Nina leaned against the big gnarled beech tree that stood, impressive and impassive, between the edge of the road and the woods behind. She looked up to watch a trio of vultures circle. Not circling her, simply riding on thermals above the cliff about a quarter mile away. She was barefooted. David had her sandals in his tiny backpack, along with a short "jacket," if it could be called that, which matched her ridiculous dress and did absolutely nothing to keep her warm. It didn’t even close across her breasts.
The dress was transparent. It was made of black lace, black piping, and pink tulle, a fancy word, Nina though, for netting. The layers of pink tulle increased toward the ground so that her naked breasts, naked belly and crotch were clearly visible through the dress, but her feet were hidden. She seemed to float on a pink cloud.
Nina often saw herself from outside her skin. Too much LSD, she guessed. It was still weird, though, to see herself in that unbearable get-up, at the edge of the forest, even though there weren't many mosquitoes. Of course, she'd seen herself in the mirror, seen photographs of herself. She worked--had worked, she reminded herself--as a nude and partially nude model for Vince Gallea and a number of other well-known and not so well known photographers. And Vince had given her a portfolio of his photographs of her. She'd seen hundreds.
Working as a nude model was a side job, in addition to her job as a topless dancer. Her ex-job. She'd quit dancing, eventually, to work in the post office sorting mail from midnight to eight AM, but always felt as if she'd died and gone to Hell while working at Rincoln Annex.
She wanted to go back to college, so they were hitchhiking home where she could get a resident discount and help from her parents. Nina was desperate to escape the decadence of her life in San Francisco. She'd been a good girl, once, not that long ago. She wanted to reclaim that life, at least partially.
She had hoped to leave David. She'd imagined calling her parents to wire money for the 4,000-mile train ride home. But David wasn't easy to shake off. She'd tried and failed. It was he who had purchased this outlandish dress that displayed her body so absurdly. The dress was part of his plan to get them to New York free. In San Francisco, he'd put his plan into action by crouching behind a parked car while Nina stood with her thumb out. The kids who stopped for her were hippies, about the same age as she and David. They didn’t mind taking them both when David appeared beside her. This time, he crouched in the bushes, almost beside her. He was well camouflaged.
"Stick out your thumb," David hissed. A car was approaching, moving fast along the curves of the woodland road. Slowly, Nina stuck out her thumb. The car had already passed and was gone.
"Listen!" David said, more loudly now, "When you hear a car coming, put out your thumb."
Nina listened and heard nothing. The route David had chosen was not well traveled. The car with the hippies that had driven them into the foothills had turned off at the intersection about a mile back. She and David had stood there until a cop slowed down. Then they turned and walked along the road toward home, now around 3,850 miles away.
David had wanted to find a straight stretch so that the oncoming drivers would have a chance to see Nina clearly. But they'd walked and walked and found no straight stretch. Nina guessed that after three cars passed, they would walk a little further. She thought about putting on her sandals; her feet were a little cold. They wouldn’t help much, but at least the soles of her feet wouldn’t be in contact with the ground.
They’d left their belongings with friends, with idea of having the friends ship what they needed once they got to New York and found a place to live. Now it occurred to Nina that the dress with its useless jacket would not keep her warm in the mountains or on the plains. They had both forgotten to take into consideration the change in weather as they traveled east away from the warmth of California in the fall.
David had purchased not only this transparent outfit, but a number of others as well. Nina had helped pick out the first one. They had chosen it for Vince Gallea, the photographer. They both liked him. That first semi-transparent dress was red and blue stripes, a shift, transparent only when lit from behind or from the sides. They bought transparent black undies and a transparent black bra to wear under it. He wouldn’t let her wear underwear under this new dress.
At first, Nina wore the blue and red semi-transparent dress only for Vince. Later, she began to wear it to work in North Beach. The people there never gave her a second glance. The place was full of hookers and weirdoes, so she fit right in, no matter what she wore. Then she took to wearing it in Haight-Ashbury, as long as David was with her.
They’d bought the second dress in Haight-Ashbury. Nina had protested that it was too transparent. It was crocheted and had huge holes in it. But David insisted and again, Nina was willing to wear it for Vince or on the street when David was with her.
David was not a large man. He was exactly her size. They wore the same size shirts, pants, and shoes and often traded clothes. Not dresses, of course, but jeans T-shirts and sandals.
He was not a big man, but he had presence and a lot of personal power, not only over her, but also apparently over everyone he met. He was cute, with his curly hair, penetrating eyes and Eastern European good looks, but he had a core of iron. Nina felt safe when they walked the streets together. Safe from external harm, anyway, and safe from David, too.
David hit her. He beat her. He threatened to kill her if she didn't do what he said. But he rarely hurt her in public.
People said stupid things. They said if a woman let a man hit her, she liked to be hit. That was a stupid lie. Nina did not like to be hit. It hurt and scared her and made her feel small, diminished. She wanted to leave David, but he told her that if she left him, he would "follow her to the ends of the earth, find her, and kill her."
Nina believed him. She'd run away a few times, run well, hidden well, told no one, and he'd still found her and beat her. Last time she couldn't walk for a week afterwards. "Next, time," he said, snarling, "I will kill you."
She believed him. She'd seen his temper, felt his fists batter into her face, his kicks in her belly after she'd fallen.
Nina heard a car and stuck her thumb out tentatively. It was a station wagon, full of small children. Up went the windows. The car sped by on the far side of the road. No one with children would pick up a woman dressed as Nina was.
The dress was false advertising, of course. It made her look like a whore. She'd never whored herself, not in the traditional way. She learned, shortly after taking the job as a topless dancer, that the management expected her to sleep with customers. She'd submitted her resignation, but they'd told her she could stay on. Once a week, they offered her a paying client. Five hundred dollars, a thousand dollars. Two thousand dollars, for twenty minutes. The clients were ambassadors from other countries, sometimes. Sometimes senators. Didn't they have wives and children?
She said no. They kept after her. Finally she quit.
So, she didn't prostitute herself to the clients of Mario's, in spite of Mario showing her his gun. But she did prostitute herself to David, in a sense. When she refused him, which wasn't often, since she knew better, he raped her.
The police, the courts, did not call it rape. She found that out the hard way. If her husband knocked her down on the black and white checkered tiles of the kitchen floor, under a flickering fluorescent fixture with one dead bulb and one bad ballast, the tube gone half grey, if he slapped her over and over until she lay still and then forced himself on her, that was his prerogative as her husband.
Mostly, now, she allowed him take her without a fight. She lay, watching the spiders crawl across the ceiling, letting him hammer away until he finished. Why he would want that kind of sex escaped her. She didn't want it, or him.
She'd considered suicide. But she didn't want to die.
A car came around the corner and Nina stuck out her thumb, half-heartedly. The car slowed, a middle aged man leaned out the window to study her. Nina rolled her eyes back in her head. She didn't like his looks. When he stopped, David leaped from the bushes, and the car sped off. Of course. It looked like set-up for robbery.
Relief flooded her. She didn't want to stand out here all night, but that man had bad vibes. Nice people probably would not pick her up, only creepy ones. She felt a surge of almost unbearable hatred for David. Son of a bitch. She could imagine killing him. Almost. Would she, like Diane Wakowski, dance on his grave?
She saw herself, torn down the middle, one half dancing on the grave, the other weeping.
Once, she had loved him. She remembered that, remembered boat rides, holding hands, the wind blowing her hair in her face, his pulling it back, gently, to kiss her cheek. Was that the same David?
She remembered a column in some woman's magazine that she used to read as a young teen, "Can this marriage be saved?" Her instant answer: "no." She didn't wish David any harm; she only wished him miles and miles away.
A car came around the curve and slowed. An old man with a whiskery face whose filmy eyes looked half blind peered out at her. When he stopped, David came out of the bushes. They got in the back seat. It was piled with dirty laundry that stank of sweat and piss. The man drove on, never looking back at them. He drank a beer and threw the bottle hard out the window so it smashed on the road, then opened another.
David pressed Nina down on the dirty clothes and made love to her. She was afraid the old man would see them and object or drive off the road, but he simply drank his beer and kept driving, staring straight ahead.
As she lay there, under her husband, she felt something shift inside her; small pieces of internal furniture rearranged themselves. The wispy desire to be free coalesced into a flame and the flame burned hotter and hotter. She would be free, she knew this now, knew it as she knew her own name. She did not know yet how she'd do it, but she'd find a way.
After sex, David fell asleep. Nina, already half-undressed, stripped and pressed the billows of pink tulle and black lace down into the footwell under dirty clothes, making sure it was totally covered and put on a rank, stained white dress shirt and a thin pair of navy blue men's pants. When the old man pulled up at a light, Nina stepped out of the car, shut the door gently and ran. To her surprise, the light turned green and the car pulled away and disappeared around the next bend in the road. David must not have wakened.
She wanted to go home, home to her parents. But David was headed east to New York. Nina walked down the crossroad, stuck out her thumb hoping for a ride going south. She had nothing but the old man's smelly clothes, not even underwear or shoes. Her shoes were in David’s backpack. So was her wallet and driver’s license. But, maybe, maybe, she had her freedom.
A car slowed down. A woman drove. Women hardly ever stopped. This one had grizzled hair, dark skin and a faraway look in her eyes. She looked a little mannish, but was clearly a woman.
“Where are you going?” The woman asked. She focussed her eyes on Nina. They were deep pools of sadness.
“Mexico,” Nina said.
“Come on, then,” The woman said, and Nina got in. They pulled away, headed south, in an anonymous blue car.
* * * *
Illustration: "Nina's Dress," collage: tissue paper, acrylic, oil pastel, marker, by me, Mary Stebbins Taitt.
Detail # 1: Nina's sorrow and rage. "Nina" is from the New York Times Fashion Magazine. Note the red ochre for blood on her bosom.
Detail # 2: David, hiding in the bushes, from Crouching Man Hidden in Piles of Wood by Gyula Várnai.
Detail #3: The hands that slapped and punched Nina (Carefully cut and layered in with tissue paper.) (One was painted with red ochre to signify blood.)
Detail #4: me, 1969, standing in for Nina. (Without the dress.)
Detail #5: me, 1969, practicing to stand in for Nina. Preparing my mask.
Layered into this painting are ten hands and three chambered nautiluses. Spirals.
Hands: Two hands belong to David, who abuses Nina. Two hands belong to Nina, who allows the abuse because of fear and training. Two hands belong to her father, who was angry when Nina was a child. Two hands belong to Nina's mother, who taught Nina to be quiet, do as she was told, and not upset her father. Two hands belong to the drivers, some who threatened Nina and some who helped.
The chambered nautilus reproduces the golden mean spiral which symbolizes life's unfolding mysteries. The closed chambers symbolize those hidden chambers of the heart where we hide life's secrets. Because the Nautilus shell, lined with mother-of-pearl, grows into increasingly larger chambers throughout its life, it has become a symbol for expansion and renewal. Unfortunately, I did not think to photograph the early stages of this painting, showing all the hands and the chambered nautiluses buried under layers of tissue.
Netting: the tulle of the skirt of the dress Nina wore. Also, the cage she is in in her marriage to David.