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“Well, I was just wondering, Porter, since you two are friends and all, what’s up with our little Emily? I mean what’s her baseline, anyway?”
I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant by baseline, but I could guess; I knitted my brow briefly, trying to recall what I had read in the first few chapters of Miss Evans’s novel and on the inside of the book jacket.
I took another drink of wine, and spoke:
“Young girl from a little town in West Virginia. Went to a small college out there. Studied literature. Has had one mysterious affair with a hometown boy, but that’s over now, for some undisclosed reason, or reasons. Comes to New York to experience life. Meets an old rag-and-bones woman in a coffee shop who tells her she will find fortune and love in the city. Gets a job at your firm. Meets this poet guy named Porter --”
“You,” said Julian.
“Yes,” I said. “Uh, me. ‘Me.’ Then, uh, you give her Porter’s manuscript to read.”
“Your manuscript,” said Julian. “Stop speaking of yourself in the third person, Porter. It’s kind of creepy.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Anyway, she reads the poem. For some reason she likes it.”
“You’re very modest about your work,” said Julian.
I shrugged. What did I care? It wasn’t my work.
“Go on,” he said.
“Well, that’s about it,” I said. I didn’t want to get into the night of passion. Even as Porter I had some sense of discretion.
“Well, I was just wondering,” said Julian, “I mean if it’s not, um, untoward of me to ask -- what’s going on with you and our Emily? If anything. I mean if you don’t mind my asking.”
“What’s, uh, going on?”
I was stalling of course.
“Yeah,” said Julian. He noticed the cigarette ash he had spilled onto the tablecloth, and he swiped it with the side of his hand, causing it to smear into the material. “I mean if I’m not being too much of a Nosey Parker.”
“Nothing is going on,” I said. “I mean, nothing much.”
He was still leaning across the table towards me, looking me openly right in the face. I looked away.
“Um, no,” I said. “We’re, uh --”
“She’s told me you two are by way of being ‘friends’. That you helped her move into her new apartment.”
“Oh?” I said.
I picked up my glass of wine again, took another drink.
“I think this whole deal is an awfully funny coincidence,” said Julian. “That I would give her your manuscript to read, and then it turns out that she’s already a friend of yours.”
“Well,” I said, “I suppose that is a kind of an odd coincidence, in a way.”
“Like something out of a novel,” said Julian. “Or a movie.”
“Yes,” I said. “Usually life is -- uh --”
“Not so neatly plotted?”
“Yes,” I said.
Of course I could have just come right out and told him that in fact we were only characters in a novel, but I couldn’t bear to do that. He seemed like a nice enough guy. And I knew that I wouldn’t like to be told that I was only a figment of someone’s imagination, especially a figment that was based on God only knows how many other figments from various stories and novels and movies and TV shows, not to mention comic strips.
“Maybe it’s fate,” he said.
Finally he leaned back. He picked up his glass, took a drink.
“Do you believe in fate, Porter?” he asked.
I realized right then and there that I did not believe in fate. Fate would be too easy. Just as religion was too easy, any religion. Or astrology. Or Tarot cards. And you could toss in the Ouija board while you were at it.
“So, you do believe in fate,” he said.
“Sure,” I lied, because, really, people need something, something to hang onto, and even if I personally had nothing to hang on to, even if I were left floating here in space on my own, who was I to deny others some small measure of comfort?
“Fate,” he said, and he seemed satisfied with the word.
He glanced at his wine glass, in his right hand, and then at his cigarette, in his left hand. Which to choose, wine or smoke?
He decided on the smoke, and after taking a good drag he took a drink of wine.
“So, really,” he said, smiling, “you two haven’t -- uh -- you know --”
“Well, Mr. Smythe --”
“Okay. Julian --”
“Go on,” he said.
All discretion aside, I considered my situation for just a moment. On the one hand I knew that Porter had indeed gone to bed with Emily. But on the other hand I, Arnold, had only woken up in the same bed with her. So of the two available truths I chose the more innocuous one.
“We, uh, Emily and I, we haven’t gone to bed together, if that’s what you mean,” I said.
“Really? Scout’s honor?”
That was easy, because I had never been a boy scout, nor even a cub.
“Scout’s honor,” I said.
“And no desire to?” he asked.
Well, this one was easy.
“No,” I said.
“Why not? She’s a very attractive girl.”
Where to begin. How to begin. I sighed, looked at my wine glass. Somehow it had become empty.
Julian took up the wine bottle and refilled my glass.
“Porter, my friend, your silence speaks volumes. Absolute volumes.”
He refilled his own glass.
“Some girls --” he said.
He swirled the wine around in his glass, put the glass to his nose, closed his eyes and breathed in through his nostrils. He opened his eyes.
“Some girls,” he said, “are just a little bit too much like work.”
He took a drink of his wine.
“Damn, that’s good stuff,” he said. “Don’t you agree?”
“Yeah, it’s good wine,” I said.
“No, I mean, don’t you agree that some girls are too much like work.”
I had never thought about it before, but now I did, albeit briefly.
“Yes,” I said.
I took another drink of the excellent wine.
“And yet,” he said, “I find myself somehow strangely attracted to Miss Emily, against all my hard-acquired knowledge of the fair sex. Now why is that?”
Well, there wouldn’t be much of a plot if he wasn’t at all attracted, but I couldn’t say that. I swirled my wine, imitating Julian.
“Again you say nothing,” he said. “I like that. Too many people say too much, if you ask me. And I’m no exception. Oh, well.”
He stubbed out his cigarette.
“I suppose I’ll have an affair with her, then. We’ll have our ups and downs. Then eventually she’ll make a better man of me, I’ll see the vacuousness of my playboy ways, and we’ll get married. Next up, the house in Westchester, the station wagon. The two-point-five children. The morning train. Dear lord. Unless, of course -- unless --”
I said nothing. I was just glad it was Julian talking, and not Miss Evans from on high.
“Unless,” he said, “she chooses you in the end.”
I finally spoke up.
“Oh, no,” I said.
Emily suddenly swept into the camera’s frame, and Julian and I both rose -- well, I half-rose and Julian rose to his full height, his hand smoothly touching the back of her chair and then ever so gently touching Emily’s back as she resumed her seat. Julian and I both sat down as well.
“’No’ what, Porter?” asked Emily.
She no longer seemed in a huff, and she held out her wine glass for Julian to fill.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“You were saying ‘no’ to something.”
“Ah,” I said.
“What were you saying no to?”
Once again I had put my big fat foot in it.“Had they been talking about her in her absence, she wondered?”
There it was again, Miss Evans’s authorial voice from above.“Were the two handsome cavaliers jousting verbally for her hand?”
“We were talking baseball,” said Julian, filling her glass with the white wine.
“Oh,” she said. “Baseball.”
“Yes,” he said. “I personally think we’re going to have another subway series this fall, but our boy Porter here doesn’t think the Dodgers can take the the pennant again.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” said Emily, and now she seemed slightly miffed, taking a drink of her wine. (Even though she’d said she wouldn’t have wine.)“Men,” said Miss Evans’s voice. “She would never understand them. Not if she lived a thousand years!”
(Continued here, because our contract demands it.)
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