Authors: Jennifer Weiner
Shelley’s eyes met hers. Jo felt her heart stutter to a stop.
She looks just the same
, she thought.
“Hi,” Jo breathed. Shelley gave her a tremulous smile, lifting one hand from the box to give Jo a small, ironic wave, and Jo saw that her initial thought wasn’t true. Shelley was still a beauty, she would still turn heads on the street, but she’d lost something, a bit of her confidence, an essential degree or two of her rich-girl swagger. “Can I come in?” she asked.
Numbly, Jo led Shelley to the living room. Shelley put the box down on Sarah’s coffee table, took a seat on the new couch, and crossed her legs. “Okay if I smoke?”
“I wish you wouldn’t.” Jo nodded toward the backyard. “My girls are here.” Over the years, Jo had thought about this moment, playing out dozens of scenarios, a hundred times apiece. She’d pictured herself gliding past Shelley in the supermarket, even though Shelley probably didn’t do her own marketing, bumping into her on the tennis courts, even though Shelley didn’t play. She’d imagined and reimagined the conversation, sampling versions where she was cutting and cold, versions where she was indifferent, versions where she greeted Shelley with a bland, generic friendliness that she thought would be worse than either coldness or indifference. But she had never pictured Shelley showing up looking like this, frail and sad and wounded.
“What’s going on?” Jo asked.
“I left my husband,” Shelley said without preamble. The fingers of her right hand went to the fourth finger of her left hand,
massaging the space where her rings must have been. Jo saw hollows under her cheekbones, new circles under her eyes.
Jo tried to keep her face expressionless. “Oh?”
Shelley shook her head. “I thought that I could make it work. Be the wife he wanted.” She looked down at her lap, then up, straight into Jo’s eyes. “I couldn’t, though. I couldn’t stop thinking about . . .”
Jo pushed herself upright, standing so fast she felt dizzy. She couldn’t hear it; couldn’t stand it if the next word out of her beloved Shelley’s mouth was
. She wasn’t sure where Sarah had gone, but she suspected her mother was somewhere nearby, lurking and listening. And what if Shelley said she still loved her? Would Jo throw herself into her arms? Would she gather Shelley close to her heart, would she say,
Take me now?
Of course not. It was ridiculous to even think it. She was a mother.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “Would you like some coffee?”
There was a pause. “Coffee,” Shelley finally said. “Sure.” Jo went to the kitchen, where Sarah raised her eyebrows. Jo mumbled that Shelley had come to visit, feeling like an awkward teenager again as she poured water into the coffee machine, spooned grinds into a filter, collected two mugs, napkins, milk from the refrigerator, the sugar bowl from its spot on the counter, next to the stove. She’d braided Missy’s hair that morning, and the musty-sweet smell of her younger daughter’s skin was still in her nose, and she could picture solemn, brown-eyed Kim, who liked to climb into bed with Jo first thing in the morning to tell her mother about her dreams. “Light and sweet?” she called. Once, that had been a joke between them. Jo was dark and strong; Shelley was light and sweet.
“Just black is fine.” Shelley’s voice was toneless. By the time Jo carried the mugs back to the living room, the tentative, hopeful expression Shelley had worn when she’d come to the door was gone, replaced with a look of resignation.
“I made a mistake,” Shelley said.
Jo sipped her coffee and said nothing, wondering if Shelley meant that she’d made a mistake marrying Denny or if her mistake had been coming to Jo’s house. Shelley gave her a thin twitch of a smile.
“I told you I wasn’t brave. Remember?” She started rubbing her bare ring finger again. “And I’m not. It took every bit of courage I could scrape together to come here. I had to see you. I had to at least try.” Her voice was ragged as she raised her face again and looked at Jo. “But I’m too late, aren’t I?”
Jo was glad that her own voice was steady. “I’m married now, Shelley. I have two little girls. I have a life. I’m happy.” A splinter of ice had lodged itself inside of her heart. Part of her wanted to be cruel, to parade her satisfaction, her happy, normal life, in front of the woman who’d broken her heart so completely that for months it had hurt to even breathe. “Maybe I should be grateful to you. If you hadn’t gotten married, I never would have met Dave.”
“You’re lucky, then.” Shelley gave that thin, trembling smile, so unlike the go-to-hell grin that Jo remembered, and raised her mug in a toast. “Lucky you.”
“I hope you figure it out,” Jo said, trying to sound kind, knowing that she just sounded condescending. “I hope you find the right . . .” The right man? The right woman? “. . . answers,” she finally said.
“Yeah.” Shelley looked down at the typewriter. “I want you to have this.” She gave Jo a crooked smile. “I’m going to be moving, and I’m trying to travel light. Are you still writing?”
“Not so much these days.” Jo thought that she understood the gesture. Shelley had taken away Jo’s dreams of love. Surely this gift was meant to remind Jo of her other dream, to suggest that she could still be a writer, that at least a piece of the life she’d wanted was still possible. “The kids keep me pretty busy.”
“Maybe someday, then,” said Shelley. “You can keep it for someday.” She sounded like she might have been crying. Jo made herself turn away, and when Shelley said, “I should go,” instead of trying to comfort her, Jo said, “I’ll get your coat.”
“Hey,” Shelley asked when she was at the door. When Shelley was wrapped in her fur again, Jo thought she could detect at least a little of her old love’s familiar rich-girl insouciance. “Did you ever get to take that trip?”
Jo shook her head, pushing down the anger and resentment that the thought of her truncated travels always stirred up. “No. I spent a big chunk of my money on . . . you know, on that other thing.” All this time, and she still couldn’t say the word “abortion” out loud, even though abortion was legal and had been for almost four years. Nor had she ever told Shelley who the abortion had been for. That was Bethie’s story, not hers. “And after that, it felt like I was ready to start the next part of my life, you know? Like it was time to move on. Time to grow up.”
“Well.” Shelley looked like she wanted to say more. Her mouth was trembling as she pulled her short fur coat closed. “Bad timing.” She’d jammed her purse underneath her arm and pushed her hands in her pockets.
Jo shrugged. Part of her felt desperate relief that Shelley was going. With every second in Shelley’s presence, looking into those luminous gray eyes, smelling the scent that was perfume and tobacco and Shelley herself, she felt the urge to just toss everything she had, everything she’d built with Dave, to leave her daughters in the backyard and her sister staring into a candle flame, her mother in the kitchen and her husband at some bar, to jump into Shelley’s car and just go. But she couldn’t go. She could never leave her girls. They were her loves now; they were her life. “Good luck. I hope you’ll be happy,” she said, and Shelley’s voice was flat, her smile joyless as she said, “Yeah. You, too.” Jo had closed the door gently behind her and stood, with her forehead resting against the wood, listening as Kim and Missy came in through the back door, needing to go to the bathroom, needing their snowsuits unzipped, their boots pulled off, their noses wiped, clamoring for hot chocolate, saying
, Hurry, Mama, hurry!
“Jo?” On Judy Pressman’s living-room floor, her sister nudged
her. Jo could picture her sister’s face, her eyes wide-open in the dark.
Jo didn’t answer. Instead, she held still, making herself take long, slow breaths until, hopefully, she’d convinced Bethie that she’d fallen asleep. She couldn’t risk talking about Shelley. Not to Bethie, not to anyone. She had her girls, she had her house, she had a husband, and work. A car to drive, food to eat, books to read, miles to run, people in her life who loved her. It was enough, Jo told herself. It had to be enough.
ethie Kaufman didn’t know who her sister thought she was kidding, but Bethie was not fooled. All of Jo’s talk about how happy she was, how she was fine, how everything was great, and she loved her life and loved her husband and,
oh, let’s not talk about me, let’s talk about the girls
. Or OPEC, or the weather, or disco music, or the democratic elections in Spain. As if Bethie couldn’t see the way her sister’s gaze followed Nonie Scotto whenever Nonie was around. As if Bethie hadn’t noticed the small, subtle, possibly unconscious ways Jo found to put space between herself and her husband. If Dave was in the kitchen (rare, because he had a wife and two daughters, all well-versed in the art of beer- and snack-fetching), Jo was in the family room. If Dave was in the family room, sipping his fetched beer, munching on a plate of Wheat Thins and cheddar cheese that one of his women had prepared and watching
Wide World of Sports
, Jo was in the kitchen. If Dave was in the shower, singing Bee Gees songs loud enough for everyone in the house to hear, Jo was folding the laundry she’d washed or unloading the
groceries she’d purchased or making dinner, or getting the kids’ school lunches ready for the morning.
All the women in Avondale lived this way, as far as Bethie could tell. She’d opened Judy Pressman’s pantry and seen canned goods lined up, as regimented as soldiers in an army, all the labels facing the same way, and she’d peeked into Arlene Dubin’s purse and seen the bottle of Valium she’d expected to find, given the woman’s blank face and exhausted eyes. In Bethie’s opinion, Judy Pressman, with her intelligence and drive, should have been running an actual army, instead of just the PTA, and Poor Arlene should have told her husband to get himself snipped after their first two kids, and gone and gotten her tubes tied if he’d refused, if she could find a doctor who’d do it without her husband’s permission. And her big sister shouldn’t have been in the suburbs at all.
It made Bethie feel terrible. After all of her years of wandering and her symbolic rebirth, she had found her way to happiness, a life that left her fulfilled and connected—to the earth, to other women, to her country, to justice, to the world around her. Under Ronnie’s tutelage, she’d found her place in the struggle, for civil rights and women’s rights, for a world with no nukes and no wars, where every child was a wanted child and where abortion was legal and safe. Her life had meaning. She wrote pamphlets and ran off copies; she organized rallies and demonstrations and get-out-the-vote efforts, and cooked giant pots of
and dal for the nights they had meetings or consciousness-raising groups at Blue Hill Farm. Even on the days where all she was doing was collecting cash for pints of raspberries or bushels of peaches, she knew that some of that money would go to help resettle Vietnamese orphans, or to help a scared, pregnant teenager who didn’t want to have a baby and didn’t have the money for even the bottom rung of Planned Parenthood’s sliding scale.
Bethie knew that her life was unconventional—and if she hadn’t known, she’d have her mother’s monthly letters to remind her.
I’m glad you are Happy but I hope you will Settle Down and find a Good Man to take Care of you
, Sarah would write, using
her own idiosyncratic capitalization and punctuation marks. Bethie knew that Sarah wanted her and Jo to both have what she’d enjoyed, however briefly—a man’s patronage, his last name, his love and support, with all the benefits that conveyed. With a husband, Bethie would be able to own a house, take out car loans and credit cards, and avoid the dozens of pairs of politely raised eyebrows, the none-too-subtle glances at her bare ring finger that she encountered every day and week, the women whose expressions became sympathetic when they asked,
Oh? No husband? No kids?
, she would say, her own expression friendly, her voice firm.
She had work, friends, a life with meaning, and, lately, a life with possibilities, if she could just convince the rest of the collective that the military-industrial war machine was not lubricated by the proceeds from selling peach jam. And what did Jo and her suburban sisters have? What did they do all day? Drive the carpool. Clip coupons. Buy groceries. Bleach the whites, iron the shirts, roll the socks into balls. Make the beds, make the meals, make their husbands happy. A few years back, Bethie had sent Jo a copy of Shere Hite’s
Sexual Honesty: By Women for Women
, and a note saying
I bet this would make for an interesting book club discussion!
The book, with its thesis that normal women only achieved orgasm from clitoral stimulation, not intercourse, had prompted a lively discussion among the ladies of Blue Hill Farm. Bethie had even heard that there were workshops in New York City and its suburbs where the leaders would pass out hand mirrors and anatomy charts and show women who’d considered themselves frigid how it was done. Bethie assumed that Jo had to be sexually frustrated, and she worried, as soon as the book was in the mail, that her sister would simply attribute her lack of fulfillment to Dave’s ineptitude, not her orientation, but if Jo ever read the book, she never said a word. A few months later, Bethie had sent
The Stepford Wives
, but again, if Jo had ever cracked the spine of the story of how a Connecticut engineer had turned the town’s wives into docile, compliant robots, she never said so.
Bethie was a liberated woman, and her sister was still in chains, and it was Jo whom Bethie thought of when she’d led a Passover Seder at Blue Hill Farm, using the Freedom Haggadah, the previous spring.
When one person is in bondage none of us are free.
Her job, as she saw it, was to break Jo’s chains, to return Jo to the freedom that she’d lost, to let Jo have the kind of life she wanted, which, clearly, could not be the life that she currently had.
The morning after the blizzard, Bethie awoke to a world all in white. In Judy Pressman’s harvest-gold kitchen, she made herself a cup of tea and watched out the window, sitting in the stillness, until the plows came to clear the roads and Dave made it back over the mountain, coming through the door like he was Alexander who’d made it across the Alps. Jo and Bethie and Dave and the girls spent the day shoveling out the driveway and digging a path from the driveway to the front door. Kim and Missy worked alongside their mother and father with kid-sized shovels, and Bethie enjoyed the cold, the wind’s bite on her cheeks, the snowflakes sparkling in the sunshine. In the backyard, she and the girls built an igloo, tall enough for Kim to stand up in. Jo had helped for a while, before drifting back into the house to start dinner. The girls had set the table, Kim folding each napkin precisely, Missy flinging silverware in the general direction of the plates. Dave sat at the head of the table and made a production of tucking his napkin under his chin to protect his shirt. His nails were buffed, maybe even polished, Bethie saw, and his hair was suspiciously poufy, like he’d sprayed it with something before coming to the table.