HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY
Remembering the moment Alex fell for Jennifer from the novel, Annihilate Me.
For the next hour, it was more of the same, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t daunting. As we made our way toward the Pool Room, where Alex believed Darius Stavros would be holding court with his son Cyrus, Alex introduced me to dozens of people I’d either read about or heard about, and each time he told someone that we were a couple, I needed to remind myself of Blackwell’s advice.
If you get swept up in the moment, if he touches you and you feel yourself responding, remind yourself that this is a job. Do that, and you’ll be fine because I can promise you this, Jennifer. When he’s with you, Alex only will be going through the motions with you. He’s a good man, but he’s focused on his work right now. Work is all he has. Work is all he can handle. You’re nothing more than an object to him. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. On the surface, you’ll make a handsome couple, people will believe it, and you’ll earn your salary because of it. What will ruin this for you is if you become emotionally attached. He’ll sense it in an instant, and he’ll fire you for it.
I had to think of him as though he was my brother. I considered that angle during the interview, but now I needed to embrace it. It was the only way I was going to get through this. My attraction to him was that great. And, frankly, I needed the job.
As we walked through the crowd, everyone who came our way seemed interesting until they opened their mouths.
People complimented me on my dress, my hair, my lovely shoes, my jewels. But once they realized I wasn’t one of them, no one asked anything meaningful about me. To them, I also was an object, a bit of arm candy for Alex, and even though I could sense their surprise when Alex said that we were seeing each other, I still felt like vapor. Most looked straight through me. I was a meaningless nobody at worst, a curiosity at best, and someone to gossip about later.
But I remained professional. If the conversation turned toward business, which it often did, I tossed in a bomb of surprise and spoke with confidence and knowledge about whatever topic was being discussed. In some cases, that earned me a confused look from the men, a second glance from the women, and sometimes a leading question to see if I really knew what I was talking about, which I did. Mostly, Alex kept the conversation light and pressed on, only to meet more people he knew.
And the process repeated itself.
Much of it was like a series of interviews, and the undercurrent was clear—how could I possibly have landed Alexander Wenn, of all people, especially when I wasn’t one of his people?
The questions were routine.
Where did you two meet? Oh, at an art exhibit—how nice. What is your background? Oh, how charming—you have your MBA. And how unusual. Do you plan to use it? You do? Goodness! Where do you call home? Maine? How lovely. We summer there. Where do you winter?
When it occurred to them that Alex might be attracted to me because I had a mind, a look of consternation came over their faces. It was then that I saw the sexist limitations still inherent in their society. Men were the thinkers and doers, and with few exceptions, women apparently were meant to be glittering bobbleheads.
It was as fascinating to me as it was insulting. For the most part, women were expected to smile and nod while the men spoke about such masculine, difficult subjects as business. When the women were called upon to speak, they admired each other’s dresses, they spoke of their families, whatever rigorous renovations they were undertaking at any number of their homes, and what part of the world they were off to next. Obviously, I knew nothing about society or its rules, but I was damned if I was going to be the pretty village idiot.
Later, when we moved farther down the hallway that led to the Pool Room, Alex squeezed my hand and asked if I was having a good time.
“It’s an interesting crowd,” I said carefully.
He laughed at that. “I love how you’re making them squirm. None of them knows what to make of you.”
I looked at him. “Sorry,” I said. “I can’t help myself.”
“Why should you? I want you to be yourself. Look. They’re either of a different era, or of a different upbringing. Or both. Most of the people here are in the book. You know about the book? I thought so. Very little has changed in their circles. This is exactly why I loved my time in Maine. I was surrounded by real people. The women I came to know through my friends were strong-willed and smart.” He shot me a sidelong glance. “Not unlike you.”
“I can’t play dumb,” I said.
“I don’t expect you to. And by the way, most of the women here went to Smith or Vassar. They’re just playing the game. They come to these events first as packages of elegant subservience designed to bolster their husbands’ careers, and second as women who are able to talk airily about absolutely nothing of substance. I’m used to that. You’re not. And I can tell that it’s wearing on you, which I get. Do you want some advice?”
“Keep screwing with them. Play the game, but do it for your own entertainment. I don’t care because I know that you won’t insult them. When they talk about visiting Bora Bora, tell them that you found Mount Merapi in Indonesia more interesting, and that you’d go back to the Celebes Sea in a minute. Their eyes will cross.”
“Have you been to those places?”
“Did you climb Mount Merapi?”
“I did. At night.”
“But that’s an active volcano.”
“So, it is.”
“Are you some kind of jock?”
“I used to be. Now, I just like to work out. It’s a good distraction.”
Talking to him alone put me at ease. I was starting to understand how he worked this crowd. He put on a show for them, they put on a show for him. Apparently, that’s how it worked.
“Shit,” he said.
“What’s the problem?”
“Just do your best. Red dress. Black hair. Coming our way.”
“One of the wolves?”
“She could be a pack of them. Be ready for her. She won’t be kind to you. She’ll try to slay you.” He paused and put his hand even more firmly against my back. “Immaculata,” he said as the woman stopped in the middle of the hallway to stare at us. “How are you?”
She was gorgeous—tall and statuesque, but older than Alex and me. Probably late thirties, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was in her early forties, regardless of how beautiful she was. It was tough to tell. She looked at me, absorbed me, and then she turned to Alex with betrayal in her eyes. “Alex,” she said. “What a surprise. I thought you said you were coming alone tonight?”
“That was last week.”
“Oh, last week. Last week. You make it seem so long ago. You make it sound like it was years ago, but it was only last week. Seven days ago. Just seven days since we last spoke.”
“Things have changed since then.”
“What things? Why haven’t I heard? I hear everything. People call me. What could have changed in a week?”
Alex was about to speak, when she turned to me. “Who is this?”
“This is Jennifer Kent. Jennifer, this is Immaculata Almendarez.”
Who in the hell has a name like that?
When she finally closed the distance between us, I extended my hand, which she took lightly in a dismissive way before dropping it.
“It’s nice to meet you, Immaculata.”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “Isn’t it?” She put her hand between her formidable breasts and laughed. “Just joking. Please, don’t look so serious. It’s just my sense of humor. It’s a pleasure to meet you, too, Jennifer. Cute dress. What are you doing with Alex?”
This broad held nothing back. I was beginning to see why Alex needed me here. He had to get to Darius Stavros before he left. If I wasn’t here, I had no doubt that she’d hold him up and he’d miss that opportunity.
Before I could answer, Alex intervened in an effort to shut her down. “We’re seeing each other, Immaculata. I hope you’ll be happy for us.”
“Seeing each other. Just over two weeks now.”
“Which means you were seeing each other last week?”
“We hadn’t made it public yet.”
“I see. How mysterious. How smoke-and-mirrors of you. Where did you meet?”
“How romantic. You met over art. Probably mooning over one of the pastels. Did you just strike up a conversation?”
“We did. Over the Impressionists.”
“You don’t say?” She turned to me with venom in her eyes. “And here I thought Alex and I had a connection. I feel so silly right now. I came here alone tonight because I thought he was coming alone. So much can change in a week. Or two weeks. Who’s counting? Is that Valentino?”
“A gift from Alex?”
I wasn’t going to let her get the best of me, so I went there. “It was. Along with the jewels. Don’t you love them? He chose them specifically for me. He’s so good to me.” I leaned over and kissed Alex on the cheek, and thereby broke my own rules. When I kissed him, I smelled the faintest scent of his cologne. It coursed through me because it was masculine and understated, just like he was. When I pulled away, I sensed his surprise, especially when I began to rub off the lipstick I had left on his stubbled cheek with the back of my thumb. “Thank you again, darling. No more lipstick. You’re good.”
He looked at me in such a way that wasn’t unwelcoming. “It was my pleasure,” he said.
“Anything that comes from Alex is a pleasure. I can only imagine how pleased you are with his gifts and with him.”
“You have no idea, especially when we’re alone. What do you do, Immaculata?”
“I go to parties. I attend events. I sit on boards. I don’t work because I don’t have to. Work is a four-letter word to me. Yourself?”
“Oh, my dear, that’s like saying ‘fuck.’ Not that I say that word often. But it’s true. It’s like saying ‘fuck.’ Who works?”
“I work in business and I love it.”
She pressed her hand to her chest and laughed again. “That’s so unusual.”
“Why is that?”
“None of my female friends work. I just find it unusual, that’s all. They also would.”
“It’s probably just your generation.”
“It’s probably just my what?”
“Your generation. I’m twenty-five. When it comes to my generation, we can’t imagine not being creative or contributing something to the greater good.”
“I think I need a martini.”
“Servers are swarming, Immaculata. Just keep your eye out for one. Are you a Gibson girl?”
“Am I a what?”
“A Gibson girl.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s a cinematic reference.”
“Why can’t I understand you?”
“It’s not important.”
“Who do you work for? If you’re with Alex, I’m assuming a Fortune Five of some sort.”
“Not at all. I work for myself. I’m a consultant.”
“A consultant! And an entrepreneur. At twenty-five. So impressive, Jane.”
“Jennifer. My mistake. On what do you consult?”
“Of course, you do. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because it’s a natural extension of working in business?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Why would you? All those parties to manage. It must be dizzying.”
“I have an assistant.”
“Someone once said that a managed life is an unstructured life. Or something like that.” I felt spears of hatred coming in my direction when I said, “Your dress also is cute. Who are you wearing?”
“Darling, at this point, I’ve lost count. Somebody somebody. I’m sure they’re very successful and in all the right magazines. All that matters in life is beauty.”
“I wonder what the people in some third-world countries would feel about that? Or the homeless in our own city?”
“I don’t know them.”
“It’s never too late to educate. As for me, my vote for what matters most in life would be love and relationships. Never beauty. That wouldn’t be first.”
“So, I see.”
I touched a hand to my necklace, and the ring on my finger glinted in the light. I smiled at her.
“Well,” Alex said. “It was good seeing you, Immaculata.”
“Just good? You’re leaving?”
“We have business to attend to,” I said.
“Business, business, business. Since when are you all about business, Alex? I used to talk to you for hours at events such as these. Business sounds so boring. Business sounds like Ambien to me.”
“It sounds like what?” I asked.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“It assists with sleep.”
“Oh, a sleeping pill. Like the ones Michael Jackson took?”
“He died from some sleep-inducing methods. I assume Ambien was involved.”
“This has nothing to do with that. Or with him.”
“I hope not.”
“Ambien is very well known.”
“I haven’t heard of it, but I sleep well at night. My conscience is clear. I just drift away in seconds, unless Alex has other ideas. Anyway, to us, business is exhilarating. It’s what gets us up in the morning. And it’s probably one of the reasons we fell in love. We have something in common that we adore. Actually, many things. I think we complement each other well.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“Good night, Immaculata,” I said. “It was swell meeting you.”
Before I could respond, Alex said good evening to her, and we moved forward.
“What was that?” he asked quietly.
“The end of Immaculata. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
I could sense him trying to suppress a laugh. “Yes. I just didn’t know you had that in you. Who are you, Jennifer Kent?”
Apparently, I continued to surprise...