Chapter no 2

A Little Life

AT FIVE P.M. every weekday and at eleven a.m. every weekend, JB got on the subway and headed for his studio in Long Island City. The weekday journey was his favorite: He’d board at Canal and watch the train fill and empty at each stop with an ever-shifting mix of different peoples and ethnicities, the car’s population reconstituting itself every

ten blocks or so into provocative and improbable constellations of Poles, Chinese, Koreans, Senegalese; Senegalese, Dominicans, Indians, Pakistanis; Pakistanis, Irish, Salvadorans, Mexicans; Mexicans, Sri Lankans, Nigerians, and Tibetans—the only thing uniting them being their newness to America and their identical expressions of exhaustion, that blend of determination and resignation that only the immigrant possesses.

In these moments, he was both grateful for his own luck and sentimental about his city, neither of which he felt very often. He was not someone who celebrated his hometown as a glorious mosaic, and he made fun of people who did. But he admired—how could you not?

—the collective amount of labor, real labor, that his trainmates had no doubt accomplished that day. And yet instead of feeling ashamed of his relative indolence, he was relieved.

The only other person he had ever discussed this sensation with, however elliptically, was Asian Henry Young. They had been riding out to Long Island City—it had been Henry who’d found him space in the studio, actually—when a Chinese man, slight and tendony and carrying a persimmon-red plastic bag that sagged heavily from the crook of the last joint of his right index finger, as if he had no strength or will left to carry it any more declaratively, stepped on and slumped into the seat across from them, crossing his legs and folding his arms around himself and falling asleep at once. Henry, whom he’d known since high school and was, like him, a scholarship kid, and was the son of a seamstress in Chinatown, had looked at JB and mouthed, “There but for the grace of god,” and JB had understood exactly the particular mix of guilt and pleasure he felt.

The other aspect of those weekday-evening trips he loved was the

light itself, how it filled the train like something living as the cars rattled across the bridge, how it washed the weariness from his seat-

mates’ faces and revealed them as they were when they first came to the country, when they were young and America seemed conquerable. He’d watch that kind light suffuse the car like syrup, watch it smudge furrows from foreheads, slick gray hairs into gold, gentle the aggressive shine from cheap fabrics into something lustrous and fine. And then the sun would drift, the car rattling uncaringly away from it, and the world would return to its normal sad shapes and colors, the people to their normal sad state, a shift as cruel and abrupt as if it had been made by a sorcerer’s wand.

He liked to pretend he was one of them, but he knew he was not. Sometimes there would be Haitians on the train, and he—his hearing, suddenly wolflike, distinguishing from the murmur around him the slurpy, singy sound of their Creole—would find himself looking toward them, to the two men with round faces like his father’s, or to the two women with soft snubbed noses like his mother’s. He always hoped that he might be presented with a completely organic reason to speak to them—maybe they’d be arguing about directions somewhere, and he might be able to insert himself and provide the answer—but there never was. Sometimes they would let their eyes scan across the seats, still talking to each other, and he would tense, ready his face to smile, but they never seemed to recognize him as one of their own.

Which he wasn’t, of course. Even he knew he had more in common with Asian Henry Young, with Malcolm, with Willem, or even with Jude, than he had with them. Just look at him: at Court Square he disembarked and walked the three blocks to the former bottle factory where he now shared studio space with three other people. Did real Haitians have studio space? Would it even occur to real Haitians to leave their large rent-free apartment, where they could have theoretically carved out their own corner to paint and doodle, only to get on a subway and travel half an hour (think how much work could be accomplished in those thirty minutes!) to a sunny dirty space? No, of course not. To conceive of such a luxury, you needed an American mind.

The loft, which was on the third floor and accessed by a metal staircase that made bell-like rings whenever you stepped on it, was white-walled and white-floored, though the floors were so extravagantly splintered that in areas it looked like a shag rug had been laid down. There were tall old-fashioned casement windows punctuating every side, and these at least the four of them kept clean

—each tenant was assigned one wall as his personal responsibility—

because the light was too good to squander to dirt and was in fact the whole point of the space. There was a bathroom (unspeakable) and a kitchen (slightly less horrifying) and, standing in the exact center of the loft, a large slab of a table made from a piece of inferior marble placed atop three sawhorses. This was a common area, which anyone could use to work on a project that needed a little extra space, and over the months the marble had been streaked lilac and marigold and dropped with dots of precious cadmium red. Today the table was covered with long strips of various-colored hand-dyed organza, weighted down at either end with paperbacks, their tips fluttering in the ceiling fan’s whisk. A tented card stood at its center: DRYING. DO NOT MOVE. WILL CLEAN UP FIRST THING TOM’W P.M. TX 4 PATIENCE, H.Y.

There were no walls subdividing the space, but it had been split

into four equal sections of five hundred square feet each by electrical tape, the blue lines demarcating not just the floor but also the walls and ceiling above each artist’s space. Everyone was hypervigilant about respecting one another’s territory; you pretended not to hear what was going on in someone else’s quarter, even if he was hissing to his girlfriend on his phone and you could of course hear every last word, and when you wanted to cross into someone’s space, you stood at the edge of the blue tape and called his name once, softly, and then only if you saw that he wasn’t deep in the zone, before asking permission to come over.

At five thirty, the light was perfect: buttery and dense and fat somehow, swelling the room as it had the train into something expansive and hopeful. He was the only one there. Richard, whose space was next to his, tended bar at nights and so spent his time at the studio in the morning, as did Ali, whose area he faced. That left Henry, whose space was diagonal from his and who usually arrived at seven, after he left his day job at the gallery. He took off his jacket, which he threw into his corner, uncovered his canvas, and sat on the stool before it, sighing.

This was JB’s fifth month in the studio, and he loved it, loved it more than he thought he would. He liked the fact that his studiomates were all real, serious artists; he could never have worked in Ezra’s place, not only because he believed what his favorite professor had once told him—that you should never paint where you fucked—but because to work in Ezra’s was to be constantly surrounded and interrupted by dilettantes. There, art was something that was just an

accessory to a lifestyle. You painted or sculpted or made crappy installation pieces because it justified a wardrobe of washed-soft T-shirts and dirty jeans and a diet of ironic cheap American beers and ironic expensive hand-rolled American cigarettes. Here, however, you made art because it was the only thing you’d ever been good at, the only thing, really, you thought about between shorter bursts of thinking about the things everyone thought about: sex and food and sleep and friends and money and fame. But somewhere inside you, whether you were making out with someone in a bar or having dinner with your friends, was always your canvas, its shapes and possibilities floating embryonically behind your pupils. There was a period—or at least you hoped there was—with every painting or project when the life of that painting became more real to you than your everyday life, when you sat wherever you were and thought only of returning to the studio, when you were barely conscious that you had tapped out a hill of salt onto the dinner table and in it were drawing your plots and patterns and plans, the white grains moving under your fingertip like silt.

He liked too the specific and unexpected companionability of the

place. There were times on the weekends when everyone was there at the same time, and at moments, he would emerge from the fog of his painting and sense that all of them were breathing in rhythm, panting almost, from the effort of concentrating. He could feel, then, the collective energy they were expending filling the air like gas, flammable and sweet, and would wish he could bottle it so that he might be able to draw from it when he was feeling uninspired, for the days in which he would sit in front of the canvas for literally hours, as though if he stared long enough, it might explode into something brilliant and charged. He liked the ceremony of waiting at the edge of the blue tape and clearing his throat in Richard’s direction, and then crossing over the boundary to look at his work, the two of them standing before it in silence, needing to exchange only the fewest of words yet understanding exactly what the other meant. You spent so much time explaining yourself, your work, to others—what it meant, what you were trying to accomplish, why you were trying to accomplish it, why you had chosen the colors and subject matter and materials and application and technique that you had—that it was a relief to simply be with another person to whom you didn’t have to explain anything: you could just look and look, and when you asked questions, they were usually blunt and technical and literal. You could

be discussing engines, or plumbing: a matter both mechanical and straightforward, for which there were only one or two possible answers.

They all worked in different mediums, so there was no competition, no fear of one video artist finding representation before his studiomate, and less fear that a curator would come in to look at your work and fall in love with your neighbor’s instead. And yet—and this was important—he respected everyone else’s work as well. Henry made what he called deconstructed sculptures, strange and elaborate ikebana arrangements of flowers and branches fashioned from various kinds of silk. After he’d finish a piece, though, he’d remove its chicken-wire buttressing, so that the sculpture fell to the ground as a flat object and appeared as an abstract puddle of colors—only Henry knew what it looked like as a three-dimensional object.

Ali was a photographer who was working on a series called “The History of Asians in America,” for which he created a photograph to represent every decade of Asians in America since 1890. For each image, he made a different diorama representing an epochal event or theme in one of the three-foot-square pine boxes that Richard had built for him, which he populated with little plastic figures he bought at the craft store and painted, and trees and roads that he glazed from potter’s clay, and backdrops he rendered with a brush whose bristles were so fine they resembled eyelashes. He then shot the dioramas and made C-prints. Of the four of them, only Ali was represented, and he had a show in seven months about which the other three knew never to ask because any mention of it made him start bleating with anxiety. Ali wasn’t progressing in historical order—he had the two thousands done (a stretch of lower Broadway thick with couples, all of whom were white men and, walking just a few steps behind them, Asian women), and the nineteen-eighties (a tiny Chinese man being beaten by two tiny white thugs with wrenches, the bottom of the box greased with varnish to resemble a parking lot’s rain-glossed tarmac), and was currently working on the nineteen-forties, for which he was painting a cast of fifty men, women, and children who were meant to be prisoners in the Tule Lake internment camp. Ali’s work was the most laborious of all of theirs, and sometimes, when they were procrastinating on their own projects, they would wander into Ali’s cube and sit next to him, and Ali, barely lifting his head from the magnifying mirror under which he held a three-inch figure on whom he was painting a herringbone skirt and saddle shoes, would hand

them a snarl of steel wool that he needed shredded to resemble tumbleweeds, or some fine-gauge wire that he wanted punctuated with little ties so that it would look barbed.

But it was Richard’s work that JB admired the most. He was a sculptor too, but worked with only ephemeral materials. He’d draw on drafting paper impossible shapes, and then render them in ice, in butter, in chocolate, in lard, and film them as they vanished. He was gleeful about witnessing the disintegration of his works, but JB, watching just last month as a massive, eight-foot-tall piece Richard had made—a swooping sail-like batwing of frozen grape juice that resembled coagulated blood—dripped and then crumbled to its demise, had found himself unexpectedly about to cry, though whether from the destruction of something so beautiful or the mere everyday profundity of its disappearance, he was unable to say. Now Richard was less interested in substances that melted and more interested in substances that would attract decimators; he was particularly interested in moths, which apparently loved honey. He had a vision, he told JB, of a sculpture whose surface so writhed with moths that you couldn’t even see the shape of the thing they were devouring. The sills of his windows were lined with jars of honey, in which the porous combs floated like fetuses suspended in formaldehyde.

JB was the lone classicist among them. He painted. Worse, he was a

figurative painter. When he had been in graduate school, no one really cared about figurative work: anything—video art, performance art, photography—was more exciting than painting, and truly anything was better than figurative work. “That’s the way it’s been since the nineteen-fifties,” one of his professors had sighed when JB complained to him. “You know that slogan for the marines? ‘The few, the brave …’? That’s us, we lonely losers.”

It was not as if, over the years, he hadn’t attempted other things, other mediums (that stupid, fake, derivative Meret Oppenheim hair project! Could he have done anything cheaper? He and Malcolm had gotten into a huge fight, one of their biggest, when Malcolm had called the series “ersatz Lorna Simpson,” and of course the worst thing was that Malcolm had been completely right), but although he would never have admitted to anyone else that he felt there was something effete, girlish almost and at any rate certainly not gangster, about being a figurative painter, he had recently had to accept that it was what he was: he loved paint, and he loved portraiture, and that was what he was going to do.

So: Then what? He had known people—he knew people—who were, technically, much better artists than he was. They were better draftsmen, they had better senses of composition and color, they were more disciplined. But they didn’t have any ideas. An artist, as much as a writer or composer, needed themes, needed ideas. And for a long time, he simply didn’t have any. He tried to draw only black people, but a lot of people drew black people, and he didn’t feel he had anything new to add. He drew hustlers for a while, but that too grew dull. He drew his female relatives, but found himself coming back to the black problem. He began a series of scenes from Tintin books, with the characters portrayed realistically, as humans, but it soon felt too ironic and hollow, and he stopped. So he lazed from canvas to canvas, doing paintings of people on the street, of people on the subway, of scenes from Ezra’s many parties (these were the least successful; everyone at those gatherings were the sort who dressed and moved as if they were constantly being observed, and he ended up with pages of studies of posing girls and preening guys, all of their eyes carefully averted from his gaze), until one night, he was sitting in Jude and Willem’s depressing apartment on their depressing sofa, watching the two of them assemble dinner, negotiating their way through their miniature kitchen like a bustling lesbian couple. This had been one of the rare Sunday nights he wasn’t at his mother’s, because she and his grandmother and aunts were all on a tacky cruise in the Mediterranean that he had refused to go on. But he had grown accustomed to seeing people and having dinner—a real dinner—made for him on Sundays, and so had invited himself over to Jude and Willem’s, both of whom he knew would be home because neither of them had any money to go out.

He had his sketch pad with him, as he always did, and when Jude

sat down at the card table to chop onions (they had to do all their prep work on the table because there was no counter space in the kitchen), he began drawing him almost unthinkingly. From the kitchen came a great banging, and the smell of smoking olive oil, and when he went in to discover Willem whacking at a piece of butterflied chicken with the bottom of an omelet pan, his arm raised over the meat as if to spank it, his expression oddly peaceful, he drew him as well.

He wasn’t sure, then, that he was really working toward anything, but the next weekend, when they all went out to Pho Viet Huong, he brought along one of Ali’s old cameras and shot the three of them

eating and then, later, walking up the street in the snow. They were moving particularly slowly in deference to Jude, because the sidewalks were slippery. He saw them lined up in the camera’s viewfinder: Malcolm, Jude, and Willem, Malcolm and Willem on either side of Jude, close enough (he knew, having been in the position himself) to catch him if he skidded but not so close that Jude would suspect that they were anticipating his fall. They had never had a conversation that they would do this, he realized; they had simply begun it.

He took the picture. “What’re you doing, JB?” asked Jude, at the same time as Malcolm complained, “Cut it out, JB.”

The party that night was on Centre Street, in the loft of an acquaintance of theirs, a woman named Mirasol whose twin, Phaedra, they knew from college. Once inside, everyone dispersed into their different subgroups, and JB, after waving at Richard across the room and noting with irritation that Mirasol had provided a whole tableful of food, meaning that he’d just wasted fourteen dollars at Pho Viet Huong when he could’ve eaten here for free, found himself wandering toward where Jude was talking with Phaedra and some fat dude who might have been Phaedra’s boyfriend and a skinny bearded guy he recognized as a friend of Jude’s from work. Jude was perched on the back of one of the sofas, Phaedra next to him, and the two of them were looking up at the fat and skinny guys and all of them were laughing at something: He took the picture.

Normally at parties he grabbed or was grabbed by a group of

people, and spent the night as the nuclei for a variety of three- or foursomes, bounding from one to the next, gathering the gossip, starting harmless rumors, pretending to share confidences, getting others to tell him who they hated by divulging hatreds of his own. But this night, he traveled the room alert and purposeful and largely sober, taking pictures of his three friends as they moved in their own patterns, unaware that he was trailing them. At one point, a couple of hours in, he found them by the window with just one another, Jude saying something and the other two leaning in close to hear him, and then in the next moment, the three of them leaning back and all laughing, and although for a moment he felt both wistful and slightly jealous, he was also triumphant, as he had gotten both shots. Tonight, I am a camera, he told himself, and tomorrow I will be JB again.

In a way, he had never enjoyed a party more, and no one seemed to

notice his deliberate rovings except for Richard, who, as the four of

them were leaving an hour later to go uptown (Malcolm’s parents were in the country, and Malcolm thought he knew where his mother hid her weed), gave him an unexpectedly sweet old-man clap on the shoulder. “Working on something?”

“I think so.” “Good for you.”

The next day he sat at his computer looking at the night’s images on the screen. The camera wasn’t a great one, and it had hazed every picture with a smoky yellow light, which, along with his poor focusing skills, had made everyone warm and rich and slightly soft-edged, as if they had been shot through a tumblerful of whiskey. He stopped at a close-up of Willem’s face, of him smiling at someone (a girl, no doubt) off camera, and at the one of Jude and Phaedra on the sofa: Jude was wearing a bright navy sweater that JB could never figure out belonged to him or to Willem, as both of them wore it so much, and Phaedra was wearing a wool dress the shade of port, and she was leaning her head toward his, and the dark of her hair made his look lighter, and the nubbly teal of the sofa beneath them made them both appear shining and jewel-like, their colors just-licked and glorious, their skin delicious. They were colors anyone would want to paint, and so he did, sketching out the scene first in his book in pencil, and then again on stiffer board in watercolors, and then finally on canvas in acrylics.

That had been four months ago, and he now had almost eleven

paintings completed—an astonishing output for him—all of scenes from his friends’ lives. There was Willem waiting to audition, studying the script a final time, the sole of one boot pressed against the sticky red wall behind him; and Jude at a play, his face half shadowed, at the very second he smiled (getting that shot had almost gotten JB thrown out of the theater); Malcolm sitting stiffly on a sofa a few feet away from his father, his back straight and his hands clenching his knees, the two of them watching a Buñuel film on a television just out of frame. After some experimentation, he had settled on canvases the size of a standard C-print, twenty by twenty-four inches, all horizontally oriented, and which he imagined might someday be displayed in a long snaking single layer, one that would wrap itself around a gallery’s walls, each image following the next as fluidly as cells in a film strip. The renderings were realistic, but photo-realistic; he had never replaced Ali’s camera with a better one, and he tried to make each painting capture that gently fuzzed quality the camera

gave everything, as if someone had patted away the top layer of clarity and left behind something kinder than the eye alone would see.

In his insecure moments, he sometimes worried the project was too fey, too inward—this was where having representation really helped, if only to remind you that someone liked your work, thought it important or at the very least beautiful—but he couldn’t deny the pleasure he got from it, the sense of ownership and contentment. At times he missed being part of the pictures himself; here was a whole narrative of his friends’ lives, his absence an enormous missing part, but he also enjoyed the godlike role he played. He got to see his friends differently, not as just appendages to his life but as distinct characters inhabiting their own stories; he felt sometimes that he was seeing them for the first time, even after so many years of knowing them.

About a month into the project, once he knew that this was what he was going to concentrate on, he’d of course had to explain to them why he kept following them around with a camera, shooting the mundane moments of their lives, and why it was crucial that they let him keep doing so and provide him with as much access as possible. They had been at dinner at a Vietnamese noodle shop on Orchard Street that they hoped might be a Pho Viet Huong successor, and after he’d made his speech—uncharacteristically nervous as he did so— they all found themselves looking toward Jude, who he’d known in advance would be the problem. The other two would agree, but that didn’t help him. They all needed to say yes or it wouldn’t work, and Jude was by far the most self-conscious among them; in college, he turned his head or blocked his face whenever anyone tried to take his picture, and whenever he had smiled or laughed, he had reflexively covered his mouth with his hand, a tic that the rest of them had found upsetting, and which he had only learned to stop doing in the past few years.

As he’d feared, Jude was suspicious. “What would this involve?” he

kept asking, and JB, summoning all his patience, had to reassure him numerous times that of course his goal wasn’t to humiliate or exploit him but only to chronicle in pictures the drip of all of their lives. The others said nothing, letting him do the work, and Jude finally consented, although he didn’t sound too happy about it.

“How long is this going to go on for?” Jude asked.

“Forever, I hope.” And he did. His one regret was that he hadn’t

begun earlier, back when they were all young.

On the way out, he walked with Jude. “Jude,” he said quietly, so that the others couldn’t hear him. “Anything that involves you—I’ll let you see in advance. You veto it, and I’ll never show it.”

Jude looked at him. “Promise?” “Swear to god.”

He regretted his offer the instant he made it, for the truth was that Jude was his favorite of the three of them to paint: He was the most beautiful of them, with the most interesting face and the most unusual coloring, and he was the shyest, and so pictures of him always felt more precious than ones of the others.

The following Sunday when he was back at his mother’s, he went through some of his boxes from college that he’d stored in his old bedroom, looking for a photograph he knew he had. Finally he found it: a picture of Jude from their first year that someone had taken and printed and which had somehow ended up in his possession. In it, Jude was standing in the living room of their suite, turned partway to the camera. His left arm was wrapped around his chest, so you could see the satiny starburst-shaped scar on the back of his hand, and in his right he was unconvincingly holding an unlit cigarette. He was wearing a blue-and-white-striped long-sleeved T-shirt that must not have been his, it was so big (although maybe it really was his; in those days, all of Jude’s clothes were too big because, as it later emerged, he intentionally bought them oversized so he could wear them for the next few years, as he grew), and his hair, which he wore longish back then so he could hide behind it, fizzled off at his jawline. But the thing that JB had always remembered most about this photograph was the expression on Jude’s face: a wariness that in those days he was never without. He hadn’t looked at this picture in years, but doing so made him feel empty, for reasons he wasn’t quite able to articulate.

This was the painting he was working on now, and for it he had

broken form and changed to a forty-inch-square canvas. He had experimented for days to get right that precise shade of tricky, serpenty green for Jude’s irises, and had redone the colors of his hair again and again before he was satisfied. It was a great painting, and he knew it, knew it absolutely the way you sometimes did, and he had no intention of ever showing it to Jude until it was hanging on a gallery wall somewhere and Jude would be powerless to do anything about it. He knew Jude would hate how fragile, how feminine, how

vulnerable, how young it made him look, and knew too he would find lots of other imaginary things to hate about it as well, things JB couldn’t even begin to anticipate because he wasn’t a self-loathing nut job like Jude. But to him, it expressed everything about what he hoped this series would be: it was a love letter, it was a documentation, it was a saga, it was his. When he worked on this painting, he felt sometimes as if he were flying, as if the world of galleries and parties and other artists and ambitions had shrunk to a pinpoint beneath him, something so small he could kick it away from himself like a soccer ball, watch it spin off into some distant orbit that had nothing to do with him.

It was almost six. The light would change soon. For now, the space was still quiet around him, although distantly, he could hear the train rumbling by on its tracks. Before him, his canvas waited. And so he picked up his brush and began.



There was poetry on the subway. Above the rows of scooped-plastic seats, filling the empty display space between ads for dermatologists and companies that promised college degrees by mail, were long laminated sheets printed with poems: second-rate Stevens and third-rate Roethke and fourth-rate Lowell, verse meant to agitate no one, anger and beauty reduced to empty aphorisms.

Or so JB always said. He was against the poems. They had appeared when he was in junior high, and for the past fifteen years he had been complaining about them. “Instead of funding real art and real artists, they’re giving money to a bunch of spinster librarians and cardigan fags to pick out this shit,” he shouted at Willem over the screech of the F train’s brakes. “And it’s all this Edna St. Vincent Millay–type shit. Or it’s actually good people they’ve neutered. And they’re all white, have you noticed that? What the fuck is up with that?”

The following week, Willem saw a Langston Hughes poster and called JB to tell him. “Langston Hughes?!” JB groaned. “Let me guess

—‘A Dream Deferred,’ right? I knew it! That shit doesn’t count. And anyway, if something really did explode, that shit’d be down in two seconds flat.”

Opposite Willem that afternoon is a Thom Gunn poem: “Their relationship consisted / In discussing if it existed.” Underneath, someone has written in black marker, “Dont worry man I cant get no pussy either.” He closes his eyes.

It’s not promising that he’s this tired and it’s only four, his shift not even begun. He shouldn’t have gone with JB to Brooklyn the previous night, but no one else would go with him, and JB claimed he owed him, because hadn’t he accompanied Willem to his friend’s horrible one-man show just last month?

So he’d gone, of course. “Whose band is this?” he’d asked as they waited on the platform. Willem’s coat was too thin, and he’d lost one of his gloves, and as a result he had begun assuming a heat-conserving posture—arms wrapped around his chest, hands folded into his armpits, rocking back on his heels—whenever he was forced to stand still in the cold.

“Joseph’s,” said JB.

“Oh,” he said. He had no idea who Joseph was. He admired JB’s Felliniesque command of his vast social circle, in which everyone was a colorfully costumed extra, and he and Malcolm and Jude were crucial but still lowly accessories to his vision—key grips or second art directors—whom he regarded as tacitly responsible for keeping the entire endeavor grinding along.

“It’s hard core,” said JB pleasantly, as if that would help him place Joseph.

“What’s this band called?”

“Okay, here’s the thing,” JB said, grinning. “It’s called Smegma Cake 2.”

“What?” he asked, laughing. “Smegma Cake 2? Why? What happened to Smegma Cake 1?”

“It got a staph infection,” JB shouted over the noise of the train clattering into the station. An older woman standing near them scowled in their direction.

Unsurprisingly, Smegma Cake 2 wasn’t very good. It wasn’t even hard core, really; more ska-like, bouncy and meandering (“Something happened to their sound!” JB yelled into his ear during one of the more prolonged numbers, “Phantom Snatch 3000.” “Yeah,” he yelled back, “it sucks!”). Midway through the concert (each song seeming to last twenty minutes) he grew giddy, at both the absurdity of the band and the crammedness of the space, and began inexpertly moshing with JB, the two of them sproinging off their neighbors and bystanders until everyone was crashing into one another, but cheerfully, like a bunch of tipsy toddlers, JB catching him by the shoulders and the two of them laughing into each other’s faces. It was in these moments that he loved JB completely, his ability and

willingness to be wholly silly and frivolous, which he could never be with Malcolm or Jude—Malcolm because he was, for all his talk otherwise, interested in propriety, and Jude because he was serious.

Of course, this morning he had suffered. He woke in JB’s corner of Ezra’s loft, on JB’s unmade mattress (nearby, on the floor, JB himself snored juicily into a pile of peaty-smelling laundry), unsure how, exactly, they’d gotten back over the bridge. Willem wasn’t normally a drinker or a stoner, but around JB he occasionally found himself behaving otherwise. It had been a relief to return to Lispenard Street, its quiet and clean, the sunlight that baked his side of the bedroom hot and loafy between eleven a.m. and one p.m. already slanting through the window, Jude long gone for the day. He set his alarm and fell instantly asleep, waking with enough time only to shower and swallow an aspirin before hurrying to the train.

The restaurant where he worked had made its reputation on both its food—which was complicated without being challenging—and the consistency and approachability of its staff. At Ortolan they were taught to be warm but not familiar, accessible but not informal. “It’s not Friendly’s,” his boss, Findlay, the restaurant’s general manager, liked to say. “Smile, but don’t tell people your name.” There were lots of rules such as these at Ortolan: Women employees could wear their wedding rings, but no other jewelry. Men shouldn’t wear their hair longer than the bottom of their earlobes. No nail polish. No more than two days’ worth of beard. Mustaches were to be tolerated on a case-by-case basis, as were tattoos.

Willem had been a waiter at Ortolan for almost two years. Before Ortolan, he had worked the weekend brunch and weekday lunch shift at a loud and popular restaurant in Chelsea called Digits, where the customers (almost always men, almost always older: forty, at least) would ask him if he was on the menu, and then laugh, naughty and pleased with themselves, as if they were the first people to ever ask him that, instead of the eleventh or twelfth that shift alone. Even so, he always smiled and said, “Only as an appetizer,” and they’d retort, “But I want an entrée,” and he would smile again and they would tip him well at the end.

It had been a friend of his from graduate school, another actor named Roman, who’d recommended him to Findlay after he’d booked a recurring guest role on a soap opera and had quit. (He was conflicted about accepting the gig, he told Willem, but what could he do? It was too much money to refuse.) Willem had been glad for the

referral, because besides its food and service, the other thing that Ortolan was known for—albeit among a much smaller group of people

—was its flexible hours, especially if Findlay liked you. Findlay liked small flat-chested brunette women and all sorts of men as long as they were tall and thin and, it was rumored, not Asian. Sometimes Willem would stand on the edge of the kitchen and watch as mismatched pairs of tiny dark-haired waitresses and long skinny men circled through the main dining room, skating past one another in a weirdly cast series of minuets.

Not everyone who waited at Ortolan was an actor. Or to be more precise, not everyone at Ortolan was still an actor. There were certain restaurants in New York where one went from being an actor who waited tables to, somehow, being a waiter who was once an actor. And if the restaurant was good enough, respected enough, that was not only a perfectly acceptable career transition, it was a preferable one. A waiter at a well-regarded restaurant could get his friends a coveted reservation, could charm the kitchen staff into sending out free dishes to those same friends (though as Willem learned, charming the kitchen staff was less easy than he’d thought it would be). But what could an actor who waited tables get his friends? Tickets to yet another off-off-Broadway production for which you had to supply your own suit because you were playing a stockbroker who may or may not be a zombie, and yet there was no money for costumes? (He’d had to do exactly that last year, and because he didn’t have a suit of his own, he’d had to borrow one of Jude’s. Jude’s legs were about an inch longer than his, and so for the duration of the run he’d had to fold the pants legs under and stick them in place with masking tape.)

It was easy to tell who at Ortolan was once an actor and was now a

career waiter. The careerists were older, for one, and precise and fussy about enforcing Findlay’s rules, and at staff dinners they would ostentatiously swirl the wine that the sommelier’s assistant poured them to sample and say things like, “It’s a little like that Linne Calodo Petite Sirah you served last week, José, isn’t it?” or “Tastes a little minerally, doesn’t it? This a New Zealand?” It was understood that you didn’t ask them to come to your productions—you only asked your fellow actor-waiters, and if you were asked, it was considered polite to at least try to go—and you certainly didn’t discuss auditions, or agents, or anything of the sort with them. Acting was like war, and they were veterans: they didn’t want to think about the war, and they

certainly didn’t want to talk about it with naïfs who were still eagerly dashing toward the trenches, who were still excited to be in-country.

Findlay himself was a former actor, but unlike the other former actors, he liked to—or perhaps “liked” was not the word; perhaps the more accurate word would be simply “did”—talk about his past life, or at least a certain version of it. According to Findlay, he had once almost, almost booked the second lead in the Public Theater production of A Bright Room Called Day (later, one of the waitresses had told them that all of the significant roles in the play were for women). He had understudied a part on Broadway (for what production was never made clear). Findlay was a walking career memento mori, a cautionary tale in a gray wool suit, and the still-actors either avoided him, as if his particular curse were something contagious, or studied him closely, as if by remaining in contact with him, they could inoculate themselves.

But at what point had Findlay decided he would give up acting, and

how had it happened? Was it simply age? He was, after all, old: forty-five, fifty, somewhere around there. How did you know that it was time to give up? Was it when you were thirty-eight and still hadn’t found an agent (as they suspected had happened to Joel)? Was it when you were forty and still had a roommate and were making more as a part-time waiter than you had made the year you decided to be a full-time actor (as they knew had happened to Kevin)? Was it when you got fat, or bald, or got bad plastic surgery that couldn’t disguise the fact that you were fat and bald? When did pursuing your ambitions cross the line from brave into foolhardy? How did you know when to stop? In earlier, more rigid, less encouraging (and ultimately, more helpful) decades, things would be much clearer: you would stop when you turned forty, or when you got married, or when you had kids, or after five years, or ten years, or fifteen. And then you would go get a real job, and acting and your dreams for a career in it would recede into the evening, a melting into history as quiet as a briquette of ice sliding into a warm bath.

But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something

that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was

somehow your fault. Would Willem work for year upon year at Ortolan, catching the same trains to auditions, reading again and again and again, one year maybe caterpillaring an inch or two forward, his progress so minute that it hardly counted as progress at all? Would he someday have the courage to give up, and would he be able to recognize that moment, or would he wake one day and look in the mirror and find himself an old man, still trying to call himself an actor because he was too scared to admit that he might not be, might never be?

According to JB, the reason Willem wasn’t yet successful was because of Willem. One of JB’s favorite lectures to him began with “If I had your looks, Willem,” and ended with, “And now you’ve been so fucking spoiled by things coming to you so easily that you think everything’s just going to happen for you. And you know what, Willem? You’re good-looking, but everyone here is good-looking, and you’re just going to have to try harder.”

Even though he thought this was sort of ironic coming from JB (Spoiled? Look at JB’s family, all of them clucking after him, pushing on him his favorite foods and just-ironed shirts, surrounding him in a cloud of compliments and affection; he once overheard JB on the phone telling his mother he needed her to get him more underwear, and that he’d pick it up when he went to see her for Sunday dinner, for which, by the way, he wanted short ribs), he understood what he meant as well. He knew he wasn’t lazy, but the truth was that he lacked the sort of ambition that JB and Jude had, that grim, trudging determination that kept them at the studio or office longer than anyone else, that gave them that slightly faraway look in their eyes that always made him think a fraction of them was already living in some imagined future, the contours of which were crystallized only to them. JB’s ambition was fueled by a lust for that future, for his speedy arrival to it; Jude’s, he thought, was motivated more by a fear that if he didn’t move forward, he would somehow slip back to his past, the life he had left and about which he would tell none of them. And it wasn’t only Jude and JB who possessed this quality: New York was populated by the ambitious. It was often the only thing that everyone here had in common.

Ambition and atheism: “Ambition is my only religion,” JB had told

him late one beery night, and although to Willem this line sounded a little too practiced, like he was rehearsing it, trying to perfect its careless, throwaway tone before he someday got to say it for real to

an interviewer somewhere, he also knew that JB was sincere. Only here did you feel compelled to somehow justify anything short of rabidity for your career; only here did you have to apologize for having faith in something other than yourself.

The city often made him feel he was missing something essential, and that that ignorance would forever doom him to a life at Ortolan. (He had felt this in college as well, where he knew absolutely that he was the dumbest person in their class, admitted as a sort of unofficial poor-white-rural-dweller-oddity affirmative-action representative.) The others, he thought, sensed this as well, although it seemed to truly bother only JB.

“I don’t know about you sometimes, Willem,” JB once said to him, in a tone that suggested that what he didn’t know about Willem wasn’t good. This was late last year, shortly after Merritt, Willem’s former roommate, had gotten one of the two lead roles in an off-Broadway revival of True West. The other lead was being played by an actor who had recently starred in an acclaimed independent film and was enjoying that brief moment of possessing both downtown credibility and the promise of more mainstream success. The director (someone Willem had been longing to work with) had promised he’d cast an unknown as the second lead. And he had: it was just that the unknown was Merritt and not Willem. The two of them had been the final contenders for the part.

His friends had been outraged on his behalf. “But Merritt doesn’t even know how to act!” JB had groaned. “He just stands onstage and sparkles and thinks that’s enough!” The three of them had started talking about the last thing they had seen Merritt in—an all-male off-off-Broadway production of La Traviata set in nineteen-eighties Fire Island (Violetta—played by Merritt—had been renamed Victor, and he had died of AIDS, not tuberculosis)—and they all agreed it had been barely watchable.

“Well, he does have a good look,” he’d said, in a weak attempt to defend his absent former roommate.

“He’s not that good-looking,” Malcolm said, with a vehemence that surprised all of them.

“Willem, it’ll happen,” Jude consoled him on the way back home after dinner. “If there’s any justice in the world, it’ll happen. That director’s an imbecile.” But Jude never blamed Willem for his failings; JB always did. He wasn’t sure which was less helpful.

He had been grateful for their anger, naturally, but the truth was,

he didn’t think Merritt was as bad as they did. He was certainly no worse than Willem himself; in fact, he was probably better. Later, he’d told this to JB, who responded with a long silence, stuffed with disapproval, before he started lecturing Willem. “I don’t know about you sometimes, Willem,” he began. “Sometimes I get the sense you don’t even really want to be an actor.”

“That’s not true,” he’d protested. “It’s just that I don’t think that every rejection is meaningless, and I don’t think everyone who gets a job over me does so out of dumb luck.”

There had been another silence. “You’re too kind, Willem,” JB said, darkly. “You’re never going to get anywhere like this.”

“Thanks, JB,” he’d said. He was rarely offended by JB’s opinions— often, he was right—but at that particular moment, he didn’t much feel like hearing JB’s thoughts on his shortcomings and his gloomy predictions about his future unless he completely changed his personality. He’d gotten off the phone and had lain in bed awake, feeling stuck and sorry for himself.

Anyway, changing his personality seemed basically out of the question—wasn’t it too late? Before he was a kind man, after all, Willem had been a kind boy. Everyone had noticed: his teachers, his classmates, the parents of his classmates. “Willem is such a compassionate child,” his teachers would write on his report cards, report cards his mother or father would look at once, briefly and wordlessly, before adding them to the stacks of newspapers and empty envelopes that they’d take to the recycling center. As he grew older, he had begun to realize that people were surprised, even upset, by his parents; a high-school teacher had once blurted to him that given Willem’s temperament, he had thought his parents would be different.

“Different how?” he’d asked. “Friendlier,” his teacher had said.

He didn’t think of himself as particularly generous or unusually good-spirited. Most things came easily to him: sports, school, friends, girls. He wasn’t nice, necessarily; he didn’t seek to be everyone’s friend, and he couldn’t tolerate boors, or pettiness, or meanness. He was humble and hardworking, diligent, he knew, rather than brilliant. “Know your place,” his father often said to him.

His father did. Willem remembered once, after a late-spring freeze had killed off a number of new lambs in their area, his father being interviewed by a newspaper reporter who was writing a story about how it had affected the local farms.

“As a rancher,” the reporter began, when Willem’s father had stopped her.

“Not a rancher,” he’d said, his accent making these words, as all words, sound brusquer than they should, “a ranch hand.” He was correct, of course; a rancher meant something specific—a landowner

—and by that definition, he wasn’t a rancher. But there were plenty of other people in the county who then also had no right to call themselves ranchers and yet did so anyway. Willem had never heard his father say that they shouldn’t—his father didn’t care what anyone else did or didn’t do—but such inflation was not for him, or for his wife, Willem’s mother.

Perhaps because of this, he felt he always knew who and what he was, which is why, as he moved farther and then further away from the ranch and his childhood, he felt very little pressure to change or reinvent himself. He was a guest at his college, a guest in graduate school, and now he was a guest in New York, a guest in the lives of the beautiful and the rich. He would never try to pretend he was born to such things, because he knew he wasn’t; he was a ranch hand’s son from western Wyoming, and his leaving didn’t mean that everything he had once been was erased, written over by time and experiences and the proximity to money.

He was his parents’ fourth child, and the only one still alive. First there had been a girl, Britte, who had died of leukemia when she was two, long before Willem had been born. This had been in Sweden, when his father, who was Icelandic, had been working at a fish farm, where he had met his mother, who was Danish. Then there had been a move to America, and a boy, Hemming, who had been born with cerebral palsy. Three years later, there had been another boy, Aksel, who had died in his sleep as an infant for no apparent reason.

Hemming was eight when Willem was born. He couldn’t walk or speak, but Willem had loved him and had never thought of him as anything but his older brother. Hemming could smile, however, and as he did, he’d bring his hand up toward his face, his fingers shaping themselves into a duck’s bill claw, his lips pulling back from his azalea-pink gums. Willem learned to crawl, and then walk and run— Hemming remaining in his chair year after year—and when he was old and strong enough, he would push Hemming’s heavy chair with its fat, stubborn tires (this was a chair meant to be sedentary, not to be nosed through grasses or down dirt roads) around the ranch where they lived with their parents in a small wooden house. Up the hill

from them was the main house, long and low with a deep wraparound porch, and down the hill from them were the stables where their parents spent their days. He had been Hemming’s primary caretaker, and companion, all through high school; in the mornings, he was the first one awake, making his parents’ coffee and boiling water for Hemming’s oatmeal, and in the evenings, he waited by the side of the road for the van that would drop his brother off after his day at the assisted-living center an hour’s drive away. Willem always thought they clearly looked like brothers—they had their parents’ light, bright hair, and their father’s gray eyes, and both of them had a groove, like an elongated parentheses, bracketing the left side of their mouths that made them appear easily amused and ready to smile—but no one else seemed to notice this. They saw only that Hemming was in a wheelchair, and that his mouth remained open, a damp red ellipse, and that his eyes, more often than not, drifted skyward, fixed on some cloud only he could see.

“What do you see, Hemming?” he sometimes asked him, when they

were out on their night walks, but of course Hemming never answered him.

Their parents were efficient and competent with Hemming, but not, he recognized, particularly affectionate. When Willem was kept late at school because of a football game, or a track meet, or when he was needed to work an extra shift at the grocery store, it was his mother who waited for Hemming at the end of the drive, who hefted Hemming into and then out of his bath, who fed him his dinner of chicken-and-rice porridge and changed his diaper before putting him to bed. But she didn’t read to him, or talk to him, or go on walks with him the way Willem did. Watching his parents around Hemming bothered him, in part because although they never behaved objectionably, he could tell that they viewed Hemming as their responsibility but no more. Later he would argue with himself that that was all that could reasonably be expected of them; anything else would be luck. But still. He wished they loved Hemming more, just a little more.

(Although maybe love was too much to ask from his parents. They

had lost so many children that perhaps they simply either wouldn’t or couldn’t surrender themselves wholly to the ones they now had. Eventually, both he and Hemming would leave them too, by choice or not, and then their losses would be complete. But it would be decades before he was able to see things this way.)

His second year of college, Hemming had had to have an emergency appendectomy. “They said they caught it just in time,” his mother told him over the phone. Her voice was flat, very matter-of-fact; there was no relief in it, no anguish, but neither was there any—and he’d had to make himself consider this, even though he hadn’t wanted to, was scared to—disappointment either. Hemming’s caregiver (a local woman, paid to watch him during the night now that Willem was gone) had noticed him pawing at his stomach and moaning, and had been able to diagnose the hard truffley lump under his abdomen for what it was. While Hemming was being operated on, the doctors had found a growth, a few centimeters long, on his large intestine and had biopsied it. X-rays had revealed further growths, and they were going to excise those as well.

“I’ll come home,” he said.

“No,” his mother had said. “You can’t do anything here. We’ll tell you if it’s anything serious.” She and his father had been more bemused than anything when he had been admitted to college— neither of them had known he was applying—but now that he was there, they were determined that he should graduate and forget the ranch as quickly as possible.

But at night he thought of Hemming, alone in a hospital bed, how he’d be frightened and would cry and listen for the sound of his voice. When Hemming was twenty-one, he’d had to have a hernia removed, and he had wept until Willem held his hand. He knew he’d have to go back.

The flights were expensive, much more than he’d anticipated. He researched bus routes, but it would take three days to get there, three days to get back, and he had midterm exams he had to take and do well in if he was to keep his scholarship, and his jobs to attend to. Finally, drunk that Friday night, he confided in Malcolm, who got out his checkbook and wrote him a check.

“I can’t,” he said, immediately.

“Why not?” asked Malcolm. They argued back and forth until Willem finally accepted the check.

“I’ll pay you back, you know that, right?”

Malcolm shrugged. “There’s no way for me to say this without sounding like a complete asshole,” he said, “but it doesn’t make a difference to me, Willem.”

Still, it became important to him to repay Malcolm somehow, even though he knew Malcolm wouldn’t accept his money. It was Jude who

had the idea of putting the money directly into Malcolm’s wallet, and so every two weeks after he’d cashed his check from the restaurant where he worked on the weekends, he’d stuff two or three twenties into it while Malcolm was asleep. He never quite knew if Malcolm noticed—he spent it so quickly, and often on the three of them—but Willem took some satisfaction and pride in doing it.

In the meantime, though, there was Hemming. He was glad he went home (his mother had only sighed when he told her he was coming), and glad to see Hemming, although alarmed by how thin he had become, how he groaned and cried as the nurses prodded the area around his sutures; he’d had to grab the sides of his chair to keep himself from shouting at them. At nights, he and his parents would have silent meals; he could almost feel them pulling away, as if they were unpeeling themselves from their lives as parents of two children and readying themselves to drift toward a new identity elsewhere.

On his third night, he took the keys to the truck to drive to the hospital. Back east, it was early spring, but here the dark air seemed to glitter with frost, and in the morning the grass was capped with a thin skin of crystals.

His father came onto the porch as he was walking down the steps. “He’ll be asleep,” he said.

“I just thought I’d go,” Willem told him.

His father looked at him. “Willem,” he said, “he won’t know whether you’re there or not.”

He felt his face go hot. “I know you don’t fucking care about him,” he snapped at him, “but I do.” It was the first time he’d ever sworn at his father, and he was unable to move for a moment, fearful and half excited that his father might react, that they might have an argument. But his father just took a sip from his coffee and then turned and went inside, the screen door smacking softly shut behind him.

For the rest of his visit they were all the same as they always were; they went in shifts to sit with Hemming, and when he wasn’t at the hospital, Willem helped his mother with the ledgers, or his father as he oversaw the reshodding of the horses. At nights he returned to the hospital and did schoolwork. He read aloud from The Decameron to Hemming, who stared at the ceiling and blinked, and struggled through his calculus, which he finally finished with the unhappy certainty that he had gotten all of it wrong. The three of them had gotten used to Jude doing their calculus for them, working through the problems as quickly as if he were running arpeggios. Their first

year, Willem had genuinely wanted to understand it, and Jude had sat with him for a string of nights, explaining again and again, but he had never been able to comprehend it.

“I’m just too stupid to get this,” he’d said after what felt like an hours-long session, at the end of which he had wanted to go outside and run for miles, he was so prickly with impatience and frustration.

Jude had looked down. “You’re not stupid,” he said, quietly. “I’m just not explaining it well enough.” Jude took seminars in pure math that you had to be invited to enroll in; the rest of them couldn’t even begin to fathom what, exactly, he did in it.

In retrospect, he was surprised only by his own surprise when his mother called three months later to tell him that Hemming was on life support. This was in late May, and he was halfway through his final exams. “Don’t come back,” she’d told him, commanded him, almost. “Don’t, Willem.” He spoke with his parents in Swedish, and it wasn’t until many years later, when a Swedish director he was working with pointed out how affectless his voice became when he switched into the language, that he recognized that he had unconsciously learned to adopt a certain tone when he talked to his parents, one emotionless and blunt, that was meant to echo their own.

Over the next few days he fretted, did poorly in his exams: French, comparative literature, Jacobean drama, the Icelandic sagas, the hated calculus all slurring into one. He picked a fight with his girlfriend, who was a senior and graduating. She cried; he felt guilty but also unable to repair the situation. He thought of Wyoming, of a machine coughing life into Hemming’s lungs. Shouldn’t he go back? He had to go back. He wouldn’t be able to stay for long: on June fifteenth, he and Jude were moving into a sublet off-campus for the summer— they’d both found jobs in the city, Jude working on weekdays as a classics professor’s amanuensis and on weekends at the bakery he worked at during the school year, Willem as a teacher’s assistant at a program for disabled children—but before then, the four of them were going to stay at Malcolm’s parents’ house in Aquinnah, on Martha’s Vineyard, after which Malcolm and JB would drive back to New York. At nights, he called Hemming at the hospital, made his parents or one of the nurses hold the phone up to his ear, and spoke to his brother, even though he knew he probably couldn’t hear him. But how could he not have tried?

And then, one morning a week later, his mother called: Hemming

had died. There was nothing he could say. He couldn’t ask why she

hadn’t told him how serious the situation had been, because some part of him had known she wouldn’t. He couldn’t say he wished he had been there, because she would have nothing to say in response. He couldn’t ask her how she felt, because nothing she said would be enough. He wanted to scream at his parents, to hit them, to elicit from them something—some melting into grief, some loss of composure, some recognition that something large had happened, that in Hemming’s death they had lost something vital and necessary to their lives. He didn’t care if they really felt that way or not: he just needed them to say it, he needed to feel that something lay beneath their imperturbable calm, that somewhere within them ran a thin stream of quick, cool water, teeming with delicate lives, minnows and grasses and tiny white flowers, all tender and easily wounded and so vulnerable you couldn’t see them without aching for them.

He didn’t tell his friends, then, about Hemming. They went to

Malcolm’s house—a beautiful place, the most beautiful place Willem had ever seen, much less stayed in—and late at night, when the others were asleep, each in his own bed, in his own room with his own bathroom (the house was that big), he crept outside and walked the web of roads surrounding the house for hours, the moon so large and bright it seemed made of something liquid and frozen. On those walks, he tried very hard not to think of anything in particular. He concentrated instead on what he saw before him, noticing at night what had eluded him by day: how the dirt was so fine it was almost sand, and puffed up into little plumes as he stepped in it, how skinny threads of bark-brown snakes whipsawed silently beneath the brush as he passed. He walked to the ocean and above him the moon disappeared, concealed by tattered rags of clouds, and for a few moments he could only hear the water, not see it, and the sky was thick and warm with moisture, as if the very air here were denser, more significant.

Maybe this is what it is to be dead, he thought, and realized it

wasn’t so bad after all, and felt better.

He expected it would be awful to spend his summer around people who might remind him of Hemming, but it was actually pleasant, helpful even. His class had seven students, all around eight years old, all severely impaired, none very mobile, and although part of the day was ostensibly devoted to trying to teach them colors and shapes, most of the time was spent playing with them: reading to them, pushing them around the grounds, tickling them with feathers. During

recess all the classrooms opened their doors to the school’s central courtyard, and the space filled with children on such a variety of wheeled contraptions and vessels and vehicles that it sometimes sounded as if it was populated by mechanical insects, all of them squeaking and whirring and clucking at once. There were children in wheelchairs, and children on small, scaled-down mopeds that putted and clicked along the flagstones at a tortoise’s speed, and children strapped prone atop smooth lengths of wood that resembled abbreviated surfboards on wheels, and who pulled themselves along the ground with their elbowed stumps, and a few children with no means of conveyance at all, who sat in their minders’ laps, the backs of their necks cupped in their minders’ palms. Those were the ones who reminded him most keenly of Hemming.

Some of the children on the motorcycles and the wheeled boards

could speak, and he would toss, very gently, large foam balls to them and organize races around the courtyard. He would always begin these races at the head of the pack, loping with an exaggerated slowness (though not so exaggerated that he appeared too broadly comic; he wanted them to think he was actually trying), but at some point, usually a third of the way around the square, he would pretend to trip on something and fall, spectacularly, to the ground, and all the kids would pass him and laugh. “Get up, Willem, get up!” they’d cry, and he would, but by that point they would have finished the lap and he would come in last place. He wondered, sometimes, if they envied him the dexterity of being able to fall and get up again, and if so, if he should stop doing it, but when he asked his supervisor, he had only looked at Willem and said that the kids thought he was funny and that he should keep falling. And so every day he fell, and every afternoon, when he was waiting with the students for their parents to come pick them up, the ones who could speak would ask him if he was going to fall the next day. “No way,” he’d say, confidently, as they giggled. “Are you kidding? How clumsy do you think I am?”

It was, in many ways, a good summer. The apartment was near MIT

and belonged to Jude’s math professor, who was in Leipzig for the season, and who was charging them such a negligible rent that the two of them found themselves making small repairs to the place in order to express their gratitude: Jude organized the books that were stacked into quavering, precarious skyscrapers on every surface and spackled a section of wall that had gone puddingy with water damage; Willem tightened doorknobs, replaced a leaky washer,

changed the ballcock in the toilet. He started hanging out with another of the teacher’s aides, a girl who went to Harvard, and some nights she would come over to the house and the three of them would make large pots of spaghetti alle vongole and Jude would tell them about his days with the professor, who had decided to communicate with Jude in only Latin or ancient Greek, even when his instructions were things like, “I need more binder clips,” or “Make sure you get an extra shot of soy milk in my cappuccino tomorrow morning.” In August, their friends and acquaintances from college (and from Harvard, and MIT, and Wellesley, and Tufts) started drifting back to the city, and stayed with them for a night or two until they could move into their own apartments and dorm rooms. One evening toward the end of their stay, they invited fifty people up to the roof and helped Malcolm make a sort of clambake on the grill, blanketing ears of corn and mussels and clams under heaps of dampened banana leaves; the next morning the four of them scooped up the shells from the floor, enjoying the castanety clatter they made as they were tossed into trash bags.

But it was also that summer that he realized he wouldn’t go home

again, that somehow, without Hemming, there was no point in him and his parents pretending they needed to stay together. He suspected they felt the same way; there was never any conversation about this, but he never felt any particular need to see them again, and they never asked him. They spoke every now and again, and their conversations were, as always, polite and factual and dutiful. He asked them about the ranch, they asked him about school. His senior year, he got a role in the school’s production of The Glass Menagerie (he was cast as the gentleman caller, of course), but he never mentioned it to them, and when he told them that they shouldn’t bother to come east for graduation, they didn’t argue with him: it was nearing the end of foal season anyway, and he wasn’t sure they would have been able to come even if he hadn’t excused them. He and Jude had been adopted by Malcolm’s and JB’s families for the weekend, and when they weren’t around, there were plenty of other people to invite them to their celebratory lunches and dinners and outings.

“But they’re your parents,” Malcolm said to him once a year or so.

“You can’t just stop talking to them.” But you could, you did: he was proof of that. It was like any relationship, he felt—it took constant pruning, and dedication, and vigilance, and if neither party wanted to make the effort, why wouldn’t it wither? The only thing he missed—

besides Hemming—was Wyoming itself, its extravagant flatness, its trees so deeply green they looked blue, the sugar-and-turd apple-and-peat smell of a horse after it had been rubbed down for the night.

When he was in graduate school, they died, in the same year: his father of a heart attack in January, his mother of a stroke the following October. Then he had gone home—his parents were older, but he had forgotten how vivid, how tireless, they had always been, until he saw how diminished they had become. They had left everything to him, but after he had paid off their debts—and then he was unsettled anew, for all along he had assumed most of Hemming’s care and medical treatments had been covered by insurance, only to learn that four years after his death, they were still writing enormous checks to the hospital every month—there was very little left: some cash, some bonds; a heavy-bottomed silver mug that had been his long-dead paternal grandfather’s; his father’s bent wedding ring, worn smooth and shiny and pale; a black-and-white portrait of Hemming and Aksel that he’d never seen before. He kept these, and a few other things, too. The rancher who had employed his parents had long ago died, but his son, who now owned the ranch, had always treated them well, and it had been he who employed them long after he might reasonably be expected to, and he who paid for their funerals as well.

In their deaths, Willem was able to remember that he had loved

them after all, and that they had taught him things he treasured knowing, and that they had never asked from him anything he wasn’t able to do or provide. In less-charitable moments (moments from just a few years prior), he had attributed their lassitude, their unchallenging acceptance of whatever he might or might not do, to a lack of interest: what parent, Malcolm had asked him, half jealously, half pityingly, says nothing when their only child (he had apologized later) tells them he wants to be an actor? But now, older, he was able to appreciate that they had never even suggested he might owe them a debt—not success, or fealty, or affection, or even loyalty. His father, he knew, had gotten into some sort of trouble in Stockholm—he was never to know what—that had in part encouraged his parents’ move to the States. They would never have demanded he be like them; they hardly wanted to be themselves.

And so he had begun his adulthood, the last three years spent

bobbing from bank to bank in a muck-bottomed pond, the trees above and around him blotting out the light, making it too dark for him to see whether the lake he was in opened up into a river or whether it

was contained, its own small universe in which he might spend years, decades—his life—searching bumblingly for a way out that didn’t exist, had never existed.

If he had an agent, someone to guide him, she might be able to show him how to escape, how to find his way downstream. But he didn’t, not yet (he had to be optimistic enough to think it was still a matter of “yet”), and so he was left in the company of other seekers, all of them looking for that same elusive tributary, through which few left the lake and by which no one ever wanted to return.

He was willing to wait. He had waited. But recently, he could feel his patience sharpening itself into something splintery and ragged, chipping into dry little bits.

Still—he was not an anxious person, he was not inclined toward self-pity. Indeed, there were moments when, returning from Ortolan or from a rehearsal for a play in which he would be paid almost nothing for a week’s work, so little that he wouldn’t have been able to afford the prix fixe at the restaurant, he would enter the apartment with a feeling of accomplishment. Only to him and Jude would Lispenard Street be considered an achievement—for as much work as he had done to it, and as much as Jude had cleaned it, it was still sad, somehow, and furtive, as if the place was embarrassed to call itself a real apartment—but in those moments he would at times find himself thinking, This is enough. This is more than I hoped. To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words!—it was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and his brother would never have dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself every day.

But then the feeling would dissipate, and he would be left alone to

scan the arts section of the paper, and read about other people who were doing the kinds of things he didn’t even have the expansiveness, the arrogance of imagination to dream of, and in those hours the world would feel very large, and the lake very empty, and the night very black, and he would wish he were back in Wyoming, waiting at the end of the road for Hemming, where the only path he had to navigate was the one back to his parents’ house, where the porch light washed the night with honey.



First there was the life of the office you saw: forty of them in the main room, each with their own desk, Rausch’s glass-walled room at

one end, closest to Malcolm’s desk, Thomasson’s glass-walled room at the other. Between them: two walls of windows, one that looked over Fifth Avenue, toward Madison Square Park, the other of which peered over Broadway, at the glum, gray, gum-stamped sidewalk. That life existed officially from ten a.m. until seven p.m., Monday through Friday. In this life, they did what they were told: they tweaked models, they drafted and redrew, they interpreted Rausch’s esoteric scribbles and Thomasson’s explicit, block-printed commands. They did not speak. They did not congregate. When clients came in to meet with Rausch and Thomasson at the long glass table that stood in the center of the main room, they did not look up. When the client was famous, as was more and more the case, they bent so low over their desks and stayed so quiet that even Rausch began whispering, his voice—for once—accommodating itself to the office’s volume.

Then there was the second life of the office, its real life. Thomasson

was less and less present anyway, so it was Rausch whose exit they awaited, and sometimes they had to wait for a long time; Rausch, for all his partygoing and press-courting and opining and traveling, was in reality a hard worker, and although he might go out to an event (an opening, a lecture), he might also return, and then things would have to be hastily reassembled, so that the office he walked back into would resemble the office he had left. It was better to wait for the nights he would disappear completely, even if it meant waiting until nine or ten o’clock. They had cultivated Rausch’s assistant, brought her coffees and croissants, and knew they could trust her intelligence on Rausch’s arrivals and departures.

But once Rausch was definitively gone for the day, the office transformed itself as instantaneously as a pumpkin into a carriage. Music was turned on (they rotated among the fifteen of them who got to choose), and takeout menus materialized, and on everyone’s computers, work for Ratstar Architects was sucked back into digital folders, put to sleep, unloved and forgotten, for the night. They allowed themselves an hour of waste, of impersonating Rausch’s weird Teutonic boom (some of them thought he was secretly from Paramus and had adopted the name—Joop Rausch, how could it not be fake?— and the extravagant accent to obscure the fact that he was boring and from Jersey and his name was probably Jesse Rosenberg), of imitating Thomasson’s scowl and way of marching up and down the length of the office when he wanted to perform for company, barking at no one in particular (them, they supposed), “It’s ze vurk, gentlemen! It’s ze

vurk!” They made fun of the firm’s most senior principal, Dominick Cheung, who was talented but who was becoming bitter (it was clear to everyone but him that he would never be made a partner, no matter how often Rausch and Thomasson promised him), and even of the projects they worked on: the unrealized neo-Coptic church wrought from travertine in Cappadocia; the house with no visible framework in Karuizawa that now wept rust down its faceless glass surfaces; the museum of food in Seville that was meant to win an award but didn’t; the museum of dolls in Santa Catarina that never should’ve won an award but did. They made fun of the schools they’d gone to—MIT, Yale, Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia, Harvard—and how although they’d of course been warned that their lives would be misery for years, how they had all of them, to a one, assumed they’d be the exception (and now all, to a one, secretly thought they still would be). They made fun of how little money they made, how they were twenty-seven, thirty, thirty-two, and still lived with their parents, a roommate, a girlfriend in banking, a boyfriend in publishing (a sad thing, when you had to sponge off of your boyfriend in publishing because he made more than you). They bragged of what they would be doing if they hadn’t gone into this wretched industry: they’d be a curator (possibly the one job where you’d make even less than you did now), a sommelier (well, make that two jobs), a gallery owner (make it three), a writer (all right, four—clearly, none of them were equipped to make money, ever, in any imagining). They fought about buildings they loved and buildings they hated. They debated a photography show at this gallery, a video art show at another. They shouted back and forth at one another about critics, and restaurants, and philosophies, and materials. They commiserated with one another about peers who had become successes, and gloated over peers who had quit the business entirely, who had become llama farmers in Mendoza, social workers in Ann Arbor, math teachers in Chengdu.

During the day, they played at being architects. Every now and then

a client, his gaze helicoptering slowly around the room, would stop on one of them, usually either Margaret or Eduard, who were the best-looking among them, and Rausch, who was unusually attuned to shifts in attention away from himself, would call the singled-out over, as if beckoning a child to the adults’ dinner party. “Ah, yes, this is Margaret,” he’d say, as the client looked at her appraisingly, much as he had minutes before been looking at Rausch’s blueprints (blueprints finished in fact by Margaret). “She’ll be running me out of town

someday soon, I’m sure.” And then he’d laugh his sad, contrived, walrus-bark laugh: “Ah! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Margaret would smile and say hello, and roll her eyes at them the moment she turned around. But they knew she was thinking what they were all thinking: Fuck you, Rausch. And: When? When will I replace you? When will it be my turn?

In the meantime, all they had was play: after the debating and the shouting and the eating, there was silence, and the office filled with the hollow tappings of mice being clicked and personal work being dragged from folders and opened, and the grainy sound of pencils being dragged across paper. Although they all worked at the same time, using the same company resources, no one ever asked to see anyone else’s work; it was as if they had collectively decided to pretend it didn’t exist. So you worked, drawing dream structures and bending parabolas into dream shapes, until midnight, and then you left, always with the same stupid joke: “See you in ten hours.” Or nine, or eight, if you were really lucky, if you were really getting a lot done that night.

Tonight was one of the nights Malcolm left alone, and early. Even if he walked out with someone else, he was never able to take the train with them; they all lived downtown or in Brooklyn, and he lived uptown. The benefit to walking out alone was that no one would witness him catching a cab. He wasn’t the only person in the office with rich parents—Katharine’s parents were rich as well, as, he was pretty sure, were Margaret’s and Frederick’s—but he lived with his rich parents, and the others didn’t.

He hailed a taxi. “Seventy-first and Lex,” he instructed the driver. When the driver was black, he always said Lexington. When the driver wasn’t, he was more honest: “Between Lex and Park, closer to Park.” JB thought this was ridiculous at best, offensive at worst. “You think they’re gonna think you’re any more gangster because they think you live at Lex and not Park?” he’d ask. “Malcolm, you’re a dumbass.”

This fight about taxis was one of many he’d had with JB over the years about blackness, and more specifically, his insufficient blackness. A different fight about taxis had begun when Malcolm (stupidly; he’d recognized his mistake even as he heard himself saying the words) had observed that he’d never had trouble getting a cab in New York and maybe people who complained about it were exaggerating. This was his junior year, during his and JB’s first and last visit to the weekly Black Students’ Union meeting. JB’s eyes had

practically engorged, so appalled and gleeful was he, but when it was another guy, a self-righteous prick from Atlanta, who informed Malcolm that he was, number one, barely black, number two, an oreo, and number three, because of his white mother, unable to wholly understand the challenges of being truly black, it had been JB who had defended him—JB was always harassing him about his relative blackness, but he didn’t like it when other people did it, and he certainly didn’t like it when it was done in mixed company, which JB considered everyone except Jude and Willem, or, more specifically, other black people.

Back in his parents’ house on Seventy-first Street (closer to Park), he endured the nightly parental interrogation, shouted down from the second floor (“Malcolm, is that you?” “Yes!” “Did you eat?” “Yes!” “Are you still hungry?” “No!”), and trudged upstairs to his lair to review once again the central quandaries of his life.

Although JB hadn’t been around to overhear that night’s exchange with the taxicab driver, Malcolm’s guilt and self-hatred over it moved race to the top of tonight’s list. Race had always been a challenge for Malcolm, but their sophomore year, he had hit upon what he considered a brilliant cop-out: he wasn’t black; he was post-black. (Postmodernism had entered Malcolm’s frame of consciousness much later than everyone else’s, as he tried to avoid taking literature classes in a sort of passive rebellion against his mother.) Unfortunately, no one was convinced by this explanation, least of all JB, whom Malcolm had begun to think of as not so much black but pre-black, as if blackness, like nirvana, was an idealized state that he was constantly striving to erupt into.

And anyway, JB had found yet another way to trump Malcolm, for just as Malcolm was discovering postmodern identity, JB was discovering performance art (the class he was in, Identity as Art: Performative Transformations and the Contemporary Body, was favored by a certain kind of mustachioed lesbian who terrified Malcolm but for some reason flocked to JB). So moved was he by the work of Lee Lozano that for his midterm project, he decided to perform an homage to her entitled Decide to Boycott White People (After Lee Lozano), in which he stopped talking to all white people. He semi-apologetically, but mostly proudly, explained his plan to them one Saturday—as of midnight that night, he would stop talking to Willem altogether, and would reduce his conversational output with Malcolm by a half. Because Jude’s race was undetermined, he would

continue speaking to him, but would only do so in riddles or Zen koans, in recognition of the unknowability of his ethnic origins.

Malcolm could see by the look that Jude and Willem exchanged with each other, brief and unsmiling though, he observed irritatedly, full of meaning (he always suspected the two of them of conducting an extracurricular friendship from which he was excluded), that they were amused by this and were prepared to humor JB. For his part, he supposed he should be grateful for what might amount to a period of respite from JB, but he wasn’t grateful and he wasn’t amused: he was annoyed, both by JB’s easy playfulness with race and by his using this stupid, gimmicky project (for which he would probably get an A) to make a commentary on Malcolm’s identity, which was really none of JB’s business.

Living with JB under the terms of his project (and really, when were they not negotiating their lives around JB’s whims and whimsies?) was actually very much like living with JB under normal circumstances. Minimizing his conversations with Malcolm did not reduce the number of times JB asked Malcolm if he could pick up something for him at the store, or refill his laundry card since Malcolm was going anyway, or if he could borrow Malcolm’s copy of Don Quixote for Spanish class because he’d left his in the basement men’s room in the library. His not speaking to Willem didn’t also mean that there wasn’t plenty of nonverbal communication, including lots of texts and notes that he’d scribble down (“Scrning of Godfather at Rex’s—coming?”) and hand him, which Malcolm was positive was not what Lozano had intended. And his poor-man’s Ionesconian exchanges with Jude suddenly dissolved when he needed Jude to do his calculus homework, at which point Ionesco abruptly transformed into Mussolini, especially after Ionesco realized that there was a whole other problem set he hadn’t even begun because he had been busy in the men’s room in the library, and class began in forty-three minutes (“But that’s enough time for you, right, Judy?”).

Naturally, JB being JB and their peers easy prey for anything that

was glib and glittery, JB’s little experiment was written up in the school paper, and then in a new black literary magazine, There Is Contrition, and became, for a short tedious period, the talk of the campus. The attention had revived JB’s already flagging enthusiasm for the project—he was only eight days into it, and Malcolm could see him at times almost wanting to explode into talk with Willem—and he was able to last another two days before grandly concluding the

experiment a success and announcing that his point had been made. “What point?” Malcolm had asked. “That you can be as annoying to

white people without talking to them as when you are talking to them?”

“Oh, fuck you, Mal,” said JB, but lazily, too triumphant to even engage with him. “You wouldn’t understand.” And then he headed off to see his boyfriend, a white guy with a face like a praying mantis’s who was always regarding JB with a fervent and worshipful expression that made Malcolm feel slightly sick.

At the time, Malcolm had been convinced that this racial discomfort he felt was a temporary thing, a purely contextual sensation that was awakened in everyone in college but then evaporated the further from it you moved. He had never felt any particular agita about or pride in being black, except in the most remote ways: he knew he was supposed to have certain feelings about certain things in life (taxicab drivers, for one), but somehow that knowledge was only theoretical, not anything he had experienced himself. And yet blackness was an essential part of his family’s narrative, which had been told and retold until it was worn to a shine: how his father had been the third black managing director at his investment firm, the third black trustee at the very white boys’ preparatory school that Malcolm had attended, the second black CFO of a major commercial bank. (Malcolm’s father had been born too late to be the first black anything, but in the corridor in which he moved—south of Ninety-sixth Street and north of Fifty-seventh; east of Fifth and west of Lexington—he was still as rare as the red-tailed hawk that sometimes nested in the crenellations of one of the buildings opposite theirs on Park Avenue.) Growing up, the fact of his father’s blackness (and, he supposed, his own), had been trumped by other, more significant matters, factors that counted for more in their slice of New York City than his father’s race: his wife’s prominence in the Manhattan literary scene, for example, and, most important, his wealth. The New York that Malcolm and his family occupied was one divided not along racial lines but rather tax brackets, and Malcolm had grown up insulated from everything that money could protect him from, including bigotry itself—or so it in retrospect seemed. In fact, it wasn’t until college that he was made to truly confront the different ways in which blackness had been experienced by other people, and, perhaps more stunningly, how apart his family’s money had set him from the rest of the country (although this assumed you could consider his classmates

representative of the rest of the country, which you of course couldn’t). Even today, almost a decade after meeting him, he still had trouble comprehending the sort of poverty that Jude had been raised in—his disbelief when he finally realized that the backpack Jude had arrived to college with had contained, literally, everything on earth in his possession had been so intense that it had been almost physical, so profound that he had mentioned it to his father, and he was not in the habit of revealing to his father evidence of his naïveté, for fear of provoking a lecture about his naïveté. But even his father, who had grown up poor in Queens—albeit with two working parents and a new set of clothes every year—had been shocked, Malcolm sensed, although he had endeavored to conceal it by sharing a story of his own childhood deprivation (something about a Christmas tree that had to be bought the day after Christmas), as if lack of privilege were a competition that he was still determined to win, even in the face of another’s clear and inarguable triumph.

However, race seemed less and less a defining characteristic when

one was six years out of college, and those people who still nursed it as the core of their identity came across as somehow childish and faintly pathetic, as if clinging to a youthful fascination with Amnesty International or the tuba: an outdated and embarrassing preoccupation with something that reached its potent apotheosis in college applications. At his age, the only truly important aspects of one’s identity were sexual prowess; professional accomplishments; and money. And in all three of these aspects, Malcolm was also failing.

Money he set aside. He would someday inherit a huge amount. He didn’t know how huge, and he had never felt the need to ask, and no one had ever felt the need to tell him, which is how he knew it was huge indeed. Not Ezra huge, of course, but—well, maybe it was Ezra huge. Malcolm’s parents lived much more modestly than they might, thanks to his mother’s aversions to garish displays of wealth, so he never knew if they lived between Lexington and Park because they couldn’t afford to live between Madison and Fifth, or whether they lived between Lexington and Park because his mother would find it too ostentatious to live between Madison and Fifth. He would like to make his own money, he would. But he wasn’t one of those rich kids who tortured himself about it. He would try to earn his way, but it wasn’t wholly up to him.

Sex, and sexual fulfillment, however, was something he did have to

take responsibility for. He couldn’t blame his lack of a sex life on the

fact that he’d chosen a low-paying field, or on his parents for not properly motivating him. (Or could he? As a child, Malcolm had had to endure his parents’ long groping sessions—often conducted in front of him and Flora—and he now wondered whether their show-offy competence had dulled some competitive spirit within him.) His last real relationship had been more than three years ago, with a woman named Imogene who dumped him to become a lesbian. It was unclear to him, even now, whether he had actually been physically attracted to Imogene or had simply been relieved to have someone else make decisions that he had been happy to follow. Recently, he had seen Imogene (also an architect, although at a public interest group that built experimental low-income housing—exactly the sort of job Malcolm felt he should want to have, even if he secretly didn’t) and had teasingly told her—he had been joking!—that he couldn’t help but feel that he had driven her to lesbianism. But Imogene had bristled and told him that she had always been a lesbian and had stayed with him because he had seemed so sexually confused that she thought she might be able to help educate him.

But since Imogene, there had been no one. Oh, what was wrong

with him? Sex; sexuality: these too were things he should have sorted out in college, the last place where such insecurity was not just tolerated but encouraged. In his early twenties, he had tried falling in and out of love with various people—friends of Flora’s, classmates, one of his mother’s clients, a debut novelist who had written a literary roman à clef about being a sexually confused firefighter—and yet still didn’t know to whom he might be attracted. He often thought that being gay (as much as he also couldn’t stand the thought of it; somehow it, like race, seemed the province of college, an identity to inhabit for a period before maturing to more proper and practical realms) was attractive mostly for its accompanying accessories, its collection of political opinions and causes and its embrace of aesthetics. He was missing, it seemed, the sense of victimization and woundedness and perpetual anger it took to be black, but he was certain he possessed the interests that would be required if he were gay.

He fancied himself already half in love with Willem, and at various

points in love with Jude too, and at work he would sometimes find himself staring at Eduard. Sometimes he noticed Dominick Cheung staring at Eduard as well, and then he would stop himself, because the last person he wanted to be was sad, forty-five-year-old Dominick,

leering at an associate in a firm that he would never inherit. A few weekends ago, he had been at Willem and Jude’s, ostensibly to take some measurements so he could design them a bookcase, and Willem had leaned in front of him to grab the measuring tape from the sofa, and the very nearness of him had been suddenly unbearable, and he had made an excuse about needing to get into the office and had abruptly left, Willem calling after him.

He had in fact gone to the office, ignoring Willem’s texts, and had sat there at his computer, staring without seeing the file before him and wondering yet again why he had joined Ratstar. The worst thing was that the answer was so obvious that he didn’t even need to ask it: he had joined Ratstar to impress his parents. His last year of architecture school, Malcolm had had a choice—he could have chosen to work with two classmates, Jason Kim and Sonal Mars, who were starting their own firm with money from Sonal’s grandparents, or he could have joined Ratstar.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jason had said when Malcolm had told him of his decision. “You realize what your life is going to be like as an associate at a place like that, don’t you?”

“It’s a great firm,” he’d said, staunchly, sounding like his mother, and Jason had rolled his eyes. “I mean, it’s a great name to have on my résumé.” But even as he said it, he knew (and, worse, feared Jason knew as well) what he really meant: it was a great name for his parents to say at cocktail parties. And, indeed, his parents liked to say it. “Two kids,” Malcolm had overheard his father say to someone at a dinner party celebrating one of Malcolm’s mother’s clients. “My daughter’s an editor at FSG, and my son works for Ratstar Architects.” The woman had made an approving sound, and Malcolm, who had actually been trying to find a way to tell his father he wanted to quit, had felt something in him wilt. At such times, he envied his friends for the exact things he had once pitied them for: the fact that no one had any expectations for them, the ordinariness of their families (or their very lack of them), the way they navigated their lives by only their own ambitions.

And now? Now Jason and Sonal had had two projects appear in

New York and one in The New York Times, while he was still doing the sort of work he had done in his first year of architecture school, working for two pretentious men at a firm they had pretentiously named after a pretentious Anne Sexton poem, and getting paid almost nothing to do it.

He had gone to architecture school for the worst reason of all, it seemed: because he loved buildings. It had been a respectable passion, and when he was a child, his parents had indulged him with tours of houses, of monuments wherever they had traveled. Even as a very young boy, he had always drawn imaginary buildings, built imaginary structures: they were a comfort and they were a repository— everything he was unable to articulate, everything he was unable to decide, he could, it seemed, resolve in a building.

And in an essential way, this was what he was most ashamed of: not his poor understanding of sex, not his traitorous racial tendencies, not his inability to separate himself from his parents or make his own money or behave like an autonomous creature. It was that, when he and his colleagues sat there at night, the group of them burrowed deep into their own ambitious dream-structures, all of them drawing and planning their improbable buildings, he was doing nothing. He had lost the ability to imagine anything. And so every evening, while the others created, he copied: he drew buildings he had seen on his travels, buildings other people had dreamed and constructed, buildings he had lived in or passed through. Again and again, he made what had already been made, not even bothering to improve them, just mimicking them. He was twenty-eight; his imagination had deserted him; he was a copyist.

It frightened him. JB had his series. Jude had his work, Willem had

his. But what if Malcolm never again created anything? He longed for the years when it was enough to simply be in his room with his hand moving over a piece of graph paper, before the years of decisions and identities, when his parents made his choices for him, and the only thing he had to concentrate on was the clean blade stroke of a line, the ruler’s perfect knife edge.

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