Spring 1995 • Vol. XVII No. 2 FictionApril 1, 1995 |

Vanishing Acts

This is how she imagines the vanishing would be: She envisions herself learning an entirely new city, something near a harbor or surrounded by fields of barley and potatoes. She remembers a summer she spent in Mallorca, the July and August before graduate school. She would go first to the bakery, then the shop with cheese, the stand with fruit, the late afternoon fish market. She was supposed to be studying Spanish. But she didn’t. She filled a net shopping bag with one item, walked to one store at a time. At night she slept with strangers. Now she understands the nature of her miscalculation, her strained equation, how she thought degrading her flesh would make her disappear. She realizes now that Mallorca was her first flawed attempt to vanish.

Of course, a true disappearance requires a new city. It would rain constantly. She would have to memorize the habits of the trees. She would develop navigational skills, how to remember not street names but rather that her apartment is four boulevards beyond the park with its statue of a soldier on horseback ringed by eleven chestnuts.

It could take years to learn where to buy pumpernickel, almond croissants, where to find fresh sole and lamb, where to buy pears, and who sometimes carries mangoes or papayas. Such stores come into possession of the tropical without warning; randomly, crates arrive in the night like contraband. Then an inconspicuous hand-printed sign in the window. The vanished decipher them as other women might neon.

“What are you thinking?” he will ask.

“Oh,” you are permitted one partial sigh. “Nothing.”

It is imperative that you do not reveal your rudimentary plans, your first sketches of disappearance. The void smells of citrus and trade winds and your early drafts are vulnerable. A glance could shatter them. You would forget the emerging grid and where to jump off. You could become the old woman in a wicker rocker on a porch, making a list of the chances she missed, pushing thick air with gnarled fingers through a soiled paper fan. An old woman who seems to be trying to remember something specific, like locations and coordinates.

The old woman is framing a single question. What do vanished people know? This is simple. The vanished know holidays are important and they have memorized each one. They are in the periphery, after all. They are what swells the crowd on the Fourth of July. They are the reason for parades and the ritual slaughter of trees. There could be no decorations, no wreaths, or yellow streamers without them. They are why young girls are taught the dance of the Maypole ribbons. They are instructed in this particular weaving in fifth grade and they never forget.

The disappeared know all the shortcuts. They have an intuition for the physical world, how a jog down a quarter of a mile of cobblestone alley and six unexpected stone steps up a low hill is faster than ten minutes in a taxi. The disappeared know where the carvings are, the buried frescoes, the stolen museum paintings, and the sunken galleons. The sound of waves across rotting wood and gold is unmistakable.

Once you have vanished, certain things become more comprehensible. For instance, which colors you should wear and how to create ensembles from odds and ends in your closet. Suddenly you know which fragrances are best. You become so adept at scent and skin, at their conjunction, at the gradations between bronze and peach, that you have your own lotions and perfumes made for you. You design the proportions, two parts jasmine, one part vanilla, a trace of musk, patchouli, almond, honey, and lilac.

You understand liquid measurements and what they imply. You know precisely what shade of mauve silk scarf you need, what kind of leather gloves. You can determine the correct shape of pocketbooks the way other women select ripe melons. You hold them up to the light and you are always certain. You receive tactile information. You accommodate this, you synthesize. Your fingers are perfect conductors. When you have disappeared, there is no deformity or arthritis, no loss of balance. There are no mistakes.

The vanished understand color and fragrances and textures like a kind of alphabet. The intricacies of geography become trivial. You sense the new trade routes as they form, the ports and villages and where to vacation. It is obvious. Costa Rica, Istanbul, Prague. And something rocky and gray off Scotland that doesn’t yet have a name.

“You look so intent,” the man might say.

“I was just listening,” you may answer, eyes downcast, voice soft.

“To what?” he may ask. He is pressing you.

“Oh.” This is a moment of improvisation. You might risk letting your eyes briefly meet. “To the music. To the night.”

It is true. You are consumed with sound. You understand plazas and cathedrals, fog horns and bells, how they form a sequence, how they are points of light you could plot on a graph. There are implications to the scraping of pigeons and the stooped and shawled women feeding them bread crumbs in shabby, urban parks surrounded by denuded oaks and lindens.

There is the matter of the faces of women in apartment windows, smoking cigarettes, drying aprons and towels on black iron rails, in angular patches of frail, winter sun. This is legible to you like a sort of script. It is more than a visual cue or a vague form of punctuation. You know such women have blue eyes and a parakeet in a cage, plastic covering the good sofa where they never sit, and photographs of grandchildren taped to yellow painted cupboards. These women are sometimes named Helen and Rachel and they do not even glance at these pictures. They could be anyone’s grandchildren. They could have been faxed in from a distant world. They have nothing to do with her, or the harbor and the plaza, the trolleys and the bridges, and the birds in their northern or southern formations, where they go, what they do, why they wail and shriek.

Once you have disappeared you are never alone. You instinctively know the names of strangers. You recognize your kinship to all women standing on terraces and balconies or sitting alone on bus benches and porches. Such women have lost their coordinates. Their vanishing is incomplete. That’s the difference. They thought of vanishing, they conceived of it, but failed to construct the tunnels or a device to scale the fences. They could not create dialogue and postures to deceive the border guards, the radar. They did not realize what was required to procure the forged documents, who to bribe, who to blackmail or kill. They weren’t fast enough. Their shadows leaked out of them. Then their dreams were leached. All that was left in the end was the triangle of December sun and bells in the distance that mean nothing. They inhabit the periphery of neighborhoods where languages they do not understand are commonly spoken. They have become women of the backwater ports.

You can recognize women who have successfully vanished. They are often drawn to smoke. They are not afraid of fire. They consume two or three packages of cigarettes a day. They wear red lacquers on their fingernails. They smoke Temple Ball opium from antique glass and cloisonne pipes once used by concubines. They paint their mouths with reds. The spectrum of flame and shadow is their friend. They write with quill pens. They use gold ink. They are not anxious at twilight or in the awkward settling of hour and season, the gap before the lamps are lit.

Once you have disappeared there are no more mysteries. Cosmetics become a sort of mathematics. You know exactly how to gauge the subtle differences between rose blushes, between cinnamon and coral orchid. You can tell when there is too much pink or orange. It is like a physical sensation. It is like a heat your skin avoids. The gradations between shades are distinct as musical notes. You realize your face is a composition. This time there are no errors. You are in command. You have the hands of a surgeon, a concert pianist.

In your new identity, you have an instinct for precisely what presents to purchase. You are no longer bewildered or frustrated in department stores by too many sweaters, by a barrage of patterns and materials. You know it is always a season for black cashmere. It is always camel coats. You are intimate with the classics, their specific manifestations and what they demand.

You are often fluent in French or Italian. You are familiar with the languages of opera and those of antiquity, Greek and Hebrew and Coptic. The Cyrillic alphabet has a particular appeal. You are also fond of scripts that appear now only on bronze coins in museum display cases. You can open such cabinets by the force of your will. You can make the guard turn away. You can put the coins in your purse. You can trace the faces of dead kings and gods through your gloved fingertips. You possess an intricate sort of braille. There are networks of neurons that spark in your coat pocket. You carry your stolen antiquities and they are secret embers, explosives, the final expression of a process that began with flint.

It is often autumn. You become intimate with time. It’s just a season like any other, merely longer and more intense. You do not need specific love. You are never lonely. How could you be, with the air unraveling like a text you have the tools to decipher. You have the intuition, the diligence, the gift. You could open a tarot shop. You could build a clientele addicted to your crystal ball, the patterns it casts across your face. You can determine by scent who has cancer, who will die by heart seizure or broken glass. You would know the truth but lie.

As you walk through the city, you gauge your progress as a sequence of subtle elations culminating in a noon so lucid and indelible you feel you are being tattooed. You begin to shield your face with hats and partial veils. You are drawn to guitars and young men singing, how serious they are. They remind you of stone statues and mountain ranges. You realize you must avoid heights.

Even the abnormalities of the palms become tolerable. You accommodate their toxins and their many mutant fists rising above the edifices and in the sudden gorges between buildings. You begin to carry a parasol. You keep your curtains closed during the days. There is nothing to see in the lawn and alley and boulevard below. There is only a sullen ache.

You lie on your sofa, memorizing the names of all the saints and all the flowers in your many languages. You do not need books to acquire knowledge. It comes to you through some other process entirely, a separate channel. You recite the syllables of the sacred dead and your rooms fill with invisible origami. These are your accidental prayers made visible. These are the unexpected shrines. They hang like strands of ivy or party decorations along your walls. No one can see them but you and other disappeared women. You suspect the saints are not really dead but rather vanished, removed from the ordinary grid. The crypts are really empty. Heaven is an alias and a false address.

The vanished have extrasensory perception and never sunburn. They know which stocks to buy and when to sell. It’s like a biorhythm. It’s like learning how to decipher dreams. They simply have the key to the symbology. They can uncode.

Occasionally, you can spot them at race tracks where they know which horses to bet. The gray ones with autumn scents and names with rain and bridges in them, names of ports and drowned men. Names with rivers and blues that evoke fluid demarcations. The vanished women are discrete and carry in their leather purses stacks of cash. They wear boots because they prefer walking. It is the only way to become familiar with a city. The disappeared know the various styles of architecture. They have mastered the procedure of how to date objects found from the past. They can do this by measuring the amount of carbon 14 radiation in an object. Sometimes they employ other methods, such as counting the rings in trees and the level of trapped pollens at the bottoms of lakes.

When you have vanished, everything is intelligible, human motivations and what wires carry. All impulses are equally coherent and predictable. Once you have divested yourself of ordinary structure, once you have become more than subterranean, when you have reconstructed yourself one molecule at a time, you always know when to carry an umbrella and a raincoat. You can determine this by some intricate scent in the wind, an impending storm, an unexpected confluence of cloud.

You can tell in your bones which books to read, which films to watch. You know which numbers to play, that forty-four is for roulette and any of the forties are for the lottery. You order with ease in restaurants and caf6s. You know at once which is the best entree and what is not listed on the menu. You, a woman with a hat and a veil, ask for this in a half-whisper, your accent impeccable. No one could refuse your request.

“I feel like you’re far away,” the man might say. You feel he is observing you.

This is a juncture where you can almost smile. That is optional. You let your mouth fill with slow regret. You let your mouth fill with too much night. “Not really,” you may answer. What you mean is, not yet.

It occurs to you that it is not just vanished women who live this way. For instance, everything is always in season for missing children, for miscarried, aborted, and murdered children. They are not gone. They are riding on cruise ships. It is the perpetual Caribbean. The islands are dots they connect with their relentless passage. It is always faintly tropical with plumeria, citrus, wind in green waves. When you are a vanished woman or child, you can buy gardenias, dahlias, and peonies any day of the year, even on winter Sundays in rain.

When you reemerge from the blood and the waters, when you have been reassembled, you know the precise deeds of the saints and the cycles of the blossoms. Sometimes you return with a tattoo of a blue crescent moon on your neck or a cluster of hearts on your thigh. You procure a passport in the name of a jewel or a fragrant flower. You call yourself Camellia, Jade, Rose, Iris, Hyacinth, Ruby. You list your occupation as student. You say you are self-employed.

Your skin changes with the seasons, particularly if you have disappeared with a violent severing. This is why you must strive for small methodical points of exit. You don’t want to make a scene. You don’t want to have them burning candles in the windows. Such gestures and their glare give the vanished migraines.

When you have vanished with the simple elegance of smoke, you return and discover that you can wear all colors. Your eyes alter. In winter, you wear the shades of bruises, violets, lavenders, grays. Your eyes belong to the spectrum of sapphire. In spring, you are one with all the manifestations of pink, bougainvillea, burgundy, the vestiges of ruined wines. At such moments, you wear floral prints and frosted lipsticks like a girl-child. You are fifteen again and smell of too much tea rose.

In summer, your skin tans, your eyes are green, and you wear burnt orange and burnt auburn. You cannot resist heated browns, bronzes, and golds. You wear necklaces of heavy metals. This is not costume jewelry. In August, your hair is red. You remove your veil, wear only white straw hats, and become thin. You dream of living like a plant, green dreams in which you are fed directly by the sun. You are rooted in air.

By autumn, everything is silver. You hair is ash blond. Autumn lacks a border, elongates. You know it is winter when your hair turns raven. It continues to rain. Your skin is translucent and you call yourself Pearl. The arteries in your arms show, they pulse. They make people think of rivers and boulevards and borders crossed by deception. They look at your arms and think of morphine. You tell them this is how to drown standing up.

But no one can hear you, not the voice in the temporary body you inhabit. You of the seasons, the hats with feathers and veils, the constant storms and cigarette smoke, the way autumn is punctured and lays at your feet like a cloak of blue fox. Shadows collect in the room where you are reading quietly. Anyone who enters, seeing you, would think only of bridges across ancient rivers, the Euphrates and Nile most particularly. They would think of folklore known only by intuition and rumor. They would find themselves considering the sexual practices attributed to masters and slaves, of sticking golden pins into young breasts.

“Do you want to go to bed?” he will ask. This is inevitable.

“OK,” you may answer. Any syllables will do. It is imperative to utter words like charms. You offer these verbal amulets to the air, but it is essential that your body doesn’t move. You must think of anchors, of wooden trunks, of how large buildings are, with their concrete roots.

Once you have vanished, the seasons will camouflage you. The weather will define your moods, your physical appearance, the way your hair can go from flame red to ash during the course of one sudden brutal thought. If someone spoke your name with urgency, surprising you, both your hair and teeth might fall out.

There must be no intrusion. Remember, you have no fear of bridges, transition, sickness, or the subconscious. You know the names of every tree, what each slain emperor did. You can recite battles and their statistics, the body counts. You are familiar with the history of agriculture and the way in which cities were formed, often near rivers. You can determine which dynasty a vase came from with one single, partial glance. You can do this through the mesh of your veil.

After you have vanished, after you have disappeared, after you have found the perfect and untraceable sub-life, you know what the harbors are trying to say. You know what coast to walk beside, which waves, which lullabies, which pale blue litanies. You decipher the currents effortlessly. You know what they will bring. Thursday was mangoes. Wednesday, a string of amber and black pearls, two old tires, a colossus of broken clam shells, parts of an umbrella and cello. Perhaps tomorrow will be kelp in strands like necklaces. The world is a treasury. All the accumulations glitter. You suspect the moon is or was once a jewel.

Crinoline, taffeta, chiffon. This is what the vanished daughters wear. Their disappeared mothers prefer velvet and tweed, grays, cuff trim the color of shadow. After you have spent a vanished autumn, you realize there are no dead women. The bodies that are laid in boxes, dressed for parties, have nothing to do with who they were. These three-dimensional fading afterthoughts are illusions. Your mother. Your daughter. You bury over-decorated pillows. The real women are merely disappeared from your view, walking in black cowboy boots through new cities, buying loaves of black breads and pears.

“We should talk,” the man might say.

“Not now.” This is the definitive moment. This is when you must refuse.

It is of utmost importance that you do not lose pieces of yourself before your vanishing is complete. You must avoid gratuitous acts of unborn geography. I know this for a fact. I know a woman, she was a writer, yes. I admit this. She once planned to move to Portland. She spoke with her husband about a wooden house on a hill, leaded glass windows, long months of rain, a room with a piano and a skylight.

This woman began to envision Portland, how for an entire arrested autumn the rain would become silver and specific. The air would be distilled. You could keep it in a crystal decanter. They spent their midnights, this husband and wife, living in the house that did not exist in the city they did not move to.

Later, this same woman imagined herself on a farm in Pennsylvania. Her husband said they would have a trout stream, sixty acres, a greenhouse for growing poppies and orchids, a pair of German shepherds. They would have them in white, if that breed was as big and smart as the other. They would talk, this husband and his wife, about the flagrant autumn, the siege of inflamed leaves turning. They would sleep ringed by martyrs. She could almost hear them singing through their burned red mouths. Then they didn’t move there, either.

I know that woman. Trust me. She is there in some partial life, with the white German shepherds. She is there with the trout stream and farm that never happened and she is locked in, trapped between sub-lives, imprisoned.

Alternatively, she is on a hill in Portland which she can never descend because she has no legs. That part of her is walking the dogs in Pennsylvania.

Her legs are disembodied, restless, encrusted with rash. She is a fragment of half lives. It is always raining and that particular woman hasn’t managed to vanish. That particular woman is sawed in half. She became convinced that there were magic tricks. She believed there were methods for extracting rabbits from hats. She let a man take a cutting tool to her flesh. I’ll tell you the absolute truth. That woman hasn’t disappeared. That particular woman is lost.

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Kate Braverman has been chronicling her life in poetry, short stories, essays, and novels for thirty years. Raised on welfare in the stucco slums of Los Angeles, she studied comparative literature and anthropology and graduated from Berkeley in 1971. She was a founding member of the Venice Poetry Workshop and Women's Building. Her novel, Lithium for Medea, is currently in its fifth edition and her work has been translated into Italian, Turkish, Japanese, and French. She is married to Dr. Alan Goldstein, a research scientist in nanobiotechnology and a futurist, and they live in San Francisco.

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