Some man had called her that, once, in some bar so thick with smoke that she had to wave it away with the iridescent sliver of her hand for the space to blink. It didn’t matter what man, not really, they were all the same – a fleshy face poorly molded, rising in a blur from a collar starched to the stitches by some dowdy wife forgotten in the bottom of the last bottle. He cradled this metaphor in his puckered palm, irrationally proud that in the haze of his mind, he had found something that gleamed, a pretty bauble from his lackluster upper-class tutelage, that he could trade for a moment of her undivided attention.
He had not thought on it, of course, he wasn’t likely capable of that even sober, but there was a peculiar truth to the comparison. She was no goddess of love, no immortal among women, so impossibly exalted that men would prostrate themselves to kiss the arch of her white feet. No, but she was something altogether apart, so distinct, so irreverent, so effervescent, so utterly indescribable by anything as tangible as words that it was impossible to imagine her as arising any other way than out of sea-foam, fully formed, of mysterious and inscrutable origin, verified by no one.
It seemed to those who knew her or pretended to that she had appeared all at once, in the places they frequented, and remained until they became her places, infused with her perfumed breath and the lazy way she turned her hand in a circle on her fine wrist when she wanted a waiter’s attention, a movement they all imitated without collusion, with a sincere sense of their own inferiority. One could not imagine her being born, even less as a child – the picture of her being named something as perfect as her own name, learning to speak, or to walk, or to capture the gaze of a man – unfathomable.
How could she ever have tripped over words and struggled with syllables when no one had ever heard her say a word that didn’t seem to have meaning from both sides of her tongue and left the listener feeling silly for not understanding the joke? How could toddling, wary steps ever have transformed into the graceful way that she moved, which seemed to curve a hip towards every man and woman watching, a lingering gesture meant just for them? How could she have suffered through the mundane scrapes of childhood when now, her reputation preceded her by a day and a half and husbands and wives found themselves equally captivated – by what of her they knew and what of her they did not? How could she ever have been given such a name that they had never heard before, which had been delivered for the first time by those daring, crushing crimson lips – Hadley – when no one could have known what she would have become?
They did not know if that was even her name, just like anything about her could have been a lie – her age, perhaps, her place of birth, her parents, her schooling. It was part of her peculiar charm. No one knew anything about her, and the natural suspicion of the times led them to believe everything she said was a lie – every anecdote was not true, or at least not hers, her very intonation was suspect, as placeless and indistinguishable as it seemed to be. And yet, there was so very little else to entertain them in a society that never changed, where every generation was named for the last and rebelled in the same minute ways before returning to the fold, that they were enchanted by the very deception, embraced it, called it by the name it liked and observed it, adopting its mannerisms, glad of a new diversion at last.
Did it matter? When she was new and morose and gay and whatever she wanted to be, her moods changeable at will, her own creation and artifice? It didn’t, as long as no one wanted to touch the reality of her, wanted, truly, to course through the thin blue veins that traversed her porcelain shoulders, to fill her to the tips of her carefully polished fingers and the soft, downy hairs on the back of her neck that trembled, sometimes, in the depths of the night. And nobody did, for a time – nobody, until there was him.
The women had tried to give her misplaced guidance, their mousy-brown brows knitted together in some triumphant mix of condescension and concern. Don’t do it, they had said, one after the other, at the dismal teas and luncheons that she attended sporadically, almost on a whim, and always with an expectation of servile gratitude. You don’t understand. Who could expect you to? You’re not from here – you’ve not known him since he was a child like I have. He’s no good for you, dear. And besides – there’s his wife to consider.
Their husbands had tried too, but that was out of selfishness, for even if they could not have her they liked to look at her, somehow, and know that they had not been surpassed in their pursuit. You’re more of a chap than that, I thought, they’d tease her on those late nights, expecting one of her clever, sharp-tongued retorts, but she seemed detached from them somehow, interested only in how the brandy felt on her throat, velvety-smooth and warm, and what they would report to him the next day.
Useless, they’d say. She’s yours, utterly yours. Any fool can see that. But what are you going to say to your wife?
Everyone always considered her, except the two involved. When he was with her, he was hers, and it was her name on his blazing lips as he ignited the curves of her thighs, her breasts, and breathed his soul into her mouth. He drank in her intricate scent, the sounds of her turbulent passion, raw, unapologetic, the look of her pressed into her pillows, the blood-red lipstick against her marrow-colored skin, drained of all energy, more alive than anyone he had ever known. What was a wife against the sheer vitality of her life force, what could that wan, pallid woman have to say to one who wore dresses with lower backs than anyone had ever seen, who spoke in low, teasing gushes, like a woman on fire who had to get out what was most important just before she expired?
Wives were not in her experience, just like bills were not meant to be paid and social calls were not to be returned if one didn’t want to, or had a headache, or thought it amusing to cause offense. She lived on a plane above, beyond the mundanity of life, and she was well aware that it was exactly this attribute that made her so intoxicating. Other women gossiped about problems with their servants, she, if pressed, could not have said how much hers were paid or even what function they played in her life. She was utterly absorbed in her vast carelessness, her passions, her vices, her own beauty, her own mythology.
Any other name.
What did it matter, anymore, who she really was or from whence she had come, the stories of her past and her hopes for the future? She pressed into the present with her tremendous, dynamic force, all falsehood and artifice except that which wasn’t, a distinction impossible to find and even more fathomless to describe. She was a labyrinth. She was a grand and elusive mystery. She was anything she wanted to be, her own greatest invention, the triumph of dissociation and observation in collusion. She was infectious and beautiful and cruel and one never knew if she was laughing at the joke or the one who had said it, but was enchanted all the same. An enigma beckoning. Hadley.