The following is an excerpt from The Heavens by Sandra Newman, a story of love and alternate universes, madness and time travel. A dream bound up in a strange awakening, this is a bewitching novel of what we have lost, and what we might yet be able to save. The Heavens is available now from Granta Books.
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.’
It was breezy and wonderful in the apartment, which had two floors and twelve rooms and belonged to the rich girl’s uncle; it hosted his collection of African drums, and for this reason (somehow this knowledge had filtered through to everyone) the air conditioning was meant to be always on and the windows closed. The drum skins would perish in humidity. Presumably they were from a dry part of Africa or were meant to be reskinned periodically by a caste of craftsmen who had died out, whose descendants had become engineers and postal workers. In any case, the windows were open, the air conditioning was off, and everyone kept looking at the drums, discussing them, aware that this party was subtracting from the drums’ life span. Likewise, Ben now imagined the drums as sacrifices to whatever this was.
They found Sabine, the rich girl, talking to three men, who were all much taller than she was, so she appeared to be standing in a grove of men. They were speaking French and making what Ben thought of as French gesticulations. Sabine was very blond and as heavy as Kate, though on her it was not provocative but pudgy. She didn’t look rich. She looked unhappy and intelligent. When Kate made her request, Sabine frowned, displeased, as if this were only the most recent in a series of Kate’s unreasonable demands, and said, ‘Fine. Do whatever.’
‘It’s not whatever,’ Kate said, but didn’t pursue it. She just smiled at Sabine, at Ben, at the three tall men who smiled back conspiratorially.
‘I don’t want to cause problems,’ Ben said.
At this, Sabine suddenly changed. She grinned and tousled Kate’s hair, saying to Ben, ‘You won’t need to cause problems if you’re sleeping with this one. She’ll take care of that.’
Kate laughed delightedly and looked at Ben as if she were being complimented. The three men were all looking at Kate, looking wistfully at three different parts of Kate’s body. Sabine said, ‘Enjoy,’ and turned back to the men in a peremptory manner, mustering them to their earlier conversation. They took their eyes off Kate reluctantly.
So Ben bore her away like a prize he had won by defeating those three men or – looked at another way – he followed her obediently up the stairs, in her absolute and permanent thrall.
The roof had a deck of solid blond wood, with a plain iron railing around the edge. There was a grill, a picnic table, Adirondack chairs. To Ben’s eye, there were no apparent signs of wealth, though he wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Fountains? There were gardening implements but no garden, only a row of potted plants along the railing – or really several of the same plant, a shaggy blond grass with overtones of purple. The inflatable mattress, a green canvas rectangle with no sheets or blanket, had been set beside these plants. It had already been inflated, and Kate went to it without hesitation and sat, looking back at Ben seriously, as if she were inviting him to something of great moment.
He came and sat. His immediate lust was gone. He was expecting thirty minutes of conversation, anyway, before anything could happen. And in fact, Kate began to talk about the potted grass – it was an endangered species, which was why the roof hadn’t been opened up for the party and possibly why Sabine had chafed at letting Ben on the roof, because the grass was illegal. It had been smuggled in by a friend of the New Zealander, a mining executive, in his corporate jet. You weren’t supposed to take the grass out of its homeland, although in this case it was intended to preserve the grass from becoming extinct, which it soon would be in the part of Argentina where it was native, an area now devastated by mining. The dirt in the pots was Argentine too. It was the sort of thing that happened to Sabine, that she ended up harboring smuggled grasses.
Ben looked dutifully at the grasses, which – he now noticed – were in two different kinds of pots. Some were standard clay pots; some were green celluloid pots that had been molded to imitate the shape of standard clay pots. He pointed this out to Kate, and she immediately frowned and expressed concern for the grasses in the celluloid pots.
‘I don’t think the grass cares,’ Ben said. ‘Grass isn’t that sensitive to aesthetics.’
‘No, it must affect the soil.’
‘It would be such a tiny difference it wouldn’t matter,’ Ben said with the air of a man with a degree in science.
‘Even tiny differences matter. There could be a butterfly effect.’
‘Oh, no, not the butterfly effect,’ said Ben teasingly.
But she insisted that a plant is a complex system, just like weather; there could easily be a butterfly effect. He objected that a plant isn’t very complex; a grass would have thousands of cells, not millions, and most of those cells would be exactly alike. She objected to exactly – they couldn’t be exactly alike. He said, ‘Well, if you’re going to be like that.’ They laughed. Then she reached out suddenly and took his hand, which sent a particular shock through him. He was tamed. He was impressed.
She said, ‘I wasn’t inviting you up here to have sex. I hope you didn’t get the wrong idea.’
‘Oh, no,’ he lied. ‘I didn’t expect anything.’
‘Maybe we could have sex next time, though.’
‘I mean, I’m not rejecting you.’
‘Yes,’ he said, a little hoarse. ‘Don’t reject me.’
‘I won’t,’ she said. ‘I don’t.’
They were silent for a minute. He was wondering what the parameters of no sex were. He was thinking about the butterfly effect in the case of falling for people, the small differences between one girl and another creating a cascade of results that changed your life. He looked at the grasses and decided he shouldn’t tell her this.
Then she said, sounding nervous for the first time, ‘Do you remember your dreams?’
That was the last important thing before he was kissing her. He stroked her cheek, her skin soft as powder, so wonderful it was bizarre. The whole world had gone to his head, with its purple-tinted grass and its black hair, in both of which the wind moved gracefully and smelled of sky. And when they lay down together, their bodies fit in an uncanny way, interlocked; however they moved, they fit together again, plugged in, and electricity flowed between them. Then he stayed awake for hours while Kate slept easily, naturally, in his arms. For the rest of his life, he would remember it: that intoxicated moment not only of first love but of universal hope, that summer when Chen swept the presidential primaries on a wave of utopian fervor, when carbon emissions had radically declined and the Jerusalem peace accords had been signed and the United Nations surpassed its millennium goals for eradicating poverty, when it felt as if everything might work out. He could conjure it all by harking back to that inflatable mattress with no sheets, the endangered grasses fluttering and springing above their heads, the stars like dusty candy. Without sheets, the wind blew directly on his body, on his bare arms. Far below was the sound of traffic, as quiet as a thought. Occasionally a siren rose, like a frail red line that scrolled across the sky and faded again. Kate muttered and kicked in her sleep. Every time, it was adorable and he was amazed. He fell asleep at dawn, still plotting how he would make her stay.
Ben breakfasted with Sabine. Kate had vanished while he was asleep, although she was expected back any minute since the dog had likewise vanished, and presumably Kate was out walking, not stealing, the dog. The breakfast was made by a servant, a middle-aged woman with jet-black hair, to whom Sabine spoke companionably in French. When Ben listened in, the conversation was about the extinction of the [word he didn’t understand] in the Mediterranean, which was being killed by pollution. The pollution caused algal blooms that suffocated the [word he didn’t understand]. Agricultural runoff had been cut back, but it was too late for the [word he didn’t understand]. It’s horrible, the servant said, and Sabine repeated in the same aggrieved tone, It’s horrible. Then Sabine said that her uncle – here she gestured vaguely around at the uncle’s apartment – didn’t believe in pollution. He thinks all chemicals are the same, said Sabine. He says the air is made of chemicals.
At this point, Sabine and the servant noticed Ben listening and smiled at him. He said in his careful French, We are all made of chemicals too.
They laughed in a friendly way, as if they wanted to make him feel good. Then the servant brought him a plate of scrambled eggs, said, ‘Bon appétit,’ and left.
Sabine said to Ben, ‘Kate shouldn’t be long.’ Then she opened a New York Times and started to read. It was startling, both for its rudeness and because Ben hadn’t noticed the Times there. Also the naked feeling of being left to eat without reading material while someone else was reading. It made him feel leaden and ridiculous, while at the same time he accepted it as part of this new world, the world with Kate. There were secrets to which he would not be privy. He would have to feel stupid because he cared too much.
Then just as suddenly, Sabine put down the Times. ‘Fuck. I just realized Kate could be a while.’
Ben made an intelligent face, chewing eggs.
‘I mean, I’m not throwing you out,’ said Sabine. ‘You can wait. But I’m thinking she took the dog to Nick’s.’
Ben swallowed awkwardly. ‘Nick’s?’
‘Nick’s her ex. She didn’t say about Nick?’
‘I mean, don’t worry. It’s over with Nick. Nick left Kate for a mail-order bride. Somebody else’s mail-order bride. I think she’s Thai. But Kate brings the dog there because Nick’s depressed and she thinks it cheers him up.’
Ben smiled with forced casualness. ‘Nick stole someone’s mail- order bride?’
‘No, she’d already left her husband. She was a runaway mail-order bride. I know it sounds weird, but it’s not that weird. We’ve got a lot of mail-order brides around, because a friend of ours started an organization to rescue them. I’ve got three living here now.’
At that moment, a toilet flushed upstairs. Ben immediately pictured a mail-order bride, wan and homesick, turning away from a glugging toilet and straightening her traditional Thai garb.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘That’s got to be weird.’
‘Not really.’ Sabine shrugged. ‘Everyone stays here. Right now, I’ve got a congresswoman from Maine, plus two environmental activists, plus the mail-order brides and Martin and a couple other people. I’m the only person in left-wing politics who has spare rooms. I’m like the red hotel.’
‘You’re in politics?’
Sabine made a stupid-question face, then suddenly got up and went to the sink. She fetched a large metal pitcher from a shelf and started to fill it at the faucet. For a moment, Ben imagined she was preparing to pour cold water over his head. But when it was full, she carried the pitcher, ponderous and sloshing, to the windowsill, where Ben now noticed a gathering of elegant plants. They appeared to wait expectantly, bracing themselves to receive the water.
Sabine started to pour and said, ‘I shouldn’t have mentioned Nick. That sucks. I can’t stand people who gossip, but then I go and do it myself.’
‘It wasn’t gossiping, exactly.’
‘Dude, please. It was gossiping. I mean, I’m not out to poison your mind against Kate. But I have to start in about Nick or some fucking –’
Then, as if to prove her point, she launched into another story about Kate, often forgetting to water the plants and simply standing there talking with the heavy pitcher trembling in her small hands. The story began with Sabine meeting Kate when they were twelve, at the American International School in Budapest. At that time, the thing about Kate was that she believed, or said she believed, she was from another world. Kate fashioned odd headdresses from towels and said it was what the women wore there; she once made a castle from bread that was supposed to be like the castles in her world. She called it Albion. The Albionites sang beautifully; they liked to sing in four-part harmony, standing in courtyards full of otherworldly peacocks and flowering trees. Kate was a sleeping princess there, like Sleeping Beauty, only more serious. She’d been asleep for years and therefore knew little of her Albion life, except that in Albion she had a horse (as Sabine did in earthly Budapest).
Kate’s fear was that our world was actually just Kate’s dream, an enchanted dream she was having in Albion. This was what Sabine and Kate used to talk about in their sleepovers at the ambassador’s residence (Sabine’s father had been the American ambassador to Hungary). They lay in the dark and scintillatingly pondered: If Kate woke up in Albion, would our world disappear, and everyone in it? Was it Kate’s fault when Earth people died, because she’d dreamed their dying? Could Kate direct her dream and thereby bring about heaven on Earth?
Soon other girls (the popular girls at school) were inducted into the secret, and they would gather conspiratorially to discuss their intuitions about the crisis, to draw pictures of Albion and to speculate about whether they might also have sleeping Albion counterparts. On this point Kate was generous; when someone claimed to have had an Albion dream, Kate never pooh-poohed but listened intently. She wanted to believe. Still, Kate was the official dreamer, and they would lock themselves in Sabine’s bedroom, sit in a circle around Kate and chant ‘inspirations’ to help her dream a better world. Kate lay in the middle with her palms pressed to her eyes. She wished so hard her toes curled. A typical inspiration was: Dream no cancer, dream no cancer – Albion! There were other chants to end poverty, infidelity and hurricanes. At the time, they found proof of their benevolent influence in the nightly news, though in retrospect the news had mostly been terrible.
Then a difficult girl (the granddaughter of a Hungarian movie star) rebelled and told Kate she was lying. She pointed out that ‘Albion’ was just an old word for England; Kate hadn’t even made up a new name! That girl was exiled from the group, but told the story of Albion far and wide. Then other kids (the unpopular kids at school) began to snigger – this was what Sabine remembered most: being laughed at, the topsy-turvy of popular/unpopular, and how it made her suddenly realize she’d never believed in Albion. It was just a game, a game of make-believe, like little kids played.
Next came an ugly scene where Sabine and the popular girls cornered Kate and hounded her to admit she’d been lying. When she resisted, they called her names and one of them began to tear up a sandwich she was eating and threw the fragments into Kate’s long hair. Kate wept but refused to change her story. The panic mounted; it made the girls vicious. One girl threatened Kate with a lit cigarette. Another told Kate she was going to call an ambulance to take Kate to a mental hospital, where Kate would be kept tied to a bed. Sabine herself walked out instead of defending Kate – ran out, although they were at her house. She ran to her boyfriend’s place and got drunk there for the first time, though that was another story.
Sabine had never really believed in Albion. Still, she felt the loss of it no less. It was as if they’d almost made it real; they had almost been the gods who determined history. Now the world was magicless, a dull, inanimate thing, and they were insignificant children.
Here Sabine stopped. By now, she’d set the watering pitcher down and was sitting on the windowsill. She said, ‘That’s Kate.’
‘Okay,’ Ben said (and sickeningly wanted to protect Kate, tear-stained preteen Kate; the story had made it ten times worse), ‘but what do you mean by that? What’s Kate?’
Sabine paused, possibly biting her tongue. There was a gathering din upstairs, of footsteps and slamming doors and voices. A shower was running somewhere and a hair dryer somewhere else. Ben was trying to guess Sabine’s point, but was distracted by images of mail-order brides in showers, of congresswomen drying their hair.
At last Sabine said slowly, deliberately, ‘I guess I’m saying Kate doesn’t live in the real world, and ultimately people can’t deal with it and then they end up hurting her? Like, Nick was crazy in love with Kate, but then he couldn’t take it and he left her for Phuong. Now Nick’s depressed, and Kate goes over there and comforts him like she ruined his life. And okay, she kind of ruined his life. Nick’s fucked up. But.’
‘So you’re warning me away from her?’ Ben said, giving it an incredulous note.
‘No,’ Sabine said. ‘I didn’t mean to. Is that what I’m doing? Jesus Christ, I’m such an asshole.’
That was the last real thing Sabine said, because the door banged open and the kitchen started to precipitously fill with house guests. There was the garden designer from last night, the congresswoman from Maine, a Nigerian mail-order bride who was missing a tooth in front, and a diminutive, hirsute guy who looked like a little glum hamster and was never identified. Then more people. Most wore identical cashmere bathrobes, which Sabine presumably kept for guests, and they exuded a frowsy bonheur; they were pleased to be here. When the table filled, people sat on the floor or perched on the kitchen counters. The servant reappeared, a little flustered, and the egg routine began again, while the house guests made a lot of noise and laughed. They argued about labor policy and baseball and whether the Antarctic was going to melt. They quoted nineteenth-century economists and added, ‘Which is horseshit straight from the horse.’ They told stories about President Chen’s transition team and the fight for the universal basic income and how one staffer had threatened not just to quit, but to burn himself alive on the convention floor if the UBI wasn’t in the party platform. One environmental activist demonstrated how she’d set a right-wing candidate’s stump speech to the tune of ‘O Sole Mio’, in a harsh histrionic soprano, and the Nigerian mail-order bride laughed so hard she snorted egg out of her nose. Meanwhile, others had side conversations about another right-winger’s mistress’s chlamydia; tickled each other and shouted, ‘Revisionist!’; got up to interfere with the cooking, were threatened with a spatula and slunk back to the table with comically chastened expressions.
And Ben was taken, buoyed, caught in a widening circle of infatuation. These were Kate’s people, better than people, just as Kate was better than women. Even when they discussed the congresswoman’s haircut, the haircut chitchat was markedly superior: they made botanical allusions, called the haircut anti-intellectual and laughed very happily, enjoying each other. The glum hamster summed up, ‘It’s a bit shag carpet,’ and the congresswoman said, ‘Well, let’s be honest, my base is a bit shag carpet.’ Ben laughed and ate cold toast and imagined himself in this jovial world – with Kate – and his suspicion that she was his answer, his escape, became a conviction.
Then more footsteps came from the hallway, and Ben was caught grinning as he looked back at the door, expecting more mail-order brides. But when the door opened, it was Kate.
She was still in her rumpled dress from last night, but because she’d come from outside and was entering a room of bathrobes and bare feet, she seemed very poised and competent, as if she’d stolen a march on everyone and taken possession of the day. The dog was trotting alongside, looking up to her face with a worshipful air. Her hair was wild and windblown. She was beautiful as she hadn’t quite been last night, conventionally beautiful in a way that made Ben feel wrong-footed.
She saw him there and balked. There was a pause of social embarrassment. It occurred to him for the first time that Kate had expected him to leave. She’d ditched him. Her vanishing was a hint, not even a particularly subtle hint. Sabine must have known, and that was why she’d been trying to warn Ben off. He was an idiot.
There was a sickening moment of exile. He wanted to catch all the things, to catch the morning and the careless laughter, Kate’s windblown hair that had been in his hands, that belonged to him, the halcyon night where he had belonged. Even the dog, who was now looking open-mouthed at Ben, as if trying to place him.
Then Kate said, ‘Ben! Are you free today?’
For a moment, he was still preparing his exit. Then the penny dropped, clangorously, thrillingly. Ben stood up from his chair. The room fell silent as Kate came toward him, dropping the dog’s leash on the floor. She put a hand familiarly on his chest and said, ‘I was thinking we could go to the movies.’
‘Movies,’ he said. ‘Yes, I suddenly really want to do that.’
‘Or we could do pretty much anything else.’
‘Yes, I really want to do that too.’
Then they felt their audience and looked around at the table of house guests, prepared to bask in implicit congratulations.
‘Sweet,’ said Sabine behind them. ‘But Kate? You shouldn’t just take my dog.’
The above is an excerpt from Sandra Newman’s The Heavens, available now from Granta Books.
Photograph © LIFEOF-JT / Stockimo / Alamy