A few feet away from me, Paul was talking to a group who were all listening intently to him. My husband's posture, including the position of his arms, was calculated to put people at ease. He'd taught me to mimic these movements. "Sending the wrong signals can cost money. A mistaken inflection can create a bad impression," he'd instructed.
I couldn't be myself at Paul's events, couldn't take a chance of saying or doing the wrong thing. Everyone there was either a donor, a potential donor, a city politician who needed to be coddled, or a celebrity whose status raised the status of the charity.
My concerns weren't due to my own anxiety -- I had almost lost a major donor the year before.
We'd been at a small anniversary dinner for friends at an East Side restaurant when, halfway through our meal, Paul noticed Dominick Gray, a donor, and his wife, Sally, seated across the room. For several months Paul had been unsuccessfully trying to woo the Grays, but each time dinner plans had been made the Grays canceled them. In fact, we were supposed to have been taking them out the next evening, but that morning Dominick Gray had called Paul and said Sally was having some stitches removed and dinner might be too much for her.
At Paul's urging, I followed him across the restaurant to say hello to the Grays.
"I'm so sorry you won't be able to join us tomorrow," I said to Sally.
"So am I, but I have this thing with the doctor and Dominick thinks I should take it easy."
"Well, I'm sure you'll be fine. I hope we can reschedule soon," I answered.
An ordinary conversation.
Except it wasn't.
Dominick called Paul the next morning and demanded an apology. How dare I insinuate his wife would be fine? How did I know her visit to the doctor wasn't a serious problem? How could I be so flip?
Paul explained I'd only used a figure of speech, that I was an optimist, sometimes overzealous in my positivity. Eventually he placated Gray, but when Paul came home that night, he used the incident to prove a point.
"I defended you, Julia. But now you understand why I warn you to be so careful. Even the most innocent comment can be misconstrued."
And so I was careful. Probably to the point that many of Paul's associates must have thought at times that I was too quiet -- boring, even. I learned to ask questions and interview the people seated on either side of me at dinner parties. I censored my thoughts so that telling smiles or smirks never gave me away. I would go home at night with my face frozen into a mask like the masks I collected and hung on my bedroom walls. Features forever pasted in one position -- a sincere smile and intelligent gaze. Composed. Interested. Not curious. Not flirting. Not judgmental. Not any of the things I was.
Finally escaping the cocktail crowd, I made my way to the ladies' room. Inside a stall, I lit a cigarette and reminded myself that this too would pass.
I have gotten through too many situations saying that. This too shall pass. My mother used to repeat it to me when I was a child and scared of something. This too shall pass, she would say and hug me close, and I would smell her Shalimar perfume and feel, for the moment, so very safe. And she was right; whatever it was I was apprehensive about eventually did pass. After I had my nervous breakdown in college, I found myself chanting it like a mantra. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. And except for a few scars, it did.
I dropped the cigarette butt in the toilet, flushed, then walked outside. Normally I don't smoke, but I gave myself a treat whenever my presence was required at one of Paul's fund-raisers: a cigarette for being good, for behaving.
I stood at the mirrored vanity and reapplied my lipstick, inspecting my face for smudges, for stray eyelashes, for anything that didn't belong there, including the look I always feared seeing: the wanton, dissatisfied look. The bad Julia's face. It never appeared, but still, I apprehensively watched for its unwelcome return.
Copyright © 1998 by M.J. Rose
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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