From time to time my boyfriend Douglas and I have dinner with his friend Paul and Paul’s girlfriend, Neve. Paul manages the estate of his late grandfather, a prominent American artist, and directs a foundation devoted to the conservation and marketing of his grandfather’s legacy. Paul is rich. Neve is gorgeous. She’s slender and tall with dark roots that show through her outgrown blonde highlights, trashy on anyone else but edgy on her. A former stylist, she’s always dressed in the latest trends — perfectly tailored white jeans, sheer blouses, lace-trimmed thigh-highs — that somehow look her own. Her skin stays tanned by their frequent trips to Hawaii, where she grew up.
We go with them to places we wouldn’t normally go, restaurants that distinguish Burgundy from Bordeaux glasses, with waiters who rush to fold your napkin into a tidy triangle when you get up for the restroom. Usually Paul and Neve have just come back from Iceland or Europe or Kona and they tell us about their latest adventures: chartering a helicopter to take Neve’s family sightseeing around the Hawaiian islands, learning about exotic spices at a souk in Oman, attending art auctions in Paris and biennales in Venice and Berlin. Lately, many of our conversations revolve around Neve’s pregnancy: what she can and cannot eat, their plans for an at-home birth, potential names for the child.
After some time, the focus will finally shift to Douglas and me. What have we been doing? Our stories about his teaching and my waitressing stints around the city somehow never seem as funny or interesting when we’re with this couple, and since both Douglas and I are private about our art and writing, we don’t offer much news on that front either. Fortunately, Paul and Neve rarely press for details. Still, art is the root of Douglas and Paul’s long friendship — they argue about why somebody made something at a certain time and Paul tries to advise Douglas to appear at more parties and be more visible in the art world.
During a dinner some months ago, Paul told us they’d spent several weeks hunting online for real estate in Hawaii.
“We found a nice house finally, just a couple of streets away from where her parents live. We pretended we’d rented it for our stay last month and drove Neve’s parents over to look at it. Then we gave them the keys and told them it was theirs,” Paul said, smiling and sitting back in his chair. “Her mother screamed.”
Through our stunned silence Neve quickly explained that her parents had never owned a house despite the fact that her father had worked in real estate for years.
“My father has never been good with saving money,” she said after a pause.
As Neve described her parents’ shock I felt the corners of my smile stiffen the tiniest bit. To suppress my envy I exclaimed over the extraordinariness of their gift. Douglas, to my left, stayed quiet. I thought of the uneasiness that pricked him when watching me leave for my shifts. “I wish you had more time to write,” he often said. I sensed his wish pick up ambition, grow in desperation. He wanted to give and do for me the same things Paul was able to do for Neve. I wanted to turn and whisper to him, blow softly on his anxiety until it evaporated. But I didn’t.
Paul and Neve have asked us on occasion to spend a weekend with them at his grandfather’s country house on the Hudson. I’d always been a little hesitant to accept, unsure if I could handle more than several hours of their company. How connected can I feel with people whose problems — such as exhaustively searching auctions for the perfect couch — are so vastly different from my own? Paul’s Tribeca penthouse cost more than some of the houses I grew up cleaning with my mother combined. Our mutual incapacity to access each other’s experiences is plain to me, and I can’t help but harden myself against them.
Like my boyfriend and me, Paul and Neve are separated by a substantial age gap — she’s twenty-eight and he’s forty-nine. The difference between Douglas and me — a non-negligible fifteen years — caused me some distress when we first began to date. That self-consciousness returns when I’m with Paul and Neve. Silently I say to Neve: your boyfriend is older than mine, your boyfriend has money, not mine. In this way, I absolve myself of the various implications of dating an older man.
After declining several previous invitations, we finally arrived in Rhinebeck on the Metro North during the Columbus Day weekend, where the couple met us with Paul’s husky, Ruby. Neve’s tight gray jeans showed off her long legs and they wore matching black Patagonia down jackets that she left unzipped for her domed belly. They’d just come from the Rinaldi Flea Market in Poughkeepsie and showed us their new wares: a 1920s metal fly swatter with a thin wooden handle that looked like it’d snap if touched and a cheese grater with rusty half-moon cutouts.
Before going to the house we stopped at an apple orchard and farm. Families in college sweatshirts and baseball caps milled around, filling paper satchels with apples and cooing to the white baby llama in its petting pen at the center of the market. The fresh air, combined with the scent of apple butter and damp earth, seemed to expand my chest, lifting my vertebrae away from each other in an exultant stretch. I thought how nice it would be to leave the city, to visit orchards every weekend. Douglas and I ate sugared doughnuts while watching Neve and Paul sort through crates of squash with long, geese-like necks and pumpkins covered with warts.
“Are those for eating?” I asked Neve.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Just decoration.”
That seemed to be the pattern in the day’s purchases. Back in the car, Ruby panted in great gasps and touched her cool nose to the backs of our necks.
As we drove up the property I saw several of Paul’s grandfather’s large freestanding sculptures with flat metal shapes fitted together outside on the lawns. As Paul began the tour of the house, I braced myself for extravagance but was surprised to learn that his grandfather’s place was kept almost completely the way it had been when he lived there some forty years ago. An old-fashioned meat grinder, can opener, and wine opener were clamped to the kitchen counter’s edge like vises. Ceramic pots with burned bottoms hung on hooks from the ceiling, and the faucet handles to the deep porcelain sink bloomed with rust. A lot of the kitchenware was crafted by Paul’s grandfather: a silver tray to keep olive-oil bottles, complete with a spigot for runoff oil, and different-sized ladles and spoons forged from steel with the artist’s signature spiral. I couldn’t help but wonder how valuable some of these things were.
The living room, connected to the kitchen by a door with a leather latch, held a dressmaker’s mannequin, lamps with silver conical steel shades shaped by Paul’s grandfather, industrial-looking fans whose blades we discovered upon closer inspection were made of thick leather, along with little oddities created by the artist like flat metal sheets for holding drinks fitted over the armrests of the couch. The bedroom we stayed in housed a small display of old shotguns, boxes of autographed books from the 1930s, and leather trunks with Paul’s grandfather’s name scrawled across them along with destinations like Aix-en-Provence and Paris.
After a snack, we headed out for a walk around the grounds. Paul told us that he’d just acquired a significant amount of neighboring land that he intended to cultivate for farming. A consultant had come by the previous day to check on the soil and strength of the land’s water sources.
“The river’s over there,” Paul said, pointing with one hand while shading his eyes from the sun with the other. “That’s where we’ll plant watercress. Lettuce, beets, tomatoes, squash — everything else will go in the fields.”
I asked if he and Neve would work the land and farm. They both laughed and shook their heads. Their reaction amused me — I watched them pick and eat dandelion greens and purslane from the trail while we walked. Was the possibility of them working on the farm they were creating so crazy?
“We don’t like to get dirty,” Paul answered.
“You’ll just have to find some anarchist hippies to farm the land for you then,” Douglas said. He smiled at me.
“That,” Paul said, “is an excellent idea.”
Douglas and I trailed behind them to take photos. The October sun warmed our backs as we trudged past piles of old brush. Except for the snapping of dry branches underneath our feet, it was quiet. We approached a six-foot-high metal gate with two closely set horizontal bars locked in place. We could hear Paul and Neve laughing up ahead but had no idea how they’d gotten over to the other side; the prospect of pregnant Neve hopping the gate was unlikely. I swung my left leg through the narrow opening in the middle and squeezed the rest of my body through. Douglas followed, his face turning red.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Just my nuts,” he wheezed. We doubled over laughing. After we’d calmed down, we caught up with the other two and picked out dull red garnets from the dusty road and rubbed them against our shirtsleeves until they glittered in the afternoon sunlight.
On a different route back to the house, Paul stopped to explain his plans for what seemed like each field, tree, rock wall. “One day we’ll own that ugly thing,” he pointed to his neighbor’s yellow clapboard in the distance. “We’ll tear it down for the land.”
As we trudged on, the question that always came to my mind when we spent time with Paul and Neve popped up again: What were we doing with them?