“Medea in the Garden” was ready for reading, in installments, at
but apparently the Five Chapters website has died. So here’s the story.
By midnight all the men were asleep. My Kenneth was upstairs in bed, Bert and Joe had each gone home, and Di’s husband, Adam, was out like a light on the love seat. By then the fire was roaring and the snow falling in big fat clumps. And after onion soup, veal roast, artichokes, creamed new potatoes, Double Gloucester, stewed Anjous, Leah’s blackberry pie, and every color of wine, we four women were wide awake and ravenous. So I went to the pantry for breadsticks and Liederkranz and came back instead with cognac and my precious new 20-pound bag of plump, salty, premium, natural-color Escondido Nut Farm pistachios, which my mother sends us every Christmas.
This was one of those subversive impulses that flash and stun without warning. The sort which when you’re young compel you to blurt “I love you” when you certainly don’t, as a kind of insane courtesy. The happiness you spread never offsets the cost. Until now, I had shared the pistachios only with Kenneth, and that just since two years ago when he discovered them in a hatbox under the bed and threatened to rat me out to the children. It was some small compensation, that evening, to please my friends, to watch them reveal their fine natures through food play, but not enough. Never enough.
We had been talking about Baghdad and the polar ice caps, and about Caroline’s new drapes which she made herself with no previous sewing experience, and then on to how uncanny I was to have found a Sanredaam print stuck in an old book on party stunts, and so on, when Di leaned forward with that constipated expression she sometimes gets and asked, “Why do men like to slap women on the ass?” You can always count on Di. “No, seriously,” she said.
“What a wonderful question!” Caroline, bony as a chicken foot, scooped yet another mound of pistachios from the communal bowl and funneled the nuts through her cupped hands into an ashtray already choked with shells. She knew we were watching. “This way I get to… rummage through the empties and sort of…come upon the full ones. Then I sort of…pounce on them and wrestle them to the ground.”
Caroline’s little pistachio drama, hyperbolic and fey, is in keeping with her overall comic style. Like certain theater people, she is always “on,” her mannered dottiness at once wearying and contagious, so that in her company, and against our will, both Di and I often catch ourselves chattering in unconscious imitation, adopting as our own her clichés and the rhythm of her speech, and even the fluttering mock-genteel gestures of her hands. Only Leah, the rock, huge and solid, imperturbable as Buddha, remains intact, amused but unseduced, true to the classic ironic style: the majestic, straight-faced understatement. Leah objects at length and often to all the sort-ofs, quites, and wonderfuls.
Leah ate slowly, contemplating each nut throughout its progress from random selection to obliteration. “I like the closed ones,” she said. “I like to crack them with my teeth. If anyone finds any…”
“They won’t,” I said, keeping my voice light. “These are premium triple-grade-As, sifted and resifted by hand, for a guarantee of absolute perfection.”
“Quality control!” cried Caroline. “How wonderful. Of course I must say I do miss that bright rosy color, the telltale fingertips, the sort of—“
“Stigmata,” said Leah, continuing darkly, “Nothing this pleasurable should be guilt-free.” Once upon a time, Leah claims, she made these pronouncements in all seriousness. She ruminated and blinked in Di’s direction. “Has Adam been spanking you, dear?”
“What? Oh! No.” Leah, who has a genius for catching you on the wrong foot, had startled our Di into a blush the color of a dead-ripe Freestone. Di is a newlywed, younger than the rest of us by forty years, slim and straight as a wading bird; an intense sharp-witted young woman, and a treat for the eyes. Usually spirited company, she had been throughout this evening listless, preoccupied. An ominous little bundle in our midst, ticking quietly away. Like my own moody daughters. Like me, once a moody daughter. She was laughing now, with us, uncomfortable and pleased, at the center of attention. “Not exactly,” she said, provoking more laughter.
“And why not, I’d like to know?” Caroline brandished a fist. “Good God, what have we come to, where will it all end?”
“It’s not a personal question,” Di said. “It’s a theoretical question. I just suddenly wondered.”
“Of course you did,” said Caroline, “but the more interesting question is, why do women like to be slapped on the ass?”
“I don’t,” said Di.
“I sort of do, once in a while,” someone said. Actually it was me.
Leah cleared her throat. “They slap us on the ass for the same reason that compels them, when they are young boys, to run up and touch the Witch’s House.”
“Ah,” we three said in unison. Di was especially impressed. She added, “Wow.”
“Bravado, is all,” Leah said, shattering a nut with her back molars.
“Do you really think so?”
Leah pondered, ponderously, assuming at last a benign, abstracted smile. “No,” she said.
“You do, too,” I said, and continued before she could protest. “When I was a child, our neighborhood Witch’s House was the only stucco house on Columbia Avenue. It was pink with red tile roofing, and round rooms and turrets like a castle, and an ugly oak out front with all its limbs amputated.”
“They are often hideous, with round rooms and turrets,” Leah said.
“Our Witch’s House was just an ordinary old barn with a fat lady in it,” Caroline said. “She was so enormous that she couldn’t wear clothes. In the wintertime she wore blankets fastened together with safety pins, and in the summer she wore sheets. She kept pigs. On windy days, when she came out to slop the pigs, the sheets would loosen and billow and snap, and the pigs would scatter, and I used to pray for one great big gust to come and blow those sheets away. One day, at high noon, this actually happened.”
“Ah,” said Leah. We were all quiet for a while, listening to the crackling of fire and pistachio shells, and the stertorous breathing of Adam; contemplating the solid, glistening apparition of the Naked Fat Woman, who appeared, at least to me, to rotate serenely within the fire itself as if on a vertical spit, glowing red like the center of the earth.
“I’m pregnant,” said Di in a low voice. “I haven’t told Adam yet.”
Caroline opened her mouth to say, “How wonderful,” but didn’t and probably would have caught herself even without warning looks from Leah and me. For Di looked at no one, her expression aggressively noncommittal.
So no one spoke, and after a time the suspense dissipated into an easy lull. Adam’s breathing changed, becoming shallow and rapid, his eyes rolled beneath slightly open lids, and his long legs jerked arrhythmically, in little puppet spasms. He is a handsome young man, so the effect was more endearing than pitiful. Di was particularly taken. Apparently she had never seen him do this before. “Is this a nightmare?” she asked.
“We’ll see,” said Caroline, smiling. “He’s probably just chasing rabbits.”
Leah peered at her over the tops of her glasses. “He’s not a dog, Caroline.”
“I wasn’t implying anything. I dreamed about rabbits once myself. An enormous beautiful white rabbit, and it hippity-hopped into Baba Yaga’s house on stilts, or what looked like Baba Yaga’s house on stilts, when I thought about it later, you know. Then it blew up. Not the house. Just the rabbit. It just sort of whoomfed and oozed out under the door.”
We all said that was disgusting.
“Don’t I know it,” she said. “I was sort of retching when I woke up. But then I was retching a lot in those days, because I was p—“ Caroline began to cough. “Husk,” she whispered, pointing at her throat. “Ahem. As I say, at the time, I had one of those twenty-four hour bugs.”
“My mother had terrible nightmares,” said Di. “Sometimes she’d scream so loud and wild that we’d all be frightened out of our minds. One night my poor Dad—he must have been having a bad one, too—started screaming right after she did, and oh, that was a horrible sound. The two of them were awake and scaring each other to death, screeching their heads off in the dark, and of course we got hysterical too, and ran into their room. It took like forever to find the light switch. This became a classic family joke, like the time they broke the bed. I didn’t think it was all that funny, though. Mother always said her nightmares were silly. The worst dreams, she said once, don’t make you scream. But she would never tell me more about them.”
“Then she shouldn’t have mentioned them,” Leah said. These were my feelings exactly.
“But she did,” Di said. And this retort—for it was that—made Leah blink. No one said anything, and after a very uncomfortable minute Di got up and went to the bathroom.
In Di’s company we Old Ones had always refrained from homeowner talk and anecdotes about our kids. We wanted not to bore her or pull rank. On this occasion, though, she was inescapably, willfully junior; what with her pointed exit and equally stylized return ten minutes later. She entered the dark and silent room as though it were a stage, and she the ingenue, with downcast eyes and lips tightly pursed. She sat on the carpet in front of the fire, giving it her full attention, presenting to us her grave and lovely profile. I would have waited her out. I would have let her stew. But Leah and Caroline, who have only sons, were moved by pity.
“The worst dreams,” Leah told her, with obvious misgiving, “are when you wake up smiling.”
“Or humming a little tune,” said Caroline.
“And then you realize why.” Leah regarded Di with kindly intensity. She preferred, of course, to leave the rest unsaid. Di could see this, so she nodded as though pretending to understand, with a wholly unconvincing smile.
Adam sighed a whispery sigh, licked his lips, rubbed his nose with a baby fist.
“You dream about a baby,” Leah said, “and it cries and cries. You pick it up and it cries. You rock it and walk up and down with it and sing lullabies to it and it cries. It makes you frantic. It makes you crazy. Then a brilliant idea occurs to you. And you get a hold of a darning needle, and you thread it with fine silk wire…” Leah shuddered. Leah shuddering is impressive, for there is a great deal to Leah.
“And you, what, sew its mouth shut?” asked Di, unnecessarily. My God, girl. Of course you do.
“One should not,” said Leah, “feel guilty about a dream, or a conscious wish, for that matter. All that counts is what one does. One should not feel guilty about a dream.”
“So you say,” Caroline said, clapping a hand on Leah’s shoulder with rare camaraderie and giving it a little wobble. “Okay, once I was trapped in my living room with Antonin Scalia. Joe was there, and another couple, and we were having a cocktail party, and here came Antonin Scalia—either that or Saddam Hussein–crazed with blood lust. He was chasing us around the room in slow motion with a butcher knife or—no, it was a gun. He had this terrible gun and he was waving it around.”
“You sure it was a gun?” I said, trying to lighten the air with a double-entendre, which of course fell flat, as I am not a vulgar person, but really, I had to do something.
“Then somehow I overpowered whoever it was and tied him up in one of our butcher block dining chairs. Butcher block! Freud Alert! Then I picked up this knife—you’re right, it was a knife—and proceeded to cut off his arms and legs. I had to do this to make absolutely sure he didn’t hurt anybody. It was hard work. It took a long time.”
“For God’s sake,” I said. Caroline has a mind like a sprung trap.
“I haven’t finished. I was so proud of myself! Then I looked over at Joe—he was sitting on the couch with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman—and they were all staring at me with horror. And then I looked at Antonin Scalia, and it wasn’t him at all, it was just a great big, well, baby. Of course, after I woke up I was ill, but in the dream it seemed like just the worst kind of social gaffe. I was so embarrassed! I was swanning around, trying to laugh it off, and feeding the baby, who still lived, plumping pillows in back of its baleful little head. I kept saying, Look, he’s okay, he’s just fine, no real harm done! I kept saying, He’ll be as good as new, you’ll see!”
“They’re not always about babies,” I said. Di worried me. She was too solemn. God knows, we don’t want to take ourselves that seriously. The whole point of Di is to lighten us up, not the other way round.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Enough,” I said. “Life is too short.” The hour was late, and I was tired and cold, the way you get when you’ve stayed up too long. I offered more cognac all around, in a voice which was, I thought, clearly insincere, but Caroline took me up on it, and then I drained the bottle into my own glass. “Well, I wrote to the president again today,” I said.
“Tell me your dream,” Di said.
I sighed and rubbed my forehead as though it ached, but she persevered, silent, poised. The young are incredibly selfish.
“It was in the early days of our marriage, long before the children, although at that point we had just begun to try. Kenneth and I were traveling cross-country, sleeping in motels. I woke up smiling in a strange room and a gray morning, to a dull, rhythmic, thumping noise, which I came slowly to realize was part of a fading dream.
“I was killing a small mammal, some sleek, furry creature, like a ferret or a weasel. It was badly mangled but still conscious. I had a hold of one of its hindquarters and was beating the animal against a wooden block until the joint loosened and ripped away. This act gave me intense pleasure.
“When I was fully awake, I ran to the john and threw up. I couldn’t shake the scene from my mind, or explain it away, for the creature was as real to me, and still is to this day, as any you and I could see together. So I made myself go back to sleep again. I visited a thousand libraries, in different European cities, all quite detailed and of varying architectural design. I studied textbooks on anatomy, surgical techniques, anesthesiology. I put the animal to sleep and reassembled it. I didn’t skip a step. Sheets of muscle were layered and joined, veins and arteries somehow soldered, and at the end my stitchwork was so fine that the animal’s coat was seamless and no one could have told, just from looking, that it had suffered any injury.
“When it came to, it cringed at the sight of me and would not let me near enough to stroke its fur. Its eyes were terrible.”
“I’m sorry,” said Di.
“So am I,” I said. “Sorrier than I can say.”
“Why did you write to the president?” Leah asked in a tone that brooked no opposition. She is the oldest, the most forbearant, and God help you when her patience runs out. She had an ominous look about her now and her color was bad.
Caroline noticed it, too. “Yes, tell us,” she said. “What did you say this time?”
“Same old thing. Stop it right now, whatever you’re doing.”
“This instant,” Caroline said. “We know you’re up to no good.”
Leah sighed. “I haven’t been watching the news. I don’t have the heart any more. But I was under the impression that things were pretty quiet.”
“Yeah. Too quiet.” Caroline began to giggle. Caroline gets very silly when she’s overtired.
“I just reminded him that I wasn’t cut out to be a frontline soldier, and neither were my children.”
Caroline applauded. “Hear, hear!”
“That’s exactly it,” said Leah. “They put us on the front line.” Leah regarded the fire. “A long time ago. They should never have done that.”
“Why do you bother?” Di asked me, quite rudely. And here I thought we had placated her. “Nobody reads your letters.”
“I know, but it makes me feel better.”
“If you know, it shouldn’t make you feel better.” Crabby, militant, tiresome child. We had in the past suffered her to lecture us on “learning to deal with rage.” She made me regret this indulgence. “You’re comforting yourself with a fairy tale. You don’t have any real power at all. None of us does.”
“Hush,” said Leah.
“We have the power to swell up and burst,” said Di. “We have the power to feed and burp and wipe up poop and walk up and down in the middle of the night.”
“Hush,” said Leah.
“We have the power,” said Di, her chin jutting toward Leah, “to make ourselves so important to them that they grew up to hate and fear us and make fun of us, and I hate it, I just hate it, and that son of a bitch can do anything he wants to, and you can write your letters from now until doomsday and it won’t make a goddamn bit of difference.”
“That’s enough,” whispered Leah.
Leah did that thing she does, where she moves without moving. I can’t do it. She loomed over the kneeling girl, filling her eyes, filling the room. Even I was afraid. Di paled, as well she might, and made herself small.
“The world can end in two ways,” whispered Leah. “One is with a bang.”
“Kablooey,” said Caroline. Leah shot her a look.
“That,” I said, “would be their way.”
“Their way,” said Di, her eyes huge.
“They have their ways,” said Leah, “and we have ours.”
“Tee hee,” said Caroline.”
“Don’t you dare!” Leah shouted like a thunderclap. We all jumped a foot. “This is deadly serious business, Caroline. Don’t you ever laugh at this.”
Caroline, clearly embarrassed, assumed a ludicrous air-raid posture, arms folded tightly over her head. “No fighting in the War Room, okay? You know I can’t bear confrontations. I’d walk over my own grandmother—“
“You’re scaring me,” said Di, to Leah.
“I scare myself,” said Leah. She smiled a great sorrowful smile.
“We scare us,” I said.
“Yeah, but nobody scares the Fat Lady,” Caroline said. “My, she was a sight to see.”
We were all breathtaken for just a moment, but Leah said, “You kill me, Caroline,” and that was the end of that. We were at peace all of a sudden, all of us, even Leah. Even Di, whose face was thoughtful now, and not quite so junior.
She went and fetched the coats. They all stood and stretched and bundled up for the record cold. We spoke in whispers, refraining from waking the driver until the last possible moment. He had slept through all of it, his own dream long past.
Di wrapped her neck and chin in a muffler the color of robins’ eggs, which set off her hair in a way we all admired. Her eyes were still quite unreadable. “I’ve always wanted children,” she said, gazing directly at each of us in turn.
“So did I,” said Leah.
“We all did,” I said.
“We’ve talked about having two,” Di said.
“You won’t regret it,” Leah said. “I never have.”
“Nor I,” Caroline said. “Quite honestly.”
“Children are the future,” I said.
We all smiled then, the way women do. There was a round of awkward hugs—a long standing practice which I blame Caroline for initiating—and Adam was gently roused and hustled out the door with sleep in his eyes. Someone else must have driven: I doubt that he even knew where he was.
What with holidays and various family crises and Kenneth throwing his back out again, it was five months before the next get-together, at Caroline’s. We had a pretty good time, although I must say my party was better, as Caroline is one of those egocentric cooks who feel compelled to alter time-tested recipes with arbitrary additions in order to make the dishes “theirs,” with predictably odd results. Di was more vivacious than usual and seemed to have lost, permanently, that sweet, slightly annoying deference which she used to show towards us older folk.
Her stomach was flat. Perfectly flat, almost concave. This would simply have saddened me, I think, except that she flaunted her tiny waist with a wide silk cummerbund of a particularly flamboyant rosy hue.
I did not like that heartless touch, that cummerbund. She and Adam left early, and at some point Caroline asserted—Caroline, of all people—that there was such a thing as being too thin. But that was all anyone said about it.