Page 39

“I mean, she’s a really good cook?”

Calvin laughs. “Are you asking me, or telling me?”

Jeff clears his throat and then coughs into his fist, looking at me. “That’s going to be hard. I admire so many things.”

“Aww, Jeffie.” I lean over and kiss him on the cheek.

“I think I admire that she, more than anyone I know, tries to be circumspect about her successes and failures, and who she is. She tries to see herself clearly—both kindly and critically—and I think she’s generally pretty spot-on.”

It’s one of the best, most unexpected compliments of my life, and I’m left momentarily speechless.

“She’s also pretty funny,” Jeff adds, and Lulu is already protesting.

“You only get one,” she says, but Calvin is quick to interject.

“Yeah, but she’s class,” he says with a cheeky smile in my direction. “So I’ll let that infraction slide.”

Calvin asks a couple more general ones—what’s their favorite thing to do with me, what sort of music do I listen to, what sort of movies do I hate, what do I always order at restaurants—before ending with “What bothers you about Holland?”

“Hey!” I protest.

He takes my hand, squeezing. “Come on. I think this is really interesting.”

Damn him. It’s impossible to deny him when think comes out as tink.

“She won’t take risks,” Lulu answers immediately.

“Hello?” I point to Calvin. “Risk, right here.”

She snorts. “I dunno. That’s a pretty fine-looking risk.”

Calvin leans a little closer to me.

Gene thinks for a minute before giving yet another shrug. “She, um, I don’t know, won’t ever call me Lulu’s boyfriend?”

“To be fair,” I argue, “Lulu doesn’t call you her boyfriend.”

Gene laughs. “True. Why won’t you call me your boyfriend, Lu?”

“Because we’re not sixteen? Would you be happier if I called you my manfriend?”

“Yeah, actually.”

While they’re bantering, I look at Jeff, unsure whether I want to hear his answer. He’s already doing that thing where he licks his lips in preparation for saying something difficult.

“What I said before was true,” he says quietly, as if he’s speaking only to me, “about how Holland tries to see herself clearly and seems to end up in a pretty good place. But I also think she sees herself as a supporting character, even in her own life story.”

Just as I was thrown by his compliment, I am equally—and conversely—thrown by his criticism. It lands with a resonating bong. Has Jeff just hit on the truth behind my biggest roadblock? For nearly a year I’ve been trying to come up with an idea for my first novel, and nothing is there. Is it because books aren’t about side characters, and those are the only voices in my head?

The room has gone quiet.

I lift my drink, finishing it and holding it out to Lulu to refill. “I feel like an insect under a microscope now.” With Lulu and Gene here, this is way more uncomfortable than I’d anticipated. “Let’s get the fun part going.”

The bidding begins. Calvin starts out easy—what’s Holland’s favorite movie?

Even Gene knows this one—we saw it down at the Beekman together a few weeks ago. At Lulu’s pointed stare from across the room, he tosses in a chip. “Is it Blues Brothers?”

“Correct,” I say.

“A time Holland cried,” Calvin prompts.

Jeff throws in a chip, but Lulu throws in two, and he gives her this one. Instead of saying something heartfelt, she tells the story of the time I got wasted and slipped while crossing Madison and Fifty-Ninth, and started sobbing because I couldn’t find the sunglasses that were on my head.

“Thanks for that, Lulu. And for what it’s worth, they were pink and limited edition. It was more about frugality than feelings.”

She salutes me.

Calvin takes another bite of dinner and swallows before asking, “Something Holland is sentimental about?”

Without throwing in any chips, Jeff and Lulu call out, “Gladys” in unison, and Jeff explains: “She has a stuffed dog named Gladys that she’s had since she was three. It was a birthday present from Robert, who, you will learn, is Holland’s favorite person alive.”

“It’s true,” I agree. “I’m not really sentimental otherwise.”

“Your most embarrassing story?” Calvin asks.

Lulu throws in a chip and starts speaking before Jeff has a chance to bid: “Oh, I got this one. She had sex with a guy one night and there was a ton of air in her—”

I smack my hand down on the coffee table. “OH MY GOD, LULU.”

Everyone goes deathly silent, and it might be because we’ve killed them all with the horror of this visual. Lulu looks around as if she’s only now registering the audience.

“I can live a thousand years,” Jeff says, “and never hear the rest of this story.”

“Why do I ever confide in you?” I ask her, genuinely annoyed.

She sounds surprisingly contrite. “Because my stories are always worse?”

“I was thinking less about ‘Holland with a boyfriend’ type of scundered,” Calvin says, “and more inebriated hijinks.”

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