Excerpt From Moonlighters
by Emily Cementina
At the hostess stand, waiting in your maroon dress (velvet, short, but long-sleeved; you think Henry will appreciate the duality), fake fur coat (black, to your knees, with a zipper that always gets stuck and a rayon liner that confirms any lingering doubt about the coat’s authenticity), and your single pair of expensive heels (also black, a gift, from your best friend Nina, and so tall you had to take a car into the city because you were afraid of navigating the subway stairs), you feel a mixture of superiority and discomfort.
Superiority because, though you’d initially written the restaurant off as outdated, you checked the online reservation system on your way over, and discovered there’s not a table to be had for the next three weeks, and you concluded that Henry must have some sort of connection to get you in on such short notice, or else (in fact, you might find this more impressive), he has a standing reservation.
(Although, considering it further, a standing reservation might mean he takes a new date here every week, and you don’t want to be one of the many women the staff knowingly roll their eyes at, as they wonder, Who’s next?)
You’re uncomfortable because—surveying the dining room’s high, wood-beamed ceiling; the portraits of white aristocracy (gentry?) from the nineteenth century; the round, wooden, Medieval-style chandelier; and the mostly white guests (dressed in alpaca and real silk and unwrinkled fine linen)—you feel that you’re on the wrong side of service.
Certainly, you’re not worthy of this kind of space without proper companionship to help you integrate. It would make more sense for you to hop behind the bar and stir a Manhattan than to sit a few feet away from someone who owns a condo that costs as much as you’ll make in two decades. You’ve been waitressing for too long. Out of proper dating for too long. You’re adrift.
You step back outside, where at least you can wait away from the prying eye of the hostess, who told you she couldn’t seat you until your second was here, and consider taking up smoking just to keep yourself occupied.
You pull out your phone and text Henry I’m here, intentionally excluding punctuation to let him know that you’re annoyed.
Parking! he writes back, and, not for the first time, you wonder why he didn’t offer to pick you up.
It’s cold—your hands and legs are freezing, your toes, numb—and you’re beginning to descend into the black hole that’s waiting to swallow you if you allow yourself to acknowledge the guilt, the fear, and the tinge of disgust you feel at the prospect of having dinner with a much older, much higher-ranked, married “colleague” (though, considering he’s a V.P. at the publisher, he’s really closer to a supervisor, even if you don’t report to him directly).
Across the street, there’s a bar where you used to drink when you were in college—a divey sort of place, with regulars that will make conversation with you if you’re there alone but who know not to overtly hit on you, big; comfortable plush stools; and a halfway decent Guinness—and you’re about to cut over, when you see Henry approaching—dressed, actually, quite well—in a wool duster, a grey beanie that hides his bald head, and slim, blue trousers, paired with Argyle socks and brown loafers.
He waves at you with those long fingers, and you can’t help but grin as he pulls a single daffodil from his front pocket.
The men you’re usually with never bring you gifts, and though you could take or leave things like jewelry or clothes, you have a secret affinity for flowers. Maybe because your father is so good at keeping them, that they grew, in abundance, in beds around your house, and along the perimeter of your yard, and, occasionally, you like to be reminded of where you came from.
“Thanks for waiting. I had to drop off Nami at a friend’s house,” Henry says, and, with his daughter out of the picture, the possibilities for the night potentially grow much wider, depending on what, exactly, he has to tell you about his situation with his wife. You forgive him for not stopping to get you, and you suddenly have an urge to kiss one of his very smooth, very white cheeks.
“Shall we?” He offers you the flower, and then his arm, into which you hook yours, and you re-enter the restaurant, feeling like a new woman.
At your table, the maître d’ hands you a giant, leather-bound menu, a bow-tied back waiter appears with a tray of bread (Henry picks three, soft rolls, which he quickly, generously slathers with butter from the shell-shaped pad at the center of the table, and, you take a modest, single piece of focaccia, for fear of appearing greedy), and, after you’ve had only a few sips from your glass, a server stops by to top off your water.
You remember that being rich—or being mistaken for being rich—means being treated like a baby, or an invalid, and you decide to lean into the role now that you’re here, bundled into your seat by a linen napkin.
You ask for a martini—gin, olives—and, reviewing the tasting menus, you suddenly have an appetite for seafood, even though, besides the week every summer you and your parents vacationed in the Cape, you’ve more or less been a vegetarian your whole life. It’s as if this place has given you an appetite—you’re already considering what to order after your martini (champagne, likely) and envisioning a hunk of soft, fatty cheese to top off your night.
You commit to being pescatarian, close your menu, and watch Henry tear apart his roll, and then test the olive oil, which leaves a glisten on his chin that can’t help but make you imagine him emerging from between your legs. Maybe you underestimated his capacity for physical aggression.
After the waiter takes your dinner orders, Henry starts talking about work—telling you about how much trouble he was having landing a morning television appearance interview for a memoirist who’s touring in March.
“He’s a great writer—beautiful sentences, musical, even—charismatic, funny, sharp dresser, and he’s a professor, so he can really hold his own in front of an audience, writing non linearly about his experience suffering from domestic abuse as a child. It’s an incredible work. But Richard’s—the producer’s—assistant was playing all this back and forth with me, acting like Richard and I don’t have a relationship. Finally, I got through, and the minute we spoke directly, he agreed. It was a given. Which should have been the case from the beginning. I shouldn’t have had to get in some queue, like everyone else.”
You nod, feeling yourself growing bored, though the memoir does sound interesting, you don’t care about Henry’s connections, and you feel the story is more about Henry trying to impress his status upon you than about his actual excitement for the book, or the author. You find your gaze drifting to the next table over, to a man with a stunning wave of brown hair, and wide, dark eyes that just happen to land on you. You smile at him, and he returns your smile before returning to his large, bloody filet.
You take a few more sips of your martini—it’s deliciously cold, and perfectly salinic (you guess going somewhere nice really does pay off)—and let the alcohol do its magic of making Henry more interesting and you less inhibited.
The first course arrives—three plump scallops drizzled in a bright green sauce—and as you reach for your fork, you hear yourself say, “So what, exactly, did you mean by ‘things might be changing’?”
Henry pats the corner of his mouth with his napkin (you wonder the last time you saw someone actually dab their lips; you can’t honestly say you have anywhere other than some sort of period piece) and takes a gulp of red wine.
“Well, Miss L.,” he says, setting down his glass, and you swell again, growing as big as the room.
“Maybe you inspired me.” He smiles, pauses, as if expecting you to say, “Me? Little old me?” and you have that urge to strike him again—the way he’s condescending to you, feigning awe, wanting you to applaud how humble he is to recognize your influence. But because you really do want to know what happened, you bat your eyelashes, lean closer, hold your martini in glass in a way you hope makes you look refined, and ask, “Really?”
“Indeed, you did. My wife and I had a long conversation this weekend, about everything that we went through this summer, the fact that not much has changed since then, and that Nami is more settled into her school now—in the fall, she had just switched from public to private, and she knew no one—but now that she’s been there for six months, she has a little group of friends, knows her teachers, she’s grounded, her life is a bit more”—he moves his hands across the air, palms down, like a pair of wings, and you’re delighted by the gesture—“even.
“Anyway, she’s spending a few nights this week out of the house—staying with friends in East Hampton. You know, like a half-separation, so it’s not too much for everyone. A middle point. Last time, she got to stay, so we decided it was her turn to leave.
“Compromise. You know, or maybe,” he says, shrugging, “you don’t exactly understand compromise in these situations in practice, but in theory, I’m sure you can wrap your mind around it.”
“Wow,” you tell him, and you really are surprised, happily. You didn’t think he had it in him. You don’t even mind his dig at you; it’s true, when you left your marriage you were brutal, uncompromising, and with such good news, with another obstacle seeming to shift out of your path, you don’t feel like ruining the moment by protesting his observation. You raise your glass, and say, “Well, congratulations?”
“Cheers,” he says. “Yes, I think I’m feeling good.”
Another course arrives and then a third, and you ask for a second martini because you’ve decided you want to be done in. You want to be spinning and irresponsible, and you want the courage to see what’s further down the road, now the wife may be moving out of the picture.
“What did you think of my gift?” Henry asks, stabbing a hunk of lobster with his fork, and then hunching over his plate to bring the creamy piece of flesh closer to his mouth.
“I thought it was bold.”
You set your fork and knife on the edge of your plate, and pick up your drink. You’re not used to this kind of excess, and while the indulgence was thrilling at first, your stomach is beginning to feel unsettled.
“I thought you might appreciate the gesture. I was a little distracted on Monday, and I wanted to let you know I was thinking of you. Have you read David Foster Wallace?” Henry asks.
“A few essays, but no, not that collection, and not a full book.”
“Tsk. Tsk,” he says, dabbing his mouth again with the napkin, and you consider rattling off the names of the women and BIPOC writers whose books do sit in the stack at the foot of your bed, to see how many Henry has heard of. This has happened to you before with men— they’re always making you feel small when you talk about books because their list of what counts as literature, of what counts as “necessary reading” is in a completely different circle than your own.
You’re about to bring this up, but Henry sits up, correcting his hunch, sets his elbows on the table, interlaces his hands, touches a ring on his right pinky, which you don’t remember being there last week (you check his left hand now, too—why didn’t you think of it earlier?— and see that his ring finger, now, is bare; your hope multiplies), and looks you in the eye in a way that makes you feel like you’re about to be reprimanded.
“So, look,” he says. “You told me on Friday that you have no ambitions beyond the reception desk, but I’m not sure that’s true.”
“Why not?” You shift in your seat, straightening your own posture, and letting your shoulders relax down your back, so you appear at ease.
“Well, when you were talking about Ana’s book, I got the sense,” he slows down these last four words, to build anticipation before he reveals his perceptive conclusion, “that it wasn’t just readerly admiration there. Am I wrong?”
You smirk, involuntarily, and you realize that Henry has begun to unearth a secret that even you weren’t sure you wanted to reveal. There are the secrets closer to your conscious mind, your list of “dark” qualities and experiences that you carry around, in an organized file, ready to disburse, when the right person asks you, because you think these details make you appear more interesting. But there are other memories—certain desires—that you have truly locked away because looking at them is too complex, too painful. To show them, even more so. And, now that Henry has started digging, you are overwhelmed by the possibility of speaking aloud what he has intuited.
“You’re not wrong.” You pick up your martini again, swirl the toothpick in the glass, and give yourself a moment to prepare. “But it isn’t why I took the job.”
“Then what,” he says—his tongue is so good at making that t-sound—“was it?” You sit in the “tuh.” You let it caress your teeth. You let that sound run all through, and over, your body.
“I told you it was the stability.”
You finish your martini and feel the room tilt, contradicting your statement, as if on cue.
“Mmm,” he says. “Sure.”
Your plates are cleared, and the fourth course arrives—a steak that you know you won’t touch. (You draw the line with seafood, and even that, you are now regretting.) You ask for the glass of champagne you’ve been craving, and pick at the bit of mashed potatoes, untouched by the steak’s juices.
Henry tucks his napkin into his collar, and cuts himself a generous slice.
“But perhaps, you do envision something for yourself, beyond the front desk?”
“I did once.”
“And then?” he asks, chewing with his mouth open.
“Well,” you say, and lean back in your chair, wishing again for a cigarette. You imagine yourself, suddenly, in a white, plunging v-neck dress, a spotlight on you, the rest of the room pitch black, and smoke curling from off your Du Maurier. You find yourself ridiculous, but you can’t stop.
“I wrote a book,” you begin. “A novel. I wrote the first draft in graduate school, and I received a lot of positive feedback—compliments, encouragement from my classmates, my advisor, and from a few published authors I’d ask to read it. After graduation, I started making edits, and by that summer, I was ready to start the agent query.”
Henry nods, glances behind you, at, you guess, whomever is his equivalent of your stunning, brown-haired man. He’s heard this story before from every young woman whose book he’s promoted. He’s likely been approached at dozens of parties, with tales just like yours. You know. You aren’t that naive. You understand the deal. Every writer has the story of no one being interested, and you are no different. Yet.
“Anyway,” you say, speaking a little louder and with greater intensity, “I was just starting to query—I’d had a rejection or two, but also a handful of full manuscript requests, and I was waiting for replies, when I decided to leave my marriage. Suddenly, all of my focus was on separation. I had to find a new place to live, move my belongings, find a second waitressing job, and try to understand what was happening to me, emotionally. It’s exhausting.”
You pause, and wait for Henry to affirm you with an “It is a lot” before you go on.
“Obviously, I had no energy to give to my agent search. I thought we could breeze through the legal process with my husband’s lawyer, but she told me I had to get my own, that it was required that both parties have separate representation.
“So I ask for a recommendation from a friend who’d gone through divorce and used a mediator—I really hadn’t even wanted to do it, and I certainly didn’t want some aggressive litigator—and I make an appointment. I get to the office, completely prepared to make it quick, and I tell her, ‘I’m just there to do the paperwork, for the formality of it. We’ve decided he’d keep the apartment—we have no other assets-and that’s it.’
“After I explain this to her, she looks at me, and says, ‘You know, you’re entitled to maintenance.’
“I did not know. I hadn’t even thought of it. She takes out her calculator, asks me a few questions about his income, and mine, does a computation, based on ‘New York State law,’ jots down a number on her pad, and then slides it across the table.
“When I saw the figure, I couldn’t believe it. It was enough to make all of my trouble disappear. Not so crazy that I felt like I was stealing from him, but enough that, at least, I could come out at zero. At this point, I’d already acquired so much debt, I had to sign up for a credit card for the first time in my life, and I was at the limit, I’d sold clothes, I was working six days a week, sometimes seven, pulling doubles, trying to squeeze in catering gigs into my regular waitressing schedule, periodically filling in at a wine bar where I’d worked during graduate school, and I was scared. I knew I’d only get in deeper trouble with the legal fees.
“So, my lawyer says, ‘You can waive this, but you have to write in the agreement that you want to waive it. I don’t see a waiver—or any recognition of maintenance—anywhere in the separation draft we received from your husband. It’s supposed to be there. It’s an overt omission.’ She waits a moment, and then, when I don’t say anything, she says, ‘Do you want to waive it, or do you want to ask for it?”
Your champagne has arrived while you’ve been talking, and you see the bubbles, rising quickly from the bottom of the flute, counting down the drink’s expiration. You take a swig—an admittedly inelegant way of imbibing a $50 glass—and try to wrap up your story.
“So, of course, I say, ‘Okay. Tell them that I am entitled to maintenance.’”
Henry has finished his steak, refolded his napkin, neatly, beside his plate, and is now leaning toward you, with his chin in his hand and his brow furrowed, the perfect example of a rapt audience.
You continue: “That afternoon, she sends off the email, and we wait. We wait a long time. Weeks. In the span of which, I receive a single text from my husband. We had an agreement is all it says. We hadn’t talked, except via email about finding a lawyer, and I was terrified. I didn’t know how to respond. I thought if I engaged in conversation, he would end up, I don’t know—not exactly hurting me, I didn’t actually think he would, but I had a fear of something amphorously bad happening, of being harmed. So I ignored him. I just told myself that my lawyer was acting from a position of knowledge, and that, eventually, my husband’s lawyer would convince him to see our perspective too. Finally, it must have been about a month, they respond.”
“What did they say?” Henry asks, shrinking back into that reverse question mark you remember from his car.
“They said I could have the maintenance but that my husband would then take a percentage of my book. If I published it. If it became a television show. A movie. If it was translated. Anything I did with it—any way I tried to actually own what I had made—he would get a cut of it. He argued that I’d lived in ‘his’ house when I’d made it, so it was his.”
You sit back in your chair, and realize that you’re sweating—between your thighs, in your armpits—and your face is burning. With a shaking hand, you pick up your flute, and finish your champagne.
“Seriously?” asks Henry. His voice is almost a whisper. The hoarseness of it, its crinkly edges, combined with its softness, its comfort, reminds you of a feather—sharp and gentle, depending on what part of it you touch.
“Seriously,” you say, and you tell him how shocked your lawyer was. You tell him that she didn’t think he would escalate like this, even though it was legal, and that, essentially, if you wanted to avoid court, there was nothing else you could do but make a choice.
“Ultimately,” you tell Henry, “I chose to waive the maintenance because I didn’t want him owning my art. I would rather work two jobs for the rest of my life than let him benefit from what I made. But”—if you had a cigarette, this is the point where you would take your final drag, let out a long, thick stream of smoke, before throwing the butt on the ground and stubbing it out with your high heel—“I couldn’t write after that. I couldn’t even think about the book. I ignored any correspondence from agents. I gave up.”
“Lela,” Henry says, and he stretches his arm across the table, opening up one of his large, white hands, like a dove unfurling. “That’s horrible. I’ve never known of anyone going that far. I mean, I’ve heard of vague threats, angry ex-spouses who try to intimidate their wives or husbands because they’re jealous, of course, but not actually, anyone who has followed through, legally, in my two decades in this industry.”
“I know,” you say, and you let your hand settle into his. You let him squeeze you, let him rub his thumb across your skin, let yourself feel protected—for just a moment—before the image of the two of you—a balding, only vaguely attractive man (if you’re being generous, considering his air as well as physicality) fondling a woman young enough to be his daughter—creeps into your mind and causes you to draw your hand back into your lap.
“So the book,” Henry says, and reaches for a glass of water, as if to pretend that he was the one breaking contact. “You’re still just sitting on it?”
Remembering the manuscript you once worked on every morning; the project that kept you so rapt you forgot where you were while you were writing; that so deeply consumed your attention, you could ignore—you swear—an explosion, if you were in a flow state; the only thing that’s genuinely given you purpose and confidence—letting yourself think about how this novel now sits in a Google file, untouched for a year, languishing, makes you sadder than any memory with your ex-husband ever has.
It’s your biggest regret. The worst way you’ve disappointed yourself, and this is why, you simply don’t let yourself remember.
“Yeah,” you say. “I mean, I can’t look at it.”
Henry swallows the rest of his water, sets down his glass, and adjusts the collar of his shirt.
“Well,” he says, and you watch the sympathy on his face dissolve, replaced by something you can’t identify. “Why don’t you send it to me?”
You feel the corners of your mouth lift. You feel, in your stomach, a tinge of excitement you had forgotten you could feel for anything other than the possibility of getting laid. You realize fully, in this moment, just how far off track your priorities have gotten, and you want desperately to right yourself. You want to be a woman of letters, someone who does meaningful work, who outputs, and doesn’t just take, in the quick, empty way you have been in the past year. Isn’t this, exactly, why you wanted to be divorced? How could you have failed, and mistaken your dalliances for the actual freedom you were searching for?
You tuck your hair behind your ear, demurely, you think, and say, in what you hope is a sweet, grateful voice, “You’d really take a look?”
“I mean,” Henry shrugs, lifts up his hands. “Why not?”
The waiter appears at the table, asks if either of you would like dessert—you both decline (if you followed through with your cheese fantasy, you’d burst), shake your heads so intensely that he doesn’t even try to persuade you—and Henry hands off his credit card, waving away the server to show he doesn’t need to review the bill.
While Henry excuses himself to use the restroom, you consider his offer.
You hadn’t planned for this to happen. But, now, you wonder if you could make yourself believe in your book again. You wonder if, with Henry behind you, with his confidence, it could all feel real. That the novel could become yours. You can’t deny that what made you the most jealous of Ana was not that she possibly had Henry’s romantic interest, but that she had managed to succeed where you had failed. She’s an embodiment of your dreams, and, actually, you can’t stand it.
Still, what would it mean to count on Henry for this? What would he expect of you? You pick up your champagne glass, and try to salvage the tiny drop lingering on the bottom.
At the next table, the handsome, brown-haired man is scooping up a cloud-like bite of chocolate mousse, and you ask yourself why a man like this can’t satisfy you, entirely. Why must you always make it complicated?
The waiter returns, and you see Henry, gliding toward you—somehow, despite the heavy meal he’s floating through the room—and you know your answer.
He sits down, tucks his card back into his wallet, and you hear yourself say, “I would be truly honored. Thank you so much, Henry.”
“Great,” he says, signing his receipt with a flourish, as if to seal the deal. “Shall we?”
Emily Cementina received an M.F.A. in Fiction from The New School. Her writing has appeared online at JUKED, THRUSH, JMWW, and FWRICTION : REVIEW, and in print in JMWW (2013-2022): A MODERN TIMES ANTHOLOGY. She is the Assistant Director of the ACES (Academic Center for English Language Studies) Program at St. Joseph’s University, Brooklyn.
Image source: Florian Klauer/Unsplash