On the posting board at the Darien Library there was a flyer. It said:
‘Local Women’s Book Club forming. Educate yourself, read one book per month, discuss it with other Fairfield County homemakers just like you. Call Miranda at 747-0312 for details.’
Helen wasn’t certain that she qualified. Was there a qualification? She waited until the day before to decide, then had a pleasant conversation with Miranda Newton who, it turned out, was almost a neighbor. The final motivating factor, other than her five-year-old, Seth, driving her crazy, was that Helen could walk. She read The Scarlet Letter in a day.
She found the house, steadied herself as she walked up the driveway. It won’t be so bad, she thought, just an evening about literature. I could use that. Sheldon doesn’t have time to read, and I’m sick of children’s books. She threw her chewing gum into the hedges lining the sidewalk, rang the door chimes, then panicked when she could hear the laughter inside. A tall gracious- looking woman answered the door. She wore a fashionably striped pantsuit and was smoking a Benson and Hedges cigarette. A cloud of smoke swirled around her as she spoke, as if she’d inhaled on her way to the door.
“You must be Helen,” she said. Welcome! I’m Miranda Newton. Come in, come in.”
She gestured grandly. Helen stepped into the house, which was impressive in scale, open and modern looking. As she entered the fully occupied living room, she guessed most people had arrived. There was a vacant spot at one end of a couch, so she plopped down quickly, smoothing her pants. As Helen was introduced around, she noticed that four of the eight ladies were expecting, well, perhaps five. The smell of smoke was disgusting.
“Well, when I want to get back at Frank,” Miranda was saying, “I just mis-match his socks. I roll a white one inside a brown one so that he’ll have to wear socks that don’t match with his Brooks Brothers suits. So far he hasn’t noticed. He dresses in the dark!”
“Oh, Miranda,” said the ample-bodied woman at the other end of the sofa. She wore a red and white polka dot dress. “I only wish I was that nice. I just throw George’s dirty clothes into his side of the closet. Especially those sweaty gym clothes. Ugh.” She shuddered. “They’re disgusting.” Her haircut was an a-line bob, shorter in the back and sloping toward her chin. In fact, Helen noticed that most of her face did.
“I know what you mean, Yvette,” said Penny, an overdressed lady across the room. “I can’t stand sweaty, filthy, smelly clothes. Men can be such pigs.” She spoke with dramatic gestures, and Helen thought she resembled a hooker in her excessive Chanel. “Well, Nigel certainly is. I put gloves on while I do laundry, and I can tell you, I’m this close,” she measured with her thumb and forefinger, “to getting one of those Mexican people, a personal helper just for the laundry.”
Uh oh, Helen thought, this isn’t a meeting to discuss books at all. It’s one of those ‘pick apart your marriage’ meetings. She was still pondering this when the woman next to her spoke.
“Helen, is it?”
“Is this your first Book Club meeting?”
“Yes,” Helen said, observing her. She was small, with an adorable haircut which seemed to spin her hair in a multitude of directions. Was her name Daphne? Her steely blue eyes seemed warm, made Helen uncomfortable.
Penny continued, “I swear with Women’s Lib and all, I still cannot comprehend why we get stuck with all these tasks: laundry, cleaning, pretty much raising the kids, cooking.”
“My god, you’d think you were on welfare or something! Hire somebody, hire a staff,” said Miranda, stubbing out her cigarette and lighting another. “You have the resources, for chrissakes. Don’t just sit there and bitch about it.”
“What about you, dear?” asked Yvette, who looked about ready to have her baby any second. She made breathing look uncomfortable. Helen stared at the protruding stomach and felt her own baby turn its position for the umpteenth time that day.
Involuntarily Helen’s hand rested on her stomach. She struggled to find her voice. “I actually enjoy doing laundry,” she squeaked.
“What?” nearly everyone in the room said.
“Please excuse me, I’ve remembered something in the kitchen,” Miranda said.
“I like it, too,” Daphne said, nudging her.
Helen nodded, feeling a familiar knot in her stomach. But at the same time she felt good about being on her own, away from Seth’s neediness and Sheldon. He was probably snoring on the couch by now. It was the first evening she had been on her own since… well, she couldn’t remember when.
“It’s the warm feeling I get when I’m folding the clothes,” Daphne added.
“Okay, that part, I agree,” Penny said.
Helen glanced around the room. It was vast with two-story ceilings and a huge fieldstone fireplace that took up an entire wall. The furniture was straight from an Ethan Allen showroom, the decorations a little cluttered, with too many knick-knacks collecting dust. Helen wiped her nose, self-consciously.
Miranda arrived with a plate full of brownies, took one, then passed them around. She sat in the oversized chair by the fireplace; Helen wondered if it was usually Frank’s chair.
Miranda took a long drag on her cigarette, then said to no one in particular, “So, what did you think of the book?”
Helen noticed that the smoke mostly came out of her nose, like a fire- breathing dragon.
“Which one was it?” Penny asked.
“The Scarlet Letter,” replied Miranda, fetching her copy from the mantel and showing it to the group.
“I found it entirely too maudlin, the whole focus on death. Dreary!” said Francie, taking a bite of her brownie and continuing while she chewed. “But, I adored the protagonist. I just love the name, Hester. And the town reminded me a lot of Darien.”
“Interesting Francie, because I had the opposite reaction,” said Yvette. “I thought it was too predictable, especially with that whole pregnancy and adultery business. And I felt like the death obsession was redeeming, fascinating almost. We’re such a death- phobic culture. Brownie?” She took two, then held the plate out to Helen, who drew back, self-conscious. No-one else had been offered the plate aloud as it passed, but she felt all eyes on her now, especially Yvette’s. “How about you, Helene?”
“It’s Helen,” she said, a bit abruptly. She passed the plate, noticing the red and green holiday snowflake pattern as more brownies were taken. “I think Hester seemed very real. And her decision to have the child seemed to be because she had no other recourse.” As she spoke, she felt suddenly close to tears, and blinked her eyes two or three times rapidly.
Daphne, sitting closest on the sofa, whispered, “Helen, are you all right?”
Helen nodded and smiled, pallid. “It’s just that,” her voice cracked and she got up from the couch. She thought she was going to be sick. “I’m sorry, Miranda, but I need to use your facilities.”
“Oh,” said Penny.
“Everything okay?” asked Francie as Helen passed quickly by. Miranda jumped up and escorted Helen down the hall, saying, “There, there,” and “It’s all right, it’s just down here.”
Helen shut the door and turned the fan on and burst into tears, silent wracking sobs that went on for what felt like an hour. I can’t do this, I can’t handle this, she kept whispering to herself. This is supposed to be fun, a book club, isn’t it? Oh god, oh god. I have nothing in common with these people. Or any, for that matter. How the hell do I get out of here? Then she remembered the vial in her purse. She reached in for two Valiums and swallowed them hastily. As she reapplied her Lancôme makeup, her curiosity got the better of her and she opened the medicine chest. There were over a dozen vials containing a cornucopia of pills. She took two Nembutal (the vial said Frank Newton) and four Valium (Miranda’s, nearly full) and slipped them into her purse. She wiped the two vials with a hand towel like a fugitive, wiping away any traces of fingerprints.
She almost giggled, but then heard Miranda ask, “Helen, are you okay in there?”
She moved further away from the door. “I’ll be right out!”
When she arrived back in the living room, Yvette said, “We thought you fell in!”
All Helen had to do, as she knew, was pat her stomach and say, “Baby stuff.” And everyone ah’d and oh’d, then baby talk occupied the entire rest of the two hours. Hester Prynne would have been about as thrilled as Helen was. Once the Valium kicked in, everything was less sharp. Penny was less vile. Yvette slightly less repulsive. Daphne less daunting. Miranda’s smoking even became a game in which Helen saw figures in the hovering smoke as it accumulated in the room.
When she arrived home, Helen woke Sheldon, who’d dozed on the sofa. Yet despite her tales of how the night evolved, and Sheldon commenting that she seemed happier than he’d seen her in a long time, she would never attend a Book Club meeting again. Besides, next month Yvette was hosting, and she lived in Rowayton, too far away for Helen to walk.