It was not at all easy to forget, afterwards, that moment in the fall of 1962, huddled together around the radio, two tall, dark men, silent for once, listening intently for a detonation. The smoke from Dan's cigarette blurred her vision, making her want to cough, and Chuck was standing too close, crowding her in. Back to work, she could've said, but they wouldn't have listened, and the droning voice of the announcer was a metronome, calmer than either of them had ever known how to be in front of the camera.
It made for one of those memories you can't really forget, erasing all the others as it sunk in, happier moments subsumed by the anticipation. They weren't nearly as scared as they should've been, then; could they have known the bombs wouldn't go off, or was it just that they liked it, the thought of a nuclear blow-out, radiation in all corners, wiping everything out?
Maybe it was that. They'd all liked destruction a little too much, after all.
Chuck came back three years later, without so much as a phone call to warn for his return.
Blair came into the newsroom one morning and he was there, sitting on the edge of Penelope's desk, his pocket square blooming like a fresh wound. He didn't see her at first, and for a wild moment Blair thought maybe she could turn around, down the elevator and then back into bed. But he twisted, mid-story, and saw her. He blinked.
Then he said, 'Hello, Blair.'
She picked up her mail, her hands numb. 'Chuck.'
And that was it, she knew: he was back.
'You guys knew each other before, right?'
Blair laughed. It was nice of Dan to pretend that he didn't know the story down to the gory details, the bright-eyed American socialites flying to the continent for love and success only to end up tearing each other apart. But she shouldn't have been surprised. Eleanor had told her from the beginning: it's either love, or success. Choose one.
'Yeah,' she said. 'You could say that.'
Dan's eyes were sharp in the light. Perhaps 'nice' wasn't the right word: this was the smile he used on the people he chased down for interviews, gentle and unhurried, politely waiting for the right moment to sink his teeth in. But he always drew blood.
'I don't want to talk about it,' she said to forestall his questioning, tapping her cigarette against the metal edge of the ashtray. 'Water under the bridge and all that.'
'Alright,' Dan said. His knee touched hers briefly under the table.
'Alright,' Blair repeated. He wouldn't leave it at that, of course, but for now his patience was enough, more than he would've given anybody else. They drank some more and at the end of the night Dan walked her home, their hands brushing in the low light. He kissed her cheek before he left, like always, and she watched him walk away, his silhouette gradually enveloped by darkness.
Afterwards, they shared a cigarette in bed and he looked around her place, judging her. The walls were bare, the apartment itself small; only her closet was flowering. She kept her jewels in a box under her bed. She took them out sometimes, but mostly it felt like playing dress-up. She'd gotten used to the sharp suits, the black pumps, the buttoned-up shirts. People knew her now. Blair Waldorf, reporter for the BBC -- it was a good tagline.
'I remember you being more lively,' Chuck said, sneering a little.
She didn't give him the reaction he expected, defensive or dramatic. She just shrugged.
His hand snaked under the covers and he pressed his fingers to the exact right spot in one smooth movement. Pleasure sparked inside her.
'Some things don't,' he said.
She sighed, leaning back against the pillow. She thought about the day he'd left, remembered looking at the door he'd just slammed, furious and heartbroken. If she focused she could feel those things now, a pale ersatz of them, almost harmless.
'I suppose,' she said; then he kissed her and she stopped talking.
Eleanor had wanted her to be careful, then she'd wanted her to get married. Serena had wanted her to take risks. Patrick, the head executive at the BBC, had wanted her to prove herself. Now Jenny wanted her stories.
Jenny was the intern at the program and Dan's little sister. She was bright-eyed and red-lipped and looking like she was begging to get broken.
'You don't want to know,' Blair said. 'And for that matter, it's not really any of your business.'
Jenny stuck her bottom lip out, unfazed. 'Oh, come on,' she drawled. 'It's not like I haven't heard the rumours, anyway.'
'Then why do you care?'
Sometimes, like now, leaning forward with her hands clutching her bony knees, her chin high, she looked dangerously like Dan. 'I want to know the truth,' she said.
'Don't we all,' said Blair, but then she felt silly, like it was something someone much older than her should say, and she sent off Jenny with a stack of reports to photocopy.
It wasn't that it came from out of left field, exactly. Dan had told her - she'd seen him - there had been times where it had been made clear to her that although he loved her with an abiding sort of loyalty, he wasn't especially picky about who he took home. Boys, girls - it was rare enough he remembered to care about something else than journalism. The rest, he said, was semantics.
And Chuck - well, Chuck was Chuck. He never apologized for leaving; he called her on slow damp nights and sometimes she was in and sometimes she wasn't, but if she was he invited himself over and they ate in her tiny kitchen, strange extravagant packed meals he picked up in fancy restaurants, and then they had sex and smoked. Sometimes they talked, but not often. There were enough words between them.
It startled her, still.
She saw it happen in increments: men's slow, violent courtship, going head to head in meetings, pretending to fight over her in insidious ways, the red pen in her articles, the coffee on her desk. Once Chuck took Dan out for a 'night with the boys', that's what he called it, even though it was just the two of them, and the next morning Blair could see it, the brand on Dan's lips. She could recognize it anywhere.
He evaded her gaze, brooding unhappily in his cubicle all day, chainsmoking until his fingers were black with tar. Blair didn't say anything.
Serena had warned her against boys falling in love. It was fine if you liked it, she said, if you could weather it: the fury of their heartbreak, their unwillingness to give you up until it was too late, until you were both burned out. Otherwise stay away.
Of course Blair hadn't listened. It was enough to follow Serena, to always walk in her shadow; taking her advice would have been something else, too close to enslavement for comfort. Besides, Blair had never really believed someone could fall in love with her. It wasn't a question of self-esteem, not really, more like a cold sort of rationalism; why would they? She wasn't like Serena, so golden and generous you forgot to care about how dangerous she was; Blair had enough sharp edges to discourage a porcupine.
But it happened: not once, but twice. About the second, Serena said: 'He sounds sweet.'
'Are you sure?' she was saying now. Blair could hear her exhale, and for a moment she was struck with the strength of missing her: she could just imagine her now, eyes half-shut, smoke streaming from between the diamonds on her fingers.
'Reasonably,' Blair said. 'But it doesn't matter.'
'I thought he loved you. Didn't you say he loved you?'
'He does. But I-' she didn't remember, really, 'I said no once or twice. He wasn't that determined. Some men like to love you from afar. It's easier.'
'Not Chuck, though,' Serena said. There was something like meanness in her voice; she'd never liked Chuck, from the beginning. She called him 'Charles'. At their wedding, she'd sat in the front row, wearing a gorgeous dress that almost outshined Blair's, and Blair could see she was trying not to say, you're making a mistake.
'Well, that's in the past.'
Serena had always been more perceptive than the papers said, when she wanted.
'According to the divorce papers, yes.' She'd sent them to his parents' estate in New York a year after he'd left because she didn't know what address to write down, and she'd been surprised to get them back shortly after, signed in Chuck's elegant handwriting. Fuck him, she'd thought then, still half-mad with rage and grief. I don't need him.
'Well, now's the time to bow out,' Serena said. 'Again.'
'You're always so responsible when it's not you.'
Serena laughed, a happy trill. 'I'm being plenty responsible!' she said, and Blair knew she was turning the ring on her finger, that obscene rock cutting into the flesh of her palm. 'Are you coming to the wedding? You have to.'
Blair smiled. It wasn't that she was glad that Serena was getting married, but she'd been engaged three or four times and even Blair could tell it was wearing her down, dimming her. And who was she to tell Serena she couldn't try to be happy?
'I'll be there,' she said. 'Waiting for you at the end of the aisle.'
'You and Carter both. You'll love the dress I picked out for you,' and then she was off, lost to the details, lace and gauze and perfect hems. Blair tuned out the words and focused on the sound of her voice instead, the lilting honey of it, dripping sunshine in her ear.
But they wrote good stories together. Blair and Dan, when Chuck had been gone, had hated each other. Blair found Dan whimsical and unsympathetic, with his unshaven brooding looks; and Dan found Blair prim, self-righteous, rule-following. Like the others, he thought - and told her, once - that she was better suited for the reception desk. His cheek still smarted when he remembered, now.
Blair couldn't say how they became friends, but she knew him well enough to imagine how it had gone. He might have decided to apologize, and set on her table a cup of over-sweetened coffee. Then he waited to see if he needed to try another tactic. She'd understood this from the beginning: he wasn't the kind of man who gave up.
He told her poetry now on silent, restless nights, when they were out drinking with the others. He leaned too close and said something like: and sorry I could not travel both, and be one traveler, long I stood, and looked down as far as I could, to where it bent down in the undergrowth…
She let the poetry wash over her. Most of the time she didn't say anything. The higher-ups, who didn't like him but admired his talent, said she knew how to tease out of him his peculiar genius, but she liked to think it was combined genius. They traded roles: hook, bait. Hunter, prey. Interviewer, interviewee.
Sometimes, like now, he perched on the edge of her desk with a recorder and brought the small mike close to her lips. He said something like, and now with the famous Blair Waldorf…
Today, it was: 'Why did you marry him?'
She startled. 'I thought you were still pretending you didn't know about that.'
He shrugged. 'I got bored. Everyone knows.'
And you knew before everyone, Blair thought to say, but didn't.
'He asked me.'
'I wouldn't have thought that was a good enough reason, for you.'
Suddenly she was annoyed with it; his coyness, his tone of slight, condescending reproach. 'How would you know?'
He left her alone for a bit after that.
'I've got an excuse,' Dan said after the first time he kissed her, squinting at her. 'A good one.'
He took his pack out of his suit pocket and shook a cigarette into his hand. The band was playing Nina Simone, the singer with her eyes closed, swinging to the music, I wish I knew how, slowly tapping the mike stand with her nails, it would feel to be free… Dan had promised her a dance, then twirled her once and leaned into her, his face darting like a schoolboy.
Blair sighed. 'What for?'
He was fumbling with his zippo, drunker than he was pretending to be, as usual. Blair took it out of his hands and lit his cigarette for him. Maybe if she'd had children like everyone else she wouldn't have had to deal with this, taking care of grown men. At least she got paid for it, most of the time.
Dan blinked. 'Uh, thanks,' he said uneloquently.
'What are you apologizing for?'
He frowned. 'I'm not apologizing. I've just got -- I've got a reason to do the things I do.'
'Of course you do.'
Dan looked away. She could see he was searching for some poetry in his head, maybe Whitman, but nothing was coming. 'You know I love you,' he said after a while.
'Yes. I know. I'm a journalist too, remember?'
He shook his head. 'Right.' He forgot about it regularly, that she wasn't just the boss-lady or some woman he was in love with, waiting in the shadows in her dresses and lipstick until he was ready to focus on her, but it still stung a little.
'I slept with Chuck,' Dan said.
Blair wondered if saying, tell me something I don't know would be childish.
'Okay,' she said instead. Sometimes she was too responsible for her own good. She didn't know how to cut ties, how to say no. Then she didn't know how to say yes either, or at least not well enough. Eleanor had a laundry list of things she didn't do well enough.
Dan squinted. 'You don't look surprised.'
'Are you mad?'
'Not really. We got divorced for a reason, you know.'
'I thought you were—' he gestured with his hand, embarrassed to say the word. He was still a child in the end; he liked adventure stories and poetry, but the real thing made him uncomfortable.
Blair took a cigarette out of his pack and handed him the lighter. He lit it for her. She remembered Chuck telling her once - shortly after they'd met - that in some places lighting a cigarette for a woman (it was the way he did it, for her, that had thrilled her, his thumb on the little wheel, nail almost touching the spark, and his middle finger brushing the skin of her chin, hand angled as though to cradle her face) meant you had to marry her, or at least sleep with her.
'Sleeping together? Sometimes.'
Maybe she should get a cat.
'So…' He let the vowel trail off, waiting for her to complete his sentence. He did that sometimes.
So, Blair thought, so, how about you finish your own sentence for once? How about you fix your copy?
The band was winding down. They hadn't really danced, and Blair felt tired, wrung to her bones. The singer was shaking sweat out of her hair, her beautiful sharp face lined with exhaustion, lipstick smeared at the edges. Someone should congratulate her, Blair thought.
'Thanks for the cigarette,' she said to Dan, and walked away.
'I think something's going to happen in Cuba,' Chuck said, holding her waist in the elevator, pulling her close. She shrugged him off.
'What kind of thing?'
He didn't answer. 'I was there for a while, you know. I went after I got your papers.'
'I would've thought you'd gone to Tijuana,' she said, not exactly unkind.
He turned to her and grinned. The elevator dinged, and as the doors started opening he hooked a hand around her neck and kissed her, rough and hard, smearing her lipstick.
'I'll send Dan to talk to some people I know. Government types like shit-diggers these days,' he said, 'especially when they've got such a pretty face,' and sauntered out of the elevator.
He was gone before Blair could yell at him, or even say, one day they'll get you in your sleep and cut off your tongue. She sighed and headed into the bathroom to fix her make-up.
Blair went to New York for Serena's wedding, and Chuck came with her, for old time's sake. He missed Nate, he said, and she believed him. She missed Nate sometimes too, despite the failed engagement and the drug habit.
They took Dan with them because he had nothing to do, growing restless, saying Cuba under his breath too often, obsessively teaching himself Spanish so he could read the Cuban newspapers.
'America,' he groaned in the airport, sucking on his tenth cigarette of the day. He was growing gaunt, not unattractive exactly, but sharp. He looked at them and grinned, sudden. 'Americans.'
He fell asleep on Chuck's shoulder on the plane. Chuck shrugged his other shoulder at Blair, as though to say, what can you do?
In New York, as they snapped back into old habits, Dan got progressively more British in reaction. They were an amusing trio, Dan with his hunched shoulders, slumping and louche, and Blair and Chuck erect, almost gaudy. Once or twice Blair had to catch herself before she hooked her arm into Chuck's.
'I'm going to -' Dan said, gesturing vaguely at the door of their hotel. He didn't wait for an answer from either of them, disappearing in the busy street.
Chuck laughed. 'He's a piece of work, your boy,' he said.
'He's yours too, now,' Blair said.
Chuck wrapped an arm around her waist and bit her cheek lightly, enough to attract reprobating looks from the doorman. 'God help us,' he said, and dragged her towards the counter.
Serena was beautiful, decked out in white, a vision, all her lace and hems were perfectly distributed. Her groom was nondescript as only Serena's boys could be, smooth-faced and adoring. Nate sat next to Blair and Chuck and squeezed Dan's shoulder with a gloved hand, smiling his genial smile.
'Isn't she beautiful?' he said, no trace of jealousy in his voice. His pretty young wife smiled blankly from his side.
'Um,' said Dan. He hadn't even shaved.
'Sorry, I'm Nate,' said Nate, holding out his hand. A woman behind them tutted crossly and Nate turned to her, beaming. Serena and her groom started saying their vows, sticky-sweet.
For a minute, when Serena said, 'I do,' the world seemed to white out, and Blair thought that's my best friend and didn't know what to feel. She could sense before she really felt it Chuck's large hand on her thigh, obvious, scandalous, reassuring; and Dan's more subtle hold, his two fingers that he had placed at the small of her back, as though to hold her up. Serena turned to her, radiant and serious, shining among all the white. She crooked her fingers and made a tiny wave; winked, then turned back to the ceremony.
'You were right,' Dan said after the ceremony, half-sprawled on Blair's bed, watching her pack.
Chuck smirked. 'Please specify.'
'Something's going to be happen.' He turned to Blair. 'I think I should go to Cuba after this, you know, be there when it happens.'
'Don't you think it's going to be dangerous?'
'No,' Dan said, though what he meant was: of course.
'I think I'll order some room service,' Chuck said. Blair was turning her back to him, but she could feel that he was still smiling.
That night they went to a club and it was a woman singing again, a Frenchwoman wearing a long skirt and a bored moue.
'A dance, milady?' Chuck said, already leading her onto the dancefloor, just as Dan was making an aborted movement towards her.
'You can come too,' Blair said, emboldened by liquor.
They spun her, then kissed her, one after the other, twirling her until she forgot which was which. Their lips were slippery, tasted bitter, complementary. As they were heading back to the hotel, already entwined, Dan leaned close to her and said, 'They're going to put bombs there,' and Blair laughed, laughed for a long time, until Chuck was twisting his key into the door, and they pushed inside, all three of them, tumbling on the bed, and they crawled over her, one cradling her head, one kissing her stomach, her hip, then down.
'Boom,' Blair said.