Femme Fatale and other stories Laura Lippman Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins Laura Lippman Femme Fatale and other stories Table of Contents Title Page (#u9d913329-6aac-5ef3-85ea-6aff74ed6198) Girls Gone Wild (#u68bc44c2-98df-5579-a747-e5c562b13a0b) Femme Fatale (#u7df380f1-793c-5169-8bb3-175592c4aa94) What He Needed (#u1798f42f-b2a8-5c0e-a3bf-fb98aeef8bff) Dear Penthouse Forum (A First Draft) (#uc63655e0-ce93-5d85-9306-b78b1c518f06) The Babysitter’s Code (#litres_trial_promo) Hardly Knew Her (#litres_trial_promo) One True Love (#litres_trial_promo) The Crack Cocaine Diet (#litres_trial_promo) Read on for an exclusive extract from Laura Lippman’s forthcoming novel The Innocents. (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Also by Laura Lippman (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) GIRLS GONE WILD FEMME FATALE This is true: there comes a time in the life of a beautiful woman, or even an attractive one with an abundance of charm, when she realizes that she can no longer rely on her looks. If she is unusually, exceedingly self-aware, the realization is a timely one. But, more typically, it lags the physical reality by several years, like a thunderclap when a lightning storm is passing by. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand … boom. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand, five one thousand. Boom. The lightning is moving out, away, which is a good thing in nature, but not in the life of a beautiful woman. That’s how it happened for Mona. A gorgeous woman at twenty, a stunning woman at thirty, a striking woman at forty, a handsome woman at fifty, she was pretty much done by sixty—but only if one knew what she had been, once upon a time, and at this point that knowledge belonged to Mona alone. A sixty-eight-year-old widow when she moved into LeisureWorld, she was thought shy and retiring by her neighbors in the Creekside Condos, Phase II. She was actually an incurious snob who had no interest in the people around her. People were overrated, in Mona’s opinion, unless they were men and they might be persuaded to marry you. This is not my life, she thought, walking the trails that wound through the pseudo-city in suburban Maryland. This is not what I anticipated. Mona had expected … well, she hadn’t thought to expect. To the extent that she had been able to imagine her old age at all, she had thought her sunset years might be something along the lines of Eloise at the Plaza—a posh place in a city center, with twenty-four-hour room service and a concierge. Such things were available—but not to those with her resources, explained the earnest young accountant who reviewed the various funds left by Mona’s husband, her fourth, although Hal Wickham had believed himself to be her second. “Mr. Wickham has left you with a conservative, diversified portfolio that will cover your costs at a comfortable level—but it’s not going to allow you to live in a hotel,” the accountant had said a little huffily, almost as if he were one of Hal’s children, who had taken the same tone when they realized how much of their father’s estate was to go to Mona. But she was his wife, after all, and not some fly-by-night spouse. They had been married fifteen years, her personal best. “But there’s over two million, and the smaller units in that hotel are going for less than a million,” she said, crossing her legs at the knee and letting her skirt ride up, just a bit. Her legs were still quite shapely, but the accountant’s eyes slid away from them. A shy one. These bookish types killed her. “If you cash out half of the investments, you earn half as much on the remaining principal, which isn’t enough to cover your living expenses, not with the maintenance fees involved. Don’t you see?” “I’d be paying cash,” she said, leaning forward, so her breasts rested on her elbows. They were still quite impressive. Bras were one wardrobe item that had improved in Mona’s lifetime. Bras were amazing now, what they did with so little fabric. “Yes, theoretically. But there would be taxes to pay on the capital gains of the stocks acquired in your name, and your costs would outpace your earnings. You’d have to dip into your principal, and at that rate, you’d be broke in”—he did a quick calculation on his computer—“seven years. You’re only sixty-eight now—” “Sixty-one,” she lied reflexively. “All the more reason to be careful,” he said. “You’re going to live a long, long time.” But to Mona, now ensconced in Creekside Condos, Phase II, it seemed only that it would feel that way. She didn’t golf, so she had no use for the two courses at LeisureWorld. She had never learned to cook, preferring to dine out, but she loathed eating out alone and the delivery cuisine available in the area was not to her liking. She watched television, took long walks, and spent an hour a day doing vigorous isometric exercises that she had learned in the late sixties. This was before Jane Fonda and aerobics, when there wasn’t so much emphasis on sweating. The exercises were the closest thing that Mona had to a religion and they had been more rewarding than most religions, delivering exactly what they promised—and in this lifetime, too. Plus, all her husbands, even the ones she didn’t count, had benefited from the final set of repetitions, a series of pelvic thrusts done in concert with vigorous yogic breathing. One late fall day, lying on her back, thrusting her pelvis in counterpoint to her in-and-out breaths, it occurred to Mona that her life would not be much different in the posh, downtown hotel condo she had so coveted. It’s not as if she would go to the theaters or museums; she had only pretended interest in those things because other people seemed to expect it. Museums bored her and theater baffled her—all those people talking so loudly, in such artificial sentences. Better restaurants wouldn’t make her like eating out alone, and room service was never as hot as it should be. Her surroundings would be a considerable improvement, with truly top-of-the-line fixtures, but all that would have meant is that she would be lying on a better-quality carpet right now. Mona was not meant to be alone and if she had known that Hal was going to die only fifteen years in, she might have chosen differently. Finding a husband at the age of sixty-eight, even when one claimed to be sixty-one, had to be harder than finding a job at that age. With Hal, Mona had consciously settled. She wondered if he knew that. She wondered if he had died just to spite her. There was a Starbucks in LeisureWorld plaza and she sometimes ended her afternoon walks there, curious to see what the fuss was about. She found the chairs abominable—had anyone over fifty ever tried to rise from these low-slung traps?—but she liked what a younger person might call the vibe. (Mona didn’t actually know any young people and had been secretly glad that Hal’s children loathed her so, as it gave her an excuse to have nothing to do with them or the grandchildren.) She treated herself to sweet drinks, chocolate drinks, drinks with whipped cream. Mona had been on a perpetual diet since she was thirty-five, and while the discipline, along with her exercises, had kept her body hard, it had made her face harder still. The coffee drinks and pastries added weight, but no more than five or six pounds, and it was better than Botox, plumping and smoothing Mona’s cheeks. She sipped her drink, stared into space, and listened to the curious non-music on the sound system. It wasn’t odd to be alone in Starbucks, quite the opposite. When parties of two or three came in, full of conversation and private jokes, they were the ones who seemed out of place. The regulars all relaxed a little when those interlopers finally left. “I hate to intrude, but I just had to say—ma’am? Ma’am?” The man who stood next to her was young, no more than forty-five. At first glance, he appeared handsome, well put together. At second, the details betrayed him. There was a stain on his trench coat, flakes of dandruff on his shoulders and down the front of his black turtleneck sweater. Still, he was a man and he was talking to her. “Yes?” “You’re … someone, aren’t you? I’m bad with names, but I don’t forget faces and you—well, you were a model, right? One of the new-wave ones in the sixties, when they started going for that coltish look.” “No, you must think—” “My apologies,” he said. “Because you were better known for the movies, those avant-garde ones you did before you chucked it all and married that guy, although you could have been as big as any of them. Julie Christie. She was your only serious competition.” It took Mona a second to remember who Julie Christie was, her brain first detouring through memories of June Christie but then landing on an image of the actress. She couldn’t help being pleased, if he was confusing her with someone who was serious competition for Julie Christie. Whoever he thought she was must have been gorgeous. Mona felt herself preening, even as she tried to deny the compliment. He thought she was even younger than she pretended to be. “I’m not—” “But you are,” he said. “More beautiful than ever. Our culture is so confused about its … aesthetic values. I’m not talking about the veneration of age as wisdom, or the importance of experience, although those things are to the good. You are, objectively, more beautiful now than you were back then.” “Perhaps I am,” she said lightly. “But I’m not whoever you think I was, so it’s hard to know.” “Oh. Gosh. My apologies. I’m such an idiot—” He sank into the purple velvet easy chair opposite her, twisting the brim of his hat nervously in his hands. She liked the hat, the fact of it. So few men bothered nowadays, and as a consequence, fewer men could pull them off. Mona was old enough, just, to remember when all serious men wore hats. “I wish you could remember the name,” she said, teasing him, yet trying to put him at ease, too. “I’d like to know this stunner that you say I resemble.” “It’s not important,” he said. “I feel so stupid. Fact is—I bet she doesn’t look as good today as you do.” “Mona Wickham,” she said, extending her hand. He bowed over it. Didn’t kiss it, just bowed, a nice touch. Mona was vain of her hands, which were relatively unblemished. She kept her nails in good shape with weekly manicures and alternated her various engagement rings on the right hand. Today it was the square-cut diamond from her third marriage. Not large, but flawless. “Bryon White,” he said. “With an O, like the poet, only the R comes first.” “Nice to meet you,” she said. Two or three seconds passed, and Bryon didn’t release her hand and she didn’t take it back. He was studying her with intense, dark eyes. Nice eyes, Mona decided. “The thing is, you could be a movie star.” “So some said, when I was young.” Which was, she couldn’t help thinking, a good decade before the one in which this Bryon White thought she had been a model and an actress. “No, I mean now. Today. I could see you as, as—Catherine, the Russian empress.” Mona frowned. Wasn’t that the naughty one? “Or, you know, Lauren Bacall. I think she’s gorgeous.” “I didn’t like her in that movie with Streisand.” “No, but with Altman—with Altman, she was magnificent.” Mona wasn’t sure who Altman was. She remembered a store in New York, years ago, B. Altman’s. After her first marriage, she had changed into a two-piece going-away suit purchased there, a dress with matching jacket. She remembered it still, standing at the top of the staircase in that killingly lovely suit, in a houndstooth check of fuchsia and black, readying to throw the bouquet. She remembered thinking: I look good, but now I’m married, so what does it matter? Mona’s first marriage had lasted two years. Bryon picked up on her confusion. “In Pr?t ? Porter.” This did not clear things up for Mona. “I’m sorry, it translates to—” “I know the French,” she said, a bit sharply. “I used to go to the Paris collections, buy couture.” That was with her second husband, who was rich, rich, rich, until he wasn’t anymore. Until it turned out he never really was. Wallace just had a high tolerance for debt, higher than his creditors, as it turned out. Mona didn’t leave because he filed for bankruptcy, but it didn’t make the case for staying, either. “It was a movie a few years back. The parts were better than the whole, if I can be so bold as to criticize a genius. The thing is, I’m a filmmaker myself.” Mona hadn’t been to a movie in ten years. The new ones made her sleepy. She fell asleep, woke up when something blew up, fell back asleep again. “Have you—” “Made anything you’ve heard of? No. I’m an indie, but, you know, you keep your vision that way. I’m on the festival circuit, do some direct-to-video stuff. Digital has changed the equation, you know?” Mona nodded as if she did. “Look, I don’t want to get all Schwab’s on you—” Finally, a reference that Mona understood. “—but I’m working on something right now and you would be so perfect. If you would consider reading for me, or perhaps, even, a screen test … there’s not much money in it, but who knows? If you photograph the way I think you will, it could mean a whole new career for you.” He offered her his card, but she didn’t want to put her glasses on to read it, so she just studied it blindly, pretending to make sense of the brown squiggles on the creamy background. The paper was of good stock, heavy and textured. “In fact, my soundstage isn’t far from here, so if you’re free right now—” “I’m on foot,” she said. “I walked here from my apartment.” “Oh, and you wouldn’t want to get in a car with a strange man. Of course.” Mona hadn’t been thinking of Bryon as strange. In fact, she had assumed he was gay. What kind of man spoke so fervently of models and old-time movie stars? But now that he said it—no, she probably shouldn’t, part of her mind warned. But another part was shouting her down, telling her such opportunities come along just once. Maybe she looked better than she realized. Maybe Mona’s memory of her younger self had blinded her to how attractive she still was to someone meeting her for the first time. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll call you a cab, give the driver the address. Tell him to wait, with the meter running, all on me.” “Don’t be silly.” Mona clutched the arms of the so-called easy chair and willed herself to rise as gracefully as possible. Somehow she managed it. “Let’s go.” She was not put off by the fact that Bryon’s soundstage was a large locker in one of those storage places. “A filmmaker at my level has to squeeze every nickel until it hollers,” he said, pulling the garage-type door behind them. She wasn’t sure how he had gotten power rigged up inside, but there was an array of professional-looking lights. The camera was a battery-powered camcorder, set up on a tripod. He even had a “set”—a three-piece 1930s-style bedroom set, with an old-fashioned vanity and bureau to match the ornately carved bed. He asked Mona to sit on the padded stool in front of the vanity and address the camera directly, saying whatever came into her head. “Um, testing one, two, three. Testing.” “You look great. Talk some more. Tell me about yourself.” “My name is Mona—” She stumbled for a second, forgetting the order of her surnames. After all, she had five. “Where did you grow up, Mona?” “Oh, here, there, and everywhere.” Mona had learned long ago to be stingy with the details. They dated one so. “What were you like as a young woman?” “Well, I was the … bee’s knees.” An odd expression for her to use, one that pre-dated her own birth by quite a bit. She laughed at its irrelevance and Bryon laughed, too. She felt as if she had been drinking brandy Alexanders instead of venti mochas. Felt, in fact, the way she had that first afternoon with her second husband, when they left the bar at the Drake Hotel and checked into a room. She had been only thirty-five then, and she had let him keep the drapes open, proud of how her body looked in the bright daylight bouncing off Lake Michigan. “I bet you were. I bet you were. And all the boys were crazy about you.” “I did okay.” “Oh, you did more than okay, didn’t you, Mona?” She smiled. “That’s not for me to say.” “What did you wear, Mona, when you were driving those boys crazy? None of those obvious outfits for you, right? You were one of those subtle ones, like Grace Kelly. Pretty dresses, custom fit.” “Right.” She brightened. Clothing was one of the few things that interested her. “That’s what these girls today don’t get. I had a bathing suit, a one-piece, strapless. As modest as it could be. But it was beige, just a shade darker than my own skin, and when it got wet …” She laughed, the memory alive to her, the effect of that bathing suit on the young men around the pool at the country club in Atlanta. “I wish you still had that bathing suit, Mona.” “I’d still fit into it,” she said. It would have been true two months ago, before she discovered Starbucks. “I bet you would. I bet you would.” Bryon’s voice seemed thicker, lower, slower. “I never let myself go, the way some women do. They say it’s metabolism and menopause”—oh, she wished she could take that word back, one should never even allude to such unpleasant facts of life—“but it’s just a matter of discipline.” “I sure wish I could see you in that suit, Mona.” She laughed. She hadn’t had this much fun in ages. He was flirting with her, she was sure of it. Gay or not, he liked her. “I wish I could see you in your birthday suit.” “Bryon!” She was on a laughing jag now, out of control. “Why can’t I, Mona? Why can’t I see you in your birthday suit?” Suddenly, the only sound in the room was Bryon’s breath, ragged and harsh. It was hard to see anything clearly, with the lights shining in her eyes, but Mona could see that he was steadying the camera with just one hand. “You want to see me naked?” she asked. Bryon nodded. “Just … see?” “That’s how we start, usually. Slow like. Everyone has his or her own comfort zone.” “And the video—is that for your eyes only?” “I told you, I’m an independent filmmaker. Direct to video. A growing market.” “People pay?” Another shy nod. “It’s sort of a … niche within the industry.” “Niche.” “It’s my niche,” he said. “It’s what I like. I make other films about, um, things I don’t like so much. But I love watching truly seasoned women teach young men about life.” “And you’d pay for this?” “Of course.” “How much?” “Some. Enough.” “Just to look? Just to see me, as I am?” “A little for that. More for … more.” “How much?” Mona repeated. She was keen to know her worth. He came around from behind the camera, retrieved a laminated card from the drawer in the vanity table, then sat on the bed and patted the space next to him. Why laminated? Mona decided not to think about that. She moved to the bed and studied the card, not unlike the menu of services and prices at a spa. She could do that. And that. Not that, but definitely that and that. The fact was, she had done most of these things, quite happily. “Let me make you a star, Mona.” “Are you my leading man?” “Our target demographic prefers to see younger men with the women. I just need to get some film of you to take to my partner so he’ll underwrite it. I have a very well-connected financial backer.” “Who?” “Oh, I’ll never say. He’s very discreet. Anyway, he likes to know that the actresses are … up to the challenges of their roles. Usually a striptease will do, a little, um, self-stimulation. But it’s always good to have extra footage. I make a lot of films, but these are the ones I like best. The ones I watch.” “Well, then,” Mona said, unbuttoning her blouse. “Let’s get busy.” FETISH, MONA SAID TO HERSELF as she shopped in the Giant. Fetish, she thought as she retrieved her mail from the communal boxes in the lobby. I am a fetish. This was the word that Bryon used to describe her “work,” which, two months after their first meeting, comprised four short films. She had recoiled at the word at first, feeling it marked her as a freak, something from a sideshow. “Niche” had been so much nicer. But Bryon assured her that the customers who bought her videos were profoundly affected by her performance. There was no irony, no belittling. She was not the butt of the joke, she was the object of their, um, affection. “Different people like different things,” he said to her in Starbucks one afternoon. She was feeling a little odd, as she always did when a film was completed. It was so strange to spend an afternoon having sex and not be taken shopping afterward, just given a cashier’s check. “Our cultural definitions of sexuality are simply too narrow.” “But your other films, the other tastes you serve”—Mona by now had familiarized herself with Bryon’s catalog, which included the usual whips and chains, but also a surprisingly successful series of films that featured obese women sitting on balloons—“they’re sick.” “There you go, being judgmental,” Bryon said. “Children is wrong, I’ll give you that. Because children can’t consent. Everything else is fair game.” “Animals can’t consent.” “I don’t do animals, either. Adults and inanimate objects, that’s my credo.” It was an odd conversation to be having in her Starbucks at the LeisureWorld Plaza, that much was sure. Mona looked around nervously, but no one was paying attention. The other customers probably thought Mona and Bryon were a mother and son, although she didn’t think she looked old enough to be Bryon’s mother. “By the way”—Byron produced a small stack of envelopes—“we’ve gotten some letters for you.” “Letters?” “Fan mail. Your public.” “I’m not sure I want to read them.” “That’s up to you. Whatever you do—don’t make the mistake of responding to them, okay? The less they know about Sexy Sadie, the better. Keep the mystery.” He left her alone with her public. Keep the mystery. Mona liked that phrase. It could be her credo, to borrow Bryon’s word. Then she began to think about the mysteries that Bryon was keeping. If she had already received—she stopped to count, touching the envelopes gingerly—eleven pieces of fan mail, then how many fans must she have? If eleven people wrote, then hundreds—no, thousands—must watch and enjoy what she did. So why was she getting paid by the job, with no percentage, no profit-sharing? God willing, her health assured, she could really build on this new career. After all, they actually had to make her look older, dressing her in dowdy dresses, advising her to make her voice sound more quavery than it was. Bryon had the equipment, Bryon had the distribution—but only Mona had Mona. How replaceable was she? “FORGET IT,” BRYON SAID when she broached the topic on the set a few weeks later. “I was up-front with you from the start. I pay you by the act. By the piece, if you will. No participation. You signed a contract, remember?” Gone was the rapt deference from that first day at Starbucks. True, Mona had long ago figured out that it was an act, but she had thought there was a germ of authenticity in it, a genuine respect for her looks and presence. How long had Bryon been stalking her? she wondered now. Had he approached her because of her almost lavender eyes, or because she looked vulnerable and lonely? Easy, as they used to say. “But I have fans,” she said. “People who like me, specifically. That ought to be worth a renegotiation.” “You think so? Then sue me in Montgomery County courts. Your neighbors in LeisureWorld will probably love reading about that in the suburban edition of the Washington Post.” “I’ll quit,” she said. “Go ahead,” Bryon said. “You think you’re the only lonely old lady who needs a little attention? I’ll put the wig and the dress on some other old bag. My films, my company, my concept.” “Some concept,” Mona said, trying not to let him see how much the words hurt. So she was just a lonely old lady to him, a mark. “I sit in a room, a young man rings my doorbell, I end up having sex with him. So far, it’s been a UPS man, a delivery boy for a florist, a delivery boy for the Chinese restaurant, and a young Mormon on a bicycle. What’s next, a Jehovah’s Witness peddling the Watchtower?” “That’s not bad,” Bryon said, pausing to write a quick note to himself. “Look, this is the deal. I pay you by the act. You don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. I’m always scouting new talent. Maybe I’ll find an Alzheimer’s patient, who won’t be able to remember from one day to the next what she did, much less try to hold me up for a raise. You old bitches are a dime a dozen.” It was the “old bitches” part that hurt. WHEN MONA’S SECOND HUSBAND’S FORTUNE had proved to be largely smoke and mirrors, she had learned to be more careful about picking her subsequent husbands. That was in the pre-Internet days, when determining a person’s personal fortune was much more labor-intensive. She was pleased to find out from a helpful librarian how easy it was now to compile what was once known as a Dun and Bradstreet on someone, how to track down the silent partner in Bryon White’s LLC. Within a day, she was having lunch with Bernard Weinman, a dignified gentleman about her own age. He hadn’t wanted to meet with her, but as Mona detailed sweetly what she knew about Bernie’s legitimate business interests—more information gleaned with the assistance of the nice young librarian—and his large contributions to a local synagogue, he decided they could meet after all. He chose a quiet French restaurant in Bethesda, and when he ordered white wine with lunch, Mona followed suit. “I have a lot of investments,” he said. “I’m not hands-on.” “Still, I can’t imagine you want someone indiscreet working for you.” “Indiscreet?” “How do you think I tracked you down? Bryon talks. A lot.” Bernie Weinman bent over his onion soup, spilling a little on his tie. But it was a lovely tie, expensive and well made. For this lunch meeting, he wore a black suit and crisp white shirt with large gold cuff links. “Bryon’s very good at … what he does. His mail-order business is so steady it’s almost like an annuity. I get a very good return on my money, and I’ve never heard of him invoking my name.” “Well, he did. All I did was make some suggestions about how to”—Mona groped for the odd business terms she had heard on television—“how to grow your business, and he got very short with me, said you had no interest in doing things differently. And when I asked if I might speak to you, he got very angry, threatened to expose me. If he would blackmail me, a middle-class widow with no real money, imagine what he might do to you.” “Bryon knows me well enough not to try that,” Bernie Weinman said. After a morning at the Olney branch of the Montgomery County Public Library, Mona knew him pretty well, too. She knew the rumors that had surrounded the early part of his career, the alleged but never proven ties to the numbers runner up in Baltimore. Bernie Weinman had built his fortune from corner liquor stores in Washington, D.C., which eventually became the basis for his chain of party-supply stores. But he had clearly never lost his taste for the recession-proof businesses that had given him his start—liquor, gambling, prostitution. All he had done was live long enough and give away enough money that people were willing to forget his past. Apparently, the going price of redemption in Montgomery County was five million dollars to the capital fund at one’s synagogue. “Does Bryon know you so well that he wouldn’t risk keeping two sets of books?” “What?” “I know what I get paid. I know how cheaply the product is made and produced, and I know how many units are moved. He’s cheating you.” “He wouldn’t.” “He would—and brag about it, too. He said you were a stupid old man who was no longer on top of his game.” “He said that?” “He said much worse.” “Tell me.” “I c-c-can’t,” Mona whispered, looking shyly into her salade ni?oise as if she had not made four adult films under the moniker “Sexy Sadie.” “Paraphrase.” “He said … he said there was no film in the world that could, um, incite you. That you were … starchless.” “That little SOB.” “He laughs at you, behind your back. He practically brags about how he’s ripping you off. I’ve put myself in harm’s way, just talking to you, but I couldn’t let this go on.” “I’ll straighten him out—” “No! Because he’ll know it was me and he’ll—he’s threatened me, Bernie.” This first use of his name was a calculated choice. “He says no one will miss me and I suppose he’s right.” “You don’t have any children?” “Just stepchildren, and I’m afraid they’re not very kind to me. It was hard for them, their father remarrying, even though he had been a widower for years.” Divorced for two years, and Mona had been the central reason, but the kids wouldn’t have liked her under any circumstances. “No, no one would miss me. Except my fans.” She let the subject go then, directing the conversation to Bernie and his accomplishments, the legitimate ones. She asked questions whose answers she knew perfectly well, touched his arm when he decided they needed another bottle of wine, and, although she drank only one glass to his every two, declared herself unfit to drive home. She was going to take a taxi, but Bernie insisted on driving her, and accompanying her to the condo door, to make sure she was fine, and then into her bedroom, where he further assessed her fineness. He was okay, not at all starchless, somewhere between a sturdy baguette and a loaf of Wonder bread. She’d had worse. True, he felt odd, after the series of hard-bodied young men that Bryon had hired for her. But this, at least, did not fall under the category of fetish. He was seventy-three and she was sixty-eight-passing-for-sixty-one. This was normal. This was love. Bryon White was never seen again. He simply disappeared, and there was no one who mourned him or even really noticed. And while Bernie Weinman was happily married, he had strong opinions about how his new mistress should spend her time. Mona took over the business but had to retire from performing, at least officially, although she sometimes auditioned the young men, just to be sure. Give Bryon credit, Mona thought, now that she had to scout the coffee shops and grocery stores, recruiting the new talent. It was harder than it looked and Bryon’s instincts had been unerring, especially when it came to Mona. She really was a wonderful actress. WHAT HE NEEDED My husband’s first wife almost spent him into bankruptcy. Twice. I am a little hazy about the details, as was he. I don’t think it was a real bankruptcy, with court filings and ominous codes on his credit history. Credit was almost too easy for us to get. The experience may have depleted his savings, for he didn’t have much in the bank when we married. But whatever happened, it scared him badly, and he was determined it would never happen again. To that end, he was strict about the way we spent money in our household, second-guessing my purchases, making up rules about what we could buy. Books, for example. The rule was that I must read ten of the unread books in the house—and there were, I confess, many unread books in the house—before I could bring a new one home. We had similar rules about compact discs (“Sing a song from the last one you bought,” he bellowed at me once) and shoes (“How many pairs of black shoes does one woman need?”). It was not, however, a two-way street. The things he wanted proved to be necessities—defensible, sensible purchases. A treadmill, a digital camera, a DVD player and, of course, the DVDs to go with it. Lots of Westerns and wars. But now I sound like him, sour and grudging. The irony was, we both made good money. More correctly, he made decent money, as a freelance technical writer, and I made great money, editing a loathsome city magazine, the kind that tells you where to get the best food/doctors/lawyers/private schools/flowers/chocolates/real estate. It wasn’t journalism, it was marketing. That’s why they had to pay so well. Because I spent my days instructing others how to dispose of their income, I seldom shopped recreationally. I didn’t even live in the city whose wares I touted, but in a strange little suburb just outside the limits. Marion was an unexpectedly pretty place, hidden in the triangle created by three major highways. It should have been loud. It wasn’t. It was quiet, almost eerily so, except when the train came through. Our house was a Victorian, pale green, restored by the previous owners. It needed nothing, which seemed like a blessing at first but gradually became unsettling. Houses were supposed to swallow up time and money and effort, but ours never required anything. We were childless, although we had a dog. When my husband found the house and insisted we move from the city, I had consoled myself by thinking the new place would absorb the energy I never got to put into raising a family. But its only demand came on the first of the month, when I wrote the mortgage check. One day last January, I came home and tossed a bag on the kitchen table. White, with a black-blue logo, it was from the local bookstore. Christmas was past, no one’s birthday was on the calendar. I had no excuse for buying a book. I hadn’t read anything in weeks, much less the required ten. Which is not to say I always obeyed the rules. I broke them all the time but was careful to conceal this fact, smuggling in purchases in the folds of my leather tote, letting them blend with what we already owned until they took on a protective coloring. “This sweater? I’ve had it forever.” “That book? Oh, it was a freebie, came to the office by mistake.” But on this particular January day, I came through the kitchen door after dark, let the dog leave footprints over my winter white wool coat, and threw the bag down so it landed with a noticeable smacking sound. My husband, who was preparing dinner, walked over to the table and opened the bag. It contained a first novel, plump and mushy with feeling. I steeled myself for his response, which could range anywhere from snide to volcanic. I was prepared to tell him it was collectible, that this first edition would be worth quite a bit if the writer lived up to the ridiculous amounts of praise heaped on him. But all my husband said was, “That looks good,” and went back to his sauce. Over the next few weeks, I brought more things home. CDs, which I didn’t even bother to remove from their silky plastic wrapping. More books. A new winter coat, a red one with a black velvet collar and suede gloves to match. Moss green high heels, a silk scarf. He approved of everything, challenged nothing. He began to think of other things we could buy, things we could share. Season tickets to the opera? Sure. A new rug for the dining room? Why not. Built-in bookshelves? Of course. One night in bed he asked: “Are you happy?” “I’m not unhappy.” “That’s what you always say.” True. “Why can’t you talk to me?” “Because when I tell you what I feel or what I’m thinking, you tell me I’m wrong. You tell me I don’t know my own mind. I’d rather not talk at all than hear that.” “You don’t know what you want.” This was true. “You were a mess when I met you.” This was not. “Everything you’ve accomplished is because of me.” “But,” I pointed out, “I haven’t actually accomplished anything.” “Are you going to leave me?” I gave the most honest answer I dared. “I don’t know yet.” He threw himself out of bed and ran downstairs. I went after him, found him in the kitchen, pouring bourbon into a stout glass of smoky amber. He had not approved of those glasses when I bought them, but he used them all the time. He finished his drink in two gulps, poured another. I got a bottle of white wine from the refrigerator and sat with him. “Do whatever you have to do,” he said at last. “But understand, there will be consequences.” “Consequences?” I assumed he meant financial ones, perhaps even a blow to my reputation. In my circle of friends and business associates, I was famous for being happily married, if only because that was the version I insisted on. His absence made it an easy illusion to sustain. Although I had to socialize a lot, because of my job, my husband never came along. He liked to say I was the only person whose company he craved. He thought this was romantic. “You will come home one day, and there will be blood all over the walls,” he continued, not unpleasantly. “I’ll kill myself if you leave. I can’t live without you.” “Don’t say that.” “Why not? It’s just the truth. If you don’t want to live with me, then I don’t want to live.” “You’re threatening me.” “I’m threatening myself.” “A person who would kill himself has no respect for life. It’s not a big leap, from killing yourself to killing someone else.” “I’d never hurt you. You know that.” We stayed up all night, talking and drinking, debating. We had done this in happier times, taking the opposite sides on less loaded topics. He demanded to know how he had disappointed me. I couldn’t find any real answers. A few minutes ago, I had been not unhappy, but I had assumed my condition was my fault. Now, all I could think was that I was a prisoner. A thug was threatening the life of someone I loved, had taken him hostage. That thug was my husband, my husband was his hostage. I was trapped. But then, I had always been trapped. By my job, which I hated, and by this house, whose only requirement was that we make as much next year as we did last year. I could give up books and CDs and coats with velvet collars, but those economies of scale would make no difference. Like everyone else we knew, we were addicts. We were hooked on our income. He was hooked on my income. My servitude made his freedom possible. I wanted to be a freelancer, too, to leave the world of bosses and benefits. One day, he promised, one day. And then we bought the house. I couldn’t talk about this, for some reason. Pressed for the concrete reasons of my discontent, I couldn’t say anything, except to complain about the train, the drag of commuting. We had only one car, so I took the local train to work, which jounced and jolted, making five stops in eleven miles. It was wonderful in the morning, the paper in my lap, a travel mug of my own coffee in hand. But the last train on this line left the city at 7:30. At day’s end, I always felt as if I was on the run, a white-collar criminal returning to my halfway house. I talked about the train until three or four in the morning, until my eyes dropped with sleep, his with boredom and bourbon. When I came home the next day, there was a new Volvo waiting for me in the driveway. Green, with a beige leather interior and a CD player. “Now you don’t have to take the train anymore,” he said. The car was just the beginning, of course. We responded to our marital crisis in the acceptable modern way: we threw fistfuls of money at various people in what is known as the mental health profession. I found them in my magazine’s “Best Doctors” issue. His psychiatrist. My psychiatrist. A licensed clinical social worker who specialized in couples therapy and who believed in astrology and suggested bowling as a way to release aggression. A specialist in social anxiety disorders, who prescribed various tranquilizers for my husband. Another licensed social worker, whose beliefs seemed more sound, but whose work yielded no better results. He gave us homework, we did it dutifully, but neither one of us could see how it was helping. I wanted to talk about the suicide threat, which I considered vile. My husband disavowed it, downplayed it. He wanted to talk about my secret plan to “stabilize” him so I could leave with a clear conscience. The social worker said we both had to give up our insistence on these topics and move on. “Are you scared?” my shrink asked me in February. “Very,” I said. He told me to search the house for a gun the next time I was left alone, but I was almost never left alone. Finally my husband went to the grocery store, but I didn’t find a gun. I was almost disappointed. I wanted hard evidence of the fear I felt, I wanted to be rational. I did discover that my husband was stockpiling the tranquilizers from his doctor. He had claimed to have trouble sleeping since I admitted I thought about leaving. Why? I wanted to ask. Are you watching me all night? Do you think I’d slip out then? How little he knew me if he thought I’d leave that way. I imagined him killing me as I slept, then killing himself. I began to have trouble sleeping, too, and it was my turn to get a prescription, my turn to stockpile. But how would he do it, my skeptical sister asked. “He can barely summon up the energy to change a lightbulb, he’s not organized enough to buy a gun. I hate to say it, but he would be lost without you.” Her words hung there, making us both glum. “I’m not saying you should stay,” she added. “Only that you shouldn’t be scared of him.” “But you’re saying what he said, more or less. If I leave, I have to be prepared to face the consequences.” “Are you?” “Almost.” I had no reason to stay, but I had no reason to leave. Until, it seemed to me, he said what he said, revealed how far he would go to keep me. I believed in my marriage vows, if not in the God to which I had made them. My husband didn’t hit me, he didn’t cheat on me. I knew no other reason to leave a spouse. Oh, yes, he was lazy, and he liked to tie one on now and then, upending the bourbon bottle in his mouth to celebrate this or that. Or, more frequently now, to brood. But I couldn’t fault him for that. I couldn’t really fault him for anything, except for the fact that he was willing to ignore my misery as long as I stayed. He was prepared to make that deal, to do whatever he could to keep me there. I thought there were rules for leaving, a protocol. I thought there would be a good time or a right time. I realized there would never be a good time. “What can you get out of the house without him being suspicious?” my shrink asked me in early March. “Myself,” I said. “Maybe a laptop.” “You can’t take a few things out, over several days?” “No,” I said. “He’d notice.” And it was only when I said it that I realized it was true: he was keeping an inventory. He was going through my closet while I was at work, checking my underwear drawer, looking under my side of the bed. He was spying on me as surely as I had spied on him when I went looking for the gun he never bought. All those things—the CDs, the books, the shoes, the clothes, the Volvo—were meant to weigh me down, to keep me in place. That’s why he had allowed me to have them. He was piling bricks, one by one, in front of the exit, burying me alive. “Then it will have to be just you and your toothbrush,” my shrink said. “Call from your sister’s house after work and tell him you’re not coming back.” I came home from that session planning to do just that. But my husband knew me too well. He could see it in my face, in my eyes. He backed me into a corner in our bedroom that night, demanding to know why I was unhappy, how I could turn on him. Forever and ever, I had said, I who valued words and vows above all else. How could I think of leaving? He did not touch me. He didn’t have to touch me to scare me. He demanded every secret, every fear, every moment of doubt I had ever experienced—about us, about myself. I sat in the corner, knees to my chest, shaking with sobs. I began to think I would have to make up confessions to satsify him, that I would have to pretend to sins and lapses I had never experienced. He stood above me, yelling. Somewhere in the house, our dog whimpered. I would have to leave him, too. Leave our dog, leave the car, leave the clothes, leave the CDs and books, lose the opera, and La Boh?me was next. Of course, it would have to be La Boh?me. It was always La Boh?me. The fact is, I’d even have to lose my toothbrush. He was watching me that closely now. I’d be lucky to get out of the house with my own skin. I did the only thing I knew to do: I capitulated. I asked for his forgiveness. I brought him the bourbon bottle and he poured me a glass of my favorite wine, a Chardonnay he usually mocked for its lack of subtlety. We drank silently, pretending a truce. We crawled into bed and watched one of his favorite DVDs, a Sergio Leone Western. I would start to doze off, then pretend to be wide awake when he asked if I was sleeping. He didn’t like me to fall asleep with the television on. He resented the ease with which I slipped into sleep each night. On our television, a boy stood beneath his brother, who had a noose around his neck. If the boy moved, his brother would die. Henry Fonda stuck a harmonica in his mouth. “Play,” he said, “play for your ever-lovin’ brother.” Of course he couldn’t stand there forever, harmonica in mouth, hands tied behind his back. He staggered forward, and his brother died. By the time the sun came up, I realized an unpredicted snow had been falling all night, and the streets were near impassable, even for a brand-new Volvo. But I had to go to work or be docked a day’s pay, snow or no snow, binge or no binge, Sergio Leone or no Sergio Leone. I said good-bye to my husband’s slumbering form and headed out the door. I wore jeans, snow boots, a black turtleneck, the new winter coat, suede gloves, and a felt hat. I turned the key in the lock. I wanted to take it from my ring and throw it in the nearest drift, but I knew I couldn’t. I’d have to come back. I walked to the train. I did my work. And that night, when the train stopped at our station, I wasn’t on it. I was at my sister’s house. She wasn’t approving, but she was sympathetic. She listened as I called and told him, in a choked voice, that I was never coming back. He didn’t say anything. The line went dead in my hand. He didn’t have a gun, after all, so there was no blood on the walls. But there was all that booze, and all those pills, his and mine, squirreled away for the sleeplessness we had never tried to cure. Because I didn’t go back for forty-eight hours, things were pretty bad. The dog, luckily, had survived, and without resorting to anything desperate or disgusting. I had filled his kibble dish the morning I left. Still, it was bad, and everyone felt sorry for me, wanted to ease my guilt. So sorry that the suburban police said it must be an accident, and the coroner agreed, and the insurance company gave up fighting after a while, so the mortgage was paid off in one fell swoop, with the life insurance. There was no suicide note. And while there were all those threats, dutifully reported to all those mental health professionals, they proved nothing. He had mixed booze with pills, despite warnings. True, it was suspicious he had taken so many pills, but I was able to report in all honesty that he had often ignored dosage advice, taking two, three times what was recommended. He also had an amazing capacity for liquor. It never occurred to anyone that he was probably dead the morning I left, that my phone call home that night, overheard by my sister, had been completely for show. Or that the pills had been chopped up and dissolved in his bourbon bottle days ago, in hopes such an all-nighter would come again, and soon. It had been hard, waiting, but it was worth it. I had not noticed the snow falling because I was lying in bed, listening to his heart stop. He always said he would kill himself if I left. All I did was hold him to his word. DEAR PENTHOUSE FORUM (A FIRST DRAFT) You won’t believe this, but this really did happen to me just last fall, and all because I was five minutes late, which seemed like a tragedy at the time. “It’s only five minutes,” that’s what I kept telling the woman behind the counter, who couldn’t be bothered to raise her gaze from her computer screen and make eye contact with me. Which is too bad, because I don’t need much to be charming, but I need something to work with. Why did they make so many keystrokes, anyway, these ticket clerks? What’s in the computer that makes them frown so? I had the printout for my e-ticket, and I kept shoving it across the counter, and she kept pushing it back to me with the tip of a pen, the way I used to do with my roommate Bruce’s dirty underwear, when we were in college. I’d rounded it up with a hockey stick and stashed it in the corner, just to make a pathway through our dorm room. Bruce was a goddamn slob. “I’m sorry,” she said, stabbing that one key over and over. “There’s just nothing I can do for you tonight.” “But I had a reservation. Andrew Sickert. Don’t you have it?” “Yes,” she said, hissing the s in a wet, whistling way, like a middle-school girl with new braces. God, how did older men do it? I just can’t see it, especially if it really is harder to get it up as you get older, not that I can see that either. But if it does get more difficult, wouldn’t you need a better visual? “I bought that ticket three weeks ago.” Actually, it was two, but I was seeking any advantage, desperate to get on that plane. “It says on your printout that it’s not guaranteed if you’re not at the gate thirty minutes ahead of departure.” Her voice was oh-so-bored, the tone of a person who’s just loving your pain. “We had an overbooked flight earlier in the evening and a dozen people were on the standby list. When you didn’t check in by nine twenty-five, we gave your seat away.” “But it’s only nine forty now, and I don’t have luggage. I could make it, if the security line isn’t too long. Even if it’s the last gate, I’d make it. I just have to get on that flight. I have … I have …” I could almost feel my imagination trying to stretch itself, jumping around inside my head, looking for something this woman would find worthy. “I have a wedding.” “You’re getting married?” “No!” She frowned at the reflexive shrillness in my voice. “I mean, no, of course not. If it were my wedding, I’d be there, like, a week ago. It’s my, uh, brother’s. I’m the best man.” The “uh” was unfortunate. “Is the wedding in Providence?” “Boston, but it’s easier to fly into Providence than Logan.” “And it’s tomorrow, Friday?” Shit, no one got married on Friday night. Even I knew that. “No, but there’s the rehearsal dinner, and, you know, all that stuff.” More clicks. “I can get you on the seven A.M. flight if you promise to check in ninety minutes ahead of time. You’ll be in Providence by eight thirty. I have to think that’s plenty of time. For the rehearsal and stuff. By the way, that flight is thirty-five dollars more.” “Okay,” I said, pulling out a Visa card that was dangerously close to being maxed out, but I was reluctant to give up my cash, which I would need in abundance Friday night. “I guess that’s enough time.” And now I had nothing but time to spend in the dullest airport, Baltimore-Washington International, in the dullest suburb, Linthicum, on the whole eastern seaboard. Going home was not an option. Light Rail had stopped running, and I couldn’t afford the $30 cab fare back to North Baltimore. Besides, I had to be in line at 5:30 A.M. to guarantee my seat, and that meant getting up at 4:00. If I stayed here, at least I couldn’t miss my flight. I wandered through the ticketing area, but it was dead, the counters all on the verge of closing down. I nursed a beer, but last call was 11:00 P.M., and I couldn’t get to the stores and restaurants on the other side of the metal detectors because I didn’t have a boarding pass. I stood by the stairs for a while, watching the people emerge from the terminals, their faces exhausted but happy because their journeys were over. It was almost as if there were two airports—“Departures,” this ghost town where I was trapped, and “Arrivals,” with people streaming out of the gates and onto the escalators, fighting for their baggage and then throwing themselves into the gridlocked lanes on the lower level, heading home, heading out. I should be doing the same thing myself, four-hundred-some miles away. My plane would be touching down by now, the guys would be looking for me, ready to go. I tried to call them, but my cell was dead. That was the kind of night I was having. I stretched out on one of the padded benches opposite my ticket counter and essayed a little catnap, but some old guy was pushing a vacuum cleaner right next to my head, which seemed a little hostile. Still, I closed my eyes and tried not to think of what I was missing in Boston. The guys would probably be at a bar by now, kicking back some beers. At least I’d make it to the major festivities the next night. It hadn’t been a complete lie, the wedding thing. I was going to a friend’s bachelor party, even though I wasn’t invited to the wedding proper, but that’s just because there’s bad blood between the bride and me. She tells Bruce I’m a moron, but the truth is we had a little thing, when they were sorta broken up junior year, and she’s terrified I’m going to tell him. And, also, I think, because she liked it, enjoyed ol’ Andy, who brought a lot more to the enterprise than Bruce ever could. I’m not slagging my friend, but I lived with the guy for four years. I know the hand he was dealt, physiologically. Behind my closed eyes, I thought about that week two years ago, how she had come to my room when she knew Bruce was at work, and locked the door behind her, and, without any preamble, just got down on her knees, and— “Are you stranded?” I sat up with a start, feeling as if I had been caught at something, but luckily I wasn’t too disarranged down there. There was a woman standing over me, older, somewhere between thirty and forty, in one of those no-nonsense suits and smoothed-back hairdos, toting a small rolling suitcase. From my low vantage point, I couldn’t help noticing she had nice legs, at least from ankle to knee. But the overall effect was prim, preternaturally old-ladyish. “Yeah. They overbooked my flight, and I can’t get another one until morning, but home’s too far.” “No one should have to sleep on a bench. A single night could throw your back out of alignment for life. Do you need money? You probably could get a room in one of the airport motels for as little as fifty dollars. The Sleep Inn is cheap.” She fished a wallet out of her bag, and while I’m not strong on these kinds of details, it looked like an expensive purse to me, and the billfold was thick with cash. Most of the time, I don’t angst over money—I’m just twenty-three, getting started in the world, I’ll make my bundle soon enough—but it was hard, looking at all those bills and thinking about the gap between us. Why shouldn’t I take fifty dollars? She clearly wouldn’t feel it. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39789193&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.