By now Lena was supposed to be the version of herself at whom people looked twice, and whom Alec missed, at home, now that they lived together. But she was still just herself, in stockings and hoodie, her face half-done.
“We’ll go in two minutes?” he asked.
Lena lay on the bed and watched him rummage in the closet for a clean shirt.
“That doesn’t look like two minutes,” he said.
“How come you didn’t introduce me this afternoon?”
“To the blond girl you were talking to, when I got there.”
He had mentioned the name before. Danielle was a year ahead of him in law school and chock full of inside information. They’d met a few times, over coffee, to scheme about classes, clerkships, and summer jobs. He was to keep to himself how frankly she had spoken, she’d instructed. He’d told Lena, though—not the details of which judges hired when, but that Danielle’s advice had been extremely valuable.
“I don’t know.” He pulled a shirt from a hanger and applied himself to its buttons. “I guess I didn’t want her knowing I have a girlfriend. She’s the only person like that.”
As it happened, Alec had proposed a few weeks earlier, but that hardly seemed the point.
“I’ll tell her about you later. She’s just really gone out of her way for me—who knows why. In case it’s anything personal, I don’t want to bring up a girlfriend. Just for a couple of weeks. Is that so terrible?”
It didn’t seem so terrible to him.
A line of cars led along the road to the professor’s front drive. Inside the house, foldout tables boasted cheese platters and craggy seasonal centerpieces. Law students dolled up in their interview clothes puffed and glutted themselves with the promise of notice and success. I am going to hurl, I am going to die, I am going to sublimate into a cloud of dread, Lena told the part of herself she kept partitioned off for dialogue.
“Coat rack’s upstairs,” the professor’s husband said.
Alec handed his coat to Lena.
“You have someplace to be?” she asked.
Lena took her time upstairs. Hallways held bedrooms and studies, not empty, from which issued the clatter of nails on keys. From somewhere a dog whined in resignation.
She stepped off the stairs as a large group arrived. There was much crowing and hugging and tangling of limbs and scarves. For a moment everyone squeezed too close for politeness. A girl’s bushy brown hair hard with gel pressed against Lena’s cheek; a man’s chest cradled her shoulder, as though she had leaned into him for consolation, thinking he was someone else, and he had given it, anyway.
Lena stationed herself beside the dumplings stacked high on a cake stand.
“Don’t think I’ve seen you around,” a suit said. “Are you a first year?”
“No,” Lena said.
He waited, then, “I am. I’m in the Seagull small group—everyone says we’re the gunners.” He rolled his eyes and chuckled. “Are you a 2L?”
“Clown college, second year. Once a semester, we take a research trip to the law school.”
The guy frowned. Lena reapplied herself to the dumplings. “Is there a clown college around here?” she heard him ask someone else.
The party’s tides carried her through a fantastical number of living rooms, each barely distinguishable from the last. Lena had the feeling of having read the same sentence over and over. She found herself watching a cluster by a piano but could not recall what had caught her attention. The image quivered, and from the chaos rose Alec’s face, speaking with an amply-figured woman in a less ample red dress and a bearded blond with whom Alec sometimes worked out.
“You’re funny,” the woman said to Lena.
“’Scuse me?” Lena asked.
“At Patterson’s house—we met there; I’m Dinah—you told a great story. I don’t usually like other people’s stories. Don’t remember what it was. Your girlfriend’s funny,” Dinah told Alec.
Dinah then began a story about giving a blowjob in a movie theater.
“Think I need another,” Alec said, raising his empty glass. “Want anything?”
“I’ll go with you,” said the blond man.
Dinah watched them go.
“You’re not going to finish the story?” Lena asked.
“My audience left.”
“You need a dick in the audience?”
“It helps. You got me there.”
“Much more fun sparkling for men,” Lena agreed.
“You jest, but it’s true.”
“Oh, sure,” Lena said. “What’s to gain from a woman?”
“That’s it.” Dinah leaned closer. “I have enough girlfriends.”
“With that attitude rampant, no wonder the fruits of girl-flirting are so much less sweet.”
“I knew I liked you. Now what?”
“We get out of here,” some errant part of Lena slipped in.
Brief panic swept Dinah’s well-made-up features. “Where would we go?”
“Anywhere you like.”
Dinah pursed her lips, looked around. “3Ls are going to a party on Howe Street.”
Dinah pulled her phone from her bosom, called an Uber. “Two minutes.”
As Lena got her coat upstairs, she imagined Dinah falling into new conversations, their fledgling plan losing reality with each second it lacked the oxygen of collusion. It is a terrible thing to test whether a moment has legs. Well, she would go with it, if Dinah threw her over. She prepared herself for a performance of woundedness.
She didn’t need to. There Dinah stood, coat in hand, Uber waiting. Soon they were outside, and the cold air bit sharp kisses against Lena’s skin.
“It’s embarrassing that I’m here,” Dinah said.
“I get that a lot.”
Dinah looked over from her side of the backseat. “No, you don’t.”
“No,” Lena agreed.
“Two years out of law school, I should not be getting drunk at professors’ parties.”
Dinah had won law school, if you wanted to do corporate. She had clerked for a big-name judge and now worked for a big-name law firm. She was a connection-catch.
“Pearls before swine.”
“Which ones are we?”
“Girls before wine.”
They were soon before a pair of vodka tonics in the third-floor living room on Howe. 3Ls whom Alec had pointed out to Lena at previous parties, with quick descriptors of their claims to intra and extra law school fame, sauntered easily around their domain of camaraderie and networking. An executive editor of the law journal swayed in shared laughter with the head of the federalist society. The head of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic toasted a girl who had just been hired to clerk on the Supreme Court.
“Hey kitten,” Alec texted. “Gonna swing by a thing. Lemme know if you want the address.”
“Alec?” Dinah asked. “Does he know I stole his girl?”
“Impossible to say.” Lena put her phone away. “What is an Alec. Like most people, he contains multitudes. Add in the discontinuity of personal identity over time, and it’s a real mess keeping track.”
“A voice of my subconscious,” said a voice.
“I get that a lot,” said Dinah.
“I wish someone would keep track of my multitudinous selves incarnadine.” The voice turned up in a tall, slim figure Lena thought was either the head of the American Constitution Society or a veteran navy SEAL, she could not remember which, if either; he might also be the law student responsible for so many emails about the new home needed for his late grandmother’s longhaired cat.
“Nah, you don’t,” Lena said.
“It’s a real drag having someone always keeping tabs, always pestering you with notifications of the discrepancies that are bound to arise between you and yourself now and then. It’s the Panopticon, it’s Beatrice. No ones likes it.” Alec didn’t, anyway.
“I’d like it.”
“I’m Dinah,” Dinah said.
There was a swapping of hands.
As it happened, Neal had little to do with either the American Constitution Society or the American military. He wasn’t trying to work at Wachtell or clerk for Breyer. He wanted to make movies.
“Good thing you’re in law school,” Lena agreed.
Neal smiled. His eyes lay wide apart on his head. Lena had the impression that the features purporting to be a face were in fact an elaborate camouflage, and the creature who was Neal observed her from someplace else.
“Not as good as clown college,” he said. “If only I’d had you around to influence my decisions.”
“We’re happy to start now,” Dinah said.
“Sure,” Dinah said. “What can we do you for?”
“What do you do?”
“My companion, here—” as Dinah put an arm around Lena, her hand brushed the bare skin between Lena’s shoulder blades. “Backless,” Dinah said appreciatively to Lena. “Bold.”
“I don’t do anything,” Lena said. “Which it turns out is very expensive, so I tutor. You’re much better off with my pal Dinah. She knows Excel.”
“How did you know?” Dinah asked Lena.
“Excel, huh?” Neal asked. “I’ll bet you know all the hot keys.”
“Like nobody’s business.”
“You’ll have to show me sometime.”
“You,” Dinah whispered to Lena, “are a keeper.”
An arm reached around Lena’s waist; a mouth brushed her cheek; always her autonomy was under assault, it was endless; Alec.
“Look at you,” he said. “Here already. Making friends.” His smile was the most genuine she had elicited in weeks. He squeezed her shoulder.
No, she thought about saying: no.
Beside Alec again stood the bearded blond man with whom Dinah had been so reluctant to part. He had taken off his tie and looked much happier out of the professor’s living rooms.
“You again,” he said to Dinah. “Hey.”
“Don’t think we’ve met,” Alec said to Neal. “Alec.” He held out his hand. “I see you’ve met my fiancée.”
Rats, Lena thought, and more rats, for this was not what she wanted at all.