Fiction. Short Stories. With dark humor, the recurring characters in Roberta Allen's stories see themselves and others through distorting mirrors. The pain of never quite connecting is thrown into shadow as they go about their everyday lives and try to recapture their youth.
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About the Author
Language has been the focus of Roberta Allen's literary/innovative fiction and the inspiration for most of her conceptual art for many years. Her conceptual art, exhibited internationally, is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as in many other public and private collections. A Tennessee Williams Fellow in Fiction, she is a short story writer, novelist and memoirist, with 9 published books. Two books have been New York Times-praised. She has taught at Columbia University, and for 18 years at The New School. Her private workshops since 1991 are ongoing.
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The Princess of Herself
The rude interruption of windswept snow rattling the windows reminds me that The Princess, the protagonist of the story I am going to write, is not on the island of Grenada, but sitting across the table from me at an upstate café. The café is surrounded by snow, so much snow I find it hard to focus at times on what she is telling me, the gist of which I will write as though I am hearing it for the first time while we lie on lounge chairs in front of a little bungalow like the one I rented seven years ago, shaded by fragrant nutmeg trees, little green lizards darting up and down the rough bark, gentle waves lapping the shore. It's easy to imagine the two of us in this setting.
The Princess, who receives monthly alimony and disability benefits and loves to travel (when her health allows) would seriously consider Grenada if I recommended it, especially if I told her how much I dislike Costa Rica where she is planning to go. 'Too many tourists,' I would say, 'and bad roads in the remote areas.' I can imagine her eyes, shiny like a doll's, glazing over, as she files the place "Grenada" away in a niche for future reference. Why Grenada? I wonder. Why not Vieques, for example, an island I know well? Or Belize? It isn't as though I had a great time in Grenada. Maybe Grenada came to mind because I've never written about it. Though it seemed to be the sort of place where something interesting might happen, nothing did, unless you count the night of my arrival when the female customs agent confiscated my expensive Clarins anti-aging cream. Did she really think I was hiding explosives in that brand new jar? I was furious enough to make a special trip — in vain! — to St. George, a capital I had no desire to visit, to see if I could find it in a pharmacy. I doubt I'll mention Grenada to The Princess. I'm sure she wouldn't like the interior which I experienced only once for a few hours with a guide who led me on treacherous trails through swampy rainforest. I had promised to send him a book I had written years ago about my trip to the Amazon but I never did. I think I blamed him for my being a klutz. He must have wondered how I'd managed in the Amazon.
But that's beside the point. In the café, I try to concentrate on The Princess who, unlike Victoria of Sweden or Astrid of Belgium, is only princess of a country I call Herself. Her interior is a mystery. This is why she interests me and why I am interested in the man I will call The Engineer. For ten months, he was closer to her than anyone else. I suppose I could also call him The Mathematician, for example, or even The Mechanic. But The Mechanic brings to mind Charles Bronson, tough and sexy in shoot 'em up movies (he must be very old or dead by now) and The Engineer isn't that type at all, just the opposite, in fact. Soft. I see him as soft. Like the little Pillsbury Doughboy on TV. I once ran into The Princess and The Engineer on the path around the reservoir. I was surprised to see him long-haired and bearded. Under his jacket I could tell that his belly was flatter. Love had transformed him. The Princess wore the wide white smile she always wears, which reminds me of the time a crown fell off her front tooth and The Engineer had to drop everything to drive her to the dentist. I can imagine The Princess in a bikini on the lounge chair in Grenada laughing about the crown that had caused her such distress.
Who is watching her laugh? The owner of that "Adventure Paradise" where I stayed perhaps? The divorced American expat desperate to find a wife to share his roomy turn-of-the-century plantation house? A lonely man whose efforts to entice a woman on match.com had failed (at least while I was there) though he told me he had offered free airfare to any female willing to meet him on the island. Would the American expat chase after The Princess, making a fool of himself? Would he be too eager to please, too "nice" in a phony kind of way? When he spoke, would his hot breath invade her personal space? He doesn't seem to know how to behave around women. I can see him running back and forth from the steamy kitchen in back of his outdoor restaurant on the bay, his bony chest exposed over baggy swimming trunks, his spindly legs seeming to fly in all directions.
"Get a move on, man, the lady is waiting!" he yells to the poor chef who is preparing a special dish for The Princess who can only eat certain foods. She is seated across from me at a vinyl-topped table.
Trying to calm him, The Princess says, "It's okay. I'm not in any hurry."
The Princess and I exchange looks that say, 'Who is this crazy man?' It's not difficult to imagine why the expat would be enamored with the youthful good looks of The Princess. Would anyone guess she's a grandmother? The Princess keeps that word at a distance the same way she keeps her son and daughter-in-law at a distance and the child who is her grandson. They are strangers, she tells me. The son she let her mother raise: "I wasn't meant to be a mother," she says, without regret. "I barely remember the partner I had then." I imagine her flicking her family from consciousness the way The Engineer might flick a mosquito. The Princess would never flick a mosquito in Grenada. She wears that easy 1960s go-with-the-flow smile except when she scrunches up her nose and shoos the annoying black flies from her face. Black flies are worse here than mosquitoes. Suddenly she points out the beautiful butterfly fluttering amidst the Heliconia. Beauty makes her shake her head in disbelief, in amazement even, though she has seen many butterflies on her travels and at home in the country. So has The Engineer. But The Engineer is not in Grenada. If he were, I would imagine him calling out excitedly, 'There's a Frampton's Flambeau,' or 'Look at that Antillean Cracker,' or 'See that Red Anartia?' I might even give him a butterfly net and let him catch a few, only to admire them, of course, before setting them free. I can easily imagine him following her to Grenada, afraid he will lose her which, of course, would be his fantasy, since he doesn't have her to begin with.
But that isn't the story I want to write. Maybe I should include The Senator I met in Grenada, who was not a senator but a toned and handsome, early-retired CEO; he was my idea of a senator, deeply tanned with prematurely white hair. He took me on a tour of his yacht and invited me to sail with him around the Caribbean. That trip would have made for a good story and is something I would have done, had I gone to Grenada when I was younger, although, after sailing around the Caribbean, I probably would have felt used or, for some other reason, sorry about accepting his invitation. Would The Princess be impressed by his yacht? While I try to imagine The Princess with The Senator, the howling wind and hurtling snow distract me, but not for long. I see her take The Senator's outstretched hand, a big hand that pulls her up from the inflatable dinghy to the yacht, moored offshore. The yacht is his baby. It's here that memory fails me. Did he say it was sixty-six feet long? The only word I am sure he said on my tour is "radar." I know so little about yachts I will either have to wing it or do research to make this scene plausible. I nod, smile, while The Princess continues talking. Have I missed something important? Something useful for this story? It's hardly the first time I've lost track of what she's saying. Am I giving too much importance to The Senator? She likes to flirt but she'd never go for him. He's too clean-cut. Too midwestern. And he was married, at least when I was there. Even if I imagine him divorced, unshaven, his hair long, she'd never go for his vote-for-me smile. He managed to sound dull even while telling me about the older couple he and his small crew rescued in a bad storm off the coast of Jamaica. But it might be interesting to have The Senator and the American expat pursue her. How would she react to their unwanted advances? What if The Engineer arrives later and rescues her? Would she appreciate him more? I look at her broad unlined forehead, the symmetrical features, the sallow skin, the mane of long gray curls falling past her shoulders, her shiny silver "moon" necklaces. Hippie necklaces. Behind her, the empty café. The polished wood tables. Downstairs, the ghost restaurant, noisy only in the tourist season when the main street is packed with people who ask, "Is this where Woodstock took place?" Up here, it's always quiet. I glance at two women hunched over laptops. The waitress leans on elbows behind the bar, as oblivious as The Princess is to the wind and snow whipping the windows.
"When I landed that morning in Albany, I felt sick," The Princess says, referring to a recent trip. "My stomach really hurt. I was in no condition to drive so I called and asked him to pick me up."
"Doesn't he work in Peekskill?" I ask.
"Yes," she says.
"Isn't Albany about a hundred miles away?" She nods.
I look at her wide-eyed. "You made him leave his office and drive a hundred miles to pick you up?"
She nods again, as though I have no reason to be surprised. Maybe I don't. After all, he was the one, she told me last summer, who drove her to the emergency room more than once; he was the one who listened when she complained of unspecified aches and pains; he was the one who helped her through — what turned out to be — Lyme disease, then fibromyalgia and, not to forget, her chronic back "problems" that require weekly spinal injections. Have I mentioned that her medications often made her sicker than her illnesses? Have I said that she is allergic to everything?
But that is not all of her. There she is, shaking her head again and marveling at yet another butterfly or, this time, perhaps, a dragonfly. I know she likes dragonflies. Once The Princess wanted to show me the dead dragonfly she'd brought home. 'It's a good omen,' she had said. While she pauses to sip her latte in the café, I reflect a moment about omens. Didn't she tell me once she was a wicca? I try to remember. I'm listening to gusts of wind-blown snow outside when she says, "I knew from the moment we met that I would never fall in love with him. The spark wasn't there — you know what I mean. The spark I felt instantly with my ex-husband. But I loved talking to him."
The only time I fell ill on a trip was in Timbuktu where I had food poisoning from fish I had eaten the night before. But I won't go into that here. In Grenada I was fine. I am fine in the café sitting opposite The Princess though I am drinking too much coffee, which is probably why my stomach begins to ache, or am I reacting to her words when she says with a shrug, "I never considered what we had a relationship."
Unable to restrain myself, I lean in to the table and say in a voice louder than intended, "But you spent every weekend together!"
She smiles. An ineffable smile. What can I say to such a smile? She tosses the mane of long gray curls from her face. I understand (though The Princess doesn't) why she was asked — not politely — to leave the home of the woman friend she was visiting in Pittsburgh after saying about The Engineer, 'He never did anything for me.' While she speaks about this incident, I see her in Grenada, looking as innocent as she does now. Is she wondering how anyone could take offense at anything she's said or done? In her favor, at least she tried to discourage The Engineer from selling his house and buying a property only minutes away from her. When I look up in the café, I see the sun slowly sliding towards the horizon, obliterating the trees in front of it but not the snow, that heavy whiteness weighing down whatever it touches. Lying beside her on the lounge chair in Grenada, do I have the nerve to tell her she deserved her ex-husband? Did she deserve her ex-husband? A wealthy man, bearded and long-haired, whom I will call The Doctor. A man who suddenly left her, she says, for a younger woman after thirty-two years of marriage. For his pleasure, The Princess had engaged in sex with multiple partners, male and female, while he watched and sometimes joined in. "After all that openness," she says, "he had a clandestine relationship!" Her eyes open wide, her mouth tightens when she says the word clandestine. I imagine her saying the word clandestine in Grenada. Was she The Princess before he left her? Did he leave because she was The Princess? Or is The Princess the remains of the woman, the wife, the lover, who said about The Engineer after having sex with him once, "I just wasn't into him that way. It took me a couple of months to convince him that I only wanted his friendship." Perhaps at the moment she says this, a pelican or some other beautiful seabird swoops down into the water and disappears like the sun sinking in snow.
Excerpted from "The Princess of Herself"
Copyright © 2017 Roberta Allen.
Excerpted by permission of Pelekinesis.
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