Actions

Work Header

there's a science to walking through windows without you

Work Text:

"Two more for you," says Fred, tossing a pair of matching envelopes in Eliza’s lap as he shuffles through the mail. "Honestly, what happened to basic etiquette? It's a month past the reply-by date. My mother confirmed the headcount with the caterers two weeks ago. Ooh, here's a coupon for that Thai place on 7th. What is it, babe?"

She stares blindly before her.

"He's coming."

Fred does not like the way she says he. "Who is?"

"Professor Henry Higgins." Fred likes the pompous way she pronounces the name much better. He applies a little mental effort and makes another pleasant discovery. "Isn't he the one you call 'the devil's heir apparent'?"

"He was my mentor in grad school. We had a terrible fight right before I left. He wanted me to be his research assistant."

"Well, frankly, Lize, you ought to have accepted. It's not like you're getting better offers—or any offers at all, for that matter."

"His offer was made on the condition that I not marry you." She looks at the other card. "At least Pickering will be here to keep him in line."

“All’s well that ends well,” says Fred, reverting to his default cheerfulness. “Oh, look! It’s time to tear off another day on the wedding countdown paper chain!”

Eliza stares at the RSVP card she still holds. No, she thinks at it fiercely. Stay away. Don’t come here. Stay out of my life. I don’t want you.

She is so engrossed that she forgets to cheer when Fred announces “Fourteen!” and as a result he gets his feelings hurt and goes home early, and there go their plans for Chinese takeout but she doesn’t have much of an appetite anyway. She takes a hot shower and two more melatonin tablets than the bottle recommends and goes to bed. The offending RSVP card lies on her coffeetable until 2:30 AM, when she stomps into the living room, grabs it, and carefully rips it into fifty-four tiny pieces that swirl away into the pipes beneath her toilet. She cannot bring herself to do the same to Pickering’s, but the result is that his card is still there to greet her in the morning, and it turns out that it is practically the same thing as having the professor’s there, after all.

-

Fred and his mother having gotten their heads together, the wedding is now a week-long event, “like the Romans did!” She is not sure where they got the notion that a Roman wedding would be a good idea, much less an exhausting week-long set of social obligations, and their historical accuracy is on shaky ground, but she stopped fighting them two months ago when Fred’s mother dropped a hint that since it was the family’s money paying for practically everything, perhaps Eliza would change her mind about violets and agree to irises.

Some of the week’s events are limited to the wedding party but most are open to all the guests. The first evening is a formal supper in a restaurant Eliza is certain costs more to rent than their actual reception venue. She does not know most of the guests; they are comprised of the Eynsford-Hill crowd, their jewelry real gemstones, their clothes tailored, simultaneously bragging and complaining about their summers spent on private yachts and islands and at spa getaways and various society galas. Fred thumps the backs of his college rowing team, so enthused by the reunion that Eliza wonders if he remembers why they are actually here; Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, who knows all of their parents, gleans gossip from them.

Then he walks in, he who she has been mentally threatening all night, you had better not come, good thing that isn’t you who just arrived, one more minute closer to it being too late for you to show up.

“Eliza,” he says, his voice almost as familiar as her own. “Are you aware that there is a karaoke bar not two miles from this place? You’ve never even been there, have you. I told you so, Pickering.”

Fred’s mother hugs every guest in greeting, even strangers, and Eliza is perversely pleased to imagine that the deathless odor of Chanel No. 5 is now pressed into his suit jacket.

Pickering tells her they have been lecturing overseas, which explains the late arrival of their RSVPs. A moment later Pickering apologizes for that very thing—“Rather poor etiquette, I’m afraid”—though he says nothing. He only holds out a hand she has not seen in four months and shakes her fiancé’s hand.

“Nice place, this,” he says, looking up at the murals on the ceiling. He raises his eyebrows expressively at her. “Food’s this way?” He strolls off. Pickering lays a friendly hand on her shoulder, then follows.

There is nothing left for her to do. She flees to the one person who will understand.

Mrs. H, the rest of her last name abandoned by generations of students decades ago, listens whilst calmly eating a plate of shrimp hors d’ouvres. She was Eliza’s eye of the storm of grad school, and despite a forty year age gap, they are genuinely kindred spirits.

“I never dreamed he would say yes! Doesn’t he know an obligatory invitation when he sees one? He isn’t supposed to be here!”

“It is appallingly like Henry,” Mrs. H agrees.

Eliza glares across the room and sips her chardonnay. She does not like white wine, but Fred put the glass in her hand and he is standing right next to the bar.

As though reading her thoughts, the professor looks up and meets her eyes. She can see the corner of his mouth curl up, even from this distance, or is it her memory filling in the image? He lifts his glass—something dark as blood—to her, and bows a little. She turns her face toward the other side of the room.

“Are you going to tell him off, or are you going to huff at him all the way up the aisle?” says Mrs. H. A neat pyramid of shrimp tails is arranged on the edge of her plate.

“I can’t tell him off. I invited him.”

Mrs. H gives her a look. “I could have sworn I taught a unit on nuance.”

“Nuance involves elegance. When I’m this angry I just start to babble, and then he’s won.” Eliza can taste the failed attempt in her mouth, the bitterness at the back of her throat, the paralyzed tongue. She can see his cool blue eyes looking down at her, sardonic and amused, he who is rarely anything but elegant. She took the course on nuance, but he wrote the book. Don’t some of his more cutting words, those last ones before their strange partnership was felled by her choice of Fred, still find her staring at the ceiling at night?

Her eyes find him again, and then jolt away. By some chance they land on her fiancé, who still stands near the entrance. He is laughing uproariously at something someone has said, and she is startled by the contrast—somehow the professor has turned Fred from a man into a youth, and it all happened in the flick of her eyes from one side of the room to another. No, not turned. Revealed. Uncovered. She pushes away the thought. She loves Fred, has always been aware he is more inclined to boyish enthusiasm than quicksilver intelligence, and any preference otherwise has been quietly folded away. It is unfair of her to suddenly wish Fred other than he is, when she knew from the start what she was choosing. She will be the one to guide him, she will be the one to unlock herself. She will discover her own mysteries and stretch her own potential. She knew it from the beginning, which proves that what she later encountered and then walked away from will not be crucial, she will not wander in a wasteland for the lack of it, she will be able to build a version of her own.

A gust of longing sweeps through her—no, of curiosity, she thinks it aggressively (she read about this, sometimes people do this before they marry, they wonder over all the other possible versions of themselves that they are forfeiting, it does not mean they are choosing a lesser life, just one of many options)—to know who she might have been, had she been immersed in that fire, all lights and colors and worlds opening. Even from across the room she can feel it, that wild refined energy seething beneath the layers of cloth and skin, ready at a trigger’s touch, stand as he may, tall and lean and lazily propped against the bar.

And now she has looked one time too many, and he has seen her.

She sneers at him.

She goes to Fred’s side and links her arm through his. She laughs at his jokes and at his friends’ jokes, and she makes sure she does not know when the professor leaves.

-

The second night is exclusively for the wedding party. Eliza is bored to the point of screaming. She has heard the same boat race story three times. The same exciting golf championship story twice. The conversational range of Fred’s friends is not wide. Her own friends are unchanged since graduation, chatting, smiling, but they have new priorities that she does not share, which would be fine if only they did not speak to her as though she does.

There is a commotion at the gate to the tea garden, and under the twinkle lights that have just become visible in the twilight she sees Pickering’s shining head.

He finds her and waves a broad arm. “Eliza! Excuse me,” he tells the flustered guardians at the gate, who are under threat of Mrs. Eynsford-Hill to not admit a single party-crasher. “Eliza! I must speak with you.”

She goes to him, concerned. “Is anything the matter?”

“Let’s talk out here.” He takes her lightly by the elbow and leads her back through the gate and over a short pine bridge, and then she understands.

A Mercedes is idling by the curb. Henry Higgins waits in the driver’s seat, his eyes masked by sunglasses though he has not needed them for a solid ten minutes. “Get in, Eliza,” he calls though the passenger window.

She crosses her arms.

“Won’t you please join us, Eliza? We’re going to the karaoke place,” Pickering says, opening the door for her, and for the sake of the happy anticipation in his eyes she slides into the seat.

She texts Fred, angling her phone toward the driver’s side. Be right back. Catching up with an old friend. She refuses to look at him but she knows he is smirking.

“Why didn’t you just tell him you were going to pick up ice?”

“I’m not a liar.” They are the first words she has spoken directly to him. She wonders if he is aware of it.

He makes a sharp left turn. “Then when are you going to stop this pretense?” They are the opening words of an old argument. Her whole body sighs.

“Now, now,” says Pickering. “It is clear to see that Eliza is very happy with Fred. You really ought to drop this, Henry.”

“Fine,” says the driver, making another sharp turn into a parking lot. “For tonight only. Let’s enjoy ourselves.” Eliza lurches forward as he slams on his brakes and parks. He jumps out of the car and Eliza and Pickering emerge, more slowly, from the other side. She looks across the top of the car.

“Oh, just say it and get it out of your system,” she tells him.

He says, “Your Freddy is repulsively immature. You’ll have to carry him through life, like an infant. He will feed off of you until you’re drained dry, and when you’re nothing but a grey husk he’ll leave you for a tennis coach. And you will deserve it, Eliza, if you choose it. That dotted line, that’s a contract to hell, and if you’re going to sign it when any normal fool would run the other way, I won’t spend a moment’s sympathy on you. I won’t save you and I won’t help you and I won’t give you a place to crash or a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on, but I will make sure to remind you of this day, of all the warnings you ignored, and of your own stupid pride that got you where you are.” He rips off his sunglasses and throws them into the car. “Why wouldn’t you just take my job offer?” He slams the door with a vengeance. Then he turns and marches into the building.

Eliza and Pickering look at each other.

“I am quite looking forward to this,” he says. “It’s been such a long time.”

She smiles and hooks her arm around his. They follow their chauffeur inside.

She has forgotten that these kinds of places calm the professor, that it is the reason they even began going to karaoke bars. Singing, darkness, drink: the magic trio. The failsafe when it came to soothing Henry Higgins's ruffled feathers. The reset button after so many arguments. His rant outside truly has cleared his system, and he is smiling and moving with the music within minutes.

“This town is the size of a shoebox,” he tells her, dropping into his seat and placing a pint glass in front of her, sloshing the contents over the side. He takes a long drink from his own glass, a stein the size of a small barrel.

She crosses her arms and stares straight ahead. His rant did not clear her system—far from it. “Yes, it is. Why are you in it?”

“Nice to see you too, Eliza.”

She stands up, wondering how long she has to stay for Pickering to feel like the evening has been a success. He is onstage now, singing a jazzy “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” The place is half-full, most patrons dining instead of singing, which means the karaoke line is not long. This is how they preferred it, she and her mentor: back-to-back performances the whole evening, trumping each other’s small triumphs, jumping up onto the stage to push the other off, never caring what the crowd thought of their voices but enjoying any affirmation. Memories fall into place before her eyes and she slides briefly into the past—Pickering will sing perhaps twice (one will always be a Sinatra classic) and then sit back to enjoy watching the two of them competing to be the loudest, the hammiest, to throw the most shade on the other. And at last call, they will end with a Shirley Temple for each of them, always those stupid Shirley Temples, and somehow leave with their friendship intact again.

The karaoke selection has not been updated since 1990. On the sign-up sheet, familiar handwriting has scrawled Who’s Sorry Now / Connie Francis on the last line.

She returns to the table. “Seeing as you’re getting in touch with your feminine side, I just called Mrs. H and told her that you would be happy to play Edna Turnblad when the undergrads put on Hairspray this fall.”

He flicks a half-melted ice cube at her. “Do that and I won’t give you a wedding gift.”

“You wouldn’t anyway.”

“I’ll tell my mother to not give one.”

“She already did.” The sight of his mother’s name on her wedding registry had filled her heart with so much warmth that it had overflowed into her chest and welled in her eyes.

She adds, “So did Pickering.” His gift had arrived at her condo with a note: A marvelous combination! She has already decided that no matter how many fancier toaster ovens they are given, his is the one she is keeping.

At that moment Pickering himself finishes “It Had to Be You” with a flourish, and it is the professor’s turn.

Who's sorry now, who's sorry now.” He wails, “I tried to warn you somehow, you had your way, now you must pay, I'm glad that you're sorry now.

You’re so vain,” she bellows into the microphone. “You probably think this song is about you.

You say you're looking for someone who's never weak but always strong, to protect you and defend you whether you are right or wrong, someone to open each and every door. But it ain't me, babe," he chants, "no, no, no, it ain't me, babe.

What you want, baby, I got. What you need ooh, do you know I've got it. All I'm asking is for a little respect when you come home.

Ain't no sunshine when she's gone, and this house just ain't no home any time she goes away.

TOMORROW WILL BE TOO LATE. IT'S NOW OR NEVER—” She is almost shouting. “MY LOVE WON'T WAIT!

The song comes to a roaring finish. The room bursts into applause; Eliza bursts into tears. She darts toward a side door near the stage, glad for the shielding darkness of the rest of the bar.

They have been uninterrupted since the beginning, thanks initially to a lack of any other participants, which grew into a communal enjoyment of their musical sparring that no one wants to break off. She hears the opening notes of his next song as she slips outside, the cool night air a relief from the heat of the stagelights and the now-crowded room.

The door is propped open, so every word reaches her ears.

"Return to me. Oh my dear, I’m so lonely. Hurry back, hurry back, hurry back, oh my love, I am yours.
Return to me, for my heart wants you only. Hurry home, hurry home, won’t you please hurry home to my heart.
My darling, if I hurt you I’m sorry. Forgive me and please say you are mine.
Return to me. Please come back, bella mia. Hurry back—hurry home—to my arms, to my lips and my heart."

What a joke, to imagine this night would be like old times. What a farce, to imagine they would end this evening friends again. She goes inside to retrieve her clutch. “I have to go,” she tells Pickering, and leaves before he can ask her for a reason, before the song can end and Henry can follow her out the door. The bar is on her bus route; she will be home in five minutes.

Not until she is unlocking her front door does she remember the tea garden. Her phone, forgotten until now, shows her fourteen missed calls and 28 texts, all from Fred.

-

The third night is a wine tasting on the roof of a five-star hotel. She floats from guest to guest, always at Fred’s side, her smile large and white, her skin glowing from its summer tan, laughing at stories, showering everyone with thanks and compliments, nodding obediently at advice, her head high, her laugh happy.

-

The fourth night is a supper at a restaurant not dissimilar to the first, with the addition of a wall of French doors opening to a veranda. The man who sails in ahead of Pickering, however, is a far cry from the sullen creature of the night before.

He pumps Fred’s hand. “You know, Freddy, if your fiancée and I had met in any other time and place, it would be me she’s engaged to now, and we would be greeting all these guests together. You might even be one of them.”

Fred is speechless. He looks at Eliza, who tells him to ignore anything the professor says.

She has made a full recovery from karaoke night. Now, forty-eight hours later, she cannot imagine how singing an Elvis ballad could possibly have upset her so much. She has spent almost all of those spanning hours with Fred, cooking while opening wedding gifts and planning where each one will go in the new house. The vision of her future is clear and sunlit. She has enough patience tonight to swathe Henry Higgins in it.

Mrs. H is at the bar. “Here, my dear. I had them pour this for you.” It is a côtes du rhône red blend, her favorite, scorned by Mrs. Eynsford-Hill for not being prestigious enough and by Fred for not being at very least a white blend. She cannot imagine how it is being served at this party. Mrs. H winks at her. “The rest of the crate is in my car. Cheers to a happy marriage, Eliza.”

The bride-to-be laughs. “Even happier now that I have an entire crate of this to myself.”

They talk for a long time, happily monopolizing each other’s company, discussing plans for the future and dragging out memories of old. Mrs. H’s presence is restful and her conversation undemanding; Eliza feels rejuvenated. She wonders how one becomes the sort of person who can have that sort of fortifying effect on others, wonders if she will ever achieve it, hopes she might even if only a little.

Finally guilt prods her to remember her other guests, and she slips back into the ebb and flow of the room. She is greeted and congratulated and advised and warned and complimented, the same script she has heard every night this week, and she puts on a smile and accepts all of it.

“Where are you honeymooning, Eliza?”

“Fred’s a lucky man, Eliza!”

“You must give me the name of your wedding planner, Eliza, I’m simply gaga over everything.”

“So clever, a Roman wedding week! Was it your idea?”

“Eliza, tell Holly the story of how you two met, she’s never heard it!”

“Such a shame your father couldn’t be here. But I’m sure Fred’s mother is making up for it.”

“Are you wearing pearls, Eliza? A bride is not a bride without pearls!”

“Your future helpmate looks like he could use a drink,” and indeed, here is an aggrieved Fred making a beeline for them.

“Professor Higgins told the rowing team you practically lived together when you were in grad school,” he reports.

Eliza says impatiently, “Only because I spent more time laboring in the literature department than I did at my own house. I told you not to listen to him, Fred. He’s a pathological liar. He talks only for the pleasure of hearing his own perfect enunciation.”

He is pacified, but she knows it won’t hold. If only the lull will last until the party winds down.

Her wish is not granted.

Chatter fills the room. A jazz quartet plays quietly in a corner. A few guests dance. The multitude of candles gives the room a golden glow. One of the bridesmaids drinks too much and spends half the evening crying in the bathroom, three others grouped around her, ostensibly to console but each privately glad they are not her. The groomsmen pull irritating pranks, dropping shrimp into people’s wine glasses when they aren’t looking. Mrs. Eynsford-Hill works the room. Eliza looks over to where the professor stands in the middle of a cluster of guests, holding them in thrall with an undoubtedly rude story. She wishes Pickering would do something.

Fred complains to her, “He keeps calling me Freddy even though I have asked him so many times not to.”

“I would rather converse with a squashed cabbage leaf than with you,” she hears the professor tell a groomsman. “You are a national disgrace.” This to the state representative.

A spry old businessman with a twinkle in his eye passes her on his way to the bar. “Someone ought to take that fellow’s drink away from him!”

He is not drunk. Here is Henry Higgins at his sharpest, indulging his arrogance at the cost of good manners (which never ranked highly among his virtues in the first place). She knows he is punishing her for the previous night. He is acting out like a schoolboy who does not care how he gets attention so long as he gets it.

“Your hairdresser ought to be shot,” he tells Mrs. Eynsford-Hill.

Eliza drags him outside to the deserted flagstone patio that is lit with twenty-five pillar candles. Behind the topiary she turns on him.

“You’re being a jackass.”

He considers. “I don’t disagree.”

“Stop whatever mind games you’re playing. I don’t know what you’re still doing here, but—”

She is warmed up and ready to launch into her tirade when he blatantly cuts her off.

“Isn’t it obvious? I want you to marry me instead. I want you to throw him over and scandalize the guests and infuriate his mother. I want the caterer and the florist and the venue howling for my blood. I want you for my own.”

She shakes with rage; she can hardly speak for it. “Why are you telling me this now? Of all the times and places. Why didn’t you say it four months ago, before all this was ready and I was wholly prepared to become Fred’s wife?”

“Because I didn’t know then.” He sounds exasperated, as though it is her fault, which he probably thinks is true. “You left and I went to Jerusalem to sulk and while I was there I realized that the reason I was so unhappy really was the reason I suspected, which was that you weren’t there and it was unbearable.”

“You’re unbelievable.”

“I’m aware of your opinion, thank you. Now, whom are you going to marry, me or Freddy? You only get one chance. When you get divorced in about four seconds I’m not going to make a second offer.”

She stares up at the stars, shaking her head, though it isn’t a refusal—more a bafflement at the unbelievability of him and this and her life. “We would make each other miserable.”

“More miserable than we are now?” He speaks lightly but has to take a deep breath at the end that he tries to hide. She thinks for the first time that maybe it isn’t all show after all. Maybe he really is telling the truth.

Another part of her is realizing how much she has missed brawling like this. Fred doesn’t brawl. At the slightest whiff of discord he dances away like a matador facing down a bull. The thing about bull fights, though, is that no matter how many times the bull completes a successful charge, most tend to end with the matador standing triumphant over it as its life bleeds away into the sand.

Henry has no patience for minor, short-lived victories. He and she would stand at opposite ends of the street and shoot fast and straight.

He says, “I can’t help but notice you aren’t laughing in my face.”

“I’m only speechless over the fact that you’re admitting we could be equals.”

He scoffs. “You'll never be my equal. And I'll never be yours, Eliza, that's the point!”

She looks at him: his eyes darkened in the half-light, his cheeks slightly flushed from impassioned speaking, his shoulders squared for an argument he is determined to win.

The fight drains out of her in a rush. “You need to leave, Henry,” she says tiredly, and watches all the light leave his face. “I mean it. Just go home.”

She leaves him there on the veranda. Her re-entrance is unnoticed and she goes into the restroom and washes her hands for no reason but that it is an action familiar and understood. She feels overwhelmed and uncertain and a little scared, a combination of emotions she associates with her childhood, and she suddenly aches for her mother, and then tears are pricking her eyes because on the tail of the thought is the memory that her mother is dead and she never knew her, and right after that, that the realest mother she ever had was—his.

When she returns to the party Pickering is nowhere in sight. She is relieved: he obeyed. There will be no scene. She rejoins Fred, wishing Mrs. H was still there and simultaneously glad she is gone so that no one will ever know what happened.

Fred brings Eliza her purse and hands her into the car, chattering the whole time about a rugby game his friends had watched in an Irish sports bar. She does not even pretend to listen. The streetlights graze over the dashboard in an unending sequence of white to black. She cracks her window. Fred’s words are lost in the whir of air and the hum of the engine.

You asshole, Henry Higgins. How dare you, she thinks furiously the whole drive home. I had it all figured out. How could you.

-

The fifth night is at an art gallery. He does not appear. Eliza stares blindly at the works before her, pretends to listen to everyone’s interpretations, blinks at the servers when they offer her grilled scallops wrapped in prosciutto.

“You like this one, babe?” Fred asks, and she realizes she has been standing sightlessly in front of a painting for an abnormal length of time. She takes a real look and is transfixed.

The piece was done by an Impressionist unfamiliar to her. It is entitled “Persephone Returns to Hades” and the scene is set in a garden full of plants that could never thrive in Greece. The featured couple have just shared a kiss of reunion, or are about to. The goddess of spring looks up at her husband, only the edge of her face visible but every line of her body indicating joy of her return, trust of the man standing before her. Hades leans toward Persephone, one hand reaching for her face, the other wrapped in her hair, his wrist resting lightly on her collarbone. The warmth and wonder in his face speak all the words he will never say. He looks at her as though she is the risen sun.

“I’ll buy it if you want it. We can hang it in the bedroom.” Fred grins suggestively.

She stares at him. “It costs one hundred thousand dollars.”

“So?”

“So no,” she says.

“Aw, honey! Don’t you think it would be cute over the bed? They’re a little like us, huh? Young couples in love, and so forth.”

“You could never be him. Your hair isn’t dark enough.”

“It’s representative, Eliza.”

She says, “You could never be him.”

-

Her alma mater is an hour away by car. She arrives close to eleven o’clock and makes her way across the campus by moonlight.

The literature wing is dark except for one distorted rectangle of light that stretches across the corridor out of one of the faculty offices. She stands in the doorway.

The room is large enough to hold seven bookcases, an ancient desk the size of a bed, a picture window, and a settee. The building is so old that each office has its own fireplace, though none function. A family of candles is inside this one, half-burned, their black wicks curled over. A dark spot on the carpet bears witness to the unfortunate results of one marshmallow-roasting session. Dangling from the mantel are a pair of Christmas stockings that have hung there for two years. The books on the shelves are arranged in a specific and peculiar order that she knows better than the alphabet. The walls are peopled: behind the desk hangs a portrait of Shakespeare, a pirate’s patch drawn on with a sharpie. Beside it, a portrait of Dorothy Parker, a speech bubble taped to the glass proclaiming I don't care what is written about me so long as it isn't true. If a forensics team were to dust for Eliza’s fingerprints, they would appear all over the room.

A man sits on the settee in front of the fireplace. His head is held in his hands, his back as bent as the candle wicks. He makes no sound; she wonders for a moment if he has fallen asleep, but then the muscles in his shoulders shift slightly. His back is to her. He has not heard her footsteps.

“This office wasn’t built so that you could cry in it,” she says, borrowing words from a lifetime ago.

He raises his head.

Time stops—briefly—and then he breathes again, and it lurches forward.

Only the edge of his face is visible but she can see the bent of his smile even before he turns toward her.