by Minna vander Pfaltz
On the other side of the river there was a mud flats. The road passed over it on a low boardwalk. Occasionally there were bulges where passers-by could let others pass by. About halfway across was a large area with a table and a few benches. A woman sat at the table, a large flattish bowl before her. Several dishes of colored clay or mud were scattered around this. She was feverishly applying mud to her face. She would pick up a piece of broken glass, look into it, exclaim loudly and wash the mud off her face. Then she’d mix some color into what was left in the pan and begin applying it again.
I watched her for some time, leaning on the handrail. My legs needed the rest. I listened closely. . .
“A powder room. A dressing room. A place to change one’s appearance. To maintain the mask, the cover-up for the night. Or the day. Day or night. Night and day. It doesn’t matter. On and off the stage. Adoration. Affirmation. Accolades. All because I successfully sit before my mirror and make myself over. Put on a face with an exquisite touch. I’m good at it. Was good at it. Very good at it. Perhaps because I liked it, keeping face.” Then she screamed at her image. “What has gone wrong?!” Holding the syllable until she ran out of breath.
I moved a little closer.
She cleaned her face once again and looked into the mirror.
“What have I done to myself? I’ve lost my face!”
And, indeed, there wasn’t much of a face there to see, as far as I could see.
“‘Play hard to get,’ mom had said. ‘No man wants an easy piece.’ Something I wanted, though. Sometimes. Easy. With ease. ‘It’s like fly fishing,’ my mother said. ‘Keep a loose wrist. The rod’s just an extension of your hand. Your body rhythm keeps that line arcing, coming back in better and better ellipses til the moment of casting. Then it’s just a matter of reeling it in.’ Mm-hmm. Just a touch of reality was bait enough. Just enough to keep him coming. Then I had the last say. Yeah. I had to have the last say. Even sometimes when I was wrong. Sometimes I erred and what I got wasn’t worth the effort. But usually I came away with something. All because of a touch of reality. But that’s all changed.” She paused, took a breath. “Look at me” she shouted to the skies, beating her fists on the table. “No more shadow flying out across the water tempting morsel.” She laughed crazily. “The boudoir led to the sleazy motel. And now to nowhere at all.”
She threw her hands up, smiled wryly.
Once more, in she dipped to get the mud spirit colored and out she came with just dyed mud. Over and over. A practicing disciple following her long historical precedent.
“There is no need for me to advertise,” she mewled. “No need to shout from the top of the mountain, ‘I’m a cunt!’ Not any more.” She did not stop slapping on the dyed mud. “No one’s interested in my cunt. Men love a cunt. But it’s got to have a face to go with it.”
She perused herself in the remains of her looking glass, threw the broken glass into the mud flats and pounded her fists on the table. The pots of unguent jumped.
“I used to have an odalisque. A Romanesque-Art deco divan draped decorously with a woven silk-fringed shawl I never wore. The bed was in the next room. Five or six thick hand-made futons piled high and soft so I sank into their plush interior. The pile of bedding sat in the middle of the room so it could be seen through the half open door. A plush middle-Eastern flying carpet of desire.” She giggled, shutting her eyes against the memory. “The windows to the street were only half-blinded. I liked showing off my well-kept body. It was my face, though, that created the magic. Like every good artist, I had a plethora of masks to choose from.” She smiled at the little pots. She smiled at herself, running her hands down her midriff to her waist so slim and over her gently rounded heart-shaped hips to her finely rounded ass. She squeezed. “Men like a good ass as much as a good face. And I gave it to them every morning with gluteal exercises–and stomach crunches to flatten my belly, emphasize my mound of Venus. My exhibition pieces. I was a choosy bitch. Once.” She jumped up and down on her seat. “Now there is nothing to be choosy about!” She looked at herself in the water bowl. “I am so much less than a whole person.” She leaned forward for a better look. “Men are not blind!” She leaned on her elbows.
“You had something by Divine Right. Woman first and foremost. Only you give life.”
“And then we give and give and give. And then we have the life taken away from us and made into a damned mystery. A curse. Trivialize it. Isolate it. Give it back so it’s yours again. But with something missing. Instead of life we’ve been turned into a painful repository. A thrusting place to be used, even worshipped. But the key,” she raised a finger and shook it, “is our face. Faces. Fucking two-faced bastards! ”
She sighed. Her body sank in on itself.
“You are nothing without your crutch?” She raised herself up again. “I used to have high cheek bones with just a hint of youthful blush. Slightly almond-shaped eyes. Long lashes. The full-lipped mouth barely rouged a light coral tint. That wet look. Like I’ve just done one man and now I’m ready for the next. It’s so successful, why do I feel I should change it? I must be losing it. I must be! Look at the way I’m sitting! Come on. Straighten up, old girl. It’s not long now til the need for a veneer won’t be so obvious. Cranky old ladies get to say whatever they want. Look however they want.”
She leaned forward some more, her forearms stretched along the high gloss surfaced table, almost another mirror with the high sheen of the wood beneath. Japanese red cedar to roseate the lifted chin and smooth cheeks. To make her look healthy.
“So, why do I worry? I’m not nearly so old. But I feel like shit tonight. Well, then,” she clapped her hands, “let’s make a change. Just enough for people to wonder at. What’s different about you, honey? They’ll be surprised it’s just me. The one-eighth Algonquin Indian girl with the. . .with the. . .what? Just the right look. Je ne sais quoi. With the white lovers. What a pollution. What’s being Indian have to do with anything? A cunt’s a cunt. But I’m on the rolls. An authentic Indian fuck. So, I can pay and pay and pay. I’m a pay sausage-making machine!”
She bowed her head. “No diluted offspring for me. I’m the last of the line. Yeah.” She leaned back on the bench, arms outstretched, hands on the edge of the table. “Is it any wonder we look for financial stablemates? Love be damned, we need to get something for the time we spend on our backs. Just once. . .once. . .” she blew air noisily past her lips. “Love isn’t all, honey. Don’t moon. It’s what he’s got in the seat of his pants that counts. It’s the bankroll that sells. Sex is just the way to getting it. If it isn’t that good, well, that’s the price you have to pay. A lover on the side can liven things up a bit. A gigolo with no standards and no ethics. Who cares? A cock’s a cock. It just takes up space. Money, on the other hand. . .now, there’s something you can get a grip on. Do something with. Make something of. Yeah. Something that doesn’t use itself up. Money changes a girl. Yessir, it sholy do!” Her voice changed to a sugary drawl. “It sho do. There’s nothing like money to make a woman’s heart go pitta-pat. Atrial fib. A little extra warmth in the chest, a tightness in the throat.” She pressed her hands together and looked up. “That’s why the fashioning is so important. They have to feel I’m worth it–have to see I’m worth it. Men are so easy! Suckers for a good fly fisher of men. A female Christ. A virgin mother. And I am certainly that! I move with grace and fortitude. Not even number two could fathom my depths. Boy did I come out the winner on that one! A house and a $17,000 debt that became his responsibility. What a fool! He still loves me. After all I did to him. Raped him. Flayed him. Hung him up to dry and beat him with a switch. All of that love and joining of souls hogwash he believed in. Well. . .if he wishes to believe it, okay. Let him have his fantasy.”
She leaned back, to get a better look, to see her pride somewhere out there before her.
“His letters are wonderful epistles of love. Maybe I’ll publish them one day. A little love-letter package. Proof that men are easy. Ruled by the flesh between their legs. Long or short, what does it matter? It’s all the same thing. All the same.”
In a frustrated movement, she kicked her piano bench away from the table, slamming it against the opposite railing. She stared at the assortment of visages, of shrouds that crowded her world. All around her. Staring back at her with cold, black, blank eyes. Feral animals. So many to choose from!
She closed her eyes. She did not want to look at herself any more, not as she was at any rate. Not now. She was dissatisfied now. She couldn’t let that get in the way. She had to concentrate on the evening’s goal. Even out here in the mud flats, there was an evening’s goal. I remained very still, like a fence post.
“Maybe my red lace crotchless panties. My thigh-high silk stockings, shimmering white. No garter belt. No bra. Yes. I’ll be ready then. But what face should I be tonight?”
A new one was in order. She’d been wearing this one successfully for a long time or she’d not be out here at the end of a wooden walkway overlooking slowly lolling muddy water. She must have worn it for so long she’d gotten she had it on. . . and then. . .then it had become so very comfortable she had to get rid of it.
I had friends because of it,” she whispered. She smiled crookedly. “A support group, you might say. People who believed in me. Best of all, I was quite successful in business: who could resist such a face? Such a fuck?”
She thought a moment. “Then there was diamond teardrop variation. I’m looking, really looking for something different.” She fingered the air. “Which one? There were quite a number to choose from, once. It took me a lifetime to build up my. . .gallery. My wallflowers.” She smiled up into the darkening sky, a firmament of well-placed stars on a rich azure background. Evenly spaced stars.
She sat in her niche for hours looking at these different facets of herself, facets of her stardom. She liked their brooding lives. She could make things happen with them. She could put together a world with just one accoutrement. Once.
But she was just a little tired. She slouched. The deftness and swiftness of choice and characterization was no longer with her. Her impetuosity slowed. Over time. A slight slowing, like a lingering disease. Or maybe the beginning of one. Early onset.
“It just isn’t easy any more. The thrill is gone.” That wagging disappointed mother finger shook itself again. “No,” she whispered. “Not gone. Just. . .delayed.” She sighed, squinched up her face. “More effort involved now. After these many years. One would think, with my experience and repertoire–fuck!” She wiped at her face, smearing it. “But the times. . .the times. . .the old days. The past. The fucking past! My, my, my. . .moments of heady success. Once. . .”
She stopped mid motion, lost in the moment. What was she seeing? The masks around the mirrors of her boudoir? Each new façade the thrill of putting on a show that would never end? Or, perhaps, the high of making each new guise work, moving in the world. The adrenaline rush. Each conceit manipulated to perfection so that life came out of its half-shell. Life, like a disease, took over the wooden body–her wooden body. The mask and the body always went together. Trout and lure.
She heaved a great sigh. Morbidly vaudevillian and romantic. Stilted realism.
“It’s so hard any more.”
She sat still, arms loosely on the table top. She sat still an inordinately long time, masks of the past floating in and out of focus, dancing silhouettes out over the water, now seen, now enshrouded. As her attention slowly took shape, she held her head in her hands. She murmured, somewhat displaced and a little dizzy. The cowls the dark edifices of dead Greek heroes were now tarnishing livery.
The air became a little oppressive.
She put her hand to her throat and drew in a deep breath. Coughed. Tried to fight some feeling, letting it sweep over her. She blinked. She winked. “I see you out there, out in the blackness around the edges but I can’t switch on the lights. Look. . . my regalia is just eerie shadows in the night. Pieces of rhinestone jewelry.” She looked up to the sky and howled like a dog, “I-eeeee know exactly what I look like, what I want to be looking like.” A little laugh. “It’s the actor’s choice. Self-conscious awareness.” She mumbled to herself as her arms slowly descended, “I so jaded?”
She looked out over the darkly winking water. “Maybe I should brush up a bit.”
She stood and pulled at her thin mantlet folding it about her thin shoulders. Right over left.
She moved into the glaring circle of light and reached out to touch the face only she could see.
“So smooth and smiling quietly back at me. Eyes demurely lowered, of course. I could be regal and I could be innocent.” She shook her hands, waggling them side to side. “This particular shell was my bread and butter. Everyone liked me as Columbine. So sweet and pure and wanton. The absorbing caress of acceptance. My ravishment.” She smiled into the night. “Number two had particularly found it enthralling. The allurement brought out a duality in him. The gentle, thoughtful dominator. Many’s the time we had spent the weekends ensconced in the house–my house–playing Columbine games. Once had. . .once. . .once. . .”
She let go the illusion. A net was closing around her. She shivered. Her hand moved with her eyes and came to rest on another unseen face. “Diamantina? Diamantina could get what she wanted. Because, like a Noh mask, there was no conjunction and, so, she could be the bicameral mind navigating through time and space with two different maps. I liked being the double persona.” She laughed loudly as she let loose the unseen. “And to think they called multiple personalities psychotic!”
She threw her wrist to her forehead and staggered back, slightly disoriented. She sat with a clunk. Still like a statue. A murmur broke from this edifice.
“Ahh, number three suffered the consequences of this mask’s soft and polite and lilting voice. It danced jigs and subtle minuets around his man’s head. Diamantina, the flashing beauty.” The threw her arms up. “He was no more than a laundry list. Alimony, a house and a restraining order. That’s all it took. El Capitano brought to his knees.” She flipped her hands. “Men appreciate being ravished as much as women, innocence turned into an insatiable little tart.”
She sat down and squeezed her thighs together.
“Oh, yes, I remember. I remember. It was with that virile body-builder. Number three. He did my morning exercises with me. In the buff. Ha-hah! An exercise in futility. Begun in the nude and finished with his masturbating directly into my vagina. Right on target from–how far away? It doesn’t matter. In or out, it was masturbation for him. Masturbation for me. I got off, then, watching his river of come spew over my lips.” She pulled her chemise closer about her. “It’s true what they say about athletes. They peak early. Dammit! A girl has a right, too. Doesn’t she?”
Or perhaps, as her eyes roved over more airy deception, she’d choose something else that would do the trick? “Of course, any would do the trick. All of them would! Could. Did. I did. Very well, thank you. That’s the whole point: to take one’s due. To take one’s dew. Nothing personal in my treatment of a man. Why should there be? Two separate bodies. Two separate souls. Spirited encounters but definitely not spiritual. There was no way I would let a man rag on me. You give me trash, I give you trash back. Margaret Atwood, hymning a pig.”
She sighed and looked way into the darkness around her, the chaos out of which life was born.
“In the beginning was the word. And what was the word? It was me. Me. My. Mine. It never touched another soul except as succubus.” She hissed. “I’m tired of the game. I’m so. . .no. . .so. . .unidentifiable. Untouchable. Unsatisfied. You see, without a mask, without a shield, a castle keep, I am nothing. I needed my enameled skin, my horned dermis. Every animal had its skin. Skin was necessary to keep the outside from imposing on the inside. Overwhelming it. The casque. Feral me. Never once touched. No. Not truly. Once. . . There! Once I could reach out and touch what I didn’t have myself. It’s all about definition. Definition and altruity. A living up to and giving up to.” She stopped and looked about, looked into the shining table top. “I have nothing but emptiness to give anyway. ”
She faced the mirrored table top, the floating mirror of the water front-on. She looked tired and haggard. She began to strip off the mask she had worn for so long. She’d worn it for so long the fiction had entered into the reality because the mask was not there. As she tore frantically at her face, she pulled off great patches of skin. Her fingernails, dermis- and DNA-encrusted, ripped red valleys into her face. I watched the destruction of Aphrodite in Repose. I watched her create the desecration of herself. Her face ran with blood and glared out at her from reflected worn and bloodshot eyes.
In the end, then, she’d lost the reality. Her pain became a surreal sketch with nothing to offer but a desert, a desert after its first and only rainfall. She was a Dadaist persona, a destructed personality to be fulfilled only once.
She stared emptily at the carnage, the assassination of herself.
“Here it is. Come and get it. The carcass is on the block. The fingerprint of life is here for all to see.”
She could not now walk out into the sun. The sunshine. The mud, the dyed clay would not stay in place. There was nothing to cling to.
She remained still into the night. There was nothing to say. There was nothing to cry for.
Dedicated to Fran A.
for Si Tang
© Minna vander Pfaltz, 2016