Read Vinegar Girl Online

Authors: Anne Tyler

Tags: #General Fiction, #Literary, #Comedy / Humor

Vinegar Girl (9 page)

“She went on field trips with me?” Kate asked. She was trying to wrap her mind around this. “She was interested in me? She liked me?”

“Why, of course. She loved you.”

“I missed her one good spell!” Kate said. It was almost a wail. “I don’t remember it!”

“You’ve forgotten how you used to go shopping together?”

“We went shopping together?”

“She was so happy, she said, to have a daughter she could do girl things with. She took you shopping for clothes and lunch, and once you went for manicures.”

This made her feel eerily disconnected. Not only had she mislaid the memory of experiences she thought she would have treasured all her life, but also, they were experiences that she assumed she would have hated. She couldn’t abide shopping! Yet apparently she had gone along willingly, and maybe even enjoyed herself. It was as if Kate the child had been a completely different entity from Kate the grown-up. She looked down at her blunt, colorless nails and could not make herself believe that once they had been professionally filed and buffed and painted with polish.

“So that’s why we have our Bunny,” her father was saying. There was a blurriness in his voice, perhaps due to the wine, and the lenses of his glasses were misting. “And of course I’m delighted we do have her. She’s so pretty to look at and so lighthearted, the way your mother used to be before we married. But she’s not, let’s say, very…cerebral. And she doesn’t have your backbone, your fiber. Kate, I know I depend on you too much.” He reached out to set his fingertips on her wrist. “I know I expect more of you than I should. You look after your sister, you run the house…I worry you’ll never find a husband.”

“Gee, thanks,” Kate said, and she jerked her wrist away from him.

“No, what I mean is…Oh, I always put things so awkwardly, don’t I. I just meant you’re not out where you could
meet
a husband. You’re shut away at home, you’re puttering in the garden, you’re tending children in a preschool, which, come to think of it, is probably the last place on earth to…I’ve been selfish. I should have made you go back to school.”

“I don’t want to go back to school,” Kate said. She really didn’t; she felt a flutter of dismay.

“There are other schools, though, if that was not the right one for you. It’s not as if I’m unaware of that. You could finish up at Johns Hopkins! But I’ve been indulging myself. I told myself, ‘Oh, she’s young; there’s plenty of time; and meanwhile, I get to have her here at home. I get to enjoy her company.’ ”

“You enjoy my company?”

“It may be, too, that that was another reason I thought of pairing you off with Pyoder. ‘I’d still get to keep her around!’ I must have been thinking. ‘No harm done: it’s a marriage only on paper, and she would still be here in the house.’ You have every right to be cross with me, Kate. I owe you an apology.”

“Oh, well,” Kate said. “I guess I can see your side of it.”

She was remembering the evening she had come home from college. She had arrived unannounced with several suitcases—all she had taken away with her—and when the taxi dropped her off at the house she’d found her father in the kitchen, wearing an apron over his coveralls. “What are
you
doing here?” he had asked, and she had said, “I’ve been expelled”—putting it even more baldly than need be, just to get the worst of it over with. “Why?” he had asked, and she had told him about her professor’s half-assed photosynthesis lecture. When her father said, “Well, you were right,” she had felt the most overwhelming sense of relief. No, more than relief: it was joy. Pure joy. She honestly thought it might have been the happiest moment in her life.

Her father was holding the wine bottle up to the window now, plainly hoping to find another drop or two in the bottom.

She said, “When you say ‘On paper…’ ”

He glanced over at her.

“If it’s just a formality,” she said, “if it’s just some little legal thing that would allow you to change his visa status and after that we could reverse it…”

He set the bottle back down on the counter. He stood tensed, possibly not breathing.

“I suppose that’s not
that
big a deal,” she said.

“Are you saying yes?”

“Oh, Father.
I
don’t know,” she said wearily.

“But you might consider it. Is that what you’re saying?”

“I suppose,” she said.

“You really might do this for me?”

She hesitated, and then she gave him a tentative nod. In the very next instant she wondered what on earth she could be thinking, but already her father was pulling her into a fierce, clumsy hug, and then thrusting her away again to gaze exultantly into her face. “You’ll do it!” he said. “You really will! You care enough about me to do this! Oh, Kate, my darling, I can’t even put into words how grateful I am.”

“I mean, it’s not as if it would make all that much difference in how I live,” she said.

“It will make no difference at all, I swear it. You’ll hardly know he’s in the picture; everything will go on exactly the same as before. Oh, I’m going to do all I can to arrange it so things will be easy for you. This changes everything! Everything’s looking up; somehow I feel certain now that my project’s going to succeed. Thank you, sweetheart!”

After a moment, she said, “You’re welcome.”

“So…” he said. “And…Kate?”

“What.”

“Do you think you could finish my taxes for me? I did try, but”—and here he stood back to spread his spindly arms comically, helplessly—“you know how I am.”

“Yes, Father,” she said. “I know.”

Sunday
11
:
05
AM

Hi Kate I text you!

Hi.

U r home now?

Spell things out, for heaven’s sake. You’re not some teenager.

You are home now?

No.

The ballerina doll and the sailor doll were getting married. The sailor doll wore his same old uniform but the ballerina doll had a brand-new dress of white Kleenex, one sheet for the front and another for the back, held together at the waist with a ponytail scrunchy and billowing out at the bottom because of the tutu underneath it. Emma G. had made the dress, but it was Jilly who’d donated the scrunchy and Emma K. who knew the rules about walking down the aisle and meeting the groom at the altar. Apparently Emma K. had been a flower girl at some point in the recent past. She held forth at length on the concept of the ring-bearer, the bouquet-tossing, and the “skyscraper wedding cake” while the other girls listened, spellbound. It didn’t seem to occur to them to consult Kate about these details, although word of her upcoming wedding was what had set all this in motion.

Kate had thought at first that she just wouldn’t tell anyone. She would get married on a Saturday—the first Saturday in May, less than three weeks from now—and come in to school the following Monday, nobody any the wiser. But her father was disappointed when he learned that she wasn’t spreading the word yet. Immigration was bound to inquire at her place of employment, he said, and it would look mighty suspicious if her coworkers thought she was single. “You should go ahead and announce it,” he said. “You should walk in tomorrow all smiles, flash a ring about, make up some good story about your long, slow courtship, so that Immigration will hear every detail if they start asking around.”

Immigration was the family’s new bugaboo. Kate envisioned Immigration as a “he”—one man, wearing a suit and tie, handsome in the neutral, textureless style of a detective in an old black-and-white movie. He might even have that black-and-white-movie voice, projected-sounding and masterful. “Katherine Battista? Immigration. Like to ask you a few questions.”

So she arrived at school the next morning, a Tuesday, wearing her great-aunt’s diamond ring, and before she had even checked into Room 4 she went to the faculty lounge, where most of the teachers and a few assistants were standing around the tea kettle, and she silently held her left hand out.

Mrs. Bower was the first to notice. “Oh!” she squawked. “Kate! What is this? Is this an
engagement
ring?”

Kate nodded. She couldn’t quite manage the “all smiles” part, because Mrs. Bower taught Room 2—the room where Adam assisted. She was certain to go straight back to Room 2 and tell Adam that Kate was engaged.

Kate had been thinking about the telling-Adam part ever since she had gotten herself into this.

Then all the other women clustered around her, exclaiming and asking questions, and if Kate’s behavior seemed subdued they probably chalked it up to her usual unsociableness. “Aren’t you the sly one!” Mrs. Fairweather said. “We didn’t even know you had a boyfriend!”

“Yeah, well,” Kate mumbled.

“Who is he? What is his name? What does he do for a living?”

“His name is Pyoder Cherbakov,” Kate said. Without planning to, she pronounced it the way her father pronounced it, making it sound less foreign. “He’s a microbiologist.”

“Really! A microbiologist! Where did you two meet?”

“He works in my father’s lab,” she said. Then she glanced toward Mrs. Chauncey and said, “Gosh, nobody’s watching the Fours,” trying to find an excuse to escape before they could ask more questions.

But of course they didn’t let her off that easily. Where was Pyotr from? (He must not be a
Baltimore
boy.) Did her father approve of the match? When would the wedding take place? “So soon!” they said when they learned the date.

“Well, he’s been in the picture three years,” Kate said. Which was true, strictly speaking.

“But you’ll have so much planning to do!”

“Not really; it’s going to be very low-key. Just immediate family.”

This disappointed them, she could tell. They had imagined attending. “When Georgina got married,” Mrs. Fairweather reminded her, “she invited her whole class, remember?”

“This won’t be that kind of wedding. We are neither one of us much for dressing up,” she said—the unaccustomed “we” sounding as odd to her ears as if she had just popped a stone in her mouth. “My uncle who’s a pastor is going to marry us in a private ceremony. Just my father and my sister as witnesses—I’m not even letting my aunt come. She’s having conniptions about it.”

That it was taking place in a church at all was a compromise. Kate had wanted a quickie affair down at City Hall, while her father had wanted a full-dress ceremony that would photograph well for Immigration. And clearly her coworkers agreed with him; they exchanged sad looks. “The children sat in the pew just behind Georgina’s closest relatives, and each of them carried a yellow rose, do you remember that?” Mrs. Fairweather asked Mrs. Link.

“Yes, because Georgina’s gown was yellow, the prettiest, palest yellow, and her husband wore a yellow tie,” Mrs. Link said. “Both of the mothers were scandalized that she wasn’t wearing white. ‘What will people think?’ they said. ‘Whoever heard of a bride not wearing white?’ ”

“And Georgina said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but I’ve always looked washed out in white,’ ” Mrs. Chauncey said.

Sometimes, Kate was downright astonished by how much the women in the faculty lounge sounded like the little girls nattering away in Room 4.

It was Mrs. Chauncey who announced the wedding to Kate’s class. “Children! Children!” she said, clapping her plump hands together as soon as they’d finished the “Good Morning” song. “I have wonderful news. Guess who’s getting married!”

There was a silence. Then Liam M. ventured, “You, maybe?”

Mrs. Chauncey looked distressed. (She had been married thirty-five years.) “Miss Kate, that’s who!” she said. “Miss Kate has gotten engaged. Show them your ring, Miss Kate.”

Kate held out her hand. A number of the little girls made murmuring sounds of admiration, but most of the children seemed confused. “Is that okay?” Jason asked her.

“Is what okay?”

“I mean, will your mother let you?”

“Uh…sure,” Kate said.

And the Samson twins were clearly unhappy. They didn’t say anything in class, but out on the playground later that morning they came up to her and Raymond asked, “
Now
who will we marry?”

“Oh, you’ll find somebody,” she assured them. “Somebody closer to your own age, I bet.”

“Who?” Raymond asked.

“Well…”

“There’s Jameesha,” David reminded him.

“Oh, yes.”

“And there’s—”

“That’s okay, I’ll take Jameesha.”

“But how about me?” David asked him. “Jameesha’s always mad at me about something.”

Kate didn’t get to hear the end of this discussion, because just then Adam came over. He was carrying a tiny pink hoodie and he looked very somber, or perhaps she was only imagining that. “So,” he said, arriving next to her. He looked off toward the swings. “I heard the news.”

“News?” she asked. (Inanely.)

“They say you’re getting married.”

“Oh,” she said. “That.”

“I didn’t even know you were seeing anybody.”

“I wasn’t,” Kate said. “I mean, I
kind
of was, but…this was very sudden.”

He nodded, still looking somber. His eyelashes were so dark and thick that they gave his eyes a sooty effect.

They spent some time watching a three-year-old who had laid herself belly-down on a swing that she’d wound up. She spun around and around, hanging on for dear life, her expression intensely concentrated, and then she got off and tottered away unsteadily, like a very small drunk.

Adam said, “Is that…wise, do you think, jumping into such a decision?”

Kate sent him a quick glance, but he was still gazing after the three-year-old and it was impossible to read his expression. “Maybe not,” she said. “Maybe it isn’t.
I
don’t know.”

Then after a long pause she said, “This could be, you know, just temporary, though.”

Now he did look at her. “Temporary!” he said.

“I mean, who can ever tell if a marriage will last, right?”

The sooty eyes grew darker and narrower. “But it’s a
covenant
,” he said.

“Yes, but…yes, right. A covenant. You’re right.”

And she was back to feeling too tall again, too outspoken, too brassy. She took a sudden interest in Antwan, who’d climbed dangerously high on the jungle gym, and she walked off abruptly to deal with him.

Tuesday 2:46
PM

Hi Kate! You would like me to walk you from school?

No.

Why not?

It’s my day for Extended Daycare.

I walk you later?

No.

You are not polite enough.

Bye.


A new photo:
Kate standing stiffly on the front walk, Pyotr standing next to her wearing a wide smile even though he was looking a little pink around the nostrils. His so-called cold was an allergy to something outdoors, it was beginning to seem.

Then Kate and Pyotr sitting on a restaurant banquette. Pyotr’s right arm was stretched proprietorially along the back of the seat behind Kate, which gave him a contorted, trying-too-hard aspect because the seat back was fairly high. Also he was frowning slightly with the effort to see in the dimness; he complained that American restaurants were not lit brightly enough. Kate’s father had been there too, of course, because someone had to take the photo. He and Kate had each ordered a burger. Pyotr had ordered veal cheeks on a bed of puréed celeriac drizzled with pomegranate molasses, after which he and Dr. Battista fell into a discussion of the “genetic algorithms” of recipes. When Pyotr was listening closely to someone his face took on a kind of peacefulness, Kate noticed. His forehead smoothed, and he grew completely still as he concentrated on the other person.

Next, Kate and Pyotr on the living-room couch, a foot of empty space between them, Pyotr grinning broadly and doing his arm-along-the-seat-back thing while Kate, stony-faced, poked her left hand toward the photographer to display her diamond ring. Or it could have been cubic zirconia; nobody was quite sure. The great-aunt had clerked in a dime store.

Kate and Pyotr doing the dishes. Pyotr, wearing an apron, waved a pre-rinsed plate in the air. Kate stood looking sideways at him as if she wondered who this person was. Bunny, only partly visible, seemed to be wondering who
both
of them were; she rolled her big blue eyes disbelievingly toward the camera.

It was Bunny who showed their father how to forward the photos to Kate’s and Pyotr’s cell phones, since he himself hadn’t the remotest idea. She rolled her eyes again, but she helped him. She made no secret, though, of her horror at the marriage plan. “What are you?” she asked Kate. “Chattel?”

“It’s only for a while,” Kate told her. “You don’t know how desperate things are getting at the lab.”

“No, and I don’t care. That lab has nothing to do with you.”

“It does have to do with Father, though. It’s the center of his life!”


We
are supposed to be the center of his life,” Bunny said. “What is it with him? The man forgets for months at a stretch that we even exist, but at the same time he thinks he has the right to tell us who we can ride in cars with and who we should marry.”

“Whom,” Kate said automatically.

“Wake up and smell the coffee, sis. He’s making a human sacrifice of you, don’t you get it?”

“Oh, now, it’s not
that
bad,” Kate said. “This will only be on paper, remember.”

But Bunny was so upset that her Taylor Swift ringtone played nearly all the way through before she could think to answer her phone.

Friday 4:16
PM

Hi Kate! I come with you to the grocery store tomorrow.

I like shopping alone.

I come because your father and I are cooking supper.

What!

I will pick you up in my car at eight in morning. Bye.

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