Authors: Brit Bennett
“I thought—” she said. “I guess I just thought—”
She wanted to go to college someday and of course she’d get into Spelman or Howard or wherever else she wanted to go. The thought had always terrified Desiree, Stella moving to Atlanta or D.C. without her. A small part of her felt relieved; now Stella couldn’t possibly leave her behind. Still, she hated to see her sister sad.
“You could still go,” Desiree said. “Later, I mean.”
“How? You have to finish high school first.”
“Well, you can do that then. Night classes or somethin. You’ll finish in no time, you know you will.”
Stella grew quiet again, chopping carrots for the stew. She knew how desperate their mother was and would never fight her on her decision. But she was so rattled that her knife slipped and she cut her finger instead.
“Damn it!” she whispered loudly, startling Desiree beside her. Stella hardly ever swore, especially not where their mother might overhear. She dropped the knife, a thin red line of blood seeping out her index finger, and without thinking, Desiree stuck Stella’s bleeding finger in her own mouth, like she’d done when they were little and Stella wouldn’t stop crying. She knew they were far too old for this now, but she still kept Stella’s finger in her mouth, tasting her metallic blood. Stella watched her silently. Her eyes looked wet, but she wasn’t crying.
“That’s nasty,” Stella said, but she didn’t pull away.
, the twins rode the morning bus into Opelousas, where they reported to a giant white house hidden behind iron gates topped with white marble lions. The display seemed so theatrically absurd
that Desiree laughed when she first saw them, but Stella only stared warily, as if those lions might spring to life at any moment and maul her. When their mother found them the job, Desiree knew the family would be rich and white. But she’d never expected a house like this: a diamond chandelier dripping from a ceiling so high, she had to climb to the top of the ladder to dust it; a long spiraling staircase that made her dizzy as she traced a rag along the banister; a large kitchen she mopped, passing appliances that looked so futuristic and new, she could not even tell how to use them.
Sometimes she lost Stella and had to search for her, wanting to call her name but afraid to send her voice echoing off the ceilings. Once, she’d found her polishing the bedroom dresser, staring off into the vanity mirror adorned by tiny bottles of lotions, wistfully, as if she wanted to sit on that plush bench and rub scented cream onto her hands like Audrey Hepburn might. Admire herself for the sake of it, as if she lived in a world where women did such a thing. But then Desiree’s reflection appeared behind her, and Stella looked away, ashamed, almost, to be seen wanting anything at all.
The family was called the Duponts. A wife with feathery blonde hair who sat around all afternoon, heavy-lidded and bored. A husband who worked at St. Landry Bank & Trust. Two boys shoving each other in front of the color television set—she’d never seen one before—and a colicky, bald baby. On their first day, Mrs. Dupont studied the twins a minute, then said absently to her husband, “What pretty girls. So light, aren’t they?”
Mr. Dupont just nodded. He was an awkward, fumbling man who wore Coke-bottle glasses with lenses so thick his eyes turned into beads. Whenever he passed Desiree, he tilted his head, as if he were quizzing himself.
“Which one are you again?” he’d ask.
“Stella,” she sometimes told him, just for fun. She’d always been a great liar. The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same. Stella never wanted to switch places. She was always certain that they would get caught, but lying—or acting—was only possible if you committed fully. Desiree had spent years studying Stella. The way she played with her hem, how she tucked her hair behind her ear or gazed up hesitantly before saying hello. She could mirror her sister, mimic her voice, inhabit her body in her own. She felt special, knowing that she could pretend to be Stella but Stella could never be her.
All summer, the twins were out of sight. No girls walking along Partridge Road or sliding into a back booth at Lou’s or heading to the football field to watch the boys practice. Each morning, the twins disappeared inside the Duponts’ house and in the evening, they emerged exhausted, feet swollen, Desiree slumping against the bus window during the ride home. Summer was nearly over and she couldn’t bring herself to imagine autumn, scrubbing bathroom floors while her friends gossiped in the lunchroom and planned homecoming dances. Would this be the rest of her life? Constricted to a house that swallowed her as soon as she stepped inside?
There was one way out. She knew it—she’d always known it—but by August, she was thinking about New Orleans relentlessly. The morning of Founder’s Day, already dreading returning to the Duponts’, she nudged Stella across the bed and said, “Let’s go.”
Stella groaned, rolling over, the sheets knotted around her ankles. She’d always been a wild sleeper, prone to nightmares she never talked about.
“Where?” Stella said.
“You know where. I’m tired of talkin about it, let’s just go.”
She was beginning to feel as if an escape door had appeared before
her, and if she waited any longer, it might disappear forever. But she couldn’t go without Stella. She’d never been without her sister and part of her wondered if she could even survive the separation.
“Come on,” she said. “Do you wanna be cleanin after the Duponts forever?”
She would never know for sure what did it. Maybe Stella was also bored. Maybe, practical as she was, Stella recognized that they could earn more money in New Orleans, send it home and help Mama better that way. Or maybe she’d seen that escape door vanishing too and realized that everything she wanted existed outside of Mallard. Who cared why she changed her mind? All that mattered was that Stella finally said, “Okay.”
All afternoon, the twins lingered at the Founder’s Day picnic, Desiree feeling like she might burst open from carrying their secret. But Stella seemed just as calm as usual. She was the only person Desiree ever shared her secrets with. Stella knew about the tests Desiree had failed, how she’d forged her mother’s signature on the back instead of showing her. She knew about all the knickknacks Desiree had stolen from Fontenot’s—a tube of lipstick, a pack of buttons, a silver cuff link— because she could, because it felt nice, when the mayor’s daughter fluttered past, knowing that she had taken something from her. Stella listened, sometimes judged, but never told, and that was the part that mattered most. Telling Stella a secret was like whispering into a jar and screwing the lid tight. Nothing escaped her. But she hadn’t imagined then that Stella was keeping secrets of her own.
Days after the Vignes twins left Mallard, the river flooded, turning all the roads to muck. If they’d waited a day longer, the storm would’ve flushed them out. If not rain, then the mud. They would’ve trudged halfway down Partridge Road, then thought, forget it. They weren’t tough girls. Wouldn’t have lasted five miles down a muddy country road—they would’ve returned home, drenched, and fallen
asleep in their beds, Desiree admitting that she’d been impulsive, Stella that she was only being loyal. But it didn’t rain that night. The sky was clear when the twins left home without looking back.
N THE MORNING
Desiree returned, she got herself half lost on the way to her mother’s house. Being half lost was worse than being fully lost—it was impossible to know which part of you knew the way. Partridge Road bled into the woods and then what? A turn at the river but which direction? A town always looked different once you’d returned, like a house where all the furniture had shifted three inches. You wouldn’t mistake it for a stranger’s house but you’d keep banging your shins on the table corners. She paused in the mouth of the woods, overwhelmed by all those pine trees, stretching on endlessly. She tried to search for anything familiar, fiddling with her scarf. Through the gauzy blue fabric, you could barely see the bruise.
“Mama?” Jude said. “We almost there?”
She was gazing up at Desiree with those big moon eyes, looking so much like Sam that Desiree glanced away.
“Yes,” she said. “Almost.”
“How much more?”
“Just a little while, baby. It’s right through these woods. Mama’s just catchin her bearings, that’s all.”
The first time Sam hit her, Desiree started to think about returning home. They’d been married three years then, but she still felt like they were honeymooners. Sam still made her shiver when he licked icing off her finger or kissed her neck while she pouted into her lipstick. Washington, D.C., had started to feel like a type of home, where she might be able to imagine the rest of her life playing out without Stella in it. Then, one spring night, six years ago, she’d forgotten to sew a button on his shirt, and when he reminded her, she told him that
she was too busy cooking dinner, he’d have to sew it himself. She was tired from work; it was late enough that she could hear
The Ed Sullivan Show
in the living room, Diahann Carroll trilling “It Had to Be You.” She lowered the chicken into the oven, and when she turned, Sam’s hand smashed hot against her mouth. She was twenty-four years old. She had never been slapped in the face before.
“Leave him,” her friend Roberta told her over the phone. “You stay, he thinks he can get away with it.”
“It ain’t that simple,” Desiree said. She glanced toward her baby’s room, touching her swollen lip. She suddenly imagined Stella’s face, her own but unbruised.
“Why?” Roberta said. “You love him? And he loves you so much, he knocked your head off your shoulders?”
“It wasn’t that bad,” she said.
“And you aim to stick around until it is?”
By the time Desiree found the nerve to leave, she hadn’t spoken to Stella since she’d passed over. She had no way to reach her and didn’t even know where she lived now. Still, weaving through Union Station, her daughter confused and clinging to her arm, she only wanted to call her sister. Hours earlier, in the middle of another argument, Sam had grabbed her by the throat and aimed his handgun at her face, his eyes as clear as the first time he’d kissed her. He would kill her someday. She knew this even after he released her and she rolled, gasping, onto her side. That night, she pretended to fall asleep beside him, then, for the second time in her life, she packed a bag in darkness. At the train station, she raced to the ticket counter with the cash she’d stolen from Sam’s wallet, gripping her daughter’s hand, breathing so hard her stomach hurt.
What now, she asked Stella in her head. Where do I go? But of course, Stella didn’t answer. And of course, there was only one place to go.
“How much more?” Jude asked.
“A little bit, baby. We almost there.”
Almost home, but what did that mean anymore? Her mother might cast her out before she even reached the front steps. She would take one look at Jude before pointing them back down the road.
Of course that dark man beat you. What you expect? A spite marriage don’t last.
She stooped to pick up her daughter, hoisting her onto her hip. She was walking now without thinking, just to keep her body moving. Maybe it was a mistake to return to Mallard. Maybe they should have gone somewhere new, started over fresh. But it was too late now for regrets. She could already hear the river. She started toward it, her daughter hanging heavy around her neck. The river would right her. She would stand on the bank and remember the way.
D.C., Desiree Vignes had learned to read fingerprints.
She had never even known that this was something you could learn until the spring of 1956, when walking down Canal Street, she spotted a flyer tacked outside a bakery window announcing that the federal government was hiring. She’d paused in the doorway, staring at the poster. Stella had been gone six months then, time falling in a slow, steady drip. She would forget sometimes, as strange as it sounded. She would hear a funny joke on the streetcar or pass a friend they once knew and she would turn to tell Stella, “Hey did you—” before remembering that she was gone. That she had left Desiree, for the first time ever, alone.
And yet, even after six months, Desiree still held out hope. Stella would call. She would send a letter. But each evening, she groped inside the empty mailbox and waited beside a phone that refused to ring. Stella had gone on to craft a new life without her in it, and Desiree was miserable living in the city where Stella abandoned her. So
she’d written down the number from the yellow flyer pressed against the bakery window and she went to the recruitment office as soon as she got off from work.
The recruiter, skeptical that she’d find anyone of good character in that whole city, was surprised by the neat young woman sitting in front of her. She glanced at her application, stumbling where the girl had marked colored. Then she tapped her pen on the box labeled
“Mallard,” she said. “I’ve never heard of the place.”
“It’s just a little town,” Desiree said. “North of here.”
“Mr. Hoover likes small towns. The best folks come from small towns, he always says.”
“Well,” Desiree said, “Mallard is as small town as it gets.”
D.C., she tried to bury her grief. She rented a room from the other colored woman in the fingerprinting department, Roberta Thomas. More a basement than a room, actually—dark and windowless but clean, and most importantly, affordable. “It ain’t much,” Roberta told her on her first day of work. “But if you really need a place.” She’d offered tentatively, as if she were hoping Desiree might turn her down. She was exhausted, three children and all, and honestly, Desiree just seemed like another to take care of. But she pitied the girl, barely eighteen, alone in a new city, so the basement it was: a single bed, a dresser, the radiator rattling her to sleep each night.
Desiree told herself that she was starting over but she thought of Stella even more now, wondering what she would make of this city. She’d left New Orleans to escape the memory of her but she still couldn’t fall asleep without rolling over to feel for Stella in bed beside her.