This is an excerpt from a chapter of my as-yet-untitled novel in progress. Louise’s husband died recently. Jack is a B-list, aging movie star she just met in a bar and made out with in his car.
The car came to a stop. Jack rose up on one arm and looked around, then looked down at Louise regretfully. “Hold that thought,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re here.”
“Where?” Louise sat up and peered out the tinted windows. They were in the West Village, in front of a row of townhouses. There was no restaurant on the block.
“We’re having dinner at my friend Mack’s house,” he said, shifting himself around in his pants. “His wife’s name is Beth.”
“You’re taking me to a dinner party?” Louise craned to see her hair in the rearview mirror. She’d picked the jeans and t-shirt she was wearing off of the floor that morning. Jack was wearing a suit.
“Don’t worry about it, kid, you look beautiful. I’m over-dressed,” he said. The driver, pointedly avoiding Louise’s gaze, opened her car door. She had no choice but to step out, Jack following behind. He ushered her up the brownstone’s steps and buzzed the doorbell. A pretty Hispanic woman opened the door. “Hi Mr. Jack,” she said, grinning. “You’re late! Now dinner is overcooked.”
Jack laughed. “Good Marta, then maybe some of it will be edible.”
Marta wagged her finger at Jack and pointed to the living room before sashaying down the hallway.
“I guess I should warn you, Mack and Beth are ‘raw foodists,’” Jack said, rolling his eyes. “After all that shit happened with the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP—”
“This is Mack Lake’s house?” Louise said, taking in the very formal, staid living room. It didn’t look like the lair of one of America’s formerly most-beloved and now most-reviled comedians. (Although Louise wasn’t sure what she expected from a comedian’s living room—whoopee cushions? Zany curtains?) ABC dumped Lake’s sitcom earlier in the year after he got on stage at a Friar’s Club roast for Jerry Lewis dressed in a combination of blackface and what he referred to, in the pirated clip that ran ad nauseum on the cable news networks, as “Jewface”—a huge hooked prosthetic nose, a bushy beard, sidelocks, and, the coup de grace, curling goat horns under his giant black hat.
“Yeah. Anyway, he and Beth went to India to teach orphans yoga or something and now they only eat sprouts.” Jack shrugged. “We go way back and he’s always stood by me. If the bunny food keeps him off the Oxy, I guess . . .” Jack shrugged again. “All that’s off the record, of course, Miss Magazine Journalist.”
“I told you, I wasn’t a reporter. I ran spell check,” Louise said. She went over to look at the Emmy on the mantel next to a statue of Ganesh and a picture of Mack Lake and a blond riding an elephant: him short and pasty, her tan and lanky, strings of brilliant orange marigolds around both their necks. Louise had always thought of Mack Lake as a milquetoast—his show was the sort-of cheery family fare they forced down your throat on airplanes. The Jewface incident was the first time he caught her attention—in fact, she’d been riveted. In the clip, he stumbled out, sang “Mammy” in Hebrew, weeping what looked to be real tears by the end, gave a short, incoherent soliloquy, told the audience to go fuck themselves, and then wandered off the stage. Suicide by freefall—Louise’s favorite.
“Namaste buddy,” a man’s voice said. Louise turned to see Mack Lake walk in, arms outstretched. He was wearing a knee-length white linen tunic with brown linen pants. He had a beard and his hair was long. On his TV show he’d always been clean cut. It was jarring to see him without a laugh track, in a new costume. He was like an action figure that came in multiple versions. Same face, same body, different hair and outfit. This was Swami Mack Lake, to be collected along with Jewface Mack Lake and Milquetoast Mack Lake. He walked over and wrapped Jack in a bear hug.
“Namaste, Jesus,” Jack said. “Like the get-up. Is Beth wearing a nun’s habit? That could be kind-of hot.”
Mack looked genuinely hurt. “Fuck you, man,” he said. “You’re over an hour late and now you’re insulting my kurta?” He ran his hand over the tunic. “It reminds me of Guru Saraswatti. You know, keeps me right-minded.”
Jack held up his hand. “Sorry, buddy. Just kidding. I actually like the beard.”
Mack went over to Louise, ignoring Jack. “So you must be Alison. Beth is so excited we’re finally getting together.” He extended his hand and then changed his mind, wrapping Louise in a bear hug, too. Louise looked over Mack’s shoulder at Jack. Who the fuck was Alison?
“Actually,” Jack said, “Alison couldn’t make it. This is Louise.”
“Oh, I thought . . . wasn’t this thing about Alison?”
“This afternoon,” Jack said, smiling evenly at Louise. She didn’t care—she was gestating another man’s baby right there in Mack Lake’s living room, for God’s sake—but she admired Jack’s smoothness. He wasn’t even breaking a sweat. “Did I mention this is Louise?”
“I thought Alison was the future mother of your children.”
“So did Alison. And, by the way, I appreciate your discretion. But this is the lovely Louise. How ‘bout a round of Namaste for her.”
Mack threw up his hands, shaking his head. “Namaste Louise,” he said, placing his hands in prayer and bowing.
“Namaste,” she said, looking over at Jack uncertainly. She bowed her head and Jack laughed.
“Let’s go find Beth,” Mack said. “I think she’s in the kitchen.” He led them down a flight of stairs. They walked past a dining room—the table elaborately set with dozens of candles and vases of fuchsia flowers—and into a huge kitchen, all white marble and sleek cabinetry. The blond from the elephant picture stood at an island in the center assembling what looked like sushi. Louise wasn’t sure if she looked familiar because she was an actress or because she looked like every other rich man’s beautiful, blond wife. She was dressed up in a fashiony-looking blouse—Louise knew enough to know it was designer and expensive—with jeans and heels and an apron over it.
“Beth, honey, this is Louise,” Mack said.
Beth shot Mack a death look. “Hi Alison, I’m sorry. My husband’s terrible with names. But I’m so excited to meet you, finally. The famous Alison, in our midst! We’ve been hearing so much about you. Thank God there’s finally another girl around here—hanging out with these guys, it’s been a total sausage festival for years.” She laughed. She was talking a mile a minute. “I’d shake your hand, but I’m up to my elbows in avocado and nori.” She held up her hands. “Oh, did you notice the blouse—isn’t it great? Thank you so much for sending all that stuff down!”
“Actually—” Louise started, but Mack cut her off.
“Alison’s gone. This is Louise, really.”
Beth looked confused, took in Jack’s grin, then looked annoyed. She gazed down at her tray of raw do-hickeys, regrouping. She pushed a stray clump of hair away from her eyes with the back of her hand and then gave Louise a tight smile. “Oh, okay, great,” she said. “Sorry Louise, it’s so nice to meet you.” There was an open bottle of champagne on the counter with two full flutes next to it. “Would you like a glass of champagne, Louise?”
“Oh, I . . . I don’t drink,” Louise said, looking at the wine longingly.
“Of course not,” Beth said, taking a gulp from one of the flutes. “Cheers to me! Party of one!”
“As you can see, Louise,” Mack said, “my wife is supporting my recovery by giving me as many opportunities as possible to resist temptation.”
Beth smirked and drained her glass. “Jack, why don’t you and Louise go into the dining room and help yourselves to the sparkling water,” she said. “Mack, I need your help in here.”
“She’s in her room. I gave her the night off,” Beth said. “I wanted this to be special, intimate.” Her nostrils flared.
Jack and Louise skulked off to the dining room, where the sounds of Beth and Mack bickering were somewhat muted.
“I’m sorry I’m not Alison,” Louise said.
Jack pushed her up against the wall. It was upholstered in hot pink damask and rather comfortable, for a wall. “I’m glad you’re not Alison.” He kissed her. “Alison, just so we can clear this up, was a bunny boiler who was never going to be the mother of my children. Beth had high hopes because she worked at Prada. I think Mack’s been tight with the clothing allowance. But Alison was just a woman I went out with—and not very much lately. Okay?”
“You don’t need to explain. I don’t even know you,” Louise said.
“Well, let’s fix that,” he said, kissing her neck and running his hand over her breast.
They heard Beth and Mike coming down the hall, Mike hissing at Beth, “Enough, Beth. Give it a rest. It’s not about you.”
Beth gave a disgusted laugh. “Just let me know when one thing in our life is about me.” They came into the dining room carrying platters and wearing fake smiles. Louise thought they should be better actors, being actors and all. Jack had taken his hand off Louise’s breast, but he was still leaning into her, one hand against the wall. Beth rolled her eyes a little. “Hands off the upholstery, Jack.”
“Let me help you,” Louise said to Beth, reaching for the platter. Beth had her champagne flute in her other hand and the bottle tucked under her arm.
“That’s okay,” Beth said, turning her shoulder to Louise. “I waitressed for years back in my auditioning days in L.A. I guess I really am a cliché in every way, right Mike?”
Mike sighed and took Beth’s platter from her and put the food on the table. Then he took her empty flute and the champagne. He poured her a full glass, put it at her place at the table—there were place cards, with “Beth,” “Mike,” “Jack,” and “Alison” written out in fragile, loopy script—and kissed her on the end of her nose. “Clichés exist because we love them,” he said. Beth’s pretty mouth turned up, just a little. “Now, can we eat? Jack, Louise, do you want to sit down? Beth, you want to tell them what we’ve got here?”
Jack took Louise’s hand and led her to her seat. It was a large rectangular table and the four of them were marooned in the center, Jack and Louise across from Beth and Mike, as though they were lawyers embarking on a negotiating session.
“Well, these are some asparagus and avocado sushi rolls,” Beth said, pointing to one platter, “and this is a mache salad with blackberries and cashew cheese.” Louise held her breath, hoping Jack wouldn’t make a joke about the cashew cheese. “Louise, I hope you like veggies. Alison was a vegetarian, so—”
“Beth, for the love of God—” Mike said, setting his seltzer glass down heavily.
“No, I’m just saying, I didn’t think about meat eaters. I could have gotten some cold cuts or sashimi if I’d known,” she said, turning to Louise. “We had our stove taken out so I couldn’t roast a chicken even if I wanted to.”
“I love vegetables,” Louise said. She wondered if this was what it was like for her and Martin’s guests when they had dinner parties—the tension, the squabbling, the tipsy, depressed hostess. She resolved to be nice to Beth. “I’d probably be vegetarian if it weren’t for bacon. This looks delicious.”
Beth begrudged her a smile.
“Bacon’s my favorite food,” Jack said, staring at the leaves and shoots.
“You should be eating like this, Jack,” Beth said. “Mike doesn’t even crave alcohol anymore, right Mike?”
“It’s true. I slipped and had some cheese and crackers at that thing at Barry’s and I swear to God, Beth had to practically sling me over her shoulder and drag me home to keep me away from the bar. That shit ferments in your stomach, Jack. It’s all just alcohol. Baked, fried, roasted alcohol.”
Jack chopsticked a ball of sushi into his mouth. “How was Barry’s, anyway?”
“Shitty. Fucking back-stabbing fat fuck. He dropped me. Beth, too,” Mike said.
Jack shrugged. “So, you’ll get another agent, better one. Call Gail. She knows how to handle a come back. I’ll tell her to expect your call.”
“Doesn’t matter. I don’t need an agent,” Mike said, picking at his food. “I’m retired.”
“Oh, don’t be such a pussy. It will blow over.” Jack was shoveling mache into his face, not looking up at Mike. Louise found herself getting turned on watching him. Martin had always eaten so slowly, as though he only ate out of a sense of duty. He put his fork down between bites, paused to take sips of water. Louise would finish her own food and then have to sit and watch Martin’s jaw working, up and down, up and down, interminably, infuriatingly.
“The public has a short attention span,” Jack said. “If you forget about it, they’ll forget about it. You’re too talented to sit around here feeling sorry for yourself.”
“I don’t feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for them,” Mike said. “I don’t want the work. I don’t need the work. I have enough money. Who wants to dance around like a fucking prostitute, selling your fucking soul on a soundstage twelve hours a day for a bunch of fat, retarded fucks who don’t even get the joke? Who only laugh at the unfunny stuff?”
Jack and Beth were looking at their plates—Jack was eating and Beth appeared to be contemplating throwing hers at her husband—so Mike turned to Louise. “Did you know they focus grouped the show before it aired every week, Louise? Left all the funny on the cutting room floor. Do you know how humiliating it is, every week, to have a show, with your name on it, that’s like a fucking instructional video on how not to be funny? Millions of years from now, when we’ve all been annihilated by aliens, the little green alien archeologists will dig up tapes of The Mike Lake Show and I will be known, throughout the universe, as earth’s least funny life-form. The aliens will puzzle over why people filmed me instead of, like, lasering me to death.”
Louise didn’t know what to say.
“I mean, I was high, I was drunk. I own that, that was my mistake. But nobody even remembers Al Jolson? Nobody gets it? Louise, do you know what my real name is?”
Louise shook her head.
“Malluch Lochstein. My parents were Orthodox Jews, for the love of Christ. And do you know what Al Jolson’s real name was?”
Louise shook her head again.
“Asa Yoelson. He was a Jew who did black face—he was the one who made “Mammy” a hit—and it made stupid white people okay with seeing Jews and blacks on stage. Nobody saw the Jazz Singer? He was like a fucking civil rights worker. But where did that get us, Louise?”
Louise didn’t think he wanted to hear what came to mind—“It got you a multi-million dollar brownstone and a wife who’s much hotter than you are?”—so she just continued to shake her head sympathetically.
“It got us focus-grouped. Like monkeys in a lab. Fucking trained monkeys. Not artists. Monkeys.”
“Mike.” Beth put down her chopsticks and covered her eyes.
“No, Beth, it’s not right. See? Even Louise knows it’s not right,” he said. “And why the fuck does it mean you can’t get work? Barry’s a shithead. This whole country is fucked. We’re moving to France.”
“Yeah, I hear France is a paradise of racial harmony,” Jack said, looking over at Louise, shaking his head and smiling apologetically.
“I stopped working because you wanted me to stop,” Beth said, pouring more champagne. The raw food didn’t seem to be curbing her alcohol cravings. “It has nothing to do with this. Can we please just get through one night without the semiotics of Al Jolson and the alien overlords not laughing at your show? Please? One night? If you won’t do it for me, do it for Louise.” Beth gestured toward Louise with her glass and let out a short laugh.
Louise held up her hands—please don’t worry about me. She was enjoying the floor show and, in fact, her cashew cheese. To call herself and Jack a “couple” was laughable—or certifiable—but she was savoring for once being the duo at the table who least needed emergency couples therapy.
Jack shoveled some more sushi onto his plate and then pointed his chopsticks at Mike. “I think you need a meeting or to call Guru Swatti-whatever. Time to halt. Right, Louise?”
Louise didn’t know what he was talking about—more twelve-step mumbo jumbo, she guessed—but she nodded enthusiastically. She was going to see if she could get through the rest of the evening without speaking. It seemed to be working for her.
“Don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely, tired.” Jack used his chopsticks to tick them off on the fingers of his other hand. “H.A.L.T. Eat your dinner and stop working yourself up.”
Mike was scowling at his plate, playing with an asparagus tip, trying to get it to stand up on its end, like a teeny phallus. “Fine. Sorry Louise.”
“Thank you, Jack,” Beth said. They all crunched in silence for a few minutes, trying to think of what to say next—except Louise, who was wondering what Alison would have said next.
“So, Louise, tell us, how did you two meet?” Beth asked.
Louise looked at Jack, hoping he’d answer for her, but his mouth was full. He waved her on. Louise was afraid the truth would set Beth off again. It was bad enough that she wasn’t Alison; she couldn’t bring herself to admit she was the mealtime equivalent of a one night stand. “Jack’s a friend of my late husband’s family.” It was more or less true.
Jack gave her a surprised smile as he chomped. Good one. She could see Beth reconsidering her as not just one of Jack’s floozy tarts, but as a floozy tart who had a dead husband with a family. “I’m sorry to hear that about your husband,” Beth said. “Was he very old?” In other words, was it Louise’s modus operandi to marry older men and then fornicate them into heart failure?
“No,” Louise said. “He was very young.” She felt a lump rise in her throat and her eyes filled. What was wrong with her? Were pregnancy hormones already making her an emotional wreck?
Beth looked chastened. “I’m sorry, I . . .”
Jack took Louise’s hand. “So what’s next, Beth?” he said. Beth looked at him blankly. “To eat. What delight do you have in store for us next?”
“Oh! Right, yes. Mung bean cakes with a sweet potato puree. Let me just run and get them,” she said, hopping up and clearing the platters. “Mike?” Mike was still pouting.
“Oh, yeah, let me help you, baby,” he said, listlessly, and gathered the dirty plates and chopsticks as she walked out. Instead of following her to the kitchen, though, he just shoved the pile to the other end of the table and sat back down.
Jack watched Mike seriously. “How are things going between you two?” he asked. “Is she going to Al-Anon?”
Mike shrugged. “I don’t think so. She’s not on board, Jack,” he said. “She just wants me to go back to being America’s Sweetheart. She doesn’t care about my sobriety. With the champagne and the shopping—she acts like nothing’s changed. She came home with a fucking fifteen thousand dollar sequined gown last week. I was like, ‘Are you planning on wearing this to power yoga? Because there ain’t gonna be any more red carpets.’” He shook his head. He was getting worked up again. “When we were in India it was all like,” Mike put on a simpering tone, “‘I love you no matter what, you’re my soulmate, baby.’ But now, you know, she goes out with her girlfriends and I know she eats meat. I can smell it on her.”
They heard Beth coming back down the hallway. When she came in and saw the pile of dirty plates on the other end of the table, she slammed down the platter she was carrying, gathered the dishes, and clattered back out of the dining room.
“See? She’s always like that,” Mike said, taking a forkful of the sweet potato puree off the platter.
Louise could tell that Jack was trying not to smile; he put his hand over his mouth. “Maybe you need to look at your part,” Jack said. “You know what I say, ‘Happy wife, happy life.’”
“What the fuck do you know? You haven’t been married since 1986 and I don’t remember your wife being particularly happy,” Mike said, with a sneer.
Jack didn’t take the bait. “I learned from my mistakes.” He laughed. “Those who can’t do, teach.”
Mike laughed a little too, nodding his head and scratching his beard. When Beth stomped back in and sat down, Mike leaned over and touched her hair and murmured, “Sorry, Bethy.” She ignored him. A little Y-shaped vein had popped out on her forehead and her cheeks were flushed.
Mike tried again. “This is delicious, baby. The sweet potatoes are like sugar. I’m telling you guys,” he turned to Jack and Louise, “since I’ve been eating this way, I’ll eat a sweet pea and it’s like fucking dessert. Fruit is almost too much.” He spooned another clump of potatoes into his mouth from the platter.
“I actually juiced up the potatoes with a tiny bit of maple syrup,” Beth said, pouring her fourth glass of champagne.
Mike spit the potatoes onto his plate, a spattering of orange landing on the tablecloth. “Maple syrup?”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Beth said, recoiling.
“What’s wrong with me? I can’t eat that stuff, Beth. Maple syrup is cooked.”
Beth started portioning out the mung bean cakes, not looking at Mike. “It comes out of trees, baby,” she said, her voice unnaturally high. “Maple trees.”
“No, baby. The sap comes out of the trees and then they boil it, for hours,” Mike said. He took his napkin out of his lap and began wiping his tongue off with it.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Mike,” she snapped. “It was like a teaspoon in the whole dish.”
Mike sat for a moment, glowering at his mung bean cake. “No!” he suddenly shouted, throwing his napkin down and standing up. “I’ve had enough of your fucking sabotage.” He ran his hands through his Jesus hair and paced in front of the doorway. “I need to get out of here. I’ve gotta go call my sponsor.” He turned to Louise, a look of desperation on his face. “But don’t let me spoil the night. Please . . .” he waved his hand over the table. “You know, enjoy.” And then he turned and was gone, taking the stairs two at a time.
Jack and Louise looked across the table at Beth, who sat in front of the platter of mung beans and poisoned sweet potatoes, ashen.
“I think Beth needs some time alone, too,” Jack said. “I think we should go, Louise.” He took her hand, led her around the table, and gave Beth’s shoulder a quick squeeze before trudging up the stairs. Louise paused in the doorway. Beth was hugging herself and rocking, her shoulders slumped in defeat. Impulsively, Louise went over to the table and grabbed a fork. She shoveled a big gob of the potatoes from the platter into her mouth. They were cold and repulsively sweet. “I think these are delicious,” she said to Beth, choking them down. “Thank you for having me.”
Beth kept her face turned away from Louise and fluttered her hand limply in the direction of the door. As Louise walked up the stairs, she heard Beth begin to sob raggedly. Louise and Jack gathered their coats and let themselves out.
The temperature had dropped and Jack put his arm around Louise’s shoulder, rubbing her arm to keep her warm. “Sorry about that,” he said. Louise could see his car parked a few doors down, the driver slumped onto the steering wheel, asleep. Jack looked at his watch and then took both her hands so she was facing him. “Two choices,” he said. “One, you get in my car and my driver will take you home and I’ll call you tomorrow and take you out for a real dinner to make all this up to you. Second choice, and I hope this isn’t presumptuous—second choice, you come over to my place and let me make you my famous pancakes. I’m not trying to influence your choice, but they have bacon in them. And then I’ll still call you tomorrow and take you out for a real dinner.”
Louise’s stomach growled. She was ravenous. “I’ve never been able to resist bacon,” she said.
Rachael Combe is an editor-at-large and health columnist at ELLE magazine. She is a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and is at work on her first novel.