Read Modern Lovers Online

Authors: Emma Straub

Modern Lovers

BOOK: Modern Lovers

The Vacationers

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures

Other People We


An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Emma Straub

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to reprint from the following:

Pavement, “Range Life,” from the album
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
. Permission courtesy Stephen Malkmus.

Kenneth Koch, “To the Past,”
The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch
, copyright © 2005 by The Estate of Kenneth Koch. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf.

eBook ISBN: 9780698407978

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Straub, Emma, author.

Title: Modern lovers / Emma Straub.

Description: New York : Riverhead Books, 2016.

Identifiers: LCCN 2016002756 | ISBN 9781594634673 (hardcover)

Subjects: LCSH: Middle-aged persons—Fiction. | Parent and adult | Child—Fiction. | Interpersonal relations—Fiction. | Man-woman Relationships—Fiction. | Domestic fiction.

BISAC: FICTION / Family Life. | FICTION / Humorous. | Fiction / Literary. | GSAFD: Humorous fiction.

Classification: LCC PS3619.T74259 M63 2016 | DDC 813/.6—dc23

LC record available at

p. cm.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


For Nina, who made moving to Ohio sound like fun, and for the Rutland Readers, with gratitude for seven years of neighborly

If I could settle down

Then I would settle down.


You can't help yourself, but neither can we.

Together, mighty past, we dominate things.




New Listing

Gorgeous 5-Bedroom Victorian Showstopper in Prime Ditmas Park. Many original details including pocket doors, moldings, intricately carved grand staircase. Kitchen updated, new roof. WBFP. Two-car garage. Gracious living in the heart of the neighborhood, close to shopping and fine dining on Cortelyou Road, close to trains. A Must


n June, the book club was at Zoe's house, which meant that Elizabeth had to carry her heavy ceramic bowl of spinach salad with walnuts and bits of crumbled goat cheese a grand total of half a block. She didn't even have to cross a street. None of the dozen women in the group had to travel far, that was the point. It was hard enough to coordinate schedules and read a novel (though, only half the group ever finished anything) without asking people to get on the subway. Make plans with your real friends on your own time, drive your car across the borough to have dinner if you want to, but this was the neighborhood. This was easy. It was the last meeting before the annual summer hiatus. Elizabeth had sold houses to six of the twelve. She had a vested interest in keeping them happy, though, in truth, it was also good when people gave up on Brooklyn and decided to move to the suburbs or back to wherever they came from, because then she got a double commission. Elizabeth liked her job.

Of course, even if the rest of the book club was composed of neighbors who might not otherwise have crossed paths, she and Zoe were different. They were old friends—best friends, really, though Elizabeth might not say that in front of Zoe for fear that she would laugh at the phrase for being juvenile. They'd lived together after college way back in the Stone Age in this very same house, sharing the
rambling Victorian with Elizabeth's boyfriend (now husband) and two guys who had lived in their co-op at Oberlin. It was always nice to carry a big bowl of something homemade over to Zoe's house, because it felt like being back in that potluck-rich, money-poor twilight zone known as one's twenties. Ditmas Park was a hundred miles from Manhattan (in reality, seven), a tiny little cluster of Victorian houses that could have existed anywhere in the United States, with Prospect Park's parade grounds to the north and Brooklyn College to the south. Their other friends from school were moving into walk-up apartments in the East Village or into beautiful brownstones in Park Slope, on the other side of the vast green park, but the three of them had fallen in love with the idea of a
house, and so there they were, sandwiched between old Italian ladies and the projects.

When their lease was up, Zoe's parents—an African-American couple who'd made their tidy fortune as a disco duo—bought the place for her. Seven bedrooms, three baths, center hall, driveway, garage—it cost a hundred and fifty grand. The moldy carpet and the layers of lead paint were free. Elizabeth and Andrew weren't married yet, let alone sharing a bank account, and so they sent their separate rent checks to Zoe's parents back in Los Angeles. Zoe had borrowed more money to fix it up over the years, but the mortgage was paid. Elizabeth and Andrew moved a few blocks over for a while, all the way to Stratford, and then, when their son Harry was four, a dozen years ago, bought a house three doors down. Zoe's house was now worth $2 million, maybe more. Elizabeth felt a little zip up her spine thinking about it. Neither Elizabeth nor Zoe thought they'd still be in the neighborhood so many years later, but it had never been the right time to leave.

Elizabeth walked up the steps to the wide porch and peered in the window. She was the first to arrive, as usual. The dining room was ready, the table set. Zoe pushed through the swinging door from the
kitchen, a bottle of wine in each hand. She exhaled upward, trying in vain to blow a lone curl out of her eye. Zoe was wearing tight blue jeans and a threadbare camisole, with a complicated pile of necklaces clacking against her chest. It didn't matter if Elizabeth went shopping with Zoe, to the consignment shops she frequented and to the small, precious boutiques she liked, nothing ever fit Elizabeth the way it fit Zoe; she was as preternaturally cool at forty-five as she'd been at eighteen. Elizabeth knocked on the window and then waved when Zoe looked up and smiled. Zoe gestured for her to come in, her thin fingers waggling in the air. “Door's open!”

The house smelled like basil and fresh tomatoes. Elizabeth let the door shut heavily behind her, and set her salad down on the table. She shook out her wrists, which crackled like fireworks. Zoe walked around the table and kissed her on the cheek.

“How was your day, sweets?”

Elizabeth rolled her head sideways, from one side to the other. Something clicked. “You know,” she said. “Like that. What can I do?” She looked around the room. “Do you need me to go home and get anything?” Even in Ditmas Park, a twelve-person dinner party was a lot for a host. Usually only a small quorum of the book club was able to come, and so the hosts could scrape by and cram everyone around their normal dining-room table, but every so often (especially just before the summer) all the women would happily RSVP and, depending on who was hosting, the group would have to carry extra folding chairs down the street in order to avoid sitting on the floor like pouting children on Thanksgiving.

Overhead, there was the sound of something heavy falling to the floor—
and then twice more—
thump, thump

“Ruby!” Zoe yelled, craning her chin skyward. “Come say hello to Elizabeth!”

There was a muffled reply.

“It's fine,” Elizabeth said. “Where's Jane, at the restaurant?” She opened her mouth to say more—she had actual news, news not fit for their neighbors' ears, and wanted to get to it before the doorbell rang.

“We have a new sous, and I'm sure Jane is standing over his shoulder like a goddamn drill sergeant. You know how it is in the beginning, always drama. Ruby! Come down here and say hello before everyone you don't like shows up!” Zoe rubbed her eyebrows with her fingertips. “I just signed her up for that SAT prep course you told me about, and she's pissed.” She made a noise like a torpedo.

A door slammed upstairs, and then there were feet on the stairs, the nimble herd of elephants contained by a single teenage body. Ruby stopped abruptly on the bottom step. In the weeks since Elizabeth had seen her last, Ruby's hair had gone from a sea-glass green to a purplish black, and was wound up in a round bun on the very top of her head.

“Hey, Rube,” Elizabeth said. “What's shaking?”

Ruby picked off some nail polish. “Nothing.” Unlike Zoe's, Ruby's face was round and soft, but they had the same eyes, slightly narrow, the sort of eyes that were made to look askance. Ruby's skin was three shades lighter than Zoe's, with Jane's pale green eyes, and she would have been intimidating even without the purple hair and the surly expression.

“Graduation is Thursday, right? What are you going to wear?”

Ruby made a little noise like a kazoo, her mother's torpedo in reverse. It was funny, what parents did to their children. Even when they weren't trying, everything got reproduced. She looked toward her mother, who nodded. “I really want to wear one of Mum's dresses. The white one, you know?”

Elizabeth did know. Zoe was not only good at buying clothes, she was good at keeping them. It was lucky that she'd married a woman who wore the same blue jeans every day and a small rotation of button-down shirts, because there was no room in their giant walk-in
closet for anything else. The white dress was a relic from their youth: a crocheted bodice that was more negative space than material, with a skirt made of dangling strings that started just below decent. It was the kind of dress one wore over a bathing suit while on vacation in Mexico in 1973. It had originally belonged to Zoe's mother, which meant it probably had quaalude dust ground deep into the seams. Before she met the Bennetts, Elizabeth had never met parents that had the kind of life that made their children both proud and embarrassed simultaneously. Cool was good, but only up to a point.

“Wow,” Elizabeth said.

“It's still under debate,” Zoe said.

Ruby rolled her eyes, and jumped down the final step just as the doorbell rang. Before their neighbors began to pour in, each one holding a dish covered with tinfoil, Ruby had streaked in and out of the kitchen and was running back upstairs with a plateful of food.

“Hiiiiiiiiiii,” three women trilled in union.

“Hiiiiiiiiiii,” Elizabeth and Zoe trilled back, their voices performing the song of their day, the enthusiastic cry of the all-female dinner party.

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