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Authors: Claire McMillan

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Literary, #United States, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction, #American

Gilded Age (10 page)

BOOK: Gilded Age
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While I’d known Cinco all my life, his family had known mine for longer. He kissed my cheek and heartily shook the hand of Mr. Mingott, who then quickly begged off, spotting a group of guests to greet.

“How are you?” Cinco asked. He was as tall and lanky as I remembered. “I’ve been meaning to call and get you out to the house soon. Did you have a good time at the Trenors’?” I hoped the smile on my face wasn’t too goofy as I remembered the conversation about him and his wife adjourning upstairs during their dinner party. I’d been having recurring dreams about him since then.

He was in his element here, cloaked in an air of respectability signaled by the way he kissed your cheek, the cut of his shirt, and the way he chatted with old ladies. Seeing him here made the tacky story seem as unlikely as a tabloid story in the supermarket. But from certain angles the boy I’d known, who was a vicious mimic and often full of mischief, peeked out at me. Perhaps the dinner party story was real after all.

“I had a great time,” I said, blushing. “How’d you know I was up there?”

“Diana and Dan were over the night before they left. They said they’d see you.”

“I hear there’s a lot to be done out at the farm,” I said. Anyone who knew the Van Alstynes called their country estate a farm. Of course nothing had ever been farmed out there but generations of Van Alstynes.

He nodded, shifting around so we were standing next to each other, leaning our backs against the stone wall of the house, shoulder to shoulder in the way of old comrades, which I suppose we were. I felt comforted and oddly intimate. He propped a foot up on the wall behind him. “But we’ve got the funds now,” he said.

I leaned my shoulder into him. He was surveying the crowd, smiling at people he knew. No one talked money at a Cleveland wedding.

“You didn’t hear?” He shoved my shoulder after I’d remained quiet. “A Saudi sheik’s representative knocked on the door last spring. Some member of the royal family had a heart thing done at the Clinic this summer. He wanted somewhere secluded to recover and with a couple wives and a passel of kids, he needed a place big enough for his whole family.”

A waiter offered a tray of hot shrimp. He swiped one off the silver tray. I waved no. He must have realized then that he didn’t want to stuff the shrimp in his mouth mid-story and so it became a kind of baton.

“So a real estate agent is driving the sheik’s right-hand man from place to place.” Cinco smiled and nodded at someone across the way while continuing his story. “And he doesn’t like any of them.” Whisk of shrimp from side to side. “I guess they were driving past the farm on their way to another house to rent when he told the driver to stop. Next day this representative guy knocks on my door.” Shrimp pounding at imaginary door. “As they say, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.” He finally popped the shrimp in his mouth.

“You sold it!” I turned toward him, genuinely pleased. The house was one of the worst white elephants in Cleveland. That Cinco would cut himself free of it excited me more than was probably appropriate. This was not the judgment-ridden boy I’d known when I was younger.
He was changed and free—selling the house, the story of his wife and him at the dinner party.

He held a hand up and chewed.

I continued, gushing. “I think that’s really great. I always thought it’d be such a drain on you. I mean, I know it must be hard to find a buyer, but a house like that has got to be an albatross—”

“God no,” he said as he swallowed the shrimp. “Calm down. I rented it to them for the summer. It’s already paid for a new roof, shoring up the foundations …”

My mind scrambled for a way to remove my foot from my mouth.

But he seemed unfazed by my glee at the idea of the house being sold; perhaps he was used to skepticism about his family seat.

Cinco prattled on. “Amazing, right? We had to get every stitch of furniture out of there in a week. I mean every effing dish towel, for crying in the night, everything in the basement, every everything. But for that price, I did it.”

“Is that rope swing out in the bower still there?” I thought a bit of nostalgia might erase my faux pas.

“Still there.” He smiled at me then, and I had the strongest memory of what it had been like to kiss him. As I mentioned, the first time was in a sandbox; I couldn’t have been more than five. And then there were dances at the country club in middle school where we’d sneak off to the golf course. The summers I’d come home from college we’d get a group of friends and a bunch of beer and skinny-dip in the pond at his family’s farm—now
his
farm.

“I’d love to see it,” I said again. At the end of summers we’d each go back to school with no strings attached. Neither of us had returned to Cleveland. He’d visited me a few times in New York, staying at the University Club, where he hosted huge cocktail parties for his New York friends—mostly Clevelanders doing their big-city thing and searching for their imports.

Speaking of which, his wife came over then—dressed in neat black with her chic haircut and massive pearl-and-diamond-encrusted earrings, something out of the Van Alstyne vault no doubt.

He reintroduced us, and she whispered something in his ear. He blushed, heaved himself off the wall next to me, and took her hand. “I think we’re leaving,” he said. At first I thought he was embarrassed by her rudeness. I was starting to think he’d really chosen a social hindrance, as everyone said. But I noticed how quickly he seemed to fold her under his arm with that unmistakable air of anticipatory pleasure, and it dawned on me, from the look on his face, that she’d whispered something suggestive. We were at a wedding, so there’s always romance in the air, but this seemed pretty tawdry. She’d not talked to me.

I raised an eyebrow. “They haven’t cut the cake.”

But they’d already turned their backs and didn’t hear me. I was stunned as I watched them walk toward the door—and disappointed, as if the party was over. I’d enjoyed standing there next to him, feeling a buzz I hadn’t felt in ages. Neither Jim nor I would ever leave a wedding or a dinner party so blatantly to go home and get in bed. Cinco just didn’t seem to care what Cleveland thought anymore.

He and his wife greeted Ellie quickly on their way out.

Ellie wore what looked like an ancient flapper’s dress of ombré moiré silk—no spangles and no bugle beads, just a long close-cut column of silk starting at pale blush near her face and ending in deepest mauve, like a bruise, at the hem. A long sash tied loosely around her hips almost trailed on the floor. She waved and came over, kissing me on the cheek.

“You look amazing,” she said to me.

“Amazingly large,” I said.

“Hardly,” she said. “I can’t even tell. Are you scared?”

Now this is a question an expectant mother is almost never asked. Are you excited? Are you feeling well? Are you tired? Yes. Are you scared? No.

“Yes,” I said. “I guess I am.”

“If it was me, I’d be terrified,” she said.

We watched as the couple cut the tremendous marzipan wedding cake and then fed it to each other, sealing each bite with a kiss. This
particular wedding tradition had always embarrassed me—the mess of it, the innuendo.

“Look at that,” Ellie said, watching her cousin with detachment.

“They’re very sweet together,” Jim said, arriving at my side and putting an arm around my waist.

“I guess everyone should have that sort of lovey-dovey, puppy-dog love once in their lives. Look at her,” Ellie said.

They say love is the most effective makeup on a woman, though I’d never really understood it until looking at plain Vivian Mingott radiant with triumph and adoration in her grandmother’s Brussels-lace wedding gown. I could just barely remember feeling that way at my own wedding.

I turned toward Ellie. “Haven’t you ever felt like that?”

Ellie shook her head. “Not like that.”

“Not yet,” Jim said.

“You’re hopeful for me?” she said, swatting his elbow. “How sweet. Don’t you know I’m too old?” She turned toward him. “What about you two?”

Jim smiled and kissed my cheek, but I noticed that Ellie kept his eye.

• 9 •

The Engagement

E
llie watched William Selden dodge through the wedding guests, who were busily eating cake and chatting. Though he stopped to say hello to a few people, he was intent on his destination. Her. She looked around, seeking a way to avoid him, when he caught her eye and smiled.

A waiter offered her a slice of cake. She declined. Selden had been a participant in her debacle at the Trenors’, and he had a knowing smirk on his face as he closed in on her. He swiped a glass of champagne off a passing tray and offered it to her.

“Not drinking,” she said when he arrived. “That’s what got me in trouble last time.”

A look of annoyance crossed his face but was replaced almost instantly with his usual jovial smile. “I’m trouble?” He took a short swig from the rejected glass.

“You left without saying good-bye.”

“I figured I’d see you. I didn’t figure you’d not return my phone calls.”

He leaned against a doorjamb, languidly looking at her body. It’d taken an almost superhuman amount of self-control only to kiss him
that night in Ellicottville. Selden was an expert kisser. One who’d gained his skills from much diverse practice. It hinted that he was an accomplished lover. Thinking about it now, seeing the new confident look on his face, she blushed.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about me,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I know I’m not your type.” He seemed changed since their night together in Ellicottville—older, cocky even. It wasn’t appealing.

“How do you know I have a type?”

“Gryce is your type,” he said, moving closer. “Or maybe Randy Leforte, yeah?”

“I don’t know Randy Leforte, but I can’t think of two more different people,” she said primly. “Clearly I have no type. What are you implying?”

“Not implying anything.” He leaned toward her. “I’m a realist, and I see who you are.”

“Really? Who’s that?” Her face was hot now.

“I’m saying you’re a pragmatist. Aren’t you?”

Perhaps she’d upset him more than she realized by not returning his calls. “That sounds vulgar,” she said.

“You think you’re the only one?” He looked around the room. “How many of these marriages are based on less than that?”

She considered the Wetheralls in front of her, a union based on his business connections and her social ambitions. Just looking at them made Ellie depressed.

“How many still have passion?” he asked, waving a hand.

“I don’t think anyone really knows what goes on inside anyone else’s marriage.”

“Right.” He shrugged.

“Passion is fine,” she said, grasping his glass and taking a sip. “What I really want is freedom.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Freedom in marriage?”

“Freedom from everything—from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. That’s the only thing money can buy.”

“Money doesn’t buy that,” he said.

“The hell it doesn’t,” she said with a snort.

“What you are talking about is a republic of the spirit, a context of the soul.” He deposited his now-empty glass on a silver tray and took the full flute offered by a waiter. “It can’t be bought.” He ran a hand through his unruly hair. “What you are talking about has nothing to do with money and everything to do with your state of mind. You’ve had money.”

“That’s where the passion comes in. Need that too.”

He grasped her wrist. “Ribbon’s gone.”

“Fell off.” Ellie shrugged.

“You need another,” he said. He looked at the couple next to them, saying good-byes now that the cake was cut. “The Hindus say the rich man and the poor man have the same troubles, except the rich man has money,” Selden said to her.

“Eastern wisdom from a corn-fed midwestern boy—you know that’s annoying as hell, right?”

“Want me to read your aura?” he asked, smiling.

“You can do that?”

“No, but I actually read things besides
Vogue
magazine.”

“Didn’t realize you read
Vogue
magazine,” she said with a smirk.

He snorted. “You know what I mean.”

“You mean I’m an idiot.” Ellie took a plate from a passing waiter and turned toward Selden. “Lemon,” she said, offering him a forkful of cake as a little peace offering.

“You’re not an idiot.” He ate the bite from Ellie’s fork. After he swallowed he said, “It means we all have to deal with the same shit. Some can throw money at it, but they still have to struggle with the same major questions of life. Always have.”

Just then Jack Stepney came over with Randall Leforte. Ellie kissed her cousin and congratulated him on his bride, his happiness, his beautiful day. Selden leaned back against the doorjamb again, watching her. Randall Leforte bent low over her hand and kissed it with a loud smack.

“Yes, we’ve met,” Leforte said when introduced by Jack. “At the orchestra. I’m a big patron. I love music.” He said this with a flourish that embarrassed Ellie. The man may have been rich and not bad looking, but he was impossible socially. Now was the time to glide over any awkwardness and introduce him to Selden, to be her usual charming self, but she couldn’t. She didn’t want Selden to think she was hunting Leforte. Selden had that effect on her. He invited her into his own world to abide by his views. They were brave views and romantic. Her concerns were trivial and small when she was with him. It was when they were apart that his heroic stance was hard for her to maintain on her own. She was smiling distractedly and silently at Leforte, who was gradually reddening.

“I hear you’re a good friend of Gus Trenor’s,” Leforte said. “I was playing squash with him the other day.” She thought she saw Selden smile at this thudding name-drop.

“Gus and Julia are some of my best friends.”

“I love your dress,” Leforte said, grasping at conversational straws and sinking. “Where’d you get it?”

Ellie winced. It was one thing for a woman to quietly inquire about a dress’s provenance, but a man? It was strange and aggressive. It put her on the spot if the dress was from Target, even worse if it was from Prada. “From my parents’ attic, actually. It was my grandmother’s.”

BOOK: Gilded Age
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