They decided to get married. Well, what business was that of mine? It had nothing to do with me except my husband was the young man’s uncle. In other words, the young man was my nephew, though I didn’t care about him at all, never had.
They were coming over for Sunday dinner, my husband announced. And what would I be cooking? Something special, he hoped. They were getting married. The nephew wanted us to meet his girl.
He wants our blessing, my husband said.
I didn’t say this aloud. I never do. Since when? I thought. He’d been nothing but trouble since he’d been a boy. As for his parents and his brother, even worse. When the court took the boys away from their parents —unfit to raise children, the judge had said—and put them into foster care, my husband had wanted to adopt this nephew, the youngest boy, his beloved drunken sister’s son, the one who was getting married now and wanted us to meet his girl. He’d been in the navy and was going to a community college over in Oakland on the GI Bill. He’s straightened out, my husband said. And he’s done it on his own, without our help. And then my husband looked at me with implication, like he wanted to crush me, like he hated me. And why did I deserve his contempt?
I had refused to adopt this nephew, this boy who was coming over for Sunday dinner to introduce us to his girl. We’re the only family this boy has, my husband had said when his sister and then her husband had died within two months of each other, both drinking themselves to an early death.
I wish you’d be more generous, Pearl, my grief-stricken husband had said.
I didn’t answer. What was there to say? And then, eventually, I did answer and I said no, no I didn’t want to adopt this boy. And I listed all the reasons I didn’t want the boy in the house. What about his brother, why can’t his brother look after him, I’d said. He’s in college already. He’s got his own place. Why not him?
We had three of our own, much younger than the nephew, two boys and a girl, all doing well in school, good kids. That was enough work for me.
That’s your final answer, my husband had said. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. I don’t answer rhetorical questions, I’d said.
Once upon a time I thought I’d be a concert pianist. But that’s another life, a life not led, I’d told him. Maybe I’ll still have that opportunity instead of giving lessons to spoiled kids who never practice. Plunk plunk plunk. How would this nephew enrich my life? That’s one of the words we used in my women’s group, enrich. Another one wasenlarge. This boy will not enlarge or enrich my housebound life, I told my husband.
The nephew was obstreperous, defiant, in and out of school, in and out of gangs and fights. Two drunks for parents, he’d had a hell of a time. An enraged teenager twice my size in my house? Second reason: I didn’t want him disrupting our lives. Real reason: I was scared of him.
It’s reasonable, my friend Ruby had said. You’ve done nothing wrong saying no.
My marriage will never be the same, I had told her.
Where’s John’s concern for you, for his own kids, Ruby asked. You’re taking the load on yourself. That’s typical. That’s what we’re trying to learn not to do.
They arrived around 1:30, about a half-hour late. John was in the basement working on his high fidelity speaker, the kids were all upstairs doing their homework. The eldest was applying to colleges, the two others were in 10th and 11th grade respectively. Doing well. Good kids. No trouble there.
The bell rang twice before John heard it. I was setting the dining room table and purposely didn’t rush to answer the door. Let John answer the door, I thought. I heard Betsy on the telephone upstairs. Let her have her phone conversation, I thought.
It was a cold autumn day in October. As soon as the door opened, I could hear the surf. A strong wind off the bay filled the house and flushed accumulated resentments out to sea. The air is always fresh here, I thought. I’m lucky to be living here, I thought. I glued a smile onto my face and headed into the vestibule. Hey everyone, I shouted, Ben and Deborah are here. Betsy, get off the phone, honey.
Sorry we’re late, Ben said, politely. Traffic on the bridge.
No surprise, John said, shutting the door. Let me take your coats.
He was good at small talk. I wasn’t. What else was there to say anyway? I didn’t want them there. I wanted my Sunday afternoon with my kids, my husband, my piano. I always played for an hour or so on a Sunday. Plunk plunk plunk.
The girl was hanging back behind Ben’s broad shoulders. His hair was cropped short to his head, his smile was broad, Paul Newman eyes. Handsome, I thought. I’d never noticed that before. And the girl’s long, auburn hair framed him protectively. She was leaning into his back like a tipped tree, and some of her hair was on his shoulders. The oddness of their merged bodies only lasted a minute. She came forward, extended her hand, and introduced herself. Bold Eastern establishment manners. John had mentioned that she came from a cultured, old-money family.
He’s marrying up, I thought. That’s something my own father might have said about John but never did. John’s marrying up.
My kids were shy. We hadn’t taught them entitlement, that self-confidence the girl had and I had lost one-two years into my marriage after I stopped associating with the girls I’d grown up with, or they had stopped associating with me. They came to the wedding, bought expensive gifts off the registry, and then they were gone. No invitations anywhere. I tried having them to the house for cocktails, dinner, Scrabble, and they’d accepted these invitations now and again but it was only now and again. My isolation intensified, more so after the kids were born. I never understood what had happened to them, to me, to us. John’s friends were sports-loving men who sat around watching a game and drank beer or went out into the field by the army base under the Golden Gate and played a rough game of touch football while all their wives stayed home with the kids. They talked about their jobs, but work was money not vocation. They had hobbies: carpentry, gardening, cars. They’d met in high school or down at the courts where three of them worked. John was a court stenographer, a good one, he always boasted. But it was the paycheck that was important, not the work itself.
Sometimes we got together as a group but it wasn’t often. And this unfulfilled life was permitted, it was expected. It sounds like a cliché but that’s what happened—the men leading their monotonous lives 9-5 and playing hard when they weren’t working, the women at home watching the house and the kids, bored and lonely, more so on the weekends when their husbands were out playing. That’s how it was in those days, the mid-sixties, before women spoke out, before the changes. As for my old friends, they all had nannies and maids and were going to graduate school or traveling, or both. They were free in ways I could never dream of in my new life because they had money and had married well. And, of course, I envied them and sometimes regretted my decision to marry John against my father’s wishes. And, of course, I blamed John for my self-inflicted disappointments.
I am so much in love with John that nothing else matters, I had told myself.
And then I had remained silent even to myself.
The girl, Deborah, an inappropriate name for one so ethereal, I decided, she immediately offered to help me in the kitchen and without waiting for an answer, she was there beside me, towering over me, slim, dressed in white jeans though it was October—long past Labor Day when white clothes should be put away—and a rich, red velvet long sleeve top, the likes of which I’d never seen before, and long earrings in the shape of leaves dangling from her pierced ears. An angel, I thought. He’s marrying an angel. She wore a lot of makeup and that surprised me. When do angels get to apply cosmetics? And her face was sculpted, her lips thick as the Ethiopian princess I’d seen a photo of at a gallery recently. Her amber eyes were outlined with black kohl, and her high cheekbones were set off with blush. She didn’t need any of these enhancements, I was certain, but it was the style and Betsy was instantly smitten by this slightly older sensually expressive young woman in her final year at the University of California at Berkeley in a year of protest and tear gas and Carlos Castaneda’s hallucinogenic mushrooms. Betsy, my own struggling-to-be-beautiful adolescent daughter, couldn’t take her eyes off Deborah and had trailed into the kitchen behind us. Her presence there was unprecedented. Is that patchouli you’re wearing, she asked. Sandalwood, Deborah replied. Betsy offered to help, also unprecedented. How about finishing off setting the table, I suggested. That would give me a few minutes alone in the kitchen, a few minutes to breathe.
All through the dinner, a roast turkey, all the trimmings, I wanted to impress her. I still didn’t care about the nephew, our nephew, but I wanted to impress his girl. And I wanted her to like me. And I wanted to be her friend. And I wanted to pierce my ears. I didn’t know how to do any of this.
Ben and John did most of the talking. John had been in the Seventh Fleet during Korea and Ben had just returned from a two-year tour in Japan, China, and the Philippines. He was still in the reserves, which explained his close-cropped hair, reserve meetings every month at Treasure Island, and the possibility of a call-up back to active duty if the war in Vietnam worsened.
How are you doing in school? John asked. What are you studying?
Literature, Ben replied, and he turned to Deborah who put her arm around his shoulders and squeezed them into her chest and kissed him on the mouth so lustfully that John cleared his throat to stop them.
I’m going to be a writer, Ben continued.
Like the old man, eh? John said. And I could see he was hoping that’s as far as the similarity would go.
I got up from the table and made myself busy in the kitchen, loaded the dishwasher, cleaned the counter-top.
Mom’s gone AWOL, I heard Paul, our youngest, say. How is it that our kids know what’s going on before we do?
Betsy, go see what your Mom’s up to, I heard John say.
Mom’s here, I said, slipping back into my chair. I hadn’t missed a word.
I still didn’t know anything about Ben. I still didn’t care about him. I was only interested in his girl. I hoped she would do better, that she would leave him and marry well. Ben would probably end up a drunk like his parents.
Flesh and blood, I heard John say. Flesh and blood. Don’t you forget that Ben. We’re here for you, we’re your family. We’re here for you, son.
Years of travail, the navy, and now school and a good woman. Ben was too happy not to believe this uncle of his: we were family, we wouldn’t let him down again.
All things pass, and the meal was over soon enough. Betsy and the boys and John all jumped up to clear the table. I had them well-trained in that respect at least. We ate dessert, an apple cobbler. I made some coffee. The conversation ambled into the student protests on the Berkeley campus. Deborah became animated. She’d been on a civil rights march in Oakland and was arrested with many others. The university had decided to punish the students, put them all on probation, double jeopardy. All this was very absorbing, more important than her studies at the moment.
More important than me? Ben asked.
Yes and no, she said.
I could see she meant it.
Beautiful and smart, I said to Ben. Those were the first public words that surfaced from my silent, lonely cave.
Ben looked at me and said, Thank you Pearlie.
The endearment startled me. If he thought I loved him, he was mistaken. I did not love him.
I’ll help Pearl finish up in the kitchen, Deborah said when she heard my kids complain of the homework they still had to do. John and Ben went downstairs to the den and Deborah followed me into the kitchen for the second time that afternoon.
Do you like sport? I asked her.
Not a bit, unless I’m doing it, she said. I swim, play tennis, ski. I taught Ben how to play tennis, can’t get a game off him now.
You know it won’t last, I said.
We were in the middle of the kitchen drying plates. I wanted to take back what I’d said, it was something I might have said to myself, but there it was out loud, palpable, in the middle of my own kitchen like a mushroom sprouting suddenly in a wet field, and I could see Deborah’s face turn red and her brow crease. She swallowed, put the plate and dish towel down, stood still without saying a word for a beat or two and then she said, I don’t think I understand, Pearl.
Never mind, I said. You’ll find out soon enough.
That’s a terrible thing to say to someone about to get married, she said.
And I knew she was right. And I knew I couldn’t stop myself, that I’d go on and on and on if she’d let me. And I knew she wouldn’t let me, this self-confident, full-bodied, beautiful, smart girl. And I knew I’d lost her and I knew I’d lost myself.