Bea takes up quarters in the room that had evidently fallen victim to violent splashes of Pepto-Bismol-coloured paint. She was forced to drag her trunk and hatbox onto the bed with great effort, after her oaf of a brother-in-law stared blankly at her request for assistance.
“Who travels like this anymore anyways?” Sharon asks as she clunks a knuckle on the leather case that contains Bea’s possessions. Each piece had been wrapped delicately with layers of tissue and brown Kraft paper, tied with twine.
“The stipulation for my visit was no judgment be made on my way of life.” Bea removes her lace gloves—she’d had them made special for the trip—and folds them neatly in her hand.
“Hey, no judgment.” Sharon holds her hands up as though under arrest. “It’s just…” she scratches at residue built on the travel-weary case until it buckles underneath her fingernail. The action makes Bea’s stomach lurch. “It’s just weird.” Bea imagines the contents of the trunk interlocking like wooden blocks, a game of Jenga, although she no longer plays games because any fun that involves a loss of control is not worth having.
“You choose your life, sister, and I shall choose mine.”
“Shall.” Sharon extends her pinky and mimes sipping a cup of tea. “I do say, madam, rathaaa…” Her fake British accent is horrible, like a Cockney hoodlum.
In a Hello Kitty mirror, Bea regards her turned up nose and wiry mass of curls, turning grey far too early for a woman of thirty-four. Though their physical characteristics displayed their good genes, genteel upbringing hadn’t been the intention of the Rowan sisters’ hippie parents, who died in a car accident when their daughters were teenagers after too much tequila mixed with grungy marijuana. The girls were sent off to separate foster homes and had little contact with one another, until Sharon gave birth and requested more interaction with her only family member.
Sharon accused Bea of “going historical”—as Sharon had taken to calling her sister’s lifestyle—as a coping mechanism for their parents’ death, but it had simply been a choice to live without electricity and to wear hats and gloves in thirty-degree weather. In life, we make choices. Bea chose honour and virtue.
At her sister’s mocking, Bea grinds her teeth and eyes the trunk. “Do we have any planned outings for the day?” Bea asks.
“Outings? I’ve gotta go get the kids from daycare. That about sums it up.”
“Why pay others to care for your children? Being home is a woman’s responsibility.”
“Some of us live in 2017 and have jobs that don’t involve being barefoot and pregnant.”
“Some of us wish to be so lucky, my dear.”
“Then some of us should stop being frigid bitches who move in with their sister whenever some poor bastard doesn’t meet their high standards.”
Bea stares at the trunk so full of life, desperate to be opened. She craves the security of the new kitchen knives that are also inside the box, one of them destined for that cool space underneath her pillow, wielded should a call for self-defense arise. Instead, she takes out a fan from her crocheted handbag and pulses it, sucking flutters of air in and out through her mouth. The room is unbearably hot. She requires a stroll in the gardens of her home, and yet it is no longer her home, sold in the wake of relationship carnage—sold well over asking, even when she’d insisted on maintaining the tradition of afternoon tea during terse showings with the real estate agent. Homebuyers don’t want to see some nutjob gnawing on a scone, dressed like the damn Queen, the agent had said, arms gesticulating with a clipboard in his hand. But Bea turned up her aristocratic nose and sipped Earl Grey while her husband, Michael, sulked in the doorjamb of the French doors—the doors he’d installed specifically so she could promenade.
“I should like to remind you that some of us are not so lucky in courtship,” Bea says.
“It would help if you stopped calling it courtship.”
Bea huffed a puff of air that plumed her styled bun. “I shall unpack and partake in a rest before we dine.”
“Partake away,” Sharon said, sticking out a pointed, accusatory finger. “You know, marriage and motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It isn’t a fucking Brontë novel.” Sharon glowers at the trunk, then at her sister. Met with silence, Sharon silently clicks the door shut and forces her anger to dissipate on her way down the stairs.
Bea should unpack, but oh, what a task. Despite her modern ways, Sharon had encouraged Bea to come stay, said it would be good for them to reconnect as a family. Family. It’s a word Bea often says with disdain, puckering her lips like she’s eaten something sour. Minister Dan says Bea ought to cherish her sister, because Sharon is her only family. Blood thicker than water and all that nonsense. But Bea feels her bloodline dots the pews every Sunday, and that these people are bonded in brotherhood and a deeper understanding of life’s meaning when they collectively sway to the sound of the organ and murmur hymns towards the cross. Family is something Bea strives for, but only one of her own making. And she will make one, some day, with the husband who deserves her. She will not enjoy the act of sexual relations, because although the stacks of Cosmopolitan and Chatelaine that sit in Sharon’s bathroom indicate that intercourse is a matter of making love and mutual pleasure, Bea knows this to be propaganda of liberal fanatics who want women to fire weapons in wars and run companies, instead of creating life and guiding family in the continuous practice of giving back to the Lord. Poppycock. If only Sharon could appreciate that women like Bea fight for the true needs of women. Compassion and empathy. Godliness. Good old-fashioned childrearing. And yet the world seems intent on carving space for radicals. Sharon, Bea’s family, encourages Bea to date because she is now divorced, although Bea refuses to acknowledge the sacrilegious phrase. You’ll find someone else, Sharon insists flippantly at forced dinners on Thursday nights, the only night where Sharon can leave work before six PM. Sharon serves bagged salad and Breyers ice cream straight from the carton while wiping at her eyes, as though it might erase the black circles that have formed there, while her children are raised by a nanny. Sharon doesn’t understand the joys of not having it all. She has it all sitting right at her dinner table.
Despite her lack of children, Bea has known love. Not physically, no, but she knows of it in theory. She remembers television from her teenage years, how she and Sharon would flip through the channels to source intimate scenes between actors—actors! Touching one another, not married, panting and cavorting. The memory makes Bea gasp aloud in the Pepto-Bismol room. She hasn’t seen television in years, but this has done little to eradicate the live men who see her corsets, her bespoke gowns, and ask if she is going to a costume ball, only to laugh when she inquires as to who attends a ball at two in the afternoon? But these interactions pique her interest, pick at hope like a hardened scab. For an afternoon or two, these men cater to her whims, let her take their arms, buy her cups of tea while they stroll along the boardwalk. And later, these purported gentlemen turn stormy when she refuses their firm bodies, organs gone rigid and pressed into her unspread thighs.
Bea clicks open the heavy snaps of the trunk, a scent of putrid decay burping upwards. It had been different with Michael, whom Bea met at church. He acquiesced to her abstinence until marriage, and although he dressed like a modern ragamuffin, he held her in gentlemanly esteem. That is, until the night of their wedding, when he’d slurped countless cans of beer and claimed it had all gotten away from him; the worshipping of God and a woman’s virtue “and all that jazz.” Bea had tugged the sheets up over her vulnerability while he explained without looking at her that he missed alcohol, television, and swearing, and oh, he also kind of missed Martine, his former colleague from the dingy pub down the street, whom he’d bedded on more than one occasion before he’d returned to the Lord, and at their wedding reception—had Bea noticed?—Martine was looking pretty damn good, with her breasts on display. A harlot, indeed. He didn’t wait for Bea to respond. Instead, he awkwardly tugged his dress shirt over his head without undoing the buttons, and shoved himself inside of her, grunting thrusting until he collapsed, sweaty and spent, while Bea lay motionless underneath. Afterwards, she retreated to the bathroom, dressed in candlelight, and rinsed his secretions from a hand-embroidered iris on her white nightgown and wiped blood from her delicate parts. Meanwhile, Michael had simply walked out the door and set up camp on the settee, snoring within minutes while Bea opened their wedding gifts; high thread count sheets, beeswax candles, wooden-handled kitchen knives with impeccable balance.
Yes, Michael was clearly unable to accept the respectable elements of Bea’s way of life.
Some would argue the price Michael paid for being callous was too high. Poking through the trunk and admiring the neatly wrapped packages, already seeping through their butcher paper, Bea knows Michael experienced appropriate justice. He’d have met a similar fate if he’d been challenged to a duel, or defended her honour in a fracas, but her hatpin had done the defending for her, with the gleaming new kitchen knives performing the rest of the work. She didn’t like taking matters into her own hands—she had hoped to leave that to the man of the house, who clearly saw fit to take whatever he saw fit—but a lady does not allow herself to be marred by divorce. But a widow? That was a title worth having.