He simply would not take no for an answer. I felt guilt; at least I think it was guilt. A gnawing sense of remorse ate at my stomach, was that guilt? Maybe. But I’d been trying this new diet too, and that could have been it. My stomach growled.
“It’s over, honey, listen to me. It is over.”
I hung up the phone and clung to the wall, my fingers played with the coiled line. Joe would be home soon, and I’d promised to bake a coconut-layered cake for June’s dinner party tonight. I smoothed down my apron, and emptied the Betty Crocker White Cake mix into a bowl and got started.
The kitchen was clean again when Joe’s keys jingled in the lock. I untied my apron, folded it neatly into the drawer, “Kiss the Cook” face-up. I touched my hair back into shape, and slicked on my red-rose lipstick, checking in my pocket-book mirror to see that it was even. Joe twirled his hat deftly onto the coat rack hook and left his briefcase on the floor. Struggling to remove his raincoat, he huffed and puffed, “I’m home!” Shaking all thoughts of the telephone conversation out of my head, I met him in the hallway.
“Hi honey, how was your day?”
“New dress?” he asked, flattening his hair back over the bald spot. He began to lose his hair two years ago. I didn’t like how it made him look—old.
“You like it?” I twirled twice before him, the skirt blossoming into a bell-shape and then I stopped and kissed him on the cheek.
“Sweetheart, you look beautiful.”
“We’re going to June and David’s for dinner tonight, remember?” I said, as I walked back into the kitchen to show off my coconut-layered cake. I held it beneath his nose, and waited for him to sniff and give praise.
“I just want to stay in Christine; I mean I was on the road last weekend, and again next weekend! I’m tired baby cakes!”
“I know honey, I know.”
“Tonight’s a couch night for me.”
“We’ve got to go,” I said. “June’s expecting me to bring this for desert.” I pouted, and clasped my hands in front of my waist, making sure my forearms squashed my breasts together, increasing my cleavage. Behind his horn-rimmed frames, his bluish eyes moved down and up to my face again.
“You win,” he said, and cupped my left breast into the palm of his hand. “Right here, right now,” and before I could protest he was done and the phone was ringing off the wall.
“Hello,” I said, pinning my pantyhose back to the garter.
“I can’t,” he said, “I can’t just sit there and watch you from across the table and pretend we had…nothing together. That’s what you’re asking me to do, and I can’t do it.”
“Oh hi June! Yes, the coconut-layered cake is all set and ready to go.”
I found balance by focusing on the flowered wallpaper and twirling the harvest gold coiled cord of the phone between my fingers. I noticed that I’d chipped my nail polish, Gardenia. I love that color—so summery.
“You are not listening to me!” he yelled from the other end of the phone.
“Yes, sweetie, I am.”
“I need you! I want you!”
I nodded at Joe, zipping up his fly and buttoning his trousers by the kitchen table, flattening the few sparse hairs back over his bald spot, and mouthed: “It’s June.” He nodded back, looking a tad pitiful. He’d traded sex in the kitchen to go to June and David’s instead of watching Johnny Carson sitting on the couch.
“Ok June, we’ll see you at six thirty,” I said into the receiver.
I turned my back, cupped my hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, “Ok, ok. Just take it easy. We’ll talk later.” Then finished with a cheery, “Bye, bye June!”
June answered the door looking dowdy. She never put any effort into how she looked. The grey was showing in her hair, like Joe she was aging prematurely. God-awful what these worker bees let happen!
“Oh, this looks delicious!” June said, eyeing my spectacular cake and then leading me into the kitchen.
The Högers, Wrights, Hawls, and Dirritos were already relaxing with their highballs and Shirley Temples. After introductions, the women, still wearing their work clothes, remained in the kitchen, and the men retired to the den with cigars and cigarettes ready for lighting.
“David isn’t home yet?” I asked, and June shrugged her shoulders.
“He called and said he’d be thirty minutes late. The train in Grand Central got delayed for some reason.”
“The 4:58 left right on time,” Darla Wright said. “Pity he didn’t make that one.”
“Do you work in the city Darla?” Polly Hawls inquired, and then sipped her Shirley Temple.
“I do,” Darla replied, smiling.
“Oh,” Sally Höger piped up. ”How very brave of you.”
”June and I take the same train in with our husbands, and then meet up on the train coming out,” Darla said, like it was no big deal.
”What do you do?” Polly asked.
”I am a psychologist,” Darla said. ”I work for Betty Crocker in the advertising department.”
”Really?” Polly said, and her eyebrows, in bad need of a good tweezing, knitted closer together. ”Why on earth would they need a psychologist.”
”Oh, for surveys about how to market products more effectively, focus groups, you know, things like that.”
”They’ve been doing it since the 50’s,” Andrea Dirrito chimed in.
”Andrea was one of the women surveyed for the 50’s boxed cakes advertising study,” June said, and clinked her highball glass with Andrea. ”Weren’t you?”
”The University was closed for break, so I thought, why not? Might learn something new!” Andrea shrugged her shoulders, and drank her vodka. Her finger nails were un-manicured, cut to the nub, bitten as well.
”What do you do Andrea,” I asked, and wondered why she was wearing a suit from the Spring of 1953. Seriously, this is the 60’s, Jackie Onassis has set the bar for us!
”I am an English literature professor at Columbia.” That explains the nubby nails, I thought, and the threadbare old suit.
”That’s nice!” I said. ”Good for you,” and I lifted my glass in a toast to her.
”Polly is taking classes there this summer to get her masters in Administration,” Andrea said.
”I’ll be nervous taking the train in.” Polly, peering over the rim of her tortoise shell frames, looked pathetically at Andrea.
”No you won’t! You’ll be fine!” Andrea assured her.
I wasn’t so sure she would be fine, this child-woman. How could high-school students even take her seriously. I mean! That hair, those glasses. Pre-pubescant.
”Maybe I’ll have you as one of my professors,” Polly replied.
”Wouldn’t that be nice?” I said, desperately wanting to pop the blackhead on Polly’s pimply, scarred face. Some women just don’t look in the mirror, and if I looked like Polly, I would avoid mirrors too, I suppose.
”You’ll do well with a masters in Administration,” June said. ”Sally you’d do well as a Math teacher to do the same when you get the opportunity.”
I watched her as she doled out the over cooked carrots, peas, mashed potatoes, gravy and chicken, making the food look as nice as possible in ornate bowls and platters. Probably wedding gifts, from someone with real taste, because God knows June has none. Making June’s food look desireable was a difficult task, even on Lennox’s Portmerrion patterned china.
”You’ll get promoted faster, Sally and Polly, keep that in mind,” she added, ”Especially with credentials from Columbia! Christine, by the way, this cake looks delicious,” she said, twirling the coconut-layered cake to see it from all angles. ”It looks like snow. Doesn’t it, ladies?”
”Is this your line of business?” Darla asked.
”Oh, wow! Are you a confectioner? Do you bake wedding cakes too?” Polly squealed.
”No,” June said. ”Christine doesn’t work.”
Ten seconds of silence followed, interrupted only by Darla’s uncomfortable coughing and clearing of her throat. Then Darla polity inquired as to how I made the exquisite coconut-layered cake.
At last—my area of expertise. Cooking, looking nice for men, staying in-style, in-season. Being feminie in a world that forced women to lose their feminity in order to become career women. God-awful what they have to do, these worker bees. Just God-awful.
”Well,” I began, and fanned my hand towards the cake, sitting atop the footed cake plate. ”I like to use the Betty Crocker white cake mix.”
I smiled at Darla, in thanks for asking the question, bringing the conversation around to me, and my talents. I knew she would appreciate the fact that I used her company’s product.
”Oh God, tell her, Dee,” June clapped her hands, and laughed. ”Tell Christine about the results of the focus group study that Andrea took part in.”
Darla smiled and nodded. ”That was funny, June. But it did work though,” Darla said.
”The sales were flat, even going down I believe until that study, so I was told,” Andrea said.
”What study?” I asked, trying hard to hide the mounting bitterness that the conversation was once again all about them. My lips tightening into a small pursed ”O” were forced back into a cute up-turned pout with great effort.
”Well, the study in the 1950’s revealed that women felt guilty about just adding water to the Betty Crocker cake mixes,” she said, and then shook her head in disbelief. ”Something about feeling guilty, and needing to feel like they did something for their hard-working husbands.”
”Sales were pretty bad,” June said, and Darla nodded.
”So what did they do to fix it?” Polly asked.
”They redid the ingredients and directions on the box, and it worked,” Darla said.
”What worked?” I asked.
”The psychologist doing the survey said that women would feel less guilty if they added an egg to the mix.”
”NO WAY!” Polly laughed, bent over at the waist, holding tight to her Shirley Temple.
Andrea nodded. ”I was there, that was the consensus among the housewives back then! No guilt required, if you add an egg.” She nodded emphatically.
”Christine, do you feel less guilty because you added an egg?” June asked, lifting up my coconut-layered cake and displaying it for all to see. The women laughed, then turned to see a man standing, listening to our conversation.
”David! You made it!” June said, and left the cake back down quickly. He raked his fingers through his straight blonde hair as June helped him off with his coat, and he scratched at the scar above his lip.
Joe was on the road again, and I decided that it was my diet that caused the stomach pain a week ago. I looked good though, lost some weight. I stuck to my diet, went to my aerobics classes, got my hair and nails done. I bought sexy-silk underwear. The hotel room in New York city was ornate.
”Christine,” he said, running his long fingers through his blonde hair, and tapping the bed for me to come and sit beside him. He handed me a small blue Tiffany box, wrapped with white ribbon. Inside were diamond earrings. I put them on, and kissed him passionately until we drew away for a breath.
”What made you change your mind,” he asked, as I unbuttoned his shirt and watched my long red finger nails disappear into his chest hair. He liked that. Cosmo says that most men do. I traced my finger along that sexy scar above his lips.
”What changed my mind?” I repeated. ”Well, David darling, I decided to add an egg.”