Meredith is in my living room with her ankles crossed over the arms of a straight-backed chair. She’s frantic and depressed, and drinking vodka from a Styrofoam cup. Thomas Easler threw a party last weekend, and everyone discovered her secret— a facial tick. It’s not much, only the minor cinch of her upper lip, but it’s enough. Enough for Jordan Kline to buy her several more drinks and talk to her about his upcoming brand of energy drinks, enough for Tonya to talk about her recent purchase at an antiques auction in New Hampshire, and for David Leerman, my boss, to tell her how quietly beautiful she looks in a cocktail dress. Quietly beautiful, his exact words. I remember overhearing him saying this and thinking, “David Leerman doesn’t know the first thing about beauty. He has hair plugs.”
My paranoia has grown rampant. I’m at the point where I schedule weekly physicals at my doctor’s office just to make sure there isn’t anything wrong with me. I’m 25 years old. I’ve been living in Chicago for 5 years as a financial consultant for Ernst & Young. It’s been 3 years since I have been in a relationship, and almost 8 months since I have had sex.
“It wouldn’t be such a thing if it wasn’t for my mother,” Meredith tells me. “She’s the one who is always telling me to be more confident around strangers. You know that.”
“Have you ever noticed it before?”
“The thing with my lip.”
“Who told you?”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means he has a big mouth.”
I’m not a therapist, and neither is Meredith, but the context of our relationship is decidedly heavy-handed. We drink together, and when we drink together we tend to tell each other our secrets. I’ve known Meredith for only a month, but she already knows I can’t sleep when someone is touching me (spooning is out of the question) and that I can’t drink coffee ever since I quit smoking cigarettes. She also knows that I’ve never wanted kids, and that right now I don’t want to get married, although that could change, unlike the kids thing, which won’t.
What have I learned about Meredith? She won’t date a guy shorter than her (she’s 5’ 7’’), or with red hair (she’s a blonde). She once told me that if her future husband ever got fat she would consider leaving him. Meredith hates fat people. She finds them disgusting.
But what’s wonderful about Meredith is that she knows she is superficial, and often times at night, when she is alone with me and a bit buzzed, Meredith shows regret for being who she is. She worries about how dangerous she might become to those around her, and it is this fear that leads her to ask me the dreaded question I can never seem to answer.
“What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
I clutch her hand then take a sip of my drink. The feel of her is almost weightless, as if Meredith is no longer real but a ghost I’ve created. I have no answer for her because I am unsure if my sins are as sinister as the question demands them to be. She has come to know this about me, to understand me on a shrewd personal level—I’ve never done anything worth regretting.
“You may look like a man, Carter, but you’re just a boy deep down.”
“What makes you say that?”
“A man accepts himself for who he is, good or bad. A boy fakes his innocence. He pretends. All boys pretend.”
“But what if I’m not pretending?”
“Then you’re naïve. Very, very naïve.”
She gets up and heads for the exit, moving clumsily now that she is back in her high heels and somewhat drunk. I know I should drive her home, but I don’t want things between her and me to go any farther than they already have. Meredith represents the sort of vice I can’t afford to get caught up in at this point in my life. It’s time for me to start taking fewer risks. It’s time for me to start living how my father always told me I should—but without the wife, and definitely without the kids.
“By the way,” Meredith says, turning around, “that suit doesn’t fit you.”
* * *
Interrogation is David Leerman’s calling card. He smirks when talking, as if withholding a secret. He wears a suit and tie everywhere he goes, and carries an umbrella in case it happens to rain. He doesn’t eat fish, refuses to watch professional basketball, and is newly divorced. The divorce has caused him to start drinking again, highballs as early as 10:30. Old-Fashioneds by 1.
Leerman is starting to cling to me. Lunch, just the two of us, almost every day now, the same restaurant. Capital Grill. I’m afraid to order anything but steak because it’s all he orders. 20 oz. ribeye, rare, no mashed potatoes or fries. Just raw steak on a plate.
“How ‘bout another drink?” he asks me.
“I think I’m OK for now.”
“Fine, but when you go out with the clientele from Portland next week you’re going to have to have more than one. Those guys are heavy drinkers. They’ll think you’re a fag if you don’t drink with them, and if they think you’re a fag then they won’t buy shit from us.”
Leerman sees a fly moving high above his head and decides to reach for it, missing by far too much to tell. He’s irritable now, and I’m nervous to find out what happens next.
“So, no wife, no kids?” he asks me.
“No wife. No kids.”
“How old are you?”
“I was 23 when I got married. Big fucking mistake. You’re playing it right, Strouss. You’re playing the game the way I should have played it.”
I nod with my head down. The blood from the steak spreads in bubbles across the plate and divides the grease. I have never eaten rare steak before (only medium), and I worry that I am going to get E. coli or possibly even a tapeworm. I watch as Leerman tears through his steak with unanticipated precision, cutting each piece into small, block-shaped squares before bringing them to his mouth and biting down hard. The blood from the steak manages to stain some of his teeth.
When he is finished, the waiter comes and collects our plates. She asks if we want any dessert. Leerman decides no for us both. She smiles at him, a fresh-from-the-dentist sort of smile, and promptly brings the check. Leerman smiles back at her in a perverted way as she walks back to the kitchen then signs his name without looking at the price.
“Do you have any Xanax left at the office?” he asks, catching me off guard. I’ve kept a bottle of Xanax in my desk drawer ever since I was re-located to Chicago. It is prescribed by my doctor.
“It’s fine, Strouss. We all have our secrets.”
I think about offering Leerman my Xanax, but I’m too nervous.
“Go ahead,” he says.
“Ask me how I knew.”
“How did you know?”
Leerman smiles, the same perverted look. I can’t help but feel disgusted at the way he enjoys watching people squirm in his presence. “Ask me to tell you something about yourself.”
“Tell me something about myself,” I say.
“You don’t like it when the different elements of food on your plate touch or mix together. You can’t cook anything besides grilled chicken. You love art, but it’s not the same ever since you tried it yourself only to realize you weren’t any good at it. You hate having your picture taken to the point where you refuse to keep any pictures of you and your family in your apartment. And let’s not forget—you prefer living alone rather than sharing your life with someone else. You’re convinced it’s safer that way. You’re convinced that this way no one gets hurt—nothing is put at risk.”
I realize I’m sweating. My hands are gripping tightly to my legs, and the pain I’m feeling makes me think I may have broken skin. I look under the table and am relieved to see that there isn’t any blood seeping through my khakis. I take my napkin and rub it lightly across my wet forehead.
“I know everything about you, Strouss. Don’t you forget that.”
Leerman gets up from the table, and I follow him diligently out the door.
* * *
Meredith and I have retreated back to our normal positions by the following afternoon. I make us Old-Fashioneds—Meredith’s with two cherries, because she refuses to drink it any other way. Today is her birthday and to celebrate I’ve allowed her the luxury of smoking inside. She tells me she is turning 28, but I have a hard time believing her. In a hollow sort of way Meredith is ageless, transparent almost.
“Mom still hasn’t called me today, Carter. She always calls early in the morning on my birthday. Have I ever told you how she used to make me breakfast in bed when I was little? Every birthday, pancakes with strawberries for eyes and a large slice of melon for a mouth. I miss those pancakes. “
“I’m sure she’ll call some time tonight. I doubt your mother would forget about her only daughter.”
“I have a brother.”
“Brothers aren’t daughters.”
“What’s the difference?”
“It’s between your legs.”
“Don’t be crude, Carter. You know I don’t like it when you act that way.”
Meredith asks me if she can see my portfolio for the Portland case, after lighting another cigarette—her fourth this afternoon. She claims to have had some previous experience in the financial district, something about working as a consultant at Mesirow Financial. I don’t believe her. The girl can barely calculate a tip. But, it is her birthday, and regardless of her age, I feel as if I should allow her to get away with pretending just this once.
“This is too conservative. You need to encourage them to take more risks,” she says.
“I’m low-risk though. It’s my position.”
“What’s Leerman have to say about that?”
“He likes it. It’s the reason he requested me from New York.”
“You were requested?”
“You never told me that.”
“I bet Leerman thinks you’re boring.”
“He clings to me.”
“Probably because he thinks you’re a pushover.”
“I’m not a pushover.”
“I don’t like Leerman. He made me feel…unsettled at Easler’s. I think he is what brought about the you-know-what.”
“Yes, Carter, my tick.”
I take another sip from my drink. I’m already drunk, drunker than I have been in some time.
“You have one too, you know.”
“And what might that be?”
“You look up into the nearest corner of the ceiling when you get nervous. It’s like you’re looking for the nearest way out or something.”
“I’ve never noticed that.”
“Of course you haven’t. That’s why it’s a tick.”
Meredith takes another drag from her cigarette, and when she exhales she breathes more than just smoke. When embarrassed, Meredith often reverts to childishness, huffing and puffing to gain attention. When this fails, she turns the conversation around.
“Carter, what is it that makes you nervous?”
“You already know lots of things that make me nervous.”
“But there are others.”
“I’m afraid of water.”
“Water? Really? Water is such a silly thing to be afraid of.”
“No, it’s not. Water is very dangerous. 1.2 million people die per year due to drowning, and most of them know how to swim.”
“Can you swim?”
“But you have a pool, and you live in Chicago.”
“And you can’t swim.”
“It belonged to the previous owners.”
“You’ve never tried to teach yourself?”
“I find that very odd.”
“The house is too big for that sort of a risk.”
Meredith finishes her drink and asks me to make her another, this one a bit stronger. I tell her yes, but only because it’s her birthday, and the reminder of aging introduces sex into the conversational life we have built together.
“Are you afraid of women?” she asks me.
“No.” I catch my eyes trying to shift toward the corner of the ceiling, and I curse under my breath.
“When was the last time you were with a woman?”
“A month ago,” I lie.
“What was her name?”
“Describe her to me.”
Meredith is taking the conversation in a direction I’m all too willing to avoid, but I don’t want to seem nervous. “She had red hair, blue eyes, abnormally high cheekbones and a strange sort of definition to her calf muscles. They were almost too large to belong to a woman, but I didn’t mind them. I always thought they were actually quite—”
“I want you to describe her to me during sex.”
“I don’t think I want to tell you something like that.”
“Because it’s not a part of our relationship.”
“It’s just—” I finish my drink to combat the dryness in my throat, but the liquor does nothing.
“Can I have one of your cigarettes?”
“I thought you quit.”
Meredith reaches into her purse and grabs her pack. She holds the half-empty box out in front of me, and I reach inside.
“Do I make you nervous?” she asks, as she gets up from her seat and moves closer. Her height blocks the sun from reaching her face, making her appear darker than ever before.
“I’m a nervous person. You know this.”
My acknowledgement of our shared intimacy brings a smile to Meredith’s face, but in the shadows her smile is frighteningly similar to the perverted look Leerman gave our waitress the day before—the smile Leerman gives to signal that he has won something from me.
Meredith takes one hand and places it underneath my shirt on my shoulder. “I think I am going for a swim,” she says, then leans down so as to say something into my ear. She whispers, “You really are missing out you know?” and before I can even feel the skin of her hand slide against me, she’s gone.
* * *
At work, Leerman asks me about my taste in women—another test. We are in his office going over the specifics of the Portland case, having just returned from the Capital Grill. I think back to lunch and wish I had ordered the day’s special—blackened tilapia.
“I don’t know if I have a taste.”
“Bullshit. C’mon tell me. Blonde? Petite? Large cans? C’mon.” Leerman is on his fourth drink of the day—a whiskey ginger with crushed ice.
“I’m not sure if this is an appropriate conversation for work. Let’s look back at the—”
“Don’t you tell me what is appropriate in my office. Answer the question.”
I retreat back into my seat, crossing my legs and looking up into the corner of the ceiling behind Leerman’s desk.
“I like brunettes. Also, women with very tan legs.”
“What was the name of that girl you brought to Easler’s party?”
As if on cue, Leerman baits me. Although he isn’t as confident in himself as he was a month ago, Leerman can still intimidate me. I know Leerman is setting a trap for me, but I’m also aware that there isn’t any way for me to escape. You can’t run from a man like David Leerman, no matter how wounded he is.
“Meredith,” I tell him.
“Meredith. You don’t meet very many women with that name anymore. It’s much more 60s than 70s.”
“I guess so.”
“You two together?”
Leerman smiles unexpectedly at me for saying this. “I didn’t take you for that kind of man, Strouss. Good for you. You’re young. Enjoy yourself. No strings attached. A wife is an overrated commodity these days anyway.”
I stare down into my lap, watching as I interlock then separate my hands from one another, pretending not to have heard him. No strings attached. How modern of him.
“She good in the sack?”
“I don’t think—”
He looks at me in anticipation, and I mistakenly wince.
“It’s not like that,” I tell him.
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t sleep together.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I shit you not.”
“Are you queer?”
“You’re sounding awfully like a fag to me right now.”
“I’m not gay.”
“Then why haven’t you gone after her?” Leerman reaches for his drink and finishes what’s left in one gulp.
“I don’t know if I want to.”
“Is she crazy or something?”
“She’s not crazy.”
“Then what’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t want to talk about Meredith anymore, Mr. Leerman.”
He looks at me with disdain. “I’m having a party next weekend,” he says. You should bring her. It’ll be your last hoorah of sorts before you go off to Portland.”
“I’d appreciate it if you brought her.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“It would be good for you.”
For the next hour Leerman and I re-crunch numbers and debate whether or not Portland should increase their stock in gold. The room fills with the sound of Leerman’s voice, as I look out the window and imagine myself swimming in a pool alongside Meredith.
* * *
A black Doberman suspiciously watches Meredith and me as we walk up to the front door of Leerman’s house. The dog lacks a collar, and the greased appearance of its fur suggests it is a stray. Meredith asks me if I think the dog belongs to the house, and I tell her that I couldn’t imagine Leerman would let his dog look like that.
Inside, Van Morrison circulates through a speaker system that spans the length of the house. Meredith tells me she likes Van Morrison, that she even saw him once— with her father two summers ago at Lincoln Hall—and that she remembers that night to be one of the best nights of the summer that year. I tell her that it’s nice to be able to hold on to good memories. The caterer who let us in asks if we want to be shown to where the party is being held, and before Meredith can say anything, I tell him that we would.
The party guests have huddled into pockets of conversation. All of the men are wearing ties. I begin to feel embarrassed at having not worn one, and I become reluctant to engage in the party conversation at the risk of being exposed. Meredith doesn’t have this problem, because she is dressed just like the other women, a long cocktail dress fashioned over one shoulder with stylish earrings and a necklace to match.
We are led to the kitchen where Leerman is sitting, drinking bourbon on the rocks and talking to Thomas Easler. When he sees that we have arrived he looks only at Meredith.
“Hello, Meredith,” He starts to smile at her, but stops for some reason. Leerman then looks at me and says nothing.
“Hello, Mr. Leerman.”
I expect to see Meredith’s upper lip flinch, but nothing happens. Unexpectedly, she looks at ease in front of Leerman, as if trying to emulate his outward confidence.
“Call me David.”
“Hello, Meredith,” says Easler. “You look lovely.”
“You look…quietly beautiful,” says Leerman, chiming in. “The other women try much harder than you.”
“Give it a break,” says Easler, who gets up from his seat and leaves to show his genuine disgust. I expect Meredith to do the same, but she doesn’t. She takes Easler’s seat at the table, and asks Leerman to make her a drink. He smiles at the request, and gets up to go to the bar stationed behind us. I take Leerman’s seat.
“I thought you didn’t like Leerman,”
“Then stop teasing him.”
“It’s one drink.”
“It’s David Leerman. It’s my boss.”
Meredith pauses. She tilts her neck slightly, and her eyes grow wider. “Don’t be jealous, Carter.”
“I’m not jealous.”
“You don’t have to lie to me.”
“I’m not lying.”
Meredith sighs. “You really are childish sometimes.”
She strains her neck back toward the bar, in search of Leerman. When she notices that I am watching her, Meredith turns back around and winks at me. When Leerman returns, I get up from my seat and walk over to Easler, who encourages me to survey the party with him.
Easler is drunk. He tells Jordan Kline that his new line of energy drinks taste like shit, and that they didn’t test well in the 18-24-year-old demographic according to a report conducted by the Wall Street Journal just last week. To Barrett Carry (a stay-at-home dad who has three daughters and no sons), Easler recommends trying something other than the missionary position with his wife, because the missionary position only produces females. When we discover Easler’s own wife alone and half-asleep on a floral patterned couch in the piano room, Easler shows little concern. “Just like her,” he says to me between sips of his beer, “Always missing out.”
I allow Easler to lead me to the adjoining room. We grab another beer, and somehow, amidst our conversation, the Portland case comes up. After going over the details, Easler vehemently disagrees with me. He tells me that my plan is too cautious. Portland needs to be aggressive, I need to be aggressive, he says. “Because that’s what men are, Carter. They’re aggressive. Men do things.” As he is saying this, I realize I’ve forgotten about Meredith. I leave the room abruptly only to find the dining room empty but for several of the caterers cleaning up.
“The party has moved outside, sir,” one says to me.
“Could you show me where?”
“Don’t trouble him, Carter,” says Easler, stepping into the room. “We’ll find it ourselves.”
I follow him outside to the back patio. A tent is set up on the lawn, and the remaining party guests are huddled underneath its awning. Closed buffet trays steam next to the fully equipped bar, and wooden panels are placed over the grass, but there is no music. Then Van Morrison finds his way outside, buzzing through a set of speakers attached to the tent, and everyone starts to dance. I tell Easler that I feel like we have stumbled onto a movie set where everyone acts on cue, and all he can do is laugh at the absurd notion before lighting a cigarette.
“Will you look at that,” he says, pausing after he inhales.
I look out into the crowd and spot Meredith dancing with Leerman. She lets him twirl her, then pull her close to his body. Again, I expect her lip to flinch, but it doesn’t. I look down at the ground in fear of what might happen next.
“Better get over there before you lose your date,” Easler says.
“She’s not my date.”
“Don’t lie to yourself. That’s what women do.”
I start to say something to Easler, something about how dangerous a woman like Meredith can be, but I cut myself off. This sort of comment means nothing to men like Thomas Easler and David Leerman, because to them regret is something that only a boy fears to experience.
“Tell me, Strouss. What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
I look back at the tent. The music has reached an interlude, and Leerman and Meredith have separated from each other. She looks around the surrounding party guests, most of whom are heading to the bar to grab another drink before the music resumes. Her search doesn’t last long, but Meredith does nothing. She stays on the dance floor, her eyes intent on what I might do next, but I all I can do is meet her gaze with an expressionless face.
“I think I’m going to go home, Thomas.”
“Do you want me to drive you?”
“Not tonight,” I say, before heading back inside and asking one of the caterers to call for a cab.
Late that night, Meredith calls me from her house. I let it go to voicemail, but I can’t stop myself from listening to her message shortly after she hangs up. She tells me she is sorry for being careless, and that she hates herself when she acts like this. She tells me this is all her mother’s fault, and as I’m listening to her start to cry, I can’t bring myself to feel sorry for her. I’m too busy thinking back on what Thomas Easler said to me, and how much of a coward I am. The message ends with her begging for me to call her back, and I hang up the phone. As if on instinct, I grab my suitcase out of the closet and begin packing for Portland.