The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  I had; in fact I’d seen him at my first Friday-night party. He was tremendous, well over two hundred pounds, with scars on his hands and steel toe-clips on his motorcycle boots.

  “Well, anyway, so Spike comes up and sees these people abusing me, and he shoves the twin on the shoulder and tells him to beat it, and before I knew it, the two of them had jumped on him. People were trying to pull that Henry off, too—lots of them, and they couldn’t do it. Six guys couldn’t pull him off. Broke Spike’s collarbone and two of his ribs, and fucked up his face pretty bad. I told Spike he should’ve called the cops, but he was in some kind of trouble himself and wasn’t supposed to be on campus. It was a bad scene, though.” She let her hair fall back around her face. “I mean, Spike is tough. And mean. You’d think he’d be able to beat the shit out of both those sissy guys in suits and ties and stuff.”

  “Hmm,” I said, trying not to laugh. It was funny to think of Henry, with his little round glasses and his books in Pali, breaking Spike Romney’s collarbone.

  “It’s weird,” said Judy. “I guess when uptight people like that get mad, they get really mad. Like my father.”

  “Yeah, I guess so,” I said, looking back into the mirror and adjusting the knot on my tie.

  “Have a good time,” she said listlessly, and started out the door. Then she stopped. “Say, aren’t you going to get hot in that jacket?”

  “Only good one I have.”

  “You want to try on this one I’ve got?”

  I turned and looked at her. She was a major in Costume Design and as such had all kinds of peculiar clothing in her room. “Is it yours?” I said.

  “I stole it from the wardrobe at the Costume shop. I was going to cut it up and make, like, a bustier out of it.”

  Great, I thought, but I went along with her anyway.

  The jacket, unexpectedly, was wonderful—old Brooks Brothers, unlined silk, ivory with stripes of peacock green—a little loose, but it fit all right. “Judy,” I said, looking at my cuffs. “This is wonderful. You sure you don’t mind?”

  “You can have it,” said Judy. “I don’t have time to do anything with it. I’m too busy sewing those dammed costumes for fucking As You Like It. It goes up in three weeks and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve got all these freshmen working for me this term that don’t know a sewing machine from a hole in the ground.”

  “By the way, love that jacket, old man,” Bunny said to me as we were getting out of the taxi. “Silk, isn’t it?”

  “Yes. It was my grandfather’s.”

  Bunny pinched a piece of the rich, yellowy cloth near the cuff and rubbed it back and forth between his fingers. “Lovely piece,” he said importantly. “Not quite the thing for this time of year, though.”

  “No?” I said.

  “Naw. This is the East Coast, boy. I know they’re pretty laissez-faire about dress in your neck of the woods, but back here they don’t let you run around in your bathing suit all year long. Blacks and blues, that’s the ticket, blacks and blues.… Here, let me get that door for you. You know, I think you’ll like this place. Not exactly the Polo Lounge, but for Vermont it’s not too bad, do you think?”

  It was a tiny, beautiful restaurant with white tablecloths and bay windows opening onto a cottage garden—hedges and trellised roses, nasturtiums bordering the flagstone path. The customers were mostly middle-aged and prosperous: ruddy country-lawyer types, who, according to the Vermont fashion, wore gumshoes with their Hickey-Freeman suits; ladies with frosted lipstick and challis skirts, nice looking in a kind of well-tanned, low-key way. A couple glanced up at us as we came in, and I was well aware of the impression we were making—two handsome college boys, rich fathers and not a worry in the world. Though the ladies were mostly old enough to be my mother, one or two were actually quite attractive. Nice work if you could get it, I thought, imagining some youngish matron with a big house and nothing to do and a husband out of town on business all the time. Good dinners, some pocket money, maybe even something really big, like a car …

  A waiter sidled up. “You have a reservation?”

  “Corcoran party,” said Bunny, hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels. “Where’s Caspar keeping himself today?”

  “On vacation. He’ll be back in two weeks.”

  “Well, good for him,” said Bunny heartily.

  “I’ll tell him you asked for him.”

  “Do that, wouldja?”

  “Caspar’s a super guy,” Bunny said as we followed the waiter to the table. “Maître d’. Big old fellow with moustaches, Austrian or something. And not—” he lowered his voice to a loud whisper—“not a fag, either, if you can believe that. Queers love to work in restaurants, have you ever noticed that? I mean, every single fag—”

  I saw the back of our waiter’s neck stiffen slightly.

  “—I have ever known has been obsessed with food. I wonder, why is that? Something psychological? It seems to me that—”

  I put a finger to my lips and nodded at the waiter’s back, just as he turned and gave us an unspeakably evil look.

  “Is this table all right, gentlemen?” he said.

  “Sure,” said Bunny, beaming.

  The waiter presented our menus with affected, sarcastic delicacy and stalked off. I sat down and opened the wine list, my face burning. Bunny, settling in his chair, took a sip of water and looked around happily. “This is a great place,” he said.

  “It’s nice.”

  “But not the Polo.” He rested an elbow on the table and raked the hair back from his eyes. “Do you go there often? The Polo, I mean.”

  “Not much.” I’d never even heard of it, which was perhaps understandable as it was about four hundred miles from where I lived.

  “Seems like the kinda place you’d go with your father,” said Bunny pensively. “For man-to-man talks and stuff. My dad’s like that about the Oak Bar at the Plaza. He took me and my brothers there to buy us our first drink when we turned eighteen.”

  I am an only child; people’s siblings interest me. “Brothers?” I said. “How many?”

  “Four. Teddy, Hugh, Patrick and Brady.” He laughed. “It was terrible when Dad took me because I’m the baby, and it was such a big thing, and he was all ‘Here, son, have your first drink’ and ‘Won’t be long before you’re sitting in my place’ and ‘Probably I’ll be dead soon’ and all that kind of junk. And the whole time there I was scared stiff. About a month before, my buddy Cloke and I had come up from Saint Jerome’s for the day to work on a history project at the library, and we’d run up a huge bill at the Oak Bar and slipped off without paying. You know, boyish spirits, but there I was again, with my dad.”

  “Did they recognize you?”

  “Yep,” he said grimly. “Knew they would. But they were pretty decent about it. Didn’t say anything, just tacked the old bill onto my dad’s.”

  I tried to picture the scene: the drunken old father, in a three-piece suit, swishing his Scotch or whatever it was he drank around in the glass. And Bunny. He looked a little soft but it was the softness of muscle gone to flesh. A big boy, the sort who played football in high school. And the sort of son every father secretly wants: big and good-natured and not awfully bright, fond of sports, gifted at backslapping and corny jokes. “Did he notice?” I said. “Your dad?”

  “Naw. He was three sheets to the wind. If I’d of been the bartender at the Oak Room he wouldn’t have noticed.”

  The waiter was heading towards us again.

  “Look, here comes Twinkletoes,” said Bunny, busying himself with the menu. “Know what you want to eat?”

  “What’s in that, anyway?” I asked Bunny, leaning to look at the drink the waiter had brought him. It was the size of a small fishbowl, bright coral, with colored straws and paper parasols and bits of fruit sticking out of it at frenetic angles.

  Bunny pulled out one of the parasols and licked the end of it. “Lots of stuff. Rum, cranberry juice, coconut milk,
triple sec, peach brandy, creme de menthe, I don’t know what all. Taste it, it’s good.”

  “No thanks.”


  “That’s okay.”


  “No thank you, I don’t want any,” I said.

  “First time I ever had one of these was when I was in Jamaica, two summers ago,” said Bunny reminiscently. “Bartender named Sam cooked it up for me. ‘Drink three of these, son,’ he said, ‘and you won’t be able to find the door’ and bless me, I couldn’t. Ever been to Jamaica?”

  “Not recently, no.”

  “Probably you’re used to palm trees and coconuts and all that sort of thing, in California and all. I thought it was wonderful. Bought a pink bathing suit with flowers on it and everything. Tried to get Henry to come down there with me but he said there was no culture, which I don’t think is true, they did have some kind of a little museum or something.”

  “You get along with Henry?”

  “Oh, sure thing,” said Bunny, reared back in his chair. “We were roommates. Freshman year.”

  “And you like him?”

  “Certainly, certainly. He’s a hard fellow to live with, though. Hates noise, hates company, hates a mess. None of this bringing your date back to the room to listen to a couple Art Pepper records, if you know what I’m trying to get at.”

  “I think he’s sort of rude.”

  Bunny shrugged. “That’s his way. See, his mind doesn’t work the same way yours and mine do. He’s always up in the clouds with Plato or something. Works too hard, takes himself too seriously, studying Sanskrit and Coptic and those other nutty languages. Henry, I tell him, if you’re going to waste your time learning something besides Greek—that and the King’s English are all I think a man needs, personally—why don’t you buy yourself some Berlitz records and brush up on your French. Find a little can-can girl or something. Voolay-voo coushay avec moi and all that.”

  “How many languages does he know?”

  “I lost count. Seven or eight. He can read hieroglyphics.”


  Bunny shook his head fondly. “He’s a genius, that boy. He could be a translator for the UN if he wanted to be.”

  “Where’s he from?”


  He said this in such a deadpan way I thought he was joking, and I laughed.

  Bunny raised an amused eyebrow. “What? You thought he was from Buckingham Palace or something?”

  I shrugged, still laughing. Henry was so peculiar, it was hard to imagine him being from anyplace.

  “Yep,” said Bunny. “The Show-Me State. St. Louis boy like old Tom Eliot. Father’s some kind of a construction tycoon—and not quite above board, either, so my cousins in St. Lou tell me. Not that Henry will give you the slightest clue what his dad does. Acts like he doesn’t know and certainly doesn’t care.”

  “Have you been to his house?”

  “Are you kidding? He’s so secretive, you’d think it was the Manhattan Project or something. But I met his mother one time. Kind of by accident. She stopped in Hampden to see him on her way to New York and I bumped into her wandering around downstairs in Monmouth asking people if they knew where his room was.”

  “What was she like?”

  “Pretty lady. Dark hair and blue eyes like Henry, mink coat, too much lipstick and stuff if you ask me. Awfully young. Henry’s her only chick and she adores him.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Family’s got money like you wouldn’t believe. Millions and millions. Course it’s about as new as it comes, but a buck’s a buck, know what I mean?” He winked. “By the way. Meant to ask. How does your pop earn his filthy lucre?”

  “Oil,” I said. It was partly true.

  Bunny’s mouth fell open in a little round o. “You have oil wells?”

  “Well, we have one,” I said modestly.

  “But it’s a good one?”

  “So they tell me.”

  “Boy,” said Bunny, shaking his head. “The Golden West.”

  “It’s been good to us,” I said.

  “Geez,” Bunny said. “My dad’s just a lousy old bank president.”

  I felt it necessary to change the subject, however awkwardly, as we were heading here towards treacherous waters. “If Henry’s from St. Louis,” I said, “how did he get to be so smart?”

  This was an innocuous question but, unexpectedly, Bunny winced. “Henry had a bad accident when he was a little boy,” he said. “Got hit by a car or something and nearly died. He was out of school for a couple years, had tutors and stuff, but for a long time he couldn’t do much but lie in bed and read. I guess he was one of those kids who can read at college level when they’re about two years old.”

  “Hit by a car?”

  “I think that’s what it was. Can’t think what else it could’ve been. He doesn’t like to talk about it.” He lowered his voice. “Know the way he parts his hair, so it falls over the right eye? That’s because there’s a scar there. Almost lost the eye, can’t see out of it too good. And the stiff way he walks, sort of a limp. Not that it matters, he’s strong as an ox. I don’t know what he did, lift weights or what, but he certainly built himself back up again. A regular Teddy Roosevelt, overcoming obstacles and all. You got to admire him for it.” He brushed his hair back again and motioned to the waiter for another drink. “I mean, you take somebody like Francis. You ask me, he’s as smart as Henry. Society boy, tons of money. He’s had it too easy, though. He’s lazy. Likes to play. Won’t do a thing after school but drink like a fish and go to parties. Now Henry.” He raised an eyebrow. “Couldn’t beat him away from Greek with a stick—Ah, thank you, there, sir,” he said to the waiter, who was holding out another of the coral-colored drinks at arm’s length. “You want another?”

  “I’m fine.”

  “Go ahead, old man. On me.”

  “Another martini, I guess,” I said to the waiter, who had already turned away. He turned to glare at me.

  “Thanks,” I said weakly, looking away from his lingering, hateful smile until I was sure he had gone.

  “You know, there’s nothing I hate like I hate an officious fag,” said Bunny pleasantly. “You ask me, I think they ought to round them all up and burn them at the stake.”

  I’ve known men who run down homosexuality because they are uncomfortable with it, perhaps harbor inclinations in that area; and I’ve known men who run down homosexuality and mean it. At first I had placed Bunny in the first category. His glad-handing, varsity chumminess was totally alien and therefore suspect; then, too, he studied the classics, which are certainly harmless enough but which still provoke the raised eyebrow in some circles. (“You want to know what Classics are?” said a drunk Dean of Admissions to me at a faculty party a couple of years ago. “I’ll tell you what Classics are. Wars and homos.” A sententious and vulgar statement, certainly, but like many such gnomic vulgarities, it also contains a tiny splinter of truth.)

  The more I listened to Bunny, however, the more apparent it became that there was no affected laughter, no anxiety to please. Instead, there was the blithe unselfconciousness of some crotchety old Veteran of Foreign Wars—married for years, father of multitudes—who finds the topic infinitely repugnant and amusing.

  “But your friend Francis?” I said.

  I was being snide, I suppose, or maybe I just wanted to see how he would wriggle out of that one. Though Francis might or might not have been homosexual—and could just as easily have been a really dangerous type of ladies’ man—he was certainly of that vulpine, well-dressed, unflappable sort who, to someone with Bunny’s alleged nose for such things, would rouse a certain suspicion.

  Bunny raised an eyebrow. “That’s nonsense,” he said curtly. “Who told you that?”

  “Nobody. Just Judy Poovey,” I said, when I saw he wasn’t going to take nobody for an answer.

  “Well, I can see why she’d say it but nowadays everybody’s gay this and gay that. There’s stil
l such a thing as an old-fashioned mama’s boy. All Francis needs is a girlfriend.” He squinted at me through the tiny, crazed glasses. “And what about you?” he said, a trifle belligerently.


  “You a single man? Got some little cheerleader waiting back home for you at Hollywood High?”

  “Well, no,” I said. I didn’t feel like explaining my own girlfriend problems, not to him. It was only quite recently that I had managed to extricate myself from a long, claustrophobic relationship with a girl in California whom we will call Kathy. I met her my first year of college, and was initially attracted to her because she seemed an intelligent, brooding malcontent like myself; but after about a month, during which time she’d firmly glued herself to me, I began to realize, with some little horror, that she was nothing more than a lowbrow, pop-psychology version of Sylvia Plath. It lasted forever, like some weepy and endless made-for-TV movie—all the clinging, all the complaints, all the parking-lot confessions of “inadequacy” and “poor self-image,” all those banal sorrows. She was one of the main reasons I was in such an agony to leave home; she was also one of the reasons I was so wary of the bright, apparently innocuous flock of new girls I had met my first weeks of school.

  The thought of her had turned me somber. Bunny leaned across the table.

  “Is it true,” he said, “that the gals are prettier in California?”

  I started laughing, so hard I thought my drink was going to blow out my nose.

  “Bathing beauties?” He winked. “Beach Blanket Bingo?”

  “You bet.”

  He was pleased. Like some jolly old dog of an uncle, he leaned across the table even further and began to tell me about his own girlfriend, whose name was Marion. “I know you’ve seen her,” he said. “Just a little thing. Blond, blue-eyed, about so high?”

  Actually, this rang a bell. I had seen Bunny in the post office, in the first week of school, talking rather officiously to a girl of this description.

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