By Lou Graves
Prudence was stood in front of her bedroom mirror. She knew she was pretty (she supposed she was; some days it took a little convincing before she thought so). But if she was pretty it was in a plain, bookwormish kind of way. She wasn’t pretty like the other girls; she was pretty like a younger sister or cousin; pretty like a well groomed and looked after pet. She was, she decided, pretty in an entirely intellectual way; intellectually pretty but not emotionally so. And without emotion (emotion being both base and carnal), there was no sexual desire. This, she reasoned, was why nobody desired her sexually. She hadn’t kissed anybody (as the other girls had) nor had she even held hands with anybody other than her mother. Even her father, it seemed, regarded her simply as intellect with eyelashes. Should a father not sit his daughter on his knee and kiss her on the cheek? In an innocent way, of course; but given her mature intellect, she could reason that even a father’s love had base and carnal roots. She was thought pretty by most but desired by none. She often suspected that she looked prettier without her glasses, beautiful even, however without them, she was almost blind and could never know for sure. Often, she would stare into the mirror without her glasses, seeing nothing but blurry and mercurial smudges and waiting, as though they would come into focus and she would see herself, on the other side of the mirror, at last looking beautifully base and carnal.
She came downstairs for dinner and kissed her mother on the cheek. For dinner, they had lasagna with garlic bread. The board of directors at her father’s firm had recently fired some executive, and he was acting as an interim replacement until they hired somebody else. He was stressed and fatigued, acting as though he was carrying the world on his shoulders. Her mother was “schmoozing some little Japanese chappy” who represented a foreign business whose customs she was competing over with a rival company. They were both talking as though Prudence wasn’t sat at the table; each talking at the same time, without seeming to hear the other; each seeming to be having a private conversation with themselves. Prudence knew that her intelligence came from them; however, somehow they had kept some kind of carnal energy; both were acquainted with their carnal and sexual energy; both were a fair balance of intellect and emotion. Prudence’s tragedy was that she knew enough to envy ignorance; even a modest and reasonable amount of it would make all the difference. The fool who knows not that he is foolish is happy; likewise, a girl driven by even a modicum of carnal energy knows not the tragedy of being only intellectually pretty and never emotionally or sexually desired. A fool who knows enough to know he is foolish, she conceded, is also sort of tragic. She remembered Tantalus from Greek mythology, condemned to stand in a lake of water above which hung delicious fruit; just as the water eluded his thirsty lips, the fruit eluded his hungry reach. He was not only aware of both the water and the fruit, he was also aware of his lack and desire of each.
After dinner, she cleared the table and washed the dishes (hearing, from the other room, her mother’s and father’s voices; each talking to themselves with the pretense of conversation) and then went back upstairs to look at herself in the mirror and wonder how beautiful she would look without her glasses. She opened her diary but couldn’t think of anything to write. She stared at the page, tracing a figure of eight in the bottom corner, then drew herself as Tantalus standing in a lake. She drew some low hanging fruit which was supposed to be apples and pears (but looked more like raindrops or teardrops) hanging from the ends of branches. In the picture, she wasn’t wearing glasses, and her breasts were large and pendulous. The picture made her laugh, and she closed her diary as though somebody might see it over her shoulder.
When her homework was done, she crawled into bed and turned out the light. She thought about Saul, the boy who worked at the gas station. He was smarter than most people realized. Perhaps smarter than she was. Some of the other girls would mention his eyes; however, it was it his jawline and his cheekbones that Prudence noticed first; high cheekbones and a sharp jawline. She was ashamed at how superficial she could be. She fell asleep thinking of Saul. Later, she awoke to the sounds of her parents having sex in the next room. She could hear them through the walls; her mother wailing, her father seeming to grunt. She stuck her fingers in her ears and waited. She thought about Tantalus in his lake; she thought about herself in the mirror, without glasses; she thought some more about Saul. She remembered one time, as a small child, when she had walked in on her parents having sex and thought they were fighting. “Stop fighting,” she had said, hitting her mother’s bare ass with a plastic wand. It was years later that she was able to (helpless to do anything but) look back and laugh at how naïve she had been. She kept her fingers in her ears. She thought some more about the plastic wand, and it made her laugh. With her fingers in her ears, she couldn’t hear anything. She was along with her thoughts, ignorant to everything.