About the Author
GALT NIEDERHOFFER is the author of The Romantics and A Taxonomy of Barnacles. She is also a film producer and a partner in the production company Plum Pictures, which was recently listed on Variety's "Indy Power List". Galt has produced over twenty films, seven of which have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. These films have won Best Director, Best Cinematographer, Best Screenwriter, and twice, the Audience Award. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Laura sat in her car at the foot of a dirt road, clutching her cell phone and map. The map was just an accessory. She knew exactly where she was. The name of the house was etched on a wooden plank tacked to one of the elms that flanked the drive. A wreath of peonies hung just below, woven with white ribbons. Using her thumb as a ruler, she measured the distance between Dark Harbor and New York, as though time had stopped as a favor to her, to allow her to catch her breath.
In fairness, Laura’s hostess was a girl who expected a lot of her guests. Beauty, wealth, impeccable lineage, and intelligence joined forces in Lila Hayes. At times, the combination was lethal. In college, when the two girls first became friends, Lila had been demanding—but back then she had been more endearing. The day before midterms freshman year, she hopped a plane for Guatemala, informing her roommate and parents of the trip only when she deplaned in Quezaltenango. She returned with a suitcase of indigenous textiles and new political beliefs. In April, she founded Yale’s Guatemalan Peace Corps. By May, she had the entire freshman class wearing sarongs.
Soon after that, Laura and Lila renewed their rooming vow, moving on from the misfits assigned by lottery to the greener pastures of a sophomore double. They lived together for the duration of college, first in a storied upper-class house where every bed nestled in a dormer window, and later in a swank off-campus apartment that they found in the New Haven Gazette. Since graduation six years ago, the friendship had wilted somewhat. But rivalry glued the girls together in a way that regular contact could not. When Lila called and asked Laura to be her maid of honor, Laura accepted with mixed delight and dread.
"Lo," said Lila, her voice simmering with excitement. "Li," said Laura. "Is that you?"
Lila answered with a shriek of laughter that forced Laura to thrust the phone from her ear.
"The day has finally come," Lila declared with signature melodrama. "I can finally flush my degree down the toilet."
"You passed the bar?" Laura asked.
"No, stupid, I’m getting married."
"Li, that’s wonderful," Laura replied, raising her voice to the appropriate giddy pitch.
"He did it in the most amazing way," she elaborated, rushing the plot points as one does after the third or fourth telling. "Completely perfectly perfect."
Lila, though beautiful, was not graced with the gift of beautiful verbiage.
"Anyway, I can’t talk now," she went on. "We’re driving to Maine to tell the family in person. But I wanted you to be the first to know." Volume faded as the phone dropped to the floor. "Tom, please, not right now." She giggled. "Anyway, save the month of August. Oh, and I’m guessing it’s safe to assume you accept. You’re the maid of honor."
The signal was lost before Laura could respond either way.
Years of conversations this brief and hyperbolic had numbed Laura to even the most miraculous news. Lila could have called to say she had ridden a unicorn to Mars and Laura would have reacted the same way.
Now, thinking back to this conversation, Laura recalled the most disturbing part. Though Lila’s voice had conveyed excitement— euphoria even—it had not betrayed surprise. She had planned her marriage as clinically as she planned everything else in her life. She might as well have been calling to report that after years culling department store racks, she had finally found the perfect black dress.
Preparedness was, in some ways, Lila’s most annoying quality. She was appropriately dressed for any kind of weather, poised to change, at a moment’s notice, from a sweater to a rain slicker. In college, she had laid out the next day’s outfit on her wooden desk chair every night, whether she planned to wear jeans and an oxford or tights and a dress. The habit lived somewhere between compulsion and phobia—Lila hated to be surprised.
Laura, on the other hand, never carried an umbrella. She rarely knew the day’s outfit until the morning she chose it. There was something horribly depressing, she felt, about watching the weather report. That life could be planned like the perfect summer picnic drained it of spontaneity. So the pairing of Laura and Lila sometimes seemed like a cruel joke on the part of Yale’s housing committee. And yet, the two girls bonded due to circumstance and curiosity, honing a friendship as though to confirm the claim that opposites attract.
Class, looks, and boys conspired to make Laura the Nick to Lila’s Gatsby while time and memories did their part to fasten the bond. And though the intensity of their friendship had lessened in the years since college, the friendship endured in spite of itself, much like the sturdy elm at the end of the drive.
And now she was getting married. The wedding would be held at the Hayes estate in Maine, a destination as far north in the state as you could go before leaving the country. Its very latitude and travel time from New York reinforced its elitism. It was as though the mileage to the house was further proof of the family’s distance from the masses. As if the drive were not inconvenient enough, the trip culminated in an hour-long ferry ride across alarmingly rough waters. The boat, constructed no later than 1953, conjured morbid possibilities all the way across. The voyage traversed an eighteen-mile channel of sparkling navy blue water and ended with a glorious approach to a harbor dotted with white houses, surrounded by forests of Christmas trees as ominous as they were magical.
The house was the jewel in the crown of the Hayes family, a meaningful statement considering the many precious heirlooms in their cache. It had proven impermeable to the ebbs and flows of the family’s finances, weathering four generations of sea air and porch parties. It was simply and truly one of the great estates in New En -gland, a white dove of a house that appeared to have landed expressly to enjoy the view: a dewy lawn that sloped down to the sea with the gentle curve of a baby’s thigh. The house’s gracious wraparound porch was dappled with sunlight every morning and lit by fireflies every night, as though they had been dispensed to herald evening cocktails.
The family history was well archived for anyone who cared to learn it. Polished picture frames planted throughout the house told a paradoxical story of abundance and humility. But if these pictures didn’t conjure a sufficiently clear picture—capturing Mrs. Hayes at her wedding, svelte and mischievous as a cancan girl, Mr. Hayes on the squash court, the year he was captain of the Yale team, fathers and forefathers, secret society brothers and Seven Sisters alumnae, and countless snapshots of curly-haired blond athletes in various states of tennis dress—Mrs. Hayes would be the first to regale you with tales of the house’s lineage, beginning with the estate’s formidable array of ghosts. From the pride and glee of her description, you would think the number of spirits that wafted through a house was proof of its pedigree, incrementally increasing its value like hardwood floors, closets, or a finished attic.
Like all great estates, the Hayeses’ Maine home had a name: Northern Gardens. But in Laura’s opinion, it would have been more honest to call it "Eden." It was just as sheltered and more corrupt.
It had taken nearly nine hours for Laura to get there from New York, if you counted the time taken, after the car was packed, while she sat on the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone and finished her fight with her boyfriend: forty-five minutes. She was further delayed by rush-hour traffic, a plight worsened by the aforementioned fight, and her failure to fill her rental car with gas. Luckily, the oversight caused only a minimal setback, resulting in a frantic unsignaled exit from the Hutchinson River Parkway and twenty misguided minutes in the town of Yonkers. By the time she left the state of New York, she was suitably flustered, still reeling from the mixed blessing of finding a gas station. She spent most of the state of Connecticut deciphering a scribble of directions. By the time she hit Massachusetts she was totally drained. It was only as she crossed the state line into Maine that she hazarded a guess at the highlights of the weekend ahead.
It would be a veritable seminar on the Wasp culture, a study in paradox. Impeccable planning would be paired with feigned nonchalance, excessive spending with a disdain for ostentation, good wine with mediocre food. And of course, the wedding would feature all the pompous, vapid Yale alums in the Hayes family, a group that provided ample proof on its own of the importance of affirmative action. The prospect of the weekend was not improved by Laura’s troubled relationship with the bride, a ten-year rivalry—really, a protracted war—over borrowed clothes, bisected bedrooms, and battled-over boyfriends that had reached its most explosive point on the subject of the groom.
Luckily, Tom McDevon was a man worth fighting for. He was nothing short of legendary at Yale. Fondly known as Heaven McDevon among female company, he was coveted by women of Lila’s caliber, and yet he still greeted lower lights with an earnest smile. That he was good-looking was simply a corollary to his identity. He had green eyes, brown hair, and shoulders built to comfort a weeping girl. On the basis of looks alone, he could have bedded an entire field hockey team. But his confidence—he was not oblivious to his power—was tempered with admirable qualities; sensitivity and smarts served as an antidote, or at least a foil, to his other blessings.
Tom was equally entranced by each of the following things: an August sunset, a woman’s ankle, the clapboards of a Colonial house, and the shape of a soccer ball. His mind was rigged to receive those signals for proportion, shape, texture, and color that only artists receive. He was blessed with an encyclopedic memory of every beautiful thing he had ever encountered, whether the pitch of a mansard roof or the meter of a Shakespearean sonnet. This kind of sensitivity was in itself his most compelling trait perhaps because it was so atypical of a boy with his popularity. In this way, Tom was more like a hermit than a homecoming king, because he perceived not through the lens of his favor but rather the magnifying glass of an outsider. This sharp focus instilled a zeal for life that was quite unparalleled. It also made him highly vulnerable to beauty.
Tom’s critics argued that he downplayed his intelligence. Like a politician, he spoke more simply than he thought, so much so that even very close friends often failed to grasp the depth of his ideas. It was hard to say whether his bride-to-be knew the contents and capacity of his mind, not to mention what fraction of it was at work when they were together. But to Laura, Tom’s mind was the most beguiling thing about him, and the most unusual. It was almost female in its propensity to obsess.
Of course, it might be considered odd for a woman other than the bride to be thinking so clinically and constantly about a man scheduled to wed in twenty-four hours. But Laura’s interest in Tom was beyond her control. They had dated for two years in college before Lila deemed Tom fair game. But even after Tom and Laura broke up, they had remained close friends, the kind that speak, e-mail, or exchange telepathic messages several times a day. They had maintained this correspondence throughout Tom and Lila’s relationship in college and during the six years since, until Tom fell out of touch suddenly and without explanation. One month later he proposed to Lila.
A chorus of honks interrupted Laura’s meditation. Startled, she raised her head from the dashboard to recognize a carful of friends.
Tripler, Pete, Weesie, and Jake had caravanned to the wedding together, a concise and painful reminder that Laura was attending alone.
"You lost," yelled Pete. For a moment, Laura struggled to discern whether this had been a statement or a question. A rugged twenty-eight-year-old with overgrown bangs, Pete brought his car to an abrupt stop. A mere inch separated the two cars.
"Completely," Laura admitted. "How do I get to New York?"
"Pete, don’t move. I’m getting in," Tripler said.
"What," he said. "Where?"
Before she could respond, a long golden leg extended from the passenger window. A second one followed, and, several thrusts later, Tripler wriggled through Laura’s window, over her lap, and into the passenger seat.
"Desperate situation," she announced. "I had to get out of there."
"Tripler." Laura smiled. The weekend would be saved by her friends.
Most of Laura’s friends had held on to their college nicknames long into adulthood even though the names now seemed annoyingly precious. They were names that grew out of circumstance, because they carried easily across soccer fields, or referred to some hallowed drunken night, or, in the case of Tripler, was her family’s alternative to Katherine III. Each name had unceremoniously graduated to permanent status, creating an individual and collective group identity. The names all rang with the same cheerful clang of a dinner bell summoning a family to a meal, signifying not only the gated intimacy of the group but the crest of its members.
Tripler grabbed Laura’s bag from the floor of the car and rifled through it as though it were her own. "Pete is such a fascist," she said. "He won’t let me smoke on the off chance that we conceived last week."
"You guys are trying?" Laura asked.
"He was trying," Tripler corrected. "I was trying to sleep."
"That’s so exciting," Laura said.
"Oh, spare me," said Tripler. She found a cigarette, lit it, and propelled the smoke out the window. "You got anything else in here?" she asked, still rifling through Laura’s bag. "I need something to get me through the rehearsal dinner. There’s only so many times I can hear people toast that bitch."
Laura laughed and shook her head at her friend. She indulged in a jab even though she had vowed to abstain for the weekend. "I would like to congratulate the McDevons," she said, assuming the bloated tone of a wedding toast, "on getting one to the other side. I would like to offer the Hayeses my sympathy. There goes the bloodline."
With that, the two girls threw back their heads with the combined force of hilarity and hatred and, goaded by a honk, followed the other car up the driveway.
The drive was underscored by the whirl of wheels on dirt and the bumpy condition of the unpaved road. Cathedral elms formed a canopy overhead. A warm breeze carried the scent and the silvery light of the sea.
Tripler leaned back in her seat, making the most of the bouncy ride. "Where’s Ben," she said.
"Wasn’t invited." Laura swerved to avoid a pothole.
"That little bitch." Tripler exhaled at a passing tree.
"Oh yeah," said Laura. "Gussie’s policy." She still could not believe she had been subjected to this affront. Members of the wedding party had been asked not to bring a date unless they were married or engaged, a gracious rule of etiquette designed to shame the lon...
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