"Annabelle and Beth"
Dana Schwartz, #1 NYT-bestselling author of ANATOMY and IMMORTALITY, serves up a tale of unrequited love set at a charming Oxford pub.
When I was twenty-two, a girl I sort of knew from Twitter moved to New York. Her name was Dana Schwartz. We met for the first time at a cheap bar in the East Village, and confided in each other that we wanted to write books someday. Soon, we were real friends. Looking back, it’s a blur of bottomless brunch, karaoke, wandering into lingerie stores we couldn’t afford and trying on the most ridiculous items, and long conversations about the guys we were dating and the careers we wanted to build. We wrote a few chapters of a YA novel together and went to book signings, including a panel featuring Heartbeat’s very own Georgia Clark — but back then, Georgia and I were strangers and I was too shy to say hi!
Not all of our mimosa-fueled dreams came true, but the most important did. Dana was the first friend I knew to land a book deal. I signed mine a year later. Dana is now the #1 New York Times-bestselling author of Anatomy and Immortality, among other excellent books, and on Monday, I was delighted to moderate her Immortality launch event at The Strand. Nothing is more fun than watching Dana shine. Looking out at the packed house, I wanted to reach back through time to those twenty-two-year-old kids and remind them to breathe. Everything would be okay. It all comes together in time.
Today, I’m honored to run Dana’s short story “Annabelle and Beth” on Heartbeat. She sweeps us away to charming Oxford to tell two stories of unrequited love: Beth’s platonic crush and Hugo’s romantic crush, both on the glamorous, unavailable, maddening Annabelle. Enjoy.
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“Annabelle and Beth”
Her roommate Annabelle was accustomed to being the center of attention, which meant that every time she entered a room, Annabelle shrieked and lifted her arms in celebration at whoever she spotted that she happened to know. Beth typically stood a few steps behind, in the shadowy wake of Annabelle’s theatrics.
Tonight, Beth stood in the low doorway of Turf Tavern while Annabelle sashayed over to a tall, posh-looking boy. See the master at work, Beth thought, watching Annabelle pull him into conversation. See how imperceptibly Annabelle looks around the room to see if anyone more interesting is around — if you didn’t know what she was doing, you might not clock it at all. But no, Annabelle has settled on her prey: the posh boy. Had Beth met him before? He looked familiar. Henry, maybe. All of the boys Annabelle fell in love with and then fell out of love with were all named Henry. Now Annabelle rested a perfectly manicured hand gently on his shoulder blade and —
“Beth! You remember Hugo don’t you? He was telling me about skiing in Andorra on holiday and I’m furious he didn’t invite us, aren’t you?”
Beth fixed the proper smile on her face and nudged her way through a gaggle of undergraduates to stand beside her friend. She arrived just in time for Annabelle to throw her head back laughing at something Hugo said.
Hugo, an expert in British gentility, turned his attention to Beth. “Hugo Longfellow-Smithe. Pleasure.”
“Beth Kellert. No hyphen.”
“Hah!” Hugo cawed, and grinned. “Another American, like the beautiful Annabelle.”
“We’re infesting the place,” Beth said.
But Hugo had exhausted the necessary pleasantries with Annabelle’s less pretty friend, and had turned his attention back to Annabelle herself.
Annabelle had mastered the art of pretending to be delighted at seeing all the right people, which had sped her entry into a social echelon at Oxford that she otherwise would have reached only eventually thanks to her casually expensive wardrobe and her naturally wavy dark blonde hair. She had a look that said Old Money-former Vogue intern-my father was a Senator-my mother was a Muse-I used to be a model but I gave it up to get my Ph.D instead — even if Beth knew that Annabelle’s father was an insurance agent and her mother was a second-grade teacher and she grew up in Shaker Heights where the closest she got to doing coke as a teenager with a rock star was when her father’s company got them backstage passes to Shania Twain at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland. (The model part was partly true: Annabelle had been an Abercrombie model in her teens, and had briefly appeared in black-and-white in malls across the United States, staring into the eyes of a boy dressed as a rugby player. Annabelle had the photo on her phone, and she would show it with a pretty eye roll if anyone asked.)
Annabelle was so adept at navigating the social scene of New College that Beth had been somewhat surprised to find that Annabelle continued to invite her along even after the compulsory period where new roommates no longer had to pretend to be friends. Annabelle invited her to pubs, punting with boys they just met, to study in the library together.
At first, Beth thought it was because they were the only two Americans in their college’s English Literature master’s program (Beth was studying Edith Wharton; Annabelle’s thesis was on the Romantic poets; their decision to live together had been made hastily, several weeks before arrival in England, via a new postgraduate students Facebook group.)
But as they proceeded further into the semester, Beth had realized something: Annabelle needed an audience. A straight-man. A sidekick. Annabelle’s outlandish American routine, complete with gasps of mock surprise and faux-insults, simply worked better on posh Brits when she had Beth to play off of. Beth’s reticence made Annabelle bold; Beth was the necessary tension at the other side of the rope that Annabelle pulled; it was a double act, even if Beth was largely silent.
The truth was, Beth was grateful for it. Beth was grateful to be an observer to the sort of Oxford graduate school experience she had imagined for herself even if she were not the one actually living it. When Beth had decided that she would quit her job at a failing magazine and abandon her small room in a shared Bed-Stuy apartment to go to Oxford, it had been in the hopes that the trip across the Atlantic might alchemically transform her into the type of person Annabelle already was. It was only November, and Beth was worried she had already learned the most important lesson of graduate school: that it can’t make you prettier or more fun or more charismatic or more interesting or more aware of where the right parties are and how to get to them or more excited by the prospect of staying out until four in the morning.
But being near Annabelle was close.
The pub was crowded with wool coats and scarves — there was a hearth somewhere pumping the small room with air warm as an exhale. A strand of Christmas lights winked from the bar.
Annabelle excused herself to use the ladies room, leaving Hugo and Beth standing across from each other, unsure if they were supposed to keep the interaction afloat.
“God, she’s gorgeous,” Hugo said when the smell of Annabelle’s Veronique Gabai perfume had dispersed. “She’s gorgeous, isn’t she?”
Actually, Beth thought, Annabelle wasn’t gorgeous. She as pretty, Beth decided. And confident. With good fashion sense, and an impossible to describe chaotic charisma. But if you looked at her face alone, she was almost ordinary. Beth had given it plenty of thought during occasional moments of despondent insecurity. “Yes,” she replied. “She is.”
Hugo straightened the collar of his striped shirt. “She’s not seeing anyone is she? I mean, in terms of dating?”
Beth hesitated. The truth was that Annabelle had spent the past few nights lying across the couch, reading aloud Instagram DMs she had been receiving from a boy named Jono Bello, who was a bassist in a semi-famous London anarchist punk band whose father was a semi-famous MP. Jono would be the obsession that would consume Annabelle for the next few months; she was already planning her trip up to London to see him next weekend. Beth could recognize the pattern already: whatever her brief dalliance with Hugo was, it was certainly over.
“I don’t know,” she said finally. “I’m not sure Annabelle is the dating type.”
“She wrote me this poem,” Hugo said. He closed his eyes. “I still have the fucking polaroid she took of us in bed, mate. I mean — fuck.” He wasn’t waiting for Beth to reply. He was using her as Annabelle so often did, as a living reason to monologue, an Un-Person without inner life or agency. The way Hugo saw cab drivers or cleaners. “She’s so beautiful, mate,” he continued. “Not like, hot beautiful, but like, inner beautiful. You know?”
Beth looked around; Annabelle wasn’t back from the bathroom yet. “I think I’m going to go outside and get some fresh air,” she said to Hugo. He slumped against the bar, lovesick and oblivious to the gaggle of second-year girls desperate to get his attention.
The outdoor patio of the pub was still lively despite the cold. Beth pulled her jacket tighter around her and cursed herself for not wearing tights under her skirt. It was a long walk back to their apartment, and she couldn’t leave until she found Annabelle.
She looked around. Underclassmen talking loudly, their hands animated, the excitement in their voices palpable even if Beth couldn’t make out their words. Some of the students were sitting in large groups, of five or six. Would Beth have made more friends if she hadn’t been following Annabelle like a puppy the last few months? The thought made her sad. Annabelle never seemed to be alone, and yet, like Beth, she didn’t seem to have very many friends. She knew everyone, but that wasn’t the same.
As if she conjured her, Beth caught a flash of blonde hair and turned to see Annabelle hoisting her leg over the back of a stranger’s electric bike near the alley. The stranger had just kicked off the ground when Beth managed to catch Annabelle’s eye.
“Oh, hey Beth!”
Annabelle hopped off the bike. “I thought you went to the bathroom,” Beth said.
“I did. But then I ran into Andrew who said he could give me a ride to the train station. Jono invited me to a show his band is doing.”
“It’s already midnight,” Beth said.
Annabelle’s lips curled into the suggestion of a smile. “He doesn’t go on until two, babe.”
“But—” Beth’s brain scrambled to put the pieces together. How was she going, with no plan, with no forethought, to meet a boy she had never met in person. Annabelle was an adult, but surely it was dangerous. Surely the delight of adventure was only delightful in the abstract, that real impulsiveness led to being bored, being cold, being lonely, being lost. “But you didn’t pack anything.”
Annebelle laughed. “I’m only going one night, weirdo.”
“Hugo is in love with you.”
She furrowed her pretty brows. “Hugo?” she said. “Oh, he’ll be fine. I’ll text you when I get to London!”
“Do you even know if there’s a train running?”
Annabelle shrugged and secured herself again on the back of the bike. “Probably.”
And then the bike disappeared down the dim, narrow street, and the sound of Annabelle’s high-pitched laughter ricocheted against the stone buildings. There was no sense in staying out anymore if Annabelle was gone. Beth might as well walk back to the apartment and see if she could stay awake for a few hours and do some reading.
It hadn’t gotten old yet, the way the Oxford streets looked first thing in the morning, the light-colored stone glowing the color of sand, or at sunset when it seemed every college was its own watercolor painting. But at night, it was hard to romanticize things. It was dark, Beth was hungry, and she was going home to an empty apartment without central heating where the bread had probably gone moldy. If it had been lighter, she might have walked by the river, but with her hands already tingling from the cold, Beth wanted to make sure her route was as efficient as possible.
And then she heard a splash.
She looked around. The corner shop was closed. No one else was walking near her.
It had been a loud splash. It wasn’t the sound of a boat. And if it had been friends teasing each other into swimming in the cold, surely there would also be the sound of laughter. Instead, there was just silence. It had been a splash, and then… nothing.
“Hello?” Beth called, embarrassed at the sound of her own voice. There was no response. Surely it was nothing. A stone falling from a… bluff somewhere. A dog. A bike falling into the water.
Before she came up with a reason to stop herself, Beth went to investigate.
The shore of Cherwall was spongy here. The grass was inky black beneath her steps. “Hello?” Beth asked again. Her eyes adjusted away from the street lamps, and there, in the middle of the small river, was…. something. A black, shapeless mass, bigger than an animal.
“Oh god,” Beth muttered to herself. She contemplated taking off her shoes, but her body was already moving forward by the time she thought of it, and step by step, Beth lowered herself into the freezing water toward the shape. The water had reached her mid-shins by the time the black shape retched its head back with a heaving gasp.
“Stop!” Beth said. “What are you doing?”
The mass was a person: with damp strands of hair falling in his face. “Drowning myself,” he said. “Now leave me to it.” It was a posh, familiar voice. He sounded almost cheerful.
“I — no,” Beth said. “Let me — help you.” Before the man in the river could protest too much she swung her arm across his back and began to pull him to shore. The water only reached her waist, and the boy was buoyant and unwilling to fight.
Reeds pulled at her ankles, but it didn’t take long until they were both heaving and shivering on the cold grass. Only after they had both caught their breath did Beth realize who she had reunited with.
“Hugo,” she said. “What were you doing?”
“I told you,” Hugo said. “Drowning myself. It didn’t seem to work. I’m a very good swimmer. How did Virginia Woolf manage?”
“She put rocks in her pockets,” Beth said before she could stop herself.
“Rocks! Cripes, yes, I knew I forgot something.”
“You can’t… do that now!” Beth said. “I shouldn’t have said that! And now, shit! Okay, you can’t go back into the river with rocks, because then it’ll be my fault, and I’ll feel guilty forever.”
“Suppose you’re right,” Hugo said. He rolled over onto his stomach. “I didn’t actually want to do it anyway. Too cold.”
His voice was clear; Beth couldn’t tell if he was drunk. That was a thing she noticed about posh boys; even when they were absolutely sloshed, they still sounded like the smartest person in the room.
“So you won’t?” Beth said. “Go back in again, I mean.” She wondered if she was supposed to call someone.
“Nah,” Hugo said. “Shite idea. She wouldn’t have even noticed.” She. Annabelle. “Saw her go off with a bloke on a bike.”
“Oh,” Beth said. “Andrew. He’s not anyone. I mean, he’s just a friend.”
` “Sure,” Hugo said. “Girls like that always have lots of friends. You don’t have a cigarette do you? Could go for a smoke.”
“No.” Even if she did, it would have gotten soaked. Beth wished she had had the foresight to have thrown her phone onto the shore before she waded in so deep.
Her teeth began chattering so loud she was certain that Hugo could hear them. “Do you live close?” Hugo asked. “Would kill for a shower now.”
Beth stood, shaking as much water from her jacket as she could. “Do you even know my name?”
Hugo stood too, and Beth realized how tall he was, a full head above her. His lips were turning blue. “Yeah, of course. You’re Beth.” He said it like they were old friends.
“Okay,” Beth said, checking her pockets to make sure she still had her keys. “Let’s go to mine.”
He began shedding layers as soon as they had passed the threshold. Scarf, jacket, hat, shirt all hit the floor with wet thuds. “I’ll let you shower first, of course,” Hugo said. In the apartment light, she could tell—he was drunk. But the color was coming back to his face now and he seemed in surprisingly good spirits. “But the trick is to get out of your wet clothes as quickly as possible. They teach you that in survival training.”
“Do you have much of a need for survival training as a graduate student?” Beth asked.
He extended an arm and pointed directly at her nose. “Always be prepared.”
“Doesn’t seem like you had much of an interest in survival out there,” Beth said.
He spun as he was pulling his trousers off. “Touché.”
“You know we have two showers? You can use the one through there,” Beth pointed toward Annabelle’s room. “I’m sure you can use the towel too. She won’t mind.”
Hugo had already disappeared through the door.
Beth felt her limbs come back to life under the scalding water—mercifully the creaking pipes provided warm water without too much prodding. Stood for what felt like an hour until the pinpricks of cold faded and she saw her skin turning bright pink.
“Here,” she said when she re-entered the sitting room. Hugo was sitting on the couch in a pink towel, with another towel twisted around his head. “Some sweatpants, and a shirt.” They were the biggest clothes she owned—a pair of sweatpants borrowed from an old boyfriend she had never given back, and a t-shirt from a Harry Styles concert accidentally purchased a size too large. She shielded her eyes as Hugo pulled them on, obedient as a child. The shower had sobered him up some. “I started the kettle,” he said once he was dressed. “Hope you don’t mind.”
Beth sat, observing him. He was a strange, hawkish boy with thin, wide lips and ears that stuck out a little too far. When his eyes settled on hers, she noticed for the first time how thick his lashes were. Dark black, around deep brown eyes. “Bet you think I’m an idiot, don’t you?” he said.
Beth just shrugged.
“I wasn’t actually going to do anything.”
“Except give yourself hypothermia.”
“Well, yeah, that, I suppose,” he said, pouring boiling water into two mismatched mugs. “She just, makes me crazy! I don’t know how she does it!”
“I do,” Beth said. “She does the same thing to me. I mean, not the same thing, but, you know. I get it. She’s… intoxicating.”
Hugo raised an eyebrow.
“No,” Beth said. “Not like that, but—” Hugo handed her a mug and Beth continued. “She’s so confident, she makes you feel as though by just being near her, you’re closer to becoming the person you’ve always wanted to be. Even if you don’t have any fun near her. Even if she’s not very nice. But she’s just being herself, so it’s not like you can blame her for doing anything wrong. You just have to blame yourself for being this vacuous vacuum of need that’s clinging to her.”
“’Vacuous vacuum of need.’ Fuck, that’s good. Are you a poet?” Beth shook her head. “You should be. Fuck. I was willing to off myself for this girl and I hadn’t come up with anything nearly as good as that.”
“She’s not worth it,” Beth said into her mug, and immediately hated herself for it.
Hugo didn’t reply. “I can call for an Uber. I’ve already put you out enough for one night. Forced you to get soaking wet in a freezing cold river. Talked your ear off about your friend who you apparently hate—”
“—I don’t hate her,” Beth said. “She’s just, you know.”
“Yeah.” Hugo pulled out his phone. He pressed the buttons on the side but the screen remained black. “Well, fuck,” he said.
“You don’t have to deal with that tonight,” Beth said. “I mean, it’s late. You can sleep on the couch.”
“No,” Beth said. “She left for London. You’re safe.”
Hugo rolled over onto his side and fluffed a pillow from the couch until it fit beneath his neck. “I might take you up on that if you don’t mind then, pretty Beth,” he said. “I’ll be out of your hair in no time, I promise. First thing tomorrow. Earlier than first thing. The cock’s crow.”
“It’s fine,” Beth said. “I don’t mind.”
“You’re ace,” he said. “A proper mate. A rock star.”
Beth closed the door to her bedroom and got into bed. Her body was exhausted, and the thin mattress somewhere had transformed into something impossibly lush. It felt thick and spongy beneath her back, like the shore of the river, when she had shivered and looked at the stars. It was less than an hour ago, but now, warm in bed, it felt much more distant.
She couldn’t hear Hugo breathing, but she knew he was there, just feet away. The sad, strange lonely boy who had fallen under the spell of the same girl she had. Could he have loved Beth if Annabelle hadn’t met him first? The thought passed through her mind before sleep took her. It was impossible to know. In another life, maybe, but in this one, Hugo was eager for pain and for attention and for heartbreak. She felt something stir in her, an ache she couldn’t quite name. She willed herself not to love a boy who would only ever see her as second best. Maybe deep down, Beth was eager for pain and heartbreak too, the drama of it to lift her from the tedium of a monotonous life. Annabelle wasn’t even at the flat tonight, but her ghost filled every corner of every room, a reminder of what might be if everything were completely different.
She must have fallen asleep because she woke up. The room was gray; it was still night, but the sky through her translucent curtains was less heavy with darkness. And there was someone standing in her doorway. Adrenaline jolted Beth into frenetic alertness and then he spoke: “Fuck. Fuck, I’m sorry. It’s me.” Hugo. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw him come into focus. His face was crumpled like a cloth napkin, lined with ridges from the pillows on her couch. “I heard — I guess, tossing and turning. But I thought you were awake. I didn’t mean to wake you. I’ll go back to the couch. Sorry, again.”
“No.” Her voice was raspy with sleep. “I mean, I’m up now. We can… keep each other company.”
“Really?” His voice was so hopeful, like a child’s.
Beth sat up, aware that she was only wearing underwear and a t-shirt thinned from years of repeated washings. Hugo perched at the end of her bed.
“So,” Beth said, “Talking. Let’s see. Where are you from?”
He laughed and then Beth laughed, the two of them delirious from lack of sleep and the foggy, heady, strangeness of the evening that was disappearing behind them. They smiled slow sleepy smiles, and they talked, forgetting the rest of the world, until the sun came up.
Next up on Heartbeat, get ready for a short story from Blair Mlotek. Follow Heartbeat on Instagram at @storiesbyheartbeat for upcoming behind-the-scenes sneak peeks at Blair’s story! Follow me at @hannahorens.
Three quick things from Hannah:
I babysat for Georgia last weekend and I need to tell you all: her baby’s CHEEKS! My goodness. She’s the most adorable little munchkin!
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What do you think of this week’s story? Sound off in the comments below!
Fantastic vignette, the characters feel so alive and relatable. Thank you for sharing
Adored this story!