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The Lady with the Moving Parts

The Lady with the Moving Parts

by Merrill Joan Gerber

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A moving, powerful story of women exchanging secrets and sexual advice in an encounter group.


A moving, powerful story of women exchanging secrets and sexual advice in an encounter group.

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Dzanc Books
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The Lady with the Moving Parts


Dzanc Books

Copyright © 1978 Merrill Joan Gerber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-2601-6


"Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Come with us into the stew. Be a carrot, Maris—do."

MARIS contemplated the volcanic action in the jacuzzi pool below while Joyce sat at the edge of the tile rim, perky and slim, wearing only long copper earrings as she invoked a magical spell with her incantation. Nadia, the belly dancer, lay in the water looking up at Maris, absently twisting her arms like snakes, coiling them above her head and then down underwater, while her lower limbs drifted in the current like spaghetti. Honey, a blotch of wide pale flesh roiling in the bubbles, had glued her pelvis to one of the water jets. She was an onion, learning the meaning of her layers. And Maris was to be a carrot. Yesterday she had been a cactus. They'd forced her into it: "Pretend you're any plant or flower in the world. Where are you located? Are your roots shallow or deep? Do you enjoy storms or calm? Would you like to be plucked, displayed and admired, or would you prefer to grow undisturbed and unseen?"

"I am a prickly cactus growing on a desert plain. I am dangerous and unapproachable. I can exist indefinitely on very little nourishment." She was at least thirty years too old for this kind of nonsense, and in truth she was a morning-glory vine, but if she'd admitted that, they would have pursued it forever.

Now she was to float and bobble about in a vegetable stew in the jacuzzi pool that belonged to Joyce's husband's counseling service, "Fulfillment Therapy Systems."

"We must have a retreat," Joyce had said at the last meeting. "We've been together now—let's see, how long is it?"

"That fateful night I met Chick in the laundromat," Honey had said, "—that's the same night I saw your sign about a women's group forming posted on the bulletin board. Four months ago. I'm sure of it, because I had only been working at Dream Delight Dollies a month then, and I celebrated my five-months anniversary there this week."

"Well," Joyce had said, "I think it's really time for us to get more deeply into each other's skins. John says we can use the mansion this weekend if we want to, because he has no workshops scheduled then. It's really a neat place, twenty acres in the foothills just north of Pasadena, right near the Mount Wilson road. If it's clear, we'll have a view of the lights of Los Angeles at night, and if the smog isn't heavy, we can see Catalina Island in the daytime. Plus we'll have complete privacy, and the chance to really get in touch with ourselves."

Getting in touch, according to Joyce, whose husband John had given her a guidance plan for the weekend, involved a fantasy surrender to elements of nature: flowers yesterday, vegetables today.

Maris put a foot cautiously into the bubbling vat. If she felt ridiculous, she had only to remind herself that she had come here voluntarily. The rising steam caused her to gasp and turn her head into the wind for a cool breath.

"Submerge yourself," Joyce said. "Tell us why you are a carrot."

Maris was having trouble getting into the spirit of this properly. She wanted to say something about Bugs Bunny, but she refrained. "Well—I prefer to be a carrot because it's simple. There's nothing pretentious about it. I don't like frills." She stepped down another foot and felt the scalding water simmer between her thighs.

"Nadia," Joyce said. "Would you comment, please?"

"I think Maris chose a carrot because it has hard lines. It has no soft curves. It's not sensual. She thinks she's not sensual, but she is, very much so. She's never said this, but I know she thinks her breasts are too small. She just hasn't realized yet that it doesn't matter. Mine are small, too, but I use them to advantage. When I belly dance and do a shoulder shimmy, no one ever measures what's shaking under my coin bra, they just enjoy. The trouble with a carrot is that it's rigid. Maris has to learn to be less rigid." She fanned her dancer's hand in a fluent figure-eight through the air to demonstrate, then smiled at Maris with encouragement. Maris smiled back—this was for her own good, she had to take it kindly.

Honey, busy with the water jet, kept her back to Maris but said, "God, take off your bathing suit, will you? It's the first step toward accepting yourself."

Maris stared at Honey's pale heavy buttocks as she knelt in the jacuzzi.

"I used to hate to go to the beach," Honey said, still not turning her head. "I had this flab. It always hung down over the elastic, my boobs were strangled, everything poured out, my thighs were all lumps. Then I met this guy who took me to a nude beach. God, it was hard at first, but they made it easy for me, no big deal, no one dropped dead when I peeled off my suit. And then, would you believe, I felt really graceful! Nothing was pushed in, so nothing overflowed. I wasn't trying to fit into some model's idea of what a girl ought to look like. I was more proportioned, somehow. I wasn't fat, just well-endowed, like those women in old paintings. Nice round belly, jiggly ass, nice substantial tits."

"Don't force Maris," Joyce said. "She's not into nudity; let her do only what's comfortable for her."

Maris smiled faintly. Comfortable would be home with Zach in the backyard, each of them sitting silently in beach chairs, each reading some magazine or book. Comfortable would be watching TV in bed, half-asleep. Comfort, mental or physical, was not the primary sensation here. The scalding water bubbled in the space between her legs and she drew her breath in sharply. The day her youngest daughter was born, ten years ago, a nurse had appeared at her bedside in the labor room to shave her pubic hair. She had dumped a cup full of boiling water on Maris' genitals. Maris had cried out in pain. "Oh, that's not hot," the nurse had said. "Just stick your finger in it, you'll see." "But that's not my finger you're pouring it on!" Maris had pleaded. Now the women were urging her, cajoling her: "Come on, it's not hot." What, she wondered, would ever be born of this experience?

On the deck a few feet away, Starr lay on her back, sunbathing nude. A multicolored butterfly was tattooed on her belly midway between her navel and right hipbone. Last week, on a dare from a friend, a fellow biochemist who worked at the hospital where Starr worked, she had driven to San Diego, gone to a sailor's tattoo salon, and been imprinted by the electric wand. To defend her act, she'd explained that she needed something there to direct attention away from her stretch marks. Now, with her eyes closed, she called out, "A carrot could also be a phallic symbol. Maybe Maris is trying to tell us something."

"A what?" Honey asked.

"Phallic means penis," Nadia explained.

"She wants to be a penis?" Honey said. "Bullshit! No woman in her right mind wants to be one of those mechanical tinker-toys."

"Not be one," Nadia said.

"Maybe have one," Joyce suggested. "But that's probably more Freudian bullshit."

"What I meant," Starr said, "is that maybe she's thinking of trying a new one." She laughed in a kindly way. "After all, Maris has been married for sixteen years." Starr pushed up on one elbow and flipped her fine red hair in a shimmering screen over her face, then tossed it back over her head again. She grinned at Maris mischievously. She had a delightful smile and a delicate, charming Texas accent. Everything about her was disarming.

"Maybe I just want to see better," Maris suggested. "Carrots are good for your eyesight. Perhaps you give my subconscious credit for too much hidden meaning." Holding her breath, she finally doubled down on her knees and began to boil with the others.

"You ought to try one of the jets," Honey said. "You can get off on it."

"Is that what you're busy doing?" Nadia asked with amusement, flexing her graceful toes just at the surface of the water.

"No, I don't have any good fantasies going, I haven't been to a porno flick to refuel my brain for a few weeks. But you know, I have a girlfriend who swears by her Water-Pik. She has fantastic orgasms on it. What do you think of that?"

"I don't know," Nadia said. "I'm not an expert."

"On orgasms?"

"No, on Water-Piks."

Nadia raised her heavy, long black hair off her neck with one hand in the gesture Maris knew she must use when performing. She belly danced three shows a night at the Sultan's Fez, and had an arsenal of sultry movements that she practiced almost automatically in any company. The sweeping of the mane of hair up to the crown of the head, exposing the delicate nape of her neck, was an incredibly sensual gesture. Her lips puckered slightly, and her lids half closed as she let her hair tumble back down.

"I gotta pee," Honey said.

"Well, not here," Nadia said. "Go do it in the woods."

"I'll freeze."

"Then run fast."

"Then all my fat will shake."

"I thought you were graceful and all your body parts flowed together when you were nude," Joyce said, laughing.

"Watch me flow!" Honey said, finally relinquishing the jet and standing up. Her face was flushed, her blonde's light skin red and steamy. She clambered up out of the whirlpool and did little ballet steps across the deck to the bath house.

Nadia said, "I think all my little kernels of corn are juicy enough by now."

Joyce said, "Nadia, tell Maris why you chose to be a corn on the cob."

"Well, I've got a million little succulent places to nibble, and I'm sweet and juicy, and there's more than enough to go around."

"Oh," Maris said, walking rigidly out of the pool. "I guess I understand you."


THEIR provisions for the weekend consisted of two cases of yogurt and one case of wine. The women were dressed and having lunch on the front porch of the mansion when Sandy drove up the hill in her boyfriend's pickup truck, bouncing and grinning as she jammed on the brakes. She was, at most, five years older than Maris' fifteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, but had been married twice and was now living with a man again.

"Shit, I probably missed all the good stuff yesterday," she said, jumping down from the cab and running up the wooden steps. "But Ronnie really got spooked in the Mall Friday night, and yesterday I had to sit on him all day to keep him from popping too many downers. He's got the graveyard shift this month, and Friday was his first night all alone in that huge place. In the daytime, you know, the music is on, and there's all that racket of kids and people. But at night he was the only guard there, and at ten he heard all the bars slide down into place in front of the shops, and a few minutes later all the lights were out, and there he was, tap-tapping along, checking for burglars, when all of a sudden he heard this whining noise, like the wind, going up and down, up and down, and all those mannequins in the windows looking out at him, and he just got spooked. Ghosts. It was just the air conditioning, but he was probably a little stoned anyway by the time he got there.

"He had his walkie-talkie with him, connected to the guy in warehouse, and he freaked out. 'Just get me outta here,' he kept yelling till they came and carried him away. So like I was up half Friday night calming him down. That job is weird. As soon as he can find some freelance trucking gigs, he's going to quit that job fast."

"Speaking of mannequins," Joyce said, "they aren't always little plastic ladies. Last week I was in the Mall, on my way to Frederick's of Hollywood. John assigned me to get some peek-a-boo underwear. He's a great believer in artificial aids, and you better believe me, there are times lately that we need some aid. Anyway, on my way into the store, I came up this aisle and I passed a little platform where two mannequins were positioned, their knees and elbows bent out at all odd angles. One of the forms was wearing a strapless satin nightgown, and I didn't see any cracks between its arms and its body. And its hair looked really natural. The other mannequin was wearing a pink lace bra cut away at the nipples, and I could swear those weren't rubber pacifiers I was looking at. So I said to a saleslady standing there, 'God, those girls could almost be human,' and all of a sudden one mannequin laughed out loud! And then the other one did. Jesus! I thought I was on Candid Camera!"

"Don't tell Ronnie," Sandy said. "If he knew, he'd be balling them in the window displays."

Sandy sat down on the steps. The shorts she wore were cut-off jeans and her tee-shirt bore the message: "MY BODY BELONGS TO ME...BUT I SHARE." She chewed gum as a bodily function, as essential as breathing. Maris remembered that at their first meeting the girl had struck her as completely moronic. When the women had introduced themselves, Sandy had made a single statement in a monotone: "I came here for one reason—something happened to me when I was fourteen, and I never said a word to anyone. The only person I told, my first husband, left me on account of it. So when I heard this is the kind of group you can say anything at, I figured maybe if I tell it won't hurt me so much, won't bug me all the time." Joyce had asked her if she wanted to tell it right then, and Sandy had said, "I'll tell it someday when I trust you."

The girl had come to all the meetings after that, but had never referred to the incident again. In fact, she rarely said anything memorable at all, only her tee-shirts made significant comments. At that first meeting she'd worn a pink shirt with the words "TEENY BOOBS" lettered just under the neckline, with an arrow pointing downward from each letter. In truth, she had very large shapely breasts with huge nipples clearly showing through the fine cloth. Maris felt pained and distracted by them. She had been raised in an era of Peter Pan collars and padded bras, and the sight of so much resilient flesh so close to the eye had a whiplash effect on her mind, jerking it into sexual gear when she was not expecting to be shifted that way at all. She had had a similar response last weekend, when Zach had taken her to a play called Survivors put on by a little repertory company composed of young men and women who had worked out their vision of the meaning of Jewish survival in the concentration camps. Several scenes took place on a moving train—a box car—and to simulate the motion of a rackety train, the actresses bounced continually up and down. For Maris, the problem was that all the women wore tee-shirts over bare skin, and she discovered she was deaf to the dialogue; all she could perceive were jumping breasts, both large and small. Furthermore, her heart beat uncomfortably fast, and she later complained to Zach about the disruptive effects those scenes produced on an audience that was supposed to be thinking about death camps. Zach, always mature and wide-seeing, explained in a kindly fashion that she had missed the point, that sensuality was the point, that you were titillated in order to remember that in the death camps the most acute pleasures of life were being destroyed. Maris had been irritated at the implied criticism and had wanted to ask him if sex was the most acute pleasure of his life. But she hadn't—it would have been unfair, and if anyone knew the answer to that question, she ought to have been the one.

Sandy accepted a container of blueberry yogurt and ate it with a plastic spoon without removing the chewing gum from her mouth. She held it in a lump between cheek and gum, and when she had finished the yogurt, she resumed chewing.

"It's lucky you came today, Sandy," Joyce said, running her fingers through her short curly hair and causing her long earrings to swing to and fro. "We need an even number for the Dance of Humanity. John left me some notes on how we should do it, it's very simple. All we do is pick a partner (or have one chosen for us). Then we stand up, face to face, and we press our opposite hands together, fingers open. Then, with our free hand, we touch and stroke each other, on the face, shoulders, arms, hair. No sexual parts. Let's try it."

Maris asked, "Is this supposed to accomplish something special?"

"We'll talk after," Joyce said. "We'll know more then. It's only for five minutes. But all that time, you have to be looking right at each other, into each other's eyes."


Excerpted from The Lady with the Moving Parts by MERRILL JOAN GERBER. Copyright © 1978 Merrill Joan Gerber. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Merrill Joan Gerber is a prize-winning novelist and short story writer. Among her novels are The Kingdom of Brooklyn, winner of the Ribalow Award from Hadassah Magazine for “the best English-language book of fiction on a Jewish theme,” Anna in the Afterlife, chosen by the Los Angeles Times as a “Best Novel of 2002” andKing of the World, which won the Pushcart Editors’ Book Award. She has written five volumes of short stories. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New YorkerThe AtlanticMademoiselleThe Sewanee ReviewThe Virginia ReviewCommentarySalmagundiThe American ScholarThe Southwest Review, and elsewhere.
Her story “I Don’t Believe This” won an O. Henry Prize. “This Is a Voice from Your Past” was included in The Best American Mystery Stories.

Her non-fiction books include a travel memoir, Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence; a book of personal essays, Gut Feelings: A Writer’s Truths and Minute Inventions; and Old Mother, Little Cat: A Writer’s Reflections on Her Kitten, Her Aged Mother . . . and Life.
Gerber earned her BA in English from the University of Florida, her MA in English from Brandeis University, and was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fiction Fellowship to Stanford University. She presently teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. 

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