Kept Woman

By Michele A Hromada

den enters the house and hears her mother talking to her pet cockatoo. The September sun brightens the foyer as she listens to her mother talk to LaLa. The house is neat and tidy; no errant objects are in the way. Snapdragons fill a cobalt pitcher on the coffee table. Eden walks into the kitchen and pours herself iced tea.

 

She walks out to the deck, listening to her mother. Her mother is scolding LaLa for dropping pieces of her uneaten vegetables between the bars of the birdcage. She stops talking and comes outside. May Conrad is wearing a pressed linen dress, a gold watch with diamonds, and good Italian sandals. She looks like a woman returning from work or an important appointment. May has no job or close friends. When she makes the infrequent trip out of her house, LaLa is grafted to her shoulder like an exotic appendage.

 

“How was your day, darling?” May strokes her daughter’s auburn hair.

“Great, Mom. I got an A on my English composition.”

 

“Of course you did. Let me read it.”

 

“Not now, Mom, I have to study for a Spanish test.”

 

“Maybe later, then,” she says.

 

Eden picks up her glass and messenger bag and heads to her bedroom.

 

Eden is sixteen, tall and athletic with a long, lean torso. She is a good student, quiet, willful, and liked by others in an unspectacular way. She opens up her messenger bag and pulls out her first English assignment. It is not really a composition, but a letter. Mr. Spector, her teacher, assigned the class the task of writing a letter to someone—real, dead, or alive. It could be someone from history, popular culture, or even a family member. The author must request something from the recipient. Eden pulls out the letter; comments are scribbled in purple felt tip marker. She studies Mr. Spector’s handwriting for some clues about him; she knows all the comments by heart. The letter is written to Eden’s birth mother, who she has never met. She is requesting a meeting. Having found the information about her mother in her father’s file cabinet along with her Social Security number, she did an online people search and found Renee’s address. Eden knows that Renee lives in the same town. She prints out a second copy of the letter, addresses it to her birth mother, planning to mail it on her way to school tomorrow.

 

* * *

 

Renee sits at a bench behind the counter of her shop, Garden of Eden. It is a woman’s accessory shop that sells fashion jewelry, scarves, belts, bags, and a small inventory of boutique clothing. Her daughter’s letter is open; she has read it dozens of times. She already knows a great deal about the girl’s life and has a photo album tucked away with pictures from Eden’s childhood up to her last birthday. Renee’s affair with Robert, Eden’s father, ended after she gave birth. Robert’s wife was unable to bear a child and had become more and more depressed. Renee did not believe in marriage or want to care for a child, so it was easy for Robert to convince her to go through with the adoption.

 

She knows Eden is now sixteen, not a time for serenity. It is the age for suicidal thoughts one day and impossible hopes the next. Renee remembers when she found out she was pregnant; her tears, dramatics, and the stark despair that culminated in the realization that motherhood would keep her shackled like a dog on a long lead.

 

Several years after the affair, Robert helped her finance her boutique. It was a business arrangement at first, but she became his mistress again. She did not care about his insipid, unbalanced wife. Renee was free to come and go as she pleased. She tended to her busy little shop and viewed her role as the other woman as a highly skilled sport. She had willingly chosen a dubious profession and accepted the crushing predictability of everyday life. Robert would stay with his wife; she would continue running her business. She earned her way; she was not really a kept woman. Renee’s life was compartmentalized: work, friends, taking care of herself, and pleasing Robert. She grew up the daughter of a single mother who had scrimped for everything they needed. Renee felt there was nothing more that she wanted; she had her independence.

 

Eden’s request to meet was inevitable. All these years, they were virtual neighbors, and she had fantasized about the day when they could be best friends. She sends an email to her daughter and attaches a recent photo. Renee suggests they meet on Saturday morning at Starbucks.

 

* * *

 

Eden aspires to be a mime. In front of a full-length mirror, she practices nostril and eyebrow exercises, trying to appear robotic and mechanical. Her eyes are tearing from the sustained effect of not blinking. Renee’s email invitation is open on her laptop. LaLa, the cockatoo, is screeching for attention in the den. The annoying bird needs constant companionship. LaLa and thoughts of meeting her birth mother are breaking Eden’s concentration. She slams the bedroom door; she is getting ready for her performance at the Long Island Fall Festival on Saturday. The fair will have crafts, food, and entertainment provided by local high school theatre clubs. There will be skits, dance routines, and singing. Eden will be working the fair as a dancing mime in white face makeup and performing as her character, Daisy. She will wear a white shirt, bow tie, short black skirt, tights, and dance shoes. Eden will weave in and out of the crowd, dancing up to unsuspecting fair attendees and handing them literature about local businesses and restaurants. An effective mime must be benignly evocative of human behavior while at the same time jarring the viewer with a subtle eeriness of caricature. Eden practices spins and dance moves, maintaining the glass-eyed stare of a doll.

 

May is preparing dinner in the kitchen, listening to her daughter crash into her bedroom walls and furniture. While tidying up Eden’s room, she found the letter to her birth mother. It was bound to happen, but May felt threatened. Young girls crave romance and conflict; Renee getting close to Eden could cause trouble for their ordered life. Of course, May knows her husband still sees Renee, and she knows he will never leave his family to be with her full time. It is an arrangement that suits all parties.

 

* * *

 

On Saturday, Renee sits at a table in the coffee shop facing Main Street. The village is jammed with cars and people heading toward Hecksher Park for the Fall Festival. The weather has cooperated; it is warm and dry with a cool, autumnal breeze. Pots of mums are hung from the lampposts. Pumpkins, gourds, and swags of silken leaves decorate the shop windows. Renee is reading a book and sipping a coffee, waiting for Eden to join her.

 

She looks up from her book and sees Robert on the sidewalk still dressed for summer in Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt. Renee lifts the book upward to obstruct her face. Robert is holding his wife’s hand; they’re talking. May has transitioned to fall clothes and is wearing corduroy pants and a beige cotton sweater. The cockatoo she had heard so much about is perched on her shoulder, amusing people passing them on the sidewalk. An aura of intimacy wraps them both. What do they talk about? Renee wonders. Eden comes into view in her mime costume. In turn, they each give their daughter a gentle embrace. Robert and May glance at each other; she feels the pride they share and senses a level of desire between them. She knows she is witnessing a bond that has eluded her comprehension for years. Eden is well loved, and they have experienced things as a family that she will never know. Renee feels wistful and envious. She longs to know her daughter in a way that is different from her adopted mother. She is determined to never see Robert again.

Eden walks in and looks around. Even in makeup and costume, Renee recognizes her own facial contours and slimness of body in the girl. She waves her over to the table. Up close she sees a slight panic in Eden’s eyes.

 

She stretches her hand across the table and pulls out the chair.

 

“Hi, I’m Renee; please sit down.”

 

 

——————–

I am a special education teacher and educational evaluator. My hobbies include reading, traveling, and listening to rock and jazz music. Short fiction is something I love and have been working on throughout my life. I live on the Lloyd Neck peninsula on the North Shore of Long Island with my husband, son, and our Jack Russell terrier. My work has appeared in Sanskrit.


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