Authors: Emily St. John Mandel
Jonathan never talked about Suzanne, his real wife, but the past wasn’t entirely off the table. Sometimes in a certain mood he liked to hear stories about Vincent’s life. She doled them out carefully: “When I was thirteen,” she told him once, lying in the bed on a Sunday morning, “I dyed my hair blue and got suspended from school for writing graffiti on a window.”
“Really. What did you write?”
“Would you believe I wrote a philosopher’s last words? I came across them in a book somewhere and loved them.”
“Precocious, but morbid,” he said. “I’m afraid to ask.”
Sweep me up.
It has a certain beauty, don’t you think?”
“Maybe if you’re a temperamental thirteen-year-old girl,” he said, so she threw a pillow at him. She didn’t tell him that her mother had died two weeks earlier, or that her brother had been lurking around and saw her do it, or that she had a brother. It is possible to leave so much out of any given story.
Also, it wasn’t
she found herself thinking on the train into the city the following afternoon. It was almost the opposite. She’d never had a clear vision of what she wanted her life to look like, she had always been directionless, but she did know that she wanted to be swept up, to be plucked from the crowd, and then when it happened, when Jonathan extended a hand and she took it, when she went in the space of a week from the mildew-plagued staff quarters of the Hotel Caiette to an enormous house in a foreign country, she was surprised by how disorienting it was, and then surprised by her surprise. She got off the train at Grand Central and let herself be absorbed into the flow of pedestrian traffic down Lexington Avenue.
How have I come to this foreign planet, so far from home?
But it wasn’t just the place, it wasn’t even mostly the place, it was mostly the money that made it foreign and strange. She wandered over to Fifth Avenue with no particular destination in mind, and walked until a pair of buttery yellow leather gloves in a window caught her eye. Everything in the shop was gorgeous, but the yellow gloves shone with a special light. She tried them on and bought them without looking at the price tag, because in the age of money her credit card was a magical, weightless thing.
She left the boutique with the gloves in her handbag and found her thoughts drifting a little as she walked. Her life in those days was so disorienting that she often found herself thinking about variations on reality, different permutations of events: an alternate reality where she’d quit working at the Hotel Caiette and returned to her old job at the Hotel Vancouver before Jonathan arrived, for example, or where he decided to get room service that morning instead of sitting at the bar and ordering breakfast, or where he did sit at the bar and order breakfast but he didn’t like Vincent; an alternate reality where she still lived in the staff quarters of the Hotel Caiette, serving drinks to wealthy tourists all night, years passing. None of these scenarios seemed less real than the life she’d landed in, so much so that she was struck sometimes by a truly unsettling sense that there were other versions of her life being lived without her, other Vincents engaged in different events.
She’d read newspapers all her life, because she felt that she was desperately undereducated and wanted to be an informed and knowledgeable person, but in the age of money she would often read a news story and find herself uneasily distracted by its opposite: Imagining an alternate reality where there was no Iraq War, for example, or where the terrifying new swine flu in the Republic of Georgia hadn’t been swiftly contained; an alternate world where the Georgia flu blossomed into an unstoppable pandemic and civilization collapsed. A variation of reality where North Korea hadn’t fired test missiles, where the terrorist bombings in London hadn’t happened, where the Israeli prime minister hadn’t suffered a stroke. Or spin it back further: a version of history where the Korean peninsula was never divided, where the USSR had never invaded Afghanistan and al-Qaeda had never been founded, where Ariel Sharon died in combat as a young man. She could only play this game for so long before she was overcome by a kind of vertigo and had to make herself stop.
One of the first things she bought was an expensive video camera, a Canon HV
. She’d been shooting video since she was thirteen, a few days after her mother disappeared, when her grandmother Caroline arrived from Victoria to help out. That first night of her grandmother’s visit, when Vincent was sitting at the table after dinner—drinking tea, which was a habit she’d picked up from her mother, and staring down the hill at the water because surely any minute now her mother would walk up the steps to the house—her grandmother brought a box to the table.
“I have something for you,” she said.
Vincent opened it and found a video camera, a Panasonic. She recognized it as one of the new kind that took DV tapes, but it still had an unexpected weight. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do with it.
“When I was younger,” Caroline said, “say maybe twenty-one, twenty-two, I went through a difficult time.”
“What kind of difficult time?” It was the first thing Vincent had said in some hours, maybe all day. The words were sticky in her throat.
“The details aren’t very important. A friend of mine, a photographer, she gave me a camera she no longer needed. She said to me, ‘Just take some pictures, take pictures every day, see if it makes you feel better.’ It seemed like a dumb idea, to be honest, but I tried it, and I did feel better.”
“I don’t think—” Vincent said, but couldn’t finish the sentence.
I don’t think a camera will bring my mother back.
“What I’m suggesting,” Caroline said softly, “is that the lens can function as a shield between you and the world, when the world’s just a little too much to bear. If you can’t stand to look at the world directly, maybe it’s possible to look at it through the viewfinder. I think your brother would laugh at me if I said something like this to him, but maybe you could just try to absorb the idea.”
Vincent was quiet, considering it.
“I was going to buy you a thirty-five-millimeter film camera,” Caroline said with a self-conscious little laugh, “but then I thought, it’s 1994, do kids even take still photos anymore? Surely video’s where it’s at?”
Vincent settled quickly into a form she liked. She recorded segments of exactly five minutes each, like little portraits: five minutes of beach and sky by the pier at Caiette, and then later there were five-minute clips of the quiet street where she lived with her aunt in Vancouver’s endless suburbs, five minutes from the window of the SkyTrain on her way into the city center, five minutes of the fascinating, appalling neighborhood where she lived with Melissa when she was seventeen—not in the film: the way she had to take off running down the street because an addict wanted her camera—and five-minute clips of the dish pit at the Hotel Vancouver that same year, the camera rigged in a plastic bag on a shelf with a timer while Vincent sprayed dishes with hot water and fed them into an industrial machine. Five-minute increments of Caiette again, and then—after she met Jonathan—five minutes of the infinity pool at the Greenwich house, the way it rippled into the lawn, precisely because she hated looking at that vanishing point and was trying to be stronger; five minutes from the window of Jonathan’s private jet the first time she crossed the Atlantic, a few ships far below in the steel-gray water, no visible land. “What are you doing?” Jonathan asked, startling her. He’d been sitting in the back of the plane with Yvette Bertolli, a formidably elegant associate of his who was coming to France with them; she lived in Paris, so Jonathan was giving her a ride as far as Nice, where he had a villa. Vincent, sunk into an enormous armchair by the window, had thought she was momentarily alone.
“Kind of beautiful, don’t you think?” Vincent said.
Jonathan leaned over her to peer down at the distant waves. “You’re shooting video of the ocean?”
“Everyone needs a hobby.”
“Just when you think you know a woman,” he said, and kissed her head.
Jonathan had a shadow. He introduced the topic a few hours after they arrived at the villa in Nice, when they were sitting together on the terrace in the late afternoon. It was only early spring but already warm here, a pleasant breeze coming in from the sea. Vincent was dazed and jet-lagged, trying to cover this with coffee and the eye drops that she’d applied in the bathroom earlier. Yvette, Jonathan’s associate, had discreetly retired to a guest bedroom, so Vincent and Jonathan were alone. The view was of palm trees and then the otherworldly blue of the sea, oddly familiar after all the movies she’d seen set around the Mediterranean, most of which had involved fast cars, gamblers, and/or James Bond. Jonathan was in a contemplative mood. “This will seem an obvious statement,” he said, “but success attracts a certain kind of attention.”
“Positive, or negative?”
“Well, both,” he said, “but I’m thinking of the negative kind.”
“Are you thinking of a particular person?” A door opened behind them, and Anya appeared on the terrace with two coffee cups on a little silver tray. Vincent was startled to see her, because she hadn’t realized Anya was coming to France, although it occurred to her that she hadn’t seen Anya around the house in Greenwich in the last couple of days. “Thank you,” Vincent said to Anya, “I desperately needed that.” Anya nodded. Jonathan took his coffee from the tray without comment, because for him, coffee appearing out of thin air was so commonplace an occurrence that it didn’t merit acknowledgment.
“Yes,” he said. “There is a particular person. A particular obsessive.”
He’d met Ella Kaspersky back in 1999, at, of all places, the Hotel Caiette. They’d had a conversation about Kaspersky’s possibly investing with him, but she’d concluded—without basis, obviously—that the sheer consistency of Jonathan’s returns was indicative of some kind of nefarious fraud scheme. Completely illogical and unfair, delusional even, but what could he do? People jump to their own conclusions.
“I’d think good returns would be an indication that you’re good at your job,” Vincent said.
“Well, exactly. I’ve never claimed to be a genius, but I do know what I’m doing.”
“Clearly,” Vincent said, with a gesture meant to encompass not just the terrace but the villa and its proximity to the Mediterranean, the private jet that had brought them here, the entirety of this remarkable life.
“I’ve done all right,” he said. “Anyway, Kaspersky took her story to the SEC. I’m sorry, it’s rude to throw obscure acronyms around. I mean the Securities and Exchange Commission. They’re the people who look after my industry.” Vincent knew what the SEC was, because she made an effort to follow the financial news, but she only nodded. “They investigated me thoroughly. Naturally they found nothing. There was nothing to find.”
“Did you hear from her again? After the investigation?”
“Not directly. I’ve heard from other people whom she’s spoken to.”
“If she’s spreading false rumors against you,” Vincent said, “can’t you sue her for defamation?”
“The thing you have to understand,” he said, “is that in my business, credibility is everything. I can’t run the risk of it becoming a news story.”
“You’re saying the appearance of scandal would be almost as bad as an actual scandal.”
“Smart girl. But I thought about it later, when all of that insanity with the SEC had passed, and I realized what the problem was. That money she wanted to invest? It was her father’s fortune. He’d died quite recently. So there was just, well, there’s a lot of emotion caught up in money sometimes.” Anya was moving around the periphery of the terrace, discreetly setting out candles for the evening. How much of the conversation was she hearing? Did it matter? Did Anya care? “The letter Ella Kaspersky sent me, it was unhinged,” Jonathan said, “rambling on about her father’s legacy and so on. But to be fair, when I look back on it I realize she was obviously grieving, and grief can make anyone a little irrational in the moment.” The unspeakable subject of Jonathan’s dead wife floated between them, like a ghost; they glanced at one another but didn’t say her name. Jonathan cleared his throat. “Anyway, the reason I’m telling you all this is, I just didn’t want you to wonder if you ever came across anything from her online, or if we ever came across her in real life. You never saw her in Caiette, did you?”
“At the hotel? I don’t really remember many of the other guests, to be honest. I was only there for six or seven months.”
“Till I swept you off your feet,” he said, and kissed her. His lips were cold and tasted unpleasantly of stale coffee, but Vincent smiled at him anyway.
“I think envy’s understandable,” she said. “Not everyone succeeds.”
(Had Vincent succeeded? She felt that by any rational measure she was living an extraordinary life, but on the other hand she wasn’t sure what the goal had been. Later she stood alone on the terrace, filming the Mediterranean, and thought,
Maybe this could be enough. Maybe not everyone needs to have a specific ambition. I could be the sort of person who just goes to beautiful places and owns beautiful things. Maybe I could film five-minute videos of every sea and every ocean and perhaps there would be some meaning in that project, some kind of completion.
She met Jonathan’s employees that summer, at his annual Fourth of July party, which lasted until the small hours of the morning and involved a fleet of chartered buses. There was an army of caterers and a swing band dressed in white on the lawn. The guests were all employees of Jonathan’s. There were a little over a hundred employees, five in the asset management group and the rest in the brokerage company.
“Are the asset management people a little standoffish?” Vincent asked. The asset management team was standing in a tight little group at the party’s edge. One of them, Oskar, was trying to juggle plastic cups while the others watched. “No, wait,” Oskar was saying, “I swear I used to know how to do this…”
“They’ve always been a little insular,” Jonathan said. “They work on a different floor.”
When everyone was gone, the lawn seemed enormous, a twilight landscape of round tables with flickering candles on wine-stained tablecloths, plastic cups glimmering in the trampled grass. “You’re so poised,” Jonathan said. They were sitting by the pool with their feet in the water, while the caterers blew out candles and folded tables and packed dirty glasses into crates.
That’s my job,
Vincent didn’t say in return. Calling it a job seemed uncharitable, because she really did like him. It wasn’t the romance of the century, but it didn’t have to be; if you genuinely enjoy someone’s company, she’d been thinking lately, if you enjoy your life with them and don’t mind sleeping with them, isn’t that enough? Do you have to actually be in love for a relationship to be real, whatever
means, so long as there’s respect and something like friendship? She spent more time thinking about this than she would have liked, which suggested that it was an unresolved question, but she felt certain that she could go on this way for a long time, years probably. The Fourth of July was a feverish night at the peak of a heat wave.
“Well, thank you. I try.” Sweat ran down her back.
“You try without
to try, though,” he said. “You’ve no idea what a rare quality that is.”
She was watching the shimmer of lights on the surface of the pool. When she looked up, one of the caterers was watching her, a young woman who was straightening deck chairs. Vincent looked away quickly. She had studied the habits of the monied with diligence. She copied their modes of dress and speech, and cultivated an air of carelessness. But she was ill at ease around the household staff and the caterers, because she feared that if anyone from her home planet were to look at her too closely, they’d see through her disguise.