Joan and Bert's Party
Rachel found herself almost indifferent to the November election. When she confessed it to her friends, Barbara said, "It's a little like rooting for a baseball team. It doesn't do you any harm if they lose, or any good if they win."
Rachel replied, "An Adlai victory would have to go through a great many filters before it had any effect on any of us."
"I bet it makes a difference to Cynthia."
Luda said, "She explained it to me. Whenever there's a change of administration, people who deal with the government have to adjust to a whole new cast of characters."
"So she likes Ike?"
"I don't think really so much. But she did say that he and Khruschev more or less understand each other. That makes the world a little safer."
Barbara agreed, "If Adlai were elected, Comrade K might think that he could eat him up, and then try something dangerous."
It was agreed to ignore the election and get on with their schoolwork.
Before much schoolwork could be done, there were crises. First, the Hungarians revolted against the Soviets, apparently under the impression, encouraged by Radio Free Europe, that the United States would support them. It soon became clear that no such support would occur. Then, as the Soviets were putting down the rebellion and executing people, there was the Suez Crisis.
Britain, France, and Israel decided to take back by force the Suez canal which Nasser of Egypt had nationalized. At least, underneath all the talk and rationalization, that was what was happening.
At the beginning, both the United States and the Soviet Union deplored the adventure. That was good. But, then, Comrade Khruschev spoke of attacking Britain and France with nuclear missiles. That wasn't so good. Everyone was scared, but Barbara asked, in her usual calm voice, "Is it World War 2.7 yet?"
The next day, Zeke was a relief. He didn't talk about, or care about, crises. Not only that, he was speaking in swamp dialect, which he often did to amuse himself and others. When she asked him why he had on trousers that were too short, he insisted that everyone in the swamp wore high-water pants to keep the cuffs out of the mud. She reacted, "I don't believe you."
"Well, actually, it's almost impossible to find pants long enough for me at the Salvation Army Thrift Store."
"You can't fool me. I know the store in the swamp makes lots of money, and I bet you have a comfortable allowance. You don't have to shop at the Salvation Army."
Instead of answering, he posed one of his little problems, an apparently very simple one. "The rational number of one over three has the decimal form of point three, three, and so on to infinity."
"Multiply it by three, and you get point nine, nine, and so on."
"But, three times one third is one. Which can be stated as one point zero. However, since it has a zero in the first place to the right of the decimal place, and the other number has a nine in that place, they can't be the same number."
"Put another way, how could the number one ever be equal to something that approaches it without ever reaching it?"
"I could ask one of my math professors."
"I wouldn't do that. It might destroy your credibility."
Rachel went back to the dorm shaking her head over one more thing. When she picked up her mail, there was a rather elaborate envelope with an invitation. It was from Joan Howard, and was for a party the Saturday evening after the election. When she got upstairs, she found that Barbara and Luda had received the same invitation. It was obviously Cynthia's doing, and Barbara said, "Cynthia called and asked if it would be convenient for her to come over tonight. I should study, but I was intrigued and told her to come on over."
"Sure, that's okay. If you want to study, you could leave for the library after a while and leave her with me."
"So she also arouses your curiosity! I wonder what she'll be wearing."
"Since I don't much care what I wear, I'm not very conscious of what other people wear."
"I'm slightly more clothes conscious than you are, Rachel, but we're all affected by clothes, even if it's only unconsciously."
"Yeah, probably so."
"Haven't you noticed what beautiful clothes Cynthia wears?"
"I guess she just seems to come from another world. Of course, it might just be the difference between Harvard and Washington."
"There's something else. She's really good-looking in the way that a man might be. That slim strong body with big shoulders and narrow hips. I wouldn't like to meet her in field hockey."
"I don't think I'd like to meet anyone in field hockey, but I know what you mean."
"You'd expect her to wear tailored suits, but, in fact, she usually has a quite feminine dress, sometimes with romantic touches."
"Luda thinks she's far from being a virgin."
Just then, Cynthia arrived, apparently without overhearing the last remark. She had on a full-skirted green dress, and, in apparent deference to the cool evening, a little matching jacket with embroidery. Rachel, newly alerted to clothing, figured that Cynthia must have on hundreds of dollars' worth. With reference to the invitations they had received, Cynthia said, "The party's mainly to celebrate the Eisenhower re-election, which they're counting on in advance."
Barbara asked, "Should we conceal the fact that we went to a Stevenson rally?"
Cynthia laughed and replied, "These aren't highly ideological people, just practical businessmen and their wives. They expect young educated people to be liberals. However, you’re likely to be twenty to forty years younger than the other people at the party. Will that be a horrid experience?"
Barbara replied, “I’ve dropped in on my parents’ parties, sometimes with a sister or two. A couple of times, I’ve been the only young person present.”
“How was it?”
“There are people who are curious about me, perhaps wondering if I’m radical and wild, and other people who can cross generational lines. I can always escape upstairs, but I might stay for an hour or two.”
Rachel asked, "Are we supposed to be learning something at this party to advance our future careers?"
“A little. On my first job or two, I was the youngest person, and I had to learn to deal with aged co-workers. But this can be amusing in a different way. A party at the Howards can have business and political implications."
"Will there be men off in the corner with cigars who're trading millions of dollars for certain favorable legislation?"
“Probably not. But the invitation list may contain certain people who haven't yet met, but who'll begin to find that they have something in common. I make similar arrangements myself, but this is Bert Howard's party, not mine. A sharp-eared observer might be able to figure out what the end purpose is."
Babara replied, "I bet your ears are sharper than ours."
"Not necessarily. I just have better knowledge of the background. This is the kind of thing that history courses leave out. They report the treaties and the agreements, but not the way in which they're arrived at."
Rachel asked, "Okay. How are we supposed to act, and what are we supposed to wear?"
"You all have dresses and shoes. None of you need expensive outfits to impress."
"The last time, I borrowed high heels from a girl downstairs, but they hurt when I walked."
"I'm afraid that's life for a woman. But I can probably find something better for you. As for acting, you can't plan much in advance. The only thing we shouldn't do is stick together in an impenetrable blob."
"But we arrive together?"
"We'll arrive, the four of us together, a bit after the party's started."
Barbara remarked, "I think there'll be a reaction. I'm all right in a washed-out blonde sort of way, but each of the rest of you is more than that. We'll certainly be noticed."
"Will the men lose the men lose their equilibrium?”
“At my parents’ last party there was one cute young woman, the third wife of a rich man. She got lots of attention. So, for better or worse, some men will leave their wives and buddies to come talk with us.”
"I'd agree with that. The unknown factor will be Bert Howard. I haven't met him, but I know a little about him. He operates many businesses in Latin America, and he has to be cozy with the local dictators. To some extent, he represents their interests in Washington."
"He must be quite an operator."
"That much we know, but we don't know what he'll turn out to be
like in person. Mostly, we'll have to improvise."
It surprised Cynthia that she enjoyed parties. In one way, she thought herself too sensible for the nonsense and the flirtations that rose to the surface after a couple of drinks. But, then, she had read of a man whose control of himself and his emotions was so complete that the emotions eventually held a Soviet and married him to a prostitute. Mindful of his example, it seemed that the sort of flirtation in prospect was just the outlet she might need.
While she was aware that many women based their existence on being visually appreciated from age thirteen onwards, she had relatively recently discovered that she liked being looked at, by both men and women. To that end, her maroon cashmere dress was expertly fitted, not too tight anywhere, but not loose anywhere. Then, in violation of the rules, she had no girdle. Even though she had good stomach muscles and good posture, some women would be shocked, and would exclaim to one another, "THE VERY IDEA." But, then, it wasn't actually a criminal offense not to have a girdle, and no one had ever been arrested for indecent exposure in such a case.
Instead of going directly to the front door of the Howard home, Cynthia led her group of heel-tappers up a side path to the end of the long stone porch. As they came along it, they could peek in the partially curtained window before making their entrance. There were no big "I LIKE IKE" banners festooning the room, and no one seemed to be celebrating. It looked to be a fairly ordinary stand-up party with one hand for drinks and the other for elaborate tid-bits. Some thirty people were present in the large room, late thirties to sixties except for the predictable second (or third) wife. Barbara commented, "Joan's the best-looking woman there."
Cynthia agreed, adding, "Thank God for overdressed, overjeweled, and over-made-up middle-aged women. They make the rest of us more attractive."
Except for the young wife, who was conversing with men, the rest of the party divided neatly between men and women. Cynthia said, "So far, it's a disaster party with business on one side and home-making on the other. We'll fix that. Let's try to talk only with men."
Entrances amused Cynthia, and she arranged this one in order of height, Rachel, Barbara, herself, and Luda. It was funny to see how people reacted.
Joan got flustered, trying simultaneously to introduce everyone to everyone. Her brand of incompetence was actually rather charming, but Cynthia diverged over to two men who were speaking Spanish. Her own Spanish was fairly good, and she blatantly intruded on a conversation about the threatened escalation of inflation in a number of Latin countries. It was the sort of thing she kept up on.
The older man, tall and straight, was quite elegant. He seemed amused at Cynthia's intrusion, and was obviously forgiving. After some minutes of discussion, they paused to introduce themselves. The younger man, to Cynthia's surprise, turned out to be Bert Howard. She doubted that most of his colleagues and competitors were as fluent in Spanish.
Bert was enthusiastic when he found out who Cynthia was, and seemed to know a good deal about her. Cynthia, conscious of having been around Washington too long, hoped only that he didn't know the wrong things. When she explained that she was general secretary of the IRSA to the other gentleman, Bert smiled knowingly. He asked, "Did you bring these lovely young ladies with you?"
"Yes. You're the host father of the tall one. The other two are her friends."
"By God, the host father! Joan's mentioned her, but I imagined some bedraggled mousy little girl."
They all laughed at that, and Bert continued, "She's certainly extraordinary looking, and beautiful in a way, but I think I'd be afraid to be alone with her."
The other man, Carlos, said, "I think a man of my years, Bert, would be better chosen to give her advice on worldly affairs."
"You'd be more dangerous than I am."
Turning to Cynthia, he explained, "These old-world gentlemen with courtly manners are the worst. Johnys-come-lately like myself can do little but babble incoherently in stressful situations."
"Oh, Mr. Howard, I'm sure you don't babble. Just to prove it, I'll invite Luda over."
Luda was talking with Joan, still trying to straighten out introductions, but she came over at a wave.
Luda knew how to walk, upright and straight, but with some movement of the hips. At something like six three in heels, she was easily the tallest person in the room, and, indeed, might have reduced some men to babbling. She seemed to already know who her host was, and, without waiting to be introduced, she asked, “Do you recognize this dress, Mr. Howard?"
Gesturing down at her green silk dress, she smiled expectantly.
“By God, that's a dress I got Joan in Paris. Since she hardly ever wore it, I assumed that she didn't like it. I see now that I was right!"
"It turns out that we're the same size, I'm just three inches taller."
With that, Luda spun around with good effect, particularly, Cynthia could see, on Carlos. Judging that things were going well, she slid away, leaving Luda with the two men.
The other part of the strategy wasn't working as well. Rachel was dutifully talking with a middle-aged man, but, even at some distance, Cynthia could see that the conversation was forced and awkward. Moving to intervene, she saw the man's wife approaching from the other direction. Rachel was managing to look a little older than her age, but she still didn't look enough like a femme fatale to justify the anger and jealousy approaching her back. Cynthia accelerated to get there first and hugged Rachel as if they had just met after a long absence. The wife then fetched up, the wind taken from her sails, and a four-way conversation sprang up.
It turned out that the man was in the business of selling piston rings to the army for its trucks. Piston rings were a long way from the sorts of mathematics that Rachel did, and the talk petered out harmlessly.
A little distance away, Barbara, knowing these kinds of people better than the others, had gotten two men and a woman all conversing. Cynthia slid Rachel into this group, and then sought out Joan, who was almost hysterical. "Two large trays of hor d'oevres with sauce got left out, and I'm afraid they've spoiled! The sauce may even be poisonous. We're about to run out of food!"
"It's okay. As long as there's drink, people will be happy."
"Until you and the girls came, it was another of my disaster parties. The men on one side, all business, and the women on the other, complaining that you can't get good help nowadays."
Cynthia couldn't help laughing as she replied, "I overdid it when I sent Rachel to talk to a man who's only interested in piston rings, but things are better now."
"That girl, Barbara, is quite a hostess. Look at her now."
"I think she's been raised since babyhood to do this."
"So was I. Why am I such a failure?"
"Now, Joan, you're not. You're a very attractive woman, and you look even better than usual tonight. I'll see that the drinks keep coming while you go out and circulate.”
That seemed to produce the desired effect, and Cynthia went backstage to organize what food and drink there might be. She there found the kitchen staff and maids at a long table gobbling down hor d'oevres.
Cynthia's interrogation techniques had always been good. She soon found that a maid, Lotte, had told her mistress that trays of food had gone bad so that the staff could have their own banquet. The situation was soon put to rights to the extent of removing untouched pastries from people's plates and putting them back on the trays.
When Cynthia returned to the party,
she found Luda still in conversation with Bert Howard. Not wanting
things to go too far too fast, she detached Rachel from her group and
brought her over, all the while assuring her that Mr. Howard's
interests went well beyond piston rings.
Rachel's first reaction to the party was to say to herself, "Oh God, another learning experience!"
Things got worse before they got better. Having previously discovered, in Joan, a rich lady who was a little like her mother, she found a rich man who, while not a parking lot attendant, was a little like her father. Then, she was shepherded over to Mr. Howard. He wasn't like her father. Not only that, he was looking at her rather fixedly.
Rachel had been watched closely, and suspiciously, not only by her parents, but by aunts, cousins, and in-laws. Every bit of unfounded gossip came home, and she had had to defend herself so often against false accusations that she had wondered, now and then, whether it might be a good idea to actually do some of the things she was alleged to have done. However, the approaches of the teen-aged boys had been so off-putting that she had declined with enthusiasm. Her only "dates" had been study sessions when boys came to her house. With their books and papers plunked down on the dining room table, they had tried to concentrate amid the bedlam of many relatives in the small house. But she had learned what it was like to be looked at with desire, and she was now being looked at with desire.
Of course, it wasn't entirely surprising. The Howard marriage didn't seem very close, and, even though Luda had clearly struck up a rapport with Mr. Howard, she towered over him. Rachel knew that she wasn't overpowering in the way of Luda, but she also knew that she was pretty and cute. Most men would want to look at Luda, but might feel more at home with someone smaller. One wouldn't have thought that a man in his forties would be attracted to a girl some twenty-five years younger, but Rachel knew from her reading that such things happened. She was also conscious of having on a very pretty borrowed dress.
After a few minutes of three-way conversation, Luda was summoned by Cynthia to meet someone else. When they were left alone, Mr. Howard asked Rachel, "Are most of the girls in your house trying to find a husband?"
"My room-mate over there has already had a marriage proposal which she's refused."
"Really? Just a month or so into the school year."
"It's a matter of odds. In Boston there are about ten times as many boys as girls in college, so practically all the girls are besieged with offers of dates, if not marriage."
"So you have to choose. In business, it's also a matter of choosing between different offers of one kind or another. Sometimes we try to be scientific about it."
This seemed meant as a joke, but Rachel replied, "I'm trying not to choose at all. If I can make it on my own, I'd rather not be married."
"Cynthia can be a model for you. I've just met her tonight, but she's legendary in Washington."
"I got that impression. She's more or less tutoring Luda to do the same thing."
"So Luda's her understudy. Are you the understudy of the understudy?"
Another joke, and Rachel laughed. "I'm much too young to really be able to do anything like that. Anyhow, I'd rather just be a mathematician."
"Yes. However, it's always good to have an alternative plan. And, it's never too young to start learning the rudiments of the game."
"I guess that's what I'm supposed to be doing tonight."
"The game consists in managing and influencing powerful men. I'd say you're off to a good start."
"I didn't get anywhere with that man who makes piston rings for the army."
Mr. Howard laughed loudly and replied, "That's Mitch Howsam. He has a one-track mind and very little imagination. He'll never make anything but piston rings, and, unless you can help him sell more of them, you can't do anything with him."
"Can you help him sell more piston rings?"
"Well, yes. There's demand in Brazil. But it's only a moderately profitable trade arrangement for someone who can play the middleman and knows who to bribe in Brazil."
"But you're always looking for something bigger?"
"Certainly. That's where you want to aim."
Just then, Joan rushed up, and said to her husband, "Cynthia's amazing! She's turned a horrible party into a success."
As so often with Joan, it was difficult to congratulate her on success without admitting her previous failure. Bert simply smiled and put his arm around her.