Cherchez la Femme
One summer night long ago, as her father cleared dishes, the girl’s mother and a friend of hers were discussing Ginny dolls, a precursor to Mattel’s Barbie that they insisted had been superior. “What did they look like?” she asked, pushing around a last bite of potatoes. “What color was their hair?” Her mother turned to Anne. “She’s so interested in stories because she has none of her own.” This is the only time she remembers her mother assessing her personality in front of her to an outside audience.
She begged to go to camp because her mother could sometimes be persuaded to belt out songs from Girl Scout camp and because the outhouses at her father’s old Y camp were called the Hot Dog Stand and the Petunia House. When she got there, camp gave her stories to brag about to kids at school: There were not only outhouses but also trough sinks and, three times a week, showers with water heated by fire and delivered by hoses. Editing information was important, because no one needed to know she’d never wear the shirt she tie-dyed again or that she refused to take an advanced swim test that involved a scary surface dive. The girls in her bunk—cleverly named Sleepy Hollow—talked about mascara a lot. Jamie, who slept in the cot next to hers, had large, clear print. Jamie wrote letters every day after lunch in nice, thick, colored markers, and the girl knew who in Jamie’s family knew what. Tell Robert thanks for the letter. “Hi. Hope camp is fun. Work is boring. Bye.” We had spaghetti again for dinner last night. Today I went off the rope swing. Jamie’s letters were endlessly interesting until the day she started to shield them better with her left hand while she wrote with her right. Then Jamie traded cots with Amy, who wrote in slanted ballpoint.
Usually, though, her parents sent her to the day camp run by the local university in the summers. Everything about day camp was less interesting because not only was it a five-minute drive from home, but you didn’t get to sleep in a row with a dozen other girls every night. No one got mail and boys were less interesting because groups were coed. One morning, the girl waited in line in a concrete stairwell to sign in at the backdoor of the gym. Some kids knew one another and compared brownbag lunches, but she just stood there, waiting her turn. “Excuse me.” A boy in a baseball cap behind her tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around to face him. “Are you a boy or a girl?” the boy asked. The girl tried to sneer, but mostly her voice just came out a little lower than usual: “What do you think?”
On sunny days, she can leave the house barefoot. She really, really likes the distinct feelings of solid concrete and damp grass below her. Even better is counting what she has on her. One shirt plus one pair of underpants plus one pair of shorts equals three. Errands require shoes, school a backpack. When her mother finally allows her to grow out her hair, messier than it is curly, she needs a rubber band.
It’s the night before Halloween. The artsy kids, the cool kids at school, don’t always dress up, and it’s hard to know where to land to merit inclusion in their crowd. The stoner boys will wear their corduroys, maybe rubber masks. The party girls who sneak out of their windows at night will wear devil horns almost uniformly. Some of them will also wear fishnets. The kids who read sci-fi will wear cloaks they’ve sewn themselves. Some girls will dress up as fairies—store-bought wings and glittery makeup—but the girl did that last year. She stares at her closet. There’s a peasant top she’s never worn to school because it hangs across her chest differently than her regular t-shirts do, and she doesn’t like to have to think about the fact that she has breasts. Maybe she should wear this tomorrow and call herself a hippie. She clambers up the stairs. “Hey, Mom, can I borrow your patchwork skirt?” The girl is not as skinny as her mother was in the seventies, but sometimes she can still shimmy into her mom’s old clothes. “Yes, but you can’t let anything happen to it. I made it from a kit I sent away for in college, you know.” So this just means she can’t spill yogurt on it at lunch. Fine. She tries it on and safety pins it every few inches to hem it. Hippies might have worn skirts below the knee, but that won’t fly at her school now. She runs out of pins and turns to packing tape. It’ll only be on the inside, so no one will see. She calls her father at work and asks to borrow his antiwar armband. He gives in, but threatens unnamed consequences if anything should happen to it. She complains that it won’t stay put on her scrawny bicep. “Kid,” he says, “that’s because most parts of the world are cold. We pinned those to our jackets. They’re not supposed to stay put on skin.” But it’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow and long sleeves look dumb, anyway.
In English class the next day, the girl and her friend Sally giggle over how Tara is wearing white short shorts over neon orange fishnets and roller-skating to her desk. While Mrs. Stevens passes back essays on A Doll’s House, Sally asks the girl why she didn’t dress up. “I did!” the girl insists. “Look. I’m supposed to be a hippie.” “Wait,” Sally says. “That’s what you wear every day.”
Her friend Daniel goes for black-and-white leading ladies. Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman. In color, Helena Bonham Carter for the way she smokes in Fight Club. Mysterious women smoke really, really well. The girl’s winter coat is puffy. Mysterious women wear trenches. Mysterious women look like Carmen Sandiego, that cartoon criminal. Mysterious women provoke ménages à trois when they appear in the French New Wave. Mysterious women are the object of the imperative Cherchez la femme in film noir, but they possess an awful lot of invisible agency. Mysterious women are alluring. They lure with the secrets that are not known, that cannot be known (in this world, of course, in which there are two types of secrets: those to which one is among the privileged few privy, and those the content of which one is unaware and the existence of which one may well also be unaware). Daniel tells her she’ll never be mysterious, but together they (somewhat platonically) pine for intimacy with the women around them they think pull it off.
Mysterious women can retain mystery because they don’t need intimacy with anyone. Mysterious women do not discuss their mystery or that of anyone else. Mysterious women are tied down to nothing. No one, no thing. They can fade into air because they have no obligations on earth. Like secular angels, maybe.
When she moves away, she calls home sometimes, the way anyone does. She gets restless, though, and likes to wander when she’s on the phone. This is a habit that annoys her mother, but now that they no longer live in the same house, her mother can’t witness her reproachable habits. “What are you walking?” her mother will ask as she walks north, far past her apartment, past where her friends live. “I’m not walking anywhere.” “Yes, you are. I can hear you breathe.” Or, “Are you going to the library?” her mother will ask. The library is sometimes a place she goes, but also a place she has found makes for a good cover. “No, I’m at home.” She’s just walking, not to anywhere, but she doesn’t want the library to be used up as a destination. “Is it warm there? Your windows must be open. I can hear the traffic.” A single car breaks at the light on Forty-third Street.
The rest of the world is busy moving out for the summer, for forever, throwing pillows out of third-floor windows to their boyfriends on the sidewalks below. A few months ago, when it became clear that her parents were coming to watch her graduate, her friends asked what she planned to do with them while they were in town. “Well, I don’t know.” She was thinking about class. But her Woolf seminar seemed unlikely to provide her with parent-friendly activity. “Maybe I should host a panel discussion with them. Like, we’ll all interview them on what it’s like to be a grownup. You guys will have to come with questions prepared.” She mentionsed this to her parents on the phone as a joke. “Do you guys want to hold a panel when you come? Sort of like a roundtable? We could have wine and cheese and you can meet all my friends.” Somehow, they fell for it. She alerts the troops.
The evening of the panel, her friends text excuses for tardiness. She leaves her parents in her living room and runs upstairs to bang on Peter’s door. “Yo, hey, are you ready?” “Oh, hi, is it time?” Peter drinks from a glass. He’s moving slowly, but she kind of can’t blame him. It’s June. The air is thick with tangible heat, but he’s coming. “Do you guys want ice coffee?” she asks her parents, back downstairs. Her father takes her up on the offer. It’s clear to her that he wants more to be accepting than to cool down, but she makes them some anyway. Her mother calls out for a corkscrew. The girl spills some coffee, sloshes the ice back in the freezer, pulls the good corkscrew out of the drawer, slams it shut. She has to stage a riveting conversation with her parents so her friends can walk in media res and be fascinated by her parents’ intellectual eccentricities. But she doesn’t know how to time their conversation to seem most impressive when there are actually people there to hear it. She’s already told her friends too many times about how her dad spent a night in jail once because he was cold and hitchhiking and the cops took pity on him, so she can’t be perpetually on the brink of asking him for the details. But she did just drag them to a Bruce Naumann exhibit earlier that afternoon, a room filled with videos of clowns pissing while making loud nonsense sounds. None of them had liked it, but defending it now could be useful. “Can’t it count as art even if you didn’t enjoy it?” she pressures her parents. Where is Peter? Where is Anna?
She hands off the coffee and the corkscrew. “Let’s do the prosecco first, maybe?” she suggests. Its price is twice what she normally spends on a bottle. She unwraps some brie. She sits on the windowsill, leans back, bounces up immediately.
“Dad, wait, hey, do you want to help me move some chairs around? Like, we could have you and Mom sit here.” She pushes metal chairs from the kitchen so their backs are to the window. “Gosh, kid, you have quite the vision here,” her father tells her, enjoying the situation. Her mother hands her a glass, waiting to toast. The girl doesn’t think they have time to toast. But it will make them think she’s less stressed if she eases off on the orders. “Congratulations, kid,” her father says. But anyone can write passing papers for school. She wants to enable worthwhile conversations. Surely that’s more meritorious, but it’s not like anyone has come yet, so it doesn’t yet count as an accomplishment or lack thereof. Their glasses collide, tingle. Peter comes in after knocking politely.
She gets a text from Oliver. Amanda’s gerbil is dying, so he has to sit with her while she tries to resuscitate it. They can’t come after all, but she should have fun. She flips her phone off but he texts again, will she be around next week? Next week takes place in a future she can’t imagine. She’s not going to deal with this now. Gerbils are disgusting animals, anyway.
She looks up. Peter and her parents are smiling at one another. “I’m Peter,” Peter is saying. Thank god he has social graces, but he’s taking her lines. “Oh, sorry,” she says. “Peter, these are my parents.” “I’m Lisa,” her mother interrupts. “Peter lives upstairs,” the girl explains, as though that were unclear. She tries to think of a way to contextualize Peter. Mostly, he and she have been spending a lot of time drinking beer and eating self-congratulatory ice cream together to beat the June sweat. But she doesn’t say this.
She wants to get mileage out of her defense of Bruce Naumann’s merits, but the intercom is buzzing. Maggie and Cameron arrive, Cameron fumbling with a large potted palm. Oh, right. She promised to plant-sit for them. This is kind of funny. Cameron looks like a tree with legs. She directs him to the fire escape so he can ditch the tree. Maggie meanwhile is introducing herself to the girl's parents in her business-casual voice. “Hi, I’m Maggie.” The girl is still forgetting to step in to present people. Shit. “Maggie is the one I was telling you about who wants to be a vet.” Her dad is a vet. They can bond. The girl says, “Well, we should sit down” because it seems like the kind of thing middle-aged hosts say in movies, not that she wants to be a middle-aged host in a movie, but usually her friends figure out what to do at parties right away. Usually, parties don’t have so many rules. Usually, the girl turns off the lights for parties, but this is not a normal event so she can’t justify darkness with her standard claims for party atmosphere. And besides, it’s practically the longest day of the year outside, so it’s barely twilight anyway. Their only atmosphere will come from the dust permanently smeared across the windows.
Her mom pours more wine. “Did you guys see that new Bruce Naumann installation in the Modern Wing?” the girl asks the room. She’s parading attempts at cool, but can’t make herself stop. “You know, the one with all the clowns on screens?” Maggie reaches for a paper towel to mop up spilled wine. “We just saw it. And we’ve been arguing about whether it counts as art. And if it is, are other annoying videos art? What about ‘Sesame Street’?” Clowns squeal unintelligibly there, too. To her, this seems like a logical connection. Peter asks her mother to slice him some baguette. The girl runs to the kitchen for a sharper knife. Making her parents seem cool to her friends is trickier than making her friends seem cool to one another. At any moment, she thinks, her parents might relate how the family dental hygienist compared her appearance to that of the Campbell Soup baby until she was fifteen. Or ask whether she still takes things too literally.
When she gets back, Maggie is listing some syllabus for her father, who the girl can tell is about to burst into stories of CD4 cells in small mammals. Too bad about Amanda’s gerbil, actually; they could all have commiserated. Peter asks her how she’s doing. She smiles on the verge of a joke she’s hoping will come once she opens her mouth.
There’s some tittering on the sidewalk. Anna and Becky have run into Gabe. Anna’s black dress is really elegant. Hugging her hello, the girl tells her she really likes it. “Oh, no, I just got back from my uncle’s memorial service. I was worried I’d be overdressed.” Good thing she hadn’t complimented her further.
She handles introductions herself this time. “These are Anna and Becky and Gabe,” she tells her parents. Her parents have met Gabe before—once they had dinner when her parents were visiting a year or two ago. Her dad had misquoted Tolstoy to him not knowing Gabe had spent the previous summer reading Anna Karenina. But Gabe had kindly not disclosed this to her father, who’d thus been free to make since forgotten claims about happy families. So it’s good that Gabe has shown, that they’ve had this dinner together before. Now they can test her friend Lucy’s theory that combining random people at a party can work well so long as everyone knows at least one or two other people.
Contemporary art seems less useful now that the room is filled, and this is a party with a purpose. “This is my mother, Lisa,” she says. “And this is my dad, Scott. Um. They got married in 1976. My mom’s an accountant, and my dad’s a vet.” Her friends know these things. She prepped them in her email. And besides, her friends know everything there is to know about her. In fact, it is dangerous to combine all these people because, together, they can find out all there is to know about her. “And then I was born about a decade later.”
Her parents say hi. The girl looks around the room. She hopes that that look on Gabe’s face is one of basking in the potential of such a weird setup. “I guess I can start us off with a first question.” The girl hasn’t really done this part of the prep work she has tried to outsource to the masses. “Maybe you guys can review for us what you did when you were first in the position of graduation, or of growing up, which are obviously potentially different things?” she asks. It’s kind of corny.
“Well,” her mom starts off. “I knew I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. I walked my resume all around town. I took a job as an assistant at a bank. I almost worked in the business end of a brewing company, but they were in a sketchier part of town and they were only paying about the same.” “I was already dating Lisa then,” her dad says. “It was less competitive to become a vet back then, but I hadn’t really been close to any of my professors in college, so there wasn’t anyone to write me recs or anything.” The girl has long been under the impression that her father had wanted to be a doctor for humans, but didn’t think he could get into American med schools and didn’t want to study in the Caribbean like his slacker friends had.
“So I tried to apprentice myself to vets in the area . . .” her dad is saying. This is not becoming a riveting story with an ending. She looks at Anna. Anna had replied to her invite with a link to an article on joint parenting. Anna sees her, asks how they split up household and family duties. Her mother explains, “Well, it’s a tough call. But if one person is cleaning up, then the other person is allowed to read the magazines, because the person cleaning up can’t throw them away until the other one has finished reading them.” This is pretty revelatory.
The girl can picture this going on in her parents’ house—her mom vacuuming, say, while her dad reads old newspapers or works on stuff brought home from work—but isn’t sure that she can actually remember it happening. The girl studies her guests again. Her mother has settled in more. That’s good.
Peter asks how you know when you’ve become a grownup. Subtly different from the girl’s starter question about first becoming grownup. Her dad dates it to the first time he bought his mother dinner, sometime in college, he thinks it was. The girl feels highly aware that her parents have paid for the wine and cheese and crackers she and her friends are now consuming.
She gets up to see if there’s anything else in the fridge and stops to pee before returning. Parties are always better if you don’t think about them, right? Sitting on the toilet, she hears Gabe asks about the importance of understanding your spouse’s job. When she comes back, Lucy has stopped by. She is introducing herself. The girl would like to say, Lucy is one of the most delightful friends I’ve got. Lucy feeds me scrambled eggs and listens to me talk about my feelings. She would like to convey her love for Lucy without relating so many hours and cigarettes and stories. But she can’t do that now. Lucy has to tend to her own visiting mother, but it was so lovely to meet Lisa and Scott.
Cameron and Maggie are really sorry, but they have to go, Maggie announces, standing up as the girl is sitting down again. Oh, no. That’s too bad. She’s so glad they came. How does one ever prevent grace from sounding false? Maggie goes on, yeah, she knows, she’s sorry. It was good to meet her parents. Yes, even though conversation has now forgotten CD4 cells. Maggie waves goodbye. The girl’s father gets up to shake their hands, which they offer uncertainly. Her mother waves from her chair.
Becky giggles silently on the couch next to a rosy Peter. The girl is pleased that her friends know to eat the rinds of their brie.
Gabe and the girl’s father discover they both like Faulkner. Her father remembers the coffin in As I Lay Dying. He always recalls novels in images, so the girl’s bookish conversations with him center on trains being slow to arrive at stations and postmodern sewer scenes. The girl really likes the way an image can encapsulate, grow around, circumnavigate a whole, can render the inside of the whole null. Facts don’t really matter.
Becky, who looks what the girl thinks must be glowing and wowed, has to leave, so Anna has to walk home with her, too, then. Gabe goes a few minutes later. Peter must have already left.
The girl swigs from a coffee cup of melted ice.