Good, Celeste says. Which is true. Benji was very considerate, very aware of Celeste’s desires—what felt good, what she liked. Maybe he was too aware. But that hardly seems like something to complain about.
Uh-oh, Merritt says.
There are dinners in SoHo, the Village, and the Meatpacking District. There is takeout Indian food and sushi and Vietnamese, now a favorite, that they eat at Celeste’s apartment while watching The Americans. There is brunch at Saxon and Parole, where Benji introduces Celeste to the phenomenon of the bloody mary bar. She loads her glass up with a little of everything: celery, carrots, peppers, house-made pickles and pickled onions, bacon, fresh herbs, beef jerky, olives, and spirals of lemon and lime. Then, when her glass is accessorized like an eighty-year-old woman who is wearing every piece of jewelry she owns, she snaps a photo and sends it to Merritt, who responds ten seconds later: Are you at Saxon and Parole?
There’s a reading at the Ninety-Second Street Y by a writer named Wonder Calloway, who reads a story about a woman Celeste’s age who treks to the base camp of Everest with a man she loves but who does not love her in return. The man suffers from altitude sickness and has to turn back. The woman has to decide whether to stop or keep going. Celeste is moved by the story and by the whole idea that literature can be relevant to her life and her feelings. She never felt that way when reading anything in high school. At the end of the reading, Benji buys Celeste a copy of Wonder Calloway’s short stories and Wonder autographs it. She smiles at Celeste and asks her name, then writes To Celeste in the book. Celeste is thrilled but also a little chagrined. The experiences Benji is showing her, while extraordinary, are messing with her head. She knows she is fine just as she is—she has a college education and a good job—but each date shows her all the ways she has yet to grow.
She reads the short stories on her commute to work and by the end of the week, she’s finished and she asks Benji for another book. He gives her The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. She loves it so much she reads it any chance she can get. She reads Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Benji gives her a list of books he’s loved and together they go to Shakespeare and Company.
There’s a new Burmese place on Broome Street that Benji wants to try and Celeste says, “Burmese?” She didn’t even realize Burmese food warranted its own restaurant, but she should know by now that Benji seeks out far-flung cuisines—East African, Peruvian, Basque. He compares it to Celeste’s love of exotic animals. She can talk all day about the Nubian ibex and he can talk about momos.
The Burmese restaurant has only ten seats, all of them taken, so they get their order to go and Benji says, “Since we’re close, we might as well go to my place.”
“You live nearby?” Celeste asks. Benji has referred to his apartment only as being downtown—but everyone lives downtown compared to Celeste. She has wondered why she has never been invited to Benji’s apartment. After she finished reading Jane Eyre, she joked that Benji must be hiding a crazy wife in his apartment. He bristled at this. “It’s nothing special,” he said. “You won’t like it.”
If it’s yours, I’ll like it, Celeste thought, but she hadn’t wanted to push. He obviously had his reasons.
Now, Benji leads Celeste into a high-rise luxury building in Tribeca, right next to Stuyvesant High School, and after greeting the doorman and the man behind the front desk, they get into the elevator and Benji presses the button that says 61B.
The sixty-first floor, Celeste thinks. Her building is a six-floor walk-up and she lives on the fifth floor in the rear.
Celeste’s ears pop on the way up and Benji is uncharacteristically quiet. The elevator fills with the scent of the Burmese food, but Celeste’s appetite is quelled by a sudden case of nerves.
The elevator doors open and Celeste steps into an apartment. She’s confused for a second.
“So, wait,” she says. She turns around. Yes. The elevator has opened up right into Benji’s apartment.
Benji takes Celeste’s hand. She is fixated on the elevator. An elevator into his apartment. Did she know places like this existed? Yes, she has seen it in the movies. If she lived here, she might be tempted to press the elevator button just so she could experience its arrival solely for her, even when she didn’t have to go anywhere.
The apartment has been professionally decorated and it’s immaculately clean. There are black leather sofas, deep royal-blue club chairs, a colorful kaleidoscope of a rug, an enormous flat-screen TV, and, on either side of the TV, shelving that is crisscrossed on the diagonal, which is one of the coolest things Celeste has ever seen. She didn’t even know diagonal bookshelves existed, but now all she wants in the world, other than an elevator that opens up into her apartment, are diagonal bookshelves and books to put on them.
There’s a gourmet kitchen, which is sleek and gleaming except for a wide, rough-hewn wooden bowl filled with fruit: pineapple, mangoes, papayas, limes, kiwis. The fruit in that bowl probably costs as much as everything in Celeste’s apartment. She feels a sudden hot shame about the futon she uses as a bed, covered with a quilt her mother bought from an Amish market in Lancaster, and about her Ikea side tables and the lamps she took from her parents’ house, the bases of which are mason jars filled with beans. She cringes when she thinks of the vintage zoo posters that she had framed at great expense (they had been ninety dollars apiece and she had blanched) and the rainbow candles her mother made out of melted crayons.
Benji says something about showing her around and she mutely follows him into the bedroom, where there is a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on uptown. All of Manhattan is rolled out before them, colorful and twinkling—and one of those lights, just one dim bulb a hundred-plus blocks up and to the east, is in Celeste’s apartment window.
She presses her hands against the window, then removes them; she doesn’t want to leave prints.
“You hate it,” Benji says.
“How could you possibly think that?” she asks. “It… it… defies my humble vocabulary.”
“My parents pay for it,” Benji says. “They offered it to me and I couldn’t say no. I mean, I guess I could have said no, but you’d have to be crazy to turn a place like this down.”
Part of Celeste agrees, of course, but another part of her stands in righteous opposition. She thinks of Rocky, who rents a studio apartment in Queens; he rides the N/R train into the city at five o’clock each morning to run the bodega. At night, he takes classes at Queens College. He’s studying to be a teacher. There’s nobility in that, Celeste sees, a nobility and an ethic that’s missing when one lives in an apartment that could easily cost seven or eight thousand dollars a month, paid for by one’s parents.
“This building has a gym,” Benji says. “And it has a pool. You can use the pool this summer. You can kiss North Meadow good-bye.”
I don’t want to kiss North Meadow good-bye! Celeste thinks stubbornly. But she knows she’s being silly.
“We should appreciate this place while we can,” Benji says. “My parents are threatening to buy me a brownstone uptown.”
A brownstone uptown, Celeste thinks sardonically. Of course; the next logical step.
“East Seventy-Eighth Street,” she murmurs in spite of herself. When she first moved to Manhattan, before she met Merritt, she used to spend her weekends wandering the Upper East Side, looking in windows, admiring leaded-glass transoms and iron fretwork. The block between Park and Lexington on Seventy-Eighth Street had been her very favorite. She used to gaze at the fronts of the homes and wonder just what lucky people lived there.
People like Benji.
“I’ll tell them to look only on East Seventy-Eighth Street,” Benji says. “Now let’s eat.”
Celeste spends all week feeling uneasy about Benji’s privilege. She can’t exactly claim to be blindsided, she knew it existed, but now that the extent of his wealth and advantage has been fully revealed, her view of him is tinged, ever so slightly, with distaste.
But then Benji informs her that on the last Sunday of every month, he volunteers at a homeless shelter in the basement of his parents’ church on the Upper East Side. He asks Celeste if she would like to come. It entails serving the guests a hot supper, then making up the cots and staying overnight. Benji would be in a room with the men and Celeste with the women.