After the girls leave for school and Les leaves for work, the house is very quiet. The children go first because the school bus has to take them clear across town. Since Les’s job is just around the corner, he sits at the kitchen table with me for forty-five minutes after the girls are gone and reads the paper and drinks another couple of cups of coffee. The house is quiet then, with just his sipping and page turning. Still, it’s a different kind of quiet later, after he gets his coat out of the hall closet with a great rattle of hangers and then pulls the front door shut behind him with a click. Sometimes I stand at the window and watch him walk past the empty bus stop, past the two giant sycamores in front of what used to be the Barlows’ house, until he’s out of sight.
Virginia Barlow was my closest friend, but her husband got a job out of state two years ago this July. Her daughters were about my Susan and Martha’s ages, and the four of them were best friends. After school started up again in the fall, the girls got themselves new best friends. Virginia and I wrote faithfully for a while and even telephoned every now and again, but it just wasn’t the same.
I’m never sure what kind of day it’s going to be until after Les and the girls have left, when it’s so quiet like that. Sometimes I just go right to the kitchen and wash the dishes, then go on upstairs and get out of my housecoat and bathe, get dressed, and fix my face, then trot right down the basement steps and do some laundry, iron a few of Les’s shirts maybe, come back up and plan what we’ll have for dinner, take the meat out of the freezer, sometimes whip up a dessert, and get all that done in time to go to my Circle meeting at church if it’s the day for that, or to run a few errands if it’s not. Then, if we’re not having company that weekend, I reward myself with a library book and a little afternoon nap, and pretty soon it’s time for the girls to come home from school. If we are having company, then I divide up the cooking and cleaning so there’s just a little to do each day; that way I still have time to read some.
Other days, though, it’s all I can do to get those dishes washed and the breakfast crumbs swept up before I have to get right back in bed with a book, and I don’t even get dressed until almost lunch time. Les doesn’t come home for lunch very often, but sometimes I worry that one of these days he’ll let himself in and find me still in bed with my housecoat on. I guess I could pretend I’m sick.
I pray for strength on those days, but it doesn’t seem to do a bit of good. Talking with Virginia was always much more helpful than talking to God, and if that sounds like I don’t love our Heavenly Father, I can’t help it. I believe God sent me Virginia to talk to, because she’s another woman. God and Jesus and all them are men and don’t understand women very well, is what Virginia and I decided together, and didn’t we laugh! When I was about twelve, I wanted to become a Catholic so I’d have the Blessed Virgin and Saint Anne and Saint Joan of Arc to talk to, but I outgrew that.
Today I’m a loyal member of the Mount Union Presbyterian Church, which is a tiny little congregation a few minutes’ drive from here. With big old Saint Mark’s Presbyterian Church within walking distance, Les couldn’t understand why I settled on Mount Union. He went to Mount Union a few times but he said the preacher’s sermons never went anywhere. Rev. Tollis isn’t a very dynamic speaker, I know, but the members at Mount Union are good-hearted and always act glad to see me and my girls. We visited Saint Mark’s a few times — Now, there’s a preacher who’s got something to say, Les said — but nobody even said hello to us.
I told a couple of lies just now. Mount Union is a full forty minutes’ drive from here and we only visited Saint Mark’s once; I felt I was dressed wrong there, with everyone so stylish and silent. Plus, I am sure that Mount Union is where God wants me to be. Susan and Martha love the Sunday School there — “sunny school,” Martha used to call it — and I wouldn’t miss a Circle meeting. I really get a lot out of our Bible discussions.
There’s a couple more lies. I don’t get much of anything out of our discussions. The best ones are when some other woman admits she’s as confused as I am. The worst are when everybody talks about their spiritual growth and answered prayers and I feel alone because, so far, God has never spoken to me. Which brings me to the other lie: I don’t really have any idea if God wants me to be at Mount Union or any church at all. How would I know?
I wish sometimes we discussed some book other than the Bible at Circle meetings, but of course that’s out of the question. I go to the library at least once a week and bring home all kinds of books. I get the books that are on the bestseller list, but I also get the books that are on a list of classics that everyone is supposed to have read. Nobody I know has read any of them, unless they were forced to in high school or college, and I wonder, Where are the people who make up those lists? I know I wouldn’t be able to say a word around those people if I ever met any of them, but it would be fun to be a fly on the wall and listen to them discussing Moby Dick or Remembrance of Things Past. Some of those books I would be reading and reading, saying to myself, This is me, reading a classic, and at the end of a couple of pages I’d realize I hadn’t understood a word.
I do better with the bestsellers, especially the ones by women. Almost all the women in my Circle read those books, and we sometimes talk about them before and after meetings, but never long enough for me to lead the conversation around to relating the things that happen in those books to what happens in everyday life, the way we do with the Bible passages. I have a lot of questions about things that happen in those books.
Virginia and I never got around to talking about those things either. We are a lot alike, kind of shy and embarrassed by personal topics. Only once did something really private come up, when she and her husband were considering going in together with another couple to buy a motor home. I was so jealous I couldn’t stand it: here she was planning to go off with this other woman and her husband and children instead of me and mine. (It couldn’t have been me and mine anyway, I knew; when I brought it up, Les said, What would we want to do that for? We have nothing in common. And I said, Nothing in common except we live on the same street and our kids are together constantly and Virginia is like a sister to me. And he said, Well, we can’t afford it — and then he went and bought a new car. So it couldn’t have been us sharing a motor home with them, but I was jealous just the same.) And then Virginia told me the deal was off because they had discovered that the other couple wasn’t interested so much in traveling together as in sharing bed partners. I could tell the whole idea just shocked and upset poor Virginia, so I didn’t ask any questions. Mostly I was relieved that she was still going to be my friend instead of this other woman’s.
It’s hard to remember now what Virginia and I did talk about. We talked about our kids a lot, I suppose, since they were so close in age. We talked about when we were kids, and how our mothers had raised us. We talked about men, and how they think that what they do is so important, when really it’s raising children that’s important. Our best conversations were when we would poke fun at men and roll our eyes and say, You know how men are, and laugh. We never talked down our husbands, just men in general.
I am a terrible liar. I talked down my husband all the time. Virginia almost never talked hers down, which made me feel bad sometimes, but I just couldn’t help myself.
Les doesn’t read books at all, just the Wall Street Journal and the sports section of our local paper. Otherwise he’s watching television: baseball, football, golf, tennis, even bowling if there isn’t some other kind of ball to watch. That’s what men seem to think life is all about: balls, I told Virginia once. I don’t know if she got it or not.
Mostly Les is at work. He is a financial planner and used to work in the downtown office but recently was moved to the suburban one, which I think was a demotion, but I keep hearing him brag to other men at cocktail parties about how convenient it is working so close to home. That’s what drives me crazy about men: the way they think they have to pretend that their failures are successes, that they never make mistakes.
I’ll get right to the point here: what I wanted to ask Virginia and wish I had the nerve to ask the other women in my Circle is, Did you ever have an orgasm? One reason I never ask is my shyness, but another is that it’s pretty obvious if they turned around and asked me the same question right back, the answer would be no. The women in the books I read have orgasms all the time, and what I want to find out is this: is there something the matter with me or with Les?
Sometimes I think it might be me, on those days I have to go back to bed right after breakfast, or on the days we have cocktail parties. Cocktail parties make me very nervous because they have to be clever and original. I usually spend the week before we give a party with my stomach in a knot, and on the actual day I’m always running to the bathroom, not knowing whether to sit down or kneel in front of the bowl. One time, when Susan and Martha were little, I got especially sick and Virginia took the girls all day for me and made two hors d’oeuvres besides: veggie dip and the prettiest stuffed mushrooms I’d ever seen. You’ve saved my life, I told her when she brought them over, and I hugged her and cried. That’s the closest I ever came to telling her what her friendship meant to me.
So it might be me, and not Les. But it was never good, not ever. From the start he made a big fuss over what he was doing and didn’t pay any attention to what I might do. I’m not expected to do anything, I guess — just provide the stage for his fabulous performance. Then I’m supposed to tell him how I loved it. Since I’ve never had an orgasm, I don’t know exactly how to fake one, but he seems satisfied with my little act. You’re the greatest, he always says afterward. You are, too, I say. It must have been in bed with Les that I learned to be such a liar.
Our library doesn’t have any sex manuals — probably because they’re worried kids might get ahold of them — but I did find a paperback one at the drugstore. It said that women who have difficulty “achieving climax” should try masturbation, which I didn’t find a bit helpful — the advice, that is. I’ve never masturbated in my life and don’t plan to start now, and that is no lie.
So I never get up the nerve to ask anyone about orgasms, but I don’t have to ask the women in my Circle about whether God speaks to them because they talk about that all the time. One time, Helen Green told us, all hushed and in awe, about how she was making Cincinnati chili and needed some cumin, but she was all out, so she prayed for some and right away there was a knock on her door and it was a neighbor returning the cumin she had borrowed. Now, I didn’t say a word, but that seemed pretty silly to me. I mean, why would God be paying any attention to Helen Green’s spices? But then I thought, That’s my pride talking; I’m expecting God to talk to me only about big, important things when I am a small, unimportant person.
So at the end of our Circle meeting that day, when we were all supposed to be praying silently for Millie Bradfoot — one of our members who was dying of cancer — I prayed for God to tell me what to cook for dinner. Nothing happened, so I went home and looked through the food section of the newspaper, waiting for something to leap off the page at me, a recipe that I would have all the ingredients for, or maybe just an ad for some special sale item that I had time to go buy and cook before Les got home. Nothing. Then the phone rang, and I went to answer it, thinking it might be Virginia calling to tell me what she was having for dinner, that maybe God would speak to me through her, but it turned out to be the person right before me in my Circle’s telephone prayer chain, saying that Millie Bradfoot had died.
Later that night (or maybe it was another one), after I hadn’t had an orgasm again and Les was falling asleep, snorting and fluttering, I thought, OK, the problem is I’ve been trying to tell the Almighty what to do when I should just be lying here not asking questions, just waiting quietly for His voice. So I waited and waited and listened to Les snoring and even went so far as to listen for words in Les’s snuffles and wheezes. But I just couldn’t believe that such ugly noises could be the voice of God.
Then just today, after Les and the girls had left and I had stood by the window listening to the quiet for a while, I decided that what I needed was a little fresh air, so I took a kitchen chair out to the back yard and just sat there. It started to rain a little, so I went back in to get my rain hat because I had just had my hair done yesterday. When I got back outside it was raining even harder, and I asked God why, if He was going to make it rain, had He also put the idea in my head to go out in the yard. And if He knew full well about the rain, why hadn’t He instead given me the idea and the energy to stay in and clean my stove? For that matter, if He knew how much I needed Virginia, why had He let her move so far away?
“And another thing, Heavenly Father,” I said out loud, “why do you talk to all the other women and not me? Why do you give all the other women orgasms and not me?”
“Am I ever going to have an orgasm?”
And then, from out of the clouds — I don’t think I just imagined it — came a small voice, but clear and penetrating all the same, and very short and to the point.
After I heard it, I just sat there, stunned, and then I ran into the house to call Virginia to tell her about it. I picked up the phone, imagining how Virginia would ask me, all excited, if God had a man’s voice or a woman’s voice, but then it dawned on me what I was doing. I mean, there I was interrupting a conversation with God to talk to Virginia. I had to laugh out loud.
So I hung up the phone, took off my rain hat — to heck with my hairdo — and went back outside. It was raining pretty hard, but I sat right down in the puddle that had formed on the kitchen chair, crossed my legs, folded my arms, and tipped my face up in God’s direction so that the raindrops made me blink.
“Why not?” I asked.