I don't own or have the copyright over the film Mona Lisa Smile
Truth Beyond The Image
Women do most delight in revenge.
Women do most delight in revenge.
---- Sir Thomas Browne
He hasn't changed much in ten years.
I watch him surreptitiously over the rim of my champagne flute. He's weaving his way through the crowded stateroom, glad-handing and smiling as he goes. Stops occasionally and… yes, he's smiling again. It's Charlie Stewart this time. Still as much of a thin weed as ever, his high forehead shining from the heat. Connie's no where to be seen. I suppose she must be at home. Giselle said something a few weeks ago about Connie being pregnant again. She always kept up a correspondence with her, even after we moved to New York. Connie must have written to her and told her the news. I should go over there and congratulate Charlie. I forget to do so the first two times.
Wait… ah. I sigh. He's moved on again. Now would be perfect time of course but I can't summon up the enthusiasm. Perhaps a drop more champagne would help. I tap my glass and a waiter comes running. I'd forgotten how well the Jones's do their parties.
I smile in thanks, sip and scan the room again.
Giselle isn't with me this time. She should be, considering she's my photographic assistant. But Frank was in town after disappearing up to the wastes of Canada for three weeks to visit his folks and she's such a fool over him, she begged me to let Jeremy take her place. Call me a sentimentalist but after eight years of sharing a place with her, I couldn't find it in my heart to say no. Of course, the inevitable feel-good rush after she jumps around squealing and hugging me in delight does help. And knowing that I could drag Jeremy along with me to anything I wanted. Poor lamb. I know I'm cruel to manipulate his calf-love for my own piteous ends but constant shy adoration does wonders for a female ego.
My mother is in the room somewhere. She would be here. It's just the type of sty she'd like to wallow in – but very politely of course. My mother, even if she were a hog, would wallow in mud like a lady with a lace handkerchief and a single strand of pearls. I don't expect her to come over here, unless it is to silence the wallflower gossips from speculating about our estrangement. She hasn't spoken to me since my article was published in Time magazine. According to Warren philosophy, the only acceptable newspapers are those of undoubted conservative stamp, namely the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Time is entirely too modern, despite being first published in 1923. Coupled with my divorce and habit of donning the new style in trousers, this has put me beyond the pale with her.
I have elected diplomatically not to wear trousers tonight. I was tempted. There will be several corseted Wellesey Alumni here tonight and it would have been fun to show them how far I had come from Betty Warren, model student. But trousers will do nothing to win over the Old Guard of the Great War and I need their support if I'm to write my new article. It's nearly fifty years since the first contingent of soldiers dispatched from American shores to fight in Belgium and Northern France and National Geographic has decided to run an article on it. An eight-page spread with a minimum of five thousand words. For that kind of publicity, I am willing to forgo my Spanish style trousers and wear a dress.
David and the gang are mingling, as only they know how: with plenty of free champagne and air-kisses. David, especially, seems to be making an impression. It's not often you get an English baronet in this gathering of social pretensions, if an impoverished one. He's currently revelling in the attention of a group of debs, each trying to outdo the other in a description of her summer whirl around Europe.
I wonder if I should mention that he's gay. Probably not. The chaperone in puce would have a coronary.
I'm starting to gain some curious glances now. I can see them, watching me, as I am watching them, over the rim of a glass, eyes narrowed in an effort to remember. Ah, wait! They clear, the fuddled fog lifts, eyebrows shout up into hairlines. Yes, it's Betty Warren. You remember Betty Warren, don't you darling? The black sheep of her family, the Jezebel who divorced her poor husband and ran away to New York of all places. Lived in a studio, can you believe, in Greenwich Village. What a scandal, what a shock.
This Jezebel lifts her head and preens. The rich blue velvet sets off her creamy skin and the elegant simplicity of her sapphire pendant. Her neck is lengthened and curves elegantly, under the influence of chestnut hair swept up into a simple, three-ringlet chignon. She wears her age well and is vain about it. Sometimes, she catches the pair of eyes that exhibit more than pure curiosity and then she smiles.
I learned to flirt properly in New York.
Someone taps me on my shoulder. I take my time turning around, twisting my shoulders and my neck before finally turning my eyes. It is not difficult to guess who is behind me. He still wears the same aftershave lotion. However, I manage a faint smile of surprise. "Spencer."
He clearly didn't expect that. I feel a small glow of triumph before cynicism crashes down and calls me petty. "Betty."
I watch him in silence as he struggles for conversation. He never had to work for my replies before. I always led him into conversation, staving off when he wanted silence. Well, that's another thing that's changed. Add it to the list and give it a number.
"You look well."
Ah. So that's how we will go. The social niceties first.
"You too. Quite a lovely tux. And…" I tilt my head to the side. "Diamond cufflinks? The business must be doing well."
"Yes." Quite abruptly. Someone picked up the wrong champagne flute this evening. Or maybe it's because the guest list didn't quite work out the way he planned. He runs his fingers through his hair without hesitation. He must have stopped using all that hair-oil since I left. "We broke two million last quarter."
"Congratulations. I do hope you celebrated."
"Yes." More abruptly still. It's becoming enjoyable, riling him like this. He stops and throws me an aggravated look. I open my eyes wide.
"Is there something wrong, Spencer?"
"Dammit Betty!" He breaks out suddenly. A couple near us flinches in shock. "What the hell are you doing here? I thought after the divorce…"
"But Spencer, didn't my mother tell you? I'm down with a team from National Geographic interviewing War veterans for the anniversary of…"
"I heard, I heard." He interrupts testily. "How did you get that article anyway? You have no interest in history."
I close my lips on the reminders that I had frequently achieved A grades in high school in American History and was once a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society. "Oh, it came up, I offered to do it and voila. Here I am." I pause and peer at him a little more closely. "Are you quite all right, Spencer? You seem a little flustered."
He nearly leaps backward from me. "I'm fine! Fine!" He looks at everything but me, blue eyes darting like bullets.
"Should I fetch… Tansy, isn't it?"
"Tandy." He corrects shortly. There is a vague irritation in his inflection. Bored already Spencer? Any more business trips to New York planned?
"Of course." Before he can react, I step forward and tap a finger against his chest. "A word of advice, Spencer. When you do get bored of this child-bride – if you haven't done so already – next times go for someone a little closer to your own age, hmmm?"
He glances down at my finger and, to my shock, I can see a flash of desire flare up in his eyes. He swallows and brushes my finger away, making no move backwards for breathing space. Pride won't permit me to back away from this challenge.
It suddenly occurs to me that this could be my chance for revenge.
I roll my shoulders as if suddenly tired. The movement was formulated several years ago, when Giselle finally convinced me to concentrate on something other than my journalism degree for a change. It works exceptionally well with the low, wide neckline of this dress, hinting at the fact that I have a bosom as well as quite good shoulders. Using the current fashion for emphasising eye make-up to the maximum, I glance up at my ex-husband from beneath sooty eyelashes. "I don't suppose you'd fetch me another champagne, would you Spencer? I'm quite parched." I deliberately slipped in the British slang I picked up in London.
He clicks his fingers. A whitejacketed waiter materialises beside him. Without even glancing at the sallow-skinned man, he drops my glass on the silver tray and pick up two more. I smile an acknowledgement at the waiter. Glancing back, I confirm what I already knew. Spencer's eyes haven't left the top half of my body the whole time. I wish I could be romantic and say they were fixated on my face but in truth that wasn't the case. They roved everywhere, down my neck, across my collarbone… Although, to do him justice, he did not try to sneak a peek down my bodice. That would not be Spencer's style. Too… plebeian.
"Have you travelled recently Spencer?"
He starts at my opening conversational gambit. I tilt my head and finger the thin gold chain of my pendant. He frowns. "Betty, we have to talk."
"Talk about what, Spencer? Your affair, my prodigal daughter effort or the weather? Please, specify for me."
He winces at my blunt statement. "Betty, for pity's sake, don't cause a sc-"
We both turn. Ah. The judicious entrance of the innocent wife. Current innocent wife, that is. The not-so-innocent ex-wife is already here.
Tandy has worn the years well. I wonder if putting up with Spencer's whims account for some of the deeper lines on her carefully powdered face. Whether they do or not, she is dressed exactly right. A girdled pale pink dress makes her look like a debutante. The perfect foil for Spencer's air of the suave man about the town. She's even wearing her Wellesey graduation pin on her lapel for Heaven's sake. Definitely a case of going out overdressed in something conservative than underdressed in something scandalous.
I wave my glass at her. "Tandy! Darling, how are you? It's been such a long time!"
She does an excellent impression of a rabbit caught in the crossfire. "B-Betty? You…"
I smile gaily. "Didn't my mother tell you? Oh I expect she forgot. I'm down here on business, some article with National Geographic. Frightfully boring stuff, you wouldn't be interested, I'm sure."
The hours of etiquette training have paid off with Tandy. She has the hostess smile down pat. "Sounds fascinating Betty. Spencer honey, Mrs. Gilhorn's car seems to have become displaced. I was wondering if you could help her find it?"
Excellent excuse, dear Tandy. I've used the displaced car story several times myself when I wanted to extricate my person from a boring gathering. Spencer isn't buying it though.
"Sweetheart, can't it wait? I'm rather busy here."
An interesting development. The ex-wife has suddenly exceeded the importance of the current wife. My gaze darts from Tandy to Spencer and back again, curious as to how a Wellesey girl will overcome this particular hurdle.
Tandy's smile becomes strained. "I'm sorry honey but Mrs. Gilhorn…"
"Oh, go Spencer do." I push him gently, giving a Mona Lisa smile. "Mrs. Gilhorn awaits."
He lingers. "If you're sure, Betty…"
"Do go, Spencer, you're becoming a spectacle." I pat him on the back and shoot a smile at dearest Tandy. I get rabbit eyes in return. Then she latches onto Spencer's arm and drags him away as quickly as possible.
In the opposite direction, I notice, to the main entrance and the impatient Mrs. Gilhorn.
The terrace has always been my favourite place to go at these parties. I used to stand out here and swirl my wines, listening to the whistle of the winds and the crackle of leaves in the distance. This was before my mother took me completely in hand and launched me into our set. After that I only ever came out onto the terrace with a group.
It's a bit chilly tonight. I regret not bringing a jacket out with me. Goosebumps erupt along my exposed arms. I shiver, involuntarily then chuckle. By now, I'm a little tipsy. One too many champagnes to accent the one too many school-friend reunions I have indulged in. But I did in the end manage to speak with Charlie Stewart and bring up the subject of Connie's pregnancy. Bless the man, he even blushed.
Everyone is eager to hear about Giselle and the wonderful Frank. I tell as much as I can but hold back the knowledge that they are engaged. That's Giselle's place to tell, not mine. Won't they laugh to hear that she's about to be made an honest woman at last! Our roles have become reversed. I am to be the bridesmaid instead of the bride.
It's a romantic night. The music from the stateroom has changed. It's waltzes now, all the watery composers instead of bluesy jazz. Schubert, Handel and Debussy replace Satchmo Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Secretly, I've always preferred the older composers and their sense of style and grace. The be-bop rhythms of blues and two-step never quite translated well to my feet when I was dancing. Giggling to myself, I dip and sway two or three steps to the music.
One-two-three. One-two-three. Dip-sw…
It's Spencer. Silly man. He's standing there with the… the silliest look on his face, holding onto my wrists. Ineffectually, I pound my fists against his chest. "Let go of me Spencer, I'm tipsy."
He doesn't. "Betty, we have to talk."
Oh for goodness sake! "I have… have absolutely no intention of talking with you, Spencer. Talking-" I hiccup. Most certainly too much champagne. "Talking is so very boring, isn't it? Rather like sex."
I've shocked him. He blinks, shuts an open jaw and looks around for an escape. I continue on gleefully.
"At least I've always found sex to be very boring. Our sex was. Didn't you think so? Oh yes." I link an arm with him. "Of course you did, you found someone else didn't you?"
He tries to wriggle out. "Betty, be sensible."
"I am being sensible! I'm saying the truth. The truth is sensible, isn't it? Anyway, I commend you Spencer. You…" I pat his arm. "You did the brave thing. You went out and found someone else. I should have done it myself. It was very…" I search for a word. "Commendable."
He coughs and adjusts his bow tie. I look at it disapprovingly. He has never been able to set them straight. I reach up and fix it for him. He stiffens but stands still. My fingers brush against the slit of his neck left exposed between his jaw and his shirt, not quite by accident. His breath hitches. "In fact, Spencer, I've come to the conclusion that married sex in general must be quite boring. One may have passion in a relationship but only conformity in a marriage. I think Janice Freen said that. Have you read her book?"
"No. Now, Betty, I need to talk to you-"
"Don't interrupt me." I chide him severely. "It was a very good book. The Schematics of Saying I Do. I think that's what it was. So I've decided." I leaned in closer. My mother would be scandalised if she saw me now. The thought makes me want to push the boundaries a little further. I lay my hand on his sleeve. "I've decided that really, if sex in a relationship is only transitory and sex in a marriage is a farce then all we can do is adultery."
The word breathes out, lower than I intended. He inhales sharply. I chuckle. Still a prude at heart, I see. My hand rises up. My thumb brushes off his lower lip. To my surprise he kisses it. It's to his surprise too, I can tell.
"Adultery sounds so much better than sex, don't you agree, Spencer?" I ask quietly.
I can tell from his eyes that he will not go back now. His hands slide down by my waist, warming my skin through the thin velvet. They're tight, constricting around my bodice with a fervour I hadn't imagined he could contain. Unbidden, Giselle's advice floated across my mind, even as he bent his head and his lips pecked my neck. "Even gentlemen have dicks."
She was right it seemed.
His kisses are wonderful. Some feel like butterflies landing on my skin, others feel hard enough to leave marks. My fingers dig into his suit jacket. I can hear his breathing in my ear. It drowns out everything. Even Schubert. His lips move up speedily to my jaw. Along that curve until they reach my lips.
Here he hovers, like Cupid about to unleash his arrows, barely a centimetre above my lips. His eyes close in expectation. He says only one word.
His lips descend.
Revenge is sweet.
I step back. His lips meet empty air.
Casually, I wipe a handkerchief along my neck. When my neck is dry, I return it to my purse. The clips snap shut.
"But good as adultery sounds, Spencer, memories of our all too brief interludes in the realms of passion make me hesitate before committing it with you." He gapes at me, even as I pat his cheek affectionately. I smile, the first genuine smile that evening. He really is a true Jones. "Do shut your mouth Spencer. You're not that irresistible, you know."
He has not gathered his wits sufficiently to answer by the time I reach the entrance to the room.
Pausing on the threshold, I scan the crowd for any glimpse of my party. In the mother-and-matron corner, Tandy is holding tentative court over a few comatose young mothers. She looks up and catches my eye. Colour drains from her face. Yet still, she tries desperately to maintain her mask. I want to laugh and wave to her. Instead I restrain myself to a polite nod. She jumps. Jerkily, the courtesy is returned.
It's David. He hurries towards me. "Liz, darling, this party is turning out to be a rightful bore. What say you to jetting off into the wide blue yonder and never returning?"
I think about Spencer on the terrace, about Tandy, a childless queen over the baby-boom court. About my mother and her refusal to read anything but the Washington Post.
Smiling, I slip my hand into David's and smile. "Yes. Let's."