Read an Excerpt
and Other Short Stories
By Bel Kaufman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Bel Kaufman and the Estate of Bel Kaufman
All rights reserved.
Lilith stood carefully framed in the doorway, one hand on her platinum hair, her eyes searching out the men in the room. There were only three: Bill, with whom she had recently begun a flirtation; Eric, with whom she had recently ended one; and the new man, the Frenchman whom Bea, her hostess, had promised her. She saw at a glance that he would not do; he was too old, too squat, too—well, not what she had imagined when she had dressed so carefully for the party. But like a disciplined actress, who gives her best performance even to a half-empty house, she moistened her full lower lip and made her entrance.
At once Bill rushed toward her with a drink. She threw her head back so that the white line of her throat would make her appear younger, and looked at him inscrutably, her eyes half-shut, her mouth half-open, the little pink tongue brushing against her upper teeth. (The effect was time-proven, infallible.) "I came," she said in her throaty voice, vibrant with subtle promise, "I came because I knew you would be here." She lowered her head slightly as if abashed, now that the words were said, at her sincerity. But when Bill put out his hand and touched her bare arm, she shrank away from him, masking her distaste by reaching for a cigarette. (Why did they always have to spoil it by touching you? Why couldn't they ever keep it just a delightful, soul-shivering game?)
When Bill had moved to another part of the room, Eric approached her—Eric whom she had renounced last summer in a scene staged so beautifully that she thrilled even now to remember it; the two of them silhouetted against the dark, lonely beach, the sound of waves against the cold rocks ... Isolde? She had done it exquisitely. What an anticlimax that they had to meet again. Still ... She studied his face, as if trying to etch each feature in her memory forever. Quickly she ran her eyes from his forehead to his chin and back again, thinking all the time what a disappointment the other one, the Frenchman, was. "If I'd known you were here," she murmured, "I never would have come." Eric bent toward her, but she glided out of his reach, to join the others.
She was a little tired. She was tired so often lately, and it took longer, each time, to get ready. It was not easy to achieve the effect. It was harder at thirty-eight than it had been at twenty-eight.
"Lilith, you must meet ..." The new man, Maurice something, was being introduced to her by Bea. As Lilith smiled, she knew instinctively that she did not like him. He wasn't one of those dapper, light-footed Frenchmen, all little courtesies and charming words. He was short—shorter than she—and he was in his late forties or early fifties, dark and stolid. She didn't like his sparse hair flattened to conceal the white scalp showing through. She didn't like the bluish shadow the beard beneath his skin cast upon his swarthy face, nor his heavy-lidded, slightly bulging eyes, fixed impassively upon her. He was nothing like the beautiful young men with whom she usually played the game, nor the distinguished older ones, nor the amusing old ones. There was something humorless about him. He seemed to be listening to his own thoughts, almost unaware of her—and yet, in a way, aware. Nevertheless, she slid into a seat next to him and crossed her beautiful legs.
She began to wish that her husband would come soon and take her home, so that she might relax her dazzling smile and close her eyes in the comforting darkness. Then she could give herself over to remembering the words she had kindled, the little pulsing emotions she had set ticking. She would swell with voluptuous pride at the knowledge of her power over them all, and she would sleep.
"You please me," the Frenchman said slowly, fixing her with his black eyes. His words shocked her by their male arrogance. But she realized in a moment that he was translating literally from the French, saying, in effect, "I like you." She narrowed her eyes and looked sideways at him. "As soon as you enter," he said, "I know. Tout de suite I know. You are tigresse." She smiled her slow smile. This was better; the man had something after all. "I admirate a woman like you," he was saying. "I always admirate tigresses." ("My dear," she heard herself repeating to her friends, "this admirator of mine, this pasha with the bulging eyes and steam puffing from his nostrils! But really ...") She bent her bright head with surfeit of emotion, too heavy for the slender stem of her neck to bear. She touched his sleeve, drawing her hand away at once, as if burned by the contact, but with practiced subtlety. She looked at him pleadingly, as if to say: "What's happening to me? Who are you, and what are you doing to me?" That was always her first move, and the others followed inevitably, the pattern never varying. But there was something wrong. The man was not playing according to the rules.
"When can we be together?" he was demanding. "Tonight? Tomorrow?" Somehow the way he was saying it, it was not part of the game. "I am never mistaken in women," he said.
To reduce all her art, all her artifice, to this! He knew nothing of approaching a woman of sensibility and imagination. She would have to end it sooner than she thought. She would have to produce the card she usually reserved to the last.
Hopelessly opening her eloquent hands, as if relinquishing a precious jewel she had no right to keep, she sighed: "But ... I'm married!" Her husband had always served as a buffer between her and other men. To the young ones she would say bravely that her husband did not love her (how piquant an unloved wife, if she is beautiful), but that she could never, never hurt him. "Let's not spoil it," she would add. To the married ones she would confess that her husband was jealous. "He suspects!" she would whisper, when things reached a certain point. "He knows!" she would exclaim tragically to the insistent ones. With the men of the world she was practical: "He'll cast me out without a penny ... He'll make a scandal ... You don't know." With the casual ones she was gracious: "I'm so sorry I can't ask you up; my husband is in." But this man, with his dark, protruding eyes looking absently through her, but seeing her somehow in his own way, said only, "In that case, you will come to me. Tomorrow. To my garçonnière."
So accustomed was she to extracting the emotional essence from any situation that she found herself saying, her face shadowed by regret of something that might have been, that must now be nipped in the bud. "If only ... ah, but no. It is impossible."
"Nothing is impossible," said the man. It was a statement of fact. "Nothing is impossible. Tomorrow, then. D'accord." Having said it, he seemed to lose interest and withdrew into himself.
She was grateful that just then her husband came into the room. He stood a little apart, looking at her with his familiar expression of proud possessiveness. She felt a kind of pity for him, because she knew him so well, and, also, a thrill of purely female triumph when she introduced him to the Frenchman; her husband was so much taller and younger than this round Buddha of a man. But the Frenchman's eyes were drained of expression. He merely nodded; and, soon after, she asked her husband to take her home.
What a satisfactory marriage theirs was, she thought as she leaned back gratefully against the cushioned seat of the car. With him she did not have to pretend. In the eighteen years of their marriage he had made few physical demands upon her, after those first groping, unhappy months. She had made it clear to him that she welcomed this state, and he too was relieved at not having to put himself to the test. Perhaps in the beginning, had he been more of a man ... But she could never have married him had he been like the others, with whom she felt so inadequate and frightened. His very fumbling had given her assurance; and in those days, when her name had been Lillian and her hair had been brown, she needed assurance. It was only after her marriage that she had learned to create the illusion of beauty, which is, perhaps, more difficult to achieve than beauty itself. And as her husband's confidence diminished, hers grew; her knowledge of this heady, intoxicating power over men became, in a way, her revenge.
That sense of power was all she craved. The other, the thing they all seemed to want, the thing they thought all this led to, filled her with fear and distaste. But the frills surrounding it, the little preliminary games and verbal titillations—these nourished her, intoxicated her with a pale, bloodless wine.
In the hall she parted from her husband; she patted his cheek, said good night, and hurried to her own room. She saw him but seldom. He was a teacher and scholar; and with the years he had become more and more absorbed in his books, his lectures, his little esoteric articles. But she was really very fond of him and sometimes at night, when she had an attack of nerves, it was comforting to know that he was there.
In her room she switched on the light and looked at herself for a long time in the mirror. But she turned her eyes away from it when she began to undress. Stripped of her calculated clothes and the careful camouflage of her make-up she was tired, unalluring, middle-aged. And that was something she would never admit to herself, for most of the illusion of beauty is the conviction of beauty.
She turned the light off, and, grateful for the dark, sank into bed for the most exquisite pleasure of all—the recollection of stirring words: "Darling, you're so ... I go mad thinking of you ... Your skin, the way you walk ... If I could only ..." The words remained; the mouths that had said them were forgotten. The long procession of men flickered before her like faces on cards quickly riffled—blurred, two-dimensional. Only their desire for her mattered.
It was not always easy to keep herself untouchable. That time, for instance, when the young naval officer had taken her home, after one of those exciting long talks she thrived on, and she'd had to fight him off in the dark taxi. When he realized she meant it his face had become distorted with rage, and he had spat out at her, "You bitch! You filthy, teasing bitch!"
It had been unfortunate, but she had learned her lesson. Now, long before it came to the final reckoning, to payment of promise implied, she began to set the stage for the great renunciation. "Let's not spoil it," she would say, caressing the man's lapels with long silken fingers. "Let's not spoil what we have ... This rare, this honest friendship." And she would let him smell her perfume in the golden moment she had spun out of the baser metals around her.
She stretched in bed, stretched like a luxurious cat ... not a cat—what was it? Something French—tigresse—and she slept.
The ringing of the telephone by her bed woke her in the morning. She knew it was a man; it always was. Here was evidence that at that moment she was alive in someone's mind. It made her feel immortal. She luxuriated in these disembodied telephone conversations. "Darling, I can almost see you, almost touch you now." It was intimate yet distant; thrilling yet safe.
She lifted the receiver. "Ye-es?" she said in her low, husky voice. It was the Frenchman. Still, he was a man and he had been thinking of her. "Hello, you," she murmured. "How did you know? How did you know I've been lying here alone, thinking?" With him, however, she was not quite sure how far she could go.
"Yes," he said. "I know. Tonight you will come to me. I wait."
Was the man out of his mind? She recalled how intriguing Bea's description of him had been. "My dear," Bea had said, "he's utterly charming. Simply oozing with sex. A bachelor, and a mad success with the ladies. I'm just dying for you to meet him." Well, she had met him, but she certainly would not see him again. "No—oh, no," she whispered, infinite regret in her voice, infinite longing. "You see, my husband ..."
"In that case," the man said, "this afternoon is better. Three o'clock?"
"That's impossible," she said. "I'm sorry, but it's impossible."
"Nothing is impossible," he said. "Three-thirty?"
But it was unthinkable. She was never at her best in daylight and, besides, she had no intention, not the slightest intention. "Look," she said, "I have a million things to do, but let me call you. Maybe next week. Maybe for dinner."
"Next week," he said, "I go to Paris."
At once she pictured Paris, a distant city in the night, shimmering with lights. Perhaps they might write each other. She loved to write letters: "It is midnight, and I cannot sleep. I sit by the window in the pale moonlight, my hair streaming down my bare shoulders ..."
"Four o'clock?" he was saying.
This was ridiculous. She must make it clear. But nothing in her experience had ever taught her to be clear, decisive, honest. "Perhaps tomorrow night," she murmured, thinking she could always call it off.
"There is not much time. I go to Paris in one week." It was as if she had not spoken.
"Ah," she sighed. (What was the man's name?) "Ah—Maurice,"—and the name was a caress—"you're so domineering. Don't—don't frighten me. Give me the time to get used to you."
"There is no time," he repeated. "You'll come at four, then."
She thought quickly. "Come here for cocktails," she added. "At five-thirty." It was her good hour—the shades drawn, her pale-blue tea gown against the gold-brocade sofa. It would be safe. The maid would serve quietly. She herself would be gracious and remote. (Or her black velvet, perhaps, her cheeks pale and a hint of violet shadow on her lids?) Her husband would be home at seven; that gave them over an hour in the twilight. "Le moment crépuscule," she thought, pleased to find how much of her school French she still remembered.
He did not bring her flowers when he came. He brought her nothing. Carefully he put his hat down on the foyer table, and again she noticed the white scalp showing through his thinning hair. "If only he didn't use lotion on it," she thought with distaste.
She was wearing the black velvet gown and she was almost sorry, for the maid had failed to show up and so she herself had to arrange the cocktail things in the living room. She found it difficult to make conversation. He sat on the edge of his chair, his hands on his knees, not really listening to her. He seemed ill at east, and soon, no longer afraid, she began to feel that she could handle the situation. She savored its humor, thinking how she would describe it to her friends. To him she said: "Somehow ... I don't know. No other man has ever ..." But his attention was not on her.
"You have an elegant house," he suddenly said.
Proud of herself in the splendid setting of her home, she offered to show it to him. He expressed his admiration of the study, the book-lined library, the paneled dining room, as she walked ahead of him, the gracious mistress of her castle, in her regally flowing gown. As they were passing through her mauve bedroom, though, he took her in his arms—so suddenly and without warning that she stumbled clumsily. She tried to push him away, but he was stronger than she thought.
This was the time for indignation, for imperious dismissal. "I'm afraid," she began haughtily, still struggling, "I'm afraid ..."
"Don't be afraid, ma petite. I know how to make you happy. You will see."
She couldn't quite understand, later, how it had happened. Who would have thought that sheer force, sheer audacity ...? It had been so utterly senseless. Her hair had come undone, and her lipstick had been smeared, and her lovely dress crushed. Not that he had noticed. He was aware of nothing but himself. He said nothing. Nothing to remember. Only her cheek tingling still from the coarse stubble of his beard.
It wasn't at all what she had imagined it might be like, if she should ever grant this rare gift of herself. It was—and this was unforgivable—a little ludicrous. Oh, how could she have been so cruelly betrayed, so savagely disillusioned? She began to see a kind of pathos in the picture of herself thus ravished; a delicate flower trampled in the mud. A tragic woman betrayed by brute force—no, better still, by her own unbridled passion. She tried to make herself feel guilt toward her husband, her gentle, unsuspecting husband. And he seemed to her suddenly so wronged that she cried, but not much, because she was at an age when tears leave little puffs and tiny lines under her eyes.
In her mind all night was the feeling that something had changed for her, in some way, forever. In the morning she didn't go to the fitter's. She dismissed her masseuse. She neglected to acknowledge the flowers Bill had sent. All morning she waited at the telephone, so that she could make her anger plain to Maurice. All afternoon she stayed in, furious, thinking of the things she would say.
Excerpted from La Tigresse by Bel Kaufman. Copyright © 2012 Bel Kaufman and the Estate of Bel Kaufman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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