Carl dragged Greta out of the reception into an empty adjoining parlor, an echoing room with high ceilings, oil paintings of captains of industry on the walls, Brunschwig curtains at the tall windows, deep lush carpets on the parquet floors, massive marble fireplaces. He steered her onto a leather sofa and began to kiss her extravagantly. Greta felt helpless, like a hare being coursed by a sportsman who knew the forest better than she did, who had all the marble, wood, leather and guns of the establishment behind him. She tried to believe her defenselessness exonerated her. The senator’s wife came into the room, and Carl jumped up, beaming, and introduced Greta as his “date.” Greta smiled and shook hands, then excused herself. Once out of the room, she crept toward the marble spiral staircase to the lobby, then hurried down the stairs, stepping lightly so her heels wouldn’t click. Carl ran after her, easily catching her up with long, loping steps. “When can I see you again?” he asked.
“Let go of me,” she said desperately and ran out the door. He didn’t follow. This happened several times, things like it. And then, one Saturday morning, Greta and James were at home, getting ready to throw a Christmas party, when Carl called. “I have to see you,” he said. Greta’s throat caught. James was in the shower; what if he had answered? At the same moment, she remembered that James would be leaving the apartment right after the party; he was seeing a play in midtown with an old friend.
“All right,” she whispered. “We’re having people over this afternoon, but James has to be somewhere at eight. Do you want to come over? I’ll make dinner.”
That afternoon, while making mulled wine and quiche and cookies for the party, Greta stealthily prepared a secret dinner while James was out getting the tree. She hid the dishes under the bed—the wedding china they’d never used. She made a casserole and hid it in the back of the oven, parboiled pork chops and stowed them in a Dutch oven, tucked a salad in the back of the fridge. Dessert would have to be leftover Christmas cookies.
The party began at four. Soon after it started, a heavy snowstorm descended on the city. Perhaps because of the lulling seasonal diorama—their piney tree glossed with ornaments and white lights, the cinnamony, savory heat from the kitchen, the melting pastries, the clovey, sweet wine, the blizzard through the window—the guests settled snugly in for hours, showing no signs of wishing to head into the whirling snow. At seven p.m., with frantic gaiety, Greta encouraged a snowball fight on the street to kill the party’s momentum. It worked. When the last guests left at 7:30, taking James with them, Greta smiled, kissed cheeks and good-byed, and once the door shut behind them, she collapsed on the bed and wept from tension and relief.
After a minute or two, she recovered herself, patted her cheeks and rose to get ready for Carl. She showered, she moisturized. She put on velvet, silk, a soft long skirt, high heels. Misted herself in perfume. Put on a glittering crystal necklace. Removed the china from under the bed, set the table, lit candles and put Gershwin on the CD player. “Funny Face” came on; it was his song, she thought. Whenever she went running and it popped up on the playlist, she thought of Carl and smiled and ran faster: “Though you’re no Handsome Harry/For worlds I’d not replace/Your sunny, funny face.” The doorbell rang at 8:30, and there he was, arriving like good times, to be embraced, not questioned. Greta felt a rush of childlike elation. Carl looked at her silently, let the door slam shut behind him, picked her up and carried her to the bedroom.
Greta hadn’t known James long before he became her husband; James was handsome and kind, she was romantic and on the rebound; they married on impulse. After the wedding, she found out she’d contracted herself to a chaste game of house with a diffident stranger, perhaps for eternity. A couple of years passed before she gathered the courage to have the hard talk. It had happened last summer, almost a year ago now. They both had cried. James had agreed the marriage hadn’t worked, had agreed he would leave. Only then, he didn’t. Greta didn’t want to be unkind; she wanted to give James time to detach and leave on his own terms, rather than wrench him roughly away. But now his lingering had become a kind of cruelty. She was worn out from worrying about hurting him. Why didn’t James go, since he didn’t want to kiss her?
Maybe she should have felt guilty, she thought, as she admired Carl, so jubilant, so sure, lying beside her on the bed. But she didn’t feel guilty. She didn’t feel she was there at all. It was as if they were a movie she and Carl were watching, of someone else’s life. They ate dinner by candlelight in silk bathrobes. The china was gorgeous. Greta drank wine, Carl drank shirley temples—she’d gotten maraschino cherries for him. By 10:30 he was out of the house, and by 11, when James returned, there was no trace of the second party. But Greta felt queasy from deceit. She was unaccustomed to underhandedness. The worst was that James hadn’t suspected anything. It shouldn’t have been so easy, so consequenceless. A week or two after the party, she confronted James; at last he moved out. She wondered if she would ever marry again. She wished she could unmeet James, rewind and walk down a different street, where she might have met a different man, one who could have kept her ideals of marriage intact, her faith in male confidence unbowed. Her marriage hadn’t felt real. But she supposed her divorce would.
The cruise had a couple of hours to go, and Carl started to fidget after he finished the Times. “We could get a cabin,” he said. “What for?” Greta said and knew she shouldn’t have. They looked at each other spitefully. She was getting back at him for having said she looked awful that morning, even though it was true. But she wasn’t really in a bad mood, so she smiled and said, “Or…,” but Carl was already saying, “Well then, let’s gamble!” He stood up. Greta pulled on a sundress from her beach bag, and they descended into the dark, air-conditioned interior of the boat, where the metallic pinging of slot machines and the tinny jingle of taped theme songs echoed above flashing lights. Old women in polyester pants and men in short-sleeve Cuban shirts stood at the slot machines, cigarettes in one hand, jumbo plastic cups in the other to catch falling coins. They pulled the machine arms with their smoking hands. Their faces were expressionless. “Outstanding,” Carl crowed.
With his baggy jacket, slouchy hat, khakis and cigar, Carl looked like a young old man. Rubbing his hands together theatrically, he stuck his cigar between his teeth like FDR and strode toward the roulette table. The felt-covered table brightened in welcome as he approached. The croupier at the wheel nodded deferentially. Carl bought chips for himself and separated out a couple hundred worth for Greta. He began to place bets scientifically, according to his theories: a heap on odds, a heap on evens, a heap on black, a heap on red. His piles began to increase, to double, to triple. Greta watched disapprovingly but with respect. She wasn’t a gambler; she left her chips untouched. But Carl knew how to bet. Onlookers began to encircle the table, watching Carl play. And then Greta had a presentiment. She knew it was ridiculous, but she couldn’t keep herself from telling him.
“Put it all on black 29,” she said. Carl looked at her impassively, completely uninterested. “Put it all on black 29,” she said again, knowing it sounded silly but feeling too sure to keep quiet. He ignored her and kept on distributing the piles his way. The croupier watched, the spectators stared.
“All right, then just put half of it on black 29,” she said. As the roulette wheel started spinning, the croupier glanced at them both questioningly. He dropped the silver ball into the whirring wheel; it bounced and bounced, and the numbers flew under it, around and around. Greta looked at Carl, Carl looked at Greta, the croupier looked at Carl, and finally, as the whir slowed to a spin, the croupier said, “All bets are off.” The ball skittered and leapt, the wheel slowed and slowed, and finally the ball came to a rest, in black 29.
“Holy hell, you’re bad luck, that’s it,” Carl said. He cashed in what was left of his chips, and they went back to the deck. Greta wondered if the roulette wheel had been rigged. The croupier was probably having a little joke on her, playing God. Still, she felt dizzy, knowing that if Carl had done what she’d said, he might have broken the bank. And even if he hadn’t, the winnings would have more than paid him back for the vacation. Everything would have been her treat, then, many times over.
“Waiter,” Carl said once they’d climbed back to the sunny deck and found new chairs. “Another Bahama Mama for my girl. I’ll have a ginger ale.” “Margarita?” “Yeah,” Carl said. The waiter nodded and went off. As the waiter left, Greta noticed that she was in an excellent mood, which probably meant Carl was too. In the settling afternoon sunlight, he looked splendid, at ease, manly, in himself. She averted her eyes. Once, Carl had caught her admiring his body at his loft in Manhattan, and he hadn’t liked it. She had watched him in the dark, lit only by the glow of a streetlamp through the blinds, as he walked to his dresser, where he kept an open box of condoms, scores of them, arranged in rows, like a prophylactic card catalog. At the time, feeling guilty about James, she’d found the profusion reassuring, as if what she and Carl got up to hardly counted, a rounding error.
Naked, Carl was surprisingly lithe and muscular. He was broader shouldered and more athletic than he looked in his floppy clothes. In the black-and-white light of the night, he looked like a statue to her, pure, clean, alabaster lines, a David. Turning, Carl had seen Greta eyeing him appraisingly and frowned; he shrugged off her regard. He was the one who was supposed to do the staring. So now Greta knew not to look at Carl, but she thought about the body under his khakis and his ink-stained madras jacket, and wished they’d taken the cabin after all, but it was too late. She took off her sundress, re-oiled and leaned back into her deck chair. She was just reaching for her novel when Carl looked over at her, cupped her bobbed hair in his palm and said, “Hey. What are you doing so far away?” And he dragged her chair against his and pulled her half into his arms. She leaned her head into his soft collar. He took the dangling cigar out of his mouth, looked into the sun, then leaned down and gave her an upside-down kiss.
“Outstanding,” he said.