It’s just past breakfast so I order up a pitcher of Bloody Marys and a bagel. I dash off a text to Mother: I’ve landed safely, sorry I couldn’t stay longer. The phone is a slick new thing, touch screen with buttons too small for my fingers but still they make a satisfying click click. Before I left New York I bought a Gucci case for it—alligator skin, because it was gaudy and expensive, and because I liked the idea of a decorative predator. I turn the ringer off and slip it into one of the dresser drawers.
The Miramar is a bougainvillea-and-jasmine hotel—cobblestone circular drive, name in cursive on a black iron gate, golden California light spilling everywhere. My room faces the pier, and when I’m out on the balcony it’s like walking on the giant banyan and jumble of palm trees below.
All the cocktails here are named after celebrities: the Capote is a mess of bourbon and mint, the Marilyn has gin and a cherry. The Bloody Mary is the only one named for what it is, and after the last two days, it’s exactly what I need.
I had gone to Bakersfield because New York had turned on me. It felt predatory, everywhere reminders of him. I wanted somewhere I would feel safe, somewhere familiar. Instead, almost as soon as I got off the plane I remembered why I left Bakersfield in the first place. Mother, with her thin lipstick smile. How she reached out for my shoulder, but took my bag instead. How she never asked how I was feeling, only said how thin I was, how great my skin looked. By the time she invited my older brothers over for Sunday dinner—something that never happened when I was around, but apparently became a tradition once they bought houses in the area—I was already looking up flights to Los Angeles.
They showed up with their perky, two-of-a-kind wives, and their darling, demonic children. At first they feigned surprise at seeing me, but then one did his best Donald Trump: You’re fired, he said, pushing his thinning hair to one side and pointing at me. His wife pinched him, saying, Don’t listen to him, hun, it’s happening everywhere, while her boys tugged at her jeans, chanting Mom, Mom, Mom. In the kitchen, Mother wasn’t just holding down the blend button on the blender, she was pulsing it—the ice for her margaritas crunch-crunching between the kids’ chanting, Mom, Mom.
I took the first flight out this morning. Then it was just a short cab ride to Santa Monica. I try not to imagine the face Mother will make once she realizes I’ve left.
I hang my dresses and blouses and slacks, calling up for more hangers. I arrange my shoes in the closet as if I am moving in. I read over the dry cleaning services and note that they will press your socks free of charge.
The bed is wide, a California king, with a down comforter that puffs up around me like a hug, saying, just wait, just wait.
I try not to think of how few options I have left. How being laid off feels like an end that rings on and on. How Eric did not ask me to stay—how in that last moment, in his office, he did not stand up and say anything. Just sat there, hand beside mine, close but not touching, until the human resources woman coughed politely and he moved it away.
But let’s not think of that.
I look up at the ceiling, where a fan made to look like palm fronds turns in quiet arcs. Just beyond the eggshell walls is a bustling little beach city—my college town. Those days seem so long ago. Charly and Jared are living in Santa Monica now. Southern California homeowners, for God’s sake.
Their wedding, more than six years ago, was the last time we were all together. Charly, lovely in white lace, already making excuses for Jared, with his sweaty upper lip, still hungover from his bachelor party.
At the reception, a DJ announced Mr. and Mrs. Jared Brownstone to a cheering room, and Robby stood, whistling and clapping. Jared raised his arms above his head, a victorious gladiator, and the crowd ate it up, their cheering thunderous. Someone stood on a chair and shouted into a megaphone. Others used the toy hand clappers with the bride’s and groom’s names written in white paint. I took a Xanax with champagne, telling myself to be quiet—to ignore that nervous flutter, silence that inner alarm. Just be content. Drink and be content. This can be enough for you, too. You are married to your own college sweetheart. It has not even been a year. Give it time, just wait. Charly beaming—beaming—as she looked at me from across the room. A look of cul-de-sac contentment, a future filled with barbeques, pool parties, and play dates. This is enough for her, I thought. It is enough for them all. And then there was Robby, frowning at me because I asked the waiter for another glass of champagne. Because lately I’d been taking Xanax like Tic Tacs. But Robby, I thought, don’t you want a happy little wife?
I started looking for jobs in New York the next day.
Our little clique has kept in touch since then, mostly online. I know all about Jared’s promotions, Charly’s new job at the elementary school, how they began renovations on their house, and how a few months ago when they were in New York we somehow did not find the time to see each other. And Robby, too—his new job working for Jared, and dating a woman who takes a lot of selfies, all outdoors, usually summiting some peak.
Should I call them? I’m not ready to hear Robby’s voice—still tense and hurt, waiting to be let back in. Charly? She will definitely want to go shopping. And we will get Frappuccinos with skim milk, and try on dresses, and talk about whatever argument she and Jared are currently in the middle of. God, how exhausting to be back.
I can almost feel my old self, that girl who loved art—museums especially—who dreamed of a career far from here. Poor girl, joke’s on you. You’re back. Your old life just waiting for you, like a second skin.
When I called Charly from Bakersfield, she whooped with excitement: Elsa’s finally coming home! She chattered on about planning a trip for us. Robby wanted to see a jazz festival happening on Catalina Island. A friend of Jared’s had a sailboat. It’ll be perfect, she said, it’ll be just like old times.
And that second skin goes zip.
In eighth grade, Charly’s parents divorced and her mother took her to Southern California, to Simi Valley. We reconnected at UCLA years later. We fell back into it easily, discovering that whatever made our childhood friendship necessary was still there. Then, sometime after my divorce with Robby, as she settled into a life that consisted mostly of pleasing Jared and I was occupied with a new job, we let our friendship lag. It was easy to do. I urged it along, letting weeks go by before returning phone calls or answering emails, intentionally keeping my New York life separate. Private. But Charly is loyal to a fault. Like a good soldier. Or a dog.
This is when being sober is the worst. I call to check on my room-service order, asking them to bring extra pillows and Advil, too. The room-service boy lingers, saying he thinks redheads are pretty. He’s young and breakable and it would feel so goddamn good to break something. He’s cute, with a cleft in his chin, but I’m way too tired to do anything about it.
I shower with my drink and take one of Mother’s Vicodins. Let it begin, I think, rolling myself into one of the hotel bathrobes, the fabric soft and vibrantly white, wonderfully impersonal. Let it begin.
Only a week ago, I’m in my tiny New York apartment, thinking about what will happen if I flee. Beside the set of Alvar Aalto vases is a file box, heavy with pens, papers, and an automatic stapler I took from the museum supply closet. I’m thinking about what it will be like to go home. How in Bakersfield Mother and I will barbeque pork chops and chicken breasts and rosemary potatoes, getting drunk on cheap chardonnay that will coat my tongue like a lump of butter. How at the salon I’ll catch her frowning at my reflection, too pale, too brassy. We’ll talk about my brother’s kids, the Lakers, whether or not she should buy an electric car, but not about New York. Not about him. And I’ll be nearly bursting with it. She’ll smile when I say I miss him—a polite smile that isn’t really at me but at the red bell pepper she’s chopping for the grill. And she’ll say, “Try this, it’s from the farmer’s market. It has so much flavor.”
So I will not call her. Not yet.
I spend the rest of the week organizing things in my apartment. I think Eric will call but he doesn’t. I rearrange furniture, I dust, I scrub, I throw away papers. I wait for the severance package to hit my bank account and when it does I spend a day at the department stores near MoMA—the ones where I used to shop with Eric. I do not see him. I avoid calls from Mother and coworkers—I practice saying ex-coworkers. My studio apartment starts to feel claustrophobic—the box with all my museum stuff still sits untouched in the center of the room.
I buy a package of yoga classes, but after one session I instead go to the bar across the street. I call a friend or two from the museum. They do not call back. I develop a taste for whiskey Old Fashioneds, which the bartender shows me how to make. He’s Cuban, and I let him make out with me one afternoon, both of us whiskey drunk, our breath tasting exactly the same. He doesn’t kiss anything like Eric, who had not been properly kissed in a long time—always trembling, his lips a little too wet, whispering against me, Elsa, Elsa, oh God.
The Cuban wants to go into the back, but who will watch the bar? So we lie on one of the black leather booths, my hands in his hair, which is soft and yielding like animal fur, and I dig my nails into his scalp when I come.
Then I’m without a bar, drinking at home, and that’s when I decide the girl in the mirror isn’t a blonde. Her skin is too wan, too freckled. She looks soft, vulnerable. Like someone you might give an Indian burn to on the playground, just to see her cry. She should be a redhead. Light auburn, I decide. Something that says I have some spunk, a bit of backbone. So I dye my hair one night, and the girl in the mirror, wearing Eric’s favorite blue dress, looks all these things and more. She is mysterious, keen, sharp—touch her and you’ll get cut.
One morning I’m up, or maybe I never really slept, either way I’m walking through Central Park, making my post-layoff pilgrimage to MoMA. I’ve started early, when the city isn’t exactly quiet, but it’s quieter than later in the day and everything is blue, blue, blue. There are personal trainers in shorts and sweatbands, shoulders defined, foreheads pinched in hurried lines, shouting at their clients, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” Across the lawn, sleepy women practice tai chi, their walkers and canes resting against a tree where someone’s dog dozes, yawning without opening his doggy eyes. Dragonflies dart toward the pond, their wings like shiny plastic wrap. The smell of onions on a fryer, coffee roasting, and, somewhere not too far off, that animal smell drifting up from the zoo, sharp and earthy.
Then I’m in front of MoMA buying iced tea because the heat has already settled thick and hot across Manhattan. This is when I see her, Eric’s wife. She’s coming out of the employee entrance, a to-go coffee in her hand. And there’s Eric behind her, a similar cup in his. It’s almost painful to look at them together, stopped in front of the Picasso exhibition banner. Eric in a dark tailored jacket, collar unbuttoned, with just a shadow of gray beard. Such serious eyes. From here they look almost black, but in certain kinds of light—the cool morning of a hotel room, that ashen white light of a blank exhibition space—they flash green. Mary in her Vince sheath and silk scarf. Her dark hair against his silver. Complementary. A masterpiece in form and color. I swallow a sharp lump. He leans down and kisses her on the cheek. She’s very petite; he has to stoop to reach her. No other parts of their bodies touch, just his lips to her upturned face. How sweet.
They’ve been together for twenty-eight years. I’d been with MoMA for the last five. My first year, as executive assistant to the world-renowned curator Eric Reinhardt, I managed his professional life. Phone calls, meetings, interviews—travel to Paris, Rome, Berlin, Chicago. How thrilling it was to always be at Eric’s side, to be part of such exalted glamour. And how this accomplished man marveled at me—my enthusiasm, my desire to learn, my eagerness to please. You have promise, he said. I need you. And so that second year I became his personal assistant, too. It wasn’t long before I started scheduling myself in. You have to eat too, he’d say. Then there were the long conversations at rooftop restaurants or tiny bistros, Eric telling me how he met Mary in college, how he had been a painter—she was studying art history. She came to one of my shows, he says with a slight smile; she thought my work was terribly important. When he remembers what it was like to be young, dreaming of a different life and still thinking anything is possible, his eyes become cloudy with longing. Those green eyes, bright against his olive skin, appraising me. His hand on the table, close to mine, but he does not touch me. Not yet. Yes, I think. The answer is yes. But nothing. He moves on to something else, and I pull my hand away. Is this how it started? Or was it further back, in my interview, when he first shook my hand and my name rolled around in his mouth and came out like something blooming—Elsa.
Mary and Eric part ways at the bottom of the steps and I watch him disappear back into the museum. She turns to watch him too. Poor lovely Mary. A typical museum wife, all silk scarves and bold prints, chunky jewelry and German-made shoes. The scarf is a nice touch, it waves from behind her—Catch me, it says. Come and get me.
So I follow her.
We go up Fifth Avenue back to Central Park. I’d have lost her if it hadn’t been for that beautiful scarf taunting me. At the Plaza she turns and enters, saluting the doorman with a sweet little wave. I can’t see her face but I can see everyone else’s as she walks by: the mustached old man at the front desk, his eyes crinkling at the corners, his face saying, What a lady. And the plump women beside him smile, their teeth flashing like tiny paparazzi.
In the Palm Court she speaks quietly to the hostess, who stands a little taller. It occurs to me now that I’m not dressed for the Plaza. I look down at my shorts: they’re pre-ripped and cost almost two hundred dollars, but I don’t think that matters to anyone here. I’m wearing a tank top with a built-in shelf bra and running shoes. The mustached man from the front desk brushes past me. He doesn’t speak but I see him eye me, mustache shifting from side to side.
I wait until Mary is seated, at a table alone and out of the way. I sit behind her, two tables and a fan palm between us, so that I’m looking at her back. What is she doing, eating lunch alone? Had she gone to take Eric out and he declined?
I watch her order and think about when their only son was killed in Afghanistan. It must have been two years ago. Eric and I were working late, just beginning our research for the Picasso exhibition. We’d pulled out some line drawings from MoMA’s collection—of donkeys in flagrante, of large women, their legs spread wide—the paper yellowed, a smudge of a fingerprint in one corner. Picasso, Eric was saying, always leaves you feeling seduced, a bit abandoned. I watched his face, how he frowns a little and sucks lightly at his bottom lip when he’s really focused. But then he’s got you by the scruff of your instinctual being, and you can’t help but return to him again and again. His eyes were dark then—as black as green can get. We were so close I could smell his breath. I remember wanting to climb right up in there and taste it.
The city noise rushed up from below: a siren, a car horn, meeting the sound of a helicopter above. The women with their naked breasts and crooked eyes stared up at us, and Eric’s phone rang, too loud, and then he was crouching down, hands on the floor, vibrating with a primal pain.
How vulnerable he looked at that moment, all balled up. I had to kneel to hold him. I covered him with every part of me until he wasn’t crying. Until he turned to me, mouth on mine—hot and searching—hands at my breasts. He was shaking. You are so beautiful, he said. Oh God. Oh God. It was the first time I had sex with a man who needed me. So different from mere wanting.
He bought me the Alvar Aalto vases when he came back from his bereavement period. To thank you, he said. Their curving converging lines still make me blush.
A plump waiter, clean-shaven with sagging cheeks, brings Mary sparkling water and a bowl of sliced lemons. I can tell her chin is propped up by her hands. She might be looking out at those clouds and sighing. I look too and we stay that way for a moment.
Then the same waiter comes over to my table. He’s very good at pretending. He doesn’t even let his eyes slip to my clothes, just beams and asks if I’d like still or sparkling water. I order from the breakfast menu, and when he opens his mouth to say it’s past noon I give him a look that shuts him right up. It’s a good look. I use it on babies or noisy couples in movie theaters.
I order eggs Benedict and a Belgian waffle.
Mary takes the scarf from around her neck and puts it over the back of her chair. It’s from MoMA’s gift shop. I recognize the silk, the strange orange color.
The waiter brings her a salad, a bowl of rolls, and balled butter in a shallow dish. I watch her smear the butter—well, really I watch her elbow and shoulder work at what I can only guess is smearing butter. I think about how Eric told me she likes to garden, how she loves a good nursery and could spend a whole day deciding between types of hydrangeas. How her favorite place is the Catskills because of the fall foliage. He tells me she describes the colors as fruit loops. This makes me like her more than I probably should. And for a moment I think we can be friends.
When my food comes Mary gets up. I look down at my plate, then out the window. I feel the wind her body creates when she passes by. My mind goes completely blank—an excuse would be impossible. I have a strong urge to vomit. When I look up she’s not in the room. I call the waiter over and ask where the woman went. I’m almost shaking.
“What woman?” he asks.
“The one eating a salad right over there, where did she go?”
He leans in. “To the bathroom, miss.”
I push my credit card in his hand and say if he’s quick about it I’ll tip him in cash. I put a twenty on the table so he knows I mean business. When he’s gone I can feel the hair on my forearms, how it runs up along my shoulders and neck. I’m holding my breath.
It’s just the scarf and me now. It’s draped over the chair like a silk refugee, trembling under the ceiling vent. Outside in the hall I can hear the hotel staff and customers, phones ringing, elevator doors opening and shutting, the satisfying click of heels on marble.
I’m very quick about it. I cross the room and shove the scarf into my purse. I meet the waiter at the front desk and sign there. He offers to-go boxes.
“Not hungry,” I say, and head for the door.
Outside the humidity beats down. I’m fingering the scarf and breathing hard. It’s exactly how I thought it would feel—stiff, smooth, and sturdy. Once in Central Park I examine it closely. It fits perfectly across my shoulders, a shawl really. Creased from where Mary had knotted it around her neck. I can smell her perfume now, Dior Diorissimo. I had bought it for her on Eric’s behalf many times before, a floral scent that tickles my nose. I have several thoughts at once: turn it in to a lost and found; rip it to pieces; keep it for myself.