The Landscape of Pleasure

The man next to my father at the bar winked shyly at me. I had seen this man before. His name was Russell. He wasn’t a member of our club, but he and my father were friendly. He was a former Army officer, and he restored classic cars. “He’s unstoppable,” my father often said. “That man’s unstoppable.”
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Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

Tuesday was Family Night at Highland, and the club’s waiters set up the buffet table in a chilly, vaulted dining room whose gleaming windows overlooked the final hole of the golf course. Supper was served from half past five until eight, unfailingly, even in August, when most families vacationed to escape the suffocating heat. Highland’s clean, glistening food—pink slabs of roast beef, smothered chicken, deviled eggs—resembled the classic yet hearty fare served after a funeral, whose primary aim was to satisfy. The club’s desserts, though, were my mother’s favorite. When her black pencil skirts fit—she ordered them from Colette in Paris—my mother allowed herself a spongy snippet of coconut cake, which was baked by a widow who lived in the oldest neighborhood in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Highland had been serving the same cakes as far back as I could remember, and my father often complained that their taste never changed. My mother always told him that was precisely the point, but, from her, that sort of remark was ignored.

A single cup of black coffee always signaled the end of my mother’s supper, and two weeks before I left for college, she finally permitted me to have one with her.

“Diana, please get a clean plate if you want more food.” My mother wiped the red smear of lipstick from the rim of her china cup with my father’s greasy napkin. “Quit picking at your father’s scraps.”

I finished chewing the chicken finger I’d poached from his plate. My father was drinking in the club’s smoky, English-style bar with a partner in his law firm.

My mother forked a bite of coconut cake off my dessert plate and eyed the other wives in the meager crowd. In those days, like today, the women my mother’s age wore leather pumps and large, splendid diamond studs.

“Don’t slouch, Diana,” she said. “Where’s your friend Christine tonight?”

“Her mother’s in Barbados,” I said. “Their maid’s fixing her supper.”

My mother frowned. “Christine’s mother ought to learn how to keep a handle on her belongings.”

I stood up quickly. “I’m going to the ladies’ room.”

My mother pursed her lips. “Hurry. Your father needs rounding up.”

“I’ll be back in a minute.”

The hallway outside the bathroom was padded with dusty green carpet. A notched console table stood against the wall. Two gilt bud vases, perpetually bursting with dried violets, partially concealed an old rotary phone. It was icy inside the bathroom, but I lingered in front of the full-length mirror. Carefully, I retraced my mouth with the nude Wet n Wild lipstick I’d found in the front seat of my convertible the day before. I held my breath until the tube was back in my dress pocket. I started to push the bathroom door open, but a man’s voice—a muffled, electric hum—stopped me.

I cracked the door. My father’s hip was pressed against the console table, and he was coiling the phone cord around his narrow wrist. His face was tilted away from mine. “There’s no reason to feel that way. You know better. I know you do. Think.”

When I tapped the small of his back, he jerked around. His earlobes burned rusty red, as if they’d been pinched. The receiver plunked hollowly down on the carpet.

“Hey there, baby doll.”

“Mom’s ready to go.” I squeezed his elbow, and his gold cuff links winked in the dim light. Each one resembled a man’s tooth. I’d paid for them with money I’d earned lifeguarding at the club’s pool the summer before. Whenever my father argued an important case, he wore them to court.

He raised his Old-Fashioned. “You go on back to the table,” he said. “I’ll meet you two in the bar. I haven’t signed my ticket yet.”

I flitted back into the dining room. The instant my mother spied me, she sprang up. “It’s late,” she said, and pressed her lips together. “Why don’t you get him tonight?”

At the bar, my father was standing beside a squat coffee table with his partner and a friend. Like his partner, he wore a soft, gorgeous beige suit, with his white shirt parted a little ways at the neck. When I caught his eye, my father promptly stubbed out his cigarette. The other man beside him winked shyly at me. This man was tall, and carefully yet casually dressed. I’d seen him before—his name was Russell. He wasn’t a member of Highland, but he and my father had become friendly the year before. He restored classic cars, Thunderbirds and Mustangs, to pristine condition. My father often repeated tales about Russell’s Army tours; Russell was a retired officer. “He’s unstoppable,” my father often said in an edgy, admiring voice. “That man’s unstoppable.”

Russell’s eyes met mine. “Here for your dad?” He was at least an inch taller than my father, with huge, pale gray eyes. His cheeks were tan, lean. “Are you trying to keep him on the straight and narrow?”

My father’s eyes darkened. “That’s enough.” He clasped my shoulder. “Diana leaves for UNC in a couple of weeks. She won a scholarship, tuition and everything.”

“She looks like a movie star.” Russell’s mouth tightened. “An old-school one.”

My father flattened a hand between my shoulder blades. “She does, doesn’t she?”

They nodded, and a thrilling heat bloomed beneath my skin.

After my father drove us home, he retreated to his study off the foyer, and my mother went into the kitchen and uncorked a bottle of cheap white wine. When I was in eighth grade, she and my father had tried to quit drinking. It was their final, failed attempt. After that, my mother began repeating a line from a bald psychologist on television: you can never escape your own mind. Fate was your mind, she often said, and your mind was set in stone at birth.

A mound of pink shopping bags lay on the kitchen table. My mother fingered the white down comforter she’d bought for my dorm room that afternoon. We still had to order my dresses for rush.

She filled her chipped wine glass to the brim. “Quit looking at me like that, Diana. You know how crazy that makes me.”

The door to the study hung open, and every few minutes, my father’s laughter—a low, nervy thrumming—could be heard.

My mother bolted her wine. “Your father acts just like Daddy sometimes.” She stood ramrod straight and marched out of the kitchen, drawn, apparently, by a wiry, irresistible force.

My car keys lay in a scarlet bowl on the counter. The bowl also contained three pink-lacquered chicken eggs. My mother had blown out their insides with a coffee straw before incising circles into their sides. Tiny painted figurines from Crafts, Frames & Things were used to re-create scenes from “Cinderella” and “Snow White” inside them. Every year, before Christmas, she sold these ornaments at a friend’s booth during the Junior League’s Holiday Fair.

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