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Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together. Melissa took our photograph outside, with Bobbi smoking and me self-consciously holding my left wrist in my right hand, as if I was afraid the wrist was going to get away from me. Melissa used a big professional camera and kept lots of different lenses in a special camera pouch. She chatted and smoked while taking the pictures. She talked about our performance and we talked about her work, which we’d come across on the inter- net. Around midnight the bar closed. It was starting to rain then, and Melissa told us we were welcome to come back to her house for a drink.
We all got into the back of a taxi together and started fixing up our seat belts. Bobbi sat in the middle, with her head turned to speak to Melissa, so I could see the back of her neck and her little spoon-like ear. Melissa gave the driver an address in Monkstown and I turned to look out the window. A voice came on the radio to say the words: eighties . . . pop. . . classics. Then a jingle played. I felt excited, ready for the challenge of visiting a stranger’s home, already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming.
The house was a semi-detached red-brick, with a sycamore tree outside. Under the streetlight the leaves looked orange and artificial. I was a big fan of seeing the insides of other people’s houses, especially people who were slightly famous like Melissa. Right away I decided to remember everything about her home, so I could describe it to our other friends later and Bobbi could agree.
When Melissa let us in, a little red spaniel came racing up the hall and started barking at us. The hallway was warm and the lights were on. Next to the door was a low table where someone had left a stack of change, a hairbrush and an open tube of lipstick. There was a Modigliani print hanging over the staircase, a nude woman reclining. I thought: this is a whole house. A family could live here.
We have guests, Melissa called down the corridor.
No one appeared so we followed her into the kitchen. I remember seeing a dark wooden bowl filled with ripe fruit, and noticing the glass conservatory. Rich people, I thought. I was always thinking about rich people then. The dog had followed us to the kitchen and was snuffling around at our feet, but Melissa didn’t mention the dog so neither did we.
Wine? Melissa said. White or red?
She poured huge, bowl-sized glasses and we all sat around a low table. Melissa asked us how we’d started out performing spoken word poetry together. We had both just finished our third year of university at the time, but we’d been per- forming together since we were in school. Exams were over by then. It was late May.
Melissa had her camera on the table and occasionally lifted it to take a photograph, laughing self-deprecatingly about being a ‘work addict’. She lit a cigarette and tipped the ash into a kitschy-looking glass ashtray. The house didn’t smell of smoke at all and I wondered if she usually smoked in there or not.
I made some new friends, she said.
Her husband was in the kitchen doorway. He held up his hand to acknowledge us and the dog started yelping and whining and running around in circles.
This is Frances, said Melissa. And this is Bobbi. They’re poets.
He took a bottle of beer out of the fridge and opened it on the countertop.
Come and sit with us, Melissa said.
Yeah, I’d love to, he said, but I should try and get some sleep before this flight.
The dog jumped up on a kitchen chair near where he was standing and he reached out absently to touch its head. He asked Melissa if she had fed the dog, she said no. He lifted the dog into his arms and let the dog lick his neck and jaw. He said he would feed her, and he went back out the kitchen door again.
Nick’s filming tomorrow morning in Cardiff, said Melissa. We already knew that the husband was an actor. He and Melissa were frequently photographed together at events, and we had friends of friends who had met them. He had a big, handsome face, and looked like he could comfortably pick Melissa up under one arm and fend off interlopers with the other.
He’s very tall, Bobbi said.
Melissa smiled as if ‘tall’ was a euphemism for some- thing, but not necessarily something flattering. The conversation moved on. We got into a short discussion about the government and the Catholic Church. Melissa asked us if we were religious and we said no. She said she found religious occasions, like funerals or weddings, ‘comforting in a kind of sedative way’. They’re communal, she said. There’s something nice about that for the neurotic individualist. And I went to a convent school so I still know most of the prayers.
We went to a convent school, said Bobbi. It posed issues. Melissa grinned and said: like what?
Well, I’m gay, said Bobbi. And Frances is a communist.
I also don’t think I remember any of the prayers, I said. We sat there talking and drinking for a long time. I
remember that we talked about the poet Patricia Lockwood, who we admired, and also about what Bobbi disparagingly called ‘pay gap feminism’. I started to get tired and a little drunk. I couldn’t think of anything witty to say and it was hard to arrange my face in a way that would convey my sense of humour. I think I laughed and nodded a lot. Melissa told us she was working on a new book of essays. Bobbi had read her first one, but I hadn’t.
It’s not very good, Melissa told me. Wait till the next one comes out.
At about three o’clock, she showed us to the spare room and told us how great it was to meet us and how glad she was that we were staying. When we got into bed I stared up at the ceiling and felt very drunk. The room was spinning repetitively in short, consecutive spins. Once I adjusted my eyes to one rotation, another would begin immediately. I asked Bobbi if she was also having a problem with that but she said no.
She’s amazing, isn’t she? said Bobbi. Melissa. I like her, I said.
We could hear her voice in the corridor, and her footsteps taking her from room to room. Once when the dog barked we could hear her yell something, and then her husband’s voice. But after that we fell asleep. We didn’t hear him leave.
Bobbi and I had first met in secondary school. Back then Bobbi was very opinionated, and frequently spent time in detention for a behavioural offence our school called ‘disrupting teaching and learning’. When we were sixteen she got her nose pierced and took up smoking. Nobody liked her. She got temporarily suspended once for writing ‘fuck the patriarchy’ on the wall beside a plaster cast of the crucifixion. There was no feeling of solidarity around this incident. Bobbi was considered a show-off. Even I had to admit that teaching and learning went a lot more smoothly during the week she was gone.
When we were seventeen we had to attend a fundraising dance in the school assembly hall, with a partially broken disco ball casting lights on the ceiling and the barred-up windows. Bobbi wore a flimsy summer dress and looked like she hadn’t brushed her hair. She was radiantly attractive, which meant everyone had to work hard not to pay her any attention. I told her I liked her dress. She gave me some of the vodka she was drinking from a Coke bottle and asked if the rest of the school was locked up. We checked the door up to the back staircase and found it was open. All the
lights were off and no one else was up there. We could hear the music buzzing through the floorboards, like a ringtone belonging to someone else. Bobbi gave me some more of her vodka and asked me if I liked girls. It was very easy to act unfazed around her. I just said: sure.
I wasn’t betraying anyone’s loyalties by being Bobbi’s girlfriend. I didn’t have close friends and at lunchtime I read textbooks alone in the school library. I liked the other girls, I let them copy my homework, but I was lonely and felt unworthy of real friendship. I made lists of the things I had to improve about myself. After Bobbi and I started seeing each other, everything changed. No one asked for my home- work anymore. At lunchtime we walked along the car park holding hands and people looked away from us maliciously. It was fun, the first real fun I’d ever had.
After school we used to lie in her room listening to music and talking about why we liked each other. These were long and intense conversations, and felt so momentous to me that I secretly transcribed parts of them from memory in the evenings. When Bobbi talked about me it felt like seeing myself in a mirror for the first time. I also looked in actual mirrors more often. I started taking a close interest in my face and body, which I’d never done before. I asked Bobbi questions like: do I have long legs? Or short?
At our school graduation ceremony we performed a spoken word piece together. Some of the parents cried, but our classmates just looked out the assembly-room windows or talked quietly amongst themselves. Several months later, after more than a year together, Bobbi and I broke up.
Melissa wanted to write a profile about us. She sent us an email asking if we were interested, and attached some of the photographs she had taken outside the bar. Alone in my room, I downloaded one of the files and opened it up to full- screen. Bobbi looked back at me, mischievous, holding a cigarette in her right hand and pulling on her fur stole with the other. Beside her, I looked bored and interesting. I tried to imagine my name appearing in a profile piece, in a serif font with thick stems. I decided I would try harder to impress Melissa next time we met.
Bobbi called me almost immediately after the email arrived. Have you seen the photographs? she said. I think I’m in
love with her.
I held my phone in one hand and zoomed in on Bobbi’s face with the other. It was a high-quality image but I zoomed until I could see the pixellation.
Maybe you’re just in love with your own face, I said.
Just because I have a beautiful face doesn’t mean I’m a narcissist.
I let that one go. I was involved in the zooming process still. I knew that Melissa wrote for several big literary web- sites, and her work circulated widely online. She had written a famous essay about the Oscars which everyone reposted every year during awards season. Sometimes she also wrote local profiles, about artists who sold their work on Grafton Street or buskers in London; these were always accompanied by beautiful photographs of her subjects, looking human and full of ‘character’. I zoomed back out and tried to look at my own face as if I were a stranger on the internet seeing it for the first time. It looked round and white, the eyebrows like overturned parentheses, my eyes averted from the lens, almost shut. Even I could see I had character.
We emailed her back saying we’d be delighted, and she invited us over for dinner to talk about our work and get some additional photographs. Bobbi and I discussed at length what Bobbi would wear to this event, under the guise of talking about what we should both wear. I lay in my room watching her look at herself in the mirror, moving pieces of her hair back and forth critically.
So when you say you’re in love with Melissa, I said. I mean I have a crush on her.
You know she’s married.
You don’t think she likes me? said Bobbi.
She was holding up one of my white brushed-cotton shirts in front of the mirror.
What do you mean likes you? I said. Are we being serious or just joking?
I am partly being serious. I think she does like me. In an extramarital affair kind of way?
Bobbi just laughed at that. With other people I generally had a sense of what to take seriously and what not to, but with Bobbi it was impossible. She never seemed to be either fully serious or fully joking. As a result I had learned to adopt a kind of Zen acceptance of the weird things she said. I watched her take her blouse off and pull on the white shirt. She rolled up the sleeves carefully.
Good? she said. Or terrible? Good. It looks good.
It rained all day before we went for dinner at Melissa’s. I sat in bed in the morning writing poetry, hitting the return key whenever I wanted. Eventually I opened my blinds, read the news online and showered. My apartment had a door out into the courtyard of the building, which was lavish with greenery and featured a cherry blossom tree in the far corner. It was almost June now, but in April the blossoms were bright and silky like confetti. The couple next door had a little baby who cried sometimes at night. I liked living there.
Bobbi and I met in town that evening and got a bus to Monkstown. Finding our way back to the house felt like unwrapping something in a game of pass the parcel. I mentioned this to Bobbi on the way and she said: is it the prize, or just another layer of wrapping?
We’ll catch up on that after dinner, I said.
When we rang the bell, Melissa answered the door with her camera slung over one shoulder. She thanked us for coming. She had an expressive, conspiratorial smile, which I thought she probably gave to all of her subjects, as if to say: you’re no ordinary subject to me, you’re a special favourite. I knew I would enviously practise this smile later in a mirror. The spaniel yapped in the kitchen doorway while we hung up our jackets.
In the kitchen her husband was chopping vegetables. The dog was really excited by this gathering. It leapt onto a kitchen chair and barked for ten or twenty seconds before he told it to stop.
Can we get you both a glass of wine? Melissa said.
We said sure, and Nick poured the glasses. I had looked him up online since the first time we met him, partly because I didn’t know any other actors in real life. He had mainly worked in theatre, but also did some TV and film. He had once, several years previously, been nominated for a major award, which he didn’t win. I’d happened on a whole selection of shirtless photographs, most of which showed him looking younger, coming out of a swimming pool or showering on a TV show that had long ago been cancelled. I sent Bobbi a link to one of these photographs with the message: trophy husband.
Melissa didn’t appear in many photographs on the inter- net, though her collection of essays had generated a lot of publicity. I didn’t know how long she had been married to Nick. Neither of them was famous enough for that kind of information to be online.
So you guys write everything together? Melissa said.
Oh God, no, said Bobbi. Frances writes everything. I don’t even help.
That’s not true, I said. That’s not true, you do help. She’s just saying that.
Melissa cocked her head to the side and gave a kind of laugh.
Alright, so, which one of you is lying? she said.
I was lying. Except in the sense of enriching my life, Bob- bi didn’t help me write the poetry. As far as I knew she had never written creatively at all. She liked to perform dramatic monologues and sing anti-war ballads. Onstage she was the superior performer and I often glanced at her anxiously to remind myself what to do.
For dinner we had spaghetti in a thick white wine sauce, and lots of garlic bread. Mostly Nick stayed quiet while Melissa asked us questions. She made us all laugh a lot, but in the same way you might make someone eat something when they don’t fully want to eat it. I didn’t know if I liked this sort of cheery forcefulness, but it was obvious how much Bobbi was enjoying it. She was laughing even more than she really had to, I could tell.
Although I couldn’t specify why exactly, I felt certain that Melissa was less interested in our writing process now that she knew I wrote the material alone. I knew the subtle- ty of this change would be enough for Bobbi to deny it later, which irritated me as if it had already happened. I was starting to feel adrift from the whole setup, like the dynamic that had eventually revealed itself didn’t interest me, or even involve me. I could have tried harder to engage myself, but I probably resented having to make an effort to be noticed.
After dinner Nick cleared all the plates up and Melissa took photographs. Bobbi sat on the windowsill looking at a lit candle, laughing and making cute faces. I sat at the dinner table without moving, finishing my third glass of wine.
I love the window thing, Melissa said. Can we do a similar one, but in the conservatory?
The conservatory opened out from the kitchen through a pair of double doors. Bobbi followed Melissa, who shut the doors behind them. I could see Bobbi sit on the windowsill, laughing, but I couldn’t hear her laughter. Nick started to fill the sink with hot water. I told him again how good the food was and he looked up and said: oh, thanks.
Through the glass I watched Bobbi remove a dab of make- up from under her eye. Her wrists were slender and she had long, elegant hands. Sometimes when I was doing something dull, like walking home from work or hanging up laundry, I liked to imagine that I looked like Bobbi. She had better posture than I did, and a memorably beautiful face. The pretence was so real to me that when I accidentally caught sight of my reflection and saw my own appearance, I felt a strange, depersonalising shock. It was harder to do it now when Bobbi was sitting right in my eyeline, but I tried it anyway. I felt like saying something provocative and stupid.
I guess I’m kind of surplus to requirements, I said.
Nick looked out at the conservatory, where Bobbi was doing something with her hair.
Do you think Melissa’s playing favourites? he said. I’ll have a word with her if you want.
It’s okay. Bobbi is everyone’s favourite. Really? I warmed to you more, I have to say.
We looked at each other. I could see he was playing along with me so I smiled.
Yes, I felt we had a natural rapport, I said. I’m drawn to the poetic types.
Oh, well. I have a rich inner life, believe me.
He laughed when I said that. I knew I was being a little inappropriate, but I didn’t feel too badly about it. Outside in the conservatory Melissa had lit a cigarette and put her camera down on a glass coffee table. Bobbi was nodding at something intently.
I thought tonight was going to be a nightmare, but it was actually fine, he said.
He sat back down at the table with me. I liked his sudden candour. I was conscious that I had looked at shirtless photographs of him on the internet without him knowing, and in the moment I found this knowledge very amusing and almost wanted to tell him about it.
I’m not the most dinner party person either, I said. I think you were pretty good.
You were very good. You were great.
He smiled at me. I tried to remember everything he had said so I could play it over for Bobbi later on, but in my head it didn’t sound quite as funny.
The doors opened and Melissa came back in, carrying her camera in both hands. She took a photograph of us sitting at the table, Nick holding his glass in one hand, me staring into the lens vacantly. Then she sat down opposite us and looked at her camera screen. Bobbi came back and refilled her own wine glass without asking. She had a beatific expression on her face and I could see she was drunk. Nick watched her but didn’t say anything.
I suggested that we should head off in time for the last bus and Melissa promised to send on the photographs. Bob- bi’s smile dropped a little but it was too late to suggest we should stay any longer. We were already being handed our jackets. I felt giddy, and now that Bobbi had gone quiet, I kept laughing at nothing on my own.
We had a ten-minute walk to the bus stop. Bobbi was subdued at first, so I gathered she was upset or annoyed.
Did you have a good time? I said.
I’m worried about Melissa. You’re what?
I don’t think she’s happy, said Bobbi.
In what sense not happy? Was she talking to you about this?
I don’t think she and Nick are very happy together. Really? I said.
I didn’t point out that Bobbi had only met Melissa twice, though maybe I should have. Admittedly it didn’t seem like Nick and Melissa were crazy about each other. He had told me, apropos of nothing, that he’d expected a dinner party she’d arranged to be ‘a nightmare’.
I thought he was funny, I said. He hardly opened his mouth.
Yeah, he had a humorous silence about him.
Bobbi didn’t laugh. I dropped it. We hardly spoke on the bus, since I could see she wasn’t going to be interested in the effortless rapport I had established with Melissa’s trophy husband, and I couldn’t think of anything else to talk about.
When I got back to my apartment I felt drunker than I had been at the house. Bobbi had gone home and I was on my own. I turned all the lights on before I went to bed. Sometimes that was something I did.
Bobbi’s parents were going through an acrimonious breakup that summer. Bobbi’s mother Eleanor had always been emotionally fragile and given to long periods of unspecified illness, which made her father Jerry the favoured parent in the split. Bobbi always called them by their first names. This had probably originated as an act of rebellion, but now just seemed collegial, like their family was a small business they ran co-operatively. Bobbi’s sister Lydia was fourteen and didn’t seem to be handling the whole thing with Bobbi’s composure.
My parents had separated when I was twelve and my father had moved back to Ballina, where they’d met. I lived in Dublin with my mother until I finished school, and then she moved back to Ballina too. When college started I moved into an apartment in the Liberties belonging to my father’s brother. During term time, he let out the second bedroom to another student, and I had to keep quiet in the evenings and say hi politely when I saw my roommate in the kitchen. But in the summer when the roommate went home, I was allowed to live there all on my own and make coffee whenever I wanted and leave books splayed open on all the surfaces.
I had an internship in a literary agency at the time. There was one other intern, called Philip, who I knew from college. Our job was to read stacks of manuscripts and write one- page reports on their literary value. The value was almost always nil. Sometimes Philip would sardonically read bad sentences aloud to me, which made me laugh, but we didn’t do that in front of the adults who worked there. We worked three days a week and were both paid ‘a stipend’ which meant we basically weren’t paid at all. All I needed was food and Philip lived at home, so it didn’t matter much to us.
This is how privilege gets perpetuated, Philip told me in the office one day. Rich assholes like us taking unpaid internships and getting jobs off the back of them.
Speak for yourself, I said. I’m never going to get a job.
Excerpted from "Conversations with Friends"
Copyright © 2018 Sally Rooney.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
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