What could be better than a novel that begins with a quote from X-Men? Gabriel Roth's debut The Unknowns does just that. Sebastian Faulks says it's 'fast, funny, [and] full of snappy dialogue'.
Click here to download a pdf of the opening scene to read on your ereader or desktop, or scroll down to read the extract on your mobile device.
I need the absolute control over my optic blasts that my ruby quartz visor affords me.
– Scott ‘Cyclops’ Summers, X-Men 136
It’s important to choose the right moment to arrive at a party. You want to get there after the vertiginous first hour, when the early arrivals stand awkwardly around the kitchen, but in time for the next phase, when the noise level reaches some threshold and triggers a feedback loop and everyone starts raising their voices to be heard. At such a moment it’s possible to imagine that this party will live up to the promise inherent in the notion of a party.
But as I step through the door of Cynthia’s apartment at 10:32, it’s clear that tonight that promise will go unfulfilled. A voice barely carries down the empty corridor from the kitchen, mingling with the faint jangle of a boom box. In the nearest room a few sad coats are piled on the bed. Tonight people will stand around drinking beer from plastic cups, talking about their bosses or their dissertations, before going home to masturbate.
I add my jacket to the heap and proceed to the kitchen, carrying a gift wrapped in brown paper and a six-pack of bottled beer. With so few guests it will be harder to hide, to lean against the wall as if waiting for someone. At a crowded party you can make three slow circuits of the premises, turning sideways to slip past the people in line for the bathroom, and then leave without self-reproach. The fewer guests, the more you’re implicated in the event’s success or failure.
Cynthia emerges from the kitchen at the sound of my footsteps. “You made it!” she says, as though I’d done something more hazardous than ride in a taxi.
To extend the moment alone with her before the introductions, I steer her into her bedroom and present the wrapped box. I have been rich for a little less than five months. She peels the tape off, then unfolds the paper as though preserving it for later use. When she sees that it’s a camera she makes an enthusiastic noise, but it takes her a second to recognize the brand and assimilate the specs and understand that it’s a better camera than she’d first thought. “Wait, this is too much,” she says.
After all of Cynthia’s benevolent interventions into my life, an expensive piece of consumer electronics is not an extravagance. But nothing about being rich is as simple as you might imagine.
“Hey, I can afford it now,” I say.
She frowns and then, reading my face, takes on the appearance of a woman seized by inspiration. “Oh my God, I know what I’m going to do,” she says. “I had this idea at work: I’m going to start a photo series of the pills my clients have to take. Like, one shot for each dose, which is five or six a day, and then at the end the patient’s face. But the pills in super-close-up, so you can see the textures, because some of them are capsules so they’re smooth and red and blue like rockets and others are tablets so they’ll have this grainy organic texture like a sand sculpture.” This hypothetical project began as a scheme to justify the gift, but now she’s caught up in it.
Cynthia decided she was a lesbian about six months ago. It wasn’t without foreshadowing: she has pictures of Claire Danes up on her wall, and she’s told me about jokey little crushes on women, and once she said she regretted sitting out the dorm-room experiments of sophomore year, which made me sorrier than ever that I didn’t go to college. And now, even though she’s turning twenty-five and it’s embarrassingly late, she’s coming out. A shorter haircut seems imminent, as does sex with a woman. A week ago she made out with a twenty-one-year-old named Ayelet.
“So is she here?” I say.
“I don’t think she’s coming,” Cynthia says, setting the camera on the bed. “It’s pretty mellow so far. A lot of people are out of town.”
“That’s what you get for being born in December.”
In the kitchen I can identify two of eight people. Cynthia’s roommate Gretchen, who is thin and pretty and not interested in me, is talking to a bald man in suspenders. And standing by the fridge with two women is Justin. Justin is a firefighter; he rides in the truck and everything. He went to college with Cynthia, then moved out here to go to grad school in urban planning, and then right after the terrorist attacks last year, when America was going through its little love affair with firefighters, he quit school and signed up with the SFFD and now he walks with the quiet confidence that comes when you stare death in the face every day and save innocent lives and think of yourself without hesitation as a man. Justin is also taller than I am. He greets me as I put the beer in the fridge, and then he introduces me to the women he’s talking to, and I make the first in a series of mistakes that will lead me, standing in a taqueria some weeks hence, to pray that I have not been recognized.
I shake hands with them from right to left, calibrating my grip to coed handshake strength. The one on the right is Lauren: nice curly blond hair, a big bulbous nose, bad khaki pants that she probably wore to work. Sweet, shy, works in some kind of helping-people job, a little insecure about her weight, a couple of flowy Deadhead skirts in the back of her closet. And on the left is Maya. Small body, small features, chestnut hair in a shaggy bob, neolibrarian glasses. A subtle smile at the corners of her eyes that says I see through you entirely and find you benign but a bit ridiculous. Girls spend years working on that look without reaching Maya’s level. Anything I might say to such a woman would be a line, and would hang curdling in the air on leaving my mouth, so I open a conversation with Lauren.
“How do you know Justin?” I say.
“We used to volunteer at the something something Homeless something together,” she says as I calculate a follow-up question.
“Used to?” I say. “What, did you decide to stop wasting your time helping homeless people?”
A smile. “No, I went to Latin America for a year.”
“Oh yeah? Where in Latin America?” I ask, because it would be rude to say what I’m really thinking, which is What is it with you white girls and Latin America? The Latin America phase that Bay Area girls go through in their early twenties, their attempts to transcend their whiteness via Frida Kahlo and salsa dancing, has always puzzled me. As Lauren begins the familiar litany – Ecuador, Costa Rica, “the D.R.” – Maya and Justin head out the door to go have sex in the bathroom or something.
“How do you know Cynthia?” she asks me.
“We went to high school together,” I tell her. “I knew her when her name was Cindy and she was dating boys.” I should mitigate the joke about wasting her time. “So do you work in homeless services?”
“I work at a nonprofit, but it’s mostly policy around housing issues,” she says. “What about you? What do you do?”
This is a difficult one, because right now I don’t do anything, and what I used to do was a combination of computer programming and business, which Lauren would find arcane and distasteful respectively. There are women who would be interested to learn that you’ve made a lot of money, but they don’t live in San Francisco, work at nonprofits, and travel around Latin America. So I say, “Oh, I started an Internet company,” and shrug to acknowledge the fact that, in the Bay Area in 2002, this is a cliché.
She asks about the company. “It’s a consumer profiling system,” I tell her, hoping this dry phrase will prompt a subject change, but she’s tenacious.
“Assume you’re talking to a fourth-grader,” she says.
“We give you special offers, like a discount at an online store or something,” I say. “And in exchange, everything you do on the Internet – everything you read, everything you click, everything you buy – is tracked and stored and put in a database. Not your email, obviously, or your banking, but all your public activities online. All that data could be compared with the data for millions of other people, and from there you can be categorized as, let’s say, Espresso Granola, or, uh, DIY PYT.”
“Whoa,” she says with a theatrical shudder. Now I seem slightly scary. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, especially when you factor in the acronymic compliment, but I should balance it with some self-deprecation.
“So I built a program to gather and keep track of all that stuff,” I say. “And then I sold it to a bigger company, and now I bore unsuspecting women at parties who have the misfortune to ask me what I do.”
I’m watching her responses closely throughout. Visibly paying attention is crucial, especially when you’re talking about yourself and thus at risk of appearing not to pay attention. When I was maybe thirteen I heard my mother on the phone with her friend Stacey, talking about the latest of her post-divorce near-boyfriends, each of whom had some insurmountable flaw (no job, drank too much, participated in Civil War reenactments). My mom, defending this guy, said, “I know, I know, but … he pays attention to me.” I remember hearing Stacey say, “That can go a long way” (although obviously that part is an invention of memory; they were on the phone), and my mother saying, “Exactly.”
But I’d like to check on Maya in case there’s an opening, and I can’t just look over Lauren’s shoulder, or I’ll be one of those guys who look over your shoulder while you’re talking. I’m getting worried, because this conversation is going pretty well, and if it lasts much longer Maya will be off-limits. (I’m assuming their friendship contains a tacit noncompete clause.) “I’m going to get a drink,” I say. “Do you need anything?”
She’s hardly touched her vodka and cranberry, so I’m free to head to the other end of the kitchen and glance at the people milling in the hall. The population has increased, but not to the Malthusian degree it would take to make the party memorable. Gretchen is leaning against the sink talking to two women with their arms around each other’s waists. They look like some complicated riff on butch/femme stereotypes: one wears a slip dress and too much makeup, the other a baseball cap and low-slung jeans, but the former is large and hirsute while her partner is waifish and delicate and kind of stunning. It’s hard to tell if the arrangement is deliberate irony or just an unusual intersection of body type and sexual self-identification. Of the new arrivals, the only one I recognize is a coworker of Cynthia’s who once started a conversation with me about hip-hop. (He liked certain kinds of hip-hop but not other kinds.) I’m standing at the little bottle-crammed table pouring Coke into whiskey when Maya is suddenly next to me.
“Could you fix me a gin and tonic?” she asks. The proximity of her body is overpowering.
“Sure,” I say. There must be more to say than that, although I can’t think of what it could be.
Maya says, “Thanks,” rotates 180 degrees, and goes back to talking to Justin. When I hand her the drink a minute later she takes it without even interrupting her conversation to say thank you – a kind of antiflirting and hence a kind of flirting, an effortless triangulation, arousing hope and jealousy in us both. Well played, Maya.
And I’m still left with no one to talk to except Lauren, and every minute I spend talking to Lauren takes me further out of the game vis-à-vis Maya. I scan the room as if I’m looking for someone specific who was here a minute ago. Lauren is examining the Magnetic Poetry set on the fridge, the special Lesbian Pride edition, half words like dyke and cunt and partner and dog and the other half prepositions. Gretchen is smashing a bag of ice against the counter to break it up. Maya is laughing at Justin, who appears to be doing an impression of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. Cynthia’s voice comes from down the hall, and something characteristically trusty about its timbre makes me regret getting her the camera. It is at this moment, as I stand alone in my friend’s kitchen, my right hand fingering a little Ziploc bag in my pocket, that I conceive my ill-fated plan.
Inhale, exhale, commit.
I return to Lauren and pick up where we left off. See, I just went to get a drink. I break out some intermediate-level tactics: Asking a Question That Refers to Something I Learned About Her Earlier; Suggesting We Continue the Conversation Sitting Down. We move to the grubby couch in the living room, which is not as comfortable as it looks because the cushions are fifteen years old and have had the buoyancy squashed out of them. The party has finally overspilled the kitchen, and guests stand in clusters around the swept-out room. Lauren and I sit at forty-five-degree angles and turn our heads the rest of the way to face each other. I don’t do anything sexually assertive like holding eye contact or casually touching her arm. I watch closely for signs that her interest is waning. I tell her the How I Was Unfairly Accused of Making Obscene Phone Calls story, probably my #1 anecdote: funny, raunchy but not dirty, unbraggadocious. I wait for her post-anecdotal No way! Really?s to dry up, and then I pull the trigger.
“Hey, I don’t know if this is something you’re up for,” I say, “but I’ve got some Ecstasy with me.” That’s bold enough, and I pause to let it register, but it’s only step one. “And I was wondering if you guys” – I incline my head toward the kitchen to indicate Maya and Justin – “would be up for doing some.”
“Oh my God, I don’t know,” she says. “I mean, I haven’t done it in a really long time.”
“All the more reason,” I say. Do I sound like I’m pressuring her? Pull back. “Listen, if this isn’t a good night for it, that’s cool. But if you guys feel like it, we can hang out and do it here, or we can go back to someone’s house, or whatever.” Like a salesman I stop talking and let her dismiss her remaining objections herself.
“I think I want to do it,” she says, and how could she not? Everyone loves Ecstasy. “But I have to talk to Maya.”
“I’ve totally got enough for those guys,” I say. It would be great if there were a way to exclude Justin from the invitation, but I can’t see one that doesn’t push the sleaze factor, already dangerously high, into the red. “Go talk them into it.”
I stay on the couch and watch through the kitchen doorway as she engages Maya and Justin in a little huddle. I’m hoping to see a flash of excitement on Maya’s face; what I see instead is Lauren explaining something and Maya touching her arm and nodding. “It’s fine,” Maya says twice. Justin looks over at me with a vaguely cynical expression.
And now Lauren is heading back toward me with a nervous grin, alone, and five minutes later the two of us are in a taxi, hurtling up to the Richmond, where she apparently lives, and I’m leaving the party with a girl but it’s the wrong girl, and I’m unsure whether I should be feeling remorse or triumph.