Adèle was becoming quite dreadfully pregnant, but not even a baby could stop her from continuing to host her magnificent soirees musicales every other Tuesday evening in the salon of the Ratignolle apartment. Edna found it quite amazing; she recalled her own incapacitated state during her own two previous pregnancies, belabored by swollen ankles and midnight trips to the water closet. On the other hand, Edna was completely unsurprised at her friend's remarkable endurance; if anyone was the embodiment of motherhood, it was Adèle. Edna watched her as she nodded along to whatever her present companion was saying, eyes alight and cheeks as rosy as the ripest peaches of Madame Lebrun's Grand Isle breakfast platters. She was entirely in her element. Her petite lips moved around an inane utterance snatched from Edna's ears by the groaning of a cello. Even her noticeable pregnancy bump was somehow radiant and fashionable.
"Your Madame Ratignolle is quite something," Edna's father remarked, nursing his fifth flute of champagne. Edna hummed absently in agreement. The more intoxicated Edna's father was, the less likely he would confront her about attending her younger sister Janet's wedding. Edna thought briefly of Robert; she wondered what comments he would provide about the upcoming wedding and the soiree musicale and Madame Ratignolle's boundless energy.
Adèle caught Edna's eye across the room and licked her pretty little lips. The cello played on.
"Doesn't it ever get lonely here?" asked Adèle, caressing with delicate fingers the brass mantelpiece in the Pontelliers' sitting room. "If I had a house of this size all to myself, I think I should feel very lonely."
Edna scoffed. "Nonsense. There's Ellen and the cook and Joe to keep me company." A few days had passed since Edna's father, husband, and children had departed on their respective journeys, leaving Edna alone in the house with their servants.
"I doubt you keep them any company. Joe tells me that nowadays if you're not having a merry old adventure in the city you're holed up in the atelier painting your splendid little masterpieces," Adèle muttered. "Well. Speaking of your masterpieces, I believe you called me here for a reason. You haven't exactly been eager to receive many guests lately."
"No, you're right," said Edna. "I wanted to draw you, and so I shall."
"My, my. How forward. Did you only invite me here to be your model, and not, perhaps, because you genuinely enjoy my company?"
"Think whatever of it," Edna huffed. "You know, I heard somewhere that women who are too insolent during their pregnancies will birth green-skinned babies." She stood and offered her arm to Adèle before she could reconsider the manliness of the action.
Adèle laughed furiously. She took Edna's arm without hesitation and leaned against her thin frame. "You must think you're hilarious," said Adèle. The corners of her eyes crinkled like the pages of a mystery novel.
There was a slight curve in the bridge of Adèle's nose that Edna could not, for the life of her, capture quite the right way. She had drawn around a dozen unpromising sketches of Adèle's face before she set her pencil down and sighed.
Adèle clucked like a hen as she peered at the sketches over Edna's shoulder. "What in the Lord's name would compel you to think that these are anything but marvelous?" she asked. "You've made me ten times lovelier than I actually am."
Edna shook her head. "I'm afraid I could not do you enough justice. The nose—it's all wrong, and—"
"Oh, please. Will you stop fussing about it?" Adèle draped an arm around Edna's shoulders like a woolen shawl. "Just accept the compliment, ma chérie."
Edna gulped. A bead of dewy sweat formed at the base of her throat. "Fine," she said, "so I will. But first you must sit back down so I can get your nose right, once and for all."
"It's a good thing I adore you so much, Madame Pontellier," giggled Adèle, slipping away from Edna like a marlin through the open ocean.
"I was about to ask you what you were doing with Alcée Arobin, of all people, but I suppose you're a spirit that cannot be questioned," Adèle whispered to Edna as soon as they embarked the buggy, the heat of her blanket-soft breath ghosting over the shell of Edna's ear. The Arobin in question sat to Edna's left and pretended not to eavesdrop.
"If you really must know," Edna mumbled, wincing as the wheels of the carriage thumped over a loose cobblestone, "Monsieur Arobin and I have found a common interest in the racetrack. It's only sensible that we should enjoy it together."
"Well, if you were having such a wonderful time with the Casanova of New Orleans, why did you think it was necessary to invite me? You might have cultivated a love for the game through your Kentucky roots, but you know I have very little knowledge of racehorses and such." Adèle almost sounded offended as she tucked a hand against the inside of Edna's elbow.
"And yet you're here, aren't you?"
Adèle blinked. A cherry-pink tongue darted out like a hare from its burrow to wet those pretty little lips. "Yes," she said. "I suppose I am."
To Edna's left, Alcée Arobin coughed twice. He had otherwise been uncharacteristically quiet for the length of the buggy ride. Edna's cheeks flared briefly. Her flush disappeared in a matter of seconds, but she would regain it once she was in the stands of the racetrack, feverishly betting on horses with Arobin gesturing enthusiastically at her call and Adèle observing mirthfully at her elbow.
The ancient grandfather clock in the Pontellier parlor had just struck ten when Adèle announced that she needed to leave.
Edna nearly pouted. "But we were having so much fun," she whined, swirling a glass of her husband's most expensive Cabernet Sauvignon.
"Oh, believe me, I certainly had more fun today than I had expected to," replied Adèle, bunching up her frilly skirts and struggling to her feet, "but unlike you, I have a husband and children to attend to, so if you'll please excuse me, I'll be on my way."
"Let me walk you home, Madame," offered Alcée Arobin. He scrambled to help her. "Given your condition, it would be unsafe for you to be alone in the streets at such an hour."
Adèle laughed. It would have sounded the slightest bit cruel if Edna didn't know any better. "Pardon my rudeness, Monsieur Arobin," said Adèle, eyes alight, "but surely you understand that my husband would quite possibly have a heart attack if I was escorted home by none other than the most sought-after bachelor in the city."
Arobin grinned sheepishly. Suddenly he was a little boy, superficially apologetic but internally proud of his own unrealized strength. "Of course, Madame. I'll call you a cab immediately."
While Arobin was out in the street calling the cab, Edna stood with her pregnant friend by the front door. "Your husband doesn't actually know who Alcée Arobin is, does he?" she whispered to Adèle after a moment of contemplation.
"Not a clue, I'll bet." Adèle smiled like a child whose teeth were too big for her. The dim lamplight caught the yellow in her hair and spun it into a bundle of star-shaped billows.
Within the ramshackle apartment of Mademoiselle Reisz, Adèle tutted about, dusting imaginary filth from the tops of the tasteless furniture and inspecting the well-loved piano as if it might grow teeth to bite her.
"Will you stop that?" asked Edna, exasperated. She set down one of Robert's previous letters to Mademoiselle—one she had already read—and glared at Adèle. "You were the one who asked to come. If you're not going to be nice to Mademoiselle's belongings while she's away, then we might as well just leave."
"I'm sorry, chérie. You know I'm uneasy around Mademoiselle Reisz—or, I suppose, the prospect of her. She's very talented, but she's just so...disagreeable."
Edna gaped. "Then why did you—"
"Because of you, Edna. Can't you see that?" Adèle huffed. "It's always been you. Why else do you think I would—"
The apartment door swung open with a loud and sudden squeal. In stepped Mademoiselle Reisz, who carried a wicker basket of (real) violets and a bewildered expression on her weazened face. She glanced at Edna once and then eyed Adèle suspiciously. "Now," Mademoiselle began, stretching out the syllable like a piece of taffy, "what in God's name is going on here?"
Adèle averted her eyes, as if she had been caught in a lover's quarrel. At a loss, Edna briefly explained the situation to Mademoiselle with a tight-lipped smile and retrieved Robert's discarded letter from wooden floor, picking up where she had left off.
They remained tense hours after the confrontation—if it could even be called a confrontation. With a concerned look at Edna and a stiff goodbye to Adèle, Mademoiselle Reisz had ushered them out of the apartment and promptly closed the door behind them. Adèle was uncharacteristically silent the whole walk to Edna's house. Edna felt as if she were eighteen again, waltzing with Léonce Pontellier for the first time and deathly frightened to step on his toes.
Adèle watched Edna fix them a pot of tea against the dripping light of the coming dusk. "Where did the servants go?" she wondered neutrally from her seat in the parlor.
"I sent them home for today."
"Hmm." Adèle turned her head to stare out one of the ornately draperied windows and did not look back until Edna had placed a steaming teacup in front of her. She thanked her quietly.
Edna nodded. She sat down next to her and stirred a lump of sugar cubes into her own cup. "You don't seem to be in a hurry to return to your husband and children tonight," she observed after a while, challenging Adèle with her gaze.
"I told him I was feeling tired, so he took them to see the circus in Baton Rouge. They won't be back until tomorrow," said Adèle, taking a tentative sip of tea.
Edna laughed. "You're becoming more like me by the day."
"You say that as if it's a good thing." Adèle half-hid an amused smile behind the rim of her cup.
Edna smiled back briefly before dropping her eyes to her lap. "What did you mean, Adèle, when you said that it's always been me?" she asked.
Adèle took so long to respond that Edna was afraid she hadn't heard her. Then a teacup clinked against the table, and Edna looked up to see Adèle's face inches away from hers. If Edna had tilted her head slightly to the side, their noses would have been touching. She almost flinched when she felt feverish fingertips graze against her left cheek. Before her, Adèle's eyes were as wide as the expanse of the Gulf; her pretty little lips were partially open, like a secret was waiting to spill. Edna heard her take a ragged breath, and for a foolish moment she wondered if Adèle was in pain.
"I believe it means I love you," said Adèle.
"Shh." She silenced Edna with a kiss. And when they broke apart she kissed her again, and again, and again.
Edna could not help but marvel at Adèle's stamina. It was almost superhuman, how she carried such a burden in her womb yet managed to unravel Edna as easily as thread from a spool. Adèle's fingers danced across the insides of Edna's thighs, her petite mouth fluttering impatiently from Edna's jaw to her collarbone to the underside of her breasts and then back to her jaw. "Beautiful," she murmured aimlessly. There was a culminating silence laden with anticipation before Edna felt a sly smile against the base of her throat, and then she felt nothing at all—no, rather, she was plummeting off the edge of a precipice, slack-limbed and wind-burnt.
She felt as if she could fall forever.
Adèle studied Edna's facial features through the darkness of the bedroom with tired eyes, thumbing through sweaty locks of night-stained hair. After a while, she stilled her hand against Edna's cheek and closed her eyes. "Tell me more about Kentucky, ma belle," she whispered.
"Well," said Edna, sorting through her memories, "there was this one time, not long after Mother had died, when our father was drunken and out of his mind, and my older sister Margaret—this was before she became unpleasant—hid us all somewhere in the fields so he couldn't find us. It was terrifying—Janet wouldn't stop crying—but for a moment, just for a moment, we were alone with the grass and the bugs and we were invincible. Nothing could ever touch us."
"Oh," said Adèle.
"Just when I think I've understood you, you go and surprise me again," Adèle grumbled.
She was lounging in Mr. Pontellier's favorite chair, drumming her soft fingers against its delicately carved mahogany armrest. Edna tried to capture this movement with a calculated flick of her pencil, pursing her lips when she realized it was unsatisfactory. She glanced at Adèle's figure and silently wished they had done this in the morning, when the sunlight would have illuminated Adèle's golden hair and sharpened her fuzzy curves.
Noting the lack of response, Adèle sniffed and continued. "Why would you ever choose to move into such a small house when you live in this monstrosity? Only two weeks ago you said you weren't lonely at all. Though I suppose this is another one of your little whims. You're like a child, Edna. Everything is an adventure for you."
"For heaven's sake, Adèle, will you please stop moving?" Edna exclaimed. In her frustration, she had nearly ripped a hole in the sketch.
Adèle stilled. "I'm sorry," she murmured.
"No, forgive me," Edna sighed. She set down her pencil and rubbed at the skin between her eyes. "Perhaps we should do something else. I'm not in the mood for this right now."
"Is something the matter, mon amour?" asked Adèle, rising steadily from the armchair. She crossed the room and seated herself next to Edna, affectionately tucking Edna's loose hair out of her face and pressing a kiss to it. "I thought you were excited to move into your little house."
"I am, I just—did you know that Robert was coming home from Mexico?"
"Robert Lebrun? No, I did not." Adèle paused. "What does this have to do with—oh. You don't mean...?"
Edna stared at her with a pained expression. "I'm so sorry, Adèle."
"Oh Edna," said Adèle. She rested her head on Edna's shoulder unceremoniously. "If we could all help whom we fell in love with, there would be no such thing as an unhappy marriage."
"You don't understand, that's not what I—" Edna stopped and shook her head. "Regardless, I wasn't planning on approaching him if he ever came back to New Orleans."
Adèle laughed coarsely. "Do you really think I believe that?" she responded, a subtle strand of tears chasing each other down her cheek.
Adèle finally showed signs of succumbing to her condition when she sent word with her husband that she was not—according to Monsieur Ratignolle—physically well enough to attend Edna's farewell dinner. It's better that she didn't, Edna thought bitterly after the dinner was over and Victor Lebrun had made a mess of things.
Edna sat patiently in the parlor of her new pigeon-house, as her former maid Ellen had so affectionately dubbed it. She watched Adèle, whom she had not seen in over a week, scrutinize the bare walls and the rough carpet. "It's charming in its own way, I suppose," Adèle finally admitted. Her skin was flushed—whether from exertion or from embarrassment, Edna would never know. "I do apologize for belittling your decision so long ago, chérie. It was rather tactless of me."
"I forgive you," said Edna.
Adèle gave her a strained smile. She nodded toward the small pile of cigar ash on the coffee table. "He was here, wasn't he?"
"We don't have to talk about him if you don't want to."
"I'm in love with you, Edna. Of course I don't want to talk about him!" Adèle snapped. Edna visibly flinched, so Adèle inhaled, blinking several times. "I beg your pardon. The baby—she's driving me mad. You must know that as your friend, I am truly happy for you."
Edna eyed her worriedly for a few seconds. "Thank you," she replied softly. "And yes, Robert left an hour ago."
Adèle nodded. She asked Edna when her husband and children were coming home, was she still visiting Mademoiselle Reisz, who was doing the cooking for her now, had she finally read that novel Adèle recommended to her over the summer—Edna felt as if they were mere acquaintances again, as if they had not been as intimate as lovers the week before. Finally, as Edna was helping her to the front door, Adèle looked up and hesitated.
"Does he love you?" It was a simple question, really, but so lacking in confidence that Edna was surprised Adèle was the one who asked it.
"I see," said Adèle. She turned toward the door. "Edna, you'll be there for me when the baby comes, won't you?"
Edna smiled ruefully. "I wouldn't miss it, darling."
In fact, when the time came, Adèle would not see anyone but Edna. She was simply inconsolable until Edna had walked into the Ratignolle salon, and even then she was still gasping at her servants in a barely coherent mix of French and English. Her golden hair was matted to her face; she was a stove that burned too hot. When Edna had finally arrived, Adèle ordered everyone else out of the room, including her husband and an extremely annoyed nurse.
As soon as they were alone, Edna grasped Adèle's febrile hands in her own. "You look horrible, dear," she laughed.
Adèle grimaced. "Stop being a prick and kiss me."
So Edna bent and kissed first her sweaty forehead, then her trembling lips. Adèle tasted of desperation.
"Please," Adèle whispered urgently as soon as they pulled apart, "whatever you're going to do, don't do it. Please, Edna. I beg of you. If you won't think of the children, think of me—think of Robert. Please. I love you. Don't do it."
Doctor Mandelet, whom Edna was sure had witnessed her whole exchange with Adèle, sighed and pushed his spectacles further up his nose. They were standing outside the Ratignolle drug store in the cool night air, a refreshing retreat from the oven that was their salon. "You mustn't seriously consider whatever she said to you back there, Mrs. Pontellier," the old doctor told Edna. "She is full of whims at times like these."
Edna said nothing.
As Edna Pontellier waded into the ocean, Goodbye—because, I love you was joined by Please. I love you. Don't do it. She made herself forget them as she let the waves take her body. They were nothing to her—broken seashells, once treasured, washed away with the last of her troubles.
"Adèle?" mumbled Monsieur Ratignolle, days later, when the children were admiring their newborn sibling and Adèle could finally take a break. "You should know that something dreadful has happened. It's Mrs. Pontellier."
Adèle's face grew pale. "No," she said, holding her head in her hands. "No," she cried, louder.
It was summertime again, but the Grand Isle no longer retained its enticing shimmer of relaxation and exhilaration. Mr. Pontellier and his children, unsurprisingly, were absent that summer. It was as if a blanket of depression had fallen over the resort, and nobody could so much as glance at the ocean without remembering the tragedy. Adèle Ratignolle, however, spent an unnatural amount of time sitting under an umbrella on the beach, staring wistfully into the horizon and unintentionally neglecting more than a few of her familial duties. It was during one of these moments when a sullen young man approached her and seated himself a respectful distance away on the sand.
"Robert," she acknowledged.
"Madame Ratignolle. It's been a while." His voice had lost all of its lightness. "Fine day, isn't it?"
Adèle chuckled. "It's always a fine day at the Grand Isle."
"Except when it isn't."
Adèle glanced at him and then back to the sea. "Except when it isn't," she agreed. They both gazed at the ocean for a few more minutes; there was nothing but the sound of the waves beating against the banks and the squawk of a lone gull to fill the silence between them. Then Adèle turned to study Robert more closely. "I thought I told you to stay away from her," she said.
"And I did," he replied immediately. "Excusez-moi, Madame Ratignolle, but you are foolish if you believe that staying away wasn't what broke her heart, in the end."
"You are more foolish than I if you believe that her heart was yours to break."
"Fair enough," he said. "I suppose we're both the biggest fools in the world, then."
Adèle did not ask him what he meant. Instead, she asked him, "What do you think she might be doing right now?"
Robert shrugged. "Painting, possibly. Going on adventures in exotic caves and unique shops. How about you? What do you think she might be doing?"
Adèle looked up at the lone gull circling over their heads. It squawked again at seemingly random intervals. Robert had already turned back to the ocean when Adèle finally responded.
"I think she's running through a field of tall grass in Kentucky with her arms stretched out like wings," she said. "She's laughing because she loves it, because she's free and unafraid." Adèle smiled. "It's beautiful."