My Haunted Honeymoon: On Getting Punched by the Ghost of Frida Kahlo
Hermione Hoby Sees Through the Veil
I told a friend, “I had a sort of communion with Frida Kahlo,” and instantly realized I’d lied. It had been an anti-communion, it had been a fuck you and your idea of communion. It was a moment in my life when I worried I was thinking too much about clothes. At least once a day I’d find myself semi-sleepwalking through online shopping sites where the dresses were priced in three figures, which was at least one more digit than I could afford. I’d scroll and scroll and then, with some casual inner, “yep,” toss one of these dresses in my virtual basket. It was a mode of self-definition via provisionality. A hypothetical self-fashioning. As in yes, I would wear this 650 dollar long-sleeved silk one. No, I wouldn’t wear that one. I am this sort of woman, I am not that sort of woman.
Some days I’d do this somnambulant clothes-trawling so much that when I closed my eyes at night I saw dresses. It horrified me. The next day there’d be that algorithmic haunting, too: images of dresses I’d put in a virtual shopping basket and left there re-appearing in my browser’s sidebars. I didn’t want to think about how much time I’d lost filling my dumb eyes with pixel-images of clothes. I didn’t want to calculate the minutes each day and think about how many pages I could have read in that time instead. (As if life were one or the other: clothes or books.) I wanted to be a serious woman. But I also wanted to be one of those women whose style seems like a pure extension of spirit.
Frida Kahlo, a serious woman who dressed fabulously, died in 1954 but remains indelible for the portraits she painted of her own face and self. They look the way dreams do when every piece has come from the wild deep ghost-place, each element so rich with symbolism as to be both inviolable and inexplicable. Her paintings frighten me. In a large number of her 55 self-portraits there are lush flowers piled in her braided hair that cast her as a kind of permanent bride, albeit one who stares out from beneath a black brow with the grimness of a long-widowed woman. She married Diego Rivera—a big man, a lesser painter—twice. Once in 1929, again in 1940. The divorce—catalyzed by his affair with her younger sister—had lasted one year and one month.
In the weeks before our wedding, my fiance suggested Cuba for our honeymoon. It would be a provisional destination: we’d have to fly to Mexico City where we’d buy tickets, we hoped, in cash. (Americans can now technically travel to Cuba, but it’s illegal to spend money there. My American husband was lucky enough to marry an expat still in possession of a British bank account.) With him, I become a passive traveler, trusting in our shared enthusiasms enough for him to be our guide, me the biddable accomplice in adventure. So when I mealy-mouthed my uncertainty—the difficulty of getting there, its legal grayness—he knew the right words: “I need you to have a sense of adventure.”
Well what was marriage if not that. I do. He knew that the line and its plea were unimpeachable. We flew to Mexico, withdrew what felt like an outrageous amount of pesos and laid down this stack of cash on a counter for flights to Havana. When we landed there, it felt miraculous to the point of supernatural. The place sustains such delusions. The sky would flash at night soundlessly, lightning without thunder and I was drunk all day and night—on rum, rumba, the derangement of being married—but also on some kind of density I felt around us. Like a perfect horror cliché, the woman at the hotel, an ancient palace in the oldest square of old Havana, had told us she had no rooms available and then, eyeing us carefully, had said: “Well, there is one…” We walked across its threshold and this man who I now called “my husband” said happily, “it’s haunted.” I shut him up, scoffing, my head full of scorn as I observed my heart rate increase by a fraction.
Each night in that bed we had the wildest dreams of our lives. There was a lurid velocity to them, an endless, kaleidoscopic churn that our own minds didn’t seem capable of conjuring. We didn’t voice these insane dreams until our last evening in the city and when we realized we’d both experienced them there was a small pause. “Well,” I said briskly. “We just underwent a major emotional experience,” referring to our recent wedding like it was a textbook entry and I was a clinician in a white coat. But marriage was, after all, indeed a strange new psychic realm. Here we both were, in this other side of some pact made to “forever,” a word so loaded with mortality even without the “until death us do part” part.
That last night I could not get up to go to the bathroom because I knew we were being watched. I lay pinned in the darkness, hyper-conscious of the large mirror that faced the bed, reflecting our shadowy bodies back to ourselves. I could feel it as certainly as you feel breath on skin. I didn’t believe in ghosts. I’m a serious woman. Then we flew back to Mexico City.
I stipulated my one sightseeing wish with what I fancied to be Kahlo-ish obduracy: La Casa Azul, the blue house, where Frida was born and where Frida returned to live for the three decades until she died. I crept through the rooms, looking at her dried up-paints, putting my nose up close to her old fragrant books, taking in the pots in her kitchen, the shawls on her deathbed, and felt the thrill of her proximity, the thing-ness of this woman among all her things. The whole house was crammed with talismans. It was itself one giant talisman. Most voodoish of all were her clothes, especially the unpartnered boots, each witchy and winsome with its block of a raised heel to compensate for the leg that had been withered by polio. A lone boot was creepy the same way a rope of detached hair was: where is its pair, where is the body to which this belongs.
The body it belonged to was violated in an accident as unconscionably lurid as it is irresistibly symbolic. She was 18 years old and riding a tram when it collided with a bus. An iron handrail smashed through the side of the vehicle and into her body, penetrating her abdomen and uterus. To put it in the crudest and most visceral terms—which only feel right for Frida—that iron rail fucked her. It also fucked up her life. She suffered a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, 11 fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder but, as her chroniclers like to suggest, perhaps the biggest pain was the psychic one of childlessness. That iron rail smashed her capacity to bear her children. She conceived three times; each pregnancy had to be terminated. Thirty five operations followed the accident. She was, by all accounts, in near-constant physical pain. Yet she dressed, always, like she was throwing a party.
Her style, particularly the long, ruffled skirts, was an homage to the traditional dress of Tehuana where mother, Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, was born. Society is matriarchal here and the long skirts and loud colors broadcast female power. For Kahlo, however, they also hid her literal weakness by veiling her stunted leg. When she walked in the street in this glorious, gaudy get-up, children would ask her, “where’s the circus?” She’d tell them she was the circus. In 1937, American Vogue heard about this spectacular woman, and sent a photographer and interviewer. In the spread that followed they captioned her, “Madame Diego Rivera, wife of the famous Mexican painter.” The blouse she wore in one of the photographs remains at Casa Azul, still stained with her oil paints.
This is what I understood from La Casa Azul: that her body and her being and the way she dressed them both were as much her art as the paintings she left behind. That life and clothes themselves could be your art. That in disguising your deformity you could at once glorify yourself, claiming and making your pain as vital and expressive as your joy. That you could, in short, wear really fabulous dresses precisely because you were a serious woman: serious about yourself, your art, your whole expression. I wandered around stupefied, googly-eyed with rapture.
Weeks afterwards, back home, I delivered my writer friend the line about the Kahlo communion. My friend is an older man with white hair, who writes sentences like an apocalyptic demiurge but hugs like your sweetest uncle. He was friends with people who aren’t even people to me; that’s how luminous their lodestardom is. People subjected, in other words, to comparable levels of idolatry as Kahlo is, an idolatry to which he, too, will be subjected when he dies. I could deal with it much better if he were grumpy or conceited or “difficult.” Instead, the magnitude of his talent is in inverse proportion to his humility. Which means that when I see him, my awe comes with me—an excitable, embarrassing dog that runs around my feet, getting in the way, tripping me up, wagging its tail furiously, making me talk too loud so I can be heard over its barking.
This, more or less, was the story I gave him: I told him about wandering around in that rapture over her shoes, her skirts, the fabulousness with which she dressed her pain. And I told him that on the way out, going through the ugly turnstiles that keep the rabble of tourists at a manageable stream, I misjudged it, or stumbled, or both, and the metal bar clanged and hit my thigh, like a prison guard barring an inmate, oh no you don’t. It hit the upper part of my thigh, close to my pelvis, as hard as, well, a tram’s iron handrail. My eyes smarted, I couldn’t catch my breath and people stared. I was furious and embarrassed, both by the blunder and by the tears. I unlocked my bike crossly, trying to keep my bottom lip from quivering, while my husband observed me with amused bewilderment and concern. We cycled off in silence. It hurt and hurt. Like a child, I couldn’t wait to see how big and spectacular the bruise was. Like a child, I was disappointed. It was smaller than I thought, and a dull purple-yellow. I felt far more colors than I saw there on my skin.
I told the writer the truth: that I’d felt Frida punch me and that I deserved it. That her ghost had watched me walk around her house, romanticizing her pain and reveling in clothes made to dress agony and deformity and she’d jeered, Oh you love my pain? Have some on your way out! I told him I thought she’d hurt me, left her mark on my thigh, to tell me pain is not beauty, bitch. Pain is an unspectacular bruise. He listened attentively to all this—patient, generous—and when I was finished, he said: “That’s beautiful.”
I smiled, I couldn’t hide that. My cringe, though, was huge and invisible. Of course I’d wanted him to think this was beautiful, this whole story I’d served up! Somewhere close beside me Frida rolled her black eyes. Wasn’t telling the story of feeling rebuked for idolizing her pain just as craven, more so, as idolizing her pain? Hadn’t I, after all, made a beautiful story out of how superficial it was to beautify suffering? For three days afterwards, in the same way of learning a new word, I saw Frida’s face (her beautiful face) everywhere.
She glowered past me on tote bags. I walked past her stare—reproachful, magnificent—on t-shirts. Buses slid past bearing her implacable, furious features: posters proclaiming a Kahlo show at the Brooklyn Botanic gardens. I felt mad. I know that when Halloween comes she’ll haunt me again in all the eyeliner-drawn monobrows of young women emulating the most idolized female facial hair in history. Every sighting felt like a taunt: I’m watching you.
Then I summoned up Instagram and there was Beyonce posing in the garden of La Casa Azul dressed as some kind of Puritan minister, as though she were about to perform an exorcism. But I realized this: that our supreme high empress of self-presentation wasn’t there, documenting her presence in Frida’s presence, to freak me out. She was there, having selfies taken, because she knows how powerfully on-brand Frida Kahlo is. The image of Kahlo—uncompromising in her beauty, her life, her art—serves the image of Beyonce. We are meant to gaze at pop stars, conjuring idolatry is the largest part of Beyonce’s job. The idolatry surrounding the striking and symmetrical faces of great female artists, however, feels more dangerous. Celebrities don’t plug their Instagram feeds with the face of Gertrude Stein, for example. Lovely, butch, wise old heavy-tortoise Stein. So is Frida furious to find herself on tote bags and t shirts—idolized, objectified, reproduced? Might, in fact, that be almost as egregious a disfavor as calling her, “wife of the famous Mexican painter”?
I hadn’t told the writer about the online window-shopping or how my eyes, when I closed them, were full of designer dresses I couldn’t afford. Which is why I also hadn’t made room in my story for him for the side rooms in the garden of La Casa Azul. They hosted a small, temporary exhibition of her clothes that was so dimly lit that every object cast a literal glow. I’d made myself walk through it fast, partly because my hungry husband was waiting outside, Googling proximate restaurants. More than that though, I hurried because I wanted to feel disciplined, economical, in control: I feared getting stuck and lost in those few dark rooms in the same way I’d been getting stuck and lost clicking through the 627 results for “long sleeve dress white.” I had gotten married in a bright yellow strappy dress. I’d had a vision of it, found it, loved it. But those search terms said there must be some little yearning I’d yet to get out of my system. The heart wants what it wants, even as the head holds forth with its imperturbable reasons for rejecting a tradition whose sexual double standards we blithely, bridely ignore. White dresses! my head scoffed, just like it scoffed at ghosts, while my heart below it mumbled something else.
In the last room were three long white lace dresses, sleeved, footless and floating in a glass case like bright ghosts. These headless mannequins, angled slightly towards each other, looked grave—three bridal sentinels in silent conference with each other. They were the spookiest, most ravishing thing I’d ever seen. I held up my iPhone, took a picture, my hungry thumbs went to trumpet them on Instagram then faltered—too spooked, too ravished. I hurried back out into the sunlight where he was waiting and out through the turnstile that hit my thigh.
If I could have somehow kept the bruise forever, I would have: my own private Frida Kahlo painting. But it was, in the literal sense of the word, a superficial bruise, barely skin-deep. My healthy leg, my painless unpunctured body, healed it away in days.