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A Sorry Excuse for a Divorcée
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman recently divorced and in possession of half the cheating louse’s fortune must be in want of a new man.
Or so thought Jessica DiSantini when she saw Lally Chandler tilting toward her as fast as her Jimmy Choos could convey her at the Ladies Who Lunch fund-raiser for the Historical Society. Jessica had been officially divorced for only forty-seven days, from a neurosurgeon who’d left her for a thirty-year-old patient from whose brain he’d extracted a biscuit-sized meningioma tumor: Her final eye-popping bill from Oliver Dietch, Esq., had not yet been settled; the odd cross-trainer Skechers and the pasta alla cecca–stained tie still moldered in Michael’s old closet; it was Mike’s unctuous baritone still announcing, “Hey, it’s the DiSantinis!” on her voice mail, for God’s sake! But already she’d had to fend off half a dozen offers to match her up. And now here came Lally wearing that cat-in-the-cream expression that could only mean, Do I have a man for you!
Jessica turned her back and pretended to be absorbed in the exhibition. The San Carlino Historical Society was a formerly down-at-the-heels institution crouched at the bottom of Mission Hill that recently had begun mounting splashy shows with unabashedly lurid themes. Currently: “San Carlino Noir: Serial Killing, Deadly Passion, and Murder For Hire” was packing ’em in. The fifty or so lunching ladies, dressed to the bleached teeth in pastel summer suits or fruit-salady sundresses, were circulating, schmoozing, and sipping a decent rosé among the mounted relics of grisly crimes past: yellowed newspaper clippings of killers staring hollowly from death row; old high school yearbook photos of beehived future victims; newsreel footage of a strangler in the forties who kept the eyeballs of his stranglees pickled like so many cocktail onions in refrigerated mason jars.
Jessica’s contemplation of a montage of corpses chilling in a morgue was abruptly terminated by the insertion of Lally’s live body between herself and the photos.
“Jessica!” Lally exclaimed. “I was hoping you’d be here! You are the very lady I wanted to see!”
There was something thematically Day of the Dead–looking about Lally. Perhaps the skeletal black-and-white motif of her tie-dyed Prada frock? Or the nearly fleshless length of her limbs?
Jessica inclined her face for the obligatory double air kiss. “Lally! How are you?”
“Absolutely super, darling. Isn’t this an amazing event? So marvelously gritty; don’t you just love it?”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve always been partial to grit,” Jessica said.
Lally responded with a breathless laugh and a toss of her burnt sugar–colored ponytail. As everyone knew—or at least would know if they spent more than five minutes in her company—Lally had been a Bond girl. True, it was opposite Roger Moore in one of the lousier James Bond films, but it was the high point—and, as it happened, the final point—of Lally’s early acting career; and it often seemed to Jessica that Lally had buried herself a bit too much in the part.
“You’re hysterical, darling,” Lally cooed. “But listen, what I wanted to tell you is that you popped into my mind this morning, and I had the most brilliant idea. I thought, my God, why don’t I introduce her to Tommy? I’m an imbecile for not thinking of it sooner.”
“Who’s Tommy?” Jessica asked warily.
“My first husband.”
This was novel enough to give Jessica pause. “The cinematographer?”
“Helmut? God, no, I wouldn’t fix him up with a virus. The one before that, Tommy Bramberg. We were just babies when we got married. He was a hottie rock star back then, and I had dropped out of my first semester at USC.”
Jessica wondered briefly how many husbands Lally had under her belt. Three, perhaps four . . . There was also a never-seen and rarely mentioned daughter who reportedly ran with a wild Eurotrashy crowd in Rome or Milan. Difficult to imagine Lally with a grown daughter; she looked so incredibly young.
Though not actually young, Jessica silently amended. More like unyoung, which was kind of like the undead—eerily and perpetually preserved.
From a corner of her eye, Jessica spied a waiter cruising with bottle in hand. She shook her empty glass at him, like a witch doctor with a rattle, but the spell backfired—instead of approaching, he vanished. “Look, thanks for thinking of me, Lally,” she said. “It’s sweet of you, really. But the truth is, I’m just not ready to date yet.”
An impatient little puff issued from Lally’s coral-glossed lips. It was obvious to Jessica that Lally considered her a sorry excuse for a divorcée. Not only had Jessica shown no inclination to increase the square footage of her home or the cup size of her breasts, nor add a single tawny chunk to her light brown hair, she was in fact doing nothing at all to exploit the glamour of her situation.
Lally, by contrast, the second after shucking her last husband, the retired game-show host Artie Willman, had undergone a complete surgical overhaul, from butt to brow. Then she’d expanded her atrocious neo-Mediterranean on Polite Child Lane to a square footage approaching the Vatican. The pièce de résistance was a triple-story campanile that electronically and resonantly bonged out the first four bars of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” every hour on the hour, until a testy note from the neighborhood association put a stop to it. And she’d gotten a tattoo! A half-dollar-sized sea anemone etched high on her right thigh, which she would readily hike her microskirts to display—a very jazzy and daring statement, Jessica supposed, except that it reminded her disconcertingly of a Girl Scout merit badge she’d once earned in Marine Life Identification.
Still she felt the need to defend herself from Lally’s lofty disapproval. “I’m sure I’ll feel differently in the future,” she went on, “but right now I’m actually fine being on my own.”
“Please. You know what’s really the problem? You’re in major denial. I know, darling; I’ve been there. But when you get lonely enough, or if you just plain get hot pants, let me know.”
“You’re on my speed dial,” Jessica muttered; but Lally was already off, hello-ing a Jil Sander suit that had just emerged from the newsreel-viewing chamber.
Okay, maybe she had a point, Jessica conceded—about the hot pants, anyway. Lately, while flipping channels in the evenings, she’d found herself lingering on the WB, all those hunky young actors with their fantastic hair and luscious shoulders. Rowan was almost at the age of bringing home boys: Jessica had a sudden and terrifying vision of herself as a sort of Mrs. Robinson redux, hovering around her daughter’s dates in tight toreador pants, nursing a Scotch, shooting seductive little jets of smoke their way from the cigarettes she’d obviously have to take up smoking.
The fleeting image of a drink made her feel she was going to keel over right now, this very second, if she didn’t get another glass of wine. Mercifully, lunch was being served. Women were streaming toward the saffron-clothed tables set up in the main gallery. She located her name among the place cards cunningly shaped like Weegee-style black-and-white flash cameras; Jessica McCready-DeSantini. That was weird: She’d jettisoned the limerick-sounding hyphenate when she had shut down her law practice directly after her daughter’s first epileptic seizure. Who the hell had resurrected it now?
She sat down, noting with mild dismay that Lally’s place card was right beside hers. Across the table was Caitlin Latch, a thirty-something who was divorced from an East Indian financial executive up north in . . . San Francisco? Seattle? Somewhere. He’d cracked up in some unspecified way. She was known behind her back as Caitlin the Snatch, in part because she had the reputation, justified or not, of trolling for other women’s husbands, and in part, also, because she possessed a body that, even under last season’s baggy peasant-look schmatte, was so spectacular as to border on the indecent. Caitlin was deep in conversation with Janey Martinez, a heavy-hipped fortyish woman with a round, peering face, also divorced, from a guy serving five and a half years in minimum security for cooking the books at his defunct pet food dot-com.
It’s the table of the exes! Jessica thought suddenly. For some reason this struck her as extremely funny. She giggled.
“You really think that’s amusing?” Janey Martinez demanded crisply. There were dark circles under her eyes. Janey famously complained of insomnia and had a reputation for swiping tranquilizers out of medicine cabinets. When you had Janey over, it was, “Honey, hide the Ativan!”
“Find what amusing?” Jessica asked.
“You probably didn’t catch what we were talking about,” Caitlin said with an ingratiating semismile. She was something of a social climber and almost always wore that same little smile.
“No, I wasn’t listening,” Jessica said. “What were you saying?”
“I was telling Janey that this exhibit, some of these photos here, made me think of this unusual case we had at the center over the weekend.” Caitlin worked rather nobly as a coordinator of the local university-sponsored rape crisis center.
“Is there any such thing as a usual rape?” Jessica asked.
It was a flippant question—all that rosé was definitely having its effect—but Caitlin seemed to take it seriously: She momentarily compressed her lips into a deliberating pout. “Mmm, good point. I guess I mean unusual from the point that it wasn’t actually a rape in the technical sense. And also that it happened in Colina Linda. It’s our first victim from there, at least since I’ve been working.”
Colina Linda was a village of multimillion-dollar properties directly north of the city; it was pinned onto the swank sea line like an expensively trimmed hat on a dowager. Shoot a gun off in here, Jessica figured, and odds were better than fifty-fifty you’d knock off a denizen of Colina Linda. Including, needless to say, herself.
And including Lally, who had just plopped herself onto the neighboring chair. “What? What happened in Colina Linda?”
“Someone was sexually assaulted inside her own home,” Janey said. Her voice simmered over with drama.
“Who? Anybody I know?”
“Obviously I can’t reveal her name,” Caitlin said primly. “All I can tell you is that this woman woke up in the middle of the night last Sunday and there was a man in her bedroom, sitting in a chair. He was wearing a Spider-Man mask, she said, and he threatened her with a knife.”
“Does anybody find Spidey as creepy as I do?” Lally cut in. “I mean, slime shooting from his fingertips? Is that a male ejaculation fantasy or what?”
“I don’t think it’s from his fingertips,” Janey said.
“N’importe quoi. Okay, so if he didn’t rape her, what did he do?”
“Well,” Caitlin continued, “apparently he had a sexual aid . . . You know, a vibrator.”
“You mean a dildo,” Lally said, with a note of delight.
“Well, yeah, okay. And he made her, well, fellate it while he watched. Then he left. Right out through the front door, apparently. Leaving her pretty well traumatized, as you can imagine.”
“So he didn’t want sex; he wanted to humiliate her,” Jessica murmured.
“Rape is never about sex; it’s about power,” Caitlin recited.
“Oh, come on, tell us who it was.” Lally’s green-gold eyes were open wide and had a lubricious sheen. “We can keep a secret, right, ladies?”
Caitlin shook her head. “I’ve probably already overstepped the bounds of confidentiality. I just felt maybe I should be warning you ladies. I mean, I think we all need to be on the alert, lock our doors and windows and all.”
“Wanna bet it was someone she knew?” Lally said. “Some Mexican, the gardener or a pool guy.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Janey snapped. “Caitlin said he was British.”
The others shot a look at Caitlin, who nodded. She was enjoying herself, Jessica realized—being the center of attention for a change. Caitlin the Snatch was, if not actually snubbed, then often rather benignly ignored.
“According to the victim, he had an upper-class English accent,” Caitlin confirmed.
“Could have been faked,” Lally scoffed.
“By a gardener? Give me a break!” Janey said. “Frankly, I find all this extremely disturbing. I happen to live in Colina Linda.”
“So do we all, darling,” Lally said. “But I don’t scare very easily. I’m hardly going to worry about some English aristocrat breaking into my house, I don’t care if he’s dressed like Winnie the Pooh.” She tossed her ponytail, intrepid-Bond-girl-style.
Fine for Lally, Jessica thought: her McMansion was surrounded by spike-tipped iron gates so imposing Jessica often felt she should doff her cap when she passed by. Even so, Jessica was inclined to agree with Lally—all their homes were nearly impregnable, what with walls and high-tech security systems and cruising rent-a-cops; it had to have been someone with some sort of familiarity with the house.
Anyway, she thought bitterly, you didn’t need a masked intruder for a dose of humiliation. Try a fortieth birthday. A jiggle of cellulite on your behind. A husband sneering, “Hey, SpongeBob SquarePants, time to hit the gym.”
Goddamned bastard shit.
The waiter appeared at her shoulder offering a choice of merlot or chardonnay. “Merlot,” she said firmly. Better pace it, she warned herself. You’ve been drinking a bit much lately. In fact, she’d been systematically drinking her way through the half of Michael’s wine cellar she’d received in the settlement: Every time she washed down a carton of leftover take-out pad thai with a three-hundred-dollar St. Emilion, or paired a ’97 Château Mouton Rothschild with a Krispy Kreme, she could almost hear him squeal in agony. But wouldn’t the bastard get the last laugh if she ended up every Tuesday and Thursday night at AA, acknowledging a higher power and sharing her story of revenge guzzling?
On her right, Lally appeared to be executing a kind of high-kick routine in her chair. Some old showbiz move? Jessica wondered. No, it was to show off her shoes, which were lavender with cutout stars, to Caitlin and Janey. Lally uttered the sacred name of the designer, and the other two dipped their heads in veneration.
Then someone sat down on Jessica’s left: Rhonda Kluge, real es- tate agent to the well-to-do, and definitively not an ex—a diamond at least half as big as the Ritz coruscated above a matching band on her wedding-ring finger. She surveyed the four ex-wives and pursed her lips, as if savoring a particularly delectable piece of candy. “Girls, girls, girls!” she announced. “I have some amazing news!”
Four pairs of eyeballs immediately fixed on her.
“Guess who’s split up with his wife?” Rhonda paused for a tantaliz- ing effect, set elbows on the table, thatched her fingers, balanced her prominent chin on the thatching. “David. Alderson. Clemente.”
An electric current shot around the table. “Are you sure?” Lally demanded. “I haven’t heard a peep about it.”
“It’s all been very hush-hush, and it’s all happened very fast. Susanna’s run off with this art dealer in New York, a Belgian, and half her age, if you please. He was the one who finally found them their Rothko; you know how David’s wanted one for ages.”
“How do you know it’s not just a temporary separation?” Lally pursued. “They might get back together.”
“I don’t think so. Susanna’s already announced her engagement. There’s a prenup, of course; she’ll waltz away with thirty million or so. But that’s small potatoes to what she’s leaving behind.”
There was a collective holding of breath. Jessica reached for her glass and discovered to her astonishment that her fingertips were tingling. Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself. She glanced at the others. Lally was worrying the sea pearls at her neck as if they were prayer beads. Janey’s small, round mouth was parted, and her dark-ringed eyes blinked. Caitlin still wore her crescent of a smile, as fixed and pleased as a porcelain doll’s.
For a moment Jessica felt almost sorry for Caitlin. Her spotlight had definitely dimmed. A sort-of rape, however close to home, was nothing compared to the news that a local billionaire was back on the market.