Octavian saw her for the first time in the golden light of the mirror. She'd been sitting alone at a table, drinking a glass of wine, and Octavian had been enchanted.
She didn't think that was a state of being which even applied to her. Enchantment. Even the sound of the word: a little quiet, mostly golden, like a light on in a dark night, had seemed inapplicable. Octavian did not think of herself like that, and she knew by thinking so, she'd put herself beyond it, as though she were walking outside and her glance had been drawn in by a glimmering sparkle. This sense of exclusion had been foreign to her: she'd never let events simply happen, she'd always been part of them. Had always been, still always is. That's why she's a success, that's why she's caught Maria.
Octavian leans her bare elbows against the surface of the bar. Everyone's late except for her. Not surprising: no one is committed to timeliness like she is, like she ought to be, given who she is. Octavian observes the gliding second hand on her Bremont. The face is too big for her wrist, and like any other mechanical watch, it does not keep beautiful time, but it is beautiful to look at and tell the time. Even approximately. This is why she is always early to events: because she so enjoys counting along with her watch. It is a wonderful object, and it keeps her alert to all the possibilities, all the different directions a moment could go, as she observes each one passing into the next.
Outside, the weather has turned from merely chilly to actively nasty: a scrim of snow has fallen, grey and slushy. Octavian's glad she wore her boots and her best coat, a high-collared wool overcoat that is only missing a sword at her side to look entirely military. It's a look she aspires to, the neatness, without any of the associated misery. Chin-ups are themselves quite unpleasant enough, she doesn't need to be training with them and with some sort of gun. Octavian frowns at the thought.
She wouldn't mind getting back into fencing, though. If there were somehow a sport-fencing unit, casualty-free and focused on the individual duel, Octavian might like it quite well. A contest of skill that she could win, instead of silly butchery? This appeals to her.
Octavian looks at the yoked shoulder of her shirt.
Earlier, she'd been to the tailor, to have several shirts fitted. After all those chancy alterations and trying to clearly express that a shirt was not where she carried her gender expression – a nice phrase she's learned lately from the newspapers, she should mention that to Maria – Octavian has found a tailor who, without being told, trims the boxiness out of the back without resorting to unsightly darting. If she'd wanted to compete at a drag show, she would. Well. She would not, because she might lose and not even since childhood has Octavian been able to tolerate losing. It's the same reason she's never gone to battle, beyond the occasional sortie in Assassin’s Creed. She would put out a good effort in loose trousers and a right-handed shirt, and she would enjoy it.
Maybe she should ask Maria. Maria would know, or know someone who knows. They could make an evening of it it. Maria does enjoy performances of all types. She has already taken Octavian to Balinese monologues, Spanish mime, Cantonese opera, Canadian ballet, and a profoundly bizarre afternoon of Portuguese-language circuses, with a Brazilian company who sang the entire time, and a Portuguese contingent who kept Octavian's heart in her throat as she watched their acrobatics and clutched Maria's hand. Maria has a broad hand with long fingers, and she'd rubbed her fingertips over Octavian's knuckles to calm her. 'They're professionals,' Maria had said, with the blithe confidence of a woman without a profession who nonetheless called upon professional firms for such tasks as trimming the Christmas tree and cultivating the rose bushes along the drive.
"Hello," Sophie chimes.
"You surprised me, welcome, welcome."
Sophie appraises Octavian's outfit: "you're looking fine. I like the new boots." She hooks the heel of her bootie over the rung of the chair, and briefly stands her whole inconsiderable height at the bar, before pulling up to the edge and sitting down properly. She swings her purse onto her thighs.
"Thank you. It's been a good month."
"Has it really been so long?" Sophie pushes her hair back behind her ears. Octavian thinks of Maria doing the same thing: the lines at her eyes crinkling, her lip going thin, when she asks what Octavian has been doing. Octavian never knows. Even when she pushes at herself, what do you remember, as though her dreams might reveal ambitions other than continuing to kiss Maria. What were you going to do in the morning? She lacks the usual excuse of youth, that of too much brandy the previous evening. She doesn't have a good reason at all for wondering what she's forgotten. There are enough absurdities to play with, even before looking at her phone.
Octavian does not believe that she is truly made stupid by pretty women. That seems very convenient, and also assumes that she has a great deal to work with. She knows she's charming, which is why she has the courage of her convictions to invite both her most beautiful friend and her wonderful date to this evening.
Sophie's charm bracelet jangles as she digs through her purse. She pulls out a long leather wallet in striped aquamarine and ecru, and tells Octavian, "my treat. Business has been good, the food service sector will never die. We're moving a lot of packaged muffins this time of year."
"Packaged muffins, huh."
Sophie makes as if to swat Octavian with one slender hand. "People like them. Or, well, procurement likes them. I hope people like them, but I wouldn't know. Our taste-testers shouldn't be lying." She rests her hands on the slick weight of the bar. "I've never had one. Is that weird?"
Octavian shakes her head. She does like hearing about Sophie's family's work: the mundanity of it is weirdly compelling. No one, before Sophie, had ever told Octavian boring facts. The rarefied air around her didn't nourish griping about office politics or discussions of packaged muffins. And it only falls to Octavian to make light of Sophie's future as a snack food heiress every third time they see one another, because Sophie doesn't take her own complaining about oatmeal very much more seriously than Octavian does, not even when they'd introduced a raspberry variety to the kind of fanfare that greets the makers of industrial-sized packaged oatmeal for institutional use.
Behind the bar is a mirror, and Octavian looks over the assorted bottles to catch sight of the door swinging shut. With a stubborn patience, Octavian does not turn around to see if Maria has arrived. She will come in her own good time. Octavian has to remember this, that Maria is forever late, and does not like to be reminded of it. Harmony with a calm heart.
When Octavian had waited before meeting Maria, she hadn't thought that she would spend so much time anticipating Maria's arrival in various places. Private faces in public places are so much nicer than public faces in private places, Octavian remembers the aphorism, although not who said it first. She has never had as good a memory for poetry as she might like. Such a mind seems necessary, and she lacks it almost entirely. Although Maria has been charmed by Octavian's recollection of limericks, Hardly the most elevated poetic form, but it works. Maria has, several times, claimed to be delighted by jokes about Nantucket. Octavian knows how lucky she is. Without a poem, she could have met Maria with nothing, and been so intimidated. Then, the restaurant had reasonably trendy: not locked off by self-regard, but notable. When Octavian had first arrived, she hadn't recognized anyone, and she had been pleased by that. She's never been so reliant on the regard of others that she would need her friends to lift her spirits in an unfamiliar place, or to cheer her to go after who she wanted. Truthfully, most of her regular crowd would have found this place intimidating. The wooden podium for the maitre'd, the green silk wallpaper, the clutch of tables with their heavy white linen and complicated arrangements of flatware: not their usual brand of trendy new Nordic understatement. Just sitting there, Octavian knew that it was the kind of establishment with diagrams for laying the tables, and a generous allowance of tapers. That's the kind of phrase that she thinks now, allowance of tapers.
It's funny, how such a little time can change someone.
She'd checked over to the wall, carefully not turning more than needed. This was as subtle as she had ever been. Maria was sitting at a table set for one. She hadn't been awaiting anyone. If Octavian had been as cocky as she was when she was seventeen, she would have walked up to that table and used a line. 'You're really very good looking; what do you say to a drink with me?' That had worked on the younger set, it had worked before, and Octavian had no interest in it working again. Subtlety is key. Hitting the floor with her knees and begging for attention would probably not have accomplished her intentions.
She had been so nervous. So fretful, and that never happens. Octavian knows that she is young, beautiful, and charming, and that hardly a woman can turn her down. She had not been worried that a lone woman at a restaurant might damage her record. Her unbroken record, mind anyone, of success.
"It's not weird. Your company doesn't yet make an avocado toast, does it?" Octavian thinks of her last breakfast with Maria, the two of them sharing several slices of jammed toast. Maria likes raspberry, and runs her tongue over her teeth to check for seeds. Octavian had not even tried to not kiss her.
Sophie smiles, her hair falling in front of her face. "Not yet, not for me." The bar they're at is too nice for Octavian, who only comes to these places when her dates demand, and not nice enough for Sophie, who travels in a youthful pack. Octavian does think of herself as Sophie's contemporary: only a few years separate them, and yet this evening, those years feel like decades. Octavian hates feeling old, she hates feeling like a hag. No one really is, that's the kind of negative talking that neither she nor anyone else needs to go into, and certainly Maria would be disappointed in Octavian for thinking it.
Sophie leans on her elbows, fists pressed under her jaw. "She is coming, right? I don't understand how you met her. That's so ... lucky."
"Oh," Octavian says, a little embarrassed. Talking with Sophie is always hard: Octavian wants to set a good example, or at least, that's what she thinks she wants to do, but no one has ever asked her to do that before. No one has ever needed that from her. She's unreliable and she's never had to demonstrate the right way to do anything more complicated than getting the tricky pin on the weight machine to catch correctly. Which is not nothing, impressing girls at the gym is never nothing, but Octavian's never been responsible
This is the pressing thing about an enduring relationship: there are all these expectations and realizations that Octavian now must embody. Like: acting maturely as a model for Sophie. Like: reading Elfriede Jelinek's novels to provide grist for the conversational mill at parties. Like: being better than she thought she could be.
What was she trying to do? In retrospect, Octavian can't quite imagine it. How did she manage to entrance Maria? The mere act seems so unlikely, given Maria's firmness, never mind the persistence of it all. Octavian had immediately wanted to talk to such a beautiful woman: her skin bright in the low light, her jacket unbuttoned so that the terminus of one collarbone was visible when she moved her shoulder to set her wineglass down. Beauty is one of the reasons for living in the world: a very lovely face can cheer a stormy day. Octavian likes looking at women, she likes meeting women, she likes putting her hand on the back of a woman's neck where her hair falls and bringing her close to kiss
Flirting like that is a good way to make it clear that she likes flirting, not that she means it. Maria has asked about that, if Octavian always meant it when she flirted. This is one of the best things about their relationship, that Octavian tailors herself until she is better, all for Maria. Maria has curls at the back of her neck and sometimes she gets doubtful about Octavian's commitment to their relationship. Not that Maria lacks for anything that Octavian would desire, or that she can even believe herself to be less-than perfectly formed, but Octavian has been mindful of flirting with Sophie, with usherettes, with waitresses, when she goes out. This restraint has never before occurred to Octavian, but what? She's hardly going to ruin what they have because of her own personality. She doesn't have to look, not when it makes Maria uneasy.
Octavian looks toward the door.
Aptly, the bartender arrives. "Evening, ladies. " Her arms are crossed over her chest, and her hair is neatly parted with Brylcreem to one side. "What'll it be?"
Sophie purses her lips.
Octavian likes to imagine that Sophie's struggles are relatable. That they are in fact, quite similar. They are of an age, and if Sophie is more composed, Octavian knows what she's doing rather better. A life that isn't appropriate for immediate consumption on social media is still a life. It's another way that she longs for Maria, who keeps pace with her email, but cares not at all for any other dimension of the modern world. She even has a collection of long-playing records: two weeks ago, Octavian had rested her head in Maria's lap as they'd listened to a collection of Johann Strauss' waltzes. Maria's forearm, across Octavian's chest, had been warm and welcoming. When they'd gone up to the bedroom, the record had silently continued to spin while Octavian kissed Maria. The windows clouded outside and the house was still except for their movements.
Octavian isn't ashamed. "A Dubonnet and soda." she asks. It was Julia Child and MFK Fisher's drink of choice. Saying so out loud makes her sound impossibly egg-headed, but she means it. "And a glass of your northern Italian red, this Montepulciano d'Abruzzo would be fine." Her voice should be enough to indicate that she does not intend that the vintage be 'fine' like a sick child who wants to go outdoors, but 'fine' like a delicately-woven silk. Maria is fond of Tuscan reds, and she asks for them that way.
"We're waiting for a third member of our party," Sophie assures, smoothing the collar of her sweater over her chest. Neither Octavian nor the bartender fail to notice this.
Octavian rubs her hand over the back of her own neck, where her hair is buzzed short. The prickly feeling is nice on her palm. She wouldn't like to have long hair, but the women she likes always do: living up to that crowning coastal glory, bright blond highlights, and a soft gardenia scent. Maria is vain about her hair, and while she permits Octavian to come close, to crush those carefully-made curls with a palm, she guards herself otherwise.
Sophie orders, and Octavian mindlessly asks her about the upcoming season at the orchestra: it may not be much, but Sophie is quite musical. She shares this with Maria, which is one of the reasons Octavian has planned to introduce the two of them to one another. Hopefully successfully. They are so similar in so many ways, including, of course, that they each very much like Octavian.
The bar is paneled in maple, and the lights above are bright. Octavian thinks of a government room, or maybe a rehearsal room.
She doesn't mean to, because she is over it: Octavian haplessly thinks of her last date with Maria. Octavian had paint under her nails from an ill-fated craft evening, and when Maria had embraced Octavian, she'd shivered like a rose in the first frost. They haven't gone together long enough for Octavian's taste. She feels like she is missing out on what Maria has, all her thoughts about truth and affection locked away, beyond Octavian's grasp. If they keep this up, perhaps they will become familiar to each other. Perhaps this will all become accustomed. Perhaps Octavian will no longer be surprised by the whisper of Maria's perfume. When Octavian has stayed at Maria's, a high-windowed apartment with parquet floors, that lightly floral smell had been everywhere.
"Your drinks, ladies," the bartender says, and her deltoids bulge when she sets Sophie's Manhattan in front of her. Octavian tries to ignore this: it seems so petty. "And a Dubonnet, your wine." On top of the bar, the drinks glisten like a new morning.
It's a moment of enormous possibility, this moment of being presented with a drink
"Thank you," Sophie says, and when she lifts her drink, the tiller charm on her bracelet glints in the low light. That first morning, Octavian had looked for flowers, or even plants, and in the street outside, she could still feel the hot-house scent on her hands. Only weeks later, on the lip of the sink, had Octavian, brushing her teeth, seen the glass bottle. Once she had spit into the sink, Octavian had reached for the bottle and twisted the stopper: there, right there, had been the ever-present smell. She'd felt like she was in a greenhouse, a greenhouse of Maria.
Octavian sips her Dubonnet and looks at the back of her hand. Is she better for telling a flattering lie or an unkind truth? The women she knows do wear perfume: Maria is refreshingly obvious about her coquetry. She had consulted Octavian from inside KaWeDe, once, which had felt pretty special. Octavian had never been trusted with such information, even the barest exterior facts of it.
"She will be here soon," Octavian reassures herself and Sophie. This evening, she has in fact missed Maria. It's a funny kind of loss, because it doesn't hurt, it just persists. Octavian knows she is without Maria next to her, without Maria lined up and her kneecap in elegant cigarette trousers aligned to Octavian's own knee.
There is a quality inside love that does something other than love: Octavian is sure that there is more to it. A emotion that complicated can't only refer to itself. The meaning has to stretch out, to include all of what she feels now, the way that the solitaire sparkled on Maria's necklace that night and all other nights. There's something inside it, an answer, a question posed by Maria's confident gaze around the room. That is what Octavian most desires, and it must be love. She knows how that feels. There's nothing new to the feeling, it's only so much better than not feeling it.
Octavian debated with herself on ordering another drink that night. The sweetness, the color reminds her of red oiser in the snow, startlingly vivid: there are independent joys. It's an uncomplicated preference: old-fashioned, pleasurable. What decided her against that second drink was that her object of fascination was signing the check. When she leant forward, Octavian stared. The buttons on Maria's jacket shined and the candles flickered in the low modern lenses of her reading glasses. Octavian had, right away, wanted to know her name, had to get to know her.
She has learned, subsequently, about Maria's way of collecting the check, about her vanity which prevents her from taking out her reading glasses unless the situation is inescapable. Octavian has told Maria that she looks lovely and serious in her glasses, and that being able to read all the words on a page is tremendously attractive. Maria is tremendously attractive herself. Octavian likes telling her so in all seasons and settings.
They'd stood up together, Octavian not following too closely.
Octavian nods, and tells Sophie, "I'm just glad you didn't feel the need to take a picture of it."
"Well. It is a nice drink, and the vermouth swirls so nicely." Sophie eyes it critically, her lips wet from the first sip, "but you said it bugged you to be reminded of your age when I seemed so effortlessly youthful -- I know, I know, you didn't say that -- and so I don't do it anymore. Unless you'd like to be featured on my Instagram?"
Octavian finds herself responsible for Sophie, but that does not mean that she intends on indulging her. Sophie has a family to do that for her, and underlings at work. Octavian is her friend, and that means being tough. Which Octavian does not mind. Being tough to beautiful rich white girls is a gift in its own way. "No. I am not that old, and I don't need my face everywhere."
Sophie sips. "Nice attempt at a subject change by the way, but I know I'm basic. Tell me about this new woman in your life!"
Octavian shakes her head and smiles. "She's wonderful. Maria. Maria-Theresa." The bartender does not intercede to distract Octavian this time. "We met at the coat check, of all the places. And she's the most beautiful woman. Her face is like a painting. She was wearing a white dress. She had a fur coat, a mink." Octavian's hands had slid along that collar almost without conscious thought.
"I thought you liked animals."
How can she explain to Sophie what that had felt like? Her knuckles had skimmed the side of Maria's neck, and it had been the most amazing feeling. What she had been holding, where she was standing, even who she was, had dissolved when she'd been close to Maria when she'd touched her. The blood in her hand had flowed more quickly, churning her veins, when she'd touched Maria.
Octavian had easily shouldered her own coat, the lining flashing as she pulled it on. "May I help you into your jacket?"
The woman, all she had known her as then, nodded, taking Octavian's gallantry seriously. "Thank you."
"I'm Maria, I come here often."
"I have never been here before, otherwise I am sure we would have met. I would have seen you." Octavian hadn't blinked: she watched Maria's expression carefully.
The thoughts come down as apple blossoms, blanketing the outlines of what Octavian was actually trying to think about. Octavian does mean to listen to Sophie, this is a meaningful conversation. She merely can't wait for Maria's arrival.
The door sucks the warm air from the room, pushing inward. Octavian turns as Maria arrives, her white wool coat spinning broadly at her knees, her flaxen hair like a day at the countryside, her mind turning, her wonderful person entirely present. Octavian's so glad they ordered that glass of wine.
Later in bed, Maria touches the curve of Octavian's jaw. "Because the truth, while beautiful, is beautiful like the peak of Vinson Massif. Beautiful, cold, and unforgiving."
"If we say it at the same time, it won't be cold. I'll keep you warm." Octavian embraces her. "Always."
"I'm embarrassed to still need things." She does not add, at my age. Octavian can hear that. They don't have to share every pitiable thought. That's what love is, trusting someone else to know the truth even when it is unattractive. Octavian's never trusted anyone with this kind of sentiment before. She thinks herself experienced, and every time she means to mention something to Maria, Octavian realizes how ill-prepared she really is for this woman.
"You shouldn't be. What don't I need from you?"
Maria brushes at her temple. Her fingers fit there, the same way that her grasp fits around her wrist: tailored. There's a gentle depression there, between her forehead and her cheekbone. Without her customary layers of foundation and powder, Maria's face is in sharp relief: cratered and shaped like nothing Octavian has ever seen before. "Anything" she says.
Octavian puzzles over this. Maria is graceful and smart, and sometimes, she gets away with herself. It's all an unfortunate side effect of those years of flirting on the page, of writing letters. Maria's favorite novel is Clarissa, which, as she has explained at dutiful length to Octavian, is about a woman who textually expresses herself. It's in letters, which seems to Octavian like cheating, but the English are fundamentally untrustworthy.. Maria sometimes talks like she is in a novel, abstruse and elegant. "So, I could give you an harmonica, and since it wasn't anything, you would be quite content with it. A kazoo, maybe." Octavian samples the idea.
It isn't as hilariously unlikely as it seems. Maria is funny. Unlikely to play a novelty instrument, more likely to know the history of modality, but she does enjoy a good time. "Your personality is the most tuneful of all those jokes about terrible instruments. Were you not assigned to the triangle in school?" Maria brushes the sheets over her breasts. Octavian rests her hand on the curve of Maria's stomach. This moment is always a little awkward, even if she has been here before. She is never sure what she ought to do. Look lively?
"I was. Only for one concert, though. I was not quite as shameful as all that." Octavian taps the back of Maria's calf with her toes. She doesn't feel more childish than she ought to be. Maria doesn't notice. The bobbing curl at her ear doesn't even twitch. The stillness is hard-won, Octavian knows, but that doesn't make it not stillness. "You darling, how are we talking about what I am bad at, when we could be doing what I am very best at? Again?"
Maria's laugh chimes like a glass bell.