The Silk Brocade, the Satin

After Tobias Wolff

 

I put down my book. I was hungry. I was also cold. We’d turned down the heat as soon as Vera left with her mother for some Fiji Island paradise. The heat bill after we got Vera for a roommate would have financed us to tag along. I went into the kitchen. Marlene was smoking at the kitchen table, gazing out at icicles and bare trees. She was fingering the curtain as if she was some sort of Duchess and would soon speak to the butler about the draperies. As usual, Marlene was not working on her dissertation. At least Vera Svenborg, our grantee from Sweden, had given Marlene something to fantasize about besides her excruciating mediocrity as an Art History graduate student. I hate it when Vera’s not here,she said, dragging on her smoke. I ignored her.

Ice made starburst patterns on the windows. The sink was full of dirty dishes. The pizza box on the kitchen table, in which Marlene was grinding out her cigarette, emitted old-pizza-box odor. I opened the refrigerator. Two beers, a cold baked potato, mildewed green beans. We didn’t share food, so that was it for me. I stared into the cold mouth of the refrigerator for a long time. Rudy seemed to have one beer to tide her over the long weekend. Marlene was on Weight Watchers and her green matter filled the refrigerator.

It was going down to five below today. The wind started moaning as if it too was cold. The branches of the lilac tapped the kitchen window hoping to get in. The sky was whitish gray like old underwear.

I went up to my room to work on my paper on the Dutch painter Judith Leyster. But I couldn’t get started. I got up and paced. I picked up the jeans I’d dropped on the floor. I put them in the laundry basket. I opened my closet and surveyed my pathetic wardrobe. A coat too thin for this weather. Three skirts unfashionably full. Etcetera. Fortunately, no one ever invited me to anything. I shut the closet door.

Then I sat in front of my typewriter. I scrolled in a sheet. I stared at it. I opened my desk drawer and took out the picture of Robert. Robert was my summer of love. We met my first week in London and went to bed our second night. He lived in a cold boardinghouse room and attended King’s College London. I lived in the same cold boardinghouse, different room, and had my summer at the British Museum School. We would meet at a pub after classes and have lunch and a brew and then walk around the city, staring into shop windows. We spent hours planning our future. We were going to have three well-behaved children. We were going to live somewhere by the sea. He promised we would get married next summer. We spent hours or days in bed. He said I needed better clothes. He would buy me a beautiful wine-colored velvet dress that showed just a tasteful amount of cleavage. Here, to illustrate his exact meaning, he would take my rather small breasts in his two hands and lift them up and push them together. Plus, he would say, kissing first one nipple and then the other, we’ll get married and go back to the states and live in a cottage by the sea.

I was starting a letter to Robert when Rudy knocked on the doorjamb. Rudy was a big girl, tall, disheveled looking, with a great mass of curly red hair. She was wearing a navy-blue sweatshirt that said MICHIGAN in white letters and baggy blue sweatpants. Through her sweatpants you could see the roll of fat that hung around her midriff. Rudy was the power scholar in the Art History Department. She had already published a brilliant article on a minor painter of the Italian Renaissance, and she hadn’t taken her orals yet. She’d won the Horton Prize, the highest honor given by our hot-shit department. She was not dumb but, frankly, nobody believed she’d earned the Horton Prize. Everybody knew that something was going on between her and Dean Horton. She’s screwing her way to the top, the other graduate students would mutter. I tried not to believe this of my roommate Rudy but often the words, “She’s screwing her way to the top,” came into my mind.

“Here we are, stuck in Ann Arbor in the freezing cold with nothing to do,” Rudy said, leaning against the door jamb.

“I’ve got something to do,” I said, frowning at my letter to Robert.

“Wanna go shopping and have lunch with Isabelle de Roghman and her pa?”

I stared up at her. She had the idiot grin on her face that she sometimes wore.

“James de Roghman?”

“Himself. Collector. Art Critic. The famous James de Roghman.”

“Jesus,” I said.

“Clementine, I wouldn’t call him Jesus,” she said. “Though he is alleged to be a very neat guy. Wanna come? She asked me to bring a friend.”

“But I don’t know Isabelle.”

“Do I know Isabelle?”

“Doesn’t she have friends?”

“Her friends are selecting their silk underwear in Paris. Fifty-six dollars for a skimpy bra. Well?”

Fifty-six dollars for a bra? The amount staggered my mind. This was 1967. Sixty dollars was more than my share of the rent.

“You sure get around, Rudy,” I said. I regretted the snipe the minute I pulled the trigger.

Rudy looked pointedly at the ceiling. “How about it?” she said.

Isabelle de Roghman was one of the European graduate students whose parents lived in villas and actually owned some of the paintings we were studying. They came to Ann Arbor because we had one of the world’s best art history departments. They were graduate students, but they also had another life, a secret life. During quarter breaks they went to their yachts or to Madrid or to Paris to be fitted. They hung out together if only because we hicks from America could not afford their company. They went to the only posh restaurant in town three times a week. They ordered wine and caviar to be flown in. They flew to Chicago or London to take in a show. Occasionally one of their parents would show up on their American tour, driving up from Chicago in a Jaguar or a Ferrari. Their duds were simply astonishing. In the seminar on Dutch painting, I’d made a study of it. It was not dressed up, not over-done. It was understated. It was the cut of the shirt, the weave of the fabric. If you’ve ever seen royalty in blue jeans, then you know what a good pair of jeans look like. I have seen it.

“Well, Clementine?” said Rudy.

“I have nothing to wear.”

“You are going to tell your grandchildren you declined lunch with James de Roghman?”

“Why does she need us? Why doesn’t she go with her father by herself?”

“Have you ever talked to Isabelle?”

“Rudy, she’s obnoxious. She puts on airs. She’s a horrible snob.

“Exactly. My theory is that she wants Papa to think she has friends. That’s where we come in. Very convenient that the jet-set is out of town. Maybe she has no friends.”

“I don’t want to go.

Clementine, what else do you have to do?”

“Nothing,” I told Rudy. I have nothing else to do.

James de Roghman drove up in a Bentley automobile. Isabelle was in the passenger seat. She got out to let us into the back seat, looking the other way. A bad mood? Or was it us? James de Roghman greeted us. Isabelle sulked back into her seat. He was the handsomest man I to date had laid eyes on. Slender, aquiline nose and bony cheekbones, skin the color of caramel candy, thick black hair with gray just beginning. I’d once cut out a picture of him from a magazine. The thought made me feel foolish, but I noted that he looked better than his picture. A white shirtnot American but something European about the cut. A brushed-leather coat with a sheepskin lining and kidskin driving gloves which he took off to turn around and shake our hands. I wanted to make love to him immediately. I could imagine him in my arms; I could imagine undoing his belt buckle. At this point my thoughts became too embarrassing. I had to stop and look out the window.

Isabelle sat staring at the ice on the road. James spoke to her in Dutch, a placating tone. She refused to answer. He turned to us. You are women, so you love clothes, he said. He spoke a clipped sort of English, with a slight accent so that women sounded like wee-men.

There was a moment of complete silence. Given the utter dowdiness of the offerings of my closet, I had come in blue jeans and a tee-shirt. I became aware of my stubby fingers, hangnails. I decided right then to fire LaVerne and get a decent haircutter, someone who understood my hair.

“We love clothes!” Rudy said in a high squeak. I stared at her.

“Where do you shop? We’ll play dress-up for a while and then have lunch.” He flashed his white teeth.

“There’s a Bernstein’s down on Third Street,” Rudy said.

I looked at her in shock. Bernstein’s purveyed pale turquoise pants with elastic waistbands. Fat ladies went to Bernstein’s to purchase floral dresses with V-necks that drew the eye to the face. Bernie’s was all polyester and fake fur. Gaudy pink overcoats with plastic buttons hanging by a thread.

Bernstein’s? James looked at Isabelle, looked at me.

Sometimes you can find a bargain there, I said, to my immediate regret.

Isabelle turned around and gave us each an incredulous look.

“We’re going to Opus,” she said to James. Bernie’s is a lower-class store.

Ah, Opus, James said. That is a good shop.

There was another silence.

Opus was a shop on the main drag that sold two-thousand-dollar dresses. A fur coat, a Russian sable say, went for thirty thousand. In 1967 you could buy a house for that much. I’d wandered in one time, by mistake. The clerk was busy with some fancy person, so I just went around and felt the silk brocade, the satin.

Opus sounds great! My words came out louder than I expected.

Could you settle for Opus One? James said to Rudy.

Rudy lifted her little snub nose in the air. I prefer Bernie’s, she said through pursed lips. But I could settle for Opus.

Opus it is. James shifted into first and moved the car out onto the ice. So, he said, after another moment of silence. Your name is Rudy.

Yeah, Rudy, said Rudy.

Rudy the Uncouth, I thought.

And yours is Clementine.

Clementine Coleman, I said. I was named after a song.

“She’s lost and gone forever,” Rudy sang out.

“I’m lost, and pretty far gone, I said, glaring at Rudy.

“And you are the Scarlet Woman,” he said to Rudy.

Rudy’s face turned red.

Screwed her way to the Horton Prize, I thought.

I do have red hair if that’s what you mean, Rudy said with that cutting little edge to her voice.

I looked at her in astonishment. I lifted my boot and gave her a little kick on the shin.

“Ouch!” she yelped.

My darling paid no attention to this but drove the car. He seemed to know where he was going. His fingers were long, his fingernails groomed. He whistled something under his breath and drove too fast, but obviously he knew how to drive. I remember reading somewhere that he drove racecars for his hobby. He was on thin ice but made the turns, and once we skidded, but he went with the skid and turned out of it before we hit a telephone pole. I watched the back of his neck, lean and brown. He wore European-type shades and those kidskin gloves. I wondered if he ever got lonely. The car purred.

He parked in front of Opus. He turned to Isabelle. “Come on, girl, cheer up,” he said in English. “We can do diamonds some other time.”

Isabelle cast her eyes toward the roof of the Bentley. She folded her arms around her waist and refused to speak. Then she suddenly got out. She was going to go in with us. She walked into the store. We followed her out into the ice of the parking lot. We felt the solidarity of her collective rejection. James took my arm and leaned down. “Isabelle can be difficult,” he said into my ear. “But she’s delightful, don’t you think?”

“We adore Isabelle!” I said into the pools of his black eyes. His eyelashes were incredibly long. Have you ever gotten a good look at a gorgeous man’s gorgeous eyelashes? I have.

He opened the door for me. It was a clothing store, but the door was carved oak, a very well done imitation Italian Renaissance door, with a huge brass door pull. We walked into the store, Rudy trailing behind us, and I nodded to the salesperson as if I were thinking of buying a mink tee-shirt, as if I were the new wife of James de Roghman. Collector. Creator of a great museum. Race-car driver. The best fuck in all of Europe.

It was warm insidewood parquet floors, Persian rugs, racks of silk scarves, brocaded tee-shirts, satin gowns embroidered with emeralds and rubies. A mannequin in the center of the floor wore a slim-cut, burnt-umber gown with a sable fur neckline. Rudy was standing in front of it with her mouth open like she was some sort of hick from Detroit, which, I regret to say, she was.

I swept past, glancing expertly at the offerings. I stopped at a rack of pink and mauve scarves with gold filigree woven in, actual gold thread, and I frowned at them, fingered them briefly and turned away as if in utter boredom.

James was talking to the saleslady. Then he went to the section apparently designed for gentlemen, took off his leather coat and gloves and threw them on the soft leather chairs, sat down, and picked up the Wall Street Journal. He wore that custom European sort of shirt that softly tapered down to his flat waist and pleated pants. He sat down and I pictured us making love on the sofa. Isabelle sat on another chair and took out a book. Then the saleslady, a tall black-haired woman wearing a black sparkly dress and black spike heels, was guiding Rudy and me to the dressing area.

Try on these, she commanded. She gave Rudy the incredible gown she’d been staring at. Me she gave a black dress, understated, not flamboyant at all. “Take off your shoes please, ladies.”

We did as we were told. She swept off with our shoes. We stared at each other.

“What are we supposed to do?” I asked Rudy.

“Do what you’re told,” Rudy said, pulling off her sweatshirt. Try on the dress.

“What do you think they’re fighting about?” I asked. I quickly pulled off my tee-shirt and pulled on the dress before the woman came back so she would not get a look at my seedy underwear. I wished I’d bought a new bra like I was going to. I took off my jeans.

“Didn’t you hear? She wants diamonds.”

“What would she do with diamonds?”

“Clementine, do I know?”

“You seem to know everything else.”

“True, my store of knowledge is vast. But not infinite. Now shhhhh!”

The woman was returning with hose and shoes, our size. Perhaps she’d put our own shoes in the trash. I needed to get them back from her.

Here, dears, put these on.

I pulled on the pantyhose and she began working on me. I put on the shoes. The dress had raglan sleeves, black and short. The hose was fishnet, and the shoes were boxy black shoes. She was fixing my hair, actually, brushing my hair. She was frowning in concentration. A difficult case, I guessed. She made me walk to and fro, then put up her hand to stop. Then she disappeared again.

I looked in the mirror. There stood someone I had never seen before. A tall stranger with pale hair and sharp features, suddenly elegant. God! Almost beautiful. The dress was a miracle. She returned and put a heavy necklace made of gold and jasper, carnelian, onyx, and pink tourmaline. All the earth colors. Then she got to work on Rudy. If Rudy in bed looked anything like she did in that dress, I could see she would end up with the Nobel.

We walked slowly around and then walked out to show James.

He put down his paper. He commanded us with his hand to walk around. Isabelle was sulking in her corner, reading her book.

He studied us with a distant, concentrated look. He lifted his hand slightly and the saleswoman disappeared and reappeared with a different scarf. She took my scarf away, put on this other one, rust and gold. Then he worked the shoes, the beads. She brought something new each time he lifted his hand. By the time they were done with me I looked expensive but understated. Black dress, slightly shimmery, coppery necklace heavy with jasper and jet, fishnet stockings, ankle-high shoes.

Does that suit you? he asked.

I have to think about it, I said. I didn’t know what to do. To buy this outfit I’d have to drop out of graduate school.

Have a seat,” he said. Now, the Scarlet Woman. Rudy made a little grimace at that but then walked around the room, turned, walked around again. James’s hand flickered and Madame ran out and returned with different shoes. Again, and she came back with a flowing scarf that she tied around Rudy’s huge red-orange hair.

Isabelle? he asked when Rudy was done. Isabelle swung her foot and shook her head and kept her eyes on her book.

We all sat facing each other in the little seating area for men while James took out a Gauloise cigarette and had a smoke.

The last time I was here the most astonishing thing happened, he said, leaning back, glancing at Isabelle to see if she was going to come around. She wasn’t. A rather coarse woman came in, she was a—how do you say that nicely in English, Isabelle?

A hooker, said Isabelle, not looking up.

Yes, a hooker. She came in. She was looking at gowns. She took one, a green gown, tried it on, took another gown, a scarf, a bag. She was skin and bones but handsome, or might have been, bony face, big teeth, those huge black eyes you see sometimes in the hungry ones. Her hair was dyed black—awful. Always she would examine closely the dress, study, then take to the dressing room. Sometimes she comes out to look at something in the mirror. She had the body type that could wear a gown. Oh, she could have been a beautiful woman. Our charming saleslady—here he gestured toward our Fairy Godmother—asked her if she needed help and our hooker, as you call it, assured her that she was in heaven just trying on, and our kind saleslady told her to take her time. Gradually this puta took more and more items into the dressing room. Finally, she reappeared wearing a big Russian sable coat and spike heels and under that the Lord knows what. She calmly walked out of the store. That set off the alarm, causing our charming hostess here to turn into a lioness protecting her kits. She tackled the hooker, threw her to the floor, and held her there with the karate-hold grip of an Amazon. The police arrived without being called and this sorry soul began screaming at them. They were well acquainted, apparently. They dragged her away kicking and screaming. It was a stimulating day at Opus One.” He nodded graciously to the saleslady.

“I prefer the calm days.” The saleslady gave a little smile.

Then James put out his cigarette, quickly got up, and made a motion with his hand. The saleslady nodded and wrote something in a pad. Rudy and I stood there as my dear walked out, holding the door for Isabelle. We turned to change back to our clothes. Go!the saleslady hissed. He bought the garments for you. Go!

She brought a bag with our old clothes, including our shoes, and steered us to the door. She opened the door and pushed us out into the cold. James was turning around to see if we were there. Come on girls, he said. Time for lunch.

We sat across from him. The Bistro was a French restaurant we never went to for obvious reasons. The waiter brought bread and olive oil and then soup and then fettuccini with shrimp and crab. We ate and Isabelle picked at her food and James watched us.

Do you young women ever get to have any fun? he asked. He was looking at Rudy. Do you have a boyfriend?

Rudy blushed deeply. I’m working on my dissertation, she said. I did… I mean…

“Didn’t work out?” He winked.

“It…no…”

What was she going to say? That she was fucking the dean and he gave her a prize?

“There’s more than one fish in the sea,” he said. And you?

My boyfriend is studying literature in London, I said. And I began talking about Robert, telling James everything. I was looking into his eyes and I forgot the others were there. The way he looked at me—I felt he could see right through me, I felt I was being listened to, really listened to. I felt that the understanding between us was complete. I went on and on about how we used to look into store windows, how we’d spend one night in one of our beds and the next night in the other. He kept asking me questions until I was actually telling him that Robert was only my second boyfriend, that the first one had been five years ago. I was telling him I loved the way Robert kissed. The whole time I was looking at James’s mouth. Suddenly I stopped. Rudy and Isabelle were staring at me.

We plan to get married, I said, looking back at my lover. We’re going to collect art.

Is Robert rich? He turned up the corners of his mouth.

Not yet. I smiled. Suddenly I stopped. I saw that James was laughing at me. I felt my face go hot. I looked down at my plate. Everyone else had finished. I stuck my fork into the huge pile of fettuccini and turned it the way you’re supposed to and picked up a fork load, but it was way too big a fork load. I fed my face, fettuccini hanging out. I was mortified. Everyone at the table was staring at me. James looked away and took out another Gauloise. Isabelle got up and walked out the door.

I put my napkin over my plate. I’m finished, I said.

We drove home in silence. Where do you live? I asked politely, trying to save the situation. James glanced at me, obviously amused.

“He has several homes, don’t ask,” Isabelle said. This was the first thing she had actually said.

“Do you like London?”

He hates London, Isabelle said.

James was sick of us, apparently, and now wanted to get this over with.

He stopped the car in front of our house.

Ladies, he said. He got out and opened Isabelle’s door. I went to open my door, but Rudy grabbed my hand. Don’t, she hissed. Wait till he opens it.

James opened the door. I got out and walked to the door of the house. He came up to the porch and kissed my hand and that of Rudy. Then he left with Isabelle.

I walked in clutching my bag of old clothes and ran up to my room. Rudy ran up after me. Holy shit, Rudy said. Holy shit.

I looked in the mirror. The dress was stunning. I looked like one of those expensive women that showed up at the dean’s cocktail parties. I wondered if Robert would like it. I took off the dress and put on a tee-shirt and blue jeans. I hung the dress on the door. Suddenly I missed Robert.

Robert and I got married the next year and we got divorced the year after that. We didn’t have beautiful things and we didn’t get rich. Robert did not like my gorgeous James de Roghman dress, as I called it. Maybe he hated it because of the way men looked at me when I wore it, or maybe it was because the stunning black dress made me feel like a princess and in Robert’s opinion I was not a princess. Anyhow, one day when I was at the library, he took it and sold it to a thrift shophe refused say which one. Sometimes on one of those rainy lonely London days I would actually find myself in thrift shops looking for it, even though I knew this was a crazy waste of time. For a year we struggled along in a cold, rented flat. I struggled to finish my dissertation.  Robert began going to the pub every night, watching the game on the telly. We fought over everything but especially over the flat. Robert brought in five newspapers a day, being a news junky. He left his dirty socks around; he left his clothes wherever he took them off. We fought over who would clean up, whether we would buy a clock or a toaster. I got tired of cleaning the toilet for both of us. Robert would tell me I was vain and hypersensitive. He would tell me that I reminded him of his mother. He would tell me I should join the garden club or some ladies’ tea society. Eventually he started seeing another woman, or maybe it was other women. At some point he returned to the States. After our divorce was official, I lost track of him. But now, these decades later, I look him up every so often on the Internet. He has become the famous Robert Gottlieb, professor of English Literature. He has written a book or two or maybe three. He must have changed his lazy-ass ways.

Rudy tapped on my door. She was still wearing her coppery-gold dress.

How much did he spend on us? I asked.

At least two thousand dollars, Rudy said.

Jesus Christ. Why?

Rudy stood in the doorway swaying slightly. She had brushed out her red hair. Her skin was pale, freckled, almost blue it was so thin. The dress shimmered. I stared at her. I couldn’t believe it. This was a totally different Rudy than the one I had ever seen. Her eyes flashed green. The copper-gold bracelets and necklace glittered. I didn’t know what to say. I guess she didn’t either because she just stood there.

Finally, I turned to face her.

Is it true that you screwed Dean Horton?

Rudy’s mouth made a thin, straight line.

What is it to you?

It’s nothing to me. I just wondered. Everybody says it’s true and that’s why you got the prize. I know you’re brilliant. I don’t believe that…

You don’t? Then why’d you ask?

Sorry. I turned back to the paper on my desk. It’s really none of my business.

You wanna know what happened?

No, really, I’m sorry. I believe you. You didn’t sleep with him.

I did sleep with him. Rudy was swaying slightly in the doorway. Her eyes had narrowed to slits.

You slept with him?

I fell in love with him. I couldn’t help it. I took every class he offered. We started during the semester break after the third class. He asked me to come up to his office.

You did it in his office?

It was okay. He has a couch. Then one time Bill Herrington walked in on us. After that the whole goddamned department knew.

Sorry, I said. What else could I say?

It was the best sex of my life.

You’re only 27.

We’d make love for hours. I would do anything he wanted. Anything.

I’d had no experience with anything like this. I didn’t know what to say.

Then it got around the department. People would look at me when I went to his office. I didn’t care. Her voice went up a register.

Rudy, you really don’t have to tell me this.

I couldn’t stop. We couldn’t stop. It was illegal. It could destroy his career. It could destroy my career. I didn’t care. I didn’t care who knew. I’d go up to his office with no underwear on. He’d give me underwear, you know, kinky underwear. Once we fucked with the door open. He started asking me to come in and screw during twenty-minute breaks between appointments.

Rudy!

It was my fault. I could have said no. But I didn’t say no. Then he dumped me.

He dumped you?

His wife freaked. She threatened to leave. So, he dumped me.

But, what about the Horton Prize?

Jeremy opposed me for the prize.

What?

He tried to take it away from me.

Oh, Rudy.

He stopped speaking to me. He would pass me in the hallway and not even nod.

Jesus!

And then somebody nominated me for the Horton Prize.

It’s his money.

His family’s money. He is very influential as to who wins it, but he doesn’t necessarily have the final say.

And he…

I told you. He fought it. He opposed it. He called me names, defamed me, told the committee my work was uninteresting.

So, you didn’t fuck your way to the top.

They overruled him. They told him that to give the prize to anyone else in the art history department would be an egregious injustice.

Rudy, I had no idea. I’m sorry.

It’s my prize. I won it through my own work. Don’t ever even think I fucked Jeremy to get that prize.

God, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.

Look… She moved a step closer. What are we going to do with these dresses?

Go to Paris,” I said.

Go to openings, Rudy said. Go to openings in Paris and meet all kinds of people.

Men, you mean, I said.

She grinned. Men are people.

We could join the jet set, I said. If we could stand the company.

She came in and sat on the bed and I sat on the bed and we started talking, planning, designing scenarios where our beautiful dresses would be appropriate, even understated. We began to dream of lives of simple luxury and passion and great art and fine wine and beautiful rooms and great loves. A life full of adventure and brilliant talk and beautiful people, including us.

 

 

 

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