women

She said the word “fat” slowly, funneling it back and forward, and thought about all the other things she had learned not to say aloud in America. She was fat. She was not curvy or big-boned; she was fat, it was the only word that felt true. And she had ignored, too, the cement in her soul. Mildred's help came in the form of a reading list, of several reading lists over the months that followed, and with movie theaters temporarily off-limits, for the first time in her life Rose satisfied her hunger for stories with novels, good novels, not the crime novels and bestsellers she might have gravitated to on her own but the books that Mildred recommended, classics to be sure, but always selected with Rose in mind, books that Mildred felt Rose would enjoy, which meant that Moby-Dick and Ulysses and The Magic Mountain were never on any of the lists, since those books would have been too daunting for the meagerly trained Rose, but how many others there were to choose from, and as the months passed and her baby grew inside her, Rose spent her days swimming in the pages of books, and although there were a few disappointments among the dozens she read (The Sun Also Rises, for example, which struck her as fake and shallow), nearly all the others lured her in and kept her engrossed from first to last, among them Tender Is The Night, Pride and Prejudice, The House of Mirth, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, The Charterhouse of Parma, First Love, Dubliners, Light in August, David Copperfield, Middlemarch, Washington Square, The Scarlet Letter, Main Street, Jane Eyre, and numerous others, but of all the writers she discovered during her confinement, it was Tolstoy who said the most to her, Tolstoy, who understood all of life, it seemed to her, everything there was to know about the human heart and the human mind, no matter if the heart or mind belonged to a man or a woman, and how was it possible, she wondered, for a man to know what Tolstoy knew about women, it made no sense that one man could be all men and all women, and therefore she marched through most of what Tolstoy had written, not just the big novels like War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection, but the shorter works as well, the novellas and stories, none more powerful to her than the one-hundred-page Family Happiness, the story of a young bride and her gradual disillusionment, a work that hit so close to home that she wept at the end, and when Stanley returned to the apartment that evening, he was alarmed to see her in such a state, for even though she had finished the story at three in the afternoon, her eyes were still wet with tears. For awhile I reminded her what a wonderful mother, wife and teacher she had been. “Really?” she said, trying to find that person in the fog. Now those nouns are meaningless. So I can only tell her she is beautiful. Her beauty still matters to her most. For the first time, my sister and I are glad that this is so. She crosses to the sink, pours away her unwanted cup of instant coffee, washes the cup, washes a foil milk bottle top, puts her foot on the pedal bin, opens it, drops in the foil top, gazes absently for a moment at an empty egg box, an empty tomato tin, the scrapings of last night’s spaghetti, some apple peel, some kitchen roll, a browning lettuce leaf, a cigarette carton, a tonic bottle. She wishes they would not throw tonic bottles in the pedal bin: she likes to take them to the newly-provided Bottle Bank. She thinks of rescuing it, but does not. I don’t want to get too like Ma, she repeats to herself: but even as she rehearses these words, a strange, perverse, numbing respect for her mother seeps through her: how she has persisted, her mother, in being what she is, how stubbornly she has refused to divert herself with trivia, how bleakly and boldly she has stared over the years into the heart of nothingness. For it is trivial, it is all trivial, coffee mornings, eating, drinking, the National Theatre, shopping outings, reading books, embroidery, evening classes, country walks, wiping surfaces, emptying waste-paper baskets, Bond Street, Regent’s Park, saving bottles for the Bottle Bank, gardening, telephone calls, listening to the radio, Terry Wogan, going to the hairdresser, chatting to the window cleaner, giving small donations to Oxfam, throwing away silver foil, collecting silver foil, cleaning the bath. It is nothing, all of it. Sex and small children had provided a brief purpose, the energy they generated had made sense of the world for a while, had forged a pattern, a community: clinics, playgrounds, parks, nursery groups, mothers waiting at the school gate: and now: nothing. An idle flutter of garbage over an empty pavement. Coldness, nothingness, grips Shirley as she stands in her kitchen. She knows herself to be biologically dead. Her spirit shudders: she has seen a vision, of waste matter, of meaningless after-life, of refuse, of decay. An egg box and a tin can in blue and white plastic pedal bin. So might one stand forever. She lifts her foot. The lid drops. She knew that despite their fondness for her, they were sure to find something almost satisfactory in watching her plunge and flounder and skitter off course — a plunging and floundering and skittering that their sharp, informed eyes could clearly detect, behind the confident public progress, the illusion of purpose, of direction. They knew quite well that Liz had lost purpose (momentarily, permanently, who could tell) and they were not wholly displeased. She had been too confident, too knowing, too rich: she had assumed privileges, she had lived in her own charmed world, had despised those who had been less certain, less secure. Let her taste confusion. It was by her own choice that she sat here. It was by her own choice that she had married Cliff, in a field of cow parsley on a May evening. She had obeyed her body, she had opened her legs, had pulled him into her and said, Now, come, now. What was, what could have been wrong about that? She had thought to free herself, through nature, through the violence of nature. But nature was cunning and had kept her trapped. What did it want her for? She had obeyed sex, she had trusted sex, she had loved sex, and it had betrayed her, had deceived her, had left her sitting here, a middle-aged housewife, mother of three, playing cards, with nothing before her but old age. She laid claim to the past—her version of the past—aggressively, as if retrieving misdirected mail. So this was where she came from. This all belonged to her, her birthright, like a pair of pearl earrings or a post office bond. X marks the spot, and Irie put an X on everything she found, collecting bits and pieces (birth certificates, maps, army reports, news articles) and storing them under the sofa, so that as if by osmosis the richness of them would pass through the fabric while she was sleeping and seep right into her. Corinne had begun to cry silently, in that way that Marianne recalled for the first time in years: a mother’s crying, stifled, soundless, secret so as to not disturb. If you cried so others could hear you were crying to be head but a mother’s crying was just the opposite, crying not to be heard. In a flash it came to her: of course she’d known something had been wrong with her daughter, these past few days. Something not-right. Since Sunday. Since the telephone call. A mother always knows, can’t not know. But Corinne had been so busy, hadn’t gotten around to investigating. And hadn’t she always been proud she wasn’t the kind of mother to “investigate”—on principle. I want my children to trust me. To think of me as an equal. So Corinne was a new mother: slightly touched by new-mother craziness. She hoped to dignify herself by commenting sagely to the doctor (always, you want to impress them: men of authority) about “the sucking reflex”—“the bonding instinct”—and similar clinical-anthropological phenomena. She wanted to impress this man she hardly knew, she’d been a college student after all, even if she was only at Fredonia State, and she’d dropped out between her junior and senior years to get married. From here, at least, nothing more could be heard. Through the trees the car was still visible on the top of the rise, and, to the left, the window with the closed shutters behind which the old woman was dying, motionless in her solitary bed, the sheet which was drawn up to her chin rising and falling with the regular rhythm of that continuous, calm and terrible rattle escaping from her lungs like the monstrous respiration of a giant, some playful mythological creature which had chosen its residence in the frail body of this woman in her death agony, so that these slow and interminable bellows could be heard like the trumpets of the Last Judgement,—dying, diligently dying, concentrated, focussed (solitary, arrogant and terrible) on the action of dying, in the dimness of the room where the summer’s powdery light penetrated only through the slit between the two closed shutters: a T whose crosspiece, shaped like a thin triangle lying base upward, corresponded to the interval between the top of the shutters and the window frame, and which slowly shifted from right to left, somewhat distended toward noon, then again diagonally lengthened again, all between morning and evening: like the initial of the word Time, an impalpable and stubborn letter trailing in the moribund odor, the stale and moribund fragrance hanging in the air: the smell of cheap eau de cologne the nurse bathed her in, and that ineffable, obsolete and ashen odor of faded bouquets which seems to float forever in the rooms of old ladies, around mirrors reflecting their worn faces, like the discreet, fragile, slightly rancid exhalation of faded days... But she has nothing, nobody, and no-one will mourn for her... The diner was in full swing. Josie was in her flannel shirt, so she was invisible and enjoying a second glass of chardonnay. In the relentless morning sun Josie drove, exhausted and angry and tired of watching the bottle break across her face, but knowing she deserved it. What kind of person takes it from behind in a trailer park, with her children sleeping mere feet away? The crime of the ponytail ladies was that they were always in a hurry, in a hurry to exercise, in a hurry to pick up their children from capoeira, in a hurry to examine the scores from the school's Mandarin-immersion program, in a hurry to buy micro-greens at the new ivy-covered organic grocery, one of a newly dominant national chain begun by a libertarian megalomaniac, a store where the food had been curated, in which the women in their ponytails rushed quickly through, smiling viciously when their carts' paths were momentarily waylaid. All day the same old record. All alone in that great empty house. She must be a very old woman now. The only thing wrong with her as far as he could see was that she was dying. Oh, mother, you’ve squashed her, drive on, drive on! In her forties now she’d be, I don’t know, fifty, girding up her lovely little loins, getting ready for the change... She thinks she longs for rest, a carefree afternoon to decide suddenly to go to the pictures, or just to sit with the birdcages and listen to the children play in snow. This notion of rest, it’s attractive to her, but I don’t think she would like it. They are all like that, these women. Waiting for the ease, the space that need not be filled with anything other than the drift of their own thoughts. But they wouldn’t like it. They are busy and thinking of ways to be busier because such a space of nothing pressing to do would knock them down. No fields of cowslips will rush into that opening, nor morning free of flies and heat when the sky is shy. No. Not at all. They fill their minds with soap and repair and dicey confrontations because what is waiting for them, in a suddenly idle moment, is the seep of rage. Molten. Thick and slow-moving. Mindful and particular about what in its path it chooses to bury. Or else, into a beat of time, and sideways under their breasts, slips a sorrow they don’t know where from. Things remain much as they are for two or three hundred years or so, except for a little dust and a few cobwebs which one old woman can sweep up in half an hour. I found the more she talked the more she owed me. But I didn’t say a word.
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