“I’ve always assumed I’d be a failure anyway,” Nick will say, years later, and by that time, it will be basically true—by that time, he really will feel that he always assumed that, but the night he kissed Jane Clark outside the circle of campfire light at the last night of camp on lake Winnipesaukee, he’d felt pretty near invincible, and he’d been pretty sure his future held more of the same. That night, years later, when he’ll talk about the inevitable futility of his own existence, he’ll wonder if her sharp little eye-roll has anything to do with that kiss.
Nick doesn’t know if Jane knows she was his first kiss, not then or later, but she hadn’t laughed when he’d had to stand on the cabin step to reach her, even though she’d had her growth spurt and he was still a tiny pipsqueak, so he thinks she probably did know somehow, even though he’d been bragging about his destiny as a womanizer since the beginning of summer.
“You’re gracious in defeat,” younger Nick had said, like a little asshole, and she’d said, “I should have known you’d be as sore a winner as you are a loser,” because the kiss had been a bet, and he’d lead his team to victory at beach volleyball, despite her massive height advantage.
“I was only a sore loser because I don’t have much practice at it,” he’d told her, and then he’d stolen another kiss, daring, this time, to put a hand on her strong, campfire-warm shoulder.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of chances to get better at it,” she’d whispered, lips inches from his own, smiling.
“Nope,” he’d answered, but it had sounded more like agreement than anything else.
Charlie is a long time coming, but when it happens, it’s exactly what Nick has always known Charlie would be like, a quick, embarrassed, mutual-jerk-off at the club after tennis, late enough into their teens that it probably can’t be passed off as experimentation, Charlie’s lip caught tightly enough between his teeth that it turns white, eyes downcast, hair flopping in his face.
It’s all very English-public-school-boy, very picturesque little minor shame, and Charlie blushes over the gaspy little noise he makes when he comes, but he also sways forward and tucks his face against Nick’s neck, after, as they catch their breath. It’s almost nice. Later, when Charlie starts to get fixated on Audrey Rouget, Nick thinks about tipping her off.
It’s an awful idea, he knows that as soon as he thinks it, but he also knows that, just from looking at Charlie, Audrey can’t have any idea how his long, lanky body feels, sweat-sticky and unevenly undressed, pressed up against hers—well, against Nick’s, but he assumes the sensation would be about the same. Prim, far-too-good Audrey might not know what she’s missing, and a part of Nick feels like the real, good Samaritan thing to do would be to clue her in.
Sally first happens the night they all meet Tom Townsend. Hooking up with Sally is a little bit to seal the deal, as this winter’s season begins—cliques come and go so fast in this scene, and Nick knows he’s good at wearing out his welcome a lot sooner than he’d like, so it’s key to make a good impression early on—and a little bit because he’s missed her. When Nick’s parents were together, they’d gone to holiday parties with Sally’s family, and Nick and Sally had hidden under tables and snuck into gardens at night together, shrieking like well-dresses banshees as they chased each other around.
After a particular episode in the legal melodrama that followed, neither of Nick’s parents had kept that set of friends in the divorce, so until last summer, Nick and Sally hadn’t seen each other in a few years. That night, somewhere between chatting and cha-cha-cha, Sally grabs Nick to help her carry in a new round of drinks, ignoring Nick’s protest that he never does anything helpful if he can help it. Her fingers around his wrist promise an ulterior motive.
And doesn’t everyone reacquaint themselves with a childhood friend by pulling out of a quick kiss to drop to the linoleum of the floor in the darkened kitchen, in the alcove behind the refrigerator, and excavate his way through the flounces, helping her hike the tight part of the skirt higher, till he can situate himself between her legs, and get his mouth where she wants it?
After, “you’re good at that,” she says, husky voice stretched out and sleepy as she lazily resituates the dress.
“Best way to shut me up,” Nick agrees, and Sally laughs.
A lot of the things Nick says to Tom, later, as they’re all getting ready to head out, are also to seal the deal, as it were. For the next few weeks, these people are going to be Nick’s people, and Tom feels like a solid addition. Another bastion of testosterone. A different brand of unbearable than Nick himself, Charlie, Cynthia, or Jane, so that everyone has access to a full range of annoyance from which to avail themselves. And Tom’s a little different from the rest of them, but obviously not as different as he wants to be. Nick’s pretty sure he only ever wants to be more like himself, but he’s interested in that tension, in Tom.
There’s a certain kind of argument that Nick’s father excels at, argument that blusters and whirls like weather, full of assurance in its rightness, not even trying to convince, just trying to reveal to the argue-ee that he or she obviously already agreed, he or she just wasn’t looking at it right. If Nick’s father has any true talent, it’s this kind of argument, and it’s the tool Nick turns to first to get Tom into the cab with them, and then to get him to come back, later, at the end of the night.
“They like you,” Nick says, the main thrust of his argument, that the girls have clearly gotten attached to Tom over the course of tonight, and it’s probably even true. What’s not to like? Tom is reasonably tall, has a pretty good face, serious manner, steady-looking hands.
The girls aren’t nearly as delicate as all that, of course and Tom has almost spent enough time with them to know it, which is why Nick really has to do a little conversational quickstep to get this piece of the puzzle to land. But it’s not like society is offering Nick any pretensions of maidenly shyness to hide behind when talking to eligible young men. He figures it’s only fair that he should get to borrow someone else’s for, at the very least, the length of this conversation.
Interlude – Rick
They make it sound like Nick is being unfair to women, listing all of Rick Von Slonacker’s most odious qualities as his main selling points with the fairer sex. They’re wrong, but Nick can barely blame them for two reasons, only one of which any of them would have any reason to know at all. The first, which they might have guessed, is that Nick, too, can seem pretty attractive to women, provided they’re women who don’t know him very well yet. Nick is also rich, good-looking, dishonest, conceited, (frequently) drunk, and has a pretty healthy ego of his own. He likes to think he’s not a bully, at least, and he’s also not that tall. Still, he ticks off a lot of the same boxes on his little checklist as Von Slonacker does, and it works for him with girls, too. The second is that he’s pretty sure a lot of those qualities were what attracted him to Von Slonacker, too, in his more idiotic youth.
“You’re really hung-up on Rick” cuts a little too close to the bone, burrows under his skin, mixes his metaphors up for him, but really, he probably would be doing better keeping his mouth shut about Von Slonacker that winter, except that it’s Serena Slocum on his arm—poised, artificial, untouchable Serena Slocum. It’s only a bonus piece of obnoxiousness that she’s also Tom’s something-or-other.
Rick Von Slonacker is the same guy he was three summers ago, but Serena Slocum, with her long manicure and her polished laugh and her neat coif, isn’t someone who’ll let him get his way, Nick can see that just by watching them together. She’s not the type who’ll let herself be coaxed down to her knees on the gritty floor of the shed down by the shore, and she wouldn’t look up afterwards, eyes all stupid and hopeful, either. And that’s why she wouldn’t see him laughing at her. And that’s why they’re still together through so much of the winter, that’s why, when they break up, he’s sure Serena keeps a dignified distance, doesn't show up down by the boardwalk at times when Rick has been there before, or call his house and tell his mother it’s about a magazine subscription when she answers instead. Serena’s no Ni—no Polly Perkins.
Sordid details—a part of Nick wants to tell them the kind that are true, but that’s not going to play too well in this room, so he lets the story go where it wants to instead. The part where Cynthia adds a layer of believability to the story by going on the offensive against it is almost too good to be true. The story itself is almost good enough to be true, too.
Fred doesn’t happen, really. Fred is very straight.
Fred is a good friend, though—when Nick drifts back into the city for the summer, Fred takes him out drinking and tells him not to bother Sally anymore, at least until she’s done breaking and having her heart broken by the parade of supposed music producers, which is an act of true friendship, because Nick can see, now, with three and a half neat scotches’ distance, that he had really not been going to let it go, and that if he’d pushed too much further, he’d have gone on to push Sally right out of his life altogether. “I can see, now,” Nick tells Fred, with, he thinks, commendable dignity. “I ask too much of people. I understand now. Thank you, Fred.”
“Any time,” Fred says, patting his arm uncomfortably, and Nick’s not usually much of an exhibitionist—Sally may have literally rubbed off on him once or twice, but that doesn’t mean he’s picked up her vices—but if Nick’s not very much mistaken, there’s something in that awkward arm-pat, and he’s open to seeing where it goes.
Once he’s resolved this Sally issue, of course. “I may have already gone too far,” he tells Fred, despairing, catching the stiff, uncomfortable hand near his wrist in a hold that thought-gesture. “Do you think I should call Sally and tell her? Just tell her that I know I’ve been stupid, now, that I’m going to back off.”
“I think you can show Sally you're going to back off by actually backing off,” Fred tells him, because Fred is a good friend who hasn’t pulled his hand away, and it’s because Fred is a good friend, that’s the only reason that Nick sways forward across the vinyl booth-seat at the dimly lit table on the opposite side of the room from the mostly-empty bar, sways forward and brushes his lips so they catch on the corner of Fred’s mouth, onto his cheek.
That’s as far as it goes, though. “I’m almost-boringly heterosexual,” Fred tells him, “And I don’t think I’d make a very good Sally-substitute, either. Or Tom-substitute. Or that professor you’ve been trying to seduce.” He does let Nick slump against him in the booth after that, though, and raises the arm Nick isn’t leaning on to signal the waitress for another round.
“You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it,” Nick heard Tom tell Audrey from across the room one night, that first winter season. Audrey hadn’t been impressed—Nick could have warned Tom that sentiments like that weren’t going to win her over.
The thing about Tom is that he’s so close to being this amazing—something. Thinker. Idealist. Only he’s so full of shit, and he doesn’t even know it, can’t even admit his own hypocrisy to himself. For Audrey, this is a problem—maybe the only problem—with Tom. For Nick, though, it’s the best part. Finding out that Tom comes from a family and a background not too different from any of theirs, that his dismissal of the upper class is probably even more personal and petty than it looks on the surface, is a gift. And the fact that, if Tom’s life had gone a little differently, they might have met him at one of these things years ago gives the way Nick doesn’t even have to work too hard to keep reeling Tom back into the group seem almost fated.
Nick likes knowing he already knows Tom’s worst. It’s right there on the surface, there’s no way for it to creep up from Tom’s nonexistent depths.
After Tom and Audrey break things off mid-way through Audrey’s first semester in France (a passive-aggressive, polite exchange of escalating frustrations over airfare for visits that went too far, Nick hears through the grape vine), Tom doesn’t write, doesn’t call, might have slipped out of their lives forever, if Nick was a little more opposed to stalking. Lucky for Tom, Nick isn’t.
The first time he drops by Tom’s mother’s apartment at the beginning of winter break, a year after they first met, Tom isn’t home yet. Nick is a little disconnected from the school calendar—he thinks he may have dropped out, but not if there are official steps one needs to follow to drop out. Mostly, he’s been skipping his own classes to audit graduate architecture lectures, doodling skyscrapers and fantasizing about blowing the bored-looking TA.
In any case, Tom’s mother promises not to spoil the surprise—sweet woman, Nick feels like he should send her a fruit-basket, or something. Bake her a pie, if he was capable of baking pies, which is a thought that feels uncomfortable and clunky in his brain, so he does his best to shove it out of his memory. He feels lucky she’s not home for his second attempt.
“Are we going to see you at all, this season?” Nick asks Tom, after Tom reluctantly lets himself be bullied into asking Nick inside.
While Tom’s not answering, Nick helps himself to a kitchen chair. Tom’s eyes are darting around the room, he’s almost disgustingly predictable in his weird, protective embarrassment.
Finally, “What, are you going to talk to me about how I’m going to permanently damage the psyche of a group of girls I’m pretty sure mostly aren’t even talking to you right now?”
“No, but that was a good one, wasn’t it?” Nick asks, a little stung.
“I just—I don’t know why you’re here,” Tom says, and it’s not a stammer, but there’s something fluttering about the way he talks, sometimes, like he wants to be able to delete the sentence he started saying and begin again fresh.
“Well, if it wasn’t for the girls’ sake, why do you think I insisted you stick around lat year?” Nick asks, lacing his hands behind his head, tilting the kitchen chair so it’s up on its back legs, looking up at Tom.
Tom, who’s still standing, stares back. “Well, do you do anything besides go to deb parties?” he asks, finally.
It’s not much, but it’s something, Nick thinks he can stretch an invitation out of that. Without thinking about it, he lets a smile twitch its way across his face. “I’m sure we could come up with something,” he tells Tom.