Peter’s apartment is small and hot, the windows propped open with empty wine bottles, the living room half-packed. Cardboard boxes labeled law books and book books and water glasses stacked in the corner, the floor lamp missing a light bulb. The built-in shelves bare except for a three-speed box fan and a 1973 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves (Peter claims it was a Secret Santa gift), which we have already paged through twice in the last hour. Once to settle a debate on the definition of “cervix” and once just to look at the pictures.
It’s early—not yet ten o’clock—but a bunch of us have rolled up the sleeves of our collared shirts and duct-taped wine bottles to our hands. We joke about conventional and unconventional uses for duct tape: one of us says, “Shoe repair,” and someone else says, “Hair removal,” and the rest of us nod and scratch our chins with six-dollar bottles of Merlot. “Handcuffs,” we conclude. Most of the girls have kicked off their heels. They pad across the hardwood floor barefoot and press cold beer bottles to their cheeks. They are much less discrete, now, when they check for wedding rings.
Peter’s new girlfriend, Mia, wears a blue party dress, a triangle-shaped hole cut from the back just beneath her shoulder blades. She sits on the windowsill and secures a necktie around her forehead.
“You look like Bjorn Borg,” says the owner of the tie.
“Who?” she says. She strikes a match, watches it burn to her fingers, and drops it out the five-story window.
“You’ll set a pedestrian on fire.”
She tilts her head and raises her shoulder, a half shrug. “Unlikely,” she says. We did not know Mia in high school but it is obvious that she was one of those girls—the girl for whom we have punished every girl since—and that she still is. Five or ten years from now, when we are married and our wives convince us to see therapists, we will devote sessions to girls like Mia.
In the meantime, we have three law degrees and three MBAs between us. We have excellent health insurance and five-year plans, which we recite as fluently as prayers. Several of us (not the MBAs) like to say, “Oh, I don’t have a television,” when asked if we have seen a particular television program. Two of us grew up with golden retrievers; one of the dogs was called Moses, the other Caroline. When our mothers call from our childhood homes in Cleveland and Wilton and Evanston, they plead for us to please, please get some sleep. We are too ambitious for sleep. Mia, for one, recently shook hands with Bill Clinton at a black tie fundraiser. “He looked down my dress,” she says whenever she recounts the event.
Mia drinks three or four cups of punch and starts to circulate the rumor that someone here, at the party, is pregnant, and we are relieved that she has, for once, stopped talking about law school. We imagine sliding our hands through the triangle-shaped hole in her dress, touching the warm, smooth skin of her back.
“Pregnant?” we say. “On purpose?”
“Of course not,” she says.
“Who is it?”
The problem is that she does not know the who. Her friend, Jane, started to tell her three drinks ago, but then left abruptly with a second-year medical resident. But Mia likes a mission, especially if it comes at the expense of someone else. “It’s simple,” she says. “Everyone is drinking. Whoever’s not drinking is pregnant.”
“Objection,” we say. “Unsubstantiated.”
Mia ignores us. Immediately she eliminates the patent attorney, the illustrator in the red skirt, and the media buyer, who is lighting a cigarette, the smoke curling into the air like a signal. She points to a woman sipping from a clear plastic thermos. “Her?”
“Recovering alcoholic,” we say. We point to a guy on the couch: drinkless, wire-rimmed glasses, argyle sweater vest. “What about Bumstead over there?”
“Ha,” she says. “Funny.”
One by one, we refresh our drinks at the makeshift bar. It is stocked with half a dozen bottles Peter wants to get rid of before he moves to the apartment in Woodley Park next week: the entire third floor of a row house on a quiet, curving street that feels vaguely European. He found it through the friend of an ex-girlfriend. Peter is friends with all of his ex-girlfriends’ friends, but none of his ex-girlfriends.
“Think Mia has a key yet?” someone says, and we agree, unanimously, that she went to have it copied the day he signed the lease.
It takes a certain kind of person to serve Aristocrat at a party without seeming cheap—equal parts ease and amicable indifference, someone who can enjoy an expensive glass of wine without swirling it around first—and we all aspire to be that person. Peter is that person. In college, he filled our cars, floor to ceiling, with plastic ball-pit balls. He baked sheet cake in the toaster oven on our birthdays. He coordinated elaborate group costumes on Halloween: Mötley Crüe, all nine Supreme Court justices, the fifteen former states of the Soviet Union. He slipped us Ritalin during midterms and slept with at least one of our sisters on graduation. Of all the people who are hard to say no to—our mothers, our ex-girlfriends, our bosses, our personal trainers—Peter is the hardest.
After we refill our cups, we study the picture above the bar: a black and white promotional poster for All the President’s Men, in which Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford look young and determined and charged with journalistic integrity. We remember how Peter was Bob Woodward a month ago, for Halloween; his neighbor, Betsy, was Carl Bernstein and John Diefendorf was Deep Throat. In the picture posted on the Internet, taken in front of the White House, Woodward is looking at Bernstein, Bernstein is grinning at the camera, and Deep Throat, slightly off kilter, is adjusting his trench coat.
We spot Betsy near the doorway outside the kitchen, lovely as always in a sleeveless black shirt, slim black pants cuffed at the ankle, a wide green belt cinched at her waist. She is alone, sipping from a flask. On weekends she drinks vodka like water, which may have something to do with her job: she works with high-risk teenage girls to prevent substance abuse. “Do I like my job?” she said, once. “Sixty percent of the time I want to stick my hand in the automatic stapler.” We admire her candor. We admire the way she can stand alone at a party and make it look like precisely what she should be doing. She watches as Diefendorf attempts to remove the cap off a bottle of Rolling Rock by placing it on the edge of the windowsill and pounding it repeatedly with his fist. “Dief,” she says, setting her flask on the sill. She takes the bottle and twists off the cap. “Here.”
Diefendorf bows like a monk and drains half the bottle. He looks like a frat boy and speaks in the elliptical sentences of a poet. “Allow me to buy you a drink,” he says.
“The drinks are free.”
“You never let me buy you a drink. You never let anyone buy you a drink.”
“The whole thing is more trouble than it’s worth.”
“No, we’re not.”
“My father has three ex-wives,” Betsy says. “Talk to one of them.”
- We are not more trouble than we’re worth.
- Betsy is rumored to have spent the night with Peter on Halloween, a week or two before Mia came along. When asked, Betsy claims to have passed out on the steps outside the Library of Congress.
“Did she or not?” we say to Peter.
“Pardon?” he says.
“We don’t want the details,” we say, even though of course we want the details. “Just a yes or no.”
“Gentlemen,” he says. “Please.” He takes a drink of Wild Turkey and goes over to talk to her. “Where’ve you been?”
“Around.” Betsy smiles and raises her flask. “I hear your new apartment is huge.”
“It’s palatial,” Diefendorf says. “You could roller skate around the living room.”
Peter touches the bandage at the crook of Betsy’s arm. “What happened here?”
“I gave blood.”
“I’ve never given blood,” he says. “I really should. I have a rare blood type.”
“Quit bragging,” Betsy says.
“I claim to be a hemophiliac,” Peter says. “But really I’m just scared of needles.”
In the center of the room, Mia circles the couch with a bottle of white wine in order to determine which girls, if any, decline it. She pauses mid-pour to watch Peter and Betsy, chews on her lower lip, and drops the wine bottle, which shatters on the floor. “Oops,” she says as Peter turns. He walks over to her, careful to step around the glass. She buries her head into his shoulder, giggling.
By the time the playlist has started to repeat itself, we have swept up the broken glass and inaugurated the U.S. presidents game, in which we list the presidents in descending order. It is like darts; the more we drink, the better we get. We race backwards through the second half of the twentieth century, past Clinton and H.W. and Reagan and Carter, but lose steam around FDR. “Hoover,” someone says, and the next person pauses and says, “Coolidge?” and the next person says, “Fuck.” He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Harding,” Betsy calls from the other side of the room. “You never let me play.”
“Because you always win.”
We finish our drinks, and the familiar weight gathers in our chests, expanding outward through our arms and legs, to each of our extremities. We dread it—our lurching cab rides home, our unmade queen-size beds, our Saturday dissolving into Sunday. We think of our fathers: how they sleep next to our mothers and stepmothers on memory-foam pillows. How they dream of teeth crumbling from their mouths, of sprinting through endless, Day-Glo landscapes, because they have forgotten that it’s not entirely enviable to be young. We long to lock ourselves in the bathroom, lie facedown on the floor, and find clarity in the cold, hard tiles pressed against our foreheads.
Instead, we focus on the illustrator. She is on the couch with the bottle of Aristocrat, the bright red wool of her skirt creeping up her thighs. We imagine brushing our hands against the wool, locating the zipper, and the sound of fabric sliding against her skin, falling to the floor. We imagine waking tomorrow, alone, to a sketch of an old-fashioned rotary phone on the nightstand.
The illustrator finishes the last of the Aristocrat, lodges the bottle between two couch cushions, and bursts into tears. She rises and stumbles into the bathroom—it is so quiet by the time she reaches it that we can hear the lock turn in the door. “She is pregnant,” Mia says.
“You think everyone is pregnant,” Peter says.
“She is. Her life is over.”
“It’s not over.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“It’s strange,” he says. “She’s actually a smart girl.”
Mia takes a loose thread from Peter’s shirt and snaps it off. “Smart people do stupid things all the time,” she says. “It’s practically all they do.”
We return to the bar and mix brown and clear liquids, determined to postpone our hangovers. Next to us, Betsy says, “It’s not a party until someone’s crying.”
Diefendorf nods philosophically. “Do you cry at parties often?”
“Never. My mother taught me that.”
“She’s a stoic?”
“She cries all the time.” Betsy sets her flask on the windowsill and pulls a house key from her pocket.
“Hey,” Diefendorf says. “It’s early.”
“It feels late.” She leans over, pecks him on the cheek.
“Always a pleasure.” He picks up the flask, takes a drink, and starts to cough. He lowers it, extending it in front of him.
“What’s she have in there?” we say. “Paint thinner?”
Diefendorf looks at Betsy, then at us. “Water,” he says.
Betsy smiles, or at least attempts a smile, and for the first time we see how tired she is. “I could have sworn it was vodka,” she says. We realize that she has maintained a certain distance from Mia and her white wine bottle for the past hour.
We look at our hands, still red from tearing off the duct tape. “Peter?” we say.
She nods, twisting the wooden bracelet on her wrist. It occurs to us that we have known her for almost two years, but we have never seen her apartment. We do not know where she was born, or if she has brothers or sisters. We have no idea how she feels about children.
Across the room, Peter, oblivious, traces an “x” through the triangle-shaped hole in Mia’s dress, and it is suddenly very easy to picture their bright, upwardly mobile future as a couple. They will train for half-marathons together. They will equip their kitchen with a top-rated coffee bean grinder and immersion blender and rice maker. They will send us glossy, custom-made cards every Christmas, which we will toss into the trash without opening.
“Betsy,” he calls. “Brunch tomorrow?”
“Come on,” he says. “Dollar Bloody Marys?”
He sighs and turns to us. “Gentlemen?”
We watch as Betsy walks to the front door, as she pauses to pick up her sweater, and for a moment we want desperately to go over there, place a hand on the center of her chest, and stand there like that for a minute, feeling the soft fabric of her shirt and, beneath that, the heat of her skin and, beneath that, the protective plate of her sternum. But we lose our nerve, or we never really had it to begin with.