“But she knows that she is not Nick Carraway, she is not reliving her beloved story; no, this is not the 1920s, and she will not gloss over what happens to her next with ellipses.”
She is the type of person who always returns her books to the library on time. More precisely, she is the type of person who is infuriated by those who don’t. Infuriated, and a little envious, maybe. As she rides the subway to her roommate’s coworker’s party she grips the pole and thinks about two books, unfinished, due back tomorrow, no renewals allowed, too many other patrons waiting, trendy titles among those in the know, and so she is thinking of switching over to classics, so she can check out and renew at her leisure. Her roommate would just go out and buy a copy of whatever it was she wanted to read. But unlike her roommate, she cannot will herself to spend money on a book she has never read; no, that would be an indulgence, although it is true that she moved to New York expressly to indulge herself, to become the type of person who returns her books to the library whenever she damn well pleases and doesn’t even remember when they’re due because she is too busy and fulfilled going to an endless stream of parties and shows and dates and such things.
As it happens, in the three months she’s been living here this is her first party, and she’s spent the greater part of her time in bed reading library books, mostly about people living indulgent lives in New York.
And the party? She’s been told it’s a whiskey and cheese tasting celebrating the latest round of funding for the burgeoning tech startup her roommate leads. She is fairly certain her roommate has invited her out of pity, odd little bird who only leaves their apartment to commute to Midtown for her publishing job with a coterie of girls who carry Longchamp bags and will inevitably reproduce themselves in a select number of Connecticut hamlets. She’s friendly enough with these colleagues in their ho-hum, squalidly lit office, but they’ve made it clear that their social circles are established, and she tries not to take it personally. She tells herself that her failure to thrive here is a cultural clash, conceives of herself as a latter-day Nick Carraway hailing guilelessly from the Midwest. She tells herself, twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant for discount weight loss books, that her festering professional malaise is an inevitability of growing up in a society whose signals to girls have become jammed, as in: be good, do as you’re told, get straight A’s, go to a good college, this will allow you to attain the high-powered career generations of women before you have fought for; also have lots of sex with lots of men, don’t be a prude; get married eventually, but not too soon, not until you have the high-powered career generations of women before you have fought for, otherwise you will have compromised too much; don’t compromise too much, don’t just do as you’re told, you won’t get ahead if you don’t innovate; promote yourself, but make sure you’re promoting yourself for yourself and for no one else.
She tells herself it is understandable that she is scared and confused and exhausted and surely the next generation of women will have things better and she ought to try to accept the mediocre cards she’s been dealt and move on. She tells herself these things, but the fact of the matter is that her roommate is also a twenty-something woman from the Midwest, one who did not attend a fancypants college like she did, just a state school, not even a flagship, and here she is, campaigning for another round of VC funding, profiled in Forbes and Fast Company, frequenter of exclusive tech parties. Green light, lady Gatsby, American dream.
And it drives her crazy.
The subway station is dank but they go upstairs and the air above ground is crisp, finally, after days of muggy rain, water droplets that connived to stick to your skin and congeal rather than vaporize. The sky is cloudless and of course there are no stars, but she looks up anyway, searches, because that view is still preferable to the one at ground level, the trash piles and pools of pee and the peeling vinyl siding, all of it a great big gritty fuck-you to Giuliani and his squeegee. What she wants is to find a star, just one, that has managed to shine through the smog, wants to see it sparkle atop the wide-angle shots she envisioned when she dreamed of living here. She wants that drive along the FDR at dusk, lights newly aglow in the mirror of the East River, the mighty towers of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges hovering over her in quick succession as the yellow cab slips beneath each of their teeming decks.
But her life here is not wide angle; it is compressed in a telephoto lens, suffocating, constricting, apartment with one window, cubicle with no sunlight, long clankety subway rides and lonely dinners and sleepless nights without the boyfriend she left behind, thrashing about so bereft in her bed she asks her parents to ship her old stuffed Cookie Monster to cuddle with.
There are sex parties in Brooklyn, so she hears, so she’s heard the aftermath of while thrashing. And as they alight the stairs of the walkup she wonders if this alleged whiskey tasting might in fact be such a party; she wonders it wondering whether she’s intrigued or disgusted by this possibility, oh, these libertines who can’t remember to return their books to the library, who order takeout rather than cook and who fail to take their birth control pills as meticulously as she. Her roommate is as vocal about these parties as she is when she gets off every morning as part of her SoulCycle warm-up routine; her moaning doubles as Ms. Library Books’ alarm when she’s managed to sleep. And when she is not busy directing a startup and masturbating to socially conscious pornography, her roommate acquires lovers from here, there, and everywhere, acquires them from those parties—acquires men, Library Books had concluded initially, until one morning she found herself so startled to see a woman leave the premises she spilled the milk for her cereal all over the floor.
The party is on the top floor of the building, and the refreshed air has yet to make its way up there. The space is cramped and shadowy save for strings of filament bulbs lining the ceiling. She thinks it’s remarkable that employees at burgeoning tech startups live in such squalor, but then remembers that unlike her they’re probably never home. Her roommate is quickly encircled by colleagues. Library Books does not know anyone else in the room. She has tried her best to dress in the latest fashion but it seems as though rompers are now passé. She tries to imitate the others by standing in a blasé manner, shoulders thrown back but relaxed, fingertips carelessly grazing her glass, but you can’t try to be blasé, no, and she decides she now looks even more like a poser than she did before. She sets her whiskey down and texts a guy she met recently on Bumble. Two dates, moderate laughter, no dick pics as of yet. An improvement from her prior match who requested a full body shot before he’d agree to meet with her, so they didn’t.
“Want to hang tomorrow,” he texts after they each report their evening plans.
“OK,” she texts back. “Where?”
She sighs. She does not yet feel she’s gained sufficient expertise to suggest a location and wishes he would instead. Perhaps he is really aiming for a Netflix-and-chill arrangement, which makes her nervous. She has not had sex with anyone besides her ex-boyfriend, ever. It is difficult for her to separate the two, to imagine sex as something not involving her boyfriend, and she finds this embarrassing, something a grandma would say. She would like to be like the overeducated girls on TV and in movies who readily engage in no-strings-attached fornication, though it is also true that she posted a series of impassioned screeds against Lena Dunham on Facebook when her show first debuted. She chalks up her reticence to her Catholic upbringing, but then remembers that her roommate was raised strictly Lutheran. So then.
As she texts the guy the name of a bar she’s overheard her roommate praise, she gets the sense that she’s being watched. Then, a flash. She looks up and around. A woman who seems roughly her age is eyeing her from beneath thick lashes, wielding a big black camera, one of those professional-grade types with interchangeable lenses. She pops the flash closed and approaches her, a mischievous grin building behind her apple-red lips.
At this, Library Books draws her phone to her chest and brings her other hand atop it, recoils toward the wall. She is eager for someone to speak to her, but also nervous that she’ll come across as boring and unaccomplished, and rather than introduce herself like a normal person she blurts out, “Did you just take a picture of me?”
The photographer nods and laughs, as though there is nothing creepy about candidly photographing strangers at house parties. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I always ask my subjects for permission before I go further with a photo.”
She asks what this means, go further.
“I’m a photographer. I know a lot of people around here say that, but yeah. I have a studio and gallery shows and stuff. I worked with these guys until I got off the ground.”
The photographer shrugs, and the shrug tugs her camera strap, which slams the camera into her chest, and she winces, and then Library Books winces, too. She asks her why she felt possessed to take a picture of her sending a text at a party. Surely there was nothing more boring.
“I photograph people texting and using the Internet. That’s my main subject.”
“Isn’t that kind of…don’t all the photos look the same?” Library Books shouts over the music, which someone has turned up. She worries this question is rude, that she, who knows nothing about photography, would do well to shut up. But at her question the photographer’s grin widens, a twinkle flickers in her eye.
“Think about it,” she says. “The past few years, where have you been when you hit your highest highs and your lowest lows? Probably on the Internet, right? I try to capture moments of raw emotion that unfold in front of screens.”
The photographer wakes her camera and huddles next to Library Books, then begins clicking through recent shots. Her breath is pungent with Manchego and single malt scotch. There’s a woman in hijab hunched up in a subway seat in the disbelief of sudden victory, free hand folded in an upward punch, eyes pointing toward the ceiling above a toothy beam, all of it overshadowing the phone, that bearer of joy, clutched in her palm. There’s a lanky preppy blond boy leaning against the stairs of a brownstone, brows knitted, grey eyes wide, and she seems to have captured his face at the exact moment it began to fall.
Several shots later, they finally reach her. Shoulders slouched, resting bitch face as per usual, but there’s a softness around her apprehensive eyes, illuminated by the screen on which she’s texting, a slight arch to her brows that conveys not shock so much as anticipation. In that anticipation she catches her waning optimism, which still manages to slither back out whenever she encounters something or someone new, some possibility that she is on the path of locating whatever it was she came to this city to find.
The photographer yanks her camera away and switches back to capture mode, looking satisfied, then offers cheese from her plate. Library Books hesitates, then takes a piece of hard cheddar and tries not to devour it; she adores cheese and has avoided it tonight precisely because she knew she’d lack moderation. The two of them stand there against the galley kitchen wall, eating cheese, occasionally sipping their drinks; others pop in to grab this or that thing but everyone else has settled in the living room, and she wonders why the photographer is staying out here with her.
She’d like to break the silence, but she has a low voice that people struggle to hear when anything competes with it, and right now the Miles Davis on the record player is loud, too loud, giving the effect that they are at a much larger, more happening party than they are, and she’s admittedly disappointed that the one party her roommate has taken her to hasn’t blossomed into something more bacchanal. She wipes sweat from her brow, leans against the fridge’s iciness to cool down. Her whole life she’s been so afraid that wherever she is, she’s missing out. She looks around. It’s just a party, just a bunch of attractive, tipsy people talking. Why oh why was she never in the right place at the right time? Why could she never land herself in situations that forced down her defenses and gave her over to abandon? She allows herself more cheese, swallows her bourbon in bigger and bigger swigs until a gauzy fog engulfs her.
Then she does the most asinine thing ever, tells the photographer that she dabbles in photography sometimes, which is maybe five percent true, if you count the fact that she invested in a low-end DSLR in college and knows what aperture and shutter speed are. She hasn’t touched the camera since study abroad and now uses her phone like everyone else, and the only people remotely impressed with her shots are her aging relatives in the Midwest. The photographer asks her what she enjoys photographing, and she says, “Bridges, I just love bridges, especially the ones in New York, it’s maybe like part of why I moved here,” which is entirely true but so bizarre, and surely now the photographer will abruptly abandon the conversation. But instead she reaches for her wrist and grips it, says, “Oh, I just love bridges too, and you know, you can see the Queensboro Bridge from my roof, and would you like to come over and we can go up and see it?” The photographer, she notices, has a smidge of Brie on her cheek, and before Library Books knows what she’s doing she finds herself wetting a napkin and wiping it off her face. Then she tosses the napkin into the trashcan and says, “I would.”
The Lyft nearly hits a parked car as it pulls away from the party; the driver flees down the street with startling fury. She’s anxious about this whole ridesharing thing; it’s still so new to her, but the subway line to the photographer’s apartment is closed for weekend repairs. Or so the photographer says. She doesn’t know what to make of this girl, this woman, whatever she/they are, doesn’t know what to think about this bridge-viewing invitation, though it sure feels like she’s been picked up by a photographer at a whiskey and cheese tasting. By a lady.
But then the women here are hard to read. She is struck, continually, by how so many of the women roaming Brooklyn with their Pilates physiques and poetics degrees seemed to exist somewhere beyond the bounds of Sandals-resort heteronormativity. And after all of those mornings watching lady Gatsby’s lovers leave while she sits groggily on the futon eating her Kashi, she’s found herself hesitantly hovering on the verge of wondering if she’s been missing out on even more than she thought she was.
“We should go out and take pictures together sometime,” the photographer suggests as the Lyft rounds a corner.
“Of bridges?” she asks, and then wants to whack herself for her inability to stop talking about bridges.
“Keep your fingers out of the cup holder,” the driver snaps suddenly. “I just had this car cleaned.”
“Sorry about that,” the photographer apologizes, moving her hand to her camera strap. “Didn’t realize I put them in there.”
Library Books watches the photographer’s fingers as they trace the strap and she lets herself wonder, full stop: Both. Back home they’d always written that off as an impossibility, a passing phase for the wishy-washy, a purgatory—you went this way or that, case closed. But what if, like her roommate, she didn’t? What if her presumed heterosexuality was really just a byproduct of patriarchal conditioning? She thinks maybe this could explain a few things. That maybe it was possible her crushes on boys were the ones she’d brought to the fore, while she shifted feelings for women out of focus at first inkling. And she thinks maybe this is why she is so fixated on returning her books to the library and why she holds an entry-level job in an obsolete industry and why she can never get a good night’s sleep or make eye contact with anybody. And that maybe if she sleeps with women she too will found a burgeoning tech startup, campaign valiantly for VC funding, excel in SoulCycle classes, even though she still isn’t quite sure what these are. Maybe she will finally attain some kind of peace, maybe, at long last, she will stop analyzing, always, words flooding her brain, letters colliding into a great big barricade between herself and everything beyond her skin, words for every sensation she feels, explanations, rationalizations, resolutions; and wasn’t this her savior in college, this ability to argue any point, to pin things down with precision, to clarify? But now, language feels more like a snare tightening around her limbs, her ability to rely on it for guidance reduced to nil, clarification like a cheap salve against the torrent of naked experience.
She tries, so hard, to stanch the thinking, to still her mind and just be. She wishes the car ride would end, but she has no idea where the photographer lives, and it seems she’s drifted to sleep. She stares through the window; outside looks like Greenpoint, or Queens. So the photographer. Is she pretty? Library Books glances in her direction, and she is unsettled by how abruptly she opens her eyes and returns her gaze. She still has enough alcohol flooding her veins to override her reflex to look away. Yes, indeed, the photographer is pretty; her raven-black hair is flowing and silky, her cheekbones are striking, her wide amber eyes have a kind of celestial quality. And unlike the Bumble dude, her body is nothing like the body of the ex-boyfriend she’s trying to forget, and everything like her own body, her own self, that elusive entity she’d left the Midwest in one last harried attempt to unearth. She takes a deep breath and keeps her eyes firmly in place, does not let them waver, and the photographer nods slightly, bites her lip, which has lost some of its apple-redness, and then the Lyft groans to a halt.
If she really were Nick Carraway, if this were The Great Gatsby, she could skip ahead to the morning, to Chester McKee, clad in his underwear, a great portfolio in his hands, Nick standing there beside his bed. But she knows that she is not Nick Carraway, she is not reliving her beloved story; no, this is not the 1920s, and she will not gloss over what happens to her next with ellipses.
And it does happen to her, the lips, the hands, the breasts, the tongue, the fingers; the photographer happens to her. Yet even there in the twin-sized bed, after a river of tequila atop a roof with a piddling view of the bridge, she wades through thoughts, ideas, worries; she thinks at least she took the initiative to wipe that Brie off the photographer’s cheek, wasn’t that something? And now, because of that, here she is, having this experience titillating enough to be on premium TV, which might also reveal that she’s been in the closet, and release her from it finally. But she’s not sure she’s into it, her flesh against the flesh of someone she hardly knows. The photographer, she’s adept, her body is lovely, one she’d like to admire as one would a sculpture, or a subject in a museum painting. She experiences appreciation, a veneration for the female form she might have once found disconcerting, but she feels no magnetism; her body is not aflame with longing to consume the photographer’s body or to be consumed by hers, fumbling there in humid sheets against the stillness of early morning.
And as the photographer laps at her she frantically tries to determine if she’s not aflame with longing because of patriarchal conditioning or her Catholic upbringing or because she hadn’t thought to shave certain parts of her body or because she isn’t into women, or into this woman, or into sleeping with strangers, or into sleeping with this particular stranger at this particular moment. Lying there dizzy and dehydrated she cycles through these possibilities, tries to separate the strands as much as she can, but the signals are still jammed. She opens her eyes, stares at the ceiling. The photographer is moving in for the bull’s eye, her tongue circling faster and deeper and closer. She could let her keep at it, get some satisfaction out of this; she’s so close now, so close. But no. She does not think she is meant to be one of those overeducated woman on TV who readily engages in no-strings-attached fornication. She reaches down and pulls away the woman’s head and leaps out of bed.
“Sorry to run,” she says as she rummages on the floor for her romper, “but I have to get some books back to the library.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” the photographer mutters, pulling the duvet to her chest and turning away from the newborn day.
Library Books bolts from the bedroom and makes for the subway, but the photographer wasn’t lying; the line isn’t running, won’t again until Monday morning. She never bothered to download any ridesharing apps, and she sees no cabs in this post-industrial morass of warehouses and tumbleweeds at the edge of Queens. What to do? The walk back to her apartment would be endless, and the blisters on her feet are in various stages of healing, as they tend to be. She might not make it before the library’s early Sunday closing, and in the wake of heightened terror threats the outdoor return bin has been sealed off in perpetuity. Then she notices a sign: the East River Ferry. She follows the arrow to the fare gate and boards and glides below the bridges, those bridges, her bridges, on the nearly empty boat, reads Walt Whitman on her phone. Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta! Stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn! Throb, baffled and curious brain! She shields the screen from the sun, sighing, beaming; she is gone, she is going, she is the ferry captain and the Swiss tourist family gawking beside her, she is the Domino sugar factory that she sees when she glances up briefly, alone but not lonely, the “she” disappearing, disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme. Not thinking. Not, for once. Free.
Her roommate is stabbing at a grapefruit, post-workout, when Library Books enters their apartment, and she slyly inquires as to where this Innocent Abroad, this Prufrock, has been.
So as she dashes around the room collecting her books she tells her, says she’d been thinking maybe the reason she was so neurotic was that she secretly liked women, but that she’d been unable to draw a definitive conclusion under the conditions. And her brain is still baffled; she’s not sure anymore that she can choose an answer to the question, “Do you like men, or do you like women?” which she supposes is an answer in itself.
Her roommate stuffs a spoonful of grapefruit into her mouth. “Well, the reason you’re neurotic might just be that you’re neurotic,” she says before swallowing, then turns on the TV.
With the subway line closed the walk to the library is long, monotonous, trudging, and the day is heating up quickly, and she’s so very sleepy, and her bag is heavy, and she thinks about how she could relieve her shoulders of the burden and drive the books back to the library in five quick air-conditioned minutes if she were in the Midwest.
She could go back. The prospect is tempting. As she hands over her books she considers it. But at home she’d only found lands set primly in order, arid plains unable to unearth someone like her. She throws her lighter bag on her shoulder, steps into the heat. Pictures herself reading on the water that morning. No, she won’t leave. Not for a while, at least. Her stomach rumbles with its last remnants of cheese. She tromps down the library’s steps and looks for someplace to eat.
Photo by Sara Nović.