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.

Catharsis

I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed. Lina was right about us drinking too much. There is a lot of free wine in the art world and it’s easy to slip into semi-alcoholism. Not to mention the middle class vice of drinking wine because your boss stresses you out. “We should drink juice more often,” I said to Lina as she woke. She smiled. “I’m going to dump Paul,” she said, “wish me luck.”

I couldn’t help feeling that I might have forced her decision. I’d used my evil mind powers to break up their reltionship. What if he was the one. Just a bit slow to commit…

She reached for her phone. “Paul, where are you today, we should meet for lunch,”

I could only hear a mumble of what Paul was saying,

“LA, when did you go to LA?” asked Lina,

There was an awkward pause. I could see Lina getting angry.

“I don’t think this is working,” she said,

“No, I don’t want to talk when you get back, because I never know when that will be,”

“I guess,”

I could hear him still shouting on the other end. She snapped the phone shut. Connie who had been woken by the row put her arms round Lina. “It’s for the best,” she said.

“I know,” said Lina, and began to cry. “I really miss him,” she said. Which was stupid because she’d only just dumped him. But then again, he had been absent for much of their relationship. I think she was lonelier than she had let on. “I feel sick,” she said, curling up in a foetal position on the bed.

We spent the morning at a female-only yoga class. I could see tears running down Lina’s cheeks as she moved. I was thinking about the Celtic hero Guleesh. Selflessly brave. His gruff exterior hiding a pure, warm heart. Born long before male-neurosis, long before the wheels of industry began to turn, long before The Man, The Man who turned everything, including love, into a commodity to be bought and sold, perhaps before war itself was even invented. Born in a primordial time. A template.

Often, girls have no voice. Guleesh’s beloved was a girl cursed mute by the fairies. After carrying her to safety, he tested on himself the dangerous Elixir of Speech, before giving it to her as a cure.

The next day Paul sent Lina flowers, for the first time ever.

Seeking Arrangements

A few days later, Lina and I went to the MAC makeup store. She was doing some publicity with them, so she got lots of freebies. They had a beautiful creamy foundation, like liquid skin in a pot. Since I moved to the city my face has been a mass of blotches and pustules. I am forever on a mission to find cover-up and cream and face-masks.

“Try this Cara,” said Lina, handing me a pot the exact shade of my skin,

The assistant bustled over to me, and lifting my face to the light, began to paint my face in sweeping strokes with a big soft brush. A pale oval, smooth and radiant. “We use this in all out shoots,” said Lina, “the camera loves it.”

It was five o’clock. We walked to Connie’s, picking up food and juice on the way. “We need to detox,” said Lina. “You Brits drink like fishes, you are a bad influence on me.”

We sat at Connie’s watching YouTube videos of Brandon Wade being interviewed on different tv shows. Wade runs a couple of dating websites where rich men can meet pretty girls.

“He’s oddly likeable,” said Lina,

“Yes, kind of harmless and geeky,” I said,

Connie was annoyed. “He’s an e-pimp,” she said.

There was an openness about Wade’s operation, and the way he spoke. In several of the interviews he was directly accused of encouraging prostitution. He calmly denies this, explaining that they are romantic relationships rather than just sexual encounters.

“The trouble is,” said Lina, “that the couples agree in advance an allowance for the woman,”

“That’s what married couples used to do – housekeeping money,” I said.

“Marriage is just another form of prostitution,” said Connie, “a way of being owned by a man.”

I could tell she was angry with me for not being angry. “Brandon Wade is an insidious bastard,” she said, “the government should be working on closing the pay gap, not legalising prostitution.” She was almost spitting as she said this.

“Don’t patronise me,” I said, trying to stay calm. I love Connie, but sometimes her intensity is hard to be around. “It’s not that simple,” I said, thinking about some of the girls I’d known who had married rich men. “There are a lot of guys out there who’ve done well in business, and want some TLC from a trophy wife, and there are a lot of girls out there who are pretty, but lack the aggression to do well in business. For some people that sort of relationship can work. If no one feels they are being exploited, leave them to it I say.” This sounded flawed as I was saying it, but I felt Connie was wrong to view the world in such black and white terms.

Lina looked uncomfortable. “Yasmin said she saw Katy at the gym,” she ventured, by way of changing the subject.

“Bollocks,” said Connie, “Katy can’t afford to go to the same gym as Yasmin.”

“I think we should stop talking about Katy,” I said. More because I was bored with the gossip about her than out of respect.

Connie made us hot chocolate, and we curled up on her bed listening to The Doors. “I’m sorry I shouted at you,” she said. “I just get so cross about men.”

“Me too,” said Lina. “It isn’t working with Paul.”

“That’s because he’s a horrible vain man who doesn’t deserve you,” I said, knowing that Lina might be hurt, but in the long run, it was kindest to just say it.

Connie fell asleep, curled up like a child. She’d left all her piercings in, but she looked vulnerable.

Image: Girl by Connie