DELETED SCENE #2
In many early drafts of the book, Lucy’s sister Laura played a bigger role. I had a whole involved back story where Laura used Perfect Red to lure in the older, most successful brother of the man she really loved. It was good stuff –especially the details about Saks Fifth Avenue, where Laura went to look at wedding dresses – but I decided that it got in the way of the main storyline, rather than enhancing it. Note that in this deleted scene, Laura is older than Lucy. In the final version, Laura is younger. I had to make that change to get Lucy’s age right in the year of the story. Dealing with time in fiction is very tricky, and I had painted myself into a corner, time-wise. I needed a way out, and making Lucy older was it.
The next day, a Saturday, my sister Laura came into the city on a train. She told our mother that we were going to see an exhibit of Jackson Pollack paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, and since my mother thought his art was blasphemous, she made no attempt to join us. What we were really doing was looking at wedding suits with June, the family pariah. Laura’s outfit would be custom made by a seamstress my mother knew, a Polish woman who had made the wedding attire of several Wilmington girls, but Laura was intent on having the latest styles; you couldn’t learn about the latest styles in Delaware.
Laura, June and I all met at Grand Central Station, and walked the ten blocks up to Saks Fifth Avenue. June led us confidently through the gilded glass doors. We glided past displays of scarves and gloves and perfume, and were headed towards the elevators in the center of the floor, when June turned into the ladies’ lounge. She stopped, opened her handbag and dug out a tube of Perfect Red. She turned to me.
“Put this on,” she said.
I noticed, then, that both Laura and June were wearing the matte red lipstick. How could I have missed it?
I waved her off. “I’m fine,” I said.
“We have to look as though we might actually purchase one of these suits,” June said, “We have to look sophisticated.”
I didn’t think there was any way that a red lipstick would make us look sophisticated. It seemed to me to be a silly charade. “We’re allowed to look at the dresses that are for sale no matter what the color of our lipstick,” I said, “Anyone is.”
June cocked her hip, which reminded me of the way Cecelia had stood in the ladies’ lounge at Fenwick the week before. “Are you scared of Perfect Red, Lucy Lawrence?” she asked.
I blushed, because I knew what she was really asking – Was I that much of a prude? “No,” I said, “Of course not.” But the truth was much more nuanced than that. All I’d ever done was let a boy kiss me chastely on the lips and hang an arm casually across my shoulder. I was afraid that if I let them do anything else, they wouldn’t stop. That was a given. But even more than what the boys wanted, I was afraid of my own desire. I yearned for a grand and reckless passion, and often thought about how it would feel to give myself over to it – the hands, the lips, the skin, the heat. But I’d never let myself experience anything like that. I was certain that once you let yourself go, there was no returning to solid ground. This had to be the reason everyone in my town never stepped out of the lines drawn by their mothers, their preachers and their teachers: it was a very short distance between a kiss and disaster. I was, in fact, terrified of Perfect Red.
June lowered her voice. “Do you believe what they say about it? That it can drive a man wild with desire?”
I thought of my sister Laura luring in Bill, and Cecelia and the men of Fenwick Publishing. I thought of my dad holed up in the garage driven wild by a different kind of desire. I kept my eyes on June, and away from my sister. “The evidence certainly supports it,” I said.
Laura laughed – a haughty little trill. “My well-mannered little sister is as appalled by my behavior as our mother.”
I turned on her. “That’s not true,” I said.
Laura raised her eyebrows, inviting an explanation.
“I’m not appalled,” I said.
“No? Then what is it, Lucy? Are you jealous?”
The air seemed to stop moving. I froze. I wasn’t jealous of Laura and Bill – their carefully prescribed roles, their polite union. I wanted far more than that. I wanted a passion so fierce that it couldn’t be contained. I wanted a love so strong that it wasn’t safe. I just didn’t know where to find it – and once I did, how to come back from it. “No,” I said. “It’s not that. It’s…” I stopped. I couldn’t say my thoughts out loud. I could barely even admit them to myself.
“What?” Laura demanded.
I met her gaze. “It’s just that I don’t think people should be so cavalier about love.”
She clucked. “Who’s being cavalier?”
“You were sweet on one boy after another all through high school, and then you promised yourself to Bobby and now you’ve switched to Bill.”
She smiled. “I traded up, that’s all.”
“She was smart, if I do say so myself,” June said, “I’m trying the same tactic when the executives from Stella next come to town. I have an American sales representative who’s sweet on me, but wouldn’t being a French executive’s mistress be so much dreamier?”
“Mais, oui,” Laura said.
“That’s not for me, either,” I said.
Laura rolled her eyes. “You want something out of a storybook,” she said, “You’ve been ruined by reading, just like mom always said you would be.”
“Quite the opposite, actually,” I said, “I’ve just gotten a promotion at work. On my first day on the job, I talked to a famous writer.”
“What good will that do you unless he’s an eligible bachelor?” Laura asked.
“Girls,” June said, stepping in to keep the peace, “we have some shopping to do.” She held the lipstick out to me.
“No thanks,” I said,” and walked out.
The Saks Fifth Avenue salon on the eighth floor was the plushest room I’d ever seen. I felt as though I was in Eleanor Roosevelt’s sitting room. The ceiling had a curved edge and recessed lighting. The curtains were heavy damask silk and the carpets were thick cream wool. On one wall was a large three-piece mirror, on another was a large open fireplace, and on every side table was a crystal table lamp. The dress I had purchased just a few months before at W.T. Grant felt shabby in comparison and I found myself wondering if Perfect Red would have made it better.
June swept up to a saleswoman and started explaining what we were interested in seeing. “Cream colored woolen suits,” she said, “in whatever styles the debutantes are wearing this season. My cousin, Laura, is getting married in January and she wants the chicest look.”
“Congratulations,” the woman said. “Obviously you girls are interested in the most up to date styles,” she said, glancing from June to Laura and ignoring me. “Perfect Red?”
June beamed. “I’m a Stella salesgirl downstairs, actually,” she said. You would have thought she was boasting about being the Queen of England.
“Are you?” the woman asked. She was clearly impressed. “My friend Francine and I were just talking about what it is about that lipstick,” she said, “She has a thirty year old aunt who started wearing Perfect Red – thirty years old! -- and now she’s engaged to be married.”
June nodded knowingly. “You can’t believe the miracles we hear. Women come back to thank us all the time.”
“So are the rumors true?” the woman asked.
June grinned. “Which ones?”
“About how they might stop making Perfect Red?”
June leaned towards her. “They say there’s only one chemist who knows the secret formula for the pigment. They say he threatened Isadora Stella that he’d stop making it if she didn’t meet his demands for more money. So the whole enterprise is dependent on one mad scientist!”
“Women will riot in the streets if they stop making Perfect Red,” the woman said.
June winked. “Men might, too,” she said, and they all laughed.
While our saleslady went into the back to select some outfits to show us, I turned to June. “Is that true about the chemist?” I asked.
“Who knows? They teach us to tell that story. It helps with the mystique of the product, and mystique is part of the reason Perfect Red sells so well.”
“You really know what you’re doing,” Laura said.
June nodded. “I try. After her visit next month, Isadora Stella is bringing her top three top salesgirls back to France to see where the product is made. I aim to be one of those girls. Wouldn’t it just be tres bien to travel to Paris and see all the boutiques where Isadora buys her fabulous clothes and the chic cafes where she drinks champagne every night?”
“If you can catch the French executive before you go, you’d have a French lover in France,” Laura said.
June fluffed her hair and beamed. “That is the plan, mademoiselle. To drink champagne and then walk hand in hand down the Champs Elysee at midnight while the lights in the trees twinkle above us.”
My thoughts did not go to the French lover; he would be just another one of June’s short-lived romances. But the chemist had already exploded to life in my mind. I imagined a white haired man in a lab coat locked up in a room the way my dad was always locked in the garage. He didn’t care about money, as June said he did. He cared about passion and the secret to his perfect red was not in his beeswax and his beakers, his ratios and his formulas. The secret was far more ephemeral than that. He had somehow managed to capture passion in a tube so that women could hold it in their hands and display it on their lips for the whole world to see. And it was that that men responded to: a proper woman who was making a promise to throw off the shackles of restraint.
I snapped back to attention just as the saleslady brought out a rack of suits she’d selected for June, but when I saw the silk lining on the lapels and the little buttons on the sleeves, I slipped into my head again and began to imagine what it would be like to walk out of Saks Fifth Avenue wearing one of those suits on my back and Perfect Red on my lips. I pictured myself walking down the street, walking into the grand reading room at the New York Public library, where every seat was taken by a man and every man was waiting just for me. I would walk right up to the one whose stare was the most smoldering. He would stop reading, close his book. Without a word he would stand up and take me in his arms, crushing my body to his right in front of everyone, murmuring about how he had longed for me, and promising every pleasure.
“Lucy?” Laura asked. “Earth to Lucy!”
Laura and June were laughing at me. I’d forgotten where I was. “Sorry. What is it?”
“Do you like this suit better than the ivory boucle?” Laura asked, and walked in a small circle.
I smiled. I hadn’t even seen the ivory boucle. “Yes,” I said, “I prefer that one.”
Laura put her hand on her hip. “Don’t just tell me what you think I want to hear, Lucy. This is important. This is my wedding. Everyone in Wilmington will be seeing me in this suit. It needs to be perfect.”
I searched for something to say and landed on the wide neckline with a band of satin circling it. “The neckline on that one is more flattering,” I said.
Laura twisted and turned in front of the mirror. “It is, isn’t it?” she said. That quickly, I was absolved from my own daydream.
We looked at suits for hours. There were nipped in waists and oversized bows, beaded collars and boat neck jackets. Laura tried on her favorites, noting their necklines and the sleeve length, and she moved around the elegant room as if she were at a dance. She looked enchanting, and I found myself feeling jealous. Laura would have a husband and house just down the street from my mother and father’s. She would have a full set of china and a console television set. Within no time, no doubt, she would have a baby, and then her life would be settled, her future assured. And me? All I had was a job with a man known to fire every secretary he hired, a faith in passion I was too scared to make known, and a belief that books were going to somehow give my life a sense of purpose, whether I typed them, taught them, read them or one day found the courage to finally write them.
“I can’t decide,” Laura finally said to the saleslady, “I’ll need to bring my mother by to help me pick.”
I’m certain that the woman knew the game we were playing. I’m certain she knew she would never see Laura again. But June had buttered her up with the inside news about Perfect Red.
“Anytime, dear,” she said, and she smiled and released us.
We left June at Saks Fifth Avenue, took the subway back to Grand Central and sat on the wooden benches near the central clock to wait for Laura’s train home. We slumped in our seats, exhausted from our day of shopping. Someone passed by and pressed “I Like Ike” buttons into our hands, and we took them and pinned them to our dresses.
the Jackson Pollock paintings were bigger than you expected,” I said, “I saw
them a few weeks ago. They’re as big as the side of a bus.”
Laura nodded. “Thanks,” she said, “I will.”
“And tell Dad I’m fine. No bombs have fallen on me, no alien spaceships have abducted me, I haven’t contracted polio.”
“Is he still trying to solve the mystery of Perfect Red?” I asked.
“Yup,” she said, “and to solve the mystery of how it is that the chemist owns the formula. It’s still pretty much all he talks about.”
“You don’t think he’s going to get in trouble, do you? For Communist ideology?”
“Don’t be silly,” Laura said, “Mom says the government needs DuPont, and DuPont needs its chemists. He’ll be fine.”
I looked at her, and saw that her lips were faded now, no longer vivid. “Are you going to wear Perfect Red on your wedding day?” I asked.
“There’s no need for it on your wedding day,” she said. She leaned over and whispered in my ear. “The man already knows exactly what he’s going to get that night. There’s no need to make any invitations or promises. The deal is already sealed.” She sat back up, and spoke in a full voice. “I’m thinking I’ll wear a shade of coral. It looks nicer with my skin tone.” She turned to me, her brow creased in thought. “At least I think it looks nicer. Don’t you?”
“You’re going to be a beautiful bride no matter what,” I said.
“Do you really think so?”
I nodded. “And you’ll be a good wife, too.”
She suddenly looked away. “I don’t love him, you know,” she said.
I breathed in and waited for her to go on.
“Not the way you think love is supposed to be, anyway.” She squeezed her lips together and pressed her fingertips to her mouth. “And not the way I loved Bobby,” she whispered. Her voice broke when she said his name.
I put my hand on her back and could feel her body trembling. “I know,” I said.
She swiveled back around to face me. Her moment of doubt was over. “Bill will be a better provider,” she said, “He has ambition and plans. He’s going places.”
I couldn’t think of what to say to this admission – Good for you? I applaud what you’re doing? -- and so after a moment, I said the only thing I could say that was true. “He’s lucky you made the trade.”
She elbowed me. “Stop teasing me, will you?”
“What, you don’t like that your little sister has something on you?”
“No,” she said, “What I don’t like is how you always make me feel so guilty without even saying a word.”