Seventeen: A Formal Dinner
The week padded on, hour by hour. Aunt Andersol, when she could manage to attend the family dining room, said nothing about doctor's visits, and treated us kids more stiffly and formally than she had ever done before. She was joining the family at dinner, but was very reserved and distant, even from her brother, who was finally starting to look concerned.
After homework, I'd begun writing poetry again, and that week, wrote three sonnets about singletons finding fulfilling friendship in meeting. I looked forward to showing them to Aunt Sully the next weekend, and maybe talking to her about the regularly appearing Rachel Owen.
Friday, when we got home from school, we were informed that Aunt Andersol had taken off with friends again, and Aunt Sully would not be visiting us this weekend. One aunt acting oddly was bad enough, but two?
There was a formal dinner that night; perhaps that was why Aunt Sully bailed out on us. I know she loathed those events, even though she always looked stunning and held herself poised like a visiting queen. I was seated between my elder twin sisters; Uncle Bodie said that I was their unsung chaperone, to make sure that the city officials or the state government chummies didn't diddle with them. I wasn't worried about Marca, much; she had a no-nonsense attitude and a magnificent right cross. Oesha I worried about a little. She had a way of looking sideways under her thick eyelashes that reminded me of cosmetics ads in her Vogue magazine. Grandmother Claire was seated across from me; I was glad for that because she could be wryly witty, and favored me almost as much as Aunt Sully did. She would also make certain that the men seated to either of her sides did not flirt with my sisters, whose dresses suited them perfectly. Marca's was a muted jade color that set off her muscled shoulders and made her eyes seem to glow; Oesha's was garnet-colored, the v-neckline accenting her cleavage modestly, like Mother's; her hair was arranged on the back of her head, allowing a few curls to dangle to draw attention to her pale neck.
My suit, I decided, needed to visit the tailor's again. Or a new suit was going to have to make its acquaintance -- I was sure that if I moved my arms too quickly, the sleeves would rip at the seams. The pants were of proper length, but we had only just received them back from the tailor about a week and a half ago. I hope that I'm not very vain, but I do refuse to appear in public -- or even in front of my family where my sisters would mock me -- in pants that are too short. All the pictures of my father that exist show him dressed fittingly ... I wanted the same consideration.
A string quartet played music in one corner during dinner and afterwards, while elegantly dressed men and women milled in the big study downstairs, the musicians seeming absorbed completely by their music, ignoring the guests.
My sisters and I wandered through the clumps of people, greeting warmly faces we recognized, saying hello to others we didn't recognize, shaking hands, making small talk about school that was mostly fabrication. An aging politician who looked like her makeup was going to crack into pieces had the gall to pinch my cheek, nattering about how much I had grown since she had last seen me. I didn't flinch from her, but when she dropped her semi-mummified hand from my face, I bowed, taking a step back to get out of her reach. Grandmother Claire magically appeared at my elbow, saying in French, "Keep your blood-stained hands off the boy, you insolent murderer of infants!" The politician was a noisy proponent of making abortion available to all women, which Grandmother found abhorrent.
The politician looked confused, so I took the opportunity to say, "My grandmother says that it is time for us young folk to retire to our rooms," I lied. I bowed again, let Grandmother take my arm, and we collected Oesha and Marca, said goodnight to Mother, and rode the elevator to the second floor, where we adjourned with Grandmother in her suite.
Kelsa and Michel were there, watching television. "Was it any fun?" asked Kelsa over her shoulder.
"Is it ever?" Marca snarled, grabbing her sweats and heading for the bath to change. We all stashed comfortable clothes in Grandmother's room on formal occasions, not being permitted to roam the halls where guests might come upon us unexpectedly.
"It wasn't so bad," Oesha said, removing her earrings -- or rather, Grandmother's earrings -- and taking them to the jewelry box in the dressing room.
"Why does your mother continue to invite that filthy woman to this house?" Grandmother asked me.
"I don't know, Grandmother. She is unnerving, I must admit." I loosened my tie. "Thank you for rescuing me from her clutches."
She reached up, ruffled my hair and went to the bath to shout at Marca to hurry up.
I didn't mind the formal dinners so very much. When I drifted through the clumps of discussion, I heard about money for programs, land for acquisition, support for political parties. It was all about dollars, and about securing associations that would back up what someone wanted to do. Yet no one was about to change their minds about anything; so ultimately the dinners were about dressing up and sneering at each other and genteelly beating one's chest to say, "I'm a power, kiss me." As long as I was not obliged to take a stand or begin a war, the dinners were just something to be endured.
Indeed, much of the night had been spent on wondering what sort of formal dress Rachel Owen might have worn. Something blue to enhance her eyes? Something dark to match her dark hair?
"Owen, where are Aunt Andersol and Aunt Sully?" Michel asked me, suddenly showing up by the arm of my chair.
"I don't know."
"Both of them should have been with you tonight, or with us, but they weren't. You're not keeping something from us, are you?" The scrawny squirt had the nerve to grab my bangs and stare into my eyes.
"What are you doing?" I asked him.
"Our teacher said that eyes are the windows into the soul, so I'm looking in your windows to see if you're lying."
I opened my eyes wide, so that whites showed all around my irises. "Does that help?"
"You're a creep, Owen. When you do that, you look like a nutcase."
"I am a nutcase, Michel, my little nugget." I rose slowly from the chair, forcing him to back up. Flipping the bottom of my jacket over my head to cover my face, I made my hands into claws and began to stalk him. He continued to back up, laughing only feebly, and Kelsa jumped up to intervene.
"Stop it," Grandmother Claire said forcefully from the dressing-room door. "Owen, do not do that with your suit jacket. And do not call your brother a 'nugget.'"
Shrugging my jacket back to normal, I clamped a hand over my mouth to keep from giggling about being reprimanded for calling Michel a "nugget."
Did it mean something dirty in French?
Marca was done with the bathroom, and had gone into the dressing room to pull on her socks, so I grabbed my sweats and took my turn. Oesha usually was the last one to shed formal clothes; she was the only one of us who enjoyed wearing them.
Grandmother Claire was sitting on the sofa in front of the fire when I returned from changing clothes. She patted the cushions next to her to invite me. "Michel has the right question. What is happening with your aunts? Has your mother offended them?"
"Not that I know of, Grandmother. We're trying to find out what our aunts are doing, too. Unless they are angry about her being pregnant."
Grandmother Claire frowned. "They could be angry at her because a pregnancy so late in her years could be dangerous; I do not know if your mother has a will drawn up -- if she were to die in giving birth, the estate might be thrown into a legal battle."
"I don't even want to think of that," I said. "She's healthy and strong."
My grandmother flicked me painfully on the temple with her thumb and forefinger. "You have to think of this," she countered. "I know that they intend for you to inherit the estate, but I do not know if they have made the appropriate arrangements. Now hush, we will discuss this tomorrow, your sister is approaching."
Marca sunk into a cross-legged seat between us and the fire. "I have a question, and I think I need an answer.
"What?" I asked, inelegantly, troubled by my grandmother's words.
"Why am I supposed to be polite to a man more than twice my age who asks me to step out on the side porch?"
"What?" I cried, nearly in chorus with my grandmother, and all my siblings
"Yeah, the jerk said, 'Miss Marca, you outshine all the stars in the heavens. I would love to observe you under the night sky.'"
"What?" we all shouted again.
"Just what I said," she nodded, grimacing. "I wanted to kick him in the balls but didn't, because it was a formal dinner, and because I don't know -- is that kind of thing common?"
Grandmother Claire sniffed. "Some men are pigs, and will seduce a young girl just for the satisfaction of being the first one to do so. What did you say in reply?"
"I said, 'Please excuse me,' and then went to stand beside Uncle Bodie."
Grandmother nodded. "Perfect, Marca. Maintain politeness and poise whenever you can. You are very pretty, and men will try to take advantage of you. If they are rude or persistent, you are well within your rights and manners to bluntly say to them, 'GO AWAY.' Should they continue to pester you, you have the permission of the family to shout, 'Stop trying to make me go outside with you!' or whatever the pig is trying to make you do against your will."
"But that would make the politician angry, wouldn't it, and that's not good," Oesha commented.
"My dears, the politicians come here to court us. They are fleas on the dog of the estate. If they are angered, they are even greater fools, because to destroy them, all we would have to do is go to the newspapers with report of their importuning."
"That doesn't mean you can pick fights," I added to Marca.
"Certainly not," agreed Grandmother Claire, "but there is absolutely no reason you must put up with rudeness. Remember, all of you, that if you live your life above reproach, reproach can never, ever jump to reach you."
Grandmother's rooms were heated independently of the rest of the mansion, and quite warm, so we opted to sleep in front of her fireplace, the maid having been given instruction to bring us each a blanket and to restoke the fireplace. Without our guardian aunts in residence, we felt safest there, and so passed the night.