Saturday
Sep162017

The Rite of Spring

Jenny Wu


 

Now things were in the midst of growing-into. Submerged in fair weather, it was easier not to have a conversation. And instead to think nonsense thoughts, instead to stare at the figs and twigs. Use machetes in the modern kitchen to make a meal and, neglecting to wash them, stow them back in the drawers.

Feeling drunk from spicy food. Her head was in the whirlwind on floor 31. Behind her, a rectangular rooftop space with a broken garden. "Never noticed that road before," she said. "There's something painted on it."

"Caution . . . Low?"

"It really is a low road. It feels low. Look at the trees; they're all short, with low-hanging fruits. The road even dips; look at the wheel ruts and ditches."

The situation was that of two young women, early twenties, sitting on the balustrade of floor 31, feet dangling in rubber thongs. They liked each other very much.

Jane was telling Mona how she'd always had this fantasy of becoming the stepmother of a girl her own age; she wanted that even more than to be with an older man. "It's a power thing." Mona and Jane psychoanalyzed Jane; they were both pseudo-psychologists. Giggled a lot.

A man came out, interrupting them. The man held Jane by the waist. "Where do I know you from? Were you at the post office sending a letter overseas in a blue and red striped envelope? Or were you riding a bicycle past the schoolyard with a basket full of hydrangeas? Did I meet you in a café? I remember everyone from a past life. I just don't know which one."

Mona: "It was the back of a massage parlor."

"Ah?" Man: "Watch your mouth. I get to say what I want around here. You, on the other hand . . . Been sponging off me for how long now?" Pointed at the child. "How old is she?" The child was in a long white sweater, in the frame of the door, staring at the three adults.

Mona rolled her eyes. "What about her?" Poked Jane.

The man sighed. "She's my wife."

The man was René and Mona was his daughter.

Down below: a car slowly braking over the low road. The wind blew away some branches that were blocking the road, revealing the S. The writing on the road did not say low; it said Slow. Mona propped the door with a watermelon rind. "What makes one door a front door and one door a back door? I've often found that back doors are sunnier, and front doors are in fact more dreary." Their back door, after all, opened up to all this fresh air, a view of the whole city from three hundred and ten feet above.

There had been only one mirror in the apartment, but that mirror had been broken a few months ago. Now the women had to ask each other's advice on everything.

Jane watched Mona pouring out a dark blue bowl that had been sitting outside, expecting rainwater, only to find . . . leftover coffee! Then teased her for gasping as though the coffee were a rat or something. The two women made their own soaps and creams, spent some afternoons applying face masks with paintbrushes. They did all manner of things to their faces; they said they did everything they did when they were rich, only without a mirror.

They lived in a kitchen completely inundated with plants. There was not a corner of the kitchen that lacked its proper color. One dark gray line demarcated the counter from the wall, blue tile from green paneling. This line of gray sludge, twelve months of it, appeared thicker and more opaque on the left side of the paneling and became thinner and more translucent as the eye read it from left to right, searching for water. So it was as though the sky and land converged. A coffin of baby spinach. A burlap of coffee cherries.

Mona had a porcelain bird figurine. Earlier that morning it fell and cracked its head. Its owner fawned over the object. Jane remarked, "See, the bird is like an egg."

The telephone rang and crumpled in a hand.

 

Mona had appeared in her mother's dream, taunting her. As Mona and her father carried her mother into the apartment, Jane held the door for them, having already cleaned and prepared the bedroom, which she shared with René, for his first wife's use. All she knew was that his first wife woke up unable to see anything but white rings—and that she would be blind for the rest of her life. Placed in bed, the woman wept without holding back.

"Glaucoma is the sneak-thief of vision," said René.

"Huh?"

"That's just what the doctor said."

After René went out for a cigarette the woman was heard yelling at her daughter, "You've always been jealous of me. That's why you cursed me."

Mona paced around the apartment, stared down at her feet, thinking about jealousy. The word "jealous" in the Old French sense meant "avaricious." In that sense, jealousy was a sin. But if one considered the Greek root, zel-, it actually had a positive connotation: emulation, zeal.

In her dream Rosy heard her daughter's voice, apparently, clear as a bell.

In the living room Mona, weeping bitterly: "Why doesn't she just die."

Jane was staying away from the bedroom; she made grand gestures at René, implying, "Should I introduce myself?"

The man thought about it, then rubbed his temple, whispered, "Maybe now's not the best time."

They did chores. They sat around. It was awkward; they didn't want to do anything fun because they felt bad for the blind woman. Jane talked to herself while mending clothes. "I didn't want to use these old, ornate flower-motif buttons simply because they're so pretty and they've been in the sewing basket for as long as I can remember. I'm heartbroken that I have to actually sew them onto something," she laughed self-deprecatingly.

Mona holding a hundred-page history of Western thought, read aloud, "Descartes as a young boy fell in love with a cross-eyed girl. And even as he grew to be a man he found himself arrested at the sight of every cross-eyed woman. It took him years to realize how irrational, how counter to his philosophy, this was." Their old upstairs neighbor wrote the book. He'd summoned Mona into his cramped apartment closet, where the walls were stacked high with powder blue spines. He'd given her ten copies, and she'd misplaced nine of them.

René sat down, not knowing what to do. "I never thought, when I bought this place, that this day would come." He picked up a spool of thread and examined it. "Well, a lot of things haven't gone as planned."

"We never told you, René, about the day we first came here." The apartment had been fully furnished. René picked the location deliberately: the child would be going to school soon, he had thought, and he himself needed a place for when he wasn't traveling. He had given Jane the key, along with directions and cab-fare, before flying off somewhere to do business. Floor 31 suite A. She put the key in her purse, and she and Mona went to check it out. In the lobby they saw three elevators, each going to a separate tower—each tower had a floor 31 with a suite A. They stood there debating which one to take.

"That's when the doorman approached us. He said, 'What's the problem, girls?' and I completely froze up. I didn't know what to say. Mona said, 'We forgot what building we're supposed to go to.'"

"So the doorman offered to call the room. He punched 31A on the callbox by the elevator. So then I had to tell him, 'There is no one in the apartment.'"

"You're going to see someone and they're not home?" Jane impersonated the doorman. She had to bite her hand to keep from laughing. Then Mona couldn't stop laughing, despite or because of the situation. They were sure that the blind woman could hear. "A woman answered on the callbox. 'Hello? Hello?' No one knew what to say."

"'Well? Say something!' was the doorman's response. I think he was both confused and amused."

"Mona said, 'Sorry, wrong number!' and we sprinted for the next elevator. 'We remember now!' We would have said anything to get out of there. Then, because I didn't want the doorman to think we were trying to sneak in, you know, I took out my key."

"'You have a key!' 'Yeah! We live here!' 'You live here and you don't remember which elevator?'"

René was beyond upset. Embarrassed, too. But his wife and daughter were laughing too hard to care.

"Now the doorman burst out laughing," Mona continued. "He started saying to all the other passersby, 'They live here and they don't remember which elevator!' Until the elevator closed, finally."

"So, like a couple of idiots, we rode up to 31A, and at this point we had no idea if this was right, but we couldn't go back down and risk seeing the doorman again! Mona said to just try the key and see if it works. If not, it wasn't our place. I asked her, 'If someone else lives here and if I stick the key in and start jiggling it, wouldn't they think we're breaking in?' She said, 'Knock and see if anyone's home!' 'And what if someone is home? What could I possibly say?'"

"We were pacing in that alcove for ten, twenty minutes. Finally Jane just held her breath and knocked."

"No answer. So I tried the key."

The door opened and they walked into the luxury apartment. Immediately fell to the floor, laughing.

"Standing outside your own place afraid to go in!" René scolded.

Mona hiccuped. Jane seemed to be slumping to the floor all over again.

 

Cézanne stood before the bathtub, where the plants were brought for watering. The dirt from their pots turned the tub into a riverbed. Mona was sweeping the floor in the bedroom where Rosy was sleeping; now Mona was sweeping the bathroom. "I'm about to have a bath," Cézanne protested. "I have taken my pants off." She stood in the frame of the door in just a long sweater as her mother swept the bathroom; then suddenly she needed to use the bathroom. She ran around the apartment.

Watched from the open window Jane undress for René; the bedroom was occupied. They laid a greatcoat down on the roof. Their hurried actions made a sound like tut tut tut.

Jane remembered her first night with René, waking up in the morning to a pair of eyes watching her. The child had said, "Grandpa, there is something strange in the bed." René had scooped her up and put her in with Jane. He said, "Now you are in the bed. Is there still something strange in the bed?"

"The child saw you naked in the bed," he would say. "She's only four years old but now she insists on sleeping naked too."

"I'm been wondering lately," she said fingering the greatcoat, "how to best be a mother to Mona."

René said, "Why don't you spend that energy thinking about how to mother Cézanne?"

Jane had found her own mother in a foreign country the year she turned twelve. Her mother had just gotten off work, had just gotten off the bus, and immediately called her "baby." She stroked Jane's hair and examined very tenderly her small face at every angle. They didn't speak on the walk home; her mother was tired and they had nothing to say. She took her back to her one-room loft. There were two twin beds, a bookshelf, a kitchenette, and a balcony. Her mother said, "Come, let's take a nap before dinner. Some friends of mine will take you out to dinner. They want to meet you." The day was still bright—it was summer—and there were no curtains on the big screen door to the balcony. The room was bright. Still, her mother told her to sleep in the twin bed adjacent to hers, the one that looked like it had been waiting just for her. Jane lay down on the bed but lay down on top of the covers, unwilling to get too comfortable. Her mother took off her wrinkled slacks—Jane pretended to close her eyes—and crawled into her own bed in a pair of boy-shorts and fell asleep almost instantly. Jane lay there with her eyes open, surveying the titles on the bookshelf.

She wanted to tell René, "I love you. Every time I take a drive with you it feels like I'm a child again, in the procession of cars inching into the county fair."

And now the child was staring at her through the window. She saw the big white sweater, remembered herself at age five: she couldn't decide which she found more agreeable, the look of yellow chalk on a blackboard or black ink on yellow notepaper. She got her head stuck in her sweater. She thrashed about, unable to escape from the translucent wooly cocoon. The teacher saw this and told the girl sitting beside her, a redheaded Dominican, "From now on, it is your responsibility to help Jane put on her sweater, okay?"

Doorbell rang; René put on his belt and went to answer it. The caller was his friend; Cézanne was supposed to call him "uncle." Uncle brought his son Igor, two years older than Cézanne; she thought, It must be an arranged marriage. She locked eyes with the boy from across the apartment, he skittered away, and the two grandpas, in the very narrow corridor, sought to determine whose accent was worse—in their unspecific accents reciting,

See Dick run. 

See Jane run.

Run run run.

"Why is our language so cacophonous? I blame what garbage the schools made us read." René's accent was worse; Cézanne laughed at him.

They must be arranging my marriage, she thought, because Grandma is sick, and everyone is panicking, thinking she wouldn't want to die without seeing her grandchild married.

She combed through the apartment for Igor, couldn't find him, gave up.

Uncle was actually René's former business partner, before René went bankrupt and had to stop traveling. They were scheming up ways for René to make money again.

Igor scribbled in his notebook in the rooftop garden: his hand kept up with the speed of the big city, the cleverness of their mode of production. Factory sounds, the mooring of the boats, the rhythm of threshing and the beating of mattresses. He drew the contours of tenements and railroads and electrical wires. They were not free of it; they were it. He put down his pen, looked up from his notebook, and said aloud, "The men of the Stone Age must have had a profound connection with stone."

Jane, having fallen asleep naked on the greatcoat for twenty minutes, was awakened by this intonation. She scrambled to put on her still-wet underwear.

Cézanne found herself running through the apartment for no reason, then being in possession of this seed that looked like a peach pit but, if cracked against the floor, could be taken apart like a dried date. But with more of that porous gel. She cracked it right down the center ridge. Color: gold, amber, transparent. She picked it that morning in the rooftop garden, among the broken trellises. Wanted to peel the shell around it with another person. Unsure what the flesh would taste like, but Cézanne volunteered to eat it first. "Lick the juice off my hand," she told Jane. Jane wouldn't, reason unspecified. Cézanne took a bite; she didn't chew. The bite was dangling from the seed when someone—Igor!!!—walked into the room and she had to hide the seed from him. And hide her Dunhills because he didn't want her to smoke. She carried these few items out of the room in a small backpack.

She returned to the living room where Jane was trying her hardest to be friendly with Igor.

"Mom wore my shoes out the front door," Cézanne said to no one in particular.

"What you saw on the roof was nothing," Jane was saying to Igor. "Forget my naked form."

Cézanne remembered: "Igor, when he was younger, thought babies popped out of walls!" Embarrassed Igor, who ran away. "Isn't he stupid?"

René in the corridor asked Uncle to stay longer, sit around. Uncle said, "Well, it's up to Igor," and motioned toward him, camouflaged in the wallpaper. "What do you say?" Uncle was the type who could stay and talk for another two hours. The boy smiled and shook his head. "Oh, he wants to go home," Uncle chuckled. 

Jane, having left Cézanne by herself in the living room, walked past the corridor, and upon hearing the uncle say this charming thing turned her head and gave a fake laugh that no one heard.

They ate for dinner the leftovers of lunch. They sent Cézanne in to feed the blind woman, and from the sound of the crashing plates and screams, that was going quite well. Jane thought about the order of her day: eat, fuck, sleep, eat. Eternal return. Jane to René: "We had a nice long lunch today."

René to Jane: "We used to not see each other as often. Since we started seeing more of each other, some problems have crept up, haven't they? I haven't been paying as much attention to you, knowing you're always there. And now this . . ."

 

"Glad I made it back before the rain."

"How was it?" said Jane. "Was traffic bad?"

"Not too bad," said Mona. "I ran into our upstairs professor at the mailboxes. First time seeing him in months. His beard was longer."

"What's he been up to?"

"He says he spent the winter in his head."

"That's the greatest metaphor I've heard all day."

The child playing by herself emerged out of the bed laughing, wearing a shirt cut from the same cloth as the bedsheets. A postcard, a postcard! I want to see some "art."

The first wife convalesced on the roof in a director's chair. Jane came out. "Your daughter went and got your mail. There's only one item—"

"Mona?" The blind woman reached up to touch Jane's arm, touched her shirt, her shoulder; her face was contorted with pain. "Mona?" she said again.

Jane let the woman grope her shoulder for a bit, then softened her voice. "I'm here, Mom"—patting the blind woman's hand—"I'm not jealous of you."

"I know," said the blind woman. "I know."

"You got a postcard, Mom. Someone sent you a postcard from France."

"Oh." Rosy nodded.

"It's got a very nice seascape on it, a reproduction of an oil painting that's also very nice. Just a small picture, though, by a bankrupt painter. Whistler. The sea is a bit two-dimensional. Frozen in time." She got self-conscious, stared down at the postcard. "The colors are natural yet unnatural. I've always thought that the place itself, that entire region of northern France, actually looks like an oil painting. I don't think that's too far-fetched. It's as though the sea and the swimmers can't be contained within physical lines." She coughed. "For a long time I thought there were only two people by the sea, but there is a third, a small one, up front. I feel as though they are directing me around the painting. They're not really people either. Just variations of a tone. They're made of the same grayish-brown used to color the shadow of the tallest wave. Which is the same as the three small stones in the bottom right corner. Which is the same as the shadows encroaching on the sand."

In her hand the rectangle of muted blue, gray-green, gray-brown, dark gray, and unblended dabs of white began to tremble; within the colors themselves, there were only slight variations easily attributed to the translucent quality of the thinned paint. Atmospheric perspective. She looked up at the cusp of rain encroaching on the rooftop garden, that gray-green orgy of mottled weeds intermittently flattened by horizontal streaks of wind. "I'm rambling," she said. "I'm sorry."

The clouds moved in. She stopped talking. She felt the mist on her face.

Rosy said, "It's raining now; I can hardly hear you."

"Let's stop."

One can imagine how softly they were speaking, that even a light rain could drown them out.