From the critically acclaimed author of The Legacy comes a riveting new novel about a group of friends whose longtime tensions and rivalries are suddenly exposed after one of them dies suddenly.
A WASHINGTON SQUARE PRESS P APERBACK ORIGINAL THEY WERE ORIGINALLY FIVE.
Elliot. Brian. Tallis. Cameron. And Dylan—charismatic Dylan—the mediator, the man each one turned to in a time of crisis. Five close friends, bonded in college, still coming together for their annual trip to Las Vegas. This year they are four. Four friends, sharing a common loss: Dylan’s tragic death. A common loss that, upon their arrival in Vegas, will bring with it a common threat: one that will make them question who their departed friend really was, and whether he was ever worthy of their grief.
“Brimming with blackmail and deception” and “laced with simmering emotional tension” (Australian Bookseller & Publisher), A Common Loss is a hypnotic tale from an exciting new voice in literary fiction.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.34(w) x 8.06(h) x 0.94(d)|
About the Author
Kirsten Tranter grew up in Sydney and studied English and Fine Arts at the University of Sydney. She lived in New York between 1998 and 2006, where she completed a PhD in English on Renaissance poetry at Rutgers University. She now lives in Sydney with her husband and son. Visit KirstenTranter.com.
Read an Excerpt
The surprising weight of the animal is the thing that strikes me most. My shoulders, neck, arms, all strain with the effort of trying to lift it even an inch or two off the road, enough to get any traction. I exhale, loosen my hold, and try again, but it won’t budge. Patches of its fur are bright in the surrounding darkness, as though spotlit, as though the car headlights are still on and bearing down on it, but that can’t be right. A sense of panic edges in as I contemplate the impossibility of the task. It is too heavy. But if we leave it here, someone else will crash into it. We have to move it. This might be a conversation that actually happens with one of the others, or an exchange of reason and reluctance inside my own head.
Another set of hands takes the deer, helping me, and suddenly it feels lighter by a tremendous degree. We lift it together, with effort, but nothing like the impossible, body-breaking strain of before. I feel a surge of gratitude and relief. Its neck hangs down at a lifeless angle, pale and spotted. We carry it off the road, dragging it up the low embankment and a few feet farther than we probably need to, just to the line of trees, and let it down slowly: haunch, torso, shoulder, curve of neck, head, and the legs and hooves, while a scattering of leaves and pine needles cushions it against the ground. The other hands brush against each other as though rinsing it off. They’re Dylan’s, of course, olive-skinned and finely shaped, and I find myself wondering at the strength contained in his slim body, the strength that helped me lift the deer, which is still strangely luminescent. I look up to thank him, and that’s when I notice the blood on his hands—his own or the deer’s, I can’t be sure—and the trickle of it on his face from his temple to his jawline, and meet his expectant gaze.
I’m aware of the crunch of feet on dry leaves—a heavy tread, uneven, stumbling—and then the sound of the car horn wakes me and I realize it’s the blare of the alarm clock, and I open my eyes to find my room silent, the clock showing an hour or two earlier than I need to be awake.
I think the others struggled with dreams about the accident, too. Every night for the first week afterward, several times I’d be hurled awake by the sensation of the car turning over and crashing to a stop: the last second or two that I couldn’t consciously recall when I was awake. All the rest I remembered in maddeningly complete detail: the pale flash of the deer’s body and face on the dark, empty road, my relief that Cameron was braking, not swerving, as the driving instructors had always said to do; panic as Cameron’s instinct to avoid the animal kicked in and the car began to turn, his hands on the wheel trying to correct; and then the long moment when the car left the road, traveling fast, launched into the air, and rolled—once, twice. It landed upside down. That’s the part I don’t remember, the landing, but I do remember having to climb through from the backseat and out the open front passenger window with a sense of it being strange to do so with everything pointing wrong way up.
Shock does that, activates some part of the brain that records every minute detail of experience and sensation, and at the same time shuts down others. The contrast has always seemed bizarre to me, the way that a complete blank is immediately preceded by that acute sense of detailed recall where time is slowed down, virtually reshaped, so that the passage of two seconds takes five times as long to move through in memory as it did in life. Hyperconsciousness followed straight away by something like loss of consciousness.
I didn’t lose consciousness in any literal sense. I don’t think any of us did, except perhaps Cameron, who might have been out for a moment after the impact. But by the time I pulled myself out of the car, the others were all out as well, or in the process of getting out. I followed Brian, who had been sitting in the back with me, with Tallis in the middle seat between us. Brian waited for me, and we walked over to the others a few feet away, Cameron sitting with his head in his hands, Tallis lying down with his knees bent and feet on the ground, and Dylan standing, swaying slightly, with that trickle of blood down his face.
We’d come to a stop in a small clearing, surrounded by tall, old pines that we had somehow, miraculously, avoided crashing into. I stared at every one of those trees, imagining the car crumpled headfirst against the trunk and all of us trapped and injured inside; but we weren’t and I wasn’t. I was out of the car, not trapped. I was numb with adrenaline, in no pain.
The dreams about the actual impact—if I could call them that, since they weren’t accompanied by images and consisted solely of those one or two seconds of bodily sensation—stopped coming with such regularity after the first week. The dream about the deer didn’t come until weeks, or maybe even months, later. The weird thing is that I don’t actually remember carrying the deer away like that.
My recall of what happened after I pulled myself out of the car is patchy and unclear—the other more predictable aspect of shock once the trauma is over. I remember sitting and trying to figure out exactly how much my neck hurt, and looking at the others to make sure they all had use of their limbs and were conscious. I don’t know if any of us spoke.
Cameron made it to the road and a car stopped for him. The driver, an older guy with long, thin hair pulled back in a ponytail, happened to be a nurse. We wanted a ride—I think that’s what Cameron tried to explain to him—but he looked us over and pulled out his phone and called an ambulance for us. I lay down. Cameron lay down next to me after the nurse guy told him to.
I don’t remember there being a dead deer by the side of the road when we went over to meet the ambulance, but that could just be memory omission. Sometimes I think back and picture a dark, formless mass where the tarmac ended and the dirt began. Maybe I did move the deer with Dylan’s help. Maybe we never actually hit the deer at all; maybe Cameron’s swerve that nearly killed all of us actually saved the life of the deer. Sometimes in my memory of climbing out of the car there’s a massive crack in the windshield, a spiderweb of fractures, but that could have been made, I suppose, by Cameron’s head, or Dylan’s; I don’t like to think about it.
I thought about asking them, Dylan or one of the others, whether we hit the deer, whether we moved it, whether it was lying there when the ambulance came, but it was harder to do that than you might expect. We didn’t talk about the accident, although there were times during the first two weeks afterward when each of us said something about how it was hard to stop thinking about it, and how much we wanted to forget it. I mentioned the body-hurled-through-space dream to Tallis and Brian when we were walking together one night through campus, and they both nodded as though they knew what I was talking about. But apart from that, it wasn’t a common topic of conversation. The question of the deer didn’t seem all that important.
At some point much later I started to think that whether or not it was based on any actual event, the dream showed something about my relationship with Dylan and his signal ability to provide thoughtful forms of assistance, my dependence on him. It seemed to encapsulate all this in such a perfect, crystalline form that I became unwilling to mention it to anyone else, afraid that it exposed too much.
The flashlit form of the deer in the dream is, most of the time, exactly consonant with how I remember seeing it from the car, its head turned to face us in the frosty New England night. I call it a deer, but it should properly be called a doe; a female, perfect as a statue, beautifully colored in tones of grayish brown and fawn and white. It’s so still, and its expression so blank and calm, that it radiates diffuse symbolic potential: innocence, nobility, iconic femininity, something virtuous, something wild and sacred and out of bounds.
I felt that even at the time of the crash, and I remember swinging in and out of a state of superstitious paranoia as we waited for the ambulance, as though we had all been involved in a crime that would require ritual forms of punishment or atonement. We were driving a Saturn, or was it a Mercury? Cars with the names of gods and planets. A sickle moon hung above the trees; it looked cold and malevolent and I thought of Diana, the huntress, the goddess associated with the moon (I must have been reading Elizabethan poems or plays in my literature course at the time), unable to shake the idea that we had violated some arcane taboo.
We had all been drinking that night, more or less, and I must have been processing the fact that it was a bad thing for Cameron to have wrecked his car in those circumstances. Dylan had drunk the least. He was on antibiotics for a chest infection, a ragged cough that he’d been joking about for a week or so, saying that it made him feel like John Keats and then reciting lines from the ode about being half in love with easeful death—melodramatic, self-mocking. So he wasn’t supposed to drink, and he’d stuck to ginger ale or Diet Coke for most of the night.
I didn’t think about any of this while we were sitting there. But when the ambulance arrived and Dylan staggered over to the doctors or EMTs or whatever they were and said, “I’m the driver,” his voice firm and edged with guilt, I understood what he was doing after only a brief second of wondering whether my memory was even more screwed up than I suspected. It didn’t shake me out of my superstitious state of fear, though; instead it seemed only to drive it further in.
I dimly registered that people in uniform were asking him to breathe into a machine that tested the alcohol in his blood, and I looked away. One of the ambulance people made a comment about how lucky it was that we were wearing seat belts. A sense of what could have happened started to dawn on me then, and nausea slowly rose. It was difficult to adjust to the idea that we were all alive, that this wasn’t a trick of some kind, that we hadn’t landed in an uncanny sort of afterlife that looked a lot like life but felt like something else altogether, numb and surreal.
And then we were in the ambulance, with Cameron laid out on the stretcher, his head supported by bright blue foam blocks, smiling wearily and saying that he was fine, just his neck and head were aching, and his arm, maybe. … The sickle moon was gone from sight and all the mysterious significance of the night evaporated, leaving me with just a sickening hope that Cameron really was OK. We drove away, and soon all I could think about was the growing ache that radiated out from between my shoulder blades as the immediate anesthetic of the shock wore off.
I never thought of myself as the center of the group; does anyone ever think that? I don’t know. I wasn’t. As an outsider you can sometimes judge fairly quickly where the center of gravity is in any given group of friends, the person who provides the glue that keeps everyone else stuck to one another, the leader. I don’t think it would have been that easy to pick the leader from among our five. Tallis, maybe, would have stood out as a contender, with his height, his breadth, his sunny, easygoing arrogance, but that wouldn’t have been quite right.
An onlooker might have picked Dylan. He was the most charming, and good with people. He didn’t fit the profile of a leader exactly; he didn’t hold us together by setting an example we wanted to follow or being someone we had to impress, but he did perform a kind of mediating role. That was part of his charm, I suppose, the ability to defuse a situation, to turn a conversation away from a direction of conflict and back toward amiability without anyone even noticing. It was only later, when you tried to remember who had won the argument, that you realized it had never been resolved at all but had been replaced by a conversation about something else, something tangential that had seemed relevant—essential—at the time.
If any one of us had gone like that, died suddenly the way that Dylan did, it might have had a similarly disruptive impact on the shape of what was left of the group. Each of us played a different role, and the disappearance of any one of us would have made its own pattern of explosion, dissolution, fracture.
It happened ten years after we graduated, another accident involving a car, this time on a city street. A city expressway, slick with January rain; the standard case of a big car traveling fast and not seeing the bicycle in its blind spot before it speeds up to change lanes or make an exit …
By March, we were all still dealing with the aftershocks of grief, its strange and unpredictable stages and effects. That’s how I explained to myself the difficulties of dealing with my friends as we prepared for our annual visit to Las Vegas in spring break. We’d been making this trip every year since leaving college, a reunion of sorts, and none of us had raised the possibility of canceling it this time. If anything, it seemed more important than ever to go. But as the intended time grew closer, tensions between us worsened. Arguments over dates, hotels, petty details. I dreaded the phone calls, the emails; I dreaded the visit itself.
Natasha was the first person who seemed to understand something about why Dylan’s death had the effect that it did, of pulling us apart at the seams. At the time I knew her only as a friend of Elizabeth, who had been hired as a junior professor the previous year, like me, and had an office on the floor below mine, in the art history wing of the building. Natasha was Russian, with dark hair and long bangs that were always falling into her eyes. She knew Elizabeth through some connection with Elizabeth’s long-distance lover, a recent PhD on a fellowship at a university in California. We were all eating lunch at the café on the ground floor of my building, the humanities block where I teach in the English faculty. I was complaining about how impossible it was becoming to organize the trip, how exhausting it was to handle my friends and their increasingly annoying issues, venting all my resentment, being petulant and self-pitying about it.
“I thought something like that would bring you closer together,” Elizabeth said. “With some of them at least. How many of you are there? Five?”
“Four,” I said. “Now, that is. There’s four of us.”
“Of course,” she said. “Sorry.”
Natasha shrugged. “I get it,” she said. “It all falls apart.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s fallen apart,” I said, alarmed at the idea. Losing one of us had made me dwell more often on what it would be like to lose anyone, everyone.
Natasha twisted her mouth regretfully, a small movement, and shared a look with Elizabeth. She irritated me; it was impossible that she could even really see out of her right eye, the way her bangs fell over it. I was even more irritated by the desire I was fighting, a desire to brush her hair away, a gesture that seemed to hover disturbingly halfway between a shove and a caress. My hands felt heavy and strange. One rested on my thigh and the other held on to my plastic fork.
“It’s early days,” Elizabeth said. “You’re still grieving. It could still work out between all of you.”
She brushed some crumbs off her folder of slides with a delicate hand. She studied Renaissance gardens, and the walls of her office were filled with beautiful architectural drawings. But no plants or pictures of plants, I’d noticed.
She’d assumed a sort of maternal attitude toward me after Dylan’s death, always offering to have conversations about him if I wanted to talk, inviting me to lunch and drinks with other people every week, as though it was her responsibility to make sure I wasn’t withdrawing into a cave of isolation and grief. I found myself willing to accept the attention, although I never wanted to talk with her about Dylan.
It was too hard to explain the weird coherence of the group, the way it seemed to exist properly only as a collective of five and just didn’t make sense in the same way when there were fewer. I couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like if it had been me who had died. What would have happened then? Perhaps my disappearance would not cleave the group apart but would leave a gap that simply sealed up with time, like skin closing up after a minor wound, leaving only a tiny scar and, eventually, no real sign at all.
I suppose I saw myself as marginal to the group, never quite knitted into it in the same way, or as intensely and uncritically, as the others. This was probably part of a desire to see myself always as the detached, intelligent observer. I grew into being comfortable with that position, especially as time moved on and I made other friends after college. But when I thought about what this distance meant, finishing my meal with Elizabeth and Natasha that day, it bothered me. If I was less knitted in, I could be more easily, more painlessly, excerpted than any of the others.
It wasn’t a comforting idea. My first response was a rush of fear. I felt myself to be, for a moment, invisible, immaterial; for one irrational second, my companions at the table, the whole small café, the building, the campus, seemed impossibly dense and solid, and I was impossibly not, as though I had become my own ghost.
The feeling passed. Natasha kicked me under the table, accidentally it seemed, although I wondered. A desire overcame me to talk with my friends, with Brian or Cameron or Tallis, to prove to myself that I meant something to them, and they meant something to me, after all.
I pushed my plate away. A sad quarter of a sandwich and a wilting slice of tomato and parsley garnish were left.
Elizabeth said, “Elliot, you need to eat. You know that,” appealing to Natasha to support her. But Natasha narrowed her eyes at me and didn’t respond.
“I want a cigarette,” I said. Since the funeral I’d taken up smoking again in a halfhearted way.
Natasha surprised me. “I’ll join you,” she said, and rose. “I need a refill first.”
She topped up a battered thermos with coffee from the stale-smelling urns behind us. Elizabeth said good-bye and stopped to talk to one of her students, who greeted her anxiously.
Natasha and I sat on a stone bench outside in front of the café windows. It was a cold spring, and the bench had been in shade all day. She pulled her black coat tight around her body. I was suspicious of her—that look she had given me a minute before made me think I couldn’t trust her at all—and didn’t offer anything to say. We smoked for a minute in silence.
“I lost a friend once,” she said.
I waited for her to continue. “A close friend?” I asked eventually.
She nodded. She lifted a hand, the one holding the cigarette, to her face and rubbed a spot above her eye, just on her eyebrow. It didn’t do anything to dislodge the weight of dark hair that fell back into place.
I wondered how it had happened. A variety of scenarios went through my mind—train wrecks full of people screaming, a surfer caught in a freak tide out at sea, a muted hospital ward with nurses soundlessly patrolling. A terrible car crash. Overblown, exaggerated scenes.
“Stabbing,” Natasha said simply. “That was back in Ukraine.” She smiled at me, a wry smile with half her mouth. She had an accent, but I had never noticed it so strongly before.
I hadn’t smoked much of my cigarette, and it had half burned down into ash. Natasha took a drink from her coffee thermos. My mouth felt dry, and I wanted to drink some, too.
I felt sure that Natasha’s stabbed friend had been really close, a friend of hers, belonging to her, not like Dylan was to me—one of a group of friends that had been close in college and since then had been going through the motions, keeping an idea alive beyond its proper expiration date. That’s what I thought, with a sense as keen as I had ever felt of the group as being dead and purposeless. The feeling of loss that came over me a second later was a complete surprise.
“Dylan died in a car accident,” I said, and corrected myself: “Well, a bike accident—he was riding a bike, he was hit by a car …” I had to stop, because my voice got stuck.
Natasha sighed, a small breath that barely moved her body, and gave a faint nod. It was nothing like the earnest sympathy Elizabeth had offered me over the past weeks.
We sat in silence for a moment, and I watched her cigarette burn down as she held it between her fingers with their glossy black nail polish. Words began to form in my mind, phrases ready in response to the questions I expected, the routine questions about where it happened, how long we’d been friends, how old Dylan was, but she didn’t ask for more details. The responses I’d been planning all dropped away. I wanted to tell her more but wasn’t sure what, exactly, only that it wasn’t like whatever I’d just been thinking about.
Two students approached the table close to our bench, dragging the metal chairs with a scrape across the ground as they sat down, and the moment was broken. One of them I recognized from a class I’d taught the previous semester, but she was too absorbed in conversation with her friend, or boyfriend probably, to notice me.
Natasha ground her cigarette under her heel on the concrete slab under the bench, brusque and detached. I was left with the sense that she had extracted a kind of confession from me without even trying.
But it wasn’t a confession that would have meant anything much to her. She stood and pulled the belt of her coat neatly closed, and gave me an affectionate smile—it was almost patronizing, and my awe turned slightly to indignant outrage. She raised her hand in farewell. “Bye, Elliot. Take care.”
I nodded and returned her wave. She strode away in her high-heeled boots, shoulders tightly lifted.
I went back inside and upstairs to my office. It was my second year at the college, but it still felt at times as though I was on probation and the place didn’t really belong to me yet. I closed the door, against the unspoken department policy that everyone’s door was always left ajar, and glanced at the stack of library committee reports and minutes in a folder on my desk.
I’d been sitting on the committee since the beginning of semester and had walked into a deeply factionalized argument over funding for various collections that had begun long before my arrival at the university. Lately those discussions had been pushed down the agenda, to my relief, by emergency talks over the fire-safety issues revealed by a recent report, which had recommended closing the research stacks to students altogether until major building work had taken place. No one wanted to close the stacks, or at least no one wanted to be responsible for closing them. Everyone wanted to keep the report as quiet as possible.
The report had given me a whole new, disturbing perspective on the shelves of books that lined the room. Since reading about the vivid scenarios proposed in the report (fire on the top floor that spread rapidly down, trapping students toward the back of the building with no exits; flames jumping from shelf to shelf as all that stacked and bound paper ignited), every time I sat at my desk I confronted a vision of the whole wall bursting into flame. Sometimes it was frightening or simply depressing; today was one of those days where the prospect was strangely exhilarating.
I picked up the phone intending to make the call I’d thought of making earlier, to one of my college friends. But my mind went blank and I couldn’t think which one of them I wanted to talk to. The receiver was in my hand as I turned the question around in my mind—which one, what time was it where they were, where were their numbers? I placed the receiver back against the telephone.
There was a picture of the five of us in a frame on one of the bookshelves. It was maybe three or four years old, shot somewhere in Vegas, by the pool at the Mirage, I seemed to remember, but I wasn’t sure who had taken it—had Brian set the camera to shoot automatically? We were sitting all in a row on a bench. The sky was pale and bright behind us, a white blink of sunlight in the corner of the picture. Dylan was in the center, wearing a sweet, knowing smile, brown hair grown long and pushed back from his face. High cheekbones, dark eyes, his features almost feminine from one perspective. You would have called him beautiful as well as handsome. The camera caught some aspect of his looks perfectly, crystallized it so that there never seemed to be a bad picture of him. For a while he had worked as a model, in his last year of high school. He’d found it demoralizing, he told me, and boring, and had recounted the strangeness of once sitting on the bus opposite a schoolgirl carrying a bulky homework folder that was covered in pictures of himself, cut out from magazines.
Dylan had always been attractive to men as well as to women. I’d never known him to be interested in that direction, but here in this picture I could see it more clearly than ever, the somehow universal aspect of his attraction, the absolutely seductive quality of his gaze, as though the camera were a secret lover.
Brian was on his left, one arm around Dylan’s shoulder, looking as if he was about to speak to someone outside the frame, mouth halfway open, face in profile. He looked relaxed, earnest as usual, but happy, too, his face lit up with energy; there was an easy swing to his legs, one crossed over the other, ankle on knee, and with his arm thrown casually over Dylan’s shoulder he looked almost athletic. On Dylan’s other side was Cameron, tired around the eyes, his smile close-lipped and ironic. It must have been the year the twins were born. He sat a little forward, elbows resting on his knees, hands loosely clasped. Tallis was at the end of the row next to Cameron, the tallest one, fair hair turned to gold in the sun, his face open in a wide, exuberant grin, almost blurred with motion. One hand was raised, holding a can of something, beer or soda. I was at the other end next to Brian, arms folded, the only one with glasses. They were my old pair, round lenses with thin tortoiseshell rims that appeared childish to me now. I bought a new pair when I got the new job: squarish, dark frames.
The ring of the phone startled me. I answered it. “Elliot West.”
“Hey, Elliot. It’s Brian.”
My heart lifted. We had a connection after all, it wasn’t a dead effort at friendship—somehow it seemed as though my desire to talk with him (with one of them) had reached him and been answered. This feeling sank just as quickly as our conversation progressed. Brian’s tense voice held virtually nothing in common with the relaxed person in the photograph on the shelf. He was complaining about the choice of dates for the trip, trying to enlist my support in talking Tallis into changing them yet again. Dylan had been a good mediator. I was crap at it, and yet somehow the task had fallen to me in these particular negotiations.
Brian had fallen out with Cameron two years previously, and now neither of them spoke to the other much beyond the simple necessities. It seemed as though neither wanted to be responsible for breaking the whole thing up, and neither wanted to be the one who withdrew. Pride, denial, attachment to the rest of us. They kept it civil most of the time, but it caused problems when we were organizing the details of the Vegas trips, which happened mostly by email. Brian would reply to the group but leave Cameron out every now and again, and the rest of us wouldn’t notice until it was too late and a whole round of negotiating about dates and details had already happened—then we would have to bring Cameron back into the loop, and he’d be irritated and argue over the dates just for the sake of it, and so on. Something like that had happened now.
“I don’t know, Brian,” I said. “Why are you asking me? I can’t do the Wednesday, I told you. The Thursday and Friday is better. Or the next week.”
“Why not? Remind me,” he said impatiently.
“It’s the dates of the break. I have a faculty meeting. I can’t miss it. I can’t get away until Thursday. Even that’s pushing it.”
“Right, right. OK. It’s just such a hassle, you know? Cameron’s being so rigid about it as usual—”
“Just talk to Tallis. I’ve given him my dates.”
“And let’s hope he doesn’t put us in some place like that fucking medieval theme park he got for us last time.”
I tried to be patient. I looked out the window as we talked, at the bicycle racks and trash cans down below at the entrance to the building, and across the narrow road at the scaffolded musicology building, which was undergoing a seemingly endless renovation.
Brian complained about Cameron and Tallis for a while more and then seemed to lose steam. We exchanged comments about how good it would be to see each other. I waited for him to let me go. There was a long pause, and then he spoke. “There’s something else, something I need to tell you and Tallis. For the booking and everything.” He paused again.
“What?” I asked.
“I’m bringing someone,” he said apologetically. “I’m bringing Cynthia.”
“Whoa.” My attention snapped back from the window, where I’d been counting the railings on the bicycle rack, noticing the bent ones. “Cynthia?”
“You know, this girl I’ve been seeing for a while. We’re moving in together at the end of the summer, it’s serious. She’s coming. She wants to meet all you guys, she’s interested in Vegas … I said it was OK.”
“But we have the rule.”
It was more like an understanding than a rule—there weren’t rules, exactly, but after all this time there were customs that felt like ancient law. We didn’t bring girlfriends. It was something to do with wanting the freedom to flirt with other women, but there was something else, too, the more intangible sense that the time we spent together there was about us, about the friendships, focused on one another rather than on the other significant relationships in our lives. It was a sure sign of aging when relationships got serious enough that the partner would have to be included in every social activity. We had all felt the pressure of these distant-seeming things since Cameron had got married and had children and made it all seem scarily closer and more possible, but for him there had been no question of bringing Marie and the girls. If anything, he’d become more enthusiastic about the trip despite his conflict with Brian, for the element of escape it offered from his overburdened life.
“I know,” Brian said. “But it’s all changed now, isn’t it? Now that Dylan won’t be there. Nothing about the whole trip will be the same. It’ll be a totally different thing.”
“But it’s the first time without Dylan,” I said, hating the feeling of saying it, acknowledging it. “I thought that would make it even more important for it to be just the four of us.”
“Come on, Elliot.”
I reflected on it, on my knee-jerk resistance to the idea, and wondered hazily where it was coming from, dismissed it. Wasn’t I the one who had been chafing against the annoying conventionality of the whole thing for so long now, complaining about the unchanging choice of venue, feeling myself detached and disinvested from the group, the experience, the relationships?
“You’re right,” I said. “It will be different, but that’s OK. Part of the whole moving-on experience.”
“Thanks, man.” Brian sighed with relief. “I knew you’d be the toughest to convince.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. How would Tallis feel, I wondered, about a female witness to his endless chase of the cocktail waitresses of Vegas? And I realized that he probably wouldn’t care at all.
“Cynthia’s great, you’ll love her,” Brian said, ignoring my question.
“She’s interested in Vegas?” I asked, remembering his earlier remark.
“Oh, yeah. She’s a grad student. You’ll relate to that.”
I wanted to remind him, forcefully, that I was in fact no longer a student, despite having been one for more years than I liked to admit.
“Cultural studies, something like that. She’s doing some kind of research on imitation versus authenticity. I think that’s it. Anyway, she’s been wanting to visit Vegas—she wants to write a paper about it, or a chapter.” He chuckled. “She wants me to make a documentary about the place. I told her it’s been done. But seriously, you know, I can’t stop her coming if she wants to. She won’t hang around all that much. She wants to see those fake Eiffel Tower buildings and the Venice canals and all that stuff.”
“OK. I said it’s OK.”
“Well, good, that’s great.”
“Where’s she studying?” I asked.
“Can’t wait to meet her.”
“Great. Awesome. She’s gonna love you. The two of you can sit down and compare notes. Looking forward to seeing you, man.”
As I hung up the phone I looked back out the window and noticed a familiar figure walking along one of the paths that crossed the lawn outside. It was Natasha, returning from the direction she’d taken when we’d parted earlier. There was a man in a dark overcoat coming toward her on one of the other paths; he caught up with her and they stood for a moment, talking, animated, before walking off together.
It was hard at first to identify the feeling of resentment I had, watching them make their way up the low hill toward the other side of campus, where she worked in the physics department on a research grant. He swept his graying hair back from his forehead and gestured with one hand in an unmistakably European way as he walked. She turned her face toward him and slowed for a moment and looked as though she was about to kiss him. I knew the feeling then. It was jealousy, of course.