Portrait of a Losing Bet
To the lay observer, Clarice’s face is boring: round, lacking pronounced cheekbones, kind and bland as a manmade pond on a sunny day. But, if you become an expert, as I once was, however briefly, you can spot the muskweed rippling under that mild surface, tangled and elegant. You can, when she is angry or crying, see her nearly invisible eyebrows form despairing cliffs. You can, under the right light—soft, with a touch of winsomeness—see the blonde hairs framing her mouth, so thin and small, they almost glitter.
So when I saw her face, for the first time in six months, blooming among the sallow faces of men, her elbows propped on the stage’s edge as she watched me undress, I nearly fell out of my heels. She smiled, calmly, placed a dollar beneath the lace of my g-string, patting my thigh softly, as if I were a nervous pup.
I met Clarice last May, after I graduated college. I had moved home, back to Chicago, to live with my mom—not my first choice, but as a cultural anthropology major, I had no idea what to do after college, let alone how to turn such a marketable major into a career. I got by with a mix of art modeling and housesitting, the former being how I met Clarice. Though it was unethical, and an unarguably bad idea, I couldn’t resist the pleasantness of her face. That summer, when heat draped every building in its wet sheets, Clarice was the cool breeze shimmering the lake.
Sleepovers began on the second date. Clarice kept her mattress on the floor, like an artist in a novel. She attended school part-time, while working as a hostess at some posh River North restaurant. She’d get back to her place late, and I’d rub her feet while we munched on leftover breadsticks and drank cheap wine. It was on one of these nights that this thing blossoming between us began to wilt, though at the time I wouldn’t have said that.
Clarice was working on a series of abstract portraits, pulled from conversations she facilitated between mother and daughters. For weeks she had been pestering me to invite my mother to sit for one of these interview-portrait-torture sessions. And while the latent anthropologist in me was intrigued by the experiment, the logical part of me slugged the anthropologist and told her to keep quiet. The part of me Clarice touched, as she ran her thumb along the ladder of my ribs, stopping just beneath the curve of my breast, was the part that caved. Pleasing her pleased me in this powerful way I was unfamiliar with. I hadn’t dated much in college. I had few friends. Most people annoyed me, but Clarice—pleasing her made me feel all tail-wag and slobbery. I suddenly understood couples’ tattoos, coordinated outfits, the impulse to feed each other bites of food in crowded restaurants.
Maybe at this point I’m supposed to explain what happened when she found me at the club. Say that Clarice and I hooked up after my shift. Maybe she walked me home and we stood on the stoop of my apartment building, listening to the moths kill themselves against the lamp. Maybe she kissed me before vanishing into the summer night, cicada song masking her retreating footsteps. Maybe I ran after her and it began to rain or snow or lightning, the weather wild as our hearts, a movie score swelling around us. But she was gone before I finished my set. I unwrapped every sweaty dollar bill I collected that night, looking for a secret message written along the edges. But there was no phone number, no scribbled note for me to decipher, unless she was the one who drew a cock to the side of George’s mouth.
The evening before our sitting with Clarice, my mom begged me to help her pick out an outfit. I sat on her bed, piled with skirt-suits, linen pants, bell-bottoms she hadn’t worn since the 70s, mohair sweaters she thought would make great texture even though it was August in Chicago. I rolled a toothpick between my teeth, a nervous habit I picked up to avoid being a nervous smoker like my mother.
“Mom,” I said, “Clarice isn’t going to paint us like us. She’s not that kind of painter. Her work is abstract—there’ll be words and blotchy colors, that kind of thing. Like I told you already.”
“I know, but it seems silly. How can she ignore what we’re wearing? She certainly couldn’t ignore that get up.” She eyed my purple tube top, cut off jean shorts, the silver ring piercing an eyebrow.
“Here. Wear this.” I handed her a black pencil skirt, white sleeveless blouse, red heels. I walked out of her room: let her wallow in her bafflement. As if I hadn’t lived with her for practically my whole life. As if I didn’t know that my clothing bothered her. As if I didn’t know how to make her look good.
The night before the sitting, after dinner at Clarice’s apartment, I wrote down a list of questions my mother could ask. It contained the usual topics—sex, sexuality, income, variations on the theme of drug use. I showed it to Clarice, who laughed. “I bet you a dollar she won’t ask you any of these,” she said. Clarice always betted a dollar, always paid up, always expected to be paid if she won. I shook her hand.
“Moms don’t ask questions they don’t want to know the answers to,” she said, gathering up our dinner plates. She had already created four mother-daughter portraits; my mother and I were to be the last of the set.
“I’m going to paint for awhile,” she added, pulling her red sundress over her head like she’d pull pigment across a canvas. She rifled through her pile of work clothes. “You sticking around?”
I nodded. I liked watching her paint. It might be the thing I miss most—watching someone fall into a trance, sink into something other than themselves. I only felt that then when I modeled; now sometimes, while stripping. A kind of vanishing. But, with a painter like Clarice, something new emerged after the vanishing—a bird’s wing, a cat’s severed paw, splintery wood of an old windowpane. And what I do, whatever people say it is, it isn’t art. It isn’t degrading or exposing either. It’s more like the feeling you get during sex. Maybe that’s expected. I don’t mean it like that. I mean, eventually, if it’s all going well, you disappear. You’ve drifted away from your own name, from your own bullshit. And it’s painful, like sex is afterwards—returning to regular time, to your own solitary body. To your life. Maybe that’s why I loved Clarice—so I could keep that feeling of vanishing alongside the hope of being known.
From the start, Clarice and I reveled in our roles of artist and muse. On one of our early dates, I borrowed mom’s car and drove us to Morton Arboretum. It was barely June, when the magnolias are just past their prime. I wore camouflage shorts, a green wife-beater, a bandana around my forehead. We painted my arms and face with mud, then Clarice photographed what she called “war poses” with various ironic props: a water pistol, a white flag, a black water balloon bomb. I launched toy grenades at ducks idling on a pond, raised my fists at lilac bushes. Afterwards, we spread a blanket, ate cheese, bread, fruit, passed a thermos of wine between us. We spread our props on the blanket and asked a stranger to take our picture: Clarice in her sunshine-colored dress standing before me as I bent down on one knee, a lollipop ring held up to her.
We scanned the results. “That’s either the gayest or straightest thing I’ve ever seen,” I said.
She shrugged. “I like it,” she said. I layered apple and cheese onto bread and waited, sensing that her silence was ripening, about to bear fruit. She told me about her mother, who had miscarried three times before having her. Her mother who died in a car crash when she was three.
“This was her dress,” she said, pinching the yellow fabric, the aged lace trim. I offered her the last of the wine. Behind her, some teenage boys strung a rope between two trees, balancing their way across. She finished the wine, wiping her lips, and looked at me as if I should understand something fundamental about her. And maybe I did, but in the way a child first begins to understand mortality—a flash of clarity, a fear knotted in the stomach, then the world intercedes, distracts with its bright colors.
My mother entered Clarice’s apartment the way I imagine she enters courtrooms—with a flourish, as if she were wearing a cape. She thumbed through the canvases lined up on the floor, squinted at the windows in a way that suggested their drapelessness insulted her, and shook Clarice’s hand as if she were a fellow attorney. Clarice smiled at my mother as if she were a visiting head of state; I swear she almost curtsied. I slumped into one of the folding chairs Clarice had set up for us, patted the one beside me so my mother would sit down and stop pawing over Clarice’s artwork.
“I’d love to buy something,” she said. “If it’s for sale.”
“Sylvia,” she said, “you don’t have to do that. I’m just glad you two are doing this.” She offered us tea, a tray of cookies. My mother’s name in her mouth sounded like something heavy being thrown into a lake. A rock, perhaps, or a pair of skates. I wished I had looked at the other paintings in the series. I imagined them to be spare, like cave paintings. But maybe they were like rib cages, cracked to expose flocks of canaries—or snakes sleeping on a bed of their bright feathers.
Clarice flipped a coin for us: my mom would ask the first question. My mother sighed, cupping her chin in her palm as if she had no earthly idea what to ask me.
“Who’s your best friend?” she finally said.
“Do people even have best friends after high school?” I countered, rolling my eyes, looking to Clarice to share my annoyance, but she was already lost to her giant sketchpad and charcoals.
“Sure,” my mother responded. “Of course they do. I never see you palling around with anyone anymore. You were so social in high school.”
“Erin,” I said. “We’re still best friends.”
My mother twitched at the name; she, I’ve come to understand, had wanted me to say Clarice, had wanted this portrait to bond the three of us together like an awkward group hug.
Erin was the girl my mother—all mothers—hated in high school: the troublemaker friend, the fast friend. Erin dyed her hair black and reeked of patchouli. Still, she aced every class and instead of giving the usual rabbity valedictorian speech, she dropped her gown, stood naked at the podium, and recited Plath’s “Daddy” until security hauled her off the stage. “Erin and I talk all the time,” I continued. “She’s in Seattle now, saving up for a pilgrimage to India. She’s really into Buddhism.” And, while none of this was true, I missed Erin saying it, wondered where she actually was.
“Sounds about right,” my mother said. “Okay, your turn.”
That’s when I realized I hadn’t planned an offense, having expended all of my energies on defense. What could I possibly ask my mother? Clarice’s curiosity seeped from her like a heady perfume.
Look, I don’t want to give you the impression that I pine for her—for either of them. That I’m some sort of freak with pictures of Clarice lining my walls. That my mother has written me out of her will. That it all blew up the way it does in soap operas with dinner plates and wine glasses being thrown about. It was quieter than that. The last image I have of my mother is her thin body, like a gray moth, standing on her 24thfloor balcony. I stood below her, silently daring her to spit on me or shout obscenities. But she did nothing. I pulled my bag to my shoulder and walked to the bus stop. Like most angry young things, I did not know where I was going, only that I needed to go. You already know the last image I have of Clarice.
“Tell me about your first love,” Clarice asked. We were in the hot tub at my latest housesitting stint, a McMansion in Winnetka that belonged to one of my mom’s lawyer friends. I waded across the tub to my drink.
“I think I’ve answered enough questions today,” I said, imagining my mother, curled on her sofa, bitching to one of her friends about the afternoon she wasted getting her portrait done with her weirdo daughter. Clarice slid away from me, her long hair floating around her like a pool of dye.
“Was it that girl you mentioned today? That Erin?” She sipped from her lemonade, refusing to join me in raiding the McMansion’s liquor cabinet.
I shook my head and looked up at the planes coasting through the night. The suburban trees surrounding us netted with bug song. “Yeah. I guess. I mean she was the first person I ever kissed.” I wrapped my legs around Clarice’s waist. She pushed me away.
“No, tell me. Tell me something real. It’s been, what, almost four months? And I still feel like I hardly know you.” I hated hearing people say this kind of thing to me. It made me want to clam up tighter, zip up every orifice. But, Clarice. Her bland, wonderful face. Her frank pleasantness. Her magnolia blossom skin. Fine. I told her—about Erin, about all of it, from the moony notes passed in algebra class to the day it ended, with my mom walking in on us in my bedroom. Erin rushing out. My mother telling me to get dressed, our awkward dinner afterwards. How we’d never spoken of it.
“Never?” Clarice asked.
I shook my head. “The funny thing is I kind of thought we’d talk about it today. But she didn’t ask.”
“Well, neither did you.” She had a point. But I kissed her rather than admit it.
Sometimes I think about what my mother would have been like if my father never left. I see two mothers: the one I know, shushed by the new model, the happier model, who doesn’t go to law school and work two jobs and leave me for endless afternoons in the care of half-demented old ladies I was taught to call grandmother. I imagine my father as some rich executive, meeting Mom and me for lunch, both of us giddy and sweaty from playing all morning in the park. Our suburban existence, flush with pool parties and shopping malls. This other mother crawls into my bed to comfort me after a nightmare instead of buying a crappy nightlight. She doesn’t smoke or stay up late watching David Letterman, talking to him like he was an old friend.
I played this game for the millionth time on the cab ride from Winnetka to my mom’s apartment. I left Clarice sleeping in the downy comfort of the McMansion’s king-sized bed and Egyptian cotton sheets.
The last time I saw Erin was at our graduation, after her show-stopping performance. We were in line for the bathroom at this pizza joint everyone went to after graduation, even though the pizza wasn’t great and it was always crowded. The walls were lined with pictures of past graduations, all the way back to the 50s. Erin stood in front of me, her arms folded around her hot pink dress, one combat boot unlaced. I hoped she didn’t realize I was behind her, but then she turned halfway, not quite facing me, not quite facing away. She said softly that she wasn’t scared: not of my mom, just of her boyfriend finding out. Of me “making a big deal out of everything.” She glanced at me as if to apologize, then she was in the stall. I found my mom and faked a stomachache to get out of there.
“Fucking women,” I said, staring out the cab window at the skyline, all dressed up in lights, even at 3 a.m.
“You’re telling me,” my driver said, before launching into a rant in Spanish. I only half understood, but smiled and when we got to Mom’s apartment, I handed over my makeshift water-bottle turned flask. It was nearly empty anyway.
“Do you know what time it is?” Mom asked, cinching her robe shut.
“Do you know what time it is,” I said back to her in a singsong, laughing. It occurred to me that I was quite drunk, and my mother’s face swam a little, as if growing fins. This made me laugh more and I pushed past her to the kitchen, popping the stopper off a bottle of merlot. She leaned against the counter and sighed, sliding onto a barstool.
“What do you want?”
“Why didn’t you ask about Erin? About that day?”
Mom laughed quietly, as if sharing a private joke with herself, brushing her salt and pepper hair away from her face. She took a cigarette from her pack of Slims. “Do you know I haven’t smoked for a year? I just keep this pack around as insurance.”
“Fascinating.” I sounded sarcastic but was actually surprised. I’d been living with my mother for months and hadn’t noticed she’d quit. It made me feel awful, as if I’d scarfed down a jar of pickles.
“So, you’re upset I didn’t ask you about some stupid teenage affair you had, what, almost five years ago?” She laughed again in a way that made me feel invisible.
“Don’t you care about my life?” I felt my voice traveling up through miles of water. I repeated the question over and over, louder each time, until it felt like water poured into my lungs. My mother covered her ears.
“Damn it, who do you think I am?” She dropped her cigarette into an empty Diet Coke can. I slumped to the ground, leaning against the fridge, the bottle of merlot pressed between my knees. She sighed and sat down beside me. “Of course I care about your life. You’ve just never seemed all that interested in sharing it with me. When was the last time we had a meal together?”
I shook my head. I offered her the bottle. She took a sip.
“So what is it? What do you want me to know? That the painter is your girlfriend? I met Clarice weeks ago. She’s very nice. Is that what you want to hear?”
“You met Clarice weeks ago?”
“She came by looking for you. You were at work. Sloppy giving out the home address. I knew she must be special for you to make a mistake like that.”
“So this stupid portrait thing was your idea?”
“No, it was all Clarice. I think she thought it would make you open up. Trust her or something.” She passed the bottle back to me. “Sweet girl. A little naïve.”
My anger seeped out of me. It was difficult to focus. I tried to concentrate on the mole above my mother’s left eyebrow. I mumbled something I hope expressed resentment.
“Come on. Ups-a-daisy.” She stood, pulling me from the floor. She led me to my bedroom, the walls still covered in posters from high school. I collapsed onto the comforter and kicked her away when she tried to take off my shoes. “Suit yourself,” she said, I think, which made me cry. I fell asleep thinking there was nothing sadder than refusing to let your mother take off your shoes.
The next morning Clarice came over. No doubt she called my mother to discover my whereabouts. As Clarice sat at the foot of my bed, trying to figure out why I was so upset, I imagined her and my mom meeting for secret lunches, sharing recipes.
Nausea swam inside me and I thought, for a moment, about leaning into what they offered, to be the third point in a triangle, to have a serious girlfriend and a real relationship with my mother. And it’s not that I didn’t want those things—but in that moment, they were so ephemeral, like holograms. I can name those desires now, though I can’t shake the shame I feel—the scruffy feeling of understanding one’s own drama, but being unable to drop it.
“I need something greasy in my system,” I told Clarice and asked her to wait for me at the diner around the corner, that I wanted to shower and talk to my mom alone. While the two of them murmured in the foyer, I stuffed some clothes into a duffle bag. I packed my laptop, the books on the nightstand. I decided between sneakers and sandals. I was acting like a game show contestant who had been given the challenge to pack an entire life in five minutes.
Then I leaned against my bedroom door, straining to hear the front door close, my mother’s movements after Clarice’s departure. She rinsed glasses in the sink and hummed to herself. I realized she always hums while doing chores, but never whistles. Then her bedroom door whined on its hinges and she shut it gently. I grabbed my toiletries from the bathroom, a bottle of orange juice from the fridge. At the front door, I turned around, scanning the apartment as I would a hotel room, afraid of forgetting something.
I taped the dollar with the cock inked on it to my bathroom mirror, above the unopened letter my mother sent, seemingly seconds after I sent her a postcard with only my new address on it. Obviously she and Clarice have kept in touch, my mother using her as some go-between, as bait. They probably eat Sunday brunch together every week, the Chicago Tribune spread out between them. Clarice may never be a famous artist—though I wish that for her, if she wants it—but she was born to be a good daughter. I don’t want to take that from either of them, crowd my way back in. I nod at George like he understands what I’m about: he’s not about to open up for that cock. As for me, I’ve also learned to feast on silence.