Dear Superstorm Sandy,
Sandy, you pernicious jezebel, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I find myself in dire need of redress for a further list of grievances that have amassed against your meteorological person in the ensuing days since you received my last missive. The basis of my continued complaint primarily concerns not so much you directly, wretched Sandy (it seems that certain thousands of people living on Long Island and in the Rockaways and the more seedy of the barrier islands of New Jersey surely will have many more complaints) but rather an indirect side effect of your ungainly barging up the eastern seaboard, which is to say, the protracted malodorous presence in my abode of my Uncle Harry and his witch of a girlfriend Shoshanna. They had arrived on Sunday and originally planned to stay for one or two nights at most, but ended up being forced by Sandy-wrought havoc (the ensuing gridlock, the gas rationing, the lack of power and heat and water in Uncle Harry’s apartment building) to remain our houseguests long past the expiration date prescribed in the Benjamin Franklin maxim (i.e. “houseguests are like fish; they begin to smell after three days”), or in other words, until the following Saturday morning.
You may now recall my previous letter—here I pause to wonder if perhaps, after dissolution, hurricanes and tropical depressions and superstorms then take on some kind of corporeal form, like the famous dryads and naiads of ancient Greece: if you, Sandy, are now a transparent sort of Pre-Raphaelite nude, decked in sheer panels of cumulus, your tendrils damped in humidity, flying behind you as you skip ‘cross the furthest steppes of Greenland hand in hand with your fellow storms-spirits made animate—but I digress. As I was saying: you may recall the narrative recounted in my previous letter in which the dark tide of your storm surge washed up all manner of embarrassment and self-loathing upon the shore of my life. And though you passed on to northwest passages, Shoshanna and Harry remained in situ at our humble abode here on Euclid Street, and the pulse of the dark tide thus continued.
I will admit: most of the week passed without much further chaos after the initial maelstrom of embarrassment caused by the aforementioned Shoshanna on the day of her arrival, whereupon she interrupted only the most important phone call of my young life. (This chaos only sent ripples across the surface of my own existence; no one else in the family knew that anything had gone so very wrong within the confines of our home, other than my mother, who had the temerity to inquire as to why my eyes were so puffy when I came down to dinner on Sunday evening.) The house did seem to grow smaller and more cramped as Tuesday turned to Wednesday, and Wednesday to Thursday. Uncle Harry’s pile of work papers and newspapers and dog-eared academic journals on the drop-leaf table in the living room expanded with all the easy swiftness of mold, and the noisy whirring of his old clunker of a laptop began to grate. My brother took no efforts to conceal his disappointment when he came into the living room after dinner on Thursday evening and found Harry dozing there with his feet up, Gravity’s Rainbow open upon his rotund stomach, thereby once again preventing my brother from spending the night ensconced before the flickerings of a video game. And on Friday, I saw the thick muscle in my mother’s jaw flickering and tensing in the light over the sink as Shoshanna asked for the umpteenth time, “Is this gluten-free?” about one or another of the food items (the creamed corn, the pesto sauce) my mother had just lovingly prepared for our dinner. We were living in some sort of emotional Gaza Strip. Tensions simmered just below the surface of every interaction. Still, no fully realized conflict bubbled forth until that same Friday night, and such hostility arose yet again between myself and Shoshanna, likely because we contain such wildly different personalities, and also because Murphy’s Law is apparently the guiding principal of my life.
I am still uncertain as to whether or not I would consider what transpired on Friday evening as “conflict,” per se. In fact, when I consider things by the dim glow of hindsight, it seems to me that Shoshanna deigned to enjoy herself during the events as they unfolded, and I must say that I am still a bit mystified as to whether or not I can say the same for myself. One thing is certain: Shoshanna above all others residing in our cramped abode that week was clearly the most uncomfortable with the arrangement, and this discomfort cannot be singularly attributed to her preexisting tendencies toward complaint and disdain. Complain she did: the heat in our vents was too dry, her skin was losing all its elasticity; the windows in their attic guest room were improperly sealed, the room was quite drafty; (looking over my English textbook) the quality of American education was appalling—were we ever even assigned works by 17th century female authors?; and had we ever considered replacing the rather utilitarian wall-to-wall carpet in the upstairs hall? She would take us to ABC Carpet & Home next time we were in the city; there was a lovely restaurant attached. (“Shosh,” Harry said from across the dinner table, lightly spraying bits of boule. “C’mon. Bloomberg can barely even afford an ABC carpet. Ridiculously overpriced.” “There’s a restaurant inside a carpet shop?” my father asked. “Who in their right mind would spend $4,000 on a carpet that smells like food?” “It’s not inside the shop,” Shoshanna insisted, actually visibly lifting her nose into the air. “It’s really very lovely. The scallops—transcendent.”) But even I, with my slightly egghead, buried-in-a-book tendencies toward misperception, could see that much of this complaint was born not out of Shoshanna’s usual airy superiority, but rather, out of an underlying anxiety and worry for her elderly parents’ health and safety; they live in Brighton Beach, and had not had power all week. “They say they’re fine,” Shoshanna said. “I have a friend checking on them. Bringing them dinner. Hot coffee. Apparently it’s just cold in the apartment, is all. But still. You know.” These were the kinds of vague utterances she would make over and over, trying and trying and failing to reassure herself.
On Friday night after school, I bounded up the stairs to my room to deposit my bookbag with a satisfying thump on my twin bed and take up where I had left off in Persuasion. (I was almost finished reading, and one knows how very impossible it is to resist the powerful momentum of a Jane Austen novel once the going gets good.) But, as I came around the corner into the hall, I found Shoshanna standing at the upstairs window, gazing down at the backyard rather absently, and gnawing upon a fingernail. It was strange to see her in a moment of non-officious, unbusy repose. Her hair lay unmoving down her back in a perfectly flat sheet of gloss. When I addressed her, she jumped a little.
“Hi, Matilda,” she said. “You startled me.”
“I apologize,” I said. “Something interesting going on in the backyard?”
“No, no,” Shoshanna said, rubbing her forehead. “Although you do have a repulsive little colony of squirrels back there, don’t you? No, I was just daydreaming.”
Shoshanna had always seemed to me as exactly the kind of person who had never daydreamed in her life. Not that I am proud of my flights of fancy—I think it is somewhat childish behavior in an intellectual such as myself, but I cannot resist sometimes taking wing on some gossamer thread concerning the RNA lab in which I might find myself one day ensconced at MIT, or wondering what it would have been like to live in barely industrial England, to ride and chaise-and-four about the unspoilt countryside and enjoy the simple pleasures of embroidery by candlelight. I smiled awkwardly at Shoshanna, not knowing what to say, unwilling to collude with her over our mutual dreaming habits.
Then Shoshanna looked me up and down in an appraising manner, almost as if she were just noticing me for the first time.
“You know,” she said, “you remind me of me, when I was your age.”
I resisted the urge to snort. While Shoshanna does seem to have an above-average mind of a sort, I would have wagered all my paltry allowance that when she was my age, her mind was turned unbendingly toward topics such as “makeup” and “boys.”
“I can see the look of disbelief on your face. You think there’s no way someone wearing high-heeled boots and Acqua di Parma could have been an awkward teenager, right? Well—”
“Pardon me. Is the assumption, here, that I am awkward?”
“Oh, honey,” Shoshanna said, tender out of nowhere.
“I know, in fact, that I am not, shall we say, of a kind with the more typical mold of girls in my age group. While I recognize that I may be a bit of a poindexter, I am rather proud of that fact. I do not consider myself awkward. I carry my head high.”
“Okay, okay, that’s fair,” Shoshanna said. “But look.” She put her hand to her chin and seemed to be formulating a plan. “Just come up to the third floor with me. I have an idea.”
I desperately wanted to retreat to my hermitage and dive into Persuasion, but in the gleam in Shoshanna’s eye there seemed to exist a kind of genuine delight that I had not heretofore noticed. The fog of anxiety seemed to have lifted, at least momentarily, from her brow. How could I deny her some kind of distraction, however minor, from her ongoing fears for the precarious welfare of her most beloved parents?
I gave an overly loud sigh just so Shoshanna would note that I did not, in fact, want to spend time with her, but was merely doing so out of some sort of freak benevolence, and agreed to join her.
“Ooh, good,” she said, all excitement as we went up the narrow creaky attic stairs. “I just love a makeover.”
“Makeover,” I said. “Makeover? You never said anything about a makeover.”
“Of course I didn’t. I knew you wouldn’t agree—”
“And of course I don’t. Good day, Shoshanna,” I said, turning and proceeding back down the stairs.
“Oh come on, come on,” she pleaded, grabbing my bicep. “Don’t you want to know about makeup? I can see your mother clearly isn’t teaching you anything—”
“Makeup is the purview of idiots.”
“Actually, makeup is a powerful tool in any self-respecting woman’s weapons cache. You want to conquer the world, I presume, Matilda?”
“Well, the world of science, anyway,” I admitted.
“My grandmother always said, ‘pretty opens doors,’ and the woman knows what she is talking about. And you’re quite pretty. You just need a little—ah—enhancing.” She fluffed one particularly frizzed tendril of my hair as she said this. It was the second time this fall that someone had told me I was pretty, and I made a mental note to record the compliment in my journal. Shoshanna could certainly be charming, when she decided to do so.
I rolled my eyes, and proceeded up the stairs, now more out of curiosity than generosity (although I certainly did not intend to let Shoshanna know this). She pulled me into the tiny bathroom under the eaves, yanked the chain on the light over the sink, sat me down on the toilet, and lifted up my chin. “Yes, yes,” she said, “first—the brows. Criminal, really, that your mother lets you go out with eyebrows like that.”
I was imprisoned in the guest bathroom for over an hour, Shoshanna first plucking away painfully at my brows (how this hurt! What torture women endure for beauty! If wearing heels is even half this painful, I’m never doing it) and then smoothing on all manner of shadows and powders and creams. At one point she informed me that she was “contouring my nose,” whatever that means. She painted my eyes with something she called “liquid liner,” which felt very cold and strange going on, and during the application of which I was required to move nary a muscle. A heavy-handed coat of mascara administered to my lashes immediately following this exercise made blinking all but irresistible, and when I did so, I apparently smeared that vile goo all over my lids, marring Shoshanna’s delicate handiwork and eliciting a stream of frankly shocking curse words from the artiste. Finally, we spent a healthy forty-five minutes flatironing my bushy hair.
“My hair—God, my hair used to look exactly like this,” Shoshanna said, twisting sections of it up with little tooth’d clips, a vague look of disgust about her face.
“Your hair? Your hair. No, I’m sorry,” I said. “That’s impossible.”
Shoshanna flipped her sleek ebony locks over one shoulder with so little amazement at the miraculousness of its plasticine qualities that I fairly seethed with jealousy. “Sure it did,” she said. “You think Russian Jews are born with the hair of an Asian woman?”
“You have the most perfect hair in the world. It’s simply against the laws of physics. Molecularly speaking—”
“Yes, we are speaking molecularly. I get my hair thermally relaxed every six months to the tune of $900 a treatment. It’s this weird thing—from Japan. It literally changes the chemical makeup of your hair.”
“No way,” I said.
“Yes way. You can do it too, one day. When you’re a world famous scientist, or something.”
I made another mental note to mark down this information in my journal under my ongoing list of “Things To Research.”
At long last, Shoshanna announced that we were finished. “Look,” she said, gesturing me toward the medicine cabinet. “And I didn’t even put any lipstick on you.”
I moved hesitantly toward the mirror. The weight of these translucent powders and inks and things upon my skin was oddly heavy. I looked, and did not recognize myself. I was the dictionary definition of a painted lady. I was full of empathy for the done-up Meg March of Little Women, in makeup for the first time at Sally Moffat’s engagement party. I liked it, and I did not like it. I touched the ends of my hair. I was all astonishment.
“Dinner!” my mother trilled distantly.
“Oh, how perfect!” Shoshanna said. “Let’s go downstairs and surprise everyone.”
“No, I don’t think—I don’t think I can.”
“Oh come on Matilda. You look gorgeous. I have to say, I’m quite proud of myself.”
“No!” I said. “I look like a harlot.”
“I just did your makeup exactly the way I do mine every day.”
“Oh. I apologize. It looks much more natural on you, really. I just don’t think I can.”
“Can’t means won’t, Matilda.”
My mother was now shouting. “Dinner! Guys! Come on!”
“Come on, come on. You’re just not used to seeing yourself. Let’s go. Gird your loins,” Shoshanna concluded, and took me by the hand.
To be continued,
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.