The elevator doors slid back and Lavinia Cartwright, breathing fire, clacked high heels through the steno pool. The furious chatter of typing, which had started thirty seconds before Lavinia's entrance, continued until thirty seconds after her exit through the green door to Editorland, then grew ragged and arrhythmic and faltered to silence.
Steno One: "She's boiling this morning."
Steno Two: "Look out for falling axes."
Steno Three: "Thank God I'm getting married. No more--"
The green door flashed open and Lavinia's face reappeared. "Are you people paid to type or talk?"
Nine typewriters shifted into high gear. The green door slammed. The typing didn't slow down.
The girls in the steno pool could set their watches by Lavinia Cartwright. Every morning, without fail, she was twenty minutes late for work. Since she was editor-in-chief of Milady ("The Modern Monthly for Modern Women"), this was her privilege. Since she had been editor-in-chief for eight years, this was a privilege-become-habit.
Now, at forty, Lavinia looked both older and younger than her actual age. Her face was older, a strong and sharp and predatory face, not "good-looking" by any calendar girl standard, but unusually attractive in an aggressive and harsh-lined and totally individual way. Her body looked younger than forty, slim-waisted, high-breasted, firm-hipped, with strong shoulders and slender legs. It cost quite a bit to keep the body so young. Money for daily massage and heat-lamp treatments, for exercise equipment and a doctor-surveyed diet. Money for an annual month-long vacation on the western coast of Florida. The money was well spent, the body was barely thirty while the face was forty-five, and the birth certificate seemed hopelessly inaccurate when it claimed that Lavinia was forty.
Lavinia had become editor-in-chief of Milady eight years before, when she was thirty-two. Thirty-two was also the median age of the woman for which Milady was edited and at which Milady was aimed, and this had been one of Lavinia's strong selling points when she went after the job. No one had pointed out to her that her argument was self-defeating, that she should have been replaced on her thirty-third birthday by someone a year younger. The fact was that Lavinia loathed her readers just enough to understand them. She was the perfect editor for Milady, a magazine aimed, as she once said, "at married women with upper-class tastes and middle-class income."
Having goosed the steno pool into working, Lavinia now marched down the long hall flanked by afterthought partitions toward her office. Chalmers-Mead, publishers of Milady and seven other magazines, leased three floors in this Park Avenue building, eighteen through twenty. Milady being the firm's biggest, most important and most profitable magazine, it had the entire nineteenth floor to itself.
As Lavinia now stormed down the hall, she passed the IBM-whirring subscription department and the cubicles and suboffices of all the editorial and administrative divisions; and the farther she moved from the elevator, the more important in the editorial hierarchy the people occupying the offices became. A strange reversal, but true.
At the very end of the hall stood a lone door, its frosted glass marked in gold with Lavinia's name. Above the name was the word "EDITOR"; below, "PRIVATE." Lavinia reached the door and stalked in.
Lavinia's personal secretary, Miss Henderson, was typing rapidly and effortlessly. Without pausing, she nodded at Lavinia. "Good morning, Miss Cartwright."
"Get me Sandra." Lavinia strode on through to her own office, hung up her coat, and sat behind her massive and well-littered desk.
The box beside her left hand buzzed and Lavinia depressed the left-hand switch. "Yes?"
"Miss Keel isn't in yet, Miss Cartwright."
"I want to see her the minute she arrives."
"Yes, Miss Cartwright."
Lavinia broke the connection and glowered at the mass of papers on her desk. "This time," she muttered, "you've gone too far."
No one could set a watch by Sandra Keel. Her arrival at work meant only that the time was somewhere between nine A.M. and noon. Whereas Lavinia was predictably late and lateness was her privilege, Sandra Keel was unpredictably late and had no right to be. The girls in the steno pool grumbled, behind Sandra's back, that she was the editor's pet. They had no idea how right they were.
Until seven months ago, Sandra Keel had been a freelance commercial artist, making a fairly good living doing magazine and advertising illustrations. Seven months ago, Sandra and Lavinia met at a cocktail party. Within the week, Sandra was the new editorial assistant, Lavinia's vice-president. The editorial staff bitched about it, but only in whispers. They had all liked Mrs. Duffy, whom Sandra had replaced. It was difficult to like Sandra Keel. It was even more difficult to understand why Lavinia had hired her.
This morning, the second Monday in September, Sandra emerged from the elevator at fifteen minutes to ten. The steno pool was still working, and she walked on by without an exchange of greetings.
Sandra was twenty-eight, and looked it. Her figure was slender, her face oval, straight-nosed and high-boned, her ash-blond hair pulled straight back to a tight bun above the collar of a severely tailored gray suit. She was tall, and walked like a tall girl, with long straight strides.
Sandra's office was the last door on the right. She entered, and her secretary, Mrs. Marshall, looked up from her typing to say, "Miss Cartwright wants to see you right away, Miss Keel."
"She'll wait," said Sandra, "until I get my coat off. Silly bitch."
Mrs. Marshall had worked for five editorial assistants. She expected to work for the sixth as well, and possibly the seventh. She gave no answer to Sandra's comment.
Lavinia was pacing the broadloom before her desk when Sandra came in. She paced with her hands clasped behind her back, her head thrust forward, her lips thinned to a bloodless line, her eyes glaring at the wall.
"You wanted me?"
Lavinia stopped her pacing. "Shut the door."
Sandra half-smiled and closed the door. "You're mad at me," she said. "I can tell."
"Where were you last night?"
Sandra shrugged. "Out."
Lavinia made an angry gesture. "That isn't what I want to talk about. I want to talk about--" She circled her desk, rummaged through the papers atop it, came out with a letter on pale blue stationery. "About this," she said, and held the letter out for Sandra to take.
Sandra accepted the letter and glanced through it. It was from Miriam Staples Rider, a fiction writer who had often appeared in Milady, with short stories and novelettes and serials. The letter stated that Never a Bridesmaid, the four-part serial she had just completed, had been submitted to and accepted by Woman's World, Milady's chief competition. The letter further explained that this was due to the insulting correspondence from Miss Sandra Keel, in relation to Many a Man, Miss Rider's most recent serial in Milady's pages. The letter concluded with the hope that Milady could get along without Miriam Staples Rider as well as Miriam Staples Rider could get along without Milady.
Sandra dropped the letter back on Lavinia's desk. "Good riddance," she said calmly.
"Miriam is our top author," said Lavinia. Her face was tight, half-moons of bloodless white on either side of her mouth betraying the struggle she was having controlling herself. "We get more mail on her work than any other fiction writer we publish."
"We can get along without her," said Sandra. "Build somebody else up. Alice Clothier, maybe."
Sandra's calm served only to infuriate Lavinia even more. "How many letters did you write to Miriam?"
"I don't know, three or four."
"Without showing me a one of them."
"I don't show you every letter I send out."
Lavinia clenched her fists. "Because I'm editor of this magazine, that's why. Because I spent years getting exclusive rights to Miriam's work, that's why. Because--what did you say in these letters?"
"There were some serious weaknesses in Many a Man. I pointed them out--you remember I talked to you about it when she sent it in--"
"And I disagreed with you."
"I merely pointed them out, suggested she be more careful in any more work she cared to submit to us. She wrote back a rather snotty letter--"
"Where were you last night?"
"I was out. Do you want to talk about--"
"None of your business. Do you want to talk about this Rider thing or--"
"Where do you find the gall--how can you have the nerve to--"
"Oh, come on Lavinia, calm down. No one writer is that important, and you know it as well as I do."
"Miriam Staples Rider is a top name, a selling name--"
"So is Alice Clothier."
Lavinia sat down all at once and peered suspiciously across her desk at Sandra. "What's between you and Alice Clothier?"
"I don't even know the woman, I'm simply giving you an example--"
"She lives right here in New York."
"So do eight million other people. So what? If you're going to start getting jealous--"
"Where were you last night? You didn't come home at all."
"I went to a party, if you must know. It turned into an all-night affair and we all had breakfast together. But nothing happened, not a thing. Except I haven't had any sleep. And I come in here, first thing in the morning--"
"You had no right to antagonize Miriam."
"You gave me the job, Lavinia. Part of my job is correspondence with the authors. You never said I had to clear every letter through you."
"I never said you could push one of our authors over to Woman's World either."
"Just because I gave the woman some constructive criticism--"
"You? How much do you think you know--"
"Lavinia, you gave me the job, and the responsibility that goes with it."
"Maybe that was a mistake."
"Do you want to get rid of me? Say the word, Lavinia, and I'll move out today. Completely. Pack my things, go back to my old apartment--"
Lavinia shook her head wearily. "Stop being stupid, Sandra. You know I don't want you to leave me."
"Honey, it was a hell of a way to start the week. I come in here, and right off the bat--"
"You should have had more sense than to treat Miriam that way."
"I had no idea she was going to get on her high horse. She obviously didn't have any loyalty to Milady, to go running off to Woman's World over a little thing like that. And if she can't take constructive criticism--"
"Let me see the carbons of your letters. Maybe I can sweet-talk her--"
"There aren't any carbons. Mrs. Marshall didn't type these up, I did them myself, and I forgot to make carbons."
Lavinia studied the younger woman. "We make carbons of all correspondence," she said. "You know that as well as I do."
"It was just a letter pointing out one or two rough spots in Miss Rider's work--"
"There were four letters. You said so yourself. What about the other three?"
"She wrote back, a rather snotty letter--"
"Why didn't I see it?"
"It was addressed to me."
"I don't care who it was addressed to. Why didn't I see it? You know I should see every piece of mail that comes in from our top authors. Every piece."
"This had strictly to do with my letter, Lavinia, so I took it and answered it."
Lavinia searched the other woman's face, seeing only bland assurance and innocence there. She reached out to the intercom and buzzed for her secretary.
"Yes, Miss Cartwright?"
"Get me Miriam Rider's folder."
Sandra strolled across the room to the window overlooking Park Avenue. Down to the left was the back of Grand Central Station and the beginning of the avenue. Across the street, a new office building was going up. Nineteen floors down, cabs and occasional passenger cars rushed by on either side of the central green divider. "There's no need for all this fuss, you know," she said softly. "No need at all."
"I want to know what's going on behind my back."
"It isn't behind your back. It's the job you gave me. Don't give me responsibility and then complain when I accept it."
"This isn't accepting responsibility, Sandra. It's going behind my back, sabotaging a relationship with an author that took me years to build up."
"For heaven's sake, Lavinia," said Sandra, turning away from the window and coming back to the desk. "It's done. It happened, and there's nothing to be gained from arguing about it forever and ever."
"I don't want it to happen again."
"All right. It won't happen again. Every time I write a letter or approve an illustration or blow my nose, I'll run in here and ask you if it's all right."
"You know as well as I do that isn't what I mean. Approving an illustration is one thing. Antagonizing one of our top authors is something else again."
Sandra shook her head. "You're getting so touchy lately," she said. "When I first moved in with you, you were never like this. You used to be a wonderful person, Lavinia. I used to love being with you--everywhere, at the office, out at parties, at home, in bed--"
"Who was at this party last night?"
"Just some people--artists and so on. Nobody you know."
"Was Alice Clothier there?"
"I told you, I don't even know Alice Clothier. You've been getting more and more jealous lately."
"You've been staying out all night lately."
"I still have my own life to live, Lavinia." Sandra smiled and came around the desk to touch Lavinia's cheek gently with her fingertips. "Don't worry, honey, I'm not two-timing you."
"You're taking me for all you can get," said Lavinia.
"That's unkind, Lavinia. Unkind, and untrue. I haven't taken a thing from you. I pay half the rent, buy my own clothes, pay my own way all the time. I'm not taking anything from you."
"You're trying to take my magazine away from me."
"That's silly, and you know it. Lavinia, I'm sorry I stayed out last night. It won't happen again. That's what this fight is all about, isn't it?"
Lavinia nodded, reluctantly. "I suppose so."
"There's no need to be jealous, honey. There really isn't."
A light tap at the door caused Sandra to stop her stroking of Lavinia's cheek and move back around to the other side of the desk. Lavinia called, "Come in."
Miss Henderson, Lavinia's secretary, came in with a manila folder. "Miriam Rider's folder, Miss Cartwright," she said.
"Just leave it on the desk."
The folder was put on the desk, and both women stared at it, until the door closed again behind Miss Henderson. Then Sandra came back around the desk, saying, "Honey, don't be jealous of me, don't be so possessive."
"I can't help it," said Lavinia. "When you're out all night--"
"It won't happen again." Sandra leaned down and kissed Lavinia gently on the lips. "Am I forgiven?" she whispered.
Lavinia closed her eyes. The younger woman's breathing was so close, her slender figure so near.... "Yes," she whispered. "It's all right, Sandra."
"Good." Sandra kissed her again, more forcefully this time, and straightened. "I'd better get back. I was supposed to have a meeting with the layout people at ten o'clock."
"All right," said Lavinia.
"I'll see you at lunchtime."
Lavinia sat wearily behind her desk after Sandra had left. After a moment, she picked up the telephone, said, "Outside," and dialed a number. She waited, and when a woman's voice answered she said, "Alice? Lavinia Cartwright."
"Lavinia! How are you?"
"I'm fine. I was just wondering--Sandra and I happened to be talking about you--"
"Sandra. Sandra Keel."
"Oh, that's right, she's working for you now, isn't she?"
"She's been here for months. You know her, don't you?"
"Sandra? Of course. We went to the same school together. Different graduating classes, but same school. I was two years ahead of her."
"She's a real worker, that girl. I remember, she was illustrator for the school paper, the year I was editor. Worked like a beaver."
"Yes, she does. At any rate, what I was calling about--we haven't seen anything from you in I don't know how long."
"I took a little vacation, Lavinia, as a matter of fact. Just got back Friday, and up till now it's been nothing but party, party, party. I'm hoping to be able to get down to work sometime this week."
"If you're thinking of doing a serial, in three or four parts, I'd love to see it first."
"You definitely will."
"Fine. Good to talk to you again."
"Good to hear from you, Lavinia. 'By now."
" 'By now."
Lavinia put the receiver back in its cradle and sat staring at it. Sandra had lied. Lied once, about knowing Alice Clothier. Lied twice, about whom she'd been with last night. Lied who knew how many times, on how many subjects.
Why? Why did Sandra have to be like this, why did she have to lie and hide and sneak behind Lavinia's back? Why did she have to be so power-hungry with the magazine? That was the only reason she would have antagonized Miriam. Just to prove to herself that she could do it, and get away with it. And she could prove to herself that she could swing the buying over to the people she chose.
Why did it have to be that way? It had seemed, in the beginning, as though it would be so much better. The two of them, working together, living together, sharing interests and ideas and lives.... In the beginning, it had been so different....
Lavinia hadn't wanted to go to the party. She was a working editor, not a partying editor. She didn't have the personality for the role, she couldn't make inane small talk with inane people, she couldn't buy magazine rights to the next best-seller while sitting in somebody's crowded living room with a drink in her hand. Business was to be transacted behind a desk, and few in her field were better at it than Lavinia. But at the same time, few people were worse cocktail diplomats than Lavinia.
To make matters worse that afternoon, she had come with Greg, and Greg had ditched her. It was almost to be expected that he would. So many people present had more money than Lavinia, more power than Lavinia, more, in short, to offer Greg than did Lavinia. So she was alone, and Greg could be dimly seen through the cluster of conversationalists, over on the far side of the room with some stupid matron.
Charming, charming Greg. Where had she ever picked him up, anyway? Then all at once she remembered, the party given by Jake Stoneman when the new circulation figures had come out and Milady had surged ahead of Today's Woman. And there was Greg, brought by...by somebody, she wasn't sure who. Another Lavinia, she supposed now, to be ditched for someone better as Lavinia was now being ditched.
But oh, he had been so lovely. "What do you do?" The whimsical half-smile, the slight shrug, and, "Oh, I fool around with cameras. I'm a very bad photographer." The truth, told in such a way as to keep you from seeing it was the truth.
And, really, he hadn't picked her up at all. Well, of course he had, but so smoothly, so neatly, she had thought all along that she had picked him up. And that first evening, just coffee together in a tiny West Side luncheonette, that was all, and he'd insisted on paying for the cab and wouldn't come upstairs. "No, it's late and you're a working girl." Girl! Lavinia, what a fool you are, after all.
And the next meeting. By chance? It had seemed so, the accidental encounter on the sidewalk as Lavinia was leaving work. Dinner? Dinner. A night-cap? A night-cap. This was Friday, and the working girl could sleep late tomorrow.
Bed? Bed. And all at once he was living there, as though he had lived there always, and of course he shared expenses. Why not? He was now making better money, what with his assignments from Milady.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.... How slowly, but how inexorably, the veneer had cracked, and the charming lover had become the petulant master. "Not tonight, Lavinia, I'm tired. And I really don't see why I couldn't have been the one to go to Paris on that fashion spread." "I didn't want you to be away from me, Greg." "It was only three weeks." How to tell him that he didn't get the assignment because his work was too banal, too uninspired, that photos of fashionable living rooms were all he was capable of taking?
Turning away from her in the bed--punishing her--and grumbling, "I've never been to Paris."
And on those nights when he didn't turn his back, less and less frequently, how perfunctory he was! Rolling on top of her, face expressionless, hurrying to be done with it, rolling away at once, his back toward her, quickly asleep and leaving her staring, unsatisfied, at the ceiling.
Stupid, stupid.... It was the bottom of a long and gradual slope, and Lavinia hadn't realized until tonight just how far down she had slid. Twenty years ago--no, fifteen, even ten years ago--the roles had been switched. Lavinia was young, her skin was fresh, she was attractive in a harsh and bitter way, and she could pick her men. And always the man she picked was someone who could do Lavinia Cartwright some good. They gave, she took.
When had the change taken place? At no one time, with no one man. It was a gradual change, an unnoticeable change. But the quality of her men grew poorer, and slowly the positions had been reversed, and her affairs were with young writers, illustrators, photographers, and she was the one who was giving--influence and backing and support--and they were the ones taking.
Not gigolos, not yet, not quite that far down the slope. But close, perilously close. And Greg was the bottom of the barrel, a so-so photographer living on assignments from Milady and the other magazines in the Chalmers-Mead group.
And now even he was gone. And who would come after him, who could possibly come after him, but someone even worse?
For one of the few times in her life, Lavinia regretted the fact that she had never married. There had been one man--but they'd both been too young, then, they'd both been terrified of ties and personal responsibilities, and now it was far too late. Eighteen years too late.
She would live alone. Before she would sink to supporting some simpering gigolo, she would live alone, like it or not.
It was at that point that Sandra Keel sat down on the sofa beside her, saying, "Hi. What are you doing, sitting here all alone?"
Lavinia was used to seeing people quickly, seeing them whole, and judging them in one rapid surveyal. Looking up now, she saw a young girl in her late twenties, with a rather long and somewhat bony face, a touch of pale lipstick her only make-up. She had ash-blond hair, pulled back from her face and knotted in back. Her figure was good, but slender, almost thin. She was built like the girls who pose for fashion photographs, and Lavinia automatically assumed that this was what the girl did for a living. "That's right," she said, in answer to her question. "I'm sitting here all alone."
The girl immediately stood up again. "I'm sorry," she said. "If I'm intruding--"
Lavinia's own words came back to her, and she realized she'd been harsher than she'd intended. She'd been downright rude. She forced a smile and said. "No, that's all right. Really. Don't mind me. I'm just down in the dumps."
"I'll leave you alone, then," said the girl.
"No, please. I'd like to have someone to talk to, actually. If you wouldn't mind?"
"Not at all," said the girl, smiling, and she sat down again.
They exchanged names and surface information about one another, and Lavinia learned that her first guess had been wrong. Sandra Keel was a commercial artist. "You've done some things for us, haven't you? At Milady."
Sandra nodded, smiling again. "Just a couple. You pay awfully good money."
"Why haven't I met you?"
"I worked with Mrs. Duffy. Your assistant, isn't she?"
They talked, and they learned that both knew many of the same people, and so they discussed, inevitably, the oddness of fate, that people could share mutual friends for years and somehow never meet. When this subject ran down, they switched to magazines, from which both made their living, and moved on to the subject of art. Lavinia had an instinctive distaste for nonobjective art, and it turned out that Sandra shared the feeling.
Two hours had passed. It was impossible, but the party was breaking up, it was nine o'clock in the evening, and two hours had disappeared completely.
Lavinia felt relaxed. She felt content and at ease and happier than she'd been in years. Not the flashing, blinding happiness of a sudden triumph, an unexpected success. The calmer, steadier, longer-lasting happiness of no problems at the forefront of attention, no immediate worries, no self-doubts, no fears for the next moment or the next hour.
It was inevitable that Lavinia should compare Sandra with Greg, contrasting the effect each of these people had upon her. With Greg, Lavinia was self-consciously brittle, tightly restrained, artificial. With Sandra, she was totally unconscious of self. She felt natural and discussed subjects of interest to herself without having to worry about the listener's reaction to her views.
More than this. With Greg, she was a woman trying to keep a man, but unable to keep him with the methods and resources of a woman, forced rather to hold him with bribes. With Sandra, she was an individual in uncalculated conversation with another individual, with no advantage to be gained or lost by either party.
And now two hours had vanished, and the party was in diminuendo, the conversation finished. Lavinia didn't want the conversation to be finished. It was she who suggested that--if Sandra had nothing else planned, of course--they go somewhere for a drink. Sandra, apparently flattered and pleased that the editor-in-chief of Milady should be so friendly with her, agreed at once.
In the cab, it was Sandra who suggested they go to her apartment for the drink instead. Lavinia thought it was a fine idea. This was such a pleasant and agreeable girl. Sandra gave the cabdriver the new destination, an address on Grove Street in Greenwich Village.
Sandra's apartment was consciously not Bohemian. Candle-topped Chianti bottles, burlap drapes, dangling mobiles, torturous driftwood, all were conspicuously absent. The apartment contained three rooms; a long, narrow living room, a tiny bedroom and a tinier kitchen. The bath was down the hall, shared with the girl in the next apartment.
The apartment was done in what Sandra called "Salvation Army modern." An ancient, lumpy, sagging sofa, complete with faded flower-print slipcover, was the major piece in the living room, flanked by scarred drum tables and three widely unmatched living room chairs. The lamps and lampshades were uniformly horrible, and the domestic Oriental rug on the floor was a genuine relic.
The bedroom was completely functional. A three-quarter Hollywood bed with a yellow spread. A many-drawered dresser, age unguessable. A rung-backed chair. An oval throw rug.
The walls were bare, save for one painting, amateurishly framed and hung above the sofa. It was harshly colored and extremely nonobjective, and Sandra admitted, sheepishly, that it was her own work. "I got involved in that kind of thing for a little while," she explained. "I keep it to remind me not to weaken again. Isn't it horrible?"
(Later, Lavinia would remember that moment, and realize this was the warning, the indication that Sandra might not be as honest and motiveless as she seemed. Knowing Lavinia disliked nonobjective art, a calculating Sandra would also dislike nonobjective art. One doesn't hang a horrible reminder on the living room wall. Particularly when that is the only example of one's work placed on view. Later, Lavinia would realize this, but not now. Now, she was blinded --not by love, but by need. A need she wasn't yet aware of. )
Sandra made drinks, and Lavinia told her how cute her apartment was, and they discussed rents and apartment hunting and styles of furniture. They sat together on the sofa, and it seemed there was no limit to the subjects they could discuss, and it seemed amazing how often they were in agreement.
There was a small record player in the living room, and after a while Sandra put a stack of records on and tuned the volume down to the lower threshold of audibility. The music was many-stringed, slow dance tunes. Sandra came back to the sofa, and the conversation went on.
It was Sandra who started to hum with the music, and who said, "I wish I knew how to dance. You see people dancing, and it looks so easy. The closest human beings can come to just floating."
"You never learned?"
Sandra shook her head. "I don't know why. Just never got around to it."
"I used to like to dance," said Lavinia. What she meant was that she used to like her dancing partners. The thought reminded her of Greg, and she winced, and thought again of the long slope down which she was sliding, and that Greg was not the worst.
Sandra broke into her thoughts. "Do you dance well?"
Lavinia smiled, shaking her head. "I used to--"
"Would you teach me?"
"You mean, right now?"
Sandra jumped to her feet, a young and vivacious and totally innocent girl. "Why not? I'd love to learn, I really would. I can turn the volume up just a bit--nobody ever complains about the record player."
It was a silly idea, and Lavinia was ready for a silly idea. She was almost twenty again herself. This was almost a room in a college dormitory. "I don't know how good a teacher I am," she said, getting to her feet, "but I'm willing to try."
Sandra learned with surprising speed. She was graceful to begin with, and Lavinia only had to show her a step two or three times before Sandra was doing it as naturally as though she'd been dancing all her life.
It was fun at first, while they were stopping every other minute for Lavinia to explain or to demonstrate or to correct. And Lavinia found it confusing--and therefore absorbing--to be taking the male role in the dancing.
But after a while, when Sandra had a few basic steps down pat, and they could dance without interruption, suddenly it wasn't fun. It brought up too many memories. And every memory led to another memory, and the men she had known moved before her in a steady, downward, degrading procession, from that first man when she'd been too young, to Greg when she'd been too old.
And all at once she was crying. It was a stupid thing, she hadn't cried for years. But the drinks she'd taken, the loss of Greg, the dismal certainty of the future, the youth and friendliness of this girl Sandra, all combined and commingled, and she was sobbing against Sandra's shoulder.
They stood together in the middle of the room. Sandra's arm was around her waist, Sandra's other hand stroked her hair, Sandra's voice murmured in her ear: "It's all right. Cry it out. Lean against me. It's all right."
Somehow, they were sitting again on the sofa, and the music from the tiny record player was unbelievably sad. Lavinia threw off all restraints and all controls and became unashamedly maudlin for the first time in eighteen years.
It was so soothing, Sandra's arms around her, so comforting, Sandra's young breast to cry against. Lavinia had been held by many men, but no one had ever been so gentle with her, so calm and understanding with her.
And when Lavinia raised her face, streaked with tears, it was the most natural thing in the world for Sandra to hold her tight and to lean down and kiss her gently on the lips.
This was the danger point. This was the instant when Lavinia understood her actions and their direction. This was the time--and the only time--when she could have pulled away, ending it forever.
But no man's arms had ever been so warm, no man's lips had ever been so soft, no man's touch had ever been so gentle. Lavinia tensed, froze--then relaxed, closed her eyes, and drowned.
The kiss was long, and when they finally parted, to gaze searching in each other's eyes, Sandra whispered, "My Sappho."
"My Atthis," whispered Lavinia, and the pact was sealed.
It was the first time again. Twenty years had been stripped away and she was once more a virgin, coming for the first time, diffident and unsure, to her lover. Sandra caressed her, kissed her mouth and eyelids, her throat and cheeks, and the most wonderful thing was the gentleness of it. And she knew that this first time, there would be no pain.
Her body responded to the incredible lightness of Sandra's touch, and she clung to Sandra with a degree of passion that she had thought had long since been drained away. When they moved to the bedroom, it was Lavinia who undressed them both.
And Sandra's body was so exciting! So familiar, so intimately familiar, and at the same time so wondrously strange. It was as though Lavinia were fondling her own body of twenty years ago, a familiar self grown strange with time and circumstance.
Lavinia longed to touch, to kiss, to caress, to rub herself against that familiar stranger from the past. Sandra, in whispered monosyllables, told her the ways of this strange kind of loving. And suddenly Lavinia's timidity vanished. Her hands on Sandra's warm, naked flesh were as eager and demanding as were Sandra's on her own body. They drew closer and closer, legs and arms entwined, lips hotly joined, writhing in an ecstasy that transcended all feeling, all awareness....
Now, seated at her desk, Lavinia wondered why it had gone wrong, why Sandra wasn't the person she imitated so well that first night. And she understood, fully now, that Sandra was simply Greg again. But with a much stronger hold on her than Greg could ever have maintained.
She glanced again at the Miriam Staples Rider folder, opened it and leafed through the correspondence it contained. The letters to Sandra weren't there.
She hadn't really expected they would be.