“Oh, dahling, I’m still in my robe! Let me go and make my face...” Angelique waved her hand as she turned on her heels back indoors, leaving me to hesitate in the entrance hall before coming on through. Without pause for a proper hello. Even in her robe, Angelique was the very picture of feminine perfection.
A sky blue silken kimono robe with billowing sleeves, covered in purple and orange blossoms so authentic the honey bees themselves had confused them with the real thing on occasion. Her hair a perfect mop of dark curls and her azure eyes only further exaggerated by the sky blue of the robe, like two glimmering polished sapphires. She swayed like a willow in the wind, tall and lithe that she was, leaving me to feel like the dumpling I always felt around Angelique. Already I was beginning to question the pale salmon pink flapper dress in silk I’d chosen to wear, not one to break Angelique’s perpetual fantasy. Creasing and crumpling and punctuated with sweat marks on this balmy Summer’s morning, I had to admit I was feeling less the part of a 1920s era lady of leisure and more a beggar in a shapeless, sweaty sack.
Angelique resurfaced when she was good and ready, this time in an exquisite gown of emerald velvet that plunged all the way in the back and hugged her faultless physique until the mermaid’s tail at the bottom... A shimmering feather plumage in her hair attached by a thin black velvet band, and flat crystal slippers straight out of a fairytale.
It had first begun with reading The Great Gatsby as high school students all those years ago. Angelique had taken her cue from that very moment on from the character of Daisy, holding her up as the epitome of femininity and womanhood. Strange. For me, Daisy had seemed nothing more than fickle and cruel, like a cat that likes to mercilessly toy with field mice. But then, there had always been something of the feline to Angelique, and oh how had she inspired the adoration of so many young and boyish suitors, a pack of eager and stray pups in the lair of a majestic sphinx
“Fancy a Red Snapper?” Angelique spoke from the drinks trolley that had once been a surgical table, now laden with all sorts and shapes of coloured glass gin bottles, for she drank only gin. As Angelique had told me so many times over, legend had it that when the French bartender and original maker of the Bloody Mary had arrived on American shores, so popular was gin that he’d substituted it for the vodka and renamed the drink a Red Snapper, as the owner of the hotel felt the original name far too vulgar for more genteel American sentimentalities.
Before I could answer, Angelique was already rimming two Collins glasses with celery salt. If anything Angelique made of herself quite the bartender, within the comfy confines of her Art Deco apartment. Money was a trifling to her, trust fund baby that she was. Into a large, silver antique shaker went the Tanqueray, the tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish and Tabasco along with a bit of seasoning. A quick shake and the drinks were poured. Angelique next reached for the celery, ripping it into two and taking out only its innermost fledgling stems. The rest she swiftly binned, lamenting, whether to me or to herself, “Dastardly stringy bastards. Utterly unpalatable!”
I remained mute for who was I to argue on the nature of celery. All the same, it felt like an assault to me, me who had grown up with a grandmother who insisted that not even a dollop of gravy made its way into the bin, saving chicken bones and all manners of vegetable scraps for hearty soups later. But then, Angelique was so very different to me. Such things as saving scraps were of little consequence in her world.
She handed me the cocktail, though it was barely nine o’clock in the morning. Again, I accepted, as graciously as I could muster. Her dumb attendee.
Her Siamese, Perdita, had suddenly surfaced, rubbing herself up and down on her mistress’s velvet gown. A right pair the two of them, I mused, but as always, said nothing, sipping on my cocktail. Both so capricious in their affections and yet so very bewitching when they fixed their attentions on you with spellbinding marksmanship.
Angelique opened the double French doors to her apartment, the scent of the star jasmine wafting in, only interrupted by the whiff of smoke as Angelique reached onto the lounge table for her matching mother of pearl set of cigarette lighter and case, lighting up on her once so fashionable cigarettes. She curled herself up on the chaise longue, cigarette in one hand and drink in the other, tucking her crystal slippered feet beneath herself. Like a songbird in a gilded cage. Or perhaps a lioness gazing out on her fiefdom. Mercurial as she could be. Occasionally she swapped the drink for a Chinese paper fan, the hint of a flush on her otherwise ivory visage.
I couldn’t help but remember all those years ago when we were studying English Literature together in varsity, how one of our lecturers had always announced Angelique as the ‘ethereal beauty’ arriving in the classroom. I’d always thought this an odd affectation for a lecturer teaching a course on gender studies and feminism. Although, thinking back now I had often caught that selfsame lecturer regarding herself in the car’s rear view mirror, combing her silken black bob countless times before stepping out.
“Oh I’m so very bored,” Angelique stretched out her long pale arms and yawned while the Siamese mimicked her, stretching its limbs and yawning in tandem to its mistress. “What do you suggest, dahling Mabel?” Again, a right pair I thought.
“Well, we could play a game of gin rummy I guess...”
“Oh, don’t be so utterly pedestrian!” Angelique snapped, cutting me off, failing so dismally short of her expectations. “Urgh.” She groaned in disapproval. “Let’s see... Mmmm... Too early for a séance, I suppose. I do so adore a good séance! I guess for now, it’s best just to enjoy our cocktails until we drink ourselves fun, eh, dahling? My sweet, little Mabel, what do you say?” I hated it whenever she called me ‘little’.
“Oh, sure, Angelique. Whatever you like.” I glanced down at my salmon silken flapper dress growing ever more creased and dishevelled and sweaty. I wished we could sit outdoors, but was too anxious to ask. After the second Red Snapper, maybe.
“How about we move outdoors in the shade to escape the heat?” The breeze felt so very welcoming. But I waited in bated breath for her approval, despising myself all the same.
She had calmed since her first couple of cocktails and seemed all the more convivial for it, hopefully more open to my suggestions this time around. The brief silence hung in the air.
“Of course, dahling,!” she finally drawled, shutting her paper fan in satisfaction. “What a wonderful suggestion!” And again, I felt that peculiar surge of pride, of what it was to have Angelique’s approval. It had been that way our entire friendship since Angelique had swiftly made of me a sidekick on our first day at school together. Amiable Mabel. Always wanting to make her Angelique happy. Trusty Mabel delivering all of the love letters with Angelique as their intended. Trusty Mabel always making herself just that little bit smaller, just that little bit more invisible, little, little Mabel, so that Angelique got all the leading lady roles in their school productions. Trusty little Mabel revealing to Angelique her occasional crushes so Angelique could steal them with a look here and a flirtation there. Amiable Mabel, forever the good sport, laughing at herself when Angelique made her the brunt of the joke for all that her cheeks burned and eyes felt wet with tears. Ever the trusty and amiable, little Mabel.
And today was like no other, as Angelique regaled me with tales of all her conquests and how they so desperately yearned for her. Trusty Mabel ‘ooh’d’ here and ‘ah’d’ there, as Angelique always trusted her to do. Ever the sidekick in this dastardly, uncomely flapper dress, while Angelique looked the wife of a sultan. Playing into her fantasy, as Angelique had expected of me all these years. This bygone era that she refused to exit, stage left. All the world a stage for the ethereal Angelique, and everyone else a small bit supporting role. A woman who had never belonged to the present, certainly not this dull and dreary one, filled as it was with everyday chores like washing dishes, and rising before 9 o’clock, and relentlessly working at a job that brought only some joys but kept the debt collectors at bay. I drifted off while Angelique prattled on, thinking on all these things.
Slowly but surely, almost imperceptibly at first, something was beginning to change in me as I turned my attention back to Angelique on this impossibly warm Summer’s morning. I had been lost for so long to my own thoughts and Angelique had not noticed in the slightest.
“Well of course Simon might be suitable... But then Daniel is more I don’t know, of better breeding if one gives the matter deeper thought. Oh dear, dahling, little Mabel, choices, choices, they tire me. It’s so terribly exhausting! You truly have no idea! This wretched life...” Did she care if I said anything at all? Would she notice? My self-loathing deepened.
But then again, I found myself ruminating... Perhaps I’d had Daisy all wrong in her school days, all those many, many days gone by. Daisy may have seemed like a mean child pinning down butterflies and capturing fireflies in a jar for all their irreducible splendour, trapping them, instead of loving them for their wild splendour with wild abandon... But then, how could a trapped butterfly understand in the first place, what it means to be free? I turned my gaze back on Angelique, feeling now nothing in my heart but an inexhaustible pity. Angelique meanwhile paused in her conversation. For once.
“You look different, Mabel... I don’t know why, but different somehow.” She didn’t know the look of compassion on the face of a lifelong friend. For the first time, Angelique seemed suddenly squeamish, even if barely perceptible. An odd colour on her. It was plain as day for me who had known her for so very long. As if to fortify herself in the face of it, Angelique shifted on her patio furniture, pulling her crystal slippered feet up beneath her, poised yet again like the gilded bird in a cage she’d made of herself, fan flapping again, keeping her cool and ivory as always.
“Oh, do I? I don’t know why... I haven’t done anything new.” But I suddenly knew deep down inside, I was forever changed. And no longer ‘little Mabel’. Never again ‘little Mabel.’ I would face the world of my own making. Of debt, and at times, joyless work, of connections, some shallow some deeper, of waking before 9 o’clock, and of being so much more than just a trusty and amiable, little Mabel. But could she understand?
“Anything the matter, dahling?” I wondered again if she truly cared.
“I’m so sorry, but I just remembered I have something I must do...” She regarded me so very quizzically and naively for a moment it nearly broke my heart.
Whether Angelique would ever fly the coop with me, who could say? Yet, with this growing feeling, I had more important things to do than entertain Angelique’s every whim, and it was time for adieu. For now. Or forever. Again, who could say, but the present that Angelique had long forgotten to greet was waiting for me on the other side. All I had to do was cross over onto the other side. Say farewell to guilded cages. I kissed Angelique fondly on the head before I readied to leave. I had loved her like a girl cherishes a precious doll of porcelain. But there was so much more to love in this life and it was time for Angelique to leave behind the sentence of lonesome performance to dolls, no longer of porcelain or ivory but in the flesh. Maybe. Maybe not. For all of life’s glorious imperfections. All the same, it was time for me. That much I knew.
“Let’s do this again some time,” I murmured wistfully as I waved Angelique farewell in a moment that felt like an eternity.
“Yes, let’s,” Angelique murmured back. But for once, for once, even she knew better.