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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Boomer1

A Novel

Daniel Torday

Picador

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CHAPTER ONE

CLAIRE STANKOWITCZ CHANGED HER NAME to Cassie Black at the beginning of her first year of college. It was the best decision she’d ever made. The most decisive she’d ever been, too. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her mom and dad—they’d been models of parental exceptionalism since she was a kid, allowing her all the freedoms a child, a teenager, could hope for. But upon her arrival at the Wellesley campus after a two-hour flight from central Ohio, what Cassie needed was a clear-cut, empirically observable change. Her parents didn’t object. They got a hotel room in Back Bay, a couple blocks from Comm Ave., and the Wednesday before the first day of classes her freshman year they dropped her off at a Boston courthouse, where she legally changed her name. It seemed perfect to Cassie that she would share a last name with the lead singer of the Pixies in the town where the Pixies had grown their legend two decades earlier.

By the time she was a sophomore, Cassie’s response to her new name had grown reflexive. She’d picked up the bass and joined a punk band—well, a post-punk band. Though she’d played violin in school bands since she was six, and though some part of her musical mind would always love playing bluegrass and old-time fiddle, holding a big black Epiphone bass down somewhere below her waist, thumping it with a .50mm black pick while glaring into the middle distance behind the crowd, was the look and the sound she wanted now. By the time she was a senior, the U.S. had been in Afghanistan for three years, and her bandmates made a plan to move to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A group of alums from the class of 2002 had rented a two-story row house on Eagle Street, and rooms were renting there for six hundred dollars a month, about half of what Cassie had heard it might cost to live in Brooklyn. They’d named themselves the Pollys (their lead singer Natalia’s early desire to have them be called either the Rape Me’s or the Box-Shaped Hearts was slammed shut the moment she spoke them into her P-58) and within their first month in the city they had a gig at a house party in Williamsburg. It wasn’t the Williamsburg they’d pictured—every block closer to the Bedford L was more perfectly renovated, chrome-and-glass façades and Mercedes GLK SUVs double-parked outside of Planet Thailand—but their part of the mega-neighborhood Greenpoint and Williamsburg and Bushwick combined to make was ugly enough in winter, devoid of trees, children, and available parking. Cassie watched old Polish women in their babushkas push their black wire carts home from the Pathmark and felt she’d arrived.

That first gig was on the eleventh floor of an iconic building on Kent Ave. The place was pre-cancerous with artists’ lofts. It was owned by a group of Hasids who rented the basement to a matzoh company that baked the cracker tar-black to be sold for Seders around the city. A couple years after the Pollys’ first gig the building would catch fire from those Orthodox bakers and burn, only to be rebuilt to spec within a year. Now it was still standing. Cassie and her bandmates plugged in at the back of a wide-open loft, 1,200 square feet of mostly unfurnished urban mixed-use space, at its back a wall made of windows. Out across the bottom of the East River stood the buildings of the financial district like some static play being eternally staged. Maybe fifty bespectacled recent college grads milled around drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon from the can and Miller High Life from the bottle.

The Pollys played their set loud, closed with their blazing-fast punk version of Ralph Stanley’s “Pretty Polly”—if Kurt Cobain could cover Lead Belly, they could cover the Clinch Mountain Boys—and then a traditional bluegrass band set up to play next. How would anyone even hear them with the instant tinnitus in their ears? Cassie wondered. By the time the second band got their radio mic set up and huddled around it, bass far to the back and guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle crouched near the mic, her ears had stopped ringing. The band was good. Unlike the banjo-fronted Ralph Stanley setup, now the mandolin player functioned as the lead instrument—he picked out sloppy lines, but he sang high and hard like a girl, and Cassie found herself paying more attention than she’d expected. There was a certain poetry to the fact that they did their own version of “Pretty Polly” themselves, a wink right back at the Pollys, making the old sound new sound old. After the gig ended the mandolin player came over to her while she was packing up her bass.

“You guys slayed tonight,” he said. He was probably five or six years older than she was. Cassie could see where his hair was thinning around his widow’s peak, light trickling its way through to his white scalp, though what hair he had still was longish. He was wearing a kelly green T-shirt that said GETTIN’ LUCKY IN KENTUCKY. Part of Cassie couldn’t help but wonder if he was making fun of her own home in the Midwest wearing it. “Probably should’ve opened for you instead of the other way around. I doubt anyone could even hear us after your amps.”

“They’re not our amps,” Cassie said. Then she went over to find the rest of the Pollys. She’d been sleeping with Natalia for a month now, and the last thing that relationship needed—that the band needed—was for their lead singer to think she was flirting with a bluegrass-mandolin-playing, ironic-thrift-shop-T-shirted twenty-something-year-old boy.

The best thing that came of that first Williamsburg gig was that the younger sister of the guy who booked shows for CBGB was there. She e-mailed Natalia, who did all the booking for the band, to tell her that she thought her brother would like them. Did they have a CD? They didn’t, but they’d made a MySpace page where you could stream two tracks they’d recorded on Cassie’s iMac back at Wellesley. Natalia sent a link. Before they knew it, they had a gig in Manhattan. It was three months away, but it was a gig. It didn’t make Cassie’s day job feel a whole lot better. Really it was a night job, working as a cocktail waitress at the bar in the basement of the Chelsea Hotel. She only had to work three nights a week and she made more than enough to pay rent—bottle service meant sometimes a group of Russian oligarchs’ kids might drop two grand in a night, three even, might leave a half-full bottle on the table on their way to Scores. The tip, if they were drunk enough on Grey Goose shots, could be two, three hundred bucks. It was exhausting work. It took Cassie a day to sleep off the nights. That left her the equivalent of a long weekend every week to rehearse, read, just walk around Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The night of their CBGB show Cassie was nervous, but not as nervous as she suspected. This was CBGB! Television had played here, Talking Heads and Big Star and Patti Smith. It was like she was walking between the silent ghosts of still-living Alex Chilton and David Byrne as she made her way to the space backstage. Sure, there was an ATM up front now, and next door they’d opened CB’s Gallery, where keening acoustic guitarists could sit on stools and whisper-sing Elliott Smith covers into a mic like they’d been booked at the Living Room. But this was at least a version of living out her dreams. There were four bands on that night. The Pollys were second. They stood in front of the stage and watched as a six-foot-eight bundle of gangly limbs flailed around and screamed into the mic like he was the embodied ghost of Ian Curtis. They were just about to head backstage when someone pushed her shoulder.

“You’re gonna kill tonight,” the guy said. She knew him but it took her a second to place how. Her brain just began to formulate an image of a mandolin before her when he said, “Mandolinist. From the Willow Gardens.” Cassie did remember him, but she continued just to kind of scowl at him. “The bluegrass band from that Billyburg loft party this summer.”

“Right,” Cassie said. She gave a look around her—she was still with Natalia, though outside of band practice they hadn’t seen each other much the past month, and she didn’t want this to look bad. But the rest of the band had already headed backstage. “Right, the Willow Gardens. Terrible fucking name.”

“That’s the hardest thing,” he said. “Coming up with a good name. My name’s Mark, by the way. Which would also be a terrible band name: The Mark.”

“The Mark By the Way would be worse,” Cassie said.

“Yeah. Sucks trying to come up with a band name. We had friends who performed for a year as Hard Raisin’ before they realized it sounded like they were named after a hard raisin.” She didn’t say anything. “Yours is damn good, though. Name. Your band name. That was always one of my favorite Nirvana songs.”

Cassie was surprised to learn that this bluegrasser even knew about Kurt Cobain, but she supposed being a bit older, they must have been big when he was in high school. She couldn’t keep eye contact, so she looked down to where she could see he was clasping his hands together. They were very nice hands. She could see where they had a light covering of blond hairs. They looked soft, but she could see as his left hand worked its fingertips over his right that they were calloused from fretting his mandolin. Cassie had always been attracted to hands. She looked up. She asked Mark what he was doing here.

“The Willow Gardens are playing next door at CB’s Gallery in like an hour.”

“Oh, right, next door,” Cassie said. “Of course.”

“You know the ‘BG’ in CBGB does mean ‘bluegrass,’” Mark said. “It’s not that weird we’re playing here.” Cassie figured he must have noted the sour look on her face, which come to think of it she wasn’t doing much to hide.

“Anyway,” he said. “Saw your guys’ name up on the ad in The Village Voice and thought I’d drop by to say hi. So. Hi.” He turned to leave. For a second she felt bad for having given him a hard time about the band name. She hadn’t slept with a man in a couple years, more, so maybe Natalia wouldn’t assume anything even if she saw them.

“You know, I used to play fiddle,” she said. All at once she could see something brand new in this guy’s face, a dimple that appeared in the lower right corner of his mouth and a tautness that developed at the corners of his eyes—he started to ask all kinds of questions about where she was from, what brought her here, telling her that fiddlers could make good money in bluegrass bands in the city playing weddings and brunches, and it was feeling comfortable, less like he was trying to pick her up than that he was trying to be her friend, when she saw Natalia was standing next to the stage watching them talk.

“Shit,” Cassie said. “Shit shit fuck. Shit.” She walked away without saying good-bye.

The Pollys played their gig and they were good, the best they’d ever been, but they were second billing at CBGB, so maybe forty people were there, bobbing heads a bit in the beer-rimed room. Even Mark turned tail and headed out before they finished, whether because he needed to get next door for his show or because he’d grown bored of the music, she couldn’t tell. They didn’t get another invite to play, but more problematic, what Cassie thought was a good gig, full of energy, Natalia thought was something different.

“The fuck were you talking to before we played,” Natalia said. She was five foot four, with a thin, tight black faux-hawk and a smattering of freckles on her Cremona-colored cheeks. Cassie told her that it was the mandolin player from the band that they opened for in Williamsburg.

“The Pussy Willows?” Natalia said.

“Willow Gardens,” Cassie said. “C’mon, they were—” Before she started to defend them only a couple hours after telling their lead singer and mandolin player to his face how bad she thought the name was, she stopped herself. But she didn’t stop the inevitable. Natalia felt the show had been a debacle. She grew convinced it was Cassie’s fault. In the coming months a sense that something was off grew among the Pollys. Natalia kept stopping mid-song at band practices. Cassie was dropping the beat, she said. She stopped so many times their drummer stopped one time herself—“Someone’s dropping the beat,” she said, “and I’m not saying who it is. But. It’s not me. I don’t think the Yeah Yeah Yeahs got to where they are because someone couldn’t keep time.”

So one afternoon the day after she made almost six hundred bucks on bottle service, Cassie came to band practice to find that no one else was taking their instruments out. No mics were plugged in. They were just sitting.

“Listen,” Natalia said. “This one’s a little tough, but we met this chick after a show at Mercury Lounge. This—this bassist. From another band. But now the band’s breaking up.”

“She used to sit in with Liz Phair,” their drummer said.

“You met another fucking bassist?” Cassie said. “What does that even mean. We were in Early Modernist Poetry together freshman year. Who cares you met a bassist?”

“Liz fucking Phair,” the drummer said. “She has Kim Gordon’s cell number,” she said. “They text.”

So Cassie was out of the band she’d founded. Not only that—all at once she wasn’t sleeping with Natalia anymore. The house on Eagle Street seemed newly an impossibility. She found a room posted on Craigslist just a couple blocks away and sent an e-mail. It was a room in a house with a bunch of dudes, but Cassie wanted out yesterday. She was gone within a week. Not one member of the Pollys was home the afternoon she moved. She made twelve trips from Eagle Street a block south to her new apartment, hunched over as she lugged her books in one of those black wire carts the old Polish women used to lug groceries around the neighborhood. She passed twelve old Polish women in their babushkas on her way. Suddenly they didn’t look so much like what she wanted to be as they looked like, well, what she was becoming.

Had become.


CHAPTER TWO

THE FIRST WEEKEND in her new place Cassie found she’d lost a shift at the Chelsea Hotel—there was a private party, the people were bringing their own catering service. She asked Curtis, her new housemate, what was happening in the apartment that night. “We’re having kind of a big party,” he said. “There’s a band playing.” Cassie considered just holing up in her new room and reading the Jeanette Winterson she’d found earlier that week at Housing Works, but she couldn’t concentrate. By ten there must have been fifty people in the apartment. She heard someone picking a banjo. She came out into the main space. She didn’t recognize one face. Where for the past seven years at every party she went to there were, like cairns appearing on a long hike, the faces of Natalia and Svetlana and all the friends who’d come to every Pollys show, now she was on a barren granite rock with no sign to confirm she was headed any direction but lost. She needed something to drink.

She was about to return to her room when she looked up and there, standing by the refrigerator with a Pabst Blue Ribbon trucker’s cap and a Miller High Life bottle in his hand, was Mark. The mandolin player from the Pussy Willows. The Willow Gardens.

“What on earth are you doing?” he said when she walked up.

“I live here,” she said. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“My buddies from Colgate are your roommates, I guess,” he said. “And the Willow Gardens are playing here tonight.” So Cassie settled in and listened while Mark’s band played. They were better than last time. Without a radio mic to huddle around—the room was small enough they needed no amplification, they sang loud and played their instruments as loud as they could be played—they were far more natural. The three-part harmonies they sang were balanced, sharp, like one big chord projecting out into the room on each chorus. Cassie had always liked the idea of a chord, three notes struck together to make a single sound. Mark’s mandolin playing was far more refined than the last time she saw them, tight and loud and precise, jumping the one like Bill Monroe.

As the Willow Gardens came to the end of their set, Mark said, yelling as loud as he sang, “We’re gonna get a special friend to come up and play one with us here tonight.” He let his mandolin fall by his side. He grabbed the fiddle and bow out of his fiddler’s hand. “The killer bassist from one of my favorite new bands, the Pollys, is here tonight.” Mark was looking right at Cassie. It felt as if he’d just asked her to marry him in front of the whole party. “Well, come on up, friend!” he said, in an Appalachian accent he’d never before used. Cassie tried not to, but now everyone around her had taken a step back, and it was as if a whole bucket of pig’s blood might be dropped on her head if she didn’t move from where she was standing. Or it was weirdly like being called out by her father—knowing she didn’t want to do what he said, but knowing she would have to. By the time she got to the front of the room, the guitarist was capoing his guitar to the second fret.

“What the fuck,” she said as quietly as she could.

“Nothing the fuck,” Mark said. “You said you could play. So let’s get you playing. ‘Pretty Polly’ work for you? Like the way David Grisman does it, straightforward in A.”

Before she could pick up the bow, the guitarist had started the song, and the bass was thumping, and the truth was that Cassie had gone with her father—her conservative father, who lectured her on how sex was an act with a purpose God intended to take place between a man and a woman for the express intent of procreation, any pleasure was an ancillary—to the Mohican Bluegrass Festival in central Ohio every summer since she was three. She couldn’t not play the melody to that song when a band was playing. All at once it was as if she’d changed her name back, as if she was Claire Stankowitcz again, her name less rock and roll but her hands far more adept at their instrument. And here was the thing for Claire/Cassie: it was the freest she’d felt in years. Ever. Though she felt timid for the first bar or two, soon she tore into each fiddle break the band gave her, and the small crowd in the teeming apartment roared. She stayed up there for five more songs, then finished playing and shotgunned six Pabst Blue Ribbons with Mark in the kitchen of her new apartment, just a block and a half from the Eagle Street place, and at a little past five in the morning, as the thin Greenpoint sun was starting to wriggle its wretched bony fingers into her new apartment, she took a man back with her to bed for the first time since her sophomore year of college. His hands were just what she’d hoped they might be when she saw them in CBGB—the soft hands of a man who’d not worked with them, but not too soft, rough and hard at the fingertips from his calluses. Her and Mark’s expressed intent was not procreation—Jesus, she hoped it wasn’t and wouldn’t ever be, and for certain little was expressed other than the need for a condom—but for the first time in years, whatever anxiety she felt, thinking of her father’s imperious face, was gone. Cassie fell into a drunken state that passed for sleep with a strange jittery calm. For now.


CHAPTER THREE

A YEAR INTO LIVING with him in her new apartment, the only thing that changed for Cassie was everything. Mark got her a job as a fact-checker at US Weekly, a magazine she hated more than she hated the Republican Party—more than the very notion of political parties, even. Natalia had called it “United States Weekly” with as much disdain for the “US” as the “us.” But now here she was, making eighteen dollars an hour calling Hollywood publicists to make sure they’d spelled Tom Cruise’s name right in galley pages (one time they actually somehow hadn’t spelled it right, but that was beside the point). On weekends she and Mark spent their afternoons walking deep into Prospect Park, instruments in tow, where they would head into the woods or over to the duck pond and play some new fiddle tune together. Mark had quit his own magazine job and was working on a Ph.D. at CUNY now, and so he had all the time in the world—to worry about what was ahead. The world wasn’t conforming to his ideas of what it should be.

“I mean it’s impossible to find a full-time teaching job,” he’d say. “Quentin himself said that after four years on the market, he just decided to go back to his magazine job—but it was gone. Some twenty-two-year-old was doing it, and making a grand a year for each year he’d been alive. There was one disciple of some New Yorker staff writer who’s been at the magazine since like the fifties, who got a replacement gig at Wesleyan last year, teaching a full load for the year, and that’s best-case scenario. Maybe one class at Sarah Lawrence making seven grand if things go well. Meanwhile, some eighty-three-year-old professor still won’t retire.” At times it seemed like he was thinking about it even when they were singing—she’d be blaring a high tenor over his lead on “You Won’t Be Satisfied That Way,” and she could see in his eyes all he was thinking about was the English tenure-track jobs wiki and the tenured faculty, already past retirement age, who would be interviewing him if he ever got far enough to be interviewed. The pallor of his face grew more and more like the color of pulped paper.

It did not seem healthy.

At the same time, it felt almost as if there was a groundswell rising, people decrying baby boomers in louder ways every day, just like Mark, articles in the Times and the WSJ. Some small pockets of protest had arisen on college campuses. It wasn’t enough and it wasn’t fast enough for Mark. Nothing was ever fast enough for Mark—progress, his own place in the academic world, her solos on Jimmy Martin songs, her orgasms. His face was a pallid mandala of impatience. His whole world was one homogenous inert rush.

He did encounter a shadow of hope one day the second winter they were together. Mark had been working on his dissertation, and around the same time he started writing about the influence of nineteenth-century American writers on Emma Goldman, there was a prominent reissue of Goldman’s early essays. Mark had always been drawn, intellectually, to the strident tone Goldman took on, her anarchism was secondary, tertiary—Mark cared about language, and he loved hers, the forcefulness of her tone. For years he’d tried to get the editors of the magazine where he worked to send him to Marxism conferences to see what Goldman’s influence was now. But it just wasn’t clear what the story was—there were no assassination-of-McKinley reenactors, no Goldmanists in small cells across the country. After years of failing to figure out how, now he would get to write about Goldman. He’d loved Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman. Mark had sent an e-mail to the editor of the most prominent hipster intellectual journal in the country, The Unified Theory, and the editor was somehow interested. They wondered if he might want to write ten thousand words on Goldman and the great nineteenth-century Americans. Six writers whose work had appeared in The Unified Theory in the past four years had appeared in The New Yorker sometime soon after. The editors were all recent graduates of Ivy League Ph.D. programs in English and Cultural Studies, but they’d gotten the approval of some of their former professors, baby boomers whose word carried a different kind of cultural capital and whose blurbs appeared on the magazine’s covers as if it were a debut novel instead of an intellectual quarterly.

For the next six months that was all Mark did with his free time—work on this piece on the prophetic voice in Thoreau, Emerson, and Emma Goldman. Cassie had been making good money on the side playing Sunday brunches with the Willow Gardens. Suddenly Mark wanted the Willow Gardens to go on hiatus for the year. It was not a good situation for her, but at the same time there was a thin pink hue to his cheeks for the first time in months. Cassie asked him if he couldn’t do both—play music and write this banal essay no one would ever read (she elided the words “banal” and “no one would ever read” when she said it). He said he couldn’t do both (Mark never elided anything when he said anything). Cassie asked him how he might feel if he was denied the opportunity to have sex with her during the hiatus.

Mark paused. He looked at her.

“I don’t see how that’s relevant,” he said. “Fucking and art. They are entirely separate.”

Cassie agreed.

For a month and then for another month the Willow Gardens didn’t play gigs, Mark and Cassie didn’t so much as kiss, and Mark’s skin began to look increasingly wan again on the few walks they took in Prospect Park. The only benefit to her from sleeping with a man for the first time since she was an undergraduate was the low-level anxiety over her father it alleviated, that subconscious sense that he might approve that their being together at least could lead to procreation if she would one day allow it. But now they weren’t having sex, which couldn’t lead to procreation, either. At least if she was with a woman, she would be not procreating while experiencing pleasure.

“Listen,” Cassie said. “I know it hasn’t been a great period for you, but I care about you. I’m a little worried.”

“What about?” he said. He was not making eye contact. He kept looking at something behind her or next to her, or at her elbow.

“About you, shithead,” Cassie said. “You’re gonna make me say it out loud? I’m a little worried about you.”

“I’m a little worried, too,” Mark said. “About me. But I gotta get this draft knocked out.”

“I don’t care about your draft anymore, Mark,” Cassie said. “I don’t know if I ever did. I don’t know how much longer I can do this.” She heard a cardinal call out its sharp chirp somewhere in the oaks over their heads. When she was a kid her father had one of those little red wood-and-iron bird-call makers and the one birdsong he’d taught her to recognize was the cardinal’s. Maybe that’s what he’d been looking at instead of her eyes. Three kids rode by on longboards, and once they passed and she could see their faces, Cassie realized they weren’t kids but grown men with beards and more likely than not wives, jobs, kids, 401(k)s, 403(b)s. Was maturity immutable? Like energy, a property finite and calculable in the universe? Grown adults acting like kids. She wondered if it was because they wanted to, or because the baby boomers kept their death grip on all the jobs and possessions they had to maintain their adolescence until adulthood was relinquished to them by the previous generations. She wondered if she thought that because she thought that, or if she thought that because Mark had said it so many times it had become reflexive for her to think it, too.

Now for the first time in months Mark looked at her.

“Shit,” he said. “It’s gotten that far?”

She didn’t say it hadn’t.

The next weekend, rather than heading down to Prospect Park, Mark told Cassie he wanted to take her on a trip to Midtown. They never went into Manhattan on weekends—Manhattan was where young Brooklynites went to work on weekdays. It was not where they spent their free time. Brooklyn was where they rested, played, drank hoppy IPAs. But on this Sunday they rode the train up to Midtown, and after they got off at Times Square, Mark walked her over to Forty-eighth Street. She was so quietly pleased to see him doing something other than moping, she didn’t yet ask what they were doing there. On occasion they ironically went to the Carnegie Deli for an ironic Reuben. Perhaps they would do so today.

For one whole block every storefront displayed every kind of jewel and precious metal you could imagine. Emeralds, rubies, but mostly diamonds. Diamonds, diamonds, diamonds. Princess cut, perfect cut, colored and uncolored and VV-2, I-1, every way of evaluating stones was used there. Cassie knew you weren’t supposed to buy blood diamonds, that DeBeers and the others had ravaged South Africa and Zimbabwe (her college anthro professor had still called it Rhodesia) for them, but now they’d walked down a short flight of four steps somewhere in the middle of the Diamond District—every storefront looked the same to her, the way when you were walking through Prague at some point you realized every store selling amber jewelry was selling the same amber jewelry. Across from them was a Hasid with a wide, black-brimmed hat. Cassie was so disoriented it took her a minute to understand he was waiting for an answer to something he’d said. He was asking them questions about how they felt about white gold.

“One can have a feeling about white gold?” Cassie said. “Like a pre-established feeling? Or one that develops from long experience?”

The Hasid just stared at her for a moment. She didn’t like being stared at and she didn’t understand why she and Mark hadn’t talked about this first.

“A woman makes her choice between white gold and platinum,” he said.

She looked from him to Mark, who sat next to her, at the very front of his chair, both feet propped up on their toes, looking at her. “Or titanium. If you prefer.”

“What the fuck’s the difference, even?” Cassie asked.

“Gold is softer,” the Hasid said. His teeth were the yellow of a buttered-popcorn Jelly Belly jelly bean. He’d bared them. He bit into the strip of white gold in his hands. He passed it to Mark, whose fingers slipped over the saliva left there. “See?” the dealer said. “Little marks. Not to worry—that one needs to be melted down for solder at this point. But you pick. Titanium is so hard even a saw can’t cut it. Which means it is beautiful and strong but can pose a problem.”

“A problem?” Mark said. It was the first question he’d asked since they started talking. He’d been leaving as much space for Cassie to talk as possible. She could tell.

“Say a couple got in a car accident—let it not be so, Ha’shem, but it does happen, everything and anything can happen—and they can’t cut the ring off. Instead they have to cut the finger off. Very unlikely. But that’s why sometimes a woman will opt against it.”

Cassie hadn’t given a single thought to the difference between hardness in metals, let alone being in a couple that rode in cars long enough to chance getting in an accident that might require digital amputation. She’d been living in New York without a car for long enough that when she visited her folks at home in Ohio, driving felt like a novelty, like playing at taxi driver. Next she might pretend to be a fireman, she’d think as she passed back down beneath the gargantuan leaves of the oaks lining State Route 36, not far from their house. Next a schoolteacher. Ichthyologist. Philatelist. Limo driver. Maybe her parents’ friends could afford to pay her to drive them around, invest in her rare stamps. Fish research.

Mark walked Cassie across to the downtown side of Forty-seventh Street, where there was a bazaar of gems—she didn’t even realize when they were in with the Hasid that he was there only to show them settings, that looking at the stones themselves happened in a different market. A woman in her forties, with straw-like hair and a scalp-line that could only be made by a wig, pulled out a tray with maybe three dozen diamonds. She asked Cassie which she liked best. Cassie had to say something, anything—the only thing she wanted less than being here was to make a scene at that moment and draw attention to herself and to Mark—so she pointed to an elongated stone, shaped like the eye of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings movies, because it seemed to throw light back up at her like a star.

“That’s the one?” the wigged woman said.

“Well, we’re looking,” Mark said. He kept not saying much, as if to protect himself from having to admit he’d thought this was a good idea, that it would please her somehow. Cassie hadn’t said anything yet. This was the first time she understood his intentions.

She said, “We haven’t even discussed it,” and looked at Mark, hard. “Like, ever.” He looked angry. But also a little confused.

“Well, what did you think we were coming to Forty-seventh Street for?” Cassie said nothing. “Well, you never know,” Mark said.

“For now I sure do,” Cassie said. She saw how hurt he appeared and she said, “I mean, I think. Assume.” The woman in the wig stared down at her fingers. Clearly this wasn’t a new thing to her, a couple fighting while shopping for rings.

“Perhaps you’d like to consider an emerald instead? For the time being?”

Cassie thought that while she had no interest in an emerald it was at least more likely to be something she’d accept.

Mark turned to the woman.

“You could e-mail me prices later,” he said.

As they were leaving Cassie saw that the booth next to it had little white tags attached to the tray each diamond sat on—a perfect-cut like the one they’d seen was labeled $12,988. They could pay rent for six months for what one of these diamonds cost.

On the subway ride home, Cassie sat staring across the way to an advertisement from the Department of Homeland Security: “If You See Something Say Something,” which had been as ubiquitous as the “Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar” flyers posted to every bulletin board in every sandwich shop near her office in Midtown during that period. She was more likely to pay Dan Smith to teach her guitar than to say something about something she’d seen. What she’d seen this afternoon was delusion from Mark on a scale so immense she didn’t know what to say. She had to say something. The whole thing was so surprising it was as if she hadn’t had time to comment. The obvious thing to say was: I don’t want a ring because I don’t want to marry you. Marry anyone. At one point she almost did say just that, but when she looked at him, ready to speak, his face had color in it again, and he smiled at her and she just looked back down at the copy of MOJO magazine she’d brought with her as if not seeing or saying anything, at the same time.

When they got back to their place she let Mark kiss her neck, let him get her near to the point of orgasm and quickly well past it himself. Then, while he kissed her neck, she brought herself around, too. Then they lay there. Three mosquitoes bobbed by the bed as Mark and Cassie lay naked and lightly covered in grime from a Saturday afternoon in Midtown.

“So did you get a sense of which ring you liked best?”

“It wasn’t like buying a ring,” Cassie said. He asked her what she meant. “It was like building an avatar—this setting, this kind of stone, this color, this metal. Maybe the diamond could help the woman pick out a new hair color. Wasn’t there a time when you could just walk into a store and give them an ungodly sum and you were paying them to figure out what the fuck you wanted?”

Neither of them said anything for quite some time. Mark had his arm draped across his eyes. Cassie watched as one of the mosquitoes landed on his forearm, placed its spindly legs on his skin, dipped its needle, and withdrew what it needed to make eggs. Somewhere on his skin the tiniest oil rig dipped and slurred, blood coagulated and sucked up into its parasite. As it withdrew she saw him jerk a bit. He took his arm from his eyes and started scratching. A not-small part of her felt joy watching him injured by the female of a species.

“You don’t seem all that psyched about it,” Mark said. She wasn’t going to say anything. She thought about how this was by far the longest they’d gone without talking about Emma Goldman in one full year.

“Regardless of how I feel about the insane ambushy trip you just took me on, without asking if I wanted it or even telling me where we were going—where is that kind of money going to come from, Mark? I don’t get it. It takes six months of fact-checking for me to make that kind of money.”

“I’ll find a way,” he said. “That’s what I do. I find a way.” He allowed himself not to respond to the first part of her questioning. Cassie didn’t raise it again, either.


Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Torday