In the Drink (Kate Christensen)

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  Dear Mrs. Skye," I found myself writing one afternoon, "Thank you so much for your fascinating letter. Of course I'm thrilled that you liked my new book as much as the first one, and I'm delighted to hear that you share my aims concerning the establishment of a strict death penalty in every state."

I stopped writing and yawned, then leaned back in my chair and stared up at the ceiling as if casting my eyes heavenward, praying for rain or succor. I noticed small heaps of dead moths piled up inside the chandelier's glass tulips, each as small and dry as a flaked-off chip of gray paint. I looked up through the glass at them for a while, wondering idly why, over all the thousands of years since the discovery of fire, moths as a species hadn't stopped getting sucked into lamps and fireplaces and candle flames and lanterns and streetlights--wasn't that exactly the sort of thing evolution was designed to correct? They deserved to sizzle to death on lightbulbs if they were too stupid to figure it out. It served them right.

I yawned again, flicked my eyes over the paragraph I'd just written and found absolutely nothing there worth reading. It was one thirty. I got off work at five. Images from last night arose and faded: the International Bar, dark wainscoting beneath mottled-eggshell walls strung with Christmas-tree lights, my friend Frieda's face across the table, alight with laughter. "You're kidding, Claudia, you're making that up." Often after I'd got four or five drinks down my gullet, I would find myself telling stories about Jackie. My audience's laughter always made me feel much better about my job. Afterwards I rolled merrily home, fell into a deep sleep and awoke feeling like a brand-new daisy in a sunlit meadow, filled with fresh hope that maybe today was the day my real life would start.

That it wasn't, and wouldn't be any time soon, generally hit me every afternoon around this time. It was just hitting me now.

"Certainly," I wrote on, "taxpayers' money is wasted on keeping murderers alive, and would be put to better use deporting illegal aliens and making the streets safe for law-abiding citizens such as you and I. It is for intelligent, thoughtful readers like you that I write my books. I thank you again for your kind letter. Warmest best wishes, Genevieve del Castellano."

I printed out the letter and added it to the stack of claptrap awaiting Jackie's signature. When I rapped on her closed bathroom door, she called impatiently, "Well, come in, Claudia." I entered to find her sitting naked on the toilet. She held her hairpiece in both hands and clenched the phone between her shoulder and ear, talking through a mouthful of bobby pins. Her skin drooped in tissue-fine wrinkles from her bones. Her real hair was pinned into a topknot, giving her the look of a plucked exotic bird. Anyone else in this position might have been at a disadvantage.

"Hold on, Jimmy," she said. She put the phone on the edge of the tub, flushed the toilet and put on a dressing gown, in the interests of warmth, I was sure, rather than any modesty on my behalf. She took her sweet time pinning on her hair, chatting to Mr. Blevins, while I thought about the list of things I had to do today. "Just a moment, Jimmy darling," she said finally, and set the phone on top of the laundry hamper. I handed her a pair of reading glasses. She placed them on the tip of her nose, took the letters from me and scanned them. The hairpiece clung to her head like some small scared animal.

"I've told you a thousand times," she said to me, "you've got to give these people their full titles. Ambassador Bob Stevens." A fleck of spittle landed on my nose from the hiss of "Ambassador."

I had chosen not to address this particular ambassador as such because he was one of Jackie's oldest friends and I'd thought it would be an unnecessary formality, something I'd known her to deplore on other occasions, in a different mood. I couldn't explain this to her; she didn't have the patience for examples of her own inconsistencies, and in any case I should have anticipated today's standards. "Sorry," I said, gritting my teeth. "I'll change it."

"You American girls are so ignorant! What would he think of me? It's not your fault, but you just don't have the sophistication European girls have! Give me that." She snatched my pen and rooted through the stack, scrawling wildly. I watched her in silence. Finally she thrust it all back at me.

"Your hairpiece is askew, Jackie," I said sweetly.

"My what7"

"Your hair. It's on crooked."

She flicked the merest pointed glance at my own hair and said, "What are you waiting for? You have a great many things to do," and plucked up the receiver. "Jimmy dear, I have to go. I have this girl here and she needs me to show her--oh, never mind, I'll see you tonight."

Poor Jimmy Blevins had heard our whole exchange and must have known that I needed her like a machete in the head, but there was no possibility that he wouldn't choose to believe her. He was a plain little gray man in a suit, but according to Jackie he was the best dancer in New York, with a tendency, she had once confessed to me, to get erections when he held her closely. Her power to inspire them plainly titillated her. She complained about him: "They never give that Mr. Blevins fresh flowers, the ones he brought yesterday are already shedding all over the rug" (the fact that he owned a funeral home never seemed to occur to her as an explanation for this), and, "I can't bring Jimmy to that dinner, he's not good-looking enough, what will people think?" but whenever he didn't call for a few days Jackie would fall prey to one of her mysterious fugue states; she would ask me to leave a message with his secretary that she was "back in town."

I went back to my dining room office and slumped over the computer. Why couldn't she just sign the damn letters? I thought about what to drink when I got home. I had a bottle of vodka in the cupboard, and a few days ago I'd stashed half a bottle of gin somewhere safe--my underwear drawer? under the sink? Anyway, wherever I'd put it, it was still there. I rolled the decision on my tongue: vodka was clear and clean and lucidly numbing, but gin had that oily juniper-berry underbelly, a hallucinatory edge that sometimes took me out of myself. But gin was tricky, it could backfire if you weren't careful, and who wanted to be careful?

The phone rang. "Genevieve del Castellano's office," I said in my throatiest voice.

"I can't concentrate," said William. "It's getting worse."

A double helix of joy and despair twisted through me.

"I know what you mean," I said, laughing. "I have the same problem."

"No, you don't," he shot back.

"Yes I do."

"No," he said. "You don't work with Devorah." He almost groaned the name.

"Devorah," I said.

He took this as a sign of interest and elaborated: Devorah was a paperback bodice-ripper heroine brought to life, given a paralegal degree and recently hired by his firm. For the first time since I'd known him, I heard William say the words "olive-skinned" and "bewitching."

"Bewitching," I repeated hopelessly.

She was also twenty-two. I had lately begun to notice the new crop of young girls on the sidewalks and in the bars, making me feel supplanted and strange. Biology was cruel; I knew that as well as anyone, and I didn't need any reminders, especially not from him.

"What do you think," he said with a short chuckle, clearly under the illusion that I was his pal, his confidant, his sidekick in matters amatory, "should I call her into my office and bend her over a filing cabinet?"

"No," I said.

He laughed. For years we'd always discussed, frankly and in exhaustive detail, the people we were attracted to or sleeping with or trying to extricate from our lives; for several months last spring I'd been involved with William's old friend John Threadgill, and William spared me no detail of his unresolved feelings for Margot Spencer, and the string of young, impeccably groomed, unforgivably humorless women he dated, obsessed over and eventually dumped.

It pained me to hear about all this, because I'd been in love with William myself for the past year or so. Of course I hadn't told him; I didn't want to ruin our friendship or chase him away. Anyway, I hadn't chosen to feel this way, it had been visited on me like a fever, and as with a fever, I would ride it out. All I could do in the meantime was send peacekeeping troops from reason to hormones and wait for deliverance.

"You want to meet at George's tonight?" he said. "Gus wants to join us. I just talked to him a couple of minutes ago."

"Gus?" I said, but I knew better than to complain. For reasons I couldn't begin to guess at, William loved Gus, and William was almost pathologically loyal to anyone he loved. I would have bet that Gus bit his tongue about me for the same reason. "All right, see you at George's," I said equably.

"Gotta go, I have someone on hold. Around nine or so?"

"Keep your mitts off the jailbait," I said, but he was already gone.

I opened the casement window as far as it would go and leaned out over the courtyard. The air smelled of dry leaves, an underlying tang of diesel exhaust. The wind rushed upward with a light chuckling, ivy leaves fuming on their stems. The sky was darkening already. The bleakness of the waning after noon held the promise of some alluring after-dark adventure, if I could just hold on until then.

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Excerpted from In the Drink by Kate Christensen. Copyright © 1999 by Kate Christensen. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.