By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

2. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee, pp. 35-103

The Privileges: A Novel2.
The shift in tone between the first section and the second is noticeable. Gone are the skittering changes in point of view and the bustle of supporting characters. What we have now are mostly Cynthia and Adam, as they settle into parenthood, careers, and middle age. Gone, too, is the breathless present-tense narrative. Dee switches to past tense, casting the narrative into a more reflective, retrospective mode. 

About seven years have passed since the wedding. Cynthia and Adam now have two children, April and Jonas, ages six and five. After several attempts to find nannies for them, Cynthia has decided to be a stay-at-home mother. Adam has spent four years at Morgan Stanley but, finding his upward mobility blocked because of his lack of an MBA, he has moved to a small private equity firm called Perini Capital, where he has won favor with his boss, Barry Sanford.

A rainy day during the two-week period between the end of summer camp and the start of the school year at Dalton finds Cynthia at wit's end trying to amuse the children, whose bickering with each other is driving her nuts. She was, we are reminded, an only child, not used to sibling conflict. She has rationalized her decision to stay home with the children because the departure of the last nanny, whom they loved, had upset the children so much: "Childhood was not supposed to be about loss."

Since it's raining too hard for them to go to the park, she proposes that they play cards. But even then they bicker so much that Cynthia finally breaks down in tears, which frightens the children. Then Jonas "fishing up from his kindergarten experience a sentence he'd been taught for the purpose of conflict resolution, but had never actually used, ... said, 'What game would you like to play?'" So Cynthia teaches them poker.

Unfortunately, they're too young to grasp the concept of the poker face, so Cynthia, who wants to play fair and not just let them win, ties around their faces two red bandannas that she had once used "to tie Adam's wrists to the headboard, though that seemed an awfully long time ago now." (The furtive sex necessitated by the presence of children is one of the nice touches Dee adds to the relationship.) Since their eyes continue to give away their excitement or disappointment at the cards they draw, Cynthia adds sunglasses to the ensemble and "at one point in the afternoon ... was thrilled to discover that she was down three bucks to her children."

Unfortunately, she then notices that one of the neighbors across the air-shaft from the kitchen table from where they are playing was "standing at her own kitchen window, staring brazenly in at Cynthia and her incognito children, and scowling. What was worse, Cynthia saw, was that she was on the phone." So Cynthia gets up, raises the window as far as it would go because of the child-safety guards, and yells out at the woman. Jonas gets up and follows suit. So they yell at the neighbor until Cynthia notices that Adam is standing behind her, having just arrived home from work.

"'Hello, dear,' she said in a bright voice. 'The children and I have been gambling.'"

It's a stand-alone vignette that reads like a short story. But it also serves to introduce the note of contemporary urban upper-middle-class quiet desperation, with its fumbling attempts to do the right things in child-rearing (childhood shouldn't be about loss, training in conflict resolution, efforts to level the playing field, and so on).

It also is tinged with disillusionment, which continues when the point of view switches to Adam. "He and Cynthia had a vivid faith in their own future, not as a variable but as a destination; all the glimpses New York afforded of the lives led by the truly successful, the arcane range of their experiences, arouse in the two of them less envy than impatience." Cynthia is impatient for the children to grow up, Adam for career advancement.

But this impatience, this preoccupation with making it in the world, also rubs off on the children, especially April, who is desperate to establish herself at a school that privileges self-esteem. It's not that April lacks self-esteem, it's that she's competitive in making sure that the world -- represented by the teacher -- sees that she esteems herself for the right things. When asked for her favorite place, she thinks of "her parents' bed, with her parents not in it, just her and a few stuffed animals and a juice box and a Disney movie on TV." But she knows this is not the right kind of place, "that it would be seen as babyish, and so she said the Central Park Carousel instead."

And when the children are asked to find out about their names -- an exercise obviously designed to emphasize pride in ethnic identity, among other things -- she's disappointed when her somewhat puzzled parents say that they called her April because it was "beautiful" and "pretty unusual" and "We wanted a name as special as you are." She asks why she wasn't named after "a loved one," which stymies her parents. "Or somebody from the old country," she continues, and is shocked when she realizes that her father finds the question funny. "'Where do we come from?' she demanded of them. 'What country?' Stunningly, they seemed less than sure." This is a lovely glance at the changing status of the once-dominant WASP, who until recent years would never have been forced to consider such a thing. "April felt as if her family came from nowhere, and more puzzlingly, that this suited her parents just fine."

So Adam and Cynthia are "mute with amazement" when, on parents' night, they see that April has resorted to making up the kinds of things that she thought her teacher, Ms. Diaz, "wanted to admire in her" -- "that her family went to Saint Patrick's cathedral every Sunday, and that they were considering a trip to Jerusalem for Christmas" and that her maternal grandmother was an orphan who came from Holland by herself, that the family held a reunion in New Hampshire every summer at "the family estate" that "was so big that some of her distant pioneer relatives were buried in a small graveyard right there on the place."

Cynthia has flirted with the idea of going back to work part-time now that the children are in school, so she goes back to the magazine where she had once been an editorial assistant to see Danielle, once an assistant alongside her and now the features editor. It doesn't go well: Danielle treats Cynthia with "awkward condescension." "It was possible to connect the overbearing power chick she was now to the emotionally manipulable peon she had been back then, but just barely." Cynthia prolongs the interview out of pride because she imagines "the dismayed, relieved, pitying expression into which Danielle's face would resolve the moment her office door closed between them." Finally, Cynthia burns her bridges:  "she wrote 'eat me' across the top of the résumé she'd brought, slid it across Danielle's desk, and walked out."

One of the problems Cynthia and Adam have is that they're below the normal age of urban child-rearing: "the people who actually lived the same sort of domesticated life the Moreys lived tended to be a dozen years older, boring as hell." Cynthia has even lost touch with her maid of honor, Marietta, though she lives in Manhattan and is married to an executive at Viacom." They get together, but Marietta is preoccupied with trying to get pregnant, having to interrupt the conversation to call her husband: "Today is supposed to be one of our prime fertility days. He has to come straight home from work and inseminate me, and if he's forgotten, I'll kill him." Cynthia winds up drinking too much and obsessed with the idea that at thirty, she has let life pass her by.

Adam, meanwhile, is becoming a star at Perini, actually bypassing the guy, named Parker, who had helped him get the job there. He agrees to accompany Parker when he goes to present Sanford with the idea of investing in film production, even though "Adam was pretty sure that even five minutes' thought would reveal the idea as a terrible one." He comes away from the meeting having impressed Sanford by revealing that his father was a pipe-fitter. (Parker's was a tax lawyer.) But Adam fears that he blew it because in the conversation he also revealed that his father had died recently of his third heart attack. "One thing he did not like was for people to feel sorry for him. When the sympathy faded, they would remember the weakness, and then one day they would turn around and shank you."

But in fact, Sanford is so impressed with Adam that he invites him, Cynthia, and the children to visit his home in Cornwall, Connecticut, something he had never done for anyone else at the firm. Adam is pleased but wary, largely because of Sanford's wife, "whom he had met but Cynthia had not. He didn't see that going particularly well." The house is "a white Regency-style mansion so gigantic and out of place it looked like a theme park.... In its inappropriateness the house was so self-absorbed that it could have sprung fully formed from the head of Sanford's awful wife." Jonas, on the other hand, thinks it "the coolest house I have ever seen."

Victoria, "Mrs. Sanford #4," greets them and takes them to Sanford, who leads Adam to a screened porch where they drink bloody Marys while Victoria gives Cynthia and the children a tour of the house. She has "a separate haughty narrative for every room in the mansion. By the fourth or fifth room Cynthia had a powerful urge to burn the whole place to the ground with this Botoxed stick figure inside it." Victoria "spoke as if from some great experiential height, as if, at the end of her remarks, there might be time for a few questions." Jonas is fascinated by the panels in each room that show what the security cameras are seeing, while April, who always tries to act older than her age, is "trying to blend in with the women, mimicking their facial expressions like someone trying to sneak into the second act of a play."

Adam, meanwhile, is getting drunk, though "it seemed like an odd setting for it, like a myth or a fairy tale in which he might drink the proscribed drink and never find his way back to the surface of the earth." But he's hitting it off with Sanford because "the more he was himself, the more the old man seemed to like him." When he reveals that the children have brought their bathing suits -- on the off chance that there might be a swimming pool -- Sanford suggests that they have lunch at the club, which turns out to be a "postcard-beautiful" lake. The experience is so pleasant that it makes Adam seriously horny. When he is left alone with Cynthia, he apologizes for putting her through this visit, but is surprised when she replies, "Actually, I'm really glad we came.... If you want to know the truth, it all makes me kind of jealous." And when they're getting ready to leave, he compliments Sanford on his home and on the apparent luxury amid which he lives.
Sanford laughed enchantedly. Then he laid his hand on Adam's cheek. "Patience, my son," he said. "One day, all this will be yours."

While they searched for Route 22 signs, Adam noticed his fingers were white around the wheel.
The seeds of desire have been sown.

Adam has to take a business trip to Milwaukee to see client named Guy Farbar who "as a man of business ... was essentially everything Sanford was not -- loud, confrontational, impetuous, undisguised." He has two sexual harassment lawsuits against him. "His office had one of those topless gas-station calendars on the wall." He rails at the slowness of the process and at "Fucking tight-ass Ivy League Wall Streeters," but he likes Adam because he seems "almost like an actual person. Why can't I just deal with you?"

Back at the hotel, he calls Cynthia, who tells him she is trying to help April with geometry: "She gets a little stressed if she doesn't pick up something immediately." She also tells him that she is going to start seeing a psychiatrist that Marietta has recommended. "I know it's probably not something you approve of in general." He assures her that he approves. "It's just I guess I didn't know you were unhappy." She assures him that she's not unhappy. "More like stuck. Anyway, Christ, it's like going to the gym, everyone does it." The conversation leaves him unsettled: "she was unhappy, and that had to be his responsibility."

Jonas is a collector, and he likes to arrange his collections. He would collect pennies and arrange them by year, then by "gradations of dirtiness, from the bright polish of the new ones to the murky greenish-bronze that made the man on the penny look like he was sitting and thinking about something on a bench inside a cave." When his mother shows him how to clean the pennies with lemon juice, he has fun doing that but "the sort of fun that could only be had once and then it was done. This was often the case when grownups got involved." He also likes to play Flight of the Bumblebee over and over. "'He's got an unusual attention span,' he heard his mother telling someone else in Zabar's one day. 'For a kid his age, a boy especially, he can focus on one thing for a long time.'" To avoid anyone else spoiling his fun, he starts a secret collection that "had to consist of items people had forgotten about or would eventually be willing to forget about."
So far he had one of his mother's lipsticks, a combination lock from his father's gym bag, April's hairband with the sunflowers on it, four different wine corks, his father's empty money clip (this he had found serendipitously under a couch cushion), an electricity bill, one photo from his parents' wedding album, April's preschool report card that said she had a "quick temper," two mismatched earrings from the bottom of his mother's purse, a tiny wooden carving of a cat from Dad's boss's house in Connecticut, and a book light that clipped onto the top of the book you were reading in bed. That last one almost undid the whole project, because his mother had searched for it with unusual thoroughness before giving up.
He hides them in a box inside a bag at the bottom of his toy chest.

One of Adam's co-workers has a friend who is opening a bar and he invites them all to opening night, including Adam, although he says, "I know it's not your thing anymore." He and Cynthia get a sitter. "They hadn't been to a real meat-market bar like that in a long time, long enough that everything about it seemed hysterical now." Cynthia has a great time flirting with the men, and then telling them off when he returns with their drinks: "He is more of a man than any of you will ever be.... His dick is bigger than yours too!" He decides it's time to leave and they return home, where the sitter has left a note: "'Cynthia -- Your mother called,' and then underneath that, '2x'" He helps her get her jeans off, "and by the time he had them off, she was asleep" -- an echo of the night they were married, except with the roles reversed.

In the morning, Cynthia's mother calls again to tell her that Deborah is in Bellevue Hospital. She has apparently been involved with one of her art history professors at NYU. Cynthia doesn't want to get involved, but Warren is in San Francisco and can't get there, so Cynthia finally agrees to pick Deborah up and put her on a plane to Pittsburgh. Deborah is no longer hostile, which Cynthia ascribes to the drugs. Cynthia lends her some clothes and lets her clean up: "'I can't believe you live like this,' Deborah said. 'That is the nicest shower I've ever been in. You should see my place.'" But Cynthia is in no mood for pleasantries from her sister-in-law. (She bristled when her mother referred to Deborah as her sister.)  As soon as she can, after Adam arrives, she accompanies Deborah in the cab to the airport.

On the way, Deborah begins to cry, causing Cynthia to mutter "Oh, please." Deborah's old hostility surfaces again.
"I'm sorry that unhappiness doesn't fit in with your lifestyle.... I'd forgotten how easy everything's always been for you. I just didn't expect I'd ever feel so jealous about it." 

"As I understand it," Cynthia said, "you banged some married professor and what do you know, it turns out he's a liar. Wow, I'm sure you're the first person that's ever happened to. So you forget about it and you move forward.... You may not respect me but at least I'd respect myself enough not to wind up in the batshit ward."

"What do you know about it? What do you know about anything? You have never suffered a day in your life. You've never not gotten anything you wanted. And now those kids of yours are growing up the same way. Like a little ruling class. It's terrifying.... Everything given to them. No idea how fortunate they are. Sweet and content and well bred. Everything as it should be and they have no idea how the other ninety-nine percent lives."

"Hey, you're right," Cynthia said. "I really should try to ennoble them with some suffering.... Boy, it's a mystery to me how someone as smart as you has never had a kid of her own."

Deborah's reaction -- she "stiffened as if she'd been hit" -- gives Cynthia "a pretty good idea what had really happened." They part politely at the airport, with Deborah thanking her, but Cynthia has been stung by "the indictment of her children, or at least of the way she was raising them." She tries to persuade herself that she is right, that "Your children's lives were supposed to be better than yours: that was the whole idea." And she argues to herself that because they had the money to do so, it was right that they should provide the best for the children, including "sixty thousand dollars a year just to send their kids to school. She knows that "April already had a bit of a mean-girl rep at school; but as far as Cynthia was concerned, wailing over that kind of natural social stratification was more about the mothers' egos than the kids'." April is conscious of her social position in the school, demanding all the perks that will demonstrate that status, including the cell phone that Cynthia justifies as "a safety issue." April tries to appear older than she is, but ironically, "Jonas's complete lack of interest in whatever his own peers were doing or buying or watching made him seem like he was about forty years old."

The self-consciousness of the affluent parent is an easy target for satire. But Dee brilliantly humanizes instead of stereotypes Cynthia with the incident that follows. They have planned a trip to Costa Rica for the holidays, and just before it she needs to take the children to the dentist. Jonas has been studying the environment in school "and if Cynthia had to hear another word about the fucking ozone layer she was going to scream," but she gives in and takes them to the dentist on the subway instead of in a cab. As they are entering the subway, she helps a very handsome man who is having trouble manipulating a stroller with a baby in it down the steps. He introduces himself as Eric, and says "I would hate to think that I'll never see you again. You are a really beautiful woman." Startled by the pass he's making, she loses focus, and when she rejoins the children the train is arriving. They get on board ahead of her, but then a blind man with a cane comes up and when she stands aside to let him get on, "the doors closed with their two-note chime, and she was on the platform and they were on the train."

Cynthia panics, nearly faints, and, unable to think clearly, gets on the next train. Fortunately, April and Jonas have gotten off at the next station, and are being watched over by a cop, who tells her, "That wasn't real smart, getting on another train." Guilt -- probably colored by the moment when Eric flirted with her, as well as by Deborah's criticisms of the way she has been raising the children -- overwhelms her. That night she makes Adam sleep in the children's room so she can keep them in bed with her, and she keeps them home from school the next day. "But it was hard to tell -- even for April and Jonas themselves -- how much of their anxiety was still their own and how much of it came from being treated so solicitously, as if something terrible had happened to them."

"Adam started to wonder whether the whole thing was getting out of hand" when Cynthia makes an appointment for the children with a psychiatrist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder. And when Cynthia informs him that she has canceled the reservation in Costa Rica and the non-refundable plane tickets. When he tells her "it's New York. You can't protect them from everything," she responds with a bombshell: "Well, maybe we shouldn't live here, then." And expresses her deeper fear that motherhood "is the only thing there is for me to be good at. And I suck at it."

But Adam has business on his mind because he doesn't suck at it. He has "set up a friendly takeover of Wisconsin Cryogenics," the firm owned by "the volatile Guy from Milwaukee," which will earn Guy enough money to keep him "in teenagers and blow for the rest of his life." As a result, Sanford has given him a Christmas bonus of three hundred fifty thousand dollars, as well as indications that he's grooming Adam to take over the business. In the spring, Sanford throws a charity benefit aboard the decomissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, a naval museum in the Hudson. Cynthia is still depressed, and Adam "needed to see a little of the old Cynthia, radiant at a party, for her sake but also for his own ... he was so used to being grounded by her that he had a real fear that, wherever she was drifting, he'd end up drifting right out there along with her."

Cynthia is a great success at the party, and Sanford takes her away with him to the dance floor. Adam knows that Sanford will try to seduce her, though he's confident that he won't succeed. "That was the point of a life like Sanford's. You pursued what you wanted." So while they're dancing, Adam goes to the bar, where there is a line, and "a frat-boy type in front of Adam was complaining to his friends that the kid at the front of the line, who looked about nineteen years old, was chatting up the bartender." He is amused by the audacity with which the kid, who "had a huge nose, one of those noses that starts practically on the forehead, but .... looked sort of Roman and oddly handsome," spars verbally with the frat-boy. "Another Wall Street tyke," he thinks, and then reflects on his own status on Wall Street, on
being outside that small circle wherein it was decided how much a man's work was worth, how close you had come to some goal somebody else had set for you. Sanford could have given him two million and the principle would still be the same. Meanwhile time was going by, and the life around you started to calcify while the Barry Sanfords of the world paid you to wait to be told what would happen next.
Ambition has begun to boil within Adam Morey.

When the frat-boy, whom the kid at the bar has called "Bluto," gets to the head of the line, he jostles the kid, who spills his drink. But the kid only says, "No hard feelings, bro," and shakes Bluto's hand and "reachedup with his other hand and clapped Bluto on the shoulder." Adam watches as the kid walks away, and then the kid turns around and sees him. He keeps walking but raises his right hand and spreads his fingers to reveal that he has lifted Bluto's watch.

Adam asks Bluto for the time, and after Bluto looks at his bare wrist, says "Holy fuck," and starts pushing people aside to look for the watch, Adam returns to his table, sees that Cynthia is not there, and goes in search of the kid. He finds him and learns that the kid is a broker at Merrill Lynch, that he got his ticket to the benefit from a friend, and that he learned the trick of lifting watches and wallets when he was in high school. Adam suddenly sees the potential of the situation:
"Do you know how perfect this is?" he said out loud. "There's no connection between us at all. We don't know each other, we don't work together, we didn't go to the same school. I don't know your name. Your name isn't even on the guest list here."

"Wait," the kid said. "Don't tell me. Strangers on a Train." 
Adam has realized what is lurking within himself: "an urge for vengeance." He says, "I'm going to tell you something now. You don't need to do anything but hear it. Wisconsin Cryogenics." He assures the kid, "Now, you can do with that what you will. If you like, it can just be my little gift to you. And that can be the end. But it doesn't have to be the end." And he has the kid give him a phone number: "Not a work number, or a home number. Maybe like a girlfriend's cell. I'm going to contact you in about three weeks, okay? Three weeks. Then we'll either talk about the future or you can just hang up on me. My name is Adam." After the kid gives him the number, Adam asks for the watch, a Patek Philippe, and he throws it overboard.

He is pleased most of all with the secrecy of the plot. "The noblest risks were the secret ones." Like father, like the son with the secret collection.

They find a "bigger and better" apartment, though it takes forever to have the renovations that Cynthia wants done. And one night they arrange for the babysitter to spend the night with the children while they go to a hotel.
It was like some sexual epic, like it was important that they outfuck everyone else in the hotel. Two hours later she was very sure that they had. She didn't have to fake it with him, mercifully, but seeing the way he was acting -- how much he wanted to please her -- she would have faked it for him if she had to. 
But they decide not to spend the night. They have told the children that they are going to Atlantic City, where there is gambling and children aren't allowed. Cynthia finds notes from Jonas in her purse: "The first two said 'Love U' and 'Miss U,' and the third one said, 'R U winning?'" They call the sitter and go home, where, while Adam is putting the sitter in a cab, Cynthia goes and sits in the children's room and thinks about how Jonas had "gone through a brief obsession with death, when he was just three." And how she had told him that some people believe in reincarnation and others believe in heaven.
Heaven was a place that depended on your wishes: the place in life when you'd felt safest and happiest and most comfortable, heaven was that place for you all the time, forever.

"A nice warm house," Jonas said, "with you and Daddy."

He left his sister out of it, Cynthia noticed, but she had let that go. It was a little rite of passage for her, a confidence builder, a lesson in love's resources even when there was nothing in particular you yourself believed in.

This section is marvelous in its handling of the threads of character development, of Cynthia's isolation and insecurity, of Adam's ambition and cunning, of their mutual caring and devotion to each other, of April's self-centeredness and Jonas's secrecy. The remarkable thing is that although the section is deeply, keenly satiric, Dee also maintains a humane understanding of the very foibles being satirized.

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