Walking through the door to the board member’s party, Tom is immediately drawn to the host’s sixteen-year-old son, who’s giving a small crowd in the corner of the room the full “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.” His prey’s eyes dart up and down and back and forth, searching for help. “It’s that fucking intellectual chimp George Bush,” the boy goes on. “Don’t sleep on George Bush.”
This is 2015, which means that the kid is probably referencing the meme. That doesn’t make it better. It being 2015 also means that he, Tom Welsh, has been out of college for the better part of eight years. He thought he’d left his interest in party-ruiners and the socially unskilled somewhere between then and now, but he watches the boy’s performance with the feeling of a blanket being draped over his shoulders. Maybe these are still his people.
A few minutes before he’d been alone in the semi-private elevator that opened directly into the TriBeCa loft of the person he’s here to help impress. He spent the ride up practicing his few go-to lines in the selfie camera of his phone. It’s really a very fancy party. There’s a wait staff of at least six flitting around with hors d’oeuvres (octopus and beef tartar and something with avocado and ceviche and those fried Italian balls that he’s forgotten the name of). They’re wearing pressed white shirts and black bow ties. The men have suspenders. They’re all politely ignoring the boy ranting in the corner of the room.
The loft is the property of someone on the board of the art museum where the girl he’s meeting works now. He’d dated her, the girl he’s meeting, something like ten years before and they’ve remained – as two people who know each other in a large and otherwise unfriendly city – in tenuous, possibly friendly contact since. At times it has been very tenuous. Still, sometimes he thinks about her. That’s part of the reason he agreed to come tonight. It’s not that he wants to get back together, just that he remembers the time that they were together fondly.
A man in a black bow tie and jacket – possibly a butler – has now taken Tom’s coat and set him loose on the room. He sidles up next to a waiter and grabs a tentacle of octopus speared on a wooden fork. He nibbles it as he looks around. The back wall, to his right leaving the elevator, is a pane of glass maybe fourteen feet high with a view of the Hudson and New Jersey. In front of it are two separate sets of couches more or less in parallel, complete with matching rugs and groups of schmoozing guests. People are wearing jackets over festive sweaters. They’re all at least ten years older than him.
There she is. She’s wearing a red dress and has her thick brown hair pulled up high over the top of her head. It’s a professional dress and a professional haircut: the bob effortless without being sloppy. She looks pretty and a little bit like someone else.
“Sarah,” he says. “Great dress.”
“Hey,” she says. “Thanks for coming.”
“This is great,” Tom says. He gestures around the room with the octopus fork. “So nice.”
“Yeah,” she says. She seems vaguely chagrined. He thinks again about the fact that they are the youngest (and probably poorest) people in the room. “Board members. So much money.”
He’d had a vague sense of her career from Facebook and Instagram but had thought that the donor schmoozing was at a much lower level. Apparently not. Apparently donors at a much lower level – even donors at a moderately lower level – do not have anyone specifically assigned to schmooze them.
“You look good,” she says. He’s made an effort: a new blazer and pressed navy pants. He spent a lot of time thinking about what the exact right level of fancy was for the event and then went one step above because he wanted to be impressive.
They meander slowly over to the hostess, who is on the other side of the room. On the way, Tom picks up a glass of red wine, and another hors d’oeuvre. He tries to get them both into his right hand and eventually maneuvers them into an X shape that makes both inaccessible – a sip of wine and the octopus will stain his jacket, a bite of octopus and the wine will spill.
Over his shoulder, he can still hear the boy rambling on like the narrator of Pynchon novel. “It’s all systems,” he says. “You think things just happen but they don’t. There’s a reason.” Tom tries to picture the audience. He can’t. Instead he gets distracted responding to the boy, arguing and agreeing, agreeing and arguing, recommending books. He’s still doing this when they bump into the hostess.
“I’ve heard so much about you Tom,” she’s saying. “Sarah says you went to college together?”
“That’s right,” he says. He tightens his grip on the mesh of hors d’oeuvre and wine in his right hand. “Sarah was much smarter than me though. Is. And a much better student.”
“Oh that’s funny,” the hostess says. “You should meet my son. He’s applying to Wesleyan too. I’m sure he’d be happy to hear about it.”
“Sure,” Tom says. “I’d be happy to speak to him.”
“Great,” the hostess says. She turns to Sarah, possibly done with Tom. “So what should I see?” This leads to a very long discussion of the best way to get Shakespeare in the Park tickets. The hostess seems to find the idea of paying someone to stand in line a bit dirty. “Better to know someone,” she says. Sarah nods.
Tom unravels the X and finishes his wine. He listens with one ear for his target but the boy has gone quiet. He’s not sure why this worries him. On some level, he thinks that without the boy for cover it’ll become clear that he makes absolutely no sense here.
“Honey,” the hostess is saying. It takes Tom a few seconds to realize she’s addressing him. He perks to attention when Sarah pokes him in the ribs. It’s a soft poke if insistent. He feels some version of that old charge. “You’re out of wine.”
“Oh,” he says. “Yeah. It’s really good.” The hostess raises her hand to shoulder height and within a few seconds his glass is refilled. “There’s Charlie,” she says, gesturing over his shoulder. Tom and Sarah turn around simultaneously and catch sight of the sixteen-year-old picking up a tiny bowl of shrimp ceviche in each hand. He walks over to a table, sets both down then proceeds to eat them in rapid succession – slamming the mix into his mouth like he’s taking a shot.
“Tom,” Sarah says. “You should go talk to him. About college.” She switches her wine from her right hand to her left and uses her now free hand to briefly grab his forearm. He feels the charge again. “I’m sure he’ll love it.”
He nods, tries to determine if he’s meant to walk over now. Sarah has already turned back to the board member. “I talked to him about school last week,” she’s saying. “But I think he’ll appreciate a male perspective.”
“Oh absolutely.” Tom turns his body towards the boy but hovers next to Sarah’s shoulder. He waits about a minute but she doesn’t turn back to him.
“Okay,” he says, mostly to pump himself up. He looks around for a waiter who might refill his wine glass but any that are in the area seem to know better than to come up to him. He walks over to the table and sets his glass down next to the boy’s empty ceviches. The boy also seems to be searching for a waiter.
“Hey,” Tom says. “Charlie right?” The boy nods. “Tom. You having fun?”
“Sure,” he says. “I’m having a great time hanging out with all these old rich people. This is exactly what I want to be doing.”
“Right,” Tom says. He sips from his glass of wine. “Your Mom said you were interested in Wesleyan. Like in hearing about it?”
“I know about it.”
“Okay. Yeah. Of course.”
“You went there?”
“Yeah it wasn’t bad.” He pauses, drinks more wine while this time carefully calculating how long he can make it last before he needs another drink. In making that calculation he asks himself, almost honestly, whether he’s drunk. He’s started to feel like his ability to pass here, to not find himself as the pimple in the middle of this otherwise perfect room, will have deep implications for his economic future. The boy doesn’t have any questions for him. He seems to find Tom ridiculous.
Later he and Sarah go to a bar. Tom waits until they get there to start talking about the boy. Then he can’t stop himself. “A 9-11 truther,” he says. “How does that work?”
“It’s just kids and the Internet,” Sarah says. “It doesn’t make sense to us but it makes sense to them.”
“I tried to get him to talk about Wesleyan but I don’t know.” He wonders if she understands that he’s asking, ‘How did I do?’
“Thanks for coming,” she says. “Clarice was so happy you talked to Charlie. She’s so desperate to get him to go somewhere decent.”
Standing at the bar, ordering and drinking, drinking and ordering until stools open up, their eyes keep meeting. Their hands keep touching. It seems that indeed the spark is still there, or something like it.
She explains that she’s only recently been trusted with a few of the more important donors but that it’s gone well so far. Things have been going well for him too though in a more modest way. Things have been going well for him but somehow this party has felt like a door closing, or a glimpse into the sort of life he won’t have.
“To us,” Sarah says at some point. “Who would’ve thought we’d still be doing this so many years on.”
They toast. Later, drunker, they go outside to smoke a cigarette and realize that neither of them have anything to smoke. “I don’t know why I thought you still did,” Sarah says. “Of course you don’t.”
“I was going to say the same about you.” They laugh and go back in.
Still later, much later, the bar has partially cleared out and they stand in front of two empty stools, sipping at two half-full beers. Their eyes meet again. They don’t say anything but they don’t look away either. ‘This is the signal,’ Tom tells himself.
Has he been waiting all night for this signal? Either way he takes it, leans in. She leans in. They kiss.
It’s pleasant. Their mouths move together, feel each other out, for the better part of a minute. They stop, look at each other, start again.
This goes on, physically, but Tom feels his interest diminishing. Or, no, it’s her interest. Her interest is diminishing. Something is missing. Somewhere air is coming out of the balloon.
Later he’ll tell himself that he knew immediately that kissing her had spoilt the mood. That the point, as much as there was a point, was the tension. The point was that there still existed the possibility that they might go back in time and be the people they were. Or maybe the point was something else. Either way they weren’t supposed to do anything about it. Because they were different now and because those were old feelings and they were dead.
They go home separately. ‘At least now you know,’ he tells himself as he gets into bed, but in the morning he still feels heartbroken. That feeling stays for weeks.
DE MacMillan has had work in Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, and *82 Review. He lives in New York.