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Like most people trying to get by in something like the regular current of American life, I don’t act like a total asshole to most people I meet, and am generally regarded as pretty nice, mainly because I leave myself vulnerable to hearing out other people’s crises and complaints for longer, on average, than would be merely polite. And the fact is, I do tend to like people in practice, even though I’ve built an airtight case against them in principle. It’s a natural response, I guess, to being raised by relatively kind parents who taught me to be polite and decent and to rely on the company and help of others, but to also consider myself smarter and, on some fundamental level, more deserving of complete fulfillment than anyone in the world besides maybe my sisters.
This may be why, when my girlfriend, Julia, asked me to meet her at the house of a recent acquaintance of ours, a New Age–leaning woman named Anna whose family, through what specific brand of plunder I don’t know, owned a gigantic house out in horse country, I agreed. Julia would be arriving late from a shift in the ICU and wanted me to be the advance guard. She believed this dinner held the potential for a better-than-usual time, since it brought together a number of people we didn’t know very well but had been told we would like. Of course, the “people we would like” often turned out to be amateur poets and holistic healers, but to her eternal credit, this didn’t stop Julia from holding out for social transcendence, the nature of which I didn’t fully understand. My goals at these things usually extended no further than making at least one moderately clever comment and trying not to spill anything on my shirt.
With the address Julia had given me, I followed my glitchy, ancient GPS to the mechanized gate marking the entrance to Anna’s family compound. The architecture ahead was nouveau hunting lodge, polished wood in the kind of low, modernist arrangements I’d encountered at expensive hotels in underdeveloped countries with my parents. I parked in front of something designed to look like a former stable and wandered around the main residence, casing it for an entrance.
As I passed a long window, I saw the profile of a woman staring fixedly into the distance, moving her lips in spirited chatter. Her long dark hair was pulled into a messy upward configuration, held in delicate balance by a pencil, maybe. She stood erect, shoulders squared, but she seemed comfortable, at ease in her formality. She was standing at a kitchen counter, chopping something on a cutting board. This first ghostly observation of Leslie remains significant in my mind, since it was the only time I saw her—ever will see her—without knowing anything about her. In that first long look I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t seem to belong in her delicate flowered sundress, that her strong, tanned arms and shoulders were positively bursting out of it. Her bright red lipstick was smeared gooily across her mouth. She looked like a wild creature that had been hastily and not entirely consensually bundled into something approximating midsummer southern chic.
Anna, at the stove, turned to say something to her and caught my eye through the window. Her momentary alarm—this was during my Allman Brothers phase—quickly turned to enthusiasm, feigned or otherwise, at my arrival. I held up my bottle of wine and baguette, raised my eyebrows, and mouthed “Door?” She circled her finger in the air like E.T.: go around, or back home, whichever. So I continued along the path, drawing a tight shadow of a smile from the woman at the cutting board, and eventually arrived at a grand door ornamented with a huge metal knocker. A long moment later Anna appeared with an orotund “Oh, hello,” and I was in.
Anna was magnificently curly headed and just shy of troublingly thin, with a squished cherubic face that seemed to promise PG-13 secrets. She’d grown up in the area and had recently moved back for somewhat mysterious reasons, possibly involving a now ex-boyfriend’s arrest for dealing prescription drugs. She radiated the kind of positivity that suggested barely repressed rage.
“You’re only the second one here!” she said. “Everyone else has a very loose interpretation of when seven o’clock starts.”
“Thanks so much for having me,” I said. I took in the wood-paneled walls, the smudgy, probably authentic impressionist painting mounted and lit with gallery-grade precision.
“This Bruce Wayne guy sure must be loaded,” I said.
“Daddy was a carpenter,” she said with a sudden drawl. “But Granddaddy? He was Dow Chemical.” If you had to be rich, it was best to be self-aware.
“Who else is coming?” I said as we made our way down an African-mask-lined hallway.
“Well, Lucia and, apparently, her new boyfriend, Herman,” Anna said. “I know I said no couples, but they started dating, like, between the invite and the actual thing, and I’d invited them both separately. I mean, what I just said isn’t actually true, but whatever. It’s happening. He’s fine. And Molly Chang—you know her? And … well, here she is. Leslie, Peter.”
I hadn’t realized from the window how tall she was—nearly six feet, I guessed, to my five eleven plus hair. When she turned from the cutting board, she had a polite nice-to-meet-you grin on her face, but her mouth shaded serious almost immediately, like she’d thought of something important but wasn’t sure whether she should say it. My arrival seemed to worry her in some way.
“How’s it going?” she said.
She gave me a strong handshake, elbow at a perfectly cocked right angle. My father would have been impressed—he would have asked her what her parents did.
“I’m mostly trying to decide which piece of art to steal,” I said.
“Well, it’s important to consider both net value and fenceability,” Leslie said. “There’s no point in stealing it if you can’t sell it. Or so I’ve read.”
“What if I just want something for my house?” I said. “Like, for the love of the art.”
“Maybe, instead of stealing my mom’s stuff, Pete?” Anna said. “You could pour us some wine and slice up that baguette.”
Leslie grinned at me, the full-toothed thing, which, maybe, was the first tentative step into the abyss of the rest of my life, or whatever you want to call it. Love. Leslie went back to the chopping, and I did as I was told.
“So are you … visiting Virginia?” I said from the far side of the marble counter.
“Yeah, I live in Austin,” she said. “Technically. But really I’m kind of between places. My aunt lives in Louisa, and I figured I could maybe get some work done here. Of course I mostly just lie in the grass wondering whether or not I’m sweating yet, but. It’s a start.”
“So you work from, uh, home?”
“Yeah, I’m a bum,” she said. “Like you, I heard.”
I figured she meant writer.
“She’s getting paid to write a script,” Anna said. “Which is why she can do whatever she wants.”
“Encouraged is more accurate than paid,” Leslie said. “I’m just helping some friends. But fiction’s my main, uh, lady.”
“That’s awesome,” I said, which was my default response whenever people told me what they did with their time.
“I’ve got to figure out whether it is or not,” she said. “My brain has almost resolidified now that I’ve been out of Texas for a few days. Austin? It’s like fucking in a sauna, forever.”
“So … hot,” I said.
The rest of the promised crew arrived in a carpooled crush a few minutes later. I filled wineglasses—pretty much the only thing involving “food” that I could reasonably accomplish—and took stock of the crowd. Lucia was an assistant to an architect by day, a singer in a melancholic musical duo by night. Molly was a hyperactive film buff and the only Asian woman on the local arts scene, in which she held a position of moderate administrative import. Herman was new to me—he appeared to be a mumbling wild card, a mostly skinny man with a gray beard, a beer gut, and mournful eyes. He was of interest only in that he was apparently valued by an interesting woman, which is the most you can say for most men.
I hovered near the bread I’d haphazardly cut and listened to Molly talk at me.
“In a way, it’s almost a good thing we don’t have a quote-unquote indie movie theater anymore,” she said. “I mean, that is the most complacent shit in the world. I’d rather watch, you know, Nicolas Cage do like a big-screen reboot of Nash Bridges than sit through some happy-sad grown white siblings coming to terms with their gay white parents’ death. It’s like, I get it, growing up is tough, especially if you’re upper-middle class and you’re cheating on your spouse and your gay white dad has dementia, but seriously. We can probably survive a few months without that. And if not, I don’t know, drive to Richmond.”
“I still haven’t even been to the drive-in,” I said.
“It’s pretty great as long as you like the Rock,” Molly said. “They literally do not play movies that don’t star Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson. But I don’t know, I’ve been really hot on performance movies lately, like concert or sports movies? Performy sports, though, where they have to really do the thing. Like have you ever seen Downhill Racer? Robert Redford on skis?”
“I think James Salter wrote it,” I said.
“Movies don’t have writers,” she said definitively.
I finished my glass of wine and poured another. I enjoyed Molly’s machine-gun approach to conversation, but I knew that it would drive Julia crazy if she ever got here. She didn’t feel threatened by women like Molly, she claimed, but she decided quickly that they were superficial and unpleasant. To me, those two qualities on their own weren’t much cause for alarm—most of my best friends were superficial and unpleasant. A lot of our conversational preferences were based on the gender of the conversant. Julia didn’t mind talking to would-be intellectual men, no matter how pretentious they were, as long as they knew things she wanted to find out about, whereas I’d rather chew my hand off than sit at a table being talked down to by some motherfucker working on his dissertation. You only have so much control over your preferences—your real preferences, I mean.
When it was time to eat, I made sure to fall into stride behind Leslie on the way to the dining room, which required a subtle elbow maneuver against Anna to keep her out of my way. It worked; I got a seat immediately to Leslie’s right, with Herman on the other side of me. Of course, having never spoken a word to me previously, Herman began talking in my direction the moment we sat down.
“You know, I’m a writer,” he said, leaning over me to make sure he was addressing Leslie as well. “You read Stephen King?”
“Wait, you’re Stephen King?” Leslie said.
“No, he lives in Maine,” Herman said, unperturbed. “All of his books are about Maine, or most of them at least. I want to be, like, the Stephen King of Maine. I mean, of Virginia.”
“So you write horror?” I said.
“Well…” He thought this over. “Yeah, I guess you could say that, though you should know that King really doesn’t like to be called a horror writer anymore. It’s kind of demeaning, like all he’s trying to do is horrify people, you know? I like to think of both of our work as stories of amazement and fear.”
“That’s a good genre,” Leslie said. “You can fit a lot of stuff in there.”
“The Bible, The Jungle Book, The Shining…” I said.
“This one’s kind of snarky, huh?” he said.
She put her hand lightly on my shoulder. “I’m getting the sense this one fancies himself a real sophisticated type.”
“It’s true,” I said. “I only read books without stories.”
“Why not skip the words, too?” Leslie said. “Move right along to the cold particularities of life. Herman, Lucia told me you do landscape design? When you’re not thrilling and disturbing the reading public?”
“Yeah, you know, it’s a living,” he said. “I’m starting up a food truck, too. Asian-Mexican fusion.”
“Right on,” Leslie said. She had a deep, clear voice, not rasped by cigarettes, I didn’t think, but darker in tone than that of most women I knew. The dim artificial light of the dining room brought out the hard lines and angles of her face and collarbone, like in those wonderful perverted Balthus paintings of girls and cats.
“Y’all can go serve yourselves now if you’re ready,” Anna said to us, southern again. The other side of the table had been filing out while we talked, so we got up now and filled our bowls from the gumbo-smelling pot on the stove, collecting limp salad greens and servings of a cooked vegetable thing from nearly depleted bowls. I stayed close to Leslie, admiring the back of her neck and the stray strands of dark hair drifting across it.
When everyone was back at the table, Anna explained how she and Leslie met.
“I was in New York, interning at City Mag,” Anna said. “I helped her get press passes for Fashion Week. Which of course neither of us had any fucking clue about.”
“I used to work in New York, too,” I said. “We probably went to some of the same parties.”
“The bad ones?” she said.
“Is there another kind?”
“I’m never going back,” Anna said. “Not even to visit.”
“I think I read somewhere that Brooklyn’s getting cool,” Leslie said. “Might want to get in there before it gets expensive.”
We moved on to the superhero preferences of Herman’s children, and then to Lucia’s upcoming show at the town’s creepy outdoor “Founder’s Day” festival, which was “innovation themed” this year.
“We’re supposed to come up with stuff about our performance for the app,” she said. “Like I guess they want people to be able to look up things about us while we’re playing?”
“If you hate enjoying unmediated live music, you’ll love this thing!” Leslie said.
“Right, not that I think we deserve anybody’s full attention or anything. People will probably like us better if their phone is playing pornographic cartoons or whatever.”
“That’s what I’m usually looking at on my phone,” I said. “Or looking for, anyway.”
“How does your Julia feel about that?” Leslie said. My Julia.
“She’s made her peace with it,” I said. “We believe in, you know, open borders. Like Obama.”
“Have you heard from her?” Anna said. “Do you think she’s going to make it out tonight?”
“I haven’t,” I said, right as I realized that I’d semideliberately left my phone in the kitchen. Like a lot of people, I’d lately been in the habit of trying to go for stretches of time without looking at my phone every ten seconds. Of course a Freudian would say, I don’t know, that my phone was my dick, and I left it in the other room because I wanted to have sex with Leslie and didn’t want to admit it. Just a guess.
I went to the kitchen and found my phone on the counter. Three texts—“remind me address?” “party still happening?” “where u?”—and two missed calls from Julia. I called her back and she was blessedly unperturbed, or underperturbed, at least. In fact, she said, she’d only just gotten out of the shower and was ready to rock. I wondered if I sounded as guilty as I felt. Probably not, since there was no way for her to know that this particular bout of carelessness was caused by being halfway in love with a clever, unconventionally beautiful woman. It was not, after all, a common occurrence.
I told the table that Julia was on her way, that we had to keep the fun train rolling for her sake. Anna assured me that there was no need to worry—she wanted to have either a game night or a dance party later. I was verbally noncommittal but prayed against a game night. Julia and I were united in our bewilderment at our generation’s return to structured activities.
Anna served cobbler and coffee. She really was an excellent host, however many people her family had enslaved and murdered. With the window before Julia’s arrival closing, I moved to gather important information with subtle inquiries.
“I’m guessing you’ve got somebody back in Texas?” I said.
“Is it my dead eyes?” Leslie said. “It’s my dead eyes, isn’t it.”
“Your psychic burden seemed too great for an uncommitted person.”
“Well, I’m still uncommitted,” she said. “Maybe terminally. Which is a not-small part of why I’m up here. It’s not really ‘fun dinner table chat,’ honestly.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s not like it’s something wildly lurid or anything. My fiancé and I are having a regular-ass shitty time figuring out what to do. And I’m basically being a huge baby and hiding. I mean, in part because I have all this shit I need to get done. But mostly just because I’m a baby.”
“It can’t be a bad idea to give yourself a minute to think,” I said, which at least had the benefit of being true.
“I know. He’s just freaked-out about me freaking out. When your fiancée’s, like, I need to spend a few months away from you, and she’s an emotionally volatile Catholic Armenian, you’re kind of forced to reckon with the possibility that things aren’t going to turn out very well.”
“Well, I hope whatever you want to happen happens,” I said. “May the road be always at your feet.”
“That’s really beautiful,” she said. “You must be a really good writer.”
* * *
When Julia arrived, we’d all decamped to the living room, lounging on the furniture and the floor, neither gaming nor dancing. She entered the room with her arms raised like a boxer, drawing general applause. I got up from my seat on the floor next to Leslie and gave Julia a kiss.
“You made it!” I said.
“Where’s my drink?” she said. “I require tequila now.”
“Baby, it’s not that kind of party.”
“Did you hear me say what I required?” she said.
“We probably have some in the liquor cabinet,” Anna said.
“Oh no, I was just being silly,” Julia said to her. “I mean, I do need a drink, though.”
“I’ll get you a glass of the wine I brought,” I said. “It’s the tequila of Chiantis.”
“Me too?” Leslie said. She held her glass up but remained sitting. I walked back over to her and took it.
“A new friend!” Julia said, with a tiny edge that only I could hear. I filled their glasses in the kitchen and checked my phone. I realized only after I put it back in my pocket that I’d been hoping, irrespective of logic, that I had a text from Leslie.
In the living room, Julia had taken my spot on the floor. She and Leslie already appeared to be deep in chat. I handed over the wine and took a seat on the couch behind them. Of course, I’d forgotten to get another drink for myself.
“Isn’t it nice to have someone do things for you?” Leslie said. She took a long pull from her glass of wine.
“It’s okay,” Julia said. “One certainly shouldn’t count on it.”
“So are you applying for … a, what, residency now?” Anna asked Julia.
“Yeah, just about,” Julia said. “Reluctantly. Lazily.”
“Oh right, you’re so lazy,” Molly said. “My poor mother would fucking adopt you if she could. She still asks why I don’t apply to med school every time I come home. It’s like, Mom, I’m thirty years old and all I want to do is watch movies and apply for grants that will allow me to watch more movies. Focus your attention on the other creature you insisted on imbuing with life.”
“For a medical student I’m considered, like, aggressively lazy,” Julia said. “I read novels instead of participating in masochistic obstacle courses in my free time.”
“I admire you for wanting to be a doctor,” Leslie said. “I wish I wanted to help people.”
“Don’t worry, it’s mostly an ego crusade,” Julia said. “As a poet, I’m required to care about myself at least twice as much as I care about anyone else.”
“Except for Kiki,” I said. Kiki was our dog, a black and tan German shepherd–border collie–something mix, the only being in the world with whom we both had a completely sincere, openhearted relationship.
“You love Kiki more than anything else,” she said. “I still slightly prefer myself.”
I was in love with Julia all over again when she said things like that, and most of the rest of the time, too. We’d had a long five years together, and at that moment we both thought, without quite committing to it, that we’d continue to be together for the long, inevitably more complicated, run. Neither of us quite expected not to fuck anyone else for the rest of our lives (and we were in at least theoretical agreement that if one of us did happen to do that in the near future it would probably be best not to mention it to the other), but I thought that our relationship might be suited to withstand that, since we were, if we were anything, intellectually compatible. This might be a good place to mention that I had done a terrible job of learning anything about Julia’s medical school career outside of the most general understanding of what area of the hospital she was in at any given time.
“Did you get a dog as practice for having a kid?” Molly said.
“Yes, definitely,” I said.
“I know you’re joking?” Molly said. “But I fucking hate it when people do that.”
“All right, guys, two choices,” Anna said. “Celebrity, or Cards Against Humanity? Please note that I’ve got, like, three expansion packs for Cards.”
Copyright © 2018 by Andrew Martin