The Fairer Sex: Trois

Photo by Tom Small (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Tom Small (copied from Flickr)

“I miss my jukebox,” Ursula said. A rogue sparkle from the lid of my scrapbooking kit, stuck to the curve of her barefoot, just below the hemline of her pyjama bottoms—lavender, I think. “And my kitchen,” she said.

“Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” I said.

“It’s fine. I’m fine.” She reached for another stack of photos from the shoebox.

“I’ll pick up a case of mason jars from the grocery store,” I told her. Ironically, Ursula’s always kept canning jars, in lieu of glassware, in her cupboards.

She placed her hand on mine. Hers was smaller, more delicate. Her skin pale, soft. The tapered imprint at the base of her slender finger, where her wedding band had been, reminded me to pick up dinner candles, as well. Our last pair had burned short on the evening of Ursula’s arrival, while we drank bottle after bottle of red—until Wade finally came down to remind me that Lily had preschool in the morning. The ceramic holders had been sitting empty in the centre of our dining room table, the three weeks since.

We sat there, backs up against the wobbly headboard of the sleigh bed I shared with Wade, looking at pictures for maybe an hour, while our girls grew wrinkly in the en suite tub and the room pressed into the derisory shade that October’s early evenings bring—that dim where your vision is impaired, but you aren’t ready for the lamp, just yet. The headboard, a stained moss green to offset the ivory bedspread, leaned with the weight of us—maybe two hundred and thirty pounds, since Ursula had grown so skinny—to meet deep divots in the wall, remnants of our early lovemaking: mine and Wade’s.

“What would I do without you, Bec?” She lifted my chin with her knuckle, traced the line of my face with her thumb. Then she smirked, made a bony fist to press into this same place along my jaw line, a mock punch to the chops, turning my head away from her and the photo that reminded her of the jukebox that Tony may or may not have tossed out onto their front lawn, along with all her other things—she didn’t say.

In the picture she held: A younger Wade—his large hand, bent at the wrist, flings pumpkin guts from his fingers—grins for the woman behind the camera. It might have been me. It could have been her. Tony peers into another large gourd, scraping away at its inner flesh, creating a smooth finish with a serving spoon I remember as once having belonged to Ursula’s mother. He doesn’t look up for the woman behind the camera. The table top jukebox is lit up behind him, so music would have been playing—a tinny version of “Love Shack” maybe? How many quarters had I fed that thing?

We’d been ignoring the girls’ calls from the tub for probably ten minutes, and now they were climbing out on their own. I rushed to wrap a towel around Lily. Then another around Stephanie, when I saw Ursula had curled up foetal, on my bed.

“Glass of wine?” She asked, leaning into Lily’s room, ten minutes later, her hand clasped to the door frame for balance.

“Sure,” I said, pulling Lily’s blue princess nightgown over Stephanie’s damp head.

“You can share,” I told Lily, when she complained.

“For how long?” she said.

It was the same question Wade had asked, during that first week, when we were lying in bed, Lily between us; Ursula and Stephanie in Lily’s trundle down the hall.

“Not long,” I said, “Just until she figures things out.”

Nothing from Wade.

“She’s in trouble,” I said.

“What did Aunt Ursula do?” Lily asked.

“Nothing, Baby. Go back to sleep.”

He wasn’t home from work yet when Ursula climbed the stairs, dangling two wine glasses like bells in one hand, the bottle in her other, the cork between her teeth.

“Let’s do this then,” she said, once I’d tucked Lily in beside Stephanie, having promised to move her to our bed when Ursula and I were finished with our scrapbooking project.

Ursula overturned the shoebox, spreading the photos over the bed, the way Lily mixes cards on the carpet before a game of concentration.

“I’ll take high school, Minnesota, Mexico, everything before 2005. You take the afterlife: weddings and babies, suburbia, and the family vacations.” She pushed her glass in the air. “Here’s to the fucking family vacations.” I watched her swallow big gulps.

“Would you rather watch a movie?”

“I’d rather go to Mexico.”

I picked up the remote.

“No, no this is good. Therapeutic.”

“It’s not good,” I said.

“I can take it,” she said.

“But why, Ursula? Why do this to yourself?”

“For Stephanie,” she’d said, earlier in the evening, when she’d convinced me to yank all those pictures out in the first place. “So, she can know there were good days.”

“Jesus Christ, Becca. Could we just do this?” she said now, pointing the glue gun at me, smiling her just-dare-me smile.

I wouldn’t. Ever.

She pulled the trigger, anyway. Hot glue, a honey golden, oozed from the plastic barrel then dribbled to the ivory bedspread.

“Whatever,” I said, and grabbed a stack of pictures. “And you better hope that doesn’t stain.”

“It doesn’t,” she said, “I know.” She did that Groucho Marx thing with her eyebrows, but I was watching the wells of her cheeks, the way they sank into her mouth to silhouette her skull.

“Crazy bitch,” I said, climbing atop the pillows where Wade and I had been whispering again, the previous night.

“She told me I was sexy,” he’d said

“You are,” I said. I’d traced his eyebrow with my finger.

“She used to be pretty,” I said.

“She’s hitting on me.”

“She’s not. She wouldn’t. Trust me, Wade.”

I don’t know which picture made her cry, or whether it was a picture at all. I only know that when I looked up for the fancy scissors, to cut a zig-zaggy edge around her thirty-second birthday, she had her t-shirt pulled up to her face dabbing at tears.

I lost my breath at the sight of her exposed midriff. Skin and bones. The sharp lines of her ribs against the loose lace of her bra. The trace brown stripe that spilled from her solar plexus, to dip into her pyjama pants (yes, they were lavender) where the draw string cinched: a summer miscarriage.

I lowered my eyes, slipped off the bed.

“Where are you going?”

In the bathroom, I shut the door behind me, kept my gaze down to avoid the mirror, the healthy pink in my cheeks. My breasts, round and full seemed, somehow, a betrayal. I looked past them, to the floor: cloud-shaped puddles atop blue diamond patterns in the linoleum where the girls had dripped; the wet, matted hair of swimsuit Barbie; the scale needling zero. I gathered up a wad of toilet paper to wipe Ursula’s eyes.

“I love you,” I said, handing it to her—foetal, again. “You need to eat.”

In the kitchen, I sliced a block of cheddar to fan on a plate with saltines. I washed grapes, made wedges of an orange. Then, while she stretched her body atop the photos —single and married; plump and thin; glossy and matte: quilting squares—with her back up against Wade’s pillow and our wobbly headboard, I fed her.

“I knew you loved me,” she said, around several grapes I’d pressed into her mouth.

“You’re being ridiculous,” I said.

Her mother, too, had said this, the Thanksgiving of our senior year, just before Ursula’s father had arrived from Seattle, where his younger, more immediate family feasted on turkey without him.

“I swear she does this on purpose,” he’d said, standing in the hallway of the hospital’s paediatric wing.

“Well, of course she does.”

“I mean the timing.” He patted his various body parts in search of cigarettes.

“You can’t smoke here,” she said.

He exhaled. “What is it she wants?” he asked me.

“She wants to drop out of school,” her mother told him.

He stared at the ground for a long time, instead of through the narrow glass in the door, where Ursula lay in bed, eighty-four pounds and dropping despite the clear liquid drips from the IV bag, streaming through the plastic tubing into her veins.

“Well, for Christ’s sakes, Betty, why not let her?”

“Kiss me,” Ursula said, now.

“Don’t,” I said, the same way I might warn Lily not to chase her ball into the road.

“Hold my hand?” she said. She sunk her teeth into the flesh of an orange, smiled a goofy orange peel grin.

I set the plate on her lap. Watched her brush cracker crumbs from her front to land on a photo of my first communion dress and into Lily’s bassinet. I unplugged the glue gun.

“Maybe we should watch a movie after all,” she said.

“I’m pretty tired.”

“I can’t sleep.”

Brushing my teeth, I watched her through the bathroom mirror, standing on our pillows, her bony naked ass pressed against our headboard when she bent forward at the waist to reach the corners of the bedspread and set it a sail. My memory of so many photos wafting to the floor, in the blue light of the television, while Wade stood aside sipping beer from a mason jar, can’t be right—I hadn’t bought the jars, yet.

I set my toothbrush beside the sink and pivoted to meet Wade undoing his tie. Behind him, Ursula pointed the remote at the television, flicking through channels. The wine bottle stood empty on Wade’s night stand.

“How was work?” I asked and moved to kiss his silver-stubbled cheek.

He breezed by me.

“We’re gonna watch a movie,” I said.

“Could you please get dressed?” he said, with a tone, from inside our walk-in closet. “It’s weird that you’re half-naked in front of her and me.” I was wearing his grey t-shirt—the one I’d claimed years earlier, the one I always wore to bed—and a pair of cotton underwear.

I could have grabbed my housecoat from where it hung on a hook well within reach, and that might have been the end of it, but I didn’t.

“So don’t look,” I said. I heard Ursula’s rasp in my voice. Then I shut the closet door, with him still inside, and moved into the bedroom. That must have been when Ursula sent the pictures wafting.

Or maybe they were there on the bed the entire time.

“What do you want to watch?” she asked. She must have removed her pyjama bottoms while I washed up, because they were draped over the foot of our bed where Wade usually left his socks at night, when I climbed under the covers beside her.

“You’d better be in the middle,” she said, and crawled over me, flamingo legs, to settle into my groove in the mattress.

The opening credits were still rolling when Wade re-emerged. “I need to sleep.” His voice was a tired deep, scratchy and low.

“We’ll turn the sound down,” I said.

“Cosy?” Ursula said, flatly, once he’d punched his pillow a few times.

I don’t remember what movie it was. I think Diane Lane may have been in it, but maybe that’s just me associating. Anyway, it wasn’t long before Wade sat up to look past me at Ursula.

“What do you want, exactly?”

“Wade,” I said. I smelled beer in his breath although he’d told me he’d stayed late at the bank catching up on paperwork.

“No,” he said. “I want to know why she’s in my bed. I want to know what business she has digging through pictures of my family, my life, in my bed.”

“We’re making a scrapbook,” I said. “And half those pictures are of her.”

“More than half of them, actually,” she said.

“Whatever.” He punched his pillow again.

I wanted her to have the sense, then, to get out of our bed, to apologize to my husband, to quietly go away, but this was Ursula—and she was desperate for new a low.

“He accused me of starving the baby,” was the first thing she’d said on that first night, once I’d paid the cab driver and lifted Stephanie from the backseat.

When she didn’t move, I sat up straighter, pointed the remote at Diane Lane, and watched the screen fall into blackness. “You need to leave,” I was about to tell her—I really was—when her hand pressed at my thigh beneath the sheets. A warning: Stay quiet.

“I want,”—her words were crisp and isolated in the dark of our bedroom—“to make love,”—my heart banged up against my chest—“to the both of you.” She cleared her throat. “That is what I want, Wade.”

Her nails, short and ragged—they were all I saw her eat, anymore—sunk into the flesh of my thigh, then let go, again. With a single finger she traced a scratchy path down to my knee, then back up to hook beneath the elastic of my underwear. It was a caress loud as all hell.

When Wade rolled over to face us, I was surprised. Or maybe I wasn’t. She told me I was sexy.

“What do you want, Becca?”

I felt betrayed. He should have objected. He should have said, “Get the hell out of my bed. Get the hell out of my house. Get the hell out of our lives. She’s my wife. And I don’t care how fucked up you are, you have no right to be here.” He should have slammed his fist against the headboard to make that big dent in the drywall that would forever be there amongst all those smaller divots.

But he didn’t.

Ursula slid further down into the covers, lifted my t-shirt and pressed her thin dry lips to my side.

“That’s what I want, too,” I said, even though I didn’t. Or maybe I did, a part of me, right there, then, for that split second, when her warm breath raised goose bumps on my midriff, and Wade’s voice had slowed with longing. It seemed like a solution. Well, for Christ’s sakes, let her.

Seconds passed before I wedged my elbow between my ribs and the noises of Ursula’s kisses.

“What do you want, Wade?” I asked. He would have heard the plea in my voice—but he couldn’t have known what it was I was asking for.

“I want what you want.” He said it too quickly, and I felt the cool rush of Ursula’s relief, blow up my shoulder. Her mouth moving to catch it. Wade’s leg lifted to drape my thigh. His lips closing in on mine. Her bony hand reaching inside his grey t-shirt for my breast. His arm across my stomach. I felt her shiver when he touched her. I wanted to scream.

“Mama?”

All our moving parts came undone beneath the ivory bedspread and beneath the small, frightened voice at the foot of the bed.

“Lily?” I said, too urgently.

“Mama,” she began to cry.

Ursula sighed.

“What is it, Honey?” I said, sitting up straight and speaking out into the dark, thick as flannel.

“I’m scared.”

I wiggled out from between Wade and Ursula, and crawled to Lily. Did my knees press into the photos? Or did they stick to my feet when we walked hand-in-hand back to her bedroom? I can’t be sure. But they were there in that room, somewhere, scattered and exposed.

Lily asked me again about monsters when I tucked her into her trundle. I pushed her blonde hair behind her ear and assured her there were no such things.

“You said I could sleep with you.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Is Aunt Ursula sleeping with you instead?”

“No,” I said. “Maybe.”

I curled my body around hers, my back turned on the soft conversation creeping down the hall. I pulled her pink satin comforter over our heads. “Want me to sleep here with you?” I whispered, and I stroked her cheek.

“Yes, please,” she whispered back.

I imagined Ursula’s ninety-eight pounds sinking into Wade’s broad frame, her ribs combing at the silver hairs of his chest. He would taste the oranges I’d fed her. A picture of the two of us, teenage girls in ponytails, arm-in-arm and smiling cheeky for the camera, would stick to his back, when he rolled over top of her. His knees would press into drunken scenes from Mexico, and last year’s family Christmas portrait. He might crush her under his grunts.

“I want my blue princess pyjamas back,” Lily whispered.

“I know,” I said. “Me, too.”