Chapter 3: Dolce Far Niente
Part 10: Bèlla Signorina
YOU CAN READ
he hole in Matthew’s living room wall now reaches from the window at the
far end of the room to the window near his audio equipment, nearly half
the length of the room. There is a distinct downward thermal gradient
in its vicinity. Belinda hasn’t taken her coat off; she snuggles
into it while she squats to inspect the hole.
“Any leads?” she asks.
“None,” says Matthew. “I was out here this morning for nearly an hour, sitting on the floor, hoping I’d smell it while the sun was coming up. I had a theory that the sun warms the cavity here and releases—well, whatever it is. Guess what? Not a thing. All I could smell was coffee. I’m sure the guys working on this think I’m nuts, and this morning I almost agreed with them.”
“Will you be able to have this carpet repaired?”
“I don’t think so. I think all the carpet in here is going to have to be replaced.”
“You’re not going to embrace the esthétique du mal?”
“No, I guess not. It’s tempting, though. Anyway, I asked about just replacing the section they pulled up, and the guy from the carpet company claims that the edges would never match. You’d always see the seam. Do you want a drink?”
“Yes. I want cognac. Lots of it.”
It will give her a headache, but Matthew can see that she wants it, so he doesn’t say anything. He pours cognac into snifters, puts them on his black tray, puts the bottle on too, and carries the whole thing to the glassy end of the living room, where Belinda is waiting, in the dark, looking out over the rooftops. He gives her her glass, and she clinks glasses with him.
“Happy birthday,” Matthew says. Belinda smiles. She drinks her cognac determinedly, in four swallows, and holds her glass out for more. Matthew pours, and she turns away, looking out the window again.
“When I was a girl,” she says, “I wanted a fur coat, and not just the way you think a girl might want a fur coat. Not just some abstract fur coat. And not an ordinary fur. I wanted something really glamorous. I wanted this coat. A white fur coat. I’m not quite sure where I got the desire, or why it became so strong, but I think it might have been Smirnoff ads. Some liquor ad, anyway. I’m almost sure it was Smirnoff. They used to have tall blondes in white fur coats, sort of wrapping themselves around enormous bottles of Smirnoff.”
“Sex sells again.”
“Mm. You’re right. But who thought about that then? Come to think of it, who cares? I don’t, and I sure didn’t then. I didn’t want the vodka—I wanted the coat. I wanted to be a tall blonde in a fur coat. You want to know something about me, Matthew? I didn’t have anything I wanted when I was a girl. Nothing. I used to get hand-me-down clothes from the family next door. It was so humiliating. You don’t know.”
Matthew is about to sympathize. He’s about to say that he does know and tell her an anecdote to show that he understands. It’s about a model sailing ship he wanted when he was a boy. His mother had an enormous model in her junk shop for weeks; someone had left it on consignment. It was dusty and damaged, the spars hung askew, and bits of broken rigging hung down like cobwebs, but to Matthew it was magnificent, just wonderful, and he wanted it. He felt that he had little enough, much less than other boys, no normal house, no yard, no bicycle, not even a father. Circumstances had brought this ship model virtually into his home, all but forced him to look at it every day, and yet it wasn’t his and couldn’t be his. He couldn’t even touch it, because his mother couldn’t afford to buy it if he damaged it more than it already was. Matthew means to tell Belinda this, to show her that he does understand the way the pain of deprivation can endure. She sees that he intends to speak.
“Don’t,” she says. “Don’t say anything. Just don’t say anything. I know you were a miserable boy, Matthew. But this is my story. I want to talk now.”
Matthew nods. He has recalled, against his will, the time when Liz pointed out to him that he was making up for the deprivations of his childhood by working at Manning & Rafter, making the toys he never had. It seemed so obviously true that he couldn’t believe he hadn’t realized it, and he resented Liz’s understanding him better than he did himself.
“We weren’t starving,” says Belinda, “I know that. I know how much worse off everyone else in the world was or is or whatever. I know that life was basically pretty comfortable, but for a girl, then anyway, for a girl to go to school in clothes that everybody recognized weren’t hers—I mean, I knew they were looking at me, and they knew I was wearing what Elaine Toomey wore last year. It was horrible.”
Matthew nods his head.
“Today it probably wouldn’t be. Today it’s a completely different story. Leila would be happy if all her clothes were in tatters. Most of them are. But I wanted clothes, nice clothes, new clothes. And when I got older I wanted a fur coat. A white fur coat. And you know what? It was all right for me to want a fur coat. Completely all right.”
“Mm-hm,” says Matthew.
“I didn’t have to feel any guilt about wanting a fur coat. I was poor! When you’re poor you’re allowed to want anything you want.”
Matthew smiles. Belinda almost does.
“You know what I mean. It was okay to want anything when I was poor, but now it’s not, because I’m not poor anymore. I’m almost rich. By my parents’ standards, I am rich. And now I can’t want this coat. It makes me feel—I don’t know.”
“Yes, guilty. It makes me feel guilty. And you know what it is? Exactly? How can I walk past a woman who’s poor enough to have the right to want a coat like this? You see what I mean?”
“Yes,” says Matthew. It would be pretty hard getting past that gumdrop woman, too, he thinks. “Animals suffered agony to make your coat.” He’s reminded of the gay guy’s retort again, and he almost grins, but he keeps a sober look on his face. He decides to save the story of the gumdrop woman until later, when Belinda isn’t upset.
Belinda spins, making the coat flare around her. She’s getting good at it. “It’s too much for me,” she says. “I’m going to return it tomorrow.”
“Belinda,” Matthew says, “let me buy it for you. As a birthday present. Then you wouldn’t have to feel guilty about it—”
“No.” She shakes her head. “Thanks, but it wouldn’t work. I’m going to take it back.”
She stands there for a moment. Then she holds her glass out for Matthew to fill.
“Besides,” she says, “if you really wanted to give it to me as a present, if you really wanted to take the guilt off my shoulders, you’d just go ahead and do it. You wouldn’t ask me to approve the idea.”
“Well,” says Matthew, “I didn’t think of that.”
“Sure you did,” she says. “You have to have. You’re not stupid. Somewhere in the back of your mind you must know that I couldn’t say yes to that proposal.”
“Come on, Belinda. I swear I didn’t think of it.” He honestly doesn’t think that he did, but he can’t imagine how to convince her of that.
“Forget it,” she says. “It doesn’t matter. It’s my problem, anyway, not yours. Excuse me a minute.” She walks the length of the room, spins around in the coat, and then turns down the hall. Matthew hears the bathroom door close. He sits in silence. In a couple of minutes, Belinda calls him. “Matthew? Matthew, come here.”
He wonders if she’s sick. She doesn’t drink cognac well. “In here,” she calls, from the bedroom. Only the lights of the city light the room. Belinda has spread the coat out on the bed, fur side up, and she’s lying on it, naked, stretching, enjoying the fur against her skin, almost writhing. For her the foreplay has already begun.
She’s so aroused, so—charged. This is going to be better than the night she changed her name. Matthew climbs over the end of the bed, slides his arms under her legs, pulls her toward him by the hips, and puts his lips to her clitoris. He loves the musty odor of her down here, the acid taste of her. She’s abundantly, extravagantly wet. He laps at her clitoris with his tongue, like a cat, so that the bumps and dimples will make her tingle. Belinda is silent, as she usually is during sex, but Matthew can tell how much she likes being licked from the way she runs her fingers through his hair, grabs his head in her hands and pulls him tighter against her, the way she rises and pushes herself harder against his tongue. Liz was silent, too, completely. Belinda sometimes murmurs when Matthew’s licking her. Matthew supposes that the pleasure of sex embarrasses her, as he supposes it embarrassed Liz, so he considers the occasional murmur a big concession, the shy acknowledgment that his lapping, the tingling of those bumps and dimples, is working. Tonight, however, he hears more than murmurs—moans on top of murmurs—and quite suddenly Belinda thrusts herself so hard against him that he cuts his tongue on his teeth, and then she cries out, one short, sharp cry, as if she were the one hurt. Matthew starts to pull away. “No,” she says, clutching the back of his head. “Please don’t. More.” Matthew obliges, bending to the task with relish and pride. No mere adequacy here, he’s pleased to be able to tell himself. This is a first-class effort. Matthew’s so glad to be pleasing her, so proud to be the engineer of this transport of bliss, that he begins to suppose that she loves him.
When Belinda runs her hand over the coat, she can feel, through the soft fur and supple skin, the hard card inside, and when she touches it she can’t help smiling, wouldn’t be able to stop the delightful shiver that ripples through her if she tried. She read the card in the bathroom, before she came into the bedroom and undressed. It says:
Bèlla signorina—“Now I want you in me,” she says.
Matthew undresses. Actually, since he pops a button from his shirt in his eagerness, it might be fair to say that he rips his clothes off. He’s naked. He’s erect. He’s ready. He remembers the condoms.
“Just a minute,” he says, starting for the kitchen.
“Oh, forget that,” says Belinda. “I’m not going to give you any diseases.”
Throughout what ought to be an ecstatic act, Matthew is nagged by the feeling that for months he has appeared foolish in her eyes, that she saw through him, understood that he was afraid of her, not for her, or that perhaps Belinda knows that he isn’t likely to impregnate her. Did Liz tell her? Would she do that to me?
WHEN BELINDA HAS GONE, and Matthew’s in bed, he lies awake, wondering what he ought to do. Should he buy the coat for her? He could have it delivered to her. It could arrive with a clever note. “Because I loved you in it and loved you on it.” Not bad. How much does a coat like that cost? Maybe it would be better not to have it delivered to her, but to have it here in the apartment the next time we go out. Spread out on the bed. Fur side up. Maybe she’d be as aroused as she was tonight. How would I get her to go into the bedroom to discover it without being obvious? “I want you to look in the bedroom.” No. Spread it out on the living room floor. There it would be, like a fur rug. What a gesture. Would it look as if I’m trying to buy her? As if I think she can be bought? How much does a coat like that cost? Would it look as if I’m proposing? I should find out how much a coat like that costs first. Then I’ll decide what to do.
IN THE MORNING, when he sits down to write his notes, he’ll remind himself to find out what the coat costs, and, sitting at his dining table, he’ll chuckle over the resemblance between the decor of Dolce Far Niente and his ripped-apart apartment. He’ll recall his thought that the only thing missing was one of the messages of the Neat Graffitist. He’ll page through his notebook, looking for one that seems appropriate, and when he finds it he’ll copy it on the wall, beside his notes on the odor, just as a joke. Why not? The wall obviously has to be repainted anyway, and writing on walls, he’s discovering, can be satisfying.
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Copyright © 1990 by Eric Kraft
Reservations Recommended is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
First published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
Now available in paperback from Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail Alec “Nick” Rafter, the author’s earnest agent.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.