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Excerpt

“Cambridge People”

Laura van den Berg

July 2, 2020 
The following is excerpted from the Georgia Review's Summer 2020 issue. Laura van den Berg is the author of two story collections and the novels Find Me and The Third Hotel. She is the recipient of the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, and a PEN/O. Henry Award, and a two-time finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her third collection of stories, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is forthcoming this summer from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Grace was walking home from a work dinner when she saw the listing. The apartment she had been renting for the last three years had just been put up for sale and now, in the window of one of the neighborhood’s many real estate offices, there was her home, splayed out in a suite of photos—her furniture, wall art, books, house plants, knickknacks (a collection of tiny marble owls, floral-scented candles, a hunk of rose quartz). The unit was advertised as having an “eat-in kitchen,” which it did not, and it cost an astonishing, impossible amount of money.

Her landlords lived in Watertown with their two children and a doodle named Chet Baker. That afternoon, they had informed her that their real estate broker, who wore dresses with flared skirts and had a jackal’s smile, would be holding an open house every Saturday until the unit sold or her lease ended. This is hell, Grace thought. All these strangers, peering at her things.

Imagining her life. Making judgments. It was October, and a little cold outside, and yet she could not stop staring at the photos. The apartment looked like the place she lived in and it did not look like the place she lived in. She remembered that the real estate agent had brought in a professional photographer: maybe that person had done something strange with the light.

In the three years Grace had lived in the apartment, she’d twisted her ankle from a fall on the carpeted stairs; waded through standing water to access the laundry machines after the basement flooded (this had happened more than once); been bitten by her neighbor’s dog; planted an herb garden on the back deck; knocked on doors to break up loud parties; knocked on a door to disrupt an argument that sounded like it was approaching violence; helped her downstairs neighbor find a lost cat (found); helped neighbors search for packages that had gone missing from the front lobby (hardly ever found); pleaded with building management to fix the dryers so they stopped eating quarters (fat chance); started drying her clothes on the back deck and pretending to be European; gotten locked out; hosted a baby shower for a coworker in the building’s shared backyard; weathered the death of her parents, one right after the other, two break-ups, and a disastrous presidential election; landed a dream job at a lab; watched snow fall from the bay window in her living room; wept; orgasamed; vomited; celebrated; dreamed; meditated; screamed.

A lot could happen in three years. You could fall in and out of love. People could leave this earth forever, never to be seen again, like her parents had. You could get a job working in a lab that was developing artificially intelligent appendages. At the moment, a hand. In some future version of their world, these hands would have docking stations and would respond to vocal commands. Just like an Alexa, her boss was fond of saying. Alexa, bring me a glass of water. Alexa, help me put on my shoes. These were all things that the hand would one day be able to do.

The apartment building was populated largely by a revolving collection of graduate students, and she had started to feel like an elder stateswoman around here. Her friends had tried to convince her that moving could be a good thing, that she could find her next place in a neighborhood with cheaper rent, in a building with a basement that didn’t flood, but as it happened the apartment had been one of her most stable relationships over the last three years, and so each time she passed the listing photos she felt flooded with sadness imagining the rooms filled with a stranger’s things.

It took Grace a week to realize why the apartment looked different in the listing photos. For the shoot, the real estate agent had replaced her own framed photos—with her parents, coworkers at a celebratory lunch, two girlfriends on a beach in New Hampshire—with photos of some generic family. Black and white pictures of a man and a woman and two little kids. She squinted hard at the listing, counting this same family on top of the coffee table, a shelf, a bureau. So this was what had made the apartment look at once like the place she lived in and not like the place she lived. The stock family was preppy-looking, all of them in striped button-down shirts and khaki slacks. She couldn’t quite make out their faces; she could only tell that they were smiling, smiling, smiling.

*

On the day of the first open house, she went to a coffee shop in Central Square. It was one of the few places left that still had ratty sofas and long windows filled with overgrown philodendrons and let you hang around, that hadn’t been usurped by some slick and soulless chain. They always had two different bowls for tips: Fitzgerald or Hemingway? Red Vines or Candy Corn? She dropped a dollar into the Red Vines bowl, alarmed at the amount of votes candy corn had already managed to pull in.

She had been rushing around all morning preparing for the open house. Yesterday the real estate agent had emailed her a list. Remove all shoes from the hallway; remove any clothing (jackets, scarves) from hooks; remove all appliances from the kitchen (coffee maker, tea kettle) and store; remove as many personal effects as possible (photos, trinkets, etc.); organize closets; sweep the back deck; trim the plants; no dishes in the sink; bed made; curtains open; blinds up. Grace wasn’t sure if it was reasonable she be asked to organize her closets and dismantle her kitchen every Saturday for the foreseeable future, but no one was around to tell her it wasn’t reasonable either.

She had been at the coffee shop for about an hour—replying to emails— when she got a text from the real estate agent.

I thought we agreed that you would vacate the unit during the open house?

Punctuated with a shrug emoji.

Grace replied that yes, they had agreed that she would leave during the open houses, which was why she was currently at a coffee shop in Central Square, eating a very dry blueberry scone.

You walked through ten minutes ago. You took a listing sheet and a promotional refrigerator magnet. Maybe you forgot something and had to come back?

No emoji this time.

Grace was tempted to tell the real estate agent that she needed glasses, but held back. Later that afternoon, after the open house ended, she returned to the apartment and found everything to be in order. There was no sign of many strangers traipsing through the place, save for a refrigerator magnet on her coffee table. The magnet was shaped like a little house, with a photo of the agent, smiling her jackal’s smile, and the name and number of the company she worked for.

Grace checked her email before bed and found a message from her landlords.

Clearly you are aware that we can’t compel you to leave during an open house. So what we’re asking for is your cooperation. Everyone says that units sell faster when there is no tenant present and the space has been made as impersonal as possible (great job with the list btw!!). People need to imagine themselves in the apartment, and it’s just really hard to do that when the current tenant is hanging around. Thanks in advance for understanding!

Grace wrote an email explaining that she had been in Central Square all afternoon and was not anywhere near the apartment building. The real estate agent had been mistaken or perhaps a woman who looked a lot like her had come through—because what other explanation made any kind of sense?

*

The following Saturday, she walked down to Kendall Square to work at the lab. She hadn’t slept well all week and the world looked a little stranger than it had before, like the edges of everything were starting to melt. She had been having unusual dreams about the artificial hand. In one, the hand hovered by her bedside in the middle of the night, fingers outstretched, beckoning. She got out of bed and saw that she was still wearing the sweatpants and tee shirt she’d fallen asleep in and also a pair of long white ballroom gloves. She took the hand in her own, and it danced her all around the apartment. In another, the hand appeared in the shower, the glass fogged with steam, and tried to strangle her. She swiped herself into the building and took the elevator to the thirteenth floor. The lab always made Grace think of refrigerators, with its cool steel walls. She told herself it was natural to have dreams—unsettling dreams even—about an object you spent so much time thinking about, though she wasn’t quite sure that “object” was the right word for what they were creating. At the lab, she replied to emails and read reams of data and typed up notes. Her favorite bar in the city—the menus were designed to resemble the periodic table—was just down the street; she thought that maybe she would go there later, get a sandwich and a beer. She was alone except for a pair of student interns, both young women, which pleased her, to see more women at the lab. One was from Kansas and had Believe Science tattooed on the inside of her arm. The other was an international student from Colombia, who worked in yellow headphones so large they covered her ears like muffs.

An hour into the open house, her phone buzzed and the same exchange with the real estate agent played out. This time, she took a selfie in the lab, the two interns milling around in the background, and sent it to the agent. A few seconds later, the agent responded with a photo of her own. A woman standing in Grace’s living room, looking in the direction of the bay window. She wore jeans and white sneakers and a camel trench coat, the belt tied loosely around her waist. Grace pressed her thumb and index finger to the screen, zooming in on the woman’s face, and when she saw what the agent must have seen she began to shiver at her work station. An unbelievable shock, to discover your own self where it did not belong.

By the time she got home, another email from her landlords was waiting in her inbox. We have been nothing but kind and generous to you, Grace, and we can’t understand why you are being so uncooperative . . .

Her landlords were both neurologists. They played in a jazz band on the weekends. They were polite and jokey over email until you appeared to be standing in the way of something they believed they were entitled to (in this case, selling the apartment for quadruple what they paid before the market had a chance to “soften”). Which is to say, despite the move to Watertown, they very much remained Cambridge People.

*

On the third open house, she did not go to the coffee shop.  Instead she got  a lukewarm coffee from the bakery on the corner and stood under the red awning and watched as people came and went. All night she had been kept awake by violent rainfall. Now the sky was smoky, and orange leaves were pasted to the damp sidewalks. She spotted a single man, led into the building by his real estate agent; two couples; a woman with a toddler on her hip. After an hour, a woman in a camel trench and white sneakers appeared on the street, her hands in her pockets. Her blond hair was pulled into a high bun and her gaze was downcast, but even so Grace was struck still by all the familiar angles—the outline of her shoulders, the point of her chin. The woman trotted up the front stairs and then disappeared inside the building. Five minutes later Grace’s phone vibrated with the now-predictable text from the agent.

This time, Grace did not reply. She waited under the awning until the woman emerged. She tossed her coffee cup in the trash and followed her down Mass Ave and then a series of short, narrow side streets—past a café, a church, university buildings—and then straight down DeWolfe, toward the blue ribbon of river.

At Weeks Bridge, a crew team rowed past; their coach, standing in a separate boat, shouted instructions through a megaphone. The trees lining the riverbanks were marbled with fire red; it looked to Grace like the leaves were slowly being overtaken by a different species. The threat of rain had cleared, the sky a tender blue, and the afternoon had turned warm enough for people to nap on quilts and dorm sheets in the grass (study groups dissolved into somnolence; an older couple; a woman in workout clothes with an open book resting across her face to block the sun). The joggers were out and the bikers were out and the skateboarders were out and the dog people were out. She even glimpsed a young man walking an amber-colored cat on a leash.

In the center of the bridge, her twin paused for a moment, pivoting to face the water, the rowers, the cityscape in the distance, her hands flat against the arched concrete railing, the hem of her trench fluttering in the breeze. She looked like a still from a movie.

What was expected of a person when confronted with her double? Was Grace supposed to befriend her twin or kill her or figure out how to return her to whatever world she’d come from? If nothing else, perhaps they could move to a different neighborhood together and split the rent. She wished she could put her twin under a giant microscope, so she could check the length of her eyelashes and the diameter of the mole on her collarbone. But these kinds of tools belonged to the world of the lab, which at the moment felt light years away.

This is it, Grace thought as she approached. She slowed to an amble, hoping to signal that she meant no harm, but the moment she got close enough to feel as though she were creeping toward a mirror—they were identical in appearance, down to the nose and the eyebrows, though she had to admit this woman, with her sleek coat and expensive-looking haircut, was a slightly more stylish version of herself—her twin’s hands flew up from the railing. She sprinted away, across the bridge and down the opposite river bank. Grace tried to chase after her, but soon became winded, leaving her to watch her twin’s shrinking figure, the distant flap and billow of her camel trench.

There were no more open houses. The apartment went for the listing price, and Grace moved to South Boston, into a well-lit unit on the top floor of a row house. Determined to get into better shape, she began going for jogs near Carson Beach, though she still saw the river five days a week, when the T went aboveground to cross the Longfellow Bridge.

When she moved out of her old apartment, the landlords in Watertown tried to tell her that she did not pay a security deposit when she first arrived, and thus there were no funds for them to return to her, though after further investigation it turned out they had just lost their record of her check. Whoops! they wrote in an email after their error was uncovered. You are such fucking Cambridge People, Grace wrote back, the moment the security deposit came through on Venmo. When the wife texted her to ask what exactly she had meant by such a remark, Grace took great pleasure in never replying.

One day an envelope came, made out to the old apartment and shepherded across the city by mail forwarding. No return address. Inside she found a letter printed on several sheets of white paper. It was from her twin, whose name was Sam. I feel I owe you an explanation, the letter began.

Some months ago, Sam had passed out in the basement of her own building in D.C. after trying to flip breakers and come to in the basement of Grace’s apartment building, in a shallow pool of water. She wandered outside and later realized she could not get back in (the front door required a key) and had no other place to go; that was why she started attending the open houses, to regain access to the building, and then she noticed the pictures inside the apartment that was for sale.

All of the photos in the unit were of this weird-looking family, but there was one photo on the side of the refrigerator of me, I mean you, blowing out candles on a cake.

Grace knew the photo Sam was referring to; it was the last birthday she had celebrated while her parents were still alive, a dinner at a bistro in Harvard Square, with oysters and white wine and cake. The agent must have forgotten to take the photo down.

Sam explained that she worked as a congressional aide in D.C. and for a while she couldn’t stop thinking about her congresswoman, about who would bring her a tissue or a coffee with half a spoonful of cream or a snack-sized bag of almonds just before she was hungry enough to say, “I’m hungry.” At the time of writing, however, she had given up on returning to her world and was doing her best to start a new life here. She apologized for running away from Grace on the bridge. The whole situation had felt, how could she put it, unconfrontable.

PS: Apartment buildings are full of portals and seams. Why do you think your basement is always flooding?

PPS: You know what’s amazing? How little we know.

Grace went out on her new roof deck, leaving the pages scattered across the coffee table. Her hands were shaking; she squeezed her forearms to steady herself. She stared out at the rooftops and considered all the new apartment buildings that had shot up from the earth in the last few years—soon Kendall Square and Southie and the Seaport would be giant gleaming pillars of glass and steel. Most of these new buildings were sleek, crushingly expensive high rises, with chic cafés on the ground floor and names like The Harlow or The Woodlawn, but perhaps they contained portals and seams all the same.

*

A year later, after having survived yet another quartet of seasons, Grace walked into a new restaurant in Central Square and saw Sam sitting alone at the bar. She stepped to the side of the small stand where the hostess, a young woman in a wool dress and ankle boots, was taking reservations on the phone.

Grace watched Sam sip red wine from a wide-mouthed glass. She watched her inspect her cuticles and pick lint from her scarf. She decided her twin was all alone, that her attempts to start a new life had not gone very well, which was understandable; Grace also had difficulty making friends. She decided she should go and sit with her and—and, and, and? She called up lines from the letter she had written to Sam in reply, despite not having a place to send it.

I always wanted a sister. Fuck open houses.

Time is lie.

In the world you came from, are your parents still alive?

Grace felt the door open behind her. Half a dozen women with straight, glossy hair and patterned scarves swooped past. Her twin turned on her stool, smiling, and was soon surrounded. Grace had been wrong: Sam wasn’t all alone. In fact, she seemed to have done quite well for herself here.

Grace tiptoed backwards out of the restaurant. Outside she peered through the window for one more look at what, at a different time in her life, she would have believed to be impossible. She watched her twin smile and clap and tilt her head. She watched her gap-mouthed laugh. She watched her face still as she listened to the other women talk. It was clear that Sam was the center of this group, an object of admiration, like the lone bird of paradise in a florist’s bouquet.

Grace had not come to this place to meet anyone. She had come to read a book and have a drink and something to eat, maybe a cheese board.

The longer she watched, the more she was seized by the fear that she was in fact a ghost. She pinched the underside of her wrist and was relieved to feel a shiver of pain.

Grace didn’t yet know that in a month’s time she would be falling in love, with a new scientist at the lab, and that he would be falling in love with her, too. She didn’t yet know that the relationship wouldn’t last forever, but even so their time together would help her swim through this fierce and choppy channel of grief, help her find the next shore. She didn’t yet know that one night, in the quiet of his bedroom, their bodies tangled in the sheets, he would tell her there was something he’d been wanting to ask her about for a while now.

When he first moved here, he had two weeks before he started at the lab, and he spent much of that time walking. One afternoon, on the Mass Ave Bridge, the steel girder that connects Cambridge to the Back Bay, he saw an astonishing thing: a woman in street clothes and mesh river shoes walking across the railing like a trapeze artist. Pedestrians, such as himself, stopped on the concrete footpath and stared. Cars honked. A man in a suit shook his fist at the woman, shouted at her to get down. A different man tried to grab at her ankle, and that was when she leapt down onto the footpath and sprinted away.

He rolled onto his side and asked Grace to imagine his surprise when he started at the lab and one of the first people he saw, working studiously at her station, was the same madwoman from the bridge. For weeks he tried to reconcile the coworker who drank iced cold brew and walked around with her ID badge clipped to the front of her shirt with this other person, waiting for her to mention an interest in extreme athletics or acrobatics or some other form of thrill seeking. If he was being honest, that was part of the reason he started talking to her in the first place.

“I was afraid you might suggest skydiving for our first date,” he said. “Or a Ninja Warrior marathon.”

“I’m afraid of heights,” Grace said. “I told you that already.” That afternoon, she’d taken a nap at the lab and had a dream about her parents in which they were speaking to her through a wall; she could hear them murmuring to her, but she couldn’t make out the words, and there was no way to leave the room, to get to whatever side of the wall they were on. She had been thinking about that dream ever since.

“See, that’s the thing.” He slid an index finger down the slope of her arm. “It seems you’re not.”

Of course, there was no way to explain the strange truth about their world filled with portals and seams. Instead Grace pressed her head into her pillow and tried to think back to those weeks before he joined the lab. It would have been around the same time she spotted Sam at the bar, looking like the most normal person in the world, all her wildness hidden away. Grace recalled a peculiar string of days from her own life around then: walking home from work at midnight, in a shadowed solitude that followed her from Kendall to Square to South Boston; going to a rock-climbing wall with a friend on a weekend afternoon, scrabbling up to the top and then letting herself fall. Thunk, her body went on the mat. Were these small ruptures somehow connected to, or even caused by, Sam’s greater rebellion?

“Well?” He nudged her in the ribs. “It was you, wasn’t it?” She realized she had been stuck in a stubborn pause.

What if it had been her? What if she had ever in her life been capable of being so bold and unafraid? Perhaps imagination was the first step.

“Yes,” she said. “It was me.”

__________________________________

Excerpted from The Georgia Review, the Summer 2020 Issue. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. 




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