Read The Privileges Online

Authors: Jonathan Dee

The Privileges

A
LSO BY
J
ONATHAN
D
EE

Palladio

St. Famous

The Liberty Campaign

The Lover of History

1

A
WEDDING
! T
HE FIRST OF
a generation; the bride and groom are just twenty-two, young to be married these days. Most of their friends flew in yesterday, and though they are in Pittsburgh, a city of half a million, they affect a good-natured snobbish disorientation, because they come from New York and Chicago but also because it suits their sense of the whole event, the magical disquieting novelty of it, to imagine that they are now in the middle of nowhere. They have all, of course, as children or teenagers, sat through the wedding of some uncle or cousin or in quite a few cases their own mother or father, so they know in that sense what to expect. But this is their first time as actual friends and contemporaries of the betrothed; and the strange, anarchic exuberance they feel is tied to a fear that they are being pulled by surrogates into the world of responsible adulthood, a world whose exit will disappear behind them and for which they feel proudly unready. They are adults pretending to be children pretending to be adults. Last night’s rehearsal dinner ended with the overmatched restaurant manager threatening
to call the police. The day to come shapes up as an unstable compound of camp and import. Nine hours before they’re due at the church, many of them are still sleeping, but already the thick old walls of the Pittsburgh Athletic Club seem to hum with a lordly over-enthusiasm.

Mid-September. Since Labor Day, the western half of Pennsylvania has been caught in a late and dispiriting heat wave. Cynthia wakes up in her mother’s house, in a bed she’s awakened in only five or six times in her life, and her first thought is for the temperature. She pulls on a t-shirt in case anyone else is awake, passes her burdensome stepsister Deborah (never Debbie) sleeping in flannel pajamas half on and half off the living room couch, and slides open the door to the deck, from which she can see in the distance a few limp flags on the golf course at Fox Chapel. Cool, tolerably cool anyway, though it’s still too early to tell anything for sure. It can’t even be seven yet, she thinks. Not that she’s worried. The specter of her bridesmaids holding beer bottles to their foreheads to cool off, or of Adam wiping the sweat out of his eyes as he promises himself to her, only makes her smile. She’s not the type to fold if things don’t go perfectly; what matters most to her is that the day be one that nobody who knows her will ever forget, a day her friends will tell stories about. She turns and heads back indoors, past her own fading footprints in the heavy dew on the cedar planks of the deck.

She never imagined a wedding in Pittsburgh, because she never had any reason to imagine it until her mother remarried and moved out here two years ago. To the extent she’d pictured it at all, Cynthia had always assumed she’d be married back in Joliet Park: but in the middle of her last semester at Colgate she learned that her father had sold their old house there, in which he had not lived for a long time; and when she announced her engagement two months later her mother Ruth went off on one of her unpacifiable jags about Cynthia’s stepfather Warren being “a part of this family” and would not stand for any implication that this was less than entirely true. To force-march these outsize personalities back to the scene of the family’s dissolution in Joliet Park, to listen to them bitch over the seating chart and over old friends whose post-divorce allegiances were
sometimes painfully ambiguous, was out of the question. It would have been a gruesome sort of nostalgia, and pointless at that. A wedding is rightfully about the future if it is about anything at all.

They could have married in New York—where Cynthia and Adam already shared an apartment—and in fact that was the arrangement Adam gently pushed for, on the grounds, typically male, of maximum simplicity. But the truth was that that wouldn’t have seemed unusual enough to Cynthia, too little distinct from a typical Saturday night out drinking and dancing with their friends, just with fancier clothes and a worse band. She wasn’t completely sure why the idea should appeal to her at all—the big schmaltzy wedding, the sort of wedding for which everyone would have to make travel plans—but she didn’t make a habit of questioning her wants. So Pittsburgh it was. Adam shrugged and said he only cared about making her happy; her father sent her a lovely note from wherever he was living now, implying that the whole idea had been his to begin with; and Warren expressed himself by opening up his checkbook, a consequence, to tell the truth, of which Cynthia had not been unmindful.

She tiptoes past the couch to avoid waking Deborah, because waking her might cause her to speak, and on one’s wedding day there are some trials one ought to be spared. They don’t know each other that well, but little things about Deborah excite Cynthia’s derision as though they have lived together for years. The flannel pajamas, for instance: she is two years older than Cynthia but so congenitally chilly that she and Ruth might as well be roommates at the old folks’ home. The house was bought with a second life in mind, a life in which the children were grown and gone, which explains why there is only one spare bedroom. Though the couch looks gratifyingly uncomfortable, Cynthia considered a campaign to pack Deborah off to the Athletic Club with all the other guests, so that her maid of honor and best friend, Marietta, could stay at the house instead. But family obligations are perverse. It makes no sense at all that this palpably hostile sexless geek should be one of her bridesmaids, and one of Cynthia’s many close friends’ feelings hurt as a result; yet here she is.

In the kitchen Ruth, Cynthia’s mother, whose last name is now Harris, is drinking a cup of tea standing up, in a green ankle-length bathrobe she holds closed at the neck. Cynthia passes her and opens the refrigerator without a word. “Warren’s out,” Ruth says, in answer to a question it would not occur to Cynthia to ask. “He went to get you some coffee. We only keep decaf in the house, so he went out specially for you.”

Cynthia scowls at the effrontery of decaf coffee, a fetish of the old and joyless. Tossing a loaf of bread on the counter, she stands on tiptoe to search the cupboard where she remembers the ancient jams are kept; then, feeling her mother’s gaze, she turns her head to look back over her shoulder and says, “What?”

It’s the underwear: the fact that she is parading around in it, but also the underwear itself, the unhomeliness of it, the fact that her daughter has grown into a woman whom it pleases to spend a lot of money on underwear. Shameless is the word for it. All Ruth wants is a little gravitas for today of all days, a proper sense of nervousness or even fear, which she might then think of some way to allay. One last moment of reliance. But no: it became clear weeks ago that all this was no rite of passage into womanhood for her daughter—it’s a party, a big party for her and all her friends, and she and Warren are just there to pick up the tab. For the last six or eight years, nearly every sight of her daughter has caused a certain look to cross Ruth’s face, a look of just-you-wait, though the question “wait for what?” is not one she could answer and thus she keeps her mouth shut. The flatness of Cynthia’s stomach, the strength and narrowness of her hips, more than anything the way she carries herself with such immodesty in a body whose nearness to the modern ideal is bound to provoke an unpredictable range of response: self-satisfied women are often brought low in this world, and for years now, mostly by frowning, Ruth has tried to sneak her insights onto the record.

But she reprimands herself; today, no matter who cares to deny it, is not just any day. She feels the faint echo of her own terror in the hours before her first wedding, a terror that was partly sexual, which counts as a bond between them even though her daughter’s
sexuality is a subject she has long since lost the fortitude to go near. “So,” she says, trying for a conciliatory tone. “This is your special day.” And Cynthia turns around, mouth open, and laughs—a laugh Ruth has heard before, the only solace for which is a retreat into memories of when her only child was a baby.

Behind them, the digital clock on the microwave blinks silently to seven-thirty. In the living room, Deborah, having woken herself with her own snoring, makes a little groaning sound that no one hears and pushes her face deeper into the gap between the cushions and the sofa back. At the Athletic Club, the weekend desk clerk consults the computer printout in her hand and dials the extension for Adam’s room. She’s seen the Daily Events schedule and recognizes his name as that of the groom; to the scripted wake-up greeting at the top of the printout she adds best wishes of her own, because she saw him last night and he’s cute.

“Thanks,” Adam says, and hangs up. He too goes straight to the window to check the weather. His window faces the alley, though; he’ll probably get a better sense of the day’s prospects from the TV. He turns it on with the sound down but then lies back on the bed, fingers laced behind his head, and forgets to watch.

He hates sleeping alone and maybe for that reason he spent the minutes before the phone rang in an extravagant dream, a dream about driving a car with no steering wheel in it, a car that responded to his slightest weight shifts, like a skateboard or a sled.

One hour until breakfast in the hotel restaurant with his parents and his younger brother and best man, Conrad. Having thought of this, he tries to forget it again so that he can be genuinely blameless if he shows up late. He’s a little hung over from the rehearsal dinner, though others, he reflects, will have cause to be a whole lot more hung over than he. Too early to call Cynthia, who’s probably still asleep. What would really calm him down is sex with her—as it is he starts most mornings that way; it scatters the vague anxieties with which he wakes—but today that’s not going to happen. With sudden inspiration he arches his back and pounds on the wall above his headboard, the wall his room shares with the room where Conrad is staying.

Conrad doesn’t hear; up for an hour already, he is standing in the shower practicing his toast. It was the only duty that gave him any pause at all when he accepted the best-man role. He blushes and shakes whenever he has to speak in public; and how relatively easy it would be to pull this off in front of a ballroom full of strangers, as opposed to friends and family with their license for pitiless long-term teasing, people before whom there is no question of pretending even for a few minutes that he is anyone other than who he is.

“They are a charmed couple,” he says, because this is a phrase over which he’s stumbled in earlier rehearsals; and it’s too late now for a rewrite. “They are a charmed chouple. Fuck.” And he starts from the beginning.

Waking in the other rooms on the second and third floor of the Athletic Club are friends of the bride and groom—couple friends, friends who have brought especially serious or promising dates—almost all of whom find themselves acting, at that hour, on a sexual impulse that’s unsettlingly strong even for the bloom of youth. Some are laughing, and some stare into their partners’ eyes with an urgency the memory of which will have them avoiding each other’s gaze an hour later. They are not used to the licentiousness of hotel rooms; and the knowledge that on this particular weekend they have not just infiltrated this stuffy club but taken it over gives a subterraneous group sense to each intimate encounter, a sense of orgy that makes them want to offend strangers, to exert themselves until the walls of that place come down.

Indeed there is one couple that knocks the headboard against the wall behind Adam’s parents’ bed so loudly that his mother just prays she doesn’t know them. She even tells her husband to call the front desk and complain, but he’s in the bathroom and hears, as a rule, what he chooses to hear.

At eight-thirty Marietta’s car rolls into the Harrises’ driveway. Inside the kitchen she and the still undressed Cynthia kiss like sisters; “Jesus, it’s fucking hot out there,” Marietta says. “Oh hi, Mrs. Sikes. I mean Mrs. Harris!” It’s more than Ruth can bear; she smiles premonitorily and withdraws from the kitchen.

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