Mrs Carmen Stride was one of those provincial elevated New-York women who presented her outward deportment in such an elegant way; it was as if a layer of air had been slipped under her feet. She told herself that it was an adequate façade to cover a crumbling marriage – for she could sidle past her husband at some grotesquely-arranged party, offering only the sick gift of a sly smile. It was a societal sin to be passionate. Therefore, she became elaborate.
She was commonly described as a ‘frequent occurrence’ at parties, as if not a woman, but an event, melting in to the lacquered hysteria with not even a bat of an eyelid. It was strange, she thought, that some people lost themselves at parties. It was the clot of the crowd in which she found a certain kind of control.
Control does not equate to stability, control does equate to stability – she remembered the dull drill of the same lines from long lingering afternoons of deportment lessons when she was a mere girl momentarily absorbed in the superfluous supple bodies of young men. In high society, one has to typically cheat on own ideals. She appreciated, whether artful or not, the accidental brush of her arm against some fleeting young frame, enjoyed overhearing the hot and hasty words of some dark adulterous confessions.
But if there was one thing crying to be captured – it was innocence.
Cameras were a rarely new novelty – the little black boxed-faces clicking and snapping, the smoke unfurling like a tell-tale breath of deceit. There was the usual scream of ‘smile!’ and then the next day Carmen would half-expect her face in the paper, her pinched-in cheeks and round doe-eyes so the image screamed with innocence. Sometimes it did. Sometimes Avory Flick, a pugnacious Broker from Long-Island would bring his own camera and prefer to photograph the typical drunkards, the brawls and the buxom women half-intoxicated who as the night ran on seemed weighted closer and closer to the floor. Carmen thought the fun thing was that these people were captured by camera, their flavour of unrestrained wildness seeping through the black and white. She never thought the camera captured her.
She would reminisce fondly, as she let the sour notes of a highball anoint her throat, always leaning, hip-forwards in her usual delicate way at some party of another – of her childhood – how she loved the art of capture itself, restrained ants with the hot pulse of a magnifier, keeping spiders, snails, pet mice. Her grandmother told her that there was ‘always something beautiful about a menagerie.’ There was indeed, Carmen thought, as she would adorn the sweeping staircase with blood-thick roses and trimmed marigolds and watch the crowds sway drunkenly towards them. Women would shriek and clasp their hands within the whole pantomime, colouring roughly in the face, to which the cameras would turn – snap, snap, snap.
Of course, as Mrs Doubtwater had remarked to her one evening, there is always a place for nostalgia. Carmen ensured that there was not just a place for such, but an object – often adorning the magnificent longue with striped little morsels of candy. It was the same candy Avory Flick had choked upon one year, she remembered gazing with a semi-fascination at the naked convulsions of his face, Of course it was decorum to show outwards disgust, but by the time Mr Stride had hoisted Amory to his feet and Carmen had put him to bed the party was back underway again and candy was as ever present at the next gathering.
“I repeat mistakes until they are no longer so,” Carmen spoke with a bold execution of the syllables over the guests appreciation of the vol-ou-vents which still glistened with the gory vulnerability of raw fish.
She did not aim her words at anyone in particular, nor did she especially desire for anyone to hear. It was pleasant like that, she thought – speaking, yet unheard. It was the condition she maintained a knife-sharp equilibrium with her husband, even as he turned to her in the night – metaphorically, of course, in the strange sleep-peelings of dreams – and his fleshy jowls would crease with an expression of disgust.
She could have even admitted, and did to herself sometimes, that she liked disgust. Watching the sour, silted faces of the women who had outlived the peculiarly short sentence of high-regard, she would see the familiar creases form, and look upon them in a similar fashion. The fashion of ‘looking’ is one which is particularly difficult to perfect – for the eyes may be often drawn to linger upon the vaguely comforting features of a face, the strange shadows skimming over a piece of material.
That was perhaps why she felt shame when she saw the artist – and then hate.
It was somewhere within the midst of one of those languorous summer evenings which seems to shed all sense of time and simmer down to a combination of colour and heat, when she saw him. A peculiar air pervaded the place where he was sitting, just beneath the tortured glass of the bay window, letting the silt of a cigarette fall between his fingers slowly as if the weight of raindrops.
Detaching herself from an old friend she had met from the ballet, Carmen strode towards him determinedly, permeating the odour of male and female musk.
“Excuse me, but do you mind not dropping your ash on the tiles?” She allowed her voice to unfurl, deliberately cold and condescending. It irritated her that the artist, half-straddling his easel as he assembled it, only gave her a half-glance, evidently pre-occupied by the turquoise train of some screeching woman attempting to barter for the chandelier in the corner. Carmen would have her removed later.
She repeated herself.
He looked at her suddenly, stricken, as if a piercing light had emitted from her mouth.
“What is it, my dear?” He paused, attempting to rearrange the slight catch of his accent, resolving to speak more slowly “It was very good of your… husband… to invite me.”
Carmen gave a little cluck of distaste and wondered why her husband had made the effort to invest in the appearance of such a man. She had seen her husband earlier, circulating in the far reaches of the room like a comet which has long-lost its magnificence, running through his beard with one hand and raising a wine glass to his mouth with the other. Thomas rarely allowed any one the privilege of his speech, and when he did, it was not a privilege – it was typically a rebuttal. It upset Carmen that sometimes she did the same.
“ Well I do not want you here.”
At that moment she wished for a mirror in order to observe how beautifully austere his lips were. Somehow, the artist seemed to sense this.
“Well, ma’am, you may not want me – “
“And I don’t.”
“- But how about a picture?” He gestured to the accumulation of equipment by his side, allowing her to waver over him.
At her hesitation, he became animated, revealing a sketchbook of already completed portraits – some full-length and some half – to her.
“Look,” He urged “Here is Mrs Flatterly – she sat for a good while, you know, and here is one of Miss Spite…”
Her eyes jarred on the portrait of mention, almost stopping the sense in the rest of her body – only a jealous gaze left to rest on the fine painted contours of the body, the delicacy of the cheekbones. She knew that Mrs Spite looked not even half as magnificent in the reality of things! And then she felt an urgency, almost a compulsion, within her frame, to allow herself to be painted, knowing that it would be more beautiful, more than anything Mrs Spite would ever dream of –
“I will sit for one then, just one, mind you.”
She arranged herself on a precarious-looking stool which had been arranged adjacent to the easel, letting her dress unfurl around her so she appeared to assemble the peaked waves of an overheated wedding cake. It was strange; she considered that this was a kind of surrender. She allowed her stare to surpass the artist, the odd curvature of his dark moustache and the strained expression of his ever-focusing eyes, she looked beyond the strangely passive flocks of guests, imagined a kind of true touch upon her, her mouth curving slightly a kind of remembrance –
She stopped herself suddenly. It was not fashionable to be seen with a prevailing smile.
The acceptable aspect of painting was that the models eyes could wander without the body – the utter social convention of chastity, she thought, albeit a little heatedly, and consequently wished for her face powder. She wondered, as she watched the blunt, almost restricting movements of the paintbrush as if gouging the easel – why Mrs Spite had not taken her painting. After all, Carmen admitted to herself, it was a striking portrait – something especially about the lips which she had not quite registered, could remember in the sweeping excitement of herself. She ventured yto move her mouth, hardly daring to expose the teeth she was so conscious of.
“Say, why didn’t Mrs Spite take her painting?”
The artist smiled at her, with an almost untold expression unfurling across his brow. She still worked, determinedly, almost awfully, as he spoke.
“Oh, you mean Miss Spite. I don’t know, she indicated she was in a hurry or something similar…”
Carmen mused slightly, biting her bottom lip slightly- Mrs Spite was now a Miss! She felt almost angered at the details she was missing, for she collected details – enough to compose her dresses from the rich trappings of magazines, society journals, diaries, and words, words, words. Her husband had once made a remark about her being addicted. That was when she started to hate him.
She hated him, especially, utterly, when he interrupted the plaintive plains of her thoughts – thoughts which did not require him. And yet he still appeared, both in mind and body, striding towards the artist, and almost smiling upon her! It made her sick and she scowled instinctively.
The artist let slip a laugh which was almost thickened by something vindictive.
“It’s a good job that the painting was finished before you pulled that face!”
A strange sensation bubbled in her throat – she must have sat for hours, almost oblivious! And surely though she had not noticed, everyone else had! She felt a raging social consciousness strike through her cheeks like a raw bolt, her husband seemingly avoiding helping her to her feet and slipping to the side of the artist. He whistled inwardly, in a kind of long-anticipated admiration as he spoke –
“A striking likeness, my friend, I must say.”
“Thank you, Mr Stride.”
The two men seemed to share a smile between them which had the unnerving texture of the smile shared by accomplices in a crime – a smile of reckoning, a smile of recognition. Carmen felt a sudden hot burst of light fall upon her face through the bay window like the weight of a sharply stilled bird, a life still hot and promising. Despite her presence, the men still continued, trilling their tongues in whispers which were designed emphatically for her to hear.
It was her husband who went first, speaking with a kind of enjoyment, as if his voice was being submerged in warm, clean water – bold and amplified.
“And what about that slut, Mrs Spite, that was her name?”
Carmen revolved a little in shock, furthermore so, as the artists eyes somehow met hers as she spoke.
“Oh, her husband sorted that. Fair to say – he isn’t her husband anymore!”
The men seemingly indulged themselves in a dual snort of laughter, Mr Stride raising his eyebrows with a certain eagerness, still looking at Carmen’s portrait, almost spitting the words as he spoke –
“ A similar course I will take, I expect!”
The undercutting anger in the tone seemed to catch Carmen in the throat, and she made an attempt to stand, though the mocking tiers of her dress seemed to sway, almost like a preventative.
“What on earth are you talking about?” She implored. It was the first time she had addressed her husband directly for days, and there was still the same empty artificiality in her voice, she thought.
It was with a deft, almost violent movement Mr Stride spun the painting around to meet her, rising towards her like a kind of threat. For a moment, she ignored everything apart from a sense of heating pride at the glassiness of her eyes she typically aimed for, how the artist had captured her fluted nostrils without being unflattering – but then she looked own the image, letting her eyes fall.
How she had been sitting, her chest slightly thrust forward, shoulders back, picturing herself evidently in a kind of bohemia – allowed the sight of what she anticipated that her husband would never see. The slight, firm swell of her stomach. Her own body automatically responded, as if out of an urgent protection, her hand slipping to the soft swell beneath her clothes.
The soft well of imminent motherhood which only lit in her husband’s eyes.
“You little whore!” He spat.
Beneath the heat of his breath, the condensation on Carmen’s face slipped away to sudden realisation – the reason why Mrs Spite did not keep her painting was because it portrayed her guilt, the thick green-guilt, thick as what was evidently the lingering marks of a lovers kiss still engrained into her lips as she sat, flushed and flurried, to be painted. Carmen closed her eyes knowing that her image in itself was also such a confession. But she would not cry – for him – for either of them.
“Who is it?”
His lips seemed waxed back in s snarl as he crouched on his haunches and came closer to her face, unable to reach her through the furling of white dress.
She heard the snap, snap, snap of resigning footfalls tarrying outside, although her husband and the artist stayed where they were. People cried for photographs and as the night thickened, wandered aimlessly in search of the camera.