On a Thursday night in late December, I stood in my friend Indrani Dressler's living room, flirting with a man I had just met.
"Oh, come on," Mick, the Englishman I was talking to, was saying, "business acumen and a finger on the zeitgeist are not the same as innovation or originality. She's a clever parasite."
"I heard one of her songs the other day in a deli," I said. "It brought back that feeling of being young and wild and idiotic. You just can't take her too seriously."
"She's got a fake accent," Mick said, his mouth gleaming with mirth and wine, firm and half-sneering. His breath smelled like corn. "She irons her hair and she's had too much plastic surgery and she's pasty. She looks like an emaciated Wife of Bath."
"She's got the body of a thirteen-year-old gymnast and she's almost fifty," I said.
"She's a maggot," he said. He was not much taller than I, but broad in the shoulders and solid. His head was large, his face half ugly, half handsome, more French-looking than English, nose too big, eyes narrow, chin jutting forward. We were talking as if the words themselves didn't matter. I had forgotten this feeling.
"A maggot," I repeated, laughing, egging him on.
"Tunneling her way through personas till they're totally rotten and riddled with holes, then moving on to the next one. She went from soft white larva to shriveled maggot in twenty-odd years."
"Obviously," I said with mild triumph, "you're obsessed with her."
"I'm writing an opera about her," he told me in a way that made it impossible to tell whether he was kidding or serious. "Back before she made it. Back when she was young and soft and nasty. I'm calling it Madonna of Loisaida. Madonna when she was a newborn vampire, a baby whore."
I realized with a shock of surprise who he was. About a year ago, one of my clients, a pale, severely chic young concert violinist named Alison Fisher, had precipitously quit therapy after five years and moved to Canada to take care of her dying aunt. She had spent many sessions complaining eloquently and, I'd thought, with very good reason, about her boyfriend, Mick Logan; he was British, he wrote avant-garde operas that told melodramatic fictional stories about famous people, and he made Alison feel clumsy and plain and dull with his devastatingly sharp but subtle put-downs. With much guidance and feedback on my part, she had finally managed to get rid of him. According to what Alison had told me, he was in his mid-thirties, about ten years younger than I was; he was very bad news. She'd said once that breaking up with Mick felt like being let out of jail. And now, here he was at a Christmas party, bantering with me, leading me into a sexually charged, ultimately nonsensical argument that seemed to be rapidly leading somewhere I knew I couldn't go, somewhere I hadn't even thought of going in a very, very long time.
Just then, I caught sight of a reflection of a woman in the tilted gilt-edged mirror across the room. She was dressed similarly to me, so I tilted my head to get a better look at her. As I did so, the woman tilted her head to match the movement of mine. I raised my wineglass; she raised hers along with me.
It was then, in that instant, that I knew that my marriage was over.
My heart stopped beating. I almost heard it squeak as it constricted with fear, and then it resumed its steady rhythm and life went on, as it usually does.
"She's not a villainess, though; she's not interesting enough," Mick was saying. "That's the challenge of this opera. She's all too human, just quite vile really."
"Vile," I repeated, laughing, mouth open, neck bared, my rib cage pulsing with my hard-beating heart. My laughter had a freaky sound in it, like the yelp of a wild dog. I had to move out, I thought with horror. Or Anthony did. No, I did. Our apartment was his when I married him. And I had to take Wendy with me. Where, though? Where would we go? She'd hate me even more than she did already. Of course, she'd blame me, because it was all going to be my fault. "Then why would you write an opera about her?"
"Because," he said, "like a maggot, she's got under my skin and it's the only way to get her out. That revoltingly nasal little voice. Those dead-fish eyes. Those ropy muscles . . ."
I felt the vastly gigantic, frightening wheels that drive the world begin to turn. Lawyers, custody, settlement, alimony. I'd always been someone who made decisions with agonizing thoroughness and caution; to have such a momentous realization thrust upon me with no control whatsoever felt the way being in an earthquake or avalanche might have felt.
Anthony had stayed home that night, ostensibly because he had a lot of research to do for his new book, but in truth, he was relieved not to have to go out. He hated parties in general and didn't much like Indrani; he thought she was boring, which she wasn't, but you couldn't argue with him when he got an idea about someone. Right then, he was probably sitting in his armchair, happily engrossed in some book about post-Communist Eastern Europe, his current preoccupation, sipping at a water glass filled with neat whiskey, reading glasses on the end of his nose, frowning, gently scratching and rubbing his sternum under his shirt in that abstracted way he had. Anthony was a political scientist and New School professor. When I first met him, he had been a dynamic, passionate man, but over the past years, as he got closer to death and the world continued to go down the tubes, his old fired-up passion had been gradually replaced by bitterness, fatalism, and weariness. I had watched it happen, powerless to stop it.
This attitude of defeated resignation now extended from his work to everything in his life, including our marriage. He was becoming, somehow, an old man. I was apparently still a youngish woman; I looked at my reflection again to make sure I hadn't been mistaken about this, and there I still was, radiant, my hair upswept, my eyes wide and sparkling. If that reflection had belonged to a stranger, I would have been intimidated by her. I had had no idea.
"You wrote an opera about Nico," I said giddily to Mick, just to say something; I had just realized that he seemed to be awaiting a reply from me.
He looked surprised. "How did you know that?"
"Oh," I said, realizing what I'd just revealed. "God. Well."
He looked at me, waiting.
"I just realized who you are," I said. I had never before made a slip like this in eighteen years of being a therapist. "I know a friend of yours."
"Alison," he said, as if he were hoping it weren't that Alison.
He shook his head. "How the hell do you know her?"
"Oh," I said, waving a casual hand sideways. "You know, New York."
"Right," he said.
"I haven't seen her in ages," I added by way of reassurance.
"She dumped me cold. Never happened to me before or since. Little witch." He looked briefly into his empty glass, then took my half-full glass from me, grazing his knuckles against mine so all the little hairs on his crackled electrically against all the little hairs on mine. He drank from my glass, his eyes audaciously on mine over the rim. "Enough about Alison. What do you do, Josephine? Doesn't everyone here ask that question before the topic turns to real estate?"
"Oh, I'm a painter," I lied. I had always wanted to be a painter, and I couldn't tell the truth after that slip about Alison; he might have put together that I was the very therapist involved in that little witch's cold dumping of him and surmised that I therefore knew certain things about him, certain highly unflattering things. And that would have been awkward, and the last thing I wanted in this conversation was awkwardness. What I did want, I wasn't yet sure.
Mick handed my glass back to me. My body curved to match the curve of his, as if we were two commas separated by nothing but air. "What sort of painting?"
"Abstract," I said.
"Abstract," he said.
"Abstract," I replied. Repeating each other's words was like sex, I was remembering. My reflection, I noticed, was leaning alluringly into him. I hadn't realized how willowy I was, how darkly elegant. I had to leave Anthony: I owed it to this woman in the mirror.
"Painting is sexy," said Mick. "Writing operas, on the other hand, is lonely and pointless. Who gives a fuck? Aria, schmaria."
"Painting is sexy," I repeated. "You stand in your studio half-naked, smearing paint all over the canvas until you explode from the sheer pleasure of it."
He laughed; there was a glint, a predatory edge, in his laughter, and I noticed that he was standing a little closer to me now. "Alison Fisher," he said malevolently, looking at me as if I were now inextricably associated with her, but he was willing to overlook it. I had a sudden urge to suck his cock.
"I need some more wine," I said. "You rudely guzzled my last glass."
"Wait here," he said, and plucked the glass from my hand. I watched him walk over to the dining room table, where all the bottles were. He was wearing a black turtleneck sweater and well-fitting brown jeans and black Doc Martens. He had a good ass. I glanced over at the mirror and again beheld my reflection. My new best friend, I thought with tipsy seasonal sentimentality.
"Josie," said Indrani, standing at my elbow. Her cheeks were flushed. Her blond hair shone. She wore red velvet. I had known her since college, and to me, she still looked exactly the same as the day I'd met her. She smelled of expensive, slightly astringent perfume. "Hi! Where's Anthony?"
"Hi," I said, kissing her. "He's swamped with work. He's so sorry to miss it. You look so beautiful!"
She looked at me. "You do, too," she said. "I mean it."
"Thanks," I said. "I've been talking to your friend Mick. He's a big flirt, isn't he?"
"Is he? I hardly know him; he's a friend of Ravi's." This was her much younger brother. Her parents had had a penchant for exotic names; the two older brothers were Giacomo and Federico. Ravi was a handsome, cheeky, disreputable Lothario type who was at that moment getting sloshed on vodka in the kitchen with Indrani's teaching assistant. "Seriously, you look really good, not that you don't always look good," said Indrani. "What's going on?"
"I'm flirting," I said recklessly. "I haven't flirted in about ten years."
"Are you going to fuck him?" she whispered. She was tipsy, obviously, and kidding; Indrani tended to be idealistic and even moralistic about marriage, probably because she was single.
"No." I laughed, but I did not say it emphatically.
Mick handed me a full glass of wine, which I took without looking at him.
"Hello, Indrani," he said. "Your apartment is lovely."
"Well, thanks. I was lucky; I bought at the right time." Indrani had a soft, round, open face and doelike brown eyes. Her shoulder-length hair was golden and shiny and straight, like a little kid's; her tall body was charmingly ungainly, slightly plump, and breasty. Although she was now a middle-aged professor at an Ivy League school, she had never lost the disarmingly naive ingenue quality that had instantly endeared her to me and won my trust when I was a shy eighteen-year-old in a strange new place.
She was not Indian; she was English and Danish. She had been born in Costa Rica to hippie parents who had later moved to the Bay Area, where she had grown up. Unfortunately for Indrani, given this upbringing, she was by nature deeply reserved and emotionally conservative. As a kid, she had chafed with embarrassment and discomfort at all the naked tripping adults at happenings, the peach-and-lentil burger suppers, the patchouli-scented, jerry-rigged VW vans, the peace marches, having to wear used clothes from the People's Park free box. Her mother was the only daughter of a very rich man, but Indrani hadn't fully realized this until she was given access to her trust fund at the age of twenty-one.
"Hey, Josie," she said, turning her lambent gaze on me, "I've been meaning to ask, have you heard anything from Raquel lately? What's going on with her new boyfriend? She wouldn't even tell me his name, but she said he's exactly half her age."
"So it's Josie, then, not Josephine," said Mick. "Suits you, actually."
I was so turned on by the sound of his voice in my ear, I could have raped him right there. I was feeling loose and wild and punchy. I had spent the past ten years, it seemed to me now, with my muscles clenched, eyes narrowed, shut up in a dark, too-small, sterile room, trying desperately but vainly to make it feel homey and capacious. The door out of my cage, my cell, had been right there all along and I had just flung it open; now that I could see outside to light, color, life, freedom, I felt that there was no closing it, ever again.
"Yeah," I said, almost giggling like a kid. "I haven't talked to her for a couple of weeks, but she said the thing with the new boyfriend is very hush-hush for some reason, and she wouldn't tell me who he was, either. And she's got a new album in the works. It's her big comeback. Apparently, she's put together an amazing band, and they've been in the studio all fall." Raquel had also told me that she was getting a little sick of Indrani's earnest, self-involved E-mails, but I didn't mention that bit of news.
"Raquel Dominguez?" Mick asked.
"The very same," I said.
He looked impressed, the starfucker. "How do you know her?" he asked.
"College," I said.
"We were all three best friends," Indrani added warmly.
I thought of what Raquel had just said to me about her and felt guilty and complicit, even though I was innocent.
In the fall of 1980, more than a quarter of a century ago, Indrani and Raquel and I had been newly arrived freshmen with consecutive alphabetical last names at a small liberal-arts school tucked away in a leafy suburban corner of a small northwestern city. Sensing a shared ironic yet romantic outlook, we had immediately formed a solid, seemingly permanent triumvirate. The three of us had rented a ramshackle old house together off campus. We majored unanimously in English, wore one another's thrift-store clothes, cooked big meaty dinners, and threw parties at which we all took mushrooms or MDA and played the Talking Heads, the Specials, Elvis Costello, Al Green. We passed boyfriends around amicably and casually-at least two and sometimes all three of us had slept (but never at the same time) with Joe the chem major, Stavros the history major, Dave the anthro major, Jonathan the anthro major, and Jason the anthro major (we'd had a thing for anthropologists, for reasons we could never quite fathom). We never slept with one another. Straight girls sleeping together just for youthful sport was, we all tacitly agreed, a clichŽ, and of course we called ourselves girls, not women-feminist didacticism, along with earnest vegetarianism, was emphatically not our aesthetic, which set us somewhat apart from the majority of the student body, which suited us fine.