Beauty Cannot Keep , by Miriam N. Kotzin.
Finally she has everything arranged as perfect as it would ever be, and when the doorbell rings Rachel drains her glass of vodka. She tugs at her cuffs, regretting the necessity for long sleeves, reminds herself that this time will be different.
She smiles at her reflection, rakes her fingers through her graying auburn hair, then turns her back on the woman in the mirror, and opens the door to welcome her guests, three old friends, and, on Joel's arm, the latest in his string of young women.
The four friends stand laughing and hugging in the narrow vestibule. When Richard envelops Rachel in a bear hug, she feels the chill of the late winter night on his overcoat. And then it is Karin's turn. "So glad you're home again," Karin whispers.
Almost before the two women have stepped back, Joel swoops over, planting a loud kiss on Rachel's cheek. During the tumult of the greetings, Jennifer remains in the hall but soon stands by Joel's side, her small hand in his.
Rachel has lost count of the young women Joel has brought to meet her, for her to compare his choices to herself at their age, when she had gone about on his arm as "Joel's girl." They always seemed to be in their early twenties, as though he has discovered what he thought to be the best age for a woman and decided to stick with it.
She welcomes Jennifer as she has welcomed all the others with a sort of genial neutrality, knowing, as they do not, of their temporary place in Joel's life and therefore hers.
Jennifer drops Joel's hand as she is introduced to Rachel, and Rachel notices annoyance flicker over Joel's face as though his little prize had been taken from him. Her hand is soon nestled back in his.
Rachel looks at Joel's newest girl: part child, Alice-in-Wonderland face, lank blond hair falling straight to the shoulders, a girl's idea of sophisticated clothes. Something in her eyes, though, the level way she returns Rachel's gaze of frank appraisal indicates she is of a different mettle than the others. Rachel finds herself wanting to take the girl's accomplishments, and realizes that Jennifer, Jen as she was being called, must be older than she had thought. And what should it matter tonight?
* * *
They all sit around the coffee table with drinks in hand and cheese and crackers on the table. Jen sits on the floor, her head resting against Joel's knees with what he remarks upon as "the flexibility of youth." Rachel wonders what she had ever seen in him, but chides herself, telling herself that his limitations are no worse than others' only more evident. Their conversation is part the familiar talk common to people in their set who had known one another for years, part gossip, part disbelief about the corrupt state of politics, art, and academe.
Bright red tulips flare in a blue and white pitcher; Rachel chose them while thinking of the poem by Plath, whom she had wanted to reread. But the hospital bookmobile and library had no Plath. Nor Sexton. Bad examples. The rooms up and down the corridor were filled with bad examples although less successful. She finds it hard to concentrate on the conversation, thinking of the tulips, of Jen's scarlet lips, fixed in a sociable smile. "Is this chatter boring you?"
"Oh, not at all. Thanks to Joel I feel like I know everyone you're talking about."
Rachel knows a social lie when she hears one, and when Richard asks about Steve, she tells Jen it's her brother.
"She knows who Steve is," Joel interposes, an edge in his tone.
Jen's genuine smile of gratitude contradicts him. For a moment nobody speaks, and then Karin breaks the awkward silence. She reaches down and picks up the brightly covered paperback on the end table. "I've been meaning to read this. It got such mixed reviews. Have you finished it?"
"It's ok. You know it's right in the tradition of 'the woman always gets it in the end' throws herself under a train, takes poison, drowns. "
" The reviews said she was killed but didn't say how."
"The writing's not bad. Take it with you. I won't want to read it again."
"High praise from someone who rarely parts with a book," Joel says.
"No, it's just not something I want to read again. You might like it, Karin. And pass it along when you're done or keep it."
"Thanks, I will, but what have you been writing lately?"
"Lately I haven't." Rachel responds to their murmurs of dismay, " Some mirrors I don't want to look into right now."
"As long as it's temporary. You're too good...," Richard says.
Karin says that the jade plant is doing well, "It reminded me of you, somehow, and so I sent it."
"It seems to survive no matter what. The more I abuse it, the happier it seems to be."
"Like the way some women need more abuse than others..." Jen, seeing Rachel's eyes widen, retreats, "Oh, that went right through you! I . . . "
Rachel smiles, says "Forget it," and thinks how like one of Joel's pronouncements Jen's statement is, and how lightly, like his, it had been delivered. "Joel said you were in India last summer? I've wanted to go there since I read Passage to India. I used to think that I didn't want to die until I'd been to Marabar. You know that part when they're all in the caves and the echo goes round and round like a great coiling worm?" She pauses, silently accusing herself of babbling.
"Used to? What made you change your mind?"
Rachel shrugs for an answer, wondering how this child-woman can center in on meaning. "What did you do there?"
"The usual tourist stuff, the Taj and temples. The caves aren't really in a Marabar? There's Barabar, and caves that are supposed to echo in Nagarjunya... It was mostly the caves I'd wanted to see. Or hear? Of course I'd read the novel, and I didn't much like it at the time. Still I couldn't get the caves out of my mind. I decided to go. It was a kind of pilgrimage."
"And?" prompts Karin.
"It was almost dead inside." She looks down at her fingernails. Not until then does Rachel notice how short they are. Then Jen looks up to meet Rachel's gaze. "So maybe you'd better not go. Just hold on to your ideas of Marabar..."
"Which really isn't Marabar at all..."
"And why should the caves be different?" Joel says.
"Or this night?" Rachel adds.
When they are at the table for dinner, Rachel asks Richard to fill the glass at the empty chair. "He'll be here later, after you've all gone. I thought I'd set the place for him now anyway. And fill his glass."
"Are you sure pouring fresh wouldn't taste better?" Joel asks.
"Oh, probably. But it's a little tradition we have. It makes him feel expected when he does arrive."
"And who is this he? What's his name?" asks Richard. "Is he special?"
"Have you known him long?" Karin is never shy about her questions. "When will we get to meet him?"
"In time. In time. You'll meet him, I assure you. And, bear with me, I'd rather not tell you his name just yet, but yes, he's special. For a long while now..."
"You're in love?" asks Joel, teasing, a note of incredulity in his voice. "And you didn't tell us?
"I'm telling you now. Half in love."
" 'Half in love with easeful Death,'" murmurs Jen. "Keats."
Rachel sees that she has picked up Joel's habit of hearing half a quotation, finishing it and identifying it by author. She realizes that clearly he hasn't told her.
Karin fills in the awkward silence with a remark about the flowers on the table, how cheerful a spring bouquet.
Rachel manages to steer the conversation, and the dinner table talk is what the group calls The Sunday Times in review.
* * *
While Karin is taking the coffee into the living room, Rachel tidies up the kitchen. She accepts Jen's offer to help. At other times, she grudgingly has acceded to the women Joel brought by, as though occupying Joel's bed conferred rights to be in her kitchen. But now with Jen, she wishes to be kind.
"Sometimes he doesn't have a clue." Jen leans against the counter watching Rachel bending into the refrigerator.
Surprised, Rachel straightens and turns to face Jen. Jen is right, she thinks, Joel can be clueless, even now. She wonders how Jen's been hurt by his insensitivity.
Or worse. After all, she remembers how once he had poured her shot after shot of vodka directly from the freezer. She had been surprised at its slightly sweet taste. Finally the air itself had seemed warm and syrupy.
"I've got to lie down, she'd said, "I don't feel so well." He was solicitous, apologetic. He offered her the privacy of his bedroom. Closing the door behind herself, she peeled off her clothes, turned out the light, and lay down on his bed. When she awoke feeling woozy, she realized that she wasn't alone.
She heard the drawer next to the bed opening and closing, the sound of a foil packet being torn, and then he was on top of her. She knew that she must have passed out again because he was lying by her side, insisting that she tell him she had loved it. Through waves of nausea and disbelief she told the only acceptable lie.
If that had been their first time, it would have been the last. Yes, Joel could be entirely clueless.
"You don't have to say anything," says Jen. "I don't mean to put you on the spot. He's your friend, after all."
"And your boyfriend. "
"But what I mean is, he shouldn't have brought me here. Not tonight."
"Oh, you know you're..."
"Being welcome has nothing to do with it. It has nothing to do with you, or..."
"I am glad I came though." Jen brushes a wisp of hair from her face. Her voice was breathy. "I read your books. Joel showed me the ones you'd given him. I read them all a couple of times."
"I didn't want to say anything before, with the others listening. If they're a mirror for you, they are for me, too. I wanted you to know. It's important that you know." She speaks with urgency, a tremor in her voice.
Rachel looks down into her small face. "A mirror..." She thinks that if she were to bend closer she could see her reflection in the wide unblinking eyes whose gaze met her own. "And what do you see?"
Before Jen could speak, Richard calls to them from the living room, "Need any help?"
"No thanks. We're fine. We'll be out in a minute." Jen rests her hand lightly on Rachel's wrist. This is her answer. And Rachel places her other hand on Jen's wrist, almost as though she means to take her pulse. Is this the same woman who earlier in the evening curled up at Joel's feet?
* * *
Later, as the four guests are ready to leave, Jen asks, "About your friend, are you sure he'll be here?" She gestures towards the dinner table where the solitary place setting with its full glass of deep red wine remains.
"Not until late. You'll all be home snug as bugs. He'll be here for sure."
At the door, Richard bends close to Rachel to whisper to her, "Take care." And Karin hugs her, matching his affection. Joel squeezes Rachel's hand, and leads the now docile Jen away.
Rachel stands in her doorway, watching them walk down the long narrow apartment hallway to the elevator. Suddenly Jen tugs herself free of Joel and runs back down the hallway towards her. Instead of going out into the hall to meet her, Rachel instinctively takes a step or two back into her apartment so that when Jen reaches her, they cannot be seen or heard by the others.
Jen touches Rachel's face, the flat of her palm on her cheek. She tilts her small pale face up towards Rachel's. Rachel is surprised at how soft her lips are, at how they yield beneath hers, yet promise nothing. "Remember," she says and is gone before Rachel can manage a reply.
She wants to call after her, to tell her something, anything that will protect her. But she knows that she can tell her nothing that she will not find for herself in time.
She leans against the closed door of her apartment for a moment, then walks back to the living room. Other women would have filled such a sunny room with a tangle of plants, watering, spraying and pinching. They would have found joy in their contained forest of Boston ferns and spider plants, diffenbachia, ficus, philodendron, and annually gaudy Christmas cactus. Other women would have bathed and polished the leaves of their rubber trees, cut and re-rooted corn plants. They would have watched their souvenir remnants of romantic dinner parties, toothpick spitted avocado pits, sprout into spindly plants and grow, before meting out a casual death after a lover's quarrel. Of this Rachel is certain.
She looks at the bare window, empty of plants, which holds her reflection like a mirror, and says aloud, " 'Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.' Keats. " She turns towards the dining room where the place setting and goblet of wine remain.
As if remembering, she returns to the apartment door and stands there listening for some minutes. Then, as if at a signal, she opens the door wide. "Everything's ready."
She closes the door and walks to the table, lifting the goblet and holding it between her and the lamp so that she could enjoy the ruby glint. She lifts it as a toast to her last guest. "O, for a draft of vintage," she begins, and drains the glass, " that hath been cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth, Tasting of Flora and the country green, Dance, and Provencal song, and the sun-burnt mirth."
She carries the goblet and the rest of the place setting to the kitchen, where she puts them in the dishwasher, which she switches on. She will be tidy this time.
She fills a glass with vodka from the freezer, adding no ice. "That I might drink, and leave the world unseen. . ." And walking down the hall to the bathroom, continues, "Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despair..."
Rachel turns at the bathroom door and pauses, as if waiting for someone. She sets the glass of vodka on the sink and opens the medicine chest. She reaches up and takes out bottles of pills and capsules, removes their caps and sets the bottles in a row. One after another, she empties them into her hand: the pills, yellow, red, pale blue, green and white. She looks down into her palm, her hand so full that as she trembles slightly, three pills fall into the sink and roll down the drain. I've plenty still, she thinks.
She recites, "Darkling I listen; and for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath. . ." She picks up the vodka, feels her hand grow cold holding the glass, "Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain..."
She sets the glass back down.
Her upturned palm is filled with hoarded pills valium, dalmane, halcyon, ativan, seconal, and prozac. She looks at the pills and sees her pale wrist mapped with scars. She covers these scars with her right hand, and as she does so, she remembers a wrist as yet unmarked. "Jen," she says aloud.
She takes a deep breath. Then she spills the pills into the green plastic cup in the toothbrush holder. They clatter as they fall and bounce in the cup. She shuts the cabinet with a firm click. The glass of vodka she drains. Looking in the mirror, she speaks as if looking at someone standing beside her, watching her. She says to whoever is listening, "Not tonight. Not this time. Not this story."
Miriam N. Kotzin teaches literture and creative writing at Drexel University where she directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing. She writes both poetry and fiction. In 2004 her poetry received two nominations for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boulevard, for which she is a contributing editor, The Pedestal Magazine, Carve Magazine, Three Candles, Flashquake, Thieves Jargon, Amarillo Bay, Ghoti, and 3711 Atlantic.
She also writes fiction collaboratively with Bill Turner. Their collaborative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Thieves Jargon, Somewhat, Monkeybicycle, The Beat, and Admit Two. Admit Two has also published an interview with them about their work
Please visit Miriam Kotzin's website at miriamnkotzin.tripod.com
Her piece, "A Virtually True Account of How Wallace Stevens Wrote...", appeared in Offcourse Issue #22, Winter 2005.
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