Author: Guede Mazaka
She caught on when the flowers were delivered, and instead of the baby’s breath and pale candy-pink roses she had ordered, all the truck had had were wilted ferns and yellow roses. Tess remembers she took a deep breath and pressed her perfect nails hard to her mouth, pretending that she was trying to recall the name of the man who’d taken the order, and when she’d taken her hand away, she had seen that her fresh manicure had had wrinkly lip prints engraved all over it. She wasn’t the screaming type. She was capable and cool and professional.
Rusty had come up behind her so his hand had brushed her elbow just so, and while she’d been reaching to check on her cell and purse, he had smiled at the man. Called him Fred, and commiserated about some dog-race, and by the time Tess had inserted herself into the conversation again, she was being offered a new double order, rush job, at the same price as the first. And Rusty had wandered on to stand by the open back of the truck, tilting his tattoo at her as he’d plucked one yellow rose from the masses.
The petals had been the same color as his hair, and she’d been thinking what a nice picture when Danny had come over, appearing from behind Rusty, and when she’d first seen him he hadn’t had a flower in his lapel. But by the time he had come to her side and taken her hand, thumb rubbing gently over her ring, one perfect yellow bloom graced his coat. The color of Rusty’s hair, and Rusty smiling into the sun as if his sunglasses weren’t quite dark enough to shield him.
That was when she caught on. Finally. Or maybe she always knew, but everything was so glossy around Danny and Rusty and their friends that it was difficult to tell what had substance and what was merely veneer.
* * *
Now that she knows, she remembers how it began. Twice.
She prefers to remember the second time, because that time she’d been sure that Danny hadn’t meant it as part of a con. By then he’d already gotten the job out of the way, and they had been lounging in the backseat of Rusty’s car while Rusty was picking up their food inside. It’d been a burger joint, nothing fancy, nothing worth bothering with—though Rusty had come out with a few more dollars’ more of food than Tess remembered them ordering—and Danny had been resting his face in the curve of his neck.
His hand had been resting on the windowsill and she’d lifted hers up to it, and suddenly her eye had caught the bluish wrong note in his golden skin. “So you could find a tanning booth but you couldn’t find a shaving razor before they kicked you out,” she’d laughed.
“Well, that’s why it’s prison.” Danny had wonderful hands. Sculptor’s hands, square-palmed and long-fingered, only missing the veracity of the scrapes and calluses and flakes of stone or oil-grime. They could mold trash into palaces.
But he wasn’t an alchemist, and as strong as his hands were, their support only lasted as long as their presence did. And their presence could be as fleeting as the whisper of fortune through a casino.
He’d sensed something in her, because then his lips had touched her neck, grazing her very lightly without the pressure of a demand. And he’d sighed a little, which had surprised her not because of the gesture itself but because it sounded older; despite the silver strands and the age-crinkles nesting his eyes, Danny had always seemed a few years younger than her.
He’d lifted his hand so his ring had caught the light. “I haven’t changed all that much, Tess. Maybe learned a few things about value, but…you came back.”
After enough time to sit down and realize that she couldn’t blame Terry for putting his hotel above hers. That had always been clear about him, even if she’d never truly thought about that till Danny had unfolded it before her face along with his own set of priorities and truths. She’d almost laughed when she’d understood that the con was when Danny was most honest—after all, that was when he just couldn’t help himself. Almost laughed, and almost cried.
It was such a simple question: which man was she willing to have, the one who kept his fingers folded into a tight cage, or the one who kept them splayed so the world could slip through them?
“You’re still wearing this,” she’d said, rolling his ring around his finger. “Isn’t it a bit flashy? Rusty doesn’t wear rings.”
Maybe she’d been speaking lightly. Mostly not, if she remembers truthfully, and she certainly remembers Danny wrapping his hand around hers as if she’d been pronouncing a ruling.
“Well, he has his tattoo, and I have y—my ring,” Danny had said, and maybe he’d been speaking lightly, but she didn’t recall it being so. His face had been turned just enough for her to glimpse that sweet, regretful smile of his that came whenever he wasn’t quite quick enough to hide from himself. “We’ve all got our downfalls.”
Her hand had been shaking by then. Though her head had flitted the Cubist collection she’d birthed in the Bellagio, her abandoned child that had pieced her back together after her wild escape into Las Vegas, and the small post-mod gallery she had been assisting at when Rusty had shown up with Danny’s release date, and the watercolor by which she’d first met Danny. Magic was transitory, but art was forever, she’d always told herself. It was funny how things blurred when one grew up.
“Want to make this official again?” Around and around went the gold band on Tess’ finger, spun by Danny’s thumb and forefinger. He’d dropped his voice.
“I want—” and she’d had to stop there for a moment, let her voice fill out into the near-brassy tone she used when she didn’t want to sound nervous “—I want the wedding to be in the clear, is that understood? I know you—”
“We can have the wedding in Vegas if that’s what makes you happy.” Danny kisses a laugh behind Tess’ ear, and suddenly it’s not her trying to smile too hard from behind rich-girl sunglasses, it’s not Danny trying to beam himself past their too-big lenses. It’s them sitting in the backseat of Rusty’s banged-up boat of a car, giggling like the teenagers maybe neither of them ever were and maybe both of them had been till now.
Rusty came out at that point, and Danny had leaned out the window to smile at him. “Hey, Rusty. Want to stand up for me again?”
* * *
Tess looks in the mirror at herself. She has beautiful hair. It’s a gorgeous but difficult color to match well, but she thinks what she’s chosen has worked out perfectly. The cut of the suit is just flowing enough to suggest soft folds and womanliness, but its lines are sleek instead of amorphous, like a dress would have been. The cream notes in the white warm it so it does not try to chill the fire of her hair.
She notices such things as second nature now. Maybe she doesn’t always think about them right away, but her eyes pick them out for recollection later. Here and now, when she looks into the mirror, memory and recognition overlay each other so she sees the slip in Rusty’s hand around the sack of food, the twist of his sleeve upward to bare the black marks on the back of his otherwise unadorned fingers.
* * *
“It’s a genuine offer. Tess. I swear.” Danny actually put his hand over his heart and begged her with his eyes. He pushed the glossy at her again. “Look, small chapel, great garden where we can have the reception, and it’s only—”
“It’s too cheap.” But Tess’ fingers were already straying towards the photos, entranced by the Georgian architecture. She specialized in the angularity of the modern world, the sharp clean fractures of art after the atom bomb, but always there’d been a part of her that had resonated with the free curves of an earlier age.
Of a more romantic age, she thought wryly, and beneath the engaging light of Danny’s eyes, she began to bend. She had—had played her hand, and with eyes open this time, so she should have expected no less.
Behind Danny, Rusty had been sipping quietly from a Coke, but now he slowly turned on the barstool. His eyes wandered across the breadth of Danny’s shoulders and then sloped around to catch Tess’; his eyebrow rose and his head dipped.
“Honey—” Danny started.
But no, Tess had meant to remind Danny that sometimes rules were there for a reason besides having something to circumvent, and so she couldn’t give in so easily. She’d come to see that no matter what took Danny away, it meant something that it’d been her to bring him back. “Who is it that you know?”
The words came out blunter than she’d intended, because she did understand who he was, and because she was no longer so idealistic as to hold him up to the standards of art. Tess took his hands in hers and smiled, trying to soften after the fact.
“What, does the concierge owe you a favor? Or is it the owner?” she asked.
He grinned and squeezed her hands, then glanced over his shoulder. “Why don’t you ask him? It’s going to be Rusty’s hotel by the end of the week.”
And Rusty looked up, eyes calm as the sky in the window behind him. His mouth had been full of cheese fries and he’d needed a moment to swallow before he’d replied. “I’ve got to be the only hotel owner east of the Mississippi that doesn’t owe Terry Benedict a phone call. So anything for Danny.” Beat. “If a demand is unavoidable, strike first and keep it on your terms.”
Danny hadn’t given Rusty a direct look, but had merely expected it. Nor had Rusty been surprised. On the contrary, he’d seemed to be waiting for it, like a cat that positions itself at nine o’clock where the sunbeam will fall at ten.
* * *
It’s craft, and Tess has never really thought about it in those terms. The earrings that sheen in her earlobes and the necklace that gleams elegantly around her neck are art, but only insofar as their beauty goes. Their existence depends alone on craft.
It’d been so back then, when Rusty had carefully looked through the space between Danny and Tess, when Danny hadn’t been able to tell Tess all the excitingly terrible realities of his life except through the machinations of his con. She runs her fingers over the pearls now and remembers the diamonds Terry gave her, and even she cannot resist the thought that if it was Terry’s money that bought both, she prefers the pearls. Indirect though they’d come, they suit her better. They’d considered her more, and not merely how she would look to the world.
That was the dagger at the heart of craft as opposed to art: it went in instead of out so when it cut, it hurt much more.
Her hand falls to the countertop and she leans forward, letting her head hang. The weight of her updo drags on her neck, pulls the tension from her shoulders so she feels dazed. She watches the blood drain from her fingers as they clutch tighter and tighter around the edge of the sink.
She’s never been a good person in that she hasn’t cared about world peace or ending poverty or even getting the bad neighborhoods cleaned up as long as they didn’t intrude into her space. Guilt occasionally gives her a paper-cut, but she has never had any trouble soothing the tiny sting with pragmatism. She is who she is, too, and she is a selfish, honest person. She knows what she wants. That of course changes, but she still knows what that is.
Someone knocks at the door. Tess jerks up her head, then stops to stare at the beginnings of sore red around her eyes, though they’re not yet moist. “Yes?”
“Tess? It’s Rusty.”
Of course it is. The groom mustn’t see the bride or bad luck will follow, and luck is something they all take very seriously beneath their smooth realism. So are roles—the best man stands up for the groom, takes care of everything for him so he doesn’t go into the big day with needless worries. Rusty must have been training for the position for his whole life, Tess thinks.
And then she winces and tucks her thumb into her fist, squeezing at the sudden, thin slice of pain that’s gone across it.
“Just wanted to see if you needed any help. I…ah…noticed you hadn’t invited any girlfriends to help out.” An uncomfortable laugh floats through the door. It’s endearing—Rusty has always been endearing, even though all of Tess’ instincts say her hackles should rise around him. That’s his trick, she supposes.
“No, I’m fine. Is there a problem?” she says, once she’s understood that like the faithful hound, he’ll wait and wait for the answer. “Did Danny ask you to do this?”
“No, he’s too busy worrying about his tie. He’s forgotten how to make a knot.” What Rusty assumes is that Tess is nervous and needs reassurance.
He should be annoyingly right, but he simply is…right. Just as he’s always there, always by Danny so Tess isn’t quite sure how Danny might work without him. It’s like Danny’s trick is actually Rusty, his man on the inside when it comes to his mind and his…craft.
“I’m fine, Rusty,” Tess repeats. She smiles at her hands. It hurts a little. “Go take care of Danny. I told him, I don’t want anyone betting on this. At least, not where I can hear.”
His feet barely shuffle on the carpet. He’s even better at gliding than Danny is, as if his desire not to intrude goes beyond making a clean getaway. Certainly he never seems to object to Danny. At least, not so much that Danny’s never unsure of him as Danny sometimes is with Tess.
And that, she supposes, is her trick, or should be. When he thinks he has all the rest of the world figured out, she keeps him guessing—or should do so. Which is why she is leaning over the dresser now, closing her eyes tight and wondering just how surprising she could—can—be. How surprising she wants to be, after so much water has already passed under the bridge.
* * *
She’d been walking up and down the charming cobblestone walk in the charming fern section of the charming garden. Hands wringing air like she’d wanted to wring Danny’s neck, heels clattering out all the anger of the words she’d been swallowing down ever since she’d walked in on Danny and the woman from the jeweler’s.
Tess had made a turn and a pair of polished black shoe-tips had slid into her line of vision. She hadn’t stopped. “I don’t—no, I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want excuses, and I especially don’t want you making them for him. Again.”
“Guess that’s a good thing, since I don’t list being his apologist on my business card.” For once, Rusty’s hands had been empty. They’d hung loosely by his hips, fingers curved in half-moons and thumbs parallel to his legs.
How he managed to live without worrying about having a good grip, she had no idea but devoutly wished she did. “God. God, I just—you know something? You know something?”
And Tess had wheeled at that point, but Rusty hadn’t wavered an inch, eyes as steady on her as always. His voice had been just as unflinching, though it’d been as coolly modulated as always. “No…I don’t think I do. I’m not a mindreader, Tess—just a conman.”
“Conman turned hotel owner.” She’d turned away, wrapping her arms around her injured pride, and stared at a bright bunch of flowers. “Well, this is what you should know, for future reference as an ordinary, law-abiding businessman: when most women find their fiancé and another woman alone in a room, they should be afraid that they’re about to be cuckolded. They should not be afraid for the other woman’s checkbook, or for whether their brand new set of jewelry is about to get repossessed as criminal evidence.”
“He wasn’t going to…” Rusty had started. Then he’d caught himself, laughed a little, and ambled up to stand beside her. He’d reached up for a low-hanging clump of little pink flowers and had pulled a big white one from the middle of them. “Okay, he was. But only for a moment. Come on, Tess—old habits are hard to break. But he’s trying—for you. You’re that important to him.”
“I know.” Her fingers had dug so hard into her elbows that later she’d found aborted bruises beneath the skin. “Is that why you are apologizing for him anyway? And why you helped him win me back? Because I’m that important to him?”
She’d learned a thing or two about timing. When he’d drawn a breath to answer, she’d stomped all over it.
“Why do you keep doing it?” she’d asked, and to her ears it had sounded like a lost child mourning the passing of spring. Tess had tightened her hold on herself and looked at her feet. Strands of her hair had worked loose from her bun and crossed her face at odd angles, divvying up the world in a perfect metaphor for the fractured sight the modern age had brought on. Her mind had wandered into a tangent on Cubism and Les Demoiselles before she shook herself, determined not to be the one that retreated. Not this time.
“Danny…” And Rusty’s voice had spread its figurative hands, opened them wide to show nothing up the sleeves, nothing in the palms, and for once she hadn’t thought he had had a back-up tucked out of the way. He muttered a little afterward, but nothing coherent. Nothing that explained things as well as what he’d already said. “He’s a very persuasive man,” Rusty finally added. “I have to respect that.”
He’d known it was lame. It was honest—that was why it was a lame excuse. That’d probably been why Tess had laughed.
“I used to be a real nice girl, before I met him,” she’d said, long and low as she’d raised her head.
Rusty had had a half-smile on his face; she remembered because it wasn’t often that he did something half-way. He’d moved closer than Tess had realized, and his cuff was brushing her arm. “Believe it or not, I used to be a real nice boy. Your mother would have liked me.”
“You’ve never met my mother.” The bite Tess had put into the words had been made of false teeth. Poor-quality falsity at that, and they’d begun to chip almost before they’d left her mouth.
The humor in his eyes had said Are you sure?, but she’d been paying too much attention to the hand he’d lifted. He tucked a lock of her hair back behind her ear, still smiling, and it’d been so much like Danny that when Danny had appeared suddenly from behind Rusty’s shoulder, Tess had blinked twice. She’d had a strange, eerie twinning of sight.
Then the relieved, anxious grin had slid onto Danny’s face and he’d called to them: “The best man smoozing up to the bride? Rusty, I thought you were more original than that.”
“I thought you’d gotten more careful with your belongings,” Rusty had said to Danny.
“I thought you were the smarter one,” Tess had said to Rusty.
His eyes had cooled. It had been the first sign of anger she’d ever seen from him. “Because you were his girl,” he’d muttered back.
“And you’re his…” But she’d stepped around him before she could finish, and Danny had come up, and somehow everything had been glossed up and smoothed over.
* * *
It’d been a good thing she’d never finished, Tess thinks. She hadn’t been thinking of the right word, not back then.
She’s taken a lot of long walks in her life, but oddly enough, she can’t number this one among them. Before she knows it, she’d made her way across the room and is standing before the priest, holding Danny’s hand with just the right amount of pressure and holding her bouquet with white knuckles. She keeps her head bowed slightly: a girlhood habit that years of self-polish and conscious sophistication have yet to rub away.
Danny’s smiling at her. So, she instinctively knows, is Rusty, who blurs at the edge of her sight like the proverbial faithful shadow. Her teeth grit.
The priest falters, Danny squeezes her hand, and Tess quickly looks up to flash them all a bright, slightly nervous smile. She knows she fools Danny; he has a small blurry spot in his vision where she stands. She knows she doesn’t fool Rusty; she isn’t his blurry spot.
And will it always be like this? Then she laughs crookedly inside, because she always has to ask the wrong question the first time around, and asks the right one: can she stand for it to always be like this? Danny having little slips and her forgetting not to expect the ideal, and a certain someone always there for them to see when they look over their shoulders?
“Tess?” The priest looks down his—somehow they always have spectacles to bracket their solemn stare—looks down his nose.
* * *
“Tess.” Rusty had paused, slight bobble in his saunter.
“Where is he?” she’d asked. She’d known he’d know to whom she was referring.
Much, much later, she’d come to see the other underlying assumption she’d made and he’d known would be true—he of all people, deep in the middle of a complicated heist involving dozens of players all holding part of the big hand, would know exactly where Danny was at a given moment.
“He’s fine.” Rusty would always see to it that Danny was fine. And she’d known that for a long time, even if she’d never understood all of what that meant.
It’d been part of why she’d considered herself the more injured party. The challenge had to have been what brought Danny, because with Rusty there was no way he’d still need to seek her out for herself. She hadn’t believed he’d have a good reason to.
And then Danny had laid out the choices for her, instead of flipping one face-up and one face-down like he had before.
* * *
Tess isn’t a good person, per se. She hates having to settle. She hates complications outside the realm of pure aesthetic interpretation. She hates uncertainties. She makes snap decisions and often it’s because she doesn’t want the agony of having to wait before picking.
For once, that isn’t the case.
“I do,” she says.
Beside her comes a tiny sigh of relief. At the edge of beside her, Rusty’s eyes move. They drift from her face to the space between her and Danny, careful to appear as if they’re watching both of them.
She hates being watched like that as well.
“I do,” says Danny a little bit later. When he does, Rusty’s gaze tracks to the flowers lining the bower and stay there, making as wide an angle as it can away from Danny.
Most of all, she hates having only parts.
* * *
“I don’t like to think of myself as a curator—a caretaker. I’m a collector,” had been how Tess had used to introduce her job.
“So am I,” Terry had replied, thin smile snaking over his face.
“And I’m an appreciator,” Danny had retorted. In the doorway behind him, a tall blond man had been loitering with the last remnants of an hors d’oeuvres.
Rusty might as well have walked up and said it out loud. He was a fixer.
* * *
Later, when she and Danny have stumbled up the stairs and away from the roaring party below, when Danny and she have fallen against the door to their suite kissing messily like teenagers, Tess has already made up her mind. She’d already made up her mind when she pushes Danny away and reaches around him to take the champagne flute from Rusty, a second before he would have deposited them on the floor and left.
“You’re catching on,” Rusty says.
Tess passes the glass to Danny. “Hang on a moment before you say that,” she answers, and then she pulls him in by his tie.
He tastes of deep-fried crunch and salt for the first second, but after that the put-up melts away and he tastes better. His hair is thicker and softer than she’d expected, crushing pleasantly in her hand.
“Tess.” Danny is open-mouthed, eyes dark and nervous and heated.
“Tess.” Rusty says her name as if he’s meeting her again.
“I told you, I want this to be aboveboard this time. If you can’t help it, you can at least tell me about it,” she says. There’s a bit of a grate in her voice. She can already see, now that she’s yanked Rusty to where he has to touch Danny, how they lean on each other.
Danny’s hands circle her waist, then rise up and down as he purses his lips, shakes his head and still cannot find what to say. He looks sorry for a moment and she’s inclined to slap him for it.
Then Rusty, who’s never not understood the longer meaning of things, rests his head against the back of Danny’s neck. The stiffness in Danny is not only in the way he holds his shoulders but also in how he holds Tess and how he looks at her, still not quite sure.
She’s sure. She’s sure that this is the last time she’s letting him get away with not saying what needs to be said. She’ll let him not say Rusty is part of the whole package, and she’ll let Rusty not say it, and she’ll not say it herself because she’s pressing her hands around Danny’s face a little too hard and kissing him harder.
Tess is not a saint, or even a good Samaritan of the world, but she thinks she’s less foolish than she was before. If they bend a little, she’ll match them.
* * *
The first time, Tess and Danny been giggling on champagne bubbles and making a terrible mess of the bed. Tearing sheets, screwing like high-school sweethearts. Everything a hazy, happy blur.
The second time, they’re sober and they’re all a little busy keeping score. Keeping track of whose mouth has run over this limb, whose fingers are stroking up the delicate inside of the arm, whose gasp was rooted in whose caress. Tess can remember more of this time because she slips in and out, taking her turn on the side where she curls over Danny’s broad back and sees what Rusty can’t bear to look at, what would make him throw back his head and squeeze his eyes shut. She remembers more because it’s such an odd sensation, having more than a pair of hands running over her body, and her mind insists on separating it into the fingers playing between her legs, the ones deftly straightening her arm from where it’s been awkwardly trapped.
It doesn’t go so smoothly as the first time seemed to have had, because of course Tess’ dislike of having only parts is a nice way to say she’s a jealous woman, and she doesn’t like lying on the side. Not all the time, even when the hazy look in Rusty’s eyes reminds her of Italian frescos, or when she’s discovering to her surprise how satisfying it is to see someone catch Danny on his rough edges. But she’s surprised, and a little not, at how smoothly it does go. When Danny slips into her, his face buried in her neck, and Rusty’s hands are cradling her head, it almost seems as if this has always had to be like this.
* * *
“Think I should get a ring?” Rusty wonders. Danny lies between them, sleeping as only those with untroubled minds can. He shifts and Rusty reaches out to soothe him, only to let his hand fall away when Tess beats him to it. The smile on Rusty’s face has a twist to it.
Neither are the thoughts in Tess’ head, because this is everything she’s spent a lifetime avoiding, and yet this is, in all its flaws and not-quites, what she’s always wanted. “I didn’t think you needed one,” she says.
She can’t help tightening her fingers in Danny’s hair when Rusty’s hand slides in to overlap them. But he keeps smiling, and his fingers insist. His eyes thoughtfully trace the lines of black wending up his arm. “Yeah, you’re right. It’d never work out. We’re too alike and we’d fight too much. Better just to keep it on the dishonest side.”
Tess doesn’t think her smile comes out all that straight, either. “Very funny, Rusty.”
“It always is,” he says, bending to lay his head beside Danny’s.
He’s right, of course. And he’s right there, in front instead of behind, and she’s right, too. She’s right enough to let her head rest and learn to sleep like this, with this and them and herself. It’s not perfection, but it’s true and she thinks that that is the better bargain of the two.