The Women | Chapter 24 of 41

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 10560 Views | Add a Review

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CHAPTER 3: NOW COMES FEAR
Whether Norma or her little toad of a husband approved or not was an utter irrelevance: she was moving in with Frank Lloyd Wright at 25 East Cedar Street and the whole world could choke on its pinched pathetic petit bourgeois notions of propriety for all she cared. She was going to live. Express herself. Roam with the giants. It happened that she was in love with a towering genius, a Wagnerian hero who stood head and shoulders above them all, a Tannhäuser, a Siegfried—and he was in love with her, her and no one else—and if they thought she was going to confine herself to a miserable back room in a hideous flat and live like a Carmelite nun at her son-in-law’s sufferance, they were sadly mistaken. She had her bags sent over, the trunks she’d brought with her from France, her clothes, jewelry, objets d’art, and by the middle of January she was established, mistress of her own house once again.
It was a kind of miracle. Like being on a honeymoon all over again and this little house the ship that would take them across the wide ocean into the seas of bliss. The nights were rapturous with lovemaking, the mornings sunstruck (or at least they felt that way), and while he was at his studio spinning out his designs in the company of his scurrying functionaries, she busied herself with making the house just a soupçon more comfortable—or less austere, at any rate. That was the term she used over the telephone to Leora—“He seems so austere, almost Puritanical, as if a plush pillow were a violation of the sumptuary laws or some such thing.” She selected curtains for the windows, pillows for the sofa and each of the flat hard-bottomed chairs. She ordered linens and stationery featuring their entwined initials and her familial crest. China, cutlery—carpets, for God’s sake. And his taste in cuisine: “I tell you, Leora, I try, I do—and we’ve been through two cooks already—but the only stuff he seems to like is so bland, so unappealing in every way, I couldn’t imagine a single soul in all of France, even the dirtiest peasant speaking some dialect that sounds as if he’s invented it on the spot, bothering to feed it to his hogs. No, I mean it. I do. He needs reforming. Needs a good dose of culture, beyond all his drawings and his houses, which really are exquisite, I’m not denying that, not at all—”
By the end of the second week, the punishing gray chill of January folding itself into the unrelenting arctic blast that welcomed February to the bleak canyons of Chicago, they had their first quarrel. The cook, on her instructions—and with her supervision—had prepared a lovely saumon tar-tare avec sauce moutarde for a prelude, followed by a bisque de homard, salade d’endive and a spectacular flambé of ris de veau, and she served a perfectly delicious Sancerre with the salmon and a Margaux with the sweetbreads she’d ordered herself from the wine merchant and had no little trouble finding it, incidentally, in this backwater, and he’d been less than impressed. In fact, at one point he pushed back his plate—shoved it aside as if it were something he’d found in the street—stalked into the kitchen without so much as a word and reappeared a moment later with a glass of water and an apple. While she watched, astonished, he peeled and divided the apple, feeding it into his mouth slice by slice and washing it down with the water.
“I spent all afternoon on this meal,” she said quietly, fighting to keep any hint of severity out of her voice. “And Madeline virtually slaved to bring it off.”
He gave her a sharp glance. “Tell Madeline she’s fired.”
“Fired? Why, I’ve just hired her. And she’s excellent, truly excellent—Montreal bred, perhaps, but—”
“Do I have to repeat myself? She’s fired. I’ll send to Taliesin for Nellie Breen if this is the best you can do.” He stabbed at a slice of the meat with the paring knife and held it, dripping, before him. “This sort of thing may be all the rage in Paris, but it won’t do here. We don’t eat this tripe—”
“Sweetbreads,” she corrected, and she could feel herself going hot all over. The temerity of him, the insult. He was a boor, that was what he was. A barbarian. “You’re a boor. That’s what the problem is. You need civilizing, are you aware of that?”
“And we don’t take alcoholic beverages—wine—with our meals.”
She was angry all of a sudden, so infused with rage she couldn’t speak. She laughed instead, a bitter cutting sarcastic laugh.
He was standing now, every inch of his five feet six or whatever it was clonic with fury. “Smoking,” he snarled. “It’s like living in a tobacco warehouse somebody’s set afire. It’s a disgusting habit. Totally inappropriate for a lady. And I won’t have it.”
And now the battle was joined, because she was on her feet too, ready to throw it all back at him. “Rube!” she shouted. “Hayseed!”
He gave her a look that chilled her—he was as capable of murder as any cutthroat roaming the alleys of the south side—and he actually took a step toward her, as if he would dare. Just let him, she was saying to herself, her feet braced and her body gone rigid. Just let him. But he checked himself—she saw the rational part of him take over as if a switch had been thrown, and he was afraid of her, wasn’t he? The little man, the coward. “You disgust me,” he said finally. And he turned on his heel, jerked round and strode out the door and into the black curtain of the night and he didn’t think of his cloak or his hat or the scarf that never once left his throat but when he was sitting at table or asleep in bed.
“Go!” she shrieked, darting to the door with the plate of sweetbreads and the sautéed champignons de la forêt and the sherry sauce she’d created from scratch raised in one hand. “Go, you bastard!” And the plate went with him, describing a drooling parabola across the moonlit yard till it crashed to the walk and scattered its contents for the birds and the squirrels and the scavengers of the night.
 
They made it up, of course—with a furious bout of lovemaking that began almost as if it were a free-fall match between two determined adversaries and ended in the sweetest surrender—but not before he went off to Wisconsin without her. For three entire days. And no word of him. Nothing. It was as if he’d never lived here, as if she’d never known him, and this house, filled with his things, was a memorial only, a tomb of nobody’s making. The first night she didn’t sleep an instant, replaying the scene over and over again in her head, wishing she’d showed more restraint, less fire and fury, because she did love him as she’d never loved anyone in her life, she was sure of it, absolutely and without question, and she missed him with an ache that echoed inside her like a cry of despair from the cored-out trunk of a withered tree.97 The following day was purgatorial, an accumulation of intolerable minutes and torturous hours that made her lash out at Madeline and the various delivery men presenting their wares, and she wouldn’t call him at his offices like some castoff baggage who can’t keep track of her man, she wouldn’t. By the close of the second day, she was certain he was deceiving her with another woman, his secretary, his wife—Kitty, that was her name, Kitty, and why not just call her cunt and get it over with? She telephoned Leora and sobbed through the thin swaying wires, telephoned Norma to tell her her mother was ruined, and finally, though she fought it, she broke down and telephoned his studio. Where the reedy wisp of an effeminate acolyte came over the line to inform her that the Master—Mr. Wright—had gone up to Taliesin to oversee the work there. And when was he expected back? Oh—a long calculated pause—he couldn’t say. After that, she had her pravaz, only that. And even then, she cried herself to sleep.
At breakfast the morning after they’d made it up he was tender with her, tender and gentle too, and they sat across the table from each other in a satiate glow, no need for words, their silence broken only by the most solicitous murmurings, Would you care for another cup of tea, dear? Cream? Can I get you another egg? Darling, if it’s not too much trouble, would you please be kind enough to pass the salt? She clung to him when he got up to leave for work, their kisses so heated he very nearly had her right there on the carpet, and when he came home the first thing she did was lead him into the bedroom. And she let Madeline go, just to please him, and that night she stood over the stove herself, half-dressed, and made him potatoes in the pan with onions and a steak au jus with no flavoring other than a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper. He never stopped talking, not even to draw breath, and after dinner he sat at the piano and serenaded her till she sank into the new plush pillows like a queen, like Cleopatra herself. He was hers, he was hers, he was hers, and the world was a good and beautiful place once again.
Their second quarrel came at the end of that week and he was the one who set it off—again—because he was in a mood, she could see that the minute he stepped through the door. He didn’t like the pillows, that was it. They made the place look like a whorehouse, he said, and she said, “So what does that make me?”
He had no answer for that, and she saw what a little man he was, what a yellowbelly, and no sooner did he divest himself of his cape and hat than he started in on the subject of her stationery and the china she’d ordered. “It’s vulgar, Miriam. Your coat of arms? What of mine? Don’t you think the Lloyd Joneses go back farther than the, the—whoever your people are?”
“My father was a Hicks. And we trace our origins back to the earliest settlement of Virginia. If it weren’t for the War Between the States, we’d—”
“The plain red square,” he said. “That is how I’ve marked my stationery all these years and that is how I’ll mark it in the future. Do you understand me? I won’t discuss it.”98
She was seething—the way he cut her off, dictated to her. Who did he think he was? “Yes? And what will you discuss? Taliesin? Tell me about Taliesin and why I’m not invited there. Is it because of that dead woman? You think I’ll sully her memory, is that it?”
He averted his face—a sure sign he was lying—and said, “No, that’s not it at all. It’s just that we’re rebuilding right now and you really wouldn’t be comfortable there, what with the dirt and confusion, the limited room, and my attentions of course would be distracted in terms of the work going forward—”
“What about your mother?”
“My mother? What has she got to do with it?” His voice flared. “I suppose you resent her having given birth to me, is that it? Because you weren’t there?” He was bent over the lamp in the corner now, jerking at the switch. The light caught his face as he turned to her, everything about him savage and animalistic, like some burrowing thing trapped outside its den, and he was hateful, hateful.
“She’s invited, isn’t she?”
“Well, I—of course. You know that. I’m building rooms for her and my aunts—and for you, for you too.”
“And your children? The children are there, are they not? Catherine, Llewellyn, David, Frances? One big happy family? Where are they sleeping? Are they so put out by the construction?” He’d turned to her and she came right up to him now, thrusting her face in his. “You’re a liar, Frank. A liar. And a ghoul, that’s what you are, because you prefer some, some corpse to me! A memory! A dead thing!” She veered away from him, her hand snatching for something, anything she could heft, one of his damned statues, anything—but he caught her by the wrist.
“Don’t you say a word against her,” he said, tightening his grip.
She twisted away from him, jerked her wrist free, and here was one of his vases and she didn’t give two figs what dynasty it hailed from or what precious artisanic soul had fired it in whichever golden Chinese era—and were they all golden?—it was in her hand and then it was gone, obliterated against the wall. “Go ahead,” she said, “hit me,” but she spun out of reach, flung herself across the room and then came at him so swiftly he had to backtrack.
“Cold meat, Frank. But I’m alive, a real live flesh-and-blood woman!” Both her hands were at her collar now and in a single savage jerk she tore the dress to her waist, her breasts falling free even as the cold air of the room assaulted her. “Look at me. Look at my breasts. You’ve fondled them enough. Suckled them like an infant. They were good enough for you then. And now you prefer a corpse, a corpse over me?”
His face was blanched. He was backing away from her. “Miriam,” he pleaded.
“No! No! I’ll kill myself first—is that what you want? Is it? Two corpses?”
 
In the morning—Christ knew where he’d spent the night—two of his assistants appeared at the door, the mole-hair and another tight-mouthed drudge who looked at her as if she were the Gorgon herself. They were there to pack up Mr. Wright’s things and remove them to his offices. What things? she demanded, but she already knew. And she didn’t attempt to stop them, not by any means. If he wanted to run out on her, desert her, leave her bereft and unprovided for like the cad he was, well, she wasn’t about to stop him. She took a cab to Marshall Field’s, though she detested the place, and when she returned there was no trace of him at 25 East Cedar Street but for the furniture itself—even his toothbrush was gone. Again she put off telephoning to his offices and again she broke down. Just as she’d suspected, he was at Taliesin and couldn’t be reached.
This time he didn’t come back. And though it ate at her, through every minute of every day, she stayed on in the empty house. Every time she heard a noise in the street, the scrape of a shoe along the walk or a voice lifted in greeting, she was sure it was him, sure he’d come back to her, but she was disappointed. Over and over again. As the days wore on, she steeled herself—she had resources of her own. And she had her pravaz and a prescription from a very forward-looking physician whose address she’d found in the directory. And this was her house now and she would be damned if she was going to leave it.
Of course, she wrote him—daily, sometimes two or three times a day. She telephoned to him as well and when she did manage to reach him, he seemed distracted—and guilty too—and though he tried to act as if nothing were the matter, as if he was simply preoccupied with the building at Taliesin, she couldn’t really be held accountable if her voice did rise above an acceptable level because she was only human, as she reminded him, and not a memory. Or was she? Then his letters, which had been sympathetic, solicitous, kind—but distant, as if he were writing to an aunt or a sister away on a foreign mission—turned more resolute, as if he had finally understood that he and she could never be reconciled again. The one that hurt her most, the one that drove her out of his house and into a first-class compartment on a train headed west for Albuquerque,99 addressed her in tender reminiscent terms, especially as he talked of her charms and the thrill of knowing and loving her and how terrible he felt for having abandoned her. But it was a letter of discharge and no doubt about it. Because he was a little man. Because love—with her, at any rate—led inevitably, through stages, to ruin. “Reason is gone!” he wrote, invigorating the apostrophe with his overwrought punctuation. “Charity is gone—Now comes Fear—Hate—Revenge—Punishment—Then Regret—Shame—Humiliation—Ashes, It is the accepted Road—all ambitious Souls hear me! Sex is the curse of Life!”
She brooded over this ugly proposition all the dreary way across the country—sex the curse of life, indeed; he hadn’t felt that way on Christmas Eve when he’d had her twice in succession and then again the following morning, the celebration of Christ’s birth and the sacred hymns of the angelic choir notwithstanding. Or in the weeks after when he’d installed her in his house like a houri extracted from his harem and had his way with her whenever the urge struck him, which was any time of the day or night because he was as randy as a goat, the randiest man she’d ever been exposed to, even in France, even in Italy. And now, suddenly, sex was the curse of life. He’d twisted everything, the hypocrite, making her out to be the one at fault, reducing the monumentality of what they’d had together to a vulgar expression of sexual gratification as if they were apes in the jungle or some such rot. Well, she wouldn’t have it. And she wrote back to him, page after page, her emotions burning into her fingertips, the fountain pen, the ink that seared the very paper before her.
She blasted him, of course she did, but she expressed the fullness of her love too—and it was no infatuation, she reminded him, but a mature and spiritual love that stood against the petty conventions of a society bound up in its petty rules.100 She wouldn’t go to Taliesin if he begged her. She couldn’t. “Because a spirit walked abroad there whose presence must not be offended by one who truly loved him.” She went on in this vein, dredging up every Gothic reference to churchyards, yew trees and demon lovers she could recall, then began to remonstrate with him. Couldn’t he, above all people, with his finer sensibilities and conceptual brilliance, appreciate that this pining after a ghost was so false, so cheap, nothing more than two-penny sentimentality, a poor flimsy excuse for real love and loyalty? And she asked him, humbly and sincerely, if he wouldn’t accept gratefully a poor loving heart that he had mutilated beyond all thinking. He was the one in the wrong, couldn’t he see that? Couldn’t he see all she was offering him, in spite of the condemnation of that pitiless and cheaply moralizing society that made her an outcast for the “sin” of loving him? Even as she wrote, absorbed, distracted, resentful and brimming with love all at once, she felt the strength come back to her.
“I SHALL WIN!” she exclaimed. “You’ll see! When the smoke of battle clears away I shall be a rainbow again—and, undying name—an altar of fire that you have tried to dash to hell. I shall weave a rose wreath and hang it round your neck. You will call it a yoke of bondage and curse it—no matter. You are afraid of the light I give you. You crouch in darkness. Come, take my hand, I will lead you.” And her valediction, intimating in its restraint whole worlds of love and grief and passionate regret, was, simply, Miriam.
 
And then she arrived, shriven, on the high altar of the west, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos. She went barefoot in the mornings. She worshipped the sky. Took eau naturelle and unleavened bread. Wrapped herself in diaphanous things and let Jesus and Mary Baker Eddy apply their healing touch to her soul. Time was a mountain. Waters flowed, the wind blew. She watched the eagles rise on the thermals over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as if they held all the power of the universe in their wings—or perhaps they were vultures, but no matter. She was there. She lived in the moment.
Gradually, his letters softened. Guilt ate at him—he’d seduced and abandoned her when she’d given up everything for him, even to the opprobrium of society, and he understood that now and begged her forgiveness. He sent money. He needed her. Wanted her. Pleaded with her to come back to him—and not just to Chicago, but to Taliesin, to be its mistress. And she? She let him dangle, reveling in her power to reach out to him across all that expanse of raw country and tighten the clamps of her hold on him. So what if it was venereal? He needed her. And he would see what she could give him beyond that, beyond the curse of sex—and yes, she threw the phrase right back in his face. They would walk the world together, she wrote him, hand in hand, stride for stride, and challenge the very gods for their sublimity.
By July, she was back in Chicago. By the end of August, she was at Taliesin.101

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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