The following is an excerpt of Social Creature, the debut thriller by Tara Isabella Burton which centers on a toxic friendship that develops between two young women in New York CIty. Rights were preemptively acquired by Lionsgate, and a film is currently in development. Read on below, and pre-order the novel ahead of its June 5 release here.
The first party Lavinia takes Louise to, she makes Louise wear one of her dresses.
“I found it on the street,” Lavinia says. “It’s from the twenties.” Maybe it is.
“Someone just left it there. Can you believe it?”
“They probably just thought it was trash.” She puckers her lips. She puts on lipstick. “And that is the problem with people. Nobody understands what things mean.”
Lavinia fiddles with Louise’s collar. Lavinia ties the sash around Louise’s waist.
“Anyway, the second I saw it—Christ! I wanted to—oh, I just wanted to genuflect, you know? Kiss the ground—do Catholics kiss the ground, or is that just sailors? Anyway, I wanted to put my mouth right there on the sidewalk on somebody’s chewed gum and say, like, thank you, God, for making the world make sense today.”
Lavinia puts powder on Louise’s cheeks. Lavinia adds rouge. Lavinia keeps talking.
“Like—it’s all so f—ing perfect, right? Like—somebody’s grandmother or whoever, dies in some random brownstone in the East Village nobody’s even visited in twenty years and they dump all her shit out into the street and then at sunset—here I am walking across East Ninth Street and I find it. This old woman and I who have never met have these two beautiful, poetic, nights ninety years apart, wearing the exact same dress—oh, Louise, can’t you just smell it?”
Lavinia shoves the lace in Louise’s face.
“You could fall in love,” says Lavinia, “wearing a dress like that.”
“So you know what I did?”
Lavinia gives Louise a beauty mark with her eyebrow pencil.
“I stripped down to my underwear—no, that’s a lie; I took my bra off, too. I took off everything and I put on the dress and I left my other one in the street and I walked all night, wearing it, all the way back to the Upper East Side.”
Lavinia does Louise’s buttons.
Now Lavinia is laughing. “Stick with me long enough,” she says, “and I promise—things will just happen to you. Like they happen to me.”
Lavinia does Louise’s hair. At first she tries to do it, like she’s done her own: savagely and exuberantly tendriled. But Louise’s hair is too flat, and too straight, and so instead Lavinia braids it into a tight, neat bun.
Lavinia puts her hands on Louise’s cheeks. She kisses her on the forehead.
“God,” says Lavinia. “You look so beautiful. I can’t stand it. I want to kill you. Let’s take a picture.”
She takes out her phone. She makes it a mirror.
“Let’s stand against the peacock feathers,” Lavinia says. Louise does.
Louise doesn’t know how.
“Oh, please.” Lavinia waves the camera. “Everybody knows how to pose. Just, you know: Arch your back a little. Tilt your head. Pretend you’re a silent-film star. There. There—no, no, chin down. There.”
Lavinia moves Louise’s chin. She takes their photo.
“The last one’s good,” Lavinia says. “We look good. I’m posting it.” She turns the phone to Louise. “Which filter do you like?”
Louise doesn’t recognize herself.
Her hair is sleek. Her lips are dark. Her cheekbones are high. She’s wearing a flapper dress and she has cat’s eyes and fake lashes and she looks like she’s not even from this century. She looks like she’s not even real.
“Let’s go with Mayfair. It makes your cheekbones look shiny. Christ—look at you! Look. At. You. You’re beautiful.”
Lavinia has captioned the photo: “alike in indignity.” Louise thinks this is very witty.
Louise thinks: I am not myself.
Thank God, Louise thinks. Thank God.
They cab it to Chelsea. Lavinia pays.
It’s New Year’s Eve. Louise has known Lavinia for ten days. They have been the best ten days of her life.
Days don’t go like this for Louise.
Louise’s days go like this:
She wakes up. She wishes she hasn’t.
Chances are: Louise hasn’t slept much. She works as a barista at this coffee shop that turns into a wine bar at night, and also writing for this e-commerce site called GlaZam that sells knockoff handbags, and also as an SAT tutor. She sets an alarm for at least three hours before she has to be anywhere, because she lives deep in Sunset Park, a twenty-minute walk from the R, in the same illegal and roach-infested sublet she’s been in for almost eight years, and half the time the train breaks down. When they call her, once every couple of months, Louise’s parents invariably ask her why she’s so stubborn about moving back to New Hampshire, say, where that nice Virgil Bryce is a manager at the local bookstore now, and he won’t stop asking for her new number. Louise invariably hangs up.
She weighs herself. Louise weighs one hundred fourteen and a half pounds on a period day. She puts on her makeup very carefully. She draws on her brows. She checks her roots. She checks her bank balance (sixty-four dollars, thirty-three cents). She covers up the flaws in her skin.
She looks in the mirror.
Today, she says—out loud (a therapist she had once told her that it’s always better to say these things out loud)—is the first day of the rest of your life.
She makes herself smile. Her therapist told her to do that, too.
Louise walks the twenty minutes to the subway. She ignores the catcaller who asks her, every morning, how her pussy smells, even though he’s probably the person in the world she interacts with most regularly. She spends the ride into Manhattan staring at her reflection in the darkened subway windows. Back when Louise was sure she was going to be a go-down-in-history Great Writer she used to take a notebook and use the commute to write stories, but now she is too tired and also she probably will never be a writer; so she reads trashy Misandry! articles on her phone and sometimes watches people (Louise enjoys watching people; she finds it calming; when you spend a lot of time focusing on the things wrong with other people you worry less about everything wrong with you).
Louise goes to work as a barista, or at GlaZam, or to teach an SAT lesson.
She likes lessons best. When she speaks with her very carefully cultivated mid-Atlantic accent and puts her very carefully dyed blonde hair into a bun and alludes to the fact that she went to school in Devonshire, New Hampshire, she gets $80 an hour, plus the satisfaction of having fooled somebody. Now if Louise had actually gone to Devonshire Academy, the boarding prep school, and not just the public Devonshire High, she’d get $250, but the kind of parents who can pay $250 are more assiduous in checking these things.
Not that most people ever check these things. When Louise was sixteen, she took to leaving her house early and eating breakfast and dinner at the Academy’s dining hall. She made it a whole three months, watching people, before anybody noticed, and even then it was just her mother who found out, and grounded her, and by the time she was allowed out of the house again she’d started AIM-chatting Virgil Bryce, who didn’t like it when she went anywhere without him.
Louise finishes work.
She looks in her phone-mirror, a few times, to make sure she’s still there. She checks Tinder, even though she hardly responds to anybody she matches with. There was one guy who seemed really feminist online but turned out to practice relationship anarchy; and another who was really into kink in ways that she was never entirely sure were not abusive; and one guy who was really great, actually, but he ghosted her after two months. Sometimes Louise considers going out with somebody new, but this seems like just another thing to potentially f— up.
Sometimes, if Louise has been paid cash that week, she goes to a really nice bar: on Clinton or Rivington, or on the Upper East Side.
She orders the nicest drink she can afford (Louise can’t really afford to be drinking at all, but even Louise deserves nice things, sometimes). She sips her drink very, very slowly. If she doesn’t eat dinner (Louise never eats dinner) the alcohol will hit her harder, which is a relief, because when Louise gets drunk she forgets the invariable fact that she is going to f— everything up one day, if she hasn’t already, whether it’s because she loses all her jobs at once and gets evicted or because she gains twenty pounds because she is too tired to exercise and then not even the catcaller will want to f— her or because she’ll get throat cancer from all the times she has made herself throw up all her food or because she will get another kind of even rarer and more obscure cancer from all the times she obsessively dyes her hair in a bathroom without ventilation or she will f— up by unblocking Virgil Bryce on social media or else because she will get into another relationship in which a man who seems nice on Tinder wants to save her, or else to choke her, and she will do whatever he says because the other way to f— it all up is to die alone.
Louise waits until she sobers up (another very certain way to f— up is to be a drunk woman alone in New York at night), and then she takes the subway home, and although Louise no longer writes in her notebook, if she is still tipsy enough to feel that the apocalypse is no longer imminent she tells herself that tomorrow, when she is that little bit less tired, she will write a story.
They say if you haven’t made it in New York by thirty, you never will.
Louise is twenty-nine.
Lavinia is twenty-three.
This is how they meet:
Lavinia’s sister, Cordelia, is sixteen. She’s at boarding school in New Hampshire—not Devonshire Academy but one of its rivals. She’s home for Christmas break. Their parents live in Paris. Lavinia found one of Louise’s “SAT tutor? available now!” flyers at The Corner Bookstore on Ninety-third and Madison, which has a free Christmas champagne reception Louise has been crashing for three years, even though she lives so far away, just to drink for free and watch rich, happy families be happy and rich.
“I’m afraid I don’t know a damn thing,” Lavinia says over the phone. “But Cordy’s brilliant. And I know I’ll corrupt her—unless somebody else is there to stop me. You know what I mean. A good influence. And anyway she’s here for a whole week before she goes to Paris for Christmas and we’ve watched every single Ingmar Bergman DVD in the house and now I’m all out of ideas to keep her off the streets. I can pay. How much does a person pay for these things? You tell me.”
“One fifty an hour,” says Louise.
“I’ll start tonight,” Louise says.
Lavinia lives in a floor-through brownstone apartment on Seventy-seventh Street between Park and Lex. When Louise arrives on the stoop, there is opera blaring from an open window, and Lavinia is singing along, off-key, and this is how Louise figures out that Lavinia lives on the second floor without even having to check the buzzer.
Lavinia has flowers in all of her window boxes. All of them are dead.
Lavinia answers the door in a sleeveless black dress made entirely of feathers. Her hair comes down to her waist. It is wild, and coarse, and she has not brushed it in days, but it is the hue of blonde Louise has spent many hours experimenting with drugstore dyes to achieve, only it is natural. She is not tall but she is thin (Louise tries to calculate exactly how thin, but the feathers get in the way), and she fixes her eyes on Louise with such intensity that Louise instinctively takes a step back: half-knocking into a vase filled with dead lilies.
Lavinia doesn’t notice.
“Thank God you’re here,” she says.
Cordelia is sitting at the dining-room table. She is wearing her hair in one long thick braid, coiled and pinned. She doesn’t look up from her book.
There are antique fans all over the walls. There is a gold-embroidered caftan hanging on a wall, and a powdered wig on the head of a mannequin whose features are drawn in lipstick, and there are several illustrated tarot cards—the High Priestess, the Tower, the Fool—in rusty art nouveau frames on all the surfaces in the room. The walls are all a regal, blinding blue, except for the moldings, which Lavinia has made gold.
Lavinia kisses Louise on both cheeks.
“Make sure she goes to bed by ten,” she says, and leaves.
“She does that.”
Cordelia finally looks up.
“She isn’t really that oblivious,” she says. “That’s just her sense of humor. She thinks it’s funny to tease me. And you.”
Louise doesn’t say anything.
“I’m sorry,” says Cordelia. “I started studying already.” Her smile twists at the edges.
She makes Louise a pot of tea.
“You can have chocolate-vanilla or you can have hazelnut-cinnamon-pear-cardamom,” she says. “Vinny doesn’t have any normal tea.”
She serves it in an intricately patterned teapot (“It’s from Uzbekistan,” Cordelia says. Louise doesn’t know whether this is a joke). She sets it down on a tray.
Cordelia forgets a teaspoon, although there is one in the sugar pot, but after the second cup Louise realizes if she stirs the tea it will wet the spoon and then ruin the sugar. If she keeps the spoon dry the sugar will not settle in the cup.
Louise sips her tea without any sugar in it. She briefly considers asking for another spoon, but the thought of doing this makes her nervous, and so Louise doesn’t say anything at all.
They do SAT words: What is the difference between lackluster, laconic, and lachrymose? They do math: all the 3-4-5 triangles, surface areas of different shapes. Cordelia gets all the questions right.
“I’m going to Yale,” Cordelia says, like that’s a thing people just decide. “Then I’m going to a Pontifical University in Rome for my master’s. I’m going to be a nun.”
Then: “I’m sorry.”
“I’m trolling you. I shouldn’t. I mean—I do want to be a nun. But even so.”
“That’s okay,” says Louise.
She drinks another cup of sugarless hazelnut-cinnamon-pear-cardamom tea.
“I feel guilty,” says Cordelia. “Keeping you here. I don’t really need a tutor. Don’t feel bad—I mean, you’re doing a very good job. Sorry. It’s just—I know all this already.” She shrugs. “Maybe Vinny really does want you to be my babysitter. Only—she won’t be back by ten.”
“That’s okay,” Louise says. “I trust you to make your own bedtime.”
“That’s not an issue.” Cordelia smiles her strange half-smile again. “Vinny’s the one with the cash.”
Cordelia and Louise sit in silence on the sofa until six in the morning. Cordelia puts on a dressing gown covered in cat hair (there is no cat to be seen) and reads a paperback copy of John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Louise reads clickbait articles from Misandry! on her phone.
She is very tired, but she also needs three hundred dollars more than she needs sleep.
Lavinia comes home at dawn, covered in feathers.
“I’m so terribly, terribly sorry,” she exclaims. She trips over the threshold. “Of course, I’ll pay you for the hours. Every hour. Every one.”
She catches her skirt in the door. It rips. “Christ.”
Feathers slice the air as they fall.
“All my pretty chickens,” Lavinia cries. She gets on her hands and knees. “All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam.”
“I’ll get some water,” Cordelia says.
“It’s a bad omen.” Lavinia has fallen over, now, laughing, with a black feather in her hand. “It means death!”
Louise grabs the trailing feathers from underneath the door.
“No, don’t! Let them be!”
Lavinia grabs Louise’s wrists; she pulls her in.
“It died a noble death.” She hiccups. “This dress—it has been felled in battle.” Her hair fans out on the floor all the way to the steamer trunk she has made into a coffee table. “And what a battle! Oh— what’s your name again?”
“Louise!” Lavinia yanks her wrist again, but joyfully. “Like Lou Salomé. [Louise doesn’t know who that is.] Louise! I’ve had the most wonderful, wonderful night in the world. One of those nights. You know?”
Louise smiles politely.
“I believe in things again, Louise!” Lavinia closes her eyes. “God. And glory. And love and fairy dust—God, I love this city.”
Cordelia leaves a glass of water on the steamer trunk.
But Lavinia is scrambling to the sofa. She’s beatific and dark with glitter, and light with different glitter, and Louise doesn’t know what to do or say to make Lavinia like her but she is good at watching people and she knows what they need and so, like she always does, she finds an opening.
“I can fix that, you know.”
Lavinia sits up. “Fix what?”
“It’s just the hem. I can sew it back on. If you have a needle and thread.”
“A needle and thread?” Lavinia looks at Cordelia.
“My room,” says Cordelia.
“You can fix it?”
“I mean—unless you don’t want me to.”
“Don’t want you to?” Lavinia gathers up her skirts. “Lazarus, back from the dead.” She piles them in her lap. “I have come to tell thee!” She flings back her arms. “Oh, I’m so—so!—sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Louise says.
“I know—I know—you must think I’m ridiculous.”
“I don’t think you’re ridiculous.”
“Are you sure?”
Louise doesn’t know what Lavinia wants her to say. “I mean—”
Lavinia doesn’t even wait.
“You’re not judging me?”
“I’m not judging you.”
Louise speaks very slowly. “Yes,” she says. “I’m sure.”
“It was just—it was only just a few of us. Me and Father Romylos and Gavin—Gavin’s a narcissistic sociopath. He told me so, once. One of the nicest people in the world, but technically, a narcissistic sociopath. Anyway, we decided to see if you can break into the Botanic Garden. Apparently you can! Look!”
She shows Louise a photograph. Lavinia and an Orthodox priest and a bald man in a turtleneck are collapsing in a hedgerow.
“Father Romylos is the one in the cassock,” she says.
“Are there even any flowers this time of year?” Cordelia has returned with a sewing kit. She hands it to Louise.
“It’s my favorite thing in the world, breaking into places! It makes you feel so alive—to be somewhere you’re not supposed to be. We got caught, once, had to pay an awful fine at the Central Park Zoo, but other than that! Oh—don’t look at me like that.”
Louise is sewing the hem. She hasn’t even looked up.
“Like you think I’m horrible!”
“I don’t,” says Louise.
What she is thinking is this:
Lavinia isn’t afraid of anything.
“I’m not drunk, you know,” says Lavinia. She sways her hair—her long, coarse, wonderful hair—across Louise’s shoulder. “I swear. Do you know what Baudelaire said?”
Louise puts another stitch in the hem.
“Baudelaire said that you should get drunk. On wine. On poetry. On virtue—as you choose. But get drunk.”
“Vinny’s drunk on virtue,” says Cordelia.
Lavinia snorts. “It’s only prosecco,” she says. “Even Cordy drinks prosecco. Mother makes us.”
“I abhor alcohol.” Cordelia winks at Louise as she picks stray feathers out of the couch cushions. “It’s a vice.”
“God, don’t you just hate her?” Lavinia puts her feet on the steamer trunk. “I bet you don’t even believe in God, do you, Cordy? She’s kept it up a whole year—can you believe it? Before that she was vegan. And—oh, God, you’re brilliant!”
She has seen the hem Louise has fixed for her.
“Are you a costumier? I have a friend who’s a costumier. She makes eighteenth-century outfits every year for Carnevale in Venice.”
“I’m not a costumier.”
“But you can sew.”
“Lots of people can sew.”
“Nobody can sew. What else can you do?”
Louise is caught off guard by the question. “Not a lot.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“You’re special. You have the mark of genius on your brow. I could tell—soon as I saw you. And you—you kept vigil with Cordy, didn’t you? All night long. That’s special.”
Louise isn’t special. She knows this. We know this. She just needs three hundred dollars.
“Are you an actress? You’re pretty enough to be an actress.”
“I’m not an actress.” (Louise is not pretty enough to be an actress.)
“Then you’re a writer!”
She hesitates because you can’t really call yourself a writer when you haven’t written anything anyone else likes enough to publish; not when you haven’t even written anything you like enough to even ask somebody to publish; not when there are so many failed writers to laugh at in this city. But she hesitates long enough before saying “no” that Lavinia seizes.
“I knew it!” She claps her hands. “I knew it! Of course you’re a writer. You are a woman of words.” She scoops up the flash cards: assuage, assert, assent. “I shouldn’t have doubted you.”
“What have you written?”
“Oh, you know—not a lot. Just a couple of stories and things.”
“What are they about?”
Now Louise is fully afraid. “Oh, you know. New York. Girls in New York. The usual stuff. It’s dumb.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Lavinia is staring up at her with those bright and blazing eyes. “New York is the greatest city in the world! Of course you want to write about it!”
Lavinia’s hand is so tight on her wrists and Lavinia is staring at her so intently and blinking so innocently that Louise can’t bring herself to let her down.
“You’re right,” Louise says. “I am a writer.”
“I’m never wrong!” Lavinia crows. “Cordy says I have a sense about people—I always can sense if a person is going to be interesting. It’s like telepathy, but for poetic qualities—it makes things happen.” She stretches like a cat along the sofa. “I’m a writer, too, you know. I mean—I’m working on a novel, right now. I’m on a sabbatical, actually.”
“From school! That’s why I’m here.” She shrugs. “Living in squalor, you see. I’ve taken the year off to finish it. But my problem is I don’t have any discipline. I’m not like Cordy. She’s so smart.” (Cordelia is back at her Newman and doesn’t look up.) “Me, I just go to parties.” She yawns, long and luxuriant. “Poor Louise,” she says, so softly. “I’ve ruined your night.”
The light streams in through the window.
“It’s fine,” Louise says, “you haven’t.”
“Your beautiful Friday night. Your beautiful winter Friday—right in the middle of the holiday season, too. You probably had plans. A Christmas party, right? Or a date.”
“I didn’t have a date.”
“What did you plan, then? Before I smashed it all to pieces?” Louise shrugs.
“I dunno. I was going to go home. Maybe watch some TV.”
Truth is, Louise was planning to sleep. Sleep is the most seductive thing she can think of.
“But it’s almost New Year’s Eve!”
“I don’t really go out, much.”
“But this is New York!” Lavinia’s eyes are so wide. “And we’re in our twenties!”
It is expensive to go out. It takes so long to get home. You have to tip for everything. It’s too cold. There are puddles in the subway stations. She can’t afford a cab.
“Come with me,” Lavinia says. “I’ll take you to a party!”
“Of course not now, silly—what am I, crazy? There’s a New Year’s Eve party happening at the MacIntyre—it’s going to be wonderful. It’s going to be their best party yet. And I owe you! All those extra hours you stayed—I owe you interest.”
“You owe her one-fifty an hour,” says Cordelia, from the armchair. “Seven until”—she checks her wristwatch—“seven.”
“Jesus f—,” says Lavinia, so violently Louise starts. “I gave all my cash to the busker. He was playing “New York, New York” outside the Bandshell. We were very tired—we were very merry.”
She straightens up.
“Now you have to come,” she says. “If I don’t see you again, I won’t be able to pay you for tonight.”
She smiles so ecstatically.
“I owe you more than money,” she says. “I owe you the most beautiful night of your life.”
This is the first party Lavinia takes Louise to, and the best, and the one Louise will never stop trying to get back to. She goes in Lavinia’s dress from the 1920s (it is actually a reproduction from the 1980s, store-bought, but Louise doesn’t know this), which she found on the street, because that is the kind of thing that happens to people like Lavinia Williams, all the time.
Now, the MacIntyre Hotel is not a hotel. It’s kind of a warehouse and kind of a nightclub, and kind of a performance space, in Chelsea; there are a hundred or so rooms over six floors. Half of them are decorated like a haunted hotel from the Depression, but also there’s a forest and a whole insane asylum on the top floor where Ophelia goes mad (they also perform Hamlet, but they do it without any words), and Louise hears that sometimes actors take you into secret bedrooms or chapels and kiss you on the cheek or on the forehead or on the mouth, but tickets are a hundred dollars each (and that’s before you add the coat check, or the ten-dollar ticketing charge), and so Louise has never been herself to verify this.
Some nights, those nights, one of those nights, they do special themed costume parties in the space: all-night open-bar kiss-a-stranger-and-see parties where everybody dresses up and lurches through all the labyrinthine interconnected rooms, where every floor has its own sound system and even the bathtubs in the insane asylum are full of people making love.
Louise has never had one of those nights before.
Don’t worry. She will.
Here is what’s inside the MacIntyre, in the order Louise makes sense of it: red velvet, candles, ostrich feathers, champagne flutes, people with Happy 2015 glasses, people taking selfies, a woman in a red backless sequined dress singing Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?,” people taking selfies. Lavinia. A girl in a tuxedo. Marie Antoinette. Someone in a lion tamer uniform. Lavinia.
People in black tie. People who actually own black tie in black tie. People in corsets. People in lingerie. Lavinia.
A man in a cassock (“Don’t tell him I told you, but he’s actually defrocked”). A woman six feet tall wearing nothing but pasties and feathers with the most grating and New York accent Louise has ever heard (“Her burlesque name is Athena Maidenhead. I don’t know her real name”). A bald man in black skinny jeans and a turtleneck who is the only person there not in costume and who doesn’t seem to notice (“That’s Gavin. He keeps Excel spreadsheets of all the women he dates”). Lavinia.
Lavinia dancing. Lavinia drinking. Lavinia taking so many photographs, pulling Louise in with her, pulling her so close Louise can smell her perfume. It’s made for Lavinia, Louise will learn one day soon, at a Chinese hole-in-the-wall over on East Fourth Street, and it smells like lavender and tobacco and fig and pear and everything beautiful in this world.
Peggy Lee sings the line is that all there is to a fire? and Louise downs a flute of champagne like it’s a pickleback and then she starts to get nervous because when she drinks she stops concentrating as much on not f—ing up, and when Louise stops concentrating is when she f—s up most; but Lavinia puts one hand on Louise’s waist and uses the other to tilt a bottle of Bombay Sapphire straight into Louise’s overflowing mouth, and even though Louise is not stupid and she is so good at watching people and she is so very careful—all the time she is so careful!—the intense pressure of Lavinia’s hand on the small of her back makes her think that if the world is going to end, anyway, it might as well end tonight.
“Friends! Romans! Countrymen! Bring me more gin!”
Lavinia. Lavinia. Lavinia.
When Louise lived in New Hampshire, she often imagined that once in New York, she’d go to parties like this.
When she and Virgil Bryce would stand on the railroad bridge, and she would beg him to touch her breasts and he would finally, magnanimously agree, and they would talk about running away together (he wanted to live in Colorado and illustrate manga), and he would remind her how cruel the world was, she would try to explain to him that New York wasn’t like anywhere else.
It didn’t matter if you weren’t that special, she’d say, or even if you weren’t pretty, not even by the standards of Devonshire, New Hampshire, as long as you wanted it badly enough. The city would scoop you up and carry you skyward to all your vaulted aspirations; every single party on every single night in that whole, glistening, glaring city would make you feel like you were the only person in the world, and also the most special, and also the most loved.
You and I, of course, we know the truth.
We know how easy it is to fake it. All you need is to keep the lighting low; all you need are a couple of showgirls with cheap feathers superglued to the end of their corsets; all you need is to keep people drinking.
But girls like Louise don’t know this. Not yet.
This is the happiest Louise has ever been.
Nine o’clock. Lavinia and Louise and Gavin Mullaney and Father Romylos and Athena Maidenhead and so many other people without names are dancing the Charleston on top of a stage, underneath a chandelier the size of a giraffe. “Are we even allowed to be onstage?” Louise asks, but Lavinia can’t hear her over the music. Two aerialists are knotting their bodies together, kicking the crystals in the chandelier, and Athena has abandoned her feathers and there is nothing between her skin and everybody else’s sweat except for two pasties and a merkin in the shape of the moon.
“New Year’s resolution,” Lavinia roars. “Be it resolved: we shall drink life to the lees.”
Lavinia’s dress has fallen over her shoulder, exposing her breast. She doesn’t even care.
Then two hands close over Louise’s eyes. Someone kisses her on the neck.
“Guess who,” she whispers, into Louise’s collarbone.
Louise jerks around so quickly.
The girl is so confused. “But . . .”
“Mimi?” Lavinia has stopped dancing. She isn’t smiling.
“Butyourdress.” The girl’s voice is loud and monotonous and artificial, like she’s speaking lines from a high school play. “I thought . . .” She laughs. It is no less artificial, and no less loud. “Yousee?” Her smile hangs desperately off her mouth. “Shetookyourdress!”
Nobody says anything.
“SorryImlate,” she says. “Therapytookforever. AndthenIcouldntfindmyniceunderwear.”
Nobody reacts to this, either.
The music is so loud. The girl gets closer. She blinks very intently.
Nothing. Not even a nod.
Father Romylos lamely nods at her and this is worse, Louise thinks, than if nobody acknowledged her at all.
The worst part is that she’s still smiling.
Even when she goes over to Lavinia. Even when Lavinia recoils.
“I’ve missed you,” she says.
The girl gyrates up to Louise.
“I’m me,” she says. “Me.”
“Mimi,” she says, like Louise is supposed to know her.
“Oh,” says Louise.
Mimi hands her her phone. She knots her arms around Lavinia’s neck.
“Take a picture!”
Lavinia isn’t smiling.
Mimi snatches the phone back. She scrolls through the photos.
“We look great,” she says. “I’m gonna post them all.”
Now it’s ten. Now the moon is full.
“Promise me something,” Lavinia says. They’re smoking on the rooftop; they’re in a hedgerow or a maze or something full of rose- bushes that are still in bloom despite the frost; Louise has no idea how they got here. “I want to usher 2015 in right. I want things to be as they should be. I want it to be a better year than the last one.” She breathes out smoke. “It’s got to be.” (Nobody else is here, not Mimi nor Gavin nor Father Romylos nor Athena Maidenhead, but Louise doesn’t remember saying goodbye to them, either.)
“Of course,” Louise says.
“I want to recite poetry with you tonight.”
At first Louise thinks Lavinia is joking. But Lavinia is tight-lipped and unsmiling and more serious than Louise has yet seen her.
“Don’t let me forget, okay?”
“Okay,” Louise says.
“Yes,” Louise says. “I promise.”
Louise can’t remember any poems.
Lavinia takes a pen out of her purse. She writes it on her arms. more poetry!!! The letters are misshapen. She writes it on Louise’s, too.
“There,” Lavinia says. “Now we’ll remember.”
Together they gaze out over the city. There are so many stars, although Louise knows some of them must only be city lights.
“Hey, Louise?” Lavinia’s smoke spirals from her lips.
“What’s your New Year’s resolution?”
Louise has so many: eat less lose weight make more money get a better job write a story write that story finally write that f—ing story and send it somewhere if you only had the nerve stop reading Misandry! at four in the morning when you can’t sleep read an actual f—ing book sometime maybe maybe write a f—ing story.
“I don’t know.” (be less boring, that’s another one.) “Come on—you can tell me!”
She says it like she means it. She says it like Louise is safe.
Louise wants to believe her.
“It’s stupid,” Louise says.
“I bet it isn’t! I’ll bet you a hundred dollars it isn’t.” Technically Lavinia owes Louise between three hundred and eighteen hundred dollars, depending on whether or not Louise counts the hours spent with Cordelia waiting for Lavinia to come home, but Louise is no longer counting.
“I want to send one of my stories out. Maybe. If it’s good enough.”
Louise is so afraid, having said it, that she will have to do it.
“To a magazine?”
“You’ve never done it before?”
“No. I mean—I have. But not in years.”
“I bet they’re brilliant,” says Lavinia. “I bet they’re genius. I bet everybody’s going to love you.”
“Come on, that’s not—”
“Don’t contradict me. I have a feeling. I know.” Lavinia throws back that never-ending hair.
Lavinia shakes the last ember out of her cigarette. “Same one I make every year. Same one I’ll make every year until I die.” She takes a deep and delicious breath. “I want to live,” she says. “I mean really, really, live. Do you know what Oscar Wilde says?”
Louise doesn’t but she knows it was probably witty.
“He says—I put my talent into my work, but my genius into my life. That’s what I want to do, too. Or maybe you think that’s trite?” She spits the last word.
“Probably it is. F— it. I don’t care. That’s what I want.”
Now it’s eleven. Now they’re on the dance floor, again; now everybody on the dance floor is kissing everybody else; everybody except Lavinia, who is standing in a spotlight in the center, inviolate, dancing alone.
Mimi’s lipstick is smeared. So is her eyeliner.
“Come on!” She’s tugging at Lavinia’s sleeves. She’s still speaking in that clipped and amateurish way. “We’ll have some champagne!” Mimi cries. “We’ll take a selfie!”
Then Louise gets it: what’s so uncanny about that strange, pantomime way Mimi is talking.
She’s trying to talk like Lavinia.
Lavinia isn’t smiling. “We’ve already taken a selfie.”
Mimi is smiling so desperately. “Then we’ll take another!”
She pulls herself against Lavinia and holds out the camera. She leaves a sloppy lipstick kiss on her cheek.
“Shit—my eyes were closed in that one! Letstakeanotherokay?”
She can’t keep her hand steady. The photos all come out blurry.
“Okay, we’re done here.”
“Just one more! One more!”
Mimi keeps pawing at Lavinia, pushing her breasts against her, leaning in to kiss her.
“Just one more, come on!”
She reaches out for Lavinia’s sleeve. She tears it.
Louise cannot believe how loud a sound the rip makes.
“For f—‘s sake, Mimi, don’t you know when to f—ing leave?”
Lavinia’s eyes are terrible.
Mimi’s eyes fill with tears. She’s still smiling.
“Come on,” Mimi keeps whimpering, like a dog. “It’s one of those nights. Isn’t it? Isn’t it?”
“You’re drunk, Mimi. Go home.”
An hour later Mimi posts every photo she’s taken that night. She tags Lavinia in all of them.
Me and bae, she writes, with a dancing fox emoji and a wiggling Hula-Hoop girl emoji and a cat that rolls over and over doing somersaults, like anybody even says bae anymore.
Now the music is so loud you can’t hear anybody else unless you’re close enough to kiss them; now we are dancing; now we’re all standing four abreast on one of the raised columns, seven feet above the crowds, and here Lavinia stands, chin up, shoulders back, like a god.
Now they’ve lowered the big clock; now everybody’s screaming yes, yes; now Lavinia’s standing and scanning the crowd with those eyes so bright they burn.
“What is it?”
Lavinia doesn’t answer her. “Are you looking for Mimi?”
Lavinia keeps looking, looking, and Louise tries to follow her gaze but she doesn’t see anything, just a couple of boys in black tie doing shots she doesn’t recognize, and then it is like an electric shock, the way Lavinia digs her nails into Louise’s wrist, and Louise asks what is it but by now she’s so drunk that by the time Lavinia turns back to her Louise forgets what she was asking about in the first place.
Lavinia grabs Louise’s shoulders.
“We should jump,” Lavinia says.
“You. Me. We should do it.”
“You want to crowd-surf?”
Nobody crowd-surfs. Not in real life. But this isn’t real life.
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
It’s one minute to midnight.
“Trust me,” says Lavinia. “Please.”
Now Louise remembers everything she is afraid of.
She remembers that she doesn’t have health insurance and if she breaks a bone she will not be able to afford to fix it and that she has work tomorrow and she can’t afford to get it off even if she could (eight) and she doesn’t even know Lavinia that well and shouldn’t even trust her because new people generally let you down if they don’t do worse and (seven) even though Lavinia is looking at her so raptly Lavinia is a stranger and the most surefire way of f—ing it up is to open up to another person and (six) she cannot afford to be stupid—stupidity, like happiness, is a luxury, but her heart is beating so fast, like it is a hummingbird that will beat out all its breaths (five) and die before midnight but for the first time in as long as she can remember Louise is happy, and she will spend all her heartbeats if she has to, if it means feeling like this (four) because in the end she only really wants one thing in the world and that is to be loved and (three, two, one).
The crowd catches them.
So many people—they bear up her waist and thighs and back and Louise isn’t afraid; she knows, she knows they will not let her fall; she knows she can trust them, because they are all in this together and they are all so riotously, gloriously drunk and they all want her to stay up as much as she does, because it is a beautiful thing to be up so high, and they all want to be a part of it.
Lavinia reaches across the crowd; she is smiling; she is so far away and then she is closer, just a little bit closer, and then she is close enough to grab Louise’s hand, and she squeezes it tightly.
Now it’s almost dawn.
Everybody has spilled out into the street. They’ve taken off their heels. Girls walk barefoot on the ice. Taxis are charging a hundred dollars a person just to go to the Upper East Side. Louise is a little bit sober by now; she can feel the blisters in her shoes, but she is too happy to care. She wraps herself in her coat, which is not elegant enough to justify how flimsy it is, and huddles against the wind, and Lavinia orders an Uber without thinking about it, even though the surge pricing must be insane at this hour.
“Where are we going?”
Lavinia puts a finger to her lips. “I have a surprise for you.”
The cab takes them through the West Village, the Lower East Side, across the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Was it what you wanted?” Lavinia is huddled in an enormous fur coat. She is blinking very intently.
“The party. Was it what you wanted?”
“Yes,” Louise says. “It was wonderful!”
“Good. I’m glad. I wanted to make you happy.”
The cab rolls on past the water.
“Just think,” Lavinia says. “You could be home in bed right now.”
Louise should be home in bed right now.
“But instead . . .” Lavinia opens the window. The wind whips their faces. “You’re going to watch the sun rise. Isn’t that wonderful?”
The cab comes to a stop underneath the Ferris wheel: by the bright-painted gates, the freak-show signs, the Cyclone.
The park won’t open for hours. But the streetlights illuminate the carousel, the haunted houses, the boardwalk beyond it: beyond that, the waves.
“I wanted to be near water,” Lavinia says.
The boardwalk is frozen slick, and so Lavinia uses Louise to steady herself; both of them slip and both of them fall and they skin their knees a little bit, doing it, but there they are.
“At last,” Lavinia says.
It is too cold to sit, but they squat, anyway, and huddle together under Lavinia’s enormous fur.
Lavinia hands Louise a flask.
“Drink this,” she says. “It’ll warm you up.”
There’s whiskey in it—good whiskey, that’s much too nice to be tippled out of a flask just to keep you warm when you can’t feel your hands, but that’s Lavinia for you.
“On the Titanic, they drank whiskey,” Lavinia says. “They were going down with the ship and they saw the end before them and they said f— it, we might as well so they got completely plastered on the finest whiskey, and then once the ship sank it saved them. They were so warm on the inside they didn’t feel the cold. They swam all the way to the lifeboats. I think about—all the time—when—oh, your dress!”
Lavinia’s dress—the one she has been so kind and good and generous enough to entrust to Louise, the one she found on the street in the East Village and which represents beauty and truth and everything good in the world and maybe, even, the existence of God, is in shreds. There are wine stains. There are cigarette holes.
And Louise thinks, you f—ed it up.
She wasn’t careful. She was selfish and thoughtless and she drank too much and she let her guard down—even animals know never to let your guard down—and now Lavinia will turn on her the way she turned on poor, pathetic Mimi, who ripped Lavinia’s sleeve. It will be so much worse than before, now that the night has been so good, now that she knows what she’s been missing.
Louise tries not to cry, but she is drunk and weak and so of course she can’t, and so she starts to sputter tears, and then Lavinia looks at her with astonishment.
“What is it?”
“I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry—your dress.” “What about it?”
“I ruined it!” “So?”
Lavinia tosses that long hair of hers. It whips in the wind.
“You had a good night, didn’t you?”
“Yes, of course, I—”
“So what’s the problem? We can always get another dress.”
She says it like it’s so easy.
“I told you,” Lavinia says. “Things happen around me. The gods will bring us another one.”
Louise’s tears freeze-dry on her face.
“It’s a sacrifice,” Lavinia says. “We’ll sacrifice to the old gods—we’ll put the dress in the water and let the water take it and, oh!”
Lavinia shoves her forearm in Louise’s face.
“more poetry!!!” is mostly smudged by now, and really more like “mre peey!1,” but Louise can make it out.
“You almost let me forget! How could you?” “I—”
“That clinches it.”
Lavinia leaps to her feet. She lets the fur fall. She lets her beautiful white dress that makes her look like an angel fall, too. Against the snow she is cold, bitten, naked. Her breasts are blue. Her nipples are purple.
“F—, F—, F—!”
She’s hysterical, laughing.
“Come on! Your turn!”
“You want me to—”
Louise is already shaking from the cold, now, under the furs.
“Come on! You have to do it!”
Lavinia’s eyes are so wild, so wide. Louise is so cold.
Lavinia extends her trembling, blue-veined hand.
Louise did. So she does.
At first she thinks the cold will kill her. It is in the back of her eyes and at the back of her throat and up her nose and all the way down her esophagus, and not even the whiskey can help. If she were on the Titanic she would drown. Lavinia takes the dress from the crumpled heap of frost and sand and boardwalk splinterwood at her feet and gathers it up to her breasts and says “Come.”
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
The thing about Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is that everybody knows it. You’re not special for knowing it. If you know one poem by Tennyson it’s probably that, and if you know one poem, period, there’s still a greater-than-fifty-percent chance that it’s this one. Lavinia is not special for knowing it (some of it), and Louise is not special either, for having memorized it (all of it) back in Devonshire, nor for whispering it to herself on the railroad bridge, nor for trying so desperately to make Virgil Bryce see that sail beyond the sunset were the four most beautiful words in the English language, and if she could not sail then she would, at least, swim. There is no such thing as fate, probably, and it is probably just coincidence. It’s probably trite: like Klimt posters, like Mucha, like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” like Paris (Louise has never been to Paris).
But Louise has that poem written on her heart, and she is so relieved that Lavinia does, too.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows
For my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.
Lavinia hurls the dress in the water. It recedes; it comes back: borne up—like a drowned woman—on the waves.
Lavinia and Louise look at each other. And they’re so goddamn cold Louise thinks they will turn into statues, they will turn to ice like Lot’s wife (or was that salt? she cannot think) and they will stay there forever, the two of them, hand to hand and breast to breast and foreheads touching and snow on their collarbones, and Louise thinks thank God, thank God, because, if they could petrify themselves for all time so that all time was nights like these and never any morning afters, then Louise would gladly give up every other dream she ever had.
They take a selfie of their naked bodies, from the lips down. They use their arms to cover their nipples, because otherwise Instagram will censor it, and so they have two remnants of “more poetry!!!” across the center of the photo.
“We’ll get that tattooed on our arms,” Lavinia says.
They are huddled, now, under the fur. Lavinia has put her dress back on. Louise has nothing but a shift, and a useless coat.
“I want to remember this forever,” Lavinia says. She can’t stop laughing. “Until the day I die.”
When somebody says I will remember this until the day I die, they usually mean I had a pretty good time, or else, just I want to f— you. That poly male feminist Louise dated that time used to say that he’d never forget her; so did the guy who was really into kink (I’ll never forget what you let me do to you, you are so not like other women that way); so did Virgil Bryce. Even the guy who ghosted her once said, the night he took her for a walk in Prospect Park in summertime, I’m probably going to leave New York, eventually, but when I do I want to remember nights like this (that was the night she f—ed him).
But Lavinia isn’t like other people.
And when, six months from now, Lavinia dies, she will be thinking exactly of this night, and of the stars, and of the sea.
Louise will know this. She will be there.
They walk to the elevated train.
Lavinia hails a cab.
“Take it,” she says. She is smiling. Louise marvels at Lavinia’s lipstick, still so dark even after all that champagne. “My coat is warmer than yours.”
Louise can’t afford a cab.
“It’s fine,” Louise says. “I’ll take the subway.”
Lavinia laughs, like this is a joke. “God, you’re beautiful,” she says. She kisses Louise on both cheeks. “I miss you already.”
She throws herself into the cab.
Two minutes later, Louise gets a notification on her phone. Lavinia has posted the photograph of the two of them on Facebook.
She walks ten minutes to the Coney Island Q, because none of the other trains are running, for reasons that passeth all understanding. She doesn’t step on the cracks in the sidewalk.
She sits on the subway, shaking in her slip underneath her flimsy coat, with holes in the pockets, that she bought at H&M like four years ago when GlaZam gave her a hundred dollars for a Christmas bonus, tries to avoid eye contact with the man who wanders up and down the subway car in a hospital gown with a medical bracelet on his arm, but everybody else is doing this, too, and you have to watch out for yourself, especially when you’re five-foot-five and weigh one hundred fourteen and a half pounds on a period day. She is drunk enough to be sick, and tries not to throw up when two young men get on at Kings Highway with Burger King bags and proceed to noisily chomp on their fries all the way to Atlantic Avenue.
Here Louise has to switch to the R, even though it means doubling back, and some girls who maybe were part of a bachelorette party are screaming and waving their sparklers, and on the R-train platform there’s a man standing on a plastic crate prophesying the end of the world.
I hate, I despise your festivals, he is shouting, although nobody is looking at him. He is looking straight at Louise. (Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts.) At least, Louise thinks he is looking straight at her. (Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.)
Louise gets off the R at Fifty-third Street.
Her heels make her bleed. There is sand between her toes and it blisters. She keeps her keys between her fingers.
On the corner before her house she sees the man who catcalls her, every day, to and from the subway. He is smoking weed. He is looking at her.
“Hey,” he says.
She keeps her head down. She does not look at him.
“Hey, little girl,” he says.
Louise does not answer this, either.
“You know it’s cold outside?”
She thinks just keep walking; just keep walking.
“You know I’d warm you up!”
He is smiling—like this is friendly, like she should be flattered, like this is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for her.
“I’d warm you up, little girl.”
He is following her—sauntering, not running, like this is a pleasant stroll, like this is not something that makes her want to scream.
“Don’t you want me to warm you up?”
Louise tries so hard not to hear him.
She is so fast, with the key in the door, even though her hands shake. She’s had practice.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” he calls after her, when she has at last made it inside. “I wouldn’t f— a dog like you with a ten-foot dick.”
By the time Louise gets to bed it’s nine.
She sets her alarm for twelve.
When Louise wakes up she can barely move but she moves anyway, because her shift at the coffee shop starts at two, and the knee-fondling cokehead who runs it will dock her pay if she is even a half-minute late to work.