Being Mrs. Culpepper

Chapter 3 - Rose and Angel

Robin’s enthusiasm from the night before spilled over into a phone conversation with her mother, Rose. 

“It was nice Mom. You and Daddy should have gone with me. You would have loved the music.” 

“You know I don’t like crowds. Or noise. Or being out after dark.”

Robin rolled her eyes. Rose was a vibrant, healthy woman of sixty yet she acted as if she had one foot in the grave. In her way of thinking, she lived a full enough life as a wife whose sole purpose was taking care of her demanding husband of thirty-five years.

“Stop rolling your eyes at me.” 

“How do you…never mind. You’re a scary woman. You remember Brandon from my summer at Nana and Pop Pop’s house? I saw him at the concert, and we got reacquainted over beer.”

“Brandon Culpepper? Nice young man. So sad what happened to his wife.”

“What happened?”

“You don’t know? She drowned two years ago, in the lake. He’s raising his son on his own. Doing a good job, too.”

“Who told you all of this?”

“I keep up.”

Robin snorted. “You and your nosy bid whist club. All you old women do is gossip and sip cocktails that could put an elephant to sleep. I’ll bet there is no card playing at those meetings.”

“Don’t start with me.” Rose sucked her teeth.  

“He may call me to go on a date.”

No response from Rose.

“Mom, seriously, what?”

“Brandon kind of lost his mind after the funeral. Yes, he’s good-looking, charming, and owns a thriving business but honey you’d carry some heavy emotional baggage — his, plus yours. Tread lightly.” 

“You’re too cautious, Mom. Surviving from one day to the next makes all of us a little crazy.”

“Especially Brandon. James made a mistake, a big one, but at least he’s not crazy. Brandon is stone gone crazy.”

“You and Daddy need to stop talking to me about James. He’s moved on. So have I.”

Rose sucked her teeth, again. “There’s the outside moving on like going to work, eating, cleaning the house. Then there’s the inside part, where pain and grief and remembering live. Inside keeps you up at night. James’ inside hasn’t moved on. Neither has yours. Your daddy knew what he was doing, putting you two together. Then you went and messed it up.”

Robin’s voice became shrill, which she hated. Reminded her of the snobbish clique of girls in middle school, the ones who’d bullied her. “I went and messed it up? Whose side are you on?”

“I’m on right’s side. You could have stayed and listened to the man’s explanation. You could have forgiven him. Marriage is full of give and take, and honey take me at my word: no man is without serious issues. Your daddy has plenty.”

“If James hasn’t moved on then why did he marry the woman?”

“Because that’s what men do. They change wives, but the mess inside of them remains unaddressed. It’s true of James, and truer of Brandon.”

Robin heard an edge, a sadness in her mother’s voice, something she hadn’t noticed before. She softened her tone.

“Mom, what issues inside of Daddy have gone unaddressed? What keeps you up at night?”

“You are a nosy child. We’re talking about you.”

“Yeah, but if you tell me what you and Daddy made it through then maybe I won’t make so many bad decisions when it comes to men. You know my track record for picking them is pretty sad.”

Rose snorted the way Nana used to, when she wanted to make her disgust known. “So true. Even in high school and college you brought home some suspect characters.” 

“Thanks a lot, Mom. You two expected too much. Did Nana and Pop Pop like Daddy when he showed up on their porch?” 

Rose cackled. “They hated his guts. Called him a fast-talking city slicker.” 

“Sounds about right.”

Rose took a deep breath. “I don’t like talking to you and your sister about your father. Doesn’t seem proper. We’ve made our share of mistakes, like everyone else. Made our peace with them, too.”

Robin heard sniffles. “Mom, are you crying?”

“My sinuses are acting up.”

Robin’s cue to stop asking questions. “Okay, Mom. Feel better. I gotta run.”

And run she did, up the stairs to her bedroom to get the chest of cherishables, as she affectionately called them. She dug around in the oak chest for her childhood diaries, hoping to find clues on why her mom got the sniffles during their call. She found her diaries from ages ten to fourteen. She’d lost interest after fourteen. She scanned the pages of the first two little books. Nothing but preteen angst. Year twelve, the year she met Brandon. Why wasn’t there an entry about him? She went back over each page. Nothing. Frustrated by her search, Robin took a long soak in the tub. After the bath she called her sister, Angel.

“Hey, girl. Your little crumb snatchers in bed?”

“Thank God, yes. I finally got a moment to breathe. What’s up?”

“Do you remember anything unusual happening between Mom and Daddy when you were seven and I was twelve? You know, the summer I stayed with Nana?”

Robin paused for Angel’s response. “Angel? You there?”

She heard her sister’s sniffles. 

“First Mom, now you? What’s with the sniffles?”

“You blocked it all out.”

The jar of face cream in Robin’s hand fell to the floor. “What did I block out?”

“The summer you spent with Nana and Pop Pop was the same summer I spent with Auntie Gladys. They didn’t think they could handle us both and anyway I didn’t like the country and those monster sized mosquitos so I got stuck in Charlotte with Gladys and her three hoodlum kids. Did you know your crazy cousin Kiki tried to cut off my ponytail because mine was longer than hers? Snuck up behind me with scissors in her hand. Thank God she was heavy footed. I heard her coming. I turned around and took those scissors, then I beat the snot out of her. And dared her to tell.” 

Robin laughed. “Stay on point, Angel. What am I missing?”

Angel heaved a long, heavy sigh. “I can’t believe you don’t remember any of this.”

“Girl, if you don’t tell me what happened I’ll cut off your ponytail!”

Angel’s laughter amplified the anxiety in her voice.

“Mom got tired of being by herself all the time and took up with the widower down the street then when Daddy found out he had the gall to get mad and move in with his girlfriend, the one he’d been seeing for years. You had a fit when he told us he was leaving you even begged Daddy not to leave and you begged him to forgive Mom and at the end of the summer when we came back home Daddy did, too. ”

While Angel paused to breathe, Robin plopped down on the floor. “Slow down, sis. Please.”

“Back then you told me when you got married it would be till death. You said you wouldn’t put your children through the horror of what we went through. You were a mess, honey. I became your big sister. Consoling you, encouraging you, telling you we’d be fine. I guess your declaration of forever didn’t apply to James. Humph. If Malcolm ever pulled the crap Daddy pulled on Mom he’d better leave and never come back. I’m not talking about a slip up now and then. Our dear papa left himself all over the county. After his career took off, he went statewide. Then DC. Florida. West Coast. When he had a heart attack at fifty it forced him to slow down.”

It seemed to Robin that she and Angel had different parents and had grown up in different homes. “What happened to make me push this out of my mind?”

“Oh, sweetie, you really don’t remember?”

“I’m clueless.”

You had a little breakdown the day Daddy left. You watched him pack his bag, watched him get in the car and leave, then you passed out. We took you to the doctor. Mom called Daddy to let him know what was happening and he didn’t even come to see about you. He didn’t even come.” Angel sobbed.

“There must be more. Something else happened to make you hate Daddy so much.”

Silence.

“Oh my God Angel, did he put his hands on you?”

“He knew better. I would have stabbed him in his sleep if he had.”

Robin recalled the day she’d pulled a knife on James. She was glad she didn’t cut him. But she could easily see Angel stabbing their father. 

“Tell me what happened.”

“Let me move to a secure room.”

“A secure room? What are we, CIA?”

“Shoot, girl, I was a spy the day I saw what I saw.”

“You’re scaring me.”

“Now I’m in the laundry room. I caught Daddy and Miss Thick screwing in his study.”

“No way.”

“I was twelve. You and Mom had run out to the store and I didn’t want to go so I stayed in my room on the phone. Daddy came up to check on me, told me he’d be in his study working and to knock if I needed him. After about an hour I got bored. Wanted him to play cards or some silly game so I opened the study door without knocking. There he was, pumping away, with Miss Thick’s legs wrapped around him. I stood there for a moment, watching. They were so into it I doubt they saw me or heard me. I did wonder, though, if he smelled Mom’s perfume that I’d pumped all over myself with the atomizer sprayer. Remember that thing? I loved messing with it. Anyway, I closed the door, ran to my room, and sobbed into a pillow.”

“You tell Mom?”

“I didn’t tell anyone. I was afraid he’d leave us again if I told.” 

“I wish you had told me.”

“Girl, please, I didn’t trust you. You were his favorite, and you would have told. Then I would have gotten it.”

 Robin knew that Angel spoke the truth. Back then, she idolized her father. Thought he could do no wrong, even with all the evidence of his wrongdoing. And what about Miss Thick? How could she pretend to be Rose’s friend all those years, even now, after what she’d done?

“Robin did you faint again? I’ve been calling your name.”

“I zoned out. I’m okay.” 

“There were other times, too, the blackouts. The doctor gave your condition a name but it’s not coming to me right now. Something related to anxiety. She said when you were overwhelmed by stress you passed out. I think you outgrew it by the time you reached high school. Have you passed out recently, like in the past three years? You’ve been through enough stuff to make any woman lose consciousness.” 

“No, thankfully, I haven’t fainted. Miss Thick. Unbelievable. How dare he get mad at Mom about Mr. Marcus. And in the house he shared with his wife? How did he find out, anyway, about Mom?”

“How do you think? Old cow Thick stabbed Mom in the back, hoping Daddy would leave Mom for her.”

“You think Mom ever found out?”

“She knows. Daddy fessed up after the heart attack when he thought he would die. About Thick and others, too. Mom told him if he wanted the marriage to end then he would have to be the one to end it because she wasn’t walking away from her financial security. And she confronted Miss Thick. They didn’t speak for years. Then a couple of years ago they started speaking again.”

Robin didn’t bother to ask why she’d been excluded from those conversations. Daddy’s girl. A spy. The talk shifted to Angel’s two children; her crazy neighbor who sat on the front porch every day at four, dangling a cigarette in one hand and a highball in the other; Angel’s need for a girl’s weekend. They promised they would have one soon, then ended the call. 

Robin bit into her nails, a habit she thought she’d given up. She cried for Brandon and his son; for the drowned wife and mother; for her child, and herself. For her mother. She didn’t know if she should cry for Angel; her life with Malcolm and the kids seemed to be going well. But Robin’s life had seemed all right, too. What the hell, there’s bound to be something upsetting going on in Angel’s world, so Robin went ahead and dropped some tears for Angel.

By the time the tears ran out, the haze over her memory lifted, and more bits of truth smacked her in the face.

 

Rose had forgiven John his many indiscretions over the years, including the mistresses’ pregnancy scare. She’d pressed on in her unhappiness, having long before cast aside her teaching career to cater to her husband, then their children. Robin remembered the years her father worked late, well into the night. The unscheduled out of town trips on the weekends. Her mother’s constant sadness. 

The widower four houses down. His wife, dead at forty. Cancer. Like Rose in her loneliness, Marcus Benson the neighbor had been distraught in his grief. He and Rose consoled and comforted each other for two years until he sold his house and moved away. John found out about the affair and left his home, his wife, his two young daughters, and moved in with the mistress, leaving Rose to fend for herself. 

She made her way upstairs to the third floor, hoping the creative energy in the studio would jump start more memories. The space was expansive with six large windows, and walls painted in a barely-there yellow hue. In the alcove sat her mother’s old chaise, recovered in the blue floral fabric purchased during Robin’s college year abroad in Florence. She ran her hand across the raised design and remembered the boy she’d met in class, the one who had taken her to the fabric shop. She wondered how his life turned out. Back at her desk she grabbed a sketchpad and pencil, hand and heart moving in perfect rhythm, slower than before, but moving. It had been two years since she’d drawn. The chaise came into view on her pad. Looked good. 

Fifteen minutes later she immersed herself in a sketch of James: his hooked nose, smooth skin—never a razor bump—and defined jawline. He’d been the master of deception, eyes never disclosing what simmered on the inside; strong chin poised for subtle intimidation. But her sketch showed none of those features. Vulnerable James came into focus, with pain-filled pleading eyes; no deception; poker face gone; emotions fully exposed, begging her to stay. 

She took the drawing down to the kitchen where she poured a glass of chardonnay. Standing at the counter she sipped while staring at James, feeling oddly close to him; missing him; imagining him talking her out of leaving. He would have succeeded, too, if she had stayed anywhere near him. 

After the third glass of wine, she glared at his image, running her hand across his face. She thought of balling  him up and throwing him in the trash; instead, she placed the drawing in the china cabinet and went to bed. 

Three hours later a throbbing headache forced Robin awake. She lumbered toward the bathroom medicine cabinet, and after retrieving the aspirin and closing the cabinet door, her twelve-year-old self came into view, telling her everything about the summer with Brandon.