“I’m sorry I’m late, darling,” Virginia said, having to pick up and embrace three-year-old Clarissa before she could kiss Katherine hello. “My last patient needed not only a new crown but some stitches for a broken heart. Why do people persist in marriage?”
“Your coat’s cold,” Clarissa observed soberly.
“So’s my nose,” Virginia said, burying it in the child’s neck. “It’s past your bath time and your story time, and I’ve probably ruined dinner.”
“No,” Katherine said. “We’re not eating until seven-thirty. We’re having a guest.”
“Daddy’s new friend,” Clarissa said. “And I get to stay up until she comes.”
“She said she needed to talk with us,” Katherine explained. “She sounded all right on the phone. Well, a little nervous but not at all hostile. I thought, perhaps we owe her that much?”
“Or him?” Virginia wondered.
“Oh, if him, I suppose I should have said no,” Katherine decided.
“People who don’t even want to marry him think this is odd enough.”
“Odd about him?”
“Even he thinks it odd about him,” Katherine said.
“Men have an exaggerated sense of responsibility in the most peculiar directions,” Virginia said. “We can tell her he’s a perfectly nice man, can’t we?” She was now addressing the child.
“Daddy said I didn’t know who was my mommie,” Clarissa said.
“I have two mommies. Will Elizabeth be my mommie, too?”
“She just might,” Virginia said. “What a lucky kid that would make you.”
“Would she come to live with us then?” Clarissa asked.
“Sounds to me as if she wants to live with Daddy.” Virginia said.
“So did you, at first,” Clarissa observed.
Both women laughed.
“Your bath?” Virginia ordered and carried the child up the stairs while Katherine returned to the kitchen to attend to dinner.
Clarissa was on the couch in her pajamas, working a pop-up book of Alice in Wonderland with Virginia, when the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get that,” Katherine called from the kitchen.
Elizabeth, in a fur-collared coat, stood in the doorway, offering freesias.
“Did he tell you to bring them?” Katherine asked, smiling.
“He said we all three liked them,” Elizabeth answered. “But don’t most women?”
“I’m Katherine,” Katherine said, “wife number one.”
“And I’m Virginia, wife number two,” Virginia said, standing in the hall.
“And I’m Elizabeth, as yet unnumbered,” Elizabeth said. “And you’re Clarissa,”
Clarissa nodded, using one of Virginia’s legs as a prop for leaning against or perhaps hiding behind.
Elizabeth was dressed, as the other two women were, in very well cut trousers and an expensive blouse, modestly provocative. And she was about their age, thirty. The three did not so much look alike as share a type, all about the same height five feet seven inches or so (he said he was six feet tall but was, in fact, five feet ten and a half), slightly but well proportioned, with silky, well cut hair and intelligent faces. They were all competent assured women who intimidated only unconsciously.
Virginia poured three drinks and a small glass of milk for Clarissa,who was allowed to pass the nuts and have one or two before Katherine took her off to bed.
“She looks like her father,” Elizabeth observed.
“Yes, she has his lovely eyes, ” Virginia agreed.
“He doesn’t know I’m here,” Elizabeth confessed. “Oh, I intend to tell him. I just didn’t want it to be a question, you see?”
“He did think it a mistake that Katherine and I ever met. We didn’t, of course, until after I’d married him. I didn’t t know he was married until quite a while after he and I met.”
“He was a patient of yours?” Elizabeth asked.
“He’s been quite open with me about both of you from the beginning, but we met in therapy, of course and that does make such a difference.”
“Does it?” Virginia asked. “I’ve never been in therapy.”
“Haven’t you?” Elizabeth asked, surprised. “I would have thought both of you might have considered it.”
“He and I?”
“No, you and Katherine.”
“We felt very uncomplicated about it,” Virginia said, “once it happened. It was such an obvious solution.”
“Well, no, not for him, of course. Therapy was a thing for him to consider.”
Katherine came back into the room. “Well, now we can be grownups.”
“She looks like her father,” Elizabeth observed again.
“She has his lovely eyes,” it was Katherine’s turn to reply.
“I don’t suppose a meeting like this could have happened before the women’s movement,” Elizabeth said.
“Probably not,” Katherine agreed. “I’m not sure Virginia and I could have happened before the women’s movement. We might not have known what to do.”
“He tries not to be antagonistic about feminism,” Elizabeth said.
“Oh, he always been quite good about the politics. He didn’t resent my career,” Virginia offered.
“He was quite proud of marrying a dentist,” Katherine said. “I think he used to think I wasn’t liberated enough.”
“He doesn’t think that now,” Elizabeth said.
“I suppose not,” Katherine agreed.
“The hardest thing for him has been facing. . . the sexual implications. He has felt. . .unmanned.”
“He put it more strongly than that in the past,” Virginia said.
“Men’s sexuality is so much more fragile than ours,” Elizabeth said.
“Shall we have dinner?” Katherine suggested.
“He said you you were a very good cook,” Elizabeth said to Katherine
“Most of this dinner is Virginia’s. I got it out of the freezer,” Katherine explained. “I’ve gone back to school, and I don’t have that much time.”
“I cook in binges,” Virginia said, pouring the wine.
“At first he said he thought the whole thing was some kind of crazy revenge,” Elizabeth said.
“At first there might have been that element in it,” Virginia admitted. “Katherine was six months’ pregnant when he left her, and she felt horribly deserted. I didn’t know he was going to be a father until after Clarissa was born. Then I felt I’d betrayed her too, though I hadn’t known anything about it.”
“He said he should have told you, ” Elizabeth said, “but he was very much in love and was afraid of losing you. He said there was never any question of his not supporting Katherine and Clarissa.”‘
“No, I make perfectly good money,” Virginia said. “There’s no question of his supporting them now, if that’s a problem. He doesn’t.”
“He says he’d rather he did,” Elizabeth said.
“He sees Clarissa whenever he likes,” Katherine explained. “He’s very good with her. One of the reasons I wanted a baby was knowing he’d be a good sort of father.”
“Did you have any reservations about marrying him?” Elizabeth asked Virginia.
“At the time? Only that I so very much wanted to,” Virginia said. “There aren’t that many marrying men around for women dentists, unless they’re sponges, of course. It’s flattering when someone is so afraid of losing you he’s willing to do something legal about it. It oughtn’t to be but it is.”
“But you had other reservations later,” Elizabeth said.
“Certainly, his wife and his child.”
“Why did he leave you, Katherine?”
“Because he was afraid of losing her. I suppose he thought he’d have what he needed of me anyway, since I was having his child.”
“Were you still in love with him?” Elizabeth asked.
“I must have been,” Katherine said, “but I couldn’t have been quite so unhappy, so desperate. I was desperate.”
“He’s not difficult to be in love with, after all,” Virginia said. “He’s a very attractive man.”
“He asked me if I was a lesbian,” Elizabeth said. “l told him I certainly didn’t think so. After all, I was in love with him. He said so had two other women been, in love enough to marry him, but they were both lesbians. And maybe he only attracted lesbians even if they didn’t t know it themselves. He even suggested I should maybe try making love with another woman before I made up my mind.”
There was a pause which neither Katherine nor Virginia at tempted to break.
“Did either of you know. . . before?”
Katherine and Virginia looked at each other. Then they said,
“He’s even afraid he may turn women into lesbians,” Elizabeth said.
Both Virginia and Katherine laughed, but not unkindly.
“Is that possible?” Elizabeth asked.
“Is that one of your reservations?” Katherine asked.
“It seemed crazy,” Elizabeth said, “but…”
Again the two hostesses waited.
“l know this probably sounds very unliberated and old-fashioned and maybe even prejudiced, but I don’t think I could stand being a lesbian, finding out I’m a lesbian; and if there something in him that makes a woman . . . How can either of you stand to be together instead of with him?”
“But you don’t know you’re a lesbian until you fall in love,” Katherine said, “and then it’s quite natural to want to be together with the person you love.”
“What’s happening to me is so peculiar. The more sure I am I’m in love with him, the more obsessively I read everything I can about what it is to be a lesbian. It’s almost as if I had fallen in love with a woman, and that’s absurd.”
“l don’t really think there’s anything peculiar about him,” Katherine said.
“One is just so naturally drawn, so able to identify with another woman,” Virginia said. “When I finally met Katherine what he wanted and needed just seemed too ridiculous’
“But it was you he wanted,” Elizabeth protested.
“At Katherine’s and Clarissa’s expense, and what was I, after all, but just another woman.”
“A liberated woman,” Katherine said.
“Not then, I wasn’t,” Virginia said.
“I didn’t feel naturally drawn to either of you,” Elizabeth protested. “l wasn’t even curious at first. But he is so obsessed with you still, so afraid of being betrayed again, and I thought, I’ve got to help him somehow, reassure him, understand enough to let him know, as you say, that there’s nothing peculiar about him…or me.”
“I’m sure there isn’t,” Katherine said reassuringly and reached out to take Elizabeth’s hand.
Virginia got up to clear the table.
“Mom!” came the imperious and sleepy voice of Clarissa.
“I’ll go,” Virginia said.
“But I don’t think you mean what I want you to mean,” Elizabeth said.
“Perhaps not,” Katherine admitted.
“He said he never should have left you. It was absolutely wrong; and if he ever did marry again, it would be because he wanted to make that commitment, but what if his next wife found out she didn’t want him, the way Virginia did?”
“I guess anyone takes that risk,” Katherine said.
“Do you think I should marry him?” Elizabeth asked.
Katherine kept Elizabeth’s hand, and her eyes met Elizabeth’s beseeching, but she didn’t answer.
“You do think there’s something wrong with him?”
“No, I honestly don’t. He’s a perfectly nice man. It’s just that I sometimes think that isn’t good enough, not now when there are other options.”
“What other options?”
“You have a job don’t you?”
“I teach at the university, as he does.”
“Then you can support yourself.”
“That’s not always as glamorous as it sounds.”
“Neither is marriage,” Katherine said.
“Is this?” Elizabeth asked, looking around her, just as Virginia came back into the room.
“It’s not nearly as hard as some people try to make it sound.”
“Clarissa wanted to know if her new mother was still here.”
“Oh my,” Elizabeth said.
“Before you came, she wanted to know, if you married her father, would you be another mother and move in here.”
Elizabeth laughed and then said, “Oh, God, that’s just what he wants to know!”
They took their coffee back into the living room.
“It must be marvelous to be a dentist. At least during the day you can keep people from telling you all their troubles,” Elizabeth said.
“That’s not as easy as it looks,” Virginia said.
“He says you’re the best dentist he ever went to. He hates his dentist now.”
“I used to be so glad he wasn’t like so many men who fell in love with their students,” Katherine said.
“Maybe he’d be better off,” Elizabeth said in mock gloom. “He says he isn’t threatened by my having published more than he has. He had two wives and a baby while I was simply getting on with it; but does he mean it? Does he really know?”
“We’re all reading new lines, aren’t we?” Virginia asked.
“But if finally none of us marries them, what will they do?” Elizabeth asked.
“I can hardly imagine that.” Katherine said.
“You can’t imagine what they’ll do?”
“No, women saying ‘no,’ all of them. We can simply consider ourselves for instance,” Katherine said.
“Briefly anyway,” Virginia said. “Did you come partly to see if you were at all like us?”
“I suppose so,” Elizabeth said.
“Well, I’m not surprised by you. . .and very surprised not to be.”
“Are you sorry to have married him?” Virginia asked Katherine.
“I could hardly be. There’s Clarissa, after all, and you. Are you?” she asked in return.
“Not now,” Virginia said, “having been able to repair the damage.”
“And everyone knows,” Elizabeth said, “that you did have the choice.”
“Yes’ Virginia agreed, “there’s that.”
“But I felt I didn’t have any choice,” Katherine said. “That part of it humiliated me”
“Elizabeth is making a distinction.” Virginia said, “between what everyone knows and what each of us knows. I shared your private humiliation, of course. All women must.”
“Why?” Elizabeth demanded.
“Not to believe sufficiently in one’s own value,” Virginia explained.
“But he doesn’t believe sufficiently in his own value either,” Elizabeth said. “He doesn’t even quite believe he’s a man.”
“I never doubted I was a woman,” Katherine said.
“That smug,” Elizabeth said, “because you have a child.”
“So does he,” Katherine replied.
“But he was too immature to deal with it; he says so himself. Don’t you feel at all sorry for him?’
“Yes,” said Katherine.
“Of course,” Virginia agreed.
“He’s been terribly hurt. He’s been damaged,” Elizabeth said.
“Does that make him more or less attractive do you think?” Virginia asked.
“Well, damn it, less, of course,” Elizabeth shouted. “And whose fault is that?”
Neither of the other two women answered.
“He’s not just second, he’s third-hand goods,” Elizabeth said.
“Are women going to begin to care about men’s virginity?” Katherine asked. “How extraordinary!”
“Why did you go into therapy?” Virginia asked.
“l hardly remember,” Elizabeth said. “I’ve been so caught up with his problems since the beginning. The very first night of group, he said I somehow reminded him of his wives…”
“Perhaps that is why you went,” Katherine suggested.
“You think I’d be crazy to marry him, don’t you?” Elizabeth demanded.
“Why should we?” Virginia asked. “We both did.”
“That’s not a reassuring point,” Elizabeth said.
“You find us unsatisfactory,” Katherine said, in apology.
“Exactly not,” Elizabeth said sadly. “I want someone to advise me. . .to make a mistake. Why should you?”
“Why indeed?” Virginia asked.
They embraced warmly before Elizabeth left.
“Perhaps I might come again?” she asked at the door.
“Of course, Katherine said.
After the door closed, Katherine and Virginia embraced.
“He’d be so much happier, for a while anyway, if he married again,” Katherine said.
“Of course he would,” Virginia agreed, with some sympathy for him in her voice. “But we couldn’t encourage a perfectly nice woman like Elizabeth…”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Katherine said. “That’s just it.”
“She’ll marry him anyway;” Virginia predicted, “briefly.”
“And have a child?” Katherine asked.
“And fall in love with his next wife,” Virginia went on.
“There really isn’t anything peculiar about him,” Katherine said.
“I’m sorry he doesn’t like his dentist.”
“He should never have married you.”
“No, he shouldn’t,” Virginia agreed. “Then at least I could still be taking care of his teeth.”
Barring that, they went up together to look in on his richly mothered child, sleeping soundly, before they went to their own welcoming bed.
I must admit I spent several frustrating days going over the OCR of this story, hunting down every garbled word and broken line, every comma, apostrophe and quotation mark – but it was most assuredly worth the while to be able to post Jane Rule’s finely crafted short story, sparkling as it does with nuanced insight into women’s minds, and her pitch-perfect ear for the delicacy of women’s conversation.
It was my impression that the conversation itself sounded as if it belonged to an era which predated the women’s movement (the mention of which rather dated the story) by at least a couple of decades. Katherine, Virginia and Elizabeth, with the careful economy and refinement of their speech, sound to me as if they belong in the more formal ‘fifties – or even an earlier time – rather than the radical ‘seventies, and their dress suggested to me the same sense of propriety. But then I wondered, would a hostess of the ‘fifties have entertained a dinner guest with food from the freezer? And what about the absence of cocktails and canapes, which made the period – culinarily at least – indeterminate and difficult to pin down with any degree of certainty.
This was essentially the problem I ran into when attempting to reconcile the ‘movie’ of the story which floated in my head with the actual text. Despite the ‘progressive’ touches, (Elizabeth’s therapy, Katherine’s school) this stuck in my mind as a ‘fifties story. The only way I could think of to reconcile content and context was to give in and embrace the anachronism, and be faithful to my own imagination – hence, my admittedly frivolous, choice of images for this post!
Rule’s one small slip (if it could even be said to be one) notwithstanding, one cannot but be impressed with how deftly she expresses the gentle and amused, but unmistakable sense of superiority, the faintest denigration camouflaged, but not quite concealed in the word ‘nice’. Rule’s perfect balance of irony, humour and seriousness aptly suited the setting of the story. The personalities and characters of these three women with their similarly old-fashioned names, sense of style and initial marital predisposition, cast them as kindred spirits.
We know that Elizabeth’s fatal evening with these two wholesome and classy paragons of lesbian virtue – intelligent, ethical, self-aware, transparent, reflective and fearless as they are – is an initiation – an induction as it were into their way of life – a way of life that has already begun to wield its fascination on her readily susceptible mind. It sounds the knell of doom for her forthcoming marriage even before it begins. Distillation is fore-ordained once the elements of the alchemical process have been brought together in the alembic, and so we cannot, for all the world, imagine her settling happily ever after for an ordinary relationship with even the most perfectly nice man in the world.
It is difficult to discern exactly where the note of inevitability is struck, but once we have heard it, it resounds like a persistent chord over the background of conversation. We know that the already sprouted seeds of Elizabeth’s ambivalence have received a thorough watering as she absorbs the implications of the perfect choreography of Katherine and Virginia’s well-ordered lives, ensconced in their chosen niche of unruffled domestic happiness. Elizabeth is uncomfortably aware of their well-meant condescension, their kindly but amused sympathy for the former spouse (referred to here only by a pronoun and to whom Rule refrains from conferring the dignity of a name) who no longer has any personal significance in their lives beyond his services rendered in fathering their child and serving as a stepping stone to their alliance.
Despite her determined struggle to resist it, the inevitability of her own future must have become terribly clear to Elizabeth over the course of the evening. Elizabeth will arrive at her destination in her own way, making her own mistakes and charting her own ambivalent course, but we needn’t fear for her happiness or security, because we know she will land on her feet, and when she does, she will have a couple of discerning and sympathetic allies.
But what about ‘the perfectly nice man?’ Whatever did he do to deserve the terrible marital curse that dogs his every romantic effort? His confidence, already undermined, will end in utter ruin. What is it about him that so sadly and comically pairs him with incipiently lesbian women? We hope for Clarissa’s sake he will not take to drink, but somehow gain an insight into the chemistry of his attractions. Fate seems indifferent to his happiness, so it is entirely up to him to save himself – if indeed such a thing is at all possible.
We hope that in accordance with Katherine’s prescient announcement, his brief marriage to Elizabeth will be happy. We hope Clarissa will have a new little sister, who will be given a suitably old-fashioned name, in honour of a woman writer, as do all the women in her life. I think Rule would have it so, because she must have been thinking of Clarissa, Virginia Woolf ‘s niece, when she picked the names for these two characters. I am also reminded of Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen… so perhaps the new addition might be christened ‘Sylvia,’ after Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of my own personal favourite lesbian writers.
That would be as neat a summing up as we could wish for, to follow the rueful, yet oracular pronouncements made by Katherine and Virginia on their way to bed.