The beauty was in the routine. Liza tied a bright red headband around her hair, forming a well-practiced knot at the nape of her neck, and checked the effect in the mirror. Wherever she was, she could always rely on a fresh layer of lipstick and a well-defined cat eye to keep her on track. She pulled her lips apart and tried out a smile, tilting her head back and forth. It was still stiff with disuse from the past few weeks, but a few sips of champagne would loosen it up as usual, and Liza would transform into Elizabeth Elswood before the eyes of high society.
“Are you ready?” asked Frederick from the kitchen.
“Just a minute, dear!”
She zipped up her suitcase and stowed it safely in the walk-in closet, then paused, lingering for a moment in the quiet of the bedroom.
“We’re going to be late.”
The sound of slamming doors echoed through the suite as Frederick searched for his suit jacket. Liza grabbed her red purse from the dresser. Go time.
The sun was setting on the city, looking much like any other sunset on any other street. They waited for the limo on the curb and he checked his watch every time the silence between them got too heavy. It didn’t used to be like this, Liza reminded herself as the cars flew by in front of them. It used to be exciting dating old money, going to all the fancy dinner parties and charity balls. There were roses and expensive jewels and midnight flights to Vienna. He proposed on a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean. But at one point or another, all that started to blend together, and as they traveled from place to place she found that she could really see his face for the first time, and she did not recognize it.
“They’re late,” said Frederick, checking his watch again.
Liza clutched her handbag and didn’t say anything. Tonight’s event was a dinner, a “casual” meeting of what Frederick’s mother always referred to as “the New York crowd.” The Baldwin’s mansion was actually half an hour outside of the city, and it was impossible for any event with top-of-the-line catering and crystal chandeliers to feel casual, but nobody seemed to find it strange.
They arrived at the party fashionably late and were greeted by pre-poured champagne and fake laughter.
“Elizabeth, darling!” said Mrs. Baldwin, enveloping her in a brief hug and a cloud of perfume.
Elizabeth took the proffered champagne from a nearby waiter and beamed at her hostess. Already the wives were separating from their husbands, forming one group of darkly-colored evening gowns and another of uniform suits. The women could be distinguished by their varying shades of magenta and emerald, but the men blended together to form an indistinguishable homogenous line, and Elizabeth had to look carefully for her husband’s face before passing him his champagne. The women’s conversation shifted from Elizabeth’s dress (“just darling”) to the evening itself (“what a delightful idea”) to travel plans.
“Henry and I are summering in Cape Cod,” said Patricia Carter, readjusting her pearly white shawl.
“Oh, how quaint!” said Mrs. Baldwin. “We’re spending June in Italy with the Whittakers, and the rest of the summer at the cottage in Spain.”
“Isn’t Spain just lovely that time of year?”
“I’m going to France with Julian as usual, of course…”
Liza’s eyes strayed to the women’s husbands, who were no doubt engaged in a similar conversation--only, they would be comparing boats and cigars and the success of their investments. Frederick was still holding the champagne, untouched, in his right hand.
“Elizabeth? What about you?”
She turned back towards a row of suddenly-frozen smiles and cleared her throat. They stared back at her wolfishly, searching for any sign of weakness.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“What are your summer plans?” asked Angela Bertelli, arching an eyebrow.
Summer. Liza closed her eyes briefly and pictured herself floating in the middle of a pool, nobody else as far as the eye could see. Dark red lipstick and a polka dot bikini. Glorious.
“Memorial day at the villa in Cancun, of course, and then we’re off for a bit of an island tour,” said Elizabeth. “The Bahamas, you know, and up to the Virgin Islands in August.”
The wolves relaxed, deeming her worthy of the pack, and she excused herself for the bathroom. The bathrooms, she thought, were one of the nicest parts of her situation. They were always clean with fluffy towels and artisan soap. She sat on the toilet with the lid closed and breathed in the intertwining scents of lemongrass and vanilla candles. She looked at herself in the mirror and was pleased to find that she looked perfectly ordinary. The champagne had loosened her expression wonderfully. Every hair was still in its place. She turned on the water in the sink, letting it run down the basin in luxurious, steaming waves.
The first scream from the parlour was followed rapidly by the sound of breaking glass. Liza turned off the water. A chorus of gasps echoed through the house and then a general yell, and Elizabeth burst out of the bathroom, hurrying to the scene. Frederick was already on the floor, his body racked with convulsions. Mr. Baldwin was calling the police, and Elizabeth collapsed at Frederick’s side, holding his hand, her eyes brimming with tears that gracefully slid down her cheek past waterproof mascara. They had to pull her away from him as his shuddering slowed, followed by his pulse.
By the time they could hear the ambulance sirens, Elizabeth was seated on the opposite side of the room, being attended to in her grief by a circle of gently weeping women with silk handkerchiefs. Frederick’s body, still warm but growing ever colder, lay still on the carpet, and nobody seemed able to look at it for more than a few moments without glancing away again, as if they were invading some unbreakable privacy. His champagne glass lay shattered on the floor beside him.
When the police arrived, Elizabeth excused herself to the kitchen to collect her thoughts for a few moments. She removed an empty pill bottle from her red purse and buried it deep within a potted window plant. Somehow, even though she was alone now, she could not seem to stop crying. She had not expected the tears to come this easily. Her painstakingly-drawn cat eye was beginning to run, and she rubbed the stubborn grey stains again and again from her wet face, clenching her teeth in frustration.
A detective soon found her and on the point of their introduction, Liza could see the headlines flash before her eyes: “Rich Socialite Murders Husband”, with a blown up picture of her next to one of the crime scene. She wanted to see it. She wanted to hold the article in her hand. But the interview with the detective was short and simple. Any idiot could have played the role. Elizabeth simply had to cry a lot and talk about how great the relationship had been, how it was all so sudden and so unexpected and oh, she could hardly believe it. After that it was a breeze, and before she knew it the police tape was gone. It was deemed a heart attack, just like clockwork.
Two months later Liza sat beside the pool with dark red lipstick and watched her reflection in the chlorinated water. It was marred by ripples and sunlight, but even so it was clear how pale and rigid it had become. She kept repeating to herself that she was free, till the words became an endless loop in her head and lost all sense of meaning. For the third time that day she tried to smile. It came out all wrong, a scratch on a broken record. She called for the waiter and ordered another mimosa. It would happen eventually.