The House Off Quincy
By Rachel Heffington
“Would mademoiselle like me to look out for her partner in the lobby?” The maitre d’ bowed over the table, over her arm, till the white breast of his uniform nearly brushed the pink carnations.
“No, merci,” she answered.
“Mademoiselle is waiting for someone, no? Allow me to page him.”
“Monsieur is most helpful but no, merci.”
“Mademoiselle came tonight alone?”
Corinna Demarque quieted her fretful hands like white doves in the lap of her black dress, and smiled. Allowances must be made for the man’s ill-concealed curiosity. He was, after all, French. Corinna, quite American herself, had an unusually deep well of patience where the French were concerned.
“As it happens,” she said, “I am celebrating tonight.”
An expression of surprise hovered on the waiter’s lips. She could feel the shape of the words forming behind his white bow-tie.
“Alone,” she said it before him. She didn’t like it breathing down her neck. It was better this way.
Graceful lines at the corners of his eyes appeared. “Would Mademoiselle like me to bring a glass of wine, then?”
If any night occasioned wine, it was tonight. Corinna, however, did not feel that festal. “A Shirley Temple, if you please.”
The man drew himself tall, folded in half like a linen sheet, and backed away.
“No … wait.” Her cheeks felt too hot. Ordering a soda at a brand-new, rather swanky French restaurant was no way to conduct a professed celebration. “Coffee,” she said, her eyes catching a neat advertisement offering one cup for four dollars.
“One café, mademoiselle. C’est bon.”
Corinna let loose her hands and clutched her napkin instead, patting the dampness away from her palms. She was bewilderingly hot at the idea of coffee and her stomach churned at the nauseous suggestion. It was much too hot for coffee – much too hot for anything – but wine was far too daring, even for she who felt exceptionally brave tonight.
The waiter returned, bearing a miniscule cup of coffee. “Cream, mademoiselle?”
“Mmmm please. And sugar.”
“Mademoiselle will excuse me a moment, oui? I did not anticipate the sugar.”
She traced his trim, departing figure on its way kitchen-ward. Were the French snobs about their coffee? She had thought it a trait peculiar to Starbucks employees. Never mind. Nothing, not even snobby waiters, could dampen her ardor this evening.
The waiter appeared a third time, bearing a trampled, orphaned packet of sugar. It looked pitiful, sitting alone in the center of a shining silver plate. He deposited this offending object next to the blue shell-like demitasse cup and bowed.
“I made a rather large decision today,” Corinna announced. She wasn’t sure what was going to follow this, but it had better be something good.
“Oui, mademoiselle?” The waiter’s graceful crinkles were gone and his eyes wore an intensely veiled expression. Bored. Bored as a middle-schooler in mid-terms.
Corinna folded her hands again. “I’ve decided to move out of—”
“Out of my way, mademoiselle? I wish to pass.”
Corinna stared at the ridiculously rude Frenchman before realizing he looked quite as scandalized as her. Turning, then, Corinna saw a familiar pair of blue eyes looking down at her.
The waiter sailed off, noiseless.
She wasn’t certain she wanted Ashton Merrill to see her in this get-up. A little black dress and her mama’s pearls were a risky enough combination; Corinna’s mouth burned at the thought of the bright red lipstick she’d recklessly swiped on in the giddy heights of her excitement. And the hat.
“Won’t you sit down, Ashton?” Immediately, she wished she’d tossed out her Southern sense of etiquette with the last of this week’s newspaper. She didn’t want Ashton Merrill’s company any more than she wanted that horrible cup of coffee. If she was rude and modern, she’d not be bothered with him.
Unfortunately for Corinna’s peace of mind, Ashton cast his undeniably well-built frame into the petite chair opposite and his eyes roved over her. “Aren’t you a picture this evening?”
“I wouldn’t know. I didn’t look in the mirror.” Lies.
“That’d explain your lipstick.” In the up-rush of her ire, Ashton spread his hands and his low laugh rumbled. “Teasing you, Miss Demarque. You look very chic. Very Parisian.”
It had always been this way, Corinna thought. Always always Ashton Merrill got to tease her up one side and down the other. Didn’t matter what she did. Didn’t matter what she didn’t do. Somehow, Ashton had a laugh. Still, it wasn’t a terrible fate to sit in a place like La Salle across the table from a man wearing a new seersucker suit.
“He’s a nice-looking man. A nice-looking man.” Corinna’s grandmother had been a fan, whatever her own opinion might be.
“How’s the coffee?” he asked.
“Wonderful.” More lies. “Why are you here?”
“I missed Paris and Paris, it appears, had come to Terrence Heights. I couldn’t stay away.”
“Are you alone too?” she asked. “I think I’ve entirely shocked that poor man. Apparently, La Salle isn’t the kind of place single young women come to.”
Ashton kidnapped her coffee and took the ridiculous cup between his forefinger and thumb. “How scandalous of you.”
“I know!” she sounded ridiculously pleased, even to herself.
“Well, I’m not alone. Mama and Louise are in the powder room.” He took a sip from her coffee cup and grimaced.
Corinna smiled. “I was bourgeoisie enough to demand sugar. Won’t you take some?”
“All kidding aside, Corinna, why are you here alone? You told the waiter you were … celebrating?”
She hid herself behind the convenient brim of her over-size black hat. “Ashton Merrill. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, eavesdropping on a private conversation.”
“Because you and the waiter have such vital secrets to tell each other?”
“Shut up, Ashton.”
“Are you celebrating or playing tea-party? It’s a little hard to tell.” He pinched the brim of her hat and tugged it up, off her head.
She clutched it with both hands and shot absolutely pagan glances at him. “You know what? You are not a gentleman.”
“Settle down, Miss Demarque. Golly day, you’re riled.”
Riled she most certainly was. Corinna jumped to her feet and grabbed for her clutch-purse. It lay in the way of the carnations and if Ashton had not at that moment steadied the vase, her vehemence would have scattered the pink ruffles gaily across the expanse of her now-empty seat. “You are ruinin’ a perfectly fine evening. I don’t even like coffee.”
She steamed away from the table, high-heels punctuating her umbrage with sharp stabbing sounds as she crossed the marble floor. The sound of Ashton’s footsteps close on her own spurred her into an angry trot. He grabbed her elbow at the revolving door and squeezed in behind her so they were dumped on the sidewalk outside together.
“Now, hush up Corinna. Tell me what you were celebrating. I’ll listen. Promise.”
“Don’t you know I have a life?”
“Of course I do!”
“And it isn’t anyone’s to tell me what to do with.”
“Are we even having the same conversation?”
Corinna pressed her pointer-fingers to the bridge of her nose and breathed deep and slow. She opened her eyes to find real concern on his handsome face. It bugged her worse than anything.
She sighed. “Look, I’m not celebrating anything. I just made that up.”
“Then what are you doin’ at La Salle at eight-thirty on a Friday night?”
Three cars passed by in the humid night air in the time it took Corinna to boost her courage enough to answer: “Waiting for one Mr. Frederick Sherman—my date. Mr. Sherman appears to have gone M.I.A. Otherwise known as, flown the coop.”
Ashton didn’t say anything for a second. She could have ignored him after that, but then his big old hand settled on Corinna’s shoulder with the same bluff comfort he’d always been able to dish out.
“I’m sorry, Corinna.”
She wouldn’t cry. There was no reason to cry. No reason whatsoever.
“Don’t cry, Corey.”
“Don’t call me Corey,” she said in a voice redolent of the dreaded summer cold.
“Look, if he ain’t gentleman enough to go on a date, you wouldn’t want him anyway.”
“Isn’t gentleman enough. And you just don’t understand, do you? It isn’t always a gentleman we want. Sometimes a man is quite enough for the purpose.”
Emboldened and a little frightened by the accidental scandal her words conjured, Corinna continued: “What I mean is, sometimes it’d be enough to come out to Terrence Heights on a Friday night with a man and sit across the table from him and talk about the weather and just have people know you aren’t shriveling up in some big old house off Quincy Street.”
She sniffed. He shifted his feet.
“I don’t care about not being married, honestly,” she said.
A few couples enjoying an evening walk in the sticky darkness walked by and the scent of Old Spice and gardenias filled the space behind their passage.
“I just don’t want people thinking I can’t get a man.”
“Why are you tellin’ me this, Corinna? Isn’t this something you ought to be telling one of your girl-friends over manicures?” The understanding from a moment ago had died out and Ashton was once again the most provoking man in Virginia.
“Get back to your Mama and your girl, Ashton.” Corinna pulled her car keys out of her clutch and managed a little smile. “You don’t want to leave them to that awful waiter.”
Ashton obeyed and was again a part of the La Salle atmosphere, spoiled once and for all for Corinna. Her little blue Nissan was parked along the street under a lamp still adorned with a tinsel wreath from Christmas. She felt ashamed to remember she’d waxed her ugly little car so it’d shine for tonight and had scrounged three quarters to stuff in the parking meter so she’d have three hours without danger of being towed.
Corinna checked her Mama’s silver watch. One hour, ten minutes. Well that was a complete waste of two of the quarters. Not that she thought it’d work, but Corinna banged the top of the parking meter in passing and inserted two fingers in the trapdoor. No coins jangled into her hand.
She yanked the driver-side door open, feeling dejected.
Seventy-five cents wasted on a man who hadn’t even showed up. Not to mention the four-dollar coffee … for which she hadn’t paid. Corinna eyed the calliope of light caught in La Salle’s revolving door and wondered if she ought to go back. But no, Ashton would take care of her bill. He’d drunk the coffee anyway.
“Goodbye, vanity.” Corinna yanked the drooping black straw hat from her head and tossed it into the passenger seat as if it’d been a murder weapon. She balanced against the open door and took her pumps off, one by one. Through the bottoms of her hose she could feel the concrete, still warm from broiling in the sun all day. She tossed the shoes in. One hit the passenger window; the other bounced off the glove-box and dented the crown of the black hat.
The only thing that remained was the guilty red lipstick and this Corinna could do nothing about: she’d religiously followed online instructions for its application that insured at least seven hours of stay-power.
“Thank you, Google,” she breathed viciously and climbed into the seat, slamming the door behind her.
Sweet August, she needed some Advil.