Karen looks around the lobby and sips her kir. Her escort has just risen to greet some friends, three men and a woman. He helps the woman take off her alpaca shawl. Fall in Venice can be chilly. Even cushioned in the splendor of the Danieli, a luxury hotel that was once a palace, Karen imagines she can feel on the back of her neck ancient, damp vapors, can smell the green-black moss that marks the waterline on the walls outside.
The woman sits down in the armchair next to Karen’s. She smiles uncertainly at Karen, then turns to listen to the men, courting them with her ardent attention.
Karen remembers her first time. It, too, was a fall night, cool and beguiling, but in Los Angeles. She wore a necktie, an extravagant, wide purple tie from the 1940’s that she had gotten from a dumpster on Houston Street in Manhattan. It made her feel sexy.
They went to one of the city’s most expensive restaurants, she and her new lover Emilio and his former lover, Dennis. Karen remembers there was a lot of wine, different ones with different courses. Dennis did all the ordering. A menu never appeared.
What she remembers most clearly is the fragrant wedge of melon draped with transparent slices of prosciutto somewhere in the middle of the meal. It was an unfamiliar sequence of courses for her then, one she had read about but never experienced. A lower middle-class girl from suburban Toledo having a palate cleanser. She did not let Emilio and Dennis see she was impressed. It turned out to be a sound instinct.
That night is ten years behind her now. She still encounters Dennis from time to time at a screening or at someone’s opening. Karen’s escort tonight and Emilio are friends. Emilio is the kind who holds on to people, especially old lovers who are lively companions outside the bedroom.
Just last month, Karen had spent a long, discursive afternoon with Emilio. She explored with him the intricacies of his current romance; he showed her his most recently-acquired paintings; she recommended a new poet she’d been reading. As she was leaving, he reached absent-mindedly into a drawer and gave her a hand-tooled silver bracelet that had been his grandmother’s. He would not let her refuse it. She said she’d consider it a loan.
There has been in all Karen’s experiences with privileged men an air of instruction. And she has acquiesced by being observant and sometimes imitative or, within the bounds of their amusement, iconoclastic. Bare feet at the Annapolis Yacht Club; one bare breast at a Dada opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Such men enjoy wit and daring in a woman, the excitement of danger in harness.
The woman beside Karen in the Danieli occupies her chair like a guest let in by mistake, as if her tasteful dress and new Florentine shoes were rented. Karen feels at home, but she still recognizes the careful poise of the interloper, even after all the clever words, the confident smiles, the unbegrudged kisses. She appears to slouch comfortably, but her spine is straight.
Karen notices, too, how young the woman looks; her smooth, pale face has not one line anywhere on it. But beauty is not enough here. Karen knows this so well it is not even a conscious thought any longer, but more like the semi-automatic knowings of how to sit down in a short skirt, how to swim without wetting her hair, or how to say “fuck” judiciously.
The woman’s tentativeness reminds Karen of a custom in feudal Japan whereby a married woman in love with a man not her husband could send that man another woman to make love to him in her place. Karen is not a married woman, but she is intrigued by the idea of giving this lovely woman to her escort. She knows the gesture would please him. So much so, she realizes, that it will be enough simply to tell him she has thought of it. She smiles to herself, calculating the moment she will say it, anticipating the brightening of his hunger for her.
The men are guffawing together over some remark one of them has just made. Karen’s escort leans forward in his seat, both feet flat on the floor and wide apart, easy and eager, as if he were on the winning team’s bench at an athletic event.
Karen catches the young woman’s eye and looks at her with affectionate complicity.
“Is this your first time in Venice?” she asks her.
“Drinks In Venice” was published in the journal Ignis Fatuus,
Bisbee, AZ, 1994.