Woman in Black, and the things we say at Night

December 28, 2008
By Ella Cambra, San Jose, CA

I was thinking about John Singer Sargent today. I once saw a portrait he made, of tall, palely red haired women. She was striking; languishing in a black dress and half way gaze. I’m very much absent minded as you know, and I had forgotten the name of the portrait by the time I leaned down to pick off a cuticle, but I remember what I was thinking, I really did, because I always have the same one thought every time I see a sort of portrait. When your standing there, staring at the at this women, rendered majestic by oil paints, and length, singular, overwhelming ,all by herself, somehow, her stagnancy becomes captivating. Who is this woman? Strange, I always wonder who. As if they matter. A stranger. Less then that. The painted expression of a stranger. It is strange, to be overwhelmed by a life, one which has been already lived and soiled and passed on. Yet the woman-yet the many women and many other men- that weave in and out of my peripheral fail to captivate, amuse, render any sort of contemplation. Because they are unbeautiful, unfrozen, and unchosen by an artist, a master, to preserve? Perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. Not who is she. Not where was she born, what makes her beautiful, not how she is loved, but why. Why is anyone chosen or remembered? Why did Sargent choose this woman, amid the others he must have seen off the rims of his eyes? I wonder who she was not because I believe her to be epically intelligent, or holding the canvas- oily- black secret of her marvelous 19th century life, but because she was picked and I have to wonder, why did Sargent do it? Why did he give her forever? Why does anyone get chosen for forever? Did she even deserve it?
Anyway, back at school, my short friend Mikalea from across the hall is teaching me to play guitar. Well, sort of. She doesn’t read music, and I of course can’t either, so we sit across from one another, passing the one guitar back and forth, in a strange duet, trying to learn by the sound of things. Commit the sound and the pattern of fingers to memory. It’s very difficult to remember a song when you have to make it yourself. We are trying to learn “Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap”. She is quite miraculous at it. Like I told you before, I have trouble remembering stuff like that. I like her a lot and wish you could meet her. She comes into my room a lot. In the night, I try to get asleep early but as soon I cross the floor to my bed she would knock. Or at 3 A.M, she would hustle me from my dreams, first soft, then increasing speed, then louder. I can tell the way she knocks, it’s so urgent. And there she would be: swaying, drunk, and so cute in her oversized cap. I have grown accustomed to being awoken; I have grown accustomed to people keeping me awake. I like it though. One night, she sat at the edge of my ex-room mate’s bed and she swayed and ate Triscuts to absorb all alcohol and talked to me about her girl back home (the same one I found in my shower that one time. That was weird. There were votive candles). Firstly, talking in the night is wonderful. It the late night. While it’s never really quiet here until dawn, with the door closed, the noise kind of comes in soft waves through the wall every once in awhile. A breathe of soft sound, like when the waves skitter across the sand. You know what that’s like, you too chose to move and live by an ocean. I forgot that. The same one as me in fact. That same darn ocean. Sorry, I digress. Yes, well it’s those kinds of coaxing sounds, those nighttime sounds, and the room just feels so warm and everything is slow and sleepy. Only in the night, does it get like that here. Slow and slinky. There something in the night that felicitates truth. And everyone is so much easier to find at night. Everyone returns, sooner or later, to where they started. Where they started the day, that is. So, do you know what I mean? You used to be so good at understanding. With the mild strokes of laughter and singing, slipping through the walls, and the heady warmth and the intimacy of pajamas, and in some cases the exultant freedom of alcohol, nothing feels rushed. The sun is gone, along with all its daytime obligations, and there’s time to tell the truth. There is no where else to go. So, Mikaela talked to me about her girl and the tattoo she got on her arm. In script, black and spidery, so important looking on her little arm, it now says “With or Without You.” Her own little bit of art. I asked why that and she said it was to remind her. To remind never to go back to that girl back home with her tepid youth and her lack of shower etiquette. They still have sex though, not in my shower thank god, so, I guess the message didn’t work. She got that inked on her arm, she chose the words herself. She made them beautiful, black and flowy and every night she must look down at her arm and see it and realize her arm isn’t hers any more. Or doesn’t belong to her, but to the message and the promise and the girl back home. Art sort of stains like that. But even though it sits on her, like a freckle or her bad vision ( 17/20?) she can’t remember. So there we are, in the almost dark, two girls. One who can’t remember the strings to AC/DC, the other who conveniently forgets she needs to fall out of love with someone. Well she is one of my new friends. I wonder what yours look like and sound like and why they keep you up at night.

Anyway, I’m going to a New Year’s party, next week. I’m going to buy a dress. I remember overhearing how you kissed- drunkenly, desperately I imagine- how you kissed a boy on the mouth in the city, the last New Year. Where will you be, this time? I’m going shopping for a dress that I dream is black and like Sylvia’s in “La Dolce Vita”, and I will be in Santa Clara. I won’t be able to see you in January, like I haven’t seen you since June. But this New Year, this New Year will have nothing of you in it. You’ve been in all my years since I was 4 and I remembered you being there. This will be the first full year with you not in it. Do you think there is some special place in our brains, or, maybe a little pocket in our souls that keeps certain things, and not others, for us to remember? Last year, the last year of you and me, and in some ways, my childhood has begun to be forgotten. Like that slow, rapturous, laughter that nightly wafts into my dorm room, it slips back to me in waves but otherwise… it really is gone, isn’t it? I live near the other end of the ocean now. I have a new sort of family of lost girls who get drunk in the evening and talk to me about love and promises and together we try to play guitar and try to pass the time, so much time, we are given. I swear this letter had a point. It began with me in a museum and it ends with me in my bedroom at night (when there is time to tell the truth), choosing you, of all the other better ones, to remember. There was a point. Did I make you beautiful and have I and will I freeze you to look and wonder why, and never, never who? Never as the girl who never said goodbye and left me-me, like a sister- for a new city, safe from my view in the mountains so you could never call. We were sort of like sisters. Now distant and older, like sisters get. I think I’ve said it- the point of this letter. I’ll leave it for you to find. But please, I’m at the end, and I want you to know I’m not angry. John Singer Sargent painted a beautiful portrait of women in black, from the late 19the century. She is dead now. I probably could Google her and find out all about her. Well not all, just the stuff others chose to record and keep in the light. She was beautiful and for some reason, worthy of a sort of immortality. I guess I’ll never know that reason and I’ll probably never know that piece of the brain that controls our perceptions and who we remember and who we choose to love. But I’m not angry with you ever. If I see you somewhere I’ll wave. It’s almost the New Year.

Love, wherever you are-


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