Finally it was our turn for the bathroom. The four of us—me, Julie, and the two guys we’d just met—crammed onto the square of grimy tiles between the sink, the claw-foot bathtub covered in dust, and the ancient pull-chain toilet. Colin, the more handsome guy, was so tall he had to dodge his head around the hanging ceiling lamp. Closing the door required we all squash together, forcing one of my breasts against the shorter, funnier guy’s arm. Mark. The guy I might have liked if I’d stood a chance.
My face must have been broadcasting fear, because Mark raised a thick eyebrow at me. “You girls are doing this for the first time, huh?”
I nodded. Julie shrugged and said, “Yeah. To be honest.”
“Virgins.” Mark glanced up at his friend and turned back to us. “And you’re totally sure you want to do this?”
Colin gazed down, rubbing the stubble on his straight jaw. In his absurdly deep voice, he said, “You can still change your mind.”
Didn’t they sound kind of grave to be talking about coke? Maybe Julie was wrong. After Mark had declared that we looked like fun girls to go to the bathroom with, while we were trailing the guys through the party, she had clutched my arm and whispered: Coke! This is happening, Laura! They’re inviting us to do coke! Now I was not only doubtful that I wanted to do coke, but I was afraid I would rather do coke than whatever else they had planned. Virgins? Oh my God, did they think we were going to do something sexual in here? Orgy-ish? That Julie and I were going to go down on them together or whatever? And was Julie going to do her usual carpe-diem shrug and pull off her sweatshirt? That baggy, heather-gray sweatshirt only the most self-satisfied person would wear on New Year’s Eve. But wait. Why would they sound so grave about blowjobs?
Julie tilted her head. “Change our minds? Why?”
“Cause…” Mark laughed, fidgeting with a shirt button. “This shit isn’t for everyone.”
Julie narrowed her eyes and peered at him sideways. “Okay, what ‘shit’ are we talking about exactly?” If she was nervous, no one could tell.
Now Colin gave her the sideways stare. “You know…the water… from…the sink.”
Mark gestured Price-Is-Right style at the dingy wall-mounted basin. Hair-thin fissures shot through its discolored porcelain, and a rufous stain descended from the faucet and pooled around the drain. Underneath, the exposed pipe, covered in flakes of brown rust, looked like a twisted tree branch.
Eyes on the sink, Julie said, “Excuse me?”
Why couldn’t it have been me who said Excuse me? Why could I only stand there, the mousy bug-eyed girl?
“Hold up.” Mark raised his hands. “Do you girls seriously not know? I mean, why else would you be at this party if not for—” He gestured again at the sink.
Julie groaned. “All right, I admit it, I have no idea why we’re here. So can you please just spit it out already?”
Colin chewed on his bottom lip while Mark shook his head as if the reason were way too precious to just spit out.
“Listen,” he said, “I know what we’re about to tell you is going to sound totally fucked up. Impossible to believe. But, this sink—”
When he paused again, Julie turned her head toward the door. “Fuck it. If you wanted to pull our legs, you should’ve pulled them faster.”
She was bluffing, of course. Julie wasn’t going anywhere. Julie never threw away anything—a place, a book, a person—before she had turned it upside down and shook out everything it had to offer.
Mark leaned forward and enunciated through teeth so perfect I could practically still see the former braces: “We’re not fucking pulling your legs. I love nothing more than my dog Flufferstein, and I swear on his fucking life: This. Is. True. After you drink from that sink, for the next thirty seconds, when you look at somebody, anybody, you see that person in the future.”
Colin nodded his affirmation from on high.
“I shit you not.” Mark held up his hands, fingers spread in emphasis. “While you’re looking at them, your eyes, your mind, it fills with the most crystal-clear vision of that person going about their daily life, maybe a day from now, maybe fifty years. You can see everything around them, where they are, what they’re doing. Hear it all, too.”
“It’s rare,” Colin added in his deep bass, “but sometimes you join them in their coffin.”
So why were we at this party if not for the sink?
Same reason behind everything cool that had happened to me since moving to the city. We had been walking back from the Nostrand subway stop to our railroad apartment on Bergen Street, down shadowy Brooklyn blocks blinking with the occasional Christmas lights, when Julie paused and gazed up at the glowing top-floor windows of an otherwise dark brownstone. Despite the cold, the windows were propped open, and the hubbub of a party floated down to us.
Julie shrugged and said, “I feel invited.”
I sucked in the cold night air. The truth was we hadn’t both been walking back from the station: Julie had been walking, I limped. My feet were a blistered, throbbing mess after hours of tottering about Times Square in vinyl four-inch pumps from Payless. All night we had shouted “Happy New Year!” at those who shouted it at us, mostly arm-locked tourists in puffy parkas and glittery 2018 glasses. The midtown avenues, closed to traffic and heavily policed, had been aswirl with garbage—candy bar wrappers, soda pop cans, deflated red balloons—while above the darkness between the skyscrapers twinkled with so much silver confetti. Watching the ball drop had been a lame thing to do, but it beat my suggestion. When we learned the clubs were charging two hundred bucks for entrance, I proposed kicking back at home with a bottle of wine, but Julie laughed. No way was she going to let us spend our first New Year’s Eve in New York City watching webcasts of New Year’s Eve in New York City.
I followed her up the brownstone’s stoop to an old-fashioned wooden door. Ten-feet high, rounded at the top, and graced by two tall parallel panes of glass, the door must have been beautiful once, like a hundred years ago. Before the wood rotted and someone scratched “LYING CUNT” into the left pane. Eyeing the graffiti, which felt like a relic from a grittier New York, a scary Martin-Scorsese New York, I said, “I don’t know, Julie. What if they’re like ‘Who the hell are you people?’”
Julie shrugged and pressed the buzzer. “We’ll say, shit, sorry, wrong party.”
Above the buzzer sheened an old brass mezoozoo, or something like that, something I’d never heard of eight months ago in Cold Lake, Minnesota.
When no one answered the door, Julie tried the knob and found it unlocked. Unable to decide if this was a terrible or wonderful idea, I watched over her shoulder as we slunk through the vestibule into the old-fashioned foyer. I had never been in a brownstone before that wasn’t divided into apartments. In the shadows, under the high ceilings, books covered the walls, except where an ornate white fireplace stood beneath a painting of an old stone water well covered with snow. Maybe it was all the books that made the place smell moldy. Geriatric. Not like the home of somebody who would blast Kiesza at 2 AM.
We climbed toward the electro-pop music, up wooden stairs so worn they dipped like broad, close-lipped smiles. Trying to spare my feet, I leaned on the wooden balustrade. Twenty pounds. I was always twenty pounds heavier than stated on my headshot. Meanwhile, Julie pulled off her red pompom hat, releasing an explosion of coarse golden-brown hair, while easily taking the stairs in her half-laced combat boots. No high heels for Julie; she refused to wear them on principal, but with legs that long, where was the sacrifice? Her stockings had a run from her short black skirt to her boot, but like her perpetually messy eyeliner, it only emphasized her allure.
I pictured the two of us, the way I often did, as if seen from above by a dispassionate observer. How to explain this imagined observer? Similar to God, except It could only know what It saw and had no desire or means to control—like if the world had eyes. And once again, I had to concede that if the world were watching Julie and me climbing those stairs, the world would assume that Julie was the aspiring actor, and I, Laura of the unremarkable face, thin brown hair, and boxy torso, the would-be graphic novelist who spent most nights alone in her bedroom, sketching and erasing and resketching The Halo of the Dark Star—an action-packed tale featuring a diverse cast of feminist insurgents who get exiled to a parallel universe where the women’s movement had never happened.
From the next landing, a tuxedoed middle-aged man stared down at us, his red face wet with tears, his chest leaning on the ornate newel post.
“You don’t want to know,” he said, wiping his eyes with one hand and his running nose with the other. “You don’t f-f-fucking want to know.”
We circled the man with our heads lowered, me watching Julie watching him out of the corners of her kohl-smudged eyes. Julie had brown eyes, as I did, but hers were flecked with gold and always gleaming with curiosity.
At last we reached the top floor hallway, where the house music vibrated in the wooden floorboards. A chandelier’s dangling crystals threw prisms of light on the faded floral wallpaper, which had scrawled across it in black marker: “ONE TIME EACH! Or you will be BANNED!” On either side of this warning were doors opening onto dimly lit rooms crowded with people.
Julie turned to me, visibly giddy to be alive. Propping her hands on my shoulders, she said, “Let’s make it a tradition to always spend New Year’s Eve together, okay? Every year!”
A smile twitched on my face. How could anybody not love Julie? And not be proud if she loved you? As I laid my hands on her shoulders, I caught myself wondering, not for the first time: But why exactly did she like me so much? But then, as always, I shoved that thought away with an angry: Well, why the hell shouldn’t she? I was special too, right? Brave! She had moved here from Cincinnati, no New York City, but a lot more similar than 758-person Cold Lake. In a flash, I felt again the fear I had sitting in the regional mini-jet, staring through the porthole at my mother, manically waving goodbye from the window of the county airport’s one building. Rolled up in my clammy hands had been a printout of the last email in a long chain that began with a Craigslist ad: ROOMIE WANTED—M or F—FOR KILLER RR APT. In that final email, Julie had divulged the address of the apartment with a warning that I was only moving in *on probation*, that she would tell me at the end of the month if she thought we were “simpatico.”
Exhilarated by our simpatico-ness and the romance of making a lifetime promise, I stared into Julie’s eyes and vowed, “Every New Year’s Eve. Until we die.”
At that Julie grabbed my hand and pulled me through the door into the room at the back of the townhouse. We weaved through a crowd slightly older than us, mostly late twenties, early thirties. What was built to be a bedroom had no bed in it or any furniture at all. We stumbled into a strange opening in the crowd and skirted the personage at its center: an old woman in a wheelchair. How the old lady had ascended three flights of stairs was one question; the other was everything else about her. Nodding at the younger people bowing to speak with her, she appeared to be dressed for New Year’s Eve 1918 and old enough to have been there. A cameo brooch adorned the high lace collar of her puff-sleeved dress, and a hoary Gibson Girl do capped her pale face, a face withered to mostly a pair of eyes and a nose. Behind her wheelchair stood a real-life Mr. Clean, a t-shirted bald man with massive arms crossed over a massive chest.
When Julie and I reached the far-end of the room, I said, “That old lady, so weird, right?” Julie nodded happily. “Only in New York, kids, only in New York!”
We threw our coats onto a pile banking the walls and went in search of the booze. After finding a card table of mostly empty bottles and filling paper cups with Trader Joe’s Chardonnay, we stood back to survey the party. The crowd contained some cute guys, but no one was on the lookout the way people usually were at a party, talking to one person while scoping the room for someone hotter to talk to. Instead everyone was engrossed in their conversations. One man gripped the arms of another and shook him while he spoke. Nearby two women talked at one another, hands flailing, eyes bulging, one shouting: “Why would I lie to you? You were on a giant yacht!”
My gaze landed on a second person crying. Seated on the floor, hugging her knees, the woman sobbed without wiping the mascara streaming down her cheeks or attracting the attention of the minglers standing around her. I turned to alert Julie, but she was already on it, looking like a birder appreciating a good sighting. Before moving to New York, I had never seen an adult cry. Surely adults must cry in Minnesota, but in privacy, without discomfiting strangers with their sorrow. But New York rarely offered privacy when you needed it; and I myself had cried in public only two weeks earlier, on the subway after an OKCupid date, which ended when GoodGuy1992 excused himself to go to the bathroom and then turned around and walked out the bar. In most places my cry would have been had in the car on the drive home. Still, even in New York City, two people crying their guts out at one party was odd.
“New Year’s Eve can be hard,” Julie said, nonchalantly, as if this were an undeniable fact but not exactly applicable to us. Then she reached over and hooked my hair behind my ear. “You look so pretty in my blouse.”
My blouse. I took a sip of wine, thinking, Why didn’t she say “that blouse”? Was it because she wanted to conjure an image of her in the blue sleeveless silk? Her smooth, knobby shoulders, the loose satin draping from her pert breasts? My arms and boobs were a bit much for such flimsiness. Julie’s compliments, they always tasted like taffy apples spiked with razors. Though I had to give her some credit, didn’t I? For lending me a blouse she herself hadn’t yet worn, a blouse that cost more than a day’s wage at her hated temp job? Would I have been so generous? What if the real reason why I distrusted Julie’s compliments was because I was a person who gave mean-spirited compliments? Was that possible? God, I would hate myself if I did. No, the truth was Julie probably gave me the fake compliment to be nice, to cheer me up. That didn’t make her a bitch, but what the fuck? Was I so much more pathetic than her that I should evoke pity? I wanted Julie to experience getting a pity compliment. What could I say to her? Come on, there had to be something, she couldn’t be perfect… And then I realized I had my answer: I was a person who gave mean-spirited compliments.
I mumbled, “I don’t look as good in it as you do.”
Did she really not hear me?
“I said I don’t look as good in it as you do.”
“In what? Oh, my blouse!” She draped an arm over my shoulders. “Are you drunk on one glass of wine, weirdo? I gave you that compliment like ten minutes ago.”
“I know, I just…I just feel like I have to tell you…that you’re…great.” As if to prove me right, Julie didn’t wave off the compliment, saying, Shut-up. She kissed me on the cheek and said, “Becoming best friends with you was the best thing that happened to me this year.”
I nodded, feeling comforted. Knighted even. Yes, with the wine warm in my stomach, standing there with dazzling Julie’s arm draped over my shoulders, I looked about the room, feeling like she and I owned it, like this New Year’s Eve party in the coolest borough of the most important city in the world was merely my and Julie’s pre-party. Twenty pounds be damned. Sooner or later, I would get that first call back, and someday after that I would be a working actor. Yeah, I was aware that all young artists thought they were going to make it when most of them weren’t, but in that moment I believed they were wrong while I was right, and although I knew that they, of course, figured that too, still, I thought, some of us had to be right, because some of us were going to make it.
I shut my eyes against a wave of impatience, praying, Hurry up, Time, hurry up! Let me be on stage already, the last one to come out for a bow, heart racing, not from impatience, but from the effort and thrill of a perfect performance, from seeing so many people, row upon row, rising to their feet, clap, clap, clapping through a second bow and— Please! Please! You’re too kind!—a third.
Only this daydream brought me little pleasure. Not nearly as much as it did a year ago. Because it was a little worrisome just how much I wanted time to hurry up. Every acting student dreamed of being beyond the classes, but the others grew more passionate with each one, addicted, the way Julie was addicted to her comic book. Whereas I found my passion waning every day while I sat behind a reception desk at Putnam Commercial Real Estate, considering myself too good for the corporate world while working at the bottom of it, sending interoffice messages to beautifully dressed people, some girls my age, to let them know their gourmet salads were here. A minute later those girls would come through the glass doors in their cashmere sweaters and leather booties to tip the Mexican delivery guy, and while I watched the delivery guy struggle to take their two dollars, his arms weighed down by a dozen other bags of gourmet salads, I would think: despite my B.A. in Literature from Carleton College, my ability to speak fluent English, my ancestors having come to this country so long ago I don’t even know where they came from, I was closer on the totem pole to the delivery guy than sunny Sandra from accounts payable.
And for what? So I could practice a monologue for several hours every night for dozens of weeks only to get waved away after twelve seconds? So I could strive to be the best (or at least not the worst) student in Stella Adler’s part-time evening course? So that at the end of every class, I could either clench my teeth and pat somebody else on the back for a great improvisation or feel shitty because I just couldn’t make myself do it, could only watch as others patted him on the back and said, “Awesome job, man!” So that perhaps one day it could be me feeling the pats on my back, if I just worked hard enough, didn’t succumb to the nonstop rejection, didn’t give in to the idea that maybe…oh, it made me feel like a loser just to think it…that maybe it wasn’t worth it. If I was really being honest, most nights I just wanted to watch Pretty Little Liars or Downton Abbey without worrying about why those girls were in a show and not me. Was it really so shameful to be the consumer instead of the consumed? Julie never watched TV, except the real quality shows, which she treated like homework, mulling aloud afterwards why this plot-point worked and that one didn’t, making me feel bad that all I wanted was for her to shut up so we could move onto the next episode.
“So have you girls spoken to Madame Tsukunft?”
Two guys had sidled up to us. They wore the uniforms of young hedge-fund analysts or junior lawyers out on the town: carefully mussed hair, button-down shirts, designer jeans.
Julie withdrew her arm from my shoulders. “The old lady?”
The shorter, okay-looking guy laughed. “Old? She’s ancient!”
“A hundred and twenty,” said the handsome six-footer in a voice too deep to sound entirely natural. “Better approach her slowly, though. That bodyguard ain’t messing around. I guess if somebody tried to kill me every week…Wait, I wouldn’t need a bodyguard. I could be my own bodyguard!”
Kill her? I made a baffled face, but nobody saw. The guys were too busy observing Julie: the tall one to see the effects of his jokey brag, the shorter one shaking his head at her, as if the two of them already shared an inside joke about their buddy’s vanity.
Julie looked from one to the other. “Kill her? What for?”
It was impossible to say which one Julie would zero in on: Mr. Strong Jaw or Rapscallion. Maybe she wouldn’t choose at all; more than once I had seen Julie hold the rapture of a roomful of guys without ever having to single one out.
The short one nodded in agreement. “Right? I mean it’s not like she has any control over what happens to you. I’m Mark, by the way.” Even though he was standing in front of me, he extended his hand to shake Julie’s first.
After we all exchanged names, I forced myself to speak. “Is she really a hundred and twenty years old?”
Julie laughed. “Of course not, Laura.”
“She is,” said Mark. “Colin and I had this bet going—for no small sum, I might add—so we had to find out. It took like two seconds. Ellis Island has an online passenger search, and bingo, there she was, arriving in 1919, already twenty-one years old. I’m still waiting for Colin to pay up! And get this: did you know Tsukunft, or however the hell you pronounce it, means “future” in Yiddish?”
Julie shook her head. “No. I’m not Jewish, though sometimes I kind of feel like I am. Is that weird? Maybe it’s this hair.” Julie pointed at her frizzy golden-brown chaos that other girls might have blow-dried into softer, more submissive waves.
Mark smiled at her. “I’m Jewish.”
Colin leaned forward. “We’d been coming here for a month before we found out the Tsffffs…whatever family had a magic well back in the old country. Lithuania. Or maybe it was Latvia? Anyway, the family thought it was all over for them when they moved here, but—”
Mark interrupted: “You girls look like fun girls to go to the bathroom with. What do you say?”
“The bathroom?” I barely caught my ow! when Julie jabbed me in the ribs.
“Sure.” She shrugged. “Let’s go.”
Four groups stood in line for the bathroom, which apparently wasn’t a lot, because Colin remarked, “Not bad.” While we waited, Julie regaled us with her latest escapade, a story I had already heard, a story that no doubt had some truth in it, but where the truth ended in any of her stories and the fabrication began, I could never pinpoint. It didn’t help that when I was with her, crazy stuff did happen to us, stuff other people might not believe. With gleaming eyes and amused smiles, the guys listened to Julie recant sneaking into an empty conference room in her midtown office, opening a window, and climbing onto a ledge off the 26th floor. There, she claimed to have smoked a cigarette, something I had rarely seen Julie do. No way, get out of here, the guys said, she was making that shit up. But she insisted, no, she simply had to go somewhere as different as possible from her coffin-like cubicle, and, oh my god, was it different, out on that ledge with the world going about its business all around her, toy-like yellow cabs rushing far below, a plane vrooming in the clouds just above. While Julie spoke, she kept pushing one combat boot off the wall, and then the other, like a restless kid who might forget her story, might forget you, if something more interesting caught her attention, which had the boys working double time to keep it. They egged, Prove it! Let’s go find a ledge tonight! Mark tore his eyes off Julie only once, when he leaned over and whispered in my ear, his breath sending goosebumps down my spine: “Isn’t your friend amazing? I think I’m in love.”
And once again, I wished that time would hurry up, that I was already back in our apartment, alone in my room, no longer forced to watch Julie have the most flattering New Year’s Eve. Or better yet, why not fast forward again to when I’m taking that bow on stage, when I’m successful enough to not give a shit about what was or was not happening for Julie? If I’m successful, what do I care if Julie’s successful too? Let Halo of the Dark Star be made into a blockbuster film! And if I don’t make it…what would I want for her then? Like if God gave me the chance to decide her fate? Jesus, why do I keep asking myself these preposterous questions? Of course, if I were stuck being a failure, it would be pointless and wrong to bring down Julie too.
The bathroom door opened, and Colin and Mark quieted as the last group before us stumbled out with shell-shocked faces, one woman clutching her stomach as if she might throw up. They looked nothing like people in the movies after snorting a line of coke, who always shook their heads as if it were too good to bear and whooped, Hell yeah!
Colin held open the door. “Show time.”
“Okay, ha ha.” Julie had her hands on her hips. “We see the person in the future. That’s cute.”
I didn’t believe them either, but the idea was too good not to entertain for a while. I said, “Pretending it’s true, what about yourself? Can you see yourself in the future?”
“If you drink the water and look at your reflection, but—” Mark pointed at the medicine cabinet above the sink, which was missing its mirrored door. The only thing on its glass shelves was a plastic New York Rangers cup.
“We have our phones!” I said, pulling mine out of my back pocket.
Colin blocked the sight of my iPhone with his hand. “Put that away! That mirror’s gone for a reason. After the third person committed suicide. Shot himself in the head, right out there, in the middle of the party. People were fucking covered in the dude’s blood.”
The four of us stood in silence while the party thrummed beyond the bathroom door. That was a gruesome thing to say. How far were these guys going to take this joke?
Colin said, “Like we were saying, you don’t have to do this.”
Julie rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll drink from the sink. I don’t know if there’s LSD in it or whatever, but I’m in.” She turned to me. “Laura, I totally wouldn’t blame you for backing out. Actually, I think that’s probably the smart thing to do.”
I rolled my eyes too. “If you’re game, why wouldn’t I be?”
Mark grabbed the Rangers cup. “Okay, here’s how me and Colin do it. We’ve done this a lot, we’re kind of addicted. You should agree on some ground rules before you start, and then stick to them, no matter what, or it can lead to a bad scene. Believe me, we learned the hard way. We’ve got two rules. First, we don’t tell each other what we see. Nothing. Pretty much for the same reason there’s no mirror in here. Good, bad, whatever we see, we don’t say a word.”
“Seriously?” Julie screwed up her face. “If this were for real, that would be so hard. But okay, agreed.”
Mark gave Julie a thumbs up and carried on.
“Rule two: when we’re looking at people’s futures, we try our damnedest to keep a poker face.”
“It’s not easy,” said Colin, “but we’ve gotten pretty good.”
Mark turned the faucet and held the Rangers cup under what appeared to be a stream of ordinary water. “We’ll go one at a time, cause people do faint. I’m not saying you girls would, but just to be safe.”
He handed the cup to his friend. Colin peered inside it, took a deep breath, kicked back his head, and chugged.
When he was finished drinking, he looked for Mark, who gazed back with his arms folded and one leg shaking. Was it the strain of keeping a poker face that made the muscles around Colin’s mouth and eyes twitch? After several seconds focused on Mark, he turned to Julie, and if this was a practical joke, Colin was a better actor than anyone at Stella Adler. The twitching deadpan remained, but his eyes betrayed a faint shudder of surprise, so faint it was impossible to tell if the surprise was a pleasant one or not. Lastly, my face flamed as Colin lowered his gaze on me. No, not on me. Into me. His stare physically tugged at my breastbone, and from behind it, an increasingly painful pull, as if he were tugging at—how else to describe it?—my very being.
His eyes let go. Squeezing them, he lifted his face to the ceiling. My chest fell as the sounds of the party seemed to rush back into the bathroom. Colin blew through his lips and said, “Man, oh, man.”
Mark slapped him on the back and took the cup. “Welcome back to 2018, buddy. Okay, do one of you girls want to go next?”
“Me!” Julie extended her hand.
Mark passed her a replenished cup. “Drink fast cause you don’t want to waste any of the thirty seconds still drinking.”
Julie raised the cup. “Salute!”
She guzzled with trickles of water escaping down her cheeks. Lowering the cup, she hurriedly looked for me without taking the time to wipe her face.
Her mouth fell. So much for keeping a blank expression. She gaped at me, eyes enlarging while the tug behind my breastbone grew ever more violent. Then, as if noticing some detail, she bit down on her lip, and her eyebrows came together. Her face puckered until her nose blanched, an expression she wore when watching horror movies. Obviously I wasn’t taking a third bow. No audience was on their feet, clap, clap, clapping. All at once, it might as well have been I, not Julie, looking at me. The big joke came into focus. The big joke of me. Walking around, pretending I was headed for the spotlight when—never mind the underwhelming looks, the extra twenty pounds, the lack of talent, the laziness—my very desire to move to the Big Apple and be an actress was a punch line. I so lacked in imagination, I couldn’t even come up with an authentic ambition. In my sad attempt to go from a nothing to a something, I grabbed the nearest, most ready-made cliché.
“Oh!” Julie dropped her head. Panting, she looked around the bathroom with a bewildered expression, before seeming to remember the plan to wear a poker face. She turned to me, senselessly wiping the front of her sweatshirt, looking like a girl who had just gotten off the fair’s spiniest ride and was trying not to show her dizziness.
I said, “You didn’t even look at anyone else. You spent the whole thirty seconds on me. Whatever you saw, it had to be really interesting.”
“Hey!” Mark pointed between us. “You girls agreed to keep mum.”
Julie stopped smoothing her sweatshirt. “I… I think maybe I overreacted. I mean, I guess it’s not that bad. Considering. No, really, the more I think…”
“Shhhh! Stop talking!” Mark handed me the cup. “You, go!”
I resolved to spend the whole time zoomed in on Julie. But what if I got thirty seconds of her having the most marvelous future? Being as effortlessly special as ever? I couldn’t help it: I wanted to see her badly off. My best friend. I wanted to see her drawing her little life away in an SRO, pouring all of her amazingness into these quirky philosophical feminist comic strips nobody wanted to read. Let her be thirty years old—sixty!—and still temping at marketing firms. Let her have climbed onto just one too many ledges. Let her, thanks to one of her enviable one-night stands, get AIDS.
“Bombs away!” said Mark.
It was the taste of New York City tap water, crisp and metallic, never algal as it sometimes was in Cold Lake.
Thirty seconds—it’s astonishing how long that can be. There she was, beautiful Julie, gazing back, her round eyes glimmering with gold and intensity, her full, freckled face haloed by that golden-brown storm of hair, and then that round, golden Julie was gone, and her eyes, looking past me now, were more dull brass than gold. Her face— side-lit in darkness—was narrower, and everything pulled downward, her mouth, her thinner hair, the outer-corners of her eyes. But it was the eyes themselves that were the least recognizable. I had never seen Julie with bored eyes. Restless, yes, but never bored. What could she be doing that was so boring?
Before I could stop it, my hand flew to my mouth.
Behind her hovered a man, a shirtless, middle-aged man, face slick with sweat, thinning salt and pepper hair greased back, hairy breasts and belly propped on pasty arms, as he thrust back and forth.
Why! Why would Julie let that man fuck her? He didn’t look stupid or cruel, just nothing like anybody who would ever get to fuck Julie. And to top it off, the man didn’t look totally over the moon about it. His gaze wasn’t even on her, but cast ahead, as if on some far-off, imagined horizon, where maybe he had another woman underneath him.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get more horrifying, Julie began to groan—oh, oh, oh god, yes—with the boredom never leaving her eyes. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t watch fifty-something-year-old Julie fake an orgasm. I looked away and took in the suburban bedroom: tasteful grey walls with white trimming, wicker hamper, collared shirts draped over a mahogany valet, a window revealing dark leaves and a sky of stars—had she moved back to Ohio?—a dresser topped by a framed picture of a teenaged boy in a graduation cap, and—Oh! Look!—the blue bird tile.
It hung on the wall next to the dresser mirror: the white ceramic tile with the stylized blue bird that Julie and I had bought for ten dollars, five each, only two months ago, on the last afternoon before the Brooklyn Flea closed for the winter. The late autumn sunlight had made a brilliant crown out of Julie’s flyaways as the bespectacled hipster artist handed her the tile wrapped in brown paper. When we got back to our KILLER RR, having no hammer or nails, we balanced the tile against the windowpane. Who would have thought that out of everything it would be the bird tile that survived?
Present-day Julie, backdropped by the old chain-pull toilet, blinked at me. My hand dropped from my mouth to my chest.
She said, “Was it as bad as your face made it look?”
Colin shushed us. “Mark’s right. You girls promised…”
“I…uh…need to think,” I said, my heart hammering against her silk shirt and my hand. She didn’t have AIDS, right? That was good. She wasn’t blind or disfigured. That man was probably her husband. “I guess it could be worse.”
Someone pounded on the door.
Colin shouted, “We’ll be out in a sec!”
Mark took in each of our futures like a stony pro. While his eyes were on Julie, I hoped he was seeing her with that same man, but earlier, when the man looked more like Mark or Colin did now. When they were newly in love. No wonder the guys were addicted to the sink: I jonesed to go just one more time, just to make sure Julie and the man hadn’t met too recently, after too many disappointing years or relationships. I wanted to make sure he had seen the Julie I had seen tonight in Times Square, offering her face to the falling silver confetti.
“Oh fuck!” Mark clapped his hands. “That was a good one.”
As we staggered out of the bathroom, Colin asked if we girls wanted a drink. We didn’t stop to answer, just kept walking, and Mark called out after us: “Come on! Let’s unwind together!”
Julie and I grabbed our coats and pushed through the crowd, past the ancient, wheelchair-bound woman, who was giving her ear to a young man while her black eyes stared into space. We made our way down the well-used stairs, me leaning on the banister again, not for my feet, but to keep steady while my mind reeled. At least Julie couldn’t know what I had wished for her. But I knew. I had wished her the worst. And that was another reason why my acting ambition was a joke. Because every single person in the world could be on their feet, seven billion hands generating an ear-shattering applause, but it couldn’t muffle the truth: that nobody could admire me, not if they knew me the way I did.
We hurried past LYING CUNT and down the stoop onto the sidewalk. Julie pulled on her red pom-pom hat and plunked down on the curb. I took a seat beside her. Across the street, under the glare of an LED street light, a homeless man bundled in several coats pushed a shopping cart past darkened townhouses. Behind the window bars of a newly restored brownstone, the pristine glass gleamed like patent leather.
Julie said, “Do you want to know what I saw?”
Did I? After wishing all night for the future? Whatever she saw, I knew it meant there was no reason for me to practice my monologue tomorrow night. Or the next night. That I didn’t need to drag myself to that cattle call Thursday morning. And I was relieved. I felt lighter, twenty pounds and all.
I shook my head. “No. Do you want me to tell you?”
Was there any chance that Julie would say no? She turned to me, and I could tell by the way her eyes scanned my face that she was absorbing that whatever I saw up there, it had broken her spell on me.
She snorted. “Of course I want to know.”
I lowered my gaze to the patch of salt-stained road between my cheap pumps and recounted the blue bird tile, the loveliness of her house. I said maybe she looked a little bored. I said she was in a bedroom, folding laundry.
“A house? How do you know the bedroom wasn’t in an apartment? Because of the trees outside the window? Half the streets in Brooklyn have trees.”
I shook my head. “You weren’t in New York.”
Julie drew a long breath and dropped her head back. Looking into the starless sky, she said, “If I’d made it as a graphic novelist, I never would have left the city.”
I nodded as if that were news to me.
She got to her feet and brushed off the back of her parka.
“Let’s go,” she said, looking down at me. Her eyes—magnified by the streetlight and eyeliner even more smudged than usual—shone with determination. “It’s late. I have to wake up early tomorrow to work on the book. If fucking fate is against me, I’m going to have to work even harder than I thought.”
Here was Julie at her very best. Jealousy sparked in my chest, but only a spark before it was snuffed by a gust of pity. And love. Yes, now that she would be a failure, I could love her with all my heart.
I extended my hand, and she took it and pulled me up. If the world were watching us, I thought, it would see a pair of best friends going home.