Vari­ables

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Tess Gunty

Yis a half-fa­mous ac­tor, forty-one to X’s eigh­teen, and X was his backup babysit­ter. It’s been done be­fore. Now, four months af­ter they met, she plucks a dress from her closet and curses the job’s ori­gin. Her un­cle the aca­demic. Her un­cle the ori­gin. Y was a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor in the drama de­part­ment and her un­cle, a cin­ema stud­ies man, was his friend. X wants, ab­stractly, to be an ac­tress. Her un­cle is bloated with fam­ily guilt and mis­fired com­pas­sion, be­cause he thinks he didn’t do enough for the un­der­e­d­u­cated daugh­ter of his un­lucky sis­ter when she, the daugh­ter, hauled one suit­case of her life from that town—that sad town thick with per­ma­cloud and corn­field and postin­dus­trial ghost that her mother, his sis­ter, never left—all the way to Crown Heights, Brook­lyn, 11225. So he in­tro­duced X to Y at a tight cof­fee house. When X met Y—the man from the screen, from the de­cent shows and the bad films and the medi­ocre films and that one gen­uinely good film—she feigned posh in­dif­fer­ence, but she was, in fact, thrilled. He was the first man she’d ever seen wear an en­gage­ment ring, and with­out sup­port­ing ev­i­dence, she in­ter­preted the ges­ture as a fem­i­nist one. She could see the time all over his skin. She could hear the di­vorce in his voice. She could tell that his front in­cisor was fake. She could reach out and touch him if she wanted. She wanted. She didn’t. Within two months, she did. They hugged as she left his Park Slope brown­stone post–two a.m., her body on the step in the March night, his on the mat in­side, the chil­dren deep asleep up­stairs. That was the sec­ond time she babysat his chil­dren and the first time X and Y touched. It’s true that while he and she were be­gin­ning, he and his celebrity fiancée were end­ing. Y mailed X megabytes, ty­pos, and mu­sic through e and air. They be­gan to meet for cof­fee. For drinks. For hours. It was his fault, it was hers, he wasn’t, it didn’t mat­ter, it mat­tered most. They be­gan for months. He be­came her men­tor. A friend, maybe, even, de­spite the odds. She be­came his hobby. She told him she loved Par­adise Lost. She told him she loved his per­for­mance in the Broad­way play. She told him she didn’t have it so easy. X and Y played emo­tional apoc­a­lypse by Gmail, phone, late-night Scotch, and let­ter—all talk, no touch. She got to be the world, which made him the end­ing. There was no rev­e­la­tion. He or­bited her. She spun.

First came the crush on his house. It was strik­ing, the house, di­sheveled and taste­ful and hand­some as he, with high ceil­ings and oil paint­ings and creepy, gra­tu­itous tech­nol­ogy. It’s true that X was beau­ti­ful, and Y was on the wrong side of forty-one. It’s true that she had read many books and de­vel­oped many the­o­ries. It’s true that both chil­dren asked her to cut the tags from their pa­ja­mas, and she thought this meant that they were sen­si­tive ge­niuses. It’s true that once, af­ter the kids went to sleep, X stood in Y’s im­mac­u­late kitchen and gazed into a pantry of ex­otic bal­sam­ics. Took a photo. Deleted it im­me­di­ately. It’s true that she could feel her pulse in her eyes when she saw his name on her phone, his car on the street, his shoes in a room, his gaze on her chest. He dealt flimsy of­fers to con­nect her to the Right Peo­ple. He once joked that he would pay her for her babysit­ting with a live horse. I couldn’t ac­cept that, she’d blushed. I couldn’t af­ford that kind of pay­ment. It’s true that by mid-march, X was redly in love with Y. It’s true that his fiancée was on tour in Europe, and he was lonely. X was a pretty dis­trac­tion for him, but when she was off­stage, he for­got she ex­isted. The ring was ti­ta­nium. The ges­ture was fem­i­nist. He had al­ways been lonely. One month af­ter X and Y hugged for the first time, he asked her to stay a bit longer, so she did, and he un­corked a bot­tle, and filled their glasses tall, and they sat in his liv­ing room, a room dressed like money, two bod­ies sit­u­ated op­po­site each other on sur­pris­ing fur­ni­ture, two bod­ies run­ning hot, two bod­ies tick­ing, two brains blue, and they ver­bally un­dressed their child­hoods, their heart­breaks, the deaths and the al­ler­gies and their se­cret, mu­tual, un­fash­ion­able the­ism, and once they both felt vi­o­lently un­der­stood, they climbed the stairs to his bed­room and took off their clothes. The sex was po­lite. That was in April. Now it’s May. X takes com­fort in facts. Y has no use for them. This is one of the many dif­fer­ences that ended them be­fore they be­gan. What do you want me to do? he said in his sheets, his mouth on her neck. Back in her bed­room the fol­low­ing morn­ing, win­dow open, breeze cold, ceil­ing low, she emailed him, Are you up­set? Twenty-eight days have passed since the Night. For twenty-eight days she freshed and re­freshed, re­ceived noth­ing, told no one, googled his face and watched his movies—just the bad ones. In her bed, she chewed spicy chips and baby car­rots, brushed crumbs off the key­board, re­searched au­di­tions, jobs, work­shops. Pressed pause. Lost her mind. While she filled her shifts at the pizza place on Franklin, she took too many bath­room breaks. Ran­sacked her in­box each time. He told her not to tell. Pre-sex, he also told her he was in the process of call­ing off his en­gage­ment. Y’s fiancée was a pop star too fa­mous for

him. He in­sisted their re­la­tion­ship had ex­pired, but now, twenty-eight days later, X can see the glint of their sparkly ro­mance from her bed­room, even with her eyes closed, and she knows that Y hasn’t bro­ken up with the pop star, won’t break up with the pop star, for rea­sons she of all peo­ple un­der­stands. It’s been twenty-eight days since the Night. Now it’s evening. Fri­day. May. She steps into the dress she se­lected. He loves be­ing seen and it shows, X tells her house­plants on the way out of her apart­ment.

The re­cep­tion for her un­cle’s third wed­ding will take place at the Prospect Park Boathouse at six p.m. X in­hales the pollen and dirt of a place that is too ver­dant and wild for the city it in­hab­its, and she walks, al­ler­gic to grass, al­ler­gic to some­thing, through trees and light, over trash, past the merry-go-round, warm in sum­mer, warm in anx­i­ety, warm from the Cava she gulped as she re­ar­ranged the col­ors of her face, aware that Y may be there, will be there, must be there. Af­ter thirty min­utes of walk­ing, she reaches the boathouse, which stands yel­low and en­chanted on a frothy green pond. She smiles. She hugs her un­cle. She pities the bride. She kisses her cousin, the un­cle’s daugh­ter. She’s younger than I am, whis­pers the cousin into X’s hair. She’s only twenty-fuck­ing-five. X hic­cups. An epi­demic, she replies, then or­ders a bour­bon on the rocks and melts into the but­tery room. She sips, she wob­bles, she or­ders an­other. Takes refuge on the ter­race be­cause her chest is tight, and the air in­side is full of per­fume. And of course, he’s there, on the ter­race. Hair ruf­fled, suit blue, skin tan. Laugh­ing with a flock of univer­sity peo­ple. Flap­ping hands, col­or­ful voice, plumes groomed. Look­ing happy and healthy as fuck. Rin­g­less. He turns. He sees her. She feels seen. As he ex­cuses him­self and ap­proaches her, she for­gets how eye con­tact works. She does it wrong. Af­ter the Hi and the Hey, he waits for her to be­gin. This wasn’t his idea, and he wasn’t hers, but here she is, in a cliché she espe­cially hates, and there he is, in a cliché he espe­cially hates, and what can you do. Y has not been drink­ing alcohol tonight. He shakes from his third cof­fee, aware that he has no rea­son to be so op­pres­sively awake at a time like this. Stand­ing be­fore him, X shakes in lilac lace, aware that she’s suit­ably dressed for her role as dis­pos­able in­génue. Nei­ther of them feel ca­pa­ble of change this month.

Fi­nally, he says, What’s up? Good. How are you?

Noth­ing. She flushes. I mean— Yeah. He smiles. It hurts her. I know.

Have you men­tioned me to your ther­a­pist, X wants to ask. Ei­ther way, she’d be of­fended. She chews a chip of ice and stares at the small bridge that yawns across the pond to prove that good is, in­deed, what’s up. He is a child but dif­fer­ent, both of them chil­dren but dif­fer­ent, so in the breeze they say noth­ing. It’s Fri­day, but it feels like Wed­nes­day. It’s sum­mer, but it smells like fall. It’s hot, but X shiv­ers. She is drunk.

Beau­ti­ful party, he says, ad­mir­ing the lights. She blinks. I guess so. Your un­cle looks so happy. She swal­lows. I guess so.

Cer­tain sen­ti­ments boil and spit in her chest. What I love most about you, she wants to say, is your house. I have such a big crush on your house I could mas­tur­bate to it. Didn’t I get into bed with you af­ter the tour of your beau­ti­ful fuck­ing house? Yes, I wanted your mind and your words and your face and your sad­ness and your sen­si­tiv­ity and your fame and your tal­ent and your power and your con­nec­tions and your weird­ness and your rat­ings and your views and your so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing, but ul­ti­mately—ul­ti­mately—i wanted to fuck your house.

She says, I like your socks. Thank you. I like your hair. Thank you. He shifts his weight and nudges her foot. I’m sorry, he mum­bles. Why? Yeah, he sighs. That’s true.

X pic­tures him naked with­out mean­ing to. She is as­ton­ished that no one can hear the noise in­side her body. Y aches to leave. X’s eyes are too wide, her face too used, and he is afraid she will do some­thing dra­matic. He re­grets un­clasp­ing her bra. He needs to stop do­ing this kind of thing, with girls so young and Mid­west­ern. X is eigh­teen; she feels eighty. X is eigh­teen; she feels eight.

Lis­ten, Y says, but dis­cards the rest.

How are the kids? X asks, over­joyed at the ap­pear­ance of such a nor­mal ques­tion in her mouth. They’re great, he smiles. J per­fected that magic trick he was show­ing you. That’s amaz­ing, she says. It’s not.

What do you want me to do, he asked in the sheets of the Night. X wanted to pre­serve his sad­ness like kim­chi. Y wanted to pre­serve his youth in hers. He is forty-one, but he never made it past fif­teen. He didn’t want her to in­ter­view him, but he needed her to ask him ques­tions. He is forty-one, and he is ter­ri­fied. She didn’t need a fu­ture in­clu­sive tense, but she wanted him to wring the O from her voice just once. Once he did, she just wanted him to ring. In his room he wore none.

Okay, well, he says, glanc­ing over his shoul­der. I should get back. She stares. Maybe for a mo­ment we could just— So good to see you. He touches her arm and returns to his group by the wa­ter.

In the cab ride back to her build­ing, X re­grets delet­ing it. The photo of the ex­otic bal­sam­ics.

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