tara.mantel@gmail.com
 

The Girl Subject

 
 
From William & Mary Review

1. Disagreement, morning.

            They eat Fruit Loops, Ana and Lauren do, at seven-thirty in the morning. Ana says, Lauren, we still eat Fruit Loops, isn’t it crazy? Lauren says, There is a plant whose flowers smell exactly like Fruit Loops. But the plant came first. I should say that Fruit Loops smell exactly like the flowers. That would be more correct. Ana looks at Lauren, her talented photographer sister, back from a shoot in the Brazilian slums, lethargic, too careful, afraid of sidewalks and traffic lights. Lauren says she came back not from Brazil, not from any country per se, only from the land of herself. What drama.

            Lauren says, The plant blooms in August, that I know.

            Ana crunches her cereal and unwraps a package of Pop Tarts. Lauren, she says, I am going to eat a Pop Tart. It’s crazy. Lauren says, Pop Tarts always come in twos, unlike bad luck. Ana slides a Pop Tart in front of Lauren. Just eat it.

            They have grown up somehow. Ana is a registered nurse, and two years ago began working at her current job in a hospital, where she helps people get through acute afflictions, stubborn illnesses, silly injuries, and long stretches of boredom. She walks into rooms and takes vital signs and fills in charts and checks IVs. Lauren is a photographer who crawls into people’s spaces and finds their edges, and sets everything off with atmosphere and light. She freezes time and manipulates reality and is often referred to as an artist. Ana refers to her as a monster, says, Lauren, you cannot float away all the time, the way you do, it isn’t healthy. Lauren says, What do you mean, float away? Do you mean like spacing out or like wanderlust? Both are necessities.

            It was Lauren who, as a child, was always peering out from behind something—discount store racks, for instance, when their mother dragged them to blowout sales. Underneath pool tables, for instance. Or behind doors. Or underneath dining room tables or desks in hotel lobbies.

            They look alike—same long dark hair, same freckles, same smile that crowds up into their cheeks, and they hear comments like this from many of the tenants in the apartment they live in together. The apartment itself is nothing special, but the front windows catch the sun for an hour at a certain time of year, at just the right moment, and in this moment the light pours in. After Fruit Loops and Pop Tarts, they fight like spoiled children for the chance to sit for a while in it. After Lauren returned from her photoshoot in Brazil, after the horror of what she saw tied up her gut and clotted up her brain, Ana let Lauren have this spot, let her mind have the transformative mood the sunlight triggered, let her body have the ions and the vitamins delivered to her, express, from the heavens. Lauren lies on her back in the middle of the sunny spot, with the back of one of her hands on her forehead. She breathes deeply until tears creep out of her eyes. She is so quiet that now Ana is the one who wants to hide. This, her uncontainable sister, her loud-mouth dancing queen, a woman made of steel and twisted copper.

2. The girl subject has power beyond her borders.

            The idea to hang up Dandelion Girl, an attempt to smear away the effects that the dark, mad month in Brazil had on Lauren, came to Ana during her break at work. Her section of the wing was full, everyone doubled up, more knocking on the hospital doors every day. She expected the second shift to be quieter, but there was no night in the hospital’s gleaming, flourescent universe, during these post-visitation, pre-sleep hours when the sick seemed to be sicker than they were all day.

            After the charts and computer work and calls from patients, Ana sat down to contemplate her scheme. She knew that if she dragged the photo out of the closet and hung it up, something would happen; in it was the energy of a happier time, and the face of a girl Lauren grew to love, and if there was love staring out of the photo, then there could be love in nonexistent but potential photos, and these potential photos would rise up and out of Lauren, and then she would have to make them real.

            There would be necessary complications and probable repercussions. First, the photograph: its subject is the blonde-haired daughter of Lauren’s friend. The photograph was taken on a day the three of them went to the park. The girl, in jeans and a scrubby blue T-shirt, wears a dandelion crown, a dandelion necklace, and a dandelion bracelet, and hops around in a patch of field, spinning, it seems, arms out, one of them white with sunlight and waving upward, as if she had a magic wand in her hand and is casting a spell. She is in the foreground, left, and above her shoulder sits a black dog, quiet and still. It is the juxtaposition of the moving child and the calm dog that draws Ana, but sometimes she thinks it is just the girl; not the particulars of her movement, exactly, but her expression—piercing and careless—that so pleasurably disorients. Lauren said the girl was perfect: not flawless, but perfect. Ana remembers Lauren telling her of the many visions she had of the girl after that day at the park—how they came to her in the night, during meals, in the shower. This girl is mesmerizing, Lauren said, she will wake people from their slumbers. Ana thought, What slumbers? A girl can do this? A girl? Lauren wanted the girl in all poses, in all manner of dress, in all climates, in untold permutations.

            Then Ana saw the girl, and understood. And as soon as she understood, the girl disappeared. Lauren had asked for too much: the girl’s mother, one day, said, No more pictures, you cannot visit us any more, my daughter is not a lump of clay, please leave us alone. Lauren said, This girl will make philanthropists fund art through the next century, but the mother didn’t care. Soon after that, Lauren went to South America, to the Brazilian slums, with her friend Rumi from graduate school, and during their last shoot had collapsed from what she thought was food poisoning or flu. Up to that time, she had worked for magazines, had taken many pictures of hollow-eyed women wrapped in tissue paper and aluminum foil, mummified, their mouths parted and glossed. She shot them from angles originating under their jaws, in front of backgrounds that ballooned into a mass of blue or gray, or into misty Japanese rock gardens—anything that suggested celebration, incorrigible beauty, the ever after. But there was catwalk skeletal and poverty skeletal; there was everyday city-street detritus and there were miles of chest-high effluvia; there were populations without proper clothing, and there were naked children walking ghostlike over tin and sewage and mortar.

            When Lauren got back from Brazil, she had thrown the photos from her trip into the hall closet. Then she went to a clinic to get tested. On one of her last days there, while walking the edges of dump heaps, a shard of glass or metal had punctured her calf. The tests were negative. Lauren said, I have no right to profit from those children.

            Eating pizza in front of a television news show, Lauren said, You know, the last week I was there, I couldn’t take a single picture. Nothing prepares you for those sights. Ana observed her closely. She was watching a lot of television. She didn’t smell right and said nothing of her projects, and one day said, I feel all revved up, kinda sick, like I’m going to die.

            A week later, Lauren complained of terrible stomach cramps, low and deep, and one night had phantasmic dreams involving hallways and screeching bats. That next morning she paced, overstimulated, and went out for a walk but came back after only a few minutes. Her heart rate was a hundred and ten beats a minute. The most she could focus on reading were snippets from Rolling Stone. She lost ten pounds. She ate nothing.

            Even now, months later, nights in the apartment are bright with insomnia. Ana feels bad when she gets up to use the bathroom, when she sees the light on (still) in the living room, when she feels the weight of another’s incapacitating distraction. She feels guilty when she nearly falls asleep on the toilet, because sleep beckons so readily to her.

            Lauren won’t take the herbal supplements that Ana recommends. One night, as Ana walks from the bathroom to her bedroom, she fights with herself about turning around and going into the glowing, charged living room, where she knows Lauren sits, doing a crossword puzzle or flipping channels, where she sits staring into a corner of the room, and making her take the Valerian root tablets, the huge doses of calcium. She thinks of reading her a story.

            In the living room, Lauren watches Absolutely Fabulous. It’s the episode where Patsy and Eddie fly to New York City for the day to shop for a particular door handle. Ana says, You just watched this one. Lauren says, Their neuroses are captivating.

3. The girl subject hangs quietly and does not disturb.

            Ana wakes to find Lauren standing in front of the living room windows, eating toast. She’s in her orange bathrobe and slippers, no makeup, her hair flattened and hanging across her forehead, perhaps not even bothered by Dandelion Girl, which Ana hung on the wall separating the living room from the kitchen. It is possible that Lauren, still sluggish with post-trauma, does not have the energy to dispute the decision.
It would be so much easier to help her if she were laid up in bed with broken bones and abrasions.

            Lauren leans her head against the window. The falling toast crumbs glitter through the morning light like gold dust.

4. Laughing fit, afternoon.

            Once, when Lauren was twelve and Ana fifteen, Lauren lay on her back on her bedroom floor with one arm straight up in the air. She looked through her fingers, then dropped her arm to the floor. Ana lay on the bed, on her stomach, and said, What are you doing, and Lauren said, I don’t know but you should try it. Their giggles went on, inexplicably, for days, at times surging into a nauseating, choking laugh. The spell, overall, lasted a whole month, until midnight mass one Sunday, after the consecration, after the Eucharist, after communion; but by the time they had all gotten home, Lauren’s laugh had completely subsided, never to be heard again in quite that form.

5. The girl subject’s face could make a person want to throw something.

            So Ana hangs Dandelion Girl in the living room. She knows this is possibly a violent act. She thinks that Lauren will eventually object, and that the objection will lead to a discussion about the many places, both psychological and physical, to which she doesn’t want to go but has to, according to the therapist, little by little, every week. Lauren will not want to be reminded of the weed-child, of her halcyon days, of a time when there were no dark clouds over her head. She might become angry and want to throw something. But Ana is prepared; she will say that if this crowned child can fund art for the next century, then she ought to be able to make an injured person take pictures again. As it is, Lauren does not object, not yet, but rather eats toast quietly by the window.

            After that one midnight mass many years ago, Lauren decided never to go to church again, but ecumenical symbolism would appear in several of her photographs. One of them, which several galleries refused to show, featured a tabernacle on which were affixed torn Prada advertisements and upon which, surrounding the chalise, were household appliances, smashed up, and models of luxury condominium developments, dildoes, and rat traps. The biggest dildo was stuck in one of the traps and nearly sliced in two. Civilization, Castrated, was the title. She had gotten into trouble for this, had triggered “an American morality play,” but the important critics had weighed in with thoughtful commentary supporting her intent and arguing that the basic promise had been fulfilled, that the work had provided all that we can expect, even more, from art.

            Lauren now always eats in front of the television because she does not want to see the Dandelion Girl. Besides the Dandelion Girl, Lauren also avoids homeless people and the subway. Ana’s idea is to get Lauren off the couch and seated at the table, near the photo, for five minutes a day. Ana promises to hold her hand. Lauren snaps at Ana, even purposely knocks over the chai tea she makes, but after a week manages to sit still for a minute, sometimes two, and look.

6. Disagreement, early evening.

            They are having another disagreement, this time about optimism. Lauren argues that it ignores the facts, that it keeps people from seeing how life really is. They are coming back from Lauren’s appointment with the psychopharmacologist, walking the final stretch to the apartment. Ana says, Optimism isn’t about facts. It’s about the spirit. But even she can see, as they round the last corner, that it is another tiresome Christmas again, streets aglow with disingenuous cheer, bells clamoring on corners slicked with gutter slime. She does not want to be out in this cacophonous blather, having to pick up something small, maybe a necklace, for her coworker Jean. She tells Lauren she doesn’t know how to pick out anything tasteful, and they both know this is true.

            They also buy a small tree and haul it to the apartment. Ana does the lights and ornaments, and Lauren does the popcorn strings. Lauren makes more than is necessary, and Ana knows that this is because the task is of just enough weight for her. She is validated in her assessment when Lauren begins rolling dough for cookies she doesn’t like to make and won’t want to eat.

            As the cookies bake, Ana decides to decorate a little more, since their parents are driving in from New Hampshire—Ana reserved a hotel room months ago—and will appreciate a festive apartment, a fresh Christmas, before continuing on to Florida for a month. Lauren says, Of course this would be the year they decide to come. Ana says, That is not an optimistic thought.

            On the morning before Christmas, Lauren hides the pills and books on relaxation techniques under sweaters in a drawer, hides her weight loss under loose clothing.

            Their parents arrive with gifts wrapped in shimmery silver paper. Lauren takes them and puts them under the tree. Ana makes coffee. They drink it and talk of cousins and neighbors and grandparents. Who’s going to which college, who has which affliction. Dad wants to know what they pay for rent. Mom wants to hear about boyfriends. Ana had started a meal of ham and au gratin potatoes, but Lauren is the one to check on everything, set the table, open the wine. She grabs her space, greedily. Soon they open presents, they kiss goodbye, and the visit is over. I’ll clean up everything, Lauren says, you go take a shower.

            The day after Christmas, Ana lays out all the gifts she receives: a food processor, two novels, a bottle of wine, a basket of cheeses and chocolates, a knit hat with a matching scarf and gloves. Lauren will choose one of the gifts to keep for herself. Ana cannot remember how this tradition began; what she remembers is the way Lauren used to pick up each gift and hold it, how she always waited a day or two to think about which gift she wanted. One year, long ago, Lauren picked Ana’s brown-haired My Little Mermaid so that she would have the whole set. Ana wasn’t upset: the dolls were meant to look at more than they were meant to play with. After they were done with their baths, Ana peeked in on the dolls floating stiffly in the bathwater and later imagined whole schools of them flitting around in the warm sea, their silky hair flowing behind them, their strong tails propelling them to the surface now and then to say hello to her, a mere human, sitting incapably on shore.

            Lauren moves from one item to another, holding each in her hands. I can’t choose, she says.

7. Dancing, night.

            Everyone is over—Rumi, Lauren’s grad school friend, tanned and pierced, and Jean, sans scrubs, younger-looking in heels, made up, red hair loose, no glasses. They are going dancing, which is Ana’s idea, but it is fully supported by these women who love Lauren and want to see her body move again. It has been one month of medications, and today Lauren voluntarily ate a few forkfuls of macaroni and cheese.

            Ana finds Lauren in the bathroom, pulling on black pants, her blouse still open. The role reversal begins: Ana brings her something more attractive to wear—a skirt and tights, a deep teal cotton top. You know how you sweat, Ana says. Lauren dresses, pins her hair into a twist, examines Ana. Is that my black dress?

            They take a cab to a nearby nightclub, sit in a booth raised above the level of the dance floor, and order Cosmopolitans. A year ago, Lauren would have already danced a set, but now she can’t remember the name of the club they’re in.

            The role reversal continues throughout the night. Ana gets the drinks, she dances, she chats up men at the bar. She cannot explain this, the faint but detectable energy rising in her, a foreign energy, a welcome change from gazing outward from quiet corners. A drug, maybe—the power of addiction, of a type of life she could be living: her sister’s life, a new skin. She watches a man watch her, watches herself being noticed, and is hooked. As far as she is concerned, Lauren can sit talking with Rumi all night.

            Ana even smokes a cigarette—the man gives her one, and lights it. She exhales away from the man as he gives her his phone number.

            Back at the table, Ana slides the piece of paper to Lauren. Look, a boyfriend for you. Ana looks at Lauren, still gaunt from the weight loss, slightly pale-looking, noticeable even through her darkened makeup. You need to get your color back, Ana says. Are you saying I have an enviable alabaster complexion? says Lauren. Ana says, You should try to dance with me.

            Ana leads Lauren to the dance floor. Lauren: there she is, but not really. Moving as if her twisted-copper self froze in a snowbank. Under the lights, her face has the greenish-blue hue of tarnish and corrosion. Ana picks up the slack, dancing in twisting swirls around Lauren, around her skinny body, her timid and somber limbs, her need and provisional dependence. Ana dances harder, feels the lights across her face, the heat of men’s eyes on her hips. She continues her ascent, forgetting her unfortunate, shadow sister in favor of a beat.

            Lauren motions that she is going back to the table. Ana finishes the song and joins her. Are you okay? asks Ana. Lauren says, I think I need to leave.

            Rumi looks concerned. Jean looks at Ana. Ana looks at the dance floor. We’ll finish our drinks, Ana says, then go.

            Back at the apartment, Lauren wants to sleep on the couch, so Ana gets out the quilts and tucks her in. Sorry, Lauren says. I know you were having fun. Ana is ashamed at having wanted to abandon this woman, even if only briefly. Ana kisses Lauren on the forehead, lies next to her until she twitches into sleep.

8. The girl subject contains multitudes.

            For three months, Lauren sleeps an Ambien sleep, an induced sleep. This drug makes people sleepwalk, so Ana checks on Lauren during the night, to make sure she hasn’t wandered out into the street. From the hallway, Ana hears her stir. Lauren? Ana calls. Lauren sits up in bed. I don’t want to go to the lake, she says.

            As adolescents, they vacationed at a nearby lake, canoed out to the middle of it, and skinny-dipped. Still sitting up, Lauren says, The weather is not going to be good. Ana has no idea how to handle somnanbulation. Lauren, the weather will get better, but now you have to sleep, Ana says, and after a few moments Lauren lies back down.

            In the morning, there is no drowsiness but also no recollection of the conversation. That week two things happen: Lauren begins sorting through some old work, and sleeps almost a whole night without a pill. Lauren says, I feel like a different person, somehow.

            Not that there is new beyond old, different beyond the same. Ana imagines old selves as disembodied spirits blowing by the hundreds down city streets and out of town, down into the surrounding hills and valleys, toppling over each other in the rain, huddled together in snowbanks. She dreams of them one night, blinking out at her from young woods and old-growth forests, telling her, There is nothing new, just more of what is already here, and she is not frightened, but neither can she move.

            As girls, they were everything at once. They had superhero ambitions. Their powers spurt out instantaneously after eating magic pills, which transformed them from regular girls into busty, muscle-ripped women with endless powers. If one sister lay mortally wounded and dying in front of, say, a toxic television set controlled by some grotesque, far-away force, the other would run to the place where special vitamins were stashed, procure an adequate supply, return through dangerous territory, and slip two or three into the wounded sister’s mouth. The injured sister would immediately awaken, look around, then rise to her feet and jump around with new life. She then could, in theory, outrun any malevolence that might be sprinting after her, or turn and stare down any enemy; or she could disappear by squatting and then jumping so high she vanished into the clouds, where for days she would float and heal and dream until she poured down, replenished, with the rain.

            It is time for Lauren to find some kind of job, and soon she manages to get an interview with the head photographer at a company called All Smiles, which does family portraits and weddings and parties. Ana lays out a black pantsuit and white blouse, and tomorrow morning she will sweep Lauren’s hair back in a tidy ponytail, the way she did when they were girls. This is not necessary, not any more, but regardless, she takes a pair of black boots out of the closet and dusts them off with a damp cloth.

            She goes to the living room, and stops short. Lauren sits at the table, staring at Dandelion Girl. Ana is at first afraid to move but then does, slowly, toward Lauren. Ana rests a hand on her shoulder. Ana says that the Dandelion Girl expresses all things and all moments. Lauren says, Yes, I’m frightened to death of her, I always was.

9. The girl subject is a charm.

            Once, Ana drove halfway across the country to see Lauren for a weekend. Lauren explained the trouble she was having with the magazines she shot for—the expectations that could never be met, her inability to grow as an artist. Ana had told Lauren that it was only a matter of time before Very Important People saw her skill with a camera. Lauren listened with the oddest expression—like she was about to interrupt with a pressing question or correction—and when Ana stopped talking, said, And you’re going to conjure up this gorgeous future?

            You have to visualize it, Ana says now. Tell me how it is that you can envision an entire series of photographs and you cannot visualize your own future.

            It’s not that Ana believes in magic, exactly—not in the fairy tale way, of course, but more in the way of the Dandelion Girl, with her hand waving an imaginary wand in the heavy air, wishing for nothing but a few hours of sunlight in the field, of hot beams on her back and the flutter of monarch wings blinking out of the corner of her eye.

            Lauren gets the job. After her second day at work, she comes home, shrugs off her coat, and says, I can do this crap with my eyes shut.

10. Disagreement, afternoon.

            The first month of the job goes well. Lauren joins a fitness club, eats more, sleeps regular hours. She and Ana rarely see each other—sometimes just passing in the hallway as Lauren arrives home and Ana leaves. Lauren also joins a meditation group, and now has new friends with names like Summer and Forest. Rumi stops by and takes Lauren for coffee or a movie or a new installation at a gallery. They always ask Ana along, and sometimes she goes.

            Ana thinks Lauren looks taller, and as they pass in the hallway one day, Ana checks Lauren’s shoes: flat heels, nothing more.

            Lauren’s new friends live in another part of town, and those friends have friends in yet other parts of town, and there comes a time when one of them needs a roommate, and Lauren is there to answer the call. Lauren thinks this will be good for her—to have her own life. One of the friends needs to be closer to her job, which is near Ana’s apartment.

            So it all works out. Is this what you mean by optimism? Lauren asks Ana.

            But Ana does not want to part with the Dandelion Girl. Ana says, When I hung her up, I didn’t expect to like her so much, but I do. Ana wants this picture to be a gift to her, a gift in return for helping Lauren recover. Lauren says to Ana, Look, I have similar photos. Lauren says, After I get settled, come over and you can choose which one you want.

But that isn’t quite the same, Ana thinks.

            The Dandelion Girl lives on, hangs there on the wall separating the living room from the kitchen. Ana swears, while clearing the table or turning on a lamp, that she sees her move. She stops to look, to verify the girl’s frozen twirl, the dog’s steady stare. Suddenly, she finds that she wavers; there is too much movement in this life, too much change, and she feels the anger building, spreading outward from its adrenal origin. This Dandelion Girl is tricky—she seems to be there in front of you but in fact never really is. She is a vertiginous, maddening sprite from the woodlands. Ana finds that now she is the one who avoids looking at the Dandelion Girl, who wants this girl’s power to awaken to be stamped out for good.

            Ana works double shifts that week to cover for Jean, who’s out of town. Always she is off somewhere; her schedule always seems to win out, to stampede on Ana’s. Now it’s a wedding Jean is going to, she’s excited, she plans on wearing the necklace that Ana got her for Christmas. Ana reflects that she herself never seems to go anywhere, that she is like a metal pole cemented to the place. Jean says, Ana, what would I do without you, and Ana thinks, Well, that’s a damn good question. That night Ana looks at Dandelion Girl and thinks, I’m through with thinning myself out for people, I’m through with heaping up piles of praises, I’m through with cures and miracles and healing energies and high hopes. She announces to herself: the well has dried up.

            Ana’s aura is sick. It is gray with no color running through it. She doesn’t speak much. She goes out and comes in without saying a word to anyone. She feels heavy, though she has not gained weight. She watches her own sister grow again, but she herself feels depleted. It isn’t right, not for one to go up only as another comes down.

11. The girl subject hangs quietly and does not disturb.

            Lauren’s things are all packed. The living room is an obstacle course.

            They eat Fruit Loops and peeled oranges. Lauren says, I never did look up the Fruit Loop plant. Today Ana will help Lauren load the moving truck and then meet a friend for an hour or so before going to work.

            Lauren’s next project is Argentina. When she saves up enough money, or if a grant comes through, she’s going to document the factories that have been recovered by workers and that now operate as collectives. It’s a counterpoint to Brazil, to world hunger, to globalization, to so-called free trade. Ana jokes, When you’re the shit again, don’t forget about me. Lauren freezes. Ana, quick, tell me what I’m visualizing. Ana says, An ocean of Fruit Loops?

            Later, when Ana gets home from the hospital, there is only half of her in all the rooms. There are dusty rectangles and squares where Lauren removed a small table or plant stand.

            But the Dandelion Girl remains. She hangs, nicely framed, on the wall.

            The wind picks up and blows the first drops of rain against the living room windows. But there is nothing but sun here. She waits until she can smell the clover and lambsquarter, waits until she can feel the heat emanate from the dog’s black fur, waits until the silence, florid and imperturbable, settles around her—a moment when there is no down or up, forward or backward, when specific change is irrelevant: when there is only the Dandelion Girl spinning wild in a buttercup field, dancing away the depths of stagnance and separation, spinning forever into lost space, working her indescribable magic.

Back to top