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The Guest Room

Richard Chapman presumed there would be a stripper at his brother Philip’s bachelor party. Perhaps if he had actually thought about it, he might even have expected two. Sure, in sitcoms the stripper always arrived alone, but he knew that in real life strippers often came in pairs. How else could there be a little pretend (or not pretend) girl-on-girl action on the living room carpet? Besides, he worked in mergers and acquisitions, he understood the exigencies of commerce as well as anyone: two strippers meant you could have two gentlemen squirming at once. You could have two girls hovering just above two sets of thighs—or if the girls saw the right combination of neediness and dollar signs in the men’s eyes, not hovering but in fact descending upon each of the men’s laps. Richard wasn’t especially wild about the idea of an exotic dancer in his family’s living room: there was a place for everything in his mind, even the acrobatically tensed sinews of a stripper. But that place wasn’t his home. He didn’t want to be a prig, however; he didn’t want to be the guy who put a damper on his younger brother’s bachelor party. And so he told himself the entertainment would be some girl from Sarah Lawrence or Fordham or NYU with a silly, mellifluous made‑up name making a little money for tuition. He didn’t completely believe this, but in some backward universe sort of way, he felt a little less reprehensible—a little less soiled—if he was getting turned on by a twenty-one-year-old sociology major with a flat stomach and a Brazilian who understood intellectually the cultural politics of stripping and viewed herself as a feminist capitalist.

Richard’s wife, of course, was not present that evening. Kristin had made sure that she and her daughter were at her mother’s apartment in Manhattan. The three of them, three generations of females, one with white hair and one with wheaten and one—the youngest—with hair that was blond and silken and fell to her shoulders, ate dinner at an Italian restaurant the granddaughter liked. It was near Carnegie Hall and had great plaster sculptures of body parts on the walls. Noses. Breasts. An eye. The three of them had theater tickets for a Broadway matinee the following afternoon, Saturday. They weren’t planning to return home until Sunday.

There were supposed to be no videos of the bachelor party. One of the women’s Russian bodyguards told the men to keep their phones in their pants. He said if he saw a phone, he’d break it. He said he’d break the fingers that had been touching the phone, too. (He was smiling when he spoke, but no one doubted his earnestness.)

So there were mostly just stories of what seems to have occurred. How it went from stripping to fucking. How it all went wrong. There is only what the gentlemen, including Richard Chapman, told the police. The talent’s versions? The talent was gone. And those bodyguards? They were dead.

The house, a regal Tudor in what was inadvertently a development of regal Tudors, sat on three-quarters of an acre partway up a wooded hill just off of Pondfield Road. The driveway was steep. One morning Richard had started his pewter gray Audi to drive to the train station for his morning commute to the investment bank in lower Manhattan, but realized he had forgotten his iPad. So he climbed from the car—failing first to reset the parking brake—and then watched, at once horrified and enrapt, as the vehicle rolled backward down the incline, first in slow motion but then with the gathering steam of an avalanche as it rumbles its way down a mountain, rolling into the thin road that led to Pondfield, crossing that main Bronxville thoroughfare, and then slamming into a small copse of maples largely denuded of leaves because it was the last week in October. Miraculously, as if the near accident had been elaborately staged by a film crew, the Audi passed cleanly between a garbage truck plodding up Pondfield Road and a Subaru station wagon with one of the schoolteachers who worked with Kristin racing down it. No one was hurt. The car incurred nearly eight thousand dollars in damage, but this was an Audi: it was far from totaled. Arguably, Richard’s ego was in worse shape—but, like the Audi, eminently repairable.

The house was almost equidistant from the Bronxville train station, where Richard would catch the train, and Siwanoy Country Club, where he would occasionally play golf on the weekends. His favorite room in the house was a mahogany-paneled library, where he had replaced one wall of built‑in bookshelves with a home theater, and where all alone he would watch his beloved New York Giants or he and Kristin would watch whatever sitcoms he had Tivo-ed that week or some combination of mother and father and daughter would watch as a family whatever movie nine-year-old Melissa had selected. Sometimes those movie nights were a testimony to how quickly and how easily the ear cells were mashed into ineffectual chum by loud noise: Melissa only needed the volume set at five or six; her parents, veterans of Nirvana concerts in their teens and then Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains concerts in their twenties, needed it set at jet engine. Sometimes it seemed to Richard that Disney only made movies where everyone whispered.

This room also held Richard’s and Kristin’s vinyl—and the couple had long rows of albums they had alphabetized like librarians—and the stereo that they both cared for like an antique car.

But Richard also loved the bedroom that he and Kristin shared, especially the bed, which was the perfect height to make love to his wife standing up—that is, he would be standing up, she would be lying on the mattress, her ankles gripped like dumbbells in his hands. He took pride in his daughter’s bedroom and the wallpaper—a jungle of lions and tigers (no bears)—that he had meticulously hung himself, as well as the crisp white armoire and dresser where his fourth grader kept an ever-burgeoning wardrobe. These days, as Melissa had grown more fashion conscious, the room always looked a little ransacked: her sweaters and skirts and tights overflowed from the drawers of the dresser and the doors of the armoire. They cascaded onto the floor like the soap bubbles that once flooded the kitchen from the dishwasher the time that Richard had put dishwashing liquid instead of dishwasher gel into the machine.

But the girl’s bedroom was no longer awash in Barbies and Barbie doll furniture. And Barbie doll outfits. And the Barbie doll shoes, which Richard had observed should be listed with the TSA as weapons a passenger could not bring aboard a plane in a carry‑on. He had stepped on them one time too many in the dark in his bare feet, his sole seemingly impaled by one of the diminutive plastic stilettos, when he was checking the girl’s room before he went to bed: making sure that the heat was just right or the window was open (or closed) or she was properly tucked in beneath the covers. But by nine she had long outgrown the dolls. The anorexic amazons had been replaced by plump American Girl dolls with names like Molly (not Miley) and Felicity and Samantha, and even those dolls sat most of the time in a corner of the bedroom, a film of dust atop their demure bonnets and caps. The Barbie collection, a massive assortment of lifeguards, physicians, and pet groomers, had been boxed away in a snap-tight, plastic Tucker Tote the size of a small summer camp trunk and sat now in a corner of her bedroom. The Tucker Tote was clear, except for the lid, which was blue. One of these days, Richard planned to cart the dolls up the stairs that fell from the second-floor hallway ceiling into the attic.

As for the rest of the house, Richard was largely oblivious. He spent too little time in the kitchen to have formed any serious opinions, and he assumed all appliances were more or less equal. Like a sleepwalker he would pour himself coffee there in the morning, and he would bring the dishes there from the dining room after dinner—occasionally, but only rarely, breaking a plate or allowing a knife to slide off the china and deposit mustard sauce on the hardwood dining room floor. But the kitchen was not the nerve center of the house the way it was in so many suburban homes. Kristin never graded papers at the kitchen table there. Richard never examined company profiles or crunched numbers there.

The same was true of his feelings toward the mudroom and the powder room and the pantry, with its glass cabinet doors dating back to the 1930s.

And so while he knew that the men at the bachelor party would be wandering throughout the kitchen and the dining room and the pantry, he really didn’t care. They would be nowhere near the sanctum sanctorum of bedrooms upstairs. Mostly, he guessed, they would be reveling amid the bricks and mortar and magnificent exposed wooden beams in the family’s living room or the smaller den beside it. In those rooms, the paint was the colors of hyacinth and squash and brass and antiquarian brown, and the wallpaper was a series of meticulous renderings of garden flowers. (He had hung that, too. He was, he knew, clumsy; but he was also strangely gifted when it came to select home improvements. He was a virtuoso paperhanger, and it gave him ineffable pleasure to paper those rooms that mattered to his wife and his daughter. Only the front hallway had the home’s original wallpaper.) The house was a mannered world of very conventional domesticity. And if there was a stripper there? If Philip’s friend at the hotel did indeed dial one up? Not a big deal. When she left, when the furniture was moved back into place and the dishwasher had been filled with the men’s glasses, the house once more would be a domiciliary keep for his wife and his daughter and himself.

The autumn rain drummed against the slate roof, but the men were oblivious, the lower clouds soup and the higher ones columns of unseasonal, crepitating thunderheads. A few of the men, including Richard, were vaguely aware that somewhere in the room an ancient Madonna song was on the Bose speaker dock, but most had stopped listening to the strippers’ playlist back on Nelly, because that was when the two girls had started grinding against each other.

Brandon Fisher was sitting beside Richard on the living room couch and leaned forward, murmuring, “Where do you think these girls are from? They’re not American.” A few minutes ago, Brandon had had one of the girls straddling his lap, her breasts pressed hard against his face; she hadn’t seemed to mind when he slipped his fingers underneath the front of her thong. She had even pretended she liked it. And, much to Richard’s surprise, their bodyguards didn’t seem to care: when he’d seen what Brandon was doing, he’d expected their muscle—two large, terrifying Russian dudes, both with shaved heads—to swoop in and break the guy’s hand. But they hadn’t. Brandon had simply given the girl a fifty, which she, in turn, had discreetly slipped into the jacket pocket of one of her handlers. He’d licked his fingers and wolfishly raised his eyebrows. Some of the men had howled.

As soon as the girls had arrived, Richard had moved the coffee table into the kitchen. He had moved the coffee table and the wine rack and a side table with a luminescent glass bowl hand-blown by a Vermont artisan into the kitchen. He wanted to be sure that the girls had room to strip and do whatever else his brother’s best friends were paying them to do in his living room—because, it was clear to him now, these were not mere strippers. They were something more. Way more. He glanced once again at Brandon’s hand. This was not at all what he had expected and he felt a little…unclean. But he also couldn’t imagine being anyplace else right now and not getting to see this—though he was still unsure precisely what this was and where it was all going to end. He reminded himself that he was drunk and told himself he should be grateful to get to see a live sex show in his living room. But then he had a pang of concern for the Oriental carpet. Did he really want the sex stains of strange women and his brother’s friends forever marking the antique rug?

“Russia? The Ukraine? I don’t know,” he answered Brandon finally. “I mean, the guys who brought them here have Russian accents.”

One of the girls was blond, her hair cut into a bob. The other’s hair was creosote black and cascaded in waterfalls down her neck and onto her shoulders. She was still in her thong, but the blonde—whose hands were cupping the other girl’s ass, her fingers splayed, with such apparent force that the breath had caught in his throat—was absolutely naked but for the glitter that sparkled in the light from the wrought-iron floor lamp.

“Maybe the Middle East,” Brandon suggested.

“Not the blonde.”

“Hair’s dyed,” he said.

“I’m thinking Eastern Europe. Maybe Germany? Or, I don’t know, Estonia.”

Abruptly his younger brother, Philip, cuffed him good-naturedly on the shoulder, causing him to spill some of his beer on his lap. “Dude!” Philip told him, his voice happily, boyishly, boisterously hammered. “Seriously? You have two chicks about to go down on each other six feet away from you, and you’re trying to figure out where the fuck they’re from?” He laughed, tousled Richard’s hair, and then added, “You have been married way too fucking long, my older brother! Way too fucking long!”

Philip was thirty-five and a month that autumn night, and he was going to marry a woman five years younger than he was, which meant that she was a full decade younger than Richard and Kristin. A decade is a long time. Think history. It’s the difference between—for example—1953 and 1963. Or 1992 and 2002. Philip’s fiancée, a lovely young woman named Nicole, was a graphic artist who owned a studio with a skylight in Fort Greene, though she spent most nights at Philip’s larger apartment near the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. Philip had a Master of Management in Hospitality from Cornell and ran the reception desk at a trendy boutique hotel in Chelsea. You had to look like a runway model from Prague—tall and blond, with cheekbones only a god could sculpt—to stand behind the black marble podiums and check someone in. He said he was an (and he always said the word with an irony that actually bespoke considerable pride) hotelier.

Kristin stood in a navy blue sleep shirt in the window of the guest bedroom in her mother’s apartment on Eighty-ninth Street and gazed south at the lights of midtown Manhattan. The cotton felt damp against her shoulders and the small of her back; only moments ago she had emerged from the shower. The apartment was on the fourteenth floor.

She hoped the party was going well and Richard was having fun. She and Richard had decided, in the end, that there was probably going to be a stripper—they knew Philip would want one and they knew his friends would want to oblige—but she figured any woman who took off her clothes in a Bronxville living room was pretty harmless. Good Lord, when she thought back on the way that she and Richard had partied when they’d been in their twenties—when they’d been dating—a bunch of guys nearing middle age drinking beer and watching a stripper in a living room seemed downright innocuous. It might not be politically correct, but it was benign. And Richard worked so hard and had so few friends. There were the guys he played golf with every so often. There were the women and men at the bank. But the reality was that her husband was one of those men who spent hours at the office or traveling, and played almost exclusively with her and with their daughter. She worried sometimes that he was, beneath that clumsy, lovable facade, a little lonely. A little wistful. A little sad. She wondered if he might make a new friend at the party. She rather hoped so.

She decided to text him to see how the party was going, unsure whether he would text back in five minutes, or ten, or not until morning. She had no idea if the stripper was there yet—for all she knew, the woman had already come and gone—and for the first time her mind wandered to what sorts of things a stripper did in a living room in Westchester for a bunch of guys, some married, some not, in their thirties and forties. She guessed lap dances, though she wasn’t honestly sure what a lap dance really was. She’d never been to a strip club. She had asked Richard—an intellectual question, not one tinged in the slightest with judgment—whether he thought the woman would be fully naked in their house or still clad in some sort of stripper thong.

“Is there such a thing as a stripper thong?” he had asked in return, kidding, but also curious himself in a puerile sort of way. “I kind of think a thong is a thong.”

“Is a thong,” she added, recalling the Gertrude Stein remark about a rose. But then she had thought more about it, the idea of exotic dancewear, and reflexively raised an eyebrow. “You know what I mean,” she added.

“Thong,” he answered, but she could tell he didn’t believe that. Or maybe he was just hoping he was mistaken. She couldn’t decide from his tone. Heaven knows he liked the look of a woman in a thong; he’d certainly bought her plenty of them over the years. But, of course, she viewed them largely as sex toys. Foreplay. Date-wear. Sure, the girls in the high school insisted on wearing them all day long, but they didn’t know any better. They were still willing to sacrifice comfort for fashion. Because, of course, there was no more disagreeable panty in the world than a thong. As Richard himself had once joked, “Victoria’s real secret is that she’s into some seriously uncomfortable underwear.”

In the bed behind her in her mother’s apartment, a queen with a mahogany headboard with Georgian corners, Melissa was watching an old episode of Seinfeld on her grandmother’s laptop. Kristin climbed back into bed beside her and started a crossword puzzle from the booklet on the nightstand. Not quite fifteen minutes later her phone vibrated, and she saw that Richard had texted back.

“Bacchanalian,” he had written. “Not proud. But I am hoping everyone leaves by midnight or twelve-thirty. I expect to call cabs for at least two of Philip’s pals.”

She smiled. It sounded like he was having fun. She was impressed that every word was spelled right, though she guessed the phone might have corrected bacchanalian for him. She shut it off for the night.

A few minutes later, while her daughter was still awake and contentedly watching a sitcom that had been off the air for nearly two decades, Kristin fell asleep first. She would be awakened by the old-fashioned telephone landline in the apartment just before three in the morning.

Kristin knew firsthand that even now—perhaps especially now—well into a digital world of tweets and texts and tones that are personalized, the staccato, reverberating ring of an old-fashioned telephone is jarring. It is particularly jarring in the small, shadowy hours of the night. As three a.m. nears, the odds that good news awaits at the other end grow slim. Not incalculably slim: babies are born after midnight and parents learn that the child they have been praying to adopt has landed. Soldiers call home because this is the one moment when, nine or ten time zones to the east (or west), they have a moment to speak. But Kristin knew the odds are far higher that a call to a landline—to any line—at three in the morning is the ring tone of calamity. Life-changing calamity. That call is the raven. It was how she had learned that her father had died.

Nevertheless, there was no telephone in Kristin’s mother’s guest room. And so although she heard the ring through her and her daughter’s half-open bedroom door, it was her mother who shook herself awake and reached awkwardly across the mattress—across the side on which her husband had slept until the moment when (quite literally) he died—and fumbled for the phone. Lifting it from its cradle and resting it against her ear. Not yet sitting up. Not yet. Kristin’s mother was sixty-eight, vibrant and lovely, a widow of three years who was never at a loss for a lunch date or a companion to join her for a movie or the Met or whatever drama was playing at the Barrow Street Theatre. She had a personal trainer named Sting—no connection to the musician—a third her age with whom she worked out twice a week at the gym in her building. She was known to walk to the Nederlander or the Eugene O’Neill before a show and then, afterward, take two subways home to her apartment on the Upper East Side. She allowed her white hair to fall unapologetically to her shoulders. She wore blouses unbuttoned to reveal a hint of collarbone.

And so even though it was her mother who was struggling up through the roiling currents of sleep and trying to make sense of what her son-in-law was saying, Kristin grew alert. She opened her eyes, listened to Melissa’s gentle breathing, even inhaled the vaguely fruity—strawberry, she thought—aroma of the child’s shampoo. And she waited. She watched the moonlight through the blinds. Somehow she knew that any moment she would hear the creak of her mother’s bedroom door and the way her mother shuffled like a little girl in her slippers along the corridor. She would hear her mother’s voice whispering through her own partially open door. She would hear the verbal balancing act: urgency mixed like gin amid the tonic of consideration. She would not want to awaken her granddaughter.

Outside, fourteen floors below her, Kristin heard what she guessed was a garbage truck, the engine growling as the vehicle started to accelerate after the traffic light had turned green. Farther away she heard a siren, unsure whether it was an ambulance or a police car.

Then, just as she expected, she heard the sound of the bedroom door down the hall. Her mother was coming for her, each step a harbinger. A tremor. A seismic shift wrought by the smallest of steps.







I was so happy to see New York City. I was so excited. In the crowds, the skyscrapers, and even in the men I saw my freedom. This was my future.

They brought three of us from Moscow: Sonja, Crystal, and me. The rules were clear and the money was clear. I knew they might change the rules because they had done that before, but you always hope. I mean, I do. This time, you hope, the deal won’t change. This time, you tell yourself, there won’t be any surprises.

Maybe that was naive. They always changed the rules. They always kept you on your back.

That’s just an expression I learned. Often I was not on my back. But you don’t need to hear gymnastics. No one does.

Anyway, this time I believed them. I really did. It might be two years, they were telling me, and it might be three. But either way, by the time I was twenty-two I would be on my own. And I would be in America. New York City. The center of the universe, yes?

I knew New York City from movies. Sonja and Crystal did, too. Watching movies was one of the ways we’d kill time during the day when we were back in Moscow. Muscovites (a word that makes people who live there sound like cave people, which they are not) loved films that made fun of communism. Or showed the West winning the Cold War (which was before my time). Or celebrated getting rich really quick (which was my time completely). Many of those movies were set in Manhattan. I remember how Sonja and I watched these DVDs of old movies like North by Northwest, Three Days of the Condor, and Wall Street. We learned about the Staten Island Ferry from this movie called Working Girl, which had nothing to do with what we did, but the title, if we had known that expression back then, would have made us think it did. We figured out a little bit about the differences between New York City and L.A. from Manhattan and Annie Hall.

Sometimes the movies were in English with Russian subtitles, and those helped Sonja and the other girls learn English as much as my teaching. And we always watched The Bachelor in English. We got the U.S. version on one station and the U.K. version on another. We watched hours and hours of both. The Bachelor always had clean fingernails. He seemed gentle. He didn’t have scars. His women always had straight, white teeth, and they applied their makeup perfectly. Their gowns were gorgeous. So were their earrings and their necklaces and their bathing suits. We all loved the moment with the rose. Our men never gave us flowers. Why would they?

For a while we’d lived in a cottage as glamorous as some of the places where the girls who were hoping to seduce the Bachelor were staying, but unlike them we were never allowed to leave. We had one hour of sunlight.

So, it was like I knew New York City before I got there. All three of us did. We knew some of the buildings so well from our movies and hotel room TVs that when we saw the real things, they looked shabby. You know, disappointing. I’m not kidding you or trying to put on airs. The Empire State Building is as big as you would expect when you stand below it for the first time, but on the sidewalk there is all this garbage, and the men look nothing like the Bachelor. There are fast-food restaurants that stink of French fries and grease. Across the street and a block away is a strip club. (Sonja would remember it, and it would be one of the clubs where we would work for a few days.) The first time I saw the Plaza Hotel from the Central Park—a building I knew better by then from movies than I did the opera house in Yerevan, which I had seen with my own eyes as little girl—I stepped in horseshit. And the Times Square? There is nothing like it in Yerevan or Moscow, but the movies had prepared me for the amazing light show made of ads for flat-screen TVs, Xbox games, and fancy bras. What the movies had not prepared me for was that a five-foot-tall thing called a Sesame Street Elmo would try and hit on me there and be flattened by Pavel. This poor little man in his furry red costume never saw Pavel’s fist coming.

After they showed us the city, I thought a lot about two important structures on two smaller islands. To the south, there was the Statue of Liberty. I think I had expected more when we stood at the Battery Park and looked at her out there in the harbor with her torch. I joked to Sonja that Mother Armenia, who stands on a hill in Yerevan and looks out across the city, would have kicked her ass. And then to the north was the jail. The Rikers Island. They showed us that, too. They made it really clear that just as they could kill us—a reminder you would think we never needed, but I guess poor Crystal did—they could simply drop us into that jail. They called it “cesspool.” That was how they described it. They told us how different an American jailhouse was from the townhouse where we were going to live and how different it was from a Moscow hotel or the cottage. They made big deal about how pampered our life was compared to the life of a prisoner in a cinderblock cell—and how safe, in their opinion, our world really was.

The truth is, I usually felt safer with the men who paid for me than I did with any of our daddies or the White Russian or the guys who “protected” us like Pavel. Even my housemothers could scare me.

It was on my twenty-first night in America that everything went to hell. I mean that: to hell. First, Sonja and I learned that Crystal was dead. They’d killed her—our Russian daddies, that is. And then Sonja finally lost her mind. I saw it coming that night—her going totally crazy—but I thought she was going to make it through the party for the bachelor. Nope. I don’t know, maybe we had both lost our minds years ago. Probably. But this was the night when Sonja went wild. She went wild and stabbed Pavel, because he and Kirill were the muscle who had shot baby Crystal and disposed of her tiny body God alone knew where.

Here’s a memory that surprises me: I saw a bunch of Barbie dolls in this little girl’s bedroom that night at the house where they had taken us. They were in a big plastic trunk. The dolls had reminded me of my own collection of Barbies when I’d been a kid, and I still think of that other girl’s Barbies sometimes. There was a rubber on the trunk’s lid. It was a few minutes after the best man had decided not to fuck me (there was a first), and then we went downstairs. The Barbies were maybe the last thing I would notice before I would see Sonja, naked but for a thong, on the back of that bastard named Pavel. Her legs were wrapped around his belly, and her left arm was hugging his chest. Her right arm was like a piston with a carving knife in it, and she was plunging the knife over and over into his neck.

That’s also an image you never forget. Later I would see that his blood was on her arms and in her hair. I would see his blood everywhere.

Somehow, until that moment I had kept it together that night at the party. I was scared not to. I did my job. They had told us what they had done to Crystal, and then put us in the car and driven us out to Westchester to work a private party. (The party was for a bachelor, but the man getting married was nothing like the bachelors we had seen on TV. Oh, he was handsome. He had nice eyes and he was always laughing—at least until he saw Pavel getting killed. But he was not the type who was ever going to get down on one knee and give a girl a rose. I have been around enough men that I can tell pretty quick. Maybe his brother the best man was. But he was twice my age. And the other men at the party? Most were the kinds of dudes who only had girls like us when they paid.) I did whatever they wanted—I even smiled and played along as if it was just another night and another party—because I knew Pavel and Kirill were watching.

But Sonja? She was just biding her time a lot of the evening. She was pretty sure they were going to kill her, too—after the party.

She told me that later. But by then we were gone. By then we were running for our lives.


Excerpted from THE GUEST ROOM by Chris Bohjalian
Copyright © 2015 by Chris Bohjalian
Excerpted by Permission of Doubleday,
A division of Penguin Random House, LLC.  All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
Permission in writing from the publisher.

The Guest Room
by by Chris Bohjalian

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0804170983
  • ISBN-13: 9780804170987