Parallel Lines

Madison Smartt Bell

“Beryl,” she told him, when he asked her name. In full it was Beryl Cornelia Fallsworth. She had an aunt who went by “Con.” “Beryl” was her father’s fancy, and in grade school the other kids had jeered at it, so that she came home complaining, wreathed in tears. Why couldn’t she have had some ordinary name? Her father, tipsy as he always was by six, had said half-mockingly, Did you want to be another Jennifer—Jennifer number eight-hundred-and-forty-two. Knowing he meant to jolly her out of it, she’d flown into a rage and wept much harder. Later, older, now for instance, she’d recognized the name as an asset.

Karl, whose name she had not quite caught, repeated the word in a savoring tone, beryl, as if he weighed upon his tongue a morsel of the stone it designated. At once she was moved by his air of recognition, removed some small distance from the mobbed ballroom with its clang of shouting voices and wedding music fractured by the bad acoustics. She could feel it in the bottoms of her feet, so powerfully that later, that same night, she’d let him touch and tongue her secret pearl.

That was unlike her. But what was she like? At the office they called her, “Ms. Fallsworth,” to be sure. She dressed severely, as young lawyers must, accenting her good looks by repressing them in her garments—a tactic she thoroughly understood. There were no casual Fridays at “Wiley, Craven, Snivel, and Cringe” (as Karl had rechristened the firm, playing on the actual initials). Sometimes the joke would surface in the midst of a tedious meeting with some client, so that she’d have to struggle not to burst into inappropriate laughter, and often she was truly afraid that she might address the senior partner, Cranston, as Mr. Craven . . . She was a strawberry blonde, petite, flat-chested. Karl could lift her and manipulate her like a doll. She’d worn, the night they met, a sort of doll’s ballgown, a blue which set off her beryl eyes, skirt extravagantly flared, the low and square-cut bodice drawing a straight line across the honey-toned skin of her chest, where someone else might have displayed décolletage. “You have no breasts,” Karl said, when he peeled it down—but with fascinated rapture, and she was thrilled, since all her other lovers, infrequent as they were inept, had passed this feature over without comment.

Her days were disciplined, nothing like this. Her nights too, usually. She never had the name of a grind—was always popular enough and certainly more than pretty enough. On a good day, more than pretty . . . But she launched herself at a certain target and stayed on trajectory till the target was struck. Summa in politics at Princeton, a somewhat less brilliant record at Columbia Law. She passed the New York bar, soared over it, on her first try. The nights made long with study were now stretched out by work. She did the necessary to keep her life in balance: played a hard fast game of squash three mornings a week before the office, caught a weekend film or play with a college friend or a group of them. On the rare occasions when she danced she did it with enough abandon that it counted as aerobic exercise. She was mostly vegetarian, nonideological; she’d eat bites of chicken and even beef were it served to her in a social situation. She drank socially, no more than that. At night when she got into her bed her mind was clear and she’d position herself behind a boulder, her back covered by some red cliff, imaginary rifle snug in the cradle of her arms, and for fifteen or twenty minutes gun down the men or savages or beasts which vainly assailed the security of her position, and then she slept.

“Hey, cowboy,” the black girl said, that first morning when Karl ushered Beryl down to the predawn mist of Delancey Street. Beryl did not mean to miss her scheduled squash game, no matter how unexpected the night had been. There was no reasonable way to notify her partner, and it was a matter of mind over matter after all.

“Yolanda,” Karl said, briefly though he didn’t seem self-conscious. “Beryl.” The black girl had her hair in a hundred tight long slender braids. Half a head taller than Beryl and much fuller in the bosom, her almond eyes slanted down on her, acute. Beryl felt the tingle of her interest starting as a blush. The party dress was folded in a shopping bag under her arm and in Karl’s rolled chinos and drooping T-shirt she knew she looked like a castaway. Her hair was damp from the quick shower she couldn’t face the street without (though of course she’d need another after squash), and both sets of her lips were glowing from the recent friction. She felt the black girl was aware of this. Yolanda. Beryl stopped the blush before it reached her surface. With her fair skin she’d learned the technique long ago: halt the internal process before its symptoms showed. She smiled and nodded, more primly than she meant—her client smile—and the moment passed.

Karl kissed her lingeringly at the stair rail, but Beryl heard the rumble and galloped down the steps to catch her train. Dash to her apartment to collect her clothing, then a two-stop ride to the club. She slept, hanging on her strap, her eyes half open, and thought nothing of Yolanda, whose image returned to her in flashes like the squash ball rebounding from the too-white wall: details she hadn’t known she’d registered, the thigh-high boots, the stamp-sized miniskirt, smell of smoke blurred by perfume. Of course the girl had to be a streetwalker in that get-up at that hour, half a block off the Bowery. The black ball throbbed in the web of her racket, then smashed hard against the wall.

“What got into you today,” her partner said. The game was over and Beryl, as usual, had won. “I mean, you’re always hungry, but . . .” Rueful, though he was used to losing, he rubbed the patch at the back of his head where the bald spot would emerge in ten years’ time. She only smiled at him enigmatically; the smile she used to keep such partners at their proper distance. She didn’t think of Yolanda again till many weeks had passed, perhaps two months, when things had advanced much faster than she had anticipated and Beryl found herself debarking from a cab on Karl’s corner, a late night, a work night, some time after midnight.

“Girlfriend,” and it was like the voice itself had coiled around her shoulders to draw her in. “Beryl,” Yolanda said, as if to make things clear. Beryl was startled but not alarmed, even when Yolanda dexterously plucked a pin from the back of her head, releasing her hair from the chignon she generally wore to work to fall down over her shoulders. Yolanda’s fingers were long and slim; they drew out a lock of the strawberry hair and held it against a snaky black braid.

“I be Y and you be B,” Yolanda said. She was on something, Beryl could see that for sure, but she felt no resistance. Yolanda raised her arm with Beryl’s, palm to palm, elbow to elbow, the flesh of their forearms connected in a firm, magnetic adhesion. There was a tang of sweat and semen in the air and behind it the smell of Chinese garbage discharged by the groceries and noodle shops across Delancey Street toward the glittering lights of the bridge. Crack whore—the phrase arose in Beryl’s mind, but it didn’t seem pejorative; she wasn’t even sure to whom it referred. Plump glossy black against the honey, their joined arms were a ribbon flowing in the street light.

“I be next to last,” Yolanda pronounced with her slight lisp. “And you be next to first.”

Karl cut cocaine on a plastic CD case. Beryl watched him with consent, her heart already racing slightly. In school she’d done that shit sometimes, more often for work than for recreation, liking the keenness it would give her for the last cramming hours before dawn. At Wiley, Craven, &c, it obviously wasn’t done. You drank more coffee and soldiered on. She lowered her head, her nostril flaring around the straw, and sucked it up. The image on the album partly emerged, then completely when Karl cleaned the last crystals with a dampened fingertip and rubbed them into his gums. Another wedding party, it might have been, a hipper one: the blonde girl hard-edged in white satin, flanked by her bachelors in black suits. Behind them hard flat vertical bars of black and white. She straightened, feeling the acrid drip at the back of her throat already, and with the rush she became aware of the music.

iiminnaphoneboothitwasawunnaacrosshall . . .
ifyoudontanswerIjustringitoffawall . . .

The rush of snare and cymbal pressed all the words together till they blew, breaking into shards of fractured light. Beryl spun on the balls of her bare feet—she’d kicked off the torturing high heels the second she’d walked into the loft. It wasn’t so big, maybe six hundred square feet her eye had automatically measured from the doorway, but now it was space, light and air and sound, room to let her doll’s skirt flare as he twirled her and the music ran faster, faster still. Go with it. He was a reasonable dancer, but she was leading, she was a long way out in front. So very quickly she’d come from that to this: his praises for her body—she wasn’t troubled by the expertise with which he’d laid it bare. First time for her that love had ever felt as good as dancing.

Walking the richly carpeted halls of Wiley, Craven, et al., coolly reserved in her trim business suit, she felt the space he’d stretched inside her; it felt something like desire. She drew it up into herself, encapsulated, squeezing her thighs under her skirt as she smoothed it down. The client sat across the polished surface of the table, while Snivel (no! it was Mr. Smythe . . .) was supervising, just to Beryl’s left.

“Ms. Fallsworth will explain to you the various types of . . .” Normally she worked with Mr. Cranston, but he was absent—two weeks honeymoon with his new trophy bride. Cancun, if she remembered right, or maybe it was Rio. It was his wedding, where she’d found Karl; she’d been added as an ornament to that occasion, as to this one. She could hear her voice rolling like a tape, was aware, at a very long remove, of the accompanying gestures and turns of phrase meant subtly to charm. They used her as a showpiece, as a mouthpiece. She understood the contract and did not object. She was appreciated, yes, for other qualities besides her intellect and training, but no one dared to think of carrying it too far. The firm specialized in estate planning, but the recent rules of sexual harassment were thoroughly well understood. Beryl could demolish the junior partners at morning squash and none of them would risk an indiscreet glance. Mr. Cranston exercised his libido far, far away from these darkly paneled chambers of law. He could afford it, and he knew where to go. Beryl had done a little work on his prenup, in fact—rather a sordid document, yet it had taught her a new thing or two about the mechanics of holding back.

Today it was Mrs. Warrington, a widow fidgeting with her will. It was their second meeting, but the lady was quite deaf and a little senile and had difficulty making up her mind. Sometimes Beryl didn’t do so well with old ladies as old gentlemen, as some of the ancient dames still harbored veins of jealousy. Mrs. Warrington, however, was well captivated, following Beryl’s every movement with her weak and watery blue eyes. There would most probably be lunch, perhaps some presses of that liver-spotted, ringworn hand. Beryl felt Snivel relax beside her; he pushed back from the table and crossed his legs, dangling his two-hundred-dollar shoe.

That night a great black dog assailed her where she lay snug in her cockpit of heaped stones. This time she had a shotgun, not a rifle, the barrel heavy and long, somehow warm and slightly pulsing on its underside beyond the pump. She waited to fire till the dog’s hot breath was practically on her face. The wound expanded behind the black shoulder, a bloodless ogive welling with light. The ribbon flowed, lights of cars drawing red and white lines down the broad avenue, oiled with rain. Multiply strapped in high-heel sandals, her feet were damp and chafing. Got to get off the street, the voiceover said. Familiar voice, though new to her dreams. A car door opened as if by its command. The dream thing: she was Beryl still, riding in a Checker cab up Eighth Avenue from the Film Forum, and still this other sinking to her knees in Roosevelt Park, nursing the latex-sheathed sausage. Shin splints when she was freed to rise—from those high heels. The first shall be the last, the voice whispered. Suddenly shelter, warmth of the hotel hallway. Scuffling behind the doors, but it didn’t matter, only the flare of the lighter flame reflected from the lip of the glass pipe. Huff, hold, relax, redemption. Nothing mattered. The last shall be first.

By daylight, beneath, shall we say, the jeweler’s loupe, Karl presented certain problems. Nothing which nakedly met the eye. Karl took his body seriously: weights, Pilates, Tai Chi. There was plenty of definition, beneath a milky skin delicious as her own. He still had all his hair and wore it rather long, a sheet of dirty blond always available to drop across the roughly chiseled features of his face. In younger days he’d worked occasionally as a model. Now he designed album covers, did some cabinet work, sold (Beryl knew it though she didn’t see it) small quantities of drugs. He’d appeared at Cranston’s wedding as a friend of the bride; Trisha had once been a model too, and Karl sometimes sold her coke.

A bad boy. Beryl had seen that right away, more or less at the same moment that he’d registered whatever he’d discerned beneath her friction-free surface of good girl. Still, a bad boy who’d circumscribed himself with certain limits, as she came to know. Beryl was wary at the start. She made him call first, which he did promptly. She would not change herself for him, not much, not permanently. Nor was she fool enough to think she would change him. Was there so much in him that wanted changing? A bit of a gypsy lifestyle certainly—and at his age. That late-seventies New Wave record collection, all the stuff that went so well with coke, even if it was the CD reissues he played now . . . surely he must be pushing forty, even past it maybe, as well as he did manage to look ten years younger. Well, he couldn’t have been so self-destructive, could he? Or more would show in that much time. She saw no sign of real addiction. The cocaine was an occasional treat; it didn’t appear every time she did. He kept a package of Russian cigarettes zip-locked in the freezer for freshness—he smoked that seldom, only sometimes after sex. All his vices had such epicurean restraint surrounding them. Beryl liked that. His drafting table, by the light of the tall, south-facing windows, was always neat, dust-free, and when he had graphic work he did it with a meticulousness which she could admire and even almost envy. Just once there’d been a pistol on the windowsill. Her hand went to it like a magnet, though it was mostly plastic, surprisingly light when she picked it up. Beryl had some familiarity with firearms, for her father collected them in a small way. She’d done some real-life shooting as a kid, amassed a row of riflery badges from a series of camp summers. This was different, one of those nine-millimeter murder weapons popular with gang-bangers, as she knew from law school friends who’d gone with the DA or the public defender. She handled the gun with sufficient confidence, keeping it pointed at the gritty window pane, her finger curled outside the trigger guard, while Karl watched, interested but not alarmed, his nicely manicured hands composed at the edge of the drafting board.

The dog’s eyes were golden, its tongue juice red. She compressed the trigger with extraordinary care. The report was a silent shock between her ears; the dream door unfurled its inner labia. Yolanda, lying on her back, compressed the shotgun barrel between her heavy breasts. The darker, richer chocolate shade of her wide aureolae. May be a little surgery involved, Karl’s voice reported on the soundtrack. You know, professional expenses . . . Beryl, on her neighboring track, could feel his connoisseur’s touch, feathering the small strawberry of her nipple. Her breath sighed inward. The gun-metal blue of the shotgun pumped and when it fired, Yolanda turned her face sharply aside, to catch the sticky burst on her left cheek and lower jaw.

Beryl didn’t see the pistol again. It went unexplained, unmentioned. Other things too. They ran into people when they went out together: junkies, musicians, artists, fags. The other women ran from rock chick to model—some whose good looks might have unnerved Beryl. They kissed in European fashion, on both cheeks. Beryl never let herself be bothered. She didn’t mean to throw her weight where the support could be withdrawn. Those other women always seemed to see her standing there. They smiled, showing their top teeth only, simpered pleasantly enough. A few of them made real talk in her direction. Yolanda, whom she passed often on the street, began to call her Girlfriend with a capital, in tones that recognized her status and respected it.

Beryl held to her own schedule, much as it had always been. She worked late several nights a week, kept up her theater dates with friends, and dated other men sometimes, although they bored her. Throughout all this, Karl remained constant. He was seldom unavailable to her. Their pleasure in each other was unflagging. It was a nonintrusive thing.

There was a small and slightly inconvenient matter of a key. Karl said he only had just one. He’d lost the magic number that would replicate it. Moreover, there was no doorbell in his building. She’d have to call on her cell phone, from the cab or the unpropitious street, where she waited for the key to flutter down, pocketed in a cotton sock or finger of a glove. One day she noticed a metal tag push-pinned to the bulletin board where he kept delivery menus and a schedule of graphic assignments. She memorized the number long enough to jot it down on the back of a business card. Sure enough it created a key when she took it to a locksmith, but she didn’t know for sure what door it fit. She held it secreted in her purse and never tried it in Karl’s door. After all she’d never keyed him into her apartment—a place he’d scarcely ever been. But somehow, once she had the key, the relationship seemed to have stepped to a new level. When had she used the word relationship for Karl? But maybe she wasn’t wrong about that, because it was only two or three weeks later that he popped the box on her: a modest but respectable diamond ringed with chips of beryl.

They flew to Saint Louis to meet with a passive lack of resistance on the part of Beryl’s mother. Beryl paid for both their tickets and didn’t care. It was her father, right here on East 74th Street, who made trouble. “You’ve known this man for what, six months? He is forty-four years old—Beryl, that’s almost twenty years.”

“What,” Beryl said. “Did you get his rap sheet?” Her father had been a prosecutor back in the day, and still had the pull to have done it. Beryl also felt annoyed because, till now, she’d remained a little vague on the point of Karl’s exact age.

“I looked up his license on the internet,” her father said. “That’s kid stuff, nowadays. As far as I know he doesn’t have a rap sheet. He doesn’t have much of a résumé either. What we have here is an over-the-hill underwear model who still plays with his crayons and did well in shop.”

“Dad.” Beryl was thinking about when she’d brought Karl over for last Sunday lunch. Her father had done martinis before the meal, mixing them up in his dented chrome shaker. A couple apiece, and strong as ever. By the second round, Karl and her father were clapping each other on the back and getting one like a pair of old sailors.

“Of course he’s a nice guy,” her father said. “Of course he’s charming.” Beryl never quite knew if she liked it or not when he read her mind. “He’s got to be charming. It’s how he gets by. Do you think that makes him marriage material?”

Her father stood up and walked to the wet bar and with a touch of ostentation poured himself another glass of seltzer. For this important interview, he was making a point of not getting half-crocked.

“I don’t think you do,” he told her, with a trace of the prosecutorial tone, raising the water glass slightly in her direction. “I don’t think so, or I would have met the man sometime before he’d sprung the ring. Every Sunday you come over for lunch—alone. Or once in a while with some punk from your office. And no, I don’t think you should marry them either.”

He took a long drink of the fizzy water, sat down in the wingback chair next hers.

“It’s fun now, I know,” he said. “You don’t notice the difference. Give it twenty more years, you’ll be changing his diapers.”


“Okay.” He turned his glass so the crystal fluting glittered. “That was low. I admit it. But still, think it over. Have fun with this guy. I think that you should. Screw around, live with him—I won’t say a word. Just don’t marry him.”

Beryl didn’t answer. He turned her way, his eyes looking fainter. “So what does your mother have to say about it?”

She looked at the unlit gaslogs in the fireplace. “About what you think.”

“I know, I know,” her father said. “But . . . you don’t have to do all of our mistakes.”

He was looking at the gaslogs too. The mantel clock ticked on the library shelf. He reached for her hand and cradled it in a way that let her know how very special she was to him, how infinitely superior to Karl. She was wearing the ring and he was looking at it, admiring the lay of the little stones and the excellent craft of the goldsmith.

“He’s got good taste, I’ll give him that,” he said. “But you ought to be asking yourself those questions.”

Then all of a sudden he let her hand go. “Ah, what the hell, Baby. Let’s have a real drink.”

Beryl had asked herself the questions, even some her father had not voiced. She thought about them, padding the hushed corridors of Wiley, Craven, Snivel, and Cringe. She knew how little she knew about Karl. Also she did wonder if he might not be at least a little bit attracted by her comparatively humongous and regular paycheck. It might be that she was being set up as a sugar mommy of some kind. She had this thought, but she couldn’t get it to bother her. Day and night, her clients thought of nothing else, all the old gents and old dames trying to express in their estate planning everything they’d never said or done in their lives. Mrs. Warrington took her to the Russian Tea Room and ordered six kinds of caviar. Beryl was wearing the ring, and Mrs. W. caught up her hand and held it to the light.

“Oh, my dear,” she said, vicariously ecstatic. “I know you will be very happy.”

All at once she clawed off one of her own gigantic rings, gold flowing lavaly around a huge rock, and pressed it into the palm of Beryl’s free hand. Beryl’s alarms all went off at once, and this time she didn’t think to stop herself from blushing.

“I mustn’t,” she said, almost in a stutter. “I can’t—”

“Oh,” Mrs. Warrington said, her weak eyes looking right through her. She folded Beryl’s fingers down over the ring. “But you will.”

The dog’s steaming breath lapped over Beryl’s face, so near she saw quartz-like flakes floating in the golden irises. She fired, and passed shuddering through the dream portal’s membrane. Yolanda leaned toward a cloudy mirror, cleaning goo from her face with a wet clump of toilet paper. She wiped something from the corner of one eye, touched up the edges of her lipstick. She cooked up in a blackened spoon and tied off with a shoelace. When the dope hit the vein, Beryl sighed into a relaxation deeper than she’d ever dreamed. Why, oh why had this been withheld from her? She hadn’t even known she’d been in pain.

Finally it came down to something stupid, the most minor and trivial oversight. A Saturday, and Beryl was on her way to a girlfriend’s place with some swatches of fabric and a couple of patterns for bridesmaid’s gowns. That’s what she thought. When she checked her tote she remembered she’d left the stuff at Karl’s the night before. With a muttered curse, she gave the cabbie new directions. On the way downtown, she tried to call. The machine; she didn’t leave a message. The cabbie pulled up to the corner, twisted to look at her over the seatback as she punched the number into her flip-phone another useless time.

“Just wait right here,” Beryl sighed as she slid out of the cab door. “I’ve got a key.”

Still, she hesitated on the threshold. Practical or not, it felt a little like a trespass. But it was practical, and then she thought that Karl would never need to know. The key went in and turned smooth as butter. The inside of the loft was all one space, and Beryl’s eye flew straight to the rumpled futon. She must have made some sort of sound, for Karl jerked backward, detaching from the other, darker body, clawing up the sheet to cover his erection.

Beryl’s hand went to her throat, where she wore Mrs. W’s ring on a gold elastic cord. The ring pulsed into her hand with her heartbeat. Karl had sense enough not to try to start talking, though a blush was spreading from his navel to the roots of his hair. Yolanda sat up easily, coiling her long braids over her shoulder with one hand. Beryl watched how her breast lifted with the movement of her arm, and thought that she must be very good at what she did. Yolanda was looking at Beryl quite calmly. The petals of the dream door lay open between her legs and there was an amazing brown warmth in her eyes. It occurred to Beryl that Karl might not be so essential after all. The heavy ring pushed harder against the lifeline in her palm. She didn’t know if it was the end or a beginning.