Readings — From the August 2015 issue

Measure for Measure

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From Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh, out this month from Penguin Press. Moshfegh’s first novel, McGlue (Fence Books), was awarded the Fence Modern Prize in Prose in 2014.

I remember the shower I took that morning because the hot water ran out while I dillydallied at the mirror inspecting my naked body through the wafting steam. I’m an old lady now. Like it does to everyone, time has blurred my face with lines and sagging jowls and bulging bags under my eyes, and my old body’s been rendered sexless and soft and wrinkled and shapeless. So just for laughs, here I am again, my little virginal body at age twenty-four. My shoulders were small and sloped and knobbly. My chest was rigid, a taut drum of bones that I thudded with my fist like an ape. My breasts were lemon-size and hard and my nipples were sharp, like thorns. But I was really just all ribs, and so thin that my hips jutted out awkwardly and were often bruised from bumping into things. My gut was still distended from the ice cream and eggs I ate the day before. The sluggishness of my bowels was a constant preoccupation. There was a complex science to eating and evacuating, balancing the rising intensity of my constipated discomfort with the catharsis of my laxative-induced purges. I took such poor care of myself. I knew I should drink water, eat healthful foods, but I didn’t like to drink water or eat healthful foods. I found fruits and vegetables detestable, like eating a bar of soap or a candle. I also suffered from that unfortunate maladjustment to puberty — still at twenty-four — that made me ashamed of my womanliness. There were days on end that I ate very little — a handful of nuts or raisins here, a crust of bread there. And for fun, such as with the chocolates a few nights prior, I sometimes chewed but spat out candies or cookies, anything that tasted good but which I feared might put meat on my bones.

Back then, at twenty-four, people already considered me a spinster. I’d had only one kiss from a boy. When I was sixteen, Peter Woodman, a senior, took me to the high-school prom. I won’t say too much about him — I don’t want to sound as though I’ve carried the memory around with any romantic nostalgia. If there’s anything I’ve learned to detest, it is nostalgia. My prom dress was very pretty, though — navy taffeta. I loved navy blue. Whatever I wore in that color reminded me of a uniform, something that I felt validated me and obscured me at once. We spent most of our time sitting at a table in the darkened gymnasium, Peter talking to his friends. His father worked in the police station and I’m sure that Peter only asked me to the prom as a favor his father owed to mine. We didn’t dance, not that I minded. The evening of the prom ended in Peter’s father’s pickup truck in the high-school parking lot when I bit the boy’s throat to keep him from reaching any farther up my dress. In fact, I think his hand was barely on my knee, I was so guarded. And the kiss was only superficial — a momentary touching of the lips, sort of sweet when I think of it now. I can’t remember how I got home that night after tumbling out of the truck, Peter heckling me and rubbing his neck as I watched him drive away. Did my teeth draw blood? I don’t know. And who cares anyway? By now he’s probably dead. Most people I knew are dead.

That Monday morning in X-ville, I put on my new blue stockings and dressed in my mother’s clothes and drove to work, to Moorehead. I remember conjuring up a new strategy for my getaway. One day soon, when I was good and ready, I’d pile on all the clothes I had decided on taking with me: my gray coat, several pairs of wool socks, snow boots, mittens, gloves, hat, scarf, pants, skirt, dress, et cetera, and I’d drive about three hours northwest across state lines to Vermont. New York wasn’t that far from X-ville. Two hundred fifty-seven miles south, to be exact. But first I’d lead any search astray by abandoning the Dodge in Rutland, which I’d read about in a book about railroads. In Rutland I’d find some kind of abandoned lot or dead-end street, and then I’d walk to the railway station and take a train down to the city to start my new life. I thought I was so smart. I planned to bring along an empty suitcase to carry the clothes I’d take off once I got on the train. I’d have some clothes, the money I’d been hoarding in the attic, and nothing else.

But maybe I’d need something to read on my ride to my future, I thought. I could borrow a few of the finer books from the X-ville library, disappear, and never return them. This seemed to me a brilliant idea. First, I would get to keep the books as mementos, a bit like when a killer snips a lock of hair from his victim or takes some small object — a pen, a comb, a rosary — as his trophy. Second, I’d give good cause for concern to my father and others who might wonder whether I intended ever to return or under what circumstances I was forced to leave. I pictured detectives poking around the house. “Nothing seems to be out of order, Mr. Dunlop. Maybe she’s visiting a friend.”

“Oh no, not Eileen. Eileen has no friends,” my father would say. “Something’s happened. She’d never leave me alone like this.”

My hope was that they’d think I was dead in a ditch somewhere, kidnapped, buried in an avalanche, eaten by a bear, what have you. It was important to me that nobody know I planned to disappear. If my father thought I’d run away, he would have humiliated me. I could imagine him puffing out his chest and scoffing at my foolishness with Aunt Ruth. They’d call me a spoiled brat, an idiot, an ungrateful rat’s ass. Perhaps they did say all that once I really left X-ville. I’ll never know. I wanted my father to despair, cry his eyes out over his poor lost daughter, collapse at the foot of my cot, swathe himself in my smelly blankets just to remember the beautiful stink of my sweat. I wanted him to paw through my belongings like he was examining bleached bones, inert artifacts of a life he’d never appreciated. If I’d ever had a music box, I’d have liked the song it played to break my father’s heart. I’d have liked him to die of sadness at having lost me. “I loved her,” I wanted him to say. “And I was wrong to have acted like I didn’t.” Such were my thoughts on my way to the prison that morning.

Around two o’clock, the warden came into our office followed by a tall redheaded woman and a willowy bald man in a loose, mud-colored suit. My first impression of the woman was that she must be a performer at the special assembly — a singer or an actress with a soft spot for child criminals. My assumption seemed reasonable. Celebrities entertained army troops, after all. Why not young prisoners? Teenage boys were a worthy enough cause. Most of those boys, the ones serving shorter sentences, ended up in Vietnam anyway, I’m sure. In any case, this woman was beautiful and looked vaguely familiar in the way all beautiful people look familiar. So within thirty seconds I’d decided that she must be an idiot, have a brain like a powder puff, be bereft of any depth or darkness, have no interior life whatever. Like Doris Day, this woman must live in a charmed world of fluffy pillows and golden sunshine. So of course I hated her. I’d never come face-to-face with someone so beautiful before in my life.

The man was not interesting to me in the least. He sniffled, rubbed his head with one hand, carried two coats over his other arm — his and the redhead’s, I presumed. I couldn’t help but stare at the woman. I have a dreamy picture in my memory of how she was dressed that day, in peculiar shades of pink, not unfashionable per se but not in the fashion of the times and certainly not of X-ville. She wore a long, flowing skirt, a sweater set draped around her slim figure, and a stiff-rimmed hat, which I picture now as something like a riding helmet, only it was gray and delicate, felt maybe, and held an iridescent feather on one side. Perhaps I’ve invented the hat. She wore a long gold pendant necklace — that I know for sure. Her shoes were like men’s riding boots, only smaller, and with a delicate heel. Her legs were very long and her arms were thin and folded across her narrow rib cage. I was surprised to see a cigarette in her fingers. Many women smoked, of course, more than do now, but it seemed odd for her to smoke just standing there in the office as though she were at a cocktail party, as though she owned the place. And the way she smoked disturbed me. When others smoked, it was something needy and cheap. When this woman inhaled, her face trembled and her eyes fluttered in subtle ecstasy, as though she were tasting a delectable dessert or stepping into a warm bath. She seemed to be in a state of enchantment, perfectly happy. And so she struck me as perverse. “Pretentious” wasn’t a word we used back then. “Obnoxious” was more like it.

“Listen up,” said the warden. He had a wide, red, and pitted face with a huge nose and small, inscrutable eyes, but he was so well groomed, so clean and militant, that I thought of him as handsome. “I present to you our new psychiatrist, Dr. Bradley Morris. He comes highly recommended by Dr. Frye, and I’m sure he’ll be an asset to us in keeping our boys in line and on the path to redemption. And this is Miss Rebecca Saint John, our first ever prison director of education, thanks to a generous donation from Uncle Sam. I’m sure she’s completely qualified. I understand she’s just finished her graduate work at Radcliffe —”

“Harvard,” said this Rebecca Saint John, leaning toward him slightly. She tipped her cigarette ash on the floor, blew the smoke at the ceiling, and seemed to grin. It was truly bizarre.

“Harvard,” the warden continued, titillated, it seemed to me. “I know you will all welcome our new additions with respect and professionalism, and I hope you’ll show Miss Saint John around in her first few days as she learns our customs here.” He gestured to the office ladies, me included. It all seemed very strange, such a young, attractive woman appearing out of nowhere, and to do what? Teaching writing and arithmetic seemed like a ridiculous objective. Those Moorehead boys struggled just to walk around, sit down, eat, and breathe without beating their heads against the walls. Dr. Morris was there, for all intents and purposes, to drug them into acting right. What could they possibly be taught in their condition? The warden took Miss Saint John’s coat from Dr. Morris’s arm, handed it to me, and seemed to smile. I could never tell his real feelings toward me, sweater-vest or not. His death mask was thick as concrete, I suppose. In any case, it was my job to assign the new woman a locker. So she followed me back to the locker room.

Rebecca Saint John’s face that day had no makeup on it that I could detect, and yet she looked impeccable, fresh-faced, a natural beauty. Her hair was long and thick, the color of brass, coarse, and, I noted gratefully, in need of a hearty brushing. Her skin was sort of golden colored, and her face was round and full with strong cheekbones, a rosebud mouth, thin eyebrows, and unusually blond eyelashes. Her eyes were an odd shade of blue. There was something manufactured about that color. It was a shade of blue like a swimming pool in an ad for a tropical getaway. It was the color of mouthwash, toothpaste, toilet cleaner. My own eyes, I thought, were like shallow lake water, green, murky, full of slime and sand. Needless to say, I felt completely insulted and horrible about myself in the presence of this beautiful woman. Perhaps I should have honored my resentment and kept my distance, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be close to her, to get an intimate view of her features, how she breathed, what her face did when her mind was busy thinking. I hoped to be able to spot her superficial imperfections, or at least find flaws in her character that could cancel out the good marks she got in the looks category. You see how silly I was? I wrote out the combination to her locker on a slip of paper and took a whiff of her when I handed it over. She smelled like baby powder. She wore no ring. I wondered if she had a boyfriend.

“Now let me have you stand here and watch me and let’s see if I can figure out this lock,” she said. She had a haughty, precisely articulated accent, the kind of accent you hear in old movies set in the south of France or fancy Manhattan hotels. Continental? I’d never heard anyone in real life talk like that. It seemed absurd in such a place as Moorehead. Imagine the well-mannered tone of a British noblewoman politely bossing around her maid. I stood with my back against a column of lockers as she spun the dial of the combination lock.

“Thirty-two, twenty-four, thirty-four,” she said. “Well, look at that, practically my measurements.” She laughed and pulled the locker door open with a clang. My own measurements were even smaller. We both paused, and, as though we were each other’s synchronized reflections, looked down at our own breasts, then at each other’s. Rebecca said, “I prefer being sort of flat-chested, don’t you? Women with big bosoms are always so bashful. That, or else they think their figures are all that matters. Pathetic.” I thought of my sister, her body so conspicuous in its fleshiness, a main attraction. I must have made a face or blushed because Rebecca asked, “Oh, have I embarrassed you?” Her sincerity seemed genuine to me. We exchanged smiles. “Busts,” she said, shrugging and looking down again at her small breasts. “Who cares?” She laughed, winked at me, and turned back to her locker to fiddle with the dial.

Perhaps only young women of my same conniving and tragic nature will understand that there could be something in such an exchange as mine with Rebecca that day that could unite two people in conspiracy. After years of secrecy and shame, in this one moment with her, all my frustrations were condoned, and my body, my very being, was justified. Such solidarity and awe I felt, you’d think I’d never had a friend before. And really, I hadn’t. All I’d had was Suzie or Alice or Maribel, figments, of course, imaginary girls I’d used in lies to my father — my own dark ghosts. “Of course I’m not embarrassed,” I told her. To declare this took more courage than I’d needed in years, for it required the brief removal of my mask of ice. “I completely agree with you.” What is that old saying? A friend is someone who helps you hide the body — that was the gist of this new rapport. I sensed it immediately. My life was going to change. In this strange creature, I’d met my match, my kindred spirit, my ally. Already I wanted to extend my hand, slashed and ready to be shaken in a pact of blood, that was how impressionable and lonely I was. I kept my hands in my pockets, however.

“Well, good,” said Rebecca. “We have better things to do than worry about our figures. Though that’s not the popular opinion, wouldn’t you say?” She raised her eyebrows at me. She was really remarkably beautiful, so beautiful I had to avert my eyes. I wanted desperately to impress her, to elicit some clear indication from her that she felt as I did — that we were two peas in a pod.

“I don’t care much about what’s popular,” I lied. I hadn’t ever been so brash before. Oh, I was a rebel.

“Well, look at you,” said Rebecca. She crossed her arms. “Rare to meet a young woman with so much gumption. You’re a regular Katharine Hepburn.” The comparison would have sounded like mockery if made by anyone else. But I wasn’t offended. I laughed, blushed. Rebecca laughed too, then shook her head. “I’m kidding,” she said. “I’m like that, too. I don’t give a rat’s ass what people think. But it is good if they think well of you. That has its advantages.” We looked at each other and smiled, nodding sarcastically with widened eyes. Were we serious? It didn’t seem to matter. It was like all my secret misery had just then been converted into a powerful currency. I’m sure Rebecca saw right through my bravado, but I didn’t know that. I thought I was so smooth.

“See you around,” I said. I figured it was best not to come on too strong. We waved to each other and Rebecca flew off back through the office and up the hall like some exotic bird or flower, utterly misplaced in the dim fluorescent light. I walked mechanically, heel-toe, back to my desk, hands clasped behind my back, whistling nothing in particular, my world transformed.

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