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by Edith Boyd
It was mid afternoon when I saw it on the table. A thick egg-shelled envelope
engraved with our names. Henry was visiting his mother, and Stella had lifted
her umbrella from the ornate stand.
"Mrs. Palmer, I left dinner instructions next to the fridge."
"Thank you, Stella," I said, thinking Henry would enjoy an outing after his
visit, probably filet with a musky cabernet. Whenever I fiddled in the kitchen,
Henry's face looked drawn and wistful. He needed to get things right with
me, and to shelter me from harm. How this involved my cooking, I had no
idea. Maybe an episode with his mother, or his ex - wife I thought. It was
deeper than my not being gourmet.
We had met in a continuing education class at the local high school. We
were sharpening our skills in the French language, both of us rusty from non
use. The teacher was a lively woman from Geneva, her hands delicate and
expressive, as if conducting an orchestra.
Few of us missed her class, finding in her a spark of child-like delight.
I noticed Henry during the first evening class, his tweed jacket so classic,
the lines of his jaw pronounced. But it was when I felt his notice that I was
captured, a sliver of hope that he felt the same way.
It was a mild May evening when Henry spoke to me. I had imagined it so
many times, that I was mute when he spoke, thinking it another daydream.
My car was covered in light green fluff from the budding maples. "Eileen," he
said, "I have a brush for your car." A beginning so practical, so Henry-like,
but I didn't know that yet. After a moment's delay, I thanked him and
watched him go to his car, after tilting his head toward it.
How does he know my name?, I thought, stupidly forgetting how often
Madame used it in class. I reminded myself to thank him simply, offering no
apology, acting, if not feeling, as if I deserved his attention.
The trance was broken by a former student. "Miss Mc Bride, you back
here?" as he screeched his bike to a halt near us. "Evening school, Dylan.
I'm a student," wishing I had given him those detentions I hadn't. Henry gave
him one of those looks I came to know, and Dylan cycled away.
It was Maureen whom I called, the most romantic of my sisters.
"He's not married, is he?" she said, after her initial joy.
"I doubt it,“ I said savoring the way he brushed my arm.
Soon after that night, there were many more encounters. At a candle-lit
dinner Henry ordered a vintage year cabernet, and I had to admit that I
don't drink, and he tilted his head as if to say, Why not? Whether or not he
shared that with his mother rattled me from time to time. Meeting his
mother didn't go smoothly. There were covert references to Barbara, whom
I knew by then, was Henry's first wife.
When I refused a cocktail, Jean Palmer's eyes widened slightly, sparking
my imagination of what Henry may have shared about my problem. There
was a flicker of amusement in her expression, as she rose to offer me
something else. Even back then, with my insecurities about my tribe, I had
to admit she gracefully switched gears, and presented me with Canada Dry
Mrs. Palmer, as I thought of her, long after assuming the name myself, had
a special skill in evoking my neuroses. I remember an early summer
afternoon on her patio, sparkling water in hand, when her closest friend
asked me if I had a brother or sister. Was the question cordial and innocent?
Probably. But there was no mistaking the friend’s intake of breath, when I
answered that I had three of each.
How could I feel shame about any of them? Katie with her thick auburn hair
and generous heart; Danny, with his silly jokes after painting with Daddy in
the blistering sun?
Had I subconsciously chosen this crowd to prolong the self- torture? One
look at Henry reading, sleeping, attempting to dance, and I told Jung and
Freud to go to hell. I loved Henry Palmer and knew he loved me. But any
time spent with his family and friends reduced me to ethnic self-loathing and
wincing when they said " Eileen."
I began to attach ridiculous importance to the invitation we received to the
wedding. Jay, Henry's prep school buddy, invited us to his son J.D.'s
wedding. Henry had lost touch with him for years, but a mutual friend had
given him our address. A liberal arts major like myself, I pictured Jay and I
bonding over Proust or Shakespeare, silly pompous daydreams that
frittered away my time, causing Stella to repeat her deferential requests.
"Mrs. Palmer, may I mop the kitchen floor now?"
At times, I wanted to tell Stella to chill with the formal stuff, call me Eileen,
and maybe hang out and download a movie with me. But I knew that the
caste system that had thoroughly screwed with my head would not allow it.
Would the earth go off - kilter if two women forgot the rules and had some
fun? Probably not, but my wiring wasn't that of a pioneer.
When my head was spinning with these thoughts, I called my sister Katie. I
told her about the wedding invitation, and voiced some feelings about it.
'Eileen, you've got to clear your head of this stuff."
Uh oh, I thought.
"Mother and Daddy worked hard to educate us.
We can hold our own with anybody.
Where did you get this serf mentality?"
I smarted at her response and envied her sure-footedness. I asked about
her kids, and we went back and forth naturally, few signs of a ripple
between us. It was like that with my sisters. All of them.
The following day, I blew off steam on the elliptical at Gold's, feeling foolish
for voicing the garbage in my head. I chastised myself for holding on to
hang-ups about pedigree. Who cares if Daddy wasn't a Yalie like
Barbara's Dad? Certainly not Henry. Not given to outbursts, Henry would
redden from the collar up, when he re-enacted the scene at The Halfway
House, between him and ole Chester. The name of the ninth hole bistro
bothered me in ways I chose not to voice.
I left Gold's feeling saucy and excited about cleaning up and choosing a
dress for the wedding. Henry noticed when I wore black, sometimes
whispering about my fair skin, leaving me to question his taste, rather than
tasting his ardor.
The scent of barbecue chicken mingled with the odor of floor cleanser, as I
made my way into the kitchen.
"One of Mr. Palmer's favorites," Stella said, pointing to the crock pot, her
joy in pleasing him a constant in our lives. " He just called to ask what I've
made him," so besotted with Henry, she saw no insult in excluding me. Not
that she was a big fan of Barbara's. She adopted a pinched look if her name
came up, and actually volunteered that Barbara... sniffed as SHE... didn’t
like her pecan pie.
"If Mr. Palmer calls again, please tell him I've gone shopping," I said,
visualizing the slinky black dress I would wear to J.D.'s wedding.
When I entered Becker's Dress Shop, I heard Ginny Sawyer's imperious
snarl, enunciating her displeasure with the selection. I tried to escape her
notice, but stumbled into a swinging rack of dresses.
Ginny didn't fool me. She was familiar to me on a cellular level. Put simply,
she knew fear although she chose to go on offense to dispel it. My M. O.
was more defensive.
"Colleen," she called out. Becker's Dress was not the site to correct her,
yet again, about my name.
"Ginny, it's been a while."
"Oh, I'm sure that dreamy Henry Palmer is keeping you busy," she said,
disarming me a bit, but not the saleswoman, her face crimson with
I was reminded that Ginny's moods vacillated, even when sober. Henry
steered me away from her when choosing our table at Gravers Lane Inn. I
remember her smoky voice rolling across the cocktail bar, the evening we
met. Introduced to me as a friend of Henry's ex, Ginny was nearly as
smitten with Henry as was our housekeeper Stella, which oddly, warmed
me to her.
But my warmth was short-lived when I overheard her describing me to a
few friends, her voice thick with cosmopolitans. " Freckle-faced, buxom
little thing, his Colleen." Not the worst thing to overhear, but the sense of
my other-ness slurred through.
Smiling at Ginny, I backed out of Becker's Dress and headed for the mall.
Tempted by the aromas of the food court, I headed to Bloomingdale's to
find the perfect dress for J.D.'s wedding. Henry, like most men, had little
interest in the event, but since the arrival of the invitation, I had allowed a
manic-like intensity to consume me. I reminded myself to alert him to the
date, so I could meet so many friends of his from his younger days.
He was in the library, organizing his book shelves when I crept by with a
dress that would have raised an eyebrow from my mother. His
concentration during every task was so endearing, complementing my
cluttered mind. I was relieved Stella had left for the day, and after I
modeled the dress for him, I was able to break his concentration.
The following day, I nearly slipped on Stella's newly waxed floor, thanking
my yoga practice for keeping my balance. I checked myself from scolding
her for not warning me, as "Mr. Palmer" was her universe. The irony that I
thought of it as Stella's floor, and not my own, struck me, as I grabbed the
black granite ledge of the sink.
The episode kept me from babbling like a school girl to Stella about my
new dress. Face it, my sisters were sick of my schtick, and didn't quite
see what I saw in Henry in the first place.
Just after re-gaining my balance, the land line rang and I answered it.
"Eileen, this is Jean Palmer. How are you?" she said.
"Good. And you?" stopping myself from calling her Mrs. Palmer.
"Is Stella available?"
"She's just leaving. I'll get her, Mrs. Palmer," I said, slipping back.
It wasn't my fault, as the Jean thing was new.
With my special skill in eavesdropping, I deduced that Stella would
accompany Mrs. Palmer to the wedding that was the source of my frenzy.
Henry's mother no longer drove, and she felt comfortable with Stella.
Maybe it was my imagination, but the deference Stella showed to anyone
Palmer, elevated her status in the family.
I placed a red circle on the calendar in Henry's study, marking the date of
the wedding. Imagining my mother making a guest appearance, I went back
to the mall and purchased a shawl to wrap around my shoulders should the
dress feel too slight.
The morning of the wedding was one of October's best - a crispness in the
air and the leaves like golden rust. I wondered if the bride had chosen this
date knowing it's beauty would make the day of her vows more precious. I
scolded myself for having given the bride and groom so little thought.
The parents of the groom were chatting in the foyer of the Episcopal church.
Jay strode over to us, and actually hugged Henry.
"Let's not lose one another again," he said to Henry, while releasing him.
Henry introduced me to Jay and his wife Ellen who was restrained in her
However, I noticed throughout the service that she remained poised and
erect, her shoulders back, her tiny waist showing the mother of the groom
dress like a petite model giving boring taupe a second look.
Throughout the service, I peeked at the crowd assembled and saw that one
of the few people I knew was Ginny Sawyer.
Stella would be bringing Mrs. Palmer directly to the reception.
The bride's appearance surprised me. As Kristen's father, teary-eyed and
endearing, escorted her up the aisle, I noticed she was athletic-looking and
muscular, not the slender looking waif I had imagined. J.D., whom I had yet
to meet, was beaming at the altar, assuring me that this was a happy event.
After meeting the bride and groom, and many of Henry's old friends, I
began to relax into the event, kicking myself for my hang-ups about not being
Barbara or of the Ivy League set.
The reception was tasteful with fresh flowers on every table, making a lovely
contrast with the white table cloths. There was a choice of entrees, and the
band's music was gentle and not over-bearing as is the case with many
While dancing with Henry, I began to feel that my dress was a bit revealing,
so I headed to the coat room in the foyer to retrieve my shawl. There was
nobody there to help me, so I fumbled through the jackets to find it.
It was Ginny's voice that stopped me from moving. She was articulating
each syllable to hide her consumption, but I heard every slurred word.
"Bet that little tart has you missing Barbara," she said.
I feared I would explode from holding my breath, thankful for the slight
screech of a wheelchair.
"Ginny, Eileen is a fine woman, and she loves my son.
You should behave more like her," Mrs. Palmer said.
I waited alone in the coat room, choking back tears of joy and shame. How
had I given so much power to the Palmers? Memories from my childhood
surfaced.... Daddy in his Santa suit that never fit...Danny whistling at us
when we dressed for the prom.... Riches from my youth that were more
than enough to sustain me.
Touched by Jean Palmer's endorsement, I realized I didn't need it, and
probably never had.
Henry peeked into the coat room.
"Eileen, I missed you," he said.
Leaving the shawl under one of the coats, I took his hand and asked him
Edith Gallagher Boyd is a graduate of Temple University and a former
French Teacher. She is the author of "Dancing In Winter," "Charlotte's
World," and other short stories. She lives in Jupiter, Florida.
|Phoenix Photo&Fiction: "The Invitation" by Edith Boyd
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