Issue #6 |

Felicia and the Curtains

“If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.” — Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower

 

Once a much older woman, a friend of a friend of my mother’s, told me, “If you don’t lose some of your memories you’d remember so much more than a young person. It wouldn’t be fair.”

And once a very old man—I was volunteering—told me, after he’d known me for some months, that when he was a boy his father beat him with a belt every Christmas. The man told me this suddenly, his eyes red with tears. Later, I told this to a friend who immediately said, “Whap, whap,” and motioned as if whipping a belt in the air. “Every Christmas? Every Christmas? That guy’s lying.”

Who can we tell our sorrows to without being accused of lying and being laughed at? I shouldn’t have told my friend what that older man said. Or I should have said to my friend, “To a child it was enough Christmases to be every one.”

I was never beaten as a child, but once when I was a young woman I was beaten by a stranger in the street—something I’ve never told anyone, and because this is a story, maybe it’s not true. Maybe I can be accused of lying or exaggerating.

But this story is about Felicia and my memory of her.

I first saw Felicia in a department store at the mall when I was roaming around the perfume counters. Amazing what can be bottled and what can’t. A perfume bottle shaped like a grenade, like a tombstone, and yet inside the bottle: Tapioca, jasmine rice, lily of the valley, lilac. And the way we’re encouraged to spritz the air or our wrists or a tiny tab of paper. So few things are free and I had so little money and the perfumes called to me as they still do.

I was making my way around the counter testing the perfumes when I saw Felicia. We had to be about the same age and our coloring was the same. I’ve been spoken to in Spanish, in Greek, in Turkish. People have trouble “placing” me—as if it were necessary. I imagine that she gave people the same trouble. But this was the truly incredible thing: she looked so much like me, if I could take my body—my entire body—and polish it, render it more sharply defined. I look now at photos of myself from that period and see a skinny girl with long, finely muscled arms whose face was somehow blurred, as if part of me, at least in front of a camera, was smudged.

I mention all this in contrast to Felicia, whose face looked cameo-carved, all clear lines, all unblemished, firm skin. Everything about her seemed right, and outlined. She wore high heeled sandals—who does that, successfully? I’ve seen photographs of glamorous celebrities who can’t pull that off, one toe falling outside the sandal’s boundary or the foot itself like a hoof. But this woman’s feet were perfect in her sandals, so perfect they made me think of the Virgin Mary statue that headed the halls at my grade school. Mary held herself at attention, her perfect foot crushing a snake, her hand extended as if welcoming all of us to the sight of her triumph, and inside her open palm a cigarette—placed there at intermittent times by sixth graders.

This woman, this girl, for we were in our twenties, and I for one hardly felt like a woman—there was something crisp about her, as if she had been starched like her spotless navy blue skirt cinched with a black belt. I confess that looking at her made me feel embarrassed for myself. Back then I couldn’t wear clothes without something being amiss: a collar turned up when it shouldn’t be, hem crooked, coffee dribble on a pocket. I once attended a play with my dress inside out.

Beyond appearances, what struck me back then me was her authority, the way, just standing there by the perfume counter, she exuded self-belief. It seemed to me that she didn’t see herself, had no need to see herself, was as quietly self-contained as one of the peach-colored roses my mother liked to trap in the water globe she set on the buffet.

It may seem incomprehensible that I wasn’t jealous. No, at that moment, I felt awe. It was as if I saw my own body displaced and improved and, as a result, my mind, jittery and adept at swallowing superficial worries and distractions, was calmed by the idea that it might be curried, polished, mended. In that instant I wanted to like her and to be her, and I thought I’d never see her again.

It’s not that unusual, is it? Writing this, I now recall a woman years ago who told me that she thought we looked alike. She liked to laugh and say nonsensical things. More than once she said to me, “I could kill you.” I think some part of her meant it, that maybe she felt she had power over me, that what she thought was a resemblance meant my body wasn’t entirely my own, that she had rights to it too, and that I shouldn’t survive—there was enough of her in the world and, as a consequence, I shouldn’t impose myself by resembling her.

My life moved as usual for the next three days with machinations by a coworker who was doing his best to get another coworker fired. I was trying to finish the reading for the college class I was taking on the side and then writing a report at work for which I couldn’t make the numbers turn out for hours upon hours. I even began dreaming in numbers.

I was walking home from my terrible job at the credit agency, a job I took so that I could afford to pay for my last classes—now I recall that I had begun walking a route far from where the stranger attacked me—and that’s when I saw her again. I saw her because I turned around. Our eyes met. She looked away, quickly, as if embarrassed.

“I couldn’t help but notice you,” she said. “You’re in that campaign.”

What she meant: I volunteered with my friend Grant to support a clean water initiative. I’d introduced a speaker, stumbling through the prepared points while Grant clapped and hooted in appreciation. Even then, at the time I met Felicia, I knew that Grant was troubled. Nevertheless, I thought my friendship with him would always be secure. When we were children I shoved the boys who threw Grant’s lunch bucket over the chain-link fence at school. Walking hand in hand with him, I introduced him to the girls he liked when we were in fourth grade. And then he grew and grew and became immense and didn’t think he needed my protection. During city council meetings, he had a way of nuzzling his head against mine. People mistakenly thought we were a couple. Later we’d have a falling out because I kept telling him that some of the things he was doing were dangerous, but that didn’t stop him. Everyone predicted he’d die, and so we never thought he would.

“The campaign?” I said.

Felicia was smiling at me, her eyes level with mine. “I know. You probably think I’ve been following you. I have. You look so interesting.”

Those words struck me. Did she recognize that we looked alike?

She went on. “I’ve only been in Inglenook for a month. It’s not easy to break in. I work with a lot of guys. They’re married. They want nothing to do with me. It’s like they think if they look me in the eyes they’ll lose their jobs. Such a bunch of weenies.”

I mumbled and turned and walked away, and felt her awareness behind me. She was gasping at my rudeness. I hadn’t meant to be rude. I was simply stunned.

After about five more steps I turned. “Would you like to get something to eat?” I called out.

She came running toward me. I felt an unaccustomed sense of pride. I didn’t have a sister, and Grant was the closest I had to a genuine friend.

While we drank our coffees in a diner three blocks from my apartment she asked about the campaign. About clean water. She asked about others in the campaign. Could she be part of the campaign?

“Of course. You’d be great. I can tell already,” I said. And meant it.

She was genuinely interested in hearing about everyone who worked for the initiative. I told her about Gavia and Shavno and Grant and Trudy. Then we talked about perfume—about how it might not be so environmentally sound, but then again…

Every time I asked her a question she turned the question back to me. It was wonderful.

The coffee was making me more alert. Looking at her was like looking at a slightly distorted mirror. I couldn’t help measuring her face with my eyes and wondering what made us different—just the slightest adjustments and we would be the same. Being with her could have been unnerving, except that she was so warm toward me, so eager, so bright and smiling that I found myself relaxing and telling her more and more. I told her about how Grant and I had been friends forever, and how he made me laugh and also terrified me—there was nothing he wouldn’t do. I left out the really hazardous things. I only mentioned the off-limits quarry where he swam. I’d threatened to call the police if he kept it up. He loved to play jokes too, once convincing a telemarketer that the poor guy was a suspect for having called the house so soon after a murder. It was hard to explain that story but it didn’t matter. Felicia kept laughing.

Pygmalion… Is this a Pygmalion story?… Or I am my own Pygmalion? I was the one who wanted to remake myself. I wanted to sculpt my body and my mind as if they were made of butter. I remember not long before I met Felicia how a boyfriend laughed at me because I kept my books near my bed on a shelf that resembled a little altar. My books, my beautiful few books. My dance books, although I wasn’t a dancer and only admired dancers. I didn’t need to dance if I could read about dancing and look at the photographs, right?

Oh, who was I then? Even years later, I confess, and maybe this happens to many of us, it would come upon me: a vision of that young woman I was who felt peeled from the world, who had not known how to erect a shield. Whereas Felicia—even her shyness seemed sophisticated, cultivated, protective.

As I sat opposite Felicia in that booth in the diner, an old feeling came for me, billowing from childhood. When I was in elementary school one of the girls in my class, Maryann, lived with her large family in a falling down place, hardly more than a shack. She kept being held back until our grade. When we were ten, Maryann was thirteen. She wore a brace on her left leg and was tall and pale and good-natured. Even then, it was clear to us, she knew things we didn’t. It was incredible—before the internet and cell phones were widespread—how ignorant some of us were. But Maryann knew and maybe knew terrible things. Secretly, I made gifts for her. I put cookies, crackers, apples, oranges, figurines from Cracker Jack boxes, and artificial flowers into a sack, crayoned pictures on the sack, and when no one was watching, gave Maryann the sack. She seemed, always, surprised. In my childish way I wanted her to be more grateful and more impressed. After a while I stopped giving her the sacks, but—to be fair to myself—not because of what seemed like her insufficient displays of gratitude. I stopped because giving her the sacks made me feel I might be doing something wrong—that I was showing off. And maybe I was. At the same time, at night, a pillow over my head, I fretted about how to help her. Maybe I stopped because it was painful to think of her.

Cinnamon, nutmeg, iris, the copper penny smell of blood…bleach, vanilla, peppermint, pepper and sandalwood and pear.

At first I didn’t know why Maryann came into my mind that late afternoon and then, all at once, I did. Already, I feared that I was Maryann to Felicia. I was the one who needed the sack, I suppose—and yet it was clear to me that Felicia didn’t feel that way. In fact, with a queasy sensation, I realized that she almost desperately wanted me to like her.

The next time I saw Felicia she was carrying a large bag. “My lunch stuff—my leftover stuff.” Tupperware containers. She actually made herself noodle salads and other nice things she packed each day. She was about my age and had gone straight through college. She hadn’t had to slowly work her way through, the way I was. Her job was at a graphics company and she hoped to “rise through the ranks,” she said.

She asked how I got involved with the campaign for safe water. I admitted it was something Grant and I fell into when we started going to meetings for the free refreshments and found ourselves dutybound to help with putting up posters around town and making a few basic introductory statements. Who doesn’t want clean water? It was one of those things that you drift into and then you let yourself think you’re at least doing something that doesn’t trample on anyone’s happiness. And then inertia kept us doing it.

Felicia laughed and touched my hand and I felt it: she pressed a lever on a door that opened something in me. I felt more alive, more listened to than I’d ever felt before, even with Grant.

Felicia came to a couple of our meetings, sitting by herself and twisting the scarf around her neck into a tiny ball.

One of my earliest memories: I’m walking through a field of high grass. I’m so young that the grass is almost at eye level. Ahead of me on a stalk of grass rests a many colored bird, like a parrot. I am walking closer and closer and then the bird disappears—not flies away, disappears. I have never forgotten that moment—to want beauty so much and to see beauty disappear.

The scent of grasses, of an electric fan, of couch cushions, of music sheets, of the fireplace in summer, of honeysuckle, of a lamp burning, of Noxema, of mint toothpaste, of the warm body of the dead cat, the cat’s body that took so long to cool that I thought it wouldn’t cool, of talcum powder, of garlic, of a man’s sweat, of eggs crackling on a stove.

“Who is that little freak?” Grant whispered. I was afraid he would comment on Felicia’s resemblance to me but he didn’t. Maybe because Felicia and I dressed so differently and moved so differently and because around her I got louder, wanting attention.

“She’s not a freak. She’s my friend.”

I introduced the two of them. Grant wasn’t in a friendly mood and took off with someone I didn’t trust: Ajax. Later I would learn I was right to be afraid of what Ajax was leading him toward.

I walked with Felicia to the bus stop. Her eyes were wet. When I asked her what was wrong she kept shaking her head and saying “Water quality.”

Something I was thinking about later that night: what if Felicia’s perfection scared people off? Maybe I was inoculated from being scared off because I saw the resemblance, how if fate had given me a few more turns on the lathe it would be impossible to tell us apart.

The next week when we ran into each other Felicia’s hair was cut short—like mine, and she was wearing a bright colored smock that was eerily like something I wore when I first saw her. I hugged her and she felt solid, rounder, fleshier than I expected.

I introduced her to more friends at the next campaign event in the old Bakers Gym and I said we should have a party—on the following night.

 

Once when I was in college, I fell asleep on a couch in a student lounge and woke up because I felt exactly as if something inside my head had rained while I slept. A balm. I don’t know how to be more precise about it—a shower of softening chemicals warmed the inside of my skull, falling gently inside my head. I was twenty-four years old and withered and parched. Only a week earlier that stranger on the street had begun beating me in front of people passing by. I did not fall. No, I squatted on the sidewalk with my hands over my head while he pummeled me and spat into my hair. People continued to walk by or to cross the street. I could hear their thoughts in my head: she deserves it, she must have done something to him, it’s their problem, god knows why she puts up with him.

The man stopped for no reason, just the way he had started. I stood up and kept walking to work, my whole skull in flames. The only safe course of action: to continue onward to work, which I did. I should have called the police, someone should have. It never even occurred to me. I tried to figure out what I’d done to make the man target me. Had I smiled?

I didn’t tell my mother about what happened because I thought it would hurt her too much. My father was dead by then.

A couple of weeks before the stranger attacked me on the sidewalk a man in our town in the middle of the night, as I was going to my car with a gallon of milk, pushed me up against a building—the oldest grocery store before it burned down—and began squeezing my chest. Three days later he was dead in a car wreck. He didn’t know what he was doing, I thought. He was play-acting. He must have seen something like that in a movie. He was older than my father had been.

Older men have always liked you, my mother used to say.

 

Felicia arrived at the party with Esther, but it was Grant she sat next to on my couch. Grant was his ebullient funny self, although there was, at the edges of him, something of that small boy who couldn’t protect himself, something of that early panic. A few years after the time I’m describing here, he emailed me about getting into an accident on his bicycle—he went over a guard rail. I wanted to visit him but he kept putting me off.

On the night of the party there were seven of us in the apartment I shared with a roommate plagued by panic attacks who was almost always at her parents’ house. At the party there was Angela, who liked to show up unannounced to use my bathroom, and Claudia who was steeping herself in tears because Julian the Horse hadn’t called her back. And then there were these awful twins who brought board games—which made everyone else feel wobbly with despair, and so the two of them left and then returned, without the board games, but with six-packs. The music was loud and the front room was dark, and I felt I’d done something good, bringing these people together.

And there, of course, taking up almost all the space in my mind, was Felicia, every nerve of her aquiver. Grant had locked his arm around her shoulders and that seemed to be that. It was like watching Grant and me—as if we’d been in love and I were a very different person, more defined, more certain, less like a jellyfish moved by the currents rather than my own volition, although that night I probably looked like I was in control, bobbing around, trundling out to the kitchen to fetch more ice, more limes, more glasses, more more.

Last month a young man and a woman—both restless, bobbing their heads—showed up at my apartment, canvassing in a way that was so familiar I wound up pledging support. Another clean water initiative. More contaminants, sewage seepage, lead, pesticide runoff, the water filtration plant and its outmoded technology. All the old words and all the old problems. Water is such a mysterious substance, isn’t it? I mean it’s clean and yet it runs through dirt. It’s necessary and it’s deadly and waiting to submerge us all. The first time I saw the ocean I thought: it’s too big. The enormity of it with its continual swerving and darkness that dazzles, how it’s actually our past, sighing and roaring. I saw how those two young people canvassing for clean water possibly couldn’t be trusted. More than once—I could never be sure—I suspected Grant of taking the funds we collected. To this day I’m not sure. I do know that people with problems like his think they can help themselves to other people’s money. I’d known him when he was innocent. I’ll never forgive the people who encouraged him to ruin himself.

I was coming around the corner and back into the front room when I caught sight of Felicia staring at the curtains. I’d hemmed them myself. They weren’t exactly straight. An expression came over her face—like contempt, disdain.

The thought then occurred to me: it was always about Grant, the old stupid thing between girls and women. It wasn’t about me at all, only about him. And I had fooled myself. She had seen him at one of the campaigns and followed me to get to him. It was like I’d been hallucinating, because the whole time I’d been looking into what I thought was a mirror it wasn’t a mirror at all. No, at most it was a store window where what I thought was my reflection was really the reflection of the woman walking ahead of me.

When I returned to the kitchen I noticed the cupboard door off its hinge, the grungy stove, the vomity yellow-green of the walls, the bulletin board layered with bills and papers and flyers. The floor—I’d scrubbed it with something too harsh, and the linoleum design had come right up and left black spots, like squashed beetles.

I didn’t leave the kitchen for a while. I was busy thinking about the old stupid story: one woman using another in pursuit of someone else who wasn’t a woman. I’d known Grant for so long that it was like I hadn’t seen how attractive he was. Yes, I’d protected him when he was a child, and I was still trying to protect him from his worst inclinations and what was the end goal? To give him away? Then I told myself: he’s not mine to give. And I imagined the future and how Felicia could take over and save him whereas I couldn’t.

Narcissus died from the lure of what he saw in a pond. He didn’t know he was looking at himself. He wasn’t even a narcissist. He was loyal.

I drank some gin. My head was buzzing. I rummaged behind canned soups in the cupboard and found a bar of dark chocolate and bit off a chunk.

I thought about how I hadn’t been an obstacle to Felicia. No, more like a turnstile. I had been useful and now I wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t like she betrayed me, nothing that dramatic.

Then I had a vision—I was always having visions in those days—of a mouse, its legs sliding. And then I remembered that I’d seen that once: a mouse stuck on one of those glue traps, and the mouse frantically struggling to surf its way across the basement floor.

My forehead tingled as if just under the skin bees were swarming.

In my memories I keep thinking that I dreamed what happened that night, but I didn’t dream that night. Though later I dreamed about it. In one of those dreams I wrote a screenplay that was a rip-off of Four Weddings and a Funeral, except it was called Two Girls and a Funeral.

When I staggered back into the front room I could hear myself sounding bold and reckless. Laughing even louder. Mule-like. Oh, how do we learn to hate ourselves so much?

I am tempted to stop thinking about this, but I haven’t entirely stopped—and every time I pass a perfume counter, and I pass one often enough, I think of that night.

Felicia sensed something was wrong.

“Your books,” she said. She was looking at my low bookshelf with what could pass for admiration. “I love books.”

I asked her something about dancing and she said something back. I must have told her that I had books about dance. I went into my bedroom and pulled out two books from the special shelf where I kept them. I picked up a bottle of perfume too—unopened, a gift from my aunt who swore that the perfume smelled like pears. It looked elegant there, a blue bottle with a silver cap.

Felicia’s face shone when I presented her with the books and the perfume. I could hardly help myself. I found a novel about a dancer on the shelf behind her—about Nijinsky. “It makes me so happy to give you a few things,” I said.

Even now, I can see the scene—two women, one awkward and nervous, giving away her possessions to make herself feel stronger and to create a bond. As if the other woman’s beauty and grace and good sense could be paid homage to—a little sacrifice that guaranteed to the awkward woman that her life too could move toward beauty and grace. The balance would be righted.

Felicia stood there with that wealth in her arms, and I felt we were somehow equal again. I’d calmed the imp inside me that compared and compared. The scales of justice were weighted, and now she carried a greater load—gifts of good taste, of beauty. As if I had beautiful things to spare and could bestow them. Lady Bountiful. Giving her those gifts—that meant more to me than I’m equipped to say even now. I found a sack for the books and perfume, tucked everything inside the sack and handed it to her.

I wanted to tell Felicia how beautiful she was and how much I admired her. I couldn’t say those words, and later I would be glad I hadn’t—that I hadn’t made myself vulnerable in that way.

I left the room for a minute, and when I came back Felicia was in her coat, and Grant was grinning, his arm tight around her. Before she left, she kept thanking me, smiling her dreamy smile. She seemed shy about asking when we’d meet again, although I thought she’d call at some point.

It was two days before I noticed them. Under a chair, pushed back to the wall: the books on dance, the novel about Nijinsky, the perfume my aunt swore smells like pears.

 

I never heard from Felicia again, although the memory of her is the most vivid I have of those years, even more vivid than my memory of Grant, whom I had known since we were children.

The scent of burnt leaves, gasoline, chalk, musty laundry, the smell of an attic, violets, wine, beer, the yeasty smell, rain smell, coffee smell.

The thing with Grant and Felicia. I probably should have warned Felicia about him. I would have earlier if I’d known what she wanted, why she befriended me. Anyway, I was angry for a while. It seemed like an old game was being played—and I had been swatting at the air and wearing myself out when I wasn’t even a genuine player.

I didn’t hear from Felicia again. It’s true, though, that I did see her again—although she didn’t see me.

Oh when would it come, that soft balm that would soothe me? The benediction that I’d felt when I woke in the lounge at the college?

By then Felicia had let her hair grow back. She was in the pharmacy, visible to me through the plate glass window, while I stood outside. She couldn’t have been seeing much of Grant, though he’d disappeared from my life before he disappeared from hers, at least that’s what I’m willing to bet.

A store assistant in a red vest hurried over to Felicia and must have asked if she needed help. She waved him away, frowning, shaking her head, her shoulders hunched. What was she looking for? Whatever it was, she was determined to find it by herself. From where I stood outside the store, it was clear that her shirt looked funny, not buttoned right, maybe a little dirty.

Let one of us be special, I thought. Why not one of us?

She resembled me less than I had realized.

All around me: snowflakes, floppy dots, a descending Irish lace curtain. Wouldn’t it be natural, if you were inside that pharmacy, at least once to look toward the window to catch sight of those snowflakes drifting down to earth? But no, Felicia clutched a basket and paced back and forth in the aisle for painkillers and never looked my way.

Please forgive me: what I did was like something an actress might do in a movie in which she could never bear to watch herself: I bent over with pain. Then I made myself stand. No one had seen me, and for that, I could be grateful.

Photo courtesy of Cor Oosterbeek; view more of his work on Flickr.

Lee Upton is the author of fourteen books, including Visitations: Stories, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles: Poems, The Tao of Humiliation: Stories,  Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy. She is also the author of Ambrosia, an e-book story published digitally in the Working Titles series from The Massachusetts …

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