A to B
Around the middle of that second summer, at another hedge-fund-fueled cocktail party, Bennie and Stephanie found themselves chatting, along with Kathy and Clay (or Cardboard, as they secretly called him) and some others, with Bill Duff, a local congressman who had come from a meeting with the Council on Foreign Relations. The topic was the presence of Al Qaeda in the New York area. Operatives were present, Bill confided, especially in the outer boroughs, possibly in communication with one another (Stephanie noticed Clay’s pale eyebrows suddenly lift, and
his head gave a single odd jerk, as if he had water in one ear), but the question was: how strong a link did they have to the mother ship — here Bill laughed — because any kook with a grudge could call himself Al Qaeda, but if he lacked money, training, backup (Clay gave another quick head shake, then flicked his eyes at Bennie, to his right), it made no sense to allocate resources . . .
Bill paused midsentence, clearly baffled. Another couple broke in, and Bennie took Stephanie’s arm and moved away. His eyes looked placid, almost sleepy, but his grip hurt her wrist.
They left the party soon after. Bennie paid the babysitter, a sixteen-year-old nicknamed Scooter, and drove her home. He was back before Stephanie had glanced even once at the clock and reflected on Scooter’s prettiness. She heard him setting the burglar alarm; then he thundered up the stairs in a way that made Sylph, the cat, dive under the bed in terror. Stephanie ran from the bedroom and met Bennie at the top of the stairs. “What the fuck am I doing here?” he cried.
“Shh. You’ll wake up Chris.”
“It’s a horror show!”
“That was ugly,” she said, “although Clay’s an extr—"
“You’re defending them?”
“Of course not. But he’s one guy.”
“You think everyone in that group didn’t know what was going on?”
Stephanie was afraid that it might be true — had they all known? She wanted Bennie not to think so. “That’s totally paranoid. Even Kathy says—”
“Again! Look at you!”
He stood at the top of the stairs with fists clenched. Stephanie went to him and took him into her arms, and Bennie relaxed against her, almost knocking her over. They held each other until his breathing slowed. Stephanie said softly, “Let’s move.”
Bennie pulled back, startled.
“I mean it,” she said. “I don’t give a shit about these people. It was an experiment, right? Moving to a place like this.”
Bennie didn’t answer. He looked around them at the floors, whose rose parquet designs he’d sanded himself on hands and knees, not trusting whomever they might pay for such intricate work; at the windows in their bedroom door that he’d spent weeks excavating with a razor from under layers of paint; at the stairwell nooks he’d ruminated over, placing one objet after another inside and adjusting the lights. His father had been an electrician; Bennie could light anything.
“Let them move,” he said. “This is my fucking house.”
“Fine. But if it comes to that, I’m saying we can go. Tomorrow. In a month. In a year.”
“I want to die here,” Bennie said.
“Jesus,” Stephanie said, at which point they were stung by sudden, itchy laughter that soon became hysterics, both of them doubled over on the parquet, shushing each other.
So they’d stayed. After that, when Bennie noticed Stephanie putting on her tennis whites in the morning, he’d say, “Going to play with the fascists?” Stephanie knew he wanted her to quit, renounce her partnership with Kathy to protest Cardboard’s bigotry and idiocy. But Stephanie had no intention of quitting. If they were going to live in a place whose social life revolved around a country club, she sure as hell was going to stay on good terms with the woman who guaranteed her easy assimilation. She had no wish to be an outcast like Noreen, their neighbor to the right, who had clanging mannerisms and wore oversize sunglasses, whose hands shook violently — from medication, Stephanie presumed. Noreen had three lovely, anxious children, but none of the women talked to her. She was a ghost. No thank you, Stephanie thought.
In the fall, when the weather cooled, she began arranging her tennis games for later in the day, when Bennie wouldn’t be home to see her change clothes. Now that she was working freelance for La Doll’s PR firm, scheduling Manhattan meetings as she wished, this was easy. It was slightly deceptive, of course, but only through omission — to protect Bennie from knowledge that distressed him. Stephanie never denied having played if he asked. And besides, hadn’t he engaged in his share of deceptions over the years? Didn’t he owe her a few of her own?