If there’s one universal truth, it’s that revelry is dishevelling. Make-up runs; people sweat; body odour grows.
These are not things that Constance has ever known in her time here. She always looks immaculate, like she spent hours preparing herself for public admiration – and consumption. And she does. The routine has become so ingrained in her that it has become her. Those who knew her before she came here would not be able to reconcile her with the person she is now.
Now, though, a solitary bead of sweat trickles down Constance’s left temple. She dabs at it, looks at the moisture on her fingertips, and is aware of the stifling heat. She feels her age; the tiredness fills her body. The air is stuffy. Her breath is thick as tries to gulp it down.
Joy leans against the desk, arms folded across her chest. ‘You’re out, Constance.’
‘That’s what it comes down to?’
Constance hates the tremor in her voice. She cannot recall the last time she genuinely had to contend with the threat of fear. The first year she was hostess here, perhaps, when she worried that people would discover her a fraud. Management assured her to keep playing the part. As time wore on, she learned to carry herself regally and with composure. She became more than a woman, if not more than a person. She was a minor deity. Nothing could ever hurt her here.
‘It didn’t until you mishandled me so poorly,’ Joy says. ‘That validated my judgement.’
‘You don’t know what you’re doing, what you’re getting yourself in for.’
‘Oh, I know.’ Joy pushes off from the desk and approaches Constance, whispering, ‘I know. Look.’ Her eyes rove down Constance’s body.
Constance finds she’s suddenly naked; her breasts are large and almost tremulous; her hips have small folds of skin; her thighs are thicker than she would prefer, with small ripples of cellulite just under her buttocks. Her left hand starts for her crotch, her right for her breasts, to cover herself, but she stops herself. She will not grant Joy the satisfaction of embarrassment.
‘I’m surprised,’ Joy says. ‘Not even a real blonde.’
‘Constance—?’ Teo says, starting forward.
Joy turns only her head to him. Teo stops. He doesn’t want to, but he can’t help it. He tells himself it’s for the best – he has no alternatives, after all. It’s not like he can help Constance in this situation. He drops his head, hating himself for the rationalisation.
‘Good,’ Joy says.
She wheels her satchel around, opens the flap, and pulls out three pieces of clothing: a pair of sandals, the straps frayed (and one torn on the right sandal); a pair of flared, faded jeans with designer rips on the knees, and tears of wear on the right thigh, and the right buttock; and a semi-translucent white blouse with a frilly collar.
‘The clothes you came with,’ Joy says.
‘Don’t do this,’ Constance says.
‘There’s no choice.’
‘There are always choices. Walk away.’
Joy lifts her head and snorts with incredulous laughter. ‘Me? Walk away. Not you. Me.’
‘You’ll be happier. Believe me.’
‘I think only you’ll be the one happier in that arrangement.’
Constance reaches out and grabs Joy’s wrist. ‘No, you will be. Trust me.’
Joy shakes her off. ‘Go.’
‘If you’re not going to listen to me, at least understand that they’re doing this because I’ve made Prudence mine.’
‘That’s part of the problem.’
‘They want it to be like their playground down below. It doesn’t have to be that way. It can be ours.’
‘It’s too late.’
Constance shakes her head. ‘They’ll do the same to you.’
‘Here, we only think we’re forever.’
‘You don’t think there’ll come a time that you won’t be standing here like me?’
‘You know who to take it up with.’
For a moment, Constance entertains the notion of leaving her office naked. To hell with them all. It’ll be the ultimate defiance. But she probably wouldn’t get down the stairwell before security seized her, pulled her into one of the change rooms, and forcibly dressed her before ejecting her – unless they ejected her naked. That’s also a very real possibility. No. She must play this out.
She grabs her jeans and pulls them on. They’re stiff and scratchy and, given how many years have passed, tighter now, although not embarrassingly. Still, they cut into her waist and crotch, and she must battle to fasten the button and pull up the zip.
‘Commando,’ Joy says. ‘The impulsiveness of youth.’
Constance refrains from responding, instead slipping her feet into her sandals, the straps also too tight. She snatches her blouse away and pulls it on over her head. It’s light and filmy. Constance can’t believe it was ever a staple of her wardrobe.
‘I’ll ask you one last time—’ she begins.
‘Constance, Constance, Constance …’ Joy reaches out and caresses her cheek. ‘I have to admit an admiration for you; almost an envy. Everything about you. I’m sorry it must be this way. If there could be another course …’ She heads around Joy’s desk, and sits in Constance’s recliner. ‘I think perhaps it’s best if you—’
But Constance is already moving. She storms past Teo – who can’t meet her eye – and from the office, slamming the door behind her. She charges down the stairwell, her sandals slapping the soles of her feet and almost tripping her, and breaks through security stationed to stop anybody from getting up into her office. They don’t blink. She might’ve become a ghost. But it’s worse than. She’s become insignificant.
The crowd in the juncture swallows her up. She must push her way through, apologising for stepping on toes or asking to be excused when there’s no room. It takes forever to get anywhere, and the juncture isn’t even as crowded as everywhere else.
She arrives at the entry of the Blue Lounge. Mr Hermes sits in his booth. She considers approaches, but dismisses them all. Whether this move is justified or has been implemented on whim, it is done. There is no room for negotiation. They did the same with her predecessor. It is pointless to even consider it.
She leaves the Blue Lounge (missing Mr Hermes looking up at the entry, to where she had just stood), and falls into a slipstream of people drifting into the Gallery. Somebody paws at her right buttock where the jeans are torn. She spins. There are two men there, both in the twenties. Both have their eyes fixed directly ahead. Possibly, an accident, but she knows better.
Edging into the Gallery, she bustles through the crowd. Several men proposition her, as if she’s just another blonde having a night out. She declines them glibly and continues moving until she reaches the South Bar, where Boyd and Ox sit. They look right past her at her first, but then their eyes widen with recognition, then incredulity.
‘Constance …?’ Boyd says.
‘The day I feared is here,’ Constance says.
* * *
Holly throws the balls into the rack and arranges them for what will be the final game of eight-ball. She is dressed now only in her bra, but has transcended self-consciousness. It could just be her and Marcus in here. That’s all that matters.
Marcus, now just in his leather pants, dances and gyrates for the women in the room. Cold eyes stare back at him. He pulls off his leather pants. They detach instantaneously, courtesy of Velcro seams. Marcus swivels his hips, wearing only a g-string now. Holly must concede his butt looks good, and he’s a natural showman. But the women stare back at him stonily.
Another woman comes in, a redhead – Gabriella. Marcus dances up to her. She reciprocates enthusiastically initially, but the plump brunette grabs her wrist and – against Gabriella’s protests – drags her into the throng while explaining what’s going on. Marcus shakes his head. Another one bites the dust.
‘To hell with you then,’ he says, throwing his leather pants in the corner of the room. He spins to face Holly. ‘Look at what you’ve done to the room.’
Holly pushes the balls into position, takes the rack, and drops it onto the floor. ‘This is for everything,’ she says. ‘Your g-string versus my bra.’
‘Where do you expect to take this, Holly? You get me naked, so what? That’s what I’m meant to be doing here. Does it look like that bothers me? I get you naked, big deal. Nobody’s here to see you. You’re just embarrassing yourself.’
Holly takes the cue ball and positions it to break. ‘You win, you get me any way you want me,’ she says.
‘Any way. Same applies if I win.’
Marcus’s eyes narrow and he tilts his head. He knows there’s more to this – he hears it in his tone. This is the bait she’s thrown out.
‘You scared?’ she asks.
More bait. And Marcus recognises it. The prudent thing now would be to play the game out under the original conditions, but his ego won’t let him. He’s not reckless and uninformed like Quinn, who bet desperately to try recoup his losses. For Marcus, every decision is calculated. He can beat her, which makes upping the ante the right thing to do.
‘But we seal the deal with the truth,’ Holly says.
And there’s the ante. It doesn’t surprise Marcus, but it does give him a moment of pause. People value truth, but it’s often a hurtful thing, an instrument of destruction. That’s why it’s often filtered through interpretation – interpretation can dampen it, or colour it in emotion, or mitigate it through rationalisation. So many mechanisms exist to make truth more palatable.
But now, though, come the end of this game, it could be bared naked.
Marcus is unsure what to say.
Holly smashes the cue ball, shattering the other balls. The four ricochets in the corner pocket but sits there. The thirteen and eleven occupy the middle pocket. The other balls scatter into the open. But nothing goes in.
Marcus surveys the table. The balls are scattered. He could get a good run here. Now he feels protective of Holly – it’s a momentary sensation that flares in his mind. She is the woman he loves. That is genuine, or as genuine as his warped understanding of love and relationships can be.
‘Are you sure?’ he says.
Holly is determined. She doesn’t care about the lay of the table, or that Marcus now has an advantage. Her rage borders on righteousness. She has expected this wager to fall her way, regardless of how close the games have remained, and that they’re now down to the last bet.
Marcus leans over the table.To the hell with it. If she wants to come at him like this, then she can have it.
‘Fine.’ He sinks the eleven into the middle pocket. ‘You want to bust my balls over this?’ The thirteen follows the eleven. ‘Don’t know what your problem is. It was your choice. You didn’t have to go with them.’
‘You set me up,’ Holly says.
‘Nobody twisted your arm.’ Marcus adjusts the crotch of his g-string. Holly can see he’s hardened talking about this. He sinks the fifteen into the far corner. ‘Well, not in any way you didn’t want it twisted,’ he says.
‘Who were they?’
‘A couple of guys I met here. We got talking.’ Marcus lines up the nine, and drives it into the far corner pocket.
‘How’d you know I’d respond?’
‘You’re great to fuck, Holly, although a little safe sometimes. But I wondered … Given the opportunity, would you cut loose? I’ve always thought there was something wild deep down inside of you.’ Marcus banks the ten into the middle. ‘You’re wicked. Personally, I think every woman has the potential to be, deep down.’ He leers at the other women in the room. ‘Yeah, you heard me right.’ They scowl. Some whisper behind their hands. Marcus is unconcerned. He turns back to Holly. ‘To be honest,’ he goes on, ‘I didn’t think you’d go for it. That you did was a pleasant surprise.’
Holly’s eyes brim. She brushes at them and tightens her jaw. She won’t cry. Not in front of Marcus. But it is difficult to hold on. He is so cavalier in his regard. If they’d talked about this, she might’ve considered it – a mutual decision. But now she feels cheap. A partner should be possessive to some extent. Where would a relationship with Marcus go? Threesomes? Swingers’ parties? Orgies? Gangbangs? What else? Holly sees a tawdry future where Marcus prostitutes her for his own satisfaction, and now reconciles what she’s done as cheap.
He lines up the twelve in the far corner. ‘I thought if I gave you some anonymity, I could appeal to that deep-down wickedness.’
He rises, readjusts the crotch of his g-string, but this time isn’t surreptitious about it. Holly can tell from the bulge that he’s fully erect. She wants to kick him in it.
‘Tell me,’ Marcus says, ‘when the first guy laid the money on the bar and pretended to mistake you for a hooker, was it a turn on? Did you get hot?’ He approaches Holly, and takes her chin between his thumb and finger. ‘And when the second guy joined him and they doubled down, just how hot and turned on were you getting?’
‘You set up your fiancé for a threesome?’ This comes from the plump brunette who’d initially objected to Holly’s interruption. Now, her brows are angled sharp and there’s a furrow in the bridge of her nose.
‘Hey, she didn’t have to take it.’
‘What are you? A pimp?’
‘You cunt.’ This from Gabriella.
Marcus chortles at both of them.
‘You proposed that night,’ Holly says. ‘What did you expect? Besides the money?’
Marcus returns to the table and lines up the twelve once more.
‘Tell me, what did you expect?’ Holly says.
Marcus strikes the cue ball. It collects the twelve, sending it cleanly into the pocket. ‘I just wanted to open you up before we got married.’
Marcus chalks his cue. ‘I sort of figured the sky would be the limit after your display.’
Marcus grins. ‘I filmed it from the closet on my phone.’ He checks the table. He has only the fourteen left, sitting in the middle of the table. ‘You know, Holly,’ he says, as he takes up a position to have his shot, ‘I don’t understand your indignation. You enjoyed it. Right?’
Holly’s face grows hot.
Holly doesn’t want to answer, although she knows her silence condemns her.
‘What harm was done?’ Marcus says. ‘If anybody should be hurt, it should be me. Technically, you cheated on me.’
‘You engineered it for … the money … hoping I’d become some whore for your entertainment?’
‘Our entertainment, Holly.’
Some of the women jeer. Marcus ignores them. Holly doesn’t even know what to call him. The plump brunette asked him if he were a pimp. The redhead has already used cunt. But neither those are enough. Holly doesn’t know where to go from there.
‘Hey, I’m not the bad guy. Quinn’s got his gambling debts. He doesn’t know it yet, but I did this—’
‘I did this!’ Holly says.
‘—to help him pay them off.’
Holly shakes her head, unable to reconcile Marcus’s duplicity. ‘You could’ve told him that! He went to see that old fuck—’
‘Quinn doesn’t have to go through with his temptation. He just had to sit down, hear the spiel, and introduce somebody else. I was going to tell him tonight about the money. I feel obligated – after all, I was the one who introduced him to that underground casino. Who knew he’d be such a loser? Well, that’s self-evident, but I mean at gambling.’
‘You’re one hell of a fucking guy, Marcus.’
‘I can’t help it that people are weak. You with your threesome. Quinn with his gambling. Dante constantly tiptoeing around Flavia. Flavia wanting to be famous. Amber so meek you can’t say boo around her. But I’m the bad guy because I know what I want and I pursue it to make it reality. I’m the bad guy because I want to live and explore life. I’m the bad guy because I take risks and have fun. Right.’
Marcus casually pockets the fourteen. The cue ball rolls to the centre of the table, aligning directly behind the black. Holly’s sigh is a long hiss. She could hit that in blindfolded. Of all the times Marcus could have a perfect game!
‘What’s your problem?’ he asks. ‘Really? We’re half a mil’ richer, you’re sexually liberated, and I’m happier. Who doesn’t win?’
‘I–I–if you’d put this to me … I don’t know … To manipulate—’
Marcus strides up to her, pointing a finger in her face. ‘This was your fucking choice!’ he says. ‘I didn’t push you into it. I didn’t do it then behave like nothing happened. You could’ve told them they were mistaken. You could’ve thrown your drink in their faces. You could’ve gotten up and left. You’re not my puppet whose actions and responses I control. So face facts, Holly. You did this! You did this and you’re upset because you did it! And you fucking enjoyed it. Loved it. Getting spit roasted. DPed. Fuck you. You can blame me for putting the gun in your hand, but you pulled the trigger! You!’
Holly says nothing.
He is right.