Paula knew her relationship with Vic would improve after they married. How could it not? She was in love.
While dating, they uncovered a mutual passion for cinema. Paula Baumgarten adored old films; Vic Pinkler amassed vintage black-and-white movies, primarily 1950’s film noir. It gave Vic great joy to build floor-to-ceiling walnut cases for their collected DVDs, and to alphabetize all within genre.
Paula doted on humble rolling pins, wooden hamburger presses, and other kitchen collectibles. She had cooked and baked with these, and once considered a career in catering. Now her kitchen tools dwelled behind shiny glass doors.
Evenings, Vic liked to stay home, lay his hands on DVD movie covers, photo albums, the body of his bride. Ever since the Pinklers’ country club wedding in Woodmere, Long Island, Vic made it his business to provide for his wife’s every pleasure.
He brought in chefs from two of his restaurants to prepare specialties: pork cheeks and quinoa with kale-leek compote one night; veal medallions with trumpet mushrooms and elephant-garlic puree the next.
Vic imagined holding a plate to his wife’s face to watch her lick it clean. Thought of her as “Poodle.” Eight months after their wedding, she was thirty pounds overweight – but that made her even more bountiful to him. He was over twenty pounds heavier than when they met.
After each evening repast, after the help cleared the dining room table, Paula’s assistant, Aurora, laid out peignoir and gown, but only after drawing a bath. Vic permitted his wife to bathe herself, but insisted that he massage floral-scented cream into her skin afterwards. He wanted her soft and aromatic for their bedchambers. Neither mentioned violet bruises that dotted Paula’s body after Vic rubbed her down.
Paula’s heart no longer fluttered when Vic kissed her. Instead, her stomach churned. He was boorish: mashed his lips onto hers, allowed spittle to collect in the corners of his mouth. He did not caress or blow on her skin, as he had early on. He rubbed as if eradicating stains.
Early in their marriage, Paula believed she could teach Vic to make love to her in ways she preferred. Any touch that even hinted at finesse was rewarded with an “ooh” or “yes.” But he never caught on, and didn’t take to “special requests.” Eventually, Paula faked orgasms – as soon and as loudly as possible – during each encounter. Anything to put an end to his dull manhandling. She didn’t know if Vic noticed.
Her husband felt anxious about Paula traveling on her own – elsewhere in Long Island, or, God forbid, to Manhattan – so he provided her with a driver for her “jaunts.” She’d always traveled by herself, to cooking school, or to estate sales to add to her Depression glass and kitchen tool collections. The couple no longer discussed her safety. It was easier to slide onto the back seat of the Lincoln and let Errol drive her. Did Errol report on her whereabouts? She chose not to think about that.
It was unseasonably steamy that Tuesday in May when Paula asked Errol to bring the car around. She wore long sleeves generally, but that day she sported a sleeveless shell under a three-quarter-sleeved, linen jacket. She’d be comfortable, but maintain coverage. Aurora murmured her agreement.
Paula learned on the Net about a nearby estate sale that featured vintage rooster-adorned flour and sugar sets, and similar, farm-motif dinnerware. She hadn’t been to a sale or auction since before her marriage.
She recalled: rolling dough for lattice-top peach pie, her arms strengthened with each back-and-forth motion; blowing upwards to cool sweaty bangs; tasting ambrosial Freestone peach juice on her fingertips. Errol nodded at her in the mirror. She cleared her throat, smoothed her lips. He’d caught her smiling!
Upon inspecting the items for sale, Paula felt disappointment – like a peach pit – lodge in her throat. Nothing looked as good as what she already owned. The estate site was stuffy. She felt hemmed in. Paula pushed up her sleeves, fanned her face with one hand.
Someone gripped her arm. Thin hand, powerful grip. She tried to pull away without looking at the aggressor.
Fingers snapped near her face. “Paula, is that you?”
It was her “Basic Mediterranean Cuisine” classmate, Gloria…Something. Gloria’s eyes darted from Paula’s forearms to her face. Then the woman stepped back and gazed at Paula from head to toe.
Why, thought Paula, did she leave the house today? Could she get away now? Pretend she didn’t recognize Gloria? Feign illness? Her life felt like a bad movie: disagreeable characters, questionable script.
Two arms pulled her away from chattering buyers and boxes of wares, towards a long hallway. She found herself sitting on a tufted chair, holding a tissue offered by Gloria, blotting tears and disobedient mascara.
Her former classmate pointed at tiny bruises on Paula’s wrists and forearms. Gloria’s mouth moved fast. “Who’s doing this to you? Why do you put up with it?”
Gloria LaSalle enlisted the help of Errol. Despite opposition – or fear – on the part of Aurora, Errol packed up many of Paula’s clothes and all of her collectibles the same day, and took them to Gloria’s house in Elmont. Errol left Paula’s shoe shelves and jewelry boxes untouched.
When Vic Pinkler arrived home at six p.m., the glass cases were empty. His sound systems, large-screen TVs, wall paintings, bedroom safe, and all their jewelry boxes were untouched. He didn’t notice the paucity of clothes in Paula’s closet. He thought he’d been robbed – by a fussy, peculiar thief. Vic phoned the police. Errol called contacts to secure a new job.
Gloria LaSalle pressured Paula to stay away. Paula was extremely fortunate to have run into Gloria. Maybe her former classmate could get her a catering job? An apartment? To show her gratitude, Paula Baumgarten would start eating less the next day.
Iris N. Schwartz is a fiction and nonfiction writer, as well as a Pushcart-Prize-nominated poet. Her work has been anthologized in such collections as An Eye for An Eye Makes the Whole World Blind: Poets on 9/11; Stirring Up a Storm: Tales of the Sensual, the Sexual, and the Erotic; and forthcoming in Grabbing the Apple: An Anthology of Poems by New York Women Writers; and in such journals as Ducts, Pikeville Review, Vernacular, Round-Up, NYSAI Press, and Writing Raw.
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