The Virgins Club
A Novel by Carla VanBemmel
In this milestone year when they all would turn forty Josie's birthday was first, in May, then her own in June and finally Wyn's in August. Why is it that girls always remember each other's birthdays. After seeing nothing interesting under the sign of Cancer she checked the your birthday today paragraph to see what the year held for Josie. Prospects for romance with a Taurus. Look for new career developments by October. Life-altering elements are in the air with the new moon this month. Listen to the advice of trusted friends but make your own decisions where finances are concerned. Dropping the paper on the counter she examined why she didn't recall the import of this day until just now. Most likely denial, she thought, considering the big four-oh was looming in the near future for her as well. It had just been so long. She ran the water and carefully measured the coffee. Cold, fresh water and properly measured freshly ground beans were the keys to the perfect cup of coffee. Evan had taught her that, among other things. Coffee and contentment and finding joy in the moment. She gazed out the open window at the early, dewey spring morning taking shape outside. She took in a deep breath savoring the mingling scents of brewing coffee from within the kitchen and blooming lilac from without. The tickling in her nose had subsided and she was pleased with the easy intake of breath, a reassuring sign that she would not need antihistamine today. She knew it was best for the baby while she was nursing if she could tolerate the allergies without medication.
Nina was learning from experience that the best time of day to steal a few moments for herself was early morning before the baby woke up. Not being a morning person by nature it was a new ritual that she was learning to find pleasure in. After determining that all was still peaceful upstairs she took her coffee and retreived the paper and stepped out onto the patio. Settling into a chair she sipped her coffee and found herself thinking once again of Josie. How was forty treating her, time and gravity granted favors to no one unless you had a plastic surgeon on retainer or maybe a portrait hidden in the attic. Having not seen Josie for nearly twenty years there were a lot of gaps to fill in. Despite the fact that Josie appeared on TV weekly in that idiotic melodramatic adventure series Nina didn't associate her coming of age best friend with what she saw on the tube. She preferred to think of Josie the way she had been over twenty years earlier. Impossibly long black eyelashes against sunburnt cheeks as she surfaced from the river, her child's giggle and whispy voice erupting from her as her as her tiny-framed yet voluptuous body emerged from the water and collapsed in mock ecstacy on the grassy bank. "Omigod, the water is fabulous today!" She would moan. "You must come in." No wonder she's an actress, thought Nina. We should have known then, should have seen it coming that one day she would be chewing up the scenery on primetime television. Nope. Josie had not required the surgeon's knife or implants or injections. She was a natural beauty among the many cultivated, nipped and tucked imposters that populated Hollywood. Apparently she had eschewed acting lessons as well as shedding all of her adolescent modesty in her head-first dive into show business. Nina and Wyn had always changed into their swimsuits in the woods with no qualms, it was private property and no one else had ever happened upon their little watery recreation area, at least not when they were there. But Josie always had to go back up to the house to change if she had neglected to wear her suit under her cut-offs and tee shirt. Currently she revealed more leg and cleavage to the camera than she had ever displayed on a regular basis to even her closest girlfriends. Maybe the money was that good but Nina suspected it had more to do with the illusions of the business. Josie had a script to work from and had wardrobe and make-up people hovering around her so she must be an actress. Never mind the depth of the material.
Oddly enough, the last day they had spent together was Josie's twenty-first birthday. Yes. Nina laughed out loud as she remembered the night in question. Josie's sweet, tiny face always got her carded upon entering a bar. Maybe it still did, a gift in itself at forty. Nina was rarely asked to show I.D. even though this was a college town with many incidents of underage hopeful drinkers attempting entry into the pubs. She had been getting in without question since she was seventeen, there were some advantages in being tall and possessing a throaty voice. It didn't hurt to be keeping company with a man who was seven years older, either. Their misspent youth. It was fortunate on this evening that Josie had already attained legal age or it would have been a short celebration. They drank their way up one side of the street and down the other. Josie consumed her requisite free birthday drink at each establishment and they thirstily moved onto the next. For weighing in at approximately ninety-five pounds Josie could seemingly drink her weight in rum and Cokes, walk a straight line to the bar and with clear, steady eyes request one more without a slur to her speech. She seldom suffered through a hangover so she saw no need to amend her habit of trying to drink every man in the free world under the table. The evening had been a blur of merriment, flirting, and chocolate cake. It had never seemed right that Wyn had not been along that night but she couldn't miss her interview for a promising summer job that happened to be two hundred miles away. The three girls had been practically inseparable since they first met when they were sixteen. JosieNinaWyn. Like it was one word. Like they shared a common consciousness as well as constant companionship. They determined that they were actually triplets who were separated at birth and invented numerous scenarios as to their true parentage and the tragic incident that had torn them apart when they had been only toddlers. Not likely considering their vastly differing physical appearances but delicious to ponder. JosieNinaWyn. With Nina in the middle functioning as the gravity that kept lovely moon Josie in orbit around earthly Wyn. Something had interrupted their careful balance that night and it was somehow not right that the threesome was no longer intact. The last time all three of them had been together was the hurried lunch date the day before when Josie and Nina had seen Wyn off for her interview. And then, unavoidably and unpredictably, without earth mother Wyn Nina's gravity could no longer hold onto Josie and their beloved satellite had torn away from them. There should have been some warning. Maybe just a shift in the jet stream or a dream that felt ominous but vague upon waking. Something.
Nina had a full year left to complete her bachelor's degree and Josie, well, Josie had been given a choice near the end of her third year. She had been informed that she had to choose a major and that from the classes she had completed successfully her track was somewhat unclear. Josie was oblivious to the fact that bachelor's degrees were not offered in hockey cheerleading and vodka gimlets. If that's where her talents lay certainly her father could influence the university to offer such a course of study. She would be required to complete two make-up courses during the summer session and then return in the fall under strict probation or face being tossed out of school. Josie started out with good intentions but without Wyn's influence she soon faltered. She made it through the first couple of weeks of summer school but was obviously bored with cell biology and blew off the remaining classes. She instead had taken to late nights out shooting pool and sleeping till noon, often with a first-name-only acquaintance who had to be spirited out without catching the watchful eye of August Parker. Rumor held forth that he had once nearly drowned an overnight suitor of Josie's older sister Annie by keeping him corralled in the deep end of their swimming pool with his shotgun. The gun hadn't been loaded but August enjoyed enforcing his proprietary instinct over his daughters and his property. To him there was little if any difference. Nina felt that she should have been along on more than a few of these outings, she could have used the distraction but was juggling two part-time jobs she couldn't afford to lose. Unlike Josie and Wyn she had no family money to pick up the tab for her education and living expenses. Even if she had, Nina's independent nature may have interrupted the cash flow and caused it to dry up. In any case Nina had been introduced to reality at a tender age and knew she would have to earn her way through life even if it interfered with her social life. Josie was burdened in other ways, particularly this summer.
Frustrated with their daughter's languid and sullen approach to life the Parkers sent Josie off to California to visit relatives and Disneyland and hoped the change of scenery would help her snap out of her doldrums. At first, she just lolled by the pool and worked on her tan and applied henna treatment to her hair. Josie took to the sun and the pace of life on the west coast and actually thought about looking for a job. Daddy was a soft touch but Josie grew tired of calling home and asking for a check to be sent. Encouraged by her Aunt Helen and her new red-headed confidence she began to tag along with her cousin Jill for commercial auditions. Helen had never been a stage mother but Jill had been spotted as a precocious three-year old by a motherly yet shrewd agent who was in the process of building a small talent agency. To Jill it was an easy part-time job that was going to see her through college. To Josie the work was a godsend where she was appreciated for her physical attributes instead of being assumed dumb because of them. She was surprised by how comfortable she was reading lines extolling the virtues of fabric softener and peanut butter. She couldn't believe she was being recalled and actually getting the work She couldn't believe that she was being paid so well for putting forth so little effort. Josie was a natural in front of the camera. She had found her calling. A sense of security that she had never felt around Nina and Wyn buoyed her up. They were both so smart and capable she had wondered at times why they found her interesting at all. Josie felt a bit disloyal, after all, they were her dearest and closest friends. But her head felt clearer due to the distance between them, she had something of her own to do instead of just following along. And it wasn't just that. It felt so different here, people looked at her differently, it was a relief to be away from prying eyes that were a little too familiar with you and your entire family history. It was enough to make a girl think about changing her name. The letter A, she thought, would place her at the top of recall lists and maybe give her a little extra boost. Walsh River had always felt like too tight a fit for Josie and the longer she was in Los Angeles the smaller and more boxed-in her home-town experiences became as she edited her memories and personal history to suit her new life. Josie Parker was shedding her old skin and feeling pretty comfortable in the new one she was growing. The transformation was complete when she was issued her Screen Actors Guild card for uttering three short lines in a crowded elevator scene in a movie that was destined for the drive-in theatre circuit. The role was forgettable as was the film but Adara Adams had arrived.
Wyn had graduated from college a semester early due to advanced placement testing and summer school, brainy girl that she was. She was home again later that summer but Josie was by that time off in California and they had only been able to talk on the phone. Before you knew it fall term had begun for Wyn and Nina. September through New Year's day was a blurr of class registration, studying, Homecoming, Midterms, Thanksgiving, winter graduation and finals week. Then it was off to early admission at Stanford Law School for Wyn. Josie and Wyn were now in the same state but in vastly different worlds. They only saw each other three times in the next three years. Law school was demanding and Josie was distant and always busy with auditions and various sessions with nutritionists and a psychic who was adjusting her aura.
Upon graduation from college, Nina's part time job in the gift shop at the Natural History Museum became full time, first as an assistant and after a year promotion to curator and restorer of fabrics and native costumes. During the three years that Wyn was away at law school Nina acquired a master's degree in anthropology that moved her up the payscale at the museum and a room mate named Evan. Evan the room mate evolved into Evan the published novelist and Evan the father, but to Nina's mother's chagrin had not yet become Evan the husband. Who, by the way, needed to be picked up at the airport that afternoon. Nina missed him. They had been together for eighteen years and she missed him when he was gone only four days. She was excited over the prospect of his return but felt a little bit silly at the same time. Excited and silly but grateful that he still had that effect on her. He had missed so many remarkable baby developments in those four days that she would need to relate to him in detail. Nina decided she really should call Wyn today, a tiny pang of guilt reminded her that they had not spoken in nearly a week. The passage of time had been altered for her of late. Time no longer was broken into neat parcels of hours and days but rather fragmented into moments of joy and contentment and the sweet fatigue that accompanies new motherhood. The twenty-four hour day was no longer her domain. Her day was now divided up into the increments of feeding and diapering and napping. These intervals were at first as changeable as the wind but were lately settling into a comfortable routine. Nina truly felt as if she had been hibernating, if happily. It was getting to be time to interview babysitters, too. Nina wasn't returning to work until August but she wanted to get comfortable with someone before she placed her child's care in their hands. The museum had been generous with maternity leave and her usual summer break so Nina had felt little pressure to deal with the issue of child care. Throw in a work-at- home dad and a two-mile-away doting grandmother and she felt even less pressure. But the time had come for a decision to be made so she turned to the classifieds to see if anything was listed there, maybe she would need to place her own ad.
Aside from the baby and Evan and her mother and Stan and of course Wyn her social circle had atrophied. That pang of guilt served to remind her that it was time to stop neglecting her friends. For Nina motherhood was a warm, milky, mystical state to be reveled in and relished, a full immersion baptism in the maternal pool of life. She just had not anticipated how completely she would fall in love with her child. The only thing comparable was the complete abandon that comes with first love, when you really have no idea what you're getting into, when anything and all things seem possible. Nina was torn from her revery by baby Isabella's hungry, attention demanding cry. Happy birthday, Josie, she thought as she climbed the stairs to greet her five- month-old daughter, happy birthday to you, wherever you are.
"Jesus, Mom, what's going on? As if she didn't know. " I can't believe you're doing this to me!" Nina was on the verge of a full-scale adolescent temper tantrum. She dumped her books and purse on a cardboard carton that was already sealed and labeled. "We can't move! I love the school here and you promised I'd get to graduate here, I've already been to two high schools! I won't go with you this time!"
Belle Bradbury looked up from her packing list. She was an expert mover. A consummate mover who knew the details of changing residence like the back of her hand. She gazed patiently over her reading half-glasses at her sixteen-year-old daughter. How she looked like her father when when her emotions ran high, her dark eyes blazed as she threw her hair back from her face to continue her protest of this just discovered injustice. "Calm down, child," Belle said soothingly, "Besides, the third time's the charm you know, so this third high school in Walsh River is bound to be good luck. And please don't take the Lord's name in vain, you know that upsets me."
"Upsets you! Upsets you!" Nina was not in the least interested in being soothed. "Well, I'm upset! You lied to me! Doesn't the Lord have something to say about that?" She picked up her things from the box and stormed down the hallway to her bedroom. The short hall did not quite allow her to vent all the steam she had built up so she slammed the door for effect. Instead of feeling relief she felt only weary and leaned heavily against the door as if to prevent a pursuant from entering after her. Nina fought back the hot tears that were trying to escape from her eyes. It was hopeless, just hopeless. Nothing would ever change or get better, she thought. Instead of crying she reached under her bed and found her journal. Today's entry would be lengthy and scathing. Whatever energy that might have gone into a crying jag was instead channelled into her writing. She knew she would be able to work undisturbed, her mother would not come after her to attempt to comfort her or to try to explain the impending move but would already be calmly back at the work of making it happen. The lists, the packing, the phone calls to make the seemingly endless arrangements. Packing up the stuff of their lives so tidily in boxes and suitcases like it was some sort of bizarre hobby she enjoyed. Belle Bradbury was the head roadie of this mother and daughter rock n' roll show and it was time to get on to the next venue on the tour schedule. This was the life Nina was all too familiar with and longed to escape from. It would be better to just live in the car. Forget about the dishes and lamps and the pictures on the wall. One bag. Just one bag, one change of clothes, one good pen and a dozen journal volumes to fill. Only one pair of shoes, too, her hiking boots, the most comfortable footwear she owned. Mom wouldn't come with me, Nina thought, because she would never be able to pare her packing down to one bag. She'd need a couple of them just to accomodate her shoes. Nina imagined one quiet place to set down that bag and never have to leave. To collapse into a comfortable chair and sigh deeply and contentedly and be assured that whatever came next was her own decision.
Most teenage girls find their mothers a bit weird but Nina had cause for such thoughts. Belle Bradbury possessed a wanderlust, an evasive approach to life that kept her constantly needing to uproot and move to greener pastures. She was able to rationalize this way of life by insisting to herself that it was better not to get too comfortable or familiar anywhere. Upset them before they upset you, by golly! Unfortunately, this was also her tactic in dealing with her daughter. It had never quite taken root but Belle felt that she was teaching Nina independence and self-reliance, qualities that would serve her well in the adult world. Yes, the adult world, so full of potential heartache and teeming with elusive opportunities, you need to be tough to survive and survive you must! Belle knew how to survive but not how to live, fleeing from life and trying to forget it was how she operated. Bob and weave, keep things hidden for information can be used as ammunition. Don't let on if you want something and certainly don't let on if you need it. She hadn't always been this way but she tried her best not to remember, remembering only brought pain and reopened that dark, empty cavern within her. Belle had a spiritual packing carton that she had sealed up years before. Keeping it closed up required constant attention and bits slipped out now and then. She always managed to slam it shut when its volatile contents threatened to spill. Remembering was something she blocked on a daily basis, Nina was so like her father in so many ways it was painful to be near her. The bats in Belle's particular belfry were identifiable and predictable. They were hers and she felt that she possessed little else.
Hal Bradbury had been so alive, so handsome, so wonderful and unexpected in her life that she took him into her heart without question. Four months from the day that they met they were married and Belle was soon pregnant. Belle and Hal were happy, truly in love and had the feeling that this was how life should be. A future ripe with the promise of what the world had to offer. They had a lovely house, though small, and Hal had ideas of building on to it as their family grew. Nina was born and Belle sewed curtains and cooked dinners and made plans for flower beds and a vegetable garden in the large yard. Nina flourished and life was good but it was all over much too soon. First Hal complained of headaches and would occasionally lose his balance and feel dizzy at work. He came home at midday with a headache that Wednesday and left his lunch untouched at the kitchen table. He took four aspirin tablets and sat down in the living room to relax and wait the ten minutes or so for the pain to subside. The ham and bean soup that was his favorite grew cold in the bowl as the cut edges of the bread on the sandwich became dry and began to curl. Half an hour later Belle came in with her arms loaded with towels and diapers from the clothesline to remind him of his waiting lunch and found him limp and lifeless on the couch. The clean, sun brightened laundry fell to the floor in a heap. Aneurism. What a haunting, odd sounding word. Four syllables waiting to burst in your brain and end your life with no regard whatsoever. Hal Bradbury was buried the day before his daughter's second birthday. Belle continued to walk the earth but she truly had died with him. Her body continued its daily routine of mothering and preparing food and reading bedtime stories but her taste for anything on earth was gone, she tucked all that had been herself into a dark little closet and closed the door. To care for anything again was to lose control. To lose control was to be hurt beyond endurance. Belle no longer took part in real conversation. She spoke in platitudes and quotations from literature and movies and old wives' tales, passing them on to Nina as though they were some sort of sacred legacy that must be preserved for future generations. All things, good and bad, came in threes. Sit on the table and you'll be married before you're able. If you spill salt, be sure to throw some over your left shoulder. The devil
lurks behind your left shoulder, you know, the salt in his eyes is to let him know that you know he's there! Bits of information that at times seemed strangely relevant but mostly, particularly to a teenage daughter, just seemed strange. She did her best to properly instruct Nina on the business of living although she was no longer a participant in it herself. She instilled in her the correct morals and virtues a daughter should know. But she never got too close or held her for very long because to look too long into those dark eyes was to see Hal again and be reminded of her loss. Nina should have been a comfort to her mother but instead was her greatest burden.
But children must eat and have new clothes to replace those they outgrow and the bills must be paid. Belle had no family to turn to and had shied away from developing any close friendships, Hal and then Nina had become the only people in her tiny circle. As detached from living as she had become she knew she alone was responsible for the care of baby Nina. There was some insurance money but not much, most of it had gone to pay for Hal's funeral and burial, what was left would see them through for only a few months. She owned their small house but it wasn't worth much more than what was owed on the mortgage. There was a car and it was paid for but Belle had put off learning to drive, instead relying on her husband to take care of such things. She had done fine running small errands and grocery shopping on foot. Anything that required her attention outside the home was turned into an outing with Nina and the stroller. The stroller was considered to be quite a luxury and Belle enjoyed showing off her daughter. Together they had explored most every point of interest in town, including the Quadrangle Green and the sizable public library and the compact campus of the local junior college.
Belle began to think about learning to drive. And about the young people her very age who attended classes at the junior college. Belle had not considered any sort of career, like the other girls who wore lavender smocks and ran the cash registers at the dime store all she had aspired to was marriage. With that one prospect already withered on the path behind her she decided the only real opportunity for her was to check into one of the few programs geared toward women. Did they accept women in her position as students? She seemed to recall neighborhood gossip about a young woman who had been a student in the nursing program and had become pregnant, when she married she had been asked to leave school. What if you were widowed and had a child? Would they even allow her in? The social confines of 1959 were closing in on her just like the four walls of every room at home when Belle finally decided to check into enrolling. To her surprise she found that she was indeed an acceptable candidate, something about hardship and providing community service. And she could apply for financial help in the form of scholarships and work-study. There were openings in the secretarial training, the beautician course, and courtroom reporting. The latter choice was intriguing to Belle and she signed up for the six-month course. The first three months would be dedicated to classroom work and the second half was to be a mix of some bare bones information of the legal and probate systems and on the job training. It would turn out to be the only thing that she found interesting at all and for the next fourteen years she would pull up stakes every couple of years or so and move to another county seat where there were new judges and other members of the legal community to impress with her work ethic and earlier career accomplishments. There would usually be some small advantage to rationalize the move, a small raise, better schools for Nina, a more pleasant town to settle into, but mostly for Belle it was just time to go. Nina got so she could predict when it would happen just from her mother's restless behaviour. And as she grew she became more and more resentful of the frequent moves and the pulling up and leaving. Nina learned to fall asleep to the clatter of first a manual and later an electric typewriter as Belle transcribed her work for the day. Belle didn't know how to be still. She only knew how to be busy.
Nina made up for the general state of upheaval in her life by making her own little corner of the world neat, tidy, and orderly. She paid great attention to detail and possessed a nearly fanatic skill of organization. Wherever they happened to live her closet was a careful reflection of how she wished her life would be. One particularly nice apartment they had lived in had built-in shelves in the closet for shoes and sweaters. Nina had been in a state of ecstsasy for the eleven months she and her mother had lived there. The shoes were neatly arranged on the shelves in pairs. Her clothes were hung longest to the left and graduated to shortest toward the right. Dresses, slacks, jackets, skirts, blouses. And within each garment category the pieces were arranged in rainbow order with neutrals toward the left. After each move Nina would allow a few weeks for them to get settled in and then peek into her mother's closet. She was always horrified and therefore never disappointed. She wondered how Belle could manage getting dressed in the morning with such a jumble of clean and worn clothing and was strangely comforted and repelled at the same time by the mingling smells of Wind Song perfume and stale cigarette smoke.
Nina's primary coping mechanism was writing in her journal on a daily basis. She wanted to remember and savor everything she experienced whether it was good or bad. She made it all her own by writing about it and through the writing she felt more real, more there. She had a reference to return to and see where she had been and what she had experienced. The hardest lesson had been the summer when she turned eleven. Belle had been charged with attending a seminar in the town they had lived in the previous year. In an attempt to make it something of a vacation Belle brought Nina along and encouraged her to call some of her friends from school and get together with them, perhaps arrange a pool party in the hotel's recreation area. Nina had been excited and called Julie and Lisa, they had done everything together in the sixth grade from girls' basketball to Camp Fire Girls. But Julie's family was off on vacation and Nina spoke only to the woman who was housesitting for them. And Lisa, well, she had so many things to do and what did Nina say her name was? Nina learned when you leave that you can't go back. The small hole that your absence creates slowly but surely closes in and heals up with only the tiniest of scars. Nina then purchased her first journal notebook and had kept them all through the years. They may not remember her but she remembered them. In great detail she chronicled her experiences accurately and lovingly. She routinely forgave her mother and tried to remember her father. Nina's memories of her father were fleeting and difficult to pin down. Sometimes she thought she dreamed of him but his face in her mind wasn't a true image, just a conjured one from the few photos she had of him. Frozen forever young, handsome, and smiling.
Dinner that night was quiet. Belle calmly explained the move to Walsh River where she would actually be a supervisor of sorts so it really was an opportunity she felt she couldn't pass up. As a county seat it was large enough to have a district judge seated there full time rather than the smaller system she was in now that just had a judge in for one week a month to handle whatever business that came up. Nina listened with the easy futility she had lulled herself into knowing that she had no choice in the matter. The grass was always greener. "You'll see," said Belle