As one enters the party, she is at the door, greeting. But how can this be the hostess? She is a child. A child in high heels, true; but baby fat presses with a delicate meniscus through the straps of these shoes and fills her red satin dress so it glows like a spanking new pillow. Her oval face is innocent of any wrinkle, though the pursed lips and focused brow indicate where wrinkles will come. Her hand, as one shakes it, has that slightly clammy bonelessness of an infant’s.
Throughout the party, she tends to the little things – seeing that the nuts are in their little bowls, and that the little bowls are distributed fairly among the available tabletops, and that the windows are open a crack but not more than a crack. As she performs these tasks, she dodges among her guests like a puppy seal amid hoary, craggy icebergs. These guests are her husband’s friends, and like him they are enjoying late middle age, with its warts, its wens, its grizzled facial crevasses, its tufts of falling hair, its snaggle teeth, its arthritic hips, its bad backs, its wheezes, its sorry breath and boozy reminiscences.
The child bride shares none of this. She stands benignly at the side of some rumbling uproarious elderly conversation waiting for her moment to duck down and adjust the dish of celery and olives, but she talks only, and then only briefly, to her stepdaughter, a lanky blasé blonde five years older than she. This aging stepdaughter is the product of one of her husband’s earlier marriages. His first wife was a woman in her early twenties, and so the rest of them have been, all six or seven.
In this room of veteran partygoers, getting louder by the minute – the men barking and snuffling and staggering, though the glasses in their hands hold steady as gyroscopes; the women talking in voices parched to a whisper by decades of cigarettes and quarrelling with servants – the child bride should be a breath, a sprig, of spring. But in truth she has that heaviness of youth, that density of bones still supple and muscles still elastic and closely interwoven, of blood as yet undistilled into bitter wisdom. Among the resonating barrel chests floating upon skinny pained old legs, her succulence, her silence make her fascinating. One cannot help asking,
Q: How did you get into this?
A: The same way you did. By being born. I was born later, is the only difference.
Q: Do you miss your own generation?
A: I never had much to say to them. I don’t have much to say to these people, either, but they don’t notice. Or if they do, they don’t blame me for it.
Q: Uh – but isn’t there a rapture in marching through history many abreast, arm in arm, singing the same songs, taking the same drugs, remembering the same wars and assassinations?
A: There is, but it doesn’t compare to the rapture of being oneself. Have you ever read Alone, by Admiral Byrd?
Q: Your husband – how do you confront his flatulence and distemper, his sheer bad complexion, not to mention his houseful of closets, from which all his previous lives must keep tumbling?
A: I confront these things understandingly. I am his wife.
Q: But so young and smooth, and he so old and rough.
A: I’m not sure you understand women.
Q: Tell me.
A: One gives oneself to the abyss, and it becomes a cradle.
They stand side by side at the party’s end, husband and wife; there is little disparity in their heights. He is effusive, drunk, funny, pocked, and aerated by the sinuous channels of experience. She is as sober and smooth and solid and sleek as when we entered. We say good-bye reverently to this wonder. When we come again, she may not be here. She has sacrificed herself, that one of us may live.
Photo by Helmut Newton: Xavier Moreau and his wife, Verona 1984