Luda, Bert, Cynthia, and Joan
The next morning, there was the usual week-end drifting in and out for breakfast. On this day the institutional food was even worse than usual. Indeed, it seemed that the average homeless person having a 'downtown breakfast' out of trash bins might do as well or better.
Anyhow, having picked at the flotsam and jetsam on the serving line, the three friends sat down with their coffee and tea. Once the food was out of sight, the high-ceilinged room with its large arched windows did lend a certain elegance to any high-flown intellectual discussion that might take place within it. It was in this atmosphere that Luda announced, "We arranged it last night. I'm going to be Bert's mistress plus."
Rachel found herself speechless. Barbara coolly replied, "Why? And what does 'plus' mean?"
"As to the why, he'll be the nicest man I've been with. That isn't saying much, but, still, it's good. He's also the sort of rich man who doesn't even keep track of sums amounting to one hundredth of one per cent of his money. That's plenty to sustain me."
"The plus is more complex. He wants me to keep Joan from being overwhelmed by ordinary things. It's not a daily caretaker sort of thing, but support and confidence boosting when needed."
Rachel, recovering, said, "He wants you to do what Cynthia did for her last night."
"Well, that was a big deal. Cynthia transformed a disaster of a party into a pretty good one. Bert doesn't think I can do that. But I can help with lesser problems and provide better companionship than the women who are jealous of Joan and snipe at her."
"That could still be a big order."
"He doesn't mean it to be. It's to be strictly limited to tea once a week. No midnight calls, that sort of thing."
Barbara replied, "Joan's awfully fluttery, and you're not exactly a low-toned calming influence in most situations."
"Other people might be better at that, but he figures that I'll at least provide distraction."
"That I can believe."
Rachel asked, "When was this arranged?"
"At the end of the party. He liked you, too, but he said that you were too young for anything like this."
"Thank God for that!"
Barbara asked Luda, "Why is he doing this?"
"I think he both loves and likes his wife. But he also feels pity for her. He'll do almost anything that he thinks will buck her up a little."
"Not having mistresses might help her. She probably knows."
"Probably so. He may think he needs them to keep going himself."
"A lot of men must think that. Anyhow, Luda, I gather that Cynthia also has plans for you. I wonder if her plans are consistent with Mr. Howard's."
“To make things still more complex, Cynthia has get-togethers with Joan for whom she also has plans. Whether the sets of plans go together is anyone's guess."
"It's about the strangest thing I've ever heard of, but, if it doesn't work, you can always resign."
"Speaking of plans, Cynthia wants us to go to Washington earlier when everything is in session. Since Ike won, it won't be a lame duck session."
"We can't just take off from college. I wonder if Cynthia understands that."
"Her idea is that we leave on a Thursday after classes and spend the weekend there."
Rachel asked, "Would our way be paid?"
Barbara responded, "My father would worry about such an expensive gift, and he'd want me to pay my own way."
"My parents wouldn't care about that. They're for making off with as much loot as possible without getting caught."
Barbara said, "Well, anyway, I wouldn't miss much. Two classes meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and there's one that meets on Friday only 'at the pleasure of the instructor.' So far, he's showed no signs of pleasure."
Rachel said that she could get notes from Zeke, and Luda seemed less worried about missing classes. At that point, there was a call for Barbara from the man who persisted in wanting to marry her. She spoke briefly, and then came back shaking her head. Rachel looked at her questioningly, but Barbara replied, "Just more of the same. He seems to have some sort of obsession on me."
Rachel replied, "Of course, there is the ten-to-one ratio. A lot of boys do seem to get a little crazy."
"It's also odd to think of ourselves as tremendously desired objects. I certainly don’t think of myself as being precious.”
With that, Barbara, saying that she hoped there would be no more such calls, went off to meet her sisters. After she left, Luda said, "There are girls who delight in seeing what idiots they can get the boys to be."
"Speaking of turning boys into idiots, have you heard of the game the girls in the new house with automatic elevators play?"
"The one where the girls go down to the basement to weigh themselves on the good scale in their slips. Then, on the way back up, they don’t know whether the doors in the lobby will open?"
"Yeah, they often do it on Saturday nights when the lobby is full of boys and hope that no one presses the UP button when they go up."
"You mean, they hope that someone does press the button?"
"I guess so. They sometimes go more than one at a time, wearing less and less. The boys have learned about it and stand around to see."
“That's not something the girls do to the boys. It's a game they play, daring each other, with other girls."
“Yeah. And, of course, they squeal and hide behind each other when they're caught."
"Would you like to play that game, Rachel?"
"I might if I lived in that house."
"We know people who do, and I bet they'd accept visitors. But you'd better hurry before the housemother finds out about it."
"I guess it does sound pretty juvenile."
"Well, you are only sixteen. You're naturally curious and adventurous."
"I guess you've gone well beyond that kind of thing."
"If a woman tried anything like that in Russia, she'd be raped very quickly. In most places in the world. We’re lucky to be so secure."
“Well, I do know a boy who wouldn't rape anyone. He's coming over tonight to study with me."
"Is this the one from the math class?"
"Yeah. He's very tall and ugly in a pleasant way. I don't think the girls will be impressed."
"As if that matters. It looks to me, Rachel, as if you're finding
your way into the adult world steadily and methodically. A lot better
than I did."
Joan Howard sat at her ornate white and gold dressing table, running her fingers over her bare shoulders and smiling. Not only pleased at what she saw in the mirror, she was close to euphoria. The party of two evenings ago had been a clear success. At first, it had seemed all Cynthia's doing.
But now, with a little time to consider it, she thought that she herself had done well in a strong supporting role. She had certainly gotten a lot of flattery from the men, a little embarrassing at the time, but, in retrospect, a bit of a boost.
Lotte, now approaching, had also done well. For one thing, she had somehow managed to rescue the food before it had gone bad. Joan hardly wanted to know how. Anyhow, she had given Lotte a generous bonus for services rendered.
The girls were also a welcome addition to the party. Even though they were much too young to seriously interest the middle-aged men, they did seem to distract them from their usual business conversations. It was too bad that there weren't any young men for the girls, but they didn't seem to mind.
On the calendar was another lunch with Cynthia. It would probably be a post-mortem on the party, but, this time, Joan was unafraid. Of course, if Cynthia had any suggestions for improvement, she’d adopt them.
It was a different restaurant this time, a steak house of all places. And not a very elegant one. But, then, it hardly mattered. When Cynthia came striding in, Joan was reminded of the women she had met in England, tall, athletic, and handsome. One supposed that their brothers looked much the same, with only differences in detail.
Cynthia began with thanks for a good party, and then remarked, "I was glad that we all had a chance to meet Bert. He's very engaging."
"Yes. When he wants to be. If there's no one interesting, he just disappears into some business conversation, often in Spanish."
"I met a Latin American gentleman with him, and I had just enough Spanish to join in."
"Really? I'm supposed to know French, but I can never actually converse with French people."
"Well, I'm pretty challenged when it comes to communicating with a lot of my charges. Polish is a real bear, and they don't always know much English."
"But, still, you have such an interesting and exciting life."
"You can do the same, Joan. I'd like to take my students to Washington soon, in advance of the Association meeting. If you can tell me what date would be good for you and your husband, we can meet there."
"Well, I'll ask Bert. I'm not exactly sure that Lotte can manage the house and staff, but I'll have to trust to luck."
"I met her the other night, quite a pretty and enterprising young lady. I'm sure she can manage."
"You'll have to tell me what to do."
"This time, I'll stay in the background and let you see to the young people."
"Oh yes! You'll do beautifully, Joan. And I'll be in reach if something comes up."
"Well, I have been to Washington with Bert a number of times. At least, I know where the buildings are."
"There'll be four of our people who want to see the American capitol in action, the three that you know and Adam Yeremenko, a young Russian refugee."
"What's he like?"
"An accomplished pianist who's now a graduate student in history at Harvard. You'll like him, and he'll like you even more."
"Really, Cynthia, I'm a bit old for that sort of thing."
"Oh, nothing serious. But flirtation is good for the complexion, the digestion, and all kinds of other things. And it won't hurt to let Bert see how attractive other men find you."
"I think that happened a little at the party."
"Indeed it did. Anyhow, I've sketched things out a bit. I thought that you could take Adam, Rachel, and Barbara to the Museums. Luda is interested in international relations, and Bert said he'd take her around to Senator Munson's office."
"Okay. Any excuse to go to the National Gallery is a good one."
"Barbara probably knows a good deal about art. Rachel hasn't been taken around much, and it'll be a revelation for Adam."
"Come to think of it, I was once a volunteer museum guide. I'll just brush up a bit on the collections."