Short Story The Vaughns in the Loft Down the Hall
I never did learn how the Vaughns got their money, but maybe that was part of the appeal—the mystery of it all.
The loft had creamy-white walls, unadorned except for some sketches by an artist I didn’t know. High windows bathed everything in cool light: a green divan, back issues of Architectural Digest on a glass coffee table, steel kitchen appliances. A landing ran above the kitchen and living room, which gave the space a cathedral-like airiness. I would later understand many of these things to be suggestive of wealth without point of view, as often wealth can be, but I didn’t know it then. I was dazzled. The loft dazzled me. I never did learn how the Vaughns got their money, but maybe that was part of the appeal—the mystery of it all.
I met Marilyn first. After weeks of seeing me in the hall and sharing awkward elevator rides, she sighed out of exasperation and asked me who I was and why I was always in the elevator and why I had such a depressing look on my face. Maybe the legible gayness of my Joanne -era Gaga shirt made me nonthreatening. I told her the truth, that I was staying two doors down in the much-smaller apartment of my godfather Barney, a cheapskate bachelor who had lived in the building for decades and recently retired from a job in advertising. She was familiar with him, however vaguely. She said she was retired herself but kept busy serving on the board at a nonprofit.
Well, my girls could use a friend, she said, choking her grocery-tote straps. Their old friends from Latin are always drunk, I swear.
Marilyn had two daughters, Olivia and Ginny. Olivia was an overworked law student just returning from a lengthy series of job interviews in DC and was using the loft as a temporary harbor. Ginny was home after her first year at college in Vermont and had recently broken up with someone on an Ultimate Frisbee team. I found both of these mythologies to be compelling in their elegant, slightly sad appeal—biographies in progress I could sink into like a pile of fur coats. Barney was letting me live in his second bedroom for the summer in exchange for organizing his basement storage unit, so after going through the endless boxes during the day, I’d walk down the hall to the Vaughns’.
The three of them were usually in a post-dinner languor, sipping decaf out of clear glass mugs and scrolling on their devices, the television buzzing pleasantly in the background. The content ranged: Sometimes I would find them halfway through old movies like The Philadelphia Story ; other times it would be a reality show on Bravo. Ginny would receive me at the door, Olivia would raise a hand in a half-hearted greeting, and Marilyn would look up from her iPad to smile blandly. I would take my place among them, sliding off my shoes and accepting a cold seltzer when offered. Occasionally, usually on Fridays, Marilyn and Olivia drank cold white wine out of glasses with perilously thin stems.
Odd people, Barney said once while we were washing dishes. I still remember when she and her husband—ex-husband now—marched in with their parkas and big sunglasses to snatch up the place. Family money, I think. The husband was mixed up in apps, but I think he managed to move into insurance, or maybe it was pharmaceuticals.
Wait, I said, how do you know all this? You said you had only talked to Marilyn once or twice—
Google, young man! Google!
I did not google Marilyn and her ex-husband. I was just happy to be around other people; Barney was always out tinkering with his secret novel at Starbucks. I was happy to be in the city and far away from the little Catholic college I had once called home, away from the stiff beds and crucifixes in the dorm lounges. The bad beer. I began spending more and more time at the loft, even though Olivia’s eyes would sometimes wander over to me and widen, as though I had materialized there without warning.
Ginny was warm enough, and closer to my age. She was nineteen; I was twenty. Sometimes I would play her tracks I had been working on.
No, I really like it, she said one weekend afternoon. Seriously! It’s dancy but, like, in an interesting way.
You don’t think it’s too . . . I don’t know . . . David Guetta?
Ginny laughed. No, she said, not at all.
Some of us are trying to work up here, Olivia said, leaning her head over the landing railing. She was doing work for a remote internship. I closed the laptop and exchanged a grin with Ginny, as though we had accomplished a real feat in provoking the beast upstairs.
She’s fond of you, you know, Olivia said one day when I was waiting for Ginny in their kitchen. She thinks you’re cool.
Yeah, it’s good to have a friend here, I said. I don’t know anyone.
Olivia nodded. Yeah, understood, she continued, taking a bite out of a granola bar. How long have you been making music?
My shoulders tensed. Just a couple years, I said. It’s just tracks on GarageBand, nothing fancy.
Do you want to be a producer? Or is it just something, you know, you do on the side?
I told her it was just something fun to do on the side, but that wasn’t true. I just didn’t know how to talk about that yet, especially with someone supremely practical like Olivia.
She’s not like me, Olivia said. Ginny. She’s nice, like in that Midwestern way everyone talks about.
I almost laughed, anticipating a break in the tension. Nice. The way Olivia said it made it sound like an insult.
You seem nice to me, I lied.
Eh, depends on the day, she said, tossing the granola-bar wrapper in the garbage. But I can fake it when I need to.
Olivia talked like an expat from another planet. She reminded me of my dad, a fact that endeared her to me despite the last couple months of silence between me and my parents. I had dropped out of school without explanation, after all. And while Ginny could happily speak in wandering clauses, Olivia gave away little of herself. It wasn’t coldness, exactly, but more conversational sleight of hand, saying something curt and provocative that drove away attention that otherwise would have landed on her. A throwaway observation here, a bitterly funny drag there, always aimed outward and anchored by a general seriousness I envied. I wondered if this ability to steer conversation was one she had acquired or one she was born with, a similar line of thinking I took when looking at old Polaroids of my parents. What was essential to a person? A wide smile, head thrown back in frenzied laughter, all captured in pictures before they met and got married. Before they moved into their little house in Springfield. Before they had me.
You seem nice to me, I lied.
Where did you go to school again, dear? Marilyn asked one night when I came over for dinner, take-out steaks from Gene & Georgetti. I felt uncomfortable at first, eating so well on someone else’s dime, but Marilyn was insistent.
I said the name of the school, but they didn’t know it.
I’m not going back in the fall, I said, testing the words out. I’m going to take the semester and try to transfer to a school somewhere in the city, I think.
Ah okay, that makes sense, Ginny said. I mean, you said it was a Christian school, right? So I can imagine it wasn’t . . . you know . . .
A queer paradise? Olivia said, sinking her fork into a bloody slice of New York strip.
Marilyn must have been moved by my situation because her expression was now drawn in deep sympathy. Our roles were confirmed: I was the palatable country queer, searching for acceptance in bright lights and tall buildings, and she was Mr. Schuester from Glee , seeing something that no one else could. It was a little too neat—I left campus because the financial aid was bad and I suspected that God didn’t care about most of our worldly troubles—but I was happy to play the role, especially if it meant I got to eat more of the Vaughns’ expensive food. If it meant I got to be in the elegant comfort of their loft and sit on their low, streamlined furniture after dinner, drinking carbonated beverages and watching Top Chef .
Padma is so chic, Marilyn said. Isn’t she so chic?
The girls nodded.
She’s always been a great presence, Olivia said, even in the early seasons.
Have you ever watched MasterChef ? Ginny asked me. It’s like this but more stressful—
Oh, Marilyn said excitedly, they’re doing oysters!
One night, Ginny invited me to be her wingman at a party. It was at a former classmate’s apartment when his parents were out of town. The air smelled like weed and sautéed vegetables—apparently someone got high and made an egg scramble. I met some of her friends from high school, all of whom seemed a little unsure how to act after going away to college and establishing new identities elsewhere. They looked happy to have a new face in the hometown mix, asking me about the music and shows I liked. Someone mentioned taking shrooms and going to the Manet exhibit at the Art Institute. Another rhapsodized about their hot RA who was in a post-softboi quietcore band. I quickly gathered it was a moral failing that I, a white gay, hadn’t seen a single Todd Haynes film.
Have you ever thought about leaving it all and just hitting the road? Ginny asked me, circling back from another room with a glass of dessert wine. You seem like someone who would totally do the van-life thing.
I laughed. Why do you say that?
I don’t know! Just an energy, she said, smiling from ear to ear. You seem free. You have free energy. Like, you’re so independent from your parents! I wish I could be that independent.
It satisfied me to be seen in such a light, but I thought it was funny that my post-dropout free fall passed through a rich-kid prism on its way to her, losing its material stakes and becoming a kind of aesthetic in the process.
As summer carried on, I didn’t really know why someone like Ginny would want to be my friend. Our differences felt embarrassingly stark as soon as we got in the elevator. Ginny and I shared our whiteness, yes, but there were so many little signifiers of contrast between us, tiny things compounding every day. The good teeth, miles logged in air travel. She and her friends were my counterparts in this strange new dimension, but I hadn’t gone to their school, I couldn’t buy them drugs or booze, I didn’t have clout online. I couldn’t have been helping her romantically either. I started to wonder if she was going to pin some elaborate scam on me.
My value only became plain one evening when we went to get ice cream around the corner. Licking our melting cones, we walked home under the indigo sky, high on youth and summer.
I’m thinking about not going back to school, she said, considering her pistachio ice cream as though it had been the one to speak, not her.
Why is that? I asked.
Well . . . it’s all sort of phony bullshit, isn’t it? Liberal arts college. They’re teaching us to lead a life of the mind, but nobody gets to lead a life of the mind, not really. At some point, people have to leave their reading chairs and feed themselves.
I mean, isn’t that why you went to college? To, like, explore your intellectual horizons?
We paused at a corner, waiting for the light to change.
I don’t know, she said. It seemed like the thing to do, and I really do care about everything my professors care about—history, politics, dance, all of it. But lately . . .
I don’t know . . . lately I’ve been struggling to see the point in any of it. Maybe it’s not so much that it isn’t valuable, of course it’s valuable, but it just feeds your ego. It all feels dishonest. Like, all anyone in the real world seems to care about is how much money you have and how you look, right? People go to college to get free, expand their mind, but what does it really get you? You have a fancy degree, and then what? You have to graduate and work. Working isn’t freedom; it can’t be. Freedom is freedom, right? Art is freedom.
The light changed, we crossed the street, and I said nothing, knowing that she wanted me to agree, perhaps because I had helped inspire this notion in the first place. I didn’t have the heart to tell her what I was really thinking, which was that freedom in our world meant having opportunities to change your life, if that’s what you wanted to do, and that college was just that, an opportunity. An opportunity that could ruin you financially, sure, but it was something. An option. Some hope. A lot of people needed that hope.
Well, I said, what would you do instead?
I don’t know, she said. Move somewhere else. Travel. There’s so much of the US I haven’t seen. Maybe I just want to live on my own and, like, just go a while without being perceived. She laughed a sad little laugh and added, Sometimes my sister and my mom look at me, and, like . . . they’re just so depressing. So serious. I’m sick of having to be the only not-depressing person in the family, you know?
A breeze swept through the branches of a crooked elm tree nearby. Ginny kept speaking, but the words didn’t land. I was too busy feeling a small grief for what I had left behind at college—not just the bad things, but the old trees around the campus green, the whispers in the library stacks—and for what I also knew now to be true. For Marilyn, I had been a helpless stray; for Ginny, I was a welcome snake in the garden.
For Marilyn, I had been a helpless stray; for Ginny, I was a welcome snake in the garden.
That Sunday morning, Ginny texted me to come over. We got wayyy too many bagels, she wrote. I walked over. Marilyn was at yoga; it was just the girls. Ginny and I schmeared cream cheese across the bagels and sat down on the couch to watch CNN with Olivia. A field reporter was covering a hurricane and getting pelted by rain. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ginny clicking through stories on Instagram as she chewed.
Have you ever thrown a party here, Liv? she said, setting her phone down. Be honest.
Here? she said. No, we always went to Ingrid’s whenever her parents were in Mexico.
We should throw one, Ginny said. Before the summer ends, just to say we did—
Have you met our mother?
We could do it on a night she’s out! Doesn’t she have to go out of town at the end of August? We could do it then.
Yeah, but . . .
You could invite that guy you’ve been texting.
Olivia shot her a venomous look.
Would there be a theme? I asked. That could be fun.
Petty misdemeanor, Olivia said.
Nah, too much hassle, Ginny said, ignoring her. Just a casual thing to mark the end of the summer; that would be fun.
I could put a mix together, I said. Something chill.
Yes! That would be amazing, Ginny said.
Do I have to come? Olivia asked, turning away from the TV to look at us. Ginny’s expressions must have given away her woundedness because she hastily added, I mean, like, none of my friends are here right now . . . it’d be awkward for me to party with a bunch of undergrads.
Will you buy us booze?
I’ll think about it.
Olivia turned back to the TV.
Good, it’s settled, Ginny said. When we come back from vacation, we’re throwing a rager.
That night in bed, I thought about the party. Ginny kept using the word “we”—did that make me an official cohost? I imagined moving confidently around the loft, familiar with every cabinet in the kitchen and every step on the staircase. I could hide all of Marilyn’s art and fetch paper towels if someone spilled. The night would hurtle forward into the unknown. Ginny and I would hold up our phones and take messy selfies. We’d chase vodka with lemon soda and squirm. Grab pretzels from a bowl. I would be wearing a black shirt, something simple. My playlist would be bumping from the speaker. Maybe a hot acquaintance would come unexpectedly, see me and assume I lived there. Maybe our eyes would lock and blow each other up.
A few days later, the Vaughns went on their annual summer getaway to Door County. I scrolled on Grindr and started conversations with men who self-identified as “young professionals.” I thought about checking out Market Days, but I didn’t have anyone to go with. I ate quiet meals with Barney, who would regale me with stories about failed pitches and big accounts. I was making digital copies of all his CDs, and sometimes I’d stow away a copy for myself—Hole’s Live Through This , Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister , Wilco’s Summerteeth . I jogged around the neighborhood and toyed around with some new drum loops. I worried about money.
On a humid August night, I heard the rumbling of luggage wheels and hushed voices in the hallway. I was up late watching a show in Barney’s apartment, so I tiptoed to our door and pressed my ear to the seam.
It was the Vaughns, idling in the hallway.
Sorry, they’re in here somewhere, Olivia said. She must have been looking for her key in her purse, because I could just barely make out the sound of her hand digging through her jangling belongings.
Alright, I just don’t understand, Marilyn said in a low, stern voice. You have great friends there; remember how sad you were in those first few days back in May? You said—
I know, Ginny said, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I’m just not sure it’s right for me.
Right for you?! Marilyn said, exasperated.
You have to go, Olivia added, still digging through her things. You have to. What else are you going to do? Go somewhere and hike ?
You’re going, Marilyn said. And that’s my last word. I don’t know what planted this idea in your head, but it ends now.
Olivia must have found her key and opened the door. Their voices diminished inside. I returned to the couch, thinking about my student loans and my maxed-out credit card. I didn’t have a proper job; I didn’t have a proper plan. I was the guest of a man I didn’t know very well. My shoes were falling apart. What was there to admire in all that? I did not wake up to clear morning light coming through high windows, did not glide downstairs in a silky robe. My last name was not Vaughn.
I texted Ginny the next day, but she didn’t respond. I waited two days to knock on their door, thinking I would let them get settled, and Marilyn answered, standing in the doorway. We greeted each other and chatted briefly about their trip—the smell of the pine trees, walks along the water. Her voice betrayed nothing, but something in the air had shifted. Normally, she would have already invited me inside.
Is Ginny around? I asked. I was going to grab coffee and thought she might want to join.
Oh, Marilyn said, I was hoping she might have told you herself.
Told me what?
Her words suggested she was surprised by all this, but her manner felt practiced. Ready.
She decided to go see some friends in New York before the semester starts, Marilyn said. Spur-of-the-moment thing. She left last night. Apparently her friend Sophie has a place in the Catskills that’s just darling.
Oh, okay, I said. Sure, that . . . that sounds nice.
Olivia walked past inside the apartment, looking up from her folded newspaper, expression smooth and blank as a mirror. What had she been trying to tell me that day? She said Ginny was nice . Too nice for her own damn good, she seemed to say. Too naive to know what it would take. What it always took. Something imperceptible passed over her face at that moment, so fleeting I almost missed it, before she returned to her paper and carried on.
Her words suggested she was surprised by all this, but her manner felt practiced. Ready.
I looked down at my shoes.
Well, I said, I should get going.
Okay, dear, Marilyn said, relief spilling over into her voice. Maybe when she’s all settled back on campus, she can reach back out. It sounded like she was going to be busy over the next few weeks.
Right, yeah, I said. Totally.
Take care, she said, weakly raising a hand in parting as she stepped further inside. And don’t be a stranger.
Instead of going back down the hall, I went to the elevator and pressed the button for the lobby. Barney was out again. The numbers of the floors flickered and then disappeared, but I was no longer there. I was standing in the middle of a great empty space—the loft. Its silence was heavy with all the TV soundscapes that had reverberated around the walls, a silence soon replaced by the clamor of pure destruction: I imagined the landing collapsing, glass stems shattering, divan-cushion stuffing exploding out of the fabric. Glossy magazine pages ripping to smithereens, cascading through the air like snow. A storm of neutrals. A burning.
The fantasy I had made of the Vaughns was gone. Take care. It was overcast outside. The streets hummed with possibility and vain endings, every siren and horn and pedestrian laugh coalescing to say the same thing. Take care. My phone vibrated with a new notification, but I didn’t look at the screen. I pushed the device down into my pocket and walked up the sidewalk, heading nowhere. Don’t be a stranger. I guess it was only ever that, a specific kind of fantasy, just as I had only ever been, in Olivia’s eyes, something far different—a specific kind of loser.