By Veronica Schanoes
27 April 2009
The girl is gone from the castle and her stepmother wanders the corridors.
Here is another way of saying the same thing: the girl wanders the corridors, but her stepdaughter is nowhere to be found. Neither is her husband; she is alone in this solid, bulky mansion built on endless reels of flickering light.
The marriage was for love as far as anybody knew, and "anybody" included the bride and groom. She was swept off her feet by his worldliness. The lines on his sun-toughened parchment skin exuded an offhand debauchery she could not even pretend to understand. How could she, an ingénue just out of her teens turned leading lady overnight? And the tension she felt in his presence, the sense of familiarity and corrupted need, the fluttering laughter that bubbled up inside her when they spoke—what could this be but love?
The groom was Leo Wredde, Hollywood's most famous rake and ladies' man. He had been struck by the combination of her deceptive beauty, which changed from day to day, and her awkward, gawky movement. She was shy, almost too frightened to speak to him, and her fear made him self-conscious as well. Perhaps this vicarious return to innocence was what caught his heart, for soon the aging roué and widower was enamored with sultry youth.
They met at the screen-test for her first film. Casting an unknown to play against such a famous and riveting actor was unusual but not unheard of—it was how stars were made. She had done some modeling and at her audition Leo watched her for a few minutes and then introduced himself, staring intently into her black eyes, which slanted exotically over high, angular cheekbones. After the screen test, she went back to the small studio flat she shared with her mirror, sat in front of the vanity, and slowly stripped off her makeup. Her eyes, it turned out, were not black and her cheekbones were not particularly high. When she was finished, her face was clean but she barely recognized it. She had a new name now, but she couldn't quite remember what it was. Not Rose any more, but . . . L-something, she couldn't quite remember . . . Lily, that was it, Lily Glass. It wasn't so different from her old name, after all. One flower became another, and her surname was translated so as not to sound so Jewish—that was important, only producers and comedians were Jewish—but it meant the same thing. It wasn't even the first time she had lost one name and gained another. She could remember being five years old, burning up with fever, and her mother chanting and weeping over her, calling her Rose to fool the angel of death. Rose looked in the mirror but she could not find Lily. She reached for some pencils, just to touch up her eyes.
The movie was a smash, especially after a fan magazine ran a carefully leaked story about the stars' romance. They were cast opposite each other again, and within a year, to the scandalized delight of the movie-going public, the notorious hell-raiser had proposed marriage to his innocent sweetheart and she had accepted. A love match, as best as they were able, and if the best they were able didn't touch either of them very deeply, well, she didn't know any better and he didn't want any more.
Now she walks through the mansion's halls, searching ever more distractedly for her stepdaughter, who, she knows, is not there.
Nivia was the daughter of Leo's first wife, Bianca, his high-school sweetheart, whose early death had sent him spiraling into brutal decadence as he drank and screwed his way through most of Hollywood, until he met Rose Glaser, now Lily Glass, beautiful, pliant, and only two years older than his daughter. That is one way to tell the story, anyway.
Nivia is almost never mentioned in the tabloids; there is what amounts to a tacit gentleman's agreement between the gossip writers and her father. He will provide them with all the salacious gossip they need, and they will avoid all mention of his daughter. He loves her and wants her to have a normal life. Even when Nivia was forced to leave school for conduct unbecoming a young lady and it had taken all of Wredde's clout and much of his cash to get her into a new one, a boarding school far away in New England where it snowed during winter, not a whisper of such interesting goings-on made the gossip sheets.
There was no conduct unbecoming a lady at the boarding school. Nivia kept herself cool, alone, untouchable. At first the other girls were excited and curious about her life even though their parents were pleasantly appalled by her trashy, nouveau origins. But every so often, a classmate who had seen one of Nivia's father's movies or read an interview accompanied by a photograph of him wearing one of his custom-fitted black silk shirts, rolling a cigarette across his lower lip, with his signature half-smile—who would have though he was over forty?—would approach Nivia, half-shy, half-defiantly hopeful, and ask if it was true that Leo Wredde was her father. And could she, perhaps, be persuaded to invite him to the school? Or invite her home for the holidays?
The answer was always no.
And then, perhaps out of spite, perhaps out of snobbery, the questions got worse. Was it true that her father had requested, or perhaps rented, the attentions of a dozen young women to help celebrate his best friend's forty-second birthday? Was it true that her father had screwed the waitress at his favorite after-hours club on the bar in full view of the other drinkers? Was it true, what his last mistress had said when she Told All to the lowest scandal sheet in Hollywood, about the handcuffs and the leather and the riding crop?
In case you are curious: all of these tales of Leo Wredde, aging libertine, are true, though he himself is fictional. He is a good enough father to deny them in Nivia's hearing, though she has her suspicions—after all, she must have inherited her unbecoming conduct from somebody, and surely it was not from her sainted mother—but he is also a good enough movie star to wink at the press and answer evasively. You can hear his fans gasp at the thought of his rapacious appetites and the barely-plumbed depths of his perversities.
He is a good father, though, and in Nivia's mind their time together is limned in sunlight. She adores him for what he is, though she also hoards a secret, cramped hatred of him for what he is not.
Is it true he pulls young men into his bed as eagerly as young women?
Is it true that he is engaged to Lily Glass, a starlet only two years older than his daughter?
Is it true that he is larger than life, more brilliant than truth, the horned man, the fertility idol, the god of fucking and desire, a creature of blood and muscle maintained only by our urgent outpourings of aching, pathetic, low-rent, unimaginative fantasies, rehearsals of the same tired taboos over and over and over again, a sex god for this age of mass reproduction?
And your stepmother? What is she?
Not even Lily knows the answer to that; she strips off her makeup every night in front of the mirror and she does not know what she has become. She sees posters of a perfect face outside of cinemas and in press kits, and then patterns of light and shadow resolve into that same luminescent face on screen and she cannot tell what kind of creature she has become. She hears a constant hissing around her ears and she looks into her mirror and turns herself to stone.
The movie was a smash and Lily was a star—she was made for the pictures, everybody said, with her slim body and slightly too-large head. On screen, her face glowed as though it was the source of a cool, constant light, rather than the projection of a burning bulb. She had a kind of face perfect for film acting—mobile, expressive, and malleable. It took on any shape the makeup artist chose. Her hair could be arranged in any style demanded. Her features composed and recomposed themselves on a director's or producer's demand. She could be anything, any woman at all. She was a find.
She had worked at it. Growing up in tenements with a single mother, even at a very young age, even when she couldn't get the money to go to the pictures, which was most of the time, she sat outside the cinema and stared at the posters, imagining a world free of the sounds of fighting in the next room at home and the sounds of sweatshop machinery she associated with her mother, a world free of men and women begging on the street, a world silent but for the appropriate piano accompaniment. The young Rose had papered part of the wall of the room she shared with her mother with photographs from old fan magazines she'd scrounged from trash cans.
After a few years, the movies were no longer silent, but they were still quieter than any place Rose had ever known.
She is a star now, and in the year leading up to her marriage, the studio puts her to work in five pictures—the bosses are worried that she will fall pregnant after her marriage, and they want to get as much out of her as possible beforehand. She plays tough-talking sexy broads (twice), a treacherous femme fatale, a tragically fallen woman, and a touchingly pathetic waif. She often dies at the end. While she is working on the last picture, playing the touchingly pathetic and consumptive waif, Leo comes to visit her on the set.
She is glad to see him—despite all the work, she has very few friends and no family in this city. She thinks of herself as a mascot, whatever the equivalent of a shabbos goy would be among the goyim themselves, a girl playing dress-up with clothing much too big for her. Shylock's daughter in the perfect garden during an evening made for ill-fated romance, she who pawned her mother's ring and broke her father's heart.
She thinks she looks very beautiful as this girl, a young thing with long black hair and very pale skin who is driven out onto the streets by a cruel, jealous mother. She runs over to Leo and kisses him on the mouth, but he pulls back, holding her at arm's length, and stares at her in silence. Finally he opens his wallet and shows her a photograph. It is of his daughter. She has seen it before, but now she realizes that in the makeup and wig she is uncannily like the girl in the photograph. Leo stares at her accusingly, as though she'd had some hand in this.
"I'm sorry," she says.
The director smirks.
The wedding was simple and brief and it took place on the same day as Nivia's commencement. Leo had wanted to watch his only daughter graduate but she had asked him not to come; she could not stomach the thought of her classmates' quickened breath at the sight of her father. In his turn, Leo asked Nivia not to come to his wedding, in order to keep her as far as possible from the limelight.
As Nivia received her diploma, Leo slid a gold ring onto Lily's finger; as the headmistress shook Nivia's hand, Leo kissed his bride.
When Lily meets Nivia for the first time, she cannot look away; Nivia is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. She almost reaches to touch Nivia's sharp, square jawline, her dark lips, the indent at the base of her strong pale throat. But she doesn't. She doesn't touch her stepdaughter at all.
Lily and Nivia, much to Leo's pleasure, get along like a house on fire. Lily feels braver, less lonely, and together they go to zoos, shows, movies. Nivia loses her glacial pallor as well as the sobriety she had always thought defined her character. She feels almost giddy.
When Lily makes love to Leo it hurts her, and this is the secret of her love for him. He makes her feel pain and she craves it, he makes her beg for it, and it feels right, but not only right, she feels her blood bursting in ecstasy, the velocity of her fall rushing through her skin, she feels herself ripped open and in burning convulsions. Leo ties her so tightly that livid red lines burn on her wrists for hours afterward and beats her until she cries and still it isn't enough. Still something eats away at her from the inside out, something that she fears will eventually crack and destroy the masterpiece that she constructs in the mirror every day.
Nivia eschews makeup, but Lily finds her more beautiful every day and every night.
One afternoon Lily finds Nivia asleep in the sun in the back yard, her black hair pulled sharply away from her white face, her lips deep red in the sunlight. Her strong-featured face reminds Lily of a woman she had met years ago, when she was first starting out as a model and was still Rose, who had taken her to a bar in Greenwich Village where she had drunk wine and danced, whom her mother had forbidden her to see again. "Darling," her mother had said. "There is no future in this. It's as easy to fall in love with a rich man as anybody else. Catch a rich husband, be settled, be happy." Rose did not argue. She knew that when her mother said that she had eaten dinner at work and so was cooking only for Rose, it really meant that her mother was not eating dinner at all to save money, and she also knew that it would break her mother's heart if Rose revealed she knew. So Rose could not argue with her mother, not about anything.
But here, now, having caught a rich husband, Lily is almost overwhelmed with the desire to curl up next to Nivia. Instead, she takes Nivia's face in her hands and kisses her slowly on her red lips.
Nivia opens her eyes and smiles.
Lily could watch Nivia smile, could kiss her again, the story could end here, end happily with stepmother and stepdaughter stepping out of those roles and into each other's arms.
And it almost does. Lily kisses Nivia again, but this time when they part it is to see that Leo has come into the backyard and is watching them with not a muscle moving in his face.
Lily leaps up and runs into the house, away from Nivia, past Leo, up to her private room, the small studio with her vanity and makeup and mirror. She tries to repaint her face, repair her lipstick, but her hands are shaking and she loathes the sight of her own face, so finally she hangs a towel over the mirror and curls up on the chaise longue under a blanket. She thinks incoherently about killing Nivia so she could be at peace again, a cold porcelain peace behind her makeup and then she thinks no, that's wrong, Nivia is not the problem, Lily herself is the problem, she is the one who cannot be content even when she has everything. She thinks of her mother telling her to be grateful for the food on her plate, but her mother is speaking a different language, a harsher language than the one Lily speaks now, and calling her a different name as well, not even the name she had when first she came to this golden town, but her first, earliest name, the name she had before the fever.
She cannot remember that language; she can barely remember that name. The problem is in herself, she should kill herself, but she is too tired to do anything more than hold her arms up, hold them out to the malekh hamoves.
In the backyard, Nivia slowly and deliberately empties a watering can onto some flowers. She does not meet her father's eyes. She cannot bear to look at him. For the first time, he looks old. Leo does not demand that she go, but he does not ask her to stay, either. She goes inside to pack and Leo puts her on the Super Chief that evening. It is worse than when she left her first school. She leaves no message for Lily, and Lily does not come down from her private room.
Leo and Lily have never spoken of what he saw in the garden. Perhaps his heart is broken. He and Lily are civil to each other, but days and then weeks go by without either one seeing the other. He never hurts her any more, he never makes love to her at all. One day he leaves for Ireland to film a swashbuckling historical romance in glorious Technicolor and Lily knows that he will start to sleep around again, with his co-star or perhaps a local boy or both. She doesn't care. She hasn't heard anything from Nivia, not even a postcard. Not even good-bye.
Leo has exchanged a few letters with Nivia. He is her father, after all. She is fine, and far away in New York City, where she lives the bohemian life, writing poetry and spending her evenings in Greenwich Village's bars and cafes. She has bobbed her hair and has a different woman for every night of the week—her father's daughter—but her heart is ice. For money, she writes novels whose lurid covers show cruel brunettes staring possessively at soft, melting blondes. Both brunettes and blondes are in brassieres. Many of them have wicked, unloving stepmothers.
Lily continues to work. She is not pregnant. She is starring in a romantic comedy set in New York's demi-monde, and her scenes are the only social interaction she has all day. She has no-one to talk to—even the skeleton staff at Leo's mansion look past her, or through her. One evening she stays late on the set and falls asleep alone on a fake stoop in front of a building-front in a faux Greenwich Village on a backlot soundstage.
She wakes up on the genuine, cold, stone stoop outside the building that contains Nivia's flat. Nivia is standing in front of her, holding a bag of groceries. When she recognizes her stepmother, her face becomes even whiter than usual and the paper bag slips from her grasp. Lily helps her pick up the groceries and follows her into her apartment with her hands full of apples.
Nivia locks the door and waves her hands vaguely at Lily. "I thought I shouldn't see you," she said. "Dad said you weren't well. I've been so cold without you."
Lily strokes Nivia's short black hair. "Your hair is a mess, my love." So Lily combs her hair.
Lily touches the ribbons criss-crosssing the back of Nivia's dress. "Your ribbons are tangled, my love." So Lily untangles and reties Nivia's ribbons.
Lily pauses, afraid to speak or move, not wanting to take her hands from Nivia's waist. Nivia is afraid to breathe, afraid that if she inhales too deeply, Lily's hands will slip away. Finally, she turns around.
"This is for you," she says, holding a rough red winesap apple in the palm of her hand. Lily closes her eyes and bites into the apple. It is painfully tart, moist and earthy. She can taste the roots of the tree in the juice of the apple. She kisses Nivia's temples, her forehead, her mouth, and the taste of Nivia's mouth is the taste of one hundred apples. Nivia kisses the cobwebs that Lily can no longer remember painting on her own face. There are ribbons and zippers and buttons and clumsiness and then just the two women murmuring with the pleasure of each other's skin. Lily feels her blood humming a deep chord and the motion of Nivia's hands and mouth is so beautiful, so beautiful that she feels herself shaking apart, falling from the inside out, and she knows Nivia can put her together again, more beautiful, stronger than ever she has been before.
"You're so beautiful," she gasps. "More beautiful than anyone else in all the world."
Nivia cries with happiness, and laughs, and says, "No, you are so beautiful, and I have always loved you, ever since I saw you."
Lily wakes up and she is still in the real Greenwich Village, still in Nivia's bed. She kisses Nivia's spine and the soft skin of her belly but Nivia is sleeping soundly and doesn't wake. She wraps herself in Nivia's clothing and inhales the scent.
Then she sees herself in the mirror.
The colors in Lily's mind become ash. She dresses herself haphazardly and walks slowly into the mirror. The glass opens up to receive her, pulling her in like swampland, like quicksand. She cannot breathe inside it. Then she finds her way out from the mirror and she is once again in her own room in Leo's mansion.
She sweeps all the bottles off her vanity, hurling them to the floor, at the walls, into the windows. She wrenches off one shoe and smashes the mirror.
She sits down amid the shards of glass and dripping stains and finds a broken jar of cold cream and some tissues. She begins, finally, to remove her makeup.
All mirrors, everywhere, are connected.
Safe in her small flat, Nivia slept on.
The mirror in Nivia's studio reflects a needle of sunlight directly onto her closed eyes. After a few minutes she wakes up and looks around for Lily.
Not here, she thinks, but the door is locked and her keys are still where she dropped them, near the pile of apples. She checks the shower in the small bathroom and finds nobody. She sits down and stares directly into the mirror.
"Where are you?" she asks.
And she gets an answer.
Nivia dresses herself and walks into the mirror.
She feels herself shattered into a hundred pieces, feels herself become needle-sharp shards driving into her own heart. The pain is almost unbearable and her thoughts scatter until all she remembers is that she is determined to go on.
Nivia finds herself in Lily's room, standing on shards of broken mirror-glass. She steps forward and vials and bottles crunch under her boots. The walls, papered with reviews and posters of Lily's own movies are streaked with red and black. Lily herself sits disheveled at what remains of her vanity, a round frame with only a few bits of jagged glass still stuck around the edges, like a set of gaping jaws. She is wiping her face with cold cream.
"Lily," Nivia calls softly. Her lover doesn't seem to hear her, but goes on savagely stripping her skin. "Lily?" Nivia is frightened.
"That is not my name!" Lily spins around and—a blank, a space, a clear oval where her face should be. Her knotted hair curls wildly around empty air. "I—I don't know my name!"
"Rose," says Nivia. She steps forward and, closing her eyes, she finds Rose's mouth with her fingers. Keeping her eyes closed, Nivia kisses Rose and colors flow from her mouth. When she opens her eyes, Rose's face, her true face shimmers like a pool of water in a rainstorm, and then settles. Her face is plain. She looks tired.
"I can't do this," says Rose.
"You can," says Nivia. "Dad won't mind. He'll get over it. He's done worse. He's done worse to me." Each sentence is a lie.
"Not that, not just that," Rose shakes her head. "I—I—"
Nivia starts to panic. "It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter, we don't have to be together, you could just leave, come back to New York, we'll just be friends again, all this makeup, you could paint, I'll help you, you'll be fine, you—"
"I—I—I—" Rose is whispering, looking wildly around her, staring at the gaping maw where the mirror used to be. Finally she stops, shakes her head and looks at Nivia again. "No." Her face smooths over and Nivia is too frightened to scream as Lily's face becomes, for an instant, a mirror, and Nivia sees her own horrified eyes, her own mouth straining to scream, before Lily shudders and dies, and her face in death is nothing familiar.
"Rose," Nivia whispers and lifts her eyes to the mirror on the vanity, which is once again whole, unmarked, flawless.
Leo comes home to Hollywood to bury his young wife. He is showing his age at last. Within a few years he is being cast in fatherly and then grandfatherly roles. He doesn't mind. He still has the odd fling here and there but he is content to be a father, in the end, and he is proud of Nivia and how she has turned out. He knows that she has not had an easy time of it, being his daughter.
Nivia takes Lily's mirror back to New York and sets it up in the corner of her small flat, where it changes with every person who gazes at it. Eventually she falls in love again, because that is what the living do, and each time, each time it is a miracle.