Authors: Emily St. John Mandel
In their first winter together, they flew south to a party at a private club in Miami Beach. Jonathan seemed to belong to an extraordinary number of clubs. “It’s an expensive hobby,” he told Vincent, “but I’ve always had a weakness for places where it seems like time slows down.” (Yet another clue that Vincent felt she should have picked up: Why exactly did he want time to slow down? Was there something in that statement besides a general awareness of mortality, some other inevitability that he felt was rushing toward him?) “Some of the clubs have other pleasures,” he said, “golf courses and tennis courts and whatnot, but there’s a certain pleasure in just drinking coffee or wine in a private lounge. Time moves differently in these places.”
The Winter Formal in Miami Beach was a deadly evening of tuxedos and iridescent gowns. The women were mostly much older than Vincent. The men would have looked alike even if they weren’t all dressed like penguins—the curious sameness of expensively maintained people with similar habits—and most of them had always been in this world, it was obvious, they had lived their whole lives above a safety net and were therefore of a different species from Vincent. She moved through the room in a silver gown, smiling and telling people that she was delighted to meet them, laughing convincingly at weak jokes, listening intently to dull anecdotes with the same smile she’d used on good tippers back in her bartending days. Jonathan had known most of the Miami Beach people for a decade or more. Many of the other women had been friends with Jonathan’s wife, Suzanne, and they had children Vincent’s age and older. Several of them had had unfortunate cosmetic procedures—puffed-out faces, immobile foreheads, swollen rubbery lips—that made her eyes widen involuntarily when they were introduced. Vincent stayed by Jonathan’s side until he excused himself for a discreet conversation with a potential investor, at which point she went to the bar, where a tall woman in a blindingly fuchsia dress was ordering a gin and tonic. Vincent had noticed her earlier, as one of the very few women in the room who seemed to be about Vincent’s age. They received their drinks from parallel bartenders at the same moment and nearly collided as they left the bar.
“Oh no,” Vincent said. “I didn’t spill any wine on your dress, did I?”
“Not a drop,” the woman said. “I’m Mirella.”
“I’m Vincent. Hi.”
“I was just heading out to the terrace, if you’d like to join me?”
They went out to the terrace, which had Italian pretensions. There were a few women out here of their age and younger, but they all seemed to know one another and were either deep in conversation or deep in their phones. Vincent liked that she could see the ocean from here, same blue as the Mediterranean.
“Have you ever been to a more tedious party?” Vincent was normally more cautious, but Mirella had an air of boredom that set her at ease.
“Yes. The same party last year.”
A man in a dark suit had followed them out. He stood some distance away, scanning the terrace.
“Is he with you?” Vincent asked.
“Always,” Mirella said, and Vincent realized that the man was hired protection. Mirella lived at a high altitude.
“Is it oppressive? Having someone follow you around all the time?”
They were leaning on the balustrade, contemplating the terrace. The other women looked like a flock of tropical birds. It was Vincent’s first time in Florida, and she’d noticed that people wore much brighter colors here than in New York or Connecticut.
“Funny you should ask,” Mirella said. “I was just thinking about this earlier. I realized something slightly disturbing.”
“Sometimes I don’t even see him anymore. I don’t want to think of myself as a person to whom other people are invisible, but there it is.”
“Has it been…” Vincent didn’t know how to ask the question, but she was curious about how long it took for a person to become invisible. She was still aware of Jonathan Alkaitis’s household staff at all times, and there was something appalling and also seductive in the idea of no longer being able to see them. “Has he been with you a long time?”
“Six years,” Mirella said. “Not him personally. Different men in the same position. It was only strange for the first few months.” She was looking at Vincent’s left hand. “Who’s your husband?”
“I don’t know if you’d know him, he’s not at this club very often. His name’s Jonathan Alkaitis.”
Mirella smiled. “I know Jonathan,” she said. “My boyfriend invests with him.”
Mirella was always followed by a bodyguard because her boyfriend, Faisal, was a Saudi prince. A cousin’s girlfriend had been kidnapped for ransom a decade earlier, and the episode had left him a little paranoid.
“Is he going to be king someday?” Vincent asked Mirella when they met up in Manhattan the week after the party. Mirella and Faisal lived most of the year in a loft in Soho.
Mirella smiled. “Not a chance,” she said. “There are something like six thousand Saudi princes.”
“How many princesses?”
“No one really counts the princesses.”
They met for dinner sometimes after that, Faisal and Mirella and Jonathan and Vincent. Faisal was a supremely elegant man in his forties who favored bespoke suits and white shirts with the top two buttons undone, never a tie. He didn’t work. He and Mirella had settled in New York City because he felt free here, he said. Not that he disliked Riyadh, where he was from, just that it was frankly kind of nice to live in a place that doesn’t also contain hordes of your relatives. He felt he had a little more breathing room on this side of the world. That being said, he found New York winters difficult, so he’d once spent an entire February learning to play golf at the club in Miami Beach, which was where he’d met Jonathan.
Faisal had always been a disappointment in his family. He was the son who only wanted to go to jazz clubs and spend evenings at the opera and read obscure literary journals in French and English, the one who’d put half the world between himself and his family and showed no interest in marriage, let alone grandchildren. But then he invested with Alkaitis and introduced Alkaitis to several family members, whose investments performed so spectacularly that Faisal’s status as the family’s black sheep was at least partially reversed, and it was obvious that this mattered immensely to him.
Mirella and Faisal had lived in London for a couple of years, then briefly in Singapore, before they’d settled in New York. “My life wasn’t really different in those places,” Mirella said when Vincent asked. This was a month or two after they’d met. Vincent had taken Mirella to her favorite gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vincent had no formal education in art, but she was moved by portraits, especially portraits whose subjects looked quite ordinary, like people you might see in the subway except in outmoded clothes.
“I don’t think of those as similar cities,” Vincent said.
“They’re not, but my life was the same. It was just a change in background scenery.” She glanced at Vincent. “You didn’t come from money, did you?”
“Me neither. You know what I’ve learned about money? I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.”
One of the things that Vincent tried not to think about too much: a difference between Mirella and Vincent was that Mirella was in this country of money with a man whom she truly loved. You could see it in the way she looked at Faisal, the way she brightened when he came into a room.
If money is a country, there were other citizens whom Vincent liked much less. She and Jonathan had dinner with Lenny Xavier, a music producer from Los Angeles. Jonathan was quiet and distracted on the way to the restaurant. “He’s my most important investor,” he said quietly as they walked in, and then he caught sight of Lenny and Lenny’s wife at the far end of the room and broke into a grin. Lenny wore an expensive-looking suit with sneakers and had hair that was messy on purpose. His wife, Tiffany, was very beautiful but didn’t have much to say.
“We met at an audition, actually,” she said when Vincent attempted small talk, and said almost nothing further to her. She’d been a singer but now she wasn’t singing. Toward the end of the evening, Jonathan somehow drew Tiffany into conversation, and Lenny, who had had too much to drink, turned to Vincent and launched into a monologue about a girl he’d worked with years ago, another girl who’d also wanted to be a singer.
“The problem is,” he told her, “some people just can’t recognize opportunity.”
“That’s very true,” Vincent said, but his statement made her uneasy. She enjoyed Jonathan’s company, but it was undeniable that when he’d walked into the bar of the Hotel Caiette, she’d recognized an opportunity.
“She had real potential. Real potential. But an inability to recognize opportunity? That right there is a fatal flaw.”
“Where is she now?” Vincent asked. Lenny had been talking about the girl in the past tense, which Vincent found mildly alarming.
“Annika? Who gives a fuck. I haven’t seen her since 2000, maybe 2001.” Lenny poured himself another glass of red. “You really want to know? She went back to Canada to play weird electronica with her friends.”
(“The problem is, though,” Tiffany was saying to Jonathan, across the table, “when you buy jewelry online, it’s really hard to tell how chunky it is.”)
“You don’t work with her at all anymore?”
“No, because she’s a fucking idiot. Okay, so this girl, Annika, when I met her she was young. Really shockingly beautiful, okay? Just shockingly beautiful. Not a ton of talent, but enough. Great body. Her voice was just okay, but you know what? We can work with that. She writes poetry, so her lyrics are good. She plays the violin, which is a fucking useless instrument for pop music, but whatever, at least she’s got a musical background. So we start working with her, we’re moving toward an album, making plans for how to package her, how to roll her out. Like I said, she’s beautiful, and tell you what, she’s got this edge to her, this kind of rare quality, like she’s really sexy but it’s not
right? Like it’s not in your face, there’s something a little mysterious about it.”
“Kind of remote, but not ice-queen remote, more like, I don’t know,
remote, which can be attractive in certain girls.” His eyes dropped briefly to Vincent’s chest. “So anyway, we’re pretty far along, we’re hiring a backup band and looking for a choreographer, and then she comes to us and she’s like, ‘I want out.’ We’re like, ‘
sorry, what?’ We’re pretty shocked, me and my partners. We’ve got her on this program, right? We’re paying for vocal lessons, guitar lessons, songwriters, a personal trainer. Any musician, any recording artist would kill for an opportunity like what she’s got here. We point that out and she’s like, yeah, she gets it, she appreciates the effort, but we’re violating her artistic integrity.” Lenny paused to sip his wine. “Hilarious, right?”
Vincent smiled, unsure of what exactly she was supposed to find hilarious. (“Oh, that? That’s topaz, I think,” Tiffany was saying to Jonathan. “With little diamonds around it.”)
“We’re like, your
? You are twenty-one years old. You don’t get to have integrity. I mean, okay, look, maybe she had integrity, you know, personally, like as a human being, but
? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. She’s a little girl.”
“So what happened?”
“Like I said, she went back to Canada. I Googled her the other day, and you know what she’s doing? Touring Canada in a fucking van, playing in tiny clubs and music festivals in towns you’ve never heard of. You see what I mean? Couldn’t recognize an opportunity. Whereas me, when I met your husband? When I figured out how his fund worked? That right there was an opportunity, and I seized it.”
“Lenny,” Jonathan said, cutting Tiffany off midsentence, “let’s not bore our lovely wives with investment talk.”
“All I’m saying is, my investment performed better than I could’ve imagined.” Lenny raised his glass. “Anyway. Annika. It’s all good, because you know what? I can predict the future.” He smiled and tapped his forehead with one finger. “She’ll come back to me.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Vincent said. What was strange was that she was certain Jonathan was listening very intently to her conversation with Lenny, even though he was gazing at Tiffany and nodding at what Tiffany was saying. It seemed to her that there was something that Jonathan didn’t want Lenny to reveal.
“Any year now, any
now, I’ll hear from her again, I’d bet money on it.”
“No question.” If only the evening would end. Vincent’s face was getting tired.
“She’ll be all, like, hey, remember me, we were going to do something together, and I’ll be like, yeah, we
going to do something together, you and me, past tense. That was five years ago, six years ago, now you’re not twenty-one anymore.”
“Tell me about the place you’re from,” Mirella said toward the end. The age of money lasted a little under three years. During the final summer, six months before the end, Faisal went home to Riyadh to spend a few weeks with his father, who’d just received a cancer diagnosis, and during that period Mirella fell into the habit of taking a car up to Greenwich almost every afternoon. Vincent and Mirella spent languid hours swimming or lying in the shade by the pool, stunned by heat, Mirella’s bodyguard reading the paper or staring at his phone on a lawn chair out of earshot.
“I grew up on a road with two dead ends,” Vincent said. “That pretty much sums it up.”
“Put down that camera, will you? You’re making me nervous.”
“I’m not filming you, I’m just filming those trees over there.”
“Yeah, but they’re boring trees. They’re not doing anything.”
“Fair point,” Vincent said, and smiled and put the camera away, although it pained her to stop filming at the three-minute-twenty-seven-second mark. She was aware that the necessity of filming in precise five-minute intervals probably constituted an undiagnosed case of OCD, but this had never really struck her as a serious problem.
“How can a road have two dead ends?”
“If it’s accessible only by boat or floatplane. Picture a row of houses on an inlet. Forest all around, water, nothing else.”
“You had a boat?”
“Some people had their own boats. We didn’t. I used to catch the mail boat to get to school in the mornings, then a bus would meet us by the pier on the other side and drive us to the nearest town. There was no television there till I was thirteen.”
“What do you mean, no television?” Mirella was looking at her as if she’d just announced she was from Mars.
“I mean, there was no signal.”
“So if you switched on the TV, what would happen?”
“Well, you’d just get static,” Vincent said.
“On every channel?”
(A memory: thirteen years old, suspended from school for the graffiti incident, sitting by the kitchen window with a book, then looking up and seeing Dad walking up the hill from the water taxi with an unwieldy box in his arms, grinning. “Look what my mom bought for us,” he said. “I got a call to come pick it up from the electronics store in Port Hardy.” Grandma Caroline had departed that morning to return to her own life for a few days, but it appeared she’d left a parting gift.
A television! A tower had gone up a few months earlier in Grace Harbour, just up the inlet, which meant that for the first time in history there was a signal in Caiette, and Mom would never have allowed this but it wasn’t up to her anymore, because she’d been gone for three weeks. Dad and Vincent flicked through variations of static to find a room, where two women with American accents were talking, one with long brown hair and glasses, the other with a cloud of platinum hair and tighter clothing.
WKRP in Cincinnati,
” Dad said. “I used to watch this in the eighties.”
One of the women said something funny, which made Dad laugh for the first time in three weeks. Where was Cincinnati? On television the city had a soft gleam, like the blond actress’s hair. Later, Vincent pulled the atlas down from a high shelf and found it, a point in the middle of the closest country to the south. She looked up the page for southwestern British Columbia, but of course Caiette was too small to appear on the map.)
Mirella had a story about a duplex in a housing development of identical duplexes, exurban Cleveland, cornfields on one side and an expressway on the other. Her mother worked two jobs and her father was in prison. Mirella and her sister were home alone for hours every day, watching television; they walked home from the school bus stop and locked the door behind them, and then they weren’t allowed to go outside again. They warmed up Hot Pockets for dinner and sometimes did their homework, sometimes didn’t. “It actually wasn’t that bad,” she said. “I got lucky. Nothing terrible happened to me. It was just boring. You grew up with both your parents?”
“My mother drowned when I was thirteen.” Vincent appreciated the way Mirella just nodded at this. Perhaps from now on she would only be friends with people who were missing at least one parent. “My dad was a tree planter, so he’d be up at these remote camps for weeks at a time during the school year, so I went to live with my aunt in Vancouver.”
The conversation shifted away from points of origin, which was fine with Vincent. Everything about Caiette was either impossible to describe or too difficult to talk about, and everything after Caiette was either boring or embarrassing. Mirella was talking about how she and Faisal had met. Mirella had tried to be a model, but she hadn’t made it very far. The problem, as her agent had explained it, was that Mirella was beautiful but it was an ordinary kind of beauty. There was nothing unusual about Mirella’s face, except for its prettiness, and that was a moment in modeling when it wasn’t enough to be beautiful, the agent said. One also had to be strange. The successful models of that moment had unusually wide-spaced eyes, or faces that were actually quite plain but had an indefinably striking quality, or ears that stuck out like jug handles. When she met Faisal, Mirella was trying to be an actor because the modeling wasn’t working out, but acting wasn’t going well either. She had some talent, but not enough to rise above the sea of other moderately talented beautiful young women. The night she met Faisal she was at a party in an expensive dress that she’d borrowed from her roommate, hours after a call with her agent’s assistant—her agent wasn’t taking her calls anymore—wherein the assistant, who’d once wanted to be an actor too, had gently broken the news that Mirella had been passed over for yet another role. Rejection is exhausting. Mirella was standing by the window, looking out at a view of downtown Los Angeles, and she realized that she was getting too tired for this life. She was thinking that maybe she should finally go to school, study something that would lead to a good job, but her sister had done that and now her sister was struggling under the weight of student loans, and Mirella wasn’t sure the debt was worth it. She was standing there trying to imagine what might come next, and then Faisal appeared beside her, beautifully dressed and holding two glasses of wine, and she thought,
Why not you?
“We met over drinks too,” Vincent said, “but I was the bartender.”
Mirella smiled. “I’m not surprised. You make an excellent cocktail.”
“Thank you. It was a strange moment in my life. My father had just died.” Mirella’s eyes widened. Having one parent exit the scene was nothing unusual, but losing two was a different situation. “I had to go back to my hometown to deal with his stuff, and there was a job opening at the local hotel, so I decided to stay for a while.”
“What happened to him?”
“A heart attack.”
“Thank you.” Vincent didn’t like to think of her parents.
“Was this the hotel Jonathan owns? I remember him talking about it.”
“Yes, exactly. I thought living there would be a simpler life, but I knew it was a mistake within a month. My childhood best friend worked there, and then after a few months my brother showed up and started working there too, and, I don’t know, it just started to seem a little claustrophobic, living in the same place with the same people I’d known since I was born.”
“I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“He was never really part of my life,” Vincent said. “I haven’t seen him in years.”
“So you went to this place in the middle of nowhere, and left because your brother was there too?”
“No, I…there was a strange incident,” she said. “Okay, so the lobby, it had a glass wall overlooking the water. I was working one night, and there was this guest in the lobby, a man with insomnia, he was just sitting in an armchair reading or working or something, and then he made this sound and jumped out of his chair. So I looked, and someone had just written this awful message on the outside of the glass.”
“What was it?”
Why don’t you swallow broken glass.
“Crazy,” Mirella said.
“I know. And then a minute later, my brother Paul comes in from his dinner break, and it was just so obvious that he’d done it, he was all kind of shifty, couldn’t even meet my eyes—”
“Why would he—?”
“I don’t know. I almost asked him, but then I realized it didn’t matter. There’s just no scenario where writing something like that isn’t horrible, is there?”
“I can’t think of one.” Mirella was quiet for a moment. “It’s a horrible message, but I’m not sure I completely understand why it bothered you that much.”
“The thing with my mother,” Vincent said, “is I know she drowned, but I don’t know
she drowned. She went canoeing all the time. She was a good swimmer.”
“You think it might not have been an accident.”
“I think I’ll never know one way or the other.” They were quiet for a while, and the buzz of the cicadas in the trees at the edge of the property was very loud. “Anyway, it wasn’t just that. I was having one of those moments, where you look at your life and think,
Is this really it? I thought there’d be more.
“I’m familiar with those moments,” Mirella said. “So you were going to leave anyway, and then Jonathan walked into the bar?”
“No more than two hours later, maybe less. It was five in the morning. I had to do two shots of espresso just to keep my eyes open.”
“Here’s to coffee.” Mirella raised her glass.
“When I say I don’t know where I’d be without it, I mean that literally,” Vincent said.
A lonely man walks into a bar and sees an opportunity. An opportunity walks into a bar and meets a bartender. A lonely bartender looks up from her work and the message on the window makes her want to flee, because the bartender’s mother disappeared while canoeing and she’s told everyone all her life that it was an accident but there is absolutely no way of knowing whether this is true, and how could anyone who’s aware of this uncertainty—as Paul definitely is—write a suggestion to commit suicide on a window with
shimmering on the other side, but what’s driving the bartender to despair isn’t actually the graffiti, it’s the fact that when she leaves this place it will only be to go to another bar, and another after that, and another, and another, and anyway that’s the moment when the man, the opportunity, extends his hand.
“Would you believe I actually grew up here?” she asked Jonathan, when in the course of that first conversation he asked where she was from. She’d served him his food and they’d fallen into a surprisingly effortless conversation.
“Here as in Caiette?”
“Well, here and then Vancouver.”
“Great city,” he said. “I keep meaning to spend more time there.”
He slipped her a folded bill as he was leaving—she thanked him without looking at it—and it turned out to be a hundred dollars, folded around a business card on which he’d scrawled a cell phone number. A hundred-dollar bill? Mortifying in retrospect, but she always appreciated the clarity of his intentions. It was always going to be a transactional arrangement. When he beckoned, she would come to him. She would always be well compensated.
Why not you?