“HAVE YOU EVER SEEN anything like it?” Belle Ames breathed in a tone of wonder, looking up at the giant arch of white lilies and blue hydrangeas she and Lottie were standing under.
“Mmm,” Lottie Palmer said in a tone that she hoped masked her total lack of interest in both the hydrangeas and the huge party that was currently being thrown for her.
The floral arch was more than a story tall, but it still didn’t come anywhere close to scraping the famous glass ceiling of the Book Cadillac Hotel’s Italian garden ballroom, which hung two stories above the dance floor now crowded with Lottie’s friends.
The truth was Lottie had seen something like the gargantuan flower display before. In fact, the one they were standing under wasn’t even the only one in the ballroom. In a fit of enthusiasm over Lottie’s upcoming wedding, Belle’s mother, Annie, one of the grande dames of Detroit society, had ordered three of them. One stood at the entrance to the ballroom from the hotel. One stood at the opposite end, where another set of doors opened to the street. The one Lottie and Belle were standing under stood sentinel in the center of the room.
And Lottie wasn’t impressed by any of them.
If Lottie were to be honest, which she had no intention of doing at this particular moment, the huge, grandstanding arrangements weren’t all that different from the other huge, grandstanding arrangements that her father’s friends had trotted out during the whirlwind of parties leading up to her wedding. It seemed like all the tycoons and would-be tycoons in Detroit were elbowing each other out of the way to host celebrations for her and Eugene. Not just her father’s fellow automakers, but anyone who had anything to do with the auto industry. The men who made the tires, or the steel, or the glass. All of them wanted to throw Franklin Palmer’s daughter a party. And nobody wanted to have less expensive wine, or fewer guests, or smaller flower arrangements, than the other guy.
Maybe it was because, as Belle’s mother had pointed out, flowers were one thing they weren’t rationing. At least not until someone in the War Department figured out a way to fight the Germans with hothouse roses and daffodils.
Rationing meant it was hard to get enough butter or sugar to serve a big party, even if you were one of the most powerful families in the city. And even if you could afford the high market prices, it was considered bad taste to flout the rationing laws that other families were obeying. So the big families of Detroit might have had to put up with serving cake sweetened with applesauce at their shindigs, but if they still felt the need to show off, they could make up for it with flowers.
Lots and lots of flowers.
Lottie wasn’t even sure how many parties had been thrown that summer for her and Eugene. But she knew this was the last one. Until her rehearsal dinner, next weekend. A few weeks ago, she’d thought it would be a relief when she finally got to cross the last party off her calendar. Now, though, she just felt a growing sense of unease. When she thought about it, she couldn’t tell why. So she tried not to think about it.
Belle finally glanced down from the floral phantasmagoria overhead to get a look at Lottie.
Lottie gamely tried a smile. She’d always liked Belle, even though they’d never had much in common. And she wanted to be grateful for everything Belle’s mom had done to put the party together. But she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to fake the kind of enthusiasm Belle so clearly expected.
So when she saw Eugene’s familiar figure striding across the room, his buddy Donald in tow, she grinned with relief.
Beside her, Belle’s face lit up as well, at the prospect of gushing about the flowers to someone else.
“Genie!” Belle cried as Eugene approached. Lottie knew he hated this nickname, which Belle had dubbed him with in grammar school. With judicious threats, and a few minor fistfights, he’d actually managed to convince all the other guys in their set never to call him that.
Obviously, he hadn’t been able to use either of those tactics on Belle herself, and his gentler efforts at persuasion had never succeeded in getting her to stop. But to his credit, Lottie noticed his face didn’t give away even a flicker of the displeasure she knew he felt.
“Will you look at this?” Belle asked. With renewed vigor, she pointed at the flowers overhead again, her hand tracing the arc as if it were the hand on a clock.
“They’re beautiful,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it.” Somehow, Eugene always knew exactly what to say.
“That’s what I was just telling Lottie,” Belle said with a coy smile.
“And you’ll be sure and tell your mother how grateful we are,” Eugene said.
“Of course,” Belle promised.
“I told her myself just now,” Eugene said. “But it’s always easier to believe things when someone says them about you behind your back.”
Belle’s smile, which Lottie wouldn’t have believed could get wider, actually did—an effect Eugene seemed to have on just about everyone.
Then he glanced at Lottie, a knowing look peeking from behind his polite smile. “How are you doing, Lots?” he asked. “You like this sky garden they made us?”
Lottie hadn’t been able to figure out a polite fib for Belle, and it was even harder with Eugene. They’d known each other since before either of them could remember, and he didn’t miss much. Still, she tried her best.
“It’s lovely,” Lottie said.
“Of course it’s lovely,” Eugene said. “How could Annie Ames have thrown a party that was anything but?”
“And it’s not just the flowers,” his buddy Don added. “Did you see the swan chairs?”
Annie Ames’s pièce de résistance for the evening was about half a dozen couches, shaped like swans, scattered around the perimeter of the dance floor. They were covered in white velvet, complete with plumes of ostrich feathers that created a delightfully scandalous effect by screening the hijinks of whoever sank into their lush cushions. She’d made it a point to say they’d come out of storage, from one of her own parties as a girl, so that nobody would think she wasn’t economizing due to the war effort.
Something about the pretense and hypocrisy sat wrong with Lottie.
Eugene’s lips curled and his brown eyes crinkled in a grin.
“What’s this, Lots?” Eugene said. “You don’t like them?”
Lottie dropped her eyes and swirled her beverage, stalling. “They’re very nice,” she finally managed.
“It’s so hard to impress a modern girl these days!” Eugene said in a teasing voice. “Now, what would it take to upgrade those incredible confections of couches to something other than nice?”
“Live swans?” Don suggested, getting into the joke.
“No, no,” Eugene said. “Far too troublesome. Have you heard the sound those things make? I’m afraid it would put the bandleader right off.”
“Unless you trained them to sing along,” Don said.
Lottie sighed and crossed her arms with a playfully irritated smile.
“I know!” Eugene burst out. “What this party is really missing is tigers. That would do it, wouldn’t it? A tiger on every couch. Then we’d really have something going on.”
“Hmm,” Lottie said. “Well, at least then we’d have something to do with disrespectful young men.”
“You’re going to feed us to the tigers?” Eugene asked, grinning. “That’s quite Roman of you. Maybe I should start calling you empress.”
As he spoke, the music on the dance floor changed. The couples who had been locked together in their spins and dips broke apart and re-formed into new pairings. As they did, a young man in an olive-green army uniform came over and stood before Belle.
“May I have this dance, young lady?” he asked with a wink.
They wound through the crowd and made their way into the whirl of dancers, who were all flailing through a jitterbug.
As they disappeared into the mix, Lottie and Eugene retreated to the wall, where a group of stag men, many in various uniforms, were clustered, joking and keeping an eye on the dancers, some with idle curiosity. Others watched with a keen interest that made Lottie suspect the girl of their choice was whirling around the floor with some other young man.
Under the din of the chatter, Lottie could feel Eugene looking at her more closely.
“Come on, Lots,” he said as Don scanned the dance floor, following the lithe lines of whatever girl caught his eye, until the next one did. “Can’t you be happy at a party, just this once?”
“Sure,” she said. With a little shrug, she tried a smile. But it twisted on her face.
She certainly didn’t feel like a bride having the time of her life on the weekend before her wedding. But then again, she’d never had the time of her life at any party—and the fancier the parties got, the worse her chances were.
“Come on,” he said. “What’s wrong?”
Lottie took a deep breath. “It just doesn’t feel right,” she said, looking around.
A look of alarm flickered across Eugene’s face. “The wedding?” he asked.
Quickly, Lottie shook her head. “No, of course not,” she said, taking his hand.
Nothing in her life had been more obvious than that she should marry Eugene. They’d known each other all their lives, the same way she’d known all the other boys. And she knew with certainty that he was the best of them. “It’s just…” she began, then trailed off again.
“What?” Eugene asked, a mild impatience creeping into his voice.
As Lottie’s glance flitted around the dance hall, it landed on one of the swan couches, its ostrich feathers still trembling from the motion as its current resident had sunk down into its cushions.
“It just doesn’t even seem real,” she said, gesturing at the crowd, the band, the arches of flowers. “All this nonsense, when there’s a war on.”
“Well, Lottie,” Don said sensibly, “this is the good stuff. It’s what we’re fighting for, to be able to have good times like this. And just because the Germans want to take it away from us is no reason to stop. It’s a reason to keep having the best times we can, despite them.” He ended his little speech with a perfunctory nod.
“I’m not even sure why we’re fighting the Germans, personally,” Eugene broke in. “It’s not like they’ve invaded Michigan.”
“Do you really think this is a good time?” Lottie asked Don urgently. “I just keep feeling like there must be something more than parties and music. Some kind of adventure. Something to do that means something. Like what the troops—”
As she said this, a soldier who had been standing within earshot turned around with a precise snap, almost as if he’d been ordered to make a quick turn in a parade line. Both Lottie and Eugene tried to offer him welcoming smiles, but his expression remained stony.
“Excuse me, ma’am. I hear you think our troops at the front are just off on some adventure,” he said in a clipped voice, biting off every word. “I can assure you from my time at the front that it is not.”
Lottie was so surprised by his words that it took her a minute to realize she knew him, and knew him well. It was her childhood friend Robert, whom she’d spent untold summers with shoveling sand on the beach at the yacht club. He was almost unrecognizable in his uniform and with his military haircut.
She looked closer and noticed how much older he seemed now. Fine lines had creased his forehead and the corners of his eyes. His skin was tan and leathered from many days spent in the sun. But his eyes… his eyes were piercing and stern. The intensity was startling.
In the same moment, a flicker that passed over Robert’s face showed that he had recognized her.
“You’ll excuse me,” he said, and stalked away, toward the ballroom doors that led out to the street.
“Robert!” Lottie called after him, her heart sinking.
“That was Robert?” Eugene said, his voice rising in surprise. “Little Robbie Packard?”
Without answering him, Lottie dove into the crowd, following Robert’s retreating form as it moved, ramrod straight, through the crush of revelers. Ahead of her, when he reached the door, it swung open, revealing a bit of the blue light of the dark street before it swung shut again.
Then Lottie pressed through the crowd and pushed the door open herself, surprised, when she found herself out on the street, by the quiet after the noise of the party.
Robert had stopped on the sidewalk, puffing on a cigarette that glowed a deep angry red.
“Robert,” Lottie said. She took a half step toward him, then hesitated.
Robert took a puff and let the hand that was holding his cigarette drop to his side, where the red glow winked out.
His face was no longer stony. Now he looked tired, and perhaps even sad. “I’m sorry, Lottie,” he said. “This is your party. I shouldn’t have—”
“No,” Lottie said, coming up beside him to take his arm. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I know what you’re doing is serious. I know I don’t even know how serious.”
“That’s why we’re fighting,” Robert said, his voice full of emotion. “So you won’t ever have to know.”
Something tightened in Lottie’s throat.
Robert squeezed her hand on his arm. “It’s just, at things like this, sometimes I get the feeling that nobody even cares that we’re over there.”
“That’s not true,” Lottie said. “I think about it. I think that’s what I was trying to say, but it came out wrong. What you do matters so much. So much more than these—parties, and champagne. I didn’t mean to make it sound like it was just some silly game. I just get so tired of all this nonsense here. I think what I meant to say was how much I want to serve, too,” she said, the words coming to her just before she spoke them, so that she felt as if she were learning what she thought by listening to herself. “I want to be part of something that means as much as what you’re doing. Because I can’t think of anything that matters more.”
As she said it, her voice broke.
“Thanks, Lottie,” Robert said.
He glanced at the ballroom door as it swung open to let a small gang of partygoers spill out onto the street, then shook his head and let his cigarette fall to the sidewalk, where he ground it out. “I think I’m going to get out of here,” he said. “Give Eugene my congratulations. I can’t make the wedding. They’ve got us shipping back out in a few days.”
Lottie gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” she said.
Robert smiled as he released her from the embrace. “Oh, Lottie,” he said with a wink. “What wouldn’t you do?”
Lottie winked back, giving a bright smile as Robert turned and wandered off down Washington Boulevard, toward the bright lights of downtown.
Even before he reached the corner, her smile had faded. In its place, Lottie felt sick to her stomach. It was hard to watch him walk away, knowing he was heading toward the war. And knowing that she was heading toward champagne and ballrooms.
But as she stared at his retreating form, she felt something else as well: a kind of envy at the square of his shoulders, which showed he knew that even if what he had to do was hard, it mattered.
What would that feel like? she wondered as the faint strains of the party music drifted through the glass ceiling of the Italian garden and out into the street.
For weeks now, leading up to the wedding, she’d felt like a square peg in a round hole, putting on dress after dress to go to parties full of people she’d never really felt she fit in with. But now her unease turned into a gnawing resentment. She was supposed to go back in there and pretend she cared about flowers and dresses, while Robert was going off to serve his country. But it was her country, too. And she wanted to serve it just as much as he did.