She’s decided—even though he’s married, even though there’s Nathan, even though the artists pillory the unfaithful despite their own eyes patrolling the Retreat’s cafeteria like guards hoping to catch someone, anyone, escaping a marriage. At night she hears them. Husband and wife—but not his wife, but not her husband—moaning all the things they’ve always wanted to moan, just to see if they can, just to hear what comes back. Or maybe it’s the same, tired moanings and it’s not any different, not really. Carrie doesn’t know, she’s never been married, but she’s decided: she’s going to fuck Jonah.
There’s a bit in her act about sleeping with a married guy, and while it goes over, she always wants to end it by saying it’s a lie, none of it happened, there’s no such thing as marriage, she’s never had sex. That would be going too far the other way, but sometimes she prefers extremes rather than accept the muddled truth: she didn’t sleep with that married guy even though she would have, even though she tried to—hard.
But she’s got the joke.
She tells it to Jonah at lunch. Every spent body at the Retreat shuffles into the cafeteria and slumps near the counter in a paint-splattered line, eyeing each other as if the amount of art on their clothes says something about the success of their residency. It should be the opposite, Carrie knows—the cleanest artist, the artist who doesn’t spill, who keeps his plaster where it belongs—that’s doing the best work. Which would be Carrie. Having spent her own morning working on sleep, she’s peach-scented clean after a shower, and it’s hardly her fault that among all the painters, sculptors, carpenters, and installation artists, the Retreat admitted a comedian. There’s a composer, too: Deborah, a gray-haired woman tapping her foot at the head of the line, but she, at least, is spotted with ink and tea stains humming, always, some delicate melody.
“Aren’t you getting anything done?” Jonah asks before slurping a spoonful of miso. He’s got steady hands and poor manners, a face like a mask at the end of a long Halloween, askew eyes bulging over cliffed cheeks, and a shaved, wrinkled skull. He looks like an artist—lovely for being ugly, the sort of thing Germans probably have a word for or maybe the Japanese.
“I’m trying to get something done now,” she says. “So I’m sleeping with this married guy, and he says he wants me to do something his wife won’t.”
“But you already wrote this joke, no?”
“That’s not the point. This, right here, performing is what I do. So I ask him, ‘What won’t your wife do’?”
“You’re maybe not getting the point of the residency.”
Jonah pauses, full spoon steady halfway to his mouth and says, “What?”
“Die,” she says. “Then the real punch line is, ‘O thank God, I thought you were going to say butt stuff.’”
Jonah slurps, then tears a chunk of rye in two and drowns half in his soup while the seats around them fill with the clamor over how they can’t believe it’s been two weeks, how they can’t believe there are still two more.
“That’s the joke,” she says, when she can’t take his silence.
He swallows. “Is it?”
And she should hate him, but he’s got this British-Caribbean-American mutt of an accent and it’s like everything about him, such monstrous beauty, even in the ceramics he spends the day molding, painting, firing. They’re majestic, valuable, each one towering high above her head, some kind of pastel temple to a pagan god that never existed but should have, one that would have been in charge of two irreconcilable things like love and clouds. And Carrie would smash every one just to hear him say wombat.
“I didn’t say it was a good joke,” she sighs. And it’s not a good joke, though it’s better than it was when she said anal. Mostly, it’s not a true joke, and she resolves to drop it from her act until she remembers it’s the bridge to sex where all her good jokes are anyway, the ones that have made her, as much as she is such a thing, known.
After lunch, she walks Jonah down the mountain to his studio, all the artists marching like a particularly ineffectual army toward the antique white church where their studios threaten. Even with the cross having been replaced by a weather vane, it’s a menacing building, not particularly large but with the ability to loom in judgment even over Carrie, whose studio is back over the bridge in the Retreat’s main office. It should be spectacular, Jonah is saying, reclaiming something from God, but she doesn’t know what this means, not really.
“Maybe God just got caught up in the real estate crisis,” she says.
Jonah sets a hand on her shoulder and squeezes hard enough the intimacy becomes a punishment, becomes intimacy. They’ve stopped walking and she’s staring into his dark eyes and listening to the river beneath them and the song of distant birds and there’s a glint of his wedding ring, but she can ignore that, now, for this idyllic moment.
“Carrie,” he says, “you’re the least funny person I’ve ever met.”
She spends the afternoon in her office because she feels obligated to, the way she feels obligated to use every takeout napkin whether or not she’s made a mess. She’s usually made a mess. A small, beige office left utterly without personality by a recently deceased assistant director, the Retreat decided to use it to branch out to artistic communities “underserved by the existing nonprofit support structure.” And on a drunken night waiting for a text from Nathan, reading, compulsively, about herself on the Internet, she felt profoundly underserved. But now that her days are all guilt and boredom, she’s certain the existing nonprofit support structure was right to ignore her.
If the director, an aging cycling and marijuana enthusiast, were to knock on her door and demand to know what she’s doing, she’d say she’s gathering material. It’s true, if she means gathering material goods that will welcome her home. She wants to be productive, but over the first two weeks at the Retreat she has managed exactly one new bit, not even funny, not even a joke. She told it the first week when the twenty-odd residents of the Retreat took a break from art and adultery to tour the studios and, as if doing her a kindness, came to her office and sat on file cabinets and moved ferns to listen.
“OK,” she said, “so once I was dating this guy when he died. David. This was years ago. Like, six years. We’d been dating for only a few months when it happened, but it was the biggest tragedy of my life. We’d been serious. I thought I was going to marry him, and he thought the same about me. We talked about it. Kids, too. We had a name picked out. Anyway, it was a car accident. But the worst part was, since I wasn’t his wife, his family didn’t know how to treat me in those awful days after it happened. Like, at the funeral, his brother wouldn’t even go down on me.”
And here is where there might have been laughter, might have been any noise other than the silence of uncomfortable blinks and embarrassed hearts, but nobody did anything except for Deborah, who put her hand on Carrie’s shoulder and told her how sorry she was. Then they were all gone, escaped, even Jonah, and Carrie wasn’t sure how long she’d been crying or how they’d known it was true.
. . .