The gatepost, stuccoed pink to match the villa, bore a glazed tile painted with a blue number, the same as that in the advertisement. Please inquire in person. Avenue des Fleurs, 72.
A hot day, and so bright. Sun flared off windowpanes and wrung sparks from freshly watered shrubs. One after another, applicants paused at the locked gate, considered its wrought-iron flourishes and the distinctly self-satisfied hue of the residence glimpsed through its bars. They checked the number twice, as if lost, hesitated before pushing the black button in its burnished ring of brass.
When the houseboy appeared with a ring of keys, his severely combed hair shining with petroleum jelly, they ducked in response to his bow and followed him through the silently swinging gate with their heads still lowered, squinting dizzily at the glittering crushed white quartz that lined the rose beds along the path.
"Won't you sit down?"
May received them in the sunroom. Behind her chair, glass doors offered a view of terraced back gardens, an avalanche of extravagantly bright blooms, a long, blue-tiled swimming pool that splattered its reflection over the white walls and ceiling.
Of the eleven men and women who answered her notice, four did not resist staring at May outright, and she dismissed them immediately.
Whatever the name Mrs. Arthur Cohen might suggest to someone answering an ad, May would not have been it. To begin with, wasn't Cohen a Jewish name? And there she was, unmistakably Chinese. Now who in 1927 had encountered such an intermarriage, even among the Riviera's population of gamblers and gigolos, its yachtsmen and consumptives and inexhaustible reserves of deposed, transient countesses living off pawned tiaras? In the summer months, when sun worshippers overtook the city of Nice-women walking bare-legged on the boulevards, and bare-lipped, too, tennis skirts no lower than the knee and not a smudge of lipstick, their hair bobbed, their necks brown and muscular, canine-May Cohen looked not so much out of style as otherworldly.
Despite the heat, she received her eleven candidates in traditional dress: a mandarin coat of pink silk embroidered with a pattern of cranes and fastened with red frogs, matching pink trousers, and tiny silk shoes that stuck out from under their hems like two pointed red tongues.
Her abundant and absolutely black hair was coiled in a chignon. Pulled back, it accentuated a pretty widow's peak, a forehead as pale and smooth as paper. Her eyes were black and long, each brow a calligraphic slash; her full lips were painted red. She had a narrow nose with nervous, delicate nostrils, imperious, excitable nostrils that seemed to have been formed with almost fanatical attention. But each part of May-her cuticles and wristbones and earlobes, the blue-white luminous hollow between her clavicles-inspired the same conclusion: that to assemble her had required more than the usual workaday genius of biology. At fifty, her beauty was still so extreme as to be an affront to any sensible soul. Her French, like her English, was impeccable.
Of the remaining seven applicants (those who did not disqualify themselves by staring), the first offered references from a local sanitarium. Perhaps this explained his solicitousness, his tender careful moist gaze, as if she were moribund. "Please accept my apologies," she said. "You won't do."
The second was, she decided, an idiot. "You have had-it was an accident? " he asked, and she smiled, but not kindly.
The third, a narrow, ascetic Swiss with an inexpertly sewn harelip and a carefully mended coat, looked as if she needed employment. But she wrinkled her nose with fastidious disapproval, and May rang for the houseboy to see her out.
The fourth's excitement as he glimpsed the tightly bound arch of May's right foot, his damp hands and posture of unrestrained anticipation: these presaged trouble. May uncrossed her legs, she stood and bid him a good afternoon.
The fifth and sixth changed their minds.
The seventh, who was the last, would have to do. He was taciturn; and that, anyway, she approved.
"When do I start?" was his longest utterance.
"Today," May said. "Now." And the houseboy provided him with bathing costume, towel, and robe, a room in which to change.
May, using her jade cane, slowly climbed the stairs to her suite of rooms, where she took off all her clothes except the white binding cloths and red shoes-for without them she couldn't walk at all-and put on her new black bathing costume. She pulled the pins from her hair, brushed and braided it, and, wearing a white robe so long that it trailed, began her long walk down the stairs. On the way she met Alice, her niece, breathless and ascending two at a time.
"I'm late," Alice explained, unnecessarily. And then, "Please!" as May blocked her way with her cane.
"For what?" May asked. "For whom?"
"I'm meeting him at the Negresco. We're having tea, that's all, so don't let's quarrel." Alice tried to push past, but May held the cane firmly across the banister. "Look, he'll think I'm not coming!"
"Just remember." May pointed the tip of her cane at Alice's heart. "We all die alone."
"Please! I haven't time for this now!" Alice made an exasperated lunge for the cane, which May abruptly lowered so that Alice lost her balance; she ended sitting on the step below her aunt's feet.
May looked down at her. "I'm more fortunate than you."
"And why is that?" The words came out tartly, and Alice scowled, she stuck her chin out belligerently; still, she considered her aunt remarkable for the tragedies she'd survived.
"Because," May said. "Opium is a better drug."
"Well," Alice said, after an amplified sigh. She stood up. "Any advice?" she asked, sarcastic.
May shrugged. She raised her perfectly symmetrical eyebrows and turned up an empty white palm. "Avoid marriage," she said. "Obviously." She continued down the stairs, Alice watching as she navigated the foyer, her white robe trailing over the parquet, her abbreviated steps invisible, disguised. Through the salon and out to the pool: who could guess how she hobbled?
In the garden, on a chaise he'd pulled from the shade of an umbrella into the afternoon sun, the young man was waiting. Sprawled long-legged on its yellow cushion, the robe folded, unused, at its foot, he opened his eyes at the sound of the patio door; he stood as May approached. A low stool had been placed just at the very lip of tile that overhung the stairs descending to the shallow end of the long blue pool, and May sat on it. The young man watched in silence as she untied the sash of her robe and pulled her white arms from its white sleeves, let it fall back from her shoulders before bending to unbind her feet.
Because she was so graceful in all her movements, the clumsiness with which she entered the pool surprised him. Still, the young man said nothing, he made no move to help May as she used her arms to maneuver herself from the low seat to the edge of the pool and from there onto the steps.
For a moment she rested on the highest one, submerged only as far as her waist and looking into the water. Under the pool's refracting surface her feet appeared no more foreshortened than any other woman's.
She turned to him, her hand on the side. "Well?" she said, and he nodded. He used the diving board to enter, executed a conceited dive and came up gleaming, grinning, as relaxed and easy in the water as a Shanghai boatman.
SHANGHAI. What city could be farther from the pristine and clear, the enviably sparkling coast of southern France than dirty, seething Shanghai, her filthy waterways? The other side of the world, and yet as immediate and implacable as the underside of consciousness: flowing, undammed. Undammable. May carried it with her, the fetid Whangpoo hung with haze, busy with ferries and junks, the occasional body of a dead addict or whore bobbing between hulls. Barges sinking low under the weight of coal and cabbages, steamers along the jetties exchanging cases of biscuits for crates of tea, wines for silks. Mail boats disgorging their sacks of correspondence and journals, wedding banns, death notices, the occasional love letter smothered among missionary reports and month-old European newspapers.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH. Keep your mouth closed."
May hesitated, and he put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her slowly down, under the water's surface. She watched silver streams of bubbles escape her nose, then came quickly up with her eyes burning, grabbed for the side, his shoulder, anything to keep from sinking. Drowning.
"Not bad," he said. And again, after she'd stopped gasping, he pushed her gently under. They did this for an hour.
"You have to be comfortable with your head underwater," he said. "Holding your breath."
Not once did he mention her feet-not on the first day, not subsequently-and the fact that he didn't earned him her respect.
If she came downstairs late for her lesson, she found him doing chin-ups on the end of the diving board, easily pulling his torso up out of the deep end. Through the trees, the sun scattered the surface of the pool with bright shards. Over and over, he lifted himself out, disturbing the water just enough to make them dance.
After breathing came kicking. He brought a life preserver and told her to hold it and kick hard enough to travel the length of the pool and back. She made slow progress and stayed close to the side. Three times she stopped to catch her breath. He swam next to her, propelling his big body as if it were weightless, turning from stomach to side to back. A gap separated his front teeth; through it he sent up silver arcs of water when he did the backstroke.
"If you don' t get so you don' t need to rest, you won't make any progress." He made the comment noncommittally, as if he didn't care much, either way. His eyelashes, bleached white by the sun, clumped together into wet, starry points, and his tanned face conveyed the benign condescension of an animal trainer. She liked it, his detachment; she preferred it. Her successes, her failures: these were not his but hers. They belonged to her.
IN THE NEXT WORLD, May had been warned, she would find a lake under whose surface swam those women who had borne children. The lake was a lake of blood. Blood lost each month and lost in childbirth. The blood of stained cloths washed in the rivers.
To ease the sufferings of the dead, the temple bell, as wide and as clamorous as that in the firehouse, was lined with their hair, a few strands taken from each and stuck to the cold metal with a dab of wax or a smear of rice syrup. With every strike of its clapper, one swimmer could come up for a gasp of air. Or so May's mother explained, many years before-a lifetime ago-when Chu'en took her past the joss house and May asked why it was that tangled drifts of dark, shining hair blew through its dusty forecourt.
May and her mother had stared past the sedan chair's curtains. "I'm never going there," May said, shaking her head. "Not to that lake." Her mother didn't answer. Instead, "Hurry! Hurry!" she called out to the boys carrying the chair. They were late returning home; May's grandmother would be angry.
ARMS WERE HARDER than legs. She tried holding the life preserver with one arm while stroking with the other, but in the end he had to support her while she practiced. He stood in the shallow end and held her up on the surface of the water with his broad palms. The feel of his hands against her ribs, his frown of youthful concentration, their formal yet physical intimacy-these reminded her of a time when she was as young as he, and working as a prostitute in Shanghai.
"No. No. Your timing is off. You turn your face up out of the water when you lift your arm. You take a breath as you lift."
WHEN SHE WAS HOME, Alice watched the lessons from the balcony outside her bedroom, her vigil silhouetted by the white curtain behind her.
May didn't do things casually. She wouldn't pursue swimming for the pleasure of it. Certainly not for the exercise, never on the advice of a physician. She must have some sort of a ... a plan?
Crawl, back, breast, side: Alice tracked May's progress through the strokes, her own arms folded, her dark head dipped apprehensively.
Excerpted from The Binding Chair © Copyright 2001 by Kathryn Harrison. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
The Binding Chair: Or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society
- paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 0060934425
- ISBN-13: 9780060934422