Rachel Klein never meant to kiss her creative writing professor, but with his long eyelashes, his silky hair, and the sad, beautiful life he laid bare on Twitter, she does, and the kiss is very nice. Zahid Azzam never planned to become a houseguest in his student’s sprawling Connecticut home, but with the sparkling swimming pool, the endless supply of Whole Foods strawberries, and Rachel’s beautiful mother, he does, and the home is very nice. Becca Klein never thought she’d have a love affair so soon after her divorce, but when her daughter’s professor walks into her home, bringing with him an apricot standard poodle named Princess, she does, and the affair is . . . a very bad idea.
Zigzagging between the rarefied circles of Manhattan investment banking, the achingly self-serious MFA programs of the Midwest, and the private bedrooms of Connecticut, Very Nice is an audacious, addictive, and wickedly smart take on the way we live now.
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Excerpted from VERY NICE:
I was sitting outside at my café, drinking an iced coffee, Posey at my feet, waiting for Rachel’s day camp to let out. She was not eight, of course, she could find her way home, but Rachel seemed to like it when I picked her up. Her friend Agatha had not come home for the summer. The friends who had come home she claimed not to like anymore. This came as a surprise to me. Mollie and Bryn. They were very nice girls, all of them. I used to buy them pizza, drive them to the mall. I expected Rachel to moan and complain, but she didn’t. She had perfected, instead, the unhappy “don’t bother me” look. She wanted an audience for her misery and there I was.
I had my sketch pad open, I was going to draw this summer, I was going to paint, and in fact, I had begun a sketch of Posey when I noticed a young man, a dark-skinned man wearing a long-sleeved shirt and linen shorts, stepping out of a silver car. Clearly he was not from here. It was a sad truth, the lack of diversity in our town, but there it was. You had to be married to a banker to afford a house here. That limited the population. The Armstrongs were African American; Donna and David were both lawyers. Of course, there were always exceptions. The silver car pulled away from the curb, and this young man simply stood there, arms at his sides.
He reached into his pockets, retrieved a pair of sunglasses, and put them on. He proceeded to make a full circle, not leaving his spot on the sidewalk, and then he scratched his head. He looked rumpled, hungover even. His hair hung in his eyes.
“Oh, Posey,” I said.
This, of course, had to be Rachel’s writing professor. It could be no one else. I recognized him from his author photo. He would want his dog back. It hadn’t even been two weeks. Rachel had said we would have her for the summer.
I felt a panic. I stood up, sat down. Posey stood up, too, but I told her to sit. She hadn’t seen him yet. I could pretend not to have recognized my daughter’s professor. I could walk with Posey in the opposite direction, fast, and hope he did not see us. My daughter’s professor did not know me, but he would know his dog.
The man obviously didn’t know where Rachel lived or he would have taken the car directly to our house. I tried to imagine what he was thinking. It was a small town. He could talk to some people here on the square and he would find my daughter, just like that. He was not too far off. He had been here for all of a minute and I had found him.
It was bad luck on my part. The idea of not greeting him was appealing. The man was obviously a mess. And he was attractive, enormously so. There was something lovely and lonely about him and suddenly I understood my daughter’s melancholy. Her writing professor.
Anyone but him, I thought.
I could feel other people’s eyes on this man.
Suddenly, I felt afraid for him. He seemed so ill at ease— there was a way he reached into his pocket, as if he was going to pull out a pack of gum and someone was going to think it was a gun. I was afraid someone would call the police. Like the two old biddies on the park bench across the street who had obviously noticed him and were whispering. Small-town America. Motherfuck.
“Zahid,” I called out. I was not going to cross the street. I would not make it that easy for him. The least he could do was come to me. “Zahid Azzam.”
What a funny name it was. Like a comic book character.
He looked at me, confused.
“Yes, you.” I gestured for him to come over. I wondered if he thought that there was another Zahid in this nearly all white town. Maybe I looked dangerous to him. I had been doing a lot of yoga over the years.
Zahid crossed the street, and only then did he notice his dog beneath the table, her front legs crossed.
“Princess,” he said, delighted. “Baby.”
He knelt down and petted his dog. He put his face in her poodle hair. Oh gosh, this man was a mess. His eyes were bloodshot. His blue shirt was dirty. He was carrying a leather backpack that looked expensive. He was wearing loafers in the middle of summer. Without socks, at least. I wondered if that was uncomfortable. Posey licked him. Again, I was struck by the unfairness of it all. I felt tears well in my eyes.
“I don’t know you,” Zahid said. “Do I?”
“No,” I said with a fast smile. “You don’t.”
Zahid waited. I could make it easy. I could introduce myself, explain how I’d come into the possession of his poodle. I could ask him to join me.
“My name is Becca,” I said.
Zahid’s face was blank. It made me wonder about him, as a writer. He should have been able to make the connection all on his own.
“I am Rachel’s mother.”
“Oh.” Zahid laughed, and for a moment he was still at a loss. “Of course. Rachel. Rachel would have a mother.” I nodded. Depending on his relationship with my daughter, this could be problematic for him. “You look too young to be her mother.”
I would take it. That was one of the ironies about being left for a younger woman. I had come into a style of my own around the time I turned fifty. My arms were toned. I liked all of my clothes, expensive and well made, simple. I had thrown out everything I didn’t wear.
“I could be her older sister,” I said.
“Yes, exactly.” Zahid smiled at me. He was still kneeling down, still petting his dog. “Or a cousin, maybe. Her favorite cousin. You are so pretty,” he said, thoughtlessly, maybe because I was older and so my prettiness was a surprise to him.
“I am Becca,” I said again.
I did not want to be known to this man as somebody’s mother. I did not want to disappear. I was fifty-four. My life was not over. I held out my hand and Zahid took it. He had soft hands. Long fingers.
“Zahid,” he said. “But you already know that.”
His brow was sweaty. It was late afternoon in early July. I should get him something to drink, but that would be something a mother would do. He could figure it out himself, the fact that he was thirsty. We were at an establishment that sold beverages.
Zahid sat down at my table.
“I can’t believe how easy it was to find you,” he said.
“I found you.”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s true.”
“Did you come for your dog?”
“Well.” Zahid paused, and I felt hopeful. He did not know what he had come for. I did not want to let Posey go, and maybe that meant I would have to keep Zahid, too. Two grown-up children for the summer. My own sleepaway camp. That would be fine. I had already begun to clean out Jonathan’s office. It could make a nice bedroom. My mind was going too fast. I had drunk all of that iced coffee, had also had a pot of hot coffee in the morning. But it wasn’t the coffee. I just wanted to blame my thoughts on the caffeine. I did not want to give up my poodle; it did not seem fair.
Not fair, not fair, I kept thinking. Not fair.
“Yes,” Zahid said. “I wanted to see how my girl was doing.”
I breathed out air. He had said nothing about taking her home. It was going to be fine.
“Oh, Posey is having a great summer.”
“Posey?” Zahid asked.
“Oh,” I said, laughing to cover up my mistake. “It’s my pet name for her. Is that okay?”
“Sure,” he laughed. “That’s okay.”
Maybe it wasn’t okay, but what was he going to say?
“I take her for long walks on the Sound.” I felt like there was something else I should say. “She sleeps on my bed,” I added, and then realized that of course I should not have said that. Was this the first time I had talked to a man since Jonathan left me? Was Zahid Azzam even a man? More like a grown-up boy. A Peter Pan. An asshole. An artist. Again, my brain, it had to slow down. Slow down, slow down. My left leg, I realized, was shaking.
“I think Posey is having a better summer than I am,” Zahid said.
“She is having a great summer,” I said.
I looked at my daughter’s professor, the sheen of sweat on his brow, and I caved. This mothering instinct of mine. Maybe it was because I was a teacher. Maybe it was just because I was a human being. “Would you like something to drink? A lemonade. An iced coffee. I’m waiting for Rachel, actually. Is she expecting you?”
I knew she wasn’t expecting him. Or I hoped that she wasn’t expecting him. I hoped that she wouldn’t keep something like that from me.
“No,” Zahid said. “She isn’t expecting me. I am just back from Pakistan and, well, the trip, it was a lot, and I wanted to see my dog. I didn’t want to wait, to go through the proper chains of communication. I just got on a train and then I took an Uber, which I didn’t need to, the drive was so short, and here I am.”
“And I found you.”
“You found me,” Zahid said.
Zahid Azzam was a writer. He seemed to understand that vthis was not any old tossed-off phrase. This was meaningful. We looked into each other’s eyes. He had dark brown eyes. My eyes were blue. He had beautiful eyes. Perhaps he thought my eyes were beautiful, too.
Was I kidding myself? Had I become delusional? Was I in the land of make-believe? How had I dressed this morning? A sundress, my favorite sundress, a dress I wore three times a week. I had gone swimming in the Sound before coming to the café. Had I showered after? Was there still salt water in my hair? I forced myself to remember.
I had showered. I was clean. Sun-kissed, even. I had brushed mascara onto my lashes for my walk into town. I had read somewhere that this was a good thing to do, all the makeup you ever needed. And moisturizer with a strong SPF.
I had found him.