A Yawn in the Life of Venus
By Daniela Gioseffi
Women are the books, the arts,
the academies, that show, contain and
nourish all the world.
Venus stood on the fire escape of her brownstone apartment on Mac Dougal Street, brushing her damp auburn hair in the dusty New York sunlight. Venus was thinking how she should see a podiatrist about her perpetually aching metatarsals, but probably never would. She knew that they were metatarsal arches because she'd just read an article about them in a magazine she'd bought at the super-market. It explained that 85% of people over thirty, living in civilized countries--where shoes and concrete plague human feet--suffer foot disorders, while only 7% of those in lands like barefoot India or China have foot problems.
"That culprit, the high heel! Invented most likely by the French!" mused Venus. "It's not only a device for mincing femininity and over-civilized grace, but a horror to the human spine thrown out of line by it and an utter anathema to the metatarsal arches!" Venus, an expressionist dancer, sighed as she thought of how people walk upright and not on all fours like the animals they are. She shrugged about how she ought to see a podiatrist but never would, and she smirked--realizing that despite knowing the caloric value of every conceivable American comestible from the learned backlog of ten years of unsuccessful dieting--she'd probably always be as hopelessly plump as a Botticelli Renaissance vision.
Venus Picatelli, perched on the fire escape of her Greenwich Village apartment, was gathering glimmers of sunlight on her face and a glimpse of some backyard greenery as she lived on one of those Old World blocks where city gardens still exist as an institution, though they might be travesties of English or French gardens of past centuries. She'd just washed her hair with a green gel shampoo, and rinsed and dressed it with a bit of the contents of an aluminum tube of yellow lanolin manufactured by the oil glands of some dead sheep somewhere.
She was combing damp tangles from her long hair with a translucent, purple plastic hairbrush as she leaned over the backyard greenery growing on the patch of dirt in the garden below. The sun still managed its age old dance patterns on the laden branches of a lone Ailanthus tree planted eons ago. Its large, fern-like leaves were once again tinted with the light green of early spring as it lifted its limbs upward to where Venus' somewhat calloused toes--with their shiny pink nails--stood out against the black wrought iron of the fire escape. As Venus stood on her black lattice shell, her pink toenails and purple hairbrush gleamed quite a bit more brightly than the pale cheeks and lips which she lifted to the reborn sun.
Her hair was exactly the same color as Botticelli's Venus as she yawned and stretched, letting it hang down the fire escape like Rapunzel's, but, alas, no one attempted to climb the sunlit locks of the thirty-seven-year-old Venus of Mac Dougal Street. No handsome young prince stood in the garden below, where he might have gazed through the metal slats of the fire escape up her short terry cloth robe to the naked crotch of her soft, slightly parted inner thighs.
Venus heaved another sigh and drew her head up so that her damp locks fell to either side of her too pretty face which was coated with a sheer flesh colored make-up, from a pink plastic case, decorated with imitation goldleaf, Florentine filigree designs. As her mouth yawned wide, the sun glinted from the gold platinum underside of her capped eye-tooth and pinched tiny wrinkles into the corners of her squinting sea-green eyes.
Venus was totally unaware, at the moment, of the life she was leading inside the head of Walter Goldbrick as he sat playing Schubert lieder and singing "Green Is the Color of My Love" into the dusty keyboard and yellowed sheet music on the piano of his New York apartment a few blocks away on Houston Street. Walter thought of Venus with her reddish gold hair, plump and naked before him, on the sagging couch of his never-converted, convertible sofa, sewing buttons on his one light-weight spring jacket which would now have to be dragged from the back of his dusty, walk-in closet where he had stored it last winter. Of course, the picture of Venus lying languidly on his sagging sofa--pink-nippled and sewing on buttons--flashed quickly by amidst the notes of the plaintive song and gave way to the image of Venus sprawled, legs open, on the blue permanent-press sheets of her bed. Walter Goldbrick dreamed of Venus as he sang until he groaned a wonderful moan--just at the end of the Schubert song--and slumped over the piano, breathing rather heavily. He felt the music rack caress his forehead with a thud.
The bump brought him back to the practical world wherein he knew that on Friday night, when Venus' daughter was visiting her estranged husband, he would, indeed, make his way to her bed via some theatre tickets and a late-night supper. "Ah, Venus," he thought, "without you, this poor alte cocker would be a very depressed old man!"
Walter Goldbrick, after all, was a ripe fifty-three years, making him a good sixteen years Venus' senior. He sometimes found it difficult to imagine the fact that when he was sixteen, and having nocturnal emissions, Venus was only a mewling, puking infant. So, he tried not to think about it. Instead, he thought of how proud he was, as a somewhat homely older man with graying hair and a long nose, to have such a young plump woman for a steady, if occasional, companion in love and romance.
He'd met Venus Picatelli at a film festival where young artists' films were being shown--a cultural event produced by himself. He was something of an entrepreneur of the arts who had never made it big or accumulated wealth. Still, he worked diligently for the young hopeful talents he helped to foster. He was a man of great taste living in relative squalor--the sort of fellow whose sympathies went out to others though he never seemed to receive his rightful due of affection in return.
Yet, as he sat there, in his ever-so-slightly ripped tee-shirt, playing Schubert lieder, he felt like a man who'd lived and was living through the body of Venus. The thought made his cheeks glow just at the moment when Venus, feeling lonely and dull, her pale face yawning, stood on her wrought iron shell. She never dreamed that, at the very moment, she was leading a rather exciting life in the mind of Mervin Holst, a writer of nonfiction articles concerning the vanishing wilderness, acid rain and ozone contamination.
Mervin lived in a tiny apartment on the teeming lower East Side of Manhattan. He sat at his dusty desk, rifling through his files, looking for an idea which would sell at the springtime of the year and thinking of Venus. She flashed into his mind when he came across a note on how brown bears would not copulate when the cars passing through State Parks made them nervous and belched too much carbon monoxide into their lairs.
Mervin Holst always called Venus to check on the cocktail party schedule of the social circle of which they were both a part. They had met at a literary party for a book on the wilderness which Mervin had edited for a big publishing house. Mervin liked Venus' wit which she declared she seldom displayed when not in Mervin's witty company. Her wit was all Mervin allowed himself to like about her. She was too strong-minded and plump for his taste. He had a definite preference for young, tall, and very slender women, more in the shape of Giacometti sculptures than Botticelli paintings. He liked women to be very much younger than his forty-seven years, silly, and ultra-feminine, so that he could overpower them in bed. He was definitely a leg man, not a breast, buttock or belly lover. Venus' legs were too plump for Mervin's taste, and the one thing he could never forgive in a woman was thick ankles. He liked thin ankles with an almost Victorian fervor, the kind of obsession which caused skirts to be draped over music parlor piano legs to eliminate prurient thoughts at musicales.
A tall, barrel-chested fellow who towered above Venus' mere average height, Mervin wanted women to look frail as young boys, because he had a very strong mother, and making love to a strong-minded and bodied woman would be too much like making love to his mother whom he visited every Friday night in order to get his hair washed. Mervin's mother was, he had decided, the only one who could get all the soap out without getting any in his eyes, and his eyes, he had decided, were very allergic to every sort of available shampoo.
When he came across the note in his files about bears not wanting to copulate near traffic, he thought, for some inexplicable reason, of Venus in bed with Walter Goldbrick whom he had perceived as muscular for a man his age. He admired the muscular arms, neck and intellect of Walter. It was quite pleasant to think, just for a passing moment, of Walter copulating with Venus. He knew carbon monoxide wouldn't stop them. He imagined them in a bed of twigs and leaves, grunting and groaning like bears and growling in ecstasy. He liked them both and it was a brief vicarious pleasure to think of them all sweaty, smiling and grunting like bears.
Mervin Holst went on with his search for an idea which would sell at the spring time of the year to one of the ecology magazines he wrote for. He pulled out his bear file just as Venus was half way through her fire escape yawn, never realizing for an instant that she was leading an important life in the mind of Dolores O'Hara. Dolores was a forever aspiring, forty year old painter who lived in a loft on Prince Street in Soho. She was busy mixing sea-green acrylic paint for the wildly abstract painting she was thrusting herself into that afternoon.
She thought of Venus' eyes and how they had glowed the first night she made love to her in the loft bed of her painting studio--the aroma of linseed oil and acrylic all around them, mixing with the feminine perfumes of their bodies. It was the first time Venus had allowed herself to live out her not very compelling fantasy of making love with another woman. The time had been right for it! The political climate set the stage! Women's Liberation allowed Venus to have the courage for the experiment. "There are many obscenities in the world, but any adult human being making tender love with another adult human being--so long as there's no unhealthy buggery--is far from the worst. I feel murdering dolphins or polluting with plutonium is far more obscene and the government does it all the time! But, it's never good to fool Mother Nature! And none of us would be here at all if it weren't for heterosexual love. I don't approve of straight bashing!" Venus had expounded.
Dolores lifted her sea-green paintbrush and slashed it across the middle of the canvas, thinking of Venus lying in bed, her sea-green eyes smiling a piercing smile and whispering: "I don't think I could ever be a Lesbian, because I can't imagine not wanting to be close with men; but I do enjoy talking with you. Your friendship means a lot to me. Women ought to be able to be good friends, not just pitted against each other for male approval. We should have a buddy system, too, for professional networking like, 'the old boy circuit.' I think of Sappho and the ancient Greek way. She affectionately trained women to serve the Goddess. They developed camaraderie and then matured into wifehood and relationships with men. I think I have an infantile fetish for a mothering breast despite all liberated views."
"Don't we all?" Dolores countered wryly. "We all start out as suckers, and a lot of us end up that way."
Venus laughed. She liked Dolores' humor. "I mean, don't you think there's a puer or puella eternus in gayhood, perhaps? I mean in the natural order of things. Most lesbians I meet had terrible fathers, but I loved mine."
"Mine was a wife beater. I hated him. Men!" Dolores made a sour face.
"Then, again, it might all be hormonal, so who can be punitive and judgmental about such mysteries?" Venus sighed.
"Most people!" Dolores answered flatly, in her characteristic tone. "Especially legislators." She'd met Venus at a women's rally for abortion reform at the State Capitol in Albany. Dolores had done the posters for the event and Venus was performing a benefit dance that night, a la Isadora, on the mall in front of the governor's offices, in order to attract a crowd for a demonstration.
Venus, like the first of the nine muses, Terpsichore, was a dancer who made a living from occasional performances, but mostly from teaching dance exercise classes in her apartment every morning. She'd developed a system of dance preparation known as "The Piccatelli Technique." It was designed to release the natural voluptuousness of the dance and was fairly well respected among avant-guarde dancers in the city. Venus had just enough students to keep her basic financial needs in order.
Dolores, when she'd met Venus at the mall in Albany, felt it was love at first sight. They drove back to New York City together in Dolores' station wagon full of feminist posters. Venus ended up spending the night in Dolores' Soho loft. Dolores made gentle, feminine, attentive love to Venus. "Women understand each other's bodies better than men can!" she told Venus as she showed her a poster she'd hung on the wall, titled "The Discovery of the Clitoris." Dolores had ordered it from an advertisement in the back of a magazine named, Never Just Mrs.Again!
Dolores O'Hara, who was an aging, abstract expressionist painter, a gentle if sardonic person, easily satisfied with the smallest pleasures. She splashed sea-green paint onto her canvas and thought of caressing Venus--soft bosom to soft bosom--in the same moment that Venus, on her not-so pearly shell was in the exact middle of her lonely yawn in Greenwich Village, never dreaming for a mere instant that she was leading an adventurous life in the psyche of Pat Sampler.
Pat Sampler, a hosiery salesman, was on his way to Poughkeepsie to show his new pantyhose samples to a department store buyer there. As his eyes concentrated on the white line unfolding before him along the expressway, he day-dreamed leisurely of Venus with whom he talked often on the telephone--more often than in person--whenever he was in New York. He thought of himself, dressed in a pair of pantyhose, while being caressed by Venus. He imagined her forcibly holding his thighs open and raping him in the most exciting scene he could fashion. The white line drifted into his subconscious as Venus invaded his consciousness.
He lay on the bed of his mind in his long auburn wig and beige pantyhose and groaned with pleasure. Over his pantyhose, was the most exquisite pair of lace bikini panties he could imagine from Bloomingdales and stretched across his flat hairy chest was a padded, pink satin Maidenform bra. Pat Sampler was a transvestite, though quite privately, who liked to have strong women make love to him while he costumed himself in women's attire, but he did not desire sexual union with men. He couldn't help day-dreaming of what had never actually taken place between himself and Venus, though he longed for it to. He'd met Venus because he'd read an article about her views on the dance in a local feminist newspaper and sought her out to tell her he shared her opinions. He liked her, and her looks, and offered to supply her with Danskin leotards at wholesale prices, for the rest of her career.
Aside from enjoying buying Danskins wholesale for retail to her students, Venus liked talking with Pat Sampler. His voice was very feminine on the telephone, and she'd forget that she was talking to a man and talk to him as if he were one of her girl friends. They would laugh together about feminine foibles and talk feminist politics and art. Pat Sampler was a very well-read man, especially for a hosiery salesman. He felt starved for talk with someone who possessed a higher grade of intellect than most of the people he dealt with daily. Venus understood him. He'd confessed his transvestism to her and she'd made him feel accepting about himself.
When he'd explained his fantasies to her, she'd listened attentively and asked empathetic questions. She made lighthearted jokes about how he could turn into a woman like Jan Morris or Christine Jorgenson, and she'd become a man like Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Then, they would marry and live happily ever after. He enjoyed dreaming of the idea, though he knew it would never happen. On his lonely long driving trip--watching infinite white lines--dreaming of Venus made him feel good, just at the moment when Venus was partly through the mid-mark of her yawn never thinking for an instant that she was living a romantic life in the mind of Mike Mizre, her college friend of seventeen years.
Mike had decided that Venus was his only true inspiration and the only real love of his life. He'd had a long and arduous affair with Venus in college, back in the days when he was directing college variety shows and editing the campus literary magazine and Venus was a budding dancer who dabbled in composing romantic love poems, too close to nineteenth century sensibilities to be appreciated in the 1950's--in America.
Michael had enjoyed playing Svengali to Venus' Trilby for three years, advising and inspiring her dancing and writing, and producing theatricals, which inevitably starred her as the dancing gazelle of the campus. He decided, after several years of trying, to forget the passionate affair which was the mutual undoing of their virginities. There would never be another love like theirs in his life, he'd decided. They remained friends after the hot tears wept over the death of their love ceased to pour forth from the bottomless well of Venus' eyes. Michael had been the best man at Venus' wedding. He'd found he preferred being loved by men than loving women. "It," he reasoned "was so much simpler and less complicated than having to pick up the tab all the time, or having to remember to say, 'I love you,' or worrying about fathering children, while in the act of bodily relief supplied by love-making."
His fantasy of Venus included their sitting before the fire in a woodsy New England retreat--he, typing his latest hit Broadway musical and she, reading the pages hot off the typewriter, mentally choreographing the dance numbers which would capture the essence of the leading femme fatale. "This is absolutely brilliant! You are unquestionably a genius! A hit if I ever saw one!" he imagined Venus' gesticulating with grace and dramatic vigor. Then he imagined retiring to his room where his handsome young house-boy would minister to his sexual needs before he retired for the night wherein he would sleep the sleep of angels in the arms of Venus. She'd cuddle close to him like pure and innocent child through the night. He saw her as Innocence Abroad in a Henry James novel.
It was that very fantasy which nestled in his day dream as he came across a picture of Venus and her daughter at the beach last summer. The snapshot was caressed between the leaves of the book he had been reading: The Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham. Just as he found it and drifted into revery before the New England fireplace of his mind, glowing in the eyes of Venus across from him, Venus was quite a bit through her lonely yawn on the fire escape of Mac Dougal Street. At that very same instant, Venus was living quite another life in the mind of Luciana Kelly, her five year-old-daughter.
Luciana, having just fallen off her tricycle, was nursing a bruised knee on the sofa of her father's apartment on the other side of Greenwich Village. Luciana, who always missed her divorced mother on the weekends she spent with her father, was imagining her mother hugging and comforting her, putting stingless, strawberry medicine on her bruised knee. She was thinking how it just wasn't the same to have Daddy fix a scraped knee as it was to have Mommy do it. Venus always made Teddy Bear talk like Donald Duck, but most of all, she hugged better. "I want my Mommy!" she began to howl making her father feel quite helpless. As he reached for the antiseptic spray on the bathroom shelf, the vision of Venus cooking spaghetti on a Sunday afternoon with Luciana playing in her highchair at the kitchen table flashed before him. The smell of pasta burning on his own stove may well have been the cause for his aching memory, or was it the stinging sensation of guilt he felt whenever Luciana cried for her mother, combining with the words "No Sting" on the label of the spray he took from the shelf?
"I want my Mommy!" howled Luciana again, just as Venus nearly completed her yawn above the Ailanthus tree, never for one vague instant knowing that Finley Roosevelt Jackson sat at the desk of his furnished room, casting her in the role of a sympathetic older woman undoing his hopeless virginity.
"Don't be afraid, Finley, " Venus was saying in soft, sensuous tones, as Finley sank down and placed his tired, bespectacled head in her healing lap. "I'll show you how, and everything will be all right. Don't worry if you can't do it right away, I'll teach you how to make love, my darling. I live to give pleasure."
Finley Roosevelt Jackson was a young Black man recently come to New York City from Alabama. He was an extremely bright, well-educated, boyish man of twenty-six whose courageous mother had worked for years as a hospital aide to put him through college. His mother, who was not a political activist, but a hard-working widow, had trudged to work everyday to be able to send her only son the money he needed for his studies at Berkeley. Seeing his diploma had been her motivating dream. One Sunday morning in church, just before Finley was due to arrive home from California, Mrs. Roosevelt Jackson sat listening to a sermon on Civil Rights, the "Freedom Riders" of Selma, and the restaurant "Sit-ins" of Birmingham, when a homemade bomb planted by a local member of the Ku Klux Klan went off and demolished the church, killing five of its occupants, she among them. Finley, who had just come out of the heady atmosphere of final exams, and been graduated with honors from Berkeley, arrived home with his diploma in hand to find it was too late to show it to Mama. Broken hearted, he'd left Selma soon after and migrated to New York.
One lonely afternoon, because of his interest in culture, he was taking a walking tour sponsored by The Museum of the City of New York. On that tour, he met Venus who was friendly and enjoyed the comments he made about local history. She'd been impressed with the way he seemed to know more about urban history than the tour guide. They'd lunched together after the tour. Finley, with Venus prompting him on, confessed his life story, loneliness and depression in New York. The black radicals he met considered him an Uncle Tom because he wasn't an activist with an Afro and Harlem diction. He didn't get along with his prejudiced white boss, where he worked--as the token black in the office--interviewing clients at a State Employment Agency, either. He was between the devil and the deep blue sea and rather unhappy about it when he met Venus.
She was empathetic and oblivious to her own voluptuousness as she voraciously devoured her lunch across from him. They'd exchanged telephone numbers in Platonic fashion and promised to keep in touch whenever an interesting walking-tour came up. Venus had no sexual designs on the thin young man whom she found intellectually stimulating. She'd no idea, as she completed her yawn, that she was undoing his virginity, nakedly caressing him in every possible way, upon the bed in the furnished room of his mind.
On a lazy, lonely, sunny afternoon in early spring, she couldn't know, that like many respectable feline, slightly bovine, beauties, she was leading several lives, all in the space of one yawn. She stretched and reluctantly bent low to climb into her window. She felt, not exactly bored, but in some way unfulfilled, unexcited by the possibilities greeting her in the eyes of all she knew. Even if Venus had experienced seventy different orgasmic thrills in the minds of sixty different people during the course of one yawn, she was lonely the way the human spirit is always alone, afloat in its boat of skin upon the sea of eyes that greet it, masks and mirrors reflecting the wondering and wandering image of love, the wry smile of a goddess who refuses to answer with more than a whisper of wind through the fresh greenery of spring leaves on Ailanthus trees, or the glint of sunlight off the silvery underside of a capped bicuspid.
Venus' stomach growled. She thought of the leftover Moo Goo Gai Pan from last night's Chinese take-out dinner. She went to the refrigerator, opened it, and peered in at a cardboard container which sat dribbling gravy down its sides. Wistfully, she dragged the container from its shelf and plopped its gelled contents into a frying pan. She added plenty of soy sauce to revive its flavor. Then she sat with her aching metatarsals and legs out-stretched on the kitchen table and ate, wielding a big soup spoon, as she balanced the pan with its warmed-over contents atop her ample bosom, just under her chin. When she finished, she stood and expelled a burp and a bit of flatulence.
A little smear of gravy still on her chin, she took a soiled sack of laundry from the closet, yawned again, in the midst of several fantasies, and descended the stairs of her brownstone apartment building to the basement laundry room, squirming the whole time with the thought of the roaches which always scurried away in droves as she entered and flicked on the bald light bulb hanging from the low ceiling.
As she listened to the slish-slosh of the washing machine, Venus thought about all of the people whom she knew--about how they were all decent people, gentle in their way--unique people who would never destroy or deliberately hurt anyone. She thought of how much knowledge, intelligence and understanding they possessed among them, how each one of them, from transvestite to Lesbian, from homosexual to heterosexual to virgin, were, in their way, moral people with delicate spirits and open minds. She realized, too, as she opened The Village Vocalizer with its headline about some strife in Korea and Viet Nam, that none of them, including herself, might ever personally do anything about stopping wars, hunger, or injustice short of making contributions to The War Resisters League, or marching in demonstrations.
Standing there, in her Cross-Your-Heart, Maidenform bra, and terry cloth robe, she considered how every one of them was lonely and how she was, too, listening to her laundry, alone in a huge city at the edge of the pounding Atlantic Ocean where millions huddled together on a rock piled high with cluttered buildings.
Venus Picatelli, named for Venus Genetrix, known as Anadyomene, or Rising-from-the-Sea, Aphrodite, a goddess to be welcomed, not feared, originally an obscure Roman deity whose name signified "charm" or "beauty"--scratched her ear, and then scratched her left buttock, and yawned--never realizing that in the very same instant, she was leading a life in your mind.