Intimate Apparel

by Lynn Nottage
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Act 2, Scenes 1–3 Summary

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Last Updated on December 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250

Scene 1

George and Esther are shown in their wedding outfits, and then standing on either side of a bed in a studio flat. Esther says that she expected to feel different, but doesn't. She was moved by the words "man and wife" during the wedding ceremony but notes that, actually, the two barely know each other. 

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George, in a heavy Barbadian accent, says there will be time for talking later and throws his jacket across the bed. Esther asks him if he'd like to bathe, but he kneels on the bed and asks Esther to come and sit with him. Esther is shaking and George asks if she is afraid of him. He then places her hand on his crotch, telling her that it isn't scary at all. 

When George begins to say "I expected yuh to be," Esther interrupts with "prettier." George denies that this is what he was going to say, but Esther brushes him off, saying they should state their real thoughts now. She tells George that he is more handsome than she had expected and that she hasn't been with a man before. 

George is impressed by Esther's wedding corset when he sees it, and Esther fetches him a smoking jacket she has made out of the Japanese silk. George, uncomfortable with the delicacy of the garment, says he is afraid of soiling it and removes it. When he tries to take Esther to bed, Esther says "not yet," asking for him first to share something he did not share in his letters. As an example, she shares her own story: her mother died of influenza when she was seventeen, and she lost her father, who was once a slave, only two years later. Her father had lost his tongue when Esther was a baby. She came to New York alone and was taught to sew "intimate apparel," which she viewed as an unexpected gift. 

George does not respond at equal length: his family have always cut sugar cane and been "chattel," and he explains that he has come to the US to change that for himself. He pulls Esther to bed again, and this time, Esther gives in. 

Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren enter the scene and stand on either side of the bed "like two apparitions." They ask Esther about George, both of them helping her get out of the bed and dress. Esther says that George hasn't spoken much but he is handsome, and the smell of him makes her feel both “sick” and “excited.”

The two women recede into darkness, and Esther describes how she laid her head on sleeping George's chest and pictured the Panama landscapes he had described in his letters. The scene ends with the couple standing on either side of the bed. 

Scene 2

The scene opens in George and Esther's bedroom on a Sunday. George is about to leave. He asks Esther for two dollars for a hat. Esther agrees and takes the money from her quilt but insists that this is the last time. She asks where he's going on a Sunday, telling him he should stay and let her fix his shirt. 

Frustrated, George explains that he has been passed over for work in favor of white men, even though he has more experience than they do. The crew chief wrote him a note after a day of waiting, telling him "next time." Handing Esther the note, he asks her what she thinks of it. Esther says she assumes the man means what he has said. George presses her and is frustrated when Esther, who does not want to betray her illiteracy, does not say more. He takes off his shirt and gives it to Esther to sew. 

Esther tries to persuade George to go to a church social with her, suggesting he might find work that way, but George says he has no intention of becoming a boot-black or polishing silver. He tells Esther he knows a man who is selling a stable of horses very cheap and asks for her money to buy them. Esther tells him the money is for her beauty parlor, to which George insultingly asks how she would know what beauty is. He quickly apologizes and pleads again for the money. Esther refuses. George announces that he is going to The Empty Cup for an ale and tells Esther he is tired of coming home to ask his wife for money. He says he will return for supper. 

Esther goes to visit Mr. Marks to pick up some Scottish wool. She notices that he has sewn on his lost button. She admires the wool, and Mr. Marks fetches some Valencienne lace that he has been saving for her. He says it is worth the wait to see her smile again and drapes the lace around her shoulders. 

The pair, now standing very close, gaze at each other until Mr. Marks inadvertently calls her by her maiden name, prompting Esther to remind him that she is married. Mr. Marks apologizes, and they separate. 

Esther says she has come today for fabric for a man's suit and cannot take the lace. Upset, she tells Mr. Marks that she cannot visit him any more, saying that she thinks he knows why. Mr. Marks quietly acknowledges this, and Esther asks him to wrap the lace after all. 

Scene 3

Mrs. Van Buren, in her boudoir, tells Esther that her husband has gone to Europe, which she says is a relief. When she suggests Esther might accompany her to Lenox in the summer, Esther says she cannot. She shows Mrs. Van Buren the lace and suggests it will do for her rose chemise.

Mrs. Van Buren notes that Esther has taken an unusually long time producing the chemise, and when Esther says she has been busy, Mrs. Van Buren comments that it must be wonderful to be in love. Esther is clearly wounded that Mrs. Van Buren does not appear interested in the lace, and she asks to be paid, since she has not been paid for two months. 

Mrs. Van Buren apologizes, and says she misses writing their letters, which causes Esther to snap at her. When Mrs. Van Buren asks what is wrong, Esther confesses that she is upset at having lied to George about her illiteracy. 

Mrs. Van Buren takes Esther's hand and coaxes her to sit with her on the bed. Esther then asks her whether she loves her husband. Mrs. Van Buren replies that the question is "romantic" to ask of a married woman, which leads Esther to confess her fear that her own love lies somewhere it shouldn't. Mrs. Van Buren, misreading the situation, kisses her. When Esther does not respond, she apologizes, saying she simply wanted to show Esther how it felt to be treated lovingly. 

Esther chides her, saying Mrs. Van Buren doesn't love her and that they aren't even friends. Mrs. Van Buren retorts that Esther has been the only person in her boudoir for months and that she can only be happy with Esther. When Esther says they cannot be friends, Mrs. Van Buren calls her a coward before apologizing and taking a wad of money from her dresser for Esther. Esther says it isn't she who is the coward. 

The scene shifts to show George entering Mayme's boudoir and kissing her. Meanwhile, Esther waits alone in her bedroom. 

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Act 1, Scenes 4–6 Summary

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Act 2, Scenes 4–7 Summary