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American Wife(9)
Curtis Sittenfeld

I puckered my mouth. When she was finished, she held up my chin and gazed at me. “Beautiful,” she said. “You’ll be the belle of Chicago.” Personally, I did not consider myself beautiful, but in the last few years, I had begun to suspect that I was probably pretty. I stood five feet five, with a narrow waist and enough bosom to fill out a B-cup bra. My eyes were blue and my hair chestnut-brown and shiny; I wore it chin-length and curled toward my cheeks with a wispy fringe of bangs. Being attractive felt, more than anything, like a relief—I imagined life was harder for girls who weren’t pretty.

Our train ride was just over two hours, and at Union Station in Chicago, we were met by a woman I did not recognize at first as Dr. Gladys Wycomb; absurdly, I think I’d expected her to have a stethoscope around her neck. After she and my grandmother embraced, my grandmother stood next to Dr. Wycomb and set one arm on her back. “A legend in her own time,” my grandmother said, and Dr. Wycomb said, “Hardly. Shall we go have a drink?”

They seemed to me an unlikely pair of friends, at least with regard to appearance: Dr. Wycomb was a bit heavy in a way that suggested strength, and her handshake had almost hurt. She had short gray hair and wore white cat’s-eye glasses and a black gabardine coat over a gray tweed suit; her shoes were black patent-leather pumps with low heels and perfunctory bows. My grandmother, meanwhile, always proud of her style and slimness (her tiny wrists and ankles were a particular source of pleasure to her), was especially decked out for our city visit. We’d given ourselves manicures the day before, and she’d gone to Vera’s in downtown Riley to have her hair dyed and set. Under a tan cashmere coat, she wore a chocolate-brown wool suit—the collar was velvet, the skirt fell just below her knee—complemented by matching brown crocodile pumps and a brown crocodile handbag. So prized were these accessories that she’d bestowed on them the nickname “my crocs,” and the reference was understood by all other family members; in fact, a few weeks earlier, before we’d crossed our snowy street to get to the Janaszewskis’ Christmas party, I’d been amused to hear my father say, “Mother, I urge you to wear boots outside and change into your crocs at their house.” To meet Dr. Wycomb, I also was dressed up, outfitted in a kilt, green tights, saddle shoes, and a green wool sweater over a blouse; on the collar, I wore a circle pin, even though Dena had recently told me it was a sign of being a virgin.

Outside the train station was a chaos of people and cars, the sidewalks swarming, the traffic in the street jerking and honking, and the buildings around us were the tallest I had ever seen. As we approached a beige Cadillac, I was surprised when a driver in a black cap emerged from it, took our bags, and opened the doors for us; being a lady doctor was, it seemed, a lucrative profession. The three of us sat in the backseat, Dr. Wycomb behind the driver, my grandmother in the middle, me on the right side. “We need to make a stop, if you don’t mind,” my grandmother said to Dr. Wycomb. “The Pelham at Ohio and Wabash. Phillip got it into his head that Alice and I together would be burdensome to you—you can see that Alice is very unruly and belligerent—so he made us a reservation, which of course we’ll cancel.”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Dr. Wycomb said. “Does he really see me as such a corrupting influence?”

“We hope that’s what you are!” At this, my grandmother turned and kissed Dr. Wycomb on the cheek. I knew that kiss, the lightness of her lips, the scent of Shalimar that floated ahead of her as she approached. When she’d settled against the seat again, my grandmother said, “Don’t we?” and patted my hand. Unsure what to say, I laughed.

Dr. Wycomb leaned forward and said, “When your father was a boy, he’d remove all his clothes before making a bowel movement.”

“Oh, Gladys, she doesn’t want to hear about this.”

“But it’s instructive. It captures a certain . . . rigidity, I suppose, that Phillip has always shown. He’d remove his clothes, and when he was seated on the john, he’d shut his eyes tightly and press his hands over his ears. That was the only way he could eliminate.”

My grandmother made a face and fanned the air in front of her, as if mere words had brought the stench of a bathroom into the car.

“Am I telling the truth, Emilie?” Dr. Wycomb asked.

“The truth,” my grandmother said, “is overrated.”

“Your grandmother was my landlady,” Dr. Wycomb said to me. “Has she ever mentioned that?”

“It was scarcely as formal as you make it sound,” my grandmother said.

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