“A Portrait of Madame Bovary on a Subway Window” by Veronica Spada
First prize prose winner of the Hart House Literary Contest in 2020 was Veronica Spada, a student of English and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.
This is what the judges Antanas Sileika and A.M. Dellamonica said about Spada’s short story:
“We particularly enjoyed the title and a playful way with imagery are the first things we notice in this, and the specificity of the setting—like the Knox College gargoyle, adds to the effect. There were lots of evocative details and the point of view made good observations.”
A Portrait of Madame Bovary on the Subway Window
by Veronica Spada
I age fifty years in the blemished subway window. With leather-gloved fingers, I touch the tawny pockets of my skin, my cheeks, the brownish piles of a baker’s sweating dough. Something rare in the visual mesmerizes me. My dough is kneaded, transformed.
My picture in the window could speak with the accent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Her scarf is made of lambswool, her fortune born from her charm. She wears gloss serums under her eyes and mink pelts over her shoulders.
A man shaped like a snowbank smiles around his cigarette at my strange image.
I remove my glove to ensure he sees my wedding band.
The train enters the station; the light obliterates the reflection of the woman’s famous head. Now I see a mosaic wall and businessmen in leather shoes. I deposit my ring into my skirt pocket and return my glove to my naked hand.
On the Queen’s Park Station platform, a raisin-eyed accordionist and under-dressed trumpeter play Si Tu Vois Ma Mère. Gossamer mist embalms me while I swing my skirt. Snow lunges down the stairwell and decorates my hair. I throw the musicians pennies from Heaven. I’ve been told Heaven is beneath the pockets of my skirt.
I’m reflected on the yellowed sliding door of the 7-11 on Spadina Crescent. The image is a sixteen-year-old girl, a city-dwelling urchin who takes molly on Jarvis Street when the embrace of summer abandons her.
And soon I twinkle in the unwashed window of a double-parked Mercedes, a grease puddle on Huron Street, and the stained glass window of the Knox chapel. Each image quivers in the light; they laugh with the dignity of cathedral bells. I have no time for them. I’m running late.
A bloated gargoyle on the Knox edifice mocks me with a stuck-out tongue when I arrive, so I return the favour. I wait beneath his stone ledge for my would-be Beau. He promised me a book of sonnets. He promised we would read from it.
His Romanticism excites me; we could be poets.
I wait with the gargoyles and contemplate their posture.
Gradual, like mist, his silhouette forms between the church doors; I wish he would hesitate so I could paint the vague impression on my brain. He approaches my station at the lattermost pew with impatient eyes, empty-handed.
“I dropped the Shakespeare in the sewer,” he says. “So, we can’t read it. Sorry.”
“No worries,” I reply. “We’ll do something else.”
White clouds of November air pour from his sly lips, and he grows near. “Exactly.”
“And I’ve always preferred poetry when it’s spoken.”
“You mean to say we should speak poems to each other?” he replies, wide-eyed. “Make them up right now? I can’t write poems on the spot. I can’t string words together. I’ve got nothing memorized. I’m a human being, not a character in a sonnet. People like that don’t exist.”
His impatience delights me. I laugh. “Don’t you ever recognize people from poetry?”
“I suppose,” he says. “I once met someone and realized mid-discussion it was Madame Bovary.”
“Madame Bovary! That’s terrible! Haven’t you met any others? What about Don Quixote?”
“Of course. Faustus too.”
“And brave Macbeth?”
“And a Karamazov.”
“Really? You’ve met an Achilles?”
“Maybe not Achilles. Not yet. The city’s not in flames. Still, life has me like Hector’s corpse fastened to his chariot.”
“Now there’s a lovely vantage point: looking on the burning Troy, the last flicker of a crumbling city. Spectator to the crashing monuments, armoured soldiers, terrified faces, and twinkling gore.”
“A spectator,” he murmurs. He takes my scarf in his hands and unravels it. “That’s real clever.”
He embraces me, resting his chin on my shoulder, reaching towards Heaven, yet now I’m
entranced by a second gargoyle adjacent to the first. With a bloated face, it opens fat lips to reveal grey stone teeth. So, I scrunch my nose and stick out my tongue; the gargoyle and I share a good laugh at the would-be Beau’s expense.
While I laugh, I realize, on the stained glass window, the would-be Beau and I are a single shape, a mound of love entwined like the mud of a hill. I pull away until our bodies are estranged.
The would-be Beau leans to smell my hair and groans. “Why don’t we go to my apartment?”
I say, “Okay,” and we’re promptly in a streetcar on College Street with one hundred city-dwellers, our bodies compressed like an unconscious orgy. A young stranger with waist-length hair and a newspaper divides me from my Beau, who alternates between lusty grins and scowls at the warm bodies.
I refract on the thousand sliding doors and peruse the stranger’s newspaper. Graciously, the stranger tips the paper to my eye-level, so I can ogle the Calvin Klein models and imagine myself in their lace bralettes.
When we arrive, the apartment is a sea of tatty clothing. A brown leather jacket. Bellbottom jeans. A yellow gingham dress. Scarce furniture. A cold rice cooker, a mattress, and a radio all belong to his old roommates. They come and go like phantoms, leaving single gloves and handfuls of pennies. Change litters the room, glittering like tearful eyes from the pockets of scattered blue jeans.
I wait for my Beau on the mattress while he struggles with his button-fly. I can’t see myself lying there. A bygone roommate stole the mirror from the bathroom vanity, abandoning a blank, clay wall.
My skirt on the floor is like a cadaver, and it’s all I see. Soon, the skirt is the corpse of a stranger, unknowable and bizarre. I lose it in the murky sea of clothing, so when I exit, I am swimming in a pair of his tatty blue jeans.
In the subway window, homeward bound at one o’clock in the morning, I look eighty-years-old. Fingers brush the pouches of leathered skin beneath my eyes, the curtains of my heavy cheeks, the strange images teeming in my head, whistling like a kettle.
The woman in the window glimmers like the dull face of a penny. Naked fingers aimlessly brush the weary flesh around the brow, the chin, the throat, the sighing mouth, the cheeks like mounds of dough.
When the train-cart plunges into the light aboveground, I am decapitated with a hand still searching for my beauty.