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Authors: Claire McMillan

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

Gilded Age (21 page)

BOOK: Gilded Age
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I thought her too cynical. With her contacts she might actually be pretty good at the job, and she’d feel altruistic even if it was with
someone else’s money. Perhaps Leforte wasn’t after her. When I suggested it, she snorted. “Wake up,” she said. “He’s not going to pay me anything, and I have no training or idea what I’m doing.”

“You could learn.”

She waved a hand. “Disaster.”

Not knowing what to say, I got up to refresh our teapot, and Ellie headed for the bathroom.

When we got back and settled, I leveled my gaze at her. “So go get Selden.”

She scoffed. “What? Go get him like a caveman or something?”

“Go to France. Talk to him. Show him how you feel.” I doubted that any man, especially Selden, would be able to resist Ellie making a grand gesture.

“He was pretty dismissive in his e-mails.”

“This is love we’re talking about.”

She smirked. “Love? Please.”

“You told me that night at the benefit—you two together for real.”

“I was wrong.”

“What else is there really?” I asked. “When you get down to it, what else matters besides love? If you think you’ve found it, then go show him he’s being an idiot. I know I would.”

Ellie had a strange look on her face. “You’ve always been a good girl.”

I was startled. It was such a strange thing to say. I’d done my share of “bad” things—sneaking cigarettes as a girl, sleeping with messy boys in college, trying drugs when I lived in the city. “The hell are you talking about?”

She stood up. “Never done anything really bad, anything you’re ashamed of.” I saw tears welling up in her eyes, and I didn’t want her to cry. We’d both be uncomfortable if I witnessed her losing control.

I heard the baby stirring through the monitor—soft grunting, perhaps just waking.

“Ellie, come on.” She was scaring me. I was thinking fast, and not
very clearly. I was trying to avert her tears. Just the thought of seeing her cry had me panicked. She was my oldest friend, and in that moment, looking at her in a ratty T-shirt with the gold chain her mother gave her around her neck, I felt protective of her and oddly responsible for her. I don’t know why. Ellie had seen more of the world than I probably ever would.

“Well, I know something that will take your mind off all this. I was going to ask you today,” I said. “Maybe it will cheer you up. Jim and I …” Here I paused, and she looked at me, gulping back her tears as I rattled on. “We want you to be Henry’s godmother.”

She just looked at me blankly. I don’t know what I’d expected. Ellie never showed any interest in babies, but I grasped at something that would have been meaningful to me.

Henry’s cry came louder now; he was definitely awake.

“I should go,” Ellie said, drying her eyes.

“No, no, stay. See your godson,” I said with enthusiasm, trying to make her smile, trying to make this okay for her.

“No, I’ll see him later.” She sniffled into a napkin. I was nervous she was going to start crying in earnest.

“You haven’t actually said you’ll do it,” I said.

“Of course I will,” Ellie said listlessly, gathering her things. “I’ve known you my whole life. Can you imagine what our mothers will say when we tell them?”

I smiled but felt irrationally disappointed by her lack of enthusiasm. Foolishly I’d thought the reality of Henry would change her into a baby person.

Henry’s squawking was becoming more urgent now. “I should go up there and feed him. You can come if you won’t get freaked out by the size of my boobs.”

I wasn’t going to mention the tableau, but Ellie said, “You saw one of mine, so I shouldn’t be uncomfortable with yours.”

We laughed.

“I should leave you in peace,” she said.

The baby was crying in earnest now.

“I should get him,” I said, heading up the stairs.

Ellie quickly kissed my cheek. She fumbled in her bag for her sunglasses.

“El, I’m sorry for asking …” I started to apologize for mentioning Gus, not wanting her to leave so sad.

She leaned over and kissed my cheek again, put her glasses on her red-rimmed eyes, smiled a weak smile, and then she was gone.

I
n taking care of Henry that afternoon, I completely forgot about Ellie’s visit. Jim and I had not discussed godparents at all. We hadn’t even planned the baptism yet. So I was little jolted when he came home from work and asked about Ellie’s visit while rummaging in the back of the fridge for a beer. I told him that I’d asked her to be a godmother.

“Ellie Hart is the person you’re choosing to guide our son spiritually through his life?”

“Yes, what’s wrong with that?”

“She’s a party girl.”

“She’s not.”

“Does she even go to church?”

“Doesn’t matter. You only need one Catholic godparent, the rest can be—whatever. You can choose the godfather.”

“Then I’m choosing Dustin Cunningham.”

Dustin Cunningham was his roommate from college who’d graduated from NYU film school and headed to Los Angeles, where he was running an adult Internet site while trying to come up with money for a documentary on composting.

“You haven’t spoken to him in years.”

“Makes as much sense as ‘Ellie Hart, Godmother.’”

“You’re in a bad mood.”

“I’m not, but this is a serious thing.”

“It’s not. There’s no limit on the number of godparents. We can pick four more if you want. Ellie was upset. I thought it might cheer
her up, and I’ve known her all my life. You think she wouldn’t take this sort of thing seriously? I’m worried about her.”

“Why?” He eyed me, nervously, I thought.

“She looked tired. I think she’s going through a hard time.”

“She wasn’t on something?” Jim took a long pull on his beer, but he kept my eye.

“Drugs?”

“She has a history.”

“No, I think that’s all behind her.” As I said this, it did occur to me that Ellie had looked haggard.

Jim looked down at Henry, who was happily kicking in his bouncy seat on the kitchen floor. “I just want everything to be perfect for him.”

“It will be. Was there someone you wanted for the godparents?”

“I was thinking of P. G. and Viola.”

“P. G. and Viola would make perfect godparents,” I said, nodding my head and smiling. As I’ve said, Jim surprised me sometimes with his clear reading of other people. “They’d take the role very seriously.”

That night as I was washing my face for bed, I noticed one of my hand towels in a damp pile on the sink. Strange that Ellie would come up here and not use the powder room. When I opened my medicine cabinet all the OxyContin were gone, and she’d left the empty bottle.

• 19 •

The Laundry Room

A
few weeks after Ellie’s visit, Diana Dorset had us over for dinner. I’d found a regular babysitter I liked, and she came an hour early so I could enjoy getting ready for my first night out.

If Julia Trenor’s parties had the best champagne, dinner served by caterers, and copious illicit substances, Diana’s parties usually had some over-the-top theme, featured the latest potent cocktail, and ended with new illicit couplings. This night she’d moved all her furniture out of her living room and replaced it with huge Moroccan cushions and tribal rugs so we could all sit on the floor. Red paper lanterns hung from the ceiling and a low Japanese table ran the length of the living room. Down the center were tea roses in every conceivable hue in short mercury-glass vases that reflected tiny white candles and her grandmother’s silver service for twenty-four, a set so complete it included oyster forks and fruit knives. The whole thing was like a million-dollar opium den and very Diana.

The guests included those fabulous conversationalists the Ahujas, those well-read Downings, and other young Clevelanders I knew. I’d not been out socializing since the birth and people were welcoming
and asked about baby Henry and were kind. Diana had invited a few artists, and I was surprised to see Ellie’s boss, Steven, but no Ellie, which worried me.

I’d also expected to see the Van Alstynes. I was looking forward to it, actually, after Cinco had sent those beautiful flowers. But as I scanned the crowd clustered on the floor of Diana’s living room inhaling at hookah water pipes, I didn’t see them. Given that this was the beginning of the party, I suspected there was no pot in those pipes yet.

Dan Dorset was accosting his guests with an origami cootie-catcher, the type we made in grade school.

“Come on,” he said to me. “Pick a color.”

Jim gave me a helpless shrug as if to say I was trapped and he couldn’t help me.

When Dan was done shifting his fingers around he said, “Choose a number.” And after he shifted his fingers again, I chose another number, and he lifted a flap to read my fortune.

“You’ll end up on your knees tonight, much to someone’s delight.” The room erupted in laughter.

I quirked an eyebrow at Jim as if to say, “Really, that’s funny?” But apparently the room thought my look challenging or suggestive and people just laughed harder.

“Jesus, you’re a pervert, Dan.” Diana got up off the floor, blowing a mouthful of apricot tobacco smoke away from me and fanning the air. “All the fortunes are nasty. Sorry. You actually got one of the tame ones.”

She hugged me, and her eyes, which everyone described as glittering, I now noticed had an edge of fear or restrained panic in them that kept them moving, as if double-checking the exits.

“How’s the little man?” she asked.

“Exhausting. Growing all the time.”

“Sleeping and such?”

“He’s up at three for a quick snack and then back down. It’s pretty reasonable.”

She took my arm and led me back to the bar. “A real drink. I must
have a real drink.” She got us tequila shots, Selden’s drink, I noted with chagrin. She clinked her shot glass with mine. “Come on,” she said. “You’ve been pristine too long.”

I threw the shot down my throat, slightly gagging at the peppery taste that brought memories of early mornings filled with regret.

“Another,” she said to the bartender, but I waved it off.

She drank the liquor, and as always, I was amazed at her tolerance given her petite stature. She wasn’t affected at all.

She took a glass of wine. I took a glass of water. And she steered me back into the living room, away from the smokers.

I scanned the rooms—no Ellie, no Selden, no Van Alstynes.

“He’s not here,” she said.

I was embarrassed, thinking I’d been caught canvassing her party, looking for Cinco.

“He went to Paris, you know.”

When I didn’t say anything she nodded distractedly. “You’re friends with Selden, yes? I thought you two were close.” I was trying to ignore the topic, hoping she’d get the hint.

“I know William,” I said.

“Then you know he’s in Paris.”

I was disappointed she wasn’t going to move on. “Yes.”

“And you know he claims he saw Ellie and Gus coming out of the condo Gus keeps on the other side of town for, well, you know …” She all but waggled her eyebrows at me. Ellie and Selden were her new chew toy.

I was about to feign disbelief, wanting to protect Ellie, when Diana interrupted.

“Oh God, everyone knows about that place. I think he actually had one of his girls living there like a mistress for a while. Now he just keeps it for his ‘meetings.’ Everyone knows about it,” she said with her foxy little grin. “Even Julia.”

“I can’t believe that.”

“Julia’s not jealous of Gus, but she doesn’t want to be left. That’s why she had such a fit about Ellie.”

“She wasn’t having an affair with Gus. That is total fiction.”

Diana raised an eyebrow. “William called me one night this winter,” she said with a triumphant gleam in her eye. “Right after he saw her coming out of Gus’s condo. He was blown apart by it. It was that night after Ellie’s Janet Jackson moment at the museum. Really, I think she must have been on drugs. She’s out of control.”

It was becoming clear to me now. After hearing Selden so upset on the phone, Diana realized that he was in love with Ellie. Diana had known he’d been seeing Ellie a little, and she’d been prepared to let this fascination run its course, thinking he’d come back to her. Ellie would lose interest soon and dump him anyway, Diana guessed. But Selden had fallen in love, which meant Diana would lose him forever. So after a moment’s calculation, and for Diana’s brain it would take only a moment, she decided to destroy Ellie.

I knew that the moment after Diana hung up with Selden, she’d called Julia, in the guise of a concerned friend, and relayed that Selden had seen Gus and Ellie together.

Diana knew, as I did too, that Gus’s indiscretions with girls ten years his junior meant nothing to Julia. Young girls with neither the chic nor the education of his wife might provide a distraction for a few months, but Gus would tire of them. He’d been raised by an understated mother who set the bar for how a wife behaved—she threw dinner parties and sat on charitable boards, was a member of the garden club, bought her clothes in New York twice a year, and made sure her husband’s money was tastefully spent. When children came along, she’d make sure they were properly educated and socially prepared. Gus wasn’t leaving his wife for some hard-bodied receptionist, no matter how explosive the sex. He was a conventional midwestern boy.

But Ellie was a different matter. Here was a true threat. A woman of taste and the same background who held every advantage Julia did, but with the body of a Venus. Gus could easily fall in love with Ellie Hart. Julia would have seen that. Julia would imagine she’d done the only self-preserving thing she could do. She took Ellie out
by quietly getting the word around that Ellie was a home-wrecker and a slut.

Diana and Julia’s alliance would be formidable as so much was at stake for both of them. Diana was vanquishing her rival for Selden’s attention once and for all. Julia was saving her marriage.

“I don’t know how she does it,” Diana said. “I barely have enough energy to fuck my own husband, let alone anybody else’s.”

I smirked at this. “Where’s Julia tonight?” I asked.

“She and Gus went to Buenos Aires for the week. To reconnect, she told me. It’s very French, don’t you think, trying to woo back your husband after he’s had an affair?”

BOOK: Gilded Age
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