A cat peers through the banister-barred window and with the deadsureness that can’t afford a mistake turns to check the other direction. Bessie replaces a blue ceramic sugar bowl on the table and begins to examine another item. Though the owner has tired of watching her Bessie has been trained to touch with care, with respect, even when she has contempt for the work itself. She is courteous but admires nothing. In the Museum of Modern Art many of these items would have impressed her but Mexico is not the handicraft Meccashe was led to expect. She leaves, nodding to the proprietor, guiding her cloth shoulder-purse so that it doesn’t come in contact with the door. It is the last of the artisan-retail stores in town. It is her last day in Mexico.
Twenty yards in front of her something vaguely unpleasant is dumped from an upper window. Bessie is something of/rather an artist. She does not actually sketch any more because her mother is an artist too and their relationship is tense as it is. Besides, everybody wants to be a great artist and it is hopeless to try. She does, however, retain strong likes and dislikes about the art of other people and, indeed, these preferences grow powerful as the likelihood she herself will create or express something grows remote. “Gobs and globules of glass,” she said once about a candlestick, “contradict the essential value of the medium.” Drinking glasses she has seen made by simple artisans outside Guadalajara, in Tlaquepaque, the kind with hundreds of tiny bubbles and imperfections and that cost six times as much in elegant San Francisco stores, delight her. “The bubbles make you see what’s so special and wonderful about glass,” she has said. She admires the slightly unconventional, the painting of Robert Natkin for example.
A tattooed, seedy-looking man shows Bessie an identification photo of himself — in better days, to be sure — and demands “un dime.” She pays no attention. “Poor art,” she thinks to herself as she approaches the main plaza, “but a beautiful country.” She keeps a tough expression on her face for the benefit of any admiring men. She can understand why it is a violent country, yet she hopes people will be patient a while longer. Bessie is inclined to let people’s suffering continue — though aloud she deplores it — if any killing will be necessary for the cure. Perhaps this is understandable, though she is not the one suffering.
She selects the one bench in the plaza which the sycamores do not protect from the early afternoon sun. She seats herself and begins to absorb the atmosphere of the place. She smiles at an adolescent girl who is fondling a three-year-old escaped from his parents. The girl wants the boys snickering across the way to see what a good mother she will make, for someone’s children. Bessie thinks she wants to be a mother too. She wants a family around her, and with no strife, mind you. She is already 27 and more than a little worried. But she is tough; she will turn up a father somewhere, or do without if she has to. She knows how to suffer and smile.
The beggar man who accosted her earlier comes into the square. She hopes he can keep to himself. He looks terrible.
At last Priscilla appears and sits with her.
“Hi!” says Priscilla, for a moment squeezing her friend’s wrist. She sets down the puffy plastic shopping bag with aluminum handles that hasn’t left her the whole trip. “How did you do? Did you have fun?” Bessie demands enthusiasm, and after two years Priscilla’s got a method and, when she isn’t clumsy, makes it look effortless. Sometimes now she sounds like Bessie herself: “I see you’re not carrying any grand pianos.” Bessie is a notorious shopper. She can spend all day in San Francisco and return empty-handed. Only Bloomingdale’s in New York satisfies her.
“Not today, sugar pie,” she says, grateful for the ending of her solitude. She is also grateful that when she leaves for home tomorrow Priscilla will be returning East. While Bessie has a reputation for independence she prefers being with friends to aloneness and likes best of all the company of strangers — provided they aren’t offensive. Unlike last summer’s overnight stay in Big Sur, where Priscilla was stung by a bee during a hike in the woods, this trip hasn’t been fun. Bessie smiles.
They used to work on a team in a psychiatric ward. Bessie is six years younger but serves as the “together” one. In a restaurant the other night, in an angry moment, Priscilla has told her, “You work to make people feel inferior to you. Then you lose respect for them.” Very smart for Priscilla, though Bessie is not about to take such cracks to heart.
“You look pretty,” she says, “in those earrings.” They are silver and amethyst affairs, made in Taxco, the kind that hang, helping to point out the length of Priscilla’s body. Bessie herself wears prim turquoise-in-silver earrings from the Mesa Verde area of Colorado. As it happens both sets have been gifts from the same individual.
Priscilla acknowledges the compliment with a smile only. Since she’s left the West Coast she hasn’t been easy with her friend. Their intimacy is sacred, how can two or three days with another friend touch it? She is certain she has nothing to be ashamed of.
‘Was it nice?” Bessie says. “Did you find a church you can’t let me pass up?” Bessie would love to share with someone her experience of the craft-objects and her judgments about them but unfortunately she has a low opinion of Priscilla’s taste. She doesn’t often recall the early days when she took Priscilla with her everywhere, even Gump’s and I. Magnin’s, when it still existed.
Priscilla says after a deep breath, “Oh it was very interesting.” She too is unsure whether today is to be only the end of a stage for them, or something more definitive. She marshals her proof and the remainder of her energy.
“This one little church,” she says, “I think they’re all called Church of San Francisco — it had very good wood carving, and a gold leaf staircase — like a corkscrew? — and some very pretty murals — frescoes, whatever.” Though many years have passed since Priscilla was high school valedictorian, it is a distinction which cannot be erased; yet she is not comfortable with Bessie in these areas. And in truth she hasn’t enjoyed herself, sightseeing like most things bores her when she lacks the company of a man. She envies Bessie her independence. She also envies the perfection of her small beautiful features. Priscilla isn’t positive she knows what “gold leaf” is.
She hears Bessie say, “It beats Oakland California.” For six months they’ve lived a continent apart. No longer did they have every day to bridge distances traveled on non-parallel courses, no longer the weekends and evenings to celebrate each tentative, brave step taken. And fearing that they may be competitors now, Priscilla finds the temptation to compare irresistible. An ugly sensation comes and disappears. And she is responsible, she has caused her friend pain. So Priscilla imagines.
Two men who resemble North American F.B.I. agents — trench coats, a pipe, a sinister air perhaps — cross the street at the edge of the plaza. They stand awhile by one of the sycamores and talk. Bessie assumes the resemblance, based on 1940s movies, is her paranoia. One man seems to study her, but really she should be of no interest since Arthur, with his politics, disappeared deep into a Midwestern city. Priscilla, in spite of her envy of her friend, assumes Bessie is too unconfident and too used to being overweight and that it is she that men want to approach. She fears these are simply more of the same with the usual motives and thwarts a meeting of glances by lowering her eyes to the walk. The dull red tiles give her little relief, however. A red-haired woman walks by. In a doorway sniffs a spotted gray cat, reminding Priscilla of a former pet and nearly causing her to laugh; an all-gray cat passes behind the “FBI-men.” Overhead a forest falcon, either from curiosity or in general reconnaissance, or perhaps on some special mission in the last, wisest years of life, has left the comforts of his native glade, miles from anyplace where humans might be seen, and come upon this haphazard picturesque town. A thousand feet higher floats a cloud, innocent of all grayness, generated south of Zacatecas in the barren landscape that makes up so much of Mexico only this morning, threatening no rain. A man with a cart tries to sell an ice cream pop to the two tourist women. A bell tolls at the far end of town.
“What do you think about these Mexican women, the townswomen?” Bessie asks.
Priscilla has scarcely looked or noticed anything. They are no competitors of hers.
“Verybeautiful, aren’t they?” she says. She doesn’t know quite what Bessie intends, you had to be careful. But the FBI-men are gone.
“Well, are you glad you moved East?” Bessie has a habit of asking a question of importance, or one that is a wish for reassurance, repeatedly — every day they’ve been traveling for example — as though to say, now what do you really think? “Do you hate me?” is one of her favorites of this type — she uses a silly voice, though she does not like the same game played with her. She goes as far as this with only two persons and neither has caught on.
“Ah,” says Priscilla lifting her eyebrows, “the East.” She gives the kind of laugh that precedes an attempt at something so overwhelming as to be all but futile.
“Things aren’t any better really,” she says. Both her current boyfriend and the one she’s recently switched from live in the house where she has moved in. She has not been “really, truly in love” with either, or with anyone; she longs for it, it eludes her. “I don’t know, maybe things will change.” She is conscious she has been saying most of this for years.
“You and Donald must feel pretty good about each other…?”
“Bessie, you always romanticize other people’s love affairs.”
“So do you,” says Bessie.
“And you’re so tough and critical with your own men.”
“So are you.” Bessie’s gaze is unexpectedly cold. “So: does this mean you and Donald don’t feel good about each other?”
“Oh it’s nice,” says Priscilla, “but you know me: once I have what I want I don’t want it any more.” It’s nice to have somebody but it’s hopeless. Whatever good effects seemed to come from the psychotherapy she had in California they’ve worn off by now. She is nervous about how she is going to fill up the years of the rest of her life.
“I’d like to have something else,” she continues, “something different, more secure that wouldn’t go away.” She smiles a very old woman’s sad smile. “I wish I could have somebody I could count on to care about me.”
“That’s different? They all want you. You’re the one who can’t be counted on.”
Priscilla proceeds more slowly.
“Why do I have to keep chasing and worrying?” She seems to study the lowest button on Bessie’s half-open sweater, ‘To tell you the truth, I don’t care all that much about sex. Why not just someone I wouldn’t get tired of — who’d just be a human being, so I could be a human being.”
“Priscilla, you want too much! And then you want what you get on some special moment or night to be continuous!”
“That’s the only way I could get off this merry-go-round — this rigmarole.” She fondles one of her fingers, which are bony compared to Bessie’s. Her eyesrun over the lap of Bessie’s dress, down the stripes that end well above the knee. “You know, sometimes I wish there didn’t have to be this struggle all the time” — shaking her head again — “all this — stuff. You know, sometimes I wish there were no more men…” She appeals to Bessie with her eyes. “I wish all this didn’t have to be so important.”
“I know,” says Bessie, “I know,” as if she did know. “But I don’t know what we can do. What you can do.” Bessie is sympathetic, perhaps, more than she has been, but still she seems a foreigner to these tormenting fires. She will never seek help in return, or need it. She will not be a fellow-sufferer, a comrade.
“What can you do?” she says. It doesn’t sound like a rhetorical question. They look at each other but not with equal intensity.
“I don’t know,” says Priscilla, lowering at last her moistening eyes. She studies the foot of the bench. “I wish — what?” She shakes her head, with vigor. “I hate this life. I almost hate it. If I knew what to do…” She goes no farther in that sentence.
“I know,” says Bessie comfortingly. Priscilla suspects Bessie might want to squeeze her hand but here they are in public.
“I don’t know what to do,” says Priscilla. She doesn’t cry. She retucks her blouse into her skirt, unnecessarily, checks the way the fabric runs over her chest and compares this to the top of Bessie’s sweater.
“Oh,” says Priscilla, “almost forgot.” She reaches down into the bottom of her bag and presents Bessie a small book with an embroidered toucan on its purple cloth cover. The print, however, is low-quality and the design could represent anything from wood thrushes to nighthawks and whippoorwills, or even squirrels pictured in mid-jump between the crowns of two trees.
“It’s beautiful,” says Bessie flipping the blank pages, in a tone which Priscilla knows means she is neither impressed nor pleased.
“I know it’s not great but I thought it was worth trying.” Actually Priscilla would like the book fine if Bessie weren’t on this trip. “I thought it would be good for writing dreams in. So maybe you’ll wake up in the morning and think about me.”
On the flyleaf Bessie has found the words, “Dear Bessie, Sweet dreams always… In loving friendship, Priscilla.”
“That’s so sweet,” says Bessie, “You didn’t need to.” Now she lays her hand over Priscilla’s fingers for the minimum necessary time but Priscilla catches her before she can withdraw.
“I just wanted — Because I don’t know when — You understand?”
“Of course, sugar pie,” says Bessie, postponing the attempt to get her hand loose, “we’ll see each other, don’t worry.” What’s the point of a vacation like this if she is going to be subjected to the same pressures she can’t get away from at home? She tries to comfort herself: the interval to be killed isn’t long, yet she needs to get on her plane at once. Finally her fingers come free though damp with Priscilla’s perspiration and what she imagines to be fluids that flesh in its prime does not secrete.
“Maybe you can come east in spring,” says Priscilla.
“Well, we’ll see,” says Bessie. Seeing Priscilla again and never seeing her again are momentous alternatives.
“You don’t want…”
“What about you? Why are you always putting me in this position?” Now Bessie was good and agitated. “You think I like it when people insist on being intimidated by me? It’s such a turn-off! And a drain…”
“Bessie,” says Priscilla as gently as possible, “you’ve been doing everything you can to put things back the way they used to be. To keep me in my place. Ever since I left — Won’t you even try…?”
“It’s been a difficult trip, Priscilla, at least for me, and I’m not in very good spirits right now. It just isn’t a good time to ask me for reassurance.”
Priscilla doesn’t speak. No doubt she will try again at the airport, or more than once. Bessie thinks it’s possible she herself will be more comfortable then.
“Have you got any job prospects?” Bessie asks. They’ve talked a great deal about men these past days, as if that were the same thing as talking about themselves. “Have you made up your mind what to do?”
This aspect of Priscilla’s life has its tension too, but her face shows she’s moving now on a longer rope.
“I think,” she says, “right now I need something part-time, and interesting, I hope. Not too many jobs around, back East. How’s your job?”
“The same.” Bessie has had two years of psychotherapy also, much of it on days when she met Priscilla for a late meal, but she will never tell her friend.
“I guess it’s about time for dinner,” says Priscilla, lifting her eyes from her watch as though the whole thing is not a little drama to convince her friend that it really would be good to eat now. She points toward the farthest corner of the plaza where a waiter at a tiny café has begun setting up tables for the midday comida. It is called “Casi Cielo.”
“To tell you the truth I’m not very hungry,” says Bessie with a weary smile. “But,” continuing with unusual crispness, recognizing that their bench will have to be left behind, “all right, let’s do it.”
She collects her things as they stand and with her free hand touches the back of Priscilla’s neck.
© Jerry Kurtz 1975