Each morning I greet Virginia as she scrutinizes me from the living room wall. I found her upon leaving Miss Krystal Kenzington after enjoying al fresco coffee and conversation. Krystal had arrived the night before as handsome Ray, silver-haired, well-heeled man about town, not the blonde bombshell who commanded the stage with dangling zircon earrings. We dished at length over coffee and Bloody Mary’s about the difference between living her life as Krystal versus a man who held an executive position at a major bank.
Our pensive morning-after conversation turned to the examination of her existence in and out of drag. She was pushing the corporate landscape to recognize her transition to heels and dresses as well as pronoun and name change. She didn’t care if it made the status quo uncomfortable. Krystal was a trailblazer who knew her strength and didn’t give a fuck.
She'd performed her best-ever Liza the previous night at yet another agency fundraiser. Her dedication involved travel from Providence to rural New Hampshire in support of my AIDS service organization. Watching from the audience, I found myself aroused by the inescapable allure and power of this female archetype. Ray insisted on picking up the tab, leaving $40 for a bill not quite $20.
“Important to tip well. Karma, after all.”
We strolled down the sidewalk locked arm in arm and as we passed an art gallery I glanced casually into the window. That was the moment that Virginia beckoned. “Krystal, look at this. Look! Isn’t she gorgeous?” Ray peered into the finely nuanced profile. He pointed out that it was a lithograph of Virginia Woolf who, apparently, was calling out to go home with me.
“You’re a writer. You read her work. She wants to hang out with you, I know it. So buy her whatever she costs. Now give me a smooch before I hit the road.” I planted a kiss on his cheek and then locked his lips on mine, coming up against a night’s stubble when just hours before only air kisses were permissible so as not to muss the transformation.
I stared hard. Virginia Woolf, indeed. Was she calling to me? Did she and I have something to talk about? Her red blouse stood out in contrast to the otherwise muted palette. The frame was just ornate enough not to detract from the determination in her eyes. I needed some of that directive, her surety. I wanted to live in that feminist room she described in 1929, the one that she believed all women deserved, so ahead of her time. “Walk in,” she was saying. “Meet me. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Displayed intricately in the very front of the window, it took the owner serious effort to remove several layers of other work lined up behind her. “She belonged in the first row,” he explained, and I nodded in agreement. My breath was shallow, my heart began to race and I could feel the tingle in my fingertips when he finally reached the frame. The flush of excitement made my face hot. “Here, hold her,” he said placing the gold border in my hands. “See what she has to say.”
Containing my enthusiasm I played it cool, casually taking my time to shift from his grasp to mine. And then there she was, a reluctant mentor sizing up a new pupil. Without removing my gaze I asked, “How much?” Krystal’s word were ringing in my ears, telling me to buy her no matter the cost. I began to calculate what I could realistically afford, determining that $500 was my top dollar.
“Well, it’s a nice piece. Signed print. Artist lives around here. You can find him online.” Pause. “She can go home with you for $250.”
Snap! Ever so carefully I placed her on the counter, a supreme feeling of satisfaction building on a cellular level. I couldn’t rip the check out of my checkbook fast enough. The owner offered to “wrap her up good.” Yes, I thought, wrap her up in Chinese silk worthy of Virginia’s brilliance, just like the finery of her red blouse. “Congratulations. That’s an excellent piece. Enjoy.”
I nodded, smiled, and walked out into the sunshine with her under my arm, then shifting to a full embrace. “Hello, Virginia. I can’t wait to get you home,” I said aloud as my lips grazed the brown kraft wrapping. A young kid passing by heard me and grinned, like he knew my secret. It wasn’t at all odd to him that I was speaking to some unseen treasure. That is the beauty of youth, the magic that I’d left behind long ago, when everything was possible.
During the first week of her relocation to my space, I ceremoniously seated her so as to lounge in an overstuffed chair. After all, this was not a process that could be rushed. Virginia’s place of honor had to be just right. I moved around other framed pieces to accommodate her presence. I brought her to therapy with me so she could be introduced to another wise woman whom I cherished. She even spent a day in my office for no other reason than that I missed her when we weren’t together. More than challenge and inspiration, more than a reminder that I needed to find a room where writing mattered, I loved her. I’d always loved her, devouring my dog-eared roadmap of A Room of One’s Own since 1989 when, at age 36 and much to the dismay – no, outright horror – of my husband, I cashed in my 401K and bought my first computer so I could become a writer. Three years later I left him and my old life behind. I think of this threshold as the beginning of personal freedom and independent thought, where every room now became my own.
But ripening cannot be rushed, like grapes on the vine, and every skillful winemaker knows exactly when the transformation must begin. Twenty years after discovering her wisdom on the printed page, I found Virginia in the gallery because it was time. And almost one year after coming home with me, we’re finally ready to begin talking. Virginia and I, we’re going to peel us some grapes with instruction from that great jazz standard by Anita O’Day. We’re seeking only perfect globes in hues of green and amethyst, at the peak of perfection, warmed by the sun with lusty intention. We’re going to intrude on my exhausted yearnings and fears, desires and tragedies. And then we’re going to rip off the protective skin and crush the pulp between our teeth, catch the juice running down our chins with our tongues in the manner of everything sensual. We are women. We deserve nothing less.
“Peel Me A Grape” was the first published song by Dave Frishberg who wrote it as a “cute, sexy piece.” But gritty jazz singer Anita O’Day made it so much more than a forgettable ditty. She knew how to growl, slinking the words into a fine vintage. Isn’t this what Virginia was saying decades ago… that women demand depth, freedom, luxury, attention, love?
Peel me a grape, crush me some ice
Skin me a peach, save the fuzz for my pillow
Talk to me nice, talk to me nice
You've got to wine and dine me
Don't try to fool me bejewel me
Either amuse me or lose me
I'm getting hungry, peel me a grape.
Room was a compilation of college lectures penned by Woolf in which she mercilessly insists that women writers rise above flaws and limitations. She undeniably states that women are inherently powerful, hardly at the mercy of the dominant male paradigm, and that we deserve the right to our own genius and freedom. Woolf believes that women must approach their art as a ministry that feeds the souls of whomever reads the words springing from our depths. We must love the sensuality of language and feel the sting of criticism, massaging our egos to produce valuable work while losing our need for self-righteous indignation and rage in the balance. She suggests that empathy for others, even those with whom we disagree, can co-exist with appreciation of joyous experiences in our lives, for without them we cannot possibly value and discern the difference.
Are things really so different today? On the surface, we would quickly conclude that those days from the beginning of the 20th century are long gone, that women continue to rise above their proscribed ranks and have more opportunities today than ever before. Although true in some ways, the pushback from the 21st century version of Republicans-Gone-Mad is, in part, an effort to get us back into our cages like good girls. We can have a room of our own, but only if we promise not to do anything that isn’t approved by God and church. So today we are hampered with the same challenges faced by Woolf and our response must be as courageous. She wrote with guts, not weak-willed new age crap. She would not have dreamed serving up pseudo-psycho babble or trendy catch-phrases. For instance, the understanding of grace and power would never be co-mingled as something silly called the Grace Wave.
She was blunt and truthful in challenging every notion about what it meant to be a deserving woman in a male-dominated culture by holding up a mirror and staring squarely into the reflection. Who says you are beautiful or plain? Vain or humble? Smart or stupid? If it’s a man, better think twice about the validity of these conclusions, because chances are a woman would see that same countenance differently. Women can see in the dark, navigating perilous channels by a magical sliver moon. Like wolves, we howl with the power of lunar madness.
Here I am, almost 70 years old. I met Virginia when I was 58, and it has taken me a decade to believe in my right to love words. I have a room of my own, a life of my own, independence, enough money to get by. I’ve been working on developing clarity and boundaries and understanding about the experience that’s delivered me to this very moment. So why do I stumble when it comes to completing my own work? What is the depth I need to plumb in order to find the dedication and burning desire to write? How do I bring my own reserves of time and energy into balance so that I can earn a living? How is it possible that my grandmother’s hope chest barely closes for the lifetime of uncompleted masterpieces that clamor impatiently for my attention? Decades of words on a page that do not see the light of day.
I must unearth my own roadblocks, but haven’t known how. Perhaps, as Woolf believes, it’s that the two sexes of my mind are not willing conspirators in bringing their progeny into the world. In order to be survive, I’ve been taught to compartmentalize and multi-task and entwine the threads of disappointment and joy into a threadbare patchwork. What of the trembling under this creative blanket because it’s not warm or strong enough? How do I drape it around me with the simultaneous need for reinforcement? Perhaps the problem is, as Virginia tells us, I’ll see a likeness that disappoints, a hope chest that isn’t full of promise, and I will shatter in the illumination of my own cowardly dereliction. After all, women are supposed to be grateful for crumbs.
But I’ve had my share of leftovers, an unfulfilled appetite. I desire the full-course meal to satiate this undulating craving for more. I’ve reached that pinnacle where my internal desperation is a greater motivation than fear. If Virginia and I hold hands, I trust that she’ll guide me through this unveiling, peeling back the protective veneer to expose a spongy underbelly with resolute purpose. Yes, Virginia and I are going to strip bare some grapes by examining the words I’ve hauled out of cedar-lined obscurity, having been unceremoniously crammed in the shadows for too long. It’s not so much that I feel like I’ve strode into the light but rather that I’m willing to let my eyes adjust to the uncertainty of darkness, where the answers to my dilemma reside, deep under that dilapidated refuge of fear that the room of my own isn’t big enough to hold the anguish and tenderness belonging universally to women.