Her mother’s summons from inside the house looped to Lily through all the other voices around her at the wedding reception. It helped that the small band on the flagstone patio was between numbers, but Lily suspected her mother’s urgent cry would have coiled through the music as easily as a new corkscrew through a damp cork.
Lily decided to ignore her mother, hoping she’d find someone else to aid her in whatever small squall was brewing. Lily’s only outward response to her mother’s call was to roll her eyes heavenward and sigh so that her cousin Dee, who had just been telling her what really went on at college fraternity parties, would see that she, Lily, was well aware of her mother’s general lack of cool.
Lily wanted to keep Dee going. It had taken ten minutes of small talk to get to this interesting point. Lily would be off to college herself in another year, and she wanted to be prepared. A natural-born fact-finder and plan-builder, Lily didn’t believe in winging it.
“Lily!” came her mother’s cry again.
“Sorry, Dee, I’d better go,” Lily said.
Dee smiled vacantly at her, unmoved by the interruption. Lily doubted the young woman would be willing to pick up their conversation again. She was already scanning the guests for another companion, presumably a suitable male. There were plenty of those around. The large backyard of Lily’s parents’ home was crawling with young men, most of them friends of Josh, who was freshly out of law school and even more freshly married to Lily’s older sister. A fair number of the young men didn’t have dates. Not that that was of any concern to Lily, who was going steady. Her boyfriend, Ted, wasn’t at the wedding because he was working all summer at a camp in the Poconos.
The first week Ted was away, Lily had checked two books out of the library: an etiquette book with a chapter on writing letters, and the correspondence of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Neither book had been much help, even though the etiquette book was from Seventeen magazine. Ted never answered any of the questions Lily artfully posed in her letters, nor did his letters follow the forms of either the etiquette book or the exchanges of the Brownings.
To be fair to Ted, he wasn’t a poet, nor even a very good speller, so after they had traded three letters, and his showed no evidence of having read hers — except for the standard “I was glad to get your letter” — Lily took the books back to the library and simply followed Ted’s lead, writing not about love (well, not very much — boys didn’t like it if you did, her friend Valerie said, and Valerie had a boyfriend in the Navy, who after two years still came home on leave with armloads of presents and eager to pepper her white neck with ferocious hickeys), but about her own summer job as a waitress, the mounting plans for her sister’s wedding, the weather, and a catch-up on his favorite television shows. (There were no t-v’s at Camp Iroquois Meadows).
Lily dodged through the crowd of guests, tossing greetings to relatives and lowering her gaze from two tipsy ushers who grinned suggestively at her and leaned precariously forward as if to impart some important secret. It was better, Lily knew, to gather some facts from hearsay rather than direct experience.
In her haste and her attempt to keep her gaze from focusing on anyone in particular, Lily nearly collided with her mother, who was busily exiting the house with a large pitcher of lemonade just as Lily was rushing in.
“Good lord, Lily, first I can’t find you anywhere, and then you spring up right underfoot and nearly knock me down!”
“Here, let me take that,” Lily said, reaching for the pitcher.
Her mother hadn’t spoken harshly. She was only flustered. Lily could forgive her that. Cynthia Howard had no peer in a crisis — she was “a real brick,” the whole family always said — but she wasn’t good with crowds, especially happy crowds.
“What are you doing with this, anyway, Mother? That’s why Dad hired those girls today, so you could relax and enjoy yourself.”
Lily was carrying the pitcher to the long tables set under the maples with food and drinks, her mother close on her heels.
“Relax? With my kitchen full of strangers and my yard full of cousins I can’t remember and drunks who look too young to drive?”
“And your beautiful daughter and her new husband, and lots of other people who love you and think you’ve put on a perfectly splendid party,” Lily said, knowing that her mother’s real fears were that the strangers were finding her kitchen lacking, the cousins were judging her hospitality slim, and the drunks were only pretending.
“Now, why were you calling me?”
“What?” said Cynthia, looking around slowly in all directions to be sure there was no one who was not either eating or talking or dancing.
“Oh,” she said suddenly. “Oh, yes. It was about Great-aunt Lillian.”
“What about her?”
“I want you to fix a plate and bring it to her. She’s there in the far corner, at the little table by the fish pond. I do hope it doesn’t smell too much of algae there.”
Lily followed her mother’s line of vision. There, indeed, alone at a small table sat Great-aunt Lillian. Those in the know were keeping their distance, and no hapless strangers had made it that deeply into the yard yet.
“Maybe she’s not hungry,” Lily ventured.
“Nonsense,” her mother sniffed.
“Well, maybe she’d rather serve herself. I don’t know what she’d like.”
“Just give her a little of everything. But no alcohol. Not even champagne. You know how she feels about that.”
Lily saw there was no escape. Her only hope was that when she deposited the plate of food before Great-aunt Lillian, the old woman wouldn’t recognize her as a blood relative, let alone her namesake. After all, she hadn’t seen Lily in years, and some of the cousins insisted she was going a little daffy.
“And don’t you run off from her, either,” Cynthia said, as if she’d read Lily’s mind. “Sit down and pass some time with her. You’ll be old some day, and then you’ll know what’s it’s like to be pushed aside like an out-of-fashion dress.”
Lily thought that her mother ought to be the one to go visit with Great-aunt Lillian if she was that worried about her, but she didn’t say so. She knew her mother would only remind her that she was special to Lillian because she had been named for her. Lily wondered if Great-aunt Lillian didn’t suspect ulterior motives. Lily, an inveterate eavesdropper, had known since she was ten that she might be in line for a fair piece of Lillian’s money because of bearing her name.
Lillian was the only person in all the extended family to have anything the others felt worthy of the label “inheritance.” Lily noticed it wasn’t incentive enough for people to spend time with the old lady, a long-winded and irrepressible storyteller, but five different cousins of varying ages bore Lillian as a middle name. Lily had to admire her mother’s ingenuity. She’d found a pretty variation on Lillian, close enough to be credited as a tribute, but different enough that no one could accuse her of pandering, and then she’d had the nerve to make it a first name.
Great-aunt Lillian looked up from the fish pond when Lily approached with the plate of food and a glass of lemonade. It seemed the lazy circling of the piebald koi in the murky, green water held more fascination for her than the revelry at the other end of the yard.
“Mother thought you’d like something to eat,” Lily said.
Lillian nodded, then looked again at the pond.
“I’m Lily. Cynthia’s younger daughter. My sister is the bride.”
Lillian looked up again.
“I know who you are,” she said. “Sit down, child, and tell me who you are.”
Oh, brother, Lily thought, this is going to be worse than I expected. She put down the plate and glass and pulled a nearby wrought-iron chair to the table, carefully setting it at an angle from which she could see the rest of the yard. Her plan was to listen to the old woman go on for a bit, then pretend she’d spotted someone beckoning to her and leave.
“It was a nice wedding, don’t you think? We’ve been working on it for months.” Lily thought it best to stick to the present, so as not to strain the octogenarian’s faculties too much, nor plunge her into reminiscence.
“You have a boyfriend?” Great-aunt Lillian said, pushing some crabmeat salad onto her fork with a bent, arthritic finger.
“Yes, I do, but he’s not here today. He’s working.”
Lily wished her mother had let her wear Ted’s ring, but she had said it was too big and bulky to wear with a bridesmaid’s dress. Actually, given her mother’s almost non-existent sense of style, Lily suspected it was her sister’s doing that had stripped her of the ring today. Cynthia would probably never have noticed anything amiss.
“Does he love you?”
Now Great-aunt Lillian was breaking open a dinner roll and preparing, shakily, to spread it with butter. Lily was glad the old woman wasn’t looking at her. She could feel herself blushing.
One of the first facts of any significance Lily had ever gathered was that you didn’t talk about love, except under certain very private circumstances with the beloved, and certainly you did not ask about other people’s loves. Did such a breach mean Great-aunt Lillian was senile? Or was she simply rude? Another significant fact Lily had gathered just this summer from her job as a waitress at the country club was that rich people could be very rude and not even think that they were. Lily decided to be generous and assume Great-aunt Lillian was senile. And in that case, it couldn’t hurt, and it might even be the best course, to answer her simply and truthfully.
“Yes, he does,” she said, surprised to feel a little thrill to be saying so out loud.
“Why?” Great-aunt Lillian was staring right at her now.
“Why?” Lily repeated, confused.
“Why does he love you?”
This is too much, Lily thought, even if the woman is senile and rude. But Lillian kept her gaze on her, seemingly waiting out the formation of a thoughtful answer. This matter-of-factness disarmed Lily. She found her outrage and embarrassment dissolving into contemplation. Why did Ted love her? He himself had never said, and it had never occurred to Lily to ask.
“Well…” she said tentatively, wishing again she were wearing his ring. The ring might have given her some ideas, might have drawn some vibrations from the heart of the far-away Ted, who was probably at this moment standing waist-deep in an icy lake teaching some frightened little boy how to float on his back.
“Why does he love you?” Lillian said again, in a voice so tender and encouraging, it made Lily feel as if she wanted to cry. It must be the champagne, she thought.
“Well, we’re happy when we’re together,” she offered, but that, she felt, was not enough.
Strangely, Lillian’s question had become Lily’s own question, and she was amazed that she had never delved into it before. She wondered what her sister would say if Lillian had asked her why her new husband loved her. Lily wondered if her sister knew.
“And we miss each other when we’re apart,” she added, still groping.
“That’s all right, Lily. It’s not an easy question. You don’t need to answer it yet. But you will need to some day, and you’ll need to be able to say why you love someone, too. Or else you might end up like Norm.”
Lily knew she was paving the way for one of Great-aunt Lillian’s famously rambling tales, but she was too shaken and too captivated by the perplexing, new area of inquiry Great-aunt Lillian had opened up to want to restrain her.
“Norm. My brother. Oh, a good-looking man. And he had good prospects, too — the only son of a successful, well-established jeweler with a store in Manhattan and two here in Jersey. Plus — as if that wasn’t enough — plus, Norm was fun to be with and clever and a beautiful dancer.”
“How could I end up like Norm?” Lily said, hoping to cut to the chase. She was beginning to regret her lapse in vigilance.
“So,” Great-aunt Lillian continued, suddenly conveniently hard-of-hearing, “it goes without saying that Norm had no trouble with women.” She sipped her lemonade. “Except…”
“Except when he decided it was time to get married. Then came trouble.”
Lillian bit a piece of meat off a barbecued chicken drumette and slowly chewed it, daintily wiping a smear of sauce from the corner of her mouth. Lily squirmed in her chair. The spell was fading. She began searching the crowd for a possible rescuer. She’d even dance with one of those liquored-up ushers if it would get her away from this table.
“At that time,” Lillian went on, putting down the half-eaten drumette, “Norm was seeing three ladies, and he was fond of them all. Now, Norm was not a romantic. He knew each woman would make a satisfactory wife, and that a marriage didn’t have to begin with crazy-blind love to last. Our own parents’ marriage of 45 years had been arranged by a matchmaker, and the marriages of their parents as well.”
This was news to Lily. Her inquisitive nature kicked in again. She’d read of arranged marriages. It was the sort of thing that happened in India or in the Middle Ages or maybe, today, among royalty sometimes. But in her own family? She was as shocked and prurient as if Lillian had revealed an axe murderer in the family closet. As far as Lily was concerned, crazy-blind love was the only criterion for marriage, but she wanted to know more about this Great-uncle Norm who thought — and worse, deliciously worse — acted otherwise.
“So how did he choose among his three ladies?” Lily prompted.
“He put a question to them. A question to help him decide. They had all agreed this was fair and reasonable.”
“They did?” Lily found this hard to swallow. No female of her acquaintance would have accepted such a proposition.
“And the question was,” Lillian said, “What would you bring to our marriage that would keep us both content?”
Lily nodded. She knew a good question when she heard one. Once, on a final exam in history, she’d been so insulted by the Mickey Mouse tenor of an essay question that she had refused to answer it and lost 10 points. It was a matter of principle, she’d told the astonished teacher. But Norm’s question, though thought-provoking, did smack a little too much of a business negotiation. What about love? Hadn’t all this started with inquiries about love?
“The first girl, Pearl, came to the house on a Monday for her private interview with Norm,” Lillian said. “She was an heiress in a small way, and she said she would bring her father’s wealth and her mother’s thrift, and that she would work beside Norm to expand his business and would teach their sons and daughters to work hard for the family, too.”
“What did Norm think?” Lily asked. Pearl’s response seemed to Lily right up Norm’s capitalist alley.
“Norm liked that answer.”
“But he waited for the others to answer, too, didn’t he?”
“On Tuesday came Sophie, who was a few years older than Norm. She said she would bring patience and her gift of second sight, and that she would teach Norm all she knew. Norm liked that answer, too.”
“Do you think, dear, I could have some more lemonade? It’s turning into quite a hot day.”
“But what about the third girl?”
Great-aunt Lillian leaned over the fish pond and began feeding pieces of cake to the koi. The large fish bumped against one another, extending their lips out of the water and mouthing crumbs off the tips of her crooked fingers.
Lily picked up the empty glass and returned to the refreshment table. She refilled it and got one for herself and was heading back to Great-aunt Lillian when her mother intercepted her.
“Lily, dear, give that to Gilbert to take over,” Cynthia said. “I never meant you to spend the whole afternoon with Great-aunt Lillian. She hasn’t seen Gilbert since he was a baby, and even though I send a picture every Christmas, I’m sure she wouldn’t know him even if he came up and sang the national anthem at her.”
“No,” Lily said, holding the glasses out of her mother’s reach. “Gilbert will just burp at her or tell some stupid fourth-grade joke and disgrace us all. You don’t want that, do you?”
“Well, maybe it’s not a good idea to send Gilbert alone,” said Cynthia distractedly. “I’ve got to help your sister change into her going-away clothes now, or I’d take him over myself.”
“Don’t worry, Mother, I’ll handle it.”
Lily hurried away, feeling as if she’d just won something.
When she reached Great-aunt Lillian, she checked herself from urging the woman to go on. She felt it was the dignified way to be. She didn’t know Great-aunt Lillian well, but one thing she did know was that nothing could stop the old lady from finishing a story once she’d begun. It was that trait that had left her isolated at the reception in the first place. Lily had to wait through only two sips of lemonade.
“And on the Wednesday came Rosalie, the most beautiful of the three. And she said nothing.”
“Nothing?” Lily couldn’t contain her amazement.
“Not at first. Instead, right there in our parents’ parlor in the middle of the afternoon, Rosalie took off all her clothes and let down her long hair and promised never to refuse him.”
This was almost unimaginable. Lily remembered clearly the first time she had shown herself to Ted. Though the moment had arrived only after several months of gradually escalating necking and petting, they had both been awed by it. Lily had felt nervous and unsure, like on the first day at a new school. Ted had gasped audibly and had stood staring, motionless and speechless, for several seconds. Lily was sure she could never have been so calculating and brazen as Rosalie.
“Norm, being an impressionable young man, liked Rosalie’s answer the best,” asserted Great-aunt Lillian.
“So he married her?”
“And was it a good marriage?”
“It was not.”
“Because he chose unwisely.”
Lily wouldn’t have wanted to be in Norm’s shoes. All the women seemed worthy to her. She did find, however, that she secretly approved of Norm’s choice.
“Who should he have chosen?” Lily asked.
“Not one of them.”
“None of them? But he had to choose. Or else wait to meet someone else.”
“Or…not gotten married at all.”
“Or what?” Lily was getting exasperated. Was Great-aunt Lillian daffy after all?
“Or lived with all three.”
“Lived with all three? But that’s not possible. I mean, people don’t do that sort of thing.”
“They don’t, as a rule,” Great-aunt Lillian admitted, “but they should.”
Lily studied the old woman’s face. She looked sane enough. Lillian returned Lily’s stare serenely, as if aware the girl was trying to determine whether or not to dismiss the whole story and Lillian along with it.
How lovely she is, Lily thought suddenly, taking in Lillian’s snowy hair smoothed into a neat bun, the rosy glow of the deeply lined skin, the cat-like amber eyes. Lily had never really looked at an old person with such care before. She tended to lump everyone her parents’ age and older into one amorphous group of individuals whose humdrum demands and concerns impacted her own more vibrant, eventful, crucial life to varying degrees. But here was this old woman, whom everyone agreed was tiresome, fairly glowing with mystery, and, yes, even beauty.
“Well, my dear,” Lillian finally said, “I expect you’re wanting to get back to the party. Maybe you’ll catch your sister’s bouquet.”
“But what about Norm?” Lily protested.
“Perhaps I didn’t tell the story quite as I should have. Your mother might even think it an improper story for a young girl. I was only trying to warn you. Since you think you’re in love.”
“But I am in love,” Lily insisted.
So Great-aunt Lillian was going to prove to be as condescending as any other grown-up. If she says anything about “puppy love,” Lily thought angrily, I swear I’ll get up and leave without so much as an “excuse me.”
“I misled you in my story, Lily. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
Lily’s defensive anger ebbed. Never before had an adult asked her forgiveness, even though there had been a few occasions when it would have been in order.
“What do you mean, misled?” Lily said softly.
“There was only one woman, not three. Miriam. She had Pearl’s diligence and maternal instincts, Sophie’s wisdom and intuition, and Rosalie’s passion and beauty. But Norm chose to live with only one part of her, so, in the end, they were both unhappy.”
Lily was struck dumb. She felt as if Great-aunt Lillian had just filled her lap with a bewildering pile of delicately spun glass figurines that she would need to disentangle very carefully, one by one, if she were ever going to be able to examine them closely and discover the correct arrangement in which to set them out.
“It’s time, Lily, you went and said farewell to your sister,” Lillian said quietly, extending one curled finger toward the patio, where a crowd of raucous well-wishers were gathering around the departing newlyweds.
Lily stood up as if in a trance. She was reluctant to leave the sheltered corner by the fish pond and rejoin the merry-makers, who appeared from this removed vantage point too loud and too brightly dressed for the gentle June afternoon. The noise and colors of the celebrating crowd seemed like the brave show of some small, terribly vulnerable bird attempting to deflect a stalking, slinking predator from its poorly hidden nest of fragile eggs. Lily didn’t understand why she should have such an impression, but she recognized that it was tied somehow to Lillian’s tale. Lily decided that as soon as her sister had left, she’d go upstairs and get Ted’s ring and put it on. The idea comforted her, but in the next instant, she wondered at her need to be comforted.
Slowly, Lily crossed the yard toward the revelers. She hadn’t said good-bye to Great-aunt Lillian. A silent exit had seemed the proper kind to make.
A little breeze blew Lily’s hair across her eyes. She threw back her head and shook it vigorously, like a dog shaking off water. Besides clearing the hair from her face, she was trying to dislodge all she had heard from Great-aunt Lillian, trying to regain the virginal excitement with which the day had begun.
She had some success. The colors and sounds of the wedding guests softened and started to melt from their earlier frenzied pitch into easy waves of simple good cheer. She found herself again surrounded by light-hearted voices and pastel chiffon.
But the warm air still brooded with the heavy scent of flowers too long in the sun.
“The Judgement of Paris” was published in the on-line journal, Fickle Muses, July 2011.