The last thing Virginia expected was Stewart’s silence on the matter. She’d braced herself to see him sitting in the chair waiting and had even rehearsed her lines: “I know you don’t approve, but I think it will be fun. I need you to take in my lesson plans for my afternoon classes. The seniors will be with me.” She’d said them several times in the car.
But the living room was empty except for sound. The plaintive sounds of “La Traviata” soared through the house, including of course, this stage set of a room. Things were tidied up as always, although a paper flower, she now noted, had been stranded under one end table: a bouffant, abandoned white chrysanthemum. Virginia stood in the middle of the room, clutching her school satchel and her handbag, setting down neither. The opera was somewhere in its second half, the music sad and beseeching, and for a moment it disoriented her altogether.
Okay: she was going to see Henry tomorrow, for sure; that fool Tom had made a pass; her husband was downstairs, no doubt angry again; she owned a one-piece bathing suit somewhere (where?) that she had to find: where to start?
She started with the Edward Hopper book, which she realized was among the thick books on the coffee table’s lower shelf. Stewart had chosen those books because of the color of their jackets to be permanent fixtures. There it was: Office at Night: the man, the woman, the paper, a sort of secrecy.
The metallic rattle of a cocktail shaker advanced on her, Stewart was using both hands, the shaker at head level right, then left, like some aberration of a Jamaican dancer, and advancing on her. “So, you’re home,” he said. “At last.”
Close up Virginia could see that he’d probably already had at least one martini already.
“And studying,” he observed, leaning over her open book. “Very impressive.”
Virginia slammed it closed and heaved it back to its place, relaxing a bit. Stewart’s sarcasm was a weak and familiar weapon; surely he had an additional arsenal. She waited, braced this time, to defend herself. She was an independent agent, she’d say; she could go on a school trip if she wanted.
Stewart returned to the kitchen, poured his drink, and went back downstairs.
That’s where the bathing suit was--downstairs in the trunk in the laundry room, where she stored summer stuff. She followed him down. The family room (they actually called it that, family room) was in an imposed twilight with the drapes drawn. Stewart sat upright with his drink on his chair, strategically placed to absorb all four speakers at once, like a wax figure (a handsome one) advertising a sound system.
She switched on the light in the laundry room, rifled through the trunk and pulled out a red one-piece she’d bought a few years before. Henry will like this! she thought, and it’ll be modest enough around the legs. She’d do a Nair treatment before bed. In the next room in operatic strains Margarita was dying: she’d sacrificed her one true love. Suddenly Virginia realized that “La Traviata” was about a courtesan, a hooker, for god’s sake. Surely Stewart’s intent.
“Nice choice,” he said, as she traipsed back to the stairs, bathing suit dangling from her hand. “What all instructors should wear to the prom. And red.”
Virginia froze momentarily. Stewart had given her the play of Traviata—libretto, it was called—and knew she knew about the white flowers, the red.
“I have things to do,” she said, heading for the stairs.
He grabbed her by the arm and turned her around. “Have you considered seeing a doctor?” he said.
“How drunk are you?”
“How crazy are you?”
“I have things to do,” she said again, not even pulling away. In an odd way, it was sort of nice to have his fingers wrapped around her forearm; it felt like something that should happen, a physical contact of sorts, husband and wife. Jesus! It’s what they were.
He squeezed harder then released her dramatically. She realized he was waiting for the final chord, timing his gesture, living in some fantasy world. That was the last thing she’d expected, too, that what she was fighting against wasn’t even substantial. What did that say of her?
She’d have to think about it. She had a grip (Ruth, the v.p.’s word) to pack: a grip.
She’d get a grip.