Last night I dreamt I was committing adultery again.
I stood in church next to my husband, singing the hymn, proper and clean in my charcoal wool skirt and white silk blouse. The light slanted as it does in dreams. Then I looked over and saw the horror on the priest’s face. He was looking toward the back of the church. I followed his gaze, and saw Timothy standing there in a pool of light. I lost my hold on the hymnal.
It came to me then, as it does to dreamers, that I had somehow forgotten to tell Timothy that it was over between us. I had never broken it off, had never confessed to my husband, had never been forgiven and begun the hard work of healing. I stood, frozen in terror, as my husband turned to me, a question in his eyes. Timothy only waited, terrible evidence of my betrayal. The organ went on playing Great is Thy Faithfulness. The red hymnal hit the floor.
I woke up, full of a cold horror, and stared into the darkness. Because of course it wasn’t just a dream. Oh, certainly, my affair with Timothy was all over, and had been for nearly a year. I never was the kind of woman to have an affair, and Timothy was an aberration in a calm and pleasant life. I was back with my husband, safe as houses.
But here I was, starting the whole mess of adultery all over again. And this time it was far worse than the first. This time I was in love.
Damn Rebecca, I thought, turning my pillow to try to find a cool spot. Damn Rebecca.
Rebecca introduced me to Timothy a year ago at a concert. The symphony orchestra was playing Mahler. I was late for the performance after yet another argument with my husband, sneaking in alone and ducking my head apologetically at those listeners who turned to glare at me. I saw Rebecca’s red-gold head gleam in the light from the stage as she turned curiously to see what the disturbance was. Then she leaned over to her partner and whispered something in his ear.
At the intermission, I was rummaging in my purse for a cough drop when I noticed someone standing next to my seat. I looked up to discover Rebecca and her friend. I scrambled hastily to my feet, dropping my belongings in the process.
Rebecca, my husband’s first wife, is not the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is, however, the only woman I have ever met who infallibly wears the right thing for every occasion. She is a small woman who moves with economy, yet she attracts every eye. Her sleek red-gold hair, pixie-cut, frames green eyes and a light dusting of freckles. Her spine is straight, her waist narrow, her legs shapely. She is…
Well. Perhaps she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. And there she stood, next to my seat, in a maroon velvet dress that should have clashed horribly with her hair, and didn’t.
“Hello, Rebecca,” I said, aware as usual that I was a gangling eight inches taller than she was.
“Hi, honey,” she said, in her soft southern accent, looking amused. “I want you to meet someone interesting for a change. Tim, meet the old friend I was telling you about.”
I raised my eyes to the spectacular young man on Rebecca’s arm. She usually had some protégé or other, always brilliant, always young—well, really they were my age, but they always seemed young—and always handsome. This was apparently the latest catch.
“Pleased to meet you, Tim,” I said.
“Timothy Denison,” he said, taking my hand in his own large, warm one. “When Rebecca told me there was another architect in the house—and which one it was—I was thrilled. I’ve done a little of that myself, you know.”
This was Timothy Denison? Who created the plans for the city Opera House, the one people were still fighting over? And practically no one knew yet that he’d taken over the plans for the high-rise CenterEdit news station building downtown. I had a love-hate relationship with his work.
I glanced over at Rebecca. She was standing with her arms folded and her sleek head on one side, watching us.
Looking back, with peculiarly clear insomniac’s hindsight, I ought to have known the trouble I was in, even then. She’s famous for it, setting people up, watching the sparks fly. I should have taken my hand from Timothy’s, and run. But the tickle of dread at the back of my mind was not strong enough, my instincts for danger still undeveloped. It would have been rude to leave—the act of a child. Besides, I wanted to hear the rest of the program. So I ignored my misgivings, looked into his blue eyes, and began to make conversation.
Timothy was singularly good at conversation. You might object to his architecture, but there was nothing wrong with his charm. When the lights flicked on and off to signal the end of the intermission, I was feeling as warm and appreciated as if I’d spent that quarter of an hour drinking good bourbon. Timothy, too, was expansive, moving his hands as he talked, his white teeth flashing. I was making some important point, leaning in toward him, my hand on his arm, when Rebecca smiled a small, catlike smile.
“We’d better get back to our seats,” she said to me. “Where’s Max-the-husband tonight, honey?”
One silent, uncomfortable moment passed. I took my hand off Timothy’s arm, aware of the gleam of my wedding band in the dim light of the concert hall. Then I laughed, an awkward, unconvincing laugh, glancing at him out of the corner of my eye.
“Maxim’s at home. He can’t stand Mahler. Says it makes him want to do himself in.”
“Hmmm,” said Rebecca, and moved off toward her seat. Timothy looked at me for a moment, and then followed her. Was he puzzled? Angry? What must he think of me? I could have kicked myself. Instead, I sat and listened to Mahler, and then I went home, dissatisfied with the performance, and Rebecca, and Maxim, and most of all with myself.
Home. The house was the only thing Maxim had managed to retain in the bitter divorce battle between him and Rebecca. He lost his money, his possessions, and his peace of mind, but he kept Rosewood. It sat on the crest of a hill overlooking the city, a Tuesday’s child of a house, full of grace. Once, during the Civil War, it had been a hospital. I could scarcely imagine that house, with its long, cool hallways and its high, beautiful ceilings, full of the naked and the dying and the dead. Even Rebecca, the interior designer, had known better than to touch it or change it in any way. She had left it as it was, a lovely empty living thing like the hollow of a hand, and it had loved her in return.
I let myself in and stood with my back against the door for a moment, letting the house accustom itself to my presence. I never felt quite welcome, somehow, in the first moments of my arrival. I grew up in tract houses, wall-to-wall carpeting, plywood—nothing like this. I was not the sort of person houses loved. Nothing like Rebecca.
As I stood at the doorway, I half-expected someone spectral to walk out of the dark hallway to greet me, but of course no one—nothing—did. I walked into the library. A reading lamp in the corner threw a dim light.
“I’m here,” he said, and leaned forward from his chair, looking at me over his reading glasses. “Did you enjoy the Master of Gloom?”
I felt a sudden surge of affection for him. What, after all, did Timothy Denison have to offer? I met Maxim when he was bled white from divorce and rubbed raw from publicity. There was no reason he should have been attracted to an architect half his age and at the beginning of her career, but he said he found me charming, refreshing, quite the opposite of his ex-wife. She’s nothing like Rebecca, everyone said. Nothing at all like Rebecca.
And I had never imagined that I could be so much in love. Maxim de Winter was so much more intelligent, so much more informed and well-read than the average young men I met. He swept me away with his knowledge of the world. And if I sometimes wished, a year later, that I was more Maxim’s wife and less the shadow of Rebecca—well, it would come right in time. It would.
I walked quickly over to Maxim’s chair and ruffled his hair lightly. He smoothed it back down and looked up at me.
“I had a great time,” I said. “Gloom there was none. Mahler is wonderful stuff, and one of these days you will be my convert, sitting next to me and applauding so loudly they will have to ask you to leave.”
He snorted, stood up, stretched, and kissed me on the forehead.
“Time for bed, my foolish optimist,” he said. And my husband and I went upstairs together through the shadows of Rosewood, arm in arm.
The next day, at the office, I was pouring cream into my coffee when the telephone rang on my desk. I jumped, startled, and spilled cream onto the ordered pile of papers sitting next to my cup.
“Shoot,” I said, and, reaching for a napkin, I picked up the phone.
“Mrs. de Winter?” said an impersonal voice.
“I’m sorry,” I said, dabbing frantically at my papers. Maybe only the top one would have to be reprinted. “You have the wrong number. Mrs. de Winter doesn’t work here, she works at…” Suddenly I broke off, appalled. I’d been married a year. How on earth could I have made such a gawky mistake?
“Mrs. D., it’s Donovan.” Donovan, the firm’s secretary, his voice full of unconcealed glee. “Timothy Denison is on line 2.” What does Denison want with you? Atypically for Donovan, he didn’t actually voice the question. He must have been busy storing up my mistake for future delectation.
“Thanks, Donovan,” I said, feigning nonchalance, and I pushed line 2 with a trembling finger.
Timothy was as charming as he’d been the night before. So sorry to bother me—he’d never had such an engaging intermission—he wanted to continue the conversation. Lunch? Was I free? Today? Wonderful! He wouldn’t keep me, was sure I was twice as busy as he was himself—and he hung up.
I suspected that my socks were being deliberately charmed off. I waved it away. But despite my lingering anxiety about the results of my stupid gaffe on the phone with Donovan—whispers in the hallways, barely 25, ridiculous, nothing like Rebecca—I was smiling as I went back to work.
I arrived early to lunch, but not before Timothy. He was already at a table and waiting for me, playing with his fork and glancing around the room. When he saw me, he got quickly to his feet.
“Just the gorgeous architect I’ve been waiting days to see,” he said, grinning. People looked around, their mouths full.
“That would be you,” I said, primly. “Now sit down, for heaven’s sake, and order something.” The waitress was standing next to us, looking hopefully at Timothy’s spectacularly dimpled chin.
“Let’s have a bottle of wine,” he said. “I already know what I want. You look at the menu and I’ll look at you, how about that?”
Lunch lasted and lasted. At first I wondered if there would be any lingering awkwardness from the other evening, when I ought to have announced my married state, and had not done so. But there wasn’t any awkwardness at all. Timothy asked interested questions and then leaned forward slightly for the answers, watching my eyes, waiting for each word. After the first few minutes, I was so flattered I couldn’t even remember to be wary.
We ate, and drank, and talked. I told him about how I came to be an architect, of course, and about my ideas for the future of our firm. He nodded, apparently totally fascinated, making mental memoranda. Then, as the afternoon went on, and I abandoned thoughts of getting back to the office, I told him shyly about my childhood: my mother’s death, my father’s careful care and education of me, and his long illness that had left me on the bottom rung of his old business. Timothy nodded, full of sympathy but not pity.
“So that’s how you got to be this way,” he said, watching my face and smiling a little. I felt that this famous architect had never met such an interesting woman. Maybe not even Rebecca, my mind whispered, and then hushed itself.
Timothy reached across the table and took my hand. I remember that moment perhaps more clearly than any other of all that afternoon. With the ball of his thumb, he stroked the backs of my fingers, circling each knuckle and slipping his thumb between my fingers to touch the tender web of skin. I stopped speaking. My voice would have trembled far too much. I noticed that his fingernails were neatly trimmed. I suddenly, helplessly wondered whether he had trimmed them that morning, whether he was thinking as he did so of slipping his fingers into my slick heat. I flushed to the collarbone.
“After hearing what you had to say about the CenterEdit building, I have some things I’d really like your opinion on,” said Timothy. He looked a little rueful. “My apartment looks like a bomb went off in it, but I wonder if you’d like to come and see some of my plans.”
All my awareness was centered in my fingers. Timothy was still caressing them gently.
“Yes, please,” I said. My voice seemed far away, but it was steady enough. “I’d like that.”
The quiet ride in the elevator allowed my rioting blood to cool slightly, and when we arrived at Timothy’s apartment, I noticed—quite calmly, or so I thought—that if a bomb had gone off there, it must have been carefully targeted. His place was meticulously clean in a Danish Modern way, except for the piles of papers on the large glass coffee table. I went over toward the table, thinking that the papers must be what he wanted me to see, but as I leaned forward, I felt his gentle hands on my hips, holding me firmly.
I think back on this, and I want to say, There. That was the moment of decision, that was when I could no longer go back, that was when it was taken out of my hands. But there are so many moments of decision, and they flow one after another, and nothing is ever truly out of our hands.
I can clearly remember what I did and what I thought. This is Rebecca’s lover, I thought, and he wants me. I straightened my spine, placed my hands flat over Timothy’s, and stepped back against his body. I could feel his hardness pressed against me. I could feel his heartbeat against my back. I stood for a moment, breathing the unfamiliar scents of a new apartment, a new male body. He didn’t say a word. Perhaps he didn’t want to frighten me. Didn’t he know that I was pinned like a butterfly in a trophy case, hungry beyond the possibility of being frightened?
Slowly, I took his hands and moved them up, flat over my body, creasing my blouse, over my ribs, crossing my belly, until they reached my breasts. I heard him exhale then, a soft warm breath in my ear, and he kissed my neck softly. My nipples rose, and he tapped them with his fingertips, a slow tattoo.
I didn’t want to have to say or do anything more. I wanted him to know what I wanted. I wanted him to murmur, You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Rebecca is nothing like you, as he gazed in awe at my body. I might have come from that alone.
It was good even though it wasn’t like that. Timothy turned me around and kissed me, rapidly unbuttoning my blouse. His hunger was almost as good as the words would have been, with the lithe, warm weight of his body on mine. He expertly unbuttoned my skirt and discarded it. His hand, the hand that had touched Rebecca, slipped between my thighs. His fingers curled under the fabric of my panties. I know he found me wet. He bit my lower lip and kissed me again to soothe the bitten spot, his fingers moving on my hot wet skin.
And my hands were moving, too, fumbling and plucking at buttons and closures. At last my palms were on his flat, warm stomach. I found one of his nipples and rubbed gently, and he made a small noise of pleasure. After a moment, impatient of constraint, he pushed me away a little and pulled his shirt off over his head.
I stood and gaped for a moment before I realized what I was doing. He was just so beautiful naked. I suddenly felt awkward and self-conscious. But the moment didn’t last long. Timothy must have had experience with the effect he had on women like me. He gathered me to him, electric touch of skin on skin, and kissed me down onto the beige carpet.
He was a good lover, was Timothy Tim. He was expert at pacing and control. I lay in that pin-neat Danish Modern apartment with his lovely cock slipping in and out of me, and I saw him watch my face, and when I came underneath him, came with him shaking my hips back and forth, left and right, he grinned in pure satisfaction just before he came himself. I kissed his warm shoulder and felt a thin, hard, pale-blue carapace of guilt form around me.
I had to return to the office that evening to collect my things. It may have been my father’s company once, but I was still not permitted five-hour lunches, and I sneaked off the elevator and down the empty hallway as if I had committed a crime. And, in a way, I had.
I gathered up my papers, checked my messages, and made sure nothing urgent was waiting for me. I riffled through the pink slips of paper. Maxim hadn’t called. I was safe. Just as I was about to leave, I turned my head for one last check, and I saw Donovan. There he sat, looking at me from his desk, a little knowing smile on his face. He looked as if he knew everything I’d done, all afternoon, from my appetizer to my hurried goodbyes at Timothy’s apartment door.
I heard the soft ding of the elevator down the hall. I ran.
Dinner that evening with Maxim was interminable. I had no appetite, and I toyed with my food until he commented on it, when I forced myself to take several large bites. I felt my guilt must be written on my face as a banner headline: Young Architect Betrays Husband! “Max Never Learns,” Leers Adulteress.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked Maxim irritably. The answer that passed half-formed through my mind was insane. I was not afraid that Maxim would find out about Timothy, or that he would see that pale blue shell of guilt I wore. I was nervous because Rosewood, with its cool breath on my face, already knew.
Maxim surveyed me casually from his seat. “You’re jumpy as a cat tonight.”
“And you don’t even like cats,” I said, trying to smile. “It’s nothing, really, Maxim. Just pressure at work. Tell me what you’ve been doing today.”
To my surprise, he shifted uncomfortably. “Actually, I may be a little high-strung myself tonight,” he admitted. “I ran into that damned woman.” I knew he meant Rebecca. He almost never called her by name.
“You did? Where?”
“At the Arena Stage benefit. I had no idea she was going to be there, or I’d have sent my regrets and a check.”
Was that a false note in his voice? Was it possible for him not to know that she would be there? I had forgotten all about my own betrayal. My mind was filled with an image of that sleek red-gold head, the dimpled smile, the pale slender legs. Of Timothy, kneeling between those legs. Of Maxim, who had been there before him. No, I thought bitterly. I am nothing like Rebecca. No one is anything like Rebecca.
But Maxim was saying something. I dragged my attention back to him. He was red with anger or embarrassment, or some other unaccustomed strong emotion.
“…venomous bitch,” he said. “Filthy woman actually dared to suggest that you were out dallying with another architect, some protégé of hers. ‘Buffing his hardwoods,’ in fact, was the vulgar term she used.”
I started horribly, so shocked that my face went numb.
“Of course I didn’t listen to a damned word of it,” said Maxim moodily, prodding his steak. “But her laugh is still lingering in my ears. I’m sorry, darling.”
Then he looked up and saw my face.
His head rocked back as if he’d been slapped. I watched, my own lips cold and numb, as all the color drained from his face. Surely, surely, I thought, no one can be so white and stay conscious. Surely he will faint.
Instead of fainting, he smiled. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen, twisted and rueful.
“Ah, yes,” he said, and his voice was not his at all. “I should have remembered that Rebecca never tells a lie if the truth will hurt more.”
Then I was on my knees beside him, carapace shattered, saying how sorry I was, how sorry, sorry, sorry, I didn’t know why I’d done it, I’d never do it again, never, never. He bent his head.
“No, really, of course I can understand,” he murmured. “Of course, of course. A beautiful young woman like you, married to an old man like me.”
“No!” I cried. If he’d been angry, I might have resisted or become sullen. But at his resignation, my tears started in earnest. “No, that’s not it at all. I don’t really know how it happened…” and I found myself telling him the story, the way wives do, trying to exculpate themselves, trying to make it all look a little cleaner.
He said only one thing more that meant anything, that evening, and it wasn’t meant for me to hear. I finished explaining, the tears running down my face. He looked at me thoughtfully.
“Rebecca…” he said, in a whisper. Then he nodded, and he said that he understood, and forgave me. But I felt Rosewood exhale around us, and I knew I had changed our marriage in some essential way. It was at that moment that I began to hate Rebecca. I had always felt powerless before her. Her sophistication, her beauty, her wit, her experience, and her wealth placed her above me in every respect. She had already owned and discarded everything I had ever wanted. But this choice she had forced me to make, and her subsequent betrayal of Timothy, of me, of Maxim, changed everything. There was a low blue flicker around the edges at first, as if someone had struck a match to paper, and then the eager licking and licking of flame, hatred growing to fill my mind. It was a comfort to give in to it at last.
If you have never cheated on your wife or husband, or if you’ve never been caught doing it, then you can have no idea what the next weeks and months were like for me. The only possible refuges for the adulterer are abject apology and unceasing, unending promises never, never, never to do it again.
Of course, such apology is no real help to a broken heart, and such promises are meaningless when you haven’t yet had time to prove that you are serious about them, but the words themselves are a kind of glue that holds the relationship together until the months and years do their job of reconstruction. So I talked and talked about how sorry I was, and about how I’d never, never, never do it again, and Maxim listened, and touched my hair occasionally. It helped a little.
But for me, the talking and apologizing and promising served only one real function. As I put my head in Maxim’s lap, and brought him coffee, and called him from work to prove that I was not out at long fuck-lunches with spectacular young architects, I was building my plan of revenge on Rebecca. She had broken Maxim’s heart once through their divorce. She would not leave him alone now, through me. She had ruined my marriage, my love, and my life. Well, Rebecca—sleek, gold, pale, honey-tongued—would find that she had underestimated me. I would teach her not to do that again.
Wild plans flitted through my head at first, I admit. I thought of killing her: shooting, stabbing, poisoning. I thought of disfigurement of her lovely face and perfect body, of acid and “accidents” and wheelchairs. But these were just crazy ideas. Someone like me could never get away with that. I am nothing like Rebecca, I reminded myself sardonically, as the months went by. Nothing like so bold as Rebecca. Scale back your expectations to avoid disappointments.
So I decided to steal her husband.
Harry was old money even in a state overflowing with old money. His family was related to Henry James, the novelist, but they never said a word about it, and you couldn’t even find The Turn of the Screw on their bookshelves—too much like showing off. They preferred to take him out of the public library, I suppose, and send him back when they were through. Harry had the pale skin and high color of a Scotsman, and under Rebecca’s ruthless hand he gave the largest parties our city had ever seen.
And I was going to take him from Rebecca.
I had seen her with all her spectacular protégés, version after version of Timothy Denison, and I wasn’t sure how much she was really attached to her husband. But I knew that she would never willingly part with something she regarded as belonging to her. Even Maxim was marked with her red-gold chain of ownership, and she hated seeing him with me. How much more so with her own husband, the party-loving Harry James? I knew the power of an attentive young woman over a neglected older man. If I could attract Timothy, even for a day, then I could surely catch Harry.
“Harry is a gentleman,” Maxim said to me as we were preparing for their famous midsummer party. This was an uncharacteristic pronouncement for him. He isn’t given to saying things like that about people.
“Poor Harry, then,” I said, with some asperity, struggling with the collar of my dress. “Would you mind zipping me up?”
“Just because he isn’t married to a lady doesn’t mean he isn’t a gentleman,” said Maxim, zipping the mandarin collar of my dress. “There. You look wonderful. I’ll wait downstairs for you while you finish getting ready.” And he bent and softly kissed the nape of my neck, then moved downstairs, all power and studied grace.
It was the first spontaneously affectionate gesture he had made in nearly a year, since the night he found out about my betrayal. I felt for one moment almost as if he had forgotten, or as if nothing had ever happened, as if the whole mess, blessedly, had only been a long fever dream. I stood looking into the mirror. I was wearing a long red silk dress that clung to my body, the high collar contradicting the language of the deep slit up the side of the skirt. My dark hair was arranged in a soft, heavy mass at the back of my head, and my gold jewelry hung about me richly. I was ready to seduce Harry James, the gentleman, away from Rebecca, the witch, the vixen, the woman I wanted to be.
But did I really want to do it? Maxim’s kiss had touched me deeply, and for a moment I wavered. Here again was a moment of decision, when I could have called down to Maxim and claimed illness or fatigue. I need never have gone to that party. I could have been myself again, his young wife, happy and awkward and a refreshing change from his first one. He would have accepted that, and at that moment, I might have, too. But then I remembered Maxim’s white face and his twisted smile when he saw that I had slept with someone else. When he saw what Rebecca had done.
I reached for my reddest lipstick, and I leaned forward to apply it. My hand was perfectly steady.
The party was already in full swing and threatening to spill onto the lawn when we arrived. It was hotter inside than it was out, the air conditioning failing to make an impression on all those bodies. Waiters were everywhere, offering drinks and little savory things on toast. I lost Maxim in the crowd almost as soon as we came in the door.
I didn’t care. How could I ever have felt awkward and ill at ease with these people? How could I have spent so much time wondering what they thought of me?
“My dear, you look wonderful tonight,” called a man I vaguely recognized. A friend of Maxim’s? Of my father’s? I waved at him, smiled at his wife, and walked on. I moved from room to room, sipping my drink, as cool as if it were midwinter. I smiled at people but ignored attempts at conversation. I was looking for my host and hostess, prey and predator.
I could hardly imagine a party like this in the high, cool halls of Rosewood. The house seemed endless, room after hot room packed with people. The conversation was loud enough to drown the music, and the noise was a high buzz in my head. I began to wonder if my earlier confidence had been foolish. Would I ever find Harry in this mob? Was I traveling in circles? Every door was open, but none revealed the distinguished grey head I was looking for. I wouldn’t ask. I knew no one. I had another drink.
One thing I was grateful for, even in the noise and heat. Timothy Denison was nowhere in evidence. Rebecca must have moved on.
I found the only closed door in the house by accident. I was standing on the upstairs balcony with my back against a wall, coming slowly to believe that our hosts had set the party in motion and then taken a plane to Bali, when I heard muffled voices coming from behind me. I hadn’t heard a single muffled voice all evening—only loud, raucous voices raised in laughter or argument or a struggle for preeminence. I was thinking about this when a door opened immediately behind me. I was face to face with Harry James.
“Well, hello there,” he said. He recognized me at once; old money always will. “How are you? I’m so glad you could make it. Having a nice time?”
“Yes, thank you so much for having us,” I said. Damn! My manners again. That was a six-year-old’s reply, not a sexy woman’s.
“How’s Max?” he asked, then added automatically, glancing away, “the lucky dog.”
This was not at all how the conversation was supposed to begin. I cast desperately about in my mind for a flattering and seductive way to say, My husband is fine, thank you, but couldn’t come up with one. It didn’t matter anyway. Harry was looking down the hallway toward the stairs, smiling at someone else, apologetically squeezing past me. My great plan of revenge was ludicrously over before it had begun.
I couldn’t bear it. My hand shot out and I took him by the wrist. He looked at my hand, then, kindly, at my face. My face, which was nothing like Rebecca’s.
“Yes, my dear?” he said.
I meant to kiss him, or to whisper something in his ear, or at the very least to smile seductively. Some token left on the board, something to say that I had not been utterly defeated. But just then I looked down from the balcony and saw Maxim. His upturned face was smiling, and he waved at me. I lifted a hand like lead and waved back.
“There’s Maxim,” I said. Harry James looked around, and then waved enthusiastically at my husband.
“I’ll go down and say hello, if I can find him in this mess,” he said. “I’ll see you later, my dear.” And he was gone.
I stood, blind with failure. I could feel the ignominious tears beginning to prick at the back of my eyes. I had to go somewhere. I could not, could not allow this to happen here and now. I groped along the wall, and my hand found the doorknob. A moment later, unthinking, unseeing, I had shut the crowds away. I was safe as houses.
And just as I was about to let myself dissolve into tears, I heard someone clear her throat. I turned around so fast that I heard a soft purring sound as the seam of my skirt tore at my thigh.
Rebecca. Why hadn’t I guessed?
The room was small and intimate. On the delicate furniture, here and there, stood vases of rich rhododendrons the color of blood. There, in a sleeveless black dress, her arms casually stretched along the top of the white sofa, sat the woman who had possessed and discarded everything I wanted. She had destroyed it, and tossed it aside. I hated her. I blamed her for my unwelcoming house, which loved her best. I blamed her for my distant husband, who had been hollowed out like the shell of an egg by his marriage to her. And perhaps most of all—perhaps most unjustly—I blamed her for the whispering voice I heard, day and night, that always said the same thing: nothing like Rebecca, you are nothing like Rebecca. I didn’t want to be like Rebecca. I wanted something impossible, instead. I wanted to be Rebecca, herself, the woman I hated: all the things she had and was.
I stood without saying a word, pale as death in my torn silk dress, Cinderella with the laughter of the stepsisters ringing in her ears.
Suddenly, Rebecca stood up. She walked swiftly to the fireplace and back, her dress flapping at her ankles. I realized dimly that she looked nervous. Rebecca, nervous? She looked around the room—there were no cigarettes, no matches, not in a room so delicate as this—and let out an exasperated little sigh. Finally, she came to stand before me, eight inches shorter than I, sleek and perfect.
Or… perfect? Standing so near, I could see the lines at the corners of her eyes. She looked tired, and startlingly human. Was this really the Rebecca I had dreamed of poisoning, of revenging myself upon, of vanquishing?
“For the longest time, I couldn’t believe he divorced me and then married you,” she said. Her voice should have been bitter, but her soft accent robbed the words of the sting that lurked there. “Old Max-the-husband. I should have known he was never married to me in the first place. He never loved me. Or you, either. He was really only married to his house all along. Don’t you think so, honey?”
I listened carefully for the current under the venom. Careful, careful, I thought. Hear what she’s really saying. And I heard Rebecca concede defeat. I clenched my fists in hot triumph, the hatred licking and licking and licking away inside me.
But she was still speaking. There was something else in her face, in her voice, something I’d never seen before.
“Oh, honey,” she said, her eyes on the rise and fall of my breasts. “Why did you have to be so completely glorious?”
This is it, I thought, with a sudden spurt of glee. Why didn’t I think of it before? This is ten times better than Timothy. If she desires me, I have what I need.
While she was still speaking, I slipped my fingers into her sleek charioteer’s head of red-gold hair, tilted her mouth up to mine, and kissed her. I kissed the mouth that had kissed every lover I had ever known. I kissed the woman whose life I wanted, and I felt the eager licking of flame inside me turn into a roaring, consuming fire.
Rebecca had stopped talking, and her mouth was soft and sweet and surprised under mine, like the mouth of a young girl. I put a hand on her waist, the fabric of her dress slippery under my palm, and spread my fingers wide until I was touching the side of her breast. She breathed faster, and her breast rose under my fingers. How did I know what to do? It was easy. It was so easy.
Her green eyes were wide, looking into mine. She looked younger than me. I kissed her temple, then bent to kiss each cheekbone, with its dusting of freckles.
“Beautiful,” I murmured, and the fire in my gut roared for more. We moved to the sofa, and I reached for the buttons on her dress. She never made a single movement to stop me, and after a moment, I felt tiny hands like birds at the slit of my dress, halfway up my thigh. I turned my head so I could kiss her pale throat, then the hollow between her breasts. Warm skin, softer than I would have guessed. I had never touched a woman before, not like this. Easy.
All this time, I was bubbling with glee. Perfect, perfect, I thought. She wants you! Rebecca wants you! Look at her! She’s begging for it!
And she was. Her chiseled face lay flushed on the white sofa, her eyes meeting mine, pleading for more. Her hands stroked my silk-covered breasts at first, clumsily circling the nipples, but after a moment she lay back and gave in to pleasure, making tiny noises in the back of her throat.
This is it, I thought. I will make her give in utterly to me. I will be the one in charge, Rebecca.
I bent my head and gently took one erect nipple into my mouth, then let it slide from between my lips. With my hands, I reached under her silky black skirt and between her thighs. She started, then relaxed, and when I fumbled a little, taking off her panties, she helped me by raising her hips. All this time, she remained wordless.
Then, under her skirt, I began gently stroking her pussy. She looked so beautiful half-dressed and on her way to orgasm that I wondered why she didn’t go around like this all the time. Her color was high, her hair tousled, her eyes half-closed, and she looked perfectly, radiantly lovely. I hesitated a moment, cupping her mound with my hand, then slipped a finger into her pussy.
Oh. Wet. Hot and wet. Another finger, and now I touched her clit. Easy, this was easy, and her breathing was changing as I moved my fingers with the light, fluttering movements I had come to love on my own body. I could smell the rich, heady scent of her pussy, and I could feel the rising color on my own cheeks. A little faster, now. A little faster.
I knelt before Rebecca James, orchestrating her orgasm, and watched as her body leapt and trembled and whimpered helplessly in pleasure, her eyes squeezed shut, her muscles tense. When I bent and took her nipple into my mouth and bit down on it, she caught fire. A high-pitched cry of pleasure. Another. Her belly was hard as a board, her chest flushed, her pussy pulled and rippled around my stroking fingers. I had never seen anything quite so beautiful.
Still, I might have escaped. I really believe that I might have escaped intact, my lust for revenge satisfied, the fire quenched, if she hadn’t said anything to me. All the time I was making love to her, she spent wordless in my arms and under my lips. I might have gone out of the room forever that way.
But instead, just as I was getting ready to get up from my knees, she reached out a hand and touched my hair, once, very gently. I looked up at her. She was smiling at me with soft irony.
“Thank you so much,” she said. “But oh, honey, I hate to think you’re not going to be here for breakfast.”
Before I knew it, I laughed, a warm, happy sound. And then I knew that Rebecca had consumed me, too.
Last night I dreamed I was committing adultery again. Timothy Denison was nothing to me, even when he was inside me; a relationship could heal from that. But this time? This time I am in terrible trouble. This time I am in love.
I hear the roar of the flames. The light of the burning could be confused with the sunrise. The ashes will be bitter on the tongue.
Damn Rebecca, I think, trying to find a cool spot on the pillow. Damn Rebecca.
Edited by Father Ignatius
This story is published here by kind permission of Ruthie’s Club (http://www.ruthiesclub.com), where it appeared first, illustrated by Brett Empty.
Comments and opinions eagerly welcomed and promptly responded to, as usual, at selenajardine at yahoo.com.