This is my short story that became a finalist in the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. Several people have asked to read it, so I’m posting it here. Thanks to those who did.
Hand in Glove
Camille Reese Hutchinson hears the music in snippets—something sweet and soft played by Stéphane Grappelli that she tries to identify, Manoir de Mes Reves, perhaps?—as if from a sailboat on the lake, carried in on the breeze that billows the diaphanous white curtains through the floor-to-ceiling windows, dancing ghosts matching her own barefoot frolic with Daphne, her teenage daughter, of a full-moon midnight in April, 2005. She is in her prime, lissome and voluptuous, flesh and fat where it should be, no more, no less; her ankle-length nightgown, a gift from her grandmother for her wedding night and handmade from the softest white batiste with pale pink rosebud trim around the hem, fills with the balmy air as they dance like the curtain sprites who attend them. Persephone, her white Persian cat, sits at the base of one of the windows, mesmerized by sway of the fabric and the banana leaf shadows that play upon it.
The moon in the cloudless sky is high over the trees, reflecting on the waves of Lake Pontchartrain, and its silvery light falls upon the cypress floors, buffed and waxed to a high shine, illuminating the white, down-pillowed sofa in the otherwise dark double parlor of her raised Creole house on Lakeshore Drive in Mandeville, Louisiana. Built by her maternal great-great-grandfather in 1852 to protect his family from the Yellow Fever epidemics in New Orleans that regularly decimated the population, it has stayed in her family and survived many a hurricane, many a vicissitude. And spread upon the sofa seats and top of the pillows, as well her great-great-grandmother’s wide virgin cypress ironing board she bought from a Choctaw native that, burnished and set upon a stand, now serves as a coffee table, are neat stacks of gloves, each tied with pink satin ribbon. One-hundred plus pairs in all, some hidden away in boxes, tufted, faded pink or blue satin, clear plastic or wooden, others organized according to length and color, lying palm-facing-palm, as if in prayer. A good half were passed down to her from her mother Helene, maternal grandmother Mathilda, great-grandmother Daphne, after whom her daughter is named, and her own namesake, great-great-grandmother Camille; the remaining span the distance of her life: satin-lined knitted baby mittens; the tiny white ones she wore for Easter as a young girl, and later Daphne wore when she was the same age; the sequence of short white ones increasing in size as she grew, all still in pristine condition; those of different colors and lengths denoting her entrance into the world of high-school and college fashions; white kid Italian opera gloves she wore as a dewy-eyed debutante, and then as Queen of Comus—in fact, during her debutante year, she had to have several pairs; and finally those acquired during her long marriage to Charles “Chet” Hutchinson, a Marine Corps lawyer, when she attended events both formal and Sunday-best in far flung places, each requiring gloves to suit the occasion and match her outfit.
She lifts a few piles so they can sit, flushed and breathless with joy, and places them across her lap, surprised at their warmth, as if she had only moments before taken them off. When Daphne sidles next to her, she can read her daughter’s open face, eager for what she is sure is to come: the stories and records of generations of women in her family.
Camille leans over to brush strands of hair from her daughter’s cheek, then kisses her. “Of course, precious. Why don’t we start with, ‘Once upon a time . . . .’ ” Slipping into an uppermost pair, just-past-the-wrist, pale rose with beige lace inserts, she is transported to 1962, and lunch with Mrs. Benjamin Volterra, the wife of one of Chet’s superiors. She’d gone home for her annual Mardi Gras visit, which happened to coincide with the Volterras being in town on military business.
“Take her to Antoines,” Chet told her. “I want to make an impression. I’ll have my father call and make arrangements. He’ll take care of everything, the menu and the bill. I don’t want you walking around with a lot of money. I’ll get him to order the specialties, like Oysters Rockefeller, gumbo, trout with crabmeat. It’ll grease the skids.”
Camille steeled herself for yet another cold, boring obligatory trotting out as a military wife, although she comforted herself knowing the food would be delicious. Mrs. Volterra was about ten years older than Camille, so she’d been at many a command performance herself. There was something a little different about her, though. For one thing, while she was certainly stylish, there wasn’t the kind of primness and circumspection Camille was used to seeing in officers’ wives. She didn’t even bother to tame her dark curly hair that escaped from the beret perched at a slant, and she wore black from head to toe, but for the bangly silver bracelets and hoop earrings. And there was no haughtiness or pulling rank, either; instead her face was open and warm. Which helped a lot, because when the dish of Oysters Rockefeller was placed before her—she was served first, of course—she said with merriment in her eyes, “Uh, oh. I’ll bet you didn’t get the memo, right? Leave it to my husband let it fall through the crack.” Her voice was pure Brooklyn.
“Memo? Are you allergic to oysters, Mrs. Volterra?”
“No, and please call me Debbie. See, I’m Jewish, and I don’t eat shellfish. Or pork.” Camille stuttered trying to reply; in her upbringing, she’d had so little contact with Jews. Debbie added, “I know, ‘The Strong, the Proud, the . . . Jewish? With an Italian name?’ This combination never occurs to most people, so don’t worry. I’m sure if Benjamin had told your husband, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Pierre, their waiter, removed the dish instantly and consulted with Debbie about substitutions. She insisted that Camille not change what she’d planned to eat.
As it turned out, Debbie swooned with each bite of food (Trout Amandine, steamed asparagus, glazed carrots), and they had a good laugh over the mishap. In fact, they laughed—and drank—a lot as they ate, the former a new experience for Camille, given her experience of carefully kept façades in military circles. “You know, my husband is so oblivious that he wouldn’t even warn me if I was walking toward an open manhole cover!”
Camille put her hand over her mouth. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Oh, no! Mr. Self Absorbed. In fact, I could come up with a whole string of ‘My husband is so oblivious, he’d . . . fill-in-the-blank’ lines that I only wish were jokes. I just finally got used to it and learned to watch out for myself,” Debbie said.
This was also Camille’s first contact with wifely candor, and, while it felt scary, as if some forbidden, creaky vault had been unsealed leaving her feeling chilled, it also excited her.
They were pretty tipsy when they went out into the Quarter and browsed in antique stores. Then, as the afternoon wore down and they were sitting in Café Du Monde, Debbie said, “I just know we’ll become good friends.”
“I hope so,” Camille replied, and they exchanged addresses. However, later, when she told Chet about the goof-up with the menu, he fumed. “Jewish? She said they were Jewish?”
“But it turned out okay. She wasn’t insulted or anything. In fact, we had a good laugh over it. I think we’re going to . . .”
He cut her off. “You miss the point, Camille. I am not in the least concerned with her feelings. Jews. Jesus, it’s one thing for me to have to have contact with them at work. It’s something else entirely to socialize. I don’t want you having any more contact with her. Do you understand?”
“But, Chet . . . .”
“Camille, listen to me. You were queen of Comus, your father belongs to the Pickwick Club, as does mine, as did our forefathers going back generations. We do not associate with Jews, Italians or Colored. Period.”
Nevertheless, when Debbie sent her a thank you note, Camille felt Debbie’s warmth once again. When she wrote back, she withheld the part about her husband’s order. Several months into their correspondence, however, she finally confessed. Debbie responded:
Listen, honey, this isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. Jews have learned to develop a thick skin—it’s a survival thing. Sure, it hurts—I’m just not going to let it get in the way of making it in the world. I think you see beyond all that crap, and that’s what’s important to me. We can continue our friendship in letters, and you can hide them from Chet. He’ll never be the wiser.
They wrote weekly, longer and longer letters, at first newsy, then slowly more intimate and revelatory.
When they’d cross paths at Marine Conventions and balls, they maintained a formal distance so Chet wouldn’t catch on. They performed their wifely duties, bland smiles pasted on their faces while standing husbands’ sides, never speaking unless spoken to, and only then, briefly. If they happened to be seated at the same table, they were careful not to sit next to one another. When the men would become involved in heated discussions, they’d steal away into the ladies’ room to giggle and tell stories, each renewed by the laughter so absent in their lives otherwise. They had their parting hugs there, long and sweet and melancholy.
This came from Debbie one day:
I’ve decided to take my writing seriously. I wrote when I was in college, short stories and poems, but when I got married, Benjamin made it clear that he disapproved. He said I went in a fog while I was writing, that my attention was always elsewhere. So, I concentrated on reading instead. That way I wasn’t carrying plots and characters in my head all the time. Well, Benjamin can just go fuck himself. He’s never here anyway. I wanted a career, and I gave that dream up. I’m working on a story now that I want to send to the New Yorker. I’m using a pseudonym, I. diGelo, so if it does get in—from my mouth to G_d’s ear—my husband won’t be able to say anything against it. Wish me luck! Imagine, I might become the next Dorothy Parker!
Dorothy Parker wasn’t someone Camille was familiar with, but she made sure she found out. Then she wrote back:
I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine doing something Chet forbids. Well, aside from being friends with you. Besides, I haven’t a clue about what I’d do besides wanting to be the best wife and mother I can—it’s what I was groomed for. I live for Chet and Daphne. I love putting my efforts into creating a lovely home, being charming and agreeable with guests, on the rare occasions when we have them. But, I am eager to hear how it works out for you.
I got a book of Dorothy Parker’s short stories out of the library. When I read ‘The Telephone Call’ I felt sick inside, absolutely sick, because I am that woman waiting for Chet to call. The only thing different is that he’s never called me darling. Do you identify with the woman in that story?
P.S. I took an art appreciation class in college that I really enjoyed, and I liked to draw, even as a little girl. It’s preposterous to think I could ever become an artist, though!
Debbie sent a postcard back: Do I feel that way? Yes.
This went on for twenty years, the peeling away of pretense and protocol that allowed them to share their disappointments, feelings of isolation and loneliness since their husbands were away so much. Debbie sent drafts of her stories to Camille in brown manila envelopes, and eventually the New Yorker published one.
One day, Camille received this letter. It didn’t begin with the usual news about her children or what she’d been up to lately. Instead, Debbie poured out her heart:
I’m ashamed to admit this, but the truth is that I’m lonely. I’ve never been able to face that fact, and until I met you, I didn’t know how lonely I was. Benjamin is totally obsessed with his work and gone all the time. When he does come home, he’s exhausted and just wants to be left alone. The other military wives I meet are such boosters, gung ho war, bragging about their husbands’ accomplishments and how proud they are to support them. No one ever talks about her own life, what her dreams were, what she’d like to do outside of serving her husband. I don’t know if they’re telling their real truth or if they’re afraid of admitting they’re unhappy. Guess, if they did, they’d have some tough choices to make. Or not. Depending on their circumstances. You’re the only person I can be this open with, Camille. I hope I’m not shocking you. I just don’t know whom else to tell.
I read this line in a poem by Muriel Rukeyser. She’s writing about Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist who documented the lives of the downtrodden and oppressed. Anyway, Rukeyser asks this question in the poem,“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life. The world would split open . . .”
I’m so afraid to tell the truth of my life. Are you?
Maybe I’m just overwrought and I need some laughter in my life.
Camille wrote back:
Debbie, until you said that, I never realized how unhappy I am also. I can’t even believe I’m admitting it because it makes me think I’m a total failure. I’m sorry, but that’s all I can say right now. It’s not something I want to think about. My heart breaks for you. Please let me know how you’re doing. Wish I could come up with something funny for you.”
Then, the brown manila envelopes stopped coming. Debbie took longer and longer to reply to Camille’s letters. When she did, her carefully-typed trademark witty prose and sense of irony were absent; now what appeared on the page, in a handwriting that grew increasingly illegible and crooked, were rambles that seemed confused, threaded with veiled hints between the lines, that later, Camille would understand, were cries for help. A month passed, two, then six, and, even though Camille continued to write her friend weekly, there was only silence on the other end. Worried, she finally placed a call to her house. When she identified herself, Debbie’s husband slammed down the receiver without saying a word.
It took a great deal of grapevining to discover that her closest friend, her only friend really, had committed suicide. She was devastated.
Camille is careful not to tell Daphne these things. Now she removes the rose-colored gloves, and slides into another pair, apple red with white piping at the wrist and along the fingers. “Remember how you found these under a jumble of sale gloves at Marston’s in San Diego? Your eyes lit up and you said, ‘Mommy, look! They’re size 6, too!’ This was when Daddy was in Okinawa.”
It was March 1959 when she and Daphne, then seven, had gone to the San Diego Zoo, then afterward, strolled downtown, window shopping, hoping to find matching mother-daughter outfits for Easter, eager to spend the money her mother Helene had sent for that purpose. And there they were in Marston’s: pleated shirtwaists made of navy blue cotton sateen with tiny white polka-dots and red piping, a cluster of red cherries on the wide matching belts. The accessories were all in red: purse, shoes, hat and gloves. Daphne got Mary Janes and a straw cloche with a navy blue grosgrain ribbon; Camille chose open-toed pumps and a picture window hat, also trimmed with navy blue ribbon.
With their many bags and boxes, they left the store and headed for the soda shop across the street, thrilled they’d fulfilled their dreams for the perfect outfits. “You deserve a finder’s fee for the gloves,” she told Daphne.
“Remember when the waitress served our root beer floats, and you tore off one end of the paper covering on your straw, blew into it, and we watched the cover sail and land in a banana split on the counter across from us? And how the elderly woman looked up, saw how scared you were, and instead of making a fuss, she clapped. ‘Hooray, you hit the target! Good for you,’ she said.” She sees the joy in her daughter’s face as she brings back that memory. “We had a such good time that day. And, when Daddy came home, you ran into his arms and he picked you up and said you looked cute as a button in your outfit. He called you his little princess.”
She omits the part about how Chet chastised her for spending so much money—he was always harping about her “excesses,” and how she was going to drive them to the poorhouse.
“Goddamn it, Camille, you need to learn to live on my salary now. You can’t still be the princess your parents raised you to be.” He wasn’t much mollified when she told him the money came from her mother.
“Even worse! How do you think that makes me look? Huh? Like I can’t provide for my family?”
“But, Chet, I don’t even know how much money you make, or what we have in the bank.”
“It’s none of your business, either. I give you an allowance and pay the bills, so you needn’t worry your empty little head about it. And that’s the last word I ever want to hear about this subject. Do you understand me, Camille? Because, there will be consequences if you don’t.”
She knew that tone and how quickly it could escalate. Chet was a fierce litigant for the prosecution in the courtroom, grinding the defendants down until they were broken. How many times had he bragged to his cohorts, “I had them shitting their pants when I was done with them. Never lost a case yet. Don’t intend to, either. I’ll nail the bastards, whether they’re guilty or not.” Yes, she knew the consequences if she tried to stand up for herself.
Camille’s sigh is deep, as if she’s trying to expunge toxic breath long held in. She forces herself to focus on the present, here with her adorable Daphne.
Though seemingly inert, it’s almost as if the gloves are alive, begging to reveal their stories, all testaments to fashions of the day, protocol, the thrill of finding just the right pair and feeling well-dressed, the somewhat competitive pride in having so many. Yet, the darker side was also there, in the rigidly defined roles she and her foremothers had. There were many pairs of black gloves from her adulthood, necessities at funerals; dress-up gloves to wear at weddings, dances, meetings, dinners, Marine conventions. Padded leather ones for winter, some with mink cuffs, some plain. The short white crocheted gloves with embroidered rosettes from the time she made matching white silk organza outfits for herself and Daphne that Mother’s Day (celebrated alone) when they lived on the base at Quantico, in Virginia. The white leather fringed cowgirl gloves she wore when she dressed as Annie Oakley to a military costume party (again, her husband wasn’t present); the long sinister-looking black pair when she dressed as a witch for Halloween (ditto). She thinks of other gloves long gone, gardening gloves for her flowerbeds, their fingertips worn through; rubber gloves that held their shape as hands, soft carapaces that traced her steps as a homemaker, washing dishes, mopping, cleaning bathrooms.
“Hands, so much meaning is attached to hands, so many memories,” she says to Daphne. “I remember when you were a baby, and you wrapped your tiny hand around my finger, gripping so tightly as if for dear life. And how I helped you take your first steps, ready to catch you if you fell, and how we held hands as we walked to your first day of school, or how I caressed your face when you were sick and feverish. I used to draw outlines of our hands and you’d cut them out with little kids’ scissors. How many hours we spent doing that. And we cuddled on the sofa holding hands while we watched TV or walked down the street, hand in hand, even when other girls your age wouldn’t be caught dead doing that in public.”
Hands that provided pleasure for her husband; hands raised in warning or wave, hands that lifted, toted, cooked, sewed, patty-caked and played games. Hands held over her heart during the National Anthem or Pledge of Allegiance. Hands that—no, she doesn’t want to think about it. She refuses, yet the scenes enter her mind unbidden: hands raised in defense when Chet hit her. Camille turns her head away, her sigh slower, sadder this time, and picks up a pair of sheer blue gloves with shirring at the wrist. “And of course, these I wore at your wedding,” she says, handing them to Daphne. “You were such a beautiful bride.” She stops herself. “Now, why did I say that? You’re only a girl! I must have worn these for another occasion. How silly of me.”
When she opens a long slender box, tufted inside and out with yellowed white satin, the faint scent from a lavender and rose sachet bag takes her to the eighteenth-century, and she carefully removes the pair of Irish tatted wedding gloves, now yellowed with age. “Can you imagine that your great-great-grandmother Daphne wore these when she was sixteen years old? She was such a beautiful women, even when she was in her nineties. I loved her so much. She died a week after you were born. See how tiny her hands were? Of course, the mark of a lady was that her hands must remain pale and soft and without any blemishes or freckling from exposure to the sun, and the smaller her hand, the more refined she was considered. That’s part of the reason ladies wore gloves so much. The nails had to be perfectly manicured, and kept that way by never having to do any physical work that would mar them. At night, we slathered them with Pacquin’s hand cream, then put on gloves so they’d keep moisturized while we slept. I was very proud of how beautiful my hands were—see, even now, they’re still lovely,” she says, holding her hands out, turning them from front to back. “Of course, times have changed, so you won’t have to bear that burden of treating them like delicate flowers.”
There are stories that bring back fond memories, and she is eager to share them with her daughter; then there are those she feels she must shield Daphne from. Just as her foremothers had kept their pain bound up as if by tight corsets.
She reaches for a slender black lacquered box and peeks inside, but doesn’t open the lid all the way. Inside are the mid-forearm white kid gloves from her going-away outfit. She loved those gloves because they accentuated her midnight blue brocade sleeveless shift and bolero jacket, and matched her delicate white pumps she’d gotten at Imperial Shoe Store on Canal Street (size 6 AAAA).
No sooner had she and Chet left the New Orleans Country Club, where their reception was held, and were headed for Moisant Airport, that her brand new husband, a TU law school graduate and just-back-from-boot-camp Marine, his once dark wavy hair nearly shaved on the sides, his right hand lying precisely on his thigh with fingers turned under—this was a new development—said, “Take that stupid orchid off. It’s too ostentatious, and I don’t want people staring at us.”
“But it’s my wedding corsage, and we’re going on our honeymoon,” she protested. “There’s nothing ostentatious about a single . . .”
“I said to take it off. When I give you an order, I expect you to obey.”
“But, why, Chet? You’ve always given me corsages.”
“I am not going to tell you again. Take it off.”
Camille’s chin trembled, hot tears burned her eyes, and she reached for the head of the pin, thinking her mother had situated it pointing downward; it was not, and she winced and cried out as the pin went through her glove and stabbed her right forefinger, leaving a small red dot that spread. Somehow, this triggered a sob that must have been waiting for just the right moment to emerge, having been buried under all the excitement.
“Jesus, so you got stuck by a pin. Big deal. Cue the violins,” he said. He reached for his handkerchief and handed it to her. “Control yourself, for chrissakes.” But this had the opposite effect, and she leaned over, keening and sobbing just as she had when he backed his car out of her parents’ driveway and ran over her beloved cat.
Camille couldn’t imagine why he was treating her like this. He’d been so charming when he courted her: bringing her a corsage from Scheinuk’s on St. Charles every time he took her out, soliciting information about what she’d planned to wear from her mother beforehand so it would match or compliment it; opening doors, helping her to her seat in the best restaurants; never failing to tell her how beautiful she was; calling her and playing her favorite songs over the phone; standing outside her dormitory window at Newcomb with of his fraternity brothers to serenade her late at night. Her sorority sisters fairly swooned leaning out to hear them, clapping when he finished with a bow. “You are the luckiest girl in the world,” they told her. He was courtly to a fault with her mother, who lapped it up. And he kept Camille in stitches with his stories and jokes; he’d go at it for hours, always ending with a tickle session. True, he often went too far, but he just said he liked to hear her laugh. He was masterful, always in charge, quick to make decisions. And she never had to struggle to find something to say because he did most of the talking. She felt safe and protected, and was dazzled by all the attention, certain she’d found her Prince Charming.
Particularly when he went down on his knee in the cavernous ballroom of the Pickwick Club on Mardi Gras and presented her with a three-karat, pear shaped diamond ring from Adler’s.
Back at her dorm, girls gathered around her, squealing with admiration and envy, but not in an unkind way, more wistful than anything else. “Boy, you’re really lucky. Once you started dating that dreamboat, you never had to worry about being alone on weekends.” Another said, “And you don’t have to worry about being an old maid, like some of us who don’t even have boyfriends.”
Her roommate Ethel asked if could try it on. “Chet knows just the way to get to a girl’s heart, doesn’t he?” she said, holding her hand up so the light danced around the stone. “Promise me if you ever want to dump him, you’ll let me know.” There was just the slightest hint of a dissonant note in her voice, and she ended with a nervous chuckle. So naïve and trusting, Daphne had simply closed her eyes when Ethel flirted with Chet, rubbing up against him, batting her eyes. But then, Ethel flirted with all the boyfriends who came to the dorm. She had a reputation for being fast, but never held a boyfriend long. She wore sweaters that showed off her double-D bra size, and her near white cornsilk hair gave the impression that it came from a bottle, but it was her natural color. Even her eyelashes were pale, though she used dark mascara and wore stylish frames on her glasses to enhance her blue eyes.
Chet had never given her reason to suspect anything, since he didn’t flirt back. In fact, he always seemed kind of curt with Ethel, even going so far as to push her away when she got drunk and tried to sit on his lap. And when Ethel dropped out after the first two weeks of their senior year, Camille believed what she wrote to her.
I know I’m disappointing you because we got along so well as roommates. My parents decided I needed to return to D.C. because of family matters. I’m transferring to Georgetown.
She never heard from Ethel after that.
Over and over she heard how fortunate she was, how Chet was such a good catch. Even her parents stressed it. And why wouldn’t he be when their engagement portended the merger of two dynasties, ill-bred American arrivistes (to the native Creoles’ way of thinking) who had arrived in the early 1800s to profiteer from the cotton and sugar and slave trades.
True, in his undergraduate years, he’d been wild—he was a Deke at Tulane—and saw nothing wrong with speeding down St. Charles Avenue in his red Jaguar convertible, radio blaring, tossing empty beer bottles high so they’d come crashing into the path of drivers behind him—if they were lucky—or onto their hoods or windshields, if not. Or dressing in blackface with his fraternity brothers, and drunkenly splashing around in the fountain in front of Audubon Park, into which they’d emptied a box of laundry detergent. Were these not attention-getting actions? In fact, he always seemed to want to be the center of attention, the ring-leader with the most self-assured voice, ready to initiate a prank, or even break the law. And why wouldn’t he, when his pillar-of-the-community father always bailed him out?
She wondered if she just given a blind eye to his faults.
Like how, when they were out with his buddies and their dates, Chet’s jokes were always at someone else’s expense, put downs. He had a whole series beginning with, “So a kike, a wop and a nigger walk into a bar . . .” He’d toss the first one out, and then each guy would add another, trying to best one another, until Chet rattled them off one-after-another, like machine gun fire, not letting anyone else play.
Then there was this: in his senior year, he was captain of the football team, and after yet another loss to LSU, he and a few of his teammates began a shoving match with a few rivals that quickly escalated. Before others were able to pry Chet off, he’d beaten one player to a pulp, breaking his nose and cheek bone. His parents filed suit against Chet as well as the university; they settled out of court for a princely sum paid by his father, Mr. Hutchinson. And he got off with barely a slap on the wrist. “After all, they were just being good old boys,” his father said. “They didn’t mean any harm.”
And he’s all dressed up in Marine whites—is that not going to attract attention when we go in the airport? Is it that he wants all the attention for himself?
She tried to second guess, make sense of it. She was baffled by his behavior. True, he seemed to take on a more authoritarian tone the closer they got to the wedding; he was less cordial, talked over her, contradicted her, put her down, even in public. He’d stood her up a few times, too, leaving her primped and ready to go out to dinner, offering a lame excuse the next day.
He hadn’t shown much interest in the year-long planning, either. Why should he get involved with picking out silver, crystal, china, linens, since that was all “inane women’s stuff,” and, as for the venue, music, food, cake, photographer, flowers, guests—well, these were decided by her mother anyway, so there wasn’t much point in “wasting his time.” Besides, he was absorbed with passing the bar and getting into the Marines, the former bringing high praise from his family, the latter only protest. Men of his class did not aim for military careers in this day and age. The one consolation his father had was the hope that his son would develop a sense of responsibility and self-discipline.
Camille just figured it was all nerves, and that he’d return to his charming self after all the whoopla was over. Besides, she’d heard that grooms-to-be often behaved that way as the wedding came closer. His buddies, no longer part of the seduction squad who gave her wolf whistles every time they saw her, started saying things like, “Here comes Chet’s old ball and chain,” and “Hey, Camille, when ya gonna stop giving Chet blue balls? Think we don’t know? Heh, heh, heh.” That was the worst. How often he’d accuse her of causing that affliction—whatever it was—when they’d be necking and petting and she’d say no when he wanted to go all the way. He didn’t take no lightly, either.
Now, Camille sees her own sadness reflected in her daughter’s face. She reaches for her handkerchief and blows her nose. “Oh, it’s nothing, honey. I’m fine.” She removes the lid on the box. There they are, the going-away gloves. But instead of lying soft and flat in the box, they’re rigid, like they still had forearms and hands inside, the brown spot on the thumb still evident, only the fingers were gnarled and curled up towards the palms, like claws. As if they were dead and withered, returned in a near skeletal state, meant to warn and engender fear. She works her face to match the jocularity she aims for, “Silly me, I thought I could get that spot out—what did I know when I was a new housewife? —so I washed them with Ivory flakes. And instead of placing them between two towels and letting them dry naturally, I stuffed them with tissue paper and put them in the oven at a very low temperature. This is how they came out. Aren’t they a scream? They look pretty scary, don’t they?”
She puts them back in the lacquered box and places it on the floor. “Look at these,” she says, picking up another box, this one carved and gold-leafed. Inside is a pair of maroon silk velvet mittens with white satin gauntlets, heavily embroidered with colorful silk and silver threads. “Aren’t they gorgeous? They’re supposed to be from the early seventeenth-century. That’s what your father told me, anyway—I found out later they were just replicas. We were stationed at Quantico, Virginia, and he brought them home after he’d been at the Pentagon for a several months. Said he thought he’d celebrate his winning a huge case for the government, and he’d seen them in a store window when he was strolling down a street in D.C. He told me not to wear them, of course. Said they were too fancy, and were just meant to be saved. Go ahead, try them on.” She watches as Daphne inserts first one hand, then another, and rises and processes around the room, lost in her own thoughts of living as royalty, her mother guesses. She squints her eyes. Wait, that can’t be Daphne. That little girl is just so young, hardly more than three. Certainly not a teenager. Maybe I’m just confused because I’m going back and forth in time so much. She rubs her eyes, and the little girl calls out as she leaves the room, “Mommy, Mommy, look at what Nana let me try on . . . .” Nana? Who’s Nana? Camille wonders.
Sitting there, Camille returns to those going-away gloves with the growing red spot on the forefinger.
She complied, of course. What else could she do? Already she knew her face would be swollen and blotched from crying—certainly that would attract more scrutiny than a wedding corsage. She hoped her hat’s veil would at least provide a measure of privacy.
He barely spoke to her on the plane—they were going to London for four days, since he had only a week’s leave—and when they arrived at Claridge’s, exhausted, hung over and jet lagged, all Camille wanted to do was sleep. Chet would have none of it. In fact, he summoned room service and asked for a bottle of Glenfiddich. After all, his father was paying for the honeymoon; no sense in scrimping, he said. When it arrived, he poured two glasses. “Here, drink this. It’s the only cure for a hangover.” She tried to demur, telling him that she didn’t like Scotch and he knew that, but he kept at her, distracting her with jokes, saying he’d tell one for each time she took a sip. When the humor was no longer a carrot, he said, “Hey, you think you’re gonna get out of this? I’ve waited four years—four long years—to get into your pants, Camille. It was always, ‘No, Chet. You need to stop, Chet. I can’t, Chet.’ And I put up with it. But now you have no excuse. I’m entitled to it. So, drink up and get merry, because we are going to roll in the hay whether you want to or not.”
In truth, for Camille there was more to just maintaining her good reputation and preserving her virginity for virginity’s sake; she was afraid, and her reasons were fear she’d get pregnant (at least, that issue was taken care of at the altar), fear that she would smell bad—the one thing her mother had told her about sex was to douche with Massengill before and afterward—and that he’d be offended and reject her, and she was afraid of the pain. She was petite; Chet towered over her, and, on the occasions he’d insisted that she move her hand up and down his penis until he ejaculated, she understood that it was huge.
The liquor did not make her merry; instead she fell into a stupor. She mumbled no when he began removing her dress and slip, groaned as he pulled them over her head, said no again when he peeled off her girdle and hose, unhooked her bra. She thought he’d stop if she simply lay still, faking and not really faking sleep. Instead, he kept at it, as if each delay made him more determined. She said nothing when he turned her on her back, spread her legs. But she screamed No! when he thrust himself inside her, the pain searing. She saw herself as simply a piece of meat with each thrust, and when he finished—it didn’t take long—she didn’t move for a time, then finally turned over, wept silently until sleep mercifully embraced her.
“So sorry you missed all the fun,” he said when they woke up. “But don’t worry, there’ll be many more opportunities. I’ve got my homegrown stash of nookie, now.”
When she arrived back home, alone, since he’d gone directly to OCS, it was her mother Helene who noticed something was wrong. Camille walked slowly, and when she sat, it was gingerly. Not wanting to pry, her mother said nothing; but when there was no change after a week, she became alarmed, as did her father, although he knew better than to interfere with women’s problems. He did change his assessment of Chet, however, and from that moment on, he was cool to him. “Darling, would you like me to take you to the doctor?” her mother asked. Camille refused. “Well, it will get better over time. That I can promise you.”
Nine months later, Daphne was born. She’d stayed in New Orleans through Chet’s first deployment. Her father had insisted she deliver at Touro instead of “some godforsaken military setup.” Chet was able to get emergency leave, but it made no difference since he spent the night getting drunk with his old fraternity brothers. When he arrived bedraggled and unshaven the next day, his father-in-law shoved a box of cigars in his hands, his eyes cold and hard. “Thought you might need these.”
Camille never did wear the beautiful nightgown her grandmother made for her wedding night. Instead, she preserved it in white tissue and put it at the bottom of her hope chest, where it lay until tonight. Along with the beautiful Valentine she made for Chet in the first year of marriage.
It was gorgeous, pure Victoriana in that she cut images out of a few such Valentines she’d found in an antique store in the French Quarter. She’d taken one of her grandmother’s Irish lace doilies, and attached it to a piece of thick white paper, surrounding it with serpentine garlands of tiny flowers and a single Cupid with his arrow poised. Then she cut two hearts from other cards, and glued them to the front of the doily with one lobe nestled into the other. Finally, she used a calligraphy nib on her fountain pen to write, “Loves Message to my Valentine.” She labored for weeks to make something so precious and beautiful that it would become an heirloom, and when she mailed it, she was eager for his response, wanting his approval desperately. Instead, he wrote, “Camille this is nothing but sentimental hogwash, and you shouldn’t have wasted your time. Or mine. What can I do with stuff like this? Oh, I noticed that you left the apostrophe out of Love’s.”
Now she sees Daphne is no longer as a little girl, nor a teenager, but as a young woman holding a baby. Something must be wrong with my eyes. Maybe it’s because I’m crying. She wipes them, and Daphne’s teenage face reappears. “I’m sorry, honey, I was just thinking of something that made me really sad a long time ago. I’ll be fine. It’s just one of those things. I don’t know why I’m getting so emotional—maybe I’m just going through the change,” she says, not following up with an explanation suitable for an adolescent. She busies herself with untying ribbons and rearranging the gloves so the colors go from the palest to the darkest shade. Her mind flits from one memory to another, some pleasant, others not so much. Such a long history lay about her.
Her face brightens when she begins telling Daphne about another time when they lived in California. “You were such a precious little girl, and you loved getting all dolled up with my things,” she says. “So, after we ate lunch one day, we were out sunning ourselves on the patio in our bathing suits, listening to music coming from the hi-fi inside. I’d fixed us hi-balls—well, I made a Shirley Temple for you. And you got bored and asked me if you could play dress-up. I told you it was fine, so you went into my closet and pulled out an outfit with a hat and gloves, and you came clomping out in my high heals and walked around as if you were in a beauty pageant. The more I clapped, the more you pranced about. Then you went back inside, came out with one of my purses filled with gloves, so many, you couldn’t even close it. I was lying on my back, and you began placing them one-by-one all over my body, even on my face. I loved how gently you’d lay a glove, then smooth it out with your little hand, chattering on with your stories, and soon I fell asleep. When I sat up about an hour later, you started laughing. “Look, Mommy, you have hands everywhere!” My skin was burned to a crisp, except for where the gloves had been. People sure looked at me funny, I can tell you that.”
What she doesn’t say is that those white handprints were in stark contrast to the red ones Chet left on her face, often just before they were leaving for some important Marine function. He’d pick a fight, she’d talk back, and . . .
They’d been living in D.C. for several years by then. Daphne had married and moved to Seattle with her husband, who was in medical school there. Debbie was still alive, and as the protests against the Vietnam war escalated, she began introducing Camille to the grim realities of U.S. policy. Now, when Chet told her stories of atrocities, and how the “Gooks” deserved everything they got, she no longer nodded in agreement, but sat expressionless.
One day when Daphne was in D.C. to show off her new baby, named Mathilda after Camille’s grandmother, they were walking in Rock Creek Park and a woman offered them leaflets for the Another Mother for Peace organization. The impassioned way the woman spoke, telling her that the people of Vietnam were no different from us, and that countless mothers had lost their children to the brutality of soldiers. “It’s true, Mom,” Daphne said. “This war is absolutely hideous and unjust. I’m a member. I even participate in peace rallies in Seattle. So many of our friends are anti-war. Really, that’s the only kind of people we want to be with.”
So Camille sent off membership dues, and when her medallion arrived with the logo of a sunflower and the words, “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” she knew she had to hide it from Chet.
Camille was changing. She secretly enrolled in an art class at American University (paid for by her parents), and spent hours rendering precise Dürer-like drawings of hands. Praying hands. She also joined a consciousness-raising group that met in the neighborhood, and it was in the safety of these women that she came to understand how oppressed she’d allowed herself to become. She shared how she’d gone to a military psychiatrist because she never enjoyed sex with Chet and he told her if she couldn’t climax on her husband’s penis, then she was frigid. Plain and simple. This sent the women into paroxysms of laughter. “That’s what they always say. It’s complete bullshit. You probably don’t enjoy it because he’s a terrible lover, and thinks only of himself. You’ve got to learn to initiate things that please yourself, tell him how to touch you, what you like.”
This was such a revelation to Camille. Tell Chet where to touch her?
They were scheduled to go to dinner at a senator’s house. She’d finished showering and was applying lotion to her legs when he came up behind her and grabbed her breasts, his usual signal of wanting sex. Never kisses or caresses, simply taking her breasts and twisting her nipples, as if turning on faucets, but this time, she allowed herself to feel aroused, hoping the arousal would lead to something more than frustration.
He was perfunctory, as usual, and had already pulled out of her when she worked up her courage to say something. “Honey, would you touch me there,” she said, taking his hand, hoping to place it on her clitoris. But he pulled back in revulsion. “I’ll show you how I’ll touch you,” he said, slapping her across the face. “Are you turning into some kind of slut, Camille?”
The handprint was still visible despite layers of foundation and overmuch rouge on the opposite cheek. She could barely look at anyone at the dinner; the one time she did make eye contact, it was with the senator’s wife, and she found only compassion when she did.
As years passed, the winters began to wear on her, and she found that she could never get warm enough, particularly her hands, no matter what gloves she wore. And she developed a rash under her rings that eventually caused the skin to blister, so she took them off. Chet said it was all in her mind, and that she was insulting him by not wearing her rings. More often than not, she could hardly drag herself out of bed, and she was becoming dependent on Valium, which her psychiatrist prescribed. Even her art no longer called her.
She wrote to Debbie, telling her everything. “Leave the son-of-a-bitch, Camille. Just do it. Otherwise, you’re going to end up dead. Maybe if you do it, it’ll give me courage too.”
Six months later, Debbie killed herself. It was the last straw for Camille.
Chet threatened her when she said she wanted to move back home. “I’ll fight this tooth and nail, Camille. I’m warning you.”
As luck would have it, he had to be in London for a week. Her parents arrived, packed her up, and drove her back to New Orleans, where they set her up in the house once owned by her grandmother, Mathilda, on State Street, one her parents kept as a rental.
It was 1982. She didn’t even leave a note.
He flew down, of course, figured out where she lived, and tried to force his way in, cursing, making threats. But her father had had an elaborate security system installed, and within minutes the police were there to arrest him.
She had her lawyer file for divorce, even though it was the first in her family, but Chet refused to grant it. Just for spite, so she couldn’t remarry.
When her parents died, she inherited generations of family money that freed her up to follow her heart.
She entered the M.F.A. program at Tulane, and it didn’t take long before she became a rising star. Even before she completed her degree, she was invited to join the stable of artists with Arthur Roger Gallery, where her enormous canvases depicting gloves sold well. And when her work morphed into 3-D, collectors responded positively. She cast her own hands in plaster, fascinated with how the pristine whiteness seemed to glow. Sometimes she’d put them in bell jars, as if specimens, cut off at the wrist. For one piece, she painted an old metal mesh ironing board blue, secured the legs flat so the board could be hung on the wall. Then she cut two flaps in the mesh, curled them upward, and bolted plaster replicas of her hands so they stuck out, like prisoner’s through the bars.
She let her hair go wild and free, dressed for comfort, and even explored the mind-expanding features of marijuana, LSD and psilocybin. And she left the city, moving to the big house in Mandeville on the Lake.
“See these,” she tells Daphne, opening a long glove box containing several pairs of long white Italian kid leather gloves with pearl buttons at the wrist openings. “These were from my debutante year. I was in so many balls, Twelfth Night Revelers, Atlanteans, Mithras, Prophets of Persia, and then, I was queen of Comus! They say being queen of Rex is the biggest honor because you’re queen of Mardi Gras, and your picture is on the front page of the Times-Picayune with Rex himself. But Comus is more exclusive. My mother was queen, my grandmother and great-grandmother, too. Ah, the parties we went to! So elegant . . . maybe you’ll be queen of Comus one day.”
No, that won’t happen. I’m not going to put any daughter of mine through that. I want her to escape that world, Camille corrects herself. In fact, once she resettled in New Orleans and became absorbed in the art world, she found the annual Comus queens’ luncheon tedious, filled with pretense and thinly veiled rivalry, and she stopped going.
It was on her birthday in 1986 that she opened her door to find two Marines standing there; they’d come to inform her that Chet had died of a heart attack. She thought it was the best present he ever gave to her.
He was buried in Arlington Cemetery with full honors, military brass outdoing one another in their elaborate uniforms. Camille agreed to attend, since she felt it was her duty to be there for Daphne, and had availed herself of a joint just to get through the long ceremony, or at least feel as if she were watching it from afar. Each time one of Chet’s commanders and colleagues waxed on about how he’d given his all for his country, and how he was a fierce litigant, never losing a case, then a brilliant judge advocate, she had to keep coughing into her lace hankie to keep rising giddiness at bay. Fortunately it was a freezing cold day with a searing wind that stung her eyes enough to produce a few tears. Daphne was producing enough for both of them. Then, mercifully, there was the twenty-one gun salute, and it was over.
She could hardly feel anything in her feet, they were so cold, and the long line of condolence-givers did not help. Daphne’s two daughters—she’d had a second, Chloe two years after Mathilda—had upset stomachs, so she and her husband had to excuse themselves. Finally the end of the line was in sight. A tall, slender, exceptionally well-turned out woman approached. She was wearing all black, and the long veil from her hat obscured her face somewhat. She kept dabbing at tears, so Camille thought that she, too, was a fresh widow, and the memory of an identical ceremony stimulated her grief once again. Perhaps her husband had worked with Chet—why else would she be there? Or had she been visiting her late husband’s grave site nearby, and wandered over. She didn’t speak, but just stood there, looking into Camille’s eyes. Camille was patient, and assumed that when she was able to find her voice, she’d want to offer her heartfelt sympathy, perhaps even lean over to embrace her.
Finally, the woman lifted her veil. “You don’t recognize me, do you?” Her husky voice belied her beauty, and sounded as if she’d had a long acquaintance with cigarettes and alcohol.
“Should I? I mean, have we met at some military function?”
“No, not really. But I knew your husband. I’m Ethel. We were roommates at Newcomb.”
Camille’s face lit up. She leaned over and hugged Ethel. “Oh, you don’t know how many times I’ve thought about you over the years. You just seemed to drop off the face of the earth! It’s so nice of you to come.” Ethel simply smiled and nodded her head.
Camille was full of questions: Do you still live in the D.C. area? (Yes.) What did you do after you left Newcomb? (A vague shrug of the shoulders.) Well, did you find the husband of your dreams? (Not really, but I’m okay with that. I never married, but I never wanted for anything.)
“I want you to meet someone,” Ethel said. Now Camille realized there was another person. “This is Charlie, my son. He’s quite handsome, isn’t he? How about that head of wavy hair?” He blushed.
“But I thought you said you never . . . oh, that nonsense doesn’t matter anymore these days,” Camille said. She reached out to shake his hand. “How do you do, Charlie.”
Then she looked closer at him, and that’s when it hit her. Ethel’s pale hair clearly did not come through; in fact, with his wavy dark hair and piercing brown eyes . . . She swallowed hard. “He’s Chet’s, isn’t he?”
Ethel’s smile . . . Is it one of triumph? Camille wondered.
“He was a gentleman and made good on his word. We were well provided for.”
The color drained from Camille’s face and she felt lightheaded. Well provided for. Right. Now she understood Chet’s tightfistedness. She reached for Ethel’s hand and steadied herself. “I want to thank you for coming today. This clarifies so much. You have no idea.”
And she meant it.
Camille straightens herself on the sofa and says to Daphne, “Honey, my throat is parched. Would you please hand me that water glass?”
She takes a sip, then says, “You know what? Tomorrow, you and I are going to make art out of gloves. We can even use some of these. I know, we can string lines from each side of this room, rows of them, and take clothespins and hang the gloves in colorful patterns. Won’t that be fun? And in the other side, we can attach hooks to the ceiling—I’ll ask Mr. Jim next door if he can do this for us—and suspend the gloves on threads, and they can dance in the breeze. We can even put them on sticks and plant them in the garden like a bed of flowers, we can paste them to the sidewalk, like hand prints, and, yes, I know, we can string them from the trees, too. And maybe even put little bells, so they’ll make music in the wind. Oh, don’t you just love these ideas? We can have so much fun! And we can attach them to the clapboards, as if they were handprints climbing up towards the roof. And . . .
Here Camille stops. She holds up her hands, looks carefully at the manicured nails, soft skin, padded flesh, that, upon further study with more alert eyes, reveal their true state: bony and wrinkled and blotched with bruises, her engagement ring several sizes too big, hanging at an angle.
Morphine has bestowed the blessing of flight into her dance, into memories tender and sweet, disturbing and horrific, releasing her from the soul-crushing bone pain of metastatic breast cancer that has bound her to the hospital bed, emaciated and gaunt, for over a month. She looks down at Persephone, curled up next to her, asleep, yet emitting a satisfy purr when she pets her.
Now, during Camille’s final few moments on earth, her daughter Daphne and husband Tom; granddaughters, Mathilda and Chloe, and their husbands, Jonathan and Tim; great-grandchildren, Helen, Evan and namesake Camille, keep watch with rivulets of tears, attention fine-tuned to each labored breath she takes, every flutter of her eye lids or movement of her lips. She lifts her gaze from her hands, looks into each face, and smiles. “My gloves,” she manages to whisper. “I wanted to tell you all the stories, so many . . . .”
“Yes, Mama, we know. That’s why I put them in piles in the parlor, for when you felt well enough to get out of bed. And you did. You told us about the baby mittens, great-grandmother Mathilda’s wedding gloves, your white leather going-away gloves, the rose ones from that first lunch with your friend Debbie, and red gloves we got in San Diego, and many more until you got too weak. We laughed with you at the funny stories and cried for you when you shared the ones that were so painful.” Daphne leans over to kiss her mother’s cheek. “Thank you for sharing those things you kept inside you for so long.”
“Oh, no—not in front of the young children, I hope?”
“No, Mama,” Daphne says. “The babies wanted to be out on the seawall anyway, watching all the excitement on the lake.”
Her older granddaughter Mathilda says, “Nana, your stories are so important. You’ve given us such a gift.”
Chloe, her younger granddaughter says, “And now they have air to breathe instead of being locked up. I’d like to write them down–in fact, I’d like to document your life. I mean, if it’s okay with you.”
Camille’s eyes glisten, and she smiles. “ . . . such a gift . . . .”
Then she asks for another sip of water, and after she drinks, she dozes for a few moments, each breath more and more labored. Finally, she opens her eyes. “I love you so much,” she says, raising her right hand, waving her good-bye: regal, as if a queen’s.