Tyranny stood, smoothed her dress down, ran a hand through her hair. She wouldn't look at Conner.
"Do you love Dan?" Conner asked.
Tyranny sighed. "I'm not prepared to talk about this."
Something had changed. She was different. He could hear it in her voice, see it in her posture.
Conner said, "Leave him and be with me."
"Look, it's all very-"
"Complicated. You told me that already."
"I have to go," she said. "I'd appreciate it if you'd wait two minutes before following me back to the house." She looked at her watch. "Shit. Dan wanted to introduce me to Jasper. There's an internship available at MoMA this season, and Jasper might be able to put in a good word."
She saw the look on Conner's face, touched his cheek, and smiled wistfully. "Try to enjoy yourself. Get something to eat. We'll talk about this later." And she was gone.
Conner knew they would not talk about it later. They'd never talk about it. He realized what he'd always secretly known on some level. Things would stay the same. She would not leave her luxurious, beautiful life with Professor Dan.
Conner had been fucked, and that was all.
He pulled up his pants, left the pool house. The smokers had gone inside. Out of spite, Conner picked up a heavy potted plant and heaved it into the deep end of the pool, his ribs protesting only a little. The pot splashed big, plunged to the bottom, and landed with a ceramic tunk. He felt a vague, juvenile satisfaction, which faded by the time he was back in the house.
Tyranny reinserted herself into the swirling party, returned pleasantries without thought, avoided being drawn into lengthy small talk. Her head buzzed, couldn't form cold, logical thoughts. She felt sick at her stomach.
So stupid stupid stupid. It had seemed so right, a perfect little romantic moment. Moments, however, never stay moments. They never stay preserved, like a picture-perfect scene in a snow globe. The fantasy leaks out, seeps into reality, spoils everything.
She found her husband.
"I've been looking for you," Professor Dan said. "We're starting the buffet, and I need you to-what is it? Are you okay?"
Her mind raced. She knew Conner so well; poor Conner, he would never forgive this. He surely thought this was the beginning of something beautiful. His expectations were so pure and final. Tyranny was complex, a churning cauldron of thoughts and emotions and conflicting desires, and Conner would simply never understand that Tyranny could not be tied down to Conner's idea of love. It was impossible, all simply broken and ruined and impossible.
"You're crying." Dan took her arm, pulled her aside, and looked over his shoulder to see if any of the partygoers had noticed.
"I'm not crying. Don't be ridiculous. I'll be back in a minute."
"I need you down here," Dan said.
"Just a few minutes."
She avoided meeting anyone's eye, went upstairs to her room, closed the door, locked it. She picked up the phone and hit Dr. Goldblatt's home number on speed-dial. The doctor answered.
She told him what happened.
"Do you love this man?"
"I'm not even sure what love is anymore."
"Some say love is merely a set of electrical impulses formed by our brain after receiving specific external stimuli. All of that romantic nonsense was invented by poets."
"I hate you, Dr. Goldblatt."
"My wife often expresses a similar sentiment."
The reception had shifted to the long dining hall, where food was being served buffet style. It was too crowded. Conner backed out, intercepted a waiter on his way in with a trayful of champagne, and snagged two more glasses. He gulped them down. Burped. It was still too crowded to get at the buffet. He thought he spotted some roast beef, little red potatoes, good stuff, but there were fifty tuxedos in the way.
A side table offered a spread of tortilla chips with salsa and pigs in a blanket. He plucked a white cloth napkin from the table, filled it with pigs in a blanket and wrapped it up. He put the napkin wad into the side pocket of his tuxedo. It made a nice warm weight against his hip.
The room was too crowded and loud. He didn't see Tyranny anywhere and didn't look too hard.
He retreated to the quiet part of the house. Stray partygoers huddled in twos and threes, private conversations. Conner wanted to be alone. He pushed on deeper into the house, found a room that looked like a small library or maybe a big study. A giant globe on a highly polished wooden stand. Oaken desk. Shelves lined with books. French doors with a view of the bay. This must be Professor Dan's office.
On the corner of the desk a silver tray supported a glass decanter half-full of amber liquid. Four clean highball glasses around the decanter. Conner took the lid off the decanter, set it to the side, filled one of the highball glasses to the top.
"I wouldn't do that." A voice behind him.
Conner started, turned.
A pear-shaped man, short. Thinning blond hair. He wore thick, round glasses that made him look like an owl, a tuxedo with a vest instead of a cummerbund. He stepped into the study, closed the door behind him.
"That's the cheap stuff," he said. He went to the big globe and opened it up. It was hinged at the equator. Inside were more bottles and glasses. "Johnnie Walker Black." He poured himself a tall one, then offered the bottle to Conner.
Conner took a fresh highball glass, held it out, and the guy filled it for him. He quickly drank half, smacked his lips.
The guy asked, "You're not a goddamn art lover, are you?"
He smiled, took off his glasses, and rubbed his eyes. "Good. I've been to a hundred of these things. They're all the same. If I hear another son of a bitch go on about brushstrokes, I'll stick a gun in my mouth and blow my fucking brains out." He sipped his drink, put his glasses back on.
"Uh-huh." Conner emptied the highball glass, held it out for more.
Pear-shaped Guy filled it again. "Did you ever notice how nobody has to know anything to have an opinion about art? Music too. Simply by virtue of having eyes and ears, anyone at all can spout off about art or music or literature or anything. Half the people out there haven't given art two seconds of thought before tonight. They've never been to art school or studied in Paris or picked up a book about art or subscribed to any art magazines. As soon as they get a few little paintings in front of them, they're more than ready to say why it's good or bad or significant or worthless. Shit."
He drank his drink. Conner drank his too. They filled up again on Professor Dan's expensive booze.
"You're not too talkative. Bad night?" asked Pear-shaped Guy.
"I don't know," Conner said. "It was pretty good for a while. Now I'm not sure."
"How did you know?"
He shrugged. "That's the only kind of real trouble when you get down to it."
"I'm broke too."
"Small potatoes," said Pear-shape. "I never know where my next dollar's coming from. One day I'm rolling in it, the next I'm stealing Scotch from a giant, pretentious globe."
"Are you a stockbroker or something? I could use a hot tip."
"Not quite, but this advice works for anything. You have to visualize your goal, decide you're not going to be a bottom-feeder anymore. Set specific goals with specific, definable steps. Tackle each step one at a time. Sounds too simple, but it really does work."
"And this will solve my girl trouble?" Conner belched burning Scotch. The fumes came out his nose, made him cough. Thinking about Tyranny didn't mix well with the booze. His belly gurgled.
"Jesus, no. You're not listening. Women are an unsolvable problem. Be nice to them, and maybe they'll deign to put out. That's about all you can do. For everything else: visualize."
"My guts hurt," Conner said.
"Visualize the pain floating away as a bright orange balloon."
Conner ignored him, bent in half, and stumbled out of the room. He felt anxious, hot, and dizzy, realized he'd drunk too much too quick. He tried a door. It was a bathroom. His guts knotted, and he was just able to get his pants down and his butt on the toilet seat when his bowels exploded, a steaming, liquid mess. His face was slick with sweat. It was so hot. His mouth dry.
All that booze on an empty, nervous stomach. He hadn't even eaten the pigs in the blankets.
He cleaned himself up. Flushed.
He reached down to pull up his pants and pitched forward, toppling off the toilet and landing in a tangled heap on the floor. The room spun. He took deep breaths until everything fell back into place. Visualize standing up.
He braced himself against the tub, lurched to his feet. Visualize pulling up your pants. He did it, zipped himself. He leaned against the sink, looked at himself in the mirror. Conner Samson, bottom-feeder. He resolved to do something, take some kind of step forward. Even if it was something wrong. He wasn't going to take it anymore. No more wishy-washy middle ground for Conner Samson.
He splashed water on his face, toweled off, and left the bathroom.
Conner made his way back to the small salon where the Dybeks were on display. A young couple nodded appreciatively at them, discussed the finer points. Conner thought he caught the word "brushstrokes" and giggled.
They scowled at him, eyes tough and offended. She had a nose ring and a butterfly tattoo on her back. He was shaggy-haired. White socks. A couple of Professor Dan's students, Conner figured. They left the salon with their noses in the air.
Conner checked the window, opened it all the way, stuck his head out, and looked both ways and down. Rosebushes underneath. He'd need to be careful of thorns. Nobody was around. It would be an easy jog around the house to where the valet punks had parked the Plymouth. He looked back into the salon. Nobody. He listened ten long seconds but didn't hear anyone coming.
Visualize a major crime.
He ran to the three Dybeks, pushed the velvet rope aside, grabbed each one off its easel, and sprinted back to the window. He reached out with one of the paintings, leaned as far as he could without tumbling out the window. It was still a good five feet to the ground. He didn't want the painting to land hard and crack the frame into pieces. He thought about tossing them into the bushes to ease the landing, but he didn't want the rose thorns to rip the canvas.
Maybe he could climb out the window, then reach back through for the paintings. He bit his lip, tried to judge the distance. It was a little too far down. He wouldn't be able to reach them.
Conner swung one leg over the windowsill. He picked up one of the paintings, put another under his arm. Maybe he could get partway out, still holding the paintings, then position himself to jump down. He squirmed into position. Awkward. Even if he could jump and land without busting his ass, there was no way he could reach back in for the third painting.
"Go ahead and climb out," a voice behind him said. "Then I'll hand them down to you."
Conner yelped, startled. He turned to look into the thickly bespectacled eyes of Pear-shaped Guy. "What?"
"Go on out. Be careful. Don't turn an ankle." He took the painting from beneath Conner's arm.
"Uh... okay." Conner swung his other leg over the sill, looked questioningly over his shoulder.
"Go ahead." Pear-shape nodded encouragement.
Conner moved slowly. He lowered himself inch by inch, watching Pear-shape with suspicion, until his feet were on the ground. The window was about a foot over his head. Pear-shape leaned out, handed him the paintings one by one.
"You all set?"
"Okay, good luck. Don't take any wooden Injuns." Pear-shape's head vanished back through the window.
"Wait!" Conner had to know.
Pear-shape stuck his head out again. "Yeah?"
"You don't seem to mind I'm stealing these paintings."
Conner asked, "Don't you think Jasper Dybek will be upset?"
The guy laughed. "I am Jasper Dybek."
Conner looked at the paintings, back at Dybek. "Don't you need these? I heard you get paid a lot for them."
"An obscene amount," he said. "But I only manage to unload two or three a year. It's not exactly a steady paycheck. If you steal them, I can collect the insurance. Now get moving. In about twenty minutes, I'm going to raise holy hell." He ducked back inside and shut the window.
Conner scooped up the paintings and ran around the house. He told the valet punk on duty to fetch his Plymouth. The kid brought it around within sixty seconds. Conner popped the trunk, loaded the paintings. The valet didn't seem concerned.
"I'm taking these out to be cleaned," Conner said.
"What? Huh?" The kid's eyes were red and glassy, and Conner definitely smelled marijuana on his clothes. The valet didn't know what planet he was on.
"Keep up the good work," Conner said.
The kid grinned stupidly, held out his upturned palm. "How 'bout a tip, dude?"
Conner had zero cash. He patted his pockets, looked apologetic. He found the napkin wad of pigs in a blanket, put it into the kid's hand. "Bon app¨¦tit."
The kid shrugged, popped one into his mouth.
Conner climbed in behind the wheel, cranked the Plymouth 's V-8, and slammed it into gear. He squealed the tires down the driveway, took the turn onto the road too sharply, and exploded a small statue of a naked lady into dust. One of the Plymouth 's headlights winked out.
Visualize driving drunk. Visualize not wrapping the Plymouth around a telephone pole.
He drove fast until he was well away from the house. He forced himself to slow down, drive straight. Getting pulled over now would be stupid. More stupid. Now what? He didn't want to go back to his puke-smelling apartment. It symbolized everything weak and worthless in his life. Going back would smack of defeat, and tonight was about taking charge of his life. The new Conner Samson was a go-for-it, damn-the-torpedoes kind of guy.
So. Visualize what the hell to do next, smart guy.