What Lies Beneath
One person’s disaster is another person’s talking point.—Henry Rollins
“I’m home!” Constantia sang out as she tossed her keys onto the table, hanging up her coat in the closet.
No answer. It was quiet—and roasting hot. She smelled coffee, sex and something damp. Damn. A mug turned upside down in the sink. “Liar,” she said softly to herself.
She knocked on Paulette’s door, which was open. “Pauli?”
From the doorway, she surveyed the darkened room. Lit by hundreds of Christmas lights, the floor was littered with heaps of clothes, DVD cases, one sneaker, takeout debris, a few crumpled beer cans and a gym bag. Paulette, bundled in a heavy sweater, sweatpants and wool socks, sat hunched against the headboard, watching a movie with her arms around her knees.
“Well?” Constantia demanded, but Paulette only looked at her and turned back to the movie. Constantia tipped her chin toward the mess of the room. “Don’t play coy with me! It wasn’t you that left the kitchen like that. I know he was here.”
Paulette acquiesced, clicking the volume down a few notches. The sounds of surging water and panic still sounded faintly in the background. “Yeah, so?” she said, her voice faint, lifeless. “Things good with Fred?”
“Absolutely,” Constantia said with a smirk as she picked her way across the messy floor. “We argued about Debord this morning; it turns him on. Couldn’t be better.”
“I’m glad,” Paulette said with emphasis, to cut off the inquiry, but it didn’t work.
Constantia couldn’t make out all that was in that face: sleepless, dark circles under her eyes, maybe a hint of restlessness too. Where was Paulette’s usual brightness and energy? No boasting, no excited recitation of details, none of her funny, stinging criticism of the timing, lust, and imagination of the latest man she’d taken on.
They’d been like kids on the playground last night, hitting and chasing each other because they didn’t know what else to do with the feelings that were carrying them away, so she had figured, given the opportunity…
Constantia was not for letting her off the hook so easily. “What happened? Please tell me he wasn’t a bastard to you.”
“Hardly. He’s one dirty, sweet, mixed-up mess, but… You saw him, didn’t you? He’s OK?” she asked with a hush that suggested something behind the words.
“Why wouldn’t he be?”
Paulette turned the volume back up as Jack screamed “Run!” and the hull of the great ship split.
Constantia plucked a coverless paperback from the bed and sat down.
“Ike looked like he was run over by a truck, frankly, not that he had a word to say about it—“ and at this a grin flickered on Paulette’s face and ghosted away “—but the second I walked in here it added up to you guys getting pretty frisky.”
Paulette sighed. She was watching the desperate lovers, trapped behind the gate, a resolute witness who could not help, though the freezing water rose higher and higher. “Can we not talk about this?”
“That’s certainly novel.”
“You really want the lowdown on your boyfriend’s best friend? Plan to compare and trade?”
Constantia tossed her head impatiently. “I don’t get you! The first time you ever track a guy across two whole months and you suddenly don’t want to say anything?”
“Maybe there’s nothing to say. Look, Con, right now, I’m so worn out, I don’t even know what the hell I’m thinking. If anything. Nothing would probably be better.”
“Then something is upsetting you—“
“Will you just shut up about it already?”
The steward put a gun to his head and Constantia grabbed the remote and shut the movie off. Titanic. Whatever.
“Baby,” she said, rubbing Paulette’s shoulder. “This isn’t like you. I’m worried. You aren’t talking, Ike’s not talking—“
“Leave Ike out of it!” With that the floodgates burst and Constantia lifted her hand, stricken, as Paulette rubbed her face brutally to make the tears stop. “Why do you have to do this? No means no for everyone except you, is that it?”
“That’s a terrible thing to say!”
“Then back off. Look, good things come and bad things come like flipping pages in an album. Oh, look, Happy!” she said, miming the turning page and its reaction. “Oh no, Sad. It’s how it is. No one likes it when the good page turns, but it will, it always does. But sad page comes and you just bounce along like you can change the world if only you’re perky enough.”
Constantia felt indignant tears in her eyes. “How can you hate me so much?”
Reddened eyes looked up at her from a face that had quieted again. “Don’t be silly. Of course, I don’t hate you. I just want to be with… with what-is for a while, before it changes. Can’t it just be mine for now?”
Constantia pouted, but nodded.
“You want to watch movies with me?”
“Sure, kid. Of course.” Constantia blew her nose and got up. “Just so you know, I will kill that man if he messed with you.”
For some reason, that remark brought forth a tiny childlike smile. “I don’t think he kills that easy,” Paulette said, dropping her head back to the wall. “You’ll really need to apply yourself.”
Constantia stared at her. No more was forthcoming, but it didn’t matter; she knew the routine. Gathering an armful of pillows, her duvet, cell phone and DVDs, she was still haunted by anxious presentiment. Maybe she’d been wrong to hope those two would hit it off, wrong to drag Paulette along with her so often, wrong to think Paulette ought to have a nice boyfriend like she did, put an end to all of those dangerous hook-ups of hers. Settle down. If she had reasons to keep men at arm’s length, who was she to judge? Still, there was something unsaid about last night that had turned Paulette into a scared teenager again, clinging to movie hopes and dreams in place of her own. And yet it could be catharsis, a few carefree hours, when life felt like a flypaper tangle that had you by the wings; there was nothing like a moment’s abandon to burn the glue to dust and set you free again.
The movie was back on: the captain clutching the wheel as green water flooded the cabin, burying him; the lovers hurtling through panicked crowds to the shrilling chorus of explosions and screams. “Any chance we can ditch Titanic? I hate this part—the poor guy is doomed and you know it.”
Paulette shivered, clutching the red blanket. “Something with Bill Murray or John Cusack?”
Constantia smiled, sorting through the DVD cases. “Okay then. Let’s see… we have Groundhog Day and Say Anything.”
Constantia swapped out the discs and settled into the nest. There were other movies, too, in the heap between them. She’d have to teach him some day. Maybe. If there was any chance this little liaison could survive. And if it didn’t and Ike was to blame, God help her, she would knock him silly, since apparently he couldn’t be killed outright. Whatever that meant.
Missed the first half? Find it here. Ready for the next one?