All Apologies to Frida Kahlo

by Mara Grayson

I probably shouldn't have touched the oil paint. I know I wasn't supposed to. Please understand that my transgression was not an attempt at defiance or destruction. I never wanted to harm the painting, but at thirteen years old, my understanding of some things was not as clear as it is now. I wanted to touch Frida's hands, but because her hands weren't in the painting, I touched Diego's nose instead.

See, I didn't want to be in Paris with my mother, who had gone mad a few days earlier in London. It had been just another rainy London morning, but my mother didn't like the rain; it was also very hot, and my mother didn't like the heat. We were staying at a painter's studio in East Walthamstow, the last stop on the Victoria line, and there was no air conditioning. We'd flown to London that August because my mother needed to rest.

Before we'd left, her psychiatrist had prescribed new tranquilizers, and I'd been to my doctor to obtain medical clearance for high school in the fall. The doctor found a swollen knob in my neck, a slight imperfect bump beneath the skin. I was used to the thing - my father had a similar bump in his left arm, and my grandmother had had one too. It didn't hurt, and I only knew it was there if I found the exact right spot. My pediatrician assured my frantic mother that it was a random hereditary deformity, ran a series of tests at her urging, and again concluded that nothing was wrong. Two days later we flew to London. It was my first plane ride.

There was only one bedroom in the flat besides the artist's, so my mother and I shared the room in the attic. There was a bed, which she insisted I sleep on, while she opted for the child-sized cot in the corner of the room. The morning we were to leave for a side trip to France, I was awakened at the crack of dawn by a pressing pain in my neck. Frightened, I looked across the room for my mother. The cot was empty and the sheets were pressed into crisp hospital corners. A small serrated butter knife lay in the center of the bed. I reached up to soothe the pain that pushed at my neck and felt my mother's hand. She hovered over the bed, poking with two fingers at the undetectable knob beneath my skin.

I swatted my mother's hand away. "What are you doing?"

She reached for my neck again. "You have a lump," she said, "and I need to cut it out. Where is it?"

"There's nothing wrong with it!" I was used to my mother's episodes. I took deep breaths to stay calm. "Daddy has the same thing," I said. I had to be rational. I had to be a voice of reason.

"Daddy," she hissed, "is not a doctor." Then she climbed on top of me and anchored her knees on either side of my body. I struggled beneath as she pinned one wrist to the bed and grabbed the first two fingers of my other hand and pulled them toward my neck.

"You're not a doctor either!" I screamed. My mother released the hand that pinned me down and slapped me across the face.

I won't burden you with any further details, but suffice it to say that what followed involved a struggle to keep a kitchen knife away from my person, and a morbidly comic escape across the bedroom, down a twisted flight of narrow red stairs, through the kitchen, and into the bathroom with my mother in tow. The loo had one of those separated toilet stalls, which I locked myself inside. The stall was three feet square. There was a window too high and too narrow to climb through. There was nothing inside the room but a can of bathroom spray, with which I reasoned I could blind my mother if she managed to get inside.

"If you're dying I need to help you. You have a lump!" she screamed. "What if I need to pee? You can't stay in the bathroom. What if I need to pee?" She pounded at the door. I scrunched myself down onto the floor and covered my ears with my fists until the screaming stopped.

A quiet knock came upon the door.

"Miss? Miss?"

A tall woman cop with a British face - square chin, small nose, red cheeks, you know the sort - hovered in the doorway. She asked if I was hurt. When I shook my head, she led me into the main washroom, one big hand on my bony shoulder. In the kitchen sat my mother with two officers and one hand cuffed to a kitchen chair. "I just needed to make sure the cancer was gone," she explained.

The room didn't have a tub, only a shower stall, so I had no place to sit while the bobby questioned me about the cancer I hoped I didn't have. I stood still, trying not to hear my mother in the next room, and watched the inverted bell curve of the pipe below the sink collect sweat into one big fat droplet that dropped and splattered on the policewoman's shiny shoes.

When our friend who owned the flat came home and explained to the police that my mother was simply unwell and under his care, the police left. I was sent on a walk. East Walthamstow was waking up: women in skirt suits and tennis shoes shuffled toward the tube; men in suits bought papers at the lotto shop. I bought a paper cup of tea at the Indian take-away and bakery, Pakora Palace. When I returned, it was decided that we should go to Paris as planned. "You wouldn't want to come all this way and miss the Louvre, would you?" my mother's friend asked. I knew from his tone that it was not a question.

We waited two hours to get inside the Louvre. We stood before the Mona Lisa with forty other tourists. I posed for two snapshots that never developed right before a security guard hustled us along. The rain had followed us from London to Paris, but it was warm, and two men whistled as I leaned over the fountain outside to touch the cool water and my new breasts spilled forward in my Miss Selfridge tank top. One of the men offered to buy a real French café for the lovely American girl and her Maman. He smiled a smile I'd only seen on soap opera villains with twirled mustaches.

"You should cover yourself up," my mother snapped and pulled me in the direction of the Champs Elysees, where I stopped by a bench to pull on a sweater, and I wished I could cut off the pubescent breasts that bothered her so much. 
We went to the Musee D'Orsay too, because my mother loved Impressionism, and she walked through the halls as if she was floating. She loved the Van Goghs and Cezannes and Monets, everything in long filmy strokes of mauve and gold and gray like pastel day dreams. My mother saw life through a filter that couldn't sift me out. There I stuck, the bold-colored premature child somehow grown into an adolescent monstrosity a few small nips just couldn't cut down.

"I need a coffee," she said, and I made a snarky remark about how she should have accepted that Frenchman's offer.

"His offer was to you. Men don't offer those things to me anymore," she said. My mother was older than most mothers; my friends' parents were in their forties, highlighted their hair, and still had babies. My mother was 55; depression had made her arms twig-like and her face gaunt. She spent every morning before the mirror lamenting the gray in her hair, but she refused hair dye. "There's a coffee shop at that intersection," she said, pointing ahead with a pink index finger, inflamed and raw from biting at the cuticles.
As we neared the intersection I saw affixed to a signpost a large photograph of Frida Kahlo, the one with the spider monkey cradled in her left arm; beneath the photo, the word Exposition, and an arrow pointing left. I looked down the cobble road. There was a small gallery, nothing I would have noticed otherwise. A smaller leaflet taped below the photograph announced a temporary exhibition of a private collection of paintings.

"Ma! There's a Frida Kahlo exhibit!" I nearly jumped into a raincloud.

My mother barely moved. "So?" She touched a hand to her forehead as though testing for a fever.

"So she's my favorite artist." I had six biographies of Frida Kahlo and two coffee table books of prints at home. A print of Self-Portrait with Monkey was framed upon my bedroom wall. "So I didn't even know she would be here. So I have to see it."
My mother took two slow breaths like she was smoking a cigarette. "I'm very tired." She looked across the street at the café. "Just go," she said. "I'll have a cup of coffee. I don't care."

While my mother drank coffee and pretended to eat a chocolate crepe, I walked slowly through a gallery whose name I can't remember and from which I've no souvenir or ticket stub. There was a guard at the door, but the gallery was small and quiet, and there were no visitors inside. I panicked at the possibility this was all a joke: could a Frida Kahlo exhibit really be here? And go unnoticed?

I didn't recognize most of the paintings. Then I saw it: Diego and I, hanging eye level on the far back wall. I moved closer. I was surprised that the painting was not larger - I had seen the plates in my books and read the stated dimensions, but I never imagined that Frida Kahlo's face on canvas could be as small as mine in flesh. There was no glass plate between our faces. I stood there an eternity, staring at Diego Rivera's face painted in her head, wondering how Frida could love that man who made her cry.
I knew it was against the rules to touch the paintings. I knew there was something about the oil in my fingers mingling with the oil in the paints, but I doubted I could do much harm in a moment, one touch. I wished that Frida had painted her whole body onto the canvas so I could hold her hand. I wiped my own hands on my jeans. The gallery was very quiet. In a way it seemed we were alone.

So I touched Diego right on the nose. I did!

I'm sorry, but I did. Then, like testing the handle of a cast iron frying pan, I drew my hand immediately back toward my body and shoved it into my pocket.

I looked around. The gallery was still. Staring back at me, Frida's face was unchanged, full with sorrow and the looming threat of those three white tears; Diego's nose had not smeared his left cheek across her forehead. I wished I were home, lying on my bed with the FM radio tuned to that low-dial station that came in clear in good weather, counting the boxes on my ceiling aloud to drown out my mother screaming from the back of the house.

I couldn't tell which feeling weighed more heavily upon me: relief or disappointment. 
I had wanted to feel what she had felt, and to know how she could reconcile an inextinguishable love for someone, so necessary, who hurt her so often. What magic mirror did Frida Kahlo have that could light fondness on bestiality, and turn brutal her own grace?

I left the gallery, and the security guard who stood out front smiled and said goodbye in English. He was more polite than I'd been told French people would be to Americans, but I've always wondered what he thought of the girl alone on such a dreary day with her hands jammed so tightly into her pockets. When I was a safe distance down the road, I withdrew my fingers from my pants - no paint was stained upon my fingertips. They were only white, pale and lacking circulation, having hidden in my pockets so long.
I met my mother at the coffee shop, where she sat before an uneaten crepe staring into the distance at dusky cobblestones.

"You took a long time," she said, and flattened her frizzy hair with her hands. 
That haunted gallery in Paris has become a quiet recollection for me, something more akin to déjà vu than raw experience. The violent memories of my trip to London have also faded into blurry scenes my mother would have found pleasing to look at. I have never found a mirror like the one I imagine Frida Kahlo must have looked inside when she painted her self-portrait, crying tears as white as gesso.

 

Mara Grayson's work has appeared in Obsessed With Pipework, Keys for Writers, and Jewish Voice. An MFA candidate at The City College of New York, Ms. Grayson was formerly a regular contributor to Show Business Weekly.