(photo by ojoblanco on flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/ojoblanco/)
Framed by the bedroom window and backlit by dawn, the enormous eucalyptus dances, trailing long black ribbons. This sight hails Lang every morning: the mottled skin of the trunk and silver tongues of leaf emerging slowly from the darkness, a black-and-white picture slowly developing color while she begins to imagine the shape of the day ahead.
As a girl in Australia they played a game: one child would be tied to the trunk with a jump-rope while the others ritualistically crammed her pockets with eucalyptus buttons and draped her head with coils of bark. Magali, her youngest sister, was usually their damsel in distress, or perhaps one of the neighbor girls, but never Lang. Lang would play the girl’s defender with a stick to chase the others away. That summer, her hands and hair and clothes smelled perpetually of eucalyptus, heady and sharp, like strong medicine. That smell reminds Lang of her aboriginal roots and her own portability. Subsequent moves to New York, Barcelona and Paris took her far away from that memory but when they bought this house in Topanga Canyon, it resurfaced like an oily bubble. The real estate agent had suggested the tree could be cut down and replaced with something native but the tree is a one of the reasons they bought this place, the tree and the long view of seemingly uninhabited hilltop and the old house’s untouched potential.
At home, wherever home might be, Lang is unapologetically sentimental. At work, she uses the feelings to feed her creation but at home, she lets it all loose. When Eleanor was first born, they had been so captivated by her newness, her mouth rooting for milk, her little grunts that they did not leave their Paris apartment for two solid weeks. Lang remembers how encased she had felt by the solid walls of their apartment and how the slivers of view out their windows and the thumps and muffled voices from neighboring apartments were the only reminders that there was life outside their little nest.
Lang could have stayed there forever, but they needed to eat. When she stepped onto the sidewalk outside their apartment for the first time in weeks, the size of the world was overwhelming. That evening the sun was putting on a pyrotechnic show and the sky looked like a painting done in gilt and velvet and neon with clouds sprouting rays like great golden wings and Lang would not have been surprised if the sky had parted to reveal the Virgin Mary trailing a pack of fat cherubs tethered on golden chains. And then, just when she had begun to wonder if she looked like a drunk standing there on the sidewalk staring up at the sky, some junkie communing with god, she glanced at the face of a woman walking her dog down the sidewalk toward her and was hit with this revelation: We are all somebody’s baby. Everyone in this world—that wrinkled old lady wearing too much make-up, that teenager smoking a cigarette, that newspaper man—we were all newborns once, we all had little eyes shut tight, tiny fists and sucking mouths and it felt as though her heart exploded with love, shattered into a billion little pieces, one shard for every not-so-stranger in the world.
Even now, just remembering that feeling, brings tears to her eyes. Rosemary, whose face is half-hidden in the pillow beside her, is the strong one. Lang likes to look at her when she’s not looking: when she’s busy or asleep Lang can revel in the loveliness, the soft lips, the downy cheek, the little lines that sprout from the edge of the eyelid, the pink curl of ear, without the distraction of wit.
The eyes open for a moment, then close. “Good morning.”
“You looking at me?”
“How’d you know?”
“Your eyes are too sharp.” Rosemary rolls toward the window. Her silhouette is black against the eucalyptus. “Today Sal is coming to start so you’ll have to take Elle to school.”
“Are you sure you don’t want us to come?”
Today Lang will fly to Louisiana to look at potential locations for Deep Water. “I’ll be back Thursday and she can’t miss any more school. Besides, you need to be here to oversee the work.” Lang tries to sound reasonable but she’s dreading the amputation. She’ll wake up in the middle of each night listening for Rosemary’s breath and won’t walk across a street without groping for the ghost of Eleanor’s hand. But it’s only six days. And she has to get to work.
Lang closes her eyes to review the mental checklist: They’ll start construction (lift the house onto stilts, pour a foundation, add a new first floor with a great room and a kitchen) and try to leave before it gets too uncomfortable. Rosemary and Eleanor will join her in New Orleans. The’ll make a temporary home in a rented antebellum in the Garden District. As an artist, Rosemary should be able to paint anywhere and of course the house will have a proper studio for her, with good light. They’ll hire a private tutor for Eleanor. It will take three months of preproduction to be ready to start filming in April and they’ll stay through the editing, while the various minor adjustments to the Topanga house will be completed. If all goes well, Lang hopes Deep Water will be released next April and that by then, thanks to some miraculous harmonic alignment of the stars, their home will be ready.
Rosemary turns and smiles. She presses her hand to Lang’s cheek. “It’s all going to be fine. Don’t worry. You make your film, I’ll paint my paintings and Sal will build our house.”
“What about Elle? Won’t she get lost in all this?”
Rosemary hugs her tight. “Oh, please. We couldn’t ignore Eleanor if we wanted to. She’d call CPS if we ran out of milk, for god’s sake. Besides, how many mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“I don’t know. Seven? Seven is a magic number.”
“Well, I’ll have to go to the store and pick up some extras, then. How about a six pack?”
Lang smiles. “You can never have too many mothers.”
Lang had wanted a nice old grandmotherly nanny to take care of Eleanor in New Orleans, but Rosemary said that Elle is surrounded by women all the time, it would be good for her to spend some time around a male figure once in awhile, and what about school? So she found a highly recommended tutor named Robin Brown.
Rosemary is the one who tours schools, finds classes and arranges Elle’s schedule. When Eleanor showed an interest in mythology, Rosemary found a teacher to give her lessons in Greek. Elle has taken classes in circus arts, ceramics, computer programming, horseback riding, Dungeons and Dragons, capoeira and Hip Hop and Bollywood dance. Elle plays the trumpet and every Tuesday and on Thursday she and Rosemary spend at least an hour painting together in the studio, Elle with her watercolors and Rosemary at her giant easel.
Lang’s work schedule is less flexible. Lang cooks meals, packs lunches and has always been the one Elle turns to when she stubs a toe or gets the flu. Lang’s the one to arrange camping trips and read books and tuck her in at night. Every six months since she was born, Lang has had Elle pose in front of a plain white sheet. When she was an infant, Lang propped her up in her diaper; at one, she wobbled, at three she stood still just long enough for Lang to take a second’s worth of 16 mm film. At five, she tossed her ringlets and smiled like a movie star; at six, she insisted on wearing underwear; at seven and a half, she looked straight into the lens for the first time; at eight she covered her nipples with her hands; at twelve she stopped smiling.
So far, there are twenty-three seconds of film. On hard days, Lang sits with the laptop warming her lap and watches them back-to-back, over and over, the fast-motion blooming of a magnificent flower, Elle’s jerking stagger toward womanhood, and she reminds herself that resistance is futile, that she can’t control it, all she can do is take it in, all she can do is take deep breaths and let time and change and life flow over her like a river.
When Lang has to go away for work, she misses them desperately, convinces herself that she’s missing a crucial moment, calls far too often, and Rosemary begins to answer the phone with a bark: “Everything is fine here, we’re all just fine. Would you just go ahead and enjoy yourself for god’s sake? Take a bath! Go for a walk! Go dancing! I would.” They don’t talk about it but they both know Rosemary would like to be the one to get away once in awhile but, since Lang makes more money, since the films are more profitable than the paintings and since they need money for classes and tutors and renovations and trips, Rosemary stays home, and even though Lang wants to stay home, she goes to work.
Rosemary says, “By the way, did you know that our daughter took a permanent marker and wrote my name and phone number on the label of all my clothes?”
“She just doesn’t want to lose you.”
Rosemary takes Lang’s face in both hands and says, “Listen to me. Nobody’s getting lost. Not unless I tell them to. Don’t forget to bring home some gumbo for dinner Thursday.”
In the bathroom, Lang confronts the mirror. Even though she turns fifty in April, her face looks young: short silver hair, dark eyes, nice bones. After the shower, she pauses to check the label of her bathrobe, and there it is: Lang Westwood written in bright red, with eyeballs drawn inside the o’s. Lang takes the bottle of antidepressants from the cabinet and grins at herself in the mirror before swallowing one down.
Eleanor is sprawled in the window seat in the kitchen reading a book, waiting for someone to come cook her breakfast. She’s wearing one of Lang’s old girl-band concert t shirts.
“Is there time for pancakes?” she asks Lang.
“I don’t think so. I have to pack. How about bacon?”
“Okay. And grapefruit.”
“You can do that part yourself.”
Eleanor selects an orange from the fruit bowl, takes out the long, serrated bread knife and slices without hesitation, sending a spray of citrus into the air and a shudder down Lang’s spine. Elle’s hair is a tangled mess; she’ll need help brushing it today. From the corner of her eye, Lang takes note of the pimple on her daughter’s chin and the new and still surprising swell in the front of her t shirt.
“What are you reading?”
“A graphic novel.”
Lang resists the urge to inspect the book on the window seat. “How graphic is it?”
“Ha, ha. It’s about a little girl whose family moves into a creepy old house. There’s a ghost behind the wall that wants to be her mother. “
Lang is relieved. “Sounds disturbing.”
The bacon is starting to brown. Before going to the airport Lang will meet one last time with Mae to sign papers and shake hands. The pan spits grease across her arm but she doesn’t flinch. She brings the plate of bacon and her coffee to the window seat and sits beside Elle. “I notice a colorful addition to my bathrobe label. Will I find similar improvements to my other labels?”
“Oh. Yeah.” Elle talks without moving her eyes from the page. “See, when people go away to boarding school or summer camp their parents sew nametags into their clothes. It was in a book I read once.”
Lang walks over to the stove to scrape the pan with the spatula. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be a great trip. A new cultural experience. I’m looking forward to seeing New Orleans with you.”
Eleanor rolls her eyes. “Why should I worry? You worry enough for everybody. I think old cities are cool. I just wish I could bring a friend.”
“Would you like some toast? We have blackberry jam.”
Eleanor chews and shakes her head.
Lang returns to the window seat. She speaks to Eleanor’s profile. “Your mom and I will be your friends. We’ll all be together.”
“I know.” But it is said with a new edge, as though other words have been deleted and replaced with these flat, easy syllables. “I know.” Suddenly, irrationally, Lang has the feeling Eleanor has swallowed something dangerous and deadly and for the rest of the day, this image follows Lang: her little girl wearing a grown up expression, chewing and swallowing, chewing and swallowing.