Authors: Emily St. John Mandel
But the horror of it.
Why don’t you swallow broken glass. Why don’t you die. Why don’t you cast everyone who loves you into perdition.
He was thinking about his friend Rob again, forever sixteen, thinking about Rob’s mother’s face at the funeral. Walter sleepwalked through the rest of his shift and stayed up late to meet with Raphael in the morning. As he passed through the lobby at eight a.m., up past his bedtime and desperate for sleep, he caught sight of Paul down at the end of the pier, loading his duffel bags into the boat.
“Good morning,” Raphael said when Walter looked into his office. He was bright-eyed and freshly shaved. He and Walter lived in the same building, but in opposite time zones.
“I just saw Paul getting on the boat with his worldly belongings,” Walter said.
Raphael sighed. “I don’t know what happened. He came in here this morning with an incoherent story about how much he misses Vancouver, when the kid practically begged me for a change of scenery three months back.”
“He gave no reason?”
“None. We’ll start interviewing again. Anything else?” Raphael asked, and Walter, his defenses weakened by exhaustion, understood for the first time that Raphael didn’t like him very much. The realization landed with a sad little thud.
“No,” he said, “thank you. I’ll leave you to it.” On the walk back to the staff lodge, he found himself wishing that he’d been less angry when he’d spoken with Paul. All these hours later, he was beginning to wonder if he’d missed the point: when Paul said he had debts, did he mean that he needed the job at the hotel, or was he saying that someone had paid him to write the message on the glass? Because none of it actually made sense. It seemed obvious that Paul’s message was directed at Alkaitis, but what could Alkaitis possibly mean to him?
Leon Prevant and his wife departed that morning, followed two days later by Jonathan Alkaitis. When Walter came in for his shift on the night of Alkaitis’s departure, Khalil was working the bar, although it wasn’t his usual night: Vincent, he said, had taken a sudden vacation. A day later she called Raphael from Vancouver and told him she’d decided not to come back to the hotel, so someone from Housekeeping boxed up her belongings and put them in storage at the back of the laundry room.
The panel of glass was replaced at enormous expense, and the graffiti receded into memory. Spring passed into summer and then the beautiful chaos of the high season, the lobby crowded every night and a temperamental jazz quartet causing drama in the staff lodge when they weren’t delighting the guests, the quartet alternating with a pianist whose marijuana habit was tolerated because he could seemingly play any song ever written, the hotel fully booked and the staff almost doubled, Melissa piloting the boat back and forth to Grace Harbour all day and late into the evening.
Summer faded into autumn, then the quiet and the dark of the winter months, the rainstorms more frequent, the hotel half-empty, the staff quarters growing quiet with the departure of the seasonal workers. Walter slept through the days and arrived at his shift in the early evenings—the pleasure of long nights in the silent lobby, Larry by the door, Khalil at the bar, storms descending and rising throughout the night—and sometimes joined his colleagues for a meal that was dinner for the night shift and breakfast for the day people, shared a few drinks sometimes with the kitchen staff, listened to jazz alone in his apartment, went for walks in and out of Caiette, ordered books in the mail that he read when he woke in the late afternoons.
On a stormy night in spring, Ella Kaspersky checked in. She was a regular at the hotel, a businesswoman from Chicago who liked to come here to escape “all the noise,” as she put it, a guest who was mostly notable because Jonathan Alkaitis had made it clear that he didn’t want to see her. Walter had no idea why Alkaitis was avoiding Kaspersky and frankly didn’t want to know, but when she arrived he did his customary check to make sure Alkaitis hadn’t made a last-minute booking. Alkaitis hadn’t visited the hotel in some time, he realized, longer than his usual interval between visits. When the lobby was quiet at two a.m., he ran a Google search on Alkaitis and found images from a recent charity fund-raiser, Alkaitis beaming in a tuxedo with a younger woman on his arm. She looked very familiar.
Walter enlarged the photo. The woman was Vincent. A glossier version, with an expensive haircut and professional-grade makeup, but it was unmistakably her. She was wearing a metallic gown that must have cost about what she’d made in a month as a bartender here. The caption read
Jonathan Alkaitis with his wife, Vincent.
Walter looked up from the screen, into the silent lobby. Nothing in his life had changed in the year since Vincent’s departure, but this was by his own design and his own desire. Khalil, now the full-time night bartender, was chatting with a couple who’d just arrived. Larry stood by the door with his hands clasped behind his back, eyes half-closed. Walter abandoned his post and walked out into the April night. He hoped Vincent was happy in that foreign country, in whatever strange new life she’d found for herself. He tried to imagine what it might be like to step into Jonathan Alkaitis’s life—the money, the houses, the private jet—but it was all incomprehensible to him. The night was clear and cold, moonless but the blaze of stars was overwhelming. Walter wouldn’t have imagined, in his previous life in downtown Toronto, that he’d fall in love with a place where the stars were so bright that he could see his shadow on a night with no moon. He wanted nothing that he didn’t already have.
But when he turned back to the hotel he was blindsided by the memory of the words written on the window a year ago,
Why don’t you swallow broken glass,
the whole unsettling mystery of it. The forest was a mass of undifferentiated shadow. He folded his arms against the chill and returned to the warmth and light of the lobby.
Sanity depends on order. Within a month of leaving the Hotel Caiette and arriving in Jonathan Alkaitis’s absurdly enormous house in the Connecticut suburbs, Vincent had established a routine from which she seldom wavered. She rose at five a.m., a half hour earlier than Jonathan, and went jogging. By the time she returned to his house, he’d left for Manhattan. She was showered and dressed for the day by eight a.m., by which point Jonathan’s driver was available to take her to the train station—he repeatedly offered to drive her to the city, but she preferred the movement of trains to gridlocked traffic—and when she emerged into Grand Central Terminal she liked to linger for a while on her way across the main concourse, taking in the constellations of stars on the green ceiling, the Tiffany clock above the information booth, the crowds. She always had breakfast at a diner near the station, then made her way south toward lower Manhattan and a particular café where she liked to drink espresso and read newspapers, after which she went shopping or got her hair done or walked the streets with her video camera or some combination thereof, and if there was time she visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a while before she made her way back to Grand Central and a northbound train, in time to be home and dressed in something beautiful by six p.m., which was the earliest Jonathan would conceivably arrive home from the office.
She spent the evening with Jonathan but always found a half hour to go swimming at some point before bed. In the kingdom of money, as she thought of it, there were enormous swaths of time to fill, and she had intimations of danger in letting herself drift, in allowing a day to pass without a schedule or a plan.
“People clamor to move into Manhattan,” Jonathan said when she asked why they couldn’t just live in his pied-à-terre on Columbus Circle, where they stayed sometimes when they had theater tickets, “but I like being a little outside of it all.” He’d grown up in the suburbs, and had always loved the tranquility and the space.
“I see your point,” Vincent said, but the city drew her in, the city was the antidote to the riotous green of her childhood memories. She wanted concrete and clean lines and sharp angles, sky visible only between towers, hard light.
“Anyway, you wouldn’t be happy living in Manhattan,” Jonathan said. “Think of how much you’d miss the pool.”
Would she miss the pool? She reflected on the question as she swam. Her relationship with the pool was adversarial. Vincent swam every night to strengthen her will because she was desperately afraid of drowning.
Diving into the pool at night: in summer Vincent dove through the lights of the house, reflected on the surface; in cold weather the pool was heated, so she dove into steam. She stayed underwater for as long as possible, testing her endurance. When she finally surfaced, she liked to pretend that the ring on her finger was real and that everything she saw was hers: the house, the garden, the lawn, the pool in which she treaded water. It was an infinity pool, which created a disorienting impression that the water disappeared into the lawn or the lawn disappeared into the water. She hated looking at that edge.
Her contract with Jonathan, as she understood it, was that she’d be available whenever he wanted her, in and out of the bedroom, she would be elegant and impeccable at all times—“You bring such grace to the room,” he’d said—and in return for this she had a credit card whose bills she never saw, a life of beautiful homes and travel, in other words the opposite of the life she’d lived before. No one actually uses the phrase
in conversation, but Jonathan was thirty-four years older than Vincent. She understood what she was.
There were adjustments to be made. At first, living in Jonathan Alkaitis’s house was like those dreams where you find a door in your kitchen that you never noticed before, and then the door leads into a back hallway that opens up into a never-used au pair’s suite, which opens into an unused nursery, which is down the corridor from the master bedroom suite, which is larger than your entire childhood home, and then later you realize that there’s a way of getting from the bedroom to the kitchen without ever setting foot in either of the two living rooms or the downstairs hall.
In her hotel days, Vincent had always associated money with privacy—the wealthiest hotel guests have the most space around them, suites instead of rooms, private terraces, access to executive lounges—but in actuality, the deeper you go into the kingdom of money, the more crowded it gets, people around you in your home all the time, which was why Vincent only swam at night. In the daytime there was the house manager, Gil, who lived with his wife, Anya, in a cottage by the driveway; Anya, who was the cook, supervised three young local women who kept the house clean and did laundry and accepted grocery deliveries and such; there was also a chauffeur, who had an apartment over the garage, and a silent groundskeeper, who maintained everything outside of the house. Every time Vincent looked up, someone was nearby, sweeping or dusting or talking on the phone to the plumber or trimming a hedge. It was a lot of people to contend with, but at night the staff retreated into their private lives and Vincent could swim in peace without feeling watched from every window.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying the pool,” Gil said. “The pool design consultant spent so much time on it, and I swear no one ever used it before you got here.”
She was in the pool when she first met Jonathan’s daughter, Claire. It was a cool evening in April, steam rising from the water. She’d known Claire was coming over that evening, but she hadn’t expected to surface and find a woman in a suit staring at her through the steam like a goddamned apparition, standing perfectly still with her hands clasped behind her back. Vincent gasped aloud, which in retrospect wasn’t endearing. Claire, who had obviously just come from the office, was a very corporate-looking woman in her late twenties.
“You must be Vincent.” She picked up the folded towel that Vincent had left on a lawn chair and extended it in a get-out-of-the-pool kind of way, so Vincent felt that she had no choice but to climb the ladder and accept the towel, which was irritating because she’d wanted to swim for longer.
“You must be Claire.”
Claire didn’t dignify this with a response. Vincent was wearing a fairly modest one-piece swimsuit but felt extremely naked as she toweled off.
“Vincent’s an unusual name for a girl,” Claire said with a slight emphasis on
that struck Vincent as uncalled-for.
I’m not that young,
Vincent wanted to tell her, because at twenty-four she didn’t feel young at all, but Claire was possibly dangerous and Vincent hoped for peace, so she answered in the mildest tone possible.
“My parents named me after a poet. Edna St. Vincent Millay.”
Claire’s gaze flickered to the ring on Vincent’s finger. “Well,” she said, “we can’t choose our parents, I suppose. What kind of work do they do?”
Claire’s face softened a little. “I’m sorry to hear that.” They stood staring at one another for a beat or two, then Vincent reached for the bathrobe that she’d left on a deck chair, and Claire said, sounding more resigned than angry now, “Did you know you’re five years younger than me?”
“We can’t choose our ages either,” Vincent said.
“Ha.” (Not a laugh, just a spoken word:
) “Well, we’re all adults here. Just so you know, I find this situation absurd, but there’s no reason we can’t be cordial with one another.” She turned away and walked back into the house.
Vincent’s mother had read a lot of poetry, having formerly been a poet herself. When Edna St. Vincent Millay was nineteen years old, in 1912, she began writing a poem called “Renascence” that Vincent must have read a thousand times in childhood and adolescence. Millay wrote the poem for a competition. The poem didn’t win, but it nonetheless carried an electric charge that transported her from the drudgery of New England poverty to Vassar College, from there into the kind of bohemia that she’d dreamed of all her life: a different kind of poverty, the Greenwich Village–variety, poverty but with late-night poetry readings and dashing friends.
“The point is she raised herself into a new life by sheer force of will,” Vincent’s mother had said, and Vincent wondered even at the time—she would have been about eleven—what that statement might suggest about how happy Vincent’s mother was about the way her own life had gone, this woman who’d imagined writing poetry in the wilderness but somehow found herself sunk in the mundane difficulties of raising a child and running a household in the wilderness instead. There’s the
of wilderness, and then there’s the unglamorous labor of it, the never-ending grind of securing firewood; bringing in groceries over absurd distances; tending the vegetable garden and maintaining the fences that keep the deer from eating all the vegetables; repairing the generator; remembering to get gas for the generator; composting; running out of water in the summertime; never having enough money because job opportunities in the wilderness are limited; managing the seething resentment of your only child, who doesn’t understand your love of the wilderness and asks every week why you can’t just live in a normal place that isn’t wilderness; etc.
What Vincent’s mother probably wouldn’t have imagined: a life—an
—in which Vincent wore a wedding ring but was not actually married. “I want you close,” Jonathan said, at the beginning, “but I just don’t want to get married again.” His wife, Suzanne, had died only three years earlier. They never said her name. But while he didn’t want to marry Vincent, he did feel that wedding rings created an impression of stability. “In my line of work,” he said, “managing other people’s money, steadiness is everything. If I take you out to dinner with clients, it’s better for you to be a beautiful young wife than a beautiful young girlfriend.”
“Does Claire know we’re not married?” Vincent asked the night Claire appeared by the pool. By the time Vincent had come in and showered, Claire had already left. She found Jonathan alone in the south living room with a glass of red wine and the
“Only two people in the world know that,” he said. “You and me. Come here.” Vincent came to stand before him in the lamplight. He ran his fingertips down the length of her arm, and then turned her around and slowly unzipped her dress.
But what kind of man lies to his daughter about being married? There were aspects of the fairy tale that Vincent was careful not to think about too much at the time, and later her memories of those years had an abstracted quality, as if she’d stepped temporarily outside of herself.
They had cocktails at a bar in Midtown with a couple who’d invested millions in Jonathan’s fund, Marc and Louise from Colorado. At that point Vincent had only been in the kingdom of money for three weeks, and the strangeness of her new life was acute.
“This is Vincent,” Jonathan said, his hand on her lower back.
“It’s so lovely to meet you,” Vincent said. Marc and Louise were in their forties or fifties, and after a few more months with Alkaitis she would come to recognize them as typical of a particular western subspecies of moneyed people: as wealthy as their counterparts in other regions, but prematurely weathered by their skiing obsession.
“It’s so great to meet you,” they said, and Louise caught sight of Vincent and Jonathan’s rings in the round of handshakes. “Oh my goodness, Jonathan,” she said, “are congratulations in order?”
“Thank you,” he said, in such a convincing tone of bashful happiness that for a disorienting moment Vincent entertained the wild thought that they were somehow actually married.
“Well, cheers,” Marc said, and raised his glass. “Congratulations to the both of you. Wonderful news, just wonderful.”
“Can I ask…?” Louise said. “Big wedding, small…?”
“If we’d made any to-do about it at all,” Jonathan said, “you’d have been the first names on the guest list.”
“Would you believe,” Vincent said, “that we actually got married at city hall?”
“Good lord,” Marc said, and Louise said, “I like your style. Donna’s getting married—that’s our daughter—and my god, the logistics, the complications, all the drama, the
of it, I’m tempted to suggest they follow your lead and elope.”
“There’s a certain efficiency to elopement,” Jonathan said. “Weddings are such elaborate affairs. We just didn’t want all the hoopla.”
“I had to convince him to take the day off work,” Vincent said. “He wanted to just go down there on his lunch break.” They were laughing, and Jonathan put his arm around her. She could tell he appreciated the improvisation.
“Was there a honeymoon?” Marc asked.
“I’m taking her to Nice next week, and then on to Dubai for the weekend,” Jonathan said.
“Ah, right,” Marc said, “I remember you telling me that you love it there. Vincent, have you been?”
“To Dubai? No, not yet. I can’t wait.” And so on and so forth. She didn’t want to be a liar but his expectations were clear. As a former bartender, she was accustomed to performing. The lies were troublingly easy. On the night when Jonathan had walked into the bar at the Hotel Caiette, someone had written terrible graffiti on the window, and she was standing there polishing glasses, counting the minutes till the end of her shift, wondering why she’d ever thought it was a good idea to come back here, trying to imagine the rest of her life and getting nowhere because of course she could leave and go work in another bar, and then another bar after that, and another, and another, but leaving Caiette wouldn’t change the underlying equation. The problems of Vincent’s life were the same from one year to the next: she knew she was a reasonably intelligent person, but there’s a difference between being intelligent and knowing what to do with your life, also a difference between knowing that a college degree might change your life and a willingness to actually commit to the terrifying weight of student loans, especially since she’d worked alongside enough bartenders with college degrees to know that a college degree might not change anything at all, etc. etc., and she was spiraling through that familiar territory, sick of her thoughts and sick of herself, when Jonathan walked into the bar. In the way he spoke to her, his obvious wealth and his obvious interest, she saw an opening into a vastly easier life, or at least a
life, a chance to live in a foreign country, a life of something other than bartending in a place other than here, and the opportunity was irresistible.
Lying about being married troubled her conscience, but not enough to make her want to flee.
I’m paying a price for this life,
she told herself,
but the price is reasonable.