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Billy woke reluctantly from a dream of such poignant happiness that she tried to cling to it as long as possible. She was running in the dream, bounding effortlessly up a flight of circular steps that led to a platform at the top of a tower from which, she knew even as she ran, she would see a radiant springtime woodland leading to the adventure of a beckoning turquoise sea. She opened her eyes with a sigh and waited for the emotion of the dream to fade, but all the joy stayed with her.
Blissfully disoriented, confused even as to the date and place, she mistily consulted the high ceiling until memory floated back. She was in her own bed in her own house in California. It was April, it was 1978. Last night Vito had won the Oscar for Best Picture and Dolly Moon, her dear friend, had won for Best Supporting Actress. Four hours later Dolly had, with dispatch and composure, given birth to a magnificent baby girl. Billy and Vito, with Lester Weinstock, Dolly’s publicist, had skipped the post-Oscar party and waited at the hospital together. Then they had all returned here, to celebrate with scrambled eggs, English muffins and champagne. Billy remembered cooking the eggs and she had a clear vision of Vito opening champagne, but after that everything blurred into a haze of toasts and laughter. Perhaps both men were in bed with her? A quick peek revealed that she was alone, and on Vito’s side of the bed the covers were thrown back.
Yawning, stretching, groaning with pleasure, Billy eased herself cautiously upright. Her bedside clock told her that it was past noon, but she didn’t feel at all guilty. If a woman couldn’t sleep late after enduring the many nervous tensions of yesterday, when could she? Especially in her condition, her incredible condition, her excessively interesting, newly discovered condition that was still a secret. But now the time had come to make her announcement. She heard Vito’s voice on the phone in the sitting room next to their bedroom. Good, that meant she could throw some water on her face and brush her teeth before he realized she was awake. As Billy brushed her hair, dismissing as always the bugle call of her insistent beauty, even she couldn’t fail to notice the vivid freshness of her skin, the artless brightness of her smoky eyes, the deeply gleaming abundance of her dark brown hair. She looked ten years younger than her thirty-five years. It must be hormones, she thought, up to their notorious tricks.
When she emerged from the bathroom Vito was still on the phone, so Billy was inspired to take a quick shower. From the instant she told Vito about this baby, he’d be so excited, so thrilled, so blind to distraction that everything else would become unimportant while they spent hours talking and planning, so she might as well grab this opportunity. A few minutes later, still damp from her hurried shower, barefoot and all but dancing in eagerness, Billy threw on a peignoir made of almost transparent crêpe de chine and flung open the door to the sitting room.
In quick, reflex confusion, she stepped back into the bedroom. What the devil was Vito’s secretary, Sandy Stringfellow, doing sitting on Billy’s favorite chair in her very own, very private and off-limits sitting room, murmuring discreetly into Billy’s private phone, whose cord Sandy had dragged over from Billy’s desk? Neither Vito nor Sandy had noticed her, so absorbed were they in their separate conversations. Billy shrugged out of her indiscreet peignoir and put on slippers and a robe made of heavy toweling.
“Good morning,” she said, beaming at Sandy and Vito. Sandy made an apologetic grimace and continued talking. Vito looked up quickly, waved, smiled, blew her an abstracted kiss and continued listening intently.
“Yes, Mr. Arvey, Mr. Orsini will take your call as soon as he gets off the other phone,” Billy heard Sandy say. “Yes, I know how long you’ve been waiting, would you rather he called you back? No, I can’t say exactly when, that’s the problem. We don’t have a switchboard here, and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing all morning. Mr. Orsini hasn’t even had time to dress to go to his office. It shouldn’t be long now, Mr. Arvey, but this phone doesn’t have a hold button. Yes, I know that’s ridiculous, but I’m on Mrs. Orsini’s private phone.”
Billy scribbled a question mark on a piece of memo paper and thrust it at Vito. He shook his head at her and pointed toward Sandy.
“Who’s he talking to?” Billy asked.
“Lew Wasserman, about The WASP,” Sandy answered, putting her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. The two women made wide-eyed faces of mutual congratulation at each other. The combination of the most influential and powerful man in Hollywood and Vito’s cherished new project, in which he hoped to star Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson, explained everything about Vito’s intensity.
“Where’s Josie?” Billy asked. Surely Josie Speilberg, her own secretary, should be running herd in here.
“Terrible stomach flu. She called in sick,” Sandy answered.
“Great,” Vito said, “that’s great, Lew. Yeah … yeah … uh-huh … I understand your point.… Right. Listen, Lew, thanks again for the advice. Breakfast tomorrow morning? You’re on. Seven-thirty? No problem. Good-bye, Lew.” He hung up and gave Billy a quick, violent hug and a brief, hard kiss, triumph and victory making him move twice as quickly as usual. “Sleep okay, darling? No time to talk, I absolutely have to take the other phone and talk to Curt Arvey. That miserable sucker should never have bet me that Mirrors wouldn’t win. Now he’s going to shell out the million and a half for the rights to The WASP, and I want to make sure he’s closed the deal with that New York literary agent. If ever there was a hot property.…” He had picked up Billy’s private phone and was deep in conversation with Arvey while Sandy jumped to answer the other phone, which had started ringing the minute Vito put it down.
Billy looked at the two of them and realized they had forgotten her. Well, her news would wait, she told herself, and she needed breakfast. She waltzed down the staircase and through the sun-dappled double living rooms of her very large yet supremely comfortable house. It was an old house, as houses go in California, built in the 1930s, and in spite of its size it managed to retain an intimate, human scale. It was a house rich in personal, non-fashionable accumulation. Each room beckoned the passerby with asymmetrical bouquets of upholstered furniture, interestingly covered in slightly faded, succulently flowered English linens and ribbon-striped French cottons; there were fine old needlepoint rugs on the irregular, polished floorboards; no room was without several working fireplaces in which firewood was newly laid. Clusters of blooming plants, ferns and small trees stood in nooks and corners and were grouped near the French doors, piles of books overflowed the bookcases, everywhere a multitude of paintings stood propped up and against the walls. Small, splendid bronzes, well-used silver candlesticks, inlaid tea caddies and birdless birdcages covered the tabletops; baskets brimming with magazines stood by the chairs and everywhere were gloriously idiosyncratic antiques, bought for their charm and exuberance. There was no gilt, no formality, no grandeur or opulence, not so much as one jeweled snuffbox among the hundreds of whimsical objects, yet it was obvious that Billy had never refused to be tempted when she happened across something she wanted. In spite of their fascinatingly disorganized clutter, the rooms were so big that they were characterized by crisp space and carefree freshness. It was not the house of a woman who had to please or impress anyone but herself, yet only huge expense could keep this great house in the customary immaculate perfection of unstudied disorder that Billy loved.
She made her way through the library and the music room and the dining room, on her way to the pantry, smiling gaily at her three maids as she crossed their busy paths. Two of them had their arms filled with flower arrangements that had just arrived, and the third clutched sheaves of telegrams.
In the kitchen Billy’s chef, Jean-Luc, concealed his surprise at the appearance of his employer; twice a week he conferred with Miss Speilberg about menus for the week, but Mrs. Orsini rarely visited the kitchen, and certainly never in her bathrobe. Billy asked him to send Vito and Sandy a platter of club sandwiches and make her a dish she saved for very special moments: three slices of white toast covered thickly with Tiptree’s Little Scarlet strawberry jam and topped by carefully layered slices of very crisp bacon. This combination tasted like sweet and sour Chinese food for infants, and was a masterpiece of empty calories.
Sugar, salt, white flour, and animal fat, Billy gloated while she waited in the breakfast room for the bacon to be browned to the point of almost burning. This would be her last hurrah before she began her pregnancy diet, a bravura farewell gesture that could be appreciated only by a woman as compulsive as she was, a woman who knew the value of every calorie she had ingested since the age of eighteen, when she had lost a lifetime’s accumulation of fat and determined successfully to stay thin forever.
Nothing but melon, broiled tomatoes and steamed fish tonight, Billy thought, without regret, as she sipped orange juice and considered the scene in her sitting room. This phone marathon couldn’t go on much longer. Presumably it had started hours ago, since Vito, an early riser under all circumstances, still hadn’t had time to shave or dress. Soon the calls would taper off, most people would be out to lunch, Sandy and Vito would go to his office to handle things more efficiently. Of course there’d be more calls to the house and more flowers and telegrams, but this post-Oscar frenzy couldn’t last more than a few hours. After all, the world had a million really important things to focus on, no matter how significant this big win was to Vito and her.