He gave me an envelope, with English Piano Player written on the front. In another pen, Angelina had added and friend. She had probably just been planning to drop it in, not expecting I would be there so early in the evening.
It was a photocopied invitation to a farewell party for Jenny and Bryce, strangers to me. They were “off to England,” probably to live in Earl’s Court, work in a bar, and save for a hitchhiking trip around Europe. Or, more likely, to get some up-to-date experience in database design so there would be no need for overpaid imports like me.
The party was accordingly themed “Bring a Brit.” It was hardly
insulting— even a little more respectful and euphonious than the
“Bring a Pom” that my workmates would no doubt have written— but
I had allowed my imagination to run to something more personal.
* * *
The following Friday, I fetched up just after ten p.m. at a double-story house in the eastern suburbs. It was a big party, maybe seventy guests, mostly in jeans, although more stylishly dressed than I would have expected of twenty-somethings. Actors and crew, perhaps: cooler than the IT crowd.
Angelina was standing in the living room with a group of women of about her own age. She was wearing a bright burgundy jacket with a short skirt, a beret, and quite a bit of makeup: striking, but distinctly different from her look in the bar when she delivered the invitation, which in turn was different from that first night singing. The perfume was the same.
She opened a gap for me, touched me on the arm, and smiled a silent welcome. I took the opportunity to check her left hand: no ring. They were deep into a conversation about tactics for defending a drunk-driving charge, and Angelina managed to convey without words that she was pleased that I had come and if I could put up with her friends’ rudeness in not pausing to let her introduce me, she would do so in due course. Although she might like to contribute to the discussion first. And, in the meantime, don’t go away.
I smiled. I wasn’t going anywhere.
The conversation was lighthearted, but it was apparent that the
young woman on the verge of losing her driver’s license was struggling to appreciate the more outrageous suggestions, most of which were coming from a Jayne Mansfield look-alike with an irritatingly childish voice.
Angelina offered the first serious suggestion. “How long does your probationary license have left to run?”
“Because they go by the date of the court case, not the date you got booked.”
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure. If you’re on a full license on the day you go to court, you’ll only get a suspension. If you’re nice to the magistrate.”
“Nice to the magistrate” set Jayne Mansfield off again, and left me to conclude that Angelina must have some experience with the law— in the negative sense. The wild, law-breaking actress.
She had still not managed to introduce me when a familiar figure materialized. He was wearing black slacks, a black rollneck sweater, and polished shoes. He looked older than most of the other guests.
He gave me a quick appraisal, raised his eyebrows, but did not ac- knowledge me directly.
“Richard!” said Jayne Mansfield to the man formerly known as Gordon Gekko. “Miranda got booked at point-oh-eight. There’s some way she can get off, right?”
“Pass. I leave my work at the office.” He smirked. “Like Angelina.
She only does sex at work.”
Okay. It seemed they were a couple. He was apparently a lawyer.
And unquestionably a first-class arsehole.
Jayne Mansfield responded with a giggle that went on longer than it needed to. I looked directly at Richard, and his expression made it clear that his joke was meant to contain a barb.
Angelina stood there, taking it. I was familiar with the dynamic and not just from the night she had sung at the bar. My father had a coruscating wit that would have left Richard in the shade. As a child I had spent too much time listening to him use it on my mother.
Richard gave the lie to his statement about leaving work at the office by launching into an anecdote about a judge’s daughter who had been charged with soliciting.
I squeezed Angelina’s arm, I hoped discreetly, and walked to the dining room. A few moments later she followed.
“What was that about?” I said.
“She didn’t mean any harm. She’s just a bit of a ditz.” “I didn’t mean her.”
“Too much to drink. Don’t worry about it. Not your problem.”
I waited, and she added, “We broke up. A week ago. It’s still a bit raw for both of us.”
“Can I get you a drink?” I said.
“I’d love one. Thank you. You’re being very sweet.”
On my way to the kitchen, I realized that she didn’t know my name, which was probably why she hadn’t introduced me. By the time I found vodka, orange juice, and ice, she had wandered off.
I eventually spotted her at the top of the stairs. There was a hand- written sign at the base: No guests upstairs please.
I took her drink up. “I didn’t feel like any more conversation,” she said. “With anyone else, I mean.”
“Hard to have a conversation without anyone else,” I said, and she smiled at the lame joke. “I’m Adam.”
“Like Gus? Or Duncan? Or Douglas?”
“Dooglas.” She laughed. It was an attractive laugh, a little tipsy but not drunken, and I liked being the cause of it. “Sorry. You’re not offended, are you?”
“You can call me any name you want.” Even a Scottish one.
“All right, Dooglas,” she said. “What did you do with your girl- friend?”
I told her the Tina story, at length, throwing in a few Mancunian- isms to go with the accent, and she laughed through it. I was enjoying myself, too.
“It was a nice choice of song,” she said. “I don’t get called beautiful too often and it’s what everyone’s looking for in my world.”
“You have to trust the spontaneous song test. It’s like word association. Never lies.”
“Come on,” she said. “That night I sang with you. I saw myself in the mirror afterward. Mascara everywhere. I looked like Alice Cooper.”
“You realize I’ll never look at Alice Cooper again without thinking of you. I may decide he’s the sexiest man on the planet.”
The music from downstairs had stopped for a few minutes, but it came back with a roar: Joe Cocker singing “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Angelina smiled and touched my arm, starting a nonverbal conversation that seemed to go:
I’d like you to kiss me.
You’re not really saying that, are you?
I’m really saying that. That’s why I haven’t let go of your arm.
No, you can’t be. Not to me. Not to Adam Sharp, the database guy from Manchester.
I’m standing here with my face turned up toward yours, and it’s going to be awkward for both of us if you don’t kiss me.
I had not kissed anyone for a while. I closed my eyes and fell into it: the softness, the openness, the unreality of who she was. I didn’t want to stop but we were out in the open, visible to anyone who chose to look up from the base of the stairs.
We pulled each other down the hallway, and there was a bedroom— the master bedroom by the look of it, with family photos and an en-suite bathroom. No lock on the inside of the door, so after I closed it, I leaned against it while I kissed her again.
After a few seconds she broke the kiss, turned us around so she had her back against the door, and said, “See, I don’t only do sex at work.” It could have been a sultry come-on, but her tone was more defensive than seductive. For a moment I wondered if she was referring to what we had done already, if she had made her point, but then she pulled me into her again.
There was not a lot of foreplay, and that was her fault as much as mine. It was straight to hitched-up, unzipped, and pushed-aside clothes, with Angelina sandwiched between me and the door. I was
no longer feeling overwhelmed. We were two people making love, and the rest didn’t matter.
Then, out of the blue, she let go a series of gasps that morphed from ecstasy to apparent surprise that it had happened so quickly. But be- fore either Joe Cocker or I could finish, Angelina disentangled her- self, picked up her handbag, and made a dash for the bathroom. She was still wearing her beret.
She was gone a good ten minutes, time I used to mentally kick my- self for taking it too fast. My fears were confirmed when she emerged: she went straight to the door with an expression that said, What have I done? I picked up our glasses and followed her downstairs, took a de- tour at the bathroom to clean up the lipstick that had found its way onto my face, and then could not find her.
Richard was still in the living room. He peeled off from a conversation with Jayne Mansfield as I walked past. If he had had too much to drink before, he was now comprehensively leathered.
“Sorry, my friend, gone. Gone home without you. I have some ad- vice for you,choom.”
I thought he was about to warn me off, threaten me. Jayne Mansfield looked excited at the prospect.
Richard managed to string another sentence together. “In the words of the immortal bard, all that glisters is not gold.”
There were plenty of comebacks to that, but there was no point getting drawn in.
The hostess confirmed that Angelina had left, and let me use the phone to call a taxi. But not before she had commented on my Union Jack sweatshirt.
“Nice to see a man who’s proud of his heritage.” “Just a nod to the theme of the party.”