Finalist

Puzzled

1 Across: preoccupied by a worrisome fixation that causes you to turn within

O B S E S S E D

An email, written but never sent, from Feather to Elise

Dear Elise,

How could you become so obsessed with somebody that doesn’t exist? I mean, we’re talking about a drawing, unfinished, made of chalk, not flesh and blood. Okay, the figure was nude, toweling herself off, caught up in her simple nineteenth-century life. Is that what got to you? She was lovely—Rubenesque, I think they call it, with her ample hips and protruding stomach. Nope, I certainly can’t compete with that. But at least I’m not anorexic, not since I quit dancing and joined the support group. You know I’m eating more, now that you’re obsessed with the Degas. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a lot more beautiful than any women in that dead man’s repertoire, including his ballerinas. I’ve studied them. Remember, after we got home from the art museum, how I insisted we take a bath? I’ll never forget the way your skin shimmered in chamomile froth. I so wanted us to make love. Remember how I cupped my hands and held your chin? When I looked into your eyes, I thought for a second I saw the woman in the drawing. You know Degas was a misogynist. Remember, after I gained weight, how you admired my breasts? You called them baroque, said they belonged to a model, Flemish, posing as a courtesan in the late 1600s. Now all you think about is that man and his art. Okay, it makes sense for an accomplished photographer to study great artists and their work. But I thought you liked slender bodies. Things have changed since you turned 40. When you say my name, you sound harsh. What should I do? Become someone else? 

7 Across: caught up with the self in such an enviable way that others might label you egotistical or narcissistic

E N S C O N C E D

The drawing

  • After the Bath: Seated Woman Drying Herself
  • Edgar Degas
  • Pastel and black chalk on cream (paper)
  • 1885
  • On loan from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Description of drawing

Hair in a bun that has begun to unfurl, a nude woman sits on a scarlet chaise longue, drying herself with a long white towel. Her face is buried in an article of clothing, perhaps a robe, its collar protruding from the top of the chair. From the smooth texture of her pale reddish skin, one can estimate a lifespan of three decades, give or take a year. With her right hand, the woman wipes the back of her head and neck. Her right breast, triangular in shape, tips toward the towel. Reaching her left hand onto the seat, she adjusts a piece of cloth beneath her buttocks—so as not to wet the chair? Despite the seated posture of the subject, the drawing emanates activity. Sturdy yet supple, the woman exudes confidence while performing her quotidian task. There is nothing sentimental or contrived about the scene, which depicts a purposefully unfettered air. As the woman leans forward, a small section of spine protrudes from her middle back. She is comfortable in her skin.

1 Down: fuel; natural resource that sparks conflict

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  • Woman, 40, disappears at art museum.
  • Last to see woman, guard identifies her standing before drawing of bather by Degas.
  • Lots of people have seen her. She used to come often to admire the drawing.
  • CCTV cameras corroborate guard’s claims.
  • No evidence that the woman ever left the museum the day she disappeared.
  • Woman’s car identified in museum’s underground garage.
  • After three weeks, case still unsolved.

A second email from Feather to Elise, sent but unanswered

Elise,

I know you’re not dead. I can feel your presence—not close but somewhere. I bought a fingerprint dusting kit and got a perfect image from the handle of your toothbrush. I traced over and memorized the whorls of your thumbs. Last night I dreamt you touched me: fingers caressing the edge of my cheek—so French, even though you’re not. Remember when we held hands at the cafe in Montmartre? That trip was rapture. I’m going to find you, Elise. And when I do, I promise not to be clingy. If you want, you can sleep with other women; just don’t tell me, and don’t do it in our bed. I’ll go to therapy, learn about codependence, find a way to avoid loving you this much. I’m going to get a loan and hire a private investigator. The police don’t give a shit. You haven’t touched your bank account. Why don’t you answer your phone? Did someone steal it? Your clients miss you. I’m paying the rent at the photo studio. Where are you, Elise? I know the answer has something to do with the drawing.

Degas

Edgar Degas failed to fit in with his Impressionist compatriots, whom he viewed with suspicion and, at times, contempt. He had no desire to paint outdoors and focused his eyes on the technical perfection of little details he practiced over and over, often repeated in a single work of art. Classicism, which had gone out of style, served as his motivating force, yet the artist is credited as highly innovative, employing color and perspective like an Impressionist. His experimentation with new media, including photography, continues to influence artists and photographers in the twenty-first century. Never marrying or showing the slightest interest in a love relationship, Degas painted intimate moments of women in various stages of la baignade. One of his paintings, L’Absinthe (1875-76), which features a seated man and woman, clothed and looking away from each other, was derided and removed from public display. Contemporary critics praise the painting for its expression of emotions associated with social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution. According to Degas, “The heart is an instrument that goes rusty if it isn’t used. Is it possible to be a heartless artist?”

Elise

Winner of Best of the City, 2019, for portrait photography, Elise has worked extensively with arts groups, including members of the symphony and ballet. Her work with the latter didn’t happen until two years after Feather retired from dancing, finished a degree in English, and became a freelance writer of jumbles and crossword puzzles—something she used to complete on the bus, when the ballet company was on tour. Despite Elise’s affinity for dancers, she has never dated or slept with any of the people she’s photographed professionally. Before Feather, she dated a woman who helped start her business. Things didn’t work out. Like Degas, Elise employs the art of repetition in her works. Her signature technique, which has helped earn loyal clients and community praise, involves multiple renditions of the same person in a photo. The outcome is uncanny: each version appears to be interacting with the others, as if the same face and body has become a slightly different person, depending upon the expression and pose. Such a process is achieved from careful planning, alongside discussions with clients about aspirations, desires, and dislikes. In college, Elise minored in philosophy. According to Feather, Elise understands the ways people think.

Feather’s rationale for believing that Elise disappeared into Degas’

After the Bath: Seated Woman Drying Herself, now back in Kansas City

  1. There’s no doubt about it; the drawing did something to Elise.1
  2. The guard’s testimony is true.2
  3. I captured Elise’s thumbprint on the wall where the drawing was hung.3
  4. The photos taken by the investigator don’t totally look like Elise: something’s missing.4

1 Nobody knows this better than I do. Seeing that drawing changed her. And then she kept going back, day after day, until the last day of the exhibit, when she disappeared.

2 I met the guy—paid him a hundred dollars to tell me everything he saw, and I believe him. Why? Because he knew Elise’s walk. Nobody else has it. When she was a kid, she got frostbite and had to have a toe removed. Nobody else has that walk.

3 I found it after the exhibit was over. It was definitely hers. And I can tell you one thing: she didn’t go near that wall when we went to the museum. It was out of bounds—behind a velvet rope. Elise is someone that holds high morals, doesn’t like to break rules, not when it comes to the preservation of art. Some thing or some one lured her there, when I was not around. She was always talking about entering another world. We used to fantasize about it on camping trips, visits to historic houses and museums. Our friends said we came from another era. There’s something magical about Elise—you can see it on her slightly reddish skin, mostly when it’s wet: she shimmers.

4 Okay, if you want to be technical, it’s her, but not all of her. Her shimmer is gone, which is why I have to go to Kansas City, teach myself how to get into the drawing. Then I can bring back the part that makes her Elise.

 

5 Down: the act of behaving rashly
failing to think calmly before taking
action
 

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Private Investigator to Feather

Look, dude, I can’t help it if you don’t like what I’m saying. Your partner, or whatever she is, got married, to a man. Changed her name and lives in New Orleans. I got pictures to prove it. Here. You paid for ’em. I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no need for fingerprints. I got the info from the DMV. Who cares how she got out of the museum without being seen? No, I don’t have her phone info. You know, maybe you need to like go see a counselor or something. Like this isn’t normal. No, I don’t have time. Me and you are done. I’m outta here.

 

Jumble

T S E E R C
B Y A B

Letter from Elise to Feather, written longhand on graph paper and sent through snail mail while Feather travels to Kansas City

Dear Feather,

Today is your 40th. If I were to say Happy Birthday, it would sound callous. I miss your touch—eiderdown soft, with a flick of mischief. No one can replace that. Sex with a man is not what I want. Men—gay or straight—don’t understand the freedom of not having to penetrate to achieve nirvana. I never meant to hurt you, but the bather in the Degas did something to me. When I looked at her body—her slightly protruding stomach, how she was so ensconced with her task—I thought she might be pregnant. Then I realized how much I wanted a baby. That’s the secret I couldn’t bring myself to tell you, at least not until I went one more time to see the drawing. Then something happened. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. I went inside. I stared so hard that I felt my body melting, drying, and hardening. My cells, tissues, and bones turned into colors—scarlet, black, gray, and pink—pastels and chalk rubbed into paper with strokes of genius. Degas, and no one else, was drawing me. No, I didn’t see him. It wasn’t necessary. I know his technique, which no one else will ever replicate. I felt his breath, smelled his body, heard his grunts and sniffs, as he drew me into his nineteenth-century world. It was both awful and exciting. I was no longer the self I knew. Once I entered the drawing, became part of it, the artist disappeared. Now I know why you became a ballerina—why you allowed choreographers and directors to mold you into their art. The feeling is both oppressive and wonderful.

You know there were things from the scene that Degas never included. Off to the right was a cut glass bottle of perfume. I put some on. It smelled like a library—old books, forgotten words—things we no longer say or understand. When I opened my mouth, I spoke French. I couldn’t understand myself. Like the model, I was nude. As I spoke, the model turned around, but I never got to see her face. Something about her reminded me of you—I don’t know what. That’s all I remember. I guess I passed out. The next thing I remember, I was riding a bus to New Orleans—the city Degas escaped to after the Franco-Prussian War. I got off the bus and headed straight to my cousin’s. You remember I lived in New Orleans for a few months after the frostbite incident. My parents sent me there because it was warmer.

Feather, I want you to know I have little interest in the man I met and married. I mean, he’s nice and everything, but our relationship is purely business. He’s gay, and his family is old fashioned. Unless he procures a wife and son, he won’t inherit. That’s how he puts it. His speech is old world. At least he’s generous and has good genes. His mother comes from Port au Prince, like the grandfather of Degas. I’m pregnant now, and all I can say is I wish the baby were yours—ours. I’ll get a divorce when hubby inherits his fortune. He’s promised quite a lot for the child and me. Signed a prenuptial agreement. When the baby’s a couple months old, I’m coming home. I want my son to be ours. The money in my account is yours to spend, however you like. Don’t worry, I’ll deposit more. You can say what you want to our friends. Tell the people from the studio I’m sorry. I’ll pay them severance. Please don’t try to find me—not now. It’ll only complicate things. I hope some day you’ll forgive me and take me back.

Love,

Elise

S E C R E T
B A B Y

Disgust at first sight

Feather and Elise first met at a dinner party—a small group of 30-something lesbians, lots of booze, fatty foods. Both introverts, neither had wanted to attend. Invited by an acquaintance—not the same one—each dragged herself to the event. By far the most attractive in the group, with her long brown hair and dark eyes, Elise gained instant popularity among the women seated in the living room of a colorless, corporate-style condo. Someone who defines herself by her photographic eye, Elise contributed to the conversation by recounting a recent walk through the woods, during which she happened upon a tree decorated with hoarfrost: “It was the most amazing scene I’ve ever come across. I felt like I had entered another world.” Before Elise could describe the filigree of Victorian ice formations decorating limbs, trunk, branches, and twigs, the host, a woman with tattoos of flames adorning her arms, cut her off. “Fuck that shit. I ain’t into no frosty little hoar.” The comment generated spasms of laughter from everyone in the room, except Feather, who stood out with her delicate bone structure, developed calves, and auburn curls. When the laughter died down, she said, to no one in particular, “You sound like a bunch of catty gay men.” Elise smiled and introduced herself. When the conversation, minus the two women, moved on to the use of sex toys to achieve orgasm, Elise and Feather colluded to leave the party. “There’s strength in numbers,” whispered Elise, as they stood up. When they began to walk out the door, the host asked where they were going, and Feather said, “We’re headed to Sexorama to stock up on dildoes,” a statement that was anything but true. Elise invited Feather to her bungalow, where the two cooked scrambled eggs with onions and cheese. After dinner, they looked at pictures from Elise’s portfolio. They didn’t even kiss. The following weekend, Elise invited Feather on a photo expedition to a nearby hamlet, known for its historic houses and tree-lined streets. After three months, the women pooled their money to purchase a Queen Anne Victorian. Then they moved in together. As a couple, they made friends with other lesbian couples, straight women, and a few men. When describing how they met, each would say, “It was disgust at first sight—not for each other, but the situation at hand.”

 

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A painting

  • The Tub
  • Edgar Degas
  • Pastel on cardboard
  • 1886
  • On loan at the New Orleans Museum of Art from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

 Description of painting

Blues, reds, greens, and browns dominate the scene of a nude woman, ample in stature, crouching in a small metal tub. Auburn hair pinned to her head, she supports herself with her left hand, while tending her neck with a cloth, similar in color to her hair. Only a small portion of her left cheek is visible. Could it be the same model Degas used in After the Bath: Seated Woman Drying Herself? Go see for yourself. A shelf in the background features a pair of clippers, a hairbrush, a large pitcher, and a smaller container. The lighting is muted. Unlike Aphrodite or Venus, who covered her body when surprised by an interloper, this bather, just like the one in the aforementioned drawing, acknowledges no viewer, as she tends to her ablutions. She is unconcerned with the male gaze.

Feather

Just as Elise captures different layers of her subjects’ personalities on film, Feather connects to the world by designing puzzles. For her, words dance. When she designs definitions, alongside the puzzles that go with them, she envisions a story—a miniature mystery, in which her readers get closer and closer to solving the mystery, as they count squares, sound out words, make the words dance in their appropriate boxes. Having learned at a young age how a stage is divided, what it feels like to dance on a quarter mark without veering into another dancer’s territory, she feels at home with crosswords. Having endured the wrath and idiocy of choreographers who keep changing the steps because they don’t know what they want, she’s comfortable with jumbles. Feather earns a successful living writing books of jumbles and crossword puzzles. Since Elise disappeared, Feather is working on a crossword collection dedicated to the Impressionists. Though her editors couldn’t care less about intersecting words, as long as her books sell, Feather knows that the juxtaposition of letters generates meaning. When the e in the word Degas doubles as the e in rebirth, the act of two words crossing each other, sharing a single letter, can have intriguing results. At least that’s what she thinks, and before she’s finished, she plans to prove it.

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Feather’s first attempt

E D A F L I

Wearing a scarlet-and-black floral print sheath cocktail dress, Feather enters the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Finding her way to After the Bath: Seated Woman Drying Herself, she sits on a gray upholstered bench and reaches into her pocket. The room is empty, except for her. A wrinkled printout of Elise’s thumbprint clutched in her hands, Feather focuses on Degas’ chaise longue. She closes her eyes and imagines herself turning to chalk—her body morphing into the pastels that populate the drawing. When she opens her eyes, she finds herself inches from the artwork on the wrong side of a metal barrier. A buzzer goes off, and she is kicked out of the museum.

F A I L E D

 Feather in New Orleans

When Feather receives Elise’s letter, she books a bus ticket to New Orleans. Though she’d rather fly and be there as soon as possible, she opts for the mode of transportation that enables her to think clearly. When she checks into her hotel, she sends Elise an email asking for a meeting at the Museum of Art, where some of Degas’ bathers are on loan for an exhibition featuring nineteenth-century artists who were outcasts. Elise agrees to the meeting, with the stipulation that Feather return home as soon as she leaves the museum. Feather concedes. Faced with a crowded exhibition hall, she waits fifteen minutes for a seat facing The Tub. She looks at her watch: Elise should have arrived. After an hour, she still fails to show. When Elise enters the gallery, Feather is nowhere to be found.

19 Across: second word of title of 1919 essay by Sigmund Freud, in which he discusses, in terms of aesthetics, “all that arouses dread and creeping horror”

U N C A N N Y

 Elise’s husband

A graduate of the Accademia Riaci in Florence, Italy, Elise’s husband works full time as a conservator, restoring materials of artistic, historic, and cultural significance. Considered one of the best art restorers on the Gulf Coast, he has saved several pieces, ravaged by mold, from the permanent collection at the New Orleans Museum of Art. When he receives a call from the curator, saying that Degas’ The Tub has been defaced, Elise gets a strange feeling in her ribs, as if something—definitely not the baby—is crawling around inside. She accompanies her husband to the museum. On their way to a back room, where the painting lies on a table covered with a white cloth, her husband asks how much of the pastel was lost. The curator says the original bather has been wiped clean, replaced with another—an impossible feat. “The attention to detail, the colors, everything right down to the pose are Degas. It was as if the painter, himself, came back and used a different model. In some ways she’s contemporary, yet a part of her offers a hint of the baroque.” When the curator removes the white cloth, Elise’s skin regains its shimmer.

 

 

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