At the end of summer, Mars left her husband. When she told him about Rico, he bit his knuckle so hard the skin broke.
Rico didn’t consider himself essentially responsible, but it’s true he’d hastened the split. Mars would’ve taken at least another year more on her own. In Rico’s view, it already had taken way past what was reasonable for her to tell James the truth and move into the Abbey.
The Abbey was a Methodist church from 1910, converted into lofts. Mars’ dean had taken a one-year appointment in New Zealand and rented the unit to her. Rico never got over the surprise of approaching the stone structure, its spire stabbing up into the sky, only to see, through lancet windows, someone chopping vegetables. The building ruled over the neighbourhood, which was taking longer to gentrify than the magazines had predicted. Empty lots flanked the Abbey and squatters dwelled in the houses across the street, setting accidental fires.
When Rico arrived that evening in October, his new coat flapping in a violent wind, he found the beggar outside the front door. He knew he shouldn’t use that word—beggar—but the armoured stone of the Abbey evoked medieval names.
“Spare some change?”
Off to the side and against the wall was the beggar’s mound of blankets. He seemed to sleep there every night, as if some Methodist ghost were still granting asylum. Rico always felt unnerved by the beggar, if for no other reason than they were about the same age. He found himself recalling key moments of his life and then imagining what the beggar had been doing at the very same time.
“Have a good evening, sir,” said the beggar.
But when Rico said, “You, too,” the wind must’ve slapped the words away, because the beggar sarcastically groaned, “Thanks for the hospitality,” as if Rico had made no reply at all.
Rico looked back as he passed into the lobby, stunned by the turn in the exchange.
“Don’t look at me like that, jerk off.”
Mars was laying swordfish steaks on the pan when Rico entered. They were eating so much fish these days, the loft always smelled of it.
Rico wrapped himself around her from behind, nestled into her neck. None of the freshness had diminished. Even after years of friendship, there was still so much novelty at this proximity.
“Alexa found the recipe.”
Rico poured a glass of white and sat at the marble countertop, watching the blue flame in the gas fireplace. Each loft came with a preserved feature of the original church, and in this unit, stone angels were installed above the mantle. They’d been hewn for the mothers of fallen World War One soldiers who’d been part of the congregation.
Rico told Mars about the exchange with the beggar, calling him “the man outside.”
“That’s strange,” she said. “I’ve always found him docile.”
“Me, too. He must be having a bad night. It’s freezing out there. It’s hard to believe it’s only October.”
“I’m sure it’s not just the weather,” she said. “It was their neighbourhood first, you know.”
It seemed odd that she was arguing this to Rico, considering she was the one living in the Abbey.
“Are you O.K.?” he said. “Did you run into someone?”
“No,” and she flipped the steaks, oil crackling. “Sorry, it’s the kids with the cameras. Alexa, how much on the timer?”
The Amazon Echo answered: five minutes. The device belonged to the dean, but Mars had started using it. Inside the black cylinder, the consumer preferences of Mars and the dean were merging into strange new algorithms.
Rico hated Amazon. If he thought he’d get away with it, he’d take a hammer to Alexa or bury her outside.
Mars served the swordfish and said, “It’s starting to feel like just a matter of time.”
When the kids with the cameras first appeared at the university, Mars was excited. Her political sympathies were progressive, and she perceived this new energy in the students as a cleansing force. They’d march right into classrooms and demand changes, putting professors on the spot either to defend the status quo or cede control. In September alone, they’d forced a few resignations at the administrative level and compelled several senior professors into personal leaves.
In the beginning, the students filmed themselves and put the footage on social media. It was this constant potential for global exposure that gave them legitimacy. They could bring the world into the room, like that. Then a local TV station caught on to the trend and assigned a crew to start following the group around full time. Hardly a night went by without a flashy, super-cut segment about their exploits on the news, which also went online.
That’s when Mars started changing her view. The last few confrontations had seemed excessive, arbitrary, as if the cameras were now the ones making demands.
“They took down one of my colleagues today,” Mars said, as they ate side by side at the counter, their feet overlapping. “I remember talking with her about what we’d do if they ever came into our classrooms, and we agreed to say nothing, just listen. No words are pure enough to reply. But in the heat of the moment, she panicked, she spoke. It’s crazy how fast it all happens. Just a week ago, she’d defended the kids in a meeting with the chair. Now her face is multiplying all over the world.”
You could tell the kids were gleeful, Mars said. That’s what frightened her the most, what she couldn’t stop thinking about—how the thirst for violence rallied around the cold black eye of the camera.
Bliss was to drowse here with Mars as gas hissed through the fireplace. Alexa was silent. The stone angels flickered. He kissed her hairline.
Rico could remember realizing he’d wanted to hold her like this. It became his dangerous secret, his special torment. All their friends had presumed his loyalty to James, but in truth he was cheering on his downfall, painfully inching toward the object of desire. Now, after the break, he was free to express himself. At any moment, he could kiss her again. It was within his rights.
Even with the stress of the second store, all Rico cared about these days was extending moments like this, expanding the zone of pleasure. He already had a Christmas gift in mind: a surprise trip to Florida. He’d always wanted to go to Cuba, but Mars was a committed anti-tourist, so they’d travel as far as Miami. He could still get a good Cuban sandwich in Miami.
The wind moaned against the lancet windows. Rico felt cold breath off the glass and suddenly remembered the beggar outside, their jagged exchange. He pictured him piled beneath the blankets, cuddling the stone of the wall.
“It must be below freezing tonight,” he said, “don’t you think?”
Mars had almost fallen asleep.
“I don’t know,” she yawned. “Alexa, what’s the temperature outside?”
The second store had been a mistake. Last November, Rico and his partner, Vincent, had signed a lease on this newly restored brick building, which had once been an autobody shop. At long last, Vincent’s designs were dovetailing with prevailing fashions. In the finer districts of the city it was common to see people strapped into his trench coats, or even, for the more ostentatious, with the brim of one of his odd little hats tilted toward the sun.
It had been Rico’s idea to expand into a second space. He’d scouted the location himself, and the building seemed ideal, straddling several wealthy neighbourhoods, on a two-way street with ample parking. To this day, he couldn’t understand what was wrong with it, but the store seemed to fall into a civic blind spot, like a micro-climate where fog settles.
The problems began in the very first week. Rico got a call in the middle of the night, saying some kids had smashed in the windows and “messed with your dolls.” He watched the whole thing on C.C.T.V., teens arranging the mannequins into creative orgies. In order to get the insurance, he’d turned the footage over to police, but nothing ever came of it. He’d had to close the store for a few weeks and then launch again, and it never regained momentum. People peered through the windows and seemed still to see those obscene postures.
Meanwhile the rent on the space was astronomical, putting stress on the first store to do more business. But sales there had leveled off—still a sound income, but not enough to rescue the brick-and-mortar while protecting what Rico and Vincent took home. When the lease was up next month, they’d go online only.
It broke Rico’s heart. He’d started looking for studios and pictured with horror how the coming years would be spent in front of a screen, rather than facing the dynamic challenges of retail, putting hands on things. As he arrived at the second store that morning, he wondered if this was why he was having such a hard time breaking the news to his staff: he couldn’t admit it to himself.
Everyone was standing around. There was nothing to do.
“This is very dashing,” said Rufus, caressing the lapel of Rico’s new coat. “What is it?”
“Oscar de la Renta, cashmere.”
Rico had sourced it vintage and had it tailored. The whole thing had come to more than he’d expected, but he’d always wanted a coat like this.
“You look villainous.”
“I changed the window. What do you think?”
Rico had noticed the display. A mannequin in one of Vincent’s coats had a hand placed jauntily on her hip, and an orange cone made from heavy paper hovered a few inches off the ground beside her. The effect was impressive, a colourful swerve in the eye of passersby, if there had been passersby. It had taken Rico a minute to discover how Rufus got the cone to hover like that.
“It looks fantastic. Did you keep the receipts?”
“You don’t need to worry about it,” Rufus said. “I just wanted to switch it up.”
“Don’t be silly,” and he went to the register. “How much?”
When Rufus gave him the receipt from the art store, Rico couldn’t believe a single sheet of paper could cost so much.
Now everyone scattered around the store’s pointless vastness, everyone except Lydia, who remained behind the cash, organizing something on a spreadsheet. Lydia was the only employee at the second store who’d been offered a permanent position when they moved online. Unlike Rufus, who could work magic tricks in the window, Lydia had the kind of administrative acumen they’d need more of soon. As a result, she was the only one who knew about the store’s imminent closing.
Rico could feel her eyes on him as he watched the employees simulate work.
She said, “Are you going to tell them today, Rico?”
He made a show of checking his watch and giving it thought.
“No,” he said. “Not today.”
“Are you close?
“Can you come over?
“I want you—now.”
And he was in the car, headed for the Abbey.
No one was happy for Rico and Mars. The potential reaction among their friends had worried them, but they’d counted on everyone’s progressive social positions to carry the day. Instead, the valence of sympathy had gone to James—the victim, so to speak—as if their love were an act of violence. Rico couldn’t understand. Shouldn’t they be a cause for celebration, two honest people living out their innermost desires?
He remembered exactly when the mood changed, after the baseball game. Rico and Mars didn’t even like baseball, but they’d gone to the game because it seemed like a place they wouldn’t run into James. They were actually trying to be respectful, ceding swaths of the city to him. But unknowingly they’d been caught kissing on the TV broadcast and one of their friends saw it. In just a few hours, before the interminable game was even over, everyone had turned against them. Kept hidden, their love could be tolerated, but flagrantly out in the open like that, it was an insult. Give a thought to James.
In cynical moments, Rico felt that the only reason people felt sorry for James was because his name was James. The name was downy, vulnerable, a little boy’s name. No one would ever feel sorry for a guy named Rico.
Rico saw the beggar crouched by the mound of blankets. Wind ripped off the empty lot, ballooning the Oscar de la Renta like a black flower. Rico wondered why the beggar didn’t move into one of the abandoned houses across the street. Was he not well liked in his community?
To Rico’s surprise, the blankets parted and a bare arm emerged, slender and limp—a woman’s arm. Rico slowed his approach so he could watch the beggar flicking the wrist. The needle was already prepped. Now the beggar stuck it in the flesh, and pressed. Rico could tell he was taking care—the gestures were, to some extent, quite tender—but there was still a hastiness to everything, an air of emergency. The white arm withdrew back into the mound.
Rico thought he’d been discreet, but the beggar said, “Why don’t you take a picture, motherfucker?”
He couldn’t stop thinking of the arm as Mars wordlessly took him to bed. Mars got horny at the strangest times. There was no regularity to it; you just had to stay ready. Usually it was a welcome surprise—whenever he’d tried to initiate sex otherwise, her rebuke had been embarrassing—but today he felt strangely abstract. Still, he went through with it. It didn’t seem manly to say no.
The way she liked to fuck was for him to go down on her until she came, her thighs clamping his head in place so he could barely breathe. Then, in the delirious aftermath, blood washing through her head, she’d lie back and spread her legs, her gaze fixed on him as he took in her pink, parted sex, and she finally let him have it.
But today, he wondered how the beggar and his girlfriend would make it through the winter. Wouldn’t it be sensible for them to go west? If Rico were a beggar, he would spend all his time trying to get west. At least you wouldn’t freeze to death on the streets out there. You could haul something other than blankets around—he didn’t know what—more useful things. Maybe he should buy them plane tickets. But then maybe they wouldn’t be allowed on a plane. But they could take the bus. They could be out west in a matter of days.
Now Mars sat on him, hard, taking him all the way in, and Rico wondered whether he had a bigger dick than James. He tried putting his mind somewhere else, and his eyes touched the Amazon Echo, visible through the doorway. Was Alexa listening, interpreting, as he came inside Mars?
At the supermarket, Rico had just gotten cuts of haddock off the ice when he ran into their friend Berta. She glanced in his basket. He had two of every item.
“How are you?” Rico said. “It’s been a while.”
He didn’t mention how she’d ignored his last few texts. His friends could get away with anything these days, if only they showed him a little courtesy.
Berta said, “We’ve all been busy.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Busy with James.”
She outstared him in the silence. Rico had to look away, as if guilty.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Is everything O.K.?”
“No, it’s not O.K.”
“What does that mean.”
“I’m not sure you have the right to ask that.”
Berta’s anger, nearly a spectacle in the early morning supermarket, struck him as a betrayal. She’d been the one friend he and Mars had let in on the secret of their love. She’d been supportive of the break with James; it could even be said she’d given the idea a vital endorsement. Now, just a couple months on, she’d drifted back into the pack.
“And how’s Mars?”
“She’s good,” Rico said, trying to stay light. “She’s a lot better, you know.”
“It must be nice in this little world of yours,” Berta said. “But we’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences. There are consequences, you know.”
“I’m not a fool, Berta.”
Rico had planned to talk to his employees today, but the encounter with Berta sapped him. When he got to the second store, he could only ruffle some clothes on the rack and stand there, smiling, as Rufus pitched ideas for boosting foot traffic. Maybe some of the ideas would’ve helped, long before.
“I drew pictures,” and Rufus handed him a clear plastic file.
“Good stuff, Rufus. Thanks.”
“I wouldn’t even need you to pay for these supplies.”
“I’ll talk it over with Vincent.”
Lydia caught him at the door.
“You have to tell them soon,” she said. “Everyone’s making holiday plans like they’ll still have jobs here.”
“The secrecy is killing me, Rico. You’ve put me in a really bad spot.”
Rico didn’t remove the coat when the travel agent offered him a seat. He just flopped into it, the arms of the chair pushing up the folds so that he sat cross-legged in a cashmere cup.
He was probably the only one in his circle of friends who used a travel agent. Everyone else just went online and sorted things out for themselves. But years ago, when he first came into some money, Rico took a trip to Jamaica—something he kept hidden from Mars—and went to a travel agency because he thought that’s what you did. As the agent laid out various Miami packages, he was reminded of why he still gave the agency his business. They took such good care of you; it was as if the trip had already begun.
The Miami vacation would cost more than he’d expected. Everything was doubled now, and the resorts gouged you when you travelled as a couple. They knew you’d pay just about anything if it furthered the romance. For a moment, he really did wonder if he could get a better deal online.
But Rico chose one of the packages and felt great on the car ride home, not thinking of the store, not thinking of James. He’d swiped his card and floated free of all that. On the cover of the brochure, the silhouettes of a man and woman embraced on a beach beneath a swollen setting sun, like a grapefruit in the sky. They were outside their lives, two pure black shapes of love.
The beggar wasn’t standing by the mound of blankets. Rico wondered if he was wrapped inside them, as he was wrapped inside the coat, cuddling his girlfriend. They were high together, swirling into each other.
Rico crouched and watched the blankets. They didn’t move. Again he thought about the bus tickets. Compared to the Miami trip, they’d cost practically nothing. The tickets might save their lives. Rico and the beggar still had their whole lives ahead of them.
Amazon Prime packages were stacked on Mars’s doorstep. He put the haddock in the fridge and the packages on the counter and sat beside her on the couch.
The news was playing another segment about the kids with the cameras. They’d stormed the classroom of an art history professor, bearing an enormous effigy of Pablo Picasso. Mars suspected the network of giving them money for props.
“Why don’t they take on Business or Law?” she asked. “Why keep picking on the Humanities?”
The tension on campus reminded Mars of when a German radical had been hired at her own alma mater in the nineties. Everyone had seemed poised for violence. But that had been purely intellectual combat. This, more than anything, was just a catchy way of talking.
Rico heard an alien sound, something seething, in her voice.
“There’s no rigour here,” she said. “Believe me, I’ve read their papers. Catch one away from the pack and they can’t articulate what it’s all about.”
Rico put his arm around her, but she didn’t relax. Sometimes, Mars seemed like a bush filled with countless chattering birds. He’d never observed these ugly moods when he was only her friend. Now it didn’t seem appropriate to talk about the second store or his encounter with Berta or what might be wrong with James. He felt strangely alone, his problems seeping toward a silent core inside.
On the TV, the professor tried pushing through the crowd to the door. You could see the panic on her face.
“I have the right to get past,” she cried, and when the students blocked the exit, she thrust through them and knocked a girl to the floor.
“Oh God,” Mars whispered. “Never touch them—never.”
As she fell, the girl took the legs out from beneath the cameraperson and the shot swooped away. Then the segment cut back to the anchors in the studio.
“A dramatic scene today at—” and Mars turned it off.
“I’ll teach what I want, how I want,” she said. “No one can take that away from me.”
She went over to the kitchen and sliced open the boxes from Amazon Prime—a fish skillet, an oyster knife.
After closing, Rico gathered the employees around him. He’d delayed this meeting so long, he found himself delaying it still further, not properly setting the mood as he cajoled people together with a grin. Now they stood in a semicircle, happily expectant. Only Lydia was off to the side, arms crossed, staring at the floor.
“Next month,” he announced, “we’ve made the decision to close the store.”
There was a brief muttering confusion. In his peripheral vision, Rico sensed Rufus.
“There was nothing we could do. It just hasn’t worked here. In due course, we’ll be phasing out the other location, as well. We’ve made the difficult decision to go online only.”
Someone asked, “Will there be positions for us?”
“This is the hardest part,” he said. “I’m afraid—the thing is—we’re going to have to let you go.”
Rufus broke forward and Rico stepped back, as if he might get hit, but Rufus stormed past. Rico didn’t turn. He just observed Lydia, who watched Rufus go, and heard the door slam. Later, he’d find the handle had broken. That was all.
Lydia spoke up for everybody.
“Do you know what we’ve sacrificed?” she said. “Some of us quit our jobs for this. People depend on us. We take the bus into the city—hours—every day—for you, Rico.”
The tears bunched in his eyes, but he fought them back. The cashmere felt ridiculously elegant.
Rico drove to the depot and bought a pair of one-way bus tickets. The woman behind the glass said, “First class or coach?”
“There’s first class on the bus?”
“Superior leg room and back support.”
Rico pictured the beggar and his girlfriend on the bus. He didn’t want them noticing that there was a first class area, if they weren’t in it.
“All right, give me first class.”
She was printing off the tickets when he had a second thought and asked that they be non-refundable. Apparently that was an option. People must give out one-way tickets all the time, he thought. There was always someone who’d be better off never coming back.
He sent a text to Berta.
“I’ve been thinking about James. Can we talk about what’s happening?”
Rico could still see all the messages she hadn’t answered, but this reply came fast.
“You don’t get to ask that.
“You don’t get to be the good guy Rico.”
He thumbed in a text: “How am I supposed to care when I’m not allowed to care.” But in a flash of common sense, he didn’t send it.
There was always some other guy, he thought, someone whose pain meant more than anything in Rico’s life. Not a single moment was divorced from that pain. Rico should feel it, all the time. It should falsify all his desires.
Rico was furious, but as he got in his car, it occurred to him to ask if he’d be so angry, arguing constantly in his mind, if he were really a victim. A strange peace came over him in the silence of the car. He couldn’t tell if it was sincere.
“Thank you,” he replied to Berta. “I understand.”
A firetruck blocked the street outside the Abbey, red sirens spinning over the rippled stone façade. A dirty grey smoke crawled from the window of a squatters’ house across the street, the brick all hose-washed, the glass smashed in. There didn’t seem to be any live flame. An old woman with frayed hair hugged a sleeping bag, barefoot on the frozen road. The firemen asked her to move as they wrangled the spent hose back into the truck.
The bus tickets were in the pocket of the coat, but Rico didn’t see the beggar anywhere. For the first time in memory, even the mound of blankets was gone. He stood there a moment, scanning the abandoned houses, and felt oddly observed, as if the beggar were behind one of those broken black windows.
Rico withdrew the tickets and held them out, like an offering, but the beggar didn’t appear. He considered giving them to the old woman, but then her life seemed decided, somehow. She didn’t even look cold.
As soon as he closed the door, he asked Mars, “What happened to the man outside?”
She didn’t answer.
“You know who I mean,” he said. “The guy who begs for change—the guy who called me a jerk off.”
Mars was sitting in the dark. Sirens passed over the lancet windows and touched the cheeks of the angels, like blush.
Immediately he thought of James.
Still wearing his coat, he sat beside her on the couch. Mars was staring at the black box of the television. It looked like she’d cried for a long time and now her voice was cracked.
“They came—for me.”
“You mean the kids?”
When she nodded, for some reason, Rico relaxed. Like a machine, he knew what to do, how to respond. He guided her into the coat.
“You can’t understand,” she told him, her voice buzzing in his chest. “What it’s like to have those eyes on you. It was horrible. I can’t go back there—I can’t.”
She wiped her nose. She’d left snot on the cashmere and tried wiping it down, but it smeared.
“It’ll be on the news,” she said. “Everyone will see—all our friends.”
Rico wanted to tell her that they didn’t have any friends anymore. He looked at Alexa on the counter. She was listening to all this. They were totally exposed. Dimly, he pictured the people on the other end, boxing materials in some distant rural warehouse.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Stop pretending, Mars.”
Her mouth became a silent dot.
“You know exactly what you did.”