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:: An Afternoon in the Country by Martha Nemes Fried ::

Gloria woke at six in the morning. She went to the bathroom and wondered if she should flush the john, it might wake an insomniac to whom sleep was a rare and precious blessing. She knew all about that. She had been there and remembered it as a bad place. She heard Eleanor puttering around in the kitchenette and Harley's bullying voice sounding off about the Serbs, the Kosovars and Albanians again.

"The president is a fool. Who cares about those people? I hope those Serbs and Moslems do us all a big favor and kill each other."

Harley was a tiresome asshole who was an insurance broker in real life, a profession guaranteed to give its practitioner an ulcer or drive him to drink, which, in his case, was the latter. He had had a hard time drying out and his fellow alcoholics practiced patience with his rantings. As for Eleanor, she was pathetic. She never argued with a man. She not only adored her husband, she respected all specimens of the gender, having suspended her judgment about them from the time she went to her first social dance wearing white gloves and Mary Janes.

The other patients discussed her case in detail and agreed on the diagnosis while they ate peanut butter and jam sandwiches after Eleanor retired for the night by eight each evening. They spoke of her in whispers lest she overhear their penetrating insights. Poor Eleanor, they sighed. It was obvious she was in the hospital because she failed to have the requisite number of children through no fault of her own. Her menopause descended upon her as an evil spell depriving her of the enjoyment of sex with her gorgeous hunk of a husband. No procreation, no pleasure of the flesh; it was one of the mandates of her religion. Gloria was grateful her mother never insisted on church attendance. She flushed the toilet and returned to bed.

There were other times when she woke early and fell asleep again, but this morning she was alert, the way she used to be during exam week at Walden. It was a very long time ago and she asked herself "What brought that up?" She had spent so much time reevaluating the past, putting every particle of it on a slide and examining it through a microscope. She was sick of it all. She recalled the most painful day on the couch when she became aware of all the rage inside her. She said to him, "There is no way I can ever get rid of all this, it's too much." He assured her it would evaporate in time. He also warned her some things might come up for review now and then, and something had. "That's all behind me. Think only of today and live only in this moment," she admonished herself.

She filled the tub with hot water. Her skin turned red as she scrubbed herself all over with a complexion brush. She lay back and floated, immersing her short dark hair in the water, then shampooed and rinsed it, took a cold shower and rubbed herself briskly with a bath sheet. She scrutinized her face in the mirror as she brushed her teeth and squeezed the moisture out of her damp hair with a hand towel. Not a pretty face, just an ordinary one with delicate features, a small nose and mouth, brown eyes with coffee grains underneath and a slight rash on her skin. The rash had been much worse before; it started to fade when she stopped taking medication.

She looked in the full length mirror, proud of her body. Her stomach was as flat as an athlete's; people found it hard to believe she had a daughter at Oxford. If the other inmates ever met Clarissa in person they would fall in a dead faint, she frequently thought with self satisfaction.

Her doctor said she was doing well. She still did not fully understand herself. Perhaps explanations came later. Maybe it would be like a bolt of lightning that blinded her at first and then revealed everything in a flash. She remembered the way it happened in Hitchcock's Spellbound. The protagonist saw everything in the wink of an eye in one scene. That made an impression on her. No, there would be no simple epiphanies for her; she had to sweat blood for every jot of knowledge about herself.

She was amused by the irony of her situation. She had spent her life creating fictional characters with the precision of a fine watchmaker. She had carefully put each wheel and cog in its place, and made certain the hands of the clock always pointed to the exact moment required by the architecture of the play. In the past five months she had given her past meticulous scrutiny. She made careful notes in her writer's journal because the stuff could be used as material for short fiction. She was not up to a play or a novel yet. Each required the endurance of the long distance runner and she thought it best to try writing a few short stories first.

Looking through the window she could see the dew glistening on the grass, still wet with last night's rain, but the sky was clear. What to wear? She chose a pair of purple wool slacks, a white silk shirt and a red knitted vest that came down to her hips. As she put on her wrist watch she recalled it was the eighteenth, the day Lisa was coming to take her to lunch and spend the afternoon. I'll change into a dress just before she arrives, she decided, knowing Lisa couldn't possibly make it before noon. The kid was a good driver. It was something they had in common. Anything else? Reading. That summed it up.

Breakfast. A dish of prunes and a bowl of bran with grape jelly and milk. Every time a new patient was seated at her table a remark was made about the grape jelly in her cereal accompanied by an unpleasant facial expression. Gloria never stooped to respond. She ignored dimwits who voiced an opinion about her eating habits, or anything else for that matter. After breakfast there was educational therapy. She enjoyed working with silver. Her parents had sent her to Walden, an exclusive private school in Manhattan. She was taught how to make papyrus but not much about geography, chemistry, E=MC^2, topology and fractional equations. It was a really neat school, she thought at the time, and never had reason to change her opinion. They taught her nothing she could use in real life and left her alone to write.

This morning she worked on a silver bracelet, etching it with an Etruscan design she had found in an art book at the local library. At noon she returned to her unit, changed into a tissue-wool crêpe dress, put stockings on and high heel shoes. She spent her time working on a petite pointe evening purse in the living room of the unit while she waited for Lisa. Eleanor, having finished her lunch, commenced to work on the gros pointe seats for her dining room chairs. Gloria had nothing to say to her and that was just fine with Eleanor. She had tried to have a polite chat with Gloria at the beginning, but soon discovered they had nothing in common.

A familiar pair of arms encircled Gloria's shoulders suddenly and a kiss was planted on the top of her head. She said, "Lisa?" then, "I've missed you, "then, "let go, I want to look at you." Gloria removed her spectacles and turned around.

"I've missed you too," Lisa said. "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"

"I suffer from too much intelligence."

"And your greatest virtue is modesty," Lisa said as she unbuttoned her jacket and sat down in one of the easy chairs.

"Isn't this the dress you bought at Bergdorf's the week before . . ."

"Yes, and the coat that goes with it. I was really out of it by then, paid a thou for it."

"It suits you."

"Pun intended?"

"No. The verbal gifts are yours."

Gloria searched in her needlework bag, pulled out a postcard and tossed it in Lisa's lap. It was postmarked Geneva and had a picture of Léman Lake on it. "Read what it says," she urged.

"I trust you are enjoying your stay in Massachusetts. Love, Mother," Lisa read aloud.

"Perhaps she meant to be funny. She always did have a sense of humor."

"She never had a sense of humor!"

Gloria picked up her embroidery. Her needle, threaded with silk the color of pale melon, moved deftly in her hand.

"That evening purse is hardly your style. Making it for a friend?"

"No. For mother." She came to the end of a row and snipped the yarn.

They walked to an elegant restaurant, a favorite among patients with town passes who could afford the high prices. The dining room had a real fireplace inlaid with hand painted Dutch tiles imported from Holland, oak paneled walls and thick carpeting. It was too warm for a fire. Instead of logs, there was a sumptuous arrangement of fresh flowers in the fireplace. The mantelpiece was decorated with Delft plates in old wooden plate holders. They each ordered a dry martini, littleneck clams with lemon juice, and a lobster salad. Lisa asked the waiter for fresh rolls and a pot of butter, then turned to Gloria.

"You look remarkably well, and you have regained your slim figure."

"I've been off medication for more than six weeks."

"You must be making wonderful progress."

"I took one good look in a full length mirror two months ago. Instead of me I saw a fat, stupid looking middle aged woman with an awful rash on her face. That jolted me out of whatever . . ."

"Severe depression."

"Yes, vanity sent me flying through seven stages of illness and hurtled me clear out of it."

"Perhaps you were ready to care about yourself."

"Don't tiptoe around me and don't make redundant observations."

"You're as sharp-tongued as ever. You were very fragile for a while and I took a chance on a remark that would not offend you. I can see you're ready to leave this place."

"I'm checking out in a couple of weeks. I'm bored. I want to experience real life again."

The waiter brought their order. The clams were well chilled and tasty, and served with a generous number of lemon wedges, the salad was crisp and well dressed, the rolls were warm and crusty and the charming little individual tubs of butter tasted as if their contents had been churned that morning. The martinis relaxed tensions and the sisters enjoyed their food. The restaurant was famous for its pecan pie and each of them ordered a slice for dessert. The waiter refilled their goblets with ice water and poured coffee so fresh hot curlicues of steam floated toward the ceiling from their cups.

"How is Clarissa," Lisa inquired. Gloria told her that she had visited during spring recess and sent her postals writing "I'm alive, Ma."

"I see no humor in this. You've been a very good mother. Clarissa should write proper letters to you," Lisa remarked with asperity.

Gloria shrugged off the comment and attempted to change the conversation, but Lisa, derailing Gloria's intentions, asked her if the freedoms she gained were greater than the comforts she lost.

"Comforts! What comforts? There never was any milk in those breasts."

"How can you say that? Mother was always kind to the servants."

" . . . .and the poor. Don't forget the poor."

"She was a great beauty but she remained faithful to father."

"She was frigid."

"I find that hard to believe."

"Mother was born into a world of Tiffany lamps, Waterford goblets, finger bowls and crystal knife rests. Ladies enjoyed pouring tea and presiding at the dinner table; sex was a whore's pleasure. Just take my word for it, I know," Gloria responded.

She studied Lisa's face, still stunningly beautiful, but strained. She, who had always displayed a cheerful mien, looked as tense as an over-wound clock. Trouble in paradise? She decided to keep the observation to herself, unless Lisa alluded to something gone awry.

"Like the pie?"

"It's delicious and three thousand calories a slice."

"Doesn't Phil like you a bit plump? He used to."

"I'm no longer certain what he likes."

"The two of you broke a mattress at the beach cottage the first time you came to visit."

"Don't remind me, I was so embarrassed."

"Proud, it seemed to me. All passion spent?"

"It's not the same," Lisa said. "When we make love it's better than ever, simply because we're more experienced, but Phil's success and David's arrival happened at the same time. We diverged, took different forks in the road. I concentrated on the baby and continued to paint when he was asleep. Phil became preoccupied with his career. Our lives changed."

She also told Gloria about her difficulties teaching English to newly arrived Haitians after they finished dessert. She had been working as a volunteer in a New York public school for more than a year.

"It's tough kid. The road to sainthood is paved with broken glass. Seriously, you should spend every free minute you have painting."

"You can be cruel and kind at the same time," Lisa said, tears rolling down her cheeks.

"You're the only woman I know, except for Kate Hepburn, who looks beautiful when she cries. And you're an ungrateful wretch besides. Just think what you've learned today—vanity and boredom can move mountains. I should think that worth a five-hour drive."

Lisa took out a handkerchief and dabbed under her eyes. ("Never rub your eyes when you cry, you'll ruin the delicate tissue around them," was mother's dictum.)

"Here I am, as usual, gathering the pearls that drop from your lips. You have father's brains and sometimes I hate you for it."

"And you have mother's looks."

Gloria was pensive for a moment, then said "You don't hate me right now, you just feel cheated because you found me too well to be patronized." She knew that knowing precisely where to insert the needle was a sister's refined art.

"We can't all be brilliant."

She is defiant, that's good, Gloria thought, then asked, "Have you ever given yourself a chance?"

Lisa said she painted whenever she had the time. She looked confused, did not fully understand what Gloria meant.

"Have you tried to have a show," Gloria asked. "Not a one-woman show, that could only come later. I mean a show with two or three other women."

"Well, there's a framer who has a shop just a few blocks from our house. He's offered to help, but I have not responded."

"Why? Are there strings?"

"Sort of."

"Does he want to sleep with you?"

"He's never been as blunt as that, I just feel if I accepted his help I'd put myself in a vulnerable position."

"Because you have a king-size crush on him," Gloria interjected. "You fear his amorous intentions. I hope you realize it's what you feel for him that makes you vulnerable."

A flush spread across Lisa's face as she asked Gloria to stop psychoanalyzing her, but her sister was in full gallop.

"You accepted the system from the time you had your first conscious thought. Mother was very successful with you. She taught you to be a man-pleaser well; you fit into her plans like a hand in an expensive glove. I was the bad daughter, the different one, the intractable child, always difficult. We learn to do what we must in the nursery. The beautiful baby is fussed over and pampered. The plain one has to howl for attention."

"I never realized that," Lisa said with surprise.

"They wanted to put on one of my plays."

"They who?"

"The hospital. I asked them not to. We only use first names here, but I was afraid the news would find its way into The Enquirer or The Star. They put on a musical instead. One of the patients is a director and he did very well with an amateur cast."

Gloria put three lumps of sugar in her second cup of coffee, then told her sister that Hal had been a faithful visitor.

"It's about time he behaved like an adult," Lisa snapped.

"Don't place the blame on him. When I got knocked up and ran off with him I was using him to punish mother and father. You know how they always felt about actors. They considered them amusing riffraff to be financially supported in return for entertainment."

Lisa smiled as she said, "Phil refuses to put up with her airs."

"Phil one, mother zero."

They drank their coffee each immersed in her own thoughts. Gloria broke the silence.

"When mother first told me you were on the way I believed I was happy. I just started to menstruate. Mother got all the attention. People made a great fuss over her. She was more gorgeous than ever, one of those women who becomes radiant when she is carrying a child. She got flowers and chocolates and compliments and an elegant maternity wardrobe. I got blood and cramps. I thought I was being punished for my envy. God, you were a beautiful baby! Most babies are red and scrawny and wrinkled. You were chubby, you had mother's golden hair and blue eyes. I stopped existing for them until they discovered I could write. Their sudden attentions filled me with rage. They could not love, they could not love anyone. When I was sixteen I overheard them telling a friend, 'Lisa is the beauty, Gloria is the clever one,' as if we were objects in their collection of paintings and porcelains."

"You talk about my beauty as if it were an accomplishment. A person is born beautiful. I never had to do anything but stand there. You are still so full of anger."

"The anger is spent. If it weren't I couldn't discuss any of this with you."

"What irony. I've always envied your talent. Your whole life had a fairy-tale quality. The exciting opening nights, the rave reviews, the matinee idol husband and the beautiful, smart daughter. And you always slept with handsome men. I thought you had it all."

"No one has it all. Lose that fantasy, it's bad for your health."

Lisa hesitated for several moments before she confided that sometimes when she and Phil had a bad quarrel she suspected she would not have married a poor man if she had not been so guilty about having been born rich. If she had believed she had some value besides inherited money and beauty she would have made a different choice. She confessed she knew her sister was right about the man-pleasing business.

It was nearly four when they realized they were the only people left in the restaurant. The busboys had cleared all the tables and the waiters set them for the evening meal. The only dirty dishes left were the two empty coffee cups on the sisters' table, each with its layer of dark sediment.

Gloria took Lisa's hand. "We survived. Don't ever forget that. And you're never too old to make changes." Lisa paid the bill and they walked back to the hospital arm in arm.

 
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