“Girlfriend is gone, I’d say,” Merritt remarks. “Thoroughly scoured from his feed. Let’s check Instagram—”
“I don’t want to check Instagram,” Celeste says. “Help me find something to wear.”
Celeste meets Benji outside Madame Vo’s at exactly eight o’clock on Friday. Merritt advised Celeste to show up ten minutes late but Celeste is always prompt—it’s a compulsion—and Benji is already waiting, which is, she decides, a good sign. Celeste has borrowed a dress from Merritt; it’s a rose-gold Hervé Leger bandage dress that Celeste knows retails for well over a thousand dollars. Merritt was given it for free to wear to the opening of a new club, Nuclear Winter, in Alphabet City, and when Merritt is photographed in something as much as she was in this dress that night, she can never wear it again. Celeste is also wearing Merritt’s shoes—Jimmy Choo stilettos—and she’s carrying Merritt’s gold clutch purse. The only things she’s missing are Merritt’s wit, charm, and confidence. Celeste calls upon advice her parents have been giving her since she was old enough to understand English: Be yourself. It’s wonderfully old-fashioned and possibly ill advised. Celeste has always been herself, but that hasn’t won her any popularity contests. Genus: Girl Scientist. Species: socially awkward.
“Hi,” she says to Benji as she steps out of her Uber.
“Wow,” Benji says. “I almost didn’t recognize you. You look—wow. I mean, wow.” Celeste blushes. Benji is taken aback, maybe even awestruck, and it doesn’t seem like an act. Celeste is unsure whether to kiss him or hug him and so she just smiles and he smiles back, looking into her eyes. Then he holds the door to the restaurant open and ushers Celeste inside. “Are you hungry?” he asks.
Benji is nice. Celeste didn’t think there were any nice guys living in New York. The men she sees on the subway and on the street all seem to leer at her breasts or swear under their breath if she’s taking too long with her MetroCard. The men at the zoo are no prizes. Darius, who took Celeste’s job in primates when she got promoted, has confessed that he spends nearly half his paycheck on internet porn. Mawabe, who works with the big cats, is addicted to the video game Manhunt; he offers to teach Celeste to play it every time they have a conversation. The problem with people from the zoo in general is that they relate better to animals than to humans, and that’s true for Celeste as well.
When Benji tells Celeste that he works for the Japanese bank Nomura, she pretends this is brand-new information. “You mean to tell me you’re just another soulless private-equity guy?” she says, hoping it sounds like she is subjected to dates with such guys every weekend.
He laughs. “No, that would be my father.” He then explains that he heads Nomura’s strategic-giving department, so it’s his job to give money away to meaningful causes.
“Eventually, I’d like to run a large nonprofit. Like the Red Cross or the American Cancer Society.”
“My mother has breast cancer,” Celeste blurts out. Then she bows her head over her crispy spring rolls. She can’t believe she just said that, not only because it’s the world’s most depressing topic but because she hasn’t discussed her mother’s cancer with anyone.
Benji says, “Is she going to be okay?”
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Celeste’s mother, Karen Otis, had stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma that reached her lymph nodes, necessitating eighteen rounds of chemo and thirty rounds of radiation after her double mastectomy. She rang the bell at St. Luke’s for her final treatment back in July and she isn’t supposed to have a follow-up appointment for six months. But she was experiencing back pain so she’d gone to see her doctor this week. He ordered an MRI, one that Karen nearly refused because it was so expensive and Bruce and Karen were already loaded down with medical bills for treatments that weren’t covered by Bruce’s modest health insurance. However, Bruce insisted they do the test. When he talked to Celeste about it on the phone, he quoted a song by the Zac Brown Band. “‘There’s no dollar sign on peace of mind,’” he said. “‘This I’ve come to know.’”
Celeste figures they must play this song on the Neiman Marcus Pandora, because she hasn’t known her parents to like any song recorded after 1985.
The results of the MRI should be back on Monday.
Celeste raises her eyes to Benji’s, his brown to her blue. Brown is a dominant gene. Benji’s DNA, she is sure, is composed of only dominant genes. She’s not sure what to say. Her mother’s cancer is a private matter, and Celeste’s entire relationship with her parents is too intense to explain to most people.
“I don’t know?” Celeste says. She raises her voice at the end so that she sounds more hopeful than maudlin. She doesn’t want Benji feeling sorry for her. This is one reason why Celeste doesn’t like talking about Karen’s illness. Also, she doesn’t want to hear anyone else’s inspiring story about a sister-in-law who went through exactly the same thing and is now running ultramarathons. Celeste doesn’t mean to be ungenerous in her thoughts, but she has come to the chilling conclusion that we are all alone in our bodies. Irrefutably, immutably alone. And hence, no one’s story offers hope. Either Karen will survive the cancer or it will metastasize and she will succumb to it. The only people Celeste can tolerate discussing Karen’s treatment with are Karen’s doctors. Celeste believes in science, in medicine. She has secretly been donating a hundred dollars a week to the Breast Cancer Research Fund. “She’s okay now. For the time being.” Celeste is too superstitious to say her mother has beaten it, and she refuses to call her mother a survivor. Yet.
“Thank you for telling me,” Benji says.
Celeste nods. He understands her, maybe? He senses the agony lurking behind her metered answers? He seems perceptive the way so few men—so few people—are. Celeste picks up a spring roll and dips it into the vinegary sauce. “These are really good.”
“Wait until you taste the pho,” he says. He takes a sip of his beer. “So, tell me about the zoo,” he says, and Celeste relaxes.
Benji insists on taking Celeste home in a taxi, which seems quaint. He asks the driver to wait while he walks Celeste to the door of her apartment building. She feels a huge relief that there will be no quandary about whether to invite Benji up and if she does invite him up about how far to let things go. Merritt believes in sleeping with a guy on the first date, but Celeste feels very much the opposite. She would never, ever.
Benji tells her he would like to see her again. The following night, if she’s free, he has tickets to see Hamilton.
Celeste gasps. Everyone in this city wants to see Hamilton.
Benji laughs. “Is that a yes?”
Before she can answer, he’s kissing her. Celeste starts out feeling self-conscious about the taxi driver who is waiting, but then she surrenders. There is nothing in the world that is quite as intoxicating as kissing, Celeste thinks. She lets herself get lost in Benji’s lips, his tongue. He tastes delicious; his mouth is both soft and insistent. His hands are on her face, then her neck, then one hand travels to her hip. Before she can guess what will happen next, he pulls away.
“I’ll see you tomorrow night,” he says. “I’ll call with details in the morning.” With that, he goes down the stairs and by the time Celeste’s head clears, his taxi has pulled away.
They go to see Hamilton. It turns out that Benji’s father is one of the original investors and has house seats, which are first-row center of the first balcony. Benji has seen the musical five times but he doesn’t tell her this until afterward, when they’re sitting at Hudson Malone, dipping jumbo shrimp into cocktail sauce, and Celeste has to admit, she would never have known. He had seemed as enraptured as she was.
Benji says he would like to see her Sunday and Celeste suggests a walk in Central Park. The park is a place she feels comfortable, nearly has a sense of ownership. She runs the reservoir any chance she can get and in the summer lies out on a towel in North Meadow. She loves Poet’s Walk and the Conservatory Pond, but her favorite spot is surely a place Benji hasn’t experienced before. She meets him south of Bethesda Fountain where a group of roller skaters congregates on weekends. There’s a motley crew of characters—Celeste has come to recognize most of the regulars—who skate in an oval around a boom box that plays classic rock songs.