On a scorching Sunday in late August, Fern and Liv lay out in the sun at Liv’s parents’ country club. At twenty-seven, they were old to be coming in from the city for the weekend, swimming in the pool and eating chicken salad lunches on the patio, signing the bill to Liv’s fat father’s account.
But last night was weird – broken rubbers, lukewarm digestifs – and to stay in Manhattan after that kind of night, during a heat wave, would have been too much.
They chose two lounge chairs next to the pool. Little girls splashed and squealed and twiggy boys walked underwater, their palms periscoping like shark fins. Even the children with very long hair didn’t need swimming caps at the club. Caps were for the town pool, where the members shed and had split ends.
Club employees in cream polos and khaki shorts jotted drink orders and then took forty minutes to retrieve Diet Cokes with sturdy lemon wedges. The girls looked at their feet, and past their feet to the annoying kids in the water. They looked up and felt the sun on their necks. The suburban sky was a Windex blue, whereas in Manhattan the blue was washed-out, blue like you had just slept with some guy in the same small room in which your best friend had slept with some other guy.
Fern and Liv were always trying to decide who was prettier, hotter, who could bypass the line to get into Le Bain, who looked more elegant drinking cortados at a cafe with crossed legs. The answer flickered, depending on whether they were assessing themselves from far away or up close, and what each was wearing, how her hair looked, how much rest she’d gotten and, of course, who had recently been hit on hardest by tall guys with MBAs.
The facts. Fern was skinnier than Liv, but Liv was blonde and tall and her breasts were enormous and thrillingly spaced. Liv could have been called chubby in certain circumstances, in jeans or leggings for example, or at power yoga. Fern’s face could look misshapen, in weird lighting, with no makeup. Liv had a better chance of being called beautiful, especially by black guys and Danes. Fern was more often sexy, mysterious. Small, Jewish men liked her. Also, men from any of the Latin countries, and Italians from Jersey or Delaware. Cleft-lipped financiers and Bushwick bloggers. Irish guys went for both girls. Bartenders liked neither.
Fern was reading The Executioner’s Song; she welcomed the way the heavy book felt against the tops of her thighs. She wanted to be ground down. Liv had one of her graphic novels; she was the funny one, the one who stayed at the bar the latest with the people who were either waiting around to hook up, or the alcoholics who never thought it was time to go home. Liv was more the latter. She didn’t want to hook up as much as she wanted to be out. She made others feel lame for going home before two in the morning.
Fern was thinking about her empty childhood house. Though it was less than three miles away, her family hadn’t belonged to this club. They’d summered at the township pool. They would spread their brown-horse towel and the light-yellow irregular Nautica towel on the hot cement; her parents smoked while she swam. First her father, and then her mother, drew cancer from the wheel of how you will die. Fern imagined this wheel was in a shitty part of London, spun by a man with brown teeth and coke fingernails. Her mother was incinerated just a few months ago.
Now the family home was for sale, plus all of its contents: the Capodimonte statuettes of old Italian men playing bocce, eating speck, licking their dark fingers; the Encyclopedia Britannica; her father’s marble pen holder; the aluminum bowls belonging to Puppy, who lived for four years before getting hit by an Escalade on South Orange Avenue.
Not for sale: the yellowed stacks of TV Guides Fern’s mother collected, especially the Fall Previews; and a bowl of handmade Venetian candies called lacrime d’amore. Tears of love. They were little pellets about twice the size of a peppercorn, fine pastel shells filled with a drop of rosolio, an Italian liqueur made from rose petals. They evaporated in your mouth like racy air. When they’d arrived in the mail, all the way from Marghera, Fern’s mother cast her leather neck back and cried with joy. Some cousin recently told Fern you could find them out near Newark now, an Italian importer. But by then Fern’s mom had already turned gray. It’s the lack of oxygen, a hipster resident at St Barnabas Medical said with confidence. See how our faces are pink? That’s oxygenated blood. Your mother’s is quickly dwindling. It’s like her blood can’t breathe.
As though reading aloud from her graphic novel, Liv hummed.
‘Uh, uh, uh, uh, oh, oh, ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod, OHMYFUCKINGGOD!’
Fern laughed. She kicked Liv’s considerable calf with her little foot.
‘Your sex noises,’ Liv continued, not joining in the laughter, ‘are ultra-soft-core. HBO circa 1996.’
‘Ew. Fuck you.’
‘They’re like. Husband-pleasing.’
‘Dude your kissing noises are pretty homo. Ooom-wah, ooom-wah. It sounded like an annoying washing machine.’
‘What does that even mean?’
‘In fucking Sears.’
‘Can you pass me the Pirate’s Booty?’
Fern tossed Liv the bag of butter-colored food product that Liv’s mom kept in their pantry of bright, fat-people items. Fern, who had no parents, loved the pantry. She loved Liv’s mom.
‘Liv, Liv,’ Fern said with a Latin accent. ‘You are so glamorous, Liv, when you eat the Booty.’
Fern knew that whenever Liv was upset, it was best to poke fun harmlessly and, in doing so, incidentally worship her.
Now Liv laughed. ‘How about those Argentineans?’ she said.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Fern. ‘My thighs are still quivering.’
Last night had begun at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Round one of the Men’s US Open. Liv’s father worked in marketing for Mercedes, a platinum sponsor, and had got the girls two good seats to one of the matches. A Swede who was hot versus a Brit who was not. It was luminous and Waspy in the stadium. Ruddy women in hats and men in crisp Bonobos. Cologne, lemon dresses, the occasional Chinatown fan. Some Staten Island dads with clapping hats. The place was mostly packed, but for two empty seats beside the girls. They drank light beers from plastic cups and raised their tanned arms in the air whenever the Swede got a point.
‘Fifteen Love,’ they would preempt the announcer.
Fern wore a red skater dress with a pair of navy espadrille wedges. Liv wore a floral romper and leather flats and made fun of Fern for wearing heels.
‘They’re not heels, they’re wedges.’
‘You’re just jealous because I’m not an Amazon and I can wear heels without freaking people out.’
‘Hey, Fur, why don’t you go hook yourself in the boxes? Lots of Deutsche douches looking for a GFE.’
‘Yum, prime rib under carving lights. Fuck. Should we crash a box?’
‘I don’t know. I keep looking at these two empty seats, imagining the loves of our lives coming in and sitting down.’
Fern rolled her eyes; she used to feel the same, but now she was a person who didn’t care who sat down beside her. The courthouse, the subway. Maybe if she took the Effexor that she’d been prescribed, she would give a flying fuck.
Two men were suddenly standing above them. The girls looked up, shielding their eyes from the sun. The men were dads, golfers, bald, buzzed.
‘These seats taken?’ said the one wearing a Masters polo from the previous year.
‘I don’t understand,’ Fern said. ‘Are they yours?’
‘No,’ said the other, holding curly fries.
‘Then yes,’ Fern said, ‘they’re taken by the people who paid for them.’
But she did the full body version of batting her eyelashes. The only thing that had lately survived in Fern was a desire to make men want to fuck her. All men. Every single man she saw. Hot dog vendors. UPS drivers across the street. Liv called her a slut. It made Liv angry. A lot of things about Fern made Liv angry. But then, Liv did nice things. She spoke to Fern in Fern’s mother’s Italian accent, for example.
The guy with the curly fries looked past Fern to Liv.
‘Hello, excuse me, are you one of the players?’ Liv did look like one of the Slavic stars with her white teeth and voracious forearms.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But I’m like ninth seed, so.’
‘Oh, wow! What is it like, at a women’s match? Are there a lot less spectators?’
‘Yeah, about 95 per cent less.’
‘That many, wow.’
‘Yeah. But this year we’re giving out Thinx. That’s the period underwear. So we’re hopeful.’
The guy in the polo brought out a newly purchased visor and a black Sharpie and Liv signed the name Paulina Pornikova to the lid.
The girls watched some more tennis, yawned, texted, and got up to get another pair of beers, and a jumbo soft pretzel to share.
When they returned, two nice-looking young men were sitting in the spare seats beside them.
‘Are you fucking kidding me right now?’ Liv whispered to Fern.
The boys seemed as pleased as the girls. The dark-haired one was Sebastián and the blond was Axel. They were Argentinean derivatives traders, working in Latin American markets in the city. Sebastián, whose father was an ambassador, wore a Rolex, while Axel was more sporty, with goofy teeth and horny blue eyes. They were both well-dressed and vaguely soulless.
They watched the rest of the match together. At some point it seemed both young men wanted Liv, and at another point it seemed they both wanted Fern. Sebastián told them to call him Seb. He was quiet while Axel was hyper. In many ways their relationship to one another mirrored Fern and Liv’s. When the match was over they all rode the 7 train back into the city.
‘Let’s get off here,’ Sebastián said, as they neared Gramercy. ‘We will have a drink at Pete’s Tavern.’
They were slightly warmer than American boys, and they paid for all the cocktails without question. Fern knew, for as little or as long as she lived, that she would never fall in love; she thought it was so childish that Liv believed in fairy-tale romance like an idiot. That was why she liked Seb better. He was the colder of the two boys, and he seemed like he could take the girls or leave them, while Axel seemed bent on getting laid.
‘It’s getting late,’ Seb said, around eleven. ‘I have a squash game in the morning.’
‘You are right,’ Axel said. ‘Let’s go up to your place for a nightcap.’
‘Are you sleeping over?’
‘Yes, brother,’ Axel said. ‘Come on girls, you can see what a bomb site my friend lives in.’
Seb’s place was right across the street from the bar. The girls were shocked to see it was a studio. Granted, it was a doorman building in a prime location, but the idea of an ambassador’s son living in a studio with all his dry cleaning hanging from the rusty rod of his shower dulled the thrill of the hunt.
Seb brought out four mismatched glasses and poured Fernet Branca.
‘Ok,’ he said, it is time for me to collect on my win.’ Earlier, at the game, they’d bet on the point spread of the game, and the stakes had been that the winner could make a rule, any rule he wanted.
‘Do you know what you want?’ Liv said, rubbing her pink lips around the rim of her glass.
‘I think I do,’ Seb said. He walked into the bedroom section of his studio and came back with a paisley tie. He proposed blindfolding Axel and suggested that both girls should kiss him, and Axel would try to figure out which was which, and who was better. Seb would go after.
Fern went second, both times. She used a different technique with each boy. With Seb she didn’t even touch his body; she just matched her lips to his and kissed lightly and seductively. With Axel, she moved one hand along his waist and brought her other around his neck. Then she sucked on his tongue like a porn star.
Liv kissed both boys the way Liv kissed. Fern knew something about that because she’d once woken in the middle of the night with Liv’s mouth on hers. Liv had been holding Fern’s hands, like teenagers on a park bench. Liv took a lot of Adderall which acted like cocaine at high dosages, so she would pass out hard and then do weird shit in her sleep. In the morning Liv, bleary-eyed, said, Yo man did you try to make out with me last night? Anyway, Fern knew Liv’s kiss style was true love.
Axel was more diplomatic but basically both boys said the second girl was the better kisser.
Liv, of course, was pissed. Fern excelled at most things. It was because Fern wanted to win. It was all she had.
They talked and laughed some more and drank as though the kissing never happened. But the smell of blood was in the air, a slutty rivalry radiating between the girls. Fern assumed it was for Seb, since that was the Argentinean she wanted. When Liv got up to go to the bathroom, Fern turned her face to his and flashed a spiritual fuck-me gaze.
Eventually it ended up with Fern and Seb in Seb’s bed, and Liv and Axel on the banana-leaf futon by the door. There was rustling and then there was nothing and then there was the sound of heavy sliding, like repo men in the middle of the night.
‘Fur, are you doing it?’ Liv asked from across the room.
Fern giggled. Seb said, Shhh, and they fucked dementedly. She felt more at peace with this boy she barely knew than with Liv, who always needed to know what she was doing, and how she was feeling.
The country club pool looked like a giant Blue Hawaiian. That was the cocktail, Fern knew, that caused Liv to fail her bartender exam. It was made with curaçao, rum, pineapple juice and cream of coconut. Instead of cream of coconut, Liv used sour mix. But that was a Blue Hawaii. Fern would never had made that mistake. She was a more precise person.
‘I can’t believe you had sex,’ Liv said.
‘What the fuck do you mean? I thought you were doing it, too. What does it matter?’
‘It just does. It’s just weird. Like, I’m right there. I thought we were just making out with them.’
‘I don’t get why it matters.’
‘I just think it’s kind of, I don’t know, low-class.’
That was the shit Fern couldn’t abide. Liv calling her low-class? Liv regularly got wasted and smeared her lipstick, making coral bridges to her nose, and she embarrassed herself with superiors and told doormen they were handsome young men. Did she want Seb? Who knew? All Fern knew was that she had always been scared of disease, and now she wasn’t. She didn’t care that the Durex broke last night and the ambassador’s son fell asleep inside of her, dribbling. Contracting HIV would be a godsend.
Her therapist said she was clinically depressed, making it sound like the flu. His name was Sanford; he was wet granola, from Bend, Oregon, with sandy hair and long sideburns. He wore knit ties on top of flannel shirts, like an executive who lived in a tree. My parents died, Fern screamed at him, the third session. Both of them, and we were close. And there is literally nothing left. I’m not depressed. I’m just done. You don’t seem to get it, fucking no one does.
And Sanford replied, soulfully, I, too, have lost many people. And proceeded to tell her, for twenty-one minutes on her dime, that he had a meth addict father who left when he was five and a mom that drank tons of boxed white wine and laughed very loudly when any kind of man was around. She smoked Winstons and went out a fair amount, so young Sanford ate a lot of Kraft Cheese and macaroni; she would make a family-size package on Sunday, which was the only night she was definitely home, and Sanford would eat it congealed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, cool and pale orange and flavorless. Towards the weekends it was frozen dinners. Salisbury steak and Creamed Chipped Beef. The latter was his favorite, but he burned himself once opening the steaming plastic and thereafter it was just another thing he loved but was afraid to get close to.
That’s not the same thing, Fern had said quietly. To which Sanford countered, How are your bowel movements? She fucking hated it when he asked about bowel movements. Once, he gave her a jar of Friendly Fiber. Yoga and fiber were the keys to a healthy soul.
To Liv she said, ‘Fine, I’m low-class, whatever man.’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I just think. You’re like. Acting out.’
‘I need to pee.’
Liv nudged her chin in the direction of the water and winked.
At half past noon the girls pulled on their cover-ups – a turquoise and magenta Roberta Roller Rabbit tunic for Liv, a black velour onesie for Fern – and were seated at the patio for a poolside lunch.
Liv always ordered stupid things. Veal tonnato or duck confit over frisée. This day she had the sourdough rabbit sandwich. It smelled like earth and vitamins. Fern ordered the lemon Caesar salad with shards of Parmesan and shimmering anchovy filets.
A conga line of suntanned, blonde women with tight, tight faces approached their table in succession. Liv’s mom’s friends. They wanted to talk about what their daughters were doing versus what Liv was doing. Liv was doing stand-up and Upright Citizens Brigade. She had a day job as the executive assistant to the guy who founded Beardz, the app linking gay men with the girls who wanted to go to Barneys and eat lunch with them.
One of the women, Sheila, lingered for nearly five minutes. She had red hair and old-lady freckles and her neck looked two decades older than her face. Her daughter, Jess, had married an ‘entrepreneur’ and they lived all the way out in Vail. Jess was seven months pregnant, but still hiking. ‘Your mom is so lucky,’ Sheila said, after confirming Liv was single, ‘to have you close to home.’ Fern marveled at how many dead people were still alive.
While Sheila droned, Fern looked through her phone. No messages, nothing from Seb, or any of the other men she had lately provided with off-the-cuff orgasms. She was still getting used to not having to call her mother in the morning.
When Sheila walked away, Liv hissed, ‘You can’t have your phone out at the club!’
Fern placed her phone down and stared at her.
‘My dad could get written up.’
‘What a stupid rule.’
‘You don’t have to be here.’
‘Fine,’ Fern said, pushing out her rattan chair, scraping the slate floor.
‘I’m sorry,’ Liv said. ‘I think I’m getting my period. Can you sit down?’
‘Is this about last night?’
‘Did you like the other one?’
‘No. I didn’t like either of them, I don’t care okay. Look can you just please try my fucking rabbit sandwich? You’ll love it.’ Pause, smile. ‘It’s what the courtesans used to eat.’
Fern smiled, too. ‘I can’t.’ Fern was worried about gaining weight. She was thin like a snake, and it meant a lot to her. It felt like she took up less room and so when she went, it would be like a thread of angel hair slipping through the hole of a colander.
‘Just try it,’ Liv said, holding out a taupe forkful, ‘you can puke it up after.’
Fern ate it; Liv watched her with a big smile. And Fern remembered how it used to be, in the honeymoon of their friendship, after Fern’s father died but before her mother was diagnosed. They’d attended nearby high schools but hadn’t met until a Thanksgiving Eve party hosted by a mutual friend. They clicked that night, Fern liked how Liv was pounding shots while knitting a blanket. They quickly became close, texting constantly throughout the workday and going out at night, leaving notes for bearded maître d’s, sharing tea cakes with Japanese businessmen.
Liv suggested a trip to Capri that summer, where the girls wore linen sundresses and white bikinis and paid thirty euros for muslin sacks and laid out on the black rocks over the Tyrrhenian, shoulder to shoulder. Fern showed Liv the restaurant under the lemon grove where her parents had their first date. Liv insisted on ordering the same dishes they did. The crust on the white pizza gave like the flesh of a child’s arm. Liv had never seen fried zucchini flowers. They drank limoncello from cordial glasses and squeezed the sweet-smelling lemons on everything, their fish, their wrists, and a waiter made them garlands of bougainvillea and thyme to wear around their heads.
But their love was cemented the following spring, after the second funeral, when Fern texted Liv, come get me? And Liv showed up within the hour, in her father’s cherry red Aston Martin convertible, blasting LCD Soundsystem, and they drove out to the Colorado Cafe where they drank everything they could think of and rode the mechanical bull and pulsed onstage with the Kenny Rogers cover band and wound up in some New Jersey cowboy’s apartment, taking turns puking in the bathroom while the cowboy tried to finger whoever was waiting her turn on the couch.
In the morning, when they drove home and Fern said at least nobody was worried about her, Liv brought her back to her house, where Liv’s mom raged at them both.
So Fern knew it was important to let Liv know the plan.
‘Did I ever tell you how I was obsessed with Jeremy Mullen when I was twelve, you know, from that stupid movie at the aquarium?’
‘The child actor who hung himself.’
‘When I found out he killed himself, I was like fuck. I thought, if only he knew how I loved him. I would have taken care of him. You know? I would have done his laundry or told the maid what was dry-clean only.’
‘Yeah,’ said Liv, sounding exhausted.
‘Now I’m like, fuck no. Whatever ridiculous child actor nonsense. I would have just stolen his pills.’
‘Probably he had a small dick. That’s why he killed himself.’
‘My point is, it doesn’t matter. He killed himself because it was time. Every night is the same, going to clubs, whatever, it doesn’t fix anything.’
‘I think if we were celebrities going to the Chateau every night, we’d make it work, you and me. Anyway I totally disagree with you. I think people can be saved by people who love them. You just have to be dedicated. You have to like, be there, every day.’
‘I couldn’t save my mom.’
‘Your parents died of fucking cancer, man.’
‘My mom’s was basically suicide. Suicide by cancer.’
Liv snorted. But covered Fern’s hand with her own. Liv’s nails were bitten but she had pretty, feminine fingers. Fern’s hands were small, boyish. They looked silly giving hand jobs.
‘What did your mom call your dad again?’ Liv said.
Liv was obsessed with Fern’s dead parents. Because the girls had only become very close in the last several years, Liv hadn’t known Fern’s parents very well, but she’d made it a mission to understand who they were, how they would answer a certain question. She often made Fern tell her the romantic story of how they met in the Conad, next to the piadina display. And in general would say things like, I bet your mom would tell you that you look like a slut right now.
‘Pip,’ Fern said, removing her hand from under Liv’s.
Liv smiled and nodded. ‘Pip,’ she repeated. Then she sat up straight in her chair. ‘Oh my god, see that guy?’
‘Hot dad, twelve o’clock, curly salt-and-pepper hair. And the wife, that polar blonde, and their two little girls, oh my god I’m obsessed. Look at those curly ringlets! They are the perfect family. He’s the CFO of the USGA. They live on Flat Pond Road, that sick house with the fucking turrets.’
‘That’s what I want. He’s in the city all week, killing it, she’s lounging at the pool with her kids, he comes home on the weekend, they have hot sex and then whatever, she goes to the movies, makes cashew milk. That could be you and me. With powerful husbands, I mean.’
‘Dude he probably cheats on her all week.’ Where Liv liked to imagine perfect marriages because they made her feel she would someday have one, too, Fern liked to expose the rot at the bottom of the bowl of organic vegetables. She looked at the man, tall and patrician in Vilebrequin shorts and fine leather sandals. The wife, with a former model look, in a white linen shirt over a black bikini.
‘No way,’ Liv said. ‘Look at her.’
‘She looks like a cleaner, less-bloated version of you. Who cares? All women get cheated on.’
‘You’re full of poisonous energy. I’m gonna need to do a juice cleanse when I get home.’
‘Yeah vodka’s a great base for a cleanse. Listen. Do you want to come back to my house with me? I have to pick up the surrogate certificate for the lawyer.’ Fern didn’t like showing up to the house alone unless she was blasted. And she knew Liv never wanted the day to end.
‘Of course. Let’s just say hi.’
Liv introduced Fern to the man. His name was Chip. He didn’t look like a Chip. He looked like a Luther. His lips were fleshy and his skin was moist. The wife looked bored but she asked after Liv’s mom. Chip said he wanted to play with Liv’s dad in the Labor Day scramble. But the whole time Chip was looking at Fern and Fern was looking back. Even when another tan man in tennis whites walked past and clapped Chip on the shoulder, saying, Drink later? Chip nodded, said, Always, but kept his shark eyes on Fern.
Fern’s house was a museum of mid-century nothing special. Things that were semi-expensive but mismatched, and dowry items from Fiesole. Persian rugs and parquet floors. Silver tea sets on baroque tables. Her parents had kept two entire rooms in the house unused. The couches had just barely escaped those giant plastic condoms. Like her mother before her, Fern never opened the windows or drew the shades. Skeins of sunlight slithered through moth holes in the curtains, and died inside the cracks of the parquet.
Liv was reverential in the house, gliding around like Fern’s parents were merely asleep.
Fern couldn’t wait to get rid of everything, all the knickknacks. She was going to sell the junk at one of those estate sales usually reserved for the dusty passing of grandparents. A lady named Tabitha would come and man a cash register. Women with skeletal noses would haggle over the price of costume jewelry and oven mitts.
‘Your mom had such regal taste,’ Liv said, her hand resting on a yellow silk scarf with a fringe of tinkling gold leaves.
‘You want that? You can have it.’
‘No, don’t be silly.’
‘Seriously, take it. Or somebody’s grandmother will be wearing it to chemo next week.’
‘Okay, thanks.’ Liv wrapped it around her neck. She disappeared upstairs, where she spritzed herself with Fern’s mom’s L’Air du Temps and returned with her nose scrunched up.
‘It smells kinda bad in the upstairs bathroom.’
‘Why’d you go in there? I said don’t go in there.’
‘Sorry, I forgot. Are these them?’ Liv’s hand hovered by the bowl of candies on the kitchen table.
‘Wow. They’re pretty cool-looking. Where do you get them?’
‘Some cousin sent those from Italy, but I heard some store in Cranford sells them now. My mom would have been psyched. Or maybe she wouldn’t have been. Nothing made that bitch happy.’
Liv was about to have one. Fern looked at her.
‘Nothing. I was just kind of doing a thing.’
‘What kind of a thing, weirdo?’
‘I don’t know. When they’re all gone, I was thinking of killing myself.’ For the past few months, every time Fern did something gross, she would eat a candy. The bowl had been dwindling slowly but surely.
‘You fucking idiot. That’s retarded.’
‘Pancreatic, metastatic,’ Fern whisper-sang, like a rap.
‘Will you please come to dinner with us. Don’t make me do it alone.’
Liv had dinner plans with her former prom-queen sister in the city that night. They would eat somewhere that served peppery Pinot Noir in ball jars and Liv’s sister would talk about her latest private equity douchebag and tell Liv she might land a boyfriend if she lost fifteen pounds.
‘Nah,’ Fern said.
‘Dude, you can’t stay in your dead mom and dead dad’s house. Come back to the city with me. Or I can stay? I’ll cancel on the hyena.’
‘Ew, you have a suburban dick appointment. A fucking dentist with a wet bar.’
‘No, man. I just want to like, sit in the house, go through stuff before the house sale. I’m fine. Just leave me alone.’ Often, Fern made the pain of her parent’s loss bigger to get out of doing things she didn’t want to do. Other times, she felt it more acutely than it was possible to explain.
‘It’s weird you have no soul, when your parents had all this love for each other, and for you.’ Liv scratched at Fern’s chest like a chipmunk. ‘Where’s your thump thump, Baby Jane?’
Fern pushed her away.
After Liv left and just before sunset, Fern put on her mother’s snake dress. It was a short-sleeved beige shift with a cream-and-gray viper that twisted around the body. She selected the fawn Trussardi bag from her mother’s good bag shelf and slipped in her license and sixty dollars in cash.
She drove her father’s aquamarine Chevy Cavalier to Martini. She played no music. The sky was peach, hot orange and lilac. She passed sated lawns, cobblestone drives, Maremma sheepdogs. Fast walkers with bony butts in a rainbow of lululemon black.
Martini was the town bar and it was full of big-bellied insurance lawyers, divorcees in open-toed boots.
Fern sat down and ordered a Blue Hawaii.
Across the bar she saw the man from the country club. His greasy tendrils of black-and-silver hair looked alive. He wore a shirt with a contrast collar and was surrounded by middle-aged men with shiny lips and no wives.
Fern sipped her drink. She could be mostly normal in the day and then the second it got dark, her skin and scalp would itch and she’d grow dizzy and exhausted. Next, a sting behind her heart, where the pancreas was, and her lungs would feel heavy and soft with water, like her mother’s. (It’s like your mother’s lungs are drowning, the hipster resident had said, that final week.) Hypochondria, Fern’s therapist said a month later, nodding, jotting it down with his Yellowstone Park twig pencil.
She’d gotten her period that afternoon, so at least she wouldn’t be pregnant with the ambassador’s son’s baby. That would suck, being pregnant. Would she get the abortion and then exterminate herself? Or just kill two birds with one bottle of Ambien. Bam.
She’d met a guy here a few years back, just after her dad died and before she met Liv. His name was Teddy. He had a new beagle puppy at home and asked if Fern wanted to meet him. He was one of those rich kids with no focus. A few lame producer credits, several gaudy friends in the fashion world. His fingers became a butterfly inside of her, nice, but otherwise she drove home at four a.m., feeling like garbage. Her mother was waiting in the foyer – smoking, gaunt, medieval. How dare you? she said. How dare you to make me worry?
This night Fern didn’t feel pretty; she’d used up all her pretty the previous night. But it didn’t matter in New Jersey. In New Jersey you just had to be under forty, under 130 pounds, and your hair shoulder-length or longer. Preferably straight and dark. That was really it.
Chip sauntered over. Frank Sinatra was pining from the speakers.
‘You’re Bob Long’s daughter’s friend, we met today.’
‘Is – uh – hmm here?’
‘Liv? No. She went back to the city.’
‘Must be nice to be young and living in the city.’
‘The time of our lives.’
‘You here by yourself?’
‘Can I buy you a drink? You wanna come hang with a couple of old fogeys?’
He sniffed. Clearly he had cocaine.
Fern sniffed, winked. He smiled. He got close and moved a tiny vial into her palms. He pressed it down with the pork of his thumb. ‘When you’re done,’ he said, ‘meet us on the patio for a Cuban.’
In the faux-elegant bathroom, Fern saw the makeup on her face was like a mask. It looked like it could be peeled off to reveal a dead person.
She snorted two lines off the tank of the toilet with a one-dollar bill. She rubbed some on her gums. She wondered if her parents were watching.
The patio was full of white wizard smoke blown from the mouths of the horniest men she had ever seen. Chip was hitting on one of the waitresses who drove in every day from Linden. Fern pretended she hadn’t seen him and began to walk back inside. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and smelled his clean laundry.
‘You almost missed us,’ he said.
She ordered a Glenfiddich on his tab. She asked the waitress for honey and poured some into her glass, saying this is what they did in Scotland.
‘Is that a fact?’ said the fattest man.
‘Yeah. Plus it takes the sting off the liquor, for the baby.’
‘Say what? You’re pregnant?’
‘Yup,’ Fern said, rubbing her belly. ‘I’m drinking for two.’
‘She’s joking,’ said Chip, smiling.
‘She’s funny. Hey, you’re funny.’
‘Beautiful babies,’ said another man. ‘You know that? You’re beautiful babies.’ He was looking from Fern to the waitress and back, as though they knew each other. The waitress had chunky highlights and a pierced eyebrow.
One of the other guys, who looked like he’d had a face lift, bought a whole bottle of Patron. Fern did shots with them. Chip held the lime wedge as she sucked it.
Face Lift said, ‘Snapper these days, drink like men.’
Chip asked her what her father did. Actually, he said, ‘Who’s your father?’ But it was the same question.
‘Nobody,’ Fern said. She thought how her father had never gone to a bar with the guys in all the years she’d known him.
She heard the fattest man say, ‘Daddy issues,’ under his breath. She swayed and Chip caught her. She whispered something into his ear.
‘You wanna go where?’ he said.
She said it again.
He raised his eyebrows and smiled. ‘I know just the place.’
They passed the florist with the mirrored door and she checked her body in the mirror. Her mother’s best dress, her tan legs. They got into Chip’s olive Jaguar. He was drunk, too. Fern was impressed that certain men always knew how to drive, to move through toll booths without scraping the sides, even when they were three martinis deep. At home the Ambien was in the medicine closet with the cancer accoutrements – steroids, laxatives, vibrant head scarves. Fern felt like she was in a sensory deprivation tank. She thought of Liv’s sunny face and wished she was with her now, her warm, solid arms around Fern.
They pulled up to a cement building, seemingly windowless. A pink scripted sign said, Cheeques.
Had she suggested this? She didn’t remember. Probably she did.
Inside a guy wearing a Method Man shirt gave them a spot in the front row. Red velvet banquettes, glass tables, purple lighting. Chip ordered kamikaze shots and scotch and beer.
Most of the dancers were younger than Fern. One dark-skinned girl was absolutely beautiful, she could have been working in Abercrombie and dating someone with a good family.
There weren’t many people in there, so the stripper concentrated on them, specifically on Fern; she whooshed her long mane in Fern’s face. Fern inhaled. Salon Selectives conditioner, she was positive, probably from a dollar store, left over from 1994. It was her mother’s brand. Crème rinse, the old lady called it.
Not to be outdone, Fern stood and did a dance for Chip. She ripped the seams of her mother’s dress, straddling his lap. She licked the outlines of his giant lips with her tongue. The look on his face was not shock, or even happy surprise. It was almost judgmental. She just wanted to feel sexier than the stripper.
He drove her back to her car, parked in the unlit lot outside of Maximilian Furs and the out-of-business toy store. It was past three in suburbia and there was no one on the streets. He turned to look at her, then they were kissing again; his tongue was cold and his mouth tasted like iceberg lettuce. Eventually he got his manicured hands up her mother’s dress. She remembered her tampon, yanked it out, opened the door and tossed it in the street. What they did after that didn’t register. All Fern could think was that she would be eating two candies when she got home.
Last month over Sazeracs at Buvette, Liv said: When I get married I’m going to have to watch my husband around you. You, and your shifty labia. Liv said that because she’d just met Teddy – of the beagle and the butterfly fingers – through her parents, and told Fern about him, and Fern said, Oh, I effed that loser. Liv ended up going on two dates with Teddy. She didn’t like him, but she slept with him. Did you enjoy my sloppy seconds? Fern said. Why are you a dick, Liv said. What does it do for you? Later that night, they really got into it. They’d moved onto a dim Mexican speakeasy on the Lower East Side. Liv was blasted on tequila. The fight erupted at the bar, quiet and nasty, their eyes locked on one another. Fern threw down a fifty-dollar bill – she was flush with cash these days – and walked fast down Ludlow. Liv threw open the door of the place and came after her, plastering Fern’s little body against a parked SUV. She held Fern’s neck against a cool window with her big hands. What are you so proud of? Liv said, nearly spitting in Fern’s face. You’re jealous of me, Fern said, smirking. You’re a cunt, Liv said. A fucking loveless whore. They wrestled in each other’s arms, pushing, pinching skin between gel nails, pulling hair. In the end, Fern had a split lip and in the morning Liv touched her middle finger to her mouth, then inspected her finger for blood, mimicking Fern the night before.
Now Fern drove home from Martini, falling asleep several times at the wheel and waking only when her car slid into the dirt off the shoulder. When she saw the bricks of her dark house, she was shocked she’d made it back alive.
She crept in as though her parents would hear her if she made noise. In the upstairs bathroom she vomited in the sink and not the toilet, because the toilet contained some precious urine – her mother’s final home pee, lime-colored now and smelling like science. She laid in her parent’s bed, a king made out of two twin mattresses. But vomiting had diluted forty percent of the drunk, while the coke was still blooming, and now she couldn’t sleep.
She thought of the bowl of candies, and said out loud, Three. This night deserved three.
Quietly she slunk down the stairs. She passed the antique mirror on the wall, which as a child she thought could reflect the demons in her soul. Now it said $25 or best offer.
It was bizarre, to be in the house without the snores of the dog and the fear of the parents. So weird how a whole house of people could disappear over the course of three Fall Previews.
She wasn’t exactly shocked, but her jaw did kind of drop when she saw the bowl of candies utterly replenished. She imagined Liv, driving out to the importer in Cranford, coming back and letting herself in the screen door at the back, a burglar in a beach cover-up. Filling the bowl, lacrime d’amore tinkling the glass.
Fern admired them. Pale shells, delicate as the eyelids of newborns. Here were hundreds more shitty things she could do to herself. On South Orange Avenue an ambulance awayoed, followed by the silence of the upper-middle dead.
She sat down and started popping the candies in her mouth, one after another. Beautiful babies, she thought, laughing, all of us.
Image © Kate Hopkins