Excerpts for Liars and Saints : A Novel
They were married during the war, in Santa Barbara, after Mass one morning in the old Mission church. Teddy was solemn; he took the Mass very seriously. Yvette, in a veiled hat and an ivory dress that wasn't a gown, was distracted by the idea that she was in California, without her father there to give her away, and she was about to change her life and her name. "I, Yvette Grenier, take you, Theodore Santerre..." It all sounded formal and strange, as if someone else were saying the words, until she realized with surprise that it was her.
It was a quick wedding so Teddy could ship out, but they went two days later to a dance at the beach club, where she met Teddy's commanding officer at the bar.
"You can't leave this girl so soon," the officer said, looking at Yvette. She was wearing the ivory dress she was married in, because it had taken a long time to make it, and she wasn't going to wear it just once. It suited her, she knew -- it set off her slimness and the way her dark hair curled under at her shoulders -- and she blushed at how the officer looked at her.
Teddy said, "Sir?"
The officer laughed, and shook Teddy's hand again, and said congratulations on the wedding, and then Teddy was able to smile.
They both thought the CO was only joking, but he wasn't. He assigned Teddy to a squadron training at home, so he could stay a few months with Yvette. The Marine Corps put the new couple up at the Biltmore with the rest of the officers -- the guests had all fled inland, afraid of bombing -- and they went to cocktails and tea dances, and were together every night. By the time Teddy left to fight the Japanese, Yvette was pregnant with Margot.
She didn't tell her family about the baby right away. They were back in Canada, too expensive to call, and she didn't want to hear what they would say. Her father and brothers had said she was crazy to marry that flyboy -- he was an American, even if he had a Canadian name, and he didn't speak French. They would be poor as sin on his military pay, and then Teddy would just get himself killed and leave her stranded in California with nothing -- or worse, with a baby. Yvette thought they were being unfair. She couldn't please her father unless she stayed at home forever, and she couldn't do that.
With Teddy out in the Pacific, fighting in the war, she tried to read Hitler's hateful little book, to make sense of it. But the book made her angry, and she didn't see how the Japanese fit in, so she put it away. She was happiest when Teddy came home on leave, and they could go dancing and then stay up all night, in bed in the little rented apartment she'd moved to from the Biltmore. Teddy joked that sex made her talkative, instead of sleepy like normal people, but he would listen anyway, watching her and smiling in the dark. Sometimes he would kiss her in midsentence, as she told him everything she'd stored up while he was away.
And then the war was finally over, and Teddy was home for good. Little Margot was two, and the new baby, Clarissa, was almost one. Teddy took a job selling airplane parts for North American, and built a house in Hermosa Beach with a veteran's loan. When he couldn't stand the baby's crying, he pushed the bassinet out to the service porch and steered Yvette back to bed.
With a place of their own, they could invite people to it, and Yvette learned to cook for a houseful: John Wayne eggs and Bloody Marys for brunch. She made herself new dresses, and they had dancing right in the house. Cocktails started at five and the dancing went on till two or three in the morning, when Yvette would find herself singing "Those Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine."
Teddy didn't like to let her out of his sight, at the parties, but that was just because they'd spent so much time apart. Yvette was happy. Teddy stayed in the Reserves so he could fly once a month, and he loved those weekends in the planes. And the extra money was useful, with the girls growing out of their clothes as fast as Yvette could sew them.
Then Teddy was called to Korea, and they realized what a mistake the Reserves had been. At first Yvette thought it couldn't be true, that it must be a clerical error. Teddy had a family -- Margot was seven and Clarissa was six. Clarissa's face was a little mirror of his, and she watched him in the house, staring him down. When Teddy caught her at it, he laughed, and she laughed, too. Yvette couldn't believe the Marines would ask him to leave again. But it wasn't an error, and she took the girls to see him off on the train.
At the station, two of the young Marines were joking for the crowd, making sobbing faces out the train windows, saying, "No, don't take us, we don't want to go."
Clarissa started to cry. "Why are they taking them?" she demanded. "They don't want to go!"
Yvette said the men were joking and they did want to go, but Clarissa didn't understand. She threw herself on the floor of the Plymouth, wailing, and cried all the way home. Yvette was surprised at the passion of Clarissa's grief. She thought her daughter might make herself ill, screaming so hard on the floor of the car. She didn't have time to cry herself, she was so busy tending to Clarissa.
Being at home alone with two children was harder than being first married, when the other wives had all been waiting for their husbands, too. It was busier, but it was also lonelier. Yvette couldn't entertain alone, and she wasn't invited out. A woman alone was a liability, a wild card. She didn't know any women whose husbands were in Korea; they were all younger than she. When her only single friend, Rita, got married, Yvette couldn't go to the wedding, because it was in a Protestant church. Rita was hurt by Yvette's absence, and then she was another busy wife, and Yvette didn't see her anymore.
One day, while Teddy was still in Korea, Yvette took Margot and Clarissa to the beach. While the girls were playing in the water, a man came and sat beside her. She was ready to ask him to leave, but he was polite, and they talked about the girls, and she was hungry for talk. He said he was a photographer, and offered to take their picture for her husband; he said it was the least he could do for a man who was at war. So he came to the house, with a big flash umbrella and a camera on a tripod, and set up his equipment in the living room. Yvette made him a highball, and because the bottle of ginger ale was open, she made herself one, too. On an empty stomach it went right to her head. It was three in the afternoon on a Saturday, and she'd dressed the girls up for the picture, but the photographer wasn't in any hurry. He was clean-cut with clear green eyes and looked like he could have been a soldier himself, in khaki trousers and a pressed shirt. They talked about the situation in Korea, and he told an off-color joke about war brides. He asked for another drink and she made him one, but Clarissa stalked in and said she wasn't wearing nice clothes another minute, so the photographer arranged them on the sofa and started to fiddle with his flash.
Clarissa sat on the ottoman, and Margot stood behind, with her hands on her sister's shoulders. Clarissa hated to be touched by Margot, and her hair was coming out of its curls. Yvette pulled the hem of Clarissa's skirt to cover her knees. Margot smiled serenely at the camera, and nothing about her was out of place. Yvette felt like her own smile might look tipsy, so she pressed her hand against her lips to try to straighten her mouth without smearing her lipstick. Then they all smiled and got a big flash in the eyes.
The photographer took a few more pictures and said he thought he had it, but made no move to leave. He took up his drink, and Yvette let the girls go outside. She asked if he wouldn't take payment, though there was so little money, but he refused.
"A man with such a beautiful wife will want a remembrance of her," he said.
Yvette said nothing.
"Such pretty little girls, too," he said.
Yvette agreed that the children were sweet. Then the photographer grew serious.
"You are," he said, "the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."
She laughed, and tried to shake the way the whiskey was keeping a smile on her face so she could frown and send him on his way.
"I work with models," he said, still serious. "I know beautiful women. But your beauty is a radiance, it comes from within."
She wanted to tell him the radiance was from the whiskey, but she was afraid she might seem flirtatious. She thought of her father, who hadn't allowed her mother to go shopping without taking Yvette with her, in case she might be meeting men somewhere. But there had been no wars for her father, just the Depression, and the family under a tighter rein in a smaller house. And here was Teddy gone again, and this strange man who wouldn't leave.
Yvette stood from her chair to show the photographer he should leave, and then he had an arm around her waist and his lips pressed against hers. He kissed her so hard that when she twisted free, his teeth cut her lip. She sent him away then, with his camera and his flash, and did what she'd never done as a hostess: closed the door on him before he was halfway down the walk. Then she opened it again to check for the girls, and saw the photographer, flushed and angry, get into his car and drive away.
She didn't know how to tell Teddy what had happened. She tried to put it in writing but it came out wrong, and she tore the letters to pieces and started again.
The photographer came back with his prints when Yvette was alone in the house, and she opened the door just a few inches. He acted like nothing had happened, but she was cool with him. She made him turn the envelope sideways to get it through the door. It seemed better to keep the pictures than to have them out in the world. All week she had blushed when she thought of them.
"I'll get you a check," she said, when he let go of his end of the envelope.
"I don't -- " he said.
She closed and locked the door, found her purse and fumbled it open, feeling her heart in her chest. Teddy's name was printed on the checks with hers. She had no idea how much to give the man. Ten dollars? She wrote the check for fifteen.
"I don't want a check," he said, when she opened the door again. He was standing in the same posture as before, a hand on the door frame to support himself. She thought he was trying to be casual, but his voice was angry, and he wouldn't look at the check she offered. "I wanted to do something nice for you, that's all," he said. "I just wanted to do something for you."
"Thank you," she said.
"I'm not a bad man," he said. "I thought we could have made each other's lives a little better, that's all. That doesn't happen very often, you know."
"I'm married," she said, and she started to close the door, but he put a hand flat against it from the outside.
"I want you to tell me something," he said. "Is it really because you're married, or is it me?"
She closed the door against the pressure of his hand, and locked it, and hung the chain. Her heart slowed as she leaned against the door. The fold of the envelope, when she opened it, was damp with the imprint of her fingers. They were good, big prints on heavy paper. The girls looked like themselves: Clarissa a mess and Margot a perfect little nun. Yvette had a wild smile on her face, her eyes too wide, but you might not notice if you didn't know she'd had a drink in the afternoon.
She didn't send the photographs to Teddy. She talked to him on the telephone when he was able to call, but she didn't tell him anything because the girls were in the room. There was no one else to tell. She had never made up with her family over their disapproval of Teddy. Her older sister, Adele, was unhappily married, and in Canada, too, and no help.
Weeks went by, and every night she lay thinking about the photographer's kiss and the blood on her lip in the mirror, and it occurred to her to go to confession. She hadn't been to Mass since Teddy left; it was too much trouble to get Clarissa into Sunday clothes. Now she thought if she could just say what had happened, she might feel better, so she went alone to a church in the city, where neither Teddy nor she would know the priest.
The smell was overwhelming, of candles and flowers and polished wood. It was the smell of every Sunday of her childhood, the old ladies speaking French to her, the priest speaking Latin, the sins she could think of:I talked back to my mother. I fought with my sister. I didn't clean my side of the room when I came home from school.
She said a little prayer outside the confessional, and then she went in, all the trumped-up sins of her childhood following her, and the little window slid open.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," she said. "It has been six months since my last confession." Six months was how long Teddy had been on this tour.
"What have you done, my child?" the voice said.
"I..." She realized she didn't know what she was going to say. It had to be a confession, not an accusation of the photographer. "I tempted a man," she said.
"In what way?"
"My husband is in Korea. A man came to take a photograph of my family, to send to my husband."
"And?" the priest asked, when she didn't go on.
"I had a drink with him in my house, with my children there in the middle of the afternoon, and then he kissed me."
"In front of your children?"
"The children were outside."
"Did he only kiss you?"
"He had his arms around me. I struggled, and he cut my lip with his teeth." It was beginning to sound like an accusation. "But I tempted him, Father," she said. "I flirted with him. I shouldn't have let him come."
"What did you do after he kissed you?"
"I sent him away."
"Right away," she said.
"Have you told your husband?"
"I've tried to write a letter, but it sounds wrong, and I'm afraid my husband will misunderstand."
"Is your husband a jealous man?"
"I've never tested him." She thought of her father pulling her onto his lap, asking about her shopping trips with her mother. She always knew what her mother had bought, and had been in the departments before -- Kitchens and Linens and Hats -- so she could describe them to him, when she had really spent the whole day reading in the bookstore on the mezzanine.
"You're afraid you might test him now," the priest said.
"He's fighting for our country. And I've allowed a man to kiss me."
"But you struggled," the priest said. "You did what you could."
"Yes," she said, grateful. The weight of the last weeks lifted from her heart. It sounded like he would take her side.
"You were lucky the man didn't do more," he said.
"I know," she said happily, full of relief.
"You must tell your husband," the priest said, and the weight dropped on her heart again. "The sin of omission is as vile between husband and wife as it is between priest and confessor."
"Yes, Father." Her moment of hope had been foolish, selfish.
"Maybe it's not wise to have men in your house," he said.
"Say ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers, and say a prayer for me," he said.
She knelt in a front pew to do her penance. When she heard the priest come out of the confessional, she interrupted the Our Fathers to look at him over her shoulder. He was a tall man with a great girth, in Dominican robes, with black hair turning gray. She saw him look over the pews until his eyes stopped on her, and then he looked away. She finished her penance and said her prayer for him, and went out into the clear blue day, feeling more of a burden than she had felt going in, because now she knew without question that she had to tell Teddy what she had done.
Teddy was home on leave before she had time to write a letter that sounded right, and she put off telling him; she didn't want to ruin the lovely way it felt to have him home. It was just before Christmas, and they had a party and all the couples came. Yvette wore orange sequined balls for earrings and a new white cocktail dress, and Teddy made martinis with onions, and everyone danced. The girls stayed up for Midnight Mass for the first time, and it was so beautiful, with the lights and the choir. New Year's Eve they went to the officers' party, where there was a full big band, and they didn't get home until three-thirty in the morning, even though Teddy had to leave at six to go back to Korea. She had been pretending he wasn't going to go, but as she took off her shoes and her dress, she knew he was leaving and she had to tell him. She checked herself in her slip to see if she looked too drunk, and then she went out to the bedroom.
"I have something for you, before you go," she said. She got the envelope from the night table and pulled out the prints to lay them on the bed.
Teddy sat down to look. He said, "Look at you. You're so pretty."
She thought for a second that she could leave the story out; he wasn't angry and he thought she was pretty. But she went on. "There was a photographer," she said. "I met him at the beach, when the girls were swimming, and he offered to take a picture for you, since you were away."
Teddy's jaw tightened and he looked up at her and waited.
Yvette had to keep talking or she would never say it. "He came over and took the picture, and then he wouldn't leave, and he tried to kiss me."
There was a pause.
"Did he kiss you?" Teddy asked.
"I made him stop."
"What kind of kiss?"
"I don't know," she said. "He grabbed me, and kissed me, and then I got away."
"So he touched you, too?" Teddy's eyes were hard and intent.
"Just to grab me."
"Where did he touch you?" Teddy asked, in a voice that was like a threat.
"I don't know!" she said. "Around the waist."
Teddy looked back at the picture and studied it. Then he looked up at her again. "Were you drunk?" he asked.
She paused, trying to answer.
"You were drunk," Teddy said, and his voice was sharp and military, but low enough not to wake the children.
"I'd had a drink. I made him a drink, and I had one. But I didn't kiss him back, I didn't want him to kiss me. I made him leave then. I sent him away."
Teddy stacked the photographs deliberately. "How did you get these prints?" he asked, tapping their edges straight against the envelope on the bed.
"He brought them to the house. I didn't let him in."
"But you accepted the photographs."
"I didn't want him to have them." Her voice sounded desperate and she tried to control it. "They were for you."
"Did you pay him?"
"He wouldn't let me."
Teddy slid the prints into the envelope and looked at it on his knees.
Yvette had her mother's rule with the girls, that they couldn't go to bed angry with each other. If they fought, they had to make up before they went to sleep. Teddy washed up and went to bed without speaking. He had never been short with her before, and now he looked so unforgiving.
"Teddy," she said as she got in bed and turned out the light. "You're leaving soon. Don't be angry. I only love you. I never want to see that man again."
Teddy rolled over and propped himself on his elbow, and her vision adjusted to the dark so she could see his serious eyes on her. He made love to her then but he was angry, she could feel it in his body, and he finished with a hard-looking glare over the top of her head. By then the sun had started to come up. He packed the envelope in his duffel, and before the room was fully light, he was gone.
That tour was difficult for her; she wrote Teddy many letters, and received none. He called to give brief reports, but he didn't ask questions and the calls were short. The fighting was getting harder, and Teddy's fleet was losing planes. He was flying a C-2, which wasn't designed to dive-bomb, but they learned to make it dive-bomb, to support the men fighting on the ground. Over and over he would go in and drop his load in the dark mountains where the fire came at the troops below.
When he came back, his ears were damaged from the diving, and his balance was off. Sometimes he had to catch Yvette's arm suddenly, stepping over a curb or a threshold, to keep from falling over. He'd killed men from very low, and seeing the people he was killing changed him, too. He didn't talk about it as if it had changed him, but Yvette could tell it had. Korea wasn't the same as the last war. The fighting was harder than it had been in the Pacific, for him, and if he felt sure about the reasons for fighting, he wasn't backed up by so many other people feeling sure.
They didn't talk about the photographer, but the fact of him had gotten into their marriage, and she didn't know how to get it out. She thought the priest had been wrong, to say she should tell Teddy. Her mother had been right, to let her father think they had been shopping together in Kitchens and Linens and Hats. That was where her mother had been, shopping alone, so what harm was there? She mounted the clippings about Teddy in the photo albums, and she took pictures of the children to replace the photographer's prints in her mind. She didn't know where Teddy kept the envelope, or if he kept it, but she knew he had become a different man, not as hard as he was that night, but with more of the Marine Corps in his everyday voice and more suspicion in his eyes. He left the Reserves and took his job at North American again, and they settled into a life together that felt like a truce.
Copyright © 2003 by Maile Meloy