(Missed the last chapter? Go to 51: Voices in the Rain.
Feeling festive, I choose a strapless peach sheath that highlights my new tan, and a matching, embroidered half jacket. I stare at myself in the mirror. It’s like I’m wearing a costume. Lacy Strong, starring as The Socialite’s Wife. I have to admit I look good, though. It’s like I’ve taken on the reflected sheen of this beautiful life, glowing like an actress seen through a soft focus lens.
As I descend the stairs, I find John waiting, elegant in a light gray suit, the same color his eyes. He grins and hands me a jewelers box.
“I got it for Valentine’s Day, but … well, I’ve been waiting for the right time.”
The box contains a diamond teardrop necklace, easily three carats. “John, is this real?”
“Of course.” He looks a bit offended.
“I’m sorry. I just can’t believe … It’s gorgeous! Thank you.”
“Get used to it,” John turns me around to fasten the necklace. I feel the cold weight of the diamond against my chest. He buries his nose into my hair. “You are the most intoxicating creature I’ve ever known.”
I turn to kiss him on the cheek, but John swivels his head and our lips met. Instinctively, I pull back.
A shadow passes over John’s face, shifting the lines subtly. When I first noticed this phenomenon, I’d feared it was a delusion. By now, though, I’ve realized his countenance morphs with his moods. He just has one of those faces.
“We should get going if we’re going to make our reservation.” John holds the door, not meeting my eyes.
At a stoplight, on the way to the restaurant, I find myself gazing into an apartment window at a couple, embracing. Warm light illuminates worn furniture and shelves stuffed with books. Posters and photos cover the walls. The hominess and air of normalcy makes my heart ache.
“I want to be close to you,” I say in the darkness of the car. “I’m really trying.”
John caresses my knee, and heat forks like lightening through my body, hardening my nipples. I gasp with pleasure, but something in me resists. “I keep waiting.”
John’s hand stills. “For what?”
“The memories. I’m blocked.”
“Then stop trying.”
“Just be here. You’re mine, Lacy. Nothing can change that.”
CHATWORTH’S TURNS OUT to be dark and intimate. Our table is tucked into an alcove with a fireplace. The plush, red benches on three sides of the table are roomy enough to stretch out on, if you were so inclined. Inclined to recline. The phrase keeps running through my head. On my second glass of wine, I say it out loud.
John gives me a heart-stopping grin and slides closer. He trails his right hand up and down my spine and gazes into my eyes. The warm firelight that reflects in his pale irises lends them a hypnotic flicker.
He kisses my lips lightly, then my cheek—tiny kisses that send shivers. He works his way to my ear and my neck. My head spins.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have had wine.”
“A little wine never hurt anyone,” John murmurs. “In Europe they give it to children. You just need to eat.”
As if on cue, the waiter arrives with our meal. Roast beef and grilled vegetables that John ordered for me. Some gourmet fried chicken with a maple glaze and sweet potato fries for him. The dish wasn’t on the menu, but the waiter seemed to know exactly what John wanted.
John digs into his plate of food, taking small, fastidious bites at a workmanlike pace. In my tipsy state it strikes me as hilarious that, even in this fancy restaurant, he’s managed to procure something sweet and greasy.
I stop myself from giggling by taking another sip of Merlot, and squint at the worn tapestry behind John’s head. What at first appeared to be a repeating geometric pattern is really people fucking, the man on the bottom, the woman on top, mirror images, like the roots and branches of a tree. I hiccup and wonder if I could really be drunk after a glass and half of wine.
John looks up, nearly finished with his dinner. “Don’t you like it, darling?”
“What? Oh, it smells delicious.” I pick up my knife and fork, and gesture over his shoulder. “I got distracted by the design.”
John examines the tapestry. “Hmm. It’s an ancient Thai pattern. Quite intricate. I never noticed the erotic design; it’s worked so subtly into the leaves. Now that you mention it, we always did seem to make love after having dinner here.”
John smiles and I beam back. I feel good—fabulously good.
I take a bite of roast beef au jus. It melts in my mouth. But I can’t focus on eating. My clothes are too stiff; the top of the silk sheaf binds my breasts. I arch my back and pull up until it eases. It’s tacky to adjust my clothing in public, but what does it matter? Curtains drape the entrance to our alcove. No one can see us.
John pushes his plate away and leans back in his chair, “Comfortable, darling?”
“Working on it.” The heat from the fire feels like a tongue on my skin. Even the music, just loud enough to cover the sound of the other diners, seems erotic: a duet of moaning cello and breathless flute. I shrug out of the embroidered jacket to better feel the warm air. I’m fed up with trying to figure things out, reaching for memories, wrestling with nameless fears.
On a whim, I reach under the table and wriggle my hips, sliding my panties off. I straighten up, panties dangling from one finger. Arching my eyebrows at John, I drop them in my purse.
John growls low in his throat and slides closer. “Oh yes, you are definitely ready.”
I lean against him, letting his breath tickle my ear. I want to let him rip the rest of these ridiculous clothes off of me. So what if I can’t remember, or even imagine, having sex with him? I’ll discover it as we go.
“I’ve heard the stories about the sixth, but nothing could have prepared me for this. I’ve been waiting so long.” His voice vibrates against my ear, sending waves of pleasure through my body.
I don’t know what he means by ‘stories of the sixth.’ I assume it’s a reference to something from our old life. It doesn’t matter. John flips around so he’s on top of me, pushes me back against the plush bench and slides his hand up my thigh.
I expect to come the instant he touches me. It’s been so long. My body’s vibrating like tuning fork. Instead, I feel nauseated. A musty, insectile odor, like a cockroach-infested room, engulfs the alcove. Somewhere close by, a man yells, “He’s a liar!”
Startled, I scoot backwards. John keeps pace, leaning into me fiercely, his fingers probing. I clamp my legs together.
“You have to leave, right now,” another man’s voice barks.
“No, no, no! They told me to come here.”
I hear the sounds of a scuffle outside our alcove.
John seems not to hear or care. He unzips his pants with one hand, and tries to pry apart my legs with the other hand.
“Wait!” I shove John’s chest.
Bodies bulge into the curtain that separates our alcove from the main room.
“What the hell is going on?” John stands and zips his pants, as I scramble to cover myself.
“I’m so very sorry to disturb you, Dr. Strong.” The maitre’d bows so low he’s practically kneeling. Behind him, two cooks dressed in white hold a man by the arms. I glimpse ragged, mud-colored clothes and an orange-red scarf, flickering like a flame, as they hustle him away.
“Too late now!” the man yells, gleefully
“I don’t know how he got in here, we always have security at the front, and this is very good neighborhood, as you know,” the maître-d babbles. “Nothing like this has ever happened on my watch. Please accept your dinner complements of the house, Dr. Strong. Is there anything else we can bring you?”
“No!” John roars. I barely have time to collect my purse and jacket as he grabs me by the arm and hustles us out of there. On the way to the door, John issues a series of criticisms, dissecting the cringing maitre’d with surgical precision, and promising that Chatworth’s will be closed within a month.
On the way to the car, John keeps me tightly under his arm, as if we’re in a war zone instead of the West End.
“John, you’re hurting me.”
“Sorry darling.” But he doesn’t sound sorry, nor does he loosen his grip until he deposits me in the passenger seat.
As I watch John sprint around to the driver’s side, I take a shaky breath. I feel sober, now, but disoriented. It’s like waking up from one of those dreams where you’re in a familiar place, but everything is subtly different—the layout of the city, the faces of your loved ones.
“I think that man was mentally ill,” I say, calmly, as John starts the car. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to—”
“If I see him, I’ll kill him.” John presses hard on the gas pedal, squealing out of the parking lot and revving the Boxter through a yellow light.
“Please, slow down.”
John doesn’t seem to hear me. I’m acutely aware that I’m not wearing my underwear, and it makes me feel vulnerable and out of control.
He’s a liar! The man’s voice bounces through me on white-hot springs.
The incident had nothing to do with John and me, of course, any more than Kitty’s delusion made my father a demon. Still, I feel panicked. Trapped. Maybe crazy is contagious. Had I infected the man in the restaurant? Had he infected John? My hand fumbles with the door handle.
“What are you doing?” John snaps.
“You’re scaring me!” I swing the door open and John slams on the brakes.
“I’ll walk home from here.” I start to get out of the car.
“Lacy, wait.” John grabs my shoulder. “I’ll slow down. Please, get back in.”
I sit with my feet out the door. The dense night swirls overhead, like something alive. I want to leave, but his hand holds me there, draining my resolve. I have to play the part. Lacy Strong, the Understanding Wife.
As I pull my legs back inside, the reasonable half of me says, Of course you should ride home with him. He’s calm now, no danger. Plus, your not wearing underpants. The other half of me careens and flails, as if we’re on the way to an execution. Jump. Run. The words crash into my brain and tangle over themselves. Jumprunrunjumprumpjunrunjump.
WE ENTER THE house in silence. John locks the door behind us, then pulls me to him, squeezes my ass and growls, “Now, where were we?”
“I’m sorry, I’m trying to get back in the mood.”
“You were plenty ready a few minutes ago.”
“Well, we went from the verge of making love, to having some mentally ill person fall into our booth, to speeding down Grove at seventy miles an hour, for starters.”
John scrutinizes me. “Did you take your medication tonight?”
“I took it before we left.” I brush past him toward the kitchen.
“Where are you going?”
John follows me into the kitchen and leans against the counter, watching as I take a glass from the cabinet and fill it with water.
“Do you want some?”
He makes a face. “Never touch the stuff.”
I shrug, gulp down half the glass, and then top it off.
“Do you know how beautiful you are?”
“Thank you,” I say, automatically. I sip my water, trying to figure out how to make a graceful exit. “I feel bad that tonight turned out the way it did, but I’m exhausted. I probably shouldn’t have had that wine, either. I really need to sleep.”
The hard angles of rage fragment John’s face, and then evaporate into regret. He
takes my hand. “I’m sorry if my driving upset you. I’m more sorry that worthless scumbag was allowed to interrupt our reunion. It was my fault for choosing that restaurant.”
“What?” I protest. “It’s not your fault.”
“It is,” John says, mournfully. “I should have known they were unreliable.” He draws me, gently, into his arms. “I’ll never forgive myself if this night is ruined. Please, give me another chance. Please, Lacy, most exquisite, most brilliant, beautiful, beloved girl.” His breath tickles my neck.
“Okay, okay.” I say, charmed me, in spite of myself.
“Take this.” John presses a pill into my right hand—my antidepressant.
“I told you, I already took it.”
“I know. But you had a stressful night. This will help you relax.”
“No, that’s okay. I don’t need it.”
John holds my head in his hands and gazes at me intently. “Lacy, I know you, better than you know yourself. I can tell you aren’t completely with me yet. You need to take the pill. This is our chance to have everything we’ve dreamed of.”
I stand as still as a word in a book. “How … how do you know it will work?” I’m stalling for time, my brain tripping over the folds of the evening’s events.
“Of course the pill will work, darling. Why wouldn’t it?”
“Not … not the pill, I mean, getting pregnant. You said we tried a lot of times and—”
John wraps his arms tightly around me. “The time wasn’t right yet, but I didn’t know it.” His voice shines with wonder. “Now is the time. I can tell by your smell. You’ve never been this fertile. You’re the most sublime, intoxicating, perfect flower….” John goes on inhaling me, murmuring blandishments as if in a trance.
I stand in a stupor of my own. John’s extravagant compliments no longer strike me as playful or charming. For the first time, I understand why I might have feared getting pregnant, why I might have painted the abomination. It isn’t a fertility fetish; it’s a warning—from me to me.