Oh, Human Bondage!


She was going to be there anyway.  That's what she said.  Actually, she said:  "I am going to be there regardless," brushing the hair away from her face, pulling strands of it caught at her mouth.  I wondered if she were still dating men who didn't wear belts, but short-sleeved shirts with suits.  She was smiling and her lips were as red as you can get them.  Some of the lipstick had made it to her hair.  Was she still dating, I wondered, men who liked to look down and see the rings left by her lipstick?
      I wasn't looking forward to it myself, going or seeing her there.  There was nothing about the event to look forward to except maybe the food.  And that was a big maybe.
      There was no reason to be reminded of Bette Davis, I was telling James later, gin like glinting flint in my brain, making my mind sparkle, but there she was anyway, on my mind, Bette Davis, the way she looked in that movie with Macauley Culkin, the one in which she treated him badly then started coughing and ended up dying.
      James said, "You don't mean Macauley Culkin.  Bette Davis died well before that boy ever saw diapers."  And then he laughed, James did, because it really must have been funny, my mistaking a boy not even born for one of Bette Davis's co-stars.
      But he wanted to know more.  How like Bette Davis had she looked?  Ruined?  Haunted?
      How could I lie?  "Formidable," I told him.
      Was she still dating men with Arthur Murray degrees and bald shins?
      Although it was raining outside, I was telling him, she'd managed to make it into the building without getting wet.  "What a lovely umbrella," she'd exclaimed, the way she would at a small child or our dog.  I wielded it like Rex Harrison; I would have beaten her with it for a beggar's quarter.  She linked her arm through mine and we strolled past parfums and then your every-day perfumes and then the eau de toilettes.  "Liza Minnelli," she said.  "Vivian Beaumont, Diane Arbus, Damien Hirst . . .  Bjork, Bjork, Bjork . . ."
      "She said that?  'Bjork, Bjork, Bjork?'" James asked.
      I had to think a moment.
      "You know I don't listen to her," I told him.
      "Okay, so, 'Bjork, Bjork, Bjork'— then what?"
      "The flowers were lovely."  At Bergdorfs—they had some lovely arrangements.
      His hand on the sleeve of my coat, my new trench.  Still damp.  "Let's get you out of this," he said.  "What will you wear tonight?"
      "'Calvin Tomkins,' she said," I said.
      "A drink?  Or no more?"  James lifted our martini glasses and waved them around over his head.
      "Do we have time?" I asked, consulting my watch.  We had plenty, nothing but.

We were late because of an argument over feeding the dog.  Not that we minded feeding the dog, but that she was fed twice and was already over-weight.  It was his fault because he hadn't told me he'd fed her; it was my fault because he was always the one to feed her.
      "Me," James said; "Always."
      And then the cabbie was mad because neither James nor I would tell him where we wanted to be taken.
      "Another night of poetry," James sighed, looking out the window.
      "Debbie Harry's coming," I mentioned, hoping it might smooth things over.
      "What will I say to her," I heard him ask.
      "Debbie?"
      His forehead was pressed against the glass, and I refrained from reminding him of how unsanitary a cab window must be.  "No," he said; "Her."
      I looked through the holes cut into the plexiglass that separated us from the cab driver.  He was yelling into a cell phone.  And he wasn't foreign, either, but Midwestern, I was guessing.  The worst kind.  No wonder we were going so slowly.
      "Ask her this," I told James as we headed so slowly downtown, not even trading lanes or horn-blows with other taxis:  "Ask her what it's like to be the living dead.  Ask her how James Garner was in bed.  Ask her if she still judges a man by the length of his middle finger."
      "I'm not conducting an interview," James said.
      I was thinking then that it was so hard sometimes to see the sky and the stars it holds.
      "You might as well be," I said.

Trays passed by, held aloft by snooty boys in black tee shirts.  Everything was smeared onto endive canoes.  Whatever happened to little chicken salad sandwiches? I wondered.
      I kept an eye on James, who was once a snooty, black, tee shirt-wearing boy, holding trays aloft.  I was about to feel sorry for myself when the doors blew open and in she walked, as though held aloft herself.  When she floated in on her little endive canoes.  When she was passed around like hors d'oeuvres.  She looked like Bette Davis in "The Star," about to sell her Oscar.
      "Whatever happened to plain old shrimp cocktail?" I asked the man next to me.  He smelled of curry and moth balls, wet wool, gasoline.
      "Or carving stations," he offered.
      "Everything is frothy," I said, shaking my head at all of it.
      "This gin is septic," the man said, looking off into the distance.
      I could see James on one side of the room and her on the other.  It was, I thought, rather like the Titanic about to meet the iceberg, although I am not sure who I thought was whom.  I overheard someone say, "Isn't that what's her name?"  James has taken to calling her the Axe Wife.
      It was going to end badly, that much was clear.  And I was going to be a witness to it.  A tray passed by and from it I grabbed a little endive canoe.  "Lobster salad," I was apprised by the snooty boy carrying the tray aloft, balanced on three fingers, a sure sign of professionalism.  He stopped a moment, awaiting my first impression.  He looked me in the eye and nodded assuredly and left me stranded.
      "Darling!" I heard her trumpet and I tried with all my might to blend into the background, which, as everyone knows, isn't at all like me.
      "Peas and carrots," I whispered like a little prayer to keep me safe, "peas and carrots."  
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