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Sport 35: Winter 2007

Sarah Laing — Notes on Etiquette

page 156

Sarah Laing

Notes on Etiquette


Janice cleans her nails with her silver hairclip. They are gritty from when she plunged her forefinger and thumb into the window-box of ranunculus to extract a half-smoked cigarette. She had buried it when she heard her buzzer ring last night, and as Peter had climbed the ninety-three steps to her apartment she had executed a dance of the seven veils to shoo away the smell of smoke. She had been so pleased with herself for going without cigarettes for a four-martini date that she had thrown the rest of her Marlboro Lights into the bin outside the corner deli.

'You coulda just handed them to me,' called the local homeless guy after her swing of straight brown hair. 'Saved my arm from this filthy trash.'

Janice balls up the grit and flicks it onto the floorboards. She slides the clip back into her hair and looks at herself in the mirror. She knows she isn't really this way—that her sucked-in cheeks and cocked eyebrows slacken as soon as she turns away—but this arrangement is more pleasing, more Garbo. She wonders how Peter first saw her. Whether he found her striking or odd. Toby, her ex-boyfriend, told her she looked like a horse, that blue blood meant inbred. He swiped her father's ring off her bureau, saying she wouldn't miss it—she had too much. But she does miss it. Like she misses her father. By the time she got hold of Toby's new cell number, calling from a phone box so he couldn't ID her and refuse to answer, he had already pawned it and spent the money on a rare R. Crumb comic.

Janice lights the cigarette. It tastes earthy, but she hasn't watered her window-box in a while, so it isn't damp. She wonders whether Peter is going to call her today. She doesn't think so; she knows the three-days-post-date phone rule. But still, they had so much to say page 157to each other, poised like lemon slices on the rims of their barstools, scalloping each other's sentences. She wants to talk again. He works in Wall Street, but really he's a filmmaker, and that appeals to her. But although she likes her men a little artsy, a little indie, they're usually the ones who need her money. Peter bought the drinks last night, and even though he didn't accompany her home, she was sure that there was something between them, that he must have a no-sex-on-the-first-date policy even if she doesn't. Damn, why won't he call?


'Swing the golfclub a little more. Put your whole body into it,' says Peter.

Janice adjusts her scarf (Hermes, her mother's), straightens her skirt, which has twisted along with her swing, and lifts the golfclub again. She pulls in her stomach and smiles at the camera. She knows it's only digital but she feels celluloid. 'Point of etiquette, number two,' she elocutes. 'Quiet. Golf requires a lot of concentration, so don't go chattering across the green. Imagine you're in a library, and the little flags are the librarians with their fingers pressed to their lips. When you're drinking cocktails after the game, that's when you can gossip about Miss Hunter's recent engagement, or Mr Eagleton's new polo horse. Compose your anecdotes for later, and watch this.' The club cracks the dimpled ball into an arc. Janice shields her eyes from the sun and follows its descent into the creek. 'Fuck,' she says.

'Cut!' says Peter. 'That's great. You were hot. I think we got it that time.' He folds up the camera and zippers it into his bag. He pulls Janice towards him and slides his cool hand under her shirt. He puts his other hand down the waistband of her skirt (which has yet again twisted, the zipper running down her belly) and runs his finger around the elastic of her underpants.

'What, here?' says Janice.

'Why not?'

Janice watches as another ball charts the contour of the hill, hits the grass and trickles into the hole. 'Maybe we should go to your place instead.'

'Oh, no. My place is kinda messy. All my equipment and shit.'

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'I still haven't seen your place. When are you going to invite me over?'

They are interrupted by the roar of a golfcart carrying a fat white-haired man and a thin white-haired woman. 'Is that a hole in one?' Janice hears the man say. 'I say it is. Look, Sherry, a hole in one!'

'My, aren't you clever,' says Sherry. She pats the white-haired dog in her Louis Vuitton tote bag. And then the moment is gone.


As Janice zips up the pink dress she thinks of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Somehow this is making her feel like a whore. Is Peter parodying her, with his oh-so-righteous, Irish-Catholic, I-grew-up-in-the-Bronx stoop? She majored in Irony, sarcasm intersecting cigarette drags in the coffee shop after literature class. Surely she should have some input. The dress he's picked out is nipped in at the waist and has a full skirt, a sweetheart neckline and little capped sleeves. Her jeans and T-shirt have collapsed on the dressing-room velvet stool.

'That's perfect. You look the part. But we need some gloves. White ones.' Peter turns to the shop assistant, and her mascara-laden eyelashes radiate precisely. They don't clump like Janice's. Alone in front of the mirror she picks off a glob and, not knowing where else to put it, she applies it to the inside of her handbag.

'I'm sorry, sir. Why don't you try the glove counter at Saks?'

'Great idea.' Peter takes a sash of hair and wraps it around Janice's forehead. 'What do you think, a little more Hepburn?'

'Absolutely,' says the assistant. 'Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of my favourite movies.' She winks at Peter, and Janice briefly gets the impression that the assistant has been through all this before.

Janice slumps on the stool in her underwear, her flesh pleating her torso. She's thinking of the time her mother did this to her. Yanked her down from the tree where she was climbing, her shorts peach-stained, her feet tough from bark and gravel. Took her to the department store and dressed her in white, with a lilac ribbon, for the garden party. How she picked her scab in the changing room and bled on the dress, and her mother was angry at having to buy the stained garment. Rita, the maid, plunged the garment into cold water the minute they got page 159home. The rusty blood dispersed. That didn't spare Janice from the slap on her thigh, the supper she refused in the nursery. She regretted the stand at 4 a.m., and sneaked down the stairs for cookies. When she opened the pantry door there was Rita, sitting on the flour bin, sobbing. She started at the sight of Janice, her elbows flew out and knocked cereal packets off the shelf.

'Your father's gone,' she said, a confetti of rice bubbles at her feet.

'Where?' asked Janice.

'I don't know where. Ask your mother.' She pulled the pantry door shut between them. Janice crouched down and ate the rice bubbles off the floor.

She never wore that white dress, but it haunted her closet. She remembers her mother railing at Rita for not putting plastic baggies around the tags when she washed it so that she couldn't return it. Rita quit after that, and Janice was left to answer the door to guests who hadn't heard that the garden party was off. They spent the rest of the summer alone in the big house, first eating the chicken, the potato salad, the cakes and slices that had been prepared the day before, then moving on to scrambled eggs and beans out of cans. The ring was the only thing Janice managed to keep of her father's, and she put it on a chain around her neck, under her T-shirts so her mother wouldn't see. Rather than packing his clothes in the trunk, they had a bonfire before they returned to the city. Her mother toasted marshmallows over his burning shirts and pants, but Janice refused to eat them. To her they tasted like charred flesh.

'That damn Rita,' her mother said. 'I wish we never hired her, the slut. It was your father who insisted. He wanted a harem, but she wasn't enough for him. Oh god, what did I do to deserve this?'

Janice drew her legs up to her chest and shivered, even though the flames were hot.

'Are you done yet?' calls Peter from the other side. Janice passes the pink dress through the curtain. She sits on the stool until she thinks she can hear the squiggle of his fountain pen on the receipt, then she pulls on her grey and blue faded clothes and follows the pink dress out. 'Why, thank you,' she says as Peter hands her the bag. It is wrapped in mint-green tissue. It rustles.

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'To Saks?' asks Peter. 'Or should we stop in for a drink first?'

'A drink would be good.' She fumbles in her bag for a cigarette.

'Do you have to smoke on the street?' says Peter. 'You really should give up.'

She shrugs and returns the cigarette to its pack. He's so uptight about rules that don't even belong to him.


'Point of etiquette number four.' Janice lifts her martini to the camera. 'Don't spend your evening at the buffet table. Who wants to talk to a girl with her mouth full of shrimp? Mingling is the name of the game.' She stretches out her hand. 'How do you do? Handshakes must be firm and dry. Smile, but discreetly check your teeth first to make sure you don't have cracker crumbs stuck in them. Say the person's name, and remember it. Say a little rhyme in your head if it helps. Like Nancy Gnocchi Nose. Don't stay too long—mingle and tingle. A girl must maintain an air of mystery. Excuse yourself after a few minutes and introduce yourself to someone else.' Janice turns her head a little, takes a sip of the martini. She spins to show the tulle underskirt of her new dress.

'That's great, hon. You're a natural. This is going so much quicker than usual.' Peter puts down his camera and slumps into Janice's salvaged hair-setting chair. He slurps at the martini that has been waiting for him, and pulls out the olive before he's even made it halfway through. 'And this apartment has such fantastic light.'

'What do you mean, quicker than usual? Have you done this before?'

'No, no, no. Of course not. I mean quicker than my usual projects. The Day at the Races movie, you'd think that I'd get enough footage in one day, but no, I had to keep on going back again and again. The bookies didn't want to be filmed unless I placed a bet, the ladies pulled their hats down over their faces, I wasn't allowed near the horses and then my battery ran down when I came across a male jockey who looked just like the young Elizabeth Taylor. It was a nightmare.' He takes another slurp of his martini and looks at his watch. 'Oh shit, is that the time? I gotta go; I'm meant to be meeting some friends.'

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'Can I come?' She hasn't met any of his friends yet.

'Uh, I don't know. It's just a group of guys from the neighbourhood, they're kinda coarse, I don't think you would like them.'

'I like coarse. I'm only fingerbowls and fine china for your camera, Peter.'

'It's a guy thing. They're all married, y'know. They want to go to one of those hooter bars. I don't understand—I'm not into that kinda thing.'

'Whatever. Listen, my mom's coming to town next week. Would you like to meet her?'

'Sure, I'd love to meet your mom. But I might be tied up with work; I can't guarantee anything.'

'So will I see you later?'

'I'll call you.'

'Please do. We haven't even talked.'

'Whaddaya mean? We talked plenty. I got it all here on film.' He smiles, and it's open, tiled with teeth. He kisses Janice on the cheek and slouches, loose-boned, to the door. 'Later.'

Janice wonders what she will say to her mother if he doesn't show. She has offered him to her: her handsome, artistic, financially independent boyfriend who only sometimes makes her feel cheap. After all these years of stoners and garage-band musicians. She knows that her Dartmouth degree, her fluency in French and excellent knowledge of Grecian vases is not enough for her mother's endorsement. But she's sure Peter will tip the balance. He knows how to hold a knife, even if he learnt it in a book.


'So where's your man?' Her mother is immaculately coiffed, in a suit that may be Chanel but will neither confirm nor deny. She has lipsticked her chardonnay in three different places, and smiles at the waiter who refills her glass. He pours one for Janice and she takes a sip.

'He was going to come. He got called back by work.' And it's true—she met him in his foyer and they walked a couple of blocks together. He looked different in a suit, sober and handsome, and Janice felt like page 162the figurehead of a liner, her cheeks sea sprayed, coursing through an ocean of people. But then his phone rang—some problem with a credit-default swap, he had to get back, millions of dollars were at stake. So here she is, shipwrecked on a bench seat. She washes her tears away with a glass of water. She makes them glide backwards down her throat rather than her cheeks. This way, her mother cannot suggest the name of a good therapist, or barrage her with the you-don't-know-how-lucky-you-are-count-your-blessings bullets.

'Oh, Janice. I was hoping to meet him.'

Janice and so disappointing are synonymous in her mother's lexicon. 'That's so disappointing,' she sighed, when Janice announced she wouldn't be going to the prom. 'What a let-down,' she said when she had returned home unexpectedly early to discover Janice and a stoner boyfriend half naked on the living-room floor. 'I had thought you were more sensible than that,' she said, when she broke down the bathroom door to the sound of Janice throwing up her fourth dinner for the week. 'Oh, Janice,' she said when the drugstore rang up to report Janice's theft of a turquoise eyeliner and a roll of chocolate laxatives.

Janice doesn't see why she's the one who apparently disappoints. It's not as if her mother has been altogether satisfactory.

'I have some news, darling. I'm getting married again.'

'You are? To whom?'

'Do you remember Bradley? We played tennis doubles together. His wife died of cancer last year, and we've been seeing a little of each other at the club. He's here, actually.'


'Well, I sent him off shopping because I wanted to tell you alone. I'll call him. Tell him to come by.'

'No, don't.' Janice doesn't think she can face her mother's new man when hers has slipped away.

'Oh. All right, but you must meet him before the wedding. I'm here to look at dresses. We thought we'd make it September. When the leaves turn. I'll tell him to make his own plans for lunch.' Her mother fishes in her bag for her phone. 'Have you heard from your father lately?' she asks in her fake casual voice.

'Not since my birthday.' He called from Barcelona; his new wife page 163was the curator at some museum there. He couldn't talk long—the baby was crying, his wailing erasing Janice's voice as if it were chalk on a blackboard. Her father has a new life now, and she's just a lesson he once learned. She had hoped he would invite her over to stay, but he didn't.

'Bradley? Just pick yourself up something for lunch. She's not taking it very well … emotionally fragile, yes … Yes, I know. At least she's eating, she's filled out a little … okay, love you too. Bye, sweetie.' She pulls her earpiece out and holds the phone out long-sightedly to push the end-call button.

'Filled out a little? What, do I look fat?' Janice asks her mother. She snaps the menu shut.

'No, honey, you've just got a little flesh on your bones. It looks good.'

'And what the fuck do you mean, emotionally fragile? What about you? You think I don't know where you were when I was at boarding school?'

Her mother's face trembles, but then, as if trained to defuse family spectacles, the waiter appears.

'May I take your order, ma'am?' he says to Janice's mother.

'Why, yes, I'll have the quail salad. But could you please put the dressing on the side?'


'Point of etiquette number six. Bread-and-butter letters,' says Janice. Peter paid for her to have a French polish, and now her normally naked nails are the colour of moonstones. She admires them holding her fountain pen. 'After attending a social function or receiving a gift, one must always compose a letter. Forget about email; the watermarked heavy-wove paper is all part of the deal.'

She presses the nib down, and ink bleeds into the paper. 'Dear Mom,' she writes. 'Thank you for inviting me for lunch. I still haven't forgiven you. I would appreciate a little honesty in our relationship. You say that Dad left because he got himself into a pickle with Rita, but don't you think his cheating was symptomatic rather than causal? The man wanted to study art; you made him study law. Shit, you had page 164enough money to support him, why did you have to turn him into your father? Why are you such a control freak?'

'Cut!' says Peter.

'What did you think?' asks Janice. They didn't rehearse this, but she wants to be part of the creative process.

'I don't know, Janice. It's a bit heavy. It's not exactly what I had in mind. It's meant to be parody, not daytime soaps.'

'What do you mean, daytime soaps? This is my life I'm talking about. I thought you'd appreciate a little bit of revelation.'

'You of all people should understand. You just don't talk about that kind of thing in polite society. You keep that sort of stuff to yourself.'

'What, so you're polite society? Is that why you don't tell me about yourself? Is that why you still haven't invited me over to your apartment? I mean, hell, we've been going out for two months now. I'm beginning to think you might have a room full of your ex-girlfriends' heads.'

'Oh, come on. The reason I haven't invited you over is because it's such a wreck, I'm embarrassed.'

'I don't mind mess.'

Peter looks around, taking in her white bed linen, her red vase with its single orchid stem in it. His eyes run along her rack of neatly hung clothes, and out the window where her geraniums burst from their pots. 'Don't you?'


Bar-ce-lo-na, Janice types into Google. Just because her father has neglected to invite her doesn't mean she can't visit. She's wondering whether Peter might like to come with her, so they can hang out in neutral territory, rather than always being around at her place. She knows things are not running smoothly with him. Maybe away from Manhattan, the viewfinder of his camera, the exclusive camaraderie of his friends, they can start afresh. Throw tomatoes at the running of the bulls. Drink fino in a flamenco bar. And she needs to escape her mother, who keeps calling her, importuning her with her wedding plans, wanting Janice to feel included—maybe she could be a page 165bridesmaid? How about reading a Shakespearian sonnet during the ceremony? (Come on, sweetheart, your tutor always said you had dramatic talent.) Tonight she's meeting her mother and Bradley for dinner, and she's dreading it.

'We'll go somewhere fun,' her mother promised. 'How about a tapas restaurant?'

Janice gets 17,800,000 hits. Overwhelming. She Googles her father's name instead. And there he is, featured on the websites of a few dealer galleries. One in Barcelona, one in Paris, one in Brooklyn, NY, one in Seattle. Wow. He's doing okay. She types in her own name. Nothing, although sites come up for people with the same name. Someone with a PhD in gerontology. A beagle enthusiast. A gestural drawing teacher. She Googles Peter. And there is a similar smattering of pages. An English politician, a blog about death. And what's this: Notes on Etiquette? She clicks the link. She goes to a home page dominated by type. Peter Pike … video artist … postmodern explorations … surveillance—what the fuck? Download clips from Peter's latest projects. She follows this link. And there, is it? Is that her? Swinging the golfclub? But it's not just her: underneath the heading Golf there are a number of little clips to be played. She clicks on a couple and they pop up in their tiny windows, chirruping. A blonde, anaemic-looking woman with a hooked nose explains the rules of golf. A redhead in a twinset and pearls discusses the finer details of the follow-through. The brunette, who looks just like her, has her fist thrust down the hole to retrieve the ball.

Fuck. He'd said it was for an indy short film. She'd envisaged it debuting at the Tribeca film festival, before something ground-breaking and feature length. She'd imagined herself in the Village Voice, a break-out box, the new it-girl. How was she so easily duped? Why hadn't she asked more questions? Is this her fault for meeting him through an internet dating site?

She closes the windows, click, click, click, like Pandora, trying to squash all the bad things back into the box. She sees a link for comments underneath each video clip, and next to her name is the number 56, but she doesn't want to read that she's fat or hot or inbred or fuckable. She dials Peter's mobile.

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'Hi Janice,' he says. He has allocated a special ring on his phone for her. And she thought it charming.

'I found the site, Peter.' She sounds calm.

There is silence. Then, 'What site?'

'You know what I'm talking about: Peter Pike, video artist. Your postmodern … etiquette … surveillance site.'


'So, when were you planning on telling me about it?'

'When it was finished. It was going to be a surprise.'

'Really? Don't you need my permission for that kind of surprise? I mean, shouldn't I have signed a model release form or something? It's on the internet for the whole world to see. I could fucking sue you.'

'Uh, your response, it's really interesting to me. Can I swing by your place and film it as part of the project?'

'No. I'm changing my locks. I may even move. What was I, just another standard-issue blue-blood? Wait, are you Bluebeard?'

'No, no, of course not. I like you, Janice. You really stand out. Everyone agrees—did you read the comments?'


'Well, you should, you're a star. The other girls, you shoulda read a few of the outa-line messages. Hey, come round to my apartment. I'll clean it up specially.'

'What, are you crazy? I don't ever want to see you again. And you are going to take me off your website or else I'm going to report you to the police.'

'I'm not taking you off. You're an integral part of my project. Don't you want to be famous?'

'Yeah, but not like this. Are you still seeing those other girls? Was sex the part of the project that I need a credit card number to download?'

'Come on, Janice. Don't be like this. Lighten up. Why don't you come out with some of my friends tonight? We're going to that bar on West Twenty-first and Broadway. The one with the red glass windows and the octopuses in tanks. Did you know that octopuses are really smart?'

Janice can't believe what she's hearing. The turnaround makes her page 167feel seasick, pitches her overboard. 'What the fuck? Do I care about this shit?' she yells.

'Well, they are. I heard that they climbed out of their aquariums and arranged the tumblers into a pyramid formation. Now they have to put chicken wire over the top to stop them from escaping.'

'Stop it. Is anything you say real?'

'I'm in hedge funds, what do you think? So are you going to come?'

'I'm meeting my mom. And you should know, asshole. You always accept the first invitation.'

'Do you want me to come with you? I know you've wanted me to meet your mom for a while.'

'I don't want to see you again. Do you hear me? Of course you're not coming along. Arrgh!'

Janice's head is full of static, her vision a fractured kaleidoscope. She doesn't know how to break the loop so she throws the phone across the room. It hits the brick wall and splits open, revealing its wiry intestines.

She opens her wardrobe, screeching the wire hangers along their rack. She selects a white dress and lays it on the bed. She picks up the phone, gathering the shards of plastic, stuffing the wires back into its hollow cavity. She wonders whether she can glue it back together again. She goes to the computer again to check the address of the restaurant. West Twenty-first Street. At Broadway. Damn.


Bradley has had his teeth capped. They are bridal in their whiteness and they contradict the lines on his face. Janice wonders whether he is going to have botox for the wedding. He is fit and taut in a desiccated way, as if none of the sweat he lost in his exercise regime has been replaced, despite his Evian-stocked fridge. Janice wonders whether he is petrified, a fallen tree in the forest. He shakes her hand and his is dry and rough, like bark.

Janice scans the menu, and her mother deflects the waiter with the bread basket. 'No carbs for me, thank you. Not until the honeymoon.'

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'But I want carbs. I like bread,' says Janice.

'I can see,' says her mother, casting her eye down Janice's T-shirt-wrapped torso. Then she looks up.

'Hey, Janice.' Janice lurches. Stops herself from adopting the brace position under the table.

It is Peter. Janice's mother smiles.

'I was just passing, on my way to the bar, and I saw you in here.'

'Allow me to introduce myself,' Janice's mother busts in. 'I'm Veronica. This is Bradley, my fiancé. And who might you be?'

'I'm Peter, Janice's boyfriend.'

'No you're not,' says Janice, teeth so tight they creak. But her mother is cooing.

'So pleased to finally make your acquaintance. Why don't you join us?'

Her voice is louder than Janice's, and before she knows it, Peter is sharing the sangría, congratulating himself on the strawberries that have plopped into his glass, recommending the gambas al ajillo, and inserting the I'm-so-charming CD he played the night they first met. Janice's mother cannot help but be seduced.

Bradley notices Janice's displeasure. 'Why the long face, dear?' he asks, as if he's her stepfather already.

'Oh don't mind her,' says Janice's mother. 'She's always been moody.'

'Hey,' says Peter. 'I have my camera here. Would it bother anyone if I took your picture?'

'Not at all,' says Bradley.

'Get the hell away with your camera. I don't want to be in any more of your stupid movies,' says Janice.

Janice's mother is fixing her lipstick. 'Do I have anything in between my teeth?' she asks Tom.

'You look beautiful,' says Bradley, and Janice wants to be sick. Peter has already flicked open his digital camera and has pushed record. Janice has to do something. She pushes Peter with both hands.

'Did you hear me?' she says. 'Go.'

Peter stumbles backwards. Janice kicks his shins, and his camera catches flashes of her pointy toes, her sharp little heels, but remains steady in its resolve. 'Don't you have any boundaries?' she yells.

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Peter shrugs, aims the camera at Janice's face. 'It's been great meeting you, Veronica, Bradley. But I think I'd better leave. The boys are waiting for me.' He walks backwards out the door, his camera still pointing at them. 'By the way, Janice, I got some great footage here. Thanks for your help.'

'Why did you have to send him away, Janice?' her mother asks. 'I liked him. He was dishy. Not like your other boyfriends: disasters, every one. Do you think he could film our wedding?'

All of a sudden Janice wants to pour the jug of sangría over her white dress. She has no scab to pick. 'He won't be filming your wedding, Mom. And neither will I, because I'm going to Barcelona.'

'You are? When did you decide that?'

Janice shrugs. She picks up her bag.

'Wait, you can't go! Who will be my bridesmaid?' her mother calls after her.

Janice walks out the door. She fumbles for a cigarette, the emergency break-up one stored in the secret compartment. Damn, no matches.

'Spare a quarter, Miss?' a homeless guy calls to her from the street corner.

'Sure,' she says, 'if you've got a light.'

And he does. She gives him a dollar. She takes a drag, emitting a dragon's nose of smoke.

'Feels good, huh?' says the homeless guy. 'Do you have a spare?'

'Sorry,' says Janice. 'This is my only one.' And then she leaves, walking south, trailing grey ribbons behind her.