Edward Hopper's Women

by Kirsten Rue

“In Hopper’s paintings there is a lot of waiting going on . . . They are like characters whose parts have deserted them and now, trapped in the space of their waiting, must keep themselves company.”–Mark Strand, Hopper

Apparently, watched women have a phosphorescence about them. I went through the museum exhibit downtown and looked at all of them. Girls sitting at restaurants and glowing, pearly, their lashes dusky, their legs bared like ghosts. They read alone and tried to ignore the men staring at them. They tried to ignore Edward Hopper. Up close, their eyes were violet. They ate Chinese food.
I looked at all of them, by myself, because I am lacking a kind of solvency at the moment. What do I do?
I write my halting sentences, send out form letters to anonymous job postings, whittle down my time with sleep and eggs, crackling in the pan. Sometimes, I see Mr. Anxiety, who has skinny fingers and an iPhone and takes beautiful photographs. I cannot honestly say more about him. He even bought fingerless gloves so that his hands would be free to touch his phone at all times, even though he doesn’t necessarily want to touch the living girl who lives right here. The living girl – me.

When I shop at the grocery store, it is the middle of the day, and mostly old people are shopping. They are the type to really think about which brand of mandarin oranges to buy; they linger over the price points. There was a time I would have found this interesting. So these are the people out-of-doors in the working hours! But these days, the sun is bruising. I am no anthropologist, and I’m clipping coupons, too. I look at the receipt to see how much I’ve saved.

Today I fill my day with a walk in the sun; tomorrow it will be beer. Possibly a fingering of the anti-aging lotions in the drugstore. Twenty-nine keens towards me with the sharp cheek of a greyhound. Oh, Mr. Anxiety, let’s live on a rain cloud together!
Except Mr. Anxiety has a job; he is entirely solvent. I can putter all day and volley messages into his court and he can shoot back, if he chooses. He may even come over and Wikipedia something in my presence. He may even prop the tiny screen in front of me, so that we can share the moment together of a media clip that his friend commented on that another friend posted on. Is it any wonder that our lovemaking becomes an afterthought?
Mr. Anxiety and I, we are a doomed tunnel through stippled flesh. We don’t know even one iota of the synapses that fire like burned neon all the live long day in these brains of ours. We don’t even know how to fuck.

Nevertheless, these are the facts I have gleaned about Mr. Anxiety:

1. He has contemplated suicide, when he was much younger.

2. His ex-girlfriend looks like a beautiful and fascinating woman. I have never met her.

3. He watches quite a bit of funny television.

4. He takes beautiful photographs.

5. He prefers artistic avatars for himself when online (bad teeth).

These are quite enough facts, I suppose, to let someone into your house, day after day. Especially when you have called him over expressly for the purpose of allaying loneliness; especially when he is a person expressly designed to make you feel more alone. Sometimes at night he falls into fevered dreaming, where he cries out in pain, and I look across the shoal of blankets and feel no tenderness. The crows cackle maliciously, victoriously outside his windows. Crows know. They will pick the trash off our eyelids, someday.
An Edward Hopper woman was trying not to get seduced by a man sitting across from her. She concentrated on cutting her bread, and glug glug glug he dumped wine into her wine glass, with his rosebud mouth that turned my stomach. A mouth like that, so self-satisfied, curling with an untold joke. A snapper, a shark. He poured the wine with his long fingers and the motion parted around him like the parting of the Red Sea. Edward Hopper’s woman kept her back turned; her shoulders formed a brave kite to the room. Because she was convinced that she didn’t come outside, after all that silent crying into a pillow, after all that hunger in the downstairs flat, for this. She was sure that she would always be walking the streets, and strutting more proudly every time.
I think she might succeed, despite what Edward Hopper thinks.

A walk down to the seaside and the gulls are on holiday. They glide over in slow arcs and women smoke and sit on benches, texting furiously. We are all nursing heartaches of some kind. In this cold, there is of course sadness. A man reads the paper, scornfully, flicking each page as if he wants to throw it out into the water. I pretend to read, but my fingers shake, so instead there is a Russian baby and its mother and I watch them. I am sure there is a connection between the young woman’s lipstick and this fact, her child. I will figure it out, if I think hard enough; I will somehow connect their flushed faces, turned to the water, with an illicit act or a sanctioned one. Either way, now there is this child. The red lipstick was just one stepping stone, this child being the fattest stone.

What do I do?

I put my feet on the coffee table and I wait for the mailman to come and witness my insolvency, day after day. I wait for him to clank the box and then go away.

Mr. Anxiety says that I make him anxious with my demands and with my fibrous energy. He tells me to Google Paxil, because then I might creak to an understanding of what harrows he has been through. You know, we are all orphaned children in this city, your childhoods canned down looping lines and through boxes and bytes. Those are the scraps we have left, those far voices. So it is hard to blame him for feeling alone. Even when I am resting next to him, every inch of my skin in some way pressing his. What is it, to lie so inert, to touch and yet not to touch? When he stands to dress, Mr. Anxiety has the long, pale flanks of a satyr. Does there sit all of my desires?
Well, no. Surely not. It has always seemed such a risk to trust to the fumbling fingers of a man. The excitement lies in the fear of possible denial, in the failure of release. Will it come or won’t it? It is this that turns me to his body in hunger. It could be any body. Its strangeness can compel, its needs. Needs, that with my odd ways, I have surely failed to satisfy. For what is it, this desire to turn a girl’s body over like a starfish, to reveal its secret flesh? For them, the thrill of discovery and elasticity? For us, the thrill of the wait, the cling.

Hopper’s woman is reading alone on a train and outside forty years are passing, marked in silver separations and mediated only by a thin pane of glass. Ka-thunk. The train speeds her, feverishly, towards a waiting station somewhere down the line in Middle America, where she will surely discard her Reader’s Digest for something a little more enlightening. Edith Wharton could go down like a nice shot of whiskey, for this woman. But she reads about bubblegum and baseball and her nylons pearl with beauty and boredom. Of all of the women, she is the most assuredly alone. The door to her compartment is shut, and outside, the dreams of a century are whipping past in violet-blue. She is only a little uneasy about being sketched; the artist, out of view. She is only a little uneasy about the last stop, the white lights that string out into nowhere.
Like a smart woman, she reads alone.

There are, naturally, characters that I can’t go into. My Vietnamese ex-boss, for instance, who takes me to lunch and helps me to roll rice paper into precise rolls; who shows me pictures of her Corgi. I introduce her at this odd juncture simply to reveal that there are more sparrows in my orbit than you might have assumed. My street, not entirely whimsical, has been known to rollick with the voices of revelers. I, myself, have been known to take a different boy to bed. Maybe one with a more beautiful soul. Maybe not. But I have always been aware that this is possible, even as Mr. Anxiety’s shoes sit forlornly near my front door, waiting for him to collect them.
The days go as fast as cards dealt from the bottom of the deck. Time, that dirty dealer. Age is scoring me, reducing me, just a little, every day. A woman calls and offers me a job in a place that defends criminals awaiting prosecution. She warns me of autopsy photos; of unspeakable acts; of women drowned. From this description, I can only picture a white clavicle, vivisected, the chest scored in perfect lines. Cut here to enter. Perhaps, Mr. Anxiety, this will make me as morbid as you. At least it will make me solvent. A word, anyhow, that simply means to dissolve.

When he is in the heat of passion, Mr. Anxiety’s lip seems to curl in hatred, even though this may only be a trick of the light. When not passionate, we discuss photographs, of which I have hundreds. This is because I have a nice face, he tells me. The closest he will come to calling me pretty. And yet, part of that—prettiness—is at the heart of everything. An age comes where you reach out your hands to a light, any light you can find, and you turn it towards you (you might as well choose to turn it towards you; it will turn anyway) and from then on, you cannot walk without it. From then on, expectations are adjusted, even the feel of the sun on your skin is somehow, infinitesimally, refracted by the knowledge of that prettiness. I am a pretty girl at the grocery store. Why does that pretty girl have to walk alone? The pretty girl appraises the scene in front of her, choosing her destiny in calibration to her facial expectations. That dentist light, with its buzzing orange bulb, is on from the beginning, making some things, like Mr. Anxiety, easier to slip into. To make. And then, because all the best young men and women are scrambling like hell to escape the wave of all this tabloid fuzz and disingenuousness, the best young men and women search for safer, uncorrupted harbors. Too late, of course, for Mr. Anxiety and me. We have missed the proverbial boat, and sit here behind webs of prettiness, both mine and his, with his television hairdo. Sometimes we are not even ourselves, but just prettiness and a laugh track, buzzing in the background, or his phone, chirruping like a live pet, chiming with love. Perhaps we deserve one another.

Naturally, this reminds me of when I met an actual television weatherman and talked about literature with him. My drunk mouth spoke all kinds of nonsense and his close-cropped hair looked like it could provide for an entire table and chair set, made of white bread. I wanted to go into journalism, he said, but I ended up here. Oh, if I could gesture at a blue screen, I would call in a true deluge and get it to clean this vista of debris. I would call in funnel-shaped clouds and set them going. It would be a veritable weather turn-table. But the poor weatherman simply shouldered his own decency and went home; unaware that I thought such arch things about him, smug in the knowledge of my own contemptible uselessness. Smug in my knowledge that the days clang their pots and go offstage, whether you sleep alone or not.

Edward Hopper’s woman stood offstage during a movie and watched from her usherette station as the movie patrons’ hands inched towards each other at a snail’s pace. With her prow-like breasts, it is uncertain whether she ever found anyone that cared about a single thing she said. I say this not to be unkind, but her hair was golden blond, and she filled out her uniform dangerously, no hint of feet itching or the sweat of a day’s travail trickling down behind her ear. Even so, dreamy Sandy, she almost certainly did have thoughts. Probably a younger brother that she loved. Probably an earnest mirror in her bedroom that she squared day to day, stepping into her nylons, breasts pushing forward with all their tragedy. It is hard to imagine her thrusting through her days with emphatic shoulders, but she must have. Probably had a coin purse with a hole. Probably got a cavity in her back tooth and wrote beautiful letters, full of seaside descriptions and shell-sized mementos.
Dreamy Sandy. Married. Three children. Died just last year.

What do I do? Well, you know, that is a difficult question. It’s become an affected attitude of watching, if I can put it that way. I remember studying the flaneurs, and how they made an aesthetic of inaction and frittering away. Unfortunately, to say so hardly has the currency of the charmingly shellacked smile, all welcome and safe and ready for investment. To say so is to confess a desire for unseemly risks. So, it’s not often that I put it that way. Next to the University, there is always a controversy in front of the Rite Aid doors. There is always a theatre of dogs and young hoods who slink in to buy Mountain Dew. They seem like the only ones awake; all the students furrow down the sidewalks in unbroken conversation. We pretend we do not hear the shouting, do not see the abject eyes of the Rottweiler and the young girl being left, furious, outside by the bus stop.
Except, I’m not really one of them anymore – a student. I realized this when I felt a bittersweet hope for them, as one might feel for people attempting to outrun a “Don’t Walk” sign.

Jackpot! A crazy woman boards the bus, talking to herself. She wears a patriotic American flag jacket and I hope the symbolism is not lost on the other riders. She has a phone in her hand, and proceeds to make several loud calls, mostly in complaint. She has been mistreated; this she knows. “I wish someone would call me,” she whispers softly, girlishly, into the phone. She holds the cell phone back from her face and looks it askance. I know the feeling: so much hinging on this little conduit. Hoping it lights. Hoping for hope.

I read somewhere that Edward Hopper never painted his wife, except once. Ever the flaneur, he stalked the young women at their jobs and where they sat stirring spoons in their tea (his face was curved, like a macaroni). That flush of girls: suddenly respectably out of doors, unchaperoned. A goldmine for a serious student of the calf, the upper lip, the soft hair growing behind the ears. He found his subjects while wandering through the city and then Mrs. Hopper posed for the sketches—no face, just the look of the flesh as it dimpled. His wife, of course, understood the difficulty in duplicating the curve of an exasperated arm or the torso in repose. She understood that truly, one woman naked is in some ways the same as any woman naked. Yes, she remarked, even I stood quite nude in front of the fire, so that he could get the look of a burlesque.
His wife painted her own paintings, gifting them to a museum before she died. Years later, they threw them all out. It is a well-known fact that identifying cards can get lost among the canvases, especially if they are old, musty canvases painted by some broad. Even so, she was like a mother to Edward Hopper. She was like his nursemaid. His amanuensis. His clairvoyant eye. Together they kept a ledger of his inspirations; together they settled on the titles for his paintings. She would pull her canvas out into the yard and he would follow, avidly glancing at her brush, at her small, questing hands and slouching frock, at the curious bushy hair that she pushed back impatiently, paint flecking her cheek.

I don’t have much inspiration to offer Mr. Anxiety. He has never asked to take my picture, and who wants to be one of many bruise-eyed girls? Not me. I don’t even like love stories. It seems like the heroes in those stories should have something better to do anyway. If I waited around for a love story, it would only add to the time I already spend waiting for the bus, waiting for my frothing beer at the bar, waiting for things to become clear in the tea leaves. As it is, nothing is clear, but much is beautiful. The leaves are turning see-through in shock; falling. The squirrels are pecking with renewed avidity.

Edward Hopper has painted his lovers into a luminescent corner. The house is stark, almost uninhabited, except for that bright light. The girl lover feels it in her knees: the disappointments ahead; fat apportioning itself in parts of her thin, unlovely frame. It’s a premonition: the boy beckoning at her side, his guiding hand to her hip. She stares sullenly forward, not resigned, but not a revolutionary. Young people, it seems to her, are shaped out of all kinds of moving sands. She can’t imagine a funnel for all of it. She can’t imagine being stopped. But she has her white belly and the webs around her eyes. At the end, she won’t even have those. Why hurl herself headlong into that space? But oh, her lover’s knees on the banister are so hopeful, so tentative. Even to fling herself into something with no beauty is something. The fling itself might be.
The kids have bad posture, slouching out there in the lonely night. From inside the uninhabited house, a whole family of centuries spies and smacks their lips, preying on their sex and their demise.

What do I do?

Mr. Anxiety asks me to accompany him to a dinner with “old friends.” They are wholesomely married, in love, and likely building attractive shelves at this very moment. Politely, they ask how we met. “We met on campus,” Mr. Anxiety says, which is not precisely a lie. However, I know we will be seen through. The chasm is there, between those who love one another, and those who do not. “Huh,” the female of the couple says, spearing some cheese with her fork. On to that fork goes everything. On to that fork goes my last shred of anxious desire, chewed over by the simple fact of other people in love, touching one another solicitously, concerned for their single friend, Mr. Anxiety, and this cold woman who sits beside him. That cold woman—me. Is it possible that I am not the heroine in everyone’s version of events? In some I could quite easily be cast as the pestering wasp, or the hand-wringing theatric. Perhaps, it occurs to me for the first time, Mr. Anxiety himself looks forward to erecting some shelves. He would like to range some pictures on them, complete with gothic wrought iron. Perhaps he would even like someone (a very patient woman) to hold the wrench for him and get his wingnuts all in a row, a little collection to be helpfully parceled from her palm.

Ah, yes.
Come Monday, I will call in and take the job, any one, macabre or no. I can already feel it, the fitting in, the wriggling in to this tighter space. More secure space. Clothes in martial lines in the closet. Jackets and jackets and jackets. Walking past people more quickly, turning my shoulders in precise adjustments in order to miss brushing theirs. Putting on a bright, cheery voice when answering a telephone. Paying for things happily, indulgently, will all that faith I was raised to have—a return of the prodigal. Time will be parceled out; I will be parceled out. Waiting will cease.
And yet–
Oh, insolvent life, part of me will miss you, the way I miss looseness and childhood. The way I miss the lonely me, sometimes. Mr. Anxiety I will not miss: not the limp fingers nor the ducking gaze; not the feint of intimacy. The productive life calls, if not loudly, at least in an insistent mewling. The online marketing sites of the world need more purchase information in order to create their profiles of me; dresses must be bought; hair must be grown out and cut again. But the waiting I will miss most of all. When you cease to wait, you cease everything. The heart can be said to stop at that point, when all questions have been answered. Better to be stuck in time or in the awkward middle of a century, skin flaming like a bright candle (only white in Edward Hopper’s world). The more I move, the more is wicked away. The more solvent, the more forgetful. I won’t even remember who shops in the stores on a Wednesday. I won’t even remember one or more disappointed girls with their backs to the room.

Kirsten Rue received an MFA from the University of Washington in 2008. Her short work has been published in Quick Fiction, City Arts Magazine, and Wigleaf Mag, among others, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. After completing a chapbook of short shorts last year, she returned to her hometown in Wyoming in order to complete her novel-in-progress. She blogs about this experience at http://kirstenblogshere.blogspot.com.