Chapter Eleven — Metamorphosis
The men declared a need for beef. Big, big, beef. It started when Craig announced that he and Mina would prepare dinner. He was determined to grill. Beef.
The men were as enthusiastic as Eskimos on a seal hunt, so it seemed unsporting for me and Shelley to point out that we’d pretty much stopped eating red meat. That was Colleen’s influence; she was vocalized about toxins lurking in one’s cells causing death and damage to the skin. She claimed she could smell as well as recognize beef eaters. I was starting to think there were other forms of damage she should have paid attention to.
Craig says hindsight’s the only truly twenty-twenty vision. Oz was in agreement; the-living-forwards, understanding-backwards thing. I take it seriously. If I didn’t keep a diary how would I even know what’s happening to me?
Oz didn’t make it up. It was probably a quote; something borrowed, trailing provenance. Oz loved history, he was less excited about originality. The following unoriginal rule applies entirely to myself; I pledge to eat anything if only someone else will cook it.
Beef was another one of those things Spike turned out to be an expert on. Did you know there is a black market in restaurant-grade beef? Of course there is and it’s flourishing right here, (Jake says there is a black market for everything.) I went along, on the theory that writers should see all there is to see. As an artist I try to stand outside the capitalist frenzy – these people haven’t heard that by getting and spending they are laying waste their powers.
Court was dismissed early so that’s when the party started. Leaving the pursuing press in his dust (he has tricks aplenty) Spike drove us to a collection of storage lockers on a hill outside of town. Craig insisted on coming to check out the beef although as an “orifice of the court” – what he calls himself – he isn’t supposed to observe anything illegal. (He says it’s not up to him to figure out what’s illegal — that’s the prosecutor’s job. I thought he solved the problem neatly by concentrating on his silver flask. If at least one person is having fun, isn’t that the definition of a party?
Spike took an unbecoming glee in dumping the beef right on Craig’s lap, still in its black garbage bag serial killer wrapping. Craig lifted up the duct tape, peered inside. We all observed a pregnant hush as Spike asked,
“This is gorgeous,” said Craig, gathering the ripply red and white hunks to his bosom and staining the oxfordcloth beyond repair. Now he looked like a crime scene. Why is it men like that marbling on food and not on women? Life is so unfair. I suppose they need to be able to tell the difference between dinner and a date, even “three sheets to the wind.” As Oz would say.
The sellers looked Asian so God knows where this meat was from. Trevor paid them in hundred dollar bills.
Over Vermillion the sky was dark. The press had set up tents that the rising wind began to threaten.
I took a long hot shower in Skylar’s bathroom to flush away the indignities of the day while the men set up a grill on the back terrace, beneath the portico. I had survived the first day of what Craig called “the trial within a trial” and I needed to be alone, to think about what I had seen and fit it in with the rest of my knowledge.
Just when you think you understand something the Matrushka doll breaks apart, revealing hidden versions of itself. The suspended animation of waiting for the trial to be over meant I was living a life inside my life, just as my stepped-up relationship with Trevor was a relationship-inside a relationship. So how could I write anything new? It seemed to me the poems assembling in my head were chopped up versions of what I had seen.
Outside the shower I found a spiral of blood along my towel. My period wasn’t due, but I had noticed that my untrustworthy body had a habit of punishing my passing enthusiasms. Colleen used to say that her periods came whenever she traveled – that is when she used to get them – just to make life hard. You’d think a person feeling that would welcome menopause.
If my body was determined to squelch my sexual escapades I wouldn’t give it the chance, I was already feeling that delicious build-up to a promised night of sexual adventuring where one can do anything and be anybody; heart-pounding exercise followed by a deliciously new depth of sleep. Every touch on my body was inherently masturbatory. I looked different, being loved; had to tear myself away from looking at my naked self emerging in the steamy mirror. If Trevor had come upstairs for any reason I would have fallen on him like a wolverine.
I stuck my head in Shelley’s room to borrow a tampon; she saw my pinned-up hair and asked, “Are you dressing for dinner?”
“Of course,” I answered. Good idea! The best presents are the most exotically wrapped; we are willing to cut and bruise ourselves to open the inside. “Are you wearing your body-stocking dress?”
She sighed happily, “Jake hasn’t seen it.”
It’s a wonderful outfit, an Arabian Nights tale of a gown that seems to consist only of gold coins stuck randomly across her pale body.
I would have to work hard to be worthy of my sister, but I had a dress in mind; Colleen’s ruby-red velvet. As a child I was fascinated by the little looping chains across the arms that shimmered and fell whenever she moved. I recall reaching up my hands to touch them, Colleen laughing as she pulled away. She hadn’t worn that dress in years but I had seen it in her collection. I guess it was mine now.
Tampon in place, wearing only a towel, I ventured into the other side of the house. I always consider it the height of luck to find myself alone and I was lucky again this time; the others were preoccupied.
Searching for black stockings I found gorgeous lace underthings still sporting their LaPerla tags. I guess those were mine now, too. Could mere youth and will dispel the inherent creepiness?
When I saw my gorgeousness in black lace and garters even I was intimidated. Had she had bought these for Oz? Because I couldn’t imagine him buying them for her; alas. No man buys black lace and garters for his valet.
Thankfully I was clothed when Shelley came in search of me. I’m not sure I should even let Trevor see me thus transformed.
“Looking good,” she whistled, zipping me. The dress was so tight my breasts mashed upwards, giving me some unexpected cleavage.
“I remember this dress,” said Skylar. “God, Colleen was tiny.”
Was that why we liked and trusted her so much the day we first met. She was like an intermediate adult.
“I’m not tiny,” I snapped. It is the greatest sorrow of my life that I am so short. Look at Shelley in her stilettos, gracefully towering over everyone. If intensity of will could add inches, I would be so tall!
“You’re not tiny,” Shelley comforted. She’s so loyal. “You’re the biggest person here.”
“But what can I do with my hair?” I asked my sister.
“It looks perfect exactly the way it is,” said Shelley. “Let me put in a clip to hide the rubber band and we’ll pull more tendrils down.”
As she snapped in a rhinestone butterfly I studied myself in Colleen’s Empire mirror. Tendrils released by the hot steam fell around my face. I looked so different to myself, darker and more grown up, my eyes expanding into depthless pools. Was I inhabited now by both Trevor and Colleen or did they cancel each other out? There can be loving, as well as demonic possession. Oz used to say we belonged to him until we were old enough tom belong to ourselves. Had that time finally come and if so, what accomplished it? Sex? Orgasms? Murder trials?
As we descended the stairs we were rewarded by a chorus of gasps.
Jake said, “Wow.”
Spike sat down hard on a chair far too small — it struggled but held.
Craig, looking clownish in floral mitts and a matching apron, said, “My eyes. My heart. My arthritic loins.”
Trevor, dusty in the basement doorway, snapping the wine cellar key back on his watch chain, declaimed, “Rose Red and Snow White stepping out of a storybook to toy with our frail hearts.”
Mina, sweatily stuffing potatoes, said, “Good God, y’all. Am I going to have to get my French maid’s outfit?”
Jake said, “Please.”
“Well, too bad for you. I gave it back after Halloween.”
I, armpits stinking of Trėsor, attacked the job of setting the table. Colleen’s got lots of beautiful, beautiful things and I used all I could find. The Havilland china, the damascened chargers, the Baccarat crystal, the Georg Jensen silver with spoons like trowels, the pearl handled steak knives like little Moroccan daggers.
“Go for baroque,” Oz suggested. I guess it’s my nature to understand excess.
Shelley brought in candles and hurricane lamps as I laid out the dark green damask napkins edged with lace, napkins Colleen deplored because they needed dry cleaning. All the flowers in the vases were dead, but at least I could strew the table with their still-fragrant petals.
The red-walled room with its black cherry wood furniture was transformed into a cave of enchantment. I did consider hanging a sheet over the leering, disapproving portrait of Oz’s father, The Scary General. Looking at him explains why Oz seems to have spent the majority of his childhood on his knees; I never met He Who Must Be Obeyed, but even in his portrait his face bristles with rage.
In the end I left him alone; I thought it might do him good to observe the scene. Unless the afterlife evens up our deficiencies, resetting us to “start” so to speak, he was in dire need of softening up.
Outside it had started a depressing Virginia winter rain. Trevor appeared silently behind me, leaned down, kissed my neck and rubbed his cheek in the downy hairs of my nape.
“This is so good of you,” he said, and set himself to opening the wine. Trevor treasures family dinners.
I almost snapped, “I’m not doing it for you,” until I thought how rude that was, so I said nothing. I don’t like quid pro quos in sex and love and until now I’d planned to get along without them. His compliment meant I had to ask, why was I doing it? You almost escape, then they pull you back in. It’s a writer’s truism that nobody knows why they do anything. That’s why they need us.
Was this somehow symbolic of the dinner parties my mother attended and enlivened, the ones we heard about today? Did she watch me in my black stockings and ruby red velvet, and if so, what was she thinking? Maybe it was a coming out party for the maiden chosen by the eldest son, or a case of lighting-the-lights-and-banging-on-the-pots to scare away the dark and ghosts?
Speaking of ghosts, did you know living people can have them? Oz might be absent, but his presence vibrated strangely among us, his power increasingly erratic like a vanishing power source. Though I would never have confessed it, in some ways he felt deader than Colleen. Tonight we used the tools she chose; he had approved, loving history and quality, but surely these possessions belonged to the one who cleaned them and preserved them. As a result Oz, lost in the playgrounds of flesh and ideas, had melted away.
Or were the different stories I had heard about him this morning transforming him before my eyes? Would he ever come back, to dine with us in this room? Perhaps we celebrated now for the same reason people no longer delay sex until after marriage, because the longer you wait the sadder things get. In my experience you have to do things when you have the energy if you want them done at all.
I felt understood everything the moment Trevor put the first glass of blood-red wine in my hands and I drank. I understood everything. That’s why they call it “stun-gravy.” The revelation drink. It may be completely specious, but it sure feels authentic.
Mina had prepared a plain green salad, garlic bread and a recipe she likes to call “once, twice, three times a potato.” The miracle of that dinner was the beef, charred on the outside, raw on the inside, soft and buttery, delicious beyond compare. It made you want to eat it with your hands.
“I hope nobody has allergies,” Mina told us as she passed the potatoes. “There’s a little bit of everything in here.”
Oz and Colleen raised us tough, guaranteed to gag down our peck of dirt before we flew. Proud of being tough. Disapproving of finicky eaters, Oz forced on us kidneys, sweetbreads, brains and tripe. If he told the story about the meshwi at which he was given the honor of eat ing the dead sheep’s eyeball once he told it a hundred times. Surely there was no longer a germ we could catch. We thought ourselves invulnerable.
Looking in Colleen’s wine book I can see that night we drank three bottles of Domaine la Grange des Peres Rouge 2001 and three bottles of Domaine de Trevallon Rouge 2001. Both were judged “rude, rough and aggressive” by Craig whose signature is almost illegible; I made a note that I preferred the Trevallon.
Did we drink all that wine to soak up the beef or did we eat all the beef to soak up the wine? I used to be accused of bringing home “undesirables” when I invited fellow public school denizens to sample the contents of our refrigerator; watching Jake and Craig fighting over the meat juices I wondered if I had done it again.
Over the meal we discussed religion, of all things. Craig introduced the topic by shouting, “That fucking religion! I blame it for every bad thing happening to this country.”
“It’s not religion that’s the problem,” corrected Trevor, who never seemed to show the effects of alcohol, “It’s education. People can only think with the brain their education gives them.”
“It’s genetics,” said Jake. “You have to have a brain to think with.”
“Let me get this straight,” asked Mina. “You’re blaming Christianity for how the trial is going?”
“I am,” said Craig, drawing himself up and puffing out his reddened cheeks, “Face it, Mina. Christianity is a conspiracy of old women against the male libido.”
“Hear, hear,” said Jake.
“That’s so totally untrue,” Mina challenged him, and Trevor backed her up.
“Jesus was a man,” he pointed out.
“Not so you could tell,” grumbled Jake.
“All religions were invented by men to control women,” said Mina. “Name me a religion started by a woman.”
“Uh oh,” said Jake. “Feminazi alert.”
“Christian Science,” retorted Trevor.
“Yeah? And what’s the first word of that? Doesn’t count. It’s a modification of a pre-existing religion.”
“You can’t lump all religions together,” Trevor insisted. “It’s ignorant. It’s like talking about “all education”. There’s good education and bad education.”
I knew all about his thoughts on that.
“Or sex,” I said. “Because there’s good sex and bad sex.” Was that Trevor kicking me under the table?
“You think this jury is going to differentiate between good sex and bad sex?” asked Craig sourly.
“I thought you did a pretty good job setting up the parameters today,” Jake said, lifting his glass.
“You definitely exposed the weaknesses of their witnesses,” Trevor agreed.
“They don’t have a case,” snapped Craig. “Just wait till I get my hands on that family.”
I knew who he meant. My mother’s sisters.
“If only it mattered.” Craig collapsed, boo-hooing into his booze. “I feel like I’m trying this case in a foreign country. Asking them about their religion is a no-no and yet it’s going to control the outcome.”
“People don’t tell the truth about themselves anyhow,” said Mina. “I think the best we can hope for is a couple of closet gays. And maybe some of those women have kids that are gay.”
Craig snarled in disagreement. “This case isn’t going to turn on homosexuality; it’s going to turn on recreational sex, period. Did you hear that woman call him a “swinger”? Codeword! Who cares what happened in Tunisia fifteen years ago? Who cares what he did with his weekends? None of this has nothing to do with his stoned wife falling into the deep end of an empty swimming pool. I saw those women’s faces. They just want to punish him for jumping the fence.”
“The prick wants what it wants,” intoned Jake.
“I don’t think it’s the women we need to worry about,” said Mina. “Women are a lot more forgiving of sexual peccadilloes than men are.”
“Bullshit!” exploded Craig. “Men are naturally polygamous.”
“Not any more than they are naturally murderous,” argued good old Trevor. He’s s cute. “A commitment’s a commitment. Civilized people make them and keep them.”
He was going to make some lucky girl a fabulous husband someday. I knew I would never get one as good. I felt downright envious.
“Everybody knows its women who are the possessive, jealous sex,” Craig insisted.
“No, they’re not.” Mina seemed to enjoy arguing with her boss. “This whole marriage thing was invented by men and I can prove it.”
He gaped at her. “You’re on.” Slapped down a Benjamin.
Mina rattled her empty wine glass, calling for more. Spike sprang into action.
“Imagine a religion – an institutionalized religion — big, successful, millions of adherents — where ten guys share one woman. I dare you.”
God. She had us there. All were silenced. We couldn’t imagine it.
“Boo-ya,” said Spike. “Talk about mayhem.”
He made a ceremonial show of filling Mina’s wineglass. “Touché. Lady takes table.”
He’d been so quiet before, sitting in the outsider’s position, eating quietly just outside the circle of light. That’s the writer’s position. Where I should have been. Enviable ability to disappear into background, especially when you’re big like he is.
Mina scarfed up Craig’s Benjamin and inserted it where she should have had cleavage.
“So how do you think it’s going to go?” I asked Spike. Our man in Havana played it safe.
“No telling with juries,” said Spike.
There was a slow deflation of energy – like the expulsion of a sigh — across the table. This was still only the beginning. The next day hung over us, and the day after that. Not like television where you can change the channel.
“I don’t think I can stand it,” I said aloud.
Jake spoke for all of us. “Isn’t one of Dante’s circles of hell sitting in court day after day? What did we do to deserve this?”
Just beyond the candle glow, something ran across the Chinese rug. Shelley rocketed nervously to her feet.
“It’s just a chipmunk, Shelley,” I reassured her. The cats had taken to bringing in their prey and releasing them inside, prolonging their amusement. It might not have been a chipmunk at all, but I know chipmunks are something Shelley’s not afraid of.
“The poor thing,” mused Shelley, sitting back down. “Like trapped on a strange planet.”
If the wine was gone it must be time for coffee.
“Dessert?” I queried, hostess-like, knowing my dessert waited upstairs in the Bed of a Thousand Kisses, where Trevor would crouch above me, balls coiled like springs.
“Pass,” said Jake, rubbing his stomach. “I ate too much.”
“You didn’t eat that much,” I said to Trevor, who is always abstemious. “Want ice cream?”
“No, thank you,” said Trevor.
“There’s brandy,” Jake suggested.
Accepted by all but Trevor, who asked rhetorically, “Who appreciates food more, the glutton or the hunger artist?”
“Don’t pay him any mind,” Jake said, filling Craig’s glass, “Professional buzzkill.”
But I knew what he really meant. A special glance passed between us. Keeping himself in fighting trim for later. I put a hand over my brandy glass.
“You know what we need,” said Jake. “That Perry Mason moment. You know, you put someone on the stand and he says, “I did it!” No offense, Craig.”
“None taken,” Craig agreed glumly. “At this point I’d appreciate a miracle. I wouldn’t look in the horse’s mouth. Know who I really want to put on the stand? Colleen.”
“She probably doesn’t know who did it,” said Trevor. “She was stoned, remember?”
“She knows now,” I said excitedly. “Let’s ask her! Let’s have a séance!”
“That’s a terrific idea,” said Shelley. “I’ll get the Ouija board.”
“You don’t need an Ouija board for a séance”, said Mina. “We just ask her to manifest herself.”
“This is in the worst of taste,” objected Trevor.
“Hey,” I told him, “You’re the one who insists there’s an afterlife.”
“I’ll ask the questions,” said Craig. “I need to get a lot of things straight.”
“I’m going out for a cigar,” said Spike, and Trevor said, “I’m joining you,” until I grabbed his hand.
“Stay with me.”
He sat reluctantly back down.
“We should all hold hands,” I suggested. This made it less obvious that Trevor and I were holding hands. Mina moved into Spike’s chair and extended her fingers.
“Sorry,” she apologized to me. “My hands are always cold.”
She had little bony fingers like a monkey’s.
Jake said, “We should get something of Colleen’s.”
I said, “Everything was Colleen’s. Look at this table.”
“Something intimate. Personal.”
God. I was wearing the underwear she’d chosen. But how intimate can it be if it still has the tags on?
Shelley said, “Brontë is wearing Colleen’s dress.”
Jake gave me an unflattering look. “It looks completely different on you,” he said snidely in a once-a-squirt-always-a-squirt voice.
“Well then,” said Mina, “We’re ready to start. Everyone close your eyes.” She cleared her throat. “Colleen White-Hawke, we summon you from beyond the grave.”
The things you don’t know about people! I would never have figured Mina for a medium.
For a long space of time I listened, sorting out the different sounds. Craig’s wheezing breath, Jake breathing through his “perfect” nose, broken once by Trevor and again by a Bulgarian fencer, re-built by experts. Trevor began stroking the palm of my hand with his middle finger. It occurred to me that spiritualism is a religion invented by a woman. So there.
“Colleen, we feel your presence,” whispered Mina. “Speak to us. Let us know who caused your death.”
Through the slits in my eyelids I could see pools of wax overrun the flower petals like lava. Was that a foot touching mine? Bare foot out of a shoe? Couldn’t be Trevor; he wore lace-ups. There was a long silence, then a thump as something hard hit the table. Shelley screamed and her chair turned over. We all pushed back and Trevor hit the lights. But it was only Colleen’s Persian, licking up meat juices. There’d been a kill so he thought himself invited.
Spike came running in, a cigar in one hand and a 45 in the other.
“You can’t shoot ghosts, Spike,” said Mina.
“Or cats,” I said.
“There are no ghosts,” said Spike, but Craig quoted,
“Yet as the old lady said, I’ve never met a person who wasn’t haunted.”
“Get out of here!” Jake shook his napkin at the cat, who absolutely ignored him.
“Colleen says let him have the rest of it,” I said, putting the tray on the floor.
“That’s it,” proclaimed Trevor. “I’ve out of here. Totally bushed.”
There was general agreement that the party was over. Shelley and Jake looked at each other longingly, and I saw the benefit in avoiding Trevor’s bathroom. Why witness my sister canoodling with Brownie, the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome poster child? Upstairs in the Honeymoon Suite Trevor wrestled me impatiently out of my dress.
“I’d say this is one size too small,” he said. “At least.”
I’ve got news for him; girls don’t like hearing this. It was true I’d eaten too much at dinner and was probably puffy from my period. When finally I fought free of the damn dress I rose up to my full height (such as it is) and said, “Ta da!”
My erotic display fell flat. Trevor turned away.
“Take them off.”
Was this the “buyer’s remorse” I’d heard of? Indio would have killed to see me in this outfit. He was always very critical of my patched Lady Jockeys.
“What’s the matter? Aren’t I perfect anymore?”
“Don’t gild a lily until it stinks,” he said, undressing himself. Still turned away from me. “You were born perfect. That’s not the issue.”
“What’s the issue?” I joined him in nakedness on the bed. He lifted one shoulder to embrace me, smiling. He began kissing me all over my face, light butterfly kisses.
“You and I are beyond fetishes, beyond mementoes,” he said. “Don’t you see? I’m a man with a plan, put upon this earth to make sure you become yourself, and don’t get derailed onto someone else’s template.”
Still I felt somewhat cranky and offended. Was he really saying I couldn’t grow up and change his idea of me? I know I was gorgeous in that lace, so gorgeous you would not believe.
“Georgetown is going to accept the real me?” I queried in a spoiled child way. “They’re not going to force me into their template?”
He rolled me over, pulled back and looked down at me with pride. Pride and love.
“I’ll be there to make sure they don’t,” he said. “Admit it’s possible that I know you better than you know yourself.”
“It’s impossible,” I objected. “By definition.”
“Why can’t you trust me?”
Why couldn’t I? I had to give him that one.
“I do trust you.”
“Well,” he said, smiling, “I trust me, too.”
Softening me up. I’m beginning to see why men will do anything for sex. If you know you’re going to get an orgasm like the eruption of Krakatoa out of it, it becomes a whole different deal.
He certainly was the best kisser in the Western hemisphere, playing with my mouth, my lips, my tongue, with his own soft lips. Yet I hesitated to let myself go. What was wrong with me? I know lovers don’t need to agree about everything just to have sex. But I felt some need to badger him. Maybe it’s the power equation. You know. That brother-sister thing.
“Maybe when we summoned Colleen, we got her,” I teased. “Do you think Colleen’s soul went into her Persian?”
He interrupted his palpating and savoring long enough to say, ‘How can a person go to church for fifteen years, be baptized and even confirmed, and remain so theologically naïve?”
“Maybe I wasn’t paying attention.”
“I’ll say you weren’t. I had to personally wipe the drool off your face countless times.”
I loved it when he talked about my childhood. It lived on in him; I could enjoy it without the obligation (and the pain) of reliving it. All pleasure. No powerlessness.
“There’s no reincarnation,” he lectured patiently. “There’s no transmigration or transmutation of souls. Cats don’t even have souls.”
“So Colleen’s in heaven?”
“Sleeping till judgment day, presumably,” he said. “Not up to us. Fortunately.”
“I think your religion is just impossible,” I argued. “When you get to heaven and see the cats are in charge, won’t you be surprised.”
“I’ll be very surprised,” said Trevor, gnawing on my hipbone.
“And then she’ll be judged? We’ll all be judged? Oz too?”
“Oz too.” He licked my inner thigh. “Thank God for mercy, eh?”
He had reached my crotch. I had forgotten about my tampon.
“Oops,” I said. “Sorry.”
Delicately he removed it with his teeth.
“Oh Cherry Vanilla,” he sighed, “You know I love all your flavors.”
Even through shuddering blasts of pleasure I recognized truth when I heard it. He’d been licking clean my cuts as long as I could remember.