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The Black Shop made dresses for women that were said to make them happier and more beautiful. A woman was like two-way traffic, she went in opposing directions and the outside contradicted the inside. The shop knew how to resolve the contradiction. If we wore the dresses, everything inside us would change. Feelings changed. Skin and garment fused into one. We wouldn’t be shallow anymore. The innards of women were nourished, treasured, beloved, we’d not be condemned for the black spaces inside us. All women, any, should come. Try a dress, relax in our club. If it didn’t fit, we could talk. It was a promise, to be an experience of a lifetime.
The ads appeared often. In the photographs, women were luminous, colorful, their smiles like lightbulbs, there was nothing happier than this moment, when the flash came and the world was on their backs. Men liked them, they liked men. Love was modern, a counselor everyone had. A prettier woman wasn’t more or less than another, we were not apples or oranges, knees and toes. History had not won in the Black Shop. It was unchained from the heavy days when cloaks buried women and the world was not generous enough to allow them speech. The shop had chic floorboards and walls of mango wood. People were busy making each other beautiful, through talk. Someone had a measuring tape around a waist. Someone was painting a landscape on a face. A Chinese girl acquired a forest on her cheek. An Indian girl was maimed and framed and blamed, in a video she walked to a podium and spoke, healthy and whole and beautiful again. She said thank you.
I’d liked that. I was framed and maimed. Every day felt like an ugly dead weight. The ugliness did not belong to me originally, but began when someone introduced me to someone who introduced me to another. They knew each other for a long time, they said, “We’re safe people.” Was there anyone unsafe, I’d thought, too late, when I found out that the final one was a woman-hater. All along he was in disguise, behind a mask of goodliness, he’d sent me messages that added to a thousand Word pages. At twenty, I told him, enough nonsense. I was only talking to him because he had an accent like my father’s in the countryside. Politely, I’d said, he didn’t have to fear city men so much. Very sorry to his wife and daughter too, if he liked having affairs. I wasn’t sure why he began to rant and plead, as though I was the one who had his affairs, “I thought you’re a good friend,” he said. I was, I said, until one day at a conference’s secluded spot he flashed a knife at my throat and said, “Do as I say. If you don’t, you’ll have no future.” It was blackmail.
I wasn’t into the business of lies. If one wanted to, go ahead, but now I knew there lived people who made others pay for theirs. The woman-hater threatened: Lies were nature, like air. If I told anyone, I’d die, he said. Then he shrugged. On second thoughts, let us bet. Go ahead, tell everyone. Even if I did, no one would care, people never liked talking to the dead. Society ran on, on its own two feet. It was cruel and judgmental, it cared for nobody. Everything I said would be assumed wrong, just seeing things, another liar – how was it possible that he had flashed a knife at me. Everyone knew him. Thus he could do anything he wanted, in broad daylight, and no law would get him. Ultimately, I’d be the one in the wrong. And when a person felt wrong, she extinguished herself. That was the best way to kill someone. Especially a woman. Give her a noose and watch her hang herself. No need to lift a finger, just make her feel excluded, wrong. Soon her tongue dried and curled backwards into the throat. Where the knife-point gleamed. And she’d eat herself. Or her children. “You’re fortunate,” the woman-hater said. “To have met me. Death’s lottery had chosen you.” It was best I keep quiet, go to sleep. Lies were like mattresses, thick and comfortable, I’d never need to wake, meet anyone, everyone was a liar just like him, springing up like jack-in-the-box. I’d no longer be able to trust anyone. The world would no longer be mine to live.
For once, I’d wanted to think that the hater was wrong. So I decided to go to the Black Shop.
It was in the city. It was a Tuesday when I went, the train was sparse. Some tourists were happy for the ride, the city’s tentacles were strong worldwide, they booked a flight and flew in to walk the streets. People thought they were visiting the future when they were in the city, it was time travel, at least once in their lives. Six stops later, I got off. The bowels of the station were a long maze, the fluorescent lights flickered and a homeless was crouching in a corner, offering nothing but a wait. Then I saw an opening into the blue and some clouds in the sky.
Getting to the Black Shop was difficult. Directions were clear but distractions were many: Boutiques, hair salons, nail spas, shrewd displays of jewelry, handbags, shoes, cafe, the scent of coffee and walnut mixed with the berry notes of the soap parlor, but no children’s section. At a cash machine I withdrew money. Feet were slow in the area and men milled around, in coats, parkas, scarfs, for it was winter, they lingered and spoke into cellphones. A warning sounded like an alarm. I could still leave. Once I got to the Black Shop things were out of my hands. Sometimes we knew death would come but went for it anyway. A car honked. Loud noises took over and was fine in this city.
I was here: 102M Capricorn Street. A honey locust tree was across the door. It was a quiet residential area. I buzzed, the door catch released and I went in, the flight of stairs narrow and steep, up to the third floor. A bell rang after the glass door and behind a reception counter a man was smiling like he carried summer’s good sun, he said hello and so did I, then I said,
“I’ve ordered a dress.”
He knew, he said, as though he knew everything. He set a dish on the counter and on it was a nougat. “This is for you, Jennifer,” he said, and he flashed at me tobacco-stained teeth and I blinked inward because charm was disgusting ever since the woman-hater yanked my hair and dragged me across the floor of the hotel room. What was charm for – I didn’t know, never did. My hair had grown back since. Bernard, the name on his tag read, said, “Don’t worry. Most women come in sick and leave healthy,” and I said okay. I didn’t ask him why he’d introduced me to the woman-hater. Why he said they were safe. He’d already forgotten me. Or maybe not. We’d met in a reception hall. I was doing unimportant work. Writing something on a piece of paper.
I picked up the nougat and chewed. Bernard looked different from then on. Time reversed on his face and he grew young, and his teeth, which were yellow some minutes ago, cleared pearl white. He said, “This shop is right for you.” He looked like an infant. Safe, nothing bad could ever be a part of that beautiful face. He smiled, but as he did the memory of the woman-hater came back, strangely they began to look alike, as though they both knew the pain of yanked hair and a hole in the womb. They’d seen me doing unimportant work, and this justified the hole in my womb. Other women had holes too, I said, and the hater said yes, he’d tried many of them, educated or not, they felt the same. The less value one had, the more it had to stay open. The woman-hater was always talking. He spoke often about his hatred for other men, for Bernard, for the third man whom I was introduced to too. The third man liked talking and thinking about Bernard. How Bernard was a successful man who owned a shop. How great Bernard’s life was, how he envied. He was salivating as he spoke, he’d liked to evacuate himself and be Bernard. If he could be a woman, he would, just to wear those dresses, see Bernard more. Like the woman-hater, he’d threatened me not to go to the Black Shop, because I was a woman. It seemed like I was really having some streak of bad luck, to be seen doing unimportant work, like volunteering, that I must meet all these women-haters. I didn’t care about Bernard. I didn’t think him a good or bad person. All I wanted to know was why I, and maybe a hundred other plain, ordinary women, who did unimportant work, must stay maimed and framed and blamed, our breasts torn and condemned to misery, just because of one successful man called Bernard.
“How’s everything?” he said.
“We’d be good to you here,” he said. “Your dress is ready.”
He stepped out of the reception counter and led me down a hallway. Educated office music trilled from the speakers above, and he said lightheartedly, his taste was for the eternal. So was mine, I said. We passed by a room and behind the pane of glass were children. They were watching TV quietly, and wrappers of nougats were strewn about.
“This is the nursery room,” he said. “They’re waiting for their mothers.”
Then I stopped because a toddler was staring at me and his eyes were bulging. His body was facing the TV, but his head was turned to me. Bernard stopped too and he said, “What’s wrong?” and I said, “I made that child.” “That’s not possible,” he said, “you’re new here.” And I didn’t tell him that when I went to fix the hole in my womb the doctor told me, chances were low for me to conceive now. I only looked into Bernard’s eyes shining under the chrome spotlights, and felt a strange like and dislike for this person with his childlike face, one that knew and didn’t know anything about introducing me to a woman-hater.
He pointed at a door next to the nursery room. “Your dress is inside.”
I went in and closed the door. It was a large changing room, with the same background music playing, there were wall mirrors and a leather couch at a corner. Beside it was a glass table and on it was a box, with my name written. I opened it and removed the blue tissue. The dress was made of thick, waxy paper. A pinafore, milk-colored, sleeveless and long to the knees. I put it on. It fitted well.
When I came out Bernard said, “It looks good on you.”
Then he went down the hallway, at the end was a double door and we went into a roomful of women. It was just like in the photographs. Chic floorboards minimalist wooden room, the late afternoon sun a buttery smear against the bare branches. Light was leaving soon. Women were standing about wearing strange dresses, some black and transparent, others with sequins and fur. A skirt filled with magnolias, a dress made of ribbons. One had plastic coils around herself, another had peacock tail feathers trailing behind. At a corner, by a vanity table, someone was tattooing a teardrop from the corner of an eye. Mary said to drink and gave me a glass, she was chewing nougats and had freedom in her hair. She said, “It’s great to be here.” She said the dresses were special, as though one shed her skin when they were put on. I could see her breasts behind the chiffon. Like molting? I said and she said, that was exactly right, like molting. Then we liked each other or it could be the wine and we forgot ourselves because we saw a moment of verity – we were tired of pretense – and this was the beginning of my neglect, that it never happened, no, the woman-hater had not made a hole in me. Then I heard applause and someone was strumming guitars and singing about their country and people. And I was happy because I’d been singing similar songs. The sun was gone by now and the place was bathed in yellow. I looked at my watch, it was a Seiko, and saw my arm. It’d turned milk-colored, like my paper dress. It was true: We became one with our dress. I was no longer shallow, I no longer had to hide the black spaces in me, or the hole in my womb. From one of the jars I took another nougat, I drank one more glass of wine. If paper I must become, that was fine. Tomorrow would resolve itself and return me my skin, if it came.
Then Bernard joined the singing women. His face was childlike, his teeth pearl white, he was the only man about, and somehow this demanded all the countries the women were singing of to be passed on to him, so there was a silence. The women knew: All land belonged to men.
History might not have won in the Black Shop, but nature always would. They were not aware why, when Bernard neared them they were lost, like in a Japanese suicide forest, half-alive and dead, but I did. I did because I was already dead before I came here, my womb eaten by a hole, and in death there was carelessness, recklessness, so that when Bernard asked me, “Are you enjoying your dress?” I said, my breath sweet with nougat, “How is it that you had become the promise of crimes?”
He said, “I don’t know what you mean.”
Then I spoke. And as I did I became the piece of paper I was wearing. Words began to fill my skin. They began writing from the toes and coiling around my ankle, the alphabets automatic and they ran up my legs and thighs and the milk-colored dress, so that it turned black with words. And I told Bernard everything from beginning to end, and watched the slow recognition rise to his face, he’d never forgotten me, I rambled on and on in bad English and said in my wrath and sorrow for the child I could no longer have, “Why did you introduce me to the women-haters. Why did you say they were safe. What happiness of women are you talking about. Was I not a woman, like the rest. Was I not doing important work. Was it because I wasn’t doing important work. Why must I be maimed and framed and blamed by those who envied you, coveted your success? I don’t care for your beauty or status. I don’t care who or what you are…” And I rambled on, for I could not understand the rape that had happened to me.
Bernard’s face grew cold. He said, “Hush.” And he gripped my forearm, and the ink on it smeared, and he marched me to a corner where there was a pot of Dracaena fragans the height of a child. We rode the elevator to a basement and his grip continued to be tight, as he walked me down the hallway to an office. From his pocket he pulled out a set of keys. Before he unlocked the door, he looked at me. His eyes were as black as the ink on my dress and body. His face was no longer childlike, and he was old. He said, as though he knew everything,
“I knew why you came, Jennifer. I knew the moment you ordered your dress.”
He paused. A look of sympathy came into eyes for a moment, and I wanted to tell him, I didn’t need his pity, as he said, “I’m sorry, they came first.”
Before the sinking feeling of betrayal came back, before the pain of the hole in my womb broke again, I felt a clarity. Bernard unlocked the door. Sitting on a sofa, cross-legged, were the women-haters. They grinned when they saw me. Their eyes were glinting. They clapped. Bernard pushed me into the room, and locked the door.