Dark hair and lots of it, heavy brows, sharp features, dark eyes, dark circles under the eyes, dark looks about the room, at the maître d’, the waitress, the trolley laden with rich, tempting desserts, and finally, as Toby guides her to the table, at Chloe, who holds out her hand and says pleasantly, though she is experiencing the first tentative pricks of the panic that will consume her nights and disrupt her days for some time to come, “Salome, how good to meet you.”
The hand she grasps is lifeless and she releases it almost at once. Toby pulls a chair out, meeting his mother’s eyes over the truncated handshake with a look she characterizes as defiant. “My mother, Chloe Dale,” he says.
“Hello,” the young woman says, sinking into the chair. Toby lays his fingers upon her shoulder, just for a moment, very much the proprietor, and Salome sends him a weak smile.
On the phone Toby said, “You’ll like her. She’s different. She’s very serious.”
Which meant this one was not an airhead like Belinda, who had ruined an entire summer the year before. On hearing Toby’s description, Brendan warned, “Brace up. Young men go for extremes.”
“That's true,” Chloe agreed. “You certainly did.” She recollected Brendan’s mad poet and the bout with the anorexic alcoholic, but she herself had not been a model of probity—the misunderstood artist who read too much William Blake and spent a semester poring over accounts of the Manson murders in preparation for a series of lithographs depicting dismembered female bodies.
The waitress approaches, brandishing heavy, leather–backed menus. Toby reaches for one, so does Chloe. Salome keeps her hands in her lap, forcing the waitress to stretch across the table and slip it in place between the knife and fork. “Can I get you something to drink?” she inquires.
“Let’s have a bottle of mineral water for the table,” Chloe says, “and I’ll have a glass of the white Bordeaux.”
“That sounds good,” Toby agrees. “I’ll have the same.”
Salome’s eyes come up from the menu and rest on Toby’s mouth. “Coffee,” she says.
She doesn’t drink. Is that a good sign?
“She lives on coffee,” Toby chides indulgently, as if he’s letting his mother in on some charming secret. Chloe studies the young woman, who has lowered her eyes to the menu again, a faint smile playing about her lips.
She’s confident, Chloe thinks. “So, how did you meet?” she asks.
“We’re in the same poli–sci class,” Toby says. “It’s a big lecture. I spotted Salome, but we didn’t actually talk until we both showed up at a meeting to organize a campus antiwar group.”
“That’s good,” Chloe says. “You won’t have to go through boring arguments about politics.”
“What kind of arguments?” Salome asks offhandedly, still studying the menu.
“About politics,” Chloe replies. “You’re already in agreement.” The drinks arrive and the conversation is suspended while the waitress pours out the water, arranges wineglasses and Salome’s coffee, which comes in a silver pot with a smaller silver pitcher of cream. “Shall I give you a few minutes to decide on your orders?” she asks.
“I think so?” Chloe says to her son, who replies, “Yes. I’m not ready yet.” All three fall silent, concentrating on elaborate descriptions of food. “What are you having?” Chloe asks Toby.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “Maybe the salmon.”
Salome pushes the menu aside, nearly upsetting her water glass, but her reflexes are quick and she steadies it with a firm hand laid across the base. Her fingernails, Chloe notes, are short, filed straight across. For a moment all three are fascinated by this decisive movement—no, the glass is not going to tumble—then, for the first time, Salome directs upon Chloe the full force of her regard. It’s unsettling, like seeing a spider darting out crazily from some black recess in the basement. “Why would an argument about politics necessarily be boring?” Salome asks, her voice carefully modulated, free of accusation, as if she’s inquiring into some purely scientific matter—why does gravity hold everything down, why does light penetrate glass but not wood.
Toby is right. There is nothing ordinary about this young person. “Well, not necessarily,” she concedes. “But sometimes when people disagree strongly on principle, and there’s no reconciliation possible, it can get pretty dull, pretty…” she pauses, looking for the noninflammatory word …“unproductive.”
“Salome loves to argue about politics,” Toby observes, temporizing, as is his way.
Lives on coffee, loves to argue. Could there be a connection?
“I don’t actually love it,” Salome corrects him. “But when it’s necessary, I never find it boring.”
Fast work. Chloe now stands accused of calling Toby’s new love interest boring.
She takes a sip of her wine, casting her eyes about the room in search of the waitress. It’s an attractive, tastefully appointed room, richly paneled, with dark, solid furnishings, damask cloths, strategic flower arrangements, and the glint of glass and copper. The food is excellent, though, of course, absurdly expensive. She chose Mignon’s because she knows Toby likes it, and it’s close to the university. She took the train, an hour and a half to Grand Central, and then another twenty minutes on the subway, which put her four crosstown blocks from Mignon’s. It’s twelve forty–five, she has an appointment midtown with her editor at three thirty, plenty of time for a leisurely lunch with her son and his new girlfriend. It’s intended as a treat for them; they’re students who eat grim cafeteria food or the cheap and nourishing fare served in Ukrainian restaurants on the Lower East Side. Her eyes settle on Toby, who looks anxious, pretending interest in the menu. She turns to Salome, who is ladling sugar into her black coffee, two full teaspoons.
She feels a stab of pity for the young woman, so clearly out of her element and on the defensive. Meeting the boyfriend’s mother is never fun; for one thing, one gets to see one’s lover transformed into some older woman’s son. But it could be so much worse, she wants to tell Salome. You should have seen my mother–in–law, a true harridan, and the worst part was that Brendan thought his mother was fascinating and acted like a giddy puppy in her presence, falling all over himself in his effort to please her. Whereas Chloe is charming, everyone says so, and her relations with her son are genial. These self–congratulatory musings relax her, and when Salome raises her cup to her lips, darting a quick, nervous glance at Chloe over the rim, she sends the girl a sympathetic smile. “You’re right,” she says. “Politics is serious. Especially in these dismal times.”
“Can you believe the arrogance of this clown!” Toby exclaims. “Now we don’t need the United Nations. The rest of the world is just irrelevant.”
“He’s a puppet,” Salome says. “The dangerous ones are standing right behind him.”
The waitress appears, ready to take their orders. Chloe feels a quiver of interest in Salome’s choice; doubtless she is a vegetarian. Toby orders the salmon; Chloe her usual duck salad. The waitress, a bright–eyed redhead—why couldn’t Toby fall for someone like her?—looks attentively at Salome, her pen poised above her pad.
“I’ll have the Caesar salad, no anchovies,” Salome says.
Very pure, Chloe will tell Brendan. No alcohol, no meat, no fish.
The waitress retreats. Toby takes a roll from the bread basket and begins slathering it with butter. “There’s going to be an antiwar rally in the park on the fifteenth,” he says. “We’ve got about eighty people signed up already.”
“Excellent,” Chloe says. “I’ll tell your father. He’s so enraged, he needs an outlet.”
Toby nods, stuffing half the roll into his mouth. He is always hungry. He developed an appetite when he was fifteen, it’s never let up, and he still doesn’t have an ounce of fat on him. Chloe takes up the basket and offers it to Salome, who chooses a wheat roll and places it carefully on Chloe’s bread plate. If she takes no bread herself, Chloe reasons, the girl will never know her mistake. “Are you majoring in political science too?” she asks, setting the basket close to her son.
“No,” Salome replies. “International relations, with an emphasis on the Balkans.”
“She’s a Croat,” Toby announces.
Chloe takes this information in quietly, uncertain how to respond. Does it explain the passion for politics? Are Croats Muslims? “But you don’t have an accent,” she says.
“I grew up in Louisiana,” Salome says.
Croats in Louisiana? Chloe thinks.
“Her father is the Oyster King,” Toby says.
Chloe takes another sip of her wine, thinking of the Tenniel illustration of the Walrus and the Carpenter inviting an attentive clutch of unwary oysters for a pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, along the briny beach
. “What made you decide to come to New York?” she asks.
“I got a scholarship.”
“She’s very smart,” Toby adds needlessly.
“It must be quite a change for you,” Chloe observes. “Do you like it here?”
For a moment Salome’s eyes meet Chloe’s, but distantly, disengaging at once in favor of a leisurely survey of the room, as if her answer depended upon the framed photographs of Parisian street scenes arranged along the far wall, the quality of the table linens, the low hum of chatter from the other diners, the neat white blouse of the waitress, who, Chloe notices with relief, is approaching their table, skillfully balancing three plates, on one of which she recognizes her duck salad. For God’s sake, she thinks, impatience constricting her throat around a jumble of words that must not be said, I wasn’t asking for your opinion of this restaurant. Toby sits back in his chair, his eyebrows lifted in anticipation, waiting, now they are both waiting, for the verdict of this odd, dark creature he has extracted, it now appears, from some refugee swamp and set down before his mother in a perfectly respectable corner of New York. Salome’s eyes pass over his attentive face and settle upon her coffee cup, which is empty. She lifts the silver pot and pours a ribbon of black liquid into the porcelain cup. “Not much,” she says.
“You see,” Toby chides Salome when they are on the sidewalk watching his mother disappear into the ceaseless flow of pedestrians. “That wasn’t so bad.”
“I don’t think she liked me,” Salome says.
“She likes who I like,” Toby assures her, though this is not, strictly speaking, true. He knows his mother won’t criticize any friend of his to his face, but that doesn’t mean she has no feelings in the matter. He hadn’t expected Salome to charm his mother, but he’d assumed they would find some obscure common ground of femaleness to ease the inevitable tension. That hadn’t happened, and not, he admits, for lack of trying on his mother’s part. Salome leans into him so that he feels the soft give of her breast against his arm. She is embarrassed that she acquitted herself poorly, he concludes, and anxious that he might be displeased.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. As they turn south, toward the university, she slips her hand into his. At the light she reaches up to touch his cheek, and, when he looks down, rises up on her toes to brush his lips with her own. He accepts the kiss, bringing his hand to her chin to hold her lips to his a moment longer. They have two hours before his roommate will return from his job, and they will spend them sprawled on the futon that takes up most of the space allotted to Toby. It is a perfect fall day, cool and dry; the leaves on the stunted trees plugged into squares of colorless, vitrified dirt along the sidewalk have already turned an anemic yellow. Toby wants to sprint the few blocks to the apartment just to have a few more minutes of being in bed with Salome. He passes his arm around her back, urging her to a speedier pace. The fineness of the bones beneath her skin, the slenderness of her waist, send a shiver of excitement from his stomach to his groin. She is right; it doesn’t matter what his mother thinks of her, or his father, or anyone else for that matter. That they will feel strongly, one way or the other, is inevitable, because Salome is so entirely different from any woman he has ever known. Compared to the officious graduates of expensive prep schools who are made anxious by her opinions, the city denizens with their tongue studs and tattoos, the scholarship girls from the Midwest who greet one another with shouts and hugs after an hour apart, Salome is a jaguar among nervous chickens. “Pretty exotic, Toby,” his roommate observed upon meeting her. “Are you sure you’ve got the energy for that?”
He doesn’t deny that she’s difficult. She has few friends, only her roommates, two theater majors she dismisses with a wave of the hand. Her room, formerly a walk–in closet, is hung with embroidered pictures. There’s a shelf crammed with statues of her favorite saints and votive candles, which she lights to solicit favors. On Sundays she wraps her hair in a lace shawl and goes off to Mass at the Croatian church on 51st Street, after which she receives her weekly call from her father, the Oyster King. While she talks, Toby stretches out on her narrow mattress, baffled by her harsh, impenetrable language. Her voice rises to a shout, she sounds furious—he can’t imagine what it would feel like to address either of his parents with so much force—then abruptly she is calm and affectionate. The conversation invariably ends with what he takes to be cooing endearments.
When she waits for him in the coffee shop, she passes the time crocheting lace squares which she will give out to the professors who earn her admiration. Those who displease her must put up with such serious and close questioning that they blanch when they see her hand shoot up in the midst of her somnolent peers.
She brings the same energy and essential forthrightness to the minimalist bedroom where they will soon pounce on each other with feline exuberance, tussling for the fun of it. She will start throwing off her clothes as soon as they are inside the door, pulling Toby toward the bed with an impatience that delights him. Her hair falling over his face smells of cloves, the perfume of her skin is complex, warm, spicy. When she wraps her arms and legs around his back, she holds him so tightly he can feel the taut vibration of her muscles, and her breath in his ear is quick and even to the end.
As they turn the last corner to the apartment, his mother is the farthest thing from his mind, so it surprises him when Salome says, “What I don’t understand is why your mother volunteered your father for the rally. Why doesn’t she come herself? Is she afraid she’ll get arrested?”
Copyright © 2007 by Valerie Martin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.