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Authors: Ashley Warlick

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BOOK: The Arrangement
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“You’re talented,” he said. “You’ve heard that before.”

She lifted her chin, giving him the long white architecture of her throat. “Oh, I could stand to hear it once again.”

And he didn’t stop to wonder why him and not her husband, because years ago his cousin had encouraged him to paint and write, not his father, not his teacher; there was no charting who sparked what in whom. To Al, Mary Frances’s writing would always be a hobby, like her drawing, her cooking and carving and knitting, because he did not want a wife for a rival, and really, who could blame him.

Tim told her again that she was talented, that she had discipline and a grasp of language, of reality, and they were alike in that way. Al was an academic, with his muses and inspirations, Gigi was a movie actress, but the two of them—he touched her hand—they were something else. She was writing a book that wasn’t like anything else anyone had written. He knew how it must sound, but he meant it; he’d thought as much a thousand times, watching her lean forward over her notebook when they would talk about a story, or the way she leaned into her pages as she read them aloud. If it was admiration she’d come for this evening, that was easy to provide.

But too, he felt how her hand was kinetic beneath his—if he pressed, she would press back—and in this new light he wondered new things about her, if she’d been an athlete, played an instrument, if she’d bitten her nails, sucked her thumb, if
she touched herself, if she ever wore perfume, his attention traveling her body, his mouth still making praise, but now he was thinking of her shoulder blade and how it fit into her back beneath the leafy sleeve of her dress. He felt her legs shift beneath the table, the conduction of her skirt across her lap; he saw her from all sides, all parts, because that was where his talent lay. Then it was his turn to take her by surprise.

“I wouldn’t say this if Al were here. Not that it isn’t true, or that Al doesn’t know it himself. But I wouldn’t say all this in front of him.”

“And if Gigi were here?” she said.

“Oh,” he said, letting go, leaning back. “I tell Gigi everything.”

*   *   *

The waiter brought her trout under glass. He prized the flesh away from the spine in efficient sheets, pink and curling, though Mary Frances well knew how to use a knife; it was what a waiter did for a woman, what a woman allowed in a restaurant like this. Tim’s face, cocked against his fingers; this had become fun or funny, she wasn’t sure which, his eyes sweetly blue and blank as a baby’s. After the fish, there was quail
en papillote
, the parchment broken and billowing the scent of dry grass, and her mouth became slick with fat and the second glass of wine. She forgot about Al and Gigi and what would be said about this evening later, and she ate.

If she understood art, if she could write, if she was beautiful and smart and a tangle of other things still taking shape, what she was truly good at was this. She ate slowly, she sat
back from her plate, she allowed her pleasure to show on her face. And she was willing, always, to try the next thing.

*   *   *

Watercress with lemon, a slice of cake, bitter coffee, the last of the wine: it was late when they stood to leave, the restaurant still full of people radiant as flashbulbs on their own invented time. Mary Frances felt light-headed; there had been so many endings to this evening already, so many possible moments to postpone or back out. Now it was almost over, and she’d made her announcement, thanked Tim, and nothing had really happened next. What was she waiting for?

Tim held her sweater, smoothing the shoulders after she’d slipped into it, his fingers slow to leave her nape and the dark knot of her hair. The valet had her Chrysler pulled around and lingered at their elbows, keys ready. Tim’s hand covered hers where she’d tucked into his arm.

She thought again of the afternoon tea, the elegant parlor, the white gloves of the hostess. Someone’s wife played cello, another recounted her year in China, another her love of bridge and how they must get together and have a club. No one asked her what she liked to do, and if they had, she would have lied.

Tim leaned to kiss her cheek. “I could drive you home,” he said.

Mary Frances let her shoulder into his. “But then what about you? Who would drive you home?”

“If we only lived close enough to walk.”

“Then what?”

His face, still warm from where her mouth had been.

“Mary Frances,” he said. “I am honored Al worked late tonight.”

“He might have, yes.”

“As far as Al’s concerned, we all worked late, my dear.”

He opened the Chrysler’s door and held her hand as she dipped behind the wheel, the green drape of her skirt brushing against his pant leg. He reached down for the edge of fabric that hung below the doorframe, testing it between his fingers.

“Tim?” she said.

He said good night then, or thought he did. There had been so much wine, so much talk. Her face still tipped up at him in the car window, now smeared and dappled in the lights from the restaurant’s awning, as though she were swimming under shallow water. All that deep green dress, afloat.

Tim did not hear the valet until he touched his elbow.

“Sir,” the valet said. “Shall I bring your car?”

He was a boy, really, not even old enough to shave, an oil stain on the cuff of his jacket.

Tim clapped him on the back, flushed with energy now. He loved women; he loved his wife, Mary Frances in her deep green dress and polished mouth, the clever things she said. He loved his wife, and he was glad to be going home to an empty house. He felt like running for it.

“I’ll get it myself.”

He took off up Wilshire to the lot where the restaurant parked its cars, seeming to keep pace, for a moment, alongside the creamy fender of the Chrysler, in the wake.

*   *   *

Night in Hollywood kept falling, caught in the lights from the Paramount lot and thrown back across the sky, and Tim drove fast up the ridge of Mulholland, the city’s swell and tow like some great sparkling sea, dipping at last into Laurel Canyon and the bungalows knit together against the hillside in the darkness. This house belonged to a producer’s mistress, next door a dancer in the corps, the real traffic signaled by a porch light left on or out, a phone ringing once and not again, the real traffic after dark between men and their lovers, because it was never night enough in Hollywood for anything but big ideas and getting caught.

If not for Gigi, there’s no way he’d still be living here.

But he’d promised her California, that she could be a movie star, and for god’s sake if she wasn’t about to play Barrymore’s secretary in his next picture. And if her star continued to rise, she would get better roles, where she would play another man’s wife, girlfriend, mother someone else’s children. He walked up the driveway of their house, squat and white, and he felt as if he were walking onto a set, that behind and beneath this place that looked so solid, people were working hard to make it seem real.

He left his keys on the table in the foyer next to the bowl of florist tulips, now ragged and sad in the time since Gigi left. He left his jacket on the table too, his tie and pants, skinned his white shirt over his head. He’d pick up in the morning, or the maid would on Friday; it didn’t make much difference as long as he was here alone.

*   *   *

He woke to the double beat at his bedroom door, a woman’s shoes falling from her hand into the parquet, one and then the other.

“You would not hear a person breaking into your own house,” she said.

He turned on the light. “Mary Frances? Are you all right?”

“The door was unlocked. I walked right in.”

His body sank against the pillows, all ribs and sockets, lean and not relaxed. She remembered he had fought in wars, that he was trained to be prepared for anything, and still he was surprised to see her. She had surprised herself.

She placed her clutch on the bureau, thought ridiculously of the folded typescript she still carried. There was nothing left to pretend that might make sense: her house in the hills was the other direction, her husband the other direction, and yet the evening seemed finally sharpened to its point. If she was going to be here, it could be for only one thing.

She unfastened her watch from her wrist and set that on the bureau too.

Tim stared at her. “You’re right,” he said. “You never blush.”

“I told you.”

“Dear, what time is it? You’re like the little girl, stayed up too late.”

It seemed like a dare.

“Mary,” he whispered. “Don’t.”

But she turned from him, her fingers at the catch of her dress, the untoothing of a zipper. She was hoping that this wasn’t as foolish as it felt, but it seemed the thing she had to
do. If he didn’t want her, she needed to know it, and if this was bound to happen, it needed to be now, and if she was about to ruin everything, then goddamnit, so it was.

Behind her, she felt the bed shift beneath Tim’s weight, and then there came the barest tip of his touch between her legs.

She could not get her mouth around fast enough to take him in.

*   *   *

They will never, really, tell anyone about this. In the morning, at the beginning of next week, Tim will meet Gigi’s train at Union Station, and he’ll bring her a corsage. He’ll load his arms with her cases, cutting the flock of other girls, their bottled hair waved, each of them like orchids, petals thick and flashy, with their men, and their arms full too. He’ll take Gigi home. She’ll sit at the piano, her ankles crossed and tucked aside, and she’ll ask him what he’s been playing since she’s been gone.

He’ll see the moment before him: he has missed her, he has always loved her, and people do the most surprising things by accident. He’ll tell her a funny thing happened while she was away, and think of her washed in lights on that picture with Eddie Cantor, the heavy blond wig that concealed her body for the camera, a slave girl, a harem girl, her face lifted for her single moment in the shot, so like a racehorse, his Gigi, since she was thirteen. He’ll tell her a funny thing happened while she was away, that their friend Mary Frances appeared in his bed in the middle of the night, and when he says it, he’ll feel something new break over them, hot and bright and from above.

She’ll place her small white hand atop his and say it doesn’t matter. He’ll notice then how she hasn’t even removed her hat, that her small white hand is cool and ringless, the corsage heavy with lilies and their scent of powder, and he will not know what else to say.

In some small way, it is Mary Frances now who ate his words. She ate everything tonight, lush and drunk and wet, now she has her mouth at his ear, and she’s saying things to him about what she wants and how, and she is strong against him, he can feel her strength in her legs and her grip and in her mouth still at his ear, but he can’t make out words anymore, just something straining at its seams. Her slip drifts against him, and then she takes that, too, away, and they are naked.

There is nothing Mary Frances understands so much as nakedness, and looking down between them, she can’t bear to look into his face, so she looks where things make sense on him, the way each part fits into the next, how compact and practical, and she thinks of the waiter with his knife over the fish, what a marvel it is to see the works inside. She wants to keep seeing that in Tim. She is afraid of what she’ll think of if she stops.

Her fear must show for just a moment, because he says
and stumbles on the rest of it, unable to finish the question
what’s wrong, what is it
, because all of it is wrong, but he asks anyway and stumbles, and nothing comes to her, nothing even to fill the space, which is growing now, pushing up between them.
Oh, goddamnit
, she thinks.
. Before she realizes it, she’s talking, and she nearly tells him she loves him before his mouth comes down again to cover hers, thank god, because it wasn’t love that made her want Tim, that turned her car around on the dark highway and brought her back to this
moment, it wasn’t love, but rather an appetite’s demand: direct, imperative, true as love perhaps, but far more dangerous.

All she’s thinking now is
don’t stop, don’t stop. Don’t stop

*   *   *

She left while he was still asleep, the folded typescript from her purse next to his jacket in the hall. She rolled the car downhill before she started it, flicked the headlights before she hit the main road, headed fast along the canyon to her family’s summerhouse in Laguna, where she’d told Al she’d be all night. Funny, the things that just came naturally. When she unlocked the door and threw open the windows, the scent of eucalyptus and last year’s ashes struck her like a fist.

In a book on the shelf under the eaves upstairs was a packet of sonnets, nearly fifty, papers creased and brittle from the number of times she had unfolded them, from the way she’d carried them the winter before they got engaged, when Al was away teaching English in a boarding school in Wyoming. He’d written to her, he said, on a single long cold night, until his candles burned out and the ink froze in the well. The sonnets weren’t about her; they were for her. She could sense all he’d poured into them, even when she wasn’t entirely sure what all of it was. It made her want all that poured into herself.

She had been a lazy student, enrolled in summer school at UCLA when they first met, but she was ardent in her letters. By the time Al came home for Christmas break, he wanted to marry her and take her away from California, to France, to Dijon, where he’d been awarded a three-year fellowship. The first time they kissed, she’d fallen against him, the ground beneath her swaying like a ship. She was twenty-one.

France had been a fairy tale, an adventure, an extended honeymoon. Al was a student, and so there was no money but what they accepted from her parents, Rex and Edith. There was no time to be what Al was studying to be, a writer. Perhaps that was why one shouldn’t spend one’s time studying to be something rather than being it; there was only so much time.

BOOK: The Arrangement
9.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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