Susan Tepper – Two Stories
Around eleven in the morning the sky darkens and rain pelts the roof top pool. I look over the railing at Monte Carlo and the Mediterranean spread out below. Everything that’s normally brilliant with light has turned a gauzy gray.
“C’mon,” he says grabbing his flip flops. Along with the others we scatter for cover. Why we do this is anyone’s guess, since we’re all soaked anyway from the pool.
Back in the room he says, “There’s nothing else to do but go to the films. I hate the subtitles. Your neck gets tired moving up and down.”
“I don’t mind subtitles,” I say. “Do you know where the movie theatre is in Monte?” I like saying Monte, the way the sophisticated insiders have shortened it. How it slides easily off my tongue. Does this mean in one trip I’ve become an insider? I shake my head. Hardly.
“You don’t want to go?” he’s saying.
“I do want to. Is it nearby?”
The movie theatre is closer than you think,” he says. I watch him take off his swim trunks. His body is nice. I push my black strapless swimsuit down and step out of it. He gets a sudden brightness in his eyes. “We’re comfortable naked together. Right?” he says.
The draperies have been drawn closed by the maid. Some lamps are lit. He comes closer pulling me to him. He’s ready and we tear at each other. We always tear at each other like it’s the first time. He claims we’re both over-sexed. Now he’s pushing me backward toward the bed, but gently. Everything done in the most gentle way. Almost choreographed. I could get involved, I’m thinking. Quickly ditching the idea.
After, with a sheet covering us, we cling together in the semi-darkness. The air conditioner whirs on low speed. “Do you want to go to the films?” he murmurs into my neck. He’s always at his most vulnerable after we make love. He’s good at it. Driven to it. Which is stronger? I’m wondering, his sex drive or the aftermath— when he’s at his most tender.
Feeling languid in his arms I say, “It’s raining pretty hard.”
“No, they show them on the lower level.”
“Here? In the hotel? When?”
“Whenever the weather is bad.” He’s stroking my back. He holds me a moment longer then sits up swinging his legs off the bed. “Let me just wash up,” he says.
We both dress in shorts. He puts on a gray t-shirt. I put on a lime-green and white striped halter. “That looks sharp,” he says. “Very Monte.”
I like hearing this, I like his compliments. I’m more than a little impressed by him. He has made his mark on the rock music world. I have made my mark on nothing.
This time he doesn’t jog to the elevator, but walks with me holding my hand. The elevator, usually empty, is half full. “On account of the films,” he says into my ear.
The film has already started. We sit toward the rear, on padded velvet chairs in a conference room. The carpet is dusty pink with an Oriental motif. A large flat screen mounted on the wall. In the film a well-dressed man and woman are in animated conversation.
“Naturally it’s dubbed,” he whispers to me.
The man in the film, Henri, is suggesting a holiday. The woman sidles up to him with that look, the one all French girls accept as their birthright.
“Monte Carlo, Henri?” she says.
People around us start laughing.
There’s a close up of the woman. She’s batting her jade-green eyes. I’m thinking she has the phoniest looking green contacts I’ve ever seen.
“Chantal,” the man says and clasps both her hands in his. “I thought perhaps somewhere American for this holiday.”
“American!” She pulls away from him in horror. “The Americans are such pigs! They have allowed the British to spill oil into their Gulf of Mexico, the Americans! They are très stupide!”
The audience screams with laughter.
Henri starts whining. “But Chantal…”
Chantal goes on a tear. “They haven’t the vaguest notion of cuisine, and American women dress like… like…like…” Sobbing hysterically she sinks into the nearest bergere.
“Sacré bleu!” Henri shouts. “Chantal, please, please, not that bergere. Another bergere, or perhaps a fauteuil?” He is begging her. He points to a pale small chair with wooden arms carved like tree limbs. “Please, mon cherie, not that bergere, it is so old, so precious. Mon père carried it out of the great fire during the reign of Louis quatorze.”
There’s hooting from people sitting upfront.
Chantal is wiping her eyes. But carefully. The actress must be worried about her fake eyelashes. She begins sniffing in the chair. “I smell no remains of fire,” she says.
People around us are laughing out of control. He leans toward my ear whispering, “Just remember, the French love Jerry Lewis, too.”
I turn to him and grin. But I’m thinking this Chantal is no slouch when it comes to men and that I could learn a thing or two from this ballsy French woman.
She’s sitting in his precious bergere with her spine straight as a steel rod.. “Of course, Henri.” Then she stands up perfectly straight, too. “How foolish of me to sit here when I know…” she’s saying.
“My darling.” He takes her in his arms holding her close.
She pushes him back a little. “Henri, we have some problems, très difficile, I hate to bring this up at such a time, but…” She coughs batting those jade-greens again. “America?” Now she seems to shake all over. “My little terrors.” There is true terror on Chantal’s face. You can see she is struggling with this.
“You must not be afraid,” Henri is saying. With such tragic tenderness it almost swells my heart. But not Chantal’s. You can see her mind is an oiled working gear.
“Maintenant, Henri. Perhaps shall we visit South Beach?” She snuggles into him nibbling at chest hairs poking out of his aqua V-neck sweater. “It could be very nice in South Beach,” she says.“It is not Monte Carlo, of course…”
The audience is going crazy and people are shouting: It’s not Monte Carlo of course!
They’re shouting so loud we’re missing half the dialogue. Well, those who speak French are missing it. I’m relying on the subtitles.
“… but as second best,” Chantal is saying.
“Ma cherie, you are a crystal ball reader!”
“Then it is South Beach!” Chantal squeals hugging him.
“Not quite exactement. But you are warm.”
“Not South Beach? But I’m warm? I feel my eyes swarming like flies in my head.” She is actually twirling, saying, “Where to land, where to land…”.
Henri’s smile is gentle, reassuring. “I want to take you on a special magical holiday.”
Surprisingly, there is little audience reaction. Could they actually approve of Disney World?
Then Chantal swoons but Henri catches her. He cradles her in his arms. He looks confused saying in a little boy voice, “Magic Mountain and the spinning tea cups?”
“Non! Non! Non!” She swings into action stamping her foot.
At this point the audience goes totally insane screaming Non! Non! Non! One woman flings her purse at the screen.
“Chantal!” Henri is screaming, too. “You are making the bergere shake!”
She grabs the bergere by its arms and tries lifting it. It seems to be nailed to the floor.
The audience is clapping and rooting for her, shouting: Chantal! Chantal! Chantal! Chantal! But Chantal can’t seem to lift the bergere.
“It must be pretty heavy,” I say into his ear.
“I want to throw this at you!” she’s screaming. “I want to throw the Ming vase at you! I want to rip off my pearls and throw them at you, Henri!”
Everyone has quieted down, they’re waiting to see what she has up her sleeve now.
She starts her screaming again. “What is the point of all this torture only to end up aux vacances in a theme park! In America! The devil’s land!” She faces him for the standoff. All steely control now. “Henri, I cannot. I will not.”
He drops to his knees on the champagne carpet. Clasps his hands. His tanned face in folds like a fleshy dog. “I am begging you, Chantal.”
“It will never be!” She spits into the white marble fireplace.
On that, he nudges me. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
We rise and leave quietly. The crowd continues to roar. We could be two elephants on a stampede for all they’d notice.
Uneven Like Islands
Down the center, then veering off to one side, is a large crack in my kitchen window. It is like the profile of a pregnant woman in a line drawing. A round jagged hole, the size of a navel orange, where a breast would be. A boy threw a baseball either deliberately or he had bad aim. Hearing the shatter I had put down my wine glass, running from the side porch to the kitchen. Glass shards in my sink. A hard ball, smallish and discolored, was covering the drain. I picked it out of the glass studying it a moment. Then I looked out the window. In a light breeze, the white dogwood brushing the clapboards seemed undisturbed. That’s when I spotted the boy. He stood in my un-sheared meadow of weeds and brambles. Shorts, bright-yellow T-shirt, blue baseball cap. A boy around twelve, gawky, some thirty feet from my house. Close. It was the mid-spring. I ran to the back screen door, calling out to him. He didn’t say a word. No apology, nothing. As if he had just delivered a newspaper. Then he gave me the finger and turned his back.
Some time later I am to discover this boy is the son of a man I’ve been seeing. I came upon this information accidentally. Joe’s wallet left open on my night stand, the plastic photo flap showing the same boy in the yellow T-shirt and cap. The photo flap could have opened to the wife, or any of his other children. There are four. How the boy found out I’m involved with his father is unclear. We’ve been very discreet. Bars and restaurants several towns over, that sort of thing. When Joe saw my window taped, he naturally asked what happened. I told him a boy may have thrown a baseball deliberately, or just aimed wrong. I’ve kept the ball on my bedroom closet shelf. I once had a boy child who lived only a short time. A few days. He came and left so quickly.
That night Joe and I made love more fiercely than usual. He seemed to be expunging something from my body. Of course, then, I still didn’t know the boy was his son. Not until later in the year.
My sister sits in the old rocker on my side porch. Across from her I’m stretched out on the wicker couch. The toss pillows are boutique, expensive; from another lifetime. We’re drinking the red wine she brought. She’s smoking again. Rain stops and starts as if on a timer. She asks if I feel guilty sleeping with a married man. No. I don’t say this but shake my head to indicate. She squints at me, disbelieving. “Guilt doesn’t come into it,” I say. For a good red I’m thinking the wine tastes slightly acrid.
She is insistent. Guilt would play a part if she were under the same circumstances.
They are never the same circumstances. You are you, and I am I. Your husband provides nicely for you and the two kids. Your house is large and airy. There’s granite in your kitchen and bathrooms. A great mahogany deck, big gas grill. Manicured lawn. While I live in a tiny cottage where the roof leaks when too much snow piles on. The whole place could use a paint job. Sections of bare wood, that look grey, show on the clapboards uneven like islands. My kitchen has formica counters chipped in places. The one bathroom decrepit with age. I never expected Joe to leave his wife and family. Between us, that subject has never come up.
“I’m a free woman,” I tell my sister.
She shrugs looking at her watch. “Last call,” she says.
The darkness is closing in tight. Pouring her final glass she puts her feet up on the ottoman. When I stare out the window, into the rain and dim, my reflection back seems fractured.
Susan Tepper is a twenty year writer. Six of her books of fiction and poetry are published. Tepper has received many awards for the hundreds of stories, poems, interviews and essays that appear in journals and zines worldwide. Let’s Talk, her column about all things literary, can be read at Black Heart Magazine. Her reading series FIZZ has been running sporadically these past eight years at KGB, Bar, NYC. She lives with her husband and her dog Otis in the NY area. More at: www.susantepper.com.