Read the opening of The Mutual Friend by Carter Bays
The Mutual Friend is out 7th July 2022
What did the Buddhist monk say to the hot dog vendor?
This is the problem with telling yourself jokes: Nothing’s funny when you know the punch line. And I know the punch line because I know all the punch lines because I know all. I know all. I see all. These are the facts, and the facts make me all. Make me the storyteller. Make me the listener. Make me the campfire. Make me the stars.
On a June day in the high fever of this century’s messy teenage years, a man died in Central Park. He was walking to work, earbuds in, ambling through a shuffle of his entire music library, when he came to the bike path, which wasn’t so much a path as a ribbon of black pavement winding through the greenery. He looked both ways and, seeing no one coming, started across, but then, halfway to the other side, a breeze reminded him his hair was getting a little long, so he stopped, right in the middle of the road, and opened the to-do list on his phone. He looked down into his hand, his thumb going doot doot doot, and somewhere between the fifth and sixth doot, a blue ten-speed bicycle came coursing around the blind and practically sliced the poor fellow in half.
People ran over to help, but there was nothing they could do. The man’s earbuds were still in, and as it all began to slip, the song ended and into the shuffle he went. Celestial strings lifted him, pulling him into the sky as Nat King Cole sang “Stardust” through a microphone in 1957 into the man’s ears in 2015. The man didn’t want this song, and his last impulse was to skip ahead but then he skipped ahead himself, from this world into the next, and the song went on, and “Haircu” is still on his to-do list.
“I don’t want to say it was the guy’s fault,” said Kervis later that day as he loomed over Roxy’s cubicle in the City Hall press office, “but he was playing on his phone in the middle of the bike path. I mean, it’s sad, but dude, come on.”
Roxy agreed it was sad.
“Second one this year. And it’s only June,” he continued. “We’ll probably have to close the bike lanes. And yes, I’m sure we’ll get com- plaints from the Pedalers’ Alliance. But if people keep getting run over by bicycles, what can those guys do really, you know?”
Roxy shrugged, not knowing what those guys could do really. “Anyway,” he said. “I was thinking maybe we could have, like, a
citywide campaign to get pedestrians to look up from their phones. Like ‘Heads Up New York.’ Or ‘Look Up New York.’ Or ‘Look Around New York.’ Something like that.”
Roxy said one of those was perfect. “Which one?” he asked. “Roxy?”
Roxy looked up from her phone. “Yes, Kervis?” “Which one was perfect?”
“Um,” she replied. “Say them again?” He did.
“Middle one, definitely.”
It bothered Kervis that his assistant Roxy’s opinion mattered so much to him. It also bothered him that she wasn’t actually his assistant. She was below him in the chain of command, and he could tell her to do stuff, but she wasn’t exclusively his, and this bothered him. It also bothered him that she was bad at her job. She never paid attention, didn’t seem to care about the work, probably didn’t even vote for the mayor, and dressed unprofessionally. Today’s overalls were no exception. She was a bad hire, and this also bothered Kervis because he was the one who’d hired her. And most of all it bothered him that she was pretty. Getting prettier every day, in fact. The overalls had something to do with it.
“Anyhoo,” he said, “I should get down there. Sounds like the big guy’s in a mood. This might go late. Are you okay sticking around?”
She was. Kervis left, and for forty-five minutes, Roxy didn’t move from her desk chair in the empty bullpen of the press office. The lower half of her body swivelled lazily back and forth like the cattail pendulum of a clock, but the rest of her remained still, her elbows anchored to the desk, her phone in her hands, her face in her phone. She didn’t mind being here. Had she left an hour earlier, she’d just be doing this at her kitchen table instead of her office desk. Whether she was at home in her apartment or here in City Hall, it didn’t matter, because wherever Roxy happened to be, she was never really there.
Instead she was here. Here, bicycle accidents were no matter for con- cern. Here, nothing mattered and everything twinkled and everyone buzzed about the premiere of a new reality show called Love on the Ugly Side, which sounded just awful and stupid and Roxy couldn’t wait to see it when she got home, but for now she kept moving, because there was more to see, because there was always more to see. A married politician got caught with his mistress and she was amused, until a child with a disability climbed to the top of a rock wall and she was hopeful, until a friend announced he’d bought his first home and she was jealous, until an article confirmed the seas were rising and she was scared, until a panda got a bucket stuck on his head and she LOL’d, and so on and so on, each emotion erasing its predecessor from the dry-erase board of her mind. An earthquake hit Los Angeles. “Anyone else feel that?” “Yowza!” Roxy felt concerned, until, further down, a celebrity whose makeup tutorials she loved retweeted a link to Blueberry Muffins or Chihuahuas, and Roxy followed that link and it took her over here, to a series of photos, some of Chihuahuas, some of blueberry muffins, and the blueberry muffins looked like Chihuahuas, and the Chihuahuas looked like blueberry muffins, and she was asked by the page to guess which was which, and Roxy laughed out loud, and out there, outside of her phone, her soft giggle scurried across the bright empty bullpen like a mouse.
Then she felt an urge. Maybe the big blueberry eyes of the Chihuahuas stirred some procreational itch. Maybe the muffins made her mouth water. Whatever it was, something in the bottom of her stomach or the back of her brain gave the old familiar tug, and Roxy found her way over here, to Suitoronomy, where she met Bob.
Bob had seen her first, and he liked her immediately. Why wouldn’t he? She was beautiful here, the best of all possible Roxies. Here she wasn’t that baggy-eyed girl from the press office, the one in the overalls. Here she was exquisite, in a dress and makeup from three New Year’s Eves ago, when she was fresher and newer and weighed less and slept more. Here, her emphatic red curls were not hidden under a hat or straitjacketed into a ponytail. Here, they spread like fireworks around her, and she smiled a multitudinous smile for everything all at once: a smile for a new year, a smile for a camera, a smile for a photographer, a smile for everyone in the room, a smile for everyone in the world, and finally, here, a smile just for Bob. Bob saw the smile and the hair and the dress, and he must have known he wanted her, because with a flick of his thumb, just a calorie of work, he gathered up this want and sent it crackling out of his brain and into Roxy’s world, setting into motion everything that would follow.
That had been an hour ago. Now Roxy opened up Suitoronomy,
and there was Bob, cheerful dimply Bob, looking up at her from the palm of her hand, wanting her. He was handsome, but everyone here was handsome. They were all as handsome as the handsomest picture they had of themselves, and there was no better picture of Bob in the universe than this one right here. His hair had never been combed better in its life. The historic hair day, the charming smile, and the fact that she knew he liked her was enough for Roxy. Another calorie of work, and both their phones rattled and chirped to announce it: They liked each other.
Roxy didn’t hear from him right away. When Kervis finally re- turned to the press office crowing that the big guy seemed to like “Look Up New York,” she quietly packed up her things and went home. On the subway uptown to Morningside Heights, she forgot about Bob. She checked the weather, she watched videos of makeup disasters, she parsed a few more blueberry muffins from Chihuahuas, and she flirted with three other men. Bob had swum away from the lagoon of her attention and now dog-paddled in the back of her brain with everyone else.
But then, that night, as she lay, half stoned, watching and high-key loving the first episode of Love on the Ugly Side, her phone lit up. It was Bob.
He said, “Can I be honest?”
Roxy was too tired to flirt. She went to sleep, and in the morning, still thinking he was cute, replied while brushing her teeth. She tried to think of some funny retorts before deciding that even though he was cute, he wasn’t so cute that she’d spend all morning worrying about what she said to him, and besides, she was late for work, so she simply said, “Sure. Be honest.”
“Okay,” he batted back quickly. “I’ll just tell you. You’re my first.” “Your first?”
“My very first.” “Your first what?”
“My first one of these. My first match. The first person I’ve talked to on this thing. I’m brand new at this.” Then, a little later, “How’m I doing?”
By now she was back at her desk downtown. She was busy, but she spared a moment to keep the ball in the air. “So great,” she replied. “You’re a natural.”
“Haha, thanks. Yeah I’d never done one of these apps before, so I wanted to see what it was like. I made the little profile, and filled out the thing, I hope this picture’s okay. And then I started playing with it and the very first face that came up was you. Yours. So here I am. I’m Bob, by the way. I like your dress.”
“I’m Roxy,” she replied. “Thank you.”
The dots appeared. He was writing more. She looked at his profile. Bob, 40, has matched with you. She cut him off. “Are you divorced, Bob?”
The dots went away as something was erased. Then the dots reappeared, and then: “No. Why, do I seem divorced? Haha.”
“Still married then? Sneaking around?”
“No, I’m not married. I’ve never been married.”
“You seem a little defensive, Bob. It’s okay, I’m not judging. Life is long. People get bored.”
Another long interval of three dots. So much being written and erased, written and erased, and finally all that arrived was: “I’m not married.”
“Okay, I believe you,” she said. He didn’t reply. An hour later she was at lunch, working through a salad, rubbing a drying fleck of kale from her teeth, when it occurred to her to say more. “I’m sorry, I’m not trying to judge you or anything. Just seems a little weird that you’d be new at this.”
“I guess I’m weird then,” he said quickly.
“Did you just get out of a longterm relationship?” “No.”
“Are you still in a longterm relationship?” Bit of a pause after that one, but then: “No.”
“Well I don’t mean to harp on it but I don’t get how you could spend forty years as an unmarried person on planet earth, and not once be lonely enough or even curious enough to go on a dating app.” She suddenly realised she was putting way too much effort into this conversation. Did she really care all that much? She went elsewhere. Chihuahua. Chihuahua. Blueberry muffin.
“I guess I thought I wouldn’t need to,” he replied. “I thought I’d meet someone nice in real life. At work or something. Or at a party, or through friends. I counted on that happening, for a long time. And then . . . it just didn’t. So here I am.”
Roxy read this in an empty subway car. There was something entertaining about his earnestness. “Is that why you’re here, Bob? To meet someone nice?”
“Isn’t that why everybody’s here?”
“I think most people are here for something else, Bob.” “What’s that?”
Roxy replied with a series of emojis, fruits and vegetables mostly. “Ah,” he said. “Of course.” A moment later, he dared this reply:
“And what are you here for?”
Roxy smiled. She started to write the honest answer: a series of emojis, fruits and vegetables mostly. She didn’t want a boyfriend. Maybe, at some point down the road, she would want a boyfriend, maybe she’d want more than a boyfriend, and if that day ever came, she wouldn’t be conflicted about it, wouldn’t feel like a hypocrite, because that was down the road and this was right now, and right now, as in every right now she’d ever lived, Roxy wanted what she wanted to want, nothing more, nothing less.
She thought of something her old friend Carissa had said when they were on vacation together in Cozumel, before Carissa got married and her husband made her stop hanging out with Roxy. They were at this bar by the beach, and some guy had been hitting on Carissa all night, and he asked her what she was looking for in a man, and she said, “I’m looking for a husband. Someone else’s, preferably!” Roxy and the other girls had laughed so hard at that. Carissa had a four-year-old now. There were first-day-of-preschool pictures on her Facebook page. Carissa was gone from Roxy’s life. No harm in stealing the line.
“I’m looking for a husband,” she said to Bob, and then she paused, because the pause was important for the timing, but then, when she typed out “someone else’s preferably” and added a winky face, it kind of felt gross, and she thought maybe she was wording it wrong because it didn’t seem as funny as when Carissa had said it. Maybe it was funnier out loud when everyone was drunk, so maybe she’d word it a different way, and then the subway screeched to a stop and her phone flew out of her hands and slid like a hockey puck down the length of the car, coming to rest in a puddle, substance unknown. “FUCK!” Roxy screamed. She scrambled to the other end of the car and snatched her phone out of the puddle and shook it until the substance unknown had dripped away, and then her hands went to work, digging into her purse, pulling out a bottle of sanitiser, squeezing out a splurt, another splurt, nearly half the bottle, and scrubbing it into her phone with tissue after tissue, as if it would ever be clean enough to hold up to her face. (She knew it never would be.)
She pressed the power button. It was dead. She held the button down for five seconds, then ten, then twenty, unrelenting, like a para- medic trying to revive a corpse. Her thumb went white and started to hurt. Still nothing.
She ran up the subway stairs and out onto Broadway, and she bought a bag of rice at the bodega, and when she got home, she put the phone in the bag and left it there for the longest hour of her life. Then she plugged in the phone again and said a little prayer.
The white apple of life appeared on the black screen. Suitoronomy. New messages. She clicked.
“I’m looking for a husband.”
“Haha. Wait, seriously? Good for you! I guess if we’re both being honest, I’m looking for a wife. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. Hello? You still there? Pinned under a boulder? Did I say something to upset you? Okay I’m sorry I bothered you. Thank you for a nice first conversation on this thing. For what it’s worth I think it’s cool that you’re up front about what you’re looking for. It’s very honest and brave. If you change your mind and want to meet up sometime in real life, let me know. Goodbye. I won’t pester you anymore. Goodbye.”
Roxy didn’t write back. She forgot about Bob. She forgot him so deeply and so well that she had to think very hard a day and a half later to recall him when, in a hurry while jogging and Suitoronomying, she tried to reply to a different guy’s invitation to drinks next Wednesday, but instead wrote “Yes!” under a message that had just arrived, that very second, from Bob. She stopped jogging.
“Okay, you know what,” he had written, “one last thing, since I’ll never see you again anyway, and I guess there is still a remote possibility you’re pinned under a boulder, I’ll just say you seem cool and I’d love to meet you in real life. Am I doing that too early? Or too late? I don’t know how this stuff works. I just think if there’s more to learn about you I’d love to learn it in person. This is all going on the assumption that you’re pinned under a boulder. If you’re not pinned under a boulder, good day to you. But if you ARE pinned under a boulder, or a fallen tree, or a sumo wrestler, or any other large thing, would you like to get dinner sometime?”
Roxy, still in her jogging clothes, stood by the sink, reading this exchange, then looking at his picture, then reading it once more, and it occurred to her that maybe there was something to a guy like Bob. Sure, he was a goofus, but dinner might be nice. She ate dinner most nights anyway. The red in her cheeks started to go away. And shit, maybe she and this Bob could get married and have some kids or whatever if he wasn’t annoying in person. She looked at him again and broke off the engagement. Not this guy. But his lips were nice. Maybe they would smooch a bit. Maybe more than smooch. She didn’t want to give the poor guy the wrong impression, but maybe she’d rock his world for a night. And maybe that would be it. He was a big boy; he could handle being loved up and abandoned. If nothing else, he’d get a lesson out of it, the hot frying pan you only touch once and that’s how you learn. Welcome to Suitoronomy, Bob. Here there be dragons.
She added, “How about Tuesday?”
Very quickly the reply arrived: “Tuesday it is.”
For someone new at this, Bob had confidence. Roxy looked forward to Tuesday. She even let herself say, “Can’t wait!” before going back to Love on the Ugly Side, and then going on Twitter, and then doing a quiz to find out what kind of disease she was.
New York, 2015. In a city of more than 8 million people, there are always new places to visit, new connections to be made, new experiences to be shared.
But not for Alice Quick. Determined to finally take her MCAT exam and become a doctor, this has to be a summer of no distractions. So it's a shame that her chaotic roommate Roxy is persistently getting her into trouble, not the most convenient timing for her millionaire brother Bill to decide to embark upon a spiritual search for the meaning of life and plain inconvenient that Alice just can't seem to put down her phone.
And then there's the biggest distraction of all, threatening to permanently derail all of her plans: love.
Filled with warmth, humour, and heart, THE MUTUAL FRIEND is an unforgettable debut novel that perfectly captures the choreography of navigating life and love amidst the chaos of contemporary life.