Prudence

Prudence: Chapter 2e

Despite the number of people I see, and despite how often I see them, I am good with faces. I could tell you how often they come, the nights they do, the drinks they have, and where their interests lie.

There’s truly little I couldn’t tell you.

Even the motives of the newer faces are identifiable. I’ve been watching a long time, so it’s easy to pick up patterns, those tell-tale behaviours that foreshadow their interests. It’s also easy to tell who will be a transient and who will become a staple.

I can tell you just about anything.

Which is what makes Joy so perplexing.

This is her first night here, but she walks with the surety of a staple. Even somebody as arrogant and cocksure as Edan LeBeau had to disguise his nervousness and excitement the first few times he came here. That is usually the norm. As with anything, familiarity breeds equanimity. Not with Joy, though. There is a stillness about her, a calm, but also a whimsy, as if she finds some sort of condescending amusement in what she sees.

Upon entry, she headed straight into the Gallery and strutted across the dance floor. The eyes of every man followed her. Women glowered at her. There was something that transcended her beauty, her body, and her outfit, a sultriness that either awed or intimidated everybody she passed – or both.

One man in a leather jacket with a big, flared collar accosted her, asking her to dance. She declined and continued. Another man offered to buy her a drink. She refused and told him perhaps later. Another simply asked her to fuck. She told him she would if he could come up with a better line than that. He didn’t.

She toured the upper floor next, as if gauging its size and vantages of events below. Then she returned downstairs and went into the Red Lounge, with its overly bright candelabras, heavily curtained walls, and decors in shades of deep, blossoming red.

For a minute, she stood in the centre of the Lounge, eyes closed, head lifted to a candelabra, her face bathed in its light, her image reflected in every face of the octagon. A waiter approached and asked if she was okay. Her eyes shot open. She is in no way frightening or regal or austere, but the waiter murmured his apologies and left her.

From there, she headed for the bar, which is where she is now, sipping at an iced water. Her foot taps in accompaniment to the pianist. She recognises it as Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. Her eyes scan the room.

A stiff man in his early forties, wearing a charcoal suit and a lavender tie, approaches her. His face is sombre, with already deepening lines – evidence of one who cares too deeply and too often. This is Rupe. I know him well. His manner is quaint, a holdover to a time long forgotten, when men held doors open for women, picked up the tab, and offered them only a chaste kiss after bringing them home.

‘May I buy you a drink?’ he asks.

‘I already have one,’ Joy says.

‘But you’re almost done.’

‘Then I’ll order myself another,’ Joy says.

‘When I’ve already offered?’

Joy downs her water. She puts the empty glass on the bar. The man holds up two fingers to the barmaid, an Amazon with hair dyed purple named Providence. He then points at the empty glass. Providence nods and pours two more iced waters.

‘What’s your name?’ Joy asks.

‘Rupert.’

‘Rupert?’

‘You’re amused?’

‘Rupert is the name of an older man. A distinguished, learned man – English, maybe. Yes, English, I think … although I detect an accent.’

‘I moved here, some years ago.’

‘You look more like a Rupe.’

‘My friends do call me Rupe for short.’

Providence slides the iced waters across the bar. Rupe thrusts a twenty-dollar bill at her but Providence waves it off. Joy picks up her drink and walks the length of the bar. Rupe is quick to follow her.

‘And you?’ he asks. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Joy.’

Rupe’s eyes narrow. They run the course of her body.

‘Do I look like a Joy?’

‘I don’t know. I’ve never met a Joy before.’

‘Don’t you have stereotypes?’

‘I try to accept everybody as they are.’

‘That could be a mistake, Rupert.’

‘Oh, really?’

Joy sits at a table furthest from the pianist, swinging her satchel around so that it sits on her lap. The strap goes loose around her body. Rupe pulls out the chair opposite her, but stops himself before he sits. He indicates the chair with an incline of his head. Joy nods. Rupe sinks into the chair.

‘Do you know what I think?’ Joy asks.

‘What do you think?’

‘Everybody has their boundaries. Those boundaries define them. That’s who we accept them to be. But once those boundaries are pushed or broken, neither them nor your acceptance of them is ever the same again.’

‘That’s what you think?’

‘That’s what I think.’

‘Have you ever transcended your boundaries?’

Joy absently flicks open the top button of vest. Whether she has done so because the Red Lounge is hot or to tease poor Rupe is unclear.

‘What do you think?’ she asks.

‘I’m not sure.’

‘Why aren’t you sure?’

‘Because I don’t know what the boundaries are. Yet.’

‘Some things shouldn’t be known, Rupert.’ Joy downs her water in one gulp. She gets up, uncoiling from the chair the way a viper might from a basket.

Rupe sips from his water – frowns at it, as if just realising what he’s ordered – and leans back in his chair. ‘You’ve intrigued me.’

‘And where will that take you?’

‘It depends.’

‘On?’

‘How far your boundaries let it take me.’

‘Some boundaries come with a warning to keep out. Others are dangerous, perhaps barbed, or electrified. And some are plain unassailable. Which do you think surround me?’

‘Does it matter?’ Rupe again sips from his glass.

‘I would hope it does.’

‘Regardless, boundaries – like rules – are there to be broken.’

Joy’s smile is mischievous. ‘So you break rules?’

‘Sometimes. And you?’

‘Nothing’s inflexible.’

Joy leans over the table so that her face is inches from Rupe’s. Her breasts hang low in her vest. He does not a look – a gentleman who does not take advantage. But he knows the sight is there. He shifts uncomfortably. Joy holds his gaze.

‘But then again,’ she continues, ‘there are no certainties in life, are there?’

She caresses his cheek, then rises – swivelling her satchel around so that it rests back on her right hip – and slips away.