THE HERMIT VI: LAUREN
(Author's note: I will be making this substack private due to some development with an indie publisher. Current subscribers will still receive the weekly installments. KG)
Andy met Lauren at a fundraiser for a women’s breast cancer charity, a ‘great way to pick up chicks’ according to Caldera who chaperoned Andy around town after his separation from Madeline. At the charity venue’s welcome stand, they received pink lapel ribbons, and, with the comportment of humbled solidarity, waded into the sequined, bare-shouldered, champagne-sipping crowd.
“That?” Caldera said in mock horror when he saw Andy zoom in on a stylish, frizzy-haired young woman. “How are you going to maintain your Woodrow when she quotes bell hooks at you?”
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“Come on. You have to get conversant in their lingo,” Caldera said. “What about those two?” Caldera pointed with his eyes at two thin, blond, polished women in their thirties.
Caldera introduced himself and Andy to the women as longtime friends of the charity. After the initial chit-chat — ‘good cause,’ ‘thank you for your support,’ — Caldera pointed at Andy and said that this guy plans to start a new fund that invests in socially and environmentally responsible causes.
“We are entering a new enlightened era,” Caldera said solemnly. “We need a different way of thinking.”
Andy kept mum, playing along, thinking that Caldera would’ve made a great actor.
Lauren, the younger of the two women, turned to Andy and asked him if this new fund would invest in the arts.
“Of course,” Andy said. “We need art now more than ever. Technology explains the ‘hows’; art explains the ‘whys.’ I think that we’ve been lacking in the ‘why’ department.”
Caldera glanced at Andy with astonished approval. He patted him on the back.
“You better stick with this guy,” Caldera said. “He will be on a magazine cover one day.”
Lauren gave Andy her business card and Andy gave her his. She told him that she’d be interested in talking more, as she was involved in several art projects.
“Let’s have coffee one of these days,” Andy said.
“I’d love to,” Lauren replied.
“See? That’s how it’s done,” Caldera said when the ladies walked away. “I just sensed some repressed sexual energy there that is looking to drain itself on the right guy. Why can’t it be you? Let me see her card.”
Under her name, Lauren’s card listed several titles: philanthropist, entrepreneur, filmmaker.
“Huh,” Caldera said. “Bet you fifty bucks she’s a rich divorcee with too much time on her hands. You hit the jackpot, man.”
Caldera was right. From a brief scroll through Lauren’s Instagram Andy learned that she was divorced — there were pictures of her and her child, a six-year old boy, but no signs of a husband. She split her time between a large waterfront mansion in the Hamptons and an apartment in Manhattan, and attended gallery openings, Sunday brunches, and fundraisers.
As he scrolled further through the pictures and the videos, he saw that after her divorce Lauren went on a journey of self-discovery. The journey was guided by a fashionable bestseller, a book club favorite, the imperative ‘Fly, Girl, Fly,’ that inspired scores of restless middle-aged white women to ‘leave everything behind and find one’s true self.’ On the book’s cover there was a breezy, soft-focus image of a woman in a diaphanous gown on a wooden jetty about to leap into the water, and he felt that Lauren, in her travels, sought to imitate it. She posted pictures of herself in a kind of caught-in-a-dream ease, looking away from the camera, or in mid-action, browsing through the fish and farmers markets and picturesque town squares of Northern Italy. He wondered who took those pictures.
On their first date, at Babbo, Andy told Lauren that he worked in ‘finance,’ and she replied that her ex-husband was a hedge fund manager, and she gave him a name and, of course, Andy had heard of him and of his book — that is assets under management — that was much bigger than his own. He mentioned the former but not the latter to her. Lauren then talked a lot about self-actualization and empowerment. Andy listened, keeping keen eye-contact, interspersing her talk with nods and words of encouragement.
Now that Lauren was divorced, the philanthropy, at least the part that required large-sum donations, was put on the backburner. She still attended several fundraisers a month, mostly to show her face to friends and — especially — enemies, and to be up to date on social currents, but her focus had now switched to filmmaking. With her girlfriends she made a short documentary about an elderly woman in Queens who couldn’t pay her medical bills and faced eviction and was miraculously saved by an anonymous GoFundMe campaign.
“How did you know in advance that she’ll get enough money from the campaign to cover her bills?” Andy asked.
“Well,” Lauren said and looked at him like he was an idiot. “We set it up.”
“Aw. Clever,” Andy said. “But then it’s not really a documentary. More of a reality TV show.”
“It’s a heartwarming story. People love those stories,” Lauren said.
“If only there was an army of Laurens out there helping desperate old ladies,” Andy said warmly and saw that Lauren was pleased with his takeaway. A young raven-haired waiter came by and in a native Italian accent asked if Lauren wanted a second glass of wine and she coquettishly said, “Oh, yes, please, grazie.”
For her next project Lauren planned to tackle a more serious topic, a refugee crisis in Europe.
“A full-length doc, an hour and a half long,” she said between sips of Chianti.
“You have a fascinating life,” Andy said. “Can a boring guy like me hop along for the ride?”
The Italian waiter brought a dessert menu.
“I know a good dessert place,” Lauren said. “We should go there.”
Andy was glad that Lauren wasn’t bookish. She rushed between causes, unsettled, unsatisfied, but she carried with her the promise of a bohemian adventure, of thoughtless indulgence. She was a timely, congenial prescription to his ennui. In the back seat of the taxi Andy put a hand on her knee and leaned over to kiss her and Lauren responded with restless, yearning vibrancy. He tried to remember the last time he had a similar night on the town experience — hopping from place to place with an attractive woman at his side, with a prospect of extricating late night denouement at his or her apartment –– and realized that he’d have to reach as far back as his early twenties.
The dessert place was a cupcake store in Chelsea. They got out of the taxi in front of its pink and purple storefront. The place was closed.
“It’s my store,” Lauren said. “I own it.”
She took out the keys from her purse and unlocked the door.
“Wow,” Andy said. “I guess this is the ‘entrepreneur’ part of your resume.”
“That’s right,” Lauren said haughtily.
In the glass vitrine inside the store was an assortment of colorful macaroons. Lauren went behind the counter. Andy followed her.
“I think they sold all the cake inventory for today. But these macaroons are delicious. You want to try one?”
He put his arms around her.
“There’s a macaroon I want to try,” he said and buried his tongue in her mouth. Lauren’s fingers slid down his crotch. Breathing heavily, she unlocked his belt. He fished, impatiently, for a condom that had gained a permanent residency in his wallet, among the hundred-dollar bills, and tore its silver wrapping, nervous about whether his ‘Woodrow’ was up to task. But his old friend rose to the occasion.
“Not bad for an old man,” Lauren said, diffusing an awkward post-coital lull.
They both giggled.
Lauren’s cupcake store was a gift for her thirtieth birthday from her hedge-funder husband. Years ago, she got bored sitting at home with a newborn and, after she complained that she was getting stale and dumb, the husband asked her what she wanted to do. At that time Lauren was into TED talks and Forbes rankings, and the idea of calling herself a businesswoman appealed to her.
“You can play with it now,” her husband said after he bought a small commercial space on Ninth Avenue. Lauren hired a crew to renovate and paint the store, a retail business consultant to furnish it with all the right fixtures, and a social media intern to create and maintain the store’s website. The website and the social media account profiles featured a photo of Lauren in a sharp-shouldered business jacket, in a power pose, with hands planted on her hips. The opening ceremony was lavish, with gourmet catering and unlimited champagne. All her girlfriends and important friends showed up.
Lauren collected identities as if they were weaponry. All her frantic activities, all her vacillations and fleeting interests seemed like unacknowledged preparations for entering a space that Madeline stepped into years earlier, stoically, and calmly. To protect herself from the vagaries and betrayals of life that she, no doubt, came across during her divorce, Lauren retreated into a self-created emotional world of enforced positivity. She sought affirmations of her new lifestyle in self-help books, seminars, and inspirational quotes that she posted daily on her Instagram. Whenever she learned about a new business or a social phenomenon or a lifehack, she hurried to discuss it with Andy, seeking his opinion, but in her description of the phenomenon, she often was at a loss for words and resorted to the use of extreme facial mimicry and arms gestures.
“Oh,” Andy would encourage her when she looked at the ceiling in search of a word. “How interesting.”
“It’s… it’s… it’s groundbreaking,” Lauren would conclude, her hands shaking two invisible balls for emphasis.
Andy was forgiving to Lauren for her lack of focus and her superficiality. In fact, he was even entertained by it. There was energy in her pursuits, a misguided, dumb energy, but a refreshing one. She was an antidote to Madeline’s sterile dispassion.
In the post-nuptial settlement, Lauren told Andy, she got the Hamptons house and the West Village apartment. Andy soon learned that the apartment was a one-bedroom walk-up in need of a renovation, and just as he was mulling the most benign way to ask Lauren about how a family that is accustomed to living large, with a young child, with household help, and with resources to pay for an appropriate-size dwelling ended up owning such a small unit, she hurried to tell him that the apartment wasn’t meant to be lived in. Its function was to secure a spot for Ashton, her son, in a good public school nearby. She was going to sell it and buy a bigger one, as soon as she sold the Hamptons house. Smooth tale, Andy allowed it, thinking that there, perhaps, was a story behind the Hamptons house as well, that ceding the beachfront property wasn’t some grand, benevolent gesture on her ex’s part. Indeed, he found out quickly enough, that her ex stuck Lauren with a huge tax bill on the house that she would now have to pay out of her own settlement. Smart motherfucker, Andy thought. “What a douchebag,” he said to Lauren, shaking his head in dismay.
There were also, most likely, limited partnerships about the existence of which Lauren couldn’t possibly be aware, and if she was, couldn’t figure out how to extract that money. There were a lot of ugly discoveries that she must’ve made in the past few years, a lot of grief, a lot of anger, a lot of things that she couldn’t even express properly — because most of those ugly things were not about infidelity but about money, a taboo topic, and because in order to describe how badly she got fucked, she would need familiarity with obscure legal and financial terminology. Andy felt that anger, that bitterness in her gestures and voice when she mentioned her ex.
Could she have stood her ground? Could she have gotten past the legalese and demanded to be compensated appropriately? Could she have quantified and argued what ‘appropriately’ meant? Could she have foreseen that her innocuous habit for a joint every now and then that the husband never had a problem with before, could suddenly become a pretext for a custody battle and a resulting diminished alimony?
Poor, poor Lauren. She’s a nice girl who got squashed by complexity. Women like her, fair and pretty and thin, benefit from all these legal and moral gray zones — the nuances, the clauses, the fine print, the offshore accounts, the unexamined implications — until that complexity rolls over them like a steamroller. She must’ve thought, like many young, beautiful women in love, that there was an understanding that didn’t need an elaboration, that certain norms will always be upheld. Especially when there’s a child, especially when that child is a boy. Smart, attuned women sense that crucial moment when the silent agreement is nixed, when the unraveling begins, and become — immediately! — upright citizens, caring, selfless mothers, and loving, long-suffering wives. Lauren should’ve trod carefully — no weed, no outbursts, no late-night absences, not even mimosas with girlfriends on weekends. But she missed the signs, and she failed to detect a trap.
Once her husband wanted her out, she was done. He could plan her moves several steps ahead. He knew how to get her riled up and when to call the police. He knew that once it dawned on her that he claimed himself to be the victim, and her the perpetrator, the audacity of it, especially in the presence of law enforcement, would put her in apoplectic feat and seal the case in his favor. Her verbal and communicational skills weren’t up to par to counter such gall without getting derailed by emotion. At that moment she needed clarity of thought, a cold mind, precise articulation of grievances, the cataloguing of abuses, a recommendation of appropriate remedy. And she would have none of that. She’d be hysterical and incoherent. She’d have mascara running down her face. The cops would find a joint in her handbag, she’d fail a piss test. By the time she got a good lawyer, it was probably too late. By the time she got to read a carefully crafted statement ‘You honor, my actions, which I regret, should be put in a broader context. I was not driven by malice. It was the result of accumulated etcetera, etcetera,’ the court had already had recordings of ‘what was I supposed to do when he called me a stupid whore,’ and ‘he never had a problem with me smoking weed before’ on file.
“Your husband preempted you in court, didn’t he?” Andy asked her to see if his hypothesis was correct.
“He’s just an asshole,” Lauren replied with an eyeroll, unwittingly confirming it.
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