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Authors: Claire McMillan

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

Gilded Age (8 page)

BOOK: Gilded Age
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Jim smirked and rolled toward me. “Up here what? Fucking?”

“That’s the word Dan was searching for last night, I think.” I smiled.

He kissed me again, quite convincingly.

“God, we can’t do this,” I said, shoving him aside. “Diana will run all over town talking about us just like the Van Alstynes. Get down there.”

“You care what she thinks?” he asked, propping himself up on an elbow. “We’re married and you’re pregnant; won’t they just think it’s sweet?”

“No,” I said. “Diana thinks nothing’s sweet.”

He looked at me for a moment, as if weighing his options. “Okay,” he said, heaving himself up and out of bed and then leaning back down to give me a quick kiss. “Except Selden,” he said to my astonishment.

“You’re sharp tonight,” I said as he walked toward the door. I regretted then that he’d taken my cue, and I’d managed to turn him off. But really, I thought he should have tried harder. I mean, what good is flouting conventions and scandalizing friends if it’s not because your husband has swept you off your feet? It’s backward, I know, and unfair to expect Jim to ignore what I say I want. I’m sure somewhere Gloria Steinem’s hair is going to spontaneously combust, but since being married I’ve learned that sometimes, when it comes to sex, what I want and what I say I want can be two very different things.

He paused at the door. “You were right about her being a spectacle,” he said, referring now to Ellie. “Can’t wait to see what happens.” He winked at me and was gone.

I tossed in bed, trying to sleep, thinking about Jim, about Gryce
and Ellie, and as I drifted off images of Cinco Van Alstyne came to me again, pushing me with old expectations and assumptions—expectations of how a wife behaved and where she lived and how she acted. Expectations I was intensely familiar with since I’d grown up with them, as had he. Expectations I’d assumed he’d want a wife to fulfill. But the story Diana had told us, the dream I’d had last night …

• 6 •

The Man Cave

I
woke the next morning to Jim snoring beside me, gruff with stubble and warm. I snuggled in the crook of his arm, ready to sleep more, only to be met by the undeniable smell of pot.

I leaned back and sniffed—definitely pot.

He woke then, opening one blurry eye and scrubbing his face with his hand. He smiled, didn’t say anything, and went in the bathroom and closed the door.

His pillow definitely had the oily, carbon smell of smoke on it. Obviously he’d smoked with Selden and the others last night. I heard the sink turn on, could hear him scrubbing his teeth.

I’d never known him to smoke; we’d never gotten high together. And I was suddenly upset that he’d done this with them, without me, and while I was pregnant too. It seemed oddly selfish.

I heard the shower turn on. Jim never showered first thing. Clearly he wanted to scrub the smell off him too.

I hated using the bathroom when he was in there, but pregnancy being what it was, I went in out of necessity.

I flushed, hoping the water would either freeze him or scald him and he’d get out of the shower and talk to me.

It had the effect I wanted, or maybe he was just done, because he got out and wrapped a towel around his waist. He smiled, shaking water out of his hair, picked up his toothbrush and toothpaste, and started brushing his teeth.

Again.

“So?” I asked.

He raised an eyebrow, standing in his white towel, looking clean and scruffy. He spat and rinsed.

“It was a pretty ugly night,” he said.

I kissed him, but he kept his mouth firmly closed when I brushed my tongue against his lips.

“What happened?” I asked, wary.

He led me back to the bed and crawled under the blankets smelling warm and damp and like the Ivory soap that Julia stocked all the bathrooms with—the eighty-cent bar.

“Like I said, ugly.” He started his tale.

The lowest level of the Trenors’ chateau had been renovated into Gus’s private domain. Julia called it his man cave. He called it his den of iniquity. The two flat-screens mounted on the wall were permanently tuned to sports. A computer hooked into some satellite gave instant betting access to Vegas and Atlantic City. The green felt poker table usually hosted Gus and his “boys.” There was a bar, huge couches for lounging, and a hot tub on the deck outside of it all. I’d heard rumors that during Gus’s boys’ weekends hookers were present, though it seemed unlikely Julia would tolerate that. News from the haters, I thought.

The party retired downstairs for cards, Jim told me. Selden, the Dorsets, and the Trenors passed the pipe a little.

I raised an eyebrow when he said this.

“What?”

“You didn’t smoke?”

He groaned and leaned back. “A few hits.”

I didn’t say anything.

“You’re mad?” he asked.

I shook my head. I didn’t want to seem prim, but I was upset. “No,” I said. Somehow I was sure that Ellie had something to do with Jim’s smoking pot. As I’ve said, Ellie had a way of getting you to do things you usually didn’t. I just never thought she’d work on him.

He went on with his story. Ellie abstained from the pot but drank more champagne, he said. So maybe I was wrong in my assumptions. Viola went to bed, and Gryce sat in the corner with a glass of soda water. Soon the cards came out and everyone played except Gryce and Ellie, who sat on the couch, their backs to the poker players.

Jim played poker regularly through college and had a weekly game in Cleveland. But he thought it bad form to take all his host’s money and so he didn’t focus too intently on the play, but watched Ellie out of the corner of his eye as she inched closer to Gryce. Selden was watching her too, he noticed. Jim threw a few hands, and then he saw Gryce reach his arm around Ellie and kiss her.

“She must have been drunker than I thought,” Jim told me, laughing. “I haven’t seen macking like that since junior high school.” This comment annoyed me. He seemed to take delight in Ellie’s predicament, or maybe just delight in watching her kiss another man.

“What did you all do?”

They continued playing is what they did, and ignored the make-out scene just a few feet away.

And then Diana called out, “Get a room, you two.”

Though Gryce laughed, he turned red and put a good two feet between him and Ellie. Pretty quickly after that he left to go upstairs, saying good night to everyone.

Ellie sat on the couch for a few minutes, straightening her dress, fixing her hair. She sighed, rejected, and then pulled a chair up next to Selden. “Now, where’s a tiny puff for me?” she asked.

“Did he give it to her?”

“He’d gone upstairs for the rest of his stash, and he packed the
pipe and passed it to her. She was taking a haul off that thing when Gryce came back downstairs. I think he was looking for Ellie. Perhaps he’d been hoping she’d follow him upstairs or maybe he realized that he wanted to continue privately what she’d started publicly. He saw her smoking, turned on his heel, and was gone.”

“Poor Ellie.”

“She packed that one-hitter like a pro and passed it to me. That’s when I started smoking,” he said, laughing.

I laughed too, but it jarred me, confirming that Ellie had been the corrupting influence on him.

They played cards for a few more hours. Ellie was dealt in too. She started losing almost right away. Gus’s buy-in is a thousand, and she lost it all, maybe even more. Ellie didn’t have money to lose, but Gus Trenor didn’t play for pennies. He did take IOUs though, which Ellie wrote out to him on cocktail napkins.

I could see it: the play becoming stupider and stupider as the pipe made the rounds and the evening wore on.

Jim continued with his story. By the end of the night Ellie was practically sitting in Selden’s lap. His lucky charm, he called her. Diana Dorset was pale with rage.

“So I came up and crawled in next to you. You didn’t even notice, you were so out.”

I smiled.

But an hour later Jim was woken up by laughing and someone bumping into that fragile satinwood table in the hall. Jim cracked the door and saw Selden and Ellie kiss and then go into Selden’s bedroom.

I was scandalized. “Do you think she slept with him?”

“It looked like it was going that way to me.”

“Really? She told me they were friends.”

“Looked like more than friends to me.”

“That’s so surprising.”

“Why should it be?” Jim kissed me good and long, and I swear I could taste the faint hint of smoke on his breath. “Come here, you,” he said, smiling.

I smiled, kissed him back without fervor, but he didn’t seem to notice. My mind was on Ellie, her new influence over Jim, her stealing upstairs with Selden. It was all so distracting.

“We’ll have to keep it down,” he said, hand on my expanding waist, pulling me toward him. “News travels fast in this house.”

I rolled toward him feeling awkward, though I was just barely showing and not in a position to put him off if sex was what he wanted from me.

“You okay?” he asked, sensing the disconnect between my thoughts and my actions.

I smiled and nodded and kissed his neck right under his ear. “Never better,” I whispered.

A
fter, I left Jim in bed, showered, and went downstairs, embarrassed again at my late rising. Remembering the conversation from the other night, I hoped no one would be able to guess what I’d been up to. I found Julia and Ellie in the sunroom. Julia glanced over at me when I came in and didn’t even stop her tirade at Ellie.

“I invited him up here especially for you. Viola, Diana, everyone was hands-off. And then you go and smoke pot. You know how he is.”

“You were smoking too,” Ellie said.

“A tiny puff—the equivalent of a glass of red wine.”

“Same here,” Ellie said.

“But he
saw
you.” Julia looked as upset as if the defeat were her own. “Why did you go through all this if you weren’t serious? None of us imagined you’d put up with Percy Gryce—I mean, foraging berries, for God’s sake—if you didn’t mean to marry him. Then you act like you’ve never seen William Selden before in your life. You’ve known him for years. I mean, why, of all nights, sleep with Selden last night …”

Ellie’s hair was impeccable and she wore a crisp white shirt with sharp dark jeans. A nearly imperceptible dusting of makeup enhanced her features. She’d had to have been up early to look this pulled together. But I saw the dark circles under her eyes. Her chin was red with beard burn.

“I didn’t sleep with him,” she said.

“El, we all heard you go into his room,” Julia said.

“But I didn’t sleep with him. We just smooched.” She smiled.

“Gryce thinks you slept with him. Diana made sure of that.”

“What?” I asked.

Julia turned to me. “Gryce left this morning after Diana packed his ear full of horrors over breakfast. She told him all about rehab. She told him you were up in Selden’s bed at that very moment. She even told him that you’d borrowed money from Ned Hollingsworth when you were in New York. I mean, did you ever?”

“He’s my cousin,” Ellie said in a low voice.

“She left that out. Diana squirrels things away for later use. I warned you not to piss her off. She was in a foul mood when she arrived and only cheered up when I told her Selden was joining us. And then you jumped him.”

“I did not.”

The cook stuck her head in the room. “Sorry to interrupt.”

Julia followed the cook out, and I took the chance to turn to Ellie. “Are you okay?” She looked at me then, as if she’d just noticed that I was in the room.

“I’ll get Gryce back, if that’s what you mean,” she said dismissively. “This isn’t a deal breaker. I can repair it.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

She looked at me.

“I mean should you call your sponsor or something?”

“I’m fine,” she said, looking me in the eye.

“You’re drinking, then smoking …”

“I wasn’t in rehab for pot. Or alcohol for that matter.”

“I don’t know much about this, but doesn’t that all compound on itself?”

“I have it under control.”

Given that she’d spent the night in Selden’s room, I didn’t think she had it under control at all. “If I can help in any way—”

“Thanks,” she said flatly, cutting me off, which annoyed and worried me.

Julia came back in the room. “I’m sorry to be a bitch about this, El, but I’m just so disappointed. You would have been perfect for P. G.” She shrugged. “But I suppose you can’t fake things, and you’re not nasty.” She paused. “Like Diana. And for getting what she wants, give me the nasty woman every time.”

I started at this. “I thought you and Diana were good friends,” I blurted.

Julia shrugged. “It’s easier to be friends with Diana than not.” She turned to Ellie. “You should remember that.”

Lunch was served, and we all sat down to quiche, fruit, and a sharply acidic salad of greens.

The table was dismal as Gryce was gone as well as Selden, who’d only been able to get away from Cleveland for a night. Jim had gone back to sleep, and Gus was out walking the dogs. Diana came down with her hair wet from the bath and languidly sat down.

“Aren’t we a small group? I like it when the men are gone. Gives a girl a chance to chat. No offense, Dan.”

Her husband shrugged.

“Did Gryce leave already? I thought he was staying longer. Maybe we shocked him last night. He’s so pure, you know. Never smoked, doesn’t drink. Do you know he told me he didn’t know anyone who’d been to rehab until he met you, Ellie?”

“How did he know I was in rehab?”

“Oh, I didn’t think it was a secret.” Diana speared a piece of melon. “Such a nice old family. He said he had to go back for an auction. Apparently his father is selling some important antique, and they’re donating all the proceeds to poor Indians. Isn’t that nice?”

Viola piped up then. “I think it’s wonderful that he’s trying to make other people comfortable too.”

• 7 •

The Rappelling

C
omfortable! Ellie thought. The word dragged her into despair. Not so much because rich-girl Viola Trenor categorized a colossal fortune like Gryce’s as comfortable, which did make Ellie smile, but at the thought of what Ellie might have done with money like that—comfortable indeed. Diana’s barbs didn’t hurt her that much. They were nothing compared to the flogging she was giving herself. And the coup de grâce? Selden had left that morning, without waking her.

BOOK: Gilded Age
11.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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