Everything affects me now. Smoke from a diesel bus. A lady’s perfume. Grease clinging to the air outside the chip shop. Mornings, nothing stays down except plain crackers. They stick to the roof of my mouth, build layers on my back teeth. My tongue digs out the remains, feels the sharp point of a broken filling.
The mirrored face staring back at me, pale, shows tinges of green. My breasts are getting bigger and they ache, making me ever aware of their presence. It is the second day of February. A month and a day have passed since I entered the U.K. and I haven’t had a period in five weeks.
“Only five weeks?” the nurse at the clinic said yesterday. “My dear, give it time.”
I wanted to trust her hopefulness, but a body knows. It’s like I’m watching a movie, can predict the unfolding plot—so easy to know what comes next; such a poorly written script—but the protagonist is not me. In a darkened room, I watch each scene play out.
Down the steps to the left, past the college, the chip shop, and the street where the famous Goth singer lives, at the end of the walled garden, begins the street that leads to the chemist. I hand him a paper bag. Inside is a plastic cup, tightly covered, containing my first morning’s urine.
“You won’t commit suicide if it’s positive, now, will you love?” A nervous chuckle for a serious question. He waits for my answer.
“No,” I finally manage.
“About five minutes then,” he says and heads to the back.
The floorboards creak as I walk around. I avoid the glass-bottled colognes, read ingredients on a shampoo label, take shallow breaths through my mouth to avoid the room’s overabundant smells. The chemist meets me at the soap counter and hands over a prescription slip detailing the results.
“It’s positive, love. Now go see a doctor straight away.”
He is concerned, gentle. Perhaps more so than he is judgmental.
“Thank you,” I try to say. It comes as barely a whisper.
Outside it’s unseasonably warm. Cracked paving stones rock under my weight like seesaws. The off-license is having a sale on Foster’s. I pass the chip shop again, wishing I could eat a chicken pie or piece of haddock. I pass the South Ealing Tube station. Pass the brownstone where I’m renting a room that belonged to an American girl who didn’t make it home for Christmas because her jet exploded above Lockerbie. Further down, a bank of windows thick with posters is sprayed with graffitti announcing, “Coming Soon: The Proverbial It.”
When we arrived last month there was a Miró retrospective at Whitechapel Art Museum the boyfriend wanted to see. Already everything was “brilliant” to him. His questions ended on an upward lilt. He said “ta” walking out of the off-license. I’d lived here last year, and it “wrecked” him that I knew my way around, that people assumed I was British. Striped tights, short skirts, calf-high Doc Martens are all it takes, apparently.
I should have been at the exchange office that day, filing paperwork so I could work in country for the next six months, but I agreed to the museum trip without much fuss. On the Tube ride, I stood in the aisle and held onto the metal bars. I let my knees buckle and my arms carry the weight of me, kicked a leg in the boyfriend’s direction, received a glare in response. Inside the museum I grabbed an exhibition pamphlet for us to share. The boyfriend took one of his own, walked the exhibit backwards. I’d like to tell you this wasn’t like him, that he was just in a mood, that things would get better.
Miró’s marks were confident and sure yet playful, a combination of chance and skill. Black squiggles called to mind elongated sperm. In one painting, a huge red oval connected to other shapes with pointed lines, tightropes in a geometric circus. Circles of color floated in a vast white space.
Before I reached the show’s final room, the boyfriend marched over and said his piece. He needed space. He wanted to experience London on his own. He craved adventure. I didn’t have it in me to argue.
I can’t bring myself to read the slip of paper from the chemist as I begin the usual route to work. I feel in a trance. My legs have been replaced by unwieldy weights. The pain in my middle threatens to erase me with its overpowering clutch. It squeezes, releases. Squeeze. Release. A rhythmic punishment fitting for the crime. My hand reacts on its own, clutching and pressing until the pain is gone. I remember no greens in Miró’s paintings, though certainly they must be there. What painter avoids an entire hue? I will return to the Whitechapel exhibit, see for myself, or find a library book with full color plates. I need to know.
My haze loosens as I reach the pedestrian tunnel across from the Beecham compound, above which a giant billboard bottle tips neon Lucasade into a waiting glass. I get through the day filing and lingering at the photocopier. At the designated hour I join my coworkers for tea and milk popped out of a vending machine into a tiny paper cup that nearly disintegrates from the liquid’s heat. I take a trip downstairs to the company shop and purchase products from across the Beecham conglomerate—crisps, deodorant, candy bars, soap. Then I walk upstairs and ask my boss for the next day off. I will sit in a waiting room filled with Pakistanis and Jamaicans, among the false cheer of pastel walls. Tucked among magazines shouting the latest Royals scandal, pamphlets will warn of heart disease and diabetes, stress the importance of clean teeth. I’ll schedule the procedure, take more time off. My boss won’t mind; he adores me. Says I’ve shown him why America has overtaken Britain in the rule of the world: I get more done in three hours than the rest of his staff does all week.
When Joan Miró was twenty-five a Barcelona gallery owner gave him his first solo show. Miró had returned to his art studies six years prior after suffering a nervous breakdown, presumably brought on by the fact that he’d abandoned art in favor of business and had been toiling as a store clerk for two years.
At twenty-eight, Miró settled in Paris. He met Picasso, was befriended by Andre Breton, and turned his work toward surrealism. The surrealists combined memory with the irrational, attempting to coax their literature and their art from their unconscious minds. But it’s said Miró was an outsider to the core group of Breton, Masson, and Ernst. Maybe his pants were pressed too neatly, or his speech too slow and reserved, though probably not for he was known to use vicious words to describe what he was trying to do, through his own work, to the art of the day: rape it, murder it. His goal was to defile delicate notions of art, push boundaries. So there was more than a bit of rebel inside that reliable man—the part he’d tried to stuff inside himself in order to maintain his place as a clerk, only to realize, as we all do sooner or later, that one cannot contain the soul or defy the true self. At least not without grave consequences.
They use general anesthesia for the procedure, I’m told. Made me talk to a social worker first. They didn’t send me home, and only for that was I grateful. I’d had to threaten leaving the country to have it done—to fly back to the U.S. or over to France—before the counselor believed me that I didn’t want kids, and would avoid having one at any price. She wasn’t concerned about the potential child. She worried, was paid to worry, about my mental health. When I woke up after surgery, what might I do?
On the morning I check into hospital (no preposition, very British, the way Americans say “church” or “school”—an institution, not a place), the doctor expresses concern for my health because the dark circles under my eyes speak to him of disease, not of sleepless nights or anxious walks through abandoned Ealing streets.
He has a cheery disposition that sets me on edge. Like everyone else in London, he calls me “love.”
“And how are you today, love,” he says.
“Okay,” I say.
“Ah, you’re American,” he replies. “Please lift up your nightdress.”
I do it.
“There we are. Okay. Now knees up, let your legs drop to the sides.”
I do as I’m told.
“And what part of the States are you from,” he asks, then shoves his gloveless fist inside of me.
“Boston,” I say through cringed teeth.
“Oh yes, I love the United States. Does this hurt?” He runs his sentences together.
A tight cry is all I can manage.
“All right, then.” He pulls his hand out and wipes it on the towel hanging over his shoulder, then tilts his face to look at mine and smiles. “I went to Disney World last year for two weeks. Terrific fun. I do love the States. You can close your legs now.”
As I sit up, the nurse wheels over a portable basin like a dessert cart, and the doctor turns to it to wash up. The room is lined with women, five on each side of the room. Between us hang flimsy tan curtains, but nothing blocks my view of the woman directly across from me. We lock eyes, then turn away.
“Someone will be here to give you a shot soon. We’ll see you when you’re finished, love.”
My throat feels thick and I fear I might vomit. I hear the doctor behind the curtain to my left: “And how are you today, love?”
My eyes sting as I let the tears come for the first time.
The anesthesiologist does not arrive right away, so I am left alone with my thoughts. I haven’t talked to the boyfriend since that day at the museum. Perhaps I should have let him know my plan of action. But what would be the point? I spotted him at the Queen Vic the other night, leaning close to a redhead, flirting, talking in his hesitant way that turns girls on. He has simply redrawn his life here, erasing me altogether, because in his portraits it doesn’t much matter who stands next to him, just so long as he’s not alone.
“Count with me, love: ten, nine, eight…”
Out of the darkness something floats by. Is it flying? It’s a girl, young, with a featureless face, but I can tell she’s looking at me, at my eyes, at my belly. She might be talking. The air is greasy, misty, the air that is London.
We traveled a long distance to get here, during a time of strife, when unnamed men want to kill us for an unnamed reason. They say it’s because of God. But isn’t everything because of God? I lie on this table because I am how God made me. Cowardly. Selfish.
The woman in the next room screams; then, a gurgle. The men are hurting us.
Air tight in the cabin of the airplane. Cold, we need blankets. Ears plugged, we sleep. The girl in the Lockerbie jet left behind a tiny stuffed bear. Not from childhood. It was new. From a boy, maybe, someone she’d met here. Maybe they’d fucked in her bed, quietly so as not to disturb the family she was living with. Sneaking him out afterwards, running into the young daughter on the way. Swearing her to secrecy, laughing outside the brownstone with her lover, smoking a cigarette, tasting the tar, the nicotine, the sting in the back of her throat that said I’m alive. Strapped to her seat, was she? A shoe with a foot still inside settled into the scrub of a lonely hill.
I didn’t ask for this but I didn’t try to keep it from happening. A sprout floats above me, but it exhibits no anger. It might be smiling, if sprouts have mouths.
Someone shakes me. Speaks.
My thoughts are striped. Black, red, cobalt, yellow, but still no green. They turn into shapes. A squiggle, a starfish, a balloon lady floating, dancing, smiling. Happiness. Honor. Contentment. Aren’t they the most revolutionary ideas around?
Joan Miró would have picked me up at the hospital. He would have taken care of me, made me tea. He was said to be a man of honor in addition to reliable and neat. Traits you’d think would make him excel as a clerk, which goes to show that a person’s innate strengths do not necessarily dictate what’s in his heart.
But I am alone here, trying to control another hot wave of blood from seeping out of me. My knees buckle and I clutch the metal bed frame to steady myself. I look at the floor and see a thick crimson splotch that had unexpectedly gushed when I first climbed out of bed. I grab a maxipad from the stainless side table, find my underwear in the pile of clothes on the guest chair. Unclenching my legs I hang onto the bed frame with my left hand, while with my right I bend and bring the underwear down to slip one foot through. Another stream of clumpy red. I feel dizzy. Quickly but unsteadily I step through with the other foot and resqueeze my legs. I remove the peel-away strip on the pad, stick the adhesive to the underwear, and pull the whole thing up just in time to catch the next wave of blood.
A handful of tissues could clean up the mess I’ve made but I can’t find any. I grab another maxipad, wipe my inner thigh, then lean over to clean the top of my foot and the circle of blood on the floor. The red of it is brighter than what I’m used to seeing come out of me, and the shape, round but with orbiting splatters, oozes into the linoleum’s own speckles. With the floor as canvas, my eyes seek pictorial harmony, the splotch of blood, a bit off center, balanced by a scratch I notice suddenly, up and to the right. My eyes draw imaginary lines connecting spots, like the wooden game I played as a child sliding skinny sticks into punctured wheels to make cities, monsters, vehicles.
The floor is mesmerizing. Beautiful. But I hear the chirp of the nurse’s shoes so must wipe clean the floor, and hurry. She had said if I was still bleeding I had to stay overnight. And though she had certainly looked between my legs while I was in bed—unceremoniously pushing apart my thighs like the branches of a tree in her way—gravity was on my side. Since she hadn’t stayed to help me up, she would never know I had bled at all.
I remain home in bed for two days and on Thursday receive word that the woman I’d been filling in for has come back to work. My temp assignment is put on hold, though my boss is requisitioning to extend my contract. For now I’m free. I wander through Ealing, spend a day feeding birds at St. James Park, watch “Only Fools and Horses” with my host family. Sunday I go to Speaker’s Corner for the soapboxing, walk the stalls of Camden Market. Nothing is appealing, and the need to escape overwhelms me, so I book a ticket. A bus, a hovercraft, a train: Paris.
A man, tall and angular, attaches himself to me immediately as I step off the train, walks me toward my hotel. A threat? I don’t think so. He has a simple proposition. He’ll meet me later at a specified table in a specified square. I decline. He says he’ll be there just in case I change my mind. What does my face tell him I need? Sex is the offer. Companionship the lure. In my jeans, pressed tightly to my crotch, a maxipad captures the remains of my procedure. Intercourse is out of the question. It has been over a week. If I were still bleeding by now I was supposed to return to the hospital. Instead I stocked up on pads. I’d not worn one since I was sixteen and discovered the freedom of tampons, and the bulk of them now, day in day out, is unwelcome.
The Louvre, I find out, is closed for renovations, so I walk among the fountains and glass buildings, see a boy I know from my hometown, pick him out of the teeming crowd. I long for conversation with anyone who knows where I come from, but I cannot bring myself to approach him. I walk the Champs Elysees alone, city lights shining into the dark night. Drink wine, eat Italian food. My petite room overlooks the river. The bathroom is down the hall.
This city is one of romance, of lights, with roundabouts and bridges, water flowing in, around. People up late. Up early. Imagine the thinking going on right this minute. The eating and drinking. La baise.
In the night, I sense a presence. My room has grown cool, the unshuttered windows welcoming the city breeze. A genderless balloon figure hovers before me. It resembles a giant worm, has no facial features, no mouth—no orifices at all that I can see—and yet it speaks. Not with language, maybe not even with sound. Later I’ll wonder, did I hear a thing? But it communicates its message—Be outside tomorrow at 6 a.m.
How mundane, I think. That’s all it has to say? Although I utter no words, it responds as if I have.
What more should I express to the woman who refused me entry to this world?
With that, the figure floats out the window, bouncing lightly off the sill, glides south toward Notre Dame. I watch it recede into the distance until it becomes no more than a fleck of paint in the soft sky. Just below my ribcage, a tiny seed is sprouting. Out with the fetus, in with dishonor.
I walk down the hallway to the inn’s shared bathroom, past moans of pleasure and slight pain emanating from behind closed doors. I rush into the bathroom and run the water at its highest pressure to drown out the noise. Never again. Who needs it? Aren’t we more than what our biology commands?
Andre Breton plays cards with a naked woman. Female sexuality was to be honored, he said. Encouraged, he said. The Marquis de Sade as hero. Did anyone ask the women what they wanted? And what was that anyway? A hard maleness to fill their soft femininity? To stroke the pale skin of theory? Did they equate fucking with love, like the middle school sex-ed teachers warned us we would? Boys will use you; you will think they love you.
Cool water on my face, through my hair. I look: I am no longer bleeding, but I dare not remove the pad.
Was I wrong? Should I have allowed the balloon to grow? Cherished the figure it would become?
I turn off the water, open the door, move into the hall. A girl, young, with tousled hair and wearing a man’s dress shirt that hangs nearly to her knees, smiles and side-steps past me into the toilet, the lock slides into place, into my heart.
Miró is waiting outside for me the next morning.
“Bon matin,” he says, then takes my hand. We walk together to the local patisserie where we linger over croissants and café au lait. He’s shorter than I’d expected, but brightly colored as I’d hoped. At the Musée du Picasso he pulls me to his favorite pieces. He grows excited, demonstrative, tells me about the first time he visited Paris and met Picasso, the profound effect it had on his life. He talks easily, openly, mixing French and English, occasionally slipping into Spanish, and I understand it all.
Later, on a boat tour up the Seine, he leans close, like a friend or a brother. He’s talking about his painting process, how he drags wet brushes through his sketch pad, how the paint abandons the horsehair strands, transfers itself to the paper’s fibers. The paint is alive somehow, speaking to him, and he has learned to wait, remain still, until he hears their voices—black, he says, you’d expect to sound ferocious; instead it is forceful but kind. The best type of leader, which is why the other colors respect him. Red sings opera—“a bit over the top, truth be told”—but his smile and the playful way he says this indicate his love for her. Blue’s voice changes, sometimes male, sometimes female, as if of two minds, or perhaps a set of twins. Blanco, his gran amigo, speaks only in whispers but has been known to shout down other hues if they become unruly. He pulls a small pad of paper and a charcoal crayon from his breast pocket, the way another man might remove a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Absently, like a habit, he opens the pad and begins to draw without looking.
Miró’s hands are white, freakishly so, as if he’d dipped them in a pail of titanium oil paint. His nails shine translucent, and I trace their uneven tops with my eyes, wanting to touch them but unable to move. His smile is gentle and patient. I look down at my own hands, the lines of dirt below my nails. Have I been clawing in the mud?
The Seine does not smell good. I long for yeasty smells, croissants. Instead I am surrounded by diesel from the boat’s motor, the smoke from another passenger’s hand-rolled cigarette. I want meadows, freshly mown grass, the scent of the middle of nowhere, where nothing happens and no one dies and everything is unsoiled.
I want what doesn’t exist. In the middle of nowhere, animals fight to the death. Carnivores seek prey. Humans till the earth with oil-spewing machines. Everyone leaves behind waste. There is no place of clean smell. No place without odor. The painter’s studio reeks of solvents, pieces of his brain corroded by the tools he must use to express himself. He cannot light a match inside for fear of blowing the place wide open. Yet he persists. He must persist.
As the boat curves toward the Eiffel Tower, a bank of clouds in the distance looks like a mountain range, tricks me into believing I am somewhere else. I feel a strong desire to confess, ask Miró to forgive me for whatever it is I did wrong, but before I can speak he turns to me, shows off the sketch he’s just made. At first a mess of black and white, a jumble of line and shapes develops, an image appears: a fleshy worm, partially dried on a sidewalk, breaks apart from its shriveled half and heads for the dewy grass to save the rest of itself.
I look up at Miró, now smiling down from the sky.