On a scorching Sunday in late August, Fern and Liv lay out in the sun at Liv’s parents’ country club. At twenty-seven, they were old to be coming in from the city for the weekend, swimming in the pool and eating chicken salad lunches on the patio, signing the bill to Liv’s fat father’s account.
But last night was weird – broken rubbers, lukewarm digestifs – and to stay in Manhattan after that kind of night, during a heat wave, would have been too much.
Fern and Liv were always trying to decide who was prettier, hotter, who could bypass the line to get into Le Bain, who looked more elegant drinking cortados at a cafe with crossed legs. The answer flickered, depending on whether they were assessing themselves from far away or up close, and what each was wearing, how her hair looked, how much rest she’d gotten and, of course, who had recently been hit on hardest by tall guys with MBAs.
The facts. Fern was skinnier than Liv, but Liv was blonde and tall and her breasts were enormous and thrillingly spaced. Liv could have been called chubby in certain circumstances, in jeans or leggings for example, or at power yoga. Fern’s face could look misshapen, in weird lighting, with no makeup. Liv had a better chance of being called beautiful, especially by black guys and Danes. Fern was more often sexy, mysterious. Small, Jewish men liked her. Also, men from any of the Latin countries, and Italians from Jersey or Delaware. Cleft-lipped financiers and Bushwick bloggers. Irish guys went for both girls. Bartenders liked neither.Complete story available online at Granta
Three paragraphs into this story, I already hated it. Yet it stretched on for another fourteen, fifteen pages. I did a very poor read, almost a skim, holding my nose the whole time, of what I classified as another slacker story about these girls who fuck around, literally and figuratively, on someone else’s dime, be it Liv’s rich dad’s, or the guy they just met wherever. True, Fern is depressed – suicidal, even – since she lost both her parents recently, but is that enough to make her interesting?
Then I read Jake Weber’s comments on the piece. He loved it, called it “a nearly perfect girl-girl buddy story”. So I gave it another, more careful read, and though it’s still not my kind of thing, I can see what he means. It’s always helpful when someone has your back; it keeps you from making a fool of yourself. Or worse.
Turns out it’s a very subtle story wrapped up in a not-subtle-at-all story. I couldn’t really tell Fern and Liv apart on first read (I was relieved that Jake had the same problem for a few pages) but I wasn’t trying that hard. Telling them apart is crucial. One is spiralling down, and the other is trying – however ineffectually – to help.
So Fern knew it was important to let Liv know the plan.
‘Did I ever tell you how I was obsessed with Jeremy Mullen when I was twelve, you know, from that stupid movie at the aquarium?’
‘The child actor who hung himself.’
‘When I found out he killed himself, I was like fuck. I thought, if only he knew how I loved him. I would have taken care of him. You know? I would have done his laundry or told the maid what was dry-clean only.’
‘Yeah,’ said Liv, sounding exhausted.
‘Now I’m like, fuck no. Whatever ridiculous child actor nonsense. I would have just stolen his pills.’
‘Probably he had a small dick. That’s why he killed himself.’
‘My point is, it doesn’t matter. He killed himself because it was time. Every night is the same, going to clubs, whatever, it doesn’t fix anything.’
‘I think if we were celebrities going to the Chateau every night, we’d make it work, you and me. Anyway I totally disagree with you. I think people can be saved by people who love them. You just have to be dedicated. You have to like, be there, every day.’
‘I couldn’t save my mom.’
‘Your parents died of fucking cancer, man.’
‘My mom’s was basically suicide. Suicide by cancer.’
Liv snorted. But covered Fern’s hand with her own. Liv’s nails were bitten but she had pretty, feminine fingers. Fern’s hands were small, boyish. They looked silly giving hand jobs.
Finally, she finds a way.
Along the way, we have some really nice moments slipped in there. Fern’s getting her parents’ house ready for an estate sale, selling everything but old TV Guides and a bowl of Italian candies, lacrime d’amore, tears of love. “She passed the antique mirror on the wall, which as a child she thought could reflect the demons in her soul. Now it said $25 or best offer.”
The ending has an interesting ambiguity (and since Jake deliberately avoided a spoiler, I, too, will be circumspect; the story is available online). Does Liv show that “people can be saved by people who love them”? Or is Fern’s attitude of “It was time” more accurate? Even if Fern was right, does the effort to help matter at all? Forgive me for delving again into pop culture, but this is straight from Doctor Who: “The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.” Does adding to the “pile of good things” count? I think so; like I said, it’s always nice when someone has your back.
I was going to skip my usual second read on this one, I hated it so much the first time. I’m glad I didn’t. It’s still not a favorite, but that’s just my personal taste, like my general dislike of Westerns. I never felt comfortable in the “hang around drinking and talking about men” stuff when I was that age, and I’d rather not read about it. But there’s definitely a story there, though it’s largely obscured by the noise and flashing lights. For me, it’s a bit like trying to listen to one of Satie’s Gymnopédies in a dance club. But I’m glad I was able to hear the Satie at all.