In a time when women are making noise, I'm retracting.
How else to describe this drawing away I'm doing, from teaching others how to make noise in fiction, from writing my own stuff? While other women fight for equity, safety, and keep-your-hands-to-yourself-dammit, why am I, more and more, sitting this one out? I remain silent, now, when a colleague talks over me. An idea of mine is borrowed by another, and I don't say, that's mine. After a work banquet, a notoriously handsy male colleague lays hands on me, glues his crotch to my leg. I smile. I slacken. I nearly melt into his grab. We are surrounded by other colleagues in this crowded hallway in the student union. He calls me gorgeous, gorgeous, thrusts hard, lets me go. My colleagues, clumped in private conversations, don't notice. I pray they also don't notice my almost childish wave to him, good night.
I'd hoped this retracting was a temporary slide into a borrowed shell, but a few thin-skinned months have stretched into years. I don't submit much to journals now, or conferences, or contests. I write fewer and fewer words, question the worth and originality of every single one.
I could be exhausted. I could be afraid.
Would I still be myself if I'd spoken up at the right times? A year after a conference proposal I'd written was rejected, a panel was listed in the conference's guide using, nearly word for word, the description I'd submitted. A writing buddy of mine, a partner on the original proposal, pointed out the similarities. I asked her if we should do anything about it. We both decided it wasn't worth the professional risk to speak up. Plagiarism is tough to prove. Coincidences happen, we could admit that, and besides, no idea is completely original. How many words had we inadvertently borrowed from our lives as avid readers? "Nearly" was the word that sold us. An exact copy we might have defended. An exact copy might have earned us some defenders. "Nearly" was just enough originality to question whether the source material was really mine.
I decided not to submit to that conference again, but that one dodge has led to avoiding other opportunities. Now, I'm down to a trickle: of words, of ideas and principles, and the will to stand up for them. Is my retraction a lack of courage, or faith?
In the midst of my struggle to become myself again, The New Yorker published Sadia Shepard's short story "Foreign-Returned" in the January 8, 2018 edition. Soon after the story appeared, author Francine Prose posted to social media her investigation into the story's similarities with Mavis Gallant's "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street" from the magazine's December 14, 1963 issue. A stream of comments quickly unspooled about whether "Foreign-Returned" represented post-colonial re-imagining or theft. Should Shepard's title have been amended to include "after Mavis Gallant," as one poster suggested? Or is the interview linked to the story, in which Shepard and her editor discuss the "great debt" Shepard owes to Gallant's story, citation enough, as other posters felt? What plagiarism might or might not look like was out in the open, a matter between women.
Mavis Gallant was one of my first literary heroes, a woman who taught me that stories about ordinary people could be art, so I decided to compare the stories for myself. From the New Yorker's online archives, the pages of the December 14, 1963 issue glowed yellow on my screen, as if I'd dug the magazine out of a box of back issues stowed in my attic. On the way to Gallant's story, vintage sexy ads for unsexy wares like Gold Label cigars, boxy GE transistor radios, and Pringle knitwear popped from the magazine's opening pages. A sensual Jackie Kennedy look-alike, her dark mascara a perfect match to the mole flirting with her bottom lip, filled the page for Femme perfume. Her nude shoulder was cropped just low enough to suggest the promise of more where that came from. Under a close-up of Jack Palance, a tumbler of ice and booze suspended at his squared-up chin, the copy proclaimed "Dubonnet—the man's drink!" "Sansabelt—Strong Man in Slacks," declared another ad. In the photo, a man stood with one shoe on a barbell, the Creslan luxury acrylic clinging to his Jack LaLanne bod without "belts, buckles, and bulges around the waist."
I was born three years after the issue in which Gallant's story appears; ads like these formed the commercial backdrop of my early childhood. Compared to the latest Hooter's jiggle campaign, these specimens felt like quaint, even charming throwbacks to the dawn of sex in advertising.
I settled in to read "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street," and my nostalgia quickly turned to distraction. When Canadian ex-pats Peter and Sheilah, hoping to reinvigorate their social standing among the Geneva crowd, are driving to the Burleigh's annual Mardi Gras party, a perfume ad separates their arrival from the circumstances that lead to Peter leaving the party with his co-worker, Agnes. At the bottom of the page, Peter reflects, "She [Sheilah] does not know the importance of the first snow—the first clean thing in a dirty year." On the facing page, the Royal Secret perfume ad features a hand rendering of a nude blonde kneeling on an invisible surface, draped in a semi-sheer throw that covers her breast and backside and nothing else. One slender foot is visible, slightly grayed out from the shadows that also play along her right shoulder. Given the tension in their marriage, I'm betting Sheilah is not wearing this perfume to the party.
On the next page, when Peter is left out of the party's various social groups that his wife is navigating smoothly, neutral ads for masculine products—Florsheim shoes, Rooster ties—flank the left-hand page. On the facing page, a close-up of a beautiful model with a lock of hair floating on her upper lip purrs "Moustache is for men." I have to squint to realize this is an ad for men's cologne. "Ask any woman," the copy suggests. "Moustache is only for men who are loyal, kind, understanding... and masterfully masculine." Other ads aimed at men's virility accompany Peter's social tumble. Shiny butane lighters promise a classy smoke. Fine liquor illuminated with amber backlighting looks as smooth in the bottle as it will going down. Peter doesn't know it, but he's surrounded by the finer things in a "masterfully masculine" man's life that will elude him.
When the party's hostess, Madge Burleigh, orders Peter to take charge of drunk Agnes ("Oh, stop thinking of yourself for once, and see that that poor girl gets home"), a Kent cigarette ad looms over Peter's reluctant acquiescence ("any command is a release, in a way"). The suggestive tag, "For Satisfying Pleasure," hovers over a couple tucked into a snug alcove of rugged red cliffs. The man is leaning over a woman perched on the rocks. His smile faces the reader. The woman's face is slightly turned away. A lock of her blonde hair obscures her mouth. I remember this ad, this woman sandwiched between the man and the bright white Kent box at her back. He is smoking. Her hand rests on his, near the cigarette. Whether she, too, is holding a cigarette isn't clear. My screen blurs such details.
Meanwhile, freed from the dreadful party, Peter can't summon the elevator, and bounds down the stairs; the last words on the page are "Agnes had stalled the lift by..." A turn of the digital page will reveal Agnes's stalling method and send the characters staggering through the snow towards their ambiguous moments in her apartment, an odd non-affair Peter's wife will never discover. But the Kent ad stalls my reading. When I was a kid, I would struggle, and fail, to make out this woman's features. Why didn't she have a face, like the man did? I was too young to tell the difference between advertising and reality, how blurring some lines and sharpening others was make-believe, a hard sell, not the way women and men were actually made. I know better now, of course, but whether out of habit or a sexist conditioning I'll never really outgrow, now I stare at the Kent woman, seeking a nose, an eye, a mouth that might, too, enjoy satisfying pleasure if only it were drawn.
By the late 70s and early 80s, when I was a teen, women activists were laying down lines in the sex-in-advertising turf. In my hometown of Saline, Michigan, the occasional billboard promoted tame sales at the local pharmacy or family diner. In nearby Ann Arbor, however, a campaign raged over a suggestive "Feel the Velvet Canadian" billboard that loomed over a tiny neighborhood party store on South Main Street. In the ad, a towering Black Velvet Lady lounged in a clingy off-the-shoulder dress next to a bottle of whiskey scaled to equal her size. When feminist "guerillas," as the press labeled the women, regularly defaced the lady, Heublein Inc., the company responsible for her, refused to back down. A different pose, one the home office apparently thought to be less sexual, would replace the graffiti. The suits must have assumed the woman's posture, not the invitation to cop a feel of her velvet, was the real provocation. Every new lady found her features dulled. Sultry lips and come-on eyes gradually flatlined to blankness, as if neutralizing her sexuality meant erasing her face.
I made many drives down Main Street in the shadow of that lady. No matter how many times her corporate owners freshened her up, she was never free of graffiti for long. Whenever I saw her, I was usually on my way to the counter clerk and waitressing jobs I held back then. I was fast understanding that being hit on or catcalled are part of the everyday transactions between female help and those they serve. As I was neither pretty nor popular in high school, I'd attracted very little male attention until I entered the work force. I learned on the job when to parry with openly sexist insults, and when to smile and quip at the tamer remarks. I grinned and shrugged it off when the guy who slung hash showed me nude shots of women with enormous breasts. I negotiated gendered banter the same way I balanced prepping salads while refreshing coffee, or juggled six steaming plates of bacon and eggs on my bare arms rather than risk dropping a tray. Those work days began with new paint splashed on the latest Black Velvet Lady. The chants carved under the "Feel the Velvet" tag—"Insist, Resist, Persist"—were meant to light a fire under young girls like me, but looking back, what I recall most clearly are the words "Take Me Down," and bleeding ink slashing a beautiful woman in a sexy black dress.
When I turned to Shepard's "Foreign-Returned," I immediately noted the similarities that inspired Prose's comments; the same cast of characters under different names, the delicate, ultimately mismanaged negotiations of social status in a foreign country that form the plot. Shepard's originality resides in changes to setting and the characters' countries of origin. As other readers have pointed out, these variations update the story to the Trump era's chasm between native and foreign born. But, fresh from the vintage ads that helped shape my reading of Gallant's story, the difference in my reading experience caught my attention more than the stories' obvious similarities.
On my iPad, The New Yorker app's Contents link allows a direct jump to "Foreign-Returned"; no flipping through pages of ads, as I'd had to do to connect with Gallant. What greeted me first was not the story's first lines, but a full-screen color photo of a woman's head and shoulders facing away from the camera, robed in a light purple hijab. She is clasping a pearl pin to the fabric where her ear must be. Her nails are perfectly lacquered a deep, rich red. Her graceful hands are the only hints of freedom of movement. All I can see of her face are the luxurious spikes of eyelashes rimming one eye, and the slight line of an eyebrow's crest. With her features all but erased, this woman reminds me of her Kent ad ancestor.
As I tap the scroll bar, the reading is clean, ad-free. Three cartoons interject at even intervals. The first features a couple in front of a TV set. The man says, "This looks good—a ninety-six-part documentary about everything." Another shows a casual young woman sprawled on a park bench. Her tee invites us to "ask me about my break from social media." Cartoons also punctuate Gallant's piece, of course. One shows a traditional family of four bundled in winter fur, the father clutching his middle-class briefcase, following a herd of bears into a cave to hibernate for the winter. In another, a glassblower says to his colleague, "You're a nice guy and all that, Harry, but you're a lousy glassblower." Harry's glass droops from the end of his blower like a sausage link; a failed vessel, a ruined decoration. The 1963 cartoons poke at that era's upper-middle-class aspirations, even as the ads sell those very pretensions. The 2018 cartoons lampoon modern communications, a subtle nod to how I feel reading Shepard's story on an iPad. Whenever I scroll, a pop up gives me the familiar social media sharing options, the f and the bluebird, the envelope for email.
The interview in which Shepard credits Gallant is not among the links.
While the Black Velvet Lady battled defacement from both activists and her corporate masters, I spent my time between waitressing shifts being drilled in intellectual honesty by my undergraduate instructors at the University of Michigan. About the time I was writing a thesis on the poetry of a male Russian émigré who used rape, among other atrocities, to portray the hopeless brutality of everyday Soviet life, sampling was just beginning to stir controversy in the arts. In 1984, rocker Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. and Columbia Records for plagiarism over the Ghostbusters theme song. Despite the lawsuit, rap and hip-hop artists continued to sample tracks, re-mix genres, make new art, but in the academy, borrowing without citation was a dishonest shortcut to originality.
While my Russian literature thesis advisor was training me to draw a clear line connecting my ideas with those of my predecessors, I was listening carefully to the contested Parker and Lewis riffs on the radio. Taken out of their song's respective contexts, the bass lines' funky thumps were indeed so similar. Perhaps Parker had borrowed the riff unconsciously, but if not, shouldn't Lewis have been credited? My poet was breaking Soviet taboos on explicit subject matter and social commentary by riffing profanely on a popular 19th century English pastoral, but he hadn't left it to the reader to uncover this ironic homage. Two stanzas from A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad form the book's epigraph.
Huey Lewis eventually reached an out of court settlement with Columbia Records. Musical artists continued to argue both sides of the copyright issue. If a guitar lick or synthesizer loop is widely recognized, is borrowing that music plagiarism, or homage? With many of those sampled still living and recording, the answer often lay in the original artist's attitude. Some praised the new work, and were honored by their music's contribution to hip-hop's creative evolution. Others sued. Often the lawsuits isolated the musical lines in question from the greater context of the song to prove their case. At the time, erasing content and context seemed fair to me. How else could the ear hear the theft?
While artists debated the tense relationship between creative freedom and intellectual property rights, I analyzed violence towards women—aided and abetted by drunkenness—as a device to depict despair and injustice under a totalitarian regime. The women in the poems, I saw back then, as crucial symbols of tyranny's dehumanization. Steeped in literary investigation, I never questioned why I was studying this particular poet and his subject matter. I would like, now, to think I had chosen him because his poetry was complex, musical, and courageous in resisting the regime he'd fled. Besides, I would like to remind myself, there were no prominent women poets from that time I could have studied. But the truth was, I hadn't chosen this poet. My thesis advisor had suggested him, and I had never questioned the choice.
In the home stretch of finishing my theses, I came down with a severe bout of pneumonia. My thesis advisor was questioning some of my conclusions. My final edits were grueling. I convinced myself that overwork was responsible for my unseasonable illness. It never occurred to me, as it does now, that I might have been recoiling from the work itself. Perhaps this is when I retracted into the shell I've been assuming is new, and temporary, but am coming to realize I've never quite shed.
Then, two weeks before graduation, in a class on Eastern European history, the graduate student instructor (GSI) called me into his office for what I assumed would be a routine conference on the essay I'd just submitted.
Instead, he shut the door and accused me of plagiarism.
When I reached the scene in "Foreign-Returned" in which Hassan's wife, Sara, is on her exercise bike watching CNN ("True, this was perhaps not the America she had signed up for. But it was still America."), my younger son interrupted my reading for a lift to band rehearsal. I returned to the story on my laptop, and found my screen populated with ads and links my iPad Kindle version had scrubbed. The woman with the graceful hands still pins the brooch to her hijab, but to her right flashes a slideshow ad for Lily Girl clothes, a brand I have never worn. Above her, a State Farm Insurance banner proclaims: "We know what it takes to make a house a home" on a bright red field. An ad for Neutrogena moisturizer, promising replenishment and youth, pops up when the State Farm tagline fades. The Lily Girl ad slides into an ad for Ramipril, a drug I don't take, and then into an ad for Nespresso coffee, a drug I do take. On the New Yorker website, Shepard's story is as corralled by these flashing ads as Gallant's is by the immoveable ads of her time, but my experience of them is much different. The ads of 1963 were linked to the story on the page, while the 2018 ads on my screen relate—or are intended to relate—to me. Gleaming coffee machines and colorful drug packaging replace chiseled jaws and flirty beauty marks. These modern ads don't traffic in bodies, that much is progress, but they sure are noisy. I have to focus all my attention to wade through the bling back to Hassan and Sara.
Just as Gallant's story ends with Peter and Sheilah back in Canada, picking apart the reasons for Peter's career failures, Shepard's story ends with Hassan and Sara back in Pakistan, brooding over the reasons his American contract wasn't renewed ("True, it might have been his performance review. But it could also have been his name. Or his nationality. Or his visa status. Either way, no one in Karachi blames them for wanting out of the new America"). On my laptop, links labeled "More" follow the story's final lines. The key words Connecticut Pakistan Immigrants Muslims Suburbia unfurl across the screen. Colorful links to recommended articles pop up. "Fighting Cuba's Boxing Ban" shows a half-screen color photograph of a pony-tailed young woman in Benlee boxing gloves. The angle of the photo puts the lens nose-to-nose with the gloves, fills the frame with the woman's fists and powerful arms. The boxing story's neighbor is a link to a piece on African-American writer William Melvin Kelly's fall into obscurity. Shepard's interview on the "...Nuances of Immigration and Cultural Identity" appears, too, with a photo of the author giving the link a visibility my Kindle version does not offer. I click to read the interview. Gallant isn't mentioned until half way through the conversation. Trump's America is cited as more influential source material than "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street."
I don't know how to feel about this late mention. Is it fair to isolate Gallant's source material from the greater context of Shepard's story to prove something borrowed, as the Lewis-Parker lawsuit did? Is Gallant's story to be thought of in the same context as William Melvin Kelly's work? Is Shepard's story to be viewed as the powerful boxing gloves taking on the new America? Where should my sympathies—hell, my courage—lie?
I no longer remember the paper that led to trouble in that Eastern European History course, nor the specific idea or text I was accused of plagiarizing. Feverish and foggy, I floated through the meeting with the GSI in which he informed me that, although he could fail me, he wouldn't. He was giving me the benefit of the doubt, he told me, that my sampling was unconscious, not malicious. A late spring heat wave clogged his office, a space so tiny we were sitting knee to knee. He shook a finger and told me how lucky I was that he was letting me off this one time. I should be grateful, he emphasized. Sweating, flushing, on the verge of tears, I longed to defend myself; to explain that I was meticulously trained in the art of attribution; that I had neither plagiarized nor borrowed nor appropriated, that I had not even paraphrased. The idea he was accusing me of stealing was, in fact, my own.
But throughout his dressing down, I kept silent. Once accused, I knew any defense would sound, well, defensive. Acknowledging such a charge always appears like an admission of guilt, especially when one has no way to disprove the accusation beyond all doubt. Anyway, why defend myself to a guy I was a brief time away from never seeing again? And I was too sick to protest, or so I told myself at the time. My throat was so sore I could barely croak, let alone mount a defense.
When he finally fell silent and waited for me to explain myself, to my utter dismay, I rasped, I'm sorry. I fled his office completely distraught and ashamed. Why on earth had I apologized, and why had the words poured out as naturally as a reflex? The fact that the GSI was male made my distress all the more intense. In my waitressing jobs, smiling with atta-girl aplomb had become routine. I should have shaken off this encounter as easily as I shook off a day's labor. I told myself that if the accusation had come from a female GSI I'd be upset, too; but I wondered if I would have kept silent. Had dealing with men in the workplace rendered me unable to defend myself to a man aspiring to the same profession as I was? I wondered, too, if a female instructor would have asked me whether I thought I had plagiarized, as I do now when the rare need arises. Would she have invited my defense, educated rather than scolded? And, if she'd already decided before the meeting not to report me, would she have threatened to do so before informing me she wouldn't? Of course, plenty of female educators wield their power clumsily, or unethically. Plenty of male educators perform their jobs with excellence and respect. But after the meeting with the GSI, the shame, the helpless anger, and the fear I carried were the same emotions I felt when a male customer told me he loved to see a woman's ass bent over a mop while I was scrubbing the day's crud from the restaurant tile.
In the moment, I was forgetting that it doesn't matter whether you come to your idea independently, as Ray Parker Jr. had learned. The GSI had every right, even a professional duty, to confront me. Still, I recall my silence in the face of these accusations as an early symptom of my retracting. Or, perhaps, it's the root cause.
In 1990, as a graduate student, I spent a semester in Moscow. The city was free of billboards and flashing neon, a commercial scrubbing that felt liberating, at least at first. In those ad-free Soviet days, deadpan signs announcing meat or fruit adorned the drab shops. Downtown, the first McDonald's in Russia had opened a year or so ago, and a Pizza Hut lay tucked away on a side street. With St. Basil's technicolor onion domes etched against the sky, I barely noticed the golden arches or the crimson-roofed hut. Most refreshing of all, women's bodies stayed where they belonged, on the street bundled up against the cold, going about the business of life, not lolling half-nude above my head.
A month into my studies, I spotted the GSI who'd accused me of plagiarism in the vast corridor of Moscow State University's dorm, where I, and, presumably he, were living. Shame flooded me, and I fled outside. If he saw me, I was convinced he'd point me out, accuse me before the crowds of fellow students crowding the hallway of being a cheat, a fraud. Looking back, my sensitivity seems ridiculous. I was a year into graduate school and doing well. The accusation that loomed large in my memory was, to him, likely insignificant, a forgotten episode in a grueling teaching routine. But once in flight, I couldn't stop.
I took the subway downtown to shake off the sight of him. When I turned a corner to walk to Red Square, a colossal, brand new Estee Lauder billboard had staked a claim over a historic building. A woman's face, fringed by a luxurious fur hood, filled the board. Rich red lipstick and thick violet lashes accented her pearly skin. She was unmarked. No one protested her existence. Such glamor was so out of place in Moscow's austerity that I stopped to gape. At the dawn of Russia's new advertising, I should have hoped Moscow's feminist "guerillas" would sneak out that night to protest. I should have longed to see this woman's idealized features scarred with black paint. But my gut reaction to the ad was not at all feminist. How beautiful she is, I thought.
Upon my return from Russia, I found the jig was up for Ann Arbor's Black Velvet Lady. The skirmish had ended, the lady replaced by an ad I can no longer recall. As I would later learn, the battle was purely local. According to an Associated Press article dated May 24, 1985, "Heublein Inc., the Farmington, Conn., company that markets Black Velvet, has received a few 'negative comments' about the billboard campaign since it began twelve years ago... The Ann Arbor sign has been the only one defaced..." Ann Arbor's women won the battle, but, in time, would lose the war. After years of declining sales, in 2005 the Black Velvet Lady campaign received a re-boot. Sales of Black Label whiskey are again meeting targets. On South Main Street, the tiny liquor store is still thriving, but the billboard's current ad features the latest Diet Coke "Because Flavor" campaign. No alcohol, no sexy women; just five pop bottles, rainbow bright against a neutral field, selling themselves.
The dust-up surrounding Shepard's use of Gallant's source material played out for a time in posts, tweets and think pieces. In a Los Angeles Review of Books article rallying around Shepard, Gina Apostol cites Borges "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," as a defense of fair re-imagining. I identify with Apostol's arguments asserting the artist's prerogative to create new art from old, to repurpose beloved stories to create new meaning, and to enrich the ever-shifting relationship between text and reader. Apostol's caution against "noisy white voices" damaging a writer of color's career also calls out the pernicious damage of a plagiarism charge from white artists whose own creative work exists in a lineage that borders on plagiarism. Huey Lewis may have won his lawsuit against Ray Parker, Jr.'s label, but rockers like Lewis borrow their every guitar lick from their African-American jazz and blues predecessors. As in rock and roll, Borges's story defends appropriation as not only the apotheosis of creativity, but the only originality possible. The author-imitator's re-invention both salvages and transcends earlier work by placing the art into a new cultural and historical frame, encouraging the reader to paint over the old model with an updated pose.
My own brief history as a plagiarist influenced my empathetic reading of "Foreign-Returned," but Shepard's close replication of Gallant's original plot and characters, with attribution buried in an interview, bothered me. As a Gallant scholar, Prose is well-positioned to unveil the author to the presumably well-read New Yorker reader who still may not have recognized the source text. In Borges' satire, Cervantes is named. Quixote, a well-known novel in the public domain, is as much a character in the story as Menard himself. The source text is even invited into Borges' title; Quixote shares space with the name of Borges' main character and that character's profession. The writer, the scholar, and the reader in me all appreciate the equal billing. By excluding any mention of her in the space occupied by "Foreign-Returned," even in the title, I can't help but feel that Gallant has been erased from her own work.
And, as I keep silent, smother another protest, another sentence, I wonder: Am I protecting my work, and myself, or erasing both? Is my retraction a holdover from those early years spent with other erased women? Or is my withdrawal a symptom of a self-preservation I'm not ready to admit? I should want to write, submit, talk over and back, join the women who lace up their boxing gloves. I should want to make noise. But what I find I want right now is to acknowledge Gallant's story in Shepard's, and Shepard's in Gallant's. I want to uncover the noise, and the silence, behind women's unique re-imaginings of a shared story.
Reading these stories in the close company of their advertising revealed one alliance between the original and her offspring. Of all the elements of "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street" Shepard chose to re-imagine, the characters' genders remained faithful to Gallant's cast. Peter's fortunes determine his family's. His wife shares his wonder of what he did wrong, but has neither the means or opportunity, or even the thought, to seek her own professional fortune. Hassan, too, is a man who fails to read signals from the right people. The locale may differ, but in the end, Hassan and his wife sit at the same kitchen table as Gallant's characters to parse where the man of the family went wrong. A lot has changed in the fifty years between the stories, but despite shifts in sensibility, culture, and even the meaning of plagiarism, in "Foreign-Returned" a female writer chose to re-inhabit her sister-writer's male protagonist and his female supporting cast.
The digital reproduction that glows from my screen reveals that Arthur Getz illustrated the December 14, 1963 New Yorker cover. An Impressionistic Christmas tree market lines a New York street. Above the firs' spires, the stoplight shines eternally red. Street lights shaped like dragonflies hover over the trees. The seller is wrapped in a white apron. A woman is approaching in high heels and bare legs, wrapped in a sleek maroon overcoat. Both faces are stylistically blurred, their features almost eradicated. Their skin, almost borderless to the air around them, are clearly Caucasian. Perhaps the woman in heels will stop to browse, pick her perfect holiday tree. Perhaps she is on her way to a party, or the theater, and has no intention of stopping. With her eyes and expression taken from her, her intent is a mystery.
The January 8, 2018 cover artwork by Jorge Colombo is titled "Ferried Across." A woman is sitting alone on the ferry, reading a book. Another ferry is passing by outside the window. The New York City shoreline in the distance is bleak but pretty. The sky's lavender gray highlights the lush blue upholstery of the ferry's seats. Her brown hair is piled in a bun over an offsides profile that's featureless except for her ears. Like the woman in the Kent ad, I could search for hours and never find a trace of her face. Her skin tone is a rich, pale chestnut. To my eye, at least, her race is ambiguous, but her carefully painted nails and the delicate hairs fanning her neck above her fur-lined collar make no mystery of her gender.
Title image "Sleek Maroon Overcoat" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.