Feathers ~ 4
When Ellen came to class the next day, she wore a pair of gleaming golden earrings that trickled down her long neck. She paused hesitantly in the doorway. A male graduate student’s eyes flicked sideways in admiration. Ellen’s confidence took several tottering steps up a steep and shaky summit. She moved quickly to her usual chair, but paused. It seemed hypocritical to sit in the shadows when her golden earrings would only catch the light, giving away the secret of her presence. Ellen slid into a chair in the middle of the room. The professor, passing in the aisle, paused and frowned at her. Ellen took out the class textbook and placed it on her desk. The professor moved on.
Ellen sat up straighter.
That afternoon, as Ellen went about her usual errands, the earrings made everything different. They caught the light. They made Ellen glow. The truth was that their color matched a tone hidden deep in Ellen’s skin, bringing it to the surface. Ellen did not realize this; she only saw that a miracle had happened. The earrings made her visible. She took them out and looked at them reverently, lying flat on her pale palm. Her fingernails, she noticed, were atrocious.
When Ellen handed Rupert a slice of rectangular, cardboard pizza that night, her nails were creamy pink ovals, as round and smooth as Easter eggs. Rupert did not notice. He was busy worrying about the girl he loved, who was almost definitely -but still with a slight possibility of doubt- seeing a man four years younger than Rupert. Rupert wondered if this sprig of youth had more defined pectoral muscles than he did. He practiced flexing and releasing his biceps while he ate. Ellen took out her earrings and folded them lovingly in tissue paper. At night she placed them in the bureau beside her bed, but even there, trapped in a drawer, she could see them in the dark. Their golden brightness burned through the wooden barrier, crackled and streaked through the darkness, and shone in the black room like two flaming stars in the night.
The next day was a Saturday. Ellen went to the mall and did not leave until her arms were criss-crossed with red lines, etched into them from a dozen glossy, dangling shopping bags, spouting tissue paper. When she finally arrived home, Rupert was waiting on the front step. He was cross because no one had been there to open the door for him. There was no food in the freezer. Ellen offered Rupert a ketchup sandwich. Rupert scornfully declined. Ellen tried on her new clothing for Rupert, gradually lulling him into a state of admiring appreciation. He studied various outfits, approved a skirt here, rejected a necklace there. He ate the ketchup sandwich. Rupert fell asleep with the proud feeling that he was a sort of fashion designer, or magician. Here he had transformed Ellen from a pale mouse into a glittering fairy princess, and he hadn’t even intended to.
Ellen wore a sundress to class the next day. The reaction was such that that when she came home, she gathered all her sweatpants into a laundry basket, took it outside, and tipped it into the dumpster. Many months later, Ellen had to buy a new sweat suit when her class went on a hiking trip. But the new sweat suit was made of turquoise velour, and Ellen sat on a picnic blanket all afternoon so it would not get dirty. It was surprising that Ellen turned out to be beautiful. Her long, delicate body was as slim and graceful as a swan’s neck. Her muted coloring only needed bright colors to bring it to life. She began to wear make up; heavy black mascara that transformed her eyelashes into velvet wings; turquoise eyeliner that made her irises sparkle. Once, much later on when Ellen and I became friends, I tried on that same, glittering turquoise eye shadow. I looked like a whore slinking around dark corners in the shadows of Hollywood Blvd. Ellen could pull off looks no ordinary woman should attempt at home. She learned to balance on high, fragile heels. She had her hair done. When she floated down the central walkway of our campus, heads turned.
(To be continued…)