by Kim Whitehead
After thirty-nine years of marriage, Naomi knows her husband is a man of imperatives rather than interrogatives, a trait she long ago relegated to the list of shortcomings one chooses to tolerate in a spouse. So she is not surprised on the morning Philip calls to tell her to meet him at Bartram’s for lunch, and she knows that, as always, a question is curled silently inside his command, and she could refuse. But she sees no need to be obstinate, for her mind is made up—she is leaving him.
In his mind, from what she can tell from their strained phone conversations, she is moping out on her mother’s farm, childishly refusing to pick up their old life where they left it when she got sick. “It’s been eighteen months since you were diagnosed, Naomi,” Philip says still. “Eighteen months.” He emphasizes the words, like he is accusing her of something. And he is—she is no longer adhering to his definition of time, the one she submitted to all those years while patiently checking off another item on the list of his foibles. For Philip, biding time is loafing and waiting is out of the question. He has always taken time by the horns, ordering and arranging it and pushing it forward with his well-laid plans. Naomi also hears disappointment in his accusation—after all, he thinks she is losing all sense of discipline and propriety just as they are approaching what he has always plotted out as their crowning years, he sliding into luxurious retirement from his highly successful tenure as senior partner at Nelson, Mann, and Collier, Attorneys at Law, she merrily continuing as his sparkling wife through organized tours of Italy and charity golf tournaments.
So she drives toward town, toward Bartram’s, where she and Philip have been regulars for years. They are guaranteed to be seen—his business associates will be gathered in tight little packs, the women will be stopping by for a bite after knitting club or painting class. The women—she used to call them her friends, but now she realizes they are really just the wives of Philip’s friends. The women will have spread the word, she is sure, that she is staying out on the farm; there has been talk and there will be more. In her younger days she would have said aloud to herself, “I couldn’t care less,” fully aware that her adamant declaration was its own disproof. Now, as she parks behind Philip’s Mercedes in front of the restaurant, she says it loudly, convincingly, ready to believe she might mean it.
Bartram’s occupies the first two floors of one of the historic downtown’s finest old homes. Ordinarily, the preservationists would have cried foul about any effort to turn such a landmark into a commercial enterprise, but it was just one block off Main Street, kept passing from one owner to another, and was slowly falling apart. So now, in the renovated mansion, the town’s wealthy mix with the daily spate of tourists at the massive mahogany bar that the owner had shipped up from New Orleans and at tables cozily arranged around the fireplaces lined in European tiles, circa 1830s. The ceilings go to sixteen feet—the tourists marvel at how much it must cost to heat and cool the place, while the locals, being wealthy and many of them living in houses with similar ceilings, never bother to think of such a thing. The style of the house is Federal, less common in this part of Mississippi, and Naomi has always found the brick and black shutters too somber and imposing.
But it is not just Bartram’s. Over the years, the town’s sheer abundance of antebellum architecture has begun to feel oppressive. This is one of the reasons she has escaped to her mother’s farmhouse, a folk Victorian she likes to call it, the charm of its wrap-around porch countered by its slightly lopsided appearance and the one-room additions that asymmetrically jut out of its sides. She likes to sit in her mother’s kitchen, with its dingy linoleum and plain pine cabinets, and think how appalled the women would be if they set foot in it. For one, its floors have never once, in the eighty-plus years of its existence, felt the footfall of a domestic servant, “housekeepers” as they call them in the women’s genteel circle, usually black, usually dressed in some sort of uniform, always silent, still the way she imagines they must have been in the 1950s. Naomi has always refused one in her own house, opting instead for a cleaning service before parties and hired caterers at the events themselves. She owes this in part to her mother and her mother before her, who couldn’t have afforded servants if they had wanted them, but more than anything were tirelessly determined to do their own work in their own way, getting it right themselves as a matter of pride. Except for the obvious, tangible difference of race, she feels her mother has more in common with the housekeepers than with the women.
One of the women, Belinda Nabors, hires a team of eight for two weeks in November to erect eight different Christmas trees at strategic points in her 1840s Italianate. Naomi pictures Belinda visiting the farmhouse, pursing her lips in silent dismay as she walks gingerly across the slanted floor and spots the pitted white enamel of the sink and drying board. Naomi likes to imagine inviting Belinda and the rest of the women to drive out into the country and sit at the scarred old kitchen table for a game of bridge. She likes to think of how they would skirt their eyes around the room when they thought she wasn’t looking, the way they would lift her mother’s tea glasses slightly, checking in the light for cracks and other signs of daily use before taking tentative sips.
It’s not as if these women are not nostalgic—one walk through any of their to-period homes in the historic district will confirm how deeply they are. And it’s not that she doesn’t appreciate the past—she spent twenty years as a fifth-grade history teacher, after all—but the women and their husbands have acquired, through a combination of meticulous research and diligent searching on the right antique circuits, the lavish trappings of a way of life Naomi’s family never knew. Many of their own families never, in fact, knew it either, but they gloss over this as they happily describe the various uses plantation owners made of the antebellum china that graces their massive sideboards or moan gleefully about the travails of ordering red glass from Italy to replace a windowpane. Though Philip has pushed her, Naomi has resisted as much of this preservation—swanky play-acting she calls it—as she can. The original chandeliers hang in their own antebellum Georgian, and though she detests them, every year she hires a handyman to climb a ladder and dust the crystal droplets. She keeps the massive mahogany staircase banister polished, too, and given the ceiling height and room size, has had no choice but to agree to furniture of what she considers monstrous size, but otherwise the house is livable. They can actually sit on the couches in the first-floor den, put their feet up on ottomans, and watch television.
Philip is waiting for her at the bar. He has one hand on Jim Edwards’ shoulder and is gesturing with a wine glass in the other. Jim is junior partner in the firm, and Philip likes to imagine himself his mentor.
Naomi stops in front of them. She doesn’t look around to see who else might be in the restaurant. Let them look, she thinks. She has no reason to look back.
At their table, Philip is polite, but she can feel his resentment wrap around her like wool in the summer heat. He is dressed like he’s on his way to court after lunch—immaculate white shirt, tie knotted tightly in place, perfectly intact creases in his pants. He has the permanent air of someone very satisfied in his own skin, but she knows how to read the uneasiness in the corners of his eyes. He stiffly asks what she has been doing with her time.
She can’t possibly tell him that her sense of time has been ruled by the heat of the July days, when it is too sweltering to work in the garden and she drives into town to sit without talking in the air-conditioned nursing home holding her mother’s hand, and the lingering evening light, when she picks pole beans with Buddy the dog, who has shifted his allegiance to her as easily as if she were in fact her mother, at her heels. She can’t possibly tell him that her sense of time is ruled by the season, that memory has come to her like a beat in her blood that the blackberries ripen this time of summer on the south fence at the back of the pasture, and so she and Buddy head out at dawn, when the gold light on the fields is slant and warm.
She feels relaxed, leans back in her chair. “I’ve been busy,” she says. “Making jam. Putting up beans.” This is all she wants to say. She sees no reason to tell him that she had to search for a while through the pantry to find the pestle and strainer her mother used all those years for getting juice from the berries. And she won’t tell him she was leery of the ancient canner, though she has seen her mother use it summer after summer—it looks practically medieval, a hulking, pocked contraption with a pressure gauge the size of a baseball—but that now she gets it hissing cooperatively on the stove every few afternoons, sealing the jars of beans she then arranges on the everyday linen tablecloth her mother has kept on the kitchen table for as long as she can remember. She won’t describe how she groups the finished jam next to the beans and admires the contrast of purple and green through the glass of her mother’s old Ball jars.
“That’s what you’ve been doing out there? Canning?” She hears the disgust in his voice, his judgment that she is frivolously wasting time. She knows he’s wondering what could be more fruitless—and she knows he’s so single-minded in this conviction, he would miss even this basic pun—than toiling hour after hour just to put away a few jars of food against some threat of future deprivation. “Why, Naomi? I just don’t get it.”
She smiles at him teasingly. “You used to like Mama’s jam.”
She can tell he’s a little unsure of his footing now, that he’s never seen her so blithely indifferent to what he thinks. “That’s completely beside the point,” he says, “and you know it.”
She smiles at him again and thinks how it would annoy him to see her padding around in her mother’s kitchen wearing her mother’s worn handmade apron, the one with the red bric-a-brac around the edge. She has loved that apron since she was eight, when her mother told her that she made it when she was pregnant with her. It is rather somber—dark green broadcloth scattered with strange black geometric shapes—but a little wild, too, not the kind of apron a demure, contented housewife would wear.
Philip looks at his watch, clearly impatient now. She can see that he thought meeting her this way, on neutral territory (though certainly it isn’t, is it really?), would give him the chance he needed to sweep up the mess she is making of her life and still make it to court with time to spare.
She takes a big bite of her salad and enjoys it. Just at that moment, she catches sight of Sissy Jordan and Patricia Mitchum across the way. They both begin waving, Naomi thinks a little too eagerly. She gives them the same languid smile she has given Philip and then turns back. “I know you haven’t admitted it in years, Philip, but you can’t always understand everything I do. I’m not a robot.”
Naomi cannot help herself—she is rather proud of the blank look that spreads over Philip’s face at this moment. She has actually rendered him speechless. She knows she should feel bad, but she doesn’t, she can’t. Though the idea of her immediate future has emerged in tiny bits, though it is not calculated, plotted out on paper like a financial plan or a travel itinerary, it is deliberate. She can feel it now. She has a plan, and she is moving forward with it.
She sometimes feels guilty that she has not lived up to Philip’s idea of the wife she should be. He took a risk marrying her—she knew that from the beginning. His respected family would have liked him to choose someone from another respected family, but he picked her even though she went to the public school, recognizing in her a fineness, a fluid grace, that he knew would eventually make her acceptable to the country club crowd, but also an eagerness he found missing in the girls of his family’s circle. He made no bones about this, and she did not mind—then, in her youthful dreaminess, she wanted that acceptance. She thought the in-town life was one of ease, especially for the brides of young men like Philip, who did not have to sew their own clothes or tend gardens all summer long. Philip promised to take her to New Orleans and eventually to Europe, to give her experiences no one else in her family had ever even thought they might want—promises he kept, though as the years passed, the strange hollow she found at the center of this life kept her from completely becoming the woman she had tacitly agreed she would be.
Naomi thinks about all of this in her mother’s house. She sits at the kitchen table, fingering the warm jars of beans and jam and running her palms over the worn tablecloth. So much of her mother is still in this house. When Naomi heard the words breast cancer, when her hair was falling out, when she felt eternally fatigued, she came to her mother and this old farmhouse. Now her mother lies in the nursing home inching closer to death every day and she herself is still wandering that ethereal zone between disease and normalcy. The doctor has said she should get on with her life as usual, but which life exactly is that? She does not know. She only knows the comfort she feels among her mother’s things.
Belinda and the other women would expect her to feel some of this comfort, but only as another form of nostalgia: Her life is so much better than her mother’s was, isn’t it? Isn’t she still relieved and glad that she has not had to work her fingers to the bone the way her mother did all those years? Isn’t it just a blessing that Philip took her away from the kind of life her mother, and her sisters too, had to live? Sometimes she feels little waves of guilt about the women as well—in their rather plastic way, they have tried very hard to be nice to her. They long ago decided to take Naomi on as a special project—she was after all a beautifully petite and graceful woman, with all the possibilities for refined elegance one expected of a woman in their circle. But she was forever resisting them, going to college after her son and daughter were old enough to go to school, working because she wanted to (and in a public school no less), spending less time on the conventions of historic preservation and country club life than they would have liked.
Philip briefly looks like he’d love nothing better than to bolt out the door, but he pulls his chair closer and reaches across the table to cover Naomi’s hand with his own. He cocks his head to one side and puts on his pleading face, and his voice goes to sugar in a way she has heard only on the rarest of occasions since before they were married. “I don’t know any other way to say this than just to say it. Please come home. It’s not the same without you.” He sounds like the lead in a bad romantic comedy, but she thinks she sees real emotion in his eyes. “I’m not the same without you.”
Naomi can’t be completely cynical about this. Every other feeling she has had today has surprised her in its genuineness, but this one does not: she cannot deny that she still loves her husband. The promise to love him forever did not guarantee that, but almost forty years and two children together have. Still, the ground under her feet has shifted. She’s a little mixed up about where she is, but she knows she doesn’t want to try to find her way back to the home that Philip is, at least not now. This feeling, like the warmth of one of her husband’s fine whiskeys spreading through her chest, is also real.
She knows people are watching them from various corners of the restaurant, but she doesn’t hesitate: she bends down and kisses the back of Philip’s hand where it rests on top of hers. Then she looks back at him, looks him square in the eyes. “Not now,” she says. “I don’t know when.”
Philip stares back at her, speechless again. She sees the lost look in his eyes and recognizes it. He will have to deal with it the same way she is—alone. She kisses his hand one more time and then calmly and slowly is up and away from the table, past the cozy tables, past the massive fireplaces, under the chandeliers. She knows how intently people are watching her. She knows Philip is watching her. She knows they think they know what they are seeing—a self-absorbed woman unnecessarily spurning her hurting husband, gliding out the door like she actually has someplace to go.
Well, thinks Naomi as she clip-clops down the old brick steps, at least they’re partly right.
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