Book Excerpt: 'The Fabulist'

"Steve, it's Robert," the message began. Robert was the editorial director of the Weekly. "Give me a call when you get a second. I just got an email from a reporter at Substance Monthly. He says he wants to talk about one of your pieces. I don't know what it's about, so I thought I'd call you first. Sorry to bother you on your vacation."

"Next message: 11:21 a.m."

"Steve, it's Robert again. I just talked to the guy from Substance, and he was asking some questions about your story. It's the 'angry lottery winners' piece from a couple of weeks ago. Call me. I'm at the office."

"Next message: 1:45 p.m."

"Steve, it's Cliff Coolidge. Just want to make sure we're still on for dinner tonight. Give me a call and let me know."

Cliff was an acquaintance of Allison's and mine. He had gone to Stanford with Allison and now was a young writer at District magazine.

"I thought you canceled that," Allison said. "We have plans tonight with my brother. Remember?"

Allison had six brothers (she'd been the only girl in her family), and they all lived far away, on the West Coast or back in Brazil where they'd all gone to elementary school. So there was always a brother coming into town — but this brother I'd never met.

I knew I should apologize for forgetting his visit, but I couldn't. I stood there, frozen, and all I could pay attention to was Robert's voice. Allison's receded into the background like white noise.

"Next message: 2:07 p.m."

"Steve, it's Robert. This is my third message. Where are you? Call me. It's really important. Have them interrupt me if I'm on the phone."

"Next message: 2:41 p.m."

"Steve, cancel whatever you're doing and come over here, I mean it. Allison, if you hear this and know where Steve is, could you get him and tell him to call me? It's Robert."

"Next message: 3:48 p.m."

"Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve. Answer the goddamn phone. Where the f--- are you? I don't care if you're having some nice little romantic thing, call me. Do I have to come over to your apartment?"

"End of messages."

I stared at the machine, my stomach churning.

"You're going over there, aren't you?" Allison asked.

"Yes," I said.

"He always gets this way. Everything's an emergency. Can't you just not go?"

Allison was accustomed to Robert's persistence. Two weeks ago, he had called the apartment five times, and tried Allison at work, because he thought I'd forgotten to turn in a story. He had the wrong disk in the computer.

"If I don't go —"

"I know, I know. He'll just keep calling. At least promise me you'll be back in time for dinner?"

"Sure."

"Come back quick," she said.

I promised I would see her in about an hour. But, as it turned out, we wouldn't really see each other again, not in the same way at least. Here was where I would begin to lose Allison. I should have seen it even then, but I did not. By the time we saw each other next, the process of our unrecognition — by which we began to feel that we knew each other less and less, and in the end that we had never truly known each other at all — would have already begun.

The walk to the Weekly's office from my apartment was brief, maybe twenty minutes. It was May, Washington's only agreeable month. The air was warm and thin, like a pleasant dream, and it was into a pleasant dream that I then began to make my escape.

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