Could you not do this, Tom?” Robin said, applying a layer of oxblood to her lips in the visor mirror. “Tonight is supposed to be fun.” § Tom Lyon turned to the passenger seat, where his wife was touching up her look for the evening, a stylish approximation of an Air France stewardess. The black pencil skirt, sailor-stripe top, and beret suited her narrow frame and vaguely Euro features—green gimlet eyes, that full-lipped pout. He should have told her so. She was 40 and feeling it, even if she could pass for 37. But the simmering stress between them left no room for generosity and the compliment died in his mouth, like a character in one of their unfinished screenplays.
The lawnmower engine of their Honda Civic hybrid—the car they said they bought to save on gas, but really on cars—shuddered off. Tom stepped into the relentless L.A. sunshine and immediately started to sweat. It didn’t help that he was wearing a black shirt and black pants, his own not-so-stylish approximation of a French waiter.
“What?” Robin asked, lifting a box of party supplies out of the trunk.
“Is supposed to be fun?”
“Spending our Saturday night dressed like servants in a house we wanted to buy? Or making up excuses for not having worked in a year?”
Robin started up the driveway. “These are our school friends. All they care about is that our kids have nice playdates.”
They walked past two massive black SUVs. “What is this, a car dealership for Bond villains?”
“Enough, Tom. Seriously.”
No good cause goes unpunished, he considered saying, but didn’t. At the annual school fundraiser, Robin and her two best friends had auctioned off a dinner party for eight, called French Bohemian Rhapsody, to be catered by them at the home of the winner. Which is where they were now. A 1920s hacienda generously set back from a palm-lined boulevard. When the realtor showed it to them, right after they had moved from New York three years ago, Tom cracked that it looked like a Mexican jail, with its peeling stucco and small, barred windows. They could have just afforded it, before their nest egg shrank from ostrich to hummingbird. Then a hedge-fund potentate named Bruce Barnz snapped up the house. Coincidentally, they were all parents in the same class—kindergarten, not income.
Aspen Barnz, a five-year-old girl with an unrequited crush on Tom and Robin’s son, Dash, answered the door. “You’re supposed to go in the kitchen,” she said, and led the way into a temple of steel and granite devoted to the worship of the modern household gods—Viking, Sub-Zero, Miele. At the island altar, sacrificing a slab of raw tuna, was Gary Hannelin, another kindergarten dad.
“Ready to play Upstairs Downstairs?” he said, with a grin.
Tom liked Gary, a location manager by trade who had deferred his film-school dreams and was only really passionate about one location now—the kitchen.
“Becca, grab me the big knife, would ya?”
Gary’s wife, Rebecca, was his spiritual and physical opposite: a skinny upsider. They both wore white chef’s tunics, Gary’s with a meat thermometer in the pocket like a boutonniere.
Becca handed over a gleaming butcher blade and Gary began tartarreing the tuna with controlled violence.
Robin put on a big smile: “You two look so pro!”
Tom kissed June hello: “Top Chef: Married Edition!”
The masks were on for the night, Robin’s more genuine than Tom’s. This was her world. Raising money for the school. The circle of “cool” moms she had infiltrated as soon as they got to L.A. while Tom holed up in their un-air-conditioned home office Googling the credits of more successful writers. Robin had friends. Tom had competition.
“Yo, kitchen staff,” said Ashley Roth from the breakfast table. Ashley wore the same sailor top, pencil skirt, and coquettishly cocked beret as Robin. But her ensemble looked designer, not thrift shop. She was hunched over a pile of two-by-three place cards, illustrating them with a child’s watercolor set. “I can’t look up or this French sailboat’s going to look like a blue vagina. And I’ve already got one of those.”
She jerked her chin at her husband, Jeremy Roth, who was standing in the pantry doorway thumbing his BlackBerry. “Just keepin’ the lights on, Ash,” Jeremy said. With his shaved head, perma-stubble, and “the law” tattooed on the inside of his forearm, Jeremy was as badass as a Harvard-trained Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer could be. So it was some consolation to see him in a faux French waiter get-up, too. Tom was halfway through a complex shoulder-bump-finger-snap greeting with Roth when a high, girlish voice cut through the kitchen’s busy sizzle and chop.
“Shut the eff up! This is, like, bananas.”
It was Elayna Barnz, their hostess for the night. In her tank top and low-slung Juicy sweats, Elayna looked, and talked, like a reality-TV-star tabloid blonde, half her dialogue bleeped, affectlessly hot.
“Do not kiss me,” she warned Tom as he grazed a cheek warm with sweat. “I’m dis-gusting. My trainer so doesn’t care I’m pregs. He made me do, like, an effing hour of core work.”
“Should you be mixing with le help?” Tom said, in his worst Peter Sellers French.
Elayna stifled a giggle and shoved Robin. “When you guys write together, are you, like, dying?”
“Dying,” Robin replied.
But not together, Tom would have amended. They used to commune in front of the computer, every script a true co-production. She drilled down on story and character. He did the jokes and had the occasional “big idea.” But lately they toiled separately—Tom sweating it out in their hotbox home office, Robin offsite at some holistic javateria. More efficient that way, they told themselves. The real reason was their shattered confidence and reflexive second-guessing. Neither could put an idea out there without fear of the other shooting it down.
Elayna picked up one of the watercolored place cards and pronounced them genius. The bump at her midriff, Aspen’s incubating sibling, was a stark reminder to the IVF veterans in the room that Elayna was closer to the beginning of her fertility cycle than the end. Her youth was a drug to Tom, who had started lying to his own son about his age. “So you’re . . . 43?” Dash would periodically confirm, to Tom’s shame. His previous Elayna fix had been a swim playdate at the pool in the Barnz backyard. While Dash and Aspen splashed and flailed in the after-school sun, Tom told amusing stories about an infant CPR class he took in the prenatal panic of a first-time father. After the lesson, Aspen whispered something in her mother’s ear and Elayna casually dispensed a tan-lined 34C from her bikini top for her daughter’s afternoon snack. Tom had heard of five-year-olds breast-feeding, but he’d never seen it. Dash gaped in brazen fascination. Tom could only steal Ray-Banned glances at nipples you could dial a telephone with, as Stravinsky once said of the women in Rio. Elayna was too young to get the reference. No way she’d ever seen a rotary phone.
“Whatever I paid for this wingding, it wasn’t enough!”
Tom’s reverie was terminated by the alpha-male entrance of Bruce Barnz, who, for the high bid of a thousand bucks, was the founder of this feast. He gave Elayna a proprietary peck, favoring the other ladies with his hairbrush goatee, then turned his attention to his fellow dads.
“Lose the Crackberry, Roth. You’re on my time now.”
Tom then felt a slap on his back and the wind fly from his lungs: “Enough with the finger-painting, Tommy Boy. I’ll give you the tour. You looked at this house, right?”
Yes, they had.
“Too small,” Tom said, as they ascended a grand, curving staircase.
Bruce scrutinized him. “So how’s the show biz?”
The sadistic projectionist in the back of Tom’s brain—his own personal Cinema Inferno—ran the screwball tragedy of their bold, bridge-burning midlife move to Hollywood. Tom Lyon’s. It had started promisingly enough. A sold spec script. A big agent whose headquarters looked like the Guggenheim. The shared rush of creating something, besides Dash, together. Act Two took a darker turn. The Writers’ Strike. Pillow talk about bombed pitches. Their agent saying, “No one’s giving up yet,” which meant he already had. They hadn’t hit Act Three yet, but Tom dreaded its climax and denouement. Should he tell Bruce about waking up every morning on a pillow drenched in flop sweat, desperate to save his family from the quicksand of failure he’d dragged them into? Pull yourself together, Tommy Boy. Quips under pressure.
“I came to L.A. to sell out,” he said. “So far, nobody’s buying.”
Because a drowning man wouldn’t have the balls to joke about it.
By 7:30, the guests had assembled on the patio, a chessboard of stone and grass with a rock-edged koi pond Tom dismissed as a tad 90s. He allowed himself the snobbishness of the trend-sniffing ad man he had been in New York. It eased the humiliation of waiting on this well-heeled parent body when he himself was this far from taking a real waiter job. Tucking a white napkin into his black pants, Tom got the idea that this dinner party was like the premise of one of the Restoration comedies he’d studied in grad school. Splitting members of one social class into two, Servant and Served.
He carried out his artist’s palette stacked with truffled potato chips wrapped in pages from Le Monde—a Robin touch—into the cooling dusk. After the tour, he didn’t think he could take any more Bruce, so he made for the Falks, Ryan and Tracy, whose son was Dash’s best friend. Jeremy Roth got there first, with his hors d’œuvres. Tom hovered, curious how their interaction would go down. Ryan was a junior associate at Jeremy’s firm, maybe eight years younger, with a chilled surfer charm that was the opposite of Jeremy’s coiled East Coast intensity.
“Dude,” Ryan said to the man who was effectively his boss, “isn’t this retarded, you waiting on me?”
“Ryan,” Tracy admonished.
“Enjoy your evening,” Jeremy said with his switchblade smile, circulating the crab louis around the rest of the patio.
Bruce waved Tom over, in the middle of an all-too-familiar story.
“The guy on the other team deliberately went for my shin,” Bruce was telling the only couple here who weren’t from school. “I had to yellow-card him.”
No, you didn’t, Tom wanted to say, as he stood there holding his truffled whatevers. You don’t cry penalty every time someone kicks you in the leg. You get back out on the field and play the game.
Bruce made a face of cartoon outrage. “Can you believe they threw us out of the league? For fighting?”
Ninety minutes of soccer on Sunday morning was the one thing in his life Tom looked forward to—until that idiotic bench-clearing brawl.
“I mean, it was full-on. We were all in it. Well, except Gandhi here,” Bruce said, finally acknowledging Tom. “Tom Lyon, this is Colin and Phoebe Scharff.”
The couple looked confused. Why were they being introduced to a waiter?
“Tom was our star striker,” Bruce said. “His dad’s British.”
“Scottish,” Tom corrected.
“Whatever. He started playing when the rest of us were still crapping in our diapers.”
Elayna, in a black dress that melted off her body, appeared and swatted her husband. “Thug.” Then, squeezing Tom’s arm, added, “This one had the sense to stay out of it.”
A sign of maturity, Tom told himself. Or waning testosterone.
You don’t yellow-card a bunch of park-league Colombians!” Tom said, grabbing Gary’s wine glass. “We were this far from the chainsaw scene in Scarface.” He drained the glass. “Hubris. How much you think Bruce spends on hubris a year?”
“Easy, killer,” Gary said. “Do me a favor, clean my knife.”
Tom ran water on the blade and tried to calm himself. “Dash is starting karate. You gonna get Lukie into it?”
“June thinks it’s too violent.” Gary rolled his eyes at his wife.
“There are more constructive ways for boys to play,” his wife said. “Like piano. Or cooking.”
Gary sighed. “Maybe I’ll just put on a gi and teach them myself.”
Tom wiped the knife and handed it back. “You’re what, brown belt?”
“Black. It’s hangin’ in a closet somewhere.”
Bruce poked his head in, wanting to know when was the “chow bell gonna ring?” Gary said five minutes, then asked was it dealer’s choice in the wine cellar.
“There’s some vintage Doms marked ‘Aspen,’” Bruce intoned. “I’m saving those for her wedding. Anything else is fair game.”
The dining room buzzed as everyone found their hand-colored place cards and took their seats. As he filled the water glasses, Tom felt a rueful pang at the table’s candlelit sparkle. He knew where Robin got the idea for the driftwood centerpiece—their Valentine’s Day splurge at the French Laundry. Wine and roses, Tom thought, when she sashayed in with Ashley in their Air France ensembles. The first course was chalked on a small blackboard Ashley held over her head like a ring girl while Robin announced in her best junior-year-abroad French, “Fleurs des courgettes! Aka vegetarian frogs’ legs.”
She could still turn on the charm, but it was never aimed at him.
“To friends!” Bruce clinked, as Tom uncorked small explosions of fermented air into the festivities.
Two courses later, Tom clocked the party atmosphere as Escalating Decadence. Boozed-up. Lipsticky. Way too loud. Elayna disappeared during the Soup du Nuit and reappeared in a jet-black wig.
To get attention over the din, Ashley and Robin did a sexy little dance when they came in with their blackboard to sell the “Hommage a Homard.” Bruce pulled Robin down onto his lap, like a drunken lord claiming his serving wench, lobster butter glistening on his chin. Robin laughed, determined to have a good time tonight, then judiciously de-lapped herself when Elayna mouthed an obscenity at her husband.
Tom perp-walked his wife into the kitchen.
“Maybe you should have married him.”
“Lighten up, Tom,” she said, shaking free of his grasp. “Just lighten up.”
The main event was chateaubriand on a bed of celery root, a Gary specialty. Tom watched Elayna watch her husband saw into it like a caveman. Sick of him? he speculated, as he topped up her Riedel.
“I love how you always, like, pour from the right,” she said, pushing away the black bangs of her wig. “I learned that at this major wine course I took.”
“Merci, Madame,” Tom said, laying it on thick, then felt a hand grab his arm.
“I’m done with that.” It was the male half of the couple he didn’t know pointing at his plate and jerking Tom with enough unnecessary force to splash a few drops of Bordeaux onto his sleeve.
As Tom muttered words of apology, Bruce said, “No, he’s—”
“I know he’s on your soccer team, but this is a $200 shirt.”
“No, listen to me. He’s a parent. They all are. I bought them at a school auction. You thought he was a real waiter!”
To the sound of Bruce’s mirthless laughter, Tom exited for seltzer. At the kitchen island, he felt a commiserating pat on the shoulder he hoped was Robin.
It was Ashley. “Classless jerk. You handled that so well. Didn’t he, First Husband?”
“Better than I would have,” Jeremy said. “Ryan, that mediocre associate, just called me garçon.”
Ashley laughed. Whatever edge keeping up with the Barnzes had put on their marriage at the start of the evening seemed now to have been healed by a common enemy—their friends in the dining room.
Robin said nothing. Just kept washing dishes. After 10 years, Tom could read her silences. This one said, You should have done something, said something.
Gary did instead: “Son of a bitch.” He was staring at a plate Ashley had just bused: a cigarette butt had been extinguished on an untouched piece of beef. “I am done!”
“Gary!” Becca called after her husband as he stalked out of the kitchen. But before anyone could react, he was back, with a bottle of Dom Perignon.
“That is for Aspen’s wedding.” Becca was on him again. “Do not—”
But the cork was already bouncing off the ceiling. “Mazel tov!” The dark green bottle at Gary’s lips.
When a few minutes later a voice from the dining room demanded, “More wine!” Gary sat, unmovable, saying simply, “I’m not going down there again.”
“I’ll do it,” Tom volunteered.
Any excuse to escape Robin’s doomy silence.
The Barnz wine cellar was really more of a wine suite, with tables, chairs, an enormous corkscrew contraption. Tom was gaping at its four walls of liquid assets when Elayna walked in.
“Bruce wants cigars,” she said, with a nervous laugh.
“He’s the Count of Montecristos.” Tom pointed at a stack of Cubans.
Elayna laughed, sensing a clever remark even if she didn’t get it. Pushing the heavy door shut behind her, she stumbled on her vertiginous sandals into Tom, steadying herself by curling her slender arms around his neck as she said, “Do you want to, like, I dunno?”
This was not happening. It never happened when he was single, forget now. But here was this child of the 90s, “pregs” with a child of the 10s, dropping her spaghetti straps like at their poolside playdate. Why? Because she had settled down while her friends were still hooking up? Because this writer guy treated her like someone worth making clever remarks to? That cut both ways. Elayna looked at Tom like Robin used to: waiting to be amused, kissed, touched. As his hands drifted down the back of her melty black dress, he was not entirely shocked to find that, like many of the fast young lovelies he read about these days, Elayna viewed underwear as something that got in the way.
Ten years of fidelity blown for seven minutes of heaven, maybe eight. He and Robin were in a historic dry spell, her dosing herself with Ambien every night, him up late trolling for indie bands on MySpace instead of writing . . . or sleeping with his wife.
In the kitchen, Tom did everything he could to avoid Robin’s sight line just as she, habitually now, stayed clear of his. He inhaled three grappa-soaked granitas. His palate definitely needed cleansing.
After dessert, the emergence of his heroic chef—one man, eight courses—from the kitchen did not stop Bruce from loading his profiterole on a teaspoon and catapulting it at Elayna. The half-eaten pastry fell short, skewered on the driftwood centerpiece. Robin and Ashley had brought Gary and June in for their bows, but before Robin could finish with “How about a hand for . . . ” Gary’s eyes glazed over with hate and he’d already walked out. Tom, his brain threatening to explode in the narrowing vice grip of Bruce and Elayna, hustled out after him to find Becca resting a calming hand on her husband’s arm, saying, “You made a beautiful dinner, honey.” Tom yearned for a marital equation that simple.
Gary still wanted to “get the hell outta here.” Jeremy seconded. Robin was having none of it. This dinner was her Sunday-morning soccer. Some rich douche wasn’t going to rob her of it.
“Come on, guys,” she said, still wearing her beret when Ashley had long since jettisoned hers. “It’s one course. Frommage al Fresco. They paid for it. With the music. Gary, your friends are coming all the way from Ojai to play. You can’t bail.”
A dry Santa Ana wind blew desert dust into Tom’s tear ducts as he tried to read the list of French cheeses for Robin to chalk on the blackboard: “Pont L’eveque. That’s l-apostrophe-e-v-e-q-u-e . . . Reb-lo-chon . . . ”
Gary’s musician friends, a husband-and-wife duo who looked to Tom like they lived on hummus and sun salutations, strummed some up-tempo freak folk.
Someone burped. Someone else laughed.
“Can you guys listen for two seconds?” Gary implored, his white chef’s tunic stained with grease and blood. “I know it’s hard when you’re wasted.”
They shut up. But not for Gary’s sake. Bruce Barnz had just barreled out of his house, red-faced and booming, “Which one of you assholes is the rapist?” Scanning the mystified faces of his guests. “I’m talkin’ about what happened in my wine cellar!”
Rapist? Elayna had come on to him. And they had barely gotten past first. Okay, third. So Bruce knew something happened, but not who. Maybe Tom was safe—until a CSI team swept the wine cellar for traces of status anxiety.
“It wasn’t his fault.” Elayna inserted herself between Tom and her wild-eyed husband. “It was, like . . . the wig and—”
Bruce looked dumbfounded. “Him? You’re telling me Tom Lyon violated my daughter’s wedding champagne? He doesn’t have the sack.”
The insult was trumped by Tom’s epiphany that it wasn’t his wife Bruce was ranting about. It was his wine. Before Tom could draft a reply, Gary cleared his throat and said, “Yeah, the 59 Dom is drinking nicely.” Smacking his lips for emphasis and waving around his big knife.
Bruce turned away from Tom.
“You did it?” Gary whipped out another of bottle of the forbidden bubbly and with a flash of his blade severed the neck clean off, offering the decapitated Dom to its owner. Bruce flew at him and in one seamless display of martial artistry, Gary put his attacker on the ground. The black belt wasn’t hanging in the closet anymore. Gazing down at his victim, Gary said, “Do you even know what this wine is?”
“More than you make in a month,” Bruce said, back on his feet. “Judging by the dented Honda in my driveway.”
It was the fight with the Colombians all over again. Only now there was a lot more than a yellow card at stake.
“Actually, it’s a dented hybrid,” Tom heard himself say, punctuating his correction with a straight right to Bruce’s goateed jaw. The pent-up force behind the blow surprised even Tom. All that Wii boxing finally paid off. Bruce never saw it coming. Not from Gandhi. He stumbled back and tripped on one of the rocks edging the koi pond. The glittery 90s fish scattered around their landlord, who lay face up and motionless just beneath the surface.
Elayna screamed. Tom heard one of the wives whisper, “Is he dead?”
This wasn’t possible. Not from one punch. Was this seriously Act Three of his Cinema Inferno, the hero spending the rest of his days in prison as daddy-killer? Explain that to Dash.
“Tom!” Robin’s voice snapped him out of his self-pity—and into the cold, clear water. He hauled Bruce out, lowered his lips to the bloody goatee—a perverse parody of what he’d just done with his wife—and tried to remember that CPR class from five years ago. Last time he did this was on a doll that peed.
Breathe deeply into the mouth and watch the chest. Was it rising? Tom was tasting every course, again. He looked up and saw Elayna’s jeweled hands cover her mouth. Robin saying, “Come on, Tom.” Quickly and firmly press into the chest. Tom pressing and promising to stop coveting and be thankful for what he had. Wife. Son. A life in the sun. Check for breathing . . .
Nothing. It was over. Then a lungful of koi water spewed up and onto Tom. Elayna shoved him aside to curl those slender arms around her husband, cooing words of reconciliation. Gary signaled his hippie friends to cover the pall that had fallen over the patio. They started to play. Someone reached for the cheese.
Tom stood up, the red swollen knuckles of his right hand shooting pain, and faced Robin for the first time all night.
She looked at him, eyes on fire. But she was looking.