ISSUE #79 GUEST EDITOR Erika Swyler is a Brooklyn-based author, illustrator, and jack of all trades, who was previously featured as Storychord Issue 11's writer. Her debut novel, THE BOOK OF SPECULATION, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press (2015), and her comic writing is in the upcoming anthology COLONIAL COMICS (Fulcrum, 2014). More info and terrible blogging can be found at erikaswyler.tumblr.com.
STILL LIFE WITH TAMPON
by Mary Cool
On the first day of your period the manuscript is due, and on the last day of your period, it’s late by a week. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that every time you try to throw your final tampon in the garbage, you come out of the shower or kitchen or laundry fifteen minutes later to find it haunting your desk. Usually, it hooks itself over your computer keyboard or dangles from the cracked vase on your bookshelf, but, very often, it drapes itself over the only possession in your life that still gives you pleasure—a framed print of a Chardin still life with peaches. But no matter where it perches, the tampon’s bedraggled string always twitches in your direction, a thin, blotchy tonsure of blood on its tip, as if a 19th-century heroine with consumption has politely coughed onto it.
Issue #79 soundtrack: Scott Barkan "Flightless Bird"
You decide that it’s mocking you—why else would it show up at the moment of your imminent defeat? You hurl it out the window into traffic. You spray it with Raid. You even try grinding it in the garbage disposal. It never fights back. But always, when your fingers have once again failed to wrestle any words from the keyboard, you stomp away from your desk, only to find the tampon snuffling around your feet—scrunched up, with its string tucked underneath itself like a scolded pet.
Perhaps then you realize that your tampon doesn’t mean you any harm, really. In fact, it sort of seems to understand your situation—which it should, given the threatening voicemails you get daily. For example, your mother—who is your mother second and Columbia’s foremost literary critic first—calls to remind you how vital it is to get a critical essay published, and soon, so you can move up from your miserable adjuncting life at Brooklyn College. You hear in her voice how badly you’re failing in her eyes, and how desperately she wants you to give up your misguided dream and realize that you are a 30-year-old literary PhD from Brown—not a painter.
“Picasso completed formal training by fifteen—you just can’t make up that kind of time,” she told you last year as you painted feverishly between classes. According to your art teachers, she was right. She needn’t worry about you anymore—you’ve locked up all your paintings for posterity in the tiny second bedroom you used to call your studio, and the key is safely locked in a drawer under your keyboard.
However, add to these the messages from your mother’s beleaguered editor, Debra (who has been browbeaten into making sure you get published), and the ones from the Adjunct Coordinator at BC (who keeps demanding confirmation of your soul-crushing fall teaching schedule), and you have the perfect recipe for moments of sublime self-hatred.
Your tampon, however, seems not at all intimidated by these voicemails—it simply hops up onto the phone and discreetly taps the delete button. Even on those days when you decide to neglect your manuscript in favor of watching Monster House re-runs, the tampon does not abandon you. Instead, it sits on your shoulder and gently tickles the back of your neck with its string. It seems to want the best for you, to be a faithful companion.
For the first time in your life, you have the feeling of being watched over, and although this doesn’t improve your writing much, it’s hard not to like. After all, you were the latchkey kid of an ambitious single Mom—the kind who kept her desk well stocked with books and paper and her favorite feather quill pens, but forgot to fill the pantry or drop off the laundry. You haven’t done much to improve your lifestyle since then, but the tampon campaigns for change. It sneaks online at night and orders from Fresh Direct. It leaves out simple recipes for you to discover. It even folds paper napkins into pleasing animal shapes for dinner service. You begin eating actual meals instead of Trader Joe’s peanut butter and trail mix.
Next, the tampon engages in a cleaning spree. It wraps itself in moist towlettes and wipes off dirty countertops and window sills and fixtures—it even dislodges the crumbs from your keyboard. You no longer feel like you need a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere you go. Things start to shine even—doorknobs and drawer handles and tiles positively sparkle. It’s as if some haze that you hadn’t noticed is starting to lift.
One day you find the tampon on the floor of the hall, peering through the crack under the door to your sealed-off studio.
“Get away from there!” you shout, and the tampon jumps three inches in the air. “Don’t ever go in there,” you say, with the most threatening look you can muster. “Ever.”
The tampon shrinks away from your glare—it clearly doesn’t want to upset you—but it also takes on a suspicious air and turns perhaps the slightest bit injured-looking. As if it might have feelings and concerns—maybe even expectations—apart from your happiness. It flicks its string urgently at the doorway, as if to say, What are you hiding in there?
“It’s none of your business,” you say. “I just don’t want anyone in there, okay? End of story.”
Its disappointed look unnerves you. You realize that it does expect something—it sincerely wants you to tell it everything about yourself. This fills you with resentment and righteous indignation—the tampon was the one that invited itself into your life, after all. You never asked for its concern, its loyalty.
“Don’t tell me I’m failing to live up to the standards of Tampax now, too?”
You stomp to your desk, pull a whiskey bottle from the bottom drawer, and start swigging. No one has the right to make you feel like a loser other than you—especially not your tampon. The tampon follows you, jumps up on your desk, and leans toward you, placatory.
“Whatever,” you say. “I’m a failure, and nothing you can do will change that.”
You wave your hand toward the bookshelf near your desk, where the spines of your mother’s books accordion across the shelf. One of the dust jackets juts out so you can see your mother’s picture on the back. She has always looked and sounded like a young, elegant Katharine Hepburn, while you are a goofy-looking, floppy-haired Ellen DeGeneres.
“I’ve got nothing,” you say. “Nothing published, and not even a decent word in my so-called manuscript—just garbage.”
The tampon waves its string at you in a blame-dismissing manner, then points at itself. It’s not you, it’s me. Which you personally rate as one of the most bogus lines known to humankind.
“I’ll bet,” you say, and lean back in your chair. “Well, if it’s not about me, then why don’t you tell me what you’re doing here? What do you want?”
The tampon tries not to answer you at first. It wraps itself in its string, hesitant and rather embarrassed. I’d rather not go into it.
“C’mon,” you say. “It’s not fair that you get to keep secrets and I don’t.”
After a few moments of consideration, it gives a reluctant nod of agreement, then hops down from the desk and scampers toward another bookshelf—the one with the few art books you haven’t abandoned to the trash or shut away. It stops near one oversized volume and gently taps its spine.
You pull out Paintings of the Italian Renaissance, and the tampon directs your attention to a plate of Raphael’s "The Parnassus." Apollo with his poets and Muses. The tampon circles the Muses with its string.
It occurs to you what the tampon is saying. You turn to stare, your mouth open, while it maintains its faithful—almost pious—pose in the presence of the image. You take in the fullness of its red-spotted tip, its yellowed fuzz, and burst out laughing. When you finally manage to get a hold of yourself, you’re wiping away tears and clutching your sore ribs. “You came here to be a Muse? My Muse?”
The tampon slumps and you can’t help but feel bad about the way you’re treating it—it’s done so much for you, been a good friend. It’s obviously confused and totally out of its league—something to which you can relate.
“I’m sorry,” you say. “You’ve gotten your signals crossed. I’m not the genius. She is.” You run your fingernail across the spines of your mother’s books. “Except I don’t think she’s on the rag anymore, sorry.”
The tampon deflates and looks more vulnerable than it ever did all those times you tried to end its life.
“You want a whiskey?” you ask. “It’ll take the edge off.”
It shakes its tip.
“Look, I know it’s rough. But you’re a tampon—a used tampon. What made you think you’d ever be something important?”
The tampon lifts its tip and wags it slowly from side to side. It shuffles away and drops wearily to the floor.
“Where are you going?” you call after it, but it disappears down the hallway, into the dark—to sulk maybe. You figure it’s best to just let it go.
The next morning, you get three voicemails in less than thirty minutes. The first is from BC: “Consider yourself unemployed.” The second from Debra: “Missed cut-off. . . blah, blah. . . keep working. . . blah, blah. . . may have something else later. . .” And the coup de grâce, your mother: “I can’t believe it, Dawn—it was only one little essay—on one obscure poet—what are you doing? That’s it—you have one day to convince me that you are not self-destructing. Otherwise, expect me on your doorstep.”
You wait for the tampon to scamper by and do its deletion thing. It doesn’t show. You try to ignore the message machine’s red light, but after several minutes, its accusatory blink menaces you into action.
You begin your search with the Italian Renaissance book, thinking maybe the tampon is tissue-papered between the pages like a pressed flower. Nothing. You inspect the shelves and closets and cupboards where it likes to occupy itself. Nothing. You open trashcans and check out the busy street below your window and count all your sharp knives, just to make sure it hasn’t committed hara-kiri. Once you’re satisfied that it hasn’t, you stand near your desk and chew your fingernails. It’s then you notice that the drawer containing the studio key is ajar. Slowly, carefully, you open the drawer and discover that it is completely empty.
A few moments later, you hear the agonizing, drawn-out creaking of a door that hasn’t been opened in a very long time. You want to call out to the tampon, urge it to stop, but you realize that you don’t even know what to call it—it has no name that you know of. You run to your studio and find the tampon crouched in the middle of the floor, the key at its side, staring up at your empty easel and the dozens of abandoned canvases that clutter the room. Most of the paintings are turned toward the wall so as not to fade in the light, but one faces outward—the last still life you painted of a blue, fluffy feather in an empty fish bowl—and the tampon leans toward it intently, seemingly transfixed.
“What are you doing? What did I tell you about this room?”
The tampon is unfazed. It cocks its string against its side, as if putting a hand on a hip to say, I knew it—you’ve been holding out on me. It gestures to the paintings.
“Look,” you say. “I tried making a go of that—I really did. But they laughed me out of the Art Students League. And Grand Central Academy. And about five other ateliers. I started too late. I forfeited my talent.”
You’re looking for some pity here, but the tampon punches the place where its heart might be, and makes explosive flourishes in the air with its string—perhaps directing you to Follow your passion!, which is the second-most bogus line known to humankind.
“Well, I guess you should know about failure,” you say. It does a double-take and you continue: “You sort of suck at what you wanted to do, too. Being a Muse, I mean. You’re not even trying to inspire the right discipline—there’s no classical Muse devoted to painting.”
The tampon looks fierce. It fluffs up extraordinarily and, for a moment, you can’t help but notice how pretty it looks in the light from the north window. But then it darts to a cabinet across the room, unhooks the door, and unleashes an avalanche of old brushes, cans, and paint tubes.
“No,” you shout, and before you realize it, you’re sliding across the floor, trying to salvage sable brushes out of the dirt.
That’s when the door shuts behind you, the key turning in the lock. By the time you dash back across the room, it’s too late. A few moments later, a sheet of computer paper slips underneath the door with the typewritten message: Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re taken care of. You have to paint.
“Who are you—my mother?” you yell.
A few minutes later, you get another piece of paper, two organic energy bars, and a baggie of thinly sliced apple. No, but she’s on her way—I e-mailed her. Now eat these, or no dessert.
“For God’s sake, Dawn—why didn’t you tell me you had a Muse!”
There must be a mistake—has your mother gone crazy? To be sure, you ask, “Mom, what are you talking about?”
“Your tampon!” she yells, and you feel humiliated, even though your mother utters this particular “fact of life” without hint of embarrassment or surprise. More strange, she hasn’t yet mentioned your most recent failure, and you sort of wish she would. You try to nudge her into the usual verbal lashings.
“Mom,” you say. “I’m tied up right now, so just go ahead with the third degree and we can both move on, okay?”
Your mother is silent for a few moments. Then she says, “Dawn, you are aware that you’re locked in a room, yes?”
“Yes, I’m aware of that.”
“Well, that’s something of an impasse, is it not? You’re not exactly moving on to anything right now. Unless I’m wrong and you’re painting in there?”
You frown, confused, and fumble a stray paintbrush between your fingers.
“But I’m not a painter, am I? You’ve told me so a hundred times.”
Your mother clears her throat, and the floor creaks as she sits down on the other side of the door.
“I know I did,” she says. “But how was I to know you had a Muse?”
“What difference does a Muse make?”
“Well, if you have one, then you have to follow it, whether you’re good at your art or not.”
“I thought Muses only visited gifted people.”
Your mother sighs, then laughs. “Muses visit who they want to, right or wrong, good or bad. You’ve certainly been visited by an interesting choice.”
“You don’t have a Muse!”
“I do. It’s a feather quill pen named Arnold.”
“Don’t be so incredulous—it doesn’t suit students of the fine arts. Besides, there are more preposterous things in the world. I’ve heard Hieronymus Bosch’s Muse was a rotten pork chop.”
“But I’ve been painting feathers.”
Your mother laughs, as if satisfied. “Well, there you are, Dawn. You can’t go around painting other people’s Muses. No wonder you’ve been miserable.”
This silences you. You’ve long sensed that you’ve been thrown off by your mother, but it never occurred to you that you’d been dragging her behind you, like a trail of toilet paper, into your canvases.
“But still,” you say. “How can a tampon—a used tampon—”
“Sweetheart.” Your mother hasn’t used this term in ages. “We cannot judge what we’re given to work with. It’s only for us to follow the path we’ve been given.”
And with that, she stands up. The click of her heels, like her voice, is measured and resolved.
“Now get off your high horse and start painting, already. In the meantime, your friend Lux—”
Your mother sounds impatient. “Your Muse. Lux.”
“It has a name?”
“Of course, she has a name. What’s more, you should know Lux isn’t doing very well. You’ve weakened the poor thing so much, she hardly has a bit of energy left—I found her buried underneath a cold compress when I came in. You need to start working so she can get up her strength.”
You snort. “You make her sound like Tinker Bell.”
“Dawn.” Your mother’s voice turns deadly serious. “This isn’t a joke. If you don’t get started, you’re going to suffocate the last spark she’s got and it will kill her. Dead. You can only neglect something for so long.”
You don’t answer. You think of the tampon—Lux—and of how it—she—has taken care of you. You think about the myriad ways you’ve been unhappy while not painting. You feel a little sick. You hear your mother’s footsteps shuffle away from the door.
“Wait,” you say. “You’re going to leave me here? Can’t you just open the door?”
“Well,” she says, “I’ve got the key, but as for opening the door, that’s up to you.”
And that’s it—you are left to your own devices. You take out an old book of still lives that remains in the studio. You browse Chardin’s perfectly lit flowers, Frans Snyders’ stark, dead rabbits, Cézanne’s dizzying fruit-scapes. You have seen many of these paintings in person—the one benefit of your mother’s literary fame is that she dragged you to her lectures in foreign cities—and you can still remember seeing them for the first time, how they imprinted themselves on you, like light on a negative. Not because of the color design or composition or masterful brushstrokes—that appreciation came later. No, what you loved first was how these painters pursued light and form with such devotion that when they set their brushes down they had seen everything—every possible nuance and gradation and perspective—and transcended all of it. But only after pursuing the light for the light’s sake.
“Light,” you say out loud, and something finally clicks in your mind. Lux.
You call your mother through the door, and when she arrives, you ask her if Lux is strong enough to visit the studio.
“You won’t try to kill her again, will you?”
“No,” you say. “I’m ready. Open the door and take a look, if you want.”
The key turns in the lock and your mother peeks in to find your easel resurrected and your palette anointed with fresh dabs of color. You’ve draped a chair with a dusty blue cloth for a background and laid out some objects—a copper bowl, a candlestick, a small, bronzed replica of the Eiffel Tower.
“I see,” says your mother. She opens the door wide, walks to your bedroom, and returns with a fabric-padded matchbox. The tampon looks rather peaked and frail. It doesn’t rouse itself, or move to greet you, or make any movements at all, really. Even the evidence of its former hygienic function seems faded, as if it has been rapidly bleached. It’s a shock to see it so lifeless and rigid.
“I’m sorry,” you tell it. And for the first time, you touch it—gently patting its soft, fuzzy tip. It doesn’t feel as strange as you expect, and if you’re not mistaken, you see its string twitch minutely.
Your mother carefully hands you the matchbox and you arrange it between the Eiffel Tower and the bowl. Then you prop Lux on her side and drape her string over the box’s edge. This doesn’t last very long, however, because by the time you’ve walked across the floor to adjust your easel and canvas one last time, Lux has risen on her own. She sits up in the matchbox, revived, and repositions herself, reclining against the Eiffel Tower—a Muse in her glory. You cross back to the still life once more and remove the matchbox, while leaving her in-scene. You watch her positively glow.
Then you start to paint.
Mary Cool lives and writes in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where she occupies an apartment with her husband, two cats, and pet crayfish. In addition to having a short story published at hogglepot.com, she has performed her work in the Kick Assonance literary series at Manhattan’s KGB Bar. She blogs weekly about learning to write at captivatedaudience.blogspot.com.
R.J. Caputo is a photographer from Queens, NY. He has had his photographs published in various publications such as Brooklyn Magazine, The L Magazine, Alternative Press, and The New York Post. He has also done promotional work for a number of recording artists. For more, visit rjcaputo.com, and be sure to check out his side project takeaphotopassiton.com
Scott Barkan is a guitarist, singer, and songwriter based in New York. After years as an in-demand sideman, having his guitar playing and songwriting featured on national television, and leading numerous guitar oriented instrumental projects, Scott struck out as an acoustic-based solo artist. He's garnered comparisons to folk scene mainstays like Greg Brown and Kelly Joe Phelps, as well as guitar wizards John Scofield and Bill Frisell. Scott is now touring to support Flightless Bird, his sophomore solo effort, downloadable at scottbarkan.bandcamp.com. Follow Scott on twitter @scottbarkan, and visit scottbarkanmusic.com for tour dates, music, and info.