Petite but fierce, Coco strides into 31 rue Cambon. Her shop. She’s wearing a trim dark jacket, an open-necked white blouse, and a flared, softly pleated beige skirt whose hem stops midcalf. She half acknowledges the greetings from the shopgirls but does not stop to talk. Continuing on through the salon, she mounts the stairs to her suite of private rooms. The carpets are beige, the chandeliers smoked crystal. Carvings of lions rest on the tables. Lilies in vases open like stars.
Adrienne is kneeling over a piece of material with a fat piece of tailor’s chalk in her hand. She makes quick unerring lines across the cloth. Hearing footsteps on the stairs, she looks up. “Coco?”
Adrienne rises, wiping her hands clean of the chalk. The two embrace. Then, disengaging, Coco rummages in her bag. She takes out a small box with a brushed velvet exterior. She undoes the clasp and lays bare the contents. There is a moment of awed silence as though the relics of a saint are being unveiled.
“The new samples—they’ve arrived.”
“Here. Try some.”
Coco removes the stopper from one of the flacons. The glass feels tepid in her hand. Upending the bottle for a second, she allows a quantity to seep through and wet her fingertip. She applies a smidgen to Adrienne’s wrist. Lifting it to her nose, Adrienne inhales.
“It’s . . . good,” she says. Adrienne smells more carefully. There is caution in her voice. “I’m not sure I can place the fragrance, though.”
“I’m not surprised. There are over eighty ingredients in that bottle.”
Adrienne raises an eyebrow. “It’s very delicate,” she says.
“But the idea is, it lasts longer.”
“And you think it’ll sell?”
“I’m convinced it will. The samples that Beaux sent out got a very positive response.”
Coco stoppers the flacon. She replaces it in the valise and snaps it shut. “I propose we spray it in the changing rooms. Then, when clients ask what it is and whether they can buy it, we say we’ve just had a small amount made up as gifts.”
“The girls in the shop can wear it, too.”
“No. It must remain exclusive.”
“But what if the clients don’t ask?”
“We’ll tell the old ladies they need it if they still want to be kissed.”
“And the younger ones?”
“I’ll tell them it’s all they need to wear in bed.”
“We could have bottles displayed across the salon.” Coco leans forward conspiratorially in her seat. Her hands link together around her knees. Her toes just touch the floor. “The point is to flatter them. We say that if, in their opinion, the perfume will sell, then we might consider manufacturing it.”
“So you include them in the process.”
“We make them think we do.”
“You’re such a fox, Coco.”
“It’s a matter of getting people to know and talk about it, and then to buy the damn thing.” She readjusts her skirt and sits back.
“So when do we begin?”
“Here I am, and here’s the perfume. Why don’t we start right away?”
“I could get some of the girls to start spraying now . . .”
Coco looks suddenly tired.
Adrienne notices. “I’m sorry, I haven’t asked how everything is.”
“Everything’s fine,” Coco says, too quickly. Yesterday Joseph approached her, asking about the possibility—if it wasn’t too inconvenient or impertinent, et cetera—of a holiday. The poor man is afraid of her, she thinks. She does vaguely recall promising them a few days off. It’s just so inconvenient, though.
“And how is Igor?”
In response, she seems poised and cool. “Very well, thank you.” He has not gone with her to Paris for the last few afternoons.
In a low voice: “Are you in love, Coco?” Adrienne fixes her with a look that will admit nothing other than a reply of absolute candor.
Coco returns the look. She expects to feel uncomfortable but doesn’t, and finds herself saying to her own surprised ears, “My work comes first. Always. Men come second.” They regard one another challengingly for a few moments.
“Good,” says Adrienne.
“Good,” Coco says.
“Shall we spray?”
The two of them walk abreast down the stairs with a slightly intimidating rhythm, Coco clutching her bag as though it is a pack of high explosives.
Returning unexpectedly early from the shop next afternoon, Coco rushes to Igor’s study. She has to talk to him. She wants to make up. She finds she misses him after all. And it was unforgivable of her to tear up the invitation. She knows that now, and she wants to say sorry. But no sound comes from the piano, and Igor is not there. She moves upstairs and hears low voices coming from the Stravinskys’ bedroom. Inching toward the door, which is fractionally ajar, she listens to the conversation going on inside.
There is a tone of intimacy between Catherine and Igor. Coco dares to move closer. Through the thin strip of light between the door and the wall, she glimpses them together. Catherine is in bed. Fully clothed, Igor lies next to her propped upon one elbow. He has pressed her head like a child’s to his breast and is lifting her hair in tender caresses. He speaks to her in reassuring tones. Coco strains to hear. She doesn’t need to understand Russian to catch the atmosphere that hangs between them.
Catherine’s cheeks shine wetly. Her eyeballs seem to tremble beneath closed lids. Her complexion is hectic. Igor kisses her tears.
Coco stands unseen, jaw firmly set, with one hand on the doorjamb and the other sunk into her pocket. She feels the skin on her face stretch tight and experiences a collapsing sensation inside her chest. Flinching, she turns away. Vertigo afflicts her as she stands at the top of the stairs. They seem steeper suddenly by several degrees. She needs to grip the banister hard for support.
She wonders why she bothered hurrying back from the shop at all. Adrienne had wanted her to stay. A wave of blankness breaks inside her, and she realizes she hasn’t eaten for hours. All the radiance of expectation drains from her face. She feels utterly betrayed.
Although she has seen nothing revelatory, she senses something tip like a balance inside her head. There are things between Igor and his wife she will never be privileged to know or understand, things that can never be completely canceled out. She realizes that now.
Igor will never leave Catherine. That much is certain. That is an act of riddance to which he will never submit. And yet, Coco thinks, it is craven of him to stay with her. It is becoming too much. For all the loving tenderness he has afforded her over the last few months, the one thing he will absolutely not do is sacrifice his wife. There’s a whole history of care and affection from which Coco feels excluded. And this latest glimpse of intimacy serves to estrange her still further. Their marriage will always be there: gnawing, irrevocable; a hard contractual fact.
It all seems so wildly obvious now. And the hurt is worse because she feels she’s connived in her own blindness. Was she insane? Did she not see? Could she ever have imagined he would give her up? And is that what she really wanted, anyway? It is the most banal of realizations, yet it does not prevent her experiencing a swelling sense of dread.
Seeing them together, Igor and Catherine, man and wife, has started a pang of jealousy within her. A terrible sense of illegitimacy assails her again. For an instant, she feels physically sick. Back in her study, with one violent movement, Coco sweeps off the table all the fabrics that lie in neat piles. In a fury, she picks up the racquet that Igor used that day in August with the Serts. It has lain there in her study ever since. She pulls at the broken string until its whole length unravels from the head. Scrunching up the catgut, she throws it across the room. Then she bangs the frame so strenuously on the desk that the wood begins to splinter. Hearing it crack, she continues smashing it down until the head snaps off completely.
The truth is tortured into her. He might dally with her, but at the end of the day he will always crawl back to Catherine.
“Bastard!” she curses, sinking into her seat. Impotently she hits the dinted surface of the desk and lays her head down, defeated. She sobs fiercely. A feeling of emptiness possesses her. After a time, she manages to calm down. Supporting her face with both hands, she plants her elbows on the desk. Silence surrounds her, pressing through the darkening afternoon.
Biting her lip, she remembers what she said to Adrienne about her work coming first. Something within her tightens. She begins thinking hard.