Washington, D.C., writer Michelle Brafman, author of Washing the Dead, has just produced Bertrand Court, a novel of connected stories centered on a suburban cul-de-sac. Published this week by Prospect Park Books, the collection links narratives of the neighborhood’s politicos, filmmakers and housewives, with all the low-level drama that can entail. “Would You Rather?” is a story from the book and features two former college roommates. Bertrand Court will be launched tomorrow, Saturday, September 10, at Politics and Prose (6pm). You can purchase the book at P&P or here or here.
LATELY NIKKI FINDS herself one weather system behind. Yesterday it was cold, and Emma’s teacher admonished her for sending the child to school in shorts. Today it’s balmy, and Nikki smells like sweaty wool. To cool down, she holds a glass of ice water against her cheek while she watches for Georgia. The past few times they’ve met for their monthly dinners, the sitter didn’t show or Tad forgot to come home early, and Nikki arrived frazzled and apologizing profusely to Georgia, whose general unflappability only made her prattle on more.
Raindrops the size of cashews pelt the window, snaking down tall sheets of glass painted with faded red letters that read “Rodeo’s,” the hot spot of their youth. Too early for the mariachi band. She rifles through a wooden bowl for an unbroken chip, relishing the taste of oil and salt on her tongue. Tad, the fat-gram zealot, stopped eating chips when he became addicted to triathlon training. She needs to call him before the girls go to bed.
“Hi, Nik.” She loves Tad’s voice; it exudes both authority and playfulness, almost a twinkle, as if he could run a perfect press conference one minute and crack you up with a well-told joke the next. As he has.
She detects the sound of Lizzie McGuire playing in the background, annoyed that Tad’s chosen to plunk Sophie and Emma in front of the television instead of engaging them with a puzzle or a game. He’s probably reading Triathlete magazine or doing push-ups or his back exercises. She selects her words carefully. “Hi, honey, just wanted to let you know where I put Sophie’s antibiotic.” She tries to sound helpful instead of nagging.
“Kitchen windowsill,” he replies, slightly winded, probably from the push-ups.
Well, at least he noticed the bottle. “Good day?” She uses the noncommittal tone she’s practiced with the girls when she wants them to give her more than a grunt. She doesn’t ask if he sent out any résumés or made any follow-up calls. Doesn’t offer up any leads she’s shaken down from her old colleagues on the Democratic Leadership Council.
“Fine.” His voice is tight.
She can picture the defensiveness creeping into his eyes, as it does whenever she tries to help him resuscitate his career. “Kiss the girls. Goodnight, sweetie.” She hangs up before he can answer.
Tad. She fiddles with her wedding band. He lost his in the gym locker room last spring and never bothered replacing it. And two weeks ago, when they dined at a pan-Asian restaurant with a big dairy lobbyist, a friend of a friend of Nikki’s who ended up not hiring the “way overqualified” Tad, he revised the lore of how they met. He said he almost missed meeting Nikki because he was groping around the beer-soaked floor of a Capitol Hill bar with a pretty brunette, helping her find a contact lens. Minor, really, but he’d never used the verb “groping” or the adjective “pretty” before. These details gnaw at her more than the missing wedding band.
With the help of a little sangria, she ushers the emerging Tad unpleasantness into the recesses of her consciousness, periodically glancing at the hostess stand in search of Georgia. The restaurant is practically empty, except for a young woman—roughly Nikki’s age when she and Georgia lived up the street and referred to Rodeo’s as “the Cafeteria”—sitting two booths over, encouraging a middle-aged man to ply her with margaritas. The girl, serviceably pretty, wears pointy shoes and a gray wraparound dress that might have looked nice on Nikki once. Every few seconds, her hand darts to her hair—blue-black like Nikki’s—and brushes it from her eyes. This isn’t one of those ego-stroking career-advancement dinners Nikki used to endure when she could still leverage her cleavage and tight skin. No, this girl is intrigued. She laughs too loudly at his jokes; her cheeks redden when he touches her wrist, which he does often, with the ringless fingers of his right hand. Nikki knows her laugh and his touch.
Fifteen years ago, on a cold March night, shortly after Nikki and Georgia had settled into their first post-college apartment, Nikki waited for Georgia at an Irish bar one block down from Rodeo’s, at 17th and S. Now it’s a tapas restaurant. She’d been working for the Murphy Group advertising agency for two months when her boss informed her of their St. Patrick’s Day tradition: employees were expected to make an appearance at the Irish Times to drink green beer and act inappropriately with colleagues.
The men wore kelly-green ties decorated with four-leaf clovers or leprechauns. Nikki wore her new black pumps, which were torturing her feet, and an Ann Taylor suit, a micromini, a fashion must in the late eighties. Lucky for Nikki that she had nice legs.
She tried not to glaze over as she listened to an account executive describe in detail how he was house-training his new black lab; she asked perfunctory follow-up questions, all the while keeping one eye open for Georgia. She’d just had another fight with Nate, her college boyfriend, who was moving to Moldova in June. Peace Corps. He mimicked her feminist diatribes (she was an insufferably enthusiastic women’s studies major) while he watched her slide into her short skirts and pumps each morning. Thinking about Nate made her angry and sad and nostalgic for the time when they both believed that Nikki wanted to spend three years in some underdeveloped country doing good. She needed a drink.
“I’ll have a Maker’s Mark, please. And a 7UP.” She smiled at the bartender, who winked at her and turned away to fix her drink. She downed the whole thing in four gulps.
“That’s a mean cocktail for a lovely young lady like yourself.” Jack O’Dell, senior vice-president of the Murphy Group, gave her that pre–Monica Lewinsky head-to-toe once-over. She’d noticed him before; he was Frame Guy, a hot, fiftyish, mildly weathered sort dressed in a fishing sweater and faded jeans, a dead ringer for the model in the picture frame she bought last Christmas. She had pet names for lots of the people who worked for the Murphy Group: I’m Not Your Mother cleaned out the office fridge every Friday, bitching and moaning the whole time; Q-Tip cleaned his ear with a paper clip and then scraped the wax onto his desk calendar; and Boner Man—well, no explanation necessary.
She tilted her head slightly to one side and looked directly into his eyes, a play she’d stolen from the January issue of Cosmopolitan. He had big, square white teeth and a dimple in his chin, slightly darkened by some recalcitrant stubble.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“You have a kind face,” she said. That was the Maker’s Mark talking, not Cosmo. Idiot. Why did she say that? Even if it seemed true?
“Have I now?” he said with a smile.
“Nikki, I’m Nikki O’Neill. No relation to Tip,” she added lamely.
“Let’s get you another drink, Nikki O’Neill, no relation to Tip.”
It wasn’t hard to get him talking about himself, but then Nikki had always known how to listen to men, make them feel understood, heard. And contrary to Nate’s accusations, she didn’t do it just to suck up; she was really interested.
Two drinks later, Jack was telling her a story about his first client, a grumpy old tire dealer out in Falls Church. “He had piles and piles of ad money from Goodyear, just sitting there waiting for someone to help him spend it.” His eyes lit up.
“That’s the Reliable Tires account?” Nikki knew every account in the agency, inside and out.
“You do your homework.” He nodded with approval, touching her sleeve. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
Nikki watched him walk toward the men’s room. He moved like an ex-football player, stiff in the shoulders, lumbering, but with a healthy dose of confidence in what his body could still do. She had forgotten all about Georgia (and her toes, which ached like she’d just visited a foot binder), until she felt a tug on her sleeve.
“Sorry I’m late. Got stuck editing for the neurotic producer.” Georgia removed her glasses and wiped away the condensation that had formed from the heat of the bar.
“Here.” Nikki pointed to an empty bar stool next to hers. Georgia had once told her that she hated standing in crowded places because she was so short that she always felt like she had her nose in other people’s armpits. She detested going out in general, preferring to sit at home and read a Jane Austen novel. Nikki liked to do both; she’d had a premonition that she would meet her mate at a party. She loved Nate, but he was no Mr. Darcy.
Jack returned from the bathroom, running his hand through his thick head of gray hair. Nikki hoped that Georgia wouldn’t notice his wedding band, but of course she would.
“This is my roommate, Georgia. We met in college. Same dorm.” Okay, Nikki, slow it down. Stop talking so much. Less is more. “Colgate. Colgate University. In Hamilton. New York. Upstate.” Shut up, for Christ’s sake.
Georgia gave Nikki one of her Georgia looks, as if she could see right into her brain. Nikki shrugged. God, she was just flirting, having some fun. Sometimes she wished Georgia would flirt a little more, maybe even care about the guys she brought home, like the news photographer with shoulder-length hair who sat at their kitchen table now and then, slurping milk from a cereal bowl. It was almost as if she was completely happy sitting on the sidelines, watching Nikki get drunk and stupid, watching crime victims cry and politicians woo in the news stories she edited.
“Well, Nikki, I’ll leave you in Georgia’s hands, then. Welcome to the Murphy Group.” Before he turned toward the door, he snuck a peek at her legs, which she had twisted around each other like a couple of Twizzlers.
Georgia followed his glance, watched him leave, and gave her friend another look.
“What?” Nikki shifted on her stool.
“Would you rather have a Pap smear or a root canal?”
Nikki laughed. Would You Rather was a game they’d started playing their freshman year of college, a tacit agreement to distract themselves from the subject of, say, Nikki’s mother’s cancer or Georgia’s top-secret affair with her philosophy professor.
“With or without Novocain?” she said.
Nikki downed the remains of her drink and paused for effect. “The Pap, no question.”
The next day, Georgia was working the late-night shift at her television station and wouldn’t be home until after two a.m., which left Nikki free to get into some mischief. She’d picked a silly fight with Nate that morning, sparking a chain of events: Nate took the early bus to Manhattan for his Peace Corps orientation instead of staying to resolve the argument; Nikki chose to work late over catching a step aerobics class at the Y; and when Jack O’Dell pulled out of the parking garage, she was standing at its mouth, shivering in her flimsy suede jacket, and gladly accepted his offer to drive her home.
“You must be freezing.” Jack cranked up the heat in his car and moved his gym bag from Nikki’s floor mat, brushing her knee with his fingers.
“Thanks. The temperature must have dropped a hundred degrees since this morning.” The car smelled like Dentyne and Polo Sport.
“Your teeth are chattering, Nikki O’Neill, no relation to Tip.”
“Maybe.” Nikki smiled through her quivering lips, thinking about how much Nate would hate Jack. He’d call him corporate scum.
During the three and a half miles between the Murphy Group and Capitol Hill, they talked about Marion Barry’s failure to fix potholes and whether he could beat his drug habit. Nikki wanted to keep driving and listen to Jack talk and laugh. He had a great laugh, spontaneous and with lots of bass.
He adjusted his collar — crisp, white, and expensive, in contrast to the yellowed short-sleeved shirt Nate wore with his one tie when he took her out for lunch last week. She hated herself for hurrying both of them out of the building so she wouldn’t have to introduce him around.
“You hungry?” Jack looked at her out of the corner of his eye.
Nikki felt her cheeks tingle. Had he just asked her to dinner? “Yeah, a little.”
“Take me to your favorite restaurant.” He smiled. “It’s the least I can do for working you so hard.”
“Okay, turn left here.” She directed him to a Cuban place she loved, a dive that would be empty at this hour. She glanced at his wedding ring, knowing he would appreciate her discretion, and surprised at how intuitively the etiquette for dining with a married man came to her.
“Got any Scotch?” he asked the pretty waitress, who spoke very little English.
Scotch? Ick. Nikki suddenly wanted to be home cuddled up with Nate under her down comforter, waiting for the water to boil for their Top Ramen, or better yet, sitting at the kitchen table in her sweats, keeping Georgia company while she tested a new recipe from the Post.
Jack looked at the waitress, who seemed confused, and then at Nikki. “Right, right. This is a Mexican restaurant. Give me a margarita, por favor.”
Beam me up, Scotty. “I’ll have a mojito,” she said, a bit too politely. When the waitress left, she whispered, “This is a Cuban restaurant.”
He laughed with his whole body, shrugging his shoulders and throwing his head back. “God, I’m a dope sometimes. Did I embarrass you?”
“Totally.” She loved that he didn’t care that the joke was on him. No wonder he was so masterful at charming clients. How could she not like him?
Nikki took charge of the ordering, and the food arrived swiftly.
“Oh, my God.” He closed his eyes and sucked on a plantain. “This is damn good. Are these fried bananas?”
“Plantains.” She dipped one in the sour cream and fed him.
He took a sip of his second margarita. “So, a looker like you must have a boyfriend.”
A looker? Nikki’s dad used that term. “Let’s just have fun tonight,” she said. How Helen Gurley Brown of her to take control of the evening, to brush their respective romantic entanglements to the side.
He persisted. “Still got your college boyfriend?”
Nikki recoiled, as if he had asked, “Still sleep with your retainer?” She glanced around for the waitress and crossed her legs, kicking him lightly by accident.
He smiled. “Mysterious, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I’m very mysterious.” She winked. Where was this coming from?
They didn’t talk about the office gossip she’d been collecting at happy hours, like the pending merger or Jack’s partners’ campaign to force him out. Instead, Jack told her about his first job, selling radio time for a big, fat, ornery manager of a country-western station, and described what it was like to don an orange vest, sip whiskey, and wait for the leaves to rustle with the promise of an eight-pointer. His eyes softened, his fingers tracing the rim of his glass, his back shaking off the tension of the day, of the life. A man clearly used to directing a conversation, he stopped every few minutes, as if he’d been woken from a nap, and asked, “Do you really want to hear all this?” Nikki nodded, taking him in. He seemed lonely, like he needed something from her.
“I haven’t done this in years.” He looked shy.
Oh, you and your wife don’t date other people? she almost said, but discretion trumped sass and rum, so she only smiled and watched him sign for the check.
When they got to his car, she stood next to him, arm to arm, a full head shorter than he was. The wind cut through her jacket, but she was too drunk to care. She felt around in her purse for the bag of Cadbury Easter Eggs she’d bought at the lobby store that day during her lunch break and held one out to him.
“No thanks.” He looked at her as though everything she did was amusing.
She felt amusing. “Right. You’re driving.”
He opened the car door for her, and she arranged herself in the padded leather passenger seat, ignoring her skirt sliding up her thighs. She peeled the foil off the egg and began to eat it one layer at a time: first the pastel-colored candy coating, and then the thick layer of chocolate beneath, and finally the core of a crunchy malted milk ball the size of a marble.
He grinned at her. “I’ve never seen anyone eat a piece of chocolate like that.”
“Okay. Give me one.” He stretched out his hand, unwrapped the egg, and licked the purple candy coating, his brow furrowed in concentration.
“What’s funny?” He raised one eyebrow.
“Your lavender lips.”
He licked the sugar off his lips, laughing, and started the car, jutting out his chin in time with a Creedence song that came blasting from the radio. He looked free, boyish, and comfortable in Nikki’s presence.
“Here.” She pointed to her apartment building, and he pulled into a coveted spot a block down from her entrance, right in front of a broken streetlight. Kismet. He put the car in park.
“You’re a great girl, Nikki.”
High on mojitos and her hold on this man, she ran her fingers along the side of his face. A face unlike those of the boys she’d been with up until this point. The skin felt craggy beneath her hand. He looked old and vulnerable and very much hers for the taking. She leaned over and kissed him, tasting the chocolate. They alternately deflowered the Cadbury eggs and kissed until Nikki’s stash ran out, giggling like children home from a night of trick-or-treating, sneaking extra candy, dancing on the sofa, daring their parents to stop them.
It wasn’t until they were on the last egg that Nikki noticed the keychain that had been dangling in front of her the whole time, a photograph of his family tucked safely inside a rectangular plastic case. Clad in matching Hawaiian shirts, Jack and his teenage son sandwiched a willowy redhead with a purple lily in her hair.
The mojitos and plantains threatened to make an encore. Bad karma she was creating here. She’d pay for this one day. In blood. “Better go.” She kissed him on the cheek.
“Let me walk you to your door.” His voice turned businesslike, almost fatherly, as though he could erase whatever had happened between them if he wished.
“You watch too much local news,” she said over her shoulder as she hoisted herself out of his car and ran to her apartment, trying not to think of the liquor store two blocks down that had been robbed last week, or of Jack’s wife waiting for him in their cold bed, or of Nate listening to bad folk music in some bar in the Village, or that she was minutes from throwing up an evening of excess.
She was still camped out on the pink furry rug in the bathroom when Georgia came home from work. “I’m ill,” she groaned. “Very, very ill.”
Georgia refrained from commenting that the bathroom smelled like a still. “Did you take aspirin?”
Nikki knew Georgia wouldn’t ply her with questions. Georgia kept quiet when she sensed Nikki had a story to tell. She said nothing as she reached into the medicine cabinet for the aspirin bottle.
“Would you rather date a married man or ingest a tub of Crisco?” Nikki asked, still a little drunk.
“Choose the Crisco, Nikki.” Georgia dampened a washcloth with cold water and held it to Nikki’s neck.
During the half hour leading up to Nikki’s final siege of vomiting, she swore that she’d become the kind of person who would glance at that photo of Jack’s lovely wife and never speak to him again. She would call Nate and tell him that she’d go wherever the Peace Corps chose to send him and end her love affair with Washington and all its charms. The moment passed, and for the balance of Jack’s wife’s conference in Hilton Head, Nate’s training in the Big Apple, and Georgia’s turn working the late shift — three days total — Nikki and Jack ate and drank at passé watering holes and traded kisses in his car while his key chain dangled inches shy of his groin.
Georgia finally arrives at Rodeo’s, soaking wet, glasses foggy, brown turtleneck accentuating her breasts, elasticity intact. She’s aged well, better than Nikki. She apologizes for her tardiness without explanation, but Nikki guesses that she lost track of time in her windowless editing suite. Georgia would never brag—she hates talking about herself—but Nikki learned from a neighbor that Georgia’s a big deal in the documentary world, that one of her films was nominated for an Emmy last spring. These films are Georgia’s children, Nikki persuades herself when she’s staving off the occasional pang of jealousy.
Georgia kisses Nikki on the cheek and orders a glass of wine. The mariachi band has arrived; Nikki’s sweater has dried and she’s energized by her foray into her past. She fancies herself Nikki O’Neill, no relation to Tip, star Democratic rainmaker, charmer of powerful men like Jack O’Dell. She’s animated when she serves up amusing yet self-deprecating tales of her attempts to train Hugo, whom she hates.
“You loathe dogs,” Georgia says.
“Gives Tad’s life some purpose.” Nikki pours herself another glass of sangria and looks away. “I didn’t just say that.”
Georgia never offers false comfort like “He’ll find something” or “It will all work out” or “Let me ask Jim or Marcus or Skip if they can make a few phone calls.” She looks at Nikki with that expressionless, nonjudgmental Georgia look that’s always given Nikki’s other friends the willies. Nikki regains her composure, and they discuss Georgia’s new film on recidivism.
After the waiter places a fresh bowl of salsa on the table, Nikki offers up a few of the girls’ funny little observations on life. An Austen purist, she rants about a film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility she rented last weekend. A dazzling résumé, a dog-loving husband, smart kids, superior taste in literature—she’s hoping that the young woman wearing the gray wraparound dress is eavesdropping on her conversation and has recognized that Nikki has it all.
“You’re in a mood tonight.” Georgia stares at Nikki.
In an attempt to recapture her good spirits, Nikki points her chin in the direction of the girl, who is now cocking her head, listening intently to the older man regaling her with a tale, probably one that features himself as the hero. “Who do they remind you of?” Nikki starts to grin, sure that Georgia will call up her man-eating days and Jack O’Dell.
Georgia pauses and stares at the couple thoughtfully while Nikki fights the urge to give hints. “The woman could be any ambitious Capitol Hill nubile.”
Nikki swallows her grin, reeling from Georgia’s unintentional sucker punch.
Still focused on the couple, Georgia narrows her eyes, examining the handsome man. “And him? That’s a no-brainer.”
Nikki’s neck reddens. She wonders if Georgia even remembers Jack O’Dell.
“He’s Tad.” Georgia reaches for a chip.
Nikki swivels her head toward the man. Yes, she can see the resemblance: same business casual slacks, same fading tan, same “I’m in charge” wink to the waitress, same empty eyes. Eyes that crave the adulation Tad now receives from his training buddies, who join him in squandering their family time with long runs, long naps, long bike rides. Eyes that crave the sexual hunger that drained from her body with her breast milk and the energy it’s taken to prop him up. But this man wears a wedding ring, and Tad no longer does, which now bothers her.
Georgia glances at Nikki’s doppelgänger with a look of recognition and a poor attempt to mask her pity.
Nikki steals a sip of Georgia’s water and swallows, rinsing her mouth of the taste of sangria, once sweet, now all alcohol and bitterness from the orange rind. She tries too hard to sound flip when she says, “Would you rather be blind or invisible?”
The mariachi band begins to play to the near-empty restaurant, too festive and off key, but loud enough to drown out Georgia’s answer and the rain and the laughter of the couple two tables over.
“Would You Rather?” is excerpted from Bertrand Court, a novel by Michelle Brafman Published by Prospect Park Books and excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.