The Affairs of Others: A Novel (3 page)

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
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*   *   *

George’s door was left ajar. I pushed into an altered space. There was nothing but candles for light, long and short shadows thrown everywhere, dancing occasionally with a current of air caught in this flame or that. What you couldn’t see in George’s apartment now was how much he subscribed to neatness. Over the length of his stay with me, he had replaced objects of convenience, bought in grad school, with carefully chosen ones, some new, some antique, but all with alert lines and architecture to them. He’d had bookshelves built in to accommodate this collection. We’d split the cost. He was proud of his brown leather couch with its shapely mahogany legs; there was also a Mission floor lamp with a leaden glass shade—he’d called me up to see it the day after he brought it home. I assumed he wanted to point out a problem with the apartment, an electrical outlet, the toilet; that was more like it. Instead, he asked me to look at his lamp and so I did, the micaed bronze of the stand, the strong geometry of the shade’s design, its weight. He was quiet until he said it reminded him of the men he used to fall for—no loud frills, solid, but elegant. I remember he added “unmistakable,” though at the time I was caught on “used to,” as though he was aligning himself with the likes of me or Mr. Coughlan.

He preferred muted colors, and he left empty, navigable spaces between objects. Even his plants were not allowed to fraternize with one another; each had its place, its part in the layout.

I had come to think in his case that the impulse toward spareness was an invitation, an optimism, leaving room for others or, on days when life felt too crowded, for the pleasure of nothing at all.

That night, all the empty spaces were filled—with a body or its shadow, a chair brought from his kitchen or elsewhere, an end table yanked out of place to support a drink, a smeared plate, a cigarette in an improvised ashtray. And then there were Hope’s things, a shawl over the couch back, fat plush throw pillows, a frowzy ficus abandoned in a corner.

George stood to greet me, followed by Hope. He took my right hand in both of his, and she laid the full flat of her hand on my shoulder; their manner was warm and yet still charged with the party. Hope’s hair had begun to come undone in a few tendrils, and her eyeliner had begun to blur. It looked as if she’d been cleaning dishes or making love, and George’s face shined with sentiment. I might have been a long-lost someone, or if they were a couple rather than friends, I might have been the person who introduced them. George took the champagne from me and then showed it to his guests—“A classic,” he announced. “Ahhh,” one or two faces replied. In the half-light I made out a lean middle-aged woman with black hair, black kohl around her eyes, and layers of black lace riding down her body. Her look was Castilian and a touch goth; it was old-fashioned but severe enough to be modern. In any light I could see her skin was so white it hinted at blues. Then there was a trio of men—two a couple, dressed similarly, muscled similarly, and one lone man—short and rounded but distinguished by way of the gray in his neat hair and the crispness of his clothes; his face was as mobile as a clown’s. This man said of my gift champagne, translating its name, “The widow … People love her.”

“I have always liked it,” I ventured, forgetting to smile.

“What’s not to like,” he said, though his tone argued with his words.

“This is Darren,” said George. “An old friend of mine. Don’t mind him. He’s been drinking.”

“And smoking—” Darren held up a joint. “And I have enough for everyone.”

“This is my landlady, Celia.” The couple looked at one another with mirth as if Darren had been caught in a faux pas. Landlady meant officialdom to many. I might wag my head or explain the fire code, but instead, I said, “Darren’s very generous,” and smiled.

“George will open that and you’ll sit by me.” Hope took my hand. I let her. The party had grown into its own small knot of confidences, and I was a disruption. Not a fatal one but one that required more cordial interest than the hour of the party provided for. Hope was keeping me safe until I settled into the room with them.

I whispered, “I can’t stay.”

She whispered back, “Nonsense.”

I was parked in a wingchair; I did not recognize it; Hope sat upright in a kitchen chair. Her posture did not look inconvenienced by it. In fact it must be said she had admirable posture.

“I am Josephina.” The dark-haired woman leaned in to shake my hand.

Hope explained, “Josephina taught Spanish at St. Ann’s for a little while. To my daughter. I taught art, not there, before the kids, at—”

“Not for me, that place,” Josephina declared. “So full of effort, to be special, to be more special. Even the parents compete for notice. They hold up their children like mirrors.” She threw her chin toward me, pursed her lips, a pantomime of exasperation. Short-lived. Her accent was Spanish. Madrid maybe, but then I was no judge of these things.

“Hey, I was one of those parents,” said Hope.

“You do not belong to them. You know that.” Then to me, Josephina explained, “Before you came, we were discussing who we’d like to fuck. I mean people who we are not able to.” This was matter-of-fact, languid, not a dare. “I thought of Clive Owen, but I’d have to tie him down. I think maybe he is wild.”

“He’s no bottom!” squealed Darren. His volume jolted everyone and the place they’d agreed to be—subdued mostly. He adjusted as he lit his joint, and I wondered how I might explain a sudden departure. A sick tenant? Another engagement? All I knew was that I couldn’t stay.

“What I mean is that I don’t think he’d consent.” He dragged in and dragged in, squinting like he was playing cowboy. As he held it, he half-stood and reached from his spot on the corner of the couch clear across the coffee table, over a disorder of cheese and bread, to me. He exhaled his smoke in my direction. “You?” This seemed at once an offer of the joint and a query about this Clive Owen, an actor, but I could not place his face. Darren maintained his position. This was a dare. He wouldn’t retreat. Was he affronted by my presence so late in their evening or was he the sort who had to test everyone he met? Who had to be coaxed from his derision?

I didn’t intend to smoke, but I reached for the joint—I could not give him the satisfaction of my being demure or awkward. A woman like me does not have to suffer fools at all. Not anymore. But before I could take it, Hope grabbed for it. “I am a woman on the edge. Let me, Darren. Don’t you all know that you are supposed to treat me as if I’m newly widowed? As if I’ve been shipwrecked?”

I did not pause to consider if Hope knew I was a widow or not; what she said and did right then was about altruism. She’d seen me hesitate.

“Ahhhh, he’ll have his young wine,” said Josephina. “He’ll get drunk on it until he is sick and sorry and come back for you. On his knees. A beggar.”

“If you’ll have him,” said Darren crisply. “I say you move on. He’s an embarrassment. I mean that’s one tiresome trope. Like his twenty-something bag of flesh is different from all the others.”

Hope gave a version of a laugh. “Do women who have been married for twenty-five years move on? Where do we go?” She stared into the smoke for a minute. No one hurried her. “Cary Grant is dead, isn’t he?”

“He’s beyond dead,” intoned Darren.

“I’ve thought about taking Eva Marie Saint’s place on that train at the end of
North by Northwest
. I’d slide right in.” She extended the joint to Josephina, bypassing me.

“Darren’s pot gives me migraines.” Josephina grimaced.

“Everything gives you migraines,” he said.

“Oh, my little prick Darren.”

“Cunty Joe.”

Josephina laughed open-mouthed at this and took a small puff.

“I go back and forth about Cary.” Darren straightened his posture and his tone. He could change on a dime. “I mean, would he be something in bed or too controlled? Could he abandon himself? The guy was some low-budget trapeze artist before he became a studio prize. He’s a con man, really, so it would
have
to be performance. He probably didn’t know the difference.”

“But isn’t that what we all want?” asked one of the two men.

“That’s Blake,” Hope whispered to me. “He runs a gallery I can’t resist. And his partner beside him is Andrew.”

“I mean if you’re good at the performance, if it’s seamless, if you’re that confident?” Blake asked.

“Well,” Hope said, her voice sad, but it rallied, “if he was with one of those starlets, they’d both be performing, right? It would be sexy to watch, surely, but I can’t say whether it would be sexy to experience. They’d persuade each other to their fine looks and fine lines, but would they—”

“Inevitably,” said Josephina.

“Really? Why?”

“They’d believe it. That’s how good they are. As actors. So they believe. And bodies, after all,” she said, running her fingers along the white inside of her arm, “aren’t hard to fool.”

“And you, Celia?” Darren asked.

Among the things my mother and I enjoyed doing together was watching old films; VCR double classics,
His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, Notorious
; scenes replayed; tears on tissues, vivid applause. I didn’t feel compelled to see contemporary stuff much anymore; it all felt recycled, dull. I said, “He let himself be wild, uncontrolled in his roles. Ugly…” I looked at Darren. “Sometimes. He had to be drawing from his own experience, his authority, passions—that’s a private place or it should be.”

Hope said, “I hope you’re right. That’s a better way to think of it, him, anybody. That we conserve our private places…”

Darren raised an eyebrow. “But that kind of acting is really about control. Maybe the question is just subjective—how sexy is control?”

At that George returned to us carrying the champagne and several flutes. “Sorry. I had to wash some glasses.”

“Would you sleep with Cary Grant, darling?” Josephina queried. “That is what we’re talking about now, if he would be good in bed.”

“What a question.
Of course
I would, if he’d have me. I know there were rumors about him and a cowboy or two, but to me he’s so marvelously hetero.”

“Was,” said Hope.

“We can’t let a little thing like that stand in our way,” said Darren.

“Death?” I asked gently.

“I meant to be gay or not, but I’d like to believe it’s
all
negotiable, dead or alive,” Darren laughed, delighted with himself. “Wouldn’t you?” He looked at me as if he knew things about me he couldn’t possibly know.

“What did Byron say?” George began filling glasses. “‘I am acquainted with no immaterial sensuality so delightful as good acting.’”

“I remember something Ethel Barrymore said about actresses,” said Andrew. “For an actress to be a success, she must have the face of Venus, I think it is, the brains of Minerva, the figure of Juno, the memory of … well, a good memory anyway, and the hide of a rhinoceros.”

“All that could be said about what it is you need to be a wife. Or the rhino hide anyway.” Hope reached for the champagne. She looked into her glass. “I’m not sure how tough I am.”

“You’re a goddess,” said Darren and mooned at her like a boy mooning at the figure of his mother. He loved Hope. He loved her terribly. It wasn’t romantic necessarily but it was consuming.

“I am not. I’m a relic.”

It was the champagne maybe or my proximity to her, her height, her fine profile, her strong shoulders, her sorrow holding her up, but from nowhere I recognized in me came this statement, which was true enough, true enough to say without thinking: “You’re
beautiful
.”

Darren regarded me with some alarm at that, and I finally saw to the source of his grief. He wanted no further competition than he already had to be Hope’s pet and then I arrived, late, another body, another appetite to navigate. It was time for me to go at last. I’d done what I’d come to do. I stood, which George took as some sort of cue:

“Let’s toast to Hope’s beauty,” he said, standing as well.

Everyone followed suit but Hope.

“Please. Let’s not,” she said and covered her eyes.

“We can do this without you just fine, dear.” Josephina lifted her glass, but before she could proceed, George tried, “Here’s to days of new hope.”

She conceded, “Okay. I’ll drink to that, for everyone.”

“New hope for everyone!” cried Darren.

“And here’s to George’s great adventure,” said Blake.

Bon voyages were offered. Wishes of luck. Thanks to the hosts for the excellent food and drink. To George for his generosity. This cheering had voice for long enough that we finished my bottle and another. George went for one more. And before I could interrupt to make my goodbyes, it began again: “Come back with a frog in your throat!” called Darren. Then came: “To mind-blowing sex—with frogs!” “To blowing Cary Grant!” “To the lamb slaughtered for our feast!” “May you die in bed at ninety-five years, shot by a jealous lover—or a frog!” Darren drooled, he laughed so. Backs were slapped; arms were raised in mock triumph. Darren waltzed briefly with Andrew, then Blake; he hugged Josephina and then Hope, and she squeezed my wrist twice, conveying something like “isn’t this fun?” or “isn’t he something?” I did not return the gesture or gestures, though I allowed myself to be brought in. I toasted new friends as preface to announcing my departure. At that, Blake kissed me lavishly on both cheeks and sang out, “Hoopla, Madame! Hoopla!” He smelled of sandalwood and vanilla, and his face was moist and cool and clean and so close, so close. Having emptied another bottle, George went off for more. I felt light-headed and, upon hearing there was no more champagne, slumped as gratefully as everyone else for a seat.

“No toasts without bubbles,” pronounced Josephina.

“I have seltzer,” George called from the kitchen.

“Quelle horreur!”
cried Darren.

“Well, then, let’s drink this Sancerre. Give me your glasses.” George poured, Andrew went to put on more music, and Darren lit another joint. He handed it my way first again. The look on his face was querying and sweet. The man had drooled in front of me. This time I thought he was asking for acceptance, that perhaps he had been from the start and I just hadn’t seen it. This time I took it. “I’ve not done this for a long time,” I told the room of them. I had miscalculated the rhythm of things. I hadn’t been to a gathering like this in years, did not know how many lives a party could have.

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
7.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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