Fiction, Vol. 3.3, Sept. 2009
The room was bare but for the table that served as a place to sit and sip tea and spread out her work to show this man who had not yet arrived. The cats stepped over the open books, the prints, the photographs and negatives, the boxes of manuscript. A few of the cats rubbed against her legs. A few more joined the others on the table and moved in slow figure eights in front of her.
She had told her story many times since she was a girl, crafting and re-crafting it, adding and subtracting details, its effects calibrated to whom she was trying to win to her side. She was acutely sensitive to the moment a listener’s interest shifted and was willing to accommodate, to accentuate, even eliminate, so that by now, so many tellings later, she was truly uncertain of what really did happen. When looked at in a certain light, yes, it might all seem preposterous but it had happened, hadn’t it? The story had gotten her so far in her life, so many fascinated, sympathetic faces, so much righteous anger on her behalf, such protectiveness, such attention, so impressive the journey from there to here—her image on magazine covers! filmed! painted! its significance expostulated, theorized, deconstructed. To think her story might not be quite what it had come to seem was to shake the very foundation on which she’d built her life; or no, perhaps it was more to the point to say on which she’d constructed her identity, given it a weight and seriousness that the declaration of her extraordinary beauty alone could not. Better still to say that her story created a road map and traveling papers that enabled her to arrive at her place in the world. She had refused more than one proposition from men whose wealth would have provided a permanent berth. Accepting such an offer would identify her as property, annul herself as her own creation. And yet now, finally, she accepted the possibility that today’s telling might be the last.
It was still raining. Her windows were smeared. The cats were mewling to be fed. She ran her hands over the rough surface of the table. There was no food for lunch.
She was born in the Austrian village of Bad Ischl before the war; she remembered walks in the alpine meadows with her parents, swimming in the Weikersdorf Aquatic Palace in her little yellow bathing suit, listening to Lehar operettas on the family radio as they were broadcast live from the small opera house in the square not far from where they lived. This was before the troubles. Was her mother really a countess? Her grandfather had been something in the court of Franz Ferdinand and from that her mother, whose own great beauty had taken her very far indeed, had constructed her own little tale of identity.
Her passport said she was a citizen of Great Britain and so she was and so she had been since she was a child but of course that was likely a forgery made in order to escape detection or worse. Were they Jews? She had wondered that often but during the war was afraid even to approach the subject. There had been, at one time, for several years, co-existing, curiosity and access to the truth through her mother but her mother never volunteered nor could be jollied into coming forth with the information, preferring to live on the generosity of one gentleman or another, creating around herself an aura of glamour and fatalism. Having already embarked on her own promising career, Vera decided not to be burdened with the truth. She had her story though; that and her beauty launched her.
When she was young her eyes, heavy lidded, half asleep yet fully aware of the potential to cause trouble, held your gaze easily as if you had just emerged from her bed and she was contemplating your performance of the night before, appraising it against the performances of all the others; she knew you couldn’t help but wonder. Your eyes would be looking around the room, getting used to being wherever it was you were, looking for a place to settle when there they’d be, her eyes, looking as if she’d been waiting for you, as if you were the one she had come here to find. You didn’t know it but it was the same gaze she leveled at everyone and in fact the gaze wasn’t the look of a woman amused by the ease with which she drew men to her but of someone exclusively enraptured by herself, as sport, entertainment, a face, eyes, shoulders, hips so full of allure, something she’d been told since she was a girl in “the tiny Austrian village of Bad Ischl from which we managed to escape,” so her story went, though it was not one she ever exactly told so much as let slip out, a bit reluctant, a bit surprised at what might even have seemed like something she had not meant to tell until she knew you better and so you were besotted by this unexpected intimacy and what it implied; escaped, so her story went, with her mother and baby brother, the SS breathing down their necks on the morning after the night her father was murdered at the dinner table in full view of his family after his attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler had gone so spectacularly awry.
Her eyes were wide open then maybe for the last time as her mother hastily drew her and her brother into the cellar and down a long tunnel… The details differed—the Reichstag was burning or it was not, the escape route through the alpine forest had been planned or improvised, they ate roots or the mother had stuffed her purse with caviar and figs—even during the span of one telling. After all, nobody had seen more than she had.
From the moment we spoke on the telephone, though I wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted me to do—something to do with some photographs, of her I assumed—I knew I would drive out to see her because she was, after all, who she was and that would be something to see: her face the face of her time, her image on paper and film the manifestation of the viewer’s carnal desire, a living incarnation of the zeitgeist. And who was I to deny myself, I who spent my days and nights in squalor, bombarded, surrounded, intoxicated by images of beauty and worldliness whose actual presence I would never feel or taste or smell.
I was a worm with a knack for narrative. If it was my fate to live my life in a dimly lit room, never to be in the actual perfumed presence of such beauty, an opportunity was being offered to me now. The people she knew! The places she’d been! The astonishing things that had been said to her! The indulgences!The unthinkable offers! The sordid and the unspeakable to which she’d been witness! I didn’t know what it was I wanted or hoped for, only that the need to be in physical proximity to such glamour and worldliness was too strong too resist. Oh Lord it was more than this worm could pass up.
It was raining that day, a Sunday morning in late fall, the leaves nearly gone from the trees and coating the streets the color of brass. It was a day to stay in and read Sense and Sensibility in front of the fireplace had there been one, but instead I was driving the streets of Brooklyn, looking for an address and realizing, the closer I came, that this visit was not going to be what I thought it would be. The houses on her block began to tell the story: not yet discovered by realtors or even by urban pioneers, they were simply rundown row houses with steel bars on ground floor windows.
I sat in my car for a few minutes without turning off the motor and not just for the heat. Was I really going to go in? Why was my heart pounding so? I shut off the motor, quietly closed the car door as if the click of the lock would calm me down, and took my time closing the distance between the sidewalk and the steep steps to number forty-nine. She might have been watching me. I took a couple of deep breaths then rang the bell and set things in motion.
Through the scratched glass of the front door, I saw her legs first as she descended the stairs: enormous track shoes and thin white ankles, a pale blue track suit bought at a thrift store. The door opened: a torn scarf was wrapped around her head, a few wisps of hair escaped artlessly, her face was ashen and without makeup, her tragic mouth tired and dry. Had she ever been photographed smiling? She raised a hand to shield her eyes as if the sun were shining. Those eyes: heavy-lidded, cold and green as the Atlantic. I imagined they were laughing at and forgiving my surprise and disappointment. She must be seventy, I thought but all I could see was Her.
As I followed her up the narrow hallway staircase, she began speaking but since she never turned her head back to me, I only heard isolated words in her low-pitched, Germanic-accented voice: “…absurd. …rent! … two students…the bedrooms. Half the time…money …drugs …music.”
We were in the kitchen now. It was filthy, the sink filled with dishes, cats wherever I looked, dishes of their food spilled on the floor. A pot of water was boiling on the stove. “They eat my food. They don’t put anything back. They don’t ante up for milk. If I am away a day they don’t feed the cats.” She turned and looked me straight in the eye. “Tea?”
We sat in the dining room at a long table covered with piles of papers and photographs. I held onto my cup of tea for dear life. Everywhere I looked I saw a cat. Vera told me her story: her childhood in Austria, her father’s attempted assassination of Hitler, her escape through the pine forest, as she leafed through photo books filled with image after image of her made up to look this way or that, reflecting the year’s fashion, its ethos and in all of them her eyes, her lips, her hands told another, more primal, more animal story. The telling of her story seemed disconnected from what she was doing, as if she was traveling along a memory that might or might not arrive at the present, and trailed off at some point—she already knew her story and in fact so did I—at which point she fell silent, so caught up in the photos she seemed to forget I was there. The room was large, lit grey by the rainy afternoon and no curtains on the windows, bare boards nailed to the walls held books and dying plants, broken vases, framed photos with cracked glass. Vera began to talk about the project: to organize every photo in some narrative order, not chronologically but…she was at a loss for the word, waved her hand in a circle around her head and shrugged her shoulders.
How had this happened? How had she come to this? When had worldliness and eccentricity become decay and delusion?
Her arms were long and expressive. She reached across the table and put her hand on top of mine. Her fingers were cool, pale, blue-veined, and weightless as a bird.
“We will figure it out,” she said. “We will see, yes?” It did not sound like a question.
And my line was meant to be: Yours is a fascinating story but I simply cannot… But instead I said: “Yes.”
I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t care that I didn’t. I sensed I was in danger, that I would do anything for her and wanted to, wanted to fall to my knees at her feet, wanted to stand over her and hold her in my arms and tell her that everything would be all right even though I knew that it would not be, that I had no power to make it so, that it was something, perhaps the one thing, I should never say to her, especially at this point in her life and in mine, because the allure was still there, still potent, still feral and demanding even with that skeletal hand, even with the aged skin, even through the sleepiest green eyes since junk.
I poured a cup of ammonia into a plastic bucket, filled it halfway with warm water, dipped a sponge mop into it and did her kitchen and bathroom floors. Let me say, charitably, it took more than one application. The cats jumped around me, circling, curious, and then withdrew, wincing at the smell of the ammonia. Vera stayed at her table, her back to me though I don’t think it would have mattered to her at all if she’d been facing me, smoking now and sipping a cup of tea, leafing slowly through the photography books, pausing occasionally, a page held lightly in her fingers, as she studied one particular image of herself or another: as a Wagnerian goddess, as a forest nymph, as a headmistress in a garter belt. I was on my knees, not five feet from her, scraping dried cat food from under the stove.
“Enough for today,” she said many hours later.
She let me wash her hair in the kitchen sink; the shampoo smelled of vetiver—“The oil of tranquility,” she said. Then, turbaned and exotic in a worn and shredded towel—I’d promised to replace it with some thick pile new ones: “You are so kind to help me.” Oh my God, Vera. Oh my God. She seemed exhausted as she hissed for her cats. I backed away. She walked past me and up the stairs to take her bath.
I didn’t pity her; I wouldn’t have dared. What good would it have done if I had? She had enlisted my aid in her project and in order for it to succeed—for both of us—I needed to believe that she was what she had been. She needed to be canonized; I needed to create the appointment. I went back to the table to sort through the boxes of negative images of her while she had her bath.
I worked with a light box. Using the same ammonia that I’d applied to her floors, I cleaned a pair of tweezers and used them at the very edges to lift each negative from the box where they lay scattered and slippery. When I had a dozen or so lined up, I took a magnifying glass, cleaned in the same ammonia, and studied each negative. Lit from behind, the negatives of Vera were otherworldly, emphasizing something spectral in her nature. She had given these images to the world recklessly, with no thought to the evanescence of her actuality; such was her fate, her sacrifice and therein also lay her ascendance and salvation. For there, in image after image, proceeding across time with glacial slowness, was the ineluctable, tragic, inevitable evidence of the disintegration of her beauty.
It was hours later. The light was gone and though I must have lit the lamps I had no recollection of doing that. Now it was I who was exhausted. I put the box of negatives on the floor and the light box next to it. The images I’d selected were fanned out on the window sills, the bookshelves, the table, the floor. I stretched out on the table alongside a row of Veras dressed in a wimple, a Speedo, a cassock, a pinafore, lit from above, from below and closed my eyes. In the bathroom above me, I could hear water still running softly in the tub. The sound was a distant sea…
I woke up to water dripping on my hand. A large oval stain in the ceiling above glistened with tiny hanging droplets. As if I was a man living another life, I realized with mounting horror not only what she had done and the sight that would greet me when I had the courage to mount the stairs, but the deep, desperate, foolish and enormous significance of the absence of a camera.