The Manchester Review
Jennifer Egan
A to B
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Stephanie and Bennie had lived in Crandale a year before they were invited to a party. It wasn’t a place that warmed easily to strangers. They’d known that going in and hadn’t cared — they had their own friends. But it wore on Stephanie more than she’d expected, dropping off Chris for kindergarten, waving or smiling at some blond mother releasing blond progeny from her SUV or Hummer, and getting back a pinched, quizzical smile whose translation seemed to be: Who are you again? How could they not know, after months of daily mutual sightings? They were snobs or idiots or both, Stephanie told herself, yet she was inexplicably crushed by their coldness.
   During that first winter in town, the sister of one of Bennie’s artists sponsored them for membership to the Crandale Country Club. After a process only slightly more complicated than applying for citizenship, they were admitted in late June. They arrived at the club on their first day carrying bathing suits and towels, not realizing that the CCC (as it was known) provided its own monochromatic towels to reduce the cacophony of poolside color. In the ladies’ locker room, Stephanie passed one of the blondes whose children went to Chris’s school, and for the first time she got an actual “Hello,” her own appearance in two separate locations having apparently fulfilled some triangulation Kathy required as proof of personhood. That was her name: Kathy. Stephanie had known it from the beginning.
   Kathy was carrying a tennis racket. She wore a tiny white dress beneath which white tennis shorts, hardly more than underpants, were just visible. Her prodigious childbearing had left no mark on her narrow waist and well-tanned biceps. Her shining hair was in a tight ponytail, stray wisps secured with gold bobby pins.
   Stephanie changed into her bathing suit and met Bennie and Chris near the snack bar. As they stood there uncertainly, holding their colorful towels, Stephanie recognized a distant thop, thop of tennis balls. The sound induced a swoon of nostalgia. Like Bennie, she came from nowhere, but a different type of nowhere — his was the urban nowhere of Daly City, California, where his parents had worked to a point of total absence while a weary grandmother raised Bennie and his four sisters. But Stephanie hailed from suburban, midwestern nowhere, and there had been a club whose snack bar served thin, greasy burgers rather than salade niçoise with fresh seared tuna, like this one, but where tennis had been played on sun-cracked courts, and where Stephanie had achieved a certain greatness at around age thirteen. She hadn’t played since.
   At the end of that first day, dopey from sun, they’d showered, changed back into their clothes, and sat on a flagstone terrace where a pianist rolled out harmless melodies on a shining upright. The sun was beginning to set. Chris tumbled on some nearby grass with two girls from his kindergarten class. Bennie and Stephanie sipped gin and tonics and watched the fireflies. “So this is what it’s like,” Bennie said.
   A number of possible replies occurred to Stephanie: allusions to the fact that they still didn’t know anyone; her suspicion that there wasn’t anyone worth knowing. But she let them pass. It was Bennie who had chosen Crandale, and in some deep way Stephanie understood why: they’d flown in private jets to islands owned by rock stars, but this country club was the farthest distance Bennie had traveled from the dark-eyed grandmother in Daly City. He’d sold his record label last year; how better to mark success than by going to a place where you didn’t belong?
   Stephanie took Bennie’s hand and kissed the knuckles. “Maybe I’ll buy a tennis racket,” she said.
   The party invitation came three weeks later. The host, a hedge fund manager known as Duck, had invited them after learning that Bennie had discovered the Conduits, Duck’s favorite rock group, and released their albums. Stephanie had found the two deep in conversation by the pool when she returned from her first tennis lesson. “I wish they’d get back together,” Duck mused. “Whatever happened to that spastic guitarist?”