Gillian was tall and thin with white-blonde hair trimmed close, tipped pink and moussed on end, raw eyes, and such taken-aback brows that, my first morning in the office—it was my only interview in New York—I thought I’d mistaken my day to be there.
“No, you’re on time,” she said. “You’ll get used to that.”
Most mornings her boss—soon mine—didn’t arrive until eleven. I read The New York Observer, which was slipped under the door early enough for me to re-fold it and wonder what people up and down Manhattan were doing to be worth ten, twenty, two hundred times more than I was. I was a month out of art school and had decided, too late to apply for fall programs, that I wanted to be an architect. Gillian was a month out of school, too, but she’d studied in the city and interned for a year.
Our office did not have Internet. We had a sour air conditioner in the painted-shut window between Gillian’s and my desks. On the phone for records of utility lines under construction sites where we would never be able to afford apartments, we lifted paint off the sill with our fingernails. I’d started it. On dry days the flakes were brittle; on rainy days they curled off like skin.
“What’ll we do when we meet?” I asked.
“One of us will have to quit,” she said.
My second or third week, we were sent to the City mapping office. Gillian knew which end of the platform to walk to. The tracks hummed uptown to a florescent vanishing point in the blackness. The station ads were all for Rent, which had opened that month, ticket prices optional: ten, twenty, forty—you decide. Overhead, buses growled and behind us a midday crowd thickened, unbuttoned, fanning magazines, frizzed, with damp backs, and book shapes pressing from totes. Gillian had on black East German army surplus boots under cuffed pinstripe trousers. Berlin was the place to be now, she said.
“What do you do there?” I asked.
“Anything,” she said.
She’d gotten an apartment on Rivington Street with her friend Kat. “Not dating,” she’d said. “I should be so lucky.” Gillian’s girlfriend lived in Astoria. I was staying with my friend Greg in Cobble Hill—the suburbs, Gillian said—in his childhood bedroom. I slept on the top bunk and he used the bottom, when he slept. He ran a website I hadn’t visited. I knew I should find my own apartment, but every evening I thought how I’d done nothing to be paid for that day. I couldn’t tell Gillian. She wasn’t one to fear, or wait.
The mapping officer was out when we arrived. From behind two oversized monitors, a woman’s voice said she could help.
“Molly.” She had purple lipstick, a pale, uninflected face, dark hair.
“This is Elizabeth.” Gillian touched my shoulder.
“Liz,” I said.
Molly stepped straight-skirted to the next workstation.
“Let’s find your address,” Gillian said. “The guy you’re living with.”
“I did that for a while,” Molly said. Her printer clunked and zipped and edged out a long slice of paper.
“He’s just a guy I know,” I said. “It’s hard, when you first get here.”
“Uh huh.” Molly handed me the paper, in a neat, tight roll.
Outside, air conditioners roared from big apartment buildings on the corner. Far down Madison, bus and taxi glass flashed in paused intersections. I followed Gillian to the shady side of the street. I tried to picture Molly smiling, smiling at me. I pictured her putting on lip-liner in dusty morning light, hair up, hair down. I pictured Gillian telling her friends about me. I pictured myself running down the street, undressed.
“Molly’s kind of hot,” I said.
“What?” Gillian searched my face.
My tongue felt unmovable.
“You could have just told me,” she said. “If you can’t tell me—”
“I know this is late for you,” I said. I was shaking. I couldn’t stop.
“I know,” she said.
That was my fear; that I never would.
The next day we took the map to the engineering company, with notes on yellow adhesive paper.
“So hung over,” Gillian said.
Kat had brought home a new girlfriend and they’d all gone out until four. The train thudded us under half of Midtown.
“I envy short girls,” Gillian said. “You know?”
I said I did.
“We don’t have to go back to the office,” she said.
In a tenth floor lobby, all black stone—veneer, Gillian said—we were met by a tall man in khakis a few sizes too big, cinched with a woven belt. He pumped my hand and before I could look aside his eyes found mine. “Elliott,” he said—mid-forties, still-dark hair, smile lines, slight stoop, no doubt from too much opening doors for women; a pouched stomach. He padded around grey corners to a daylit, mango-scented conference room.
“Please.” He motioned me to the side of the table facing across the street towards M-A-C-Y-S. “We have an architecture division, too,” he said.
I felt a push at the small of my back.
“Look at you.” Gillian sat next to me.
Elliott had left and shut the door behind him.
“I don’t know.” I drew my hair up and let it fall.
“Doesn’t matter.” Gillian sounded amused. She pulled the maps from the tube.
Elliott returned with hot water and a plastic tray of tea bags.
“How cute,” Gillian said. “Tea for two.”
“None for you, correct?” he said.
“Correct,” she said.
His fingers were long, with black hairs all going the same way. He sat at the head of the table. Bright wedge shapes crossed the wall behind him; reflections, I realized, of windshields in the intersection. The entire room seemed to be turning. He kept glancing up at me, smiling as if pulling up the corners of his mouth on a string. One of his eyeteeth was pointed.
“So.” He leaned into the table, fingers folded like crab legs. “What did you bring?”
Gillian slid him the site plan.
“We would have emailed it,” I said.
“That would have been too bad,” he said. “Elizabeth, isn’t it?”
“Liz,” I said. “Call me Liz.”
On the walk back to the subway, Gillian strode ahead and took the stairs two steps at a time. Next to her on the next train’s gunmetal bench seat, I made sure we didn’t touch. She swung her crossed leg and stared across the nearly empty car at her windowed face. At every station when the train slammed to a stop, I slid into her.
“Everyone tells me what to do,” I said.
“Not me,” she said.
“I didn’t mean you.”
“That’s just Elliott,” she said. “With everyone but me.”
“What did you say to him?”
“Nothing. He didn’t try. Really, why would he?”
“Lucky,” I said.
Walking from the subway, we mocked three tourists holding hands as if at any moment a mugger might spirit one of them off. Gillian pointed out her favorite light post. She was thinking of going back for her Masters in lighting design.
“What about your girlfriend?” I said.
“We broke up,” she said. “Like two weeks ago. You must have forgotten.”
Long after the house was sleeping, I would wake to Greg’s fingers like mad raindrops on the tiny laptop he fit into his satchel and left with in the morning before I’d even finished in the bathroom. He had a pin on the satchel that read our city can kick your city’s ass. I’d thought about asking if he could get me a pin until I thought what Gillian would say. One night as I climbed the ladder to bed, I saw Greg writing out a check for his parents’ mortgage.
“Sweet Jesus,” I said.
“If you add up my hours, I get paid less than you do,” he said.
“I can sleep in the sitting room.” I didn’t know what to call the upstairs room where his sister watched Law & Order. The house had been a factory and when the upstairs had been divided—I never knew into how many rooms—only Greg had gotten walls up to the ceiling.
“It’s all right,” he said. “It’s not like you’re staying that long.”
I bought that week’s Village Voice. Back page ads shouted: HUGE! Sun-drenched! Won’t last! Gillian said her friends were all going to move out to Park Slope. Rents were cheap, spaces beautiful, Prospect Park way better than Central. I made an appointment. Gillian said which subway to take. At the top of the stairs most people—men and women in suits, with brass-buckled briefcases—turned right, into the neighborhood, past the big-boned sandstone houses. A few straggled ahead. One of them was Molly. I was certain—the hair, the little steps. She had an umbrella in a tote under her arm. At the next corner, she looked back. I raised my hand and she continued out of sight.
She had to have seen me. She had to know. What I’d said about her to Gillian was true, but I’d said it because it was convenient.
From Greg’s house, I called the real estate agent. I was so sorry; I’d been detained.
“Well,” the agent said. “Everyone wants to live there.”
The next week Gillian and I were sent to Brooklyn for a meeting. A new project. By the time everyone shuffled their papers into their bags it was past five. We sat on the low wall along Prospect Park West, feet dangling out of the park.
“Was anything decided in there?” I said.
“Zero.” She sounded delighted.
Clouds were shredding across the harbor. It was long-sleeve weather, dim for July, the only summer sound a loudspeaker through the trees. Gillian leaned into me and lit a cigarette.
“There’s a concert,” she said.
That seemed suddenly one of the chances I had come to the city for. We would prefer the same songs and whisper in the twilight, and afterward need dinner.
“I didn’t tell you about Elliott,” I said.
He had phoned that morning. When I’d said hello he said he didn’t remember why he’d called. The weird thing was he’d called my direct number.
“Which I didn’t give him,” I said.
“Lizzie has a boyfriend,” Gillian said.
“I do not.”
“Kat and I were thinking of dinner,” she said. “You should come.”
The wind had worked under her cuffs and was billowing her white buccaneer shirt. I decided the point when you belonged to the city was when you chose not to do what other people—maybe you—were looking forward to. When out of all the vast city you only had attention for where you were going.
At the restaurant we were seated at Kat’s favorite table, in a sunken room under the front window, with pillows and throws and red kindergarten chairs across from them. Gillian and I ended up facing each other from the far ends of the table. She mouthed something to me. Kat ordered plates for everyone to share: hummus, pita, olives, grape leaves, chicken kabobs and tofu.
“Did you see them filming?” she asked me. There’d been a music video shoot in the park.
“I wonder what video it’ll be,” I said.
“What video.” Kat snorted. She asked where I’d gone to college, how long I’d worked with Gillian. “No one works there very long,” she said. “Unless you know who to go down on.”
“Twenty, forty, eighty—you decide,” I said.
Gillian looked at Kat. Kat looked at me. “What?”
“I’m just teasing,” Kat said. “You’re fine.”
By the time we tripped outside, the pavement was wet. A woman I remember as Eva, no last name, caught herself on my sleeve from falling. It was fine, all of it. We were friends, drunk and full. At the corner, I waved. I was the only one who had to go back out to Brooklyn.
“You’re not coming?” Rachel said.
“Is it OK?” I asked.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Gillian said.
Kat and Rachel leapfrogged puddles past shuttered shops, bodegas, dark, yelling bars. One, then another, then the last of Kat’s friends said goodnight. I, too, could have been competent, alone, on the subway platform, ignoring slumped whiskey-scented men; and then it was only Rachel, Kat and I, following Gillian through a green door and up five flights of stairs that shook when she grabbed the banisters. On the top landing she jiggled the lock on a green, dented door and shouldered into a kitchen. There was a bathtub, sink, short counter, and butcher-block table.
“Mine.” She patted the table. “All mine.”
Through the kitchen was a narrow room with a couch and red shag rug and a television on milk-crates, and past it two doors to diagonally barred windows. Gillian got water-spotted mugs from a curtained cabinet, filled them with tap water, and offered one to me. Kat walked past us without looking. Rachel leaned on the butcher-block, chin in her palms.
“So you work with Gill,” she said. Her voice did round things with her ‘r’s and ‘l’s. “How is that, all day?”
“A treat?” I said.
“You know what I think,” Gillian said.
Kat called from her bedroom.
“Well, goodnight,” Rachel said. She stretched in Kat’s doorway, bit her lip, and softly closed the door.
Gillian had her hands in her back pocket.
“I have something, if you want,” she said.
Her bed was hard against the open window. She’d hung a sheet on a pressure rod across a shallow closet. She held up a sleeveless shell on a wire hanger. The shell might have been grey. It was coated in metal scales like fish skin so that even in the bare light of the ceiling bulb as it clung to itself the scales made rainbows and I couldn’t be sure of a true color.
“From my ex,” Gillian said. “It’s short on me. I thought you might fit.”
I saw myself bare-armed, talking with Elliott, shimmering, ignoring Molly. Gillian said to lay my things on her bed. She slid the top from its hanger and pushed her hands up through the neck. Her nails were pink and bitten. I sat on the edge of the mattress. She stood her leg between mine. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I held my hands up like a diver’s and felt her scrunch the top down and guide them out the armholes. I shook my hair free and she smoothed my sides.
“Open your eyes,” she said.
“I’ll have to trust you,” I said.
“You don’t have to trust anybody,” she said.
Her palms fit mine. I felt the pop of sprung coils under my spine. I felt the scales on end against the sheets like fine comb-teeth. I’d never worn anything so tight except to exercise in; but in the morning when we woke sidewise in plaid light, heads on opposite corners of her pillow, I didn’t want to return to my old clothes.
“It’s yours,” she said.
I couldn’t wear it. Even as I scrunched it off over my head and felt the air clamp, shockingly cold, around my breasts, and her fingers step up my back, I knew I’d chosen correctly. I folded the top, smoothing the scales the best I could.
“Come on.” She kissed my nose. “It’s almost nine.”
In the kitchen, Rachel was blowing on a bowl of coffee. Kat was gone. Rachel smiled, the smile of high school girls who knew all the news first.
I laid the shell on the table. Gillian emptied the coffee pot into our mugs from the night before.
“We’ll have to keep our mouths shut at work,” I said.
Gillian looked at me sharply.
“I live for that.” Rachel got a plastic deli bag from under the kitchen sink and slipped the shell into it. “So pretty.”
“Someone needed to wear it,” Gillian said.
On the subway uptown we got seats together. Everyone behind newspapers must have been watching. After Rockefeller Center, Gillian said she wanted to get out one stop early; she needed breakfast. I asked if I could come, too.
“If you want,” she said.
Of course she was right. I didn’t ask anyone’s permission for anything else. I followed up a long escalator to a dingy mezzanine. A man in a floppy yellow and green cap was banging upside-down paint cans. Gillian tossed him a bill. His beat seemed to ripple into a new pattern: da dum dum da-da, dum dum, dum da-da dum da.
“I hope you didn’t give him more than a dollar,” I said.
“I gave him enough.” Gillian took the stairs two steps at a time. “You go ahead,” she said. “I’ll bring you something.”
“We have time,” I said.
“We shouldn’t arrive together.”
“Is anyone going to be there?”
“I don’t want to,” she said. “OK?”
We were on a sooty block between Fifth and Madison, outside a shoeshine joint.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Why don’t you figure something out for once,” Gillian said.
I’d like to remember having words ready. But I didn’t. I said I would see her at the office. I walked across Madison to Park and didn’t turn to see if she was following or looking. The sidewalks pumped with people bound to any number of places where they would do, earn, and laugh more than I did. But I had one thing. I had an hour—at least—in which no one would wonder where I was.
Elliott would already be at his desk.
Pay attention, I would tell my young self now. You think you know what will prove important. You have no way to know, ever. You have no way to know what a job with Elliott will mean: Kansas City, L.A., Frankfort; Rachel’s smile, years ago, in a kitchen on the Lower East Side.