Fiction · 02/17/2016

Cashmere

The rich are different from you and me. They worry more about taxes and wear nicer socks. My boyfriend has socks made of cashmere. I’ve never had a sweater made of cashmere.

While making eggs in my boyfriend’s kitchen, I tell him that his pan’s non-stick coating is a known carcinogenic.

“That’s not non-stick coating,” he replies.

I observe the eggs I’m scrambling, how cleanly they fold off the pan’s hot face. “Then what is it?”

“It’s made of diamonds,” he says. He doesn’t even pause his video game.

To be fair, the pan was a gift from his mother. So were the socks. (The audit was a gift from the IRS.) My boyfriend would never buy cashmere socks. He won’t even buy the Internet. He steals it from the bagel shop on the corner or, if that stops working, we drive around with our laptops, trying out the service in various parking spots.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not rich.

“Let’s just put it out there,” I say after our first dinner with his parents, where we order the never-ending omakase and admire pictures of their latest house. “Your parents are millionaires.”

“Not liquid,” he says.

I have to ask what that means.

I could feel his mom’s influence the first night I slept with him. His sheets were so soft I confused them with my orgasm. I know what they are now—bamboo viscose. I didn’t know then.

“Did your mom buy your sheets?” I asked. Somehow, I already knew what I was dealing with.

“Hey,” he said. “That’s not a nice question.” And then he went down on me.

Only recently have my boyfriend and I begun to discuss the differences between us. I have student loans. He donates to his Ivy League alma mater. I have a roommate. He has a guest room in his apartment. My parents work year-round. His parents use “summer” as a verb.

It only causes conflict when he doesn’t want to talk about it. That’s another difference with rich people: they don’t want to talk about it. My knowledge of each vacation home and investment comes piecemeal, like I’m uncovering a dark family secret. My boyfriend expresses concerns about my debt. I express doubts that this is going to work.

+

My job is teaching English to international students who want to be rich. They’re in the U.S. to figure out how to get started. I have them go around the room on the first day of class and say their goals. Every one of them says: “To make a lot of money.”

“How?” I ask. “How do you want to make money?” I’m very Socratic in the classroom.

“By starting a business,” most say.

“What kind?” I insist.

“I don’t know,” one says. “Maybe a gold business.”

“Guns?” guesses another. “Credit cards?”

One student says she wants to be a neuroscientist and I blatantly favor her, even when she names an underwear model as her inspiration.

I’m not sure how to help my students with their goals. But I show them where to add articles and go over the difference in verb tenses. I mark the grammatical mistakes in their papers with a complicated code instead of fixing them myself. I pass out a poem called “The Chaos,” highlighting the irregularities of the English language, and offer a point of extra credit for each verse they can recite correctly.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

My students are ambitious and try reciting the poem many times, until it becomes inscribed in my brain. I fall asleep each night to its heartbeat rhythm.

Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve.
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Scholar, vicar, and cigar.
Solar, mica, war and far.

+

My boyfriend’s parents fly us to Nantucket, where he goes fishing and drags strange creatures from the sea. There’s a spiny red fish that looks poisonous. There’s a small stingray with a thrashing tail. There’s a baby shark, thin and silver with a streak of blood where the hook has pierced its mouth.

My boyfriend handles the fish with thick gloves, unhooking them awkwardly and releasing them back into the surf. They loll for a while, disoriented and battered by the waves. Then they disappear to unknown fates.

We eat lobster on rolls, salads, and crackers. We eat lobster barely touched by butter or mayonnaise. We say we’re going to eat light tonight and then we eat lobster, boiled alive and shucked in succulent strips.
Lobster, my boyfriend’s father explains, is a perfect illustration of supply and demand. The catch is bad this year, with trawlers setting their traps deeper and pulling up smaller and fewer, so we’re paying more per pound. But before the population was decimated, piles of lobster used to wash up on the shores of New England, scrabbling over each other in disgusting abundance. Back then, lobster was eaten only by prisoners and the military.

“I would have eaten it,” I say.

“Maybe,” my boyfriend says, “but it wouldn’t have tasted as good.”

I’m annoyed there’s no way to prove him wrong.

We bicker a lot on this trip. We bicker about the Nantucket house, which he didn’t tell me about until his parents bought our plane tickets.

“How many houses are there?” I demand. “Just give me a number.”

He starts counting on his fingers then sees my face and stops. “What does it matter?” he says. “What does it change?”

We also bicker about dogs. All his dogs growing up were purebred and often not American. Even his Golden Retriever was British. His family reminisces about this dog often, especially after a few drinks.

“American Goldens are brassy,” his mother says. “Like a bad bleach job. Ashton was an English Cream.”

“That’s a little racist,” I say to my boyfriend that night after sneaking into his bed. (I’m supposed sleep in the guest room so we don’t breed.)

“Are you calling my mom a racist?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I guess I need more information.”

I return to the guest bedroom that night.

My birthday comes while we’re in Nantucket. I thought his parents’ gift was our plane tickets, but on the day itself, there’s a chocolate lava cake and a small pile of presents. I peel them open them with one finger to preserve the thick wrapping paper. I say thank you again and again.

There’s a delicate necklace that shimmers like water. There’s a journal with a leather cover. There’s a cashmere sweater. I try it on for my boyfriend that night, but he puts his hands under it, as if my skin is softer and more expensive.

+

I bring articles for my students about wealth and happiness. After a certain income benchmark, studies have shown that happiness levels do not improve in any measurable way. This benchmark is comfortable, but not what my students would consider rich.

I want to know what they think about this statistic, whether it changes their goals and ambitions, but my students are quiet. They give me amused and pitying smiles, like you might give an underdog politician.

After a while, I ask if they actually read the articles.

“They’re too long,” one admits. “I tried, but.”

Nods of agreement ripple through the classroom.

I bring documentaries instead. We watch one about Bernie Madoff. We watch another about the housing crisis. We watch a Frontline special on homelessness in Silicon Valley.

“What do you think?” I ask. More silence and smiles. We return to “The Chaos,” which has bonded us better than any discussion of Wall Street. A student from China successfully recites:

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;

Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

We cheer and bombard him with high-fives.

After class, this student and his friend stay after class to ask me a question. What’s the first word that comes to my mind, they want to know, when I think of the Chinese Communist Party?

I think about it and answer, “Fake.”

I’m worried I’ve gone too far, but they laugh. They agree. They don’t know what’s Communist about them either.

+

I don’t want much. One house would be plenty. I’ve never been interested in cars, and too much travel exhausts me. But I’m beginning to notice things I didn’t before, as if my immune system is breaking down, leaving me more susceptible to viruses.

I notice diamonds flashing on fingers in the train I take to work. I notice the size and location of friends’ apartments throughout the city. I notice kitchen renovations, dinnerware, and the quality of carpets. I tell myself that noticing is different than wanting, but how long does that stay true?

I open an IRA to appease my boyfriend, who sends me articles with headlines like: Why Retirees Will Outlive a $1 Million Nest Egg. I can’t imagine my parents retiring, let alone myself, but I deposit a few hundred dollars into the account and try to forget it exists so I won’t withdraw it. I refinance my student loans, which if all goes as planned, will have me debt-free in twenty years.

My boyfriend and I try to avoid contentious topics like: money, politics, the future. Instead, we watch television series about drug empires and sit side-by-side on our laptops. I collect pretty pictures on a social network designed for that purpose. I bookmark succulents, cupcakes, and Scandinavian bedrooms with an unearthly calm. Gathering these images fulfils me in a way I can’t quite grasp, as if I’m doing it in a dream.

I wear my cashmere sweater until it’s threadbare and covered in pills. Turns out, cashmere tears. The cuffs on the sleeves gather tiny holes, and my boyfriend laughs, poking his fingers through them.
His drawers are full of sweaters, many still with their tags. His mother can’t stop buying them. She sends him at least two sweaters for every holiday, even Valentine’s and Easter. He thinks she’s gone mad, but I feel like I can understand.

When I come to his house, I open his drawers and slip my hands inside them. Some people say having a child is like having an open wound, but I don’t think that’s true for my boyfriend’s mother. With my palms inside his sweaters, I can feel her satisfaction. How safe it feels to send a child into the world, buffered by layers of cashmere.

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Caitlin Kindervatter-Clark received an MFA in fiction from the University of Virginia, where she was a Poe-Faulkner fellow. Her stories have appeared in Five Chapters, SmokeLong, Women Arts Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in San Francisco and teaches writing at UC Berkeley Extension. Read more at CaitlinKClark.com.