Becoming Cleopatra by Jill Pearlman

I loved watching the silent statues on the Ramblas in Barcelona as they dressed. In the morning, as the bird sellers uncovered their cages, and the flower sellers arranged their bouquets and flowering trees, mimes enacted a private ritual of becoming.  First they were ordinary, then quasi-ordinary, then extraordinary.  They were small actors who stepped into great people’s identities. I had just arrived alone from New York and turned my broken self to the gig of miming Cleopatra.  I was transfixed by that strange process, knowing one thing was gone but not yet knowing what was to come.

They were actors, musicians, opera singers, nurses’ aides from Barcelona, Blanes, Besalu, Seville, Raval.  In the filtered light from the plane trees, they came silently, one by one, pulling their handcarts with noisy wheels behind them.  They unsnapped the elastic that held their stand and props. They unpacked the costumes and accoutrements of Napoleon and Pancho Villa and Death.  The public walkway became their dressing room. In averting their eyes from passersby on the wide Ramblas, they went through the process of becoming.

A woman lifted a pair of wings from the handles of her cart, unfolded them and let them rest on a small rug she had laid on the sidewalk.  Sitting cross-legged on the rug, she opened her little makeup bag and, looking into a hand mirror, began to paint her face angel-white.

There was a boy I liked. He had wide cheekbones and fleshy lips, was sullen and red-eyed. He was as empty as I was. He opened his treasure chest suddenly, with no expression, and took out a pair of pants that had been painted to stand and crack like glorified leather.  Soon he would be Pancho Villa, hero of outlaws and rebels!  He turned from the pedestrians, thinking of nothing as he dabbed gold on his smooth cheeks.  The sun reflected in his hand mirror as he communed with the void.  It was the same emptiness that actors, hungover or not, artists of various intelligence, even the god according to the Kabbalah, had to know before they could create.

Pancho stuck a fat Cuban cigar in this mouth.  He adjusted a double belt of heavy bullets over his chest and donned a big-brimmed hat. His shoulders spread, his height increased, his eyes sparkled.  He rotated towards the crowd with arms at his side, knees bent and spread wide, and in a flash, he drew his gun.

I learned from the others.  My dress went on slinky over my hips, then I arranged the wig of black hair braided with gold beads on my head.  After tying the sandals up my painted legs, I turned to the privacy of my hand mirror.  I painted my face gold and adorned my eyes, preparing to become the great Queen Cleopatra.  The reminiscence blipped in my mind of how I had always had a private ritual of drawing myself into being, drawing the snaky line on my eyelid in black liner, even when I was a New Yorker.

‘Look, there’s Cleopatra!’ I heard a kid on the other side of my head say.  Like a magnet to his voice, I let my chin move slowly towards the caller; my head followed, then my shoulders and waist.  I felt my heart pounding with a jungle drum beat.   As a living Cleopatra statue, I could hardly move and couldn’t talk.  As slowly as I could, I let my lashes part, and gazed upon the red-faced kid in shorts.  He stood there, staring, pointing, looking.  ‘She blinked!’ he said with his British accent.  Yes, I did.

The kid looked intently, expecting my white robe to flutter or my gold-painted knee to quiver.  If he put a mirror under my nose, he’d see breath marks.   Finally he looked at his father and wandered away, frustrated by the ambiguous display.  I pushed back my tired shoulders and drew in a jagged breath.  Then I did what I always did to quiet myself – turn outside, listen, take in the noises of the avenue.

I heard the high, nervous chirp of little parakeets in cages, the convergence of hundreds of singing birds.  I heard the shutter of a camera open, then close.  There were words of Polish, Korean, French, Russian. I felt my stomach grumble.  My arm ached from holding my scepter.  There was perfume and exhaust in the air, a flowery scent and the smell of a wet dog, and cigarette smoke.  I had a tickle in the hairs; soft-moving waves of warm air brushed against the skin on the back of my neck.  Under the cacophony of languages, I heard church bells toll.  There was a pleasant saltiness in my mouth, reminding me of the Serrano ham I’d eaten for breakfast at a café on the corner near the cheap hotel in the barrio antico where I was staying.  When I raised my head to the sky, there was a pattern in the leaves of the plane trees, and through it was a high, light blue sky.

It was a one-month stint.  I’d entered with curiosity and no expectation at all.  For one month, I had no self. I would be empty.  I was not Clio, nothing like the old Clio who had been so tightly scripted and so deaf to herself.  The Ramblas was the noisiest boulevard in the noisiest of cities.  I wouldn’t have to hear my inner voice, with its complaints of my limits and failures.

I could be silent, a living statue.


About the Author

Jill Pearlman is a writer who works in different genres—fiction, poetry, flash fiction, blog essays. Writing is a way of stepping into the space between ideologies, places, relationships, parts of the self. While living in French Catalonia, she often crossed the border to Barcelona. From her meditations on medieval Shephardic history, absence and place, she wrote her new novel, Clio’s Mobile Home, from which this piece is adapted. She now lives in Providence, RI.


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