by Alison Leigh Brown
Emily was not seduced by the perfume encoded on brightly coloured ads; they felt like sandpaper on her wrists, didn’t smell real. Her high school friends swooned and dreamt of lead roles in those glossy romances. But Emily just liked lavender—the colour, the scent. She remained faithful to it. Her friends laughed—they called her quaint. They said, “Emily’s crazy for lavender.” It didn’t bother her. She liked what she liked.
A woman now, she’s planted a border of the bristly stalks around her front garden. Saying good-bye to dinner guests, she fondles the stalks, brushes her fingers over the tops as if tousling a toddler’s hair. She rubs the dry flowers over her arms, even in the creases of her elbows. She says lavender reminds her of Provence, of Nana. David had taken her to France for their first anniversary. Her grandmother sprinkled its chalky powder on her dresses, on her sweet, old arms. So, Emily fills sachets with dried buds, adds lavender’s essence to chocolate desserts. Friends have caught her crumbling freshly pulled petals over lamb ragout.
Yes, Emily is mad for lavender. She has invented a delicate, yet potent blueberry lavender martini. When held to light, three distinct colour layers are revealed, each shade shown to advantage by the blueberry mint garnish she crafts. Her husband, David, is sick to death of lavender. He mocks Emily’s preoccupation with it, says she’s afflicted by sophomoric affectation. She thinks he’s joking.
When Ben first saw Emily, lavender didn’t come to mind. He looked up from his work and there she stood: modern and spare. Small of bosom and hip, she presented all legs and eyes. Ben was researching the division of marital property in Oklahoma on the public library’s Internet, trying to stretch out the time left before putting in a little face time at his office. He doesn’t have any afternoon clients, but has to review the Johnson file before tomorrow morning. That file. What a sorry record: grief and pettiness cutting across three states, requiring custodial arrangements for two sullen teenagers. There’s more pain than money here. Seeing Emily gives him a mini-daydream; trying to refocus on work, he notices a bright flash of white hair tumbling over the woman’s huge laughing eyes. He sees her again. She hasn’t moved out of his sight. Emily is wearing a short brown skirt and tall tight boots from which her long, pale legs extend. Ben gives his attention to her, catches himself thinking, she knows me. He smiles at her, asks if she needs anything.
“I guess I do,” she says, leaning deep into his space. It’s only then he becomes aware of lavender. He was expecting J’adore, or, perhaps, Poison. Last spring, his last girlfriend moved out. He missed the hominess, at first. When a letter comes for her, he takes it over in person. They chat; she makes him a drink. He keeps her many magazines for himself: Glamour, Self, Elle. She’s never asked for them. He likes to take the quizzes, scan the ads. He really enjoys them—looks forward to the next issues. He’s learned as much about himself as the minds of women. For instance, Ben now knows that as a woman, he’d be moderately conventional. Adding up the points of his answers reveals that he would not be kittenish in bed. He’s more demure.
He’s surprised when Emily asks him to join her for tea. She’s pretty and young. She knows exactly where they’re going and soon they’re sitting on fussy, overstuffed chairs. Their tattooed server sets down pots of floral infusions, clattering, borderline messy. She has to return with sterling strainers. It’s a haphazard establishment with no discernible theme, no trays. The tea, however, is excellent. Ben adjusts to Emily’s height, allows himself to relax into adventure. He confirms that he’s not married or in a relationship, and that he’s straight. He finds her questions irritating. She tells him all about her Internet search for Katy’s Tea Room; her tone apologetic. She says she’s a little tired from the drive. She’s come all the way from Oxford, not that she doesn’t make “cooler runs” all the time. Ben knows about the sedans and SUVs whose trunks are kept ready for sun chokes and decent arctic char. He’s familiar with the Memphis-Oxford food run. He’s suddenly tired too, realizing he’s cycling the names of perfectly decent places to buy groceries in Oxford. Emily turns business-like.
“I have a request.” She’s urgent, insistent.
Her direct examination bothers Ben. This is not a quiz in Cosmo. He is not half-asleep wondering how pathetic it is to answer yes to questions, he suspects should be no. He’s bothered but also baffled. She can’t know what he’s capable of doing or offering. He switches on lawyer mode, wary and precise.
“I’ve been married for five years.” She’s shameless, stares him flush on. “I’ve never had relations with anyone but my husband. David.”
“And this concerns me, how?”
“I don’t want a boyfriend, to have an affair or anything. I just want to know what it’s like with someone else. You know, to see if it’s different. When I saw you, I could see you’re clean. You don’t look like a creep.” Her voice loses steam. She pours more tea.
“Yeah. That’s me, a regular boy scout.” Ben is trying to figure out why he is so insulted.
“Would you be willing to have sex with me?”
Ben brings his napkin to his face. He realizes that he is embarrassed, shocked, flattered. His face is red, his mouth dry. He drops the napkin, rubs his hands on it.
“Just once.” Her tone is almost condescending. It’s the voice Ben uses to calm an edgy client. “No strings attached. I promise. We’ll just do it, and then I’ll leave. I’ll never call you. I won’t stalk you.”
Emily is so sure he’ll say yes, Ben wants to reject her out of hand. He wants to show her that men aren’t what they seem, that they aren’t so easily won. Instead he says: “Sure. Why not?” He follows with his spectacular smile. His partners call it is his closer look.
Emily stands up even though they aren’t half way through their little sandwiches, the dainty scones. He hasn’t poured a second cup, had been planning to make a better job of it, without dribbles. She starts chattering.
“Let’s go, then. Before you change your mind. I really appreciate this, Ken.” She takes a bill from her back pocket, slaps it on the table. Ben can see it’s only a twenty. Pretty sure this isn’t enough, he stands there, uncertain. It’s her party, but it’s his town. He adds a ten. The whole thing feels farcical. He hopes she hasn’t seen him increase the payment.
“Ben,” he states. “My name is Ben.”
“Of course.” She produces a smile of her own.
Emily’s eager to go. They leave, not looking back, not taking one last sip. Emily laughs again, amused as they bump bodies, each having decided they know which way to go. Ben likes her laugh. Still, he’s not as happy as he feels he should be. Has he been chosen because he’s non-threatening? There are lots of men in Memphis. Trying to make an almost creepy situation appear friendly, he takes her hand. Emily pushes him away as if he’s insane.
“Someone might see us! God, Ben. I’m married.”
Ben acknowledges his mistake. “I read law at Ole Miss.”
This is enough to convey to Emily his awareness that women who live in Oxford shop in Memphis and that he knows they talk. She nods relieving him of social embarrassment. They walk along in silence the few blocks to his car. Once inside, she puts her hand on the back of his neck, making little circles in his short, wiry hair. Ben knows this is how she plays with her husband. He puts the thought out of his mind, tries to just enjoy this domesticity. So this is what it’s like to be married.
Once home he looks for any evidence she’ll back out. There is none. Emily’s undressed before he’s shown her the bedroom. Ben is unnerved by her lack of artifice. Her tall boots are quickly dispensed. Emily hasn’t needed to sit down, to pull or wiggle. Zip and they’re off. She gets out of her socks like a youngster, using the opposing toes of each foot to scrunch the fabric down and then flip them off. She bends to stuff each one inside its partner boot. She is not worried about the view of her backside. He’s never been with a woman so unconcerned about her body. It’s like she’s getting ready for gym class.
“I knew your house would be tidy.” The words she chooses to describe him leave Ben feeling unmanned. He can’t argue with her assessment. He is neat; he is a gentleman.
So there she is: waiting, completely at ease, naked. Still in his suit, Ben thinks: I’m dealing with a child. Emily appears to be waiting for him to cause something, not unlike the way his previous partners’ children, his nieces and nephews, stand by swings, silently demanding a push, a boost up, or the way they eye teensy spoons coated with peas or beets. They know the spoon will end up in their mouths if they just sit there looking at it. Emily reminds Ben of a cat nuzzling a door in that way that shows time is not a concept for it, that it can wait as long as necessary for the knob to turn, the door to open. Emily makes him think of a baby waiting to be diapered.
“Are you sure about this? There’s this sense I’m having that I’m maybe taking advantage.” Ben imagines what his mother would advise for this situation. What is the right thing to do? He tries to understand why, with so many candidates to choose from, Emily has picked him. Why me? “Do you still want to do this?”
Emily nods. “Yes. I committed to this before I left Oxford.” After a pause and with nothing happening, she asks, “Don’t you have to call your work or anything, Ben?” And then with equal weight, “Is there something you want me to put on?”
“Emily. I haven’t had sex for four months. I need a little time to get to know you. And no, I don’t have to call into my work ‘or anything.’ What a wifely thing to say.”
He’s only trying to make a joke, to loosen things up. Boundaries are shifting too quickly for him.
Emily takes his comment the wrong way. She swallows, holds her eyes tightly together, a movement he knows from his divorcing clients is meant to keep you from crying.
“I knew I wouldn’t be good at this.” She sits down on a dining room chair, her posture perfect. Back against the chair, her breasts stick straight out, too small to go anywhere else. Each nipple is tiny; they’re pale—the colour of a toy doll. The pink fleshiness accentuates how white the rest of her is. Ben can’t get over her poise; the innocence of her relationship to her body is new to him. He likes it. “You can change your mind if you want to, Ben.” She’s composed her face and has resumed the negotiation. “I know this is bizarre. You don’t have to go through with this.”
His body isn’t anticipatory, even though here she is. He can’t stop wondering what men had been considered and rejected before she focused on him. Had she come directly to the library or had she tried her luck at the courthouse, the supermarket? Had she been with someone else forty minutes ago and when he gave her an out, did she say those exact same words? He can’t let her be rejected twice.
“Of course I want to, Emily. The pacing’s off. That’s all. Let’s start over again. Let’s pretend we know each other. You stay here and I’ll come back when you’re not expecting me. It’ll be more fun. Sex is not just the doing of it, you know.” He sounds inane to himself. The rhythm of his words seem childish.
“I know that.” She doesn’t pout. “Ben. I’m not a virgin. I’m just inexperienced.”
“Emily, we didn’t think things through. For me, I need a context. Look. You get dressed, go in the kitchen and pretend to be making dinner.”
Emily indicates she’s game. She asks how long she has to get ready.
“I’ll be home by five.”
Ben leaves his house with the stranger inside. He doesn’t usually drink in the afternoon but he stops at a bar by his office and orders a beer. There are quite a few men he recognizes, but doesn’t know, chatting over cokes and pretzels. Ben nods and smiles. He drinks straight from the bottle, wondering whether he should bring Emily a gift. Decides against it. He wonders if she’ll be there when he gets back. He doesn’t know if he’ll be relieved or sad if she’s gone.
Emily is excited now that she’s alone. Anticipating sex warms her skin even before she sees its glow in the mirror. She blows a kiss at her reflection with her hands on her hips. Emily winks at Emily. She turns to Ben’s closet but finds nothing of interest there. His shirts are on laundry hangers. This makes her feel sorry for him, that he has no one to force him to use good wooden ones. She searches for any little something left by another woman—a slip, a nightgown, but finds none. The suits soldier from charcoal wool to pale linen, just like David’s do. She has no choice but to put back on her same old clothes. Knowing that this won’t take long and that there is no way she will eat dinner with Ben, she calls the first take-out number she finds. It’s a sushi place and they say it will be there around five-thirty. She’s never cared for any kind of Asian food; she orders what David would if he were here. Nothing with eel or octopus—a California Roll in case the fish is off.
With fifty minutes to kill, Emily doesn’t know how to follow Ben’s instructions. She remembers her lavender martinis and how they always cheer a place up. She goes out back to cut some fresh lavender, but remembers where she is. There’s nothing in Ben’s garden except a few trees, some grass and the sorts of perennials bachelors have. A look through his cabinets shows he doesn’t keep liquor at home.
Emily almost had sex with the boyfriend before David. There have only been the two. Her reason for constant deferral had been the gravity he brought to each encounter. They were young, freshmen in college. Allen got all red-faced and fumbling from wanting her. Embarrassed for him, she couldn’t keep her focus. David was older than Allen, a senior, and more experienced. He came at the whole thing playfully, pretending to be a cat, biting her toes. It wasn’t until years later that she wondered if serious wasn’t more in keeping with the nature of the thing.
Yesterday afternoon, Sunday, she approached David with a sombre face. She wasn’t sure how to convey what she wanted. She almost asked him to stop joking around but couldn’t figure out how to say this, without it sounding like a criticism of their entire shared life. So she wore the sombre face and willed him to notice what she wanted. David somehow sidestepped the force of her willing; he just couldn’t keep his mirth down. After they’d finished, he went, as he always did, to fetch some water. She lay there, trying to find the reason to forgive him.
Emily balances their checkbook, was an A student in college and now is competent at her job. She’s in charge of all the windows at Oxford’s department store and she signs off on all marketing initiatives. She has a good eye for fashion, colour, the juxtaposition of shape and font. David’s daddy owns the store; the three of them do their business things together across the square in their corporate offices. Over morning coffee, she gave David several chances to apologize for missing her cues, but it was like he didn’t even know anything was wrong. Infuriated, even though she knew she really shouldn’t be, she decided to go over to Memphis and set things right.
“I’ve got to get to Memphis, David.”
“Well, that’s good, Emily. You have fun.” David didn’t even acknowledge her resentment. He just smiled. “Be careful.”
The world turned until it became five to five at Ben’s house. She decides to take her boots back off. Ben suspects Emily will return to Mississippi to spend the night with her husband, so he stops at his office to pick up the rest of the Johnson file and to check in. He’s stalling. He can’t be late so he gets his car and drives back to the house. He sits out front, waiting for inspiration. Nothing. Letting himself in a little noisier than if it were to the customary emptiness, he announces,
“Honey, I’m home.”
She welcomes him with a warm, open-mouthed kiss.
“What’s for dinner?” When did I become such a ham?
“Sushi. It’ll be here in fifteen minutes—we can put it in the fridge for later.”
Emily hasn’t lost her self-assurance. She leads him into the bedroom. She doesn’t ask Ben about his day. She refrains from using funny voices. Emily kisses him again, so soon they are prone and panting, as people do. Pieces fit where they should; the feeling of being marionette is unavoidable. In spite of her intentions toward gravity, then, Emily giggles. Ben is relieved and starts in with a few jokey remarks. It’s a good time—sex is what it is.
Emily tells Ben she better not stay for dinner. She’s ready to go home. As Ben drives her to her car, she’s proud she keeps the lesson to herself. It’s exactly the same.
Ben’s life was not much changed by his afternoon with Emily. He sometimes thinks about their late afternoon encounter. Sometimes he allows himself to dwell on it. He credits its novelty for a happy conclusion to the Johnson affair. His altruism stoked, he made an extra effort to keep his client from haggling over furniture, from bartering weekends with distressed offspring for any other thing.
Two years after his tea with Emily, he finds himself married, domesticated. It’s a puzzle though, that he smells the stink of lavender everywhere—on his fingers, at the bottom of his drawers.
Switching from coffee to tea has produced a Ben who is almost prissy. He loves its paraphernalia; he even plans vacations to places where tea rites are prized. When tall, pale women hold his eye, he wonders why they pass him by. Why not me?
Occasionally, he finds himself thinking about Emily, whether he has damaged her. He holds the memory close, just as he does his tins of teas. The Assams and Jasmines are delivered to his office; he never shares them. After a trying deposition or a rare failed settlement, he warms a clay pot on the hotplate he keeps hidden in a bottom file drawer. From that same drawer, he retrieves an antique silver strainer with its porcelain drip bowl. Ben is soothed by lovely cups of tea.
Kristine is perfect for him. She’s stately and funny, numbers three and seven on his list of ten preferred qualities in a wife. She’s surprised whenever he gives her gifts with a lavender theme: soaps, hair pomades, little baskets filled with dry buds. She doesn’t like lavender. Kristine’s considered telling Ben lavender is not quite her thing, but she doesn’t. Over the years, she finds a way to just be grateful. He loves me. He wants to grow old with me.
Emily and David continue living. David takes over the store when his father retires. Emily returns home to raise the two children. Sons. Slowly, she starts using the perfumes David gives her for appropriate occasions. The men who did the back fence did such beautiful work that she asked them to fill the front garden’s borders with matching stone. She doesn’t have time to stuff sachets.
One day the doorbell rings. She’d been rushing to find the boys’ soccer cleats. Annoyed, she opens the door to find a florist’s box on her porch. Thinking that David has sent roses again, she finishes packing for practice, then confirms private goalie practice for the next day. She thinks she’s earned a hot bath and is about to take it when she remembers the delivery. She’s grateful, of course, but wishes there could be a little variation in this world. Lifting the lid, having already set David’s mother’s best vase out to receive its bouquet, she doesn’t immediately make sense of the two long stalks of dried lavender tied with twine. “A little lavender for Emily,” is typed by one of those machines that ape human hand. Emily’s not usually overcome by emotion, but she is utterly delighted. She sits at her perfect kitchen table, shoulders straight back. She’s pleased.