The Romantics

Galt Niederhoffer

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

Laura sat in her car at the foot of a dirt road, clutching her cell phone and map. The map was just an accessory. She knew exactly where she was. The name of the house was etched on a wooden plank tacked to one of the elms that flanked the drive. A wreath of peonies hung just below, woven with white ribbons. Using her thumb as a ruler, she measured the distance between Dark Harbor and New York, as though time had stopped as a favor to her, to allow her to catch her breath.

In fairness, Laura’s hostess was a girl who expected a lot of her guests. Beauty, wealth, impeccable lineage, and intelligence joined forces in Lila Hayes. At times, the combination was lethal. In college, when the two girls first became friends, Lila had been demanding—but back then she had been more endearing. The day before midterms freshman year, she hopped a plane for Guatemala, informing her roommate and parents of the trip only when she deplaned in Quezaltenango. She returned with a suitcase of indigenous textiles and new political beliefs. In April, she founded Yale’s Guatemalan Peace Corps. By May, she had the entire freshman class wearing sarongs.

Soon after that, Laura and Lila renewed their rooming vow, moving on from the misfits assigned by lottery to the greener pastures of a sophomore double. They lived together for the duration of college, first in a storied upper-class house where every bed nestled in a dormer window, and later in a swank off-campus apartment that they found in the New Haven Gazette. Since graduation six years ago, the friendship had wilted somewhat. But rivalry glued the girls together in a way that regular contact could not. When Lila called and asked Laura to be her maid of honor, Laura accepted with mixed delight and dread.

"Lo," said Lila, her voice simmering with excitement. "Li," said Laura. "Is that you?"

Lila answered with a shriek of laughter that forced Laura to thrust the phone from her ear.

"The day has finally come," Lila declared with signature melodrama. "I can finally flush my degree down the toilet."

"You passed the bar?" Laura asked.

"No, stupid, I’m getting married."

"Li, that’s wonderful," Laura replied, raising her voice to the appropriate giddy pitch.

"He did it in the most amazing way," she elaborated, rushing the plot points as one does after the third or fourth telling. "Completely perfectly perfect."

Lila, though beautiful, was not graced with the gift of beautiful verbiage.

"Anyway, I can’t talk now," she went on. "We’re driving to Maine to tell the family in person. But I wanted you to be the first to know." Volume faded as the phone dropped to the floor. "Tom, please, not right now." She giggled. "Anyway, save the month of August. Oh, and I’m guessing it’s safe to assume you accept. You’re the maid of honor."

The signal was lost before Laura could respond either way.

Years of conversations this brief and hyperbolic had numbed Laura to even the most miraculous news. Lila could have called to say she had ridden a unicorn to Mars and Laura would have reacted the same way.

Now, thinking back to this conversation, Laura recalled the most disturbing part. Though Lila’s voice had conveyed excitement— euphoria even—it had not betrayed surprise. She had planned her marriage as clinically as she planned everything else in her life. She might as well have been calling to report that after years culling department store racks, she had finally found the perfect black dress.

Preparedness was, in some ways, Lila’s most annoying quality. She was appropriately dressed for any kind of weather, poised to change, at a moment’s notice, from a sweater to a rain slicker. In college, she had laid out the next day’s outfit on her wooden desk chair every night, whether she planned to wear jeans and an oxford or tights and a dress. The habit lived somewhere between compulsion and phobia—Lila hated to be surprised.

Laura, on the other hand, never carried an umbrella. She rarely knew the day’s outfit until the morning she chose it. There was something horribly depressing, she felt, about watching the weather report. That life could be planned like the perfect summer picnic drained it of spontaneity. So the pairing of Laura and Lila sometimes seemed like a cruel joke on the part of Yale’s housing committee. And yet, the two girls bonded due to circumstance and curiosity, honing a friendship as though to confirm the claim that opposites attract.

Class, looks, and boys conspired to make Laura the Nick to Lila’s Gatsby while time and memories did their part to fasten the bond. And though the intensity of their friendship had lessened in the years since college, the friendship endured in spite of itself, much like the sturdy elm at the end of the drive.

And now she was getting married. The wedding would be held at the Hayes estate in Maine, a destination as far north in the state as you could go before leaving the country. Its very latitude and travel time from New York reinforced its elitism. It was as though the mileage to the house was further proof of the family’s distance from the masses. As if the drive were not inconvenient enough, the trip culminated in an hour-long ferry ride across alarmingly rough waters. The boat, constructed no later than 1953, conjured morbid possibilities all the way across. The voyage traversed an eighteen-mile channel of sparkling navy blue water and ended with a glorious approach to a harbor dotted with white houses, surrounded by forests of Christmas trees as ominous as they were magical.

The house was the jewel in the crown of the Hayes family, a meaningful statement considering the many precious heirlooms in their cache. It had proven impermeable to the ebbs and flows of the family’s finances, weathering four generations of sea air and porch parties. It was simply and truly one of the great estates in New En -gland, a white dove of a house that appeared to have landed expressly to enjoy the view: a dewy lawn that sloped down to the sea with the gentle curve of a baby’s thigh. The house’s gracious wraparound porch was dappled with sunlight every morning and lit by fireflies every night, as though they had been dispensed to herald evening cocktails.

The family history was well archived for anyone who cared to learn it. Polished picture frames planted throughout the house told a paradoxical story of abundance and humility. But if these pictures didn’t conjure a sufficiently clear picture—capturing Mrs. Hayes at her wedding, svelte and mischievous as a cancan girl, Mr. Hayes on the squash court, the year he was captain of the Yale team, fathers and forefathers, secret society brothers and Seven Sisters alumnae, and countless snapshots of curly-haired blond athletes in various states of tennis dress—Mrs. Hayes would be the first to regale you with tales of the house’s lineage, beginning with the estate’s formidable array of ghosts. From the pride and glee of her description, you would think the number of spirits that wafted through a house was proof of its pedigree, incrementally increasing its value like hardwood floors, closets, or a finished attic.

Like all great estates, the Hayeses’ Maine home had a name: Northern Gardens. But in Laura’s opinion, it would have been more honest to call it "Eden." It was just as sheltered and more corrupt.

It had taken nearly nine hours for Laura to get there from New York, if you counted the time taken, after the car was packed, while she sat on the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone and finished her fight with her boyfriend: forty-five minutes. She was further delayed by rush-hour traffic, a plight worsened by the aforementioned fight, and her failure to fill her rental car with gas. Luckily, the oversight caused only a minimal setback, resulting in a frantic unsignaled exit from the Hutchinson River Parkway and twenty misguided minutes in the town of Yonkers. By the time she left the state of New York, she was suitably flustered, still reeling from the mixed blessing of finding a gas station. She spent most of the state of Connecticut deciphering a scribble of directions. By the time she hit Massachusetts she was totally drained. It was only as she crossed the state line into Maine that she hazarded a guess at the highlights of the weekend ahead.

It would be a veritable seminar on the Wasp culture, a study in paradox. Impeccable planning would be paired with feigned nonchalance, excessive spending with a disdain for ostentation, good wine with mediocre food. And of course, the wedding would feature all the pompous, vapid Yale alums in the Hayes family, a group that provided ample proof on its own of the importance of affirmative action. The prospect of the weekend was not improved by Laura’s troubled relationship with the bride, a ten-year rivalry—really, a protracted war—over borrowed clothes, bisected bedrooms, and battled-over boyfriends that had reached its most explosive point on the subject of the groom.

Luckily, Tom McDevon was a man worth fighting for. He was nothing short of legendary at Yale. Fondly known as Heaven McDevon among female company, he was coveted by women of Lila’s caliber, and yet he still greeted lower lights with an earnest smile. That he was good-looking was simply a corollary to his identity. He had green eyes, brown hair, and shoulders built to comfort a weeping girl. On the basis of looks alone, he could have bedded an entire field hockey team. But his confidence—he was not oblivious to his power—was tempered with admirable qualities; sensitivity and smarts served as an antidote, or at least a foil, to his other blessings.

Tom was equally entranced by each of the following things: an August sunset, a woman’s ankle, the clapboards of a Colonial house, and the shape of a soccer ball. His mind was rigged to receive those signals for proportion, shape, texture, and color that only artists receive. He was blessed with an encyclopedic memory of every beautiful thing he had ever encountered, whether the pitch of a mansard roof or the meter of a Shakespearean sonnet. This kind of sensitivity was in itself his most compelling trait perhaps because it was so atypical of a boy with his popularity. In this way, Tom was more like a hermit than a homecoming king, because he perceived not through the lens of his favor but rather the magnifying glass of an outsider. This sharp focus instilled a zeal for life that was quite unparalleled. It also made him highly vulnerable to beauty.

Tom’s critics argued that he downplayed his intelligence. Like a politician, he spoke more simply than he thought, so much so that even very close friends often failed to grasp the depth of his ideas. It was hard to say whether his bride-to-be knew the contents and capacity of his mind, not to mention what fraction of it was at work when they were together. But to Laura, Tom’s mind was the most beguiling thing about him, and the most unusual. It was almost female in its propensity to obsess.

Of course, it might be considered odd for a woman other than the bride to be thinking so clinically and constantly about a man scheduled to wed in twenty-four hours. But Laura’s interest in Tom was beyond her control. They had dated for two years in college before Lila deemed Tom fair game. But even after Tom and Laura broke up, they had remained close friends, the kind that speak, e-mail, or exchange telepathic messages several times a day. They had maintained this correspondence throughout Tom and Lila’s relationship in college and during the six years since, until Tom fell out of touch suddenly and without explanation. One month later he proposed to Lila.

A chorus of honks interrupted Laura’s meditation. Startled, she raised her head from the dashboard to recognize a carful of friends.

Tripler, Pete, Weesie, and Jake had caravanned to the wedding together, a concise and painful reminder that Laura was attending alone.

"You lost," yelled Pete. For a moment, Laura struggled to discern whether this had been a statement or a question. A rugged twenty-eight-year-old with overgrown bangs, Pete brought his car to an abrupt stop. A mere inch separated the two cars.

"Completely," Laura admitted. "How do I get to New York?"

"Pete, don’t move. I’m getting in," Tripler said.

"What," he said. "Where?"

Before she could respond, a long golden leg extended from the passenger window. A second one followed, and, several thrusts later, Tripler wriggled through Laura’s window, over her lap, and into the passenger seat.

"Desperate situation," she announced. "I had to get out of there."

"Tripler." Laura smiled. The weekend would be saved by her friends.

Most of Laura’s friends had held on to their college nicknames long into adulthood even though the names now seemed annoyingly precious. They were names that grew out of circumstance, because they carried easily across soccer fields, or referred to some hallowed drunken night, or, in the case of Tripler, was her family’s alternative to Katherine III. Each name had unceremoniously graduated to permanent status, creating an individual and collective group identity. The names all rang with the same cheerful clang of a dinner bell summoning a family to a meal, signifying not only the gated intimacy of the group but the crest of its members.

Tripler grabbed Laura’s bag from the floor of the car and rifled through it as though it were her own. "Pete is such a fascist," she said. "He won’t let me smoke on the off chance that we conceived last week."

"You guys are trying?" Laura asked.

"He was trying," Tripler corrected. "I was trying to sleep."

"That’s so exciting," Laura said.

"Oh, spare me," said Tripler. She found a cigarette, lit it, and propelled the smoke out the window. "You got anything else in here?" she asked, still rifling through Laura’s bag. "I need something to get me through the rehearsal dinner. There’s only so many times I can hear people toast that bitch."

Laura laughed and shook her head at her friend. She indulged in a jab even though she had vowed to abstain for the weekend. "I would like to congratulate the McDevons," she said, assuming the bloated tone of a wedding toast, "on getting one to the other side. I would like to offer the Hayeses my sympathy. There goes the bloodline."

With that, the two girls threw back their heads with the combined force of hilarity and hatred and, goaded by a honk, followed the other car up the driveway.

The drive was underscored by the whirl of wheels on dirt and the bumpy condition of the unpaved road. Cathedral elms formed a canopy overhead. A warm breeze carried the scent and the silvery light of the sea.

Tripler leaned back in her seat, making the most of the bouncy ride. "Where’s Ben," she said.

"Wasn’t invited." Laura swerved to avoid a pothole.

"That little bitch." Tripler exhaled at a passing tree.

"Oh yeah," said Laura. "Gussie’s policy." She still could not believe she had been subjected to this affront. Members of the wedding party had been asked not to bring a date unless they were married or engaged, a gracious rule of etiquette designed to shame the lonely on a night that celebrated the loved.

"Oh, honey. I’m sorry. That sucks."

"That’s nothing," Laura quipped. She directed her friend’s gaze toward the dress that hung in the backseat, encased in plastic. "She wants us to look bad. Didn’t even try to hide it."

"Is it gray?" Tripler asked, wincing. "Or pewter?"

"Tin," said Laura.

"Tin to match her ring?" Tripler quipped.

"Tin to match her heart."

Finally, the bouncing stopped as the car rolled onto smoother ground. The transition was marked by a change of tune. The raucous hum of wheels on dirt switched to the whirl of tires on gravel, a quiet rush that was not unlike the sound of the nearby surf.

The arrival of the two cars at once was a feat of geography and timing. It marked the simultaneous arrival of almost half the wedding party—the maid of honor, two bridesmaids, and two groomsmen—and the reunion of seven-ninths of a group that had not been together for over a year. Like all college cliques, these friends made frequent and zealous attempts to re unite. But their attempts were often thwarted by delayed flights, pressing deadlines, or last-minute catastrophes at work. Still, the effort was earnest and unanimous. They were as tight as friends can be ten years, two marriages, and several moves later. Of course, changes of job and heart had caused some wear and tear on the relationships. But with every inch they grew apart, they held more tightly to each other, as though maintaining the friendships might enable them to keep their grasp on youth itself.

Throughout college, they identified themselves as a pack in all the usual ways. By graduation, all but a few had slept with one another. Tom dated Laura before dating Lila; Oscar dated Weesie before dating Annie. Pete and Lila had shared more than one drunken night. And all the girls had kissed Jake. This amorous behavior earned the clique a nickname from their fellow students. They were dubbed "the Romantics" as a nod to their incessant intra-dating and their byzantine incestuous history. But gradually, eight of the nine lovebirds paired off into the inevitable groupings, drifting toward monogamy under the looming threat of their thirtieth birthdays.

The wedding party included every member of these original nine college friends, most of whom could be conveniently broken down into couples. The totem pole descended like this: Lila and Tom were the reigning Homecoming King and Queen; Lila’s rank was built on beauty and class, Tom’s built on charisma and talent. Tripler and Pete were Second-in-Command. They had fallen in love junior year at St. Paul’s and enrolled together at Yale, keeping their relationship intact for all but a hairy period during freshman year. Confidence and athleticism honed on prep school fields made these two a formidable pair.

Weesie and Jake occupied the next rung on the ladder. They could go head-to-head with the others on the vital statistics— summer communities, yacht club memberships, and boarding schools. But Weesie’s shyness and Jake’s lack of direction kept them out of a more prestigious spot. Annie and Oscar often seemed like something of an afterthought. Their recent engagement was viewed by some as a response to peer pressure. And geography put them at a disadvantage; they lived in Boston while the others lived in New York, and so were often left out of spontaneous local plans.

Laura was the only Jew in the group. Once in a while, she shuddered at this fact. Did it make her a self-hating Jew? But rather than think of herself as an infiltrator or worse, a traitor, she preferred to think of herself as a chameleon. It was simply a function of circumstance, she told herself, that these people had ended up her best friends. They had chosen each other out of a crowd (at the Freshman Ice Cream Social, to be exact) in that mysterious way that friends choose one another, identifying attitudes, comportment, clothing—the indefinable flags of personality—as though shopping for groceries. They chose each other instinctively, ignorant of their own criteria, gleaning all they needed to know from the first meeting, starting with a sighting across the quad. Just like this, Laura had chosen her family, and it had chosen her, ensuring that she would always feel like its misshapen black sheep.

Northern Gardens was even more beautiful than Laura remembered. The house itself was the ultimate hostess, recently groomed and fussed over, manicured and perfumed. Traditional Victorian architecture furthered its feminine effect. Intricate dormer windows extended over the third and fourth floors. Elegant brackets courted the eye from the roof and gutters. The wraparound porch circled the house like a grand dancing skirt, its floor painted a warm chocolate brown and its roof painted the traditional robin’s egg blue. The house rested on a newly mowed lawn whose perimeter was lined with red and orange zinnias and perfectly haphazard clumps of marsh grass. These vibrant bursts of color accented the lawn with the pleasing flourish of an impressionist painting.

When one gazed out at the water, the tableau was complete. The sand at Northern Gardens was grayish blue, a hue that seemed to have been chosen expressly to complement the sky at dusk. But in fact, this color was chosen during the continent’s last ice age, when an ocean of ice extended over what would become the coast of Maine.

Laura pulled the car to a full stop in the gravel driveway. She and Tripler sat motionless for a moment as though they expected the house to issue its own greeting. Finally, a car door opened and noise exploded from the other car. Jolted, Laura opened her door. The festivities began with a bloodcurdling scream.

"Finally!" Lila yelled. "What time did you leave? You nearly missed the rehearsal. For the last two hours, I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out who was going to replace you."

Laura turned her head and scanned the driveway to locate the object of Lila’s rage. It was a cursory gesture. She knew perfectly well: She was the only person in the world Lila would speak to that way.

Bags were dropped and hugs were exchanged as the group assembled in the driveway. The girls greeted each other in the customary way, assessing each other’s clothes, accoutrements, and weight fluctuation with rapid and indiscernible scans. The boys exchanged halting hugs and busied themselves with the girls’ gear. Squeals of joy resumed after these formalities.

But before the group could begin their long-awaited reacquaintance, they heeded tradition and commenced the token but true assessment of the bride’s beauty. The typical bride is bent on entertaining the falsehood that she is the most beautiful bride in the history of the world. Lila’s effortless radiance suddenly made it clear that every other bride before her had been horribly misled.

"Positively disgusting," Tripler exclaimed, shaking her head in a caricature of disbelief. It was customary, among this group, to turn the corner from superlative to pejorative in the service of extreme praise.

"Completely vile," Weesie agreed. "You’ve never looked worse in your life."

A moment passed while Lila waited for Laura’s consensus.

"Wholly repugnant," Laura confirmed. "Every wretched inch."

Lila smiled with satisfaction while the girls surrounded her.

Laura stifled a secret thought. It felt way too good to insult Lila to her face.

Then, after the pleasantries, the mandatory questions, a decoy while the girls perused one another in greater detail.

"Was the traffic bad?"

"Terrible," said Tripler. "Pete had to stop at the office, so we got stranded in the middle of rush hour."

"It’s true," said Pete. "I have this irksome little commitment Tripler finds terribly frivolous. It’s called work."

"Oh Pete. Shut up," said Tripler.

"I torture my poor wife," he confessed, mock contrite. "I’m so sorry I have to work, darling." He laced his arms around her neck. "I only do it to put a wrench in your travel plans." He twisted her neck to face him and deposited a kiss on her lips.

"This is his new thing," Tripler said, turning to the group. "Apparently, what I do no longer qualifies as work. It’s only called work when you go to an office every morning at eight, dressed like a shithead."

"No, no," said Pete. "It’s work so long as you get there before noon."

"All right, you guys. Let’s save this for couple’s counseling," said Jake.

"Very funny," said Pete.

"Jake’s right," Tripler said. "We’re here to celebrate a happy couple. Let’s keep the sorry states of our own marriages to ourselves."

Laughter swelled and subsided. But swipes like this were far from fatal. On the contrary, the disappointments of the group were a comfort to all.

A moment of silence passed as the friends settled into their new surroundings. Lila regained command quickly. She glanced at her watch, gasped, and beckoned to the group. Jake took this as his cue to hoist several monogrammed leather bags onto his shoulder. Pete followed Jake’s example, shouldering several more overstuffed bags. The girls looked on, smirking slightly at this rare show of chivalry, then they wove their arms around shoulders and waists and dragged each other onto the sunny lawn.

"Let’s hope this weather holds up," said Tripler.

"God, Trip," said Weesie. "Don’t taunt her."

Lila tugged subtly on Laura’s arm as Weesie and Tripler broke into their usual barbed banter. They, too, had roomed together in college and so toed the line, in all conversation, between jovial and strained. Laura took the cue and released her grasp, allowing Tripler and Weesie to take the lead while she and Lila fell behind.

"So …" said Laura. She attempted, with the one-word question, to convey delicious excitement.

"So… " said Lila, matching Laura’s tone but infusing it with a more personal demand.

Laura paused, suddenly aware she had absolutely nothing to say. She made a sweeping gesture at the activity on the lawn. "So how’s it all going up here?"

"What? The wedding?" Her tone was defiant, her volume loud enough to seem angry. "I really don’t get why people make such a big deal. I mean, it’s just one day of your life." She shrugged as though baffled by a complex scientific fact, at once asserting her wonder and disdain.

It was this type of comment that made Laura seethe. Did Lila actually think she was comforted by her trivial generalizations, her denouncement of the wedding institution? On the contrary, it made Laura feel terrible that Lila thought she needed to be comforted. And it irritated her that Lila considered such a condescending statement comforting. It would have been less patronizing for Lila to pat her on the head and commend her for coming to the wedding on her own.

"Did you pick up your dress?" Lila demanded. "The store called me Tuesday and said it was still there."

"Yes, I got it," Laura said.

"Thank God." Lila sighed. "I’ve been totally panicked that the bridesmaids are going to look bad."

"How could we look bad," said Laura, "in such a flattering color?"

Lila paused, mistrusting Laura’s tone. But thankfully, when it came to detecting sarcasm, Lila’s "hearing" was slightly impaired. "Thank God Weesie’s lost the weight," she whispered.

"You were worried?" Laura asked.

"Well, yeah. She insisted on ordering her dress a size too small to motivate herself. I’m just glad she came through. It’s not her problem if she looks bad in my wedding pictures."

Laura sighed, conveying sympathy where, in fact, she felt disgust.

"But Annie, I’m a little worried about. Have you heard anything," Lila hissed.

"About what?"

"Oh forget it," said Lila. "Just last time I saw her she looked a little pudgy."

Laura nodded, conveying understanding when, in fact, she felt rage.

"I’m so glad you’re here," Lila whispered. "It didn’t feel real without you."

Laura paused for a moment, touched by the childlike sweetness of the sentiment. She tightened her grasp around Lila’s shoulders. "I’m glad I’m here, too."

There was always this moment between the two friends when they re united, this process of resistance and submission. First, Laura acknowledged the bile and bitterness she had harbored toward Lila since she’d seen her last. Then, Lila welcomed Laura back into her thrall with seeming obliviousness to Laura’s treachery. Finally, Laura cursed herself for harboring such hateful feelings and, embarrassed by her quickness to yield, converted hatred into resentment.

It was not Lila’s fault, Laura always decided, that she was so lucky. Her greatest crime was entitlement, her greatest curse, good luck. How was she to know the wisdom earned by yearning? And why should she be faulted for the circumstances that had precluded her having to yearn?

"I’m so sorry Ben couldn’t be here," Lila whispered.

Comments like this threatened Laura’s precarious composure. For every ten blundering, callous things Lila said, she said something eerily telepathic.

"I’m completely enraged with Gussie for holding me to it. I should have told her to fuck off at the time, but it was just easier to appease her. And now, you’re stranded up here all alone with all your friends and their husbands. I would understand if you never spoke to me again." She gripped Laura’s forearm.

Laura flinched on reflex.

"But I’ve done my best to make it up to you with the seating arrangement." She smiled devilishly.

"Oh God." Laura sighed. "I thought I would be at the wedding party table with you."

"You are," Lila said, batting her eyes.

"Next to who?" Laura asked.

"You’ll see," Lila cooed.

"Who?" Laura demanded.

"Someone smart, gorgeous, and brilliant."

Laura stopped walking, forfeiting her only remaining leverage. "Tell me right now," she tried.

Lila kept walking but turned her head while she kept her pace.

"Someone you haven’t seen in a very long time," she said. "Someone you absolutely adore."

"Please tell me who it is," Laura begged. As she stood, hands on hips, in the middle of the lawn, she felt completely degraded, not unlike a defiant pet, refusing to enter the house.

Finally, Lila stopped and turned to face Laura. The setting sun struck her eyes and doubled their intensity. "Why, the groom. Who else?"

Just like that, Laura kicked herself for her self-recrimination. Lila deserved every bit of ill will she bore her. Breathing deeply, Laura picked up her pace and hurried to catch up with her friends, praying Lila’s lucky streak would end with a rainy wedding day.

Excerpted from The Romantics by Galt Niederhoffer

Copyright © 2008 by Galt Niederhoffer

Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher