The years 1957 and 1958 melted into nothing like the icicles that hung from the windowsills in winter. I turned sixteen in February of ‘58, my maturity and womanhood blossoming. Grandmother began to trust me more. It was first in slivers; by the May of that year, she no longer made me recite biblical verses aloud, heading the table like a minister. Then she began allowing me to go into town with the rest of the servants on Sundays, given I observe their given curfew and that I was incredibly careful with my words. The biggest step was when she had the head chef allow me to start cooking. It was nothing big at first, just small side dishes, but soon I was crafting full meals with little help. Her praise was likely a literal godsend, purging the insanity that I felt as the false persona I was forced to adopt consumed me. There were times I forgot my real name, who my siblings were, where I came from. The name Lucille Winfield had truly become mine, and, though I detested it, the manufactured identity wrapped itself in a tight cocoon around my consciousness.
After Christmas, the first one at least, the letters stopped coming. I would write my own, of course, but they were always returned, unopened, and I was forced to burn them to destroy any evidence of correspondence. This went on for roughly two months. By my birthday, I stopped writing. A pang in my heart told me that they knew I had lied to them and gone to the party. Whether Momma or Grandmother told them, or they had some sort of feeling, or by some ability been able to sneak out and look for me, they knew. I couldn’t blame them of course. They sought out my candor and solidarity, and they were left in the dust.
And then I was on the eve of my seventeenth birthday; February first, a Sunday. I hadn’t seen my siblings in well over a year. I was packing my bags for yet another week at school, staring out at the cool, early afternoon through my window. I enjoyed coming home on the weekends. Few girls stayed, so the loneliness alone would kill me, but I also appreciated coming to see my mother, to spend time in the kitchens surrounded by the intoxicating scent of baking breads and roasting meats. I was able to spend just a few hours in peace and quiet, away from the dormitories, cramped bathrooms, and unruly dining halls. We were taught manners, but seldom used them behind closed doors. God was emphasized above all by the nuns that governed our lives, but we ignored this when away from their watchful eye. Yes, we swore, we spoke of boys in less than pure ways, some even snuck in whiskey that was snuck from a liquor cabinet in some manor. We listened to rock and roll, we hiked up our skirts above the knee, and we neglected to say our prayers before bed when we weren’t actively being watched. We were teenagers after all.
I reflected over this as I packed my freshly washed uniforms. The starched collars had long softened, the colors not quite faded but softened. They were conservative and simple; black shoes, pleated grey skirt that went nearly to the ankle, bleached white socks and shirt, belt, and a blazer and tie in the school colors: violet and silver. They were the shades of royalty. Unable to accessorize, we all took our own liberties. For example, my roommate Shirley never did her tie in a half Windsor as the protocol. Her slice of rebellion was doing a full Windsor. It didn’t even look any different, but when the rare uniform checks came along, she appeared to be the cat that got the cream.
I chuckled at the thought. The six of us got into our fair share of escapades. Never anything that got us into trouble, per se, but the little things that made life worth living a little. I shut my suitcase. Then paused.
My train left in an hour, the drive to the station was barely ten minutes. I had just a little time left. Making one last check to know that nobody was outside the door, ready to burst in, I lifted my mattress and pulled out what I had been searching for, a crisp, cream colored envelope much like the one we had received a year and a half prior. It was from Nick, dated January fifth, just after his birthday. His eighteenth birthday to be exact. I opened it, though I nearly had the words memorized.
I was overjoyed to hear from you in your previous letter to know that you are well. I truly miss you. The few visits that my father makes to your uncle’s home are never enough to sate my yearning for your touch.
His formality and eloquence always made my heart flutter. He was like a poet.
As you know well enough, I’m eighteen now, a real adult. Your gift that you sent was more than appreciated, I believe you’ll make a great photographer one of these days. But in any case, I had to sign up for the draft, and it was a meeting I dreaded. Something in me fears that there may be a war ahead. Perhaps not this year, or even in the next five or so, but something will happen. If I’m lucky, I won’t be conscripted, or perhaps I will be simply put in a more technical field. I don’t want to lose you, Lucy. You’re the best thing that’s happened to me.
I sighed, and fell to the bed. It was a fear we both had. The Soviets were growing ever stronger, Cuba was in a full on revolution. We were within missile range, though we kept reassuring ourselves that all would be well. I could only hope.
I can’t wait until you’re eighteen too, Lucy. I’m counting the days. I know you hate living there. It’s hard enough when you lose your parents, but I’ve heard what those people do. I’ve heard my father talking about them. He only associates with your uncle because of business relations. If I were him, I wouldn’t. I know you won’t tell me what they do to you, though, in fear of me worrying. But by my Lord, not theirs, I’ll do anything if they lay a hand on you.
My prince charming! How could any man be this perfect? I loved him so much.
I hope to see you in the next few weeks; my father has a meeting with your Uncle over stocks. Or perhaps trying to buddy up before he kicks the bucket. That heart attack was no small issue. Though, between you and me, I hope he dies soon.
Your love, hoping for quick reply,
I folded the letter back up. It was short and sweet, perhaps a bit over the place. His handwriting looped haphazardly, had smudges where he had touched the wet ink, but it smelled of him and it was enough. A doubtful voice in my head said that he was a bit violent at times, perhaps much too rebellious. In many of his letters he spoke of protecting me from anyone and anything, whether it is my grandparents or other boys. He was rather jealous at times, and spoke of slitting men’s throats for my honor. I tried to brush it off. He seemed to be the one for me, and I lay in bed many nights dreaming of our fairytale wedding. I even fantasized about him, much like Romeo in the famed Shakespearean tragedy, waiting outside my window, rose in hand, calling me to escape into the mountains with him. I would do it in a heartbeat.
I slid the letter back into its hiding spot. Better safe than sorry, I thought. Neither grandmother, nor any of the maids could find it. They didn’t even know Nick and I were writing each other, we had to do it in secret. I took my letters straight to the post office when I had the opportunity, and I invested in a post office box for him to write to. I was lucky to make the money I did, and even luckier that I was able to hide the monthly transactions.
Grandmother called me. I did one last check in the mirror, repeating a soft mantra I had begun to keep my sanity.
“I am Camilla Dollanganger.” I whispered, taking my suitcase from the bed and sat it on the floor next to me. “My mother is Corinne, my father Christopher.” I slid on a fur coat. “I have four siblings, all locked away.” I brushed a curl behind my ear. “I will survive.”
Grandmother called again, more urgent. Barely flipping off the light, I scurried downstairs where she waited with Momma and our chauffeur. Grandmother looked at me with an air of disdain.
“We are not going to be late, young lady.” She looked me up and down, apparently attempting to decide what she felt about me today. “You hear me?”
I very quickly nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
Momma gave a small smile, a large diamond twinkling on her left ring finger, catching the light just so, and temporarily blinding me. We never talked about her engagement. Though I loved her, she knew explicitly that I didn’t like Bart Winslow to any amount. Just looking at him put a sour taste in my mouth. It was likely the fact that my mother fell in love so quickly with him, how quickly they had become engaged, how quickly he would become my stepfather without knowing for at least another year. It felt like a betrayal to my father’s memory, no matter how many times she tried to persuade me otherwise. I knew he wouldn’t want her unhappy, and she couldn’t be in mourning for the rest of time, but it still felt wrong.
Grandmother led me to the car, Momma waving goodbye. She never went with us to the train station. My bag was placed in the trunk of the car, we were driven. Neither Grandmother nor I said anything. There was a silent understanding between us that while we were related and had to be on relatively civil terms, nothing constrained us to like each other. We simply tolerated each other to save face.
We didn’t even exchange more than a polite goodbye as I was dropped off and handed my ticket. No hugs, no kisses, not even a handshake. When the whistle blew, I boarded my train, and I was gone.