(an excerpt from the debut novel)
by Janyce Stefan-Cole
I was staring at another long hotel night, like looking through binoculars the wrong way. I opened up a carton of Trader Joe’s pumpkin soup, ate it with a glass of wine, washed the pot and bowl, and wondered what next. I killed some time going over neglected bank statements. I changed into a nightgown and was watching an old Bette Davis movie about a rich girl fooling around with mobster types, Fog over Frisco, when Andre came in at midnight. I think he must have been early. He slapped his phone down on the table and headed for the bottle of vodka in the freezer and one of the frozen glasses next to it. It must have been a bruising night.
“Get the shot you needed?” I called from the couch.
“Just,” he said downing the vodka and pouring out another, still standing. “Christ. The lighting people were going at it, taking all night. A simple shot. Christ.”
I was deciding whether I should shut the movie off, which I did not want to do; I was enjoying Bette. “But it came out all right?” I didn’t care if it did or not. I’m supposed to care, or at least act the part.
I knew he knew I was only being polite and would hate the cheapness of it. “Oh, stuff it,” he said, coming over to the couch. “Why didn’t you come down to the set?”
Things were turning foul; a squall was in the air. “I’m not ready for cameras…for that whole scene.”
“The camera would not be on you…” he said, not finishing his thought. A look of disgust surfaced and passed. “What is it you do all day?”
The question was out of bounds, and he knew it. What I did all day was an accounting that led inevitably back to what I had once done all day, and that led back to why I didn’t do it anymore. It was a question always hovering that we’d been dancing around for a long while; it was the DMZ we tacitly agreed to steer clear of at all costs. “I am going to bed,” he said to my silence. He shut the bedroom doors.
I turned off the television. “Good-night, Bette,” I said softly.
After his light went out I poured myself a brandy and went out onto the balcony, into the cold night air. The light was on in White Shirt’s garage; otherwise his house was dark. Most of the houses were dark. The hills looked like a village asleep. To the right, L.A. was eternally on: neon patches and low dark in-betweens, downtown lit up but not as much as New York’s downtown at night. A plane crawled silently across the sky.
Andre was never one for a good, meaty argument, not like Joe and I could go at it. He’s too aloof for that, or controlled. His passion is reserved for his work. I noticed our arguments were of shorter duration these days. They don’t resolve so much as peter out. Are we running out of ammo, the knives and darts growing dull, or are we tired or bored with the same old hurt? What is the same old hurt anyway between a man and a woman that the penis and vagina connecting does not bridge come the light of day or, better, lightless night? Some brief moment of tenderness soothing the ache?
I was wide awake. I already regretted agreeing to see Harry. Dammit! It was cold. Silver moonlight shone along the balcony rail. I leaned out to greet her majesty the moon, lying leisurely on her side, owning the night. I think it a form of sin to fail to greet the heavenly bodies when we encounter them. But what’s this? Leaning further out, bare feet and shoulders in my nightgown, the chill boring into my bones, my eyes glanced down to see a woman lift herself out of a large bed. I nearly gasped. The bed light shone on white-on-white linen, the same white sheets and white down quilt as on our bed. Flesh on white. I stood, rapt by the vision. Assuming the nymph had gone to the bathroom, I waited. After a minute I trotted soundlessly back inside for my cashmere shawl. “Naked girl exiting bed in still of night,” I told myself. I held my breath. But wait, that was one of our rooms, that was one of Andre’s people—the pretty little she returned to the bed. Lo! Another body! More white flesh on white sheeting.
Was the bedmate male or female, youthful, smooth androgyny from where I stood, looking down. The back windows in the rear of that small unit, below and across the drive from us, are below grade—at about car level. Most units have frosted louvered windows in back, squat rectangles above the beds. This window was clear. Could the lovers imagine being seen? Imagine another guest wide awake with a bird’s-eye view of their nakedness? Would they have dreamed that an accidental witness would stay and stare, her breath nearly taken away as the two young bodies briefly intertwined when the girl climbed back into bed? And would they suspect her delight when the other person got up to use the toilet, his maleness now on view? Oh, happy view.
Alone and under the quilt, the woman wiggled her hips. I knew the movement well. But was it a contented or an anticipatory wiggle? Had I witnessed the preamble or the postcoital moment? Oh, delicious moment to see the unconscious nakedness of lovers. The bathroom light went out. He returned, she sat up, and, legs tucked beneath her (I couldn’t quite see her breasts), leaned in his direction. She seemed exultant, alive at every pore. Did I sense a slight hesitation or unresponsiveness on his part? This would have been sensing a filament, a quiver in the air surrounding the lovers. Ah, she reached over and turned out the light.
I stood alone on the balcony, the aura of the scene stilling me, the intimacy of it. A mockingbird in mating was singing somewhere out to my left, the repertoire recited over and over. I walked quietly inside. What a gift this night had given me. Why did this delight me so? Voyeur, you will be punished!
Janyce Stefan-Cole was a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship; she’s a Boston Globe bestselling author in the cult classic Dick for a Day and a long-time resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“Hollywood Boulevard” Launch: April 11, 2012, 7pm
Conversation, Q&A, and book signing at WORD Bookstore
126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn, NY 11222