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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 13

Rebecca Wells


  People can be nurse logs, too, she thought. Rich, generous, deeply well-mannered.

  After her walk, Sidda stepped into the Quinault Mercantile, the general store that served the area. She was surprised to discover that they had a rental videotape of Gone With the Wind.

  As she pulled cash from the pocket of her jacket, the fellow at the cash register said, “You carry any videos at all, then you got to have old Scarlett and Rhett. Even the Japanese want to see them.”

  Back at the cabin, Sidda laid a fire in the fireplace. With rain falling outside, a bowl of popcorn, and a Diet Coke on the table in front of her, she leaned forward from her spot on the sofa, and, with the remote control held tightly in her hand, screened Gone With the Wind.

  As she watched, she rewound the tape again and again, playing certain scenes over and over. She anticipated certain moments and fast forwarded to them, pausing the tape to analyze dialogue, lighting, pacing, scenery. Then, rewinding, she studied the buildup. From there, she’d rewind to find certain touches, details she thought she might have missed; she’d turn off the volume during certain scenes just to observe the visuals.

  By the time she was done, almost six hours had passed. Her hand was cramped from her vise grip on the remote control. She flicked off the TV, stretched, and let Hueylene out. Glancing at her watch, Sidda wondered how it could possibly have grown so late. She thought about Connor, and pictured his body the way it looked when he was asleep. Does he turn in his sleep, she wondered, like I do, here alone, ready to spoon, belly to back?

  She lifted Hueylene up onto the sofa with her and the two of them lay staring at the dying fire. Although this was the first time she’d seen Gone With the Wind in years, it was as if she had been watching the film every day of her life in some hidden screening room of her own.

  Sidda remembered how as a teenager she used to worry constantly whether the boy she was in love with at the time was a Rhett or an Ashley. If he was an Ashley, she’d want a Rhett. If he was a Rhett, she’d long for an Ashley. Every girl she met she’d subject to a “Scarlett/Melanie” rating. If the girl weighed in as a Melanie, she was to be pitied. If the meter leaned toward Scarlett, the girl wasn’t to be trusted.

  How different her own first viewing of the movie was from her mother’s experience. She had seen the epic upon its rerelease in 1967. Her date was some boy whose name she now could not recall. Sidda remembered how the boy held her hand, how his sweaty palm had distracted her. How she’d pulled away during the most intense scenes because she’d wanted to concentrate on the drama alone.

  As Sidda lay on the sofa, she envisioned Vivi as a girl, holding hands with her girlfriends, enfolded in the dark womb of Loew’s Theater. She imagined Vivi’s reddish-brown eyes grow wide as the Technicolor burst across the screen, ushering in “A time of Ladies and Knights, the last ones.” She felt her mother’s goose bumps when Big Jim opened the movie by reprimanding the other slaves: “I’m de foreman. I says when it’s quittin time.”

  Sidda stroked Hueylene’s chin. Vivien Leigh and Victor Fleming and David Selznick and Clark Gable grabbed Mama, she thought. And didn’t let her go for three hours and forty-eight minutes, with the exception of an intermission when she was too dazed to go get refreshments. Mama was thirteen years old and she didn’t know that part of what she was feeling was the confusion that comes from three, four different male directors biting into Margaret Mitchell’s romance. Mama didn’t know how close the emotional bones of the story were to Miss Mitchell’s own life. Mama didn’t know that she was being fed a regurgitation of the mythic South.

  Mama did not think; Mama just felt. Her palms sweated in the palms of her girlfriends. Her eyes moistened, her heart beat fast, her eyes tracked Vivien Leigh. Unconsciously, Mama began to raise her own right eyebrow and believe that every man in the world adored her. Without knowing, Mama stepped into the tiny tight boots of Scarlett O’Hara. And Mama would do anything for the rest of her life to keep that drama going.

  I want to live in this movie, Necie! This is the kind of drama I was born for.

  There, with Gable’s lips two feet tall, Mama couldn’t pause, rewind, or fast forward. She was at the mercy of the myth.

  But not completely. Mama hurled that plate. She might not have been able to explain why, but she hauled off and hurled that plate at James Junior, that bratty little white-racist-society ninny baby.

  Oh, Mama, you are the star of your own movie, Sidda thought. You are waving from the back of the convertible. As much as I want to, I cannot direct the scene.

  Sidda thought about Ginger. She remembered the birthday parties Buggy gave for Ginger, a tradition started by Delia. When Delia was alive, those parties were something everybody looked forward to. When Delia died, Vivi and Jack, the various cousins, uncles, and aunts, gathered at Buggy’s for the celebration. Ginger was always the only black person present.

  Sidda remembered Ginger as a strong-willed woman who got a kick out of Vivi. Like Delia, Ginger did not care much for Buggy. At the parties, Vivi and Ginger would sit and smoke cigarettes together, and Ginger would tell wild stories about trips she’d taken with Delia all over the country after Sidda’s great-grandfather died.

  Sidda remembered how resentful Buggy was about the way Vivi and Ginger carried on. The way Vivi and Ginger would spike their cups of birthday punch with gin and grin and wink, just to drive Buggy crazy.

  “Miz Vivi,” Ginger used to say to Sidda, “done got Miz Delia’s high spirits. High spirits done skipped Miz Buggy, gone straight to you mama.”

  Sidda roused herself from the sofa. Was there a photo of Ginger anywhere in the scrapbook?

  She combed the album, but could not locate one. What she did find was a photo of herself as an infant. Sidda knew it was herself because underneath was written “Baby Sidda w/ Melinda.” Melinda, a heavy black woman dressed in the starched uniform of a practical nurse, held Sidda in the crook of her arm. Melinda did not smile, but stared straight into the camera as though on watch.

  Black women, Sidda thought. They changed my diapers, fed me, bathed me, and dressed me. They helped me learn to crawl, talk, walk, and get out of harm’s way, even when the harm was my mother. They hand-washed my underwear, and in turn were given my old dresses to take home to their daughters. They did the same for Mama, and now they’re doing the same thing for my nieces.

  Sidda thought of Willetta, the black woman who helped raise her during most of her childhood. Willetta, over six feet tall, a face that looked part Choctaw, a smile that revealed crooked teeth and a forgiving heart.

  Willetta, you risked your job and the roof over your head to come to the big house and protect us from Mama that Sunday afternoon. You are the one who put salve on my body where the belt had struck. When Mama went beyond control. Did Mama, in some secret place, hate the four of us?

  Willetta, now almost eighty, still cleaned Vivi and Shep’s house. Sidda and Willetta still exchanged letters. Vivi’s jealousy of their affection did not keep Willetta and Sidda from loving each other.

  Is jealousy a gene passed down like blonde hair or brown eyes?

  Sidda cannot think about her mother without thinking about Willetta. And yet she can barely unravel her relationship with her white mother, let alone her black one.

  What is my civil war about? Is it the fear of being held in the warmth of familiar love versus the fear of running through the fog, searching for love? Each holds its own terrors, extracts its own pound of flesh.

  Flesh. Now we draw closer. The question is: can I love Connor, who will die someday, any day, the smell of his shoulders becoming only a memory. Can I soften to love, with full knowledge of the suffering I welcome in? Thomas Merton said the love we most cherish will, of necessity, bring us pain. Because that love is like the setting of a body with broken bones.

  But I want to stage the setting;I want to direct all scenes.

  Sidda crawled back onto the sofa, lay back, and invited Hueylene to curl up close. As she drifted off, she i
magined the Ya-Yas in the Coca-Cola Palace. Teensy commands them to climb into the big claw-footed bathtub filled with hot water. She extravagantly pours in French bath salts that rich Aunt Louise (“Do Not Call Me Lou”) has left for guests. Their bodies are young and smooth, buds of breasts scarcely announcing themselves, pubic hair barely filling in. Their legs remain unshaved, not yet enveloped in the brand-new nylon stockings introduced only months before. One girl is propped against the back of the tub. Another leans into her, her body fitting between the first one’s legs. And yet another girl leans against that girl, and they float in a tub in a neutral nation while Hitler penetrates countries in a world far away. They soak in a country newly pulled out of depression by the European orders for guns and tanks and weapons of war that the Ya-Yas do not yet know about. The war they are concerned about happened eighty years before. And they agree with Scarlett that all this talk of war can ruin a party.

  This is my mother in the bath with her sister-friends. Her skin is pink from the hot water. Her hair is wet in curls around her forehead. Long before her body held mine inside. When her pelvic bones stuck out and her belly was still concave. Before her body, in its search for peace, discovered bourbon and its comfort and its prison.

  Sidda wants some of that Ya-Ya innocence. She wants girlfriends to hold her hands.

  At four o’clock in the morning, Sidda woke up on the sofa. She lay there and remembered how, throughout her childhood, Vivi made fun of the term Junior League. Until Sidda was eight years old, she thought the name Junior League was one word: “juneyaleeg.” And she thought it meant the same thing as “idiotic” or “disgusting.”

  This belief was not challenged until one night at her girlfriend M’lain Chauvin’s house. They were sitting at the dining-room table when one of the young Chauvin boys pulled a garter snake out of his shirt pocket and upset the whole room. Everyone was shocked, and to express her repugnance, Sidda loudly exclaimed, “Oh, how juneyaleeg!”

  Their maid immediately removed the critter, and Mrs. Chauvin nailed Sidda with a frown.

  “What in the world did you just say, Siddalee?”

  “Juneyaleeg,” Sidda explained. “It means something terrible.”

  Mrs. Chauvin raised an eyebrow and shot her husband a look.

  Later, after Sidda’s own breasts bloomed, and boys pinned orchids on her prom gowns and what to wear to Cotillion became a pressing concern, she came to realize just what power the Junior League had in the social world of Thornton, Louisiana—and precisely where Mrs. Abby Chauvin, née Barbour, fit in.

  Tonight, though, in a cabin twenty-five hundred miles from Thornton, Sidda decided to return to her original understanding of the term.

  Def. juneyaleeg:Ya-Ya term for phonus-balonus. or. 1939.

  Sidda got up off the sofa, brushed her teeth, and got into bed.

  I must sleep now, she told herself. I must climb into my berth and dream while the train rolls on. Angels of the Southern Crescent, fluff my pillows, please. Let moonlight bathe me in my slumber. I’m a second-generation Ya-Ya on a long, long trip.

  12

  The next day around noon, Sidda woke to the sound of really loud, really bad singing. Wade Coenen and May Sorenson stood on the deck of the cabin and belted old disco tunes at the top of their voices until Sidda got up out of bed to open the door to the deck.

  “I love the night life! I got to boogie!” they belted as Sidda sleepily stared at the two of them. May’s inch-long black hair stood up in little tufts, and Wade’s long blond tresses flowed down his shoulders and onto his cotton tank top. May wore a baggy little pair of Hawaiian print shorts and a T-shirt with a picture of a woman looking shocked, a bubble of thought drifting up from her head, which read, “Oh, no! I forgot to have children!”

  They each held bags of groceries.

  “Hey, girlfriend,” Wade said. “You said Connor couldn’t come visit, but you didn’t say a word about us.”

  Sidda gave them each kisses. “You brought the sun. I don’t believe it! It’s been Gore-Tex weather for days.”

  “We specialize in psychic weather control,” May said.

  “Come on in,” Sidda said.

  Wade led the way into the cabin with a flourish. “How positively Northwest Native!” he said.

  “Yah, you betcha,” May said. “Das the Sorensons.”

  “The place is great, May,” Sidda said, peeking into the grocery bag. “Yum. Goodies.”

  “We only hope and pray that we aren’t interrupting a deep existential soul search,” Wade said, walking toward the kitchen.

  “From Connor,” May said, pulling out an envelope and two bottles of Veuve Cliquot from the bag. “He told us to leave you alone, that you only wanted to communicate by mail, but when we refused to obey, he sent this.”

  Sidda studied the envelope, which was hand-decorated with Connor’s calligraphy and little drawings of flowers. She suppressed a little shiver of excitement at the sight of his handwriting and tucked the envelope away to read later.

  “Thank you,” Sidda said, “Here, I’ll put the bubbles in the fridge.”

  “Oh, Madame Voilanska,” Wade said. “How unspeakably rude! Your paramour sends the elixir of the gods, and you dare to hide it away in the cold darkness of the Frigidaire?! Au contraire! We must drink this now. Champagne goes bad very quickly when you’re near a rain forest. Isn’t that true, Bitch Goddess of the May?”

  “Absolutely,” May said.

  “You two sound like my mother,” Sidda said, shaking her head.

  “Your mother?” May said. “I never knew your mother was so—”

  “So ‘alcoholic’?” Sidda asked.

  “No!” Wade said. “So bewitched by the bubbles!”

  Wade launched into a campy Billie Holiday version of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”

  “Hueylene,” Sidda said, “our ascetic seclusion has been breached.”

  “Goodness,” May said, heading to the deck where Hueylene lay in the sun. “I forgot to greet Huella.”

  May pulled a dog bone out of her pocket and presented it to Hueylene.

  They made a pitcher of mimosas and a platter of prosciutto and cantaloupe, and sat out on the deck. The sun warmed Sidda’s legs, which she propped up on the railing.

  “So,” Wade said, “the previously planned wedding bacchanalia has now been derailed?” He lowered his head, and cocked his eyebrow at Sidda.

  “Wade,” Sidda said, “you make it sound like you were the one I had wedding plans with.”

  “But, Darlingissima, you did. You had wedding plans with me; and with May and Louise; and that eternally irrepressible ninety-year-old acting teacher of yours, Maurine. You had plans with Gervais and Lindsay; with Jason if he is well enough; and the Baileys and their brood of no-neck monsters with their nanny and her mustache. You had plans with Alain, who was actually planning to come from England, assuming she was still at liberty; you had plans with Ruthie Mueller and Stephan, even though they aren’t speaking. Not to mention the entire cast and crew of Cusp, and regional theater directors from at least three theaters, who were planning to fly in for the nuptials and turn it into a New York theater trip. I am not even going to bother listing the countless other friends who adore you and who are now desolate over this heartbreaking news.”

  Wade took a breath before sipping his mimosa.

  “When you plan a wedding,” he said, “you plan it with an orgy of people, Sidda. What, pray tell, is going on?”

  If Sidda had not known how Wade was devoted to her, she would have taken this tirade as intrusive. They had been friends for almost fifteen years. She had helped him nurse a dying lover; he had picked her up off the floor countless times, personally and professionally.

  She got up and knelt on the floor beside Wade’s chair, and began to bow. “Forgive me, Baba Wade, forgive me. I know not what I do.”

  “Oh, yes, you do. You know exactly what you do. Now please get up off your knees. You know that stuff doesn’t turn me
on when girls do it.”

  Sidda stood up and brushed off her knees. “May, when will he stop calling us girls?”

  “I’ve given up,” May said.

  “Is that what you’ve done, dear heart?” Wade said to Sidda. “Have you given up on love?”

  “No,” Sidda said. “That is not it. That is not it at all.”

  “Well,” Wade said, “then what?”

  “Wade,” May said, “lighten up. Maybe Sidda doesn’t want to talk to us about it.”

  “Thank you, May,” Sidda said.

  “The playwright, Ms. Sorenson, may have sensitivity to these issues,” Wade said, “but as a lowly costume designer, who will even stoop so low as to design for Las Vegas between legitimate shows, I must be crass and ask: Have you lost your mind?!”

  “Well,” Sidda said, “I have considered that.”

  “See,” May said, “I told you she would have already taken that into consideration.”

  “Because,” Wade said, “temporary insanity is the only reason my feeble brain can come up with for you to ‘postpone’—whatever the hell that means—your wedding to Connor McGill. In case you have forgotten, my little bonbon, we are talking about a man who is your equal in every area—psychologically, professionally, spiritually, and—if my memory serves me correctly, and I believe it does—sexually. I seem to recall the way you trembled in his presence for an entire six months before you would admit you even liked him. But old Uncle Wade was not fooled. Why? Because Uncle Wade has known you for a long time, and has witnessed you go through enough men to make up not one but two rugby teams. I wrung out your hankies when you ended up in tears over at least a third of those characters, some of whom I would describe as, if not completely Neanderthal, then at least lacking in, shall we say, a certain sangfroid. I do not think it is open for debate when I observe that not one of those men treated you with one ounce of the love and respect Connor does.”

  Sidda slapped her forehead. “I completely forgot you were a traveling preacher-therapist as well as a costume designer! How could that have slipped my mind, Reverend Doctor Coenen?”