When I married Edgar Strasser-Mendana I received from an aunt in Denver who had been taken as a bride to a United Fruit station in Cuba, twenty-four Haviland dessert plates in the ‘Windsor Rose’ pattern and a letter of instructions for living in the tropics. I was to allow no nightsoil on my kitchen garden, boil water for douches as well as for drinking, preserve my husband’s books with a thin creosote solution, schedule regular hours for sketching or writing, and regard the playing of bridge as an avoidance of reality to be indulged only at biweekly intervals and never with depressive acquaintances. In this regime I could perhaps escape what the letter called the fever and disquiet of the latitudes. That I had been living in those same latitudes unmarried for some years made no difference to my aunt: she appeared to locate the marriage bed as the true tropic of fever and disquiet.
So in many ways did Charlotte.
As it happens I understand this position, having observed it for many years in societies quite distant from San Francisco and Denver, but some women do not. Some women lie easily in whatever beds they make. They marry or do not marry with equanimity. They divorce or do not. They can leave a bed and forget it. They sleep dreamlessly, get up and scramble eggs.
Not Charlotte. Never Charlotte.
I think I have never known anyone who regarded the sexual connection as quite so unamusing a contract. So dark and febrile and outside the range of the normal did all aspects of this contract seem to Charlotte that she was for example incapable of walking normally across a room in the presence of two men with whom she had slept. Her legs seemed to lock unnaturally into her pelvic bones. Her body went stiff, as if convulsed by the question of who had access to it and who did not. Whenever I saw her with both Victor and Gerardo it struck me that her every movement was freighted with this question. Who had prior claim. Whose call on her was most insistent. To whom did she owe what. If Gerardo’s hand brushed hers in front of Victor her face would flush, her eyes drop. If she needed a bottle of wine opened on those dismal valiant occasions when she put on her gray chiffon dress and tried to ‘entertain’ she could never just hand the corkscrew to Gerardo. Nor could she hand the corkscrew to Victor. Instead she would evade the question by opening the wine herself, usually breaking the cork. I recall once telling Charlotte about a village on the Orinoco where female children were ritually cut on the inner thigh by their first sexual partners, the point being to scar the female with the male’s totem. Charlotte saw nothing extraordinary in this. ‘I mean that’s pretty much what happens everywhere, isn’t it,’ she said. ‘Somebody cuts you? Where it doesn’t show?’