Authors: Kathryn Harrison
Table of Contents
for Kate Medina
In those years I had a great need to be seen. And when one succeeds in seducing someone, one also succeeds in being seen.
The Death of a Beekeeper
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
“Spellbinding . . . Kathryn Harrison is a wonderful writer.” â
New York Times
“After I read
I pressed it into the hands of the person sitting next to me on the plane. And then I spent the next week telling everybody I met about this amazing book.
is sexy and thrilling and destructive and incredibly well written. Kathryn Harrison is a staggeringly gifted writer, and her full powers are on display within the pages of this unforgettable novel.” âAUGUSTEN BURROUGHS, author of
Magical Thinking: True Stories
“Shockingly complex and compulsively readable.” âO,
The Oprah Magazine
is full of Harrison's astute, often mordant powers of physical and psychological observation. [She] conveys a forgiving yet unflinching sense of the way people conduct an ongoing yet imperceptible reassessment of their terms of endearment. . . . Kathryn Harrison is one of our more earnestly impassioned and intellectually engaging players. Long may she run.” â
“Estranged twins, one of them deformed. Grief, betrayal, and deviant sex. Here, in
are the elements of a great Gothic . . . read. In the cool, elegant hands of Kathryn Harrison, though, they mark the boundaries of something more complex, though no less entertaining. . . . Her characters and their relationships have a sense of heart and warmth here that gives her writing, always beautiful, a new level of depth. . . . An engaging, beautifully written story.” â
“No words are wasted in Kathryn Harrison's
a tightly wound and always absorbing novel that examines the aftershocks of loss, rage, and desire. Like Ian McEwan's
this book takes a long look at the underside of entwined emotional lives; Harrison's insight is abundant, and
is a haunting and beautiful novel.” âMEG WOLITZER, author of
[suggests] that there's an endless supply of moral gray areas at Harrison's skilled fingertips, lying in wait for their turn on the page.” â
“The smart, familiar plot is made fresh by Harrison's measured sense of the profane, the creepy and the funny, while also managing to be moving instead of maudlin.” â
, Kathryn Harrison cuts unflinchingly into the human psyche and lays it bare. This novel is guaranteed to startle you, disturb you, and, ultimately, seduce you.” âRUPERT THOMSON, author of
“Kathryn Harrison's sixth novel is that rare literary phenomenon: a psychologically complex work with a plot. . . . The way
unfolds is as suspenseful as a good mystery novelâand ultimately the pieces fit together with similar artistry. [
] will keep you turning the pages.” â
“What a wonderful treat
is for readers: so full of richly imagined characters, so cunningly plotted, and so beautifully written. Once again Kathryn Harrison weaves her unique magic in this enthralling and sophisticated novel.” âMARGOT LIVESEY, author of
“Emotionally plausible [with] sinuous, sensitive, and often funny prose . . . juicy and intelligent.” â
“Harrison is a fine writer, astute to the Jamesian subtleties of shifting social relationships and the physical signifiers of mood, but also able to let the words fly. . . . This book is so funny and so knowingâfew female writers are as skillful as Harrison at capturing men at the saddest and most ridiculous extremes of their towel snapping and sexual preeningâthat it has to be considered another success for one of the most interesting writers of her generation.” â
“A tour de force of technical mastery and stylistic panache. Harrison heats her plot well beyond a lesser writer's melting point, but she maintains her cool head and total control all the way to the breathless end. I turned the pages so fast I got blisters.” âKATE CHRISTENSEN, author of
The Epicure's Lament
“Compulsively readable and deeply disturbing . . . Harrison writes likes a poet, spinning a tangled tale rich with familiar themes from her previous works.” â
“Hypnotic . . . intense, disquieting, suspenseful, [and] audacious.” â
“A passionate bookâa spectacular fireworks display of a book. It swings from a father's guilt, grief, and lust to betrayal, and then flares into color with a young girl's wildly raucous, comic, and willfully targeted sexuality. All this is illuminated by Kathryn Harrison's empathy for the inner grace of humanity in all its variations.” âJOAN GOULD, author of
Spinning Straw into Gold
“Harrison's dialogue is electrifying, the sophistication of her psychology is mesmerizing, and her characters, so astutely drawn, are bewitching.” â
“[An] astonishing story . . . compelling, beautifully written, well constructed . . . Harrison is a truly gifted writer.” âSalt Lake City
“Written with unflinching clarity and beauty as truth,
is as thrilling and sad as voyeurism. Intimately, we watch a family unravel as they try to cope with profound loss, considerable love, and shattering betrayal, and with envy painfully all too human. This one sneaks up from behind to grab you by the heart.” âBINNIE KIRSHENBAUM, author of
An Almost Perfect Moment
Will leans out of the driver's-side window toward his wife. “It's not too late to change your mind,” he says.
Her dark glasses show him the houses on their side of the block, greatly reduced and warped by the convexity of each lens. The fancy wrought-iron bars on their neighbor's windows, the bright plastic backboard of the Little Tikes basketball hoop one door down, the white climbing rose, suddenly and profusely in bloom, on the trellis by their own mailbox: it's as if he were studying one of those jewel-like miniatures painted in Persia during the sixteenth century; the longer Will looks, the more tiny details he finds.
“Did you remember to bring pictures?” Carole asks.
He points to an envelope on the seat beside him. “I mentioned the pool at the hotel?”
“Babysitting services? Pay-per-view?”
“Come on, Will,” Carole says, “don't do this to me.”
“Make me feel guilty.” Her bra strap has slipped out from the armhole of her sleeveless dress, down one shoulder. Without looking, she tucks it back where it belongs.
“You know I'd make it up to you,” he tells her. She smiles, raises her eyebrows so they appear above the frames of her sunglasses.
“And how might you do that?” she asks him.
“By being your sex slave.”
She reaches behind his neck to adjust his collar. “Aren't you forgetting something?” she says.
“You already are my sex slave.”
“Oh,” Will says, “right.” The errant strap has reemerged, a black satiny one he recognizes as belonging to the bra that unhooks in front.
Carole ducks her head in the window to brush her lips against his cheek, a kiss, but not quite: no pucker, no sound. For a moment she rests her forehead against his. “I just can't deal with it. You know that. I can't talk about Lukeânot with people I don't know. And the same goes for your brother.” She pulls back to look at him. “If you weren't such a masochist, you wouldn't be going either.”
Will thinks of saying.
It's not as simple as masochism. Or
Carole steps back from the car door.
“See you Sunday,” she says, and her voice has returned to its previous playful tone. “Call if you get lonely.”
“Oh, I doubt that'll be necessary.” Will turns the key in the ignition. “I'll be too busy connecting with old friends. Blowing on the embers of undergraduate romance . . .”
“Checking out the hairlines,” she says. “Seeing who got fat and who got really fat.”
Will glances in the rearview mirror as he drives away, sees his wife climb the stairs to their front door, the flash of light as she opens it, the late June sun hot and yellow against its big pane of glass.
Something about the cavernous tent defeats acoustics: the voices of the class of '79, those Cornell alumni who made it back for their twenty-fifth reunion, combine in a percussive assault on the eardrum, the kind Will associates with driving on a highway, one window cracked for air, that annoying
sound. He moves his lower jaw from side to side to dispel the echoey, dizzy feeling. Psychosomatic, he concludes. Why is he here, anyway? Does he even want to make the effort to hear well enough to engage with these people? Everyone around him, it seems, isn't talking so much as advertising. Husbands describing vacations too expensive to include basic plumbing, referring to them as experiences rather than travel, as in “our rain forest experience.” And, as if to demonstrate what good sports they are, wives laughing at everything, including comments that strike Will as pure information. “No, they relocated.” “Ohio, wasn't it?” “The kids are from the first marriage.” “She fell in love with this guy overseas.”
He tries to picture the women's workaday selves: quieter, with paler lips, flatter hair. Still, on the whole they're well preserved, while the men by their sides look worn and rumpled. Receding hairlines have nowhere else to go; love handles have grown too big to take hold of.
“Hey!” someone says, and Will turns around to a face he remembers from his freshman dorm. “David Snader!” the face bellows to identify itself. With his big, hot hand, David pulls Will into a crushing hug. “Where you been!” he says, as though he'd lost track of Will hours rather than decades ago.
“Hey!” Will pulls out of the sweaty and, it would appear, drunken embrace.
“Are you here alone?” David asks him. He blots his forehead with a handkerchief.
Will nods. “Caroleâmy wifeâshe wasn't up for a long weekend of nostalgia with people she's never met before.”
“Same here. Same here.” David gives Will a companionable punch in the arm. “Where's Mitch?” he asks, and Will shrugs.
“Didn't make it. At least not as far as I know.”
“Oh yeah?” David squints. “You guys not in touch or something?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Well.” He punches Will's arm again. “Guess that makes sense. All the travel. Media. Price of fame.”
Will produces the rueful smile he hopes will convey that his estrangement from his famous twin is no big deal. Unfortunate, of course, but nothing hurtful or embarrassing. He's about to ask David about his wife and whether or not they have children, when David lurches off into the crowd. Will fills his cheeks with air, blows it out in a gust. David Snader is the fifth person in one hour to have approached him to ask not about Will or Will's work, his family, but about his brother, whose career as a long-distance swimmer has given Mitch a name as recognizable as that of, say, Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods. Not that any of these alumni were his friends. Will and David hadn't even liked each other. But still.
He goes to the bar for a glass of red wine. If he's going to drink, he might as well rinse a little cholesterol out of his arteries. He's just replacing his wallet in the inside breast pocket of his blazer when he looks up to see someone else bearing down on him, Sue Shimakawa, with whom he'd shared an exam-week tryst, if that's the right word for hurried coitus in the musty, rarely penetrated stacks of the undergraduate library. Punch-drunk from studying chemistry for a few hundred hours, on a dare Will had asked Sue to have sex with him, prepared for a slap, or for her badmouthing him later or laughing at him in the moment, anything but what he got: her accepting his invitation with a sort of gung-ho enthusiasm. She had one of those bodies Will thinks of as typically Asian: compact, androgynous, and smooth-skinned, with pubic hair that was absolutely straight instead of curly, the surprise of this discoveryâalong with the panic induced by having intercourse in a potentially public placeâenough to eclipse other, more inclusive observations.
“Will, Will, Will,” Sue sings at him. “I was hoping to see you!” She has a man in tow, a sandy-haired giant at least a foot and a half taller than she. “Meet Rob. We have five kids, if you can believe it! Five!”
Will is about to say when Sue turns to her husband and says, “Rob, this is Will Moreland, an old fuck-buddy of mine.”
Whether Rob is mute or only, like Will, horrified into silence, he thrusts his big, freckled hand forward without saying a word. The two men shake, silent in the clamor all around them, and then each drops his hand to his side and looks at Sue to see what might happen next.
“Rob's a debt analyst,” she says.
“Really!” Will exclaims.
They all nod.
“Hey, hey,” Sue says. “How about that brother of yours, huh? We're major fans. Major.”
“He has had a spectacular ride.” For once, Will is relieved when the conversation turns to his brother.
“Oh, I don't know. There's heaps of athletes that are celebrities.”
“Of course, yes,” Will says. “I know that. I justâ”
“Is he here?”
“At the reunion. Here at the reunion.”
“No. I'm afraid not.”
“Oh, too bad. I really wanted to catch a glimpse of him.”
Me, too, Will thinks as Sue and her husband move off. Having not heard from his brother for fifteen years now, during which time Mitch went from being known in the world of elite swimmers to being known by just about everyone, Will fantasized that Mitch might actually show up. If he's honest with himself, the hope of seeing his brother was at least part of what persuaded him to attend the reunionâespecially after he'd learned that Andrew Goldstein, the one friend with whom he'd kept in touch after college, wouldn't be coming because his wife's due date fell on the same weekend. Not that seeing Mitch would be pleasant or, Will imagines, anything less than traumatic, but he's fed up with having to manage his private anguish even as he's forced to admit sheepishly to friends, colleagues, neighbors, and now alumni that he's no better informed about his brother's latest stunt swimâas Will has come to think of themâthan the average reader of
“Hello,” says a voice behind him, startling Will out of what Carole would call one of his social desertions, when he becomes a spectator rather than a participant. He turns in the direction of the flirtatious tone he almost recognizes. As for the face: arresting, angular, unforgettable. Thinner than she used to be, but no less substantialâshe looks concentrated, a distillate of her younger self.
“Elizabeth,” he says.
“William.” She tilts her head to one side, lifts her eyebrows. “Were you looking for someone?”
“You, of course. Who else?” Will unbuttons his shirt collar and loosens his tie. “Do you think I didn't scour each of those e-mail bulletins listing who was planning to attend, hopingâhoping against hopeâto see your name?”
“Can it be?” Elizabeth says. “Has Mr. Fatally Earnest developed a sense of humor?”
“Only in extremis.”
Elizabeth glances around herself. “I guess this qualifies,” she says.
“Actually, I was just looking over the crowd. Seeing what generalizations I could make about the class of 'seventy-nine.”
He shrugs. “I don't know that I've had enough time to study my impressions. You?”
She shakes her head. “Insufficient data,” she says.
“Data? That's a clinical word.”
“I'm a clinician.”
“Oh, right. I'd heard you'd gone on to med school.” Having read her bio in the reunion bookâstudied it would not be inaccurateâ Will knows also to which school Elizabeth went, when she got her degree, and where she now works. But he's not going to give her the (false) impression that he's still pining for her. “Where'd you end upâwhat school?” he asks.
“Johns Hopkins.” Elizabeth pauses, Will suspects, to give him the opportunity to compliment her for having been accepted by a topflight med school. He dips his head in an abbreviated bow of congratulation. “I was in dermatology,” she continues, “then I specialized.”
“I thought being a dermatologist was specializing.”
“It is. It is up to a point. I went further, into burn treatment. I'm the program head at Johns Hopkins. We get patients from all over. Medevacked.” Another pause. This time Will holds up his glass as if to begin a toast.
“So,” he says, “no clinical observations whatsoever?”
She takes a sip from her drink. “The usual midlife stuff. Sun damage mostly, keratosis, a few carcinomas. But you probably weren't talking pathology, were you?” She looks around the big tent, shrugs. “Standard nip and tuck,” she says. “Eyes. Neck. This isn't exactly a B-and-C crowd.”
“Botox and collagen.” She draws her eyebrows together as she turns her attention back to him. “You?” she asks.
“Nah. Well, not collagen anyway. Maybe some Botox when I hit fifty.”
Elizabeth ignores this. “I was wondering what it is that you do,” she says.
“I'm a shrink.”
“Really?” She smiles a faintly condescending smile. Will remembers this about her, the superior manner she wouldn't get away with were she less attractive.
“Really,” he says.
“You look the part.”
“Do I? How?”
“Oh, you know, the beard, the glasses. And you always did have those deep-set eyes that make you look thoughtful. How's Mitch?” she asks, moving efficiently through the expectable topics. “Is he here? I don't have to ask what he's been up to.”
“He didn't make it, I'm afraid.”
“Is he avoiding you?”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” she says, but she looks at him diagnostically, he thinks.
“Can I get you another drink?”
“Sure,” she says. She hands him her glass. “Gimlet,” she tells him. “Vodka, not gin.”
“Why don't you grab that table before someone else does?”
When Will returns, Elizabeth has taken off her shoes and is sitting with one leg tucked under herself. She's one of those women, it strikes him, who will remain indefinitely athletic and limberâa woman like his wife, actually.
“So,” she says. “Were you at the tenth?”
He shakes his head. “I was getting married. You?”
“Cape Town. A conference. I managed to tack on a few days.” She takes a sip from her glass, frowns, stirs it with a finger. “What have you been up to for the last twenty-five years, William? You didn't submit one of those what-I-did-over-summer-vacation reports. How come?”
“I don't know. Missed the deadline, I guess.”
“Still married?” she asks.
“She's not here?”
“She hates reunions.”
Elizabeth smiles. “Me, too,” she says. “Kids?”
“Two. Boy. Then a girl.” He takes a breath. “The boy died,” he says, amazed as always at how the words just come out.
The boy died.
Like any other little sentence. The boy climbed. The boy jumped. The boy ate his dinner.
“Oh, William. I'mâI'm so sorry. I had . . .” She talks through the hand covering her mouth. “I had no idea.”
“No. How could you? That's the real reason I didn't send in the bio. I couldn't get around that one piece of news.”
“When? When did he . . . when did it happen?”
“Three summers ago. An accident at a lake.” Will looks at her and she looks away, briefly, then returns her eyes to his. “It's . . . we don't need to talk about it,” he says, and he takes a swallow of his wine. “Among the things I didn't anticipate about death was how awkward a subject it is. Just mentioning it is the equivalent of a terrible gaffe, like pouring your drink on someone or inadvertently exposing yourself. An inappropriate nakedness. You just can't . . . people can't get past it. But, well, I find it equally impossible not to bring it up.”
Elizabeth slips back into her shoes and stands. “I have an idea. I'll go to the women's room. I think it's over there.” She points in the direction of a nondescript building, he can't remember what it is, a library maybe. “It'll give us an intermission, sort of. Then you can . . . we can . . . well, we can start over. Or not. You decide.”
Will watches her move through the crowd, nimble and quick, as if she's trained for this specific topography, the congested party. Alone at the table, he finds the level of noise around him almost intolerable, one voice indistinguishable from another, punctuated by bursts of loud, alcohol-fueled laughter. He's glad to be slightly drunk himself; it makes it easier to move on from Luke to another topic.
“I want to ask you something,” he says when Elizabeth sits back down in the chair opposite his. She inclines her head very slightly in a gesture of assent, nothing so unequivocal as a full nod. Her face is untanned, the freckles she had in college gone, bleached away perhaps, and her eyebrows are thicker now, almost lush. They balance the new, more tense and defiant line of her jaw.
“You left me in 1979.” Will stops to consider what he's just said. Context, context, he warns himself: college reunion, level of blood alcohol, his tendency to make interpersonal missteps in Carole's absence. Anger, too, still there, not quite burnt out. A mistake to ignore it, even if it is a given. It seems Elizabeth's ability to provoke him, to knock him off-kilter, hasn't diminished. If anything, it's more intense, just like the rest of her. Ironic that she'd become a dermatologist. She'd always had a personality like a rash, itchy, chafing, the kind of woman who just won't let you get comfortable. A waiter moves among the tables, gathering abandoned glasses onto a tray.
Elizabeth brushes her hair back with obvious irritation. “We're notâthat's not what we're going to talk about, is it?” she says.