Our quick breath encircled our heads in the late-winter air as he pulled me by the hand, through lines of Model Ts and Cadillac Coupes, toward the glow of the Colonial Theatre. My body coursed with elation and guilt, every bit as intoxicating as the rum drinks he'd mixed for us out of the trunk of his car. The frenzy of the Jazz Age had overflowed from the cities into smaller towns like ours in music, film, fashion, and literature, resulting in restlessness and tension between generations and ideals. Fueled by the energy of the new, we had toasted our agreement: That night it was only us in the world, and we would live like it was ours.
He'd lifted a triple-stranded pearl necklace over my head and set it on my skin, kissing the scar on my collarbone, a relic from the first night we'd found each other. He whispered that the neck lace was only costume jewelry, but one day he'd buy me the real thing.
As we hurried toward the theater it occurred to me that time was made of moments like doorways one could never go back through to the way it was after crossing them. That night was a doorway, but I had no power to stop our passage. Distant church bells ignited my doubts like incense, however, and I dug my heels into the grass. When my love turned to see why I'd stopped, his profile stirred me-the sharp jawline, the fine sheen on his skin from his exertion, his pale blue eyes shining from the light of the theater. I often think of him that way, outlined in the lights, with the grin of the waxing crescent moon over us, leading me toward the most exhilarating night of my life.
"It's all right," he said. "We've come this far:'
Cold air tickled my neck from my newly bobbed blond hair. I glanced down at my gold evening dress and touched the match ing feathered headband I'd sewn in secret, night after night, hid ing it from my father and even my sister, losing sleep because I knew they must not know. They wouldn't approve or understand, and my younger sister would have wanted to come. In the eigh teen years since her birth, just a year after mine, I'd never kept anything from Marie, but that night I wanted something for my self, alone.
My love had motored us an hour north and east from our
Hudson River Valley town of Chatham, New York, to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to see the Ziegfeld Follies-a daring show featuring the most beautiful girls, talented dancers, and elaborate traveling production in the world. The famous Denishawn Dancers were fresh from the Orient, in company with their well-known leaders, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and the glamorous Marilyn Miller, preparing to dazzle the sold-out crowd. The car ride had been thrilling and terrifying- a reminder of the first night we'd officially met, when we'd traveled these roads but things had gone very wrong.
I allowed him to continue leading me toward the theater. Competing perfumes hung in the air over the line of theatergoers we joined that bordered the building. Street scalpers hid in the shadows behind the Colonial, trying to sell their tickets. I squeezed my love’s hand and leaned into him, relishing the freedom to do so in public, away from the disapproving eyes of our town. He wrapped his arms around me and nuzzled my neck.
I noticed a woman of about thirty in a sagging gray dress and coat, wringing her hands and pacing in what looked like indecision. She stood near a scalper and flicked her gaze between the theater and the man before finally approaching him and offering him something from her threadbare clutch. He looked her up and down and rolled his eyes, shaking his head. I could see only the back of her, her unwashed hair in a flimsy bun, and the soles of her shoes so scuffed and worn, I imagined she could feel the chill of the ground reaching through them.
The scalper shooed her away, and when she turned toward me, she nearly broke my heart. She was crying-crying because she couldn't go in to see a show.
"Laura, why are you so troubled?"
The woman removed a crumpled handkerchief from her purse and wiped her nose.
"She doesn't have enough money to go in," I said, "and she
looks as if her life depends upon it."
He followed my gaze and saw her. His eyebrows knitted together.
"Do you have any cash?" I asked. "I have two dollars. The
tickets are five, though who knows how much he's charging for them?"
He hesitated a moment, but when he saw the look in my eyes, he pulled a five from his wallet and said, "Let's give her a night like we've given ourselves."
He walked over to the man and bought the ticket, and brought it back to me. "You give it to her. You saw her. And I don't want her to think I'm some kind of chisel."
She had started to walk away, so I hurried after her. “Ma’a.”
She turned, and looked with curiosity over my headband and dress peeking through my open coat. I could see her wondering what a ritzy gal like me wanted with the likes of her. I nearly told her that I was usually dressed as plainly as she, but I didn’t want to insult her.
"I have an extra ticket, and noticed that you wanted to go in;' I said. "Please take it."
She looked to the left and right and then back at me with a troubled expression, as if she thought I was trying to frame her. This was a woman unused to kindness.
"Please," I said, smiling to reassure her. "The doors are opening. We don't want to miss any of the show."
She hesitated a moment, and then took the ticket. "Thank you. May I give you what I have?" She held out a dollar bill.
"No," I said.
"Laura," he called.
"Enjoy," I said, and hurried to him. When I looked back at the woman, I could see her eyes glistening in the marquee lights.
As white spotlights rolled around the theater, the music of the fifty-piece orchestra began with the brassy majesty of a Hollywood production. I clenched my love's hand, dizzy with excitement and awe. The heavy red velvet curtain rose, revealing a long, curving staircase in front of a shimmering silver curtain. Three chandeliers lifted, and lights embedded in the arches over the fixtures and woven through the silver curtain twinkled in time to the music.
The procession of the famous Ziegfeld girls began down the stairs, women of extraordinary beauty and grace parading like swans in white-feathered headpieces and sequined bodysuits. I was astonished to see their long, bare legs, and covered my mouth while meeting my date's gaze. He smiled and squeezed me close to him before he turned back to face the stage.
They began singing the opening number, while a seemingly endless parade of male dancers in front from either side, pairing up with the women as they reached the bottom of the staircase, and leading them to the four corners of the stage. I could barely stand to move my eyes off the performers, but I wanted to take in the audience around me. I scanned the boxes and rows, and found the woman from outside who almost hadn't made the show. She wore a look of ecstasy that moved me.
I returned my focus to the stage, not moving for the rest of the production. From birds to angels, gods and goddesses, I was transfixed by the transformations of the dancers. As the finale approached, Ruth St. Denis danced "The Gold and Black Saree" in a costume tinkling with gold charms and lined in fringe. Watching the way the lights caught the fabric as it clung to and flung away from her body in response to the movements, seeing this American girl transformed into an Indian woman, noting the near hypnosis of the audience, I knew that I wanted be a part of this world. This symphony of sound, light, fabric, and motion aroused a deep longing inside me.
When the show ended with a crescendo, the audience held its collective breath for a long moment, and finally erupted into an ovation. I gazed around at the eager, happy faces and spotted the woman from earlier. She appeared relaxed, exuberant, lit from within. I caught her eye and her smile warmed me. No matter what the critics said about the bare skin, exorbitant production costs, and provocative dances, the show had transformed her, as it had me, and I was glad to have seen it.
Silence filled the car on the drive home. We traveled along dark winding roads, watching the shiver of the breeze through the shadows of budding branches, feeling the melancholy of reality again burdening us. I removed my headband and ran my fingers over the silken feathers, wondering if I'd ever again get to wear such a beautiful costume. I realized it was the and me there on frequent weekend hikes, but we would never have attempted such a dangerous climb in the dark. Recklessness still pumped through my body, and I wanted some truth to my excursion so I wouldn't betray myself to my father, and especially to Marie.
"Are you sure?" he said. "You're not too tired?"
I was tired-to my bones-but I couldn't stand the thought of the night ending and of no longer being with him, and having to pretend we didn't love each other.
The light from the moon did little to illuminate the deep shadows in the woods. I removed my high heels and slipped on loafers while keeping on the dress. The car crunched to a stop on the gravel, and we got out and started off on the path to the falls. A false spring had tricked us with early budding, until a cold snap sent us reeling back to winter. Frost encased the trees. My teeth chattered, but I stormed ahead, feeling the energy from earlier reassert itself
"Laura, wait!" he called.
I lunged back and grabbed his hand, pulling him behind me on the path, feeling the wind in my hair, allowing a laugh to rise in my throat. I looked back at him, and his smile had returned.
The forest closed in over us, and it wasn't long before the
rushing of the falls grew. He struggled to keep up with me as I ran forward. I slid to a stop in the clearing before the magnificent waterfall as a great slab of ice plummeted over the edge above us and crashed into the pools below. Frozen chunks sat like puzzle pieces on the banks, dislodged and crowded, bobbing in the riv er's thaw.
I strained to hear the sad ghosts' cries, but heard only the falls, and because people had died by slipping on the rocks or diving into the shallows, many thought this place held a curse.
I felt no curse that night. I felt only my lover's arms around
me as I fell into him. He grabbed my waist and pulled me close. Our passion, left smoldering by months of stealth and guilt, had finally ignited from our excursion of drinking, adventure, and abandon. I threw my arms around his neck and gave him my love without reserve. No caution or wariness held me back now. No one was around to judge me, and at that moment, I didn't care for the opinion of another soul in the world. I only knew that this night was a gift we had agreed to give to each other, and by God, we gave it-the fullest expression of our love. We joined ourselves forever in ways we hadn't taken time to consider or weigh. We knew only that we had to consummate our love, no matter what the cost.
Our guests' train arrives late, so we are already tight when they come. My husband, Eugen, holds up a torch he's made of hickory, parading the party up the walk and through the sleet. I carry the gin outside and make each of them take a healthy swig from the bottle before gaining entrance.
Elaine runs her hands up the sides of my costume, grazing my breasts before pulling me into her. She suddenly pushes away and says with fierceness, "How I've missed you.”
I do not embrace her back, but instead, give her my cruelest smile. "Tonight, I am an houri, so I'm for the men. Not you."
She pouts, while Floyd, one of my old lovers, pushes around her and lifts me off the ground. I wrap my legs around him as he pretends to ravage my neck. I laugh and allow him to carry me into the house and to the parlor, where he drops me on the settee, and I drop the empty bottle of gin on the rug. He kisses me full on the mouth, and I feel him stir through the thin fabric of my dress.
"I must stay pure," I say, "if I'm to escort you to paradise:' He laughs with wickedness as the poet Elinor Wylie pulls him off me and exchanges her body for his between my legs. She nuzzles me and I feel myselfstir.
"Surely you'll make an exception for me," she whispers.
I look into her eyes from inches away. I want to tell her that I'll always make an exception for her, but my demon returns. "Time shall tell:'
Her face hardens and she stands, allowing me up from the couch. I adjust my headdress and climb onto the sofa so I can see all of them. The rest of the group comes singing and tumbling into the room, and once they are in, the small crowd gazes up at me. I know I am impressive in my costume, and I can feel the desire humming in the room as so many of my lovers, current and past, male and female, watch me, wanting to possess me.
Using the flaming bundle ofhickory in a daring and danger ous fashion, Eugen, dressed as the Maharaja, lights sticks of in cense we brought back from our Oriental travels, and then tosses the bundle into the fireplace. While my guests warm themselves, I jump down from the settee, approach my old lover Margot, and slip my arm through hers.
"Come," I say. "Let us fetch the costumes. Dressing up allows inhibitions to fall down.”
Margot smiles at me with downcast eyes, and I see a blush creeping up her neck. I reach up to stroke her skin with the back of my right hand, and feel Elinor's gaze fixed on us. I speak just loud enough for Elinor to hear.
"How can I forget?" says Margot.
"Why would you want to?" I reply. I look sideways at Elinor and she turns away. Margot and I giggle as we run up the stairs to the trunks of Chinese trousers, Turkish silks, sarongs and slippers, and carry them back down as an offering to the party. My lovers remove their clothing and dance around the fire like devils, telling stories, acting parts, making love and mayhem, and rising to the most delightful level of intoxication, and when the night and our tightness begin to press on us with their weight, Floyd talks of the good old days in Greenwich Village when the war had ended, and we performed plays, and were poor and young and free.
''I'll never forget the day we walked into Vincent's apartment," says Floyd, "and she and her sister Norma sat like two old ladies sewing while the most magnificent swearwords tumbled from their mouths from around the sides of the cigarettes they smoked."
"I had to teach her to curse out loud, and smoke, and walk around without a corset;' I say. "It took two days of nonstop debauchery to break her. I was positively ill."
"Such a family," says Margot. "In Paris, Vinny's mother would sit in the corner- a true old lady, smoking and swearing and watch us drink and fall all over one another without judgment."
"I love my dear mother," I say, "and it's been too long since
I've seen her. Uge, we must visit her soon."
"Yes, love," says Eugen. "We shall as soon as the roads clear." "Now we're so damned conventional;' I say, killing the last of my gin and my good spirits. 'Tm thirty-six years old. One day bleeds into the next. We are alone up here at Steepletop. Utterly:'
The group protests his leaving, and Elinor pulls Eugen to her. "No, don't make this night end."
He kisses her on the lips, and she caresses his face.
"It has ended for me," he says, "but you all keep it alive. Don't let the old Maharajah spoil your fun:'
He uncoils himself from Elinor's arms and stumbles up the
stairs, leaving a subdued group in his wake. I am suddenly over come with guilt for how long it has been since I've seen or writ ten to my mother or my sisters. Our Greenwich Village and Paris remembrances have depressed me and make me long for that time again. The stark winter weather that refuses to leave us in our isolated mountain estate has seeped into me for so long that I don't know if I will ever again bloom.
And I am drunk-dreadfully inebriated and spewing non sense and musings on the decline of man and my loss of hope in civilization since the execution of those Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, framed for murders they did not commit.
The cry of a bobcat in the distance silences me, and I feel the
terrible thrill of dangers lurking outside our doors, and inside too. The eat's cry sounds savage and predatory, and I wonder what she'll kill for herself tonight.
Elinor reaches for me with her elegant fingers and I slap them away and stand, caring not that I've offended her at every turn this evening, from my rejection of her physical advances, to my poetic arguments, to now. Why do I do this to her, when I would like nothing more than to take her upstairs with me? I don't know what evil chills my heart, but I know I have to go before I further poison the room.
As I am about to leave, I catch the eye of the ebony bust of
Sappho in the corner, that ancient love poet whose black gaze reflects the light of the fire, and I feel a rekindling. My enchanting power has been stoked, reminded of itself in the company of these old lovers from Vassar, where fifteen years ago my power first pulsed within me. I inhale the energy to feed the dry well of words and love and beauty inside me, and remember that it is fresh, savage love that gives me power. I meet the gaze of the marble bust across the room, and implore her to return my strength after this bitter winter so I may complete this poetry collection whose construction continues to elude me. I'm nearly frantic to know if she'll grant my wish-if she'll lay a new love at my feet and allow me to burst forth again and reclaim the power that I am born to possess.