incessantly till they were bruised and swollen, depilated her arms and legs so that she was inviting and sleek as a scaled fluke. Frances (the first to adorn her nail and still a bit reluctant to share the spotlight) commented dismissively on the fact that Mitzi would had to have been a leper not to pull it off.
"You were in a pup tent," Frances said, picking old polish from her nails in large flakes (we'd all agreed she'd let herself go since her Conquest of six months ago). "Around a bunch of breeding animals, for Christ's sake. Sea lions. Blue-footed boobies. Natural selection." She wiped her nose and let the mucus glisten silver on her index finger as she continued to tear at her cuticles. She'd been crying a lot for no reason, something we'd gotten used to by now.
Agnes ran a thoughtful knuckle along a waxed, winglike brow.
"What does natural selection have to do with it?" she inquired. She was the most beautiful of the five of us, with an odd attachment to justice for someone so blessed by the most arbitrarily dealt hand in life.
"It's the most natural of selections," Mitzi said naughtily, twirling her now-gone finger in the tamed ringlets by her temple. Everyone laughed, even Frances, even me, though I found myself looking uneasily up into the tree at my bare nail, and at the four white gloves that fluttered there like trophies from a dove-hunting excursion. Outside the western gate I heard the trolley begin to grind up the hill with its load of soft-bodied husbands and fathers coming home from their menial jobs of stapling invoices and making lunch appointments. When I was a kid, I used to hold my breath until the trolley reached the summit, signaled by the dopey dinging of its bell, because then I knew that I would grow up to be a woman that men compared to planets and flowers and bodies of water. Now I know that fate and games are ways that the unknowing dispel the mysteries of the world. Now I am twelve.
When I came home that afternoon, Frieda was on the couch watching TV. She is seven and plump and still too young to care. Theo, our father, calls her his little june bug and is always pretending to eat her. A note from our mother, Elizabeth, was attached to the refrigerator with a Hera magnet. It read:
Off with the ladies for hiking etc. on Isle au Haut. Din in the refr. Take g. care of F and T. Remind F re: harpsichord lesson Th. @ 3.
When she's not ricocheting between coasts to spearhead corporate sales and yoga retreats, our mother is skipping off to islands (Cuba, the Canaries, Greenland) and leaving me typed notes that become more and more blunt and encoded. She doesn't spend much time with our father--none of the mothers do--and they have all become so hard and muscular and breastless that you wouldn't want a hug from them even if you were feeling bad.
"Din" included a neat stack of frozen dinners, our names written on the spine like doctor's files. I shut the freezer door in disgust and walked into town, to an old butcher still in business despite the fact that hardly anyone eats meat anymore. He offered me a leg of lamb. I made little incisions in the cold flesh and slipped cloves of green-white garlic into the wound, something I'd taught myself from a cookbook I'd found at a rummage sale.
Part of the reason we formed our club was to ensure, as Mitzi wrote in the charter, "the preservation of feminine wiles and the art of female sacrifice." Our motto was "Beauty Through Blind Generosity" and our mission was "to restore the natural order of the sexes." All of our mothers were movie executives and chief surgeons who hiked mountains and worshiped a handful of pagan goddesses. Everything we knew about femininity and romance and the subtle powers of female manipulation we'd had to glean from long-out-of-print beauty magazines found only in curio shops, flaking away like phyllo dough in old fruit crates.
It was Frances who came up with the idea of the Conquest. Everybody used to do it before the millennium, she said. Women even wrote books about it and rose to great fame. And besides, it was an ancient tradition, the desire that linked us to all of humanity in its most primitive, natural form, before women's liberation disturbed the precious balance of things. Look at fairy tales if you don't believe it, she expounded. The impotent woodsman father and the budding daughter perennially oppressed by a heartless, envious stepmother. Their love was the only antidote for her tyranny that incarcerated them and drove them to do foolish things with their lives, like shack up with midgets and drive around in gourds.
I chose a bottle of wine from the cellar and laid out an apron I had bought at a thrift store, circa 1950 the tag had said. There was a love note in the pocket, scrawled in ink on the back of an envelope that once housed an electric bill.
The envelope was scarred with yellow, snaking ovals. I decided they were the fossil imprints of daisy petals, the bloom dismembered in anxious anticipation of some fated conclusion that only flowers knew. He loves me, he loves me not . . .
Then I called Mitzi.
"How long?" Mitzi asked, when I told her Elizabeth was out of town. "You know what you have to do, Helen. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."
"Of course," I replied, tightening the waist of my frilled apron.
Frieda complained about the candles, naturally, because she has an astigmatism that was fixed by a shoddy laser surgeon, and bare flames bother her. She wore sunglasses throughout dinner, which was fine with me, because she has spooky gray eyes that remind me of Elizabeth's.
"What's this?" Theo asked suspiciously. He was wearing his bathrobe, a terry-cloth shortie that had been rubbed smooth of most of its pile, the remaining loops looking like the errant hairs that grow out of moles. Beneath the robe he wore his usual uniform--a V-neck undershirt and brown polyester trousers. His dirty hair was tied back in a ponytail with an old Christmas ribbon, and his eyes skipped around as frantically as a pair of houseflies trapped in a mason jar.
I sat in Elizabeth's seat, a usurpation that nobody noticed or protested.
"Just dinner," I replied chirpily, hitting the top of the lamb joint with a knife, as I'd read you should. I watched with satisfaction as the meat tumbled like a demolished building collapsing softly upon itself, leaving nothing but the sad, browned bones of its infrastructure.
"Where's my Salisbury tofu steak?" Frieda whined.
"In the freezer where it belongs."
Theo got misty-eyed and agitated as I served him lamb, lima beans, salad. "You know," he said, looking with distress at his plate (wedding china I'd exhumed from beneath the plastic, compartmentalized plates Elizabeth preferred), "my mother used to braise a lamb leg every Sunday."
He picked up his knife and fork to start, then rested his fists on the table, powerless to enjoy the feast for fear that it might, like a dream, puncture and disappear if he tried to taste it.
"Every Sunday we would go to church and my mother would come home and bake a rhubarb pie before she changed her dress." He was mumbling, biting nervously at the ends of his hair. "My father used to come into the kitchen while the pie was in the oven and put his nose in my mother's hair and say, `Mmmmmm, but something smells good in here.'"
"I don't like this," Frieda said, pushing her plate away. "It tastes strong."
"It tastes like what it is," I said, pushing the plate back and cutting her meat into tiny pieces as I'd seen mothers do on TV reruns.
"What is it?" Frieda asked.
"Lamb!" Frieda shrieked. She gave me a hateful look. Then she pushed back her chair, crouched down on all fours and began to scuttle laps around the kitchen table.
"More wine?" I asked Theo, though he hadn't taken a sip. I filled his glass to the rim.
I looked down to find Frieda about to attack my anklebone with the tip of a grapefruit spoon. "Baaaa!" she muttered, vengefully.
"Every Thursday we'd have meatloaf, and every Tuesday pork chops, sometimes veal stew, depending on what the butcher had, and every Friday . . ."
"Baaaaa!" Frieda plunked her forelegs on the table and pushed her face into Theo's salad, taking a few big leaves in her maw and chewing them clumsily.
"Stop it!" I swatted Frieda on the head with a pot holder and she fell over like a stunned beetle, feet and hands waving feebly in the air.
I turned to Theo to apologize and was horrified to discover him weeping into a corner of the linen tablecloth. He cried a lot since he'd lost his job at the advertising agency, bemoaning something called a "glass ceiling" and all the women above it. It was a strange thing to cry about; it seemed to me few situations in life would afford a man such an unimpeded view up a woman's skirt.
"Theo," I said, softly. No response. "Dad."
He continued to weep, pulling his gray robe around him like a potato bug retracting itself into a ball, ripe for kicking.
"How about I give you a foot rub?" I asked, putting a hand on his knee.
"No," he sobbed, "no, it's no good."
"I can help," I said.
"No," he protested. "You can't help me. Nobody can help me."
He stood up abruptly, jamming my hand against the table leg, and fled the kitchen. I heard the back door slam and his Chinese slippers clapping against the flagstones as he retreated to his studio. Our father was a painter now, primarily of flower still lifes he tried to sell as condolence cards.
I cleaned up the kitchen, stepping over Frieda as I did so, resisting the urge to kick her. When everything was neatened and wiped, I took one last look at the kitchen, a long, soulful look as if I were about to move and had just cooked my last meal there. Then I turned out the lights, leaving Frieda asleep on her back in the middle of the linoleum, her pudgy legs and arms still pointed heavenward and jerking from time to time as she enjoyed her little beetle dreams.
Go To Page: 1 2