Books

Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

Playing

A Novel

by Melanie Abrams

Playing is an audacious erotic debut novel that chills, thrills, shocks and enthralls. Through the story of a young American woman’s love for a dark, handsome, older stranger, Melanie Abrams evokes the radiantly dark world of dangerous desires.” —Bharati Mukherjee, author of Jasmine and Desirable Daughters

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date April 08, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7047-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00
  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Publication Date April 08, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4841-5
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

Melanie Abrams’s debut novel is a bold and provocative tale about love, betrayal, and how one young woman’s unconventional sexual reawakening uncovers the most guarded and shocking parts of her past.

When Josie, an anthropology grad student, is unexpectedly offered a job as the nanny for Tyler, a six-year-old with a penchant for trivia and an obsession with counting, she innocently accepts. Though Josie doesn’t necessarily need the job, there’s something about Tyler’s single mom, Mary—her beauty, her confidence, her resemblance to Josie’s mother—that draws her in. While Josie’s quick intimacy with Mary soothes her estrangement from her own parents, it also breeds betrayal when Josie falls for Mary’s crush, Devesh. An Indian surgeon ten years Josie’s senior, Devesh is a strong and enigmatic man who pulls Josie into a dizzying world of sexual domination and submission that speaks to her deeply hidden desires. It is a world of games that fast becomes serious, forcing Josie to confront the darkest moments of her past as she desperately struggles with her family history, her own violent impulses, and her love for Devesh.

Rapturous, illuminating, and emotionally charged, Playing is an unflinching look at the irrevocable consequences of giving in to our most secret passions, and the freedom and imprisonment that comes with true self-knowledge.

Tags Literary

Praise

Playing is an audacious erotic debut novel that chills, thrills, shocks and enthralls. Through the story of a young American woman’s love for a dark, handsome, older stranger, Melanie Abrams evokes the radiantly dark world of dangerous desires.” —Bharati Mukherjee, author of Jasmine and Desirable Daughters

“From its roots as a story of sexual obsession, this book grows into a deeply unsettling exploration of the human relationship to pain, both physical and psychological. It is a gripping and at times chilling story, but Melanie Abrams’ vision is unflinching: even in this terrifying landscape of memory and self-destruction, she is able to find a vision of hope.” —Daniel Mason, author of The Piano Tuner

Playing is a smart, erotic, and daring debut. Melanie Abrams’ prose is as sharp as the tangled desires she portrays in this compelling exploration of the connections between sex, death, pain, and atonement.” —Mark Lindquist, author of The King of Methlehem

“In her arresting debut novel, Playing, Melanie Abrams is disturbingly expert at exhibiting how erotic obsession makes a courtship—between Devesh and Josie—a dangerous game indeed. This novel is a breathless read, whose rewards are both unpredictable and unforgettable. A stunning writer.” —Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist and Devotion

“Playmates who don’t play nice sometimes know the best games, and the best fun, the kind that engages body, spirit, and mind, might not leave us laughing. Melanie Abrams . . . fictional playground is a troubled psyche, and the game, a darkly erotic, absorbing, and profoundly serious free-fall into memory that gives full expression to a character’s savaged spirit.” —Ann Cummins, author of Red Ant House and Yellowcake

“A young woman, taking a job as an au pair, at the same time embarks on an affair that allows her to act out her deepest and most shaming sexual fantasies. The tension between these two poles of her life sends her spiraling into a confrontation with a painful past and with herself. Part fable, part romance, this disturbing, tender, sometimes terrifying first novel announces, emphatically, the arrival of a very gifted new writer.” —Bob Haas, author of Time and Materials

Excerpt

Chapter One

When the two o’clock bell rang, kids swarmed the elementary school pickup zone, their backpacks dragging on the warm asphalt or slung upside down on their tummies. Tyler was usually one of the last children to arrive, but today he ran to the car and waved an orange construction-paper leaf in Josie’s face. “We made leaves,” he said. “There are deciduous trees and evergreen trees.” He held it out to her. “This is from a deciduous tree.”

“That’s great, Ty,” she said, and took it. He had drawn brown spidery veins down the middle, and on each point of the leaf was carefully printed the letters of his name. “Did you write this by yourself?”

“Of course,” he said, and snatched the leaf back. “And I cut it with left-handed scissors.” He climbed in the backseat and buckled himself beside the baby. “Twelve more days of first grade,” he said. “Where’s Mommy?”

“Home getting ready for the party tonight.” Josie looked in the rearview mirror and watched Tyler scowl.

“It’s Friday,” he said. “I know, but today we had to make an exception to the rule,” she said.

“But it’s Friday.”

She looked back again and tried to change the subject. “How big is Australia again?”

“Australia is two point nine six million square miles and is located on the Indo-Australian Plate,” he said.

“Wow, that’s a lot of space.”

“China is over three point four seven million square miles and has one point two eight four billion people as inhabitants,” he said, and kicked the back of her seat in time with the syllables.

“Tell me more,” she said. It wasn’t the best way to avoid a tantrum, but it was one way, and she was too tired from reading about the burial rituals of the Konkomba all night to try any of the recommended “positive coping skills.”

Josie hadn’t wanted to be a nanny. She had moved from Santa Barbara to North Carolina and into the graduate dorms—small, cramped spaces with a shared kitchen and antiseptic-smelling bathrooms—and holed up with her books. She liked her classmates, went running every weekend with a girl from Boston, ate breakfast once a week with the head graduate TA, and she had met guys—slept with a graduate student in library science who could compare every part of her body to food (her hair was like honey, her eyes like the inside of a kiwi)—but she felt temporary and untethered. Then in October of her second year, she had been assigned Tyler’s first-grade class for her Ethnographic Research Methods seminar and everything had changed.

She was ill the day sites were chosen, and later tried to convince the professor to change her topic. But the professor told her it was only one small paper and it would be good for her to branch out early in her career. Perhaps, he said, she would find out her interests lay beyond corpses and coffins. She had gritted her teeth and said nothing. She was a second-year graduate student but had been researching for years—books on the burial rituals of the Ewe of the Volta Region and the Ga of Accra—and she had spent the previous summer at the University of Ghana at Legon, studying and doing preliminary research alongside the program director. She was twenty-seven, not one of these fresh-out-of-college kids with notions of discovering the missing link. But she accepted the assignment and told herself to think of it as a kind of test; if she could put up with fifteen hours of the alphabet song, she would prove herself worthy of higher pursuits. So she sat in the corner with the coats and the lunchboxes thinking Tyler just one of the many towheaded boys who kicked their sneakers against the table legs and peeled the paper wrappers from his crayons. But on her second day, Tyler approached her after lunch and said, “This classroom is twenty-four feet by twenty-five feet and three inches.” He stood so close, he was almost on top of her shoes, and he looked at the ground and fumbled with the measuring tape in his hands.

“And the ceiling has seventy-four tiles on it,” she said. He froze and then looked up and at her right shoulder.

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“I counted,” she said. He didn’t say anything else, just stood there pursing his lips and pulling on his zipper until Mrs. Grayson told him to take his seat. But after that, he began seeking her out. The bell would ring for recess and he would hurry to her chair and spout distances as if they were observations on the weather. Mrs. Grayson would try to talk him into going to the playground and, when that didn’t work, try to physically pull him away, but the truth was, Josie didn’t mind. “It’s okay,” she finally said. “Let him stay.” There was something calming about the emotionless hum of his numbers. She would sit in her chair and go through her notes and listen to fact after fact play reliably in the background.

This went on for a week until one morning Tyler dragged his mother into the classroom. Mary was pale and dark-eyed with a halo of black curls, and although she looked nothing like her own mother, Josie was struck by their similarity—the vast amount of space they seemed to occupy despite their small frames.

“So you’re the infamous Josie,” Mary said. “I’m Tyler’s mother . . .”

“She’s a doctor,” Tyler said. “And that’s my sister Madeline,” he said, pointing to the baby in Mary’s arms.

“. . . and we need a nanny.”

“Oh . . . no,” Josie had said. “I’m a graduate student.” But Mary persisted, said that their last nanny had been a graduate student and couldn’t she at least take Josie out for coffee to discuss it? She grabbed Josie’s hand and pleaded, and Josie felt all Mary’s confidence pressing into her palm like a warm penny.

So they walked down to the coffee shop on the corner, Tyler scuffing his shoes against the curb, Josie awkwardly holding the baby’s diaper bag, and Mary charming Josie with stories about her stint as an encyclopedia salesgirl in college.

She was just like Josie’s mother, who could hold an entire room’s attention just by clearing her throat, could get even the tightest-lipped strangers to share their secrets. People adored her, adjusted their schedule around her elaborate themed parties—A White Christmas in December (complete with manufactured snow and sleigh rides), the Black and White Ball in April, and Josie’s favorite, because of the snow-cone machine and petting zoo, the Morgan Backyard Carnival in August. At the fancier events, Josie was allowed to come for appetizers and then put to bed. Often her cousin Natalie would also stay the night, and the two of them would sneak out to the stair landing and sit with their nightgowns pulled over their knees and watch the festivities. “Let’s count the drunk people,” Natalie would say, but Josie would shake her head. “Let’s send down a paper airplane with a message,” Natalie would try, but Josie would ignore her and, if that didn’t work, elbow her quickly in the ribs and send her sulking back to bed. Josie wanted to watch her mother, watch her enchant her many admirers with just the turn of her head, a hand on a lapel. Josie’s father was always close by, ready to refill her wineglass or light her cigarette—the perpetual suitor. It was spectacular, her mother’s magnetism—all that power so effortlessly exposed. “Your mother should have been born a French princess,” her mother’s sister, Aunt Steffi, would say, and Josie would nod solemnly, a bit terrified at the vision of her mother in her tennis whites shouting “Off with their heads!”

But unlike her mother, who even her father admitted was sometimes too “self-possessed,” Mary’s self-assurance seemed to radiate to those around her. At the coffee shop, Mary bought Josie a coffee and a cinnamon roll. They sat at a cramped table and Mary told Josie how she was researching the human immune response to tuberculosis, how most Americans weren’t even aware that TB was making a comeback. Her hands fluttered when she spoke, and once she gripped Josie’s knee for emphasis, and there was something about the way she placed her hand on Josie, the way she dipped her chin and looked intently, that created an unexplainable swell of softness in Josie’s stomach. So after the second coffee date, Josie relented and came and looked at the sunny room with a bay window that she could have for only twenty-five hours of work a week. And after their third date, a late dinner with too many glasses of wine, Mary told Josie the story of her divorce—the cheating husband, the unexpected second pregnancy, her ex’s complete disappearance after he was served with the child support order—and Josie handed over her references and soon found herself packing her things and moving into the extra bedroom.

At first it was strictly twenty-five hours a week and no weekends—a perfect part-time job, especially in preparation for June when she would have no classes and only be reading for exams for a year. Mary was in the lab more than fifty hours, but the baby could go to the university day care, and Tyler had school. Soon, though, Mary was asking for just a few more hours, just one extra errand, and Josie was glad to concede. After all, Mary was generous with Josie. She gave her books on West African art, picked her up an extra lipstick at the department store, brought home grocery store tabloids because Josie confessed they were her guilty pleasure. So even when the requests increased, Josie reasoned, it was really a partnership. Mary liked doing things for Josie, and Josie liked doing things for Mary, but perhaps even more true was that Josie liked the velvety blanket of Mary’s attention. Mary smoothed Josie’s hair and Josie wanted to pick up Mary’s dry cleaning, make her tea, organize her office.

And there was Tyler. He had crept into her affections. He was a peculiar little kid, and he had fallen for Josie. Her third week at the house, Josie had cut a basket of strawberries into inch-long pieces and let Tyler carefully dip each into chocolate. It made him deliriously happy—all that dipping and placing, dipping and placing—and after, he had snuggled up to Josie on the couch and astounded Mary. Tyler did not take to people, and he certainly did not cuddle them; he rarely let his mother that close to him. For whatever reason, Mary said, Tyler had chosen Josie. And the way Mary said it—like she was bestowing a blessing—and the way Tyler felt against Josie’s side—firm and unwavering—made Josie believe that perhaps she had found something good and solid.

Now Josie pulled into the driveway and honked the horn, and Mary came out to help with the groceries for tonight—a dinner party for nine people. Nine people and a man named Devesh Khanna. Devesh, who the dinner party was really for. Devesh, for whom Mary had composed ten different e-mails before impulsively picking up the phone and calling. He was a trauma surgeon at the teaching hospital where Mary worked and had first called Mary to consult on a case. “The patient was febrile and not responding to first-line treatment,” Mary told Josie excitedly. “He wanted to know what drug regimen to give!”

Josie had finally met him last Thursday when she and the children had gone to pick up Mary from the hospital. He had been waiting with Mary on the quad, and when Josie pulled up, Mary made Josie get out of the car to meet him. He was dark-skinned and stood close enough to Mary to graze her briefcase with his stiff white shirt cuff. Josie looked at him, looked at Mary, and felt a prick of apprehension at the base of her spine. “You’re the children’s nanny?” he had asked. “Josie’s more than a nanny,” Mary answered, but Devesh had fastened onto the idea. “More than a nanny,” he smiled. “Is that what it said in the job description?” Josie tried to laugh politely but was grateful when Tyler interrupted. “Africa is more than eleven point five million square miles, that’s twenty percent of the earth’s surface,” he said. “Its highest point is Uhuru Point at nineteen thousand three hundred and forty feet.” Mary quickly got in the car and rolled up the window.

Later that night, Mary had sat on Josie’s bed and peppered her with questions: wasn’t he cute, didn’t he have the darkest eyes, wasn’t his accent sexy? “Yeah,” Josie had said indifferently and tried to change the subject.

“You’re just jealous,” Mary said, and Josie, incredulous, had asked, “Of him?” “No, of me,” Mary said and looked at Josie coyly. Josie rolled her eyes, but she could feel the blush spreading upward from her neck.

Now, Mary opened the backseat door, and Josie took a deep breath and tried to sound convincing. “Damn, I forgot the coffee.” She’d been shopping all afternoon, found the organic basil and Chilean wine, the two dozen white tulips and filigreed place cards Mary had insisted upon, but she had purposefully forgotten the coffee. She wanted to go to the coffee shop and just sit by herself, an hour free of sticky juice boxes and The Wheels on the Bus CD.

“Don’t worry about it, we’ll use the grocery store stuff,” Mary said.

“No, it’s okay, I’ll go.”

“That’s silly. No one can tell the difference.” Mary unbuckled Madeline from her car seat and hoisted her onto her hip. “Ow,” Mary said, and grabbed for the baby’s hand. “Not the hair.”

“I know, it’s her new thing. If you make her laugh, she lets go.” Josie blew into Maddy’s face and she broke into a wave of giggles and batted her hands at Josie.

“Smart girl,” Mary said and kissed Maddy on the head.

“Twelve more days of first grade, Mommy!” Tyler said.

“That’s great, Ty,” Mary said.

Josie grabbed two bags and followed Mary into the house. “Do you . . . mind if I go to the coffee shop?”

Mary looked at her and readjusted the baby on her hip.

“I won’t if you don’t want me to,” Josie said.

“No, you go.” Mary dug in her purse and pulled out a twenty.

“I have money,” Josie said.

“Take it,” Mary said.

Josie hesitated, and Mary pushed the bill into her hand. “Get a smoothie or something.”

Josie looked at her feet but took the money. “All right . . . well, thanks,” she said.

“Be back by four, okay?”

Josie nodded and walked down the block toward the coffee shop.

Every time Mary insisted on giving her extra money, Josie felt guilty and uncomfortable. Because the truth was, she had money. Lots of it.

Her father had made his fortune in real estate when Josie was still a baby. He had started with a parking lot in Canoga Park, old grazing land that no one wanted; then came an office building on Ventura Boulevard; some warehouses in downtown L.A.; and then the malls—mammoth retail and entertainment centers that spanned Southern California. Now he was dealing in luxury hotel properties all over the West Coast.

The day before she drove east, her father had put one hundred thousand dollars in an account and handed her the checkbook. And there was more if she wanted. Plenty more. “Sweetie, please use the money. It’s a gift from me; your mother doesn’t even have to know,” he had said. It made Josie sick, nauseated by both her own spite and the way her father allowed it, her father who still gave her mother gifts and effusive cards on the anniversary of their first date, their first kiss, the day of their engagement. “No,” Josie had said, “I want to do it on my own,” and although this wasn’t exactly a lie—she did want to find her own way—it was about spite. “I refuse to tell people my daughter studies corpses,” her mother would say. “I don’t study corpses, Mother. I study rituals, Ghanaian rituals.” “It’s morbid, Josie. It’s just perverse,” her mother said, and Josie would feel the adrenaline pump from her heart to her fists—that overwhelming frenetic feeling—and before she knew it, she was storming out of restaurants, slamming doors, throwing glasses against floors. Her mother would stare at her, calm and collected, and tell her her anger was more suited to a four-year-old. “But then again,” she murmured, “you seem somehow stuck at four.” It was this comment that finally made Josie back off, go inside herself. Her mother could win any game with this. Because at four Josie’s world had turned upside down, and at four Josie seemed to slip from her mother in a matter of moments. No, Josie refused to be beholden to her mother any longer, and if she took the money, she would be beholden. Despite Josie’s efforts, even secrets had a way of revealing themselves to her mother.

The coffee shop was one of her usual study places—with bad coffee and pay-as-you-go Internet, it was usually empty and quiet, and Josie would often let Maddy nap in her stroller while she struggled with her Twi translation exercises or tried to get through whatever book she was reading. She had set herself the goal of a book a day, giving herself a break from the heap of social theory every three days with an ethnography. Today she had brought a book her advisor had already nixed from her Orals list. It was almost all photographs, but spectacular ones, and she thumbed through pictures of Ga customized coffins—giant tunas, colossal onions, body-sized airplanes. Only in Ghana could you be buried in a gigantic wooden Mercedes-Benz. Josie brought the book close to her face to make out the grillwork on the hand-painted car.

“You’ll strain your eyes doing that.”

Josie looked up and saw Devesh standing above her. He held a cup of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

“Do you mind?” he asked, and gestured to the empty chair beside her. There were plenty of empty seats around her, and Josie wished she could tell him to find another seat. She would need to be pleasant, though, could hear Mary’s brusque “Josie!” just thinking about what she would like to say, so she shook her head.

“Thank you,” he said, and placed his paper on the table. “Just need to get some sugar.”

She watched him wind his way around the empty tables and chairs to the coffee bar. Once there, he poured four packets of sugar into his coffee. He emptied one, then stirred, emptied another, then stirred again. His actions were polished and slow, as if the world were waiting for him to perfect his latte. She watched him until he finally turned, and then looked quickly down at her book.

“There we go,” he said, and sat down.

She nodded and picked up her book. She didn’t want to talk to him, but she thought he would try, and she supposed she would have to be cordial. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and opened the paper on his lap. It was a foreign paper—she could tell by the size and the brightly colored pictures on the front—and she tried to peek at the headings beneath his large dark hands without being noticed.

“Indian Express,” he said.

She looked quickly back at her book. “Ah, right.”

“And you’re reading?” he asked.

“Oh.” She faltered. “I’m just looking at pictures right now.” She hoped he wouldn’t ask more. She definitely didn’t want to discuss her work.

“Pictures?” He looked at her and waited for her to go on.

“Of coffins.”

He waited for more.

“Ghanaian coffins, but they’re not really coffins.” She paused. “I mean, they don’t look like coffins.”

“Some light afternoon reading?” He grinned.

“Ha-ha,” she said.

“May I see?” he asked.

She handed him the book, and he flipped slowly through the pages. It seemed to take an interminable amount of time, and Josie had to bite the tip of her tongue to keep from demanding it back.

“People do all kinds of strange things with death,” he said, and finally handed her the book. “In Madagascar the Sakalava decorated their tombs with carvings of men and women engaged in compromising positions.” He kept hold of the book for a moment and grinned at her. It was a wicked grin, and she felt her heart contract.

“Quite something,” he said, and released the book.

She looked at it in her hands. She could feel his steady gaze, and although she wanted to look up, to meet his stare, she knew her face was bright red, and she refused to give him the satisfaction of knowing he had affected her. She kept her head down and put the book back in her bag. “I need to go,” she said. She stuffed her notes and the other books in her bag and swung it over her shoulder.

“I’ll see you tonight, then,” he said.

“Yes.” She stood from her chair and walked toward the door. She knew he was staring at her, could feel his gaze warm and heavy on her back, and it made her muscles itch inside her skin. She stopped and walked back to him. “You can keep it,” she said. “If you’re so interested.” She dropped the book on the table, turned, and swung the door open so the bells jangled loudly on the door.

Stupid, she thought. It was a library book. And what kind of retort was that anyway? She shook her head and gritted her teeth. She did not like him. She stopped on the sidewalk, thought about going back to get the book, then ran her fingers through her hair and rested her forehead in one palm. “Josie, you idiot,” she said aloud, then took a deep breath. She didn’t know why she was so bothered, but she was, and she tried to think about Tyler’s calculations: the capital of Nigeria is Abuja, five thousand two hundred and forty-four miles from New York City. The capital of Kenya is Nairobi, seven thousand three hundred and sixty miles from New York City. She would think about all fifty-four African countries, have the numbers weave in and out of each other, an imaginary wrap, distances twisting tightly around her until all that held her were numbers.

At seven, the guests began arriving—the dean of the medical school and his wife, a handful of other faculty members, two of Mary’s friends from Boston, and “Dr. Bob,” a resident at the hospital that Mary had invited for Josie. Dr. Bob was charmingly boyish—lanky and slightly disheveled—and he had worked in a clinic in Ghana for a year. Josie sat with a glass of wine balanced on her knee, listening to him talk about malaria medicines, but alert for Maddy’s cries. The baby had been fussy all evening, and Mary and Josie had debated for an hour over whether a tablespoon of children’s cough syrup would put a one-year-old to sleep. They finally decided against it when Maddy fell asleep on Tyler’s bed. Josie piled pillows around her and let Tyler watch TV in Mary’s room, and now, every so often, Josie could hear a cartoon explosion followed by Tyler’s high-pitched laugh.

“So you’re a graduate student?” Dr. Bob asked.

“Just finished my second year, anthropology,” she said.

Dr. Bob was cute, in a geeky way. He wore glasses and had a crooked nose and sandy stubble across his chin.

“And Mary says you study burial rituals; that’s fascinating.”

Josie smiled and sipped her wine.

Devesh had not yet arrived, and Josie could sense Mary’s apprehension. Before the party, Mary had spent almost two hours getting ready: putting her hair up, then down; trying on different outfits. Finally, she had held a long red dress up to her body. “Too much?” she asked Josie. Josie shook her head and watched Mary slip her shorts, tank top, and then bra to the floor. With the red dress on her arm, she was strikingly beautiful. Her skin was pale and her breasts heavy, and Josie followed her curves to her belly. It was small and round and Josie had a sudden urge to press her lips softly and slowly against it. “When you have a baby, you’ll have a belly too,” Mary kidded. Josie blushed. “No,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking that,” but she didn’t know exactly what she was thinking, and she suddenly felt young and ashamed. She had often watched her mother dress for an evening out, wishing she could touch the skin that was normally covered, wondering if it felt somehow different from the papery smoothness of her arms.

“I’ve never seen a Ghanaian funeral,” Dr. Bob said.

“Neither have I.” Josie smiled. “Not yet, at least.” She finished her wine and set the glass on the table.

“Can I get you some more?” he asked.

She could already feel the first glass swirling its way around her head, but she hadn’t been drunk in a long time, and it felt good to have someone wait on her. “Sure,” she said.

Dr. Bob walked to the kitchen, and Josie scanned the room. Mary was still talking to the dean of the medical school, looking serious and nodding, when her expression suddenly changed. Her eyes widened and her lips parted slightly, and Josie followed her gaze to the front door.

His hair was still wet from a shower—brushed back tight against his head—and he looked smaller framed by the doorjamb. He was dressed in cream linen slacks and a white button-down shirt that made his skin all the darker. Her heart quickened, and she shrank down into the couch, but he had seen her, and he smiled. She blushed and then blushed harder. What was this adolescent embarrassment? She didn’t know why he was so fiercely affecting, but he made her feel surprisingly exposed. Josie gritted her teeth and looked away.

“Here’s your drink,” Dr. Bob said, and handed her the glass.

“Thank you.” She tried to take a sip, but the wine sat in her mouth like medicine.

Behind Dr. Bob, Josie could see that Mary had led Devesh into the kitchen. She poured him a drink, and Josie watched the glass fill. She watched Mary brush his palm as she handed it to him, watched it nestle firmly between his fingers, and felt the blood rush to her head.

“Can you excuse me for a minute?” she said to Dr. Bob.

“Sure, no problem.”

She stood quickly and her head spun. To get to the bathroom, she would have to walk through the kitchen, and to get to her room she would have to walk directly in front of them. She wished Maddy would cry so she would have an excuse to go upstairs, but all she could hear was the clinking of glasses and the hum of conversation.

“Do you need something?” Dr. Bob asked.

“Oh, no, sorry. I just have to check something outside.” Her head was still spinning, but she willed herself through the living room, to the sunroom and then to the backyard.

The air was cool and it felt good on her skin, and she slipped off her shoes and walked barefoot across the grass to the redwood bench under the trellis. She sat down, put her wine on the ground, and rested her forehead in her hands.

She did not like this surgeon. She played the moment with the book in her head a number of times, trying to figure out what it was that had her so undone. If anything, he irritated her, she decided. He would probably do the same to Mary—scratch at her until she couldn’t bear it.

She heard the backdoor open and looked up. He stepped onto the patio and she stood.

“No,” he said. He pointed his finger at her and grinned. “This time you’re going to stay.” He walked slowly to her. “Running from coffee shops, dinner parties . . .” he said. “Where exactly are you going in such a hurry?”

She opened her mouth, but could think of nothing to say.

“And without any shoes,” he continued.

She looked down at her bare feet. She had knocked her wineglass over when she stood, and it had splashed her ankles red. “I live here,” she said.

“I know. You’re the ‘more than a nanny.’”

She swallowed. “I take care of Tyler and Madeline.” His confidence was maddening, and she wished he would just leave her alone.

“And you study the more than eleven point five million square miles that is Africa, that’s twenty percent of the earth’s surface,” he said.

She looked up.

“I have a useless ability to remember conversations,” he said. “Thanks to Tyler, I’ll forever remember that ‘Africa’s highest point is Uhuru Point at nineteen thousand three hundred and forty feet.’” He sounded so surprisingly like Tyler that Josie’s mouth curled into a small smile.

“I know, I know. I can tell you what you said the last time we met, as well.”

She raised her eyebrows at him.

“I’m looking at ‘Ghanaian coffins, but they’re not really coffins. I mean, they don’t look like coffins.’”

She laughed and then covered her mouth.

“Useless, really. My overly male brain systemizing everyday interactions. I suppose some neurologists would say I received too much prenatal testosterone.”

“Or too much adult testosterone,” she mumbled.

“Hmm?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said, and turned slightly away.

“Oh, don’t be cruel,” he said. “I’m just a bungling surgeon. Take pity. How about we start again. I’m Devesh, and you are?”

She turned to look at him, and he extended his hand. He looked earnest. If Mary had her way, Devesh would be spending a lot of time with them. She supposed she should try and be nice. “You have my book,” she said.

“Ah, Josie. A pleasure to meet you.”

She folded her arms and set her chin.

“Josie who studies Africa,” he continued.

“Ghanaian burial rituals, but Tyler doesn’t know about the burial part.”

“Six-year-olds and death, not a good combination, I suppose. Although my grandfather died when I was six and the thought of him coming back as a superhero was quite pleasing.”

She smiled despite herself. She rubbed her ankle with the sole of her foot and looked at him. Maybe not smug, but something. Something that tickled at the base of her spine, part painful, part pleasurable.

“And you’re a surgeon,” she said.

“Yes; I try and keep the bodies alive, or at least teach medical students how to do that. But as of the summer, I’m just in the lab doing very boring research on wound repair.”

“And you’re from India.”

“And I’m from India. And you’re from?”

“California.”

“Ahh . . . California. I can see that.”

Normally, she felt comfortable around men. She would tilt her head, turn one corner of her mouth into a smile, and feel confident that she could at least charm the last bagel or only newspaper out of a man, but now she felt hyper-aware of her bare knees and sunburnt shoulders. She took a deep breath and determined to settle herself. “Santa Barbara, actually,” she said.

They talked about Santa Barbara—he had been there once for a conference—and he asked her questions—about burial rituals and Ghanaian politics; about her favorite books and movies; about her family and friends; and her thoughts on talk shows, and fashion, and ice creams, and toenail polish. He listened intently and smiled at her shyness, and pulled Tic Tacs from his pocket when she ran out of answers.

“We should go inside,” she said.

“Running off again.” He sighed.

“No . . . I just thought . . .” She was afraid Mary would find them here, alone.

“Don’t worry. She told me to find you.”

She looked at him, surprised.

“So you could introduce me to the people I don’t know.” He smiled. “But this is much more pleasant.”

Josie looked down and then bent to pick up her wineglass. “I should help Mary.”

“Then you have to promise to meet me later.”

The statement took her off guard, and she had to put both hands on the ground to steady herself.

“All right?” He wrapped his hand gently around her arm and pulled her to stand. “After the party.”

“I don’t know,” she said. Meeting him was a bad idea, a very bad idea. He was Mary’s guy, Mary’s big chance, but she could feel her resolve like a loose thread being unraveled. She looked at the ground.

“Nothing formal. We’ll just take a turn around the block.”

She laughed and then bit her lip.

“What?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

He tilted his head and crossed his arms in play anger.

“Just what you said . . .”

“What?”

Take a turn.” She giggled. “Who says that anymore?” She tried not to, but the laughs came.

“Laughing at me,” he teased. “Shameless.”

She was giggling now, laughing at him just like he said.

“Acting like a little kid,” he said. He was trying not to, but she could see his mouth threatening to break into a smile. “Making fun of your elders.”

At this, she broke into a new wave of giggles.

“Brat,” he said. “You deserve a spanking.”

Her heart seized. The laughs caught tightly in her throat and a bullet of heat shot from her head to between her legs. It was hot and fierce and it expanded until there was no room for breath, and she gasped. She looked at him, saw his smile fade and then a flicker of recognition, and then he was still. He said nothing, and she felt his stillness settle heavily within her until she thought she might suffocate.

“I need to go,” she said.

He was quiet, and then spoke suddenly. “Maybe later then.” He walked slowly toward the house, then stopped and turned back to her. “Maybe later when we take a turn around the block.” He grinned, and she knew she was transparent.

At dinner, Mary sat herself and Devesh at one end of the large table and Josie and Dr. Bob at the other. Devesh seemed a continent away, but still, every time Josie reached for the salt or answered a polite question, he would catch her eye, and she would lose all composure. She had acted—as he said—just like a little kid, and here she was doing it again. And with Mary only feet away.

She tried to focus on her plate, tried to find something interesting in the eggplant parmigiana. There were conversations and cross-conversations. She heard fragments—debates over how many ethics courses med students should take, whether the new campus grocery sold organic produce—and every now and then Devesh’s low voice—he had bought a house on the corner of Juniper and Second, he had found a great Thai restaurant near campus. Josie was afraid to look up, and when Mary asked her with help clearing the dishes, Josie almost jumped.

She picked up a stack of plates and followed Mary into the kitchen.

“Isn’t he charming?” Mary asked.

“Sh, he’ll hear you.”

“There’s a wall between us. Now isn’t he?”

Josie put the dishes in the sink. If she didn’t look at Mary, she might be able to handle the conversation. “Yeah,” she said.

“And sexy,” Mary continued.

“Uh-huh.” Josie ran the water over the dirty dishes.

“Oh, don’t do that right now. Bring the dessert plates out, but you’re not getting off that easy. Later I want you to tell me exactly what you think of him.”

Josie closed her eyes. If she didn’t talk to him the rest of the evening, she could tell Mary she didn’t have enough information to really give feedback. Or she could pretend she wasn’t feeling well, go to bed, and deal with this in the morning when she was more collected and the wine hadn’t made her think strange men could read her thoughts.

The rest of the evening, Josie focused on the meal—making sure everyone had enough cheesecake, that the coffee didn’t run out, that dirty plates were cleared and clean utensils provided. Even when Mary insisted she sit down, she couldn’t keep still. She was sure he would corner her again, and she drank two cups of coffee while standing in the kitchen, trying to sober up enough to shake his hand goodbye and mean it.

At ten-thirty, the guests began to leave and Josie steadied herself—she would say a quick goodbye and then excuse herself to check on Tyler and Maddy; by the time she came back downstairs, he would be gone. Instead, Mary grabbed Josie’s hand and made her stay.

“Josie made the eggplant and the salad and the cheesecake,” Mary said. “I just did the appetizers and boiled water for the pasta.” She was tipsy, and she held Josie’s hand tightly.

Josie tried to smile, and Dr. Bob grabbed her other hand.

“It was a great dinner,” he said. “And I really enjoyed talking to you.”

“Yeah; great.” She knew she was bordering on rude, but she could feel her heart accelerating, and she wanted her hands to herself.

“Maybe I’ll see you again?” he asked.

“Yeah, maybe.”

He smiled and let go of her hand, and Josie ran it through her hair and pressed her temples. The wine and the caffeine had made her head pound, and she wished she could sink to the ground and be absorbed into the carpet.

“Midnight then?” Devesh leaned in close, and Josie could feel his breath tickle the hairs on her neck. She shivered, and he laughed softly. “It’s only a walk.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but he stayed his ground. “Don’t make me ring the doorbell.”

And then it was done. He said his goodbyes, walked slowly toward the door, and any resilience Josie clung to dissolved with that final threat.

At eleven fifty-five, Josie crept from her room. She carried her shoes in one hand and opened the front door with the other. It was colder than earlier, and she wished she had brought a sweater, but she was afraid to go back. She sat on the porch step and slipped on her shoes.

If Mary looked out the window, she was sure to see them. The thought pinched at Josie, and she wrapped her arms around herself and wished he would hurry. Who did he think he was, anyway? She had heard Mary and her friends joking about surgeons and their arrogance, and now Josie understood why. But here she was, still waiting. She would go on this one walk, and then no more. No one would ever find out, and Mary could have him if she wanted. She looked down at her watch and followed the second hand circle after circle.

Finally, at twelve-ten she heard his steps on the concrete. She stood, and he smiled at her. “Ready for your evening constitutional?” he asked.

“Sh,” she said. “We have to be quiet.”

“Well, come on then.”

He had his hands in his pockets, and she wished she had changed into jeans, that she had somewhere to put her hands or something to do with them. She walked along next to him, determined to stay quiet. He could talk if he wanted. She would stay focused on all the reasons this was a very bad idea. They walked to the end of the block, then down on Grove Street, and when they reached Elm, she couldn’t stand it any longer. “Where are we going?”

“It’s a surprise,” he said, and smiled at her.

She looked at him, saw the soft lines around his eyes, the thin scar above his eyebrow, and for the first time felt at ease, and yet behind this feeling was the sting of something else. She looked down, and he took her hand in his. It was warm and broad, and she focused on his thumb, the way it stroked her fingers slowly and firmly, back and forth, back and forth, and felt safe.

“Okay?” he asked.

She took a breath. “Okay,” she said.

They walked until they reached the park on Walker. It was small—only two swings and a slide—but she often took the children there. It was bordered by oak trees, and Tyler liked to collect the acorns and line them up on the perimeter of the sandbox.

“I know this park,” she said.

“You do?”

“Tyler likes the acorns.”

“You know what’s on the other side of the stream?”

“There’s a house back there,” she said.

“Not just a house,” he said. “Let me show you.”

He held her hand tighter, and she followed him over the boulders and onto the bank on the other side. She scrambled behind him, up the steep incline until the ground leveled off. It was densely wooded, but the moonlight streamed through the trees revealing a small clearing a few yards in front of them. He led her to it and then stopped. Inside, were rock pillars, large sculptures made up of hundreds of flat rocks placed atop each other, each at opposing horizontal angles and each growing progressively smaller so that the result was ten symmetrically balanced towers.

“What is it?” Josie asked.

“Some college kids built it years ago. There are different theories on why. Some people say it was a physics experiment, some say it was an alien hoax.”

“And they don’t fall?”

“A few must in heavy rainstorms, but someone always seems to rebuild them. Come on.” He led her close to one. “It’s all sandstone, which means whoever built them hauled these rocks in here.”

Josie looked closely at a pillar. It towered a few feet above her head, and when she looked up it seemed to sway. She took a step back.

“They won’t fall. Don’t worry.”

This time she took his hand. He led her between the pillars, and it reminded her of how her parents had once taken her and her cousin Natalie to a park filled not with swings and slides and jungle gyms but enormous fiberglass toys—dolls the size of grown-ups, a cradle too high to see inside, a tea set with a cup big enough to bathe in. “Go ahead, Jojo,” her father had said. “You can pretend you’re the size of a mouse,” but she clung to his hand and pressed herself close against his waist, and when he questioned her, she was only able to tell him that everything was too big.

Now, she pressed herself a little closer to Devesh. In the back corner of the clearing was a platform of sorts. “What’s that?” she asked.

“A bench, but you can tell it was built by someone else. The stone they used is from down by the stream.”

She walked toward it, and he let go of her hand. The bench was a series of boulders, almost waist high and about six feet long. She traced her fingers along the rough stone, and then sensed him behind her. He placed his hands gently on her shoulders. She froze, and he ran his palms down her arms, back up to her elbows, and then down to her hands. He twined his fingers with hers and moved in closer. She shivered, and he let out the same gentle laugh as when he had said goodbye. “You’re lovely,” he said.

She felt the blood drain through her feet, and when he turned her gently to face him, she had to close her eyes to keep from losing her balance.

“I’m going to kiss you,” he said.

Okay, she thought. Okay. He pressed his lips gently against hers, a soft gentle kiss. His curls brushed her forehead, and she imagined him holding her arms behind her back, imagined him running a hand up her thigh and—but before she could finish the thought, he pulled away, and she opened her eyes. He was smiling, and she felt the crush of shame in her chest. Just a kiss, she thought, but the moonlight illuminated his lashes casting long shadows on his cheeks, and she couldn’t help but wish that dark something still there.

“We should head home, no?”

No, she wanted to say. But that was wrong—there was Mary to think about, and a million other things. Nevertheless, she couldn’t force herself to agree, couldn’t say, Yes; it’s late. Take me home, and they stood in silence until he finally reached for her. He took her wrists in his hands, his thumb and forefinger encircling each, and pulled her toward him.

“You don’t want to go home?” he asked, and spun her gently around, his hands still holding her so she was bound and close to him. She closed her eyes and felt his lips on her neck. “You’d like something else? Something more than a kiss?” he asked.

She drew a quick breath, felt it shiver through her body. His hands seemed enormous, her wrists like twigs, and she was suddenly aware of the intensity with which she had ached for this moment, how simultaneously terrifying and familiar it was. She swallowed hard, opened her mouth.

“Is that what you’d like?” he asked again. “Something more?”

Yes, she wanted to say, yes; but she could barely take a breath. Her head began to spin, large loping circles. She knew the answer, but even the thought of saying it aloud was enough to make her pull away. Sure she had thought it, but now, with him here asking for her permission, she couldn’t even open her mouth.

“Tell me,” he said. He tightened his grasp slightly, and the pressure of his grip seemed to squeeze the answer from her belly.

“Yes,” she said.

He laughed gently. “Then we’ll just have to do something about that, won’t we?” He kissed her softly on the neck and then turned her to face him. “Dinner, tomorrow?” he asked.

She swallowed hard and nodded.

“Good,” he said, and slipped his hand in hers, squeezed gently, and led her back across the stream, through the park, and home again.

Reading Group Guide

Readers’ Guide by Lindsey Tate

1. Toward the end of the novel Josie thinks, “But there was no new Josie. There was only the one that had always been, and this self held many selves, the little girl and the big girl and all the others in between, each snuggled inside the next like Russian nesting dolls.” (p. 263) Using this quote as a springboard, discuss the importance of self and self-knowledge in the novel. How well does Josie know herself, and how much of her self-image is defined by others, especially her mother?

2 Continue your discussion of this point by focusing on Josie’s relationship with her mother, Carol. How far do we get to see Carol as an individual, rather than as Josie’s mother, depicted through the prism of Josie’s guilt? Is it significant that she is rarely referred to as Carol, instead we see her as “your mother” or “Josie’s mother.” Despite Josie’s refusal to “be beholden to her mother any longer” (p. 10), she accepts the nanny position precisely because Mary reminds her of her mother—she had “chosen Mary because she would make Josie ache” (p. 239). Consider the implications of this. What does it mean to be beholden to someone? Talk about what it means for Josie.

3. Compare and contrast the ways in which Mary and Josie’s mother are similar, different. Is Josie’s relationship with Mary destined to turn sour given Josie’s identification with her as a mother-figure? Can Josie’s reflections upon her relationship with Mary be applied to that with her mother too—”Everything had happened as it should” (p. 239). When Mary says “Look, Josie. It’s ending this way . . . But it doesn’t undo how it was. I . . . I’m glad you were here” (p. 240). Is this something that Josie’s mother might have said, or Josie wishes she might have?

4. “The way Tyler felt against Josie’s side—firm and unwavering—made Josie believe that perhaps she had found something good and solid” (p. 7). Explore the ways in which Tyler represents the different sides of Josie’s psyche, and discuss why she identifies with him. He is the child less-favored by his mother, the brother she could have had, the child she once was, the confused adult she is now. Why do you think so many of her identities reside in him? Consider his obsession with factual details—”the emotionless hum of his numbers” (p. 4) and the way this mirrors Josie’s attempts to block out emotions or memories.

5. The theme of play manifests itself in different ways throughout the novel. Analyze the ways in which characters play different roles—mother, daughter, lover. Consider how Josie, as a child, thought of herself as “doing a job, pretending to be her parents’ daughter, holding Matthew’s place until he one day returned” (p. 108). How far do you think Josie is playing a role as the guilty daughter? What happens when we lose the distinction between the roles we play and the person we truly are—to what extent does this happen to Josie? Discuss the jealousy that Mary feels as Josie takes on the role of mother to Tyler and Maddy. Consider the irony of Mary viewing Josie as Little Miss Perfect.

6. Central to the theme of play, and to the novel, is Josie’s sexual relationship with Devesh. Were you in any way shocked or surprised by their relationship? Talk about the contrast between the violence of their play and the tenderness of their love for each other. Discuss the subtle difference, as defined by Devesh, between discipline and punishment. How far would you agree that for Devesh “the games they created were just games, made up out of nothing, just to play with” (p. 107) whereas for Josie they grow out of “a dark thing,” “an inner stain” (p. 107).

7. Look at the ways in which Josie’s intense sexual games start to move from the realm of play into reality. Consider the reasons for this, and discuss the reasons that she, unlike Devesh, “can’t leave it in the bedroom” (p. 106). Are the games ever play for her? Talk about her need to punish Tyler for his slight disobediences, and look at the way in which this urge to punish and forgive, to shame and feel shame plays out over and over again in her life. Analyze the different roles she plays—as both giver and taker of punishment. Why?

8. What does Devesh represent to Josie? Consider her belief that “with Devesh she felt simultaneously idolized and truly seen” (p. 123), and how far you would agree with her? Compare her open relationship with Devesh to the secretive one she maintains with her mother? Is she completely truthful with Devesh? If not, at what point does she start to turn within, and away from him? Why?

9. How does Devesh’s Indian heritage shape him as a character and in his relationship with Josie? Are there fundamental differences in beliefs and attitudes based on their cultural differences? How do these help or hinder them in terms of their relationship?

10. Consider the role of Phillip and his daughter, Katie. To what extent is Josie playing another role when she enters their life in Atlanta? What profound realization occurs while she is there? Why is it ironic when she states to Phillip “I can’t do this anymore” (p. 263).

11. Josie is seeking forgiveness from her mother, a forgiveness that never comes, and which leads to her cycles of feeling shame and craving punishment. Consider again her relationship with Devesh, and talk about whether she is really hoping for forgiveness or acceptance from her mother. To what extent do you believe her mother is aware of four-year-old Josie’s view of events surrounding Matthew’s death? Do you think she believes that Josie was responsible for her brother’s death? What difference does it make to Josie? Look at instances where her mother shames her, or confronts her about her choices in life (“I’m just asking you to think about what you’re doing” (p. 49). Are there moments where her mother reaches out to her and Josie rejects her? How far is Josie only able to view her mother in relation to her own feelings of guilt?

12. At the beginning of the novel, Josie’s graduate studies of Ghanian burial rituals seem far removed from her everyday life. However, as the events of her childhood become clear, her choice of study makes sense. Reread the scene in which Josie buries a red cardinal with Tyler (p. 83) and discuss the stark difference between her conversation with Tyler and her inner thoughts. Why do you think she feels uncertain about funeral rites as a prop for those left behind? What does she mean by: “She was still who she was, twisting out from that moment like a spiraling helix” (p. 214).

13. When Josie goes to sleepaway camp for the first time she has a dream that will recur throughout her life, a dream about her body splitting into two and then colliding back together. What is the significance of this image?

14. Josie’s mother’s death acts as a catalyst in the novel that allows Josie to make some important realizations. Analyze the ways in which it enables her to speak about the past, and to accept what happened, and, most importantly, to accept who she is. What does she figure out about her relationship with Devesh, and why?

15. Talk about Josie’s relationship with her father, so undermined by the looming presence of her mother. Why is she able to speak to him about her role in Matthew’s death? Is it because her mother is dead and her forgiveness is no longer available or sought after? Is it more a convergence of circumstances, or something else? Discuss the scene in which she makes her apology and receives her father’s forgiveness. Did you feel that Josie had found the absolution she was searching for and would now be able to move forward with her life?

16. Consider the ways in which Josie has been shaped by her parents, especially her mother, and the ways in which she carries this into her adult life. Look at Mary’s relationship with her children, and discuss the ways in which she supports them, damages them. Is it inevitable? Talk about parenting in the novel in general.

17. In going through her mother’s personal belongings after her death, Josie is made aware of “a life more complex than just the disgust that Josie now realized was only one aspect of her mother, not the vastly complicated layers of a whole person, an entire universe” (p. 271). Through this understanding of her own skewed perception of her mother’s life, what is she finally able to understand about her mother, and herself?

18. How far would you agree with the statement that “the world was causal, but it was also messy, cryptic” (p. 239). What does the statement mean in the light of the novel? By coming to this understanding, how far has Josie grown throughout the novel, and in which ways?

19. Explore the reasons behind Josie leaving Devesh. Are they completely clear to her? What is it that changes within her that makes her sure that she can be with him again. How has she grown when she states “she understood that how or why they arrived here didn’t matter, that the cause only flickered in the background like an ember” (p. 283). How do you think their relationship will continue after this? How did Devesh change or grow during the narrative? Conclude your discussion of the novel by imagining what the future might hold for Josie and Devesh.

Suggestions for further reading:

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill; Exposure by Kathryn Harrison; Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan; God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; The Little Friend by Donna Tart; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; Story of O by Pauline Reage; Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch; A Defense of Masochism by Anita Phillips

Suggested films to watch:

Secretary