When you walk down the street in the small town you grew up in, you are never merely yourself. You are you, but you are also your affiliated multitudes: yourself at five, your mother, yourself at twelve, your father; one person smiles at your Aunt Matilda, another nods to your father’s cousin Lazarus. You’re the sum of every year you’ve toddled or walked or limped down the street, an inheritance of bloodlines and family alliances and feuds. Mr. Bern at the bakery still slips an extra chocolate chip cookie into your bag for ten-year old you. Miss Gloria at the paper shop still narrows her eyes at the fourteen-year-old you. And at the Reynolds’s anniversary party, Mrs. Welland regards you with feline hauteur, like a Persian on a tasseled pillow. But it’s your mother she’s despising, whom Dad went ahead and married despite what Mrs. Welland considered to be her very prudent advice.
At the bank, eighty-year-old Agatha still gives me a lollipop and a bone-shaped biscuit for Maisy. She scrutinizes me while her flying fingers divide and subdivide slips of paper. Beneath an impeccable grey perm, Agatha’s blue eyes are as bright as her new coins.
“Your Grandmother was such a lady.”
“Oh, well, thank you. I always thought so, too. ”
Agatha beams at me, approvingly, satisfied by the sum of my parts. “You look just like her.”
I don’t look like my grandmother, but it pleases Agatha to think so, and she means to compliment me. Eugenia was petite, fine boned, a patrician from her wide cheekbones down to her dainty ankles, ever sheathed in nylons and set off in heels. Eugenia Deer (of the Richmond Deers) was elegant and martini-cool. The Stewarts are built more along the strong-jawed Russian blueprint, with black hair and big laughs and brigand moods that swing with the barometer.
I’ve scrutinized myself for signs of Eugenia, but the only evidence of her I can find is a quirk of habit: we both have a minimum annual requirement of about 280 hours of reading in the bathtub. Eugenia was famous for her epic literary baths. My aunts often introduced their friends to their mother while she reclined beneath a strategic shroud of bubbles and Brontes. My grandfather built her a bookstand that fit precisely over the edge of her tub and propped up her novels. Bathing was a year-round affair for Eugenia, as it is for me. A bathtub is the best place in the world for reading. Shutting the bathroom door is like drawing up a bridge; turning on the tap fills the moat. Once afloat in watery solitude, your senses are deprived of the gravitational distractions of terra firma, and all there is is the story, in your hands and all around you.
And then if it’s the depths of winter and you live in an old house with drafty windows, a dram of rum in a glass by the soap dish triggers a resonance of heat that will leave you pink even through the next ice-stricken February day.
All the books on my shelves have water-marked jackets; their pages have been wrinkled open by steam, as if they were clandestine love letters from the author to another reader that I jealousy intercepted. Not all of these baths are relaxing: some books leave me hunched in tepid water, hair pasted to my neck, pruned fingers gripping the spine of Lisbeth Salander or Alice Sebold or some Welsh howling by Niall Griffiths. My body is held suspended by the water, I am held in suspense by the story, and I cling to the edge of the tub and grow chilly. An hour can pass before can I finally climb out, book-stunned and water-logged, more mollusk than mermaid.
My grandmother’s bathtub at Acorn Hill was the first installed in the county, a porcelain pool with deep curves that invoke Venus’s shell. The mantle above the fireplace would have been festooned with Eugenia’s costume jewelry. You can walk into the closet and stretch your arms out to run along rows of imaginary dresses in whispering silk and demure linen and loud rayon. A ten-foot mirror by the window reflects the opposite wall floor to ceiling. I come and stand in front of this mirror before every formal party, in whatever dress my sister or mother has suggested. I scowl and tug my hem and tilt my head and I try to assume the posture of a lady, the kind of lady Agatha at the bank says she can see in me.
Floating about seven feet up the wall above the bath is a door. It is apropos of nothing, an architectural third nipple. Accessing it requires propping a ladder in the curved floor of bathtub and taking your life firmly in your hands. Relics of past adventures are stored in there: my father’s leathers from motorcycling around Europe; a cane that transforms into a sword—the kind of things that we all secretly hope will be useful again one day. Every woman has a closet like this: difficult to access, prohibitive to trespassers.
Every now and then an old letter of Eugenia’s will surface like a scented bubble from one of Acorn Hill’s musty drawers; there’s a box of them stored in her closet. In those letters, from Reno, from Vero Beach, from Richmond, she reveals another kind of lady: a dame. When Grandma was seventeen she snuck out of her house and went to a speakeasy. The next day she arrived at breakfast with her hair curled to conceal six stitches in her forehead—her dance partner had lifted her straight into a ceiling fan. Later in life she would become president of her garden club, a pillar of her community, a lady who pinned her hats and kept her figure. But she was never the sort to let a ceiling fan get in the way of a good time.
When Eugenia was twenty-two, her first husband, then a Lieutenant in the Cavalry, was training his soldiers to replace their sabers with .45 caliber automatic pistols. When some of the men shied away from the guns, the Lieutenant had his wife demonstrate her shooting for the regiment. Eugenia could only hold the .45 steady for about three shots, but she always found her target. Being shamed by a sharp-shooting slip of a girl made them take up their weapons with determination. Eugenia was a crack-shot with a .45.
My sister Olivia and I both live in New York now. Olivia has Eugenia’s taste for tailored dresses and dinner parties, a ladylike brand of femininity reinforced by our mother’s own impeccable grooming and dedication to order. Olivia would meet with Agatha’s full approval. I wear wrinkled jackets with wadded notes and rolled up magazines stuffed in the pockets, a system reminiscent of my father’s catastrophic briefcase, which bulges with important minutia. We see each other often; Olivia will order gin and I’ll have rum. We spent our adolescence at cane-sword’s point while our distinct personalities mutated and matured. Now we laugh at exactly the same things, the way only sisters can laugh together, with the echoes of ourselves at six and eight and nineteen, squabbling and agreeing, the bloodlines colliding and uniting all at once.
My bathtub in New York is not something my grandmother would consider suitable to any purpose. It is short and shallow, a glorified bucket. Sometimes I wonder what Eugenia would think of me leaving her queenly bathtub dry and empty while I gallivant in this yankee city, cultivating tastes instead of gardens, watching my rent get raised instead of my children, attending parties but not hosting them. I don’t know if Agatha would approve, but I think the girl who snuck into speakeasies would.
That’s the key to becoming a crack shot with a .45, after all. You’ve got to set your sights, and then aim a little high.