Gloria stood in John's doorway, a tall, angry, stunning young woman, the colour high on the strong blades of her cheekbones. She was wearing her Mia Wallace drag- a white, fitted Agnes B. shirt, black boot-cut trousers and chrome-heeled black stilettos which jutted towards him like deadly weapons. However, her long, unruly black gypsys hair had long outgrown its tight bob, kinked into ringlets in the humidity, and was even fighting its way out of the chignon she'd fixed it into, spiralling loosely to her shoulders.
"You," she said, "are a dick. I hope you know that."
He grinned at her lazily, one elbow resting on the doorframe. Even standing up in the doorway of his apartment, John Matthews looked as though he was sprawling. He was a tall, lanky, extremely handsome man with a thick shock of black hair which he had never quite succeeded in taming. His skin looked as if it had been bronzed like a sculpture, and his facial bones were so strong and clear they seemed as though theyd been carved, sanded, and turned on a lathe. John's eyes were a vivid tropical green, enhanced by his rich, dark fern-coloured sweater, which he was wearing with tight ashy-cream chinos. His feet were bare.
"I love you too, Gloria," he said calmly.
"Get me a bloody drink," she said, bustling past him. Once inside, she threw down her haughtiness with her long black Chanel jacket and her armful of Louis Vuitton bags, and flung her body down on his richly cushioned sofa like a boisterous child.
"Certainly, madame." John ambled off towards the kitchen space. "And while I am getting you the said drink, would you be so kind as to explain the nature of my dickatry?"
"Well, first of all," she said, lying back luxuriously, "you turned me on- pardon the pun, darling, its late- to the idea that sneezing is sexy. So I get some decent fantasy material, a few bonuses during allergy season...but then you insist that I hang around constantly with your chronically allergic girlfriend."
"Don't pretend you don't like Carrie," he said, fetching the brandy from the bottom of his black glass cabinet. "I know how you are with people you dont like, Gloria, so dont play the spurned mistress with me."
"Why not?" she grinned at him. "Spurned mistresses get such great outfits."
He turned around- they still had so many points of connection- and smiled back at her. As she let her hair entirely loose from her tight bun, it tumbled to her shoulders, softly lit by his Moroccan lamp. Relaxing on the cushions, long legs extended, she looked like a pasha's sulky princess. Even in the dim light of midnight, he could tell that her cheeks were flushed. Her still-blazing eyes and the expressive little gestures she made with her hands and shoulders revealed her Mediterranean blood- her mother was Italian.
"You look good, Gloria. Did you get some today?" he asked frankly, reaching for the glasses.
"Thank you," she said, "but no, I have not got any, which is what I am here to complain about. I, Gloria Taylor, am about to have sex with anything, animal, vegetable or mineral, and its all your fiancées fault."
"Will you just tell me what happened?" he asked, exasperated.
Gloria sighed, kicked off her stilettos and settled back. "Well, after we'd gone to the wedding boutique where we picked up the dress, we went to this little place called Golden Roses..."
young women stood in the cramped little flower store, still as statues in
the underwater light. One of the women was tall and lanky in black
snakeskin style trousers, a strawberry-red cotton vest and movie-star
sunglasses. The other was a young, petite blonde in a beautifully cut
powder-blue sundress patterned with tiny white flowers, pale as a ghost
but for her albino-pink, bloodshot eyes and her bright red little bulb of
a nose. She had a sodden, almost transparent Kleenex clamped to her nose
as some poor protection against the quality of the air in the flower shop
which was richly, greenly organic, almost solid with pollen and scent.
Carrie's poor nose felt as though it was swarming with tickles like a hive
of frantically buzzing bees and she was frantically struggling to keep her
"Flowers for a wedding, you said?" He looked over her shoulder at Gloria, as Carrie didn't seem to be capable of responding. "I take it were going for minimum...effect here."
Gloria nodded fervently, her sleek, shiny black hair swinging at the sides of her face. "Of course, it's her choice, but if by some miracle we can find something that doesn't make her sneeze..." she trailed off, raising her beautifully shaped shoulders eloquently, and indicating Carrie with a wave of one languid hand, Black Tulip fingernails flourishing outwards. "In case you hadn't noticed, Leo, she has a tiny bit of a problem with flowers."
"All of them?" the assistant asked, his complexion fading a few degrees towards Very Sick Indeed. "I mean, as far as you know, every flower under the sun makes her sneeze?"
Even the word, sneeze, seemed to magnify the urgency of the itch in Carrie's nose. She could feel a tremendous summer sneezing fit just gently hovering at the very back of her nostrils, vibrating the quivering membranes of her nose, coaxing her to relax, inhale and give in, even though the idea of embarking on another long series of sneezes seemed horribly embarrassing, not to mention tiring.
Gloria nodded calmly. "As far as we know, yes."
"Might I ask," Leo said, running his tongue over his lips, "exactly what you expect me to do for her? I'm sure we can get something nice together with silk. I know it sounds tacky, but..."
Carrie gulped as softly as she could manage, her eyes blurry with the allergic tears that her previous sneezing attack had brought on, as she attempted to focus on the tall, Aryan blonde assistant.
"It's his mother," she said, her voice sounding choked and slightly distorted with the need to sneeze again. "She doesn't want silk."
"Cutglass snob," Gloria said, twining a red rose into her ebony locks. "Fur coat and no knickers. Do I look like Carmen or what?"
Leo was wearing that facial expression common to camp homosexual males who were born with the ability to look simultaneously polite and on the verge of a messy suicide.
Carrie tried to improve the situation as Gloria swayed to the other side of the shop to pick up some catalogues. "I'd just like to....to dow....huhhhhhh..." she gently quelled the uprising sneeze by holding her finger just under her twitchy little nose, "f there's such a thig as a flower dobodys ever beed allergic to." "It's more of a personal thing, darling. Have you got any idea if there are any flowers that don't seem to affect you this way?"
"No. I bead, it's not like I've ever really...tested byself with eddy of them. I just dow they all bake...uhhhhh...bake be..." Attempting to shape the words with her quivering, heavy lips, she was just trying not to think about the attack she'd had outside the shop which had irritated her sinuses beyond belief, or to admit to herself that particular attack still felt so dreadfully unfinished. The slight break from her uncontrollable sneezing fit that she was experiencing now wasn't even the end of the afternoons attacks, just a hiatus, a space of time in which to pinch her nostrils together, rub her nose with her fist or her forearm...anything, but Carrie's sneezes always had been dreadfully forceful.
"So can you tell me what you think you need?" Leo asked politely.
It was torture. She knew that she was on the verge of a truly incredible, uncontrollable sneeze. From experience, Carrie knew that if she was alone in her apartment and felt a tickle, if she just took a deep breath and let the sneeze come right out, it wouldn't be too bad; a little louder than some lucky women's sneezes, more rounded and wet than the soft, stifled "hi-tch", that she longed to have instead of her own resounding, "HAHHH...CSHOO!" That was a regular sneeze for Carrie, but holding a sneeze in always meant that the tension which nudged and teased temptingly at the back of her nose would result in a great, bellowing, unladylike explosion which could always stop everyone elses conversations, no matter where she was. So, she couldn't sneeze. She simply couldn't sneeze. She had to stop even thinking about how wonderful it would feel.
Carrie held her finger to her nose again and tried to talk, "I deed...subthig...withuhhhh... huhhhh... "
Oh God, she just had to let it out! Worst of all, she could feel her nose beginning slowly to run. The earlier sneezes had caused wetness to seep from her nostrils, and she didnt have a handkerchief to dab it away with, only a sodden knot of tissue that was no good for anything. Her nasal passages were stuffed and itching dreadfully, which meant that not only would the sneezy feeling develop into a shattering blast but would probably be accompanied by a volley of mucus droplets.
With the image of herself sneezing violently and wetly in her head, at once discouraging and tempting her, Carrie began to rifle in her purse for a tissue to wipe her sniffly nose, and, if necessary, to cope with any emergencies. The image of herself, eyes squeezed tight, head jolting forward in absolute joyful release, nostrils flared hugely, mouth open to let out the pressure which was driving her insane, seemed so inviting that she could hardly bear holding the sneeze back for one second longer.
Her teary eyes scanned the shop for a bathroom to run into, and her brief search worsened things immeasurably. Carrie could almost see the great discharges of saffron pollen being belched into the air by the pursed lips of the tulips, floating gently upwards from the flung-open dahlias, the always irritating scent of roses hanging like a pall in the small yellow room, freshly cut green stalks oozing sap, great clouds of green and yellow flaking from the smooth skins of the newest plants.
She held her nose with one finger and her thumb, trying to block out the dreadful reek of tropical blooms, feeling warm pollen landing in the thick strands of her golden hair, in the hollows of her bare, downy shoulders, on her nose...dear God, up her nose, in her nose...
"Whad I really deed is- hah!-hah!-hah!-hah!" She seemed to exclaim with each inhalation, each one slightly different, more desperate. Leo thought these tiny, truncated gasps were incredible, sounding like the harsh little noises that his favourite old movie stars made when faking weeping fits in their mid-afternoon movies.
"I deed-" she admitted, "to sdeeze!"
The young man heard a desperate crack in her voice as Carrie raised her hands to her nose, and then she suddenly dropped them to her waist again. Her face looked utterly blank and pure for a moment, and her lips formed a relieved-but-mystified 'Ohh', almost silently. Immediately, the sneeze returned, a sneeze so violent it seemed to scrape her sore throat.
She didn't even have time to cover her nose, and the sun in the shops polished windows lit the spray that exploded from her delicately formed nostrils in a cloud of gold, mingling with the pollen, which Carrie automatically breathed in again, unable to even raise her hands to her nose quickly enough. There was nothing she could do about the resultant tickles, and, feeling weak, with her guard down, Carrie had no choice but to give in, her whole body shaking as she tried to control each explosion, hunching her back like a cat and clamping her hands over her streaming nose each time.
The desperate little sneezy noises rose in pitch almost an octave with each one that escaped her lips.
"Uh! Huh! HUH! HUH! HEHSHOOOO!"
Gloria swallowed hard. She felt as though her skin felt as though the sun had got into it, impregnated it with heat.
Carrie sniffed, finally getting the fit under some semblance of control, "God, I deeded-" then lost it, as the effort of speech brought her guard crashing down, "HuhhISHHHOOO!"
She laughed a little at herself, breathily, slightly lengthening the buildup to the next incredible sneeze, which exploded after a few little desperate sounds, almost like whimpers, that she made trying desperately to hold it back.
"By-" she tried to explain, as discomfort slowly landed on her features, subtly transfiguring them into an extremely ladylike pre-sneeze expression. She breathlessly scrambled out what she had to say. "By doze is ticklig-huh-HUH-HuESHOOO!"
Gloria fanned herself with one of the floral catalogues lying on the white wrought-iron table, feeling a hot summer rain of sweat slip slowly down her throat and collarbones, moisten the tender place beneath her own nose, as Carrie made a high, urgent little noise in her throat, and turned away from Leo, facing directly towards Gloria. Her sneezes were intensely wet and throaty, the 'shoos', almost shouted as Carrie concentrated as hard as she could on expelling the irritant from her nose.
"HEH-issshhhOOO! eh-HEHHH-iSHHHHOOO! HUH-eh-ISHOO! A fat tear, soft and sweet-looking, trembled down her warm-looking, slightly furred cheek. Not for the first time that day, Gloria cursed John.
"Bless you," the beautiful young man said, his voice gentle and calm in a way that Gloria knew hers could never be, had she chosen that precise moment to open her mouth.
Carrie gave a harsh, extremely wet sniff, rubbing furiously at her nose like a little girl who'd forgotten her hanky.
"Excuse be," she said. Her words had the odd quality of someone trying to speak through a yawn- slow, from the back of the throat, distorted.
"Are you all right, darling?" he asked kindly.
"I cad still feel wod bore cobig," she explained stuffily, her voice still clouded with the inevitable urge. "I thik-"
Gloria ran her tongue over her heat-dry lips. Carrie's gorgeous eyes slowly squeezed to thin slivers of dark blue. "Huh-uhHUH...thik I'd gudda sdeehhh...." Leo put down the wedding brochures he had in his arms and started to search in the pockets of his green coveralls for the Kleenex he knew he had somewhere. He could tell from looking at the young womans tight-seeming, uptilted face that this was going to be a big one. "sdeeze aged," Carrie explained, her voice high, tight and strained from trying to suppress the oncoming, "hah-HAH-HAH- HAESHOOO!"
The sneeze was at once nasal and throaty- a deep, wet, uncontrollable explosion which resounded deeply and jetted thick spray from her damp, tender nostrils. Carrie placed a finger under her nose, then relaxed. It usually took more to hold the fit off, but she had a feeling that she'd already sneezed out most of the pollen in her nose. Unfortunately, her soggy Kleenex had long since disintegrated to a ball of white mulch in her hand. She sniffed again, making absolutely no difference to the stuffed state of her nose, taking in no air. The sniff was more than wet, it sounded like someone trying to inhale thick clay. "Sorry," she said to the assistant, "I desperately deed a dissue. You would't happed to have eddy?"
He nodded, handing her a cellophane pack from his own pocket. "Keep them all. Theres loads in the back- got a touch of hay fever myself."
"What are you doing working here?" Gloria enquired, arming sweat from her forehead.
He grinned. "Paying the rent. Actually, I'm an actor. And I do a bit of makeup work now and then."
Looking him up and down, Gloria decided not to be too shocked.
He turned to Carrie, who was recovering, having sat down next to Gloria and blown her nose thoroughly. "Sorry, I don't know your name."
"I'b Carrie, this is Gloria."
"Carrie, would you say it was more pollen or scent which makes you sneeze?"
"Polled," Carrie said. "Defiditely. Scedt does irritate be but its buch less likely to actually start be sdeezig. The flower I really can"t stad is- huhuh-huhuh-huhhuhh-huhISHHHoooo!- orchids."
"Right. Apart from orchids, then, I suggest we concentrate on the fancier-looking flowers. I'm not trying to get you to spend lots of money here or anything, but basically most plain wild flowers are the ones which produce the most allergenic pollen. On the other hand, the really fancy flowers- they rely on scent to spread their pollen by insects so it probably won't get up your nose so much, but they smell stronger and that might irritate you a little..."
"A little," Gloria said, "is OK, so long as we stuff her with anti-histamines. Personally, Carrie, I think you should just wear nose plugs."
They quickly put together a trial bouquet of tropical flowers- hibiscus, irises and lilies- before getting the hell out of there. Carrie just wanted to shower the pollen off her body, wash it out of her hair, and take a few allergy pills before she had to meet John for dinner.
"Why," Gloria complained, one arm linked in her friends and one clasping a huge bouquet of highly scented flowers, did you have to get married in May, anyway?"
Carrie was sneezing too much to answer her.
John handed her a quadruple brandy. "And I suppose you hated that."
Gloria looked at him coolly with her best gun-moll eyes, accepting the chunky leaded-crystal glass.
"Whatever I say is going to incriminate me." Gloria took a mouthful, swilling it like mouthwash. "If I say, no, it was godawful, youll laugh at me, and if I say, yeah, it was great, your wife-to-be totally got me wet, then...I don't know. You'll want to watch, or something."
He laughed. "It's been a while since those days, Gloria. Give me a little credit."
"Once a Wild Boy, always a Wild Boy. But never when it comes to marriage. And don't tell me I don't know what I'm talking about, cause it hurts like a bitch being flavour of the month. Every last man who once whipped me off to Paris for lunch or filled my rooms with orchids has since married something nice with child-bearing hips and a country-style kitchen. I might have known you'd end up with Susie Creamcheese and her Amazing Allergies." "Do I detect a little bitterness there, Miss Taylor?" he asked, pouring his own drink and sampling it.
"Of course not," she said. "No more than usual. I was the one who dumped you, remember?" "I do," he said. "I got so drunk I woke up in Bognor the next day, you bitch."
She laughed, a rich burst of clattering, classy laughter like mercury glass shattering on a black marble floor. Then, fortified with another cat-lap at her brandy, she fixed him with clear dark eyes and said,
"But I am jealous of her. Not for marrying you- I mean, we can rattle around wisecracking at each other for as long as we like, and you'll always need someone to go bar-hopping with. But I'm jealous of her just for getting married. Having someone who adores her. Who takes care of her constantly. On the other hand, I think I'd sell my soul to TV Evangelists to get myself a lover who sneezed half as much, or was even half as adorable, as your beloved. So yes, I am jealous of both of you, and I'd just like you to know how completely annoying you are and I hope you're sorry for putting me through this."
"I am," he said soberly.
"No you're not," she said, stretching out her long legs on the couch. "You want to know what happened once I got home and started testing her, don't you?"
He smiled and squeezed her foot. "You know me too well, Gloria. I think we should see other people."