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Beauty and Love

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Rome had sent flowers to Paris’s dressing room. Yellow roses, her favourite kind. It would never have occurred to Mike: either you said yes to him, or you didn’t. Dallas would have sent champagne with the flowers, if he had pulled a stunt like that -- but Dallas didn’t call in last-minute favours.

Rome sent Bulleit, on ice, with a note: Suite 537. Let’s catch up after lights up, Hurricane.

The first time Paris had danced, years ago at the Golden Girdle in Savannah, they’d told her: Rome wants to see you upstairs. And the first thing Rome had said was, glasses are in the cabinet, pour for yourself. Spirits, or wine?

I’ll take the bourbon, if you don’t mind.

I don’t. University of Miami, am I right? 1994 Orange Bowl? What’s a color guard doing a state over in a place like this?

It was Tubbs and Crockett, real buddy movie banter -- if they made buddy movies about the pole-based industry. Paris had never figured out how Rome had known so much, or why she’d bothered. It was Rome’s business, getting to the heart of you, but she liked her mystery.

 

***

 

The performances lasted until two in the morning, but that was all she wrote: the rest of the team would manage set breakdowns and put the paper snowdrifts through the bill counter. Paris had suite 408 booked. She kicked off her heels and went upstairs in Havaianas, bourbon in hand.

Rome met her at the door. She’d changed -- something long and loose and flowing, but still white. She put her hand on Paris’s cheek, paused to look, and smiled.

“It’s good to see you,” she said. “Has it been… four years?”

“Not less,” said Paris. Rome took her by the hand, and she allowed herself to be drawn across the lintel and into mood lighting. The voile curtains were closed, but the blackouts had been pulled back: straight on, across the highway, the glitter of North Ocean Boulevard was softened by gauze.

“I’d never have thought to see you here,” Paris said, “or anywhere but in Savannah.” She ran a finger along the polished wood of the table. Rome’s suite was functionally identical to Paris’s, but she had made the space her own: a great spray of white freesia tumbled from a low vase, filling the air with scent. “You’re thinking of taking those boys on?”

“No,” said Rome, sounding amused. She took the Bulleit from Paris and poured two tumblers. “They’re out, after this. Out while the going is still good.”

“So,” Paris said, “you’ve got history.”

“I had a ghost to lay to rest,” said Rome. She handed Paris her glass. Lots of ice; of course Rome would remember that too. Paris slung half the contents back and sighed, letting herself fall into one of the standard-issue armchairs.

It had to be Mike, she thought. That would figure. It had transpired that Rome loathed Dallas, the once or twice it had come up; Paris had assumed it was because Dallas was an asshole and a rigorously professional purveyor of bullshit. But maybe it was personal, and Paris never connected the dots. She hadn’t been seeing much of Rome, even before she moved up to Myrtle Beach, and afterward it had been less.

“I was in Italy last year,” she said. “Rome, the actual city. I was there for five days, for a trade show.”

“And what, now?” Rome settled on the edge of the bed, one foot tucked under her. “It made you think of me?”

“It made me think of those stories you used to cap your act with, at the Girdle. About the Roman Empire, and the priestesses of Beauty and Love. How you could buy doves at the Temple of Venus, so you could cut their throats on the altar, or you could make a wish and set them free -- remember that?”

“You thought that story was bullshit,” said Rome.

“Well,” said Paris, “I was a little girl with a chip on my shoulder.”

In fact she had wept, uncontrollably and angrily, the first time she’d heard the words; and Rome did remember that, even though she’d never bring it up. Rome remembered everything, you could see it in her eyes. In that way she was like the city. Cool like the shadows cast by old stone -- like fresh fountain water -- and for all her history she had no ghosts that lingered for long: they couldn’t bear the light.

Did she say it was your fault when the shit hit the fan? That you got her involved? Look at me, Hurricane. Put down the glass and look at me. What was her name?

...Delia.

Delia. Well, Delia’s a fool. And a coward.

You don’t understand.

I do, I understand. You’re not ashamed of loving, only of loving someone like that. And I’m saying you shouldn’t be ashamed at all.

The languid, boneless feeling of late night and alcohol caught at her limbs, of a piece with the nostalgia. Paris stood abruptly, ignoring the stress ache in her calves, and held a hand out.

“Come down to the pier with me,” she said, and watched Rome’s eyebrows flash up.

“Girlfriend,” she said, “I respect your energy, but I have no idea where it comes from.”

“I spend a lot of time behind a desk,” said Paris.

 

***

 

The beach was by no means deserted, it being very early Sunday morning, though they were a few blocks away from the central hubbub of the boardwalk around the SkyWheel. The great light-up hives of the resort hotels rose on their left, like a broken city wall; the dark Atlantic stretched endlessly on their right. They strolled slowly, past rows of neatly stacked beach chairs, and after a while Rome slid an arm around Paris’s waist. The warmth and feather weight of it part of the lingering grace of the night, like the sand caught in Paris’s sandals, and the murmur of the surf.

“I have to ask, Hurricane,” she said. “Are you where you want to be? Are you who you want to be?”

“I never asked you that,” said Paris.

“Because you think you know the answer.”

“I assume too much, huh?”

Rome stopped walking, so Paris had to stop as well. They faced each other. After a moment Rome leant in, and kissed Paris on the lips. Gently, without expectation, but it lingered. Her lipstick tasted of roses.

“No,” she said, “you see through everyone. And you let me have my pride.”

Paris felt herself smile, helplessly. She closed her eyes and leant her forehead against Rome’s.

“You tell me, then,” she said. “Tell me a story about Paris.”

“All right,” said Rome. “Once… all the land that became Paris belonged to the Atlantic. It was seabed: layers of sediment, memory that broke the surface.

"When they built the city, they mined right underneath it -- brought up slate and limestone from the deep dark places, shaped them -- every layer time left behind -- and made them beautiful. There were no shortcuts.

"That’s why Paris is special. It’s the land it was built on. Nothing is hidden; every inch of it is real.”

“Just bedrock and hard work,” said Paris.

“That’s right, Hurricane.”

“You’re a helluva emcee, Rome.”

“I know.”

“I’m who I want to be,” said Paris.

Rome made no answer. She brushed Paris’s hair aside from her face, gently, and after a moment they walked on.