Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 21Rebecca Wells
“Oh, excuse me!” Vivi said loudly. “You were hired?”
Then, gesturing wildly to the room, Vivi announced loudly, “She was hired.”
Sidda could feel the tears in her eyes, but she would be damned if she would break down. Taking a deep breath, she turned to leave.
At that moment, Wade Coenen appeared with a plate of food. “You know,” he said to Vivi, “I have been dying to get you alone. I have something I absolutely must tell you, and there is not one single other person in this room I could possibly reveal it to.”
Caught off guard, Vivi looked at him with childlike astonishment.
“What?” she asked. “What could you not possibly reveal to anyone else?”
“You must follow me,” Wade whispered dramatically, taking her by the arm. “This is strictly entre nous. And do try some of the spanakopita,” he said as he led her out of the room. “It is positively divine.”
Sidda’s mouth hung open as she watched her mother follow Wade, seemingly delighted to be at his side, and seemingly oblivious of her daughter.
That night the camaraderie of her colleagues held Sidda up. The moment Vivi and Wade disappeared from the room, the actress who played Linda Loman broke spontaneously into an Irish tune she claimed she had learned from an acting teacher who once had met James Joyce.
Then Shawn Kavanaugh, the aging ex-TV star, himself a part-time lush, who’d created a haunting and somehow heroic Willy Loman, put his arm around Sidda.
“Oh, Doll,” he said, “the Church is wrong. Despair is not the worst of the cardinal sins. Jealousy is. It’s more complex.”
Then he bowed his head to Sidda, as though he were recognizing royalty. “Terrific opening, Ms. Walker,” he said. “Thank you for your keen direction. Looks like you have a fine background for drama. Just remember: keep your elbows out.”
That night, Sidda walked by herself back to the old saltbox house she was sharing temporarily with Wade Coenen and the other designers. The night had grown bitterly cold.
When she got to the theater house, she found Wade Coenen sitting at the kitchen table talking on the phone. He smiled, threw her a kiss, and gestured upstairs to Sidda’s bedroom. When Sidda went up, she found Vivi already asleep. She was lying in bed with her nightgown on. She had removed all her makeup, and her face was moisturized.
Sidda looked down at her sleeping mother. You always take care of your complexion, no matter what. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.
Back downstairs, the kitchen was warm, and an old Stevie Wonder tune was playing on the radio.
“Thank you,” Sidda said simply, touching Wade on the shoulder.
“Use it,” Wade said.
“Right,” Sidda said, thinking how many times she’d repeated the same Stanislavsky axiom to actors. Use everything in your life to create your art.
She sat down at the wooden kitchen table. She wanted to remain calm in front of her costume designer. She wanted to make a cynical joke or a Shakespearean reference. Instead, she burst into tears.
Wade Coenen poured her a glass of brandy. “Theater,” he said. “Glorious theater. It creates family for all kinds of orphans.”
Caro lay back in her recliner and let her mind drift back to an earlier time, when the world was different and her breathing easier.
That whole birthday ball had been odd from the beginning. It was out of character for the Abbotts to stage something so extravagant.
She’d never liked Taylor Abbott, never really liked Buggy. Didn’t hate her like Teensy did, just didn’t like her. Or trust her. Buggy acted like a maid. Housework, digging in the yard, and going to Mass, that’s all the woman did. No luncheons with friends; she didn’t even go to movies. Always said she had too much work to do.
And Taylor Abbott. When that man came home from work, the whole household had to stop breathing, stop living. If Vivi and the Ya-Yas walked into the living room when he was home—laughing like they always were—he wouldn’t even look up at them. He’d just say, “Viviane, keep it down.” And Vivi would clam up and they’d have to tiptoe across the room and up the stairs, not breathing a sound until they were in Vivi’s bedroom with the door shut. Taylor Abbott wanted his home to be a library or a museum where he could read his newspaper.
The girls could make all the noise they wanted, do anything they felt like, until he got home. Buggy would just go on working. That woman did tolerate umpteen kids running in and out of her house, from the time the Ya-Yas were four until they got married. During high school, they’d roll up the rugs in the afternoons, push the furniture back, and practice the latest dance steps for hours. Buggy always had plenty of food, no matter how many of them trooped in.
But Buggy Abbott did it as her job. She wasn’t sour with the food or anything, but the way she set it out, the way she opened her kitchen, it felt like she worked there, like she was hired help, not the lady of the house, as women were called back then.
The night of Vivi’s birthday ball was cold and clear. Cold enough for Vivi to wear the sable stole that Genevieve had loaned her. Jack had arrived the afternoon before, home on leave, handsome and tall in his Air Corps uniform, a miracle that he’d been able to come home early for Christmas to celebrate Vivi’s birthday.
The Theodore Hotel ballroom had been decorated with poinsettias and sparkling lights. Stan Lemoine and His Rhythm Kings, cool cats in sharp jackets, had a terrific horn player who blew “Happy Birthday” in swing tempo. Vivi stood next to the gift table, piled high with parcels, a birthday cake, and glasses filled with mysteriously acquired liquor. She wore a stunning off-the-shoulder midnight-blue velvet and organdy gown that she’d had made just for that evening. While the guests sang to her, she smiled wide, eyes glistening, with her father on one side and Jack Whitman on the other. Photos snapped at that moment would not have shown Buggy in the frame. (They would not have shown Vivi’s grandmother, Delia, either. But then Delia, cigarette holder and drink in hand, was busy flirting with two men thirty years her junior.)
Vivi had decided that the ball was worth all the fights her parents had had over the event. (“I’ll throw my own daughter a ball if I want to, harpy!” Mr. Abbott had said to Buggy at the dinner table one night.) Longing for rare, unexpected recognition from her father, Vivi had flushed with guilt. When she swallowed, the food had caught in her throat. Vivi had never received this much notice from her father. It came out of nowhere, as though Taylor Abbott were driven to spotlight his daughter’s move into womanhood, as though the sixteen years Vivi had spent trying to get his attention were finally paying off. In this one splendid event the attention had come so suddenly, though, that Vivi did not trust it. She feared that she might disappoint her father, without knowing why or how. She was almost nauseated with the sheer richness of it all.
The perfect moment of the birthday dance had come just before the band took its first break. To end the set, they played “Deep Purple,” a song both Vivi and Jack loved. In Jack’s embrace, Vivi danced, floating, held safely in the frame of his arms. Her eyes half closed, a tiny smile on her slightly opened mouth, she felt royal. For a moment, the craving to hold on to the moment gave way to simple joy. A ballroom full of people celebrated her birth. It was like a fairy tale. A tiny kingdom for Vivi Abbott in Thornton, Louisiana.
After the guests finished singing “Happy Birthday,” the Ya-Yas and their dates flocked around Vivi. They watched as Mr. Abbott, standing perfectly erect in his tuxedo, reached into his pocket and retrieved a small gift-wrapped package. With a little flourish, he handed it to his daughter, and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
Caro surveyed the scene with a cool eye. Standing next to her date, Red Beaumont, who was at least four inches shorter than she was, she thought how she’d never in her life seen Mr. Abbott kiss Vivi. She’d seen him knock Vivi upside the head, but she’d never seen him kiss her. In fact, she’d never seen either of Vivi’s parents kiss her.
As the band played “White Christmas,
” Caro watched Vivi unwrap the package. She studied her friend’s face as Vivi snapped open the lid of a velvet ring box.
“Our Mother of Pearl!” Vivi uttered, holding up a diamond ring. Vivi reached out and hugged her father. “Is this really for me?”
Mr. Abbott readjusted his cummerbund as though the hug made him uncomfortable. Caro punched Red Beaumont. “Cig, please,” she said, without taking her eyes off Vivi.
Red lit two cigarettes and handed her one. Caro took the cigarette, broke away from her date, and edged closer to the Abbott family. Pete was laughing with his date and a circle of buddies. Ginger, Delia’s maid, stood just outside the circle of family, holding Jezie Abbott, age three, in her arms.
Buggy wore a gray lace and tulle dress. Her hair was swept up, and for once she wore lipstick. But with her arms crossed at her chest and the frown on her face, she looked uneasy, as though embarrassed to be caught looking pretty.
“Mother!” Vivi said, hugging her mother, then holding out her hand. “Look! Isn’t it gorgeous? Did you help pick it out?”
The ring was beautiful. Five diamonds in a round setting, twenty-four karat. It sparkled tastefully, if a bit grandly.
For a moment, it looked like Buggy might slap Vivi. She grabbed Vivi’s hand, regarded the ring for a moment, then flung her daughter’s hand away as though it were disgusting.
“Mister Abbott,” Buggy said, “that is not a proper gift for a girl.”
Taylor Abbott regarded his wife for a moment, and then, as though he had not heard her, turned away and began to chat with guests. Buggy struggled to compose herself as Delia grabbed her arm.
“Don’t make a damn fool of yourself,” Delia hissed to Buggy. “If you didn’t carry on like such a sanctimonious hag, your husband might give you diamonds!”
Buggy Abbott’s head dropped. She looked as though Delia had just slapped her. Staring out into the large room filled with tulle and satin and dancing young people, she had to hold on to the edge of the table to keep her balance.
She turned back to her daughter, who was encircled by the Ya-Yas. Reaching out for Vivi’s hand again, she said, without expression, “Aren’t you just the luckiest little girl God ever made?”
Then, abruptly, Buggy walked over to Ginger and jerked Jezie from the maid’s arms. The roughness of the gesture made Jezie cry, and Buggy began to comfort her. She whispered something to Ginger, and the three of them walked away, Buggy cooing to little Jezie.
Caro did not see Buggy for the rest of the dance.
Rousing herself from the recliner, Caro walked slowly into her kitchen. Reaching into the refrigerator, she took out a bottle of cold St. Pauli Girl, and brought it back to the bedroom. She adjusted the volume on the CD player, and sat back in the recliner. She took a sip of the beer and thought that life was not so bad if she could still enjoy the taste of a cold beer out of a bottle.
Thinking back to that night, she felt the pinch of old sadness. The memory of Jack could still hit her square in the chest. She could see him as he’d stood next to Vivi that night. Young, handsome in his uniform, in love with her best friend. If the loss could hit her this way, she could only imagine the way it still snuck up on Vivi.
Caro could still see Vivi’s bedroom on Compton Street, with its tall ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows. There was an old live oak tree outside the window, and Caro remembered how the branches of that tree brushed against the windowpanes that night as the wind blew. The night of the birthday dance had turned quite cold, and the four girlfriends were all piled in Vivi’s mahogany four-poster bed, their bodies warming each other.
The Ya-Yas had planned for weeks to spend the night together at Vivi’s the night of the dance. They’d looked forward to staying up late, munching ham sandwiches, downing tall glasses of cold milk, and rehashing the details of what everyone wore, said, did, and who danced with whom.
Caro remembered how it was to lie so unselfconsciously next to her best friends. Her aging body recalled the singular comfort of just being in bed next to Vivi’s and Teensy’s and Necie’s bodies. It had been like no comfort she had ever taken from a man, not from her husband, or from the two lovers she’d had during her marriage. As she thought of her friends, she wished they could sprawl like that once more, their old-lady bodies touching, their varicosed legs thrown over one another’s, toes touching, their scents mingling. The tribe, together again.
We had probably been talking about Jack that night. How thrilled we all were to see him again. How excited we were to have him home, with the Christmas holidays to look forward to.
Caro could once again hear the door being flung open as Buggy entered Vivi’s bedroom, ripping wide the cocoon the four girlfriends had settled into. Their conversation stopped; they put their laughter on hold.
Wearing her bathrobe, a rosary dangling from her hand, Buggy crossed to the bed where the four girls lay.
“Viviane, give me your hand,” she said.
Vivi looked up at her, confused.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Mother?” Vivi said, holding out her hand, still hoping to win Buggy’s approval.
Instead of admiring the ring, Buggy slid it off Vivi’s finger. She looked at the Ya-Yas snuggled in bed together. Turning her gaze only on Vivi, she said, “Whatever you did to make your father give you this ring is a mortal sin. May God forgive you.”
Then she turned and stomped out of the room.
Vivi’s body started to shake. Caro could feel it quiver against her own. Tucking her head down, Vivi crawled underneath the covers.
The friends did not know what to say.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Vivi whispered. “That diamond was from my daddy. He gave me that ring.”
More than fifty years later, Caro remembered how she wanted to burst out of the room, run down the hall, and grab Buggy Abbott. She wanted to shake that woman, retrieve the ring, and tell her you do not treat people like that. As Caro sipped her beer, she thought: My friend Vivi never knew how much her mother hated her. If she had, I don’t think she could have stood it.
“She’s a witch,” Caro had said that night.
But Vivi stayed under the covers, pulled into herself.
Teensy tried to take them back to the fun of the party.
“Remember,” she said, “when they started ‘Begin the Beguine’? Remember how you and Jack started that dance?”
“Vivi,” Necie asked, “can I get you something, honey? Anything?”
But Vivi still did not respond. She lay there and shook. And so the friends lay there with her and tried to hold her. They tried to tuck the covers in around her the way you do a baby who is upset by something she doesn’t understand.
When they first heard the yelling and screaming from down the hall, they assumed that it was Vivi’s brother, Pete, roughhousing with buddies. They were surprised to hear such a ruckus this late at night, but Pete always had three or four pals sleeping over, and they were known to get rowdy. Taylor Abbott had a lot more tolerance for loud boys than for loud girls.
It was not Pete. There was silence for a moment and then the fighting started up again. The Ya-Yas could hear Mr. Abbott’s loud, deep voice, and then the sound of Buggy’s crying. They heard a crash, then silence again. Then, “Goddamn you!”
Vivi lay almost preternaturally still, listening with her whole body.
Caro was afraid. Her own Poppo and Mom fought, but not like this. They had disagreements, but they were out in the open, never lasted for long, and always ended with her father lifting her mother up off the floor with a hug, proclaiming, “You’re a hot tamale, yes, ma’am, you’re a hot tamale!”
The Abbotts’ fighting was different. It made Caro feel that she was not safe in their home.
Before long, the door to Vivi’s bedroom burst open, no knock, no anything.
Mr. Abbott roughly pushed his wife into the room. His face was red and his breathing was heavy. Buggy’s nightgown was ripped at the shoulder, and Caro could see the shap
e of her bosoms underneath the cotton.
“Do it, Buggy,” Mr. Abbott said. “Give her back the ring.”
Buggy stood there, not moving, staring at her bare feet on the floor.
“I said, give the girl the Goddamn ring, you pathetic Catholic idiot!”
Then Mr. Abbott shoved his wife so that she stood, shaking, next to the bed. Caro could feel Vivi’s body shaking, and now she could feel Buggy’s body shaking. As though a trembling passed between mother and daughter that even the Ya-Yas could not block.
Mr. Abbott took his wife’s hand and pried open her clenched hand, finger by finger, until the ring dropped to the floor. Then Taylor Abbott slapped his wife once, hard, across the face.
“Pick it up,” he commanded. “Bend down and pick the ring up.”
As if in a trance, Buggy Abbott bent down and picked up the ring. Then she flung it onto the bed so that it landed in the folds of the winter quilts.
Vivi, who had been watching in silence, her head peeking out from the side of the covers, now pulled the covers up around her face completely so that she could not see or be seen. Caro was afraid Mr. Abbott would strike Vivi too. It would not have been the first time.
Mr. Abbott took a step toward the bed. He was a tall man, just as threatening in pajamas as in pinstripes. Caro’s body tensed, ready to protect her friend.
Caro thought that he might hit her, might hit any one of them. Instead, he fumbled among the quilts for a moment until he found the ring. Then he slipped the ring under the covers where Vivi lay.
“Here, Viviane,” he said. “I gave this ring to you. It’s yours. It’s from me to you. Do you understand?”
He sounded almost desperate.
Vivi didn’t respond.
“Answer me, Viviane,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Vivi said from under the covers. “I understand.”
Looking as close as he ever came to being embarrassed, Mr. Abbott glanced briefly at Necie, Caro, and Teensy, who cowered in the bed.
Then, sneering at his wife, he said, “What do you have to say, making a fool of yourself in front of Viviane’s friends?”