The Argentinian Restaurant

Nathan ventured a cool assessment of the woman seated across the table from him.

For the past 35 years, he and Bernadette joined Natalie for lunch on this date. Each year, they dined at an Argentinian restaurant near Rockefeller Center that catered to tourists and local office workers on a budget. It was an anniversary of sorts whose origins were obscured in the myriad veils of memory.

Nathan could still find himself breathless in the presence of Bernadette. Into her fifties, Bernadette still looked as though she belonged in a Vogue fashion spread. The perfectly coiffed silver bob, the pink Chanel suit and purse, the Christian Louboutin shoes. She played tennis, took Pilates and yoga, stuck to a nighttime regime, and allowed herself red meat only once a week.

“Have you finally given up on the institution of marriage?” he asked Bernadette moments after their drinks arrived. She recognized his question as a conversational version of the Queen’s Gambit.

“That’s an interesting opening with an old friend,” Bernadette answered, matching his arch tone with her own Sicilian Defense. “Especially coming from a man who never married.”

“Old friend?” Nathan laughed. “That label obscures all manner of improprieties and sins committed by two people who find themselves in close proximity to each other so rarely.”

Bernadette laughed, too. Nathan could tell that she restrained herself from laughing loudly so as to not draw the attention of the tourists and local office workers on a budget seated near their table.

“You might as well have asked if I have given up on the institution of breathing,” she answered Nathan. “I will not give up on marriage. I have loved being married, even if I didn’t love my husbands.”

Nathan raised his right eyebrow.

“A toast to marriage,” he said. Check.

“And to Natalie, my love,” Bernadette responded. Checkmate.

“To marriage and Natalie,” Nathan repeated as his raised glass of iced tea met with her wine glass filled with chardonnay.

Å

Nathan met Natalie shortly after she moved to New York and began work at a rival book publisher located two block away from Nathan’s office. They were introduced by a mutual acquaintance at a loft party in Tribeca that overflowed into the street.

Nathan did not fall in love with Natalie immediately; he waited until the day they first walked into the Argentinian restaurant.

He had still not shaken all the moisture from Columbia out of his hair and was a junior book editor learning how to handle agents and authors. In their first conversation over lunch, Natalie told him that she wanted to be a writer. “An important author, actually,” she said, “like Joan Didion.” By the time he asked for the check, Nathan believed that he and Natalie viewed the world through the writer’s prism, always conspiring to turn what they observed into a short story or novel or essay. He believed that Natalie saw him for who he was – not who she wanted him to be — and loved him for it.

Nathan was surprised how zealously Natalie pursued him. She displayed no evidence of a demure quality.  He did not find Natalie physically attractive, but he was flattered by her attention. Natalie was short, unathletic, cut her own hair, and dressed like a bohemian. A poor bohemian, not a wealthy bohemian. However, Natalie oozed and radiated confidence, that most alluring of feminine qualities. She seemed entirely comfortable in her own skin, unshy and unapologetic about her actions. Nathan found it intoxicating when Natalie fixed her attention on him.

Natalie presented him with a menu of unexpected surprises offered without an expectation of reciprocation. She gifted him a first edition of James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” for his birthday and took him hiking at Mohonk Lake for a long Veterans Day weekend.

“You’re spoiling me,” he said, “and I cannot afford to underwrite my half of this lifestyle.”

“My prize, Nathan, is just to be with the only guy in New York who knows how to kiss a woman, listen when I launch into a soliloquy on Bernard Berenson,” she told him, “and who doesn’t stop if I sing the Harvard fight song during my orgasm.”

Nathan began to believe that he and Natalie had spun their own cocoon to protect themselves from the forces that conspired against lovers.

However, one evening in her studio in Chinatown, almost a year into their relationship, Natalie got out of bed following intercourse, performed a strange pirouette, sweat being thrown off her small breasts in all directions. “I can’t afford myself,” she said. “I can’t afford you.”

Nathan watched as she walked to the window, looked out, and whispered to herself, “My god, the stories we tell ourselves just to survive day-to-day.” She then moved back to the bed, sat on the edge, and started weeping.

She turned to Nathan and said, “I am poor, Nathan. I am not just broke, I am poor. I am piling up debt. I cannot end up with a man working for a salary and retirement benefits. I went to Harvard to become wealthy. I do love you Nathan, but I need the assurance of money. I need a rainmaker and I don’t see a cloud in the sky over your head.”

Years later he realized that Natalie’s interest in him was caused – at least partly – by a manic compulsion that she could not control. When it blew cold on the night Natalie revealed her poverty and unmasked her ambition, her needs shifted to something more tangible than kissing and sex and listening.

Natalie left Nathan, married a man from a wealthy family named Donald, earned a doctorate in English literature at the University of Chicago, gave birth to three children, and settled into a four-bedroom house located a 10-minute walk from the campus of Northwestern University, where she earned tenure teaching feminist literature of the 20th century.

When Natalie finally became an author, Nathan became her editor. Her first book, a biography of Joan Didion, was well received by critics and became a minor best-seller.

The memory of Natalie’s pursuit remained strong with Nathan, like the memory of heroin to a recovering addict. The last time Nathan talked to Natalie before what the New York Times called the “cataclysmic event,” she was putting the finishing touches on her second, long-awaited book, a biography of the novelist Anne Lamott.

Å

Nathan became mortified whenever Bernadette asked his opinion of her paintings. He liked painting and had favorite painters, among them Mark Rothko, Frida Kahlo, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline, and Ben Shahn. However, the portraits Bernadette painted bewildered him. Her work mixed realism and surrealism – Andrew Wyeth meets Salvador Dali meets Spy v. Spy. However, other people with more money than Nathan liked them enough to buy her paintings and offer her commissions.

When Bernadette eventually left New York, she moved back home to suburban Washington DC, married her longtime boyfriend Wayne, bore two daughters with Wayne before divorcing him, married Charles, and continued to invite Nathan to showings of her work. Upon viewing her painting of Andy Warhol kissing Richard Nixon at a small gallery opening in Bethesda, Nathan remarked, “That’s an unexpected combination.”

“You hate it,” Bernadette said.

“Hate is such a strong word,” he responded. “Your obvious talent is wasted on me.”

She never expressed insult or hurt feelings towards Nathan. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “Like all editors or curators, you are just so goddamned literal minded.”

As they circled around her portrait of Katharine Graham perched atop a Sherman tank, which Bernadette painted for relative of the late newspaper publisher, she told him, “You’re just wired wrong for me or, rather, my creative output. If it’s any consolation, your friend Natalie also absolutely hates my paintings. She told to me that they ‘adulterate the power of the feminine in the clash of modern gender interdynamics.’ I have memorized that phrase and use it whenever given the opportunity to poke at pretentious, academic criticism. Can you imagine?”

“I cannot imagine that you refer to Natalie as ‘my friend,’” Nathan responded as he sipped what he had been assured was a crystal flute of Moët & Chandon. “As if the two of you don’t have history.”

“Nathan, any history between Natalie and me intersects with you. You are our favorite topic of conversation. I cannot imagine what would happen to our little love triangle if anything happened to one of us.”

They stopped in front of another painting, a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy being inaugurated President of the United States. Her husband Jack held a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Lolita” on which she was taking the oath of office. Their two small children and seven full-grown St. Bernards watched attentively. Nathan squinted, as if that would help him determine a meaning or significance to the portrait. Jackie Kennedy possessed a mutilated quality underneath her pillbox hat, while her husband wore a crown of thorns and was bleeding from a wound in his abdomen.

“I find it hard to believe that you and Natalie have nothing in common,” he responded. “You know, it’s not been easy for her.”

“Yes, yes, I know. She says that she struggles with depression. I don’t understand why she just cannot allow herself to enjoy her perfect triumphs, her perfect achievements, her perfect family, and her perfect little literary relationship with you.”

“You don’t know her the way I know her.”

“But I understand the way you knew her.”

“Stop. Just stop. That’s all in the past.”

“The past never leaves us, Nathan. The past lingers at the edges of our conscious thoughts. It emerges in our nightmares. It tortures our bones.”

“You sound like you’ve been reading Faulkner again,” he said. “I’d advise you to go back to your unfathomable paints and brushes.”

“Don’t take this personally, my love, but fuck you,” she whispered. She smiled, her lips forming a rosette, and introduced him to the older couple who had purchased the Kennedy portrait. The wife, Bernadette explained, had worked for Mrs. Kennedy in the White House during her years as First Lady.

It was the last time that Bernadette would exhibit her paintings. It would be years before she would admit to Nathan that she had stopped painting.

Å

Nathan remained loyal, generous, and discreet through the decades of Natalie and Bernadette’s marriages, their children, their successes and failures, their agonies and ecstasies, and their steady pursuit of something better or at least different. A dozen women – all fine women, all desirable partners — at some point or another probably allowed the thought to cross their minds that Nathan might ask them to marry him.

Å

Nathan’s secret was that he never brought his girlfriends — or anyone — to his apartment. Shortly after Natalie’s first book was published, Nathan made his one, brilliant real-estate decision, finding the perfect apartment on Eighth Avenue in Greenwich Village. He lived as a self-contained unit: a cozy living room large enough for a sofa on which he reclined to read and a desk at which he wrote, a bedroom just large enough for a queen-sized bed and an armoire, a kitchen-slash-dining room that he ignored, and a secluded balcony with a view of the skyscrapers on the lower end of Manhattan reaching higher and higher towards the heavens. He liked the solitude.

Nathan was a patient editor who became skilled in the kind of bureaucratic warfare between restive publishers, marketing executives, sales forces, booksellers and his lonely, neurotic writers struggling to give birth to the right words in the right order. Disquietude haunted every one of his writers. The weight of expectations suffocated some. Nathan seemed to know how to coax his authors past the incubus of doubt and succubus of distraction. Natalie, though, proved to be especially challenging because she once worked inside the publishing mill. She knew too well the lines of demarcation between the writer and the editor, like a psychiatrist seeking counseling from another psychiatrist.

“You know how you say that everyone has at least one book in them?” Natalie asked Nathan rhetorically during one of their weekly telephone conversations. “After the Didion book, I don’t know if I have another in me,”

“I’m sure that Joan Didion and Anne Lamott entertained the same thought at some point in their careers,” he responded. “And look where that doubt took them. They were worth the wait.”

“As much as you think you know writers, Nathan,” she said. “You have no idea. Writing is the hardest thing in the world.”

“I write, too, my dear.”

“You don’t write for a living, Nathan,” she said. “As writers go, you have mediocre talent, like Sidney Sheldon the novelist. You are, at your very core, an editor. A damned good editor, like Sidney Sheldon the TV director and producer.”

“Thank you, I think?”

“Editing, compared to writing, is the easiest thing in the world. In fact, everything comes easily to you.”

“Except for you.”

“Nothing comes easily to me,” she said. “Not even this conversation.”

Å

During their annual luncheons, Nathan, Natalie, and Bernadette touched on subjects like Langston Hughes and Georgia O’Keefe, John Maynard Keynes and Anthony Blunt, Michael Jackson and The Sex Pistols, the latest dead celebrities, Carnaby Street fashion, Zoroastrianism, and Reconstruction politics. Natalie and Bernadette talked about their wedding nights in graphic detail. Nathan discreetly mentioned the women he dated but preferred to talk about playing on the legendary Columbia football that did not win a single Ivy League contest.

It was an unwritten rule that they not discuss their plans for the future.

Å

As suddenly as any event becomes a New York Times headline, the rule governing topics allowed for discussion at their luncheon changed. Now, Nathan and Bernadette – without Natalie — could only focus on the future.

Nathan ordered matambre arrollado, a kind of meat and vegetable roll, and Bernadette ordered a llama steak, which she insisted was healthier than beef. They split empanadas. Natalie had always ordered locro, a stew. They each ordered the same thing each year, but still went through the motions of looking at the lunch menu, perhaps hoping that they would find something new. They knew these kinds of restaurants never changed their menus, but all three of them were known for affirming that “one can hope.”

“I’m moving back to New York,” Bernadette announced immediately after they had toasted to the institution of marriage and the absent Natalie. “I may need your help finding a realtor.”

“What does your husband Charlie think about this?” Nathan asked, failing to conceal his surprise. “I thought you and he had become part of the Deep State in our nation’s capital. Weren’t the two of you on the cover of a magazine just last year? The powerful lobbyist and the doyenne of the DC arts scene.”

“Oh, did I forget to mention that I am going to close my art gallery and divorce my husband?” Bernadette responded, attempting to appear nonchalant. “And don’t you ever, ever call me a ‘doyenne’ again. That’s what they call women who have lost their looks and charm.”

“Forgive me, but I believe that you forgot to mention the tidbit about ending your marriage,” Nathan responded. “And closing your gallery. I thought you had found peace in your art as a dealer.”

“It’s simple, really. You’ll remember that my father passed last year. His estate has finally been settled to my advantage. I am now an independently wealthy woman. I don’t need the gallery or husband who doesn’t even know what makes me happy. And now I find myself bored. Wealthy, bored, and uninspired. I want an appropriate mourning period before finding a new husband. I need a new drug.”

“Is that the part of the saga where you slowly drink yourself to death amid your flock of youthful lovers? Or is it gaggle of tumescent pool boys?”

“You know, Nathan, that’s funny up to the point where you actually become the lonely, wealthy woman. Being a cliché, my love, is not as much fun as you’d think.”

“And you think that moving to New York is going to help? It’s a city with more lonely, wealthy women per capita than anywhere on the planet.”

“No, but I am going take up painting again,” she said.

The dark silence that followed was short, interrupted by their waiter bringing the food. Bernadette pursed her lips to the right, signaling that they should begin eating. Bernadette’s lips were the most expressive Nathan had ever seen.

“Do you still have the painting I gave you?” she asked. In her fashion, she had painted a genre scene of Nathan, Natalie, and herself riding appaloosa stallions past the famed White Horse Tavern in pursuit of the cast of the musical “Oklahoma.”

“Yes,” he answered. “It’s still hanging in my living room, which has the only wall large enough for a canvas that size. Greenwich Village apartments like mine aren’t known for their ateliers.”

“Let’s switch topics, then, shall we? “Bernadette said. “Who’s your current girlfriend? Are you still sleeping with that Carol woman, the Wall Street Journal reporter?”

“Carol and I are friends. We stopped dating five years ago. I am seeing Suzanne. Apparently, I amuse her. We play squash on Tuesday nights and go to the movies on Saturday. She likes that I still have a flat stomach, even if my hair is thinning. She has a studio high up on Central Park West with a view of the park. Her parents paid for it. You would not approve. She is inappropriately young and pretty for a man of my age.”

“So many of them are, my love,” Bernadette responded. “Must be dozens since Natalie broke your heart.”

Nathan stopped chewing and sighed.

She could see the masticated meat and vegetable roll in his mouth. Natalie had never seen his mouth full of food.  

Nathan always broke up with his girlfriends. “You don’t deserve to let me string you along,” he told them. “I am not a serious man. You should not count on me for serious purposes. I want you to find someone who will take what you want seriously and give you long-term happiness.” He had the speech memorized, but he meant every word of it every time he spoke it. He loved all his girlfriends. Nathan loved the blossoming of romance, the excitement of firsts with a woman. The work of keeping the romance alive, however, was of less interest to him.

He finished chewing and swallowed. “But you’re painting again?” he asked, pretending that she had not skewered him by alluding to his failed romance with Natalie.

“It’s simple, my love. I can now live wherever I want and do whatever I want. I want to create again. I want people talking about my art again. I want to at least seem to be relevant for something other than my marriages, progeny, and personal tragedy. In New York all those years ago, I had a burgeoning career, was only loosely tethered, and carried hope in my heart.”

“Isn’t that simply just reliving the past?”

“I hope not,” Bernadette answered. “God.”

Å

Bernadette had moved to New York the summer after graduating from the art school in Rhode Island, painting at night and working as a freelance proofreader for book publishers during the day. Bernadette was enthralled by the prospect of being a married woman, but found herself increasingly bored by the prospect of actually marrying her hometown boyfriend Wayne. She felt like their relationship was a tidal wave about to break over her life and change everything, even the things she liked. She felt the increasing momentum of her family and friends and his family and friends pushing them to get married. There were so many expectations for her. They were not her expectations, but Bernadette did not feel strong enough to resist.

Then she met Nathan.

Bernadette was picking up a manuscript from Nathan’s boss first thing in the morning to proofread in her apartment. She was to return the manuscript in two days.

Nathan was still heartbroken from the breakup with Natalie. She could see the sadness in his eyes. He handed her the manuscript and said, “You seem to have paint all over you.”

His observation was both true and obvious. Bernadette had been painting all night and not changed out of her painter’s white overalls daubed mostly in taupe, mustard-like yellow, a steely blue, and purple like an eggplant.

“And your concern is?” she countered.

“My concern is that you not get paint all over the manuscript,” he said. “Some of the paint is still wet. And what’s your name anyway?”

“I promise not to get paint on the manuscript,” she said. “And proper folks call me Bernadette.”

Two days later, after Bernadette returned a manuscript that was marked only by her pencil, Nathan noted the Calvin Klein suit she wore.

“Chic,” he said.

“I was going for ‘smart,’” Bernadette responded. “I have been told that your name is Nathan and that you are normally not a rude person.”

Nathan smiled.

“Maybe I should take you to lunch to discuss adjectives and my oafish manners,” he said. “There’s a great Argentinian restaurant a few blocks from here. You’re dressed too well for it, but it might be OK for shits and giggles.”

“What kind of man says, ‘shits and giggles?’” she responded. “Nathan.”

“The man who just offered to take you to lunch,” Nathan answered. “Bernadette.”

Bernadette demurred. “I am supposed to have lunch with my boyfriend at the Yale Club,” she said. “He didn’t go to Yale. His father did. Wayne and his parents from Maryland are in town. You look tweedy enough to know how these things go.”

Two days after Wayne returned with his parents to Maryland, Bernadette agreed to have lunch with Nathan at the Argentinian restaurant. He wore a tweed suit and a bowtie. She wore a yellow sun dress and cowboy boots. The sadness she observed in his eyes when they first met had been replaced with something she discerned as a salacious glimmer.

Throughout their playful, albeit platonic relationship, Nathan and Bernadette synced in all the superficial ways that draw young people together: looks, education, style, music, alcohol, and everything that evoked laughter.

Nathan and Bernadette went to see the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Afterwards, he offered to escort Bernadette to her fifth-floor walkup in Hell’s Kitchen. In the midst of arguing about Julian Schnabel’s “plate paintings” – he pro/she not so pro — on the sidewalk outside her tenement, Bernadette asked Nathan upstairs for hot chocolate. She played Ricki Lee Jones’ eponymous CD and sat down next to Nathan on a small sofa. He could not believe that anyone could live in an apartment so small with only a view of the airshaft through a solitary window. While they waited for their mugs of hot chocolate to cool, Nathan leaned over and kissed Bernadette on the lips.

She kissed him back.

When she stopped kissing him, she said, “I don’t think we should do this.”

He kissed her again. Again, she kissed him back.

When she stopped kissing him the second time, she said, “If we keep kissing, we are going to do something that I will regret.”

It wasn’t so much the words that Bernadette spoke as much as the sorrow emanated from her. He began to feel guilty.

Bernadette examined his face and said, “Nathan, I promised myself that I would not fall in love with you. You have to understand. Wayne. My parents. His parents. Everything is settled but the ring. He is supposed to propose to me over Christmas and we are going to get married next fall. It’s all in the works. I just can’t put myself in front of that steamroller. I can’t. I just can’t. I’m sorry.”

Bernadette stood up in a way that let Nathan know that he should leave.

“I hope that you and Wayne will make each other happy,” he said, failing to sound convincing.

“I doubt it,” Bernadette whispered. Nathan could barely hear her. “I very much doubt it.”

Å

When Bernadette heard Natalie mention the name Casey after ordering the locro, she experienced a shock of recognition: it was the first time she heard the name of either of Natalie’s daughters.

“Natalie, how old is your daughter Casey?” she asked.

“She’s about to turn 17.”

“So is my oldest, Julia. We’re up to our eyeballs in the college search.”

“Same.”

It was the first time the two women left Nathan out of a conversation. Nathan already knew the names and ages of his lunch companion’s children, as well as their sports, musical instruments, and favorite authors. Still, he listened patiently, smiled, and nodded when an inflection in the conversation called for a gesture. Bernadette learned that Casey had a younger sister, Lizzie, and brother, Billy. Natalie learned that Bernadette’s younger daughter was Stephanie. Natalie and Bernadette referred to their husbands only by first names – Donald, Wayne, and Charles, whom most people, though not Bernadette, called Charlie. Their husbands were successfully accruing more wealth and exhibiting uneven amounts of interest in their families. All their children read “Harry Potter,” loved “Star Wars,” and were raised on Nickelodeon.

When he sensed the momentum of the exchange waning, Nathan asked their waiter for the check. Nathan was extremely good at timing.

“It was bound to happen,” he said while he signed the credit card receipt. It was assumed that Nathan would always pay for lunch.

The women just looked at him.

“You were bound to find out that you are not just attachments.”

“Attachments to what?” they both asked.

“Me,” he said. “Attachments to me.”

Bernadette pursed her lips in a wide, thin smile to let Nathan know that he was mistaken.

Å

It was not until after the cataclysmic event that Natalie realized that Bernadette’s daughter Julia had been a student in her “Introduction to Feminist Literature” class at Northwestern.

While Natalie finally started to make appreciable progress on her Anne Lamott book during a sabbatical from teaching, most of Nathan’s attention was focused on another of his authors’ books. Robin Moore, a lawyer and activist from Atlanta, was writing about white supremacist groups with a focus on their infiltration of law enforcement and the military. Her book was going to create seismic political headaches for municipal, state, and federal government agencies across the country. Even before the book was published, she received more than 500 anonymous death threats, most of which the FBI had discounted as pranks. Nathan’s company also received a few threats; he dismissed them the same way he dismissed the boogeyman.

During the annual lunch, he recalled when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa in the late eighties calling for the death of the novelist Salman Rushdie and his publishers for blasphemy contained in Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses.” Nathan worked around the corner from Viking Press, Rushdie’s American publisher. The threat of bombings dominated small talk across Manhattan. “It added a dark note to the buzz of already living in New York,” Nathan told Bernadette and Natalie. “No one was killed, and Viking and Rushdie made money hand over fist. Fucking hand over fucking fist.”

Å

“Of course, I will help you find a realtor,” Nathan told Bernadette. He picked up his phone. “I am texting you the name and digits of one right now. If Claire doesn’t work out, I have 12 more waiting for your business.”

As he pushed the “send” icon, Nathan experienced a disequilibrium. For years, their luncheon had been a safe space. The pressure that he, Bernadette, and Natalie exerted on one another kept the geometrical formula of the triangle intact. The foundation of their triangle was built on the reality that Natalie and Bernadette were neither friends nor rivals for Nathan’s attention or affection. Mutually assured destruction bound them together.

“How well do you think you knew Natalie?” Nathan asked Bernadette as he finished his matambre arrollado.

“I don’t want to talk about Natalie,” she hissed. “I don’t want to talk about the past at all. I want to talk about moving back to New York. I want to talk about my painting. I want to talk about how you are going to screw up your relationship with Suzanne. I will be happy to share stories about my daughter Stephanie, not that you would know anything about raising daughters. Anything but the past, my love.”

Å

Every New Year’s Day, Natalie sat by herself in her campus office and drafted a new suicide note. She started this ritual when her daughter Casey was five months old. There were no actual plans, but Natalie was aware of herself teetering on the precipice and not always in control. Each January 2nd, she walked to her local bank and placed the letter, neatly folded in thirds and sealed in a white Number 10 envelope with her husband Donald’s name on it, into their safe deposit box along with their passports and financial and legal documents.

As Natalie wrote in a neat cursive learned from the nuns in elementary school, she recognized all the good that surrounded her. She recognized how her family and friends had supported her. She reflected on the times and, as they got older, the accomplishments of her children and her most prized students. She mentioned how much she looked forward to seeing Nathan and Bernadette every year. Each year, she noted with regret that she had not become a better friend to Bernadette.

Å

Nathan flew to Chicago to attend a reading by Robin Moore from her just-published book in an affluent neighborhood on the North Side. Before the reading, Nathan introduced Natalie to Robin Moore over lunch. They talked about Joan Didion, the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960’s, modern terrorism, and how white writers address issues like white supremacy movements.

After lunch, Natalie drove them around Chicago and gave them a tour of her favorite places. “Not the things you remember from watching ‘Ferris Beuller’s Day Off,’” she remarked. Nathan was taken by a marker on the site of the first nuclear chain reaction, which took place in an abandoned squash court beneath the University of Chicago’s old football stadium.

After the tour, Natalie dropped them off at Big Shoulders Books, where about 150 people were crammed to hear Robin Moore and stand in line to receive autographed copies and exchange a word or two with the author. The threats that Moore received were increasing. Mixed in with book reviews was reporting on the resignations of one member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and several big-city chiefs of police who were named as members of white supremacist groups.

“I don’t ignore the threats,” she told Nathan, “but it’s a little bit like living in California and always hearing about the big earthquake that is going to send the entire state crashing into the Pacific Ocean. It might happen, but you aren’t going to let it ruin your day.”

Nathan left the bookstore event early to catch a flight back to New York. On the flight, he made a point of turning off his phone and not looking at TV screens. It was Nathan’s custom while traveling, his version of a vacation.

Within seconds of walking into his apartment and turning on his phone, Nathan saw 23 voicemails, 72 text messages, and 13 emails waiting for his reply. He scrolled through the lists and decided to perform triage, first returning the call from the president of his publishing company.

“I am so glad that you are alive,” Kathleen said breathlessly.  

Nathan had never heard Kathleen’s voice assume this panicked tone. He told people that she “was poised, polished, and on her game 24 hours a day. I am willing to bet that even her snoring sounds edited by the legal office, complete with Oxford commas.” Kathleen was amused when someone shared Nathan’s observation. They became good friends.

“I just got off a plane from Chicago,” Nathan answered.

“Robin Moore is dead,” she announced. “The bookstore was bombed. Lots of people were killed. Obviously, you missed it.”

Nathan did not hear anything else that Kathleen said. He decided against responding to any of the other messages. He made himself a cup of Rooibos tea, took a long, hot shower, and went to bed. He slept soundly without dreams that night and woke up without aid of an alarm.

“If I have but one super-power,” Nathan would tell people at dinner parties, “it is that I can compartmentalize my life. I could sleep through an insurrection.”

Å

The morning after Robin Moore was killed, Nathan met with the marketing and sales teams, Kathleen, and several other executives. They talked about how to ensure that anyone in the United States of America who wanted to purchase a copy of Robin Moore’s book would be able to buy it before they got distracted.

Nathan cancelled his lunch with an up-and-coming literary agent and promised her a dinner next week. He planned to eat lunch at his desk and return all the calls, texts, and emails he received last night and was continuing to receive. He saw that both Natalie and Bernadette had called him, twice each. How nice, he thought, that they were calling to find out if he was still alive.

Most of the messages fit neatly into the “did you hear the news” category. He was able to discharge most of the list in 30 minutes; a few messages required more nuanced responses, which took another 20 minutes. He decided to return Natalie’s call first.

“It’s Nathan,” he announced himself.

“Donald’s dead,” Natalie responded in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Donald your husband?”

“He was at the bookstore that was bombed,” she continued. It felt as though she had rehearsed this conversation. “He told me that he needed to clear his head from a tough client meeting. I know that he liked to go to the bookstore. He liked looking at the artwork on the covers, playing with alliteration in the titles, and imagining the contents of the books.”

She paused.

“I’m sorry to ask this Natalie,” Nathan said. “Are they positive that Donald was killed?

“Yes,” she said. “Donald wasn’t actually blown up, so he was easy to identify. The stacks of books shielded him from the blast. It was a single piece of shrapnel that found its way through the gaps.”

Nathan cringed at the odds. He asked, “How are your children?”

“Shitty. They’re shitty. I’m shitty. Everything’s shitty, Nathan. Everything’s shitty.”

Natalie sounded more depressed than angry.

“I’m very, very sorry, Natalie,” he said. “I am devastated. This is terrible. Look, I will take a plane tonight to Chicago, stay at a hotel near your house, and be at your beck and call for the next week. I will do laundry, cook meals, sew clothes, drive, answer the phone, help you deal with the arrangements. All you have to do is say yes.”

Nathan could see his assistant Michelle open the door to his office, sit in a chair across from his desk while he talked, and lurk. She lurked only during emergencies.

After a pause, Natalie said, “No, Nathan. Thank you, but no. You don’t get to be the white knight coming to rescue your true love.”

“That’s not what I meant, Natalie.”

“I appreciate your offer. You are a good friend, but it’s just…too fraught. Goodbye, Nathan.”

Nathan turned his attention to Michelle, who said, “Kathleen wants to see you immediately. The FBI is in her office and they want to talk to you.”

Å

Nathan was not able to return Bernadette’s call until that evening.

The three FBI agents were cordial and professional in running through what they knew about the bomb that had killed Robin Moore and 23 other people as well as sending 58 people to the hospital.

“The bomb was a simple, radio-controlled device using a C-4 plastic explosive,” said Agent Drew Cohoe. “It was detonated remotely, probably by the bomber sitting in a car nearby.”

“What Agent Cohoe is interested in,” Kathleen said, “is what or who you may have seen in the bookstore before you left.”

Nathan felt himself ensnared. His first instinct was to call a lawyer. His second instinct was to remind himself to stop overthinking things. Kathleen was running this meeting. She would protect him, if necessary.

“As in, did anyone or anything strike me as being out of place?” he asked.

Agent Cohoe nodded.

“No,” Nathan answered, “but I tend to ruminate on things. Can I call you if anything comes to me?”

Agent Cohoe nodded again.

The rest of Nathan’s day was filled with emergency this and emergency that regarding Robin Moore. Sales and marketing plans. Memorial plans. Calling Moore’s agent and family members. Stealing a few minutes to write a first draft of remarks that he would make at Moore’s funeral after Kathleen designated him to represent the company. Reassuring Michelle and other younger staff members that coming to work would be safe. Wondering if it was actually safe to be sitting in his office. Cancelling dinner with an agent who was very understanding.

At the end of the workday, he called Bernadette while walking to a neighborhood Mexican restaurant.

“It’s Nathan,” he said. “I can’t believe that I am about to eat dinner by myself. When was the last time that happened? Sorry about the delay—”

“Nathan,” Bernadette cried. “It’s Julia. My daughter Julia. They can’t find her.”

Nathan remembered that Bernadette’s daughter was a student at Northwestern.

“She texted me that she was going to the bookstore that was blown up,” Bernadette said. “She wanted to meet Robin Moore.”

She paused. “I know you were there, Nathan. Did you talk to her? Did you talk to Julia?”

Nathan thought hard. At the bookstore, he talked with a local freelance publicist named Dorothy who was wrangling Robin Moore’s media interviews, the bookstore owner, and a couple of the store’s clerks. No, he had not met Julia. He remembered that Bernadette had once fished photos of her daughters out of a purse for him to inspect.

“No, Bernadette, I did not meet your daughter.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

Nathan offered to drive to DC in the morning to help with…he didn’t actually know how he could help, but he wanted to be present for Bernadette.

After a pause, Bernadette said no.

“No, my love,” she continued, with a sudden poise. “If Julia was killed, her father and my husband Charles will deal with the arrangements. No white knight needed to come to my rescue.”

“That’s not what I meant, Bernadette.”

“I appreciate your offer, Nathan,” Bernadette said, with a bit of iciness in her voice. “You are a good friend, but there’s already enough men here.”

Å

Before falling asleep that night, Nathan recalled the face of a young man in the store who stuck out to him because he was wearing an ill-fitting, stained tour shirt for a band whose name he did not recognize. He looked up the band on the internet and found them associated with three white supremacist groups operating in Pennsylvania. In the morning, Nathan sat down with the FBI and identified the young man in a group of photos Agent Cohoe showed him.

Nathan inquired about Bernadette’s daughter. “I am sorry to tell you that the young woman was among the dead,” Agent Cohoe answered. “The fugitive you identified should be in custody shortly.”

Two hours later, the bomber was killed in a shootout with the FBI in a small town between Pittsburgh and Erie.

Å

It was months after all the funerals before Bernadette would talk to Nathan. She called him and insisted they have dinner in New York, but not at the Argentinian restaurant. He took her to the Mexican restaurant. Nathan believed that it is hard to be depressed or angry in a Mexican restaurant.

Over dinner, Bernadette wept. Nathan held her hand and wept.

She talked about her dead daughter. Nathan listened respectfully, occasionally asking questions about her living daughter.

Bernadette talked for more than three hours. While picking at his tamales, Nathan let a call from Natalie go into voicemail. One mourner at a time, he told himself.

While picking at her desert flan, Bernadette said, “Nathan, I’m sorry that we have not talked these past months.”

“That’s fine, Bernadette.”

“No, it’s not,” she said. “I don’t think you understand. I need to tell you one thing tonight. It will be hard.”

“Continue,” he said solemnly.

Bernadette took a breath. “There is a part of me – an ugly part that I have trouble acknowledging – that blames you for Julia’s death.” She exhaled.

Nathan was stunned. His mind raced. He slumped in his chair and let his fork slide out of his hand. It fell to the tile floor with a loud clunk. Their waiter raced to replace the fork.

“She was in that bookstore because of you,” she said. “Because of your author, who drew the bomber’s attention.”

Nathan chose his words carefully. “Without me, your daughter would still be alive.”

Bernadette nodded.

“I see,” he said. Nathan wanted to describe to Bernadette how guilt had consumed him. He wanted to tell her that he felt responsible for the deaths of every person in the bookstore. He wanted to recount that he woke up every morning with the names of the dead and maimed flashing in front of his eyes. He wanted to share how he went to work every day with the sound of Robin Moore’s last words to him before he left the bookstore – “Keep up the good fight” – ringing in his ears. He wanted to confess that he had stopped talking to his girlfriend, Suzanne, and just let her fade away in a flurry of her unanswered voicemails and text messages. He could not go Dutch with Bernadette on the truth. Instead, he tried to keep up appearances, even as he sensed the pretense failing.

“And I know,” Bernadette continued, “that Natalie feels the same way about her husband.”

“You talked to Natalie?”

“Yes.”

“Can either of you forgive me?”

“I don’t think either of us is ready for that.”

Nathan hung his head.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said.

“I am sorry for you, Nathan,” Bernadette said.

Nathan asked the waiter for the check.

Å

Nathan returned to his apartment distraught over Bernadette’s revelation. He accessed Natalie’s voicemail. It was three hours since she called.

“Nathan, it’s Natalie,” the voicemail began. Nathan thought that she sounded tired, more tired than he had ever heard Natalie.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. This whole thing is just so, so shitty. You probably thought that Donald was not nearly as good a husband as you would have been, but Donald was the husband I needed.”

Nathan tried to picture himself in Donald’s place as Natalie’s hard-working husband and father. The image was vague and unfocused. Maybe, he thought, he would have made a good uncle.

“You and I have a vibe, Nathan, but I need more than a vibe. Donald was jealous of my relationship with you. Several years ago, Donald accused me of sleeping with you every time I came to New York. I had to lie and tell him you were sleeping with Bernadette.”

Nathan laughed, trying to imagine the exchange.

“I feel bad for you. But not as bad as I feel for myself, Nathan.”

Nathan shifted on his sofa. He began to feel queasy.

“I feel the forces of the abyss calling me, tugging me, yanking at me. Every day. It’s hard, Nathan, it’s very hard to resist. You think you know, but you just don’t know how hard it is to put off the inevitable every day for years. People, well-meaning people, tell me to just flick the switch or think positive thoughts or take comfort in the love of my family or focus on my writing and my students. None of it works. None of it.”

Nathan started to panic.

“And on top of all of it, Nathan, is the anger and rage I feel towards you for luring that piece of shit who I will not name to my husband to cause Donald’s death. I know it’s not your fault. Donald’s murder is not your fault. I know this. But my knowledge is not enough for my feelings. I need to blame someone. I can’t blame the dead, Nathan. I am left only with you. I shouldn’t blame you, but who else is left to blame?”

Nathan began to cry.

“But how can I blame you, Nathan, who I love so very much? I don’t know how to live with this. Anyway, I am here in New York. At the usual place. I don’t know why, except that I always manage to feel better here, when I see you. I am sorry that I cut you off these past few months, but now I need to talk to you about everything, Nathan. Everything. But it has to be soon because I don’t know how much longer I can resist the inevitable. Please call me. Soon.”

Å

Nathan immediately called the police, then the hotel where Natalie was staying. He changed his mind at least five times about going and confronting what he feared he would find. Finally, he hopped in a Lyft and made his way through late-night traffic to the Upper East Side. When Nathan arrived, he spotted an ambulance outside the hotel, walked through the revolving door, and saw the hotel’s manager talking to a police officer. He identified himself as the caller.

The police officer and the hotel manager exchanged a professional look and then turned toward Nathan.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” the police officer said.

“How?” Nathan asked.

“She was taking a bath and slit her wrists,” the hotel manager said.

Nathan called Bernadette.

He told her that Natalie had killed herself. He did not tell Bernadette about the voicemail.

Bernadette said, “I am sorry for your loss.”

Å

Nathan ventured again for a cool assessment of Bernadette. He felt that he was getting closer to the mark.

“I was surprised that you wanted to get together again for our annual lunch,” Nathan announced.

Bernadette pursed her lips into a small flower and looked at the menu.

Nathan had taken 14 women to the Argentinian restaurant for first dates. First, Natalie, then Bernadette. Suzanne was the last. The tables, the décor, menu, and the wait staff possessed the familiarity of kabuki theatre. Dozens of luncheons spread over several decades blurred in his memory, like ingredients placed into a whirring blender. The memories, like flavors, remained strong but not as distinct as when they were created. The discussions, the food, the changing fashions, and the laughter inspired whimsical smiles from Nathan, but his mind could not focus on any one dress, hairstyle, comment, fragrance, or story. The stories he remembered, but not which woman was the author.

Every luncheon played out in a staged ritual in which Nathan was a perfect gentleman and host. Nathan was an attractive man without being distractingly handsome. He was witty without needing to rely on jokes to amuse his partners. He was erudite without being condescending. The woman left the Argentinian restaurant wanting more of Nathan, at first for him to entertain them, then seduce them, and finally to love them.

“You know, Nathan,” Bernadette continued, “I received all your entreaties after you called me about Natalie. I read every word of your emails and letters and listened to all your voicemails. Several times. I wanted so badly to respond, but I just couldn’t. I wasn’t ready. I am sorry if I hurt you.”

Nathan shrugged his shoulders. “Comme ci, comme ça,” he said.

“Oh, don’t be so phlegmatic, my love.”

Bernadette pursed her lips again, with the lower lip disappearing from view.

“Out with it,” he said, smiling uncomfortably. “I can tell that you are about to wallop me with a dose of Bernadette.”

She took a deep breath in, then breathed out

“Your problem, my love,” Bernadette said while she watched him slice into his matambre arrollado and bring a forkful to his mouth, “is that, quite frankly, if you were to play that stupid game ‘Fuck, Marry, or Kill,’ you would find yourself always choosing the woman you should marry. All your girlfriends are the marrying kind. I Googled some of them. Wow! Good women, intelligent women, accomplished, achievers, nurturers, partners. Some of them were even better looking than me. You, my love, need to hang out more with women you would rather fuck or kill.”

Nathan chewed and stared into Bernadette’s face.

“Our little love triangle has collapsed,” she said. “There are only two sides left, you and me. It’s untenable.”

He swallowed. “I don’t know what to say.”

“I am serious, Nathan,” she said. “I think that it’s over for you and me.”

Nathan was stunned.

“Let me get this straight,” Nathan said. “You believe that we can no longer be friends. The end of the annual luncheon. No more late-night phone calls. No more art shows. No more…anything, is that right?”

“Yes, my love,” Bernadette answered. “Fini.”

“Will you at least come to my funeral?”

“Don’t joke about this, Nathan,” she said. “I cannot imagine sitting here with you like nothing has happened. Be honest, Nathan, what are we to each other without Natalie?”

“The answer is obvious to you but eludes me.”

“Let me put this another way, my love,” Bernadette said. “Without Natalie, how long would it take before you tried to fuck me? I know you won’t marry me, and neither would you have me killed.”

Nathan sat still, looking at the ceiling for about 30 seconds, then looked directly into Bernadette’s eyes in a manner unfamiliar to her. She saw many emotions on his face, but not anger.

“That’s a rather crude sentiment,” he answered, “and I don’t think that I have done or said anything to deserve it.”

This time Bernadette laughed loudly enough that several of the tourists and local office workers on a budget at other tables turned at the commotion. Nathan wiped his mouth with a red paper napkin. Bernadette looked, to Nathan’s perspective, stricken. There was a foreign touch in her words and tone. He sensed that Natalie’s death had released the hydra of their relationship.

“Loving you never seemed to be an option from the moment we met,” Bernadette said with obvious pain. “With Natalie, we formed the perfect love triangle. Natalie made loving you manageable. I guess that I came to love you and Natalie as a unit more than just you as a person. Even when there was just you and me, Natalie always chaperoned our thoughts and words.”

“But you and Natalie were not even friends,” Nathan stammered.

“We were…allies.”

“You and Natalie and I sat in this restaurant for years and years brilliantly pretending that nothing ever happened between us.” Nathan’s tone became insistent. “We were such convincing actors, Bernadette. You and I have memorized our roles. Just because Natalie is dead and missing doesn’t mean that I would try to fuck my best remaining friend.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Nathan,” she said, as she leaned over kissed Nathan on the cheek.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you, Bernadette. I truly am.”

Bernadette pursed her lips in a fulsome manner. “So now do you understand why we cannot remain friends, Nathan?”

Nathan’s chin slumped to his chest. Then, silently, he motioned to their waiter for the check.

THE END

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