The e-mail came in the afternoon. E-mail was new and just at work only. “Idea,” said the subject line. Inside it said, “I’m stopping off at the club before I get on the train, you want to join me?”
I know how to act in a private club. Private clubs do not accept money, and Trevor would not ask me for it.
It was summer, the city had that cleared-out feeling; we walked down the quiet humid canyon of streets and there was the Harvard Club, the Cornell Club, and then we reached a certain wooden and brass door that was held open for us and I tried to sweep nonchalantly in. I hoped I was thin enough. I randomly hoped I was thin enough all the time.
Trevor had his suit jacket on and swept brown hair off his forehead, a gesture I’d espied him doing at work behind his big block of a computer monitor. He was like the shorter more nervous boys at mixers, boys that you imagine are nice people and the beautiful blond girls they always like never like them back. His nose was the most petite of banana shapes; the back of his head was flat-ish, and I had noticed that he walked with his shoulders held stiff and his head cocked at a slight angle.
We went through a room decked out in mid-1980s splendor of upholstered chairs and thick pink carpet. “I find the balcony refreshing,” he said and I followed him until he remembered, stopped, let me sidestep him and go first and when I assumed the lead he pointed the way. I was grateful for the stilted language and this ridiculous ballet, which we both understood, because we both understood. I murmured, did not overly voice, thanks when he pulled out my chair, even though this was 1993 and by this time boys didn’t really get told to do those manners anymore, the ones you see in black and white movies. In the 1980s only boys growing up in elite circles were taught this, and it was now a sort of social echolocation signal. Someone who didn’t know would have grinned overly much, would have enthused, would have blossomed under this consideration, which was the wrong thing. Instead, I did the smallest of faraway social smiles and then put the moment away; he received my signal back.
We worked in the same department on either side of an enormous floor. I knew I had been chosen by him to ask out for a drink because in the break room he’d seen my class ring, worn in the way that men wore pinky rings with crests, we chatted and he knew my boarding school and I knew his boarding school and we had been to mixers at each other’s schools. This was a graceful replacement from when we first actually met, which is when I rounded the corner to his cubicle and he was picking a zit.
“How was your day?” I asked.
“Fine. Annoying,” he said. “The people in Florida didn’t give us client hours by partner, they gave us the report of hours by entire service team.”
“Oh, how awful,” I said.
He gave an expression of distaste with his lips and readjusted himself in his chair. The aristocratic restlessness to get on to the real stuff. “I had to get the partner hours report and then fill in a spreadsheet manually, so Hal could have it for the train.”
“What a bore,” I said. “You shouldn’t have to explain everything to everyone.”
“But one does,” he said.
I ordered a gin and tonic because that is a perfectly acceptable summer drink. The sun was still brilliant and the air was clear. We were surrounded by dark important buildings at various heights, men standing in tuxedos in a field, it seemed. Being at a club always has a certain weight to it; people laden with money in repose. I didn’t say a word about it being fancy or nice and I understood that I should only have one drink.
It was easy to talk to Trevor because we worked in a room of fifty people between us, and never having compared impressions we rifled through them one after another effortlessly until the drink hit me on an empty stomach and desiring a deeper level of talk, I asked him what he majored in at school.
“Philosophy,” he said. I assumed that this meant that he had a lot to say about the world, and I pressed him and he made a joke about Positivism, which stopped me cold because I didn’t know what that was. I told him about my political science thesis on opium and western influence in China at the turn of the century. But instead of sounding interesting I sounded like I was bearing down on a topic out of nerves, so I broke off and scrambled for noble silence. The draperies and table coverings were not trimmed but lay on the floor as if to suggest there was so much wealth here the brocaded fabric had gushed out of the walls and tables. The bathroom was empty and cool and had golden handles on the flush toilets, breath mints and hair spray on a vanity and when I got back he of course stood up, for which you are supposed to murmur thank you, and I did.
“What do you want to do, with work I mean?” I asked during the next lull. Trevor shrugged and smiled in the sun. He had nice white teeth. He was slope shouldered and this slope telegraphed kindness, he was kind to ask me out and kinder to signal for more drinks, though no food. “Business school in a couple of years, I guess. How about you?”
The table we were sitting at had a glass top and polished bronze legs. The traffic honked softly, creating a pleasant faint din. I was used to loud bars, drinks with a few indifferent ice cubes in glasses that would serve juice in the morning shift. But our glasses were square and heavy, wavy in the light, breaking it into prisms on the terrazzo floor. Light accelerates, I thought.
“How does life start?” I said, squinting at him. “What are the key threads that one picks up and then, hand over hand, pulls forward in time? What are mine? I go to work every day, but what, really?”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, and we looked at the table, and then at all the buildings around us.
I thought inviting him over to dinner would be a good next step. He arrived with a bottle of not great wine and seemed surprised that I had roommates. Plural. My parents had financed quite an education for me and my siblings, but they were well-paid professionals, as opposed to rich, and they were not prepared to bankroll our life out of college. A certain set of my classmates lived in doorman buildings in one bedrooms, well-cushioned rides up and down the elevator in excellent suits bought for jobs that covered only a fraction of their expenses. We met for drinks, we held similar jobs, we were bored and excited by the same things. Trevor wriggled stiffly into the chair jammed between the table and wall in the almost eat-in kitchen while the TV blared from the other room. I was in my bare feet wearing an old Laura Ashley sailor dress and gabbling on while pulling a casserole, far too hot for the season, out of the oven, tending to the bubbling vegetables on the stove and feeling as if I was rising to hysteria trying to keep track of four things cooking at once while Trevor sat there, seeming embarrassed for me. In my mind he would be chuckling along, donning an oven mitt to increase the preppy hilarity of it all. One of my roommates, hearing the silence, tried to rescue me by joining us for a glass of wine, but this devolved into the two of us talking. I kept thinking this was a failure of focus or of witticism or, I realized, of a transcendent beautiful moment; and so after we'd barely put down our forks, I hustled him up to see the skyline. But when we'd popped the hatch and scrambled up a ladder to the tar-spread roof, Trevor stood there with his arms hanging. Instead of the gesture being whimsy and magic, it felt as if I had ushered us into a badly crafted, overly determined Romantic Moment. He seemed worried that I would try to kiss him.
After he left, I lurched into my room afloat in ghastly city light pollution, and lay on the floor. Biography was scattered willy nilly again—we were not at the story of The Night We First Kissed. I reviewed the misses—here is where he put on the oven mitts and grabbed me by the waist, for a madcap dance, here is where the awkwardness remained until we got to the rooftop and then he took me in his arms...Here is where his initial interest in me, inviting me to his club, would have found its next fawn-like step. Instead of just being nothing. This was just another random, stupid, wasted night. I was left with another day where I was alive and present at my desk, walking into stores and looking into the eyes of people, and walking home, looking into the buttery evening lights of people arriving to their homes. I was a match scraping and scraping against a surface of New York and could not light.
Years later, in another, much smaller town, I was in a convertible, with the right people, and the right music playing, moments so sweet I knew they were golden memories right as I was living them. Someone said, “I lived in Trevor’s college when we were at school. There was this guy down the hall who would take Trevor out to an expensive dinner every now and then, and then Trevor had to sleep with him afterwards.” I relaxed then, into the blowing wind, my dirty feet and my boon companions. The golden vein of the the truth flowed richly through me. His life could be summed by this single humiliating story—the quest for a material provider. My life, however, was promising to the point of too big to be defined by a single story.
And then I lost biography again. That period of pounding effort and sure focus gradually eroded with many essential failures and tiny success to renunciation, and redirection. Eventually I was waking up numbed to an existence of disappointment. Years and years later, late at night, I saw a picture of Trevor online. He looked middle aged. The woman he dated after me had full cheeks, a double chin, a lot of money, and he had married her. He was one of those people who ages into unattractiveness. He looked like someone who had never been attractive. If he approached me in a bar, I would recoil. He probably has forgotten the mid-1980s manners, certainly they would seem bizarre. Why would you stand when someone came back to the table? This was now. I have never become comfortable with the idea that I knew my life for a brief period, fought for it, even. And then, it seemed as if a bridge was built from my twenties to my forties, a bridge on which the me of then and the me of now both stared down at my thirties watching the surge and action as if it were a brilliant, beautiful, stupid fish.