Ben met Kate at a rich girl’s party. He didn’t know the rich girl personally; it was one of those parties where no one knew the hostess. He’d come with the rich girl’s cousin’s co-worker, whom he instantly lost in the crowd. It had started out as a dinner party, but the invitations proliferated, spreading epidemically through friends of friends until it turned into a hundred people. So the rich girl opened up both floors, made punch instead of risotto, and ordered a thousand dumplings from a Chinese restaurant. It was August and you had to let things happen the way they wanted to happen. Everyone was in their twenties then, anyway, so that was how they thought.
It turned out to be a mostly francophone party, conversational and quiet; a party with the windows open to the night, a party where people sat talking on the floor. Most of the illumination was from solar-powered tea lights, which the rich girl had hung on the fire escapes all day to charge, then pasted along the walls. That light reflected softly from the heavy glass tumblers into which wine was poured. There wasn’t even music playing. The rich girl said it gave her bad dreams. New York City, so everyone was interning at a Condé Nast publication or a television program or the UN. Everyone a little in love with each other; the year 2000 in the affluent West.
Ben talked to a dozen girls that night. He wasn’t seriously looking for a girlfriend. He was working and doing his PhD then, so there wasn’t time for emotional investment. Still, it was pleasant to flirt with just anyone, to feel the power of being attractive and six feet tall. A night of receptive postures and parted lips; such an easy blessedness, like ascending a staircase into the air.
At 1 a.m. he went down in the elevator to buy cigarettes. Kate was outside on 68th Street with the rich girl’s dog, which had needed to pee. She wore a loose dress that didn’t look like party attire; at first he wasn’t sure she was from the party. Then he recognized the dog, a terrier mutt with a soupçon of dachshund, elongated and shaggy. Cute. Ben stopped to pat the dog.
He went and bought his cigarettes. When he came back, Kate was still there. He paused to smoke. They talked desultorily for five minutes, then something shifted. The traffic fell quiet. They were smiling at each other and not saying anything. Already it felt strange.
Kate said, ‘What’s your name?’
‘Pedro,’ Ben said.
She laughed. ‘No, I already asked you, didn’t I? You said you were something else.’
‘No.’ He was smiling foolishly. ‘I don’t think you asked me.’
‘I did, but I don’t remember what you said.’ She nodded at the dog. ‘I’ve forgotten her name too. So if we left town now and went someplace where nobody knows us, you two wouldn’t have names.’
‘I could be Pedro.’
‘No, I know you aren’t Pedro.’
‘I could be Rumpelstiltskin.’
He laughed, but she didn’t. She just stood there, smiling her liking at him. He finished his cigarette. Then he should have gone back to the party, but he couldn’t. It was strange.
And they talked for a while about taking the dog and running off to a town in South America, about the boat they would live on and the smugglers they would meet and the sunsets over the turquoise sea, where blue crabs would scuttle over the beach, and it felt as if they were even younger than they were, as if they didn’t yet have jobs.
Kate was Hungarian-Turkish-Persian: three romantic, impractical strains, three peoples who had thrown away their empires. Her ancestors wore jewels in their beards; they galloped on horses, waving swords. With them, it was opium dens or Stalinism, no middle ground; so Kate said, laughing at herself. She was talking obliquely about herself.
Ben was half Bengali, half Jewish. That could be interesting, but it was sedate. He came from a line of rabbis, shopkeepers, lawyers; there was a feeling that he might be uncool by comparison, a feeling Ben had to consciously suppress. He said, ‘My family didn’t wave swords, but I’m always willing to try.’
Both Ben and Kate were tawny, black-eyed and aquiline; they looked like members of the same indeterminate race. They commented on this likeness, using self-deprecating terms like ‘beige’ and ‘beaky’, and became so happy at this – at nothing – that they started to walk the dog downtown. The dog was beige, too, Ben pointed out, and they paused and crouched to compare their arms to the dog’s coat; that was how they first touched. The dog was licking their hands and confusing the issue. Still there was a definite spark.
Walking back toward the apartment, they traded the information that goes in dating profiles, with the feeling of belatedly completing the paperwork for something they’d already done under the table. Then up in the elevator, where they were alone, and in which he suffered and wanted to kiss her. She smiled forward at the doors, unkissable, glowing with the idea of sex. They came out, and she unleashed the dog and slung the leash onto a branch of the coatrack. Without discussion, they headed to the balcony.
There was someone already there, the rich girl’s house guest, an older New Zealander whom Kate knew and who would later figure prominently in their lives. Ben didn’t think much about him then. All he meant was that Ben wasn’t alone with Kate. The New Zealander talked about a garden he was working on; he was a garden designer, in New York to create a rich person’s garden. Ben listened to his accent and mainly considered him a useful pause, a device that would ease them more gently to the next stage.
So it was the windy balcony, the lights of New York a nether starscape. The actual stars were dull and few. From this perspective, the city was brighter and more complex than the cosmos; the cosmos in fact seemed rote, like a framed print hung on a wall solely because the wall would look wrong without pictures. There have to be pictures and there has to be a cosmos, even if no one looks at them. And Ben looked at Kate surreptitiously, wishing he could tell her this, convinced that she would understand.
She had a long nose and long black humorous eyes, a full, red-lipsticked mouth. Persian, his mind said besottedly, Persian. In heels, she was as tall as he was. Full and rounded, like a cat with a lot of fur. She stood uncannily straight, as if she’d never ever slouched, never hunched over work. She didn’t even lean on the balcony’s railing but stood with her arms loose at her sides. Weightless. A queenly bearing. Persian.
Outside, she’d told him she was an artist – ‘works on paper’ – who’d given up on her BFA at Pratt. She had suddenly not seen the point. ‘If it were something like geology, maybe,’ she’d said (because he’d told her he had a degree in geology, although he was also a poet – published, he had hastily added. She’d volunteered, in a helpful tone: ‘Well, I read poetry.’ He’d said, ‘Really?’ She’d said, ‘I’m on Apollinaire right now,’ and quoted some Apollinaire in French, as if that were a normal ability for a failed art student. She’d added, ‘My French is awful, sorry,’ and he’d said stupidly, ‘Me neither,’ because he was powerfully distracted; he was suddenly thinking in terms of love. Then she’d said, ‘We should get back to the party,’ and the world turned cold. How had he got to that point so quickly?).
Now the windy balcony, the obsolete stars, the city a mystery of glittering towers. Kate and the New Zealander were talking about the Great Man theory of history, according to which human progress was driven by superlative people like Socrates or Muhammad, who single-handedly changed the world. Kate defended this idea, while the New Zealander pooh-poohed it and refused to believe she was serious. He said, ‘How could anyone be that much better? We all have such similar biologies.’
‘They wouldn’t have to be that much better,’ said Kate. ‘It would be all the circumstances lining up, like with any unusual event, like a supervolcano or a major earthquake.’ She looked at Ben.
Ben said, ‘Major earthquakes aren’t that unusual.’
‘Ben’s a geologist,’ Kate told the New Zealander.
‘But is he a great geologist?’ the New Zealander said.
Kate laughed. Ben laughed, too, although he also wondered if this was a slight that might diminish him in Kate’s eyes. The New Zealander said he was going to get another drink and left. Ben’s heart was suddenly racing. Scraps from the Apollinaire she’d quoted surfaced in his mind: mon beau membre asinin . . . le sacré bordel entre tes cuisses (my stupid beautiful dick . . . the sacred bordello between your thighs). When she’d said it, it had certainly seemed like flirting. But it might have just been the only Apollinaire she could call to mind.
Now Kate smiled at him vaguely and looked back at the French doors. Her face caught the light and her smooth cheek shone. Some new intention appeared in her eyes – a bad moment, where he thought she was about to ditch him. But she turned to him again, smiling wonderfully, and said, ‘I’ve got the key to the roof deck. I’m sleeping on the roof, if that sounds like something you might want to do.’
He was nodding, breathless, while she explained that Sabine (the rich girl) was her good friend. Kate often slept on the roof. She had an inflatable bed up there. ‘It blows up with a mechanism,’ Kate said, making a mechanism gesture in the air.
He laughed, he was lightheaded. He made the mechanism gesture back, and Kate took him by the sleeve, just like that, and led him back to the party. She said, ‘I’d better ask Sabine, but she’ll say yes.’