Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

White China 

 

 

Noah’s world flew into color when Evette entered any room.

His wife, Jill, was a Grecian sculpture, cool and monochrome and lovely, and he enjoyed watching her at rest. But with Evette the world spiraled into blazes of saturation, became a Van Gogh, swirls of color and emotion.

Evette did a twirl upon entering with the heaping plate of pasta, her bare feet unconsciously finding first position. Noah began to shake. When she bent to lay the dish before him, he could see into her loose shirt to a small breast encased in a sports bra, some armpit hair that she didn’t shave, and smelling the feral, gamey smell of that unshaven hair, his mind reeled. He pictured himself traveling with her, somewhere exotic, Africa, islands in the South Pacific, the plains of Patagonia. Himself, walking behind her, Sherpa-ing her lading of cloth and beads and feathers he imagined her buying. She was ambiguously ethnic—mother a Black Panther who had walked into the California State Capitol carrying a submachine gun, father a Japanese calligrapher in exile after some kind of political showdown. Some other things mixed in with the mother, so that her face and body were a modern atonal symphony, jarring and ugly and beautiful, with insane cheekbones and a snakelike slenderness that was somehow soft and yielding rather than hard and sharp. In his imagination, she darted with strange, birdlike, unpredictable intent while he, Noah, trailed after, straining to keep up. Everything about her was rounded—he slid off and landed—plop—back in his own life, even in his fantasies.

The table was heaped with things, all cold. All colorful. Mostly raw. Summer things. Pottery dishes—Evette’s own pockmarked, irregular pottery. Josh presided over the table, and began, sacrilegiously in Noah’s opinion, to spoon food onto his oversized plate with the ragged edges. He did not so much as glance at Evette, who sat at the other end and placed a quizzical chin on her hands. Noah was in awe of her composure. She sat watching her husband, still and inscrutable as a sphinx.

Josh spoke to Noah’s wife when he said, “Impractical, aren’t they?” about the plates.

“Thank you, Evette,” Noah said, unable to catch Evette’s eyes.

“Mm,” she responded, nibbling a farfalle she’d picked up with her fingers.

Jill smiled her little smile at Josh. She doled things out in tempting little portions; smiles, ice cream, brisket, Christmas toys, sex. She made everyone crave just a bit more.

“Jill has a retrospective at the Colonial Gallery,” Noah said, artificially inseminating his voice with pride.

“I know. I heard,” Josh said, again addressing only Jill. “That’s colossal.”

“You heard? Where?” Art was Noah’s bailiwick, and Josh’s intrusion into his area of influence filled him with an unnamable anxiety.

“What’s the show called?” asked Evette in her husky voice.

Skin and Bone,” Jill said.

“She’s experimenting with abstracted body parts and bones,” Noah explained. “The bones look alive and the people look dead. It blurs the line, you know. Animate, inanimate. Life and death.” He did not add how frightening he found it: how her work made him feel he was inside an abattoir.

“A line that should be blurred,” said Josh.

As he spoke—as Josh spoke—Noah was acutely aware of the hillbilly twang that colored their speech, and this is what he was considering as he watched his wife and brother share their moment. They’d made good, the Aranov brothers. Childhood was rough and malnourished—love, attention, presence, food—all were in short supply. Noah had more than once seen his mother’s bank statement, and it was not uncommon for the total to read $4.78, $12.36, once $1.22. There was emergency cash in the lining of her coats, in the leg of the piano, in an old coffee can on the top shelf. His father worked in a Missouri slaughterhouse until he drank himself to death, and his mother was (he cringed when he thought of it) a Gypsy psychic in a booth-like office that catered to and exploited the walk-in desperate. A cacophony of bells and chimes signaled her return from work, when she hoisted herself onto the couch and fell asleep in her garish makeup, gnarled toes talons-up on the broken-backed chair she used as an ottoman. She had a longing for culture, though, left over from the old country, from the cultured side of her family. Noah and Josh had to take janitorial and fast-food jobs from an early age, but she wanted her sons to find the time to:

A. Play an instrument (hence the piano)

B. Attend a good college on scholarship

C. Become:

1. a doctor

2. psychiatrist

3. lawyer

4. or moneylender

D. Marry an artist

 

They’d checked these goals off, one by one. Noah followed Josh to the University of Michigan for an MBA. While Noah’s ridiculous art history degree led him to run a profitable gallery downtown, Josh made the real money managing a hedge fund only sixteen blocks away. Noah tried and tried not to be jealous. After all, he fulfilled part of the requirement, procuring a wife for each of them, women, whom his gallery represented, on opposite ends of the spectrum.

“I keep telling her we should just get some plain white china,” Josh went on, bringing attention back to the impracticality of Evette’s pottery.

Noah tried to think of something to say to Evette that would enfranchise her. Just as he was about to say, I think your pottery’s imperfection is…like life, like nature, Josh said, “You know, like yours.”

Noah paused. White china. When had Josh seen the rows of dishes—cups, saucers, arranged in stacked columns like teeth, each nesting into the last—that Jill bought from an industrial design firm just last week? They’d not had Josh and Evette over since their purchase. But—oh—he remembered Josh dropped off some financial documents a few days ago. He had a key. Noah bristled at the thought of Josh in his home, looking through his things, assessing the china.

Those plain white plates. Noah and Jill lived a black-and-white existence, and that was not metaphorical. His life was literally black and white—a house of snowy whiteness and some jarring, jagged blacks like the black serrations in Motherwell paintings; herringbone throw pillows; a blanket draped over the back of the couch with a large op-art zigzag pattern; a rug, white wool, with straight black lines that thickened in the middle, and his wife’s slightly abstract photography, sensual and contrasty, with few shades of gray. Full of disembodied limbs, they festooned the walls of their apartment, evoking to Noah the cold, violent immobility of the slaughterhouse in which his father worked. Tableaus of death.

“I was home,” said Jill. “When he dropped your portfolio. I showed him the plates and some of my newest prints. I wanted some help deciding. What to use for the show, you know.”

“Did he help?” Evette asked, her tone neutral.

No one responded.

When they married, Jill (even her name had sharp edges) had seemed a soothing antidote to the chaos of Noah’s background. Chaos always lurked around the corner, stalking him. It eroded his periphery. Poverty, privation, foreignness leaked from him when he let down his guard, he was sure of it. Jill was the very opposite of his jangly, mirrored, brightly colored mother, whose off-kilter wig and soiled clothing scraps smelled a little rotten and a little sweet when Noah fell asleep in her lap, her clawed nails in his scalp, a little half-Jewish, half-Romani snore escaping the corners of her mouth.

Jill, in her wedding dress and big smile, might as well have said, with her very agreement to wed him: It’s official. You fooled them. His gratitude was immense—big enough to pardon the whole world its injustices. Then, at his mother’s funeral, when a relative somehow stole Jill’s pearls right off her neck, he realized the hyper-vigilance involved in continuing to fool everyone. He got down on his hands and knees and searched the grass of the graveyard for the pearls. Those carnival-freak relatives searched too, goddamn it. The sad part was that either of them—himself or Jill—could have asked for the pearls back, and they would have been laughingly returned. That was just their way, his mother’s people.

So that row of white spheres—heirlooms from his wife’s parents—were sacrificed to his façade.

Nowadays Noah was exhausted with the pretense. Through no fault of her own, Jill had come to seem to him a bit like the leader of a totalitarian state. She made the sun rise and set at will on Noah and their three daughters. He let her do it. Late at night, when he couldn’t sleep and lay itching in bed—itching for certainty, validation, some promise of never again that no amount of retirement planning or write-ups in the Tribune or profiles in Flash Art or country weekends with Jill’s professor parents could quite alleviate—Noah was glad his lovely wife tended to his veneer. He was grateful for their angular, monochrome, predictable life and three precocious, well-behaved children who had never (and this still stunned him) spilled or written anything on all those white walls, white window treatments, white furniture. He, too, virtually made of white-trash mud, had yet to mark up their life. Which made the wait for his fall—the inevitable transgression that would reveal his true colors—all the more excruciating.

But during the day he was tired. Right now, he was tired. Watching Josh watch Jill, he felt somehow that he had married the wrong wife. Josh was a white-china kind of guy. Josh would have saved the pearls. Edifices energized him.

Evette was something else entirely, another species. She made dirt look good. Literally. She’d dabbled in every medium (a video art/performance dance piece was what brought her into his gallery), but she was especially well-known for her raku pottery, had indeed trained for five years in Japan. Her hands were black from the mud she slung onto the potter’s wheel, from the ashy glazes she used and the dangerous firing process—pots and plates and little figures burning atop a white-hot fire in the backyard of her upstate studio. Her fingernails were never clean, and she almost always had smudges on her colorful skin and clothes, but the smudges looked intentional. Rather than Jill—his mother’s opposite—she seemed the apotheosis of Ilona Aranov, a refinement and perfection of his mother’s Gypsy bedlam. She didn’t hide anything. She reveled in her difference. She ripped her world open with her artist’s hands, while he built cage after cage around his. He shook when alone with her, but his fantasies stopped short of her naked body, which, he imagined, was jungly, feral, and frightening as her calm and her feeling.

“I have news,” said Jill to the table at large.

“Oh?” said Josh. “Do tell.”

Noah grew inexplicably uneasy.

“I’m pregnant,” said Jill. She shook her head. “I’m having another one.”

“That’s wonderful!” Noah stood and kissed her cheek, feeling terrified.

Evette stood. She stretched a long, yoga-ed body, picked up an empty dish, and said, “Well,” before leaving the room, her tone unreadable.

“How many weeks?” Josh asked.

“Thirteen,” she answered.

“That’s colossal,” said Josh.

Thirteen. Second trimester. Jill watched her plate, still full of the food she’d not touched. She ran a thumb around the plate’s toothed edge, and Noah had a strange feeling that it was his spine she was touching with those fingertips. He felt her thumb-pad deep in his body, and thought about the sex they had shared over the past few months. It had been—unlike the sex in the beginning of the marriage—so heavily laden with emotional ambivalence that the only memory it generated was anxious. Who remembers what sex feels like in the moment? Most of Noah’s life felt like memory-generation, to make the future softer, sweeter, more able to catch his fall. He rarely experienced the present.

Noah stood. Like it was choreographed, he stretched, exactly as Evette had. He walked to Jill, wrapped arms around her shoulders from behind, kissed her neck. “That’s wonderful, love,” he whispered, loud enough for Josh to hear. “Let’s celebrate later.”

Then he picked up some dishes and followed Evette into the kitchen.

She stood with her back to him, head bent. He wished it were her long and untamed neck he could kiss, tendrils of kinky hair frizzed beneath the loose bun piled and tied at the crest of her head. She held her forehead in her tented fingers, and he saw tears in her eyes.

“Are you—?” He started and then faltered.

She turned on him. Her voice was almost cheerful as she said, “You know whose child that is,” but a tear dropped from each eye onto the tile.

And, yes, he knew whose child it was. Whose child it likely was. He gave his head a shake that could have been a nod or a negation.

“Well?” she said. “Are you okay with that?”

“I… I’m not…” Noah grappled with what to say, but the truth was…yes, he was okay with it. He and Josh were united by hatred, but beneath that hatred was a much stronger and fiercer love and loyalty that nothing could violate. They relied on one another for emotional survival. Their bond was adamant.

But then Evette embraced him, and his senses were overwhelmed. The moment became this moment, her feral smell registering as color—deep indigo—and the sound of her breathing mixed with the warm, ragged breath on his arm as she wept, the deep red of arterial blood, the touch of her body pressed to him a visual thing, an auditory thing, like dance, music, and the world was in synesthetic confusion; a slippage between the senses. Sparks and shivery glitter seemed to shoot from her body into his. He got a fast and painful erection and pulled away from her. She watched him, tears leaking from her eyes. He reached out, took a tear on his shaking finger, sought her reflection in it. Noah would have, at that moment, slipped out the back door with her, disappeared into her jangling, colorful world—he would have followed her anywhere—that’s how drunk he was on her. He waited to see if she would invite him to step, however provisionally, further into her world.

He held his breath, and then he began, his heart skittering, “Do you want to—?”

And at the same time, she said, “We aren’t pieces of art. We aren’t objects you can trade or sell.”

Noah said, “No, we aren’t!” and he felt their hearts move a step closer together.

But then he realized that she wasn’t talking about them, himself and her. She was aligning herself with Jill. Jill! Evette and Jill were the they, and he and Josh the enemy, the traders of women, the objectifiers of women.

He felt he’d been slapped.

His whole world closed in on him a step.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered deep in his throat.

Evette looked a moment like she might touch him, as something close to sympathy clouded the indignation in her eyes. But then she turned away from him, enshrouded within her own unknowable pain, the constellation of her own memories, and left him there in the kitchen, surrounded by the broken teeth of her pottery.

 

 

 

 

 

Saramanda Swigart is thrilled to be writing fiction exclusively after years of writing advertising copy and corporate literature. She completed an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Alembic, Border Crossing, The Broken Plate, Caveat Lector, Clarion, Diverse Arts Project, East Jasmine Review, Euphony, Fogged Clarity, Glint Literary Journal, The Grief Diaries, The Literati Quarterly, OxMag, The Penmen Review, The MacGuffin, Ragazine, Superstition Review, and Thin Air; her work has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train and a 2017 Pushcart Prize nomination. Saramanda is working on translating some of the more salacious stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Saramanda teaches at City College of San Francisco.