And the LORD spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.—Exodus 33:11
Bart liked to paint me in green. He said his voices told him to. But me, I didn’t like it. The paint was all drippy shades of slate green like the northern forest on a cold day. And you could scarcely see my face.
“It looks like I’m drowning.”
“You shouldn’t take it personally,” he said. “It’s art. It’s not about you at all.”
“But it’s a lie. I’m not like that.”
“I’m not painting you,” he repeated under his breath.
“Well, who are you painting if it’s not me? Why am I sitting here posing for you if it’s not me?”
He frowned. Took off his heavy, black-rimmed glasses and put them back on. Rubbed his nose with the side of his thumb, getting it all gray-green like me in his picture. For a moment he looked confused and I felt sorry for him.
“But I bet you could have a show of all my faces,” I said. “And they’d sell. You have galleries just waiting for you.”
“I don’t want a show.”
“I’m not ready. When the time is right, I’ll know. The voices will tell me.”
“Damn those voices!” I said. “Have they by any chance told you how you’re going to bring in some money around here?”
At the mention of money, Bart rubbed the other side of his nose so that he had gray-green streaks on both sides, like some absent-minded forest creature. He was chewing on one of his brushes now, so even his lips had turned green. “I’m an artist, you know,” he said. “And I love you.”
I sighed in exasperation. I could feel my resolve floating away. “You look pretty funny,” I said.
“You’re all green.”
“That’s because we’re in this together.” He looked up expectantly.
And I didn’t say no.
Bart was still smudged and smiling in his sleep at eight the next morning––which happened to be a Monday. His left hand was locked around the alarm snooze button.
I rolled into the day. “Jasmine, get up! Brush those teeth while I zip your jumpsuit! We’re going to daycare in a cab.”
“Don’t worry, Mommy,” she said as we raced down the stairs. “We always get there in time when we take a cab.”
“Jasmine, I love you. You are so mature.” By now, we were in the back of the Checker, and I was counting out my tip.
“Mommy, I don’t want to go here any more,” Jasmine said as we pulled up to the church. “I hate that new Mother Superior.”
“I don’t like her so much either, honey. But there’s nothing we can do. Now, come on …”
The previous Mother Superior, gentle and tolerant of Jewish working mothers, had passed away two weeks before of water on the lungs. A pity. She was so kind and she loved Jasmine. I thought of her almost as a substitute for my own mother.
The new Mother Superior was different. She walked around with knife-sharp creases in her wimple. She was a woman of procedures, one of which was the daily search for lice. Every morning I told her that Jasmine did not have lice. And every morning she insisted on fanatical searching. This had gone on for a week now.
“It’s best to assume the worst, Miss Petersky,” she said. “That way we won’t be disappointed.”
Jasmine was beginning to cry from having her hair yanked this way and that.
“But you’re hurting the child,” I protested.
“Vigilance is its own reward,” she replied.
“Jasmine does not have bugs, Mother!” was what I finally said with as much dignity as I could. Then I kissed Jasmine’s wet cheek and took another taxi to my job.
I was writing jacket copy for a small publisher of radical economics texts, and my boss liked the word “seminal.” Every author’s work had to be a “seminal” this or a “seminal” that. I had a funny feeling about that jacket copy.
No one ever called me at work, so when the other woman in the office, who did all the proofreading and also mopped the floors, said, “It’s for you, Aurora,” I figured it was either the landlord tracking me down, Bart wanting me to pick up another tube of phalo green, or the daycare.
“Your Jasmine has been naughty. Going where she shouldn’t go. Looking where she shouldn’t look. And now she’s fallen out of the choir loft.”
“My God! Is she okay?”
“Sister has her kissing the bloody feet of Jesus as a comfort, but your Jasmine continues to cry and use profane language.”
“But is she okay?”
“You must rein her in, Miss Petersky. Otherwise …”
Jasmine was fine, I could tell. “I’ll be there!” I said, prefaced by my biggest sigh of the day.
I hailed yet another taxi.
“Jasmine again, huh?” the cabby said. He’d picked me up before.
“I think it’s the end of the line with this place,” I told him.
“Want me to wait?”
“Not unless you can wait ‘til payday.”
“Okay, sweetheart. But if you ever get tired of that crazy genius husband of yours …”
I raced up to the sanctuary and witnessed a shrieking Jasmine biting the red paint off the feet of Jesus and trying to kick herself loose from the Mother Superior. My God! She must have started up again. Jasmine was really in top form today.
“Sorry, Mother,” I mumbled as I took a suddenly quiet Jasmine in my arms.
The Mother pursed her lips and held out a shaking hand for my check. I had it ready, so I didn’t even have to put Jasmine down. Oh well, bye-bye cheap daycare! I’d have to start looking again tomorrow.
I walked Jasmine onto the cross-town bus and settled her in my lap. “Honey, we’re going swimming now instead of later. The suits are right here in my bag.”
She twisted around and squinted up at me. “Where’s Daddy? Can he come?”
“He’s busy being an artist. And Jasmine and Mommy are going to have a good time at the pool.”
“I wanna see Daddy! He’s more fun!”
I looked out the window, crying a little, wondering how much longer I could take this.
The pool was outdoors, above the East River, not too far from Bellevue Hospital. A young woman doctor was demonstrating artificial respiration to a group of older women swimmers. Jasmine immediately cozied up to the old ladies and told them they all reminded her of Grandma. They loved her. They told me I should just go about my swimming and not to worry about a thing.
“Oh, Grandma!” I thought as I polished off lap after lap in the green, green water. I’d almost forgotten how depressed my mother was. How many pills she was taking. How I should call her. Soon.
When Jasmine and I got home, Bart was painting a new portrait––but it wasn’t mine. This woman was all crimsons, oranges, and cadmium yellows. She was passionate. Bursting into flame. Gifting Bart with a poem she had wrenched from the other world. It was Merva, Bart’s poet diva. I’d seen pictures of her, and I’d heard how the other wives talked about her, but I’d never met her.
“How come she’s on the easel ready for action and my picture’s on the floor?” I demanded. “She’s on fire and I’m drowning. Who’s paying the rent around here, anyway?”
Bart held up his left hand––his “do not disturb” sign. So I rinsed out the bathing suits, fed Jasmine a snack, and started supper. I thought about how I had to call my mother, but the phone rang and Bart took it. After an intense conversation of about twenty minutes, he announced that Merva was coming over.
“The CIA just burned down her house. She’s coming over with the first two kids.”
Merva had lots of kids. She said it was a poet’s prerogative to experience conceptive sex with all the races. She had her first kid with a black radical poet from Newark. Her second kid came from a rich Jewish lawyer who hung out with the black radical poet from Newark.
“So why did they burn down her house?” I said. “The CIA’s not after her.”
“They’re after all the poets. All the artists,” he said. “They know we know the truth.”
I glanced at the portrait of Merva enveloped in flames and suddenly I was very nervous. “Wait a minute, Bart. Did you paint Merva like this because you got word of the fire before it happened?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I just paint what the voices say.”
“But did you know that the fire was going to happen?”
“Aurora,” he said. “Stop interrogating me. I just listen to the voices like it’s my friend talking, that’s all. I’m an artist.”
Something else was bothering me and I had to get it out. “Well, what do your voices say about me?”
“Yeah. Seeing as how you’re painting me all covered up in green?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do they say … I’m going to die?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do. I think you do. You know something about me you’re not saying.” My own voice sounded odd to me––it came out shrieking when I meant it to be so calm.
“Aurora, you sound unbalanced. Maybe you should see somebody.”
“Maybe I should, Bart, so I can deal with you. But right now I need to call my mother.”
But I didn’t. I didn’t.
Merva moved in around midnight. Her hair was a braided fire all the way down her back and her face was full moon round and the color of raw dough. “So ugly she‘s beautiful,” the poets said about her.
“Merva!” Bart embraced her. She looked at me over his shoulder and hugged him back. They started settling in her stuff: two powder-puff dogs from the monastery in Tibet; two boxes of manuscripts; and her first two daughters, one black and one white. The younger children were temporarily parked at other venues in the city.
“This is Aurora,” Bart announced.
Merva took my hand and peered into my eyes until I had to blink. “You were right, Bart,” she said. “You married a beautiful woman––and you’ve found your muse.”
I said a cool hello and then got distracted by Merva’s girls who had grabbed the box of matches off the stove and were lighting them, dropping them on the floor, and stomping them out with their red and black sandaled feet.
“Stop that immediately!” I said, reaching for the matches, but they were too quick for me.
Jasmine had woken up and rushed onto the scene in her nightgown. “You better listen to my mom!” she said, glaring at the two interlopers.
They stuck out their chins, sizing her up. “Who says?” They ran up the stairs by the stove and out onto the roof, still holding the box of matches.
Jasmine ran up after them hollering, “Me! That’s who says!”
Bart and Merva were seated at the table now, looking at her portrait and engaged in conversation. Her teakettle was starting to steam on the back burner.
“These are hard times, Bart,” she said. “You’re lucky to find a woman like Aurora.” A pause, and then, “Do you keep her happy?”
While he was pondering this, she looked over at me and said, “Does he, Aurora?”
For a moment, an opening in my heart. Judgment suspended. “He tries,” I said. Her question made me feel that my happiness mattered—that it was a part of some universal poem. I stood stark still waiting for another question, but the conversation moved on without me.
“I like what you’re doing, Bart,” she said. “The way you handle the red in that middle area just takes my breath away.”
“It’s what the voices tell me,” he said earnestly.
“Yes! Keep doing it. You must always keep doing it.” She stroked his disorderly, bohemian hair, and Bart looked more relaxed than I’d ever seen him.
I tried to remember exactly what she’d said and how she’d touched his hair, but the dogs started yipping at me for attention.
“Oh, I think they want to shit,” Merva said.
I got them out on the roof before they did their diarrhea thing––a truly amazing performance. They whirled around in circles, tails flapping, shooting streams at each other until their white fur was blotched with black and brown.
The girls were hunkered down on the edge of the tar roof, lighting little bonfires and fanning them with paper towels.
“You girls give me those matches this instant!” I screamed. They looked at me innocently, showing me the empty box. Then they jumped up and ran back inside, followed by the dogs.
I stamped out the flames and wiped up most of the mess with the rest of the paper towels. Then I took a long, long breather. It was the middle of a warm Manhattan night. I scanned the sky for a sign of the moon, but it must have gone somewhere else. All I could see were block after block of wooden water tanks on top of old industrial buildings, now occupied by artists. Were they all like Bart, I wondered. And were their women shadows, too?
When I went back inside, Merva and the girls were fast asleep in my bed. Bart was dozing on the floor beside them, covered by Merva’s cloak. The dogs were snoring in a smelly heap under the table. Jasmine was sitting in my reading chair, quietly watching me.
“What in the hell is this?” I exploded at Bart.
He opened one eye. “Where are they going to sleep, otherwise?” he said.
He was gauging me with that one eye. I knew if I yelled again, he might open the other eye, prop his head on his arms, listen to me … But what would be the point if I didn’t really know what I wanted?
Jasmine and I spent the rest of the night in my chair, me dozing and waking up, and her sleeping tranquil as an angel in my arms. I had a scary dream about my mother whom I still hadn’t called. She was very young. It was before I was born. She was walking along the shore of a lake in her dress with blue geraniums. The dress was full and swayed as she walked, a tiny current. The sun was going down and her shadow stretched longer and longer along the beach until her real self was only a tiny speck with the blue geraniums bobbing crazily around it. She called me. Called my name. But I didn’t want to go where she was going.
After breakfast, I told Merva that she had to leave, along with the girls, the dogs, and the boxes. She seemed surprised at first. Annoyed. But then she looked at my picture on the floor, such a sorrowful green, leaning against Bart’s easel.
“I see,” she said.
Bart helped her gather up her stuff. He wanted to know if it was okay with me if he helped her get settled somewhere else. When I didn’t tell him no, he said he’d be back in a few days. Okay?
Before he left, he took Merva’s portrait off the easel and put mine back. He even added some browns and some deep olives, so that you could scarcely see me. I was only traces of lips, eyes, and hair.
Bart disappeared with Merva and the girls. I checked out daycare leads and cooked up sugary treats for Jasmine. Then one morning, before I had found daycare so I could go back to work, I was taking a shower when the phone rang. I let it ring. But it rang and rang until I figured I’d better answer. It was my sister-in-law, about my mother. My mother had drowned, she said. But it wasn’t an accident. It was a suicide. She had done it to herself in the Potomac, the Washington, D.C. river. Drowned.
Damn! I should have known.
The Potomac River.
My dad used to take us there when my brother and I were little—to Holgate’s Seafood Restaurant on the river. And Mom would ask him, “Ben, what river is this?” I remember he said that it was a notable river and Mom stood up and looked over the railing and wanted to know where it went. He shrugged. “Eternity. Somewhere else. Out to sea—like all rivers.” He was impatient with her, struggling the way he always did between annoyed and concerned.
He would get her a map, if that’s what she wanted. But right now, would she like to choose between shrimp and lobster? She couldn’t. He shook his head. His voice softened. Had she remembered to take her medication?
Mom turned to me, confused. “If you want, Mom, we can take a boat ride and see where the river goes…”
“No, sweetie. No. You don’t have to bother.” Her face was filled with light and so lovely that the men at the next table turned around and silently stared. And Dad said would she like the fillet of sole better? Anything. He got up and put a sweater around her shoulders. My brother said he would eat the lobster if Mom didn’t want it. I took Mom’s hand.
That’s all I could ever figure out to do—take her hand.
And now, drowned.
I put sheets over both paintings and closed my eyes while I was doing it so I couldn’t see them. This is what Jewish people do with mirrors when someone dies. I don’t know why I did it with the paintings. With mirrors, they say it’s about vanity, and how you shouldn’t be admiring yourself when someone dear to you has just passed. Or, they say that looking in the mirror is dangerous because your loved one could beckon to you, and you would follow them and be lost on the Other Side.
But these are not the reasons I covered the paintings, and the mirrors too. The reason is that I did not want to look at my own face and see my mother’s face behind it. I did not want to see how my own fate might follow hers.
“Mother!” I cried. “May you be bound up with the everlasting light, now and forever! Amen. But I’m not joining you anytime soon. Even though I love you. Amen!”
Jasmine helped me carry the paintings, still covered, outside to the street where I left them, propped up against the railings. We packed two suitcases, one for Jasmine and one for me, and called a taxi to the airport. We went to Washington and I took care of mother’s funeral. Then Jasmine and I left for California to stay with my brother and sister-in-law until I could establish myself.
A few days later, Bart called. He knew my brother’s number from before. Why weren’t we home, he wanted to know. Had anything happened?
I told him Mother had killed herself this time and I didn’t want it to happen to me.
He said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And where were his paintings?
I couldn’t help thinking about one of those trash barges, moving slowly down the East River and out to sea. I felt sad for all the abandoned things that weren’t going to be part of anyone’s life anymore.
“I don’t know where they are,” I said. “Maybe you should ask the voices.”
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