The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  Charles went into the kitchen and began to open and shut cabinets. Camilla made me a drink from a bottle of Irish whiskey which stood on top of a pile of National Geographics.

  “Have you been to the La Brea tar pits?” she said, matter of fact.

  “No.” Helplessly perplexed, I gazed at my drink.

  “Imagine that. Charles,” she said, into the kitchen, “he lives in California and he’s never been to the La Brea tar pits.”

  Charles emerged in the doorway, wiping his hands on a dish-towel. “Really?” he said, with childlike astonishment. “Why not?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “But they’re so interesting. Really, just think of it.”

  “Do you know many people here from California?” said Camilla.

  “No.”

  “You know Judy Poovey.”

  I was startled: how did she know that? “She’s not my friend,” I said.

  “Nor mine,” she said. “Last year she threw a drink in my face.”

  “I heard about that,” I said, laughing, but she didn’t smile. “Don’t believe everything you hear,” she said, and took another sip of her drink. “Do you know who Cloke Rayburn is?”

  I knew of him. There was a tight, fashionable clique of Californians at Hampden, mostly from San Francisco and L.A.; Cloke Rayburn was at its center, all bored smiles and sleepy eyes and cigarettes. The girls from Los Angeles, Judy Poovey included, were fanatically devoted to him. He was the sort you saw in the men’s room at parties, doing coke on the edge of the sink.

  “He’s a friend of Bunny’s.”

  “How’s that?” I said, surprised.

  “They were at prep school together. At Saint Jerome’s in Pennsylvania.”

  “You know Hampden,” said Charles, taking a large gulp of his drink. “These progressive schools, they love the problem student, the underdog. Cloke came in from some college in Colorado after his first year. He went skiing every day and failed every class. Hampden’s the last place on earth—”

  “For the worst people in the world,” said Camilla, laughing.

  “Oh, come now,” I said.

  “Well, in a way, I think it’s true,” said Charles. “Half the people here are here because nowhere else would let them in. Not that Hampden’s not a wonderful school. Maybe that’s why it’s wonderful. Take Henry, for instance. If Hampden hadn’t let him in, he probably wouldn’t have been able to go to college at all.”

  “I can’t believe that,” I said.

  “Well, it does sound absurd, but he never went past tenth grade in high school and, I mean, how many decent colleges are likely to take a tenth-grade dropout? Then there’s the business of standardized tests. Henry refused to take the SATs—he’d probably score off the charts if he did, but he’s got some kind of aesthetic objection to them. You can imagine how that looks to an admissions board.” He took another sip of his drink. “So, how did you end up here?”

  The expression in his eyes was hard to read. “I liked the catalogue,” I said.

  “And to the admissions board I’m sure that seemed a perfectly sensible reason for letting you in.”

  I wished I had a glass of water. The room was hot and my throat was dry and the whiskey had left a terrible taste in my mouth, not that it was bad whiskey; it was actually quite good, but I had a hangover and I hadn’t eaten all day, and I felt, all at once, very nauseous.

  There was a knock at the door and then a flurry of knocks. Without a word, Charles drained his drink and ducked back into the kitchen while Camilla went to answer it.

  Before it was even open all the way I could see the glint of little round glasses. There was a chorus of hellos, and there they were: Henry; Bunny, with a brown paper bag from the supermarket; Francis, majestic in his long black coat, clutching, with a black-gloved hand, the neck of a bottle of champagne. The last inside, he leaned to kiss Camilla—not on the cheek, but on the mouth, with a loud and satisfied smack. “Hello, dear,” he said. “What a happy mistake we have made. I’ve got champagne, and Bunny brought stout, so we can make black and tans. What have we got to eat tonight?”

  I stood up.

  For a fraction of a second they were struck silent. Then Bunny shoved his paper bag at Henry and stepped forward to shake my hand. “Well, well. If it isn’t my partner in crime,” he said. “Haven’t had enough of going out to dinner, eh?”

  He slapped me on the back and started to babble. I felt hot, and rather sick. My eyes wandered around the room. Francis was talking to Camilla. Henry, by the door, gave me a small nod and a smile, nearly imperceptible.

  “Excuse me,” I said to Bunny. “I’ll be back in just a minute.”

  I found my way to the kitchen. It was like a kitchen in an old person’s house, with shabby red linoleum and—in keeping with this odd apartment—a door that led onto the roof. I filled a glass from the tap and bolted it, a case of too much, too quickly. Charles had the oven open and was poking at some lamb chops with a fork.

  I—due largely to a rather harrowing tour my sixth-grade class took through a meat-packing plant—have never been much of a meat eater; the smell of lamb I would not have found appealing in the best of circumstances, but it was particularly repulsive in my current state. The door to the roof was propped open with a kitchen chair, a draft blowing through the rusty screen. I filled my glass again and went to stand by the door: deep breaths, I thought, fresh air, that’s the ticket … Charles burned his finger, cursed, and slammed the oven shut. When he turned around he seemed surprised to find me.

  “Oh, hi,” he said. “What is it? Can I get you another drink?”

  “No, thanks.”

  He peered at my glass. “What’ve you got? Is that gin? Where did you dig that up?”

  Henry appeared in the door. “Do you have an aspirin?” he said to Charles.

  “Over there. Have a drink, why don’t you.”

  Henry shook a few aspirin into his hand, along with a couple of mystery pills from his pocket, and washed them down with the glass of whiskey Charles gave him.

  He had left the aspirin bottle on the counter and surreptitiously I went over and got a couple for myself, but Henry saw me do it. “Are you ill?” he said, not unkindly.

  “No, just a headache,” I said.

  “You don’t have them often, I hope?”

  “What?” said Charles. “Is everybody sick?”

  “Why is everybody in here?” Bunny’s pained voice came booming from the hallway. “When do we eat?”

  “Hold on, Bun, it’ll only be a minute.”

  He sauntered in, peering over Charles’s shoulder at the tray of chops he’d just removed from the broiler. “Looks done to me,” he said, and he reached over and picked up a tiny chop by the bone end and began to gnaw on it.

  “Bunny, don’t, really,” said Charles. “There won’t be enough to go around.”

  “I’m starving,” said Bunny with his mouth full. “Weak from hunger.”

  “Maybe we can save the bones for you to chew on,” Henry said rudely.

  “Oh, shut up.”

  “Really, Bun, I wish you would wait just a minute,” said Charles.

  “Okay,” Bunny said, but he reached over and stole another chop when Charles’s back was turned. A thin trickle of pinkish juice trickled down his hand and disappeared into the cuff of his sleeve.

  To say that the dinner went badly would be an exaggeration, but it didn’t go all that well, either. Though I didn’t do anything stupid, exactly, or say anything that I shouldn’t, I felt dejected and bilious, and I talked little and ate even less. Much of the talk centered around events to which I was not privy, and even Charles’s kind parenthetical remarks of explanation did not help much to clarify it. Henry and Francis argued interminably about how far apart the soldiers in a Roman legion had stood: shoulder to shoulder (as Francis said) or (as Henry maintained) three or four feet apart. This led into an even longer argument—hard to follow and, to me, intensely boring—about wheth
er Hesiod’s primordial Chaos was simply empty space or chaos in the modern sense of the word. Camilla put on a Josephine Baker record; Bunny ate my lamb chop.

  I left early. Both Francis and Henry offered to drive me home, which for some reason made me feel even worse. I told them I’d rather walk, thanks, and backed out of the apartment, smiling, practically delirious, my face burning under the collective gaze of cool, curious solicitude.

  It wasn’t far to school, only fifteen minutes, but it was getting cold and my head hurt and the whole evening had left me with a keen sense of inadequacy and failure which grew keener with every step. I moved relentlessly over the evening, back and forth, straining to remember exact words, telling inflections, any subtle insults or kindnesses I might’ve missed, and my mind—quite willingly—supplied various distortions.

  When I got to my room it was silver and alien with moonlight, the window still open and the Parmenides open on the desk where I had left it; a half-drunk coffee from the snack bar stood beside it, cold in its styrofoam cup. The room was chilly but I didn’t shut the window. Instead, I lay down on my bed, without taking off my shoes, without turning on the light.

  As I lay on my side, staring at a pool of white moonlight on the wooden floor, a gust of wind blew the curtains out, long and pale as ghosts. As though an invisible hand were leafing through them, the pages of the Parmenides rippled back and forth.

  I had meant to sleep only a few hours, but I woke with a start the next morning to find sunlight pouring in and the clock reading five of nine. Without stopping to shave or comb my hair or even change my clothes from the night before, I grabbed my Greek Prose composition book and my Liddell and Scott and ran to Julian’s office.

  Except for Julian, who always made a point of arriving a few minutes late, everyone was there. From the hall I heard them talking, but when I opened the door they all fell quiet and looked at me.

  No one said anything for a moment. Then Henry said: “Good morning.”

  “Good morning,” I said. In the clear northern light they all looked fresh, well rested, startled at my appearance; they stared at me as I ran a self-conscious hand though my disheveled hair.

  “Looks like you didn’t meet up with a razor this morning, chap,” said Bunny to me. “Looks like—”

  Then the door opened and Julian walked in.

  There was a great deal to do in class that day, especially for me, being so far behind; on Tuesdays and Thursdays it might be pleasant to sit around and talk about literature, or philosophy, but the rest of the week was taken up in Greek grammar and prose composition and that, for the most part, was brutal, bludgeoning labor, labor that I—being older now, and a little less hardy—would scarcely be able to force myself to do today. I had certainly plenty to worry about besides the coldness which apparently had infected my classmates once again, their crisp air of solidarity, the cool way their eyes seemed to look right through me. There had been an opening in their ranks, but now it was closed; I was back, it seemed, exactly where I’d begun.

  That afternoon, I went to see Julian on the pretext of talking about credit transfers, but with something very different on my mind. For it seemed, quite suddenly, that my decision to drop everything for Greek had been a rash and foolish one, and made for all the wrong reasons. What had I been thinking of? I liked Greek, and I liked Julian, but I wasn’t sure if I liked his pupils and anyway, did I really want to spend my college career and subsequently my life looking at pictures of broken kouroi and poring over the Greek particles? Two years before, I had made a similar heedless decision which had plummeted me into a nightmarish, year-long round of chloroformed rabbits and day trips to the morgue, from which I had barely escaped at all. This was by no means as bad (with a shudder I remembered my old zoology lab, eight in the morning, the bobbing vats of fetal pigs), by no means—I told myself—as bad as that. But still it seemed like a big mistake, and it was too late in the term to pick up my old classes or change counselors again.

  I suppose I’d gone to see Julian in order to revive my flagging assurance, in hopes he would make me feel as certain as I had that first day. And I am fairly sure he would have done just that if only I had made it in to see him. But as it happened, I didn’t get to talk to him at all. Stepping onto the landing outside his office, I heard voices in the hall and stopped.

  It was Julian and Henry. Neither of them had heard me come up the stairs. Henry was leaving; Julian was standing in the open door. His brow was furrowed and he looked very somber, as if he were saying something of the gravest importance. Making the vain, or rather paranoid, assumption that they might be talking about me, I took a step closer and peered as far as I could risk around the corner.

  Julian finished speaking. He looked away for a moment, then bit his lower lip and looked up at Henry.

  Then Henry spoke. His words were low but deliberate and distinct. “Should I do what is necessary?”

  To my surprise, Julian took both Henry’s hands in his own. “You should only, ever, do what is necessary,” he said.

  What, I thought, the hell is going on? I stood at the top of the stairs, trying not to make a sound, wanting to leave before they saw me but afraid to move.

  To my utter, utter surprise Henry leaned over and gave Julian a quick little businesslike kiss on the cheek. Then he turned to leave, but fortunately for me he looked over his shoulder to say one last thing; I crept down the stairs as quietly as I could, breaking into a run when I was at the second landing and out of earshot.

  The week that followed was a solitary and surreal one. The leaves were changing; it rained a good deal and got dark early; in Monmouth House people gathered around the downstairs fireplace, burning logs stolen by stealth of night from the faculty house, and drank warm cider in their stocking feet. But I went straight to my classes and straight back to Monmouth and up the stairs to my room, bypassing all these homey firelit scenes and hardly speaking to a soul, even to the chummier sorts who invited me down to join in all this communal dorm fun.

  I suppose I was only a little depressed, now the novelty of it had worn off, at the wildly alien character of the place in which I found myself: a strange land with strange customs and peoples and unpredictable weathers. I thought I was sick, though I don’t believe I really was; I was just cold all the time and unable to sleep, sometimes no more than an hour or two a night.

  Nothing is lonelier or more disorienting than insomnia. I spent the nights reading Greek until four in the morning, until my eyes burned and my head swam, until the only light burning in Monmouth House was my own. When I could no longer concentrate on Greek and the alphabet began to transmute itself into incoherent triangles and pitchforks, I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favorite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humorless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.

  “I’m a survivor,” the girl at the party was saying to me. She was blond and tan and too tall—almost my height—and without even asking I knew she was from California. I suppose it was something in her voice, something about the expanse of reddened, freckled skin, stretched taut over a bony clavicle and a bonier sternum and ribcage and entirely unrelieved by breasts of any sort—which presented itself to me through the lacuna of a Gaultier corselet. It was Gaultier, I knew, because she’d sort of casually let that slip. To my eyes it looked only like a wet suit, laced crudely up the front.

  She was shouting at me over the music. “I guess I’ve had a pretty hard life, with my injury and all” (I had heard about this previously; loose tendons; dance world’s loss; performance-art’s gain) “but I guess I just have a very strong sense of myself, of my own needs. Other people are important to me, sure, but I always get what I want from them, you know.” Her voice was brusque with the staccato Californians sometimes affect when they’re trying too hard to be from New York, but there was a bright hard e
dge of that Golden State cheeriness, too. A Cheerleader of the Damned. She was the kind of pretty, burnt-out, vacuous girl who at home wouldn’t have given me the time of day. But now I realized she was trying to pick me up. I hadn’t slept with anybody in Vermont except a little red-haired girl I met at a party on the first weekend. Somebody told me later she was a paper-mill heiress from the Midwest. Now I cut my eyes away whenever we met. (The gentleman’s way out, as my classmates used to joke.)

  “Do you want a cigarette?” I shouted at this one.

  “I don’t smoke.”

  “I don’t, either, except at parties.”

  She laughed. “Well, sure, give me one,” she yelled in my ear. “You don’t know where we can find any pot, do you?”

  While I was lighting the cigarette for her, someone elbowed me in the back and I lurched forward. The music was insanely loud and people were dancing and there was beer puddled on the floor and a rowdy mob at the bar. I couldn’t see much but a Dantesque mass of bodies on the dance floor and a cloud of smoke hovering near the ceiling, but I could see, where light from the corridor spilled into the darkness, an upturned glass here, a wide lipsticked laughing mouth there. As parties go, this was a nasty one and getting worse—already certain of the freshmen had begun to throw up as they waited in dismal lines for the bathroom—but it was Friday and I’d spent all week reading and I didn’t care. I knew none of my fellow Greek students would be there. Having been to every Friday night party since school began, I knew they avoided them like the Black Death.

  “Thanks,” said the girl. She had edged into a stairwell, where things were a little quieter. Now it was possible to talk without shouting but I’d had about six vodka tonics and I couldn’t think of a thing to say to her, I couldn’t even remember her name.

  “Uh, what’s your major,” I said drunkenly at last.

  She smiled. “Performance art. You asked me that already.”

 
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