Cecile had agreed to this charade of a tea, though she was by turns regretting and congratulating herself on her decision to meet Frank just this one last time as he’d requested. His note had been hand-delivered early that morning, bound with her old chartreuse hair ribbon and smeared on one small corner with what she suspected was pigeon droppings—white and powdery and not at all objectionable in a larger sense but lacking in some small measure the cleanliness and nicety one hoped for in a missive from an ex-bedfellow.
She eyed him now, sitting across from her in the spindly-legged iron chair of a previous century, sipping from a pale cup filled with pale tea, a pale biscuit of uncertain sweetness sitting on a napkin near his left elbow. She leaned toward him, placed her gloved hand on the back of his and—
“Frank. You’ve been gone so long,” she said, clearing her throat to force the tremolo from its timbre. “I was hoping you’d come to me when you returned, but I knew better than to expect it. I hardly expect it now.”
He turned his wrist slightly so his fingers intertwined with hers. “Cessy,” he whispered, and her blood quickened at the sweet low thrum of his tone. “Cessy, I’m so sorry I left. It wasn’t intentional, you know. I’m back now. We’ll try again, you and I. We’ll try again, and this time we’ll do better.” She smiled. She leaned toward him, placed her gloved hand on the back of his and—
He flinched from her touch, recoiled from her hand as though it were a five-headed snake covered in ecru satin. “Don’t,” he said.
The arcing feathers of his delicate eyebrows drew together in that frown she’d come to know so well late last year, after the hydrangea had ceased to bloom and became large brown bobbly-headed tissue crumpled on naked sticks. Tears prickled behind her eyes, though she ordered them away silently with an interior colonial firmness reminiscent of her late father.
“You wrote in your note you needed to see me,” she said, proud that her tears obeyed her order to stay back where they belonged, deep inside with all other feelings of note where they might suffocate but not choke.
“But not for this. Not for that,” Frank said. His cup clattered into its brimming saucer as he reached to light a cigarette and watch her through eyes half-lidded, heavy with cruelty or indifference, either one. She leaned toward him, placed her gloved hand on the back of his and—
“I appreciate you agreeing to meet with me,” she said. “I know our thing together was just that, a thing. I can’t believe,”—here she paused briefly to laugh with a short self-conscious bark, like that of a fox caught in a trap—“I don’t even know your real name. The mysterious thing seemed exciting at the time, but I’m really too old for that now. I was hoping we could get to know each other a little better.”
His lips quirked into a smile. “Funny,” he said, his gaze dipping to rest on her collarbone where her grandmother’s gold locket lay, fused shut but containing the picture of Cecile’s long-dead grandfather from another country. “I feel I know you very well. Better than I know most things.”
That old sluggish heat rose from the back of her spine; that cursed languid fire than never let her be when she was near him. She leaned toward him, placed her gloved hand on the back of his and –
She cried out as if stung by an invisible insect with a pointed barb. She raised her hand to her mouth, tasting iron past the silk weave of her glove where red blossomed like pinprick scarlet anemones. “You’ve always been spiteful,” she said. “Even in grade-school.”
“I’ve loved you since grade-school,” he said. “And hated you too. No getting around that.”
She leaned toward him, placed her gloved hand on the back of his and—
He leapt from the table, dagger drawn. Cecile lunged across the damask, upsetting the delicate Bavarian teapot with its curved handle, the two bone china cups with glaze whiter than cold milk, the plate of biscuits of uncertain sweetness. Her fingers scrabbled at his throat, but he was too quick. She came back with only a handful of fraying satin cravat for her trouble; that, and a thin wicked line of red wending from her shoulder to the inside of her elbow just above the top of her glove. She watched the crimson splat to the jacquard tablecloth in a Rorschach of red against white. Gritting her teeth, she leaned toward him, placed her gloved hand on the back of his and—
Cecile fell to her knees. “Please, Frank. Please.” She didn’t even know what she begged for. Only that she was begging him, and helplessly, hopelessly; and that anything he said would be the wrong thing just as it always was; insufficient / cloying / inarticulate / overeager / flippant / too much / too little / merely inadequate / joyous—all bringing the same crushing sense of defeat she already felt building low in her stomach like a swell against a dam.
Frank merely sat in his tinsel-legged chair, looking out the window at some distant point as though if he ignored her there on the floor, she’d cease to be. “You embarrass yourself,” he murmured, and already she could tell he wasn’t speaking to her. He was speaking to some distant incarnation of her, some version of Cecile less substantial and more colorless even than the pale cup from which he sipped his pale tea, or the pale biscuit of uncertain sweetness sitting on the napkin near his left elbow.