Marie Bonaparte had her clitoris moved three times.

The first time in 1927 in Vienna, under the surgical knife of one Dr. Halban, who was reputed to have performed sex changes on men. All the ransacking of her childhood on the couch of her mentor Sigmund Freud had not cured Marie’s frigidity, and so the French psychoanalyst, Greek princess and last of the Bonapartes had determined that her problems were anatomical, theorizing that tall women such as herself had too great a distance between their clitoris and vagina.

“Shared pleasure between lovers exists only in novels,” wrote Bonaparte. In Madame Bovary, in Anna Karenina, in Camille. Not in the nonfictive marital bed, or the adulterous bed, and Marie had attempted in both. Five women had been cured under Dr. Halban’s scalpel. She would be next.

Thus, the operation. This wasn’t a simple tuck of skin, you see. Halban sliced the clitoris clear off, sewing it closer to the urethra, like a button. Twenty-two minutes. Local anesthesia. Her friend Ruth Mack watched. Perhaps took notes. Held her hand.

Two years later, the first operation having failed to lift her sexual malaise, Marie returned to Dr. Halban’s operating table. This time he threw in a hysterectomy, indicated by the patient’s perennially inflamed fallopian tubes. Ruth Mack present, again. In 1931, Dr. Halban moved Marie’s clitoris one more time, to no avail. As she lay in bed, Marie marveled that the spot from which her clitoris had initially been severed remained sensitive to the touch.

Marie’s husband, Prince George of Greece, preferred the company of his Uncle Waldemar... her son was in analysis with her lover Dr. Rudolph Loewenstein...

That Marie’s husband, Prince George of Greece, preferred the company of his Uncle Waldemar, that her son was in analysis with her lover Dr. Rudolph Loewenstein, that she and her son openly discussed their mutual incestuous longings, that it took her seemingly forever to undress in front of longtime paramour and eleven-time French Prime Minister Aristide Briand, that she desperately tried to recover her love letters to him before the 1929 operation, that Dr. Freud thought it was a terrible idea, that when she was a baby she watched her wet nurse rutting with the stable boy through a fog of opium — all of this should have given someone pause. It gives me pause. In my darkened lair, in the midst of a pause suspended in time. I have paused. I am pausing. I continue to pause.

If you think my lair is dark because I live in some Dostoyevskian-Ellisonian basement, you are mistaken. I live above ground, in a storefront, Meredith’s storefront — I guess it’s my storefront now — darkened, by me. I’ve painted the windows black. She kept birds in the windows that would fly through the room as if it were an uncaged pet store. Now they litter the rusty orange carpet, canaries in the proverbial coal mine.

I could not live as Meredith did, inhabiting a human terrarium with all the world looking in. She’d make fun of me for hanging my clothes right outside the shower so I could grab them with one naked, wet arm and change in the stall. But one naked, wet arm was all I would add to the avian frolics that attracted passersby. That and the spectacle of two young women living in a storefront, one of whom could care less whether strangers were watching her getting dressed. Or cared very much. It’s really the same thing.

Since Meredith left to rendezvous in the Brazilian rainforest with some once-and-future boyfriend — she invited me along, but the third wheel always gets derailed — I’ve been redecorating, piling up books, trying to expunge Meredith’s traces from the storefront. Which is difficult, since she found the place, installed the toilet, shower, stove, did all the plumbing and wiring. I could never do that, wouldn’t know where to begin — it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to hunt down the landlord of a vacant storefront in an iffy neighborhood. I admire Meredith’s initiative. No, I hate Meredith’s initiative. Again, it’s the same thing.

I can still see the tracks on the carpet where she parked her motorcycle. I have shampooed and scrubbed on my hands and knees, but the tracks won’t fade.

After painting the windows black, I began dismantling Meredith’s sculptures, one by one. I was just going to drag them out to the dumpster, but when I found myself taking one apart to get it through the door — a hulking metal monstrosity she called a postmodern Gates of Hell, a labored cry of anguish by someone who wouldn’t know anguish if it resectioned her clitoris three times — the act of dismembering took on its own discrete pleasure, and I ended up sitting there for weeks, taking apart every single one of Meredith’s sculptures, reducing them to their elements, and the elements to the garbage.

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Still Life with Meredith
Ann Lewinson
102 pages
$10.00 paperback ISBN 9781944853693
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April 2020

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