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Authors: Claire McMillan

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

Gilded Age (3 page)

BOOK: Gilded Age
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Ellie appraised it all and then nestled herself into a low chair.

“What a lovely thing to have a place like this,” Ellie called to him.

After some banging and clanging, Selden came in the room with a squat glass of tequila with a lime, a pot of tea, and a plate of pears with honey for dipping.

“Women have been known to have their own houses,” he said, handing her a cup of mint tea. She noted that he’d not even offered her a real drink. Apparently her stay in Arizona was already public news in Cleveland.

“Everyone says don’t buy a house if you want to get married. You’ll look too set in your ways, too grounded …”

“A lot of bullshit.”

“Mmm,” Ellie hummed. Selden was typical, she thought, professing not to care if a woman had a life, had a place of her own. But her
mother seemed to think that men really did care about that. That a young woman in possession of her own house, her own space in the world, intimidated a man, left him emasculated. Perhaps a man felt he had nothing to offer if he couldn’t offer shelter? Absurd. Or did a man want someone with no past of her own?

She sighed and dipped a slice of pear into the honey. “How did you think of this?”

“Enjoying the last of the season.”

She held her palm under her hand as she guided the dripping fruit to her mouth, the sweet ooze of honey on the grainy pear. “You’d think it’d be gilding the lily, but it’s delicious.”

He smiled, and she noticed that he was watching her mouth.

Ellie leaned back in her chair and sipped her tea, sweet and sharpish on her tongue. “Working hard?” she said, gesturing to his desk.

He turned toward the desk as if seeing it for the first time and rumpled a hand through his hair, ending with it resting on the back of his neck. “I’m prepping for a new class I’m teaching next term.”

“What’s it called?”

“‘Decline, Decay, and Death,’” he said with a slow smile.

“Light.” She nodded. “That will have them preregistering for sure.”

He laughed. “They do. I have wait lists.”

“Yes, but it’s not because those undergrads want to depress themselves.”

“There are some serious students.”

“It’s the chance to look at you for fifty minutes twice a week, you sweet ding-dong.”

“They can find better views than that,” Selden said, suddenly turning toward the windows.

Ellie looked out the heavy leaded windows too. “Maybe.” So here was William Selden’s passion—a lot of old books, descriptions of love, death, and loss. She wondered if he actually had experienced true love or passion in his life, or if he was content to merely read about it. Looking at him now, she couldn’t decide.

As she sat there watching him, wondering if he’d ever loved someone more than himself, she wished, not for the first time, that she’d pursued
something in her life. She’d gone to a mediocre college and received mediocre grades, and afterward she counted herself lucky to land an internship at a fashion magazine in New York. She remembered those days fondly now, though at the time she’d felt panicked. She’d fetched coffee and copies for mercurial men who wore bronzer and opined about sequins. It had seemed exciting for about six months, and then she’d started to wonder what was next. She was living in a tiny apartment with four other girls. In her life of late nights drinking and exhaustion, of being constantly surrounded by gay men or other women, there were no straight male prospects inhabiting her fashion orbit.

She didn’t have the grades or the interest for graduate school. At the time she’d rather have died than return to Cleveland and her mother’s house. She started to think about marriage, preferably to a Wall Street type in a bespoke suit with a classic six on the Upper East Side.

“What about you?” Selden asked her.

“What about me?” Ellie started. She’d lost track of what they were talking about.

“Any proposals forthcoming? Any news you’d like to share with me?” His eyes were glinting, back to joking.

She rolled her eyes. “You act like marriage is the only thing on my mind.”

“Isn’t it?” He smiled.

“No,” she said petulantly, though she forgave Selden for saying this. It was what everyone thought of her, wasn’t it? Her marriage to her first husband was deemed brilliant by those around her. Alex was the son of an old New York family. Their engagement announcement was written up in the
Times
with ample mention of her husband’s background and little mention of her provenance. Their large town house on the Upper East side, all five floors, was a gift from his family. They spent weekends at his family’s farm upstate.

All the togetherness, the demands of his family name, used to grate on him. He complained about the expectations. So it seemed natural he would blow off steam. Yes, Alex had enjoyed a good time. What she hadn’t understood was that she was not supposed to enjoy
herself equally as much. If he dabbled in a few controlled substances here and there, well, so did she.

Ellie had spent so much of her life being attractive, leading up to the ultimate test—catching a husband. Landing Alex had practically been a military campaign complete with complex strategy, precision, and subterfuge. One night, nine months into her marriage, she’d come to bed and found him passed out, his breathing shaky after a forty-eight-hour bender, a wad of blood-streaked tissues on the bed stand next to an orange prescription bottle. She watched him, making sure his breathing steadied, that he was all right. She wondered, for the first time since she’d started dating at fifteen, the first time in her life, really—did she even like this guy? The answer that night was, she wasn’t sure.

Over the next weeks as she observed his red eyes, his greasy hair, his complaints about the lazy housekeeper, his constant texts to his source, his bitching about his parents, his manic chattering about politics, she decided she didn’t. It wasn’t exactly fair; she’d admit that. She’d known what she was getting into. She’d changed, not him.

Anyway, he didn’t stop, and she spent nights with either a maniac or a zombie. Could she really be blamed for taking up with a more attentive and lucid young man only tangentially in their New York circle?

Apparently she could.

“You should get a place like mine,” Selden was saying.

“If you ever think of selling, call me.” She leaned forward and took another piece of pear off the low tray. “What about you?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you be settling down by now?”

He tilted his head, looking at her quizzically.

“You’re very civilized, William Selden,” she said, teasing him. “Very domesticated. You need a wife to complete the picture.”

To her surprise he blushed and drained the last of his tequila. “Cigarette?” He opened a wooden inlaid box on the table, and she took one and then took a few more for her purse.

“Ladies buy their own nowadays, yeah?” he said, arching an eyebrow.

“But I like the brand you buy.” He lit her cigarette. “They taste
better having been with you.” She stood up to peruse his bookshelves. “Besides, I shouldn’t really be smoking. If I buy a pack, I’ll just smoke them all.” She felt him observing her, detached and yet interested. Men were always interested. What had it brought her? she wondered. Her wasted ex-husband and other men who wanted to posses her beauty for varying lengths of time. Not that she’d have it any other way, of course. It was much easier to be pretty than not; she knew that.

“Have you actually read all these books?” she asked.

“Course,” he answered distractedly.

What did he see in those poems? Did he write any of his own? She didn’t want to ask. It’d be rude if he’d been published and she didn’t know. Perhaps he’d be embarrassed if he hadn’t written anything at all. “Important for being a professor?”

“Important for having a life.”

“Life of the mind,” she said, nodding.

He shrugged in assent.

She knelt down to look at a book on the low shelf. “What’s life for anyway, Selden? That’s what I keep wondering.”

“Life is for enjoying.” He laughed and reached to refresh her tea. But she didn’t laugh. “Right?”

She straightened up, eyes still on the bookcases. “Yes, but how?”

“Now, that is a serious question,” he replied, moving toward her. “In need of serious consideration.” He smiled, his tone light.

“I’ve already made so many mistakes,” she said, cutting him off.

He said nothing but reached for her waist. His hands fumbling there brought a rush of heat to her middle. He tugged at the ribbon, unclasping the pin and worrying the knot like a puzzle until he’d untied her sash. She remembered that as a boy he’d stolen the pink gingham ribbon out of her hair and teased her that her ponytail was as thick as a real pony’s. This upset her at the time; now she’d take it as a compliment. He was aware of her past; she knew that. He was aware of the things being said about her. He probably thought her a frivolous gold digger. He took her wrist and wrapped the ribbon around it several times, securing the whole thing with a tight knot, placing the pin in her hand.

“What’s that for?” She smiled, but she knew. Men had been marking her since grade school—from the boy who insisted she wear the stickers he gave her, to the college boyfriend who wrote his name in Sharpie on her thigh after each time they’d had sex, to her ex-husband, who’d wanted her wedding band tattooed on her finger, meshing his prep school background with his penchant for the seedy. Fortunately, she’d successfully resisted that last one.

“To remember,” Selden said. “That life is for enjoying.”

She smiled at that. “Shouldn’t it go on my finger for remembering?”

“You’ll wear it longer here,” he said, leaning close.

“I know I’ve made mistakes.” She turned back to the shelves, mumbling to herself. “I don’t want to make any more.”

“You won’t,” he said quietly, moving beside her. “I know it.”

He was close enough that she could smell the peppery tequila on his breath, could see the blond scruff next to his ear that he’d missed shaving. Her wrist started to pound where he’d tied the ribbon tightly, almost cutting off her circulation. She walked over to the table and picked up her teacup. “I should go.”

“Right,” he said, flustered, confused, she knew, by her sudden movements. “Course.”

She gathered her coat, her purse, looked at her phone while Selden busied himself with plates and cups. She felt the age difference between them then. An older man, a man her age, would have grabbed her, she thought. An older man wouldn’t have picked up on her subtle change of energy or would have ignored it, would have taken what he wanted. But Selden was perceptive, perhaps a bit shy around her. He paid attention. She wondered what it would be like to kiss him.

She gave her head a sharp shake.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling at him. “You know there’s no one here who understands these sorts of things.”

He shoved his hands in his pockets. “You’d be surprised.”

She was out the door before he could say more, and she felt him watching her as she walked down the block to her car, blood pounding in her hand below the ribbon, the autumn leaves swirling at her heels.

• 3 •

The Coq au Vin

I
was nervous when five o’clock rolled around on Wednesday, bringing the expected arrival of Ellie. She sometimes had that effect on me. I always forgot how stunning she was, how alluring to men. Her beauty was rare, based on symmetry and ancient geometry. Her figure was statuesque, buxom I guess you’d call it. She wasn’t fat, but her figure wasn’t the height of fashion either. Her lush curves seemed to appeal to men though. I’d heard it said she had a nice rack.

Back one day, and she already had the town’s most eligible bachelor practically kissing her hand. I wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to be her and be above the normal rules of how things worked.

Not that I was ugly. I knew that, and I’d had my share of admirers and lovers and a well-remembered few who’d called me beautiful. But if you were Ellie, did your face (and your figure—let’s be honest) get you the benefit of the doubt, jump you to the head of the line, deliver absolution for most anything you did?

Then again, a pretty face isn’t the thickest armor when returning home to face scandal.

In any case, her lackluster reaction to the news of my pregnancy brought back memories of our childhood in close proximity—both her kindness and her cruelty, as in any long association—and I wondered how it would be having her back in town this time.

She walked through the front door without knocking, as she always had since we were small. She wore slim jeans and a billowy white peasant shirt over a black lace bra. She jingled with jewelry and trinkets of gold and pearl. A messily wrapped white ribbon wound around her left wrist. I was barely showing, but next to her I already felt bulky and hugely pregnant. Ellie wore all her clothes as comfortably as if she were wearing pajamas, with a louche sexiness I’d long ago given up trying to emulate. She brought me a potted calla lily and an enormous box of white chocolates—my favorites. I was touched she remembered.

“You’re allowed to eat them all. Eating for two,” she said kindly, perhaps making up for her lack of enthusiasm the other night.

“Yes, but one of us is the size of a pea.”

She laughed, and I showed her into the kitchen, where I was making coq au vin for Jim, my first effort. I’d finally been able to unpack all the wedding presents that I’d been storing at my mother’s, as Jim’s and my apartment in New York hadn’t had space for an extensive kitchen. Now my French enameled crocks and stainless steel pots gleamed, ready for use, ready to help me turn out the smells and meals of a real home. Unfortunately, my knowledge of cooking was negligible. But never mind, I was ready to learn.

Ellie sat down at my marble café table in the breakfast room and started rooting in her oversized handbag—buttery heavy leather, expensive and scarred from use.

“Drink?” I asked, pointing to a bottle of wine on the counter between the two rooms. I was drinking Pellegrino.

“I’ll have what you’re having,” she said. “Remember?”

BOOK: Gilded Age
6.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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