It was always about the other mother. The dear one.
For instance, when she arrived at an event.
Hello, darling, don't you look lovely tonight! And how unusual! I mean, not everyone could get away with something like this, could they? So exotic!
And then, turning from her as if in that way she wouldn't really hear, turning to one of the old friends, one of the family-members-in-law, Do you remember how the dear one used to light up a room when she walked in? And she always dressed so simply.But she could pull it off. Class, that was what she had, class. Electric, just electric. The masses of that hair, stunning.
Or, when old friends who were supposed to be her new friends saw what she had done with the house.
Oh, how wonderful! And how brave! You've really gone all out here, haven't you, made the place quite a showcase, yes, really one of a kind now, isn't it? Did you work with someone, or did you come up with this all on your own?
But she would overhear them, huddled together, sotto voce. Oh, it felt so cozy when the dear one was here, she always made it feel just like home from the moment you walked in. Yes, yes, so homey then.
Or with him, even when she was with him.
Thank you, darling, I do love a drink when I get home and this is made just as I like it.
Then he would walk to the bar and change it, fix it, smiling at her.
Oh, sweetheart, have you seen my glasses? I always look for them right here on my desk--what? Where? With the paper? Oh, how thoughtful. No, that's fine. I'm sure I'd have found them sooner or later.
And he would take the glasses and return them to his desk where the dear one had always set them for him to find when he left them on the bookcase or next to the sink or in the pocket of his coat. He was very absentminded.
Are you taking my baby shopping today? he would ask, rumpling his daughter's hair and smiling down with that look only his baby ever, ever got. Oh, I know she doesn't need another dress, she never needs anything, he would say fondly, absently, dismissively, but she's always had a special one for the Christmas tea.
And he would walk away from her, tucking his little daughter's hand under his arm, leaning down to hear words whispered into his ear alone.
It was worst with the little girl, no question, it was by far the worst there. No one turned politely away, no one pretended to whisper, no one considered for a moment whether she would want to hear them gushing, pouring compliments on the blooming little girl like they were warm maple syrup, like they were honey butter.
Have you ever seen lips like this on a child? On anyone, for that matter? It's quite unreal! Other than the dear one, of course, she had a mouth just like that. Quite a showstopper she was. No one, no one could ever touch the dear one, though it looks like this little beauty may, someday!
No one. No one had a mouth like that but the dear one. No one. The dear one and, one day, the child.
The family acting as if any compliment to the little girl were a compliment to her.
Oh, my goodness, look at her, all that black hair! She's going to be a beauty just like her mama.
Just like her mama. Not like the woman standing here now with this little girl, the woman whose smile was set now, set like a stone smile. Not a beauty like her, the living woman, a beauty like the dear one, like the dead mama.
The old/new friends, coming to visit for the first time in a long time.
Oh, will you look a that! She's the spitting image, she is, the very image! That skin! I remember it so well! I thought I'd never see skin like that again, but just look at her!
Just look at her, the image of the dear one.
People meeting them for the first time.
Goodness, your little daughter is gorgeous! You must be very proud. She's so different from you, isn't she? You're so pale. Of course, she's pale too, but she's just rosy, isn't she? Does she take after her father? Oh, not yours? Well, that explains it.
Yes. It explained lots of things.
Strangers stopping them on the street.
Better watch out for this one, she'll cause lots of trouble one day, won't you darling? Do you want a lolly? Is it alright if I give her this candy? What a little beauty, what a little heartbreaker.
Lots of trouble. One day that little girl will cause you lots of trouble.
And this, when she was a beautiful woman. She knew it. Had always known it. Men stared, stopped to watch her walk down the street. She rested in that place, that safety, that surety. He had fallen in love with her the moment he saw her, and he couldn't say that for the dear one. Childhood sweethearts they had been, so who knows if he had ever really even seen the dear departed as a grown up woman? She was the most beautiful woman people had ever seen, she was, not the dear one, they told her so. people told her so. All the time. Often. Whenever that little girl, his baby, wasn't there, wasn't holding her hand, skipping along, black curls bouncing.
And she could cook. Her food was magic, pure magic. When they ate her food, nobody thought to remember anyone else. Not the family, not the old/new friends, not strangers who came to her table for the first time. They did a bit of whispering as they sat down, reminding each other that she had grabbed his heart by way of his stomach, but that all stopped when the food came to the table. She was the queen at the table, she ruled. The dear one, rest her soul, wasn't remembered for her food.
Rest in peace, dear one.
She researched boarding schools. He wouldn't hear of it.
She talked about relatives in the country, healthful fresh air and open spaces, the life long benefits of early fellowship with cows and dogs. And rabbits. She mused aloud how vital it was for girls to learn to ride. Young. To ride and to milk and to shear. He paid her no attention whatsoever.
She mused, idly, whether and how anyone could grow up properly without a year abroad. Years abroad. It was, probably, never too early to begin. To go. He laughed at her. He laughed at her and that night at dinner, sitting, eating the dinner she always made for him herself, all of it, made all of it herself for him and him alone, he told his baby, his little beauty, that she had grown into the most beautiful girl in the world.
The first time was nearly an accident. He was gone with his work, traveling. She told that first doctor that the poor little thing had slipped in the kitchen and fallen. Which, of course, the poor little thing had. Fallen, that is. At home she combed so carefully the dried blood out of those black, black curls and reflected that, really, it could have been worse. Much, much worse.
The fourth doctor she didn't like at all. He watched her far too closely. At first she purred and bridled at that attention, recounting to him what was now a long saga of the poor little girl's accidents and injuries, her illnesses and conditions. He talked and talked to her and she loved it, she loved him, til she realized he was taking notes, caught him asking the little girl questions. She put a stop to that at once. I'm sure the silly thing's fine after all, she told the doctor, her jeans are probably too small and she's short of breath. She's very vain that way, wears them cruelly tight. I don't know, he said, she's very pale. Oh, the poor thing's always been like that, she said, takes after her mother you know. Not me. Her mother was famously pale. Skin like snow, I'm told. No, it's just the jeans. I warned her about them, but she never listens. I'm sure she'll be fine as soon as she changes. Sorry to have troubled you, but the smallest thing sets the poor girl off and she always thinks she's dying.
And she gathered them up and went home.
She oversaw the little girl's diet, watched her for sign of chill, hovered over her like a real mother would, if a real mother watched every move and breath and developed ways of discerning thoughts, of reading minds. After the fourth doctor the little girl became very quiet, very watchful, and she was increasingly watchful after each succeeding doctor. Almost as if there were a brain in that glorious, empty head, she thought contemptuously. Days went by and the poor little girl mostly stayed in her room. For years. She ranted in the kitchen, she raved as she concocted delicacies for him, railed against her slavery, her entrapment by a beautiful stranger's beautiful child. Then one day, after a total of six doctors, she had a perfect idea. It would not be easy, it would take some tricky cooking, but it would work. It would work and she would be free and the most important, most beautiful thing in his world. She made the crust and went right out to buy the fruit.
It wasn't easy to get the stupid girl even to eat nowadays, almost as if the little chit were frightened, as it someone had warned her. Here honey, she said in her very best mommy voice, aren't you hungry? You're thin, you're so thin she said and could not keep the envy from twisting her voice. Look, silly girl, I'll eat half of it, and she took her fork and ate half the piece of pie she had cut, half a piece of the best apple pie she had ever tasted, had ever made. I'll work it off tomorrow, she promised herself as she finished the crust, I'll do a double workout at the gym tomorrow.
But he called an ambulance, of course. Of course he did and no one would let her ride alongside the child. No one. She shouted. Idiots. She had to drive herself because he went with the girl. With my baby, he said, and she despised him, his weakness and his tears and his love, and she made plans as she drove around and around looking for parking. Impossible, she fumed, this is going to take all night. She checked herself in the reflection of the door as she went in. Perfect. Still.
They stopped her at the door. No admittance. But my husband, she began. Family only, the seventh doctor said firmly and nodded to the nurses who escorted her to the waiting room. Well, she thought happily, great! I'm not waiting around here, and she drove home, running a sign and a light. Making plans, making plans all the way home. It was good she hadn't stayed, nothing happened, nothing changed. Coma, this seventh doctor said as he denied her entrance again. We're waiting for a specialist. The specialist came to talk to her first, before even going into see the useless girl. Very handsome, very charming. She gave everything she had, turned it on full force. The young specialist beamed at her. Oh, what an innocent! Asked her what the girl had eaten before she came, asked, delighted, if there were any pie left. She went right home to get some. Tried to remember how she had done it, which side was which. She thought about it, chose a side, cut a piece. The sweet-faced specialist took it with him into the room where the stupid girl was sleeping like the dead. If only, she thought grimly.
And she couldn't figure it out, couldn't piece it together. How the world came flying apart when she had been so careful, so very expert and tricky. She tried, for as long as she could think about anything, to think how that had happened to her when all she had wanted was what other people had. To be the most beautiful. To be loved the most. To have someone who cared only for her. She just wanted what other people had, what she saw they had. That was all. Was that so much? The little hussy married the specialist. Not a baby now, not anymore. All those years in shut in the bedroom, the lying little cheat had grown up. Well, he could have the baggage. Seven doctors indeed. She washed her hands of the lot of them. She sat up very straight in her cell. There she was, in the mirror over the sink. Still. Still the most beautiful woman, the most beautiful woman here. No visitors, please. Let me just be.