Mrs. Saint: First Two Chapters
Is it cheating if I think about a man all the time that’s not my husband? A man I don’t see and haven’t seen in years, outside of my dreams. I wake up with James on my mind and go about my day still thinking about him. Even on a day like today—one that I’m dreading.
Christmas will be here soon, not that I’m counting. But major holidays are hard to lose track of. Advertisers won’t let us forget. Hell, I’ve seen so many ads on TV and in the Detroit Free Press for a Sunbeam Mixmaster, a Kodak Instamatic 104, and a West Bend Flavo-matic that I’m now convinced I need one of each. And after watching a black-and-white animated TV commercial for Etch A Sketch, I bought one for my daughter. My husband, Raymond, doesn’t know about the Etch A Sketch, and he also doesn’t know about my daughter. Bad as it sounds, I sometimes try to forget that I had a child. Have a child, I mean. Her name is James, after her father. She’s still alive, but I lost her.
Right now, I’m in the bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror, practicing my smile. Not bad, but my eyes are giving away my sadness. I open them wider, hoping to mask my pain. Only now I look crazy. I close my eyes and massage the lids and smile again. Better. But I need makeup—lots of it. Foundation, mascara, a cat eye, and some red lips might help. Whatever it takes to give me a glow of contentment, which is the exact opposite of how I feel. I don't know who I am any more. He's changed so much about me that I don't even recognize myself. He says he's elevating me. Making me into the wife he wants me to be. I wonder when he's going to work on himself. Become the husband that I need him to be. I'm miserable. But while I’m around Raymond’s folks, I’ll have to smile a lot and pretend to be happy. And definitely make sure I talk right or his mama sho will correct me. I wonder if my husband is happy, or if there's a woman he’s thinking about just as much as I think about James? I’ve never cared enough to ask him. For one thing, my husband is the type of man who will do more than think about another woman. He’s a cheater who just hasn’t gotten caught…yet.
My hair is pulled back in a high bun, which is one of the hairstyles Raymond approves of on me. He said I can either wear it pulled into a bun, or down, long and straight. He hates for me to wear it curly, or bushy, as he calls it. He told me to be ready when he gets here and to not take all day on my hair. I’m ready, but he’s still not here. He should have been home an hour ago. I retreat to the sofa in the living room and wait for him to walk through the door. The house is spotless, as always. I’m certainly no stranger to cleaning. I’m wearing Miss Jackson’s red dress. The pretty one with the rounded neck with black lace and Christmas trees printed all around the bottom. It’s the perfect dress for the party that I feel forced to attend. I wish I could get away with saying I’m sick again. But Raymond told me before he left for work this morning that I had to go. He said he was tired of showing up alone to the parties his parents host. He said he could have stayed single if he had to do that. He should have stayed single for more reasons than that one.
“So let me understand this,” I said to him. “You want me to attend parties with you, just so you can disrespect me?”
He didn’t answer that question. Instead, he flew out the door, claiming he was running late, because he knew what I’d say next. He knows the real reason I don’t go to his parents’ house anymore. The last party of theirs I attended was an outside one for Labor Day, and Raymond was flirting with a drunk woman; he was drunk, too, and dancing with her instead of me, through three whole songs. He had the nerve to start whispering in her ear while Jackie Wilson’s “Doggin’ Around” was playing, of all songs. That’s when I lost it and marched right up to them, pulled him away from her, and told him I was ready to go. When he didn’t leave, I threatened to tell his parents how he was disrespecting me. He didn’t seem fazed, so I stormed into his parents’ house and confronted his mama.
“How can you allow your son to treat his wife the way Raymond treats me? Is that the way Mr. Saint treats you? I’m not going to be no man’s doormat.”
“Hold on now, young lady,” Mr. Saint interjected. “You’re out of place. Whatever the issues are between you and my son are between you and my son. Leave me and my wife out of it.”
“The main issue is about respect, which is something he should have learned from the two of you.”
Raymond’s mama was chopping up an onion for the potato salad she was making and didn’t blink once. That’s when I knew she was a little different. If my words didn’t make her blink, the onion she was chopping sure should have.
His father left to get Raymond, who flew through the side door seconds later, snatched me by my arm in a rage, and said, “Are you happy now? You’ve ruined what was a great party. Let’s go.”
“Handle that,” his mama said, making eye contact with Raymond while still ignoring me.
Instead of hitting me, my husband issued me a warning while he drove home. “You better start acting right, or else.”
“Or else what?” I asked.
“I’ll handle it.”
He hasn’t hit me…yet. Good thing for him.
My legs are crossed as I put a glass of homemade spiked eggnog to my lips, trying not to mess up my lipstick. I don’t drink, but I take a sip to make sure Raymond can taste the gin. I wanted to have something different for him. He prefers a Tom Collins for his after-work cocktail, and expects me to have it ready as soon as he strides through the door. And that’s not all he wants ready. Sometimes we don’t even make it to the bedroom. He’ll bend me over the armrests of his La-Z-Boy that’s near the entrance and have his way. I’m in no mood for sex today. No mood for the party, either.
I start flipping through the pages of the Sears Christmas Book, trying to decide what to buy my husband. What would I get James? I shrug at the thought. It doesn’t matter. I’m sure he’s married now, too. So, I need to try to make the best of this marriage and focus on my husband; he likes to smoke cigars, so I might get him a few of those. He shouldn’t care. A person who doesn’t give gifts can’t expect to get any.
Last year, me and Raymond spent our first Christmas together as husband and wife, but it wasn’t much of one. We didn’t even put up a tree or exchange gifts, which reminded me of the way my life has always been—nothing to celebrate. And, if I’m being honest, the whole reason I got married was to escape my old life. I was lost when I met my husband. Still am. All I knew when I was dating Raymond was what I desired from a man, which was unconditional love. I want to feel safe, but being married to someone who puts forth little effort toward my happiness has disturbed my peace. Raymond’s always looking at the big picture, which is why he said he wanted the money we got from our wedding guests to go toward buying our own house, and he didn’t want to spend any extra money on frivolous things like gifts. He said he can’t be the king of a castle if he doesn’t have one, and having a castle is more important than anything for him right now. But this Christmas I want to celebrate. I need something to brighten my life. Maybe the decorations will, even if they’re temporary.
I finished our Christmas stockings this morning and hung them on the mantel of our fireplace, along with some garland. I didn’t sew on our names, just Mr. and Mrs. I also hung a beautiful wreath on our door that I bought at Hudson’s with my own money. It’ll be the first thing he notices when he gets home. I hope he likes it and doesn’t ask me how much I paid for it. It wasn’t expensive, but I’m sure I could’ve gotten a cheaper one at Kresge. That’s what I know Raymond will say—either that, or that we don’t need one at all.
Nat King Cole’s “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is playing on the record player my sister Betsy gave me. I wonder what she’s been up to and why she stopped calling me. Last time I saw her, she was all into some man who didn’t seem into her. His eyes were roaming more than Raymond’s. And he’s got three kids by two women and another on the way, so I heard from one of my customers who’d know, since she’s his sister. When I tried to give Betsy some advice a few months back, she cussed me out. Told me I never have anything good to say about her or anyone, which isn’t true. I have a lot of good things to say about her, just not about the men she chooses to be with. Regardless, one thing I won’t do is beg for someone’s love, even my own sister’s. If she doesn’t want me in her life, so be it. If a no-good man is more important than her blood sister, so be it, too. At least she loves him.
When ten o’clock comes, I know we’re not going anywhere, so I start getting ready for bed. It’s Friday, so I’m sure Raymond’s out drinking somewhere. I briefly think about calling his parents to tell them we won’t be there, but I shrug the thought away. They’ll figure it out when they don’t see us.
I’m awake, thinking about James and how much I miss his touch, when Raymond quietly enters the bedroom with his dress shoes in his hand.
“Where have you been?” I ask, right after I turn on the lamp on the nightstand. I’m shocked to see he’s wearing a suit. Yesterday morning he didn’t leave the house in one.
“Where do you think?”
“I don’t know, which is why I asked,” I say with an attitude.
“At my parents’ for the party. Where else would I be?”
“Did you forget that I was supposed to go with you? And that you told me to be dressed and ready when you got home? I was dressed and ready. So why’d you go without me?”
He cocks his head to the side and curls his lips. “You didn’t even want to go, Lily. You never want to do anything that involves my parents. You’re always sick when they have a party, so since I was running late anyway, I just went straight there by myself.”
“Where did you get the clothes from?”
“My parents’ house. I did used to live there. Why are you still awake at three in the morning, anyway?”
“I couldn’t sleep, wondering where my husband was.”
“Pssh. Husband? I wonder when you’re going to start treating me like one.”
“What more do you need me to do?” I ask.
“Act like a woman who cares about my needs and puts them above all else. You always seem so distracted. Like your mind is a million miles away when it should always be on me.”
This is when I should probably assure him that I do care about his needs and that my mind is on him. Only, I don’t like pretending, so I don’t say anything, and after I go silent, so does he.
Later that day, close to one in the afternoon, Raymond forces me to call his mama and apologize for a lie that he told that I have to pretend was true.
“Mrs. Saint, this is Lily—”
“Yes, Lily,” she says dryly. “And how are you feeling today?”
“You’re sick quite a bit, which, if you were expecting my grandchild, I could understand and even empathize, but you’re not. Are you?”
“No, ma’am, I’m not.”
“Ma’am? Mrs. Saint,” she snaps. “And why aren’t you?”
“Why aren’t I what?”
“Expecting my grandchild. You’ve been married to Raymond for over a year. By now you should already have one child and expecting your second. My son wants nine children.”
I choke on the Vernors I was drinking and start to cough uncontrollably. My eyes start to water. I’m having trouble breathing. I pat my chest repeatedly and clear my throat. “Nine kids? He never told me that,” I say with a strained voice.
“Well, did you ever ask him?”
I think about her question, and honestly can’t remember if I did or not. But I do remember asking James how many babies he wanted me to have for him. We were at Belle Isle. I remember him saying, “Many as you can have will be good.” So far, I’ve had one for him, and I pray one day I’ll find our baby girl, and him, too.
“Since you’re always sick, do you think you might have some feminine problems that makes it difficult for you to conceive?”
“No, I don’t think I’d have problems conceiving.”
“Well, how would you know? Have you ever asked your doctor?”
“Next time you go to the doctor maybe you should. And the next time we have something at the house, I do expect you to be here. Sick or not. Or I’ll start taking it personal. Good-bye.” She slams the phone down but misses the hook.
I hear her husband ask, “Who were you talking to?”
“That girl our son married. Calling here with a bunch of lies. She was sick. In the head, maybe. Didn’t Raymond say her people are from Louisiana? Don’t they practice voodoo down there? I swear our son is acting like he’s had a spell cast on him. Why else would he marry her? She’s not that cute. Too bad he never pursued Ovetta. We’d have tons of grandkids by now.”
Ovetta. I’m so tired of hearing that woman’s name. My husband throws her in my face enough, and now I have to hear his mama mention her.
“You didn’t hang up the phone,” her husband says.
“What?” she says.
“The phone is off the hook,” her husband says.
A few seconds later, she says, “Hello? Lily? Are you there?”
“Yes, Mrs. Saint, I am. And I heard what you said about me.”
“Well, why are you eavesdropping? You should have hung up when I said good-bye.” She slams the phone down again, and this time I hear a dial tone.
I bet James’s mama wouldn’t be that mean to me. At least, I hope she wouldn’t be.
Mornings, my alarm clock is Raymond getting on top of me at five a.m. with his hot breath panting against the side of my neck. Over the past fourteen months, I’ve learned to expect as much. Being married to him is a struggle. He’s real selfish in the bedroom. Not only does he want sex way too much, almost like he’s got a problem, but that thing of his is much too big. To the point that it doesn’t even feel good. Of course, he’s proud of his size. Some men really think they’re doing something if they got a big one. I don’t care how large it is, if he doesn’t know how to use what he’s got, if it hurts when we’re doing it, I don’t have any use for the extra inches. What woman would find enjoyment from feeling like she’s being stabbed down there? That’s how I feel, like I’m having sex with a sharp object. The only good thing, the sex never lasts long because he’s always in a rush for work. And I can usually get him to come quickly if I moan as soon as he enters me and lie to him by telling him how good it feels. I hate feeding his already gigantic ego, but, for me, it’s all a matter of survival. Lord knows, I’m barely holding on.
I start silently counting the seconds at one, one thousand, and usually by the time I get close to sixty, one thousand, it’s over, except for the throbbing. But a few minutes sitting with my cloth ice bag between my legs usually numbs the pain.
Today, I’m lying on my side with my back to him, sleeping soundly, in the middle of one of the best dreams I’ve had about James, when Raymond pins me down, climbs on top of me, and starts bouncing, causing the mattress to squeak. I immediately start moaning loudly and counting silently.
“Shush,” he says. “I don’t want to hear all that moaning.” I go silent, praying he’ll only last a minute. Next, I start counting, and as I approach one hundred and eighty, one thousand, he’s still bouncing. “I might be late for work, but I’m comin’ before I leave here.” He keeps bouncing, and now my head is throbbing. I feel like I’m on that spinning ride at Edgewater Park called the Roundup. I’m so ready for this ride to end and for him to get off of me. “What’s wrong with your pussy? Why isn’t it wet?”
“Huh?” I say, tightening my face.
“Your pussy. What’s wrong with it?” he says. If it’s something wrong with my pussy, why is he still in it, jabbing away? “I may as well be fuckin’ a Dixie cup.” He rolls off me, searches the floor, and flings something against the wall. “An empty can of Crisco? What sense does that make? You knew we were going to need it.”
“There’s another can in the kitchen. I can go get it,” I say. Anything to have a break.
“No, I don’t want you going anywhere right now.” He hacks, and I feel a wet wad of his smelly saliva between my legs, and I gag.
“Eww,” I say, tightening my face up even more.
“Next time, replace the Crisco, or it’s going to be my tongue wetting your walls. You probably want that, anyway.”
I shake my head. “No, I told you I don’t want that,” I say, mad at the thought. The only man’s tongue I’d let go down there is James’s.
“It’s not about what you want. You’re here to please me, not the other way around,” he says, still bouncing. “Talk dirty so I can come.”
“What do you want me to say?” I ask.
“That’s the problem with marrying a virgin. Y’all don’t know how to please a man. For starters, you could tell me how good my big dick feels inside of you.” He doesn’t even give me a second to clear my throat and lie before he says, “Forget it. I’ll let my mind do all the talking.”
My eyes are on the ceiling. I’ve stopped counting because it feels like it’ll never end. Finally, his body jerks and he grunts, but the sounds are muffled by the pillow that he pressed his face into. He rolls off the bed and storms to the bathroom. I wonder who he pretended I was this time. Ovetta, the “perfect” wife, probably. The woman he’s always telling me I can learn some things from. The only thing I want to learn is how to escape this controlling, narcissistic, sex fiend.
When I get up to iron Raymond’s work clothes, his juices start to run down my legs. I wish I loved him so something like that wouldn’t make my skin crawl. I rush to the bathroom for a towel to clean myself with. When I open the door, he’s standing in front of the mirror with his eyes closed and his head back, masturbating. My eyes widen in disbelief. Real sex ain’t enough for this man? I tiptoe out, close the door quietly, head to the kitchen to use a dishrag to wipe my legs, and toss the rag in the garbage when I’m done. Then, I start ironing, humming along to Del Shannon’s “Runaway” that’s playing on the radio. I’m so relieved Raymond will be heading to work soon and away from the house all day.
Before Raymond leaves for work, he slaps my behind and says, “We’re going to finish what we started as soon as I get home. Greet me at the door in your birthday suit.” I hand him his black lunch pail and thermos and don’t say a word. “And make an appointment to see your doctor. It’s not normal for a woman to be that dry. You might have some health issues,” he says, slamming the door behind him.
I imagine I am dry, but not because of any health issues. I wasn’t dry when I was with James. I know it’s nothing wrong with me. So, going to my doctor won’t do any good, unless he can prescribe some medication that will make me love my husband. Not in my case, because that’s an incurable disease. I don’t want to say I hate Raymond. Hate’s such a strong word. I didn’t even feel that way toward my own mama, and I had good reason to. But what I will say is this morning I’m going downtown on Griswold and State to open a bank account. And one day soon, I really will run away.
I’m sitting in the lobby of the Detroit Bank & Trust Company, wearing a turquoise bowed dickey dress and a pair of black squash heels. My hair is in a beehive updo, and I made my face up with an inky, black cat eye and coral lipstick like Estelle Bennett from The Ronettes. The dress I’m wearing belonged to Miss Jackson; it was one of her statement pieces. I miss her so much. If she were still alive, I know I never would have married Raymond. She would have taught me better, not that she didn’t make her own mistakes when it came to mens. One was letting Shorty go. I miss him, too, and his trombone. Shorty finally made it big as a jazz musician, and I’m so proud of him. Those were my real parents, not by birth, but most definitely by choice. Miss Jackson wore this dress when she was taking care of business, which is exactly what I’m doing.
As soon as I enter the bank, a young White woman hands me a questionnaire that I quickly fill out and hand back to her. “You can have a seat, and Mr. Nelson will be with you in a moment,” she says with a smile. She’s not rude like most of ’em. But you never know. All smiles ain’t real.
While I’m waiting, I’m reading the April 1960 issue of Ebony magazine. Nat King Cole is on the cover with his wife and baby. It’s an old issue from last year that I brought along so I could read the article “How To Tell When You’re In Love.” I tried to read Nat King Cole’s article “Why We Adopted Kelly,” but I couldn’t finish it because it brought back too many sad memories for me, wondering about my daughter.
I flip to page 112 and start taking the quiz before I even read the article, because I really want to know if there’s the slightest chance that I’m in love with my husband. Lord knows, I wasn’t when I married him, but it’s been a little over a year, so it’s possible my feelings have changed, despite the terrible sex. There are two columns: “Are You In Love?” and “Are You Still In Love With Your Mate?” The first question under the “Are You In Love” column is: Are you aware of his faults and his virtues? Ooh, the man has way too many faults, and I can’t think of one virtue. The first question under the “Are You Still In Love With Your Mate” is: Do you at times put the needs of your husband above your own? At all times, I do. I don’t even know what my own needs are anymore. Other than to leave.
What I discover after finishing the quiz is that I am in love, but not with Raymond…with James. No surprise there. I answered yes to all five of the questions for James. Yes, I’m aware of his faults and virtues. Yes, I could enjoy an evening of interesting conversation together without petting. Yes, I would laugh a lot when we were together. Yes, I would rather eat hamburgers with him at a drive-in than dine on steak with someone else at an expensive restaurant. And yes, of course, I would want him to be the father of my children. He’s already the father of my first child, wherever she is. If she has to be with another family, I pray she’s with a good family with money, and I pray she never has to struggle the way I am.
“Mrs. Saint,” a man says. I continue reading my Ebony. When he repeats himself, I remember that I’m Mrs. Saint. I sigh at the loss of my last name before glancing up at him. “I’m Mr. Nelson, and I can see you now.”
I follow the short White man to his desk and sit in one of two empty seats across from him. I’m not tall, even when I wear heels, but as I was walking behind him, I could look down and see the top of his head that’s bald in the center and as shiny as his wingtips. He’s older, probably in his late forties or early fifties, wearing a dark-colored suit and a striped tie.
He takes a seat behind his desk and smugly says, “You put on your questionnaire that you’d like to open an account.”
“Yes, and I hope you haven’t run out of toasters. I’m supposed to get one for opening up a new account.” He doesn’t respond, but he better give me a toaster. Not that I need one, but if they’re giving it away, I’m taking it. I remove an envelope from my purse with a hundred dollars inside of mostly ones and five-dollar bills that I saved in a month’s time from cooking dinner plates six days a week.
“Is your husband here with you?” he asks, looking around the bank.
“No, this account is just for me.”
“It would need to be either a joint account, or your husband would have to give his consent.”
My eyes narrow. “What do you mean by consent? It’s my own account that I want to open with the money I earned. My own money. Why would I need to get my husband’s permission to do that?"
“That’s just the way it is. I’m sorry if you weren’t aware of the rules and you wasted a trip.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense. Is this because I’m Black? I knew I should have tried to find a Black-owned bank.”
“Coloreds don’t own banks, at least not in Michigan. Besides, any woman, colored or not, would still need her husband’s permission to open an account, or, if she’s single, a male relative.”
“First of all, I’m not colored, I’m Black. Second of all, I need to know why a woman can’t open an account. Saying that’s just the way it is, isn’t saying enough.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s just the way it’s always been.”
He shrugs. “I assume it’s because men are simply better with handling finances.”
“That’s a lie. My husband is terrible with finances.”
“Well, that’s probably because he’s…”
“Because he’s what?” I ask, daring him to say it. “Black?” I say, raising my voice. The high ceilings cause the word to echo. “It has nothing to do with the color of his skin; it’s just because of him. So, you’re telling me that just because I’m a woman, I can’t open an account here.”
“Not just here, at any bank.”
“Imagine if they had a rule that short men couldn’t get married probably because tall men are just better with handling women. How would you feel?”
“Seeing that I’m now divorced, in hindsight, I wish they would have had that rule,” he says, standing up. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t assist you today. Feel free to return with your husband, and if we have any toasters left, I’ll be sure that you get one.”
“I don’t need your damn toaster. I have a General Electric Toast-R-Oven, brand-new.” I stand and march out of the bank with my head held high—past all the White female tellers. If men are so good with finances, why do they have women working here? That’s what I should have asked him. That’s all right. I’ll save my money at home, in a shoebox, the way I have been, and wait for a Black bank to open.
I’m in the middle of having one of my customers teach me how to play the card game cribbage when I just so happen to glance up at the wooden wall clock that also has an attachment that stores four of my spices, and I realize Raymond could walk through the door any minute. He’s usually home by now.
“You gotta go,” I say as I shove the wooden cribbage board back inside the Milton Bradley box.
“Be careful,” Freda says, picking up one of the metal pegs from the floor. “If I lose any of these pegs, my husband will be so upset. He loves this game.”
“Sorry, don’t mean to rush you, but I can’t have any customers in this house when Raymond comes home if I want to keep cooking for you all.”
“That’s all you had to say. Let me hurry up and get outta here. Because I may be married, too, but one thing I don’t plan on ever doing is cooking.”
My customers are my one bright spot. Even though most of them only stay long enough to pay for their plates. All of them compliment my cooking, which always puts a smile on my face, even today when I made something as simple as crown o’gold meat loaf. I love knowing that I’m appreciated. And that’s why I’ll never stop doing this. No matter how much Raymond fusses about it. If he’s not going to let me leave this house, I have to let life in. And my customers right now are my life.
Less than five minutes after Freda leaves, Raymond’s walking through the door with his usual frown on his face. He looks me up and down and shakes his head. “That doesn’t look like a birthday suit.”
“I thought you were joking.”
“I wasn’t, but I’m not in the mood, anyway.” He slumps down in the recliner. “This isn’t going to work.”
“Us?” I say, raising my eyebrows with hope as I stand directly in front of him.
He crinkles his brows and says, “No, not us. I’m tired of doing a poor man’s job, Lily. And it’s getting harder and harder for me to go to that school every day. I deserve to be rich. I want to go to work in a suit. But you can’t wear a suit sweeping floors.”
“You may not be able to wear one to work, but you can on Sundays if you start going to church.”
“Please, Lily, none of that church talk today. Going to the so-called house of the Lord has poisoned your mind, which is exactly why you can’t go anymore. Pray at home.”
“How can you take church way from me, too? I barely leave the house as it is. I need church, Raymond.”
“No, you don’t need anything but me. I’m your church. Worship me.”
“What do you mean, worship you?”
“Right now, I’m down, and I need you to make me feel better. Can you give me some words of encouragement, at least?”
I reach for my Bible that’s on the mantel. “I can read some scriptures.”
“I don’t want to hear that. I want you to lift me up, in your own words, not the Bible’s.”
“But I don’t know what to say.”
“You’re my wife, and you don’t know how to lift me up?”
“I would think that the word of God—”
“You could start by telling me that I’m too smart for that job and then you could also tell me why I make such a good husband.” When my eyes look down, he says, “Why do you love me?” I shrug. “What does that mean?”
“I’d rather not say. I don’t want you to feel any worse.”
“Please don’t. I definitely don’t want to feel any worse. So, are you saying that you don’t love me?”
“Like you said when we were dating, I’ll grow to love you. I’m still growing.”
“Well, since you can’t think of anything good to tell me, I guess you’ll just have to make me feel good. And if we spent the rest of the day in bed, that would make me feel real good.” He pats my behind.
“But you said doing it with me is like doing it with a Dixie cup. You don't want to do it with a Dixie cup do you?” “
Get the Crisco.”
He stands and walks to the bedroom, and suddenly I feel those walls closing in.