A review describes Dior’s Poison (1985) as a “femme fatale” perfume, to be used in very small amounts because it is so strong. The bottle looks a bit like a sickly, purple-hued apple, evoking the witch from Snow White.
Late the next morning, she called Peter to ask how he was doing.
“I’ve got one hell of a sore head,” he said, sounding a little grumpy. “Cynthia, will you come to dinner on Friday? I want to apologize in person.”
“You don’t need to apologize, but dinner would be nice,” she said. “Tell you what. I’ll let you pay this time.”
“Thanks,” he said dryly. “I’ll pick you up at six.”
She hung up, feeling relieved and happy. She would wear something sexy to Maxime’s, and there would be another night of sweet love. Maybe they would go to Peter’s place. He lived in town, in a condo in the Graduate Hospital area. She ought to go shopping at Lloyd’s for something special— a new dress and heels, or a pretty handbag. Or maybe she would visit Trousseau, for some lingerie. She wished she could go after work, but she had promised to meet Leslie Favreau for a drink.
They both specialized in Roman art, and they touched base a couple of times a year. Sometimes they saw each other at conferences, and sometimes they had coffee or met for a glass of wine. When she got Leslie’s email suggesting they get together, Cynthia was uncomfortable, remembering what Andy had said, but she didn’t want to refuse the invitation. Peter had a long sexual history. If she was going to continue seeing him, she had to get used to the idea of encountering his former lovers. She firmly suppressed the lurking thought that some of them might be current lovers.
She arrived early at Vintage in Center City. It was a small wine bar, with limited seating, and she was relieved to snag a table for two. She decided to wait until Leslie arrived before ordering, but after fifteen minutes, she gave up her scruples and asked for a glass of Pinot Grigio. As luck would have it, Leslie stepped in the door just as the server was placing her glass on the table. She lifted an eyebrow delicately, as though to comment on Cynthia’s rudeness, but said nothing aloud as they air-kissed each other on both cheeks.
“How is your exhibition coming along, the one on perfumes?” she asked.
“It’s almost ready,” said Cynthia. “I’m getting excited about the opening. I hope you received an invitation to the gala?” she asked politely. Leslie placed a high value on participating in Philly’s social scene, and preferred to mix with well-heeled people. Therefore she made an annual donation to the Institute, in order to insure her inclusion on the guest list for black-tie events like this. But Tina, the development coordinator, had told Cynthia that Leslie specifically asked how little she could give and still be invited. When Andy heard this, she snorted and said, “That’s Leslie. She asks for her name to be kept anonymous in the program, but really it’s so they won’t see the amount of her gift. That lets her pretend to the other guests that she gave a bundle.”
At the mention of the gala, a faint smile appeared on Leslie’s face. “Yes, I’ll be there,” she said. “In fact, Peter Noel is going to be my escort.” She turned to the server. “A glass of the Bouvet Rosé Brut.”
Cynthia looked down at her wine, trying to control her expression. Her heart began to pound with the same sick thud she had felt when Andy first mentioned Peter’s connection with Leslie.
Leslie laughed softly at her reaction. “Yes, Peter can be so irritating, can’t he? And such a flirt. I know he’s been plaguing you with his attentions recently. In fact, he made a little wager with me. He was certain that being on the advisory board would give him a chance to seduce you, and he’s been keeping me informed every step of the way.”
Cynthia looked up sharply, stunned by what she heard. Her face began to burn.
Leslie locked eyes with her. “Oh yes, Peter tells me everything. We’ve been close for years. But I’m so glad you didn’t let him get to you. He was quite disconsolate after you refused him on Thanksgiving, but I told him he was only getting what he deserved for making you cry.” She gave Cynthia a venomous smile.
So this is it, she thought numbly. The knife is in. The blade had been razor-sharp, and delivered without warning. How deeply it cut! She realized that the pain would soon grow worse, much worse. When she left here, she would think over the implications of Leslie’s words, applying them retrospectively to Peter’s behavior, and the full horror of his actions would become clear. A part of her wanted to collapse, to throw herself on the floor and sob. But another part of her was now aware that, for some unknown reason, Leslie Favreau hated her. Leslie was doing this on purpose, and Leslie was —she had no doubt— as much the architect of her pain as was Peter. The two of them had planned this, together.
Cynthia’s mother, Marian, had trained her carefully in the behavior of a lady. Ladies are always polite, and always composed. A lady does not cry in public. This, however, did not mean that ladies were defenseless and passive. She took a couple of deep breaths, mastering her emotion with a supreme effort. She reached into her handbag.
“Your conversation is always so amusing, Leslie,” she said, curving her lips into the semblance of a smile. “But I’m afraid I have to go now.” She put her hand on the table, with a twenty and a five underneath. “By the way, Tina in our development office tells me you’ve been short on funds lately. Please allow me.” And leaving the money on the table, she swept past Leslie and out the door, which was mercifully close.
Halfway home, her control broke, and the tears ran down her face. Some passersby gave her curious stares, while others looked away as soon as they saw the state she was in. She finally made it home, cried for an hour or so, and called the Institute to say she was taking a personal day and wouldn’t be at work tomorrow. Then she made an appointment for the next day at Beauty Rescue, a day spa in the city, and ordered the works: facial, manicure, pedicure, haircut and stress-relieving massage. This was her mother’s cure for any serious emotional upset, and Cynthia had found it surprisingly effective. In any case, it was far preferable to a pig-out session, or a drinking binge, which would exact an equally high caloric price. She wanted to get herself away from the refrigerator. And if she burst into fits of tears at the spa every so often, nobody would hold it against her. They saw that kind of thing all the time. All their clients were either preparing for a joyous event or getting over a horrible one.
On Friday she went to work, and the day passed in a dreamlike haze. She didn’t tell Andy what had happened; at least not yet, though she noticed her friend casting some inquiring looks her way. Her eyes were just starting to lose their puffiness, and she didn’t want to risk a relapse. She went home, ate a meager dinner of lentil salad with a glass of wine for courage, and spent a half-hour lying down with cucumber slices on her eyes, feeling Ursula’s moist, cool nose touch her face and hands from time to time. She scratched the cat’s neck, saying, “You wait and see, little bear. I’m going to make you proud.” Still in her work clothes, she rose, fixed her hair and makeup, and then waited for Peter to arrive.
When she opened the door, he gave her a big smile, but it faded as soon as he saw her expression. “Something’s wrong,” he said quietly. “Cynthia, what is it?”
She motioned him inside and shut the door. “Leslie Favreau asked me to meet her for a drink Wednesday after work.”
Peter went very still. They stood there, looking at each other in silence. After a long, uncomfortable pause, he asked, “What did she say?”
“She said you made a bet with her as to whether you could bed me. She said that you tell her everything. She knew about Thanksgiving, Peter.”
His face was turning pale. “I know that it sounds terrible, Cynthia, but you have to believe me: it’s not like that.”
“Oh really, Peter? What is it like?”
“It started out… with me behaving badly. I’ve always colored outside the lines, Cynthia. I admit that. But then everything changed.” She could see from his expression that he realized how lame he sounded.
She longed desperately to hear him say that it was all a mistake. That none of it was true. That he loved her. But the truth was better than a lie that might explode in her face any second. Even so, she told herself, he had a right to confirm or deny the story. “Peter, I’m only going to ask this once. Did you make a wager about me with Leslie Favreau?”
“Yes,” he said.
She was staggered by the admission, even though she had expected it. “Did you tell her I cried on Thanksgiving?”
“Please go now.”
“Chérie, you don’t understand. You don’t know the whole story.”
“Don’t call me that. Don’t call me at all. Peter, I just asked you to leave.” She opened the door.
He took a step or two toward the doorway, holding her gaze, and then left.
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: According to Rudyard Kipling, the female of the species is more deadly than the male. I don’t buy into this stereotype. We only need read the newspaper to falsify it. And yet, there is the occasional piece of evidence in support…