Angela’s neighbours were widows and widows in-waiting. She had tenure at a university where most of the faculty and students were women. She stepped off the plane onto the soil of a Finnish island where there were only women allowed. She had read about the retreat online, and signed up for two weeks, which meant she would be more exacting with the line of credit she extended to Preston, her son.
Angela had turned sixty last week, and this fortnight was her present to herself. As she stepped off the plane, a young woman approached her. She smiled, glowing with a beauty Angela found intimidating until the woman opened her arms and embraced her, planting dutiful kisses on each cheek before pulling back and smiling at her.
‘Welcome to Mother Island, Angela.’ she said.
Helene’s voice was as neutral as distilled water, enough education to scrub any distinguishing details from it. She had the bone structure and complexion of a fashion model, but she wore an oatmeal sweater and olive slacks which clung to her thighs in a way which would inspire envy from men. The observation reminded Angela there were other reasons to express physical attributes than to attract or please men. Beauty was a weapon like ugliness. The latter was more within reach of most women than the former, but still responses to hetero-patriarchal values.
She turned to take Angela to the compound who noticed she had the round, firm backside of an athlete. Angela jiggled despite a macrobiotic diet and enough yoga to make it feel like a punishment.
There were around thirty women gathered in the main hall. Angela accepted a flute of champagne but ignored the canapes, worried about having something between her teeth if she spoke to someone. They were all so bloody young, she thought, hearing the certainty of their voices and the righteousness, envying it even as she knew it had been the instrumental force in the world they lived in.
Ruled, she thought. It concerned her when she thought of other women as being in charge when she had seen some of them attend her lectures, quote her papers in parliaments and chambers across the western world.
She turned and looked at a young blonde woman, hair shaved at the back and sides but with a long fringe combed away from her face. Angela heard how gruff the woman’s voice was as she nodded.
‘Your books have been a real comfort.’ she said.
It was the voice which drew Angela’s attention. A cursory glance of the woman’s hands and throat raised concerns, but she smiled and thanked her.
When Helene passed her, Angela asked if she could have a word. Helene gave a bright, serene smile and asked her how she could help.
‘There was a woman I spoke to -‘ she said.
Her throat grew tight as Helene waited, and her expectation wearied Angela.
‘Well, I understood Mother Island was for women.’ she said.
Helene gave a slow blink, but the smile stayed fixed in place.
‘Yes, it is.’ Helene said.
Angela’s palms grew damp as she finished the last of her champagne. It did not soothe the tight, dry thirst, but it allowed her a moment to collect her thoughts. She nodded and thanked Helene, who continued on her circuit, talking to everyone in the room. As she watched her leave, Angela saw the blonde staring at her. She grimaced with a force which made Angela turn away, her cheeks burning as she plucked a canape and popped it into her mouth.
Jessamyn briefed them on the general run of things. There were workshops and panels but attendees were free to enjoy the facilities. A thermal spring spa and massage therapists, restaurant facilities open throughout and a sports facility, cinema and library. Angela winced, knowing she would compete with deep tissue homeopathic massages and colonic irrigation for her talk about her latest round of research.
Still, she had seen this world come about. The perfect was the enemy of the good, but this was a better world for women than the one she grew up in. Her gaze returned to the blonde woman, talking to a young Asian woman. Angela saw how the blonde was close, and the Asian woman was leaning back, her fingers clenched around the stem of her glass as she nodded, a beat too fast to communicate any real agreement.
Jessamyn performed Katie Makkai’s Pretty but Angela watched the blonde and fought a shifting, grim concern which manifested as a rough itch travelling up and down her arms. She walked over and made eye contact with the Asian woman. She envied her buttermilk skin and lean, androgyne figure but the desperate, pleading look had never left the world of women. Some ghosts remained despite the change in balance.
‘Is everything okay?’ Angela said.
The blonde looked at her and scowled before she caught herself and plastered on an easy going smile.
‘Sure, just I thought I knew Karyn here from a conference last year -‘ she said.
Angela turned to Karyn, watched with alarm as Karyn turned away from the blonde.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?’ Angela said.
She put out her hand and Angela took it, surprised by something so patriarchal as a handshake.
The strength of Jo’s grip made her wince. Was it deliberate? Such shows of strength, Angela had lectured were evidence of patriarchal and hierarchical power displays, something they had built legislation to render as atavistic as duelling and lynch mobs. When Jo relinquished her grip, Angela shook out her fingers and smiled. Jo frowned and gestured to her left incisor.
Angela scraped the moist blob of food under her fingernail and popped it into her mouth. Jo smirked and leaned forwards.
‘I’m sure they do it on purpose.’ she said.
Angela laughed, a little too loud for her liking. Character, she thought, realised itself when it was not in its best interest to do so.
Jessamyn had finished and Angela ducked beneath the waterfall of applause and turned away. She felt Jo’s eyes on her for the rest of the morning. When she checked into her suite, she took a nap, unusual for her, and when she woke up, her head throbbed with exhaustion and she felt irritated with everyone and everything.
She hadn’t dilated before leaving. Angela had not felt the need to, but now, having seen Jo, there was a fierce, petulant need to affirm herself again. In the mirror, she looked at herself and flexed the hand Jo had squeezed. A cold wave of self-loathing crashed upon her as she assessed herself.
The lines in her face had deepened, too much time frowning and not using enough sunscreen. All the surgeries had been painful but by the time they had finished, she believed there was a woman looking back at her who she could spend a life with.
No one outside herself ever had before. Angela though, was a true romantic.
Yet as she stood there, she looked at her broad shoulders, built down to sinew from the tabata and running, endless running and the pouch of flesh at her abdomen. Angela had always loathed sloth, but time was defeating the regimen of diet, exercise and medication and there was nothing she could do about it.
She wanted to be amongst women, in a place without judgement, a dream of sisterhood and a place to just breathe as the goddesses they were. A pantheon-race, transformed by will and love into elevated beings who had mothered a better world into being.
Most of all, she realised as she looked at the rope of vein down her right calf, a pale snake beneath the skin, she wanted to be somewhere beautiful where she could fall in love with herself again.
Angela stood in front of the mirror and wept. When she looked up, she didn’t recognise herself and it was there, in the diffused light of the suite, whispered a terrible truth to herself.
‘I don’t love you anymore.’ she said.
Getting home was easy. She avoided seeing anyone, not bothering to have breakfast for fear of being seen eating before cowering away from Jo again. She bet the Asian woman went with her to the suite, imagined how Jo would be in bed. It horrified and excited her and it lent a shrill edge to her demands for a flight home.
It wasn’t until she was back in Palo Alto she felt free to cry. Tears were necessary, but they stung and Angela felt so ugly when she wept. In the crisp, perfect museum of her home, Angela listened to Preston make bright conversation about her adventures on Mother Island, but she didn’t ring him back.
She would say she took ill. Angela hoped no one would recall the on-site medical facility which was world class. Last year, their surgical team had dealt with a brain embolism, so people would wonder why a stomach upset would force her to return home.
Angela ran a bath and undressed. There were three days before they expected her to resume lectures and it would give her time to decide what she needed.
She sat in the water, looked at the faint band of white skin, still there after decades.
‘You’re still married, you know?’ she said.
Her voice echoed around the bathroom, but there was no one there. Just the two.
She slipped her hand beneath the water and leaned forwards, letting her hair hang in the water as she sighed and let the tears drip into the water.
There was no one there to comfort her so she slipped down into the water until it was up to her chin and she avoided looking down at herself, conscious of how water made her skin look. Like something taken from an aquatic mammal whilst it was still alive and sewn over her bones. Something had given her catalogue of personal disgust a new lease of life and part of her revelled in the opportunity to debase herself.
She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself. It was as close as she got to being touched these days but as she laid there, Angela hoped it would be enough.
The doorbell rang and she tried to ignore it. Immersed in the water, and with a judicious application of bubble bath, she could avoid looking at herself. Yet someone rang the doorbell and her self-loathing compelled her to find a witness to it.
She caught sight of herself in the mirror. There was still a pleasing tautness to her midsection and with her hair wet, a sleekness which highlighted her high cheekbones and the warm light which adversity had not diminished. Angela smiled and threw on a robe.
Preston stood there, legs crossed at the knee as she opened the door. He kissed her on the cheek on his flight past her.
‘Mom. I know you gave me a key, but this soylent needs to leave right fucking now.’
He jabbered as he trotted down the hall past her. Her cheek glowed where his lips had pressed against her. She smiled as she closed the door and went to make him something to settle his stomach. A knot untied itself within her stomach and the next breath she took was one of reconciliation.