Lang forgot to bring Elle a souvenir.
As Lang’s car moves away from Grand Isle and toward New Orleans, her thoughts grow hard edges. She hasn’t seen her daughter for three weeks, which means she had more than twenty days to send Nora out to buy something from one of the antique stores along the main road but she had completely forgotten. How could she have forgotten?
It’s white, double-gallery Victorian with columns and glossy green shutters on St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District. In the pictures the rental agency posted on their website, the upstairs room in the back looked like the perfect space for Rosemary’s studio: four tall windows and a skylight with northern exposure, overlooking the garden out back. Lang had always wanted a big front porch and this one was furnished with rocking chairs and an enormous electric bug-zapper, perfect for evenings with mint juleps. By the time she parked the car in front, she had taken two extra Lexapros so she could walk through the front door bearing gifts, some food for dinner, and a smile on her face, but no one was there to see. She just wandered from room to hollow room calling their names.
Three hours later after Lang has unpacked and showered and set the table for dinner, they’re finally together—they’d gone to see a movie to get away from the heat; she didn’t expect them to sit around the house waiting for her to show up, did she?— and Lang can’t stop smiling at Eleanor whose eyes are completely encircled with black eyeliner (since when does she wear makeup?) slouching in the Tabasco T shirt Lang bought at a roadside store, and pink-cheeked Rosemary with her hair reacting to the Southern humidity like a batch of angry snakes.
“Isn’t this nice?” asks Lang.
Rosemary speaks to the candles burning on the candelabra: “Really, isn’t it hot enough in here already?” She licks two fingers and pinches out the flames.
Even if Rosemary didn’t mean it that way, even if she were somehow unaware of the significance of the gesture, the snuffing of the candles would hurt a little. But of course Rosemary knows. The foul smoke mixes with the smell of their food. Rosemary affixes her dark eyes to Lang’s lips and waits for her to say something.
Eleanor pokes a sausage with her fork. “What is this, anyway?”
“Budang. I found it at a very picturesque restaurant. Actually, it was more like a roadside shack. Do you like it?
“I don’t know if I want to eat picturesque. Maybe I should just look at it.”
Rosemary takes a long sip of wine. She is a block of wood aglow with a burning heart of flame. She has not lifted her fork.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Lang asks.
“It’s too hot to eat. It’s too hot to paint. I don’t know why you thought it would be a good idea to have an upstairs studio. It’s like a sauna up there. I’m going to have to find a cooler space.”
Lang maintains a neutral tone. “How about the basement?”
Eleanor snorts, “They don’t have basements here. They’d fill with water. They don’t even bury people underground, you know. They build fancy little houses for the dead. ”
“If I have to work in that room in this heat, it’s only a matter of time,” says Rosemary.
Lang tells Elle, “Of course. I wasn’t thinking.” And to Rosemary, “How about the guest room?”
“The light is terrible in there.” Rosemary pushes her plate to the center of the table and fans herself with her napkin. Lang wants to ask if she’s been able to paint at all these past three weeks. If Rosemary doesn’t paint every day she gets whacky and starts eating too much, can’t sleep, and begins to over-examine everything—those ants in the kitchen have a personal vendetta, the fabric of this shirt is too clutching, spoons annoy her, her friends have all abandoned her, she’ll never paint again—and nothing helps, not a charming daughter telling jokes or a footrub from a sympathetic partner or a bath or a long walk in nature, nothing. When Rosemary is upset she can suck the air out of a room, but Elle doesn’t seem to notice. Lang tries to catch Elle’s eye so that they might exchange some nonverbal information, but Elle is engrossed with dissecting her dinner.
The first time they met was at a mutual friend’s house for dinner. Rosemary didn’t care if her mouth was full; she spoke her mind and her mouth made the food look delicious, made her words sound delicious and made Lang feel hungry even though she was full. That night, Rosemary held her knife in one hand and her fork in the other and stabbed the air for emphasis, speaking in a low hissing roar like a big cat defending herself from a pack of hyenas, not lacking class but high, high above it, a beautiful creature hovering over the riff raff. She ate and spoke and laughed with her mouth wide open and her head thrown back in a way that made you feel as though you were missing some integral part of life’s enjoyment and if you didn’t understand what she was saying, when you didn’t agree, she just shook her head, eyes shining with sympathy, a patient smile on her lips that told you she would give you time to see the light, she would wait.
Lang says, “Well, maybe we could install an air conditioner up there. Or better lights in the guestroom?”
Rosemary consults the ceiling. Finally she sighs. “I guess it just seems stupid to do work on someone else’s house when there’s so much to be done on our own.”
Lang is suddenly absorbed in the food on her plate.
This is the 17th chapter of my novel, What Would Water Do. To start from the beginning, click here.
Or subscribe now by clicking the little link up on the right–
–all new posts (short stories, chapters, personal essays, etc.) will be emailed to you!