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by Christy Lenzi

Silver maples and ash trees stoop like old women over the banks of the Schuylkill River. Beside them, the tulip poplars bend with limbs outstretched, seedpods open and cupped like withered fingers lifted to the heavens. All the pods are dried up and long empty.

It’s February.

I frown at the furrowed bark of the ash tree, which resembles aging skin. Irritated at the thought, I rub the deepening crease between my eyebrows.

When I see Boathouse Row from a bend in the trail, I pick up my pace. The sweep boats, like slender, oval pills, glide down the fat vein of the Schuylkill River toward the womb of Center City. I christen the boats in my mind as they pass. Medroxyprogesterone Acetate, Clomiphene Citrate, Metformin.


By the time I reach the museum steps, it appears that everyone else in Philadelphia has the same idea on this gloomy Sunday. Against the gray sky, the museum’s stone facade bursts with color. A banner with Frida Kahlo’s name weaves through the pillars, and a giant image of one of the artist’s self-portraits hangs on the side of the entrance. She stares down her nose at us, her expression grave and calm, despite the vibrant background of lush and fecund vegetation, theflitting moths and winged flowers, and a lively cat and monkey who perch on her shoulders.

I start climbing the steps but something in the vivid image disturbs me like the deep creases of the gray ash tree, and my hand rises to my neck to rub the irritation away. I glance back up at the self-portrait.

A tiny, dead bird hangs around her neck. How could I not even notice at first?

A delicate brown lace-work of broken vines wraps around her throat and shoulders as well, their thorns piercing her skin. Blood droplets glisten beneath them. But still Frida staresdown at me, quite unmoved.

Dang, girl. That’s fucked up.

I join the line forming at the doors and follow the crowd up the stairs to the new exhibit of self-portraits, organized in honor of the 100th anniversary of Frida Kahlo’s birth. Donning the audio tour headset, I let the recording of the guide’s authoritative voice escort me through the exhibition. Something about the guide’s tone reminds me of my friend Priscilla’s voice: two parts helpful, one part know-it-all. It’s funny, because she’s the one who told me about the exhibit in the first place and said I should come with her and her kids to see it, but I pretended I’d probably be too busy this month. Truth was, I wanted to come alone.

“Too busy?” She’d given me a knowing look. “You two rabbits are having way too much fun following doctor’s orders, aren’t you?”

I’d put on my cheerful, playful face and giggled so she wouldn’t ask any more questions about the treatments. Or about his frequent and numerous late nights at the office. Or how I’m coping with it all.

I almost feel her lean in, her breath on my cheek, when the guide’s voice murmurs, “Notice not only the wounded deer, but the broken tree limbs as well. Frida is said to have had great empathy for damaged things. Once, when a servant brought her an old chair to ask if it should be thrown away, she took the broken leg and carved her own lips on it to give to someone she loved.”

Amidst a dead forest of grey, rotting trees, Frida’s stoic likeness stares back at me like a mask that has been placed over the head of a male deer. His bleeding body is shot through with arrows as it leaps over a fallen, leafy, tree branch. My guide lowers her Priscilla voice to share with me some intimate details of Frida’s private griefs—her injuries, miscarriages, her fierce but unobtainable wish to have a child, the frequent and numerous infidelities of Diego, the husband she adored.

I find I can’t quite look Frida in the eyes as the guide gossips her miseries into my ear. I imagine the Priscilla voice whispering the same secret tale to every museum visitor wearing a tour headset. I stare, instead, at the deer’s magnificent antlers, which extend out from above the human ears of the mask that cannot hide the deer’s much larger ones. The Priscilla voice has grown slightly grating. I feel the beginning of a migraine sprouting at my temples and shooting toward the top of my skull. The doctor says it’s a side-effect of the clomiphene.

What a great way to get in the mood on Ovulation Day.

“Now this next piece,” the guide’s voice places her hand on my elbow, “is called The

Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth, Myself, Diego and—”

I pull the headset down around my neck and stare at a Matryoshka doll-like image of mothers holding their children in their arms. The Universe cradles the Earth, the Earth cradles Mexico, Mexico cradles Frida, and Frida cradles her husband, a fat, naked baby Diego with pale greenish-white skin. Frida wears a face as strong and impenetrable as the Universe’s, but it can’t disguise the blood-red crevasse that cracks open her neck and splits her chest.

I think maybe I should go—soon. The air’s too close in the exhibit rooms, and it’s much more crowded than I expected. I don’t know why I thought I could fit this in with all I have to do.

As I turn to walk out of the room, a small painting catches my eye and makes me start like a small jolt through the chest. It’s a piece I’ve never seen before, very different from the others in the collection—a grotesque human creature with a small round face, purple hair, and a trance-like expression. At first its head appears to be drooping at the neck like a rag doll, but as I step closer, I see it is a mask slipping from a face. Frida’s ringed hand holds the mask, and her dark, coiled hair begins to show above it. The eyeholes look as if they have been punctured into the canvas, and the dark eyes behind them don’t quite match up. I step closer and squint through the eyeholes as Frida must have done, peering into her mirror as she painted.

It hurts my eyes, squinting that way, and the migraine slips down around my forehead.


Pull yourself together, girl.

I return the headset and leave the museum without glancing back over my shoulder at the Frida stuck with thorns. I don’t think about the Frida pierced with arrows or the Frida bleeding from the chest.

I hurry along the river path, past the sweep boats, past the old, stooped trees, up to our apartment where I’ll shower, take my pills, and paint on my date night face before dinner.





Christy Lenzi's work has appeared several times in Hunger Mountain’s VCFA Journal of the Arts and has won their 2011 Katherine Paterson Prize in its category, as well as the first inaugural Eldin Memorial Fellowship Prize. Her debut novel, Stone Field, was published by Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press in March 2016. She lived in Philadelphia in the 1990s and now lives in California’s Central Valley. Lenzi works at University of the Pacific where she is pursuing a BFA in Studio Art.


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