“She’s so plain, Charles supplied mentally. He had a quick image of Joyce, too big for her age and, by his standards, much too fat. Her hair was straight and of an indeterminate brown. At sixteen she still stood in a babyish manner, the toe of one moccasin over the other. She called her parents ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mummy,’ and she had never in her life expressed a willful or unsuitable thought.”
Joyce’s plainness is coupled with her innocence, but her mother Marian’s beauty suggests innocence to him as well.
“She groomed herself with the absorbed concentration of a cat; and she often sat before a mirror, chin on hand, contemplating, quite objectively, her own image. She was self-contained, and she had few friends and almost no enemies. She never gossiped, and it was doubtful if she had, even in fancy, been unfaithful to her husband. Charles, indeed, had long ceased even to wonder about this.”
A working model, Marian’s life is as mysterious to Charles as his daughter’s life.
“Once, when she had been interviewed for a magazine that described the home lives of fashion models, she had said, in Charles’s hearing: ‘I’m always too cold in winter and too hot in summer. I always have a slight headache. I’m always just a little bit hungry.’ He had been surprised to hear her say this. She had never volunteered anything to him that would suggest she found her métier disagreeable. Her edginess, usually, was caused by other agents: the telephone, servants, people who drank too much, parties that went on too long, and noise of any kind.”
Charles doesn’t know either Joyce or Marian very well and he consistently misjudges situations. For instance, he expects Marian will be upset by the news of Joyce’s transgression, but he is not expecting her anger to be directed towards him.
“I think it’s going a little far to say you can’t trust any man, at any age,” said Charles.
“I don’t know any,” said his wife.
“Well,” he said, “there’s me, for instance.” When she did not reply, he said: “Well, it’s a fine time to find out you don’t trust me.”
Marian quickly builds a fiction which allows her to respond as a dutiful wife without backing down on her position; it appears contrived and the proof of that seems evident in her continued distress (rather than anything she says).
The reader longs to point out a weakness in Charles’ argument.
That weakness is Bernice (Bambi) Lawrence, with whom Charles has dinner, in her apartment, two evenings a week.
Over-long dinners like the one he has enjoyed this very evening, preceding the conversation with his wife about men’s trustworthiness. A “dinner” which extended to such an hour that Charles returned home at eleven, playing the “difficult client” card (which, technically, Marian lays on the table for him to scoop into his hand – so often has this round unfolded in this manner).
There were tears and reproachfulness at that dinner table, too, however. The mushroom soup and eclairs were satisfying; the expectations and delivery were not. Charles disappoints both mistress and wife, although their disappointment ricochets in the ensuing arguments.
Readers know very little about Bambi, and Charles’ confusion extends to include her, his observations limited, however, so that readers can only speculate. He isn’t interested in knowing the women in his life, and the women in his life are not insistent upon his knowing them.
Marian is not unhappy in the same way that Carol is unhappy with her engagement in “The Other Paris”.
Nor is she as disappointed as Cissy in “Autumn Day”.
But this is not a working-but-flawed marriage like those in the backgrounds of “An Unmarried Man’s Summer” and “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street”.
This seems the kind of marriage that plays out before “The Rejection”, before “Madeline’s Birthday”, before “The Wedding Ring”.
The unravelling kind.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the twenty-fifth story in Going Ashore. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week’s story: “Mousse”.