Sextet Christine Benvenuto One night, after dinner with Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia, it suddenly occurred to Leila: the two couples were characters in a fairy tale. A New York fairy tale, written for grownups. It wasn’t merely that they were well-off, well-connected New Yorkers with imported oatmeal-stocked pantries, closets of timelessly expensive clothes, and happy memories of New England beaches. Leila knew many well-off, wellconnected New Yorkers. She and Rafael knew so many such people, they might have been mistaken for well-off and well-connected themselves. It wasn’t that Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia’s lives rolled seamlessly, effortlessly forward while for Leila and Rafael each new step was an endeavor. It wasn’t even that though they had the four easiest adult lives Leila had glimpsed up close, Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia were not forced to live without heroic drama. They created their own, fretting endlessly—indeed, they luxuriated in fretting—that the next golden pear might fail to drop into their soft, manicured hands (it never failed). Beyond the limitless supply of wealth, health, and good fortune, the delicious and unwarranted worries, what amused and mildly irritated Leila in the grown-up fairy tales (sometimes called romantic comedies) that she had read was what baffled her most about Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia: the coincidences that kept the two couples in lockstep and together. “Was it just chance that you all ended up in this building?” Leila dared to broach the subject over dinner the autumn that she and Rafael began seeing them. “That you all moved to New York? That you went to graduate school together?” Carter and Britta and Lars never asked such questions of other people; Mia did, but rarely. More to the point, none of them ever spoke of the impulses behind their own choices. They inhabited what Leila thought of as a pre-psychological world, in which Sigmund Freud had yet to be born and motivations required no close examination. The noisy dining room went silent. After a moment, Lars, sitting beside Leila, answered for all of them. “Well, it wasn’t as if Carter said, ‘Oh, Lars is going to Stanford, I’ll go too.’ ” He paused, scowling at the organic tomato wedge on the end of his fork. “Nor were these exactly coincidences.” End of topic. A wave of innocuous conversation rose from the opposite end of the table and rolled across the pain au levain crumbs and the freshly ground pepper dust, taking Leila’s audacity with it. Carter and Lars met first, as boys at a sailing camp in Maine to which Lars traveled each July from Boston, Carter from Washington. They made no special effort to keep in touch between summers but teamed up as a matter of course freshman year at Yale. There they met Mia, who fell passionately in love with the taciturn, unselfconsciously handsome, cello-playing Lars and was willing to work cheerfully (though perhaps unnecessarily) hard to win over the ever-so-slightly elusive Carter. After graduation, Mia accepted the invitation of a job in a publishing house run by her mother’s best friend’s husband in London and pined there for Lars. Lars studied at Julliard. Carter, who spoke German, interned at an international political journal based in the newly unified Berlin. Mia saw Lars during brief holiday respites at her family’s prewar brownstone in New York, or when his itinerary of music festival performances brought him near enough to London for sweet, torrid, and agonized assignations. Carter saw Lars even less frequently than Mia did, though he and Lars now kept in touch via a continuous stream of postcards and occasional late-night, long-distance telephone conversations. Fellow expatriates and each other’s living link to Lars, Mia and Carter saw each other a bit more often. Did they fortify a fledgling friendship of their own during this period? It was never clear in their accounts of themselves. What was certain was that in something like three years time (they were all vague about dates) Carter, Lars, and Mia had tidied up the official business that tied them to their respective cities, dissolved whatever subterranean liaisons may have made their lonely nights tolerable, and relocated to flat, sunny, bland Palo Alto, where they entered graduate programs at Stanford. Tortured by intimations of ultimate failure despite awards and more requests to perform and record than he could juggle, Lars finally allowed his father to make that long-delayed call to the chair of the music history department (a distant cousin) and with this single gesture threw over string-quartet stardom to pursue a more secure academic career. Mia began a doctorate in comparative literature. They rented a small but historically significant example of early California modernism together. Carter, who came from a family of politicians, lawyers, and judges, took up residence in the law school and a graduate-student apartment. He was joined in the latter, some six months later, by Britta. A few years older than the others, Britta—German, erstwhile East German, soon-to-be American—had already begun a career as a medical researcher in Berlin, where Carter had met her under unclear circumstances. With much hand-wringing and many arcane worries (not, Leila had been given to understand, the ones anyone might have), she threw over her job and her country (family could be visited once a year) to follow Carter to the suburbs of San Francisco, where a post-doctoral fellowship was readily arranged. “Do you think she was with the Stasi?” Leila speculated aloud to Rafael, who smiled and playfully warned her away from speaking ill of others. “You read fiction all night,” he murmured. “Stories are replacing your dreams.” Temporarily derailed by life (temporarily, she told herself) Leila did little work by day, slept little by night. She took care of the children and Rafael (Rafael slept a great deal), and she read novels as she had not read them since she was a girl, making her way alphabetically through the fiction section of her local branch library. Trying to read whatever came next, with the result that she brought home many books she didn’t like at all. As she had once loved fairy tales and fantasies, she now preferred stories of impossibly happy people, finding comfort in the belief that it was precisely because such mythical creatures didn’t exist that authors had invented them. She didn’t expect the characters in these books to come alive. “My job is horrible.” Britta shuddered. “The research director has so much power, you have to live in dread of him.” Leila and Britta were sitting side by side on a bench at the playground. They had not arranged to meet; the unusually mild day had brought everyone out into the tepid sunshine. “Has he started coming to the lab more often?” Leila had heard these complaints before. “No, he rarely comes. He has nothing to do but travel all over the world like an ambassador for the lab. He doesn’t see how much you do, and all the time you’re afraid that he’s plotting against you.” Britta often said “you” when she meant “I.” Leila once mistook this for a glitch in her English, but despite her accent Britta spoke fluently, with rare grammatical flaws. Her use of the second person seemed to have some other meaning. “The board members are even worse. You never see them, so if the director hates you, all they know is what he says. And if they do see you, they can form their own hatred and you don’t even have the director to defend you. You are so vulnerable.” Leila pictured Britta in a futuristic interior of stark white and chrome surfaces, menaced by test tubes of metastasizing cells. “But you’ll see the board next week for Thanksgiving, won’t you?” she asked Britta. Several members of the lab’s board of directors had close ties to Carter’s family and had arranged for Britta’s employment at the lab when she and Carter moved to New York from Palo Alto. “Well, some of them.” Britta waved her hand dismissively. Leila arched her spine, attempting without success to relieve her back of the weight of her enormous belly and, incidentally, to ease the heartburn that always plagued her at this stage. “What are you afraid of ?” she said carefully. Britta was momentarily taken aback. Then she exclaimed, “Unemployment,” and laughed as if she had said something witty. “Has the director said anything? Has anyone ever said anything to indicate that they’re after you?” “No! That’s just it, everyone is very pleasant in this country, they never tell you!” There was a sudden squall of screams. Leila located her children and Britta’s daughter on the other side of the wooden climbing structure, on the swings, not screaming. She turned back to Britta, who had not noticed the outburst. “So then, you’re looking for something else?” Britta was shocked. “Why, no.” “If you’re really unhappy,” Leila pointed out, “maybe a change—” “You see, this is why my position is so difficult. The job is perfect. This is how they trap you in America. I love my work and I never have to see my director or my board. How can I ever leave?” Leila nodded earnestly. “Yes, it’s a difficult situation.” Many things about America troubled Britta. The American workplace, about which she generalized based on the single one she had experienced firsthand; American women’s fashions (too sexualized and, at the same time, neutered); the American penchant for hiring house cleaners and for cleaning house themselves—Leila had heard her deride both alternatives with unexplained bitterness. “With Americans it’s always, ‘My cleaning lady this,’ ‘My nanny that,’ ” Britta snorted. “In this country you need so many helpers.” “Busy people can’t get along without them,” Carter said mildly. “Oh! As for that, I couldn’t do my work if I had to take care of Ulrike and clean too.” Britta shook her head decisively. A confused silence followed. Rafael ended it, explaining to Carter and Britta, “In our house, I clean the stove. Leila may get stuck with the rest of it, but I can congratulate myself: a husband who cleans the stove. And you can see why.” Everyone laughed. Leila and Rafael’s stove glistened with spattered oil and Rafael’s bald head glistened with sweat as he bent over it, tossing one vegetable at a time into an enormous wok from the neat piles that lined the counter at his side. Chopping fruit salad across the room, Leila watched Carter and Britta hover around him, drawn into the warm fug of steam and sizzle that was Rafael at work in the kitchen. Or, Leila wondered, were they fascinated by the specter of a hairless chef who loved to cook even though he didn’t eat? “I have no time to play at being the American housewife,” Britta continued. “I am so, so busy. And then our apartment is so big.” Leila kept her eyes on the knife in her hand. Leila and Rafael’s apartment was significantly smaller than Carter and Britta’s, and Lars and Mia’s as well. All three couples rented their apartments from Mia’s uncle, who owned the neo-Georgian building. “Somehow,” said Carter, “the thought of Britta cleaning our toilets offends me.” This statement seemed to impose a certain strain. Leila, Rafael, and Britta began speaking at once. Carter cut them all off by throwing back his head and laughing. Tall, blonde, and boyish, Carter was, or liked to give the appearance of being, perpetually in a state of tall, blonde, boyish befuddlement. He wore tailored Brooks Brothers shirts at all times, didn’t own a single polo, much less a T-shirt, and only dressed down to the point of short sleeves and no tie in hot weather. Rather than aging him, his wardrobe contributed to the image of a prep-school adolescent. Periodically he liked to rise to the surface of his boyishness, as it were, and make pronouncements, which he would follow up by throwing back his head and laughing, irresistibly charming everyone. Also, Leila thought, confounding anyone to say whether he’d been joking or serious, meant to congratulate himself for what he had said or laugh at himself for saying it. Nevertheless, Leila suspected that Rafael had appalled him, Britta as well, by revealing that they actually cleaned their own apartment. At that moment there was a little flurry at the door, which Leila and Rafael’s children had opened to Lars and Mia. Mia, who was not late, walked in apologizing for lateness. Lars, with a courtly flourish and a small grimace, held out a bottle of wine. “Excellent,” Rafael exclaimed over the label. “Let’s open it at once.” As if, Leila thought, he was eager to taste it himself. Rafael and Leila had entered into a cycle of dinner invitations with Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia, meeting at one or another’s table perhaps every other week; Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia, of course, saw each other constantly between these occasions. Aside from the dinners, Leila occasionally ran into Carter or Britta or Lars or Mia in the building or on the street. Rafael never ran into any of them. As if, Leila thought, Rafael was not a man to be overtaken by pointless encounters. As if, Leila thought, everything that happened in his life had a meaning. The dinners did have a sort of purpose, if not exactly a meaning: Rafael enjoyed them. Rafael always enjoyed people, and sometimes now the best people to see were the ones who weren’t close, who hadn’t known them before (this was during, Leila told herself, soon there would be after) and, not wanting to pry, would talk about something other than treatments and success rates. Leila knew this, but she blamed Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia anyway. “They don’t care, they never ask.” “They ask me. They always do.” “They never ask me!” Rafael stroked her hair. “You don’t let them,” he said gently. Despite Mia’s protestations—“You just had a baby! Take some time off your feet!” —Leila insisted on helping to clear the plates from the table. “The baby,” she reminded Mia, “is a month old.” “I didn’t want to get out of bed the first three months after I had Marianna,” Mia sighed. She gave her head an impatient little shake, and the masses of dark curls that cascaded over her shoulders—and that she liked to say she would trade in an instant for Britta’s sleek blonde braid—trembled without becoming in the least disarrayed. “But then, I’m such a wimp. You, Leila, are Superwoman.” “When you give birth in this country . . .” Britta began. When Leila returned to the dining room, Lars had poured tiny glasses of some new after-dinner drink he had discovered. He was turning over half-burned logs with an andiron and staring into the fire with a troubled furrow presumably occasioned by what he was saying rather than seeing. “What do you think about what’s going on in the Gaza Strip?” he was asking Rafael. Without hesitation, Rafael, who held what appeared to be a bundle of milky blankets in his lap, told him. Rafael neither initiated nor evaded these conversations; when asked, he spoke not in sighs and platitudes, but in policy-defining detail. Because he had been born in Israel, significant looks and outright challenges were always thrown his way when the Middle East came under discussion, as it constantly did, or if a person with an Israeli-sounding name was mentioned, or when the subject of religion was raised. Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia were, in fact, Jewish but (this was how Leila imagined they would describe themselves) not egregiously so. Even Britta, who had grown up eating stollen under a fir tree on Christmas morning, had two bona fide Jewish-born (albeit baptized) parents. Even Lars, who owed his first name to his father’s diplomatic service boyhood in Sweden (his last name was Goldstein), was Jewish. Leila’s guess was that Israel and Judaism hardly ever came up when Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia fraternized with other people. In the presence of Rafael and herself, she believed, they were drawn to these subjects with a kind of repelled absorption. Lars in particular seemed unable to resist funneling widely divergent conversations into these topics. He had shown an anthropological, almost unseemly fascination with the historical, religious, and above all medical minutia of the ritual for Leila and Rafael’s baby, to which he and Mia and Carter and Britta had been invited three weeks before. The nature of his interest was something Leila had found impossible to tease out. She wondered whether it might dovetail in some obscure way with his scholarly work. Lars was often withdrawn, brooding, Mia confided when he wasn’t around, on his ground-breaking theories about early twentieth-century music. Mia, Carter, and Britta were as ill-equipped to understand these theories, Leila gathered, as were she and Rafael. To Leila the most fantastical coincidence in the two couples’ lives was their children. They each had one child apiece, girls, born within a year of each other. How had they accomplished it? (“They can control life itself !” Leila told Rafael.) Both had the good sense to avoid the messier alternatives (infertility, adoption, multiples, boys). Neither couple would upset their carefully balanced triangles with another child—after all, together, they were a family of six. Evenly matched, they formed a diamond. With the birth of the new baby, Leila and Rafael had four children. Leila sensed that the size of their family amazed Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia. Of course, they never asked indignant questions, as some people did, or even expressed simple, friendly curiosity; they were polite, well-bred people. “Or maybe they’re just stupefied by the sight of us!” Leila told Rafael. It was fortunate that they didn’t ask, because Leila and Rafael could not have explained their four children. Leila and Rafael had four children for the most embarrassing reason possible. They wanted four children. Leila and Rafael believed that children were gifts from God. “Marianna wants you to have another baby,” Mia told Leila, laughing, on more than one occasion. “She still talks about the party—all the sweets!” The express cause of Mia’s laughter—and she laughed and laughed—was the notion that Leila would have another baby to make her own daughter happy. The covert reason, Leila believed, was the specter of a fifth baby: a fifth baby, for any reason whatsoever. “Imagine what she would say if we did have another baby,” Leila told Rafael. “Imagine what they would all say.” And (absurd but oddly satisfying), Leila transformed Mia’s laughter into screams of horror. “You have so much energy,” Leila praised Mia. “You take such good care of yourself.” “You have so much energy. The things I do don’t require commitment. I just indulge myself.” They were walking up Broadway. The sidewalks, in early March, were newly free of slick black islands of ice. Leila held two Zabar’s shopping bags in one hand and directed her stroller through five o’clock crowds with the other, struggling to keep the child who was weaving between bodies a few paces ahead of them continually in view. Mia bounced along beside her on the balls of her feet, holding one of Leila’s bags. She had insisted on carrying it, actually wrenched it out of Leila’s unwilling hand when she spied Leila on the street. Mia carried nothing of her own, being on her way back from an afternoon run in the park. She wore tight, low-slung gray sweatpants over a black leotard, topped by a tiny fuchsia fleece vest. To anyone far enough away not to see the cross-hatching around her eyes, Mia could easily appear to be ten years younger than her age. She attracted a fair amount of attention from men passing them on the street, which Leila noticed her pretending she didn’t notice. Mia, petite, very slender, and in peak condition, worried constantly that she might gain weight or lose her perfect muscle tone. “Of course,” she confided to Leila, “while the running keeps my heart healthy, the carbon monoxide I’m breathing will give me lung cancer, or the sunlight will give me skin cancer, or I’ll get cancer of the—” Laughing, she met Leila’s eyes, then abruptly stopped laughing with a pained look and a little gasp. “Oh, I’m saying this to you—” “How is your work going?” Leila spoke over her. “Did you finish the big piece on time?” “I did.” Mia had been certain that she would never complete the major critical essay she was writing on “The State of Polish Fiction” on deadline. “And your editor? Did she love it?” “She did.” Mia’s tone invited Leila to share in her self-deprecating amazement and mirth. “She said she did. I think she just felt sorry for me.” Mia had been certain that her editor would hate the essay. Mia was always convinced that editors would hate her work, would poke holes in it and show it up for the shabby stuff that it was. She was, in this matter, always wrong. Mia wrote about serious fiction for any publication she felt like writing for, though she vigorously refuted this assessment of her status when it was made in her presence. When she wanted the work, it was hers, despite the hand-wringing between articles over where her next assignment would come from (it would come, Leila could have told her, through her literary agent, a power broker who was also Mia’s much older cousin). When she didn’t want the work, she didn’t do it. Disparaging herself, Mia liked to say that her writing brought in so little income, it didn’t matter whether she worked or not. Leila suspected that it was not that the sums of money were small but that they were unnecessary in Mia’s household. Mia, who had received her doctorate with a study of wistfulness in nineteenthcentury American and British women’s fiction, a dissertation that her thesis advisor had immediately placed for her with the very best scholarly publisher in the field, could have had her pick of plummy academic jobs. But Mia had looked ahead and envisioned conflict: what if Lars was offered a teaching position in one part of the country and she in another? She would have been happy to sacrifice for Lars, but then it would have looked like sacrifice. And what would happen if she landed a tenured post at Harvard while Lars got a year of music appreciation at a community college in Little Rock? Not that this would ever happen to Lars! Still, to forestall all conceivable dilemmas, Mia became a book critic. It was tony, intellectually respectable work, work she could easily be believed to enjoy and that she could do any time, anywhere Lars’s career might take them. “In short,” Leila explained to Rafael, “Mia is a fairy-tale woman.” The heroines of urban fairy tales had jobs, of course, but jobs that required a minimum of fuss and could be accomplished off the page, leaving them free to devote themselves to the arrangement of beautifully decorated, well-fed, and finely stressed-over lives. “It’s true,” Leila insisted over Rafael’s affectionate smiles. “It isn’t in good taste for a woman of that genre to be too serious about her work. There’s something a little . . . villainous about it.” In the sort of fantasy Mia inhabited, only a female villain was capable of the breach of good taste that resulted in professional prominence and long hours. Leila explained all this to Rafael. But she refrained from pointing out that Britta was capable of that breach. Britta took her serious work very, very seriously. Leila realized that there were differences between these four real people and the characters in fairy tales. “Of course!” she told Rafael. “Fairy-tale characters are more believable!” She had noted two differences, to be precise. One was that Carter was given to an occasional outré (that is, racist) remark against Asians, particularly the young Chinese scientists who, for unknown reasons, worked in Britta’s lab in great numbers; no fairy-tale hero would have had the poor taste to make off-color remarks about Asians. The other, much more significant way in which the two couples diverged from their fictional counterparts was that in grownup, urban fairy tales, people had love affairs. Love was out of the question for Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia. “They’re too straightlaced,” Leila told Rafael. “Besides, who could they have affairs with?” “They know everyone,” Rafael pointed out. Rafael would defend anyone against anything, even the charge that he or she was not having an affair. “True,” Leila admitted. “But they hardly ever see anyone except each other. They’re always together.” “Perhaps they could have affairs with each other.” Coming from Rafael, the remark was innocent, without bite. Leila clucked her tongue and linked her arm through his. They were walking through the park, past Belvedere Castle, the baby asleep in the pack on Leila’s back, the sun shining on Rafael’s pink head. “You should put sunscreen on your head,” Leila teased him. “I should go back to Israel,” he joked back. “There, the men shave their heads to look like this.” Leila bit her lip. Going back to Israel was something they had stopped speaking of in the past couple of years; they had stopped speaking of the future. If they decided to go—Leila couldn’t stop herself from wondering—what would Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia say? What would they think? Would it shock them; would it confirm their worst suspicions? “You and I are egregiously Jewish,” Leila told Rafael. Rafael looked momentarily stunned. Then he began to laugh. “No I mean it—” Rafael laughed harder, louder. He laughed as he used to laugh and, Leila suddenly realized, as he no longer laughed, as a man thoroughly given over to the pleasure of it. Leila, dazzled, gave up trying to explain. Carter and Mia had, in fact, had an affair. Not when they were both in Europe, which might have been understood, if not forgiven, but when they were in graduate school. When both couples were living together, planning weddings, under the limpid California sky. Mia was madly in love with Lars when she went to bed with Carter, and she was madly in love with Lars now. She had an affair because she loved Lars so much, because he was in every way so perfect, and she worried that he couldn’t love her and want to marry her, plan to go on loving and being married to her, that she couldn’t possibly deserve the heart-stopping happiness they had together. For his part, Carter, in his boyishly befuddled way, was a bit in awe of the slightly icy (but easily melted) European perfections of Britta. He worshipped Britta. He also appreciated Mia’s charms. Tiny Mia with her vitality and sense of humor, her porcelain skin and dark curls, her soft feminine clothes—never once had he thought of seducing her away from Lars. It happened. That he had fallen (the word he preferred) into bed with Mia was actually the highest compliment he could pay Lars. He would never deliberately hurt Britta or Lars, nor create a rift in their foursome. In fact, didn’t this really bind them all the more closely together? When he expressed this view of their affair to Mia, she gratefully, enthusiastically agreed. Of course, it was too much to expect Lars and Britta to see things this way. So Carter and Mia met from time to time in secret to discuss and savor their guilt. Over late lunches in an odd location where no one they knew would ever go, they berated themselves and defended each other. They sighed. They held hands, cupping their little flame of embarrassment, keeping it alive. Neither could remember the sex; each was convinced the other could, in vivid detail. Naturally they never spoke of it. And naturally, there was no way Leila could know any of this. Leila inadvertently walked in on Lars and his cello in the study. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I was looking for the children.” “No, no,” Lars said vaguely. “I was just closing up shop.” Lars eased the sherry red body of the cello into its niche in the corner. Though Lars and Mia called this room “the study” and not “Lars’s study,” to Leila the floor-to-ceiling shelves of sheet music and volumes of music history, and the massive, virility-enhancing oak and leather furnishings, clearly said the room belonged to Lars. Mia insisted that she preferred to work at the small white writing table in their French country bedroom. “It’s great that you still find time to practice,” Leila told Lars. “Do you ever get to play with other people?” Lars frowned at a spot on the Persian rug. “Well. . . yes. I do a number of concerts in the summer.” Lars, a cliché of the university professor who couldn’t exist outside a booklined bubble, now revealed that he spent his summers negotiating requests to fill in for absentee cellists in performances from Aspen to Sitka. The invitations came from friends and (Leila was made to understand in later conversations with Mia) from those who wanted to be friends—for, as a sideline to teaching and scholarship, Lars had become an influential music critic. (“How can there be such a thing?” Leila asked Rafael. “What is it that he influences!?”) Since Lars would come up for tenure the following year amid a department and administration of old mentors, ex-classmates, and relatives’ relatives, Leila assumed, aloud, that he played now solely for the pleasure of playing. “You have a mistress,” she observed. “You are married to the academy but you feel the need to slip away once in a while to embrace your first love.” “It’s not so much that.” Lars cleared his throat. “I have to stay in concert form. If the academic thing falls through, I may have to support myself as an itinerant musician.” Leila laughed. Lars’s frown deepened. It seemed he wasn’t joking. “I’ve never socialized with a blue-collar worker before,” Carter confided. “It was . . . weird.” The previous evening, Carter and Britta had had dinner with Mark, an old Stanford law chum of Carter’s. Mark had married a public-school kindergarten teacher, the blue-collar worker in question. “How did he meet her?” asked Mia, surreptitiously examining everyone’s plates. She tracked the serving dishes circling the table, ready to make a note for future menus—literal, not mental—if anyone passed up the new spring peas or the rainbow trout. Carter opened his eyes in boyish astonishment and spread his hands. “I can’t imagine.” He turned to pass the gold-edged china bowl of asparagus spears to Leila. Leila wondered whether anyone would, whether she should, explain to Carter that a school teacher was not a blue-collar worker. “Was she wearing a blue blouse?” she inquired sweetly. Rafael squeezed her knee. Carter, preparing his own next statement, didn’t hear her. “I always say that people of very different backgrounds shouldn’t mix.” This was Carter’s pronouncement for the evening. Leila waited for him to throw back his head and laugh, wondering if her familiarity with his habits constituted friendship. Carter, too, seemed to expect himself to laugh. But instead of his head, he threw what might almost have been described as a nervous look in Leila and Rafael’s direction, then turned and attacked the food on his plate. “Do you think people of different classes shouldn’t marry?” Leila leaned toward him. “Or that they shouldn’t mix at all?” Without giving Carter time to respond, she went on. “When choosing a lover,” Leila smiled, “some people seem to want to cross class lines. But I think it’s so much safer to choose someone you already know well. What do you think?” “I think my wife is planning an affair,” said Rafael. Mia and Britta laughed, or rather, screeched. Carter coped with an errant trout bone. Lars, who had been showing Rafael the just-released Beaujolais nouveau that they were drinking, froze with the bottle in the air. “I don’t remember Mark,” he said. “You do,” Britta assured him. “You do, you do!” A torrent of Stanford reminiscences followed. Carter and Britta appeared desperate to establish the connection between Lars and Mia and Mark. Mia, the genial hostess and obviously lying, exclaimed, “Oh, Mark. Mark.” Lars was stubbornly uncooperative. As if suddenly aware that these memories excluded Leila and Rafael, Mia turned to them. “You both went to Princeton didn’t you?” she said brightly. There was an odd, almost imperceptible hum, as the others took in the fact that a personal question had been asked. “For graduate school, yes.” Rafael nodded. Was it Leila’s imagination that four held breaths were released? The conversation moved on to other things. Leila felt that she understood how she and Rafael had earned their places at the table. In Leila’s apartment, perhaps even in the entire building, everyone was asleep. The city was awake, its consciousness visible as points of light sliding through the street far below Leila’s living room window, blinking across the sky over rooftops and holding steady in buildings as far as she could see. On the sofa, the baby asleep at her breast, Raskolnikov cradled in her other arm, Leila turned a page. Defoe, Dickens, now Dostoyevsky, with Dreiser waiting in the wings. Hundreds of pages, very few happy characters. Leila’s summer was bogged in a letter of the alphabet that was failing to lift her spirits. What, Leila mused, would a Fresh Air vacation in the pages of a romantic comedy do for poor Raskolnikov? Maybe he wouldn’t need to commit his crime. Maybe he would kill even more people. “We’re going to the Hamptons on Saturday,” said Britta. She placed a serving bowl of chilled cucumber soup in the center of her table and stood back to frown over her arrangements. Her long blonde braid was pinned up on the top of her head, and she looked wanly beautiful in a sleeveless black silk shirt and cropped black silk pants. Almost the only exception to Britta’s wardrobe of uniform black were the crisp white coats required by her lab, coats that Leila often saw her carrying home from the dry cleaners on Friday afternoons. “How nice,” said Leila, referring to both the Hamptons and the soup. “No, it’s not nice,” Britta corrected her. She was referring to the Hamptons. “I just came back from vacation!” The week before, Britta and Carter had returned from a month in Bavaria, where Britta’s family summered in an eighteenthcentury farmhouse. “I haven’t been able to work for a month. I’m going crazy! And now I have to sit on the beach.” “Will you all stay together?” Mia’s family had a house in the Hamptons, a grayshingled village classic—Leila had seen pictures. The next day Mia and Lars would leave to spend the remainder of August there. “No,” said Lars. “But we’re in the same town, just down the beach.” Lars refilled everyone’s glass and took a sip from his own. Resisting the impulse to blot her forehead with the linen napkin in her lap, Leila couldn’t help but notice how cool he looked. Lars, who gave the impression of being too professorial to notice what he wore, always wore brown corduroys. Throughout the fall, winter, and spring, Leila had amused herself wondering what Lars would wear in the summer. Now that summer had come, he wore brown corduroys, with a polo shirt replacing his usual bulky sweater. In Carter and Britta’s airy (but not air-conditioned) formal dining room, furnished entirely in family hand-me-downs (Carter discouraged the notion that he owned antiques), he looked quite comfortable in ninetydegree heat. “My firm takes a house for the summer,” Carter was explaining. “This is the junior partners’ week. Sort of a working vacation.” Carter had been made a junior partner the previous summer. He and Britta and Lars and Mia still spoke of his partnership as an astounding development, and Leila had gathered that, in the months leading up to the announcement, he had suffered greatly from fear of being passed over, as greatly as if his own uncle, cousin, and older brothers were not already partners and key players in the decision. “And all the families go along?” suggested Rafael. Carter shrugged. “Some do, some don’t.” “So you don’t have to go,” Leila told Britta. “If you stay home, Ulrike can go to daycare, and you can work.” Britta and Carter always paid for the entire summer at Ulrike’s daycare, as a fail-safe arrangement. “I always go,” Britta said quickly. “But you don’t have to! Carter’s going to be working. And he can be with Lars and Mia when he isn’t busy—” “Actually,” Lars interjected, “I’ll be busy too.” Leila had forgotten. Lars had performances and rehearsals in the Berkshires and elsewhere during the next several weeks. While he and his cello were off on these jaunts, Mia would stay behind with her parents in the Hamptons. “That’s perfect!” Leila exclaimed. “Mia and Carter can be lonely together. They can keep each other company.” “Well.” Carter shifted in his chair, crossed and uncrossed his legs, then recrossed them the other way. “You don’t have to come if don’t want to, Britta.” “Exactly,” said Leila. “You don’t want to go and you don’t have to go.” Rafael stroked Leila’s hand soothingly under the table, and she stopped herself from adding, “End of problem.” “Of course I’ll go. I always go. We do everything together!” Britta laughed as if she had said something original and funny. The children, eating in the kitchen, echoed the laughter with squeals of their own. Carter rose from the table to close the connecting door. The soup was tasted. Leila and Rafael and Lars and Mia made approving murmurs, which brought an endearing hint of pink to Britta’s cheekbones. “I hope the yogurt in this soup is alright,” she worried. Britta’s parents, both biologists, were pioneers in the field of organic dairy farming. Though Britta never spoke of them, it seemed that their ideas had engendered a love of milk, yogurt, and cheese, and deep distrust of the American versions of these products. They all assured her that the yogurt was fine and sipped enthusiastically. Leila idly tried to recall how many summers it had been since she and Rafael had left the city. Mia, who had been unusually quiet until now, began to explain that, unlike Britta, who was a genius in the kitchen, she was utterly unable to make an edible cold soup. The others, having eaten Mia’s flawless meals, said nothing. Lars, who nearly always scowled, did so now. Britta, Leila noticed, didn’t look at Mia, but, perhaps buoyed by the praise of her soup, returned to the subject of her work. “You worry constantly about your experiments while you are away. The assistants handle everything but if something goes wrong, of course the director and the board will blame you.” “But the director is out of the country until September,” Carter pointed out. “Of course he stays away. He has no worries. All he does is represent the lab at cocktail parties all over the world and collect a huge salary! But if the board doesn’t like something—” “The board won’t even meet again until he returns,” Carter put in. “The board,” moaned Britta. “The board also has nothing to do but go from Cannes to Mallorca to wherever they like.” Leila imagined a group of people moving en masse through a European airport. “And they think you also have nothing to do but go on vacation. This is how it is in America! You have the summer off, you are left alone, but if the experiments fail’ ” Britta shuddered. “How is it going?” Rafael put in quietly. Britta turned to Rafael and for a moment updated him on the progress of her research. She kept her remarks fairly straightforward, and though they were still over Leila’s head, Rafael had educated himself sufficiently to understand her. “So you are saying . . .” he began. Rafael always played back Britta’s technical explanations to clarify what she had told him. He asked intelligent questions. Britta 440 appreciated and encouraged his grasp of her work. She spoke to him as if his interest in the subject, like hers, was academic. “So you see how it is,” Britta concluded, looking around the table with a satisfaction that almost bordered on the triumphant. “You are doing terribly important work and yet you must worry all the time that others are plotting against you. And you must go to the Hamptons!” “Britta,” Leila said solemnly. “The conditions of your life are very harsh.” The felicitous plink of real silver on real china filled the momentary vacuum this remark created. How could four people living in such close contact conceal an illicit affair among them? The answer was simple: they could not. Lars and Britta knew of the affair and Carter and Mia knew that they knew. Or rather everyone guessed that everyone else knew. No one ever spoke of it. This was not Henry James: a crack didn’t foretell total destruction. A less than pristine past didn’t require a perfect foursome to fly apart in any of the possible directions. Both couples had moved to New York and into the same building; they had dinner together two or three nights a week, either despite the affair or perhaps because of it. To prove that nothing had happened. Or that, if it had, it made no difference whatsoever within the two marriages or between the friends. Carter was right. The affair had bound the four of them even more closely together. He was also right when he suggested that the mixing of different social types was not without its dangers. No one from their own milieu would ever go to Chinatown unless forced by visiting tourists, and, even then, none would set foot, would even glance inside a Formica-table establishment of excellent noodles and questionable hygiene. If they had not “mixed” with Leila and Rafael, no one they knew would ever have spied Carter and Mia in such a place. Although, truth be told, the “mixing” had not actually occurred yet when Leila saw Carter and Mia in Chinatown the autumn before, sitting across a table from each other at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon. When Leila saw them she was looking for the faux-Chinese building where she was to meet Rafael at the office of an acupuncturist whose ministrations they hoped would get Rafael through the last, worst side effects of the treatments he had begun that summer and was just completing. Pausing to check the address on the door of a Chinese version of a greasy spoon, she saw Mia and Carter at a table intended for four. The chair beside Mia was piled with shopping, and Carter’s briefcase was perched on the one next to him; i.e., no one would be joining them. Carter and Mia were huddled just slightly together. Their hands, wrapped around thick white teacups, were not touching but, their posture said, could have been. All this Leila took in but didn’t think about as she hurried on, her thoughts preoccupied with Rafael. It was the next morning, running into Mia in the lobby, that the scene came back to her. Until this moment she had only spoken to Mia in the elevator, on the playground. Now, on impulse, she invited Mia and Lars to dinner. If the invitation caused surprise, Mia gracefully concealed it. They came to dinner that night. The following week, Mia invited Leila and Rafael to their apartment to meet Carter and Britta, who Leila had also encountered in the same communal spaces. The round of social transactions had begun. “Of course it doesn’t bother me,” Leila told Rafael. They were on their way downstairs to Carter and Britta’s apartment to celebrate Britta’s promotion and, though no one was crude enough to say it, colossal salary increase. It turned out that Britta’s board of directors were plotting behind her back: they were plotting to make her director of her lab, a move instigated by the present director, who was himself moving to Antwerp (Antrim?) to assume an even more elevated position from which he would never bother Britta again. Of course, she would keep in touch with him: there was no research grant or position in the world for which he would not readily recommend her, and besides, he really was rather dear. “It doesn’t make me angry in the least,” Leila told Rafael. “Why not take advantage of one’s advantages? After all, what’s wrong with shooting to the stars on middling intelligence and commonplace talents?” She was aware that she was shrieking. The elevator doors opened, and her voice echoed down the empty hall. “Is it their fault if people with superior abilities work like dogs and can’t overcome the fact that they weren’t born with good connections? That other peoples’ lives are knocked right out from under them?” Rafael wrapped his arms around her. From the cradle of his shoulder, her muffled voice went on: “Why shouldn’t mediocrity shine?” Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia were charmingly unaware of the superiority of their luck. They didn’t pat themselves on the back over how nicely everything always turned out for them. Even on this occasion, flushed and happy as she obviously was, Britta didn’t wallow in her success. “Of course the board likes me,” she sniffed. “The other researchers are so inexperienced. So new.” Carter guffawed. “Their English is certainly new!” In honor of his wife’s achievement, Carter had prepared the festive meal. Perhaps for this reason everyone had eaten little, drunk much more than was usual of the merlot Lars had provided, and now eagerly refilled their glasses with champagne Rafael had brought to accompany dessert, a concoction of Britta’s that involved gooey chocolate cake and flaming, brandy-soaked berries. Champagne flute in hand, Carter stretched himself out in his Windsor chair. “Half the time I can’t understand Britta’s colleagues on the phone,” he told Lars and Mia and Rafael and Leila. “And I can never tell who is who—they all have names like Ginseng and Lapsang Souchong.” He looked mischievously at each of the guests around his table. No one laughed. All but Leila applied themselves to their desserts with ravenous attention. Following her own thoughts, Britta sighed. “My life will be quite difficult now.” “One of these fellows—” Carter continued. Leila spoke over him. “Will it?” she said to Britta. “How so?” Britta was keen to explain. “I will be even busier than before. Everything that happens in the lab will be my responsibility, and I will never be there! When I go away for the summer I will worry every minute what is happening in my absence. The rest of the year I will go to conferences and meetings and dinners and parties—” “Will you travel alone?” Mia asked. She was misty-eyed, quite clearly drunk. “Without Carter?” It seemed that this detail had not occurred to Britta. “Well, yes,” she said slowly. “Ah,” said Leila. “You are both worrying about Carter. But Carter can spend his nights with you and Lars, Mia. And when Lars travels, you’ll be here. You can take care of him. You can go to Chinatown together, just the two of you.” As this last, lightly spoken sentence left Leila’s lips, a kind of ripple seemed to pass through the room. What should have sounded like a random suggestion instead evoked—as much for Britta and Lars, who knew nothing of recent clandestine lunches, as for Carter and Mia, who did—an entire body of intimate knowledge. Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia didn’t look at one another. After a moment Britta stood up as if she meant to take some action, but instead swiveled slowly in place, like a music-box dancer. Carter watched her turn. With a bark about Marianna, Lars abruptly left the dining room. Mia ran out after him. Rafael stared at Leila quizzically. He didn’t know that Leila had seen Carter and Mia in Chinatown. She had never told him. What was there to tell? She knew nothing, and even the thing that she guessed, that Carter and Mia were having an affair, wasn’t quite right. If he asked her later, “What was that about?” she would shrug, not important. Nothing. Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia would be fine. Such characters always came out on top. Perhaps Britta would have a terribly busy autumn coping with her new job, then there might be an unexpected winter vacation for Lars and Mia. For a short while the two couples would find it impossible to meet. But in the end they would come back together, grateful, forgetful, the best of friends. Rafael and Leila, true, would not see much of them anymore. In fact, aside from bumping into each other in the elevator, they would never see Carter and Britta and Lars and Mia again. But this would not strike any of them as requiring explanation. They had never been more than acquaintances, social contacts brought tenuously together by proximity for a single year. And then Rafael was so much better now. His life and Leila’s were about to begin again. Sunlight slanted through the train car in rapid stripes that fell across the faces of Leila and Rafael’s children, the oldest boy with the baby in his arms, the two middle children clutching the canvas bags of books and snacks, all of them pressed to the windows to watch the tattered outskirts of the city give way. Leila and Rafael, fingers laced together, kept their eyes on the blueprints spread across their knees. They examined the drawings they had made together, pointing out everything that might be wrong, inventing faults to give them something to bicker over. To make the excitement bearable. If they looked at each other, their identical thoughts would be dangerously exposed: Are we really here? Have we made it? Two years before, Leila and Rafael had quit their jobs at large industrial design firms, where they had done work both despised, for this: to make houses. To make and pore over drawings of houses, the most beautiful drawings, Rafael always said, in the world. Their first commission fell through, and they struggled for months to secure another, suddenly landing two at once. They were flying high, signing contracts the week before their routine physicals. Leila’s was no surprise; they already knew that she was pregnant. Rafael’s was another story. When they went back to both clients to explain their changed circumstances, one, an old friend, wished them the best and never called again. The other client, a stranger, stared at them for some minutes and then said that he would wait. “It may be some time,” Rafael protested. “I can’t say when we will build your house.” “But you will build it,” the man replied. “You.” He had looked at them both almost fiercely and spoke in a loud voice, as if intending to be overheard by someone in the next room (God? The man was a rabbi.) “You’ll build it.” Leila and Rafael had left the man’s office clutching each other, Rafael the closest that he ever got to choking up. And now, some eighteen months later, they were riding the commuter train to the modest plot of land in a still-rural pocket of New Jersey where they would lay the cornerstone for the rabbi’s house. Leila didn’t delude herself. She knew she wasn’t worthy. She knew that she wasn’t a fairy-tale heroine. She wasn’t nice enough. Hers would be a different sort of story altogether. One about nasty, frightened, angry characters. A novel written by Emily Brontë, maybe, or Iris Murdoch. Rafael, though—he was nice enough. More than nice, Rafael was good, so good that fairy-tale princes would seem callous beside him, so good he would not be out of place cast as the hero in a universe created by, say, Louisa May Alcott, or C. S. Lewis. Was goodness only a subject for Christian or children’s authors? How Rafael would laugh, now that he was laughing again, at this observation. How, Leila thought, they could laugh together. Perhaps she would tell him, when they were alone together. Tonight. Christine Benvenuto is the author of Shiksa: The Gentile Woman in the Jewish World, her first book, published by St. Martin’s Press. She is currently at work on a novel. “Sextet” appears in our Autumn 2006 issue.