She was a beautiful baby. The first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth. You do not guess how new and uneasy her tenancy in her now — loveliness. You did not know her all those years she was thought homely, or see her poring over her baby pictures, making me tell her over and over how beautiful she had been — and would be, I would tell her — and was now, to the seeing eye. But the seeing eyes were few or non-existent. Including mine.
In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog.
How pitiful the Muses’ hapless suitor
A stranger to the dressing gown’s delights.
A devotee of fashion, dressed up like a doll
And flushed with decorous excitement,
Comes to his study as if entering a ball.
His colours rouge and powder-white;
In aromatic ink he dips
His quill, and drafts a madrigal.
This is the scenario: I am lying in bed in my bathrobe and I am trying to write my ideal story. I don’t know what happens in the story yet. I just know that Balzac used to write in a robe and presumably could only write in the robe. And not just any robe, but a white cashmere Dominican monk’s robe that was tied around his waist with a silk belt, from which hung a pair of scissors and a golden penknife.
The Babcocks owned their house and a tiny sum in the bank, upon the interest of which they lived. Nobody knew how much it was, nobody would ever know while they lived. They might have had more if they would have sold or mortgaged their house, but they would have died first. They starved daintily and patiently on their little income. They mended their old muslins and Thibets, and wore one dress between them for best, taking turns in going out.
Katie struggled out of a black vintage high-waisted Vivienne Westwood skirt, cringing when she heard the sound of the zipper pop as she shimmied the silk-lined velvet garment past her fleshy hips. She wanted to wear something archival to impress Claudia, but her face was already showing her anxiety, and a tight skirt would only make it worse. Besides, no-one would even know it was Vivienne Westwood unless she told them, or if they examined the tiny orb etched into the button on the side of her waist. She tossed the skirt on her unmade bed, readjusted her amazon.com thong, and made her way back to the closet.
It’s February 18 1960. Jean Cocteau has just released his film The Testament Of Orpheus. Mme Francine Weisweiller is in it, just a small part, but important nevertheless. Mme is not an actress but the aging poet’s best friend and she plays ‘la dame qui s’est trompée d’époque’ or, in translation, and I fear less smoothly, the woman who found herself in the wrong decade. Janine Janet, the creator of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s surreal window displays, is the costume designer, but Mme wears a trailing white dress by Balenciaga himself, which she paid for. Instructed by Cocteau to take his inspiration from Claude Monet and Sarah Bernhardt, Balenciaga produces exactly what suits Mme best and into the bargain doesn’t sully his reputation. Cocteau describes Mme’s appearance as a ‘live phantom of flesh and bone’.
On this second day our mood was still cheery, and we continued to wear our best behaviour like freshly pressed clothes. The next day’s stuck-in-the-mud situation got a bit dirtier. The cheeriness had already faded over breakfast as the kitchen staff repeatedly delivered the wrong order. Frustration and annoyance followed us into the car. Mr Honey Badger directed his anger at me and I looked for relief in the trees and the bush outside the window. Our mutual frustration and anger grew and swelled in the heat as the day progressed. We got stuck in the mud again. It engulfed the car like smooth porridge and nearly did the same with our feet. A few nearby construction workers came to our rescue and helpfully pulled us out with their car. We continued along the rocky, uneven road. Eventually we reached a river, only to realise there was no way to cross. We opened the windows to let in fresh air, but annoyance, frustration, and anger clung to our clothes like the red Tsavo dust.
I hesitate to describe Sophy Epstein’s dress. You won’t like it. In the first place, it was cut too low, front and back, for a shoe clerk in a downtown loft. It was a black dress, near-princess in style, very tight as to fit, very short as to skirt, very sleazy as to material. It showed all the delicate curves of Sophy’s under-fed, girlish body, and Sophy didn’t care a bit. Its most objectionable feature was at the throat. Collarless gowns were in vogue. Sophy’s daring shears had gone a snip or two farther. They had cut a startlingly generous V. To say that the dress was elbow-sleeved is superfluous. I have said that Sophy clerked in a downtown loft.
You looked once again at your phone and wondered if you had time for a quick rub. Your record was seven and a half minutes and right now you had twenty-five. You cupped your breasts over your T-shirt and squeezed them so hard they hurt. You grabbed your throat with your left hand, lined up your fingers on your jugular and slid the right hand down. Good for the nerves, yes, but is there enough time?
They have a drink on her balcony. She pretends they’re sitting on the terrace of a bar, like they might have in virus-free times. Instead they’re alone, inside her home. Two strangers in soft clothes and plain faces. The sun sets. The conversation stumbles, accelerates. They talk of fears, politics, childhoods, their intimacy growing in the darkness. The street is quiet. The buzz of cicadas and their own voices the only sounds cutting the air. Until they run out of things to say, and the cicadas alone save them from silence. Yet they refill their glasses, and move inside. She puts on music.
It was her own life that was in the middle drawer. She was the person she was not only because of her mother but because, fifty-eight years before, in the little town of Oberelsbach, another woman, whose qualities she would never know, had died too soon. Death, she thought, absolves equally the bungler, the evildoer, the unloving, and the unloved – but never the living. In the end, the cicatrix that she had, in the smallest of ways, helped her mother to bear had eaten its way in and killed. The living carry, she thought, perhaps not one tangible wound but the burden of the innumerable small cicatrices imposed on us by our beginnings; we carry them with us always, and from these, from this agony, we are not absolved.