six

 

As a child, Sadie Peregrine hated Sunday afternoons, that languorous period when she was meant to start her homework—the homework she’d been avoiding all weekend—and when she began thinking about the tortures of the week that lay ahead. She much preferred Saturdays, at home with her quiet parents, going to matinees, eating Chinese food, or even Sunday mornings, when the entire Peregrine clan—her “immediate extended family,” as she thought of it—gathered around her parents’ table for breakfast. The best part though, was the early morning, before anyone arrived, when her mother slept in and she and her father had the house to themselves, to read the funny pages aloud and eat contraband doughnuts, before running out to the appetizing store on Lex for sable, whitefish, lox, cream cheese, bialys, bagels, and a half loaf of the thin-sliced black bread favored by Sadie’s grandmother, who lived alone in a sprawling apartment off Fifth, tended to by a silent maid named Gretchen, though for as long as Sadie could remember there’d been talk of moving her into the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, if only they could get the lady to agree, which didn’t seem likely. (“To the Bronx,” she rasped whenever confronted with this idea. “You want me to live in the Bronx? With old people?”)

They would arrive home, lugging brown sacks, and Sadie’s father would put on a pot of coffee—even then, the smell was delicious to her—and bring a cup up to Rose, along with the paper, then return to the kitchen, where he and Sadie would slice tomatoes and onions, wrap the bagels in foil, place them in the oven to warm, and set the dining room table with delicate, gold-rimmed china and thick, white cotton napkins. Sunday was Rose Peregrine’s day off. She emerged from the bedroom just before the first cousins arrived, clad in her weekend costume of wide-legged wool trousers and a dark cashmere sweater (winter), or widelegged linen trousers and a pale silk sweater (summer). At exactly eleven, Peregrine after Peregrine arrived, interrupted by the occasional Goldschlag—usually, Sadie’s aunt Minnie, a stout, white-haired woman, her pale, watery eyes magnified by thick-rimmed glasses—come up from the depths of the Lower East Side, a neighborhood feared by the Peregrines, most of whom lived within blocks of Sadie’s parents (though in recent years a few had defected to the West Side and even, like Sadie, Brooklyn).

For a few hours, while her family ate and argued, Sadie could forget that the following day she’d be thrust into that den of snakes known as school, where the grown-ups loved her and the children hated her. But the moment the last Peregrine departed—inevitably, her bachelor cousin Bruce, who never had anywhere else to be and was a little in love with Rose—she settled into a funk, sick with anxiety.

Now that she was grown, Sadie rarely managed to get uptown early enough to do the shopping with her father, but she never missed breakfast itself, even when she was out late the previous night, and the mere act of getting out of bed seemed as monumental a task as flying up to East Ninety-third Street on the strength of her own arms. Likewise, she still dreaded Sunday afternoons. For she had wound up in a career that carried its own form of homework: the reading of manuscripts, on which she was always, terminally, behind, despite her being—sometimes she thought this her only skill—a pretty quick reader. In the midafternoon, feeling full and sleepy and thirsty (and sometimes drunk), she kissed her parents good-bye and headed home to read the latest coming-of-age tale—for that is what they all were, lately, and all of them set in the Midwest—or memoir of addiction.

Except often the city got the best of her. On sunny days, she might find herself walking down Madison and browsing in the overpriced, awful shops or strolling through the park, eyeing the dogs in the dog run and the families lolling about in the grass. Or her father might suggest a matinee and, well, she had so little time with him lately, how could she refuse? Rainy days, she often wound up at the Met, sitting in an obscure corner and watching the passersby study Chinese pottery or medieval armor or the enormous, frightening canoes of the Pacific Islands, with those grim ancestral faces carved into their prows. Night would fall, all too quickly, and Sadie would hurry home, order a pizza or Chinese, put on her pajamas, and sit on the couch, surrounded by rubber-banded manuscripts, which seemed, in her absence, to have reproduced themselves, like rabbits. But then, at nine, she’d think Masterpiece Theatre—which she and her parents had always watched together, her mother driving her mad with questions (“Is that her fiancé or her brother?”)—and turn on her small television, with its clothes-hanger antennae. Or Tal would call and say “Can I come over?” and of course she would say yes.

Come Monday morning, she’d have nothing read. Though the fact of the matter was Delores didn’t really care these days. She was in her sixties, a holdover from publishing’s slightly less tarnished age, when independent firms, the Knopfs and such, put out serious books and editors didn’t need to seek approval on titles from marketing departments or regional salespeople. Her voice could be heard three offices down, and she dressed in peculiar flowing garments—some invented hybrid of hostess dress, tunic, and caftan—and enormous pendants built around monstrous, irregularly shaped pearls that bubbled and flared in a volcanic manner and left pink indentations in her pale, lined neck.

Forty-odd years earlier, when Delores had found herself a job in the typing pool, their firm was a largish literary house, with a host of well reviewed and popular authors, and a Boston office devoted to books on subjects political and texts for college classes. A sharp-witted, chainsmoking Vassar grad, she’d climbed quickly to the top of the editorial heap, and, in the 1960s, discovered a group of popular and controversial neorealists, heirs to Dreiser’s earnest throne, one of whom became her lover. All this Sadie discovered during her first year with Delores, who went to lunch, two or three times a week, with agents or authors (really: old friends) and returned to the office soused (or, at the very least, relaxed) and wanting to chat. These lunches were, like Delores, a relic of the company’s grand and glorious independent past. A year before Sadie arrived in Delores’s outer office, they’d been gobbled up by a British conglomerate (albeit willingly: the company was bankrupt) and forced to move from their book-lined Union Square offices—rooms in which many of the century’s greatest writers had fretted over galleys—to the media giant’s putty-colored midtown headquarters. (“On the West Side,” Delores complained—a refrain not unfamiliar to the daughter of Rose Peregrine. “I wouldn’t mind so much if we were, at least, on the East Side, where things are civilized.”) Now Delores held court in a boxy room, with wide Venetian blinds and black halogen lamps. She’d tried to bring her old desk—a beautiful oak thing, with grapes carved along the legs—but the corporation wouldn’t have it. No one, they told her, could bring in outside furnishings. Not plants, not lamps, and certainly not desks.

Not surprisingly, Delores—who wore her cedre hair in an archaic puff and covered her watery green eyes with saucer-sized lenses of 1970s vintage—was unhappy with her new digs, despite having successfully dismantled the smoke alarm in her office with a mother-of-pearl-handled letter opener, and converted one of her stainless steel file drawers into a makeshift bar. Over the four years of Sadie’s employment, Delores began coming into work later and later, swaddled in her enormous whiskey mink, and departing earlier and earlier.

In Sadie’s first year, when she’d still been a little nervous around the lady, Delores had greedily insisted on reading most of the submitted manuscripts herself, staying home Fridays to do so, like many editors, and, though she no longer did any serious editing of the few books she took on (“What’s the point? It’s all crap”), she refused to allow Sadie to try her hand at it. But gradually, the tide had turned, so that now Sadie not only did all the reading and editing (drafting letters to authors, in which she outlined changes, which Delores merely signed without so much as glancing at them), but also handled most of the purchasing of manuscripts. It worked like this: A manuscript came in from an agent. Sadie unwrapped it and placed it on Delores’s desk. An hour or a day later the manuscript turned up on Sadie’s desk, a Post-it note stuck to its top, saying “Looks interesting. Pls. read” in Delores’s slanting scrawl. Sadie read the thing—sometimes that night, sometimes weeks later, depending on the urgency surrounding the manuscript in question—and wrote up a report for Delores, leaving manuscript and report on the woman’s desk. An hour or a day later, the thing, once again, landed back on Sadie’s desk, with another Post-it, saying either “I agree.Terrible. Pls. call Liza and say ‘pass.’” or “Yes!!!! Spend up to 50K.Tlk. to Val if nd. more.” Sadie would then call the agent, make an offer, and complete the negotiations. Once the book was bought, it was she who went through it, line by line, and it was she who asked the writers in for coffee or lunch, passing off her edits as Delores’s own.

The authors, Sadie suspected, understood exactly what was going on. And so, she thought, did the other editors. Every year she received a decent raise and Val often stopped her in the hallway and said,“Hey, great work on such and such.”  And now, of course, there was this business with Tuck’s book and her allegedly imminent promotion, which Delores hopefully wouldn’t sabotage in order to keep Sadie permanently installed in her outer office. Delores was prone to fits—temper tantrums of tornadolike proportions—during which she picked on Sadie’s every alleged mistake: the time Sadie accidentally sent a manuscript back to the wrong agent or the time she had the flu and didn’t read a particular novel in time for Delores to bid on it, and the book—wouldn’t you know?—stayed on the bestseller list for two years.

Thus, in the weeks before her promotion was announced—before she at last moved her things quietly out of Delores’s court and trained some poor new girl to take her place—she vowed to avoid even the tiniest error. She would read every manuscript carefully and quickly, as soon as they came in, just in case Delores snapped back to life.

And so it was, that the Sunday after Lil’s party Sadie woke filled with determination. This particular Sunday—of all Sundays—she would simply run uptown, say hello, grab a bagel, and head back home to read. She would tell Tal that he could come over late or the following day, though she’d been aching for him since the previous night, after he’d run off with Dave without even kissing her good-bye. She’d have an hour on the train, each way, which would be good reading time, and then most of the afternoon and evening (No PBS, she told herself sternly). She would not fall prey to her mother’s protestations—“Sadie, you haven’t seen my new tablecloth!” “Sadie, tell me what you think about this dress,” “Sadie, I don’t want any leftovers, eat another chub”—nor would she drink any wine, even if her cousin Bruce brought something nice. She was tired enough from the party, or, really, from dinner with Beth. They’d talked for hours, parting with a long hug and a promise to do the same again soon, and Sadie had left convinced that Will Chase was all right, that she would love him, as Beth did. She hated that Beth had felt Sadie needed convincing. Why had she said all that about Will months back? Beth would always think Sadie skeptical of her marriage.

And she would, she thought, lying in bed, willing herself to get up and into the shower, she would give him a chance, so as not to let some strange distance develop between herself and Beth, as it had between her and Lil—though they wouldn’t admit it—because she had never quite warmed to Tuck, though there was, of course, still time. Then, like a shot, her head cleared and the party unfolded before her. Tuck. Why should she warm to Tuck when he had spent a whole evening—a party thrown for him by his wife, to celebrate his success, which Sadie herself had orchestrated—hidden away in his own bedroom with Caitlin Green, of all people.  Was Tuck having an affair with Caitlin Green? No, it didn’t seem possible. Caitlin was just so awful. No. No. People just didn’t do things like that anymore. They were too busy checking their email or what have you. She glanced at the clock. Nine o’clock. If she got out of the house in half an hour, she’d have time to walk by that optician’s shop at Eighty-first and Lex and see if it was open for a couple of hours on Sunday, like it used to be. The ache behind her eyes was worse.

Just then the phone rang, and Sadie, without thinking, answered, expecting to hear Tal’s voice, or perhaps her mother’s, on the line. She found, instead, Caitlin Green. “Sadie?” she said, in an odd, muffled voice.  “I need you to come meet me this morning.”

Oh, you do, thought Sadie. “Um, I’m afraid I have plans this morning,” she said, tucking the phone between her shoulder and her ear, and padding to the kitchen. And you’re the last person I’d break them for.

“Look,we need to talk,” insisted Caitlin, in tones verging on a whine.

“About what?” said Sadie, with a dismayed sigh. If Caitlin was calling her, then nothing good could have happened in that bedroom the previous night.

“You know,” said Caitlin. “Listen, I only have a minute. Rob just went to get the paper. Could you come over this morning?”

Sadie quickly calculated that she could leave her parents by one-ish, spend an hour with Caitlin—an hour with Caitlin!—and be home by three-thirty. But maybe it would be better to just get it out of the way, then try to make it up to her parents for the end of breakfast.

“Fine,” she said, sighing. “I’ll meet you at Oznot’s in an hour.”

“No,” said Caitlin. No? thought Sadie. I’m doing what you want! “Just come here. I don’t want anyone to hear us talking.”

“Fine,” said Sadie, and scribbled down the address in her planner.  With dread, she called her parents and told them—they were quite put out—that she’d probably have to miss breakfast. An hour later, she pushed open the door to Caitlin’s building, a lobby-less tenement, its floor and stairs covered in split linoleum, patterned to resemble bricks and mortar, curling away at the walls’ edges. The air inside this little passageway smelled of oil and cabbage. Sadie, sweat pricking at her underarms, began a slow ascent to the fourth floor.

With much clanking and clacking of locks, Caitlin opened the metal door to the apartment and propped it with her foot.  A large black dog with a diamond-shaped head and small piggy eyes snuffled asthmatically at her bare feet, its muscular tail thwacking loudly on some unseen object.  Caitlin’s toenails were painted a flat metallic blue, the polish flaking slightly at the rims. Such colors—blue, green, smoke gray—were popular that year, but Sadie thought they looked like mold. “Hi,” Caitlin said.  “Come in. Do you want a cup of coffee? I’m just making some.” Sadie squeezed past Caitlin, stepping awkwardly over the hound and into the apartment. “Sure,” said Sadie, looking around her, as Caitlin repeated the loud rigmarole with the locks and chains.

The front door led into a nice-sized kitchen, with the sort of flimsy, off-brand stove and fridge you saw in every rental in the city, a gleaming new butcher-block counter, and a few shiny wire shelves screwed into the wall above it. A Soviet propaganda poster hung gloomily above the kitchen table, which appeared to be another piece of butcher block, with legs—of unfinished, jaundiced pine—nailed into its corners. On this table and on the wire shelves sat bottles and bottles of vitamins and herbal tonics, outlines of large capsules just visible behind the amber glass. The shelves also held dozens of boxes of soy milk in different flavors, and cloudy plastic bags of rice and beans. In a far corner, three tall paper canisters of something—Sadie stepped closer to make out the words—called “Spiru-tein.” The sort of stuff, Sadie thought, that athletes take to enhance their performances. But Caitlin, with her dark circles and her pallor, didn’t quite look the athlete, and a pack of American Spirits sat on the table. The dog came over and shoved his head between Sadie’s knees. She reached down and petted the creature, running her hand along its short, coarse fur. “What’s his name?” asked Sadie.

“Mumia,” Caitlin told her, fiddling with the coffee machine, a German drip.

“Mumia?” Sadie repeated.

“Yeah, you know, Mumia Abu-Jamal?”

“Yes,” Sadie said. “I know.” She seated herself at the kitchen table, though Caitlin seemed dead intent on letting her stand for the entirety of their interview.

“He was a stray,” Caitlin explained. Of course he was, thought Sadie acidly, though she herself was against purchasing pets, when there were thousands of unwanted ones in the city’s shelters. “We found him tied up under the bridge, completely covered in blood, and brought him home.”

“But he’s okay?” asked Sadie, inspecting the dog, who was sweet, sweeter than he looked, for scars.

“He’s fine. But he infested the place with fleas.”

Sadie immediately withdrew her hand from the dog, who let out a long whimper and settled, heavily, by her feet. “Really,” she said.

“Don’t worry,”Caitlin told her.  “We bombed. There are still some in the bed—they like warm places—but the rest of the house is clean.”

“Oh, good,” said Sadie.

“He’s a great dog,” Caitlin continued. “He’s in love with the little Chihuahua downstairs. Did you see her?” Sadie shook her head. “Mrs. Jimenez brought her up from Puebla. She was quarantined for, like, three months. Did you meet them when you came in?” Before Sadie could answer, she went on, “They’re the nicest family. A mother and father, and eight daughters . . .” Breathlessly—while Sadie irritably wondered whether or not the coffee machine was actually brewing coffee, for it was ominously silent—Caitlin proceeded to provide a comprehensive history of the building’s inhabitants, their ailments and financial problems, and the various ways in which Caitlin and Rob had helped them out at one time or another. The third floor housed a Chinese family. The first had, until recently, been the home of a second Mexican family. But this clan had mysteriously—to Caitlin’s mind—moved out. Caitlin and Rob suspected the landlord of reporting the family, all here illegally, to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in order to have them deported, thus leaving the apartment empty and allowing him to rent it for three times the price. Last week he had finished remodeling it and yesterday the new tenants had moved in. “Some hipsters,” Caitlin scoffed.

Just two years earlier, this specific section of Williamsburg (east of Bedford, but west of the BQE) had offered deliriously cheap rents: rundown apartments for $300 or $400 per month, nicer ones for $700 or $800. Now, Caitlin said—as if Sadie wasn’t aware of this—the area was being gentrified at warp speed. Developers had broken ground on two new apartment complexes, one two doors down, on the site of an old chicken processing plant, the other a block or so down Havemeyer Street, next to Will Chase’s building (or, really,Will and Beth’s building, since Beth had pretty much moved in), which was itself a fairly new structure, home to white professionals. The Latino families—most from Puebla, some from the Dominican Republic—who had occupied the area in recent decades were being pushed out. Landlords who hadn’t replaced a sink or stove in years were now hiring laborers—the same Mexicans, Caitlin said, who were being pushed out of their homes—and putting granite counters and steel appliances into the old railroad flats and charging $1,800 for them.

“And how long have you lived here?” asked Sadie, glancing at the gleaming butcher-block counter.

Caitlin paused and wrinkled her brow before responding. “Since last June, so about a year. Which makes us old-timers in the neighborhood.” Caitlin gave Sadie a meaningful look. “The place is filled with trust-fund kids who moved here, like, a week ago. All the old Italian ladies are being forced out. It makes me so sad.”

In the years since graduating, Caitlin had acquired the raspy, cigarette-tinged voice of a fifty-year-old alcoholic. It was hard to believe that in her early, enthusiastic college days, she’d sung with Nothing But Treble, an all-female a cappella group that wandered around campus, subjecting passersby to high-pitched renditions of Edie Brickell and Suzanne Vega songs. Before long, though, Caitlin had fallen under the spell of Hortense James, the English department’s lone radical feminist, and made herself over in her idol’s image, lopping her hair into a severe bob, and donning men’s shirts and work boots with her long skirts. She stopped singing (too frivolous, presumably), dropped her boyfriend—a short, hirsute person who had no compunctions about publicly displaying his affection for her—and announced that she was bisexual. But the queer contingent on campus—whose circles overlapped with Sadie’s—had regarded Caitlin with suspicion, and she generally could be found with the little group of strange, sad-eyed girls she’d gathered together as comrades, presumably because none of them fit into any of the campus’s larger social circles.  They were timid or angry persons, all underweight or overweight, with out-of-date eyeglass frames and odd nicknames like Kitten or Poodle or Candy and real names that seemed more suited to those in middle age, like Judith or Peggy or Trish. If they took acting classes, they did scenes from The Glass Menagerie or Our Town. If they took creative writing classes, they turned in stories about old ladies in small Southern towns making horehound candy (famously, the one called “Poodle,” had inspired George Wadsworth, Sadie’s mentor, to say, “The first sentence of a short story should convey an emotion. Cute is not an emotion”). They sat in the nonsmoking section of the snack bar, drank hot chocolate, studied on the library’s second floor, among piles of brightly colored cushions and “womb” chairs, attended “Early Eighties Night” at the Disco, obtained their meals from the campus’s stale dining halls, and, come weekends, ate pizza at Lombardi’s, which served fluffy, buttery pies reminiscent of those available at Pizza Hut. Sadie and her friends sat in the smoking section of the snack bar (even if they didn’t smoke), drank coffee, studied in the library’s basement lounges or in private scholar studies on the third-floor gallery, brought their mentors to the Disco on Friday afternoon for “professor beer,” ate their meals at co-ops, and ordered stromboli from Uncle John’s, a Chicago-style hole-in-the-wall staffed by aging punks.

“Coffee’ll be ready in a sec,” said Caitlin, placing a pastel box of soy milk on the table. “We’re vegan,” she announced. Sadie, of course, had heard all about Caitlin’s eating habits from Lil, who thought Caitlin and Rob were pathological about food. Caitlin sat down in the chair next to Sadie, perhaps a little too close.

“Wow. Vegan,” said Sadie. When, she wondered, is she going to come to the point? The coffee machine began to sputter, thankfully, and Caitlin jumped up and grabbed two brown, earthenware mugs from an open rack by the room’s lone window.

“You know, meat stays in the colon for up to a week,” Caitlin was saying. “It’s disgusting, when you think about it, and it explains why you feel so heavy after you eat a steak. Here’s coffee.” She placed a mug in front of Sadie. “Sorry I don’t have any sugar.  We’re trying not to eat it, at all. It’s addictive, you know.”

Unlike coffee, thought Sadie, taking a sip. It was weak and sour, but she said “Thanks” and poured in some soy milk, which rose to the top in mealy chunks.

“Listen, Caitlin,” she began, interrupting an explanation of different types of intestinal flora.

“I know, I know,” Caitlin broke in. “Lil’s your friend, I’m not. You’re on her side.” She glanced petulantly at Sadie. “I know you never liked me.”

Oh, let’s not do this, thought Sadie. “None of you did,” Caitlin continued, staring intently at Sadie over the rim of her mug. “I was too political for you. Too radical. I made you uncomfortable.” Sadie struggled not to laugh. Caitlin seemed to believe that reading bell hooks made her a radical.

“Not really,” she said, taking a tentative sip of coffee, which the soy milk had done little to improve. “That’s kind of . . . extreme, isn’t it? I—we—maybe didn’t agree with you about everything, but we weren’t apolitical.”

“Yeah, well, you weren’t out protesting the Gulf War either.”

“You’re wrong,” Sadie retorted, a bit too sharply. “Emily, Lil, Dave, and Tal all went to the Washington march. And Beth didn’t go because she was glued to the television. She had friends in Israel. She was obviously worried about them.” She paused and took a breath. Why was she defending herself when she’d done nothing wrong?  Caitlin pursed her lips and nodded her head.

Israel,” she spat. “Of course she was worried about her friends in Israel.”

“What’s your point?” asked Sadie, then thought better of it. “You know, forget it. The point is—”

The dog raised himself creakily to his feet and began licking Sadie’s bare knee with a warm tongue.

“Mumia,” shouted Caitlin. “No!” The dog lay down, with another whimper, and placed his head atop his paws. “Sorry,” she told Sadie,“he’s not really trained.”

“Um, that’s okay,” said Sadie, reaching down to stroke the poor beast’s head. She was beginning to feel she had slipped down the rabbit hole.  “Listen, Caitlin,” she began, again, “this was ages ago. You and Lil are friends now. Why rehash this?”

“Because,” Caitlin said slowly, in her careful way. Sadie was now beginning to wonder if she had, indeed, rehearsed all this.  “You made me feel terrible about myself. By existing? Sadie thought.  What had she ever done to this girl? It was true, though, she’d always felt the peculiar heat of Caitlin’s resentment, from the first time they’d met, as freshmen in a low-level English class. Each time Sadie spoke in discussion, Caitlin made a self-conscious little noise—a “hrumph” or a “huh”—as though she couldn’t believe Sadie was passing off such bullshit as insight and she wanted the class to know that she, Caitlin Green, wasn’t buying it.

“I’m sorry,” said Sadie flatly. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings—”

“Right, right, right. Because you just didn’t think about me at all.”

Sadie flushed. This was true. But she’d rather Caitlin speak honestly, she thought, than make these grand statements about politics.

“Caitlin—” Sadie began, but the girl cut her off, thrusting her pointy little chin forward.

“No, no,” she said, her voice rising, “I thought about you all the time. I was so jealous of you. It’s funny, right?”

Sadie flushed again, her face—she knew—turning from pink to red.  “That’s insane,” she said, in a voice that was harder than she liked, because she, curiously, had lost all sympathy for Caitlin—which made her realize that she’d actually had sympathy for her when the conversation started.  “Why would you be jealous of me—of us?”

“Because everything was easy for you. And you had everything: men following you around, the right clothes, the right vocabulary.” Oh, please, thought Sadie. Caitlin’s parents, she knew, were academics of one sort or another. There was nothing wrong with her vocabulary. She was trying to flatter Sadie into friendship, to guilt or shame her into, as she’d said, being “on her side” rather than Lil’s. But then she was a bit flattered, wasn’t she? How could she not be, she who’d been friendless as a kid?  Sadie had not thought herself “popular” or “cool” in college—and she had pretended that Oberlin society was immune to such classifications—but there was something thrilling, wasn’t there, about the possibility that she had been part of some coveted elite? And there was something shaming about finding this possibility thrilling. All of which, she realized, Caitlin knew. She frowned and pushed her coffee away.

“Why don’t we go into the living room?” said Caitlin suddenly, as if she’d just remembered that such a room existed.

“Sure,” said Sadie, and followed Caitlin and Mumia down a dark little corridor—past a sunny nook, in which a brand-new iMac sat on a built-in desk, and an alcove, of sorts, that held a double bed, covered with an Indian-print fabric—into a bright, pleasant room,with two large windows overlooking Metropolitan’s little commercial strip: a bar, a Thai restaurant, a car service, an ancient hairdresser’s shop, and a host of boarded-up storefronts. On one wall stood two tall glass-fronted bookcases filled with political and theoretical tracts: Marx and Engels and Guy Debord and Gramsci and Chomsky. On the opposite sat a large, blondwood-framed futon, on which rested three enormous cats: one on each end of the seat and a third stretched along the top of the backrest. With their legs tucked under them, their breasts puffed out, and expressions of superiority etched on their round faces, they resembled giant pigeons.

“You’re not allergic, are you?” Caitlin asked.

“No,” said Sadie, seating herself between a tabby and an orange tom.  “I love cats.”  The large rug below, she saw, was clogged with fur, a pale, fibrous layer thick enough to obscure the carpet’s pattern. The dog settled down on it, oblivious to or uninterested in the cats, and Caitlin yawned, folding herself into a metal-framed leather side chair, reflexively pulling a cigarette out of a second crumpled pack, which lay on the chair’s arm. The soles of her feet, Sadie saw, were gray with grime.

I’m actually allergic. I get shots every week. And I have an inhaler.”

The girls looked at each other.

“So,” said Caitlin, impotently flicking a small Bic lighter. Her cigarette was still unlit. “Tuck and I are in love.”

Sadie hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath—but she had and now she was able to release it, though her heart began to beat faster with anxiety. This was not, of course, good news, but first of all, she doubted its truth, and second, she was relieved that they’d simply arrived at the point. Though Caitlin had not, Sadie noted, come out and said that she and Tuck were sleeping together.  Was it possible that they weren’t?  No, Sadie thought, it wasn’t.

“Oh,” she said. “Really.”

“Mmm-hmmm,” said Caitlin. “I mean, Rob is incredible. He completely takes care of me. It’s like, he even makes sure I take my medication. But he has this problem”—she leaned in toward Sadie, suggesting in her demeanor that she and Sadie were of like minds, that Sadie would surely understand what she was about to impart—“because he worships me, we can’t have that kind of animal, rip-each-other’s-clothes-off sex. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” said Sadie, wondering if this was the truth or not. Did she? Or had she simply read about it?  “And with Tuck—”

“It’s amazing,” said Caitlin.

“Oh,” said Sadie, idly petting the brown cat to her left. She could not, somehow, imagine Caitlin and Tuck in the throes of passion. Perhaps because she didn’t want to, or perhaps because every gesture of Caitlin’s was so calculated, so measured, that it was difficult to envision her giving herself over to anyone, and particularly not to moody Tuck. Why, why would Tuck do this? With Caitlin? Lil, Sadie thought reflexively, is so much prettier. She suddenly remembered that line from the end of The Locusts Have No King, when Dodo runs off with Larry. “Funny, how often it’s the wife who’s the good-looking one,” the secretary says, or something like that.

“And Rob—” Sadie began, her tongue feeling thick and strange in her mouth.

“He knew I was a feminist when he married me,” said Caitlin, impatiently waving a hand. “And he’s a feminist, too. He knows that marriage is, by definition, a misogynist construct.” Then why did you get married? thought Sadie. “I mean marriage, historically, is all about keeping ‘woman’ in a secondary role. Did you know that in traditional Jewish weddings vows the woman says—” Sadie tuned out. She’d heard all this before, as had anyone who’d gone to college in the past three decades. Caitlin’s spin on it seemed to be that before birth control, marriage was a way of keeping a woman constant, while men could sleep with whomever they wanted. Now, of course, things were equal, and women could seek pleasure just as men did. “The thing is,” said Caitlin, returning to the personal, “no one man is ever going to satisfy a woman.  Women are too complicated. They need different men for different occasions.”

“Isn’t that kind of essentialist?” Why am I even bothering? thought Sadie. But before she could think better of it, she said, “And what occasions do you need Tuck for? Funerals? Gallery openings?” This was exactly what Caitlin wanted from her. Dramatic accusations.

“Sadie,” Caitlin said. It was the first time, Sadie realized, that Caitlin had uttered her name. She hated the sound of it in Caitlin’s mouth, as though the girl was claiming ownership of it, like those overstuffed, unsmiling cats had claimed the couch. “Life,” she said, pausing dramatically after this word. “Is. Complicated. You know what my friends and I used to call you in college?” Sadie’s heart began to beat faster. It was rare, she’d found, for people to tell you what they truly thought of you, and she’d long ago left off caring. But now, somehow, she found herself anxious, and terrified, to hear what Caitlin had to say, even though she knew this was just another ploy—no more the truth than anything else.

“What?” she asked.

Caitlin smiled. She had been waiting, Sadie saw, for this moment.

“Princess White Bread.”

Sadie laughed, though she wasn’t sure it was funny. “I’m Jewish,” she said. “And my family tends toward pumpernickel.”

Caitlin cocked her head patronizingly. “You’d never know it. It didn’t bother you that Pound was a fascist.” Junior year, Sadie remembered, they’d had Wadsworth’s British Modernism together and Sadie, yes, had argued that great art transcends the politics and biography of the artist, that such details are parochial and irrelevant. In truth, she didn’t care much for Pound. She found his poetry flimsy and pointless. She was more of an Eliot person, but to mention this was to raise the issue of Eliot’s anti-Semitism, which she certainly didn’t want to do.

“Yes, well,” she said, with a smile. “You know, ‘every woman adores a fascist.’”

“Funny,” said Caitlin, though Sadie wasn’t sure she got the reference.  “That’s actually a really dangerous statement, don’t you think? Basically condoning violence against women, right? But I guess from your little white tower everything is a big joke. Life seems very simple and clean, right? But it’s not.” Her voice was growing shrill. “It’s messy and dirty. Things happen. People have needs.”

Caitlin,” Sadie snapped, unconsciously falling into her mother’s practiced society drawl. She was furious, suddenly, furious with Caitlin for getting a rise out of her, and furious with herself for falling prey to Caitlin’s traps. “Is that really all sex is to you?” she asked, her heart racing now, adrenaline making her ears hum. “A need. Like scratching an itch. That’s depressing.”

Caitlin shook her head and sucked in her lips—a carefully arranged look of deep sadness. “No.” She smiled broadly, which had the strange effect of making her face appear genuinely sad. “I love him.” Perhaps, Sadie thought, Caitlin did truly love Tuck. And why not? He was handsome—though Sadie didn’t find him attractive per se—and smart. She couldn’t quite explain why he irked her so. Sometimes she worried that the problem was hers, that she was the difficult one. Then, of course, she remembered why she was there and her sympathies disappeared.

“And I know he won’t leave Lil. He loves her, he really does, but he feels like he’s failed her, which makes him kind of hate her, you know?” Sadie wished that this was not true, but she feared that it was.

“And I hate to say it,” Caitlin continued, “because I love Lil, but it’s kind of her fault.”

“Oh, really,” said Sadie, her anger rising again.

“She just has such conventional ideas about marriage. She thinks Tuck isn’t supposed to look at another woman, or find anyone else in the world attractive, which is just impossible. And she has this, like, Depression-era work ethic. She’s totally hung up on productivity. She can never just relax. So, if he’s lying on the couch, thinking, she gets furious with him. And he feels castrated. So he acts out, against her, to prove her wrong.” She lit her cigarette now and sat back in her chair.

Sadie looked down at her lap and saw that she’d clenched her hands into fists—turning her knuckles yellow and grotesque. The cats stared at her, their yellow eyes still and knowing.  Was there—there was—the faint smell of cat pee coming from the animals? Or, no, the couch itself. She shifted uncomfortably. There was nowhere else to sit, other than the floor.  “So she knows,” she said.

Caitlin shook her head, blowing thin trails of smoke through her nose.  “No,” she said. And for a moment, she appeared to study Sadie, deciding whether to continue. “You know, it’s not just me,” she said. “For a while, he had a thing with this waitress at a coffee shop by his office. I don’t know if he actually did anything with her, but he used to go there, just to see her.  And there was this woman he was seeing right before Lil, who he was totally in love with, but she had a boyfriend and wouldn’t sleep with him.  After he and Lil got married, she broke up with her boyfriend and started calling Tuck.” She tapped her ash into her coffee mug. “Women love him.”

Sadie considered this, unsure what to say. “You’re right,” she responded finally. “Life is complicated.” Caitlin nodded enthusiastically. “But you”—she could feel the anger rising within her and struggled to tamp it down—“are making your own life more complicated than it needs to be. I just, I don’t understand. Why did you marry Rob if you weren’t going to be faithful to him? Why get married at all?”

Caitlin frowned. “I didn’t think of it in those terms. Faithful or unfaithful. Those are bourgeois terms. I thought of it in terms of value. Utilitarianism, you know? Marrying me would make Rob really happy. And it would make me happy, too. And I knew that no man would ever make me completely happy, so why not choose one who would make me mostly happy.”

Money, Sadie thought suddenly. Rob was wealthy, wasn’t he? Very wealthy, if his little speech the previous night was any indication: only the very rich spoke disparagingly of the compromised values of the somewhat rich. Did she marry him for money? she thought. Did people do that anymore? Rose’s voice insinuated itself in her head: Don’t be stupid, Sadie.  Of course people do that. All the time.

“I guess I just thought that you would understand all this,” said Caitlin, pouting in a manner that, in a different set of circumstances, might have been dubbed flirtatious. Sadie dropped her face into her moist hands. This was too, too much. She thought of her family, drinking dark, thick coffee from her mother’s set of mismatched Limoges, of her old cat George, asleep on his tattered red pillow, waiting to be fed scraps of salmon and leftover cream. She should be there now.

Caitlin,” she said, almost choking on the name, “the way I see it, if one is going to devote one’s life to social justice—to challenging the status quo and trying to make the world a better place—one needs to start by living an ethical life. By being honest with oneself and trying not to hurt others.” Sadie had not quite known that she thought this until she said it, and with a pang she wondered how honest she was with herself—and how many others she’d hurt, if only in small ways.

Caitlin compressed her full lips and nodded. “You think I’m hurting other people?” she said in a small voice that, too, sounded practiced.

Sadie suppressed a laugh. “Well, you’re cheating on your husband. I’m assuming he doesn’t know. Right?” Caitlin nodded.  Suddenly Sadie had a terrible thought: she needed to tell Lil. It was her responsibility, wasn’t it?  She pushed this thought away.

“And Tuck isn’t the first”—as she said this, she knew it to be true—“right?”

Caitlin nodded again.

“So you’re cheating on your husband, first of all, with the husband of a person you allegedly love.”

Caitlin pursed her lips again. “Your logic only works,” she said, “if you buy into the bourgeois approach to marriage, which is positively medieval.” A childish rage overtook Sadie. She feared she might burst into tears from frustration.

“What other approach to marriage is there?” she said, her voice cracking. “Marriage is marriage. It means pledging yourself to one person.  If you don’t believe in marriage, then you shouldn’t have gotten married.” She stood up, brushed the cat hair off her skirt—or tried to—and walked to the window. The sky, blue when she arrived, had clouded over. “You know, you’re right.  Tuck isn’t going to leave Lil for you,” she said, her voice low and threatening. “He’s not.”

“I know,” said Caitlin coolly.

“Good,” replied Sadie. She snatched a cigarette from Caitlin’s pack and stuck it in her mouth. “Then stop seeing him. Just drop Lil and Tuck as friends. Move on.”

“I can’t. Our lives are intertwined. Rob and Tuck are really close. It would be unfair to Rob.”

Sadie lit her cigarette. “He’ll get over it. You’re missing the point. You need to end this.”  Caitlin started to speak but Sadie raised her voice. “You, you need to listen to me. You need to stop justifying your actions with this political rhetoric.  When you get down to brass tacks”—ah, there was Rose, creeping in again—“you’re just an ordinary woman who’s cheating on her husband and deceiving her friend. You’re not some renegade subverting ‘conventional ideas about marriage.’  You’re not glamorous. You’re not Erica Jong—who’s an idiot, anyway—or Germaine Greer or Simone de Beauvoir.  You’re not empowering yourself, you’re degrading yourself. It’s pathetic. You’re selfish.  You’re just selfish.” Caitlin’s olive complexion paled and Sadie felt her skin grow even hotter. Her outburst sprung less out of fealty to Lil, she suspected, than general anger with Caitlin. This embarrassed her, this urge to reform Caitlin, who faintly repulsed her, with her unwashed feet and searching eyes. But there was something attractive about her, something that made Sadie want to help her, however slightly, even as she knew she was being played by her. The girl was clearly unhappy—miserable—caught in some pathetic mythology she’d devised for herself. A bit like Lil, Sadie supposed. “If you don’t believe in marriage—or if Rob isn’t right for you, if you don’t love him enough, or whatever”—she hated this word, where had it come from?—“then get a divorce and be alone. Learn to take your own medication.”

To Sadie’s surprise, Caitlin nodded soberly. Her face had returned to its normal color.  “You’re right,” she said. She took a third cigarette. Smoking, Sadie realized, that’s how she lost all that weight. “I guess I read so much theory. I write so much about symbolic actions that I think about my life as a novel, kind of. Like in Passing, that Nella Larsen novel? Have you read that?” Sadie nodded. She had. She’d liked it, too.

“That’s my period,” said Caitlin. “The twenties and thirties. Harlem Renaissance. There are all these novels where the heroine liberates herself by smoking and drinking and having wild sex.”

“What happens at the end?” she asked, though she knew the answer. The heroine of Passing throws herself out a window.

“Well.” Caitlin laughed. “Usually she dies, actually. Society has no place for her.”

“Does she get caught?” asked Sadie.

“Hmmm. I’m not sure. I’ve never thought about it.”

I bet, thought Sadie. “The reason I ask is,” she said mildly, “I guess I sometimes wonder if people have affairs in order to get caught.” Caitlin stared up at her, rapt, her mouth open in a sort of O. “I mean, like last night. Why did you need to go off into the bedroom? Lil could have walked in.”

“We had to talk,” admitted Caitlin. “And Lil almost did walk in. It was a close call.” She smiled. “We keep having them lately. Tuck says it’s a sign that we need to stop.” Sadie’s cigarette had burned down and she had no place to put it. Spent, she sank back into the couch, breathing deeply of cat urine. The cigarette had made her head throb and she needed to use the bathroom. “Last week,we were on the couch, right there—” Caitlin pointed to the ginger cat,who had now gone to sleep, thrumming like a cricket. “Where Shiva’s sitting. And we’d just had an argument, actually, about how we needed to stop . . . doing this . . . But then.  Well,we can’t be in the same room with each other without—”

“Yes, yes,” said Sadie, waving her hand to fend off elaboration. “All of a sudden, we hear these loud footsteps stomping up the stairs.  At first, I was confused, because, you know, we’re on the top floor. No one comes up here except us. But then it occurred to me that, you know, Rob’s not the most popular guy. He has an FBI file like this thick.” She held her fingers a few inches apart. “He’s doing some stuff, like, really advance stuff for this huge thing in November. And his other big project right now, I can’t really talk about it, but it’s this big protest against one of the biggies.”

“The biggies?”

“Top of the Fortune 500. More powerful than the government. Truly evil. Rob is organizing this whole thing with the Rainforest Action Network and the anarchist collective. Protests all over the country,with street theater and all sorts of stuff. They’re going to, like, burn an effigy of the CEO.”

“Wow,” said Sadie, though this didn’t sound particularly effective to her.

“So I’m thinking, this is the FBI or something, coming looking for Rob. I’d been half expecting it for a while. And then I start thinking, what if Rob is doing stuff that I don’t know about. He’s really into guerrilla tactics and he reads obsessively about the Weathermen and Abbie Hoffman and SLA and all that. Some of the people he works with are really hard-core ecowarrior types. They’re like chaining themselves to trees and dismantling logging equipment and blowing up generators and all that. Anyway, we’re, like, naked and there’s this pounding at the door.  And two seconds later these guys are shouting, ‘Open up. This is the United States government.’ You wouldn’t believe it. I mean, it was unbelievable. And Tuck completely freaked out. He just pulled his . . . pulled himself together and ran into the bathroom. It was unbelievable.”

Sadie could, rather easily, believe it. The scene unfurled in her mind in the manner Caitlin had suggested: like a movie. Tuck peering at his face in the bathroom mirror, clearing his head, so as to form a smile for the intruders, whoever they might be. Caitlin tumbling off the couch and pulling on a stained kimono, a few strands of hair rising from her head. She wondered how much Caitlin was embellishing.

“It really seemed like they were going to break down the door, but I put my robe on, finally, and opened it and this pig flashed me his badge and said—just like on Law & Order”—here Caitlin lowered her voice and approximated a Brooklyn accent—“‘Agent Connelly.’ Irish! How cliched is that? And then the other guy—there were two of them, in normal clothing, suits—whips out his badge and says, ‘United States —’”

Sadie finished her sentence for her:“Immigration and Naturalization Service.”

“Mmm-hmmm.” Caitlin said. “How did you know?”

Sadie shrugged. “Just a hunch.”

“They were here for the family downstairs. Mr. and Mrs. Jimenez. Can you believe it?” Shaking her head—the relief, apparently, was still vivid—she picked another cigarette out of the pack and contemplated it. “The weird thing is: Mr. and Mrs. Jimenez are legal.They have green cards.”

“Strange,” admitted Sadie. “Could they be fake?”

“Do you think?” asked Caitlin. “I suppose.”

“So, what happened?” asked Sadie.

“Well, at first they thought I was Mrs. Jimenez. I mean I have dark hair and I’m kind of tan right now, so it’s not such a stretch, I guess. I told them that I wasn’t, of course, and explained that they had the wrong apartment, but then, as I was talking, I realized that I wasn’t going to send these bastards to the Jimenezes’ place, either, so they could take them all out to some INS prison—those places are just, like, hotbeds of human rights violations, you know—and ship them back to Mexico. So I said I didn’t know of any Jimenez living in the building. And then they got very suspicious and asked to see my ID. I got my wallet and showed them my driver’s license, and my ID cards from Cornell and Oberlin, which I still have, and my faculty card from LaGuardia, and they seemed to believe that I was who I said I was.” She laughed. “A CUNY prof. Boring as shit.”

Yes, Sadie thought, it would be so much more exciting to be Mrs. Jimenez from Puebla, living in a three-room apartment with nine other people.

“They asked who else lived here and I said, ‘My husband,’ and they asked for his name, and I was just like, Why do they need his name? He’s not here. So I asked them, and they got all suspicious again and said, ‘For the record.’ And I didn’t know what to do. So I told them. And two seconds later, Tuck came out of the bathroom to make sure everything was okay.”

She pressed her lips together. Her cigarette, still unlit, was growing moist between her fingers. “He was worried about me.”

“I’m sure,” said Sadie.

“The first guy, the Irish guy, was such an asshole. He just kind of smirked and said, ‘I presume this isn’t your husband.’ But the other guy—he was black—just looked really uncomfortable, and he was like, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ And they left.”

“Wow,” said Sadie.

“Yeah,” Caitlin sighed. She pawed, bluntly, at her eyes and yawned.

“So what happened?” asked Sadie. “With your neighbors.”

“Oh, right.” Caitlin sat up and lit her cigarette. “Nothing. They weren’t home. But the Feds are clearly watching them. There’s always a policeman on the corner now. And look out the window.” Sadie looked.  In front of the hairdresser’s sat a plain, navy blue sedan. “An unmarked car,” said Caitlin, raising her brows darkly. “They come every day at noon.  And they’re there when I go to bed.”

“Is it noon?” asked Sadie, alarmed.

“It’s one,” Caitlin said.

“Oh my God.” Sadie sprang up. “I’m sorry. I have to go. I actually have to work today.”

“Why don’t you stay for lunch?” Caitlin jumped up, too, a caricature of a concerned hostess. “Are you hungry?”

“No, no.” Sadie struggled to remember where she’d left her bag.

“I was going to make a big tofu scramble. It’s really great. We have fresh coriander, from our roof garden.”

“Sorry,” said Sadie. She walked to the threshold of the hallway, hoping Caitlin would stand up and follow suit. “I can’t eat tofu.” She smiled.  “Had too much of it in college.”

“Oh my God,” said Caitlin. “Me, too.”

“Then why are you making it?” asked Sadie, unable to contain her impatience. Caitlin shrugged and slunk down in her chair, childlike.

“I need protein.” She shrugged. “You have to be really careful, being vegan, you know.”

“But”—Don’t, Sadie told herself, just don’t ask—“why are you vegan?”

“Rob feels really strongly about it.”  Caitlin lit the cigarette. “It’s political.  We’re opposed to factory farming and genetically modified food. It’s complicated. Though I ate anything before I met him. I knew I shouldn’t, but I did. I kind of lack discipline.”  The ginger cat, just then, jumped off the couch with a loud thwop and ran into the kitchen, releasing a larger dose of the ammonia smell. In the spot where she’d sat, Sadie saw a dark, wet stain. She had to get out of this place immediately.

“Couldn’t you just tell him that you don’t like it?” she snapped.  “Has it ever occurred to you that if you tried to make your life with Rob a little more . . . fun, you might not need Tuck. Or someone like Tuck.”

“What do you mean?” asked Caitlin, her brows knitting together.  Sadie looked straight at Caitlin.

“Well, it’s just, if you make every single choice in your life based on how that choice affects the entire world, then you never get to have any fun.”

An odd look had taken hold of Caitlin’s face, something between an angry pout and a baleful grin. “What do you mean exactly?” She doesn’t want Tuck to leave Lil, Sadie realized. She likes her life just the way it is.

“Well, if you don’t want to eat tofu, then don’t,” said Sadie, exasperated.  “Go out and eat a cheeseburger.” She paused, knowing that she sounded ridiculous, like her own mother. “Take a long bath. Get dressed up. Go out to dinner. Go to Oznot’s or go into Manhattan and go somewhere really nice. Take a walk along the river at night. Just do things for the sake of doing them together. And read a novel just because you want to. Something not from your period.”

Caitlin protested. “The problem is I don’t have time. I’m teaching freshman comp and it’s, like, all these dead white guys—”

“I know, I know, but I mean you should read something just for pleasure.  Before you go to bed at night. Sentimental Education. Have you read that?” Caitlin shook her head. “You’d like it. It’s about the horrors of the bourgeois. Just go over to the library on Devoe and get a bunch of good novels: Dickens, Austen, the Brontës. The books you loved when you were a kid. Remember when you could just give yourself over to a book?” Sadie sighed. This was why she hadn’t gone into academia, so she wouldn’t become like Caitlin, dogmatic and weird.

“I do,” Caitlin admitted, offering a glimmer of a genuine smile. “I miss that. Don’t you?” Sadie nodded. “I get what you’re saying.  What else would you do if you were me?”

Sadie considered, shrugging back a tiny feeling of satisfaction—perhaps she could master the girl’s unhappiness. But a part of her knew she was being baited, knew Caitlin was laying a trap. “Well,” she said slowly.  “I’d get rid of this futon. It smells of cat urine.”

Caitlin laughed again. “It does, doesn’t it?  We pulled it in off the street. After we got upstairs we realized that it smelled like cat pee, but we thought maybe the smell would fade. But then because it smelled like cat pee, the cats kept peeing on it. Mumia won’t go near it.”

And you let me sit there? thought Sadie, furious. “Caitlin, Rob has money, doesn’t he?” she said, a thin stream of poison leaking into her voice. She was breaking the cardinal rule of New York bohemia—just as Rob had done the night before—pointing out a person’s financial situation.  Nowhere but in New York, Sadie thought, were people so embarrassed to have money. “Why do you need to pull in furniture off the street? Can’t you just go out and buy a sofa?”

Shifting her weight uncomfortably from foot to foot, Caitlin considered this. “Rob has money from his family,” she said finally. “But he believes—it’s kind of an anarchist collective thing—that we should live as close as possible to the poverty level.  We have a really strict budget and whatever extra money we have goes into Rob’s projects. He’s starting this new organization, kind of a support group for wealthy kids who want to live an ethical life.” She paused. “You must know a lot of kids like that, right? You went to Dalton, didn’t you? Maybe you could talk to the alumni people about bringing him to talk to the students? Or the alums?  He’s an amazing speaker. He’s giving a talk at the New School in a couple of weeks. You should come.

“Mmm,” Sadie murmured, glancing around the room. The bathroom, she thought, must be at the rear of the house, off the kitchen. She needed, desperately, to use it, but maybe not as desperately as she needed to leave. “I”—she smiled—“have to get going.”

Caitlin, at last, rose and followed Sadie back to the kitchen, where she unlocked the door.  Mumia jumped up, placed his paws on Sadie’s shoulders, and licked her face. “Hey, sweetie,” she said stiffly, thinking again of fleas.

“Down,” Caitlin commanded.  With a dejected whine, the dog lay back down on the scuffed linoleum floor. Sadie glanced toward a door by the window—the bathroom, surely—but picked up her bag, which was heavy with manuscript, and slung it, purposefully, over her shoulder.  “You know, I’m glad you spoke honestly to me,” said Caitlin. “No one ever does. I think people are intimidated by me.”

“Sure,” said Sadie. She could barely concentrate on Caitlin’s words, so badly did she need to use the bathroom.

“You’re right about some things. It’s such a cliché, but I guess I keep thinking that none of this will hurt Lil, since she doesn’t know about it. Like, maybe it makes things better between her and Tuck, even, because he’s happier.” Here, she looked up at Sadie, widening her eyes in an attempt to indicate sadness and regret. “I know that this sounds dumb to you,” she said, coughing into her hand. “You know, I feel like you just don’t know much about real life.” Oh my God, thought Sadie. I cannot believe this. “You’ve never really been in love, have you? You think everything is so clean and easy. That I’ll just, like, get a pedicure and go out to dinner and everything will be fine. But it doesn’t work like that. Life is messy. It’s dirty.”

“Right,” said Sadie, through tight lips. She was not, was not, going to play along anymore.

“You’re not going to tell Lil anything, are you? About Tuck and me?  Or about our talk?”

At last, thought Sadie, the real point. “I don’t know,” she said, her chest tightening with rage. And with that, she slipped out the door, raising her arm in a stiff little wave. She couldn’t manage to get out the word “good-bye.”

Down the first flight of stairs she walked calmly, taking care not to trip on the curling folds of linoleum, the low heels of her sandals tapping in a way that pleased her. At the landing, the smell of cabbage grew stronger, and she began to skip, then run down the final flights, bursting out the door into the fresh air, which wasn’t actually fresh at all, but thick with exhaust fumes from the BQE, and rotting garbage from the Dumpster at the corner, and overused oil from the Chinese takeout shop. Sadie looked around her. To the east lay Lil’s apartment. (Should I go right now and tell her? I should, I should.) To the south, she caught a glimpse of Will and Beth’s building, a ten-story brick box. Several blocks west and a few north she could find Emily. So many friends nearby.  Williamsburg always made Sadie feel conscious of being a type—all these girls, these women, dressed just like she, wandering the streets carrying yoga mats and clear plastic cups of iced coffee and thick books of recent vintage, hair pulled back from thin faces with small, sparkly barrettes. And the men, in their low-slung corduroys and wide-collared shirts, carrying messenger bags, or sitting in the garden at the L reading copies of McSweeney’s or Philip K. Dick novels, stroking their sideburns.

And yet Metropolitan, today, was devoid of life.  Which was just as well. She felt disgusted with humanity, and with herself.  Why had she stayed so long? Why had she even bothered to try to talk to Caitlin? And why was it, she wondered, that Caitlin—just as in college, she realized—had managed to make her feel bad about herself. That perhaps she did know nothing of life in all its grit and dirt. That she had not given herself over to passion—ugh, that word—as Caitlin had.  Was it true?  She thought of Tal. Did she love him?  She did, she did, and she told him so all the time. But then wasn’t there a part of her that wondered, is this all there is? Not that it wasn’t good, or that it wasn’t enough, or that it wasn’t exciting, but that it seemed, somehow, that there should be more. That she couldn’t just marry the guy who lived down the hall freshman year, the guy who’d waited patiently until she came around. And this was it, wasn’t it? That falling in love with Tal had been less an active choice and more a succumbing to the inevitable. And she could imagine, so easily, their life together, all so easy and good, the shine of approval from their friends and their parents and their steady accumulation of objects and houses and the negotiation of careers (for this was what was bothering him, she knew, that he knew he wasn’t coming back from L.A., that after this movie there’d be another movie, and then pilot season, and that he wanted her to come, and she also knew, somehow, that she might say she’d come, might visit him for a week in his new studio in Silverlake or wherever, knowing that she couldn’t stay, couldn’t live there, couldn’t even learn to drive, and it all just seemed a bit too much. She just somehow couldn’t do it.

Stop it, stop it, stop it, she thought, stop this. Caitlin’s a snake. You love Tal. She’s not capable of passion. She just wants what everyone else has.

The clouds had drifted off and the sun, once again, cast a dusty, yellow light on the streets. It was a beautiful day, a perfect June afternoon.  She should, of course, go home, make a salad, and read. But she would, she decided, walk down to the river, then maybe have lunch alone at Oznot’s, while reading. She smiled broadly, goofily. How good it was to be completely alone. Putting on her sunglasses, she trotted across Metropolitan, imagining she could see the water in front of her. As she crossed Roebling, she became aware of a voice behind her, growing closer and closer.  “Miss, miss, miss,” the voice was saying. Miss what? she thought. Then a soft hand grabbed her upper arm. She let out a little scream, stopped short, and found herself looking into the round, freckled face of a man not much taller than she. His hair was sandy and thick, with a slanting cowlick above his left eye, and he wore a plain, dark suit, which gave her an idea who this might be.  And, somehow, she knew that he knew that she knew who he was. “Are you all right?” the man asked. His voice was not deep, but had an appealing rasp.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” she said. His hand, which was warm and dry, was still on her arm.  With a sheepish look, he slowly released his grip.

“You’re sure?” he said. “Nothing happened to you inside that house?”

“No, I was just visiting someone,” she said, smiling, though she wasn’t sure why.

“You looked a little upset when you emerged from the building,” he said, furrowing his brow.

Was this some sort of Fed lingo, emerged from the building, she wondered, like a state trooper saying Step away from the vehicle. “Well,” she said, drawing out the word, “I was. It’s a long story.”

“I have time,” said the man, sliding his hands into the pockets of his pants.

“Okay,” said Sadie. “But I’m not sure it’s going to interest you.”

“Try me,” he said, with a shrug.

“Okay,” repeated Sadie, suddenly nervous.  “Well, I found out that this woman—the woman I was visiting, she asked me to come over, I don’t really like her, though really, she’s just a sad, sad person and I should feel sorry for her. Anyway, she’s having an affair with my best friend’s husband.”  She smiled again, this time self-consciously. “Right. That’s more than you needed to know.”

A grimace overtook the man’s open face. It was his eyes, Sadie thought, that gave him such a—what was it?—receptive look. They were a deep, unusual shade of blue, almost turquoise and, this was the thing, spaced wide—too wide, really—on his face. He was older than she by at least ten years, and he’d spent time in the sun. “Eh,” he said, shaking his head. “That is not good.”

“No,” Sadie agreed. Shouldn’t he be showing me his badge or something? she thought. Aren’t there laws about that? Could it be that he wasn’t the INS guy? And she was talking to some random guy in a suit? No one in Williamsburg wore suits.

Cocking his head, he seemed to consider her anew. “Why did you run off down the street?” he asked.

Sadie laughed. “I don’t know. I was so happy to be out of that apartment, that building. It smelled like cat pee. It’s a long story.” She paused.  “Why?”

The agent shrugged, then looked Sadie straight in the eye. “There’s some bad stuff going on in that building. Your friend should get out of there.”

“She’s not my friend,” Sadie told him.

“Yeah, well then, forget her.” He smiled. “The evil seductress.”

Sadie laughed. “Vile fornicator,” she said.

“Jezebel,” he said. He reached into his left-hand jacket pocket and crisply extracted a black leather case, which he flipped open to reveal a large badge. “I’m Agent Michael Connelly,” he said, sticking out his right hand and, again, meeting her gaze directly. “Nice to meet you.”

“Sadie Peregine,” she said, shaking his hand, a firm, quick grasp. “Just a normal civilian. I don’t actually even have a driver’s license to show you.  Would you like to see my library card?”

“That’s okay,” he said, flipping his little case closed with a snap and returning it to his pocket. Her vision, she realized, couldn’t be so bad, as she’d read the initials on the badge clearly: not INS, as she’d expected, but, in clear black ink, FBI.

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JOANNA SMITH RAKOFF is the author of the novel A Fortunate Age, which was a New York Times Editors' Pick, a winner of the Elle Readers' Prize, a selection of Barnes and Noble's First Look Book Club, an IndieNext pick, and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. As a journalist and critic, she's written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, Vogue, Time Out New York, O:The Oprah Magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines. Her poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals. She has degrees from Columbia University, University College, London, and Oberlin College.

3 responses to “A Fortunate Age: An Excerpt”

  1. Marni Grossman says:

    I’ve always loved “The Group” and I remember when you’re book came out last year wanting to read it. And now that I’ve had a chance to read this excerpt, I’ll have to make a trip to the bookstore. Welcome!

  2. Marni, thank you! I’m thrilled to be on TNB.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    “You need to stop justifying your actions with this political rhetoric.”

    Ah, God… unfortunately, I’ve been in just that situation before. Goddamnit.

    There were so many tiny little levers being puller here, Joanna. I’m fascinated to find out more.

    Welcome to TNB!

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