L U P S C H A D A . C O M an exercise in self-indulgence
Copyright 2005 by Brooke Tarnoff - Do not reprint without permission. All rights reserved.
It's almost 9'clock when Magda pulls into the driveway, stalling the car a few seconds early. The new girl from next door is on her front porch with a magazine. She looks over and gives a short wave, half of a lazy high-five. Magda smiles in return. If the car is far enough in, she did it on purpose, gliding home.
She checks the rearview mirror. The back of the car is spilling over onto the sidewalk, so she pulls it up, and the girl from next door goes back to flipping pages. The garage is empty.
Magda struggles to remember if Tom said he'd be out, if he said where he'd be. There was something about racquetball, but that's Thursday. Maybe it is Thursday. She wants to ask the girl next door but the question makes her feel irrelevant. No one with things to do loses track of the week.
Inside, there's a message from Tom: "At Daniel's." Of course. Tom's brother, getting a divorce after 10 years of marriage.
Tom has been over there a couple times this week, he says without him Daniel would forget to eat and change his underwear. Magda hasn't seen Daniel since his wife left three weeks ago, can't bear to. His features, too much like Tom's, are a time machine; it is like seeing her own husband already ten years older and fading rapidly with grief.
She calls Daniel's apartment with the picture off and he answers. Magda tries to sound gentle, she honestly feels for him, but her existence is an affront. I am your brother's wife. His wife. I am just here to remind you that your brother is still a husband.
"Hi Daniel." She sounds hollow, tries to adjust her tone. "How are you doing?"
"Oh, hi. I'm... Tom's here," he says. She can hear the prattle of the tv in the background, the desperate cheer of a shopping network.
"I know," she says, but Daniel has already handed off the phone. Tom picks up, apologizes, "I meant to leave you a message."
"You did." she pauses, but he doesn't confirm. "Have you had dinner?"
"I picked up something on the way. Daniel called right after I got home tonight. I'll be back soon."
She hears the woman's voice exclaim, "Wow her on her birthday with a spectacular birthstone jewelry gift!" as they hang up, and Magda opens the pantry. She doesn't bother to cook when she's alone. She finds a half-empty peanut butter jar and a spoon.
She settles onto the couch with dinner and her grandma's afghan, turns on home shopping. They've moved on to age-defying skin care. The hostess looks like she's defying age with a hatchet facelift, her cheeks pulled up and back like a cartoon character in a fast car. Magda instinctively touches her own face, still smooth, not slack but softer than it used to be. "Give him back the woman he married!" the hostess intones brightly, and Magda closes her eyes.
She wakes up on the couch hours later, the summer finally dark, with the jar of peanut butter on the floor. Tom's steps stage-whisper across the living room floor, and she waits for him to collect her, lead her to bed. He pads past her without stopping, urinates with the bathroom door open, and goes into their room. After a minute, Magda follows softly, trying not to jar herself fully awake. Tom is already snoring as she slips into bed, she is careful not to nudge him as she turns onto her stomach, dragging thickly back to sleep.
Saturday morning, they have breakfast together. She watches the tv behind Tom's shoulder while he reads the morning paper. Magda idly follows a show that is either a sitcom or a makeover, while Tom murmurs and clucks at the news. Suddenly, he gives a sharp bark of laughter and shakes the paper in Magda's direction.
"Listen to his," he says, incredulous, lowering the paper to look across the breakfast table. "A Fantasy for Fans of the Female Form. A new museum in Manhattan's SoHo opens its doors this August with something completely unique: a permanent, living art display of the female body."
She doesn't get the joke. "They're nude?"
"No, they're -- I don't know, maybe. But they're frozen. They're permanent displays, they're cryogenically frozen." He reads, "Owner and curator Paul Cragen, also a renowned New York sculptor, believes the female form is "the most generous creation of God.' He says, "The flaw of nature, of beauty: it dies, fades. I take perfection and make it last forever.' When asked to comment on his detractors' claims that he objectifies and dehumanizes women, Cragen is stunned. 'I give them eternal beauty. It is the kindest gift I could give.'"
Tom looks up and shakes his head. "Amazing."
Magda shrugs. "I have to assume it's voluntary," she says. "It beats death."
"Magda, he's taking young, healthy women. Look at this," he says, gesturing toward her with the article, "This girl is twenty-five. Nice-looking girl."
"We have no idea what her life is like. Maybe she's a bankrupt addict."
Tom is looking at her like she stabbed a baby on the breakfast table. She adds defensively, "Maybe she has no family. Maybe she has cancer, you don't know."
"So she gets chemotherapy. She doesn't turn off her brain and move into a box at a human zoo."
Magda says, "She gets chemo and her hair falls out, and she waits to die while no one looks at her ever again."
"You don't know that it's that bad."
"Tom! There is no cancer! We made her up, I can make it that bad if I want to." She wants to give this girl the worst death sentence imaginable, prove herself with a bullet. "She has cancer of the face and no insurance and her husband left her for a beautiful nurse. Let her live in whatever box she wants."
"I can't imagine going to see that," he says.
"Don't go," Magda says, and brings their dishes to the sink. They brush past each other, straightening up the kitchen. Tom helps for a minute, smiles with his lips tight, and leaves the room with his newspaper.
She goes out as soon as she's dressed, citing a shortage of toilet paper, needing air. It's before noon, and the girl from next door is already laying out on the lawn in a bathing suit. The family moved in two or three days ago; Magda helped carry a few boxes, but she hasn't had a real conversation with any of them. She tries to remember if the girl's name is Jane or Jen.
She guesses. "Hey Jen," Magda calls over and the girl looks up, shading her eyes with her magazine.
"Hey," she says. Magda thinks she's either named Jen or prematurely well-mannered. Her bathing suit is surprisingly tasteful for what Magda thinks the kids are wearing now. It's more conservative than anything Magda wore at that age, and Jen's body is much nicer than Magda's was.
"How's it going?"
Magda walks over. "It's hot. I miss air-conditioning."
Jen laughs, an abrupt, unattractive noise with all her teeth showing, and Magda loves her a little bit.
"I don't really remember it," Jen says. She is younger than Magda thought, maybe thirteen or fourteen.
"Yeah. So, how about you, big summer plans?" Magda asks.
"Not really." Jen makes the so-so motion with her hand. "In a couple days I'm going to stay with my dad in Michigan."
Magda is vaguely disappointed. She sees snapshots of summer: having a kid over for barbeque when Tom is out, listening to boy troubles over lemonade in Magda's kitchen. "That's a big trip so soon after moving in."
"That's the way the custody crumbles," she shrugs. "He's got a pool."
"Sounds like fun," Magda says. She looks up and sees Tom through the window, remembers that she is supposed to be running errands. She jangles her keys and smiles at Jen. "Going shopping. Do you need anything while I'm out?"
"Thanks, Mrs. Kane. I'm cool." Jen waves goodbye with her magazine, fanning the air, and the hint of breeze flutters through Magda's hair. She pauses, momentarily rapt, and waves back.
In the car, she realizes she doesn't have anywhere to go. She bought toilet paper last week, twelve rolls, but she decides on the supermarket for lack of a better plan. The cd player is broken, the car is too quiet, but she heads toward the bigger store, farther away; It gives her a greater sense of contrived purpose.
There is almost no traffic on the road. Magda imagines everyone in the world has somewhere better to be; They are underwater, doing handstands in backyard pools and swimming between their lovers' legs, or in bed, stretched out in the heat or woven together. No one else is making up chores, running away from the onerous grace of home.
She pulls into the parking lot, nearly empty on a Saturday morning, and shakes off the faint urge to drive into the wall of the supermarket just to hear the noise.
The shelves in the first few rows, actual groceries, irritate her; They were stocked to remind Magda why normal people come here. She sails past them to the non-items: the things she doesn't need that come in sleek bottles and smell good. She could spend hours reading words like "nourishing, strengthening," smelling the tea tree oil and lavender.
Tom disdains her stockpile of shampoo under the bathroom sink. He doesn't understand the sensation of buying them: for fifteen minutes every day, she can guarantee she'll smell that way, be that way, nourished. The promises of bath products are uncomplicated.
Magda moves down the aisle, through the conditioners and bath gels, and picks up a jar of anti-wrinkle cream called "Eye Hope." She doesn't understand why an already embarrassing product would take such a ridiculous name; She thinks it is punishment for having crow's feet.
She looks around to see that she's alone, skims the top of the flawless swirl of white cream, leaving finger-trails. It's too greasy, and within seconds the corners of her eyes are uncomfortably tight. She thinks, "Give him back the woman he married," picks out a shampoo, and leaves.
She pulls into the driveway and Tom is on the lawn next door, standing over Jen with the mail in his hand. Magda gets out of the car as he says, "Good talking to you!" and Jen waves her magazine.
"Mine," Magda thinks, "I got to her first."
They walk into the house together. "Nice girl," he says. "They seem like a good family."
"What was that about?" Magda asks. Tom is inspecting the mail, pauses and looks up. The afternoon window light, a forgiving gold, filters across his face. It makes him look hale, like a cereal ad.
"Why, are you jealous?" His eyes are wide, uncommonly keen. Magda thinks he might be flirting. She flushes lightly and swats his arm.
"Maybe I should be. She's pretty hot," Magda says, and he laughs, putting his arms around her. His embrace is instantly familiar but smaller than she remembers, a hometown visit. He kisses the top of her head and she pulls back to look at him.
She raises her eyebrows, waiting for a response. He laughs again, but uneasily. "Mag, she's got to be twelve years old."
"So?" she says playfully. "She's got a great body, don't you think?"
"I don't know," he says and shakes his head. "You know I don't work that way." He tugs her in again, not warmly. This is something he does, removes his eyes from her sightline. It's his physical punctuation, the last word.
She used to love his propriety. She washed his clothes when they were first married, checking his pockets and unfolding every scrap she found, not for anything he'd done but for everything he could. He was beautiful, perfect. Magda couldn't imagine winning him every day of their lives. She thinks she might like to find a note in his pocket now. She imagines the shock, electrifying, an almost sexual thrill of discovery. A reason to fight.
"Tom, I'm a big girl, I don't care if you're attracted to her." Magda disentangles, moves out of reach. She does care. She wants to find a hunger in him. She wants to find something living, something left after seven years of her.
"Okay, Magda, and she's a little girl." He meets her eyes, resolute.
"Right, forget it," she says, and puts her hand out for the mail. She feels vicious, knows he can't understand what she's looking for, sure she couldn't explain it even if she were willing.
He looks like he wants to say something. Magda can feel his words forming, uncertainly, and Daniel calls. She tells Tom to go, puts the keys in his hand and hugs him goodbye. He looks defeated as he leaves and she's sick to her stomach. It's the closest thing she has to winning.
The piece on the Cragen Gallery is at the top of the stacked papers in the recycling bin. Magda rescues it, smoothing it carefully.
She isn't expecting him, but Cragen himself answers the phone when she calls. He offers to meet with her late Monday morning. A consultation, he says.
A prospective volunteer, she calls herself.
She is dressed and ready an hour after Tom leaves for work, too early for her appointment. She can't stop herself from picking at her clothes; Her hands belong to her mother and the rest of her is twelve. She is wearing makeup for the first time in at least a month, and she peers into every reflective surface, wiping microscopic smudges of lipstick from her mouth. Finally she drives to the train station, wishing she could leave herself behind.
She gets to the city a few minutes early and moves toward the museum with a deliberate heartbeat pace. On foot, she passes the checkpoint at Broadway and Canal, looks at the soldiers standing together. She swallows a sudden, absurd desire to shake her skirt up, flash a few inches of thigh. She'd toss "Hi, sailor" into the air like a scarf, an archaic flirtation, relic from her grandmother's stories. She doesn't keep herself from pushing her shoulders back and her breasts forward, swinging her step gently.
She glances over her shoulder with an old expression, awkwardly girlish and stiff from disuse. The soldiers aren't looking back; They probably haven't noticed and they're clustered around some more interesting point of focus, a magazine maybe, or broken glass on the street. She walks on.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Magda." Paul Cragen says , shaking her hand. She was expecting someone else: an artiste poseur, a playboy, a desperate virgin. Instead, he's moderately handsome but unassuming, affable. He is wearing a wool sweater and a wedding ring.
He welcomes her into his office, and pulls out a chair, gesturing for her to sit. "Can I get you anything? Coffee, water?"
She find his manner perplexing. So cordial, it feels like a job interview. She could point out her qualifications, surely a background in retail is good preparation for suspended animation. Her hands are shaking and she's afraid she will laugh. "No, thank you," she responds politely and crosses her legs.
"Before we do anything else," he says, handing her a leather-bound portfolio, "I thought you'd like to see some of my work." Magda takes it from him gratefully, and it's breathtaking. Every photograph shows a sculpture of a woman's body, arched and lithe, extravagant limbs tapered to points. They are posed like alien dancers, twisted impossibly and opaline.
Magda feels immoderately human. She is a walking flaw, struck by swift humility; She fears that her life will not be enough of an offer. She looks up to see Cragen examining her carefully, and realizes he may have shown her the portfolio for this purpose. "They're beautiful, you're very talented."
He leans back in his chair and tents his fingers. "The work we're doing here has never been done before. The human body is art; It's hardly revolutionary as a concept. But artists offer beauty by proxy, they give you pale imitations and you treasure them. The most complicated, textured, compelling art walks our streets, deteriorating before our eyes. Do we cherish it? Magda, when is the last time you were cherished? When is the last time you were honored by a look?"
She shakes her head imperceptibly, flustered. He continues, "Of course, you realize it's controversial. It's extreme. May I ask what attracts your interest?"
She lies easily. "I have cancer," she says, and thinks, of the face. "Breast cancer. I'm scheduled for a mastectomy."
Cragen gazes unabashedly at her chest. "They're gorgeous."
Magda flushes and pulls one arm across herself, resting her left hand on her right shoulder. She scratches casually as if she didn't notice his stare and says, "Thanks. So I, you know, I would rather..."
"Keep them? It's understandable."
"I just want -- I want to be seen. I want to be worth seeing."
Cragen nods compassionately and then lays his hands firmly on the desk, palms down, with an air of that's that. "What do you say we take a look around?"
The exhibit space itself is understated, a long white hall lined with glass boxes, each ten feet square. The first few they pass are empty, but the next are exhaustively appointed. One is fitted with elegant Victorian furniture, the floor of another swathed in white silk, all washed in pink light from overhead fixtures.
"Are there any with..." she hesitates, wondering how to refer to them. As women? As pieces, exhibits? "Are there any finished dioramas?"
Cragen seems amused by her discomfort and smiles indulgently. "We have one completed scene, with a model. Would you like to see it now?" She nods and follows him to the end of the hall. There is a curtain covering the last box, and he pulls it aside without flair. The woman in the glass box is stretched across an unmade bed in her underwear. Her skin is gently flushed, she is colored with the warmth of sleep.
"She doesn't look dead," Magda says, surprised. Cragen raises his eyebrows slightly.
"I know. But she looks so... normal. Healthy."
"Do you want to know the technology of it?"
She feels like a child, imagines that she is watching the captured ascent to heaven, this woman half-turned to angel and caught in a butterfly net. "No. I just... Where is she?" she asks, hushed.
"I'm no theologian, Magda. I deal with a more tangible medium," he says and turns to consider the body. "But I prefer to think she's dreaming." They walk back toward his office and pause in the gallery doorway. "What do you think?"
"It's like nothing I've ever seen. I'm honestly not sure what I think yet."
He nods, undaunted. "My wife designed the scenes."
"She's your partner, then?"
"In every way," he says, and Magda thinks she finds him self-satisfied, smug. "She has quite a talent."
"Yes," she agrees. "What does she think of all this?"
"She thinks it's as beautiful as I do. An honor." He looks around the room, breathing it in and turns back to Magda, "Someday she'll be here. The most stunning work of art in the collection."
Magda promises to call him when she's had time to think, and five minutes later she is running.
Jen is loading suitcases into a van when Magda gets back. "Heading out?" Magda asks.
"I am indeed," Jen sighs. She shoves the last bag in and sits heavily on the curb. "He has a pool," Magda reminds her, and Jen laughs.
"Yeah. He does."
Magda sits down with her. "What's the problem?"
"It's just messed up, I don't know. Mom isn't even here to say goodbye. She doesn't want to deal with my dad." She gestures toward her house without looking. "He's in there talking to my step-father, if you call it talking. No one is allowed to say what they're actually thinking, so they cover it up with details, you know, like how often I should call, what he should be feeding me." She shakes her head, "Like anyone cares. Seriously, they're so awkward they might die from it."
"That's tough, I'm sorry."
"I'll live." Jen shrugs.
Magda considers telling Jen that it never gets better, the mystery of filling silence without drowning. "You will," she says. "We all do." She pats Jen on the back and stands up, pushing her hands to her thighs for leverage. "Have a good summer, Jen. Visit us when you get back."
She calls Tom at work.
"Are you okay?" he asks, surprised to hear from her.
"I'm fine. I just want to know if you're coming home for dinner."
He hesitates. "I was planning to go to Daniel's," he says.
"Bring him home, Tom. I'll cook," she insists.
She suddenly needs to see her husband's brother, his fragile, fatal humanity. Magda wants to touch Tom again. She wants to fuse to him for a moment, one creature with too many hearts. Visit home. She'd like to stay a little while, have a look around, see if she left something behind.
Tom agrees and they hang up. Magda busies her hands with ingredients, an offering. It's what she has to give.