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. 

Beauty

Lina spends a lot of time and money on her appearance. She is a sweet-natured and generous person, so it would be wrong to describe her as vain. Maybe polished would be a better word.

She goes to a salon on 47th street where she gets her hair done in a pretty but natural style, and buys products there which are made by a Japanese brand. Her shampoo smells a bit like honeydew melons. She has a great wardrobe, partly freebies from her PR job, and partly her own purchases. Her outfits always match, and are always creative. She has recently bought a selection of silk Liberty print dresses, and knitwear from Rodarte. She has a facial every two weeks with a woman named Ling, who comes to her apartment. She got into laser hair removal while it was still unheard of, and has manicures and pedicures once a week. She goes to the gym every other day, and drinks lots of water. She has a small closet of cosmetics, which she organises by colour and type. Nude lipsticks, rouge lipsticks, blushers, creams, brown mascaras, black mascaras. She works with a couple of shoe brands, who pay her to wear their pumps around town.

Lina got really sick with a summer cold, and spent a few days slobbing around her apartment. I brought her muffins and fresh coffee one Saturday morning. “Ling will be here in a bit to do my facial,” she said, showing me in, “maybe she could do you as well.”

I felt like I was being initiated into a secret society. I would be touched by the hands of the celebrated Ling, facialist to the great and the beautiful.

I could hear the heavy sound of a man thumping around the apartment. “Paul’s come over to collect his Charles Mingus LP,” she said.

He emerged through an archway and acknowledged me with a nod. “You look a mess babe,” he said to Lina. She was wearing yoga kit and no make up. Her hair scraped back into a messy bun. Her skin was a bit peaky, but other than that she looked cute. She shrugged and let Paul kiss her on the cheek as he left.

“I can’t win with him, he teases me if I spend so much as a minute or a dime on my appearance, but then if I have a duvet day, suddenly I’m queen of the slobs,” she said.

Ling arrived, a sassy petite Chinese-American woman, with the most beautiful skin I have ever seen. She carried a huge Louis Vuitton leather bag full of her lotions, and bade us both lie down on the recliners in the lounge. “I met your friend the other day,” she said, as she cleansed my city-worn face. “English girl called Katy, said she knew you-two.”

Ling’s hands felt amazing, “I’m glad Katy is ok,” I murmured, “…I should drink more water.” My skin was like a parchment stretched over the bones, tired and telling.

“This is like religion,” said Lina, from behind a ginger scented face mask. “I can feel my skin finally coming back to life.”

“That’s why people like facials,” Ling said. “It’s the only excuse for stillness in the city.” She laughed, “I don’t really buy into that woo-woo crap that some beauticians do, but I know that in the non-dualist sects of ancient India, anything can be your religion. Sleeping is holy, brushing your hair is holy, eating is holy. All atoms are part of God. Everything we do is part of God.”

I don’t know if I was really taking in what she was saying. Or just listening to the rhythm of her voice.

Marbles

It was around this time that Connie became obsessed with finding the perfect marble. She would spend hours trawling the toy stores, picking up each glass boule and examining for flaws. “I need it to be spherical, truly spherical,” she said. Rummaging through a box of glass orbs. Like tiny planets fallen to Earth and gathered up for children’s amusement.

“I had a huge bag of cats-eye marbles when I was a child,” I told her, “perhaps I could ask papa to send them,”

They were still somewhere in the house in Devon, probably on a windowsill staring out across the moor.

“The city is so square,” said Connie, “everything at right-angles, I find it oppressive.”

Spoilt children ran around us, picking out toys, and demanding treats. Frazzled mothers and over-indulgent fathers complied, seeking the quiet life. Connie held up a blue glass marble, “almost perfect,” she said, noticing a slight elongation, the hint of an egg-shape.

“You know there is no such thing as a sphere,” I said, “they’re described in mathematics, but they never occur in real life, you never get a true, perfect sphere.”

Connie thought about this. Then continued looking, holding up marbles one by one to the light. I ran my hand through one of the boxes of marbles, feeling the heaviness of the glass, and the greasy sound they made as they knocked against each other.

“What will you do when you find the perfect marble?” I asked,

“I want to roll it down the gallery of the Guggenheim Museum,” she said, as if it were obvious. The Guggenheim Museum is built as a gentle spiral, which guests walk up and down as they view the artworks.

“I like marbles,” I said, “they are one of the few gender-neutral toys we have left.”

“I’d not thought of that,” said Connie.

She looked sad. “None of these are quite right,” she said, looking at the box of marbles. “I’m not going to find it today, I can tell.”

We left the shop and walked across the park, the living sun high in the sky. Throwing mottled shadows through the tress, and gently baking the walkers in the park, skin turning slowly brown, freckles appearing, and beads of sweat forming on brows.

“Everyone is different,” I said, looking at the medley of people in the park. “But really close up, or really far away, everyone looks the same.”

Image: Marblescollage by Connie