They weren’t supposed to be married. She was engaged to his brother Paul, which was why George barely knew anything about her. It was out of respect for his brother. He knew how men were around their women. How possessive they could be. So they’d never said more than two words to each other before they were walking down the aisle together during the hottest summer day in 1942.
“I don’t even know her middle name,” he said to his mother as she fixed his bowtie. The ceremony wasn’t for another hour and he was already sweating. “How can you marry someone and not even know their middle name?”
His mother gave a sage smile. She took his face in her tired hands and waited for his eyes to focus. “My dearest George,” she whispered. “You cannot know everything about someone before you marry them.” She took his shoulders and shook him gently. “You have the rest of your life to learn everything you want about her.”
“How can this be what she wants?” he protested. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be!”
George’s breathing became shallow. A string of sweat rolled down his temple. He knew what mother was going to say. That life never goes according to plan. Instead, she smiled again and allowed the kiss on his cheek to say what she couldn’t, patiently waiting for him to calm down.
“All she wants,” she salved, patting his chest. “Is to marry a good man.”
George wasn’t so sure. Rumor was, his bride to be was “a bit of a wildcard.” He overheard the girl’s mother gossiping one afternoon while she was over for tea. Even Paul told him about all their late night escapades together on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Sneaking out, smoking cigarettes and sharing a flask of bootleg whiskey under the planks, away from the lights and the prying eyes. She wanted to see the cabaret. Paul bragged about kissing her at the end of the pier.
“And it’s Ellen, dear,” his mother said, breaking into his thoughts. “Her middle name is Ellen.”
Mary Ellen. Her name had poetry. Angels could be named Mary Ellen for all he knew. She was a mystery to him. Both terrifying and enchanting at once.
“She could have any guy she wanted. How could she want me?” He sat down abruptly on a chair. The collar on his shirt nearly swallowed his chin. “It’s not like I asked her!”
He wasn’t even sure if his brother asked her, or if their parents simply conjured the match.
“Don’t be silly. You look dashing dear.” She swiftly fixed his collar. “You’re so handsome in this tuxedo.”
He didn’t look dashing. He looked lumpy. The suit was meant for his taller and more handsome older brother. His ears were too big. His eyes, too small. “You have to say that,” he sighed. “You’re my mother.”
She didn’t have the heart to explain it all to him again. This wasn’t about him. This was about a promise made between two families. His brother promised to take care of Mary Ellen, to have and to hold, and since that was now impossible, it was his family’s responsibility to find a suitable replacement if only to maintain the poor girl’s dignity. Though, he felt ‘suitable’ was an overstatement. And being a replacement in something as difficult as marriage didn’t sound very appealing either.
There was nothing to be done. After all, investments had been purchased. There was a house along the shore the new couple were to take. Mary Ellen’s father could no longer bear the financial burden of feeding and clothing her. With eight more siblings behind her, the man was desperately trying to shuffle her off to any decent family with eligible adolescent offspring. Besides, this was a tradition dating back centuries before their ancestors came to America. Even before they’d been baptized and became good Catholic people. This was one of those unwritten laws of their ancestor’s culture. If the groom dies, the brother takes his place. It’s the polite thing to do. Because when there’s a death, we’re all of us, looking to create life.
It was the annual family trip to Cuba that caused the chain of events which put George in this position. Paul fell asleep outside in a hammock under the stars. He claimed it was the best night’s sleep of his life, despite all the mosquito bites. The fever came on suddenly while sailing home. Paul didn’t make it back. It was too late. Mary Ellen never got to say goodbye.
The lump in his throat ballooned in size as she stepped down the aisle of crushed roses. Laced in white ribbons and pearls. Breathtaking as a description was an offense to our language. Her beauty was both stifling and a zephyr. Radiance casting shadows. That New Jersey summer air became warmer by several degrees as she neared him. She was the sun. She was gravity. George would never again be in the company such grace but for her.
He kept swallowing to relieve the pressure. She was crying softly. This was supposed to be Paul standing here. She knows it. Everyone else knows it too.
They moved into a cottage on the beach. Their wedding present. A joint dowry from his and hers, furnished with all his brother’s old possessions. The house was a museum for Paul. A place his parents could dump all the memories of their first born to ease their pain. Worst of all, his brother’s old piano. A centerpiece for their family during the holidays. Paul was the only one who could play.
The first month, the couple barely spoke. George felt like a stranger in his own home. He slept on a hammock on the porch. She’d thrown his brother’s bed on the beach and burned it. Some of that wild streak Mary Ellen’s mother talked about was her daughter’s indifference to housework. It wasn’t until after they’d married that the old woman remarked, “She was too pretty for any of that.”
This all came as a bit of a surprise to George. Women were still mysterious to him, even though he was now married to one. Now that sense of mystery was being overcome with absolute confusion. He was under the impression that women simply came equipped with the knowledge of how to keep a house. As though these were inherent traits of the fairer sex. Raising children. Riding a bicycle. It was all relative. Right? It’s not like there were jobs out there for a married woman. There was a depression on. Not unless you wanted to volunteer to make bandages for the troops.
George wasn’t sure what Mary Ellen did all day while he was at work. He often dreamed of what she might get up to on the long commute home. The train from the city seemed to be getting slower and slower these days. He found himself becoming more impatient with delays, always ready to come home at the end of a long day. To see her. Even if the silences were long and their affections short. He took pride that she was his responsibility now. That taking care of her was what his brother would’ve wanted him to do. When he bought her a new bed, and spent all afternoon setting it up, making sure every piece of the frame was locked together tight, that night, she invited him in off the porch. When he smiled, she blushed and said she didn’t want him to get hurt in the hammock. He kissed her to spare her from saying more.
He often found her on the porch looking at the waves when he arrived home. Always with a drink waiting. Whiskey if he was early. Coffee if he was late. He’d nod his head and sit with her on the porch. They might not speak for hours before she asked about his day. It was their way. He never knew how to ask her how she occupied her time.
It had been two months now and everything in the house was covered in a fine mist of dust. Simply walking through the house stirred up a small cloud. Every time he was about to ask about her day, he felt the question would sound accusing. So they avoided the subject.
Dinner was never made either. The poor woman was helpless in the kitchen. Her specialties were burnt, blackened, or raw. She ruined more cookware than made edible dishes. Many of her favorite dresses were now ruined. He’s pretty sure she even burned the cookbook her mother gave her as a joke, saying, “At least she can read.”
He began contemplating hiring a housekeeper to cook and clean, but wasn’t sure if that would offend her either, or if they could afford it. So they avoided the subject.
“Talk to your wife,” his mother said after visiting one day to see the house is disarray. “Find out what is wrong.”
“I’m not even sure if she loves me,” he worried.
“Nonsense,” his mother scolded. “Marriage is a shared experience, not a bunch of words. You only need to find your love’s language.”
George knew she was right even if he didn’t know what she meant.
The next day he called in to work and spent the morning with her in bed. They slept late. Waiting for the sun to become too bright to bear before going downstairs to make coffee. After breakfast, he began cleaning the house. He started by writing I love Mary Ellen in the dust on Paul’s old piano. With the sun shining through the curtains, he threw them back and opened the windows to the sea breeze. A warm light filled the house. She came alive after that. Without having to say a word, they both picked up a rag and cleaned the entire house the rest of the day without stopping for a break. Before long, they found themselves talking about everything they’d been avoiding, from their childhoods to their awkward wedding. They talked about it all. About nothing. He was sure he loved her, yet her love was still a hope for him.
That night they cooked dinner together. She chopped vegetables and poured the beer while he seasoned the steaks. They grilled the whole thing over a fire they built together on the beach and fell asleep in each other’s arms on a blanket under the moon.
The next day he was back to work, and when he came home, she was in her usual spot on the porch with his glass of whiskey. The house hadn’t been cleaned but it didn’t need to be. They spent so much time on it the day before it would stay clean for weeks. Another month went by though, and the dust settled again.
The guys at work all bragged about their wives. How they came home to spotless houses and pacified children and three course meals. Their spouses seem like pinups with plastic personalities.
His wife might not be what the world thought was ideal. But he loved her more for it. Though, he was sure that if she truly loved him, she would help him out around the house more often. He couldn’t help but feel selfish, though. Was that what marriage was supposed to be? He worked and she took care of the house? Another unwritten law of culture and gender. Those same expectations pushed him to marry his brother’s bride. Why didn’t it apply here too?
If something about that idea was supposed to make him happy, it didn’t. It only confused him more.
He knew he had to talk to her, but he didn’t know how. His own wife, and he still wasn’t sure how to start the conversation. It came so easily when they were working on something with each other. He never felt so close as when they cooked together.
That was the answer. He was expecting her to love him in a way she didn’t know how. A way she was timid to learn. Something she was afraid to mess up. Explaining, she didn’t clean because she was afraid of ruining the house permanently. And she was afraid to cook because she was convinced she was going to burn the house down. Either way, she thought he would never forgive her. That he might send her away even if it were an accident.
So to start the conversation, he cleaned a little. He went over and traced her initials in the piano top and went outside for some fresh air. When he came back inside an hour later, he found she had cleaned a little as well. And there on the piano was her reply. She’d traced his initials under her own, encircled by a heart in the dust.