Coco knocks softly on Catherine’s bedroom door. After a short pause, a weak “Come in” issues from inside. She enters, wary of transgression, holding the door as she peeps in.
The room is stuffy. The curtains are half closed. The air has an odor of stale sweat and sickness. Prolonged notes from the piano lap about the house from downstairs. “It’s only me,” Coco says.
Raising her head from the pillow, Catherine says, “Yes, come in.” Music manuscripts are spread about the bed, filled with her careful annotations.
Coco draws a chair close to the bed. She looks at Catherine. Her face, she notices, is thin and sallow. Her cheeks are wastingly pale and drawn. Her eyes have a swollen look, lending her a permanently startled expression. Shadows of emaciation darken the skin beneath. No sooner has her head sunk back than she needs to sit up again to suppress a fit of coughing. The hard, dry rattling sound makes Coco shiver. It reminds her of the shuttles in a textile mill.
Catherine recovers sufficiently to be dismayed by her appearance. She makes an attempt to straighten her hair, which is wheat-pale and damp on one side where she has been sleeping.
Coco asks, “Can I get you a glass of water?”
“I have one here already.”
Automatically she reaches across the table for her glass. The water is tepid and flat with few bubbles. She takes several ineffectual sips then sets it down.
“I’m sorry you haven’t been well recently.”
Catherine detects a laziness, an air of duty about Coco’s visit. She says, “I’m sorry, too.”
There is a sharpness to the response that makes Coco sit up and concentrate. She quickly revises an impression of her as pathetic. Catherine doesn’t suffer fools gladly, she can see. She’s a serious woman, and learned. Books surround her bed: poetry and novels, and volumes of theology. Her French is better than Igor’s, too, Coco notices—more fluent and less affected. As a student, she spent three years in Paris. But Coco can’t shake the impression that her intellect has been won at the expense of vitality and life. Coco hates sickness in people and is slow to tolerate their ills. If she’s honest with herself, it’s also got something to do with class. Coco sees in Catherine the anemia of the upper orders, the thinness of blue blood, the weakness of an aristocracy that has had its arrogance exposed.
Her attitude is complicated, too, by the fact that, when she was eleven, she watched her own mother succumb agonizingly to consumption. Now part of her feels resentful that Catherine is so pampered, while her mother died with a quickness reserved for the lonely and impoverished.
An uneasiness exists between the two women, punctuated by the piano’s experimental chords down below. This uneasiness is quickened by the friendship Coco so obviously enjoys with Igor. Catherine doesn’t believe in friendships between members of the opposite sex. In the end, they’re either fraudulent or erotic, she thinks. Aside from Igor, whom she likes to think of as her best friend, she’s never enjoyed a meaningful friendship with another man. She likes Diaghilev, of course, but that’s different. He prefers men, anyway.
The two women’s eyes slide over one another. Oil on water.
“The doctor did say, remember, that you must get some fresh air.”
“Do you want me to open the window?”
Catherine hesitates. This is the first time they have been alone together. And there is something about the act, she feels, that grants Coco a kind of power. Instinctively she distrusts her, finding her sly. Yet, despite herself, she wants to like her—and be liked. There’s a charisma about the woman that’s undeniable. She recognizes that. Again, she tries to fluff out her thin hair.
“Yes,” she says.
Coco rises from her chair. She pulls back the curtains fully and pushes at the window. It is sticky with humidity. Catherine was unable to open it earlier. But with a firm shove it gives, and the window opens wide. A warm breath of air enters and diffuses through the room. The curtains flutter gauzily, the manuscripts stir on the bed, and the edge of Catherine’s hair lifts. She winces at the light.
Coco declares, “That’s better.”
“Yes,” Catherine says, intimidated all the more by the note of decision in Coco’s voice.
“The sun gives you energy.”
But the sun mocks Catherine in the goodness and health it administers. Coco sits down, uncrosses then recrosses her legs. During an awkward silence, the piano repeats a difficult phrase.
Catherine stares at the bedclothes. Her throat is dry, but she resists reaching for her water again. She knows it will communicate weakness.
She is aware of Coco’s origins—her illegitimacy, her orphan status—and admires the ferocious energy she must have drawn upon to claw her way up. But she also fears that energy and how it might be used against her. She feels, in her presence, as though she’s in the path of a tornado.
On an impulse, Coco rises again and moves toward the wardrobe. “Do you mind if I look at some of your clothes?”
The request surprises Catherine. It seems presumptuous. But Coco moves with such fleetness, she feels overwhelmed. It comes as another reminder that they are living here thanks to her charity. This is her house. It is she who pays the doctor, she who pays the bills. What can she, Catherine, do? Refuse? A sense of obligation weighs upon her chest and constricts her airways even more. Her voice is thin as she says, “Of course.”
Coco tugs open the wardrobe doors. A sweet, musty smell escapes. For Catherine any sense of privacy melts away. Revealed are all her things. She feels almost violated, so intimate is the act.
Most of her clothes are fussy formal gowns and dresses: heavy, old-fashioned things. Mostly winter wear, and not too much that is appropriate for summer. There are a few gypsy-type shirts with flounces; a series of fur outfits, including shirts with fur collars; and a large number of skirts.
“Most of them are too big for me now.”
“I like this,” Coco says, pulling out one of the simpler skirts with a bell-trumpet design. She inspects the embroidery around the hem.
“Oh,” is all Catherine can manage. “It’s just some peasant thing.” She thinks for a moment that Coco is teasing, but her interest seems sincere. “I got it in St. Petersburg before we left.”
“I like it,” Coco repeats, removing it from the hanger and holding it against herself.
Catherine watches as she flourishes the skirt around the waist of her blue dress. “I’m glad,” she says.
Coco, though, doesn’t seem to listen. Deaf to any condescension, she picks out something else. “And this is wonderful, too,” she says, holding up a long belted blouse in wool with embroidered bands on collar and cuffs.
“That’s a roubachka,” Catherine says.
“A roubachka,” echoes Coco, determined to pronounce it right.
Catherine understands now Coco’s championing of inferior materials like jersey: in effect she’s promoting herself. “You can borrow it if you like,” she says.
This shocks Coco back into the present. “No, no. I didn’t mean . . .” Hastily she replaces the blouse, but continues to rummage undeterred. She takes out a few more things and holds them up. Each time, she elicits comments about their purchase and when and where Catherine has worn them.
Eventually Coco’s fingers, reaching deep, feel a quantity of tissue paper. She tugs the hanger along the rail until it is possible to squeeze it out. Catherine says nothing. Disturbed, a cream-colored moth staggers tipsily from the cupboard. Its lightness seems to infect Coco’s mood. She lifts out the hanger. The shape of a gown is concealed beneath opaque layers of paper.
Intrigued, she asks, “What have we here?” She peels off the tissue until the last couple of sere sheets reveal the crisp white silk of a wedding dress. Coco lifts it up for a moment. She sees what it is and stops. Of course, a wedding dress. She blanches.
Catherine says, “I haven’t seen it for years.”
Coco is stunned into wordlessness by the sight of the dress. It is as if some fugitive outfit has been conjured from the cupboard, something that doesn’t belong.
Levelly, Catherine asks, “You never married?”
A vision of bridal whiteness knits itself in front of Coco, white like a scream. The power she feels she has established evaporates in an instant. Thirty-seven, unmarried, and with no children to her name, she realizes she must appear a failure. She fights an impulse to justify, to explain. Then, in reaction, she feels a sudden hardness. The truth is that, since Boy, men have been dispensable to her. Looking at Catherine now, she recognizes the softness of her loyalty, the weakness of a wife.
“No,” she says, more contemptuously than she intended.
She rearranges the paper hastily over the dress, replacing it deep within the cupboard. Then, drawing the hanger back evenly across the rail, she closes over the walnut-colored doors. One of the jackets snags. She has to tuck it back in and reclose the cupboard. The delay frustrates her.
“If you ever want to borrow the skirt, just say so,” reiterates Catherine. She is dimly aware of Coco’s discomfort and keen for them to end on a positive note. Charitably, for the moment, she assumes that Coco has balked at her own brashness in fingering the wedding dress.
“What?” Coco asks, preoccupied. The words filter slowly into her consciousness. “No. No. Thank you.” Perplexed by the strength of her reaction, she sits down, subdued, then abruptly stands again. She becomes hard-eyed. “What time is it?”
Catherine glances at a timepiece on the bedside table and starts to answer. But before the information can be conveyed, Coco decides she must leave. She has urgent business that must be attended to. Right away, she says.
“Well, thanks for coming to see me,” Catherine says. Her tone is polite, but also detectable is a fear, which leaks through into her voice, a growing fear that, with her bedridden, Coco and Igor might become more closely involved. She feels threatened by this woman’s vitality, her determined energy and strength.
The presence of both her and Coco under one roof inevitably begs comparison. It is a comparison that Catherine does not enjoy making, even to herself. In addition, she feels compromised as Coco insists on paying her medical bills. At once indebted and resentful, her sympathies oscillate between two opposing poles.
“Sorry?” Coco is already on her way out.
“Thank you for coming to see me.” Her tone is sincere. She understands she can’t afford to make an enemy of this woman.
“Oh, yes. Not at all. ’Bye,” Coco manages, with candid disregard. She halts, then quickens, leaving the room filled with light and air.
Catherine begins coughing hard again. Coco hears her muffled convulsions as she steps unsteadily down the stairs.