“Arlette, please don’t start…”
“Well, it’s hardly my fault if I’m ill. But perhaps if I had a little help…”
There was a long silence. I could just see her on the other end, wearing that outlandish engagement ring on her finger. A woman her age. “All right,” she said. “I’ll get Arthur to do some of my errands for me. I’ll be over in half an hour.”
We hung up, and I leaned back against my bed pillows, well pleased.
THE FACT IS, THIS should by all rights be my wedding. Yvonne and I met Arthur at the same time, and it was clear from the beginning that I was the one he was interested in. It used to be, in biblical times, and I believe some other notable points in history, that if there were two unmarried sisters, the younger one wasn’t allowed to be married before the elder. It was illegal. If the younger sister tried to break the rules and run off and get married anyway, they’d put her to death. I should tell that to Yvonne. They’d cut her head right off. It was just the way it was.
We met Arthur on a seniors’ cruise that Yvonne took me on in honor of my seventieth birthday. It was her idea, and not a very good one, I must say—the room was cramped, the food was terrible, and most of the other passengers were pathetic old bores. When Yvonne gave me the tickets, she had said, “Who knows? Maybe we’ll meet a couple of nice widowers,” but there were three women for every man, and what men there were were bald, toothless and demented. I actually saw one of them trying to eat soup with his fingers. So when Arthur walked into the dining room, tall and unstooped, with his full head of silver hair gleaming in the light from the nautical-themed chandeliers, all the old biddies in the room seemed to sit up a little straighter. And when he sat down next to me, I thought, Watch me. I am going to charm the pants off this man. So I started up a conversation about current events—test him, I thought, see if he’s still in possession of a fully functioning mind—and he seemed to be able to talk about something more than what kind of medication he was taking, which automatically made him a better dining companion than anyone else at the table. He and I chatted and laughed all through the meal, and Yvonne just sort of melted into the upholstery, as usual. It’s always been that way; there’s a softness to her, a sleepiness, that I can’t stand. If it weren’t for me, the world would have eaten her up long ago.
So Yvonne sat quietly and picked her way through her prime rib—no appetite on that girl, never has been—while I began laying the groundwork for my grand seduction. Things were going quite well, and I was sure I had him in my pocket. Arthur and Arlette, my mind kept singing, Arthur and Arlette. I was ecstatic, and God knows I deserve some happiness. Yvonne knows how lonely I’ve been since my Stephen passed away. She doesn’t mind being alone; she’s used to it. But I was made to be married, and in my mind I already had the church decorated, the flowers arranged artfully on the tables.
And then at the end of the meal, something odd happened. Arthur rose from his seat, helped me out of my chair and said, looking right at me, “Might I interest you in a walk in the moonlight, Yvonne?”
I felt a little prick of acid in my stomach, and my whole body tightened. I saw Yvonne raise her head hopefully, but I shot her a look. “Well,” I said to Arthur tartly, “I’d be a lot more interested if you tried calling me by the right name.”
For an instant, Arthur’s face turned cool as he flicked his eyes between me and Yvonne. Then he widened his eyes in a gentlemanly show of shock and proceeded to fall all over himself apologizing. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I must have misheard the introductions. So Yvonne is your sister?”
“That’s right,” I said. I drew my wrap around me, closing myself up. It’d take a little more wooing to make up for a flub like that.
“Please forgive me,” he said. And then, as if this had anything to do with anything, “You two look so much alike.”
Well, that was a fatal misstep on his part. Our whole lives, Yvonne and I have been told we look like twins, but I don’t see it myself. I don’t see it at all. True, we’re only thirteen months apart—and oh! how often I’ve wished I could go back and recapture the glory of those precious thirteen months when it was only me!—and we have similar coloring, but my features are much more graceful. Any person who thinks that comparing me to Yvonne is a compliment has a lot to learn. And the lessons might as well begin as soon as possible.
“Sorry,” I said, my voice as icy as the wretched frozen swan sculpture defiling the buffet. “But I’m feeling a bit tired this evening, and I think I’ll pass on your kind invitation.” And I swept off to bed, my dowdy sister in tow.
My plan was to keep Arthur at arm’s length for another half day or so, and then gradually let him win me over again through much hard work and flattery. But at breakfast the next morning, I could see I’d made a tactical error. Arthur ignored me completely and began doting on Yvonne as if she were some rare bird he’d been hoping to spot for years. By midmorning, they were heading to the onboard casino together; by late afternoon, they’d signed up for a ballroom dancing lesson. And I was left sitting on my deck chair, stewing in my fury, watching the waves pass me by.
TRUTH BE TOLD, THIS is not the first time Yvonne and I have found ourselves in a situation like this. When I first met my late husband Stephen—I was twenty-one at the time, and Yvonne was twenty—he was already dating Yvonne. She and I were both working in our father’s bakery, which I thought was a pleasant enough thing to do while I was waiting to find a husband. But it wasn’t enough for Yvonne, and she’d started taking classes at a local college. She wanted to become a librarian—like you need to go to school to learn how to say “shhh.” Well, none of us knew anything about it till later, but apparently there was a young man who rode the bus at the same time as Yvonne, and the two of them used to look at each other over the tops of their books as they rode. And one or the other of them would smile a little, and then they’d get all embarrassed and look away. Quite a romance, wasn’t it, all that reading and looking away—Casablanca it was not. Finally, after a year of this—yes, it took a full year for one of those ninnies to make a move—the young man moved over to sit next to Yvonne and say hello. They became inseparable after that, riding the bus together and talking about books. The young man’s name was Stephen, and he was a poet. At least, that’s what he said; the truth was, he was an accountant with ambitions to be a poet.