Skip to content

Chapter 17

Daria did not feel at home in her new office. It had a window, but she always felt someone was standing behind her back. On Day 15, a Friday, this feeling was confirmed when Jude told her it was time they went out for coffee. She got up, took some things, and followed him. If she ran into anyone she knew on the street, she would give the look to say This isn’t social. Nothing at Hap, in fact, felt social.

“Hap thinks you can be made ‘a natural,’ ” said Jude, out on the street. “He gave the job to me.”

“To give me some flair?”

“Flair?”

“Like that movie Office Space, where Jennifer Anniston has to accumulate these pins called flair on her waitress uniform.”

“The fact that you mentioned Jennifer Anniston is already casting a pall.”

“I have many powers.”

He pulled out his phone. She looked away. “Ramona told me this morning that you and Mariette are having casual sex.”

He laughed. “Ramona Hernandez and her casual comments about casual sex.”

“Are you two together?”

“Mariette’s like a sister.”

“You like sleeping with your sister?”

“I don’t have siblings. I wouldn’t know.”

“I hate that word siblings.”

“Don’t we know.”

“You’re evading the question.”

“My palette is broad.”

“Is that innuendo for all the women you sleep with who are like your sister?”

He put away his phone. “You’re a puritan, Daria. But I’m impressed that you just said women and not girls.”

“I’m not a puritan. You don’t even know what a puritan is.”

“Ethylynn was a puritan.”

“You said she was willing to sleep with Ted.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a puritan. With Ethylynn, sex was one man and one woman at a time.”

“Well, I’m not Ethylynn. Besides, I thought I was failing at this—being the replacement member of your family.”

He sighed. “You are. But I’m the designated fixer.”

“I’m getting a bad vibe. Fakery, fakery, fakery.”

“Stop saying things in three’s.”

“You’re annoying, Jude.”

Already he had the phone out again. “Please don’t call me annoying.”

“You’re annoying in the way that other guys are annoying.”

He laughed. “Now that was pithy. You’re your own women’s network.”

“CO2.”

“I knew you were going to say that.”

She shook her head. “How do guys get to be like you? You walk in a room and say, ‘Hey, look—I can get away with anything.”

He didn’t bother looking up. “Are you mad that Mariette and I hook up sometimes? Are you jealous? Do you have a crush on me that you write about in your diary?”

“I don’t have a crush on you. And why did you say hook up like that?”

“It’s a phrase I’d never use.”

“But you just used it.”

Now he looked at her. “For your benefit.”

“You’re always performing. Like those neurotics who need a fan constantly going because they can’t bear to hear the randomness of the world.”

“I am neurotic, I suppose, but it’s accumulated debt.”

“You act like everything you is more relevant.”

“Will you please stop telling me I am this and I am that? You don’t see me resorting to that with you. Believe me, it would hurt.”

“You’re probably proud of that, being able to hurt people.”

He slid the phone into his pocket. “Well, here we are.”

He ordered a small Americano plus a single shot of espresso. She couldn’t restrain herself from muttering, “One of them.”

He turned, for she was in line behind him. “One of what?”

She looked at him as if it was obvious. “People who order espresso in a paper cup.”

“Should I have asked for a lead flagon?”

“You can’t order a shot of espresso if it’s not served in a ceramic espresso cup and saucer. That’s sacrilege in Italy. You take a sugar cube, and in one move it’s all over. With a paper cup it’s just . . . I don’t know, corruption.”

He squinted and shook his head as if she’d spoken an obscure language. “You just said the words sacrilege, Italy, and corruption and you weren’t even talking about Berlusconi. When not in Rome, act not like the Romans.”

At a table offering an obstructed view out the window, she asked him, “What did you do before this, before Hap?”

He drank his espresso, without sugar, in one gulp. “I was a hit man.”

“Ha ha.”

“I was a writer for an executive staffing agency, and that’s what they called me—‘hit man,’ like Nick Ashford at Motown.”

“So what were your hits?”

“Let’s see. ‘Half Unicorn, Half Business Development Visionary’—that was from my quill.”

She made a face. “How was this person half a unicorn?”

He for once seemed to notice something about her. “You make a lot of those faces,” he said, “like someone who’s just opened a container of boiled cabbage.”

“I make these faces when people talk about unicorns.”

He leaned back. “ ‘We’re hunting for the unicorn of blah-blah-blah. That special beast for whom blah-blah-blah. We will be brutal in considering only candidates who provide all requested items above. Unicorns have these items ready to go. We’re only hiring for unicorns.’ It was a joke, and they ran with it, told me it would get me into the Hall of Fame.”

She was disappointed that his immediate past did not include a story of failure. “And no one ever fired you?”

He looked at her as if for the first time. “What did you do to get fired so many times?”

She hated itemizing but had done it so often she didn’t have to think. “Expose hypocrisy and slackers. And then the slackers got me sacked. Also be smarter than my boss. No one wants to see that in an underling.” She paused. “Although . . . I admit I couldn’t sustain anything. I could do Step 1 but never Step 2. Because you need patience and discipline, and I don’t have that. Patience with the everydayness of most situations.”

He laughed. “Nothing sluttier than that?”

She wrinkled her nose in a manner Quentin always thought appropriate for auction-house bidding.

“Daria,” he said with a sly smile, “tell Uncle Jude the whole story.”

Was there even a story? The WASPy head of capital giving at Harvard wanted to sleep with her, potentially kicking off a lurid affair with much intrigue and the opportunity for job growth. And she was willing to do so at the moment, but the eventual decline—the whole story—came about on a technicality.

“I was going to have an affair with this Harvard power-broker, Pidge Coolidge.”

Pidge?”

“Edgar Pigeon Coolidge.”

“That is such an ow, that name.”

“Harvard is such an ow.”

“So why not the affair with Pidge?”

“Probably because I wasn’t sexually attracted to him. It was like looking at the cute guys in my mother’s yearbook—it had to be distant if it was to feel romantic. And also because he was such a boring dude; his two blond kids on his desk looked like the picture that comes when you buy the frame.” She paused. “But mostly it was because I had a yeast infection.”

He put up his hand for her to stop.

“If I had slept with him,” she continued, “it would all be over—the grand-prize potential won and lost in one move. What would you ever get—him? a few gifts? some weird-ass Tuesday-Wednesday trip to the Bahamas when he was supposed to be at a conference in Tampa?”

“He asked you to go to the Bahamas when you had a yeast infection?”

“That was the carrot on the stick. How do men know so precisely how to act sleazy?”

“I hate to break this to you, but you probably weren’t the first.”

“If he had me fired when I said no, I might have been able to sue or threaten a lawsuit.”

“Blackmail offers much higher dividends in the Ivies.”

She shook her head. “But he had me transferred to the Divinity School, in a job that was a technical promotion. And then I got laid off because of endowment losses.”

“He probably knew you’d get laid off, that the endowment was going south. Get laid on or get laid off. You should’ve sued the fuck out of him.”

She couldn’t help brooding at this. “I told my mother after the fact, and she was pissed that I didn’t consult her. ‘You don’t know how to work these things’ is what she told me. ‘That right there was the end of you at Harvard.’ And I realized she wanted me to fuck the guy to someone’s advantage—probably hers.”

He looked down at his cup. “We’re all like that Phillip Larkin poem, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’ ”

She shook her head vehemently. “My dad didn’t fuck me up. He was a pretty decent guy, but he caved to my mother.”

Cherchez la femme.”

She realized the need to rein things in given this pointless tangent, but she still felt compelled to offer sensible advice. “You’ve really got to move on from talking so much about your parents.”

“We’re never going to get over it,” he said—“blaming our parents for being our parents.”

“All three of you are wasting so much potential by focusing on the past.”

He laughed. “Why did we ever hire you?”

“You needed someone to make fun of.”

He sat up in his chair. “Nah. We could find that pretty easy. Without making a hire.”

She was persistent. “Then you needed someone you felt was pathetically trying to be a winner. You see yourselves as would-be winners dissing the game. And me, I’m like . . . I don’t know. I’m a poor person trying to be different.”

He looked down at his cup again. “Ethylynn always said she was a poor person trying to be good.” He tapped the empty espresso cup on the table. “She was in it to do something good. Hap knew that. She was disappointed with the world, but it wasn’t permanent.”

She was perplexed. “Why not try to be like her then? Why not let her be your inspiration? Didn’t you ever watch Dawson’s Creek?”

“She had a bad scene with her father,” he continued.

The girl was dead, thought Daria; I don’t have the mind-space to feel bad about her life.

Jude looked out the window. “It’s funny how SML, in trying to locate dear old dad, is dogged like some Nazi hunter in Argentina. Whereas Ethylynn . . . she never knew her father, never looked and never cared.” He paused. “But then this weird thing happened.”

Suddenly some mind-space got freed up. “What weird thing?”

He hesitated in divulging his secret, but something made him plow ahead. “One time she went to Atlanta to visit relatives—an hour or so outside the city they lived. And she goes to this club and meets this guy who starts flirting with her. He’s older, but she finds herself enormously attracted to him.”

“Oh, God, don’t even tell me.”

He stared at her, annoyed.

“So tell me!” she demanded.

“So they start dancing—a heavy kind of dancing—and she’s already decided she’s going home with him. Not only that; she thinks this is the one. She can feel it; every last molecule of her says so. She hasn’t felt so happy so quickly ever in her life. When she heads for the bathroom, right before she’s going to leave with the guy, she feels someone yank her arm. It’s a friend of her cousin who emerges from the crowd of men at the bar. ‘That guy you’re with is your daddy, Ethylynn, and he knows it.’ She leaves the daddy and the club by a different door, finds a ride with another friend of another cousin. Sleeps with that guy and it’s terrible. The next morning is one of the worst of her life.”

They sat in silence for a moment, him continuing to tap the empty espresso cup on the table.

“Maybe that’s why,” she finally said.

“Why what?”

“Why she was willing to sleep with Ted. They both had parent sex issues.”

He made a face.

“Didn’t you see how mad he got listening to his mother saying how his stepdad was the hive and the light bulb and whatever the fuck it was? She’s talking like the dead husband’s God, and her son is sitting there watching. He’s obsessed with her—Lillian—not with his father.”

He shook his head. “MyRealDad.com. Lifetime membership.”

She had to lean forward at this. “What don’t you get? Looking for his dad is just a red herring. If he was really looking for his father he’d find his father. This is not the days of Moby-Dick, where you have to travel port to port around the world. I could probably find his father in forty-eight hours. Looking for his dad is some kind of process of erasure, like a cat in a litter box. Maybe there’s guilt. Maybe Ted already had sex with his mother—when he was a teenager.”

He shook his head. “I can’t believe you successfully used the phrase process of erasure.”

“Fuck you.”

“Or made a reference to Moby-Dick, which I doubt you’ve read.”

She was disgusted. “Can’t let the hierarchy go, can you, Mr. Insecure?”

Now he laughed. “Why do you keep saying outlandish things?”

“You just told me I’m a puritan.”

“You can be a puritan who says outlandish things. No wonder people fire you.”

“If you’re talking about saying Ted might have been abused at Horace Mann, that’s not outlandish. And there’s something between him and his mother, like in that French movie about the kid with the heart murmur.”

He couldn’t hide being stunned.

“Are we done here?” she snapped. “Because I kinda am.”

“Are you talking about Le Souffle au coeur?

She shrugged. “I don’t know what the hell it’s called. But the kid has sex with his hot mother and everyone’s happy in the end. I have a feeling that only in France are the kids happy in the end when that shit happens.”

He was silent for a moment. “Daria,” he said bracing himself with his hands on the table, “I’m going to tell you this and I’m only going to tell you once. I believe that was an épat.”

She didn’t even find this amusing. “You let people épat you all the time. And you want to know why? Because you think so small about the world. You think so small about what anyone knows or is able to do.”

He looked toward all that wasn’t obstructed of the outside. “Maybe that’s what I want. The world to shit on my chest.”

She shook her head. “You’re lonely.”

He continued to stare at the window. “Lonely people take longer showers with warmer water because of their social isolation. Although I think the data on that are bogus.”

She was already sick of the menu with an answer for everything: hedonist adaptation, happiness setpoint, hedonic treadmill, impact bias. “You’re all lonely.”

This brought him back to her. “And you’re not?”

She thought of the Upper West Side on Saturday night: saturation Dateland, like in the board game Candyland, where handholding couples of all ages follow the winding candy cane to the reserved table in the dark. And in between all these happy couples on the sidewalks a few lonely people lugging Trader Joe’s bags. She was one of the people with the bags.

“I think I’m still trying to handle the stress they say is the coping mechanism that crowds out what makes you happy.”

He made a face. “Don’t ever, ever present a word pileup like that to real live people.”

She was undeterred. “One of the things I don’t buy is that happiness is infectious. I see happy people on the street. They’re like aliens.”

He smirked. “Unhappy people compare a lot. They’re doing more mental work.”

“And ‘Act the way you want to feel,’ ” she continued. “What’s with that? That’s just the same lame HR shit you get from recruiters in college. Dress for the job you want, not for the one you have. It doesn’t get you any traction. Some crazy bitch will still fire you.”

He leaned back as if for air. “So what are you grateful for?”

“This fucking job!” she exclaimed, leaning forward over the table. “That’s what I’m grateful for. I’m grateful to Hap for being nice to me. And to Trader Joe’s for keeping me alive when I had no money. And to my friend Quentin Donahue. I learn everything important about life from him. And to WERS, the Emerson College station and its live-streaming of The Secret Spot.”

“What the hell’s The Secret Spot?”

“It’s a show—‘classic’ R&B, soul, and slow-jams. It’s mostly for women to give shout-outs to their dudes locked up. For a long time all the kids on the station would say the name with the emphasis on ‘Spot,’ but then at some point they started making them put the emphasis on ‘Secret,’ to make it sound less dirty.”

This made him smile—and then tap on the side of his nose where it was bent.

“Is that a sign that I’m smart?”

He shook his head. “When my face was banged up—and there was a lot of pain and a lot of drugs—I could touch my nose in a certain spot that made me pass out. We could never figure out why. My mother called it ‘the honey spot.’ She made a lot of jokes about it. She also made me promise never to tell anyone she said that.”

She wanted to say Well, now you’ve told me, but that didn’t seem very nice, even to him. “What happened to your nose anyway?”

“It happened when I was in Paris.”

She rolled her eyes. “First World problems.”

He was annoyed. “These kids—I guess they were from the projects because they were speaking Arabic—they stole my camera and used it to beat my face.”

She winced. “Well at least they didn’t use a brick.”

He laughed. “That was the only time my father felt sorry enough for me to buy me a present.”

“What did he give you?”

“Another fucking camera, what else?”

“Mariette told me you love your camera. She said you’d fuck it if you could.”

“That’s probably true. I can’t tell the difference between extremes.”

She nodded. “Like Hap’s cufflinks.”

He shook his head, looking out the window again. “No, like Robert Mitchum’s knuckles in Night of the Hunter. Laughing and crying aren’t really extremes. My father was disgusted by my mother. That’s extreme.”

It was here Daria made another important discovery about Jude Elsevier and his fellow showpeople: they needed serious help. And although Hap was protecting them, he was also failing them.

“It’s a thin line between love and hate” was all she could think to say.

He glanced back at his phone lying in the table. “That’s the song about the woman who puts the guy in traction. Total body cast.”

She nodded. “The Persuaders.”

Now he seemed annoyed, picking up his phone. “How the hell did you know that?” he asked without even looking at her.

She stared in disbelief—so much disbelief that she couldn’t even laugh. She’d just got through telling him that she listened to classic R&B on the radio. The very least he could do in life was listen to what people were telling him—about Anne Sexton or French movies or whatever. It was like he was asking for it—épat after épat after épat. She couldn’t believe he was just sitting there in the open, despite his nearby phone, being that vulnerable to people as unthreatening as her.

Next chapter →

%d bloggers like this: