Whale Fall – Part 3 (Summer)

One

Dear Faith,

I am writing to you because my mother is driving me crazy. Though I suspect that now it is summer, and the lauded idea that the virus will be burned away should arrive any minute now (I am tapping my foot in anticipation), my mother is still taking incredible precautions.


Not that I can blame her for doing so. Did you happen to see Jacqueline’s Facebook page? Taking pictures with her family at that restaurant? I believe it was in Colleyville. I had heard that they were opening up and to see the people all around her! I physically shuddered, Faith.


I am sitting in my favorite room. With the cleaners out of the house on a weekly basis, and with little chance of inviting people inside for one of my mother’s social gatherings, I have taken to bringing my favorite blanket into the library, and although I have been told to change out of my pajamas by midday, for the past few days I have been unable to do so. I have even dragged the old LED television in here and plugged the Roku box that was going to go to my grandmother in it. The television is on the coffee table not four feet away from this periwinkle drawing room couch that is more ancient than me. I’ve been sitting and moving from books to television and eventually with all this input into my head, I had to get it out somewhere, so here I am writing to you!


And I suppose things had to open up at some point, what with the businesses that need to be open. What is there really to say to the people who are “protesting the virus” beyond an easy contempt? Even though I am judging Jacqueline now, would I condemn her to her face? People make choices, don’t they? I have a lot of friends from college who are visiting people and posting photographs on Instagram and I so much want to join them. It seems the only group of people who care are the ones in the middle. The old people, like my grandmother, are excited to go to their cocktail hour! I told my grandmother as best as I could (on a Zoom call of course, what a disaster THAT was), I said “grandma, what is more important, your favorite Aviator cocktail at 5:00 PM, or dying of the virus. It was not hyperbole, it really feels like a dice roll. She’s 88! Anyway she said that, you know, “she’s old” and “she’s had a good life,” to which I would want to say that if you are having a good life, wouldn’t you want to continue it?


The downward spiral of me sitting ten feet away (I am at a desk writing to you) has quickened into self pity. I was supposed to be out dating! And after graduating college, I thought there would be…fancier parties. By that senior year I was so disgusted with Natural Lite and Bud Lite and beer pong. It was exhausting having to placate these men’s feelings and ego…does that ever go away?
Judging by the news I guess the answer is no: we have a president who lives off of women placating his tantrums.


I just remembered that you work an hourly teaching job. Now that your tutoring time is over, are you making enough money to pay the rent? And have you thought about getting another job in the evenings? Pizza delivery seems to be hiring. All this talk about cooked food and the virus, and cardboard, it all felt like the perfect advertising campaign for pizza. And even though I know it is bad for my skin, still I cannot stop eating the stuff. I have every confidence that, between the television and the pizza, I am gaining weight. It is not as if anyone will see this divine specimen that is my body, but it goes back to the pretense for being social. It is all gone, isn’t it? We were all preparing for a bikini body that no one is going to see. Anyway, I thought about you and your VERY healthy eating habits, and I thought about your job situation. I have spoken to mother and we realized that there is plenty of room in our house if you need a place to stay. Mother keeps to the office, kitchen, and bedroom, and father keeps to the office too. Occasionally we get together and play a board game or watch a movie, and you would think that would have happened more during this time. But dad is so busy about work, and mother is trying to maintain her book clubs and tennis clubs online, which is somehow MORE work, it is simply not happening. So here is me, wanting to be a young person and I can’t, and here you are! Think about it…


Father has been plenty worried about his business. Oil bottomed out in price, and here in Texas it is sort of all we have. I am sure we will recover, especially when the holidays kick in and consumer demand comes back up, but I don’t think he sees long term. It is all about quarterly reports now. He used to be such a long term sort of person. We would do projects with our homebound teacher together, and they would take weeks, or sometimes months, and he always had a plan. But now I see him with gray hairs on either side of his brow, walking back and forth through the house and dropping and picking up his keys. He makes coffee and leaves it in different places, and then flies get in it. And he has put on a lot of weight. It seems like my mission for living is to both be like and totally unlike my parents. Social and upbeat like my mother, but more steely-eyed than my father.


Or maybe becoming an adult is a buffet of experiences, and we end up grabbing everything whether we like it or not. And while I wish all us women could be like Joan Didion, humorless and stoic, grabbing a coke in the morning and seeing none of it play out on our bodies. The older I get the more separated I feel from myself. Everything mattered so much when I was little! I remembered the feeling of intense jealousy when I saw the high school play in our town. More than any other moment I wanted to go to school like everyone else! It was strange that before I had not felt that way, but here, seeing these young people flaunt costumes and make up and taking part in something big, I admit I was jealous.


But now experiences are different. I remember just last week I was listening to an MIA song. “Freedun” is this sort of this anthem, and to be honest, her lyrics are not all that complicated. But on the bridge, where she sings “I’ve gotta sing my song, tonight” and then I almost felt her grab me in the library, and she sang “and you gotta sing my song, tonight” and I cried. Right there in the library. When I think of MIA, even though she is one of my favorite artists (our future is MIA’s past, as Kanye West said), I hardly think of her as the emotionally affecting artist. At least in that way.


And then there was graduation, now coming up on two years ago. I was wearing this gown, and my family was there and my extended family was there, and I was graduating from Vanderbilt! A nice school and a nice family and a nice degree. Everyone was looking at me all the time, looking for these emotions in my face, wanting the moment to, I don’t know, coincide with the realization that all this “work” I had done in college had paid off. Though in truth I never considered college “work.” Anyway so there I was in this coliseum with my parents thousands of feet away, a small cheer as the thousands of us in the college of arts and sciences made our way through. Would it have been cruel to say that I felt nothing? Though, not nothing. The only thing that I remember is that my mother and father wanted to wait to have dinner as a family together in this nice restaurant, and of course every family was doing that, so we drove through traffic for hours only to wait for more hours. By then I was hungry, because I had not eaten anything.


How is it that we cannot even predict what product comes out of us when we work so hard to manufacture just that. Millions are spent on weddings, and who knows if I will ever find the love of my life at this point (melodramatic I know), but there you have it.


The truth is that I got a sort of morbid glee when coronavirus came, because then everyone was going to have to live the same life as I had led since leaving Vanderbilt. I go nowhere, and I do little, and seeing that in other people and the lack of busy behavior they had before was driving them crazy, and for a time I was glad in that.


But now the reverse is happening! Now it is the worst of both worlds, where the virus is still out there and numbers are going up, and people are still going out to have a fun time and I am stuck here. Each time they go to a restaurant and don’t get sick and then come back, they confuse their good luck with some sort of skill. As if their bodies were fighting it off the whole time. The ones who died out of bad luck cannot warn us, because they are dead. We can’t predict how people will behave, can we? I do not even know how I will behave. I am still unclear on what my crying meant. Is it the positive reaction of a young woman paying attention to the world? Or is it the beginnings of a high-functioning depression?
It is like Fitzgerald said, isn’t it? “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

Sincerely,

Mia

Two

Faith announced to the security guard of Monte Verde that she was “visiting” her friend. The guard nodded her along. A call must have been put through. She was expected.


The golf course was empty, but the driving range had a socially distant clientele. The swinging of the metal clubs emitted short bursts of light as they turned and refracted. The days in mid-summer were now blisteringly hot. Despite this, the heat did little to keep these people, mostly men, from swinging them. As Faith drove her tired car through the gated subdivision, she found herself driving alongside pairs walking up and down the steep hills. It was only 10:30 AM and already the heat of the day had climbed into the 90s. Faith’s summer dress clung to her. Her air-conditioning was broken, and her window rolled down sent in the heated air like a hair dryer.


She saw the numbers of the addresses climb as she continued along the main road. Several off-roads tempted Faith, but Mia had told her that they lived along the main thoroughfare. In that previous call, in an attempt to transition lightly into living with Mia, Faith asked if the sounds of the cars going back and forth were annoying to hear in the house. She could hear Mia give a laugh on the phone.

“It’s not that kind of neighborhood,” Mia said.

Now Faith was thinking about that line over and over as she passed each elaborate residence in Monte Verde. Houses where the words “thoroughfare” and “veranda” and “buttress” came to mind as readily as “a little spending money” did to the young adults who biked past her. When she discovered Mia’s house, she found it pulled back from the road to such an extent that there was a looped driveway for her to pull into. A gate on the left hand side ushered the cars out of the garage and onto the driveway, so Faith kept her car centered in front of the house. At first, Faith got out of the car and took care to inspect the house she would be spending the foreseeable future in. It was almost perfectly symmetrical, as far as she could tell from the front half, though there were pains taken to make it not seem the case (especially once she went inside). The horizontal display of the house, with a high porch cornice and columns that connoted majesty and strength, gave Faith the impression of a man with wide shoulders. The brick, a faded pink or coral translucence was a sickly fleshy color that made Faith wish the house had been repainted. Such is the cost of living extravagantly, Faith thought. Every blemish shows as a bruise.

Mia opened the door to welcome her even before she knocked. Faith had at first only grabbed a single suitcase from the backseat.

“Where is the rest of your stuff?” Mia asked. Faith could tell Mia was trying to let her into the house easy, with practicable gestures, in order to stymie the awkward feeling moving in gave off, which was to say the feeling of failure.

“It’s in storage,” Faith said, “but I have some other boxes here to bring in.”
For the briefest moment, neither of the women made any attempt to come closer, until Faith said, placing her suitcase down on the porch, “I’ve been tested.”

“And?”

“Negative.”

“Yay!” Mia said, and opened up her arms wide, her black tank top tightening across her chest. She took small, dramatic steps with her jean-shorted legs towards Faith, and Faith, in half-sisterly enthusiasm and half-motherly grace, stepped in her dress and hugged back. It was the first of the kind that the two had given anyone since March. For a time, neither of them moved. It was only when Faith felt the heat of the day as it crept up her neck that she relented, with Mia grabbing her suitcase before she had a chance to reclaim it.

“Gotcha!” she said, with a youthful exuberance. Faith could tell Mia was excited by the prospect of an older confidante and professional living in the house, someone to be gawked at and scrutinized, but also someone who could be a playmate, if given the incentives. Faith went back to her car to grab a box from her trunk, having to slam it twice to convince it to close properly.

Mia led her through the threshold of the house, a set of double doors with shoes deposited on the side of a rug, and Faith did the same with her greek sandals. The house was as close to silent as Faith had heard in a long time, having submitted to the pains of apartment living on the first floor of a complex that had loud music, footsteps, occasional arguments, and children crying. Here, an inherited grandfather clock was about to give a chime for 11:00, but otherwise its tick was the only planned sound in the house.

“We have a room prepared for you upstairs, near mine,” Mia said, rolling Faith’s suitcase with its handle. “Would you like to go there first, or see the house?”
She was given options, the house was so large.

“Let’s see it then,” Faith said, and Mia, assuming Faith meant the house, gave a robust tour.

“This is the main entrance room,” Mia said. “The painting up above the fireplace, on the mantelpiece? It looks just like father. We found it in Europe and once we saw it, we could not unsee it! I think dad hates that painting now, but anyway, it’s so big that nobody wants to move it.

“Everything looks so new and pretty in here because we hardly spend any time in it. If you sit on those red couches, they are rock solid. The rugs underneath have been repaired as well. There’s the clock, which you can hear. And from here we can go in all sorts of directions. To your right is the master bedroom and bathroom, and next to that is a small post-dinner room, for a port or brandy. On the opposite side of that small hallway is a guest room that has become storage now. You could put what you don’t need in there if you’d like? I am not sure where your larger items have gone, actually.”

“I put them in storage,” Faith reminded her.

“Right.”

They continued left instead, revealing a centralized kitchen with three separate entrances. One went into the utility room, the other to a living room with leather couches with reclining end seats and a very large high-contrast television, and the third to a staircase and mini-office underneath. The kitchen cabinets were glass, and the density of the silverware, glassware, and cutlery on display as the ceiling climbed gave the walls a brilliance almost painful.

“Going upstairs,” Mia intoned, and Faith’s first steps onto the carpeted staircase revealed a plush white flooring, unblemished, and her toes sunk into it greedily. “You’ll see a workout room/storage room/study, and obviously that room is NOT being used.” The sweat from outside had cooled rapidly in the brisk house, and Mia grabbed an electric blue blanket on the banister and wrapped it over her shoulders, like a cape.

“Where is your mother?” Faith asked, following her down the second floor hallway.

“She’s out, buying groceries. That’s why I asked you for that list.”

“I hope it wasn’t too much trouble.”

“No!” Mia said, with such force it made Faith reel slightly. “We’re hoping you can whip us into shape. You have such a beautiful figure.”

“This dress,” Faith said, turning to display, holding the line out with her hand “hides a lot.”

“A-hand this!” Mia said, laughing as she transitioned to the tour, “is YOUR room!” And Faith was unsure what to say. A giant window made up most of the back wall, flooding in light early in the day from the right, and as the grandfather clock downstairs laboriously gave its eleven chimes to indicate the time, Faith took in the fully furnished bed, desk, and dresser, all of which looked either barely used or brand new. The balsa color of the furnishings gave a coastal and light feel to the room, and the duvet cover on the bed, combined with the floor, was a bluish-gray, a near perfect contrast. The bathroom had a walk-in shower, as well as ample counterspace next to the sink. Again, window light did most of the work, but a florescent light did the remaining job of exposing an ebullient young and pale Mia, with a tanned, calm, and gentle Faith. For a time, as the two stared into the mirror, four feet wide, neither said anything. It was only the grandfather clock, finishing the last chime, the kind where one could finally hear the deeper register underneath, the low bass-filled hum of the clock’s inner workings, and its decrescendo was replaced by nothing. Only the breathing of the two women, now feeling the intimacy of the close space. Faith could feel the sensation of defeat as pressure mounted behind her eyes. Hiding it from Mia, she looked down at the bathroom floor tiles.

“It’s perfect,” she said finally. “All of it.”


When the two returned to the bottom of the staircase, they could hear Mia’s mother coming in through the garage entrance, holding many groceries along her forearms to reduce the trips. Mia introduced Faith and the two helped Mrs. Bodwick carry in the remainder of the groceries. In the kitchen, Faith showed them her recipe for watercress sandwiches on rye. The tomatoes, large and ripe for that time of year, were something only Faith ate, which was the only regret to an idyllic lunch.

“Things are heating up out there,” Mrs. Bodwick said, their empty plates now out in front of them. Mia was pouring iced green teas for the three of them. “And I’m not just talking about the temperature. Did you see how many cases we had? In one day?”

“42,000!” Mia chimed from the kitchen, ending in an ominous, minor key.

“Yes, and it seems the trend is continuing upward,” Faith said, wiping her mouth delicately with a paper towel. “It does not help that rules for reopening only present themselves as a challenge to be thwarted.”

“How do you mean?” Mrs. Bodwick said. Her intelligence at social gatherings was easily recognizable here, Faith thought. Her flashing eyes, her dedicated attention, her desire (genuine or faked) to hear your thoughts, proved a sharp self-education. Though Mrs. Bodwick had long passed her prime, like for example her jeans hiking frumpily on her hips, her neck losing Mia’s grace and instead folding slightly, causing a width from her head down that gave her line less delicacy, and her dedication to floral prints to break up the figure she carried with her, as time went on with Faith in the house it was clear that she had lost none of her wit.

“Well, at bars in town, the only way they can remain open is if they sell food,” Faith said. “So my friends of mine – they work at these bars – say that to stay open they charge a very large amount for an individual bag of chips or some snack. Let’s say, $5.00. Then, when the patron buys a beer, they subtract that cost from the chips. It becomes little more than buying a gift card for alcohol. Except the gift here is the right for bars to stay open, because now they are deemed a ‘restaurant.'”

“Deplorable,” Mrs. Bodwick said, leaning back in her chair and adjusting her floral print shirt downward. “Basket of deplorables!”

Mia came in bringing the iced tea in green summery glasses. The condensation from the glass nearly froze Faith’s hands as she drank.

“What was the store like, mom?” Mia asked.

“Ugh!” Mrs. Bodwick gave a wail. “Wretched! They are under-staffed. I ask for only a half pound of hummus and they give me the whole container. We have no chance of eating all that ourselves ladies, and old hummus carbonates, which I despise. The taste of it is simply impossible to withstand.
“That seems to be the case with everything served,” she continued. “But what is more bizarre is the shortages for shelf items. Apparently, it is not that we do not have enough flour, but the packaging is the problem. Most flour went to restaurants, but now no one is going to restaurants. And now that everyone is making bread at home for fun now, there is not enough paper wrapping to hold all this flour. So I go to the flour aisle and, ladies, there was nothing. Not even yeast or gluten! It was empty. Never in my life had I seen something like that.”

“I worry about the implications for the world,” Faith said, “when it becomes clear just how much we relied on China for the global economy to continue on. At some point they must have realized that if they quarantined and socially distanced and still experienced infected factories, it would end capitalism as we knew it. So they did the most horrific but effective shutdown so that they could feed the world our gadgets, our toys. We seem to be living with the virus, but they’ve turned it away.”

“I just want to go out!” Mia said, dramatically throwing her face onto the table.

“Well it seems like, if safety is what we care about, none of us are getting out any time soon!” Mrs. Bodwick said. “This morning I read a piece about how 80% of the cases in March may have gone unnoticed. And if asymptomatic spread is just as contagious as people who DO have symptoms, there is no way to control this now. We should have had contact tracing implemented much sooner. Now it’s out there, and we don’t know where.”

“Even then, I doubt that the contact tracers would do very much,” Faith said. “We have just recently filled out our census for 2020, and though you and I have done it, and though it takes precious little of our time, it is hardly the case that everyone will do it. Far from it. We seem to have an unhealthy fear of government, even good government. It is in the public’s best interest to fill out the census, but people can be easily led astray.”


Faith wanted to get to work on putting together her work space so that she could begin her summer tutoring over Zoom sessions, but in between sessions of summer classes for college, as well as high school students as far from school as possible, she had days to prepare. So she let Mia have her fun.
And they did. Mia saved the best for last, and she showed Faith the library where she had been staying as a proxy room. The television sat on the coffee table, but surrounding her was a beautiful tapestry of books in built-in bookshelves on each wall, rising up twenty feet. There were no windows here, instead there were old, low wattage lightbulbs. Faith spent the better part of an hour perusing the necks of the books, her hands reaching and taking and slipping the pages between her fingers. Literature and history made up the largest sections, with a science category, and a strange attention to oceanography, in one corner. A religious revival set of texts, analyses of the King James Bible, sat up high in yet another corner.


“My father got into God,” Mia said. “Before I was born.”
“Do you happen to know why?”
“It was the mid-90s,” Mia said. “Apparently everyone was into God.”
Faith laughed. “I suppose you’re right.”
“Do you believe in God?” Mia said. Faith could tell she instantly regretted it, but the deepening quiet made her too scared to double back.
“Do you have a philosophy section?” Faith asked.
“Yea,” Mia said, and guided her to a slim shelf where Faith found an anthology of modern philosophy. She turned the pages to Spinoza.
“This is what I believe,” she said, and handed the open book to Mia.
The heavy lunch gave way to a lazy afternoon. The two girls sat on the couch and talked of the letter Mia sent.

“I know you might not want to hear this, Mia, but the lives of girls and women are largely invisible,” Faith said. “And though there have been great steps in our century, the underlying reality is that, as we are the the ones who carry children, give birth to them, and care for them, we are likely at some level to always remain that way, if only just a little bit. We love men almost because they are incapable of listening, for their drive. Ultimately most men manifest that drive by buying an iPad at 20, a camera at 30, and a motorcycle at 50. They simply cannot accept reality as it is, while we MUST accept it, and improvise. There’s a line from Lana del Rey I think a lot about.”
“I love her,” Mia said.
“Well, I am actually surprised to hear you say that. She’s come under scrutiny recently for the lyrics of her songs, and how they seem okay with abuse towards women. That is not the way I see it, and I agree with her Instagram post, but that is neither here nor there. The point is, there is this song at the end of her Born to Die album. ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls,’ the song goes, ‘we all look for heaven, but we put love first.’ Part of the charm of the song is that though boys end up being the curse of women, to such an extent that we now have a dearth of true crime documentaries that reveal beautiful dead women, blondes, brunettes and redheads in these polaroid pictures, that there is some solidarity among women, that we all know that. Or that we all agree to belong to that.”


After bringing in the rest of Faith’s belongings that evening, they could see Mia’s father pulling into the gate. The two ladies greeted Mr. Bodwick as he came into the house. Busy, sweaty, with spectacles sliding off of his face, his heavy breathing announced his presence around the house as he almost waddled from place to place. At first his expression was grim, but with more time in the house he eventually opened up to laughter and humor, and his endearing presence was the warmer to Mrs. Bodwick’s analytical focus.
“Mr. Bodwick,” Faith said, during dinner. “I cannot thank you enough for your hospitality, you and Mrs. Bodwick both. Thank you for letting me stay.”
“What is this, ‘hospitaliy,’ what is this the Victorian era?” Mr. Bodwick jested humorously. Mia laughed and the Mrs. grinned. “Honestly it is no trouble. Trust me, the world is in a tailspin.”

They split once again, with the two opting for a movie and, on Mia’s recommendation, they watched Sucker Punch (2011), a story about young women caught in a psychiatric ward, resorting to fantasy and imagination as a way to bring them out of servitude. Faith simultaneously watched Mia watching, and found that the scene where Mia was most entranced was when Rocket and Sweet Pea, the two sisters, were arguing for why they should attempt to break out of the facility. The two girls were together through everything, and after the younger sister sacrifices herself and allows Sweet Pea the eventual chance to escape, Faith could see reflections of tear streaks on Mia’s face.
“Mia?”
“This movie sucks ass!” she said, and they both laughed. It was true. The movie was not great. But it was their movie now. They could play it whenever they liked, and when they did, they would know what it really meant.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s