The Violence of Women
Birthday. I fret over what color to dye my hair. I liked my bits of silver until I saw them in another woman's hair: winter twigs presaging frost, pretty in isolation but there's no such thing as isolation. Besides, it's snowing.
Drinks with Snow and her older sister. Her sister -- half-sister really -- is a pill, the kind of woman who uses any available surface as a mirror (butter knives, mercury glass votives, the window you're looking through), the kind who's constantly laying for a compliment, providing you with endless openings that, if you're Snow, you leave just hanging.
"I've been working on my arms," her sister says, lifting one limb, sinewy and bare in a twenties camisole, Champagne silk pleated and beaded. "I don't want them to get all saggy."
They're the last thing from saggy. Snow leans her head on her hand and yawns -- beautiful row of white teeth in a lacquered scarlet mouth. Her sister looks around for someone else to appeal to. These two hate each other but go out often together; I don't know whether they hunt better in packs or are mourning their common parent (father? mother? do they even remember?) with these icy drinks. Usually the sister takes off at some point and then Snow rolls her eyes and bitches about her in that smoky voice. But tonight I notice that I'm closer in age to the sister than to Snow. Have they been standing still somehow? I'm not. Must be time to start eating grapefruit for dinner and growing out my nails. Snow's sister has long ones, tapering, painted the shimmer of Mars sand and sharded with crystal. "The better to stroke you with," she tells the bartender when he notices them. He winces. I should tell him not to worry: she sharpens them for Snow, but she'd never use them on a man.
"If pain is only weakness leaving the body, black curls, still wet, painted on her forehead."
Alison Benis White's Small Porcelain Head lets a slant glance fall on a series of dolls -- lost, remembered, still, remnant. Whether they are a self or an other or an other self or an actual doll hangs unknown in the airless room. We might not even be here listening: "If pain is a desire for dark shapes, even when dried, glistening, if you are reading this."
If -- the muffled cotton of a first tooth stored in a drawer.
"As a child, I pressed my tongue to my wrist to see what it would be like to feel someone."
But no one comes. Even when change seems imminent ("just before a face pushes through the water and breathes"), the weather stays outside and the door stays shut, the girl inside with her doll.
Does it sound peaceful? It's not. The doll warns the girl of her future: "What we end up with in the end or sooner, both brows and lashes indicated by a series of nicks."
Later, the doll will be a reminder of the blank past. By then, she's grown into the girl, a sick echo. It's worse if she's one of those reversible dolls that used to be so popular -- one with a changing face, or simply a little Red who flips into a Grandma Wolf: "The girl becomes the wolf in a velvet hood, the red felt tongue set to mean better to eat you than sleep, better to never be."
Here, White's syntax shifts as if two just-wrong halves have been scissored and taped together, the mirror shattering as you look in: "Because to live is to be entered vertically and repeatedly, the pain is love and making me."
I've been thinking about the violence of women. From so early we're trained to go at each other -- not outright, but with our pretty little implements, comb and needle and pin: "Even the violence is sentimental, limbs and head unstrung, not blood but wings, red butterfly, a glass box, a thousand pins, the end."
I never liked dolls. Does anyone? Perfect little bitches. Perhaps that's why we have them -- to practice our cruelties on. Early on, one's still clumsy, "Cutting her black hair into a jagged bob with utility scissors when I was five," but we quickly learn how to make both our attacks and our injuries quiet. White remembers how Marie Antoinette whiled away the time before her execution making a doll ("still preserved in a museum in England"), then imagines the moment of execution: "Decapitated, there would not be much time to discern the greater ease -- thoughtlessness or nothing."
I almost didn't notice this line when I first read it: this shocking longing for a clear world, a finish.
In the meantime I'm reading -- don't ask why -- one of James Ellroy's neo-noir 1950s LA thrillers, The Big Nowhere. (A man puts a book on the table: "I thought you would like this.") The men in this book go at each other with fists and sticks, weapons blunt and bladed, guns and the hardest words; I've learned not to read it over lunch. But the detectives' most prized ability -- far beyond giving and taking pain -- is their preternatural intuition of intention and situation. So they go through their blazing world, reading, knowing everything, subtle as one sister catching a whiff of the other's perfume.
A new thought: what if women's violence is how we struggle to get free?
"One evening as a child, before I went to bed, I called the operator and said my house is on fire."
You can't do that, no, but what if, whether you visit it on someone or they visit it on you, the violence can make an interruption, a difference?
"Drawn on paper then buried in a bottle in my backyard, an image of a girl's face softening."
Is this redemptive or a murder? What if the violence wants to be shocking enough to come as a relief, a reason to run away across seven hills and seven dales?
Still, nothing's happened.
Snow licks her swizzle stick (she likes to lick everything; it shows off her mouth); her sister looks out the window onto a street full of women. I don't know who first discovered that the essence of beauty is not looking at other women, but now the secret's out, and you see scenes like this one, a street full of women sliding their bedroom eyes over everything but each other. I almost mention it to the sister before I realize she's looking at herself in the glass, fixing her lipstick.
"My mouth is carved open, painted red as evidence."
If Ellroy's detectives came in here they'd catch the clues, the trace of cruelty, but would they know what to call the crime?
"My hair grows longer and longer, trying to leave."