The Secret Life of Shulamit Schwartz || Marlene Olin

The air crackled with anticipation. The ball at Netherfield was but a fortnight away. And lo and behold, the regiment had arrived! The men marched in lockstep, their chins forward, their knees high, strutting up and down the streets. And nearly each and every one a bachelor!

Shuly glared at her sisters. It was positively mortifying the way they flirted. Prancing around the store. Giggling and gawking. Had they no sense of propriety! They were the laughingstocks of Meryton! The impudence! The utter humiliation! 

“Hurry, Lydia! How long does it take to grab a few ribbons! And Kitty, you dolt! Stop staring at the soldiers! Poor Mr. Wickham would be mortified!” 

Jane was the oldest. Blonde and buxom, she was duller than mud. Since custom dictated that Jane marry first, everyone hated her. “One of these days,” sighed Jane, “someone will catch your eye, Shulamit. Someone worth 10,000 a year, with a mansion like the Louvre, and a stable of horses to boot.”

Shuly blinked.

“Can you move your cart, lady?”

She was sandwiched somewhere between the products for pet poop and the air deodorizers. In her hand was a grocery list, the handwriting vaguely familiar.

Another Monday, another afternoon at Publix. As always, little Stevie was squirming his way out of the cart with one foot poised to jump. And tucked into his wet little fist was a bottle of shoe polish. How in the world did he get ahold of shoe polish? Then Shuly glanced behind her. A trail of broken bottles lay puddling on the floor.

Cleanup on aisle eight! Cleanup on aisle eight!  

She grabbed her cell phone and looked at the time. It couldn’t be two. Was it already two? Harriet’s teacher wanted to talk to her after school. Privately. Could you bring your husband, she asked? We have aftercare in the playground. You know. For our working mothers. You can leave your children there.

An hour later, Shuly found herself squeezed into a miniature desk, as if she needed reminding about her weight. It was a Munchkin desk, a Munchkin desk that made her feel fatter than she already was. And no matter how she inhaled, she was stabbed in the solar plexus. Her friend Charlotte was contemplating a nip and tuck, maybe a rib removal, her fat sucked and suctioned. Charlotte would probably love these desks. Look! Look how skinny I am! Buy two or three for her home.

The teacher glared.

“My husband couldn’t make it,” Shuly heard herself saying. “Chip’s a dentist. People have all sorts of emergencies. Broken teeth. Abscesses.”

The teacher, Miss Wilson or Hilson or Bilson, was making funny motions with her jaw.

“Biting?”  said Shuly. “Of course, we know Harriet’s biting. She’s going through a phase. A dog phase. We think it’s cute. Kind of. The way she wags her rump and wiggles her nose.” 

A clock ticked. The air conditioning hummed. There was gooey stuff under the desk and, though she clenched her fingers, the gooey stuff beckoned. Shuly felt lost. Like she was a character in a novel, except it was the wrong setting and the wrong novel. Strange chairs. Strange room. Strange people. Then suddenly, past the windows and out on the lawn she heard loopy carnival music. It was the Good Humor truck, beckoning the kids with ice cream, playing that loopy song. Once again she blinked.

Humorless poppycock! thought Shuly. Wherever did this disagreeable woman come from? 

The woman lifted her nose and looked down. Her teeth were mottled, her hair askew. “Do you mean to imply that you’re raising these children alone? No wonder they’re a troop of hellions. You’re telling me there’s no governess! The situation, I daresay, is barely tolerable.” Then she leaned forward, dripping with disdain. “And your garden. I daresay your garden is rather small, too.”

Shuly rose from the Chesterfield while her long skirt skimmed the rug. She wore indignity well. “You have insulted me in every possible way!” Then she looked outside. The heath was windswept, the sky gray, the gorse listing. 

“Mrs. Schwartz? Do you hear me?  Have you heard a word I said?”

Shuly walked to the door. From the ceiling a speaker blared: Teachers report for Carpool Duty!  We need help for Carpool Duty now! Then sighing, she once more scrolled her phone.  “Today’s Monday. We have ice skating lessons on Monday. Sorry. So so sorry. Gotta go!”  

A half hour later, they were at the ice rink. Harriet was chubby. Aren’t all little girls chubby? Chip insisted that the problem was her metabolism. That the more Harriet watched the TV and toyed with the computer, the more weight she gained. So there was soccer on Tuesdays, Gymboree on Wednesdays, and karate on Thursdays. Of course, food was an issue. Especially in the dog phase. It’s easy to overeat when your plate’s next to the cat box on the floor.

Shuly braced herself while the baby squirmed in her hands. Sitting in that rink was like sitting in a refrigerator. Soon the lights would be lowered. Neon pinks and yellows would wash the walls. And a dozen kids of all shapes and sizes would magically appear, their blades scratch-scratching the ice. Like zombies they’d walk, inch by terrifying inch. Shuly held her breath. And the music. Rap music. Pounding and pulsing as the blades scratched. Once again she blinked.

“Do you play?”

Shuly ran her fingers over the pianoforte. “Not very well, and only when forced,” she shyly demurred.

The crowd in the parlor circled around as her hands flew. “I hear she speaks Latin,” a woman in a feather hat muttered. “And her paintings,” said the man in a frocked waistcoat. “C’est magnifique! I already bought three for my chateau.”

The crowd oohed and aahed. 

“Miss Schwartz is a most agreeable woman,” whispered The Duke of Derbyshire. “I cannot boast of knowing one woman more accomplished!” Then he counted down on his fingers. “Why, she draws, speaks over a dozen languages, sings like a bird, and ice skates as well!” Rose petals soared in the air.

Then suddenly someone tapped her shoulder.

“Excuse me! Excuse me! Is that your kid on the ice? You know? The one who took a header? The one with the bleeding nose?”

By five o’clock they were home. Shuly stuck the baby in his fenced-off non-playpen playpen, turned on the TV, and put the remote control and an ice pack in Harriet’s hand. She had to act fast. For twenty or so minutes, everyone would be happy. If she raced into the kitchen and worked like a maniac, she’d have time to cook dinner.

She was broiling lamb chops, dumping Beefaroni into a dog bowl, and warming up the peas when the doorbell rang. Instantly, Shuly’s heart sank. Only one person regularly barged into her life at the worst possible times: her mother.

“Hi Mom,” said Shuly. 

“Hi Meema,” said the baby.

“Woof!”

Her mother took no time getting started. “Shulamit, have you taken a look at yourself? Your father, may he rest in peace, always came home to a gorgeous house and a beautiful wife. Where’s your lipstick? Take a look in the mirror, for God’s sake. And that child! Is that a flea collar? Is Harriet wearing a flea collar for crying out loud?”

Shuly blinked. Somewhere, a harpsichord played.

Once again the family was sitting in the parlor. Though she usually found her sisters quite invigorating, there were days when they vexed her as well. She daintily bit her lip. Then she sighed her loudest sigh. Would she always be lonely? Was she destined for a life of solitude and sewing, of wretchedness and whist? Grabbing her bonnet and pushing them aside, Shuly opened the door. 

“That’s it. I’m leaving. If a courier comes, I’ll be at The Rose and Crown. Deliver my messages there.”

“My God,” said Lydia, “that inn’s in Lambton.”

“And Lambton, forsooth,” said Kitty, “is ten miles away.”

Jane—dear, dull Jane, of course, intervened. “Mother,” said Jane, “you must order Shuly a carriage. She may not be as beautiful as me, but still. . . the wind, the elements. . .”

Shuly pictured her hair blowing in the breeze as her silk shoes traipsed through the moors. “Not to worry, my dear sisters. As you know, I’m very fond of walking.”

Outside, Shuly felt her heart slow as her step quickened. She took a deep breath. She searched the wind-strewn landscape. Something was amiss.

“Is something burning!?” screamed her mother. “Is there something in the oven, Shulamit? I swear if your head wasn’t screwed on, you’d forget that, too!”

By nine o’clock, Shuly’s day was done. She had successfully prepared three separate dinners for each of her family members. The baby fell quickly asleep while Harriet lay quietly curled on a rug. 

Finally, Shuly and her husband had a few precious moments alone. She poured herself a glass of wine and plopped on the couch. Every muscle ached. Once, in another life, she went to law school, worked at a big firm, and put away money. Then, all of a sudden, children happened and the life she knew disappeared. She was always tired. Why was she so tired? People who ran marathons, who crawled over finish lines holding their stomachs and limping in pain, were not nearly as tired as she was.

But Chip was just getting started.

“Jesus,” he said, looking at his wrist. “I only racked up 9,000 steps today.” Then aiming at his brand new floor-length mirror, he flipped on the app. Instantly, an obscenely sexy fitness instructor appeared on the mirror’s surface.  Life sized, no less. Bending and contorting in every direction.

“I’ll be an hour or so tops, Lambykins,” said Chip. “Keep your fires burning.”

Shuly blinked. Her eyes were alight with fervor. 

“Stop trifling with me, Mr. Darcy.”

Poor Mr. Darcy looked positively forlorn! Seconds seemed like minutes. Then finally, he spoke.

“I must make amends for my insufferable behavior. Dare I hope against hope that your feelings have changed?”

Pianos trilled as the cameras panned in. 

“No, it is I, supercilious I,” said Shuly, “who has been insufferable.”

He took her hand and sniffed her hair. “Surely you must know how I feel.”

They moved closer. Closer than close. She smelled his earthy smells. The tips of their noses touched. Still, the smallest of space lay between them. More trills. A drum roll. Clouds roll. Crescendo.

“I l. . . l. . . love you,” he stuttered.

Then, just as their lips were about to meet, millimeters before contact, everything froze. The earth stood still, the music faded, the lights dimmed.

Shuly was dumbfounded. Wait a second, she wanted to shout. Where were the fireworks? There ought to be fireworks! Fireworks and violins! Instead, those infernal credits were scrolling down the screen! 

“Wake up, Shuly, wake up!” 

Chip was shaking her shoulder. His sweaty face was inches away, his breath like toxic waste. Through a fog she heard him talking. “Tonight’s your lucky night. Thought we’d put the wiener in the bun. You know. Heat up the old oven. Have a little fun.”

The couch. A pillow. Chip. Once again, Shuly blinked.

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories and essays have been published in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, PANK, and World Literature Today.

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