Georgie woke up in bed alone. She slipped into a swimsuit and wandered out to a soft stretch of white sand Joe called Femme Beach. The Caribbean sky was cloudless, the air already hot. Georgie waded into the ocean and as soon as the clear water reached her knees she dove into a small wave with expert form.
She scanned the balcony of the pink stucco mansion for the familiar silhouette, the muscular woman in a monogrammed polo shirt chewing a cigar. Joe liked to drink her morning coffee and watch Georgie swim.
But not today.
Descriptions of short story architecture usually run something like: The status quo is disrupted by an event that starts the narrative action; the action then increases in complexity and intensity until a climax is reached, at which point there is a fundamental change in a character or social structure, followed by a denouement which may clean up loose threads or clarify the effects of the change. This story follows that pattern nicely – except that the fundamental change may be in fact a refusal, or perhaps an inability, to change.
Marian Barbara “Joe” Carstairs was a real person, a real heiress, a real WWI ambulance driver, and a real champion speedboat racer. She did purchase and “reign” over an island, in the Bahamas where she imported glamorous actresses for rollicking weekends and various beautiful women for in between. As with much historical fiction, fact is the setting, but the real story happens in a place not included in the historical record, in this case, in the heart and mind of one of Joe’s companions.
When Joe transplanted Georgie from the Orlando mermaid show (I grew up in Florida, I remember ads for Weeki Wachee) to the magical island, it must’ve seemed like a miracle. Imagine, being plucked from the ordinary life of breathing underwater in front of hundreds of strangers, to live on a tropical island paradise flowing with champagne and extravagant glamour. “’What I like about you,’ Joe had told her on their first date, over lobster, ‘is that you’re just so American. You’re cherry pie and lemonade. You’re a tickertape parade.’” But when Marlene – Dietrich, that is – arrives for her turn with Joe, Georgie starts to feel cherry pie just isn’t good enough:
She pulled her hair up using two tortoiseshell combs she’d found in the closet, and ran bright Tangee lipstick across her mouth, all leftovers from other girlfriends, whose pictures were pinned to a corkboard in Joe’s closet. Georgie stared at them sometimes, glossy black and white photographs of beautiful women. Horsewomen straddling thoroughbreds, actresses in leopard print scarves and fur coats, writers hunched artfully over typewriters, maybe daughters of rich men who did nothing at all. She couldn’t help but compare herself to them, and always felt as if she came up short….
She loved the way Joe’s lavish attention made her feel—exceptional. And she’d pretty much felt that way until Marlene put one well-heeled foot onto the island.
Georgie wandered into Joe’s closet and looked at the pictures of Joe’s old girlfriends, their perfect teeth and coiffed hair, looping inky signatures. For Darling Joe, Love Forever. How did they do their hair? How big did they smile?
And did it matter? Life with Joe never lasts, she thought, scanning the corkboard. The realization filled her with both sadness and relief.
Much of the story looks at Georgie’s inner landscape, and it’s a tribute to Bergman that it’s every bit as interesting as Joe’s flamboyant life. We see her gradually realize she’s still performing, and she’s only one in a long parade of performers who have preceded, and will succeed, her. She’s traded the public exhibition of the mermaid show for a private exhibition. When we come to the end, we expect her to realize it’s time for her to go, as many things on the island, beyond her illusions, are beginning to collapse. But it’s more complicated than that. Could you leave Paradise that easily, even when you’d noticed the tarnished edges?
David Lynn of The Kenyon Review gives an interesting take on what he calls “the first quiet paragraph” of the story (the first quoted section above) in his Why We Chose It article: he was drawn to the implications of the word “alone.” I had a similar reaction to the sentence just following that opening: “Curious, Georgie toweled off, tossed a sundress over her suit and walked the dirt path toward the general store, sand coating her ankles, shells crackling underneath her bare feet.” We’ve gone from a pleasant morning swim to the irritation of gritty sand and sharp shells – much as Georgie goes from the idyllic status quo of being Joe’s cherry pie, to the uncomfortable comparison with the Beautiful People who arrive.
I was also interested in how diving and swimming, which start the story, played out. When Georgie wants to get Joe’s attention, she uses her own area of mastery: she dives into the ocean. And at the end, when she’s considering her options, again, she dives. I wonder if she realizes that she has a talent. Of course, there isn’t a swimmer alive who can outrace a speedboat, but sometimes we choose the arenas in which we must compete.
The story was part of Bergman’s collection, Almost Famous Women. In her interview with Bustle, Bergman said, “Somehow I felt like writing about their first person perspective just felt too on the nose, and I felt interested in what it was like to orbit those people who had fame.” Her BASS Contributor Note likewise indicates a fascination with Joe.
But I read it as clearly Georgie’s story. Maybe that’s because, while Joe is glamorous and eccentric and fascinating, it’s Georgie I understand. Or maybe it’s because I like this method of tucking one story inside another, of using glamour and fame as a setting to highlight the true star: the mundane choices of the heart we’re all faced with. I suppose “Gatsbyesque” is a way to describe it, but I somehow thought of abysses. Here, Georgie doesn’t even realize there’s an abyss to look into, until she notices it looking into her, swallowing her whole. Joe doesn’t care about abysses, she just skips right over them. I’m naturally drawn to the abyss-gazers.