Flowers

On Monday morning, at work, I got a call from Rupert. He sounded casual. “I’m back in town for a few days, do you want to come over later?”

That was it, he wasn’t even suggesting dinner.

“I’m busy,” I replied,

“Ok,” he said, there was an acidic tone in his voice, “are you playing games with me?”

“No,” I said, I did actually have a lot to do, the gallery was due to host some events for Fashion Week, and I was busy prepping for those. I was enjoying the buzz and starting to see some payoff in my gruelling job. The last thing I wanted to do was waste time and energy on someone like Rupert.

“Look, there’s a party at the gallery next week, I can put you on the guest list if you’re desperate to see me,” I said. Porsche-guy was hovering over me and I was late for a meeting. Rupert said nothing, maybe he wasn’t used to being spoken to sharply by a woman. I could just hear him on the end of the phone. Maybe shuffling from one foot to the other, thinking of his next move. Gina was pulling faces at me, I shrugged. She could see it was one of ‘those’ conversations.

“Look, I have to go,” I said to Rupert,

“Why are you being like this?” he asked,

“I don’t even know what you mean by that Rupert, you never call me, and now you are hassling me at work, I’m supposed to be in a meeting now, I need to go otherwise I’ll get fired.” I hung up the phone without waiting for a reply.

-

I had invited a Kimono maker to exhibit his work in our gallery during Fashion Week, a sort of artistic take on the business of fashion. The Kimonos were hand painted silk, showing scenes from Japanese mythology. Frightening gods, warriors, and beautiful seascapes.

Porsche-guy glanced across the photos and was genuinely impressed. He was very much the money-man behind the gallery, but occasionally a deftly orchestrated piece of artwork would raise a half smile on his cynical face. I considered this a huge triumph, reaching through to a hard philistine. Perhaps there was a tiny soul in there somewhere.

-

The next day a bunch of flowers arrived for me at reception. They were from Rupert. The card read, “I’m sorry you’re cross with me, I hope we can still be friends.”

They were an impressive bunch of dahlias, peonies and white roses, which I displayed on my desk as an odd trophy. Bittersweet and looming. The scent was almost sickly, but it reminded me of the wild, of overgrown gardens, grassy banks leading to rocky streams, petals like shameless bursts of colour, catching the sunlight from the wide office windows. Yellow pollen falling onto my desk, staining my papers and lingering for days.

I watched them die, slowly, in their glass tumbler of water. Their roots clipped off, the stems becoming withered and dry, the spread petals falling one by one. The morbid wilting display, unfolding and disintegrating over a fortnight, until only dry stalks remained. I crumbled the petals into a cup on my desk, and thought about scattering them somewhere, like ashes. Perhaps in Central Park, where they could decompose in the soil and return as new life next spring when the bulbs were planted by dutiful civic gardeners. Maybe my dying roses would be reborn as brash tulips, daubs of yellow and red against the green grass of the park. Maybe a passing man would pick them and give them to his sweetheart.

Rupert didn’t come to our party. Maybe he was too proud. Or maybe he was actually hurt. Who knows, and who cares? I was meeting new people who were actually taking me seriously, grown-up conversations about the meaning of art and how best to run a gallery in the modern age. I wondered if any of them knew Rupert. Would they mention him? Yes, a British art dealer, travels a lot, tall, handsome, but rather arrogant, do you know him. And I might reply, yes, I met him, briefly in New York, but I don’t remember much of him.

The Sky and Spiders

I printed out dozens of pictures of the sky and stuck them on my apartment walls. Every shade of blue purple pink and orange. Glow after glow of light, the sun seeping through the atmosphere like a prism, tinting the sky. What I was missing was routine. I had work, trekking to the office each day. But there wasn’t a maternal meal waiting for me at home. There wasn’t a fixed bedtime. And there wasn’t an authority figure. My boss was an idiot and my father was on the end of a phone line somewhere in London. This should have been bliss, but it left me feeling listless and confused.

I telephoned Rupert. Surprisingly, he picked up. “Did you threaten my friend Josh?” I asked him,

“Who’s Josh?” he asked. His voice slightly weak. The sign of a bad liar.

“I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” I said. Feeling good about this decisive step. I felt like I was sponging a bit of dirt out of my life.

“You’re being irrational,” he said. “I’ll call you when I get back to New York.” He hung up with a click and I threw the phone against the wall. I was angry. But I felt like I was being honest. Now he had no right to criticise me for talking to other men.

I was thinking about my cousin Tabitha. How pretty she was before she got married. And how many men were in love with her. I hoped she would get divorced. But I realised that this made me a terrible person and I tried to stop thinking about it.

I checked my emails and found I had a message from my professor, saying the first ten-thousand words of my dissertation were “tip-top” and that I would get a distinction if I carried on at this rate. I felt a lot better. But then I began to feel neurotic. Does the world really need another over-privileged English girl with a History of Art Masters Degree? Probably not. I resolved to do something “worthy” as soon as I graduated, and spent the late afternoon reading brochures about aid work in Africa. I phoned my father. “Do you know anyone in Africa?” I asked him,

“Yes,” he said hesitantly, the Yes always an implied question,

“I want to help poor children,” I said,

“Ok,” he said slowly,

I harassed him to give me the phone number of someone he knew who worked in the Foreign Office, and started typing up a CV and a letter about how I wanted to do art projects with street children.

Later that evening Lina phoned me to say that she was planning a party for fashion week and had put me and Gina on the list. I pretend to be really cool about it on the phone, like I went to fashion week parties all the time, and then jumped up and down with excitement as soon as she hung up.

I started to boil a pan of rice and broccoli for my supper, and thought about how difficult it is to break into the Arts if you’re not from a well-off background. The reason for this is that apart from studying, you also have to do lots of projects which are unpaid or expenses only. And you have to be based in a big city such as New York, where even a small apartment will set you back several hundred dollars a month.

Consequently there is a whole social class of posh-boho kids swanning around the metropolis, working on films, art projects, music. You name it. Poorer kids can break in. But it takes a lot of guts, and luck, and long hours doing shift work to fund your studies and lifestyle.

After supper I went into my bedroom, which is painted white, intending to do a Buddhist meditation. But there was a huge spider on the wall which terrified me so I killed it with some hairspray and flushed it down the toilet. I felt bad about this but I told myself that spiders survive by eating their own brothers and sisters. The are like small embodiments of evil. Maybe this is why so many people are afraid of them.

Yummy Mummies

I spent the next morning obsessing over Rupert, I didn’t want to contact him, in case he thought me clingy. But I was cross that he’d not called me for several days. I wasn’t sure if he was in Europe still. I wanted to explain that there was nothing going on between Josh and I, but I knew if I brought it up I would instantly look guilty. I don’t buy into Plato’s theory that lovers are two halves of the same person. But I do live in hope. I think there can be a ‘right person’ for everyone, and that we shouldn’t give up searching for them.

I received a letter from my cousin Tabitha who lived over in New Hampton. Tabitha, with her huge house, cherubic children and tall architect husband. Tabitha, object of endless jealousy and aspiration. -

Dear Cara, 

I am confined to this house like an animal in a zoo. No, I can walk as far as the end of the road, if I am permitted. I spend my days fetching food and drinks, cleaning, and soothing frayed tempers. I bribe them with treats and brightly coloured TV shows, with ever diminishing returns. The elder child will not dress himself unless rewarded with chocolate. 

I find myself getting fatter. Not just filling out, but my body warping. And I am in discomfort all the time. The constipation so serve it causes cystitis and an inflammation across my lower back. I am on my feet all day, but in such a small enclosure. I get neither rest nor real exercise. There is no routine to my sleeping or eating. A wad of half digested food sits somewhere in my intestine. 

They are better behaved if I find them things to do, painting, drawing, model railways, but this requires and ever-running programme of events. And I have to be on top form as a compere. The slightest chink in my mood opens a chasm of screams and tears. Like animals waiting to spot a weakness. 

In the past couple of days there has been a story on the radio about a woman imprisoned for falsely accusing her husband of rape. She now maintains he did rape her, but she retracted the original statement under pressure from him. I suspect they did have a very complex relationship, as is the way in sadistic or domineering romances. 

It got me thinking about the bits of misogyny which are still latent in our society. Beliefs that women are nags, bridezillas, manipulative princesses, adulteresses. 

I’m sure there are women who do things they shouldn’t do. C— , D— , B— , K— to think of a few. But the notion that all women are to be mistrusted is a misogynist myth, spread by men bemoaning the fact that women are no longer waiting on men in the home and the workplace. My old firm still had a norm whereby women were expected to serve the coffee and do the more repetitive admin jobs. I suspect a lot of older men miss those days, and the younger generation of men…hmmmm…don’t want to generalise. 

I keep thinking about the commitment-phobic-man-child trend, again being careful not to generalise. I am writing about this because I had this issue chronically with two serious boyfriends before I was married. And many women I know well have talked about commitment-phobia in men. And more worryingly, many of my male friends openly talk about themselves as man-children, freaked out by the grown-up world. 

I wonder, is it partly a way of manipulating women. Getting sex, love, affection, companionship, food etc, but without having to commit. 

Demographically, groups have always sought to subjugate other groups, Whites enslaving Blacks, Romans enslaving Anglo-Saxons, Men enslaving Women. 

Is it like children getting away with what they can. Playing on your weaknesses (fear of being left on the shelf), and taking advantage of any generosity you show. 

I heard a rumour once about a guy. He was frustrated, bored and married. 

He went to see this hooker, for sex, but he was so stressy he couldn’t get it up. He ended whining at her about his problems for like an hour. She glanced at the clock. “Sorry, I’ve gone on at you,” he said. 

“That’s ok,” she said, “but I’ll have to charge you extra if you go over the hour.” 

They laughed. “You make me feel much better,” he said. 

I don’t know if they actually did it eventually. But I found out that the guy’s wife was a real nag. 

I really don’t know if this is true or not. It may just be another one of those dumb urban myths. 

 

Come visit me soon, 

Love Tabitha 

 

I was tempted to visit Tabitha. My boss was winding me up, and I thought it would be nice to sit in her garden for a few days writing notes for my dissertation and sipping homemade lemonade.

I hadn’t realised that Tabitha’s husband was such an oaf, he could more than afford a cleaner and a nanny to help with the children, and Tabitha was supposed to be finishing a journalism qualification she had begun before the children were born. It’s a first world problem, I suppose, but it made me angry that she was being treated this way.

As I left for work I thought about Katy. She had seemed lively and sober. I was trying hard to ignore her odd friends, and the elite ‘artistic’ world she was inhabiting, and concerntrating on the fact that for now at least, she seemed well and happy.

-

Image: Angry, abstract print by Connie

Mowgli

When I was a very little girl I was taken to see The Jungle Book at an old art deco cinema in Devon. Afterwards I dreamt of being Mowgli, climbing trees, swimming, running wild through a jungle. Mowgli had a round face, and bobbed hair. The first movie character I could see myself in.

And the name, deliciously ambiguous. Mowgli. Little Frog. A young lithe creature, set loose in the forest.

I saw Mowgli as genderless. An archetypal child. A creature unlike any other. Yet a model for all. The noble savage. The forbidden experiment.

-

I was dressing for my night out with Katy. Standing before a mirror, trying on outfits and contemplating how I ought to look. I thought about cutting my hair short. If I cut my hair short and lost a bit of weight, I could pass for a boy, and that would make my life a lot easier. 

My skin was improving, I had been using a serum given to me by the legendary Ling, and I could feel the city dirt starting to flush from my pores. A few pimples on my jawline were all that remained of the outbreak.

I decided on a loose silk dress in an ikat fabric, jagged stripes of colour blended across my body, and minimal make up. I find it strange that women are expected to alter their faces in order to please.

I met Katy on a the corner of Bilge Street, “I hope you like Nyotaimori,” she said, “Adrian is hosting an event in The Basement, it’s a great place to meet people.”

I looked at her, not understanding what she meant. “God Cara, you’re so square,” she said. “It’s an art event, they serve a sushi buffet on live models,” she explained. She led me down a small side passage and through an unmarked door painted black. A butch-looking woman with a mouthpiece nodded at Katy as we entered, dressed in a dark suit, her hair scraped back in a severe ponytail, she said nothing to Katy but indicated the unlocked door leading into a lavishly decorated room. Lacquered furniture and dark damask drapes. Square low Japanese style tables. On each table, lying perfectly still, a beautiful naked female model, sushi rolls, sashimi and strips of ginger placed across her body. This is normal, I said to myself, in Katy’s world this is normal. The room was lit by iron lanterns hanging from the low ceiling. A retro soundtrack played, a woman’s voice, singing in a language I did not recognise, mixed against a backing track of Tibetan bowls and a stringed instrument. I looked across to the DJ booth in the far corner, and recognised the man with steel-ball ear piercings. Something about this unnerved me. It’s odd to see the same stranger twice in the city.

We slid into a table. I remember that Annalika was there, which did not surprise me because I knew that her and Katy moved in the same circles.

Somehow we go onto the subject of Kathleen dating Byron Qwike.

“He’s a monster,” said Annalika, pulling a face. “He did this to me with a candle,” she said, pulling up her top to reveal a huge scar. “I’m lucky it’s not on my face. But that wouldn’t be his way. He never marks his girls on their faces, or anywhere that might be seen.”

Adrian Roth appeared at the doorway and smiled at me, he glided over to our table, like a spectre. He kissed Katy on the cheek, and sat down next to Annalika touching her collarbone with his fingertips before kissing her lightly on the mouth. “Cara,” he said, “I’m so glad you decided to join us.” He delicately lifted a piece of sushi from just above the model’s navel, and placed it on my plate, “try this, it’s delicious,” he said.

I wasn’t feeling the sushi.

I like sushi and I’m ok with nudity, but the combination of the two made me want to gag. I kept wanting to talk to the model, laid across our table. A pretty-ish Eastern European girl, what was her story. How does one end up as a living sushi platter? 

-

Later, we moved to the dance-floor. I found myself dancing close to Adrian, he smelt like moss, which I thought must be some expensive cologne or soap he used. It was pleasant and I found myself drifting closer. “Will Annalika mind?” I asked him, remembering their kiss. “No,” he said, “she’s anybody’s. But you’re not, I can tell,” he said to me.

We danced for a bit, but I didn’t let him kiss me. Katy had disappeared into a side room with Annalika and a man I did not recognise. I drank champagne with Adrian and we chatted about Europe. He quizzed me about my family in England, the girls’ school I went to, and our holiday home in Liguria. “Come with me,” he said, “next time I go to Europe,”

“Maybe,” I said, politely sipping my drink.

At two am he called me a cab, “you wouldn’t want to stay any later,” he said, “I’ll make sure Katy gets home safely.” I still couldn’t see her, “tell her I said goodbye,” I said, half wanting to go to her, but thinking it best that I didn’t enter that side room.

He paid for the cab as I got in, giving the driver a generous tip. I felt woozy from the champagne, and I’d not eaten all evening. “You don’t look like one of Adrian’s girls,” the driver commented as we drove off. “I’m not,” I said, “I’m just a friend.” We called by an Indonesian buffet and I picked up some supper while he waited outside. I wondered how many calories were contained in the small takeout box I clutched, and why I couldn’t stop thinking about my weight, even though I wasn’t fat, or even close.

It’s hard for girls, I thought, you never really know if you are an object or a person. 

Blue Lenses

I decided to visit Kathleen in hospital. I hoped that beneath her icy exterior, there was something warmer. And the secretive situation around her injuries had made me think that she may be more vulnerable than she let on. I resolved not to ask her about the operation. If she wanted to confide in me then she could, but I wasn’t going to press her. I took a hamper of sushi and juice, which was probably against hospital regulations, but I didn’t care.

I was still feeling angry about Rupert, but I didn’t want to bother Kathleen with my problems. She was laid out on a bed, very still. “I’m on lots of drugs,” she said, “you bought me sushi, you’re an angel.” The room was full of flowers, I didn’t ask who they were from. I helped her sit up a bit and we ate the sushi sneakily while the nurses weren’t looking. The corridor was noisy with busy feet clicking across the tiles and a whiff of disinfectant on the air. “I feel bruised,” said Kathleen. I could tell she was itching to get out. The white cube of a room and over-chirpy nurses were driving her crazy. We finished the sushi just as a nurse bustled in to give her more meds.

Kathleen swallowed them, her face contorting with the bitter taste. “Have you come to tell me to break up with Byron?” she asked me,

“No, I don’t really know Byron. Does he make you happy?”

She rolled her eyes.

“This world is grim, Cara, people don’t really tell you about it, but it is,”

I wasn’t about to disagree.

“You grew up in the country…don’t you miss it?” she asked me,

“Every day,” I replied. It was true. Even in New York I gravitated towards any tiny patch of grass, a wild-looking dog poking out from a handbag, a pigeon walking along a sidewalk. But I knew if I lived in the country I would go mad with boredom. Long nights and no one to talk to.

I had a dim recollection that Kathleen’s folks had been country people.

“We used to have a ranch up in Canada,” she said, “near the mountains, I miss it. There were waterfalls and caves. Amazing really. Like a holiday brochure, but too remote for the tourists. We ended up in Manhattan because of my dad’s business.”

I was desperate to ask her about Byron. I was convinced that he had hurt her. Either accidentally or on purpose. Her face and arms were unbruised. So where was she hurt?

I let her talk, hoping that the stream of words might reveal something.

“My first week at school in New York I won a poetry competition. No one believes me when I tell them this. People think I’m a preppy-cow. I told Byron the poem and he found it hilarious,” she said,

“What was the poem?” I asked her, trying to sound sweet, and biting my urge to agree with Byron, nothing about Kathleen said ‘poet’.

She took a breath, straightened her back, and recited -

“I went into the cave looking for fairies. 

I looked around. 

There were none. 

I didn’t realise that the fairy in the cave was me.”

-

Visiting hours were over. I was ushered out of the room by a nurse, and went to catch the Metro back to my apartment. As I waited, I half whistled a tune I remembered from childhood, silently, through clenched teeth.

A man in front of me turned round, “what’s that you’re whistling?” he asked. He had a strange piercing in each ear, a bar through the pinna and a metal ball the size of a marble resting just outside the auditory canal.

“Nothing,” I said, he could see me staring at the steel balls.

“They’re to protect my hearing,” he said, “I’m a DJ.”

This made sense. I’d heard that spending too much time in nightclubs will eventually make you deaf. All those years of amplified sound.

“Can you hear at all with those?” I asked, indicating the steel balls,

“Yeah, it’s different though, I can hear things around me, behind me, I think the ball reflects the sound,”

“Like an animal,” I murmured,

He looked at me like I was strange,

“Prey,” I said, “they can hear all around so they know if a carnivore is nearby.”

I think he was freaked out by me so I sat at the other end of the carriage when the train arrived. In the city it’s always hard to know how much you should talk to strangers. Do they want to be friends? Or will they just find you clingy and invasive? Everyone is busy. And everyone is going somewhere.

It wasn’t late when I arrived at my stop and I emerged back into the daylight. I was due to meet Katy that evening. I was apprehensive, but glad that she had agreed to meet. I saw it as some indication of normality. A hint that she may be getting her life back together.

My street was quiet and I walked quickly down it, alone.

I grew up in a small town with no crime rate. There had been a murder there in 1725, and I remember the vicar’s bike being stolen when I was about six. It was found two days later in a nearby ditch. My suspicion is that some drunk borrowed it on the way home from the old Horse & Pheasant pub which was next to the crossroads.

When I moved to NY I felt like I was in a war zone. Darting from one doorway to another without making eye contact. Clutching my bag close to my side, and not going out alone after dark.

I never know if I am paranoid or just careful. And is there really any difference?

-

Image: Blue Lenses, collage by Connie

Valerian

I bought a copy of Sylvia Plath’s memoirs from Amazon, a huge book costing me just a couple of dollars.

It was an ex-library copy, with a clear plastic cover and the “BIO, 920, PLA” sticker still on the spine. I wondered what kind of library chucks out a book by Sylvia Plath, and what they would replace it with.

-

I mixed up a drink of valerian root and warm water, which I sipped. I slept like death for fourteen hours. When I woke I did not recognise my apartment. But I felt refreshed. Like a child just born. Yesterday I was feeling neurotic about something, but I can’t remember what it was. I put on some loose trousers and a vest, and jogged gently around the park. Stopping to stretch and look at some crocuses freshly emerged from the ground. The mud giving birth to these flashes of colour. Insects buzzing lazily in the heat, and lighting on the petals. I jogged past the water, ripples on the surface catching the light, and fat carp swimming beneath the surface. Stupid and happy, nibbling at the weed and crumbs of bread thrown in by tourists.

-

I was about half way through writing my dissertation. A pretentious esoteric piece on mark-making as a mystic practice. An overblown way of saying that many people do art because they like how the brush feels in their hand, and the splodgy texture of the paint on the canvas.

I called my supervisor. “Is it ok if I change my dissertation?” I said, “I want to write about a friend of mine who’s gone awol,”

“What’s that got to do with The History of Art?”

“It’s an existential piece,”

“Does your friend see herself as an existential artist?”

“No, but that makes her self expression all the more authentic,”

“We’ll talk about it,” said my supervisor. I took this to mean no Cara, you cannot write your History of Art dissertation on your screwed up friend with whom you have developed an unhealthy obsession. 

I love biros, I love writing with biros because they have a tiny ball-bearing in the nib which rolls across the page as you write. I sat at my desk for an hour writing everything I knew about Katy’s life, trying to find patterns and sense. I found pain, chaos and confusion.

-

The next morning I got an email from Katy.

Hi Cara.

Hope you are ok. 

Sorry for not replying. Been busy. 

Do you want to go for a drink tomorrow??

Love Katy

A week later: A Holiday in the Hamptons

I sat on the swing seat with Lina’s brother Josh. A plump boy with sandy coloured hair who worked on the trading floor of a big bank. I slipped off my shoes so I could feel the grass. “Why do girls paint their toenails?” asked Josh, looking at the lurid green polish, splodged onto my toenails earlier that evening,

“Self expression I suppose,” I replied. We could hear the others inside, the hum of voices from the kitchen.

“Do you think they’re talking about us?” he said,

I laughed. “Who cares,” I replied, “everyone here is a gossip, it’s like a disease.”

He put his arm round me and I didn’t stop him. He wasn’t attractive, but he wasn’t repulsive either. It just felt nice to have that weight resting on my shoulders. It had grown dark and the garden looked like a mass of shadows. Ominous trees loomed at the edge of the garden. “What do boys want?” I asked Josh,

“To be adored by girls,” he replied.

Boys are brought up to believe they are a small idol, and the need to be worshipped only grows as they become older. Mothers raise their sons to believe they are little princes, and then are surprised when their daughters’ hearts are broken.

I felt calm with Josh. The motion of the swing back and forth lulled me into an almost sleep, I wasn’t curious about what was being said indoors. Poison. That’s all it was. “Do you care what anyone thinks of you?” I asked Josh,

“No,” he replied. “They’re fools, the lot of them.”

“Im worried about Katy,” I said.

“She has to find her own way,” said Josh, “you can’t be her keeper.”

We fell asleep rocking slowly on the swing.

-

A couple of days later Josh called me at work. “I just had a call from a guy called Rupert, told me to stay away from you,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was upset or not.

I didn’t really know what to say. “I’m sorry,” I said eventually, “I don’t really know where that’s come from.”

“I didn’t know you had a boyfriend,” said Josh,

“No, neither did I,” I said.

He laughed.

“Rupert sees me occasionally and never answers his phone,” I explained.

“Why do you see him?” asked Josh,

“Because I’m an idiot,” I replied.