WHITE FLAG by Leah Browning
She wanted to be like Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8, beautiful and world-weary, but it seemed that Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was more her style: half in the bag and walking around the kitchen late at night eating a cold chicken leg with the refrigerator door hanging open. She, too, had gained weight for the role of a lifetime, and her husband, like Richard Burton, was bitter and past his prime. They continuously circled each other, competing for the upper hand.
It was a mistake, she’d always thought, to marry someone from the same department. They’d both been tenure-track when they met, but they’d gotten full professorships a year apart, and it had almost destroyed their marriage. Still, they’d powered through. Now they lived in a gorgeous red-brick townhouse with bay windows, an enviable record collection, and a pair of chocolate sable standard poodles called Faust and Tosca.
It was late fall, when the outstretched arms of the trees were bleak and naked and the wind was audible even indoors. Leslie had been languishing at home all night, nursing a cold, while Lionel spent the evening at the university, carting around a guest lecturer from Bucharest whom they’d managed to coax out of Romania. Leslie was furious. It had been her idea to invite him in the first place, and it had taken months to get Lionel on board. She was the one who’d made the phone calls, written the letters, gotten the funding. All so she could spend the evening holed up in bed with a box of tissues and a book she felt too sick to read.
The doorbell rang. The dogs careened from the bedroom as if they’d been shot out of a cannon. Lionel must have forgotten his keys again.
Leslie sighed, a long-suffering sigh. She left her wineglass on the bedside table and took her time getting up. Let him wait.
The dogs were at the door, quivering, barking like maniacs. Lionel had promised to train them, or at least to have them trained, but he never had. He was out on the front porch, champagne bottle in hand.
The Romanian scholar had been taken out for drinks and deposited safely back in his hotel room, but Lionel wasn’t ready to call it a night. He’d brought home a pair of graduate students he’d taken on a study trip to London the previous spring. He introduced them with his free hand: Lithe Something and Tall and Gorgeous Somethingelse. They were both in their twenties and wearing short, tight dresses that showed off their long legs and impressive cleavage, and when faced with their professor’s wife at home in her pajamas, they at least had the decency to look sheepish, even if Lionel didn’t.
Lionel sat the students down on the couch and disappeared into the kitchen, and Leslie put on a record to cover the silence. Before they knew it, he was back with champagne flutes and a box of water crackers. He pushed the magazines fanned across the coffee table out of the way and set everything down. Leslie was the one who always roasted the figs and arranged the cheese board, so she wasn’t surprised. Without her, Lionel was utterly helpless. She perched on the arm of a chair and shook her head, amused. He hadn’t even remembered a plate.
No matter. He removed the foil from the champagne bottle and tossed it aside. The dogs batted it across the floor. He eased off the wire cage and theatrically popped the cork, making the girls squeal. Champagne foamed out onto his hand and across a copy of Architectural Digest before he could reach the glasses. He’d had too much to drink already, Leslie could tell, but he was handing out flutes of champagne one second and going back to the kitchen for a bottle of Riesling the next. He was nothing if not an overachiever.
This time, at least, he brought back a corkscrew. “Are you the single mom?” Leslie asked one of the girls. “Or are you the one who’s pregnant now?”
She was only asking to be mean, but the taller girl said, “Janell is the one who’s pregnant. She couldn’t make it tonight. I’m the mom.” She looked pleased, as if Leslie’s questions meant that Lionel had singled her out. This somehow made it worse. The girl pulled a cell phone out of her bra and started scrolling through photos of her little boy, angling the phone so that Leslie and the other girl could see.
Leslie didn’t get up from the arm of the chair. Her cold medicine had finally kicked in, but she pulled a tissue out of her pajama pocket and dabbed her nose delicately. “I shouldn’t get too close,” she said.
“Don’t mind her,” Lionel said to the girls. “She’s not really sick. She just likes the attention.” He poured each girl a glass of wine and sat down on the couch in between them.
“That’s absurd,” Leslie said. She raised her hand and turned it over to reveal the ball of tissue in her palm. A magic trick. Evidence.
The single mom tucked the phone back against her breast and took a sip of wine.
Lionel leaned back against the couch. “Would you like to see my first editions?” he asked—his idea of a come-on—and Leslie narrowed her eyes. Neither girl took the bait.
“They don’t care about that,” Leslie said. “Look.” She whistled, and the dogs did a trick. Dutifully, the girls clapped. Faust and Tosca returned to their posts next to the couch, bookending Lionel and his devotees.
From the kitchen, the tea kettle whistled. Leslie rose hospitably and brought back glasses filled with ice cubes and tea bags and arranged them in a circle on the coffee table. When she tipped the kettle each time, the water was so hot that the ice cracked in the glass.
The record wound down, and Leslie didn’t replace it. She sipped her drink, relishing the silence.
One of the girls asked to use the restroom. She walked down the dark hallway and left Lionel sitting next to the tall girl with the little boy at home.
“Hello, Mother,” Leslie said from her perch on the arm of the chair. She leaned toward the couch, and Lionel and the tall girl shrank back a little. Leslie felt woozy from the combination of cold medicine and too much wine. She sank into the empty spot next to the tall girl, pushing them both over a little.
The tall girl, caught in between, blushed. From the other side of the couch, Lionel shifted, putting his hand on her knee.
He bent toward the girl, breathing what Leslie knew was his hot, boozy breath onto her, pretending that he was merely accentuating a point. He squeezed her leg emphatically.
Leslie leaned in as well, smiling, and put her hand on the girl’s other knee. “Isn’t he bright?” she asked. “I’ve always thought so.”
The girl leapt to her feet, pulling down the hem of her dress. She stammered as she made an excuse and fled. Hastily, on her way out the door, she whipped her coat from the hall closet. It took a moment for the empty hangers to stopped clicking against each other.
“Well, bless her heart,” Leslie said. She shrugged and drank more of her tea. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.
When the other girl emerged from the restroom, Leslie offered to drive her home. The buzz from the wine had worn off, and she was no longer enjoying herself. She left Lionel to entertain this one while she went into the bedroom and stripped off her pajamas. At the university, she was famous for her clothes: every day last semester, she had worn vintage party dresses and heels.
On her teaching evaluations, a student had written, “I can always hear her coming.”
She put on a coat of lipstick and brushed her hair.
They were already waiting at the front door when Leslie returned. The girl looked startled, unhappy, and she stood meekly as Lionel retrieved first his coat, then both of theirs.
Leslie took her time with the buttons and smoothed her hair over the collar. “Ready?” Lionel asked. He twirled a ring of keys around his finger.
They took their places in the car, with Lionel and Leslie in front and the girl buckled in the back seat as if she were their child. Lionel started out strong but then he grazed a mailbox and lost his momentum. He was the ice skater who falls in competition and can’t quite regain his confidence. He hit another mailbox, then a tree.
“Just a minute, now,” Lionel said, but the girl already had her door open. She was halfway out of the car when he threw it into reverse and tapped the gas. The girl fell onto the grass. Lionel braked. “Are you all right?” he asked, easy as you please, but the girl didn’t answer—she was limping and in heels, but still, she ran away as best she could, a wounded deer.
“Well, you’ve lost another student,” Leslie said. Lionel didn’t answer. He wasn’t interested in learning any lessons.
The wind blew against the windows of the car. Leaves swirled around them. Leslie unbuckled her seatbelt and got out to close the girl’s door again. When she returned to her seat, they backed away from the tree and drove home.
Lionel unlocked the front door. Inside, the dogs were on their cushions, and they raised their heads but didn’t get up. The lights were still blazing in the living room. Lionel surveyed the wreckage. “We should open another bottle of wine,” he said. “What do you think?”
It was late, and Leslie had grown weary of playing Elizabeth Taylor. She wasn’t in the mood, tonight, to lose her mind or drive off a cliff.
Coyly, she turned the pockets of her coat inside out to show him that they were empty: no tricks. She tucked them back in and then produced from the empty pockets two clean white tissues. She waved them in his direction like flags.
Lionel shook his head, bored. He parodied a mocking clap. But then, at last, he surrendered, too. He sighed and rolled his eyes and kissed her, and turned off the living room lights and took her to bed.