Portrait as a Tehuana, 1989
Louisa is telling us about Frida Kahlo, and how her husband (meaning Louisa’s husband, Roger) is like Diego Rivera, Frida’s. Meaning a controlling, domineering fucker, I’m presuming.
We’re sitting at her kitchen table. Roger’s in the loungeroom, watching TV. When we walked in tonight he sort of waved at us from his chair pulled up close to the TV, lifting his hand from where it rested on the arm of the chair. The sound on the TV was down quite low. He had a can of beer on the table in front of him. I said hi, I think Liz said his name, said hi Roger. He kept his eyes on the TV the whole time.
Louisa’d met us at the front door, stepped out onto the verandah to give us each a big jingling hug, kissing each side of our faces, surrounding us with a sort of incense smell.
‘My beautiful friends, come in, come in,’ she’d said in this fake-Mexican Frida accent she’s been using lately.
She swept us inside, into a short, wide entrance hall. There was a double glass door leading from the hall into the loungeroom, the glass just wavy enough to distort things. The light was off in the hall, where we were, and on in the loungeroom, and I could see the shape of Roger through the wavy glass of the door, see the brown of one trouser leg as it lifted itself over the other brown trouser leg. Lou grabbed the handle of the glass doors, then turned back to us, whispering.
‘We go through to the kitchen. We talk there, my darlings,’ still pressing on with the fake accent.
Then she turned back purposefully to the door, opened it, and led us through to the light, to sweep past Roger, past the TV and out to the back of the house, to a long, skinny, dark room. At one end is the kitchen. Separated from that by a breakfast bar is a round wooden table, with an old dresser up against the wall next to it. Beyond that a door is open onto the bathroom and laundry – you can smell a detergent smell from there, a clean smell.
We’re sitting at the table now, smoking. We’ve been here for an hour, give or take. The ashtray is filling. Lou’s accent is coming and going.
‘I’m working on a series of photographs,’ Lou tells us, and she’s dropped the accent now but no, she pickes it up again as she tells us. ‘Self portraits, com Frida. Avec el costumi del Frida.’
‘Jesus Lou, your Spanish is fucking awful.’
‘Gracias Lizzie cara mia, and you can call me Frida, s’il vous plaît.’
We all giggle. Roger makes a strange noise from the loungeroom, then the sound of the television gets louder, but still muffled through the door.
‘You know,’ Lou goes on, ‘Her very first painting was a self portrait. It’s what she painted: herself. Like looking really hard into a mirror, but in public. Really exposing. The bluntness of her stare – her eyes burn into you. And have you ever seen photos of her? Her eyes do the same in the photos – they stare into your soul, into your heart, they burn into you. Strip you bare. Well, I want to do the same, but sort of – I don’t know – bring it into the now, the here and now, and see what happens. I’ll show you.’
Lou takes the joint from Liz, smokes hard on it, then passes what little’s left to me. She rummages in a plastic shopping bag under the table, and pulls out something stiff and white. Lacy, like old-fashioned underwear.
‘It’s nearly finished,’ she says, holding it wide near her face, making a shape I can’t distinguish.
‘What is it Lou?’ Liz asks. ‘Frida’s undies?’
‘One of her costumes, cara.’ Lou’s Mexican accent is getting worse. It sounds Greek. Or Welsh. ‘One of the costumes she dressed in for her paintings.’ She says pine-tings.
Lou puts her hands through a hole in the centre of the white lace, like parting a curtain. She holds her hands up to her face. The lace ruff, a handswidth wide, surrounds a hole which fits neatly around Lou’s face. There are pins half way round the strip of cloth which forms the hole, so you can see where she still has to stitch to finish making it. The lace sticks out from her face like an old-fashioned collar.
Holding the fabric to her face with one hand, with the other hand Lou sorts through the pile of books and papers in front of her, pulling out a thick hardback book with a library sticker on its spine. She opens it, and I can see it’s an art book, about Frida Kahlo. She turns to a page marked with a torn sliver of paper, pushes the heavy book to face between Liz and me, points her finger at the coloured image of the painting, then moves her book hand back to her face, to reposition the undies snug around her face as she talks.
‘Self Portrait as a Tehuana, 1943,’ she reads us, phlegmy on the Tehuana. ‘Also known as Diego on my Mind – do you see, there is a little portrait of Diego superimposed on her forehead, like a – mmm, how do you call it, like an apparition. A stigmata.’
Frida’s wearing the undies on her head in the painting, around her face, a crown of flowers over her hairline, over the mad little Diego portrait. There’s a whole tablecloth thing hanging behind the head-undies, a pink satin ribbon around the base, below where her shoulders would be, then pleated white below.
‘Jesus, it’s awful.’
‘It’s beautiful! It’s the traditional costume of the women, Tehuana women or something, of this matriarchal society. It’s all about national identity and feminism and shit. They weren’t dependent on men, these Tehuana chicks, they’d maintained their cultural identity –’
‘She’s wearing undies on her head and a tablecloth Lou, that hardly seems the height of cultural or feminist identity.’
‘Yeah and Diego stamped on her head, like she’s branded.’
‘Well I think she’s beautiful,’ Lou sulks. ‘Strong and beautiful.’
Lou takes the thing off, careful of the pins. She holds it out to me. ‘Try it, cara.’
‘Nah Lou, no I don’t want –’
Liz is standing, she’s behind me and pulling my hair back from my forehead. Louisa is nodding, muttering djess, djess under her breath, waiting to pounce on me with the head-undies. Liz has my hair back smooth and tight, and Lou’s hands slip the white lace around my face, but it’s tight, tighter than it was on her – my face is rounder, fatter. She jiggles the binding around the facehole, wiggling her fingers out of the gap. One of the pins sticks briefly, scratches my cheek.
Lou steps around to the front of me, and she and Liz step backwards, looking at me intently. They’re smiling, except Liz’s smile is a bit of a grimace, like she’s screwing her eyes up to filter out the light.
‘You look, um –’
‘She looks beautiful, Liz. Djou look beautiful Janet, beautiful. Not pretty – cara Janet, you never are pretty, that is not how djou are my darling – but beautiful. So strong. Like Frida.’
Lou walks around the table, reaches into the dresser cupboard and takes out a Polaroid camera.
‘I snap you for my study, cara.’ She lines up the camera, tells me ‘It’s perfect for you, this costume. Keep still Janet, and don’t smile.’ I stare at her, and the flash, when it goes, lights the backs of my eyes red.
The camera spits out the photo and Lou picks it up between her long fingernails, waves it in the air. ‘One minute.’ Liz sinks back into her chair, lights a cigarette.
‘Christ I have to wee.’
‘Be careful of my Tehuana frill.’
I scarper for the bathroom. The mirror catches me before I reach the toilet. When I look in the mirror, it’s as if everything else disappears, as if all there is is my face and the frill around it. It’s like my face can’t hide, there’s no hair, no shadow, no nothing to soften it. And my face is kind of like Frida’s, except fatter, doughier. There’s the same moustache that Frida has, the monobrow thing happening. My cheeks are red and flushed. All I’m missing is Diego branded on my forehead. And I’ve just got the frill, like a freakish bridal veil around my face. Instead of the white tablecloth thing that Frida has in the Tehuana portrait, there’s just my t-shirt, the thin beads around my neck, incongruous under the head-undies.
The sight of my bare face fixes me, and I can’t look away. The moustache, my mouth red and dark below it like I’m knickerless, cunt exposed under a petticoat. I pull the lace away. A pin loosens and pings onto the tiles on the floor. My hair falls forward over my face as I bend to pick up the pin and I rub my hand over my head, through my hair, messing it and pulling it over my face.
I straighten and look back into the mirror, flicking hair forwards at my cheeks. My fringe touches my eyebrows, messy and loose. The shadows from my hair soften my face. It looks like me again.
I sit at the table, throw the head undies towards Lou. The Polaroid is on the table in front of Lou. I pick it up, hold it away from me, stare myself in the eyes.
‘Jesus, I look horrible.’
Lou gets up, walks behind me, and takes the photo from my hand.
‘No, cara. Strong and beautiful, like what I said.’ She reaches for the head undies, extracts a pin from the perimeter, and uses the pin to stick the photo to the wall.
‘Oh, tear it up Lou,’ I tell her, ‘go on, it’s –’
‘No darling, it is for my collection. Not for my show, you understand, but for me. Now quiet. I make us food.’
She pads to the kitchen in bare feet, sort of slinking above the floor the way she does, her feet so flat the toes are raised. I remember the first time I saw her do this. It was years ago, when I hardly knew her, when Lou was sleeping with Clay’s mate Dave and I was still with Clay. Lou and I were both staying at their house at nights, and we must have been on the same timeclock or something, we’d both end up getting up to piss at the same time. Lou’d pass me, pad by naked down the hallway from the toilet back to Dave’s bedroom. I’d have a towel or a t-shirt on. We’d cross in the hallway, midway between the boys’ bedrooms and the toilet, smile at each other. One time she touched my shoulder lightly with her hand, whispered goodnight, and kissed me on the cheek. I only ever saw her at night, in the middle of the night, for about two months. When I finally met her in daylight she seemed taller. Older. More ordinary.
Lou has taken chorizo from the fridge and is cutting it, concentrating intently, on a wooden board. She puts a black pan on the stove, lights the gas, heats it, pours oil from a bottle into the pan, then adds butter and the angled chorizo slices. I watch her cut a lemon in half. The smell from the pan is of pepper and oil and pork and spice and smoke. She turns the pieces, turns off the flame, and squeezes the lemon halves over the pan, one lemon half in each hand, squeezing the life out of them. She cuts bread, piles it on the board, brings the board and the pan to the table and puts them down between us. She picks a piece of sausage out of the pan with her fingers, pops it in her mouth, speaks around it as she picks up bread and applies it to the pan with gusto.
‘You must soak up the juices with the bread,’ Lou tells us, and we do, and it’s good, the sweet-burnt sausage, the fattiness cut by the lemon. The bread absorbs it all, delivering it, integral.
I lick the lemony butter from my fingers, stare past Lou at my portrait on the wall, the colours of the Polaroid gaudy, too bright. I stand up, reach over Lou, pull the pin from the wall and turn the photograph over, putting its bright shiny side to the wall where I don’t have to look at it. As I replace the pin, fixing the Polaroid to the wall again, I see there’s writing backing the image – Louisa’s writing, she must have done it while I was in the loo. Janet – Portrait as a Tehuana, 1989. I decide it’s the only part of the photo I like. She and Liz are smiling at me as I sit down, smiling and scraping up the last of the chorizo.
‘So come on then Lou, what is it about Frida, eh?’ I ask her. ‘What grabs you about her?’
Lou puts her left hand to her chest, thumping herself three times with a clenched fist. ‘Heart. Corazon. Her sense of heart and pain. Passion and pain. There’s this Aztec thing – I’ve been reading, I can tell you – Aztec, um, symbolism. The heart is the vital organ, the source of life. She is all about heart and blood and pain and life and passion. It’s a vital mix.’
‘Mi amor, mi corazon,’ Liz sings, badly.
‘Nah,’ I say. ‘Mi amor, mi chorizo.’