Chapter 1 1
La Jolla, California
After the funeral. I’m hiding in Mother’s bathroom watching a skincare video about necks. Cheap black dress that chafes. Illicit cigarette. Sitting on the toilet amid her decorative baskets, her red jellyfish soaps, her black towel sets. Smoke comes tumbling out of my mouth in amorphous gray clouds. I blow it out the window where the palm trees still sway and the alien sun still shines and the sky is a blue that hurts my eyes. There’s a Kleenex box made entirely of jagged seashells at my back—probably she never once filled it with Kleenex. There’s her mirror over the sink, a crack running right down the middle of the glass. Whenever I look at myself in that mirror, I look broken. Cleaved. There’s the perfume she wore every day of her life on the marble counter, the Chanel Rouge Allure lipstick in its gold-and-black case. A little cluster of red jars and vials on a silver tray. For the face, dear. For the face, I can hear Mother saying to me. Need all the help we can get, am I right? Cynical smile of the beautiful who know they’re on the downhill slope.
Yes, Mother, I’d say. But not you. You don’t need any help at all.
I don’t look closely at any of it.
Instead I stare at my phone, where the skin video plays. My eyes are dry and they are focused. Focused on Dr. Marva, who is telling me in her reassuring English accent all about my poor, poor neck. The video is actually called “How to Save Your Own Neck.” I’ve watched it before. It’s one of my favorites.
Dr. Marva’s soft yet firm words fill my mother’s bathroom.
“We don’t take care of our necks,” Dr. Marva is saying sadly. And she looks quite sad in her white silk blouse. As if she is grieving for us and our poor necks. “They often get neglected, don’t they?”
She looks right at me with her golden eyes. I find myself nodding as I always do.
“Yes, Marva,” I whisper along. Yes, they do get neglected.
“Which is quite a tragedy,” Marva observes. “Because the skin there is already so thin.”
Didn’t Mother always tell me this? The neck never lies, Belle. The neck is truthful, deeply cruel. Like a mirror of the soul. It reveals all, you see? And she’d point at her own throat. I’d look at Mother’s throat and see nothing. Just an expanse of whiteness shot through with blue veins.
I see, Mother, I always said.
On my phone screen, Marva shakes her head as if this truth about necks is one she cannot bear to speak. “What atrocities,” she whispers, stroking her own neck, “might bloom here? Redness, of course,” she intones. “A brown pigment, perhaps. Thinning, atrophied patches. Essentially,” she adds with a laugh, “a triumvirate of horror.”
As Marva says this, she tilts her head back to reveal an impossibly smooth white column of flesh. Untainted, unmarred. She strokes the skin softly with her red-nailed hands.
As I watch her do this, I begin to stroke my own neck. I can’t help it.
A flash of Mother’s throat appears again in my mind’s eye. Smooth and pale just like Marva’s. Always some pendant to show off the hollows. Then toward the end, this sudden fondness for jewel-toned glass, stones cut in the strangest shapes. An obsidian dagger. A warped, dark red heart. The way she’d clutch that heart with her fingers. Look at me on video calls like she was lost and my face was a dark forest, a mirror in which she barely recognized herself.
Dread fills my stomach now as I stroke my own neck. Not at the memory of Mother, I’m ashamed to say. But because I feel the skin tags, the unsightly bands here and here and here.
“Your poor, poor neck,” Marva whispers, shaking her head again as if she can actually see me. “It could really use some tightening and brightening, couldn’t it?”
Yes, Marva. It really could.
Sylvia. I can feel it. Her little knuckles rapping on the door. Then the saccharine tone I hear in my teeth roots. “Mirabelle?” she says. “Mira, are you in there?”
Terrible to hear my name spoken by that voice. I think of Mother’s voice. Rich, deep, accented with French. I was only ever Mirabelle when she was angry. She never once dignified Mira, though it’s what I mostly go by these days. Belle, she always called me. Toward the end, though, she just stared at me confused. Who are you? she’d whisper. Who are you?
Now I close my eyes as though I’ve been struck. The cigarette is ash in my hands.
Another, more persistent knock from Sylvia. “Hello? Are we in there?”
I can’t ignore Sylvia. She’ll try the door. I’ll watch the crystal knob rattle. When she finds it locked, she’ll take a screwdriver to the handle. A credit card to the lock. She might even kick it down with her little Gucci-soled foot. All under the smiling guise of concern.
I open the door. Step back and smooth my little black dress down. Is it a dress? More like a strangely cut sack. It hangs on me like it’s deeply depressed. Maybe it is. It was Sylvia who loaned me this dress, of course. Brought it in from her and Mother’s dress shop, Belle of the Ball, where I myself used to work years ago. Before I left California and went back to Montreal. Left Mother’s dress shop to work in another dress shop. Left me, Mother might say.
Here you are, my dear, Sylvia said yesterday, handing me the sad black shroud on its wooden hanger. My dear, she called me, and I felt my soul shudder.
In case you need something to wear for the… party. That’s what they call funerals here in California now, apparently. Parties. I looked at the black shapeless shift and I thought, Since when did Mother start selling such grim fare in her shop? I wanted to boldly refuse. My firmest, coldest No thank you. But I actually did need something to wear. I’d brought nothing with me on this trip. Ever since last week, I’ve been in a haze. That was when I got the phone call from the policeman at work. Mirabelle Nour? he said.
Are you the daughter of Noelle De… De…
Des Jardins, I told him. It’s French. For “of the gardens.” And as I said those words, of the gardens, I knew. I knew exactly what the cop had called to tell me. An accident, apparently. Out for a walk late at night. By the ocean, by the cliff’s edge. Fell onto the rocks below. Found dead on the beach this morning by a man walking his Saint Bernard.
Well, Mother loved Saint Bernards, I said. I don’t know why I said that. I have no idea how Mother felt about Saint Bernards. Silence for a long time. My throat was like a fist tightening. I could feel the hydrating mist I’d just applied to my face drying tackily.
No foul play, the cop said at last.
Of course not, I said. How could there be? I felt my body become another substance. I looked at the mirror on the wall. There I was in my black vintage dress, standing stiffly behind the shop counter, gripping the phone in my fist. I could have been talking to a customer.
I’m so sorry, the cop said.
I stared at my reflection. Watched it mouth the words I must have also spoken. Yes. Me too. Thank you for telling me, Officer. I appreciate your taking the time to call.
He seemed hesitant to hang up. Maybe he was waiting for me to cry, but I didn’t. I was at work, for one thing. My boss, Persephone, was right beside me, for another.
Mira, Persephone said after I put the phone down. Everything all right? She was dressed, as always, like she was about to go to a gothic sock hop. Her powdered, too-pale face turned to me with something like concern. I stared at her foundation, cracking under the shop lights.
My mother died, I said, like I was reporting the weather. She fell onto some rocks. She was found by a Saint Bernard.
And then what? There was a chair placed behind me into which I fell. There was a bottle of Russian liqueur brought to my lips. It tasted like cold, bitter plums. A semicircle of saleswomen in vintage dresses, my co-workers, surrounded me, whispering to me in French that it was terrible, just terrible. So sorry, they were. Shaking their beehives and French-twisted heads. All those sad, cat-lined eyes on me, I could feel them. Waiting for me to cry. Afraid that I might. Right there in the middle of the dress shop. “It’s My Party” was playing on the radio. Almost giving me a kind of terrible permission. I apologized for their trouble. So sorry about all this, I said to them, avoiding their eyes.
Mon Dieu, Mira, don’t apologize to us, they murmured. A customer appeared in the shop doorway just then, looking nervously at our little huddle. Can I help you find something? I called out to them. Anything? Please, I said, walking toward this customer like they were a light at the end of a very long tunnel. Please tell me what you’re looking for.
On the Uber ride back to my apartment, I bought the plane ticket for San Diego between swigs of the liqueur Persephone pressed into my hands. By the time I got home, I was out of it. Could barely make my way down the hall to drop off my cat, Lucifer, with my neighbor, Monsieur Lam, whom he preferred to me anyway. Lucifer literally jumped from my arms and disappeared into Monsieur Lam’s hallway the moment Monsieur Lam opened his door. My mother died, I told him as he stood in the doorway, blinking. Oh dear, he said, and scratched his face. Monsieur Lam has excellent skin. Quite the glisten, I envy it. I often wonder about his secrets—do they involve a fermented essence, some sort of mushroom root elixir?—though I’ve never dared to ask. Would you like to come in for tea? he offered. I could tell by his eyes that he would die inside if I said sure. Monsieur Lam, like me, has manners, in spite of himself. Oh no, I said. Thank you. I should get ready for tomorrow, pack. He nodded. Of course I should. We both knew I would do no such thing. I would be watching Marva all night while I double cleansed in the dark, then exfoliated, then applied my many skins of essence and serum, pressing each skin into my burning face with the palms of both hands. Monsieur Lam would hear the videos, as he did every night. Only a thin wall separated our bedrooms, after all.
The next day, when I opened my suitcase in the hotel in La Jolla, all I found in there was a French mystery novel, some underwear, and seven ziplock bags full of skin products. Apparently, I remembered the Botanical Resurrection Serum and the Diamond-Infused Revitalizing Eye Formula and my three current favorite exfoliating acids. I remembered the collagen-boosting Orpheus Flower Peptide Complex and the green tea–and-chokeberry plumping essence and the Liquid Gold. I remembered the Dewy Bio-Radiance Snow Mushroom Mist and the Advanced Luminosité snail slime, among many other MARs—Marva Adamantly Recommends. But not a single dress. Hence Sylvia to the rescue.
Now here she is in the open doorframe, her face full of terrible sympathy.
“Are you all right, dear?” she says. Dear again. And again, my soul shudders. Her voice is as spiky-sweet as the lilies and birds-of-paradise perfuming the living room. She looks at me like I’m crying. I’m not, of course. Just the bright sky hurting my eyes probably. Or my Diamond-Infused Revitalizing Eye Formula. It’s a potent powerhouse that lifts, firms, and lightens and is sometimes known to run into the eyes, appearing to make them tear. So I could look like I’m crying. I might even feel actual tears slipping down my cheeks, leaving rivulets of dryness in their salty wake. I could look so much like I’m crying to the average person unfamiliar with the Formula that they might feel compelled to say to me, Are you okay? But I never explain about the Formula to such people. I always just say, I’m fine.
“I’m fine,” I tell Sylvia.
“Are you sure?” I know she’s judging me for my escape from the funeral, the dining room full of her prim flower arrangements and sandwich triangles, full of people I’ve never seen before who all claim to know Mother. All of them offering platitudes of sympathy.
So sorry for your loss.
Well, she’s in a better place now, isn’t she?
The soul lives on forever, doesn’t it?
Does it? I asked. I really wanted to know. Silent blinking from these people. I should’ve just nodded my head gratefully and said, She is. It does. Thank you for that. Instead I just stared at them. Does it? I whispered again. And I took a sip of what I thought was champagne. It was apple cider. It was in a flute like it was champagne. This isn’t champagne, I heard myself say.
Appletiser, someone said. Isn’t it lovely? Sylvia thinks of just about everything.
She does, I agreed. And then I said, I need a minute. Excuse me.
And this is what I say to Sylvia now in the door. I say, “I needed a minute. Excuse me.”
I can feel her staring at me in that searching way I’ve always shied away from like a too-bright light. Like she’s hunting for some key to the closed door of my face. She looks at my phone on the counter. On the screen, Marva is paused in mid-stroke of her white throat. I quickly grab the phone and tuck it into my pocket.
“I hope the party is all right?” she says.
“Wonderful, Sylvia,” I lie, nodding. “Thank you. Thank you for putting it together.”
“We could have had it at my apartment, of course, but your mother’s view is just so much better than mine.” And then she looks over my shoulder at the ocean view through the bathroom window. The ocean I haven’t been able to look at since I arrived, though each night the sound of the waves keeps me thrashing in bed until I black out. Then it seeps into my dreams.
I look at Sylvia smiling serenely at this ocean in which Mother met her end. Seeing nothing but pretty waves, a beautiful view, her view if she plays her cards right. Possibly her own reflection beaming back at her. Suddenly an urge to throttle her thin little neck throbs in my fingers. It’s a mottled neck, I notice. Not a serum or SPF user, is Sylvia.
“A beautiful view, don’t you agree?” She looks at Mother’s perfume on the counter, the lipstick, her red jars and vials for the face. “She really loved her products, didn’t she?”
“Well, we all have our little pleasures. Mine are shoes.” She beams at me, then down at her own small feet encased in their boring designer flats. “Of course, your mother loved those too.”
“Yes.” I light another cigarette in front of Sylvia. I can feel her judge me for it. She looks at me through the smoke, saying nothing. I’m the bereaved, after all. I have certain allowances, don’t I? I’m tempted to exhale the smoke in her face, but of course I wave it away, apologizing. She smiles thinly.
“So. How long will you be here?”
I think of the transcontinental flight I took only three days ago—was it only three days ago? How the pills and the airport wine and then the plane wine kept me slumped deep in the window seat. How the beauty videos I was trying to watch kept freezing on my phone so I had no choice but to look at the sky. I kept my sunglasses on even after it grew dark. Even when there was nothing left of the view but one red light on the tip of the wing, flashing in the black night.
“I took a week or so off from work,” I tell her.
“Work?” She looks surprised that I do anything at all. After I left La Jolla, didn’t I just sink into oblivion? “Oh, that dress shop, right? What’s it called? Damsels in Something?”
“Damsels in This Dress.”
“In Distress. How fun. Like mother, like daughter.” Smiling at the thought of her and Mother’s shop. Our little shop, Sylvia likes to call it. She never calls it Belle of the Ball. Doesn’t like the name’s affiliation with me or that it predates her. Sylvia took more of a role after I left, but she was insinuating herself long before. Her crisp white shirt and pearls forever in my periphery, unnecessarily straightening the side merchandise. So organized, Mother always said of Sylvia. The yin to my yang, so to speak. And Sylvia’s smile would tighten. Sylvia, what would I do without you? Mother would ask. Perish, Sylvia said. And only I knew she was half-serious.
“Montreal,” Sylvia sighs now, attempting the French pronunciation. Massacring it, of course. She looks wistful for this place where she’s never once been. “So chic. Where Noelle got her style, no doubt. Your mother had such style.” Little sweep of her gaze around the bathroom. “You’ll probably need help packing up, don’t you think?”
“I can manage, Sylvia. Really.” I say this evenly. Calmly. With infinite politesse.
“I’m happy to drop by,” she insists. “Just say the word.”
“I’ll be sure to. Thank you. In the meantime, I think I might go back to the hotel. Get some rest. Didn’t sleep well last night.”
Didn’t sleep at all. Tossed and turned in the perfumed dark. One eye kept open, always. When I’d checked in, the man at the front desk had said he was giving me an ocean view, like it was a gift. The waves, he said, would put me right to sleep. They always do, he said, and smiled. Trust. They didn’t. The crashing waves made a crashing sound, not lulling at all. And there was the image I couldn’t unsee even in the dark. Mother in her robe of red-and-white silk. Falling into the black water, onto the sharp rocks.
“Of course,” Sylvia says. “You must be tired.” Magnanimous smile. So very sad for me. “Well, be sure to come by our little shop before you fly back home. You mother left some things there. There are also some things… you and I should discuss. When you’re ready, of course.”
Things? Discuss? “What things, Sylvia?” There’s an edge to my voice now.
“There’s a time and a place, my dear. Isn’t there?” She says it very carefully, almost reprimanding, as if I’m the one being hideously inappropriate.
“A time and a place. Absolutely. Excuse me.” I squeeze past Sylvia and duck out into the hallway. A mirror there all along the length of the corridor. A crack in this one too, just like in the bathroom. Another mirror, another crack. Like Mother took a sharp diamond to it and just swiped as she walked. Strange. A coldness whenever I look at these mirrors. More of them in the living room—so many shapes and sizes. A wall of cracked glass, each one in its own heavy black frame.
The living room is more crowded now, and the mirrors make it look like her mourners are infinite. Did she really know all these people? Most of them are strangers to me. They are saying, “Such a shame, such a shame. So young. Fell into the water? Jumped? So terrible.” And then they turn to look at the ocean and shiver. Or they’re talking about other things. Upcoming vacations. Traffic on the 805. What Trump said yesterday on Fox, he’ll never get elected. “If only we could keep Obama forever.” Everyone’s holding glasses of Sylvia’s fake champagne like it isn’t fake at all. They smile sympathetically as I enter the living room. Whispers and soft words fill the air. “The daughter, I think. It’s hard, isn’t it? Oh, life. A mystery, a mystery.” Shaking their heads insufferably. I need to get away from all their piteous eyes and soft words that do nothing, mean nothing. I put on my sunglasses, keep my mouth a straight line. Make a beeline through the living room, eyes fixed on the front door. I have a plan. I’ll get in Mother’s dark silver Jaguar. Drive to the pink hotel. Take the elevator to my room, bolt the door. Get in the bed and lie there. Hear the clock tick and the waves crash, and then the sun will sink eventually, mercifully, on this day. And night will come, won’t it? That’s a promise.
Are you sure you won’t stay? their faces seem to say as they watch me escape. Going already? They look at the cigarette in my hand, the shades covering my eyes, as I push past, murmuring, “So sorry, excuse me,” in spite of myself.
When I leave the apartment, something quiets. A roaring in my heart. The heaviness lifts a little and I can breathe. I stand there on the veranda and breathe. Palm trees. That bright blue sky stretching on endlessly. Not so alien anymore. But there are a few people outside too, I see, milling. Can’t get away from them. All I want to do is get away from them. These people who don’t know. Who never knew.
Knew what? says a voice inside me.
And then I see there’s someone else there too, standing away from the small, murmuring clusters, staring out at the water. Staring out and smiling. Her hands gripping the rail of the veranda like she’s on a cruise. A woman in a red dress. Red at a funeral? Am I seeing right? Yes. A dark red dress of flowing silk. Beautiful, I can’t deny that. Mother would have approved. Something else about her sticks out, but what is it? Something about her face so sharply cut, her skin smooth as glass. Have I seen her somewhere before? She looks happy. So happy, I can almost hear the singing inside her. She has red hair, too, like Mother. Red hair, red dress, red lips. It makes her look like a fire. A fire right there on Mother’s veranda. As I notice her, she turns to me and her face darkens, then brightens. I feel her look deep into the pit of me with her pale blue eyes. Inside me, something opens its jaws. She is staring at me so curiously. Like I’m a ghost. Or a dream.
“She went the way of roses,” this woman says to me. And smiles. Like that’s so lovely. When she says the word roses, I see a flash of red. It fills my vision briefly like a fog. Then it’s gone. And there’s the woman in red standing in front of me against the bright blue sky.
“The way of roses,” I repeat. I’m entranced, even as I feel a coldness inside me, spreading. “What’s the way of roses?”
She just smiles.
“What’s the way of roses?” I ask again. “Who are you?”
But someone pulls me away. A sweaty man I don’t recognize. His grim wife. They want to tell me all about how sorry they are for my loss. The man has his hand on my shoulder. It’s a heavy hand and it’s squeezing my arm flesh. “We saw your mother in a play once,” he’s saying. “And we never forgot, did we?” he asks his wife, who says nothing. Well, he never forgot, anyway. The wife nods grimly. “She shone,” this man says, his eyes all watery and red. So there is alcohol at this party somewhere, I think. “Like a star on the stage,” the man insists. And she was so nice to them afterward. That’s what he’ll never forget. How nice Mother was. So gracious and humble. No airs, despite her great beauty, her great talent. So down-to-earth. I can imagine her feigning interest in their lives. Sucking his admiration like marrow from the veal bones she used to enjoy with parsley and salt.
I want to laugh in their faces. My mother, down-to-earth? And then I think of what’s left of Mother. Soon to be in the literal earth. Suddenly I can’t breathe again. “Excuse me,” I say, and push past them.
But she’s gone, the woman in red by the railing. Where that woman was standing is just empty space. I stare at the rosebushes planted along the other side of the railing. A red so bright, it hurts my eyes. Petals shivering in the blue breeze. Shining so vividly in the light.