by Katie Chase
They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.
I was lying under the tree in my parents’ backyard, an oak old enough to give shade but too young to be climbed, when Dad’s car pulled into the garage. All afternoon I’d been riding bikes with Stacie, but we had a fight when she proposed we play in my basement—it was getting too hot out, but I was convinced she was only using me for my Barbies. This was eight years ago. I was nine and a half years old.
Dad came out and stood in the driveway, briefcase in hand, watching me pull up grass. “Mary Ellen!”
I yanked one final clump, root and dirt dangling from my hands, and sat up.
“Come inside. I have wonderful news.”
In the kitchen Dad was embracing my mother, his arms around her small, apron-knotted waist. “I can’t believe it went through,” she was saying. She turned to me with shiny eyes, cleared her throat, and said in her sharp voice, “Mary, go get down the good glasses.”
I pushed a chair to the cupboards and climbed onto the countertop. Two glass flutes for my parents, and for myself a plastic version I’d salvaged from last New Year’s, the first time I’d been allowed, and encouraged, to stay up past midnight and seen how close the early hours of the next day were to night.
Dad took down the last leftover bottle of champagne and popped it open, showering the kitchen floor. My mother laughed and wiped her hands on her polka-dotted apron, as if she’d gotten wet.
“Hold up your glass, Mary Ell,” said Dad. He filled it halfway, and theirs to the rim. When in the past I’d been curious about alcohol, my parents had frowned, taken a drink, and feigned expressions of disgust. On New Year’s, for instance, my cup had held plain orange juice, and the next morning, while my parents still slept, I’d had orange juice in it again.
“A toast.” My mother held up her glass and waited.
I waited, too. The champagne fizzed, bubbles rising.
“To Mary,” said Dad, and then he stopped, choked up.
“Our own little girl, to be a woman,” my mother said. “Bottoms up.”
They clinked their glasses together, and mine met theirs dully, with a tap that brought an end to the pleasant ringing they’d created. I brought the champagne to my lips. I found that, if ingested in small sips, it was quite drinkable, no worse than my mother’s Diet Coke, and it had the welcome effect of making me feel I was floating away.
“Don’t you want to hear what the big news is?” said Dad. My mother turned her back on us to the cutting board, where she was chopping a fresh salad.
In a small voice I said, “Yes.” I tried to smile, but that feeling was in my stomach, made more fluttery by drink. I recognize the feeling now as a kind of knowledge.
“Well, do you remember Mr. Middleton? From Mommy and Daddy’s New Year’s party?”
At the party I’d been positioned, in scratchy lace tights and a crinoline-skirted dress, at the punch bowl to ladle mimosas for their guests. Many of their friends introduced themselves to me that night: Mr. Baker, Mr. Silverstein, Mr. Weir. Some bent to my height and shook my hand. Mr. Woodward scolded me for insufficiently filling his cup, and his young wife, Esmerelda, my former babysitter, led him away.
“Mr. Middleton—that nice man with the moustache? You talked together for quite some time.”
Then I remembered. As I served other guests, he’d lingered with a glass of sweating ice water, talking about his business. He directed his words to the entire room, looking out over it rather than at me, but he spoke quietly, so only I could hear. He offered figures: annual revenue, percentages, the number of loyal clients. And then: “My business is everything. It is my whole life.” I looked up at him curiously, and his face reddened; his moustache twitched. When he finally left, patting my shoulder and thanking me for indulging him, I was relieved. I’d had little to say in return—no adult had ever spoken to me that way—and I’d felt the whole time, on the tip of my tongue, the remark that might have satisfied and gotten rid of him sooner.
“That’s the good news,” Dad said. “He’s gone ahead and asked for your hand. And we’ve agreed to it.”
My mother put down the knife and finished off her champagne. I wanted no more of mine.
“Well, don’t be so excited,” said Dad. “Do you understand what I’m saying? You’re going to be a wife. You’re going to live with Mr. Middleton, and he’s going to take care of you, for the rest of your life. And, one day, when we’re very old, he’ll help out your mother and me, too.
“Yep.” He smiled. “It’s all settled. Just signed the contract this afternoon. You’ll really like him, I think. Nice man. You seemed to like him at the party, anyhow.”
“He was okay,” I managed. It was as I’d feared, somewhere, all along: the toast, the party, everything. But now he had a face, and a name. Now it was real: my future was just the same as any other girl’s. Yet none of my friends had become wives yet, and it didn’t seem fair that I should be the first taken. For one thing, I was too skinny. They say men first look for strength in a wife. Next they look for beauty, and even with braces and glasses yet to come, I was a homely little girl. It’s last that men look for brains. You may notice that I skipped over wealth. While rumors of sex spread freely at school, it wasn’t clear to me then just how money fit in. It was discussed only in negotiations, when lawyers were present and we were not. It was best that way for our parents, who tried to keep such things separate.
At dinner I pushed the food around on my plate, clearing a fork-wide path and uncovering the blue-and-white pattern of little people kneeling in rice fields and pushing carts. My mother was on her third glass of champagne—she wouldn’t last through Jeopardy!—and she was laughing at everything Dad said about his anxious day at the office.
A timer buzzed, and my mother rose from the table to pull out her raspberry pie. She approached me with the dish clasped in her oven mitts.
“Take a good look at that pie, Mary.”
The crust was golden brown, its edges pressed with the evenly spaced marks of a fork prong. Sweet red berries seeped through the three slits of a knife.
“It’s perfect,” she said, with her usual ferocity.
The next morning Stacie acted like our fight hadn’t happened, and I wanted to play along. We went to ride bikes while my mother showered. Dad’s car had left already for work, and he’d dragged the garbage out to the curb. The champagne bottle poked from the recycling bin, ready to be taken away. It was another summer day.
“We had a celebration last night,” I told Stacie. “Dad let me have booze.”
“Oh, yeah? What for?” She pedaled ahead and moved onto the street, which her parents, and mine, forbade.
I had to shout, she was so far ahead. “Someone named Mr. Middleton wants to take me.”
Stacie slammed on her brakes and turned her bike to face me. Once caught up, I kept going.
“When?” she demanded, appearing alongside. “You know he can’t take you yet.”
“Why not?” I said, but I assumed, as did Stacie, that there’d be a long period of engagement. In the fall we were to start the fifth grade, and it was rare for a girl still in elementary to be taken.
“He must really like you,” Stacie said, in awe. We pedaled slowly, pensively. “But you’re so skinny.”
Mrs. Calderón, in her silken robe, was out watering her rose bushes. She waved.
“We’d better get on the sidewalk,” I said.
When we reached Maple Court, we laid our bikes on the island and sprawled in the warm grass, making daisy chains from the flowering weeds. Stacie put her hand on my arm. It was rare for us to touch.
“Whatever happens,” she said, “don’t dump me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, ever since my sister went to live with Mr. Gordon, she never plays with me anymore. When she comes over she just sits in the kitchen with my mom drinking tea.” She rolled her eyes. “They talk about recipes, and my mom gives her a frozen casserole that she pretends to Mr. Gordon she made by herself.”
“Okay,” I said. “I promise.”
She held up her pinkie, and I joined it with mine.
“I promise, when I live with Mr. Middleton, you can still come over and play Barbies.”
“Not just Barbies,” she said. “We’ll still play everything. We’ll still be best friends.”
I hadn’t even been sure we were best friends, since during school she spent her time with ratty-haired Cassandra and I, in protest, with the studious Chan twins. But I remained solemn. Maybe she wasn’t using me. Besides, although I couldn’t really imagine what it would be like to be a wife, I knew I wouldn’t want to be stuck with Mr. Middleton all the time. I began to laugh.
“He has the stupidest moustache!” I drew a thin line above my mouth with my finger, sweeping up at the edges, to indicate the way it curled.
“Probably, you can make him shave it off. My sister makes Mr. Gordon wear socks all the time, so she doesn’t have to see his feet.”
Stacie picked apart her chain and let the flowered weeds fall—she had a theory they could again take root. I wore mine around my wrist but lost it during the ride back. My mother was still in the bathroom, the mingled scent of her products floating out beneath the door.
After serving us tuna-and-pickle sandwiches, my mother sent Stacie home.
“Shhh,” she said. “I need to talk to you.”
I folded my arms across my chest and glared at her.
“Don’t,” she said. “Just don’t. Come here with me.”
In the living room, she sat and patted the couch beside her. The television wasn’t on, which made the room feel too still and too quiet, like nothing happened in it when we weren’t around.
“Now, I know Daddy explained that you’re going to be a wife. But do you know what that means?”
I refused to look at her, though I could feel her eyes on my face. “Yeah. I’ll go live with Mr. Middleton. I’ll have to make him dinner.”
“Yes,” she said. “But you’ll have to do more than that.”
“Can I still play Barbies with Stacie? I promised her.”
“You did, did you.”
I nodded. I told my mother everything that Stacie had said. It made me proud that she was jealous, and I thought it would make my mother proud, too.
“I’m sorry to say, it’s really up to Mr. Middleton when, and if, you can play with your friends. And he may not appreciate you, still just a little girl, telling him to shave off his moustache. He’s had that thing for years.” She halted a creeping smile. “What I’m trying to say is, you’ll belong to him. You’ll have to be very obedient—not that you haven’t always been a good girl. Your father and I are very proud of you. You get such good grades and stay out of trouble.”
She paused, frowning. “I don’t think you realize just how lucky you are that Mr. Middleton has offered to take you. He’s a very successful man, and he’s made quite a generous offer, for little in return.” She patted my leg. “I don’t mean you, of course. Any man would be lucky to have you. But to be honest, I’m not sure why he’s so eager to settle it.”
I stared at the black television screen. “Can I go to Stacie’s now?”
“Wait. We’re not through.” She stood and approached the bookshelf. On days when I stayed home sick, I’d lie on the couch and stare at that bookshelf. Each book’s spine, its title and design, suggested something of its story, and their order and arrangement seemed fixed, like the sequencing of photographs along the hallway wall: from my parents’ wedding—my mother thirteen and Dad twenty-seven—to the day of my birth to my fourth-grade class picture. But as my mother took out the Bible and a few romance paperbacks, I saw that behind them were more books, a whole hidden row; the shelf was deeper than I’d realized. She removed from hiding a slim volume called Your Womanly Body, its cover decorated in butterflies and soft-colored cut flowers blooming in vases.
“This will tell you some of what you need to know about being a wife. I imagine Mr. Middleton won’t expect much from you at first. After all, you’re still very young.”
I began to turn the pages: there were cartoons of short and tall and skinny and fat women, their breasts different sizes and weights, with varying colors and masses of hair between their legs. The pictures weren’t a shock to me. I’d seen my mother naked before, and Stacie had confirmed that her own looked much the same. Once I’d even seen Dad, when I surprised him by waiting outside the bathroom door for a Dixie cup of water late one night.
“You’ll have a child someday, of course. But most people like to wait until they’re older and know each other better. I, for instance, had you when I was eighteen. By today’s standards, that’s still a little young.
“It can be scary, at first.” My mother’s voice had turned soft, and she was staring out the window at the tree. “The important thing to remember is, even though he’s in charge, you can have some control. Pay close attention: what he wants the most may be very small, and you can wait out the rest.”
I already knew there were ways to put off sex: some girls “sucked” their husbands “off,” others cried until left alone. And if a girl did become pregnant too soon, if it would be unseemly for her to keep the baby, I knew there were ways to get rid of it. But still, I’d rather not think about all that before I had to face it.
My mother was saying, “A man’s life is spent waiting and preparing for the right girl. It can be very lonely. In a way, girls have it easy—”
“Mommy, when will I go live with Mr. Middleton?”
“I was getting to that, Mary. You can be so impatient.” She lifted the book from my hands and turned to put it away. “You’ll be going to him in the fall.”
“Oh.” I stared down at my bare summer feet, callused, tan and dirty. “After school starts?”
“Mary. There’ll be no school for you this fall. You’ll have a house to take over.”
The feeling was back my stomach, more of an ache now, and all I wanted was to curl up on the couch while my mother brought Jell-O and chicken-noodle soup. On sick days you could escape the movement of the world. It was always difficult to get back into it, to catch up on schoolwork and eat real food again, but this time I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to rejoin the world.
Yet the books were different now. I wouldn’t be able to not think about that.
“Of course, he’ll probably let you go back soon. He’ll want you to. That’s what Mr. Middleton told us—that he admired your mind. He said he could tell you’re a very bright girl.
“I should be so lucky,” she added darkly. “Your father only saw my strength.”
It became routine for Mr. Middleton to spend Sunday afternoons with us. At dawn my mother yanked open all the blinds, and the acrid smells of house cleaning began to fill the rooms. Even Dad was kept from sleeping in and given chores to do. I was ushered straight into the kitchen: “Do me one little favor,” she said.
“Knead this dough. No, like this. Punch it, like you’re pissed off.”
“Check the stove. Has it reached the preheated temperature? Well, is it hot?”
“Okay, now we’ll let that marinate. You know what’s in this marinade? Just smell it—what does it smell like?”
Once I had completed my mother’s “favor” (“Umm, it smells sweet.” “Good! That’s the honey.”), I snuck out while her back was turned.
I was to be scrubbed “my pinkest” in the shower. She showed me how to use Q-tips to clean out my ears, to rub lotion over my skin, and to pluck the little hairs I hadn’t noticed before from between my eyebrows. She swore under her breath when she nicked me with the pink disposable razor—my legs slathered in a thick gel that smelled like baby powder. “Here,” she said. “You finish.”
I slid the blade along my leg, pressing as lightly as possible.
I was to wear “one of my prettiest dresses,” which meant that I rotated between the three in my closet. Their straps dug into my shoulders, their crinoline scratched my bare legs. The first Sunday my mother threw onto my bed a package from Sears. Inside were three training bras. I didn’t have anything resembling breasts, and when I finally did, years into my marriage, they were so small that I continued to wear the trainers for some time. My husband didn’t seem to care or know the difference.
Every Sunday had the feel of a holiday—the boredom of waiting for the guest to arrive and the impatience of waiting for him to leave. Mr. Middleton always brought a bouquet of flowers, at the sight of which I was to feign surprise and gratitude. Every week, the same grocery-store assortment of wildflowers that smelled rank and bitter, like weeds. Mr. Middleton sat with my father in the living room while I trimmed and arranged the flowers in my mother’s crystal vase. She had me stir something or taste it for salt before nudging me back out to join them.
Mr. Middleton would wear a full suit and tie, despite the fact that our house had no air conditioning. As the afternoon wore on, he would take off the suit jacket, loosen and remove the tie, roll up the sleeves of the dress shirt and, lastly, undo the shirt’s top button, revealing a tuft of dark, curly hair. The hair on his head was straight, and he’d run a hand through it, slicking it back with his sweat. Dad, in a short-sleeved polo shirt and khaki shorts, would watch, smiling to himself. My shaven skin felt cool and smooth. I had to stop myself from running my hands along my legs as I sat listening to them talk “business.” Their tone was cordial, but they seemed to eye each other warily. I didn’t consider it then, but Dad was likely sensitive to the fact that while he had to report to a boss, Mr. Middleton was his own.
“Business is good. You?”
“Business is good. Clients?”
“Clients are good. Got to treat them right, keep them happy,” Dad said.
In and out of the room bustled my mother. She refilled the pitcher of lemonade, replenished the dish of melting ice cubes, brought out bowls of mixed nuts and pretzels and onion dip. Before long, this became my job. I’d stand before Mr. Middleton with a tray of pickles and olives.
“Hmm, let’s see.” He’d mull over the choices, select a pimento-stuffed green olive. I’d turn to offer the tray to Dad, who had a penchant for sweet pickles, but then: “Please, wait just a moment—perhaps another. Hmm, let’s see.” And he’d choose a kalamata. The metal tray was heavy, but my arms grew stronger, and I learned to balance it on my shoulder.
Mr. Middleton rarely addressed me directly. Which is not to say he wasn’t speaking to me. “Profit margins” and “quarterly analyses” were discussed with glances and smiles in my direction. But he never asked what I thought, how I was doing, how I had spent my week. Adults, I knew, just liked to humor children, and ordinarily those questions tired me, causing me to clam up on the pretense of feeling shy. But in this situation it was disconcerting. After all, wasn’t Mr. Middleton supposed to like me? What were we going to say to each other when we were, one day, inevitably, alone? I knew I would be expected to say something; wives, especially as they grew up, didn’t have to be invited to speak. They scolded their husbands for things they were doing wrong, or weren’t doing at all. They had stories to tell, of what had happened that day at the market, of the rude cashier and the unmarked price of the fresh loaf of bread.
For then, I followed my mother’s advice the best I could. I wouldn’t speak unless spoken to. I sat up straight in the chair, didn’t complain if the food at dinner was strange, didn’t ask to turn on the television. I paid close attention to Mr. Middleton; I focused on his moustache, the way it moved with his mouth, studied the shine of his gold watch, viewed the gradual stripping of clothing, the sweat gathering on his forehead and alongside his nose, where his glasses slid. I suppose I may have already been following my mother’s advice, but I don’t remember thinking so. I never liked to admit I was doing as she suggested. I preferred to credit my own volition.
Mr. Middleton seemed to me older than my father, though he was almost a decade younger. Dad was strict, but he could be silly, wasn’t afraid to be lazy, and had been known to watch cartoons that even I found stupid. Mr. Middleton was too polite and too proper. He was boring in the way a robot would be: never leaving to go to the bathroom, never saying anything Dad disagreed with or found ridiculous. They would have had much to argue about—they do now—their strategies in business so different: Dad doting on his clients, trying to keep them pleased each step of the way, Mr. Middleton acting with cool aggression against their wishes, with the long run in mind, the biggest possible profit. I suppose we were all on our best behavior.
By dinnertime the business talk had faltered, and the men punctuated their silence with compliments for the meal—something Dad never did when it was just the three of us. This was when my mother took over. “Thank you,” she might say. “Mary Ellen helped prepare that.”
“Did she? It’s quite good,” said Mr. Middleton.
“Oh, she’s learning. Believe it or not, just a month ago even something this simple would have been beyond her.”
Mr. Middleton smiled politely and chewed, his moustache moving up and down, a piece of couscous caught in the right-side curl.
“There is still so much for her to learn, I’m afraid. You mustn’t—you mustn’t expect too much, from the start.”
“But of course Donna will get her up to speed,” said Dad. “Won’t you, honey?”
“Of course,” my mother said. “All I meant was, Mary is such a fast learner. Why, just the other day the sauce was starting to stick, and instead of letting it burn or calling me, she just turned down the burner and gave it a stir. How about that?”
The heat from the kitchen was creeping into the dining room, and a bead of sweat slipped down Mr. Middleton’s forehead. His top button, at that point, remained done. He offered nothing but another polite smile. Maliciously, I wanted, in front of everyone, to call attention to the couscous still in his moustache. “Right there,” I’d interrupt, pointing to a spot above my own lip. This was something a wife could do, scold or embarrass her husband for his own good. But I knew I hadn’t earned it yet, and it would take years of waiting, quietly noting.
Mr. Middleton seemed oblivious to my parents’ fears and cover-ups, but I’ve come to see that he was not, nor was he too polite to lead the conversation elsewhere. I can look back now with some sympathy. I can see myself in him: he was determined to behave in the way that was expected, in the belief, often false but sometimes accurate, that this gave him some autonomy. And after all, he was getting what he wanted.
One Saturday afternoon Mr. Middleton showed up while my parents were out. They were leaving me home alone more often in preparation for the days when I’d be keeping house, with Mr. Middleton off at work. Usually I found myself frozen, unable to act as I would if my parents were around. I had a great fear of doing something wrong, either accidentally (opening the door to a dangerous stranger or coming upon some matches, which would inadvertently scratch against something and become lit, igniting a raging fire) or purposely, overcome by the thrill of risk. The only way to ensure this wouldn’t happen was to remain on the couch until they came back.
At the sound of a knock at the door, I lifted a slat of blind and peered out at Mr. Middleton: no flowers in hand, no suit and tie. He wore blue jeans and sports sandals, a polo shirt like those Dad owned. His arms were covered in those dark, curly hairs. Through the peephole his nose was made long by the curved glass, and his moustache twitched nervously. It gave me a small thrill, making him wait. Just as he began to back away, I did as I should and opened the door.
“Mary Ellen. What a pleasant surprise.”
“Hello,” I said politely. “Would you like to come in?”
He looked down the block, both ways. It was quiet for a Saturday. Only Mrs. Calderón was out, pruning her blooming roses. She’d recently explained to me that she had to cut them back so they could grow. Mr. Middleton smiled in her direction and entered the house.
“I’m home alone,” I said. It seemed best if I made that clear right away.
“I won’t stay long. You see, I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop by.”
That was reasonable to me, but it seemed out of character for Mr. Middleton, who operated purely, I thought, on formality and routine. “Would you like a glass of iced tea with lemon?” I asked.
“No, thank you.”
He wasn’t sitting, so I didn’t sit, unaware that I might have offered him a seat. The expression on his face was, as always, neutral, and he didn’t return my stare. I felt I was doing something grossly wrong—I was still unfit to be a wife, unable to handle company on my own. My mother would scold me if she knew I’d received him in a T-shirt from last year’s spelling bee and purple shorts stained with Kool-Aid.
I tried again. “How’s business?”
He smiled and lowered himself to my height, his hands coming to rest on his knees. “Very well, thank you,” he said. “But today, you see, I was thinking of you. I thought you might like to show me your Barbies.”
No adult had ever asked to see them, and, to my knowledge, they’d never been mentioned in his presence. My mother allowed no visitors, other than my friends, into the basement. She had warned me that the Barbies would have to go when I went to Mr. Middleton. To head off my tears, Dad had added quietly that perhaps, for a while, they could leave them set up in the basement for when I came to visit.
I watched for some sign in Mr. Middleton that he was joking or only humoring me, but he reached out a hairy arm and took my hand. His wasn’t sweaty, though the day was muggy and humid, and his skin was surprisingly soft. On the narrow stairway he didn’t let go; my arm strained and pulled behind me as I led him into the basement. His knees cracked as he took the stairs.
The basement was unfinished, just hard tiles, exposed beams and many-legged insects. Stacie complained about the centipedes, but they appeared less often than the spiders. Strips of sunlight came in through the windows along the driveway, where you could see feet pass on their way to the side door.
Mr. Middleton dropped my hand and approached the Barbies’ houses slowly, as if in awe. The toys sprawled from one corner of the room to the other, threatening to take over even the laundry area; the foldout couch, which I maintained took up valuable space, sometimes served as a mountain to which the Barbies took the camper. There was one real Barbie house, pink and plastic; it had come with an elevator that would stick in the shaft, so I had converted the elevator to a bed. The other Barbie home was made of boxes and old bathroom rugs meant to designate rooms and divisions; this was the one Stacie used for her family. The objects in the houses were a mixture of real Barbie toys and other adapted items: small beads served as food, my mother’s discarded tampon applicators were the legs of a cardboard table. On a Kleenex box my Barbie slept sideways, facing Ken’s back; both were shirtless, her plastic breasts against him.
Mr. Middleton asked about the construction and decoration of the rooms. He said he admired my reuse of materials. “A creative way to cut costs,” he noted.
I shrugged. “Mom and Dad won’t buy me anything else.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “You work well within limits.”
“I guess,” I said, but I was pleased. He was admiring my mind.
“Well, you have quite a talent for design—I’ve seen professional blueprints more flawed.” He suggested that in the future we might have a home built, one I could help plan.
Then he leaned down and stroked Barbie’s back with his index finger. “Do they always sleep this way?” he asked.
I blushed and only shook my head. Sometimes they lay entirely naked, as my parents slept. Sometimes Barbie slept on top of Ken, or vice versa.
“Can you show me another way they might sleep?” he asked.
I hesitated, then picked up the dolls and put their arms around each other’s bodies in a rigid hug. I tilted Barbie’s head and pressed her face against Ken’s, as if they were kissing, and laid them back atop the Kleenex box. Mr. Middleton watched with his detached interest.
“Your Barbies must love each other very much,” he observed.
I’d never really thought about it that way. They were just doing what my parents and people on television did because they were married. But sometimes, when I was alone, it gave me that fluttery, almost sick feeling deep in my stomach, and I took the dolls apart.
Mr. Middleton stood and turned away. He help up his wrist to the sun strip, examining his watch, for what seemed a long time. “Well, thank you for sharing them with me. But I should be on my way.”
I nodded, then recovered my manners. “Can I walk you to the door?”
“No, thank you, Mary Ellen. I’ll show myself out.”
On Sundays he’d shake my parents’ hands before he left, and now I wondered if I should offer mine. But instead he reached out and patted me on the head, once, twice, then the last time just smoothing my hair, as my mother would to fix a stray strand, but much gentler.
When I heard the front door close, I knelt in front of the Barbie house. It was difficult, as my Ken’s arms were straight, not bent like some, but I moved his arm so that it stroked Barbie’s back. I startled when my mother called from the top of the stairs. I hadn’t seen feet in the windows or heard a key in the door.
I didn’t tell them that Mr. Middleton had been over, and the next day when he came for Sunday dinner he didn’t mention it either. It didn’t occur to me until years later that the whole thing might have been prearranged. I could find out now; Mr. Middleton tells me anything I ask. He may tease, but he knows when to stop. It’s quite possible he’s even learned to fear me. For all his skill in the world of business, I think he understands less about the world without than I do.
That September, with Stacie back at school, my days were spent alone with my mother. She was nervous about the upcoming ceremony and would sit with me at the kitchen table for hours with catalogues of flowers and dresses.
“Do you like these roses? Or something more unique—orchids? But so expensive.”
I would shrug. “It doesn’t matter.”
Depending on her mood, she would either become angry (“If it doesn’t matter to you, who does it matter to? Pick out some flowers!”) or take my reticence as deference to what she thought was best (“The orchids are lovely, but we’d best be practical, hmm?”).
Once, paging together through pictures of dresses, she became so frustrated with me that she disappeared into the bathroom for almost an hour. Finally I knocked on the door. “Mommy? I left it open to the one I like.” I heard water running, and when she came out she caught me around the shoulders and held me against her, my face nuzzling her stomach. “That’s my good girl,” she whispered above my head.
One afternoon was spent sewing, another polishing silver. The cooking lessons took on new vigor, and she had me reducing wine-based sauces, braising meats, and chopping fresh herbs for most of the day. Dad would come home, see everything that had been set out on the table and everything that still simmered on the stove and roasted in the oven, throw his hands up in the air and say, “I don’t know how you expect us to consume all this, Donna. Maybe you could lay off her a bit.” But then he’d sit down and attack the food with an appetite that had the air of duty, sighing and unbuttoning his pants for dessert.
Stacie came over after school a couple of times a week, but she brought Cassandra; the Chan twins had forsaken me, believing my imminent wifehood to have changed me already. With only two Barbie houses, Stacie, Cassandra, and I couldn’t play together fairly. Besides, I didn’t want Cassandra and her ratty hair anywhere near them. Instead we sat on the porch eating gingersnaps—just talking and not playing anything. Other girls who’d been promised spent their time in this way.
Cassandra wanted to hear about Mr. Middleton. She believed her parents to be sealing up a deal with a Mr. Crowley from the neighboring town. I recounted Mr. Middleton’s afternoon visit to sate her interest and swore them to secrecy. They didn’t seem particularly impressed or unnerved. I yearned for either response, to anchor my own.
“Well, is he cute?” Cassandra asked, twirling a dishwater-blond lock.
I didn’t know how to answer her. Unlike Stacie and me, Cassandra had always liked boys—but husbands were not like boys. I didn’t know how to make her understand what it was really like, but I also had the feeling that Cassandra would handle things much differently when it was her turn. I was thankful when Stacie changed the subject to school, with stories of pencils stolen from the teacher’s desk and guest story-readers, even though they made me both wistful and angry, and Stacie knew it.
The night before the ceremony, my parents entertained their friends with chilled rosé wine and a CD of lulling, smooth jazz on repeat. My mother dusted my cheekbones with her dark blush and checked my back to make sure I wore a trainer. I was to greet guests at the door until everyone had arrived, and then Stacie and I could retreat to the basement to play Barbies together one last time. According to tradition, Mr. Middleton was not invited; it was to be his last bachelor night alone. But Mr. Woodward and Esmerelda came, and Mr. Silverstein, and Stacie’s and Cassandra’s parents, eager to know how it had all been pulled off. Mr. Baker said, as if surprised, “You look very pretty tonight, Mary Ellen,” and then he and Mr. Weir stood together in the corner, shaking their heads. The Calderóns arrived last. Mr. Calderón was so old his eyes constantly watered, and he could barely speak or hear anything. Mrs. Calderón was a young grandmother, her braided hair still long and black. She bent to me and whispered, “You’re not getting cold feet now, are you dear?”
“Cold feet?” I asked. I peered down at my slipper socks, embarrassed I’d removed the Mary Janes.
“I tried to run away from this one.” She winked at her husband, but his expression didn’t change. “But then, I always misbehaved.”
Mr. Calderón held tight to her arm, and she guided him patiently toward the drinks. She kissed his shaking hand, then placed a glass of water in it.
In the basement, adult feet shifting above us, I understood that Mrs. Calderón had been saying that she knew me and that she understood. From tomorrow on, that would be me upstairs, like Esmerelda and even my mother, laughing a stupid laugh and making frequent trips to the bathroom, with an eye on my husband and his eye on me. Mrs. Calderón had issued me a playful dare and made no promises; but if it was the last childlike thing I did, I would take her up on it.
“Stacie, I need your help.”
She stopped pushing her Barbie car, a convertible she’d acquired from me in a trade, and said with suspicion, “You do?”
As I explained what I wanted to do, Stacie’s eyes began to gleam. At one point she took my hand. I felt close to her, until she said, “You won’t be married first after all!” But still she was my confidante, my partner with her own stake.
What we came up with wasn’t much of a plan, but we did identify the basic elements required in running away: a note, a lightly packed suitcase, and utter secrecy. My mother had already packed most of my clothes into a luggage set embroidered with my new initials, M. M. I removed the lightest bag from the pile by the side door and had Stacie sneak it back home with her. After slipping away, having deposited the note in a spot both clandestine and sure to be eventually discovered, I would call Stacie from a pay phone and have her meet me with the suitcase. For this purpose, I used my new skills to sew a quarter into the hem of my dress, which hung, long and white, like a ghost, outside my closet door.
Beneath the covers with a flashlight that night, I composed the note to Mr. Middleton. I could not tell him, as they did in fantasy romance movies, that I had met someone else. What I wrote was this:
Dear Mr. Middleton,
I am sorry to leave you at the alter. You seem very nice but I can not be a wife. Please do not try to find me and please try to go on with your life.
I thought it sounded quite grown-up and made running away on cold feet seem a serious and viable act. I wasn’t worried that we hadn’t decided where I would go. I didn’t consider then that I knew of no woman who was not a wife, that anyone I might turn to would turn me in, that breach of contract was serious business and punishable by law. I believed two things: that getting away would be the hardest part of the game, and that you could only plan as far as you could see. I don’t know if I believed that I would make it, but I believed that I would try.
I might have left that very night, cutting Stacie’s ties to my venture, but I had a romantic notion of wearing that dress. I pictured kicking off the white patent-leather shoes to run faster, and the small train flailing behind me. I pictured that the dress would dirty as I ran; it would rip and tear, and then I would know I was free.
When we arrived at the chapel, I spied Mr. Middleton’s car in the parking lot. During a covert trip to the “potty,” I slipped the note beneath its windshield wipers. It had always made me laugh that my parents never noticed an advertisement attached in this way until they were driving.
In the bride’s room, Dad, his eyes shiny and red-rimmed, was smoothing out the fold from the contract, to which my signature was to be added. “Why don’t you go sit down, Frank?” my mother suggested, but she stayed with me, adjusting my dress and hairspraying my hot-roller curls, until the final moments. She hovered in the doorway. “You are wearing, aren’t you, all the things we talked about? You remember how it goes? Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence for your shoe?”
“I remembered,” I said, thinking of the sewn quarter. If I wasn’t careful to keep my skirt held as I walked, the coin hit the floor with the barest knock. “Mommy, can I have a few minutes alone? This is a very big day for me.”
She looked surprised, but her face softened. “Boy, kid, you really have grown up.” She kissed my cheek, then rubbed it furiously to remove any trace of lipstick. I felt sad, at that moment, to think that I would never see her again, and wondered if she would privately count me lucky or only be disappointed.
The air outside smelled like a fall barbecue, charring corn and sausages. In the bright blue sky flew a V of birds. Just as I took a breath to run, I spotted Mr. Middleton across the lot next to his car. The collar of his tuxedo was misaligned; he had skipped a buttonhole and set the whole thing off. Facing the sun, he held one hand to his face—to shield his eyes?—and in the other was my note. His shoulders seemed to be shaking with laughter. Had he been about to run away himself when he came upon my note? This possibility, however remote, might have been what led me to walk straight toward him, slowly, steadily, wholly of my own volition. I hate to believe, especially now, that it was as simple as holding to my nature; that I was just a good girl who did always as she was told, without hope and without design.
“Mary Ellen?” he said. “You’re still here.” I saw as I came closer that he’d actually been crying, not laughing; a tear dropped from the left-side curl of his moustache. I thought of something Dad often said, when, much younger, I’d get caught up in venturesome play with inevitable consequence: “It’s all fun and games, isn’t it, until someone gets hurt.”
“I’m still here,” I said. I raised my arms to indicate I should be lifted and let Mr. Middleton cradle me against his chest. I felt his wildly beating heart, and he began to stroke my hair as if I needed calming down. But my stomach felt only the faintest rumble of hunger, an emptiness. I knew that I had done the right thing, the only thing I could, but still, I felt foolish. If I were really as smart as everyone believed, I would never have found myself in this situation, with a ridiculous man I was obligated to care for. My escape would have been better planned and better executed. He would never have taken an interest in the first place.
“Mary,” he said, “you do know that I—”
“What?” I struggled to sit up in his arms, impatient suddenly, and restless. I wanted to go inside, where everyone was waiting, and get it over with.
He set me down on the hood of his car and began again. “I think you’ll be very pleased with the life I want to give you.”
I stared through his windshield at the tan leather seats, sculpted to hug a body as the vehicle took the curves. I saw where the top would fold down. This car would take me to my new home.
“You do understand, don’t you, that the deal is irrevocable? If you were to run off, your parents would owe me a great deal of money. They could never hope to come out of debt.”
I knew that was a threat, and thought less of him for it. But then he said something I look back on now as the beginning of my new understanding of my life. “I’m yours, Mary Ellen, and if you stay, all that is mine will be yours, too.”
In answer, I rebuttoned his shirt.
As I signed the contract, my eyes slid down the page, its tiny print in a formal, inscrutable language. The sum my parents had provided to Mr. Middleton seemed enormous, though I know it now to be less than the cost of my childhood home and much less than the worth of Mr. Middleton’s company. Men who’d planned poorly would seek a much larger dowry and might suffer for it in their choice of wives. But it was our parents, always looking toward the future, who put money first. The dowry, like a child that would grow, was ultimately an investment.
I handed over the paper for the minister to stamp, and he pronounced us man and wife.
Mr. Middleton has kept my note folded in his sock drawer, and for years he has teased me for having misspelled “altar.” Putting away his clean laundry, I look at it sometimes, not with wistfulness or shame, but because I want to remember. The contract itself is in a safety-deposit box; I’ll receive a key for my eighteenth birthday, a day now close in sight. The Barbies, of course, are long gone. Dad succeeded in overriding my mother, and the toys stayed in the basement a year into my marriage. But I rarely played with them—they seemed to have lost their allure, and I never knew what they wanted to do or say or wear. Stacie still hadn’t been promised, and I offered them to her, but she pretended not to be interested. She and Cassandra were thick as thieves then. “Save them for your kids,” she said, and we couldn’t help but dissolve into panicked laughter. By the time she was taken, at age fourteen, she was serious about having children. It is her husband who insists they wait. If we see each other now at the market, grocery baskets in hand, we merely nod in greeting. We have so little in common.
Mr. Middleton has made me apprentice to his business, which he says one day when he is dead, I will take over. Even if—and the decision to have children is entirely up to me, he says—one day we have a son. This is highly unusual and very progressive, Dad has told me. He patted my head and told me he was proud. I looked for something like greed or jealousy in his eyes, but found only love. My mother admitted, over afternoon tea, that she wishes Dad had done something similar for her. As far as I can see, he long ago reached his height on the ladder. What could he have done for her?
“I have good business sense, a ruthless mind,” she insisted, and gestured to the piles of butterscotch-chip scones she’d baked for a block sale. “But I suppose I’m lucky, in that we fell in love.”
I nodded in agreement, though I knew what would provoke her: But isn’t it easier if we don’t think of love?
Visiting is difficult because, although they think they act differently, my parents still treat me like a child, a newlywed bride. They don’t recognize what I’ve become, but they won’t argue when the time comes to face it, when Dad retires and I, with Mr. Middleton’s money, am in charge of them. Their investment in me will have its rewards. I want the best for them, as they’ve managed for me.
After a morning spent at home with my private tutor, Ms. Dundee—whose husband succumbed when she was much younger and much prettier (she says) to a condition she won’t speak of—I change into a navy skirt and Peter Pan–collared blouse, hop on my bike and head to the office. Mr. Middleton has given me a fine car, of course, but I normally prefer the exercise. So far I just prepare after-lunch coffee and bring it in on a tray, each cup made to the preference of each board member. Mr. Middleton sits at the head of the table. His moustache, after all these years, remains; he would shave it if I asked, but I suspect that issuing that demand would expose me somehow. Once situated beside him, I’m encouraged to listen in and, if so inclined, take notes. But it’s the quiet power struggle that interests me, the way his inferiors look at him and how they cover their desires with neutral jargon, loyal reports. He takes for granted, I think, the way things are now.
“You’ve learned a lot so far from just watching and listening,” he says to me, winking, as I take out my pad of paper. I turn away and roll my eyes: he believes we’re always in on some joke. This one is meant to be in reference to the nights I join him in his bedroom, on the floor above mine. Mostly I just lie there while he touches my hair or my back, as he once demonstrated with the doll. He has mentioned in those moments love, and a feeling of fulfillment. For him they may be the same thing. Yet even with me around, taking care of things, I sense he’s still a lonely man. I feel guilty sometimes, offering so little reimbursement for his attentions, though he receives more pleasure from them than I do, and I’ve made attempts to do for him what other girls and young wives have described. Now I believe that the hardest part of the game is staying in it, holding on to your stake. And that you can’t plan too far into the future. I’ve taken this down in my notes: The benefits mature with time. I’ve begun to appreciate just how much work parents invest in their children, and wives in their husbands; it’s only fair for the investor to become a beneficiary.
Katie Chase’s first published story, “Man and Wife,” was selected from The Missouri Review for Best American Short Stories 2008 and a Pushcart Prize. Her fiction has since appeared in Five Chapters, Narrative, Prairie Schooner, and the anthology Keeping the Wolves at Bay. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Award. She has also been a fellow of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. She grew up near Detroit.