Read an Excerpt
I must bring home a man. Sadly, only the bookish will avail to me tonight since there are just academics at Paul’s parties, dust to dust to dust. The early fall light is gorgeous over the iris skirt on the bed, and change the sheets, Hannah dearest, just on the off chance.
Six days minus Aletheia, and at least five sexless weeks before we finally ended. Why you’ve been eating so much. All that cheese. All the beef. Fat and greasy and grubby, the stained shirt. Why you’ve been reading so much. Ha.
The sunset has the range of shade that a thick cover of pollution produces as a consolation for city night lacking stars. Violet greens, pink navies, ruddy oranges flood Hannah’s attic apartment through a half-dozen skylights. Though Raymond lives in a basement, the weird light manages to startle him, too. August is coming to an end, and so is the evening. There will be parties everywhere tonight where people go to meet strangers who want to meet strangers. There will be a backyard crammed with candles in glass orbs and plenty of booze and a crowd.
If you are male, be five-foot-ten and weigh one hundred and sixty pounds. Be light-haired with blue eyes. Try to have a longish face, and be twenty-five. Your cheeks should be stubbled, and your back should be stooped from carrying bookbags exclusively on your right shoulder. You should also be a candidate for a doctorate in English literature on a seventeenth-century prose writer, preferably Robert Burton. A blue shirt with brown cords is the appropriate dress. In short, be Raymond.
If you are female, be five-foot-six and weigh one hundred and thirty pounds. Have dark eyes to set off your long dark hair. Wear no lipstick. Have two grey hairs already, though you are only twenty-four, and have slightly spaced teeth if at all possible. Wear a tight black shirt and a purple, tasteful skirt. Be smiling. Be Hannah.
Bring wine priced between nine and fourteen dollars.
Shouting over shouting, everyone in the packed kitchen is bubbling up. Young flesh senses the long winter coming. It’s as if the party is one big talk, springing from distinct places in gushes of the same laughter.
Hannah is pouring champagne into a clear plastic cup.
“Champagne,” Raymond says, “oh dear.”
Raymond rustles through a cabinet and comes up with a coffee mug and a line. “Everything is permitted now the champagne is out.”
She pours his Santa Claus mug full of bubbly stuff. “It does make the night more interesting.”
Where to get the best pork dumplings. The merits of echinacea. The poetics of automobile advertising. Che Guevara. The systems of South American ant colonies. Allergies to nickel.
“What are you here for?” Hannah asks Raymond.
“What am I here for? I was invited.”
“You know Paul.”
He nods. “And you?”
Hannah sips her champagne. “I’m here to meet men.”
A moment’s pause, while Raymond casts a critical gaze across the offerings of the room. “What about Jim?”
“Which one’s Jim?”
He points to a hippie leaning on the radiator across the room, a large-bearded man in jeans and a checked flannel shirt whose laughter drunkenly booms like dropped timpani over the light chatter. “I realize that I’ve just ruined it by pointing, but maybe it’s all for the best. It wouldn’t have worked out with Jim anyway. He’s married or something. How about Roger?” He bugs his eyes in the direction of a man in overalls. Hannah looks, arching her elegant neck to see the scruffy poseur affecting boredom beside the refrigerator. “The one in overalls. His name’s Roger. Actually I have no idea who he is. I made up the name.”
She frowns. “That one’s not bad. Excuse me.” She reaches for the champagne and refills their cups.
“My name’s Raymond,” he says.
“Hannah,” she replies.
They touch cups, and Raymond again scans the room, apparently displeased with its contents. “The pickings here really are a bit slim. I suggest we inspect the other rooms to see if this is all the night has to offer.”
Raymond and Hannah don’t look at other men. It so happens that a series of prints from the Yellow Book is hanging on the walls of Paul’s apartment. As they wander, Raymond gives elaborate explanations of the nineteenth-century etchings. The final images are in the bedroom, low above a futon overflowing with coats. The room is almost quiet; they are alone.
At least he doesn’t talk about himself all the time, but he does talk a lot, doesn’t he?
Not indirect. Not dressed like a whore. Not dressed great. Not desperate. Distinctly not ugly. Not an academic. Not society. Not unintelligent. Not poor. Better not drink too much. Waste not. Want not.
“It’s very beautiful,” Hannah says, stooping to level her eye with the picture of Salome inspecting John the Baptist’s head. “But you haven’t found me a man to take home.”
Raymond, standing, stares down at her crouched back. “It’s so hard to tell at parties like this. One stranger is as strange as the next. But Hannah, let us go back to the party to find you a man.”
Hannah sips her drink, and rises. “I do need more champagne.”
“What are you writing about?” Hannah asks. They are turned toward each other, leaning on the kitchen table now crammed with empties, full ashtrays and assorted garbage.
“Robert Burton. The Anatomy of Melancholy.”
“You’re doing a Ph.D. on melancholy. You’re an expert on melancholy.”
“I know nothing about melancholy. That’s why I study Burton. Can we please stop talking about this? I’m boring myself over here.”
“How do you know Paul then?”
“I knew his family back in Halifax.”
“When were you in Halifax?”
“Look at him.” Paul is slouched drunkenly against a banister on the other side of the apartment. “Looks like a football player, right?” She admits that he does fit the profile: six-four, two-forty, built. “His whole family are aesthetes of the highest order. Frail little English people. His brother, last time I saw him, was wearing a black crushed-velvet suit complete with green carnation.”
She is giggling over the rim of her cup. He takes a sip, a small one.
“It’s all rebellion. Paul got a football scholarship to university. It crushed his mother. He’s the one white sheep in the family.”
Her smile opens to a laugh, and she throws her hair back. Her crooked teeth are lovely. “Outside?” he offers.
They go out for air and find, in a corner of the yard darkened by wind-extinguished candles, two fold-out lawn chairs. Other guests heading in their direction turn aside at the sight of two strangers, probably exchanging secrets in the dark, in the garden.
While he is asking her if she makes it a habit to ask strangers to find her strangers, pigeon shit splatters on the shoulder of his jacket.
“Oh, honey,” she says, laughing.
Raymond excuses himself as decorously as a maître-d’. When he returns, he has washed the pigeon shit from his shoulder, and the fold-out chair, the seat beside the woman named Hannah, is still free.
“Isn’t there a saying that if a pigeon shits on you it brings good luck?” she asks.
“I’ve never heard that.”
“Well, if it does you must tell me.”
He looks up nervously into the branches overhead. “You don’t want to move, do you? No, that’s too stupid. Like lightning right?”
“You were asking me a question.”
“The answer is that yes, I have in fact asked other men to find me men, but neither finder nor found were strangers.”
“But that is more in the nature of reconnaissance. Not the same thing.”
“It’s close enough, Raymond.”
“It’s not close enough, Hannah. But I have a similar tale.” He pauses to fix the telling before he tells.
Secrets about sex. Both Raymond and Hannah recognize that the only way to pick up is to exchange secrets of a sexual nature. What other women do and do not do. Male fears and disgusts. Questions of etiquette: flirtation, penetration, deviation. Betray the past bit by bit. Kiss to tell to kiss. A woman who would never lie down. A man who always, without fail, brought fruit to bed. Strawberries. Pineapples. In a blessed place, it would be enough to describe a memorable orgasm. Instead, in this fallen world, conversation with potential lovers wobbles, searching always for the lower, more dangerous music.
Subtle intrusions of gentle wind extinguish the candles one by one. Their endings keep time more accurately than clocks. The dark presses in on Raymond and Hannah’s stories, and their stories rise up, one by one, like lighted candles. The sounds of the party inside drift past them and are gone.