Nicky Beer, Reading ‘Melancholy’

22 Feb

The shoes are the giveaway. Everything else the cross-dressing man wears in Fernando Botero’s “Melancholy” could have been borrowed, inherited, or bought on the sly: the flocked gown, the jewelry, the makeup. But the man’s grimly sensible business-wear lace-ups and blue dress socks tell the real story here: the only way he could have found women’s shoes in his size to make his ensemble complete would have been to try them on in a store, and this was clearly a risk too great for him to take. I can only imagine how many times he might have lingered in front of a plate-glass window, seeing the terrible temptation of a pair of red pumps ablaze in the display and the reflection of his own face floating over them. He’d pause, briefly entertaining the mad decision to enter the store, and then sigh and walk on every time.

I first saw “Melancholy” two years ago at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center as part of a retrospective, “The Baroque World of Fernando Botero.” While the entire exhibit was an exciting, sprawling, banquet-sized tribute to Botero’s puffy-limbed, double-chinned subjects, “Melancholy” was the painting that has stayed with me ever since. There’s nothing better than a museum visit that leads to a middle school dance seize of infatuation, when the crowded room disappears, and I’m alone with one illuminated piece that makes my hands sweaty.

The dress is his dead mother’s—he wouldn’t tempt fate by using one of his wife’s. It’s kept folded lightly at the top of a box of her things in their bedroom closet, just some things, he tells his wife, he knows he ought to donate to charity, but can’t quite bear to part with. The wife, touched by her husband’s uncharacteristic sentimentality, says that’s all right, dear, we’ve got plenty of room for it.  It’s white and lace-trimmed, meant to be worn off the shoulders, and patterned with chartreuse leaves and clusters of yellow, orange and red flowers. Clearly a summer dress, it was one of many his mother owned for evening parties. As a child, he’d hide out in the bushes behind the house when he knew his parents were about to go out, just for the sight of his mother stepping out onto the back porch in a long, light gown, the lamplight in the window behind her filtering and refracting through the thin muslin and the corona of her updo as she called his name, unfurling its syllables into the night air.

He wears disposable press-ons nails that match the cherry color of his earrings and lipstick. He buys a new set every couple of months from a drugstore, a different one each time, on his meandering way home from work. Rather than be surreptitious, he places them brazenly at the top of a clearly uxorious pile: toilet paper, a half-dozen rubber bottle nipples, a jumbo-sized box of tampons. He and the gentleman clerk who rings him up at the register share a conspiratorial chuckle about matrimonial responsibility, shaking their heads in concurrence as men of the world. A block later he’ll tuck the package of nails into his inner coat pocket and leave the bag under the bench of a bus stop. A few weeks later, when the nails’ adhesive gives out, he’ll shake them into a trash can from an envelope drawn from the same pocket, the light briefly catching them as they settle onto the soiled rubbish pile, gleaming like bloody scarabs.

Something square and framed hangs on the wall behind him. If it’s a mirror, it reflects nothing in the room but its opposite wall. However, the mirror in which he chooses to regard himself can barely hold the circumference of his made-up face—it’s as if he doesn’t want the larger mirror, his everyday mirror, to contain the reflection of his hidden self for even a moment. Gold, long-handled and round, he holds the smaller one in his raised hand, glancing at it from slightly over his right shoulder. The gesture has a practiced coyness to it, but the expression on his face is somewhere between skeptical and worried. It took some time before I realized the open secret of the painting—while the half-moon reflection we see in the mirror shares its owner’s anxiety, the face in the glass is turned in the wrong direction. It stares pointedly at the closed door behind him, as if anticipating the sudden flurry of footsteps of the stairs, the magical dissolution of the lock, and the shocked face revealed in the accusing creak of the hinges.

Of course, I want to be wrong about all of this. I want this to be nothing more than Botero’s jokey tribute to Albrecht Dürer’s well-known 16th century engraving of the same name. I want the boxy thing in the lower-right corner of the canvas to be a trunk in which he’s stored those ravishing heels, and that he’s just saving them for the moment when he’s got the rest of his ensemble just right. I want him to be dressing for an evening with his wife, who’ll throw her arms around him and exclaim that he’s never looked lovelier. Most of all, I want the title of the painting to be “Summer,” something that lets him put down the mirror and step out onto his lawn, feeling the warm evening breeze push the gown lazily against his calves.

Nicky Beer is the author of The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2010). She has received a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Tuition Scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a Discovery/The Nation award, and a Campbell Corner Poetry Prize. She teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado Denver, where she co-edits the journal Copper Nickel.

3 Responses to “Nicky Beer, Reading ‘Melancholy’”

  1. Jamie February 8, 2018 at 8:43 pm #


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