It was not the main ballroom of the Waldorf, but the smaller one that was the familiar arena where old money did its social work. Natalie had sat there many evenings wishing to be elsewhere then finally succumbing to the stupor and daydreaming through the speeches.
Her mother had sat away her young matronhood in this very room and likely as not, her own daughter if she had one, would do the same. She squirmed into the hard banquet chair and wondered if the pain in the small of her back was caused by the poor contours of the chair or . . . She would think about that later.
Alden, seated like exotic bait at the ten thousand-dollar-a-plate table, was far away from her. It mystified her that people were willing to pay such money simply to be near him. It mystified her even more that she had been placed at the two-thousand-dollar table with Cora. “Who do you suppose paid so much to sit with us?” she asked Cora who was seated four chairs away from her at the large, round table.
“I wouldn’t doubt the men would pay that and more to sit with you but I think they got a celebrity to titillate the ladies. Leticia says the table was oversubscribed.”
Natalie shrugged and sipped her wine. The table was filling up with familiar couples that made the society columns in the New York papers. Natalie nodded pleasantly but the women, who knew each other well, fell into private conversation.
Her back kept hurting. Ting. Ting. Ting. She thought of the other time, when she had found out she was pregnant with Jeremy in London. It had not concerned her half so much as this pregnancy. She could no longer predict what Alden would say about anything. He slipped in and out of her life like a shadow and said little.
One day she came into his dressing room and found him sitting in the dim light with one shoe on, one off.
“Is something wrong?” she asked softly.
He passed his hand over his eyes as if clearing the things he was looking at and faced her with an openness that surprised and frightened her. “I must concur with John Jacob Astor,” he said thoughtfully, “that money has never brought me anything but a dull anxiety.”
She sat down next to him and took his hand in hers. It seemed much lighter than she had imagined and she got a mental image of his bones being hollow. “Would you like to go away? Shall we spend some time away from here?”
“Oh, no.” He pulled his hand away. “I couldn’t do that. I’m just getting it under control. The whole thing is coming under control.”
“What, Alden? What have you got under control?”
He looked at her but the veil was back. “My condition . . . my condition with my legs.”
“Of course.” She sounded bright and hopeful. “I’m so glad to hear it.”
Tonight, thinking of the long evening before them, she had been anxious for him. “Are you sure you want to go tonight? Are you up to spending all those hours sitting still?”
“We must go,” he said. “We must help Bill Haas. I knew his uncle. His uncle saved me from drowning.”
She found it hard to imagine that his life had ever been so tractable. That he had been a boy. And had nearly drowned. And had been saved from drowning by Bill Haas’ uncle.
One of the men at the table had asked Natalie to dance. Peter Duchin’s band was playing The Way We Were and the man was humming in her ear, which was irritating. When they returned to the table, there was a new arrival. Rudy Sorbentino was seated directly across from her. He was the opposite of the soft-haired, even-featured men around him and seemed to occupy more space than the others. He caught the look of distaste on her face and smiled knowingly as if he had planned on being disliked and enjoyed it.
Natalie looked away. She didn’t see him often because he conducted his business from hotel rooms and restaurants. He liked people to come to him and they did. Technically he was her boss. She had a title – public relations coordinator – and her name on the letterhead. For this she received a nominal salary that made her an employee. “Take the title and the money,” Cora had insisted. “One never knows when one will need a résumé and something to put on it. Besides, what is PR but speaking well of people and you can do that better than anyone.”
The seat next to her at the table was still empty so she had nowhere to look but to the small stage and was relieved to see someone approach the microphone and ask for silence. The waiters began to serve and, as Cora had predicted, it was peas, mashed potatoes and two slices of gray-brown beef. She felt the queasiness return and left the food untouched.
Sorbentino was still staring at her and she turned steadfastly to the speaker, Senator Fitler, who was discussing the problems of the inner cities. It sounded poetic, “the inner cities.” Too poetic for what it really meant – a pocket of deprivation and unrest, alien to the surrounding calm. She had an inner city herself in the center of her heart where she had locked away all her feelings. Natalie’s Inner City, population: 1. Pregnancy made her feel more alive and radiant than ever. All those hormones galloping through. She toyed with her bracelet and tried not to look at Sorbentino. He was all wrong, yet it was not unpleasant to be looked at so longingly by a man. The men she knew were so bloodless. Perhaps she was bloodless, too, except now. Pregnancy had fired her up.
There was a sound of a chair pulled back and she realized without looking that her dinner partner had finally arrived. She would have to make small talk and try for pleasantries. After all, he had paid plenty to sit with her. In a few minutes she would speak to him. She was just so tired of doing her duty. She didn’t realize he was touching her arm right away. It was so unexpected. Reluctantly she turned and found herself staring at Sam Johnson.
He leaned close to her. “Are you going to eat those peas?”