Mandolinata by Carla Sarett
If you're like me and you love style, there's no film like Vertigo. What scene can compare to the one in the elegant dress salon where Jimmy Stewart anxiously watches model after model, waiting for the perfectly tailored gray suit, the one his beloved Madeline wore? That's the scene in which the saleswoman, knowingly remarks, "The gentlemen certainly knows what he wants." It's a moment of perfect irony. We know Madeline was a fake, her death was faked, but the man has no clue.
But of course he’s right about that suit. That suit has style, doesn't it?
I’ve learned a bit about style from Lucia Forrest—she is now well-known in museum circles. At college, Lucia had seemed the pinnacle (at least to me) of old money, high spirits and a certain kind of Southern decadence. She used a cigarette holder, she wore dark red lipstick, she even quoted Baudelaire.
We lost touch after college, but then, she found me on Facebook and we met at the Algonquin Bar, in mid-town Manhattan—at mid-day, it is always deserted. It had been many years since I had seen her, but I recognized her instantly sitting in the corner, near the window, sipping tea. Lucia now wore a shapeless plaid dress with her blond hair primly tied back, as if she’d come straight off the farm—her new style seemed to be the country woman in town for the day.
In fact, Lucia did live on a farm. “I don’t understand how I’ve ended up single, all alone with just the horses to keep me company. I always thought I’d make a perfect wife,” Lucia said, sighing—she had not lost her Southern accent.
The horses and farm seemed about right, but the wife part was jarring. At school, Lucia had been linked with a tallish woman from Maine.
“You two walked hand in hand, like lovers,” I reminded her.
“That was to attract the boys,” Lucia laughed, “I heard all the boys liked lesbians.”
It seemed a misguided strategy. But, maybe lots of girls did wild things to persuade an ordinary fellow that they would make a good housewife. You never know.
"Perhaps men aren’t so eager to marry a woman who wants to have sex with other women," I suggested in my married voice. "Perhaps they only want to have sex with such a woman, but not marry her. Because sex and marriage are very different, sex and love are very different."
Lucia nodded, as if my statement were a novel and original insight. This fit in with Lucia's idea of me as a brilliant Jewess from her past- although Jews were hardly scarce in New York.
Just then, a pretty woman entered the bar. She seemed in her thirties or older, dressed hippie style, with gold hoop earrings, a gauzy Indian-tunic, and long flowing hair. She approached and asked politely if we wanted our cards read. Her voice was educated-- she might have once been an actress before ending up in these sad straits. I imagined her as a little girl, unaware of a future in which she roamed bars seeking tips for card-readings.
I sensed that Lucia was in the mood for frivolous entertainment. “Sure, let's do it, it's on me, Lucia."
“I need you to focus on a problem in your life,” the Tarot woman said, with a touching gravity.
Having none, I thought about a business contract, which I felt confident about winning. I have learned to wish for things that I know will come true.
The woman spread the cards for Lucia. I have no knowledge of the cards, but they looked invitingly bright and bold. “You are going to start a new business-- perhaps, something with computers.”
I had assumed that Lucia, like me, viewed the cards as a childish game—but, to my surprise, she gazed at the Tarot woman with intensity. Perhaps Lucia was becoming a New Age woman.
The bright cards were laid out again, this time on my behalf. I’m thinking of business, I said. Her beautiful eyes met mine. She asked, “Have you met someone from a strange place, maybe a foreign country?
“No, I’m sorry, I haven’t.”
“Pay attention, you will,” the Tarot woman said, disappointed. “This is important.”
Taken aback by her sweetness, I handed her a generous tip. "I'll pay attention, I promise!" I waved to the pretty Tarot woman as we left.
Lucia and I next met at The Arts Club in Gramercy Park—Lucia’s a member there. Perhaps in honor of the club’s famed Gothic ornamentation, Lucia had resurrected some of her former elegance and even had a new hairstyle. I myself had worn a wonderful grey vintage jacket, asymmetric and stiff.
Lucia admired the hand-sewn silk lining of my jacket. “This type of construction, it’s too complicated and detailed for today’s factories. No one knows how to create things like this anymore,” she said, with her enthusiasm for all things old.
After dinner, Lucia confided about her new online relationship. The man's name was Henry Oliver --he was a professor of American history at a small liberal arts college, somewhere in New England. His expertise was the history of the Salem witch trials. He had responded to Lucia's profile, which highlighted her interests in American antiques, the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School, horses, and, also, modern witchcraft. Lucia showed me his picture-- a distinctive face, craggy and dark-eyed, handsome.
"Sounds promising, you two have a lot in common. It’s a very good start," I said.
I meant it. Lucia and Henry were both scholarly types. It was comforting to imagine them engaged in this almost nineteenth century correspondence. Besides, Lucia might even admire Henry's academic writings. Those who toil in museums must read books that most of us do our best to avoid.
She smiled. “We’re planning to meet this summer at Olana. That will be our first meeting.”
"Olana is amazing. It’s like a fairy tale. It’s the perfect place," I agreed dreamily-- since Frederick Church’s Olana is one of the most beautiful of the estates along the Hudson River. Although, it occurred to me, driving to Olana was a lot of work for one date. Why not go to a nice restaurant in New York, instead? But I kept quiet--no one ever takes advice anyway.
In hindsight, I should have spoken up. Poor Lucia had made the trek to Olana, and waited until the gates closed. Henry’s e-mail arrived the next morning. He claimed to have met a new woman, unexpectedly—he hoped Lucia would understand.
"Why do men think women should understand? Why am I supposed to understand?" she said, tearfully.
Henry is a moron, I thought, he didn't even have the sense to trot out the usual tale of the insane ex-wife swinging an ax or the suicidal ex-lover. All he could invent was a new relationship, of all things.
"There's nothing to understand. A lot of men are lunatics, this happens a lot. It's happened to lots of my friends." In fact, my other friends were nothing like Lucia, although maybe they too chased men like the neurotic handsome Henry. I wondered which of Lucia's many photos Henry had seen—she had hundreds of pictures of her younger glamorous self. But with men, who knows?
Soon after, Lucia's new online identity was born. With considerable artistry, Lucia digitally manipulated the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting by the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti – its actual title is La Mandolinata. Lucia was now Mandolinata, an exquisite beauty with long wavy hair and soulful eyes.
Mandolinata described herself as a “spirit girl”—a student of Wicca and the occult. She was intent upon exploring her deeply spiritual voyage with a man who, like her, longed for freedom, longed to explore his inner self. Mandolinata lived in a remote part of upstate New York, not far from Olana.
I wondered how many hours had been wasted on this silly invention, and to what end? I asked, "What kind of man would want a woman like Mandolinata? I mean, the name alone."
“Thousands,” was Lucia’s answer. “They want to join her on her spiritual journey, they want to climb mountains—she’s the girl of their dreams.” Lucia cracked up as she read the e-mails: "Oh, spirit girl, I must meet you!"—that was the general theme.
Of course, it was not thousands that Lucia cared about—it was only one. Sure enough, Henry Oliver took the bait. Lucia had judged her man correctly. Mandolinata was the spirit girl of Henry Oliver's dreams, too.
This was when I expected Lucia to reveal all and teach Henry a good lesson. That's the romantic storyline that I imagined. Henry would lament his shallowness. He and Lucia would have their date. She would wear a beautifully tailored suit. They would drink martinis, maybe at the Carlyle, jazz piano playing softly in the background. They would laugh at their middle-aged follies.
But Lucia had a different plot in mind. She started to write to Henry as Mandolinata. Their second online correspondence was more intense than the first, but with a twist. Lucia Forrest by this time knew exactly what would excite Henry’s imagination. So the tale of Mandolinata was tinged with a sense of the Gothic. Lucia read me some of it:
I spent my early years on one of the remote islands in the Gulf of Maine-- we were completely cut off from the modern world. The island's beaches were solitary and rocky-- I often walked hours without seeing a soul. My father was a boat-maker, well-known for his designs. My mother taught me how to play the mandolin, read me the poetry of William Blake, and introduced me to the ancient ways of white witchcraft-- I remember her sweet voice.
But then, for reasons that no one understands, my father drowned my sweet-voiced mother at sea. Terrified, I escaped from the island, helped by a kind fisherman and his wife. I now live alone. I can only speak to you when I meet you- please understand.
She paused. "I think I got everything in there -- the mandolin, Blake, boat-making, even witchcraft."
"Hmm," I said, "Isn’t it a bit much? I mean, he's a clever man, he's got to know this is a joke."
Although come to think of it, I had no evidence that Henry was clever. In fact, given his interests in modern witchcraft and now, spirit girls, he probably was not.
Lucia shrugged, as if to agree with my thoughts.
Inevitably, Lucia/Mandolinata probed Henry's romantic history-- was she Henry's first cyber-love? And so, Henry described his "callous" deception of Lucia. Now that Mandolinata had made Henry "a better man," he confessed he had never intended to meet Lucia at Olana. At Mandolinata’s insistence, Henry wrote Lucia a hand-written apology on lovely parchment paper.
“Not bad, surprisingly grammatical,” Lucia said, after she read the letter to me.
So, he screwed up, so what? If you told him the truth, you'd be even," I argued, frustrated with this revenge theme. "A neurotic man is bound to screw up at some point." But I guess I do not understand high style -- and I should have remembered, no one ever takes advice.
The elaborate charade continued. Now, the spirit girl and Henry arranged a meeting -- at the Algonquin Bar, after which they would spend a magical evening in Manhattan. This time, according to his e-mails, Henry arrived early and waited hours. Naturally, Mandolinata did not show up – and she vanished.
Tired of the time-consuming game, Lucia had deleted Mandolinata's profile. Henry Oliver now bored Lucia-- although, interestingly, he had moved to New York. Lucia rattled off her accomplishments: Henry had been punished, he had apologized to Lucia, and he had told the truth about what happened at Olana, or what Lucia imagined was the truth. My own opinion of Olana differed, but I kept it to myself.
Lucia joked about Henry’s yearnings for his imaginary spirit girl. "You have to admit, Mandolinata is far more interesting than Henry-- especially after her vanishing act."
"I guess so, but deception's not my style," I said.
Months later, I returned to the Algonquin Bar, where I was to meet a client—my first visit since my encounter with Lucia and the Tarot woman. I checked off what had happened. Yes, I won a business contract, and to my amusement, my client was Pakistani. Lucia Forrest's digital spirit girl might be considered a new venture --it certainly had involved a computer. And, in a sense, I suppose it was fair to say that Mandolinata came from a “strange place.” Perhaps, the Tarot cards had been in touch with something, after all.
Just then, I noticed the pretty Tarot woman sitting with a dark-eyed handsome man—now, I did pay attention.
It was not a card reading. Two glasses of white wine were on the table. The man gazed at the Tarot woman, clasped her hand, and smiled. Today, she wore pearl earrings and a tailored dove grey jacket. It was only a matter of seconds before I recognized the man as Henry Oliver. I looked at the pretty Tarot woman with her long wavy hair and her beautiful eyes.
For all I know, her name really could be Mandolinata.