We pick here because death is life’s ornament, because the place is masculine without the compromising presence of a male. It is a fortress, really, and in it we play as children, infected, set subtly adrift in our Father’s body.
We are a fortress vacant of femininity, apart from Lita’s wavering beauty, the arcane threshold beauty of a fourteen-year-old girl.
More to the point, to give you comforting reference, we live in an historically valuable, nineteenth-century adobe compound, walled in, the vast courtyard at its center marred by skeletal tumble weed and a crumbling Moorish fountain. The previous owner, a homosexual architect of conflicting reputation, gutted the lightless, mudded interior; it is now pristine and meticulous as a yacht, empty of female resonance down to the dominant alabaster urinals in the skylit bathrooms and the kitchen sink, aluminum and deep enough to pose in.
The Realtor, a militant grandmother in dour olive, informed us our guest apartment had been a Spanish morada, meeting place of the Penitente brotherhood — thus the oppressive distillate of male spirits I felt there, the monastic hive’s dark hum.
Lita and I have been here awhile, content I think. We know no one but each other, and our life is sweetly routine. Lita rides to school on her bicycle each morning, I walk to the town library where I volunteer. Most afternoons, we swim at the indoor community pool, which is very nearly always empty.
My child’s beauty is mainly incorrupt because she has not yet acknowledged or learned to use it; when she swims alongside me in her watery corridor, like some blurred, pale iris dragged by spring currents, I would nearly compare her to the myriad angels I collect. Yet angels are ungendered, and Lita belongs to that most fertile, least accessible territory of goddesses. Innocence.
My collection, displayed, of angels suggests an ambition to ungender myself. To martyr my genitals. At a certain point in one s life, I believe the sacrifice is welcomed and therefore no sacrifice. I wish to be neutered and ambitious beyond my own residual charms. I am done, I tell Lita, if not in a chant, certainly with monotonous repetition, I am finished with husbands, lovers, fathers, brothers. At times, self-pity creeps in, meaning I am not done at all, only lonelv.
Lita tests me. (I have always encouraged her to do so.)
— Then why are you Catholic, why worship a masculine trinity?
— Because death is life’s ornament, and I regret your father’s death by this decade’s peculiar sexual plague, a plague having everything to do with the discreet and desperate sale of this house. Because my duty is to keep you safe in the cradle of naivete until I say so, until I say so, until I say it is safe to cross the street without my hand, to swim unguarded in waters above your precious head.
—Because in ways I am responsible.
Lita and I, who discuss everything as equals, agree to hire someone to live in the morada apartment, to maintain our things for us, help us with our everyday lives. A housekeeper.
I unbolt the courtyard gates. A primitive figure swathed in gray fleece mimics the snow, somber and marbled with mud, heaped to either side of her. She wears a hairy white cap with a flagrant pom-pom, her own hair, I surmise, plastered beneath the cap, its white rim an Italianate halo or whipping of tired flagella about her mottled face. A thin, desultory snow flecks the pewter space between us, causing me to imagine we are two odd figures trapped inside a domed, water-filled children’s toy, most often a holiday scene.
I invite her into the main house, resolved to inspect character, question work habits, audition her for this ill-defined pan of Housekeeper.
I am often pleasurably hypnotized by another’s vulgarity. This was certainly true in the case of my husband. As this silver, porpoise-shaped creature squats in my aggressive white kitchen, squatting like a tin lump, I devolve into a sort of happy paralysis.
— Ask me my real name, she repeats.
— Irene, isn’t that correct, that’s what I was told at the library. . . .
— Arthur Vargas, she yelps, hoisting her sweatshirt under her chin, holding it there, her cloddish face boastful. Two speckled, cigarish breasts flop, nearly touching her girdled pear of a stomach. These are comically exaggerated, burlesque breasts, horrifyingly incorrect beside the thick wrists netted with dense, messy black hairs.
— Starting when I was ten, I wanted to be a girl. I let my hair grow long. I’ve had five different operations in Colorado. They kept operating until I ran out of money. I’m only half-done, half-finished.
(How evident the granite stubble, its clipped dark turf thicketing up from under the orange pancake makeup.)
When she asks, I indicate the small bathroom nearby. Irene keeps up talking, the door flung wide as she makes her noises. urgent and unpeturbed as a cow or horse. In the month Irene / Arthur was with us, I never knew her to be anything but incomprehensibly cheerful and open-handed as wealthy people are assumed to be but seldom are. In an ironic, retrospective sense, Irene approached my ideal, childlike, joyfully neutered (in her case one set of genitals quite literally knocking the other out).
My child, home from school, stands in the doorway, a gold and ivoried marzipan, a confectionary swan.