Eyes of the Beholder
Eyes of the Beholder
Book 1 of the Dark Photography Folio
Written under my pen name SWINN DANIELS.
Juliette arrived at Ra Chi Chi and knew immediately that she was underdressed. Of course this place would be formal, even for lunch. It’s Maxine! What were you thinking? To hell with it. I look fine.
She approached the maître d’s desk. He was an older man, bald and graying at the sides with a pencil mustache and expressive eyes that could not hide how much they had seen of the world. His posture was very erect, as though he still remembered his days in the French Foreign Legion. He wore a dapper vested suit of a gray gabardine, immaculately cut. He looked her up and down, taking in her attire but carefully betraying nothing.
“Mademoiselle. Bonjour. Do you have a reservation?”
“I’m meeting a friend. Maxine.”
The most remarkable transformation came over his face and Juliette could see what the maître d’ must have looked like as a young man. He plucked a menu from a stack on his podium.
“Please. Follow me.”
Wow. Not a word about my jeans and t-shirt. As she followed the man, Juliette slowly became aware that she had entered another world. She could practically smell the money. The place was quite crowded but not loud though there appeared to be several animated conversations going on all around her. She looked up and saw that what she had first assumed to be some sort of art moderne sculpture was in fact a very cleverly disguised system of sound baffles. That must have cost a fortune!
“Ah. Here we are.”
They came upon a banquette that would normally seat four. Maxine was occupying it by herself. The model’s eyes lit up when she saw the other girl.
“Juliette! Ma chére! It has been far too long!”
She rushed around the table and kissed Juliette’s cheeks. Really kissed them. No air kisses! She must like me. Maxine was wearing a stunning little outfit in blues and yellows that should have been completely incongruous. Yet somehow Maxine made it work. Juliette guessed it was a runway one-off that the model had probably received as a gift from a designer – a very famous designer.
“My God, Maxine, is that a McQueen?”
“You have a very good eye, Juliette.” Maxine indicated the chair across from herself. “Please. Sit.” She smiled her tiny ‘wonder at the world’ smile. “It is funny, you know? And perhaps a little sad.”
Maxine indicated her dress. “Where all these wonderful creations end up.”
This was something Juliette had always been intensely curious about. “Where do they end up?”
“At a drycleaner. In Kuwait.”
“What? You must be kidding! How is that even possible?”
Maxine leaned forward. All she needs are a pair of white gloves. “Who do you think buys these dresses? Who do you think can afford them?”
Juliette was beginning to see where this was going. “The wives of rich Arabs.”
“Exactement. But face being what it is in the Arab world, a woman can only ever wear such a dress once. And after? What is she to do? Give it to the maid? Non. She sends it to the drycleaner…”
“… and never picks it up.” Juliette finished. “That’s unbelievable.”
“Here. Let me show you something.” Maxine reached into her purse and pulled out a tiny black and white photo. She passed it to Juliette. In the photo, a smiling, middle aged man, dark-skinned and balding with a black mustache was standing at a counter. Behind him, as far as the eye could see, were dresses. Hundreds and hundreds of dresses. All in clear oversized plastic dry-cleaning bags. Even though the photo was very small, Juliette could make out enough detail to understand what she is seeing.
“How did you get this?”
Maxine smiled and her teeth became briefly visible. “I took it. Let us just say that not all the dresses never get picked up.” She made an elegant gesture that took in the dress she was now wearing. Juliette laughed with delight.
My God she is stunning. Maxine was wearing just a hint of make-up, a light gloss on her lips. Juliette had seen many photographs of the other girl since they’d met at Saxon’s show. She was in awe of the model’s chameleon-like ability to embody the essence of whatever she was selling. She glanced over at the maître d’, who was looking at Maxine with the slightly starved expression of a dog hoping for a treat. Maxine graced him with le petite souiere, the tiniest of her many smiles.
“Avec plaisir, mademoiselle.” He looked to Juliette. “A drink, perhaps?”
Juliette glanced at Maxine. “She will have a kir. And I will have another.”
“Immediatement.” Pierre performed a small bow, then disappeared.
Maxine took a delicate sip of her drink. “Mmmm. You will like this, Juliette. So. How go things with Saxon? How many times have you fucked him?”
Juliette gave a choked cough. The other girl laughed coquettishly.
“Ah. You are blushing, Juliette. How delightful! He is such an extraordinary man, is he not?”
“Yes. Yes he is,” said Juliette, recovering.
“It is like a magic wand, no? But thicker, bigger, Saxon’s…”
“Yes,” Juliette interjected quickly. “A magic wand. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way.” She looked at Maxine very openly. “I… I’ve never been with anyone like that. Not even close.”
“Neither have I.”
Juliette was surprised.
“Ah, ma chére, pardon me for observing but you do not have very much experience of men, do you.”
“No. I don’t.”
Maxine took Juliette’s hands in her own, her thumbs gently rubbing their backs. “I have had, some would say, much experience of the world of men. Perhaps too much. And of women as well. Oh yes. Pleasure for me is… ” Maxine’s looked away wistfully. Then her eyes returned to Juliette’s. “A deep, deep experience that I never tire of exploring. And that was the problem with Saxon and I. He is not an endless pleasure, not a thing to be treated as one would treat a drug. I… did not know how to deal with that at the time. I still don’t, if truth be told. I could not let go of wanting more. Pleasure.”
The waiter arrived with Juliette’s kir. She took a sip and nodded her approval. Then she registered what the model had just said. “I don’t understand.”
Maxine sighed. “Saxon is perhaps the best lover I have ever known. And it is not only due to his physical attributes. It is mostly due to his empathy. He finds lovemaking far more draining than his partner. Because he gives of himself so completely. Unfortunately for the other, Saxon’s lovemaking quickly becomes a drug you cannot do without, and that you find yourself needing more and more of. Needless to say, a fragile thing such as a relationship cannot withstand this kind of pressure. So it ends.”
“Wow. I had no idea.”
“You already burn for him, don’t you.”
“Yes. But if what you say is true –“
“Then how can I wean myself off him?”
“By trying to see past the physical. By trying to connect with the man.”
“Is that what you did?”
“Yes. I somehow managed it. Now? I bear no more love for him than I would for a hamster.”
“Or perhaps a fish,” said the model with a straight face.
“Maxine, pardon me for saying this, but I believe you could not be more full of shit.”
Maxine laughed. “Ah, Juliette, I am, to use your English phrase, ‘busted’.”
“What is he searching for?”
“What are we all searching for?”
“Oui, ma chére. Now. Let us eat something.”
Juliette picked up her menu which was, of course, in French. With no translation. And no prices.
“I am in the mood for something light and fluffy. Perhaps the quiche.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Maxine gave a small nod to the waiter, who was hovering nearby, watching their table like a hawk on a thermal. He arrived before Juliette had set her menu down. He was young, extremely good-looking, and appeared to be very much smitten with Maxine. She began speaking to him in French, giving him her full attention, her laughter and décolletage. He left, thoroughly besotted. Maxine sighed.
“It is just too easy sometimes. Still, I cannot help myself.” She took a delicate sip of her kir. “Now Juliette, please, tell me what troubles you.”
Before Juliette could answer, another woman appeared at the side of the table.
“Maxine! I thought that was you!”
“Cassie. What a delightful surprise.” Maxine rolled her eyes at Juliette, indicating that in fact the exact opposite was true. Juliette remembered this creature from Saxon’s show. Today she wore a cream colored pair of pinstriped flared pants and a matching suit jacket. With nothing underneath. A small gold wristwatch and gold hoop earrings completed the ensemble. She wore it with an unconscious aplomb that made the androgyny of it even sexier.
Cassie sat down uninvited.
“I, like, saw you guys over there and something told me to not be shy and just come over and, like, join you. Tell you both about the most amazing thing that happened to me yesterday.”
“Cassie, did it not perhaps occur to you – “ Maxine searched the other girl’s uncomprehending features. “No. I can see that it did not. Well, then. Please. Tell us.”
“Well, see, it’s like this. I was hanging out with some friends at the Lee Goorm-and – “
“– Le Gourmand.”
“That’s what I said. Lee Goor-mand. We were having brunch when this girl and guy joined us. They were at the next table and, like, kind of just blended into our crowd.”
“Comme une infection vénérienne.”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s French, right? That one word almost sounds like ‘infection.’”
“So, like, I thought this guy was with the girl but it turned out they were just friends.”
“And how did you come to this conclusion?”
“He started hitting on me.”
“Ah! Oui! How could he resist the lure of la trou facile?”
“There you go again. Getting all French on me.”
Juliette could barely restrain her laughter. She glanced over at Maxine, who projected a stoic and saintly innocence.
“You’ll never guess what he does for a living,” Cassie continued.
“Is he perhaps an assassin?”
“Uh, no. That’s kind of weird that you’d even think that.”
“Apologies. Perhaps a lion tamer?”
“Well, no. He certainly wasn’t that.”
“Was he a fluffer?” inquired Juliette, all innocence.
Cassie turned to her with a frown. “That’s not funny, ya know? I am, like, aware of what that word means.”
Maxine stifled a giggle and came to Juliette’s rescue. “Please. Do not keep us in suspense. What was he?”
“Really.” Maxine had suddenly become interested. “How big were his hands?”
“Like catcher’s mitts.”
Maxine scooched forward and put her elbows on the table, her quiche quite forgotten. “What happened next?”
“Well, he asked me if I wanted to spend the day with him. Just wandering around New York. Show him the places that I loved.”
“So of course you did.”
“Well. He bought lunch and all.”
“For the whole table?”
“No. Just me.”
“Poor lamb. You may as well have had a bull’s-eye painted on your forehead.”
“I don’t get it.”
Maxine looked down at her plate, then back at Cassie. “My quiche is getting cold. Please go to the part where he invited you to his apartment.”
“How did you know he invited me to his apartment?”
Maxine waved a hand airily. “I have certain psychic abilities.”
Maxine batted her eyelashes, then lifted a morsel of quiche and placed it into her mouth. She waved her fork impatiently.
“So, like, he invited me back to his place which turned out to be this penthouse on Central Park West. It was un-be-lieve-able! It was so like, rich, ya know?”
“I have some inkling.”
Cassie looked momentarily confused. “Inkling? I didn’t know you did drugs, Maxine. It’s, like, a little early, isn’t it?”
“And then he kissed you.” Juliette cut in.
“Yeah. It was dreamy,” sighed Cassie.
“Well, like, one thing kind of led to another and the next thing you know we were–
“– fucking –”
“– making love –”
“– like two rabid weasels in a heap of leaves,” Maxine finished.
“What? No! Like, like Daenerys and – and – what’s that cute guy’s name on Game?
Cassie clapped her hands. “Yeah! Him!”
Maxine made a sound that reminded Juliette of Chimpy coughing up a hairball. The model quickly covered it by taking a loud slurp of her kir.
Cassie continued. “Well, there I was, naked, pressed against the glass, Central Park spread out below me –”
“With every drone in Manhattan hovering outside the window.” Juliette whispered. Maxine kicked her under the table.
“– and he was, like, doing me from behind.”
“What a filthy little piglet you are, Cassie,” Maxine murmured.
“So then he like, pulled out, put his harp-hands on my ass, spread me, and then, like, slid this – this – thing into me!”
Maxine and Juliette wear leaning very close.
“What was it? A legume?” asked Maxine drily.
“Perhaps a mitten?”
“And I was so wet I took it all!”
“Whore,” mouthed Maxine, pretending shock.
“More! More! I want to hear more!”
Cassie looked at Maxine uncertainly.
“So what happened next?” inquired Juliette.
Cassie tilted her head and blinked. “I, like, came, ya know?”
“Yeah. I just came and came and came.” Cassie’s voice trailed off, face slack with sexual stupification.
“So where is he?”
“Harpo! What happened to him?
“Did you not get his number?”
“Of course! Only, he must have punched it in wrong ‘cause when I called, some guy who wasn’t him answered.”
“Really?” Maxine had been examining her nails. She looked up. “Cassie, did it never occur to you that perhaps the harpist should have asked before inserting this, whatever it was –“
“A Lifelike Lover Classic TM. Just outta the fridge.”
“– into you?”
“Uh, no. Not really. I was in the moment. Is that, like, bad?”
“Shouldn’t he have asked your permission?”
Cassie huffed indignantly. “Well that woulda ruined my come, wouldn’t it.”
Juliette sat up. “I can see that.”
“Juliette, you are supposed to be helping here,” Maxine admonished.
“And Cassie? We have not even addressed perhaps the most important question you should have asked him.”
The model looked puzzled for a moment, as though pondering higher calculus. Then her face lit up. “How much does he make?”
“No! The question you should have asked him is where has this been?”
“Oh. You mean like, like,” Cassie’s lower lip began quivering, her eyes filling with tears, “you’re like saying that… that maybe I wasn’t the first? The first girl he did that to?”
There was a long pause before Maxine gave the most Gallic of shrugs. “This is a possibility.” Juliette was in awe. Her timing would shame Olivier!
“Oh my God. I am so naïve! Bruno always said I was too trusting.”
“Who’s Bruno?” Juliette whispered.
Maxine whispered back. “Cassie’s booker. A father figure to her. Or, well, I guess he would be if he wasn’t sleeping with her. Or perhaps he still is. A father figure. Things sometimes become confusing in this industry.” Juliette couldn’t tell if Maxine was joking or not. Something told her it was ‘not’.
Cassie was now weeping like a paid mourner at a Mafia funeral. “You hate me, don’t you Maxine.”
Maxine looked dumbfounded. “Why would you say that?”
“I – I just feel like you’re always making fun of me. Like you think I’m stupid or something.”
Maxine reached across the table and touched the other girl’s cheek. “Cassie, you are my dear friend! I only have some fun with you because you remind me so much of myself at your age.”
“Yes. I wanted to taste everything. Try everything.”
Maxine hesitated for an instant, then continued.
“We have had our moments, have we not? Do you remember when you ‘accidentally’ spilled coffee on me backstage when we were working that big show in Paris? That was a very hot coffee. I still have the burn.”
“I… yeah. That was me. And yeah, that was on purpose.”
“At least you are honest. Do you remember what I did?”
“More like what you didn’t. You didn’t scream. That scared the crap out of me.”
Maxine gently released Cassie’s hand. “So if I sometimes have some fun with you, one could understand why, non?”
“Oui. On pourrait comprendre.”
Juliette stared at Cassie. Did she just speak French?
Maxine was stunned. “How long?”
“Since I was a child. My nanny was French.”
Cassie stood and came over to Maxine. She gently took Maxine’s chin between her thumb and forefinger, tilted the model’s head, then kissed her full on the lips.
“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time. I think I’m just a little bit in love with you, Max. Have been since the minute I set eyes on you. And nothing’s changed. Except maybe now it has. You know where to find me. Au revoir.”
With that, Cassie took her leave. She stalked away, unconsciously affecting her strange and startlingly runway walk, the one that had made her a fortune and that no model could duplicate. Maxine had tried very hard to learn it. To no avail.
“Holy shit,” Juliette breathed.
Maxine brushed a finger over her lower lip. Slowly. Thoughtfully. Then she smiled a new smile. One she had never smiled before.
“So, Juliette, what brings you here today?”