There In The Window For All To See
The day Elaine signed the divorce papers, she found out her husband had been having her followed. They were at the lawyer’s, and after they had finished signing he pulled her aside and said, “I know about the man at The Fireside, Elaine.” She looked at him sidelong, trying to think of something to say. He continued, “I know all about him. I’ve known about him for months. And I’m telling you this now not to scold you, Elaine, but to warn you. For your own good.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snapped. She wasn’t surprised—or she was, but only that Vincent would have gone so far to hire a detective. It didn’t sound like him. For all his faults (and they were numerous), he wasn’t someone she would have expected to be that kind of petty or calculating. “If you’ve known about it for so long,” she bristled, “why didn’t you bring it up earlier? You could have saved yourself a lot of money.”
Vincent shook his head and looked away, out the window. He put his palm up against the side of his face, with the lower, fleshy part of the palm covering his mouth, so that when he spoke his words came out muffled and indistinct. This was what he did whenever he was feeling emotional, and it drove Elaine crazy. “I wasn’t being vindictive, Elaine,” he said. “I was worried about you. You’re a valuable woman now. I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Then he started in about how irresponsible she was, and it was just like they were married all over again. He was a small man, she thought, and she was glad she wouldn’t have to listen to him—to any of this—anymore. With Vincent still in the middle of his orating, she asked her lawyer if he needed her for anything else, and when he said no, everything seemed to be taken care of, she picked up her bag, wished them all a happy life, and walked out the door.
Outside the building, Elaine walked up Berriman Avenue looking for a cab. It was late Friday afternoon and there was a show in town and all the available cabs were on the other side of town, so she just kept right on walking. After a while she stopped even looking to see if there were any cabs coming her way. She felt lousy, and not just because of what Vincent had told her—though that had a fair amount to do with it.
She supposed what bothered her most was the thought of someone following her, some man with a camera watching her every move, watching (she imagined) as she had sat in the hotel bar, ordering another Tom Collins, waiting for Joey to show up. Had the man seen her face light up when she spotted Joey walking through the door? Had he taken a picture of it? Had Vincent seen it? It seemed strange that this should bother her so much now, when she had nothing to hide anymore, but there it was, bothering her to distraction. She crossed the street at Madison without even looking and was nearly run over by a delivery truck.
She couldn’t shake it. She imagined the detective, the dick, or whatever they call themselves now, following her still. Joey was supposed to meet her at six o’clock to celebrate, but she couldn’t see him right now, not in the state she was in. She thought she might jump right out the window if she saw him now. At the corner she pulled out her cell phone to call the front desk and leave a message for him. “It’s taking longer than expected to finalize everything,” she said. “Tell him that.” Why she lied she couldn’t say, only it seemed a better thing to do than tell the truth.
Now that she had a couple of hours on her hands she decided to go see a movie, something to distract herself. She was nearby The Palace, an old movie theater from the thirties that still showed classics and second-run movies, and they were playing a matinee of Chinatown. Elaine got there just in time to buy a ticket and some popcorn at the concession stand, and she got a big bag, the second-biggest bag they had, with the intention of eating the whole thing herself. As soon as the movie started though, she realized what a mistake she’d made: there was the private detective, even in celluloid hot on her trail.
After a while her mind drifted and she started to remember this time, maybe a month or so before her and Vincent broke it off, when she and Joey had been having lunch at this little place downtown and Vincent had called her on the phone. He’d wanted to know what she was doing, so she told him she was having lunch with her friend Maggie, a name she conjured up easily enough as they’d just been talking about Maggie the night before. She was starting up an interior design business and looking for clients. “Oh, Maggie!” Vincent had exclaimed. “How is she? I’ve got a client here who was just telling me he’s been looking for a really good interior designer. No kidding, I was just telling him about Maggie! Why don’t you put her on?”
Elaine had given a panicked look to Joey and switched the phone to the other ear. “She’s off in the bathroom right now, sweetheart,” she’d stumbled. “Actually I think she’s feeling a little sick. I think it might have been something she ate.”
“Never mind,” Vincent had said, and she’d had the strangest feeling he’d been smirking.
At the time she’d thought it was just pure dumb luck, that she’d said Maggie was with her, that Vincent had called, and with a prospective client for Maggie, but now she wondered if the detective hadn’t been watching them right then. He could have called Vincent and told him. “They’re here,” he might have said. “Go ahead and call her if you want.”
Leaving the movie theater Elaine felt even worse, and to top it all off it had begun raining and she didn’t even have an umbrella. She hailed a cab at Salmon and Burberry and told him to take her to the hotel, but then on second thought she said, “Could you take the way through the park? You know the traffic circle with the statue of Joan of Arc?”
She’d had the sudden and clamorous desire to go see the statue, though why this should have cropped up now of all times, she really couldn’t say. It was in the center of a roundabout; Joan of Arc on top of a golden steed carrying a golden flag waving in the wind. The funny thing was, it was an exact replica of a statue Elaine used to see when she was a child, in the Place des Pyramides in Paris. Her godfather had had an apartment overlooking the statue, and they used to sit out on the balcony in the summer and watch the Tour de France come in on their final lap. The Tour de France passed right underneath the balcony, right under the hooves of Joan of Arc’s horse.
She told the cabbie, “Could you just make a couple of laps around the statue? Just keep going around, okay?” He gave her a weird look but he saw that she looked like she had money and he didn’t ask any questions. People tend not to ask too many questions if you look like you have money. Then she got the thought that the detective was following her still, and she had to smile to herself a little, thinking about what he would make of that, her cab going in circles around the statue. Elaine started to feel better then; she thought she might be ready to face Joey now. Just then, propriety having worn itself out, the cabbie piped up, “Look lady, I’m starting to get dizzy, alright? You mind if we move along now?”
Outside the Fireside Hotel, the doorman stepped forward to open the door for her as she paid the fare. The doorman knew her and she knew the doorman—by sight anyway—but she’d never given him her name. For one thing, she never knew what to call herself. She couldn’t just call herself Missus Brandt, here to visit another man with a different last name. Again. But at the same time, she couldn’t call herself something else because, well, they knew who she was. She was paying the bill. It struck her as particularly odd now that she didn’t know the doorman’s name, and so she asked it.
“Billy,” he said. “Billy Wheeler’s my full name, but you can just call me Billy.”
“Well hello, Billy,” she said. “I’m Missus Elaine Brandt. You can call me Missus Brandt. Or Elaine, if you like.”
“Ye-yes, I know your name,” he stuttered. She must have blushed a little, because Billy looked down at his shoes, at a loss for what to do. He coughed, and then remembered what he was there for and opened the door for her.
“Thanks, Billy,” she said. “I’ll see you.”
She felt strange walking across the lobby, as if certain parts of her body—her legs, her hands—were disassociated from herself, moving independent of any choice of her own. No one paid her any attention as she walked across the gold-and-burgundy carpet, and it struck her as especially conspicuous how quiet everyone was all of a sudden, how goddamned busy they all seemed; they weren’t fooling anyone. She thought she might like to stop off at the bar first for a drink—she was terrifically thirsty from all that salt and butter in the popcorn—but then it was Friday evening and the bar was full and it would have taken hours to get a table, and the thought of just sitting there, alone, with Joey upstairs waiting for her and the detective somewhere poking through the bushes with his dirty little camera, was just too horrible to contemplate.
It was an intolerable wait for the elevator and by the time it finally reached the lobby, Elaine’s thirst had grown ten-fold. There wasn’t anyone else inside, thank God, and she pressed the button for his floor before slumping her shoulder against the mirrored wall of the car. She stared at her reflection, at the little cloud of steam against the glass when she breathed, how it faded before she breathed again.
She had her own key to his room and she used it now without knocking, and without saying hello she rushed into the bathroom. “Hey,” Joey called from the other room. “So how’d it go?” Elaine didn’t answer him. She didn’t say anything. She cupped her hands under the faucet and drank without reservation, and when she thought she was finished she continued to drink, as if here at last was a desire that could be sated, a lacking that could be fulfilled. When she was finally done she felt almost sick. She thought she might throw up. The water pooled down around her chin and dripped into the sink, and she grabbed the towel hanging from the wall to wipe herself off.
When she came out into the other room Joey was standing in front of the window for all the world to see. He had his shirt unbuttoned, his hands on his hips, and at the sight of her reflection behind him he turned around and smiled. He was terrifically handsome; anyone who saw him would have said he was a catch. How many countless times Elaine had gazed at him and thought how lucky she must be, how divine of fortune to have smiled on her with such a gorgeous man—gorgeous like Vincent had been before he let himself grow old and fat.
“So?” he said. He’d just shaved, the cologne was strong and freshly applied, and Elaine could smell it from across the room. She was supposed to go over to him; she knew that was what she was supposed to do. He didn’t have his arms open or anything—nothing so obvious as that—but they were free, hanging down by his side, waiting to hold her. He had his shirt unbuttoned. “So?” he repeated. She stared at him, at his open shirt and the open window behind him, and she didn’t say anything, she just wished he would close his shirt.
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Portland Fiction Project
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