7.02 / February 2012

The Price of Luxury

My mother and I lost our house in Darien, Connecticut after my father left us. He just disappeared one day – no packed suitcase, no missing cufflinks. I was only seventeen, and my mother didn’t tell me what happened for months. He’d been stealing from his company, for years as it turns out, insurance fraud.

It was strange after he left, especially Sundays. He was rarely around during the week, but Sunday morning was our time to do the crossword together, before my mother woke. Sometimes he made me pancakes; it was the only thing he knew how to cook.

When my mother could no longer pay the mortgage, we sold the house and moved to Stamford, only a few miles from Darien. It might as well have been a foreign country. My mother had been the wife of an insurance executive too long not to have some weapons in her arsenal. She went blonde and bought dresses that flattered her figure. Monthly appointments for facials at the spa became weekly visits. She wore a double strand of pearls my father had given her and took off her wedding ring. That golden band slipped right off her manicured finger.

Julian Curtis called on my mother when my father disappeared. Julian worked for my father for a decade and got pulled up the ranks by him. He had perfect teeth and wore Italian suits with silk ties. He looked every bit the corporate assassin. No one at the company trusted Julian anymore; they assumed he knew about the fraud. He took a job with a competitor after getting a payout from his golden parachute.

He and my mother began dating. They’d run off for long weekends in the Berkshires, or to Manhattan for a Broadway show and an overnight at The Plaza. Julian liked buying my mother jewelry and parading her around at his company events. He needed an attractive companion he could take to fund raising functions, political dinners, or golf events. It had to be someone who knew the corporate mingling routine. He joked that both he and my mother had been trained by the best.

My mother slipped back into her wife-like role and got invited to better parties which made her happy. Her social standing meant something to her; it was a currency to be traded for things she needed like entry to the right country clubs, yachting marinas and living at the right address.  Conveniently, Julian had a five-bedroom house in Greenwich to himself after his divorce. My mother decided we would move in with him.

Julian’s 5000 square foot home was built on the waterfront. It had a private dock, Olympic size swimming pool and a movie theater. Julian had his decorator create a bedroom suite for me on the first floor, away from the rest of the house. The bedroom had white lace curtains and a king sized bed with a pink bedspread. An antique desk, painted white, sat in front of a large window overlooking the water.

Julian checked in on me before I went to bed.  He told me I was as smart and beautiful as my mother and he was glad we had come to stay with him. We talked about where I wanted to go to college and I mentioned my mother wanted me to go to her school. Julian said he would pay the tuition. I couldn’t accept that kind of gift, I told him.

He came over to my desk and leaned down beside me. His lips brushed against my ear. “If things go my way, I’ll marry your mother within the year, so there would be no reason to refuse.” He put his hand on my arm. “Swear you won’t tell her. Can you keep it our secret?” I nodded my agreement.

He started to run his fingers through my hair. He kept talking about colleges and acting like he wasn’t touching my hair; it was weird. He took my brush off my dresser and brushed my hair and ran his hand over it. He told me how soft my hair was, and how nice it felt. Goosebumps broke out on my arms and my cheeks flushed. Then he kissed the top of my head and said goodnight.

I sat there too surprised to say anything. I got into bed thinking how odd the whole thing was, although it wasn’t much to put up with from a guy who was so important to my mother. If he wanted to touch my hair it wasn’t a big deal. That’s what I told myself. Who am I to say no?

Julian found other excuses to come into my room. He checked the heating vents, the locks on my windows, and the drain in my shower. As a weekend project, he added shelves in my walk-in closet so I could buy more sweaters and shoes.

I asked my mother if she realized she was dating a handyman, not an executive. My mother laughed and said I should be thankful if he wanted to do a few harmless tasks to make me more comfortable. She was amused by how much Julian liked to dote on me. She thought it was because he had no children of his own.

Julian took on changing the regular light bulbs to halogens. He unscrewed the bulb in the lamp on my desk and I stopped working on my homework because there wasn’t enough light to read. I waited for him to finish but he just kept fidgeting with the bulb and looking at me. I didn’t know what he expected so I stared back at him, but his fidgeting made me anxious.

“What are you wearing to school tomorrow?” he asked. “I usually wear jeans,” I said. Julian thought I should wear skirts. He went into my closet and looked through my clothes, took out a few miniskirts and some of my nice tops and laid them on my bed. He asked me to try them on while he sat at my desk.

He had me model each outfit so he could say whether or not he liked it. If he didn’t, I had to stand in front of the mirror in my bra and panties while he decided which clothes I would try on next. I stood there with my arms crossed over my chest until he made his selection. When he was satisfied with what I had on, he told me to wear it to school.

He reached into his pocket and smiled while he looked at my bare legs. He pulled out his wallet and peeled off two hundred dollar bills and put them on my desk. He wanted me to buy more clothes like what I had on, and said if I needed more money all I had to do was ask.

I was ashamed at the way he looked at me; I wanted to cover up. He glanced at the money on the desk. He wanted me to thank him for it, but I couldn’t.  The words stuck in my throat. And as I stood there in my mini skirt, Julian got up from the desk and kissed my cheek. He lingered and his stubble scratched my face. My stomach clenched so hard I gagged.

Around the time I was accepted to my mother’s alma mater, Julian proposed to her. There was no question about her answer. I never told her about the goings-on between Julian and me. She wouldn’t have believed me, so I pretended nothing happened.

Julian took us out for dinner, to celebrate my following in my mother’s footsteps, he said, and their upcoming wedding. He bought bottles of expensive wine and poured my mother generous glasses. When we got home, my mother went to her bed and Julian came to mine.

He told me he was happy I got into the school I wanted, and how glad he was to make it possible. He said he’d miss having me around and that we should make the most of the time we’d have together before I left.

Not everyone got to go to such a prestigious school, he added, and sometimes to achieve their goals people had to sacrifice. He said my father was a great man who made sacrifices to achieve his fortune. Sometimes, Julian said, people got hurt along the way. That was the business he and my father were in and it’s what the actuarial tables predicted, he said, it was just statistics. I hated him for talking about my father that way.

He asked me to remove his tie. I loosened the knot and my hand shook as I slid the silk fabric out from under his collar. He told me to undress. I did as he said. He pulled back my comforter told me to lie on the bed, which I did. He lay beside me. As he touched me, I thought about the price I’d pay for my mother’s happiness. I smelled the wine on his breath and squeezed my eyes shut, but my skin couldn’t block out what I didn’t see. Julian moved on to things neither my mother nor my father could insure me against; things I can’t talk about, even now.

Carol Deminski's work has appeared in Spilling Ink Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Jersey Devil Press, and the Aroostook Review, among other journals. Her blog can be found at: www.cdeminski.wordpress.com. She lives and writes in Jersey City, NJ.
7.02 / February 2012