Excerpts from Alice in Bed, A Novel
I would be the first to admit I lacked the talent and inclination for flirting, which seemed daft to me when I saw others doing it. Why did they make themselves so insipid? Something I read in Godey’s came back to me: How to Converse with Young Men. It advised one to talk about what the young man was interested in and “draw him out.” Although I attempted this a few times, it always proved monotonous in the end. Why did most people have to be so boring?
While hugging the shores of the punchbowl, I subjected myself to a frank self-assessment. I was still young. My hair shone brightly after it was washed, my eyes were “intelligent” (or so I’d been told), my figure was not bad. My complexion was unblemished, if not “bright.” That my gown was unbecoming was perhaps not fatal. I was considered witty. This, however, might not be an asset.
Sometimes a young man would appear to be walking toward me and then do an about-face, as if suddenly recalling urgent business at the other end of the ballroom. “If you only smiled, dear, you’d be radiant.” Mother’s off-repeated advice. Remembering it now, I fake-smiled, but I could not sustain it; the muscles in my cheeks ached and, really, what was there to smile about?
“Hello, Miss James!” Oh, not Ned Codman! He’d caught my fake smile and apparently believed it was directed at him. Now he was stuck to me like a burr. On the other hand, he’d rescued me from being a wallflower, and one had to be slightly grateful for that. How abject was a woman’s fate, when all was said and done!
The cafe was an island of women! Apart from Harry, not a single male in the establishment, unless the violinists were. (It was hard to tell.) We had stumbled onto a passage to a secret demimonde, which had always existed perhaps in the underbelly of Paris. An old memory surfaced of Mademoiselle Danse pointing out places where “men went with men” and “women went with women.” Perhaps Mademoiselle herself had loved women. Was that why she was dismissed? With Father, there could be any number of reasons.
Harry’s manner had turned stiff and cold and he told the maître d’ (or maîtresse d’?) in impeccable French that we had indeed made a mistake and would be leaving at once.
Out on the street, he said, “I think we’d best find a cab quickly and return to the hotel.” He seemed so edgy I didn’t dare oppose him, although I should have liked to wander about some more.
An elegant young man in gloves of puce passed us, then turned around and walked backwards, favoring Harry with a long, smoldering glance, which he studiously ignored.
“This is a strange quartier, isn’t it, Harry? Like walking into someone else’s dream.”