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It was at a film producer’s rooftop garden party, talking with two maraschino cherries, that Adam learnt his ex-wife had moved into town. The cherries were maybe twins, he wasn’t sure. Their stalks were bobbing, their lips artificially glossed and reddened. He’d met one of them before. She was a performance artist.
[private]‘I heard Guggenheim,’ she was saying.
‘Nothing’s been decided,’ he replied, looking about for his wife.
‘Yeah, but like –’ there was the faintest cruel glisten of an upcurl to her lip, ‘the director loves her.’
‘He’s gay,’ said Adam.
‘Course he’s gay, honey,’ she returned inconsequentially.
‘Blushed-salmon blini?’ asked a waiter.
‘Sweetie-honey, you need sunblock,’ said the other cherry to Adam, ignoring the hors d’oeuvres. ‘Your shoulders are burning up.’ A guy in chain mail joined them and nodded at Adam’s crotch. ‘Love the costume.’
Adam felt their three pairs of eyes skimming his body and wished he was wearing more than a pair of handpainted underpants. ‘Eve’s idea,’ he shrugged in reply.
‘She’s so ironic,’ said one of the cherries nasally.
‘What I wanna know is how she keeps that figure after five kids.’
‘What I wanna know is how she’s getting shows at the Guggenheim after five kids.’
Adam was used to people discussing his wife as if he weren’t present.
‘Hey,’ said the chain-mail guy, turning to him, ‘so your ex-wife’s moved into my apartment block.’
Shaken from his reverie, Adam almost choked on his blushed-salmon hors d’oeuvre. ‘What?’ he spluttered. ‘Lili? You mean Lili?’
‘Did you just say ex-wife?’ one of the cherries practically yelled. ‘You have an ex-wife? How come Ididn’t know about this? You didn’t tell me he had an ex wife!’ she exclaimed, turning to the guy in the chain mail.
‘Didn’t know till she moved in down the hall.’
‘You cannot be serious. Don’t tell me you were married before Eve.’
‘We were young,’ said Adam, still struggling with the salmon in his windpipe.
‘But you and Eve,’ the cherry persisted. ‘I just don’t believe this. I mean, we always thought you must have been like childhood sweethearts or something.’
He knew exactly what the woman meant, that there was no way in the world a woman like Eve could have fallen for a guy like him unless it had been way before she became famous. Right now though, all Adam could think was Lili, fuck, Lili.
He glanced around, trying to find Eve in the throng of cowboys and nuns and superheroes. Eve was over by the pool, talking with the film producer and a young actor who’d won an Oscar already for some performance Adam had never seen. She stood head and shoulders above the crowd, her hair streaming over her pale freckled shoulders, smiling at something the actor had said, that smile that had once adorned a million billboards and earned her a cover shot on Vogue magazine, all before she’d even picked up an Olympus OM30 to take her first portrait photograph. He’d given her that camera, and now everyone who was anyone just adored her work – its honesty, its integrity, its soul.
Eve could earn more in an afternoon than Adam used to in a year of landscape gardening. Eve, sweet-natured and intelligent in a way no woman that beautiful ever deserved to be. Eve, who did a full hour of yoga every morning before she even had breakfast, who drank only white wine and never ate red meat, who saw her acupuncturist every week, who had photographed the country’s greatest living individuals and then some, and who still never forgot to leave a silver dollar under the kids’ pillows when they lost a tooth. Standing by the pool in a hand-painted string bikini, Eve looked incredible.
Little wonder the cherries were bitter.
‘You know what,’ Adam apologised, ‘I’d better go check on the kids. Will you excuse me a second?’
Adam stepped away across the crowded terrace. Past beautiful girls in glittering costumes, their backs honeytanned and bare, past men in togas and RayBans. He grabbed for another glass of champagne as a waiter brushed past, and swallowed it in one.
So Lili was back in town.
And then all of a sudden there she was, walking down a leafy street near the park, with dark sunglasses over her eyes, a cigarette in her mouth, and a young Latino trailing from her shoulder. Just keep on wheeling the stroller, she’s not going to look your way, he told himself, at exactly the same moment as his ex-wife came to a halt on the sidewalk.
‘Adam? Fuck, is that you?’
‘Lili?’ he said, jerking his head up with feigned surprise.
His tone registered a notch too high. Nine-year-old Abe flashed a smirk at his father to demonstrate he’d noted her use of the f-word.Trust fucking Lili to swear in front of the kids.
‘Lili, wow,’ he continued, flailing. The Latino had on his face a look of contemptuous boredom. ‘I don’t believe this. My God, you’re looking –’ he scrabbled frantically to find an appropriate word, ‘great.’ Flattery could never fail to distract Lili. She dropped her eyes in a lipstick-stained smile, and for a moment Lili almost did look pretty, pretty in the way a faded streetwalker could look for a millisecond when they first grabbed your arm in the street.
The truth was Lili looked terrible. An overstepped parody of herself, like she’d lurched out of a Nan Goldin print. Gutwrenching. Like a Goldin transvestite, her face clogged with foundation and her flesh bulging from beneath her corseted top and tight leather pants. Her hair was a dirty bleached blonde, short and uncombed, dark at the roots.
How could he ever have been attracted to this woman, was the thought that went through Adam’s head. She was so not his sort. So sleazy.
So unlike Eve.
And then, before he could stop himself, he remembered absolutely the feel of her thighs clamped around him. That noise she used to make with her throat as she came. I have got to get out of here, thought Adam, as he stood there with his hands still on the stroller handles.
‘So what the fuck are you doing here, Adam?’
Adam held his grin. ‘Saturday morning. Just going along to the park. Taking the kids out,’ he continued, as if it needed an explanation. He gestured towards his progeny in the hope that maybe if she acknowledged them she’d tame her language.
‘The kids,’ he said, by way of introduction.
She gazed down at the three of them. ‘Hi.’
‘Hi,’ Abe and Azura replied, equally unenthusiastic. Kids were like dogs. They could tell when an adult didn’t like them.
Seth in his stroller was chewing on a plush iguana.
‘Uh, this is Francisco,’ she said, running her hand down the torso of the Latino, who had turned his gaze away from the rest of them and was drawing on her cigarette. She let the s trail. Francisssco. He looked young enough to be her son.
‘So, you’re still with –’
‘God, that’s been a long time.’
‘Married life for you.’ Adam made a frankly absurd fauxshucking noise out of the corner of his mouth.
‘Uh-huh,’ Lili nodded, her eyebrows smirking. ‘So, Eve, yeah.’ That bitch, said her smile.
‘Dad,’ Azura moaned, pulling on his arm. ‘Can we go?’
Thank God for kids sometimes.
‘Hey, gimme your cell number, I’ll call you for lunch one day,’ said Lili, searching in her pocketbook. ‘Shit, where’s my – ?’ She continued her rummaging. ‘Where the fuck did it go?’
‘Sure,’ Adam smiled, trying literally to push the kids out of earshot, ‘let’s do lunch. That’d be great.’
Lili, he thought as he walked away a minute later, Lili, fuck.
They met in a new fusion restaurant where she knew the head chef. Had probably slept with the head chef, thought Adam, when she suggested it over the phone.
He’d planned to say no, of course, tell her that lunch probably wasn’t a good idea, but instead he just said, ‘Tuesday, yeah, Tuesday’s good.’
He’d honestly meant to tell Eve, but when he came out of the shower that morning, she had already left. Not that it was a big deal, only lunch with his ex-wife. He left a note on the mirror in case Eve came back in: “Lili called. Meeting for lunch downtown. I’ll collect Azura. Cain is staying late for hockey practice. A x.”
He spent almost half an hour deciding what to wear, wishing he had more than just Ralph Lauren shirts in his wardrobe. Eventually he chose a plain white T-shirt and jeans. Decided not to wear socks with his loafers.
Adam knew he’d arrive first. His ex-wife had always liked to make an entrance. By the time she waltzed through the door, he’d read right through the menu twice and already finished a bottle of mineral water. She was as heavily made up as last time and her hair just as bed-mussed, but today she wore a floral silk dress, cut in low ruffles across her breasts, and red peep-toe sandals that buckled around her ankles, giving her feet a porcine quality.
‘Am I late? Crazy morning.’ She put her cell phone and cigarettes on the table, ordered a Cosmopolitan, then gave him a flirting up-and-down appraisal. He wished he’d worn the socks.
Toying with her cigarette packet, she looked around for the waiter, ‘They’re gonna bitch if I smoke, aren’t they?’
‘It is illegal.’
She gave him a look.
Leaning back in her seat, Lili reviewed the other diners cursorily, then fixed her eyes back on Adam. Smiled. ‘So, this is weird.’
‘It’s been a long time, Lili.’
‘You’re calling yourself Lilith now?’
‘Lilith is my name,’ she replied coolly. ‘You looked at the menu?’
‘Go for the lobster. Jean-Claude’s a total genius.’ She crossed her arms on the table. ‘So, tell me about your exciting life.’
‘That’s kind of a big question to start things off.’
‘Well, what do you want me to ask you about?’
‘Are you happy?’
‘Sure I am.’
‘Well me too.’ She lit a cigarette and lowered her eyelids slightly as she drew on it. Adam looked away and threw an embarrassed smile at the couple at the next table. ‘The waiter’s going to tell you to put that out, you know.’
‘So I’ll stub it out when he gets here. You gonna have the lobster?’
‘I’m allergic to seafood, you know that.’
‘What a drag,’ she said, narrowing her eyes. The waiter drew up neatly alongside her elbow. ‘I know, I know.’ She lowered her eyelashes to the man and with a shameless pout of her lips stubbed her cigarette out on a side plate.
‘I’ll have the lobster. And another Cosmo.’
It was strange how you could remember so fast what you’d grown to hate about a person. Adam wondered if she was thinking the same; he noted she hadn’t ordered an entrée. Lili was picking now at a lobster claw with a small silver utensil, holding the pinkie of her picking hand curled out in the air.
‘So, you gave up the landscape gardening business to be, like,’ she paused, ‘a house-husband?’
‘I’m happy bringing up the kids.’
‘Uh-huh,’ she sounded unconvinced.
‘Eve loves her job, I was getting tired of mine. You know. She’s having a retrospective at the Guggenheim,’ he blurted.
Lili cocked her head. ‘Don’t you have to be dead to have a retrospective?’
‘Dead,’ he granted. ‘Or famous.’
‘Or fucking the director,’ she said with a shrug.
‘Of course he is. I was talking hypothetically.’
Adam clenched his napkin in his fist and felt his chin take on a defensive thrust as he looked away. ‘Eve’s not fucking the director.’
‘Everyone knows that, sweetie. She’s way too nice for that.’
‘What do you know about Eve?’
‘Everyone knows about Eve. Your wife’s famous, honey.’
‘Well, she’s not fucking the director.’
‘Sure she’s not.’ She dabbed at her lips with her napkin. ‘Anyway, guy’s gay as a fucking goose.’
‘Exactly.’ She set her napkin down on the table.
‘God, I wish I could have a cigarette.’
Adam chose to say nothing. After a while she turned back to her meal. With an offhand arch to her eyebrows she said, as if it had just slipped out, ‘I dream of your cock, you know.’
‘Lili!’ Adam seethed, looking around quickly to see if the people at the next table had overheard.
‘Don’t Lili me, honey. I’m only telling you the truth.’ She shovelled a forkful of rucola leaves into her painted mouth, marking the white cotton tablecloth with dark balsamic splashes. She’d marked everything. The napkin was smudged with her lipstick, her cigarette butt was redringed at the tip. Her dirty stain was left on everything she touched.
‘Wake up so fucking wet,’ she said, her mouth still full.
‘Hell, Lili,’ he said again, and looked away angrily. Did she always have to be so crude? She was like a one-trick pony, and he’d seen this trick God knows how many times before. Boring, that’s what she was. Goddamn boring.
‘What about that guy you were with?’
‘Him? Francisco? He’s twenty-two.’
He gave a scornful laugh. ‘That’s pretty young, isn’t it?’
‘Is it?’ She looked up without a smile.
Adam had lost his appetite. His meal was only half eaten, but he dropped his napkin on the plate. Across the table, Lili held her eyes on him for a long moment, then picked up the other lobster claw and began to tease at the flesh. For a while there was silence between them. Then, casually, she just said, ‘And everything’s blown over about –’
He gave her a look before he decided to reply. ‘It wasn’t Eve’s fault.’
‘Nobody says it was. I’d have done the same thing. No question. And way before she did, I tell you.’
‘Don’t give me your wells, Adam. What surprises me is you. I mean, gee honey, you were always so,’ she paused, ‘so fucking principled.’
‘Can we stop talking about this?’
‘Is it ever kinda weird when you’re buying apples at the supermarket?’
‘Drop it, Lili.’
‘Okay okay, just one last question.’ She held up a palm, the lobster fork still pinched between forefinger and thumb. ‘Would you do it again? I mean, if you were in that situation again, would you?’
‘Lili, what did I just say?’
She pursed her mouth, and stared at him sharply to register her offence, then appeared, to Adam’s relief, to have decided to forget it. She laid down the claw and leant back in her seat, one hand pulling at the neckline of her dress, smiling loosely.
He refused to meet her eye.
This meeting had been a huge mistake.
Adam glanced round for the waiter. ‘I’d better get the check. I’ll be late to pick up Azura from choir practice.’
Out of the corner of his eye, Adam saw her slip her finger beneath the silk neckline of her dress, stroking gently the top of her breast. ‘I just can’t get over it. This life you’ve made for yourself.’
‘You’re so domestic. How many is it you have?’
‘How many what?’ he said, knowing full well what she was referring to.
‘Five,’ he said stonily. It sounded like a vast number as he said it, an unreasonable number, an irresponsible number, an old-joke-no-longer-funny of a number.
She just nodded, trying to control her smile.
‘Well,’ said Lili, ‘isn’t that nice.’
By the time he’d put the kids to bed Adam was exhausted. He knew he should put Cain’s hockey uniform in the laundry basket and hang out Abe’s swimming towel to dry, but for now he just stayed where he was, lying on the couch. He was thinking about Lili, and wondering how many men she’d slept with since she’d left him. Wife excluded, Lili was the only other woman he’d known intimately in his lifetime.
Where had she been all these years? What had she been doing? He realised now he hadn’t even asked any questions.
‘It’s Lilith,’ she had again corrected, the last thing she’d said before turning to the street to hail a cab.
In his breast pocket, Adam’s cell sounded. It made him jump. He pulled it out clumsily and flipped it open. Eve it said on the display.
‘Hey, babe. It’s me. I can’t hear you. You hear me?’ There was loud music in the background forcing her to yell. ‘I’m at Mario’s. The party’s just getting started. You want to call a sitter and come down?’
Adam stayed where he was after he hung up, his cell resting on his chest.
Eve wouldn’t be home till late, then. He’d have to tell her about his lunch with Lili tomorrow. He’d tell her when he brought her her morning coffee, make her laugh over the story. Or maybe she’d be hungover. Too much white wine.
She’d tell him to shut up and leave her to sleep. She probably wouldn’t be interested anyway. It wasn’t such a big deal. Just lunch with his ex-wife, nothing special; he’d probably never see her again after today.
What would Eve care?
Yeah, maybe he wouldn’t even tell her.[/private]
Clare Wigfall’s debut collection of short stories The Loudest Sound and Nothing was published in 2007 to critical acclaim. In 2008 she won the internationally renowned BBC National Short Story Award for "The Numbers", one of the stories from her collection. She was born in Greenwich during the summer of 1976. She grew up in Berkeley, California and London, and currently lives in Berlin.