Oscar Templeton was drumming his fingers on the table, partly from impatience and partly from boredom. Among the many rules he observes was to never be late for lunch. “Rules,” he told his students, “are what keep us from ripping out each other’s throats.” He did not like to wait more than two minutes for lunch partners and he did not particularly like this restaurant, but once a month he resigned himself to waiting for this particular lunch partner in this particular restaurant. For more than 20 years, except for that one year when no one went out to lunch, the waiters watched him drum his fingers; amongst themselves, they referred to him as The Drummer Boy.
He and Lucinda Featherstone, who was known widely as LuLu, ate lunch at this ancient restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue because they were sure that no one they knew would see them. They had known each other since they were 22 years old, fresh out of college and humiliating their lofty dreams as lower-than-pond-scum knowledge workers at Booz Allen Hamilton. They ran in a crowd that called themselves the Boozies: young enough to balance naivety and worldliness, expensively educated, and painfully ambitious. Oscar could still remember eight of their names and faces. The Boozies felt as though they had been unleashed on the world. A year after they had been hired, he and Lulu watched another cohort arrive at their offices in Washington DC, harness those same qualities, and make the same mistakes as the Boozies, save one: they called themselves YAW (Young and Wicked), a superior nickname, in Oscar’s opinion.
Oscar and LuLu became best friends, in large part because LuLu arrived at Booz Allen Hamilton with a serious boyfriend, who happened to be married. Between her junior and senior years at Barnard, she had interned for the boyfriend, who was a Congressman from Texas nicknamed Booger. She was still studying dance, but her mother convinced her to take the summer and invest in a field that held more promise for her daughter. “Lucinda,” her mother, who refused to use the nickname bestowed on her daughter by her classmates at Spence, told her, “you are 90 percent personality and 10 percent talent.” That personality had had an influence on Booger. Her mother did not like the nickname, but quietly approved of the liaison, sensing an opportunity for her daughter.
Oscar and LuLu were both attractive and attracted to each other, and highly flirtatious, but the boyfriend’s presence and promise ensured that Oscar would, at best, become LuLu’s work husband. When his college girlfriend finally dumped him, LuLu was the one who took Oscar to a strip club. When Booger was back in Texas, Oscar took LuLu to the movies. When Oscar’s father was admitted to Sibley Hospital after suffering a heart attack, LuLu was like a daughter-in-law to him. Oscar acted as LuLu’s beard for political parties in town hosted by Booger. Oscar, a native Washingtonian raised on the city’s folkways, was on a first-name basis with Booger’s wife Kimberly Ann, who, of course, was a former beauty queen. Casual friends wondered if Oscar was gay. LuLu sometimes referred to him as “my queer boyfriend.”
The Boozies began to disperse within two years of their arrival. Promotions to other locations, departures for graduate schools, new jobs with competitors, and firings winnowed their ranks. Attendance at the Boozies’ monthly lunches at the ancient restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue got smaller and smaller until it was just Oscar and Lulu. By then, neither of them worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, but they kept the nickname for themselves. Oscar had entered a doctoral program in English literature at Columbia; he was planning to write his dissertation on the American author John Irving. LuLu had elbowed Kimberly Ann out of the way, married Booger, and started an event planning company, where, at age 25, she had already worked an event at the White House and employed three people, one of whom was a Boozie. Because this Boozie was now an employee of LuLu’s, her new place in the pecking order excluded her from Oscar and LuLu’s monthly lunch.
The wedding of LuLu and her Texas Congressman was disappointingly low-key from her perspective. Booger explained it to her: “LuLu, honey, the people back in Texas would tar and feather you if we got married anywhere within 100 miles of my hometown. You will never, ever want to be in the same state as Kimberly Ann. Promise me that you will stay far, far away from that woman.” She and Booger were married by a minister, a Congressman from Tennessee who served as a key ally of Booger’s on the House Ways and Means Committee. A reception for 200 at the Chevy Chase Country Club and honeymoon in Paris and London helped soothe LuLu’s wounded pride.
She tried to make up for her own wedding regret at Oscar’s wedding to Lola, who taught music at St. Alban’s. LuLu did not like Lola. “Why? Take her name,” LuLu told Oscar. “LuLu and Lola? Two brunettes. Who would be able to tell us apart? Second, a music teacher at a boy’s prep school? You, my friend, could do better.” Oscar had just accepted a tenure-track position in the English Department at George Washington University. Oscar and Lola were married at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown and the reception was at the Cosmos Club during the World Series between the Red Sox and the Cardinals, the one where the curse of Babe Ruth was broken. Every 20 minutes, Oscar joined the other fans to catch the score on a TV in the coatroom. LuLu lobbied to be his best man, but he instead chose his freshman roommate from Stanford. LuLu had to settle for being one of three groomsmen. For the wedding, she dyed her hair platinum blonde and wore a tuxedo. Several people that evening told her she reminded them of Marlene Dietrich. She thought she stole the show, which was good enough for her. When LuLu and Booger had sex that night, she told Oscar later, she came four times.
Oscar was convinced that his marriage to Lola convinced LuLu to change her natural hair color and become a redhead. “Fuck blondes,” LuLu said. “It’s the redheads that turn the heads.”
A year later, Kimberly Ann challenged Booger in a revenge campaign for his seat, which is when Booger became an ex-Congressman. He graduated to becoming a bank lobbyist, increased his salary exponentially, and moved LuLu and their first son to McLean. Their second son would arrive a year later. LuLu’s event planning company employed 10 people. She was considering a new company logo and the purchase of a truck painted a new shade of white that she had commissioned. “Between your personality and my connections,” Booger told her when they moved into their six-bedroom house, “we are gonna be rich as fuck.” Booger stayed low-key as a lobbyist, but his work on behalf of his banking clients during the drafting of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was extremely lucrative and notable enough to be mentioned in the Washington Post, Politico, and the American Banker. He kept framed copies of the stories in his office. LuLu displayed the Post article in the lobby of her office suite, along with photos of the standard Washington DC luminaries along with celebrities with whom she had grown up in New York. LuLu thought it gave her an edge in Washington to tell people she was raised on the Upper East Side and that her father was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In other news, Oscar and Lola’s divorce was finalized the day Kimberly Ann moved into Booger’s old office in the Rayburn Building. “Oscar, dear, before we got married I told you there were three deal breakers for me in our marriage,” Lola told him when he announced that he did not want to have children. “First, if you hit me once, you’re gone. Second, if you cheat on me once, you’re gone. Third, if you don’t share my desire to have children, you’re gone.”
“I’m sorry, Lola,” he said. “Those rules of yours are good rules. However, a rule of mine that I cannot placate other people’s priorities. I don’t have tenure yet. My book hasn’t been published yet. I am in a vulnerable position. I cannot put my work at risk to raise kids.”
Lola changed from being brunette. She remade herself as a blonde. She also started dating five weeks after the divorce was finalized and met an oboist with the National Symphony Orchestra. Five months later, she married the oboist in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Within a year of divorcing Oscar, Lola was pregnant. She and the oboist are raising two daughters and a boy in Takoma Park.
Oscar moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Foggy Bottom, focused his attention on adapting his dissertation on John Irving into a popular biography. He found a publisher, a subsidiary of Random House. Another rule to which he adhered was to avoid dating his students, or any students. “Any dolt could learn how dating students always turns out badly just from reading the novels of John Irving,” Oscar explained to LuLu during a Boozies lunch. “Besides, I grew up here knowing that there are lots of single women in Washington DC who are not college students. Men have an unfair advantage in this city.”
After drumming his fingers for about 10 minutes, LuLu arrived. “So sorry,” she said.
“The fuck you’re sorry,” Oscar replied.
“So, sue me,” LuLu said. “My in-laws are acting up again. You know Booger moved them here because Kimberly Ann’s supporters had made their lives back home in Texas a living hell. Booger’s father Bobby Ray was a very successful personal injury attorney, and he had to close his practice. ‘There’s no way I’m starting over again with the law,’ Bobby Ray said. Merlene couldn’t go grocery shopping at the Albertsons without half the women in the store whispering out loud about how her stupid son was tempted all the time by whores like Lucinda Featherstone. He and my mother-in-law are talking about getting into horse breeding. Horse breeding! Their idea of horses comes from watching ‘Mr. Ed’ on television when they were kids. I was on the phone with Bobby Ray for more than an hour this morning trying to explain why we could not use two of the bays in our garage as horse stalls.”
“You know, you should quit your job and develop a 15-minute standup comedy set focusing just on Bobby Ray and Merlene,” Oscar said.
“Yeah, but I would have to refer to myself as ‘that whore’ and I just can’t,” LuLu responded. “And, you must remember, I am into superficiality. It’s much more lucrative.”
“Touché. Are you ordering the usual?”
Upon hearing the word “schnitzel,” Fritz the Fourth strolled over to their table to take their orders. His name was not really Fritz, but Oscar and LuLu decided sometime in their third year of coming to this restaurant that they would refer to their waiter as Fritz. Fritz the Fourth was their fourth regular waiter. They had caused a commotion when Fritz the Second took umbrage. “My name is Johann,” he said. They demurred, and another waiter agreed to serve them. Johann still worked in the restaurant, shooting Oscar dirty looks whenever their eyes met. No one in Washington shot dirty looks at LuLu. “It’s like you have a force field protecting you,” Oscar remarked.
“First item on the monthly agenda,” Oscar announced after Fritz the Fourth left them, “what worlds has LuLu conquered since last month’s meeting?”
“You mean, how’s Booger, how are the boys, how are the Corgis, what have I ordered from Goop that I have successfully hidden from Booger, and when am I planning to sneak away to Bar Harbor for a long weekend?”
“Don’t try to fool me into believing that Booger and your sons have snuck their way onto the agenda.”
“Right. The dogs love me more than ever,” LuLu said. “I think they resemble the Queen’s dogs more than ever, may she rest in peace. I am trying to get a photo of them into Washingtonian magazine. You know, one of those things where they have me and my Corgis and the late Queen Elizabeth and her Corgis. I think it would be cute, don’t you?”
“Nauseatingly cute, my dear LuLu,” he answered. “But don’t you think you should be emulating someone who’s still living?”
“I’m working on it, dear Oscar,” she deadpanned. “But that damn virus took so many celebrities. The pickings are slimmer.”
The truth is that the coronavirus pandemic had eviscerated an entire social stratum that LuLu emulated. “So much beauty, so much stupidity,” she had remarked. “The operated under a different set of rules, all designed to earn them nominations for the Darwin Award.”
Another truth is that LuLu had gone underground for that year, with Booger’s lucrative work subsidizing her fantasies and allowing her to keep paying two employees (not the Boozie). In post-pandemic Washington, LuLu’s business was booming due to pent-up demand for whatever the opposite of social distance was. She had rehired the Boozie.
She was also grateful for one of Oscar’s rules, or more accurately, one of Oscar’s aphorisms. “Charles De Gaulle once said that the graveyards are filled with indispensable men,” Oscar had told her. “Those important people and meetings you think you need to meet and attend during the pandemic? When this is over, a lot of them will be gone, replaced by other important people and meetings. Those you can meet and attend, just as long as you survive.” She had followed his advice about a charity event held at a vineyard in the Virginia horse country, calling in her regrets the day before the event. The hostess had not been kind to LuLu on the phone, but a month later 27 people who attended the event were dead, including a cabinet secretary, the New York Times Washington bureau chief, three Boozies, and the hostess.
“You remember when Booger blew a gasket when he discovered that I had ordered that vagina egg from Goop?” LuLu asked.
“Yes. I’m on his side, too,” Oscar hissed. “Why are you getting a stone in the shape of an egg to put up your twat when you won’t even let his dick into your money maker anymore?”
“No, you’re not. You stopped liking sex after your second son was born. Christ, you don’t even like being touched. That you would want to stick a rock into your nether regions is beyond me.”
“You’re right, Oscar. It is beyond you because you don’t have a goddamn hole there.”
“Anyway, Booger goes wild whenever he sees that I’ve ordered something from Goop. He doesn’t think that I can justify the expense. I can’t help it. I was so in love with Gwyneth Paltrow. I would have married her in a second if she had survived. But Goop survived. So, I have a new system: when the packages from Goop arrive, our maid hides them in the washer and dryer. Booger will never find them there. Pretty clever, non?”
“Oui. Let me guess. Are you wearing that Gucci jump suit you were talking about last month?”
“Yes. Thanks for noticing. Less than $4,000. A bargain, if you ask me.”
“I live on $4,000 a month, you know. You might start hurting my feelings.”
“Grow a pair, Oscar. You chose your life, which I suppose has its rewards. I chose mine, which happens to come with an expense account.”
Fritz the Fourth arrived with LuLu’s schnitzel and Oscar’s sauerbraten. After setting the plates on the table, he turned and left without a word. As he always did.
“Are you making a pilgrimage to Maine anytime soon?” Oscar inquired. He could not understand LuLu’s obsession with Bar Harbor. The water was cold. The black flies were like locusts. All the old goddamn money and its aggravatingly inefficient folkways.
“Next month. Congress will recess. Booger will go to New York to meet with clients and then back to Texas to absorb all kinds of new wounds from Kimberly Ann and her friends and family. What other reason is there for him to go back there? He says that he wants to drink 3.2 beer and throw darts in his favorite bar, and go hunting with his high school friends. I swear he must be fucking Kimberly Ann again or something. But I get two weeks to expose my sons to preppies, drink liquor, and listen to the sound of the ocean instead of Booger’s voice.”
“It sounds like you don’t like your husband.”
“I love Booger! I really do. He’s a douchebag, but he’s my douchebag. However, I will confess to you that I have a new agenda item: I am thinking about getting my own side piece.”
“I met someone.”
“Wait…you stopped liking dick years ago. Now you want dick again?”
“Who said anything about dick?”
“Are you switching teams?”
Fritz the Fourth stopped by their table to ask how things were going. He was not interested in their response. He went through the motions because he knew they would tip well. Oscar had a rule about tipping. “Be as generous as possible, even if the service is execrable,” he told LuLu. “They and their families depend on tips. It’s all about karma.” They informed Fritz the Fourth that everything was fine. Just like it was every month.
“Not exactly,” LuLu continued with something like a whisper. “But Gloria and I have graduated from lunch to dinner. She’s a full-on lipstick lesbian. Gorgeous, too. She reminds me of that actress Ann Hathaway.”
“But, you know, an affair, even with a woman, involves a lot of, you know, touching.”
“Oh, I’m not interested in any of that. No one’s going below my waist. I just want the kissing and cuddling part of a relationship. You remember my telling you that I had a girlfriend in college? God, she was a great kisser. I don’t like the touching part so much, but I just love kissing. I think it was the thing I missed most during all the self-quarantine and social distancing. I was forced to kiss Booger a lot more than the quota that I had allotted for him.”
“Oh, right. Just kissing and cuddling.” Oscar was skeptical. “Is Booger on board with this?”
“He doesn’t know a thing and doesn’t need to know. As long as I give him a blow job every Monday morning to start the week, he’s good to go. It’s over with quickly and I don’t let him come in my mouth. Just brush my teeth, put on my lipstick, and off to work!”
“It’s better than death, I suppose.”
“Speaking of death, how’s your funeral director friend?” LuLu asked.
Oscar had been dating Olivia for eight months. Olivia worked for a funeral home in Bethesda. They had met online during the pandemic. She was the sister of a former student of his. According to Oscar’s rule, this relationship was allowable. LuLu did not like Olivia. “It’s not because she’s black, which she is, or because she is much, much younger than you. It’s because every time I’m in her presence I think about my own death and how my sons are going to have my corpse dressed in some knockoff from Marshall’s just to mock me. Every time. It’s not personal, I tell you,” LuLu would say.
About three months after Oscar had started dating Olivia, LuLu decided that she liked Lola, after all. She told Oscar that his greatest mistake was to not impregnate his ex-wife. “You wouldn’t be in that depressing apartment,” she told him. “You could have been living in a decent home in Silver Spring, surrounded by well-played music emanating from your own spawn.”
Actually, Oscar had been doing well by his standards. His biography of John Irving had been well received critically and sold enough copies made him some money. There was a paperback that was being adopted by college professors for their courses. He had been granted tenure. He was a regular contributor to Esquire. He wrote book reviews for the Washington Post. He had a two-book deal. The first was going to be a novel about prep school boys in Washington. Around DC, he was a low-flying recognizable figure. People on the street asked him how they knew him. He rarely ate lunch or dinner alone in his Foggy Bottom apartment. He had 11,583 followers on Twitter.
“Olivia is fine,” Oscar responded. “Actually, better than fine. We are talking about getting married and starting a family.”
“Holy fucking shit! Have you lost your mind? What happened to never having kids? Aren’t you breaking any of your goddamn rules? Have you not seen how my two boys have ruined my life?”
“Your life has not been ruined. You adore your sons. My rule is no third marriages.”
“OK, but what the fuck?”
“The stars are in alignment. My first novel is being published next year. I have decent money in the bank. My TIAA-CREF account is growing.” He paused a moment too long for comfort. “And you know why I didn’t want to have kids with Lola?”
“I realized that I loved Lola, but not enough to have kids with her. When she first told me that she loved me, I could not get those three words out of my mouth. I just couldn’t say ‘I love you, too’ in response. I think she was kind of humiliated. It took me about three months to get those words out of my mouth, and she seemed mostly relieved. From humiliation to relief. What an arc of emotions, huh?”
“Some romantic you aren’t.”
“But I told Olivia that I loved her about two months after our first date. It was easy.”
“You do know you are well in to your forties, don’t you? Isn’t that a bit late to start playing that daddy game? I am speaking from experience, you know. It’s hard enough when you’re a young parent.”
“Yeah, I figure that I’ll have to work until I’m about 75 years old and pray that my lower back holds up.”
“And you’re going to have black children, you know.”
“So what if it’s racist? This is a hard, hard world filled with injustice for black children, even if they are biracial and raised around money. I’ll tell this right to Olivia’s face if you ever get up enough courage to introduce us.”
“LuLu, we have the confidence of people in love. We can conquer anything. Even your skepticism. And it’s not like we’d be raising them in Mississippi.”
“Sounds like fools in love. Is she going to break us up?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is your Olivia going to come between us? You and me? The Boozies? We have a lot of history. Am I going to become the ‘other woman?’”
“How are you so sure?”
“Because she asked me why you and I hadn’t gotten married and seemed satisfied with my answer.”
LuLu gasped. “What are you telling her about me?”
Fritz the Fourth cleared the table while they pondered Oscar’s statement. “The usual dessert?” he asked. Oscar nodded.
“To answer your question, just remember my rule about secrets,” Oscar answered. “Anything you tell someone in confidence can and will be shared with a spouse or significant other.”
Oscar could tell that LuLu was exasperated, which meant that she was forming a question in her mind. This usually meant an uncomfortable question. She did not disappoint.
“Why didn’t you and I get married?” LuLu asked. “This is not a rhetorical question, my dear.”
Oscar thought about the question while Fritz the Fourth brought the dessert tray.
“Why didn’t we get married?” Oscar repeated the question. “You know, I thought about it back when you were dating Booger. I didn’t think an actual, sitting Congressman would dump his beauty queen wife and endanger his political career for you. In the end, for a man like that, pussy is pussy. I thought he would dump you, and that you would come to your senses about me. I thought we would get married up until the day Booger proposed to you. And then all my feelings for you, the feelings that would destroy me if I held on to them, I just put them in a box, tied a ribbon around the box, and placed them in the back of the closet under a bunch of other boxes. What you and I have today is what we are always going to have. Olivia is fine with that. She’s confident.”
LuLu laughed. “I thought Booger was going to dump me, too,” she said. “But you gave me confidence. Like, if he dumped me, you would catch me. I was never scared around him. I could be myself, for what it’s worth. And if there is one thing that powerful men like in women, it’s confidence. Booger told me that my confidence was sexy. He said that beauty queens like Kimberly Ann suffer from self-esteem issues. In retrospect, I think her anger at him resolved those issues.”
The two of them finished their desserts in pregnant silence. Fritz the Fourth turned to Fritz the Second and asked, “Have you ever seen Drummer Boy and his girl quiet for so long?” They both shook their heads.
“LuLu, dear, you do take up all the oxygen in our relationship,” Oscar whispered, “but I am more than willing to live off your carbon dioxide.”
“That sounds perverted!”
“Look, Oscar dear, I have to get back to the salt mines. I think we have covered all the agenda items. Any items not on the agenda that need to be addressed? Any new rules?”
“Yes,” Oscar answered. “After all we’ve been through in the last couple of years, we need to remember this rule: when there’s a will, there’s a way. We willed our way through the pandemic. So did Booger and Lola and Olivia. Your sons. And Fritz the Second and Fritz the Fourth. I am sorry we lost Fritz the Third. I’m sorry we lost Michael Jordan. And I’m really sorry that we lost Joe Biden. Such a nice man.”
“When there’s a will…,” LuLu repeated. “I think it’s my turn to pay for lunch.”
Oscar pursed his lips and nodded an affirmation. As they rose from the table, he said. “I pay next month, right?”
“You, sir, have never been more correct. It’s nice to be able to plan for next month, isn’t it?”