“Max, baby, who is this?” The woman is talking to Max, but looking at me. There is something oddly familiar about her, but I can’t believe that I would have forgotten this woman if I’d ever met her.
“Moira, this is my trainer, Paris—you remember him, and his friend, Rayne. Paris, Rayne, this is Moira, my girlfriend.” Max’s tone is smug as she presents Moira to us. I am mesmerized by Moira’s beauty and cannot look away.
“Paris, nice to see you again,” Moira says rather perfunctorily before turning to me. “Rayne! Such a pleasure!” Moira’s smile dazzles me, so unexpected is it. “You are a very stunning woman, you know?” I am taken aback. It isn’t every day that someone compliments me like that, especially one who looks like her. Especially when Paris is around. By the look on his face, he is not pleased to take the backseat for once. “I would love to sculpt you some time, if that’s all right with you.”
“Excuse me?” I am not usually easily flustered, but Moira is keeping me off-balanced.
“Come, talk to me,” Moira says and sweeps me away. I turn to wave to Paris, and I glimpse a look of rage on Max’s face before she can wipe it away. Moira links her arm through mine, pulling me closer. “Rayne. You have such exquisite bone structure. I bet your parents are stunning, as well.”
“My father is dead,” I say lamely, not sure what I’m supposed to say. I’m aware that I am breathing harder than normal, and I try to calm myself down. No matter how much I want this woman, she is off-limits by virtue of being Max’s partner. I don’t mess with other people’s monogamy even if I’m elastic about my own.
“I have got to feel these cheekbones!” Moira stops and faces me. I stop, too, uncertain what to do. Before I have time to think, Moira has her hands up and on my cheeks. I flush at the contact of her warm flesh on my flesh. I want to kiss her now. Just as I am about to do something foolish, she pulls away. “Just as I thought. Perfect. I have to have those cheekbones, and you must give them to me.” Uneasy images of unwilling surgery float through my mind. “I can be quite ruthless when I need to be.” She throws back her head and laughs. Her laugh is high and thin, not magical enough to match her exterior. It allows me to break from the spell she’s weaving around me, much to my relief.
“Um, maybe I should mingle,” I say, edging away from her. Despite the mismatching laugh, she is a disturbingly attractive woman, and I want to escape her Circe powers.
“You must think I’m nuts!” Moira lightly taps herself on the forehead with the heel of her right hand. “Hold on a minute.” She dashes from the room. I don’t know what to do, so I simply wait until she returns which she does with alacrity. “Here.” She presses a business card into my hand. It’s in the shape of an ‘M’, and is bright green. ‘Moira Kelley’ is slashed across it in the first leg. ‘Sculptoress Extraordinaire’ is slashed in the second. The address of her studio is slashed in the third. Her e-mail address and cell phone number in the fourth. It’s a clever business card, showing imagination.
“Very nice,” I say politely, holding it out to her.
“Keep it. Use it. Call me so we can set up a modeling session. I want those cheekbones.” The look she gives me says she wants more than my cheekbones, but I let it go. I tuck her card into my little black purse, snapping shut the metal clasp. “I want your number, too,” Moira commanded, holding out another of her cards and a black pen. I scrawl my name and cell number on it and hand it back to her. “Thanks,” Moira smiles, tucking the card into her bra, which I hadn’t even realize she was wearing. “I’ll be calling you ten times a day, every day, until you agree.”
“It may not take that long,” I say with a smile. “I’m easily persuadable.” Where did that come from? Before Moira can respond, Max swoops down on us and reclaims her property.
“Moira, there are other people clamoring for time with you. Come on.” Max grips Moira’s wrist firmly and drags her away.
“I’ll call you!” Moira yells over her shoulder at me as she allows Max to lead her to a group of people sitting on the floor.
“Well, looks like someone made a friend,” Paris says archly, materializing out of the blue. “Come outside and smoke with me so we can dish the dirt.” Paris allows himself three cigarettes a day. One in the morning, one sometime around noon, and one at night. I smoke when the spirit moves me. Tonight, it moves me. We go outside to the patio and light up. It is chilly as nights in San Francisco tend to be, so we huddle together for warmth. Neither of us have taken off our jackets yet, so we’re not completely freezing.
“I don’t get her, Paris,” I say without preamble. Paris has had much more experience dating than I, so he acts as my older brother in manners of the heart. “She says she wants to sculpt me, but it seemed like she was hitting on me at the same time.”
“She definitely wanted you,” Paris says, drawing on his American Spirit cigarette. He exhales with a little moan of pleasure. I have never known anyone who loves to smoke as much as Paris does.
“There was something else there, though,” I say, puffing on my cigarette. Since I smoke so rarely, I get an immediate buzz from the nicotine. Before we can continue, a couple of women materialize out of the house and into our territory.
“Hi, is this a private smoking session, or can anyone join?” The blond says brightly, honing in on Paris. The brunette doesn’t say a word, just stares at Paris with overt interest. It looks like they’re making it their mission to have a Paris sandwich by the end of the night. “Because, like, we were getting bored inside.”
“Have a seat, ladies,” Paris says grandly, gesturing the area opposite us, but doesn’t move away from me. That means that he’s not interested in either one enough to break the impression that we are a couple. “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”
“We definitely got ‘em,” the blond giggles. It’s hard to tell in the dim light, but she looks to be in her early twenties. She has crooked teeth which I suppose some guys would find endearing and big breasts which most guys would definitely find alluring. The brunette is petite and nondescript. Neither good-looking nor bad. Just your basic girl-next-door types. “My name is Sandy Harris. This is my friend, Thelma Anderson. We’re in the same writers’ group as Max.”
“I’m Paris, and this is Rayne,” Paris replies. He doesn’t introduce me as his friend, which is another indication that he is less than overwhelmed by Sandy and Thelma.
“Paris! What an interesting name!” Sandy bubbles, lighting her Camel Ultralights. Ultralights strike me as ridiculous. Might as well not be smoking at all. “How did you get it?”
“My mother was into Greek mythology,” Paris says solemnly. I stifle a giggle.
“So?” Sandy is confused. Kids today. I don’t know what is wrong with their education.
“Paris stole Helen of Troy, she of the face who launched a thousand ships fame, and started the infamous Trojan War,” Paris explains. “That’s my mother’s favorite myth, so she named me Paris. I have a sister named Helen, which is slightly nauseating, if you think about it.” His half-sister’s name is Mary. Named after the Virgin, of course.
“That is so romantic,” Sandy swoons, leaning toward Paris. Thelma leans, too, as if there is an invisible cord running from her to Sandy. I muffle a laugh, content to let Paris spin his tales. The thought of his mother naming him after a Greek mythology figure tickles my funny bone. If she had been as fanatical about her religion before she had Paris as she became after, he would have been named Paul.
“Isn’t it?” Paris crushes out his cigarette and shifts away from me. I know he wants to go back inside, so I stand up. He does the same. “Nice to meet you, ladies. Enjoy the night.” After smiling at both of them, we move back inside.
“You’re evil!” I punch him in the shoulder as soon as we are out of sight. “I love it when you’re bad!”
“It’s a great story, isn’t it?” Paris laughs.
“Yes, it is, Paris Frantz.” I squeeze his arm to show I’m just joking.
“Shhhhh,” Paris places a finger to my lips, looking quickly around him. “What am I supposed to say? My mom named me after the city because she and my father visited it on their honeymoon and thought it would be a nice tribute? Who knew that neither of them would figure out that with the last name of Frantz, I was in for a shitload of teasing?” He drops the tone. “I cannot believe that not once in the nine months she was carrying me, she didn’t say, ‘Paris Frantz’ and realize what she’d be doing to me.”
“No worse than Rainbow Freedom,” I retort. “Or Liberty Chastity, or whatever the hell my sister’s middle name is. Moonbeam? I think that’s it. Besides, if you hate your name so much, you can change it. That’s the American way.”
“Nah, I don’t mind now,” Paris shrugs. “Gives people something to talk about.”
“There you are, Paris!” Max flies on her broom over to us. “Neither of you has a drink! We must remedy that. What can I get you? We have champagne, rum, soda, orange juice, apple juice, vodka, sparkling water. Any of those appeal to you?”
“I’ll have a rum and coke,” I say. It’s my favorite cheap drink.
“Sparkling water for me,” Paris smiles. He waits for the response that is usually forthcoming.
“You sure you don’t want something alcoholic? I make a mean screwdriver.” Max emphasizes the screw in screwdriver, a smirk on her face as she does.
“Water is fine, Max,” Paris repeats. His father had been an alcoholic, and Paris does not want to turn into him. He rarely drinks, usually saving it for when it’s just the two of us.“Have you seen Moira, Max?” A slight, young man with hacked-off sandy blond hair and glazed-over blue eyes stumbles into the kitchen where we are. “Have you seen her? I need to talk to her about my technique. I need to talk to her about my technique!” His voice rises, and he doesn’t wait for a response. “Moira, I need Moira,” he moans as he makes his way outside. “Moira!” I am reminded of that scene in Streetcar Named Desire where Treat Williams bellows, ‘Stella!’, but this blasted young man does not have the same panache.
“God, I can’t stand him,” Max sneers. “That’s Danny, one of Moira’s stray pets. Protégés, she calls them. I call them trash.” I am shocked to hear this coming from Max who prides herself on being ultra-liberal, according to Paris. “He has absolutely no talent. I don’t know why Moira wastes her time on him.”
“Have you seen any of his work?” I ask, unable to hold back. Something about Max just rubs me the wrong way.
“I don’t need to,” Max snaps. “I know his kind. I’ve seen them a hundred times. Not-so-pretty boys who think they have the talent to make it. Well, they don’t.”
“Don’t get upset,” Paris soothes. “It’s not good for your heart rate. And remember, stress makes fat.” Immediately, Max smiles, trying to appear at ease. She can’t quite pull it off.
“I’ll make you that rum and coke, Rayne,” Max says to me. “And get you that sparkling water, Paris. Sure I can’t tempt you with something else?” The offer is automatic, rather than sincere.
“I’m sure.” Paris sighs, suddenly looking older than his years.
“How soon until we can blow?” I murmur, already bored.
“Not yet,” Paris admonishes me. “We just got here.” We wait in silence for Max to return with our drinks.
“Here we go!” Max hands me a rum and coke and an Evian to Paris.
“This is bottled water, not sparkling water,” Paris points out.
“So?” Max shrugs. “What does it matter?” After one last clutch of Paris’s arm, I decide to circulate. I hear snippets of conversations, but not enough to entice me. Three people are talking about their stock portfolios. I’m just trying to make enough not to get kicked to the curb, so I don’t bother stopping. A couple is arguing over who left out the sushi last night which is now stinking up their apartment. If there is one thing I know, it’s to never step in the middle of a domestic squabble.
“I love her,” an emaciated brassy blond sobs to her equally-thin male friend. “How can she do this to me?” The blond is clutching an oversized bag to her scrawny chest; it would take a bulldozer to separate her from her bag. She has a camera draped around her neck, but she’s not interested in taking any pictures at the moment.
“Anya, she’s with Max. You knew this when she seduced you!” The male friend is impatient with the blond woman’s drama, as I would be, too. Evidently, it is of her own making. He is puffing furiously at a Camel unfiltered, making me wince in sympathy for his lungs. He doesn’t even look around to make sure no one sees him ashing on the floor. I linger, wanting to hear more. I hope they won’t catch me, but they are too absorbed in their conversation to notice that I am paying close attention.
“She said it was over! She said she was leaving Max, that Max didn’t understand her! I wrote her love poems! She painted me!” Anya continues to weep as she spits out cliché after cliché. She is in her early twenties and either a junkie or anorexic. Or both. “Max didn’t like the rough stuff, thought it was sick. Moira knew she could trust me.” Anya falls into her friend’s arms, burying her face in his shirt. He hesitates, then starts patting her on the back. He looks around to see if anybody notices him being a sensitive male. I hurry away, but not before I hear, “I hate her!”
“I think Guy Ritchie is the most important director of our time,” a middle-aged, balding man with a gut says earnestly to a bored-looking woman who has obviously heard his spiel before. The man has the look of a dilettante, though I’m hard-pressed to say why. “I mean, look at Snatch. That was an absolute brilliant movie that spoke about the dissolution of the average male as he struggles to make sense of his life. It’s brutal! It’s compassionate! It’s funny! It’s heartwarming! It has flesh-eating pigs! Brilliant!” He pauses and awaits his companion’s response.
“I broke a fucking nail,” she spits out, her mouth set in a thin line. “Where’s my bag?” She finds her purse and roots around inside of it. “This just blows, Harry. It simply blows.” I shake my head and move to the next group of people. They are talking about Dubya, comparing him to Saddam.
“I mean, really, what’s the difference? Each strong-armed his way to power,” a thin, weedy guy sniffs through his nose. If he had glasses, he’d be pushing them up his nose by now. “Neither has any regard for the sentiments of his people.” He pronounces ‘neither’ with a hard I, which I find inexplicably sexy. I wonder if he says it that way in bed. I continue mingling. I am much more comfortable as listener than talker, so this suits me just fine. Unfortunately, I am nabbed by an older-looking gentleman wearing a suit and tie.
“I haven’t seen you at one of Max’s gatherings before, have I?” He asks, peering at me from over the top of bifocals. “I’m Emil Banks, by the way.” He holds out his hand to shake.
“No, this is my first time,” I say with a smile. And my last, but that would be impolite to say. “I’m Rayne Liang.”
“Ms. Liang, a pleasure to meet you. Max is a lovely girl, isn’t she? Though I must confess, I am a bit concerned for her.” Emil blinks several times, tugging at his mustache. His white hair is slicked back, but one lock refuses to listen and sticks straight up. I have the feeling it often rebels.
“Why is that, Mr. Banks?”
“Please, you must call me Emil,” he says hastily. “And I will call you Rayne, if I may.”
“That’s fine with me.” Call me old-fashioned, but I find his manners delightful, refreshing in our lax times.
“She’s been shaky since her divorce. Even though she’s been with Moira two years before the divorce.” I knew Max had been involved with Moira before her divorce, but not that much before.
“How long since the divorce?”
“Has to be over a year now.” That surprises me. From the way Paris talked about it, I had assumed that Max had just divorced her husband. I also garnered the assumption that Max uses Paris as a personal trainer to ‘get back in the dating world’ which doesn’t make much sense. I don’t know why I have these notions, then I shrug it off as unimportant. “Max was a mess when her husband dumped her, although it had been a long time in coming.” He pauses, enjoying himself. He sips lovingly at his drink, which better be a Courvoisier the way he’s fondling it.
“I thought she messed around on him the whole time they were married,” I exclaim. I don’t know if this is true or not; I just want to see how much I can make Emil divulge.
“No, he was messing around on her,” Emil corrects me. That doesn’t surprise me. If I were married to Max, I’d cheat on her, too. “Starting with his secretary, moving on to his personal trainer. No, it wasn’t Paris.” I didn’t think it was. Paris does not go for more than a ten-year age difference unless there is an obscene amount of money involved. He’s always said he’s not wasting his youth on the decrepit, that he has enough time for that when he’s old himself. “He was from the old school, though. Had a double standard. It was ok for him to have affairs, but not her. Especially not with women.”
“What a prick,” I comment. Emil nods his head, then takes another sip of his drink.
“It is a good thing they didn’t have children. It would be devastating. I should know. I have two, a boy and a girl, and they were traumatized when my wife and I divorced.” Emil looks unhappily at the ground, clearly not as comfortable talking about his own life as he is talking about others’.
“How old were they?” I ask, imagining poor little tykes bewildered over what was happening.
“They were fifteen and eighteen, respectively,” Emil replies. Seeing the look on my face, he hastily adds, “We’d been having problems for years before that, though. My kids are now twenty and twenty-three.”
“How did they turn out?” I ask idly, wishing I had something to drink; I had long since finished my rum and coke. I look around for someone circulating with a tray, but there isn’t anyone.
“Tony, my boy, is a third-year student at Harvard, pre-law,” Emil says proudly. His eyes drop to his wine glass before he continues. “My daughter, however, well, she’s another story.” It’s clear by his tone that he doesn’t want to talk about his daughter, so I don’t press him.
“Tell me more about Max,” I say. His does so with alacrity.
“You know the saying that a person tends to go for the same type over and over again? It’s pretty much true in Max’s case, poor thing. Moira is lovely to look at, but she’s cut from the same cloth as good old Harrison.” It takes me a minute to figure out that Harrison is Max’s ex.
“Moira sleeps around?” I try to keep my voice neutral. It won’t do to reveal my own interest in the matter.
“She certainly does,” Emil says with relish. Whoever said that women loved gossip more than men has never met Emil. His nostrils are actually quivering as he imparts his knowledge. “In this room alone, I can point out three women she’s slept with. She’s quite the tramp.” There’s an undercurrent of anger in his voice which is out of context with what he is saying. I am intrigue by the venom and decide to goad him to see if he’ll say any more.
“She seems like a nice woman. She asked me to sit for her.” I throw that out there, seeing if he’ll take the bait. Not only does he take it, he runs with it.
“You better watch out,” he snorts, placing his hand on my arm. “That’s her favorite way of picking up her victims. I’ll give her credit, though, she is an adequate sculptor.” His eyes flash before he’s able to control them. Definitely, he’s been personally affected by Moira in some way. Before I was merely curious, but now I’m dying to know how.
“I think I can hold my own. I still say she’s a nice woman.” I watch Emil carefully to see his reaction. There is a tiny moue of anger, but nothing else.
“My dear, take it from someone who knows. That woman is poison and nothing else. I would stay as far away from her and her studio as possible if you know what’s good for you.” He drains the rest of his drink and looks at his glass longingly. “I think it’s time for a refill. May I get you anything?”
“Rum and coke,” I say with a smile. I am intrigued more by what he’s not saying than by what he is.