|"Much Ado About Nothing" image US Library of Congress|
Benedict and Beatrice
"Always the savior of the party, eh Benny?" A woman swung around my right side, reeking of bourbon and chamomile. "Just as well that nobody pays you any mind."
I'd been trying to convince two men in plaid flannel of the importance of a liberal education. They smiled at this woman, winked at me, and fled to the television where most of the other guests were watching election returns.
We were supposed to be celebrating Leo Sussman's re-election to Frederick County commissioner. It was his fourth straight term. The event had turned into the sort of party you feel obligated to help, as if the guests are drowning in a river and you're standing on the shore. You can't resist throwing lines to the host and hostess, who've gone in to save others, or to your old, old friends as they clumsily pull each other under.
"Why, Tricia," I said, "it's been so quiet I thought you'd left. Usually, I hear you coming from across the room."
"Hah. As charming and hostile as ever. How's tricks?"
"Tricks are for prostitutes, so I wouldn't know."
"That old line again." Whenever she rolled her eyes or gestured, Tricia staggered ever-so-slightly. She needed her sight and concentration for balance. But for a drunk she seemed
sharp. Her emerald dress pushed her breasts high without slipping. Her make-up wasn't smudged. "Are you skagged, too?"
"Alcohol," I said, "has never been my problem."
She glanced doubtfully at the gin in my hand, looking, as always, for a verbal advantage. We had a history of one-upsmanship. It spanned almost eight years, although on this particular night I didn't feel up for it. It irritated me to be near her.
Rouge made her cheeks seem redder. Eye shadow blotted her lids with a golden-green, lending color to her hazel eyes. Powder paled her nose. Lipstick reddened and widened her lips. None of this would have seemed out of place on anyone else. But on her it seemed desperate. When I'd known her in college she had never used make-up. She hadn't needed it.
"What is it?" she asked. There must have been something on my own face. "Your poison, that is."
"Hah. Women, I suppose."
Tricia threw back her head and roared. With a limp fist, she pounded me on the shoulder.
"Charming. You're being charming again. I'm not the least fooled, Benedict. You men are all liars. You never say what you mean." She took a sip from the tumbler. "And you know,
that's why it's refreshing to talk to you after all this time. Because I'd rather hear your stupid cynicism than listen to yet another man tell me he loves me."
"Have men been telling you that?" I said, a bit jealous even though I had no reason. She was beautiful, but there was nothing between us, just a crush I'd had on her during my sophomore year. I'd gotten over it when she started dating my roommate.
"Much too often. It isn't true."
"Well, I've heard there's some sort of marriage disease going around. John Petriccio caught a severe case of it. So I guess you ought to stay away from him."
She glanced longingly across the room at John. But she shook her head and bore down on the ice cubes in her glass. She cracked one between her teeth.
"I need another drink," she said. "This bourbon is awful. Switch me to vodka."
We weaved our way behind the cherry-wood bar. While I was melting some rocks with the highest quality vodka I could find, I figured on making second gin for myself. Someone had to get drunk with her.
"Have you seen Leo?" I asked her as we headed out.
"Yes. On the throw rug in his bedroom, stinking smashed, with a bleached blonde woman wearing only white lace panties."
"I didn't know her." She shook her head and drained half the glass in one gulp. "I told you. Men are liars. He tried to get me in there only last week."
There didn't seem to be much sense in looking for his wife but I have no sense. We were close to the front door. I turned the corner to check, thinking she might have gone there to hostess. The door was open and the foyer was vacant except for a few coats on the floor.
"What a wreck of a life," Tricia said. She stooped to pick up her soft, leather jacket. "Not yours, Benny. Maybe I should leave early, tonight. Do you want a ride home?"
"A cab? Your sober driving is bad enough," I said, and leaned through the open door to see whose car was coming around the circle. It was a white Spitfire convertible, which I didn't recognize, and it was parked behind Tricia's Pinto.
"Oh shit, it's Claude." She closed the door.
"What's wrong? You owe him money?"
"No, you big jerk. He was my boyfriend once, as if you'd remember. As if you noticed."
Oh yeah. A couple of months ago, I'd seen them together at a party. I pulled one of the window curtains back to peek at the up-and-coming devil. He was in the process of kissing and
feeling a petite woman in his front seat. I thought it was safe to assume he had a different girlfriend now. I wasn't certain it was safe to say so.
"Quick, hide me," Tricia said. She set her drink on the shelf beneath the hall mirror.
I grabbed a dress coat from the floor and threw it over her.
"Not that way," she said, laughing. She knocked the black trenchcoat from her head, mussing her auburn hair, and dashed to the closet. "Oh, this is awful ... they haven't cleaned here for ages ... oh, hell, I think I can make it."
She ripped a big fur off its hanger and flung it to the slate tiles. As she squeezed herself into a spot by the vacuum cleaner, she hissed, "Don't you dare let him open this."
At that moment, there was a knock on the thick, oak door. I considered being rude and locking myself into the nearest bathroom but Tricia had played on my curiosity. I knew if I left I'd wonder about what had been going on for a long while, perhaps months, since she wouldn't be inclined to talk.
After checking my hair in the mirror and pausing to fasten the top button of my jacket, I reached for the handle. Claude opened the door at that instant and jammed my knuckles.
"Ben!" he yelled. "Howdy! How's tricks?"
I sucked on my fingers while he stepped in and cleaned his feet. The woman came in after him, noticeably hesitant.
"Are you stuck with the doorman job this evening?"
"Temporarily," I allowed. My fingers throbbed but Claude's gymnast-looking girlfriend stared so hard at me I took them out. Claude studied the coats strewn about the floor.
"You're doing a terrible job."
"It's my first night."
"Where's Leo?" He removed his driving gloves one digit at a time. I closed the door behind him, my job as doorman finished, I thought.
"Feeling a little sick, I'm afraid."
"Smashed, you mean." A sad smile rose at the corners of his mouth. "Bastard. Say, he didn't invite that bitch from Detroit, did he? I think that was her car."
I had a sinking feeling I knew who he was referring to. "You mean Tricia?"
"Yeah, she's got a mouth on her, that one. Or maybe you wouldn't notice. She always flirts with you to get me jealous."
"Oh? She does?"
"Yeah, well, it drove me crazy for a couple months. While I was taking her to all those shows and restaurants. Yak, yak, yak ... Benny this, Benny that ... all the time, Benny. After a while, I started talking about other women. But I don't think she even noticed. By the way, this is Ursula."
"Good evening, Ursula." When I bowed, she smiled. "May I take your coat? I promise not to leave it on the floor."
She tittered and turned for me to remove the imitation fur. While my hands were on her collar, Claude shrugged off his grey coat. He was faster than I could be and by the time I had Ursula
half-undressed, he had his chesterfield under one arm, gloves folded into the inside pocket, and was headed away from me.
"Don't bother, Claude," I said as he strode to the closet. "It's full up in there."
"I'll just grab a hanger, then." He turned the knob.
"None left." Before he could door move the door, I had my foot down in front of its base. At the same time, I deftly plucked the overcoat from his hands. "You may as well mingle while I sneak into the bedroom and hang these in Leo's walk-in. You know where it is?"
He gave me his impatient look. "Of course."
"Well, then. Nice to have met you, Ursula." I tucked the coats under my arm and waved goodbye to them as they strolled away. As soon as they were gone, I yanked open the hall closet.
"What the hell is this all about?" I hissed.
"We had a fight." Tricia unfolded herself to step over the pile of muddy boots. "What else?"
"What else is precisely what I want to hear." The coattails flapped with every move. "I did the courtesy of misdirection for you. And I looked like an ass doing it. I may have made Claude look bad, too, in front of his new girlfriend."
"Do you think I care about what his lover thinks?" Her arms crossed in front of her chest. Although she was a reasonably thin woman, the gesture seemed imposing.
"Well what am I supposed to do with these coats? It's not like I can actually sneak into Leo's bedroom. Not with what's going on in there."
"Why would you want to?" she snapped.
"Didn't you hear what I said?"
"No. I couldn't make out your mumble from there." Her expression seemed blank and innocent.
I had assumed she'd heard Claude's remark about flirting. If she hadn't, that changed my mind about what we should talk about next. Not that it meant anything, but his statement had
appealed to my vanity. I'd had an unrequited love for Tricia, once. It seemed only fair that she should have one for me.
We stood in thought, the both of us, for nearly a minute. It wasn't exactly an awkward silence but it felt reasonably clumsy. Plus, when I reached for my drink, I knocked the glass over.
"What did he say?" Tricia asked after she emptied her tumbler in a more elegant fashion.
"Claude? Oh, not much." Gin had drenched the tablecloth. After I scooped the ice cubes back into the cup, I gazed around for something to sop up the alcohol. There was nothing but a
summer scarf. I grabbed it, feeling guilty, and checked the tag. One hundred percent silk. My tie did the job, although I should have loosened it first. As I finished up, another car drove into the circle. The engine had a familiar rattle. An Oldsmobile Omega. It pulled closer than the Spitfire and, as it passed, its lights flickered through our windows.
"That's a relief," Tricia said. She let the window curtain fall as we heard the parking brake. "It's just Mrs. Blair and her daughter."
"Heather? Oh no." The engine died.
"Oh yes. Definitely them. Is there something wrong? I don't remember you dating Heather. Or betting against her."
"She thinks I proposed to her, once." I shrugged, ignoring the daggers in Tricia's eyes. "It's a long story."
"Another story, another lie," she began. Cars doors slammed not too far in the distance. "Another great ..."
"I'd better leave."
"Go, then. Get into the damn closet." Alcohol had taken most of the disguise off her disguised contempt. I did, however, leap into the closet when the doorbell chimed.
"Coming," Tricia shouted, two feet away from the foot rug.
Reluctantly, I pulled my prison closed. It seemed a mistake to consign myself to the boots and parkas but my chance to flee unseen had passed. A breeze swept into the hallway. I could
hear the brass knob snap back, shoes scrape against the rug, and the screen door bang against the back of someone's leg.
“Tricia dear. Darling." Mrs. Blair had a voice like a brass trumpet. Not one which is actually played but one which has air pumped through while the keys are stuck down.
Although I've always considered her a generous, loving soul, I'd been afraid of Mrs. Blair ever since I was five, which was when she'd sung to me while her husband accompanied her on the piano. Heather had never been able to understand why I didn't want to play in her house after that. It also ruined my piano lessons completely.
"Darling, you aren't hostessing for Angela, are you?"
"I've taken it upon myself."
"Just now?" Heather said. Looking, I expect, incredulously at what was becoming an increasingly busy floor. I'd dropped what Claude had trusted me with by the knocked-over umbrella stand.
"Of course," said her mother. "Angela is a dear but tends to let her husband's parties get out of hand. No hired staff. And the furniture just reeks of alcohol. We really ought to help you clean up."
"Oh, no. I couldn't let you. Really."
"I couldn't anyway, mother. I've got to find my friends. And Benny. You know."
"That's right. Well, run along." The patter of Heather's footsteps dwindled out of the room before Mrs. Blair could finish bellowing. "I'll help Tricia clean this up myself. The two of us ought to get this out of the way in no time, dear. Then perhaps I can locate Angela."
"Benny?" Tricia said. I leaned forward to hear her better and cracked my head against the wall. Fortunately, Mrs. Blair talked right through me.
"Why, yes. He's here, isn't he? His mother said he was sure to drop by."
"Naturally. When does that man ever miss a party?" Funny, the impressions people get of you. Most of the time I'm studying or teaching but I throw myself into the occasional social event
in order to keep up with friends. "Still, I couldn't help noticing ... I mean, has he said anything to your daughter? Made a move on her? He can be awfully ... elusive, if that's the word. Not that I mean to pry."
If Tricia hadn't known I was listening, I would have been wounded. As it was, I prayed for the needling to stop. Mrs. Blair laughed. She slapped Tricia hard on the back, which sounded delightful to me. I know from prior experience what that playful cuff feels like. The old woman is a bit of a bear although, in comparison, a brown bear weighs only two hundred and fifty pounds. Tricia coughed on an ice cube until she spit it up.
"My girl's been chasing that boy ever since they were in diapers together. I'm not worried for her. Benny, maybe. He's been marriage-shy for years. Ever since you, of course, back in high school."
"High school?" Tricia sounded incredulous. Or she was out of breath from the ice cube. "Oh, you mean college. But we never dated."
"Oh no. He was much too shy for that. But he was sweet on you just the same. I remember seeing the ring he'd bought for you. He never gave it to you, of course." The setting had been only fourteen karat, the stones only garnet, but it had cost all of his savings in the world at the time. "You'd started seeing that boy who became a bill collector ... John, wasn't it? Poor Benny was crushed. I think Heather ended up with it."
"The ring?" A gasp of horror.
"Yes. Didn't anyone ever tell you? Heather, she ..." Their voices drew closer. Mrs. Blair's footsteps were heavy but precise. "I'm talking too much. That's something for my daughter to brag about or maybe confess. But those coats seem more than you can carry, my dear. Let me help. There. My, what a nice chesterfield!"
"Chesterfield? Ugh." I heard Claude's coat fall.
"Never you mind. You just hold them and I'll hang."
I realized, with lightheaded alarm, two things. First, I was in danger of being discovered and second, I was too drunk to act sensibly. Panicked, I tried to pretend I was a vacuum accessory. It didn't feel as if I were having much success. Probably, I had turned the wrong shade of grey.
"Mrs. Blair. Please don't."
The door opened. Mrs. Blair drew back in surprise.
"You look nice tonight, Gwendolyn. Particularly your hair." I offered my hand, trying to bluster it out. The hallway chandelier hurt my eyes. I almost stumbled; I suspect I looked even more inebriated than I actually was.
"My hair? I haven't done anything to it in ages." Her eyes ran up and down my form, perhaps checking for signs of madness.
"Perhaps it's the light."
"My dear Benedict," she said, temporarily immune to flattery, "are you hiding from Heather?"
"Not really hiding, no." I dusted the wrinkles from my jacket as I wobbled out. "No, that would imply I thought she was looking for me."
"But she is looking for you. That's why we came."
"In that case, yes, I'm hiding."
"Well, you can help us here. Couldn't you have slipped quietly out the back? You seem to have knocked down half of the garments inside."
This was unfair, as it had been Tricia who'd done all the damage, but in a situation like this one there's no sense in protesting. Everything you say is held against you. I looked guilty and I was, although not of being as drunk or clumsy as she assumed. Mrs. Blair put me to work at the glasses and paper plates strewn about the foyer tile. In a few minutes, the three of us had cleared the area of party debris.
Gwendolyn gathered the worst of the trash in her arms. With a pile of plexiglass and silverware almost two feet high, she announced she was off to the kitchen.
"No need for the two of you, I suppose. Not with Ben on the lam, as he seems to be."
"Be careful of your dress," I said. "It's a nice one."
This hadn't been meant as a peace offering but, apparently, it was the right thing to say. Mrs. Blair tossed her blondish head and her second chin fell away.
"It is, isn't it?" she said. I nodded dumbly.
"It's azure," Tricia said. "That means blue, Ben."
"A hand-me-down. My older sister had it made." She held still for Tricia to inspect it. Both of us made appropriate, appreciative murmurs about the silk lace and worried aloud about Mrs. Blair wearing it to a party.
"Nonsense," she retorted. She gave me a meaningful glance. "I won't be hiding in any closets. Anyways, I'd best be off. Before I go, Ben, perhaps you could tell me what's wrong with my daughter."
"What's wrong with her? Isn't she pretty enough?"
"Not as pretty as you must have been at her age, Gwendolyn. And she won't hold it so well, either. But that's not the point. She wants someone with more ..." My hands fumbled with the carefully-picked words "... drive than I've got, but she doesn't know it yet. I'll be happy to make tenure as professor. She'd have me running for governor instead, probably on a timetable like five years from now. She's ambitious and I'm just not up for that sort of life."
Mrs. Blair nodded grimly. As she marched away from us on what were probably also heirloom shoes, Tricia turned with a smile on her face.
"More lies. How come you never told me I looked pretty?"
"Good-looking women don't need to hear that."
"Is that a compliment?"
"No." I let out an exasperated sigh and tried to leave her no room to find an insult. "It's just the sad way of the world. Pretty women hear praises all the time, even unwanted ones. Plain women hardly ever hear what they need. It's obvious stuff, too, like the fact that people can see their inner beauty, that they've attractive even with crow's feet, or that the bags under their eyes are a reminder of how much love they give each day. That sort of thing."
"What a hideous dress," Tricia said absently as she broke her last ice cube.
"Is the offer of a ride still open?" I asked.
"No. You're right. I can't drive like this. You're only a couple blocks off, anyway."
"A walk, then?"
The longer we stood in silence by the open door, the more tension grew between us. It was like electricity in the air before a summer storm. We could feel implications unfolding before us like an endless series of chinese boxes, possibilities inside possibilities, a secret, far-off end. There was no graceful way for her to answer. She took my hand. We started out, down the drive.
We stopped behind an evergreen tree by the main road, protected from the porch light. There the darkness seemed supernatural although, in fact, it was more natural than anything I'd experienced in months. Years. In the heavens was a sliver of moon, sprinkled with stars, barely enough light to see the watery trails down her cheeks.
"It's the alcohol."
"Right. The vodka is overflowing at the eyelids." In spite of herself, she chuckled. When I got out my clean handkerchief she nodded and let me dab her face. It felt strangely right to touch her. "I should have used this instead of my damn tie on that spill before. And you know, I could hear every word you said from that closet."
"I know," she said.
"Why? Why the lie, that is."
"Oh ... just all those things Claude told you. That business about flirting. I didn't want to feel caught out. Vulnerable, you know."
There come those times when you realize with a sick lurch that your heart is not where you thought it was at all. I'd supposed I was interested in one of the administrative secretaries at work. But that friendliness was nothing at all to what I felt now with Tricia, or the realization that I'd never gotten over my idiotic crush on her. I was still a high schooler in my heart, at best a college sophomore lusting after the perfect woman and an ideal marriage.
Now the perfect woman was drunk. She reeked of alcohol and perfume. Her mascara had washed away with the tears. When I lifted her chin to kiss her, she almost didn't resist.
When our lips touched, she pressed herself hard against me. We kissed for minutes, hours, her arms clenched hard around my shoulders, elbows in my back, squeezing with all her strength,
untiring. She tasted sugary. Even the wetness on the corners of her lips tasted deliciously sweet, like lemon in chamomile tea. I couldn't get enough of her natural flavor, it was so good, so clear, and so like my entire life of knowing her. Sometime after the stars had spun round us, after the moon had fallen, after the guests in that far-away, long-ago party had gone home and come back, we pulled ourselves apart.
"After all this time," I said, "it's still there. All those feelings I had. Isn't that strange?"
"How long has it been?" she whispered.
"Eight years since I was hopeless. Almost nine, now." I threw my head back to stare at the stars. In the perfect darkness where we stood, there seemed to be more than I'd ever noticed before. Although I still get lost in the local shopping mall, at that moment I felt that I could make out and name the individual pinpricks of the Milky Way.
Tricia nuzzled against my neck, more sweet fragrances, more wetness against me. After a moment, she chuckled.
"What's so funny?" My scowl came back, along with old suspicions about her wit.
"You'd better marry me," she said.
"I mean it. We're not kids anymore. Pretty soon you'll be bald and flabby. You're already mostly bald. And then you'll be desperate. No one will want to marry you."
I touched the top of my head. I hadn't realized it was obvious yet.
"When you put it like that, how can I refuse?" Although I liked the idea, I also found it intimidating.
"Don't fool around with me Ben. Yes or no?" Her hands went to her hips. Her vanity was involved, too, her needs for security and for feeling good about herself, not just mine.
"After only one kiss?" I asked.
She gave me a warning glance.
"All right. Yes."
"You're not just saying that? You're being honest? You'll love me forever?"
"Forever's the trick, isn't it?" My fingers slid down her bare back into her hand. We turned to stride forward together along the dark street. "I don't want to promise anything you aren't prepared to accept. For instance, I'm not sure we'll be able to stand each other three years down the road. But I'll still love you. I mean, even if we're fighting. I don't seem able to stop having feelings for you. No matter what the circumstances."
"Good. Oh, god, we are awful."
"Yes." I couldn't help glancing back at Leo's house. In the still of the evening, warm light glowed from its windows. Shadows of men in suits and women in formal dresses paraded on the other side of the curtains. "We are. We may be the underachievers of our crowd."
"We'll muddle through." She announced it like a decision.
"Or it'll end in disaster." My professorial instincts kicked in to offer a contrary opinion.
"When I say 'we are awful,' I mean mostly you." Her eyes glinted in the starlight. The corners of her mouth trembled. "You are absolutely terrible. You make me weaker."
"You seem to find only bad qualities in me. Since that's the case, for which of my bad qualities did you fall in love?" I swung her arm as we resumed our stroll.
"All of them. All of them together. And for which of my absolutely sterling qualities did you suffer love of me, Ben?"
"Suffer?" I said. "How appropriate."
She yanked on my arm to make me stop. Then she spun me around and tried to slap my shoulder. In the dark, she missed me or, at any rate, I barely felt it as she leaned in for our second kiss.
originally published as Eric Gallagher in The Frederick New Paper, 1991