Read Nine Perfect Strangers Online

Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (9 page)

She put the letter down. “This is going to be so freaky. We'll have to eat with strangers in total silence.”

“Better than boring small talk, I guess,” said Ben. He looked at her. “Do you want to do it properly? We could talk here in our room and nobody would ever know.”

Jessica thought about it.

“I think we should do it properly,” she said. “Don't you? Even if it sounds stupid, we should just follow the rules and do whatever they say.”

“Fine with me,” said Ben. “As long as they don't tell me to jump off a cliff.” He scratched his neck. “I don't get what we're going to
do
here.”

“I told you,” said Jessica. “Meditate. Yoga. Exercise classes.”

“Yeah,” said Ben. “But in between all that. If we can't talk or watch TV, what will we do?”

“It will be hard without screens,” said Jessica. She thought she was going to miss social media more than coffee.

She looked again at the letter. “
The silence begins when the bell rings three times.
” She looked at the clock in the room. “We've got half an hour left where we're allowed to talk.”

Or
touch
, she thought.

They looked at each other.

Neither spoke.

“So the silence shouldn't be too hard for us then,” said Ben.

Jessica laughed, but Ben didn't smile.

Why weren't they having sex right now? Wasn't that what they once would have done? Without even talking about it?

She should say something. Do something. He was her husband. She could touch him.

But a tiny fear had trickled into her head late last year and now she couldn't get rid of it. It was something about the way he looked at her, or didn't look at her; a clenching of his jaw.

The thought was this:
He doesn't love me anymore.

It seemed so ironic that he could fall out of love with her now, when she had never looked so good. Over the last year she had invested a lot of time and money, and a fair amount of pain, in her body. She had done
everything
there was to do: her teeth, her hair, her skin, her lips, her boobs. Everyone said the results were amazing. Her Instagram account was filled with comments like:
You look so HOT, Jessica!
and
You look better and better every time I see you.
The only person without anything positive to say was her own husband, and if he didn't find her attractive now, when she was her very best self, then he must never have found her attractive. He must have been faking it all along. Why did he even marry her?

Touch me
, she thought, and in her head it was an anguished wail.
Please, please touch me
.

But all he did was stand up and walk back over to the fruit bowl. “The mandarins look good.”

8

 

Frances

“When did the pain start?”

Frances lay naked on a massage table, a soft white towel draped over her back.

“Everything off and then under this towel,” the massage therapist had barked when Frances arrived at the spa. She was a large woman with a gray buzz cut and the intimidating manner of a prison guard or a hockey coach, not quite the soft-voiced, gentle masseuse Frances had been anticipating. Frances hadn't quite caught her name but she'd been too distracted following instructions to ask her to repeat it.

“About three weeks ago,” said Frances.

The therapist placed warm hands which seemed to be the size of ping-pong paddles on her back. Was that possible? Frances lifted her head to see them but the therapist pressed against Frances's shoulder blades so her head fell forward again.

“Did anything in particular set it off?”

“Not anything physical,” said Frances. “But I did have kind of an emotional shock. I was in this relationship—”

“So no physical injury of any sort,” said the therapist tersely. Clearly she hadn't got the Tranquillum House memo about speaking in a slow, hypnotic voice. In fact, she was the opposite: it was like she wanted to get any speaking over and done with as quickly as possible.

“No,” said Frances. “But I feel like it was definitely connected. I had a shock, you see, because this man I was dating, well, he disappeared and—I remember this very clearly—I was actually phoning the police when I felt this kind of sensation, like I'd been
slammed—

“It's probably better if you don't talk,” said the therapist.

“Oh. Is it?” said Frances.
I was about to tell you a very interesting story, scary lady.
She'd told the story a few times now, and she felt that she told it quite well. She was improving it with each telling.

Also, she didn't have long before she had to stop talking for
five days
, and she wasn't sure how she was going to cope with so much silence. She'd only just avoided that terrifying abyss of despair in the car. Silence might tip her over again.

The therapist pressed her giant thumbs on either side of Frances's spine.


Ow!

“Focus on your breathing.”

Frances breathed in the citrus-scented essential oils and thought about Paul. How it began. How it ended.

Paul Drabble was an American civil engineer she met online. A friend of a friend of a friend. A friendship that turned into something more. Over a six-month period, he sent her flowers and gift baskets and handwritten notes. They talked for hours on the phone. He'd FaceTimed with her and said he'd read three of her books and loved them, and he talked expertly about the characters and even quoted his favorite excerpts, and they were all excerpts that made Frances feel secretly proud. (Sometimes people quoted their favorite lines to her and Frances thought,
Really? I thought that wasn't my best.
And then she felt weirdly annoyed with them.)

He sent her photos of his son, Ari. Frances, who'd never wanted
children of her own, fell hard for Ari. He was tall for his age. He loved basketball and wanted to play it professionally. She was going to be Ari's stepmother. She'd read the book
Raising Boys
in preparation and had a number of brief but pleasurable chats with Ari on the phone. He didn't say much, understandably—he was a twelve-year-old boy, after all—but sometimes she made him laugh when they Skyped, and he had a dry little chuckle that melted her heart. Ari's mother—Paul's wife—had died of cancer when Ari was in preschool. So sad, so poignant, so … “convenient?” suggested one of Frances's friends, and Frances had slapped her wrist.

Frances was planning to move from Sydney to Santa Barbara. She had her flights booked. They would need to get married to secure her green card, but she wasn't going to rush into things. If and when it happened, she planned to wear amethyst. Appropriate for a third wedding. Paul had sent her photos of the room in his house that he'd already set up as her writing room. There were empty bookshelves waiting for her books.

When that terrible phone call came in the middle of the night, Paul so distraught he could barely get the words out, crying as he told her that Ari had been in a terrible car accident and there was a problem with the health insurance company and that Ari needed immediate surgery, Frances didn't hesitate. She sent him money. A vast amount of money.

“Sorry,
how
much?” said the young detective who carefully wrote down everything Frances said, his professionalism slipping for just a moment.

That was Paul's only misstep: he underplayed his hand. She would have sent double, triple, quadruple—anything to save Ari.

And then: terrifying silence. She was frantic. She thought Ari must have died. Then she thought Paul had died. No answers to her texts, her voicemail messages, her emails. It was her friend Di who made the first tentative suggestion. “Don't take this the wrong way, Frances, but is it possible that…?” Di didn't even need to finish the sentence. It
was as if the knowledge had been lurking away in Frances's subconscious all along, even while she booked nonrefundable airfares.

It felt personal but it wasn't personal. It was just business. “These people are getting so smart,” the detective had said. “They're professional and polished and they target women of your age and circumstances.” The sympathy on his handsome young face was excruciating. He saw a desperate old lady.

She wanted to say, “No, no, I'm not a woman of age and circumstance! I'm me! You're not seeing
me
!” She wanted to tell him that she had never had any trouble meeting men, she had been
pursued
by men all her life, men who truly loved her and men who only wanted to have sex with her, but they were all real men, who wanted her for herself, not con artists who wanted her money. She wanted to tell him that she'd been told on multiple occasions by multiple sources that she was really very good in bed, and her second serve caused consternation on the tennis court, and, although she never cooked, she could bake an excellent lemon meringue pie. She wanted to tell him she was
real
.

The shame she experienced was extraordinary. She had revealed so much of herself to this scammer. How he must have sniggered, even as he somehow responded with sensitivity, humor, and perfect spelling. He was a mirage, a narcissistic reflection of herself, saying exactly what she so obviously wanted to hear. She realized weeks after that even his name, “Paul Drabble,” was probably designed to begin the act of seduction by subconsciously reminding her of Margaret Drabble, one of her favorite authors, as she had posted for all to see on social media.

It turned out many other women had been planning lives as Ari's stepmother too.

“There are multiple ladies in the same situation as you,” the detective said.

Ladies.
Oh my God, ladies. She couldn't believe she was a lady. That sexless, gentrified word made Frances shudder.

The details of each scam were different but the boy's name was always “Ari” and he always had a “car accident” and the distraught
phone call always came in the middle of the night. “Paul Drabble” had multiple names, each with a carefully curated online presence, so that when the
ladies
Googled their suitors—as they always did—they saw exactly what they wanted to see. Of course, he was not the friend of a friend of a friend. Or not in the real-world way. He'd played a long game, setting up a fake Facebook page and pretending an interest in antique restoration furniture, which had gotten him accepted into a Facebook group run by a university friend's husband. By the time he sent Frances a friend request, she'd seen enough of his (intelligent, witty, concise) comments on her friend's posts to believe him to be a real person in her extended circle.

Frances met up with one of the other women for coffee. The woman showed Frances pictures on her phone of the bedroom she'd created for Ari, complete with
Star Wars
posters on the wall. The posters were actually a little young for Ari—he wasn't into
Star Wars
—but Frances kept that to herself.

The woman was in a far worse state than Frances. Frances ended up writing her a check to help her get back on her feet. Frances's friends spluttered when they heard this. Yes, she gave more cash to yet another stranger, but for Frances it was a way of restoring her pride, taking back control, and fixing some of the trail of destruction left by that man. (She did think a thank you card from her fellow scam victim might have been nice, but one mustn't give only in expectation of thank you cards.)

After it was all over, Frances packed away the evidence of her stupidity in a file. All the printouts of emails where she'd spilled her foolish heart. The cards that accompanied real flowers with fake sentiments. The handwritten letters. She went to shove the folder into her filing cabinet and a sheet of paper sliced open her thumb like the edge of a razor blade. Such a tiny trite injury and yet it hurt so much.

The therapist's thumbs moved in small hard circles. A liquid warmth radiated across Frances's lower back. She looked through the hole in the
massage table at the floor. She could see the therapist's sneakered feet. Someone had used a Sharpie to doodle flowers all over the white plastic toes of her shoes.

“I fell for an internet romance scam,” said Frances. She needed to talk. The therapist would just have to listen. “I lost a lot of money.”

The therapist said nothing, but at least she didn't order Frances to stop talking again. Her hands kept moving.

“I didn't care so much about the money—well, I
did
, I'd worked hard for that money—but some people lose everything in these kinds of scams whereas I just lost … my self-respect, I guess, and … my innocence.”

She was babbling now, but she couldn't seem to stop. All she could hear was the therapist's steady breathing.

“I guess I've always just assumed that people are who they say they are, and that ninety-nine percent of people are good people. I've lived in a bubble. Never been robbed. Never been mugged. Nobody has ever laid a hand on me.”

That wasn't strictly true. Her second husband hit her once. He cried. She didn't. They both knew the marriage was over in that moment. Poor Henry. He was a good man, but they brought out something terrible in each other, like allergic reactions.

Her mind wandered off down the road of her long and complicated relationship history. She'd shared her relationship history with “Paul Drabble” and he'd shared his. His had sounded so real. It must have had some truth to it? So says the novelist who makes up relationships for a living.
Of course he could have fabricated his relationship history, you idiot
.

She kept talking. Better to talk than to think.

“I honestly thought I was more in love with this man than any other man I'd met in the real world. I was quite deluded. But then again, love is just a trick of the mind, isn't it?”

Just shut up, Frances, she's not interested
.

“Anyway, it was all very …” Her voice trailed off. “Embarrassing.”

The therapist was completely silent now. Frances couldn't even hear her breathing. It was like being massaged by a giant-handed ghost. Frances wondered if she was thinking,
I'd never fall for something like that.

The sharpest knifepoint of her humiliation was this: before, if Frances had been asked to pick the sort of person likely to fall for an internet scam, she would have picked someone like
this
woman, with her bulky body, buzz cut, and questionable social skills. Not Frances.

Frances said, “I'm sorry, I missed your name before.”

“Jan.”

“Do you mind me asking, Jan, are you married … in a relationship?”

“Divorced.”

“Me too,” said Frances. “Twice.”

“But I've just started seeing someone,” offered Jan, as if she couldn't help herself.

“Oh. Great!” Frances's mood lifted. Was there anything better than a new relationship? Her whole career was based on the wonder of new relationships. “How did you meet?” she asked.

“He breath-tested me,” said Jan, with a laugh in her voice.

The laugh told Frances everything she needed to know.
Jan was newly in love
. Frances's eyes filled with happy tears for her. Romance would never be dead for Frances. Never.

“So … he's a policeman?”

“He's a new cop in Jarribong,” said Jan. “He was bored sitting on the side of the road doing random breathalyzers, and we got chatting while he waited for another car to come along. It took two hours.”

Frances tried to imagine Jan chatting for two hours
.

“What's his name?” asked Frances.

“Gus,” said Jan.

Frances waited, giving Jan the opportunity to wax lyrical about her new boyfriend. She tried to imagine him for herself. Gus. A local country cop. Broad-shouldered, with a heart of gold. Gus probably owned a dog. A lovable dog. Gus probably whittled. He probably had a tuneful
whistle. He probably
whistled
while he
whittled
. Frances was already half in love with Gus herself.

But Jan had gone silent on the subject of Gus.

After a while, Frances continued talking, as if Jan had actually shown interest.

“You know, sometimes I think it was almost worth it, the money I paid, for the companionship over those six months. For the hope. I should email him, and say,
Look, I know you're a scammer, but I'll pay you to keep pretending to be Paul Drabble.
” She paused. “I would never really do that.”

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