Sample text for A collection of beauties at the height of their popularity : a novel / Whitney Otto.

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a story of love on the veranda



This is a story of entangled love. The figure on the right is a young man, and the woman whispering in his ear is the go-between or emissary for her mistress, who is as young as the man. The mistress watches from a crack in the screen behind the couple on the veranda. However, it is the way in which the whispering woman wraps her hand around the wrist of the young man (the young man who does not draw away) that suggests she may want him for herself.

That's the thing about the youki singe: you can almost always count on running into someone you know. Why just this evening Theo Adagio and Gracie Maruyama literally bumped into Elodie Parker as she was leaving the cafe;.

They have known Elodie for about three years, but their own friendship goes all the way back to kindergarten. It then flourished for the rest of elementary school, weathered time spent in separate middle schools, became revitalized when they found themselves attending the same high school. They went on to different universities on opposite ends of California, from which they graduated, and discovered they each longed to live in San Francisco. Currently they are happily settled as roommates in a moderately run-down, generously proportioned flat in the avenues.

So many nights begin this way, with Theo and Gracie walking quickly up Columbus Avenue after another uninspired day at their Financial District office jobs. While it is not their intention to stay at the Youki Singe for dinner, chances are they will end up dining on doughy gyoza and bland onion soup as the evening quietly slips away unnoticed. The limited menu also offers a truly terrible Welsh rarebit.

"Why do you even sell it?" Theo once asked the bartender.

"Because the owner read that it was a favorite of American expatriates in Paris who used to dine at La Coupole in the twenties."

"Can it still be considered an expatriate dish if it is served here? I mean, we're all pretty well patriated here. Unfortunately." Theo suffers from daydreams of a life in foreign places.

The bartender cleared away some glasses. "No one ever orders it anyway. Would you?"

Of course not. No one would. Not with all the aerobic hours required to counter a single serving of the stuff. Such is the romance of Paris.

It was never the food that brought customers into the Youki Singe Tea Room: it was the alcohol and the permissive atmosphere and the way it did not try to be anything other than what it was. It was the expensive studios that were too small for the social life the Youki Singe offered; it was the absence of family. It was the promise that each evening held. Though tonight they are here to see a German woman named Margot Mueller.

"You know, grace, I don't really need to be here. I barely know Margot. We don't mean anything to each other," complains Theo. "She's really Roy's friend."

Roy and Gracie have known each other since college; Theo is acquainted with him by way of Gracie. Margot is Roy's latest flame.

"That is why I appreciate your company," says Gracie, firmly taking hold of Theo's elbow as if she might bolt before they arrive at Margot's table.

Margot Mueller's clothes are a tragic combination of current fashion favoring denim and lace. Her slightly dirty hair is tied back with what appears to be a kneesock. One hand grips her black-rimmed eyeglasses while the other holds a wet clump that used to be a cocktail napkin. But more striking than Margot's clothes is her facial expression: brokenhearted, baffled, lost. Her face makes Theo want to pull back.

"I hate this," whispers Theo. "I'm the wrong person for this."

"Sweetie," says Gracie when they arrive at Margot's table; Margot already on her unsteady feet and collapsing, crying into Gracie's arms.

"Iknow he's not my life or anything like that," Margot Mueller says in a slight German accent that is altogether sexier than the girl herself.

Margot blows her nose into the useless napkin. Without interrupting her, Gracie slides the napkin from under her own glass, deftly exchanging it for the sopping mess in Margot's fist. "But he felt like my life. You know? He felt-he feels so-fundamental," she says.

"What exactly did he say?" asks Gracie. Her hand upon Margot's shoulder rests as lightly as a breath.

Margot ignores her question. "He's not worth this-" She throws her arms wide as if to gather up the growing crowd in the Youki Singe in her empty embrace. "He's really not. My God, it is so embarrassing. To behave this way publicly." Margot turns to Theo, demanding, "How could I stay in that apartment, our apartment? How? Oh, let them stare." She fumbles for her bag on the floor, extracts a pack of cigarettes with matches tucked into the cellophane, lights the cigarette.

Of course, no one is watching. This is such an old, old story that even if the people in the Youki Singe knew the particulars of Margot's misery, it wouldn't cause so much as a brief interruption in their own thoughts or conversations.

Theo thinks how usual all this is: the defeated posture, the unfocused, red eyes, the preoccupation, the dazed aspect, the general brokenness. The shift of love. The failure of love. Then watches Gracie in all her kindness, thinking, She is so good. Theo's thoughts work themselves to Roy. Then Theo is again considering Margot, surprised to find that what she does feel is guilt.

"Everyone's been through this, right?" asks Margot. "Right, Theo?"

It was long ago when Theo won the heart of Gracie's first boyfriend. They were fourteen; Gracie was crazy about him; Theo didn't consider him one way or the other. Then, without warning, he withdrew his affections from Gracie, leaving her bereft.

Theo, with the conviction of a crusader fighting for the meek, confronted the boy. Why, she demanded, did he walk away from Gracie? What did he want anyway?

"Well," he said thoughtfully, "I like someone with cool clothes."

His answer was so unexpected that it immediately disarmed Theo. As his unabashed, sincere shallowness brought her up short, curiosity overtook righteousness.

"Oh," she said, "like who, for example?"

"Debbie Dean dresses cool."

Debbie Dean's indisputable homeliness drove her mother to spend irrational sums on her daughter's wardrobe in an effort to correct nature. Because her mother had such disregard toward reality, not to mention a predilection for snobbery, and Debbie's personality left much to be desired as well, Theo had supposed this was all evident to the boy.

"And she can't be taller than me," he continued.

"Anything else?" asked Theo.

"I like someone who makes me laugh," he said. "Someone like you."

Theo could feel her face warm to the unexpected thrill of attention. "I make you laugh?"

"I like you."

"But you can't," she said. "You really can't."

It had not been easy to tell Gracie that the boy now liked Theo and that Theo (she was sorry) liked him back. Theo could barely tolerate the sound of her own words as they came hurriedly from her mouth. Still she was powerless to reverse these events. Gracie tried solemnly to follow what Theo was telling her, could see her trying to sort out loyalties. Theo unable to explain that her inexperience was so complete she could knowingly do a wrong thing because the magnetism of this boy-or maybe it was the compelling quality of the

situation-overrode everything.

This boy, Theo wanted to say, held out a sense of possibility to her. Surely you can see that, said Theo, you of all people.

And, much later in her life, when Theo thought back on this conversation, she would add what she could not then articulate: You of all people, who fell as easily for him as I am falling now . . .

Margot is again curled up in Gracie's arms. Gracie soothing there there as she leans her cheek into Margot's undone hair. Theo knows that she would not be as comforting, as natural, as warm. No closeness. No intimacy. There was a time when Theo had been jilted by someone she thought she loved and ended up following Gracie around for three days. When Gracie went to work, Theo called in sick and then went to Gracie's office. If Gracie went to the dry cleaner's, so did Theo. They spoke very little during this episode; the nearness of Gracie was comfort enough. Even at night, Theo crawled into bed with her.

Theo is wondering what it is like to be Gracie. Now, though she is not the brokenhearted one, Theo still responds to Gracie's whispered promise that everything will be all right. It will be all right.

"Last month," says margot, "for my birthday, Roy decorated the entire apartment with blue balloons. Everywhere. On the ceiling and blinds and our coats hung on their hooks. Even the dog had one attached to her collar. The cat was obviously less willing to participate since her collar balloon was a ripped piece of rubber hanging from her neck. And he made a blue dinner and a blue cake. He played blues on the stereo."

"What would constitute a blue dinner?" asks Theo.

Margot continues, "And I thought, What a funny guy. Does he plan this stuff or does it occur to him as he walks home from work?"

"Does it matter?" asks Gracie, pushing back strands of Margot's hair that have worked themselves free of the sock. She tucks them behind Margot's ears, which are a little large and jutting.

"It matters," says Margot emphatically, "because it changes everything if he planned it. It tells me who he does it for."

"Who else would he be doing it for if he's not doing it for you?" asks Theo, confused.

"Himself," says Margot.

Roy, it turned out, was seeing someone else. That is what Margot says the following night at a Chinese restaurant so cavernous that polite conversation was close to impossible.

"Is that what he told you?" asks Gracie.

"It is what I know," says Margot, playing with her food using a pair of chopsticks until she tosses them on her plate, shoving everything away.

Ah, the Heartbreak Diet, observes Theo. It leaves you looking lousy in every respect except for your weight. And you feel as awful as you look; if you look starved, you also look starved for affection.

"Is this intuition or something more concrete than that?" asks Theo. This conversation is rendering her a little breathless.

"It's definite."

"Are you sure?" asks Theo.

"Yes. I'm awfully, horribly fucking sure." Margot's hand goes to her mouth. "I don't know what to do," she says softly.

"You still keep your studio, don't you?" asks Theo slowly. "You have another place."

"Oh, what difference does that make?" cries Margot.

"Listen," says Gracie, "I've known Roy practically half my life. Things will work out. He's just confused right now. That's all. It happens, you know."

"Have you talked to him? What did he say?"

"Actually, I didn't talk to him," says Gracie. "He called the other night and Theo"-Gracie gestures toward her-"he was talking to you, wasn't he?"

Margot turns to Theo.

"He really didn't say much of anything," mumbles Theo, but it doesn't seem to matter because Gracie continues, "No, look, I'm simply saying that this sounds exactly like Roy. I'm sure he'll come around. He gets restless and distracted, that's all." Gracie scratches her chair back to face Margot, pulling Margot's chair toward her. Margot's expression is unsettled, as if turning over what Gracie has just said.

Theo can imagine Margot's thoughts:

1. Is Gracie saying that this is how Roy treats his girls, thereby placing her as one of many, indistinguishable from all who came before?

2. Does he confide in Gracie (or is it Theo) things he will not say to her, his beloved?

3. Considering the first two things, what does it mean to be Roy's beloved?

Now Gracie is saying, "I think the three of us-you, me, and Theo-should embark on a little camping trip. Why not? We can go up around Mendocino, say. Or wherever we like. The gold country? We can play it by ear."

Margot is listening without listening. Theo cuts in. "Gracie, I'm not sure I can-"

Gracie cuts her off. "Wherever we want. You can get a clear head about all of this and, maybe, by the time we return, Roy will have come to his senses." Gracie's hands hold Margot's. "You might not even want him anymore."

"Why don't you two go wi--" Theo says, with Gracie silencing her with a glance.

"What do you think? Maybe things will be different."

Margot laughs ruefully. "Oh, like Roy will remember that he loves me?"

Gracie laughs. "Yeah. Something like that."

"Why do you involve me?" asks Theo of Gracie as they walk toward the bus stop, illuminated by the summer moonlight.

Somehow, theo inherits margot. She sits beside her at the movies (Margot's love-scattered mind is incapable of following any plot, and she often asks Theo to explain it, irritating Theo and everyone around them); sharing meals that only Theo eats; dancing in clubs (though neither is a particularly good dancer). All the while Theo is spinning endless theories regarding Roy's behavior (though Margot still sees him every morning across the kitchen table).

Gracie, busy planning their camping trip, presses Theo to keep company with Margot, saying, You be my emissary.

The summer day is so rare in its beauty that when Theo climbs the inside stairs of the second-floor flat she shares with Gracie, she does not think to call out to her. Who could remain inside on such a day? When Theo reaches the landing, she notices a man's jacket casually tossed over the banister. In the kitchen are two empty cups and a tea bag, wet and crushed near one of the saucers. Cigarette butts mingle with the roachlike remains of a pair of joints. And still Theo does not call out Gracie's name.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Young adults -- Fiction.
San Francisco (Calif.) -- Fiction.
Bars (Drinking establishments) -- Fiction.