"To Life": An excerpt from the new novel "2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas"

Jazz music, winter in the city, dinner parties: Exclusive excerpt from award-winner Marie-Helene Bertino's debut

Published August 11, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Marie-Helene Bertino    (Random House/Ted Dodson)
Marie-Helene Bertino (Random House/Ted Dodson)

Excerpted from "2 a.m.at the Cat's Pajamas"

It is dark, dark seven P.M. on Christmas Eve Eve.

The city gathers its black-skirted taxis around the ankles of Rittenhouse Square. A vendor rolls his cart into the park. Pinwheels hem and sigh in flowerpots stuffed with foam. Every audience in every theater on Broad Street leans forward into the hyphen f1. of silence between the overture and Act One. A couple necks in the backseat of a Honda parked at Thirteenth and Spruce.

Ted Stempel leaves for his shift at the store. His battered pit bull puppy, Malcolm, gazes at him. “On second thought,” he says to his wife, “I’ll take him with me.”

Once in a while a gust of evergreen settles over the man selling Christmas trees on Walnut. It really is nice, he thinks, that smell. In Olde City a girl follows her breath down the street, drifting away from her friends. “Look.” She claps her mittened hands. “Look!”

Madeleine is sleeping.

On her building’s rooftop, Mrs. Santiago unclips a shirt and yanks the laundry line toward her, unclips a bra then yanks, and so forth, until the line has been yanked empty, its contents folded into a wicker basket. She watches the Market-Frankford El slice across the horizon. She’s never been on a plane. She wants to take a trip, but she has to fold the laundry. Find the dog. Freeze the gravy. Take care of the child who lately has seemed troubled and distracted.

Mrs. Santiago once cooked for three days in preparation for Christmas, then spent the entire meal running back to the kitchen for a cheese grater, a certain pepper, a record someone mentioned. Borne back ceaselessly into the kitchen.

A faraway ambulance screams through the city.

Mrs. Santiago prays: Little Flower, show your power at this hour.

In Georgina McGlynn’s kitchen, Sarina uses wooden tongs to refresh a salad. She was the first guest to arrive and now suffers through the aneurysm of the doorbell, heralding another guest, Bella and Claudia and Michael, so far. So far, things are not going well. Her presence has caused glances of confusion (Bella), raised eyebrows (Michael), and one pointed “Who are you, though?” (Claudia). This has made Sarina nervous, resulting in several earnest exclamations regarding the salad. Breathtaking, she called it. More confused glances caused her to call the baked potatoes badass.

The necking couple at Thirteenth and Spruce has fogged up most of the Honda’s windows. The man presses his lips against the woman’s neck, her earlobe. Her eyes are closed, but she leans forward as if straining to see something through the misted window, Ben Allen perhaps, who is several yards away coaxing the last drag from his cigarette. Ben had been about to leap the stairs to Georgie’s house when he caught sight of the pawing couple. He watches until nostalgia forms in his lower gut—he once made slow work of someone’s neck, but whose? Certainly not Annie’s—but not long enough to be a cad. He takes Georgie’s steps in two leaps, as usual the last to arrive. His sanctified role in this group is showing up unforgivably late but armed with a story of what kept him that is so compelling he is at once forgiven. He shakes himself out of his coat in Georgie’s entryway. “You will not believe what is happening on your very street, Georgie.” He waits until she pauses in her work lighting candles and Bella and Claudia turn, to announce, “A couple is making out in a car.”

“Where?” Bella runs to the window. “I want to see.”

“There,” he points.

“Gross.” Georgie waves out a match.

“Not gross, Georgie. Inspiring.” He surveys the room—the smell of cinnamon, the sputtering candles, the friends he’s had since forever—through the eyes of strangers making out in a Honda. “Doesn’t it make you happy to be in the world?”

“Doesn’t what make you happy to be in the world?” Sarina Greene enters the room holding a salad. Ben’s coat gets stuck halfway off. It pins him, turns him around. She watches him flail. Finally he wrenches free. “That coat tried to kill me,” he says. “You're a witness.”

She giggles.

Bella introduces Ben to her new girlfriend, Claudia, who works with crack-addicted war veterans. Claudia tells Ben about her recent obsession with Hitchcock. People with service jobs create a pang of guilt in Ben. When does she have time to watch movies?

“Where is Annie?” Georgie says.

Ben delivers the line he rehearsed. “Home sick, she sends this wine.” He produces a bottle of red that Georgie and Sarina inspect. “It’s from a town where she spent summers. I’d tell you, but she says I pronounce it wrong.”

“How nice.” Georgie hands the bottle to Sarina, who it seems has become Assistant to the Dinner. She disappears into the kitchen.

Sarina attended high school with Ben, Georgie, Bella, and Michael but wasn’t what they would call “core.” She was a misfit in their pasteurized, suburban school. A bright spot, dressed in black. Earlier in the afternoon, when Ben had made the customary do-you-need-anything phone call, Georgie told him Sarina had been invited because of an intersection of location, timing, and pie. Georgie said they had engaged in a dangerous fraction of conversation, marked by perceived insult and overaccommodation: Would you like to come, sadly no, not that I don’t want to, well then you must, well then I absolutely will!

Michael whispers into Ben’s ear. “Did you happen to see my car? Brand-new. Silver. Custom rims.”

“Michael has finally come to terms with the fact that he’s in finance,” Georgie says.

“Didn’t see it,” Ben says. “Unless it has two people making out in it.”

“Two sunroofs,” Michael says.


Michael holds up two fingers. “Keeping up with the Joneses and all.”

“I see them!” Bella says. She and Michael and Ben and Georgie and Claudia peer out the window.

Georgie’s apartment hovers over the corner of Thirteenth and Spruce like a brick exclamation point, between Pine’s sleepy antique shops and the tattooed disinterest of South. When she bought it, they toasted her new life: the boutique she was about to open, the marriage. The exclamation then was: the world is kind enough to allow all things! The boutique closed after ten months of vacuuming the carpet early. The marriage ended after five months of fretful sex. The exclamation now is: I am petrified!

“To life.” Michael lifts his glass.

To life, the party replies.

Dinner begins. The plate of bread circumnavigates the table. The table is round, so no one sits at the head. Or everyone does, Michael thinks, slicing into the butter. Because it is a good dinner party, food is beside the point. Who cares what Georgie served? Vegetable lasagna and heirloom whatnot. A breathtaking salad.

Sarina taps salt from a reindeer shaker. “Salt,” she says, “is a combination of sodium and chloride. They are considered the bad boys of the periodic table. I learned that from our science teacher.”

“It is also what you give people who’ve recently moved into a house,” Ben says. “For luck in fertility. Or a seasoned life. One of those.”

Claudia gives a clipped ha-ha. “Who can afford a house?”

“I bought a house,” Michael says. “But it’s more to keep up with the Joneses.”

Bella wavers on her choice of bread but commits. “How long have you been back in the city, Sarina?”

“Not even a year.”

“Weren't you living someplace fabulous and foreign?” Georgie says.

“Connecticut,” Sarina says.

“It’s no surprise you’re back.” Michael spoons potatoes onto his plate. “This city has the highest recidivism rate in America.”

“What does that word mean?” Georgie says.

“It means you have no options.” Ben salts his salad. “You can’t get away, no matter how hard you try.”

“Whatever happened to that guy you dated for so long, Sarina?” Bella says, as if the thought has just occurred to her.

“I married him.”

“You could have brought him,” Georgie pouts. “Where is he tonight?”

Sarina swallows a throatful of greens. “Divorced.”

The party flicks their eyes to her, to their plates. Georgie keeps Sarina’s gaze for the length of a curt, kind nod. Ben traces the lip of his wineglass. “Where did that come from, the whole keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing?”

“The saying?” Bella waves her knife as if this were an obvious question. “It’s a metaphor for consumerism.”

“But why is it so hard to keep up with them, specifically?”

“Because they keep buying new shit!” Bella says.

“But who are the Joneses?” he persists.

Michael wags an asparagus spear at Ben. “Everyone in my office.”

“Everyone is the Joneses,” Bella says. “Michael’s office, ex-boyfriends, even we are the Joneses.”

“So,” Georgie concludes, “we are all trying to keep up with ourselves!”

Claudia compliments Georgie on the meal. The table lifts off to another topic, but Ben feels they’ve left the Joneses prematurely. Sarina watches him mull over ways to return to it. She innately knows his moods and tendencies, the way you know on a flight, even with your eyes closed, that a plane is banking.

Bella is a girl who doesn’t mean to be rude ever but is rude, always, and when she asks Sarina if she is still teaching fifth grade, she places on the word still a sour sound Claudia hastens to refurbish by saying, “Teaching is so...” Only Claudia is a girl who can never procure the right word in a timely manner and during each second she tries, everyone at the table treads water until Ben places his fork down and declares, “...noble.”

Sarina gazes at him as if he has just returned from war.

Georgie and Michael call out other things teaching is: underpaid, thankless, long-houred, which Michael insists is a word. Emboldened by the support, Sarina embarks on the First Story of the Night.

“It can be emotionally demanding,” she begins. “For example...”All heads swivel toward her. For the first time, she can see everyone’s face at once. The footing of her thoughts slips.

Tell it with confidence, she thinks. Today they made caramel apples in class! Build expectation: How she visited several sweet shops to test caramel. How she double-checked that there was a meaty apple for every child, bought specially sized paper bags to wrap each one after it hardened. How her children took up their reading hour asking questions about the apples. Do their voices, she thinks. Sarina gathers the characters in her mind. Madeleine: the nine-year-old who recently lost her mother. Denny: the entitled kid from a well-known family in the parish. She will point out contradictory traits in each kid to offset expectations and her own biases. How Madeleine can be blunt to the point of hurting other children. How Sarina spent an hour holding   bawling Denny when the goldfish died. Some characters will play important roles. Some will seem unimportant until the end. If she tells it correctly, when she reaches the Crucial Moment, everyone at the table will feel sickened and satisfied. Sure, she’s back in her hometown teaching grade school and she can’t fill out the tops of most dresses, but she can tell stories, goddammit. Certainly that must mean something to Ben, she means, men, she means, the universe. Certainly she can cash in a little girl’s pain for respect at a dinner party. She will rise from the table, an eagle beating back a glorious pair of wings.

“Just today,” she begins, “one of my children got sent home with lice—”

“Lice!” Bella interrupts. “Uck!”

“Lots of children get lice,” Claudia says.

“Name one child you know that has lice.”

“Me,” says Claudia. “Me as a child had lice.”

Sarina attempts to regain control. “I can speak from someone who had personal experience as recently as today that lice is—”

Ben laughs. “Me had lice.”

Claudia thinks Ben is taunting her for the lice, not the grammar of her sentence. “It means I had thick hair,” she says.

Sarina, slipping, falling. “Madeleine has thick hair. The girl who had to be sent home today—”

The table splinters into two preoccupations. Bella asks if her school is the one on Christian with the mural of that sociopath Frank Rizzo. Ben and Michael rejoin the Joneses conversation.

Sarina speaks loudly to get everyone back. “It is a very sad story.”

“Would anyone mind if I ate the last of the potatoes?” Georgie says.

“Go right ahead, Georgie. They’re your potatoes in the first place.”

“They're everyone’s potatoes,” says Michael.

“As long as no one thinks they’re small potatoes,” Georgie says.

The table laughs vigorously at what Sarina thinks is a dumb joke. A window closes. As if the party had only one available slot for a long story and her chance has been lost in chatter about shampoo and potatoes. She is striped with a familiar self-loathing around Georgie, left over from high school. Even though she has lived on three continents, Sarina has not progressed further than senior prom. Boys cross rooms for Georgie, who is full in the way they like. Foxy is the word for it, Sarina thinks, whereas she is foxless.

Sarina has a flicker of hope when Bella turns to her, taking in a deep breath signifying an important thought. “Isn’t teaching grade school not far off from babysitting?”

Sarina forks the last of her salad. “These greens are transcendent.”

“Arugula!” Georgie says.

“Let’s admit,” Ben says. “We keep up with the Joneses to distract us from the fact that we are all going to die!”

“Hear, hear,” says Michael.

Dinner is over.

Bella pushes herself away from the table. She has spent the meal wanting more of everything and not taking more of anything. She and Georgie carry empty plates to the kitchen.

Michael says, “I can’t keep my hands away from the piano any longer.”

Ben says, “Would anyone mind if I stepped outside to call Annie?”

Claudia receives directions to the bathroom.

The room reshuffles and when it stills, Sarina is alone. She hears Michael in the next room fumbling in the pockets of the piano bench, setting up sheet music, and then the first few measures of a splashy intro.

When she saw Ben unwinding his scarf at the front door, Sarina wanted to remove her glasses. She removes her glasses when anything wonderful or embarrassing happens, like earlier today when her principal forced her to discipline Madeleine. Which would have been the Crucial Moment of her story.

Sarina has rebuilt her life one element at a time. The apartment, the job, the easel. It might be a plain life (she occasionally worries she is hiding out in it), but at least it is forged out of what she wants.

She doesn’t know the particulars of Ben’s wife’s job, but it involves legally representing poor kids with leukemia. Show-off. She’d hoped he wouldn't marry the cardiganed girl he brought around four years ago. She’d hoped the girl would be one of the many partners his group rotated in and out. Certainly he would notice how Annie rolled her eyes at his ideas, especially the last idea, when he decided to quit law and pursue screenwriting. Certainly the girl with a flounder’s sense of style wouldn’t be the one he’d marry on an archipelago in the Caribbean, so Sarina had heard, accessible only by duck boat. But, he did. And, she wasn’t. And, he didn’t. So, she was.

Outside, the stars have been caught in the act. Ben paces the stoop “...later than I thought. More fun than I expected. No one thought it was strange. Well, yes, they asked how you were but they didn’t follow up.”

In the kitchen, Georgie and Bella pass a joint back and forth. Bella trains her eyes on the swinging door. “Claudia doesn’t know I still smoke. I'm sorry she’s acting like a bitch tonight.”

At the piano, Michael thinks, there should be words to classical songs.

In the bathroom, Claudia reads a newspaper article about a famous chef’s third restaurant opening.

Under the stars, Ben says, “I realize it doesn’t count as a separation if we talk on the phone, but you asked me to call you.”

In the kitchen, Bella says, “She cut out drama from her life. Now she gets dramatic about people being dramatic.”

Georgie says, “It’s like ex-smokers who hate smokers.”

“Exactly!” Bella says. “Have a cigarette and get over yourself.” She shakes her head and pretends to have a new thought. “Sarina has gotten so thin. Poor girl.” She wants Georgie to agree, but Georgie has outgrown camaraderie through cattiness.

At the piano, Michael sings, The more I see you...

Upstairs, Claudia washes her hands with the no-shenanigans soap of a second bathroom. Her interest in the evening’s goings-on ranks as follows:

1. How much did Michael’s new car cost? She wants to know so she can go home and hate him.

2. She is proud her girlfriend has the ability to introduce lively topics of conversation. Who are the Joneses, indeed?

3. If Alfred Hitchcock were to direct this dinner party, he would have the camera soar in through the window over the gardened patio, through the wings of the expressive drapes, panning to each guest in a way that would convey to the audience that something is terribly wrong.

4. Food is boring. People who use it to feel better than others are worthless. Like Ben’s half-hour explanation about the wine. Did he shit the bottle of wine out? That would garner an explanation.

KITCHEN: Georgie says, “I never thought I would get divorced. Never. Divorce is for sad people.”

PIANO: Michael sings, the more I want you...

FAMILY ROOM: Sarina sits, orphaned by the dinner party. What she holds most against these people is how obvious it is that they love each other. A substantive love that caulks the cracks of their personalities; Georgie’s oblivion, Bella’s self­-obsession, Michael’s namby-pamby-ness. Sarina hates the part of herself that wants inside that love. A gray, whiskered face appears by her elbow. She replaces her glasses. “Hello, Pepper.”

STARS: Ben wipes his eyes with the hand that is not holding the phone. The conversation has ended. Across the street a dog sniffs a signpost. Connected to him via leash is a little boy. Connected to the little boy via hand is The Dad. Ben wants to call to them and wave. He wants the man to nudge his son to wave back. Then Ben could yell hello over the empty street. “What’s your dog’s name?” “Jeb,” the man would yell. “Jeb?” Ben would say, laughing. The man would point to his son. His idea. That man could be him, Ben thinks, that little boy could be his, the dog, too. He could be the one yelling “Jeb!” across the street to the man wincing through a phone call with his estranged wife. If she had ever liked dogs. Or kids.

Michael stumbles on a wrong note. He tries again. Still wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

In the first week of their marriage, Ben and Annie made three decisions: to install a home security system, to never have children, and to never, ever take salsa lessons. All three were meant to preserve what they owned.

The salsa lessons were Ben’s hard line. There was a dance studio on his walk home from the law office. At night it was filled with desperate, churning couples, wagging themselves across the floor.

Whose idea was the kids? Ben wonders, turning to walk inside. He recalls the subject of children being lobbed into the air, Annie saying her flat stomach was her greatest achievement, then taking a call in the other room. The following day the security service arrived to measure the walls.

Ben halts at the window. Inside, Sarina scratches the ears of an earnest-looking cat. Pretty hands, Ben thinks, pretty lap. His breath makes clouds. How long had she been divorced? What had she said about sending a child home for having lice? How was lice the child’s fault?

Michael has found the right note and, la-la-la-ing, rejoins the melody.

Claudia returns to the family room and drapes herself over a chair. “I’m sorry Bella is being such a bitch tonight.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Sarina says.

“You’re sweet.”

Georgie and Bella return holding plates and forks, with Ben following, clapping warmth into his arms and legs.

My arms won’t free you, Michael sings.

“Michael!” Georgie yells. “Quit the piano!” She unveils the key lime pie.

“Extraordinary!” says Sarina.

Michael pats his belly. “Full.”

Claudia says, “Couldn’t eat one more bite.”

Bella gazes at the pie. “Me too. Not another bite.”

Georgie frowns. “Sarina?”

“'I’ll have a piece.”

“Me too!” says Ben. “Biggest slice you can.”

Sarina and Ben eat the pie. Those who want coffee drink coffee. Occasionally someone sighs. After everyone is finished, Georgie says, “Let’s dance.”

Bella and Claudia exchange a glance. Michael digs his hands into his pockets and Sarina scrutinizes the carpet.

“It’s late,” Ben says.

Michael adds, “And we’re old.”

Georgie thinks about the dishes, the joint she will have after everyone leaves. The quick hush of the extinguished candle.


Bella, Claudia, Michael, and Ben pause on the cold stoop, each considering his or her immediate future. For Bella and Claudia, it is a short walk to their South Street apartment. For Michael, a car ride to the suburbs during which he will have the option of looking at the moon through one of two sunroofs. Ben also has options: he can take a five-minute cab ride to his brownstone in Olde City or he can walk one of the tree-lined streets that connect this part of town to his. It’s a good night for a walk. The air is crisp. His wife is staying with her parents indefinitely. His scarf feels good around his neck and his coat is lined in down. Speaking of, where is his scarf?

Inside, Sarina insists she will help with dishes. She wants to avoid good-byes with the others. But Georgie refuses. She reaches over and tucks a strand of hair behind Sarina’s ear. “I’m glad you came.”

“Me too,” Sarina says, coating up. She opens the front door and collides with Ben, who has forgotten his scarf. He disappears inside as she lights a cigarette on the stoop. When he returns, the rest of the party is blocks ahead, too far to run or call out. His forgetfulness and her fear of good-byes have deposited them into this private moment.

Sarina says, 'Tm going…” and Ben says, “...this way,” and they point to different directions.

“Please tell Annie I hope she feels better. The flu is going around. Everyone is dropping like flies at school.” It is a lie. For once, no illness is circulating the school, though every day she prays something will render Denny absent.

They descend the steps. She thinks his elbow will touch hers but they reach the sidewalk, separate. The brief holiday is over. She says good night and follows the rest of the party.

Behind her, Ben says, “Good night, Sarina.”

Good night, Sarina, she thinks. Because that is my name. She wants to turn the sound of him saying it into a SEPTA card she can use to get around.

The city is in a perpetual state of being not quite ready to talk about it. Instead it lashes its wind against the banners of the art museum. Moody light changes down Market, the cars bitch toward City Hall. Puddles yearn toward the sewers. The unrequited city dreams up conspiracies and keeps its buildings low to the ground. You are never allowed to dream higher than the hat of William Penn. Dear World, you think you’re better than me? Suck a nut. Yours sincerely.

A slip of a woman, trench coated, dips in and out of the shadows on Pine Street, toward the train. Restless wind dissects her.

Good night, Sarina. Good night.

Copyright © 2014 by Marie-Helene Bertino. Excerpted from "2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas" published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York. Reprinted with permission.

By Marie-Helene Bertino

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