from An Unnatural History of Humans in Love
FROM HIS TRAVELS overseas, Bert Cabell (of the esteemed Richmond Cabells, who had given so much of themselves to the city that they barely knew where they ended and the city began) had learned how to dance, swear, comport himself in the best and worst company, and speak both French and German. However, it was in Virginia that he learned how to paint, and painted (at the end of a short and shabby career) his first and last masterpiece.
Painting wasn’t a particularly noble or useful profession, but as one of a profusion of second and third sons of the Cabell Brothers, he had no particular need to be noble or useful. He was an ignored child, beloved by his mother, but of no real interest to anyone else.
Bert spent his small corner of the fortune on travel. When that ran out, he started doing up small portraits for his mother’s friends, who came to rely on him to be flattering, discreet and good at dog faces. Dogs were where Bert really showed promise. His middle-aged ladies all looked the same, with minor variations of hair and clothing. His dogs occupied the foreground and were painted in an astonishing array of colors, with every minute sparkle of eye or sag of hound-jowl perfectly accounted for. It saved him the trouble of doing dress-fronts. Bert was notoriously bad at dress-fronts, except (it was said) in the bedroom.
Bert, like many of the Cabell men, had a congenital face-blindness that made it difficult to tell one person from another, except by way of picking out one feature at a time. Since the ladies he painted always wanted a holistic view of themselves, he gave them a pleasant expression and used a flattering color palette, and never bothered too much with details of nose or chin.
The ladies almost invariably interpreted his paintings of them as a flirtatious gesture, and Bert’s easy manner, born of being the middle child of seven, did not contradict this impression. Many times, he found himself sitting at his canvas with a woman of forty-something leaning on his shoulder, surprised to hear her whisper in his ear that she had never before felt as beautiful as she did at that moment. Then her lips might trail against the down of his earlobe or the crease of his neck, and Bert was the kind of man who shrugged and smiled at opportunity when it arose.
The women found Bert accommodating and indolent in bed, bordering on lazy, leaving them to ravish him as they saw fit. Ladies of a certain age like to take their time, and they interpreted his tranquility as either shyness or slow-burning passion, depending on their mood and temperament.
Bert liked to finish paintings in a single afternoon, if he could. It made things less messy, since otherwise it was difficult to remember who he was currently sleeping with, had slept with, had not yet had occasion to sleep with. He also kept the names of the women he painted in a ledger, along with a note about whether they had pets, and a star next to the ones who had seduced him. It paid to keep things tidy. He forgot faces, but sometimes recalled the women on the street by the dogs they walked.
Word got around. Women who would ordinarily fight over a glance at a husband or a seating arrangement at a wedding shared Bert’s cards around like bonbons, happily passing him from couch to couch. He was as forgettable to them as they were to him. They hung up their dog portraits and were content with the little surge of pride they got when they passed him in the street. Their husbands made passes at maids and cooks out of necessity. They, on the other hand, had snacked on a sophisticate. And what was more, word of mouth said that he would never light up or look guilty when he saw them out shopping with their daughters or taking the air with their menfolk.
The blindness to faces that served Bert so well with older women was a hazard when he tried to court. He’d kissed Eliza Tishman on the mouth once while supposedly sweet on Beth Burnham. This and a few other minor indiscretions ended his career as a beau. By 1914, the year he turned twenty-five, he’d stopped trying to court and relied on his weekly painting sessions, which took him increasingly far afield from his mother’s original circle. Bert was returning from a day jaunt to Washington when he stepped out of the train station and onto the trolley and met the first woman he would ever identify on sight.
Her name was Marie L’Estrange and, in the summer of 1914, she was seventeen years old. She had hair the same color as her skin, light-catching honey, and a dress of striped French blue. More importantly, she had a face Bert could see: features that leaped out at him because of their patterns of curvature, and the movement that flickered over them as she glanced around her. She took her shopping basket out of the seat next to her, and he gratefully sat down, feeling washed in her ambient light.
She was staying in the city for the summer with the Lewis family, relatives of her father Jean-Louis L’Estrange, planning to start in the fall at (the trolley braked abruptly and he missed the college’s name) to study to be a schoolteacher, hoping to return to Paris because, although she loved America, she often felt here as though she could not move without offending someone, and after all, she missed her mother—all of these things she told Bert on that breathless trolley ride in a single gulp of air.
She was a fast talker, and her entire body vibrated like a taut string. Bert realized that he could recognize her in a crowd of schoolteachers-in-training, all clad in black, with not a dog in sight. He would know her the way he knew a setter from a spaniel—just because. He told her that he had been in Paris, too, that he’d studied, and they switched back and forth between English and French until they were both dizzy. She told him she was called Mary Strange here, and that her relatives often said that her father had gone overseas Lewis but had come back Strange. He would like Bert, her papa, perhaps—although to be honest he wasn’t usually much for white men.
And there, Bert stopped.
“Where did you say you were studying, again?” he asked.
“Howard,” she said, wide-eyed.
There was an innocence to it that Bert supposed came from her being foreign, and from his own partial blindness. He realized that a girl of seventeen on a public trolley might not know that he might mistake her…. He felt abashed, appalled at her and at himself. He could see dismay building on her face, like a cloud.
“What did you think?” she said in French, dropping her voice a little in response to an older lady with a satchel, who was edging away from them both. “And now I’ve offended you?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not offended at all—”
“N’est-ce pas?” She swung up and away from him on the handrail, down the two brief steps, and toppled off the car with her basket and summer sun hat with the blue satin ribbon he hadn’t noticed until it caught the light and flared briefly.
Bert scrambled to his feet and craned out the open door to see which way she had gone.
He hoped her family would set her straight, every bone in his body trembling at a frequency he could not name. She couldn’t be surprising people with that. She’d break every heart in the city and maybe get herself hurt. Not every man was as understanding as himself. He just hoped none of his mother’s friends had seen.
MARIE BETTE L’ESTRANGE, Mary Strange, Bette Noire to her beloved, tiny maman who loved puns, was many things to many people. To herself, she was a constant mystery and source of frustration.
When she was a little girl, she would answer to any name she was called without question. She suspected, in Freudian fashion, that she did not feel any real connection to a self, but instead identified with either mère or père, in turn.
More poetically, she thought of herself sometimes as a kind of spirit of the air, a neutral space, a figure-eight of absence. She thought all these things rapidly and without ignoring the contradiction that, for an absence, she seemed to take up a great deal of space. She was always looked at, talked at, done at—in a blur of constant talk and motion.
The Lewises of Richmond didn’t know what to do with her incessant babbling about Paris, any more than Maman had known what to do with her intense interest in America. (“Why go?” she’d said, flicking her newspaper and tucking her little legs up under herself. “You can always just read the wire reports.”)
The hole in space and time known as Marie Bette L’Estrange had no clear plan for herself, other than to get to America, become a schoolteacher, marry an American self-made tycoon, and return to Paris to write poetry, to promote birth control and the public discussion of the problem of Sex… and to play piano for the President. She played quite well, although with a slight lag on the left hand that did not go away, even with practice. Her father had two mangled fingers on that hand from an unnamed accident; she sometimes wondered if these things could influence heredity.
When Mary got off the train that day, she returned to the Lewis’ crowded house. After supper, as she sat in her hot garret in her “immodest” French underwear writing a letter to Maman, she found herself thinking about the man from the train.
He had the look of a young gentleman, in his suit of unbleached linen with his portfolio under his arm. She had liked that about him, almost as much as she had liked the way he unconsciously caught a curl of her hair and held it between his fingers, as though examining a strand of filigree.
She’d found it immensely romantic, she wrote. She had considered losing her virginity to this man, until he’d so disgusted her with his disgust. She spent a few moments happily anticipating the telegram Maman would send when she told her: No man worth it [stop] Bid yourself high always [stop] Remember that you are proprietor [stop]….
Her papa’s advice would be more sedate than that, more cautious. He had not wanted her to leave, had nearly torn the tickets from her hand before Bette cut him with a look. He’d said, Don’t go. He’d said, If you have to go to America, lie and go to a white school.
Papa had touched her shoulder with his left hand, the one that always lagged when they played the piano, and told her it wasn’t worth it. She could solve the problem of Sex from Europe. Of course, he was old, and from a harsher time. He hadn’t learned to read until he was fifteen, and still spoke French with what her mama called an accident.
Mary stopped writing, went over to the little iron bed they’d provided for her, and laid down. It was really too hot for this sort of thing, but in this city of beautiful young men, she had trouble sleeping without touching herself. She thought it would be romantic if she fantasized about the boy from the trolley, if she considered the possibility that they might meet again, that he might send her flowers and remorse, and then—but even while her mind was putting together a picture of this, her body’s thoughts drifted toward her second cousin sleeping in the room below her: Henry Lewis, a dark-skinned boy of about her age with astonishing shoulders who worked at the vanilla factory so that all of his clothes, and his curly hair, always smelled sweet.
Mary wondered if Henry’s skin glistened like a snail in this heat. She had no romantic delusions about him—which caused her to wonder whether all her romantic fantasies were, in fact, just pure mercenary convenience, a kind of extravagant prostitution—and then she heard Maman’s voice in her head say, Très bien, ma Bette Noire. Men are just cocks with wallets. She imagined Papa’s soundless and elegant gesture of rebuke; her foulmouthed mother tripping over herself to undo the offense; and that made her think of Maman’s and Papa’s love. Maman’s pitiless greed had let up as she aged, and that was, at bottom, what Mary wanted (as she drifted further off course from her fantasies, frustrated and baked sticky like a honey bun): someone, anyone, to soften with, as her parents were now, getting woolier with the passing years. Strange, and getting Stranger.
BERT PAINTED IN the old carriage house on the back of his parents’ lot in the city. They’d built a new one recently, a little further from the house, because the old space was cool and damp and kept warping the wheels.
Bert liked it for his work. His personal pieces were strange, distorted nudes and impressionistic paintings of his parents’ flower gardens—practice for a move outward into something more avant-garde. He couldn’t quite imagine what that would look like. He thought maybe he’d know it when he saw it.
Now, though, Bert began to understand why traditionalists were so preoccupied with realism of form. There was something to be said for having a perfect replica of a beautiful woman, something to remember, something to hold and cherish and maybe even look at in a private moment—nothing obscene—but the thought was a fishing boat bobbing on the surface and the fisherman had something large on the line. He could feel vague shapes moving in his body, as though his organs were rearranging themselves. His perpetually lazy, lover side had taken on a new aspect that frightened him.
At dinner that night, Bert ogled the dark-skinned tablemaid and made her uncomfortable. She didn’t even look like the girl on the trolley, he thought, angry at himself. Nobody looked like her.
The next day, he asked around among his family’s servants until he found someone who knew the Lewises and their address in Jackson Ward. It took some time to get it, and he had to swear up and down that nobody was in trouble. He found himself snapping at the maid that he wasn’t a monster, dammit, he just wanted the damn address of the damn family. He realized abruptly that she was crying.
The maid choked out the address, and Bert left—embarrassed and not wholly sure of how to apologize to a woman he’d always thought of as a kind of funny furniture. Mary Strange had done this, made it suddenly necessary to Consider Things. He shuddered to think of the woman crying, and it being his fault. He wondered if it had happened before and he’d forgotten. He wondered how much of a monster he was, after all.
Bert found the Lewis’ house, perhaps a quarter the size of his own, but large by the standards of such things. He saw Mary before she saw him. She stood out front in a white dress, a fine one, and the straw hat he’d seen yesterday, watering a bush with a large metal can. With her back turned toward him, Bert could see the faint outline of her body through the dress, scandalous and classical. She had her hair tucked up under her hat, but with a few loose strands blowing in the breeze. The sun picked out the gold in her hair. Her hand caught a ray of light slanting across the sky.
(IN FOUR WEEKS, it will be the 28th of July, the beginning of the war. By the middle of August, Jean-Louis L’Estrange will send his first and last telegram: Stay in America [stop] too dangerous to travel [stop] much love papa and mama.)
IN THE GARDEN, Mary Strange turns and sees Bert Cabell clinging to the low white fence as though if he lets go, he will float off into space. The look on his face contains ideas she cannot easily describe as love or lust. She wonders if Freud would describe what she is feeling as eros or thanatos, and to what impulse he would ascribe her feeling as she thinks of her cousin Henry Lewis and Bert Cabell in the same moment; whether her (converted) Catholic father would say that there are Impulses battling for her soul; whether the problem of Sex is something that can be solved by a girl of her small stature in a city in Virginia in a single summer. She feels for a moment that she might be a god, some holy impulse created to occupy this moment. She wonders if Bert is sweating under his unbleached linens.
(MARY HAS A secret she does not know how to grapple with. Papa told it to her in confidence the night before she left Paris, and she will not break that trust. The secret is this: she may not be his daughter after all.
“Your mother doesn’t like to tell you these things,” he said. “But before you were born she had affairs, she slept with men for money, you could belong to any of them.”
Tears sprang to her eyes. “Why are you telling me this, Papa?”
“You don’t have to stay with my people,” he said. “Wait a year, come up with a better plan.”
“I can handle myself,” Mary said. “I’ve been your daughter all my life.”
“It’s different there,” he said. “I’ve told you and told you—Paris is not America.”
“I know,” Mary said. “I’m not afraid.”
He’d rubbed the skin on the back of his hand. “That’s what scares me.”)
MARY DOESN’T HAVE a parlor at her disposal where Bert can paint her in peace. Instead, she meets him at the carriage house on an afternoon when they know his mother will be out. There, she poses the way she did in the garden.
In the dark of the carriage house, her dress is not as transparent, nor does that beam of light touch down perfectly on her hand, like a bird alighting. The dimness of the room muddies her complexion. Bert finds himself drawing on the platitudes of style he uses to paint his patronesses. He’s fed up. He wants to throw his tools down for the first time in his life, and so he does.
Mary Strange thinks that it’s laughable to throw your tools on the ground. It’s a gesture she could never make without an endless string of reflections about what it means to fling one’s tools on the ground, what people will think of the gesture, who the gesture is intended for, and what Herr Freud would have to say about it.
She thinks it’s a luxury to be able to simply fling one’s tools on the ground without having to consider these things. She wonders, if she were a man, if it would be enough to make her the kind of person who flings her tools on the ground. But then, Maman is that kind of person, and she is not a man. Mary wonders if being white would be enough, or at least knowing if one is white or not, or at least knowing one’s father’s name. And she immediately feels guilty for thinking that. Jean-Louis L’Estrange is her father, and to say otherwise is a kind of flinging one’s tools on the ground, and this whole train is so self-indulgent, and—
Bert clears the distance between them and kisses her. She thought he would be a careless kisser, but he seems concentrated on her. This is flattering, although she wonders that she feels so removed from it—isn’t passion supposed to sweep you up, not send you spiraling into yourself in a tight little loop that makes you feel, if anything, more alone?
“This is awful,” she says as Bert grasps her about the waist. She wished she felt something about being grasped, instead of this endless scrolling of subtitles, like a moving picture: He grasps her. She is grasped. She is being grasped by him.
Bert pauses. “I feel the same way. I can’t stop thinking about how silly it felt to throw my brush on the ground. I hoped if I kept going with it, it would begin to make some sense.”
He is surprised by the look of delight that spreads across her face.
Instead of kissing, they talk, babbling like they had done on the trolley. Some of what Bert says appalls Mary; some of it is beautiful. He shows her his paintings. Eventually they kiss again.
“We have to keep this a secret,” Bert says. “This isn’t France. I understand that you don’t think of yourself that way, but here it’s different.”
The words sting. Mary feels a little guilty about being with a man like this, who can like her so much, but can’t stop himself from condescending. She thinks of telling him her secret, but instead, she thinks, she will see what he is like when he does not know. She wonders if he will come up with a plan to run away with her. She doesn’t want this to be easy for him, and she’s not certain she wants to be made respectable, either. She is also, still, half-thinking about her second cousin, about how he leaned past her at dinner, and she got dizzy on a whiff of his vanilla-scented body. Enjoy your youth, ma cher, she can hear her maman say.
But the pull of her heart, not her body, brings her here, to begin her study of that great Problem with Bert, with whom, she feels, she can talk about everything. (Although she likes her secrets. For now, she thinks, she will keep them.)
Eventually, still talking about how ridiculous it all seems, marveling at this or that, laughing, they take each other’s clothes off in the cool of the carriage house. The experience is not what Mary expected. She thought it would hurt her body; instead it makes her cry in his arms.
THE PAINTING IS crass and coarse, critics say: the title too long, revealing too much while illuminating nothing at all; the subject neither interesting nor fitting for such a painting; its ambiguity infuriating. Overall, it may be the worst painting ever exhibited at the Broad Street Gallery. And everyone in the city wants to see it.
By this time, it’s August. Mary Strange has tried to make plans to return to France, in spite of Jean-Louis’ telegram, but travel is not permitted.
She hasn’t seen Bert in weeks. They fought when she told him she wanted to be with her parents on the front more than she wanted to be in Virginia with him. He said some unkind things about why she would want to be with her mother and her mother’s concubine more than with him, when he was working out how she might attend the new Westhampton College for women. He said that her parents had given her nothing but heartbreak and tortured her for years. Her mother was a courtesan and they both let her believe her father was… well… he couldn’t even say the word without muttering, so it came out as lack, and that only made her angrier.
“Mon père est mon père, regardless!” she spat.
Mary cannot stomach Bert after that, not with the war on, not with her parents incommunicado. The Lewises want her to teach Henry to speak and write French, and she decides that she will let him kiss her, maybe more. She makes encouraging gestures. Henry seems not to notice, carefully picking his way through the pronouns and the sample sentences she gives him: “Je baise, tu embrasses, il embrasse, nous baiser.” I kiss, you kiss, he kisses, we all kiss. When Mary decides Henry simply will never get it, she tips her face toward his. He pulls away so sharply that she nearly falls over.
“Non, merci,” Henry says, a phrase she now regrets teaching him. “My mother says you’re going to get someone killed.”
Mary feels humiliated, but it’s more wounded-pride than spurned-lover. She would like to cry over Henry, because it would demonstrate something. It would certify that her feelings for Bert are over.
Mary has just begun to forget Bert when a friend of the Lewises mentions the exhibition everyone’s complaining about, and doesn’t she look just the spitting image of that rich white girl in the painting? What a funny world it is, the friend says. Henry rolls his eyes.
The next day, when everyone else has gone to the Hippodrome, Mary goes to see the painting alone. She walks into the gallery, naive enough to be unconscious of the stares that follow her as the curator and the circulating patrons recognize her as Girl In Satin. She stands in front of her portrait, taking herself in.
Her face is turned slightly, so that you can see the side of her face, the curve of her lips peeking out from behind a stray curl. She is shocked to find that he has neither idealized her nor made her a demon. Her body appears strangely chaste under her transparent satin dress, no shadow too lascivious. She looks like herself.
In later years, when Mary Strange is infamous, when she steps into legend, this gift will become infinitely precious to her: this accurate, cool-headed representation, born out of the heat of passion and the problem of Sex. She doesn’t appreciate it in that way now, but she does see the love layered on in delicate strokes, the immense patience Bert applied to texturing that satin dress, with all her details rendered perfectly. He sees her.
Mary feels, at that moment, an intense and preemptive exhaustion. She knows that she will have to spend the next ten, twenty years arguing with Bert, breaking him of his buried notions, and constantly defending herself from the trash he lobs at her without knowing its danger. She can feel in her marrow, her hatred of his indolence, his unstudied follies, the cowardice he thinks of as tact. She knows, regardless, that this is her husband. Mary thinks of what Maman said every time she asked her, How will I know? “They will seem to you more solid than other people, and they will recognize you.”
Or Papa, more simply: “You’ll know.”
Mary leaves the gallery with her heart in her hands, already preparing the lecture she will deliver to Bert.
“Now,” she says to herself, walking down the street, “I understand that you are a spoiled brat, and not really a man yet, and that you don’t have any grace or bearing. I love you regardless, but if you love me as I love you, you’re going to have to unlearn everything you know. You might lose your family, your fortune, your position, and we will certainly be returning to France, where by the way, my darling maman is a freak, and you will never fail to address my papa as Sir, and if you have opinions about that, you will keep them to yourself. Our children will speak French and German and English, if you insist, and you will never deny them their grandparents. You will love me always, because I love you, and I can see it in the way you—”
Mary comes up short as she approaches the Cabell’s house, seeing a large, pigeon-breasted white woman out front scolding a delivery man. She skirts around to the back gate and tries to make a little noise, so Bert can hear her from the carriage house.
He is not there.
From down the street she hears shouts and commotion. A fat man with a cane runs past her, ducks away and disappears around a corner. Mary Strange knows then, and leaps at a sprint toward the gathering crowd.
IN BERT’S FEW weeks without Mary, he falls back on his old habits, takes to a little hard drinking, and sleeps with a client who looks (perhaps) like an older Mary. Valencia DaMar is a Portuguese woman on the fringes of his mother’s crowd. She has a beautiful Afghan hound with long flowing hair, and he paints her standing beside the hound with two fingers holding its collar.
Later that afternoon, after she sees the painting, Valencia throws him down on her floor, tearing at the buttons of his shirt with a kind of idle desperation. Bert has learned what many men twice his age do not know: that women improve with age, become more fierce and interesting as their looks decay and their modesty sloughs off, and that if you are capable of withstanding the fury, they can take you to places you have never seen. It is a tragedy, he thinks, that husbands so often chose this time to stop fucking them.
Bert wants that for Mary. He wants to be old with her, to feel her run her hands over his potbelly, stroke his receding hairline. He can tell that she will be the kind of middle-aged woman who has affairs with younger men. He hopes she will tell him, so he can forgive her.
Bert wonders if Mary would be all right with referring to herself as Portuguese, as a compromise. His mother is modern enough; she could be brought around to a Portuguese, especially for her middle son.
Bert stumbles out of the Portuguese woman’s house (he’s already forgotten her name), with renewed vigor, and returns to his carriage house studio. Over the next week, he finishes the painting of Mary. He argues with the gallery owners, gets it hung, and arranges its sale to a buyer in New York, a friend of the Portuguese woman, a Miss Something Green. He decides he will use the money to get Mary and himself established in a house not his mother’s, and that he will go back to trying to enroll her at Westhampton, because his wife will be an educated lady.
WALKING HOME FROM the gallery, after a discussion with the curator regarding the furor surrounding the painting’s debut, Bert encounters a man he doesn’t recognize, walking a beautiful Afghan hound he certainly does. He kneels to ruffle the dog’s hair, and Arborio DaMar feels jealousy stab him in the groin like an arrow.
Bert’s privilege, his face-blindness, and a kind of innocence lead him to assume that no particular face would ever wish him any particular harm. He has seen Arborio (without the Afghan hound) at his mother’s parties, has seen his portrait in the foyer of the Portuguese woman’s house, and yet fails entirely to make the connection between this man and the woman who had thrown him down unceremoniously on her floor just ten days ago.
Bert smiles beatifically at the man as he stands, and is too stunned to act when the man jams his cane into his crotch (it was long and majestic, not your pathetic little pisser), knocking him to the ground. He lies there stunned by the pain while Arborio beats in his teeth (long and white, not like those toothless whores I know you fuck) and then his brains (at least he has some, you hopeless mule.)
(Later that night, Valencia DaMar will make love to her husband on the train to the coast, for the first time in twenty years compelled by the man who has just killed for her. They will have their third child nine months later, the product of their last moment of true passion.)
Bert Cabell dies in the street, blood giving color for the first time to his undyed linens. In the last firings of his brain, he thinks of Mary, comforted by the knowledge that she would have loved him toothless, would have made fun of him, would have spoon-fed him hot mash if only he had enough life left to cling to.
He wants to be toothless with her. He wants to recognize her as the only discernable face in a lifetime of dim shapes. He thinks, at the last, that he sees her coming out of the crowd, pushing people aside, kneeling beside his shattered head and trying to gather his thoughts together for him, to mound him back up into something she can make use of. He can feel her breath on his eyelids. Can see in her eyes the superimposed reflections of their faces, and the face of their unborn, honey-haired son.