Excerpt from The Adventures of Miss Vulpe
By Maria Elena Sandovici
I didn’t want to go to Louise’s party. But in the end I couldn’t stay away. And when I saw her I was glad to be there. She opened the door and smiled, not in surprise, but in acknowledgement that naturally, if she invited me, I’d come. She stood before me in her gold dress, almost a private joke between us, or maybe her way of making a point that she’d won an argument of sorts. She’d won more than that, in fact, she’d won a battle I didn’t want to see her lose. I was happy to see her like this, her cheeks slightly flushed, her glow restored. She was radiant again, the golden girl of days gone by, and as she grabbed my hand and led me into the room to introduce me I was mesmerized by her ability to rise from her own ashes like a phoenix. The rooms were lit by candles, jazz music was playing on an actual turntable, and the house seemed full of people, of champagne bottles, and of vintage ashtrays filled to the brims. All the windows were open, the curtains blowing in the linden-scented breeze of late spring in Bucharest, dancing dangerously close to the candles, and everything had an air of magic and mystery. I had no idea who most of the people were, or where she’d collected them from. It was one of her talents, wilting then re-blooming, dropping away from the world, then reigniting her social life out of nothing. The only one I recognized was her dentist – Louise had constant trouble with her teeth, and the man was an eminence of sorts to whom the old dragon paid a small fortune. He was supposed to be in high demand. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that Louise had met all the others in his waiting room, a place where even people with connections were reduced to spending hours.
I didn’t like this crowd, but I didn’t care. I didn’t like her portrait on the wall, something one of the guests, a pretentious fellow with an obvious drinking problem, had painted. I didn’t like that she hesitated in introducing me.
“This is Richard, my…” My what, Louise? My lover? “My husband’s friend, I mean my ex-husband’s friend.” I let it slide. In the end, I was grateful he wasn’t there, the current husband. By the look of things he’d been gone a long time, and I was hoping he’d stay gone forever. “Richard often comes by to see my girls,” she lied to no-one in particular as nobody was listening at this point. They were all drinking heavily. I also doubted they knew her well enough to know how many husbands or children she’d had. They were all blissfully unaware of the girls sleeping upstairs. I was sure the old dragon was of the school of thought that children should be seen and not heard, but the thing about Louise’s children was that one never got to see them either. It was as if they inhabited a parallel universe, and I knew more about them from Rogers then I ever did from visiting their mother.
I tried to put that out of my mind. I didn’t like the party, but I liked watching her. She was so in her element. She was putting on a show for her own amusement, and everything and everybody was part of it, from these people who barely knew her to the portrait on the wall that didn’t really look like her but that validated the role she chose to play that night. I knew this Louise. She was the lady of the manor, the centerpiece in a tableau vivant she had created for her own artistic satisfaction, like a director casting us all in a scene from a movie. I liked this side of her, the energy she put into weaving together elaborate fantasies to entertain herself.
She saw me watching her and she smiled. She looked pleased with how the evening was turning out, pleased with her own reflection in the mirror hanging above the improvised bar on top of the credenza. Maybe she wore the dress not so much as a symbol, but because it matched the sparkle of champagne in the glasses, and champagne seemed to be the theme of the evening. Somebody must have bribed the old dragon with several cases full of it, and Louise must have decided it needed to be consumed right away.
When people started leaving, she started making eye contact with me from across the room. I decided I’d talk her into coming back to my place. There wasn’t any way I’d spend the night here on the old dragon’s domain, and if Louise thought that was kinky in a fun way, I’d have to talk her out of it, which would be hard. But then I heard a key in the door, and Petrescu walked in. He looked like shit, pale and skinny and like he hadn’t showered or slept in a while. Louise’s face registered a look of surprise first. But then she flew to him. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. The two other couples that were still there looked at him, and I wondered if these people even knew who he was.
“A party,” he said, “it’s nice to come home and find a party. But I have urgent business with my wife.”
The women in the room laughed, and one shoved her husband.
“Why can’t you be more like that? See, that’s hot!”
“Excuse us,” Louise said. “Please stay, we won’t be a minute.”
Among her guests, I was the only one who wanted to leave. The wife who’d misinterpreted Petrescu’s intentions with Louise was now busy using what she’d thought she’d seen to add passion to her own marriage, so she’d climbed onto her husband’s lap and was kissing him. The other couple were draining all the champagne bottles strewn across the room.
I pulled out my phone and called myself a cab. The only good thing about Louise’s guests was that they were drunk enough to be oblivious to anything that didn’t concern them. No one would notice my departure.
“Two minutes,” the dispatch said.
I got up and stepped into the hallway. I heard Louise’s heels clicking on the linoleum, saw her gold dress shimmering in the dark. She was coming from the kitchen.
“Richard,” she said. “Don’t leave.”
She followed me outside.
“I’ll only be a minute,” she said, as if I were an unreasonable child clinging to her skirts when she needed to go use the bathroom.