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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: Chapter 55


WHEN I GOT TO SPAGO, Celia was already seated. She was wearing black slacks and a gauzy cream-colored sleeveless blouse. The temperature outside was a warm seventy-eight degrees, but the restaurant’s air-conditioning was on high, and she looked just a little bit cold. Her arms were covered in goose bumps.

Her red hair was still stunning but now clearly dyed. The golden undertones that had been there before, the result of nature and sunlight, were now slightly saturated, coppery. Her blue eyes were just as enticing as they always had been, but now the skin around them was softer.

I’d been to a plastic surgeon a few times in the past several years. I suspected she had, too. I was wearing a deep-V-necked black dress, belted at the waist. My blond hair, a bit lighter now from the gray that had been creeping in and cut shorter, was framing my face.

She stood when she saw me. “Evelyn,” she said.

I hugged her. “Celia.”

“You look great,” she said. “You always do.”

“You look just like you did the last time I saw you,” I said.

“We never did tell each other lies,” she said, smiling. “Let’s not start now.”

“You’re gorgeous,” I said.

“Ditto.”

I ordered a glass of white wine. She ordered a club soda with lime.

“I don’t drink anymore,” Celia said. “It’s not sitting with me the way it once did.”

“That’s fine. If you want, I can toss my wine right out the window the moment it gets to the table.”

“No,” she said, laughing. “Why should my low tolerance be your problem?”

“I want everything about you to be my problem,” I said.

“Do you realize what you’re saying?” she whispered to me as she leaned across the table. The neck of her blouse opened and dipped into the bread basket. I was worried it would graze the butter, but somehow it didn’t.

“Of course I realize what I’m saying.”

“You destroyed me,” she said. “Twice now in our lives. I have spent years getting over you.”

“Did you succeed? Either time?”

“Not completely.”

“I think that means something.”

“Why now?” she asked. “Why didn’t you call years ago?”

“I called you a million times after you left me. I practically knocked down your door,” I reminded her. “I thought you hated me.”

“I did,” she said. She pulled back a bit. “I still hate you, I think. At least a little bit.”

“You think I don’t hate you, too?” I tried to keep my voice down, tried to pretend it was a chat between two old friends. “Just a little bit?”

Celia smiled. “No, I suppose it would make sense that you do.”

“But I’m not going to let that stop me,” I said.

She sighed and looked at her menu.

I leaned in, conspiratorially. “I didn’t think I had a shot before,” I told her. “After you left me, I thought the door was closed. And now it’s open a crack, and I want to swing it wide open and walk in.”

“What makes you think the door is open?” she asked, looking at the left side of the menu.

“We are having dinner, aren’t we?”

“As friends,” she said.

“You and I have never been friends.”

She closed her menu and put it down on the table. “I need reading glasses,” she said. “Can you believe that? Reading glasses.”

“Join the club.”

“I can be mean sometimes when I’m hurt,” she reminded me.

“You’re not exactly telling me something I don’t know.”

“I made you feel like you weren’t talented,” she said. “I tried to make you think you needed me because I made you legitimate.”

“I know that.”

“But you’ve always been legitimate.”

“I know that now, too,” I told her.

“I thought you would call me after you won the Oscar. I thought maybe you would want to show me, you’d want to shove it in my face.”

“Did you listen to my speech?”

“Of course I did,” she said.

“I reached out to you,” I said. I picked up a piece of bread and buttered it. But I put it down immediately, not taking a single bite.

“I wasn’t sure,” Celia said. “I mean, I wasn’t sure if you meant me.”

“I all but said your name.”

“You said ‘she.’ ”

“Precisely.”

“I thought maybe you had another she.”

I had looked at other women besides Celia. I had pictured myself with other women besides her. But everyone, for what had felt like my whole life, had always been divided into “Celia” and “not Celia.” Every other woman I considered striking up a conversation with might as well have had “not Celia” stamped on her forehead. If I was going to risk my career and everything I loved for a woman, it was going to be her.

“There is no she but you,” I told her.

Celia listened and closed her eyes. And then she spoke. It was as if she had tried to stop herself and simply couldn’t. “But there were hes.”

“This old song and dance,” I said, trying to stop myself from rolling my eyes. “I was with Max. You were clearly with Joan. Did Joan hold a candle to me?”

“No,” Celia said.

“And Max didn’t hold a candle to you.”

“But you’re still married to him.”

“I’m filing papers. He’s moving out. It’s over.”

“That’s abrupt.”

“It’s not, actually. It’s overdue. And anyway, he found your letters,” I said.

“And he’s leaving you?”

“No, he’s threatening to out me if I don’t stay with him.”

“What?”

“I’m leaving him,” I said. “And I’m letting him do whatever the hell he wants. Because I’m fifty years old, and I don’t have the energy to be controlling every single thing anyone says about me until I die of old age. The parts I’m being offered are shit. I have the Oscar on my mantel. I have a spectacular daughter. I have Harry. I’m a household name. They will write about my movies for years to come. What more do I want? A gold statue in my honor?”

Celia laughed. “That’s what an Oscar is,” she said.

I laughed, too. “Exactly! Excellent point. I already have that, then. There’s nothing else, Celia. There are no more mountains to climb. I spent my life hiding so no one would knock me off the mountain. Well, you know what? I’m done hiding. Let them come and get me. They can throw me down a well as far as I’m concerned. I’m signed on to do one last movie over at Fox later this year, and then I’m done.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do. Any other line of thinking . . . it’s how I lost you. I don’t want to lose anymore.”

“It’s not just our careers,” she said. “The ramifications are unpredictable. What if they take Connor away?”

“Because I’m in love with a woman?”

“Because they think both her parents are ‘queers.’ ”

I sipped my wine. “I can’t win with you,” I said finally. “If I want to hide, you call me a coward. If I’m tired of hiding, you tell me they’ll take my daughter.”

“I’m sorry,” Celia said. She did not seem sorry for what she had said so much as sorry that we lived in the world we lived in. “Do you mean it?” she asked. “Would you really give it up?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I would.”

“Are you absolutely sure?” she asked just as the waiter put her steak down in front of her and my salad in front of me. “I mean absolutely sure?”

“Yes.”

Celia was quiet for a moment. She stared down at her plate. She seemed to be considering everything about this moment, and the longer she took to speak, the farther I found myself bending forward, trying to get closer to her.

“I have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” she said finally. “I probably won’t make it much past sixty.”

I stared at her. “You’re lying,” I said.

“I’m not.”

“Yes, you are. That can’t be true.”

“It is true.”

“No, it’s not,” I said.

“It is,” she said. She picked up her fork. She sipped the water in front of her.

My mind was reeling, thoughts bouncing around my brain, my heart spinning in my chest.

And then Celia spoke again, and the only reason I was able to focus on her words was that I knew they were important. I knew they mattered. “I think you should do your movie,” she said. “Finish strong. And then . . . and then, after that, I think we should move to the coast of Spain.”

“What?”

“I have always liked the idea of spending the last years of my life on a beautiful beach. With the love of a good woman,” she said.

“You’re . . . you’re dying?”

“I can look into some locations in Spain while you’re shooting. I’ll find a place where Connor can get a great education. I’ll sell my home here. I’ll get a compound somewhere, with enough space for Harry, too. And Robert.”

“Your brother Robert?”

Celia nodded. “He moved out here for business a few years ago. We’ve become close. He . . . he knows who I am. He supports me.”

“What is chronic obstructive—?”

“Emphysema, more or less,” she said. “From smoking. Do you still smoke? You should stop. Right now.”

I shook my head, having long ago given it up.

“They have treatments to slow down the process. I can live a normal life for the most part, for a while.”

“And then what?”

“And then, eventually, it will become difficult to be active, hard to breathe. When that happens, I won’t have much time. All told, we’re looking at ten years, give or take, if I’m lucky.”

“Ten years? You’re only forty-nine.”

“I know.”

I started crying. I couldn’t help it.

“You’re making a scene,” she said. “You have to stop.”

“I can’t,” I said.

“OK,” she said. “OK.”

She picked up her purse and threw down a hundred-dollar bill. She pulled me out of my chair, and we walked to the valet. She gave him her ticket. She put me in the front seat of the car. She drove me to her house. She sat me on the sofa.

“Can you handle this?” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked her. “Of course I can’t handle it.”

“If you can handle this,” she said, “then we can do this. We can be together. I think we can . . . we can spend the rest of our lives together, Evelyn. If you can handle this. But I can’t, in good conscience, do this to you if you don’t think you’ll survive it.”

“Survive what, exactly?”

“Losing me again. I don’t want to let you love me if you don’t think you can lose me again. One last time.”

“I can’t. Of course I can’t. But I want to anyway. I’m going to anyway. Yes,” I said finally. “I can survive it. I’d rather survive it than never feel it.”

“Are you sure?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’m sure. I’ve never been more sure about anything. I love you, Celia. I’ve always loved you. And we should spend the rest of the time we have together.”

She grabbed my face. She kissed me. And I wept.

She started crying with me, and soon I couldn’t tell whether the tears I was tasting were hers or mine. All I knew was that I was once again in the arms of the woman I was always meant to love.

Eventually, Celia’s blouse was on the floor and my dress was hiked up around my thighs. I could feel her lips on my chest, her hands on my stomach. I stepped out of my dress. Her sheets were stark white and perfectly soft. She no longer smelled like cigarettes and alcohol but like citrus.

In the morning, I woke up with her hair in my face, fanned across the pillow. I rolled to my side and curved my body against the back of hers.

“Here is what we’re going to do,” Celia said. “You’re going to leave Max. I’m going to call a friend of mine in Congress. He’s a representative from Vermont. He needs some press. You’re going to be seen around with him. We’re going to spread a rumor that you’re stepping out on Max with a younger man.”

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“Jesus, Celia. He’s a child,” I said.

“That’s exactly what people will say. They’ll be shocked that you’re dating him.”

“And when Max tries to slander me?”

“It won’t matter what he’s trying to claim about you. It will look like he’s just bitter.”

“And then?” I asked.

“And then, down the line, you marry my brother.”

“Why am I going to marry Robert?”

“So that when I die, everything I own will be yours. My estate will be under your control. And you can keep my legacy.”

“You could appoint that to me.”

“And have someone try to take it away because you were my lover? No. This is better. This is smarter.”

“But marrying your brother? Are you crazy?”

“He’ll do it,” she said. “For me. And because he’s a rake who likes to bed almost every woman he sees. You’d be good for his reputation. It’s a win-win.”

“All this instead of just telling the truth?”

I could feel Celia’s rib cage expand and contract underneath me.

“We can’t tell the truth. Did you see what they did to Rock Hudson? If it was cancer he was dying of, there’d be telethons.”

“People don’t understand AIDS,” I said.

“They understand it just fine,” Celia said. “They just think that he deserves it because of how he got it.”

I rested my head on the pillow while my heart sank in my chest. She was right, of course. The past few years, I’d watched Harry lose friend after friend, former lovers, to AIDS. I’d watched him cry his eyes red out of fear that he’d get sick, for not knowing how to help the people he loved. And I’d watched Ronald Reagan never so much as acknowledge what was happening in front of our eyes.

“I know things have changed since the sixties,” she said. “But they haven’t changed that much. It wasn’t that long ago that Reagan said gay rights weren’t civil rights. You can’t risk losing Connor. So I’ll call Jack, my friend in the House of Representatives. We’ll plant the story. You’ll shoot your movie. You’ll marry my brother. And we’ll all move to Spain.”

“I’ll have to talk to Harry.”

“Of course,” she said. “Talk to Harry. If he hates Spain, we’ll go to Germany. Or Scandinavia. Or Asia. I don’t care. We just need to go somewhere where people won’t care who we are, where people will leave us alone and Connor can live a normal childhood.”

“You’ll need medical care.”

“I’ll fly where I need to. Or we can bring people to me.”

I thought about it. “It’s a good plan.”

“Yeah?” Celia was flattered, I could tell.

“The student has become the master,” I said.

She laughed, and I kissed her.

“We’re home,” I said.

This wasn’t my home. We’d never lived here together before. But she knew what I meant.

“Yes,” she said. “We’re home.”


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