They were four girls born over six years, followed somewhat later by the one boy, Elizabeth's new husband Charlie. They had been a jumble of girls, curious, bounding, sharp-elbowed, almond-eyed. Their father had once observed that they were like a basketful of kittens, and they had demanded he give them kitten names. The names stuck: Vim, Pip, Dilly, and Honey. Elizabeth had been told their real names, but there was no reason to remember them. Their mother had died of some quick, savage cancer when the girls were teenagers.
His sisters were attracted to men like their father: men soft- and fickle-hearted, well and expensively dressed. Elizabeth hadn't met Charles Sr., who did a lot of business in South America. "He tosses his love around like Mardi Gras beads," Charlie told her. At some point each sister had married one of these suave playboys—though this was another thing Elizabeth had a hard time keeping straight—the marital status of the various sisters. Charlie said, "I almost feel sorry for them. It's a recipe for disaster."
"Needy women and faithless men."
"So what happens?" Elizabeth asked.
To date there were no children.
There's a vacation home, as was frequently the case in these oversized families with vague, inherited wealth. This year, Vim, the eldest, had organized a "girls-only getaway" to start the summer season.
Elizabeth hadn't allowed herself a moment's hesitation when Vim called—she would not have shilly-shallying appear on her permanent record with the sisters. Charlie hadn't asked her about her decision. Perhaps it seemed obvious, based on her own family history, growing up as an only child. She wanted the chance to explain that she knew these women would never be her family exactly. Her own mother was remote, dependent on pain medication and deception, and her half-brother, half-estranged, lived in Ft. Lauderdale. There was an uncle, a monk in Northern California.
They left it open whether Charlie would join her for the weekend—he didn't know when he'd get back from LA and he was going to Chad the following week. Charlie and Elizabeth had known each other for fifteen months, been married for two, and she'd calculated that as of the previous week they'd spent more nights apart than together by a 2.5:1 ratio.
"Pack your vitamins." Charlie sat on the bed next to her suitcase as she counted out socks, panties, and T-shirts. "You'll need to keep up your strength." This was spoken matter-of-factly. Charlie was never ironic.
"They're not that bad are they?"
He was rolling her pairs of socks into tight rolls.
She had met the sisters on several occasions, in twos and threes. They hosted cocktail parties and bought tables at fundraisers. Performing some sort of internal calculation, Charlie decided which of these they would attend.
"I wouldn't say bad, but they're frivolous, sloppy women and they're not very nice," he said. "I'm nothing like them." Before she could interpret this remark, he said, lightly, as though it was just a postscript to his previous comment, "I think you should stop taking birth control."
She felt her mouth open and close like a fish. Open-close.
"Something could happen to me, you know. The places I travel..."
He tossed her a pair of white socks. "We don't have to talk about it now. You can think about it while you're gone."
"You're here!" Vim shrieked theatrically as Elizabeth got out of her car. For just a moment Elizabeth felt clever, though actually she had taken the previous ferry, and had been sitting in the driveway for over an hour browsing through poetry anthologies.
Her car smelled of mildewed upholstery and, more faintly, Elsa's wet fur. The right rear window wouldn't stay rolled up. Charlie thought that the car, a battered Toyota she'd had since high school, should be replaced. Although Elizabeth's friend Jean had agreed to care for Elsa, her beloved, aged, poodle-ish mutt, for the nine months of her term at the Montessori academy in Dublin, Elsa died in her sleep a month before Elizabeth left for Ireland. Charlie was allergic, and though they hadn't actually discussed it, Elizabeth understood there would be no pets in their household. Elizabeth hung on to the car for the smell of Elsa and for the pleasure she got imagining Charlie's scowl as he came upon the dented yellow Corolla parked in front of their house.
"For some reason, we almost always arrive in birth order," Vim said as Elizabeth helped unload groceries from her trunk. "Dilly was about thirty cars behind me on the ferry and Pip's flying up later. Who knows when Honey will get here—the last ferry of the day, probably." She dropped the emptied plastic sacks on the floor.
"Did you know that our father designed this place?"
"I didn't know he was an architect."
"It's what he went to school for," she said.
When she didn't elaborate, Elizabeth asked about the name of the harbor.
"Eccentric local knife-sharpener or treacherous underwater topography—take your pick." Vim tore into the box of Haagen Daz vanilla and dark chocolate ice cream bars. "Leave the rest on the counter. I'll get to it in a bit." She stood at the counter gnawing at the ice cream, taking it down to the stick faster than Elizabeth would have thought possible. She repeated the performance with a second bar and flipped the sticks into the sink. A moment later she dropped to the couch, flipped on The Weather Channel, and was snoring within minutes.
As quietly as possible, Elizabeth put the remaining frozen food items in the freezer, including the one ice cream bar left in the box. Now what? Her suitcase sat pert and optimistic, feelings she couldn't share.
Dilly arrived in a snit, cartoon zigzags of fury nearly visible in her wake. Her underlings were already in disarray and a junior editor had gone completely AWOL. "I can't count on anyone," she declared. "Getting away is just impossible." Her hair was tinted an angry shade of red and moussed into hostile swirls. She had brought several bags of her own provisions. Putting these away she assessed Vim's choices, emitting vague snorts of disapproval.
Next came Pip, armed with questions regarding Elizabeth's preparedness: had she brought walking shoes, plenty of warm clothes, poetry for their nightly recitations? Thankfully, she had. Pip's eyebrows were plucked into skinny angular wings that swooped and dropped as she talked. It was hard not to stare.
"Good work," Pip said, sincerely or insincerely.
"That's why Charlie picked her," Dilly said. "He needed someone who could follow instructions."
"But we never thought Charlie would marry someone so young, did we?" Pip said.
"Who never thought that?" Vim scoffed.
Honey arrived just minutes after Pip. She dumped her monogrammed red leather luggage in a heap and flopped right next to Elizabeth on the couch. Honey had a secret. Elizabeth smelled it on her, a tang of fennel just beneath strawberry shampoo and mint lotion. Honey rested her head on Elizabeth's shoulder. "It's good that you're here." Her wild blonde curls crackled with static electricity. Several kinky strands latched onto Elizabeth's black blouse. Pip glared at them both.
"Charlie was Pip's pet," Dilly explained. "He didn't learn to walk until he was two because she carried him everywhere."
Vim squeezed onto the couch on the other side of Honey. She sniffed at Honey's neck and Elizabeth wondered if she smelled the secret, too.
Honey batted at her sister's face. "Stop it! You're tickling me."
Vim kept up her nuzzling and snuffling.
"I mean it. Stop! I'm all sweaty."
"No," Vim said, pulling away. "It's something else."
Cocktail hour entailed Bombay Sapphire martinis, goldfish crackers, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and the kittens carrying on with their solitary concerns. There was only one phone—an old black rotary on a battered school desk in the hallway leading to the bedrooms. At the desk sat Dilly, making long distance pronouncements and threats. That is completely unacceptable. Is this just a hobby for you, or would you like to have a job next week? Pip and Honey ignored her, watching the TV news with the sound off. Well into the second hour Vim put down her knitting, grunted to her feet, and started banging about in the kitchen.
Elizabeth had been granted what must have been the parents' room, spacious but now under-furnished with just a small three-drawer bureau and a double bed with a scuffed, white wicker headboard. Her silver 26" Titan Spinner Trolley was the nicest thing in the room by far. Charlie had bought it for their honeymoon. "This stuff is sturdier than ballistic nylon," he told her, "and it's got a fantastic warrantee." It was his luggage, of course, that took the regular beatings on international flights. They had actually driven to Vancouver for a long weekend after their courthouse wedding. She liked her suitcase. It was substantial, like her chunky-heeled Frye boots and the black fox fur hat that Charlie brought her back from Uzbekistan (even though it made her head sweat). Despite being the only one of her friends to have lived overseas and to have married, she often felt unformed, unfinished. Just look at how substantial these women were. (She tried to remind herself that of course they had more substance—they were older. Even Honey, the youngest, was thirty-seven to Elizabeth's twenty-five.)
The parents of the children she taught usually looked through or past her: she was the help, almost a child herself. The two- to four-year-olds to whom she devoted almost all her working hours, who swore their love and allegiance and often clung to her skirt at the end of the day, were unlikely to remember her at all a few years from now.
Charlie had begun as an engineer, designing state-of-the-art temporary shelters for refugee camps. Though he was now in high demand as a logistics advisor to NPOs and foreign governments, he still enjoyed tweaking his designs. He was thin and wound tight with muscle. Sun and wind had burnished his face to a dry nut brown. Elizabeth's face was pale, dimpled, a bit doughy. Charlie liked to pat her face with his fingertips, push at her soft cheeks. "My girl," he said.
Elizabeth sighed and turned on her cell phone. It wasn't that they hadn't discussed having children. Of course she wanted a family. But they were newlyweds and childbearing was surely a matter for the future. What she'd thought she'd be pondering this week was the marriage itself. She'd hoped she might find clues here, among his sisters, insight even. Like being struck by the fact that Charlie could hardly have chosen a woman more different than his sisters. Hadn't he complimented her on her reasonableness, her even temper, her ability to get along? But what did it mean to be loved for being soft-spoken, pliable, and obedient? Or, what did it mean to be loved for what you weren't?
"Elizabeth." When Dilly spoke she was right behind Elizabeth, who jumped and stubbed her toe on the dresser. "The only place to get a signal in the house is the bathroom."
"Thank you," she managed.
And so it went. The kittens didn't knock. They didn't cover their mouths when they coughed or sneezed or yawned or burped. They chewed loudly.
Dinner was open-faced sandwiches, hot dogs cut in half and covered with sliced tomatoes and a square of melted American cheese, and tater tots.
"Honey's favorites," Vim explained.
Elizabeth could barely eat, nauseous from drinking gin on an empty stomach and longing for their approval.
Pip swung her bare feet onto the coffee table. Elizabeth kicked off her thongs. She couldn't bring herself to go barefoot on the bristly, damp carpet. Pip's feet were dirty. Her toes were long—the first three almost equal in length. Black hairs sprouted from her toe knuckles and her heels were thickly calloused and cracked. "You are a beautiful woman with very ugly feet," Dilly said.
Pip wiggled her toes. "They're Daddy's feet."
"Why do you let them get that way?" Dilly asked.
"It amuses me," Pip said.
"It's not like you can't afford a decent pedicure," Dilly said.
According to Charlie, Dilly had been financially cleaned out by a wretched settlement with an ex, whereas Pip lived sumptuously on "the spoils of divorce."
"My feet are a wreck!" Honey cried, though they were no such thing. Only a thin unpolished line near the cuticle betrayed that her frosty pink pedicure wasn't brand new.
"Foot massage?" Vim asked, taking Honey's feet into her hands.
Honey groaned. "You are my favorite sister." She arranged her hair like a cape over her shoulders and arms.
Vim planted a loud kiss on each of Honey's insteps. "Your feet are as yummy as candy."
"I really don't know if I can stay past tomorrow," Dilly told them. "Things are really falling apart at the office."
"You just need to learn how to take a vacation," Vim said.
"Talk about the pot calling the kettle black," Pip said.
Dilly leaned over the coffee table to pluck out a hair from Honey's hairline.
"Ouch! What the hell?" Honey hollered, yanking her feet away from Vim.
"Nothing, dear. Just a grey hair," Dilly said.
Honey's face froze. "You're kidding."
"Oh my," Dilly said. "Your first grey hair. I'm sorry, sweetie, really, I am."
Honey studied a handful of hair. "Forget it. It doesn't matter."
"So how long does this girls-only deal last?" Pip asked. "I told Carlos I'd fly him up here as soon as we lowered the drawbridge."
"We agreed on the whole week," Vim said.
Dilly snorted. "You said the week."
"So he can come up on the weekend, like Friday?"
"Friday! Since when is Friday the weekend?" Honey asked.
"I don't know why I should be punished just because I'm the only one—besides Elizabeth—who's in a relationship."
"Hello. I'm married," Vim said.
"Oh, is that on again? I can't keep track," Pip said, and Vim winced.
"Meow," Honey said softly. When they all laughed at this it was a bit like cackling.
Elizabeth was standing at the head of the tub, the farthest corner of the bathroom. She had stuffed a towel into the crack beneath the door. The window was open. The smell of a neighbor's barbecue competed with the scent of Honey's mint soap, the shelves and the sides of the bathtub with jars and tubes of gelées, scrubs, butters, and hair products.
"I feel like I should be smoking a joint," she told Charlie.
"Just ask Pip, she'll set you up."
"You're going to have to talk louder," Charlie said. "I can barely hear you."
"I'm sorry." She raised her voice slightly. "I just wanted some privacy."
"I'm afraid that's going to be in short supply." He sounded impatient.
"I wasn't complaining."
"You know, it's really all right if we don't talk every day."
"This is the first time I've called!"
"I'm just agreeing about the lack of privacy."
"Okay." Her throat tightened. "But I thought..."
What had she thought? She knew he was tired, had spent the entire day in meetings.
"Are you still there?" Charlie asked.
Why had it seemed so important to call when she actually didn't want to talk to him? Was she really any more connected to him than she was to them? A door squeaked open along the corridor. Dilly's clogs clattered past.
"I should go," she said, still half-wanting him to disagree.
"Right. Time for recitations."
Lamps extinguished, they gathered around the scarred and sticky coffee table, ablaze with votives. Honey began. She cleared her throat and recited Denise Levertov's "The Ache of Marriage" from memory. Her smoky voice was perfect, giving each noun just the right ephemeral weight: "thigh and tongue" and "beloved" and "leviathan" and "belly."
Was this how the sisters communicated? Was there something Honey wanted them to know or was she wrapping her secret in the poem's words?
Dilly, reading from a book, spat out Stevie Smith's "Pretty," a long and beautiful curse. "Cry pretty, pretty, pretty," she dared, her voice a witch's mocking.
There was no talking between poems, just a five-beat silence.
Elizabeth had guessed that the poems should be by women and that they should be smart poems, as far from sentimental as possible. Of course the poems said something. That was the problem: what did she want to say and would the poems be heard as she intended? She'd clogged the anthologies with sticky notes, then removed them so as to appear nonchalant.
When Pip said, "Your turn," Elizabeth felt a flush begin below her collarbones. Flipping through the anthology she thought, no love, no sisters, no husbands, no tree branches swaying, no blood, no mothers. They waited.
She pulled out the folded sheets she'd stuck in the back of the book, poems she'd printed off the web. These were the innocuous choices of Ted Kooser. She chose the shortest one, hesitated again. "‘Nest,' by Marianne Boruch," she said. "I walked out, and the nest / was already there by the step. Woven basket / of a saint / sent back to life as a bird..." Twelve lines later she was done.
"Read it again," Dilly demanded.
She did. What happened next? She felt they might start throwing things at her.
"Time for bed," Honey said. "You start tomorrow night, Vim."
The kittens had a hard time settling in. Cupboards and doors opened and shut for hours, soft clicks and near slams (that had to be Dilly). Would it be an exaggeration to say that this had felt like the longest day of her life? (And she'd been here less than ten hours!) Elizabeth lay in bed trying to focus on her own breathing rather than the sounds of the sisters and the thump and gurgle of the plumbing. She felt as though she'd been drafted into some kind of diabolical endurance trial during which tiny, sharp screws would be tightened into each and every tender place.
The last two lines of the Levertov poem stuck in her mind like a bit of gristle between her teeth. Two by two in the ark of the ache of it.
Of course they each would have their own spot, so it was just a matter of waiting to see who went where before Elizabeth could find her own. Charlie's spot at home was at his vintage maple drafting table. It was where he took his coffee and read the newspaper. Sometimes he spun in his chair while they talked, and it made her dizzy. The importance of the drafting table and his dedication to his work were the two things she knew best about him.
Pip's claim was to the back porch. She smoked a couple of hits at a time off a thick joint, drank from a Thermos of green tea, listened to her iPod, and sunbathed nude.
Dilly caught Elizabeth staring at Pip through the screen door. She'd been nearly mesmerized by Pip's seamless dark tan, her enormous brown nipples, her stillness like a lizard's.
"She's something, isn't she," Dilly said, or asked.
The front porch was Dilly's territory, and she invited Elizabeth to join her there for lunch.
"Dr. Walters must have made some bad investments—no new car for the good Mrs. Walters this year. Look at that—Amanda Plover's gained about twenty pounds and adopted another greyhound. She obviously hasn't heard that skinny dogs are like horizontal stripes. Pfoot." A bit of eggshell landed on her plate. "How hard is it to properly shell an egg?"
Vim had made egg salad sandwiches—Honey's lunch favorite. The horseradish in the mustard stung Elizabeth's nose. The others grabbed their sandwiches and scattered.
Following the arrival of the noon ferry, the deliveries began. "Important documents," Dilly explained as she collected thin envelopes from UPS and FedEx.
"Donald's your real name?" Dilly asked, reading the FedEx guy's name badge. "You're not operating under a pseudonym are you?"
"My friends call me D.R."
"I'll keep that in mind."
He flushed, glanced at the street.
"I'd like to suck his eyeballs dry," Dilly said as he pulled closed the back of his truck.
The third package came via Airborne. "Hey, Dilly, long time no see," the driver said. He looked like a male model, his jet black hair as sculpted as Dilly's.
"Hey, James. Miss me?"
"Pined away, barely survived. Who's this?" He pointed to Elizabeth.
"Charlie's new bride."
"Nope. No boys allowed this week."
"Guess I'd better shove off then."
"Guess so," Dilly said.
He smoothed the hair on his arms, though, and hesitated, but whatever he was waiting for wasn't forthcoming.
Elizabeth figured D.R. had better hang onto his eyeballs.
"Jesus, Vim," Dilly yelled. "Could you stop scrubbing for five minutes? I can smell the bleach from here."
"Well, pardon fucking me for cleaning up before I start dinner."
When Dilly sent Elizabeth inside a few minutes later for Diet Coke, Vim was sitting at the butcher block table pretending to read a magazine. Vim managed a large temporary employment agency in Seattle, was a docent at the art museum, and served on the board of a half-dozen foundations. Enforced idleness would be a curse. Elizabeth noted that from Vim's barstool you could see the back of Dilly's head on the front porch and Pip's profile on the back.
"Daddy is a Gilbert man," Dilly said.
"Jack Gilbert." She quoted, "‘I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.'"
Elizabeth bet that Honey had the best spot. Once Dilly dismissed her, she toured the property again. After awhile she got thirsty and started to worry about appearing either too aimless or not aimless enough, while also aware that it was unlikely any of them cared enough to keep an eye on her. She made her way back to the house for a drink of water.
"Where's Honey?" Pip asked, venturing in to refill her Thermos. Her skin was already a shade darker. "The usual?" She looked skyward.
"Honey gets claustrophobic," Vim explained.
"She's not on the roof," Dilly hollered from the porch. "She's been in the bathroom for the past hour." She banged through the screen door. "And that's about long enough." She pounded on the bathroom door. "Honey, please, give us a break."
"Piss off. I'm busy."
"What the fuck!"
"Give me five minutes."
"I'll give you one and then I'm breaking the door down."
Dilly, Vim, Pip, and Elizabeth stood there while the seconds ticked by. The door swung open. Vim screamed. Pip squealed. Dilly's mouth gaped but no sound came out at all. Honey had shorn her hair down to just a close-fitting cap of golden curls. Her discarded hair was a nest on the floor behind her. Honey smirked. "What do you think?"
The sisters gathered around her. They led her to the couch, touching her arms, fingering the short curls and murmuring, as if she'd been injured. "Oh, Honey, your gorgeous hair," Dilly finally said. Elizabeth was certain she was right about Honey having a secret. As distressed as Honey might have been over the grey hair, this was a stunt to divert their attention.
On the verge of martini time, Elizabeth found it. From the house it looked like nothing more than a dilapidated storage shed. The small building was shut up and smelled of sawdust and sun-warmed dust. A workbench took up one whole wall, but held only a drill and a few bits, a hammer, some other tools, and a couple of jars full of screws and nails. The walls had been whitewashed. The windows opened with surprising ease.
Stacks of cardboard boxes sat in a corner next to an old wooden croquet set and a cedar chest full of skeins of wool. Near the door stood a rolltop desk. A big floral-printed easy chair had been set at an angle to face the window overlooking the water. Sitting in it, she caught the trace of a woman's perfume, powdery and old-fashioned. This had been the mother's place, Elizabeth guessed. Some gentle disposition was responsible for the faded yellow and white gingham curtains. The desk had been emptied except for a stack of crisp airmail writing paper in the top drawer. Perhaps the mother had come out here to escape the tumult of the kittens, too. On the top sheet of paper someone had neatly printed Be Clear. It would be nice to think that this quaint building, the note, and the chair had been arranged for her, a kind of invitation.
Q & A
The big black phone rang. Dilly charged at it from the front porch. "For you," she told Elizabeth. "Your husband."
"You're there," he said. "I thought you might have run away."
"I'm making iced tea." Something to sober her up over dinner.
Dilly stood with her hand on the front screen door but didn't even pretend to be not listening. Vim was planted on her stool.
"It looks like I'm going to be stuck out here for a few more days."
"I can't remember, do you like your tea sweetened or unsweetened?"
"You don't have to stay, you know. If the kittens aren't behaving."
"I don't know what you're talking about." She heard his sigh. He was crazy if he thought she'd speak an ill word about his sisters.
"It's just looking less likely that I'll make it up there this weekend. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Do you know how to swim?"
"I'm a very competent swimmer and diver. What's going on, Lizzie?" He didn't want her to talk about her feelings—she'd made that mistake previously—he wanted her to stop being difficult.
She tried to picture his body in swim trunks. A man bouncing on the end of a diving board, calf muscles and buttocks tensed. Wrong body, she thought. Charlie was more wiry than her imaginary diver.
"Do you know how to swim?" he asked.
"What's your best stroke?"
"Best? Backstroke, I suppose."
"Me too!" His exclamation sounded genuinely pleased. She pictured him in his hotel room, dipping a teabag into a white ceramic mug.
Maybe he had his doubts, too, wondered if he really knew her. Maybe he sometimes woke beside her, startled to find this person next to him. A wife.
"You know, Elizabeth, before you left, I only said what I said because—"
"I can't talk now. Here." She looked over at Dilly, who tipped her martini glass at her.
"I just don't want you to—"
"Like you said, we'll talk later."
"We're trying to pamper Honey because of the divorce," Vim told her as they set the table for dinner. Cheese quesadillas and homemade salsa and guacamole were on the menu.
"Melted cheese is very comforting," Elizabeth agreed.
Honey was still on the roof, enjoying the breeze, she claimed. The sisters were concerned, though. One didn't miss the cocktail hour.
"Cheese gives her gas," Dilly complained. "You're on the other end of the house. You don't hear her farting all night."
A few more bits of Charlie's stories began to click into place. Honey was going through a bitter divorce. Her husband was crying poor and claiming half of her import business even as he jetted around Europe to cheer on his twenty-year-old German tennis star lover.
"It almost goes without saying that we told her not to marry him," Pip said.
"What was wrong with him?" Elizabeth hadn't intended to speak.
Pip's eyebrows disappeared beneath her bangs.
"He's a man isn't he?" Dilly said. "Oh, I'm sorry, we're not supposed to bash are we? Not in front of the newlywed."
"We did agree," Vim said.
Dilly was divorced, Vim was in a decades-long cycle of separation and reconciliation. Pip's rich ex had been her second or third.
Pip threw Elizabeth a smile. "Though we also agree that Charlie's a special case."
"I'm not altogether convinced that there is such a thing when it comes to men keeping their peckers in their pants," Dilly said.
"That's just because you have no self control," Vim told Dilly.
"Fuck you, Vim." Dilly wasn't smiling.
"What did you do now?" Honey asked, rubbing her eyes sleepily as she came in.
"There's too much lemon in the guac," Dilly said.
"Not enough pepper jack in the quesadillas," Pip said.
"Honey requested mild," Vim said.
"It's true," Honey said.
"It's all very good, thank you," Elizabeth said.
The sisters chortled whenever she said please or thank you.
"Besides your impeccable manners," Dilly said, "we don't really know that much about you."
"It's why we've so been looking forward to this," Pip said.
Elizabeth held her breath, waiting for the trap to spring.
"You weren't a virgin when you married Charlie, were you?" Honey asked.
"No!" she blushed.
"Have you ever snorted cocaine?" Pip asked.
"Have you ever had sex with more than one man on the same day?" Dilly asked.
"Have you ever gone more than two days without a shower or bath?" Vim asked.
They stopped waiting for her answers.
"Have you ever kissed a woman?"
"Gone skinny dipping?"
Uproarious was a word invented for their laughter. So pleased they were by their new game.
"All right, that's enough," Honey said. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"What do you mean?"
"Remind us what it is that you do now," Pip prompted.
"I teach preschool, Montessori," she started to explain.
"Like Lady Di before she married Prince Charlie!" Dilly hooted.
"So what will you do after that?" Honey asked.
"Have babies like Di," Pip said.
"That's right. She popped out William in less than a year, didn't she?" Dilly said.
She'd been thinking she might want to open her own Montessori school someday.
"Our Charlie has always wanted children," Vim said.
"Our Charlie has always wanted an heir," Dilly corrected.
"Like Daddy," Vim said.
The sisters nodded glumly.
"Children aren't very interesting," Pip observed, as though trying to cheer them up.
Elizabeth watched for Honey's response.
"Most people aren't all that interesting," Honey said.
"How true," Dilly agreed.
How utterly ridiculous, Elizabeth thought. She felt a little pang of missing them, her preschoolers. She knew them better than she knew anyone. She didn't know what Charlie was afraid of or what made him cry (or if he cried). But she knew Darla Mason cried when her shoelaces came undone. And poor little Louis Pahlniak was afraid of milk!
Vim read "Ode to Semen" by Amy Gerstler, which might have been a tension-breaker if only she had cracked a smile: "Whiteish brine, spooners' gruel, / morality's nectar, potent drool."
Dilly read "Trouble in the Portable Marriage," by Linda Gregg.
Pip read "Afterthought," by Diane Ackerman.
Were Pip and Dilly speaking to her? What did they think they knew about her marriage? Or were they just airing their own heartaches? Ackerman's voice was angry—"You gulled me, you led me a dance." Gregg's was resigned, forlorn. "Your hand touches me and then withdraws."
Elizabeth read a nine-liner, "The Knife Grinder," by Rosa Fabregat, a Catalan poet seldom translated into English.
"You're cheating, I think," said Dilly. "Playing it safe."
"The knife grinder grinds / and the scissors / raise stardust." She repeated the first three lines in response. Of course she wanted to play it safe.
"Leave it be, Dilly," Honey said. "It's late."
Once the sisters finished in the bathroom, Elizabeth took her turn. She sat on the edge of the tub. Honey's soap was pungent. She pushed the window all the way open. A nearly full moon rose over the trees, its twin reflected perfectly in the calm water. She couldn't remember if she'd shut the windows in the shed. The speaker in Gregg's poem believed the moon smelled like sweet wood smoke, but from that moment on Elizabeth would always sniff for mint.
She'd been at loose ends when she met Charlie during her last week in Dublin. She dreaded returning to Seattle to an apartment without Elsa, looking for a job, reconnecting. She spent her last night in the city with Charlie in his hotel room lying on the bed fully clothed, talking. She was on her side, her stomach bloated with Guinness, his body pressed to her back. He murmured in her ear, "You're perfect," and she'd thought, with Charlie, to be making a new story for herself. Now it seemed likely she had walked into the open door of Charlie's story. A bachelor of a certain age, set in his ways. How had she failed to consider his motives?
The house was impossible. Dilly was shouting into the black phone, still threatening her premature return to Seattle. Gripping her phone with her shoulder, she angrily clipped her fingernails, bits of nail flying wherever. Pip was talking dirty to Carlos on her cell while shaving her legs with the bathroom door open. Honey was scooping cookie dough from a bowl in front of The Price is Right while Vim cleaned the oven in the kitchen, ammonia fumes wafting.
Elizabeth had never heard Charlie raise his voice. She had never heard him curse or complain, much less fart. All grooming activities were performed behind a closed bathroom door.
Given his sisters' habits, she appreciated his decorum, yet it seemed a little pathetic, choosing your partner and molding yourself in opposition to others. Was Charlie really loyal, or was he simply not a philanderer? If everything you were and had was not someone else's, then what did you have of your own? Was that what children represented to Charlie?
Earlier that morning she got three bars on her cell phone out on the end of the dock, but she knew she could be seen from almost everywhere on the property. And who would she call? Her friends would be at work building careers her sisters-in-law would approve of. She had disappointed her friends by not having a wedding and now they crankily demanded news from the other side. But what to tell them? That, like the woman in Gregg's poem, her marriage was a solo bike ride on a dusty road? That Charlie cloaked his indifference in decorum? Or something juicier—that he preferred her to lie silent and still when they had sex?
Elizabeth snuck down the hall. If Honey wasn't yet on the roof then she could flee to the shed unseen. Honey's door was wide open. She was smoothing lotion up and down her arms—more mint. She turned, and there it was. Elizabeth had guessed correctly. Honey's round belly revealed her to be more than a little but not a lot pregnant. What a bombshell she held in her belly. How interesting that Vim hadn't yet figured it out, the way she watched everything. But how could she be expected to see something so unprecedented? It just wasn't done, after all. The kittens did not have kittens. The kittens were sufficient unto themselves.
Honey looked up. Unhurriedly, she pulled a loose sundress over her head. "Are you having an okay time?" She fluffed her shorn hair.
Was Honey going to try to make nice to buy her silence?
"You shouldn't take any of it personally," Honey said.
"I'm having a fine time," Elizabeth said evenly.
"We don't like anyone, you know. It's not just you."
The curtains were pulled shut, the chair pushed back against the wall, and the writing paper removed from the desk. There might as well have been a giant Keep Out sign posted. Oh well. Why should she be surprised? She shoved the chair back in front of the window and yanked the curtains open. Clouds had rolled in and the water was a dull, rippled grey. At home her spot was a plump, green corduroy chair with a beautiful halogen reading lamp beside it—a gift from Charlie. The chair was in their bedroom. Charlie explained that this would work best because she hummed when she read and he really needed silence to concentrate.
So that was to be her job, presumably. Keep the children quiet. Raise the little darlings while their father was off doing serious grown-up things on the other side of the world. Deal with their unruly emotions. Perhaps the reason he'd presented the idea so nonchalantly was because he thought it was understood. Why else would he have married her? The nice girl who was terrific with children and wanted to be loved and admired and might as well be made of Play-Doh.
She was, however, actually getting used to the taste of gin.
"Does Charlie still do that thing?" Dilly asked.
"With the coins."
Charlie read the date on every coin that passed through his hands, announcing "2002" or "1996" in a voice suggesting it had the utmost significance.
"Ha! I'd forgotten about that," Honey said.
"He did have a coin collection," Pip said.
"C'mon, Charlie's a dweeb," Dilly said. "Even Elizabeth couldn't disagree with that. I bet he still polishes his shoes every Sunday afternoon, right?"
Elizabeth nodded, trying not to smile.
"Tell us about his sock drawer," Vim demanded.
"He's a bit of a neatnik," Elizabeth said.
"He's a neat freak," Dilly said.
And now Elizabeth did laugh, picturing Charlie buffing the water spots off a spoon before he stirred the cream into his coffee.
"So is Charlie coming out this weekend?" Pip asked.
"Make him come, Elizabeth," Honey said. "We're better behaved when he's around."
"Don't lie. Dilly never behaves," Pip said.
"Charlie is coming, on Saturday," Vim said. "I talked to him this morning."
"Oh goody," Pip said.
"Goody gumdrops," Honey said.
Dilly clapped her hands to get their attention. "I have big news," she announced.
Honey frowned and crossed her arms over her chest.
"Daddy's planning a visit," Dilly said.
It was like a giant bell had been struck. When? When? When? the sisters clamored. Drinks were topped off. Toasts were made.
Why? Elizabeth wondered. Why was Charlie coming? Vim must've caught him off guard. Was it possible he missed her? Was it possible that this place—these women—were playing tricks on her, twisting her thoughts around? More likely he was coming to check on her, to embark on his campaign.
For a moment, she couldn't remember Charlie's face. But there he was—on the mantle—multiple Charlies in mismatched wooden frames. Swarmed by sisters as a baby, embraced by sisters as a kid, flanked by sisters as a teen. Even if she still couldn't picture his exact face, the photographs reminded her of what he looked like. Even his baby face had been serious; in none of the photos could he be said to have been cute. He had the angular bone structure of a man who would grow ever more coolly handsome. Even his sweat smelled tart, like cloves. She inhaled deeply, relieved to recall this precise scent. Her husband.
The girls were coming down from their high. The prospective visit was over a month away.
"But why is he coming now?" Honey asked. Was she worried about how the patriarch would take her news? She had to know how betrayed her sisters would feel. Was she taking her leave of them? (Who was the baby's father?) Would she tell her sisters now or wait until their father arrived or failed to arrive?
"Something business-y, of course," Dilly said.
"He could change his plans," Pip warned. "That's what Daddy does."
"Or not," Vim said.
"He said he was coming," Dilly insisted.
They dispersed, moving from room to room, picking up magazines and the TV remote, then putting them back down. The refrigerator rumbled loudly. Honey ate a banana at the counter. Vim seemed to have forgotten about dinner. Finally, Pip cracked open a fresh fifth of gin, and the snap of the bottle top drew them back together. Elizabeth watched from the couch.
"You're not leaving," Vim told Dilly and snatched the ferry schedule from her hands. "It's already Wednesday night. How badly can things fall apart by Friday?"
"That's what I don't want to find out."
"Why don't you close the office for half a day? Cut your losses, be a nice boss," Vim said.
"You are such a bossy kitten," Dilly complained.
"Well, I'm a horny kitten," Pip announced. "I got Carlos on a flight first thing Friday morning."
"Ah, the mysterious Carlos," Honey said.
"He's not mysterious, sweetheart. You just haven't had the pleasure of meeting him. What about you? Do you have a rebound lover waiting for you at home?"
The sisters looked expectantly at Honey. She plucked at the cuffs of her long-sleeved tunic. "Nothing up my sleeves," she said. "Dilly, let me have another look at Daddy's itinerary. Do you think he'll want to come up here?"
"It's been years, hasn't it?" Pip asked. "You'd think he'd want to inspect the premises."
Dilly took a calendar from the kitchen wall. "See, I've already marked the dates."
Shoulder to shoulder, heads bowed, they studied the calendar page as if it held a secret message. These women—as elaborate and brittle as porcelain figurines poised on a narrow shelf—Elizabeth felt a gust of fear for them.
Herself—a damp bit of clay, pushed to the side, and for the moment, safe. There were worse things.
Title graphic: "Four and Green" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2009.