Issue 159, Fall 2001
She surveys the room where she has slept all the eighteen years of her life: the old brass bed, the pink armchair in the corner where she has read so many books, the Queen Anne tallboy where she has kept her sweaters and her secrets-the diary where she recorded what she did and the one where she wrote down her fantasies, which her mother discovered and believed to be real. Questioned about it, Sheila told her mother it was all made up. 'Tm glad to hear it! The thought of your doing something of that kind!” her mother said, referring, Sheila presumes, to the nude swims in the dark, dangerous water of the Indian Ocean with a mysterious stranger.
She checks the drawers of the tallboy to make sure she has packed everything. Her embroidered silk underwear with the new monogram, her white lace nightdress for the wedding night, her chiffon dresses, her patent-leather pumps and her seed pearls lie neatly in the maroon suitcase with its nylon lining on the table under the window.
She has promised her mother she will go to bed early tonight to prepare for what her mother calls the Big Day, but she wants to take a drive into the city for the last time in her unmarried life. She tiptoes past her mother's room, down the carpeted stairs and through the hall, past the big bouquet of peonies in the tureen and steps out the Dutch door. She stands a moment in the hot garden, now quiet as a cemetery, and looks back at the white, gabled house. She breathes in the smell of freshly cut grass and roses and compost as though she has never done it before. She feels a weight on her heart. She is wide open to the rooks caw-cawing, to the gold light, to the brightness in the air, to the solemn hush, the strange, dreamlike clarity of the outlines of things.
She climbs into the leather seat of the long, low sports car, another of her mother's wedding gifts to the young couple.
The car salesman had stroked its shiny black bonnet with a grin and said to her fiancé, “Watch out for this leopard.” Dave likes to drive fast cars.
He will be getting dead drunk with his tennis-playing friends at his bachelor party. Her mother, thank goodness, will be eating her supper on a tray in her room, her face plastered with mask.
Sheila searches for the car keys through the confusion of objects in her heavy handbag, making the little charms on her bracelet jingle: the tickets for Paris, the travelers checks, the passport. She has left the keys on the dresser in her room.
She is always forgetting or misplacing things. She leaves the handbag on the seat of the car and tiptoes back up the stairs past her mother's room. She thinks of her mother saying, “It is services, not love, that make a marriage last,” though her mother's marriage did not last, ending after only a few years with her husband's heart attack. He was a man much older than she, whose money assured that she would not have to perform services for anyone else.
Sheila thinks of the services she has performed for her mother over the years: the parties she has attended, dragging herself away from her books, standing alone on the dance floor in a tight dress and fixing some young man in the eye so that he could not refuse. Her mother has required her to be popular, not an unreasonable requirement, after all, but one she has had to work as hard at as though she were learning Sanskrit. She remembers asking her mother once, sitting in the bath, a plump, gray-eyed, little girl, “What do I have to do to be popular, Mummy?”
With her keys in hand, she throws her handbag onto the car floor and struggles with the unfamiliar stick shift. She can never get the damned thing into reverse. She takes off with a lurch and descends the steep road. She likes to drive alone through the blue hills in the evening light, the window open, the steamy air on her face, the flat flamboyants, with their wild red flowers, flashing past her like paradise. She presses on the accelerator, speeding toward the city that lies below her in the valley by the sea.