He had been to their apartment a handful of times, but tonight the lighting was much lower. It was a sizeable apartment with a quirky floor plan and a proliferation of rooms that seemed to spool out one after another. He stepped inside the foyer and saw the first of the bedrooms pulsing with candlelight just beyond the entrance to the kitchen. He saw silhouettes of people there and more in the room to his right. People were coming and going from the kitchen, some louder than others. He did not recognize the man who had opened the door.
“Is there a party going on?” he asked.
“Are you a neighbor?”
“No. An old friend.”
“There’s beer in the fridge,” the man said. He closed the door and introduced himself. They shook hands and the man disappeared.
The noisy talk was crisper than it had been in the hall outside, where he had first noticed its underwater strains and thought it must be coming from some other apartment. He stayed in the foyer for a minute and then drifted down the small corridor to the kitchen. Here, too, the light was dim. Votives cast shadows against the chrome appliances and ceiling-mounted pots and pans and the people standing in twos and threes against the black marble counter. Someone reached into the fridge. The bright telescoping light broke the ambience and the door falling shut just as quickly restored it. “The last one of those, you bastard?” someone said. The one addressed mimicked smashing the bottle on the speaker’s head. There was more mimicry of hand-to-hand combat as he drifted out of the kitchen.
He made his way through the rooms. He saw no one he recognized. It was hard to see in the low light, and some people, in the middle of conversations, had their backs to him. He did not want to go around tapping on shoulders or craning his neck conspicuously. He felt self-conscious despite the anonymity afforded by the darkness. He regretted not getting a drink while he was in the kitchen, not only because it had been a while since his last drink, and drinking was helpful in these situations, but because without a drink in hand he felt that much more out of place.
He ended up by the gas fireplace below the mantel and mirror. Solid blue flames licked over fake logs with bulky knots, radiating a dry and passionless heat. No smoke, no ash. Just a steady dull and decorous burn. He stared at it until his eyes began to hurt, letting the competing voices behind him blend into one festive gibbering blur. When he looked up again, his eyes had hung a scrim of fire between him and the world. He could see only the vaguest shapes, the crudest outlines of people and walls, and then only at his periphery. He waited for the image to dissolve, but before it did completely a familiar voice said, “Well, look who it is.”
He blinked to quicken his vision, which helped, but he didn’t think it could be possible. “Ben?” he said.
“Lauren and I were just wondering where you could be,” Ben said.
“We had plans,” he found himself saying, “earlier in the evening.”
“She’s home,” he said. He added, “Not feeling well.”
“Oh, no,” Ben said. “The flu?”
“Flulike,” he said. “Where’s Lauren?”
Ben turned around as if to locate Lauren. When he turned back, he spoke at a much lower register. “Listen, buddy, to your left, at ten o’clock? I’m going to pivot you, O.K.?” Ben reached out with his beer in hand and turned him a fraction. “Now she’s at noon, right over my shoulder. See her? Do you know who that is?”
“Beautiful? Buddy,” he said, “do you have any idea who that woman is?”
“I don’t know who any of these people are,” he said.
Before he could study the woman any closer, he felt a hand on his arm. From the thinness of the grip he knew it to be a woman’s hand, and when he turned he was not surprised. “Hey,” he said. “You know we’ve been looking for you?”
“Stay right where you are, Ben,” she said. “I’ll get you another drink.” She turned from Ben and addressed him. “Will you walk with me?”
With her hand now on the small of his back, she led him through the rooms faster than he had meandered through them on his own.
“What the hell’s going on?” he asked her. “We’ve been looking for you all night and you’re having a goddam party?”
“Hey, you promised to wait for me, now,” she said to a group of people who turned to her all at once.
“Oh, I won’t tell it without you,” a man said, and someone laughed.
She turned back with a smile that quickly disappeared.
“Hey,” he said. “Are you listening to me?”
“Can you please wait?” she asked, without looking at him.
“Where are we going?”
She returned him to the foyer. She finished what was left in her glass and placed it on the floor.
“Should you be drinking?”
“It’s cranberry juice,” she said. Then she opened the door and they stepped out into the hallway. She waited for the door to close behind her. “Who invited you to this party?” she asked.
“Who invited me?” he said. “No one invited me. We had dinner plans tonight, the four of us, and you stood us up.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We did not have dinner plans.”
“I’m afraid, yes, we did,” he said. “We made a huge spread for you guys and bought some very expensive meat and then I come here and find out you’re having a big party.”
“Now, why would we throw a big party if we had plans with you?”
“Why wouldn’t we get an invitation if you were throwing a big party?” he asked.
She didn’t have an answer. People considered her pretty, but she had puffy cheeks and a pouty mouth that had annoyed him from the beginning, almost against his will. He had wanted to like her at first, but her kind of mouth he associated with spoiled brats and her voice didn’t help, nor the words she spoke. He felt sorry for that baby.
“Can’t answer that, can you?” he said.
“Let me ask you something,” she said. Her mouth, trembling a little, had never looked more punitive or ugly. “Why do you pretend to like us? Why do you invite us to dinner parties when everyone knows you don’t like us, that you’ve been full of contempt for us from the very beginning?”
He was surprised by the forwardness of the question. He was tempted to argue the point. How could she know for certain that he didn’t like them?
Instead, he said, “For Amy.” She was silent. “Well, you asked,” he said.
“This party is by invitation only,” she said, “and we specifically did not invite you.”
“So you don’t invite me or Amy, your oldest friend Amy, but you invite my friend Ben?”
“We met Ben at one of your dinner parties.”
“I know how you met him.”
“And he and Lauren have since become friends.”
“Who was that woman?” he asked.
“The woman standing in front of me when I was talking to Ben.”
“I must not be making myself very clear,” she said.
“O.K., forget it,” he said, “forget it. You don’t want me here. That’s fine. But I came because Amy was worried about you when you didn’t show up for dinner. So what am I supposed to say to her when I go home knowing that you couldn’t come to our dinner party because you have a big party going on yourself, and that you specifically didn’t invite her?”
She stared at him. Her arms were folded and her head was a little cocked, as if they were having a lovers’ quarrel, but her face was suddenly calm and expressionless.
“You want to know what I think of you?” she asked.
He was having a hard time reading her face. It was now so blank and flat and calm. He had no idea what she was thinking. It was as if she were a different person.
“I think Amy made a terrible mistake marrying you,” she said. “I tried to tell her that, but I couldn’t do it the way I should have. Amy and I have nothing, absolutely nothing in common anymore, and I’m sorry but I blame you for that, because it’s so awful to have to see you and talk about you, and to think that she’s going to be alone with you for the rest of her life just breaks my heart.”
He began to walk away. He stopped and turned back. “You’re barbarians,” he said. “You and Scott both.” He resumed walking.
“Don’t come here again,” she cried after him. “Don’t call, either. Not tonight, and not tomorrow.”
“I can’t wait to go home and tell Amy. She’s going to love this.”
“I wish I could say I cared,” she said.
He took a taxi home. In the back seat, he replayed the conversation again and again with such intensity that he began to shake his head and grit his teeth. He couldn’t believe the things she had said to him. They were outrageous, offensive, and final. He hardly saw anything out the car window, but he could vividly picture her mouth and then the blank expression that had preceded her outburst, which worked him up even more.
When he stepped out of the cab, his anger had lessened through too much concentration on it. He wanted it to take hold of him again with its strangling grip, so he thought of the kitchen: every dish in the sink, the meat aging ruinously on the butcher block. He couldn’t wait to see it again.
He walked through the front door and called out to her. He went through the apartment to the bedroom. The bed was unmade in that corner where she had lain flipping through her magazine, and the magazine itself was on the duvet. He looked in the bathroom before leaving the bedroom and walking back through the apartment, this time turning on all the overhead lights. On his way to the kitchen, he stopped at the closet and took an accounting of the coats, then he hurried on to the kitchen, where everything was as it had been a few hours earlier. He was that future self he had many times foretold but always dismissed as an impossibility. It was dizzying. He had to steady himself on the counter. He wanted nothing more than to tell her everything about the evening now. What cruel fun. What meagre compensation. Her wedding ring and the one with the diamond remained on the counter, where she had left them before she started cooking.
When he returned to the bedroom he found her on the far side of the bed with her back to him. His relief was immense. He crossed the room and saw in the light coming in through the blinds that her eyes were open. She didn’t look at him, though she must have known he was there. He leaned against the wall. She continued to blink in a distant and lonely way.
“They were home,” he said. He let that sink in. “They were home that whole time.”
She closed her eyes. He prepared what he was going to say next. He wanted to go back now and start at the beginning, at the first sounds of the party he had picked up on in the hallway. With an economical and unsentimental gesture, she wiped a tear away before resettling her hand on her leg. He wasn’t expecting her to cry.
He thought about how worried she had been. He thought about how much pride she took in her cooking and how much effort she had made for them.
He lay down beside her on the bed. “They were sleeping,” he said. “I had to buzz them so many times just to wake them up. And she was so sorry. She said to me so many times how sorry she was.”
She got out of bed and went into the other room. He was holding her one minute and the next he felt the enormity of the empty bed. He called out to her. She didn’t respond. He called out to her a second time. He thought about getting up and going to her, but that was usually no longer helpful. He heard her rummaging through the closet. When she came back in, she switched on the overhead light just as he happened to be staring at it. His eyes burned and he turned away. The next thing he knew, she had placed a roller bag on the bed and was unzipping it.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was a totally predictable thing to do, to pack a bag, and yet completely outrageous. It was both dramatic and futile. Where did she plan to go?
“You’re being ridiculous,” he said. “Please stop. What does this have to do with me?”
She slowed down. She moved a few more things into the bag and then, with a gesture that was full of rage and yet halfhearted, she threw in a pair of socks. She seemed to recognize that what she was doing was preposterous, though nothing else appropriate or imaginable had come to her. She stood still in front of the bag. He got off the bed and took her in his arms.
“She just forgot,” he said. “That’s all. You know her.”
She began to sob. She heaved into his shoulder as he held her. Hot tears came through his shirt.
“Why do I have this life?” she asked.
Her arms dropped to her side and she went limp. She cried as if he were not holding her, as if he were not in the room with her, as if he were not in the world at all.