After Lauren came Kitty and Madeline wearing white smocks, wheeling a cartful of delicate metal tools. Mae walks straight from the shower to the sofa where for nearly two hours they knead and slather and rinse and pluck and pinch and rub and wax and finish her off with several injections in various spots on her face and neck. Mae can’t answer Drew’s questions; she has to lie still with her eyes shut tight, the hand gripping the sofa cushion the only sign that she’s still awake. She promised there would be time to talk later.
Drew sits on the sofa opposite, hands on lap. After awhile they forget she’s there and she forgets, too, lulled by the comforting tuts of the white-smocked women, smell of lavender, and watery reflections from the pool lapping the walls dancing over white walls. Finally, Kitty and Madeline pack their cart and Mae lies on the sofa inspecting her face in a hand-held mirror with the distant, universal expression of a woman observing herself; total absorption mixed with utter detachment.
Drew watches Mae watch herself. If she waits long enough, she’ll understand. She used to watch her mother this way while her mother was watching television. Drew would wait for her mother’s face to turn away from the screen to assert her prediction, the grand existential pronouncement that would sum it all up. When Mae clears her throat to speak, it occurs to Drew (who wrote over 5,000 words the day before and hasn’t slept more than four hours at a time for weeks, spent the last three months submerged in this supine creature, knows every turn-on and turn-off and phobia and wish and dream, knows she smells like rain) that she has no idea what Mae is thinking. But when Mae speaks it is only to call Madeline back; wasn’t the right brow just a bit too flat? And the hairline needs a bit more. And look at the lips.
For lunch they have microwave popcorn and water with lemon. Mae chats on her phone while Drew bites her bloody cuticles. At 2:00 a woman comes to fit Mae in a dress for some party. The dress is scarlet-colored silk, almost prudish in front but nearly nonexistent behind. Mae swirls and poses. Drew tries to start a conversation–Did you ever play dress up as a child? Who took that photo of you in the pool?—but Mae just laughs with all her teeth and flips her hand in the air as if she’s clearing the air. “Drew, I need your honest opinion. I really need your help on this, I need you to concentrate. What’s better—one hand on hip or both hands clasped behind?” She demonstrates. “What do you think, as a friend? Tell me the truth.”
Sunday is more of the same; the workout, the yoga, the massage, the phone calls, the important meetings. Drew opens doors for people and loiters at the edges of rooms, offering drinks. In the afternoon she retreats to her spot in the living room to shuffle papers. Someone enters to dust and vacuum, someone places an arrangement of flowers on the coffee table, but Mae never comes.
At 5:00, on her way out the door, Mae calls from the bedroom: “Drew! Come see this package that just came! And bring a knife from the kitchen.”
Without a word, Drew slices through the cardboard and pulls back the tissue. Inside the box two elaborate swan-billed corsets, one black and one white, lying like conjoined torsos. Mae coos, fondles the thin bones, lifts one up by its satin straps, and dances around the room. Just when Drew is feeling the ridiculousness of standing there like a statue with a box in one hand and a knife in the other, Mae thrusts a corset her way. “You’ve got to try it.”
Drew shakes her head.
“Oh, come on. Don’t be such a writer. Try it.” And she smiles that smile. “I haven’t seen you in so long! Let’s be friendly. Let’s have a little fun.”
So they both take off their clothes and slide the corsets up.
After she’s laced and buttoned, Drew stands there shifting from one foot to the other, wondering why, for her, nudity is always accompanied by the sensation of watching eyes. The eyes are on her now, evaluating her from the corners of the room.
“Is this what you do all day?” She asks. “Put on costumes?”
“Oh, come on. You know that acting is more than that.”
“You know what I mean.”
Mae smiles. “But isn’t this fun? Aren’t you having fun?”
“Have you read the chapters?”
“I’ll bring them with me on the plane. Holly says it’s quite good. She says you could be brilliant. I can’t wait to read it.”
“Who is Holly, anyway? I mean, where exactly did you find her?”
“My god, Drew. Don’t you ever stop?”
The words are exasperated but the lips are curved up at the edges. When Mae’s phone rings, she stands at the mirror while she talks. Drew waits, poised on the edge of things, feeling just out of focus, waiting for the lights to turn on, waiting for someone to turn around and explain things. She wonders if it was all a lie, if every anecdote and detail and word she has written about Mae was just her imagination. Perhaps Drew had made everything up. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Drew picks up the knife, holds the dull edge of the blade in her left hand, backed into a crease in the middle of her palm. A palm reader once showed her the heart line, the head line, the life line. What if you used a knife to make the head line deeper, could that be a shortcut to knowledge? Would that help her understand?
Mae hangs up the phone and glances at Drew in the mirror. She sighs. “Holly has been with me from the start. She takes care of everything, keeps me in line and reminds me what’s important. I couldn’t have done it without her. She’s been like a mother to me.”
“A mother to you.” Holly, with her tight lips and clipboard. “Really?”
“Well if I needed affection, I’d get a dog.” Mae smiles. “But Holly believes in me. She’s probably the only one in the world who really does so I’m very lucky to have her, although I do pay her quite well. I owe it all to her, really.”
Drew swallows the questions she wants to ask–How much do you pay her? Did you just get something done to your lips, is that why you look like a stranger? Do I look good in black? Do you really think you’re going to like the chapters? What if you don’t like them? What will happen then?
“Doesn’t it fit like a dream? “ Mae runs her hands over her ribs, watching her fingers catch on the tiny buttons. “You know, sometimes I’m so busy trying to get somewhere, I don’t notice where I am. I try to practice being in the moment. Not in the past, not in the future, just now. Now feels good. Now is realer than all the rest.”
“Yeah. And actors know it. Acting is being like water. You bend and flow, let nature and gravity decide, you fill the character like water in a cup. You should try it some time.”
“Why? What do you mean?”
Mae sighs and does not turn away from the mirror. “I just want to live. I mean, I know I’m alive but I want to exist in the ideal world, the one people pay money to visit, not the trashy boring dirty one behind the scenes. I’m bigger than that. Look.” She turns and gazes deeply into Drew’s eyes. “There’s something big inside of me, just under the surface. Everyone needs help to bring the best to the surface. You need someone to believe in you, someone who sees your potential like I see yours. I like to surround myself with people who really see me, people who believe. Do you know what I mean?”
Drew smiles and nods. “Like a mother?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“Like a mother, only better. A mother who never dies, never walks away, never closes her eyes and never, ever makes a mistake: A team of selfless, loving mothers who want nothing more than to do whatever it takes to make you shine.”
Mae takes the knife from her hand and pulls Drew to the mirror. She has to admit, the corset hugs her hips and breasts quite nicely. Suddenly, she is a femme fatale with a delicate exoskeleton: naked but hidden, defenseless and impenetrable.
Mae says, “So go ahead and put that in the book if you want to. Just make it sound better.”
If you could take one minute to copy a word, line, or paragraph of this section that jarred you and paste it as a comment, even if you don’t have time for an explanation, I would be deeply grateful.