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It happened in the days of Nixon—that Nixon who presided over fifty states, from the Florida Keys to the Aleutian Islands. In those days, in the fifth year of Nixon’s reign, when the scandal that would undo him was erupting in Washington and beyond, a great, unspoken license was given to any official who was not he. A veil of distraction fell over the capital’s swampy fortress and a lustiness took hold, an appetite for drink and women uncommon even among that time and people. It followed that a banquet of minor scandals, insults, and crimes was enjoyed in the town houses of powerful men. There were floor-to-ceiling drapes of heavy velvet, and there were couches of Italian leather on sheepskin rugs. The wineglasses were nearly invisible, the low- balls weighty as a man’s fist. The rule for the drinking was, *Drink! Among these men was one, Senator Alexander Kent of Rhode Island, who gave no fewer than five parties in one month, displaying his home, his wife, and his good taste in scotch. To the fifth party, which would be his last for a very long time, Senator Kent invited not only those colleagues and donors he counted among his friends but also one man who was obscure in the capital but famous in Rhode Island for the suitcase-manufacturing empire his family had built. Kent invited this man to address a quickly spreading rumor he hoped to learn was untrue: that Suitcase Man was planning to endorse Kent’s opponent in the following year’s election.
And so to the fifth party the senator added a live band, Rhode Island scallops and littleneck clams on the half shell, as well as a conceptual twist: a second, concurrent party upstairs, for the women only. His reasoning, as he told it to his wife, was that such an arrangement would feel at once traditional yet fresh, old yet new, comfortable yet enticing, and would give him a chance to talk plainly to Suitcase Man. His other reasoning he did not tell his wife: it happened that once upon another time, when Kent had still been called by his father’s name, O’Kearney, of County Offaly across the ocean, he had known Suitcase Man’s wife.
Senator Kent’s wife, Vee—born Vivian Barr, daughter of the late Senator Barr of Massachusetts and granddaughter to Gover- nor Fitch of Connecticut, as well as great-granddaughter to a soft- spoken but effective suffragette, all of whom, though dead, would be helping to pay for the party—protested: Weren’t separate events antithetical to the spirit of the Equal Rights Amendment, which Rhode Island ratified one year ago and which Senator Kent claims in his official platform to support?
A sound enough question. The senator had responded by giving her a foot massage, a rare offering, and Vee had yielded.
And so in the year 1973, on the second day of November, a day as mild as June, Senator Kent returns from his affairs of state to find the house crawling with caterers and cleaners, bartenders and a flower arranger, and, deeper still, in the kitchen—all the old, noble town houses of Georgetown had their kitchens in the deep, dark backs—his wife, on her hands and knees, working at a spill with a ragged beach towel.
It is the towel, striped red and blue and white like a barber pole, faded and frayed yet still festive, the towel he had in his dorm room when they first met and which they kept for sentimental reasons and continue to use for any and all things unclean. The senator loves this towel. He steps on it now, the toe of his shoe grazing his wife’s hand. “Excuse us,” he says to the caterers rushing around, and they jump quick as sand fleas and are gone.
He locks the swinging door, hook to eye. “Why hello,” he says.
She looks up at him slowly, bangs in her eyes, blouse hanging open to reveal the shadows of her bra.
And though everything about the moment—the towel, the bra, the reluctant, obscured gaze—seems to him a calculation, her end goal being his seduction, in fact Vee moves slowly because she is tired from a day of list checking and directing and emptying the second floor of personal effects for the women’s party that she doesn’t want to give in the first place; and her bangs are in her eyes because she still needs to shower; and her blouse hangs open because it is not a blouse at all—that is only what he sees—but a stretched-out T-shirt from a Jefferson Airplane concert Vee went to with her girlfriends before she and Kent got serious.
“Get up,” he says.
“I’m almost done,” she says. “Then I’ll get down.”
She smiles, understanding. “Oh no.” “Oh yes.”
“It’s almost five o’clock.” “I know what time it is.” “Our guests are . . .” “Not for a while yet.”
He drops behind her and starts to unbutton her jeans. “Alex—”
“Vee . . .”
“Alex.” She flips over and wriggles backward. “Stop. I forgot my pill yesterday.”
He walks on his knees to her, laughing. “What pill?” “Sh.” She eye-points toward the door.
He grins and stage-whispers: “What pill?” “The Pill.”
She expects him to stand, walk out, go cold on her as he does when he’s insulted, as her father used to do to her mother and her grandfather to her grandmother. They will finish the conversation tomorrow, after the party has been a success. But Alex is on a roll. He is the youngest senator in the US Congress, if not elected exactly—instead appointed by the governor after Senator Winthrop died—then popular, and deemed likely to win his seat legit- imately next year, assuming no twists like Suitcase Man standing against him. Today he aced his first high-profile press conference, at which Ted Kennedy announced he’ll cosponsor a bill that Alex introduced, then he left the Hill nearly skipping and walked the four miles home, paying homage to Mr. Lincoln on the way. He is on fire, on pace to rise. He pushes Vee back onto the floor, holds her by the wrists, and presses a knee between her legs. In her ear he breathes: “I thought we were going to make babies.”
Feet shuffle outside the door. Vee nods. A twinge of heat splits beneath his knee—a kind of revving she can’t control. Words spin uselessly in her gut—Of course, just maybe not yet— words she has managed to say only to a doctor, and even then her eyes averted, her face blazing. This was a few months ago, when Alex stopped using condoms. They waited years longer than most of her friends because of his political ambitions, but now, as far as Alex knows, they are no longer waiting. Vee is twenty-eight, thinking of waiting until twenty-nine, maybe thirty, not for any particular reason, nothing she can argue for, even to herself, only a want, to wait, a barking inside: Wait!
In her ear: “Weren’t we going to make babies? Wipe up their spit with this towel? Maybe you’d sew the ends up a little, make it nice for them, yeah?”
The caterers’ shuffling grows louder. In the sweetest, sexiest voice Vee can conjure she says, “Let’s reconvene tonight,” but already Alex is loosening his belt, then Vee’s back hits the floor and he is inside her, and she doesn’t fight him, not because within her in some squishy feminine core she is all right with having a baby (she isn’t) and not because she knows her fighting him wouldn’t matter (spousal rape—if that’s even what this is—being legal in those days) but because his not listening to her, his force, turns her on. She will hate herself for this fact as soon as it’s over. She will think how ashamed she would be to admit such a thing to the women’s group she has been attending once a month. But for now, her pleasure grows, she a caught thing, and now, because at the last meeting of the group a radical thing took place, a les- son in female orgasm, now, once Alex is done, she makes him do what she learned to do herself: she grabs his hand and guides him into place. He looks quizzical. She repositions his fingers. Like this, she thinks at him. Like that. She watches his confusion turn into annoyance but refuses to stop—instead she moves his hand faster and turns her face to the side so she won’t have to look at him. In his place, though, filling her vision, is the towel, with its faded stripes and tangle of threads. Goddamnit, I’ll sew it! she thinks and closes her eyes. She must concentrate. But girls’ voices trill in her head, a thing they used to say at Wellesley, Vee included, feigning courage and pep: You can’t be forced if you don’t resist! Other voices hiss back, the women’s-group women: Tsssk. Vee shakes her head and returns to Alex’s hand, and to the point between her legs, but as her pulse starts to quicken and her thoughts relax, the point is also a sewing needle, its eye glinting in the sew-on-the-go box her grandmother gave her when she turned ten, its point shoved deep inside a pink foam cushion in the box, the box shoved deep inside Vee’s stocking drawer, unopened for years. Vee has softened on Alex’s hand—she has lost her channel. If she loses, he wins. Again, she shuts her eyes. Alex is giving off an impatient heat but she steals it and drives his hand until at last the heat flares and she is satisfied. Then she pushes him out of the kitchen, wipes up his mess with the towel, and lets the help back in.
THE BOOK OF V by Anna Solomon. Published 5/5/2020 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2020 by Anna Solomon. You can buy a copy here. (When you buy something through our affiliate links, we may earn an affiliate commission.) Note to readers: "Fiction Friday" is a new Vogue weekly series showcasing original fiction from novels being published this spring and summer.
Originally Appeared on Vogue