Chapter 03 - Paint.
Past - Catalina Island, 1922.
No is a word I do not hear often. When the world is yours – your existence the pearl at the center of the oyster – no does not commonly escape the lips of those around you. Those two potent and simple letters are rarely strung together, standing to deny me something or someone. It just does not happen on this side of the street.
Those similarly situated would remind the rest of the world, "and that's the way I plan on keeping it." They might utter beneath their breath, direct to those beneath them, "the grass is really greener on the other side."
Paint - Illustrated by Bianca Ungerman.
© 2020 Bianca Ungerman.
Yet, in such a place, I beg for denial. I wish someone had told me no before this point; those two letters should have stood as forceful blockades from time to time. For now, my life is a shattered oyster, sans pearl.
Looking down, standing in a pool of escaping blood that is fresh and warm against my bare ankle, I am noticing that this is a place I would rather not be.
The grass is not greener here, but stained red. Blood red…
I can feel its life, the warmth, dripping down my ankle. I have now got blood on my hands.
I feel the life escaping, second after second the blood gets colder.
Sweet Jesus, someone just tell me no.
“Sweeney, darling, must you always be doing that?”
By that he meant, “press your face so far into the canvas that you accidentally paint your nose.” By that he also meant, “spend hours in another world.” To me, this was another world of paint and perfection, reality translated into shades of unrealistic colors that met the canvas in front of me. By that, he meant to paint.
“Yes, father, I must be always doing that. What else would you like me to be doing?” I turned and looked at him. He chuckled, licked his thumb, and rubbed a glob a green paint from the edge of my nose. “How about socializing with young women your age? Isn’t there some society of women, some feminine philanthropy organization…”
“Philanthropy? If you call posting signs in affirmation of the Prohibition philanthropy, then sure.”
I knew I struck a nerve there. My father, a heavier set man in unstable health, turned to red in the face. Being an olive-skinned man, the red he produced wasn’t a true red; a red as if traced with some amount of dirty malice. The very moment that I knew his heart rate was spiking, ultimately jeopardizing the fragile state of health, all I could think about was trying to capture that shade of red in the paint for my palette of colors.
I personally don’t see the point in the Prohibition. I mean, I am not a fan of the drink, but should morality be the purpose of men in government? I am not entirely convinced this is the obligation of elected officials elected to represent the common man. Was the drink something so vile, so noxious, that men of governmental stature should direct their efforts there, and not instead on the welfare of society, on the impoverished persons who roam the streets, or on the empowerment of women in the public sector of life? I’m dreaming again, I am certain of it.
My father turned away from me, and walked to the edge of the balcony; my painting spot, the spot where he can always find me. Even without a canvas and green paint on my nose, I could be found here, writing or reading, doing something without the presence of others. For, in a world that isn’t entirely my own, it is nice to escape from the supposed niceties of things and live in some parallel universe of my own creation. This balcony stood to be my platform of creating such another great, wide universe.
I struck a nerve, not with the prohibition remark itself, although I knew he frequently violated that law of the land. I struck a deep-rooted nerve in even remarking on something that was political in nature. I could remark about the color choices of our country’s flag and he would slowly start to turn that remarkable shade of red I so desperately wanted to capture and stroke across the canvases of my artwork. No, it was not the Prohibition or the stripes of this nation’s flag that so disturbed my father. It was the fact that his dear, sweet Sweeney hinted at the fact that she was in tune with something that wasn’t quite of the feminine obligation, for lack of a better phrase. I spoke out of turn, out of poise for a polite young woman of proper etiquette. I spoke of something political, and to be quite frank with you, my father just was not sure that the fragile state of my womanhood could handle such a thing.
He took a deep breath and pushed away from the edge of the balcony, turning his back on the nice blue-sky weather that hovered the island that day. “Sweeny, dearest, you know how I feel of such talk.” He crossed his bushy eyebrows at me; a look I desperately hated. I knew exactly how he felt, and I did not agree with his feelings in the slightest. If he was going to subscribe to the newspaper and then encourage me to have reading lessons all of my life, did he not think I actually pick up the newspaper to read? Or was its content so vile and so realistic that my feminine sensitivity would compel me to squeal, to drop it right to the floor and go running, instantaneously, to my Shakespeare collection in the library? Please, I am not of the melodramatic persuasion. I may be an artist, but I am more than just idealistic.
I arose from my chair and stood no more than a few inches away from those bushy eyebrows. I squared my eyes with his. “I know exactly how you feel and I will never agree with your position. Oh, my dear soul, I said something political.” When his eyebrows arched with anger, I kept my eyes squared with his and dropped the paintbrush to the floor. The green paint of my mountainsides splattered all around the marble floor we stood on. “Political,” I said again. I arched my eyebrows to parallel his, cocked my neck to the side to show my air of disgust, and walked away. I left him standing in a puddle of mountainside-green paint and his own chauvinistic shade of red.
As I stormed away, I heard the sounds of one of the maids running to the balcony. I heard my father try to pass off our spat as something comical in nature. He chuckled and mentioned something about his sweet Sweeney inheriting her mother’s poise and beauty, and her father’s “stern and argumentative nature.” If only my mother were here to prove to him that women were to be more than full of feminine poise. She passed away when I was three; cancer of the jaw, they say. I will never really know, but I have a feeling that my fighting spirit was not of paternal descent; not in the least.
Their voices faded as I turned down the hallway, passed the library, and went back into the hidden corners of my bedroom. This house is really excessive at times; what I called excessive, my father called the standard of excellence. Of course, I am thankful for everything, every opportunity and diamond-strung-picture of the world my father has given to me. Yet, there has always been something missing – something so large, it wouldn’t even fit in the rather large voids of this house; house, not quite a home. I am keenly aware my woes reek of something spoiled and ungrateful, which is why I seem to be conflicted these days. With all the paint in the world and all the landscape to paint, seeing as this place is tucked away at the top of the island, overlooking the world below, I should be in a never-ending state of happiness. I should be perfectly content with my position, should I not?
Never-Ending-Happy, I mentally grunted as I threw my shoes across the room, crashing into the wall. Luckily, my horrible sense of aim took hold; the shoes just missed one of the landscapes I had spent months painting. At that moment, I didn’t care if they hit the canvas, displaying the intricate island hillside I created. It was only seconds later, however, after my shoes missed the fields of gold by a mere inch or two, I realized maybe that was not my best anger-induced idea. Begrudgingly, I thanked my father for forcing me to study the romance languages and the arts, instead of forcing me to play sports with the other children.
Why did this upset me so? It was just a small spat between father and I. They happened every now and then. Was I really reeking of something spoiled and rotten? Should I have picked up my shoes, composed myself, and waltzed across the delicate marble floors of this place to find him standing in the puddle of green? Would it have been wise to approach him like a submissive daughter and apologize, with all the sincerity I could convey with few words? Should I have done so, or should I have not, in the spirit of my Shakespeare library? That remained the question.
Lost in my internal monologue, I heard a faint calling outside my window, that some odd seconds later, finally registered with me. I pushed myself off of the fourth post of my bed, and walked over to the half-opened window. I liked to keep the window half-open, against my father’s wishes, of course. He made a point that it wasn’t safe for a young woman to do so, but I always wondered if one day I would actually take myself up on the bet I made when I was little. One day, I fantasized; one day I would climb out that window and I would have myself a grand adventure outside these walls.
“Sweeny, you nitwit!” That voice—I knew exactly who it was.
“Samuel, you sly son of a …” For fear of my father overhearing, I stopped mid-sentence.
“Sweeny, ah, there you are. You all right? I was down in the botanicals and saw green paint dripping from your balcony…” My balcony. Sam was always so mindful of the little things that made me happy, like that balcony which technically was an extension of the living room. But to Sam, the technicalities didn’t matter. It was simply my balcony—maybe that’s why I loved him.
In a state of momentary shock, I clasped both hands over my mouth, “Oh, Samuel,” I uncovered my mouth, “Oh, I am so sorry! Did I dump paint on you?”
He laughed. “Of course not. Just saw it drippin’, that’s all.” He was lying. I could see the green on the side of his pants. I raised my eyebrows. He doubled over and started laughing.
“You’re a horrible liar, Samuel Tryson. I feel like a first-class shmuck.”
“Don’t you dare, feel that way! You are a whole lotta things, but shmuck ain’t one, Ms. Sweeny!” At that moment, He wasn’t lying, I could tell. I am pretty sure I turned a deep shade of red, but nothing close to the unique coloring of my father. “Don’t you go turning colors on me little girl! Now, you just answer my question, you all right?”
“Just another petty spat with father, that’s all. I said something political again.” Sam shuttered at the word. He knew the ramifications of that; he heard us argue about it before. Sadly, the whole household heard us argue on that topic before, that and every other contentious issue between us. My father and I were neither composed nor quiet about our opinions and disagreements.
“No disrespect ma’am, and none to your father, but you two have some quells to soothe, some issues you gotta work out.” He leaned against one of the botanical garden walls and bit into a green apple he had been keeping in his pocket.
“None taken – we all know that, Samuel.”
“Sam, Sweeny; call me Sam.”
“Just one time more, Samuel.” He grinned in that way that made me never want to call him Sam. By that smile and accord, he would always be my Samuel Tryson.
As I leaned out the half-opened window a little more, to engage more in conversation with him, a knock on my bedroom door came from behind me. Startled, I lost my balance that was hinging on my hips being perfectly squared with the edges of the windowpane and teetered forward. I let out a small squeal and there came Samuel, running forward. He dropped his apple into the dirt and held both arms out, ready to basket catch me. Before I fell out of the window, ass over teakettle, my hands caught the edges of the window frame, stopping myself.
My heart was pounding as I took in a deep breath, absorbing the fact that I had just prevented myself from falling out of the second-story window, plummeting into the strong arms of Samuel. I was half relieved and half disappointed.
“No disrespect ma’am,” Sam began as he doubled over and rested his weight atop his upper thighs, “But, damn you, Sweeny, you just scared me senseless.” I laughed at his remark and placed my hand atop my heart, leaning into the side of the window frame with both my feet firmly planted to my bedroom floor. I was momentarily thankful I had thrown off those heels.
“None taken, Samuel.”
“Sam, Sweeny, Sam.”
“Just one more time, Samuel.”
We smiled one more time at one another. I loved these simple moments. These were my only grand adventures of a half-open window.
“Ms. Wellington?” I heard a voice behind me.
“Pardon me, I have company,” I called to Samuel. He took off his hat at me, revealing his dark brown and wavy hair. He smiled and took off. I turned to the voice behind me.
“Yes,” I began as I walked towards the door.
“I am so sorry to bother you,” Louise began as she slowly made her way through my doorway, arms full of some package.
“Oh Louise, it’s you! I am so sorry!” I rushed to the door and opened it a little wider so she could make her way through with ease.
“Oh, thank you, Ms. Sweeny.”
In the spirit, of Sam, “Sweeny, Louise; Sweeny.” She grinned back at me.
“Oh, Sweeny, I have the most amazing thing to show you!” she squealed. She opened the package for me. I did not mind at all – the delight on her face was worth it. Out of that rather large, pale pink box, came something magnificent and lethal with every stitch. Black, strapless and with a sweetheart neckline; velvet and hugging every curve imaginable. It had a slight slit up the side with a broach at the top, in the shape of a heart, encrusted with diamonds. Dear god, a dress that could kill.
“Your father,” Louise gasped as she tried to tell me the story mixed with too many emotions to form a single thought. “Louise, breathe.” She took a deep breath and tried again.
“Sweeny, your father asked me to help him pick you out a dress for the event at the Casino come next week. Well, I thought you might like this one. At first he was a little questioning when I didn’t pick something with color or something with more modesty. Oh but I risked my position here to ensure you had this dress. This is the one, Ms. Sweeny, I know it.” She looked flushed and excited all at the same time.
“Oh, Louise,” I said, but not in that approving way. Oh, Louise, sounded more dreadful, more questioning that I think she would have liked. “Have I done something wrong?” She looked as if she were on the verge of tears.
“No, no not at all. I just, I…” I was stumbling to find the right words to use. “I had forgotten about the casino night, that’s all.” Those words, casino and night, hit her like a ton of bricks.
“Maybe putting it on will help you get in the mood for it. Come, Sweeny.” She beckoned me into the bathroom adjoined to my bedroom. I followed, even though I knew that no dress would put me in the mood for the events of the coming week.
I stepped into the bathroom, the tile cold against my bare feet. While Louise closed the door I began to unbutton my white blouse and slid out of my high-wasted skirt. Even though they were the blandest of colors, I always felt the most artistic in this ensemble. I hoisted the dress out of the box and stepped into it, patiently awaiting Louise to zip up the back of it. I pressed the front of the dress to my chest, not wanting to expose more skin than I already had.
Louise came quickly to my back and slowly zipped up the dress, taking in every moment of it. I watched at the dress slowly began to hug my hips, press in on my midsection, curve around my chest, and climatically cinch at the top hook of the zipper line. It was a priceless look, a look I hadn’t even imagined in my dreams or in my paintings. It was a breath taker, and sadly, I despised every inch of it.
“Lord have mercy, Ms. Sweeny,” she gasped. “What men will say when they see you!”
“What one man will say when he sees me and he’ll probably venture to say its something of a criminal effect.”
“Oh, this look should be criminal,” she responded and nodded approvingly of the description.
“He’ll say it's criminal what I will do, what women will do,” I turned to face Louise, my backside to the full-length mirror. “They say it is criminal what we women will seek to do,” I placed my hand at her cheek. “But, Louise, don’t you forget that this is 1922.” We both smiled at one another in a mischievous way.
“I’ll give you a moment, Ms. Sweeny,” she said and gently pulled away from me. I smiled as she left my bathroom. I waited until I heard the sound of the bedroom door before I turned around to face myself again. I glanced into the mirror, assessing at the look that was designed to kill. I should have felt empowered at that moment, but I felt pitiful and disrespected. For this dress, this body, mind, spirit, and soul, was promised to a man who would ask me to marry him at the casino event, synonymous with the surprise engagement party I had never asked for; for an engagement I never wanted.
I fell to the bathroom floor and cried, creasing the velvet dress.
Apparently the rest of the world had forgotten that this was 1922.
How had I gotten to this point, to this breaking point of insanity? How had my world evolved from the emotion of the brushstroke to the outrage of a stroke of violence? Where I once used an array of reds to paint passion and intimacy, there I was with this shade of blood-red dripping down my bare ankle, seeping into the velvet of my shoes. My chest was heaving up and down as I attempted to catch my breath in the heat of the moment. Breathe; what have I done? Breathe; what have they compelled me to do? Breathe; where is he?
Moments before the room was filled with laughing and glasses chiming, commotion and excitement. In a split second I had, with my artistic hand, painted the room with a different mood, and now the entire grand entrance of the casino lay motionless and silent.
With a stroke of my paintbrush, I had transformed the ever complex, yet predictable, canvas that was my life. The people, painted in a realistic fashion, with details so intricate and perfect, were quickly transformed to reflect pained and panicked expressions. All with a stroke of my artistic hand and paintbrush; my paintbrush being a pitch-black revolver that fell to the floor when I looked down and saw the blood-spattered on the diamond heart broach on my dress.
What had I done?
“I have to have you now,” he whispered in my ear.
How had I gotten to this point? My chest was heaving down in the heat of the moment. I wasn’t trying to catch my breath. I much liked the feeling of not being able to breathe, floating in some realm of conscious and not; coming back to earth in the arms of Sam.
When his head lay close to mine as he whispered those poetic words into my ear, I snuggled my cheek next to his, using my body to tell him that I needed him just a desperately as he wanted me. If anything, I was pretty sure I needed him more than he ever thought he would need me.
This was our night that ironically coincided with my last night of freedom. The thought stung as my cheek grazed the stubble on the side of his face. I had finally lain with Sam, something I had desired since the first day I met him on this island. Here I was, in his arms, coming to the reality of our situation, realizing that there was a severe clash of what this night was intended to mean and what it really meant to me. This night was intended to be my last night as Sweeny Wellington, the daughter of the real estate mogul of the western United States. Tonight, I would snuggle beneath the sheets of my oversized bed and I would dream of innocent, simple things. This night would be the last night as the single, young woman poised to fit perfectly into this lavish and tacky society. For, within the following twenty-four hours, I would slip into the black velvet dress and make my way down to the Casino by the shore. I would step out of the car without a care in the world as I entered into yet another one of my father’s extravagant and rather illegal parties. Father would follow behind me, place his hand on the small of my back and escort me into the main casino room, feeling as if he had succeeded. He would presume that I didn’t know that this night was about me and about a man, a prominent investment banker from San Diego, and our arranged marriage that amounted to nothing more than a lucrative business deal. Love for a lucrative business deal; love for lucrative lust.
What he didn’t know was what I actually knew. I knew the whole time, for when you keep your daughter secluded in a mountainside mansion, you can’t help but instill some natural sense of curiosity. One curious step after another and I had stumbled into some notes of my father’s, my name scribbled in the corner in a small print with an arrow to this man’s name, written in cursive and significantly larger than mine. It was his little girl for a lot of gain.
Instead of being in between those satin sheets, contemplating the niceties of things, I was laying against the bare skin of a man who truly adored me and whom I truly adored in return. All that laid here was love, nothing lucrative about it. He had nothing more than a couple of dollars to his name and I had the world wrapped around my painter’s pinky finger. Yet, when our fingers aligned, that worry left us both. That alignment of hands, his bigger than mine, provided some sort of aid to our ailment of reality, of differences in stature and social standing. That is the power of fingers to overcome the frigid structure of social norms.
With his head still bent down to my ear, his rough skin grazing my cheek, I placed my hand on the back of his neck and wove my fingers in and out of his hair. I heard him sigh a deep relief of pleasure and comfort. He slipped his hand away from mine and placed it on my hip, rotating me on top of him and he laid, closed his eyes, and gave into the comfort of my fingers running in and out of his hair. I looked down at him—if only I could capture this moment in a picture. It would simply be perfect; the most beautiful portrait known to the world.
I chuckled softly. He opened his eyes and glared at me, contemplatively.
“How did we get here?” I asked. Without hesitation he replied, “Love.”
Love. He had a good point. For, in the two years that we had known each other in passing, in idle and comical conversation, we both had known that we had loved each other. It’s like they say, you just seem to know when love finds you and stumbles into your lap. It could be a stranger on the street that makes you turn your head one hundred and eighty degrees in the opposite direction. Their force, their attraction just lures you to them. You have to know them; you have to have them. It was just as Sam told me.
He shifted his weight to one side and began, “But, if you want the real story as to how we got here, well, then I guess it began the day that I met you, the day I knew I had to have you. Even if you were some young woman so elevated above me…”
“Oh, stop it, Sam!” I interrupted. I hated when the lucrative nature of things had to come into matters of love. It seemed to spoil everything.
“Well, it’s true, little girl. It is. But, it began that day, when I knew I would struggle to get over that wall until I had you right here. And, well hell, here I am!” He smiled something big at me. I loved that smile. “And that day I planned the many ways I could seduce you down from your tower. But I never imagined it happening like this, never in my wildest dreams…” He trailed off and closed his eyes. I could tell he was tired, but the smile never faded from his lips, even if he was on the border of consciousness and the dream.
I kissed his lips to let him know that it was perfectly okay for him to fall asleep. He took my cue, snuggled his nose to mine as if to say goodnight, and within a matter of seconds, was fast asleep with me on top of him. I loved that our knowledge of each other transcended words; there were the little nonverbal ways to communicate with one another. These were the intimate ways to say all the things that seemed too bland in normal discussion. These were the ways I knew I loved him.
As his chest slowed into a steady rhythm of breathing, I rested my head against his chest and listened to the dual rhythm of his breathing and his heartbeat. I listened and found myself at the happiest point that I had ever been. I listened and I contemplated everything over again. Sam made a point—I don’t think either of us had ever foreseen the night that we would actually be with each other to work out this way. I envisioned Sam having some romantic evening planned; at least, I envisioned this as his version of seducing me to the other side of town. We would walk on the water together and we would ride bicycles around the island in the dark cover of the night so no one would be able to see us together. No one would be able to identify Ms. Wellington in the company of Sam Tryson, the groundskeeper. At some perfect moment, when we reached his side of the island, walking barefoot down the road from the shore to his neighborhood, he would sweep me off of my feet, whisper something of the most romantic and poetic notion, and would kiss me in a style that the world over would have admired.
In reality, my plan for this very evening was criminal. I knew before I slipped out of my windowsill, that I was promised to another man. I was promised to a man who would provide me with security and reason. There would be stability in my life, laced with diamond necklaces and plenty of canvases to paint. He would call me his little bird, his little doll, brush me on the nose to keep me happy in passing, and then would bury himself in his work of balancing books and balancing me with the seduction of the many other women around him. I saw it all; I knew the terms of the contract my father negotiated with that man.
I knew all of this, and yet at the midnight hour, I pulled on a skirt the zipped up the length of my waist. I buttoned up a pastel green blouse and pinned my hair back, attempting to look my best with little notice and light. Knowing that my father was asleep, and knowing that Louise was on guard in the kitchen, I made a run for it. From the second-story window of my bedroom I threw down a pair of shoes into the grass below. I hoisted myself down with knotted pillowcases and sheets, scaling the uneven brickwork of the side of the house. With a prayer and a severe lack of coordination, I escaped from the ivory tower that had promised everything a young girl could want, in theory. An ivory tower that, ironically, kept me from the one thing I longed for most.
I slipped and fell about halfway down the wall, leaving myself with quite a bruise that I would later discover in the comfort of Sam. I lay there, in the grass next to the budding rosebush, and counted the lucky stars that I was still in one piece. I steadied my breathing and wiggled my toes just to make sure everything was still in working order. Slowly, carefully, and quietly, I raised myself from the dirt of the island earth, brushed off the remaining particles of pebble and dirt, and slipped on my shoes.
With a conviction that was stronger than anything than I had ever felt, I ran. I ran as hard and as fast I ever had, which was not saying much. Sure I was slim and healthy, but when you are locked away from the rest of the world and then carried around by car whenever you are allowed outside of the prison walls, that doesn’t leave you a whole lot of room to be in great physical form. Besides, it was not a woman’s place to be fit in such ways. I was to be fit for child-rearing and emotional support, not fit for a running my escape route. My chest stung, and with each breath of the cool night, the jab of pain plunged through the fleshy exterior of my chest, through the fibrous composition that I imagined was my lungs, and into the organ filled insides of my body. Pain is quite wildly imagined in the eyes of the artist.
I knew I was not alone. I knew at the top of the hill, in the dim light of the kitchen window, Louise was watching me. I knew her hands were clutched to her chest and, at this moment, she was contemplating if aiding my escape was the right thing to do. She was not on my payroll, she would reason, and thus this was entirely wrong. But, in light of the given situation, I knew she would rather forfeit an entire lifetime worth of salary to see the promise of the woman’s love go to the right gentleman. She was an employee of my father, yes; but before that, she was a fellow romantic.
I knew that once I reached the gates and unlocked it from the base of the ironwork, she would whisper, “Oh my, Miss Sweeney.” Before I pushed them open and ran free into the city below, I turned and looked to the dimly lit kitchen window that I could faintly see from down the hill. I whispered, “Oh my, Ms. Louise.”
My Louise, I made it because of you and your love for me. I love you dearly, my Louise, with every part of me. All that was intended to be conveyed in the small gasp of, “Oh my, Ms. Louise,” while I stood at the bottom of the hill, waiting to walk through the gates that had kept me back for far too long. After that pause, I finally slipped out in the cover of the night and ran down the dirt path towards the city by the sea below. I left the gates open as I ran away with excitement and fear. No longer would they hold anyone back. These gates would never seek to confine the ambitions, and the love, of a girl.
As soon as the gun hit the plush carpeting beneath my feet, I looked over to see exactly what I had done. In inconsistent waves, the realization of it all hit me. Seeing him lying there in his own blood was the apex of the wave; what remained was about to come crashing in with full force.
“My god, Sweeny—you didn’t.” My father started in disbelief. I didn’t look at him, but I could hear him somewhere to my left. My presumption was that he was sitting at some gambling table, some form of alcohol in hand.
My god resonated in my head as I saw the pool of blood forming around his body. I really had done it; these criminal actions that I contemplated for so long.
My god I had done it, and without thought, my knees gave in and I fell to the floor beside him. My bare leg became drenched in the innocent man’s blood. Totally unaware of the situation, innocent to the complexities that developed over the past couple of days, and yet, he had to be the one to pay the price.
I wasn’t about to profess my innocence as a room full of people, although slightly if not completely intoxicated, witnessed me pull the trigger on this man. God I hated that man but knew in that same moment, I should have just loved him. Embracing my criminality, I laid down next to the man, sliding myself into the lushness of the carpet, laced with blood.
I could still feel the warmth of the blood escaping his body as I laid my cheek into a puddle of it. His blood covered the side of my face as I looked into his lifeless eyes and began to cry.
My god, I had done it.
In remembering my great escape, I had fallen asleep.
When I awoke, I rolled off of Sam’s chest and peered behind me, searching for some indication of time. The clock said it was a quarter past four. My father always rose no later than six. In order to ensure that I was back with enough time I had to leave, and I had to leave at that very moment.
I shook Sam. “I have to go, I am sorry,” I gulped with panic, “I am so, so sorry but I have to go. He’ll wake up, he’ll know, he’ll kill me…” I started to imagine the worst scenario. I frantically pulled myself from the warmth of Sam’s bed and began searching for the remains of my clothing.
There was my skirt, the first thing that had come off in our passionate encounter. He answered the door and I stood there, sweaty from running all that way. The attempt to pin my hair back had been fruitless, as I looked more like a disaster than a well-composed young woman, standing at his doorstep. He was surprised to see me there, standing in his doorway. Before he could ask me what I was doing, or if there was something wrong, I jumped and kissed him. I wrapped my legs around his waist and let go of whatever amount of dignity I previously possessed. Instead of pushing me away, he pulled me in closer. He knew exactly why I was there, confirming any feeling he ever held for me. Following that moment, my skirt came off, along with my blouse and the sleeping bottoms he had been wearing.
I bent over, leaning for my skirt, trying to put my undergarments on at the same time. I didn’t want him to see me like this. I was slightly ashamed of my spontaneous behavior. Spontaneous in the sense that I never predicted I would do something like this, although I had imagined it with Sam, many times over.
He grabbed me and spun me to face him. At first I resisted him, embarrassed of the state that I was in. The way he grabbed me – it was the nonverbal way of telling me to relax and to remember everything was going to be okay. “Sweeny, look at me,” he began. I became flustered and pink in the face. “Don’t you go changin’ colors on me, little girl,” he smiled. A smile crept across my face as the first tear fell from my eyes. Now I just felt plain silly.
“Hey, hey, hey…” he whispered and took me into his chest. He could tell I was confused. He could always read me like some elementary reading book; I loved that about him. “Shh, don’t worry. Tonight was the greatest night of my life, and if I can have it my way, it will only be the first of many.” I smiled into his chest. He felt my cheeks turn into a grin. “That’s my girl,” and with his free hand he cradled my cheek.
I swallowed and tried to dry my eyes, composing myself to address him. “I must be going, though. He, he will be waking in a matter of hours and I cannot be missing,” I told him.
“Where do we go from here, Sweeny?” He caught me off guard. In the heat of this passionate moment, how was I supposed to think rationally and answer him?
“I—I don’t know, Sam. What I do know is that I ..."
Before I could finish my sentence he said, “I love you too, little girl.”
I reached up to him and kissed him. Even if our situation was so complex and too unrealistic to really try and face, those three words escaping his lips seemed to make the reality of the world melt away. For just this moment, all of that didn’t matter.
I pulled away from him. “We could run,” I proposed. He laughed.
“We will be doing no such thing, little girl. I will not be responsible for your great escape. We will do this with dignity.” That stung a little bit, but it was the truth. My posture sunk. “Hey, now, we can figure this thing out. If you love me as I love you, I have all the faith in the world that we can figure this thing out.” Again, there he went with the perfect timing of his perfect words. I believed every word he said to me.
“All right, with dignity,” I agreed. He smiled. “I will address my father first and we can go from there.”
We stood apart and faced each other seriously. We were really going to do this. We simply knew that this where we each belonged, with the other. After the seriousness subsided, I lunged for one last hug, and he squeezed me like something he never wanted to let go of, like his buried lost treasure. Although I was not exactly as strong as him, I tried to convey the same emotion in my hug. He chuckled softly at my attempt to be just as strong as he. He pulled away, bent down, and came up with my blouse in hand. I blushed and took it from him. Sliding my arms into the sleeves, still facing him, he took the front edges and buttoned them together. I thought I would feel absolutely mortified, but there was something gentle and romantic about that moment.
I collected myself and headed for the door. One last stolen kiss, a promise of our plan to figure things out, and reassurance that he did not need to walk me back home. If anything, we both eventually agreed, that would be a bad idea. He didn’t shut the door until I was well out of sight. I could tell because the faint yellow glow that emitted from his door had finally faded into the midnight blue color of the dark sky on the island. The sky was on the brink though, from turning midnight blue to the hazy blue that would come with the sunrise. I knew I had to hurry.
I ran, barefoot this time, for lady’s footwear was not conducive to my spontaneous adventures. The loose cement poked at my feet a little bit at first, but after a few strides I became accustomed to the new sensation. Up the cobblestone streets and through the dodgy alleyways to avoid being seen. I took the exact same path home as I had taken to Sam’s home by the sea. I envisioned what I must have looked like running down to Sam’s. My face was probably half terrified, half a glow with excitement and nerves. Here I was running back, still half with nerves, but now the other half was filled with confusion. Confusion as to how I was really going to resolve my predicament.
Twenty minutes later I made it back to the gate, still as open as I had left it. Thank god, no one had checked the front gate. So much for feeling really secure around this place. I quietly snuck through the iron fortress and closed it shut, locking it behind me. I continued to run up to the house through the grass, trying to make as little noise as possible. Although, I suppose it would be difficult to hear someone running up the grounds from a mile away.
I approached the back door of the kitchen, still radiating the warm glow of light, just the way I had left it. As I approached the door with excitement, eager to awake the sleeping Louise and tell her of my evening, I heard something that I did not expect. I heard yelling and screaming, and I heard my poor Louise sobbing.
“I am sorry! But there was NOTHING I could DO! She makes up her own mind,” Louise sobbed. I heard the smack of flesh meeting flesh. Someone had hit Louise. I burst through the door instantaneously.
“You will not lay ANOTHER finger on LOUISE, you SON OF A BITCH!” My chest was heaving. I was ready to fight whomever it took.
I was not ready to find my father standing over Louise, who was cradled in a ball on the tile floor of the kitchen.
“Say It one more time you sleazy, ungrateful, cheating, selfish, lying, little girl. You are the SPITTING IMGAE of your WHORE OF A MOTHER!”
“SON OF A BITCH!” I screamed. I knew he didn’t actually expect that I would lash out. I was daddy’s little angel, but not anymore. Not when it came to my mother, and not when it came to my Louise.
Before I could duck, the back of my father’s hand came sweeping across my face. The pain didn’t register until after the back of my head hit the iron door handle, until after I fell to the floor and looked up at the towering man above me. I didn’t cry, not at that moment, although I heard Louise continue to sob.
“I will have Sam’s head if that’s what it takes. You will get dressed in the afternoon, you will look your goddamn best and you will say yes when Mr. Arlings kneels down on one wealthy knee and proposes to your sorry sake of a woman.”
Then, he quite literally spat at me.
I gritted through my teeth, “You forget that this is 1922.”
He bent over as close to me as he could and grabbed me by the neck of my blouse, screaming as loud as he could, “AND YOU’LL DO EXACTLY AS I SAY!”
I vaguely remember him throwing me back into the kitchen door. I can really only make an inference as to that; I woke in the same position the next day, Louise crying over me.
There was some foolish side of me that had hoped that maybe I could explain things to him. Maybe, he would survive the first few moments and I could tell him why I had done these things to him. But the tears came even more so when I looked upon his lifeless face. He was dead, but I could still feel the warmth, the life, in his blood as I laid in it, lying next to him. Could I not just explain?
“You’ll never… never understand,” I sobbed to him. With a prayer, I hoped he could hear me. I hoped I could communicate with the dead.
“You god damn whore,” grumbled a voice directly above me. In between my body and his, a leather shoe was suddenly wedged itself.
I rolled over onto my back, letting the dress soak further into the blood that was spilled around me. I looked up to the source of the deep voice. With watering eyes and blood dripping down the side of my face and through my hair, I crossed one thigh atop the other. I stretched one arm over his lifeless body and held my other hand to my chest. Nothing mattered anymore. It was over.
I stared at my father, square in the eyes. He cocked his gun.
“Do it,” I egged him with a rebellious tone.
All he could do was stare at me with the same malicious face he wore in the early hours of that same morning. A few moments of silence passed until I broke down.
“Do it, PLEASE!” I whined to him as I cried. I was begging him now.
I drew in one more breath and whispered, “Kill me, please.”
Louise and Frank carried me up the stairs that morning. I could not bring myself to stand, although I knew I would have to at some point. Louise said if I could just let Frank carry me up the stairs to the bedroom I could sleep it off. I knew she meant well, but how the hell was I supposed to sleep after an evening like that? To sleep, to dream with the weight of the world upon you, is a difficult task.
Frank delicately laid me atop of the sheets on my bed. He looked down upon me, standing next to the bed. Frank, who really worked for my father as his personal assistant, had never spoken more than a few words to me. I didn’t blame him; it wasn’t in his job description to make idle conversation with the boss’ daughter. He laid his hand atop my forehead and smiled with sweetness and tenderness. I saw his eyes start to water. I was so confused at his reaction.
He whispered, “I am so sorry, Sweeny.”
“I should have told you, said something to you. I should have protected you in some way. Mr. Arlings; I should have told you…”
“Frank, don’t blame yourself. I knew all along; this was my doing,” I took his hand from my forehead and into my own. He smiled through his tears. At that moment Frank was human, and he became much more than my father’s personal assistant. Louise entered the room, with good timing, and interrupted the moment. I smiled at Frank, gently squeezing his hand to tell him I was going to be okay. He slipped away from my grasp and left my room, Louise watching him as he went.
“It’s alright Louise, I promise,” I said to her as I tried to prop myself up against the pillows. My entire body hurt; I winced as I tried to sit up.
“Oh, don’t move a finger,” Louise said as she rushed towards me, tea tray in hand.
“Louise, come sit; last I checked you had a bruise as big as mine.” I tried to smile, to ease the tension of the moment. I wasn’t sure how to do so. She grimly smiled back at me, unaware of what was the proper response. We both proceeded to ignore my comment as she settled next to me on my bed. We turned down the covers and sat beneath the sheets. She offered me tea, but I was not sure that I wanted any. She took the tea for herself, staring ahead at the wall in front of us. She buried her face in the steam as if to conceal her face from the tension of the moment that was upon us.
I looked at her. “Louise, you can leave. Why don’t you leave?” I was shocked she hadn’t run away last night; I would have.
“Leave you? Never. Miss, I believe God presents us with challenging times to overcome, but God only gives us a few real good people to love in life. I love you, Ms. Sweeny. I don’t think God would ever forgive me from running from the people that I love.”
That was the difference between Louise and myself. For, where I saw the practicality in cowardice and selfishness, she only saw the pessimism of it and steered away to embrace the silver lining of this inherently awful situation. I laid my head against Sweeny’s shoulder, feeling some of the steam coming off of her teacup. I started to cry. She tried to soothe me like a child, but my mind could not distract itself from the pain I was feeling. She gently slid away from me for a moment and set the teacup on the side table. She let me lay in her lap as she ran her fingers through my hair.
“I’m sorry, Louise, I am sorry!” I gently cried. She did not say anything back to me and I did not want her to. For once in my life someone was just listening to me, not talking at me or telling me what to do. No one to correct me or guide me; just Louise, someone to listen to me.
We lay like that for hours, my head in her lap, she stroking my hair. I imagined she stared at the blank wall across from us that entire time, wondering what was going to happen to her and what she was going to do when I left. I imagined she wondered if I was going to actually say yes to Mr. Arlings at the casino later that evening, and alternatively, what would happen if I did not do as my father bid me do. All this, I assumed she wondered as she stared into the blank canvas of the wall across from us.
I noticed that Louise nudged me to wake up from my sleep as soon as the sky faded from early afternoon blue to the dusty shade of its lateness. I imagined it was about three o’clock at that point. “Ms. Sweeny, we have to get up. We have to get ready,” she told me. I knew she was right. Even if I did say no, I had to go. There was no denying that obligation.
Slowly, I pushed myself up from her lap, my entire body stiff from the fight. Louise looked to my face and shuddered at the sight of the bruise on it. Although I had not seen it, I could feel its presence on my face, making every facial expression tender. I imagined its magnitude across my chubby cheeks. “Nothing a little makeup won’t fix right up,” she said. She was trying to make me feel better, I knew it. Bless her soul, but at this point, I really didn’t care what I looked like. If Mr. Arlings was disgusted, so be it. It would be my father’s fault anyway.
She slid out from beneath the covers and, with a steady pace, I did the same. Slightly sluggish, I followed Louise into the bathroom. She sat me down on my chair, my face looking into the vanity, my bruise glaring back at me. She started working through the drawers, looking for odds and ends and began working on my face. From my face she went to my hair, from my hair to my fingernails and toenails, and so on and so forth. A dollop of perfume and a touch of lipstick—she slipped on a pair of diamond earrings for the finishing touch. All the while I watched her work without really registering what she was doing. For the last two hours I sat and watched her without registering the reality of what was happening.
I was complacent and confused as I looked into the mirror to see the finished product. Curled and pinned back were my blonde locks; the bruise could only be noticed if you really looked at my cheek. My eyelashes were longer than normal, flirtier than normal. The diamond earrings somehow made my green eyes sparkle. I should have felt like a priceless gem. Yet, I felt like nothing more than a beat-up girl lying next to a kitchen door.
I smiled and looked at Louise’s reflection in the vanity, she standing behind me. “A moment, dear,” I said. She nodded and excused herself from the bathroom.
I got up slowly and walked towards the closet. I opened the door to find the black dress hanging up on the back of the door. I gently took it down from its place and searched for the garter that I had planned on wearing underneath. After I collected all the pieces, I entered back into the bathroom and slipped out of my robe. In the nude, I stood there in the middle of the bathroom and stared at myself fiercely. I wasn’t scrutinizing my figure nor confirming my content feeling with it. I was challenging myself. I was making sure I was still the woman I had been twenty-four hours ago. I was still the crazed woman who had contemplated criminal things, all in the name of love.
In a pair of heels, lacy undergarments, and a leather garter, I reached down below the vanity for a drawer that everyone had always assumed was jammed by default. In reality, it was jammed because I made it that way. If you removed the piece of cloth that jammed the hinges, it could easily be opened. Obviously no one had figured out that trick to the vanity drawer, for when I removed the piece of cloth from its hinges and opened the drawer, my revolver was still lying there, the drawer’s sole content. Cold to the touch, I picked up the metal vehicle of destruction and pushed the drawer back in. I threw away the tiny piece of cloth, for no longer would I need to jam the drawer to hide my secrets. I rose up from the floor of my bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror again, as I slid the revolver into the black leather strap around my leg. I got the chills as the cold metal pressed itself against my bare skin.
They say it's criminal what women will do.
I slipped into the black velvet dress, the dress that was designed with an essence of criminality, perfect for this evening’s events.
What they are forgetting is that this is 1922.
I smoothed the dress over the gun to conceal its placement and left the bathroom without turning back.
‘Why?” my father asked me. His humanity had come back to him. The gun was shaking in hand.
I could not find a way to answer him. He would never understand. I had tried to tell him before, but all that got me was a bruise across the face and a sentence to marry a man I had never known, never loved.
“Just do it,” I barked back to him.
My eyes glared at the gun in his left hand. I bit my bottom lip as I waited for the pain to come, as I prayed that he would fire the gun on his own daughter.
I took a car separate from my father. He went down to the casino earlier than me, I assumed to make sure everything was in place. My car pulled up to the front of the casino by the water. Usually I would be filled with excitement. I loved this casino; not for the gambling or for the drinking, but for the building itself. For the architecture, for its relative closeness to the water, for the beauty it encompassed. I always hoped that in my next life I could be this casino.
Tonight, however, I approached the brass doors of the entrance with apprehension and anger. I told the driver to leave as I walked away. I would open the door myself this evening. I pulled it open and took my first step across the threshold, exposing my bare leg as the first part of my body to make the grand entrance. The slit up the side of the dress had served its purpose well. I knew everyone was staring at my pale, smooth leg and would never venture to guess that a few inches higher and on the dorsal side, a revolver was strapped to it. I peered around the casino. I noticed a few people staring at me as I stood in the doorway. I did not acknowledge them, as I normally would have. Tonight, no one would recognize this woman standing in the doorway.
A clean-cut man in a polished black suit with grey, small pinstripes approached me. I saw him walk towards me out of the corner of my eye. His dark hair was slicked back, drawing to central focus his thick eyebrows and dark eyes. His small mouth was smirked ever so slightly. This must have been Mr. Arlings.
He came and stood at my side. “My darling Sweeny,” he said as he reached for my hand. I yanked it away.
“I am nobody’s darling.” He stared at me in disbelief. It was when his eyebrows crossed and he reached to grab my arm that I took a couple of steps back from him. Nobody was going to touch me. “I have a revolver strapped to the back of my thigh, Mr. Arlings,” I whispered. “It would be best advised that, if you want to live that is, you step away from me and find some other darling to bemuse yourself with.” I saw his eyes grace my backside, his nose cocked in the air as if to get a better angle. His eyes flared when I knew he saw the outline of the handle of the gun just below my buttocks. I wasn’t playing games. I was nobody’s darling.
At that moment I saw Sam out of the corner of my eye, walking around the casino floor. I knew my father had employed Sam to make sure everything was set up for this evening’s event. Sam was responsible for setting up the poker tables and making sure the lighting was just perfect. He was responsible for the majority of the success of this evening my father had planned.
At that moment that I saw Sam walk across the plush carpet on the casino floor, looking exceptionally wonderful in a cream-colored suit he had borrowed from Frank, I slid my hand down the front of my dress and brushed the slit of it aside, reaching around to the backside of my thigh. In a matter of seconds I had the revolver removed from the leather garter strap. I heard a few people scream as they recognized what I had just done.
Where the gun was initially pointed at Mr. Arlings, it managed to swing itself one hundred and eighty degrees in the opposite direction, square in the back of the head with Sam. Mr. Arlings ducked, the screams of the others heard, while Sam turned to face the source of the commotion. He made eye contact with me, looked at me with horror expressed across his face. Through my own tears of fear and frustration I saw the white of his eyes. I screamed as I pulled the trigger and watched Sam collapse to the floor.
There was one bullet loaded in the barrel of the revolver. It was originally intended for Mr. Arlings. But that’s just it; with one bullet loaded you can never trust the crazed state of a criminal woman.
They are right, you know; it’s criminal what women will do.
“Why Sam?” my father asked me one last time with an assertive tone. My hand was still atop of Sam’s lifeless body, my other hand clutching my broken heart.
“Because if I cannot have him, nobody can,” I cried back to him. I turned my head back to look at Sam again. His eyes were still open, still cold.
I took my hand away from my heart and placed it on his cheek.
“I love you, Sam” I cried in whispers.