This Is How It Starts is an incisively written debut novel about how far one postcollegiate idealist will go to be an insider in a town that is unyielding in what it will take from a person in exchange for granting him a margin of knowledge and power.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
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May 5, 2007; 2:00 p.m.
So this is how it starts:
I'm watching Chase Latham lift up the edge of my cousin's skirt beyond what can be considered polite or appropriate, and I'm just starting to regret introducing them to each other two years ago at that bar in Philadelphia when I see the horse stumble, before buckling at the knees and then collapsing -- dead -- in an equine pile of hoofs and hair and teeth. Unfortunately for the horse, at that particular moment every man in the Latham, Scripps, Howard, LLP tent is quietly wishing he was one of Chase Latham's sly, tan fingers, and every woman is fantasizing about being a patched square on Annalee's madras skirt, so time ticks by for a languid three minutes before anyone notices that the unlucky beast has died.
A man's voice crackles and breaks over a loudspeaker and when the feedback finally clears he announces that a horse named Prep School has won, Sophie's Choice has placed, Enola Gay Ol' Time has shown, and Light of Our Lives -- who was trailing in seventh place -- has failed to finish due to sudden death. A wave of low murmurs passes throughout the tent and its exterior and when -- thirty seconds later -- it's quieted, it's been publicly decided that Light of Our Lives was blessed with a fine life and has died honorably: for God, for country, for Gold Cup. I sip my gin and tonic and watch, half curious, half drunk, as a small cluster of girls in pretty flower dresses and boys in navy blue blazers with shiny buttons starts gathering at the rail closest to the horse's lifeless body. After a few minutes, the congregation of eight-year-olds grows and multiplies to about thirteen mourners who vigorously debate the cause of the horse's debilitated state ("sleeping," "tired," "horsey heaven" seem to be receiving the most votes). It's a funeral service of sorts, I suppose. It's something. Poking sticks and giggles aside, these are undoubtedly the best-dressed second graders in northern Virginia: brass buttons just polished and bows freshly tied. They're not grieving, that's true, but I'm sure that if they knew any better, they would be, and besides, the Gold Cup is this lavish affair, a celebration of sorts, and if there's a way to go, this is probably it, among the hats and the cigars and the pearls.
But then a fly lands on Light of Our Lives' black marble eye and the first of the eight-year-olds lets out a long, bellowing wail, which causes a mother to stop whispering about Annalee's lifted skirt long enough to intervene and disband the flock ("sleeping," it's decided, is the most probable cause). And I shake my head and I look at a single melting cube of ice in my empty cup as, around me, the world continues apace with some universal metronome whose beat, at least today, I've been unable to match.
The crowd's doing the waltz, see, and I'm tripping through a tango.
Maybe it's the bow tie, I think. After all, I've never worn one before and this one (pink seersucker) isn't even mine, it's Chase's, and the lesson he gave me in tying it was hurried and unsatisfactory, at best. I could loosen it, maybe, give my neck a bit of slack, some breathing room. But on second thought I'm not sure how these things work and a little slack could cause the whole thing to unravel and fall apart all together. And I'd ask Chase for his advice, but his hands are otherwise occupied.
Or maybe it's the empty cup. Yes. That's it. That's what it is; it's this sudden lack of gin, which I've always thought vaguely tastes of pinecones but for some reason seems to be more distinguished, classier, than vodka. No matter it's likely that intoxication has played accomplice to this sense of mal dans ma peau in the first place. At least if I'm blitzed I've got something else on which I can place blame for my disheveled hair and ill-fitting khakis -- something other than myself.
Latham, Scripps, Howard, LLP's tent is situated inconspicuously along an endless row of white cabanas that are hard to distinguish from one another, if distinguishable at all. In the Tanqueray + sun haze, I wander back into the tent's populated interior ("LSH Welcomes You to Gold Cup: Eat. Drink. Race!"), which, if a person didn't know any better, he could easily mistake for a modern re-creation of Versailles, circa 1665. I stumble through the throngs of plunging necklines and correctly constructed bow ties and make my way to the bar that, surprisingly, is empty, which I take as a sign of providence so I order another gin and tonic. As the bartender lets the Bombay waterfall into a clear plastic cup (one finger, two fingers, three fingers...) I brush my blond mop, which has become matted with humidity and sweat, away from my forehead and lean against the bar's high, wood countertop. The bartender -- a young man about my age wearing a white dinner jacket -- hands me my drink and gives me a nod.
"So, where's your money for the next race?" I say as he rearranges a series of bottles. We could be friends, this man and I -- buddies. Both intruders in this club of modern nobility.
"There's no formal betting at Gold Cup, sir," he says with a sneer. "Enjoy your fifth gin and tonic." Then again, maybe not.
I finish the drink in a single prolonged chug and order another before leaving the bar. Sixth gin and tonic, thank you very much. Comparisons to Versailles may be unfair -- exaggerated, I think, as I make my way through the crowded space. After all, there are no kings here, no divine monarchs or bejeweled thrones. There are votes and elections and a healthy and sedated middle class.
"And so I said, Madam Pelosi, my apologies, but my cuff links are being polished, so you'll have to settle for a shirt without French cuffs. But it's flattering that my reputation precedes me." Chase's father -- tall, impeccably dressed, Kip Latham's voice cuts above the din of the crowd. I spot him in the tent's opposite corner, surrounded by a sea of fans who erupt with laughter after each of his sentences. Kip thanks them by flashing a smile that's been crafted by an intimidating team of orthodontists and dentists from only the best practices along the eastern seaboard. For the past two and a half decades, Latham's been crafting his reputation as the District's most prominent Republican lobbyist. And from the looks of it, his blueprints have proven to be one of the more booming examples of social construction. The man's a caricature of success. His hair, flecked with streaks of silver that reflect the sun's glare like some precious metal, hasn't changed tones in twelve years. He has a collection of loafers that has received pictorial treatments in Washington Life, Capitol File, and Esquire. To date, he's the only man I'm aware of who possesses a preternatural knack for bullshitting that's actually feared, if not actively avoided, on both coasts and in portions of the Midwest. A lunch, a night at the theater, a Nationals game, eighteen holes; they all meant the same thing to a Republican congressman: he was about to be Kipped. He was about to be had, about to be convinced, beguiled, manipulated -- even if not for a single second he believed any of the words swimming gracefully from the man's mouth and into the open air. If Mr. Latham had been operating when Jesus was preaching his monotheistic madness, there would have been no cross or martyrdom or moving rocks. There would have been a misunderstanding; something that could be smoothed over with a little bread and a little wine and maybe (if the mood called for it) some dancing. No one would've had to share a cup.
And so maybe Versailles wasn't far off, after all.
Standing next to Kip like two silent Mazarins are the Pauls -- Scripps and Howard, respectively. If Latham hosts the palace feasts, these are the men who kill the boars and stuff the pheasants. They're stoic, I think, as I watch them maintain tight lips and stern faces through Kip's raucous (and likely inappropriate) jokes. Specimens, really; some kind of nod back to an old guard that I thought, at least before today, was a dying breed. They wear their graying hair -- which isn't nearly as brilliant or as coiffed or as godlike as Kip's -- in the same plantation-inspired southern "swoosh." Word is they both came from the Hill, where, a decade ago, they worked as chiefs of staff for two senators who had rhyming names. Kip managed to get ahold of them in a skybox at a Knicks game, which was provided courtesy of another top lobbyist, and since then both Pauls have narrowly escaped indictment on four separate occasions (one of which involved the death of a puppy). To soften their image as political assassins, both have had their wives (Bunny and Kitty) featured three times (holding puppies) in Southern Living. While Chase's father has spent the past fifteen years sculpting the face of an empire, these two men have been building the gears and pulling the strings and flipping the switches that make shit work. It's impressive, if not menacing and intimidating and -- according to Chase -- likely illegal.
And so I move, careful not to attract the Pauls' laser gazes, toward the mahogany table set at the center of the tent and start to forage as politely and inconspicuously as my current state of intoxication will allow. For the most part, the spread's what you'd expect at an event like this: expensive cheeses, fresh fruits, scallops wrapped in bacon that are kept warm on an elaborate chafing set fueled by tiny devices whose source of power and heat I can't quite comprehend. At the center of the table are two large pewter platters featuring mountains of dark caviar. I stare at the tiny eggs. Thousands and thousands and thousands of them. Murder, I think, before piling a large mound onto a tasteless cracker (spilling at least half down the front of my white oxford) and directing it into my mouth. Absolute murder. At least an entire generation of sturgeon has been wiped out. If only the little bastards could know how delicious they are. The Pauls start looking at me.
"Don't let the feds get ahold of that shirt, champ." I stop picking the tiny beads off my shirt and look up to see Chase (sans Annalee, hands respectfully in pockets). His lips start curling at the corners to form that Cheshire-cat smile. "Evidence of that caviar could get you five to ten." I stop chewing and consider spitting the roe out while trying to mentally calculate how many tiny undeveloped creatures are already swimming in my digestive tract. "I don't know how those sons of bitches do it," Chase continues, "but they do. Dad says something like 'wouldn't it be great if we could get our hands on something none of the other tents will have, something a little edgy.' And fucking voilà! The next day the Pauls show up with ten goddamned pounds of illegal fish eggs from Iran -- this shit the UN's actually banned. Can you believe that? Fucking illegal caviar. From Iran. Iran! Ten fucking pounds of it. Awesome." Chase pauses for a moment to reflect on the power and the beauty and the contraband, and then starts noticing how much of those ten pounds are staining my shirt and how my eyelids have started dropping a little more than they should in the early afternoon and adds, "Well, it looks like someone's been having a good time."
A man in all white carrying a tray of champagne flutes walks by and Chase grabs two of the glasses and shoves one of them into my chest. "Tough gig, huh?" he says, motioning toward the field. A pickup truck has pulled close to the track and Light of Our Lives' dead body lies in its bed, covered by a green tarp. "I bet Vance Alexander fifty bucks that fucker would win, and then he has to up and die on me. Goddamned horse." The truck rumbles, then jolts, and then drives slowly through a crowd of spectators who nod to the deceased beast in deference. He gave it his best shot.
Even though the champagne's become lukewarm, I finish the glass in two swallows before asking him where Annalee has gone. (I half expect him to tell me that she's waiting for him -- madras skirt off; a crumpled ball of orange and red -- in an empty bus on the outskirts of the field.)
He laughs. "She's fine. She's with her friends. Look." He points to another corner of the tent, where Annalee and two other girls who look just a little too much like her are talking in a circle that's as tight as their large hats will allow them to form. Big hats. Everywhere. We wave and she waves back. "Man, I thought Californians were supposed to be laid back! Maybe you should be the one we're worried about, huh?" He gives me a playful punch on the shoulder that, in my opinion, is a little too hard, a little too brash, coming from someone who's fucking my cousin. But he's mostly right, I think. He's mostly right because I'm the one who just moved here (forty-eight hours ago) and I'm the one who took a year off and went back to California after Chase and I graduated from Penn and I'm the one who's in a new place, new city, new job. I'm the one who's becoming increasingly aware of my own displacement. Annalee's been living comfortably and happily in Washington since she graduated Duke in '03, making her two years older than Chase and me. She's a pretty girl, I think, as I watch her awkwardly adjust the floral arrangement that's been strapped precariously to the top of her blond head. Stunning, almost. Though, really, she's never known it.
The flawless product of a mother whose obsessions include Vogue and cayenne pepper-based diets and a father who'd wished for an Aston Martin -- not a daughter -- Annalee spent most of her childhood staring into a mirror scrutinizing whatever inadequacy had been pointed out to her that day. (Too thin, too fat, too many freckles, not enough freckles, too much Gwyneth, not enough Gwyneth, etc., etc., etc.) It wasn't a particularly uplifting activity, though it was one at which she certainly excelled. While many young girls spend their days committing Hannah Montana songs to memory, Annalee could -- without stuttering -- give you a rundown of the stats surrounding her blemishes: this mole's grown 0.18 inch in diameter since last summer. Seven hair ends have split since breakfast yesterday. When we were younger, I'd found it impressive, if not entirely disconcerting.
As kids in Southern California, we'd always gotten along well, Annalee and I. Our parents -- namely, my father and his brother -- lived close enough to each other to allow for at least one playdate each week. We'd spend these mornings and afternoons and nights on the beaches of Orange County, dodging not only the Pacific's crashing waves but also her mother's attempts to convert us to whichever fad diet she'd read about that week. (During one such excursion, I'd returned home and had announced to my own mother that I had pledged my digestive tract to veganism. She responded to my proclamation by cooking veal for dinner and telling me that if I wanted tofu, I was more than welcome to eat it with the rest of my burlap-sack-clad friends, but that while I was living under her roof, I'd best check my dietary restrictions at the door.)
When she turned eleven, Annalee's family moved to Chicago. My uncle, who had slid comfortably into personal wealth after inventing an obscure (yet highly expensive) bike lock used by nearly every East European cycling team, cited business needs and promptly plucked his wife and daughter from their comfortable California lifestyle and set them down in the wild, wild Midwest. He bought a sprawling mansion in Lake Forest -- a decision that at once pleased his wife (thanks to the house's sheer size) and horrified her (thanks to the house's location in a region of the country known for its meat-and-potatoes approach to dieting).
"Business needs," as it turned out, though, translated roughly to "abandonment." After the move, Annalee's father was all but present, opting to spend time with his family solely on long weekends and national holidays and the occasional birthday celebration -- visits during which he'd forgetten his daughter's name after four fingers of scotch and two illegal cigars that he'd obtained during his latest international jaunt. It was hard, she'd tell me in her monthly letters and during our weekly phone calls, but she had faith it'd get better. Although he'd never said it, although he'd never expressed it, she was certain that she was still his princess, still his little girl. Because, really, that's all she'd ever wanted. She was right, I'd tell her, even though it hurt my stomach to do so. He was just a busy man. Always traveling. Always working. What with the bike locks and all.
Despite the infrequent visits from her father and the constant harassments of her mother -- despite all that -- Annalee turned out all right. She passed through adolescence with unprecedented grace and crystal-clear skin, luck that my aunt would attribute to specific portions of kale she ate during her third trimester of pregnancy. Upon graduating somewhere in the top quarter of her high school class (she wasn't the brightest in our family -- though she certainly wasn't the dumbest), she attended Duke University, where, despite meager protests made on my part, she traded her judgmental mother in for sixty judgmental sorority sisters.
She took the hazing in stride, though, and laughed when the older sisters wrote "FAT" across her visible ribs with a red marker during pledging. ("They obviously haven't met my mother," she said during one of our weekly phone calls -- a tradition we maintained through her time in Durham.) Four years later, she graduated, sandwiched somewhere in that same top quarter of her class, except this time she was armed with a Bachelor of Arts in cultural anthropology -- a weapon, my brother claimed, that would be less useful than the paper on which it was printed.
And it was. Or it wasn't, depending on how you look at it, I suppose. Using an article she had written on the cultural significance of colored loincloths among tribes in Papua New Guinea, Annalee managed to land a job as a "fashion assistant" at a Washington lifestyle magazine whose name I can never remember, and whose circulation can't be more than three digits. Together we laughed at the prospect -- at this job -- and she told me that it'd just be a stepping-stone until she found something she deemed more worthy.
But this was when we were still talking weekly, before Chase had met her and had called her princess for the first time, before Belize.
I catch her eye again, and this time we share a smile and she rolls her eyes at me as she points to the bouquet strapped to her head.
Chase finishes his champagne and tosses the empty flute to the ground and as he calls me "champ" it dawns on me that I can't remember the last time he called me by my real name. "Let me explain Gold Cup to you. First, you've got the south gate." He points to the left. "It's for folks coming from towns like Lynchburg and God-knows-where-else. Towns where people wear, like, J. Crew and American Eagle, and Abercrombie. I'm not talking about, say, Great Falls, Virginia. Or McLean. I'm talking about Virginia Virginia. You got me?" I don't have him but I nod. "Good. Then, you've got the north gate." He points to the right. "That's where the D.C. folks generally come in. But -- and my bet is you'll learn this sooner rather than later -- not all D.C. folks are created equal." He laughs at his own joke. "For instance, you've got the kids who split the cost of a party bus to get them out there, throw on their only pair of Nantucket reds, pack a picnic, and call it a good time." He pauses. "It's cute. It's nice. And there's always some hot ass over there. State school girls. But it's not us, champ. It's Gold Cup purgatory. You've managed to escape hell with the Virginia trash, but you're still sitting on some shit blanket eating Doritos and drinking brut. You follow?" This time he doesn't wait for my response. "Then, you've got us." Chase makes a wide, sweeping gesture with his arm as if he's some feudal aristocrat showing some guest his plots of land. And I'll admit, amid the madras and the seersucker and the tans, the plots are impressive. "Every year, Dad manages to throw together the best private tent at Gold Cup. Check out the Cap File this month, I'll bet you a night of drinks that there's a write-up on it, sans mention of the Iranian delight, if you know what I mean, compadre."
"What about the actual races?" I ask.
"The horse races."
He throws his head back and howls. "You kidding me, champ? No one watches the races. No one. Think about the Derby. You think Jessica Simpson goes down to Kentucky to see some goddamned horse run around a track? No. She goes to wear some hat that cost her a grand and throw back a few mint juleps. I swear," he says, shaking his head, "sometimes you kill me. Absolutely kill me." And then: "C'mon. Let's introduce you to the masses."
If I wasn't exaggerating, and if the Latham, Scripps, Howard tent is, in fact, a castle and Kip is its reigning king, Chase its dauphin, and the masses their loyal subjects, then I am the distant relative who's a product of inbreeding gone very, very awry. By any legal standard I'm drunk. My shirt's covered in illegal caviar. I forget the name of every Susan, Bryce, Hunter, Valerie, etc., whom Chase introduces to me almost before I shake their outstretched hands. And then I step on a six-year-old. I manage to spill the remainder of my gin and tonic down the front of an LSH associate's wife's Lily Pulitzer dress. I stare for a little too long when the cocktail forms a sticky river of booze and lime and carbonation that runs through the bronze canyon created by her mostly inorganic breasts.
I'm embarrassed. For her. For me. And in a moment of selfawareness, I worry that this situation, that this scenario and I may not be the best fit.
But Latham Jr. doesn't flinch; he doesn't blink. He's confident and cool and smooth. Standing at a perfectly proportionate six two, Chase Latham looks like he's carved from marble and walks like he skates on air. He keeps that Cheshire-cat smile and continues introducing me to a sea of pastels and Polos that seems to worship him only slightly less than his father. Each introduction is prefaced with a series of disclaimers: This man -- a prominent right-wing pundit -- is rumored to have made a habit of receiving oral sex in the men's sauna at the Sports Club L.A. That woman -- who used to be a Democratic strategist but has since jumped ship -- leaked the Kerry/Botox rumor back in '04, which landed her a six-figure job at LSH. These three girls all slept with the same White House press secretary ("twenty years older than they are, a Dem, and not the least bit attractive").
It's impressive, I tell Chase, how much he knows about these people and their skeletons.
"Currency," he says, grinning. "Secrets are currency." He points a tan finger into my chest. "The sooner you learn that, the better." And I'm reminded of my first semester at Penn, and the seven terms thereafter, when Chase taught me the difference between Andover and Exeter, loafers and lace-ups, pink vs. salmon, etc., etc., etc. ("These things are important, champ, and you're not going to learn them in a classroom, I can guarantee you that.")
We continue to bob and weave and cheek-kiss and high-five our way through the crowd. But such are the politics of a friendship with Chase Latham, I think, as I watch him shake hands with a twentysomething in green pants with tiny blue whales embroidered on them. He could be publicly disrobing your cousin, who passes for a female Forrest Gump on her smartest days, and you could be on the verge of throwing him under the hooves of a stampeding horse, but then he slips his arm around your shoulder and he gives you the patented smile and he convinces you that his world, which is really a mirage that you've been on the verge of touching for six years, spins entirely around you. And then suddenly you forget about your cousin's lifted skirt, and that overpowering urge you have to protect her by telling her how many times Chase had gonorrhea sophomore year (four). You forget about the time you invited Dianne DeWitt to your senior spring formal -- after that whole Caroline mess -- only to find her, an hour after the event had ended, snorting cocaine out of the creases in Chase's abdominals in a booth at that club in Old City. And even though you and he are both about 93 percent heterosexual, you suddenly become a little jealous of your cousin and how she's blessed enough to be intimate with Chase on a daily basis.
So he's a drug, really. Grade A, uncut, pure, top of the line. Served up by only the slickest dealers in high-class clubs. Sure, he's a little dangerous. And yeah, there's a hangover -- mornings and days and nights wondering why and telling yourself it's not going to happen again. But rehab's a joke. It only works for something like 12 percent of addicts, anyway, and you're certain beyond any kind of doubt that you fall safely in that other 88 percent.
I wander around, high and happy in Chase's orbit, until I'm standing with him before his father and I become sincerely concerned hat a Latham overdose may be in my cards.
"Taylor!" Kip slaps me on the back. "So glad you got in town in time for our little tradition." The Pauls, who have since collected their wives, aren't smiling. They're staring at the brown specks on my white oxford.
"He'd originally planned to move two weeks from now, but I convinced him otherwise," Chase says.
"Well, we couldn't be happier." Kip turns to his associates. "Mr. Mark was a classmate of Chase's at Penn. Inseparable from day one. In fact, they lived together all four years, two of which were spent in the Phi Delt house, my old stomping ground." He smiles, but more for himself than in honor of our shared past, and the Pauls nod knowingly, as if they've heard this story countless times before. "In any event, Mr. Mark just spent a year in Southern California, which" -- the smile -- like father like son, "certainly explains his tan."
"Welcome to the District," Paul Scripps (or is it Howard? And moreover, does it matter?) says coolly, keeping his eyes on my shirt. "Paul Howard." Damn. "And this is my wife, Bunny." He puts his hand on the back of the woman standing next to him, who, for lack of a better adjective, is blond -- just very, very blond.
"I just love Californ-i-a," Bunny sings in some southern accent that I can't quite place but that most likely falls somewhere between Columbia and Charleston. "Is that where you're from, Taylor?"
"I am. From Laguna Beach."
"Taylor spent the past year at home taking care of his mother," Kip chimes in, the bass line in Bunny's song. "This young man's got character."
"Well, now. Is everything all right?" Bunny puts her hand to her chest.
"It's getting there." I sigh. "She wasn't doing well for a while." The Paul, who has become bored with the conversation, whispers something to the Other Paul.
"Oh, dear, I'm sorry to hear that. May I ask what's wrong? Is she ill?"
"I suppose you could say that."
Bunny and Kip nod, as if to say sometimes that can be even harder.
"You know, a girlfriend of mine in Nashville got divorced two years ago," Bunny says, as if the crumbling of marriages was a rare thing, as if more than half of American matrimonies don't end in legal fees, therapists, and seeing-the-kids-every-other-weekend, as if it was, in fact, cancer. "And I don't know how your mother's coping, and I don't mean to impose, but Candace, my girlfriend, she really turned to Jesus." She smiles. Out of the corner of my eye I see Chase swallow his laughter and mouth "more champagne" to one of the servers.
"Yes, ma'am. Religion's really helped Mom, as well." I decide against telling Bunny Howard that, for Katie Mark, my mother, the word God is spelled P-R-O-Z-A-C and that His Holy Son, contrary to popular belief, is named Glenfiddich. A matter of semantics, I figure.
The introduction reaches that awkward point where neither of us has anything more to say about divorce or cancer or religion, so I'm relieved when Paul Scripps leans in and tells Bunny that the next race is about to start, and that her favorite horse, a mare named Pretty in Pink, is running. She squeals and claps, and she mentions something about Molly Ringwald changing her life back in '86 before she begins making her way toward the rail.
"So, Taylor, when do you start your new job with Congressman Grayson?" Kip asks, after Bunny and a Paul move closer to the course. Chase answers for me.
"Tuesday," he says, handing me a champagne flute. "Champ becomes a Hill rat on Tuesday."
"Well, that'll be great. Just great. John" -- Kip catches himself -- " sorry, Congressman Grayson, is such a close friend of mine. I'm so happy that it all worked out." He grins and allows me to recognize that I'm indebted to him for my current state of employment. Which, indeed, I am. Three months ago, between driving my mother to therapist appointments, to the pharmacy, and to Neiman Marcus, I slowly -- and then instantly -- lost grip on my own sanity. And then, finally, after ten months, there was that night with the pot and the broken wrist and Jack White and I finally broke down and explained to my mother that I'd be leaving California; that I was too young, that it was too early for me to be playing nurse in a convalescent home for one. Against her best wishes, she understood, she had to, so we made an arrangement with my aunt and I began for the first time since graduation, looking forward. At Penn, I had majored in political science and French literature, and while the latter captured a greater portion of my interests, in-depth knowledge of Camus -- while impressive at Ivy League reunions and UN receptions (neither of which I've attended) -- is not exactly a marketable trait on the job market. So I brushed off this unopened copy of the Federalist Papers that had been assigned reading in at least six classes and set my sights on Washington. It'd be good, I thought, rewarding; an exercise in service and duty. I called Chase the next day, asked if his father had any connections (a pointless query, but a formality nonetheless), and precisely thirty minutes later I had a job with Congressman John Grayson, of California's Forty-first Congressional District. They say that good timing is everything, and indeed it is, because an assistant legislative aide was going to be attending law school in the fall, and had decided to spend the remainder of her free life teaching art to disabled children in Ecuador. I told Chase I didn't care about the details, as he excitedly relayed the news to me over the phone on a warm February morning. I would no longer be "Driving Ms. Mark."
"And what a coincidence that Congressman Grayson represents your district back in California, eh?" I nod and say yes, yes, it's wonderful -- really wonderful, but silently I'm thinking how, truthfully, it's not such a mind-blowing convergence of events; that, really, Kip is close friends with the entire Republican caucus.
"Yes, sir," I say and take a sip of the champagne. "I'm very excited for the opportunity."
"Enough with the 'sir' nonsense." The king pats me on the back again. "You're like a second son to me. Like a second son."
Two hours later and my blood alcohol content levels have elevated from officially wasted to lethally toxic and I'm sitting, Indian-style, on the grass outside the LSH tent, and the sun's beating down relentlessly on the back of my neck, causing the alcohol to boil and simmer and thin in my veins. I pick methodically at the green blades, which is truly the only action that seems to suppress the mixture of champagne and gin and bile that's mixing in the back of my throat.
"And Moscow was absolutely gorgeous, which I didn't really expect from a country that used to be Communist." I have no idea where this girl has come from, nor an inclination why she thinks I'm in any mental state to hear about whatever time she's spent in the former Soviet Union. "It's just a fantastic opportunity -- doing advance for the vice president." If I could just get my hands on some water, I think, that'd help. And where has Chase gone? "What people don't realize about Cheney is that he's really like a big teddy bear. A great big teddy bear. He loves to give hugs. He's just a kind, kind man." Paternal is the word she keeps using.
"Yeah. I really get that vibe." And Annalee? Where's Annalee?
"He didn't mean to shoot that friend of his. Mr. Whittington just got in the way of Dick's gun. I mean, Christ" -- she lights a cigarette -- "it was an honest mistake, really."
"So," I say, tired of hearing about the vice president's honest mistakes with guns and lawyers, "how do you know Chase?"
"Chazy? God, I've known him forever," and I'm suddenly sorry I've asked. "Kip and Daddy both worked for ExxonMobil, in government relations, at the same time. Then Kip left to start LSH and Daddy stayed on board with Exxon. Chase went to St. Alban's and I went to the National Cathedral School. You've heard of NCS, right? I was two years above him. He dated my closest -- well, three -- of my closest friends when we were in high school, and then of course he went to Penn" -- she gives me a nod -- "and I went to Princeton but we just stayed the absolute best of friends." She stops abruptly. "I'm surprised he never mentioned me to you."
But I'm not in the mood to hurt any feelings so I assure her that it's likely he did and that I'd just forgotten. So many names, you know.
"Oh, I know exactly what you mean. Just the other day I was at this happy hour at Daily Grill that was arranged by Princeton's D.C. alumni association, and I was utterly appalled at how many names I'd forgotten in a span of three years. I mean, D.C. is small and all, but you really don't run into as many people as you think you would. I suppose it's a matter of -- " I cut her off and ask her if she knew my older brother, Nathaniel, who had graduated from Princeton the year before her.
"Nathaniel -- what's your last name? Mark? Nathaniel Mark...hmm. Was he in an eating club?" She stops and feigns embarrassment. "Ugh. I absolutely despise asking that about people. 'Was he in an eating club?' It's just so juvenile and faux pretentious." The girl's penchant for speaking in italics, combined with the thought of my family, begin to mix disagreeably with the Veuve/gin/bile cocktail, so I tell her that I'm not sure if Nathaniel belonged to a club or not -- which is a lie -- and I excuse myself from the conversation.
Standing, though, doesn't prove to be as easy as I had expected, and I sway and teeter before the gin takes over and I crash in slow motion to the ground. I apologize to the girl, who is now staring at me in italics, and I hoist myself up and brush off my khakis (now stained with green patches) before giving a weak, defeated smile and staggering off. My father always used to tell me that a man didn't get a second chance to make a first impression, which I always chalked up to him taking fortune cookie advice a bit too far. "They're like business cards for twenty-year-olds," he told me over steaks at a small restaurant in Laguna Beach the night before I left for Penn. "Your generation doesn't understand that. They think that being on The Real World is somehow going to impress people." He poured himself another glass of pinot noir. "Well, it's not, Taylor. It's just not. I don't care what coast you're on, or who you're dealing with; nothing impresses someone more than looking him in the eye and giving him a firm handshake. Ask Nathaniel. He'll tell you the same thing." He hesitated, and then poured me a glass as well. "Don't tell your mother."
I run over the conversation again and again and again in my head but nowhere in it can I uncover the part where my father explained the importance of caviar or grass stains or nine gin and tonics. These are the obstacles, though, that parents don't disclose when they give their lectures on What Makes the World Go Round. Dad never mentioned the Pauls or Kip or St. Alban's School for Boys. There was a handshake, and a bit of eye contact, and a world of eternal respect.
But then again, look how he turned out.
I make my way back to the tent and take post against one of the steel beams that's propping up the taut white canvas. There's a possibility that the beam won't bear my weight, I suppose; there's some likelihood that, thanks to me, all this will come crashing down on the hats and the glass flutes and whatever's left of the felonious hors d'oeuvres. But thanks to my grand jeté in front of Ms. Princeton a few moments ago, it'd appear that my feet are skipping out on their anatomically devised job of supporting the gin and me, of keeping us up, so I roll these dice and take my chances. Water. That's what I'm searching for: water; something to detox my thoughts and provide some clarity. Or some trace of Chase and Annalee, whom I haven't seen since the third race (the sixth and final steeplechase is about to start) and who seem to have been consumed and digested by the mob around me.
"Excuse me, young man," a lithe finger taps my shoulder, "you wouldn't happen to have a light, would you?" I turn around and am greeted by one of the more spectacular pair of breasts I've encountered in my twenty-three years of breast-scoping. They're large, but not unnaturally monstrous. Real, that's for certain. Not a trace of silicon or salt water or whatever it is doctors are pumping into mammary glands these days. What's attached to the heaving mounds is no less impressive: five feet, eight inches of feminine sexuality. She's older than I -- in her thirties, maybe. Dark hair falling down past her shoulders in rolling waves. I reach into my pocket for my Bic lighter -- a cheap orange number whose flame doesn't seem to be glamorous enough for this woman's cigarette. She takes a drag and exhales a steady stream of smoke.
"Taylor. Taylor Mark."
She smiles. "It's a pleasure." She extends a hand and I can't decide if I should shake it or kiss it, so I do neither. "God, don't you just hate these things?" She looks out over the crowd.
"Absolutely. They're the worst." She could have told me the world was as flat as a pancake and I would have agreed with her. With this woman, no questions asked. She lets out another stream of smoke, as if to tell anyone who will listen that the PSAs are all wrong, that smoking is, in fact, sexy. Especially when being done by a woman like her. "Can I get you a drink?" She laughs and her breasts heave up above her dress's plunging neckline.
"That's nice of you to ask, but I think I'd better sit this next round out. Lord knows what I'd say to these women if I got any more vodka in me." She motions over to Bunny and Kitty, who have started taking notice of our conversation, and have, in turn, started spinning a conversation of their own. "I forgot to wear a hat today, and apparently these women consider that a capital offense." It's true: she is the only woman under the tent's canopy lacking some oversize headpiece. All things told, her attire is, at first glance, rather understated: a simple and unassuming white linen dress. But then, after watching her for a moment more, after watching the hair and the figure and the way the streams of smoke seem to finish the ends of her sentences, it's safe to say she chose the gown without those two particular adjectives in mind. "It's not that I mind, per se." She drags in on the cigarette. "I mean, Jesus, can you imagine carrying on a conversation with one of these women for longer than two minutes? You'd start sounding like some goddamned Jane Austen character." Another plume of smoke escapes her lips.
"Oh, I don't know," I say, shoving my fists into my pockets. "They don't seem all that bad. I met Mrs. Howard. She seemed nice."
She throws her head back and laughs. "So tell me, Taylor, is this your first time at the Gold Cup?"
"Yes. Yes, it is."
She taps the ash off the end of her cigarette and nods slowly and smiles.
"And are you enjoying it so far?" She eyes my shirt. "It looks as though you are."
"I am enjoying it. Hard not to. I'm afraid I may have drunk too much gin, though, to be honest with you."
She laughs again and tosses her hair to one side. "You're fine, I'm sure." She nods to Kitty, who is attempting some sort of handstand in what can only be a two-thousand-dollar dress. "You could be in worse shape." She drops the Dunhill to the floor and crushes it beneath a high, thin-strapped sandal. "But you're obviously not from around here." She looks me up and down. "Your bow tie needs a bit of work."
"It's my first time wearing one," I say, fingering the edge of the seersucker cloth. "It's falling apart."
She grins. "Let me help you." She leans her body against mine and wraps her two tanned arms around my shoulders. As her fingers work to untangle the tie, her lips graze my neck and her breathing -- warm and controlled -- against my cheek sends my groin into electric frenzies. After a few moments that seem to linger dangerously long, she backs away from my sweat-drenched body, holding the bow tie.
"I never liked these things, anyway," she says, folding the tie into a small square and placing it into a small gold clutch she's holding. "Well," she says with a grin, knowing exactly what she's done and exactly what will not be happening. "I suppose it's time for that drink. It was a pleasure, Taylor. A real pleasure." I watch her walk out of the tent and down a patch of grass, her hips swaying with the attitude of a woman who knows that (a) she doesn't belong at an event like this in the first place and (b) that if it weren't for the way white linen hugged the figures of women like her, moments like this, moments where young men were reduced to pubescent catastrophes, would cease to exist.
"That's Juliana. She's beautiful, isn't she?" I turn to see Bunny Howard, who has suddenly materialized as some pink and green and bedazzled juggernaut spilling champagne and eyeing the crotch of my khakis, which now features a small bulge that my fists (which are still in my pockets) are trying to conceal.
"Yes, Mrs. Howard. She's very attractive."
Bunny nods. "It's nice to see that you're getting along with all of Congressman Grayson's family. I'm sure that'll be helpful in the office."
"Is that his daughter?"
"No," Bunny says, giving me a flute of champagne that's been topped off to the brim. "That's his wife."
The races end and I still haven't found any water. I'm standing with Chase, who has missed a smudge of lipstick on the left side of his mouth and whose shirt is unbuttoned to a point that lies somewhere between "casual" and "tacky" -- a very un-Latham move. With one hand, he holds up Annalee, who is giggling and drunk and basically just this messy rag doll, and with the other hand he starts directing the guests back toward the LSH fleet of chauffeured Lincoln Navigators that are parked at the edge of the grounds. Thanks to alcohol and noise and general confusion, it's slow going. When we finally make it back to the cars, Chase, Annalee, Ms. Princeton, another guy I haven't met, and I climb into one.
"Taylor," Chase says once he's slammed the door shut, "this is John Alexander Buchanan. Call him Jack. We went to St. Alban's together." Jack shakes my hand with little interest and forgoes any attempt at learning my name. "He writes that gossip column for Politik, so watch where you're dropping your pants, if you know what I mean." Chase laughs and edges me in my rib, which causes my stomach to stir and jolt. Jack, bored, takes a BlackBerry out of his back pocket and starts typing.
"What are we doing tonight?" he says once he's sent his message. "We could do something different. Like the Black Cat or something." Princeton (whose name I still don't know) manages to force at least one italic word into the sentence.
"Too many fags and hipsters," Chase says. Annalee giggles. Jack rolls his eyes.
"Yeah, you're right. All ugly people in black."
"Let's just hit up SP. You know that's where everyone's going anyway." Ms. Princeton nods her consent. "Hand me that bottle of Veuve."
"Chazy, you can't be serious."
"C'mon, Caitlin, we got to pregame. We'll be the only sober ones at Smith Point." Caitlin. I make a mental note of it.
"We've been pregaming since ten this morning, Chase." She looks unsure.
"Pregame, postgame. Whatever. We've got to game," he responds.
"And seriously, I hardly think any of us are sober." We all eye Annalee, whose head is drooped at an awkward angle and who may or may not be drooling.
"Speak for yourself, babe. I could drive a school bus of Down syndrome kids with one eye closed." Annalee lifts her head and points to her empty glass. "See? We're fine. We're all fine." Caitlin sighs. Chase wins. She reaches into a cooler branded with LSH's logo and produces a sweating bottle of France's finest. The driver keys up the ignition and Chase fumbles with the wiring choking the Veuve before he finally removes it and pops the cork. Bubbles shoot up like geysers.
Annalee gasps and champagne drips like amber tears from the ceiling. As Chase fills each glass I can't help but think of how the sound of the cork exploding from the bottle's neck sounds like some sort of starting gun, and how the low growl of the Navigator's engine rapidly accelerating sounds eerily like the grunts of strain and adrenaline at the beginning of a horse race. And I think back to Juliana's lips brushing against my cheek, and then back to Light of Our Lives and his black marble eyes, and I start wondering if he had it right all along.
Copyright © 2009 by Grant Ginder
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read this because my son knows the author, and really enjoyed it. It's very well done for a first novel - he's not afraid to take the time to set a scene in detail and find just the right words to describe something. The WaPo gave it an undeserved snarky review, but I found it very readable and thoughtful. Looking forward to his next.
Loved this book.