Alice Philips

The first impression is more powerful, and often more positive, than later impressions. With Alice Philips, impressions often started low and, after the third or fourth encounter, began a steady rise. Oh, she did make a respectable first impression: trim, well dressed in a not quite tailored look, an attractive balanced face, with an elegant cosmetic overlay and coiffure. But she was not a quick or smooth talker, or a smiling conversant, or a great beauty, or primed to appeal to male fantasies, either the demure or wild kind. Her manner became clearer over time. She moved with an even, one might say strangely calm manner, slowly and deliberately, turning as if moving a large mass around a carefully balanced center of gravity — that, by careful observation, you would swear had to be in the cavern of her pelvis. It was an eerily sexy effect, once you noticed it, but not something that struck you at first glance. You might just think she was slow.

Alice had big, expressive brown eyes, within a dark brown face. She was of African descent, with American Indian and European thrown in for good measure. The brown of her irises was rich and luminous — endlessly brown, as you might expect of the richest of soils in a dank rain forest stretched beneath an equatorial sky. Not that she was particularly exotic, having been raised in Yonkers, New York. Still, there is something inherently intriguing about eye color outweighing the black of the pupils, about skin that is a color in its own right, not the pale reflection of blood coursing through the body, not a red or freckled organ that the sun must first paint. Her face was defined by the large luminous eyes, broad nose and bursting lips of her African ancestry, and her profile seemed to be a fuller version of the Indo-European ideal balance of cheeks, ears, forehead and chin.

She was slow to move, and slow to engage. While waiting for a reaction on her part, your attention might hold on the cosmetic aids to her person: foundation, eye shadow, lipstick, blush, even a fair amount of perfume. All this does not make an unpleasant impression, at least if you’re free of allergic reaction, but this apparent preoccupation with externalities was a marked contrast with the calm and self-absorption she otherwise projected. It could be, you might think, that she had not broken psychologically with her parents and hence not with the Liz Claiborne style of her mother – or maybe, at this point, of her grandmother. Or it could be that she was vain in a way that her quietude didn’t let you see. Or it could be, as I believe, that she was both fascinated by and fearful of the immense world, in a way that she did not allow herself to explore. The ritualistic decoration and scenting were a form of homage to this world, a gesture that compensated but did not put her out into the middle of things, at risk.