The last time I was in London, I kept passing store windows full of tea towels and souvenir mugs with the motto Keep Calm and Carry On. I once read that when the British government dreamed up the slogan at the onset of World War II, the populace was insulted at being given advice that went without saying. Who needed to be instructed not to Panic Badly and Fall Apart?
In Leeds, my home city, hardly anyone was buying such items (not many tourists), but the American I loved for an all-too-brief spell used to tease me by saying the words in my ear if he thought I was worrying too much.
And what did I have to worry about then? I had no real problems, but we never know that at the time, do we?
His name was Schuyler, my American, and I met him on a film shoot where I was a runner. It was a documentary about textile mills in the nineteenth century, and I did minor tasks: getting everybody on the transit vans to the sites and making sure the lunch truck showed up. Schuyler, who was on the camera crew, never complained and was always decent to everyone. I knew he was going back to New York after the shoot. I could see he had a wedding band. But I started it anyway. We were all in a pub after work one night, a whole bunch of us, and I cornered him with questions: “Do you find Brits too pessimistic and resigned? Do you think that’s why we haven’t been a world power for a while? Not that we should be.”
OK, it was an odd way of flirting. Everyone else was goofing around and telling fart jokes. “You don’t seem pessimistic,” he said. “I think you dress very cheerfully.”
I was wearing a little summer dress that showed a lot of cleavage. “Thank you,” I said. Was sex the hopeful side of my personality? I was interested in this insight, and my spirits were already starting to lift in his company.
He liked me, too. It wasn’t hard to get him to take me back to his hotel room. I had my own place, but my flatmate, Emilia, could be a real pain. How outstanding Schuyler was, when I got to know him that way in his room, how sly and playful and endearing.
The hotel was a big, clumsy, modern place where everyone on the shoot was staying. I slipped out very early in the morning like a groupie — the man was married, after all — but the next morning he told me not to go. Everyone knew anyway. Who cared? There was a nice buffet breakfast in the hotel, with sausages and bacon and eggs and grilled tomatoes and mushrooms. Bowls of melon balls.
What a glow the romance cast over my daily labors. I liked everything; no errand was too tedious. Sweep the front yard of a deserted mill? Find the next day’s call sheets that some idiot lost? Tell the caterer one more time how many vegans we had? No problem. I was a model of sunny good nature, a production assistant sprinkled with pixie dust, and everybody loved me and did what I said.
The film shoot was going to take another four weeks, and my theory was, Schuyler and I had what we had. My whole life was still ahead of me, and I didn’t think of myself as delicate. But why had he gotten married right out of college? Who did that anymore? I knew better than to ask, but I wanted to think he had felt sorry for her.
There was a rumor (a shoot is always full of rumors) that his family had buckets of money. This was irrelevant to me — I mostly paid for my own beers — and it was hard to tell how wealthy Americans were from how they sounded. I myself didn’t sound too Northern, like some of the others in the crew, but Schuyler had no way to notice that.
“They own half the stores in the U.S.,” my friend Alastair, one of the other runners, told me. “I guess you’re not going to get any fortune out of him though.”
What I got out of him was the secret joy of our nights, which involved a lot of talking as well as farther casting off into carnal waters. The talk was about family (his parents always spoke about divorcing but never did; would they ever?) and also about travel. My father used to work for companies in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, and I’d done most of secondary school in Qatar, a place few people can even pronounce right. I still had friends in Doha, and I thought I might go live in Cairo sometime. I thought a lot of things. My mother lived in Leeds now, where she’d grown up, and my father was in London.
“Someday you’ll come to New York,” Schuyler told me. We were lying in bed, half watching TV when he said this, and I was thrilled to pieces — as if he were inviting me. I didn’t say, What’ll you do with your wife? I said, “I’ve never been to New York.”
“Never? How could you hang out in Dubai and Riyadh and never visit the Big Apple?”
And this led to a running account of what I had to see in New York: The best bar in Brooklyn, which was in his neighborhood. The High Line. The bike route up the west side of Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge. The best Korean taco truck. And of course the mummies at the Met and its Temple of Dendur, brought back block by block from the Nile. The Chrysler Building had elevators that were Egyptian art deco — did I know that?
He didn’t say all of this at once; he just kept adding to the list whenever he saw me. “The ceiling with constellations at Grand Central Station,” he’d say when we passed each other on the set. “The pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s Deli.” It was our joke — or his joke, really — but it became something like a plan. How could I keep hearing about these things and not expect to see them?
Four weeks felt longer than I’d thought, what with our being together every day. We had to get up at 6 AM, which neither of us was good at. I was always cursing nonstop because I couldn’t find a shoe, and Schuyler would emerge from the shower to remind me to keep calm and carry on. Such were our habits.
One afternoon in the last week of the shoot, we were filming at a complex of flax mills, zooming in on details of the Temple Works, an industrial building made to look like, of all things, an Egyptian temple. It was used for offices now. Nigel, our professorial expert on labor history in Yorkshire, was standing in front of this handsome structure, talking about how the children hired to crawl under machines and pick up scraps sometimes lost arms and legs to the machinery. Others were crippled from sixteen-hour days of cramped, repeated motion. Overseers beat children with straps when they didn’t keep up the pace. Nigel read a report of a child who’d been beaten unconscious. He had been intoning lines like this to the camera from the first day, and we all talked about how outsourcing now was probably no better, but the man beating a child in rage over production levels brought me to tears. Schuyler also had wet eyes, I saw afterward.
“Makes you ashamed of being human,” he said.
“Too many reasons for that,” I said.
Of course I admired Schuyler for having wept, man that he was. But I had another feeling, too, in my tears: I remembered that life was vicious, and at this rate I was going to go through it with no one to help me.
I didn’t say anything, and at night in bed I was more eager than ever, quite the little she-wolf, because I had given up entirely. There was nothing more for me; this was it, whatever it was. I was mired in anger and defeat. Schuyler knew something was up but didn’t know exactly what. “It was an intense day,” he said, before he fell asleep. What kind of crap was that?
I kept us from turning against each other in the time we had left, but it took effort. The last night of the shoot the whole crew had a huge meal in the caterer’s tent. A drizzly summer rain fell outside as it grew darker. People were getting drunk and saying how great we all were. Schuyler said to me, “I’ll miss you, you know.”
Throw the dog a bone. He couldn’t do better than that?
“You’ll be fine,” I said. “I’m not worried about you.”
He looked pained at this, and he took my hand and kissed it. Which annoyed me. I slept with him that night anyway, but I was deciding I didn’t completely like him. Who knew if he even noticed?
So that was that. I returned to my old job, leading people to their seats at a theater in town. I was lucky the place took me back. Between acts I had too much time to obsess, and I tried not to. I had a long life ahead of me, at the mercy of God knows what, and I was going to need powers of distance, if nothing else. Easier said than done, of course.
It turned out I was in for two surprises. One, e-mails from Schuyler appeared within days: “Hi, Maribel. Thinking of you. Just had great meal at Egyptian restaurant. No wonder you want to move there.”
Surprise number two was that the producers were not satisfied with certain parts of the film and were sending the crew back to Leeds for two weeks to shoot them again. Soon. When I heard this at the pub, everybody said, “Well, don’t look too happy or anything. Look at her.” In the morning Schuyler sent a message with “hip hip hooray” in the subject line.
It was a miracle, wasn’t it, but why did we have to depend on miracles? The American crew got off the plane together, and I was directing them from the luggage pickup to the transit vans we’d arranged. The sight of Schuyler hit my heart like three thousand grams of caffeine — look at him, it was Schuyler — and he crossed over to give me a quick, comradely hug. “Later,” he whispered.
Once we found ourselves alone, we were like a couple making up after a fight, although we hadn’t fought. We were sobered and chastened and on fire. The crew was full of inside jokes about how we never left the hotel room. But that wasn’t even the point. The point had to do with gratitude. What if we had lost all this?
The filming itself was tenser this time — they had to get right whatever it was they’d gotten wrong — and the director, Dana, went into tyrant mode. I wanted to get Schuyler away from the others at day’s end, just for relief. I decided we could spend some nights at my place, despite my flatmate.
“That’s a nice watch,” Emilia said to him. “You don’t look superposh, except for your watch.” We were sitting around the kitchen, drinking shots of gin before bed.
“Will you please?” I said to her.
“It’s all right,” Schuyler said. “I like the watch, too.”
“Who made the money?” Emilia said. “Grandparents? Great-grandparents?”
“Great-grand,” Schuyler said. “He was an itinerant salesman in Colorado. There’s a family legend that he cheated his partner.”
“Anyone who’s made that amount of money,” Emilia said, “has done harm to get it.”
“Do you think that?” Schuyler asked me.
“I guess I do,” I said.
“Maribel’s father is no better,” Emilia said. “But he fell on his ass. A lesson there.”
My father, who’d been a software engineer for different multinationals in the Near East, had made an unwise investment and now lived in a bed-sit in London and drank too much.
“Maybe I’ll meet him someday,” Schuyler said. That was new.
On the way to work the next morning, he spoke for the first time about his wife: a perfectly nice person, but she never did anything. He hadn’t known she’d be like that. I had no pity for the wife at all. It was her own fault she wasn’t as consistently interesting as I was.
“You’d like America,” he started saying.
Would I? I wondered. But I was glad to hear him say it again.
My mother told me men with money could be bossy. We had this conversation on the phone, since I wasn’t getting myself across town to visit her. We both meant well, but we got on each other’s nerves.
“I hope you know,” my mum said, “that if he leaves his wife, it probably means he’ll leave you someday.”
No wonder I’d neglected her. I wasn’t letting Schuyler meet her either. He sort of thought she was in London.
“I never meant to stay in Leeds,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just go to Cairo.”
“You don’t really think I believe that,” she said, “do you?”
People could rain on our parade all they wanted, but Schuyler was becoming more smitten with me. None of my other boyfriends had gotten to the stage he was in. In bed, when I was dozing off, I’d open my eyes and see him gazing at me, just taking in the sight of me. Was he kidding himself? A man who still wore a ring?
“You’d get a kick out of Coney Island,” he said one night when we were in my kitchen with no Emilia around. “I can’t wait to show you New York.”
“Do you plan to hide me until you get rid of your nice wife?” I said.
“No! Don’t say that,” he said. “No one is hiding you.”
“We’ll work it out. It can be done. Give me time.”
What the fuck did that mean? “You think you can have everything you want,” I said.
He looked surprised that this was an accusation. “You worry too much,” he said. “Keep calm.”
I had understood Schuyler to be a gentle and easygoing person. I’d never seen him like this before, confident in a rotten way. Or something like that.
“You think I’ll just arrive on your shores like magic,” I said.
“Maribel. I’ll send you a ticket. You’re not worried about the cost?”
Oh, we were on to money already?
“Send me a first-class ticket,” I said. “No, send me my own private jet.”
“What is it with you?” he said.
“Send me a golden spaceship,” I said.
“Could you stop being my enemy for a second?”
I decided that maybe I could stop. What was I doing?
My position in this thing was not good. The day before, we’d been eating some kind of pudding from the food truck, and he’d said, “I have to say, Veronica makes a really great lemon-meringue pie.”
“Your wife?” He hadn’t used her name before.
“Yeah, her. She does apple, too.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said.
End of discussion. If he was longing for her desserts, he could keep it to himself.
I saw, not for the first time, the wide and deep pit of misery I might be walking straight into. Why had no one warned me? Well, my mother had, but who paid any attention to her? She had once believed my father was so shrewd about money that we’d soon be living in a mansion in Cairo. She used to laugh at how dopey the other engineers in Doha were, missing their chance. That’s how much she knew.
Above my desk in Doha, in my last year of school, I had a photo of Pharaoh Ramses II, a huge face carved in granite. It was supposed to be the model for Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” which my school (always trying to be more English than the Queen) had made us memorize. I remembered the key phrases: “ ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings! / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ / Nothing beside remains.” I thought they would help me hold on to a sense of perspective. I didn’t have that much to rely on when my father was going under.
The thing about Schuyler was, he didn’t know his own mind. I had a stronger personality than his wife, I thought. I loomed larger as long as I was next to him, but once I wasn’t with him, I may have seemed like a mere trick of the light, a mistaken impression. We loved each other — I did believe this — but everyone knows how love vanishes.
I had to be much more careful, in this delicate and critical stage. I had to stop fucking things up.
Two nights later we were in the back of the pub, eating snacks in the lounge. Schuyler was especially famished because he’d gone off to smoke something or other with Alastair. He was eating all the chips from my plate when the phone in his pocket went off. Without a word to anyone, he went outside to take the call and was gone a good twenty minutes. This had not happened before; it was probably his wife, who had every right to call him. He was probably lying to her at this moment, telling her he missed her. Or maybe that wasn’t a lie.
Whatever we did in bed, he’d had years to practice with her. He never said he hated her. One of the caterer’s cooks had a T-shirt that said, I taught your boyfriend that thing you like. Was that the caption for the cartoon of my life? I felt mocked by everything around me. The crew guys looked awkwardly at me while Schuyler was outside.
“Sorry,” he said when he came back.
“Good conversation?” I asked.
“It was my stupid credit-card company.”
He had never lied to me, as far as I knew. But did I know anything?
“Make up a better one,” I said.
“You get hostile when you drink,” he said. “I’ve noticed.”
I said I didn’t think he noticed anything. And I could drink as much as I wanted.
“Since when are my phone calls a threat to you?” he replied.
“Since you started lying about them.”
We had never fought in front of other people before. “Keep your voice down,” he said, but everyone heard. He was never leaving his wife, I saw that now. Why had it taken me so long?
I stormed out and went home, and he didn’t try to stop me.
In the middle of the night my phone rang, and I turned the ringer to silent and went back to sleep. I wasn’t letting Schuyler get me out of bed for more fake stories and bullshit arguing. I woke up at 6 AM the next day with a fierce headache and found that Emilia had eaten all the breakfast food in the house. Forget toast, even the tea was gone. I made it over to the hotel feeling peckish indeed. The good news was that the buffet still had piles of bacon, and Schuyler wasn’t there yet. “You think they’ll bring more sausage?” I said to Kerry, one of the set dressers.
“You can eat?” she said. “Maybe that’s a good thing. I guess the hospital doesn’t have much at this hour.”
“Oh, Maribel,” she said. “You don’t know.”
I had slept all through Schuyler’s leaving the pub by himself and crossing the street right into the path of an SUV driving in what must have seemed to him like the wrong lane. A big SUV. He wasn’t conscious yet, Kerry said. He had a lot wrong with him — ribs and something in his chest — but they would know more soon. She was still talking when I ran out and tried to call a cab. I made no sense on the phone, my voice wasn’t my voice, and when the taxi finally came, I shouted, Yes! as if everything were fine now.
Whoever the doctors were talking to in the hospital, it wasn’t me. There was a cluster of people I knew in the waiting room, and Zachary, the production manager, came out to speak to us all. I shushed everybody so I could hear him. The family, he said, was arranging for the body to be sent back to the U.S. There were legal hassles, but the hospital knew the procedures.
I made a noise like a yelp, and Alastair took my arm. And then we all had to leave; there was nothing to stay for. “I just got here!” I said. No one would tell me where Schuyler was in the hospital. People hugged me, people I liked. They were kind to me, and they were leading me out. Nothing to stay for.
I didn’t know where to go. I went back to the hotel with the others, and somebody had tea brought to us. “They don’t have any information about the driver, do they?” Kerry said. Whatever anyone was saying was hideous and petty and very, very beside the point. I couldn’t really hear them anyway. Everything in the ongoing world was empty and beneath consideration and always had been: a big fuss over nothing. I was surrounded by the noise of nothing.
Alastair, who hovered over me as if I needed tending — which I did — walked me back to my flat and into my bedroom with Schuyler’s socks on the floor, and he smoothed out all my sheets so I could, as he said, have a good rest. Did I want him to call anyone? No. Especially not my mother, I was thinking. Not yet.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. Everyone said.
And so Schuyler vanished from my life as if he’d been erased. The crew sent a card to his wife, and I signed the card, and that was the last I had to do with him in any outward way. No need to make claims about what he’d been to me — why would I want to do that to the wife? It was quite all right to be invisible. That wasn’t the part I minded.
The shoot went on after two days’ delay, as it had to. An actor stood in front of Armley Mills and quoted Charles Dickens, who had apparently called Leeds an “odious place.” I knew the actor. He was local; his brother had painted my mother’s house. The director gave him a hard time over those few crappy lines. They were ready to go home, all of them.
And they did. Alastair and I helped shepherd everyone to the airport with all their equipment, which they had too much of. They were in a great tizzy, the whole lot: worried and pesky and dramatic, with their nasal American voices, their nagging about aisle seats and legroom.
Once we were rid of them and returning one of the rental vans, Alastair said to me, “You want food? I think we should get you food.”
He and his boyfriend had been plying me with snacks, encouraging me to rest. Even Emilia and my mother had done their awkward best. I appreciated this; I needed them, I knew I did. But they persisted in chattering on about the world, which they were still in. Alastair had to talk about how Dana, the director, was getting a name for herself; not many women directors, and she was a tiger, wasn’t she? Emilia had a thing about Brexit — another sign of the right wing rising up all over. And my mother was worried about the vine weevils running amok in her garden. Weevils were invading England. I didn’t give a fuck about any of it — how could I? — and I held them all in secret contempt for going on as if any of it had any importance whatsoever. They kept at it, wearing themselves out, exaggerating what didn’t matter at all. I only half heard what they said. I let them go on, and I saw what they couldn’t see. I thought they were all infants.
But they helped me all the time. And because of them I was ashamed to simply hide and sleep. I got up in the morning. I went back to my old job as an usher. It was a job you could be stupid at, as long as you went through the motions. Probably most things were like that.
My mother fed me lunches and had me working in her garden, dabbing sticky goo around the bases of plants. Why did she think being the death squad for weevils would cheer me? She had opinions about Schuyler, whom she’d never met. “It was from having all that money,” she said. “He walked right out into that street as if it were his.”
“I’d appreciate your not talking,” I said.
“You’ll feel better once you find someone else,” she said. “Of course, you won’t find anyone with as much money as he had.”
My father had been a boy of twenty-seven when I was born, and already earning a very good salary in the Emirates. My mother still complained about him, and also about a much younger man she was sort of dating, who didn’t seem that crazy about her. “Your father always loved gardens,” she said. “I don’t know how he lives now in a room without a window.”
In Qatar we’d rented a big, glassy place. My father appreciated the local mastery of a desert climate, the air-conditioned domes and arcades. It thrilled his engineer’s heart. These days he lived in a room just big enough for a bed, with a shared kitchen and a loo down the hall.
“He tends to describe it as ‘cozy,’ ” I said to my mother.
My father had been there for five years, the longest of anyone in his building. He said new arrivals in the other bed-sits came to him to find out how to get the hot water back up and how to get the fridge door to shut right. “I know what I know, which is appreciated,” he said. Some people were grateful enough to leave him a bottle of whiskey when they moved out; it had become a custom. My father was very tickled about the whiskey.
“I’m going to plant more vegetables. Because of Brexit,” my mother said. “My boyfriend says prices are going to go sky-high. He watches out for me.” My mother had inherited the house but was always on a tight budget. She worked in a preschool part time. “He admires the way I manage. He loves my cooking, even when he’s too busy to come by and eat it after I’ve gone to the trouble. There’s too much busyness nowadays.”
“There is,” I said. I let her go on about the new boyfriend’s terribly packed schedule. She had no idea how she sounded.
“I’ll bet you find someone soon,” she said. “You’ll be surprised.”
When I’d first gotten the job as an usher, I’d thought it was a great perk that I got to see plays over and over. I had written theater pieces in school and had a secret ambition to write a screenplay. I became immersed in whatever was onstage, and at the end I would look up, amazed that I was still in Leeds.
Lately I would slip off to an alcove above the stairs, where they let ushers sit as long as we kept quiet; even there I could hear the actors shouting and laughing and giving long, rippling speeches. What hams they were. Everything felt like clamor to me now anyway. “Things exist, but they are not real,” Alastair’s boyfriend, Max, had once said to me, quoting a Buddhist teacher they liked. People thought I was just plain out of it these days, a moron of grief, but I had glimpses of how there might be a freedom in it, too.
Did I think I was better than everyone else and their topics of concern? Well, yes. Why was I so sure that tragedy had made me smarter? I liked my floaty, superior life more than I could have admitted. I liked the remote spaces I was settling into. I liked looking down from above — the calm of it. I kept this preference to myself. Mostly.
But not always. One night I watched a TV special that showed how many countries had left flags on the moon: the U.S., the Soviet Union, Japan, China, the European Space Agency, India. “Who are they kidding?” I said. “It’s so egocentric of them. Making their little marks. Every flag is going to fade and disappear.”
“You have a point,” Alastair said.
“I know,” I said.
“You sound so happy about it,” Emilia said.
And I was. I liked being free from delusion.
In the summer Max and Alastair were full of clever analysis about the election in the U.S., and then afterward they had convoluted theories about the results. I had to wonder how Schuyler’s parents had voted. And his brothers — he had two. Did they make jokes about the president’s hair? What did they say? I sort of wanted to know.
In the spring Alastair got a few months’ work on a TV series in London, and he came back on weekends with gossip. Dana had been unsatisfied with what she’d shot in Leeds and had decided the film needed a whole other half. “History is smug,” she’d said. She had talked the producers into sending her to Bangladesh to interview current-day workers in garment factories. “Remember when that factory complex in Bangladesh collapsed,” Alastair said, “after the owners knew the building was fucked and made hundreds of workers go in? That’s where she went, or someplace near there.”
“Leeds and Bangladesh, together at last,” Max said.
“Dhaka. That’s the city where she went,” Alastair said. He was all up into the thing, as if it were his project.
I looked up the factory collapse near Dhaka. The workers were paid so little, the Pope himself had called it slave labor — which the world was full of still. Dana was not wrong. Qatar was built on another type of slave labor: foreign work crews with no rights.
The next we heard about the film, it was having its long-awaited debut at a festival in Brooklyn in the fall. Brooklyn! Couldn’t we get an advance copy to watch on our computers? Not yet.
“We should go,” Alastair said. “It’s not that far, New York. Why not?”
“All that way to see a movie?” I said. “We’re not the stars.”
“There is no star. It’s a documentary,” Max said.
Actually a few other people we knew were going, according to Alastair — people who’d worked on it and wanted to see how it had turned out. I wanted to go to Brooklyn myself. I knew the name of Schuyler’s street. I wanted to see it. When else would I get to do that? Probably never again.
My mother was so happy I wanted to go anywhere that she offered to help me with the ticket. It turned out she had frequent-flyer miles left over (they never ran out) from when she used to go back and forth to Doha, when she and Dad were split up but not quite. And Max had an ex-boyfriend in Queens — which was not impossibly far from Brooklyn — who would let us all camp out in his living room.
“He must’ve really liked you,” I said.
“We haven’t seen his living room,” Alastair said.
They took a different airline from the one my mother’s miles got me on, but we could all meet up at the Queens flat. Part of me liked the idea of flying alone, as if I had Schuyler with me and wanted him to myself.
The week before we left, I began to feel we should invite Schuyler’s brothers, Taddie and Richard, to the première to see their brother’s last work. Why hadn’t I thought of it before?
“It’s not like his opus or anything,” Alastair said. “And you don’t even know where they are.”
Were they on Facebook? Taddie was. In his picture he was rowing a boat on a lake.
He friended me back in a day. “Dear Maribel,” he said. “Quite a surprise to hear from you.” He wasn’t sure he could make it to the première, but he was available for lunch, if I was free.
Once I landed at JFK, I had to deal with an officer at Immigration who was bothered that I was born in Abu Dhabi but had British citizenship. Could I explain about that? And why all the stamps from Qatar on my passport?
“It was my father,” I said. “He loved working in the Middle East. He had different jobs.”
They took me into a room where a female officer gave me a slow pat-down — hands gliding over my chest, up and down my thighs. What terrified me was that she didn’t say a word. She wasn’t wasting time being nice. They could detain me. They could do anything. I’d read about American detention centers; they were sometimes on prison grounds. They could take me there in handcuffs, put me in an orange jumpsuit, keep me as long as they wanted. Or send me back, but not right away. Was there a detainment cell in the airport? It had been a great mistake to come. I didn’t need to be here at all. They kept me waiting for an hour, and then a different officer came to tell me I was free to go and to thank me for my patience.
What terminal was I in? I zipped up the rucksack they had rifled through. I had my complicated directions to the flat in Queens, which involved finding a bus to take me to the subway, as they called the underground here. People jostled past me to get to the elevator. This way out. I was in New York.
“Silly girl, what took you so long?” Max said. They were all hyped up and happy — Alastair and Max and Stephen, the ex-lover — drinking icy American beer and telling stories. The flat was on a street that looked like the outskirts of Leeds. I was never going to get to see anything.
I told them over and over how I’d almost been arrested for nothing. “You need a beer,” Alastair said. “Take the edge off.” And so my first day was a blur of being angry and hovering next to Alastair and thinking I’d go outside any minute but then not going.
I was much better the next day. I had a map of the tube system, and the station nearby was grotty but sociable — lots of languages, like London. I ended up doing some quite exhilarating sightseeing: the crowds in Times Square, the ceiling in Grand Central, the Chrysler Building from outside. I had coffee and pastry at a Ukrainian cafe in the East Village. And I freshened myself in their ladies’ room for my lunch with Taddie. I spent too much time peering into the badly lit mirror. Red lipstick or mauve? This was bigger than that.
We were meeting in a Wall Street restaurant with sleek, curved walls, all silver and industrial, and he stood up when I was brought to his table. He looked a little like Schuyler, only blonder and heavier-faced. He also had a shorter haircut and a different chin than Schuyler, and he wore a suit. “We meet at last,” he said. “Sorry about the scheduling. I guess you heard what’s happening in our business.”
I hadn’t heard — who would tell me anything?
“We face a very tight situation. It’s impossible for retail now, as I’m sure you know.”
I was lost. “Nice to see you anyway.”
“I’ve wanted to speak to you,” he said, after we’d ordered some silly lunch. His voice was quite a lot like Schuyler’s, which was weird. “What I really need, if you don’t mind, is information about when Schuyler left the pub and walked into the street. Did you see it happen?”
What a horrifying question. “Oh, no. I’d gone home already.”
“It’s the life insurance. We’re having trouble collecting it.”
The parents had bought policies for each of their sons when they had come into the Trust. The brothers were beneficiaries of each other. Schuyler had failed to inform the insurance company about his use of recreational drugs, and there was all that cannabis in his blood.
“Did you give him the drugs?”
“Was he stoned all the time? You can say so. I know Schuyler could be a real fuckup.”
“He was very talented,” I said, almost whining in outrage.
“Was there a reason,” Taddie said, “you left the pub first and weren’t crossing the street with him?”
I thought about that every day. If I’d stayed, it wouldn’t have happened. But I wasn’t going to give my demented accuser the satisfaction of agreeing.
“He was always a total fuckup,” Taddie said. “That’s why he got involved with someone like you. He couldn’t even fucking cross a street by himself, could he?”
His voice was cracking, as if he was freshly remembering how furious he was at Schuyler for getting himself killed. He seemed ready to hit something or start weeping. He had loved his brother.
And he was certainly going to keep insulting me while he could. “Schuyler was never going to leave his wife, you know,” he said. “No matter what he told you. He was always almost leaving Veronica and then staying. You weren’t the first.”
What a terrible family Schuyler had. This story about the wife answered a question I hardly had anymore. I had wandered away from that question. Far and away. Left it behind. I was used to the blunt fact of Schuyler’s death. The endless obduracy of it. A fact as big as the moon. What did I care about Veronica? What could the poor woman take from me now? Taddie’s tales weren’t scaring me.
He looked pissed off and wasn’t finished. “Forget whatever Schuyler told you. He never meant anything he said.”
I pushed away my plate and said, “Well, I’m glad we met.”
He made an odd, grunting sound when I got up to leave, and for a moment I was afraid of him. He grimaced in anguish, his lips stretching so his teeth showed.
Out on the street it was starting to rain. I opened my umbrella and tried to figure out how to get back to the tube station. This wasn’t my easiest day, was it? And Taddie wasn’t feeling any better, from what I’d seen.
He wanted the money from Schuyler’s insurance very badly, and he was doing his best to get it. He wanted to be paid for what he had lost. He must have thought it would help his suffering. People with money tended to believe in its powers. They had trouble imagining what the rest of us did without.
I might have argued with him. I might have voiced my lack of pity over his uncollected death benefits. I might have reminded him I hadn’t pushed Schuyler into the road. I might have said I personally didn’t even smoke dope. I had to recite all this to myself because I hadn’t said it, and a good thing, too.
Meanwhile poor Taddie was still in the restaurant, trying to tighten his grip on what was already gone. I thought of his face when I’d left. I kept calm, I said to Schuyler in my head.