I went to New York for the first and probably only time in my life in early March about fifteen years ago and it was there that two of the themes of this story ‘Skin’ emerged. I tried using one of these experiences in a poem first but somehow that just didn’t work except as a sort of notation of detail.
It was early March when I went and the memory of how cold it was has stuck in my mind. The strange thing about New York is that so much is already known. You’ve already been there via Seinfeld and Woody Allen, Hitchcock and Scorsese, through Girls and Top Cat and Klute and American Psycho and West Side Story and countless other films and TV series and books and poems and paintings and photographs so it’s both mythic and familiar. But then, there you are, at ground level in the light or in the shadow of skyscrapers, so at long last the place comes alive in your body; you are able to see and smell and taste and hear everything at close quarters.
While the US is supposedly a ‘classless’ society, I couldn’t help but notice class – or rather to use a clearer and more American term, I noticed money, those who evidently had it and those who didn’t. Like in other cities the world over, the rich and the poor exist side by side, the one blind to the other, the other with eyes open wide to possibility.
One day I went to the Metropolitan Museum and on entering stood in line to check my coat. The woman ahead of me in the queue for the cloakroom at the Met was wearing a glossy dark brown fur coat. She was like a great black bear with little skinny ankles peeping out from below the hem and a tiny head of perfectly coifed hair, an aging Barbie Doll. She and her companion breathed money or so it seemed; money and superiority. Because of the value of the fur the woman had to fill in an insurance form before checking her coat. If I’d been in a hurry this might have been an irritating palaver, but as I had all the time in the world, it became a fascinating performance put on exclusively for my edification.
Women in fur coats are almost extinct in the UK; they’ve been hounded, hunted down, forced back into their caves. But this isn’t the case in the US – perhaps because it is a wild frontier country at heart and far colder in the north than this country ever is. In New York fur coats might continue to exist as a necessity as well as a signifier of wealth. So perhaps sighting this woman was like catching sight of a Yeti or Big Foot, a rare shy creature venturing out for its winter supply of culture.
When my turn came I handed over my scarf, my hat, well-worn black coat with the gloves already pushed down into the pockets. Then I smiled at the attendant. He did not smile back, but said, ‘You like cats.’ His speech was rapid, his accent thick. It was only after I’d walked away that the full meaning of his words made sense. He’d noticed stray cat hairs on my coat and wanted me to know it. It was an insult. Or was it? Clearly those three words had enough power to reverberate first into the poem, then the story.
Very often my stories are composed of patched together elements; some that I’ve experienced like those five days in New York. At other times they are informed by my experience of art, film, critical theory and psychology – in particular the psychological theory of looking art and film. So in some ways this is a story about the male gaze and how women may either subvert it or place themselves within it, negotiating the territory of subject and object. Clara, the main character in this story dreams of being an object of art. This is a form of escape from the imperfect self and the result of this is that Clara’s ‘loneliness becomes mythic.’
Of course, life made mythic does not exclude pain, and pain – truly exquisite physical pain also has its place in this story. The white marble sculpture of Marsyas can be found in the museum’s Petrie Court – a large airy space that also functions as a café. Perhaps it is a perversity to a have a sculpture like that in view of tables and chairs, with chattering tourists sipping coffee. But it’s easy to ignore poor Marsyas once you step away from him as the sculpture on a relatively small scale and being white marble, scream all he might, he fades away.
The story is about the moment Clara finally see her relationship with her lover Kaspar for what it is. Yet even when she finally walks away she does so by retreating into fantasy. This may be a case of disassociation, a mental state where the mind flees from painful experience into a sort of floating dreamlike state. The body is left behind to suffer, while the mind escapes. Here however Clara has removed herself but only with the help of the threads of her imagination. She cannot act alone, except when she is playing the role of a woman who acts her escape in a film.
I’ve rewritten this story numerous times and changed its title, submitted it here and there without success, and its one I’m still uncertain about. It seems as if the story is the wrong shape, going from close-up to wide angle, from interior – Clara’s small apartment and her narrow view of her emotionally impoverished life to larger spaces – the museum with its large galleries and high ceilings to finally, the outside world with its cold blue sky.
Like many of my stories (and to some extent my novel, Significance) it is an interrogation of the surface or the superficial appearance of a thing and how that can be deceptive. In this story that idea is expressed repeatedly in different forms – from Clara’s living cat looking like a fur muff, to the rich woman who looks like a bear in her fur coat, to the torture of the faun Marsyas, to Clara’s exhibitionism and her almost transparent underwear.
Jo Mazelis is a prize-winning novelist, short story writer, poet, photographer & essayist. Her debut novel Significance (Seren, 2014) won The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2015. Her first collection of stories Diving Girls was short-listed for Commonwealth Best First Book & Welsh Book of the Year. Her latest book, a collection of short stories entitled, Ritual, 1969 (Seren, 2016), was long-listed for the Edge Hill Prize & shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year in 2017.
© Jo Mazelis, 2017.