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Kate and Colin met at a party thrown by Kate and her West Twelfth Street apartment mate, Darcy, a party Colin turned up at only by happenstance, knowing neither Kate nor Darcy and tagging along with a friend of a friend. They were recently out of college and young enough so that it didn’t matter whether one was invited to a party or not. Strangers would wander into strange apartments and get themselves drinks and make out with other strangers on ripped sofas in the dusty corners of candlelit rooms.
Darcy had majored in art history but now worked as a paralegal at a high-powered law firm in Midtown by day and chased investment bankers by night. While Darcy put in long hours for lawyers, Kate did financial projections for Liz Claiborne. She and Darcy swapped clothes and went out every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. They ate pasta with tomatoes and basil at restaurants with the doors open to the sidewalk in the summer. They went to bars where Drew Barrymore hung out with her guitarist boyfriend or where a friend’s band was playing. They poked around flea markets, bought scarves of Indian silk, drank coffee from blue-and-white paper cups, averted their eyes from a man defecating on Houston Street. They fiddled with the apartment on the weekends and once in a while had someone come to clean, a sweet, thin Polish woman with recurring bruises on her face and a deep, abiding love for Elvis Presley. They did their laundry in the basement and sent the dressier things out for dry cleaning. Mondays, they opened a bottle of cheap white wine and watched Melrose Place.
On the day of the party they tidied up and then spent the afternoon at Balducci’s, where they bought, among various snacks and ingredients, a tremendous ham. They put the groceries away and got dressed. Darcy pulled back her hair and poured herself and Kate a glass of wine and tied on an apron. Recklessly, she was attempting several complicated recipes from the Union Square Cafe cookbook. She prepared Roman-Style Marinated Olives and Bruschetta Bianca and set them out in the living room. Kate put on a secondhand pink velvet minidress and knee-high black boots. She applied makeup and buzzed in the first batch of guests. Darcy drank more wine and made Parsnip Pancakes and began to garnish each one with a tiny dollop of sour cream. Kate received cluster after cluster of guests, some she knew and some she didn’t. The party had been conceived of as a dinner party but it seemed to be morphing into something resembling a fraternity party. Kate retreated to the open kitchen and watched Colin, whose name she had not yet learned, hold the door for two slurring, shrieking girls on their way out. This manly young man holding the door, with his blue-checked button-down shirt and nice manners, looked as though he did not belong at this suddenly dreadful party. His glasses gave him a stern, righteous look. His hair, blond, was already thinning. In spite of the latter, she found him handsome.
Darcy still had Creamy Polenta with Mascarpone; Red Oakleaf and Bibb Salad with Gruyère, Garlic Croutons, and Dijon Vinaigrette; Mashed Turnips with Frizzled Leeks; and Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Herbed Goat Cheese to go. The buzzer persisted. People leaked from the living room into the bedrooms. Friends meandered tipsily into the kitchen to say hi. Darcy was dropping things and beginning to break a sweat.
“You could serve the sour cream on the side,” Kate suggested. “You could put it in a cute little bowl or something.”
“But you know how that is; when a bunch of people are dipping the dip gets all ick.” Darcy’s face had begun to fall apart a bit and her stockings had run. She charged around the kitchen in her high heels with her pinned-up vermilion hair coming down.
“You could put a spoon in the dip and then they could use the spoon to put the sour cream on their pancake and then the ick would be avoided.”
“But they won’t know what the spoon is for!” Darcy cried.
“You could put up a little sign. Directions. You could make an announcement.”
The buzzer rang. “Will you get that? Will you get that?” Darcy asked. When she felt anxious, which was often, she said things twice.
Kate buzzed the guests in but did not bother to greet them. She went back to the kitchen and Darcy—both disheveled, both staggering toward catastrophe, both running roughshod over their original intentions.
Darcy finished putting sour cream on the pancakes—the final dollops panicked and sloppy—and began skinning turnips with a vegetable peeler. Kate watched, tending to the buzzer and drinking her wine. Every so often a turnip would slip and shoot out of Darcy’s palm and land in the prehistoric muck of the sink.
“Is Luke here? Have you seen Luke?” Luke, a trader at Goldman Sachs whom Darcy regularly put out for, was clearly blowing off the party. But every time the buzzer rang Darcy’s spine would snap into place and her face would fly open—then everything would go loose and shut down again.
“Is it Luke? Is it?” Darcy swept aside the turnips and opened a jar of peppercorns and blitzed half the jar in the coffee grinder.
Kate looked out into the hallway. Raucous guests were carrying the ham into the bathroom, setting it on Darcy’s digital scale. “Don’t worry about Luke. Plenty of cute guys here.”
“I haven’t even started the chicken.” Darcy dumped the ground peppercorns into a coffee mug. Reaching for the salt she overturned the open spice jar, and dozens of tiny peppercorns leaped onto the linoleum floor, where they jumped joyfully for a full minute.
“What can I do? This?” Kate stepped up to the sink and took the turnips. She stood at the sink, as Darcy had, but when it occurred to her that they lacked a disposal and therefore a definitive reason to peel vegetables at the sink, she moved aside and began to peel the turnips right onto the counter. She searched for a clean bowl in which to put the peeled turnips but there wasn’t one. She attempted to wash one but the water in the sink rose forebodingly. She poked at the drain for a minute or two with a wooden cooking spoon. Darcy wiped her eyes with a checkered dishcloth and opened a sheaf of goat cheese and began to smash it, in its wrapper, with damp chopped herbs.
The buzzer again. Kate shook out her wet hands.
“Is it Luke? Is it?”
“Sorry, honey.” Kate poured herself more wine.
Darcy sagged against the fridge. “He doesn’t love me.”
“No. He doesn’t love you,” Kate answered, carelessly. She stood with a turnip in each hand, considering the sink. Registering her own utterance, she whipped around, as if realizing, too late, that she’d knocked something fragile off a small, interfering table.
“I’m going to pass out, I think,” Darcy said. She put her head down on the counter.
“Wait. Not yet.” Kate brushed Darcy’s sweaty bangs out of her face and went to her own bedroom and got a Valium, one swiped from a stash she’d discovered two Christmases ago in her mother’s medicine cabinet. She fed the pill to Darcy.
Darcy slid against the cabinets to the floor like she’d been shot. Colin rounded boisterously in, swinging two handfuls of empties. He registered Darcy, Kate, the sink. He put down the bottles and reached in and unclogged the drain, as if he weren’t afraid of taking on something chaotic and feminine.
“You live here?” he asked Kate.
Darcy, bearing the pancakes, had gone out to join the party. Kate and Colin were straightening up the kitchen, washing dishes and wrapping the now obsolete goat cheese and herbs and raw chicken breasts. She put things away in the lower cabinets, he in the higher ones. He was tall, though not unapproachably so, both his height and build reassuringly average.
“You don’t look like you live here.”
“You’re pretty. And . . . you smell good.” He closed the fridge and stood with his back to it, legs apart, hands in pockets. His eyes were blue behind the glasses.
“It’s kind of a dump,” she admitted. “But . . . not usually this bad.”
“This was supposed to be a dinner party. You know. Civilized.”
“I guess we’re not ready for that.”
Later they put Darcy, flattened by Valium and wine, into bed in her ravaged stockings. They collected bottles and tossed stray food. They piled glasses in the sink. They wiped off the ham and wrapped it and put it away. Then they went to Kate’s room. She showed him her high school yearbook, her CD collection, and the IKEA cabinet she’d assembled herself. He kissed her and pushed her up against the wall and then down on the bed, where they struggled for a while. Her dress came off. Her boots and stockings came off. Her hair came down. He produced a magnificent erection. They ground against each other. Colin, on top, supported himself in the gentlemanly manner with his arms. Contraception was mentioned. Kate rummaged tipsily around Darcy’s medicine cabinet and her own. Withdrawal was suggested by him and rejected by her, it being a delicate time of the month. To compensate, she took him in her fist, then her mouth.
. . .
it was immediately clear to her that if she gave him the opportunity to love her he would—and while she felt, dimly, that her motivations were devious somehow next to his, her character suspect beside his seemingly honest and upstanding and simple one, that she looked on their entanglement as an experiment, an adventure, while he looked on the same as a righteous endeavor, she wasn’t sure she could resist. He wanted her, and her narcissism flowered expansively under the hot orange light of his craving. She told him of her mother’s anxiety, the other men she’d been with, her father’s temper, the time she’d strayed from her family in a Moroccan bazaar, the time she’d had a pea stuck up her nose for an entire summer. Colin told her how it had flooded on the day of his commu- nion, how he’d been held at gunpoint by a hitchhiker, how his father’s skin had turned yellow before he died last April. Later she learned that he wore his socks inside out because he didn’t like the feel of the seams, that he ate his hamburger first and his fries after.