Greenwich Village, 1970s: Rainey Royal, fourteen years old, talented, and troubled, lives in a once-elegant, now decaying brownstone with her father, a jazz musician with a cultish personality. Her mother has abandoned the family, and Rainey fends off advances from her father’s best friend while trying desperately to nurture her own creative drives and create a substitute family. She’s a rebel, even a criminal, but she’s also deeply vulnerable, fighting to figure out how to put back in place the boundaries her life has knocked down, and more than that, struggling to learn how to be an artist and a person in a broken world.
Rainey Royal is told in 14 narratives of scarred and luminous beauty that build into a fiercely powerful novel: the harrowing, heartbreaking and ultimately affirming story of a young artist. The following excerpt originally appeared in The Normal School.
Rapture and the Fiercest Love
On Monday Rainey witnesses the sorrow of Miss Honor Brennan, who wears a crucifix tucked under her clothes. Miss Brennan suggests they eat lunch together after class, at her desk. Revoltingly intimate, to see a teacher’s lunch, its homemade sandwich and nicked pear.
“I didn’t bring lunch.” Rainey holds her pack to her chest and backs away.
Miss Brennan dangles a rumpled brown bag and says, “I’ll share.” She has a widow’s peak that sculpts her glowing, blue-eyed face into a heart. “I think you could use a chat.”
“I’m fine.” Rainey’s hand is on the doorknob. The only thing keeping her in the science lab is curiosity.
“Yes, I agree you’re doing a tremendous job of holding it together,” says Miss Brennan. “But people are saying things.”
She touches her crucifix through the starched fabric of her blouse. Sometimes it works loose. Rainey has seen it. “I can’t believe they’re all true, but I’m asking you to stay and talk.”
She is the prettiest teacher at school; she has to be dating one of the male teachers, right?
“Oh, for Chrissake,” says Rainey, but she doesn’t exactly fling herself out; she wants to hear what people are saying.
“Please,” says Miss Brennan, “sit, and tell me about your mother, Rainey. I understand she left.”
Rainey slowly closes the door. “She didn’t leave. My mother took a year to study Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga at an ashram in Boulder, Colorado.” She went to the library for this one. She goes to the library for everything. Miss Brennan looks at her steadily. “When she comes back she’ll be certified to teach it,” says Rainey. “We talk twice a week.”
Miss Brennan sucks in her lower lip and nods. “Sit down, Rainey.”
Rainey stays at the door.
“Your father says she never calls. He didn’t make a secret of it at our parent-teacher conference. Please. Sit.”
“She calls when he’s not home.” Rainey scuffs over to a chair and drops her pack on it. “Obviously. He doesn’t know we talk. We talk about art. She’s my mother.”
Miss Brennan gestures firmly at the chair. “You can always leave,” she says.
“Have a pear.”
Rainey sits tangentially. First she dislodges her pack. Then she shoves another chair out of the way. She does not have a pear.
“A few of the teachers who care about you are wondering,” says Miss Brennan in the same soft voice, as if she were slowly wrapping Rainey in cashmere, “if you need help with your home situation. I don’t mean to pry, but”— she takes a delicate bite of her sandwich, which has a petticoat of lettuce around the edges—“some teachers have heard it’s like a commune. The word cult came up. Is it true, Rainey, that your father has a lot of young people living there?”
Rainey looks at her, amazed. Do people think her mother abandoned her to some cult?
“It’s none of your business,” she says.
“I’m making it my business.” Miss Brennan bites deep into her sandwich, and Rainey senses that she cannot, in fact, always leave.
“My father,” she says, “runs—it’s like a boarding school for brilliant jazz students. I live in a house full of music.” She chooses her words carefully. “It’s very creative,” she says. “My home is a very nurturing place.”
Miss Brennan pushes the pear closer to the edge of her desk. “Eat,” she says. “Where do these brilliant jazz students sleep?”
With Howard, thinks Rainey. “It’s a five-story townhouse,” she says. “We have like a zillion bedrooms.”
“Is that enough?” says Miss Brennan. “Your father is very . . . charismatic. I’ve met him. Is there any . . . adult activity going on that might make you uncomfortable? Do you feel safe in that house, Rainey?”
“It’s my house. I feel two hundred percent safe.” Rainey stands, pushing the chair away. It screeches.
“People are concerned for you, Rainey. No one is gossiping. Don’t be angry.” Miss Brennan stands, too. “One more question. Please. Is it true there’s a man living there who isn’t related to you?”
Rainey possesses an expression of baffled innocence, and she puts it on now. “Gordy? My cousin?” She waits for doubt to register on Miss Brennan’s face. “He’s lived there since I was two.”
Miss Brennan says, “Your cousin.”
“He’s a genius on horn,” says Rainey. “He and my dad play in the best clubs.”
Miss Brennan nods. “Rainey,” she says, “if you ever need to chat, I’m here. It can be hard without a mom. I think things are tougher than you let on.”
The English teacher, Zach Moreno, always sits with Miss Brennan at lunch. And he is gorgeous, too. Mr. Piriello is fat, and Mr. Noble is craggy in a romantic way, but he is old. So, Mr. Moreno. It is like matching up Barbie and Ken, Rainey thinks. Maybe there is something she can do with that. Maybe she could flirt with Mr. Moreno more. In her mind, she picks up her chair and smashes Miss Brennan’s head. Only when she can see the blood does she shoulder her pack and say in her sweetest voice, “May I go now?”
The pietà by Jacques Bellange is the most delicious in the show at the Met, and Rainey is riveted. In the picture, Mary tips her head back and dips her fingertips into the tiny bowl between her collarbones as if holy water might have collected there. Her face is radiant with pain.
It’s Monday afternoon, the afternoon of the humiliation. Rainey lets her pack thud on the museum floor and pulls out her sketchbook.
A tour group sifts around the corner. Rainey feels it rather than sees it swelling behind her. “Ah, we love our art students.” The guide has a faint Germanic accent. “But this is the one you should be copying, miss. It’s filled with contradiction. Come join us.”
Drop dead, thinks Rainey.
After a moment, he goes on in his tour-guide voice. “Let us explore the tension in this engraving by Claude Mellan.”
Rainey balances her sketchbook on one arm. The Mary in the pietà is a real woman, not like those stiff ones from the 1400s. She doesn’t try to copy the pietà precisely, with its fine hatch marks. Rather she wants to capture the curve of Mary’s neck, the folds in her garment, the muscles in the thigh of the Christ.
Never has she seen such muscles in the thigh of a Christ.
“We see Mary Magdalene with two symbols of the religious contemplative,” says the guide, and from his accent Rainey imagines him with skis and Alps. “The cross and the skull,” says the guide. “We don’t know why Mellan omitted the third symbol, the book. And yet, and yet. Look at her, this reformed prostitute. Her robes have slipped. Her hair is undone. She’s a lush young woman, our Magdalene. This is a typical pose for her, during her desert days.”
Rainey totally sees it. Spiritual, pretty, a little loose, deep into her thoughts, not a big reader. Hair to her waist.
She refuses to look.
In the Bellange pietà, the Mother Mary sits with her legs apart and the body of Jesus on his knees between them, facing the viewer. This Mary is not embarrassed about any damn thing. She may be pure, but she is still a sensual, fleshy woman, caught up in grief.
The thing Rainey doesn’t get, as she sketches, is how the Christ stays upright, kneeling, if he’s dead. Every muscle is delineated. His nipples are erect. A fold of Mary’s hem flutters up strategically across his hip.
“So I wonder,” says the guide, as if musing to himself, “does she know? Is Mary Magdalene so transported by religious fervor she does not realize her bosom is bared? Or are the artists telling us, once a whore, always a whore?”
Rainey hears tittering and turns, furious. The engraving is small, but she can tell right away that the Magdalene, a big-boned, dark-haired sexy chick, is dreaming away. She could almost be Mary’s daughter. “Can’t you fucking tell?” says Rainey loudly, causing a guard to take several decisive steps toward her. “She’s like totally transported. Jesus Christ.”
Tuesday, from the fifth row, Rainey stares at Miss Brennan as if tenth-grade chemistry might save her life. Her gaze savors the heart-shaped face and locks onto the electricblue irises. Obviously she’s listening, right?
Meanwhile, she inches her arm over to the wall where the Erlenmeyer flasks are lined up. Then she closes her hand around one.
She feels Tina encouraging her, without eye contact, from the front of the room. Miss Brennan separates them. A bunch of teachers separate them, especially in gym. They don’t know it strengthens Rainey to feed on Tina’s energy from a distance, to know what Tina is thinking without meeting her eyes. Like right now, Tina is thinking, I dare you to eat the egg afterward. Real slow.
Rainey pretends she doesn’t even know what her hand is doing with the flask because she is so riveted by Miss Brennan’s every word. Miss Brennan is gorgeous, even if she is like thirty. She looks like Wonder Woman. So here is what Rainey and Tina want to know: If a woman becomes a chemistry teacher by choice, does that mean she is a lesbo or hates sex? And are those two things the same? Rainey has some unanswered questions in this department, but one thing she knows for sure is how to coax the fat glimmering hard-boiled egg in her lunch bag down the skinny neck of the Erlenmeyer flask.
When she has slid the flask right in front of her, she dips her hand into her pack, finds her lunch, and slips the peeled hard-boiled egg out of its Baggie, never taking her gaze off Honor Brennan.
She balances the egg on the lip of the flask, where it nests, ovoid and shiny, stuck on the neck of the bottle like a fat stopper.
Miss Brennan radars onto her. “Absolutely not,” she says.
“What lab are you doing?” In that moment—Rainey can feel it—Miss Brennan loses Andy Sakellarios, who looks at the egg and laughs hoarsely. She loses Tina, separated by four lab tables but communicating mischief telepathically. She loses Mary Gage, who peers over the collar of her rabbit-fur jacket with wide eyes.
“Egg,” says Miss Brennan, pointing at it. “Trash,” pointing near her desk. “Immediately.” She loses Leah Levinson, who glances only at the base of the flask, and Rainey knows why: she’s afraid to look Rainey in the eye.
Hard to handle, Rainey thinks. That’s what they say when they talk about me.
She flips her hair over her shoulder, a long, sensuous gesture involving a dramatic arm flourish, because her hair comes down past her waist.
“Miss Brennan?” she says sweetly. “I really, really want to make this egg go down this hole. It’ll just take a minute. Please? It’s science.”
Rainey keeps her voice low and says hole as if she were blowing a smoke ring, or a kiss, which makes the boys grin.
“It’s third-grade science,” says Miss Brennan, “and there is no food in my class. Throw it out, now, Rainey, I’m not kidding.”
Rainey is busy. It’s this thing she does with her hair, combing it with her fingers, looking around, catching her friends’ eyes and laughing—she has it down. “But I like third grade science,” she says in a little-girl voice. She thrusts her shoulders back. If Miss Brennan is having sex with a male teacher, she wants her to think about that teacher trying not to look at Rainey’s bust in class. Miss B doesn’t have that kind of bust, the kind her own father has special words for. “I have a lighter,” Rainey entreats—her way of announcing that she smokes, in case there is still someone who doesn’t know—and she tears a thin strip of paper out of her notebook. “Please? Can I? It’ll take ten seconds.”
She flicks the lighter and waits. The flame wavers near her thumb. The class is mesmerized.
“You are this close to detention. But ten seconds, yes,” says Miss Brennan, and Rainey knows she is thinking: Abandoned girl, confused girl, give her a little rope.
Rainey is running the class now. “Oooh,” she says, “thank you,” and squirms on her stool. She takes the egg off the neck of the Erlenmeyer flask. She lights the strip of paper on fire, drops it into the flask, and sets the egg on top again.
It takes only a moment for the air pressure inside to decrease and for the flask to suck in the egg—for the egg to stretch and narrow itself into the neck of the flask. The egg plops down inside with a tiny bounce, lands on the charred paper, and puts out the flame.
“Oh, my God, I love that,” cries Rainey. “Thank you, Miss Brennan.”
Miss Brennan thrusts her hand out and says, “Flask, Rainey. That happened because the air pressure inside did what? Andy?”
But Andy Sak has his back to her and is looking directly at Rainey. When it’s clear he won’t turn away, Rainey lifts the flask, joggles it till the egg is in position, and blows into the opening.
Not one eye is on Miss Brennan.
“Rainey, get up here. Bring the flask.” Miss Brennan slaps the edge of the desk. “At the board, Rainey, now. I want the formula for pressure versus temperature if a gas is at constant volume. Now.”
“I have to get it out,” says Rainey helplessly, and holds the flask upended over her palm. The egg narrows again, slithers into the neck of the flask, and drops neatly, warmly, wetly, into her hand.
“Lunch,” she sings.
“Five points off your grade,” says Miss Brennan. “Throw out the egg out and write the formula.”
“It’s got p’s and t’s,” says Rainey. “But I forgot it exactly. I’m sorry.” She looks contrite. Then she takes a slow bite out of the egg. This is for you, Tina.
“Ten points off. Throw out the egg,” says Miss Brennan.
“I know why you are doing this, Rainey. But just because you have trouble at home doesn’t mean you get to inflict it on us.”
The silence in the room creaks and shifts. Someone coughs. Rainey stares into the eyes of Miss Brennan as if to drill a hole in her skull.
“It’s. My. Lunch,” she says softly. She extends the tip of her tongue, which she knows is pretty because she has studied it in the mirror, and licks a bit of ash off the egg. The heads of boys lock almost audibly into position.
Miss Brennan picks up her wastebasket, walks over to Rainey, and slams it on the floor. “Drop it,” she says through her teeth.
“I’m hungry.” Rainey knows she is going too far, but Miss Brennan went farther, and besides, she no longer knows how to throw out the egg.
Across the aisle Angeline Yost whispers, “Fight, fight.” Leah laughs, but when Rainey angles her a look she goes to work at a fingernail with her teeth. Miss Brennan’s eyes are bright as glass. “In addition to the ten points,” Miss Brennan says, “you have detention.”
Rainey mouths a word that is silent but unmistakable and takes another bite of the egg. Leah emits a tiny gasp.
“Detention’s Mr. Moreno today, isn’t it, Miss Brennan?” says Rainey. “You know his schedule, right?”
She holds the half-eaten egg high above the trash can and waits, watching Miss Brennan’s face until color flows into it.
“Thought so,” she says. She drops the egg into the trash. It thumps.
Earlier that semester Rainey went to the library, her second-favorite place, and looked up the name. She held the word close till she needed it.
“Brennan,” she says musically, deciding that today, even as she loses, she wins. “That means ‘sorrow’ in Irish, right?”
Mr. Moreno’s classroom has pictures of the authors around the room. George Eliot, who was a woman. Fitzgerald, whose wife was crazy. There is no keeping up with English lit; you could read and read and never get through it, whereas one day she will have seen every painting in every museum in New York City.
“Can I sketch?” says Rainey from the doorway.
“You can do homework, in silence, Rainey.”
She bites her lower lip as if a camera were trained on her, but Mr. Moreno just sits at his desk reading student essays. He has his aviator glasses on, and his hair is as dark and lush as Miss Brennan’s. Sometimes they share a thermos—they have to be having sex, Rainey thinks. Their hair has to be having sex.
She takes a seat in the front row where she will be maximally distracting and watches his pupils dart back and forth, tracking the handwriting. Her handwriting. He makes notes with a red Bic pen.
“Mr. Moreno,” she says softly. “I have a problem.”
“You do,” he says, without looking up. “You’re talking.”
“That’s not it,” she whispers. She has no idea what she is going to say next. She is all out of hard-boiled eggs.
“You have a problem with this essay,” he says. He looks up and seems to realize, suddenly, that he has a chance to connect with her. “This could be a good time to work on it, actually. You don’t fully support your thesis. Here, where you talk about the relationship between wealth and honor—”
Honor Brennan. Dishonor Brennan.
“I don’t remember what I wrote,” says Rainey, and rises from her chair. “I have to see.”
“Stay right there,” says Mr. Moreno. His voice is a closed door.
“I just need to see,” she says in her little-girl voice. She plants her palms on the front of his desk and leans forward. And then Mr. Moreno says something that doesn’t make sense.
“I’m bulletproof, Rainey.” He looks directly into her eyes.
At that moment Honor Brennan knocks and steps into the classroom with textbooks in her arms. She looks from Zach Moreno to Rainey’s chest and says drily, “Am I interrupting?”
Rainey scuffs back to her seat but turns it sideways. She opens her knees wide, like Mr. Bellange’s Mary, and sprawls.
“I thought I’d take over, Zack,” Miss Brennan says. “Rainey and I have a few things to iron out.”
“Oh, Jesus,” says Rainey.
“I’ll meet you in the lounge,” Mr. Moreno tells Miss Brennan. To Rainey he gives a small, courteous nod.
“Leave me a ciggie, Zach,” says Rainey, but he doesn’t even smile. When the door closes, Miss Brennan perches on the edge of the desk. Rainey bobs out of the chair and starts pacing. “I need a smoke,” she says.
Miss Brennan keeps the textbooks on her lap. Shield, thinks Rainey. “Once again I find myself asking you to sit,” says Miss Brennan.
“I’m done sitting. I’m done talking.” At the back of the classroom, Rainey looks out the window over East Eighty-Seventh Street, where kids leave school and stream down the block as if they had all the time in the world. “I need a cigarette,” she says.
When she turns and sees Miss Brennan, though, she realizes she is wrong. The cigarette is nothing. Miss Brennan, gazing at her and fingering her hidden crucifix, is the one with the need. She needs to fix Rainey Royal.
Rainey stares at the dagger’s point of hair on her teacher’s forehead, opens and closes her mouth a few times, and says, “Miss Brennan.” Then she falters.
She is so good.
“I want—” She looks at the floor.
“What is it, Rainey? What’s troubling you?”
She hesitates. “It’s embarrassing.”
Miss Brennan leans forward. “You can tell me anything, Rainey.”
In a voice not much above a whisper, Rainey says to the floor, “I just need to be held.”
“You—oh, I knew there was something under all that behavior.”
Rainey holds her ground and waits.
Miss Brennan puts her books on the desk. She walks all the way down the aisle. She wears black trousers with low heels and a white cotton blouse buttoned to her neck and a gold cross where Rainey can’t see it. She clasps Rainey’s upper arms, looks at her searchingly for a moment, and then enfolds her.
She smells of perfume, deodorant soap, and a tiny bit of sweat. Rainey likes it. It is the smell of Wonder Woman. Miss Brennan hugs her the way women hug, shoulders touching but with a natural distance between the chests. Rainey counts to five, then slowly begins to melt into the shape of that distance. When she inhales, her breasts press into Miss Brennan’s breasts. When she exhales, her breath washes over Miss Brennan’s neck and disturbs her thick, dark hair.
Miss Brennan seems to have stopped breathing.
“Oh, my God,” says Rainey, her arms around Miss Brennan’s waist. She is alive, she is incredibly alive, she is running the class. “Miss Brennan,” she whispers, “will you do something for me?”
Miss Brennan begins to disengage from the hug like a cat that has been held too long. “What is it, Rainey,” she says.
“Will you kiss me?”
Miss Brennan steps abruptly back, though they are still, in some way, interlocked. Rainey feels herself scrutinized. She turns her face away and bites the side of her thumbnail. She gives Miss Brennan time to recollect how an abandoned girl would be—troubled, shy, desperate for affection.
Miss Brennan hesitates, then swiftly leans in and kisses Rainey on the cheek.
Rainey touches her fingertips to the side of Miss Brennan’s face.
Then she touches her lips to Miss Brennan’s mouth.
For one second, two seconds, there is only shock.
Then Rainey could swear Miss Brennan moves her mouth, or perhaps it is just her head, ever so slightly.
And for a second or two after that it’s as if their hair is kissing. But already Rainey’s brain is working on another problem. She tips her head back, exposing the tiny bowl between her collarbones. She ignores the little cry of disgust, or is it despair, from Miss Brennan, and the firm shove, and she thinks about what is wrong with Jacques Bellange’s pietà—what’s wrong, in fact, with every pietà in the Met, right?
“I gotta go,” she says, and she stalks to the front of the room to grab her pack. She barely notices Miss Brennan wiping her mouth on her sleeve, barely hears her calling, “Rainey. Don’t you dare walk out on this.” Studio Art II has oil pastel crayons; maybe the door isn’t locked. In her pietà, the person draped between the Virgin’s knees will be Mary Magdalene, very much alive, a loose, dreamy chick who doesn’t like to read; and the Virgin Mother’s face will be lit not by sorrow but by rapture and the fiercest love.
Dylan Landis is the author of Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a work of fiction that made Newsday’s Ten Best Books of 2009 and More Magazine’s list of “100 Books Every Woman Must Read.” She has received a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose, and her work has appeared in Tin House, Bomb, House Beautiful and The New York Times. In a past life she wrote six books on interior design. Rainey Royal is her first novel.
Rainey Royal: September 9, 2014
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