My Reformation (and My Dangerous Aunt)

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I was there, yeah. If I had to get technical about it, I’d say I was across the foyer messing around in the music room. That’s where the records are organized and shelved. I was looking for an Eartha Kitt LP. I had a good stack of tunes selected so was only half-listening to the action across the way. Then I turned off the phonograph. Because my Aunt Adriana was involved in something pretty strange across the foyer.

That’s Adriana Whelton, the woman who married Nathan Clees, that’s right, the same Clees who was charged with art fraud. So she divorced him–but she’d never changed her family name. Why would she? “Whelton” means power and money, and the name unlocks doors, then locks down. That happened before I, her niece, was old enough to care. We’ve moved in different circles, as my mom puts it, so it’s taken time.

It was long before this thing happened. I got involved in her personal situation when I was in need of some help.  Things would have been different if I hadn’t gone along with her offer. I’d have missed a lot.

Aunt Adriana and I got closer after my father, her brother Grant, died. I was eight. She’d send presents for my birthday and Christmas and she visited between boarding school, then college and travelling. Then came charity work. It seemed odd my father, Grant Whelton, and she were related. He was an odd limb on that tree of royalty, some said. So much Whelton money was disappeared by him that he got cut off the year he married my mother. It occurred to me much later that the Whelton family probably didn’t approve of Mom, either. But Aunt Adriana was her own person and we were okay by her.

Dad had been a gambler, so was possessed by that itch to blow more in the blind hope of winning more. I vaguely remember he had a way with people and me, of course. He took me ice skating on the city rink and pushed me in many park swings. He loved music more than anything and played drums in a pick up band The Haven. He was good, I  guess, and his beats sneaked up on my mind now and again. Music might have cemented our bond if he had lived. But no, there was the car accident and that’s all I have to say about that.

So. Aunt Adriana was there. We got tighter. She’d take me out for lunch, not a fancy sit-down place but delis, downtown grills or steak houses, places I loved to eat but seldom did. We went to concerts and museums for “edification” and to open air markets and garden parties for “socialization.” I was a quick study. We’d shop, too. She bought me fire engine red Mary Janes one time. Mom got mad.

“What on earth goes with red?” she asked. “I appreciate it but black or brown ones, please, Adriana.”

“Everything Leelee likes has some red. Plus, it’s more versatile than you think. It pairs well with tan, black, white, grey, navy, yellow, green–”

“No yellow!” I objected.

“Not green, not Christmas combos,” Mom murmured.

“Exactly, she can wear them many occasions. You love them, yes, Leelee?”

“Her name is Leeann, dear.”

“Leelee.” I put a hand on a jutted hip, made a face and was lucky my aunt was there so I avoided a slap on the behind.

Aunt Adriana tried to smooth my edges so I’d “grow up congenial, not just grate on everyone”, but by the time I was fourteen I had stopped seeing her much. I had things to do, new friends to make. Friends who understood my underground anger and newfound laziness, who joined me in small acts of rebellion. Nothing big, just nighttime trespassing on country club grounds (the same one I’d been inside of many times) or stealing objects that fit neatly in pockets like drugstore lipstick or gum or a necklace.

We’d take turns trying to steal celebrity magazines. Only one girl got away with it, and then the pharmacist started after her as she left, magazines rolled under each arm. Three of us were across the street on a park bench so just watched her run like a rabbit. She wasn’t caught. But I wasn’t so keen on reading them later. I kept seeing that man, leaning over with hands on knees, shaking his pale bald head, panting. I knew all the filched stuff cost him. You have to know right from wrong to grow up in one piece. I wished I could be somebody seriously good. But meantime I tried out a wilder side; tough girls weren’t boring. It distracted me from my mother and her new guy. I felt you had to check out things not so good for you to be clear about what’s better. You have to take risks to learn, right?

I asked that of Aunt Adriana. She pressed her long finger tipped with a silvery nail into her dimpled cheek, then squinted at me. “I think you’re looking for a reason to justify behavior you shouldn’t be doing.”

“What?”

“Don’t ‘what’ me, Leelee. You’re up to something sketchy. I don’t see you enough.”

“I’m fine, Aunt Adriana. Good friends, doing fine in, forming my own identity!” I knew that sounded good.

“Nonsense. Your grades may be okay for now but word is your friends are trouble. How can you go to a school that has nearly two thousand students and pluck out three who are bad apples?  You have no good reason for this. Your mom’s boyfriend, while not the man I would choose for her, is okay and she is not your problem, either. You are. Time’s wasting, Leelee. I need you near me this summer.”

“Summer? That’s when I can actually have fun, when my friends and me–”

–friends and ‘I’–”

“–we can play tennis, swim every day, hang out, uh, maybe study boys.”

“You’ll do all that at my place. It’s settled. You’re coming to the city and after you demonstrate the capacity to revert to a more courteous, mentally engaged, capable young woman–only then will I consider taking you somewhere fabulous.” She winked at me, a thing we did. “You know I play great tennis and swim. We’ll go to the club. There are a few good-looking boys there, too, if you care.”

“Really, they’re mostly stupid. But…I guess.”

My aunt informed her. “Leelee needs firm but gentle correcting, not harsher rules. Hand her over to me and I’ll see to it.”

I was surprised it was that simple, my mom fed up then my aunt taking control. There was no good way out and frankly, it was a relief. I had dreaded nothing much good happening, getting in more fixes in the end. But I sulked about it, anyway.

And I loved her spacious, pretty house, though I never made a fuss about it to her face.

“I can manage without your help.”

Aunt Adriana crossed her arms over a crisp white blouse–she looked so good in something that simple–swept up to the armchair I was wedged in and loomed over me.

“You’re about to learn finer points of living well, Miss Leeann. It starts June 26 and ends August 26. Sit up straight. I’ll get us iced teas with fresh lemon. We have plans to discuss.”

Seventeen years older than me, youngish but also old enough to take an upper hand and get away with it. She worried about me, showered me with attention as she saw fit and encouraged me. My old friends wished they could have such an aunt. The new ones thought she was snob who wouldn’t recognize real life even if it was spelled out in bold letters.

We had over two good weeks of outdoor activities. I helped her with a charity event, too. We went out for breakfast every couple days and she loaned me grown up books. We both had the start of sweet tans from daily swims in her pool. I wondered why I’d avoided her for a couple of years and she wondered why she’d let me. I even listened to her advice–she had ideas, experiences that were fascinating. But I didn’t understand one thing she said.

“Leelee, you are the kid I will probably never have…I just couldn’t do this full-time…and you know I love you. So keep in mind that we have to bear with each other sometimes, be patient with our faults.”

I was in the pool so shaded my eyes to better see her face. There was a shadow of sadness making her forehead crease, but it passed.

Then one more carefree, bright day arrived and brought with it a man. Douglas. He picked her up for lunch. She hadn’t warned me. In fact, she’d only mentioned him in passing, one more name among others on her contacts list. I was working on some dance moves in front of my closet mirror when the door chimes peeled out. Muffled voices drifted up.

I peered down from a curved balcony above the foyer. A man with a gaunt face and wide jaw, wearing tan slacks, a black polo shirt straining against his pecs, black loafers on big feet. He took up the whole doorway. Who was this clown? An eyebrow rose as he glanced up, saw me, put his arm about her waist. Obnoxious, the whole thing.

“Come down, Leelee–meet Douglas!” Aunt Adriana called out to me with a cheery voice.

Too chirpy for her, I thought, but dutifully descended the staircase and held out my hand. He shook mine as if it was a man’s. You might say he was a caricature, aka “right hand thug of mob boss but better manners”. Better dressed. As he walked I noticed as he had a sort of natural, wild grace; I imagined he was athletic. But he smiled at me without showing teeth.

Douglas felt all wrong being close to my aunt and eyeing the place.

They saw each other every Tuesday and Thursday for lunch after that, and sometimes Sunday nights. I didn’t mind her being gone–I had things to do. I didn’t trust him. Not with my aunt.

So why did she?

She told me after the third time they went out: “He’s a tennis pro at Westside Club but he also has an economics degree. He is trying to start up a business. For now he’s a hoot to hang out with.”

I looked up from the magazine I was reading, gave a big fake smile. “He’s, um…different. Not right for you.”

Her mouth twisted as if she was biting back words but she only said: “It’s a summer thing, Leelee, a few laughs. I can do that; I’m a grown up.”

“But maybe he has another agenda.” I liked getting to use that word.

“How frank of you to allude to money right up front.”

“Well? Big surprise!”

“You know so little about the male of the species, Leelee.”

“And I should watch you and learn all about it?” I really wanted to tell her she was stupid to spend one more minute with him, he was a goon, so felt good about holding back.

“Don’t be rude! He’s just a…well, he’s a very attractive man!” She flounced off, coral and white dress swishing as she hurried up the stairs.

Time passed. They got chummier. I felt like chunks of our family time were falling off the calendar. That man was sure trying to get on her good side. But I had sports, a couple of friends at the club, three books to read just because. It was a huge gift to be there. How could you not love so much free fun? Except for golf, which I truly and deeply resented despite my aunt wanting to convert me.

Aunt Adriana seemed distracted a little more after each date but said nothing. She had her private life despite my claim on her. It was another world she inhabited; I was a visitor in it. But an anxious feeling trailed her at times. I worried, then let it go. I was only the Teen-ager; she, the Adult.

One Sunday night Douglas came by and I chatted with them before they left. He seemed impatient; she seemed bothered. Up close I noticed he had a dark half-moon scar on his right cheek; his tan was too tan, as if covering up more. On his right hand was a gold ring with a chunky diamond. Had that always been there? I wondered if she’d given it to him.

They took off. I reheated spaghetti and meatballs from the night before. We had gone to Salvatore’s. Aunt Adriana and I had talked over where we’d go before school since she determined I’d improved my ways. She’d suggested Chicago for school shopping and I was floored.

Then I asked her. “How’s it going with ole Douglas?”

Her blue, hooded eyes blinked. “Why? He’s fine.” She took a taste of her wine, then a gulp. “Just dandy.”

I backed off and she chattered about how glorious “windy city” was and soon we’d be there for a whole week-end. That was serious cause to keep behaving.

So, then. That night it was about ten o-clock when I headed to the music room. I searched through my aunt’s huge collection for Eartha Kitt, a forbidden singer in my house where Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney reigned or, worse, cheesy classical. I had developed a taste for classic jazz and blues due to my aunt’s interest. It spoke to me lately. I was studying liner notes when the front door opened and Aunt Adriana’s high heels clicked along the marble floor. I thought about going out to say hello. The room’s French doors were partly open and I didn’t hide, I was just looking at records. They moved toward the formal living room, a surprise since they usually went to the library or kitchen. His voice was a bass rumble. Hers was louder as she asked a question–her words ended on an upswing. Then silence. I found my LP but realized it was Billie Holiday I was looking for, after all. The song, “Good Morning Heartache.” A winner.

Their voices rose as I turned on the vintage stereo so I stopped. Douglas was yelling at her and she yelled back, her voice a sharp stab in the air. It was a shock to hear her; for a second I thought another woman had slipped in the place. I moved to the doors, opened them more and was still.

“I am not giving you any more. You make your own. You will have to invest your own. I have my priorities and you are not one of my charities despite your delusion. And I am not a loan officer.” Aunt Adriana gave each word weight, as if explaining something to a kid.

“But from the start you knew the situation. You knew I needed more to move forward. You were interested! You kept me on a leash all this time? And now you’re going to tell me to sit and beg–or kiss off?”

“I have had better behaved dogs–you’re totally incorrigible!”

“You listen to me, Adriana Whelton–my time is well overdue!”

“Absolutely not.”

There were muffled sounds, a pause, massive thud against a wall. My skin prickled. I opened the doors, entered the glossy foyer.

“A deal is a deal!”

“Douglas, I did not plan on this, was barely even an interested party!”

“But I owe too much!”

“Oh, well! As I told my brother, tough luck, not one bit is that my problem. Not one cent.” Her voice came out a growl, and it carried across the foyer with gale force. As if she was the mob boss in this scene.

“Aw, come on!”

I decided I should just let her deal with him. She knew plenty about money and gambling and men; she could handle things. But Douglas scared me more, his size, his anger. Then the crash came, objects breaking, then Aunt Adriana’s scream. Another thud, another crash. My heart squeezed as I grabbed a candelabra from a side table and dashed across the slick marble floor, sliding right into the wood-floored living room and nearly falling. I caught myself and stood strong as I could.

I thought I’d find her sprawled on the floor. But it was him. In her right hand was a big shard from a tall heavy glass vase, the one that had held white peonies and blue hydrangeas atop the fireplace mantle. He lay moaning opposite her, one leg falling off the sofa, head bloodied. Fear snagged my breath.

“Aunt Adriana!”

I pulled at her forearm, the one being tatooed by thin red lines of blood. But she stood as if deaf. Pale high heels set apart as if cemented to that spot, lacy sweater falling off her diminutive shoulders, chin pushed up. Her mind and body were prepared for a charging beast but there were none. He now sat on the Persian carpet next to the ruined vase, holding a handkerchief to his forehead. He did not look near death; his face bore astonishment.

This was a woman I did not know, either, even when she turned her head to me, until her mouth formed a tiny acknowledging smile. I shivered, felt a bit faint with relief and shock.

“Do not call the police, dear Leelee. Douglas is leaving the premises of his own accord.”

He got to his feet slowly and backed away from her, shouting things I will not repeat. My aunt tossed him a black shiny wallet which apparently he had taken out in gleeful anticipation. He glowered but was glumly silent as she pointed to the front door, her injured hand aloft as if dripping with fine family jewels, not rivulets of life blood.

That was it. I helped her clean and bandage her hand, less serious than it had looked. She reassured me Douglas would go home and do the same, then lick his proverbial wounds; he wasn’t a complete fool. She was rid of him, she had the power and influence to get him fired, to puncture his dreams of being an entrepreneur if she chose. She was so certain of her victory that I relaxed. My aunt soon calmed, seemed herself as we drank tea on her bedroom balcony.

She smoothed my hair back from my face and sighed. “I have a weakness for trouble, too, Leelee. Well, for men who can be trouble…There you have it. I haven’t learned all I should yet. I suspect it takes a lifetime.”

But in bed that night I lay wide awake, wondering about her. Who she really was. How she managed to do what she did. I hadn’t quite sorted it out, the right and wrong of things. But she had stood up for herself, warded off danger. I wanted that confidence at the very least. She’d been so good to me and others but she could be that badass as needed, right? Well, that’s my Adriana, and I’m her niece so we share genes. This is part of our story, thus far. I sure am ready for more.

 

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