Anyway, she brought him home one night to have dinner with Mother and Father and me, and you could have knocked me over with a feather. Here I’d been flirting with every man who came into the bakery, while mousy little Yvonne bent her head over her books, and she’d found a man all by herself.
So Yvonne brings this man home, this shy, gawky man who spent a year trying to get up the courage to say hello, and we all sat in the parlor and looked at him. And I’ll tell you, he was handsome. He had these big eyes, like a doe, and his legs were so long, they stretched way out to the center of the room. But I watched him and Yvonne watching each other, two little mice peeping out of their holes, and I thought this boy needs a woman who will turn him into something. Someone lively and bold, not timid like Yvonne. I looked at their future together, and I saw a lifetime of quiet nights, sitting side by side, waiting to see which one of them would gather the courage to say, “Would you like milk in your tea?” Reading books together—that’s exactly the kind of thing they would have done. It made me want to yawn. This Stephen, he needed a woman who could teach him how to have fun, a woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. Stephen and I were meant to be together, I could see it right away. Didn’t we deserve some happiness? And what would Yvonne do with a man like that, anyway? Yvonne had her studies, her solitary pursuits. She was always happiest on her own. And so, for the sake of us all, I set out to save Stephen from Yvonne.
It was harder than I expected. He had become quite enamored of her, for reasons I never could quite imagine. I tried all the more subtle forms of flirtation—never were more gloves dropped in a young man’s path, never were a young lady’s shoulders more often proclaimed to be chilly—but they went right over his head. And then one day, I got a little help from fate. The three of us were supposed to go to a nearby lake together for a picnic—by this point, I’d insinuated myself into most of Stephen and Yvonne’s activities—but Yvonne got sick and couldn’t go. Stephen was all ready to cancel the whole thing, but I put on a sad face and told him I’d spent all morning in the kitchen, cooking up my special deviled eggs, and why couldn’t the two of us have a nice day? And Yvonne, predictably, took my side and told us to go and have a good time. Really, that woman never knows when to stand up for herself. So Stephen and I went to the lake ourselves, and I made sure we found a nice, secluded spot. We spent the afternoon sitting in the shade of a lovely weeping willow tree, and we just had a wonderful time, talking and laughing. Later, Yvonne would ask me how I could do such a thing to her, but at the time, it didn’t feel like Yvonne had anything to do with it at all. We were falling in love, that’s all there is to it. I’d sneaked some of Father’s whiskey into the picnic basket, and neither Stephen nor I was much of a drinker, so we both got a bit tipsy, and when a sudden thunderstorm forced us to take shelter in the backseat of his car, we just did what came naturally. Our love was a force of nature, I always said.
Of course, there were tears and accusations, but a month later, when I told Stephen I was pregnant, it just seemed like it would be for the best if the two of us got married. And by the time I realized that I’d gotten my dates confused and I wasn’t pregnant at all, we were already back from our honeymoon.
For a while, Yvonne kept herself away from our door, and she and Stephen seemed a bit awkward whenever they were near each other, but I made it clear that I wouldn’t have the two of them tiptoeing around over some little doomed infatuation, and they got the picture pretty quick.
Stephen and I had a good marriage. At first, he wasn’t the kind of husband I’d hoped he would be, but with my guidance, he began to take shape. I got him to give up his poetry and his reading, and all the other silly things he liked to fill his time with, and to concentrate on his career instead. Within a few years, he’d risen through the ranks of his firm, and we had enough money to make a nice life for ourselves. Stephen lost the boyishness and softness he’d had when I married him, and it pleased me to see the hard edges he developed in their place. We tried for a while to have children, but we never could—some problem with my uterus that I’m sure you don’t want to hear about—and if I’m being honest with myself, I think it’s probably just as well. I’m not really the maternal type.
It was a few years after we got married that Mother gave me the Christmas ornaments. Mother had quite an artistic eye, and her Christmas tree was always breathtaking. Over the years, she’d amassed a beautiful collection of ornaments, some of them quite valuable, and I know Yvonne had always hoped they’d pass to her someday. I think she was quite hurt that Mother chose to give them to me, but it was fast becoming clear that her role was going to be that of maiden aunt, hovering at the edges of our family Christmases, and it just wouldn’t have made any sense for her to have them. Mother was a practical woman, and she saw this as well as I did. She knew it was the way of the world, and there was nothing you or I could do about it. But Yvonne never could see things that were plain to everybody else, and I know she took it as a slight. Honestly, it’s forty-five years later, and I don’t think she’s gotten over it yet.
That first Christmas we had the ornaments, I had a big party for the whole family. I made a beautiful ham dinner, and we all sat beneath my perfect Christmas tree and opened gifts. Stephen played the piano—now there was one hobby I approved of—and we sang carols late into the night. After everyone left, Yvonne offered to stay late and clean up a little, since I’d done all the work of the party, and I agreed to her kind offer. I went up to bed, leaving Yvonne in the kitchen and Stephen still sitting at the piano, picking out tunes.
It must have been two hours later when I woke up and discovered that Stephen wasn’t in bed with me. The lights were still on downstairs, and I crept down to the living room. Stephen and Yvonne were sitting on the couch together. They had their arms around each other, and they were looking deep into each other’s eyes, their foreheads touching. She was stroking the back of his neck and speaking to him in a low voice. In the instant before the floorboards creaked and they looked up and saw me, I heard her say two words to him. I heard her say, “Leave her.”
Then, like I said, there was the business of the floorboards, and the two of them snapped their heads around like they’d been caught stealing, which, in a way, they had.
“Get out of my house,” I roared, and for a minute I wasn’t sure which of them I was talking to. They just sat there, frozen. I plucked one of the ornaments from the tree, a little white porcelain angel, and threw it at them with the newfound strength of a woman betrayed. It hit the wall over their heads and landed on the floor, chipping one of its wings, but it didn’t break. It was made of harder stuff than I’d thought.