The following is excerpted from Hermione Hoby's new novel, Virtue, a story of allegiance, privilege, and complacency. Hoby is the author of the novel Neon in Daylight, which was twice listed as a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times, and Frieze. Raised in London, she lives in Colorado.
There’s something kind of gratifying about a really bad birthday. Toward the garish end of 2016, the year our idols died, I turned 23 alone, failing to read a book in the dim eggy light of a deserted Chinatown bar. I’d convinced myself that this stoically miserable total nonevent was preferable to drinks with a few people mustering faint cries of “Happy birthday!” or, God forbid, trying to sing the song—always too slow, always going on longer than anyone wanted, particularly when groaning toward that final protracted lift on the first syllable of the penultimate birthday.
I’d hoped that being alone might feel sort of heroic, or at least dignified. Or at least grown-up. It wasn’t any of these.
It was the weekend before Thanksgiving, the end of the nothing month of November, and I remember raininess, a vague and unremitting overlay of pathetic fallacy. The sky had a passive-aggressive quality, bruised clouds withholding their light while telling you they were fine, not to worry about them, they knew you didn’t really care anyway. Ahead lay the grotesquerie of the reality star who’d soon be eating McDonald’s and watching TV in the White House. It was a bad joke in the worst taste. The incoming president was the executive producer of The America Show, barreling faster toward the series finale, and the ratings would be great. Later, Zara would say in her deadly deadpan that the good ones had all peaced out because they knew what was coming: Prince, Bowie, Muhammad Ali. Names now, more than a decade later, half-forgotten in a world too tyrannized by the present to have time for history.
An aggressively cheerful barmaid cajoled me into ordering the house cocktail, which arrived in a small coupe glass, the liquid within an embarrassingly fruity shade of puce, a mocking strawberry spliced and listing down the side, and I sat there with my effeminate cocktail, suppressing a shudder as I felt it sheathe my teeth with sugar.
This was 11 years ago. By which I mean about a thousand, because back then I had of course zero idea that we were in the Before times. My pitiful 23rd birthday and the Technicolored year that followed—that color-saturated, richly lit time of the two of them, Paula and Jason, my twin movie stars who for a moment were truly nothing less than my life—it all seems now to have happened on some discontinued film stock. This is how it goes, I guess, that people who were once more real to you than life itself eventually come to feel like stock photo models in a collection of well-framed shots imprinted on your once impressionable brain.
That November, though, I was newly arrived in the city, with few friends, or at least nobody with whom I wanted to eat either turkey or birthday cake. After Dartmouth, second-least impressive of the Ivies, I’d been anxious enough to delay adulthood as to spend a final school year at Oxford, where my voice became inflected with the rounded vowels of moneyed English youth—the same youth who had ribbed me, paid attention to me, and even kind of fetishized me for being a bloody Yank. In my first months in Manhattan, then, I was frequently mistaken for an English expat. With strangers, I usually went along with this, murmuring the lie “London” with a diffident smile when a cashier or barista asked where I was from. In truth, my hometown was Broomfield, Colorado, a newish agglomeration of prefab-looking housing developments squatting on flat, treeless land in a zone that was neither Denver nor Boulder and was distinguished by nothing but its in-betweenness. If I could offer you a defining image of my adolescence, it would look like this: I’m lying on my bed with the flat screen blaring downstairs and the little Morrissey who lives in my head is plaintively singing: “And when you want to live, how do you start?” When the blazered Oxford boys heard I was from Colorado, some enthusiastically mentioned their trips to Aspen or Vail, or the less informed would mention the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, and I’d smile vaguely and change the subject because I knew it would embarrass them to learn that I was poor enough that I’d never strapped my feet into skis and hadn’t even managed a road trip to Arizona. I was an only child, a former fat kid, son of a dental nurse named Kimberly who ran an Etsy side hustle making customized wedding-cake toppers out of modeling clay. Thus our windowsills were populated by smug little pairs of round-faced figures with miniature button eyes, and our small house reeked of the fumes they emitted as they baked, which made me think—unmentionably, unacceptably—of the Holocaust.
The incoming president was the executive producer of The America Show, barreling faster toward the series finale, and the ratings would be great.
My mom’s life had been a landslide of disappointments, chief among them my father’s departure a few weeks after my conception. Which is to say 19 years before I too decided to leave her in Broomfield, abdicating any future responsibility for her sadness. She’d named me Luke. The day I arrived in Oxford, I became Luca.
Twenty-three is too young for basically anything. There was a boy at Oxford who was maybe a bit in love with me, or a bit in something with me. (He’d once left a sheaf of printed-out poems under my dorm room door—Cavafy, O’Hara, Miguel Hernández.) His dad was old buddies with an editor in New York City, and so, with shameful passivity, I let the poor kid edit my cover letter—and by edit I mean rewrite—and before I knew it, I’d been granted a nine-month internship I didn’t much deserve at a fancy American literary magazine, an august quarterly dating from 1923 that published fiction by famous writers, reviews of important books, and interviews with literary eminences. Its covers were notable enough to be available as framed prints. I’d never read the thing. I was a fake, in other words, although it turned out I had plenty of company.
The magazine came draped in its myths and rumors the way a dowager might in her silks and furs, swathed in its inheritance with uncertain irony. In fact, the magazine actually was partly funded for decades by a batty old viscountess aging away in an actual castle in the actual Scottish Highlands, as well as, it was said, the CIA. Once every five years, the viscountess opened her castle doors to the magazine’s senior staff and a coterie of youngish writers selected as much for their presumed table manners and physical comeliness as for any literary talent. Obviously, interns weren’t invited. I’d heard—my attention instantly bright, tightening to the scandal of it—that the old lady was unsurprisingly racist, that at one such dinner she’d commended a Philadelphia-born Asian American writer on his excellent English. I knew I wasn’t meant to know things like this, that they were an embarrassment. But to whom? It was as if the magazine were a person.
Which it kind of was. The New Old World was edited by a figure with the indelible name of Byron Tancread. More than edited, dude was the magazine. He’d been there forever; you could pick him out in black-and-white photographs on the walls, a clean-shaven, square-jawed young American in slacks and a brilliantined side part, taking a knee in team photographs starred with grins, a clubhouse of affable men. In some pictures, there’d be one or two demure-looking women perched in the background, straight-backed and soberly clad in knee-length tweed, a note of vague reproach in their eyes. I liked to think they were trying to communicate some message to me, to this already unimaginable future in which I had just arrived.
For a while, I couldn’t work out whether I was meant to revere or ridicule Byron. He was a drinker, that was clear, but the light in which we interns were meant to view this was hazy and almost certainly irrelevant. People said he’d been punched by Mailer once—or maybe it was Thomas Pynchon, or maybe he’d been the puncher, not the punchee, accounts varied. It was something people alluded to knowingly, as if the vague fisticuffs were one of his life’s central facts. Now that he’s gone, I see that there was a decency to him; that the rest of it—the condescension, or the leonine ego, or the storms of temper that left everyone silent and shaken, or the outlawed ideas about men and “girls,” or that infamous time he referred to “the ghetto”—didn’t really affect the fact that he was a mostly decent man. And maybe that’s the troubling thing; he seems to have been a good man anyway.
2016 was 11 years ago, by which I mean about a thousand, because back then I had of course zero idea that we were in the Before times.
Except in 2016 there wasn’t really such a thing as a good man, as far as I could tell. This was our new doctrine, with, it must be said, a lot of evidence behind it. Masculinity was toxic and, masochists, we turned our gazes to our screens to watch the president confirm it daily. We saw it in his dead black piggish eyes, the stark whiteness of their sockets within the caked orange of his face, his groping sausage hands. (It was terrible how much I thought about the president’s hands.) He was the overlord of a white male underbelly of underlings: the incels and school shooters and 4chan trolls. I had no appetite for gunmen’s manifestos, the sight of swastikas made me sick and frightened, and I liked and loved women, but nonetheless, guilty until proven innocent, I walked around cowed by my own cis-white-maleness while wondering if it might somehow benefit me and the world to nurture whatever queerness I had in me. On subway platforms I caught myself staring at posters for a shockingly popular TV show that declared in an adamantine font, all men must die. All? All seemed like a lot.
I wanted badly to be good; I wanted desperately to be liked. It was easy to confuse the two.
Twenty-three: too young for almost anything except booze. It was part of the magazine’s character and glamour. You couldn’t not drink, because here was the new old world living on. Come five, Byron would emerge from his corner office, clap his paws, exhale the words “The hour is upon us” to no one or everyone, and we would set to it. I took to drink with aplomb. I resolved to end my Coloradan attachment to beer, that bleary swill of frat boys and other oafs. Instead, I made Negronis for everyone, scything orange peel into voluptuous gyres as if I’d been doing this my whole life—as if I hadn’t just YouTubed it the night before. Equal parts gin, vermouth, Campari: you couldn’t really fuck it up. It became my thing. “One of Luca’s Negronis,” my fellow interns said, as though they were already concoctions of local renown. I can’t tell you I didn’t love this.
There were five interns, and we seemed to feel varying degrees of bashful thrill at being admitted to the sanctum of The New Old World. There was bun-faced Jen, who spoke too fast and too much, loved Jane Austen, wore ruby lipstick on Mondays, and had a habit of talking about her Mooncup in particular and menstruation in general, then asking “you boys” if it made us uncomfortable. “You boys” rang false, because I didn’t really form a unit with the other two: querulous, raw-boned James, a young man whose affect would have to wait until he was a few decades older for it to make sense, and restless, gloomy Amit, whose incessant leg jiggling drove one of our editors crazy. (Julia would shoot his knees a murderous stare, then willfully look away, then back again, eyes bugging. Amit remained oblivious. Was I the only one who noticed this? Maybe. Am I the only one who still remembers it? Almost certainly.) And then there was Zara, who was said to have turned down Princeton and Harvard and gone to Brown instead, as if this were a great act of principled sacrifice. Zara was conspicuously the smartest of us all. She talked the least, but what she did say needed no editing.
Each Monday the magazine held an ideas meeting—a standard term that nonetheless struck me as pretentious. Let us meet! To exchange ideas! In our first such meeting on the first morning of our internship, the five of us were seated around the table in Byron’s commodious corner office while Julia introduced us all, ostensibly to one another but manifestly to the large man at the head of the table for whom presiding came naturally. His chair was different from everyone else’s: a wide seat with padded armrests upholstered in wine-colored leather, brass-studded. I watched him irritably shove into place a wrinkled, jaundice-colored cushion at his lower back before he settled into full enthronement. That cushion, which appeared roughly as old as the magazine, had the look of something exhumed.
Julia discreetly read aloud our biographies, which consisted of little more than alma maters and majors. James (Harvard, naturally; English, predictably) dipped his head once on hearing his name, virtually bowed. Amit (UCLA, Comp Lit) nodded agreeably, as if some decent song were playing in the distance. Zara (Brown, of course, American Studies) watched Julia with cool intent, as if making sure she got the details right. I endured my own blink-of-an-eye CV while suffering a painful stretched smile. And when it came to Jen (Bard, Individualized Study), she did a big wave and grinned broadly, as if she were on a reality show—here to make friends and win. There was a blot of lipstick on her front teeth that gave her a faintly rabid air. I stared. A mistake in the face can take on an ugliness that’s a bit like beauty. Someone should tell her, I thought. Someone should wipe it away.
Afterward, when we’d all been stationed at our computers and given our log-on deets, I stole a covert glance around the edge of my terminal and caught Jen taking selfies at her desk, sipping from a large mug that read male tears. The mug’s fuchsia-colored disco lettering clashed with her tomato lipstick. I watched as she made a simpering moue around the rim of the mug, holding her phone aloft, making microadjustments to maximize the flattery of angles. Then in a blink her features slackened back into unperformance and she dipped her gaze to her phone. I waited a few minutes, stealthily retrieved my own phone, and called up Instagram.
“First day at The New Old (MALE) World . . . ready to shake things up!!!”
Five emojis blew kisses.
I looked at the image for a moment—her arched eyebrows and arch expression, her red pout around the rim of the empty mug—and hesitated, my thumb hovering above the touch screen, before dropping my phone soundlessly into my backpack. Later, on the subway, I’d cave and duly double-tap to make the Like of a heart bloom. At Jen’s enthusiastic suggestion first thing that morning, we were all following one another (except Zara, who spurned Instagram and Facebook but not Twitter). It seemed impolitic, lacking in collegiality, not to Like Jen’s post.
I caught myself staring at posters for a shockingly popular TV show that declared in an adamantine font, all men must die. All? All seemed like a lot.
At some point during those first weeks I started to recognize that the present we were living in was an uneven condition; there was no uniform now, just a ragged mess of overlapping timelines. This US of ours, in the year of our lord two thousand and sixteen, somehow accommodated both antediluvian Byron, still very much alive, and Zara, who seemed to me like an emissary from a different future. When Zara spoke, it was as though she were taking a set of meaningful objects out of a box and laying them one by one on a tablecloth. Her voice was quiet; you got a sense of contained radiance and/or danger—people would lean closer to hear. You paid attention. Or if you were me, you became fascinated. I thought of her as a kite who’d cut her own string. Which was bullshit, of course. No one can cut their own string, we’re all tethered by history.
I aspired to be drawn to her righteousness, not just her beauty. As categorical as a punctuation mark, Zara was petite in a way that confirmed her self-containment and seemed like an indictment of the brash and insecure—empty vessels made the most noise. She wore her hair in two small conical braids at the back of her head—pigtails, I guess, although the term sounds too childish for how they looked. There was also something martial about them, as if she might at any moment stand at attention. I loathed myself upon discovering she was already publishing careful, elegant blog posts on various small magazines’ websites. In conversation, a flicker of a frown as she said, “Oh, you haven’t read . . . ?” (whoever or whatever)—no cattiness in the question, just mild surprise and disappointment and I’d feel hopelessly behind.
A few weeks into the internship it emerged she was also a talented mimic. She was funny, too! Here was something I could understand— impersonations. The first time she did Byron, with his languorous gestures and WASP lockjaw, I nearly asphyxiated at the trick, this stentorian windbag ventriloquized from within the frame of a fine-boned Black girl. She could do Julia, too, which was even more uncanny—the jut of the lower lip, the secretarial pen-tapping on the thigh, the chewy, somehow tristate quality to her diction: “Where are we at with ad space?”
Zara also had this character called Raqisha. Raqisha was “ratchet” (Zara’s word)—a “nail-salon hood diva” (Zara’s phrase) prone to “going off” (ibid.). Once, when Julia and Byron and the other grown-ups were out to lunch after the annual board meeting, Zara began reading aloud a kvetching letter to the editor about a recent four-thousand-word belletristic essay on the gut biome. We were all half listening until, without warning, her soft elocution was ruptured by Raqisha hooting, “Yo! Nobody wanna hear bout yo’ nasty-ass poop bugs, white boi, this ain’t no Walgreens, this a fancy magazine!”
This eruption of some disallowed, alternate Black girl, a burst of id, had the thrill of the forbidden about it. Not only because Zara’s backstory came complete with a formidable GPA and meticulously interrogated politics, with middle-class parents whose love demanded excellence (another source of my envy), but also because hollering Raqisha had popped out like some gorgon of racial stereotyping. Whenever Raqisha made an appearance, I’d steal a look at Jen because I knew the question fluttering through her rabbity white-girl heart was my question, too.
“Are we . . . permitted to laugh?” I said to Zara.
She told me I talked like a dude out of an old book. “You sound like you took a train straight out of 1934.”
“Well,” I exclaimed, “this train most certainly has been delayed!”
She allowed a snort of amusement: “My fine fellow, welcome to the future.” Of course, her 30s mid-Atlantic accent was better than mine. All I could manage was a tepid “I say,” then this lame little skit petered out into a series of desultory chuckles that withered into sighs. Hepburn and Tracy we were not.
I didn’t tell Zara that artifice is what happens to your speech when you’re an artsy fat kid from a nowhere section of the front range. You form the most meaningful relationships of your adolescence with Holden Caulfield and Nick Carraway, even Alexander Portnoy and Bigger Thomas. I’d spent most of high school reading because—unlike the horrifying and unpredictable company of other American youth—reading was safe. Like everyone says about reading (but do they mean it?), it offered me a way of being in the world without being myself, unseen but seeing. I could be a diver in a shark cage observing brilliant fish and fearsome jaws through the bars, safe in my diving suit.
Today when I’m in the room with my students, I love it when one of them mispronounces a word. It tells me they’re a reader, a specimen of one of the planet’s more endangered species. Clearly they’ve only ever read the word, never heard it, and here they are, taking it out of the soundless privacy of their mind and into speech. When this happens I catch the language of my former heart, 11 years and a lifetime ago in the New Old World office, saying “mishap” with a soft sh sound in the middle and someone— Julia probably, not very nice old Julia—going, “I think you mean mis-hap?” and my face flashing hot with shame. What a mishap. Julia had a habit of loudly enunciating the two syllables of my chosen name as though the sound itself were ridiculous, like loofah. It made me flinch. She’d been at the magazine for more than a decade; she’d seen troops of interns come and go. Maybe it was like working in a dog shelter: we were just mutts, you couldn’t get attached.
I encourage my students to work on their vocabulary. I do slightly cringey things, like presenting them with unattributed Wu-Tang lyrics and making them try to guess the poet, then analyzing Method Man’s lexical dexterity. After I told my students what lexical meant, one of them, a popular, charismatic kid for whom I have a soft spot, said, “Mister L, flexin’ the lex!” and for the rest of the term he called me Professor Flex-a-Lex, and I had to pretend not to like it. But once upon a time I was just Luca the intern, perhaps my truest identity. As in, I still feel like a novice at life, always a step away from fucking up out of sheer, feckless stupidity.
There was no television in the New Old World office, but there were vast computer screens on every old mahogany desk. I invested those desks with a kind of sentience; they seemed like wise elephants forced to carry tourists. The night of the election, we gathered around one desk on cushions and chairs to watch the CNN livestream. It felt old-fashioned as a Super Bowl—wholesome almost!
Julia had dressed in a white pantsuit, and at first I thought it was a nod to Tom Wolfe, inwardly proud of catching the reference. When I clocked the homage to Hillary, I felt nauseated with relief that I’d kept my thoughts to myself. The near-miss humiliation ran lavalike through me, and I downed a gin and tonic to wash it away.
Byron had made clear his distaste for Clinton. He’d even used the word harridan, prompting Julia to clench her jaw. Our editor’s distaste for the other candidate, however, was far stronger. Waving his hands, Byron deemed him “unspeakable.” Before the networks had called Florida, he insisted again that he was “quite literally unable to speak about the man. I bid you a fond goodnight.” The mood went giddy in Byron’s wake, a taint of hysteria to the room like the frottage of helium balloons. We might have been tweens left to ourselves at a sleepover.
I went into election night with little in the way of political opinions and less knowledge, confident that the unspeakable man would lose and the sane and credentialed woman would win. It was only logical. The world had not yet betrayed itself to me. I believed, with true late-Obama complacency, that this would be a historic night. The First Female President! We men in the room took a kind of pride in our humility; this was a night for the women, we stated several times. “As I’ve said before,” James said, “it’s a time for men to shut up a little more than usual.”
I tried to catch Zara’s eye with a look of male allyship, but she had eyes for Wolf Blitzer only, as if willing CNN into proving to her what the rest of us already took for granted. Silent, she nibbled at her hangnails with the earnestness of a squirrel. Zara’d canvassed for Bernie, and when, weeks before, she’d outlined to me why he would have been better than Clinton, I’d felt very dumb.
That had been the same day that Byron was seized for some reason with a sudden need for a copy of Leaves of Grass, “by Walt Whitman,” Byron had said. “We know,” we’d said, simultaneously. Julia had dispatched us to a bookstore on Tenth Avenue with the company credit card.
I went into election night with little in the way of political opinions and less knowledge, confident that the unspeakable man would lose and the sane and credentialed woman would win. It was only logical.
“So why do we think Byron needs an emergency Whitman injection?” Zara said as we climbed the stairs to the High Line.
“He contains multitudes?” I hadn’t actually read much Whitman but I knew the multitudes bit. After all, you saw it in tweets: went to yoga then ate a bunch of fries, I contain multitudes lol.
“Does he though?” Zara narrowed her eyes for comic effect. “Like, does he really?”
“Yeah, maybe more a monotude than a multitude,” I offered. “Haha.” It was not a laugh but the sound that denotes a laugh.
But I felt kind of shabby mocking him. At least Byron had actually read Leaves of Grass front to back.
“Sure, sure,” Zara was saying indulgently. “The New Monotude.”
Though I often felt shamefully ignorant around Zara in moments like this, I convinced myself that together we were knowing and cool, and I’d even feel myself moving with a new kind of sureness, a touch of a strut, because here we were, a couple of smart kids, riffing and acute.
We were the only two people on our stretch of the High Line heading south instead of north, and the tide of tourists coming toward us provoked a foolish sensation of valor, boats against the current and so on.
Zara’s mind had already moved on. Had Bernie been the nominee, Zara was saying, he would have beaten the subprime fascist for sure. With Hillary she feared we were doomed. Someone else would have said “fucked,” but Zara never cursed, not even a “crap.”
“But isn’t Sanders kind of not that great on race?” My words trailed out hopeful and timid.
“I mean, he was chaining himself to civil rights protesters in the sixties. He literally marched with King. There are pictures. Clinton was a Goldwater girl. No one talks about this. It’s because he doesn’t, either. He doesn’t brag about it.”
I nodded. Bernie’s noble reticence seemed virtuous but also potentially stupid. He should brag about the good stuff, shouldn’t he? If he wanted people to know.
As Zara and I shouldered through the tourist droves bristling with selfie sticks taking multitudes of images, I wondered how being Black and female had enhanced whatever windfall of intelligence Zara had already been granted at birth. This was one of the questions I turned over in my head back then: Was it that women, especially Black women, attained greater insight into life through their encounters with oppression, and this made them smarter? Had my whiteness and maleness dimmed my own eyes? Or was something more specific wrong with me?
I didn’t know, I just knew that women in general seemed wiser. The counterevidence to this was that the primary woman in my life till then had been my mom, with her recent Fox News fealty and her contempt for “people who take handouts.” She’d done it all on her own—raised me, that is—so why couldn’t everyone else just be self-reliant too? I remember her teaching me the word wuss: “That’s short for wimp and pussy, Luke.” She loved the Denver Broncos. Particularly the linebackers. She’d shrug at some sound bite on the radio, saying, “Maybe he has his faults, but he’s a real man. No bullshit. He’ll shake this country up.” I’d just stare out the passenger’s-side window at the Möbius strip of Broomfieldian strip malls—Chipotle, Quiznos, Arby’s, McDonald’s, Chipotle, Quiznos, Arby’s, McDonald’s—while new country filled the Ford Fusion and I became incandescent with self-loathing, vowing to leave Broomfield and never come back. I was a horrible snob toward my mother and thus myself. The fact that, after voting for Obama in 2008, she voted for Romney four years later and now planned to vote Republican again blinded me to all other considerations; these became the only facts about her I had space for, and a source of such shame that I kept them to myself. Only some months after the election did I realize that to have a parent who’d voted for him conferred a strange distinction—it gave the bearer the title of realness, earned outside the liberal-elite bubble.
But bragging of my mother’s benightedness came later. On election night, as the dial swung wildly on the screen, Amit passed around a prescription bottle of Xanax, not even joking. I took one, a whole one, and in the same desperate spirit swallowed two slices of cold congealing pizza, then a third, and promised myself I’d run six miles the next day. I didn’t run the next day. I didn’t leave the apartment.
A patchwork of states flashed to red on the screens one by one.
There was America, in 2D, blushing.
Embarrassment was my prevailing emotion, anyway. To swing from buoyant to horrified felt cartoonish, like tripping along with a skip and a whistle before slipping on the banana peel that slams your coccyx into concrete. Around midnight, when it was clear that all was lost, Julia was overtaken by rage and kicked a desk, yelling, “Fuck this fucking country!” and “Fuck this!” She paced in a circle, then stopped, grabbed a fistful of her hair with each hand, and stood there panting in her white pantsuit as we stared at her, petrified and awed. She was like a woman in an opera, mad and bad and capable of legendary acts. Then she snatched her coat, grabbed a half-drunk bottle of scotch from the credenza, and walked out. No one said anything. Our silence felt like shame, a puddle we’d made and now had to sit in.
Zara was the first to move. Cautious as a dancer, she rose from her cross-legged seat on the floor and disappeared to the bathroom.
Julia had already demonstrated that this wasn’t a night for polite goodbyes. What was the point of words now, of saying anything at all? What had been the point of all that hot blather? No one knew anything. It turned out no one had known a thing. I took my dumb poor-person’s coat and left.
Outside in the damp small-hours streets, every person I passed was a case of bowed head and sunken gaze. You felt a citywide dejection. It was one am already, irretrievably tomorrow. In my mind I retraced the night back to what was now the day before, back to the moment of buying the bottle of Campari for the stupid Negronis—how the liquor store had been a thrumming cat’s cradle of exchanged grins, of complicity, all of us laying the booze in and knowing in advance the confidence of celebration. Democrats, in a democracy! I’d thought, as if etymology meant anything.
Beside me, a burger wrapper kept pace with my stride, turning slow somersaults down the street. Through Chelsea and the Village and Nolita and back to shuttered-up Chinatown and the cramped apartment I shared with a Canadian girl who cried all the time, I walked the whole way home. Often I’d hear my roommate blowing her nose in the bathroom, flushing tissues with little gulps. Tonight I heard nothing.
I lay awake in bed, dulled into sobriety. The evening that had passed seemed to me frayed and tawdry and my own part in it somehow shitty and low. I had the feeling I’d had after my sixth or seventh birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s: of too much ice cream cake eaten, of having shoved a boy I’d considered my friend, of being publicly scolded by my mother for having done so, of my own tears of self-pity and frustration and humiliation. Somehow this night among grownups had taken the same course.
Excerpted from Virtue by Hermione Hoby. Copyright © 2021 by Hermione Hoby. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.