Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online

Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (11 page)

I feel so keenly for that girl now. Her terror of being alone. I know the rooms of the house creaked and echoed, and that the pilot light in the stove soon developed a habit of going out just when circumstances called for a cup of strong tea. I know she cried herself to sleep, sometimes. That memories of her parents and the smell of bullets burning through flesh would come to her at the strangest moments. She'd look at walls and imagine them crumbling, falling on top of her, weakened by mortars or booby-trapped with wire. A friend, reaching out with soot-blackened fingers from beneath a stone too heavy to lift.

But I also know that the summer would end without calamity, as would the year following, and the year after that. Three years gone in a blink. I know that the girl had pleasures in her future she couldn't yet dream of. Troubles too. But pleasure first, for once. Lev first.



28 June 1931

Airmail via [Redacted]

I'm imagining you, my darling, on the first day of our new life in Maple Hill, which didn't go quite the way we expected. You wore a blue dress—wool, despite the warm fall weather—and your hair was cut so severely I thought I might slice my hand if I brushed a strand off your shoulders. After the years we spent in Paris and the years we spent in that absurdly small apartment in New York, we needed a change and you had found it.

A pair of children ran by outside. Young girl with a knapsack, following a boy who seemed to be her brother. They cast long shadows and laughed as they ran, and through the window you watched them, waiting for me to meet you by the door. One hand on your hip, purse at the ready. Really devilish shoes, I must say. I stood at the top of the stairs and watched you, your eyes tracking the children and then tracking their absence. Small-town life. I had a momentary impulse to lift you off your feet and throw you onto whatever surface was available, taking torrid liberties. Making you as round as an onion, so I could peel you back and see what was inside. Your little white face, replicated. But I restrained myself, knowing as I do your delight in keeping a schedule.

Neither of us wanted to be in New Jersey, though you wouldn't admit it out loud. It was an afterthought of a place, a backcountry charm school.
That was certainly my first reaction when the letter arrived, offering me a tenured post—we'd been in New York long enough to consider all land beyond the Hudson provincial. But the provost at the Donne School was a fan of my writing, and willing to overlook what many more prestigious administrators had called the “childish philosophical wish-making of a pseudo-biologist” (among other plum summaries of my work). Not to mention the money was surprisingly good: wealthy parents, rich tuition. And so you insisted this was what we needed. A place to rest, after all our wandering. Until the day my books could support us I would have to teach, and I could teach here. Little girls. Little women. I was surprised you didn't protest on this point. Instead, before walking me to campus for the first time, you smoothed my lapel and re-knotted my tie, running the length of it through your fist with a flourish.

“There,” you said. “Dashing.”

By then I was used to having you dress me. Everything I once owned had been thrown away by the date of our wedding, or else pressed and brushed, nipped in with a tailor's unfailing eye. I'd never cared about my wardrobe, and found it relaxing to have you take the reins. One less thing to occupy my mind while writing. Sort “clothes” with “food” and “friends” and “mail.” The postman handed you our stack of letters, and you cut them open with a nifty switchblade from one of the more roguish Parisian flea markets. When something merited my attention—like the offer from George Round in Maple Hill—you let me know. The rest you dispatched yourself.

Our true partnership—it started with my manuscript, didn't it? A single, cleansing fire. After that I gave myself over to you. Not a statement of regret, my love, just a dispassionate review: our lives as a slide show, leading up to the Donne School steps. Once we made up, there were conversations held late into the night, ideas I scribbled down on napkins and scraps to show you in the morning. The wrinkle in your forehead when you were scratching something out. You found all the pieces of me that I wanted to deny, and excised them with neat precision. Extraneous phrases, characters who could be combined into one better man, lopsided philosophies. Nothing escaped you, and I grew to rely on it.

That morning, I watched you apply lipstick in the hallway mirror. Our house was still half empty then, though your embellishments were beginning to show. A few tasteful portraits hung in the sitting room, plus one wedding photo. Coffee cups with blue limning stacked in the cabinet at rakish angles. Your bedroom bureau an airplane console with powder compacts and brooches for buttons. I sometimes had the sense that I was looking at fragments of your mind left out in plain view, the larger picture still obscured. But of course—I reminded myself—I knew the larger picture. Our success, toasted. Our happiness, secure. You pressed your lips together to smudge the red more evenly around your mouth, then used a pinky nail to scrape away an imperfection that was, to me, invisible.

Looking up, your reflection caught mine studying you. It smiled.

“I know you're not sure about this,” you said.

“I'm sure about you.”

“It will all come right.”

“I trust you.”

You nodded, and I thought back to the weeks we spent discussing
Knife, Knave
before I sent it off to the Parisian editor your father introduced me to. How whenever you made a good point your cells would swell with certainty, a celestial sarcoma to which you are particularly inclined. The book made a small wave, as did the next one, and the next. My writing, but somehow also your brilliance. You knew which dotted lines to sign and which to notate for a new round of negotiations. Never take the first offer. Never let them see your fear. Good advice for a teacher, too, it turned out.

At the school we met George to sign the contracts, and then walked round the grounds, getting what he called the “five-dollar tour.” (“What about the ten-dollar tour?” you asked, and he laughed. Stick bug of a man with a bristle of a mustache. I should really be kinder to George.) It included, of course, a look at the underground steam tunnels where industrious girls brought their boyfriends to neck, in addition to the more broadly advertised clock tower and library. I also met my first-semester pupils, a hundred little Tabithas rasa peering up at me from their seats. Slender ankles, of course. Wrists switching back and forth, fingers pinching
There, you see
, I told myself.
There may be some fun in this after all.
But that day I mostly introduced you around, and shook hands with the fathers, nodding gravely at their schoolboy interest in Rilke and Freud. They all wanted their daughters to recite poetry because their mothers had recited poetry. No strange stirrings there.

By the afternoon you were at home again, and I was ruffled, taking a solo stroll to clear my head. Trees everywhere, and bright green lawns. A glint in the distance: light off the greenhouse. But let's rewind for a moment. Back to that morning, before we opened the door. Your lips were plumped with conviction, and your hand lay so light on my arm that I could have forgotten it was there had you not given my elbow a squeeze. How much did you know? Enough, I suppose, to keep me from any distraction that might have compromised your plan, which was to give us some stability at last. The telephone rang as we walked out the door for our meeting with George, and you turned me away from the sound.

“Ignore it,” you said. “They'll call again.”

So we carried on, me reluctant, you cocksure. I saw what I saw, I met who I met. And it wasn't until after the sun had set that I learned
had gone into an unexpected second printing. Surprise bestseller. Five-star reviews. An instant classic. By then the contracts had been signed for the year, and it was too late for us to leave New Jersey—exactly as you intended, I suppose. You took the call. I came back to our house after my walk and slouched into a chair, where you ran a hand through my hair and—did I imagine it?—gave a quick tug. A shadow passed over your face when you told me the news, having first made sure I was equipped with a glass of scotch. Triumph, Vera, at steering me just as you'd planned? Or remorse? I never knew. Perhaps first one, and then—much later—the other.




There is such a thing as too much foreplay. I learned that while waiting for the administration to decide about giving me a raise, early in my fourth year as a Donne School employee. I admit I didn't need it—I had my house, some serviceable work clothes, and enough money to keep me in books and sardines. I usually cultivated a few extra plants to make sure I had fresh food all winter, a couple of tomatoes and a huge pot of basil, the exotic purple swell of an eggplant, which I liked to put in soup. Tweak free a lemon or two for tea, which I took with local honey that I got in trade from a nice older woman named Maureen Finnegan who lived on the edge of town and wore Wellington boots on every occasion that we met.

But my tastes had changed. After a few months of fixing scrambled eggs for every meal, I lost my appetite for them entirely. Sometimes I'd pick up an egg and start to cry: because of the blank slate of it, and because I was so very tired of cracking them, mixing them, eating them. On a budget, eggs are the perfect food, until they're not.

I'd also become more selective about who I let John O'Brien fix me up with: now I made him run the boys past Siobhan, who picked slightly older fellows. There weren't as many of them available, so I had maybe two or three dates a year, but they took me out in earnest. Movies, yes, but dinner too, and sometimes dancing. Instead of a diner or a small caf
, we went to proper restaurants with cloth napkins and dim lighting.
Chandeliers. Like the men, there weren't many such restaurants in town, and I quickly developed favorites. There was in particular a dish of stewed rabbit with mushrooms and wine that I sometimes dreamed about. That I dream about, even now. I thought it would've been nice to take myself there, without the feeling I was offering anything in exchange for the meal, and to go whenever I wanted instead of waiting to be asked.

Still, I would never have considered asking for more money if John hadn't given me the idea. It happened one day while I was inspecting a tray of herbs that had been seeded by students the previous year, and the pot holding a sprig of parsley came apart in my hand. I cradled the small root ball and blew a lock of hair out of my eyes, biting back a yelp of frustration. John was with me, taking inventory as part of a larger effort to catalogue the current growth on campus, and he noticed.

“Penny for your thoughts?” he said.

“It's just stupid.” More hair fell across my face, and I had to spit it out of my mouth as I spoke. “Those girls pay how much in tuition every year and the school can't afford a few dollars for new pots and spades?”

“Not to mention, well, have you looked at your clothes lately?”

I glanced up. “What about my clothes?”

“Nothing! Nothing. Just,” he puffed his cheeks and shrugged, as if changing his mind. All the while staring pointedly at the tear in the knee of my pants, which I'd patched up years ago, after Kay tripped me.

“So nice that you noticed,” I said. “Girls like that sort of thing.”

“All I'm saying is, you deserve more for yourself, too. You've been here long enough. Proved yourself, so to speak.”

“That's—true. I guess.” It was hard for me to place a particular value on myself, but he had a point. Above me stretched a canopy of greens, yellows, reds. Things were trimmed back at the moment, to encourage new growth for Welcome Day. But the greenhouse was thriving, and clearly so.

Later that afternoon I talked to Peggy in the Office of Human Resources, and she helped me submit a formal letter requesting a salary adjustment for cost of living and performance excellence. John had already walked me through the appeal for an increased project budget; that money, it
turned out, was in the bag. He'd been planning to ask for it himself if I hadn't brought it up, and the arbiter of the funds was a friend of his.

The raise, on the other hand, required a catalogue of all the tasks I performed on a regular basis, broken down by category and expertise. I had to show growth and improvement and flexibility.
Too bad
, I thought,
that I can't list my new talent at putting awful little girls in their places.
Since Kay graduated, my relationship with the student body had improved, though each new generation seemed to inherit at least a modicum of her spunk and spite. The difference was that now, when I was taunted, I was able to pull a mask over my face, porcelain and still. When they pinched me, if there was no one around, I jabbed them with my finger and walked off looking innocent as a flower. Nothing that would impress the administration, unfortunately. But it made me feel better.

After making my request, the school scheduled a series of meetings for me: a walk-through of the greenhouse, a conversation with my immediate supervisors, and a final decision to be reached and relayed to me by the office of the provost, a Mr. George Round. By the time the last meeting came up, I'd been circling the prospect of new money—my new money—for weeks, and it had crept beneath my skin. I found myself looking critically at things like dish towels and tea cups, thinking about color schemes and bookends that might improve the atmosphere of my home. It wasn't as though I'd be swimming in gold if the raise went through, but I would be able to take myself out to eat now and then. I could, as John so kindly pointed out, replace my torn jeans. There was, deep within me, still some trace of that undernourished girl who clung to the rail of a ship and dreamed of America, and I wanted so badly to impress her. To show myself how far I'd come.

Sitting outside Mr. Round's office, I smoothed my skirt over my knees and tried to keep from hyperventilating. A secretary perched nearby, typing. Her method was peculiar—she'd stare at the paper, taking measured breaths, fingers poised—and then with no warning burst into motion. Then she'd stop to think again. It was difficult to listen to, in my condition; I spent the silent periods in tense anticipation of a new surge of keystrokes, and when they came each one resonated in my head like
the blow from a hammer. I had no idea what the provost was likely to say. My initial bluster had worn off, but in the meantime I'd grown attached to the idea of being comfortable—something I couldn't remember ever having been before. I clasped my hands tight, and looked at my shoes. Scuffed, of course.

The telephone rang.

“Yes? Yes. Alright.” The secretary looked up at me and smiled. “You can go in now.”

This, then, was it. I walked through the large oak doorway into a corner office, brightly lit by two enormous windows. Another desk, bigger than the secretary's, was stationed ten paces away in the rear, and behind it sat a frowning gentleman in a perfectly pressed suit. I smiled to myself—George Round was not
. He was slender, and had a nice lavender tie. There were, I noted, three separate houseplants in the room, an African violet, a philodendron, and some type of fern. Obvious choices, probably selected for him by the secretary or some unseen wife, but still—well cared for. Positioned for sufficient sun. George Round looked up from the paper in his hands, and motioned for me to sit down.


“Andropov,” I supplied, unnecessarily.

“Yes, of course. Well.” He cleared his throat. “Tell me—” I leaned forward into his pause, prepared to defend my understanding of soil types and inflation rates and educational horticulture. My significance as a human being. “Do you have lilies in your greenhouse?”

“I'm sorry?” The simplicity and directness of his question caught me off guard.

“Lilies,” George Round repeated. “Do you have any?”

“I do.”

We both waited for the other to continue. George Round twitched his moustache.

“And what—”

“I have several—”

We laughed.

“Well, that's lovely.” His glasses must've fogged, because he took them off and cleaned them, using the underside of his pretty tie. “I care a great deal for lilies. Such an elegant flower.”

“I agree,” I said. “Most people prefer roses. Which—I like them well enough, but there's something ordinary about the shape of them, I think. People are familiar with roses. Whereas lilies—”

“A simpler profile, but somehow more elusive.”


There was a brief silence. George Round picked up the stack of papers in front of him, and straightened them out, clearing his throat again. A tick, I wondered, or the precursor to our real conversation? Perhaps now he'd question my core competencies, or bring up my behavior towards Kay. As far as I knew she'd never ratted me out, but I couldn't be sure what was written there. Dark marks in the file cabinet.

“This all seems to be in order,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, I think I have everything I need. It's been a pleasure meeting you, Miss Andropov.”

“Sir.” Not knowing what else to do, I stood up. “And my salary increase?”

“Oh! Approved. Heartily approved.” He beamed. “Unless you're unhappy with the amount?”

“Not at all,” I said quickly. Later, I would wonder if this was a mistake, if I could've asked for more. A skill I'm still learning. “Thank you.”

“It will be reflected in your next paycheck.”

I nodded and thanked Mr. Round again, and when I walked out into the antechamber I gave the secretary a dazed smile. That was all? That was all. I'd thought of nothing else for weeks, prepared my arguments for days, and now it was over. I had done well. The sun was shining; early fall. Practically still summertime.

As I pushed out of the building, I wondered if George Round knew to water the African violets from the bottom, and whether he remembered to spritz them when the furnace dried out the office air. Probably so. And if not, what did it matter to me?

It was hot, I realized. The good pair of stockings I'd worn to look chic were now sticky with sweat, so I ducked behind a tree and peeled them off, rolling them up into my purse. I walked to the ice cream parlor and got myself a scoop of strawberry, then wandered around until the cream melted down onto my fingers, and threw the half-eaten cone away. Despite being happy, there was a strange feeling in my fingertips, toetips, the top layer of my skin. Unresolved energy, sparking. I thought about wandering until I found Colin, my unfortunate old flame, and throwing him against the side of a building to see how he liked it. Probably he would, probably too much.

What had I hoped would happen? Perhaps that my life would change. But people walked by and no one congratulated or admired me. My body just kept going, like a well-wound clock. I took a taxi to the department store and picked out a new blouse and new dress and new pair of work pants—reinforced duck cloth instead of denim. In the dressing room I paused to feel the weight of the fabric against my skin, slightly different with each garment. I took another taxi home and tipped the driver well. We passed a moving truck at one point, which of course I gave no thought to at all. In the pivotal moments of your life, how often are you really paying attention to what matters? I'd like to ask Vera that: I suspect her answer would be different from most people's. Different from mine, absolutely. She'd probably wrapped every item on that truck herself, with cleverness and care. Her own innovative solutions. And perhaps what I felt was not just the glow of a job well done, but some subconscious glimmer of anticipation.

The next day, all our lives would change, every one. In a couple of brief sightings: a man peering into a greenhouse, hat in hand. A girl, breathing against the glass to clean it, startled by the closeness of his face. I know it was Vera's idea to bring them to Maple Hill, and so now, looking back, I wonder how much of the future she might have expected. Reason suggests: almost none. But when did Vera stoop to reason?

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