Sex and Influence
Miss Elaine Kittredge sat in her dressing room, assessing, for perhaps the ten thousanth time, the current state of her charms and their effectiveness on men. If she had been a computer person, she would surely have set up a simulation of the effect of various female body parts and flirtatious devices on men, and would then have plugged in constants representing herself. As it was, she did it laboriously, bit by bit, starting from the bottom.
Her feet, dainty and well-shaped, were as good as they had ever been. So were her legs to a point about six inches above the knees, at least in stockings. Then, as she moved upwards, it was, so to speak, all downhill. She was now about one hundred and thirty six pounds, as opposed to the hundred and thirty that she had weighed in her prime. She had dieted constantly, but the middle-aged spread had been relentless. It was apparently a matter of basic physiology, and it had affected her thighs, hips, and waist.
Elaine had, at one time or another, invested in every type of foundation garment made. They all squeezed, but they left bulges where they ended. That was, she supposed, a matter of basic physics. She now wore something which seemed surprisingly light, but which came from mid-thigh almost to the bust. Its tension diminished at the margins, so as to minimize bulging at those places, but it still squeezed the wearer unmercifully in the central areas.
It was impossible to bend to pick something up from the floor, but good posture was enforced. It was also possible to move in slow willowly, rather graceful, ways. And then, if the dress was just a little loose, the trussed-up look could be avoided.
While Elaine never used too much make-up, she had allowed her beauticians to convince her to go on being blonde. She knew that she was making a mistake, but couldn't help herself. Her best friend, Anna Entner, had recently suggested,
"If I were you, I think I'd just let my hair go gray."
That remark, seemingly casual, had probably been considered long and carefully. It wouldn't have been made at all unless its author, impelled by years of friendship, had herself thought that Elaine was beginning to look ridiculous. Elaine, never any fool, knew this. But she simply couldn't face the idea of letting her hair change to its natural color, whatever that might be these days.
In partial compensation for these depressing thoughts, Elaine had developed a sort of theory of beauty and attractiveness. The essence of it was that everything which showed should be perfectly smooth. One hid or suppressed the bulges and covered as much as possible with the finest fabric, be it silk, nylon, or wool. One then made sure that every hair was in place and that the facial surface was perfectly even. It was really smoothness that attracted men, and, except in the very young, it was more a product of artifice than nature.
There was also another factor, perhaps the most important of all. She had, within the last year, inherited money that she had never expected to get. A male cousin who would have inherited died at just the right time. Since she had never liked him and hadn't poisoned him, she was able to pocket the four million dollars with neither sadness nor guilt. The artifices which produced smoothness often didn't come cheap, but she could now afford every last one of them.
Despite all these advantages, Elaine wasn't sure that she would be able to hang on to her present lover. He was, on all counts, quite peculiar. A young Russian diplomat who had had, or been had by, practically every woman she knew, he presented many paradoxes.
Just a few nights ago, Boris had come to Elaine's apartment. They had gone to bed. It had been very nice. But it had gone on and on. He had kept trying to come, again and again, as if engaged in a sort of marathon. Long after the point of diminishing returns, he had kept pumping away. It was as if he were trying to exhaust her. But no man could exhaust Elaine sexually. Then, when he finally gave up and went to sleep, she remained wakeful. He would occasionally stir, but she would stroke his head until he went back to sleep.
In the morning, when it was time to get up, Boris had instead passed out completely. It was almost impossible to rouse him. She had appointments, and there was nothing for it but to leave him there when she went out. Just to be on the safe side, Elaine popped the home copy of her address book into her purse as she left.
When Tom Wiiliams got back from lunch the next day, there was a call from Ellie. Tom was anticipating another outing when she said,
"I'm afraid there's been a hitch, Tom. My psychiatrist says it isn't good for me."
Tom hadn't known that Ellie went to a psychiatrist, but, in retrospect, it seemed likely enough. He replied,
"I've just had lunch with Goldstein and Janet."
Tom's none-too-subtle hint that, if Goldstein was still at it, they should continue as well didn't work. Ellie replied,
"Their affair is over. Janet's husband found out and made a scene. She promised to stop, and there was nothing Goldstein could do. Couldn't you tell the difference when you were with them?"
"Well, no. But, then, I didn't notice anything when they were in the middle of it either."
"Anyhow, Tom, I hope we can still be friends. We can still go places together. It's really that I'm not supposed to act out all those fantasies."
Tom was on the point of asking whether they could have sex without the peculiarities, but, before he did, he realized that that was the only reason she had wanted him in the first place. He accepted the offer of friendship graciously enough, and then went down the hall to Sid's office. She was alone, and, on entering, he said,
"You were right."
She knew immediately what he was talking about and replied,
"Are you feeling badly?"
"Not too much. I'm disappointed, but I'm now convinced that I can find someone else."
In the next soccer game, there were a couple of new people Tom hadn't seen before, and he attempted to play in such a way that they wouldn't realize that he was a beginner. When one tried to run past him with the ball, Tom swept with his foot, contacting the ball, and then turned the man upside down. Tom supposed that it was legal if one first touched the ball, but the man, speaking a peculiar language, seemed to think otherwise. The incident was soon forgotten, but Tom had the impression that he had done something American.
After the game Charles remarked casually to a group of a half dozen of them,
"I've just separated from my wife, so I'll be forced to have dinner with you, Tom. Perhaps you other chaps would like to join us."
As it worked out, Boris and Carlos came along. They wouldn't hear of following Tom's practice of approaching a decent restaurant after minimal cleansing, and they agreed to meet after taking showers. Because of the distance to Tom's place, he went with Charles to the little apartment he had just taken nearby. On the way, Tom said,
"I was pretty impressed with your wife when I saw her in that play I told you about. Anyhow, I didn't think diplomats were allowed to separate and divorce."
"It's certainly not approved, but I wasn't on track for an important appointment anyway. So it doesn't make much difference."
It had always seemed to Tom that Charles was the perfect diplomat, and he probed a little. Charles replied,
"I would have been a perfect Victorian diplomat, when Britannia ruled the waves and a good deal else. But, now, the emphasis is all on getting along with the Americans. I'm perceived as being too arrogant."
It seemed to Tom that only a person with no sense of humor would find Charles arrogant, or, more accurately, be bothered by his arrogance. When he said so, Charles replied,
"Anyway, I'm chucking it all and going back to Oxford wifeless. Good thing, too. The women there have to eat bread and Bovril suppers with the children while the men eat in college."
As another sort of joke, Charles got Tom to put on one of his pin-striped suits. They were about the same size, and, when Tom looked in the mirror, he burst out laughing. Charles, too, was amused. He said,
"Boris and Carlos will be delighted. In fact, we could go out with them after dinner and pick up women."
The dinner group turned out to be quite different from the soccer group, even though the same people were involved. They didn't engage in their usual rough humor at one another's expense, and they instead spoke of world affairs. Tom did much more listening than talking, and, after a while, a pattern emerged with Boris and Charles on one side and Carlos on the other. Carlos was the liberal who wanted to radically alleviate poverty in the third world, and he carried it almost far enough to be considered Marxist. On the other hand, neither Charles nor Boris liked social change, much less chaos.
The arrangements of the English aristocracy for the poor of England might have been different from those of Soviet bureaucrats for the ex-serfs of Russia, but, in both cases, they were believed to be adequate. Boris, ideology or none, was no more anxious than Charles to inject uncertainty into the equation. Indeed, since Boris became quite passionate on a politically sensitive subject, it was probably a good thing that, once again, he had managed to get off without being accompanied by his Soviet colleagues.
Dessert, in the form of a vast bowl of chocolate profiteroles, then arrived. The conversation turned to women, and Charles said,
"I can't seem to decide whether to find another wife."
"You might go out with a few women before you even think of finding another one."
"I'm tempted to find one quickly and have done with it. I like stability and predictability with women, as with other things."
"That can be better achieved with three women than one. You see them, more or less in rotation, and, if one of them changes in any fundamental and unpleasant way, she can be replaced. You're also insulated, to a large extent, from the mood swings that so many women seem to have."
Charles was obviously impressed. He replied,
"I see. Stability is assured by adherence to a principal rather than a woman."
"And then there's the Carlos alternative, the zero option."
It was hard to imagine Carlos, a thoroughgoing German technocrat despite his Mexican nationality, ever thinking about women at all. But he had been married, and he said,
"Most men marry for sex, and it isn't worth it. Even if each encounter results in several seconds of absolute bliss, the proportion of one's total time is so small as to be negigible.
It took him a moment to calculate, after which he announced,
"Even Boris can expect to spend no more than a ten thousanth of his waking time in direct sexual gratification. He gives away a great deal to get it, whereas I can enjoy women, which I do, without any complications. They never presume on my friendship because they don't think they have a right to."
Boris said to Tom,
"Our attitudes are the results of a good many years of trial and tribulation of various kinds. At your age, you're supposed to be romantic."
Tom burst out,
"I was just about to have sex, but the lady is terminating the affair on the advice of her psychiatrist. She wants to be friends instead."
Tom half expected his friends to laugh, but there were few groans instead. Boris replied,
"I take it that the lady is a good deal older than yourself, and is married."
"Yes. How did you know?"
"It fits into a pattern that we all know."
Shortly afterwards, Boris left to make a telephone call. Carlos said,
"He's arranging a party for us."
Tom asked how he knew, and Carlos replied,
"I've often been out with Boris and Pierre. They may each go with only three women at once, but there are many more on their waiting lists. The women are always attractive and intelligent, and many are well-connected and wealthy. It will be quite nice."
"Where will the party be?"
Carlos smiled and replied,
"Boris will go down his list until he finds a woman who's free tonight, or who's willing to forego a previous engagement. She'll then produce some friends. Or she may take all of us to a party with her. But, one way or another, there'll be no shortage of women."
When Boris came back, he said,
"It seems that a friend of mine is having a party tonight. We're all invited."
Tom had been to parties in graduate school. They occurred when someone passed prelims or got his degree, or got engaged, or for no reason at all. They were always informal, and everyone got drunk. On the occasion of his passing prelims, he had suddenly become sick into the toilet. On emerging, he had continued to be, in his own estimation, the life of the party.
This party, in the most expensive part of Chevy Chase, promised to be quite a different affair. But Tom was dressed in Charles's suit, and, if he drank with some caution, no one would ever guess the part about being sick into the toilet.
They seemed to be among the earlier arrivals. The hostess, a lady named Olivia Young, was sharp-faced and about forty with gray streaks in her hair. She was obviously delighted to see Boris, and, while no beauty, was quite attractive in her way. She had a good slim figure, and her face was both intelligent and expressive. All in all, Tom was a little surprised that she should be only on the waiting list of a man who was himself no superman at soccer or the other sports that made up Tom's world.
Tom drifted through the party with Carlos, who said to him,
"Our hostess seemed extremely pleased to see Boris, quite pleased that he had brought Charles, and entirely indifferent to ourselves."
"Well, I'm obviously low man on the totem pole, but that seems a little hard on you."
"She won't let Boris out of her sight. She wants him, and, even more, wants to see that he doesn't meet another woman at her party."
"What about Charles?"
"She'll already know that he's separated, and she'll think him extremely eligible. If she's too busy chasing Boris to play for him, she'll steer him to one of her friends. I'm too little and nondescript to matter, and she may think that you're too young to play the games in favor here."
"I probably am too young."
"There are women here who'll think otherwise. I see that one has already found Charles."
Tom looked in the direction indicated, and saw a blonde woman who was gesturing dramatically at Charles. Carlos commented,
"It'll only take a few like that to drive him back to his wife."
They continued to circulate, pretending to talk to each other, but mainly trying to overhear conversations. At one point, a man exclaimed,
"And then he hit the son-of-a-bitch with a left hook!"
"Even boorishness is acceptable in a man who has either a great deal of money or a goodish amount of power."
Among the guests was one recognizable senator. Carlos said,
"If you went up to him and introduced yourself, he'd be nice to you."
"Probably for something like three seconds."
"No. He'd figure that you'd be important to be here at all, probably the son of some influential person. Anyhow, politicians never make enemies unnecessarily."
Tom didn't go up to the senator, but Carlos pointed out a very smooth-looking blonde woman whom he knew, and whom he said was chasing Boris. She recognized Carlos, but she looked purposeful, and seemed to be intent on more important projects. She was about to slide off when Carlos introduced Tom, saying,
"This is Tom Williams, the son of the governor of Michigan."
Tom only just managed not to protest. The governor, G. Mennen Williams, was known as "Soapy" because he came from the Mennen after-shave family. Tom and some friends had once gone over to Detroit to attend a rally for Adlai Stevenson, and Soapy was one of the speakers. He was a big handsome man, a Democrat with populist overtones, and, of course, he had enough money to solve a good many political problems.
Governors didn't ordinarily count for a great deal in Washington, but Soapy was a long-shot presidential candidate, and that made all the difference. The lady, Miss Elaine Kittredge, aborted her departure abruptly. Her smile, meant to cover her retreat, quickly changed in its quality.
It was really quite clever of Carlos. No one in Washington would know what kind of son Williams would have, if any. That sort of thing came into focus only when a man became an active contender. Moreover, Carlos apparently guessed that Tom would have had enough exposure to Michigan politics to be able to invent plausibly. Above all, he knew that a woman like Miss Kittredge would move heaven and earth to establish even the smallest connection with a man who might be president. As she was about to say something, Tom beat her to it.
"That's Soapy Williams. No one seems to know him by any other name."
Carlos managed to disappear at this point, leaving Tom with a designing woman. He was vaguely conscious of the quasi-loss of Ellie, and, while this lady looked to be at least forty, it was nice to see that she was interested. Moreover, although Tom didn't entirely agree with those of his friends who said that the bustline is the measure of the woman, it was noteworthy that Miss Kittredge had a clear and visible advantage over Ellie.
It didn't take long to see that this lady had an agenda, just as she expected Tome to have one. She seemed to assume that Tom's was connected with helping his father assess his chances, and she volunteered equitably,
"Senator Kennedy has the best chance among the young men, but he may have problems. He certainly has a great many enemies inherited from his father. One thing's certain. Adlai isn't going to get a third chance."
Tom didn't know much about politics, but he found that he could adapt to Miss Kittredge's style of conversation, which consisted mainly in spreading rumors, by making up a few himself.
As they went along in that fashion, Tom suspected that Miss Kittredge, Elaine as she disclosed herself, was of not much more than average intelligence. Since coming to Washington, he had mostly met very smart women, and had gotten used to a pattern of stimulation which was now missing. On the other hand, Elaine appeared to be rich and well-connected. There was also the sound of power in the cool throaty voice which she used so well. When it turned out that she had actually talked with the president, Tom was thrilled. He had never before met anyone like that.
What Tom couldn't fathom was how his new friend fitted in to the power jigsaw. She seemed to know a little about many different things. She also made a point of having been brought up in Washington, and remarked at one point,
"Of course, most of the people here have come to Washington to get something, and they most often leave when they learn that they can't get it. There aren't so many of us who care about the city itself and its environment."
That was the sort of thing that a Washington aristocrat might say, but Elaine was a long way from the Cabots and Lowells of Boston. There was nothing relaxed and casual about her, no sense that she already had everything anyone could want. But, then again, Tom did believe her implicit claim that she wasn't just a shark looking for immediate profit.
Tom, for his part, was willing to do a good deal to promote a closer acquaintance with Elaine. He consequently admitted that he had a "secret" job in Washington. This was directly contrary to the instructions of their security department. They were supposed to deflect interest from their employment and give the impression that they were dull time- servers, perhaps doing little more than compiling statistics. Still, Tom doubted that he was the only young man who, in certain circumstances, attempted to make his job seem mysterious, exciting, and of the first importance.
It worked. Elaine's blue eyes shone even more brightly. She immediately replied,
"Even people in secret work are allowed to say which organization they work for."
Tom told her, and she enthusiastically replied,
"Then you must know Mac Hollins."
That caused Tom to draw back a little. He said, rather carefully,
"Yes. He's the director."
"Do you know him personally?"
Tom almost said that he had only met him briefly once or twice, but he instead said,
"I work with him on a project."
"But you're not allowed to say what it is. I understand. I'm a journalist, you know."
That changed things considerably. She knew people who counted, not because she was one of them, but because she interviewed them. On the other hand, some of her relations seemed to go beyond purely journalistic ones. When she mentioned having been to a recent dinner at Mac's house and asked if he knew Mrs. Hollins, Tom thought that the son of the governor thing had gone too far. At the first opportunity, he said,
"You know, I'm not really the son of Soapy Williams. Carlos was just joking about that."
Miss Kittredge wasn't pleased. There were, indeed, some signs of fury. But, before she said anything, Anna Entner appeared. She knew Elaine, and greeted her first. Then, as Anna was turning to Tom, Elaine said,
"Anna, this is Tom Williams, the son of the governor of Michigan."
Anna looked very surprised, but said only,
"I know Tom from work. He's one of our brilliant young men."
Tom was suitably flattered, but was also impressed with Anna's bearing. Here, where she had high status, she was hardly the same person that he knew at work. Instead of her usual anxious vulnerable look, she looked almost serene.
Tom could also see that it was Elaine who was trying to make a favorable impression on Anna rather than vice versa. At any rate, the former's tone, which had been pretty imperious even when she thought Tom was Soapy's son, was noticeably softer. Anna, for her part, went on to build him up rather shamelessly, but with obvious good effect. After Elaine was claimed by a rather dyspeptic-looking man, Anna said,
"You aren't really the governor's son, are you, Tom?"
Tom explained what had happened, concluding,
"I had just told her I wasn't really Soapy's son when you came up. I don't know why she told you I was."
"She was probably irritated and wanted to rub it in a little. For a woman like Elaine, jokes like that aren't funny. She probably won't speak to your friend again."
"Carlos must have thought that I might make some headway with her if she thought I was important."
"Being the governor's son would mean a lot to Elaine. But, now, she'll realize that this Carlos is aware of that fact. She'll hate him for being astute enough to know it."
"You seemed willing to go along with my being the governor's son."
"Well, of course, I didn't know that it wasn't true. You're reasonably modest, and you might not have mentioned it."
"I bet you knew just the same."
"Yes. Well, I've felt very good about you since you helped Pete so much the night of that awful moving party. He'll be coming back soon. He looks awful, but we'll get used to it. It's really only you and I and Bruce who can be counted on to stand by him. Jacky won't have anything to do with him, and Ted might not if I didn't push him."
Tom didn't think of himself as one who could be counted on to stand by Pete, but he said,
"I haven't had a chance to go by the hospital. How is he?"
"He hasn't changed. Of course, it was a crazy thing to do, and many people would be ashamed. But he doesn't seem to be, and that's good."
Tom couldn't resist asking,
"Now that he's recovered, is he going to call up the same girl and ask her out again?"
Anna burst out laughing, the first time Tom had ever seen her laugh unrestrainedly. She replied,
"You know, he might very well do just that. Perhaps he already has."
"Anna, why do you have so much sympathy for someone who's so hopeless?"
Tom had spoken inpulsively, but she didn't seem to take it amiss.
"Well, I've always been the person who took in wounded animals. Then, when I was a political wife, it helped to undertake every good cause in sight. It tended to offset some of the things my husband did. I suppose it just became second nature. Pete isn't a lost cause, though. He can still lead a good life."
"Yeah, but Washington seems hardly the place. I can imagine him in an ordinary job in a small town. He could go fishing after work and hang out with the local boys."
"There may also be a place for him back in Brooklyn. They seem committed to keeping him at DRI, but I think he'll eventually leave of his own accord."
"If I were he, I'd certainly tell people I was injured in some other way."
Anna smiled and replied,
"As it happens, I'm working on a story for him. But I don't know enough about guns to make it plausible. Perhaps you could help."
Before Tom could reply, Anna said,
"Here comes Elaine. I think it's you that she wants. Let's separate and see."
Miss Kittredge approached Tom with no compunction at all, and said,
"I have to leave now to go to another party, but I'd like to try out some ideas on you for a series of stories. Are you free for lunch on Tuesday?"
Tom was, and she departed with a smile.
The rest of the party was something of an anti-climax. After a half-hour of fleeting conversations, Charles plucked Tom by the elbow and said,
"Boris is getting in too deep with the hostess, and wants to escape. I'm going too, but you can stay if you like."
Tom didn't have much reason to stay, and they picked up Carlos en route to thanking the hostess. The judgment when they got outside was that it wasn't a very good party. Charles said,
"I've been wondering about going back to my wife. She's at least amusing and attractive. Many of these women aren't either."