Expanded, revised. Let this be a lesson to me not to forget my own plot.
And so, here she was, in the new normal. Ian was gone back to New York City, Malcolm was returned from New York City, and Melly was anxious to hear that neither of them had gotten what they’d set out to get. To know the worst would have been easier than living day in and day out with the sickening uncertainty of hope. What she did know was that she couldn’t spend the rest of her life this way, waiting for the soap opera of Stillwater life to provide her with some vicarious suds. Her life was now, in Baton Rouge. Maybe it lacked the big city panache of New York or the stately rural rhythms of Stillwater, but it had something neither of those places could provide, the one thing that made life more than bearable here: a sister.
In the beginning Melly and Leonie had had nothing in common but the rickety bones of a childhood. They had not fought — Melly never fought — but their personalities were as perfectly weighted as the scales of Justice, so that the slightest character imbalance set them pitching and swaying. After the first explosive week at home, Melly thought that perhaps she was just fated to be more isolated with her family than at Stillwater, but Leonie had surprised her again. At Stillwater there was a certain basic social decency, but nobody there, not even Malcolm, had the tenth part of Leonie’s complete openness. She was head-strong and heart-strong, intense in her loves and in her convictions, ready to correct course at full speed. Zeal and humility made strange bedfellows, but she made sense of the synthesis. In her life there’d been little enough to challenge her to be better than wiser instead of bigger and stronger. And now, with the arrival of Melly, came the revelation that heroes could be small and personal. Melly was good and sweet, but she didn’t come with a cause that Leonie could throw herself into. Strangely enough, Leonie found that Melly’s independent perspective on their family didn’t undermine her own, but deepened it. Together they could adjust and settle isolated, inexplicable bits of memory as in a stereoscope and suddenly old stories would snap into a crisp new coherence.
Melly, in her turn, tried not to shrink into herself whenever Leonie’s fierce devotion was kindled. It was awkward to be regarded as a teacher by someone who would seize even the gentlest hint as a exhortation to charge into battle. What was needed was something that would knock her down to a human level in her sister’s estimation, something useful and admirable that Leonie could do better than she could, that would play to Leonie’s strengths and give her something to teach Melly. This was Melly’s dearest wish (aside from the secret dream Malcolm would show up on her doorstep with a ring in hand) and, as so often happens with dearest wishes, she wasn’t nearly pleased enough to have it come true, and in the most mortifying way: Leonie taught her how to drive.
One day after classes, as they were walking through the emptying parking lot, Melly said, without thinking, “It would be nice to have a way to get to the store while you were working. The bus schedule isn’t lining up with my break between classes.”
“I don’t mind if you take the car,” said Leonie.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that.”
“I don’t think anyone would care. It’s not like it’s a family treasure.”
“But I don’t have a license.”
“So get one.”
“But I can’t drive.”
Leonie slowed up her pace and fixed her with a glance designed to burn away all untruths. “You said Malcolm taught you how to drive.”
“Well, he did, kind of. I mean, he tried.”
“But you said he was an ideal teacher.”
“He is! I guess I just wasn’t a good student.” This was not the conversation Melly wanted to be having about Malcolm. “I just couldn’t get the hang of the clutch.”
“The clutch?” Leonie was flummoxed. “He taught you on an stick? Where do you even find one of those? Who drives an stick?”
Alys does, Melly thought, but she could not let Malcolm be maligned. “It was really generous of him to teach me on the Morgan. He thought it would inspire me with a love of the road.”
“I’ve never even heard of it.”
“And he had this system, too,” said Melly, warming to a topic she’d hated in practice. “You have to dance on the pedals, up and down…”
“What the hell?” said Leonie with proper scorn. “That’s stupid. No wonder you couldn’t learn. Here, get in the driver’s seat. I’ll show you how it’s done.”
Despite an unseemly amount of protest, Melly found herself bundled into the driver’s seat, and Leonie was thrusting the keys into her hand.
“Turn it on,” said Leonie.
“But the clutch…”
“There’s no clutch. Just put in the key and turn it on.”
The car started.
“Turn it off. Now do it again. There, you’ve mastered starting a car. Now, put it in reverse. All you have to do is shift it to R. Now shift back to drive, D. Now, let’s back out of the parking space and pull back in.”
After an hour of this, Melly had driven around the lot, parked and unparked, and even taken a short spin around campus. The car had not stalled once. She was still using two feet, but the brake was always the break and the gas was always the gas, and neither of them turned into the clutch to confound her. The old car was ratty and rattly, but it was small and easy to steer, and decidedly unvaluable.
Leonie didn’t seem disappointed or nervous or worried by Melly’s slowness.
“There, that wasn’t too hard,” she said as Melly nosed into a spot, maintaining a conscientious distance from the five or six cars still scattered around the lot. “Tomorrow we’ll try something more advanced, like using a turn signal.”
“We have to do this again?”
“Yes,” said Leonie with the firm affection of a young girl scolding a cherished dolly. “I can see that your license isn’t going to be built in a day.”
Melly tried to take some satisfaction in having her feet of clay exposed. After all, she’d had just about enough of being put on a pedestal, between Ian’s “bright angel!” schtick, and trying to avoid playing voices to Leonie’s Joan of Arc, and (she could even begin, in the recesses of her heart, to admit this to herself) Malcolm’s “dearest confidante” tunnel vision.
Ian could be dismissed from thought, and Leonie lived with, but Malcolm was the source of Melly’s disquiet. Her greatest deprivation at home was not the the lack of good food or good family, but the loss of his daily company, and although the length of the separation had dulled the initial pain, her spirit was roiled whenever she meditated on him, and him and Alys, and now, on his trip to New York City. She longed to know what had happened between them, and she wondered why she had heard from neither. The days empty of news left her to spin multiple fantastic scenarios about their visit, little novelettes in which Melly could override her reason just enough to create plenty of dramatic tension for Malcolm and Alys but not enough to give them a really satisfying break-up. Why didn’t they just settle something, so she could move on with her life?
She had almost persuaded herself that the reason she heard nothing was because they were too happy in each other to talk to her, or perhaps they really had nothing to write, when, late the week after Ian had left, there arrived another letter addressed to Mlle. Melusine Arceneaux.
Autumn in New York
Ma belle, ma soeur Melusine,
As you well know, Ian has been Baton Rouging again, and he’s back and talking of nothing but constructing a little Melly-cote along the river. He seems to feel that you are in need of a setting to show you off to best advantage, and I have to say that any house that would fit the bill would be delightful indeed. He’s shown me pictures of a few places he’s considering, and I’m dying to see them myself eventually, but even more than that, I’m dying to sit you down and talk to you again. I need you to shine a clear light into those corners of my mind I can’t see because they’re right behind my eyeballs. I don’t know what I’m about, and I’m not as fortunate as Ian to have a Melly for a conscience. Lucky dude to set his sights so high! Any gentleman looking to me for great insight would have to settle for lots of charm and lots of money. That’s not such an unattractive package, is it?
I saw Sophia briefly while she was in town. She looks as well as Chris’s money will allow, and that’s a generous allowance. This is the rankest speculation, but I think she was the eensiest bit disappointed that Ian wasn’t around to see her flaunt her crocodile-skin handbag. I can’t say if marriage has changed her for the better. I confess, I want to be a fly on the wall when she and Ian finally run into each other around town. Surely something can be arranged. On the other hand, Malcolm didn’t seem to think that it would be a good idea to throw the two of them together, and I guess I’ll defer to his judgment because he always knows so much better than me.
Oh yes, Malcolm was in town too. You knew that, right? He captivated everyone with his pretty hazel eyes and his sweet talking. You have no idea how sexy a southern accent is up here. Several of my friends thought he was too adorable and would have snapped him right up in an instant, but I intervened. “He is not for you,” I said. “He is a humble school teacher, and not to be tainted by your vulgar, ostentatious way of life. Back off, bitches.” Bitches backed off, and I send him home to Stillwater unaltered, but not unambitious, I hope. The city has a way of growing on one…
I haven’t run into Rene yet, much to my dismay, though I gather he’s settling in nicely in the places philosophers settle. Malcolm tells me that Rene is himself, which I take to be a commendation. Rene has no interest in seeing me, of course, but he might in seeing you, so I extend this formal invitation: nothing would give us greater pleasure than arrange for you to visit over your break, or for Thanksgiving. You’ve seen Ian charging across country at a moment’s notice, so you know how easily this could be done. I would make it my special care that you never even cross paths with my uncle during your stay, which might diminish Rene’s entertainment value but will certainly increase his chances of not dying from apoplexy. Perhaps you and Malcolm could even come up together. Think about it, and think about those who miss you.
Melly’s first care on opening this communiqué, penned on the same ritzy stationery as Alys’s last go-round, was to skim off all the cream looking for mentions of Malcolm. Apparently he and Alys hadn’t settled the most important point: the status of their nebulous relationship. How was it that Alys only felt it important to report the most irrelevant news of Malcolm? She had known him all this time, valued him all this time, and couldn’t find anything more substantial to write about him than his accent? Than her friends’ opinions of his accent? If she couldn’t be serious about Malcolm, of all people, could she be serious about anything?
Melly knew what she herself saw and loved in Malcolm: his gentleness, his steadfastness, his virtues and his kindnesses and even his perfect obtuseness. What she couldn’t understand was what Alys saw in him, or what they saw in each other. If Alys desired him for any of his more shining facets, she hid it well. She was critical of his job and his goals and his way of life. What, then, did she want from him? Was she attracted to someone with a deeper moral perspective than she herself wanted to exercise? Was a nice guy such a novelty in her world? Was she even aware that Malcolm’s way of life was not a game to him, but a serious and principled pursuit of the good?
She read the letter again, once, twice, seven times, her thoughts all jumbled up, racing ahead to the next paragraph or lagging a line or two behind. Hints about Ian she could pass over; there was nothing in that for her. How much time had Alys and Malcolm even spent together anyway? She was so flippant that it was hard to take anything she said seriously, and yet there were undercurrents of real feeling in a few places. But did she really mean she wanted to throw Ian and Sophia together? What an awful, unkind, manipulative idea, so typical of Alys, too, playing with people as if nothing had any consequences. Surely Alys couldn’t really expect Malcolm to move to New York City, and yet it seemed that whatever hope she had she was pinning on just that thing happening. How else could you interpret her line about the city growing on one? Ian was moving forward, trying to do something positive and meaningful, even redemptive, and here was his own sister wanting to sabotage him, simply out of base curiosity. He ought to buy his house in Baton Rouge just to get away from her scheming. Melly would certainly not go to New York City over break or Thanksgiving or at any other time. It was a den of iniquity and a nest of vipers and everyone was just better off somewhere else.
Anyway, Alys’s letter was useless for objective analysis. She wouldn’t know anything until she heard from Malcolm. Why hadn’t she heard from him? Maybe he was waiting until he had something definite to tell her? And with that, she backpedaled once again through the stages of grief, even as she kept taking steps to move forward with her studies and her friendship with her sister. It took a deal of wrestling for her to smooth her emotions and her features enough that Leonie’s keen eye should have nothing to grab onto. She didn’t want to be secretive, but if she were to have to give up hope of Malcolm, it would be easier to do it without her sister’s single-minded affection. As frustrating as he could be, Melly couldn’t bear to hear him put through the wringer of Leonie’s partisan indignation. To keep herself and her sister busy, she began to ask to go driving. It was a funny thing, but the concentration required behind the wheel helped clear her mind, and Leonie took a drill instructor’s pride in putting Melly so briskly through her paces that she had no time for brooding.
After a good seven days, Melly thought that she had finally reached the nirvana of resignation, until the long-awaited email from Malcolm himself finally arrived to throw her back into turmoil.
Recently it’s seemed like every time I sit down to write to you I end up walking away from the keyboard because I don’t even know what there is to say. So, let me be upfront with you: there’s nothing to say. I had made a deal with myself that I would not leave New York without finally having a real conversation with Alys about the future of our relationship. Throughout the weekend I kept downgrading that goal, until by Sunday I merely hoped to have a serious conversation about anything, even the weather or the traffic or, I don’t know, the black death or the Twin Towers. The point being, I don’t know how to get any purchase with her when she’s got her antic disposition on. I won’t say that she seems like a different person, because there’s still a core of Alys there, but up here that core is hidden under a thick coat of shellac, and I can’t even scratch it. This set she runs with is brilliant and fast, so fast that people don’t even have time to enjoy their own humor before they’re up and running with the next witty thing. They have a bad effect on her. They tend to draw out and exaggerate the parts of her personality that she doesn’t share with me or with you. I don’t know. Maybe it’s my fault for asking too much of her. Maybe I need to give more. I know there’s so much good in her. I’ve seen how much she loves her brother. I first realized how much I liked her when I saw that she understood you better after a few days’ acquaintance, and respected you more, than people who knew you for years did. She has so many wonderful qualities — she’s funny and charming and kind and intelligent — and it makes me mad to see her bury all this goodness under the influence of her friends. I can’t walk away from her, Melly. I need to rescue her from this set and this place before it buries her alive. She likes me, I know she does. Maybe she loves me. Time and again this weekend I could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice whenever her protective humor shield dropped. There isn’t anyone else, for either of us. I don’t think she’s so attached to these friends that she couldn’t bear to leave them. She is attached to this life, though, and this life is in this city. She knows I can’t give her the same life in Louisiana, on a teacher’s income. And I’m strangely at peace with that. I’d rather her reject me because I’m asking too much of her to leave her city behind, because I’d rather be rejected because she loves something more than me than because she can’t love at all. Probably none of this makes any sense. I’m just typing out whatever comes into my head, in whatever order, and it’s chaotic and contradictory and crazy, but I do know one thing: I’m not stopping here. This would all be so much easier if she would just tell me where I stand, or even tell me to go away, rather than always keeping me at elbow’s length. If she would just cut me off, I would be able to walk away. Maybe limp away, but at least I could leave and look to a different, emptier future, and start the hard work of forgetting her. But there’s no point in speculating about it until I know, and until I know I can’t not think about her. I can’t afford to go out to New York often, and although she makes noises about coming back to Stillwater in the spring, that’s too long to wait. Maybe I should just write her a letter. Talking to her in person just isn’t going anywhere. There are so many distractions and awkwardnesses face to face. If I write it all down I can phrase it just right and make sure I say everything I need to say, and she can think about it privately before she responds. Of course, she might show a letter to her friends, and if they’re all in their witty frame of mind they might convince her to laugh it off. I don’t know. I’ve already written a whole book here, and I don’t know who else but you would have put up with all my navel-gazing. So enough about me. Alys told me that Ian has big plans down in Baton Rouge with his house restoration documentary. He at least knows exactly what he wants and goes and gets it, without second-guessing or endless over-analysis. I admire that ability to set a goal and achieve it without being daunted by everyone’s opinion. I saw Chris briefly, as briefly as I could manage graciously, and he told me a story about his and Sophia’s visit here. I guess they ran into Ian up here somewhere, and Sophia was in some kind of mood and just cut him dead, and Ian wasn’t rude and didn’t get angry back but really seemed to take it philosophically. I had this flashback to how much it bothered you that they couldn’t settle down during the Gone With The Wind scenes, but I guess that’s out of everyone’s system now. I really wish I could give you some more interesting news of the family, but no one’s really doing anything right now. You know in excruciating detail all about me, but everyone else is just more of the same. Olivia is still in Brazil, Dick is still doing whatever Dick does, and my parents are at home like always. They miss you, of course, as do I. Mom in particular has some little Melly moment every day. She saves up all her Pugsy news to put into notes to you. I think I am going to write to Alys. There’s nothing for it but to try. Send me all your best love and prayers. I’m going to need them.
To the external observer, Melusine Arceneaux was sitting in the library at St. Mary’s College, eyes riveted to her laptop, her fingers trembling slightly as they hovered over the touchpad. Her internal novelette packed a lot more action. She was hurling books off the shelves, she was torching the building, she was beating her laptop with a shovel until the electronic shards stabbed the horrified onlookers, who would then call the police, and then she would be locked away in a straitjacket, and maybe then Malcolm would come to see her, and she would explain everything to him, and he would hold her hand, and then he would go away to write it all up in a letter to Alys… Melly closed the laptop with deliberate gentleness and put it in her bag lest she be tempted to read the letter again. So he had nothing to say, did he? Pages and pages of nothing to say, which was entirely of a piece with his utter inability to see Alys’s character even when it stared him in the face and shook him by the shoulders. One God-forsaken day Alys would allow him to talk him into marrying her, and this little ballet of blindness would move by acts from imaginary visions, to willful insensibility, to waking up, to divorce court…
No. That was an awful thing to wish on someone she loved, even under duress. Malcolm was obviously miserable right now, and she didn’t need to embellish that with stupid fantasy comeuppances. She opened her laptop again. Every line of Alys lent itself to multiple constructions. Did he actually say he loved her? He didn’t, but it was cheap consolation to rejoice much in that. He couldn’t imagine himself with anyone but Alys, he who had always urged Melly to read more deeply, to challenge herself to reach beyond the constraints of her own self-image! But this wasn’t fair either, because she condemned him for her own flaw — she couldn’t imagine herself with anyone but him. She took a deep breath and tried to make rational statements as he’d taught her. I cannot imagine myself with anyone but him at this particular moment; as far as I can see that will remain the case; it is possible that my feelings could change on this topic, but I think I will be constant because this is a love that always enriches my life. And the reason that I don’t want him to start a clearly-defined relationship with Alys is that I will need to stop resting my hopes and building my future on him. But if he and Alys ever do figure themselves out, then on that day it would help me to have some prior practice in detachment.
She took a baby step in detachment by closing the laptop and paying attention to Leonie, just off her shift and ready to supervise Melly’s drive home. She paid attention at home at her mother, glassy-eyed in front of the television, and her father, deaf before his phone. She paid attention to Marie-Helene, who sullenly refused to study a spelling word she’d missed. She paid attention to Marc as she tried to defuse a quarrel between him and Leonie. She paid more attention to the way Leonie strove with a holy zeal to be mild like her sister was mild. By bedtime Melly was too mentally exhausted to spend more angst on Malcolm’s letter. In the moments before she drifted off to sleep she thought about her sister. What an act of mercy it would be to give her sister a peaceful home away from the rest of the family! There had been precious little peace in Leonie’s life, and precious little beauty. She hung on Melly’s every story of Stillwater, admiring without envy and desirous without covetousness. Practically, she could not afford to leave home right now, and so there was no point in wishing that things were other than she could make them. Melly too tried not to dwell on how things could be otherwise, how a way could easily be cleared for Leonie to live free of strife in a historic, architecturally significant cottage, how willing Ian would be to give them both a new home and new horizons.
Melly could only maintain her detachment, it seemed, in a bubble of isolation, and so it was that for a third time that month, her commitment to serenity was battered by a note.
I hope you are doing good. I’m sorry to have to give you some very bad news. Dick was in a serious car accident last night and was badly injured. I do not know all the details, I will let you know more as I hear about it. He was not driving, and that’s a small mercy because it looks like alcohol (or worse!) was involved. Dick is being transported to a hospital in Dallas. Richard and I are going up there to be with him. He is going to have to drive because I am so upset and I cant stop crying. I have told Pugsy that he will have to stay at home with Malcolm and Esther because I need to be with my baby right now. Melly if he dies I think I will die too. I hope you will pray for us in Dallas and that Jesus will guide the doctors hands and that Dick will recieve a full healing and that Malcolm and Esther will do alright at home without us. I don’t know what else to tell you so I will leave it at that. I will send you more news the moment I hear anything. Richard says that I shouldn’t worry too much because we don’t have enough data to assess Dick’s real condition. I am so glad he is with me but I wish you were here too because you are always such a comfort to me.
Tell your mom I say hi.