She supposed (at least for awhile) that one could never have too many skirts. They were sensible and well made. They were easy to pack for long trips; this part she assumed, as it had been a long while since she and Vern had taken any trips.
This was Vernon’s fault. Everyone thought it, she knew they did.
It wasn’t even the dementia. He was cold, always. But he wanted things. He wanted to travel. He wanted to spend time with their boys and later their men.
Now she had an empty house (she could not be responsible for him, and besides, he could not remember, but she visited as often as she could) and a hundred skirts she could not wear. Barbara selected gingerly a faded, blue jean skirt. She tugged it over her hips, sighing heavily. She wouldn’t look in the mirror this time. It took so long to put on any foundation–forget the rouge–and somehow looking in the mirror made her face wet.
Vern had looked at her that way, too. That was the worst part. Getting rounder and lower isn’t so bad; it’s not great, but there are worse things.
That cold stare, the unspoken revulsion. It splintered Barbara’s soul.
He wasn’t having an affair now, of course. He did not know who he was, and he would not know to be repulsed by his wife. He had affairs when he was younger–several. One called once. What was her name? Barbara tried to remember, but her mind was blank.
The girl called the house just as if it were a movie. Barbara remembers it that way, a low melody playing their silent dinner, the phone startling them. Barbara folding the napkin and placing it on the left side of the plate, then the right. Barbara plucking the phone from the receiver, lifting it to her ear. Barbara not having the chance to say “hello,” because the woman (clearly much younger than even their youngest boy) began crying. The name “Vern” laced with “love” and “leave” was cast out at Barbara like a fist; she crumbled under the weight.
Vern was there, Barbara sees now. He stood sternly, pulling the phone from her hand. He listened for a few moments before barking, “do not call me here.” He hung up without a goodbye. He stepped over Barbara and took his place at the head of the table.
The boys and Vern looked on. Barbara could see even then the very clear choices she could make.
She pulled herself up heavily, narrowing her eyes at Vern.
She righted herself, lengthening her spine.
“After sinner–dinner we’ll have cookies. I’ve forgotten the milk.” She sat at her place on the opposite end, her face burning. She was glad then that her face was dark enough to hide her embarrassment, wondering if the girl from the phone blushed. She wondered if Vern liked it.
Vern offered no explanation and Barbara did not request one. Vern was not violent, but he was cruel. She thought, often, that the cruelty was worse.
He did not apologize and Barbara didn’t even leave the bedroom that time.
Or even the next two. Vern did not hide them, and Barbara pretended not to care.
When Jon left, she left. The house was already cool, and the spare bedroom was much warmer. It was a sensible move. For a moment Barbara wondered if Vern would ask her back.
He never did.
Their vacations did not taper off. They stopped abruptly, mid-sentence. One year they went down to one of the Carolina’s–North? And the next Vern purchased a new subscription to the local paper and a membership to the country club for each of them, but did not plan the trip.
Barbara wonders now if she should have. Vern did those things and she would not have known how. It would not have been proper, and besides, what would people think?
With trembling hands she pours cream into her coffee, counting out eight sugar cubes. No one would walk through the door to stop her, but she looked over her shoulder as she stirred, just in case.
She glanced at the clock on the wall and waited. Intuitively it rang, shrilly and metallic in the small room. She picked up the receiver and spoke, “Good morning, Jon.”
This was their routine. Jon, her youngest, calling to check on her. This was his way.
He loved her. Usually they spoke about their plans or a funny story they had heard.
Today she thought of his daughter. Not the oldest. She was in Pittsburg and would be home for Christmas. She thought of the other.
The one they didn’t mention.
She wasn’t dead. Barbara knew that sometimes families didn’t mention the ones who died.
In the beginning she wished that she had never been, but she never told anyone.
She didn’t even think God knew.
Barbara rifled through her memory, but she could not remember the last time her eyes touched his other daughter. In her mind the girl was still a child, but that wouldn’t be right.
She would be a woman now.
Barbara wondered if the girl hated her. She supposed that this was a bit presumptuous, to think that the girl would remember her.
She did not hate Jon’s daughter. She was just…a nuisance. A forgotten thing that, once remembered, drained and beat you. Barbara’s life was large by anyone’s standards and there was simply no room for the other girl. Barbara tried to leave the thoughts, but they followed her.
There were so many spaces to be filled there, so many unaccounted for pieces in this puzzle that Barbara had created. Barbara had always hated the mother–that was still true. The mother was just so right. Always so right.
And better. She didn’t say it. But it was there, in her eyes. She looked at you as if she knew you. She knew what terrible things you thought. She would tell you what she thought and no one checked her. She had freedom and she was a new woman.
She was nothing like Barbara.
Barbara thought of the conversation she had years ago, when Jon wondered if he was wrong.
She told him he had done all he could. “You can’t do anything. Her mother is crazy. You’ve done everything.” Barbara’s voice soothed him. Barbara’s lie sated him.
But there was the nuisance. She existed out there. Barbara’s friends did not know. Family had forgotten. She told them that it was the mother–crazy. Took her all the way to Georgia. Changed her number.
Barbara swallowed heavily. The burden of the lie lay at the forefront of her mind and she could not release it.
“I’m tired,” she offered Jon. He replied as she hung up the phone.
She entered the bedroom again, ready to discard the skirt. She did so.
She stood in front of the mirror, transfixed.
Her reflection wore a skirt.
Her reflection was her. . . And not her.
Her reflection spoke.
“Why?” In the back of her mind Barbara considered the absurdity of this. She considered that she was finally going crazy. Vern didn’t like animals, so she didn’t even have a brave dog that they speak about in the news, one who would call the emergency services when she invariably passed out and did not awaken.
And yet she answered, “why what?”
“Why did you think about her now?” Her reflection demanded.
Barbara responded with a question. “Who are you? Am I dying?”
“Yes,” her reflection replied. It did not mince words. It was cold and unsmiling.
“Why do you look like me,” Barbara asked Death. Death did not answer.
“What if I’m not ready?” Barbara asked. Her reflection–Death–stared into her, unwavering.
“Make yourself ready.” Barbara blinked and Death was gone.
People thought of her as a good person. She was a good person. She wasn’t perfect but she was good.
In her mind the words turned to sawdust and were meaningless.
She formed an apology, an explanation, but nothing came.
Death returned. Death returned while the words, “I’m proud of you” hung on Barbara’s lips, while they stood around and begged her to stay. She prayed the words off and she left.
A thousand miles away the girl, now a woman, felt an unfamiliar chill cross her cheek.