Monday, August 01, 2011

The Marquise With Red Wine

I recall about a year ago I was working as a bar person at this annual regatta - a job a friend of mine got me. At one point as I was pouring yet another pint (it took longer for me to pour it than the customer to drink it) I glanced around, seeing as there weren’t many guests around, my eyes met with those of a well-dressed, blonde middle-aged woman who was peering straight at me, unflinchingly. I momentarily looked back down at the pint and then again turned towards her – she was still standing there at the bar, idle and frozen, and still gazing at me.

Though I felt slightly uneasy I only assumed she wanted a drink. I finally managed to pour the pint, after spilling twice its weight on the floor. I approached her and kindly asked her if she would like anything from the bar. Still looking straight at me, she shook her head, her lips gently motioning a silent no. Her head was slightly tilted down, eyes bulging forward – a feline, almost a Kubrickian sort of gaze. I looked at her again and her eyes were still locked onto me, as though she was challenging me on a who-would-blink-first competition. Her gaze followed me around as I moved to the other side of the bar to serve another customer.

Not only did I feel slightly uncomfortable but also somewhat intimidated. She was I’m guessing in her mid forties. I said she was well dressed but was she really? She had an office-like, indigo skirt with a matching jacket and a clean, crisp white shirt underneath. Presentable but lacking imagination, as though she was there to oblige a rich husband: she did not in the least care about the regatta. Casually holding a slender glass of red wine in her hand, she was standing by the bar, alone, with nobody, not even a ladyfriend in sight. This regatta was a posh event, with plenty of evidently wealthy guests. She was clearly part of the entourage.

Blonde hair down to her shoulders, she was fairly tall, with a shapely frame. Her stillness was stately but her tight-fitting skirt implied a coquettishness that I found particularly attractive. Her face was pretty but pending a wrinkle or two. It was her eyes that I found especially unnerving. I know that look. I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen it in films; I’ve pictured it in novels. It is the aristocratic middle-aged wife, all polished and accomplished, lonely and unhappy. It’s the sort of high-society woman, like the Marquise de Listomere that Eugene de Rastignac incessantly talks about and desires, in Balzac’s stories: “She has principles, she fasts, takes the sacrament, and goes to balls and operas very elegantly dressed; her confessor permits her to combine the mundane with sanctity."

Of course I doubt this woman fasts and takes the sacrament, but you get the point. Did the way she was standing there, completely by herself, detached from the other guests, momentarily removed from the world, peering at me, imply a loneliness of the kind Rastignac sees in women like Marquise de Listomere?

Even though I have often been told by guys and gals alike that I am good-looking and I admittedly do receive the occasional eye from girls wherever I go, I’ve often found it hard to accept these compliments and looks without a pinch of salt. Wearing a repugnant, oversized promotional t-shirt compulsory for the occasion, I did not exactly picture myself as an Adonis. And yet because I do get these sort of looks from time to time, I knew this marquise had something in mind. Her eyes were royal green, sharp and penetrating, almost predatory. This was a woman who married not out love but out of pure pragmatism. She was not a mistress or a high-flying prostitute: these women make more of an effort in the sartorial department. No, her bland style could only be of an unhappily married woman of worldly demeanour but sheltered character. And there is me, young and innocent, novice as much as in the pint-pouring business as in life itself. And there she was, the sun setting on her face, with a half-filled glass of red wine in her hand where its crimson rays converge. It’s a curious relationship, that of a younger man with an older woman- a scenario I have often pondered over. I am reminded of Aunt Pelageya’s words to the young Tolstoy that there was nothing better for a young man’s development than an affair with an older woman.

This fleeting encounter made me think about the veracity of this statement. There was something feral about this woman’s eyes. Even when I looked back at her and my eyes were interlocked with hers for a few seconds, she did not recoil. In this visual impasse, it was I who withdrew first. Did she purposefully seek to make me baulk under the weight of her gaze? For fun maybe? Were the crafty, alpha-female sparkles in her eyes the last remnants of this woman’s dignity? Behind her firm, unyielding facade, there was a girly vulnerability which I knew was there, hidden behind years of expert spin doctoring for the benefit of someone else. A woman does not seek money or security. Above all, she seeks attention. Constant, unceasing, undying attention.

I felt the urge to talk to her. Anything would do. No, it was pointless. As much as the resplendent fantasies of being with an older, attractive woman are alive and well in me and most young men my age, I was overcome by hesitation. I thought I should give her a polite smile, to comply with my good customer service skills. In the end I turned shyly from her and onto the next marquis or marquise, asking for a glass of red wine.


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