The Silver Frame
First Published in Room of One’s Own 1987
Revised copyright 2013 Carol Balawyder
“Would you like to come and meet my lover?” At the time Agnes was thirteen the usage of the word lover spoken by her aunt Nadia so openly both thrilled and embarrassed her.
The reason Agnes was staying at her Aunt Nadia’s in the first place was that her father thought –and the rest of the family (her mother, two brothers, a sister had agreed. Too readily thought Agnes) – that it would be best to leave Agnes behind and not take her along on their trip to the ocean.
“The stops we’ll have to make for her car sickness will keep us from gaining good time,” her father had argued.
“He’s married and has two children,” Aunt Nadia said. “A boy fifteen and a girl twelve.” Agnes thought that her aunt was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Her hair was the color of dark honey and she wore dresses that flowed from her small waist.
“Are they going to be there? Will I have to play with them?” asked Agnes.
“Heavens no! They’ve never heard about me. Neither has his wife. So what do you think?” Aunt Nadia said as she placed upon her platinum, tightly curled hair a navy blue felt hat with a wide brim.
“About the hat or going to meet your lover?’
“Pretty. It makes your eyes bluer. Doesn’t he love his wife?”
“In a different way. There are all kinds of love. You’ll soon find out. Hurry or we’ll miss the bus.”
It was March and the city had a sepia aura of bleakness to it.
“Where are we going to meet him?” Agnes asked.
“At Chez Paris,” her aunt pronounced as if they were headed to Paris rather than a small restaurant tucked on Saint Catherine Street in Montreal.
Agnes immediately recognized her aunt’s lover even though he looked a lot older than his photo. She was also disappointed that his eyes looked like they were leaping out of his head. His hair was black and parted right down the middle. She couldn’t figure out what a beautiful woman like her aunt saw in such a man
She had come upon the photo on her aunt’s dresser a few moths ago when she and her mother had visited Nadia.
“Who’s this?” she asked her mother. She held the frame, opened like a book. A gasp escaped from her mother’s too red lipstick mouth. “Go put this back where you found it,” The way her mother said it Agnes knew that the conversation was over.
But what was not over was how every time she’d go over to her aunt’s house she would sneak into her aunt’s bedroom to have a look at that strange man in the silver frame. Then, like a lobster claw under the ocean scavenging for its prey, she’d open the top drawer of her aunt’s dresser to feel the silk camisoles, the satin slips, and the soft curves of her aunt’s bras which made her think of her aunt not only beautiful but glamorous enough to be an actress.
Agnes had a talent to match footsteps with faces. Short and nervous were her mother’s. Her father’s were trickier. Not that she wasn’t able to eventually recognize them. She always did. What she hadn’t been able to master were the moods that went with them. Would he be angry, order her to play outside? Or would he be happy with vodka, sit next to her, sing her a Russian song?
It wasn’t only with the frame that she snooped either. Once she had tugged on her mother’s cotton sleeve to tell how through the cracks of the basement planks she had caught her brother smoking cigarettes.
“One of these days you’re going to find something you don’t want to. Then you’ll be sorry,” her mother had said.
Almost twenty years later Agnes would find herself saying, “You can’t say you haven’t been warned.”
She was married then to Bennet. She had been dusting his filing cabinet, the one in which he kept his blueprints, his jottings for a house he promised he’d one day build for them and records of his clients. Then she discovered the pale blue business card fallen behind the cabinet. How was she to know that there was something personal written on the back? Later, she reasoned that Bennett had likely planted it there for her to find. It would be easier than to have to tell her. For that she found him cowardly.
At first, she kept silent about his affair. She wondered what she had done wrong. She spent hours pacing their living room, opening and closing closets and cupboards, going to the bathroom to look at her puffed up face and taking sometimes three cold showers a day to cool herself down. She grew impatient with people who had nothing to do with the affair. The lady at the grocery check-out, the man at the post office, the banker. She wondered if she’d always been this way. No wonder Bennet looked elsewhere.
She could have chosen a better time than Thanksgiving to break the news to her family.
“Where’s Bennet?” everyone wanted to know when Agnes showed up only with her daughter, Tina who was seven then.
“He’s got a girlfriend. Prefers to be with her than here,” she’d muttered and immediately regretted it because she had to repeat it.
Later, while she was helping her mother clean up her mother said, “A man doesn’t leave his wife just like that. Even if there’s another woman.”
“Like your sister, Nadia?” Agnes said.
“I don’t know why you have to bring her up. Nadia has nothing to do with you and Bennet.”
“Don’t let Bennet get away with this,” said her father as he came into the kitchen to help himself to a shot of vodka. “He has to take his responsibilities.”
By then Bennet had been away for five months. Then he called. “Let’s get together,” he said. “There’s something I need to talk to you about.
In her hope and anxiety Agnes thought she’d heard gentleness and softness in his voice. While waiting for him to arrive thoughts of the prodigal son, the male crisis floated through her mind.
“I’ve spoken to my lawyer. He says I’ve got rights to see Tina once a week,” Bennet hadn’t wasted any time getting to the point. Agnes’s felt an ache in her chest.
“You can’t refuse me this right. I thought Sundays would be a good time.”
What did he mean, she wanted to know. “Do you think I’d do that to Tina,” she said, raising her voice.
“Wow, Agnes, you’re really touchy. That’s not usually your scene,” he said. She resented hearing him use sentences like this because she wasn’t able to recognize him in them. It was like she was standing before a stranger. Even his clothes were different. What was he trying to prove with this punk type wardrobe? What was he trying to retrieve? Was he making up for time lost while being with her?
“That’s pretty convenient for you, taking her on Sundays. Why don’t you take her on Tuesdays or Thursdays. See how you like having to come home to homework and making supper and giving baths after a day at the office. See how you like having to rush home in traffic so that Tina doesn’t have to spend too much time alone.”
“Listen it’s better if we talk about it some other time. When you’re in a better mood,” Bennet said.
“Are you crazy!” Carolyn, her best friend said. “You’d be a fool not to take him up on it. Think about it. Entire Sundays to yourself.”
Carolyn had always hated Bennet. She’d found him a sleaze.
So Sundays it was and Agnes found herself having to listen to Bennet honk his brand new sports car at eight thirty every Sunday morning. Or having him show up with a pair of tickets to see Justin Beaver and have to listen to Tina cry out “You got tickets to Justin beaver!” Then worse, hearing Bennet say, “Not me. Suzanne did.”
“I bet Tina sees him as a hero,” Agnes told Carolyn. They were sitting in the sauna of the tennis club they now went to every Sunday. “I mean, think about it. He lets her watch any program she wants on that 2000 inch TV screen of his.
One of the items Bennet took with him when he left was the television set. A portable one. Later, after he upgraded to magnitude scale, Tina came home and said “Dad wants to know if you want the small TV back?”
Agnes couldn’t help herself. “Did he say ask your mother if she wants the TV back?”
“No. He said. ask Agnes.”
In the meantime Agnes read about the ill effects of television on children. It was everywhere. “I don’t want that TV,” she told Carolyn. “I don’t even want Tina spending her time in front of his set.”
“If it bothers you so much just tell him.”
“How can I tell him how to raise Tina. It’s his kid as much as mine.”
In her crusade to erase Bennet from her emotional life Agnes has tried group therapy, transcendental meditation, introduction to Greek civilization and the knit one, purl one club. With Carolyn’s encouragement she’s even gone out with handsome, intelligent men who have wanted to see her again.
“What is the matter with you?” Carolyn says. “Lots of women would die for men like this.”.
When Agnes goes to work as an administrative assistant for a marketing firm, she wears plaid skirts with sweaters that match in tones of greens and yellows. Her long, blonde hair is always tied up in a loose bun. Her job’s not bad. But not great either. At work she barely has time to think of her personal life. Just as well, she thinks. Except when her mother calls. How many times has she told her not to call her at the office?
“What job could be more important than family?” is her mother’s response.
Her mother will call about something she has heard on a talk show, something she read in a homemaker’s magazine or something she’s overheard at the hairdressers. The “somethings” always contain words as: broken home, psychological damaging, loss of identity. And they are always about Tina. Her grand-daughter.
Once, on a bad day (and there were plenty of those) when her mother called about the latest she had heard Agnes said, “Hold on a minute.” She placed the phone on her desk, ambled towards her office door and shut it so none of the secretaries would hear. Although if they thought she was talking to a lover, then let them think that.
She returned to her desk and picked up her phone. “You know what the latest problem is? It’s me. I can’t seem to adjust to Bennet’s leaving. Isn’t that something?”
“You’re not supposed to adjust. You’re supposed to get him back. What have you been doing about that?”
“Do you think Tina is affected by the separation,” she asked Bennet after almost a year. He had called to ask her out to diner. “Just because we’re not married or living together we’re still parents together,” he said.
“Most of her friends parents are divorced or separated anyway. It probably makes her feel more like part of the gang. He took her to a French restaurant with its lace covered tables and bottles of expensive wines. He’d never taken her to such expensive restaurants when they’d been married. Not even on their anniversaries. Was he trying to show off how successful he was without her? She stopped accepting his invitations.
And thus began her period of not wanting to speak to Bennet. This also happened during her group therapy phase. The leader of the group said, “That’s a classic example of wanting to punish the spouse for abandoning you.” One of the group members, a frail, quiet woman who never spoke much said, “Maybe she’s punishing herself.”
“I don’t know, anymore,” Agnes said. “Maybe if I get rid of all his stuff it’ll help me to accept. Finalize.” Why had she said this? The words had come out of her mouth like an unexpected downpour.
“What is it that you want to get rid of?” one member asked.
“All his junk in the drawer in the basement.”
Before she left the group that evening she had promised the group that by the next meeting the junk would be cleared out.
It was March. Cold and damp. It had taken an entire week for Agnes to work up enough courage to go down into the basement. She was afraid of what she would find there. Another piece of Bennet’s life to crush her? An object – a woman’s barrette – that would leave her weak and vulnerable like she had been in the early times of his leaving. It would only be regression not progress.
As she passes the mirror in the hallway that leads to the basement she stops in front of it. Like a prize-fighter, she holds in each hand empty brown grocery bags. “To be filled with memories of Bennet she says to her face staring back at her in the mirror. It is a face that has become older but still in it she sees traces of her aunt Nadia.
It isn’t until she has cleaned out the top drawer of an old dresser and is halfway through the middle one that she comes upon the silver frame. She knows what she will find inside. Knows that the tarnished spot where Aunt Nadia’s lover’s face used to be will be filled by another face, another lover. She opens the frame. There, staring at her is the photograph of Bennet when they’d just been at the threshold of their love.
Nadia had given her the frame a few moths before she’d been admitted to the hospital to die. “You’re the only one who knows how much it means to me,” she told Agnes.
By then Agnes was eighteen. She hadn’t yet met Bennet.
“Does he come to see you? Here at the hospital?”
Nadia had smiled. “We tried once to give each other up. We had taken a trip together. Our last trip we had called it. It was a fishing trip. Can you believe it. Me, fishing. There in the middle of the calmness of the lake our eyes had caught each other’s. We were trapped in our love net. We were fools to believe that we could give each other up.
‘”Didn’t you ever want to marry him?”
“We wanted to. After his children had grown and were on their own but his wife wouldn’t give him a divorce. I don’t know what she thought she was holding unto. Maybe she was afraid to be alone.”
“Didn’t she mind that her husband had a lover?”
“I think it suited her.”
Agnes peels Bennet’s picture out of the frame and tosses it among all his other stuff: soiled t-shirts with worn out McGill emblems, a broken Walkman, some dried up paint brushes, dried up tubes of acrylic paints, red, blue, yellow from his artsy days, an empty Timex box, notes from his courses in architecture, seedy and yellowed. She tosses the picture. She then changes her mind. She reaches for the picture and fixes it carefully back into the frame. One day, she’ll tell Tina about this. Whatever is left in the drawers she shoves into the bags and lugs them upstairs.
She passes again the hallway mirror, as she did earlier. She holds up the heavy bags, but this time when she says, “Full of memories of Bennet” there are tears in her eyes.