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PALM BEACH, March 1996
Almost everyone had heard of the family’s mansion on Ocean Boulevard, but very few had been there. A large part of the reason I had agreed to go to Florida, to spend my spring break with McFetridge, was simply to get inside. We were staying at his parents’ place, down the road in Delray, but every night we were invited to a party or a gathering somewhere, and this was the crowning event, cocktails at the iconic Spanish Revival house on the beach, where, it was promised, the Senator himself would be present.
I would speak to him as a guest of a guest in his house. Senator, yes, George Becket here. I admire your work on . . . What did I admire his work on? Any liberal cause, I suppose. I was twenty-two and filled with grandiose ideas. And then I was there, in his house, surrounded by people wearing silk and linen for a supposedly informal gathering where everyone acted as though it was normal for men in white jackets to park your car and women in black pinafores to serve champagne in crystal flutes carried on silver trays; and I had no opportunity to say anything more than, “Hello, Senator, thank you for having me.”
I had entered in McFetridge’s wake and we had been greeted by several family members who were not so much stationed in the foyer as conversing in its vicinity. I stood to the side while McFetridge went about kissing women’s cheeks and shaking men’s hands.
McFetridge seemed to know everyone. He knew them from a sailing race he did each May between Hyannisport and Nantucket, from Christmas-week ski trips to Aspen, from clubs to which his parents belonged, from prep school. “Nan . . . Eastie . . . Harlan . . . this is my friend Georgie.”
I had gone to prep school, too, but not Hotchkiss, St. Paul’s, Groton, or even Milton. In my brief exchanges with his friends, I found myself mentioning the dominance of my school on the athletic fields, courts, tracks, and pools of New England. We didn’t even play their schools. We played Andover, Exeter, Choate, Deerfield, and beat them all. I caught looks that said, You want to talk about that? And I would scramble for something else to say. “You guys always had a good crew team, didn’t you? Going to Henley this year?” Sometimes I would be ignored, sometimes abandoned. George thought he was having a conversation one moment; George was all by himself the next.
I wandered through large rooms with red tiled floors, nodding at everyone who caught my eye and smiling at those who seemed to be wondering who I was. There were pictures on the walls, pictures in bookcases, pictures on shelves and on top of the grand piano. Pictures of members of the family with the pope, Churchill, Desmond Tutu. I wondered if Desmond Tutu had the same picture in his house. I wondered if the pope did.
Eventually I found myself standing next to a striking young woman who seemed similarly out of touch with everyone else at the party. She had thick black hair that swept past her shoulders and green eyes that probably sparkled when they weren’t so glazed with drink. Kendrick Powell, she said her name was, and she was a student at Bryn Mawr. I had been there once, for a mixer, and I knew just enough about the school to keep the conversation going. And then one of the cousins appeared holding two very large cocktails in his hands. Palm Beach Specials, he said they were, and he had just made them.
He handed a drink to each of us and then he was gone, and we were left sipping fancy combinations of liquor and fruit juice out of tall frosted glasses. “Are you part of the family?” she asked, and I told her no, I was a friend of a friend. She looked as though she had to consider that, whether it was worth her time to continue talking to me if I was only a friend of a friend of the family, and then the friend himself appeared. Paul McFetridge, with his dangerous smile and his air of knowing exactly what was going on, delivering yet another Palm Beach Special to the already intoxicated Ms. Powell. He rather absently handed me one as well, and now I stood with a Palm Beach Special in each hand, feeling rather like McFetridge’s butler, his man George, as he shouldered his way between Kendrick and me. Elliot was here, did she know Elliot? She didn’t know Elliot. Wonderful squash player, Elliot. She didn’t play squash.
I finished one of the drinks in a single long swallow and put the glass down on whatever surface I could find. It was immediately scooped up by one of the waitstaff, who was gone before I could even say “Sorry.”
And then McFetridge, too, was gone, replaced by two more of the cousins, Peter Gregory Martin and Jamie Gregory, and I was pushed to the outskirts of the conversation once again. It had been Kendrick and me. Then Kendrick and McFetridge and me. Then Kendrick and Peter and Jamie, and I was left with no one to talk to, nothing to do but hold my place while Peter chatted her up.
What had they talked about? What do rich girls discuss when they are at the homes of even richer people whom they do not know personally, but whom they know all about? Peter had offered her things. You ever Jet Ski? We’ve got a couple, you want to go out on the ocean with us? Maybe tomorrow. Oh, wait, there’s a polo match. Have you ever been to a polo match? Jamie, half a head shorter, had chimed in, telling her what a hoot they are, spread out a blanket, get a couple of bottles of champagne. What did I have to offer? I had no place to go tomorrow. No place to go even while they were talking to her.
Maybe that was why I agreed to join the tour when Peter and Jamie offered to show Kendrick the rest of the house. They said, “C’mon,” and I went. Tagged along. Not to have done so would have meant standing alone.
The thing about the senator was that despite his flaws, and he had many of them, he was an incredibly nice guy. He was also very polite. When he saw what was happening—when he opened the door and stuck his head into the room, saw that the girl was not protesting, saw that her eyes were open—he simply pulled his head back and shut the door. This was no place for him.
The thing about me was that I wasn’t doing anything, which was both my saving grace and my ultimate shame.
I had thought we were going to look at pictures, such as the ones I had seen already. Oh, my, look. There’s Jacques Cousteau! Willy Brandt! James Earl Jones! I had been thinking that we were going to visit rooms where important people had gathered: statesmen and politicians, artists and actors and writers and singers, educators and generals, industry leaders and social activists. That we were going to stop to admire mementos given by one celebrity to another. But instead we went directly to the far end of the house, down a long hall and away from the rest of the revelers to the library. Where it was quiet. Where we shut the door behind us.
Except the door did not quite shut before Peter stopped in his tracks and looked rather blearily at me. He was a fairly large man, his face pink, his eyes light blue, and for a moment he seemed uncertain who I was or what I was doing there. And then it came to him, I was McFetridge’s friend. “Georgie,” he said, as though he was responding to a quiz.
“Why don’t you go and get us another round of those specials?”
I still had one in my hand. I didn’t need another round. I had done nothing but drink since I arrived. I looked at Kendrick. Her glass was empty except for the ice. She had drunk two to my one, and neither Peter nor Jamie seemed to have anything. I tilted my glass to my mouth and for the second time drained everything in it in one very long swallow. “Okay,” I said.
When I left, Kendrick was standing in a corner of the library, staring at a painting. When I returned, she was on the couch. Both shoes were off. Her feet were up on the cushions. Her knees were up and her black dress had slid a fair way down her thighs.
I had four red drinks and was clutching them together so that extraction of any single glass had to be done quite carefully. “Oh, thank you!” she cried as I bent at the waist to give her first choice. I turned then to Peter, who was positioned down by Kendrick’s feet, one haunch on the couch cushion, one leg extended behind him, almost as if he was ready to start a sprint. “Put them over there, Georgie,” he said, waving to a credenza that was under the painting I had seen Kendrick admiring.
The painting turned out to be a Winslow Homer. I was pretty sure it was a Homer. A seascape illuminated by a spotlight that did little more than emphasize how dark and dusty the painting was, as though nobody had paid attention to it for a very long time. Kendrick was drinking. Peter and Jamie had taken up positions on either end of her. And I was staring at the Homer. Ah, the patina provides a palpable sense of the perils of pursuing a large poisson in a small boat on the open sea after dark.
I think the Senator looked in when Peter was still half on the couch and half off. When he was still wearing his blazer. When it was possible to look from the door to the couch and not be absolutely positive what was going on.
But what was going through my mind?
Was anything? Was I just there, holding the remains of my third Palm Beach Special? Kendrick, by this point, had had at least three, which was why she was in the condition she was, more or less spread-eagled on the couch in the library, saying nothing, doing nothing, while Peter and Jamie moved their hands over her. While I stood by, a half-smile on my face.
Was I smiling?
I try to imagine that I wasn’t. But what else would I have been doing? Peter wasn’t paying any attention to me, but Jamie kept looking up and grinning almost maniacally. What are you supposed to do when someone grins at you like that? When you barely know him? When you are a guest in his family’s house? Like the Senator, I was being polite.
I think now I should have slapped that grin off Jamie’s face. Now when I see his picture in a newspaper or a magazine I remember the way he looked at me and it literally makes my stomach turn. Sometimes I gouge his face out of the picture, leave just a hairline and a body, usually clad in a sport coat, a white shirt, a loose tie, khaki pants. Even when I do that you can still tell who it is, by the hairline and the family uniform.
Back then I didn’t slap, didn’t gouge. I just watched. It was only when I thought Peter was going to hurt her that I stepped in. Hurt her. Jesus, what was I thinking before, that she wasn’t being hurt? Hurt, harmed. I didn’t want him to do physical damage to her. Permanent damage. Go ahead, abuse her. Foul her. Debase her. But don’t hurt her.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. What was I thinking?
Peter was looming over her, looking like a Cape buffalo eyeing its prey. He had one hand on the back of the couch, one hand on the coffee table. She was leaning back. To lean back meant tucking herself into the corner of the couch. Was she trying to escape or was she relaxing? One bare foot was on top of the couch. A narrow foot at the end of a long, slender, well-tanned leg.
Why do I remember that part? Was that what I was looking at?
Kendrick wasn’t saying anything. Had she not paid attention when Jamie kneeled on the floor behind her head? Did she not care when he put his hands on her shoulders, when he started rolling his wrists to make the transition from black cloth to bare skin? Wasn’t he making little cackling sounds like a roulette ball makes when it drops into a slot?
Peter was stroking her ankle, her shin, sliding his hand up to her knee, sliding it back down her calf. Couldn’t she have pulled the leg away? Especially when his hand, on the third or fourth passage, went over the apex formed by her knee and slid down her thigh? The front of her thigh. And then around the side, to someplace where the black dress had bunched. Peter’s hand disappeared, then came into sight again as it traced its way along the back of her leg to the crux of her knee. Where it lingered. Where it twisted and turned in a gentle little screwing motion designed to open the angle between calf and thigh. And all the while he was talking to her, complimenting her, murmuring something about her perfume. He recognized her perfume.
If you are just standing there and a girl, a college girl, who seems to know so much more than you about things that count, isn’t protesting that two men are touching her with increasing intimacy, is it up to you to tell her she should be? Is it up to you to ask if she is all right when she isn’t saying anything about the one man’s hands down the top of her dress and the other man’s up the bottom of it?