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Queen of Swords: a novel

Chapter X- The Emperor

I saw how cannibalistically my father looked at her. Like he wanted to eat her. Like he wanted to absorb those young eyes, young legs into himself any way he could get them. Charmian tease him, livened up his day. She made dressing and toileting flirtatious, erotic experiences. Practical pragmatist, he was happy to pay for it, only concerned to block her freedom. He was terrified she would someday “trade up”. With that reasoning, he had to marry her. And who can blame him? chorused my sympathetic sisters. What else does he have? Probably somewhere deep inside, he actually misses Mom.

But Mom was an “ux”. Mom was a fungible. Mom was a slot anyone could feel, the more youthful and sexier the better.

Dad had always introduced me to his girlfriends. It was “our little secret.” At first I enjoyed knowing something my sisters and my mother didn’t know. I knew where he really went on Saturday nights. I know who really sent the coded letters, phone calls, email. It gave me a certain sardonic pleasure as I stood stolidly through Mom’s endless lectures on compassion, temperance, sobriety, honor, honesty, self-denial, the fruits of the spirit, blah blah blah. The brutal truth of the matter is that there are those who have the facts and there are the clueless ones living in a cloud castle and the latter are supported by the former. Dad grumbled about the expenses of his double life but I could see he was really proud of it. It was an entitlement, a tribute to his station I life. He knew he had arrived when he could support both an Angel in the House, and a Slut in an Apartment.

The problem with the Angel in the House is that good mothers, clever hostesses and efficient housekeepers aren’t very sexy. Maybe the need to “clean up as you go along” that Mom was enthusiastically recommended to me was too ingrained. Yes, my father told me all about it. I was flattered when my father forgot I was a little girl. He refused to choose girls’ names for any of us (and of course my mother had no say). Mom said he always because he always hoped for a boy. He said he didn’t want to see us sidelined, marginalized, discriminated against. Not his daughters. I was named after his own father.

My father’s tastes ran to busty blondes with names like Honey and Ginger. When I became a teenager I despised him just a bit. He was too dismissive of modern art and music, telling me an “educated my taste” would favor timeless treasures; the things he liked. But in women his taste was decidedly third class.

I would have bet you anything Mom didn’t know a thing about his secret life. I thought she was happy; ensconced in her dream world until cancer came calling. I thought she must have been, to recommend that life to her daughters. Now that I’m older I see things are more complex. Maybe she just needed us to justify her life. McKenzie and Darby were happy to oblige.

After her death when we sisters were going through her things I found that letter Ginger had written Mom. I’m sure neither woman ever told Dad. It was a nasty letter. Dad had told Ginger he never loved Mom and that his marriage was a soulless sham. He said he would get a divorce if his wife would only step aside. Ginger concluded that my mother refused to let him go.

This is the part that haunts me. I get the sex thing; but why did he have to pretend for a moment – to anyone – that it was a love affair? He prided himself on logic and organized; he jeered at “emotional messes.” Did the love angle make it sexier, or did it just make it cheaper? To me he called her his “bit of fluff” as if she was so much static electricity picked up accidentally by contact with the carpet.

Another expression of his concerned the problem of undesirable eventualities: “cost of doing business.” That’s what they were, those women, the Ambers and Heidis. Quotidian lubricant and the cost of doing business.

Some things about the dead we’ll never know. We agreed to destroy the letter. None of us mentioned it to my father.

He explained why he hadn’t married Ginger after Mom died. Some women you just don’t marry. Our mother was the last of such a wealthy family that as far back as anyone could recall their sole means of making money was having money. (My father described himself as a clever immigrant upstart. An “arriviste”.) Mom was interesting but odd-looking; with a greyhound’s face and body and the kind of aristocratic education Dad signed us up for. That’s the sort of woman that gets married. My father wanted to forget how she’d endowed him, and she had so much money had always had so much money, she didn’t care about money. Yours, mine. Whatever. A man has to feel like a man. If that makes him a little raging tinpot lord, it’s your cross to bear.

When he invited my sisters to Sunday brunch and I saw Charmian wearing my mother’s jewelry, I knew what he was going to say.

What did we say? We said Congratulations.

The most awful thing was that he accepted her plan that I should become like her. He was totally happy with her dramatic upgrade of her tastes (and her expenses). He thought it showed how “classy” she really was. All it showed was how much money he had. Life at home got so bad I was relieved to go to boarding school. Makes me feel pretty guilty now.

I yearned for that thrill of a “new life”. Starting over, completely fresh. Of course it’s never really new because you drag your bad old self along. At least she’d have to stay out of my love life. I found her assumption that anybody’d have to be paid to take me was pretty insulting, especially since she was the one requiring payment. Any romantic distress she ever found me in, she threw in my face. Sometimes I wonder if I’m stuck with Penn because of her. To find someone new I’d have to venture out into obviously hostile terrain, and even though Penn is an online addict of everything you can be addicted to, he looks presentable. At least.

Coming home from school was so scary after a few months I didn’t even want to do that. Fell right In with her plan, unfortunately.

Things began to disappear. Charmian always had a “new look,” with my father in the background purple with bruises (“he’s so clumsy” ) yet glowing with pride over her. What a great student she was. Ambitious. Such a credit to him.

She sneered at poor Mom’s Early American antiques acquired at such cost. All that had to go. But it was what my father knew. How would he know where he was? Of course he was clumsy. She threw away all mine and my sisters “juvenilia” – she was certain we wouldn’t want to be reminded of how embarrassing we’d all been. She dropped plenty of conversational hints, letting me know she’d read my diary: “Is that the one that stood you up for prom?” That kind of thing. “Was he your third grade crush?” It was excruciating.

My father yelled at me to treat her with respect. He actually said, “She’s your mother.” I shudder to recall. Fungible. It meant I no longer had a home. I was effectively disinherited.

But I know, deep in my heart, he might have mixed up Darby with McKenzie and McKenzie with Darby, but to him I was not fungible. To him I was always different. He was cruel to me the way we’re sometimes cruel to our own selves. He needed me, wanted me, trained me to protect him, from himself if necessary, but I only acted on the “selfishness” memo. I failed him.

Was she secretly hating on him while sitting all fake-adoring at his knee, showing him catalogs, getting him to buy her this and that? He was such an eager instructor when he thought he had a captive audience. Was she planning his death while she pushed his wheelchair through art shows and fundraisers? I’m think he had been brought so low he may have loved her right up to the end, astounded that anyone so luminous would deign to change his catheter.

She must have thought she’d won the lottery when she found out about the will. Everything in trust to her for life. Scraps for us if the Queen ever acts like a mortal and dies.

But she had an Achilles heel. They always do. My father taught me that. One battle does not make a war. Flashy, overconfident generals forget about the backdoor where they are vulnerable to attack. Pain, guilt and rage are valuable allies that can be channeled into planning and strategy.

She never wanted to talk about her past. If I questioned her, my father barked at me to lay off. He thought he knew what I was getting at, attempting to degrade her. But I wanted facts, the way he taught me. Something actually happened, and it matters what it really was. That’s enshrined in law, in our very Constitution. The Constitution says its what you really did is that matters, not what you wanted or what you thought. Dr. King said we are the “content of our characters” and on that we can be judged.

But in his pathetically dependent way I think my father, poor foolish, naked Emperor, wanted her to have appeared from nowhere, as if she sprang fully grown right out of his need. But was that a capital offense? His desperation and his longing? He didn’t deserve to have his life snuffed out.
She had an irritating manner of answering questions with another question, cocking her head on one side and saying, “I wonder why you need to know.” Under that thin mask of superiority I thought I saw a lot of ill-concealed envy and hostility – often towards people she’d never even met, people who’d done nothing to her.

She was always status-checking too. The angriest I’ve ever seen her was when I told her gold lamé was out of date. That’s when I saw the visible scars of some desperately hardscrabble upbringing. To her, life’s a game called “who’s on top”. There has to be a winner; and the fastest way to get up there is to create a lot of losers. My poor patrician mother would have said that someone like that is insecure and we need to have compassion for her limited vision. Her suffering.

Because my sisters refuse to talk about her I had to use Penn as a sounding board. He’s a child of multiple divorces. Whenever he got close to a step-parent or sibling, his mother would dump that family. I thought he was being supportive when his contribution to my despair was usually, “I hate my parents too.”

I thought it was better than nothing. Both of us were psych students. Every personality disorder I read about smelled of Charmian. Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Check! The “not quite real” disorder. All her interactions with others are so ritualistic I got the feeling we are like ghosts to her. Figures on a chessboard. Sometimes I thought that creature looking out at me from behind her varicolored eyes was barely human; some demon who had killed, dismembered and eaten the real Charmian a long, long time ago.

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