Megan feels out of place. She wanders down the hallway, looking at oil paintings in gold frames. She knew Cecily was rich, but not this rich. From the other room, she can hear Cecily explain that they are in the “Little House,” because the “Big House” is being redone. “The color yellow gives my mother migraines.” They have the house to themselves because Cecily’s parents are on a wine tour in Argentina. Megan doesn’t think the Little House is so little, with four bedrooms, three and a half baths, two sets of washers and dryers, and its own swimming pool. Her entire childhood home could fit inside the Little House.
There are six of them—three couples: Cecily and Eddie, Suzi and Thelonious, and Megan and Steve. Megan walks back to the parlor. Eddie has already started drinking and is using a tennis racket as a serving tray. Suzi is sprawled on the couch, practically passed out, and Megan hasn’t seen Thelonious since they arrived. Steve’s outside, pacing underneath skeletal étagères that look more like telephone poles than trees, trying to find reception for a work call. Megan isn’t so sure she made the right decision accepting Cecily’s invitation.
“I remembered why I hate coming here,” Cecily says, throwing herself onto the overstuffed loveseat. She snakes off her black Hunter rain boots, exposing soft, pink feet, expertly pedicured. She looks up at the ceiling and says to no one in particular: “And it’s even worse in winter.”
Eddie maneuvers around the jacquard living room furniture, sloshing Scotch as he tips his racket to offer drinks. Suzi, still wearing her buggy designer sunglasses, accepts and finishes in one lusty sip.
“You just need a drink, Cecily,” he says, syllables exposing a faint lisp. He pivots with his racket-tray to face her, spilling two tumblers of Scotch down his front as well as on the red Persian rug. “Shit.”
“Jesus, Eddie,” Cecily says. “We’ve barely been here 10 minutes.” She gets up and walks to the kitchen, bare feet slapping on hardwood floor.
He puts the racket with the empty glasses on the piano and then takes off his t-shirt, which, Megan knows, despite being cotton, must have cost over $200.
“Relax, Ces,” Eddie calls out after her, the consonance in her name carrying through the Little House. He picks up the matching crystal decanter and pours two more glasses. “Just send me the cleaning bill.” Eddie grins and winks at Megan, handing her a fresh drink.
Megan rolls her eyes and thinks, what did I get myself into?
When Cecily invited Megan to come to Southampton for the weekend, Megan’s instinct was to refuse. She hadn’t seen Cecily since college. They had been roommates their junior year at Wellesley, by coincidence and not by choice. Cecily arrived midway through Fall semester, after an extended summer in Paris. The Office of Residential Life had assigned Cecily to Megan’s room. Three years later, when Megan bumped into Cecily outside of Dean & Deluca on Madison Avenue, Megan barely recognized her. Cecily’s blond hair, which in college had hung like a mane around her shoulders, the only part of her polished appearance that had seemed wild, was slicked back into a ponytail so tight that Megan could see every curve of Cecily’s skull.
“Cecily,” Megan said. “Is that you?”
Cecily froze and turned. She gave Megan the New York up-and-down. “Megan Samson on the Upper East Side,” Cecily said. “Didn’t think you had New York City in you.” Cecily twisted her ponytail around her wrist, once, twice.
Megan didn’t live on the Upper East Side, only worked there. Her boss was a New York City socialite-cum-artist who painted portraits in different shades of designer makeup of her rich friends’ pets. It was the only job Megan could get in the art world—the closest she could get to putting her $200,000 Wellesley Art History degree to use. “You look different,” Megan said.
Cecily twisted her ponytail again. Megan thought Cecily looked nervous. This wasn’t the same girl who had been Megan’s roommate in college, a girl that seemed impenetrable. At school, Megan quickly discovered that Cecily existed in a different strata. Cecily had rarely acknowledged Megan’s existence. She didn’t matter to Cecily. But this worked in Megan’s favor. Cecily was barely in the room anyway, she was dating this guy from Harvard—it was Eddie, Megan remembers—and Cecily took most of her classes in Boston, leaving Megan the room to herself, which meant she could freely borrow from Cecily’s closet.
Megan couldn’t even pronounce most of the names of the designers then. She remembered taking out a black dress, crepe-wool, A-line. She remembered the texture of the fabric between her fingers. This is what rich feels like, Megan had thought. It has a weight to it. This wasn’t the type of rich that she knew at home in Michigan, where people wore brand names to prove their status. This kind of rich was implied, understood without advertisement. Megan never wore Cecily’s clothes out of the room, but she tried them on, looked in the mirror, pretended to go on interviews with important collectors and artists. She would stare her reflection in the eyes and try to imitate Cecily’s coolness, her lack of care.
“You look different too,” Cecily said. She shifted her Dean & Deluca bag from one hand to the other. She couldn’t stand still. She kept avoiding Megan’s eyes.
Megan couldn’t take her gaze away from Cecily’s skull. She could feel Cecily noticing. “Sorry,” Megan said. “I just can’t believe it’s you. Must be your hairstyle.”
“New look,” Cecily said, flicking her ponytail off her shoulders. “I should probably get going—”
Megan’s phone began to ring, cutting Cecily off. Megan knew it was one of two people: her boss asking where the hell she was, or Steve asking when she would be home. He’d been hinting a lot recently about taking The Next Step. The words made her a bit claustrophobic. She liked him—no, loved him—but she felt like if she took The Next Step she would be settling into the permanence of the rest of her life. Megan checked the caller ID. Steve. She sent it to voicemail. “I thought it was my boss,” Megan said. “Simone doesn’t like me to be gone too long.”
“Simone Levin?” Cecily asked.
“Yes, do you know her work?”
Cecily shook her head. “I went to high school with her son.”
“Jopie?” Megan said. “He’s…um…”
“Not all there,” Cecily said.
They both laughed. “You could say that.” Simone had actually tried to set her up with Jopie. The date hadn’t worked out. But it had given her to Steve. “I should probably get going,” Megan said.
“I’m having some people up to Southampton this weekend,” Cecily said. “If you want to join.”
The invitation hung in the air, unwanted, unexpected. The silence made Megan uncomfortable. “I have to work, and my boyfriend keeps telling me he’s planning something big on Saturday.” Megan gave Cecily a sympathetic smile. She didn’t want to be sympathetic toward Cecily, but there was something about her, her hollow eyes, her thinning hair.
“Sure, no big deal,” Cecily said. “Just thought I would ask.”
The two embraced awkwardly and parted ways. Megan began to walk back towards the Park, continuing on up Fifth Avenue, past the Guggenheim and the Cooper Hewitt, trying to remember the last time she and Cecily had spoken. It was in that American literature class they had both taken senior year—Families in Distress—taught by a professor emeritus who was so old that even his earlobes were wrinkled. To Megan, he looked like one of those African women from the pictures in National Geographic, who stretched their own earlobes with clay disks. Despite the size of his ears, the course involved no listening on his part. Instead he droned, barely cognizant of the students in front of him. Whenever he began talking about a particularly dramatic section of the novel, he would close his eyes and incorrectly recite the text from memory, often stopping for minutes between lines. Megan had assumed these pauses were meant to give the passage more gravitas and encourage moments of serious reflection. It wasn’t until they were studying Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying—when during a particularly pregnant pause, the professor let out a loud snore—that Megan realized he was not dramatic but narcoleptic.
“Is he still alive?” Cecily had whispered to Megan.
“I think so,” Megan said. “His earlobes are still moving.”
“I think Dewey Dell sounds like something you’d name a cow.”
The professor, jolted awake by his own snores, jumped up—earlobes flapping with him. He continued lecturing as if nothing had happened reciting Faulkner’s words out of order: “Emptying yourself in a strange room makes you sleepy,” but then, the right ones came at the close: “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”
Megan’s phone buzzed again. Steve. What time will you be home? Remember we have dinner Saturday night—La Grenouille. I have something important to ask you ;).
She hated when he used emoticons. Megan hadn’t texted Steve back. Instead, she called Cecily to accept her invitation to Southampton. She needed to put Steve off—at least for another weekend. Time and space to think. She knew what he wanted to ask, but she was afraid to face the result of either answer. Steve wouldn’t dare propose in front of strangers, Megan thought. Maybe a weekend away from the city was just what she needed.
Megan walks into the dining room of the Little House and sees a painting displayed on a shelf. She recognizes it. A copy of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole. Megan painted it for Cecily for Christmas their junior year. Since Cecily was hardly ever in the room, along with trying on her clothes, Megan used to push their twin beds together. She remembers a time during winter finals when she woke to find Cecily curled up next to her, knees tucked towards her chin, shiny, ash-blond hair splayed across her pillow. The turns in the curls of her hair had reminded Megan of the Cole painting. The next day, Megan separated their beds. She spent the remainder of the exam period working on a copy of The Oxbow. When she finished it, she left the painting on Cecily’s bed with a note wishing her a Merry Christmas. Cecily was going to meet her parents in Bermuda, or the Bahamas, or some other island far away. Megan was going back to Michigan, to Yankee Springs. When they returned in January, neither of them had acknowledged the gift.
Megan examines the painting. She remembers: the softness of Cecily’s hair, college, strange roofs, home.
Cecily opens up every cabinet in the kitchen to try to find some paper towels. Of course, Eddie is drunk already. It’s a great start to the weekend. She can’t believe that Megan actually accepted the invitation. And that she brought her boyfriend. Cecily doesn’t know how the words even came out of her mouth. She didn’t want to invite Megan to Southampton, didn’t want her to come. But Megan was looking at her funny. She could tell, Cecily thinks. She knew. She knew and was judging her. It was easy to put Megan in her place in college, just a glance, a remark, and the girl would basically crumble. It’s not that Cecily especially liked making people feel that way—it’s that she knew she could. And now Megan was the one looking at Cecily like the underling. Maybe that’s why Cecily invited Megan—to distract her from looking at Cecily’s hair, to remind Megan of where Cecily stood in comparison. But Megan responded by lording her job and her boyfriend over her. Trying to make Cecily feel like she was the one who had it all now. Part of Cecily thought that if Megan came to the Southampton they would be back on proper unequal footing. That Cecily would be back in control. Her hair was falling out, but she was a Van der Kley. She had status. Megan didn’t have that. Could never have that.
Cecily finds a roll of paper towels underneath the sink. Even a girl who hadn’t seen her in three years noticed right away. The doctors can’t give her a reason why. Her parents don’t believe she’s sick. Now they’re in Argentina, pretending everything is normal. And Cecily’s left alone in New York to pick up the pieces.
Since she broke up with Eddie, the rate at which her hair’s been falling out has increased drastically. Every time she touches it, she pulls away more strands—they get stuck underneath her fingernails. A gust of wind will cause her hair to fall like leaves off a tree. She thought that inviting Eddie up to the house could change things. That maybe their breakup had been the root of it. But before the weekend even began, Cecily knew that that wasn’t the case. Back then, he was the one who pursued her. She hoped she still held some sway over him. Once she realized that he was disillusioned with her, she should have just put him in another bedroom, but then there were no empty beds left.
Cecily returns to the living room with a tea towel and some club soda. “When Steve comes inside, I’ll show you where you’re sleeping, Megan.”
“I’ve given up on sleeping,” Suzi says, gathering her red hair on top of her head. Her nose is dusted with a light spattering of freckles that ensure the look of innocence. This, along with her bank account, allows her to pretty much get away with anything.
Cecily ignores the comment. “There’s something in the freezer that Agnieskza made. I’ll put it in the oven.”
“Come sit by me, Megan.” Suzi pats the sectional. “I’m lonely.”
“Is there any more of this?” Megan asks, shaking the tumbler, rattling the ice. Eddie refills her glass.
“Cecily has told me all about you and George,” Suzi says.
“You mean Steve?”
“That’s what I said.”
They hear the back door slam. “Justice served,” Steve says, entering the room, broad smile from ear to ear.
“No, George,” Suzi shakes her head and leans forward on the sectional. “We were talking about dinner. Dinner is being served.”
“Steve is a paralegal in the Appeals Bureau at the New York County District Attorney’s Office,” Megan says.
“So who’s George?” Suzi says.
Steve cocks his head quizzically.
“Eddie, you know where my room is. Suzi, I put you in the blue room. Tell Theo or whatever his name is.” Cecily pats the stain dry on the carpet. Nothing is going right.
“Thelonious. And does that mean you two knuckleheads are back together?” Suzi asks.
“No.” Eddie says the same time Cecily says, “Yes.” She feels an emptiness down in her stomach. It’s growing.
“Well, if you mean fucking as ‘together,’ then yes,” Eddie says.
“Don’t ask me why though,” says Cecily. She knows the reason why, but she won’t admit it to anyone, not even Suzi. This weekend was a bad idea, Cecily thinks again. She twists her ponytail. “I must be in momentary loss of my senses. Steve, Megan, you’re this way.”
Megan gets up off the sectional and goes to grab her knapsack by the door.
Steve tries to take it from her. “Let me.”
“No, I got it.” Megan tightens her grip.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says.
“You don’t be ridiculous, I can carry my own backpack,” she swings it onto her shoulder, almost whacking Steve in the face.
“Ouch.” Eddie grins. “That’s what happens when you date a Wellesthley girl.”
“Shut up, Eddie,” Cecily and Megan say in unison.
Megan follows Cecily up the stairs, Steve behind her. Megan grabs onto the rail. Her palms slip. She’s sweaty, nervous, just at the thought of being alone with Steve. They follow Cecily up to the attic room above the kitchen. “I feel weird putting couples in my parents’ bedroom,” Cecily says, twisting
The three stand looking at the two twin beds, noticeably less luxurious than the rest of the Little House. Soft comforters with water lilies in faded pastels are neatly tucked beneath frilly, pink pillowcases.
“Agnieskza usually sleeps up here, but she won’t be coming in until Monday. Cozy, right?” Cecily smiles. “Dinner in an hour or so?”
Megan nods and knows that Steve should not wear the tie he packed for tonight. He will fight her on it.
“Thanks so much for having us, Cecily,” Steve says. “Let us know if we can help with anything.”
Cecily nods and closes the door. Once he is sure that Cecily is back in the main part of the house, he hisses: “She put us in the servants’ quarters.”
“Stop.” Megan opens her knapsack and starts putting things in the pink dresser under the window. “You’re not supposed to call them that.”
Steve flops down on one of the twin beds, moody. “We could be in New York right now. I planned a special dinner at La Grenouille. You remember the night we met?”
She does. She can’t forget the night Simone tried to set Megan up with her son, Jopie. Jopie had recently moved back in with the Levins after his start-up company collapsed. To be fair, the start-up wasn’t more than a half-baked plan to revolutionize fantasy football by applying the betting strategy beyond sports. The bet didn’t pay off, and Jopie had paid the price with his trust fund. Hence, the reason he moved back in with his parents.
Megan wanted to decline the date, but there was no saying “no” to Simone Levin.
“He’ll meet you at La Grenouille at eight,” she said, more Dior lipstick smeared on her face, her neck, her hands, than on her painting titled “Billy the Teacup Chihuahua.”
Megan nodded. She knew protest was useless.
“Can you get me another tube of Fireworks? Oh, and don’t forget to make a reservation for tonight. If you wait much longer, it’ll be impossible.”
So that’s how Megan had found herself at La Grenouille, wondering how she was going to pay for the bottle of wine she had downed while waiting for Jopie to show. Convinced that he would breeze in as soon as she left and tell on her to Simone, Megan was petrified to get up from the table. The repeated raised eyebrows from the wait staff combined with the third “Are you sure we can’t get you anything, Mademoiselle?” had led to Megan ordering the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu in the hopes of settling Jopie with a hefty bill. And damned if she wasn’t going to fucking enjoy the 1982 Petrus.
At 10 o’clock, having finished the wine and three baskets of bread, Megan gave in and texted Simone: Waited for Jopie, but I think we missed each other. Maybe another time! Megan signaled for the check. She licked her finger and pressed it to the bread plate to pick to up the remaining crumbs of baguette, which promised to be the last free thing she could afford to eat for a month. Her phone vibrated. Hi sweetie—maybe a miscommunication! He could have thought this was for tomorrow night! Hope you enjoyed your dinner, isn’t the food there delish? XxxS
Megan was livid. She’d humored her once, and that was enough. I wish I could, she lied. But I have plans already! One thing about art she had learned working for Simone: the art of bullshitting.
The waiter placed the check at her elbow. “Merci, Mademoiselle, we ‘ope you ‘ave enjoyed your dinner.”
“Merci, Monsieur. Le vin était magnifique.” Until she opened the bill. Evidentially, she had missed a zero when ordering. She didn’t have $240 to pay for the wine, let alone $2,400. Merde, Megan thought.
Megan often thinks of how she must have seemed to Steve that night. Sitting in the middle of the busy restaurant, out of her depth.
She remembers thinking that Steve had looked as out of his depth as she did—brown hair, brown eyes, medium build, the small mole on his neck, underneath his chin. She remembers focusing on that.
“I’m Jopie’s friend. Steve,” he said, sitting down in Jopie’s chair. “Jopie, um, forgot, he was supposed to meet you. He sent me to make sure you were okay.”
“Okay,” he said. “Are you okay?”
“No.” Megan didn’t want to cry. But a small part of her thought he would be more inclined to help if she did.
He leaned forward across the table and put his hand on hers. “Is there anything I can do?”
She saw it then—his need to save. If she could go back now, she would. She cleared her throat and said: “I can’t afford to pay. For dinner.”
Steve nodded and pressed his lips together. “All right.”
“I ordered the most expensive fucking bottle of wine to get revenge on Jopie.”
Steve took out his credit card without even looking at the bill. “Jopie will pay me back.”
“Thank you, really. Thank you.” She remembers meaning it, she remembers putting her hand on top of his, sealing the deal, sealing her fate.
“Wanna get outta here?”
Steve, Megan learned, was not from Manhattan but the Bronx. He was working for the city as a paralegal to pay for law school. Within 20 minutes, Megan could tell he wanted to take care of her. So, over two slices of greasy cheese pizza at the seventh Original Rays, she let him.
They moved through dating milestones—they had sex after six dates, she had met his parents; he, hers (they had flown to New York City from Michigan last Christmas). She officially moved into his apartment when her lease was up. When he told her he loved her, he confessed that Jopie hadn’t “sent” him that night—Jopie had been cracking jokes about his stepmother’s assistant. Jopie had showed Steve a picture of Megan on his phone, sent courtesy of Simone. Megan remembered when Simone had snapped the shot. The photo had been captured on a particularly trying day. No wonder Jopie had thought she was a joke. Steve had walked by the restaurant on his way home. Back then, she had found his chivalry touching, but after a while his need to help the less fortunate wasn’t romantic—it was belittling. And now…The Next Step. This is a step she does not want to take. Megan convinces herself he won’t try to propose in front of strangers.
“Fine,” Steve says, patting his twin bed. “We’ll work with what we’ve got,” he beckons to her. “It’ll be like college.”
“Not before dinner.” She refolds the same shirt four times.
“It’s a country weekend.” Steve frowns. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
Cecily doesn’t usually mind that Eddie likes to fuck her from behind, but her hair loss is worse at the nape of her neck and she’s worried that he will notice. She can’t stand headbands and would never wear a bandana, so she’s resorted to styling her hair in a low ponytail, like some sort of librarian. Her mother had offered the ridiculous suggestion of a turban.
He finishes and she gets up to take a shower. Cecily wishes she were sleeping in the attic room instead of Megan, in the soft pink of her childhood sheets. She turns on the water and waits until it gets warm. Then she starts to wash her hair, rolling stray clumps in her palms until they tangle up together, forming knots that look like blond spiders. The water frees them from her hands and down comes the rain to wash the spiders out.
The hot water’s almost gone. Goose bumps take hold of her body—rising on her arms, her legs, her chest. She looks at her breasts, and sees the links of evolution in the raised, hairless pores. She’s just a bird without the feathers, plucked like a chicken. The goose bumps remind her of Thanksgiving in the Big House, of watching Agnieskza lather the twenty-pound turkey with butter. She had just dumped Eddie. That was the last time she had been out to the country.
Had it only been three months? Three months since her parents told her that things were going to change? It’s been hard with the recession, they said. They needed to sell the property. All the furniture in the Big House was sent to auction. That’s the real reason why they’re in the Little House. Take a few last weekends, her parents said, as a consolation. Stay as long as you like, but not past March first.
Her father took her into his study after dinner. He had lost all his hair, too. Cecily entertained the brief notion that maybe she was turning into him.
“It’s your money, Cecily,” he said. “It always has been. No one can take it from you.”
She nodded. What did she do to earn it? What existed outside of privilege?
“And the choice is yours. Don’t think it will change how your mother or I feel about you.”
She knew what he was asking, but he wasn’t saying it: turn it over. Was that why they humored her specialist after specialist, despite the doctors coming up with no medical explanation? Her hair was falling out. She had told them test after test: she wasn’t well. Had any of them believed her? “Of course, Dad,” she said because there was nothing else to say.
“It’s just until we get back on our feet. Then we’ll reestablish the fund.” The lights from the crystal chandelier in his study reflected off his bald head—a
Her mother already had spent a significant portion of the money on the trip to Argentina. They would stay, she said, until things were back to the way they were.
Cecily hears the sound of metal against metal as Eddie draws the shower curtain and steps into the shower, ready. “You were taking a long time,” he says. “Thought I’d join you.”
Cecily’s hands fly to her hair, aware of how the water pressure separates the locks, revealing, smooth patches of skin. “I’m almost done,” she says, thinking about if she will even bother being flirty. “And I have to get dinner out of the oven.”
“Megan’ll do it,” he reaches for her, fingers primed toward her hair.
“No. Seriously, stop.” She turns her back to him and turns off the shower.
“When did you become such a frigid bitch, anyway? Don’t think I can’t see what this weekend’s all about.”
A violent shiver shoots through her spine. Wet skin against cold air, it travels all the way to the tips of her emptying follicles. She gathers her hair into a thin ponytail, more concerned with Eddie violating her scalp’s privacy than her body’s. She twists her hair tighter, to prove that it’s still there, as if she’s still in control.
Eddie scoffs. “Everyone knows that your father’s lost it all. That’s why you invited me here, right? So you can try to marry rich.”
“No,” she says. “It’s not.”
“If you’re gonna beg for it, you should get on your knees already.”
Cecily slaps him hard across the face and Eddie’s cheeks ripple—the sound of skin on skin echoing off the marble in the bathroom for seconds afterward.
She steps out of the shower and grabs a towel. “Be gone by the time I come downstairs,” she says.
I’m losing it, she thinks. Losing everything.
Cecily has burnt the casserole. The smell reaches Megan and Steve’s room first, as they are closest to the kitchen, so Megan goes down to retrieve it. The top of the casserole has turned black, making its contents indiscernible. It’s beginning to flake, like skin too long in the sun. She scrapes off the top to try to salvage it.
Megan hears loud footsteps and then sees Eddie appear at the doorway. Without acknowledging her, he opens the freezer and takes out an icepack and lays it across his now puffy cheek. “I have to go back to the city to meet a client,” he mumbles before he leaves. Megan sees a black town car pull up and then drive away.
Megan wants to be useful. She begins to sets the table for five. As she shuttles dishes between the kitchen and the dining room, she keeps looking at the copy of The Oxbow she gave Cecily for Christmas.
“It’s something about the shape of the river, isn’t it? Like it could turn back on itself and reverse the current, the damage, at any moment,” Cecily says from
Megan picks up the canvas and examines the split between wilderness and civilization, the split between the dark and the light. “A common theme in Cole, really,” Megan says. She doesn’t know what else to say to Cecily.
“Thanks for helping.” Cecily gestures to the plates.
“Thanks for having us, I know, it’s—”
“Weird?” Cecily finishes.
“Yeah, it’s weird.” Everything is weird.
Cecily shrugs. “Steve in there? He wanted to ask me something.” She gestures towards the parlor.
“Probably something about the history or architecture of the house,” Megan sighs. “Don’t let him bother you.” Leave it to Steve to make the weekend even weirder. She knows that Cecily is judging her. Thinking that Steve is the best she can do.
Cecily nods. “I won’t.”
Cecily passes around the burnt casserole. She is relieved that no one has mentioned Eddie’s absence. Steve is wearing a tie, which Cecily thinks is a bit much. Thelonious has finally appeared, and has his hand on Suzi’s thigh. He looks like he just woke up from a three-day nap. No one is quite sure where he’s been. Suzi is wearing another pair of designer sunglasses, these ones Prada.
“Suzi, Sal, my darling, it’s not like you’re being hounded by the paparazzi, you can take off the sunglasses already,” Cecily says. Sal was an old nickname from summer camp. Her own nickname was Cheerio, but she doesn’t feel so cheery these days.
“I can’t help it,” she pouts, brushing the temple arms of the tortoiseshell against her lower lip before folding the sunglasses and putting them on the table. “I brought too many and I want to wear them all. It’s like the lady at Bendel’s said—buying designer sunglasses is as addictive as smoking crack.”
Thelonious pats her head like she’s a puppy.
Over the years, Cecily has learned to decipher Suzi’s wastedness by the state of her eye makeup, which functions similarly to a sundial. She infers, from the rings of kohl around her eyes, that it’s about 10 past three Valium. She’s worried about Suzi. They have money, they have the wrong boyfriends, they have country houses, but no one is really looking out for them. At least Steve seems to care about Megan. Eddie doesn’t care about anyone but himself.
Steve announces that he’s discovered, underneath the burnt crust, that the casserole is barley and mushroom with chunks of broccoli. He is the only one eating it, but does not seem to notice. He prattles on about work, about the nanny on the Upper West Side who killed those two children in the bathtub. Everyone agrees that that would never have happened on the Upper East Side.
“It wouldn’t have happened in Yankee Springs,” Megan adds.
“Is that that medical spa in the Catskills where they don’t let you drink?” Suzi asks.
“No,” Megan says. “It’s where I’m from. In Michigan.”
Suzi bristles. “Yes, I think I’ve been there once. It’s nice. But they definitely don’t have good bagels. Or any of the better department stores.”
Steve clears his throat and taps the wineglass with his spoon. “I have an announcement to make.” And then leaves the room.
Megan cringes and drains her drink. Cecily knows what’s coming—Steve pulled her aside, almost to ask for permission—and she can’t help but smile inwardly at Megan’s reaction. At least she’s not the only one whose weekend is turning out to be a disaster.
Suzi says, “I love announcements.”
“Broccoli has a nervous system,” Thelonious says in an accent, though no one is sure what kind. Thelonious pushes the casserole around on his plate. “It has feelings.”
“Isn’t he great?” Suzi says, planting a kiss on his cheek, which makes Thelonious blush. God, Cecily has to get rid of this creep before Suzi mysteriously loses half of her bank account.
Megan needs another drink. Her palms are sweating again. Cecily is looking at her almost gloating. This is going to be so embarrassing. Steve practically skips back into the room, almost tripping on the Oriental runner. He holds up a bottle of Perrier-Jouët. Megan knows it’s the really nice kind, with the light white flowers on the side. It’s the one that Simone sends her out to get whenever she has an art show.
“I brought this to celebrate,” he says.
“And what are we celebrating, Steve?” Cecily says in a deadpan that sounds almost rehearsed. Suzi giggles. Megan balks as Steve gets down on one knee.
She knows, in theory, this is supposed to be the happiest moment of her life. But, it’s not and she can’t act like it is. “Steve, please, not in front of everyone.”
But he isn’t listening, and pulls a tacky red velvet box out of his pocket. “Megan Eleanor Samson, will you marry me?”
“Let’s give them some time alone,” Cecily says, gesturing for Suzi and Thelonious to follow her. “And see if we can find anything else to eat.” They leave the room, Suzi more reluctantly, but not before she swipes the unopened bottle of champagne.
“I think I need to think about it,” Megan says, trying not to look at Steve.
He puts the box back into his pocket. “What is there to think about?” He moves, stuffing his hands in his pockets, obviously wanting something to busy them. Obviously wanting to hold hers and slide on a ring. “Isn’t this what every girl wants?”
“I don’t know,” Megan says, focusing on the mole on Steve’s neck. Her heart beats faster, the claustrophobia settling in. As if her life, her New York life, is folding in on her. The dining room at first appeared to be cavernous, but now it’s as tiny as the apartment that she and Steve share. She watches the space shrink until all she is left with are her own thoughts and Steve’s mole. “I don’t know.”
Cecily has found a small container of caviar. Thelonious, finally useful, has uncovered a packet of water crackers. Suzi pours Steve’s champagne. In order to block whatever bullshit Megan and Steve are working out, Cecily turns on the television. The news reports a winter storm. The weatherman projects at least two feet of snow.
“Hand me those crackers,” Cecily says, opening the jar. The red juice drips down her fingers like betadine. It reminds her of her appointment with the cancer specialist on Monday, but deep down, she knows they won’t find anything. She’ll be as bald as a survivor but without the excuse of cancer.
Megan comes into the kitchen. “Steve is going for a walk,” she says.
The television warns them to be prepared for power outages.
Suzi bites into a cracker and smacks her lips. “Was the ring nice at least?”
Outside, it is beginning to snow. Cecily licks her fingers. She hopes that by the time the snow melts, it’ll be as if none of this ever happened.
In the room above the kitchen of the Little House, Megan wraps herself in a water lily comforter and waits. Steve eventually comes upstairs. He undresses without saying a word. It’s too dark in the attic room to see his face. She hears sheets rustling as he gets into his twin bed instead of coming over to hers.
The air gets colder and colder between them as Megan tries to empty herself for sleep. She remembers that line from Faulkner, her American Lit professor from Wellesley, the gentle swing of his saggy, detached earlobes, the day Cecily moved in, their small room, their twin beds, the number of times she has felt the how-often-I-have-lain-beneath-rain-on-a-strange-roof-thinking-of-home feeling, and Steve, now the stranger, mere feet away…those words always make her think of corpses looking up at the lids of their own coffins—empty, but not empty, sleeping, but not asleep, amused and terrified at the finality, the inevitability, of containment.
“There’s space on the bus back to the city tomorrow morning at nine. Any later and we’ll be stuck with the storm,” he says. “I reserved two seats.”
Teeth chatter. Morse code. The long and short of it.
“I think I’ll stay,” Megan says, pulling the water lilies up above her head, receding from the chill of the room, slipping back into childhood summers, days with no concern of time, of paddle boating in endless circles on Baker Lake in Yankee Springs. Days before she understood what money really meant. Before she really understood what rich was. Before she understood what owing people meant. “Yes, I think I’ll stay.”
Megan hears the shhh of sheets as Steve turns away from her.
She wants to ask the question, the one that has been on her mind since the night they first met, the reason why she has felt beholden to him, the same way she feels beholden to New York and Simone and her parents. In the eyes of most, life is reduced to just hands exchanging money for more money, for education, respect, love, power. That’s what the book’s about in the end, right? Megan thinks. A set of dentures and a new wife. It’s all about money, which means we’re all just looking up at the lids of our own coffins our whole lives.
She can’t think of a verb for it—a single word to signal the act of telling the truth. She assumes the lack of one means that the default is the opposite—that everybody lies, even to themselves. Lying then, must be the universal. So she finally truths through her own teeth: “Did Jopie ever pay you back?”
“What do you think?”
Then the sound of it, the strangeness, the chorus of clicks, drops from two to one, then to just the sound of iced-up snow bouncing off the windows of the
The next morning is the opposite of Christmas, when the girls discover that Thelonious has stolen the car and the power is out. Steve has done his civic duty in reporting both these facts. Megan recognizes his fat scrawl on the note Cecily holds in her hand.
“Your fucking boyfriend stole my car,” Cecily says to Suzi.
“Figures,” says Suzi, pushing her sunglasses up her nose. “You can’t trust foreigners.”
Cecily watches Suzi turning red, her freckles making her look so much younger than she is. A tear escapes from behind the black frames. “Where did you even meet him?” Cecily asks.
“I dunno.” Suzi looks up at the crystal chandelier in the sitting room, momentarily dazzled by the splintered light. “Around, I guess.”
Cecily pulls Suzi into a hug. “I got you, Sal,” she says. “We’ve got each other.”
“You couldn’t have driven home,” Megan says. “Look,” she points to the mountains of snow outside. “We’re stuck.”
Suzi wipes her eyes and presses pills into palms. “Now it’s really a country weekend.”
No boys, no boys allowed. They are lying on the shag rug in Cecily’s mother’s dressing room making snow angels. Or at least Megan is, rubbing her arms back and forth. They don’t feel the cold, even though the heat’s off. The bleak light coming through the windows, reflected off the snow, makes them all glow.
“Steve seemed nice,” Cecily says.
“By comparison, I’d agree,” Megan says.
“Did you at least keep the ring?” Suzi asks, turning over onto her stomach and stretching her hands far above her head.
“No,” Megan says. Steve hadn’t even woken her up that morning before he’d left. Hadn’t tried to convince her to change her mind.
Suzi starts to shiver. “I’m cold,” She gets up and wanders into Mrs. Van der Kley’s closet. “Good thing you don’t need furs in Argentina.” She wraps herself in a silver mink. They lie on the plush carpet of Mrs. Van der Kley’s dressing room, unsure of how much time has passed, how much time is passing.
“Eddie didn’t want me,” Cecily says. “Neither do my parents, they just want the money.” Cecily moves her hands through the rug like it is a lover’s hair, gently curling the soft strands around her fingers.
Neither Megan nor Suzi say anything, which makes Cecily question whether she’s even said the words aloud. Maybe it’s just the drugs, she thinks, so she continues to confess: “My hair’s falling out. The doctors can’t find anything wrong.” She rolls over on her side, and tucks her knees up to her chin. “I think I’m dying.” She recognizes the painful emptiness inside of her. Like her organs are balloons filled with air and about to burst.
“We’re all dying,” Suzi says. “When you start living, you start dying or, at least, when you stop living, you are dying.”
Megan gets up and retrieves a silver-plated hairbrush from Mrs. Van der Kley’s dressing table and crawls over to Cecily. Megan gently picks up Cecily’s ponytail, brushing the ends of her hair. Once the strands are smooth, she starts arranging them into a ‘U,’ the shape of the oxbow.
“Hair’s dead, too,” Suzi says. “It’s growing on your head, but it’s dead from the beginning. Maybe you should dye it, Cecily,” Suzi suggests. “Never hurts to dye it just a little.”
A light someone forgot to turn off before the blackout switches on just outside the dressing room. Its filament shivers in triplets before it bursts, sending glass, sparks, onto the mahogany floor of the landing. The hallway flickers momentarily into focus, casting just enough light for them to see that they are all three lying side by side, in a row, on their backs, hands folded across their chests. But the room goes dark again before they can see an end in sight.