This is when Tracy starts thinking about me.
I come back to her in gradations: a photo of me first, a still, me sitting too close to the edge of a fire escape, Tracy about to tell me to come closer. Then I’m someone she knows well. A man who makes her feel good. A man who makes her laugh. And finally, a man to whom she was once engaged to be married.
She isn’t sure yet why I’ve come to mind. Here she is, sitting at the table, Oliver to her left, Morris to her right. Karen, Connie, and Rodney on the other side.
Baum is still not here.
She feels cold. The French doors are open behind her and the fresh air travels over the fields and comes into the farmhouse. Only, Tracy isn’t sure how fresh it is. Is it the air that chills her?
What small damnations are carried by the wind, arrive by open doors all over the world?
The Farmer protects Oliver. She knows this much now. Between Connie’s story about what happened to Rodney and her own experience, The Farmer in the attic, distracting her, on her way to physically attacking Oliver, it’s clear the old man needs Oliver safe.
Tracy looks over her shoulder.
Where is The Farmer now?
Morris places a hand on her wrist.
“You should drink some wine,” he says. “You’re upset.”
When Tracy looks back to the table, she sees all her friends are looking at her.
“Thank you,” she says. She takes the glass. She smiles. She can feel Oliver eyeing her profile.
She brings the glass to her lips and her friends commence with their meal.
She does not drink the wine. Nobody notices.
There isn’t a worried expression among them. Not one anxious eye. Here’s Karen: as happy as Tracy has ever seen her. She moves with grace. Her lips part in a genuine smile that is one beat short of laughter. Her body language screams satisfaction. She looks showered and fresh. And beside her, Connie isn’t that far off. No longer hiding behind her hair, she speaks openly with the others about her life, spooning what looks like tomato bisque to her lips. Morris appears to have worked his way through the nihilism that gripped him by the base of the fire. Even Rodney looks well fed and like he’s enjoying himself.
How long has Tracy been out? She makes a mental check of her belly. Is she hungry? Yes. How hungry?
She doesn’t want to believe she’s been out for days. Doesn’t think she can handle anymore than she already has. Yet, at the same time, she’s retained Old Tracy; that woman is still within her. Yes, the old her, the original her, still waves a distress signal, still shouts, YOU NEED TO FIND A WAY OUT OF THIS HOUSE. YOU NEED TO FIND A WAY BACK HOME.
You need to find that truck.
Because, on the walk from the pantry to the table, she glanced, quick, through the living room, out the front windows, and saw the gravel drive is empty.
Where are all the cars? Far enough away that, were she to run, Oliver could catch her? Parked out in the fields, past the willows, watched over by a lunatic Baum?
You need to find that truck.
She thinks of the barn.
“Right here,” Rodney says, suddenly, pointing to what appears to be mashed potatoes. “The best I’ve ever had.”
He looks to Tracy. She smiles.
How nice. How lovely.
Dinner with friends.
“I missed you guys,” she says, hardly able to hold the quiver in her voice from reaching her lips. She turns to Oliver. “Thank you for having us.”
Oliver eyes her a second longer than he should and she hopes he’s eaten enough ego to believe he’s vanquished her at last. She needs him to believe that, by way of what he snuck into some fruit and eggs at a diner two hours south of this table, he’s finally altered her core.
He smiles, too.
“I cannot tell you how happy I am,” he says. “It’s like I’m living a dream.”
“Hungry?” Morris says.
He’s holding a plate of apple slices her way. And while she’s hungry enough to eat Morris’s hand, she shakes her head no.
“Just woke up,” she says. Then, to Oliver again, “But I’ll eat you out of house and home by nightfall.”
Then, everybody’s talking at once. For a moment, it actually sounds like six or seven independent conversations, as if each are so far into their own heads, the New Them speaks solely to the Old Them.
Tracy watches closely. Looking for clues, differences, gaps she might be able to one day close.
And is this hope she feels? Was there hope in the eggs at the diner?
Old Tracy shouts, waving two flags.
You need to leave, Tracy. YOU NEED TO LEAVE THE FARM.
It strikes her, suddenly, coldly, that what Oliver has begun, what he’s truly trying to accomplish, is to force his friends to change at the same rate he has.
This is no small realization.
Friends drift. And while nobody wants to admit when that moment comes, everybody also agrees that it must. But Oliver didn’t like the drift. Disliked it more than most.
Out here alone for six months, how much math did Oliver do? Once he discovered what grew on his property, how many lists did he make, charts did he draw, preparations for the seven salads of a lifetime?
And, perhaps worst of all, how responsible is he, directly, for their coming out here, rather than them having come to that decision on their own?
Tracy smiles Karen’s way. Nods to Connie. Laughs at something Rodney says. When she looks at Oliver again, she sees nothing but joy in his eyes. Absolute delight.
He believes you, she thinks. And why not? Because, no matter what the traits are that make up a personality, there’s always enough wiggle room to lie.
She wants to bring up the truck. She’s looking for an angle. But everything that comes to mind is frightening in how obvious it is.
Oliver is happy.
Leave him that way?
Yes. But maybe, Tracy thinks, maybe there’s a way to make him bring it up himself.
“This place embarrasses New York,” Karen says. “Makes the city look like a mistake.”
“I agree,” Connie says. “Like the world went in the wrong direction, all at once.”
Everybody is eating and drinking as if this is the first night of their visit. Old friends reunited in a fresh, exciting setting! Oliver is hosting! How divine!
And as they go, Tracy inserts innocuous quips, laughs at harmless jokes, even feigns debate. And the more she does it, the easier it gets, and the easier it gets, the more readily she can see the Old Them in the New.
Whether her friends know it or not, everybody at this table is improvising.
Everybody is acting.
Nobody is themselves.
Tracy readily recalls the last acting class we all took together, our instructor off-stage, teaching in crisp, terse tones:
Too on point, Karen.
The body language doesn’t have to match every sentiment, Rodney.
Too overt, Connie. Too nuanced, Morris.
You’ve vanished, Baum. You have exited stage-middle.
“I know that look,” Oliver says, leaning toward her. “You’re planning something.”
Tracy, acting as well, only acting, Old and New, sees the entire table is staring at her again. She feels like, if she were to stand up, they would, too. If she were to leave this room, they would, too. If she were to leave this house, they would not let her.
“You were planning a game,” Oliver says.
Tracy nods. Tries not to overdo it.
“Yes. Wow. That’s exactly what I was about to suggest. A game.”
Oliver beams with pride.
He believes you.
He’s also given Tracy an idea. As if he’s the one visiting her inheritance, he’s the one with the housewarming gift.
An idea. A very good one.
“Which game?” Karen asks.
Tracy, too hot inside, feeling too much hope, gives everything she has not to overact this single word. But she wants them so badly to agree to it.
“Corpsing,” she says.
There is a beat of silence, then Karen actually claps.
“Sounds fun,” Morris says.
They’re all saying yes, sure, a game of Corpsing, a game we’ve invented, a game we played when the nights in New York City either got too late or got too cold, and we decided, without discussion, to remain indoors, the lot of us, best friends, close enough to have invented games, always about acting. And some games, like Corpsing in particular, can even afford you a moment alone, apart from the group, wherein one might escape the party, if one were so suddenly inclined to do so.