The first time she met him was at this party out on Long Island. She'd just broken up with Hugh and was staying with Ann till she got over it. Ann had thrown a party that weekend, hoping (she claimed) to cheer her up. He was there. He had just published his second book, the reviews were in all the papers (Michiko Kakutani had called it "the most vividly realistic work of the year"), and everyone was congratulating him. There was a buzz about him that day, a kind of glamour, a force both centripetal and centrifugal that drew people towards him even as it radiated out from his presence. She caught him looking at her and returned his stare. Their eyes met. Eventually, it was she who looked away.
Afterwards he found her sitting on the steps and struck up a conversation. Found out that she lived in Manhattan. Found out that she wasn't seeing anyone. Wanted to know if, maybe, he could take her out for a drink sometime. She told him she was likely to be away for a couple of weeks (a lie - she was going back to work on Monday) but would call him. He gave her his number, scribbled on the back of a card that gave his profession simply as 'Writer'.
The next day she went out to Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy of his book.
The book overwhelmed her. She'd never read anything so raw, so intense. There was a starkness to his writing, an air of naked violence, that thrilled her even as it made her queasy. All that misogyny, all that desperate alcoholism, all the bleary-eyed rough-jawed cynicism. And all of it rendered in incredibly authentic sounding first person. It was hard to reconcile the image of this narrator with the man she'd met at the party. How could he write like this, she wondered, unable to put the book down.
"How can you write like this?", the interviewer on TV asked. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled that half mischevious, half bemused smile of his. "It's just fiction", he said, "you make it up as you go along." She watched the interview till the end, noting the easy way he sat in the chair, the lucid confidence with which he answered the questions put to him. When the credits for the interview started to roll, she switched the television off.
The next evening she called him and asked if he wanted to meet up for a drink.
He lived in a one bedroom apartment in a brownstone on the upper West Side. He'd just moved in there, he told her, having tired of the Village. He'd used the advance from his third novel to decorate the place. She loved what he'd done with it. The black leather couch, the sleek bookshelves lining every available wall surface. The bed.
At first she was intimidated by the idea of them dating. After all, he was a celebrity. People recognised him in restaurants, asked for his autograph in book stores. It was surreal to wake up next to him and then find his face staring back at you from the morning paper. But he never seemed to be affected by all the fame. "I'm a writer", he told her, "it's not about the money or the recognition - it's about the words, the ones that are dammed up inside you, waiting to get out." He took the usual precautions to keep a low profile - the outsized dark glasses, the long raincoat with the collar turned up so no one would recognise him - but whenever a celebrity engagement proved inevitable he accepted it with good grace, smiling his way through it, but getting out as fast as he could.
They had some good times together. They went on a long road trip across the country (he loved to travel, was thinking about writing a travel book), then flew to Paris so he could take her on what he jokingly called the 'Hemingway tour'. She was a little concerned that all this might be keeping him from writing, but he told her that he needed a couple of months to recharge before he could start a new novel anyway. He told her she was just what he needed to get back into shape. He spent a week calling her his 'muse'. She laughed at this, but secretly she was kind of flattered.
When they finally announced their decision to get married, her parents were thrilled. It was the first time there had been a celebrity in the family, and besides, her father loved his books. The wedding itself was, inevitably, a gala affair. The press was there, along with the who's who of the New York publishing world, plus a scattered handful of writers - people whose books she'd read but had never dreamed of meeting in person. It was like she was stepping into a whole new world.
It was after they got back from their honeymoon in Mexico that the drinking started. At first she thought that it might have to do with the wedding. Was he just letting off steam? Clearing his mind of the anxieties of the wedding so he could go back to his book? Or was it something she was doing wrong? Had she done something to displease him, anger him?
But after a week of listening to him come home a little past midnight, staggering drunk, and then having him lock himself away in his study for the rest of the night, the dull rattle of the typewriter audible till a little after dawn when he would emerge just as she was getting ready to go to work and collapse on their marriage bed fully dressed, his breath smelling of alcohol and vomit - she began to realise that what she was witnessing was a routine, a habit. This was the way he wrote.
As the days passed his drinking got worse. He was hardly ever sober now - only when an important social occassion came around would he clean up his act. At these times he was still the man she loved: charming, suave, witty, the magnet of attention wherever he went. But as soon as they got home he would head for the liquor cabinet, and an hour later he would be reeling drunk again. In desperation she tried scheduling more and more social engagements, hoping to sober him up that way, but soon he started refusing to go to them, making up all sorts of excuses that embarassed her, made her look foolish. So she stopped trying to force him to go out.
The first time he hit her, she was too shocked to cry. Things like this simply did not happen - not in her circles, not among her friends. Not in real life. This was absurd. She felt like she was living with a monster.
What was going on? Could he be having some kind of breakdown? A creative crisis of some sort? But no, his book seemed to be going well. She'd sneaked into his study one day while he was asleep (he'd threatened to beat her black and blue if he found her 'monkeying around' in there) and there were already some 200 pages of manuscript. She just couldn't understand it. She kept telling herself it was temporary, that things would go back to normal, that she just needed to last it out. After all, he was a genius, and all geniuses are a little mad. She just had to be supportive. For both their sakes.
Meanwhile the media attention never flagged. She was part of it now, standing there beside him with a blank smile on her face, playing the part of the meek and loving wife. Her face radiant in the black and white photographs (he was always careful to hit her where it wouldn't show). Watching him charm the reporters who came to visit, watching the ease with which he put on the mask of normalcy, it began to dawn on her that this was a man with an incredible capacity for manipulation. He was a convincing actor, a brilliant liar, and he had a kind of instinctive cunning that helped him hone in on the one fact, the one giveaway detail, that would make all of the rest ring true.
Three months of living through hell and she couldn't bear it any more. One day she broke into his studio, screaming. "You lied to me", she shouted, "You made me believe you were this decent, dependable guy I would be happy with. And it turns out that you're a violent drunk who hates everyone but himself and only needs other people so he can have someone to bite into. All the things you promised me, all the things you said to me or did for me - all lies."
He laughed. "Not lies, my dear," he said, "fiction. I told you I was interested in fiction. You assumed that I was talking about my books. Whereas in fact every word in those books is the absolute truth. It's the other things - this apartment, this lifestyle, the profiles in the press, the persona I wear at parties, you - these are fiction. My life's work. You have to admit it's incredibly realistic. Think about it. What better way to create fiction than to live it? Remember the old days when the great novels were serialised and published in newspapers? That's what the newspapers are doing with my masterpiece now, even though they don't realise it. What they're publishing as fact in all these articles about me is actually fiction, a figment of my imagination from start to finish. Millions of millions of people are waking up in the morning to read my greatest novel, and they don't even know it. Meanwhile the stuff that the book publishers are printing as fiction is actually autobiography - the true story of my life. Hilarious, isn't it? And now, if you'll excuse me, I have my memoirs to get back to." And he laughed and turned back to his typewriter.