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I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore.
Helen Reddy and Ray Burton
The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared
THERE’S A GENTLE KNOCK on the door before it opens. Nurse Rada steps inside and closes the door behind her.
“I’m here,” the woman says, quietly.
Rada scans the room, following the sound of her voice.
“I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” the woman repeats softly, until Rada stops searching.
Her eye level is too high and it’s focused too much to the left, more in line with the bird poo on the window that has eroded over the past three days with the rain.
The woman sighs gently from her seat on the window ledge that overlooks the college campus. She entered this university hospital feeling so hopeful that she could be healed, but instead, after six months, she feels like a lab rat, poked and prodded at by scientists and doctors in increasingly desperate efforts to understand her condition.
She has been diagnosed with a rare complex genetic disorder that causes the chromosomes in her body to fade away. They are not self-destructing or breaking down, they are not even mutating—her organ functions all appear perfectly normal; all tests indicate that everything is fine and healthy. To put it simply, she’s disappearing, but she’s still here.
Her disappearing was gradual at first. Barely noticeable. There was a lot of “Oh, I didn’t see you there,” a lot of misjudging her edges, bumping against her shoulders, stepping on her toes, but it didn’t ring any alarm bells. Not at first.
She faded in equal measure. It wasn’t a missing hand or a missing toe or suddenly a missing ear, it was a gradual equal fade; she diminished. She became a shimmer, like a heat haze on a highway. She was a faint outline with a wobbly center. If you strained your eye, you could just about make out she was there, depending on the background and the surroundings. She quickly figured out that the more cluttered and busily decorated the room was, the easier it was for her to be seen. She was practically invisible in front of a plain wall. She sought out patterned wallpaper as her canvas, decorative chair fabrics to sit on; that way, her figure blurred the patterns, gave people cause to squint and take a second look. Even when practically invisible, she was still fighting to be seen.
Scientists and doctors have examined her for months, journalists have interviewed her, photographers have done their best to light and capture her, but none of them were necessarily trying to help her recover. In fact, as caring and sweet as some of them have been, the worse her predicament has grown, the more excited they’ve become. She’s fading away and nobody, not even the world’s best experts, knows why.
“A letter arrived for you,” Rada says, stealing her from her thoughts. “I think you’ll want to read this one straight away.”
Curiosity piqued, the woman abandons her thoughts. “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” she says quietly, as she has been instructed to do. Rada follows the sound of her voice, crisp envelope in her extended hand. She holds it out to the air.
“Thank you,” the woman says, taking the envelope from her and studying it. Though it’s a sophisticated shade of dusty pink, it reminds her of a child’s birthday party invitation and she feels the same lift of excitement. Rada is eager, which makes the woman curious. Receiving mail is not unusual—she receives dozens of letters every week from all around the world; experts selling themselves, sycophants wanting to befriend her, religious fundamentalists wishing to banish her, sleazy men pleading to indulge every kind of corrupt desire on a woman they can feel but can’t see. Though she’ll admit this envelope does feel different from the rest, with her name written grandly in calligraphy.
“I recognize the envelope,” Rada replies, excited, sitting beside her.
She is careful in opening the expensive envelope. It has a luxurious feel, and there’s something deeply promising and comforting about it. She slides the handwritten notecard from the envelope.
“Professor Elizabeth Montgomery,” they read in unison.
“I knew it. This is it!” Rada says, reaching for the woman’s hand that holds the note, and squeezing.
“I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” the woman repeats, as the medical team assists her with her move to the new facility that will be her home for who knows how long. Rada and the few nurses she has grown close to accompany her from her bedroom to the awaiting limousine that Professor Elizabeth Montgomery has sent for her. Not all the consultants have gathered to say goodbye; the absences are a protest against her leaving after all of their work and dedication to her cause.
“I’m in,” she says quietly, and the door closes.
There is no physical pain in disappearing. Emotionally, it’s another matter.
The emotional feeling of vanishing began in her early fifties, but she only became aware of the physical dissipation three years ago. The process was slow but steady. She would hear, “I didn’t see you there,” or “I didn’t hear you sneak in,” or a colleague would stop a conversation to fill her in on the beginning of a story that she’d already heard because she’d been there the entire time. She became tired of reminding them she was there from the start, and the frequency of those comments worried her. She started wearing brighter clothes, she highlighted her hair, she spoke more loudly, airing her opinions, she stomped as she walked; anything to stand out from the crowd. She wanted to physically take hold of people’s cheeks and turn them in her direction, to force eye contact. She wanted to yell, Look at me!
On the worst days she would go home feeling completely overwhelmed and desperate. She would look in the mirror just to make sure she was still there, to keep reminding herself of that fact; she even took to carrying a pocket mirror for those moments on the subway when she was sure she had vanished.
She grew up in Boston then moved to New York City. She’d thought that a city of eight million people would be an ideal place to find friendship, love, relationships, start a life. And for a long time she was right, but in recent years she’d learned that the more people there were, the lonelier she felt. Because her loneliness was amplified. She’s on leave now, but before that she worked for a global financial services company with 150,000 employees spread over 156 countries. Her office building on Park Avenue had almost 3,000 employees and yet as the years went by she increasingly felt overlooked and unseen.
At thirty-eight she entered premature menopause. It was intense, sweat saturating the bed, often to the point she’d have to change the sheets twice a night. Inside, she felt an explosive anger and frustration. She wanted to be alone during those years. Certain fabrics irritated her skin and flared her hot flushes, which in turn flared her temper. In two years she gained twenty pounds. She purchased new clothes but nothing felt right or fit right. She was uncomfortable in her own skin, felt insecure at male-dominated meetings that she’d previously felt at home in. It seemed to her that every man in the room knew, that everyone could see the sudden whoosh as her neck reddened and her face perspired, as her clothes stuck to her skin in the middle of a presentation or on a business lunch. She didn’t want anybody to look at her during that period. She didn’t want anyone to see her.
When out at night she would see the beautiful young bodies in tiny dresses and ridiculously high-heeled shoes, writhing to songs that she knew and could sing along to because she still lived on this planet even though it was no longer tailored to her, while men her own age paid more attention to the young women on the dance floor than to her.
Even now, she is still a valid person with something to offer the world, yet she doesn’t feel it.
“Diminishing Woman” and “Disappearing Woman” the newspaper reports have labeled her; at fifty-eight years old she has made headlines worldwide. Specialists have flown in from around the world to probe her body and mind, only to go away again, unable to come to any conclusions. Despite this, many papers have been written, awards bestowed, plaudits given to the masters of their specialized fields.
It has been six months since her last fade. She is merely a shimmer now, and she is exhausted. She knows that they can’t fix her; she watches each specialist arrive with enthusiasm, examine her with excitement, and then leave weary. Each time she witnesses the loss of their hope, it erodes her own.
As she approaches Provincetown, Cape Cod, her new destination, uncertainty and fear make way for hope at the sight before her. Professor Elizabeth Montgomery waits at the door of her practice; once an abandoned lighthouse, it now stands as a grand beacon of hope.
The driver opens the door. The woman steps out.
“I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” the woman says, making her way up the path to meet her.
“What on earth are you saying?” Professor Montgomery asks, frowning.
“I was told to say that, at the hospital,” she says, quietly. “So people know where I am.”
“No, no, no, you don’t speak like that here,” the professor says, her tone brusque.
The woman feels scolded at first, and upset she has put a foot wrong in her first minute upon arriving, but then she realizes that Professor Montgomery has looked her directly in the eye, has wrapped a welcoming cashmere blanket around her shoulders and is walking her up the steps to the lighthouse while the driver takes the bags. It is the first eye contact she has had with somebody, other than the campus cat, for quite some time.
“Welcome to the Montgomery Lighthouse Advance for Women,” Professor Montgomery begins, leading her into the building. “It’s a little wordy, and narcissistic, but it has stuck. At the beginning we called it the ‘Montgomery Retreat for Women’ but I soon changed that. To retreat seems negative; the act of moving away from something difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable. Flinch, recoil, shrink, disengage. No. Not here. Here we do the opposite. We advance. We move forward, we make progress, we lift up, we grow.”
Yes, yes, yes, this is what she needs. No going back, no looking back.
Dr. Montgomery leads her to the check-in area. The lighthouse, while beautiful, feels eerily empty.
“Tiana, this is our new guest.”
Tiana looks her straight in the eye, and hands her a room key. “You’re very welcome.”
“Thank you,” the woman whispers. “How did she see me?” she asks.
Dr. Montgomery squeezes her shoulder comfortingly. “Much to do. Let’s begin, shall we?”
Their first session takes place in a room overlooking Race Point beach. Hearing the crash of the waves, smelling the salty air, the scented candles, the call of the gulls, away from the typical sterile hospital environment that had served as her fortress, the woman allows herself to relax.
Professor Elizabeth Montgomery, sixty-six years old, oozing with brains and qualifications, six children, one divorce, two marriages, and the most glamorous woman she has ever seen in the flesh, sits in a straw chair softened by overflowing cushions, and pours peppermint tea into clashing teacups.
“My theory,” Professor Montgomery says, folding her legs close to her body, “is that you made yourself disappear.”
“I did this?” the woman asks, hearing her voice rise, feeling the flash of her anger as her brief moment is broken.
Professor Montgomery smiles that beautiful smile. “I don’t place the blame solely on you. You can share it with society. I blame the adulation and sexualization of young women. I blame the focus on beauty and appearance, the pressure to conform to others’ expectations in a way that men are not required to.”
Her voice is hypnotizing. It is gentle. It is firm. It is without anger. Or judgment. Or bitterness. Or sadness. It just is. Because everything just is.
The woman has goose bumps on her skin. She sits up, her heart pounding. This is something she hasn’t heard before. The first new theory in many months and it stirs her physically and emotionally.
“As you can imagine, many of my male counterparts don’t agree with me,” she says wryly, sipping on her tea. “It’s a difficult pill to swallow. For them. So I started doing my own thing. You are not the first disappearing woman that I’ve met.” The woman gapes. “I tested and analyzed women, just as those experts did with you, but it took me some time to realize how to correctly treat your condition. It took growing older myself to truly understand.
“I have studied and written about this extensively; as women age, they are written out of the world, no longer visible on television or film, in fashion magazines, and only ever on daytime TV to advertise the breakdown of bodily functions and ailments, or promote potions and lotions to help battle aging as though it were something that must be fought. Sound familiar?”
The woman nods.
She continues: “Older women are represented on television as envious witches who spoil the prospects of the man or younger woman, or as humans who are reactive to others, powerless to direct their own lives; moreover, once they reach fifty-five, their television demographic ceases to exist. It is as if they are not here. Confronted with this, I have discovered women can internalize these ‘realities.’ My teachings have been disparaged as feminist rants but I am not ranting, I am merely observing.” She sips her peppermint tea and watches the woman who slowly disappeared slowly come to terms with what she is hearing.
“You’ve seen women like me before?” the woman asks, still stunned.
“Tiana, at the desk, was exactly as you were when she arrived two years ago.”
She allows that to sink in.
“Who did you see when you entered?” the professor asks.
“Tiana,” the woman replies.
The woman stands and walks to the window. The sea, the sand, a garden. She pauses. She sees a shimmer on a swing on the porch, and nearby a wobbly figure with long black hair looks out to sea. There’s an almost iridescent figure on her knees in the garden, planting flowers. The more she looks, the more women she sees at various stages of diminishment. Like stars appearing in the night sky, the more she trains her eye, the more they appear. Women are everywhere. She had walked right past them all on her arrival.
“Women need to see women, too,” Professor Montgomery says. “If we don’t see each other, if we don’t see ourselves, how can we expect anybody else to?”
The woman is overcome.
“Society told you that you weren’t important, that you didn’t exist, and you listened. You let the message seep into your pores, eat you from the inside out. You told yourself you weren’t important, and you believed yourself.”
The woman nods in surprise.
“So what must you do?” Professor Montgomery wraps her hands around the cup, warming herself, her eyes boring into the woman’s, as though communicating with another, deeper part of her, sending signals, relaying information.
“I have to trust that I’ll reappear again,” the woman says, but her voice comes out husky, as if she hasn’t spoken for years. She clears her throat.
“More than that,” Professor Montgomery urges.
“I have to believe in myself.”
“Society always tells us to believe in ourselves,” she says, dismissively. “Words are easy, phrases are cheap. What specifically must you believe in?”
She thinks, then realizes that this is about more than getting the answers right. What does she want to believe?
“That I’m important, that I’m needed, relevant, useful, valid…” She looks down at her cup. “Sexy.” She breathes in and out through her nose, slowly, her confidence building. “That I’m worthy. That there is potential, possibility, that I can still take on new challenges. That I can contribute. That I’m interesting. That I’m not finished yet. That people know I’m here.” Her voice cracks on her final words.
Professor Montgomery places her cup down on the glass table and reaches for the woman’s hands. “I know you’re here. I see you.”
In that moment the woman knows for certain that she’ll come back. That there is a way. To begin with, she is focusing on her heart. After that, everything else will follow.
The Woman Who Was
Kept on the Shelf
IT BEGAN SHORTLY AFTER their first date, when she was twenty-six years old, when everything was gleaming, sparkling new. She’d left work early to drive to her new lover, excited to see him, counting down the hours until their next moment together, and she’d found Ronald at home in his living room, hammering away at the wall.
“What are you doing?” She’d laughed at the intensity of his expression, the grease, the grime, and determination of her newly DIY boyfriend. He was even more attractive to her now.
“I’m building you a shelf.” He’d barely paused to look at her before returning to hammering a nail in.
He continued hammering, then checked the shelf for balance.
“Is this your way of telling me you want me to move in?” She laughed, heart thudding. “I think you’re supposed to give me a drawer, not a shelf.”
“Yes, of course I want you to move in. Immediately. And I want you to leave your job and sit on this shelf so that everyone can see you, so that they can admire you, see what I see: the most beautiful woman in the world. You won’t have to lift a finger. You won’t have to do anything. Just sit on this shelf and be loved.”
Her heart had swelled, her eyes filled. By the next day she was sitting on that shelf. Five feet above the floor, in the right-hand alcove of the living room, beside the fireplace. That was where she met Ronald’s family and friends for the first time. They stood around her, drinks in hand, marveling at the wonder of the new love of Ronald’s life. They sat at the dinner table in the adjoining dining room, and though she couldn’t see everybody, she could hear them, she could join in. She felt suspended above them—adored, cherished, respected by his friends, worshipped by his mother, envied by his ex-girlfriends. Ronald would look up at her proudly, that beautiful beam on his face that said it all. Mine. She sparkled with youth and desire, beside his trophy cabinet, which commemorated the soccer victories from his youth and his more recent golf successes. Above them was a brown trout mounted on the wall on a wooden plate with a brass plaque, the largest trout he’d ever caught, while out with his brother and father. He’d moved the trout to build the shelf, and so it was with even more respect that the men in his life viewed her. When her family and friends came to visit her they could leave feeling assured that she was safe, cocooned, idolized, and, more importantly, loved.
She was the most important thing in the world to him. Everything revolved around her and her position in the home, in his life. He pandered to her, he fussed around her. He wanted her on that shelf all of the time. The only moment that came close to the feeling of being so important in his world was Dusting Day. On Dusting Day, he went through all his trophies, polishing and shining them, and of course, he’d lift her from the shelf and lay her down and they would make love. Shiny and polished, renewed with sparkle and vigor, she would climb back up to the shelf again.
They married, she quit her job, nursed her children, cuddled them, spent sleepless nights caring for them on the shelf, then watched them sleep, gurgle, and grow on the rug and playpen beneath her. Ronald liked for her to be alone on the shelf; he employed childcare so that she could have her space, so that she could stay in the place he built for her, so that he wouldn’t lose a part of her to the children, or that their special relationship wouldn’t be altered. She had heard of couples who were torn apart after having families, husbands who felt left out when babies arrived. She didn’t want that to happen; she wanted to be there for him, for him to still feel adored. The shelf was her place. She cared deeply for everyone from there, and because of her position in the home, everyone always looked up to her. It was only later, when the children had grown up and left the house, twenty years after the day she first climbed onto the shelf, that the loneliness took hold of her.
With the suddenness of an alarm bell, in fact.
It was the angle of the TV that started it. She couldn’t see what Ronald was watching. It had never bothered her before because she was always content to see the faces of her children watching television rather than the TV itself. But the couch was now empty, the room quiet, and she needed distraction, escapism. Company. Ronald bought a new television, a flat screen that went on the wall, which meant it couldn’t be tilted, and it was suddenly out of her view, just as her children were. And then there were the gatherings Ronald organized without inviting her or telling her, that would go on around her, involving people she had never met, and some women she wasn’t sure of, right there in her own home—under her very nose, as it were.
She watched from above as his life carried on beneath her, as though she weren’t in the room, as though she weren’t a part of his life. Wearing a smile to hide her confusion, she would try to cling on, she would try to join in, but they couldn’t hear her up there on the shelf and they’d grown tired of looking up, of raising their voices. They’d moved on. Ronald would forget to top up her drink, to check on her, to introduce her. It was as though he’d forgotten that she was there. And then he built the extension; it took him months, but once he was finished and the kitchen extended out to the back garden, suddenly all the gatherings and dinners moved out there. The TV room that had been the formal room, the center of their home, was now a small, comfortable den. It had lost its grandeur. She’d reached the point where she felt she wasn’t a part of his life anymore.
And now it’s Saturday night, and she’s been alone all day while he’s been out golfing, while the children are busy getting on with their own lives.
“Ronald,” she says.
He’s on the couch, watching something that she can’t see. He makes a sound in response but doesn’t look up at her.
“Something doesn’t feel right up here.” She hears the tremble in her voice, feels the tightness in her chest. When you put me up here, it was for everybody to see me, to be the center of everything, but now…now everything is carrying on without me, out of sight. I feel so disconnected. She can’t say it; the words won’t come. Even thinking this way scares her. She likes her shelf, she is comfortable on her shelf, the shelf is her place; it’s where she has always been, it is where she should always stay. He put her there to remove all the concerns and responsibilities of life from her, for her.
“Do you want another pillow?” he asks. He chooses a pillow beside him and throws it to her. She catches it and looks at it and then at Ronald in surprise, heart pounding, things inside her hurting. He stands up then.
“I can buy you a new one, a bigger one,” he says, silencing the television with the remote control.
“I don’t want a new pillow,” she says quietly, taken aback by her response. Usually she loves such things.
It’s as though he doesn’t hear her, or perhaps he does and he ignores her. She can’t figure it out.
“I’m going out for a few hours, I’ll see you later.”
She stares at the closed door, listens to the car engine start up, in utter shock. It’s been building up slowly over the years, but this is her moment of realization. All the little signs come together and hit her now, almost knocking her from her perch. He’d placed her on this shelf, a cherished woman whom he adored and wanted to protect and showcase, and now that everyone has seen her, has admired her, has congratulated him on his achievements, there’s nothing left. Now she’s just part of the furniture, a shelf adornment like the rest of his trophies, tucked away in an old comfortable den. She can’t even remember the last Dusting Day; how long has it been since he took her down to polish her?
- On Sale
- Jun 16, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing