Lisa Hanson | A Reward for Whimsy

I knew little about Brad when we arranged to meet. Demographics, mostly. He was thirty-seven, an adjunct with abundant graying hair. A childless Libra, he’d never finished his thesis on Jay Gatsby as American masculinity manifest.

He explained in a quip. I decided that sometimes a pink shirt is just a pink shirt.

We shared a similar writing style: short sentences, a resistance to exclamation points. We presented the facts of our life as if for a CV. We both only provided a single photograph.

His was from some outdoor adventure. On a hilltop Brad beamed at the camera, eyes hidden behind wraparound sunglasses. If he invited me hiking, I’d need to do something about shoes.

But with a hesitant frankness I liked, he gave me a safe invitation. “Coffee? We could talk?”

*

If Nell were in town, I would’ve opened the Pinot Grigio and I would’ve been laughing. I’d have been convinced into the red dress. On my own I drank mint tea and gazed into the dark mole at the base of my neck, feeling tragic. Its single hair seemed to have darkened, thickened, even. Plucking was not an option – I imagined blood, the necessity of a bandage or a turtleneck. Even trimming unnerved me. I’ve never had good depth perception. I didn’t trust myself not to miss the mark completely.

On my own I settled on the black dress. The jersey fabric blanketed my skin comfortably, there was a modest allure, I thought, in the way it fell. I’d bought the dress I wore that day with my mother. She’d paid for it, insisting. It was perfect for obligation or occasion, she’d said. You won’t need to wonder whether it’s appropriate. It’s one less question. And so good on your proportion.

I wore it the day I met Anthony in court for the judge. I wore it all that night, catatonic on Nell and Armen’s sleeper after the take out and the wine.

*

I’d done blind dates during my youth in a rural women’s college, with boys from the  state University across town.

“It’s me, Marie,” I’d say, often waving already as I walked toward the boy.

It’s hard to believe now that I had sex with all of them. Even immediately after, it never felt like I had. Sometimes I’d sleep in their narrow beds, our bodies pressed together by the necessity of a twin mattress. Always, in the night or in the morning, I’d be driven home. In the passenger’s seat I’d feel tired, the exact way I’d felt tired as a child after school, after finishing piano lessons, with algebra and dinner and sleep, which was then such a project to me, still looming. I knew with certainty that I had done something, but I also felt with certainty that these exhausting motions didn’t matter, not at all.

Sometimes, while they drove, I’d fall into a shallow sleep. Sometimes, getting out, I’d see the mark made by the skin of my cheek against the passenger window.  

*

“Marie?”

I was glad not to have worn the red dress. He was wearing a t-shirt commemorating some sort of charity run, and a fleece jacket pastel and fuzzy as the fur of a muppet.

Of all his features, he had a really striking mouth. Just looking at it made me feel like a pervert. It was sensual  – there was no other word for it. He had a rich person’s square teeth. I liked his smile.

I found myself nodding hello.

While he took my hand, I thought of Nell, who is done with handshakes. She’d declared the gesture “too cocklike.” Usually when a man goes in for it, I squeeze back with all my might. Anything else feels like an announcement of femaleness, akin to walking into a curriculum planning session with a trail of menstrual stains clotting across my skirt.  

But Brad had an easy touch. His skin was soft. Enveloped for a hot second in his, I let my hand just be still.

Waiting in line, we talked about our mornings. We each nodded emphatically at the mention of work done earlier – but not enough, never quite enough work done. We fell silent as the line progressed.

To avoid any potential insistence that he pay for my drink, I insisted on paying for his. He protested. I lied that it must be easier. The bleak-faced girl behind the counter stared. I wondered what bad thing had recently happened to her.

His order surprised me a cup of tea I’d never heard of, pronouncing the Spanish name with a proud trill. I couldn’t see where the teas were listed, and I couldn’t take coffee – it had a habit of turning my nerves at the most inconvenient times. There was a line behind us. So I asked for “two of those,” not wanting to deal with the question of whether or not to trill.

 

We settled into a table, and Brad began talking – nervously, I thought, and relaxed into his unease – about work. It was a small, suburban Catholic college I hadn’t heard of; Brad wasn’t allowed to teach Allen Ginsberg. Could I believe it?

“Terrible,” I said, and wondered if he ever read women.

Emily Dickinson was his favorite poet to teach. He’d actually swung a trip to her Amherst house last Fall. Did I want to see pictures?

I looked on dutifully, drank my tea too quickly, realized, in an instant, that it was my turn to elaborate on the CV-like introduction I’d provided online. I hate speaking about myself to strangers. Only the easily digestible, the uncomplex is ever considered appropriate, and it makes me feel stupid, reciting the facts of my life like vocabulary words. I felt resentment for this whole enterprise. I hated my funereal dress, the bitter tea I’d followed him into drinking.

I told him where I lived, elaborated upon my job title, talked, at strange length, about my commute.

“Yeah, that’s the pits,” he said finally, and smiled.

Perverted as it sounds I did like his mouth, his teeth too, but I didn’t like the way he was seeming to lean on them as a substitute for speech. He looked like he was about to speak, like he was formulating a question, and so I did not want to interrupt his thought. But a second passed, and another passed, and he didn’t.

At a loss, I asked him about his t-shirt. So he was a runner?

He beamed his yes and asked, had I ever run barefoot? No, he wasn’t talking about those shoes that look like toe socks. Really barefoot.

There were theories about it, which he explained to me with enthusiasm and hand gestures.

Was he too handsome to act such a dork, or did his handsomeness give him the room to indulge in this behavior? I would ask Nell later and she would laugh. I imagined myself revealing a comparably niche hobby – rereading Maud Hart Lovelace’s books for girls, reading advice columns over yesterday’s coffee abandoned on the sill.

If I wanted to try, he knew a good, clean trail up in the Fells. We could wear our shoes on the hike up.

Anyway, it was the only way he ran in the summer anymore, since he’d started.

So, how had he started?

“Oh, Rebecca actually”, he said, looking down to pluck lint from the fuzz of his fleece sleeve.

There was a sticky familiarity and an artificial ease wrapped around this woman’s name in his mouth. It reminded of the candied cherries my mother used to give us on Valentine’s Day.

As a girl I had always wanted a name like that, a substantial seven letters with real possibilities for nickname. Fancy, classical, suited to a ballet dancer or a sad bride.

“My ex,” he said, still to the sleeve. Then, looking up, “Sorry. Is that tacky?”

*

In 1940, twenty years before Psycho was released, Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, an adaptation of the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier. It is the story of an innocent, unnamed young woman who is unceremoniously picked up by a widowed millionaire in Monte Carlo, rescued from her lonely post as paid companion to an old-money crone.

“I am what is known as a paid companion,” the innocent, unnamed young woman tells him.

“I didn’t know that companionship could be bought,” the widowed millionaire replies. They are sitting in one of the high-ceilenged communal dining halls of old Europe, champagne poured before them in tiny glasses. Self-proclaimed by the Selznick Studio as “the most glamorous film ever made,” Rebecca features house fires, Laurence Olivier in his pre-middled age prime, a Halloween costume of devastating emotional consequence, eroticized subjugation, a dearth of monograms, and a murderous lesbian house maid. And of course, the parasitic mansion, Manderley.

It is my favorite film of all time.

On set, Alfred Hitchcock asked his cast and crew to alienate the actor who played the young woman in question – the resplendent Joan Fontaine. Alfred had a convenient belief in the integration of art into life, as much as it could be done.

Often  during the shoot he gravely escorted Joan out to Musso and Frank’s for two items. First, a cup of coffee, during which he would deliver monotonous small talk, monitoring the metronomic click of Joan’s heel under the table, as caffeine intensified her nerves and she strove to keep her hands looking easy. He asked after her new marriage to Brian Aherne, a mustachioed British actor – much older than the twenty-two year old Joan – and not unlike the widowed millionaire character she acted against in this, her first major role. She’d divorce Brian the following year. Her second husband would be slightly younger, a horse-faced producer from Nebraska.

Second, Alfred ordered them Beefeater martinis with onions.

“I can’t stand olives,” he told Joan every time, his ham-like hand over her wrist. “I can’t stand to see a woman near one.”

At this stage he finally asks, could she please endeavor to be a more amicable presence? Her behavior well, it has caused some unnecessary tension. There was enough tension in the story itself, did she not agree? Laughing, Alfred hoisted himself to standing. He did not pay the check, someone there kept a tab for him, someone – there was a girl he paid for this – submitted a monthly check to the restaurant, for coffee, gin, cocktail onions.

*

Brad hadn’t met his Rebecca like this.

He grinned at me, as if we were complicit in a mild crime. It bothered me that I couldn’t unlike his smile, that my affinity for it seemed involuntary.

“So how did you meet?”

“Well, through work, sort of. She’d been a painter.”

I nodded. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, she’s a real painter,” Brad clarified, “with a studio.” That was how they’d met, in her studio. It was a small space, but beautiful, with big windows and good light. Good light was important to Rebecca.

*

At the end of my marriage, I was up late every night, watching Anthony sleep. I was obsessed with  his dreams. I’d even bought a journal for him to record them with, and for almost a week he pretended to use it. I needed to know how I was performing in his subconscious. I needed to know that I was in there.

It can be so refreshing to know that and exactly how you are being ignored.

Painting is the only proud habit of my life, because I do think it’s brave – and Nell agrees – to observe the world and from that observation to attempt the imperfect act of translating it. I think it is brave to make one thing into another, or to try.

*

There was exposed brick too, Brad said, like an apartment on a sitcom about New York City.  Anyway, it was one of those open-door nights when the artists lets you look at there work, for free, and a lot of them will put out wine, hoping for sales. It’d been hot that night, the AC’d broken in his apartment. He’d seen a poster once and happened to remember, this was a thing he could do.

Rebecca didn’t offer any wine, and though her door was open, only by an inch. She was playing the thunking music she liked and working, wearing the old clothes she always wore to work.

I imagined her. A tall, lean-faced woman in big jeans and a white t-shirt, perhaps a just-so splotch of cadmium coloring her bare arm, her knife-angled cheek. Her hair would be pulled back taut, a gesture of austerity and focus.

*

The cafe changed shifts around us, baristas replaced by wary bartenders in black suspenders. We’d already had two cups of tea each. Time had slunk past me. Brad asked me if I would like a real drink.

Nell was on a weekend away with her husband Armen, and the few people I knew from the College were celebrating someone’s birthday with a standing-around party. I could just picture it: everybody cloistered together in a narrow kitchen smelling of spilled beer. By the time I got there, there would be nothing to eat. I missed the birthday parties of my childhood, with their guarantees of cake and gift-wrap, fanciful physical activity—beating a papiermâché animal with a baseball bat to spill its candy guts. Leaving with your very own gift, a “favor.”

*

I weighed Brad against my allotment of acquaintances in an unfamiliar apartment across the river. Brad won out.

When he asked me what I’d like, I told him, anything, which felt like a bigger lie than any I’d told in a long time.

He didn’t take to it. “Really,” he persisted, “what would you like?”

“Something fizzy,” I relented, and he returned with a slender glass of prosecco. It dangled in my hand like fine jewelry and for a moment I saw myself as if from above, dramatic in black, a person daring to meet another person, having not yet made any remarkable mistakes.

I asked him to tell me about Rebecca’s paintings.

“Still lifes,” Brad said. “Or still lives – however you say it.” He wasn’t much for abstraction. He liked a thing to be a thing. Her work was kind of old fashioned, and he liked that. But she had a real gift for color. He had never seen an orange look so orange.

“The point to the story,” he said, was that he met her buying a painting. She was almost annoyed to sell it to him – he’d had to open that door properly himself.

*

I’d gotten into the habit of summarizing my conversations with a single word, not only after the fact but while actually in action. Nell and I circumnavigate the same words: love, anger, men, indignation, mothers, anxiety, art.  

The word of this conversation was easy: Rebecca. Brad would not be able to compress our date down into a word, I believed. It would take a phrase for him.

I could just hear it. We talked paintings, he’d say, having imagined he’d asked me about myself.

*

But Rebecca did tell him, Brad continued, the story of the painting. Her mother had just died.

He stopped talking and looked at me with real deliberation. Is your mother alive?

I nodded. “Her name’s Eleanor.”

Brad nodded as if he knew this. “Nice name,” he said.

Rebecca’s mother had been a wonderful cook, a person who actually entertained with her set of wedding china. Porcelain like tissue paper, a piece of it for every possible dish. Not just the swanlike miniature pitchers for gravy, but a particular kind of platter for a particular species of fish served whole, infinitesimal bones and all. Crap like that.

She possessed enough European languages to use untranslated cookbooks for her parties. So it wasn’t Julia Child’s chicken she was roasting, it was the real Frenchwomen who had schooled Julia who Rebecca’s mother read for instruction.

A lot of brine. A lot of finagling tiny organs. Tiny tools used only for one specific task – a knife dedicated to quartering onions, a shallow spoon for doling out salt.

But sweets were her specialty. Not cakes or pies, but wacky sculptural stuff – classics of Northern Europe that never made it to America.

Her trademark was a tableau of whole bitter candied oranges on top of ladyfingers, served with a special dessert sauce that had to stew for days before serving.

I wanted to know the name of this monstrosity.

Orange in Anise Syrup, Brad said. You’d think it’d be more memorable, considering the work involved. I remember, just because it was the title of the painting I bought from her. You see –

Brad bit his lower lip. I’m not good with stories. I don’t tell anything in the right order. I go on and on about some special spoon for salt when what I meant to explain was about her paintings. I thought you would find it interesting, as a painter.

Brad gestured at me with an open palm then, as if to say, See? I know what you are.

*

In the aftermath of her mother’s death, Rebecca had painted the remains of her epic meals, those esoteric constructions that she had labored over alone with tiny dangerous tools, allegedly to make something beautiful for everyone else.

I’d later see that the paintings were both gorgeous and hateful. Brad was right, Rebecca had a special way with orange. The oils were thickly-laid and luscious. It was the kind of stuff I wanted to feel with the bare palm of my hand.

You could see how beautiful each meal must have been. The shadow of each tableau’s elapsed whole lingered around the edge of its respective canvas. Like in Brad’s painting, which I never did see in person, the lace edge remained on one ladyfinger, had not been eroded yet by embers from the flame which had been set right before the eating had begun.

Every ladyfinger must have been perfect in its original presentation. But this was a painting about aftermath.

*

Why glorify the detritus? The exacting, precise chef must have made for a difficult mother.

*

I woke up early, and after the black coffee from a shop around Brad’s corner, and the quiet train ride, and the hot shower at home and the mindless  compulsive tidying, I looked up Ladyfingers, trying to find some satisfying etymology. I imagined calling Nell, when she and Armen had returned from their working vacation in Vermont, and asking like a bad comedian, “What’s the deal with ladyfingers?” She loves it when I bury the lede.

But I am not patient, and gave up after a few minutes without entertaining information.

*

People who talk too much, I’ve found, won’t make mind-melting lovers. Brad was no exception.

 

I see Nell as often as four times a week, and we always embrace. Often Armen too, and we’ll hug. Other days I’m often not touched at all, not even brushed on an elbow or tapped on a shoulder, in a stranger’s gesture of courtesy.

In this solitary distance sex must become more than it is. Inevitably, the imagination is so dangerous. In the early loneliness of living alone I masturbated obsessively on my new furniture, chasing the orgasm with ice cream and a television show Anthony would never have watched with me – glitzy office dramas featuring emotionally impotent love objects, the kind of slack-faced man the viewer could imagine becoming comfortably obsessed with her – instead of whatever blonde magazine writer/homicide detective/brain surgeon his eyes sought, week after week, onscreen.

*

Unless it’s love, in my experience the best moment is the moment just before, which must be why it exits memory so immediately.

I don’t regret Brad. He kept a clean apartment. His sheets were a luxurious cotton blend – high thread count. And I don’t know why I did it, but I left when he was asleep, really zonked – and when I saw Rebecca’s business cards stacked intimately on a bookshelf, I didn’t resist helping myself to one.

*

He called twice and left a single earnest voicemail. Hope you’re well.

*

I researched the tableau, and some strange, shallow part of me wanted to call Brad back, just so he could know – there is a name for it, grand as he might’ve wished. Belønne for sin spesielle måte, which translates roughly into “reward for whimsy.”

The oranges are boiled whole, in an aromatic concoction of whole cloves and many spidery handfuls of star anise. Then, they must be immediately transferred to a large mixing bowl full of brown sugar, for what is called the søt bad, or “sweet bath.” The oranges must remain submerged in the sugar for a full 48 hours. The crust should be nearly impenetrable when it is displayed. A steak knife is needed to get through the sweetest part of the dessert, purely decoration, down to what is edible.

*

On the About page of her website, Rebecca shares a photograph of herself. She’s not the woman I’d imagined: dark-haired and unfussy, beauty subtly contained in the slope of her cheekbones. Tall.

She is a small person, with blunt-cut hair dyed platinum blonde. She wears a floaty dress and no shadow of a smile. It’s a snapshot. Leaning against a throng of trees, she unsuccessfully imitates irreverence. I imagine Brad behind the camera, crouching for the most flattering angle, the two of them ready to run barefoot into the woods together.

*

Her look is unobjectionable – conventionally pretty, with a slightly pissed off air that I do admire. She’s unpaintable, lacking both vulnerability, and the kind of visual tic I like to seize on – long earlobes, or a peachy shock of facial hair.

I spent years on inoffensive landscapes, and banal abstractions suited to hotel bathrooms. Finally, I broke my nose in an accident. The pain was stunning, but I was bowled over by the colors bursting across my face. I obsessed over the delicate integrity of the pinks, the vermilions, the blues, at first capturing them as abstraction, as if the bruises were under a microscope. The paintings were heartless, and dull, if pretty. I knew then I had to bring the entirety of my nose in. And when that painting still failed, I knew I had to take on the whole mess of my face.  

*

After we arrived back at Brad’s apartment and opened beers, I asked him to show me the painting.

There is a reason people leave each other, or are left, and then there is the reason that people believe they leave each other, or are left.

Brad confessed to me to that he never hung the painting. It was an accident. He’d had the best of intentions for its display. The painting represented his wrestling into Rebecca’s world. As such, a sacred object. He brought it to a frame shop in Chinatown that’d been dubbed a best-kept secret of the city.

He disagreed with the owner about the best-suited frame. Brad wanted something, he said, really special –  a gold number, with fleur-du-lis, looked just right to him.

The shopkeeper was disgusted, his aesthetics offended. An argument ensued.

Brad left, and lied to Rebecca – he was embarrassed, he’d a habit of getting into unnecessary arguments, she by now knew that – he said it would be ready in a month.

But when Brad had cooled down, when he called the shop to apologize, agreeing to adhere to the shopkeeper’s recommendation of subtle mahogany, there was no answer. The place had closed.

It was a long story, the way Brad finally tracked the painting down. It exhausted him to think of it, he didn’t want to recount. But when he had recovered it, he was unwilling to release the painting into anyone else’s custody again. He thought about framing the canvas himself, but didn’t trust his skill, or his patience, especially. He kept it in bubble wrap in the back of a closet otherwise filled with broken down cardboard boxes. Eventually Rebecca stopped asking about the frame shop, and it seemed that the painting had never existed – it had become not only sacred, but mythic. This seemed all right. But when she found the painting, she couldn’t forgive him.

I thought it was obvious – the closet was the mythic object, capable of swallowing a history whole and spitting it back out, at inconvenient will.  

*

When Nell came home from her weekend away, we met at a bakery. A long line of customers came and went. We were the only people who wanted to sit and stay. She was glowing, as she always did after time away with Armen, like a girl with a secret. I ordered us the shiniest, most delicate looking stuff.

I asked her if she could imagine making these things by hand. With the jammy raspberry one in her mouth, Nell said, “oh yeah, sure.”

Nell is a former architect, a painter of startling skill, a non-carpenter who built her own coffee table by hand. And no, Armen didn’t help.

“It’s not a matter of doing it,” she said, “it’s a matter of wanting to. You don’t want to so you don’t do it. That’s all.”

She pointed to the crumbling chocolate-cinnamon roll. “Take your half.”

*

I do wonder how I have served Anthony as a story.

If there is a word that sums up the years of conversation with Anthony, it would be What. An insincere shorthand for What are you thinking? We each accused the other of opacity. We had different ideas about dusting, and sex. We whined the word love back and forth between us, as if it were a spell not quite fully cast yet.

I think of one episode often, as the climax of our dissolution – irrefutable evidence of our incompatibility, to be treasured forever.

I was still wrestling with unexceptional landscapes. I’d decided that the problem was my particular subject matter: ponds and parks too commonplace. Perhaps I needed some trace of the human. Perhaps it would politicize my work. Perhaps I would cease to be so utterly boring.

We went to Franklin Park for the wreckage of the old zoo, its bear cages particularly. It seemed to me a marked place, soulful and tragic. I wanted to climb inside a cage. And I did. It was a beautiful day. The lushness of the wild grass and the vivid quality of the summer sky made me want to cry, looking out from the rusted and broken bars, a feeling which also made me feel stupid. Anthony took a picture, but he would not come inside the cage with me. At first this seemed like a joke. I thought he was kidding. I asked if he was afraid.

He said that was stupid, and also cruel, because what if he really had been afraid? How he could he possibly tell me, when I was so unkind? When I was not only wrong, but like usual, asking the worst question?

*

Not long after, we went to a wedding at Franklin Park. I still have the pictures.

*

A Reward for Whimsy takes a great deal of time, but few ingredients. The first time I made the thing, I didn’t ask anyone over to share with me. It was a delicate and a complex operation. I expected the oranges to burst open in their sweet bath, the ladyfingers to dissolve under an excess of brandy. But it was perfect.

I kept the thing whole and covered under tin foil inside my refrigerator, until the weight of each orange had sagged down into its lower half, and I knew all of that softening sugar had become worthless. By that point it would only summon more mess to me.

I had thought about documenting the success of my dessert, but in the end, I didn’t bother. What would I do with a photograph? Prove to someone else that it had existed? It had happened that I’d made something beautiful. But there was no utility to my dramatic tableau. I had waited too long to know whether or not the taste was worthwhile.

Still, the fruit’s sweet bath had preserved it a blazing shade of orange. It shimmered unreal, alien, even under the lonely fluorescent light of my refrigerator.

.

.


Lisa Hanson received her MFA in Creative Writing from UMass Boston, where she currently teaches. She received the Mary Doyle Curran scholarship in Creative Writing at UMass Boston in 2014. In 2016 she received a scholarship to attend the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College.