René Girard called it the triangulation of desire; we fantasize about other people, based on images. Fragments, glimpses from constructions. In short, we want what others want.
Paige knew as well as anyone that when Maeve posts a picture of herself wearing a tight dress and making her sex face to the camera—it is not real. It is only an image.
But that does not mean that it doesn’t have the power to ruin my day, Paige adds. Yes, Beau explained, but you want it because you don’t have it. Don’t have what? Don’t have Larry. Maeve has him. Or so you think. Yeah, but I don’t want Larry! Paige says. You don’t want him but when Paige wants him, you want him again, because we want what others want. We want it because they want it. Girard called it mimetic desire.
Paige was walking around her apartment, listening to Beau through the speaker on her phone. Across the street, she could see her neighbor, the baseball player.
Paige told Beau she didn’t think it was that at all. She said, I think it is about territory. I mean she’s with my son and my ex-husband. Okay, so I left him, yes, but that doesn’t mean I want her in my space.
We live in a culture of optics, Beau reminded her. She could hear him chewing something, vaguely hoped he’d stop. What we see is the surface, a performance, a curated and constructed view of a person, a place, event. This is how we perceive what is real. But it isn’t real! He laughed. Pretzels, she thought.
Well, it is humiliating, she said. Now the baseball player was sitting on his stoop, looking at his phone. He had a beard of bushy red hair and a plain face. Paige and Beau had been friends since college—thirty years ago now. They often called each other to lament the current socio-political moment. We are middle aged now, Beau says. Paige chafes. She doesn’t like to hear it said out loud. But she wouldn’t deny it, either.
Like everything related to aging, there isn’t space to settle. It’s surreal, like much of life: shifty and over too soon. The food here is terrible! Yes, and the portions are so small!
Paige sat and scrolled through social media. She saw a headline; a plastic surgeon said that patients these days come to him because they want “to look better in selfies.”
Beau lived in Los Angeles, Paige in Chicago. They saw each other once or twice a year, but spoke often, particularly since her divorce. Her analyst had said, This is a time to focus more on friendships, and so she did. It was a relief, to remember what had meant everything once, the power of such relationships, which endured beyond marriage.
Oscar Wilde said, friendships are more tragic than love, because they last longer. More beautiful, too, Paige sometimes thought.
Beau was saying that he worried he was a wrinkly old gay man and Paige said, My hair is entirely gray, or would be, if I didn’t dye it every few months.
Paige had called Beau to tell him about the party she’d attended the night before, at the home of her ex-husband. I was invited, Paige explained, because we are in a better place—plus it is better for the kids if we do these things, you know? Beau said he wasn’t sure. He quoted Girard again: All desire is a desire for being. I’m not sure what you mean, Paige replied. I don’t know either but I think you should think about it.
Larry, Paige’s ex-husband, is a few years younger than Paige. At the party, she noticed that all of his new friends were younger than him. That is, Larry is in his forties, and his new friends are in their thirties. Larry’s girlfriend, Maeve, is also in her thirties. After their separation, Larry began to socialize with a new group of poets and academics.
There were some he’d been friendly with throughout their decade-long marriage, but no one they’d shared as friends.
The friends they shared, Emily and Mike, for example, insisted on remaining friends with both Paige and Larry. We are able to stay friends with both of you, Emily explained in her rational way. It is possible for us to do that. Paige understood Emily’s idea in theory, but a few months later, when she heard that Emily had hosted Larry and Maeve at her home, she wanted to vomit.
Maeve was fine, as replacements go, Paige knew—just as she knew she shouldn’t think of her as a replacement. An academic librarian, Maeve specialized in the sort of poetry that Larry wrote. In fact, she specialized in Larry’s poetry. This fact privately amused Paige. It made sense; throughout their marriage, Larry had complained that Paige didn’t care enough about his poetry. What better replacement than this Number One Fan.
Maeve was at least five inches shorter than Paige and a few years younger. It was fine, Paige would say to anyone who asked about Maeve, she’s perfectly fine. Most importantly, she would add, in a very grown-up and well-adjusted way, trying not to conform to type: She’s wonderful with Jasper. That’s what matters.
Paige had gone to the Hanukkah party because she thought another former friend would be there. But that friend was not there. In fact, very few people were there when Paige arrived.
Maeve made a point of referring to Larry as Babe; she read Larry’s texts for him, too. She told Paige about her upcoming trip to San Francisco, as if to impress. Great, awesome for you, Paige said in what she hoped was a cool, distant way. Larry once told her that she scared Maeve; she attempted a smile in a way that signalled minimal warmth.
Paige valued the reserve, an armor of defense she maintained in response to such irritations. She had always been good at a certain detachment. She felt powerful.
More guests arrived; Maeve and Larry greeted them. A man sat down next to Paige. How do you know Larry? He asked her. Paige found the moment exquisite; she wished others were there to witness it and imagined telling the story later. She paused, considering ways she could respond. Well, she said flatly, I was married to him. Once, for about a decade, in fact. The man looked shocked, then embarrassed. He put down his latke and shook his head. Oh, I’m so sorry, he said, I didn’t know. No, you didn’t know. Of course you didn’t, how could you know? Paige smiled, drank more of the cheap wine. She smiled slightly, to suggest it was no big deal. The man went back to eating.
After swallowing, he told Paige how much he’s enjoyed getting to know her son Jasper. Paige said that was nice. She found it amusing that Jasper had relationships with adults that didn’t involve her, his mother. But she supposed that was what happened, children grew up.
The wine tasted like vinegar. One of Larry’s charms, Maeve once had thought, was his knowledge of wine. His good taste. It pleased her, to no longer see him as she had so many years ago. To no longer admire him.
To Beau, she’d wondered aloud: why could it still be ignited in her, like a are up, this rage, this sense of betrayal? A New Testament shunning. That was when Beau said that she should read René Girard. It’s about triangulation, he explained, what you think you are seeing. But Paige wasn’t thinking about René Girard at the party. Instead she was testing out a proposition: How close can I get to the site of the trauma without feeling? She sat there, looking at a man who betrayed her, looking at the woman he chose. She waited to feel.
The man next to her remained uncomfortable. She looked to him placidly, allowed him to apologize. He was tripping over his words in excitement and shame. She saw Maeve over his shoulder. Other friends had arrived. Maeve was laughing, putting out her arms for them. I don’t have this sort of closeness with anyone, Paige noted, though it did not bother her in this moment. She felt protected through distance. There are two kinds of people in the world, she thought, the kind who have a large group of super cial friends, and the kind who have just a few intense friendships.
Paige assessed Maeve: she was attractive, but not beautiful. She wore a push-
up bra, the underwire Wonderbra variety she herself had begun wearing in the 1990s. Wonderbras had been revelation, back in the nineties. Maeve seemed eager, but for what? It wasn’t offensive that she was so unlike Paige, who held out an aura of self-protection. It was like comparing a dog to a cat, Paige decided, recalling a stupid video she had seen on the internet. She was a cat, and Larry, too, was a cat. Maeve was not; Maeve was a dog.
Paige excused herself and went to the bedroom where Jasper was playing with other children. It was much easier to be a human with children. Children spoke of imaginary friends and played hide and seek. A girl named Eva seemed to forget she was supposed to seek; she played with a replica of Calder’s circus. It was more fun to hide, Paige remembered from her own childhood. She sat on her son’s bed and spoke to the girl holding the circus mobile. She remembered a dream she had the night before, a dream of aging. In the dream, she saw her pro le in the mirror and, too, the skin on her neck sagging in an exaggerated way. She’d lost her chin; there was no longer a distinction between her chin and neck. Or was it a dream? She wasn’t sure now.
Paige and Larry were twenty years older than they’d been when they’d met. He hadn’t lost his hair. He, Larry, was perhaps more handsome than he had been when they met. Was he more handsome because he was unavailable? Still, she didn’t feel attracted to him, which relieved her. All that sexual energy and desire had withered during marriage, during the early years of raising a kid. He’d been too close, and she was well aware she’d pushed him away. Not once, but in moments, the accumulation of which made reconciliation impossible. Later, he accused her of not being “a good wife.” He wasn’t wrong; it didn’t make sense to regret those moments, she knew it wasn’t a choice. She had to leave. She had to move on. It was choking her, the familiarity, the love.
She walked back out to the living room. A group was gathered on the green micro ber sofa. Do you like the sofa? She asked a woman at the end of the couch. Oh ha yeah it’s so cozy, the woman laughed. Should we make room for you? Paige said no, she didn’t need to sit. I was just thinking about it, this couch. She laughed a bit. A lot happened there. What do you mean? The woman looked confused and expectant. Well I had contractions on that couch. Paige lifted her eyes, looking over the group. People say you don’t remember the pain of it but that’s a lie. Larry was there—Paige gestured toward the kitchen—I’m sure he remembers. Not the pain, of course, but you know, witnessing it.
The woman had stopped smiling. Oh I didn’t know. Didn’t know I’ve been married to your host? Paige laughed, a trill, then sipped her wine. Larry heard her, she was sure of it; he was looking down awkwardly. Maeve kept another conversation going: poetry, San Francisco.
Paige sat down now, on the couch, and explained to the woman, Larry was there. That someone could be there for you in those moments before death. I didn’t want to die, but I was sure I would die, yes that was it, a new knowledge. And there was Larry. He didn’t know, he could not know.
The woman put her hand on her belly and shrugged; she was pregnant, she told Paige, awkwardly. I’m only in the first trimester. You are scaring me. The woman laughed again. But he’ll be great, she said, grabbing her husband’s thigh. He’s a good one. The husband seemed disinterested.
Oh, it doesn’t matter, Paige went on. You have to die, I think. It is death. I
died on this couch, and Larry was there, he brought the baby home with us. I nursed him here, too, on this couch, brought us both to life. I had infections, you know, in my nipple. A mastitis, yes, painful. Larry brought me falafel, ba le sandwiches, and so on. He was a good partner, though it didn’t last. So what. That doesn’t take away from the truth of it, of what we were.
Maeve walked over to the couch now; Paige saw the concerned look on her face. She interrupted, Oh Paige, have you met Roni? Referring to the pregnant woman. Yes, yes. We were just talking—Oh, yes! I heard, I heard. Babe? Maeve called out, loudly, looking around for Larry. Should we bring out more latkes? It was embarrassing, using this term of endearment in public this way. It reminded her of her father and stepmother in the 1980s; they were fans of Neil Diamond.
She smiled, put her wine glass down on the side table. She idly noticed a cookbook there, one she’d gifted Larry for his fortieth birthday. She saw Maeve looking tensely at Roni. She had created something, unsettled something, Paige knew. Had she intended it? She didn’t feel anything. It was odd, to put herself here, in the site of the trauma, and not to feel but to know: Yes, that couch once held her life and her death. Yes, she’d bought that couch with Larry many years ago; they were just back from living abroad. They’d fucked on that couch. He’d probably fucked Maeve there, too. Paige thought of Ferrante, of Olga, the spurned wife in Days of Abandonment: Once he’d fucked me, now he fucks someone else, what claim do I have?
She heard a buzz. It was getting late. Her son came out of his hiding spot. There were many people in the small apartment but it was quiet now. She walked to the hall closet, passing the art on Larry’s wall: a pottery piece that her brother had given them; a framed image of their son’s preschool graduation; a photograph Larry had taken in Mexico; a framed image of his National Book Award citation; a note reminding Jasper to take everything (glasses, backpack, lunch, water bottle) to school before leaving each morning.
Everything was so random.I could have fallen in love with anyone, but it was Larry. We are occasions.
This was a beautiful party, Maeve. Paige squeezed Maeve’s arm, and saw the look of despair brie y pass over Maeve’s face. Paige considered squeezing with more force. It reminded her of childhood—how mean she had been to other girls, particularly after her mother had died. How all other girls seemed to have what she could not have—a mother—and how renewed she felt performing small acts of cruelty. It wasn’t processed, she didn’t feel responsible; it was performed. She’d been a child, she acted, survived.
Because Paige’s mother had died, her father refused to discipline her in any way; he wanted only to make her life as easy as possible, he wanted to protect her from any further loss. He couldn’t bring back her mother, but he could let her do what she wanted. Everyone felt sorry for her, she knew. To be cruel, she remembered the feeling only now, with Maeve’s face before her, supplicant. To humiliate and scare others, to see them afraid of her—it had relieved that lack, that emptiness. It transformed her.
Of course, that was long ago. She was a middle aged woman now, and she believed in kindness. She let go of Maeve’s arm, tilted her head to the left. Thank you so much for coming, Maeve said. Paige called goodbye to Larry, who was behind Maeve now, and left the room.
Outside the cold was a surprise. She ran to her car, got in and slammed the door. She turned on the heat. On the radio a man talked about capitalism. She put on her seatbelt and felt a wave come over her, tears came to her eyes. She paused, wiped her eyes. The man on the radio asked two different women what they thought about Capitalism. The first woman said, Capitalism is neither good nor bad by itself but the second woman was more certain, said, Capitalism is bad because in order to increase profit one has to pay workers less than they are worth.
Paige thought about Larry’s book on exploited worker bodies. The other woman on the radio continued to talk about unions, and about Millenials, asked to take all of the risk but with none of the protections—no universal healthcare and no universal childcare.
Paige parallel parked her car into a spot right in front of her apartment building. Across the street, the baseball player was just getting home; was there a game? No, it’s not the right season, of course not. She laughed at herself. She felt her chest contract and she began to cry. Her chest lifted and fell, her shoulders slumped and she wept: the heat on her face, the car in place, the man’s voice repeating words, or so it seemed to her, words over and over again: capitalism, workers, exploitation, healthcare, childcare—all of the risk—none of the protection.