Saturday, September 17, 2005

Symphony in White 2

Written during my senior year in college, this was inspired by a print of Whistler's painting, Symphony in White 2. There was something about the woman's expression that fascinated me. Thanks to the time of year, Halloween, this story pretty much wrote itself.

She wore her wedding negligee as she crawled out onto the roof. Turning the window’s lock to catch upon closure, she pushed it shut. There would be no turning back now. But why should she? Life was nothing but pain and isolation. Didn’t they see it in her portrait? The painter had; he had captured it with frightening accuracy. It looked as if she were contemplating the golden wedding band with deeper concentration than any young, and supposedly optimistic, bride should. As if trying to convince herself that all would be well in the end.

But it had been three years and nothing had changed. Her time at home, alone with his mother, was so frighteningly stifling that she had to stop and remind herself to breathe -- otherwise she would turn in to one of his mother’s grotesque knick-knacks. Just stop breathing, let her skin harden, her eyes glaze. For a few months they might even let her form sit out in view. “Yes, that was my wife,” her husband would say to visitors, his voice with that polite tone he always used with her. “She got bored. But it’s nice to keep her around, she’s a reminder of why I never plan to remarry. Too frightfully dangerous to my creativity, my writing.”

Then he would put her away, maybe tuck her away in the never-used guest room, regale her to the attic after that, once the prickings of guilt were gone. If there was any guilt. After all, he had promised to give her the life any woman deserved: free of work and in a beautiful home. Well, it was free from work. His mother had kept house until she was seventy-five. Then he hired a cleaning lady who came every day to run the house exactly as mother specified. “See, my love, you don’t have to life a finger,” he had said. “Consider this home your palace.”

A palace? It was a study in gothic tackiness meets overstuffed Victoriana. High ceilings, gaudy wallpaper, red velvet furniture, bric-a-brac, and painted wood. Paint! Paint on everything that could be painted. Including the marble fireplace, which was coated with green to compliment the leaves in the rose wallpaper. Last week she had tried to re-arrange the front sitting room. Mother’s response to it had been terrifying. Ranting, screaming, waving her arthritic stick arms until they practically dislocated themselves. “How dare you touch my belongings?” had been the main crux of her fit. How could he have guilt when he had given her exactly what he had promised?

Except, she decided, for the love he had shown during their courtship. Two years of flowers and wine, poems... a true romance. Then, suddenly, it dried up. They were married. She had difficulty conceiving. He took it as unwillingness; as a sign of her indifference to their relationship.

The ring went first. She yanked it off her finger and hurled it at the waters below. How dramatically fortunate that their house, no, his house, overlooked the sea. It sat so close that she could practically swan dive from the gable. They were craggy rocks, sharp guarantees that she’d succeed. The ring arced and vanished, lost in the white capped waves that slammed against her fate below, their soft crashes hiding the click of the window as it was unlocked.

It was a beautiful, warm day. An Indian summer. Not a suicide day by any definition. Those days were bleak, stormy. The wind should be whipping her hair around her face, the white satin soaked and clinging to her slim body. Death would be beautiful and regal. Thought and planned and executed in a gracious manner.


Her husband was holed up in his private study. It was as crowded and overstuffed as the rest of the house, having been decorated by Mother five decades ago when it became her office. Long and thin like a bowling alley, one wall -- bookshelves. Floor to ceiling, end-to-end, nothing but books. The opposite wall, file cabinets of his and Mother’s paperwork of the family business. Untouched and unneeded since she retired twenty-six years ago, they were kept regardless. He did not like to touch Mother’s possessions; after all, it was her house. Interrupting the chain of cabinets were chairs from the old dining room table. They were pushed flush against the wall. Mother didn’t like things sticking out for him to trip on. Sitting at the far end, also pushed flush to the wall, was an incredible antique roll top desk. Almost out-of-place in this high-ceiling gray room, too grand from an otherwise gray room, the desk proudly displayed this year’s latest computer model.

And there he sat. Pounding out a manuscript, his hands properly arched and fingers keying perfectly, was her husband. Martin. There was no noise beyond the keyboards quiet clack, not even a chair creak. There was no movement beyond that of his hands.

Peck, peck, peck. He never paused. The words were coming too quickly. Spilling out easily for the first time in too long, he was frantic to type them all before it was too late and they vanished.
It’s too easy, too easy! A quiet voice rejoiced in his head. Thank God no one’s pestering me. This is it, the story, the one I’m going to have a name with! Mother’s napping and the little woman isn’t....


The well dried up and his train of thought crashed so abruptly that he cursed loudly and solidly.
Leaning back in his chair, dramatically covering his face with his hands, he cursed again. Why did I have to think about her? He scowled. She always did this to him. Always. Every time she came around and pestered, Martin, come out with me. Martin, why are you always in there? Come out and eat dinner with me, Martin. I miss you, we’re growing apart. Never a moment free of her, always trying to play the wife role but never wanting to give him a son. Selfish to the end, he thought, feeling the usual irritation inevitably felt when she was around. So full of life, carefree, bright and cheerful... during their courtship. Once she had made it obvious that she wanted nothing to do with him and that darling carefree facade was dropped, he gave up.
Within six months she was gloomy and complaining, insisting that Mother was resentful of their marriage! Certainly Mother had her misgivings, but before the wedding they had seemed so dire. Before long, he realized that Mother’s predictions were true, that this little chit would never make an understanding wife. She would never get the picture that being a wife meant being reasonable and letting the man be in charge. How many women wished that they could stay home and never work! And she wanted to work! At some outlandish job in the city, with a newspaper! Well, he would let her have her dreams, that was fine, but no wife of his was going to run around the town like some hoyden under the pretense of work. Let the “modern” women act that way. He had made that clear after their wedding, sure that she would understand and prefer the life of leisure he offered. Particularly in Mother’s fine old mansion. Here, away from the hellish city, he could write in peace.

Martin had never really gotten over his mother’s having to work and leaving him alone. Even now, the thought brought him considerable angst. Being raised by his shiftless father who could not, or would not, take over Mother’s family’s business when she inherited it, made Martin fully aware of a wife’s duties. He had promised himself that he would never be that way, that his son would be raised by a mother and that he would be the sole support of the family. He would never let a woman run his life and castrate him with a larger paycheck. Not even in this era.

She had been so annoying that several times he had considered divorce. But had never mentioned it. Divorce would be too shameful to the family name. Even in this era. He did have standards, even if the rest of the world had gone to pot.

Although it was not below those standards to wish she would go away and leave him alone. Why, just last week, he even caught himself wishing her dead so that he and Mother could live in peace again, rather than his having to put up with those two bickering constantly. When she understood that Mother’s house was Mother’s house, as he had told her a hundred times, and that she should just live here and enjoy it for its beauty and grandeur, then she would be happy.

He rose from the chair, pushing it back slowly to keep the floorboards from creaking and waking Mother. He needed inspiration.

Though it was the same annoying little shrew that he had married who took away his inspiration, it was the same shrew who returned it. He had learned that there was only one temperament of hers that he liked that give him the shove he needed to continue writing.
He traveled to her private dressing room, the one room Mother had permitted her to redecorate without fuss since it was only an old servant’s room. The room was an explosion of color and femininity in comparison to the rest of the house. Martin never felt at ease in here; it was too pink, too delicate, and too frilly. Everything was draped and scattered. Nothing was pushed against the wall, everything seemed to be in his way. A grouping of chairs, snuggled together, she had once explained, because it gave an intimate feeling to any women sitting there, sat towards one corner of the room. In another, a massive armoire, one of Mother’s antiques, had been stripped of its heavy finish and redone as “French country” style. Whatever that was. He just knew that Mother would have a fit if she saw it. A matching dressing table with an enormous mirror sat near it, jutting out slightly to make room for the brass coat rack behind it that she draped her scarves on. A twin bed had been dressed up to act as a couch, an idea he remembered her exclaiming over during breakfast one morning. With bolsters on either end to act as armrests and a mountain of pillows, it did resemble a couch, though in Martin’s mind, it was rather disproportional in comparison to a real couch. He shrugged, as he always did when he entered the room. One of these days he would redo it.

The dressing room was adjoining to their once mutual bedroom. He had moved out about two years ago, taking his childhood room back, when it was apparent that she would not be a good wife. He turned the knob and walked in. There she was, lying in her bed, looking delightfully peaceful and innocent,

“Darling,” he said, “I need some more inspiration. Give me some.” And he sat next to her, in the chair kept by the bedside. Holding her hand, stroking it, he encouraged her. “You know, when we first married, your behavior was intolerable and so destructive to my writing. But now that you’ve shown you understood me, you’ve been so very kind and for once unselfish. I do love you, more than you realize, now.”

She stared back at him, her glassy eyes never blinked and her face remained serene.
Before leaving, he smoothed her wedding negligee and re-crossed her hands under her breast. Darling little thing she was now, darling.

He supped with Mother that night.
“I’m so glad you talked me out of selling out business, Mother. Taxidermy does make a nice hobby.”

1 comment:

Bernie J. Rewolski said...

Great work sis. nice twist at the end, made my jaw drop.