Stella Ridley Ten

10

A Smooth Intoxicating Man

Deena was married once to a man named Rusty Balecoeur in an extravagant wedding at the church.  I cannot recall the wedding because I was totally focused on my get-up, more specifically, I was totally focused on my petticoat, which had a welt-raising elastic waistband and was made of layers of stiffly undulating netting that had a gravity all its own and thus did not immediately move with me when I moved.  Not that I could have moved easily anyway– my white patent leather shoes were stiff and slick as sheathes.  The neck of my dress was high and tight and became more so with each passing minute as if I were wearing an unfriendly and very large snake.  At least it felt that way: I had always been told I did not have an accurate perception of what my clothing was doing to me.  I recently ran across an old photograph of Molly and me wearing our Deena’s wedding outfits—I guess we must have been in the wedding because our dresses were identical, although Molly apparently got the friendly one.  I’m sure a chorus of “they look like twins!” attended this public showing of us as it always did.  The dresses actually look quite fetching—like creamy decorated cakes.  Molly is smiling, and I am grimacing.  Have I mentioned that I abhor confinement of any sort, even that of clothing?

Rusty was a smooth, “intoxicating man” (we got that phrase from a magazine).  He smelled like vanilla, was slender, and had clean, crisp rather fox-like features.  I have always associated him with cream puffs and eclairs and rich icing—I’m not sure why, perhaps because of the wedding cake, which appears in another photograph as an extravagant edifice of white-on-white roses and lilies of the valley, its layers separated by small Corinthian columns.  Whoever took the photograph really focused on that cake—the top of the photograph is cut off where the little bride and groom surely stood in their happy doll-like way ready to lead their secret lives.  I’m sure that it was a joyous occasion; I’m not sure altogether why it struck me as barbaric on the whole.

Being near Rusty was like being under some kind of spell in which he was the only other person in the world whenever he turned his eyes on you.  When he looked at you, it was as if he made you over into the smartest, most beautiful self you had in you.  He charmed Deena, charmed the whole family, and apparently he was generous with his charm and eager to spread it around.  It seemed impossible that he had a brittle temperament or that he could be mean.  But he was.  I never knew, of course, what exactly transpired between him and Deena, but I gathered that he had rigid, unyielding notions about Deena’s wifely role and treated her as if she were some kind of subsidiary factory requiring close supervision and an iron hand.

Where did he come from?  It still amazes me that in a culture that measures people first by where and what people they come from, no one really knew where Rusty came from—that seemed to be part of his spell.  I recall that shortly before the spell broke, Rusty’s background suddenly became a repeated topic of discussion.  One time, Matu and Mamaw, who liked to drink martinis when they cooked together, spent a good half hour while preparing dinner speculating on Rusty’s place of origin.  I remember looking up from the kitchen table where Molly and I were shelling English peas and seeing Matu turn from the stove brandishing a wooden spoon in the air and loudly saying, “Arcady?”  “Oh, no, no, no,” Mamaw said.  “Maybe Sand Hill?”  “Red Cloud?”  “Dublin?” “Florence?” And then they went on about their preparations periodically announcing from the refrigerator or the stove or the pantry the names of farfetched towns and cities and even small communities as if we were on a train passing through some nightmare version of geography.  I can look across that table right now and see Molly looking at me and crossing her eyes, a talent that I myself lacked.

Even if we acted as if Matu and Mamaw were ancient and frazzle-minded, we too were concerned with where Rusty came from.  Lying encased in blankets and quilts in our twin beds—it was winter when Rusty came into our lives and summer when he departed—Molly and I speculated that Rusty came from some island or prairie-like reserve of men, for we knew that men did things in groups.  We argued about whether these men lived in houses, or tents, or caves, or just perpetually rode around on horses in all kinds of weather.  We firmly agreed, though, that only men lived there, for part of Rusty’s charm was that he was unlike anyone we knew.  For one thing, he always acted as if he were an honored guest who was pretending to be humble.  He went just a bit too far in his displays of humanness—for example, insisting on helping wash the dishes and then lingeringly and extravagantly rolling up his starched sleeves and smiling at us all with his precise white teeth.

 There was something predatory about him, as if he might smile at us all and then eat us all up.  That was the thing about him that was just thrilling.  Molly and I always eagerly anticipated his visits, for we loved danger as only protected children can.  We loved all moments in life in which something wild and untoward was going on but no adult would or could comment on it.  And it’s hard for me to explain, but such moments always had a particular kind of smell, faint but definite, like milk when it’s just on the verge of going sour.  When Rusty was at our house, it felt as if some excessively well-mannered wild animal had suddenly been allowed to sit at the table with us, although I suppose he seemed exotic just because he was a man who, no matter how much time we spent with him, was a strange man (but clearly not The Strange Man).

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