Andrea Price Berthot

The Perfect Woman

Sean glanced out the tiny half-window above his bed as he paced eagerly in the basement of the convent, which wasn’t technically a convent but an old, drafty colonial in the College Hill district that Sean thought of as a convent because it was occupied by a group of retired nuns, who ran the place as if it was. He didn’t mind living in their basement; he was just grateful that his father, who had connections with some of the local priests, had been able to find him a place near the Salve Regina campus after he got kicked out of the dorm for drinking. In a way, Sean felt that working as the groundskeeper there was not only a way of earning his keep but also a way of doing his penance. He liked the 200 year old trees and the strange little prayer bench in the lavender garden. He even liked being around the old nuns; they made the house and everything around it seem special or forgotten, like in a fairy tale, a place untouched by the rest of the world, and the nuns themselves like the witches or fairy godmothers or whatever they were in Sleeping Beauty.

Anxiously, he peered through the window a second time, but still did not see Libby’s silhouette approaching in the darkness. He knew it was ridiculous to be anxious or even surprised – Libby was always late. When she said “fifteen minutes” on the phone, Sean knew that it would really be thirty or forty, since she had to wait for her parents to fall asleep before sneaking out. He smiled to himself, thinking of Libby crawling awkwardly out of her bedroom window. He had met her at that window once and offered to help her to the ground but, like a stubborn child, she had insisted on doing it without his assistance. Sean laughed to himself now, remembering the adorable, indignant look she gave him after she tumbled onto the ground.

When Libby finally arrived, she was wearing a soft, blue jacket, her face was clean and freshly washed, and as she slid her little body through the half-window and down into his arms, Sean could have sworn she smelled like baby powder.

“Hey…” He said, pointing to a thin, red scratch running along the side of her neck. “What’s that?”

“Oh…” Her face flushed. “I fell out of the window again…” she lowered her voice, “…into the rose bush.”

Sean laughed and tenderly stroked her hair. “Poor Baby. Here, I’ll kiss it better.” When he placed his mouth on her neck, he felt the sudden quickening of her pulse under his lips. He kissed the tiny wound more deeply.

“Sean,” Libby laughed a little at first but then began struggling. “That kind of hurts…Seriously, stop.”

He relented, bringing his face up to meet hers. He kissed her nose to make her laugh and she did, her wide smile revealing exceptionally white teeth and soft pink gums. “You want a cigarette?” he asked. Her face brightened and she nodded in reply.

They sat down on the edge of the bed and Sean lit one for her. After her first drag, she held the cigarette out in front of her face and looked at it in amazement. “Wow,” she said, exhaling slowly. “Thanks for teaching me how to do it right.”

Sean smiled, remembering the afternoon he had shown her how to inhale, the first time they had met. He had just finished mowing the lawn and was having a smoke on the porch when he saw her, standing on the sidewalk and staring at him with the widest eyes he had ever seen.

“Can I help you?” he had asked, thinking that maybe she was lost.

“No. I was just watching.” There was a subtle trace of the Midwest in her voice, a remnant of Kansas, as Sean would later learn.

“Watching?” Sean laughed at the serious expression on her pretty, childish face. “You haven’t ever seen anyone smoke before?”

“No, I’ve seen lots of people smoke; my friend Aimee smokes, actually. It’s just that I tried it once and I didn’t look like her or you.” There was silence for a moment and then, as if to clarify, she added, “I watched myself in the mirror when I did it.”

Sean laughed again, his smile now as wide as her eyes. “How do I look different?”

“Well, after you breathe it in, you open your mouth but the smoke doesn’t come out right away, and when I did it, the smoke came out as soon as I opened my mouth again.”

“Oh, well you probably didn’t inhale then.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come here. I’ll show you.”

Deeply fascinated, she joined him on the porch. Sean explained what he meant, demonstrated it for her, and instructed her to try it for herself. When she finally accomplished the task without coughing, she looked at him with the eyes of a little girl who had just received a pony for her birthday and said, “Now I know why people do this.”

Libby was fourteen years old, but to Sean she seemed ageless, with her wide, questioning eyes, her excitement when encountering something knew, and her relentless need to explore everything within her reach, and he, Sean Burke, exiled college student, was her guide to the unknown. Perhaps it was because of this that he saw no immorality in their considerable age difference. He did realize, however, that most other people would probably not understand. Libby’s parents were both professors at Rhode Island State – one of art and one of environmental studies, the only two subjects Libby seemed to already know absolutely everything about – and even though she described them as “open-minded,” the fact that she had to sneak out to see Sean told him that they were not open-minded enough to accept the five-year age difference between the two.

When both of their cigarettes were nearly gone, Libby stood up from the bed and walked over to the painting of The Virgin that hung on the opposite wall.

“What is it like living with nuns, Sean?” she asked.

“Fine, I guess.”

“It isn’t weird?”

“Not really. I mean, I grew up with nuns as my teachers, so I’m pretty used to having them around.”

“Oh,” Libby whispered breathlessly, keeping her eyes on the painting, “So you’re Catholic then?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“I think Catholics are fascinating.”

“Why?” Sean asked, slightly offended. “What are you?”

She turned around, laughing softly. “I have no idea what I am. My parents are always telling me to keep an open mind.”

“What are your parents?”

“Most of the time they’re Transcendentalists.” Libby’s eyes floated back to the painting and Sean, unsure of exactly what a Transcendentalist was, shifted uncomfortably on the bed.

“So you pray to Mary then?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“What do you mean ‘not exactly’?”

“Well, we pray to her, but it’s supposed to be to…well, to ask her to pray for us.”

“So, she’s like the middle-man, or middle-woman?”

“No…it’s pretty complicated, Libby. I don’t feel like explaining it right now.”

“But I want to know.”

“Not right now.”

“Come on. At least say a ‘Hail Mary’ for me, Sean.”

“What?”

“I want to know what you say when you pray to her.”

“Jesus, Libby.”

“What?”

“Well, that’s like, kind of blasphemous.”

Her enthusiasm suddenly faded. “I’m sorry,” she said, sitting back down beside him. “I just wanted to know.”

Sean sighed. What Libby wanted, he would give, even if it was blasphemous. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

“That’s a beautiful start,” she said, smiling. “I’d love to be ‘full of grace.’ Do you think I’m full of grace, Sean, like Mary?”

He laughed and continued. “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”

“Do you think I’m I blessed, Sean? Is--”

“Stop there. I don’t want to think about your womb having any kind of fruit,” he pulled her close and held her head tightly against his chest.

“Do you like me because I’m a virgin, Sean? Like Mary.”

“Okay, stop with the ‘like Mary’ stuff. It’s kind of freaking me out.”

“I just meant--” Libby pulled her head away from his chest. “Mary is supposed to be the perfect woman, right?”

“Well, yeah. I guess.”

“So I just want to know what that is – the perfect woman.”

Sean put his hands on each side of her face and gently kissed her forehead. It was baby powder he had smelled earlier. “It’s you,” he said. “You are.” Then he kissed her, and continued to kiss her as she slid onto her back, spreading out beneath him like a soft blanket over the bed.

“We can’t ever have sex then, Sean,” Libby murmured between kisses.

“What?”

“If we ever have sex I won’t be a virgin anymore and you won’t think I’m perfect.”

“Don’t worry about that now,” he assured her, wrapping her delicate arms around him. “Just kiss me back.”

“But how does it end?”

“How does what end? Oh. It ends: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

“Huh…that’s kind of morbid, don’t you think?”

Sean laughed. “Stop worrying about death and kiss me.” Then he kissed her again, drinking her in like the elixir of life.

Sean’s fall break came at the end of the month, and after spending a week with his parents in a cabin in Maine, he was so eager to see Libby again that he drove to her house at 1am to see if she was still awake. He crept silently into her backyard and approached her bedroom window, glancing at the nearby rosebush and smiling fondly.

“Libby,” he whispered, knocking three short times on the glass. He waited a moment but no answer came. After trying a couple more times he cupped his hands around his eyes and peered through the window. A desk lamp glowed softly in the corner but no one moved within.

“Sean?” His heart nearly jumped into his throat. He spun around to see Libby standing behind him, her nose and cheeks flushed pink from the cold. “What are you doing here?”

He clenched his fists in an effort to catch his breath and steady himself. “I just got back. Where have you been?”

“With Aimee. We went down to the river to look for turtles. She’s been saying how much she wants a pet but her mom is allergic to just about every kind of animal hair, so I said, ‘Why don’t we go get you a turtle?’ So, we found one and she named it Moonshine because of the full moon; we probably wouldn’t have found anything if it hadn’t been so big and bright tonight.”

Sean barely listened as she chattered on, his eyes fixed on her jeans, which were wet from the knee down.

“Let’s go inside,” he suddenly heard her say. “It’s freezing out here!” She opened the window, climbed through with ease, and extended her hand down to him. “Come on.”

Sean stared at her for a moment, visualizing the first time he met her at that window. Afraid of waking her parents, she had been hesitant, gazing down at him with both excitement and anxiety. Now, however, she looked cheerful and carefree, and after a moment Sean noticed that there was something else different about her. During the first window meeting the desk lamp had lit up her blonde hair from behind so that it glimmered like a halo, but Sean suddenly realized that her hair was now bright red and blazing like fire. He hadn’t noticed in the dark. “Your hair…”

“Oh, yeah! I dyed it a few days ago. Do you like it?”

“Yeah.” It was unconvincing, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

“Good, because I love it. Come on.” She was still reaching out to him, as though he needed assistance climbing inside. He purposefully avoided her hand and pulled himself up through the window.

His fists unclenched a bit once he was inside Libby’s familiar room, where a pink, frilly canopy hung over the bed and posters of rainbows and wildflowers adorned the walls. But when his eyes fell back on Libby’s hair, on the streaks of blazing crimson and deep scarlet spilling over her shoulders like a cascade of blood and fire, his entire body tightened up.

“I’ve got something else new to show you,” Libby announced proudly, and standing right in front of the still open window, she pulled down the side of her jeans to reveal a small, white pad taped to her hip. “I just got this today.” She peeled the gauze back slowly as if unveiling a prestigious work of art, and there, on her bare, milky skin, was an apple. It was round, drawn to appear to be shining, and colored in with a shade of red that was as vivid as her hair. She smiled and sighed as a crisp breeze drifted in through window. It felt good against her naked hip, which still ached with the warmth and freshness of the wound.

He gripped the beam of the canopy bed beside him. “You got a tattoo?”

“Yeah. Aimee got one too. Hers is a dove on her lower back. Don’t you love it?”

“How did you get it, Libby? You’re only fourteen.”

“Aimee’s been dating this guy who knows a guy who works in a tattoo parlor.”

His fingers were curled into fists again, and as he began to pace around the room, Libby imagined him as a bear, one of those tired circus bears, like the print of the Bear of the 1929 stock market crash that hung in her parent's bathroom. Feeling embarrassed for him, she gazed back down at her apple. “I just love it. It’s like it always should have been there, like a missing part of -–”

Suddenly Libby felt her head jerk backward as he grabbed a fistful of her hair and pulled her mouth to his but did not kiss her. Instead he seemed to be attempting to eat her, pressing his teeth against her lips and shoving his tongue as far down her throat as it would go. After the initial shock, Libby found this to be very funny, and her surge of muffled but clear laughter suddenly propelled him away from her as if she had punched him in the face.

“What in the world was that?” she sputtered, still laughing.

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” His voice was not powerful or imposing, but when Libby heard the shrill humiliation and burgeoning hatred in it, her laughter faded.

“Why would I want that?”

“I don’t know!” he yelled, throwing up his arms. “I don’t even know who you are anymore, Libby. You sneak out of your house, dye your hair, and now you’ve got a goddamned tattoo!”

“You need to calm down.”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m a child, you stupid bitch.”

Libby stared at him for a moment before taking a deep breath and pulling her jeans back up over hip. “Okay. You really need to leave now.”

“I will,” he shouted, but once he reached the window he turned back around, his face nearly as red as her hair. “You used to be someone special, Libby. You were so innocent and good and perfect, and now look at what you’ve done to yourself. You’re just like all the rest of them. You’re just a cheap little whore.”

“A virgin whore?” Libby smiled wryly. “I must be the first of my kind.”

“Trust me, you’re not.” He took a step toward her then, perhaps expecting that she would back away in fear of another attack, but Libby took a step even closer and stared up at him with eyes as wide and bright as the full moon outside.

“Well, Sean, what does that make you?”

Before his mouth could even begin to frame a reply, he was falling through the open window behind him, having taken one too many steps backward as Libby and her fiery eyes and hair advanced. She looked down, momentarily concerned, but soon saw his shadowy figure crawling out from beneath the rose bush and into the distant darkness.

Smiling to herself, she pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her back pocket and lit one. Another gust of cool air breezed through the window, running its fingers through her hair as she leaned against the sill, gazing up into the sky with her usual wonderment and blowing perfect smoke rings.

Andrea Price Berthot's fiction has previously been published in Room Magazine and Luna Station Quarterly. One story,“Prairie Madness,” won first place in the 2006 Kansas Author’s Club Literary Contest, and another, “The Plains,” won second place in the Kansas Writer’s Association’s “Between Fences Poetry & Writers” contest in 2007. She currently teaches Creative Writing at the high school in Arkansas City, Kansas, and resides in the nearby town of Winfield.