Among the Daughters/Chapter 37
"I HAVE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOY"
The populace drew its tortoise head into the shell of its overcoat and skidded, shivering, on the glacial streets of the sooty snow-crusted refuse-strewn city.
"It seems to me," Lucy criticized, returning home to Vida's apartment blue-cold on a late afternoon in December, "that Jimmy Walker would do something to clean up the town, he's such a dandy about himself."
"Yes, New York is a shambles," Vida agreed. "I just got in too, so let's have a nice cup of tea."
"With rum. And if you're going to be home for dinner we'll have baked potato and lamb chops."
"That sounds good. I feel like a quiet evening at home for a change."
"What happened?" Lucy's mood variations were as obvious as do re mi fa sol.
"Nothing," Lucy replied, which meant something. "Noonan is mad at me because I won't let him talk to Beman. I told him 'You don't know Beman, and I do. You won't get anywhere. Beman has to think it's his idea to have someone in a show. If you ask for a part, it's curtains. Beman is a prima donna and anything he doesn't think of himself first is no good. Even if he does think of it but someone suggests it before he gets round to doing anything there is nothing doing.' And I told Noonan, 'If it's a question of only a specialty for Beman I'd rather work for Joe Samuels. He doesn't care whose idea it is.' But Joe is having Georgina again because she was a hit in his last revue. I don't blame him because she is very good at acrobatics. I could never jazz bent-kneed on toes for a whole number and end with sixteen cartwheels. Spending my life practicing for that would drive me crazy."
"I don't blame you, you'd have to be an Ilona," Vida sympathized.
"You're prejudiced against her, but Clem has changed his mind about her, he thinks she's an artist, and maybe he's right—or maybe," Lucy went on uncertainly, "you and I don't know how to be successful, maybe you always have to think of what's popular, even when it changes every day."
"I don't want to be that kind of popular, be an 'It's in the air' sniffer," Vida said truculently, jabbing and blowing at the fire. "I want to do what I can the best way I know how. There!" she said, as the logs began to crackle. "I wonder what Master thinks about your not attending his classes?"
"To tell you the truth, I miss him, but now that I'm not in a show I hate to go. I'm practicing anyway at my tap teacher's so I don't get out of practice. I like him because he understands Broadway. Master is old-fashioned, he doesn't understand anything but ballet. I wish I had started in the chorus. You come up slowly but you're more prepared for the ups and downs. Anyway, I'm glad you're back and we're together again."
After dinner Vida sat at her desk trying to remember what it was she wanted to write in the notebook kept locked while she was away from the apartment.
"What are you doing?" Lucy asked, stretched comfortably on the sofa.
"I want to make a memo before I forget. I could do it at Figente's but that cataloging he wants is a big job; I have to go through the books all over again and I never can resist stopping to read, which he isn't paying me to do."
"He won't care. He likes having you there."
"But I want to get finished. I don't want to stay down there any longer than necessary."
"Well, you go on and write. Don't pay any attention to me. I'll lie here and watch."
Vida began a few scattered sentences but could not go on because of Lucy's humming 'Who, who stole my heart away' and, turning, saw her smiling at the ceiling.
"Finished?" Lucy asked brightly.
"Yes," Vida said shortly, and put the notebook away.
"I'll tell you a secret. I have the most beautiful boy, I picked him up on a Fifth Avenue bus. He's an advertising man, he sells those ads in theatre programs. His name is Herbert. He dresses very well, like the Prince of Wales, and has beautiful blue eyes."
So that was why Lucy had not been home evenings recently, returning so late. As always, she spoke of herself as the pursuer. "I wondered what you've been up to," Vida said dryly.
"Yes, the only trouble is I'm spending too much time with him, so I think I'll have to let him go or I might get too fond of him. I've only been really in love once in my life. With a man I'd have given up anything for. I made a mistake in thinking that if you're really in love the one you love feels that way too. Maybe a man and woman never feel the same about each other. Your old poets make believe it is possible because they want it to be. Anyway, he didn't notice how I felt. Or maybe he didn't want to. I made up my mind I was being foolish. The thing to do is to have as much fun as you can. It's not much anyway. When you're dead, you're dead, and I don't want to live to grow old, not the way Mother is anyway."
"Stop it!" Vida cried peremptorily, fearful as well for herself. "You're not even old enough yet to vote."
For a dreadful moment Vida had thought she meant Vermillion. But no, she reassured herself, it wasn't possible, not that any man wouldn't be attracted to Lucy, as Vermillion had been when drunk at Clem's party. But his interests were manifestly divergent from Lucy's. They really had nothing in common. No, it must have been someone she met after I went to Congress, and that was why she had let herself run down so and stay at the Jason.
"Herbert's coming back at six tonight from his folks in Ohio for New Year's Eve and I thought if you have a beau we'd have a party here, the four of us," Lucy said after reading the telegram.
"Clem asked me to go out with him and an art dealer from Paris who, he hopes, will give him a show but I said no. I'm going to stay home," Vida said, wondering whether there would ever be anyone like Vermillion with whom to begin a new year.
Vermillion's two Christmas cards stood side by side on the mantelpiece, Lucy's a small print of a Laurencin girl chasing butterflies, and hers the photograph of a kiosk with an advertisement of Molitre's L'Ecole des Femmes at the Theatre Français. Into this choice she tried to read a personal message to herself in which he was saying they had more in common than Lucy snatching at butterflies.
"Shall I get you someone?" Lucy asked.
"No. Nothing doing. You go out with Herbert."
"I'll bring him here and we'll have a party, the three of us. But I'll have dinner with him first."
She put on a grey velvet princess dress with a row of orchid satin bows down one side and a gold lace Juliet cap and was in high spirits as she started off.
Will I always be alone, with only the human beings in books or those I will write about to keep me company? Vida thought forlornly as she watched from the window people rushing to celebrate the birth of 1926. Girls shouldn't live together. New Year's Eve is the worst night not to be with someone one loves. Perhaps that's why Lucy is so keyed up tonight. She's pretending. By nine o'clock impatient revelers already were tooting and making the noises of celebration and at eleven thirty she drew the curtains to muffle the festive sounds. It would be like Lucy not to come for hours, or at all, and here I'll be with all these sandwiches and the champagne swimming in melted ice in the bathtub, she thought angrily. It would have been better to have gone out with Clem. At least one wouldn't be alone.
Just before twelve Lucy and Herbert came, giggling.
He looked, Vida thought, like the mannikins in the English-style shops off Fifth in the Forties which catered to hallroom boys. Medium tall, smooth-faced as though he didn't have to shave every day, ash-blond hair and vacant blue eyes.
After the midnight toast, he had little to say in response to Vida's attempts to make conversation.
Vida ought not to ask him all those questions about books and plays and the advertising business, I never said he was a big talker like Vermillion, Lucy thought uncomfortably, going to the mantelpiece for a cigarette. Vermillion's card looked back at her, the pink lips of the face smiling, it seemed now, mockingly. That was the trouble with Vermillion, was he serious or making fun of her in sending this face that looked like her?
She took the card and, to relieve Herbert from Vida's questions, said, "Do you think this looks like me, Herbert?"
"You haven't black eyes and that face hasn't a nose," he replied, and pulled Lucy to his knee.
But she jumped up immediately, seeing Vida's expression. "Now, Herbert, you sit there and be good while Vida and I get some more sandwiches and champagne," she admonished.
"He's shy," Lucy defended unsurely in the kitchen, "and he's nice even if he does seem stupid. He thinks you're against him because he's not a big talker."
"I was only trying to make conversation, find out what he is interested in—besides you. After all, I can't just sit and stare, but I suppose I did talk too much. From now on I'll be careful."
"We'd better get back before he becomes sulkier. Let me go first."
Lucy sighed. I suppose, she mused, I should have known he doesn't fit in with Vida. The only thing I thought of was how sweet he was to me and how I don't have to think of anything when I'm with him. Love, art, nothing. Just a big kid. Like a sleeping pill. But I must admit that tonight, after not seeing him for a week, being with him is depressing. There's nobody home there.
She found him sitting on a straight chair, sulking.
"Herbert, put a record on the victrola, and I'll give you and Vida a lesson in a new step," she ordered brightly.
"Say please," he said.
She looked at him with a pregnant smile. "Be good to me. Look how good I am to you."
He swallowed gin from his pocket flask, then took her in his arms. They danced only a few steps before she pushed him away to show them the jazz steps she was working on for a number.
"My teacher says I learn jazz quicker than any pupil he ever had," she boasted, and made them line up for a lesson.
"You're both too slow for me," she said after several tries and danced alone as though she were alone.
Herbert finished the gin in his flask and reeled over, trying to take her in his arms. "Are we gonna stick around here all night?" he whined, overturning a bottle as he lurched.
"You're drunk. Go lie down on that couch," Lucy ordered, pointing her finger.
He obeyed like a trained puppy, Vida thought, and turned away because Lucy was looking apologetically at her.
"He's really a nice boy," Lucy whispered uneasily. "Look, he's sound asleep already."
"I'm sleepy, too, and I'm going to bed," Vida said, unable to keep up the illusion of gaiety. What was Lucy thinking of to mess around with such an imbecile? She went abruptly to the bedroom.
Lucy followed. "He's such a nice kid. I guess he can't take much liquor. But he's nice. You see, the one thing I want is to stay in love with one man a long time. I don't even care if it isn't exciting as I thought it should be."
She went back to the living room and seeing Herbert lying on her bed a revulsion for him and herself came over her.
"Help me get him off the couch so I can go to sleep too," she called to Vida.
Together they pulled Herbert onto the floor and covered him with his overcoat.
Lucy tied a stocking around her eyes and Vida covered her with a blanket and went to her own bed, leaving the ashes, bottles, glasses, and congealed food to await the morning.
Tired as Vida was, sleep would not come.
"I'm cold," Herbert whimpered, trying to crawl in with Lucy.
She scolded him as if he were a child. "Herbert, you make me sick. I'm ashamed of you. I'm never going to take you anywhere again." She went to the bedroom door. "Are you asleep, Vida?"
"Come and help me."
Herbert was sprawled on the sofa. They pulled him to his feet, gave him a drink, thrust his coat and hat into his hands, and shoved him blubbering out the door.
"I'm disgusted with him. He makes me sick. I'm sick of myself even more," Lucy said, starting to cry.
Vida looked through the curtains to see whether he had made the stairs and saw the faint glow of the rising sun as Herbert weaved out of sight.
"Let's clean up and have breakfast and start a nice new year," she said.
In the first week of the new year Vida Bertrand returned home from Figente's at the hour day was dissolving into night. Though winter was scarcely two weeks old, in the lighted windows opposite there were signs of spring. Under aquamarine lights, white-coated furriers fingered with surgical delicacy pelts for summer wear. Milliners stretched yawning over floral heaps and jonquil- and hyacinth-colored Easter felts. A man at an enormous desk sat surrounded by women, all smoking and conferring about the next issue of a magazine.
What will they feature next month? Last month it was "Should Flappers Check Their Girdles At Proms?" Vida thought, switching on the lamps. The street noises through the drawn curtains were an exciting overture to the night. As far back as she remembered twilight seemed the real beginning of day. The only time one truly had to oneself, a period of germination. Her heels sank luxuriously into the thick pile of the Moroccan rug as she went to comb her hair. If I work hard, she thought, I'll finish Figente's cataloging in a week. Then I'll splurge and have Lucy's hairdresser cut my hair before looking for a new job. A job among people, and stop being a girl hermit, she planned.
Hearing Lucy's key in the door she peered in the mirror to glimpse Lucy's mood, prepared for a continuance of the dejection which had not lifted since New Year's Eve. What she saw however was a bubbling happy Lucy.
"Noonan got me a grand contract. Two weeks at a hotel in Miami and two weeks in Palm Beach where I'll be the star attraction at the opening of a new club. Madame Jeanette is making me two costumes in five days, that's when I leave. A hundred yards of accordion pleated chiffon in the skirt, layers and layers from palest pink to American beauty and a big light-blue satin sash. And for the jazz on toes, black diamond-studded lace tights with a high collar and long red gloves. It feels good to be working again!"
A week after Lucy left, the cataloging of Figente's library was finished, and the next morning Vida went to the hairdresser, Apolthone. She came away with her hair side-parted, sleek as a chestnut, and with a soft puff over each ear. But her hat no longer fitted. She often had been with Lucy to the milliner, Hector, and thought she knew him well enough to ask if he had something she could afford among discarded stock.
"Miss James has left to get married," he wailed, "and it's the hardest thing to find a good-looking girl who can sell and also wear my hats as they should be. I wish I could offer you the job."
The idea seemed absurd and she refused pointblank. At home, however, she reflected that, assuming she could find a job at a publisher's, or on a magazine, it would only be a minor clerical one and more confining than being at Figente's. At Hector's, on the other hand, she would be in Lucy's world because to him came not only women of the theatre but those of fashion. His clients, Lucy, she herself, revealed themselves to him, perhaps because they felt him to be one of them, and to their beauticians, corsetieres, and couturiers, as quite different women than when they were with men. There one could observe the duality of human behavior at first hand, and this might help in clarifying the seeming contradictions in Lucy's character and thus in telling her story. One thing was clear, the Lucy she had seen with Herbert, Ranna, or any man, was not the Lucy she knew apart from men.
On Monday she became Miss Vida of Hector's. The next week Figente returned from Palm Beach. At dinner he did not disguise his hurt at her haste in finding another job.
He said crossly, "I should think you would have been delighted to have a place to read or write without interruption. And I thought I might do a book on New York manners before my autobiography."
She remained silent about his endless interruptions, his pretexts to engage her in piddling tasks because now that Hal was gone he could not bear to be alone tor long. "I'm not a good recluse," she said, and sought to deflect him by telling him how much better he looked.
The information did not seem to please him.
"'And can the physician make sick men well?" he quoted. "Do you know that one?"
"Yes, it's by Anon. 'And can the magician a fortune divine? Without lily, germander, and sops in wine,' et cetera," she quoted. "Precisely," he said enigmatically.
"Why didn't you stay for Lucy's opening?"
"You know I never go to night clubs, even though The Crocodile is exclusive! I came back because Palm Beach is becoming a Coney Island, what with the nouveau riche and, even worse, Broadway, swarming in. I said to Nat Merriman, the President of The Crocodile, 'If you are determined to have what you call entertainment at least do it in style and have Lucy Claudel if you can get her.' So he did. Lucy can do very well there it she wants to. Merriman is quite a catch. In fact he's between catches, having been caught three times in the last ten years."
On Washington's Birthday, Vida Bertrand wrote in her notebook.
February 22, 1926.
Perhaps a reason why women rarely feel secure with men, even the most beautiful women, like Lucy and Demora, and constantly ask do you like or love me, is because they are being actresses of a role they never quite understand, it being unnatural to themselves as women. That is, they are seeking reassurance for themselves underneath the image of women men seem to prefer.
It's a generalization I know but this would seem partly to explain the duality in feminine behavior, the essential nature clashing with the acquired role. And thus the contradiction in women which men say they do not understand. Lucy is the perfect symbol of what I have in mind. From our 13th year she has denied the portrait of woman as seen by men. The portrait, say, of the hard-boiled male writer whose hero looks at a woman and she keels over with passion for him. It happens so often in literature I suppose that's what men want, and women learn to pretend to give men what they want.
I didn't know what I was like as a woman until I let Rad make love. Yet I protected him against having to face the fact that I had no feeling when he made love. I put it down to some shortcoming in myself. Lucy does. Demora. Perhaps it's because women are so occupied in playing a part alien to themselves that at Hector's where I see and hear them at their most unguarded moments they seem, even though successful in the world's goods, so uncertain in their relationships to men.
But I also cannot get over the feeling, perhaps it's a wish, that a relationship is possible in which a man and woman are themselves. Meeting Vermillion has convinced me that real love does exist, even if it should never come to oneself. It must exist, or neither Lucy nor I would persist in searching for it. Even Lucy who laughs at "my" poets. If poets can sing as they have of love, it exists, or can be made to exist.