Just as the light started to creep through the bay window that looked out on the water, Evangeline stirred on the living room floor. She forgot where she was for a moment until she recognized the susurration of the waves against the shore. She cracked her puffy, crusty eyes and struggled to sit up. She was cold and stiff and felt as if she’d been beaten up: her joints ached and her head felt like a melon – heavy and full of water. And she needed to pee!
Lurching to her feet, she skittered down the hallway to the bathroom next to Aunt Grace’s bedroom. When she was done, she flushed, stood and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirrored bathroom door. She looked like a madwoman who had been in a brawl. Her hair was wild and her face was swollen and blotchy with smeared mascara and tear-tracked makeup. The coils of the rag rug had pressed a groove into her cheek. She pulled the torn slip over her head and noticed half a dozen purpling bruises on her arms, legs and side from where she’d knocked against the furniture, floor and walls in her grief and rage. She gasped when she saw a small dark mark where her neck joined her left shoulder. John had bitten her there two nights ago when they were making love. There was another little bite mark on her ass, just below the dimples on her spine. Ordinarily, he was the most tender and thorough of lovers, but every so often, he left a little mark behind. And she marked him, too – his skin was like carbon paper. They laughed about their “temporary tattoos”.
Laughing in bed, they did that a lot. As good as the sex was the time they spent lying in bed talking and playing or just resting in each other’s arms, gazing blue into brown into blue. She loved how John would behave as if they had all the time in the world when they were in bed. There was no part of her that man didn’t seem to find delicious. He would stroke her leg, grab her foot and run his tongue lightly along her instep until she squirmed. She blushed, recalling the heat of his kisses and his weight along her body, his hands in her hair and his tongue tracing the shape of her upper lip. “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it,” she cried, turning from the mirror to the tub.
From this moment on, she had to begin unraveling the threads of memory and emotion and sensation that knit John’s life with hers. She had to erase the woman she had become with him – even though she loved that woman – who she was with him -- as much as she loved him. She had to bury that woman and that love. She jerked the shower taps on full force and let the brownish water flow until it ran clear and hot. Then she grabbed a wash cloth and the bar of Dial from the sink and scrubbed and steamed until every kinked joint had melted. She took the bottle of Silk and Silver shampoo on the edge of the tub and worked up a good lather. So what if Grace had used it to brighten her thick, white mane? It couldn’t hurt Evangeline’s glossy, black locks.
Wrapped in one of Grace’s thick white oversized towels, she crept into the front hall to retrieve her gym bag and the makeup case from her work satchel. She smoothed leave-in conditioner through her damp hair and wrapped it in a knot at the base of her neck. Without a blow-dryer or a flatiron, it would dry wavy, but she didn’t care. She rubbed rich body cream over her bruised limbs and donned fresh panties and bra. Feeling a bit closer to human, she wondered what she was she going to wear. She didn’t feel like spending the day in her spandex workout gear and she couldn’t bear to look at the crumpled Armani suit strewn in the hall.
She wandered into Grace’s bedroom and rummaged through the closet – a quilted housecoat, a canvas barn jacket, six authentic Hawaiian muumuus, and a handful of designer caftans. She smiled to remember Grace, the queen of Tubman’s Cove in her muumuu, turban and flat gold sandals, her toenails always carefully crimsoned. Had it just been last summer when she’d driven up for a weekend and confided in Grace about the quiet, compelling Irish-American detective who literally swept her off her feet? It had been too soon to know what was happening between her and John, but she needed to share those first sharp green shoots of joy with someone. She and Grace sat on the screened-in sleeping porch that ran along the side of the cottage, sipping lemonade spiked with mint and bourbon and listening to Grace’s 78s of Billy Eckstine, Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn. She told Grace about how just when she thought she’d figured John out, he’d flashed another facet. There was the tough, terse detective obsessed with making the world safe. The wiseguy who moved seamlessly from mocking to marveling at her own good girl quest for perfection. The tongue-tied lover who stammered and flushed when she got too close, then abandoned words and drew her even closer, finding other ways to use his mouth to let her know how much he liked her. And then there was the woman she’d become since she met him: no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t control herself around him – he had a way of making the good girl do things she’d only dreamed. Grace had laughed and squeezed her hand and told her, “Don’t try to rationalize this, Cookie. Listen to your heart.”
She pulled the quilt off the cedar chest at the foot of the bed and lifted the lid. Jackpot! Wrapped in acid-free tissue, she found seven layers of Grace’s clothes. After a couple of years as a struggling chorine in Hollywood, Grace moved back to New York in 1943, finished dental school and opened her practice in the ground floor of a brownstone in Harlem. These clothes, mostly from the 40s and 50s, were the trophies of an adventurous life. There were beaded cashmere shells and cardigans in lavender, peach, butter, cream and coffee. Slim, fitted skirts and nipped, peplumed jackets with squared or rounded shoulders in tan tweed, black silk faille, navy Italian knit, blue-gray silk/wool, and bottle green sharkskin. Nine dresses, some with full skirts, others curving like tulips and trumpets. She gasped when, at the bottom of the trunk, she reached into a pool of deep raspberry silk satin. She rose to her feet, holding the dense, luscious fabric before her: a floor-length evening gown draped like a goddess’s robe – knotted at the shoulders and waist, the bias-cut skirt falling to a modest train beneath an immodestly low back. Her astonishment deepened when she read the hand-embroidered label inside: Adrian.
For nearly an hour, she forgot about herself, reveling in her late aunt’s finery and imagining the stories that went with the outfits. Aunt Grace had always been her favorite and she hers. Divorced once and widowed twice, Grace never had any children of her own and she doted on Evangeline and her younger sister Layla. But especially Evangeline – she’d left her the cottage and everything in it. Grace and Layla had a falling out a few years ago when Layla stole several small antiques from Grace’s Manhattan apartment and sold them to a dealer on the East Side. Evangeline’s parents paid a premium to redeem the stolen goods from the dealer and keep him from calling the police. Layla hadn’t bothered to turn up for the funeral.
In the bottom of the bureau, she found a cache of silk slips, camisoles and tap pants, dense with lace and ribbons. She slid a pale blue slip with a cocoa lace bodice over her head and then stepped into a charcoal cotton dress with a nipped, belted waist, a banded collar opening to a modest V, full skirt and puffed elbow-length sleeves that ended in buttoned cuffs. Huge, elaborate, dark red flowers were embroidered along the skirt and on the back between the shoulders. She twirled slowly in front of Grace’s full-length vanity mirror and saw a sad-eyed woman she hardly recognized, in an awfully pretty 60-year-old dress. Barefoot, she padded into the kitchen in search of something to eat.
In the freezer she found plastic bags of brown, white and basmati rice, Peet’s Major Dickason’s blend coffee, two Cornish game hens, a pound of butter, a sack of petit pois and a bottle of Smirnoff’s vodka, three-quarters full. Aunt Grace never did jump on the designer vodka bandwagon – truth be told, she preferred good gin and bourbon. They’d shared a good laugh several months ago when Smirnoff vodka came out ahead of the fancy stuff in a New York Times food section article. She felt the sharp, ammonia sting of pending tears when her hand found the jar of pecan nut meats in the back of the freezer. She remembered many afternoons sitting on the porch shelling pecans with Grace and Layla when her sister was in middle school and she was in high school. There were four bottles of Pellegrino, a half-bottle of Noilly-Prat dry vermouth and a desiccated lime the refrigerator. In the pantry she got lucky: unopened boxes of crackers and water biscuits; tins of smoked oysters, tuna, clams and anchovies; cans of tomatoes, beans and chicken broth; packets of pasta, bottles of green olive oil, vinegar and mustard, a slab of dark French chocolate. And seven quarts of Grace’s pickled peaches.
Evangeline pried open a jar of peaches and grabbed a fork and a spoon. She bit into the spicy, slippery sweet-sour peach, closing her eyes in rapture as the thick, clove and cinnamon-perfumed juice dripped down her chin. She polished off half a jar, a sleeve of saltines and a big tumbler of water, slurping and crunching and chugging with abandon. If only for a day, she was a girl again – a girl who didn’t know about men or heartbreak or deadlines or disappointment. A girl who lived in her senses, doing just what she felt, not what she ought. Done with her piecemeal breakfast, she opened the door to the crisp salt air, grabbed the sunglasses from her satchel and a cardigan from a hook on the porch and ran down to the beach as fast as her bare feet would carry her.