real Hollywood outcalls by Paul Murray

The sight of how my gut spills over my belt is an unanticipated embarrassment right now, right in sync with the second her voice catches my ear.

''paella's ready" Gwyneth speaks in all lower-case letters, even noticeably sparse on punctuation.

I squint in hopes that, if fate chooses to shine a dose of instant kindness upon me, the gut will simply vanish all together. But it doesn't. I inhale deeply anyway and step from the half-bath leading straight into my kitchen. Its white granite island top sees almost exclusively morning joe, grapefruit halves, milk and sugar-sweet cereal. But it looks quite different this evening.

I reach for a Roma tomato under that same instinct that drives us to "look busy" sometimes.

"come on now", she speaks in the dusk-dimmed room through slowly dancing candle light. Her voice's feathered cadence softens the ambiance.

As she speaks, I wonder - do we, as a people, feel compelled to project harshly, to rough-up our native tongue, to treat it like some indelicate, unloved object, tossed without care. Are we just innately harsh?

'' do you have a problem with um, you know - anchovies? i know some people do"

"You like 'em Ms. Paltrow?"

"i just adore them"

"Then, so do I," I say, unable to escape my lifetime habit of more orthodox use of caps.

"relaxing can be just so hard sometimes" She pours a white sherry in my stemware that she was first careful to wash by hand. "taste" she offers in a definitive monosyllabic gesture. With one terse, arresting hit, the sherry goes down. My neck jolts. She spots it. "not so quickly. not so quickly. we're not racing anyone, silly.'' She Laughs lightly. She refreshes my glass. I ease the cutting board toward her, she meets halfway and glides her fingernails across today's catch, explaining through her tender and gentle overbite "tuna, alive under an hour ago, olive oil fresh from the casks this morning all seasoned with majorcan sea salt and hibiscus, let's see, rice from valencia."

With a face of mock-consternation she curls her lip and offers, "pardon the lower case majorca and valencia - if you would, please."

My knees go weak. I look down, greens in hand. "Old habits die hard," I excuse her, of course, all while we dress our chargers in escarole.

Gwyneth, she rents out at a full grand a night. I can only listen and look. She can only feed and cook. And then we both only dine and sip by candlelight.


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