“Real Life opens with one of those idle Friday evenings in late summer. I wanted to capture what’s beautiful in the ordinary rhythms of the lives of graduate students in a Midwestern college town. I also wanted to explore the crackling tensions of these really charged friendships and alliances that you make with people who are under equal pressures in the same program. What begins as this idyllic but unremarkable lakeside meet up between friends gives way to the complicated dynamics of race and class and sexuality, all of which will have lasting consequences as the rest of the novel unfolds.”
– Brandon Taylor
It was a cool evening in late summer when Wallace, his father dead for several weeks, decided that he would meet his friends at the pier after all. The lake was dimpled with white waves. People coveted these last blustery days of summer before the weather turned cold and mercurial. The air was heavy with their good times as the white people scattered across the tiered patios, pried their mouths apart, and beamed their laughter into each other’s faces. Overhead, gulls drifted easy as anything.
Wallace stood on an upper platform looking down into the scrum, trying to find his particular group of white people, thinking also that it was still possible to turn back, that he could go home and get on with his evening. It had been a couple of years since he had gone to the lake with his friends, a period of time that embarrassed him because it seemed to demand an excuse and he did not have one. It might have had something to do with the crowds, the insistence of other people’s bodies, the way the birds circled overhead, then dive-bombed the tables to grab food or root around at their feet, as though even they were socialising. Threats from every corner. There was also the matter of the noise, the desperate braying of everyone talking over everyone else, the bad music, the children and dogs, the radios from the frats down the lakeshore, the car stereos in the streets, the shouting mass of hundreds of lives disagreeing.
The noise demanded vague and strange things from Wallace.
There, among the burgundy wooden tables nearest the lake, he saw the four of them. Or, no, more specifically, he saw Miller, who was extraordinarily tall, the easiest to spot. Then Yngve and Cole, who were merely tall, and then Vincent, who just scraped under the bar of average height. Miller, Yngve, and Cole looked like a trio of pale, upright deer, like they belonged to their own particular species, and you could be forgiven, if you were in a hurry, for thinking them related. Like Wallace and their other friends, they had all come to this Midwestern city to pursue graduate studies in biochemistry. Their class had been the first small one in quite some time, and the first in more than three decades to include a black person. In his less generous moments, Wallace thought these two things related, that a narrowing, a reduction in the number of applicants, had made his admission possible.
Wallace was on the verge of turning back – he was uncertain if the company of other people, which just a short time ago had seemed somehow necessary, was something he could bear – when Cole looked up and spotted him. Cole started to flail his arms about, as if he were trying to elongate himself to ensure that Wallace could see him, though it must have been obvious that Wallace was looking directly at them. There was no turning back after all. He waved to them.
It was Friday.
Wallace went down the half-rotten stairs and came closer to the dense algal stink of the lake. He followed the curving wall, passed the hulls of the boats, passed where the dark stones jutted out of the water, passed the long pier that stretched out into the water, with people there, too, laughing, and as he walked, he glanced out over the vast green water of the lake itself, boats skimming its surface, their sails white and sure against the wind and the low, wide sky.
It was perfect.
It was beautiful.
It was just another evening in late summer.
An hour before, Wallace had been in lab. All summer he had been breeding nematodes, which he found both boring and difficult. Nematodes are free-living, soil-dwelling microscopic worms, only about a millimetre when fully grown. His particular project was the generation of four strains of nematodes, which then had to be crossed together very carefully. It involved, first, the induction of a genetic lesion that was to be repaired in such a way as to yield a desired modification – the termination or amplification of genetic expression, the flagging of a protein, the excision or addition of a segment of genetic material – that was to be shuttled from one generation to the next, handed down like a gap or freckles or left-handedness. Then there was the simple yet careful math required to combine that modification with other modifications in other strains, changes that sometimes required a marker or a balancer: a tweak to the nervous system that gave the creature a rolling rather than sinuous behaviour, or a mutation in the cuticle that rendered the nematodes thick like miniature Tootsie Rolls. There was also the dicey prospect of generating males, which always seemed to result in animals that were too fragile or uninterested in mating at all. And then, as always, the dissolution of the worms and the extraction of their genetic material, which had a way of revealing, after weeks of careful breeding and tracking of multiple generations, that the modification had been lost. Then it was a mad scramble, days or weeks spent backtracking through old plates trying to locate the modification among thousands of teeming progeny, the wild and fevered relief of locating – at the last possible moment – the golden nematode in the mass of wriggling animals, and then the resumption of the slow, steady breeding process, herding desired chromosomes and wicking away the undesired ones until the sought-after strain emerged at last.
All through the beautiful days of summer, Wallace had been working and failing to breed this one strain. An hour before, he had been in lab, removing from the incubator his boxes of agar plates. He had been waiting three days for this generation to roll into the next, just as he had been waiting months for this result. He would gather the babies, the fine, almost invisible hatchlings, and separate them, until at last he had his triple mutant. When he checked the status of his nematodes, however, the tranquil blue-green surface of the agar, uncannily like human skin in its soft firmness, was not so tranquil.
It looked disturbed, he thought.
No, not disturbed. He knew the word for it.
Mould and dust, like one of those horrible re-creations of a volcanic event – whole civilisations frozen in ash and soot and coarse white stone. A soft pelt of green spores covered the agar and concealed at first an oozing bacterial film. The gelatine looked as if it had been scoured by the end of some rough brush. Wallace checked all of his plates in all of his plastic tubs and found shades of horror on all of them. The bacterial contamination was so bad that it leaked through the lids and onto his hands like pus from a wound. It was not the first time his plates had become contaminated or mouldy. This had been common in his first year, before his technique and cleanliness improved. Before he knew to be vigilant, cautious. He was different now. He knew enough to keep his strains safe.
No, this level of carnage seemed beyond the scope of mere carelessness. It seemed entirely unaccidental. Like the vengeance of a petty god. Wallace stood there in lab, shaking his head and laughing quietly to himself.
Laughing because it was funny to him in a way that was difficult to clarify. Like a joke leaping unexpectedly from an entirely random arrangement of circumstances. In the past few months, for the first time in his four years of graduate school, he had begun to feel that he might be at the edge of something. He had gotten to the perimeter of an idea, could feel the bounds of its questions, the depth and width of its concerns. He had been waking with the steadily resolving form of an idea in his mind, and this idea had been pulling him through all the unremarkable hours, through the grit and the dull ache when he woke at nine to return to work after going to sleep at five. The thing that had been spinning in the brilliant light of the tall lab windows, like a speck or a mote of dust, had been hope, had been the prospect of a moment of brief clarity.
What did he have to show for all that? A heap of dying nematodes. He had checked them only three days before, and they had been beautiful, perfect. Into the cool darkness of the incubator he had placed them to sit undisturbed for three days. Perhaps if he had checked them the day before. But no, even that would have been too late.
He had been hopeful this summer. He had thought, finally, that he was doing something.
Then, in his inbox, the same as every Friday: Let’s go to the pier, we’ll snag a table.
It seemed to him as good a decision as he was capable of making at that moment. There was nothing left for him to do in lab. Nothing to be done for the contaminated plates or the dying nematodes. Nothing to be done for any of it except to start again, and he did not have it in him to take the fresh plates from their place on the shelf, to lay them out as if dealing a new hand of cards. He didn’t have it in him to turn on his microscope and to begin the delicate work necessary to save the strain if it wasn’t already too far gone, and he wasn’t ready to know if it was already too late.
He did not have it in him.
To the lake he had gone.
The five of them sat in a curious, tense silence. Wallace felt like he had interrupted something by showing up unexpectedly, as if his presence somehow shifted the usual course of things. He and Miller sat across from each other, nearest the retaining wall. Over Miller’s shoulder, a veil of delicate roots latched to the concrete, dark insects teeming in its recesses. The table shed burgundy paint like loose hair from a mangy dog. Yngve pulled grey splinters from bald patches left by the paint and flicked them at Miller, who either didn’t notice or didn’t care. There was always something vaguely annoyed in Miller’s expression: a subtle snarl, a blank stare, narrowed eyes. Wallace found this both off-putting and a little endearing. But tonight, resting his chin on his hand, Miller just looked bored and tired. He and Yngve had been sailing, and they still wore their tan life vests open over their shirts. The tassels of Miller’s vest dangled like they felt bad about something. His hair was a tangle of damp curls. Yngve was thicker and more athletic than Miller, with a triangular head and slightly pointed teeth. He walked with a permanent forward-canting posture. Wallace watched the muscles in his forearms tighten as he dug out more shards of weathered wood, rolled them into little bundles, and flicked them from the end of his thumb. One by one they landed on Miller’s vest or in his hair, but he never flinched. Yngve and Wallace caught each other’s eye, and Yngve winked at him as if his mischief were a private joke.
On Wallace’s side of the table, Cole and Vincent had brought each other as close as possible, like they were on a sinking ship and were praying to be saved. Cole stroked Vincent’s knuckles. Vincent had pushed his sunglasses back across his forehead, which made his face seem small, like that of a needful pet. Wallace had not seen Vincent in some weeks, maybe not since the barbecue that Cole and Vincent had thrown for the Fourth of July. That had been over a month ago now, he realised with a thrum of anxiety. Vincent worked in finance, overseeing chunks of mysterious wealth the way climate scientists tracked the progression of glaciers. In the Midwest, wealth meant cows, corn, or biotech; after generations spent providing America with wheat and milk and poultry, the Midwestern soil had given rise to an industry that built scanners and devices, a harvest of organs, serums, and patches sprung from genetic mash. It was a different kind of agriculture, just as what Wallace did was a different kind of husbandry, but in the end they were doing what people had always done, and the only things that seemed different were meaningless details.
‘I’m hungry,’ Miller said, sliding his arms open on the table. The suddenness of the gesture, his hands sweeping close to Wallace’s elbows, made Wallace flinch.
‘You were right there when I ordered those pitchers, Miller,’ Yngve said. ‘You could have said something then. You said you weren’t hungry.’
‘I wasn’t hungry. Not for ice cream, anyway. I wanted real food. Especially if we’re drinking. And we’ve been in the sun all day.’
‘Real food,’ Yngve said, shaking his head. ‘Listen to that. What do you want, asparagus? Some sprouts? Real food. What even is that?’
‘You know what I mean.’
Vincent and Cole coughed under their breath. The table tilted with the shifting weight of their bodies. Would it hold them? Would it last? Wallace pressed against the slats of the tabletop, watching as they slid on slim, dark nails.
‘Do I?’ Yngve crooned. Miller groaned and rolled his eyes. The flurry of easygoing taunts made Wallace feel a little sad, the kind of private sadness you could conceal from yourself until one day you surfaced and found it waiting.
‘I just want some food, that’s all. You don’t have to be so obnoxious,’ Miller said with a laugh, but there was hardness in his voice. Real food. Wallace had real food at home. He lived close by. It occurred to him that he could offer to take Miller home and feed him, like a stray animal. Hey, I’ve got some pork chop left over from last night. He could caramelise onions, reheat the chop, slice bread from the corner bakery, the hard, crusty kind, soak it in grease or batter to fry. Wallace saw it all in his mind’s eye: the meal made up of leftovers, converted into something hearty and fast and hot. It was one of those moments in which anything seemed possible. But then the moment passed, a shift in the shadow falling over the table.
‘I can go to the stand. If you want. I can buy something,’ Wallace said.
‘No. It’s fine. I don’t need anything.’
‘Are you sure?’ Wallace asked.
Miller raised his eyebrows, scepticism that felt like a slap.
The two of them had never been the sort of friends who traded kind favours, but they saw each other constantly. At the ice machine; in the kitchen where they took down abandoned plates and bowls from the shelves to eat their sad, brief lunches; in the cold room where the sensitive reagents were kept; in the hideous purple bathrooms – they were thrown together like surly, unhappy cousins, and they needled each other in the amiable manner of enemies too lazy to make a true go at violence and harm. Last December, at the departmental party, Wallace had made some offhand comment about Miller’s outfit, called it something like the folk costume of the Greater Midwestern Trailer Park. People had laughed, including Miller, but for the next several months Miller brought it up whenever they were together: Oh, Wallace is here, I guess the fashionista will have some comment, then a flash of his eyes, a chilly, crooked smile.
In April, Miller paid him back. Wallace came into the department seminar late and had to stand near the back of the room. Miller was there too. They were teaching assistants for the class before the seminar, and it had run over, but Miller had left early while Wallace stayed behind to answer questions for the undergraduates. They stood against the wood panels, watching the slides crawl along. The visiting scholar was famous in the field of proteomics. Standing room only. It pleased a petty part of Wallace to see that Miller hadn’t gotten a seat either. But then Miller had bent down close to Wallace’s ear, his breath damp and warm, and he’d said, Didn’t they move your people up front? Wallace had felt a cool, reluctant thrill at Miller’s proximity, but in that moment it turned into something else. The right side of Wallace’s body went numb and hot. When Miller looked down at him, he must have seen it on Wallace’s face – that they were not this kind of friend either, that the list of things they could joke about did not include his race. After the lecture, among the jostling line for free coffee and stale cookies, Miller had tried to apologise, but Wallace had refused to hear it. For weeks thereafter, he had steered clear of Miller. And they fell into that chilly silence that comes between two people who ought to be close but who are not because of some early, critical miscalculation. Wallace had come to regret the impasse, because it precluded their discussing the things they shared: They’d both been the first people in their families to go to college; they had both been cowed upon arrival by the size of this particular Midwestern city; they were both unusual among their friends in that they were unaccustomed to the easiness of life. But here they were.
Miller’s surprised silence, the dark caution on his face, told Wallace everything he needed to know about his offer.
‘Well, all right then,’ Wallace said quietly. Miller put his head down on the table and groaned with exaggerated plaintiveness.
Cole, who was kinder than the rest of them and could therefore get away with such gestures, reached over and ruffled Miller’s hair. ‘Come on, let’s go,’ he said, and Miller grunted, then swung his long legs out from under the table and stood up. Cole kissed Vincent’s cheek and shoulder, and another cold shard of envy darted through Wallace.
The table behind Yngve was filled by a league soccer team in cheap nylon shorts and white T-shirts on which they had drawn their numbers, loudly discussing what to Wallace sounded like women’s tennis. They were all fit and tan and covered in dirt and grass. One of them wore a rainbow headband, and he pointed aggressively at another man, shouting at him in Spanish or maybe Portuguese. Wallace tried to make out what they were talking about, but his seven years of French gave him no purchase on the flurry of diphthongs and fragmented consonants.
Yngve was on his phone, his face caught up in its glow, more pronounced now that night was coming on. Darkness seeped into the sky like a slowly spreading stain. The lake had turned metallic and ominous. It was the part of a summer evening just past the blue hour, when everything began to cool and settle down. There was something salty in the wind, a charged potential.
This article is taken from issue 27. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here