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Chapter 31

OUR GIRLHOOD IS GONE

To Vida Bertrand the capricious February weather seemed an enemy hacking at her nerves. The spiteful fits of rain and freeze that shabbied coats and shoes mimicked the shabbiness clothing her spirit. Then the coal-sooted wan chill sky thickened into a dark woolly blanket and a blizzard paralyzed the city while she, benumbed with fear of pregnancy, tried to reassure herself along with the forecasts of "fair and warmer."

Dismal flat noon light seeped into Lucy's living room griming wisps of underclothes and wrinkled newspaper pages lying strewn as though refuse blown in from the streets, while a strident pianola jangled "Runnin' Wild."

"For God's sake turn that thing off and stop meandering around," Vida beseeched, shivering though the steam radiator was whistling full blast.

With a hollow giggle Lucy halted. "Don't you like it? Look, I can make it play with expression." She sat down at the instrument, moving the volume control levers, and then turned it off suddenly. "You know what, I'm scary these days, afraid of being by myself. I got the pianola to keep me company while Mother is in Atlantic City getting rid of her awful cold. She always has colds in New York. I think she wishes I'd get married soon so she can go back to Congress. She's transferred her hopes from Lyle to Clem, isn't that crazy? She really enjoyed being with Aunt Mabel, and talks about how peaceful it was. I asked her didn't she want to go back now, but she won't think of it until after the recital. She won't hear of Brooks doing the costumes, she'll love making them herself. What's the matter, don't you feel well?"

"I feel fine, I never felt better," Vida said bleakly.

"You don't act it."

"Please, Lucy—it's the weather, that's all." This certainly was not the moment she had hoped for to confide her fears. It was silly of Lucy who had everything and knew how to cope with men to get herself into a state because of Mae being away for two weeks. The apartment looked as if it were falling apart. The uneven shades, one spun up into its cord. A wilting bouquet had been thrust into a waterless vase just as it had come in a florist's box. Cleo had not dusted or carpet-swept for days. And Clem's loaf of bread painting hung lonesome in the middle of the wall between two light brackets, one with shade askew.

"Maybe you are getting a cold?" Lucy guessed.

"I feel fine, I tell you," she snapped.

"I'll bet you aren't eating properly. Remember those Reuben's sandwiches we used to eat at night when you stayed here? I wish you'd stay with me until Mother gets back. I can't stand being alone, and besides, I'm awfully jittery these days."

"I don't see what you have to be jittery about, perhaps you're going out too much," Vida countered querulously. "Besides, we keep such different hours, neither of us would get any rest."

"That's an excuse—but it's all right if you don't want to," Lucy said moodily.

Of course I want to, Vida thought, I'd like nothing better than not to be alone myself, but now that I'm at the point I just can't tell her about Rad because I'm so ashamed—even though I feel relieved since I told him definitely I don't want to see him again. There really is nothing to be worried about because if I were pregnant I've heard you feel nauseous.

"It's not that I don't want to," she said, "it's that I don't think I'd be good company. I am so tired these days I don't sleep well even though Ilona let me have the week off to get a head start on Figente's books. You never saw so many! Boxes and boxes have been dumped in the studio and except for my table and chair the room is so filled I'm black and blue from crawling over boxes. On top of that, Figente's been in bed all week so Denis isn't any help and you know Hal!" she ended lamely.

"That's all right, no wonder you have circles under your eyes," Lucy sympathized.

"I haven't—it's this ghastly light. I should think Cleo would fix that shade," Vida said irritably.

"I forgot to tell her," Lucy said indifferently. "I guess those flowers ought to be thrown out too. How do you like Clem's painting there, or should I put it between the windows? It came this morning. Art shows don't last long, do they, only two weeks after all that work?"

"Yes, it's outrageous. Why not put it over the buffet?"

"I never thought of that. I tried to put it in an important place in case he sees it. To tell you the truth, I don't think it looks at home here. I'd like to see it in Aunt Mabel's dining room, but his feelings might be hurt."

"That bread sure was stale," contributed Cleo.

"Shut up, you don't know anything about art. And throw out those flowers and pick up this stuff." She pointed to the underclothes.

"I'll put them in the kitchen and do it in the morning, you know I got a date now," Cleo said aggrieved.

They waited in uncomfortable silence until the door closed.

"I may have to fire her again, she comes and goes when she feels like it," Lucy said, tapping her foot nervously.

"That's an old story. You two always make it up."

"So far! If the studio will be a library where will Figente do his sculpture?"

"He seems sort of finished with that, but perhaps because he's been sick. I guess upset too. When I was working one day Hal came in, and was he hysterical! He said Figente was a mean old thing and had wrecked his big chance. It seems Simone and Jacques split up and she asked Hal to play for her in Paris. Figente, he said, hit the ceiling, and phoned Simone to come down. He told her Hal already was committed to play at your recital with that harp quartet he subsidizes. That was the first Hal heard of it! Me too—you never told me. Then Figente got Simone and Jacques together and persuaded them to make up. They sailed last week in the Berengaria. But Figente has given Hal an apartment up on Madison Avenue to make it up to him."

"I knew Simone sailed. I phoned goodbye and sent a basket from Hicks' but I had no idea all that was going on. Hal could never take Jacques's place. Those boys are unreliable. I didn't tell you about the quartet and Hal playing for me because I didn't know it till this very minute. I'll bet Figente decided that on the spot, he certainly is an old devil."

While it was good news about the quartet Lucy was irritated that it had come about through Vermillion. It was as though he classed her with Clem, someone to help disinterestedly. At Figente's party anyone could see he didn't think much of Clem's ideas and then he brought the critic to the exhibition. She fought him silently, resenting being beholden to someone who didn't care.

"It was really Vermillion's idea about the quartet and the Laurencin ballet. I don't understand him at all." Her tone was resentful. "I know he isn't interested in ballet, he told me so. He seems interested only in himself but I wonder whether it's because he isn't interested in anything that he wastes his time doing things for people. Maybe that's why he doesn't have time to paint. Naturally, I'm glad he spoke to Figente about the music because that's one less thing to worry about. I'm so mixed up these days I'm sorry I ever thought of giving a recital."

At Lucy's revelation of Vermillion's contributions, Vida's anxiety, which she had hoped this visit would alleviate, took on the added weight of jealousy. "Let me tell you something you don't know about him. He paints, and I've seen one at Figente's," she boasted.

"You have? What's it like?"

"It's a painting of two pears, but I can't describe it because it isn't like any other painting I've seen. As if the pears were about to burst with juice. Figente says he has something of the sense of composition, color, and flow of the Chinese Sung painters—you know, like the one Figente has in the Galleria—and the glow and solidity of Vermeer, but in an individual technique. Of course, I'm only repeating Figente about the pears. I know Vedder was impressed."

"It just goes to show you never know about that man. He is so secretive. That's what I don't like about him," Lucy commented sulkily.

They are not lovers yet, Vida thought, appalled that she could feel exultation about that in her present state.

"What are you so upset about? Is it Ranna? Aren't the rehearsals going well? I meant to get to Ilona's while you were there this week but just couldn't get away from Figente's."

"It's everything! I don't know how it happened but I feel I've done everything wrong. Still, when I try to figure it out, I don't know why. I know what I want but I don't seem to know the right way to get it." She ended on an hysterical sob.

"Stop it! Stop it! And sit down and tell me," Vida ordered, galvanized by a Lucy without self-control. This was a Lucy she never had seen, one without confidence and afraid.

"I'll tell you, but first I'm going to open some champagne, it will do us good," she said, trying to compose herself.

"I'm all right," Vida repeated hollowly, "I'm just fine."

"It settles the stomach," Lucy said, handing her a glass, and they sipped silently, preoccupied with individual worries.

A long minute passed before Lucy spoke. "It's like this," Lucy finally said with a deep sigh. "You know the recital is planned for the week after Easter. Beman's show was supposed to run until June but the blizzard and now Lent killed business and the two weeks' closing notice was posted last Saturday. It hit the chorus and bit players harder than us leads and what with a small audience the show didn't have much pep anyway and we rang down three minutes early because we didn't get much applause or many curtains. As I said, I didn't care much because I made that extra money on the stock market on a tip from that broker I let rush me a while and I thought now I can concentrate on the recital. Well, after the show Beman told us he wasn't sending out a second company but that we would go instead, opening in Chicago Easter Monday. That knocked me for a loop. I went to see him Monday and said I couldn't go because of the recital. He was furious. Said I was being amateur and that made me mad. I told him I didn't want to spend my life doing the same old specialties and he ought to understand because of saying all the time he was interested in the art of the theatre. He said if I didn't go it would mean on Broadway I wasn't reliable, and that he always suspected I never would come across when it was important. What he meant was that I could have got Lyle to back that play about a dancer because he began raving about my kidding around and wasting my time with chorus boys. Then it came out he had promised Horta Cornwallis definitely that I'd dance at that ball last Friday after I told her 1 wouldn't. I know he doesn't want to put up his own money for that dancer play as it may not go because it's so different."

"Has he offered the part to you?"

"No, but I know he was going to because Lyle told me so at Figente's. I know Tessie wants it too. That's why she's studying dancing."

"I thought it took years to be a good dancer."

"Maybe she can fake it, and then you know they always rewrite to fit the star anyway."

"Perhaps you should postpone the recital and go to Chicago."

"I thought of that, but the show may be on the road for a year, and Beman hasn't promised me the play if I did go. A year is a long time to be away from Broadway if you aren't a star with a following and there are a lot of good dancers who can take your place if you're not around. Anyway Beman was so mad he said it didn't matter because Connie Lucas was crazy to go. If he feels that way I'm better out of it. Besides I couldn't walk out on Ranna, though now that Ilona is in the recital I don't know where I'm at. If I had known it would be like this, I'd never have started with the recital."

Vida looked at her uncomprehendingly. "What has Ilona to do with it?"

"You know how easygoing Ranna is. He hates to work. He would rather—well, you know—"

"I know," Vida condoled bitterly. Ranna and Rad were alike, declaring mutual companionability but only wanting to make love and injured if that wasn't enough.

"Ranna has become friends with Alfred Vent who told him he used some kind of a Hindu scale in some music he composed for Ilona and that he wants to write something for Ranna too."

"You don't mean 'B Square Equals Zero—Pastorale Mécanique' Vida asked, remembering Ilona at work on a series of gravity-defying poses.

"Do you know it?"

"I know she is doing a dance with her group to it. She told them a couple of weeks ago 'This dance is the culmination of American cubism, the reaching out of primitive man to modem.' She ought to call what I saw 'Rise, Sway, Writhe and Shine' because the girls in grey will do the first three, and she will shine in white. Purity, you know."

"Ranna says it will be the interesting contrast we need to fill the evening. He wants to do only one solo, his ballet, and our duet and me to do two solos and my ballet. He says it is more effective not to appear too often but somehow it scares me to have Ilona in the recital because I feel as though I am her pupil again in Denver and nothing has happened for me all these years."

"I can't believe you let yourself be talked into it. Sometimes you are such a softy you make me sick!" Vida said disgustedly.

"Maybe Ranna is right—though, to tell you the truth, I think it's because he's too lazy to make new dances. I keep telling myself it's true that in a show the première danseuse only does two solos, so maybe it's being smart."

"It's being idiotic—it will make hash of the recital."

"He does know more about it than you do, or me, because he was a great concert artist in Europe. You don't even care about dancing, and I can tell you are not even putting your mind to what I'm telling you now. Don't tell me there's something the matter with you too?"

"How many times must I tell you there's absolutely nothing! It's that I don't know what to say and am worried about you," said Vida, evading Lucy's gaze.

"I never thought things could get so complicated. In fact I did something I never did before. I let that fortuneteller who comes backstage read my palms and give me a horoscope last night."

"You didn't!" Vida said, aghast.

"She scared me. She said I was going back to a girlhood sweetheart. Do you think there can be anything in that?" she quavered.

"Certainly not!"

"It gave me the creeps, I hardly slept all night. Then this morning Clem's painting came and of course I've been trying to be nice to him because it was the money he paid me for posing that helped get me to New York. But I couldn't love him—" She broke off and put her hands to her face and then ran them back through her hair with her eyes closed. "Then I got to thinking," she resumed tonelessly, "that what with Mother wanting to go back to Congress, and me hating to be alone, I might let myself be talked into going back too and marry Clem for Mother's sake, especially as show business is so up and down. I can't imagine anyone else the fortuneteller could mean because when I think of a girlhood sweetheart it is always the idea of one I've never met. The way you used to talk about the poets. Maybe you outgrew that and I'm slow."

This, Vida thought forebodingly, is what it means to grow up. Our girlhood is gone. Is it because men have made love to us? But we're both still looking for love, and for a meaning to life. What has happened to make Lucy so uncertain? What strange mixed-up thoughts, feelings, and fears are churning in that beautiful head from which used to issue those succinct observations I accepted as gospel? A Lucy, always confident and direct as a bird, now become fearful and wavering. Even as she tries to explain I can not understand, yet something has changed. It can't have happened suddenly. Where would the change begin if I were to try to tell her story? When we talk today it's as though we were walking towards each other but bypass. She is telling me and I don't hear.

"Then when I did sleep," Lucy told on, "I had a terrible nightmare. I was in a room in an awful hotel in Denver. The Crofter. Everyone was trying to push me into the connecting room where there were two girls, prostitutes, and Horta Cornwallis was there and her teeth kept rolling in and out of her gums. She was trying to grab me. Then the room looked like another room in that apartment Lyle took me to, where his two friends kept their girls."

"It was probably something you ate," Vida said.

"Maybe," Lucy said dully. "Do you think I ought to be psychoanalyzed? Anyway, I was so frightened I was perspiring all over and shivering when I woke and I phoned you but there was no answer. Where were you at three in the morning?"

"Asleep. The phone is in the hall, you know," Vida said uncomfortably, remembering awakening and not answering as it might be Rad.

"There is one other thing I must tell you, but you must promise not to repeat it to anyone, especially Figente."

"For heaven's sake, what now!"

"I don't think anyone in New York but me knows that Horta Cornwallis was a Madam in Denver. In a big old mansion near our roominghouse. I think she knows I know but I can't make out how."

"What of it? From what I've heard Figente say about her she still is one in one sense of the word. She caters to people's other vices."

"I know. Figente admires her for it. But she frightens me. Even after the ball she phoned again and said what a hit Ranna was and that she hoped I wouldn't disappoint her next time. It sounded like a threat. I feel better now that I've told you. You are so sensible, you never get into scrapes."

"You aren't in any real scrape," Vida said, thinking of herself.

"I know, but I keep feeling I am. It's probably because I'm tired and I'm sick of winter. Anyway, the show closes a week from Saturday, and I'm going out tonight with Nino. Maybe that's what I need. He's the nicest man I know. I'll be sorry when he goes back to Europe. I never feel I've wasted an evening when I've been with him and let me tell you that's something you can't say about many men."

"You can say that again."

"I got two other girls to replace Nell and Jean who are going to Chicago with the show. So, I'm all set. I only hope you stay at Ilona's until after the recital. I wouldn't know what to do if I couldn't count on you."

"You know you always can."

"Well, let's cheer ourselves up if we can. We forgot the champagne. I'll get some ice. This weather is driving me batty."