Women Are Ugly
By Eliot Fintushel
21 June 2004
"We suffer insofar as we are incomplete."
Women are so ugly. It scares you. You want to love them, and then you see their teeth. You see how their skin bunches and sags. You want to run away. They secrete repulsive fluids. They conceal their ugliness with tinctures and creams. They have instruments to pluck and mold their ugly parts. Sometimes they sneak off by themselves. Powder rooms. If for some in their youth the ugliness is hidden, it is a case of leaves strewn over compost: soon the wind will scatter them, and the stink will rise.
I just narrowly escaped a close relationship with a woman. That thing happened where, after a time of being bumfuzzled by lust, I began to see her. Only thing. This one didn't take it so well. Stabbed me with a scissors. "We'll see who's ugly."
I didn't want to hurt her, so I ran. The cut wasn't bad, though it could have been. Yes, I can bleed. I can die. Took a little divot from the hollow of my shoulder. I shudder to think. But I'm okay. Rubbing alcohol and a couple of Band-Aids.
How did I get involved. They are beautiful at first. I saw her hanging up clothes on a line in the yard behind the empty house next door. (Empty, I'd thought it was.) Pulley, clothesline, basket of wet things. Old-fashioned, yes? In the sun. Under a blue sky. The glint of faraway grass, knolls like curves on a woman's flank, smell of birds' wings and sunlight: a day like that, your senses got mixed up. In all that, we're the same as you. They don't tell you that.
One breath and you knew the season. It swelled her sheets, her blouses. Arms swathed for a moment in blowing fabric. Mouthful of clothespins. She stood on tiptoes, the wind took her skirt, and I saw the sweet arcs of her calves.
You had to say hello. "Hey!"
"Hey!" -- through the clothespins. Sort of charming. Touch of a smile, then back to her laundry. Turned me on, turned me off. Fazed me: I felt too important to be treated that way. I make girls hot when I zoom in on them -- that's what I expect. This one cowed me. Almost gelded. Crazy, I know, but it made me want her. Who's that casual toward a superman. Or didn't she notice my fontanel.
Maybe a Cosmo trick, thinks I -- the magazine, not the universe. The universe, I've seen. In the Magellanic Clouds there are neutron stars with sentient beings whose lives are briefer than a finger snap, their organs subtler than moonlight, though unimaginably dense. You fall in love, and they're gone before you're done sighing. In the Andromeda Galaxy, I have seen creatures the size of planets, thinking beings, crystalline, each bearing a single thought forever. They are like angels, really. They have no smell. You long for them.
Powder rooms -- that's what Earth girls are about.
She was a mere woman, I was a superman, and she was doing me a Cosmo. I had to stroke my fontanel. We were under a blue sky. I was policing Mom's backyard, pooper-scoopering after Bobo, her basset/poodle. Barks. Barks. As if to call you stupid. As if in her canine brain there bloomed some grand architectonic -- why don't you get it -- but all she does is bark. Can't stand Bobo. Mom's compensation for having me, like the new hat they'll buy whenever things go wrong. I wasn't your normal baby -- but you must know all about that.
"Hey!" I try again. She winces, drops her clothespins, covers her ears, and I get to say, "Sorry. Sometimes I forget my own strength."
"What. No problem." But she's irked.
"Let me help you pick up."
She lets me. So this woman, this creature of the powder room, stands over me while I gather clothespins. Has instinct driven me to this. Neural processes. In me she has provoked neural processes. Will is an illusion. I am at her feet. She wears straw sandals. Her toenails are painted red. Her feet tense slightly and relax. I see the blood pulse across her ankles, smooth as blown glass. White noise fills my ears. I sneak a look up; she is looking down, but there is no weakness in it, no invitation. I might be a servant.
"Is that one of those fontanels."
Thank God she has noticed. "Uh, yes." Well practiced: the counterfeit of humility. I stand. I am holding a bunch of clothespins, but she makes no move to receive them. Where am I going to put them. She just stands there, arms akimbo, with a cockeyed grin and hair in her eyes. Red hair. So you have to say, "Your clothespins."
"My clothespins, you're saying. Ah. What about them."
This is the sort of woman Clarissa is, and I am hooked. I am lost. Hormonal bath. Ancient genetic predisposition. God knows. Total disaster.
Just then my mother calls, and I run inside with the handful of Clarissa's clothespins.
Where is Bobo.
"Seymour, bring me my Lapsang souchong, Seymour. Did you put the spoon-and-three-quarters of honey like I told you. Of course you did. So beautiful you are, Seesee. Your hair black as a raven. Your eyes so blue, I'd want you for a lover if I were young, and if you were not my child, of course. Your jaw so square, you tall brave man, and the muscles on you, God Almighty. You make a mother happy. If you weren't a monster, I believe I would be quite taken with you. If we were two unrelated persons of the same age, I mean. Of course, the fontanel. Though I understand there are those who are not repelled by it. Even find it attractive, so you say, but you don't always tell the truth, do you, why should you, I'm old. Who were you talking to. You mustn't take your eye off Bobo. Now I'm poorly and I can't walk the darling, but you can run her and scoop after her, and it doesn't knock the wind out of you like it would me, Seymour. There's not enough honey in this, by the way. I do wish you would do the simple things I ask, simple, yes, even for a superman. A mother ought to have some little compensation for the deathly horrors of bringing up a package such as yourself, Seymour, though you are my flesh and blood, and I love you equally with Bobo, as God is my witness, Seymour. If you would only just put in the proper amount of honey. Is that so much to ask. Who were you talking to, did you say. By the clothesline."
I remember my first trip to the sun. You know how it is when you're a child and you wander off. First, there's the rush of freedom. Then the fear. Maybe your mother will never find you, and the way home is gone, erased. It's a nightmare. You remember.
Mom hadn't gotten Bobo yet. I was four years old or so. A handful, yes, but no presages. No fontanel -- just a soft spot between the skull bones, like anybody. She gave me Ritalin, of course. They told her to. None of us had bloomed supermen at that time. Ritalin was no good for it, of course. She wrung her hands. Midmorning and she was tired of me. You would be too. She locked herself in her room. Go play. She wouldn't let me in. I broke everything. Everything. I tore up her tea cozy. I reached way up to the front doorknob then. I turned it with both hands and pushed. The sun. I jumped.
The sound of my breath like rocket thrust. The air thins. The wonder of it. All around me bubbles, I want to say, as in a dive through water, but they are bubbles of what, electricity. Colder, the higher the colder, then warmer. Oh, I do think it's the pleasantest thing. Shapes of continents and sparkle of far seas. Then -- pop! -- no air at all. The car door of the troposphere has slammed. Venus and Mercury are nothing to me, eye blinks, plugs you dive after, bagatelles. But the sun. A leap from a tall tower into a bucket of water. I hear them cheer, thousands of them, millions of them. White noise in my ears. Searing heat. I am not seared. It is the Burning Bush. So bright. Who is Moses to such as I, I thought next day, remembering. Or God even.
My first blasphemy.
Blasphemy. Blast for me. Blast furnace of all the stars. How profane I day by day became. But back then it was just the sun, our sun. Me in the middle. Bathing. Glorying.
But. You pause for a moment, doubt creeps in, and you have to cry. Before your tears can evaporate, they fission. Ninety-three million miles from home, and your mom won't let you into her room. In the furnace of the solar system, source of everything, throne of fire, I weep bitterly. It passes, though. You know how that goes. And you jump back home. Nothing to it.
They all thought I had been dreaming, until our fontanels bulged the way they do, and the other presages, and they knew us for supermen.
"Who, Seymour. By the clothesline."
"Nobody, Mom. The neighbor."
"I get you now. The neighbor. What the hell are you doing with her clothespins."
I took Clarissa to a burger place. I could have taken her to the rim of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way and watched the universe flash by, Big Bang to Heat Death, but she wanted a burger and fries. It was one of those plastic joints with a play area outside. During awkward moments I could look out the window at tykes on swings. The way they laugh. Nothing can hurt them. The grownups have to grin and coax -- "You'll have a great time out here while Mommy and Daddy sit in there" -- but once they leave, the kids are happy as little gods. There's nothing they can't do. A person could watch them forever.
Clarissa gets her burger with everything and eats it thoughtfully. In little bites. She looks up at me through falls of red hair and asks lots of questions. I sip a ginger ale. I'm used to it. They check you out. They calculate where to file you. It puts me at my ease, to tell you the truth.
"No, we can't see through things."
She screws her eyes up at me as if to decode something. Finally: "Oh, that's good." She laughs and crosses her arms before her as if to cover up.
"What about you. No boyfriend?"
"How come. You're so pretty. Pretty. So pretty."
"Thanks." She takes it in her stride, the way those do who are often praised. Another piece of French fry. "I guess I'm just choosy. No girlfriend?"
I blush. I wish I were back in the solar flare. Why do people have to get personal.
A busboy comes by, stops, stares at me a minute, and asks Clarissa, "He a superman."
"Mind your own business." Then to me: "Want some of my fries. How come you're not eating anything." Her kindness. Reminds me of certain hominids in the Betelgeuse system.
"Restaurant food gives me powerful indigestion. Everyone turns their head. Children cry. People drop things." She keeps looking at me. I say it again.
Then she thinks I've made a joke. She laughs again. "Show me something super."
My heart hammers. Shut up, shut up. I make it slow. I can't help it running away, but I can bring it back whenever I think to try; autonomic functions are nothing to me. Now I'm calm. I smile even, a little. I reach across the table and take her hand. She screws up her eyes at me and grins the funniest little grin. Maybe she's deciding I'm crazy. When I pull at her hand there is the slightest resistance, like the catch of a shift stick going into reverse. I lay her hand on top of my head. The fontanel. Little mound. Feel the pattern of tiny petals fanning out from the center. A lotus, they like to say.
"A lotus. Mm." She gives it a little rub. Tousles my hair. I close my eyes. I feel tears coming on. Stop it. Just stop it. "For good luck."
"Come on, though. Do something super. I want to see."
"First let's get to know each other a little, okay? Know each other. Know. Each other. A little, okay?"
She purses her lips. Disappointed. Then angry. Interesting chemistry: embarrassment, pain, anxiety, you name it -- on this planet they turn everything to anger. The gray mess all pigments blend down to. My mom is constantly turning some dumb thing to anger. If I make a joke and she starts to laugh, she ends by yelling at me.
First let's get to know each other, I say, and she purses her lips. She's turning the thing around in her mind, looking for the jagged edge. Outside, a little blonde kid pushes his sister too hard on her swing. She wails. He likes that.
Me, I don't get angry. Most places in the universe they don't. Compassion is a lot more common than people down here imagine. Up near Betelgeuse there's a place where the folks are moved so much by one another's just being there that they sit around all day and cry. Long days, too, by earthly standards.
"You live with your mother, don't you."
"Yeah. Somebody has to when they're old. It's not a permanent arrangement. And I'm away a lot."
"Away. Away a lot."
"Ah. The stars."
She cocks her head at me. I don't mind anything, so long as they do things like that to me. They cast a spell. Even though I know she's challenging me, trying to see if I'll give ground. Okay, I don't really go to the stars or change the course of mighty rivers, she wants me to say: I'm just a mama's boy with a head full of dreams. But I can't lie. None of us can.
After a minute of this silence, with the kid outside the window twisting his sister's swing chains and the short order cook shouting and the fry basket buzzing and the griddle hissing, I win. She says, "God, my life is so boring," and slumps back in her chair.
"No, it's not. You fascinate me. You've got more life in one strand of that pretty red hair than I've got in my whole super body. Just the way you hang up your clothes to dry, for gosh sakes. Who even does that anymore. I can see intelligence in people, and I see plenty of it in you. And passion. I bet you're passionate about things."
"What. Oh. Music, I guess. Chamber music, mostly. I go to the Art Gallery every Thursday night for the baroque concerts. I play the flute. Used to be good. I haven't touched it in . . ." She trails off, remembering something bad. Look at her. It's like after a freeze when the sun comes out and the flowers thaw and droop -- actually, they were already dead.
"But you should! You're an artist. I envy you. In some of the worlds I've been to, artists are the ones who rule over everybody. Those people know what's what."
"What. What. Worlds. Worlds, right? You're funny. You've never been to other worlds."
"I have. Lots."
"I've never even been out of New York State--" She pounces then. Elbows on the table, face in my face. "Have some fries."
"Show me you're a superman. I've got to see it -- or smell it." She laughs. "If we're going to 'get to know each other a little,' you might as well show me your thing with restaurant food -- I mean, if it isn't too painful or anything."
"Not painful," I whisper, "just loud."
She thrusts a forkful of fries in my face -- and I take them into my mouth, chew, swallow, wait. We talk about the décor. Another forkful. Another. I won't sweat. I won't stammer. I won't lose track of the conversation and say what, hanh, begapardon. Clarissa's face changes like a mobile in a baby's crib. So alive now. More and more she settles her eyes on me. Like pouring syrup into a small-necked bottle. When I look away, the restaurant has a whole new set of clientele.
"So when are you going to do it. You didn't do it. You're not really a superman at all, are you. You digest greasy fries like everybody else." She delivers a mock slap across my cheek. "That's for lying to me."
"We'd better go outside. Can we go outside now. Outside."
"Omigod, is it coming? Let's go out in the playground."
Clarissa takes hold of my wrist, yanks me out of my chair, and leads me through the door to the play area. Methane. On Venus it's no big deal. They're drenched in methane there. Nobody even notices. But here the kids stop and look. They cover their faces and laugh. One boy has jumped from the swing at apogee; he flies through the air and lands at my feet at exactly the wrong moment. "Ecch."
Clarissa smiles. "That wasn't so bad." She fixes her eyes on me as if they were the point of a mandrel; her forehead and chin cut little arcs. "I wonder about you, mister." She gives my hand a squeeze.
What an extraordinary girl.
"She only wants to use you, Seesee."
Wouldn't you think that that would have been the end of it. Who would want to stick around after that. But she took me with her to her Thursday night. Toward the end they played a Handel sonata for flute and piano. Larghetto, andante, adagio, presto. That's how our date went too: larghetto, andante, adagio, presto. The sonata came during the andante part of our evening. We'd already heard some Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi. Music like that, for us supermen, you know what it does to us. It moves us. We hear it with ears that ordinary people can't imagine. We hear stardust in it, orbits, pulsar cycles, lives of galaxies, things those composers didn't know they were doing. We tremble. A tear may fall. It was the andante of our evening, and, of course, Clarissa could tell how moved I was. That really impressed her. She was rubbing against me by then. Andante. Her forearm shared the armrest with my forearm. Her skin pulsed against my shirt sleeve with the pulses of the flute. Her bracelet rubbed my wrist. Totally cantabile, if you know what I mean. You could say that, right there, in the plush seats in the dark in the little concert hall of the Art Gallery, Clarissa and I were making time. Sort of. There was still deniability there, if you wanted it. Oh excuse me, I wasn't aware. That sort of thing. I thought of sneaking my fingers through her fingers, but I could never find the right moment for it, exactly. You have to get it in at a cadence.
"You riffle and you stare. Page on page you dog-ear and jelly. I see you run your eyes back and forth, but what comes of it. You haunt the library and you jabber and you scribble, but what comes out, Seesee, what comes out. Stop worrying that bump on your head, will you. Twenty-six, gosh sakes, and you still talk to angels. Poor thing. Your eye so clear, your brow so subtle, and all that comes out of you is retard drivel. I suppose I should be grateful you walk my Bobo when you do and make me my honey in my tea. And that you don't tear off the wallpaper and trash the kitchen like you did day on day till you were eight. Where do you go, poor thing, all those hours when you vanish. Why won't you let me take you to the doctors anymore. The government covers it. They know it's not my fault. You're not going to answer me today, are you. Look at you, maven, with your furrowed brow like a textbook with the funnies tucked inside. Oh, I could crown the joker who coined that word 'supermen.' Was it a doctor. Or a social worker. Cruel trick. A cute sweet tag for you poor things, yes, but they weren't thinking of us mothers. The drudgery. The humiliation. The pain. Thank God for Bobo anyway."
Larghetto: I knocked on her door like she said to, at six-thirty sharp. It was a hollow core door, so I was careful not to bust through it. Rap rappity rap. Larghetto. She opened the door just enough to squeeze out and closed it quickly behind her. I got the idea that I wasn't supposed to see inside her house.
"Do you live here all by yourself. Alone. Alone. Alone."
"What. What. Oh. You little snoop. Is this part of 'getting to know each other a little.'"
"Well, do you."
"C'mon. We have to catch a bus." Just like at the restaurant, she gave my hand a pull. I let her. She was wearing a sleeveless black dress. She carried one of those lacy handbags, also black, that look -- forgive me -- like a lady's bunched silk underwear. She looked positively regal. The curve of her throat made me weak.
The bus came like magic as soon as we got to the stop. I gave her a funny look -- I almost thought she had done it, a witch's spell. Don't laugh. Clarissa led me on, and she even paid my fare for me. She sat us down halfway back, me next to the window. We talked some. Larghetto.
"Yes, I live by myself." After all the time between, it suited her to say this now. Even if you're a superman, beauty makes you weak, makes you forgive. I was grateful she answered at all. "I go out lots, though. I have friends. No family anymore, but friends. You don't go out much, do you, Seymour. I mean out out. Movies. Concerts. I don't mean outer space."
"No. We have lots of responsibilities. It makes you so busy."
"Of course -- do you get help?"
"Do you see anybody for it."
"Why would I do that." The bus stopped and a dozen teenagers tramped on. All that noise. Going downtown. You could smell their cologne, their perfume, their tobacco, their sex. Clarissa kept looking at me, wheels turning behind those eyes. I felt hot. Must have been all those people. A tall one with a leather aviator's jacket looked at me funny when he walked by. Then some others. Funny. I didn't want them there, but I didn't want to do anything about it in that situation. The responsibility of power. "Why would I see anybody for it. I help people. I don't need people to help me. Don't need . . ."
"Of course. Never mind. Two more stops."
Somebody behind us laughed.
Andante: Bach, Telemann, stardust, orbits. Maybe a tear. She rubs my arm.
Adagio: Vivaldi, Handel, pulsars, galaxies. I don't weave my fingers through her fingers. There is a timelessness to not doing things. A second is an eon: you hover.
At the end of this movement, it's unbelievable: during some cadenza or other, delicate lacework in the heart, she leans over to me and whispers, "Don't fart." I start to laugh, but in that situation, you know, you mustn't. I rub my fontanel and through a great effort of the will, thank God, I merely cough. Nobody looks, thank God.
Presto: This section segues from Clarissa's remark and my coughing fit. We duck out before the applause has ended. Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, excuse me. What an extraordinary girl. Leaking laughter like spent rocket fuel. Wake of turned heads and did-you-evers. What an extraordinary girl. Into the dark. Les belles etoiles. We bump and cuddle on a stone bench like drunkards, like children at the swings. I blow the pinwheel of the stars.
"You don't, Seesee. Now I've caught you in your own shit. Nobody can do such a thing."
I blow the pinwheel of the stars: eight o'clock, nine o'clock, ten. Even Polaris wobbles. It's okay. The astronomers will think it's their instruments, and everyone else will rub their eyes and forget.
I say, "Don't fall in love with me."
"It's dangerous to fall in love with us." I can't stop laughing quite, even though this matters.
"What are you. . . . What. In love -- I'm not in love with you." Unaccountably, she is irked.
"It's just that -- our lives are too big for ordinary people."
"What -- omigod. Don't patronize me. I can't believe you're patronizing me. You. Patronizing me."
"Never mind. It's not important. You're okay, right." The laughter evaporates. I see its remnants in the asteroid belt, in the far small bodies nearest Saturn, the way they shake. Maybe before morning my mom will have to field accusatory phone calls from other supermen who have noticed.
"Say it again."
"You're okay. Okay, right."
"I'm okay. Right." There it is again. Turning hilarity to anger. Why do they.
"Why did you joke in there. I thought you loved music. Why."
"What. I don't know -- listen, I'm not dumb like you."
"I know what supermen are, for Christ's sake. I just want you to understand that." Exasperation: her eyes go big, she clenches her teeth, and her nostrils flare. "Why am I even saying this. This is absurd. Me sitting with a superman, for Christ's sake. Taking a superman to a concert."
"Don't put yourself down, Clarissa. You're an extraordinary girl."
"'Superman.' Doubletalk. Horseshit. Do you know what you are."
"Of course I do."
"An idiot, that's what. Fall in love with you. Don't you know when you're being done a favor."
Me, I don't get angry. Me, it's all love it blends down to. She is electric. Her eyes are on me. On me. On me. She suckles me with her eyes, feels like. She loves me so much, I could be her Bobo.
Down here they may take it for anger, but it's love. You have to know what to make of it. She loves me. I can tell. This is a dangerous situation for her, I am aware. As much as I love it. I have certain responsibilities. I take her hand in mine. But. She whips it away.
She slaps me.
It's nothing. But I seem to cry.
She looks exhilarated at first. Then her mood changes. "Oh, Jesus, look, I'm sorry, Seesee. That's what your mom calls you, isn't it. Seesee. Seesee, look, I didn't mean it. You've been to the stars and all, you know. My life is so boring. Take it easy. There, there. There, there. I'm just -- what. An Earth girl. Look. Come back with me to my house. I'll play the flute for you. Come on, Seesee, it's okay."
She thinks I'm actually crying. She doesn't know it's quasars. Spinning from my pores. Not tears. This is the moment I begin to suspect how ugly she is.
I play along, though. On the bus ride back, not a word. I spy another superman standing up front near the bus driver. He has just climbed on, and the driver is helping him find the right change. They fumble and fumble. The driver has trouble understanding what he says and becomes angry, of course. Ordinary people have trouble understanding us, but we never have the slightest difficulty understanding them. There you have it.
They work it out. The superman sits down. He catches my eye, holds it for a split second, and then turns to look out the window. That's how it is with us: no need to talk. The glance tells us everything. He's just back from the subatomic realm, skipping quark to quark the way we do. You feel like lightning then; you are there, you are gone, you are someplace faraway, losing, finding yourself a kajillion and fifty times a second. It renews a person, honestly. You should try it.
Just now there is something very sad about my brother superman over there. He leans his head against the tinted glass; it distorts his face, as if he were glued to the window, hanging from his cheek. "A few cards short of a full deck," someone said to me once. He's mumbling something. Equations maybe. I think, his mother isn't taking good care of him. Look at the ragged clothes. On second thought, it's just my mood. How your mood colors things. They don't tell you that.
The whole way, between me and Clarissa, not a word. She smiles at me now and then, a concerned smile. I look around, read advertisements, twiddle my thumbs a bit, think of my friends in the Oort cloud.
It puts me in mind of how I lay in bed once, staring at the ceiling. That's how it would have seemed to regular mortals: kid lying in bed staring at the ceiling. What do they know about flight through space and time. Your body is golden, indestructible, so long as the will is engaged. Pay no attention to her standing over me. The plaster swirls on the ceiling are enough to link me to this coordinate system if I should want to come back, which maybe I do not.
She stands over me. She must be really worried this time, because I hear Bobo scratch at the door and whimper. In order to be alone with me, she's closed Bobo out -- first time she's ever done a thing like that. She imagines I'm upset that my father has died, but that isn't it. It's nothing to do with this Earth.
How he died. In a plane. In a storm. Someone figured it out from the voices, from the wreckage: the plane was turning. Equal and opposite reaction: the pilot felt the force back against him, against the direction of the turn, and thought it gravity. He should have read the instruments but you don't, do you. I'm the same. You're the same. Outside the window: black. He thought he was leveling the plane, but nothing he did had the intended effect. One thing led to another. New forces, new corrections, all wrong, all wrong. This should work, this is right, then death. What goes on inside you doesn't always express itself perfectly in the world outside. I'm the same.
My mom's voice as she stands over me is so kind -- that's the link. That's why Clarissa is reminding me of her, of this day. So kind, her voice just now.
Mom says, "You can't just give up, Seesee. This isn't death we've got here, son; this is life. You can't just lie there day on day and piss yourself and weep yourself empty. For one thing, the smell. Such a thin pale thing you are with your lumpy head and your mouthful of marbles when you talk. Come back and be my tall beauty again, Seesee. I don't hate you, child, not really. Say a word to me. Talk in your tongues. Say as best you can. We piece it together, don't we. We make out your meaning through the gulps and clicks and a word here and there, through all the briar patch of it, you sad hard thing, don't we. People catch your drift, yes. Say me a word. I wish you could write two letters running, and you could write it to me. Come, what goes on in that noddle, Seesee. Before I slap you good. You know I can. Bobo's hungry."
That was a long time ago. I don't know if she actually slapped me. I was on Aldebaran. I don't think so though. She loves me too much.
Here I am inside Clarissa's door. She shuts it before turning on the light. Dark in there but not like the antisolar side of Venus. Methane. Careful -- you're on Earth now. Heavy furniture and plush carpets of intricate design. Even with the lights on, there is a blue darkness, a tinge to things as if seen underwater. Pillars with hamadryads with jugs on their heads frame an archway into deeper blue. You want to squint past grooved panels and mahogany into that blue, but that blue is pure dark.
She picks dog off me. "No one has been in this house since my father died, except me. You're covered with it. He wasn't a good man, Seesee. She ought to brush you off." She tousles my hair. "Who gives you a haircut. I'll give you a haircut sometime. I know how. My father used to make me. I'm sorry I was angry with you before. You're completely helpless, aren't you. You really haven't got a clue. Let me cut your hair. I know just how to do it. You'll drive the girls crazy, Seesee."
"Flute. Flute. Tra la la."
"Oh, yeah. Come with me." She grabs my arm and pulls me along through her father's house. She must love to pull me, I'm thinking, because this is the third time. Just as I think this, she blurts, "When my father was alive, he pulled me and pulled me. All he did was pull me, but not like this. You don't mind this little tug, do you."
"No." Is she a witch. Is she psychic. Remember how she no sooner looked for the bus than it came. I smell her now. A woman's sweat is distinctive. She is excited about something and forgets to hold back the smell, the way they can, or to obscure it by hormonal static or by misdirection. Running, she forgets. She runs me upstairs. I could be Bobo. Then down the spine of an upstairs hallway, tendrils of crepuscular light thrown before us through the dust and dark, me panting -- me, superman -- though she's too wild to breathe. Past door and door and door. Past the door her mother once slept behind, she says -- no time to ask where's she now. Past the door her father died behind, whose death brought her back here lately, to my neighborhood. (Had I ever seen him. Thought the place was empty, but what do I know, who spend my hours between the galaxies.) Past the door that sealed the room her father kept her in. Kept you, I want to ask, but she won't stop to hear.
Then I collide against her. She has stopped before a door heavy as a sarcophagus lid, coffered in a crisscross, but broken. See the crack. The splintered wood, raw, catches what light there is, the rest stained dark. Looks like it was torn from its hinges once.
"Here we are."
"The flute," I say.
"The flute. I'm sorry. The flute."
"Oh. Yes. Exactly." Distracted. She throws the door open. The noise makes me jump. It's all right. I rub my fontanel. In the emptiness of space there is no sound, of course. To those who have been out there, any sound is cheerful. Let it clatter, echo. Fine. She reaches in -- and there is light, of a sort. Dim dirty light from one of four bulbs in a globe on the ceiling, the others burnt out. The globe is lined with dead insects and their dirt.
"The flute, the flute . . ." Where she leaves me, just inside the door, I stay. She wanders from chest to chest, trying this drawer and that lid, each with its cheerful sound. I am thinking, this is the truth of what women are. Swirling dust. Fetor.
"Here it is."
A little black casket with rounded corners. She wipes the dust off with her palm, dirtying her hand; she doesn't seem to mind. This casket has brass closures, a nameplate, still bright, and a sticker from an instrumental competition in Albany. She sits down on a dull round rug. "Here."
I join her. She lays down the casket in the middle of the round rug and opens it. There's the flute in three pieces in velvet padding. She smiles at me, and I see the glitter of the flute, times two, in Clarissa's eyes. She takes out the mouthpiece, then rubs her nose with one finger and rubs the finger against the silver joint. "Old trick. Makes it slide right in." And it does, too. Into the long middle piece, the one with all the keys and pads. Rub again, slide again, for the next joint, the last, where the caboose fits in. "The caboose," she calls it -- baby talk. Why does this give me an erection.
"I want to go now."
"Go now." I get up.
"No. You're going to stay and listen. Sit."
I sit down. I don't want to. She's making me, though. In a way, I mean. Understand? That's women for you. I'm over her, but she won't accept it. She can tell, I'm sure. I don't want to upset her more than is necessary. Let her play, then. I don't like it here. It's okay, though. Anyplace is cheerful after you've been out there.
She places the mouthpiece under her lower lip and rolls it back and forth till the edge of the hole lies against the edge of her lip. She takes a breath, but instead of blowing, she interrupts herself to say, "He used to make me. But now I want to, and you have to listen."
Then she blows. She's terrible. Every note is full of air, like the whistling of the wind through a chink in an old wall. Up close, off guard, when they're not bumfuzzling you with stagy smiles and pheromone scent, you see the wrinkles. Every one of them is in some stage or other of decay. I just want to go. "Want to go."
"Sit. This is the good part coming. I don't play it as well as I used to. But you have to listen. Shush and listen. Then I'll cut your hair."
Her breath has a sour smell. Maybe it's the flute, her breath collected in the flute, the scum inside its shaft collected, decayed. It's lain so long, her father dead. After him, I'm her first. I want to go. There's always the Cepheid stars. They are almost as old as the universe, you know. Consider their spectra. A person can be so free out there. The Cepheids turn and blink, turn and blink, as they expand and contract.
"No hard feelings, Clarissa. I just don't think it would work out."
"You're an extraordinary girl, though. Don't think I'm indifferent to that. You move me, really. But I don't want to hurt you. Our lives are so big."
"You'll find someone, no doubt about it, a girl like you. Hell, you just moved here, didn't you. You'll meet someone else."
"Keep your mouth shut, please." How did she get the scissors. Hair scattered across the round rug, my own hair black as a raven's. Her eyes a mandrel. I must have been dancing with Cepheid stars -- oh, they trip so in the antipodes. "The bump makes it hard. Your mother's going to love this."
This close, you can see their bodily hair, the stubble that escapes their razors. The shape of their feet is seldom comely. "In other circumstances, who knows. We could have been quite the couple, Clarissa. If. You know. You understand, yes?"
Copyright © 2004 Eliot Fintushel
Eliot Fintushel is a writer and traveling showman. A Sturgeon and Nebula nominee, he has received two NEA Solo Performer Awards. His current touring show is APOCALYPSE, a rendering in movement, music, and frenetic text of the Pentagon Papers of Christianity: the Book of Revelation, with masks and attitude. For more on him and his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.