Now that Mitzi's back from the Galápagos with her father, I'm the only one of us who hasn't done it.
We knew right away it had happened when Mitzi arrived late to Female Physics class wearing her white gloves. She toyed with us at first, hiding her gloved hand inside the skirt folds of her school-issue plaid jumper, then caressing her cheek and forehead with her balled-up fist. Finally, she turned to us and spread her hand so that her nose was pressed into her palm. She looked like a woman at a masked ball, like a not-so-beautiful woman enjoying her one evening as a swan. She grasped her white glove by the index finger and pulled, so slowly that we felt our stomachs turn queasy with a strange, misguided pleasure. Just before her fingers were revealed, she paused.
Johannah grabbed my kneecap under the desk and squeezed. I felt her breath abandon her as Mitzi unveiled her hand, now missing its smallest finger.
After the conclusion of our Global Female Finance class we went to the cemetery. Mitzi climbed the sap pine by the westernmost gate and affixed her white glove--its little finger rust-stained from her new wound--to its Nail of Conquest. There were five nails in all, two horizontal, three vertical, using as an axis a hollow in the pine where we kept our library--Pretty Girl, Vamp, Glowing Bride Quarterly,and various other women's magazines; The Complete Works of the Brothers Grimm; Oedipus Rex; a collection of abridged essays by Freud. Mitzi climbed down after hanging her glove, her thigh black and sticky with sap, and regaled us with tales of her Conquest. She'd done everything as planned--packed a negligee stolen from her mother, douched with rice vinegar and chamomile leaves the morning of the flight, chewed her lips incessantly till they were bruised and swollen, depilated her arms and legs so that she was inviting and sleek as a scaled fluke. Frances (the first to adorn her nail and still a bit reluctant to share the spotlight) commented dismissively on the fact that Mitzi would had to have been a leper not to pull it off.
"You were in a pup tent," Frances said, picking old polish from her nails in large flakes (we'd all agreed she'd let herself go since her Conquest of six months ago). "Around a bunch of breeding animals, for Christ's sake. Sea lions. Blue-footed boobies. Natural selection." She wiped her nose and let the mucus glisten silver on her index finger as she continued to tear at her cuticles. She'd been crying a lot for no reason, something we'd gotten used to by now.
Agnes ran a thoughtful knuckle along a waxed, winglike brow.
"What does natural selection have to do with it?" she inquired. She was the most beautiful of the five of us, with an odd attachment to justice for someone so blessed by the most arbitrarily dealt hand in life.
"It's the most natural of selections," Mitzi said naughtily, twirling her now-gone finger in the tamed ringlets by her temple. Everyone laughed, even Frances, even me, though I found myself looking uneasily up into the tree at my bare nail, and at the four white gloves that fluttered there like trophies from a dove-hunting excursion. Outside the western gate I heard the trolley begin to grind up the hill with its load of soft-bodied husbands and fathers coming home from their menial jobs of stapling invoices and making lunch appointments. When I was a kid, I used to hold my breath until the trolley reached the summit, signaled by the dopey dinging of its bell, because then I knew that I would grow up to be a woman that men compared to planets and flowers and bodies of water. Now I know that fate and games are ways that the unknowing dispel the mysteries of the world. Now I am twelve.
When I came home that afternoon, Frieda was on the couch watching TV. She is seven and plump and still too young to care. Theo, our father, calls her his little june bug and is always pretending to eat her. A note from our mother, Elizabeth, was attached to the refrigerator with a Hera magnet. It read:
Off with the ladies for hiking etc. on Isle au Haut. Din in the refr. Take g. care of F and T. Remind F re: harpsichord lesson Th. @ 3.
When she's not ricocheting between coasts to spearhead corporate sales and yoga retreats, our mother is skipping off to islands (Cuba, the Canaries, Greenland) and leaving me typed notes that become more and more blunt and encoded. She doesn't spend much time with our father--none of the mothers do--and they have all become so hard and muscular and breastless that you wouldn't want a hug from them even if you were feeling bad.
"Din" included a neat stack of frozen dinners, our names written on the spine like doctor's files. I shut the freezer door in disgust and walked into town, to an old butcher still in business despite the fact that hardly anyone eats meat anymore. He offered me a leg of lamb. I made little incisions in the cold flesh and slipped cloves of green-white garlic into the wound, something I'd taught myself from a cookbook I'd found at a rummage sale.
Part of the reason we formed our club was to ensure, as Mitzi wrote in the charter, "the preservation of feminine wiles and the art of female sacrifice." Our motto was "Beauty Through Blind Generosity" and our mission was "to restore the natural order of the sexes." All of our mothers were movie executives and chief surgeons who hiked mountains and worshiped a handful of pagan goddesses. Everything we knew about femininity and romance and the subtle powers of female manipulation we'd had to glean from long-out-of-print beauty magazines found only in curio shops, flaking away like phyllo dough in old fruit crates.
It was Frances who came up with the idea of the Conquest. Everybody used to do it before the millennium, she said. Women even wrote books about it and rose to great fame. And besides, it was an ancient tradition, the desire that linked us to all of humanity in its most primitive, natural form, before women's liberation disturbed the precious balance of things. Look at fairy tales if you don't believe it, she expounded. The impotent woodsman father and the budding daughter perennially oppressed by a heartless, envious stepmother. Their love was the only antidote for her tyranny that incarcerated them and drove them to do foolish things with their lives, like shack up with midgets and drive around in gourds.
I chose a bottle of wine from the cellar and laid out an apron I had bought at a thrift store, circa 1950 the tag had said. There was a love note in the pocket, scrawled in ink on the back of an envelope that once housed an electric bill.
The envelope was scarred with yellow, snaking ovals. I decided they were the fossil imprints of daisy petals, the bloom dismembered in anxious anticipation of some fated conclusion that only flowers knew. He loves me, he loves me not . . .
Then I called Mitzi.
"How long?" Mitzi asked, when I told her Elizabeth was out of town. "You know what you have to do, Helen. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."
"Of course," I replied, tightening the waist of my frilled apron.
Frieda complained about the candles, naturally, because she has an astigmatism that was fixed by a shoddy laser surgeon, and bare flames bother her. She wore sunglasses throughout dinner, which was fine with me, because she has spooky gray eyes that remind me of Elizabeth's.
"What's this?" Theo asked suspiciously. He was wearing his bathrobe, a terry-cloth shortie that had been rubbed smooth of most of its pile, the remaining loops looking like the errant hairs that grow out of moles. Beneath the robe he wore his usual uniform--a V-neck undershirt and brown polyester trousers. His dirty hair was tied back in a ponytail with an old Christmas ribbon, and his eyes skipped around as frantically as a pair of houseflies trapped in a mason jar.
I sat in Elizabeth's seat, a usurpation that nobody noticed or protested.
"Just dinner," I replied chirpily, hitting the top of the lamb joint with a knife, as I'd read you should. I watched with satisfaction as the meat tumbled like a demolished building collapsing softly upon itself, leaving nothing but the sad, browned bones of its infrastructure.
"Where's my Salisbury tofu steak?" Frieda whined.
"In the freezer where it belongs."
Theo got misty-eyed and agitated as I served him lamb, lima beans, salad. "You know," he said, looking with distress at his plate (wedding china I'd exhumed from beneath the plastic, compartmentalized plates Elizabeth preferred), "my mother used to braise a lamb leg every Sunday."
He picked up his knife and fork to start, then rested his fists on the table, powerless to enjoy the feast for fear that it might, like a dream, puncture and disappear if he tried to taste it.
"Every Sunday we would go to church and my mother would come home and bake a rhubarb pie before she changed her dress." He was mumbling, biting nervously at the ends of his hair. "My father used to come into the kitchen while the pie was in the oven and put his nose in my mother's hair and say, `Mmmmmm, but something smells good in here.'"
"I don't like this," Frieda said, pushing her plate away. "It tastes strong."
"It tastes like what it is," I said, pushing the plate back and cutting her meat into tiny pieces as I'd seen mothers do on TV reruns.
"What is it?" Frieda asked.
"Lamb!" Frieda shrieked. She gave me a hateful look. Then she pushed back her chair, crouched down on all fours and began to scuttle laps around the kitchen table.
"More wine?" I asked Theo, though he hadn't taken a sip. I filled his glass to the rim.
I looked down to find Frieda about to attack my anklebone with the tip of a grapefruit spoon. "Baaaa!" she muttered, vengefully.
"Every Thursday we'd have meatloaf, and every Tuesday pork chops, sometimes veal stew, depending on what the butcher had, and every Friday . . ."
"Baaaaa!" Frieda plunked her forelegs on the table and pushed her face into Theo's salad, taking a few big leaves in her maw and chewing them clumsily.
"Stop it!" I swatted Frieda on the head with a pot holder and she fell over like a stunned beetle, feet and hands waving feebly in the air.
I turned to Theo to apologize and was horrified to discover him weeping into a corner of the linen tablecloth. He cried a lot since he'd lost his job at the advertising agency, bemoaning something called a "glass ceiling" and all the women above it. It was a strange thing to cry about; it seemed to me few situations in life would afford a man such an unimpeded view up a woman's skirt.
"Theo," I said, softly. No response. "Dad."
He continued to weep, pulling his gray robe around him like a potato bug retracting itself into a ball, ripe for kicking.
"How about I give you a foot rub?" I asked, putting a hand on his knee.
"No," he sobbed, "no, it's no good."
"I can help," I said.
"No," he protested. "You can't help me. Nobody can help me."
He stood up abruptly, jamming my hand against the table leg, and fled the kitchen. I heard the back door slam and his Chinese slippers clapping against the flagstones as he retreated to his studio. Our father was a painter now, primarily of flower still lifes he tried to sell as condolence cards.
I cleaned up the kitchen, stepping over Frieda as I did so, resisting the urge to kick her. When everything was neatened and wiped, I took one last look at the kitchen, a long, soulful look as if I were about to move and had just cooked my last meal there. Then I turned out the lights, leaving Frieda asleep on her back in the middle of the linoleum, her pudgy legs and arms still pointed heavenward and jerking from time to time as she enjoyed her little beetle dreams.
Now I am the club's main preoccupation.
"It's useless," I said at the next day's meeting. "He doesn't want me."
It was too windy in the cemetery, so we had relocated to a cigar bar near the north gate, selections from our library stuffed in Johannah's book bag.
Agnes smoothed my hair away from my face with a perfect burgundy nail. "Of course he does, Helen," she soothed. "You're a ravishing woman."
I gave her a look as if to say, cut the crap, Agnes, but her face was innocent and sincere.
"Maybe she's not exactly ravishing," Frances interjected. I noticed four blemishes on her forehead she'd taken no pains to hide. "But what she's got we can work with."
Mitzi and Johannah nodded in agreement through the blue cigar haze, tinged as it was by the pink glow of the corner jukebox. The records were mostly of the country-western variety, ballads sung by spurned, weak women named Patty and Tammy Lou, the likes of whom we'd never known and whose pain addled us with a strange, glorious longing.
"You said he cried the other day when you made him dinner," Frances reminded us.
"Something about a rhubarb pie," Mitzi added.
"His mother. He was crying about his mother," I explained.
"Typical," Johannah said, rolling her eyes as if to say, men. They didn't make it easy for us to help them, this much was true. Mitzi, I noticed, shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Her hair was unusually frizzy today, her complexion not unlike the texture of orange rind--nubbly and black-pored.
Agnes, meanwhile, was flipping madly through our file folder of proven effective methods of seduction, its cover adorned with the clipped headline, BEAUTY KNOWS NO PAIN. She extracted a few relevant selections as she fluttered through the file: "How to Look Good Naked," "Ways to Win Your Reluctant Man," Freud's essay on family romance, an article called "Virgin Sacrifice in the Post-Mayan Era" from an anthropology journal.
Eventually, we cobbled together a customized strategy. Still, I couldn't help but feel a little self-pitying in my undesirableness. None of the other four had had to try so hard to convince their fathers to do what they all supposedly wanted anyway.
Walking home, we split off at the bottom of the hill--Johannah, Agnes, and Frances taking the trolley to the top, Mitzi and I walking to our modest homes at the bottom. Before separating, I stood in the middle of a circle formed by the four of them.
"Close your eyes," Frances intoned, touching my forehead with the Sacred Dagger, "and think of England."
This was the blessing we gave everyone before they marched off to seal their Conquest. Frances had discovered the phrase in a biography of the notoriously fecund Queen Victoria--the queen's response to an inquiry as to how she managed to birth so many children--and believed it perfectly encapsulated our club's mission. I found the phrase poetic and hopeful, full of something old as the stars. Besides, England had assumed the mythic quality of an ancient civilization, particularly since the Pakistanis seized London a few years back and Urdu became the official language.
Walking past the closed iron gates of the botanical garden, wiry with its unadorned rosebushes, Mitzi began to cry. She stopped suddenly and dropped her weight on a stone bench. Her missing finger twirled madly in her frizzed hair. "He called me Rhoda," she said, her words as wet and swollen as her face.
"My dad. He called me Rhoda. While we were . . ." She trailed off and watched a threadbare pigeon sort bits of gravel by her feet.
"Who's Rhoda?" I asked, even though I knew very well. We'd gone to keep Rhoda, her grandmother, company when Mitzi's grandfather died. We'd amused ourselves by eating a box of stale meringues and looking at old football footage of Mitzi's dad in prep school.
"He didn't really want me. He doesn't even find me attractive," Mitzi sobbed.
"Of course he does," I assured her, fondling the Sacred Dagger in my jumper pocket. A paring knife, but sharp enough to cut off a young girl's finger, for instance.
"You think?" Mitzi looked at me, and I realized she wanted me to lie to her more than she wanted anything else at that moment.
"I'm sure of it."
Encouraged, Mitzi wiped her cheeks and ran her wet palm across her hair, then reapplied her lipstick using an old rearview mirror she found under the bench. The mirror had been amputated in a moment of considerable violence. I recalled there had been a hideous car accident at this intersection just last week.
"Can I see?" I asked.
Mitzi powdered her nose with talc and handed me the mirror. I looked into it and saw my face, bisected diagonally by a crack, my nose and eyes shifted slightly northwest of my mouth. Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .
"What did you say?" Mitzi asked with a final sniff, her old self again.
"Nothing." I put the Sacred Dagger into my book bag and we both scurried home to beat the rain that Mitzi could sense was coming by the ache in her missing finger.
Everything is in place. Despite her protests, Frieda is staying at her friend Sophie's house a good five miles away. I awoke before dawn and put slices of cucumber over my eyes. I lay on a chaise on the sunporch and watched with wonder as the sun intensified through those two spectacles of pale green. I believed I was experiencing the birth of a day for the very first time through these lenses, that it was akin to witnessing a leaf slowly unfurling.
I douched with a mixture of spearmint root and cardamom and aged balsamic, soaked in a tub until my skin was soft but not wrinkled, applied a thin layer of olive oil ("for suppleness and sheen") and baking soda ("bleach those age spots"), and sprinkled myself liberally with Elizabeth's rosewater.
Before blanching the rhubarb, I zipped myself into a vintage dress heavy with a mauve peony print, and stuffed paper into the toes of a pair of Elizabeth's long-abandoned leather pumps so that my heels wouldn't rub. Mitzi advised stuffing paper in a few other places, but this seemed a bit lumpy and ridiculous to me. Finally, I tucked the Sacred Dagger into my garter belt, the blade wrapped in a perfumed handkerchief.
I had just finished cleaning the mixing bowls, and the scent of hot butter and flour had just begun to seep into the farthest reaches of the house, when Theo wandered into the kitchen. His robe gaped pathetically, dragging its terry-cloth tie through a dusting of flour like a beached eel enjoying its final, pathetic death twitches in the sand.
He stopped in his tracks as if slapped. He looked at me, ripe in my peonies, massaging a blistered ankle with my thumb. He rubbed his eyes, disbelieving, then closed them and took a few tentative breaths through his nose. I moved toward him, silently, rearranging my dress so that the neckline plunged just right.
"Theo," I said, letting his name roll unnaturally from the bottom of my throat, gaining gravity and age and experience as it rose.
He reached for me, molelike, his eyes still closed. He knocked a knuckle against my breast, but, having gotten his bearings, proceeded quite confidently to my shoulder. I felt him hesitate, as a heat-stricken man might hover above a pool of water he fears to be a figment of his hopeful delirium. Then he grabbed me by the nape of my neck, pulling my hair to his nose with a desperation I found promising.
"Mmmmmmm," he said. "Mmmmmm . . ." as if his tongue were stuck, bound up by the strands of hair he'd inhaled.
"Yes," I urged him calmly.
"Something," he said, "something smells . . ."
I turned my face to his, offering him what I knew he wanted to be able to take easily, without a fight. I found myself tilting my face and palms upward, to receive this long-awaited thing, this confirmation of my beauty, my necessary female sacrifice. I closed my eyes and . . .
"Come on. Come quickly."
He pulled me roughly by the wrist, so roughly that I was forced to step out of Elizabeth's shoes. He led me out the back door, over the flagstone steps that were cold beneath my bare feet. When we reached his studio, he was out of breath, panting with one hand on his hip, the other still tight around my wrist.
"Please," he asked, rubbing the lapel of his robe like he did when he was agitated. "Please . . ."
He diverted his gaze to a drop cloth covering the floor, reading something there in the random spatterings of paint.
"Would you take your dress off?"
He stared at me as if he had never seen me or the likes of me before. Naked except for the garter belt, I stood, proud, aglow, feeling a power unlike any I'd ever experienced surge through my abdomen. I was the splitting earth, I was a flaming banyan tree, I was the vast and ravenous ocean.
As my childlike body buckled and cracked to reveal its womanly swells, I extended a finger to touch Theo's cheek. Coyly, I thought, he took a step backward. I smiled at him knowingly and reached for him again. He swatted my hand and cowered, ready to leap away. Watching me warily, he pointed to a stool in front of his easel, the one beneath the round skylight he liked to call the Eye of God.
"Go over there," he said.
I gave him a look that I'd practiced in the mirror, the look that all men hunger for, the look that says, "Take me, do what you want."
Theo was unfazed.
"Go on," he said, curtly. "Sit there."
I regarded the stool, confused. I looked to Theo again, but found his expression obscured by emotions he was no more acquainted with than I. I pulled my arms around my chest and walked backward to the circle of light in the center of the studio, feeling suddenly naked. Still, I reasoned, this could all be part of his idea of foreplay.
He approached and began to move me around--chin this way, arm here, leg here. I tried to kiss his cheek, a flirtatious little peck, but he raised a hand over his head as if to hit me. I lifted an arm to hide my breasts, but he pulled it down again so that I was sufficiently bare beneath the Eye of God.
Satisfied, he walked behind his easel and plunged his brush into his messy pots. I felt myself start to shiver. I was cold, and more.
"You know," he said, in that deadened tone that precedes rage, "your mother used to let me paint her like this. Did you know that?"
I shook my head stiffly, careful not to move my chin. I didn't want him to return and re-adjust my pose. Suddenly, I felt sick at the thought of him touching me.
"She was my muse, my beautiful muse, the way she gave herself to me she let me believe I would rise to greatness." He was breathing heavily, sobbing almost, and painting with quick, angry, slashing strokes. "But not anymore. Not for years. Now I am only allowed to paint flowers. Stupid, fucking flowers."
He was working furiously, speckles of red paint patterning the floor by his feet. He had removed his robe and undershirt, and the loose flesh around his nipples jiggled like udders. My brain spun, searching through the bits of the BEAUTY KNOWS NO PAIN file that I'd committed to memory--the advice columns, the dos and don'ts, the what-they-want articles. I had given him what I thought he wanted, but he wanted something else, something they didn't write about in beauty magazines, something that is too precious and remote to be altered or adorned. I felt a part of myself being stolen in those moments, a part I had only just learned I possessed now that I was in danger of losing it. Each stroke he dealt the canvas felt like a dagger coming down again, and again, and again.
Suddenly, it was clear what I had to do.
Theo was so absorbed in his work that he didn't notice me fumbling with my rose-crocheted black garter. The handkerchief dropped away revealing my small weapon pointed toward Theo's sweating, heaving body. I intended to give him this one gift, hoping it would pacify his unexpected hunger for things I had no intention of giving him.
For such a dull blade, it was remarkably easy. A few brilliant strokes of my own was all it took to sketch this new shape. I held the finger in my hand, marveling at its heft, weighing it the way women used to do with fruit in open markets, listening to cantaloupes, attempting to get a whiff of the pale, secret insides by pressing their noses against the dusty hide. My own finger was silent when I shook it, odorless when I pressed my nose into the lonely knuckle. Contrary to what I'd thought, I was not ripe.
I held out my gift but Theo pushed my hand away, too busy manipulating my likeness to be bothered. Dizzy, I walked around to the other side of the canvas. My face appeared there as it had in the rearview mirror, the eyes and nose slipping out over and beyond my lips like a placid field yielding to the conflicting desires of a fault line. I stared again at my finger, at this part of me that was no longer a part of me, and for the first time I wondered why it was we'd ever initiated these painful rituals, this proof of our willingness to sacrifice for the lost art of womanhood and the good of all humanity. Suddenly I thought about Frances's blemished skin and broken nails, Mitzi's crying and her frizzy hair, and I suspected I'd been lied to, that secrets and omissions lived among us, and maybe even a touch of arrogance in our failure to admit that we were wrong. I thought, too, of my mother Elizabeth, and experienced for the first time a glimmer of understanding as to why she encased herself in that sleek, taut body, ready in a flash to defend the thing that men have always, and will until the end of time, desire to possess.
I fell to my knees, then onto my back, the stone floor of the studio--Mom's potting shed, when she used to garden--alarmingly cold, as if the fire at the core of the earth had extinguished itself. My eyes closed and at first I could find no peace there in the ruddy darkness. I saw hands, fingers pruned to the last knuckle, grappling at my elbows as invisible mouths spoke a prayer above me.
Close your eyes and think of . . .
It was as if I were arriving by boat over a vast sea, first the chalky cliffs of Dover distinguishing themselves from the waves crashing below, then the empty moors dotted with sheep or stones (it was impossible to tell from this height, I was flying now), the long-dead resort communities with their dirty pebble beaches, the blind, abandoned windows of London. Then I was over a country road, then I was over a field and the ringed stump of a sap tree. A girl knelt beside it. She looked like me except her face was seamless and belonged to no one but her. No man had painted it, it suffered no chasms cleaving her eyes and mouth apart. I could see what hurt her, and what gave her strength, and I thought to myself: I shall learn Urdu, and I shall go to England, and I shall meet her.