I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
She is rinsing her clothes in the sink. A black silk undershirt. Black tights, the heavy kind. Black cotton underpants. A black push-up bra. She ordered the bra from Frederick’s of Hollywood. She thinks it makes up for the tights. The tights make her think of nuns. She hadn’t gone to Catholic school, but that didn’t remove her from the severity and perpetual guilt—she had Catholic friends. She would die with her sins left crumpled and prolific like dirty socks on the bedroom floor. All over the house for that matter, on buses, in the field with tall grasses behind the house, in her girlfriends’ bedrooms and basements, while the Catholic girls could have their sins dry-cleaned.
No matter how many times she rinses the clothes, wrings them out and presses them against the sink to drain, a soapy film remains. She could rinse them out one at a time, putting the other things in the tub, but there is lavender oil left in the tub from her bath last night. She has rinsed the tub, but she’s sure there’s still a film. She rinses her paint brushes in the sink too. There is paint under her nails too, but that’s okay. Paint is the opposite of cleaning products. The residue under her nails defines her. It is a sort of penance. Through the skylight over the tub she can see violet. It is the time of night right before the sky turns to black ink. The color she paints is black. She does not paint the colors in between. She looks at herself in the mirror over the sink. Her skin is pale without the translucency she thinks is beautiful. There are faint wrinkles around her eyes. “Crow’s-feet,” her mother had called them, the crow’s-feet had started lining up when she was 12. Her lips are not stingy, but not voluptuous. Unless she has been drinking red wine or wears lipstick, they are colorless, face-colored lips, sometimes pale blue, bluer even than her eyes. Her pupils are the only high contrast in her face. She stares into them looking for colors. She knows there is no true black, that black is many colors, that it can contain disturbingly unseen yellows, reds and greens. She has only a few weeks before her one-woman show in New Orleans. She should stay up painting. She has only known the young man, a musician, for less than a month. But why not see him if he calls.
At 11:30, he does.
“Hi honey,” he says. Two and half weeks and already calling me honey, she thinks. And calling me so late. Like we’re an item. “I’m back from rehearsal.”
She doesn’t know how old he is. He looks about 18. 19 at most. She is 32. Tonight, she thinks, if he stays over, she’ll look at his driver’s license. In the morning when the water is beating against the clear plastic shower curtain and his long feet are touching the worn porcelain of the claw-footed tub, she will look in his wallet. He always puts it, perhaps at a contrived angle, on his trousers. The trousers are carefully folded as if by a valet or someone in a clothing store. When he took her shirt off the first night, he folded it. “He’s actually folding my T-shirt,” she thought, “tenderly folding the arms of the shirt like deer legs folding under to sleep. How long will this last?”
There’s no downstairs buzzer so the young man calls from the corner. She is on the top floor and is always wearing something too flimsy to meet him at the door downstairs. It is an opportunity. She throws the keys down to him wrapped in something black. A different black thing every time he visits. A lace garter belt, a silk stocking. She sprays everything with Sonia Rykiel’s 7eme Sens. When you have always known you are not beautiful, you become practiced in the art of being provocative. A German boyfriend—that lasted a month—looked at her one day and sighed, “You’re really beautiful.” She had waited weeks for him to give her something, if not, “I love you,” something more than “Nice outfit.” She smiled, let her defenses down. ‘Well,” he frowned, seeing her face complacent, “at least you’re convincing.”
The young man is at the top of the stairs inhaling the perfume on her black lace bra from which he’s untangled the key to the front door. He saves these black things, keeps them in a wooden box. The scent reminds him of her bedroom, the stark futon covered in black shantung, the black pillows, the black lace curtains that blow out of the open windows, not into the room—like they do in romantic movies, but out as if they are nervous, uncomfortable or trying to get away, the floor littered with Japanese mats and frayed Oriental rugs and her, her white skin, the color of vanilla candles. “What did you paint today?” he asks her in the vestibule. They are standing under the paper moon lantern which pales the garish glow of an orange bulb. He encircles her hips with his hands, thumbs pressing her pelvic bones. His eyes are pale green like sea water someplace where they don’t have televison yet. His nose is too small, too small to give him an edge of ugliness or give his face a landmark. The mouth, why she wonders, is it the mouth and not his mouth, maybe because he has not kissed her, is narrow and economical. The green of his eyes make up his face which is almost as faded, she thinks, as hers.
She leads him into her studio holding the tip of his index finger which is calloused from playing bass. In the studio, in the front of her apartment facing Charles Street, is the new canvas.
“It looks kind of hairy,” he says.
“It’s hair,” she says.
“Whose?” he asks. The young man’s hair is sandy and straight. Even worse than straight. She has known men with twice as much hair. Still, the style of his hair defies its lack of bulk, its lack of waviness and luster. He slicks it back, thinly, but skillfully and something like a wisp, a tendril, something rebellious, falls across his forehead. The wayward hair points to his left eye.
The painting is of Miranda’s hair. Miranda’s hair had been long with ripples.
“Whose?” he asks again. “Some heavy metal guy’s?”
“Yeah, right.” She is pleased he thinks it’s another guy’s hair. That he thinks maybe there’s someone else. Or used to be. It seems too early for him to hint about other men.
“Someone from my past,” she says.
He gently pulls his hand away from hers and scratches his neck.
“Oh,” he says.
“A girl I knew in Chicago. She had great hair.”
At the public pool in Chicago, Miranda Gatto was the best diver. Getting out, Miranda would arch up, poised on long arms, palms pressed on the pebbly concrete and shake her wet hair like an animal coming in from the rain. Her hair shone, glistening, damp, new born. She has thought of painting Miranda’s lips too, but cannot because she has decided only to paint black things. If she were to paint Miranda’s lips, it would be at night. The swelling rose of her lips would be deepened to violet black, a damp tooth gleaming. Only she does not know what the expression would be. Would Miranda be smiling?
“You have beautiful hair,” says the young man. “Why don’t you wear it down?”
“It gets in the way of my work,” she bristles. The truth is, it makes her feel too devil-may-care. As if she might become the kind of woman who throws keys to her lover in black underwear without calculating it, or goes through his wallet.
“Can I make you some tea?” she asks. He kisses her. She stands on her toes to match his height. He is 6’3”, to her, a comforting, protective height. She feels uneasy around short men because they always seem to be pretending to be grown-up or relying on shortness to appear boyish, fearful of maturity, responsibility and aging. Slowly, he pulls out her bobby pins and lines them up on her drawing table.
The sky is distressed pink when she gets out of bed at 2:00 am. She slips Edith Piaf into the cassette player and the young man stirs. She stares out the window. A branch with a pink bud and faintly green leaves taps the window. The sky deepens to slate flannel, then navy. His cheekbones make hollows in his face. His hair sticks out on the pillow, a burnt yellow like monkey fur.
In the morning when he is taking a shower she decides to look in his wallet. It is angled on his folded trousers, an edge flush against a side pocket. She picks it up, remembering its position. Her heart is beating like she’s running to catch a bus. She has to open it because she doesn’t want to ask. She cannot ask or he will know age is important to her.
New York State Driver’s License. July 12. He’s a Cancer. He’s 22. No credit cards. No phone numbers on slips of paper. The shower goes off and she makes him coffee. She is drinking green tea.
“Hello darling,” she says when he comes into the kitchen wearing her navy and white kimono. Two and a half weeks and one driver’s license later and she is starting to call him darling. She waits until he leaves to put her hair up. Only after she has looked at herself with her hair down, the way he last saw her. There are strands in her eyelashes, strands sticking to her brusied lips. Her lips, she touches them with her fingertips, are swollen, reddened, like photos of women on beaches in “Vogue.”
He calls the next night. She should keep painting.
“Do you want to see a movie?” he asks. She will say no if it is a comedy. In fact, she decides if it’s in color, she will say no. She has too much painting to do to look at color. “What is it?”
“A Japanese film. Woman in the Dunes.’”
“Oh,” she says. She hadn’t seen it in college. “What time?”
She wears a gauzy black bra embroidered with gold flowers under a gauzy black dress from a flea market. It is ankle-length and too big—the arm holes are so large that when she picks up a wine glass when they go for a drink after the movie, he will catch glimpses of gold.
In the theatre he puts his arm around her. He grips her shoulder with his long fingers.
Right away she hates the man collecting insects. “I hate this movie,” she whispers to Luke. He shifts in his chair and crosses his legs away from her.
“Do you want to leave?”
“Oh no. No, not yet.” She likes to finish things. Even unpleasant and badly written books.
She longs to brush the sand from the sleeping woman’s hair. She continues to hate the man. The man, who is numb to the struggling of the insects captive in glass containers. The man, who, even by the end of the movie, is not in love with the woman in the dunes.
“He’s totally into himself, his ideas,” she tells Luke.
“It’s not a love story,” he says.
“I wanted it to be a love story.”
He presses against her, and she shudders, feels faint. The woman in the dunes had beautiful lips, she thinks. Like Miranda’s. In fourth grade, she and Miranda were science class partners. In Miranda’s basement, under the dangling yellow bulb, was Miranda’s chemistry set where they sat, shoulders touching, mixing chemicals and making liquids froth, making scented esters. Miranda said, “Let me make you some perfume, my darling.” Instead of going for a drink, she suggests they have tea at her place. Three Black Fruits tea she picked up in Paris when she went for her group show, Noir, Une Visione Américaine. Luke needs to pick something up at his apartment. He lives on the same street, one block away. He asks her to wait downstairs while he runs up.
“Why do I have to wait?”
“It’s kind of a mess,” he says. “I have roommates.”
“I’m coming up,” she says. “I have to use the bathroom.” She wants to see if there are remnants of other women. A bathrobe or silk nightgown slinked on a hook, a half-used bottle of perfume, an earring.
He lives on the fourth floor. Inside his apartment they enter a hallway without a light. He pulls open a sheet nailed to the ceiling and asks a sleeping man if she can pass to use the bathroom. The man in bed grumbles, it sounds like no, and they argue a little.
“Go on,” Luke says. “But don’t look.”
Past the bed, past a kitchen table piled with papers and a sink stacked with dishes and propped up with wooden planks, is the bathroom. There is a poster of James Dean thumbtacked to the wall. Two cans of AquaNet. Maybelline eye pencil in Velvet Black and Sable and a bronzer stick.
On the way back she can see the man in the bed has a sheet pulled over his head like a tent. There are clothes on the floor, on the top of the dresser, on the bed in heaps.
“Show me your room,” she says to Luke.
“I’ll just be a minute,” he says.
“Why can’t I see your room?”
“I’m very private.”
“You’ve seen my room, you’ve seen my whole apartment.”
“But you have closets. Everything I own is out on display.”
She puts her hand on her hip in what she considers to be a seductive stance. “Why, don’t you want me to know you?”
“Of course I do,” he smiles. He pushes open the door while steadying it. One of the hinges is broken. His room is narrow, and despite the clutter, has a monastic quality. Books line the wall. Old family photographs and antique postcards are set up on a shelf. Stacked on a trunk are journals. What’s in them? It occurs to her that she hardly knows him. That she is usually the one to ask the questions. She fights the impulse to look in them. What matters is now, not what he’s done in the past. Besides, he’s so attentive. He couldn’t possibly be seeing anyone else. He’d probably never even been in love before. When, she wonders, did he write those journals? Maybe they’re just old school notes. His comforter is lavender, like a woman picked it out.
“Did you buy this?” she asks, sitting on the bed, a twin.
“That’s from my mom,” he says.
Are there women in his journals?
“Why do you have hairspray in the bathroom?”
“Tim and Frank and I use it when we do gigs.”
“And eye makeup?”
“For gigs,” he laughs.
On a clearing on his bookshelf she sees a package of incense.
“Frankincense,” she says.
“I love it.”
He lights a stick, his long fingers move fluidly as if underwater. Have other women been in this room? Did he light incense for them and throw them on the narrow bed? “
“They burn this in my church,” he says.
She does not tell him that every time her family moved, which was every few years, she went to whatever church was within walking distance. That it was usually a church with no holy water, no incense, no place to kneel. That her sins had piled up, been piling up for years.
His clothes hang on a pole that extends from the wall to the bookshelf. Fifties jackets. Ties. More ties, definitely not Brooks Brothers material. And white shirts, only white. Behind them on the wall is a photograph, framed, the torso of a woman. Nude. Who is this woman in his room, important enough to be framed? Who wrapped her torso in narrow black ribbons that cut into her skin?
“What’s this?” she asks.
“That? I took that when I was a freshman in college.”
“Who is she? A girlfriend?
“I have to go,” she tells Luke and gets up.
“Let me come with you.”
“No, I have to work.”
“Don’t go,” he says.
“Don’t touch me.”
She pushes past him, looking down.
’What’s wrong?” he calls after her but she is spiralling down the stairs, the stairs edging forward like sharp black ribbons slicing her feet. There is no such thing as the past, nothing is over, the other woman is still in his room.
He waits until she’s had time to get home, and he calls her. “Claire, this is Luke. Please pick up the phone. Claire.” Then a long pause. An exhalation. “Claire? I’ll try you later.”
For two days she does not pick up the phone when he calls. She is always home. She orders macrobiotic food from the health food restaurant. When she runs out of green tea and Bach’s Flower Rescue Remedy she goes to the health food store. The man behind the counter asks, ’The large size?”
She starts a painting of Miranda’s lips, partially hidden by hair. Miranda had never worn her hair up. Catholic girls could let themselves go wild. She remembers the time in the basement, near the chemistry set. They are in fifth grade now. They have come home from church. Miranda and her mother have had their throats blessed. Her mother is cooking upstairs. Miranda is standing too close, her black hair is damp, and tangled, it smells of lavender. Miranda comes closer, kisses her neck where her pulse beats too quickly. She laughs, “I just blessed your neck.” Miranda pushes her against the yellow-stained wall, and the wall is breathing, has a pulse, this feels all wrong, but the lavender is exhaling a dark whisper.
In the Gristede’s she sees Luke and knows she cannot go home with him until he gets rid of the other woman.
“Claire,” he says. His eyelashes look pale in the natural light coming through the store window. His eyes are almost too green. “Claire, where have you been?”
“She has to go,” she tells him.
“We have to talk.”
“Tim and Frank went back to Rochester for the weekend. Come over.”
“We won’t be alone there. How could you?”
“Come over. I’ll make you lentils.” He pulls her hand and she puts down the bottle of mineral water and the Kleenex. “Okay.”
When they get upstairs she leads him to his bedroom. She pushes apart the suits and shirts.
“Who is she?” she says, staring at the picture.
“That thing? I told you. I took it in college. I’d forgotten it was up.”
“How could you forget that? Who is she? A girlfriend?”
“She means nothing to me. I’ll take it down.”
“How could you have gone out with anyone before you met me?”
“Claire,” he says and squeezes her hand. “I’m taking it down,” He kisses her. “Then I’m going to get champagne.”
Alone for the first time in his room, the journals glare. She carefully picks up the telephone bill angled on the books on top of the journals. She opens the first journal and scans it for women’s names. Instead she finds poems. Notes on music and painting. Things that appear to be copied from books. In the second journal she reads that he hates his job. He is a paralegal and makes his band’s mailers during the day, makes phone calls to record companies and music editors. The downstairs door slams and she hears Luke’s feet on the stairs, a loping sound of stairs taken two at a time, leather scraping metal stair covers. One more sentence, she thinks. She reads that there is a secretary, M, at the law firm, an Italian girl with beautiful lips. They go to a museum after work. They go for coffee at lunch. He wants to kiss her, he is obsessed with her lips. They are lips nothing like Claire’s. Claire closes the journal when she hears Luke unlocking the door and thrusts the journals back, repositions the books and phone bill and falls back on the bed as he comes in. She is sure she is breathing too hard. They go into the kitchen and Luke looks at the table and shakes his head. “Tim,” he says. He picks up a stack of papers, newspaper folded to the classifieds and puts them on another pile of papers on top of the piano. It’s an upright painted pale blue with dark red showing where the blue has chipped. In the cupboard he finds two glasses. One says Niagara Falls. The other has a deer motif on it. The ceilings are over 13 feet, make her think of spaces like museums and churches where thoughts can aspire toward lofty dimensions and she feels small and embarrassed about having looked in the journals. Who is this secretary, M? Does he still see her? How could he be attracted to a secretary? Maybe she should tell him, tell him before she looks again and finds out more about the secretary. Sleep will not erase this feeling, sleep is no cleanser. In Chicago, after sleeping at Miranda’s in the night-darkened sheets, losing herself to Miranda, the room punctured with their breathing, too loud, would Miranda’s mother hear them, she went home, her sins surrounding her like a dark scratchy blanket, her lungs filled with a fungal odor, basement dank, where she started to weep every morning for months by the boiler, white and gleaming as Miranda’s teeth, and let water bugs crawl near her, even over her, to atone, creating another sin, masochism, that stabbed with thin silvery jabs into her evil, throbbing throat. “Whatever are you thinking about?” he asks her.
“Let’s have a toast,” she says, smiles and resolves to look in the diaries again.
It is two weeks before she can look in his journals again, which he has moved deeper under a pile of books on his trunk. The Italian secretary has lips perfectly defined. She reads on. The Italian secretary does not seem interested in him. He watches her put on lipstick while she is sitting behind her typewriter. Red lipstick, but her lips are already plum colored, deep and perfect. But this girl is only beautiful when she does not talk. She has a horrible voice, an accent, this girl. She is from the Midwest. Illinois. She has long, tangled hair.
To celebrate three months together, Luke brings her flowers. Not common roses but exotic flowers whose names she does not know. One is shaped like a scrub brush. Others like the beak of an exotic bird. If it weren’t for the journals and M, she would would think this was an indication that he finds her to be fascinating. Exotic, even. He takes her to the Cornelia Street Cafe for dinner. Back at her apartment she has champagne in the freezer. “So how’s work lately?” she asks him, trying to sound casual. She slips out of her black dress and puts on her black kimono, the one with small blue butterflies. She lights beeswax candles, then tall votive candles with pictures of saints on them.
“I hate it,” he says. “It means time away from you. And my music.” He opens the champagne and she brings out the glasses, Mexican glass in pale blue.
“Do you have friends there?”
“Where? Work? Just acquaintances.”
“Like who? Lawyers? Secretaries?”
“Let’s pour the champagne. They’re a couple of people I talk with, but let’s not talk about my job.”
He fills the glasses.
“To us,” he says, and kisses her eyelids.
“We should have lunch someday,” she says.
“I’d love to.”
“Do you have lunch with people from work?”
“Why do you keep asking me about work?”
“Is there something you don’t want me to know about?”
He peels back her black silk kimono and kisses her neck. A moth flies too closely to one of the candles and its wings sizzle in the flame. He’s kissing my eyelids and neck, she thinks, because my lips are not as beautiful as the secretary’s. He has never told me that my lips are beautiful. He must not think they are.
She will pay, she knows, for invading his privacy. She should not know about the secretary. She wants to confess, to lift the black veil, to weep, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” But he might not forgive. And blood vessels burst around her eyes when she cries. She will sleep on it. She will decide tomorrow. By morning, when she is drinking green tea in a small Japanese cup, she might be less concerned that she thinks the secretary might be Miranda. She will try to believe coincidences of this sort are not possible.
She wakes up at 4:00 in the morning, it’s hot, too hot, the kimono sticks to her skin like a darkened onion peel. The black curtains are damp and still. The votive candles behind the champagne glasses create an eerie green light, there is still champagne in them. But there is something else, dark, something is moving, crawling up and sliding back, in her glass. She is afraid that when she gets up to look, it will be a water bug.
She is the first to wake up and stares at Luke until his eyes open. “How do you feel about confession?” she says.
“Do you think it makes you feel clean?”
“I don’t know, honey,” he says and kisses her hand. I’ve never confessed.”
“But you’ve sinned, haven’t you?”
“If you’re using the word sin to mean a thought or something I did that isn’t in keeping with what I think is right, then yes. Claire, I just woke up, what’s bothering you?”
“Are you still obsessed with privacy, now that we know each other better?”
“You mean really personal things? Like somebody reading my journals?”
She bites her lower lip and twists her hair into a coil and then looks on the floor for a stray bobby pin. She should tell him. She wants to tell him. To have a perfect, honest relationship. But maybe this isn’t the time.
She sees two bobby pins jutting out from the black shantung. “You know,” he says. “You really should be more careful when you put them back.”
He pushes the pins away with his foot and kisses her mouth. He really does, she thinks, have most of the makings of a perfect priest.
Laren Stover is the recipient of a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant for fiction. Her first novel, Pluto, Animal Lover, will be published by Harper Collins in May 1994. She is currently writing her second novel at the Writers Room in the West Village, where she has a residency.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee