“Darling,” Hilary said, holding out her compact, “would you? I should like to look something other than sensible and that’s all I’ve been able to manage.”
Julian thought at first that she had simply felt him in the doorway, as though he were a chill. In the warm, lightly perfumed room, with the yellow lights of the vanity, he ordinarily was the one who felt at home, because the smell of Max Factor and lacquer and the overpowering concern with one’s features reminded him of every backstage in the world. But today he was the intruder. Though he was also being silly, and reproached himself for it. She had seen him in the mirror, and there was nothing so extraordinary in that.
And they were at home. Ostensibly, he could not intrude; ostensibly, all of this was theirs together.
“You can see it’s all as usual.”
In the spindly chair before the mirror, with him behind her, she looked regal: she hadn’t called him in from another room or even from the hall but only slightly from her left. His attendance upon her hadn’t been requested, but he preferred—preferred strongly—to offer it, especially on nights like this one. He thought she looked well—indeed rather better than well, for she looked as she always looked, which was not, in his own words, sensible, but something more profound than that. Still, he knew what she was after. This was not the first time they had done this.
He used cold cream to remove the foundation she had already applied, her skin so smooth beneath the pads of his fingers. He knew she enjoyed the smell of it—that slightly waxy scent of honeysuckle and lemon—so he lingered on the activity. It seemed an intimate act, akin almost to what he knew he would do later that night, what he wanted to do now. It was, Julian consoled himself, something marital—a before-bed ritual. And it gave him time to adore her.
But after a moment, she said, “I’m afraid if you keep on with that you’ll put me to sleep. I’m sorry,” and she did sound apologetic, “but I really need to be on time. I promised Lisa.”
“Then you mustn’t disappoint,” he said, keeping his voice light, as if Lisa Clare’s name were a spray of some delicate perfume, a note meant to inform rather than to overwhelm. “I’ll turn you out a masterpiece so that no eye in the restaurant lands upon anyone else.”
“That’ll be a disaster for service.”
“Certainly. Regrettable but unavoidable.”
He kept up that line of chatter—branching gradually into telling her stories of doing makeup backstage of The Tempest and Midsummer, which he understood only with agonizing lateness were ones he had told her already—as he applied Max Factor, darkening her complexion, taking away the near-translucence of her. He smoothed her eyebrows with Vaseline. Put on her powder and mascara. The shortages had eased, but only partly—she asked him please to conserve the little bit of blush she still had, in a cracked cake in its little compact, for some occasional still rarer than this one. He compromised by using the tiniest dabs of her lipstick to color her cheeks before applying it to her mouth and then glossing her lips with a touch of Vaseline as well. With all the tricks he knew, he might have gone on forever; might have winged her eyebrows and applied fantastical colors to her. He might—this thought was insanity—have scratched a run into her nylons. Those too had not recovered from the war and so it would mean more time, still, for him to rub her legs smooth with a pumice stone and then paint on her liquid silk stockings. He had done that twice and even thinking of it clenched some muscle inside him. His hand drifted towards her knee.
“I shouldn’t think that’s necessary,” Hilary said, rather calmly. “Not tonight.”
Julian made his fingers relax and only then did she motion for him to touch her. He pushed his hand up past the tops of her stockings to feel the smooth coolness of her thighs. He wanted to feel heat—wanted to know that this did to her what it did to him—
But when he did feel it, he was shaken by it. He did not know, after all, that they were thinking of the same thing. Not on the nights when she went to see Mrs. Clare.
“Thank you, darling. That’s so lovely.”
“You look gorgeous.”
“I ought to; I’m technically a masterpiece at the moment, painted as I am. I must be careful not to walk by any galleries or I’ll find myself hanging from a hook.”
“Ah,” Julian said. “It might be safer then to stay home.”
“My love, it’s only dinner.” She turned towards the mirror rather than to him, examining the perfection he had brought out in her face. “Whatever makes you carry on so?” It was a question she did not mean, not with the way she opened her legs just a little wider, letting his hand slip still farther up her thigh.
It was all because she had told him, very sanely and very sensibly, shortly after his return, after the war had ended. Her manner had been almost brisk and he thought unavoidably of that nurse she had so vehemently disliked, the one whose stupidity Hilary had condescended to so often and so noticeably that she had been forced ever after to cater to her with sugary patience. (“Which really might have killed you, so you see where that gets a person.”) She had, she’d said, seen her own share of blood. She supposed he thought she’d aged considerably in his absence and she ignored his protestations that he thought nothing of the sort—that, privately, he had only ever congratulated himself on the way all that stress and violence had thrashed some of the youthful shininess and chocolate-box prettiness out of his own face. She supposed herself, she said, that she had grown harder.
There were, Hilary had said upon his return, certain things she had previously been prepared to accept as inevitable that she now was not. Did he understand her?
Not quite, but then he often didn’t.
It was then that she had lifted her chin and told him about Lisa Clare. “Women sometimes find consolation in other women.”
“But it’s over?”
Hilary had met his gaze first with cool frankness and then with a kind of compassion. She had not answered, but had instead drawn him into the bedroom. Her stockings back then had only been paint and they had left stains on the sheets and had burnished his hips and thighs and the palms of his hands. Periodically he wished they had ruined the sheets—that soap had been no cure for it—because then at least he would be able to take them from some closet somewhere and have proof.
Ever since then, this: these dinners. He made her up. He waited, Penelope now to her Odysseus. She came home. Thus far.
“I am carrying on, aren’t I?” he said as flippantly as he could. “I do hope you’ll have a diverting evening.”
“Thank you, I think I shall.” She wound a scarf around her neck. That, he knew, had been a gift from Lisa Clare; Hilary wore it to nearly all of their dinners. He had bought her countless scarves since his homecoming and she wore them only rarely, as if she were doling out the sight of herself in the colors he liked and the fashions he had chosen. He could never decide if he felt betrayed or managed, nor if it were a betrayal to be managed.
His body, shamefully, did not take it as one.
(“You did always prefer character parts,” Hilary had said to him after her first dinner. “You’ve spent an unfortunate amount of time being plainly heroic and I imagine it’s worn on you. It’s better, isn’t it, to have something more distinctive and disfiguring? No one would recognize you. Your villains and menaced girls are amateur theatricals, however well-done—and you did always do excellently with them, darling. Melodrama, though. Between the two of us, we can manage something finer.”)
“How do I look?”
“Delectable as ever.”
“What a promising word,” Hilary said.
He did not know what to do with himself while she was gone—he seldom did—so he listened to the radio and half-heard the BBC play. He had tried for a radio play once at Oxford and they had rejected him flat, almost with a laugh: his voice was good, they had said, and his skills were far more polished than those of most boys his age, but it would be something like a crime to keep him from the public eye. It had been foolish in any case. It had been after the Oberon notice and he had thought that at least there would be no pictures of him in the paper over this but of course his mother might have turned on the radio at any time. He could do less to disguise his voice than he could to disguise his face.
Hilary would have known him at once, would have known him anywhere. He was very sure of that.
She loved his beauty, too, so he strove to maintain it for her; but she was sometimes impatient with it, as if it were costume jewelry, some paste diamond made too large and gaudy to be real, so he strove then to downplay it. Lisa, she had said once, was pretty. She had not said it as though there were anything wrong with that.
He botched an omelet and so made himself some toast. He was never very hungry on these nights.
It was past midnight when she returned.
She never looked so much the woman he had dreamed she was as she did on these occasions—her face was flushed far ruddier than he had made it with that carefully-rubbed lipstick and her laugh had a champagne giddiness to it. She was laughing, too, without any proximate cause, but perhaps if he looked out, he would see something natural but droll: some animal, some windswept flotsam and jetsam, some flyer left against their gate. Something not visible through the windows, especially not when he was pretending not to look.
She came in unwinding the scarf from her beautiful throat. Her eyes were sparkling.
“I hope you passed a pleasant evening here.”
“Oh, quite. And you?”
“What do you do with her?” He had not asked this before and he had, for a moment, the uneasy and horrified sense that he had broken some sort of rule, as if he had stepped out on ice too thin or too rotten to hold his weight.
But Hilary did not even blink at the question. “Well, dinner, certainly, and then usually we go back to her house—time passes very quickly in the right kind of company. Especially with a fire on and drinks at hand. Of course Rupert was not home, so it was only the two of us.”
“Poor dear. I always suspect you of being so terribly lonely whenever I’m gone. You might have friends over next time.”
“I wouldn’t be good company.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Wouldn’t you be?”
She did not usually demand that he talk for this long—his body seemed to throb at being held in reserve. He made some small noise and at last she smiled in the soft way that always brought him to her and her promised kindness, which was put into practice as she let him undress her, which he did as slowly and rapturously as he had done her makeup. Then, to linger on her before she left; now, to show her how immensely he valued her return. To make haste would have been to prioritize himself over her and he felt the danger of that keenly. He disregarded the sharp ache at the center of him and drew an almost obsessive pleasure from his work alone. A man must have a vocation.
He slipped each button on her coat free until it fell open and then he ran his hands across the straight lines of her collarbone, not visible through the wool of her dress but tactile enough, and when he felt safe in doing so, he drew her coat down over her shoulders and went to lay it over the back of a chair; her slight, disappointed click of the tongue made him take it all the way to the wardrobe instead. He experienced an unbearable terror that she would be gone when he found his way back—that the front door would be open, the air blowing in the scent of wet grass and Lisa Clare’s perfume—but she was there still. He went to his knees in front of her and pressed his head against her belly. She held him.
“Shh, darling, shh. It’s quite all right. I’m here and everything’s fine, only you must continue. I'm all at sixes and sevens now, and that won't do.”
He nodded. He stood—standing was painful—and went around to the back of her to undo the long row of buttons on her dress. She was merciful and let him simply drop that to the floor for her to step out of.
“Would you like to go into the bedroom?”
Hilary pursed her lips. All that was left of her clothes was her ivory brassiere—she had worn no girdle and the sight of her bare midsection was undoing him more than anything else—underwear, stockings, and garters. She seemed unaffected by her exposure, even in contrast to his own full dress, and might have stood there forever pondering the question of location. She had taken him—he could not construct the sentence in any other way—in every room of the house at one point or another, as if every surface were territory to be marked. But the bed was what he wanted most and she knew that.
She had told him she and Lisa had never been together in their bed.
“The bed sounds perfectly lovely,” Hilary said. “More than anything else, I should like to lie down. I’m so exhausted.”
“You needn’t do anything,” he said hastily. “Only let me get you ready.”
“You’re such a dear.” She smiled. “And what would you count as getting me ready, Julian?”
“Please,” he said, as if he had never laughed at the schoolmistress in his play for behaving as though she didn’t know what the villain’s threats to her virtue entailed. He was unmade by her, always. In the darkness of the cave he had tried to be clever for her, and brave, and how had that ended? He wanted only to go down on his knees for her again but she desired explicitness—once, when he had greeted her return with a stormy temper, she had concluded the night and cemented her victory by having him describe, point-by-point, anatomical detail-by-detail, the actions he was performing to win back her approval and substantiate her regard.
He had done well tonight, though, so she was good to him. “You needn’t be clinical. I know you dislike that. Only to say it.”
“Let me please you.”
“With my mouth,” he said desperately.
“All right. A better offer was never had.”
She walked behind him to the bedroom and he felt like Orpheus, uncertain of his Eurydice, until at last they were there and he was allowed to look at her again, allowed to undo the snaps of her brassiere, remove her garters and her stockings, draw down her underwear. It seemed an eternity before she was bare against the sheets. She braced her foot against his shoulder and said, “It might be best to remove my makeup first—sleeping in it runs the risk of so much oiliness, not to mention the damage to the pillowcases, and you now how one wants simply to make love and then to sleep—”
“I can’t,” he said raggedly. “I can’t wait.”
She considered this. “For one night, I suppose it won’t do too much damage. And it’s true that a certain amount of oil is good for the skin.”
She parted her legs for him.
She was so beautiful—away from her, in the war, he had dreamed of her so frequently that he sometimes felt he had been saved once from a gunshot meant for his head purely because he had been walking around, as he so often did, half-cramped with ungratified desire, his hand a reward he allowed himself only the night before a mission. Her scent, then, had been what he’d had the most trouble approximating in his fantasies. On these nights, it was overwhelming. She was always so wet by the time they were finally together, wet and flushed and swollen, vulnerable to his breath as well as to his tongue, and he tried hard to believe that she was so stirred only by what they did upon her return. Not that she carried her arousal home with her like a neatly-rewrapped package.
That it was all her, and not some mingling of her and Lisa, that Lisa’s lips had not just been where his own were about to be—that was all he wanted to believe.
He kissed the insides of her thighs and then the less-sensitive top of her mound, letting his chin very gently graze her where her sensations were most acute. Would she unravel for him? Would she concede anything at all?
She had married him. She had called him beloved. She did love him.
He licked her—first steadily, with the flat of his tongue, simply to accustom her to the feeling of it so she would not get overwhelmed (“When you concentrate directly on my clitoris immediately, it only hurts,” she had said the first night they had done this, and he had been forced to wonder if that was something she had wanted to say all along or if she had learned some alternative from Mrs. Clare). She called him her love, her darling, her wonderful boy, and she drew him closer with her legs, pressed his face still more tightly against her. He ducked his head and rubbed his nose against her peak and then at last began to tease the center of her with the tip of his tongue. Clockwise circles, counterclockwise. She had taught him to vary the technique—to go elsewhere and then return.
“Patience remains the foremost virtue of the endeavor,” she’d said. “Patience and concentration. In intercourse, there remains the possibility of the man not thinking at all, but cunnilingus—I’m sorry, my love, I know you hate these kinds of terms, but that is the name—demands precision and active attention.”
“I’m very close,” she said at last. His mouth had gone a little numb but he had been past minding that—for all its active attention, he found himself still capable of reaching a point where he did very little thinking indeed, where he felt like his whole life was an arrow shot straight at the target of this particular moment.
She flexed upwards and he could not breathe quite easily, but then he managed it again, all without disturbing her. He loved her like this, his beautiful, controlled wife beyond even her own control. Sometimes, in these moments, she praised him immoderately. She said things about his beauty. She said things about her adoration of him.
She came and he stayed with her throughout it, applying the continuous steady pressure of his mouth and then softly licking her again, allowing her to level out from the sensation of it all. Sometimes she seemed to want him to do that for quite a long time.
Tonight, though, she only said, very sleepily, “That was excellent, darling.”
He looked up. “You’re glad you came home, then?”
“I’m always glad to come home to you.” She reached for him and traced his mouth with one fingertip. “You’ve gone perfectly shiny with me. It’s like your own very particular brand of theatrical makeup, and not, I’m afraid, a very marketable one.”
“Something exclusive,” he said, his heart beating very fast in his chest. Would she say? Would she let him know, one way or the other? Or was not knowing the whole point of the exercise? And if so, for which one of them?
But Hilary only smiled. “I ought to be tired—I am tired—but all the same, that was quite invigorating. And I hate to think of you having so little recourse. Do lie down, darling.”
And he did, and she straddled him, and guided him into her.
“You needn’t make me happy,” she said, her eyes half-closed. “Not now.”
“But do I?” He covered her breast with his hand. "In all ways?"
“Yes,” she said, still smiling, looking down at him with immense and incomprehensible love, “you do. And will no doubt continue to.”
She began to move, and Julian, granted this temporary relief, gave in to that absence of mind she had mentioned before. It was like the moment was the ring he had put on her finger. Like he had to relearn each time, against all odds and for such high stakes, that she would say yes.