Gretchen Van Lente


More and More Perfect

They were in their fifties and they had survived many things together: having husbands walk out for younger women; greedy children who barked orders; and being fired for looking too jowled--being replaced by other, blonder real-estate agents who were not afraid of a little surgery.

But now Elizabeth, who still had a tight tense body, had found herself a rich fiancé. Elizabeth was ecstatic all the time now, and Adel found her hard to be around anymore.

"I'm an ass-hole," Adel stated the last time she called and left a message. "I should be happy for you. Call me."

Adel had reservations at Third Stone Manor, a foundation in Malibu which hosted workshops on psychic matters such as dolphin ontology, travel outside the body, and the numerical significance of God. Third Stone Manor Workshops were always a sell out. It was generally known that the free vegetarian meal was almost worth the price of the program.

Adel went to every workshop at Third Stone Manor. She wasn't sure why. It was sort of like being on an airplane: she waited for the food as if for nothing else. She was also not a vegetarian. But she had high hopes of finding the true source of happiness, of being convinced that it was not a man, that it didn't take money. Most of the workshops, as far as she could tell, hammered in the same message: get in harmony with your inner-self; and you had two inner-selves, one who was aggressive like Neanderthal Man, who ate meat and used manipulation to get things done properly; then there was a whimpier self who was the true-inner self', who was fragile and grew withered every time toxins were ingested into the system.

More to the point, Adel was looking for a man, preferably rich, preferably enlightened. It was O.K. for her to be crude and judgmental but she wanted her man to be a bit nicer. And this thing with Elizabeth and her rich fiancé was eating her up. Not so much because she was lonely; she was broke. At this point in her life she couldn't even afford the workshops anymore. That was why she needed Elizabeth. She needed a partner to work the kitchen with her, a Third Stone Manor scholarship to attend the workshop for free.

Appearing was Peter James, former Jesuit priest, excommunicated for making claims that Jesus was only the figurative "Son of' God, no more or less divine than the rest of' us." When Adel arrived she found a pyramid of' his books piled up in the foyer. She picked one up and looked at it closely to determine whether or not he was a fool. On the cover of his book he sat on a rock beside a stream, wearing thin blue jeans with large white seams. He appeared in soft focus but his smile was slightly menacing. There was a faint beam of light shooting off from the top of his head. Adel didn't know much about the ex-priest but getting in when the workshop was booked had represented a challenge.

But now that she had arrived she felt stupid. The room was full of women who were old. They were bulky. They wore clothing with an ethnic flair--just as she did. She was shocked to see a lot of men in polyester suits with bad haircuts. They were bigger fools than she was if they paid full price for the workshop. To Adel's great disappointment there was not one Neanderthal among them.

"Good morning to you all," said Peter James, sitting comfortably on a swivel chair in the middle of the atrium, in the plush, expansive living room of Third Stone Manor. He laced his fingers around one knee and bounced playfully in his chair. "I wonder how many of you meditate regularly. Don't worry, I won't embarrass you with a show of hands," he said and laughed, although many in the room were already shooting their hands in the air.

"I'd like to start--even before we fill our heads with the inadequacy of' words and pompous, intellectual dialogue--with the real thing, the very presence of the Divine," said Peter, filling his diaphragm with air, and as he did so, and as the others sought to imitate him with huge gulps of breath, Adel and Elizabeth got up quietly and slouched toward the kitchen.

Adel carefully opened the shutters over the sink isle. From where she stood she had a perfect view. She placed the trays of silverware down quietly on the counter, watching Peter James every minute. She watched him draw a diagram on a pad of newsprint, all the while talking about something called DIVINE MIGHT. He drew a picture of a brain. Sections were sliced like pieces of a pie: 2% went for the Ozone. 4% went for resources. 3% went for famine. The same 3% went for inner city crime. 75% went for "The Ego."

"Are you following this?" Elizabeth asked.

"He may be off on his percentages," said Adel, glancing away sheepishly.

They stood and leaned with their stomachs against the white sink isle, folding silverware into napkins.

"Look at those people," said Elizabeth in a careful whisper. "They took pitiful don't they?" Elizabeth dropped a spoon on the floor and dipped down to get it. On the way up she knocked her head on the sink isle.

"It's great that you found someone," said Adel, patiently folding. " I know how hard you've been searching. All those Grateful Dead concerts. Sierra Club hikes for introverts and unemployed professionals. Celebrity Water Polo. None of that paid off, honey. You owe me."

"Don't worry, honey. Keep looking."

"I am. I'm looking right now. The speaker is the only person here who isn't fat, and he's obviously a committed asexual."

"You can tell by his jeans," said Elizabeth, leaning in to whisper.

"What are those, anyway? I didn't know they made jeans out of rayon," Adel whispered back.

"So you can see by this diagram," Peter was saying, smiling warmly at the crowd, "that we are out of touch with guidance, that we are blind, grasping at illusions--the Catholic Church is a prime example of that," he said amidst titters and cheers. "The Church is no longer guided at all, as a matter of fact. Unless you can think of God as the great, omniscient bureaucrat in the sky.

"Let me tell you," he went on, shaking his finger. A strange twisted smile changed the beatific look on his face. "Fear. One word. One concept. Not DIVINE MIGHT, not the example of' Christ, but fear and only fear motivates the intimidating, domineering, pachydermatous…ah ... sterile," he searched upwards with his eyelids flickering, "misogynistic . . . ah . . . solipsistic . . ."

"Gee. I wonder why he was excommunicated," Adel rolled her eyes.

"Silverman lets me buy his clothes," said Elizabeth, pressing like a child against Adel's taller body, and for the moment the smallness of her person endeared her to Adel--Elizabeth had found a rich boyfriend, someone small like herself. The two of them when they stood together looked like children. Then Elizabeth recalled that small people appeared to age less and her malice returned for the both of them.

"Then again they kicked me out," said Peter thoughtfully. "So I mustn't practice sour grapes. We should always be thankful for everything we are given in life. I should be thankful to the Almighty See for my very abrupt expulsion from the Jesuits. Actually I did write and thank him."

"I buy things that I like to see on him," Elizabeth continued, although Adel made a big show of looking away like she was bored. Elizabeth pushed on. "He never complains. In fact, he never says anything one way or another."

Adel envisioned the two of them, their cuteness together like little dolls, lounging in silk pajamas in Silverman's enormous, pretentious mansion on The Coast. The mansion was to Adel's mind the epitome of stupid post-modernism, an igloo with turrets. There was an indoor and an outdoor pool. How did Elizabeth get to be so lucky? She was just another old tired woman like herself. Adel listened to Elizabeth without heart. Elizabeth went on and on in an extravagant way about yesterday, how she had taken her mother out to dinner on Silverman's credit card--they had driven his Bentley, Elizabeth said, but when they came back from dinner, his miniature poodle Karla, who was possessive, had jumped off the garage and landed on the roof of the Bentley.

"I keep telling him the dog needs a psychiatrist," she Elizabeth. "Of course we kept driving, not knowing the dog was up there, until she slid down the side, nearly giving my mother a heart attack. The dog was like trying to paddle back up. I talked to my mother this morning and she says she can still see the look on that poor dog's face--the dog was gasping, my mother said! Can you picture that? Gasping! My poor mother. Afterwards, the paint on the car was just ruined. It wasn't my fault! Stupid dog. I hate that dog.

"Anyway, needless to say, I am now too traumatized to drive his Bentley. I drive the Porsche. He drives the Mercedes. The Bentley is being repainted."

Adel was on the brink then of giving the little speech she had rehearsed about how pretentious Elizabeth was beginning to sound. She had already said it dozens of times in silence right to her face.

"When are you moving in with him?" asked Adel, hoping to change the subject. So far Adel's only gain was to be the occasional guest. In fact she had only been invited once to help cater a party, and she'd had to wear a uniform. She was still angry with herself for caving in--to the uniform.

"Oh, you know," said Elizabeth. "I could move in tomorrow if I wanted to."

"What's stopping you? I thought you said your condo was noisy?"

"Well, I will. We need to work a few things out first. The dog, for instance. It just gets on my nerves every minute."

Adel hushed Elizabeth, putting a finger up to her mouth. The kitchen had a tall, acoustical ceiling and Elizabeth had been dropping silverware over and over. The sound rang out into the meeting hall. More than a few people had turned their heads to glare towards the kitchen.

"I thought you liked pets," Adel whispered.

"I do. I do. This is a very neurotic dog. I can't even bear to look at her. She is an ugly, spoiled dog, what can I say."

"This is not like you. Maybe you're a little jealous of the dog, Elizabeth." She glanced down to see what Elizabeth was doing with the silverware; Elizabeth had bunched the napkins around the forks and spoons and when she was done the napkins looked used.

"You could be right. I used to like miniature poodles but this is one dog I just can't stand. She sits on the sofa and stares at you. It's haunting."

Adel removed the silverware from Elizabeth's hands, "That's not a terrible problem."

"Well, I know. And I appreciate your insight. There's other things. Silverman has a thing about intimacy." Elizabeth looked away quickly.

Adel was thinking about how dry and unromantic it seemed, calling him by his last name the same as his business associates did. Apparently even his adult children called him Silverman. For a small man it seemed all the more ridiculous. In the beginning, when Elizabeth started talking incessantly about Silverman, Adel had thought she was talking about a department store on the market, or some other really hot sell. It was confusing. And she also talked about the miniature poodle too much. Adel had thought that Karla was someone else, a difficult housekeeper or a jealous daughter. She asked Elizabeth to stop speaking about the dog so much, as it all seemed so negative and, well, dumb to focus on a dog.

"I shouldn't think intimacy would be such a problem in a large estate like Silverman's. You have your own car. There's three kitchens. You got your own horse to ride. It's not like you're going to stress out over who bought the last roll of toilet paper, or who's car is leaking oil on the driveway, or who left the butter on the stove…"

"Stop! I get your point! As a matter of fact, you're absolutely right. I have plenty of space and privacy there. I have my own art studio now. Did I tell you about that?''

"Why? Are you an artist?" Adel laughed out loud until someone in the audience turned all the way around in his seat to shush her forcefully. Adel hunched down, pretending to be engrossed in her scholarship work.

"I've always been talented, you know that," Elizabeth whispered. "Well, for now let's say I'm thinking of my options. Actually, the studio is where I sleep when I'm there."

"Who snores, him or you?" asked Adel.

"Neither," said Elizabeth. She turned to watch the lecture, suddenly intent on hearing every word.

"So it is that we see," said Peter, "that The Ego is always self-defeating. It's never any different, not for you, not for me, not even for the Pope. The Ego is actually a very self-destructive tyrant that, as an entity of fear, always seeks to obliterate itself, usually through some humiliating folly. Think of the Pope-Mobile.

"Do you really think we need this sound system?" Peter interrupted his lecture, speaking out to the crowd. He unclipped the microphone. "This is silly. I'm sitting in someone's living room using a microphone."

But several people objected. Twisting in their seats toward the kitchen they said in a petulant manner that they could not hear very well. And so he clipped the microphone back on.

"And so it is that some people, let's say those who identify entirely with the The Ego, have only the power of the negative, to criticize, to compare, to negate and belittle. They have no creative force to speak of at their disposal and no DIVINE MIGHT. And the real tragedy here is that such people spend their entire lives down someone else's toilet!"

"It's none of my business," Adel whispered. "But you opened the subject. Are you

telling me you don't sleep together anymore?"

"'Of' course we sleep together! What would be the point of getting married? Christ, Adel!"

"Keep your voice down. So he kicks you out of bed. Go on." Adel selected two knifes for peeling vegetables and gave the duller knife to Elizabeth, who appeared nervous today.

"It's not that," Elizabeth plunged the knife into a cucumber. "I'm a little more comfortable sleeping alone. He has a lot of unconscious rage. It comes out in his dreams."

"Oh sure. I've heard that's quite common. Sleep Slugger I think is the medical term. Why don't you just call the police before you go to bed?"

"Don't be hard on me. I can't explain. It hasn't been all that easy, to tell you the truth. I'm still getting married and all but I had to sign a contract."

Adel turned around slowly. She bore down on Elizabeth. She raised her eyebrows and smiled. "Do go on. I'm finding this conversation real interesting."

"Could we just listen to lecture?" Elizabeth turned away impatiently.

"You should never hate people, " Peter was saying. "Love all people no matter what for the sake of God. Let me explain something to you. We are a very paranoid society, based entirely on control issues. When people feel out of control their paranoid fantasies become reality, did you know that? How many of you knew that before I mentioned it today," asked Peter, and he laughed as people glanced around themselves nervously. He appeared to be laughing all to himself, having a private joke, Adel thought. She churned the peppercorns as she eyed him suspiciously. She knew what kind of loneliness that was about. She had the distinct impression that, like her, he was begging for his supper.

"Give," Adel tossed the salad. "'What's in the contract."

"Don't be silly. It's the usual prenuptial thing. It's standard these days. I wasn't the least bit humiliated by it."

"Like I believe you, " said Adel.

"What's important is that I have a rich fiancé. I know we will have an easy life."

"That's putting it bluntly. Have you worked out the details for the wedding? What's the matter? Are you too distracted to measure the rice?"'

Adel pushed Elizabeth out of the way; she looked down into the pot and shook her head.

"Silverman has to fly to Mexico first," said Elizabeth. "To get a divorce from the last woman he married."

"Sounds romantic."

"Silverman says he's waiting for a sign."

"A sign? What the hell does that mean?"

"I don't know what it means. He has to wait for a sign from some man called The Great Diviner. I think they sacrifice animals--well, not cats or dogs or anything with intelligence. Don't worry. It's mainly the lower food chain. What's the difference? We eat them, isn't that cruel?"

Adel looked down at her friend. What was happening, she asked herself. Elizabeth had always been a little dense but this was ridiculous, even for Elizabeth. Read my mind, Adel stated clearly with a look: You are one dumb bunny!

"Alright, everybody up on your feet!" Peter said. "Don't be shy, now. Follow me. We're doing this together. No one laugh! Put your hands up over your head and visualize! You are an animal with horns, you are just a little bit horny, a little devilish, you are not afraid of your body, you are a sacred being with your own DIVINE MIGHT. You are a deer, an antelope; you are caribou leaping over the frozen tundra...

"Come on now, those two women in the kitchen, don't hide in there!" Peter jerked his arm, raking Adel and Elizabeth out of the room. He gleamed, clearly full of himself. His face bore down on them relentlessly. "Come and join us ladies! Don't be shy! We don't bite!"

Slowly they slunk forward.

"What are you?" asked Adel, tagging on to the end of' the line.

"A Triceratops," Elizabeth laughed. "Dinosaurs are in." She held her elbows out, her hands like fans at her ears. She wagged from side to side. "What are you?"

Adel held her arms straight up over her head. "I'm in a hold up," said Adel. "I'm a paranoid."

"Come on now, become your animal!" said Peter. "Hum, roar, moo like mother earth rumbling. Like the tall stag horn singing out across the dell, like the Wooly Mammoth crying out across the ages. All together now!''

Adel leaned back, a tall, stiff, unbending pole. "Well, if you're happy with Silverman, I guess I can at least be happy for you," she said, surprised by her own generosity.

"Most of the time I am," Elizabeth swayed back and forth. "I mean, it's too good to be true. I don't have to work. I don't do anything. Have you ever in your life had that experience, Adel? To wake up day after day and know that you don't have anything to do? That everything will be done for you? That there is nothing in the whole world, not one thing you need to do?''

Adel felt she would rather not think about it.

The line snaked around the living room for what seemed to Adel like an interminable hour. She hopped and sang and did everything Peter said she had to do; she waved to the sun, she bowed to the earth, she twirled on one leg and banged her thighs with her hands.

She was sweating by the time she hopped back into the kitchen, pulling Elizabeth, who was laughing too hard, by the back of the dress. She regretted, slightly, not choosing an animal but she was glad it was over.

Adel got busy pulling casseroles out of the oven, slinging them onto hot plates aligned perfectly over the counter. Elizabeth poured cups of juice, making purple spills that ran down the white sink isle onto the floor.

"It's not perfect. There are things to work out. I can always say no at the last minute."

"You couldn't say no at the last minute," said Adel, wiping up the floor on her hands and knees.

Elizabeth stood over her. "I could too. Listen, I accept him the way he is. I love the man. I mean in all my life I never once dreamed I would know someone this rich. I'm telling you when he walked into my office and I put his house on the market, and then it sold like nothing, there was magic between us right from the beginning. Do you know he bought me a ring after the first date? But even with all that sparkle between us I refused."

"But you accepted on the second date."

"So I'm easy. I'm also very rich, honey."

"Not after you sign that contract, honey."

"That has more to do with my personal safety. He's not heartless."

"Did your lawyer get a look at this contract, Einstein?"

"Yes, but I fired her when she called me a stupid cunt. Can you believe that? Not even Silverman gets away with that for long."

Adel opened her mouth to speak. Then she closed it tight. Her friend was in trouble, and she, Adel, had to be human about it. She had to be bold and she had to be nosey, and for once in her life she didn't want to be either of those things.

She smiled warmly, "Elli, honey, give. What's in the contract? What are we talking about here?"

"Ever since I got this billionaire boyfriend everyone wants to put me down!"

"Tell me or I will scream, Peter James wears funky jeans."

"Don't scream, Adel. Please," Elizabeth pressed against her.

Adel pushed her away playfully. "I will. I'll scream. You know I will. What's in the contract?"

"Stop! My God, I can't tell you! I'm sworn secrecy!"

"Who cares? Ten seconds to take off."

"I'll tell you later!"

"Now Elizabeth. One ... two ... three--tell me ... four ... five ... "

"Disease! I could get a disease!"

"Oh goody!" Adel clapped her hands. "This is getting good. This is really getting interesting. What does he have?"

"He screws Karla."

Adel gasped. Slowly she stared down at Elizabeth. "He what?" she said in a small, weak voice.

"He screws the dog."

"Oh my God!" She slapped her hands over her face. People turned all the way around in their seats. They glared at the two friends. Adel stared back at a bevy of evil faces.

Suddenly the world felt like a far away place. Adel looked down at her small friend, who appeared to be growing smaller, going away.

Elizabeth pressed in closer. She whispered fearfully, "'Are we still friends? Am I too stupid?"

But Adel could barely hear her. Adel was already gone, in the realm of the infinite, traveling away at the speed of light.

* * *

Gretchen Van Lente has published short stories in The Seattle Review, The Jacaranda Review, Rosebud, The Mangrove Review, and other places. She has won the Pen L.A. Most Promising Student Writer award and the Cornelia Ward Writing Fellowship from Syracuse University. She currently teached creative writing at Florida Gulf Coast University.

"More and More Perfect"  copyright 2004 by Gretchen Van Lente.