Now I am the club's main preoccupation.
"It's useless," I said at the next day's meeting. "He doesn't want me."
It was too windy in the cemetery, so we had relocated to a cigar bar near the north gate, selections from our library stuffed in Johannah's book bag.
Agnes smoothed my hair away from my face with a perfect burgundy nail. "Of course he does, Helen," she soothed. "You're a ravishing woman."
I gave her a look as if to say, cut the crap, Agnes, but her face was innocent and sincere.
"Maybe she's not exactly ravishing," Frances interjected. I noticed four blemishes on her forehead she'd taken no pains to hide. "But what she's got we can work with."
Mitzi and Johannah nodded in agreement through the blue cigar haze, tinged as it was by the pink glow of the corner jukebox. The records were mostly of the country-western variety, ballads sung by spurned, weak women named Patty and Tammy Lou, the likes of whom we'd never known and whose pain addled us with a strange, glorious longing.
"You said he cried the other day when you made him dinner," Frances reminded us.
"Something about a rhubarb pie," Mitzi added.
"His mother. He was crying about his mother," I explained.
"Typical," Johannah said, rolling her eyes as if to say, men. They didn't make it easy for us to help them, this much was true. Mitzi, I noticed, shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Her hair was unusually frizzy today, her complexion not unlike the texture of orange rind--nubbly and black-pored.
Agnes, meanwhile, was flipping madly through our file folder of proven effective methods of seduction, its cover adorned with the clipped headline, BEAUTY KNOWS NO PAIN. She extracted a few relevant selections as she fluttered through the file: "How to Look Good Naked," "Ways to Win Your Reluctant Man," Freud's essay on family romance, an article called "Virgin Sacrifice in the Post-Mayan Era" from an anthropology journal.
Eventually, we cobbled together a customized strategy. Still, I couldn't help but feel a little self-pitying in my undesirableness. None of the other four had had to try so hard to convince their fathers to do what they all supposedly wanted anyway.
Walking home, we split off at the bottom of the hill--Johannah, Agnes, and Frances taking the trolley to the top, Mitzi and I walking to our modest homes at the bottom. Before separating, I stood in the middle of a circle formed by the four of them.
"Close your eyes," Frances intoned, touching my forehead with the Sacred Dagger, "and think of England."
This was the blessing we gave everyone before they marched off to seal their Conquest. Frances had discovered the phrase in a biography of the notoriously fecund Queen Victoria--the queen's response to an inquiry as to how she managed to birth so many children--and believed it perfectly encapsulated our club's mission. I found the phrase poetic and hopeful, full of something old as the stars. Besides, England had assumed the mythic quality of an ancient civilization, particularly since the Pakistanis seized London a few years back and Urdu became the official language.
Walking past the closed iron gates of the botanical garden, wiry with its unadorned rosebushes, Mitzi began to cry. She stopped suddenly and dropped her weight on a stone bench. Her missing finger twirled madly in her frizzed hair. "He called me Rhoda," she said, her words as wet and swollen as her face.
"My dad. He called me Rhoda. While we were . . ." She trailed off and watched a threadbare pigeon sort bits of gravel by her feet.
"Who's Rhoda?" I asked, even though I knew very well. We'd gone to keep Rhoda, her grandmother, company when Mitzi's grandfather died. We'd amused ourselves by eating a box of stale meringues and looking at old football footage of Mitzi's dad in prep school.
"He didn't really want me. He doesn't even find me attractive," Mitzi sobbed.
"Of course he does," I assured her, fondling the Sacred Dagger in my jumper pocket. A paring knife, but sharp enough to cut off a young girl's finger, for instance.
"You think?" Mitzi looked at me, and I realized she wanted me to lie to her more than she wanted anything else at that moment.
"I'm sure of it."
Encouraged, Mitzi wiped her cheeks and ran her wet palm across her hair, then reapplied her lipstick using an old rearview mirror she found under the bench. The mirror had been amputated in a moment of considerable violence. I recalled there had been a hideous car accident at this intersection just last week.
"Can I see?" I asked.
Mitzi powdered her nose with talc and handed me the mirror. I looked into it and saw my face, bisected diagonally by a crack, my nose and eyes shifted slightly northwest of my mouth. Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .
"What did you say?" Mitzi asked with a final sniff, her old self again.
"Nothing." I put the Sacred Dagger into my book bag and we both scurried home to beat the rain that Mitzi could sense was coming by the ache in her missing finger.
Everything is in place. Despite her protests, Frieda is staying at her friend Sophie's house a good five miles away. I awoke before dawn and put slices of cucumber over my eyes. I lay on a chaise on the sunporch and watched with wonder as the sun intensified through those two spectacles of pale green. I believed I was experiencing the birth of a day for the very first time through these lenses, that it was akin to witnessing a leaf slowly unfurling.
I douched with a mixture of spearmint root and cardamom and aged balsamic, soaked in a tub until my skin was soft but not wrinkled, applied a thin layer of olive oil ("for suppleness and sheen") and baking soda ("bleach those age spots"), and sprinkled myself liberally with Elizabeth's rosewater.
Before blanching the rhubarb, I zipped myself into a vintage dress heavy with a mauve peony print, and stuffed paper into the toes of a pair of Elizabeth's long-abandoned leather pumps so that my heels wouldn't rub. Mitzi advised stuffing paper in a few other places, but this seemed a bit lumpy and ridiculous to me. Finally, I tucked the Sacred Dagger into my garter belt, the blade wrapped in a perfumed handkerchief.
I had just finished cleaning the mixing bowls, and the scent of hot butter and flour had just begun to seep into the farthest reaches of the house, when Theo wandered into the kitchen. His robe gaped pathetically, dragging its terry-cloth tie through a dusting of flour like a beached eel enjoying its final, pathetic death twitches in the sand.
He stopped in his tracks as if slapped. He looked at me, ripe in my peonies, massaging a blistered ankle with my thumb. He rubbed his eyes, disbelieving, then closed them and took a few tentative breaths through his nose. I moved toward him, silently, rearranging my dress so that the neckline plunged just right.
"Theo," I said, letting his name roll unnaturally from the bottom of my throat, gaining gravity and age and experience as it rose.
He reached for me, molelike, his eyes still closed. He knocked a knuckle against my breast, but, having gotten his bearings, proceeded quite confidently to my shoulder. I felt him hesitate, as a heat-stricken man might hover above a pool of water he fears to be a figment of his hopeful delirium. Then he grabbed me by the nape of my neck, pulling my hair to his nose with a desperation I found promising.
"Mmmmmmm," he said. "Mmmmmm . . ." as if his tongue were stuck, bound up by the strands of hair he'd inhaled.
"Yes," I urged him calmly.
"Something," he said, "something smells . . ."
I turned my face to his, offering him what I knew he wanted to be able to take easily, without a fight. I found myself tilting my face and palms upward, to receive this long-awaited thing, this confirmation of my beauty, my necessary female sacrifice. I closed my eyes and . . .
"Come on. Come quickly."
He pulled me roughly by the wrist, so roughly that I was forced to step out of Elizabeth's shoes. He led me out the back door, over the flagstone steps that were cold beneath my bare feet. When we reached his studio, he was out of breath, panting with one hand on his hip, the other still tight around my wrist.
"Please," he asked, rubbing the lapel of his robe like he did when he was agitated. "Please . . ."
He diverted his gaze to a drop cloth covering the floor, reading something there in the random spatterings of paint.
"Would you take your dress off?"
He stared at me as if he had never seen me or the likes of me before. Naked except for the garter belt, I stood, proud, aglow, feeling a power unlike any I'd ever experienced surge through my abdomen. I was the splitting earth, I was a flaming banyan tree, I was the vast and ravenous ocean.
As my childlike body buckled and cracked to reveal its womanly swells, I extended a finger to touch Theo's cheek. Coyly, I thought, he took a step backward. I smiled at him knowingly and reached for him again. He swatted my hand and cowered, ready to leap away. Watching me warily, he pointed to a stool in front of his easel, the one beneath the round skylight he liked to call the Eye of God.
"Go over there," he said.
I gave him a look that I'd practiced in the mirror, the look that all men hunger for, the look that says, "Take me, do what you want."
Theo was unfazed.
"Go on," he said, curtly. "Sit there."
I regarded the stool, confused. I looked to Theo again, but found his expression obscured by emotions he was no more acquainted with than I. I pulled my arms around my chest and walked backward to the circle of light in the center of the studio, feeling suddenly naked. Still, I reasoned, this could all be part of his idea of foreplay.
He approached and began to move me around--chin this way, arm here, leg here. I tried to kiss his cheek, a flirtatious little peck, but he raised a hand over his head as if to hit me. I lifted an arm to hide my breasts, but he pulled it down again so that I was sufficiently bare beneath the Eye of God.
Satisfied, he walked behind his easel and plunged his brush into his messy pots. I felt myself start to shiver. I was cold, and more.
"You know," he said, in that deadened tone that precedes rage, "your mother used to let me paint her like this. Did you know that?"
I shook my head stiffly, careful not to move my chin. I didn't want him to return and re-adjust my pose. Suddenly, I felt sick at the thought of him touching me.
"She was my muse, my beautiful muse, the way she gave herself to me she let me believe I would rise to greatness." He was breathing heavily, sobbing almost, and painting with quick, angry, slashing strokes. "But not anymore. Not for years. Now I am only allowed to paint flowers. Stupid, fucking flowers."
He was working furiously, speckles of red paint patterning the floor by his feet. He had removed his robe and undershirt, and the loose flesh around his nipples jiggled like udders. My brain spun, searching through the bits of the BEAUTY KNOWS NO PAIN file that I'd committed to memory--the advice columns, the dos and don'ts, the what-they-want articles. I had given him what I thought he wanted, but he wanted something else, something they didn't write about in beauty magazines, something that is too precious and remote to be altered or adorned. I felt a part of myself being stolen in those moments, a part I had only just learned I possessed now that I was in danger of losing it. Each stroke he dealt the canvas felt like a dagger coming down again, and again, and again.
Suddenly, it was clear what I had to do.
Theo was so absorbed in his work that he didn't notice me fumbling with my rose-crocheted black garter. The handkerchief dropped away revealing my small weapon pointed toward Theo's sweating, heaving body. I intended to give him this one gift, hoping it would pacify his unexpected hunger for things I had no intention of giving him.
For such a dull blade, it was remarkably easy. A few brilliant strokes of my own was all it took to sketch this new shape. I held the finger in my hand, marveling at its heft, weighing it the way women used to do with fruit in open markets, listening to cantaloupes, attempting to get a whiff of the pale, secret insides by pressing their noses against the dusty hide. My own finger was silent when I shook it, odorless when I pressed my nose into the lonely knuckle. Contrary to what I'd thought, I was not ripe.
I held out my gift but Theo pushed my hand away, too busy manipulating my likeness to be bothered. Dizzy, I walked around to the other side of the canvas. My face appeared there as it had in the rearview mirror, the eyes and nose slipping out over and beyond my lips like a placid field yielding to the conflicting desires of a fault line. I stared again at my finger, at this part of me that was no longer a part of me, and for the first time I wondered why it was we'd ever initiated these painful rituals, this proof of our willingness to sacrifice for the lost art of womanhood and the good of all humanity. Suddenly I thought about Frances's blemished skin and broken nails, Mitzi's crying and her frizzy hair, and I suspected I'd been lied to, that secrets and omissions lived among us, and maybe even a touch of arrogance in our failure to admit that we were wrong. I thought, too, of my mother Elizabeth, and experienced for the first time a glimmer of understanding as to why she encased herself in that sleek, taut body, ready in a flash to defend the thing that men have always, and will until the end of time, desire to possess.
I fell to my knees, then onto my back, the stone floor of the studio--Mom's potting shed, when she used to garden--alarmingly cold, as if the fire at the core of the earth had extinguished itself. My eyes closed and at first I could find no peace there in the ruddy darkness. I saw hands, fingers pruned to the last knuckle, grappling at my elbows as invisible mouths spoke a prayer above me.
Close your eyes and think of . . .
It was as if I were arriving by boat over a vast sea, first the chalky cliffs of Dover distinguishing themselves from the waves crashing below, then the empty moors dotted with sheep or stones (it was impossible to tell from this height, I was flying now), the long-dead resort communities with their dirty pebble beaches, the blind, abandoned windows of London. Then I was over a country road, then I was over a field and the ringed stump of a sap tree. A girl knelt beside it. She looked like me except her face was seamless and belonged to no one but her. No man had painted it, it suffered no chasms cleaving her eyes and mouth apart. I could see what hurt her, and what gave her strength, and I thought to myself: I shall learn Urdu, and I shall go to England, and I shall meet her.
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