LISTENING FOR THE UNCONSCIOUS
My electronic friend Carolyn has graced me with, as she puts it, “one of my little stories which I am thinking could be of interest to you and your readers.” With no further ado, her text:
Eventually after my husband died (heart attack, at 42), I turned to the task of taking his clothes and tools to the Salvation Army, throwing out the trophies and pictures from this or that team he had played on when he was a kid. It was not my favorite task, but nor did I feel again my former anger with him, or with God, for one or the both of them having deserted me.
In one corner of the basement Jerry had an old gray metal desk with not much in it. On the right side there was a file drawer without any files in it, just a few old newspapers, old assembly instructions for furniture, and instruction manuals that had come with tools. All this was going straight in the big black plastic bag I had with me for the occasion.
And then at some point I realized that among all these old papers I was throwing out were some pages torn from girlie magazines. Well, I thought, that’s a surprise, and not really a surprise. That is, on the one hand, being interested in pictures of young women with their legs spread apart—this did not seem at all like the man I had known and slept with, farts and all, for two decades. The first picture I came across was of a skinny blond young woman, lying on her back on a wooden dock, legs straight up in the air, held open by her arms, and a strange sort of pained smile on her face. Her smile was thin, her facial lips were thin, her vaginal lips were thin, and perhaps this was the key to her expression—she was thinly inconvenienced to be lying on her back on the wooden slats of the dock and to have to be showing her cunt (can I write this? I guess so) to the photographer and his assistants and any number of unknown men and women (whoever was going to flip through the magazine)—and all this just to get a little money to get a degree in accounting or molecular biology.
But, on the other hand, I thought: she needed the money and Jerry was a man after all, and so far I had not found any cache of letters from one of the young women at his office. Not that I expect there is such a cache. Not that I think that Jerry had any love affairs or even one-night-at-a-conference flings. If, as I sometimes think, humanity can be divided into the too porous or spongy, and the not porous or spongy enough, Jerry was definitely in the latter camp. “My rock,” I started calling him after he started calling me his “tree.” But what do I know? (And what did he know! He had me for a fir when in fact I’m a chokeberry.)
Straightforwardly, semi-automatically, I tossed the thin girl’s thin picture in the trash bag along with all the other stuff. Then I had the silly thought that someone, a neighbor or garbage collector, might discover this trash. A dog might open the bag in search of food and the papers blow down the street and all the way to Railway Avenue, the main street of our little town. I should destroy the evidence, I thought, and I began carefully ripping up the girl’s picture—in half, then quarters. And then, next thought, I wasn’t ready to throw her out. Linda, I found myself calling her, Linda Thinda. I went upstairs to get some Scotch tape, and I carefully put her back together. And I sifted through the papers remaining in the drawer to find all the other pictures—53 in all. A knobby-kneed girl, legs dangling off the edge of a metal desk not unlike my husband’s, feet in bobby socks and white Keds, and her back flat on the basement desktop. A lintel of a pubic bone and pretty red-chestnut hairs half-hiding the folds before the entryway and antechamber.
I would not describe the whole collection, and there are a few images I would like to throw out somehow, somewhere. One of the other ones that I like—I think that might be the right word—is of a girl scrunched on a black-and-white-tiled bathroom floor, the metal plumbing fixtures and her own plumbing fixtures. And there are several of girls with water (e.g., from a garden hose) sliding down their fronts and between their legs. The master work in this group is a photograph of a quite attractive young woman who, on a dappled summer day, set out on a hike without a shirt. We find her en route, crouched over a stream and drinking from a canteen, or only pretending, letting the water fall from her mouth to stain the crotch of her dark green shorts.
I have thought of organizing my collection. In one pile, or three, would go the running-water, showering and urination shots, and in another the uncomfortable girls like Linda, the ones who have been—or who have been made to look?—bullied or blackmailed by pimps or poverty, and too exposed, showing holes to men who have no holes to fill and shoot their sperm into. Another pile for all the white cotton crotches found under skirts, on playgrounds, in public transportation vehicles.
While listening to my Cubs on the radio, I have tried making drawings from some of the pictures. My daughter—who will now, after my own untimely death, find both her father’s girlie pictures and her mother’s drawings of them—she used to say that when I tried to draw her (her face) the drawings looked like me. But when I looked at those drawings—maybe they didn’t look like Alex, I’ll give her that, but to my mind they did not look like me either, or at least not in any obvious way. They didn’t have my nose, my chin, my hair. They didn’t have my age! I have wondered if it isn’t the same with my drawings of Jerry’s girls. Without giving them my features (my cunt?), I—or my eye and hand—has put into them, into their features, another person—a self I am not capable of recognizing as belonging to me. A new person, existing only on paper: a her-me-someone-else.
I read once that some artists—professional artists, not people who have taken a few classes like me—these artists feel less that they are seeing things than that things are seeing them. For my part, I have had in mind that I would be drawing vulvas or nipples or perhaps an act—the holding up of a shirt, scrunched in a child-like fist, to reveal not small, yet somehow inconsequential breasts; the pulling aside of panties to reveal a bald (completely shaven) crotch which, for some reason, reminds me of a dolphin’s snout.
I keep having the same surprise. I start out, say, to draw the intimate female stuff that a set of female fingers are exposing and I find that what I have ended up drawing so painstakingly are the fingers. Or I take some seemingly weak-willed girl, perhaps in childhood required to give her father a hand or mouth, and now told by an avaricious photographer to first get on her hands and knees and then assume a fetal position and spread her buttocks with her hands so that his camera will be able to capture every detail of her anus. Alex is asleep or at least in bed in the next room. I’m in my bed, the curtains drawn. With the set of fancy colored pencils I splurged on after a drawing teacher told me that my two lemons were not bad at all, I start sketching the poor girl. Ally, I call her. My mind is telling me that the brown-pink puckering is the focal point, but I start with the stringy, once-dyed-blonde hair half-covering her face. By the time I have made it to the knobby vertebrae of her spine, the Cubs have lost and it’s lights-out time. But first I prop my sketchbook on my dresser so I can get a clear view of what I have drawn. I am fascinated and impressed by the rich character I now see in the girl’s more-duty-bound-than-ashamed face. The Ally my pencils have found seems, in her strangely quiet way, to be more intelligent and tender and complex than the girl in the photograph.
I cannot imagine that I have suddenly become a great artist or that it had even occurred to the slick photographer that his lens was capturing a complex human being. Perhaps there is no Ally at all. The photographer’s model, much like mine, is some kind of composite—the assembled, Photoshopped inputs of several people, perhaps both males and females, each bringing their own hunger to the page. But what I feel above all is that I have been wrong to think that God has deserted me or me Him. The person now leaning on my bureau seems like a gift.
As I turn out the light, I am smiling, as if it at a private joke. Wrapping my arms around my knees, I pull them up to my chest, making myself into as warm a little ball as a tall, bony girl (or aging, mother tree) can be. My mind locates my anus under the warming comforter. “Fuck me,” I find myself whispering, as if to the canvas shoe-holder hanging on the closet door. I am not sure if these words are more imprecation or request.
The illustration at the top of the post is not one of Carolyn’s drawings (which I have never seen), but rather a drawing (“Fetal Position”) by the Kansas City artist Sarah Biondo. I found this image on a website of Fine Art America and must thank Ms. Biondo for how perfect it is.
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Having just found your blog via Nina Mishkin’s, and now this, I just have to say how compelling and extraordinary the reading has been – and to thank you for sharing Catherine’s letter. What a discovery.
Thank you! (And I was glad, par la suite (as a result) to discover your mix of drawing and commentary.
This is extraordinary. I would love to share and give credit where credit’s due. Perhaps you could pass along an inquiry to Carolyn (Catherine?) . . . ? Many thanks, Wm. C.
Dear Catlin, Thank you for the kind words, which I will indeed pass along to the best of my abilities. May I say, too, that this post shares something (intangible) with some of my favorites of your posts, your family stories and so forth. I look forward to reading more of those as they emerge. Best, Wm.