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On desire

What I'm Doing Here (cover)Abby Walker
00:00 / 01:24

The Muse Has a Short Half-Life

Kiran Sampath


Before she was beautiful, she was a child. Like other children, she was curious about space and had dreams to go to the top of the Sears Tower where she could be closer to it. Before she had acquired enough experiences for the depth and darkness and tempting glow of her eyes to mean something, she would stand in front of the mirror with her best friend Jo, two girls impatiently complaining about their lacking bodies. Playing tennis with their compliments until one landed. Then they would leave the room with the mirror and continue being children. 


She became beautiful all at once. 17. Like a spring day that appears mysteriously and then stays through summer. She bought the kinds of deep-cut dresses sold in adult departments, so that her breasts, mid-sized and perky, were just slightly present in class. She wore her red hair loose, somedays half-clipped, the other half falling towards her small back in mermaid-like waves. She lined her eyes and learned her colors. 


Her first boyfriend worshipped her. He was an athlete with a plain, boyish face and lean muscles, but he looked at her with the appetite of a young man. She was a balloon awaiting breath, inflated by the look of desire in this man’s eyes.


She followed him to college. And in that college town she met an actor. Not famous but on his rise, she followed the actor to Hollywood. She slept with the Hollywood actor, and then she left the actor for his director, and left the director for a 40 year old man who funded all his films. 


She mentioned once to the rich man, a philanthropist, at dusk, safely tucked in a bungalow in the South Pacific, that she had never been to Europe. The man kissed her forehead, smooth and doll-like, and insisted she go. He both adored her and pitied her, the way an older man does a child. Rome is a dream, he’d said, phoning the lobby to summon a bowl of tropical fruits. He arranged her flights and gave her the number of an old friend with whom she could stay.


Now she remembers Rome. How the men would flock to her. How the waiters would greet her by kissing her hand. And the artists in their sheer white shirts and splattered smocks would paint her naked. How the composers would write her into a crescendo, and she would take the crescendo as concrete proof of her life’s direction.


Luca Tulio, the owner of an osteria, had a good friend who he claimed was an apprentice of Elsa Schiaparelli. He convinced her to model for the apprentice’s new collection. Your neck, he exclaimed, you have the neck for high fashion and the hips for sensuality. For silk sheets. For many children. 


And so she modeled for the apprentice, who after two collections, decided he would make his name in stockings. And so she became the stocking model. My Venus, mia Venere, he would say, caressing her bare feet before a fitting.




Mothers tell their daughters that beauty is a shallow thing. Just look at the other mothers. Look at what has faded and what has remained and you will know how even symmetry can't save your soul, how we are all subject to the same strict laws of life and death. And yet here was a mother’s daughter. A woman who would trade the sunset for a compliment. Whose dreams took place in crowded restaurants where all the world’s suitors sat sending over champagne. 


And she would reason: who can deny how in proximity to a beautiful girl, the heart beats faster, the human body wants to thrust itself into the future. Oscar Wilde had said, “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” and she agreed. It is appearance which begins the conversation, and any storyteller or scientist knows that the ending can always find its cause at the beginning and that, however subtly, beginnings are reinforced in all things. 


Here was a woman in intimate standing with the universe. Who could on any street, in any city in the world, feel wanted and welcome and quickly at home. 


And what was the reason?




At 30, she met a man at a party in Chicago. 


“I’m obsessed with you,” he told her once, in a restaurant hallway, near the restrooms. And so she married him in a church. 


He decided they should build a house on the Gulf of Mexico, on a piece of land which had belonged to his family for generations. The architects and contractors came in and out, and she spoke with them daily, sipping wine around a small table. She wanted the house to be stone and glass, like a sculpture. Brutalism without its ugliness. The architect didn’t think brutalism would fit on the gulf and instead built the house in a Spanish Colonial style, insisting she choose the furniture. She selected earthy materials, woven Jute rugs and terracotta vases for tall cacti. She relished in the process of decorating. She whispered one night for her husband to fire the interior designer, or demote them to assistant designer, so they would no longer clash over where to hang the inherited artworks. 


On an afternoon in September, when the gulf was anticipating a storm and the woman was painting the clouds, her husband got a call and moved them to a row house in New York where they would stay for seven years, flipping the furnished house on the gulf for a hefty profit. So for seven years she was housed with the rest of the art in Gramercy Park. His beautiful things altogether in that one fifth floor apartment.


That was the season of her first archaeological dig into her own past. She was remembering when she was young, how she would sketch the floorplan of her future house in her school books. The middle of a mountain range. Dark wood floors and walls that were bookcases. A waterfall in the foyer. A heated pool the snow fell on. Children are so shameless with their wants. So generous with the money they have in their imaginations and she wondered what had happened.



There were two reasons for the divorce:


First, at a party in Beverly Hills, a female film-director approached her husband. He had been speaking to old friends, but turned happily towards the film-director in her elegant green dress. The woman watched. Her husband was speaking too quickly, as men do in the presence of beautiful women, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was this: after some minutes, the film-director decided the conversation was over for her, excused herself, and approached a handsome bachelor, the George Clooney of the party. 


By nature we fear what is foreign to us. So when it came to qualities of other women, the woman was never intimidated by beauty, but by the display of qualities she did not possess. Her whole life, she felt great mistrust and fear and discomfort around women like this one, women who were blasphemous because they approached what they wanted. Would she have approached the George Clooney of the party? No. And why? To some extent she resented handsome men with their unmerited powers and the way they carelessly wielded those powers. But mostly, it was a sort of defense mechanism–the vestigial fear from rejection in youth. She was shy, reserved, like a humble house guest waiting for the right gesture before walking through the door. Denying generosity until certain of its sincerity. Never approaching first. She hadn't put words to it then, but this is what that Beverly Hills party woke her too: her existence was a reaction. 


The second reason for the divorce was that her husband cheated on her. He told her in a beautiful place. On the Amalfi Coast, in a place perched on a cliff, in a place with lemon trees, nestled between colors of blue. After it had been said, all she could think about was how the night before they had been at another fancy restaurant. There was a family seated near them and her husband had said with such annoyance, “kids should not be allowed at places like this.” Remembering this she welcomed a creeping truth: she did not want him either.


Theirs was not a marriage which shattered, nor did it collapse, nor did it even unfold. It just seemed to go away. Divorce happened like the next phase of the moon. The woman’s once-husband set her up with an apartment in Paris, like a painting purchased from the Louvre now ready to be returned to the public.  




When she was 44, she woke up in a sweat one night, in Paris, in a room overlooking the Parc Monceau. What a terrible dream, she thought, and then began to cry, clutching the pillow. She had dreamt of the story of the Velveteen Rabbit. In the story, a toy rabbit is told it will become real through the love of the boy who owns it. The rabbit becomes the boy's most cherished toy, the toy he sleeps with every night. Then sickness comes: the boy gets Scarlet fever and his doctor advises all the toys be burned for disinfecting purposes, including the rabbit. That’s when a fairy appears. The fairy turns the toy into a real rabbit because the rabbit was loved by the boy. The days of waiting are over.


But in her dream, the fairy never came. The rabbit waited and waited and then was cremated in flames. 


Tears streamed down her face.


She could see herself only through her lover's eyes, a rare case of blindness. Her image was so entwined with her admirers that when she received a prolonged stare, she felt her own silhouette drawn out in smooth charcoal, or rather her full form uncovered from the sand. It had never occurred to her that the form did not belong to her. Here was a woman and her experiences with men were less like carving a diamond from stone and more like handling pastry dough. Each time she was rolled out, pounded, baked into the breakfast they wanted. That is what a muse is: a lovely sheet of dough. A rabbit who exists if the child loves it and evaporates if it does not. 


How did she become this way? Running a warm bath, she sank into the tub, an archaeologist again. 


Her childhood, like all childhoods, could be dissected on many accounts. Her father was an alcoholic. Her brother joined the army at a young age. Her mother was weak, always in denial. And yet the original sin was far more simple: when she was eleven, she liked a boy who did not like her back. She wrote him letters and left them in his cubby. The next day, she watched as he held another girl’s hand in the sandbox. By the time she was 17, she’d experienced this same, simple pain many times. It was the first time her first boyfriend called her beautiful, that first time she felt desirable, which enlivened her, and it was that feeling, an inflation of the self, a burst of life, like a flower opening in the sunlight, she followed for a long time. And that is how the original sin, the experience of an 11-year-old girl, was concealed in all things because–and her mother taught her this–the body still remembers far after the mind forgets.




Now that she is in her 50s, she often thinks about her career as a muse. Her tenure as the character who feeds off their own desirability. She writes it down. She writes about her deflating beauty. How her red hair dulled and her pale skin wrinkled. How the younger girls replaced her in lace stockings, how younger girls now pose for painters, contorting their lithe bodies so that they are more sculpture than woman. This irony amuses her, how anonymous the singularity felt by a young and beautiful face later becomes. Time has made her a defective muse but a better artist. 


Reaching for the sticky coins in her purse, she buys a book from the marchand ambulant, and then crosses a street, where she will have dinner. The waiter smiles, and though there are adjectives she no longer claims, she is charming and warm. She opens the book at the table. It contains stories from the partition of India. In these later years she craves knowledge of the world outside herself. Her reading moves from region to region. Sometimes she reads about a small country’s civil war in the footnotes of a monograph so she picks up a book on the civil war where the author quotes the surrealists and she finds herself back at Breton. After some minutes, she puts the book away and orders herself a steak, a plate of leeks, and a glass of Grenache. 


Once it’s dark, she goes to a jazz club on Place des Vosges. That’s where she sees Charlie. He’s a soul singer, a black American in Paris, with a rich singing voice, but a demeanor so light and buoyant. He sings Otis Redding between songs in French. Watching Charlie gives her the impression that everyone else leads embarrassingly shallow lives. For the last month she has returned to the club three times a week to see him. For a month she has tried to catch his gaze, applauded loudly, placed small compliments on his ears, thought in hypotheticals of what he might be like, the conversations they might have together. He calls her sweetheart, most likely because he doesn’t know her name. 


What happens when you stop being desirable? She had always wondered and now she has her answer. 


In the morning, she leaves the Marais for La Grave, a place in the alps, in the shadow of the mountain La Meije. By the time she reaches, the sun is lost behind green hills. It is summer, but she will stay. When the wildflowers have dried, and the lake has lost its warmth, when the travelers have gone and the last plum pastry is sold, she will still be here. The leaves will turn and she hopes to hike the longer trail this season. She wants to empty her ceramic pots of soil and use them for candlelight. To finish one photo collection and hang it in the bedroom. To finish another and gift it to a friend. She wants to teach English in the local school and be taught German in the German man’s bar. Still, whether you ask about her life in the language she is learning, or in the language she has known, she will tell you the same: desire, yes, it can be a painful vocation. And yet it is the only one.

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