Laura opened her kitchen cabinets and peered into them, at the lines of cans and square paper bags of flour, sugar, and cornmeal. Today was Tony’s birthday. It was nine thirty; he had left for the office less than an hour before, his kiss dragging across her cheek, his body in motion out the door. She’d run after him with the sports section because he liked to read it on the train.
Their first apartment was small, a mere two rooms, a sparely furnished living room and the bedroom with the armoire that took up an entire wall (Tony had neglected to measure the space before they moved in), and of course a narrow kitchen lined with cabinets like a shadow box turned inside out, a bathroom with blue tiles. They would move, Tony said, once he got a raise or once she got pregnant, whichever came first. She wasn’t pregnant yet. She was young though, her doctor had assured her, and she would have greater luck if she took iron pills. Maybe choose a hobby, he had said, I hear from many of my lady patients that knitting for the Red Cross relaxes their nerves. Since then she had knitted four blankets, six sweaters, ten pairs of socks, two hats, and a pair of gloves, wrapped them individually in tissue paper, tied them with spare ribbons, and sent them to the Red Cross. She didn’t think she was nervous, but then, as Tony said, how could she tell? Anyone else could look at her and see that she was nervous, the way she paced up and down the hallway and never sat still, that she needed to concentrate on being serene, on thinking of pleasant things. Serene, that was the word he had used.
She pulled off her sweater and hung it on the back of a kitchen chair, rolled up the sleeves of her blouse. A bowl, a spoon, the electric mixer (her birthday gift, two months ago), a set of measuring cups, she placed on the table, then the flour, the sugar, the butter, the eggs, the milk, the yellow box of baking powder, the brown vial of vanilla extract. She baked well, or at least, she had won prizes for her baking at school. She had a degree in Home Economics, the perfect compromise her mother had told her, smiling tightly: she could study, just as she wanted to, and only increase her attractiveness as a prospective wife. Her mother had been right; Tony would never have looked at a girl in one of his own classes, never considered taking out a girl who mucked about in chemistry labs or ruined her eyesight in the dusty back passages of the library. It unbalanced them chemically, he said, didn’t agree with their nervous systems – and maybe he was right, she thought sometimes, for how could she know anything about nervous systems?
Laura flipped open her daybook, so she could review it as she thrust the spoon back and forth through the batter. Under the day’s date, she had written one item: Tony’s Birthday (Bake Cake, afternoon, Prepare Roast, 4). The next day was blank and also the next, and the day after that was Saturday. There she had written: Dinner, Tony’s Parents. The daybook had been a present last Christmas. It had a burgundy leather cover, with her initials, LSN, embossed on the corner in gold curlicued script, and it was intended to replace the cheap, bound notebooks she used to carry about with her, where she wrote both her schedule and whatever thoughts came to her, even the occasional poem. She’d been used to leaving them about, until Tony picked one up and read it. He couldn’t believe she would indulge in such neurotic frivolities, it wouldn’t do, he said, it couldn’t be good for her. If she was interested in poetry, she ought to join the reading club the boss’s wife had started with the other wives of the office; in fact, that was a ripping idea. She ought to join. It wasn’t just poetry, he’d heard; they also played bridge. The club met Mondays.
Ruthie, as the boss’s wife insisted she call her within the first five minutes of their meeting, had been so pleased Laura had chosen to join them. Anthony had told her that Laura had a great talent for poetry, so she would be a great asset to their readings. Someone who’d actually written poetry, and not only for school competitions, would have the instinct, surely Laura knew what she meant, the intuition, that one needed to really understand all the metaphors and so on. Though, naturally, no one would tell any one’s husband if some of the poetry the librarian recommended verged on smut, Ruthie added, simpering. Smut was, at the moment, very much in vogue with the wives of the men of Petersen Chemical Industries.
Laura thought that Tony wouldn’t mind, as long as all the wives were reading those poems and discussing them in the privacy of Ruthie’s living room, but she didn’t tell him in case it upset him. When they were first married, a chum from school had given her a book with the cover torn off, a book written by a divorcee who wrote in florid prose of the affairs she had had, and Tony had turned purple yelling at her when he’d found it. She wasn’t the sort of woman to read that trash, he’d said. It was so filthy, he didn’t dare put it in the bin for fear the garbage collector would find it, so he burned it little by little through the winter.
Laura had, at first, been smolderingly, silently angry, but in the end she thought the affair, unpleasant as it had been at particular moments, essentially satisfactory. For one, she loved to have a fire in the colder months and the need to burn up the Book meant she had a fire every evening through most of February. For another, she had read the Book in its entirety twice before Tony looked at it, so she wasn’t missing any of it. And then, before she’d read the Book, she’d laid underneath Tony like a dead fish, thinking that that was all that could be required of her, alternating between a clammy discomfort and a distressing sensation that had been simultaneously pleasant and inflaming. It was the Book that had explained, in embarrassing language, what a man wanted a woman to do, and it had had the unexpected benefit of rendering their frequent couplings rather nice for her as well, nicer at least. Tony certainly had liked the use she’d made of the Book, even if he didn’t want her to have read It.
The divorcee wrote a lot about “coming,” a phrase that Laura hadn’t quite understood when she first read it, and by that point, the chum had moved three towns over with her husband and she couldn’t possibly have written, when she could tell it meant something she would fall over dead before letting a nosy postman read. Laura didn’t get the hang of what that meant, what “coming” meant, until a full half of the Book had met its fiery demise and it had shocked her when it happened. She had opened her eyes to Tony’s face, his eyes in the dark half menacing and half afraid, working himself in and out of her still, his breath ragged. He slapped her. His hand was sweaty. Two minutes later he finished. He rolled off of her and panting, the words rising into the darkness like smoke, he said, “You’re mine.”
His, she thought, as she stirred the dry ingredients into the wet. His, as she poured the batter into the greased pans. She held out her hands, smeared with batter, and looked at them. She had ruined her nails again, would have to hurry if she were going to put on fresh polish after the cake and the roast, and there were the sweater, tie, and engraved pen to wrap up in paper. But, for ten seconds, she licked the batter off her fingers, ravenously, as though she hadn’t eaten in weeks.
Eugenie stumbled forward and nearly trod on an old woman’s foot as the bus lurched to a stop. She had four more stops to go and her shoulder ached as it was wrenched back and forth by the strap she clung to. She could see her pale reflection in the dirty glass of the bus window: a tall woman of twenty eight, with a mass of dark hair pinned up on her head in a soft chignon, wearing a green wool suit and carrying a string shopping bag filled with a string of onions, a joint wrapped in brown paper, and a discreetly unmarked bag, like an envelope, with the pharmacy’s telephone number printed over the corner, the bitter powders she took for cramping.
The bus finally arrived at her corner and she pushed herself gently through the press of women with shopping bags and students reeking of cigarettes. Somehow it seemed to her that the younger men always stank more than the older married men, professional men, as though the cigarette smoke lost its potency as the smoker got older. Her downstairs neighbors were having the bathroom retiled and a man in dingy white overalls was camped out on the landing with a sandwich in one grimy hand and a thermos in the other. She nodded and smiled when he said, hello miss, to her, without meeting his eyes.
Eugenie unlocked her door and let herself collapse on it, to shut it against the stink and clamor of the street. She had hoped that she would have moved away by now, but Paul hadn’t won the fellowship he’d counted on and said they would have to delay getting married until next year. He was, of course, disappointed, and just as eager as she was, as he demonstrated, staying so late that the neighbors gossiped, but it was no use rushing in to the future when they weren’t ready for it.
Eugenie had inherited the apartment from her unmarried aunt, a woman with a hook nose who had resembled a vulture until she smiled a dazzling, stunning smile that transfigured her face. No one could paint her, the aunt had said so many times, her beauty was ungraspable. Eugenie was privately thankful that her own beauty, if not dazzling, was fixed carefully enough on her face that no painter could complain of its mobile transience.
She would have taken a job somewhere, perhaps at the library or in a school office, but Paul frowned so when she mentioned it that she let it go. Did she have so little faith? he’d asked, eyes wide and almost tearful. She kissed his cheek and wiped off the smudge of lipstick with her thumb. She’d continued studying instead, on her own with books from the library, though it struck her as a pity that she would never have a degree to show for it, having left the university three years before when she was first engaged. Wait for me, he’d pleaded, for I’m a better man because of you. And she’d waited.
Paul would someday be a full professor, or so he hoped. The loss of the fellowship had been a blow and his confidence was somewhat shaken, though he didn’t say so. Eugenie pressed his shirts with more tenderness after that, as though the shirts would cradle his body closer for her efforts. He brought her his laundry and mending once or twice a week, but he disliked seeing her do it, or any housework for that matter, as though there was an immodesty in seeing her as she would be when they were married, as though he had walked in on her naked. He left the unkempt bundles by the door when he arrived and she left them, washed, ironed, and neatly folded, tied with brown string, where he could pick them up as he left.
When they kissed on the sofa, he never removed her clothes, only touched her over them, smoothing them over her flesh, or grasping the cloth in a wrinkled bunch. In the three years of their engagement, the barest she had been with him was at the seashore, where she wore her purple bikini. A Venus, he called her, rising from the waves, and he plashed some water on her. That evening, he wrote some verses in Greek on a paper napkin, while they ate at the tourist-ridden restaurant on the pier, and told her he thought of her as the goddess in those verses.
Eugenie didn’t read Greek, had never had the opportunity. She was studying French literature when Paul became serious about her. An early, scribbled-over draft of her thesis, on Stendhal, nestled in a box with other school things in her bedroom closet. She’d thought of revising it, of finishing it properly, had even thought that Paul might help her with it, that they could sit together evenings and talk over her ideas, but the moment she began to suggest it, the words died on her lips. That was a dream, a silly, vacuous, schoolgirl dream. Paul might practice a lecture on her occasionally, or have her type out a paper, but he worked with students all day, complained of their backwardness and unstructured ideas. She wasn’t his student, but his fiancée, and in the evenings after he left her, while she smeared cold cream on her face or brushed her teeth, she brought out the nub of disappointment she kept inside her and examined it in the harsh light of the bathroom fixture.
She loved Paul, and she liked him too, despite and perhaps even a little because of his moments of anxiety and doubt, when he set himself above her and she stayed silent and sly, her eyes on the toes of her shoes, his slight priggishness, his conceitedness as he considered his own intellect. When she proofread his thesis, she inserted commas and semicolons, occasionally substituted one vowel for another, but she didn’t question his conclusions and let the committee probe the chasm over which his argument leaped, as a little boy might leap over a stream with his hand smacked hard against his eyes. She knew that he would come back from defending his thesis, deflated and forlorn, and she waited for him, petted him, kissed him, told him it made no difference to her, no difference to her opinion of him. She loved him and that was all that mattered. His eyes when he looked at her were pleading, as he said, “If you left me, there’d be no one left to know me, not as you do.”
June: the beautiful month when the school doors were thrown open and the trees beckoned with their green-festooned branches and one could forget one’s composition book in a drawer somewhere, where the ink on the pages could fade into a homey brown. It was finally June and Rosalie roamed the meadows abutting her grandmother’s house, tresses of hair eluding her braids and her bare knees already scratched and bruised from climbing over the fence.
In two weeks, she would have her birthday, her twelfth, and she wouldn’t be a little girl anymore, or not very much. Then she would be too old to play with dolls anymore, or keep pretend house. Her grandmother, armored even in the muggiest weather in a wool cardigan, but nevertheless still rather pretty, in the lamplight, had come into her bedroom the first night, to tell her that she was a young lady now, nearly, and this summer she must begin to learn to keep house properly, not just the fun things, like stacking the tea cups or giving the cat his cream, matching the odd socks in the laundry basket. Naturally, she must spend some hours out of doors as well, or her health might suffer. She might still grow another few inches.
Rosalie might have dreaded the intrusion of chores into the liberty of a country summer, but in fact, she’d begun to rather tire of dolls, braiding their tattered hair and dabbing handkerchiefs to their porcelain fevered brows. When she looked at herself in the mirror, she seemed a frightfully big girl to be wielding an imaginary broom or prancing in invisible glass slippers. She had come on the train by herself, without her parents, too occupied at home, her father with his boring old office and her mother had a thousand things to do, what things Rosalie didn’t know, but things that required trunks-full of evening dresses and long scarves and earrings, and weren’t they lucky that father knew his business and brought them such a lot of presents?
It was true: this year there were suddenly a great number of pretty things appearing on the breakfast table in the morning. Father, tugging at his tie, which he loathed but said was a damned cross to bear, had never before been the purveyor of such bounty. Rosalie left for the country with a half dozen new dresses, and a lovely tortoiseshell broach, like grown ladies’ wore.
Twelve years old was of course the real beginning, after all those long years of childhood. Now came the firsts: the first dress to the calves, the first tall heel on a new shoe, the first dab of powder and rouge snuck from her mother’s compacts, the first dance (she’d learned them all, already, listening to records in her room), the first beau, the first kiss. Rosalie knew just the sort of boy she wanted for her beau, but she couldn’t have him yet: Rachel’s brother Frank, who had blue eyes and a bicycle, and was already fifteen.
A car came puttering along the road and Rosalie ducked into the long, un-mown grass like a rabbit. The driver wore a cap, so she couldn’t tell how old he was and next to him was a woman in a long, brown coat, far too heavy for the weather. She was slumped against the seat, with her eyes closed, her forehead sweaty, as though she might be sick any minute. The car pulled to a stop and the woman stumbled out, reached the fence and hung on to it, as though she were on a ship at sea, swaying. Rosalie crept closer, as she had seen Indians do in American films. The woman was retching and the man stood a few feet from her, smoking a cigarette. I will never forgive you for this, the woman was saying, over and over, softly, almost like a lullaby, in between fits of retching. The man, Rosalie could see now, was handsome, even if his face was a bit fleshy, but he was angry, puffing on the cigarette as though he could squeeze out its insides and spit them out again. The woman rested her head between her hands on the highest rail of the fence. She wasn’t retching anymore. The man lobbed his cigarette into the road and climbed back into the car. A minute later, she followed, still unsteady on her feet. I wish I were dead, she said, so faintly that Rosalie wasn’t sure she had heard it, and the man grunted in reply, not even a real word, just a sound.
Rosalie stood up as the car drove away, watching it disappear in a wispy cloud of yellow dust.
That evening after supper, grandmother brought out a leather-bound photograph album to show her. Your father as an infant, she pointed out on the first page, your father at his first communion, your father on a bicycle, your father with that school chum who died as so many of them did in those years, your father with his medal in mathematics, your father with a fish he caught, your father in his first long trousers, your father before he left for Madagascar, your father with his first car. Grandmother had a similar album for Rosalie as well, and for her cousins Alfred and Wanda: Rosalie as an infant, Rosalie in her pram, Rosalie at her first communion, Rosalie with her doll in a pram, Rosalie in her school uniform, Rosalie with a bouquet of flowers, Rosalie in a new hat for Easter, Rosalie in a formal portrait seated beside her mother, her father standing erect behind them.
Bedtime was early at grandmother’s house and Rosalie was still awake, staring at the ceiling when she heard the clock below strike ten. It seemed to her that she was holding the end of a long chain that she must pull closer towards her at regular intervals, and with each pull, she found something hanging from the chain. She could see very far along it, see what sorts of things hung there waiting. She saw a party dress, she saw a love letter, and a ring, and a wedding dress and a lacey veil (not tulle: lace was more chic), curtains and bowls and tea sets and a bedroom set all clustered together with a set of keys hanging below it all, and beyond that a delicate, tiny christening gown, and another after that. The objects grew blurrier after that, so that she wasn’t sure precisely what she saw, whether the colored smudges were Easter hats or anniversary presents, or perhaps if she looked far enough, a woolen cardigan like her grandmother’s or an emerald green evening gown like her mother’s. Strange to think that her mother would one day be a grandmother. It struck her that the chain, delicate and shimmering and as fine as a spider’s thread, might break at any moment, freighted with all the things she needed, if she were to ever grow up. The chain wrenched in her hand. She felt its tiny links press into the lines of her palm. From the murk at the other end of the chain, the woman in the brown coat floated toward her. She was bent forward over her belly, and a smell of turned milk radiated from her convulsing body. From closed, unmoving lips the whispered words came, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead. I will never forgive him, I wish I were dead. The woman held out clammy hands, and the chain shook, entwined in her trembling fingers. The dresses and bureaus and rings tumbled away into the blackness, cracking against floorboards and walls.
Rosalie’s door creaked ajar and she squeezed her eyes shut. Grandmother’s robe swished against the floor, her slippers shuffled closer to the edge of the bed. She must be gazing down at Rosalie, standing at her side to contemplate her face, as people did at a wake. She said, murmuring and quiet, “Are you dreaming, girl?”
Ulrica woke up at four in the morning, a habit she hadn’t been able to break since she left the factory, that awful morning shift, to work in Hugo’s shop. It had been her routine so many years, since she was sixteen and allowed to drop school, that she could stay up to any hour, only to wake promptly, just as the hour hand overtook the roman numeral four. Hugo was sprawled beside her, the blanket twisted around him like a cocoon. They’d been married nearly ten years and still he stole the blanket every night, wrapping himself up in it, equally oblivious to the chill or the heat.
She got up and wandered into the bathroom, peed, brushed her teeth, plucked a grey hair from her head. In the kitchen, she poured herself a cup of milk, sticking her tongue out at the glass before tossing it down. Her doctor insisted, and Hugo seconded him, that she drink at least a cup of milk a day, or she would start wasting away again. Full fat milk, the doctor said, poking the air with his pen. As they walked home from the appointment, Hugo said, I hope you were listening, you had better do what he said, I mean it. And Ulrica smiled and drank her milk because when Hugo said things like that she knew he meant to say that he loved her.
He never said so in as many words, had only done so once, on their wedding day, during a drunken toast before all the guests. Their wedding night had been spent in misery, Hugo holding his head over the toilet and Ulrica crying in bed. They didn’t make love at all. Though Hugo said, what difference did it really make, since they’d been going to bed together months before they were married.
Hugo had convinced her to go to bed with him after they’d been going out two months. At first she didn’t like it, then she did, then she really did, and they got reckless, so that one night, her father walked in on them in the midst. That night, Hugo agreed to marry her. She couldn’t keep her father’s photograph in the bedroom after that, for she could almost swear that somehow he had seen and known through his flat double, though of course that was nonsense, silliness.
And wasn’t it also a relief? Hugo hadn’t been in any hurry to get married, had even used condoms, though he told her that for a man they nearly ruined it. Being caught meant getting married. She’d gotten pregnant four times since then and each time miscarried. After the second one, when she nearly bled to death on the factory floor, Hugo said that was enough, come home and work in the shop. We’ll get along, he’d said, and, without saying a word about it, gave up cigarettes and cheese. She took up the habit of bringing him his coffee in bed, stirring the sugar on the way, so it dissolved no more than a moment before he drank it. They avoided each other’s eyes as they followed the new ritual.
They might still have a child, it wasn’t impossible, though they didn’t make love as often as they used to, as they did when they were young. After school, Marta’s boys came into the store, so they wouldn’t tear her house to pieces, and she liked to have them, despite the occasional mischief, thought she would make a good mother if things would only go her way. She fed the boys cake and let them play marbles in the further aisle and bound up their scraped knees and elbows.
Ulrica would have said, if questioned, that she was as happy as a childless woman could be, and in fact, she was so questioned, regularly, by the women who stopped by for occasional help of a private nature. Hugo knew about it, and didn’t entirely approve, but he said, knowing how much she wanted a child herself, like any normal woman, and still she was willing to help out women who wanted that sort of help, he supposed she was just doing it from an overgrowth of pity. An overgrowth, he’d said, a strange choice, like a tumor or a fungus. She’d never needed private help herself, as there had been no accidents with Hugo before they were married. That was always the way, she thought, for she wouldn’t have minded, or at least, so she thought now.
It was nearly six now and Hugo would have to be woken. She went into the bedroom and watched him sleeping. She leaned over him and shook his shoulders gently, Hugo, Hugo, it’s nearly six. He murmured in his sleep and she shook him again. He coughed a little bit and she straightened up. He opened one eye and glared up at her, then shrugged and threw his arms over his head, yawning loudly. As he lurched out of bed, his knees popped. He stumped past her into the bathroom, closing the door. Without a sound, she pressed her body against the door, caressing it. He turned on the faucet inside. Her hand stroked the worn-out planks, her eyes closed, her lips open.
Olivia stood on the corner of Max’s street. It was seven o’clock in the morning and she had not slept for two nights. He had told her it was finished, over, that he was a free man and could take out whatever girl he liked, and he didn’t like Olivia anymore. So, he was taking Emily to the dance Saturday and there was an end to it.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Hadn’t he left her for other girls twice before? And hadn’t he come back, tired of them, wanting her ready sympathy, the hollow in her lap where he could rest his head, the eyes, he’d told her once, that looked just like the girl’s in the lipstick ads, honest? Emily didn’t love him, couldn’t love him the way that Olivia did, so Max would come back, must come back.
They had been engaged once, Max and Olivia, but then he’d had to pawn the ring and when he got it back, he told her he’d have to sell it. After all, they were young and there was plenty of time for him to get a better job. She would have a gold ring next time, with a big stone that the other girls could see shining across the street. Olivia understood: he was right, naturally, he was right. With the money from the ring, he’d put a down payment on a scooter and it saved him so much time, getting to work in the morning. It was better that way.
Olivia knew everything there was to know about Max, even about the other girls, because Max told her everything, sooner or later. He didn’t hide anything from her. She knew that he’d left her for Ilsa because Ilsa was the sort of girl who went to bed without a fuss, just a night out was all she wanted, dinner, a glass of wine, a movie, and that was all. It wasn’t that Olivia denied Max what he wanted, what was his due, really, since at the time they were engaged, just that she couldn’t, no matter how she tried, be so casual about it all, and Ilsa was casual about it and men must want that, need that, sometimes. Max wanted her to lie on her back, the ceiling light beaming down onto her like a searchlight, bare as the day she was born. When she blushed or whimpered, he slapped her, but she did what he wanted. She spread her legs, she flipped on her back, she bounced and moaned, but she blushed just the same. It always ended so abruptly, and then, while he fell back panting, and drifted into sleep, she hurried to the bathroom and took precautions. It made her nauseous, to clean up the mess afterwards, to wipe it up. Max couldn’t be saddled with a child, on top of everything else.
When she was dressed, maybe observing the coffee pot heating on the gas ring or wiping the card table down, she sometimes wanted to be with him again, like that, naked and entwined, and it felt like a simmering in her body, but when it happened, it was never as it was in memory. Instead, she felt chilled with his sweat against her skin, and it embarrassed her to see him grin, manipulating himself into her body.
The traffic was increasing and a green Fiat had parked in front of her, a grey-faced man in a wrinkled doorman’s uniform tottering out after a night shift. The door of Max’s building opened and emitted two men in shabby, badly pressed suits with metal lunch boxes and thermoses in their hands. His window faced the courtyard; for all she knew, he wasn’t working today, wouldn’t come out until noon. She couldn’t go home without making things up. Surely, in a week, he must have tired of Emily, Emily who wore those ugly rhinestone earrings and dyed her hair, though she wouldn’t admit it. Those freckles, try to hide them as she might with powder, were the freckles of a redhead.
Olivia began to cry, standing on the street corner, and a small boy, passing by with a brown schoolbag of cracked leather on his shoulder, paused to crouch beneath her and stick his tongue out at her. She used to believe that if one really loved a person, it meant that person loved the other back, just as much, but now she thought she could bear it if Max loved her only a little, even if it was a lot less than she loved him, if at least he loved her a little, just that little bit. If he wanted to relieve himself with one of those girls, Olivia could stand it, if he would simply come back in the end to her, if he would just let her live with him, if he couldn’t marry her yet. Max was a man: she could understand that, she could accept that.
The door opened again; it was the landlady, with her purse tucked under her arm. Olivia looked at her wrist watch: eight fifteen. So Max wasn’t going to work that day; she wondered why not. Behind her, a man was setting up a stall, cracking open crates of oranges and bananas, tropical fruits. She approached him and held out a few coins, palpated the oranges and chose two. The man took them from her hands and put them in a paper bag, called her back for her change. She crossed the street, the bag clutched in her hand. The door was locked, but no matter, the spare key was always to be found under the second potted geranium. Letting herself in, she crept up the stairs to Max’s door. She looked at it, badly painted, with a deep scratch along the bottom, from when the upstairs neighbors’ dog ran rabid and had to be shot by the police in the corridor. She placed the paper bag, neatly folded at the top, in front of the door, and hastily drew out a scrap of paper and a pencil from her bag. She wrote, the scrap pressed hard to her flat palm, “These are for you – I still love you – whatever, whenever you want.”
Joan heaved herself up out of the bushes and adjusted her skirt. Her eyes darted around the garden; there was no one on the terrace, though the bright yellow light from the living room and the chatter of tipsy voices spilled out and made the garden seem crowded with poltergeists. She’d lost a glove and she knelt down to rummage for it in the shrubbery. Kenneth crawled out, chuckling to himself, and tossed the glove to her, pinched her behind and made her jump.
Joan was still incensed. She had come so hard that for a golden five seconds she had ceased to care who was screwing her, where, or why, but now she was sick of Kenneth and his weirdly childish obsession with twisting her pubic hair, sick of the party, sick of the slinky skirt suit that the salesgirl had called very Gina Lollobrigida. She tapped her ears to make sure she hadn’t lost an earring, but they were still affixed there. When she’d pussyfooted her way into the garden under Kenneth’s arm, ten minutes before, she’d been thinking of Oscar’s face, of what she would see in it if he’d been standing on the patio, as he watched his wife tumble under the shrubbery, shimmy her skirt up over her hips, and sling her legs around Kenneth’s body. That’s what she’d been thinking when she came: Oscar’s face standing above them, watching her be mauled by another man, furious, devastated, hard for her as he hadn’t been since they were first married.
Now, her only thought was to somehow keep the past ten minutes squarely in the past, the forgotten past preferably. Kenneth was drunk, still sitting on the edge of the patio, laughing, sleepy. There was no use trying to reason with him. She sidled around the side of the house. There was a side door into the kitchen. She let herself in, and nearly jumped out of her skin. Harriet was perched on the counter, the straw from her drink in her mouth, Leon kneeling in front of her with his head up her skirt. No, she mouthed, the straw falling to the floor, don’t tell, please don’t tell. Joan froze, and brought her index finger slowly to her lips, tiptoed to the bathroom, nodding, while Harriet fell aback against the cabinet, her face twisted between agony and pleasure.
Joan slipped into the powder room, miraculously empty. Maybe Kenneth wouldn’t say anything, maybe he wouldn’t remember it happened, or that it was her. She wondered where Oscar was, whether he had his head up some other woman’s skirt. Harriet was no more married to Leon than she, Joan, was to Kenneth. What if one of them, Kenneth, or Harriet, or Leon ended up in the divorce court and it all came out? Oscar wouldn’t forgive a public scandal.
But she was being absurd, panicking. There was no cause for panic. She’d simply track down Oscar and say she wanted to go home, that she had a headache, that she wanted to get out of these tight clothes.
The chatter in the living room seemed to be a natural part of its environment and not to come from the desultory couples and groups, lounging on the sofas and on the floor. It was nearly three in the morning and some people were half asleep, their glasses precariously resting in relaxed fists. Kenneth had crawled back in through the French doors and was snoring under a potted fern, with his pants buttoned, thank goodness. Oscar was sitting against the wall next to the kitchen door, talking to Phil and his German wife who was rumored to do her housework in the nude. She waved to him, grimaced. He nodded and heaved himself up, stumbled. How much had he had to drink? When he reached her, she grabbed him as though he might suddenly evaporate in front of her, reaching into his pocket to find the keys to the car. I’ll drive, she insisted, and he was drunk enough to sluggishly assent. That was a lousy party, she said, when they were speeding up the road. Something was up in the kitchen, Oscar mumbled, and I bet it was Leon with somebody’s wife. He put his hand on her knee, rubbed it. Joan stared at the sparkling lines of asphalt radiating from the car. Oscar’s hand peeled back the fabric from her knee, kneading the joint. Then it traveled its way up, inwards, along her thigh. I’m trying to drive, she said, but it was too late, his fingers were already inside her. She clutched the steering wheel. She didn’t want to come, not like this, but his finger worked inside her, where less than a half hour ago Kenneth’s penis had worked inside her, where he had come inside her, and Oscar’s fingers were massaging all of it against her inner flesh. She slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road. She came, convulsing in the seat, her ring slicing into her finger as she clutched at the steering well.
Oscar pulled his hand out from under her skirt. He swallowed and, smirking, said, “That’s all you wanted, parading around in that get-up, wasn’t it?”