He was having the nightmare again. The one about joining the Peace Corps. The toughest job you'll ever love. Tough. Job. Love. Dean Bennett could scarcely imagine three more terrifying words. He had signed up in some kind of guilty endorphin-fueled rush—girl-related, no doubt—and there he was, stranded in Zambia or Gambia or wherever, building latrines for orphans, no viable pussy for miles and miles.
Then he woke up. His body shook unpleasantly as it passed back through to the world of the conscious. He opened his eyes to the familiar sight of the loft's high windows and vaulted ceilings and felt thankful. He sat up, wide awake, wired like a little kid on Christmas morning, except it wasn't Christmas, it was New Year's Eve Day.
For most of Dean's adult life, December 31st had been a good day. It meant an official end to the tedium of the holidays (his father the air purifier salesman, his mother with her rosary beads, his fat fat brothers and their wives and their sticky infants and glutinous food and "so I says"-es). It meant a guaranteed outing with friends, most of whom he rarely saw since they'd been waylaid by their own wives and sticky infants and unpalatable early dinners. Best of all, it meant girls who didn't feel like spending the night alone.
Girls were Dean's thing. Everyone had one thing, and girls were his. He was never the best-looking person in the room, but he was the guy who got away with the stuff that would get anyone else slapped, or worse, stared at. The hand on the knee. The filthy joke. Not that he was any kind of comedian. He had a hundred friends who were wittier, funnier, better. But none of them knew how to say, "This is what we're gonna do. This is where we're gonna go. This is how we're gonna fuck" without so much as opening his mouth.
Dean liked smart girls: their Harper's subscriptions and their shelves full of books and their "Can you believe what Andrew Sullivan said on The Daily Show?" Oh sure, if he got bored or lonely enough, he'd depart from type (the aromatherapist, the taut yogini who insisted he'd been molested, the stripper named Helvetica who stopped in the middle of the street for pigeons) but it wasn't nearly as much fun. He loved that he could make a smart girl dumb. They breathed him in and giggled and fell right over. When their legs started to shake, Dean felt like human ether. In those moments, it was like he barely existed. It was fucking great.
Dean Bennett had no job, but he was rich rich rich. His father's mother had died ten years earlier, leaving him a fortune. She had always favored her younger grandson, much to the annoyance of the fat fat brothers. Dean didn't know what the fuck Nana saw in him. He really didn't. He finally put it down to the fact that he had a nice smile and didn't say much and never left fingerprints in the house.
Things worked out for Dean, and then they worked out some more. He got a good business manager, and the money grew and grew. Women liked him. Men too. He always paid for dinner (the oldest trick in the book—it shocked him every time it worked). Of course, he'd had the girl thing going for him since early puberty. It worked with his camp counselor and the high school Salutatorian and his college RA. It worked when he was a code monkey living in a terrifying dump in Astoria. But the duplex with the ten-foot ceilings and the rooftop garden sure as shit didn't hurt.
Eventually, Dean threw away the bottle of antidepressants that had given him piercing migraines and turned his dick into a jelly donut. He had found his calling: boyfriend. He couldn't believe how many points you got from women just for acting like a goddamn grown-up with your movie tickets pre-paid and a restaurant picked out beforehand. Some small bites place with good wine and a name like "Rocco" or "Henri" or "Pubis" or whatever.
That, plus a mention of the novel you were writing, and by the time she figured out the novel was a bunch of Post-It notes in a shoebox, it didn't matter because you were playing house, standing side-by-side brushing your teeth in matching marble sinks. And when it didn't work out, you started all over again.
Dean waited for it to get old. It never did.
The previous night's dream had lodged itself in the pit of Dean's stomach. Did America even have a Peace Corps any more? He hadn't seen those commercials for years. Also, why hadn't anyone called him yet about New Year's? And where the fuck were his Wu-Wear Wallabees? Getting out of bed suddenly seemed like a very very bad idea.
Maybe the problem was that no one else was in Dean's bed at the moment.
No one save Chuck, the red and white Basenji he bought when he first moved into the condo. When he was poor, Dean had longed for an exotic pet. Basenji: The Barkless Dog of the Congo! Chuck was barkless but not, as it turned out, noiseless. He had kept Dean awake for the better part of a year with howls and baroos that seemed to resonate at the precise pitch of human grief. This continued until the animal had gained access to the big white bed, where he now slept, stirring only occasionally to lick his paws.
Dean was currently without a human bedmate because he had intentionally picked a fight with Larkin McReynolds, his girlfriend of six months, right before the holidays. This had seemed the right thing to do at the time, a way to avoid the inevitable "so what's going on with you two?" from the fat fat brothers' wives.
Now he was single, joyously single, for New Year's Eve (Dean Bennett was no cheat), and there was a girl, a new one, someone he'd seen around. He only knew her first name: Kate (or, perhaps, even more intriguingly, "Cate"). She was in publishing or journalism or photography or PR. Surely he knew someone who knew someone who knew about a get-together at so-and-so's place and you know who might be there...
Faced with the possibility of spending the night alone, Dean proceeded to violate Dean Bennett Social Protocol in a most shocking manner: he started calling friends and asking them about New Year's parties. Chuck awakened, leapt from the bed and scurried away as though he couldn't bear to watch what was about to happen.
The first two calls went to voicemail. The third was answered by his old college roommate Matt. The usual pleasantries segued into inside jokes and the disparagement of mutually hated acquaintances, but as soon as Dean broached the subject of evening festivities, Matt got weird, quiet. Cagey. He said something about his wife and their baby and an ear infection, tacked on an insincere "let's have brunch" and got off the phone as quickly as possible.
Three baby's ear infections, two "I'll let you know if I hear about anythings" and one ostentatious hang-up later, Dean had become a beggar, rattling his little tin cup of emotional need to no avail. And so he dialed Phil Tableman, his least successful, most unthreatening friend. Phil, who had once called him two nights in a row about having dinner. Dean hadn't seen him since his wedding.
"Hello?" Phil's voice was a thing of beauty.
"Hey, whassup player? It's Dean. Bennett." (Did he just say "whassup player?")
The two of them chatted like little girls for the better part of an hour Dean saw this as a kind of foreplay, as the perfect segue to the inevitable, awkward...
"So what have you guys got going on tonight?"
"Oh yeah, tonight," said Phil. "Yeah yeah yeah. I think there might be this thing—"
Dean heard a voice in the background. A high, angry female timbre. He swore he heard the words, "is that him?"
"Oh fuck," said Phil, "FUCK. Um, listen, we might stay in tonight.
I'M GOING INTO A TUNNEL I'LL HAVE TO CALL YOU BACK. IT'S THE LINCOLN TUNNEL."
Dean heard what he was ninety-nine percent sure was Phil Tableman making bad phone reception noises with his mouth between saying the words "baby" and "ear infection." He hung up and let the phone drop slowly from his hand. Outside the condo's enormous arched windows were the same trees, the same stores, the same bright, white, birdless sky. Attractively bundled-up pedestrians paraded up and down Jane Street. No one was covered in blood or wearing a gas mask. Still, something was wrong. It wasn't just the dream, Dean thought. Or the humiliating series of phone calls he had just made. There was something odd and angry about the air itself.
Still, he knew he needed to get up. There were errands to be done: looking at stuff, acquiring stuff, discarding stuff. These were the three major activity categories in Dean's life. They made him feel calm and normal and real, while most of the rest of his life made him feel weird and tingly and false like an enormous foot that had fallen half-asleep.
Dean looked up to see Chuck appear carrying a now-destroyed Wu-Wear Wallabee in his mouth. Dean had long suspected the dog was a narcissist and a hustler, that his only interest in the relationship was food. But this went beyond that. This was deliberate sabotage. Socioopathy. They didn't even sell Wu-Wear Wallabees any more.
"Asshole," Dean said.
Chuck looked up at him with a handsome, hungry ingenuous face that, from time to time, resembled Dean's own. Soon, the twinge in his stomach had become a pain and the pain had become a tiny person who wouldn't stop kicking him. He had a busy day ahead of him. There was looking, acquiring and discarding to be done. He had a marijuana delivery scheduled for five and a disco nap scheduled for six, a nap that could only be earned by getting out of bed and doing something now.
He needed help.
He reached for his phone and dialed Melinda McNicholas. His best friend. And, no, they weren't in love, not even an itty-bitty bit. McNicholas was gay and lived with a woman she'd met online named Rhoda. Rhoda had enormous breasts and worked at the airport; their relationship seemed to consist mostly of fighting via text message.
Of course, McNicholas and Dean had slept together a handful of times, a phenomenon Dean attributed to his irresistibility and McNicholas attributed to boredom and the narcotics she pilfered from the hospital from time to time. McNicholas hated social occasions and would only have the vaguest knowledge of the worst party the farthest possible distance away, but she would talk to him for ever and ever without ever hanging up. It occurred to Dean as the phone rang and rang and rang (with each ring, the tiny kicking person kicked a little harder) that Melinda McNicholas knew him better than anyone else on Earth. What a terrible girlfriend she'd be.
When there was no answer, he redialed. Ringring. Ringring.
Yes, yes, of course Larkin McReynolds had been smart and beautiful. Who wasn't? Of course it would have been nice to have someone to talk to on the plane, someone to cuddle with over cups of eggnog, someone to act as corroborating witness to his father's t-shirt with the picture of the dancing nachos on it and the slogan "Nacho Average Guy!"—a shirt so abominable that his friends didn't believe it really existed. But that wasn't worth throwing your whole life away, was it?
Finally, the phone clicked. When McNicholas spoke, it was in a voice from beyond the grave.
"Does it ever occur to you that I'm not picking up because I'm trying to sleep?" she asked.
"But your phone was on."
"That's for emergencies."
"This is an emergency. What are you doing for New Year's?"
"Staying here, lying in my own filth."
McNicholas had just come off a fourteen-hour shift at St. Vincent's, which she called "St. Victims." Ten gunshot wounds, two stabbings and a man with a miniature fire extinguisher stuck in his rectum. Most of the patients were intoxicated, and the only one with insurance was the fire extinguisher guy. Later that night, someone had given birth in the cafeteria. "The cafeteria," she sad, "where we eat." Disaster trailed after McNicholas like toilet paper stuck to a shoe. Dean found her state of perpetual, low-grade misery oddly invigorating. It made him feel like he was a more positive person than he actually was.
"Meet me at Starbucks in half an hour," Dean said.
"I can't. I've already taken my pants off."
He knew she'd show up. For someone so seemingly tough, McNicholas was incredibly accommodating. He put it down to their shared Catholic background, to which he also attributed her purported lesbianism and disturbingly large bush.
His powers restored, Dean leapt out of bed and into the shower, personal theme music blasting from the Bang and Olufson stereo. Yet another perk of being rich rich rich: soundproofing and the ability to buy the smaller loft directly underneath your own. No one would be calling Dean to complain, no matter how many times he played "The Wrong N***** to Fuck With" with the volume all the way up.
Kate/Cate wore cardigans. She was as petite as Larkin McReynolds was tall. She was as cheerful as Larkin was depressed. These two things alone made her seem perfect. Cube blaring in the background, Dean picked up his Mach III Turbo and buzzed his privates into crew-cutted acceptability. This would not just be a one-night stand. Kate/Cate was special. Maybe even a two-year girlfriend. Of course, at the end of it there would be the usual mess with the two of them crying and her screaming and stealing his CDs.
But two years was a long way off.
Once upon a time, Dean had been in control of his cock. He was its master and commander. But success had made Dean complacent and hubristic. Why work? Why think? Why not let the cock run things for a while? The human element of decision-making having been removed, the cock grew stronger, faster, more ruthless. Its knowledge grew exponentially. Eventually it would become self-aware and destroy the world.
Dean's cock was SkyNet.
The walk to Starbucks was cold, and the air reeked of garbage. It didn't matter where you lived in New York or how rich rich rich you might be. Garbage was the great equalizer. Making his way down the crowded street Dean checked his voicemail again, just to be sure. Not a single call. Girls—each more adorable than the next in scarves and snowbooties—passed by him like he didn't even exist. A few sneered. Another waved him away like a squeegee-man when he made eye contact. He blamed the weather and stopped to light a cigarette.
It was then that he noticed the poster. Posters, actually. On light poles, on storefront windows, on trees. They were everywhere. At first Dean assumed it was the handiwork of some hypeman gone mad, but then...
To Whom It May Concern:
The women of New York City and the Tri-State region (in conjunction with our sisters on the West Coast) hereby declare a general strike against the entity known as Dean Bennett.
Anyone caught violating strike rules—including sex with Dean Bennett, first-through-third base activity with Dean Bennett, romantic dinners, movies or PJ Harvey concerts with Dean Bennett, making eyes at Dean Bennett and/or secretly planning your wedding because you think you're gonna win—will be punished accordingly, though such punishment will likely pale in comparison to the suffering you will endure after being seduced, romanced and summarily dumped by this hairspray-dependent megaturd and left with nothing but hazy memories and that CD of Jean Grae mash-ups that he's already given to half the city.
The sex stoppage will commence at midnight and continue until such time as the aforementioned ceases his pattern of lying, manipulation and janky-ass bullshit and redeems himself.
The American Ex-Girlfriends Alliance
The Manhattan Federation of Women with Useless Liberal Arts Degrees
The Sisterhood of Women with Names That Sound like a Dude's
The Worldwide Congress of Women Who Could Model If They Were Six Inches Taller
The Association of People Who Are Pretty Sure Dean Was Molested at Some Point Because that's Really the Only Explanation
Female Singer-Songwriters Union
Amalgamated Magazine Editors, Graphic Artists, Publicists, Part-Time Handbag Designers, Bloggers, "New Yorker" Interns, Attractive Women Who Sit Behind the Counters in Half-Empty Stores and Hang Out at the Soho Club
The Affiliation of Women Who Want to Know If You Have Any Blow
The National Coalition of Merediths
It was clearly a prank, albeit an elaborate one. The names of likely suspects percolated in Dean's mind. Marni, the unstable Israeli book publicist? No, it was more likely Kate the First, the Ur-Kate, who had tearfully announced in the wake of their breakup that she was moving to New Zealand to find herself, then promptly bought an apartment in the building across the street. Or—more likely still—Juliette, she of the rusty hatchback and feminist bumper stickers and tattoos that had marred an otherwise very attractive back. Juliette of the hyperbolic low self-esteem and the confessional poetry and the adorable little dimpled pussy. He wouldn't put it past her. He wouldn't put it past any of them.
The Starbucks was packed and overheated and smelled like wet wool. Normally, the barista who worked the early afternoon shift lit up when Dean came in. Shondra or Shanice or LeJennifer or whatever the fuck her name was. Today, she acted like she'd never seen him before in her life. Thrown, he stammered as he ordered, mumbling a bit.
"Uh, large...I'll have a grande coffee. Black Eye."
"Did you just call me black guy?"
"Wait, what? No. God no. I was ordering from the Starbucks Secret Menu."
"THE SECRET MENU."
People turned to stare.
Dean spotted McNicholas across the room—a vision in her surprisingly fashionable black ski jacket. She was reading a book called "Why Killers Kill," She -coughed, sending God knows what emergency room pestilence into the air of the store.
"You were being really loud," she coughed, as Dean sat down with a cup of coffee he was now assuming had a booger in it. He considered telling McNicholas about the posters but thought better of it.
It was a prank, right?
"What's wrong with me?" Dean asked.
"Well, for one thing, you should stop wearing your hair that way. It looks gay."
"I mean in a larger sense. And don't tell me my life is empty and I need to go work in a soup kitchen or something."
"I think the homeless have enough problems without you trying to feed them soup," she said. And then, "By the way, I have bad news. Kate the Dream Slut is dating Aziz."
Not Aziz, he thought. Anyone but Aziz. Getting out of bed had most assuredly been a bad idea. Aziz. With his stupid book and stupid foreign policy blog. And his stupid memoir about being Pakistani in the wake of 9/11 even though he was from, like, Newton, Massachusetts. Then there was the other book (no sophomore slump for Aziz!) the novel about the guy from Harvard who just can't get his life together and then he finds love. They were turning the novel into a movie and the book into a blog and the blog into a Podcast. Or webisodes or something.
"Aziz the Disease," he said.
"You've changed since yesterday," she said, "You seem, I dunno...lamer. I mean, 'Aziz the Disease' is the best you can do?"
Dean started coughing ferociously.
"Are you sick too?"
"I think I just swallowed a booger."
He glanced up at the bulletin board by the door. It was plastered with strike notices like the one he'd seen earlier. People stopped by to read them, nodding thoughtfully as though they were looking at a museum exhibit. Dean thought about pulling them down but feared that would look suspicious.
Ultimately, the caffeine did what caffeine does, and Dean left the coffee shop with mildly renewed confidence. He attempted to hold the door open for a bouncy, unthreatening little highlighted blonde. She looked at him with mean spider eyes. He told himself she'd just broken up with someone who looked exactly like him.
After stopping at the Apple Store to purchase something he would later break and then throw away, Dean returned to the condo. He had extracted a promise from McNicholas to find a party, any party, for the evening. Because there was always someone who knew someone who knew...her. Chuck stirred briefly from his spot on the bed to look at Dean with his long narrow eyes and raised an eyebrow or whatever dogs have instead of eyebrows and demanded a walk.
The air outside the condo had grown colder and angrier. A rolling tide of women passed by, then washed away again. Every storefront he passed seemed to have a strike notice posted on the window. As he turned the corner, a homeless person in a wheelchair covered in American flags rolled towards him. Dean smiled nervously. She looked up at him.
"Fag," she said.
The afternoon's disco nap was marred by nightmares. A series of Catholic guilt clichés, scripted by hacks: January Jones in tiny panties turned into his mother who turned into a stigmata-bearing St. Francis who turned into Aziz. The drug dealer—a graduate student from Columbia named Jace—arrived late and stayed too long, talking Dean's ear off about Horkheimer and some sort of business plan that combined "high class erotica" with nanopublishing, then refused to leave until Dean had promised to come with him to the next Burning Man. Dean was in such a hurry to get him out of the house he forgot to get his drugs.
The party McNicholas had found was in Red Hook, full of Filipino medical students and, needless to say, wretched. McNicholas soon disappeared onto the porch to fight with Rhoda via test message, leaving Dean standing awkwardly next to a desiccated cheese platter. A laptop in the corner blasted "Safety Dance" over and over and over. People were wearing Tevas. The idea of staying there until midnight without cocaine felt like the prospect of surgery without anesthesia.
The apartment had one enviable feature: an elevator door that opened directly into the living room. Every ten minutes or so, the door would open, belching out friends-of-friends of Filipino medical students. The party grew more crowded, the room more redolent of gin, the gender ratio more hopeless. And then, after a particularly long lull, the door opened to reveal a mob of hipsters who had clearly made a terrible mistake, and amidst that mob of hipsters was Kate/Cate. She was wearing a cardigan.
She was also, of course, with Aziz. Dean's chest tightened. His La Perla jockeyshorts felt like a hairshirt. For the first time in his life, Dean was acutely aware of the fact that he was almost forty and holding a red plastic cup full of vodka. He drank it down. Looking at them closely, he intuited that the relationship was new—a third or fourth date at most. Aziz's voice could be heard intermittently across the room as he worked the crowd: "value add," "Islamofascism," "webisodes."
He could not let them fuck.
Getting Kate/Cate out onto the porch was easy enough (Dean's gift had not departed him entirely). And he had plenty of time to talk to her while Aziz with his idiotic beard or goatee or soul patch or whatever it was went to talk to some asshole about some asshole subject like reforming the educational system.
They got drunker and drunker. Someone in Tevas passed Dean a stupid-looking hat. He put it on obediently. She laughed. As the countdown to midnight began and Aziz, with the speed and elegance of a Secret Service member, pushed his way out onto the porch, Dean leaned in ever so slightly and felt her pushing him away ever so slightly. She handed him a piece of paper. How adorable, he thought drunkenly, a phone number scribbled out the old-fashioned way. His chest swelled.
Dean had to call a car service to get home. He let McNicholas have the front seat. She hung her head out the window vomiting. She and Rhoda had gotten gay-engaged via text message, she explained before passing out. With weddings on the brain, Dean removed the carefully folded piece of paper given to him by Cate. For that was her name. She spelled it with a "C" (he had asked. Actually, maybe she had said "K." As it turned out, the Filipino medical students had a large supply of drugs on hand—better than anything McNicholas had ever managed to come up with—and Dean's memory was a little shaky.) All he knew was that he was in love. And when he opened the little parcel and saw, not a number at all, but the words "To Whom It May Concern," he fell in love just a little more.
A challenge. Before this moment, he'd never known the thrill. The excitement fluttered up from his stomach and lodged itself in his sternum. And as he looked out the window at the frozen glimmering city, he pictured Kate-Cate walking down an aisle. And he was at the end of it. She was dressed in white and carrying Calla lilies or some shit. He vowed to redeem himself.
But he might have to kill Aziz first.