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Esther for Children and Novices
Close the book now. Close it. Look. The story’s simple. Persia, once upon a time. King banishes queen. Queen refuses to come to his party and parade in front of his friends—naked, is what most people think he wanted!—and he sends her away, or has her killed. No one knows. She’s gone. Vashti, this is. Her name’s Vashti. You know this! And then the king gets sad and wants another wife so he calls for all the maidens to come and win his affections. A maiden? A maiden is a girl. Or a woman. A woman who isn’t married. Kind of. Right. And the maidens come and put on lots of makeup and smelly oils. But when it’s time for the beauty pageant, the king chooses the maiden who doesn’t try too hard, the one with just a dab of lipstick, or whatever they used. Esther. She also happens to be Jewish, though she doesn’t mention that. She’s very pretty, yes. No, she’s not a princess. She’s an orphan, with an uncle who looks out for her, but then this uncle also winds up getting her into trouble because he refuses to bow down to the king’s minister, and the minister gets mad, really mad, and decides it’s time to kill all the Jews. And then things get kind of messy, but the details aren’t that important and most of them contradict each other anyway, which is why I’m tired of reading you this book and why we are going to put it away for a while. I know you like it, but I need a break.
Okay, so the new queen winds up being really brave and going to the king without his permission, which is a big no-no—remember what happened to the first queen when she did the opposite? And the new queen asks the king to save her people, and then the king—even though, a few minutes before, he was fine with having all the Jews killed—gets really mad at his minister and has him killed instead. Also, he thinks his minister might like his wife, like Daddy likes Mommy, so that makes him kill him, too.
But I can see this isn’t making sense. That’s why we’re done with the book. It’s not simple at all, I don’t know why I called it simple, and twice a day for a month is too much—it just is—and we’re done. Really all you need to know, and all anyone ever remembers anyway, is that the second queen, Esther, is the hero.
Lily tosses the book out of the girls’ bedroom, into the hallway. It’s a children’s book, the biblical story dumbed down, but still it’s convoluted, full of plot holes and inconsistencies. After they’re asleep, she’ll drop it in the recycling bin, then later, admitting to herself that it won’t be recycled, she’ll shove it deep into the kitchen trash. Her husband may or may not be home by then. He is deputy director of programs for Rwanda at a major humanitarian aid organization. She is his second wife.
So tomorrow, girls—ushering her daughters into their bunk beds—I’m going to learn to sew, so I can make your costumes for the Purim carnival. Remember? We dress up like the characters and then they act out the story and everyone boos at the bad minister and cheers for Esther? I don’t know what happened to Vashti. The book doesn’t say. No one knows. Heads on pillows. If you don’t want to be Esther, tell me in the morning. Otherwise, you’ll be Esther, like all the other girls. Good night! Sweet dreams! No more words tonight! Love you to the moon and back! Eyes closed, mouths closed, stop talking now! Good night!
It happened in the days of Nixon—that Nixon who presided over fifty states, from the Florida Keys to the Aleutian Islands. In those days, in the fifth year of Nixon’s reign, when the scandal that would undo him was erupting in Washington and beyond, a great, unspoken license was given to any official who was not he. A veil of distraction fell over the capital’s swampy fortress and a lustiness took hold, an appetite for drink and women uncommon even among that time and people. It followed that a banquet of minor scandals, insults, and crimes was enjoyed in the town houses of powerful men. There were floor-to-ceiling drapes of heavy velvet, and there were couches of Italian leather on sheepskin rugs. The wineglasses were nearly invisible, the lowballs weighty as a man’s fist. The rule for the drinking was, Drink!
Among these men was one, Senator Alexander Kent of Rhode Island, who gave no fewer than five parties in one month, displaying his home, his wife, and his good taste in scotch. To the fifth party, which would be his last for a very long time, Senator Kent invited not only those colleagues and donors he counted among his friends but also one man who was obscure in the capital but famous in Rhode Island for the suitcase-manufacturing empire his family had built. Kent invited this man to address a quickly spreading rumor he hoped to learn was untrue: that Suitcase Man was planning to endorse Kent’s opponent in the following year’s election.
And so to the fifth party the senator added a live band, Rhode Island scallops and littleneck clams on the half shell, as well as a conceptual twist: a second, concurrent party upstairs, for the women only. His reasoning, as he told it to his wife, was that such an arrangement would feel at once traditional yet fresh, old yet new, comfortable yet enticing, and would give him a chance to talk plainly to Suitcase Man. His other reasoning he did not tell his wife: it happened that once upon another time, when Kent had still been called by his father’s name, O’Kearney, of County Offaly across the ocean, he had known Suitcase Man’s wife.
Senator Kent’s wife, Vee—born Vivian Barr, daughter of the late Senator Barr of Massachusetts and granddaughter to Governor Fitch of Connecticut, as well as great-granddaughter to a soft-spoken but effective suffragette, all of whom, though dead, would be helping to pay for the party—protested: Weren’t separate events antithetical to the spirit of the Equal Rights Amendment, which Rhode Island ratified one year ago and which Senator Kent claims in his official platform to support?
A sound enough question. The senator had responded by giving her a foot massage, a rare offering, and Vee had yielded.
And so in the year 1973, on the second day of November, a day as mild as June, Senator Kent returns from his affairs of state to find the house crawling with caterers and cleaners, bartenders and a flower arranger, and, deeper still, in the kitchen—all the old, noble town houses of Georgetown had their kitchens in the deep, dark backs—his wife, on her hands and knees, working at a spill with a ragged beach towel.
It is the towel, striped red and blue and white like a barber pole, faded and frayed yet still festive, the towel he had in his dorm room when they first met and which they kept for sentimental reasons and continue to use for any and all things unclean. The senator loves this towel. He steps on it now, the toe of his shoe grazing his wife’s hand. “Excuse us,” he says to the caterers rushing around, and they jump quick as sand fleas and are gone.
He locks the swinging door, hook to eye.
“Why hello,” he says.
She looks up at him slowly, bangs in her eyes, blouse hanging open to reveal the shadows of her bra.
And though everything about the moment—the towel, the bra, the reluctant, obscured gaze—seems to him a calculation, her end goal being his seduction, in fact Vee moves slowly because she is tired from a day of list checking and directing and emptying the second floor of personal effects for the women’s party that she doesn’t want to give in the first place; and her bangs are in her eyes because she still needs to shower; and her blouse hangs open because it is not a blouse at all—that is only what he sees—but a stretched-out T-shirt from a Jefferson Airplane concert Vee went to with her girlfriends before she and Kent got serious.
“Get up,” he says.
“I’m almost done,” she says.
“Then I’ll get down.”
She smiles, understanding. “Oh no.”
“It’s almost five o’clock.”
Copyright © 2020 by Anna Solomon