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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lipstick in the Kitchen

I knew that marrying Kenley would be a mistake the moment he brought me home to meet his mother who, it appeared, never left her kitchen. A passive-aggressive woman, her way of conveying anger was to bash pots and pans around like cymbals and gongs. Her means of showing disapproval was to slam cupboard doors. Her kitchen was a symphony of rage.
Kenley made the introductions, and she was pleasant enough at the start. She offered us both sweet tea, but the glass she handed to me had a definite lipstick print on the rim, a thin lower lip and a smudge of an upper. Moreover, she pronounced my name "Jita," although I had been introduced as "Gita." We sat at the breakfast table and they made family small talk while I took in the surroundings.
The stove was obviously the centerpiece of this domain. It was a gleaming stainless steel behemoth with two ovens, a plate warmer and six gas burners. In the middle of the floor squatted a sway-backed butcher block that appeared to have been chopped upon with such force as to make it cower.
"Lita? You're not drinking your tea. Does it need more sugar?"
"I'm sure it's fine, Mrs. Carmoody," I said. "I'm not thirsty right now."
And there it was. The first lie. It sat in the air between us like a cough, and she chalked up round one. She knew I wouldn't criticize the cleanliness of her glass, and she knew there would be a million more lies to come. I could see the years rolling out ahead of me: a marriage to Kenley would make a complicit, chronic liar of me. No one in Kenley's family ever expressed anger or dissatisfaction openly. I and my children would tiptoe around the knife-wielding Matriarch. She’d rope us like meek heifers into the Carmoody Corral.
"Actually," I said, looking up into her eyes, "the glass is dirty."
I held it up, like Exhibit A, and heard Kenley's quick intake of breath.
" And I'd appreciate it if you would call me Gita with a hard G. Most people over the age of five get it right on the second try."
Kenley drifted away from me after that – not abruptly, but you could tell. (It was not the Carmoody way to confront, after all.)
“That was a speeding bullet that missed you, my girl,” a friend told me later. “You would have become a headline eventually. ‘Daughter-in-law found buried in his Mum’s lettuce patch.’”
Eventually I forgot Kenley, but apparently his family never forgot me. I was “the girl with the tea glass.” This I discovered five years after the fact when I went to apply for a new job at the power company and was made to fill out a dozen forms in their personnel office. Kenley’s younger sister Marjory was sitting behind a long counter, handing out applications to a line of hopefuls. When I reached her and held out my hand she squinted hard and cocked her head.
“Why, you’re the tea glass girl, aren’t you? You’re the one who stood up to Mum! We were talking about you just the other night, wondering what became of you!”
I calculated how this development might improve or dash my chances of getting hired. I decided that silence was my friend.
“We all admired you, you know,” Marjory went on. “You have spine.” Then, leaning in close so that I could feel her breath tickling my cheek, she whispered, “Put on your application that you go to church regular and serve the poor, and I’ll be sure it gets to the Personnel Manager right away. He doesn’t care whether you can type: he only hires Christians.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” I asked.
Marjory Carmoody cocked her head again, sparrow-like, as if that thought had never occurred to her.
“But, hey, thanks for the tip,” I said, “That’s really decent of you to help me.”
She smiled then, a bright front-desk-receptionist smile and I left, arms full of paperwork.
I went home, trying to imagine myself a power company employee with a 45-minute lunch hour, paid holidays and dental insurance. I tried to imagine Mrs. Carmoody’s face when she learned that I had been sighted.
I wondered what clashing of pots and pounding of meat on the swaybacked butcher block would follow that revelation.
“Poor kitchen,” I thought. “You’re in for a loud time tonight.”