Two Stories from Portraits and Conversations

Actress

You seem different, she might say, or is that what she wished she would say. Do people ever change and if so, how? Go off and join the circus, disappear for a couple of years. Everyone would probably forget about you by then which is why no one does that. Or would it be better to say “you are exactly the same.” Ten years is a long time, long enough for something to have changed. “You aren’t anything like what I expected!” Wrinkles around the eyes, laugh lines, gray hairs, weight gain. People probably stop changing as rapidly as they get older unless they are really committed to fabricating conversions, changing their names, etcetera.

Even if some people never recover from their upbringings, there are those who do. She knew a woman who changed her name and the woman was always angry because her old friends refused to use her new name. Do people ever change and if so how? You aren’t anything like what I expected. Wrinkles around the eyes, laugh lines, gray hairs, weight gain. Do people make these stories up? The rat that swam into the apartment through the toilet.

And if she did make them up, her stories were the most interesting. Only movie stars are allowed such radical transformations. You seem different, she might say, or is that what she wished she would say. It wasn’t as though she were fabricating a life just to sound interesting or exotic or have something to say.

You seem different, she might say, or is that what she wished she would say. It wasn’t as though she was fabricating a life just to sound interesting or exotic or have something to say. Finally, everyone forgot her old name and after a while no one even noticed that she had changed her name.

Do people make these stories up? For three years she didn’t leave her apartment. She was still the same person. Her mother had been an alcoholic and she had grown up on a commune. As though it were a disease or stigma, this fact often made it seem that all of a sudden this person who looked and behaved exactly like everyone else wasn’t really like them. What is the subtext: There must be something wrong with her? People probably stop changing as rapidly as they get older unless they are really committed to fabricating conversions, changing their names, etcetera. Or would it be better to say “you are exactly the same.”

She didn’t really care if the stories were made up or not since she knew that there was some truth in them. She was still the same person. Do people ever change and if so how? There was no way to verify the stories and she felt bad questioning their veracity but she couldn’t help it. Her mother had been an alcoholic and she had grown up on a commune. Everyone here thinks they are a movie star. People like hearing about her family because, on balance, it makes theirs seem completely normal, boring, even. She can’t remember what she was trying to say.

Finally, everyone forgot her old name and after a while no one even noticed that she had changed her name. Do people make these stories up? She can’t remember what she was trying to say. The rat that swam into the apartment through the toilet. Or would it be better to say “you are exactly the same.” Go off and join the circus, disappear for a couple of years. Wrinkles around the eyes, laugh lines, gray hairs, weight gain. You seem different, she might say, or is that what she wished she would say. She didn’t really care if these were made up or not since she knew that there was some truth in them. Is there anything wrong with that? She was still the same person.

Some Version of Herself

She wondered sometimes about the money. But that was just one version of herself. There were others. Like so many fingers on a hand. La leche es en frigido. She said this to the housekeeper as part of their conversation each morning. She wondered if marrying someone so different had been a mistake. Not that her soon to be ex-husband didn’t have money. He did, but he had made it. He had not grown up with it as she had in the big house down the road.

They lived now in their own big house, which was not quite as big as the other. Except for the groundskeeper and his wife who had been with her since she was a child, none of it felt familiar. She knew where the money came from, railroads and oil, large amounts of it that, with time, always grew. Making money was what her family was good at. Even she was: someone who was never expected to do anything at all.

The dark oak trees against the wheat colored hills. A song from her childhood the words to which she could never remember. The smell of eucalyptus. She had been sent away to England for school and was so homesick she came home after two weeks. It wasn’t the loneliness…she was used to that… And having never had to do anything, she really didn’t know what to do. Was this what her husband resented? Her upbringing? Why fret over something so fundamental. La leche es en frigido. Her stepmother, who spoke Spanish fluently, so different from her with her pale, horsey features and straw colored hair.

She must have at some point wanted to be a ballerina or a horse trainer, but she couldn’t remember ever really wanting anything. California gets into your blood, he liked to say.

They lived now in their own big house, which was not quite as big as the other. She layered her own clothes the same way she did her dolls’, red sweaters over blue. Making money was what her family was good at. Wool with satin, cotton with silk, yellow with blue. Did no one ever ask what she wanted? There were other reasons, of course. And her stepmother … She can wear whatever she likes, her father would say. You can’t ask people to tell you about ambition though her husband had tried.

Whom had she told about the divorce? Why do anything when you don’t have to? The ones whose hands were connected to make a row. She wondered if marrying someone so different had been a mistake. Her stepmother was a countess, though her husband doubted the credulity of the title. The smell of eucalyptus. La leche es en frigido. Not pretty. It was something else that separated them. His American sensibility was offended by even made-up titles.

It was a song from her childhood. She knew where the money came from, railroads and oil, and the money, large amounts of it, always grew. She layered her own clothes the same way. He was also offended by the cook, Pierre, whom she considered part of the family. There were others. She can wear whatever she likes, her father would say. Like so many fingers on a hand though these selves sometimes felt disconnected, perhaps at times even unrelated. The smell of eucalyptus. It was a word she had no understanding of. Her upbringing? Wool with satin, cotton with silk, yellow with blue.

She must have at some point wanted to be a ballerina or a horse trainer, but she couldn’t remember ever really wanting anything. Meeting him that afternoon. Beauty is the one thing you cannot buy. Was it really as spontaneous as he had made it seem? Arrangements. She had never even considered running away though people had asked if she had. Psychoanalysis. Even that was different for her. Her mother. Was it a business partnership? Strangely, the idea appealed more to her husband than her father, though when things changed, they too changed places.

Contributor

Johannah Rodgers

JOHANNAH RODGERS is a writer, artist, and educator whose work explores issues related to representation and communication practices across media. She is the author of Technology: A Reader for Writers  (Oxford University Press, 2014), the digital fiction project DNA (mimeograph/ the Brooklyn Rail, 2014), and the book sentences (Red Dust, 2007). Her short stories, essays, and book reviews have been published in Fence, Bookforum, and the Brooklyn Rail, where she is a contributing editor, and her visual works include the “Excel Drawing” series, featured in the The Drawing Center Viewing Program, and the “How Much Project,” which explores the intersection of aesthetics, civic literacy, and social action in relation to income inequality in the United States via digital and analog visualization tools. She teaches writing, literature, and new media courses at the City University of New York. :: https://twitter.com/what_is_writing

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