The third time she calls it quits with Dan, it occurs to Serena she might be addicted to hurting herself.
He is as nice about it as it’s possible to be. He’d be friends, if she wanted. She doesn't want that.
Serena brushes herself off, shrugs away her hurt like it’s a coat falling from her shoulders. She buys a plane ticket to Bali, spends her nights in a booze-fuelled haze and her days baking on the beach.
The trip only makes her more restless, a ship tilted to one side by a heavy weight. She needs to get on an even keel.
Serena takes the next flight back to New York, and she calls Carter Baizen. It feels more inevitable than it should.
“Serena?” Carter picks up on the first ring; he sounds a little breathless. There’s a beat, and he adds, “How are you, beautiful?” smooth as anything.
It’s the tiny bit of uncertainty that gets her. Carter is nervous, and Serena finds herself impossibly charmed by that. "You around?" she asks, knowing he'll know what she means.
"For you, I could be."
They don’t need to talk about the last time they saw each other. She isn’t sure she’s even angry anymore.
So: Serena takes Carter to her bed, and he takes her apart. It’s good — after all, things had never ended between them because this part didn’t work — and that doesn’t surprise her.
She’d forgotten how oddly sincere he is in bed. He’s not a reliable guy, but between the sheets he’ll say sweet things and really mean them.
He doesn’t even mind when she kicks him out of bed at four in the morning because she has to get to a Eleanor Waldorf shoot.
There is nothing steady about Carter, but he makes her feel grounded anyway.
It wasn’t always like this: Carter used to be bad for her.
The first time they slept together, she was sixteen, he was eighteen, and they were both high as the Empire State Building. Carter wasn’t her first; he was more like her fifth (she can’t remember when she started counting, or when it became such an effort to do so that she stopped).
They were both used to being the family disappointment, and it drew them together, a pair of moths hitting their heads against a lampshade over and over. With Carter, she’d cut class, do drugs, spend time with people who were unsuitable: all of her mother’s worst nightmares.
Younger Serena hated the world and did lines of coke off Carter Baizen’s stomach because she didn’t know any better.
Older Serena does know better. Except, she doesn’t.
The thing is: Carter Baizen is an explosion of a boy, and Serena’s never had the good sense to avoid things that sparked and flamed.
“Beautiful,” drawls Carter through the phone. “I’ve got a proposition for you. You. Me. The Big Easy. Tonight.”
Serena laughs lightly. “I can’t just —” She stops. There’s no reason why she shouldn’t go.
On the plane, he tells her about his latest fiasco involving a cuckolded husband and being chased barefoot through an Iowa cornfield in the dead of night. She listens and laughs; after all, Carter is Carter. She doesn't know what else she expected.
In New Orleans, Serena watches him snort neat lines of white powder in a bar bathroom, and some part of her delights in the idea that nothing really changes.
She certainly isn’t judging, anyway; there’s currently a tab of MDMA in her purse with her name on it.
“C’mon, beautiful,” Carter says, wild-eyed, reaching for her hand. His hair is mussed all over his forehead; unconsciously, she reaches out to stroke it back.
He flashes his sunshine-bright crooked grin, the one that used to make the Constance girls crazy for him. The one that used to make her crazy.
“Let’s dance,” Serena says quickly, to cover up for the way her heart is pounding.
Later, when they’re both mired in the happy fizz of narcotics, she lets him pull her close on the dancefloor and kiss her, deep and dirty. It doesn’t mean anything like this.
Over the years, Serena’s been many things to many people.
The wild party girl who haunted nightclubs all over the world and once danced on a table with Cristiano Ronaldo. The intellectual woman, head in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and a mind in the clouds. The complicated Serena van der Woodsen from the tabloids who eats men for breakfast.
With Dan, she was bright and effusive, and he was always uneasy at her side, unsure of what to do with himself. Her light diminished him, and that, she thinks, is why it never would have worked between them.
She’s never had to be any of those things with Carter, and perhaps that’s the scariest part: she can be naked with him in a way she can’t be with anyone else.
It’s almost three months before she sees him again.
They meet up at a friend’s beach house in Goa. He’s tanned, and long hours in the sun have turned his hair almost copper. For a sometimes addict, he looks good.
Serena’s heard differing reports about what Carter’s been doing: he flaked out of the Betty Ford clinic, he directed an arthouse porn film, he was in an extra in a Bollywood hit.
“The last one’s true,” he tells her, arch, a hand pressed between her bare shoulderblades. “I spent a couple of months in Mumbai. You’d be surprised how hard it is to dance while also simultaneously lip-syncing in Hindi.”
Serena grins. “I bet.” She sits up in bed, wraps her arms around her knees before she asks, “But didn’t you go to rehab?”
“There’s always rehab, honey.” Carter shrugs in his devil-may-care way, but there’s sudden tension in his shoulders.
He swings his legs off the bed and lights a cigarette, still looking away from Serena. “There was a good place I stayed, somewhere in Utah.” Carter takes a drag of his cigarette, and adds, “My parents dropped a small fortune on it, anyway. We went on a lot of forest walks. It was all part of some bullshit thing about reconnecting with nature, but it was kind of nice.”
So they make their way back to the USA, go to Zion National Park to look at tangerine sandstone canyons. On the first day, Carter produces a pair of hiking boots and an adorably dorky cloth hat.
“These are yours?” Serena smiles.
“Yeah,” he says, frowning. “What of it?”
Then he pulls a joint from behind his ear, and the day starts to look a whole lot better.
It turns out she’s not a hiking girl. But they have plenty of fun in the forests of Utah anyway, giggling like a couple of idiots.
For all his louche charm, there are times when Carter shows himself to be a real human being.
Serena doesn’t expect him to show up at CeCe’s funeral, only a couple of weeks after their hiking expedition, but he does.
When she reaches back a hand and tugs him away from the guests at the wake, he doesn’t stop her. They’re halfway up the staircase and her hands are at the buttons of his shirt, but then Carter's stopping her.
“At your grandmother’s wake? Really?” he says.
“Yeah. So what?” Serena pulls back and sways a little; her veins are buzzing with the four martinis she's just downed, but she won’t be made fun of. Not by Carter.
“I mean, I know I’m the last person you’d call moral,” he says, sliding an arm around her waist to steady her. “But trust me when I say being drunk and sad isn’t a good enough reason to sleep with me.”
It’s either tiredness or the grief talking when she says, more cruelly than she intends: “It used to be good enough for you to sleep with me.”
Carter looks wounded, then. For the first time, she notices his eyes are a little red. He hasn’t done coke in a while, so it must be because he’s been crying. CeCe had always liked Carter, for her own inexplicable reasons. Perhaps he’d had a soft spot for her, too.
“That’s fair,” he says, the customary grin sliding back onto his face. “But maybe I’m trying to be a good guy, these days.”
“I doubt that.” Serena laughs helplessly. She knows he probably would have sex with her right now, if she really wanted him to. Maybe that’s why she starts crying: real, ugly, body-shaking sobs.
“I loved her, Carter,” she gets out. “She was awful sometimes, but I loved her so much.”
CeCe was ill; it had been a long time coming, but Serena still feels horribly broken, like she’s going to crack into a thousand pieces.
“Of course you did,” Carter says, soft. He pats at her hair and lets her soak the shoulder of his bespoke suit with snot and tears.
After losing her grandmother, Serena drifts, unmoored.
It’s not just Carter. There are others, too. Men, women — it’s never really mattered to Serena. She meets them in bars, clubs, pottery classes, brings them back to her empty apartment and tells herself she feels better, doing this.
Usually it’s one-nighters, but even when it isn’t, things always go the same way: Serena ends up alone with a bruised ego, and she calls Carter Baizen.
She knows she’s not his only girl (or boy); he’s as likely to talk about his latest conquest in bed as he is to tell her how pretty her eyes are.
But as far as she knows, she’s the only one he keeps coming back to. She’s gotten to think of Carter like an old, comfortable pair of shoes. He never asks for anything more than she’s willing to give him, and maybe that’s enough.
A person could get a little too used to this, Serena sometimes thinks.
Barely six months after their breakup, Dan gets married to a librarian who works at NYU. Serena pretends to be happy for him — she is, sort of, underneath the mess of her own selfishness.
In the end, she didn’t want Dan, not really, and somehow she still can’t let him go. She takes some time for herself: reads a lot, goes to spas, dabbles in yoga. It helps about as much as a hole in the head.
She watches Chuck and Blair bask in their own peculiar brand of fucked-up happiness, and it makes her a little wistful.
Carter stays clean-ish, so she hears. He’s spending the winter in Southeast Asia; she gets the odd text, and that’s about it. It’s fine.
“I was in a Thai jail for a couple of nights,” Carter says conversationally, the way some people would say I got a new pair of shoes or it’s hot today.
In a fit of normality, they’re sitting outside, having coffee at a self-consciously hipster café Dan would probably love.
Serena leans in, interested in spite of herself. “What did you do?”
“Nothing that interesting,” he says, running a hand through his hair, all bored, disaffected charm. “You know. Public indecency with another guy. That sort of thing.”
His hair’s gotten long. She’s not sure she likes it, but she knows where this is heading: to his suite at the St Regis, and an afternoon on his bed that’ll leave her exhausted and boneless in the best way.
She laughs and tells him, “You look like Kurt Cobain.” The spring day is warm, but there's a faint chill in the air. A breeze whips at the bottom of her skirt, making her shiver through the thick tights she’s wearing.
Carter does that effortlessly cool thing where he lights a cigarette with the butt of another one, and replies, “You say the sweetest things, baby.”
At her mother’s behest (“Serena, I understand the ‘find-yourself’ thing. I’ve done it. But at some point, the bohemian act just gets sad. You need some direction in your life.”), Serena tries to stay put. She takes modelling contracts, lets herself be roped into helping with fundraising events.
It doesn’t stop her feeling restless.
She dates. Once, she thinks it might be the real thing, but then she remembers the way her stomach twists when she kisses a boy she’s not even in love with. A boy who’s bad for himself (and her) and everyone around him.
It’s no surprise to Serena when the only real relationship she’s had since Dan goes up in flames.
“I think I might be broken or something,” she tells Carter over the phone, very serious. “Why can’t I ever love anyone?”
He’s staying with friends in Dubai. “Why don’t you come out here and we’ll talk about it?” Carter says.
His words are a siren song of temptation, and like always, she can't help but say yes.
Two plane rides later, Serena finds she doesn’t have anything to say about her latest failed attempt at happiness. It helps anyway, just being somewhere else.
They’re side-by-side on the deck of a boat moored in Jumeirah Fishing Harbour. Carter's cut his hair, and is back to looking like the trustafarian ex-addict that he is, right down to the designer sunglasses perched on his sleek head.
"You know," he remarks, “when I feel like this, I find that doing something good helps. You could volunteer for some kind of worthy cause. Aren’t there orphans somewhere that need saving?”
Serena leans forward, opens her mouth in an approximation of shock. “You mean, you have feelings?”
Carter scowls, and pokes her in the side with the cocktail umbrella from his drink. “You’re a real piece of work. Offer still stands.” He makes a thoughtful face. "I'll go too, if you want. It's been a while since I did something good for humanity."
“Maybe.” Serena brightens. "I could go and teach English to kids in China, one of the really remote areas. I've always thought about doing that."
She sees him visibly shudder. "Ugh. Kids. The one charitable cause I've never tried."
Serena doesn't even bother to hide her smile. She straightens her bikini top and fleetingly imagines that this is her life: on a boat beneath a sun-drenched sky, without a care in the world.
It could be worse, really.
She isn’t in love with Carter, and that might be the thing she likes most about him. It might also be the thing she likes least about herself: that she finds it easier to be with a man who doesn’t love her than with any of the ones who pretend to.
After Dubai, they go to Europe.
Idly, they talk about joining the Peace Corps, but two years is too much of a commitment for either of them. Well, it is for Serena anyway, who has never managed to hang on to anything for that long.
Outside a club in Barcelona, there are photographers milling around. Serena flicks back her blonde hair and hears the hushed murmur as they recognise her.
“Wanna mess with them?” Carter says into her ear.
His words ignite that old spark of rebellion in her belly. She could be sixteen again, skipping class to go down to the beach with Carter. Eyes shining, she shoves him against the heated brick of the wall and kisses him in full sight of the paparazzi.
The thought of Blair’s horrified expression when the pictures make it onto the internet is almost worth the entire thing to Serena. But it wasn’t the only reason she did it.
Later, it strikes her that kissing Carter while the flashbulbs went off was the most alive she’s felt in ages.
“You’re not in love with me, are you?” she asks, tangled up in his sheets in a Berlin hotel suite.
Carter studies her for a moment. “Always.” He sighs theatrically, furrows his brow. “But I can live with it.”
Serena can’t help it; she laughs and laughs until Carter flings a pillow at her head.
It’s been happening for a year (probably a lot longer, Serena thinks, if she counts the handful of times they’ve been together in the past).
Carter calls the week after they get back to New York.
“Do you wanna come over?” There’s a very un-Carter-like pause. “To my place, I mean.”
She never knew he even had a place. To Serena, Carter has always been some kind of nomad, going from hostel to dive to four-star suite with nothing but an overnight bag and an easy smile.
In some ways, his apartment is everything she expected: the original French-language Betty Blue poster hanging on the back of the door, a kitchen full of immaculate cookware she would bet he never uses.
Not everything, though. On his living room wall is a huge world map stuck full of pins. Serena runs her fingers over the map’s surface, thinking about all the places they’ve visited together.
“So this is where you live.” She looks around, smiling. “It’s nice.”
Carter shrugs in his usual way, says gruffly, “There are take-out menus in the drawer there." He gestures. "We can order. If you want.”
“Okay.” She moves to his side, flicks through the menus while he frowns and bites his lip, all cute and skittish in a way she’s never seen him be.
She looks up to see him watching her. His eyes flash with something dark; it makes her feel wild, reckless. Serena reaches for Carter and pulls him into a kiss that leaves them both breathless.
“I’m not really all that hungry,” he says, his hands already sliding down to her hips.
“Me neither.” Serena laughs into his mouth, thinks about how next week they’ll probably be off to some exotic destination. The week after that, this whole thing might go up in a conflagration of sparks.
There’s no telling what might happen. But they’ll probably have fun trying, anyway.