It is the same party. It is the same party, with the same people, wearing the same clothes, the same shirts and jeans they have all seen a thousand times before; the same shoes. Their hair and their stories are the same. The party is at Maggie’s. It is always at Maggie’s, because Maggie is the hostess. That is to say, she enjoys this sort of thing. Maggie is the only one who can be relied on to have enough unbroken wine glasses for everyone, so no one ever has to use a mug. Caroline considers mugs barbaric. They are all too old for mugs. Maggie has not only unbroken wine glasses but unchipped china plates. Maggie has not only unchipped china plates but also coasters, actual coasters, and placemats, and those chintzy wine glass charms, and an apparently endless series of cocktail napkins, most of which have dim little phrases on them, like save water, drink wine and champagne for my real friends and that martini rhyme attributed to Dorothy Parker that, if you think about it for one single second, is irredeemably depressing. Maggie has all of these things because she and Tom are recently married, and everyone knows it’s your recently married friends who have the nicest and most useless things. The one useless thing they do not yet have is a baby, though they all know how badly Tom, in particular, wants a baby. Alas, you cannot register for a baby as for a cocktail napkin. The shipping charges, among other things, would be absurd.
Caroline had not wanted to go to the party at all. That’s something she will fixate on later. She even refused, once or twice. It was too cold. It was too dark. It was the same party. It was the same people. Their hair: the same. Their stories: the same! There was no reason to go, except the one bad reason, which she did not allow herself to consider. But it didn’t matter what she considered or did not consider, because when Elliot came into the bedroom, he was already wearing his coat, and his gloves, and even the cashmere scarf she had given him that he only wore to parties—and anyway, what were they going to do all night if they didn’t go, what would they talk about together all alone, or would they just watch television again on their shared screen, and then separate to watch more television or worse on their individual screens—so she sighed and put her shoes on. She submitted to the party, as she had always known she would, as she always does, as they all do, every time. This is what they do on nights like these.
Maggie has arranged ten wine glasses in a square on the kitchen table. Caroline can tell it was Maggie because Tom always arranges the glasses in a row, wide hips kissing. When Maggie does it, the glasses are perfectly equidistant from one another; they don’t touch. This is the essential difference between them, Caroline thinks, before dismissing that thought as meaningless, and also possibly mean. She can’t understand why Maggie married Tom, though she has never said this to anyone, not even Elliot, who would probably be offended. Elliot takes off his scarf and drapes it on the back of a chair. Unsatisfied, he picks it up and re-drapes it. Caroline looks away.
Everything in Maggie’s kitchen is the same. Same brand of brie, same labels on the wine, same tea towels hanging off the stove door. The apartment is immaculate. This is the only reason she notices the small black dot on the ceiling, in the southwest corner. Probably a stinkbug, Caroline thinks. She isn’t really the type to scrutinize other people’s ceilings. Not caring about things like other people’s ceilings is something she prides herself on. It is her mother who notices cobwebs and stinkbugs, who can always be relied upon to find dust in your apartment, no matter how thoroughly you clean. Caroline never looks for dust. She tries not to look, anyway. She almost never runs her finger along anyone else’s edges. She’s still getting used to having edges at all.
Caroline kisses Maggie, and waves to Tom, and goes into their bedroom to drop her coat on their bed. Nothing has changed in this room either. Not the hideous old lamp on the bedside table, whose base is shaped like an eagle. Not the procession of tiny glass cats on the windowsill. Not the puke green, fake silk bedspread, inexplicably beaded on two sides instead of four, or better, none.
Well, the truth is, Maggie has always had bad taste. Caroline knows this. If Maggie was someone else, anyone else, the cats alone—too cute by far, too delicate, she can feel their parent corporations clawing hopefully at her uterus—would be cause enough for Caroline to disavow the friendship. How could a person who collects tiny glass cats be trusted? Who knows what these dingy walls and impotent quilt might indicate about a woman’s innermost soul? But look, when Caroline first moved to the city, years ago, Maggie took her in, and let her stay rent-free—for months, as it turned out—while she looked for a job. And when, still years ago but fewer, Caroline thought she was pregnant, Maggie had wiped her face, put her to bed, gone out for a while, and come back with three different drugstore pregnancy tests, a pack of Lucky Strikes, and a bottle of good champagne that she could in no way afford. “Either to celebrate,” Maggie had said, standing in the doorway, cradling the bottle as if it were the thing they dreaded most, “or to kill it.”
And to be fair, Caroline loves Maggie’s parties. At least she used to love them. At least she can remember a few good nights amid the smear of arrivals, the smear of wine, the mash of conversation, a filmstrip of identical departures, James always departing with Gabi, which is fine, after all they live together, after all they are in love, Caroline always departing with Elliot, for the same reasons. There was the party after James’s first big show; the party before Gabi’s first big promotion; the party at which Omar’s New Boyfriend was a minor internet celebrity; the party with the goldfish; the party at which Caroline had seven glasses of wine and marched into Maggie’s bedroom, where she proceeded to cut the pockets out of someone else’s coat. Snip, it had been so easy, snip, and so satisfying.
Gabi comes into the bedroom. Caroline is still there, looking at the glass cats, thinking how easy it would be to break off parts of them—those delicate tails and lifted, questioning paws. Maggie probably wouldn’t even notice. Does anyone really look at the things in their own apartments? The two women smile and kiss in the fake way, and Gabi throws her tasteful parka and James’s long black overcoat onto the pile and leaves. Caroline tries not to look at the coats, or imagine that their sleeves have intertwined, or that the two of them are conspiring to suffocate her grandmother’s ratty mink, which she can no longer see. No, James’s long black overcoat would never do that to her, or to her grandmother. Caroline loves James’s long black overcoat. On the subway it makes him look just like everybody else.
Back in the kitchen, Maggie has unwrapped the cheeses and is pushing the cornichons around. James is sitting by the window, talking to Elliot. The back of Caroline’s throat itches. Maggie can push all she wants, but there is no way to make cornichons look nice on a plate.
“I just want to say I love your apartment!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” says Omar’s New Boyfriend. He is slender and pretty and bouncing on the balls of his feet, like prey.
“Thank you,” says Maggie. She looks at Omar, but Omar has already opened the fridge and put his whole head inside. Caroline feels a pinch of affection for Maggie, who used to sleep with Omar occasionally, before she got serious about Tom, and before Omar got serious about men. Or mostly before, on both counts. Probably it had lasted for longer than was strictly appropriate, considering, but then Omar lived two blocks away from their old apartment, the one Maggie and Caroline had shared. In this city, proximity is not to be underestimated. Caroline once dated an actor she didn’t even like for a whole year because it was really nice to split cab fare home. Those were the days, probably.
“I mean, great fixtures!!!!!!!!,” says Omar’s New Boyfriend. Some time ago, Caroline stopped learning their names. It has never yet been a problem.
“They came with the apartment,” says Maggie. She is rearranging the vase of peonies on the kitchen table. Maggie loves peonies. Caroline thinks they look like the bodies of molting birds.
Without meaning to, Caroline looks up to check on the stinkbug, which now seems a little bigger than she first thought, and definitely the wrong shape to be a stinkbug. Maybe there are two? Maybe there are two, and they are mating. The idea makes her feel slightly sick.
“Did I tell you,” says Tom, who is a perfectly fine person, “about this guy who was trying to buy a house, right near my folks, in Wisconsin? The house had this really phenomenal view, it was just at the right angle, or the right elevation, or something? Anyway, it looked out over the lake in this perfect way, and this guy really wanted it, but he couldn’t get the owners to sell.” Of course Tom is from Wisconsin. Caroline thinks this every time he tells this story.
“Oh, remember views?” says Gabi, and Caroline starts looking at her instead of at the ceiling. Gabi went to the least impressive college in the room, but now she makes the most money. She does something that Caroline does not understand, even though Gabi has described it multiple times, and even though Caroline always makes a point of lurking near Omar’s New Boyfriends when they seem likely to ask about her job, so that she can hear the answer while appearing to already know it. Marketing? Consulting? Tech? Whatever Gabi’s job is, it pays enough that James can focus on his art instead of working. James is a kept man. They are all jealous of James.
“Vaguely,” James says, putting his hand on his wife’s back. There is no trace of paint on his fingers today.
“You have a great view,” Omar says, looking pointedly at Gabi, who curtseys. Omar loves Gabi. Omar always loves (loves) the prettiest girl in the room. Caroline is never that girl, but she doesn’t care. She hates Omar with religious fervor, because once, years ago, he had called Maggie a fucking cunt, ostensibly because she had not returned his calls for forty-eight hours, and those were forty-eight hours when he really needed her. This was right after Maggie’s mother died. Maggie, of course, has forgiven Omar, because Maggie forgives everyone for everything, but Caroline never will. Someone has to remember these things.
Omar is showing off a new piercing tonight: a second hole in his right earlobe. Caroline considers piercings barbaric. They are all too old for piercings. Still, there are some clubs he helps them get into. Or used to, years ago. When was the last time they went to a club? Were there still clubs in this city? Omar’s New Boyfriend is examining the drapes. Maggie is watching him out of the corner of her eye as though he might find a way to steal them. She has already begun wringing her hands, and it’s only eight thirty.
“Anyway,” Tom is saying. “The guy lost the house. The people, an old couple, they decided they wanted it for their grandkids, you know? So this guy bought the house right next to theirs, and spent a fortune to attach a wing designed specifically to block out the old couple’s view. My parents call it the Spite House. Amazing, right?”
Caroline is not really listening. She never really listens to Tom, who is the human equivalent of unsalted butter. She is still looking at Gabi, who is playing with James’s collar. Her smooth dark hair is pulled back, and her lips are lined in a color that exactly matches her lipstick. Caroline looks like a clown in lipstick, never mind liner. Liner still feels terribly adult, too adult for Caroline, who is only thirty-two, but obviously not too adult for Gabi, who is two years younger, and married to James. No one, incidentally, is ever invited to their apartment. Caroline has a few theories about this, but they’re not important now.
“That seems expensive,” Elliot says, apparently in response to Tom. Elliot is wearing a sweater that Caroline picked out, but now she realizes it d0esn’t quite suit him. Has he gained weight? Lost it? She is never really sure what he looks like from day to day. He is always just there, in her apartment, like a suitcase she never bothers to unpack.
“I wonder,” James says slowly. “Does that mean the view is gone? As in, if no one can experience it, does it exist? Can you actually erase a view?” The thing about James is that he is very deep. This is something they all know about him, but Caroline knows it more than everyone else.
“Like a lap,” Omar says. “When you stand up. Where does it go?”
“You, Omar,” Gabi says, “always have a lap.”
Omar and Elliot and James all laugh. Men always laugh when Gabi makes jokes. This is because of the way she looks, and because of the way she makes them, and because of the way she makes them look at her: she curves her body backward to invite a small-scale search. It’s a neat trick. James moves his hand down to his wife’s waist. They have all of them had childhoods, but sometimes this is difficult to remember.
Tom does not laugh, but he does say “Ha, ha.” How could Maggie have married a man who says “ha, ha”?
Elliot comes to stand next to Caroline. He slides his foot against hers. “Cornichon?” he says. But Caroline makes a face. She hates anything pickled. Why doesn’t Elliot know that? Even Omar knows that. Omar plucks the cornichon from Elliot’s hand and presents it to Gabi with a flourish.
“Here you are, my lady,” he says. Gabi raises an eyebrow. She eats the cornichon straight from Omar’s hand.
“Oh ho!” says Tom.
Caroline finds herself looking at the ceiling again. It’s definitely not a stinkbug. It’s some kind of mold, or stain, or spill. It looks bigger than before. It is nearly the size of a fist.
Caroline wonders if she should say something, but she doesn’t have to, because Maggie follows her gaze. She covers her mouth, like a housewife. “Tom,” she says. “What is that?” There is something wrong with her laugh. Caroline takes her foot away from Elliot’s and presses it against Maggie’s, for moral support. Everyone looks up.
“Crown moldings!!!!!!!!!!,” says Omar’s New Boyfriend. “Wow.”
Tom walks over to stand under the spot. “Just little bit of mold,” he says. “Or something? Anyway, nothing to worry about, I think?”
“Good,” Maggie says. “Perfect. Wonderful.” She laughs that idiotic new laugh again. Where did she learn to laugh like that? She claps her hands together. “More wine?”
Tom brandishes the bottle opener. Omar brandishes his empty glass. Everyone forgets about the ceiling.
“There are still one or two people out in L.A. who don’t understand that if they want to get something done they have to email me, or at least cc me,” Gabi is saying. They are all two or three glasses in, and they have all taken off their shoes, except Tom, who lives there. “Today this woman emailed me about a project I’ve never even heard of,” Gabi continues. “And I’m like, who did you talk to about this? And she said John and Ramon. John and Ramon! I mean honestly, what did she think was going to happen?”
“I’ve been thinking of taking a coding class!!!!” says Omar’s New Boyfriend, sheepishly. Maybe Gabi’s job is in tech, Caroline thinks. Has she missed the explanation already? Caroline glances at the ceiling. The black spot is bigger again, closer to a dinner plate than a fist. She closes her eyes and renews her commitment to stop looking at other people’s ceilings.
“That’s an excellent idea,” Gabi says. “Which companies are you considering?”
“I’ve been thinking of taking a coating class,” says Caroline conversationally, to no one.
“I’ve been thinking of taking a suiting class,” says James. He is standing next to her. Was he standing there before?
“A shirting class,” says Caroline. She is trying not to look at him.
“Maybe a panting class,” says James. He is very handsome, and they all know it, but Caroline knows it more than everyone else.
Maggie, who is listening, clicks her tongue. James turns away and begins showing Omar some photos of the project he is working on. He is collaging people to look like collages of people, pasting cutouts onto human models to diminish them into two dimensions. It is some kind of Commentary on Modern Life. They all agree that it is very interesting. They all agree that it is very deep. Elliot starts telling Maggie and Tom about the time he saw Minnie Driver on the sidewalk, despite the fact that it was a year ago now, and they’d all heard about it a thousand times.
“Once I saw Danny DeVito at a restaurant!!!!!!” says Omar’s New Boyfriend. Gabi nods encouragingly. Caroline imagines Gabi taking Omar’s New Boyfriend home and swaddling him in blankets, giving him a bottle, and raising him to adulthood in a drawer, although knowing Gabi, it would not be a drawer but an expensive crib, and it would not be Gabi but an expensive nanny. Maybe the nanny would go berserk and murder Omar’s New Boyfriend, and hell, if they were lucky, Gabi too; don’t laugh, you know, that’s happening more and more these days.
Caroline pours herself another glass of wine and drifts over to the windows. The streetlight closest to Maggie’s apartment has been out for months, and with the lights on inside, all Caroline can see is her own reflection. It looks bored, but also kind of hot. At least there’s that.
After a minute, Maggie’s reflection joins Caroline’s in the window. There is something wrong with Maggie’s reflection, and then Caroline realizes what it is. “Why aren’t you drinking?” Caroline whispers, and Maggie reaches out to cover Caroline’s mouth with a warm hand. Her eyes, reflected in the window, are huge. For an instant Caroline does not recognize her.
“No,” Caroline says into Maggie’s palm.
Maggie pulls Caroline into a hug.
“Don’t tell anyone yet,” she says in her ear. “I’m really happy.”
Over Maggie’s shoulder, Caroline drains her glass. Then she has to go to the bathroom.
The bathroom is downstairs. Caroline runs her hand along the railing the whole way. She wonders if railings were invented when women stopped wanting to take the arms of men on stairs, or when men stopped offering them. She wishes that she had remembered to bring her phone with her. She could look it up. Or at least she could play her game for a few seconds while peeing. But her phone is in the pocket of her coat, because everyone she would think to text is at this party, and her coat is languishing in the molten center of the coat pile, possibly being attacked by the coats of James and Gabi, and so she will have to sit on the toilet and stare at the plain white tiles of Maggie’s bathroom. Well, worse things have happened. Probably in Darfur. Nazi Germany. Etc.
When she comes out, James is leaning against the wall. She is glad that she wasn’t too lazy to wash her hands.
“Oh, hello,” she says.
“I’m just waiting in line for the restroom,” he says. “Minding my own business.”
“I see that.”
James takes a step forward and puts his hand on Caroline’s right breast.
“A little less of your own business now,” she says. This is what she likes most about James. He makes decisions. He has ideas. He is left-handed.
“All that talk of panting,” he says. He also purchases his own sweaters. Even if it’s with Gabi’s money, he chooses them. Probably, anyway.
“I have to go back into the bathroom for a second,” she says.
“Me too,” he says, and pushes her up onto the sink.
A shriek of laughter trickles down the stairs. Then a howl that can only be Omar doing some sort of bit.
“How did we wind up with them,” she says. She looks up at the bathroom ceiling. It is white and pristine. This is the only room in the apartment that Caroline likes, because Maggie has never tried to decorate it. Though who knows, maybe that will change now. There is something called nesting, but Caroline doesn’t know exactly what it means. It sounds faintly dirty to her.
“All parties sound stupid from far away,” James says.
“Maybe only people who go to stupid parties think that.”
“Maybe all parties are stupid,” James says. He runs his hand up Caroline’s leg and wedges his thumb into the denim crease between her thigh and her groin.
She thinks about Elliot’s foot against her foot. She thinks about James’s hand against Gabi’s waist. Both images seem sad but also very far away from her, like photos of war crimes.
James begins kissing her neck. He fondles her zipper. She pulls him closer, because his body is warm, and real, and knows what it wants.
The first time with James was at a party just like this one. Where else would it have been? Maggie had been wringing her hands, pouring the wine, rearranging the furniture. Omar had brought a new boyfriend. It might have been the one with the pink hair, or maybe the one with the boots. It was definitely not the minor internet celebrity; this was before. Their partners were upstairs: Gabi, Elliot. Nothing was wrong with them. It was James in the bathroom and Caroline waiting outside in the hallway. It was summer then, and she was sweating through her tank top. They had been talking a lot that night; sometimes that’s all it takes. She was leaning against the wall, and when he came out of the bathroom he looked at her, and then at the stairs. Already she knew what was going to happen.
Then it was happening, he was kissing her and clutching at her sweaty breasts, and she was pressing her hips into his, her full bladder only intensifying the feeling.
“I want to fuck you,” he said.
“You’re married,” she whispered. His hands were rough and still covered in paint from the studio. “To my friend.”
“Come on,” he said. “You’re not really friends.” Which was true, if not exactly pleasant to hear, and it made Caroline reach out and trace the shape of James’s erection through his jeans.
“Go upstairs,” she said. “Or your stuck-up bitch of a wife will notice.” She had enjoyed the look he had given her then. He had obeyed, but not before thrusting his hand under her skirt and grinning at how easily his fingers slipped inside her.
She did not wonder whether the paint on his hands was toxic. She found tiny blue flakes of it in her underwear for days.
There is more kissing, more fondling. James is an excellent kisser and an even better fondler, but tonight Caroline finds she can’t concentrate.
“What’s up with the ceiling, do you think?” she murmurs.
“I don’t want to know,” says James.
“Doesn’t it seem odd to you?” He was an artist, after all. He should have understood this, and her. Something was happening; something that didn’t usually happen at parties like these.
“No,” says James. “I’m in the middle of something else right now.” He laughs at his own joke and pushes his hand between her legs. The action is one of digging.
“You have a one-track mind,” she says.
“Yes,” he says, as if the idea pleases him. They have fucked in that bathroom before, quickly, desperately, during another party just like this one. It was dangerous, and definitely stupid, and some part of her wants to do it again now. But she is too distracted by the ceiling. She imagines the spot creeping unchecked across the clean expanse above them, while no one else even bothers to look up. She doesn’t understand why no one but her finds this alarming. So when James begins to pull her jeans down, she stops him.
“We’ve already been gone too long,” she says. “Someone’s going to notice.”
“Aw,” he says. “Come on.”
Caroline puts her hand on his chest. He pouts at her, like a child denied a sweet, and for the first time she wonders if she has been mistaken—if in fact he too is just some ordinary man, made up of the same boring elements as everyone else. Consisting of only regular depth, whatever that means. The center of the swimming pool.
“Be a good boy,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. Caroline doesn’t know what this means, and so she ignores it. She flushes the toilet for show and heads back upstairs to the party, leaving him there. Her body tingles, but she zips up her jeans and does not look back.
When she enters the living room, the black spot has grown to the size of a basketball, if she is correctly remembering the basic size of basketballs, which she thinks she is. She’s never been the best at knowing the size of things. She opens her mouth to say something, but no one else has noticed, and suddenly she feels very tired. She regrets leaving the bathroom. James could have been inside her right now. She has often been told that she expects too much of people.
Elliot catches her eye and reaches out a hand, but she can’t bring herself to take it, considering. She thinks about taking Maggie’s hand instead, but finds she can’t do that either, and so she just stands there, handless.
Look, it isn’t that she doesn’t love Elliot. Sometimes, when she is at the grocery store, she sees the kind of yogurts that he likes, the kind with a little reservoir of blueberry jam attached, and they make her want to cry for how much she loves him. But yogurts aren’t enough. Or maybe they are. Usually people just marry whomever they’re dating when they’re ready to get married, or when all their friends are getting married, or when they accidentally get pregnant. That’s a statistical fact, and it does not disturb Caroline. But it does not charm her either.
“Maggie,” Caroline says at last. She says it quietly. “Look up.”
“No,” Maggie says, flapping her arms a little.
“It’s probably some kind of leak,” says Caroline. “Maybe you should just call your landlord. Or the people upstairs. You have their number, right?” Caroline has always been the most practical among them, and this is something she likes about herself.
“There’s cake, though,” says Maggie.
“I’ll call,” Caroline tries. Maggie hates talking to strangers on the phone. She has ever since she was a child. There was some incident with a pizza delivery man, when her parents were away, but Caroline can’t remember the details. “I’ll call and pretend to be you,” she says. “It’s important.”
“Why,” says Gabi, who was listening, despite not being invited to listen. “Do you think it’s dangerous?”
“We have no idea what it is,” Caroline says, a little too sharply, perhaps, because Gabi looks down her nose at her, and then down her nose at the stairs.
It was, of course, Gabi’s coat from which Caroline cut the pockets, that one party of parties past. She’d been checking her phone, or calming her nerves, or sulking, or lurking, or all of these, and she’d seen Gabi’s coat, so pristine, so expensive, a lovely chestnut brown with the kind of big flat buttons that look somehow professional and not at all art-teachery, and Gabi’s coat was rubbing up against her own, which that night was not her grandmother’s old fur but a red and gold puffer with flaking leather she had found in a thrift store and which had seemed so cool to her earlier in the evening but now, against all that smooth ottery chestnut, was clearly pathetic, babyish. In a fit of whatever people have fits of in moments like these, Caroline had grabbed a pair of scissors from the novelty mug (I’m Not Yelling, I’m Italian!) on Maggie’s desk, pulled Gabi’s pockets inside out—real silk, of course, the pockets, real purple silk, luxurious and impractical—and cut them away with one satisfying full-bladed snip each.
Later that night, when Elliot was asleep, Caroline had stood in the bathroom naked, looking at herself in the mirror. Was Gabi so much more beautiful than she? She placed the stolen silk pockets over her small breasts and let them hang there like little hats. She turned to the side, and the hats stayed on. She didn’t think Gabi could have done that, not with those enormous breasts of hers. But did James like that she couldn’t? Did he prefer the shape of his wife’s breasts, even if they did sag under their own weight? Could she even be sure that they did sag, when braless? Why would he ever leave Gabi, anyway? The answer to that is that he wouldn’t. She knew that even then, but it only made her want him more.
That was months ago. No one has ever said anything to Caroline about Gabi’s missing pockets, though of course Gabi must have noticed. Caroline has never known how much the other woman knows, or guesses. Though of course it is Caroline who is the other woman. And it is only now that it dawns on her that Gabi in fact must know all about it. That’s what James meant. That’s why it didn’t matter. How long has she known?
“Oh my gosh,” says Omar’s New Boyfriend. “Cake!!!!!”
This is the moment James decides to emerge from the bathroom, wiping his hands theatrically on his jeans. Maggie looks at Caroline and rolls her eyes.
“I’m back,” James says, uselessly.
“Maggie,” says Omar. “Open the wine I brought! It’s so good, you’re going to die. You’re going to die right here in your kitchen!”
“The wine!!!!!!!!!!” says ONB, who has creases around his eyes and the fleshy heft of an athlete going slightly to seed. Caroline blinks. Is that what he looked like before? She can’t be certain. But it doesn’t matter. Probably, anyway.
“We also have crackers,” says Maggie. “More brie?”
“I’m getting the stepladder,” says Caroline, but no one pays any attention to her.
When Caroline returns, stepladder in hand, Maggie is cutting the cake. She has on her making-the-best-of-it face. The cake is almond and raspberry on the inside but yellow on the outside, and the spot above their heads is even bigger now, oblong and imperfectly bordered.
“We’re thinking about getting a dog,” Elliot is telling Omar.
“First step on the way to permanent bondage, man,” says Omar.
“Honestly I’d love to be permanently bondaged, but you know her,” says Elliot.
Caroline can’t tell if she is supposed to be able to hear them, or if they are just drunk. She doesn’t want a dog. She doesn’t want a baby. She doesn’t want to be married. How could anyone want any of those things, in this economy? In this city? In this cultural wasteland? In this decaying environment? In this decaying body? In the old days, everyone did their procreating before they became truly aware of their own imminent deaths. But they’ve all waited too long for that, which rather feels like a mistake.
“Permanently bandaged,” she says, but no one responds.
Caroline sets up the stepladder underneath the spot, which is now about the size of a surfboard. She has not forgotten her pledge to stop looking at it, but she can’t help herself. Maybe if she touches it, she will better understand what to do. It seems to Caroline that the spot is without properties—or, to be more precise, that it can’t hold on to one way of being for more than a few moments. First it is flat and dull against the ceiling, like chalkboard paint, and then, without changing in any way, it becomes oily, a swirl of dirty colors inside the black, and wet enough to drip onto their faces at any moment. It is alternately watery, with loose edges, and more like a hole, reaching infinitely upwards.
“You’re in the way, baby,” says Elliot, who cannot reach the cornichons.
“I want to figure out what it is,” says Caroline, fiddling with the leg lock.
“If anyone is going to use the stepladder, it should be me,” says Tom, throwing his shoulders back. “I’m the man of this house.” Caroline steps away from the stepladder as unironically as possible, which is not very.
“Tom,” says Maggie. “We’re having a party right now.”
Tom hesitates, looking between the two women. Caroline feels a little guilty. Tom has always been on her side, though she has rarely been on his. She smiles at him. Tom, encouraged, takes a step up, and then another.
“You look so tall from here!!!!!!” says Omar’s New Boyfriend, whose eyes are either very blue or very brown, or both. If Flaubert didn’t have to decide, why should we? Why should anyone? Deciding is, after all, a little like death.
Gabi is laughing again, without a care in the world, utterly unthreatened by anyone or anything she knows.
“Everything is all right,” Tom says. He presses both hands against the black spot. He makes a face that could either be disgust or pleasure. “Anyway,” he seems to murmur. “Anyway?” he wonders.
Then he disappears.
Caroline does not quite see it happen. If you asked her about it now, she would not be able to tell you with absolute certainty that this was the night it had. It is always hard to remember which party was which. If you asked her about it now, she would not be able to swear that Tom’s disappearance had anything to do with the ceiling at all. Other things, after all, were going on for him. For them. She would not like to make any suggestions. She would not like to speculate. But once you had stopped asking her questions and left her alone at last, she would rest her head against the window and wonder, as she has so many times in the years since, if it was her fault for bringing the stepladder, for insisting. She would wonder if there was anything more, or anything less, she could have done.
The spot continues to spread over the ceiling. Her friends continue to drink. Caroline thinks she can actually see the darkness growing in real time now, though the movement is barely perceptible, like the minute hand of a clock. Her friends’ voices are getting louder. Omar is telling yet another interminable story about himself, and it is just like every other story he has ever told about himself, pointless and preening. Maggie and Gabi are rapt. ONB is opening his mouth, and also more wine. Elliot is moving cornichons from one plate to another. Caroline sits in an armchair across the room from everyone else and eats another slice of cake, keeping one eye on the ceiling. The cocktail napkin she picked up from the stack says love the wine you’re with! She tries staring at Elliot’s strong shoulders for a while, but feels nothing. She chastises herself for taking advice from a napkin.
Maggie comes over and sits on the arm of her chair. Caroline leans her head on her hip and sucks a bit of frosting off her knuckle. “Do you think we’re being punished?” she asks, despite knowing by now that Maggie will not understand her question.
Maggie smiles. Maggie is so happy, though Caroline knows how easily that can change. “What could anyone possibly be punishing us for?” she asks. She has arranged six dry crackers on a little plate and is eating them slowly, her hand resting on her stomach. More than half of the ceiling is black.
“Well,” Caroline says. “I can think of some things.”
“You think too much,” Maggie says. “That’s always been your problem.”
“Is that what it is?”
“We should really be going,” says Omar’s New Boyfriend, though the glass in his hand is full. Caroline directs an encouraging smile at him. It is always a lot of work, to be the first one to leave a party. She can’t even remember a time when any of them left Maggie’s first; they always just stay and stay and then, once Elliot or Tom or both begin to nod off in their chairs, all get up to go at the same time, kissing each other in the doorway and again on the sidewalk before spreading out across the city. Speaking of Tom, she hasn’t seen him in a while. Maybe he went to bed.
But Omar’s New Boyfriend, who is spindly and wan, his bones showing concerningly through his skin, shows no actual signs of leaving. Instead he and Omar begin making out, the wine glass forgotten on the kitchen table.
“That’s nice for them,” Maggie says.
“Ah, to be young and in love,” Caroline says.
“You say that like you aren’t,” says Maggie, and while Caroline thinks about this, Maggie gets up to refill the napkins.
There is nothing Caroline can do now. She presses her fingers into the crumbs of cake on her plate. She has read the news stories about the positive health effects of community. She has read the news stories about old women who die alone in their apartments and are found weeks later, partially eaten by cats or rodents or their neighbors. Caroline thinks being eaten is barbaric. Besides, she is much too tired to make new friends. She is stuck with these people, as in tar. Well, she thinks, it could be worse.
Later, when the ceiling is entirely black, Caroline stands. She brushes off her jeans. She has waited long enough. Nothing bad has happened, and therefore it is time to go home.
“It’s time to go home,” she says. Elliot and James are dozing side by side on the loveseat. For a moment, they look almost identical to her. She kisses Elliot on the forehead, and he mumbles something. She hesitates, and then, because no one is looking, and because apparently it doesn’t matter to anyone but her, she kisses James in the same place, right between the eyes. She does this even though she knows now that it is over between them.
Maggie clicks her tongue. Maggie knows everything, of course. Someone always has to. Gabi comes out of the bedroom, wearing a beautiful coat. She smiles generously at Caroline. It is the smile of the victorious. Omar and ONB are holding hands in the matching cashmere fingerless gloves that they accidentally bought one another for Christmas. Caroline retrieves her dead grandmother’s mink from Maggie’s bed. In its pocket she finds a grocery list she wrote on an index card some days before:
She folds it up and puts it away. She has already eaten these things, and she will eat them again. Nothing more is going to happen to them tonight, she feels sure about that. She will see them again soon. Next week, next month, next party just like this one. The one after the child. The one before the divorce. The one with the accident. Eventually the parties will stop, she knows that, but there is nothing she can do about that either. You can’t have everything you want and nothing you don’t.
“Will everyone just humor me and look at the ceiling?” Caroline says before they leave. Maybe she is just having a stroke or something. Either way she needs to know. Her voice sounds very loud, but it’s too late to worry about that now.
Everyone looks up, one last time.
Maggie immediately looks down again. She plucks a few errant napkins from the floor and folds them into her palm.
James smiles at the ceiling, and then around at everyone. “It really is something,” he says, meaning, as always, absolutely nothing. He puts an arm around Gabi.
“It doesn’t seem dangerous to me,” says Gabi, much too late.
“Do you think it’s some kind of art!!!!!!!!!!!!!” says Omar’s New Boyfriend.
“What do you mean?” asks Caroline.
Omar’s New Boyfriend shrugs. “I saw a show once that was just a series of spills in different places. It was about the late-capitalist-era military-industrial complex.”
“That’s so hot,” says Omar, and pulls ONB out the door.
“But you all see it,” Caroline says to whoever is left.
“We see it, baby,” says Elliot. “But what do you want us to do?” He seems indecently drunk, or maybe she simply hates him. It is not always so easy to tell.
After that, they leave. Maggie waves merrily to them. But when Caroline looks back, just before the door closes, she sees Maggie looking up at the ceiling, her eyes wide, her mouth slightly open, napkins clutched in both her fists. She wants to go back, to comfort her, but she is tired. She is so tired.
Outside of Maggie’s building, she can feel the cold radiating up through the cracked pavement. She doesn’t know this now, on the sidewalk, but this has been the very last party like this. The sameness is over. Elliot will read her texts. Gabi will be transferred to L.A. James will go with her, of course. Tom will not come back. Omar will stay, but Omar will not be enough. Besides, he will be busier when ONB at last transforms into Jared. Will she miss it? The parties, her friends? The sense of belonging, however imperfect? She will feel that she does, but that is no real indication. When she goes to Maggie’s apartment to hold the tiny creature her friend has made, she will feel afraid and tender and repulsed and clean. She and Maggie will stare up at the pitch-black ceiling together and try to talk about anything else—the past, the future—and sometimes they will succeed, and that will be enough. She will kiss the tiny creature on its face and it will begin to cry. She will begin to cry herself.
But before all of that, Caroline hails a cab. For a few minutes, as Elliot sleeps on her shoulder, she feels warm and safe. She is comforted to be in this stranger’s car, a car she’s never been inside before and will never be inside again, and she is comforted by the stranger, a man who knows nothing about her, and what’s more, doesn’t care, because he is speaking to someone, perhaps his mother or sister or grandfather, perhaps far away, in some other, more beautiful language, speaking to them with love, or indifference, some feeling that is real and solid and untranslatable and eternal, to remind her that the world is bigger than she sometimes pretends, full of people and possibility.
Then the car stops, and the stranger nods at her in the rearview, and she and Elliot stagger into their cold, dark apartment, and after their rushed ablutions they crawl into bed, where Caroline looks up at the ceiling, glowing a little even in the dark, so white and so comforting and so empty, and then closes her eyes, turning her face into her pillow before she can notice the far corner, and its little patch of inky black.