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Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of His Friend Aurit
By Adelle Waldman
PicadorCopyright © 2014 Adelle Waldman
All rights reserved.
"Do you want to get another round?"
Aurit did, but she didn't like that she did. It was late, and though the next day was a holiday, or almost a holiday, she wanted to get some work done. Besides, since when had she become such a big drinker?
"One more," she said. "But only one."
Nate's smile was instantaneous. "Great."
His obvious pleasure in her company killed her — as if nothing could make him happier than the favor she was granting him of another half hour of her conversation. It was fucking endearing.
He stood up. "Stay," he said. "I'll go."
They were at a new place, a wine bar that had recently opened in Aurit's neighborhood. It wasn't that crowded, probably because it was December 30 and people were still out of town for the holidays, but it was pleasantly cellar-like with subdued amber lighting.
Nate stood at the bar with his back to her, his hands in his back pockets. From her seat at the table, Aurit noticed that he'd missed one of his rear belt loops when he'd dressed. He looked schlumpy in his jeans and sweater.
It must be a good sign that she thought so.
She simply could not bear the idea that she might be developing a thing for Nate. The thought was too awful, too humiliating to contemplate. For one thing, crushes — if that's what this was — are doomed. If feelings are reciprocated, they don't play out like crushes. Each person senses the other's interest, and it becomes attraction. Pre-dating. If it feels like a crush, it necessarily means — doesn't it? — that it isn't mutual, that someone's feelings are growing in isolation, disproportionately. Like a cancer.
Moreover, crushes are for teenagers, not women in their late twenties. Nor was Aurit Arazi some maladjusted eccentric, an anxious virginal creature who enjoyed reenacting the rites of adolescence. Her adolescence had been less than stellar the first time, thank you very much, and besides, she was a sophisticated and worldly young woman, with a string of ex-boyfriends and a number of affairs to her name.
And yet ... she couldn't deny that lately she had felt a secret something or other for Nate, goddamned Nate, her friend. It had sprung up without her consent. For the past couple of weeks, when she was with him, she had found herself unconsciously tracking his expression and tone and words to determine if they indicated romantic interest. Perhaps worse, she was covering her tracks, concealing this development at all costs. She felt on guard against betraying herself, as though, if she ceased to pay attention, she would do something embarrassing, like sit too close to him or lay her hand flirtatiously on his arm.
Why had she even agreed to come out with him tonight? She'd see him tomorrow — they were going to her friend Iris's New Year's party. And yet she'd missed him over Christmas, when she'd been in Boston and he'd been in Maryland, and especially during the past few days, since she'd been back. Her neighborhood had had a slightly dystopian, half-empty feel — a consequence of being the kind of preternaturally youthful place that hardly any of its residents are actually from.
Nate had gotten back to town only that afternoon. She had been pleased that he texted as soon as he'd arrived, glad that he suggested meeting for dinner. She'd even worn a new sweater, one she'd bought in Boston.
Nate returned. The table teetered when he set their drinks down. "That's disgusting, you know," he said, nodding at her Jack and Diet Coke.
God. The irony — one of many ironies — of this "crush" was that half the time she wasn't even sure she liked him.
"No one's making you drink it," she said.
"Mercifully," Nate said. He was smiling.
"I don't understand why men feel the need to opine on everything, as if the supreme right of judging has been given to them," Aurit said.
Nate cocked his head. "You're not serious, are you?" he said, still smiling. "Please tell me you're not. Opining on everything? Do they not have the expression about the pot calling the kettle black in Israel?"
Another thing he did that annoyed her was act like she'd just gotten off the boat two days before. She'd moved to the United States when she was eleven.
"Whatever," she said.
She pushed a five across the table for her drink, taking satisfaction in the knowledge that it had cost six dollars. Nate, cheap fuck though he was, wouldn't want to sound cheap by saying anything.
Then she remembered something from earlier in the evening. They'd run into an acquaintance over dinner, a slightly chilly, intimidating woman, an editor who wielded a certain amount of power, relative to the two of them anyway. The woman had mispronounced Aurit's name. "Aw-REET," Nate had corrected, smiling with just the right hint of flirtation to dispel any suggestion of a reprimand. "Don't worry, it took me almost a year to get it right."
It was nice of him, to take that on for her, to save her from having to do it herself or forever cringe when the woman said "OR-it."
No, he wasn't all bad.
"Hey," he said now. "You still haven't told me how things went with Carter the other day."
Carter was Aurit's ex. Thoughtful of Nate to remember that she and Carter were having coffee. Wasn't it? Taking an interest. That was another one of Nate's good qualities.
"It was okay," she said. "Bittersweet."
She tucked some hair behind her ear and glanced at the surrounding tables, double-checking that no one she knew was within earshot. "We talked mostly about general stuff — books, the news — and when he did talk about himself, he sounded mature and self-aware. I actually started to wonder if I'd been wrong about him. Then I realized it's part of the act he puts on with people he feels he needs to impress. It's how he was when we first started dating. When he lets down his guard, you see his true colors — the whininess and self-pity. That's the real him, or at least too big a part of it to ignore."
"Ouch," Nate said.
"I know. It's sad. He's a nice guy, in his way. He just doesn't realize that not everyone is so, I don't know, externally focused, so in need of validation."
Nate nodded. He knew the backstory well.
They continued to talk about Carter for a while, long after Aurit had finished her drink.
As they stood up to go, Nate asked her who was likely to be at Iris's the following night.
"It's the first time in a while I'll be single on New Year's," he remarked as he put on his coat.
Nate had broken up with his long-term girlfriend Elisa just a couple months before.
"I wouldn't expect too much," Aurit said. "As a holiday, it's overrated."
Nate zipped up his jacket to the top and grinned. "We'll see."
* * *
When Aurit and Nate had first become friends, Nate was already dating Elisa, and Aurit had just started seeing Carter.
Their friendship had begun in a charming and somewhat old-fashioned way, Aurit thought. She had written a piece, later to become the basis for the book she was now working on, about her family, and about Israel and Israelis, the political and the personal, and how ideology and gender and personality had intersected in her household when she was growing up, as her father, a committed socialist, tyrannized her mother, who managed somehow to be both self-effacing, in terms of her marriage, and peculiarly egocentric in other respects. Nate, whom Aurit knew only casually from parties, wrote her an e-mail about how much he liked the essay.
He said he was working on a novel about his family, and that made him especially appreciative of how she'd rendered deeply rooted, multilayered dynamics. He was very generous, the opposite of arrogant. Though she didn't know him well, she'd expected arrogance from him — he had a cocky vibe. But he wrote, with a humility that was all the more touching in a guy, that he'd learned a lot from reading her piece.
After such an e-mail, it was only natural that they met up for a drink. The evening had turned into one of those great friend dates. They talked about writing and about their families. They drank a lot. From the beginning, Aurit had felt some part of herself relax when she was with him. She could shut off the part of her brain that was always monitoring whether she was talking too much, being "selfish," and needed to ask a question, to shift the focus away from herself and her opinions. He had a healthy ego and a brash combativeness that told her he was more than comfortable breaking in if he had something he wanted to say.
They began to see quite a lot of each other, meeting for dinner or drinks or a walk in the park almost every week. It was perfectly platonic — after all, they were both involved with other people. For Aurit, the timing was perfect. She was just then beginning to worry that she was too old — too risk-averse or in too much of a rut — to make new friends and would have to make do with the ones she had, or wait for significant life changes (marriage, parenthood) to push her into new situations and alter her social map.
It was also nice to be reminded how powerful friendship could be, how enlivening. She could pretty much count on having a good time when she and Nate got together. The rhythm of their conversation was different from (though not better than) the rhythm of conversation with her women friends. She could be more blunt with Nate. With women, the posing of any point of disagreement had to be couched very, very carefully and accompanied with elaborate caveats and overt expressions of general sympathy and fellow feeling.
Aurit valued her women friends intensely for the intelligence and humor and compassion they brought to bear in discussing personal and professional life, but she had always liked having both male and female friends. In college, and for a long time after, she'd had many guy friends, but in the last few years the number had begun to dwindle. Some lived far away. Others had married or were in serious relationships that didn't lend themselves to a close friendship with a woman. One friendship ended after Aurit and the guy had, in a moment of loneliness or desperation, foolishly tried dating and ended up eroding years of mutual goodwill.
But she would have welcomed Nate's friendship at any time. Not only was he fun to argue with, he was also very interested in the personal and unusually insightful for a guy. Initially, they talked a lot about her relationship with Carter because that was what was on her mind. In some ways, Nate, rather than Iris or Esther, her two closest friends at that point, had been her primary confidant about Carter — he seemed to understand well the ambivalence she felt, ambivalence of a sort that was unfamiliar to her.
Carter was nine years older than she was. At first he had dazzled her. He'd published his first novel, to some acclaim, when he was twenty-six. Now he was thirty-seven, and he'd written two more. He and Aurit had met at a party, had a long impassioned conversation about the state of journalism and about Israel, about the settlements and the Palestinians. When he asked for her e-mail, she'd been extremely flattered. She felt chosen.
She saw now that his stature in the publishing world had played a role in how she saw him. Everything he said or did, every only moderately well-informed opinion he ventured about Israeli politics, every self-deprecating joke or question about her life or location he suggested for a date, had a special charm because it came from a handsome older novelist. She wasn't proud of this — she didn't like to think of herself as a person who judged other people on their résumés — but she was too clear-eyed not to be aware of it.
To her surprise, she soon learned that Carter was unhappy about his career. What had seemed to Aurit to be a towering perch of success felt very different to him. Sales of his past two novels had disappointed. He'd written another book that hadn't been published. His financial situation was deeply precarious and he was constantly nervous about checks bouncing or credit cards being rejected. He talked incessantly about the time when his first novel was published, and in such wistful language that you would have thought it was not only the highlight of his life but the most important cultural moment of their era. Within weeks, Aurit found herself going from smitten to, well, almost feeling pity for Carter. Not because it turned out that he wasn't as successful as she had thought — he was still a much bigger deal than she was — but because his whole fixation on success was off-putting. Also, he lacked any humor about himself.
Maybe, Aurit mused to Nate, acclaim had come too early for Carter? He hadn't had a chance to develop a more mature — that is, a more detached — attitude toward it. Instead, he craved admiration like a drug addict pining for the lost high. If only, she said to Nate, Carter could have devoted as much tender sympathy and care to any other pursuit as he did to mourning the loss of his past glory, he might have done something useful and gotten out of his hole. He also, she said to Nate, seemed to care little about the content of novels, his own or other people's, but talked only about their sales and critical reception. Aurit suspected his writing was merely a vehicle to get back the status he coveted.
Nate, hearing all this, played devil's advocate. He suggested, for example, that it was easier for Carter to talk about sales and reviews because those things were concrete, and maybe he was embarrassed to rhapsodize about the quality of his own books. Nate said Aurit was being too harsh. She should keep in mind that Carter was going through a rough time, give him a break. Yet Nate unintentionally played a role in her breakup with Carter. After a while, Aurit had noticed that she often preferred Nate's company to Carter's. Nate seemed to like her more than Carter did. Carter, Aurit came to feel, wanted the sympathy of an admiring young woman, but the specifics of her individual self didn't seem to concern him much. While Aurit was initially amused to be cast in this role — she had always seen herself as too prickly and opinionated to play the particular part of the wide-eyed ingenue — the novelty quickly wore off.
Carter seemed to like that she was "exotic," by which he meant ethnic. He said WASPy women tended to be colder, both emotionally and intellectually. His comfort level with such ethnic generalizations was disconcerting — as was the fact that he did not seem, in practice, to appreciate her intellectual "warmth." When she expressed an opinion that didn't mesh with his, he seemed to feel harassed. Once she'd remarked, for example, that the problem, even for socialist countries, is that those people who are deeply committed to ideals of any sort are unlikely to hold power; political power goes to those who will do whatever needs to be done to amass it, for whom non-pragmatic ethical commitments don't much register. Granted, it was a cynical statement, and it would have been fine if Carter had disagreed, but his response was chilling. He seemed to scowl darkly, annoyed that she'd said something complicated, something not in keeping with the way people of their "set" saw things. Socialism, at least the lite Western European variety, was to be held up as nearly perfect, though sadly too advanced for a place as barbarous as the United States.
In contrast, Nate was invariably interested and eager to know where she was coming from. When they disagreed, which was a lot of the time, he was open to being persuaded by her arguments, convinced beforehand that whatever her reason was, it would be worth hearing. He seemed to take an actual pleasure in her mind; he wanted to know what she thought. Honestly, when she was with Nate, Aurit could feel that he thought she was fascinating, and that was heady. It was also a reminder of something she wanted in a boyfriend.
Excerpted from New Year's by Adelle Waldman. Copyright © 2014 Adelle Waldman. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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