The Second Act by Sara Lippmann

          We are here for Lenny. She has chosen Raskolnikov’s night club in Brighton Beach spanning the length of five T-shirt kiosks on the boardwalk with its truck-wide fish tank and overpriced prix-fixe; she has reserved the long banquet atop the carpeted dais in the back, which offers the best view of the stage. Even though it’s been twenty years since Lenny was Ben’s first assistant, and fifteen since the three of us worked together, ten since we’ve all moved on, the advertising industry no longer what it was, she has remained our social anchor. Earlier in the year Lenny had a scare, breast cancer. She is not yet 40 but she is already a survivor.

          The table is arranged boy-girl, as is Lenny’s way. As if this will spice up the night. In addition to Ben and me, Lenny has invited her five core couples. Plus Lenny equals thirteen. We know each other by name, address and occupation; we aren’t friends independently, even though Lenny always brings us together and our lives, over time, have adopted a similar trajectory, certainly a more traditional path than our designated single friend. Kirk the banker from Tribeca removes a candelabra centerpiece that is obstructing his view. His wife, Kate (interiors), lifts the cloth napkin fanned on her place setting and blankets her lap. Large gray speakers hang in corners above our heads, relieving the need for conversation. Ben sits diagonally from me in between Ali and Ray of Long Island, his knees squared and elbows out like he’s the king of something.

          It is late but the hot Russian girls are just getting started. I can forget about home. Bodyguards man the gilded doors of the ornate catering hall; walls wrapped in red brocade pierced with heavy, iron sconces. House lights dim. Spot lights beam down from on high, directing the gaze of the room forward, as if it needed refocusing, as if this is not what Lenny and the rest of us have all been waiting for: music, the show.

          The girls are full of promises. They would walk five thousand miles. They would walk five hundred more. In tap pants and camouflage caps they pump their arms and march in place like extras in a war movie.

          Are they lip-syncing or are they for real? I shout.

          No one answers. Ben doesn’t even glance in my direction, busy as he is smiling, lock-eyed like everyone else. We drink vodka from water glasses.

          This morning I told Ben I was leaving.

          Who is he? Ben said, his voice calm, almost curious.

          What do you mean?

          You’re not the type to jump without a safety net.

          What type am I? I said. I had just returned from Tommy’s funeral. Two hours on the train, an hour on the subway. I dropped my bag in the hall.

          Female, he said. He flipped the style pages. Fact: Men are impulsive, women more calculating.

          True – I hadn’t planned to blurt it all right then, but as the leftover pulp clung to his juice glass, I couldn’t pretend to sit and read the newspaper for another weekend either. It sort of fell out of me, how teen moms describe birthing babies in school bathrooms.

          Come off it, I said. Who else would there be?

          Ben looked up.

          You’re tired, he said.

          I’m leaving, I said again, even though perhaps that was a technicality.

          Go lie down, he said. We have Lenny’s thing tonight.

          Bow-tied waiters approach. Hair black and slick, they carry trays like trophies, make a big show of lifting the domed lids off the hors d’oeuvres, shiny covers that look unmistakably like breasts right down to the silver nipple bulbs. The table eyes Lenny nervously. She is wearing a beret the color of ash. Her hair has started to grow in around the sides, sparse wild tufts. Her facial features, always outsized in relation to her delicate frame, horse teeth and luge-like cheekbones, seem that much more exaggerated. She is too thin, her eyes bulge, as if she is surprised to find herself here, but she does not even blink at the food. Instead she twirls her ankles, bony arches in her feet struggling to keep on her chunky platform shoes. She nods to the beat.

          Don’t you just love them? Lenny says, which is our cue to pipe up, we love them, these girls, what’s not to love (Adam, commercial real estate, Gramercy) we love Lenny and her fighting spirit, we gush, we go around the table, is there anyone spunkier, more alive than her, our spiritual light being (Rayna, wellness coach) we talk over each other lavishing praise on Lenny, our arbiter of fun (Todd, I’m guessing, lawyer), our voices running together until I barely recognize my own in the din agreeing that if it weren’t for her we’d be having another night of Dixie cups and Twister with our kids.

          How did you find this place? Someone asks – Ali maybe – but Lenny just shrugs and goes on tapping and nodding, as if it’s our problem we can’t see what’s right in front of us.

          Tommy Ross’s overdose was no surprise. It had been writing on the wall since high school – and yet, for all the times I had pictured his death, what shook me when the call came was the realization that I hadn’t thought of him for a while. I was on my knees mopping up crumbs, errant strands of spaghetti. I asked my son, Jack, to get the phone, assuming it would be the city health surveyors who make the rounds at dinner time (How often in the last month have you felt hopeless? All of the time, most of the time, some of the time, none of the time.) Who else used the land line? Jack picked up but did not understand. To him, I am old. To him, this was normal. People died. My mother had died, my father, dying. Jack passed the receiver to Grace who looked at the clunky cordless like it had four heads before handing it off to me, to hear Tommy’s brother, Joe, saying – It’s Tommy – which is all it took. I was back on the floor burying my face in a dish towel, Ben steering the kids to the TV.

          Their parents found him in the attic, Joe said, where Tommy had been living, on and off between jobs and halfway houses and road trips. No one was suggesting an autopsy. There were tourniquets and syringes, a bouquet of spoons.

          The hot Russian girls change costumes as if they can’t make up their minds. They are Robert Palmer girls, Chorus Liners; they kick from the right in ruffled bell skirts and wiggle from the left in mermaid fins then slink off in gypsy scarves dripping with little coins. I can’t tell if they are the same girls, able to transform in a flash for each number, or whether behind the burgundy velvet curtain lies a lazy Susan dispensing an endless supply of this leggy, Amazonian species.

          Yesterday was the funeral. I went alone. Ben offered to come, but what for? To sigh over how tired a story it was, to condemn my dull town, to remind me of how much better I turned out than Tommy?

          Raskolnikov’s is all-you-can-eat and I am starving. When menus circulated an hour ago, Brian (I forget what or where) said: Who do they think we are, royalty? To which Lenny said, what good is money when you’re dead, which is funny, because she is not even paying. She never pays. At the table I pile caviar high with pearly spoons disregarding the prescribed order of blini, egg, and cream. My mouth is full of salty Pop Rocks but I wait for Becky the gallery owner to make the analogy, no one thinks anything’s trashy coming from her. I lick my fingers and repeat. Dry ice rises from the floor, curls around the entertainment. Hot Russian Girls, the subject line of countless spam, sing my childhood standards: 99 Luft Balloons. Video Killed the Radio Star. What’s Love Got to Do with It?

          I was in the 9th grade. Tommy was in 10th and all the girls his age were interested in seniors leaving slim pickings, I guess. Tommy had Reese’s breath and squinty eyes because he was always high, except for when he was tripping. In gym class once he was sent to the nurse when he couldn’t make a catch in tether ball, to rule out a brain tumor. Why should that be a memory? It was a stoner high school, skateboards and flannel shirts, Tommy hardly unique, but for a minute and a half he loved me, loose Lucy is my delight, five fingers in the slope of my neck, his thumb pad callused over from his lighter.

          While we eat we open our phones and pass around our children. It has become automatic: to swipe through dance shows and piano recitals. To say how much everyone has grown, as if any of us has ever seen each other’s kids outside of two dimensions. Lenny stalls on us for a second, our bodies huddled over screens as if trying to build a fire, and then turns away, indifferent to the parental obsession of documenting every moment in our children’s lives. Here they are dribbling watermelon, here they are shadow boxing. Aren’t they irresistible when they’re asleep?

          Let’s dance, Lenny says, pushing back from her chair. Who’s with me? The table rattles but she is tiny, water and air. She is the only one not eating; who hasn’t taken a bite but chases down vodka like it’s going somewhere. Ben is the first to rise. I feel their history in my face but it fades quickly. Ben and I are beyond that. We are the kind of people that fight at weddings and happy occasions. He extends his hand and I take it, smooth as stone, and the others follow, leaving behind a spoil of forks and knives.

          Isn’t it a bit much? Ben said when I packed for Philly: mourner’s dress, black chiffon, heels of patent leather. To go full Jackie O? The guy’s already dead. Besides, I mean, you hardly knew him – Timmy, Tommy – which only made it worse, because Ben was right.

          We are the only Americans at Raskolnikov’s. This becomes apparent on the dance floor. If anyone in the group has Russian blood it dates back to the Pogroms, information we’d keep to ourselves, anyway. We wear jeans and black tops. The Russians are decked out like it’s their prom, satin gowns with sweetheart lines, studs and spikes, cake flowers on their heels. Men wear gold necklaces and shirts with pinstripes, their stomachs ballooned over their belts. Women move around them like Cha Cha DiGregorio, their hair scooped to one side with a comb.

          Lenny shouts: Isn’t it out of this world?

          I look up. House staff and busboys lean over the second floor balcony trimmed in tassels and braid. That Styx song is playing, Mr. Roboto, so now the girls vamp as if battery packs line their dresses of aluminum foil, something my daughter Lila might make for her dolls. When we first got together Tommy got suspended for coming to homeroom on Halloween dressed like a human condom. I was a cheerleader in my mother’s varsity sweater. It was supposed to be ironic, but her dented megaphone charm looked more like a thimble. While he stayed home zoned on C-Span I went through his locker, threw out ratty pencils and cups rank with dip spit, collected assignments from the few teachers who still bothered with him.

          The club is packed. We dance step/touch for space reasons, to still look coupled while watching the show. It is hot and loud. Everyone in Lenny’s party seems awkward, as if paired up at random, except for JoAnn and Steve who live and paint in Greenpoint and grind like they are really into each other. Husbands gaze past their wives with that glassy, half-boner look, only Ben’s jaw, long square and cleft, is more pronounced, as if he is a dehydrated caveman. Close your mouth! I want to holler. But I understand. The girls are like Saks Fifth Avenue displays on Christmas, reminders of what lies out of reach.

          At intermission I peel off and duck down to the bathroom. The stairs are sprayed gold and the line is long and full of people smoking, not the odorless electronic devices that blink a blue light, that look so dumb they defeat the purpose but that Lenny says have replaced one-hitters because now you can smoke anything you want right out in the open. Cipriani’s, even. The lounge stinks from thirty years of menthols, Virginia Slims, cigarillos the color of paper bags. Women sit on mauve settees like Odalisques, puffing away and speaking Russian, their mothers, friends and daughters beside them, dabbing foreheads, tugging at nylons. When I walk in they turn. They smile at me. They speak with urgency, a frankness in tone that extends past pleasantries. Even the attendant holding out towels: Pozhaluysta, spasibo, pozhaluysta. Not that I understand a word.
I shut myself into a stall.

          Tommy and I broke up because I messed around with his brother. Isn’t that how it goes? Someone is always cheating. Joe was home from Lehigh and a bunch of us were playing quarters in the attic when Tommy came back from the store with a bag of sour cream and onion to me slutting it up on the sofa. I don’t remember if it was a dare or what, I was eager to please and Tommy knew it, so he threw a sloppy punch Joe’s way, missing completely, his plaid boxer shorts kind of bloused above his jeans. Joe then beat the crap out of him while I sat and watched until Tommy got pickled and weepy, and Joe lost interest. Chill, bro, she’s yours. Only I wasn’t. After that, Tommy and I still hung out and made bootlegs and scored the other rides, we had a pact to do senior week together if neither of us had a better option but that never panned out. He graduated, I went to college while he stayed home and got a girl pregnant and sold dime bags on high school grounds. We lost touch. I’d heard he became a parole officer briefly although that seemed far-fetched. It’s not like you can change people, but just because people do what they are going to do doesn’t lessen the blow of it any.

          Maybe I should have posted the funeral on Facebook as Joe suggested. More people would have shown up, bodies for seats, not that it’d make a difference to Tommy even if he weren’t dead. Then again, how do I know what would’ve mattered to him? In my mind Tommy is forever 17. His daughter came, a college freshman. A couple of burnouts from shop class, a woman in a CVS vest I’d never seen before, a van of boomer hippies he’d bummed around with one summer before Jerry Garcia died. Joe was now a doctor, a chiropractor, and he lived in Georgia with his wife and four kids. His parents looked old, like Tommy had worn them down over the years, but they hobbled right over and took me in their trembling limbs as if I had really been someone. Thank you for coming, they said. Were you a friend of his?

          The hot Russian girls clatter into the bathroom. Up close they look like an ‘80s hairband: blond manes kinked and frosted to tinsel, blue shadow on lids, red circles stamping cheeks. Maybe that’s a cheap comparison but it’s never stopped anyone from trading in icons. The girls fill out the mirrors and fix their faces; they rub tinted lotion vigorously on large, muscular thighs. I come up to their boobs but when they see my mascara spidery, they make room for me at the sinks, they stop gluing lashes and start pulling tissues from boxes like magic tricks. They say, Honey. You’re a sight. Never let him catch you like this.

          When I return Ben is at the bar beside a giant melting ice sculpture.

          Where have you been?

          Bathroom, I say.

          Why didn’t you tell me? I thought you’d run out. Charged into the surf at Coney Island, gone for a moonlight swim, hell, I thought maybe you’d been gagged, bound and thrown in the trunk of a Town Car, left once and for all, on the arm of some new Russian boyfriend –

          There is an abandoned coaster next to his. I order myself a drink.

          Is everything a joke? I say.

          I’m serious, he says.

          Don’t be, I tell him, but feel sick, like I’d just stepped off the Cyclone. I steady myself against the flocked wall.

          Ben studies me like I don’t know what. It’s depressing. I do my best to weigh things. I picture a set of scales and brass grams like the kind from earth science class, the sway and thud of burnished alloy, one by one, the balance. How much would it take for us?

          Where are the others? I say.

          In their seats, he says. Come on. Dinner is served.

          Smoked sturgeon and grilled tongue and lamp chops and salmon mousse. There is enough here to feed a small country, Brian says, looking like he might throw up. Ali says she hasn’t witnessed such a smorgasbord since her niece’s bat-mitzvah. No one is hungry anymore but that’s not an option. We eat, drink, and eat. Lenny tells a story about the anesthesiologist who asked for her number and Ben laughs too loud. I match his enthusiasm, even though neither of us visited her in the hospital as much as we should have. We lift our glasses. To Lenny! After all you’ve been through – we haven’t a clue – to come through the other end! We refill our glasses and drink, we are boisterous and slurry, stuffed and drunk, compelled as we are to finish everything, to get what we paid for, but it is late, we look at our watches, past one in the morning (we calculate sitter fees) and the longer we sit we turn sluggish, our clothes meld to our skin, our hearts, if they ever were, are no longer in it. Lenny’s eyes well up but they are happy tears, she insists, I am so lucky to have you and you are all so blessed to have found each other.

          But the night is not yet over. Here come the show girls down the floor-lit aisles into the audience, rallying us back to our feet. The second act is about to begin. Fishnets and leather bustiers, the girls crack whips and give orders: Up, up, up. Their lips are wet red like the half-sucked candies Tommy and I’d deposit in ashtrays on the deli counter next to the smeary remains of our cheese fries. The deli, the arcade, the lot on the hill – these are the places we used to go, which may have been no place special, but then please tell me what on earth is.
Everyone in Lenny’s party gets up to dance.

          Let’s do it, Ben says, snapping his fingers.

          I ask Lenny if she wants to sit out. Don’t push yourself, I say. What do you have to prove? She looks pale, bone white, and something else, too, but refuses. I wonder if she’s really in remission. Before Lenny’s surgery, before her mother moved into her studio loft to take care of her during treatment, Lenny called to ask if I would be her emergency contact. What I said, because I’m the worst person there is: Don’t you have anybody else?

          Call it déjà vu: Raskolnikov’s is once again pulsing, dense with the fog of cologne. This time the entire room swells around Lenny, clapping, hooting like she is a bride in the center of her own wedding hora. A hairy-knuckled Russian reaches for a chair, but Becky nixes the lift as poor taste. So instead we unite in chanting, Lenny, Lenny, as if she is the last one at bat in a tied game. As if this time she might really knock it out of the park.

          From the cemetery, I got a ride to the station from Kelly Padrone, a swimmer Tommy got to know in rehab, new implants and car seats in the back. As I sat and she drove, her car, a white mini Cooper – basically, today’s Cabriolet – from the church along the sharp turns of Flat Rock Road, she said, It’s a miracle he’d made it this long, that we haven’t had to bury anyone else from our class. I said, What about Rick What’s His Name who jumped the tracks? And she groaned, What a loser. We passed a new condo development at the entrance to the highway, identical stucco townhomes lined with plastic play yards and she went on about who lived where and how much they cost, then said, I’m sure that’s nothing next to New York City.

          The girls – I can’t tell what they are now – St. Basils Cathedral? Large painted cupolas burden their heads and shoulders, only the effect is neither elegant nor grand but drama club clumsy. On stage their performance suffers; the heft of the plaster throws their waltz out of sync. They stumble like drunks, as if their DIY structures might break off and crumble.

          Nights like this always contain the possibility. We lose track of ourselves.
For example, Ben grabs Lenny and dips her. Her eyelids flutter, like she might pass out. He pulls her in, gazing deep, lowers his chin in resuscitation, as if to say –
But it is an honest mistake.

          The last time I saw Tommy he’d shown up at my door. Few years after college, in the city, where I was working at the office in midtown with Ben and Lenny, etc. Like a stray cat I took Tommy in and fed him and let him sleep on my futon but that was it, the heat rose off his chest as he held me too tight, because that was Tommy, he gave hugs like he meant them, only now they felt suffocating and desperate. I ditched him for happy hour, snuck out to the gym, sweating and pumping for Ben, my mind set on a grown man with a future. Before he went home Tommy took me to an Afghan cafe on the west side. He wanted to thank me for putting him up so he ordered pumpkin and curry. It was post 9/11. The restaurant was empty except for the two of us, but Tommy spoke so low I could barely hear him. He did not call me by name. Once upon a time he thought I was different, but, no, he said. He’d been wrong.

          Which goes without saying: I’m going nowhere. Where would I even dream? On the drive home tonight, tomorrow morning, perhaps, I will invoke Tommy, and Ben will welcome grief as my excuse for this empty rebellion. We all have moments of not thinking clearly. He will say: I forgive you, my sweet pain in the ass. It’s not that we have a bad marriage. Who doesn’t forget what is good? Ben will say: Life is long, for what it’s worth. The small stuff will only make you crazy. At this, I will break down and cry.

          Suddenly, the ceiling slides open. Metal winks through a pit in the roof, shine of spool, chains. The girls are doing the Top Gun theme song but it’s as if the music’s on the wrong speed, their voices stretched slow and syrupy. A crank kicks in, the sound of a windup toy. Everyone looks up. It is not a cage but a swing, innocent and open, a simple, wooden plank on links, the kind a child might ride, neck back, hair grazing the sand. The device drops into the middle of the club floor. A hot Russian girl steps off the stage clouded by dry ice, leaden and cold, like a shovel that cuts through the earth. Lenny pushes through the crowd. As if the whole stunt has been planned, they climb on board together. Pump their legs. Click heels. Blow us a kiss.
Sara Lippmann is the recipient of a 2012 Fiction Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Her work has appeared in The Good Men Project, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Slice Magazine, Valparaiso Fiction Review, PANK, Joyland, Big Muddy, Potomac Review and elsewhere. For more, visit