When she was four her mind perceived little, and so later, as a girl, then a woman, her memories of the youngest years were mainly absent, more collage of dream than story. She knew there were happenings, and for some period, to her, as her woman’s understanding transmuted all childhoods to myth, she saw her tiny body as having been alone, alone for enough time that time itself stretched, and sometimes she did not know if she had always been alone, or if it had been a minute or a year of nebulous danger.
After Miriam died, she went through her studio apartment, unpacking and then quickly reassembling handcrafted walnut boxes that fit together like well made Matryoshka dolls; “nesting,” she thought to herself, as she realized that the names “nesting” and “Miriam” ran in almost comically opposite streams. Miriam was her great friend, her protectress; she was a small lonely girl’s perfect template for dress, (wrinkled rose silk caftans that she herself would split up the middle, second hand cashmeres that smelled of cigarettes, tiny bracelets on tiny wrists that gestured, constantly, outward, as if reaching); for movement (soft, deliberate, iron moving like water); for voice, for conversation, for hair, for the needlessness of truth if something better were at reach.
Miriam drank. And took a cabinet full of vitamins, “for the skin and for the liver,” she would wink at the young almost-baby girl staring up at her. The child thought her mother had sent Miriam to her from Heaven, or at least from the expensive au pair company some of the mothers of her few friends used on the Upper West Side. But by the time she was nine she understood, she never could remember how, that Miriam was just a babysitter, and had sat for many children in the neighborhood as she submitted poem after rejected poem, went through lover after discarding lover. And so Miriam fell to earth, and the girl began to treat her with the same distracted contempt one might possess for an old, once furiously loved doll. This was an alteration in their relationship, she remembered (with blushing clarity), that made Miriam smile with some kind of secret tenderness the girl found both strange and off-putting; by the time she herself was dating she had no use for Miriam or her silks.
And so when Miriam died she returned, filled with regret and shame for the absent years, to the familiar apartment, mostly unchanged since those days of raw earliest girlhood. She saw the studio, finally, for what it actually was: the tiny abode of a solitary woman with exquisite taste, little sentiment, and an apparently unending love for fine, beautiful books. Every book, and there must have been close to two thousand lining the shelves in perfect, dustless rows, was a hardcover, its encasing paper as crisp as it had been upon arrival from the printing press.
There was no couch. Three old and highly polished cane chairs surrounded a Moroccan blue-tiled table, low and glowing like precious lapis. Under the table and chairs lay an old woven rug, thin and silken and fine, depicting the leap of the great Monkey-God Hanuman to Lanka, preparing his rescue of Sita, whom the viewer could just see in the lower left corner of the faded thread. She reached down to touch the fabric. It felt cold in her hand.
Under the one large window, facing East, was a small double bed, perched on a platform of bamboo. The sheets were old, the white not quite white anymore, but the cotton was pelt-soft, and when she lay her cheek to Miriam’s pillow she could smell the faded perfume and, she was convinced, some variant of medicated sickness and age. Next to the bed sat a table that was a small match to the larger one, covered in the same blue tile that her uneducated eye could not distinguish as either precious jewel or mere stone. Books piled high: a history of the sonnet, a French guide to reading Stendhal untranslated; a perfect hardcover of The Red and the Black in English. And, incongruously, two gossip rags, picked up, she wondered, by a sympathetic visiting friend bringing flowers or, frighteningly, by Miriam herself as she became too tired, too sad, to keep company with her great printed companions.
Her fingertips moved like fireflies over a small set of champagne glasses, a decanter with an exaggerated, arced neck both phallic and swan shaped, the stopper the thinnest raw crystal she had ever seen. There were no more vitamins, and the refrigerator was empty. Above the glistening blue-glass countertop she opened a pale grey shelf. On the lowest shelf was a large black box of chocolates, wrapped in cream ribbon, from Jacques Torres, and, next to the elaborate, elegant box, a round antique tin, out of place with its chintz-shine, filled with envelopes, medical bills, unopened letters and packets of paper, photos, the odd paperclip.
She took down both, carefully, as if she might be caught. She opened the chocolates as slowly as she could, and she thought of Miriam’s elegant, wrinkled hands receiving them from a nervous old friend or sympathetic employer looking at his watch. She lifted the box and inhaled the sharp, dark beans, the cocoa, the sweet cane sugar, the almond ganache; on one she smelled lavender so strong it was as if a bath oil had implanted itself deep within the small bark-brown skin of the truffle. Spice and salt, a long caramel dipped in coconut. The encasing silver foil. It was beautiful. And she knew Miriam had never seen it or cared. She slipped the box in her purse. Later, she might give it to her lover, and watch him eat, and watch the spell fall over him like mist. She smiled, her smile now almost identical to Miriam’s tender, secretive round red lips.
In the back of the small closet she found the silk dresses; in later years Miriam had apparently begun to wear thin wool sheaths as well, which seemed foreign to her. She could not imagine her babysitter, her keeper, in anything but those swaths of taupe or pale pink silks. She took one, the one she most recognized, and slipped it around her neck, like a scarf, like a noose. It encircled her blue veined collarbones with a coolness that grew quickly warm, then almost hot, as she next reached through the dying light of day to the dozens and dozens of perfumes, oils, and scented waters on her small walnut dresser. Chanel, Dior, Joy de Patou, even an unopened Banana Republic lime eau de toilette – all the usual scents one could buy at Sephora or Barney’s or duty free. Mixed in with them were the strange, nameless or unrecognizable oils and hard waxes of musk, ylang-ylang, pure rose, crystal bottles from out of the way narrow apothecaries in Dubrovnik. She had never fully believed Miriam’s stories about her travels (“The year I spent in Mongolia, learning how to ride without saddles or reins;” “I once knew an old, old man who had survived the carpet bombings in the jungles of Vietnam. We became great friends when I was working at a cafe in Auckland. I was with him when he died and he gave me an amulet. But I’ve no idea what’s in it because he had me swear on every honor not to open it..”). Perhaps she had been too cynical even at the age of four.
Rarely did Miriam read aloud, except for little poems by Milne, which acted like a sweet soporific during tantrums and those nights when she was too exhausted to sleep. Miriam told stories instead, which were either true or not true or perhaps a little bit true or perhaps mainly true. Or were made true through the telling, the transmuting whisper to the small ear of the small girl, falling asleep in her arms. Miriam used to rock her in her long, El Greco thin arms. Her mother had never rocked her, and never would, so Miriam’s arms were, to her, the wings of grace, and peace, and the deepest sleep.
She left the apartment abruptly, as if called. Outside the spring air was lit with an elongated sunset, and she knew not far away the oiled waters of the Hudson, the restless waves of the Atlantic, were lit with the dark, dancing rainbows of passing light. Like Miriam, she loved light that danced, she loved anything, actually, that moved.
She walked with the sunset, and then she walked with the dark, and then she walked with the settling night, starless, of course; she walked with the city as it woke to the night, and she marveled, again (how is it possible, the magic remaining with the repetition) at the living body of the city, how its breath changed with the hours, with the seasons, and how it seemed to writhe, constantly, both with and against itself. The City. Miriam told her she had lived everywhere, but the City was her home, even if she had no home there, even if she was gone for three or four or five years. “It’s the only home,” she would say, petting hair damp from a bath. “You will know. You already know.”
But her memory. From those years, her memories were scant and filled with blurred impressions. Miriam did not say those things. She is saying those things to Miriam, in her death. Yes? How is it possible that she remembers nothing, except the alone-time, but knows about the stories, Miriam’s hands, her silks? Her legs grew tired, and the further she walked from Miriam’s apartment, from her secret block in the heart of the West Village, the more confused her mind became, memory mixing with wish, wish blending with stories told to her second, third hand. She knew her Miriam. She knew that she had been alone (for how long?), and she knew that after the aloneness Miriam came. That is all she knew.
After crossing into Alphabet City and then heading North, and then West again, she made her way, exhausted, into a tourist bar by the Park. She sat at a darkened booth and took out the old strange tin. As an afterthought she took out the chocolates as well: if she fed them to her lover later that night, she wanted them to be new, and to smell like Miriam, not the tired leather of her purse.
Gently, as if handling a relic of infinite value and delicacy, she removed the tin’s bright top. She sifted, gingerly at first, and then with more force, through the envelopes, the trinkets, the poem fragments, the letters (one was from Auckland, she vaguely noticed), the small packets of bills, reminders, bookmarks from Paris and Quito. She was looking. Suddenly it was upon her, the hideous fact of her looking. Her search was a greed, and she was looking for something that she knew already was there, but some part of her mind – the stupid part, she thought – had to see, had to see proof of something never to be proven. Her hands dove into the tin, and the tin, she was sure, grew deeper with her reaching.
She got up, her legs restless, her face on fire, her body hot from the layers of silk woven like thick waves around her neck. As she rinsed her face in the bathroom, she gazed, hard, into the bright mirror. Her eyes were blue, “dolphin blue,” her first lover used to say. But as she looked she was sure they had turned the black of a moonless sky. They were the eyes of ink and earth. It is a trick of the mirror she thought, or it is a trick from Miriam; Miriam with the white Irish skin, the black Russian eyes. That, she thought, is a problem to be solved later or not at all.
As soon as she returned to her place at the table, three watered vodkas pushed to the side, she pulled up, her hands like harpoons, the prize that had for hours eluded her. Two photographs. Two photographs of similar shape and age, both shredded slightly along the edges, the images the faded-orange color so unique to family portraits of the 1960’s and early 70’s. She smiled, her lips red, and the men around her looked up from their drinks and their phones, suddenly alert to the double-presence of beauty and of danger. Her neck smelled of roses from Madagascar.
The first photograph was of her. Just her. Her mother had never taken a picture of her, and she had no idea what had happened to the silly school photos, the fake trees or swirled purples in the background. Had she ever had a school photo? But she knew of this photograph, this one proof of her small girlhood. She only knew because Miriam had mentioned it, casually, just before their last gathering. She had wanted horribly to see it, but she dared not reveal such need, such ache. As if, she thought now, as if Miriam did not know; she was simply waiting to be asked.
She did not recognize herself: wild blond hair to her shoulders, eyes huge, far apart, not blue like a dolphin, more blue like an empty sky that sees no rain. Hungry eyes, small mouth, a mouth unsmiling, eyes fearful, eyes of poverty, eyes of want. She grew up, she knew, on the Upper East Side. She went to the park with her Miriam. She played dress up and had dolls from Madame Alexander and stiffened Steiff teddy bears. One Christmas her mother’s boyfriend presented her with a dollhouse twice her size, to the embarrassed satisfaction of her mother and her own confusion over her somehow reduced place in the family. Were they rich? In the photo, she looks like a child from the woods of West Virginia, and even her striped turtleneck looked second hand.
She had always been told that she had been a beautiful child, and now she could see it. But the beauty was rooted in deprivation, in hunger, in some sort of nameless want. Is that still beauty, she thought? As she looked at the photo of herself/not-herself she went cold: there is nothing here, she thought. Nothing to be found, or seen, or admired or even loved. A beautiful hungry child. And that, she thought, is the most common thing in the world.
It was the second picture for which she had spent her life waiting, wishing to prove, to know, to see, and then to hide or burn. Could she burn it?
It was a photograph of her mother, taken about a year before her one, regretted pregnancy. She knew this photograph existed but she did not know how. She knew even less how Miriam came to be in possession of the image, or how she was so acutely assured she would find it in Miriam’s apartment. What does the mind know, anyway, she thought? Useless…
If she was a beautiful child she had only her mother to thank. Her mother was beautiful in an inhuman manner; it was a beauty that was the defining disruption and dictation of her life, and could never be otherwise. In profile her brow arched upward as if in permanent, questioning contempt; her nose was slightly sloped but thin from the front, and her eyes were wide as an alien. Or an angel. Or, as her lovers used to often conclude, a demon. Her mouth was as large as her jaw was delicate, and her lower lip looked permanently bitten, even a bit raw, and when she smiled her teeth glistened in perfect small rectangles. Side to side, forehead to jaw to neck to breast, she was only symmetry, a symmetry simply unseen and unknown among human beings. Women were usually not envious when they met her: they simply stared, surprised, stunned to silence. Only later, much later in the evening, or the next morning, hung over, sad, would they look at their own freckled skin, their stomachs soft from children, or one eye slightly smaller than its mate, and feel an ugly sort of shame, and her mother’s image would be a spell of remembrance: “you are not this you are not this you are not this…”
Her mother’s eyes, however, had a wry, mean glance, and this more than anything kept her beauty from being dulled to unmoving sculptural perfection; her sharp gaze, like an animal of odd intelligence, made her beauty something fluid, and, to those who lived close, something frightening and loveless.
In the photograph her mother was wearing an unusual gown designed by Charles James. The skirt billowed out in circles upon circles of cream and lavender silk, with an overlay of the finest chiffon that one could barely perceive in the faded light. Her gold hair was swept up in a complicated chignon, and instead of a tiara, as other women in the background wore, the top of her head was crowned with a ring of jeweled flowers so delicate they looked real.
Whoever took the photograph had clearly asked her to turn around: most of the image captured her back, the swiveling tiny, corseted waist, and the strapless cream silk bodice of her complicated gown. The camera had caught – “captured, at last,” she thought – her mother’s huge laughing smile, her arched cheek, her heavily lined eye, as she turned her head around just enough for the photographer to press, to click, to steal, the briefest moment of her strange, mysterious, and long life.
It had been a costume party, she thought. It must have been. The late 1960’s. A Charles James dress from the ’30s. Her hair done up like Diana Ross. She stared. Her mother, free. Her mother… a winged creature, cruel and oddly devoted. Her mother, empty of love but free, and the freedom somehow replaced the love. At least until that time, was it a day? A year? Ten minutes? The alone-time, and then Miriam, and then she, the winged mother with the cruel laugh men loved, was gone.
She remembered a story. At least, she thought she remembered it. Was it a story? Or was she seeing for the first time? Miriam had told her, she was sure. Yes, she was sure it was Miriam, and that she was not seeing this in the photograph. Or perhaps she was seeing it in the photograph and it reminded her of what Miriam had told her? Her eyes blurred, and an ancient, patient tear emerged from her weaker eye, and that tear was quickly followed by others, and her face became like a map, where one could point, and say, “Here, this river is created by solitude. And over here, one finds a tributary created by canyons of false friends…. the territory is beautiful, isn’t it? The land is soft, the water is flowing, flowing, down into the gorge of neck and breast. The rivers will not dry now, not for a long time, now that the sight has opened and the clouds have gathered.”
Here, then, is the story: “Your mother, my child, have you ever seen her naked?” Miriam was quiet, but serious in a way the child was unused to, and she became cold, her little fingers, nails filthy from the playground, turned blue. “Have you not, my dear? It is so strange, to not see one’s mother, especially a mother as knowing as yours, undraped and revealed. You must see her. My love, you must go to her, when she is in her dressing room, and you will see. Look for the spine first. Do you remember that word? S-P-I-N-E? Yes? Good. Look for her long, long spine. Notice, if you can, how much longer it is than most ladies… Have you ever noticed that? It is not her posture my dear, that makes her spine so long. You must know this. Because I love you, you are my treasure and my keep, and one day you will not have me, so you must see, even if you are too young.
Find your mother’s spine. And look. Make sure she does not see you. Her anger… her quick body… make sure you are quiet and unseen. I know you are already very good at that. Practice, and then find her.”
Her mother, she knew, did have a dressing room. It was carpeted, and it was a place children were not allowed to enter. Neither were their babysitters… how did she, how could she know?
She is certain that one night, before the time of the aloneness, she found her mother. She crawled, quiet, and, she was sure, invisible, to the edge of her mother’s dressing room door. Her mother was sitting at her large white vanity, brushing her hair, over and over and over, not looking in the mirror. Her mother, so beautiful, so far away.
She found her mother’s spine. And she looked. And then, she is fairly certain, she looked away. Quickly. And blinked and blinked. Slowly she turned her head, and looked again. There were two small cracks next to her mother’s spine. They looked so painful, so raw she wanted to cry out, as if she could feel the cracks in her own body. There were droplets of the reddest blood slowly seeping from the cracks, and, just beneath the drops of blood, what looked like pure translucent white feather tips. As she looked, her mother’s spine seemed to grow, and the feathers were not tips anymore, but looked as if they were growing, or emerging, she did not know, how could she, such a small little child, a child with so few memories. She is sure, now, that she looked away again, and that when she looked back her mother had stopped brushing her hair, and was staring, with cool eyes, huge and dark, into the mirror that reflected back to her a small child on hands and knees at the entrance to her chambers.
After that came the alone-time. And then the arms of Miriam. Of this, she was sure. She looked again at the picture. Her mother’s smile. The gown. And she could not tell, through her tears, if through the dress there were two tiny spots of blood. The photograph was old, one can never be sure of the truthfulness of an image.
Or a memory from smallest age. Or, for that matter, of a story.