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At the wise old age of thirty-seven, India Chumley, Esquire, wholeheartedly believed that women should manage their personal lives using logic and reason as their guides. Yet as she looked across the gleaming expanse of her desk at her favorite pro bono client, a majestic, careworn blonde in the autumn of her years, she was reminded that few women could compel their hearts to follow a mission statement, let alone a five-year plan. It never ceased to mystify and sadden India that women could command armies and run Fortune 500s, yet in their personal lives, the best and brightest of them were as hapless and lacking in willpower as Eve herself, who threw Paradise away for a Red Delicious. Hoping to help her “sisters,” India had opted to become a divorce lawyer.
India’s eyes traveled from her client to the lone family photograph on her desk: a three-quarter-length portrait of an elderly African-American woman in judges’ robes, her paternal grandmother, the Honorable Lydia Chumley. Nana Chumley embodied all the qualities this client lacked: discipline, sound judgment, and moderation. It was India’s sworn ambition to follow Nana’s example and serve as a credit to people of color and to womankind itself.
India was all too aware that for a woman, the smallest misstep in her personal life could lead down the slippery slope to perdition. The wrong man could turn a potential Supreme Court justice into the permanent resident of a psych ward. Experience had taught her that women should avoid the mean, the financially sloppy, and, most of all, the devastatingly seductive who turn out to be as emotionally reliable as quicksand. India herself had almost fallen prey to the latter category of cad but saved herself just in time. Six years later, she no longer dated snakes; she accessorized with them. She had a brilliant career, her dignity, and a closet full of reptile purses—the spoils of her victory over herself. Most important, though she was still single, she had no regrets.
India’s eyes wandered over the slightly sagging folds of her client’s ivory flesh, propped up by cheekbones as pronounced and perfectly symmetrical as if a sculptor had chiseled them in marble. Elizabeth had sacrificed her beauty and a considerable portion of her sanity trying to steady a marriage harder to navigate than the North Sea during a perfect storm. India placed a cafÉ au lait hand on her client’s pale arm and gave a tender squeeze.
“You must make a decision,” she nudged gently, her large brown eyes conveying compassion.
“I’ve got it!” Elizabeth exclaimed at last in a nicotine-tempered British purr. “It’s cruel and unusual treatment!”
“It’s called ‘cruelty.’ And you used those grounds in the summons we sent him last year. And the one we sent him the year before,” India patiently reminded her.
“Then we know it’s effective. Besides, he’ll never remember,” Elizabeth argued.
“He’s a writer. They remember.”
“Well, I can’t bear ‘irreconcilable differences.’ That’s just stating the obvious. Of course, they’re irreconcilable. That’s what gives our marriage its zest,” Elizabeth declared with a dramatic toss of her arm.
“How about ‘abandonment’? We’ve never used it. It’s fresh,” India proposed.
“No, no, it sounds so pathetic. Like he’s never coming back. Like I’m some sort of foundling. I shall turn sixty in a few months, you know.”
“You turned sixty four years ago,” India pointedly reminded her.
“Must you be a slave to the facts? It’s because you’re such a stickler for the rules that your life lacks poetry,” Elizabeth snapped.
“Thank you for the pep talk,” India answered, pained. Elizabeth’s hazel eyes revealed that she had instantly regretted her outburst. India chose not to give vent to her own frustrations by reminding this particular client that poetry and passion were of little use when the bills came due.
“Very well, ‘abandonment’ it is,” Elizabeth conceded.
“I’ll have the papers drawn up today. We can deliver them tomorrow.”
“Bless you, Counselor.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you or will that be all, Mom?” India asked.
“That’s all, my angel. Say hello to that divine Julien for me. Now that is a man worth keeping.”
India studied her mother’s dramatic, aging face. They shared undeniably identical bone structure. India’s face with its Madame X defiant beak of a nose was a dark carbon copy of Elizabeth’s. But India always swore to herself that all resemblances ended at the physical. She did not think it wildly ambitious to hope that when she had a child of her own, she would not be spending quality time with her dictating an annual divorce summons. As was her custom, her mother sat perched on the brink of a mental breakdown. It had been India’s lifelong mission to keep her from falling.
“We’ll have Richard served after his poetry class on Monday. That’s at Apsley Hall, on One hundred and fourteenth Street?” India confirmed.
“No, it’s at McGregor, Mc—something, at the University of Edinburgh,” Elizabeth corrected her.
“In Scotland?” India asked, flabbergasted.
“Didn’t I mention that your stepfather’s doing a guest professorship there? I’ll phone your assistant with his address. Now it’s off to rehearsal with me. Don’t forget, we open in twelve weeks. I want to panic Richard enough to get him home in time for my first entrance.”
And with that, India’s mother draped a bloodred cashmere shawl over her right shoulder and flounced out the door.
“This too shall not pass,” India said to herself, resigned to the absurdity of the ritual. She slid open the shallow top drawer of her desk. Pushing aside an impeccable stack of pink index cards, she uncovered a fading color photograph of an ebony-skinned man smiling broadly as he tossed a mocha-hued eighteen-month-old aloft. The toddler’s beatific smile matched her father’s as she flew through the air, secure in the knowledge that he would never let her drop.
India had no memories of her father. He died in a car crash six months after the snapshot was taken. And having no actual memories, she invested in him all the perfections of an ideal. On days like today, she stopped to imagine the life she might have known had he lived. Her mother’s tales of their blissful time together confirmed the canonization. Over Elizabeth’s nightly bottle of Bordeaux, her face would glow with the memory of his kindness and his steadfastness, qualities her second husband, India’s stepfather, lacked. What would her mother have become with the tender ministrations of a man of character instead of the Punch and Judy of her life with Richard Blythe, award-winning poet, alcoholic, and inveterate cheater? She might actually have behaved like a normal parent instead of rattling about the world like a wine-soaked caricature of herself. The arrant waste of gifts, of time, of life itself all made India want to smash the empty Steuben candy dish before her. She slammed the drawer shut, putting an end to the maudlin train of thought and to the temptation to destroy good glassware. Over the years, her mother’s outbursts had cost them an entire collection of Waterford crystal, another family pattern India aimed to break.
Her phone rang and the name “Adams, Abigail” flashed across the identity bar. India eagerly picked up, relieved to hear from her best friend. You can’t pick your family, she mused, but mercifully, you do pick your friends. And she’d picked well.
“Thank God, it’s you,” she said into the receiver.
“Bad morning?” Abby asked in her trademark sunny tone.
“It’s that time of year for Mom and Richard.” India sighed.
“The divorce thing? Don’t they usually do that around Thanksgiving?” Abby asked.
“They’re off to an early start this time,” India explained.
“You’re such a good daughter.” Abby was in a position to know. They had met in kindergarten and shared the special kinship of women who had undergone all of the important rites of passage, from braces and training bras to tax planning and contemplating tummy tucks, together. India looked forward to going through menopause and the geriatric years with Abby. She was the kindest person India knew and the only person, other than her Nana Chumley, who understood everything about her life and her family.
“So I’m calling to confirm for the ballet luncheon. Eleven-thirty at the New York State Theater?” Abby inquired.
“Yes. They do the discussion and mini-performance first, and then they’ll serve us a really bad and meager meal because every woman in the room is on the overpriced wardrobe diet and needs to keep squeezing into her size-two Chanel.”
“My kind of afternoon!” Abby cheered. “Except for the bad food. Is it frowned upon to bring a snack?” she joked. India laughed, the first release she’d had all morning.
“Esme’s meeting us there,” she said, mentioning the third member of their triumvirate.
“She’ll be late,” Abby deadpanned. This had been the story of their lives.
“Let me get some work in before we play hooky,” Abby continued.
“I’m going to do the same. See you soon,” India said, hanging up.
Fully restored to sanity, she grabbed the Diamond v. Diamond file, tugged at the hem of her waist-cinching bouclÉ jacket, and strode down the wainscoted halls of Hallingby and Hallingby.
© 2010 Susan Fales-Hill