We had made a perfect couple.
‘Perfect’ is typically a superfluous adjective, especially when applied to ‘couple’ – as I myself have often heard ‘ a perfect couple’ exclaimed fleetingly, even adoringly, I have even once before used it to reference myself and another.
But despite all, I am largely convinced – Lilly and I made a perfect couple.
I remember the very afternoon when she sat facing me over dinner at The Anchor, allowing me the privilege of seeing my own reflection swim towards me in her own eyes. That afternoon she wore a single white rosary over one of her wrists where the skin sheathed the bone so fine that it seemed diffused with the marble-blue of her veins. That was when I knew she loved me, a love she seemed to orchestrate perfectly – right down to the way she slid the champagne flute through her fingers like a pen.
The way she said, allowing the breath to unfurl like a rich smoke as she spoke - “He’s paying,” – and the almost imperceptible wink of a lightly shadowed eye, which accompanied it, for me, just for me.
I wasn’t the only one there, mind you.
No, it had become a feature of custom that every Friday evening – following the weeks work or lack of it – my wife and I would go to dinner with Mr and Mrs Wieht. Lily – I always knew she hated to be known by the title of ‘Mrs Wieht’ would roll her eyes at her husband who sat beside her at dinner and say ‘O yes, he’s half German you know’ in an undercutting mimicry of surprise which never failed to make me laugh. He would always half-laugh too – in a strange disjointed kind of way, shaking that poorly combed head of hair of his.
There was always the tuned tinkling of laughter following Lily’s usual quip of ‘he’s paying’ – and whilst the rest gave themselves the momentary indulgence of a guffaw, I would look lingeringly to Lilly’s eyes upon mine. Only then the laughter would escalate a little too uncomfortably for my liking – with Frieda, my wife, beginning that disjointed whine of mirth which I always assumed came more commonly to domestic animals than people. She would sit alongside me – snuffling and whining under the immensity of a laugh seemingly reflective of the immensity of her character.
Even when I met her, Frieda had been one of those girls referred to through a thick tone of artificial affection as ‘bubbly’. Five years into marriage and she seemed soapy and superfluous before my eyes – a natural decline, I told myself. I supposed there was little I could do about it – she was efficient anyhow, and filled the inevitable silences of suburban living even just by the meandering of her movements.
She seemed happy – even when going out for the meal with the Wieht’s – for I knew that really she would much prefer a night in with a bottle of tasteless wine and a big home-cooked meal equally tasteless but serving as an illustration of her nights effort. It was increasingly she would keep herself in the kitchen as the weeks went on and our routine continued – the working week – seeing the Wiehts – and back again, and she would occasionally survey me with the quick fastidious gestures of a cat, big-eyed and wary. When I asked her what the matter was, she would say –
“Nothing!” In a sugar-thick voice which wobbled like blancmange.
I decided to leave it at that, and I assume that so did she. It would sort itself out, I resolved, just as the previous problems had. It was increasingly into the Winter months I noticed Frieda dissolving aspirins, a crumbled palmful in water and drinking the putrid solution with an almost religious regularity. Even that stopped after a while – ‘everything stops’ – as Lilly said, her lips rolling as the clear circle of the coin she sent across the table towards me, her face apparently everywhere in the unwrapping of after-dinner mints. For me, it was a significant ceremonial gesture.
Anyhow, I digress.
But ‘digression’ it surely is not to contemplate one of such charm, so utterly alive! Her very gaze was suspended with delicacy – as if her eyelids were coated with an imperceptible weight. Tiredness, I sometimes dread to think, though it rarely entered my mind that such perfection could succumb to the strains of mortality. Even her husband seemed aware of her superiority, sitting beside her – flitting nervous glances between my wife and I. At our Friday gathering we would sit typically at one of those regular rectangular dining tables – nothing special, but significantly elevated in my esteem – for on one side I would sit beside Frieda, and on the other side would sit Lily and her husband, Lily always positioning herself directly opposite me. The candle tapered between us, as if thick with our mingling breaths and the awareness of significance of these moments.
“”Roog. Roog? Is that what you call it -?”
It was at one of our early dinners I was interrupted with a great pawing at my arm, with Frieda beside me simultaneously engaged in this rude molestation whilst also straining over the menu. – splayed crudely over her lap. I opened my mouth to speak, and yet the voice which emerged was not mine.
“Mrs. Ray, I think you’ll find that it is pronounced – rouge.”
Perhaps it was actually then I knew Lily loved me. Her voice flowed, tinged with the very intensity of the wine she described – her one deliberate, almost tingling condescending which rather than made me pity my wife, sent me crimson with embarrassment.
“Frieda never had a talent for languages.” I responded quickly, emphasizing my wife’s name in the hope that it would infer to Lily the level of regard I held for her talents.
It was a talent extended when Lily ordered the white wine instead for herself, watching Frieda take hungry almost blood-ruddy mouthfuls of the rouge before dipping her head across the table, speaking to us all – “I prefer white – casts a better reflection of you all”, finishing with a lacquered laugh she smothered into a napkin and settled over her lap.
But when she said “You” – I knew that it was especially for me.
They began entering Winter and it was into the Spring our dinners continued. Always the same restaurant – The Anchor - for my interest remained with Lilly and thus the food, the wine, the location, seemed to slip to the superfluous. Not that I minded, as for myself, a new necklace aligning the lengths of her throat, a new rosary encircling the wrist – was an indulgence enough.
Only sometimes it was interrupted. Interrupted as I am now – with assessments and questions, doctors face tipped angularly towards mine as if attempting an exhibition of understanding, an upturned palm pressed to my arm in the form of restraint.
“I don’t need restraining!” I cry – now more often than not at each visit. The words wash over me in an etherizing echo – becoming something numb and awful. The same series of words which circulated my mind as I looked into her eyes, extending my hand under the table – I don’t need restraining…
Sometimes my fingers would brush hers and she would sigh, those imperceptible tremors of breath meant only for me, a sigh which caressed the arrangement of hair she seemed to sculpt around herself. Sometimes I would just be on the point of seizing her hand when – we were interrupted, as I said.
Frieda and Lily’s husband would penetrate the moment with their ringing laughter.
“And she said – what?!” He whinnied, slapping his paper-thin palms on his thighs with such audacity I thought it would be close to drawing blood. He was all together a fragile man, who seemed to stare upwards from an assemblage of bone – he seemed more constructed of air than anything else, just like his name, which was seldom mentioned and something I cannot at this moment want Lilly talked little about him, and even less to him – occasionally addressing him with a cautionary glance as if examining a purchase for lasting flaws. Then she would look back at me, when their laughter would be finally coming to a close.
Out of the corner of my eye I would watch Frieda lean in towards him, her lips undulating in that wobbling way of hers – “Say, I haven’t even needed to wear my rouge today – I haven’t laughed so much in ages…”. Her voice stuttered unpleasantly in slow bursts – making me faintly nauseous. Oh, to be able to leave them both at home and for just lilly and I to be itemized for an evening! Occasionally I succumbed to the temptation of the thought that I would only be asking for a table for two – Lilly, feather-light and enchanting on my arm…
Her voice slid down my spine with that sensation as she spoke to me one evening when the roses at the centre of the table burned to an orange beneath the lingering candle-light. We had been there a long time – Frieda chattering away to lily’s husband about the oh-so-hot-weather, and similar….
“Listen, Tom” Lily spoke my name with an urgency which thrilled me, stirring the very depths of my consciousness as if shifted through a seashell “These Friday meetings,” – she pronounced ‘meetings’ with a way that was more-than-suggestive, I am sure “ – are charming and all that, but…”
Her sudden negation caught my sweet immersion by surprise. I dipped my head closer to hers.
“… It’s just that with the – you know – finances being difficult, especially considering his lack of rise over this past year; I was thinking that perhaps we ought to cut these dinners off. I mean, we could all meet up for the occasional walk or something…”
Her harsh reference to her husband and his lack of funds made me seethe – not at her, but for her. He already declined me of her arm – he was not going to decline me of her company, I was sure. O Lilly! Lovely Lilly – her eyes crystalline across the table as if expectant to be ringed by some rich reply, her head interrogatively on one side. A pearl bracelet sashayed slightly against her wrist as she rested her chin and sighed almost longingly.
“it’s not an issue,” – that night I met her sigh with mine “I don’t mind paying.”
My words worked my lips hot and impulsive like a kiss – intentional, entirely intentional.
Her smile was sudden, almost overwhelming in its intensity.
“Well that’s settled then.” She declared boldly – finally defiant of all who might have heard. But Frieda and Lily’s husband were too busy furling gossip by the forkful. Their idle chatter and sharp insinuations seemed to mar the sincerity of my words.
It would be alright, I resolved, I would show the final sincerity in summarising the meal with a flourish of banknotes – leafing through the peeled green which Lilly’s eyes seemed to desperately feed upon, as if admiring some rich foliage. Poor girl, I thought, it must be very bad at home. As I began to pay for these Friday dinners the spring spiced itself into summer, stoking a palpable heat which I kindled between my fingers in increasingly presenting Lilly with little trinkets - objects of affection, ornaments, jewellery.
At this, she would always bridle her head as if responding to a touch upon the cheek I so very much intended, though instead my hands were fast to cool metal cutlery which I pictured to be her smooth, fine wrists which rose at points where the bone skimmed through.
It was only once that her husband commented on the delicacy of her frame, referring to her significantly in the second person.
“Oh, I don’t know what she does, always out of the house… rushing around most likely.’ He chuckled. “What are you like, eh Lil?”
The idiomatic inferences of his voice only intensified by dislike for him – underlined by the awful eclipsed utterance of ‘Lil’, which was said in the mock-heroic melodrama of the young which made Frieda laugh and laugh until she was quite pink at the gills. It was that night Frieda had forced herself into this sleek black assemblage, her hair combed back behind her with equal severity – quite striking actually. It was like having a good bottle of wine on the table – I might not care much for it myself, but it was a pleasing article to have by. Most of the time I was just relieved at the fact she provided ample entertainment for Lilly’s husband – their discussions infantile and arguments uneducated, but accumulating in their intensity over time which increasingly allowed me the privilege of an additionally long look into their eyes, a precious minute in which I could present her with some love-token or another.
“It’s nothing,” I would insist with the very lacquer of a gentleman as I would pass her rich candies, lace handkerchiefs, hairpins crusted with polished stone. Although Frieda became red in the face sometimes, I assured myself it was only because of her excitement in unaccustomed conversation – she had never got out much before we started these dinners. Besides, as Lilly accepted my gifts with a blush and the bend of the head, I told myself I was the luckiest man alive. I even felt lucky in that Frieda did not seem eager to question the fact that these weekly meals were paid from our income – perhaps the first time I my life I told myself, albeit a little cruelly, that she had actually been quiet about something! This made me chuckle myself, a chuckle which was met the unfurling of Lilly’s little laugh.
Once she was laughing at her husband asking for another glass of wine – my triumph! I paid for the refill of his glass with a vacuous, almost soupy rouge in a way I hoped was adequately condescending – after all, the very chap seemed to be flaking away – it was only wine that seemed to keep him pink-cheeked and talking.
As summer simmered and bruised to autumn I noticed that Lilly’s cheeks were sometimes tipped with pink too. She stirred more against the stiff back of her sheet, coursing her long hair through the complex cradle of her fingers, tracing her cheekbones with a silk-paper touch. A woman’s way of beguilement I told myself – she was the executor of her own exhibition, sometimes setting her clothes at jaunty angles too, for me, in a way that accentuated the figure beneath, breathing in sporadic little bursts which came to a climax as she spoke.
It was one of these evenings of the famed romantics where the rain pelted its confetti with all the fury of passion. Meant for me, I thought, meant for me.
“Well, yes, as I am spending more time apart from him than ever...” She mused across the table to me, twisting a ribbon of courgette caught like a shined serpent in her fork, her undertones similarly succulent “Then I’m sure he would have no reason to object if… well if we…”
“If we…” I urged, as if easing the words with the intensity of my eyes, my fingers clasping the cloth until I felt moisture, the same liquid tension in my very stare, suspended around that plurality – ‘we’.
“…If we came to an agreement that I could go back to stay in France.”
Her idea of our escape? A beautiful engagement? I attempted to be optimistic, I attempted, I meant it.
“But France, why France?”
One side of my hearing was dominated by Frieda loudly discussing summer preserves.
“Well, my husband knows I have a fondness for it, I always have. I cannot keep up the marriage much longer, I know that. Besides - I am excellently acquainted in the area, I have my advisor, Conrad…”
“Aw, Tommy – there’s no need to congratulate me!” She interrupted in her ecstasy, evading my point completely and intensifying to a sudden surging whisper “I’ve been seeing Conrad for a very long time – yes, he knows how unhappy how things have been at home, and my weekends away with him have only affirmed that…”
I could listen any more. My ears rang.
“Oh yes, it really is sweet,” Frieda’s voice dripped beside me.
And there we sat – Frieda still talking away to Lilly’s husband, the candle gasping at an angle between the faces, and Lilly sat opposite me – watching the pair and smiling. I joined her in watching, my final alliance, watching Frieda’s hand reciprocated beneath the cloth, something which I had never noticed – a reformulation stared me sharply in the face and it bittered me.
Over the course of those dinners we had done it – we had made a perfect couple.