Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 2Rebecca Wells
“I have to postpone the wedding, Connor.
“Connor. Just listen to me, please,” she said, sick at the expression on his face. “I don’t know if I can bear it.”
“The fact that you’re going to die and leave me alone.”
“I am?” he asked.
“Yes, you are. Eventually. I don’t know when and I don’t know how. But it’s going to happen. And I don’t know if I can bear it. Last night you stopped breathing. Or at least I thought you did.”
Connor stared at her. Sidda Walker was finely wired. He knew this. He loved this.
“My God, Sidda. I’m in perfect health. I didn’t stop breathing last night, I was sleeping. You know what a deep sleeper I am.”
Sidda turned to look at him.
“I woke up last night and I was convinced you had died.”
He lifted his hand to her cheek. She turned away, and kept her eyes focused on her hands, which sat clenched in her lap.
“I cannot bear to feel the way I felt last night ever again. I do not want to be left.”
“What is this all about, Sidda?”
Connor pulled back the covers and got out of bed. His tall, lanky body had the wrinkles of sleep, and he smelled like cotton and dreams. He was forty-five years old, fit, agile, light on his feet.
Hueylene thumped her tail against the wood floor. Connor reached down and stroked her. Then he knelt down on the floor in front of Sidda and took her hands in his.
“Sidda, it’s not news that I’m going to die one of these days. You are too. This is not news, Sweet Pea.”
Sidda tried to take a deep breath. “It’s news to me,” she said.
“You’re spooked, aren’t you?”
“Is it the thing with your mother?”
“No,” she said. “This has nothing whatever to do with my mother.”
“You know,” he said, “I have to deal with the fact that you’re going to kick the bucket one of these days too, Sidda. I mean, you could die before I do. I could be the one who is left.”
“No, that’s not how it will happen.”
Connor stood up. He took a green flannel bathrobe off the rocker and wrapped it around his body. Sidda followed Connor’s every move with her eyes.
“You want to call the whole thing off?” he asked softly. “Is this some polite Louisiana way of telling me it’s over?”
She got up from the bed and went to him, wrapping her arms around his waist, leaning her head into his chest. The top of her head fit neatly under his chin.
“No,” she whispered, “I don’t want us to be over, Connor. I love you. I will always love you. I’m sorry for this.”
Connor lowered his head next to hers. Sidda could feel his heart beating.
“How long we talking here, Sid?”
“I don’t know. Not long. I don’t know.”
He broke away and walked to the window.
Sidda waited, terrified she might have pushed too far.
“I’m not interested in hanging out in limbo forever,” he said, staring out at the Cascade Mountains. “Don’t mess with me, Sidda. I’m not a masochist.”
Please God, she prayed, don’t let me lose Connor.
“All right,” he said, finally turning back to her. “Okay. I’m not happy about it. But all right.”
They crawled back into bed, and Sidda curled against Connor. They lay that way for a long time, without speaking. It had taken four years of friendship, four years of working together in the theater, before she would admit she had loved him from the first day they met. She’d been directing a production at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and Connor had been the scenic designer. She’d wanted to kiss him the first time she saw him. Something about his slow smile, the shape of his jaw, that long, lean body, that imagination. Something athletic and relaxed about the way he moved, something unhurried about his whole attitude.
Now, cuddled against each other, Hueylene’s adoring face propped on the edge of the bed staring up at them, Sidda sighed.
“I thought I might go away for a little while. When we arrived in Seattle, May offered me her family’s cabin at Lake Quinault, on the Olympic Peninsula.”
“How far is that from Seattle?”
“About three hours, I think.”
Connor studied her face.
“Okay,” he said. Reaching over to rub Hueylene’s ears, he said, “Are you taking the governor with you or can she stay with me?”
“I’d like to take her along,” Sidda said.
Connor brought his lips to Sidda’s, and kissed her long and slow. She felt herself being pulled into a warm, fluid place. Sex heals, she told herself, anxiety kills. It was a struggle for her to surrender to such pleasure, such comfort.
Four months before she was to have married Connor, Sidda felt a heavy black stone inside her chest blocking the radiance. Her limbs felt tense, as though she were keeping vigil. As though she were locked in an endless Lenten season, waiting for the boulder to be rolled back from the opening of the cave.
Vivi Walker walked down the tree-lined drive at Pecan Grove to get the mail. She had been lying on the window seat in the den, reading a novel and listening to Barbra Streisand when she heard the mail truck turn around. At sixty-seven, she was still fit from playing tennis twice a week. She’d put on five pounds since she’d tried to quit smoking, but she still could have passed for a much younger woman. Her legs, though not tan, were muscular and strong. Her subtly colored ash-blonde hair was cut in a French bob, and over it she wore an expensive black straw hat of the best weave, which she had bought thirty-five years ago. She wore linen shorts, a crisp white blouse, and tennis shoes. Her jewelry consisted of a single twenty-four-karat-gold bracelet, her wedding ring, and a pair of tiny diamond earrings. This was her summer uniform, and had been since anybody in Cenla could remember.
Catalogs from every outdoor outfitter in the country filled the mailbox. Shep Walker, her husband, would never get over the country-boy thrill of mail order. There was a bill from Whalen’s of Thornton, where Vivi had just charged a gorgeous new white silk pantsuit.
And there was a gray envelope, nice paper, postmarked Seattle. When she saw her oldest daughter’s handwriting, her stomach tightened. If Sidda was asking for Ya-Ya-rabilia again, the answer was no. She wasn’t giving that child anything, not after the way she’d been hurt. Standing in the driveway, Vivi slit open the envelope with her thumbnail, took a deep breath, and began to read.
The letter read:
August 10, 1993
Dear Mama and Daddy,
I have decided to postpone my wedding to Connor. I wanted to tell you before you hear it from someone else. I know how word spreads in Thornton.
My problem is, I just don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to love.
Anyway, that’s the news.
Shit, Vivi thought. Shit, shit, shit.
Back inside her kitchen, Vivi pulled a stool and climbed up to reach the out-of-the-way cabinet where she’d hidden a pack of cigarettes. Stopping herself, she carefully climbed down. Reaching up to her cookbook shelf, she pulled out her roux-splattered copy of River Roads Recipes and opened it to page 103. There, next to Mrs. Hansen Scobee’s recipe for crawfish étouffée, was the photograph of Sidda and Connor that Sidda had sent when she announced her engagement. It was the only photo Vivi hadn’t destroyed. She studied the photo for a moment, put a piece of Nicorette gum in her mouth, and reached for the phone.
A half hour later, she popped the Barbra Streisand CD out of the player, snatched up her purse, climbed into her navy-blue Jeep Cherokee, and sped off down the long drive that led from Pecan Grove to the wider world.
Necie and Caro had already arrived at Teensy’s house when Vivi pulled up. Teensy’s maid, Shirley, had pulled together some sandwiches and two thermoses of Bloody Marys. Climbing into Teensy’s red convertible
Saab, they took the same positions they had been taking in Teensy’s convertibles since 1941: Teensy behind the wheel; Vivi, shotgun; Necie just behind the driver; and Caro in the backseat behind Vivi. Unlike in the old days, Caro did not kick her feet up on the seat back in front of her. Not because she was worried about propriety, but because she was traveling these days with a portable oxygen tank. She didn’t need to use it all the time, but it had to be near, just in case.
Teensy turned the air conditioner to high, and the Ya-Yas took turns reading Sidda’s letter. When they had all finished, Teensy put down the top and Vivi slipped the Barbra Streisand CD into the CD player. Each of the women put on a hat, scarf, and sunglasses. Then they blasted off in the direction of Spring Creek.
“All right,” Vivi said. “I stood there at the mailbox and began composing a prayer—an ‘ultra-tomato,’ as Sidda used to call ultimatums. I said, ‘Listen, Ole Padnah.’ Not ‘Please listen.’ Just ‘Listen.’ ”
“I thought you only prayed to Mother Most Merciful, cher,” Teensy said. “Didn’t you eighty-six the Old Fart?”
“Please, Teensy,” Necie said, “stop it. You do that just to shock me.”
“Well, that’s true,” Vivi explained. “I did give up on God the Father—the Ole Padnah—as Shep calls Him. But I just thought in this case I better cover all my bases.”
“Always a good idea,” Caro said.
“It can never hurt to keep praying to them all is what I say,” said Necie, the only one who still thought the Pope wasn’t senile. “Since the Holy Trinity does still exist, even though yall have reinvented the Catholic religion to suit yourselves.”
“Come on, Necie,” Teensy said. “Don’t get preachy. You know we’re all still Catholic girls au coeur.”
“I just think it’s a little gauche to refer to God Almighty as the ‘Old Fart,’ that’s all,” Necie said.
“Bien, bien,” Teensy said. “Don’t get carried away, Saint Denise.”
Vivi unscrewed a thermos and poured the Bloody Mary mixture into a plastic go-cup. “Caro Dahlin,” Vivi said, reaching back over the seat to hand the cup to Caro.
“Teensy,” Vivi said, “let’s take the old road instead of the interstate, what you say?”
“Sure, Bébé,” Teensy said.
The old road was a single-lane state road that cut through farming country, and wound around part of Bayou Ovelier. It was quieter than the interstate, and cooler, too, with trees on either side.
“I figure God owes me extra favors with Sidda, since He took her twin,” Vivi said. “I mean, don’t I qualify for a discount?”
“Yes, you do,” Necie said. “Sidda gets to have all the favors God would have granted the twin if he had lived.”
“So there,” Caro said. “Sister Mary Necie Explains It All For You.”
“Teensy,” Vivi said, “are you The Designated?”
“Hell, no,” Teensy said.
“They could check us into The Betty for this,” Vivi said as she poured Teensy a drink and carefully handed it to her.
“They could check us into The Betty for a lot of things,” Teensy said, steadying the wheel. Teensy had christened The Betty Ford Center “The Betty” years ago, and now it was part of the Ya-Ya lexicon.
“Necie?” Vivi asked, raising her go-cup. “Sippie-poo?”
“Just a drop.”
“Tell Babs to pipe down, will you?” Caro said. “I can’t hear what yall are saying with her carrying on like that.”
Teensy adjusted the volume on the CD player, and caught Caro’s eye in the rearview mirror.
“They make them so they don’t even show, you know, Caro.”
“For the umpteenth time, Teensy, I do not need a hearing aid.”
Vivi turned her head to face Caro and began mouthing words with no sounds. Necie immediately and silently joined in.
“Crazy fools!” Caro laughed. “Yall cut that out!”
“I am still mad as hell at Siddalee Walker.” Vivi took a long sip of her Bloody Mary. “Slaughtering my reputation in the largest newspaper in the country. Who wouldn’t be livid? But I am picking up beeps on my Mama-radar.”
“I say always listen to your beeps,” Necie said.
“It was that photograph,” Vivi said. “This engagement-announcement picture,” she added, slipping the photograph out of her purse. She handed it over the back of the seat.
“She looked so stunning in that shot,” Necie said, “even if it was rather casual for an engagement announcement.”
“No, look at that picture,” Vivi said to her friends.
Caro and Necie both studied the photograph, then handed it to Teensy, who was snapping her fingers in a command to have the image passed to her.
Caro was whistling Bach’s Brandenburg No. 6. Suddenly, in the middle of a measure, she said, “It’s the smile.”
“Exactement!” Vivi said, turning around in her seat. “Siddalee Walker has not smiled like that in a photograph since she was ten years old.”
Teensy signaled and slowed down as they approached an old grocery store, its front gallery caving in on itself. The building had been taken over with kudzu, and vines grew out of the rusted Esso pumps like strange Medusa hair.
Then Teensy turned left onto a smaller road, where the canopy of the live oaks on either side met in the middle at many spots, so that the four women felt they were entering a magic tunnel. These trees were old sixty years ago, when the women were children. They grew silent and let the old trees wrap around them.
Not one of them could have said how many trips they had made under these trees on the way to Spring Creek. First as little girls with their parents, then with dates and each other, stealing gas-ration stamps to reach the sacred creek waters. Then all the summers when the kids were growing up, when they’d stay a full two or three months, putting on makeup only when their husbands came out on weekends.
“She’s smiling that smile they smile before they grow bosoms,” Teensy said.
“The kind you smile for yourself, not the guy with the Goddamn camera,” Caro said.
“I had that smile too,” Vivi said. “I know I did. Before I worried about my freckles and holding in my stomach.”
“The Goddamn sonavabitch point is that Sidda isn’t posing, for God’s sake,” Caro said. “She’s not impersonating a woman who’s getting engaged.”
“Caro,” Necie said, “you sound so—so—strident.”
Caro reached her hand over to Necie’s and squeezed it gently.
“Necie, Pal, I’m sixty-seven years old. I can be strident if I fucking feel like it.”
“Malissa says her therapist says I am afraid of stridency. She says I am addicted to sweetness. I do not understand why it is an addiction simply because I do my best to think pretty pink and blue thoughts,” Necie said.
Caro lifted Necie’s hand and gave it a quick kiss before pulling back into herself.
“Never listen to your child’s therapist,” Caro said.
“Wait until their kids’ therapists start weighing in,” Vivi said. “Oh, revenge will be sweet.”
Necie was smiling and looking at Caro, who now sat with her eyes closed.
Vivi was wondering if her own mother, Buggy, ever smiled like that. She remembered a picture she’d found with Buggy’s things after she’d died. An old picture from around 1916. Her mother had this huge bow in her hair and was staring soberly into the camera. On the back she had written her name. Not “Buggy” or “Mrs. Taylor C. Abbott,” the only two things Vivi ever heard her called. But “Mary Katherine Bowman,” her real name.
“Maman used to smile like Sidda’s smiling there,” Teensy said, gesturing to the photograph, which now lay on Vivi’s lap.
What does my smile look like now? Vivi wondered. Can you reclaim that free-girl smile, or is it like virginity—once you lose it, that’s it?
At the creek, the women got out of the car. Necie carried the basket of food, and Teensy pulled a fresh thermos of Bloody Marys from the
trunk. Without offering, Vivi helped Caro with her oxygen tank, and without acknowledgment Caro accepted her help. The four Ya-Yas walked down a short path, then slowly, carefully scrambled down to the creekbank, where Vivi spread out an old pink-checked blanket. They lowered themselves into sitting positions on the blanket, and listened for a moment to the insects.
“Thank God for this cool spell,” Caro said. “Otherwise, we would be barbecued.”
Willow trees and cottonwoods leaned out over the creek, and behind those trees were loblolly pines. The sun was long past its prime, but still it was hot.
Necie handed out Shirley’s oyster muffalettos on fresh French bread. Teensy poured each of them a refill on drinks.
“What should we do with Sidda’s request for us to help her with the Clare Boothe Luce play?” Vivi asked. “The nerve of that little bitch asking for our Ya-Ya-rabilia. She must be kidding. After what she’s done to me, I wouldn’t send her a g.d. recipe for tuna-noodle casserole.”
“Well, I’d be really flattered!” Necie said. “But that’s just my opinion. My daughters only ask for municipal bonds.”
“We would be helping the cause of legitimate theater,” Teensy said.
“The kid knows prime source material when she sees it,” Caro said.
“We are nothing like those cats in The Women,” Vivi said. “They hated each other. And we were only children when that movie came out.”
“Mere bébés,” Teensy said.
“But we do have a sense of history,” Necie said. “Wasn’t Norma Shearer wonderful in that movie? They don’t make actresses like her anymore.”
“To Ya-Ya-rabilia,” Caro said, raising her cup in a toast.
“What?” Vivi asked.
“Life is short, Pal,” Caro said. “Send the scrapbook.”
“It is not my fault if she’s chickening out of her wedding,” Vivi said. “I am not sending her my scrapbook.”
“I’m the godmother,” Caro said. “Send the ‘Divine Secrets.’ ”
“It would be the well-mannered thing to do,” Necie said.
“Send the ‘Divine Secrets,’ cher,” Teensy said. “Send it tout de suite.”