17 May 2008 | Vol. 8, No. 1
It's Sunday—just barely. At five a.m., the only light in the studio apartment creeps in from the broken streetlamp outside her tiny basement window. The rain follows, because the super never fixed the split wooden frame, only bought a space heater to replace the lost warmth. The bleakness of the December morning is overpowering; intruding precipitation falters, cascades through uncaulked cracks down a mildewed wall. Fat drops splatter on a Chinese takeout menu held safe to the floor by an open Dickens novel and a pair of paint-speckled jeans. More paint congeals vermillion on a tattered Washington Post, the Saturday edition, two steps left.
Jo rests on a worn futon in the middle of the room. She is unable to stand her dream any longer; she's had a nightmare. This one recurs weekly; it is a widescreen production of a young child, a girl, walking hand-in-hand with an older woman. The child senses something behind them. A steamroller, perhaps: the smell of tar is unmistakable. The child tries to pull her guardian to the sidewalk, but the mother can't feel the tug, and doesn't budge. Then, all is dark. Jo can never remember what the mother looks like and that bothers her more than the ambiguous ending.
In response to the nightmare, she pulls the acrylic-stained satin covers over her bare breasts. It's suddenly cold despite the forced warmth from the building-controlled radiator. Jo swallows hard and reminds herself it's winter. It's Sunday and today she's thirty-eight. She strives for reality. With calloused hands, she diverts the few strands of just-graying hair plastered to her mouth behind her ear. Reluctantly, she opens her eyes. She scans the room, holding her breath, and her stare stops at the digital alarm clock, waiting for the block numbers to change. A new minute is significant. Jo allows herself air only when the numbers transform.
She doesn't want to notice that the mattress moves with the rhythm of another's stilted breath; she wants to be alone. Somehow the previous evening's entertainment negotiated room for a new and still-sleeping twenty-two-year-old. The girl is blonde and thin, too thin. Her ribs are her predominant feature. Jo will feed this girl before she asks her to leave; she will move the art books that clutter her dining table and serve, though she has little in her kitchen and her stove rattles with wear. Jo makes breakfast for every one-night stand before she wishes them well and waves goodbye; she lives by pattern.
Watching those fluttering eyelashes, Jo knows the girl's name is two syllables in life, three on stage. The girl only works enough shifts to pay her tuition, that's what she says. It is obvious she tries to leave her bottoms on until the very last second of her act; she doesn't wear thongs or panties with ties or velcro like the other dancers do. She wears boy shorts on her stick-pin legs; she spreads her hands like protective birds over her belly. This veiled innocence was what first caught Jo's attention. After three drinks and a good-natured, though drunken, prod from the man at the table behind her, she waved to the dancer. It was cold outside and Jo never could get warm by the thermostat alone. They shared a cab to Jo's art studio on 5th Street.
Pulling lint gently from the blonde's faux tresses, Jo notes she still smells like the gentleman's club—sugary sweat and vanilla lotion and crisp ten-dollar bills. Make-up mars her collarbone and lower, on her small chest. She breathes in and out in time to the skid of Metro wheels a block behind the Northwest, D.C. building, and her ribs jump the tracks of her spine. Despite her profession, her eyebrows knit with comfortable sleep, and her skin is clear as truth. Jo runs a hand along the girl's back and counts her freckles by the lilting flame from the leftover candlelight. She counts in rhythm to a nursery rhyme: "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick…"
It's early, but Jo pulls her hand from the sleep-warmed skin when she hears the slap of the Sunday paper against the building steps. There was a time when her ears weren't so attuned, a time when sex was enough, or art or alcohol. Now, she needs words. She prays before she puts on a sweatshirt: I once was lost but now am found… It's the only hymn she knows. Her arms are thankful for the protection of cotton, though her skin is dry and chafes a bit.
Jo stands straight and walks to the door. There is an abandoned pair of running shorts balled like a small world on the floor. She tucks supple legs into the thin material, slips her feet into balding athletic shoes. The door squeaks less than it did when she first moved in, but more than it does in summertime. Jo is moved by this: she must find the paper on the front steps before precipitation seeps into the ill-fitting plastic cover and slices the printed pages in half. She must find it before the lines become liquid and unreadable.
Jo wants to find her mother, and there are very few clues. She placed the daily ad in the Post knowing full-well that this woman could have moved; her own mother could have died without her knowledge. She thought, only, I've got to try. On her way out of the apartment, the orphaned adult looks over her shoulder. She knows the studio is just six hundred square feet of dry, warping wood floors and chipping plaster. It's not a home; she would never bring the dancer to her home. It's simply an art studio, and there's a bed because often art calls in the middle of the night like a newborn, or a call-girl. Jo is content scrubbing these floors and bleaching her kitchen when a painting or woman calls. When the buckets are empty, or her sheets are cool, Jo feels as though the damp space is adequate for a woman finding herself.
Jo is back in the apartment, having left the chill on the steps with her pride. Paper in hand, she sits with her back to the cheap futon frame. Her feet are in Buddha pose and she must consciously relax her jaw. She pushes a fan of always-falling dark hair from her eyes and scans the paper with a trained laser gaze. There is a mug of steaming milk-white tea in her other hand. The floating remnants of leaves remind her of the palm reader she saw once. She paid twenty dollars for a wish and left with this: she'd meet the man of her dreams in line at the grocery store. Even then, she didn't date men. She thanked the woman in the headdress, but left without leaving a tip.
Jo leafs through paper that stains her; the adjacent print pages hold wedding announcements, birth announcements, thank-you notes to Saint Jude and the Virgin Mother. There are classified ads that offer rock-bottom deals on hammocks and beach rentals in bold face; community yard sales and local crime reports are in italics. The plain black and white type she paid for, letter by letter, is a simple plea: Looking for Birth Mother. Catholic Charities. 1969. (202) 783-5000. She is afraid to say any more, yet terrified that if she doesn't her mother will fall through the cracks of this city's uninspected sidewalks.
Over the brim of newsprint, Jo stares at the canvas in the corner. The painting of the fifty-something woman in the trendy coffee shop is just half-done. Jo saw her through the hot glare of a two-way looking glass in DuPont Circle, became enamored and stole a pencil portrait in her organizer while the woman ordered a latte. This recurring older woman— blonde in line at the coffee shop, brunette at the grocery store, and, in the next painting, all gray and running the opposite direction through Rock Creek Park—is the haunting and unknown genetic code that makes the motherless, adult Jo question herself when she checks "Caucasian, Non-Hispanic" on medical forms. This fantasy woman makes it necessary to explain to her ob-gyn that there could be a history of cervical cancer in her family.
There are many trials for the abandoned.
At six a.m. the predicted sleet begins. D.C. is known for such bad winter weather, just like it is known for crime and crowded streets. Jo swallows the last mouthful of chamomile in her MOMA cup, though it burns her throat; she wonders if she ought to push a towel between the front door and the floor. The moisture will cause more mold. To hell with it, she thinks, as she turns the page past her dream of an emotional reunion with her mother, a complete stranger. Nothing in the classifieds section points to her genetics. There is no response to her vague ad.
In the Arts section Jo sees the announcement. Joanne Woud's "Oedipus Womb" now showing at The National Women in the Arts Museum. December 15- January 27th. She knows the world thinks she is successful. Her paintings hang in museums all over the globe with placards explaining abstract themes such as "Love," "Loss," "Guilt." Society doesn't know she learned to paint in a rectory with supplies left in the children's charity basket; Jo holds her dignity as close to her chest as her Friday night poker hands and never gives interviews. She drops her chin to her chest and closes her eyes. Reading is over.
The panting voices of construction workers attack from under the windowsill and through cheap glass. They holler to one another to cover their works-in-progress, their clangs and curses inappropriate for such a church-going morning. An elderly neighbor complains about the language from across the way; she bends out her fogged second-story window wearing a lace hat fancy enough for a Baptist wedding or funeral. She yells, "Do your Mommas know you talk like that?" Her cries are answered with a cloud of middle fingers and several snickers. None of this is distraction enough. Jo can't stand the room's silence any longer.
Hoarse from too little sleep and the chain of nighttime guttural moans, her voice catches in her throat. She opens her eyes, puts down the paper. Jo says, "Carrie?" This is the stripper's post-bar name.
Jo tries to recall all that is still edible in her fridge. The milk must be sour by now. But there are eggs. "I thought I'd make us breakfast. Are you hungry?"
"Sure." The girl's head is embraced by a down pillow, her mouth isn't quite functional. She wipes the back of one hand against her wet chin and isn't embarrassed. Carrie's allergic to cats, she told Jo last night, and Jo's rescued tabby, Eros, insisted on sleeping in the dip of the futon's mattress. This meant Eros was enveloped by the dancer's young breasts and thighs, sheltered by her outstretched arm for hours while she sniffed searchingly for clean air. Carrie never complained.
Jo climbs onto the mattress, wraps herself around the girl's back like another cat. "It's sleeting."
"That sucks." Carrie is not alert yet.
"Are you cold?"
There is no sexual innuendo, but the young girl rubs an open palm over her taut stomach. "Mmmm hmmm."
"Can I get you a sweatshirt?"
Carrie sits up and pulls a pillow to her chest. "Oh. No. I'm okay."
Jo laughs at the splotches of paint adorning her own sweatshirt. "I do have some clean ones."
Carrie shakes her head. Noticing the canvas in the corner, she starts what should be an easy conversation. "Are you a famous painter?"
"I think so."
Carrie studies the gallery announcement. "Wow. The Museum for Women in the Arts."
"A nice venue."
Squatting low, Jo wonders if her thighs are pockmarked, and she can't remember if she's shaved her legs recently. Perception is everything in life, as in art; she told Carrie she was twenty-nine when they left the club. Jo was twenty-nine when she sold her first painting, when she left her first lover, when she signed the lease to the apartment on 5th Street. It was a starting point and the age stuck, psychologically. The girl had believed the white lie—a testament to her naivety and proof that she couldn't believe she'd ever be twenty-nine herself. She's just a child, Jo thought last night. Then she paid the cab driver.
"I'm impressed." Carrie gestures to the growing pool of sleet below the window. "Does it always seep in like that?"
"Yes. The fun of having a basement apartment."
"You should move. Since you're famous and all."
Jo smiles, charmed, because Carrie doesn't understand that this is, simply, a work place. "Then how would anyone find me?"
Pellets of ice attack like automatic gunfire through the open spaces surrounding the air conditioning unit. That noise is reminiscent of an old, neglected car backfiring. Eros paws at the ice duds littering the walnut planks. Jo's foot slips on his seasonal entertainment; she is embarrassed by her lack of grace.
"If you hand me a towel, I'll get it," Carrie says, wiping lines of frustration from her hostess' forehead. "Hey. Don't worry."
The couple falls to their knees to rid the floor of tiny, melting ammunition together. Jo regrets cursing, is resigned as she searches for the pricks of ice. She breathes, consciously; she's always searching. She knows her own mother was not quite Carrie's age when she abandoned her on the steps of the Catholic Charities building. She wasn't a stripper, though. She was a girl whose boyfriend was leaving for Vietnam. It's what the records say. Her mother might have had ringlets and dark eyes; Jo imagines this when she scans the streets or mall or parking lots. She's never seen a picture of her mother. Breathing in deeply, she nudges a swaddled towel into the crack between the window and the wood. Clogging the cracks is what this apartment dictates, winter or summer.
"There." Jo runs an aging hand along the puttied wall. She stands and thinks, My mother could be anywhere. It's a thought that often fogs her mind. She recalls being a child at the Catholic elementary school within the orphanage's walls: making paper carnations for Mother's Day, drawing family pictures for Back-To-School nights, shopping at the secret shopper boutique for $5 bottles of knockoff perfume at Christmas. She cut, painted, drew in order to fit in. The nuns didn't mean to be cruel, but neither did they stop to consider her orphaned status. Most of the other children were safe in their two-parent households, even if they wore the same blue and yellow uniform Jo did.
There are other women in Jo's life today. Many. Carrie dances in Jo's mind when she closes her eyes; Carrie's white, incandescent skin vibrates against black-lit walls and a newly polished pole. The dancer cradles her head with one thin arm and closes her eyes as an announcer brands her "Fantasy." She is. Her therapist calls these women crutches, too. Jo turns to face the center of the room. This is her world, a naked girl kneeling on the floor. Wilting floor plants cradling a cheap card table. On the wall, beyond the blonde girl's feet, paintbrushes dry in soup cans whose labels are not quite shorn clean. These sit on crude bookshelves made of bending wood and found bricks. Forsaken canvasses litter the floor like carcasses.
Everything reeks of turpentine. Jo is under contract to produce three more paintings for the "Oedipus' Womb" collection in the next six months; she's only just started the woman from the coffee shop. The jogger is only a fleeting thought. She asks her companion, "Eggs okay?"
"Sure." Carrie sits cross-legged. "Can I take a shower? I have to be at work by two."
"It's only eight."
"I know." Carrie's expression is unreadable, and Jo wonders why she's asked to shower. She wonders if Carrie has a shower at her place.
Jo nods and says, "Of course." She walks slowly and mindfully to the kitchen, missing the Morse code flash of the automated message machine on the card table. The light flickers bright red and strains against the black plastic of its home like a torch or a motivated search team in dark woods. There is no noise to the memorandum, no obvious clatter of urgency. Jo's weakness is that her eyes only catch what she intends them to find. It's always been this way.
"Do you have to work today?" Carrie asks.
"I always try. Sometimes it's not so easy."
Carrie sounds serious, wets her lips. "You need a muse?"
The girl points to the coffee-shop model. She asks, "Who's that?"
Jo could not answer Carrie without revealing a vulnerable portion of herself. So, she did what she was best at, and she was more than aggressive. An hour later, the pair stands nude staring at the warm, just-made imprints in the futon. One depression is in the shape of shoulders, a back, small hips, another just four circles of elbows and knees. The third is smaller than a breadbox; Eros weighs just eight pounds. The three indentations are bound together in goose down and cotton. The girl touches Jo's shoulder lightly, as if they've never touched before. They're walking towards the kitchen, and Jo is pulling her sweatshirt back over her head. An awkward silence follows. Finally, Carrie says, "This is a nice place."
"I live in Adams Morgan. That's why I need to shower. It's a ways to walk before work."
"Adams Morgan?" Jo doesn't know what this information might imply. She washes her hands, facing the sink. In the open linoleum rectangle that is the 50s-era kitchen, clothed only in that long collegiate sweatshirt, Jo means to make tofu sausages and eggs. "I'm a vegetarian. I hope that's okay?" She turns her head for the response.
"Sure." Carrie wraps a ruby throw tightly around her chest. She rubs her forefinger against her front teeth in lieu of toothpaste.
Jo is distracted by the once-red lips and white shoulders. She doesn't want to be. She's never been distracted by a woman before, despite the number of them she's brought to her bed. She just wants to be polite, send the girl home, ego intact. Belly full.
She preps to cook like a disciplined artist—by first lining up the tools. There is a dishwasher-scarred spatula, a bent butter knife, a wire whisk and three forks—one for cooking, two for eating. Jo salvages paper plates from the back of the broom closet and wipes them clean with her hands. Next, she searches for a pan that will hold tofu sausages and eggs because she rarely eats so much. She finds a deep-mouthed skillet. The morning's ingredients are rescued from an ancient icebox: four eggs, a package of vegetarian sausages, a tub of margarine, orange juice, and vodka.
Jo nods and, because she cannot think of anything more to say, says, "I do like Adams Morgan."
Carrie wipes old mascara from her eyes. "Can I help with anything?"
"No. I think I've got it."
"You sure? I make a mean omelet."
"It's fine. Really." She hits four eggs in succession against a plastic bowl. "Maybe next time?" Jo reaches for the pepper mill.
Carrie knows the lingo of a one-night stand. "Sure." She tugs the throw closer to her hips. "Jo?"
There is a tangible pause. "Soap and shampoo in the shower?"
Jo wipes her hands on her shirt. Streaks of yolk cake her abdomen. "Conditioner, too."
"Thanks." She asks for nothing more.
"I'll have breakfast ready when you're done."
Jo watches her companion, holds a sigh inside like a secret. She turns the knob to the front burner, realizes her decrepit gas stove needs a borrowed flame as the dancer inches toward the bathroom on delicate ankles. She watches the athletic calves, wants to see the young thighs. Jo sighs. The last of her kitchen matches were sacrificed when Carrie asked about the coffee shop model. Those candles still flicker against the foggy window like phantom birthday candles. It wouldn't be safe to use the candles, though. This is nearly an apology; she calls out, "Actually, I could use some matches. If you happen to have some."
Carrie runs a hand through her pillow-flattened tresses and cocks her head to one side. The other hand stills her impromptu dress. One eyebrow arches. "Weren't you smoking at the club?"
"It's not a habit."
"I see." Carrie drops the throw to the floor. She walks a few paces and bends over to reach for her purse. She opens this crocheted clutch with the intensity of a first communion and when she stands, matches in hand, an old scar screams. The scar is four, maybe five inches across and almost completely covered in downy hair; it's an inch above her pubic bone and could be hidden with make-up, but isn't. Jo hadn't seen the pencil-thin line during either of their previous encounters, maybe because it was dark in the studio, maybe because she didn't want to see the real Carrie, just the façade for sale on stage. This scar, though, is what dictated the boy shorts, the fanned hands. Suddenly, the crayon-wielding artist inside Jo's grown body knows: this is a mother. Jo wonders about the missing child and knows at that moment that Carrie will be another model for her "Oedipus Womb" collection. She decides to stay quiet, allow the moment to pass.
Water beats, staccato. The pinprick sounds from the tiny, tiled bathroom drip slowly, then rush through the air, heady and pressurized. The entire apartment bows to steam. The canvases slacken and the cat yawns; the floors creak. This water baptizes everything within six hundred square feet.
Jo is tense as she flips the sausage links and scrambles the eggs. She is bogged down thinking about her painting and the months ahead. She is sad imagining the scar on Carrie's abdomen. She hadn't noticed it in the lusty shadows; she hadn't looked closely. The scar, certainly once red and puffy, has faded to a simple pencil mark. I once was lost… Jo still feels lost. And she believes she is too old to feel this way.
She concentrates on cooking. She intends to create a believable breakfast. Jo thaws freezer-burned orange juice in a pitcher and pats spilled egg white from the counter with a paper napkin. She tries to convince herself that the scar is none of her business; Carrie's child is none of her business. The dancer will be gone soon enough. The egg sticks and requires more than recycled paper. She bows her head.
Jo knows her mother was young. She carried her two-day old infant to an orphanage with a prayer on her lips and a rosary in her hand. She was alone, no soldier by her side in military fatigues or dress blues. No parents, either. This fact binds mother with daughter. This fact grew into her newest collection. As a teenager, Jo was fascinated with the Oedipus stories; Oedipus was a man who didn't know his parents, who was not wanted, was bound and left to die on a mountainside. Oedipus was abandoned by his parents. He survived, though, and lived to make a choice to set out on his own despite the hardships of his birth; he claimed greatness as a king only to have that greatness taken from him. Jo survived, as well, beat the odds and went to college. She became a world-renowned painter. Still, she feels the curse of orphanhood looming ahead; she knows she is blinded, just a little bit, by every woman she shares her bed with. Jo has had many women, and she questions if her womb is as fickle as her mother's. She cannot do that—abandon another human being. She will never have children of her own.
Jo bites her bottom lip. Last night her anxiety grew; she ordered a blinding Whiskey Sour—her fourth—and licked the condensation from her fingertips. She watched "Fantasy" perform a too-slow mambo to the edge of the walkway. The girl bent down to retrieve cash thrown in laughter over stiffening laps. A man behind Jo pointed to Fantasy and whispered, "Dare you to get her number." Jo never could ignore a dare.
Jo grabs the counter cleanser. She sprays, carefully and away from the food. She strains to listen as the young girl in her bathroom fills the air with song:
I sing because I'm happy,
I sing because I'm free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me…
Ghostly portraits of her unknown past move through Jo with the girl's shower song. She throws the soiled paper towel into the trashcan; she wipes an eyelash from her cheek with the back of her hand. Carrie's small purse sits open just twelve steps away. It is too much, this temptation. Jo is tired of not knowing. She listens for humming—still ringing off the pale walls—and watches through the unhinged door. Carrie washes her face; she is turned in the opposite direction. Jo takes several nauseated steps forward to Carrie's bag and fingers the filmy lining—silk?—of someone else's past.
With too-dry hands, Jo rustles through the contents of Carrie's purse, nervous thumbs snagging the smooth fabric. She tries to be so quiet; she bends over this bag, and her tousled hair and paint-smattered sweatshirt make her feel like an overgrown Oliver Twist wanting more, more, more. In the shadows she feels bobby pins and lipsticks, perfume and an eyeliner pencil—tools of the dancer's trade. Lint hugs a full, and battered, leather wallet; it is cracked and splotched with discolored bruises from at least one uncapped pen, a compact mirror, and a shiny cell phone. Jo keeps listening for the shower. Then, among a handful of receipts from an organic grocery store and an uptown hair salon there is a face; a child stares out from an old photograph. These eyes are what Jo has been looking for, and dreading. As the eggs brown, unsupervised, Jo studies this young child, a girl, the portrait thin from wear. It has been folded in quarters and held too tightly in a pocket or a sweating palm for years. This is the child that Carrie hides with her boy shorts and her bedroom small talk, her quiet, weeping orgasms. The water stops abruptly, as does the singing.
Jo watches as frigid air visibly pounces on Carrie; the dancer steps out of the shower and onto a latch-hooked mat. Goose bumps prickle her delicate shoulders and forearms and the backs of her calves. She picks up one foot and bends to look under the sink for a towel. Jo winces and tries to replace the photo, but drops it.
Jo knows the last towel is crumpled beneath the door. She puts the purse down hurriedly and walks, off-balance, towards Carrie. "Maybe I have something in the closet…" She leaves the stove, burning red.
There is no towel in the closet.
Jo walks back to see: Carrie is naked and wet—her scar is gleaming wet—but she laughs from her belly, perhaps realizing there is nothing left to dry herself with and nothing more than water to cry about. She shrugs and pats herself just-moist with two-ply tissue. She is almost theatrical, almost "Fantasy," as she runs a hand through her hair to dispel her curls and playfully shimmies to rid her now-flat stomach of stubborn droplets.
Jo apologizes, "There are no more towels. But I brought you a sweatshirt."
"Thank you," Carrie says. "Did I see orange juice in there?"
Dryer, Carrie fingers her clothes lying on top of the compact toilet; they are heavy with the smell of smoke and whiskey. There is an accompanying sweetness to those clothes that Jo can smell a few paces away. She thinks, God she's beautiful.
"I don't normally eat much in the morning." Carrie whips her t-shirt, then her pants, quickly against the 200-thread count shower curtain, releasing deep-seated wrinkles as well as old, cheap thrills. She doesn't bother with her bra, just pulls her shirt on over her head. She wriggles, naked, into tiny pants that cover her scar and jutting hipbones. Shrugging, she shoves the dirty boy shorts into one of the five pockets in her jeans and glances at herself in the mirror. Carrie nods at her new image and cracks her knuckles. Now dressed, she notes, "I am thirsty."
"I'm working on it." Jo knots her hair atop her head and walks back toward the kitchen for glasses, conscious that she has been saved from being seen rummaging through Carrie's purse by, surely, just seconds. Then, she forgets the photo. Terrifying heat lurches upwards from the wood plank floors to Jo's ankles, then her calves. Jo has hit a candle with her own, bare foot. "Fuck!"
A sliver of light from the fallen candle catches onto the Saturday Post. The candle that was meant to seduce has outdone itself; it is not just warm and flickering, but searing and flashing, blinding with intensity. Jo thinks this is her ancient, Greek fate as smoke begins to taint the air around her and cloud her panicked vision. She feels frozen as the world turns on its poker-red axis, seems to mock her life's work with orange and swallowing lashes; the just-showered girl standing before her is the catalyst. Jo watches as the candle spits like poor reviews onto the coffee shop canvass and the stabilizing wood frame blackens like night during an eclipse. She knows: there are a few flames, just matchstick size, growing slightly over paperback novels and bookshelves to her right; she could stop them with the damp towel in the windowsill. But the fire has danced several feet farther. Jo closes her eyes against the heat; she cannot remember what she was told to do as a child in case of a fire. When she opens her eyes, she sees Carrie grabbing the nearest article of clothing—the running shorts Jo wore to retrieve the paper in the morning—and smothering the thieving streaks of flame taking the Oedipus canvass.
Jo watches as Carrie unhooks the fire extinguisher from its home against the wall. There is foam, a hissing sound; the dancer's long fingers work to pull, pull, pull a silver lever and save Jo's world. When she is done, just seconds later, white spray encapsulates everything flammable. This is Jo's trigger: the portrait of the maternal latte drinker is burnt, but just slightly, and only on one side; it can be framed. The newest piece for the "Oedipus' Womb" collection is saved. Jo thinks of things that cannot be purchased: youth, self-esteem, memory. She has always wanted, more than anything, for someone to genuinely love her, for someone to take care of her. She knows that Carrie has done more than save her studio. Jo believes she could fall in love. She believes.
It's 2:00 and Carrie is not at work. Jo is barefoot and shivering slightly. Carrie stands before her, in the middle of the apartment. The girl's feet are planted on floors stained black by a dumbstruck candle. Her hips are squared in just-fitting jeans, set tight like her jaw. Carrie's lips quiver though her stare is solid; her eyes look as if they're in waiting. She asks Jo, "You okay?" and stays still.
In the hours since the fire, the couple has scrubbed the floor of ash, and swept bits of newspaper into a kitchen trash bag. They have made love with open eyes, and eaten bowls of cereal without the sour milk.
Jo flexes one foot, then the other on the kitchen molding. She imagines 5 a.m. and the warmth of an unknowing bed. It was comfortable wrapped around Carrie. She was content in planning her breakfast menu and a graceful exit. But the sex wasn't enough; she had to get the paper. Perhaps the newspaper brought her to this place of loss, perhaps she wanted too much. She admits that she wanted a response. Jo shrugs at the irony of new emotion: "I shouldn't have lit the candles."
The young girl, finally sober, walks straight towards Jo. Her hands are out before her as if she is lost, blindfolded, in a place with many doors and corners. Carrie says, "It was an accident." A breeze washes clean frost into the studio.
The girl looks at the large canvass, that mother figure with her cardboard-sleeved latte. "Most everything was saved."
Jo nods. "Thank you."
Carrie whispers, "And we're safe."
The "we" brands Jo. She knows that Carrie saved her—her paintings, her brushes, her cat. Carrie pried the smoldering portrait-to-be of the coffee shop model from its easel. Carrie rescued what Jo could not, and there is nothing more Jo can say in gratitude. Thankfully, Eros distracts Carrie; he mewls, hungry, and paws at something on the floor like curling ribbon.
Carrie says, "If you tell me where his food is, I'll feed him." She walks toward the animal. When she bends to pick Eros up, she is inches from the black and white photograph that fell from her purse. Carrie picks it up instead, smoothes the creases and licks her bottom lip. She nods. "You looked through my things."
"I'm so sorry. I saw the scar; I had to know…" Jo apologizes. "She has a sweet face."
"You don't have to say any more."
Carrie shakes her head. "I don't. Ever." She blows a curl from her eyes, eyes that match the child's lifeless ones, and gestures to the small window before them. "Look. The sleet has stopped."
The gray wash lifts from the worn rooftops to reveal a bid for sunshine and the foul-mouthed workmen reconvene as a many-armed machine. These men must patch a pothole before another storm. The smell of warm tar slithers through the uncaulked window again, burrows through cracks as it tumbles in a cyclone. It takes advantage of the space.
Jo says, "I really just want to lie down."
Carrie stutters, still holding the picture of her daughter. "I should go to work. But I—I could use a nap, too."
When the couple lies down, everything returns to five a.m. Carrie wraps her hand around Jo's and asks, "The portrait?"
The portrait of the woman from the coffee shop looms larger in the corner than it had previously. Eros preens beneath the stand, and purrs.
Jo rests her head on Carrie's shoulder. "My mother. Maybe."
"Your mother. I understand."
You understand, yes. Jo wonders how many people have been touched by adoption in this way.
The answering machine still screams in syllables of light, but Carrie turns towards Jo. The two wrap their arms around one another. Jo knows: Carrie will be a new painting. She will spur many things: another gallery show, a Washington Post cancellation, a new workplace with walls.
Jo asks, "Can I make you dinner tonight? Not here—at my place? It's my birthday."
"Then maybe I should make you dinner," Carrie says. "Birthdays are important." This real mother places her child's photograph, gently, on the pillow beside her head and closes her eyes to sleep. Jo does not sleep, but watches the dancer—her future. When the construction beyond the window finally ceases, and the sky is void of lights, Jo allows herself to drift into dreams of steamrollers and little girls. In these dreams, she can see her mother's face.
About the author:
Brittany Fonte holds an MFA in Creative Writing and does, on occasion, teach English at the local college. She writes long hours and practices yoga and random acts of kindness.