A Strange Courtship by Carla Seratt

Second weddings are a thriving business on the Main Line of Philadelphia. Stores dedicate themselves to dresses for the second time around, with all of the trimmings. And second husbands always seem to be improved versions of the first husbands. A wife will say that her first husband was messy, neurotic, but her second is neat as a pin and completely pleasant.

It's never the other way around, is it?

There are many sad tales of the first husbands. The husband who slept in the attic for years, the husband who subsisted on bread and water, the husband who went on a jolly gambling spree, never to return. But Mel Siegel seemed a normal suburban husband, the kind of man who buys his wife a gold Rolex. So it was a shock to all of us when Mel vanished, taking his young sexy secretary with him and leaving sensible Lillian Siegel with two children, without a cent in the world.

Lillian was not a woman to wallow in self-pity. She entered law school, perhaps with the aim of suing rotten Mel when she had the degree. Lucky for Lillian, our neighbor, Mrs. Gold, volunteered to take care of the two children--their names were Tom and Beatrice. For Mrs. Gold, that was the natural thing. She had grown up at a time when neighbors cared for one another's children, brought soup when parents were sick. Back then, if a woman took a second husband, it was because her first had died, sometimes in war, sometimes in sickness. A first husband might never be mentioned, but he was always cherished.

Tom and Beatrice ruled the Gold house. Red-headed Tom loved to make a mess. He would open drawers, find wrenches and screwdrivers, ransack the refrigerator, turn up music as loud as it could go. His wild ways thrilled Mrs. Gold. "He is such a boy," she would say, starry-eyed. Beatrice preferred to sit with the cat in her lap, reading books from Mrs. Gold's library or doing homework. Mr. and Mrs. Gold took them to museums and zoos and movies, wherever they wanted. All of us took Tom and Beatrice's presence for granted when we visited the Golds -- some of us knew that the Golds had lost a child, years back.

Lillian did find a reliable second husband, and moved away. Where she went was anyone's guess, since she never bothered to write and thank Mrs. Gold for all of her kindness. It was possible that the first husband had not been such a fool, we thought.

Mrs. Gold did not complain, though, and managed to keep tabs on wild Tom and quiet Beatrice. She had only generous thoughts for the two children. "That Tom will be brilliant, you'll see." And as for Beatrice: "She is going to be gorgeous--all with crazy hair."

It was at Mrs. Gold's funeral that I met Beatrice again. She was now in her late twenties and had the kind of face that seems beautiful from one angle, plain from another. She was tall and slender with extraordinarily elegant clothing. Years had passed and still, we knew one another in an instant. We were among many younger women at Mrs. Gold's funeral.

After the service, Beatrice introduced me to a tweedy graying man. She spoke in a formal tone, "This is Professor Douglas Byrd, my husband."

The professor shook my hand gravely and, as if on cue, quoted from a poem-Milton, I believe. I nodded as if I was familiar with the quote, but in fact, I had trouble paying attention. I was mesmerized by Beatrice's suit. Even at such a sad event, I found myself drawn to her suit, its hints of iris and aquamarine, its intricate details.

"Mrs. Gold would be thrilled to see you in this," I said to Beatrice. "She loved clothes like this."

Professor Byrd told me, "It’s one of my wife's designs." He might have a proud gallery owner, the way he said it.

"Thank you, it is," Beatrice said, "although I don't call myself a designer."

I could not forget Beatrice's wonderful suit as the year went on. One of my friends from my Manhattan days, Edith, listened with sympathy as I described it. Edith agreed that most of today's clothes are hardly worth the trouble. She urged: "Call her, have her make you that suit, it might be your last chance."

I resisted. I did not want to seem like the kind of woman who goes to funerals and only notices the clothes. But after a while, I broke down. I found a tiny card that Beatrice had slipped me at the funeral -- it had one word, Memoir, with a neat hand-written address underneath.

Memoir, I surmised, was a store in a section of Philadelphia known as Old City. That part of the city has many side streets, all with odd names.

One wintry afternoon, I wandered until I arrived at a deserted alley, almost hidden behind the shadows of an old church. A small building was marked by the word Memoir in tiny script on the door. One red dress, with lines that startled, hung in the window, nothing more. From the street, the store looked dark and empty. But, when I opened the door, tentatively, Beatrice was seated as if she had expected me. She embraced me and asked me to sit.

The store's outward darkness had been deceptive -- inside were exquisite clothes. Some seemed drawn from movie scenes of smoky nightclubs, others conjured up images of women as they once looked, strolling Fifth Avenue. Among them was a plaid cape that seemed like one my own mother had worn. How lovely and young she had been, walking proudly with her cape! I placed the cape around my shoulders and felt a sharp forgotten sadness.

"Any piece can be made, assuming I can find the materials," Beatrice explained in a way that implied that, sometimes, this was not possible.

Beatrice was not displeased to learn of my difficulties finding Memoir. On the contrary, obscurity suited her.

She and her husband now lived apart, she told me, but without her marriage, there would have been no clothes. "It's a long story," she said in her mild low voice.

"I'm never in a hurry, I have all the time in the world," I let her know. So I listened to Beatrice's story.

Douglas Byrd was a highly regarded professor at one of the Quaker colleges in our area. He was an authority on twentieth century design, with many books to his name. Rumor had it that he was in mourning for a beloved wife.
As his student, Beatrice felt he was her soul-mate -- perhaps other girls believed the same. But there was little flirtation between Beatrice and Douglas. Instead, the two of them spoke of art and ideas and literature. Any book that Douglas mentioned, she quickly memorized passages so she could quote them.

Any man would have been flattered.

Beatrice's brother, Tom, mocked her infatuation. She ought to meet guys her own age, have fun. Tom argued that Douglas was too old--Beatrice’s senior by more than twenty years. But Beatrice was stubborn.

After graduation, Beatrice hardly knew what to expect--but she felt confident about Douglas Byrd. And her hopes were realized. He invited her to an intimate restaurant, soft music in the background, white roses on the table. And on the spot, he proposed to her. He told her there were no obstacles, no reason to wait, they could be married immediately.

For many women, the moment might have been perfect.

I imagined Beatrice at the time. At twenty-two, she probably never had ordinary boyfriends while she pined away for Douglas. She had dreamed of a courtship, lingering kisses at the doorway, gardenias, perhaps even lover's quarrels and tears -- a process that led to marriage, but in a steady natural manner. And now, with the proposal, she must forfeit it. For a split second, she might have considered refusing and moving on so that could have her magical courtship. She was too young to know that most courtships do not lead to marriage -- they go nowhere and leave nothing behind.

Beatrice shrugged, "So that was that."

They were married immediately in a civil ceremony. The honeymoon was combined with one of Douglas's academic conferences (not in a bad place, Paris) and timed so they could return before the fall semester. All in all, it was well-planned, but annoying to Beatrice's brother. Tom was skeptical about a solitary ceremony, an academic honeymoon.
Beatrice screamed at Tom when he expressed his doubts, "How dare you?"

Douglas Byrd's family had lived for generations on the Main Line and he had inherited his family's house. Beatrice felt a guest in this grand stone house with its large gardens -- she had brought nothing with her from her drab apartment. Douglas instructed her that many of the rooms were off-limits -- they housed his collections of rare objects, his many private papers.

Beatrice accepted his rules without comment.

Then, there was the question of his children -- they might come to stay. The ex-wife was far from dead and lived nearby. He must protect his children's interests since his estate would go to them. "It is only fair," he said, casually, as if no argument were possible.

Beatrice was at the age when wills and children were far off thoughts, and money of no consequence. Still, the way Douglas spoke made her feel stiff and off-balance. She decided to keep his words a secret from everyone, even Tom. It would be her first secret from her brother, but what she could do? Besides, she reasoned, if she were unmarried, she would be no worse off. She said nothing.

When Tom visited, she warned him not to open any doors. Those rooms belong to Douglas, she explained.

Her brother stubbornly opened every one, shouting, "Give me a break."

Beatrice closed them softly, just in case. "No need to argue," she pleaded, "please."
Douglas had a busy calendar of conferences and speaking engagements, and he travelled often. And when home, he sequestered himself in the off-limits part of the house. He insisted that any noise, however slight, disrupted his studies. And although he had warned that his children might visit, they never did -- so the house was as silent as he needed. After a while, it was the outside world that seemed noisy to Beatrice.

With time on her hands, Beatrice decided to organize the house -- clean the enormous closets, dust the attic, make everything gleam. That is when she found, at the back of a large old closet, the beautiful suits and dresses and hats, in silks and velvets and taffeta. Where they came from, she could not imagine. Surely, no former wife would have left such clothing behind. The attic, too, was filled with treasures -- boxes of jet-black and pearl buttons, shimmering fabrics carefully folded, a flaming red gown, a turquoise velvet cape, a pale dove-gray suit lined in pink silk. Each item amazed her.

She hesitated to try the clothes on, but when she did, she saw that they were made for her, someone tall and slender as she was. Beatrice looked in the mirror and saw herself transformed, as she might have seen herself in a dream. It was new to her -- this excitement -- Beatrice had never enjoyed shopping or decorating herself. Still, she wondered if the clothing belonged to another woman.

She called Douglas's ex-wife -- her name was Nancy -- to ask. Nancy was a pleasant, chatty woman. No, the clothing didn't belong to her, it must have belonged to another wife. Who knew how many wives there had been? The clothes suggested at least one more. She rarely thought about Douglas these days.

But Beatrice asked, "What about your children? Don't they think about their father?"

Nancy laughed, no, her kids were from her second marriage. Douglas had no children and didn't want any. “That was why I left him. I wanted a family and he didn’t. But you know, he is one strange guy," she said.
Beatrice's face showed no trace of emotion as she recounted Nancy's story. Apparently, the story had not surprised her.

Now, the clothes were hers alone. Beatrice wore them wherever she went, and discarded all she had worn before. Then she went a step further. She began to master the old-fashioned techniques of construction so that she could copy the clothes, using the shimmering fabrics and delicate buttons. She shivered with pleasure at the sight of her creations.

Months had passed without hearing from her brother. Beatrice regretted the harsh words between them. But suddenly, Tom arrived at the house, eager for Beatrice to meet the woman he would marry, a young medical student. Her name was Leah Silver and her face was open and untroubled.

Leah kissed Beatrice and held both of her hands. She said, "Beatrice, you are always welcome in our house.

You are my family now."

Beatrice looked at the couple, affectionate and laughing. She felt as far from their life as anyone could. She saw them receding as if her life were floating in another direction. Still, she felt an anchor with them.

Tom and Leah planned a large wedding. It seemed natural for Beatrice to offer to make Leah a wedding gown. Beatrice asked for old family photographs so the dress would evoke Leah’s own family traditions. Looking at Leah's pictures, she considered her own marriage, so unlike others. She compared the girl in Mrs. Gold's house to the wife who lived in Douglas's silent house. She wondered how disappointed Mrs. Gold would be.

By the time that Beatrice attended Mrs. Gold's funeral, in her elegant suit, Tom had gone. Ever impulsive, he had met a woman in California and, without explanation, had broken things off with Leah. Tom fancied himself in love, but even so, he worried about Leah. He asked Beatrice to look after her.

Beatrice made a new dress for Leah: a simple dress, of navy cotton, with elegantly turned up cuffs and small pearl buttons. At first, Leah sulked and refused to touch the new dress, a dress that was not a wedding dress. But Beatrice insisted that Leah try it on, just once. She would not leave until Leah humored her.

And so Leah saw her image reflected wearing Beatrice's dress. And she and Beatrice smiled together, as only sisters can smile together. Not long after, Leah was on her way to California and her own story.

That was when Beatrice started selling her designs. Only the rich could afford them, but there was demand and her reputation grew. By then, Douglas's book was published and he left his doors open, but Beatrice scarcely noticed. The hurt that she had once felt about the marriage seemed distant, as distant as the courtship that she imagined she had lost. What Douglas read or thought was neither here nor there. The admiration he expressed for her elegance made little difference.

Their marriage had seemingly reached its logical conclusion. Both sensed this, although they had different reasons and feelings. Beatrice suspected that Douglas had begun a search for an even younger wife -- the thought amused her, nothing more. She pictured him quoting and posturing as he had for Beatrice. "Who would envy her," Beatrice said in the way of a first wife.

But the clothing, that was no laughing matter. Beatrice was determined to keep all of it. She packed every item. She searched every closet, every drawer, even in Douglas's study. She shrieked, "This belongs to me, all of it! You cannot take these!"

Douglas was confused. Yes, he admitted, the story of children was a senseless lie. Yes, he had feared that Beatrice might leave if she thought there was money to take. Yes, he was ashamed, he had no excuses. But the age difference -- he had been unable to put his fears aside.

Still, he assumed that Beatrice knew that the clothes were his gift to her. Where did she imagine they came from? He had taken pains to scatter them in secret places throughout the grand house, so she might find them like a puzzle. When he had first seen Beatrice, shy and plain -- it had pained him that she did not know what he saw. And so, he had found the clothes she now wore. Douglas was a scholar of design: he knew where to find such things. Beatrice was what he always knew her to be.

"Men," Beatrice said after a silence.

Yes, men, I thought. Just as you start to hate a man, he gives you what you didn't know you wanted.

By this time, the winter sky had darkened. Beatrice took a call in the next room. I heard the soft murmurs of a conversation that could only be between a man and woman. I sensed Beatrice would have the ordinary courtship she wanted. Men would admire her. She would walk through city streets with a man who was not Douglas. In time, Beatrice would think of her first marriage less and less. But, I felt, it would be different for Douglas Byrd.

Beatrice returned, face flushed, and apologized for the intrusion. I had much that I wanted to say and much that I wanted to ask, but it was closing time. We would continue the story another day, I thought as I left.

I returned to Memoir a few times, but I never found Beatrice again. Word was that Beatrice had moved out West, where she remained obscure as ever. I lost track of her after that.

And over time, the clothes in Memoir were the same as those in all of the other boutiques. The little street became lively and crowded with trendy stores and cafes. You would never recognize the street, now: it’s a different street altogether.


Originally published in Scissors and Spackle

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