‘Another Life’ by Paul La Farge
From The New Yorker:
A husband and wife drive to Boston. The husband is sick. He takes extra-strong cold medication just before getting into the car, and all the way to Boston he worries that he is going to fall asleep at the wheel and crash into the median. Or maybe the husband secretly wants to crash rather than go to his father-in-law’s birthday party, which is what he and his wife are driving to Boston for. Anyway, he manages to stay awake, and they arrive at their hotel. It is just off the highway, a boutique hotel that got excellent reviews on the Internet. The husband and wife check in, they put on nice clothes, they go to the party. A couple of hours later, the husband drives back to the hotel alone. He changes into pajamas and gets into bed. He picks up Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,” the book he brought to read on this trip. “Nature commands every animal and the beast obeys,” Rousseau writes, or wrote, in the eighteenth century. “Man feels the same impulsion, but knows that he is free to acquiesce or resist.” At this point, the husband realizes that he doesn’t want to spend the night reading Rousseau in bed, alone. He thinks about going downstairs to the hotel bar. It’s the kind of thing he never does—but ten minutes later there he is, sitting at the bar, reading his book. The husband is not trying to pick anyone up. His wife will be back in an hour or two, and besides, who would dream of picking someone up with Rousseau? Of all the authors you could try to pick someone up with, Rousseau is probably the worst. Or maybe Kant. The husband orders a hot toddy. The bartender, an attractive young woman with crinkly black hair, brings him the drink and they exchange remarks about it. Is that what you wanted? Yes, it’s perfect, the husband says. Good, I’m glad. The bartender smiles. The husband reads some more Rousseau. Upstairs, in his room, he was really understanding the Second Discourse, but down here at the bar he finds it hard to concentrate. The pretty bartender is scooping ice from the ice chest, and the husband can see her cleavage, maybe even the top of her bra. She goes away, comes back, scoops more ice. Finally, the husband asks her how it’s going. It’s going well, the pretty bartender says. What are you reading? Oh, the husband says, embarrassed, it’s Rousseau. For all his thinking about books and picking people up, he is totally unprepared to talk about the “Origin of Inequality” with the pretty bartender. Fortunately, she doesn’t ask about it. I love to read, she says. I read just about anything. Really, the husband says, pleased. Who are your favorite authors? My favorite author is Emily Dickinson, the pretty bartender says.