The wife of your married lover calls and asks to meet you for a drink. Would you go? What would you say? And what would your best friend think of it? An enthralling extract from Katherine Heiny’s debut collection.
So picture Sasha innocently sitting alone in her apartment on a hot summer afternoon and the phone rings. She answers and a woman says, “This is Anne.”
“Who?” says Sasha.
“I think you know,” Anne says.
“Well, I don’t.” Sasha is not trying to be difficult. She honestly doesn’t know. She is trying to think of possible Annes whose voices she should recognize. Is it someone she missed an appointment with? Is this the owner of that camera she found in a cab last month and kept—
“I’m Carson’s wife,” Anne says.
Sasha says, “Oh!” And even if she sat around from now until eternity saying Oh! every few seconds, she would never be able to inject it with as many layers of significance and wonder again.
“I was thinking we ought to have a drink,” Anne says. And to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Sasha does not know quite what to say. Should she meet her for drinks? Now what should she do? Well, what would you do if your married lover’s wife asked you?
After the phone call, Sasha finds she is too agitated to stay in the apartment, so she calls her roommate, Monique, at work. Monique is just leaving, so they decide that Sasha will walk down Broadway from 106th Street and Monique will walk up Broadway from Thirty-sixth, and they will have a drink in whichever establishment they happen to meet in front of.
Because Sasha is anxious, she walks faster than Monique and they end up meeting in front of a Taco Tico on Sixty-fourth Street, but they cheat slightly and go into an Irish bar next door.
“Wow,” says Monique when Sasha tells her about Anne’s phone call. “That must have been so humiliating for her when you didn’t recognize her name.”
Sasha frowns slightly. Isn’t Monique supposed to be on her side about this? Besides, it wasn’t that she’d forgotten Anne’s name, it was that Carson never used it. Always he said my wife. I have to go, my wife is expecting me. Let me call my wife and tell her I’ll be late.
“And how did she know your name?” Monique asks.
“I guess Carson told her that when he told her about me,” Sasha says.
“So when are you meeting her?”
Monique looks startled. “That’s a long way away.”
“I think so, too,” says Sasha. “But she was all sort of businesslike and obviously flipping through a calendar, saying, ‘Now let’s see when can I fit you in,’ and next Wednesday was evidently the first opening.”
“Do you think she’s planning to murder you?” Monique asks, finishing the last of her beer.
“No, because we’re meeting at a bar on Amsterdam and Ninety-ninth,” Sasha says. “It’s not like she’s luring me to some remote underpass.”
“Not to change the subject,” Monique says, digging into her bag and pulling out a brochure. “But will you come with me to this singles volunteer thing tomorrow? We’re refurbishing a brownstone for a needy family.”
“I thought you were doing that singles grocery night thing,” Sasha says. “On Thursdays.”
“Well, I was until last Thursday!” Monique says, looking all het up. “When I had this long intense talk with a man in the checkout line and it turned out he works for Lambda Legal and was just there because he needed salad stuff.”
“They should limit entrance to the store on those nights,” Sasha says.
“So will you come with me?” Monique says. “Or, unless, I guess, now that Carson has left his wife, maybe you’re not single anymore.”
This sounds vaguely insulting, and more than a little negative, so Sasha says, “I’ll see.”
After meeting Monique, Sasha takes the subway down to Carson’s club, where he’s been staying for the past two weeks. Sasha loves his club—the threadbare stateliness of it, the way the staff flirt with her, the masculine rooms. She doesn’t care if he lives there forever.
She happens to meet Carson in the lobby, where he is collecting his mail, and in the elevator, she tells him about the phone call.
He looks startled. “She called you?”
“Yes, and asked me out for a drink.”
“Well, I don’t think you should go,” Carson says. “She’s not a nice drunk.”
The elevator stops and some other people get on, so Sasha is left to digest this piece of information in silence. Anne is not a nice drunk. She can add this to the only other two details Carson has ever revealed about Anne, which is that she works as an administrator for a nonprofit charity for the homeless and that it drives him crazy the way she never empties the fluff out of the dryer filter. Sasha wonders if it’s some sort of flaw in her character that she was never more curious about Anne. Shouldn’t she have been fascinated, eaten up by jealousy, followed them on marital outings?
Once they get to Carson’s room, she says, “How is she not a nice drunk?”
Carson is flipping through his mail. “She just repeats herself endlessly. But she repeats herself endlessly when she’s sober, too.”
Another piece of information! Maybe Sasha should have been asking questions all along. “But why do you think she wants to meet me? Is she going to murder me?”
“Ha,” says Carson, dumping his mail on the desk. “She might bore you to death, but otherwise you’re pretty safe.”
The fact that Carson finds Anne so boring is slightly shocking to Sasha. It seems to her that Carson is interested in everything. You could tell him a story without one single redeeming feature, like that the man at the bodega gave you Canadian money for change, and he would say, “Really? Which bodega was that?” (This actually happened to Sasha last week and she put the coins in her wallet and keeps accidentally trying to buy stuff with them and being yelled at by street vendors all over Manhattan.) The idea that Carson could be bored by anyone, let alone someone who maybe loves him, is distressing.
“And why did you tell her my name, anyway?” Sasha asks.
“She asked,” Carson says. “The night I told her about the affair. She said, ‘Tell me about her, I want to know about this person who’s so important to you.’”
Sasha says nothing. Carson told his wife about the affair two weeks ago. He said he hadn’t meant to do it, but they were discussing their marriage and she was being all nice and sympathetic and told him he could tell her if there was someone else, that she would understand. Since then, he has said, somewhat cryptically, that her attitude seems to have “undergone a change.” Even just thinking about this, it is hard for Sasha not to shake her head at the universal stupidity of men.
Sasha and Carson go out to dinner, just like a married couple. Well, maybe not a married couple, but a legitimate couple, at least, not caring anymore if anyone sees them. During dinner, he asks about the book Sasha is writing and Sasha is suddenly conscious of being boring. Should she be talking about Syria, or global warming?
It’s only due to Carson that Sasha writes books at all. He was the one who encouraged her when an editor approached her about writing young adult romance novels, who told her, who cares if it’s YA, you’re still making a living by writing, and he was the one who sent her two dozen salmon-colored roses during the weekend in which she had to read two dozen young adult romances so that she could write the next one in the series. (She did it, too, though sometimes she feels she was never the same afterward.) And now Sasha, who never even had much of a job before, has a career, of sorts, and is offered four-book contracts and gets to stay home all day in her pajamas and really loves what she does. Also, Carson has proven exceptionally good at trouble-shooting plot issues. The only person better at it is Monique, but she gets upset if Sasha doesn’t use her ideas, and Carson doesn’t seem to care. He can reel off a dozen possible solutions and doesn’t mind if she rejects them all.
So she tells him that all the characters in this book live on an island and she needs to find a way for all of them to miss the last ferry home, and they discuss that for the rest of dinner.
Then they go back to Carson’s room and get ready for bed, brushing their teeth together (another married couple thing!) and Carson spits in the sink and says, “I’m going to go apartment-hunting tomorrow, and I was hoping you’d come with me.”
“I have to go to this volunteer thing with Monique,” Sasha says, without planning to. “I already promised.”
Sasha and Justin mainly ignore each other and get on with their task. Even after the whistle blows four times, they’re still working together. But when they finally take a break and go to the water cooler, Justin looks at her for a moment and Sasha suddenly knows, with an instinct born of long experience, that he is about to tell her that he has a girlfriend or to ask for her phone number. Or both.
And sure enough, Justin says in a low voice, “I have to tell you something. I’m not really single. I just came here because my friend Paul didn’t want to come alone.”
“Me, too,” Sasha says. She hopes they are not going to have some long discussion about their respective relationships.
But Justin doesn’t mention his girlfriend again. He only says, “I’m thinking maybe I should have a singles volunteer day at my apartment. It needs repainting and a whole bunch of other stuff.”
“All my apartment really needs is a new door,” Sasha says. “Or, actually, a new lock, because we left the coffeepot on a few weeks ago and the fire department had to break in and they damaged the lock and if we don’t fix it eventually, the landlord will take it out of our security deposit.”
“So you need to have a singles volunteer thing open only to locksmiths,” Justin says.
“Well, everyone else could just hang out and have a few beers,” Sasha says.
And then she is suddenly aware of trying to charm this man, and stops. Why should she charm him? She doesn’t really like him. Who is he, anyway? He’s not Carson.
When they say good-bye an hour later, Justin introduces his friend Paul to Monique, and maybe in an alternative universe, Paul and Monique would fall in love, but in actuality, Paul only smirks and says, “Yeah, I know you. You’re the one who started painting before we’d primed the walls.”
And Monique bristles and says, “Well, at least I didn’t—”
But they are spared having to hear whatever she didn’t do by the sound of something crashing upstairs, followed by a string of swearing from Willie.
Justin holds out his hand to Sasha. “Maybe I should give you my number in case you have that party,” he says.
“It’s for singles, remember,” she says, but she shakes his hand.
She and Monique walk out into the baking August heat and Sasha thinks, as she always does when phone numbers are exchanged or nearly exchanged, about the time Monique shared a cab home from a party with a man and she wrote I’d love to get together on the back of one of her business cards and slid it in with her half of the cab fare and the man didn’t call her but the cab driver did. It is among Sasha’s fondest memories and she laughs out loud as they walk down the steps of the brownstone.
Sasha and Monique decide it is too hot to go back to their unair-conditioned apartment and so they go downtown and watch two movies in a row and eat a whole big box of popcorn and nearly an entire package of malted milk balls.
Then they walk very slowly uptown in the evening heat and go to the bar across the street from their apartment and start drinking Sea Breezes. After the first Sea Breeze, the man next to Sasha says that the man next to him is some sort of drunk migrant worker and buying everyone drinks. Sasha is fascinated: There are migrant workers in New York City? What exactly does he pick? But
the migrant worker, if that’s what he is, doesn’t speak English and only gestures for Sasha and Monique to order more drinks, which they do and which he pays for, and Sasha feels a little bit bad about this but not that much.
After the fifth Sea Breeze (they are keeping track by folding the straws into triangles and poking them into the holes of the drainboard in the bar), a man smiles at Monique and she smiles back and then is swept with the horrifying realization that he’s actually one of the guys who works at Broadway Bagel. So then Sasha and Monique have a long whispered discussion, wondering whether they are snobs for not wanting to socialize with him, and would they feel differently if he was, like, six inches taller, and since she smiled at him will Monique have to talk to him if he comes over, and does this mean they can’t go to Broadway Bagel anymore? (The answer to all these questions, they decide, is probably.)
But after that, things pick up a bit, and they keep drinking and annoy the hell out of everyone by playing “Rescue Me” on the jukebox five times in a row. Then they walk home and Monique throws up in the lobby wastebasket and feels a little bit better, but Sasha doesn’t and has to lie in the whirling pit of her bed with the box fan in the window set on high and blowing on her full blast, which is sort of like lying under the rotor of a Chinook helicopter while it tries to take off in a high altitude, but she’s too drunk to get up and turn it down, and really, it’s just a great day, a great evening. Perfect, in fact.
Oh, there is no limit to the things a real couple can do! They can call each other at any time of the day or night, without a lot of letting the phone ring and hanging up first. They can go out to brunch, which Sasha and Carson do on Sunday morning, as soon as her hangover recedes enough to allow movement. Somehow brunch was never a possibility when they were having an affair—the timing was all wrong. And Sasha doesn’t have to debate endlessly whether to wear her new white crocheted blouse because if Carson doesn’t see it today, he’ll see it tomorrow or the day after.
They can go to a bookstore together, they can wander up Lexington, they can go to Starbucks, they can go back to Carson’s club for aspirin for Sasha’s headache, they can go meet a friend of Carson’s for drinks, and the drinks help Sasha’s hangover even more than the aspirin. The friend they are meeting is a man from Carson’s office, and he is nice enough, although when they are discussing the heat he says, “Imagine living through this without air-conditioning.”
“My apartment doesn’t have air-conditioning,” Sasha says. “Actually, I’ve never lived in an apartment that does.”
The man stares at her for a long moment, and Sasha wonders what he would say if she told him that in addition to not being air-conditioned, it’s an unwritten rule in their building that all the neighbors take turns buying Budweiser for Mrs. Misner in 3C so she doesn’t get all aggressive and shout things at their visitors.
Real couples don’t have to decide whether to have sex or dinner, and after the sex and during the dinner, they can talk about going on vacation together, and Sasha can keep a nightgown and a toothbrush at Carson’s club, whereas previously, anything of hers had to be small enough to fit in a locked drawer at his office. They can spend the night together, they can even spend two nights together. Time, which used to be their most precious commodity, they now have in abundance.
But they don’t spend that second night together. When Carson asks why, Sasha is suddenly too shy to tell him that Monique has a first date with a guy she met at the singles volunteer day, and that Sasha would no more let Monique come home to an empty apartment after a first date than she would leave a small child outside crying in the cold. So she says she needs to look at a manuscript her editor sent and do her pages for the day, which is true, anyway.
So Sasha travels back uptown, sets up her laptop on the kitchen table, turns on the fans, makes herself some iced tea, and begins working.
She is still typing away when Monique bangs into the apartment, slams her bag on the table, and says, “If I were a cat, my ears would be straight back right now.”
This tells Sasha everything she needs to know about the date, and also makes her laugh hard enough to spit iced tea all over the keyboard. She gets up for some paper towels and also to grab them each a beer out of the refrigerator, and she wishes, not for the first time, that life did not have to be a continuous series of eliminations, a constant narrowing of your options, a long series of choices in which you were always unhappy that you couldn’t choose two things at the same time.
On Tuesday night, Sasha and Monique decide to go to the bar where Sasha is supposed to meet Anne and scope it out. It is a shockingly seedy place, even for this high up on Amsterdam Avenue, with decaying wood walls and a dank unpleasant smell.
“Oh, gross,” says Monique as they walk in. “Why do you think she wants to meet here?”
“I don’t know,” says Sasha, but deep down she suspects she does know. Anne must think this bar is Sasha’s counterpart, her equal in some way. She probably asked some of her homeless people where they go (or would go, since homeless people don’t go out for drinks a lot).
“What can I get for you ladies?” the bartender says, startling Sasha because she hadn’t actually seen him until that moment. He is a tall, alarmingly thin man, and standing still in the dim light, he is nearly invisible.
They start toward the bar, but the bartender waves them off, saying, “Sit at the table! I’ll bring your drinks over! What would you like?”
They both ask for Coronas and go sit at the table (there’s only one), which has a scarred top; Monique’s chair has one leg shorter than the others so she has to sit at a slight angle.
“Ew, he’s putting the limes in our beers with his finger!” Monique whispers.
“Oh, it’ll be fine,” Sasha says. “The alcohol will kill the germs.” (Won’t it?)
The bartender walks over eagerly with their drinks. He seems to have a lot of energy for such a skinny, dried-out husk of a person. “There you go, pretty ladies,” he says and then retreats back to the bar, where he watches them. He looks like an animated skeleton.
“So did Carson have any idea why Anne wants to meet you?” Monique asks.
Sasha shakes her head. “He knows nothing about it.”
“Well, clearly she has some sort of agenda,” Monique says, drinking her beer. “It’s just that you don’t know what it is. You’re like Neville Chamberlain going to the Munich Conference.”
“I guess,” says Sasha, whose knowledge of world history is a little vague.
“Maybe she’s going to ask you to give him back,” Monique suggests. “Maybe she’s going to say, ‘I come to you in sisterhood and ask you to return him to me,’ or something.”
“Well, he’s not really mine to return,” Sasha says uncertainly. “And besides, he says that she doesn’t act like she wants to get back together. He says she’s very frosty.”
“Oh, surprise!” Monique says. “He has a yearlong affair with a twenty-six-year-old blonde and his wife is frosty about it!”
Sasha blinks. She wishes she could shake the feeling sometimes that Monique sympathizes with Anne entirely too much.
“So, can I ask why you’re going?” Monique says. “Why didn’t you just tell her it wasn’t a good idea? You could still call and cancel.”
“I don’t know why I agreed,” Sasha says, and at the time of the original phone call it was true. But now she supposes she agreed to go because it was interesting. Life is full of good things—buttered toast, cold beer, compelling books, campfires, Christmas lights, expensive lipstick, the smell of vanilla—and Sasha is by no means immune to them, but how many things are just flat-out interesting? How many things are so fascinating that you can’t stand not to do them? Not many, is Sasha’s opinion.
“Well, what are you going to wear?” Monique asks. “I think you should wear your green blouse and your black pencil skirt.”
Sasha knows that this is what Monique would wear. They are the same height and weight and even have the same hair color, but everything about Monique is sharp angles, including her hair, which is cut in a perfect slant toward her chin. Sasha’s hair is long and unruly and she wears jeans and T-shirts almost all the time. And sometimes when she is finishing writing a book, she wears the same jeans and T-shirt for days on end, for good luck.
“And definitely your Egyptian earrings,” Monique says.
Sasha smiles. “Okay, definitely those.”
The bartender, who by now is really giving Sasha the creeps, does his springy walk again and brings them two more beers. “These are on the house,” he says.
So they drink the beers and Monique notices a sign above the bar for cream of potato soup and says she’d rather shoot herself than eat anything served here, and Sasha says it’s so disturbing that the word potato is in quotes, like maybe it’s not made from real potatoes, and Monique says it almost certainly isn’t, and they discuss the new tailor shop that opened near them and put up a sign saying FOR ALL YOUR TAILORING “NEEDS” and what are those quotes supposed to signify? And they talk for a while about when they moved into their current apartment and one of the movers turned out to be a guy that Sasha had started to give her number to at a bar but at the last minute changed her mind and gave him just a bunch of random digits and how that made moving day so much more hellish than it already was. This actually happened three years ago, but they still discuss it fairly frequently.
Sasha does not know what this kind of conversation is called. It is not small talk, and it is not gossip precisely, nor is it deep and meaningful discussion. Dialogue, meeting, palaver, visit—none of them seem quite right. If there is a term, Sasha is unaware of it. She only knows she never wants to be without it in her life. Never, never, never.
Sasha is twenty minutes late to her meeting with Anne, because she tends to be ten minutes late wherever she goes and also because she spent an extra ten minutes looking for her Egyptian earrings.
So she has to hurry into the bar, feeling sweaty and rumpled, and right away she regrets her visit here last night with Monique because the cadaverous bartender says, “Well, hello, again!” making her sound like a regular.
Anne is sitting at the lone table (is in fact the only person in the bar) and though Sasha supposes it could be some random woman and not Anne, she’s very sure it is.
She hurries over and pulls out the chair opposite Anne. “Sorry I’m late,” she says. “I lost track of time.”
Anne is regarding her coolly. Maybe she doesn’t like the idea of Sasha losing track of time before their big meeting. Finally she says, “You’re younger than I thought but not as pretty.”
Sasha wipes a little moisture from her upper lip. “Well, all my life I’ve wanted to be this cool elegant beauty,” she says, “and in reality I think I’m more a friendly blonde a lot of men have wanted to have sex with. Though that was pretty nice, too.”
If Anne looks shocked by this, it’s no more than Sasha is. (Imagine Neville Chamberlain saying such a thing!) She resolves to think before she speaks again. Although she has no intention of saying so, she thinks that actually the reverse is true of Anne—she is older but prettier than Sasha had imagined. Anne has very pale skin, though to Sasha it looks strangely devoid of pores, and black hair cut in a short bob. Her eyes are pale blue with dark lashes. It’s a Snow White kind of pretty and completely the opposite of Sasha, who has quite a few freckles. Also, Anne is wearing a dark blue suit, with an expensive-looking patterned silk scarf tied around her throat. Sasha can never wear scarves. She always takes them off and stuffs them in her purse after half an hour.
There is a long beat of silence and then Anne says, “Perhaps we should get a bottle of wine.”
“I don’t think they sell it by the bottle here,” Sasha says. “Only by the glass.”
“Two glasses of wine, then,” Anne says.
They both look at the bartender but he is sitting behind the bar, avoiding eye contact, and showing no signs of coming over to them. Evidently that’s something he does only on rare occasions, or for two girls in their twenties.
“I’ll have red wine,” Anne says, as though Sasha is the waitress. Sasha feels a sudden flash of compassion for Carson. Is this what their life together was like?
But she doesn’t really see a point in arguing, so she crosses the bar and orders two glasses of house red from the bartender, who becomes spookily animated again and says, “With pleasure, my lovely!” and Sasha is really starting to wish they’d gone somewhere, anywhere, else.
When she returns to the table with the glasses of wine, Anne says, “I hear you used to be a receptionist and now you’re a writer.” She says this the way someone might say, I hear you used to be a junkie and now you’re a prostitute.
Sasha has a sudden bad-tempered urge to tell Anne how supportive Carson is of her writing, how if she hasn’t finished her pages for the day, he’ll sit in her living room, reading fashion magazines or watching Unsolved Mysteries with Monique, even on nights when they have only an hour or two to spend together.
Perhaps Anne senses her misstep because she says, “I hear you write children’s books,” in a slightly friendlier tone.
Are they not supposed to mention Carson’s name? Why does Anne keep saying I hear as though she and Sasha have some large circle of mutual friends?
“Well, young adult books,” Sasha says. “More for teenagers.” Perhaps Anne thought she illustrated children’s books and was picturing some large friendly girl who dressed like Raggedy Ann and had a sunny outlook.
Then they enter into quite an extraordinary period of conversation, lasting through this glass of wine and the next one (which Sasha also has to go get), during which they discuss publishing, romance writing, and whether or not anyone actually reads poetry anymore. Sasha, who is drinking her wine in big nervous gulps, wonders if she should tell Anne about the time she got very drunk at a publishing party and explained to a famous poet what slant rhyme is. (This is an extremely funny story, but not everyone seems to appreciate it.)
And it is at precisely this point that Anne leans forward slightly and says, “You know, Carson won’t stay with you.”
Sasha blinks. She had almost forgotten who Anne was.
Anne smiles grimly. “He’s just cunt struck, is all.”
The writer in Sasha rushes forward to examine this sentence. Cunt struck. The term is so ugly, yet so arresting, that she almost admires it. Maybe she could use it in a book someday. But the rest of Sasha is cringing. Cunt struck hangs before her like it’s written in an angry black scrawl. Does Anne really think it applies to her, to Carson and her?
“You think you can just take whatever you want, whether it belongs to you or not,” Anne says, and now her voice is shaking. “You’re a home-wrecker, and you have no morals at all.”
Two things occur to Sasha at this instant. One: Having morals is not something she’s ever aspired to. Successful writer, loyal friend, pretty girl; those have been goals, but she can’t say moral person has ever made the list, and that’s kind of startling to realize. Two (and this possibly should have occurred to her quite a while ago): She doesn’t have to sit here and listen to this. She can leave.
So she does. She pushes back her chair and walks right out of the bar. Does it worry her that she’s left Anne to settle the bill? No. Does it bother her that Anne may be molested or harassed by the world’s scariest bartender? Not at all. Is she even a little concerned that Anne may come out of the bar and not have enough sense to walk toward Broadway instead of Columbus and be murdered for the money in her pocketbook and her pricey scarf? Not one bit. In fact, Sasha feels like right now she herself could walk toward Columbus with impunity. She has no morals, right? The muggers and murderers would see her as one of their own, and stay out of her way.
Sasha walks almost twenty blocks downtown in a sort of daze before she thinks to use her cell phone. She paws through her bag and is relieved to find her phone (suppose she had to go back for it!). Maybe she should be calling Carson right now, but that’s not who she wants to speak to. She calls Monique at work.
“It’s—me,” Sasha says, and her voice breaks so harshly between the two words that it sounds like a badly spliced tape.
“Oh, my God!” Monique says. “How was it? Are you okay? Is she holding you at gunpoint? If you need me to call the police, just say the word leopard in your next sentence.”
Sasha leans against the side of a building. She feels as though the world has come back into focus. “I don’t need you to call the police,” she says. “And if I did, how I am supposed to work the word leopard in unobtrusively?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Monique says. “I was trying to pick a word you wouldn’t say accidentally, like street or bagel. And you just did say leopard.”
“Yes, but I don’t need you to call the police,” Sasha says. “I just need you to meet me somewhere.”
“Okay, all right, just a minute,” Monique says, apparently thinking out loud. “I’ll tell them I’m working from home—hardly anybody’s here anyway. Are you on Broadway? I’ll start walking up.”
Sasha is on Broadway so she keeps walking downtown. She does not want to think about Anne, so she thinks about Monique and the code word leopard some more. They will have to come up with a foolproof one. Monique is right, it should be something that they wouldn’t say accidentally. She wonders what the top ten words they use are, anyway. Let’s think: street, bagel, bar, guy, book, sleep, write, rent, shower, beer are probably all up there. So possibly leopard was a good choice, or maybe zygote or plankton. Sasha and Monique also have a contingency plan in case one of them is ever wanted by the police and has to go on the run. They will meet the first Monday of every month in the Au Bon Pain in Times Square, and exchange money or messages or whatever is needed. They once spent a long and very pleasurable evening working this out, and what Sasha thinks most people don’t realize is that they would actually do this for each other, indefinitely, no question about it.
Sasha looks up and sees Monique down the block, and has that thrill you get from seeing someone familiar on the streets of New York, like looking through a box of old paperbacks at a garage sale and finding a copy of a novel you love. And this time the pleasure is intensified because Sasha is not just running into some random acquaintance. Monique is hurrying straight toward her, a look of concern on her face. Her roommate, who has left work early, and who would have called the police if need be.
She doesn’t need to wonder anymore. Monique is on Sasha’s side, that’s whose.
Now here is something interesting: Sasha doesn’t tell Monique about the term cunt struck but it never occurs to her not to tell Carson. It is the kind of detail that Monique would remember, though she might never bring it up again, where it seems like Carson ignores everything about Sasha that doesn’t fit with his perception of her. She can tell him anything.
She is in Carson’s room at his club, sitting in front of the air conditioner in her nightgown, drinking a very small bottle of whiskey from the minibar, while Carson rubs her feet. She went out for Indian food with Monique and had several more glasses of red wine.
“First, she said I was younger than she thought I’d be but not as pretty,” Sasha says, loudly, because of the air conditioner.
Carson laughs. “Well, you don’t know whether that’s a compliment or an insult,” he says, “because you don’t know the known parameters.”
But Sasha doesn’t want to get drawn into a mathematical discussion. She tells him the rest of it, and when she gets to the cunt struck part, it doesn’t seem so awful to her anymore, not really, but Carson squeezes her foot tightly, almost painfully. She looks at his face and his expression is harder, stonier, than she has ever seen it before. She realizes suddenly that although Carson has said from the beginning that his wife didn’t understand him (you cannot imagine Monique’s scorn at this phrase) it is actually true. Anne does not understand him, or does not understand him well enough, to know that saying what she did would make Carson angry. But Sasha knew, she realizes. That’s why she told him.
Sasha shakes her foot gently so he will release it, which he does and reaches for his own drink.
“Monique said Anne had an agenda,” she says. “And evidently it was to tell me what an awful person I am.”
Carson smiles. Whatever he feels about what Anne said, he’s apparently going to keep to himself. “I like the way you not only tell me what happened to you, you tell me what Monique thinks about it.”
Interestingly, Monique feels almost the opposite about this, and never wants to hear what Carson thinks about anything. Sasha wonders if this makes Carson a nicer person than Monique. Monique would argue that no, someone who cheats on his wife is by definition not a nice person. How would the four of them—Sasha, Monique, Anne, Carson—rank from nicest to least nice? A sudden alcohol-induced yawn makes her jaws ache and Sasha finds she is too tired to worry about it. She gets out of her chair and crawls into the bed.
“Where did you meet her, anyway?” Carson asks, beginning to get undressed.
“Some bar on Amsterdam,” Sasha says, yawning again. “If it had a name, I don’t remember it.”
“I saw an apartment today that I liked,” Carson says. “I have an appointment to see it again on Friday. Will you come look at it?”
Sasha nods, but is not paying attention. She thinks of all the bars and restaurants along Broadway between 106th and Thirty-sixth and how she and Monique have met for dinner or drinks in almost all of them (this could be the reason they never seem to have any money) and she realizes that Anne could have picked one of those places and then Sasha would have felt bad every time she walked past it, and it would have ruined whatever happy memory she had of being there. But instead Anne chose a bar Sasha had never been to, where she wasn’t known, which she didn’t even like. Sasha never has to go there again.
Sasha probably would have slept right through the appointment with the real estate agent on Friday except that Monique called and woke her to say that she’d just talked to the Brooklyn branch of her office. When they were all on the Upper West Side two weeks ago and went drinking and then had slices of Koronet Pizza with her and Sasha, they all got severe food poisoning, with two of them ending up in the hospital.
“But it can’t have been from the pizza,” Sasha says, “because we all bought slices, and you and I didn’t get sick.”
“Exactly!” Monique says. “Apparently we’re immune because we eat there so much.”
“I don’t know whether to be excited or worried,” Sasha says.
“Excited,” Monique says definitively. “We’re like some new super-species!”
After that it’s impossible to go back to sleep, so Sasha gets up and gets dressed and goes to meet Carson and the real estate agent. She’s only fifteen minutes late, which is really only five minutes late for her, but she can see as she approaches that the agent is tense, though Carson looks relaxed.
“Hello,” Sasha says, as she walks up to the building’s entrance, where they are waiting for her.
“You must be Sasha,” the real estate agent says. She’s a woman in her thirties with spiky brown hair and Sasha can tell from her expression that she was expecting Sasha to be different somehow, more sophisticated, maybe. She wonders if that’s going to be her life from now on if she stays with Carson, people expecting her to be something she’s not.
The apartment is on the third floor of a building on East Sixty-seventh Street, directly across from an ice cream store called Peppermint Park. These are both strikes against it because Sasha has always felt she doesn’t belong on the Upper East Side, and besides, how much weight would she gain with an ice cream parlor right across the street?
But she and Carson and the real estate agent go up and tour the apartment, and Sasha decides that the main thing wrong with it is that there’s nothing wrong with it. She and Monique concluded long ago that you’re not really living in New York unless there’s something wildly negative about your apartment, like the one they lived in where the shower was in the kitchen, or the one in the building The New York Times dubbed “the house of horrors” because so many people committed suicide there. In their current apartment, you can roll a marble downhill from the front door to the back of the kitchen.
The real estate agent says, “I know Carson especially liked this place because it has a room for you to write in. It’s just a little hidey-hole, but I think you’ll like it.”
The real estate agent leads her to an extremely small sunny room with a perfectly square window, and just enough space for a desk and a writer. Currently, Sasha has no desk, she has to use the kitchen table after she clears Monique’s breakfast dishes off it, and the only view is across the air shaft into their neighbor’s kitchen. This has never bothered Sasha, though. She does not even know where she is ten minutes after she starts typing.
She walks over and looks out the window of the hidey-hole, wishing that the stupid real estate agent had not called it that because now she doubts she can ever think of it any other way.
Carson comes up behind her and puts his arms around her. “Do you like this room?”
“I love it,” Sasha says. But really, she is thinking that Monique would love it. She would love that Carson chose an apartment with a room for Sasha to write in. Finally, he has done something Monique would approve of and this thought gives Sasha a little stab of sorrow, as sharp as a splinter.
Carson rests his chin on the top of her head and Sasha leans back against him. Across the street, a man and four children have come out of Peppermint Park, and the man is holding four cones and some napkins, while the children jump up and down around him like pigeons around a picnicker.
“They look happy, don’t they?” Carson asks.
“Yes,” Sasha says softly, but she is wondering how anyone else can think they are happy at this particular moment, when she alone knows the meaning of happiness. She holds it right now in the palm of her hand.
This short story is taken from the collection Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katharine Heiny, available now from 4th Estate.