Painting by Amanda Thomas
HER NAME WAS A.
by Tegan Webb
A. was the only female present at the birth of Marilyn Monroe. With a motion akin to that of flicking a switch, she was able to take a girl whose initials were not yet M.M, but the much less feminine N.J.B, and transform her into all of her tomorrow’s hopes and dreams.
When I asked A. what M. had been like when she was Norma Jean, she paused.
“A brunette who was still all stick limbs and nimble fingers,” she said. “And she was scared. Quivering like a flaccid little hatchling. At first she thought she’d gone mad, hearing my voice in her head. But when she realised that I had no plans of letting that body go, she became my star pupil. She was much more receptive to my regime than you are.”
I know I am not her most dedicated student, but I try. And I even succeed, from time to time.
Issue #47 soundtrack: Alcoholic Faith Mission "Running With Insanity"
“She was the one who came the closest, of any of you, to keeping me in flesh forever,” A. says and sighs. She is constantly sighing, always wistful for ghosts.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell where I end and she begins. I’ll give you an example. Last summer I told her that I might like to write a crime novel.
“Books won’t get you laid,” A. said. But I was able to prove her wrong because a week later, I attended a book launch for some emerging novelist and ended up going home with one of the guests of honour. Hardly a grand gesture in the name of the written word, but I console myself in the fact that we spent the whole cab ride back to his place reciting lines of Walt Whitman in between kisses.
And this happens all the time. I start out by thinking that moment is all to do with me, because of the books. But it also has everything to do with her; she dictates the way I walk, with my back straight so that my curves stick out in all the right places, right down to how the tips of my hair brush the small of my back and curl naturally like soft, spun silk. I can guarantee that him crossing the length of that poorly lit bookstore to ask if I needed another drink had nothing to do with my love of homicide fiction.
Sometimes, if I am caught waiting at the train station, I write stories on the back of the free postcards you can get in the cafes and the design stores that pop up all over Melbourne like white daisies from the earth. I sit underground at Melbourne Central station, deep in the long root beneath the hustle and bustle, and pick a person leaving the train. And then I take out my pen from my pocket and I write a story about her or him.
Stacey Plaid-Overcoat wiped the tears from her eyes, her rims stained red from crying down the telephone, screaming at her boyfriend in the middle of William Street like the old woman that stood on the corner of Swanston and screeched passages from the bible. She thought she might go by the florist, to buy herself some dahlias; their bright, sunny faces would cheer her up. If only she had gone straight home, she might have lived to tell her boyfriend to go fuck himself.
Then I’ll leave the postcards on a train, or sometimes I mail them to the house I grew up in, where my parents and I lived before my father left. Nine Charles Street, Ringwood, 3134; the only address I know by heart. I wonder who lives there now, in the little weatherboard shack. It is modest enough when you’re standing outside looking in, but in those memories I was always inside looking out, each scene washed with nostalgic hues and lit up by our communal family happiness. It’s probably a lot smaller than I remember. I wonder if the people who live there now could feel the residual good cheer from countless birthdays, Christmases, Sunday roasts, or would they only feel the lingering trauma seeping from the walls? They say that if you have a ghost in your house, it is of someone who died as a result of foul play. Could they feel the ghost of our family unit lurking about the house?
What are you trying to do to me?” A. would say, exasperated. “You will never make it with thoughts like those. These are the kind of thoughts that drive people away. If you have to have them at all, keep them hidden in the pages of notebooks, between sheets of letters you’re never going to send, on the backs of postcards mailed to strangers who now live in a place you used to identify as home.”
There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home to go to now.
Under A.’s instruction, I don’t tell people when I meet them about my interest in crime novels -- in murder investigation reports, television documentaries, ghost sightings and haunted villages. I tell them about my trip to South America. I tell them what an enriching cultural experience it was, how I learnt so much about the rest of the world, and in turn, about myself, what kind of person I am. This is all true, of course, but as I sit and sip on my glass of Malbec, making comments on how much richer the wine tastes when you’re drinking it in Argentina, regaling them with memories of dinners that started at 11 p.m. and clubs that opened for business at 2 in the morning, all I want is to watch their faces. Some roll their eyes, some have their sour lemon faces on, reeking of bitter jealousy, but there are a few, the naïve baby boys who are still searching for that person to teach them about all that is good in the first world, that sit with their chins resting on their palms, lapping up every word that falls from my lips as if it were their mother’s milk. They are the ones that will come home with me, even though I am old enough to be their mother’s younger sister. I’m not old enough yet to be thinking about how the venom of a poisonous snake could save me from wrinkles, but old enough to start looking for referrals. I take them to the hotel where A. and I live, in the harlequin hotel that has held more artists within its walls than MoMA and the Louvre combined, artists that became morphine angels, amphetamine devils perched on their shoulders. The boys have wide eyes that try to take in everything at once, and the round O shape of their delighted mouths make my knees go weak.
I wouldn’t have any of this if it wasn’t for A. Without her I’m still an awkward, skinny teenager who doesn’t know what legs or lips are for; she knows where my limbs should go to create the most aesthetically pleasing angles, how to pout, when to bare my teeth. She says it’s how I’m going to get back in touch with my body. If it were up to me I’d just take a long bath with a good book and a cup of tea (or a glass of gin), but, as she likes to remind me from time to time, it’s my own fault for lighting the Goddess candles and wishing for things.
So, instead of reading, tonight I’m sitting in one of those ephemeral trend bars, the kind stumbled on by chance in empty alleyways and gone by the next weekend. I wonder as I sip my gin and tonic, if I stayed in here all night, would I be swallowed up into the black, star-spangled fabric of the universe? But there’s no one sitting on my table that looks like they know the answer, so instead I swirl the wedge of lime around my glass and launch into a story about the people who lived on Lake Titicaca -- not my usual choice pick up, but it had proven successful amongst these nomadic crowds.
“They build whole villages out of river reeds,” I insist, spurred on by the slack-jawed boy sitting opposite me, his eyes glazed slightly as they follow the contours of my lips moving. I pause and take a little time to taste the positive tension.
“And so, every ten years or so, whole islands have decayed, and they pack up and start from scratch in another part of the lake.”
“That’s very romantic,” says my slack-jawed admirer who, to my surprise, had actually been listening to the words my mouth had been making. I smile wide at him with A.’s encouragement.
“No, it’s not,” said another at the table. I have not been paying much attention to him because so far he hasn’t seemed all that interested. He has long brown curls and features that appear two sizes too small for his face.
“They move not because it seems like the fun thing to do, but because they have to, or they’ll drown,” he says. “There’s nothing romantic about necessity.”
“What about love?” I ask. I don’t feel like challenging this guy who is clearly refusing to be fooled by my roués, but I could feel A. bristle in the back of my skull. “It’s romantic, and necessary.”
“It’s trouble is what it is,” he said, chewing on his olive toothpick like a young Clint Eastwood. “Love has little to do with romance.”
Despite these comments, I decide that I like him the best out of the entire group, but A. thinks he is rude and poorly educated. I end up going home with slack-jawed boy, but I know for sure as we leave the bar that this night won’t lead anywhere new or exciting. Part of me wishes I could stay here all night, waiting to see where else it might take me.
The next day, as I’m leaving “Benjamin’s” apartment, I get a call from that same man, asking me if I’d let him take my picture.
“You’ve got one of those faces,” he says when I ask him why. “The kind that seems to shift between real, pink flesh and otherworldly, depending on the light. You have the cheekbones of a goddess.”
I am silent for a moment, the blood pounding from my ears against the plastic end of the receiver. “Maybe he can see you,” I think, panicked, but A. knows he means this in the most human way possible. “To him, all goddesses were nothing more than the most beautiful women a man could imagine,” she assures me. “There’s no way he could tell what I actually look like without a photograph.”
“I thought you didn’t like him.” I say.
“What?” says the voice down the telephone line.
“Oh, nothing. I’ll think about it,” I say, and hang up before he can reply.
“Nice one,” A. says, “I never said that. But he was just a grumpy nobody, before. Now he’s an artist, which makes him a lot more interesting.” I could feel her excitement building up near the base of my spine.
“He might be able to see me and you,” she says, “instead of just us.”
We decide to at least go and check out his studio. As I step out of the hotel and onto the street, I have a brief snap back into my teenage paranoia, in that for a moment, I am certain that this is all a plan for him to lure me into his basement, strangle me, and send me down the river wrapped in plastic (perhaps with flowers in my hair, a homage to Ophelia), but A. is having trouble controlling her curiosity (and libido). A. always pounces on photographers.
“They’re the ones most likely to find me in this big, feminine swirl of us,” she would say. “If the light is just right, it will reflect off the both of us so that on the film we exist as separate beings. A double image of a mind, body and soul.”
“Are you unhappy in my body?” I ask as we turn left off Elizabeth and onto Beckett. She waits, and I know she is deliberating on the best way to say she wants out without hurting my feelings too much.
“We can’t stay like this forever,” she says. “I’m not chalking up another Marilyn.”
I want to ask her about what really happened with Marilyn, but I know she won’t tell me so I keep my mouth shut. A. sighs. She’s always sighing like a pink wind at sunset.
“I’m restless,” she says, “I need you to understand the magnitude of my power. How dangerous it can be.”
“But I get it now,” I say. “I understand.” How could I not? I’d asked her to come, invited her into my body. But I knew what she meant, the part about being restless.
I look down at the address written on the back of my hand. It appears that the studio sits above a photocopy shop. I climb the stairs with tentative steps, trying not to think about Angela May, the girl who was found raped and murdered in 1989, by a photographer that did not have the good sense to escape with all his film. When the images of the crosses traced in blood on her wrists appeared in some of the papers, I cut them out and stuck them in my scrapbook. But that was before I lit the candles and prayed for beauty.
I knock on the door, twice.
“Lean against the door frame,” A. says. “Be casual, aloof. Aloof is sexy.” I try, but find it very difficult to remain aloof when filled with the anticipation of another being that bubbles away like pink champagne.
The door is made of solid wood, mahogany maybe, or something rich-looking like that, and when it finally opens the figure who stands in the doorway has his curls tied back and his spectacles resting on the end of his nose. They are thick-framed, but the heat has caused them to crack above the left lens. He looks me up and down, blinking, as if he is surprised that I actually showed up.
“Susannah?” he asks.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I reply, in a rough as gravel voice that could be mistaken for aloof, or a throat cold. He stares for a moment or two more, and the silence stretches out between us. Even A. doesn’t say a word.
“D.” he says finally, as if it is not his name, but just a letter he likes to say.
“C’mon in.” The tension lingers and then drops like dead weight outside the door. Perhaps I’m not as ‘otherworldly’ as he remembers, I think as I allow myself, us, to be ushered in to an almost empty living room space.
The ceilings are high, walls painted white, and long boards stretch out like sunbeams on a dance studio floor. No plants, no photographs on the walls, his or any others he admires. It all seems very empty to both of us, like the bones of a bleached skeleton laid out on a great wooden table.
D. walks in and stands by his camera, rubbing his chin and chewing on the left apex of his top lip. His head is bent over a small, crumpled shape in his hand -- a photograph.
“Is she with you?” he asks, not looking up. I stop in the middle of crossing the room and stand still atop a beam of sunlight.
“He sees me!” A. squeals, ear splitting in the back of my head. I pause.
“She is,” I say, deciding against playing dumb. By now there is an energy collecting deep inside me, I can feel it connecting the base of my spine to some other solid entity, the unfolding of a lotus flower. This must be what the joy of a goddess feels like.
“Go stand over by the window,” he says, and I walk over to the sill. I sit on the edge, unsure of where my body fits in this stark space.
“Cross your legs. No, separate your feet, but keep your knees together. Like a bow.” This is the first time A. has been the nervous one. I move my body with her direction, and the sound of a shutter snap echoes through the bones of the room.
“I knew it,” D cries. His eyes are wide. He cannot tear them from the view finder.
“Do you have any idea how many women I have had to photograph, trying to find you?”
“What?” I ask.
“How many?” A. asks through me.
“Thousands!” he says, “For years I thought you were hiding out in Twiggy, but now I know there’s no way her little body could have contained you. And after what happened with Marilyn...”
Don’t” I say, in her voice, “It’s too painful.”
He crosses the room to where I’m standing, touches my cheek with his left hand. My skin tingles in the places where our flesh connects. He is looking into my eyes, deeper in than the parts of my body that belong to me.
“When you’re photographed,” he says, “I can see beauty from every era in your face. You are a human kaleidoscope.”
“If that’s not a killer line, I don’t know what is,” says A. in her quiet voice that is only meant for me. I am holding my breath. I do not need her advice now to know what to do with those lips.
As I take his lips in mine, a lush wave of light washes over me, and I am trapped in the prism prison of his kiss. There is nothing to do but give into this surge of passion, to let that wave envelope our bodies and force closed the eyes of cameras, to remove the need for clothes and all other boundaries cemented in flesh. He pulls me onto his hips, and above us burns a swirl of colour I have caught a glimpse of only once before, in a dream; it has the tenacity of the Aurora Borealis. And we are all here, trapped in this moment of intense heat and colour, hands and arms and legs and lips and hair and teeth, three sets of each. I cannot tell where A. begins and I continue and D. ends. I am the mind. She is the body. We are the soul.
But before I reach the apex of my climax, there is a sudden crash, the sound of bones splintering, and our rhythmic undulation shifts into a sharp crunch of two tectonic plates meeting in the middle. I feel what was burning in my solar plexus thrust out of me, out from the centre of the flower. I shudder violently, until I’m sure that my body has transformed from solid to liquid and will soon melt into the earth, or take that last step and evaporate into the atmosphere.
I wake without realising I was ever asleep, to the sound of the garbage truck emptying recycling bins, bins filled with glass beer bottles and towers of photocopy paper. The sound of glass on glass reminds me of cascading water.
“Well, fuck me,” I say, waiting for a snigger or a sigh to erupt from the fog of my mind.
Silence. I look down at my hands; the nails on my two ring fingers have been torn, the left one so much so that it is bleeding. They look small, these hands, with bird-like bones, and my skin is pale, dusted with small blemishes.
“Nothing? You don’t even have something to say about the size of his cock?” I say, trying to provoke her.
Nothing. My heart swells up with the inevitable fact, and I notice immediately that there is more space in my body for it to fill.
A. is gone.
And so has he. The room is as empty as before, emptier even without A., and without D. I pull myself up onto my jelly legs and walk over to the camera; it’s still on, pointed at the open window. I fumble with the buttons but can’t get the last shot to come up.
The printed photograph he’d been clutching still lays discarded now at my feet.
It’s face down, and on the back someone has written in black ink:
Aphrodite and Susannah, 2012.
I knew I would see you again one day, my love, on the other side of Mt. Olympus.
With shaking hands I turn over the photograph, and see that it is from the night at the bar, he has taken it of me and the slack jawed boy. I think it is me, but I look small, dishevelled, my skin is pasty and sallow, my eyes sit too far back in be skull. I look uncomfortable, not confident.
But there is A.; her beauty startles me so much I have to gasp out loud. She is shudder of rainbow bright, translucent in the light but as vivid as ever. The soul of a goddess set free in the presence of mortals.
Tegan Webb is a fledgling writer working out of Melbourne, Australia. She is into Tori Amos, boys with beards, pretty girls from the early sixties, and wildlife conservation. Webb has been published in the Writing Disorder, Francesca Lia Block's Love Magick Anthology, and will be featured in Belletrist Coitre later this year.
Amanda Thomas does live painting throughout the Bay Area, and her art installation, Entrapolis, was displayed at Burning Man in 2010, and in Primus's Oddity Faire. View her online portfolio at amandathomasart.com.
Alcoholic Faith Mission was formed in February 2006 by two high school friends, Thorben and Sune. Together with Tom McFall (R.E.M., Weezer, Stars), AFM recorded their fourth album Ask Me This this past Fall. It will release from Old Flame Records on March 27, and following that, the band will tour Europe and North America in support of it.