They had finished reading War and Peace, and now they were celebrating their triumph at a Russian supper club in Brighton Beach. There were twelve of them seated at the long table (“Just like that painting of what’s-his-name’s dinner, minus what’s-his-name,” Kyla said brightly), and, well, Derek assumed that at least half had probably finished War and Peace. Or, fine: he imagined it was safe to say that, on the whole, the table had at least started reading War and Peace.

Derek had made it to within a hundred pages of the end, though he had admittedly skimmed a little down the stretch. He knew that Pierre and Natasha got together, which had begun to seem structurally inevitable at some point—in approximately ten thousand pages there were only about five characters—though it was somewhat psychologically improbable. He also wasn’t totally clear on what a samovar was.

He’d been proved wrong in his interpretations of the text at many junctures over the eight months they’d spent reading and discussing the book, his theories and analyses shot down by better, or at least more confidently, educated members of the group. Some of them had gone to Yale and others to Harvard, and he’d developed a handy cheat to remember which had gone where. The Harvard kids acted mildly embarrassed when he said something dumb, sometimes even waiting until after the session to correct him on his political or geographic ignorance. The ones from Yale made sure to keep the humiliation public and, if possible, prolonged.

In one of their first meetings, Derek had suggested that Tolstoy showed a grudging respect for Napoleon, or was at least willing to acknowledge his world-historic importance, even though he was the enemy.

“That’s completely the opposite of true,” a tall man named Jonathan said. “Tolstoy despised Napoleon and thought the whole idea of historical significance was nonsense. Do you have any examples?”

Derek had glanced around the room for support, but even Thomas, his roommate, whom he had invited specifically to back him up in moments like this, only stared down at the massive open book in his lap.

“Just . . . in the prose itself, I guess,” Derek said. “The prose about Napoleon just feels like it has an air of respect to it.”

“Well, does his prose ever seem disrespectful to you?” Jonathan said, peering down his nose through invisible reading glasses.

“To be fair, it is translated,” Violet said. “I don’t imagine any of us can really comment on the prose style very accurately.”

They all, consciously or not, transferred their gazes toward Pyotr, who had moved to the States when he was seven and was ostentatiously reading the book in his Russian parents’ Soviet-era multivolume edition.

“Sorry, friends, my literary analysis isn’t strong enough in either language to gauge, ah, respectfulness,” he said amiably. “Plus, I didn’t even know Napoleon was in this section. I was too busy the last couple of weeks to keep up.”

Pyotr was in law school at Columbia, a sudden turn he’d taken after two years of working on a comp lit Ph.D. in which he’d planned to focus on Italo Svevo and Joseph Roth. Derek had assumed that Pyotr must be extremely intelligent, given these pursuits, but at that point he had not yet contributed anything to the reading group other than encouraging nods and smiles. Now, after what felt like nearly a lifetime, Pyotr sat kitty-corner from Derek at the supper club, bantering with their bald, sinister waiter in, presumably, Russian. Pyotr had attended maybe half of the group’s sessions, and Derek guessed that he might have read the least amount of War and Peace of anyone, with the likely exception of Leslie, who argued fiercely and cheerfully about the book month after month despite clearly having only the most glancing familiarity with its contents. She had apparently read enough to draw a faint mustache on her upper lip upon arrival at the restaurant, in honor, she said, of the little princess.

Derek mostly admired her impudence, though sometimes he wished she would admit analytic defeat a little bit sooner in the group’s exchanges so that they could all move on to something more, well, reality-based. Vivek, clearly at least half in love with Leslie (most clearly when his partner, Nell, was not in attendance), indulged her scattershot theories—maybe Prince Andrei was gay—with what seemed to be the moral authority bestowed on him by the group. He’d had a local organizational role of some import, apparently, in the Obama campaign and, though now only in his second year of medical school, had contributed not insignificantly, in his telling at least, to “strategy and messaging” around the Affordable Care Act. Which, given what a clusterfuck that had become, shouldn’t necessarily have accrued such favor to him, Derek thought. Like a jerk.

The reading group (not book club) had begun meeting in January, two months after the midterm elections that had, as they could not yet know, swept the Democrats out of congressional power for the next almost-decade, and Vivek was treated with the mild deference due to someone who had recently suffered the death of a somewhat important relative, a great-uncle, maybe, or adult cousin. There were no Republicans among them, of course, but there was some range in the degree to which politics was central to their lives, from the socialists associate-editing a newish journal of “literature and ideas” to Thomas, who presumably voted for Democrats, if he voted, but also went to church, exercised regularly, and worked for an international bank. Derek had felt in himself a recent, emerging desire for political commitment (like Larkin in the abandoned church, but for economic justice?), though he hadn’t acted on it. He didn’t enjoy going to protests, and he didn’t want to be in one of the Marxist reading groups whose membership overlapped significantly with this one. Maybe he would ask Vivek if there was anything he could do for 2012, though he feared that would prove less than life-changing. Hope had pulled off the big win once; what could the next election be other than a crowd-pleasing but redundant sequel?

Violet, who had invited him into the group in the first place, was directly across the table from him. She had been, until quite recently, a fellow assistant at the august, maybe dying small magazine where he still worked. Now she had a job as a web editor at a more prestigious, definitely not dying publication, and Derek saw her mostly at parties or at book club (reading group), though she did text him sometimes, often five or six messages in a row, to complain about some obstinate writer who wouldn’t take edits or, more pointedly, at least in Derek’s mind, about the ridiculousness of the date she’d been on the night before. Sometimes—good days, as he thought of them, with some embarrassment—this would lead to hours of nearly unbroken texting between them, during which Derek’s work, to put it lightly, suffered. He’d carry out his tasks in a haze of composition, mentally rearranging the punctuation in his responses until they had achieved a perfect balance of intelligence and spontaneity. He could hardly remember what they’d been discussing even minutes after the flurries ended—the editor who’d gotten fired over an ill-judged headline, the Arab Spring, the inadequacy of birth-control options—but the exchanges left him humming with pleasure and immediately starving for more. Most times, the conversation would go cold after one or two volleys, with Derek feeling phantom buzzes against his hip, checking his phone every few minutes for the rest of the day hoping she might have decided, after a few hours of serious contemplation, to reply to “Ha, crazy! What do you think he meant???”

Derek wasn’t delusional enough to think it likely that Violet had any interest in him beyond their already loosely bound friendship, but he was happy to be the recipient of her excess feelings, thoughts, whatever. She was two years older than him and had only predated him at their publication by a matter of months. But somehow this small gulf placed her on a radically distinct plane of experience in his eyes, as alien to his as when he’d been an eighth grader watching through the chain-link fence bordering the sports fields as the high school soccer team smoked cigarettes and impugned one another’s manhood. He knew that this didn’t have to be the case—he felt on equal footing with, if severely annoyed by the condescension of, most of the members of the reading group—but he still couldn’t help but think of Violet as morally and intellectually superior. And he felt the latter to be true despite what seemed her studied (or unstudied?) indifference to the standard intellectual markers and pretensions of the time. She claimed to be unironically engrossed by the celebrity internet, and she paid to see romantic comedies and horror sequels that could be only sociologically interesting, if at all. She chewed gum at all hours, sometimes while smoking cigarettes. And yet she was friends with people. The pop music critic for the Times. The Booker-winning young Scottish novelist who taught at NYU. She acted as though she’d gotten her fancy job by accident, as though one could just sort of pick up the phone and find oneself editing . . . whoever the next day. And maybe, he thought, if one was smart and cool enough (and, all right, had gone to Yale), one could.

“Okay, least valuable player,” Violet was saying across the table to the three or four people who were listening.

“Everyone was so valuable,” Kyla said, to Derek’s left. She was very thin and very drunk and Derek wondered if it was too early to suggest she skip the next round of the already innumerable vodka shots they’d downed from the handles on ice in the center of the table. “You can’t attach value to people,” she continued when no one responded. “Tolstoy? Gandhi? Hello?”

“I was going to nominate Ben, because he only came once and spilled wine all over his book,” Violet said. “But maybe that’s ‘not nice’ and we should ‘respect all members of the group no matter how tertiary and useless.’ ”

“Can I at least be the least valuable regular attendee, then?” Leslie said. “Do I get a prize? I didn’t learn nothing, I swear!”

“Only a man can be least valuable,” Violet said. “We see right through that mustache, missy. In addition, I hereforth nominate Derek for rookie of the year.”

“Aren’t we all rookies?” Kyla said. “Isn’t this the first and, god willing, only year of this?”

“No, and no,” Violet said. “Derek is just a boy and he’s from some terrible state that starts with an i, and yet he is a leading editorial assistant and he attended every meeting.”

Derek was actually from South Jersey but it was close enough in spirit, and he was ninety percent sure Violet actually knew where he was from. Eighty percent. Also, he was a pretty bad assistant.

Vivek tousled Derek’s hair, emitting a strangulated howl that one had to assume was intended as celebratory. “As a commander in the Muslim Brotherhood of Hussein Obama, I hereby second this nomination for world’s cutest rookie of the year dot com,” he said. “Your T-shirt is hereby in the mail.”

Derek leaned over to see what his sworn rival Jonathan thought of all this silliness, but he was deep in conversation with Thomas at the end of the table. Jonathan was working on a piece, he’d been telling them all relentlessly, about how economics was fake, and Thomas, in his blessed, mildly autistic way, had been contradicting him at every opportunity. Now Thomas appeared to be drawing a chart of some kind on the, well, directly on the tablecloth. The place served vodka like tap water—surely it had seen worse.

“Fifty K for a verse, no album out,” Derek toasted, raising his half-full vodka glass.

Those who had been following the conversation took down their shots, or pretended to.

Prominent in Derek’s mind was the fact that Violet had recently gotten back together with her ex-boyfriend, or was at the very least sleeping with him again. The ex, semi-ex, whatever, was in his midthirties, a published novelist and assistant professor at Brooklyn College named Morgan Calder. (The name sounded made up. Did writers still change their names?) Presently Violet was focused on her lap, a smirk fixed on her face. Derek assumed she was texting. The guy sounded, despite the likelihood of arrogance and unkindness suggested by his credentials, normal and decent; if anyone was mistreating anyone it was probably Violet, who seemed to fluctuate weekly between devotion and utter indifference. Not that Derek had an excess of sympathy for the guy.

He’d been on a few dates lately himself. After spending most of college with Allie (who had gone to Berlin to “check things out” and decided there that Derek, and New York as a whole, no hard feelings, had not been bringing out her best self for quite some time), he’d found himself in a series of months-long relationships, each of which had ended when one or the other party had mercifully taken the karmic blow and acknowledged that, though things between them were rarely less than pleasant, there did not appear to be a pressing need for continued brunches, cocktails, oral sex, et cetera. Presently he was spending occasional time with Samantha, the current roommate of a college friend. She was calm, zaftig, often dressed like a cowboy. She worked for the Department of Transportation in some capacity, and people thought it was funny to pretend to be mad at her when they arrived late for something because of the subway. She had the decency to pretend she thought this was amusing. The second night he slept over at her place she asked if he wanted to tie her up—he did!—though he was more enthusiastic than effective. She made fun of him for not knowing about knots and safe words. He agreed that it would be useful to have complicated sex skills, but he got the sense that both of them were thinking these would be used elsewhere.

It was something of an advantage, he’d realized when he moved to New York, to be thought of as a hick on occasion. It gave him time to figure things out, which he suspected everyone, even those born on the Upper East Side or wherever, would appreciate having if they allowed it to themselves. He was from a township that was adjacent to Cape May and other self-consciously quaint shore towns, but dull and inland enough to be cheap and ugly. He’d worked beach jobs in the summer, spent weekend nights in Wildwood. His description of the Cowtown Rodeo, which his family had attended every year of his existence, was probably what had stuck the idea of the Midwest, ironic or otherwise, in Violet’s head.

“What, do they do the rodeo in, like, a parking lot?” she’d said as they made their ritualistic trudge to the Hudson River on one of their work breaks, before she’d gotten too big for book reviews.

“South Jersey can get pretty country, man,” he said. “These guys were legit cowboys. I never even heard that ridiculous ‘Jersey accent’ until I got to NYU.”

“Don’t worry, I believe your life was ridiculous,” Violet said.

She had been born in New York (the Upper West Side), lived in England as a child, returned to the city as a teenager, then off to New Haven. He forgave her for all of this, obviously, because she paid attention to him.

When he’d gone home to see his family for the Fourth of July weekend, he brought his copy of War and Peace, reading it on the bus between bursts of motion sickness.

“Is that actually as good as it’s supposed to be?” his mother said when he got to the house. “I always wondered if it was really, you know, the best book.”

His mother taught middle school English, and when she wasn’t reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the thousandth time she gravitated toward novels with ominous lines from nursery rhymes in their titles. (She appeared to be halfway through And Jill Came Tumbling After.)

“Believe the hype, Ma,” Derek said.

“No one invited me to the book club,” she said. “I think you could use a little age diversity in there. Does anybody ever admit it when they don’t understand something? Or is everybody too cool and serious for that?”

“It’s pretty easy to read on, like, a sentence level,” he said. “There’s a lot of pseudo-philosophy, though, and most people admit that they can’t really follow it. Or, I mean, I think people actually do understand, or would if they tried, but it’s kind of the convention to throw up your hands at the essay parts. I kind of think those are the best parts, honestly.”

“Well, maybe I’ll get the audiobook for my walks.”

“That’d be a lot of walks, Ma.”

The whole family went to Wildwood for the fireworks, his parents and sister and grandmother all piled into the aging SUV, parking a mile from the boardwalk to avoid paying exorbitant lot fees. They walked past the ancient pastel-colored motels, the narrow apartment buildings where old, shirtless men in plastic chairs smoked cigars and eyed the passing humans with naked skepticism. The crowds grew thicker as they approached the boardwalk, and they folded themselves in among the intricately tattooed Hispanic men with little girls on their shoulders, the sobbing white children dragged toward the ocean by sunburned mothers. The sounds of chaos were imminent: electronic clanging from thousands of desperate games, muffled exhortations with Eastern European accents through cheap microphones, the brief crash of the wooden coaster and its seconds of audible screams. It was a nightmare of the past, annually renewed with T-shirts bearing the previous year’s catchphrases. He went regardless of whether it was, what, compatible with how he now imagined himself. He wished sometimes that his family were far away or unkind enough that he could justify not returning to this primordial slop, which, no matter how hard he tried for it not to, left him dizzy with despair every time he was reimmersed in it.

And yet it felt necessary somehow, not because he believed in the importance of family or tradition or any of that other insidious conservative bullshit, but more in the name of research, maybe, the ongoing investigation into his feelings that he was conducting with what felt like increasing rigor and depth. He didn’t think he was getting smarter, necessarily, despite all the Tolstoy and his recent, timid line-editing of elderly Nobel laureates. It felt instead like the more he learned, the less he was able to assimilate into a coherent body of knowledge. He was frustrated by the gap between what he knew he was capable of and what he could actively process. But, he thought, he would get older, and learn more, and assimilate more, and at some point he’d have something resembling wisdom, he hoped. And then he and the surviving members of the War and Peace reading group would sometimes recall over the years how insistently clever and intense they’d been when they were twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, working for people more important than they were and, some more consciously than others, building these little, yuck, networks for future success by hosting one another in their apartments around the city for the better part of a year under the pretext of discussing Russian literature.

Derek’s turn to host, in mid-September, had been a source of near-constant anxiety after they’d signed up for slots at the first meeting. The overriding concern was, of course, that no one would come, followed very closely by the fear that everyone would come and he wouldn’t have enough chairs, snacks, et cetera, and that they would all be too warm and crowded in his narrow apartment. His third biggest concern was that an average number of people would come and, having neither the chaos of an overcrowded room nor the immense pity attendant upon a nearly empty one to distract their attention, they would focus on the starkly suboptimal state of his decorating, housekeeping, and general life-maintenance abilities. He lived in a third-floor walk-up in Bed-Stuy that he shared with Thomas, who kept his room fastidiously clean but refused “moral responsibility” for the common room because of what he felt was an unfair rent split (even though his room was three times bigger than Derek’s), and Arian, a nervous, rarely seen young Persian man who claimed to be a software developer. Two weeks before the meeting, Thomas announced that he was going to be out of town for a conference, which he had surely known about for far longer than he was admitting. Derek had suspected he might pull something like this and tried to chalk it up to Thomas’s legitimately crippling—if somewhat, it had to be said, conveniently deployed—social anxiety. Derek just had regular anxiety, which in this case happened to be triggered by social expectations.

“Oh no, did I restore your faith in humanity?” she said, peering into the empty apartment. “I swear I just came to be polite, not because I like or respect you.”

“More beer for us, am I right?” Derek said. He assumed she would understand that his reliance on a tedious cliché was intentional.

“Oh, I’ll drink your beer,” Leslie said. “Just don’t expect me to know anything about Spy vs. Spy over here. Maybe I need a different translation. One with pictures, and sound. A movie, you might call it.”

“We could try to find the Audrey Hepburn one online if nobody else shows up,” Derek said.

“Ooo, I’m gonna tell Violet you suggested we watch a movie together,” Leslie said. “She is gonna freak.”

“Or we could just skip right to seven minutes in heaven.”

“More like twenty seconds, I bet,” she said, her head deep in the refrigerator. “Is this pizza slice, like, up for grabs?”

A perfectly unremarkable number of people eventually showed up, Vivek and Kyla and Jonathan and, hallelujah, Violet, who glanced around at the bare walls and deeply gouged wood floors and declared the place “not as bad as I’d assumed it would be.” Jonathan went on and on about Irving Berlin and hedgehogs, while Derek tried to look at Violet without being obvious about it. At one point, while Leslie and Vivek argued about Watch the Throne, he accidentally caught Violet’s eye, and she performed an extremely slow-motion and detailed pantomime of vomiting down the front of her shirt. He wished Leslie would try to incite jealousy in her. It certainly couldn’t be any worse than this semipublic but unacknowledged pining.

Now, at the long table in the supper club, no one seemed to be eating enough pickled herring or creamed anything to keep up with their vodka intake. (“Where is the horseflesh?” Kyla yelled.) Violet had tripped coming back from the bathroom, and might have sprawled headfirst into the table but for the intervention of the maybe-not-so-sinister-after-all waiter, who caught her delicately by the waist and guided her into her seat without making a show of it. These things happened, after all, when aristocrats gathered. Violet acted as though she’d expected the waiter to be there, flashing him a polite smile before resuming her conversation with Pyotr. Derek had too much faith in her to be worried. If she was drunk, she intended to be drunk, and would enjoy herself accordingly. But, also, he’d keep an eye out just in case it seemed like she was about to fall over again.

He’d moved down to the corner of the table to talk to Patrick, who was the lead singer of a rock band that had just received a devastating negative review on a popular website. Derek was existentially unnerved by the unfairness of it. Patrick was sweet and funny, and everyone who heard his music loved it, and yet now some asshole had endangered his possible career because his album didn’t meet some nonsensical standard of originality, as defined by a critic whose sense of history didn’t extend any further back than David Bowie’s third album. As if originality even existed. Derek realized this was a rich position to take, as someone who edited (assisted in the editing of) reviews of various degrees of negativity, and he had already written a couple of less-than-positive ones himself, though they were for obscure-enough venues that he was confident he hadn’t derailed anyone’s ambitions. It was wrong, he knew, that the reason he was opposed to this particular bad review was that it was Patrick, a person who was already so sufficiently self-effacing that he didn’t need a website to tell him he should dislike his own work. The solution, Patrick was telling him now, was not to take things personally. One needed, he had discovered, to let one’s work be as the seagull over the ocean, drifting on currents and squawking horribly, unencumbered by the dull perspectives of the beach­goers on the distant shore.

“Huh,” Derek said.

“Yeah, I guess I’ve been thinking about it too much,” Patrick said.

“The real question,” Kyla was saying loudly, trying to get the table’s attention, “is what are we going to read next?”

“Oh, let’s read Violet’s novelist-slash-sex-friend!” Leslie said. “And then we can have him come and tell him about it to his face!”

“Yes,” Jonathan said. “Yes. Yes. A hundred times yes.”

“Have you read his books, Violet?” Kyla said.

“Ummm,” Violet said. She took a long, stagy sip of water. “Officially? Yes.”

“But among dear friends with extremely good taste and a commitment to hard truths?” said Leslie.

If I were to find myself communicating with such an audience, I might feel obliged to admit that I have not yet completed the works under discussion.”

“Yet?” Jonathan said. “So you’re still, uh, anticipating completion?”

“Well, if the fucker doesn’t start learning how to text back within an appropriate time span, then I think I’m going to consider myself off the hook, like, in general. He’s thirty-five, not one hundred, it shouldn’t be that hard. And also, no, we are not reading his books, that is not appropriate.”

“It sounds to me like you just set the stage for Secret Book Club,” Vivek said. “Anyone who doesn’t not want to be in Secret Book Club, say nothing.”

They pondered this construction, chose to remain silent. Derek felt a surge of hope. She hadn’t even finished his books? Not even one of them? Surely they were not destined for a long and happy life together. He could wait. In the meantime he would read and write more, lose some weight, buy better clothes, get a nicer apartment . . .

Suddenly the restaurant dimmed, and green laser lights glowed through fog at the front of the room. A man in a tuxedo emerged from the alien smoke, flanked by women wearing green leotards and feathered headdresses. “Copacabana” began playing at a nerve-shattering volume, and the tuxedoed man sang heartily in Russian-accented English. The floor show had begun.

 

Nearly three hours and dozens of songs, magic tricks, and unconsummated stripteases later, Derek, Violet, and Kyla were sharing a car back toward their respective neighborhoods. Derek was in a borderland of drunkenness, his memory of the night already growing disordered, but not drunk enough to be fully without care. He was, in other words, less drunk than Kyla and Violet, which meant that he felt somewhat responsible for their well-being. Kyla was, for the most part, passed out, lifting her head from Violet’s shoulder to mumble what seemed to be nonsensical driving directions. Violet was more active in her inebriation; she had, for the past ten minutes, been telling a story about an art opening she’d gone to at which she’d accidentally insulted Kim Gordon by complaining about a dress that she hadn’t realized Kim Gordon had designed. Or something. It was hard to follow.

“Do you know where Kyla lives?” he interrupted, twisting around from the front seat at what felt like a reasonable stopping point in the story.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s . . . well, actually, no. No, no, I do not. Whose address did we give him?”

“I think yours,” Derek said. “Doesn’t she live near you?”

“Hmmm.” She nudged Kyla, then, receiving no response, elbowed her in the side. “Hey, Ky, where do you even live?”

“Twelve-twenty-six North Lowry Boulevard, Springfield, Massachusetts 01129,” she said in a low monotone.

“I’ll take her to my place,” Violet said. “Hangovers are better together. And if either of us dies, everyone can just blame it on the other one.”

“That’s terrible,” Derek said. “Do you feel all right?”

“I feel the weight of the world. Right exactly on the tippy-top of my head.”

“Huh. Have you heard from, uh, Morgan?”

“Honestly, no,” she said. She sighed heavily. “He’s . . . whatever. Life is long and full of terror. I don’t have time for this kind of thing right now.”

“I’m gonna read his book,” Derek said. “Which one’s shorter?”

“There’s so many people to mee-eet,” she sang, badly, to the melody of an Elvis Costello song that wasn’t playing. “They only slide you up with nothing when you think you’re havin’ fu-un.”

“I guess the only thing we could really read next is Proust. Then we could be in book group for the rest of our lives, basically.”

“You just wanna keep hanging out with mee-eee,” she kept singing. “But you don’t want to admit it ’cause you’re a little bi-it awk-ward.”

“In Illinoidiana, we keep our feelings deep inside and never tell anyone about them,” he said. “It’s how we protect ourselves from Yankee cruelty.”

She gently moved Kyla’s head from her shoulder to the window, and then leaned forward to the cab’s open partition.

“You’re really quite a goofball,” she said.

“Well, sure,” he said.

“I mean, really. Quite. Here’s good!” The car pulled to a stop. “Help me get Kyla upstairs?”

But Kyla managed to remove herself from the car under her own power, and Derek simply followed the two of them uselessly, like a third friend pretending to help move a couch. He’d been to Violet’s once before, when she’d hosted the group, and tonight it was as he’d re-created it in his head—a long, bike-choked hallway giving way to a large, black-and-white-tiled kitchen, then emptying out into a well-appointed sitting room, complete with Cy Twombly and Christopher Wool exhibition posters and a large television. The bedroom, presumably, was behind one of those doors off the hallway. He would not see it tonight. There would come a time when they would be equals, he reminded himself.

Kyla somnambulated to the couch, stretched across it like a cat, and fell immediately unconscious. Violet threw herself into the giant armchair and curled her legs under her dress.

“You’ve been a lovely audience, and I hope we passed the audition,” she said. “We really must find a way to see each other without having to pretend to read books.”

“I read almost all of it,” Derek said. He actually felt indignant about it now, and he could feel the poutiness creeping into his voice. “Am I the only one who even tried?”

She stood up from the chair and walked to where he was standing, at the threshold between the kitchen and living room. She put her hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes with the solemnity of someone trying not to laugh.

“My friend,” she said. “I think it’s time someone told you: you are not as special as you think you are.”

Was anyone, though? Could she be as special as he thought she was? He followed her gaze to their reflections in the dark television screen.

“Be that as it may!” he said. “I should get going.”

“You could stay,” she said. “I don’t think either of us is in a fit state for, you know, substantive engagement right now, and I’m, as you know all too well, slightly attached, but, I don’t know. It’s a big bed.”

Even after an oil tanker’s worth of vodka, even in the comforting dim light of the apartment he’d dreamed about more than once, he knew better. He would go home, text her in the morning. It was an investment, his decency. It would accrue interest. He didn’t understand anything about money.

“You’ve gotta get to sleep,” he said. “I bet Kyla wakes up early.”

“Ugh, she better not,” Violet said. She went to the kitchen and filled a glass of water from the tap. “I’m locking my door.”

She seemed to have already put her vague offer aside; it probably hadn’t had the significance he’d given it. He probably should have just stayed. That would have been a normal, friendly thing to do. Proof that he didn’t harbor some ulterior motive. What year was it that he was so concerned about propriety? If it had been the sixties, like it should have been, or even, hell, the nineties . . .

“Let’s do something soon,” he said. “Please?”

“For sure, for sure,” she said. “Oh, wait!”

She picked up a book off the coffee table. Morgan Calder. Some Other Way of Living.

“Tell me how it ends?” she said. “Please?”

He opened the book to the pensively half-smiling author photo on the jacket. The guy still had most of his hair, but at least he was old. In ten years, he’d be really old, and Derek would only be thirty-five.

“My expectations,” he said, “are out of control.”

“If you hate it . . .” she said. “Well, try not to hate it.”

He paged through the book under streetlights on the way home. First paragraph: way too long. How many clauses did one man need? Last sentence: something about a Carolyn “emerging carelessly” from a car. Indeed. There was no inscription. No underlining. No marginal notes. It was petty, he knew—definitely not worthy of the Midwestern rookie of the year—but it felt so fucking good to drop the book in the trash can in front of his building. He would buy her a new one if she asked for it back.