Authors: Lara Prescott
“Don’t tell me a gal like you can’t hold her booze?”
“I can hold it just fine, thank you.”
He raised the bottle again. “Good.” He looked at his watch. “Seven minutes till midnight.” He put his arm around my waist, his thumb digging into the small of my back, and guided us toward the exit.
“I don’t have my coat,” I told him.
“Oh, we’re not leaving.”
We passed the doorman slouched on his stool, looking as though he’d indulged in a nip or two himself. Henry took my hand and danced us into a corner. His breath smelled like a bar floor, and I knew he was perhaps drunk enough to be loose-lipped. I straightened his tie—a narrow, ugly thing—and looked toward the doorman, who was pretending not to watch us. “I thought we were going somewhere quiet to talk?”
He reached behind me, and the wall turned into a door. “Well, what do you know?” he said, backing me into an unused coat-check room. The tiny room was empty except for a few white uniforms on wire hangers, a broken chair, and an old vacuum cleaner.
“Not exactly the cozy spot I had in mind.”
“I know a girl like you is used to”—he pointed the champagne bottle toward the broken chair—“more ambiance and all that. But it’s quiet, right?” He popped the cork, which landed in an empty hat cubby, and took a swig. “And private.”
He offered me the bottle but I declined, feeling I was already just one drink away from losing the upper hand. “Maybe a sip at midnight.”
He looked at his watch again and tapped its face. “Three more minutes.”
“Any New Year’s resolutions?” I asked.
“Just this.” He put his sweaty hand against my cheek and leaned in to kiss me. I took a step back, my head brushing the closet rod behind me.
“Tell me something first,” I said.
“You’re beautiful.” He moved in again.
I pushed him away with my index finger. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
He snickered in a way that made me cringe. “I like that. I like a challenge.”
“Tell me something…interesting.” I held his gaze, an old trick to get people to talk.
“Me? I’m an open book.” He looked at the ceiling and exhaled. “I think you’re the one with secrets.”
“Every woman has her secrets.”
“True, but I happen to know yours.”
My mouth felt dry, my tongue heavy as a sandbag. “And what’s that?”
“You want me to say it?”
“You don’t think I know why you chatted me up?” he said. “You just happened to take a sudden interest in a man, what, a decade younger than you? You think I don’t know what you are? I know you’ve been asking questions about me. About my loyalties.”
I eyed the door.
“What you don’t know is that I have more friends here than you do.”
I’d stepped right into it, too distracted and drunk to see it. I moved to leave, but he blocked me. “I’ll scream.”
“Good. They’ll just think you’re doing a job well done.”
I pushed him away, and he pushed back. My head hit the closet’s metal rod with surprising force. Before I could move, he crushed his body into mine and pressed his mouth to my lips so hard I tasted blood when he pulled away. I tried to push him off me but he did it again, forcing his tongue into my mouth. When I tried to knee him, he swept my legs out from under me. I went to the floor. He followed. I tried to get up but he forced my hands over my head and held them in one of his. I screamed but was drowned out by the crowd on the other side of the door beginning its countdown to midnight.
I could hear the side of my gown rip. “This is what you do, isn’t it? How they use you?”
I spat at him and he wiped my spit from his face with a smirk I wished I could take a brick to. He pressed his forehead to mine.
“So the other rumors are true, then?” His breath was hot and sour. “You’re some kind of queer? Shame if that got out.”
Three! Two! One!
The crowd roared “Happy New Year!” and the band began playing “Auld Lang Syne.” I closed my eyes and thought of the L-Pills from our survival kits back in Kandy—white and oval, in a thin glass vial encased in brown rubber. If need be, we were to bite down, crushing the glass and releasing the poison. When the poison is released, the heartbeat stops within minutes; death is fast and supposedly painless. It never crossed my mind that I might be captured so far from the battlefield.
He left me in the closet. I didn’t think about getting up. I didn’t think about crawling out. I didn’t think about getting help. I didn’t want to think at all. I wanted to sleep.
He returned with my coat and helped me to my feet. Anderson and his wife were leaving as we exited the coatroom—Henry first, me staggering a few steps behind him. But Anderson didn’t approach, didn’t call out “Happy New Year,” didn’t say anything. He looked at my smeared makeup, my torn dress, and he didn’t say a word.
Henry was right. I was nothing to them. Even Anderson couldn’t look at me. I wasn’t their colleague, their peer. I certainly wasn’t their friend. They’d all used me. The whole time, they’d been using me. Frank, Anderson, Henry, all of them. And I was certain they’d continue to use me until the honey dried up.
Henry put me in a car, kissed my cheek like a gentleman, and told the driver to drive carefully.
The driver escorted me to my door, and I walked up the steps to my apartment clinging to the railing. I could still feel him. I could still smell him.
The apartment was still cold. The half bottle of Dom Pérignon still sat on my glass coffee table next to the empty foil swan. The pair of heels I’d tried on with my gown but hadn’t worn still sat at the foot of my floor-length mirror. The Christmas card Irina had mailed me still sat alone on my mantel.
I removed my shoes. I removed my makeup. I removed my gown. I stood in my tub and let the scalding water run over my body. Then I got into bed and slept—into the day, and into the next night.
When I awoke, I went into the bathroom and knelt on the cold floor. Counting six tiles from the wall, I pried my fingernail under the one loose tile. My red nail broke. I bit the rest off and spat it onto the floor. Removing the tile, I picked up the business card:
SARA’S DRY CLEANERS, 2010 P ST. NW, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Turning the card over, I thought of Irina. I wanted to remember everything. I wanted to catalog, then file away my memories of her so I could pull from them in the future, protect them from the influence of others, protect them from the cruel distortion of time, protect them from the person I knew I’d have to become.
Once I made the call, there would be no turning back. A
is a bit of a misnomer: one person doesn’t become two. Rather, one loses a part of herself in order to exist in two worlds, never fully existing in either.
I remembered seeing Irina at Ralph’s: how she sat on the edge of the booth, her legs half in the aisle, when she turned her head in my direction for the first time. I remembered the pink bubble gum she bought at the gas station in Leesburg on our way out to a vineyard that turned out to be closed. How we went sledding the night of the first snow at Fort Reno, the District’s highest point. How I balked when I met her in Tenleytown and she held up two pea-soup-colored trays she’d taken from the Agency’s cafeteria. I pointed at my heels and told her I couldn’t possibly. How I relented when she asked if I’d try just once. How the wind felt in my face as we rushed down the icy hill.
The time we ran into a Safeway ten minutes before it closed, in search of a birthday cake. It wasn’t my birthday, or hers, but Irina insisted we get it, even asking the baker, who’d already undone his apron for the night, if he could please write my name on it, with an exclamation point, in blue icing.
When we watched airplanes land at National from Gravelly Point. How we huddled together under a blanket when a flash of light appeared in the distance. How the sound of the planes’ engines grew louder and louder until they appeared overhead. How they looked so close we felt we could reach up and touch their bellies.
I even wanted to remember that morning in my apartment after we’d made love—when everything unraveled like a loose string on a sweater. After she left, I went to my closet, where I’d hidden a gift I’d bought her: an antique print of the Eiffel Tower. After seeing
she’d said that we must go to Paris together someday. The tiny tower was the size of my palm, its intricate lines drawn by dipping the tip of a needle in ink. I’d had it framed and wrapped it in butcher paper, tied with red string. I had planned on giving it to her for Christmas, but it remained in the back of my closet.
I held the business card in my hand. I memorized the address, lit a match, and watched it go up in flames.
The Bishop’s Garden was empty, the side gate unlocked. The bare trees formed black shadows against the illuminated National Cathedral. The cherub-covered fountain was turned off for winter, except for a steady drip to keep the pipes from freezing, the garden’s famed rosebushes just thorny shrubs.
Three footlights along the path hugging the stone wall were burned out—as they said they’d be—but with the full moon and the lit up cathedral looming over the garden, I had no trouble navigating along the path and through the stone arch to the wooden bench under the tallest pine.
I brushed off the thin layer of snow and dead pine needles and took a seat. A sudden movement behind me caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand at attention. I looked around: nothing. Had I been followed? I looked up: Two yellow lanterns hung high in the towering pine. An owl steadied herself on a branch that seemed much too small to hold her. She swiveled her head, surveying the garden for an unlucky mouse or chipmunk. She was a regal bird, there on her throne, poised to pass judgment and carry out the sentence herself. She paid me, a commoner, no mind as she patiently waited for her dinner to appear. To operate fully under instinct was a gift given to the animals; how much simpler life would be if humans did the same. The branch creaked as the owl shifted her weight. With a flap of her wings, she coasted up and over the garden’s wall. It wasn’t until she was gone that I noticed I’d been holding my breath.
I pushed my red glove back and looked at my watch: seven fifty-six. Chaucer was due in four minutes. If he was late, I was to leave immediately and take the number ten bus to Dupont Circle. If he was on time, I was to take a small package from him, two rolls of microfilm containing
in its native Russian, then board the number twenty bus and deliver the film to a safe house on Albemarle Street.
It started snowing, and I watched the flakes dance in the spotlights pointing at the cathedral. My thighs began to itch, as they did whenever I was cold, and I tightened the belt of the long camel-hair coat Sally had insisted on buying me when she noticed the cigarette burn on my old winter jacket—a small gift from a man who’d bumped into me on the bus. I took off my red leather gloves and blew hot air into my balled-up fists. When I released my fingers, my engagement ring slipped off and clinked to the cobblestones. It was two sizes too big, and I hadn’t gotten around to having it properly fitted. But my, it was beautiful. Teddy’s grandmother had given it to him when he was a boy, telling him that someday the woman he’d love for the rest of his life would wear it. He remembered telling her he’d never marry—he’d be far too busy fighting Nazis, like Captain America. His grandmother patted him on his head. “Just you wait,” she’d told him.
Teddy recounted this story before he got down on one knee at his parents’ house the day after my twenty-fifth birthday, just before the strawberry shortcake was served. Instead of looking at Teddy, I looked at my mother, who beamed with a look of pride I’d never before seen in her. Then I looked at his parents across the table, smiling as if their baby boy had taken his first steps. Then I looked back at Teddy and nodded.
It was a beautiful ring, but I hated wearing it. Wearing it felt like a cover.
I knew that what I really wanted was impossible. But I wanted it anyway. I wanted the excitement, the home, the adventure, the expected, the unexpected. I wanted every contradiction, every opposite. And I wanted it all at once. I couldn’t wait for my reality to catch up to my desires. And that need was my constant companion, the underlying current of nerves that caused me to overanalyze every interaction and question every decision—the source of the never-ending conversation in my head that kept me up nights while Mama snored softly on the other side of the thin wall separating our bedrooms.
I knew what people called it: an abomination, a perversion, a deviance, an immorality, a depravity, a sin. But I didn’t know what to call it—what to call us.
Sally had shown me a world that existed behind closed doors, but it still didn’t feel like my world, my reality. All I knew was that I hadn’t seen Sally since the night I spent at her apartment two weeks and three days earlier, and that in those two weeks and three days, I hadn’t spent one waking hour not thinking of her.
I picked up the ring and put it back on as the cathedral bells rang out eight times. After the final bell, Chaucer appeared, as planned. There had been no sound—not of the gate opening, nor of footsteps. He arrived silent as snow, wearing a long black coat and a plaid hat with flaps that covered his ears. With his funny hat and curious expression, he reminded me of a basset hound. “Hello, Eliot,” he said.
“Lovely night for a stroll.” His accent dripped with the articulations of a high-class Londoner.
He remained standing, and a beat of silence passed between us. He made no move to hand me the package, but turned and looked up at the cathedral. “Impressive structure. You Americans do love making new buildings look old.”
“I suppose so.”
“Take bits and pieces from the Old Country, cobble them together, and put the old American stamp on it, isn’t that right?”
I wasn’t about to debate him, nor did I understand why he seemed to want to debate me. Maybe this was what the men did when they met like this, but I had no time for the volley of clever banter. There was a job to be done.
He looked hurt at my nonresponse and reached into his coat, handing me a small package wrapped in newspaper.
I placed the package in my Chanel purse.
“Let’s do this again sometime.” He tipped his hat and remained standing there as I left.
The thrill never dampened—like the moment when a roller coaster crests at the top of the hill and pauses just before it lets gravity pull it down. I walked to the corner of Wisconsin and Massachusetts. But instead of boarding the number twenty bus as I was supposed to, I walked the twenty minutes to the large Tudor house at 3812 Albemarle. If I couldn’t have everything my heart desired, at least I had that moment, that feeling—and I wanted to savor it as long as possible.
After slipping the package into the safe house mail slot, I continued down the hill to Connecticut Avenue, where I caught a bus to Chinatown.
A wall of warm air and the smell of fried rice greeted me when I walked into Joy Luck Noodle. The host pointed to a back table, where Sally was pouring herself a cup of steaming tea from the small iron kettle kept warm by a flickering tea light. She hadn’t noticed me enter, and when we made eye contact, I felt that familiar inner gasp.
Two weeks and three days since I’d seen her—since the day I told her Teddy and I were engaged, since the night we made love. That night I’d felt I’d been changed from the inside out—into the kind of person who is confident in her every action, someone who doesn’t question her every thought, every move. But seeing her sitting there made me want to retreat to the bathroom and steady my nerves. When Sally gave me that smile of hers as I took off my coat and hung it over the back of my chair, for a moment I relaxed.
She looked beautiful as always, except for the caked makeup she’d attempted to cover the bags under her eyes with. She wore a brocaded green silk turban, but the strands of her red bangs peeking through appeared stringy and unwashed. As she reached for her teacup, I noticed her shaking hands.
“Tired? Hungry?” she asked in our own coded language.
“Hungry,” I said. “And I need a drink.”
We never talked specifics of our missions, but
meant things hadn’t gone well,
meant things had, and
need a drink
meant exactly that.
She signaled for the waiter to bring us two mai tais. “I went ahead and ordered us the cashew chicken and pineapple fried rice.”
“Perfect.” I took off my gloves and set them on the table. Sally’s eyes drifted to my left hand for a moment before looking away. She let the silence linger—an old trick she must’ve forgotten she’d told me about, something she picked up during the war to get people to start talking.
People will do anything to fill an uncomfortable silence,
she’d said. I sipped from my mai tai and remembered Sally had prefaced her invitation to a late dinner by saying we needed to talk. I’d thought nothing of it then, but now it was all I could think about. “You wanted to tell me something?” I fished out the blue paper umbrella from my drink and popped the cherry on the tiny sword into my mouth.
“Nothing big.” She sipped her drink through the blue straw, careful not to disturb her lipstick. “Just wanted to find out how your New Year’s Eve was.”
“Two turns down the bunny slope and I was done. Spent most of the night in the lodge sipping hot cocoa by myself.”
“I imagine Teddy’s a fine skier. The naturally athletic type.” She rarely mentioned Teddy, and certainly never complimented him.
“I suppose so.”
“Well, my New Year’s Eve was as lovely as ever,” she said after another long sip. “Went to a party. Danced all night. Drank a little too much, you know how it goes.”
She was punishing me. “Sounds like a gas.”
The waiter came with our chicken, and again I was thankful for a chance not to talk. Sally wielded her chopsticks like a pro. I reached for a fork and stabbed a piece of pineapple.
After the waiter took away our plates, Sally took a deep breath and said in rapid succession that we could no longer see each other, that she was thankful for the time we’d had together and for our friendship but it would be better for both of us if we went our separate ways, that she was about to be too busy with work and wouldn’t have much time for socializing anyway.
Her words felt like kicks to the stomach, again and again, and I could hardly breathe by the time she was finished. The word “friendship” stung the most. “Of course,” she concluded, “we’ll remain on professional terms at work.” It seemed she wanted to say more, but didn’t.
“Professional,” I repeated.
“Glad you agree.” Her indifference was cruel. I wanted to tell her I didn’t agree. No, I wanted to scream it. The thought of no longer spending time with her, of having to treat her professionally, of having to pretend there was never anything between us, made me sick. I wanted to tell her I’d rather walk barefoot across barbed wire than make polite chitchat with her in the elevator. And I wanted to ask her how she could—how it was so easy for her to turn off the switch.
But I didn’t say anything. And it wasn’t until after I stood up, after my knees hit the underside of the table, spilling the pink mai tai on the tablecloth, after I turned to leave, after I heard her tell the waiter I wasn’t feeling well, after I stormed out, after my walk broke out into a run—it wasn’t until after all that that I realized my silence was also an answer.