Ellen was having lunch with Abby at Souen on West Thirteenth Street. One of their monthly lunches, though it was difficult now, finding time to meet.
“You should move out near us,” Abby said.
Their house — Abby and her husband’s, in New Jersey — was finally finished. They taught at NYU. Abby admitted to the expected suburban explanations: yard, space, school. Ellen understood; but that distance every morning and night…
“We could be train buddies,” Abby said. “Pick a Jersey boy for you.”
“I had a principle to never go to New Jersey,” Ellen said.
“I know, it’s different for us — the kids. The dog.”
Out the restaurant window Ellen saw the asphalt roof from her bedroom, the gravel beach and barbed wire below it, the surge of the East River to a hundred blocks of Manhattan. Until September. Already by her front buzzer, a poster, FUTURE SITE OF HUNTER’S LANDING, covered the names of the couple across the hall — the Hofmeisters — and of Ellen’s production company.
“Remember how you had a name before you had a company?” Abby said.
It was true. When Ellen had moved in, the landlord said why not make up a name to show anyone passing by that art was being made upstairs (“Who passes by?” Ellen’s father had said). Twelve years ago. Now Ellen’s apartment-mate, and the Hofmeisters, had moved out; by Labor Day the sheet metal shop downstairs would close. The landlord was offering Ellen raw space in Bushwick — and you couldn’t find that just anywhere these days.
“As if that’s what I want at this point,” Ellen said.
“So, for the summer, I have a roommate for you,” Abby said.
One of her summer session students: South African, twenty-one.
“In August I’ll be thirty-seven,” Ellen said.
“She wants to be an interpreter,” Abby said. “Can you imagine? She makes me feel young. Or old, I’m not sure.”
* * *
The summer session student was named Caitlin.
“I’m so grateful, you have no idea,” she said on the phone. The thing was, she wasn’t in town. She was hoping to come by directly from the airport.
“I figure if we get on, we get on,” she said. “I can give you the whole summer in cash.”
Ellen crossed her legs under her desk and pictured a 1930s movie career woman. Wide slacks. Katherine Hepburn. No. Barbara Stanwyck.
“All right,” she said.
Saturday was summer-feeling even at nine a.m. at the shady end of her living room. Ellen was setting her plants to drip from the fire escape when gravel spattered from below. On the phone she’d seen Caitlin as short and quick with dark, bouncing hair, but leaning out the window she saw through the fire escape a tall, foreshortened woman with a high blond ponytail, one hand on her hip, one shielding her eyes; white peasant top, jeans, duffel; suitcase on a leash.
Ellen locked her cat, Pearly (more ashy than pearly, really) in her bedroom. From the living room, the stairwell she had shared with the Hofmeisters opened directly to a brown steel door to the street. Outside was touched with scents from the soap factory around the block. Today was hyacinth.
Caitlin was waving from her waist, cheery flapping waves. Behind her stood a man in black work boots and black jeans, thumbs through his belt loops, chest stretching out a stained white tee shirt printed with a dangling cat and block letters, SHIRT CAT ON A SHIRT. He dropped a square, veined hand past Caitlin to Ellen.
“Leif,” he said.
“There are two of you,” Ellen said.
“Oh — we just met,” Caitlin said.
Leif would be subletting from the Hofmeisters for the summer. He was a lawyer. Might as well do something that pays, right? The sublet was a favor, though the timing worked out for him — he was renovating a brownstone, and his contractors had it torn to shit.
“I make documentaries,” Ellen said. “Not as cool as you think.” She was finishing a film about male frogs born with ovaries because of pesticides.
“Hot,” Leif said.
“Really?” Caitlin said.
“Wait — I saw it,” Leif said. “On PBS.”
“You saw the Ed Norton one,” Ellen said. “I have field biologists. No Ed Norton.”
“How do you get into movies, anyway?” Leif grinned.
“High tolerance,” Ellen said. “Do you need help with anything?”
He had only a duffel. Caitlin was getting a mattress delivered on Monday; until then she had a sleeping bag. Leif had bought the Hofmeisters’ mattress.
“Come over later, we’ll trampoline or wrestle,” he said. “I’m totally kidding.”
* * *
Ellen had a party to go to that night. In her early years in the building, as evening slanted into her bedroom, she would have ducked out her window with a boom box and Joni Mitchell, the semi-jazzy albums. She had a definite image of a type who listened to Joni Mitchell and knew about people’s parties.
“A lot better,” Caitlin was saying loudly through her closed door. Ellen knocked lightly.
“My friend Kendrick is having an opening,” she said. “He’s a designer — jackets, handbags.”
Caitlin nodded and raised one finger to her lips. Her wireless earpiece blinked blue. She had two dresses glittering on her sleeping bag. Ellen’s closet was full of boringness. And she had to be up early to drive out to New Jersey to cook brunch with Abby. She still hadn’t decided what to wear when Caitlin opened her door without knocking.
“I invited Leif,” Caitlin said. “I hope that’s okay.”
“Of course,” Ellen said. “Everyone’s invited.”
* * *
The storefront shone white inside and smelled of paint. Its few racks had been pushed back, clearing the middle. Kendrick waved from a green glass checkout counter that was doubling as a bar. A woman he was talking with turned a beaky stare on Ellen and touched Kendrick’s wrist. He kissed the woman’s forehead. Ellen heard Caitlin’s laugh glitter through the smoke outside.
“Who’s your protégé?” asked a low female voice at Ellen’s side — Natalie, once one of Ellen’s agency clients, now…. Ellen wasn’t sure what now. Natalie was wearing a backless black dress and her back was long and tan.
“Roommate,” Ellen said. “For the summer.”
Caitlin was gesturing to a man on a bicycle. She bent forward, slapped her knees, tossed her head. Smoke was drifting in. Ellen had the annoying sensation of cold arms and shoulders and a scratchy throat even as she felt her underarms dampen. She was wearing a sleeveless turtleneck and had forgotten to bring a wrap. Leif was leaning against a display of aqua handbags, a Stella in one hand, one side of his mouth sucked in, pulling his face after it.
“We can go somewhere,” he said.
“Hey,” Natalie said. “Did you drive?”
“We walked,” Ellen said.
“Knute and I were thinking of going ahead.” Natalie nodded at Caitlin. “Bring her.”
Natalie and Knute had to set up the after bar at Kendrick’s loft. DJ Abscram would be spinning, again. Kendrick now had an entire floor of the building where he’d had his first show. Someone from Goldman or JP would end up lecturing about the Ukraine or koi ponds, and excuse himself to go off with Knute. The windows would be full of bridges and Ellen would dance with strangers — she had met her last two boyfriends there — and with Kendrick and her shadow and reflection until in the early glare Kendrick cooked breakfast for anyone awake, bacon, eggs, Béarnaise, Bloody Marys. “It’s up to you, honey,” he would say. “A new day or a new round?”
“No,” she said. “I should collect the kid. I have to go out to Jersey in the morning.”
“Poor baby.” Natalie squeezed her hand.
“Lucky.” Ellen felt the morning bridge, the steering wheel, diamonds of daylight.
* * *
The sounds of the storefront seeped behind them into general street-lit dimness and the elevated roar of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
“Three kinds of people,” Leif said. “Those who can’t wait for the after-party, those who want to keep a dead party going, and those who can’t wait to go home.”
“I’m becoming number three,” Ellen said. “I am number three.”
“This guy asked me to be in his movie,” Caitlin said.
The guy on the bicycle. His name was Martel.
“As in Charles?” Ellen said.
“He’s riding around Brooklyn,” Caitlin said, “looking for people to be in his movie.”
She pirouetted along the steel curb. She was wearing studded sandals that clicked plastically. Behind them now was a deep silence rimmed with traffic.
“I told Martel he could film his party on our roof,” Caitlin said. “He’s going to have this big party scene. Wouldn’t it be amazing to say it was our roof?”
They were at the brown front door. Leif held it and motioned upstairs.
“The roof sounds fucking perfect,” he said. “Ladies?”
Ellen hated when men said “ladies.”
“I’m going to text Martel,” Caitlin said.
Ellen wanted to get her binoculars for Caitlin but didn’t want to leave Caitlin alone with Leif. She’d never had to worry about who was on her roof.
“I’ll be right there,” she said. “I’ll be just a minute. One drink.”
At the birthday party where Ellen and Abby had met, Ellen had immediately noticed how they matched: sound, height (five-seven), and hair (shoulder-length, very straight). Abby was twenty-seven, Ellen twenty-eight.
“And functionally single.” She was proud of the phrase, because she didn’t feel single at all, though Neil — the first co-worker she’d ever dated; she had his old job — was in California shooting a Lubriderm campaign. She kept to her side of the bed and on the train she glanced at men and thought how she was able to do so idly.
Abby was starting her dissertation on the accretion of capital to megalopolises.
“But that’s boring,” she said.
She emailed the next day that until they’d exchanged email addresses she’d thought she was talking with a Diana. She asked if Ellen would like to come along to a barbeque at the apartment of a professor on her thesis committee. Marcus. People are named Marcus? Ellen wrote. She saw the summer stretch out, sign-poled by new acquaintances, a hot, bright blur, only the first portion of all the summers ahead.
Abby had suggested they meet in the triangle off Carmine Street. Under a milky sky and limp leaves Ellen felt what she could only call joy as the taxis panting at the Sixth Avenue crosswalk fluttered her skirt. “Like a goddamned whore,” a man on a bench said. The bench men had shopping carts over-brimming with bottles and half-shredded soda-spattered bags. Ellen stood on the far corner of the triangle, fingering her phone as if at any second it might jump.
“So sorry I’m late.” Abby was suddenly behind her, fingers hooked through the string of a cake box. “So glad you came. I need a girl to talk to. And there should be someone there for each of us.
“You know I’m seeing someone?” Ellen said.
“I guess I didn’t think it was serious, since you’re going to parties alone.”
Could Abby really not have heard about Neil being in California? For work? But Ellen could sense in herself an unattached, anxious readiness. What if Abby sensed it, too? What if Ellen never shook it?
Marcus lived on the ground floor of a corner walk-up, in a single, wood-paneled back room, no windows, but French doors out to a shady patio. The room was already so crowded that it was impossible to move through without pushing. Ellen knew no one but Abby. Not a face. She usually at least knew a client or co-worker, someone from college. Up to the ceiling, nautical artifacts were jig-sawed so scarcely any wall remained between them: framed and water-stained charts, spyglasses, driftwood, a painting of a wooden ship on fire.
“If Manhattan is a ship, this is my cabin,” Marcus said.
He was six foot five or six. He’d plywooded over his kitchen sink and counter to make a bar. He had a large head, small eyes widely spaced, red cheeks beaded bright. He was half Austrian, half English. Something about him looked older, with that thickening that overtakes men, of stubble and sinew, neck and muscle, of gut if they didn’t take care. He evidently did.
“I brought you cake.” Abby thrust up the box.
“I’m glad you came,” Marcus said.
“Me, too.” She squeezed his arm.
“Which department?” Marcus said to Ellen, kindly.
“Oh — I work.”
“You work!” He gasped.
“I’m a producer, on commercials,” Ellen said.
“How is that?” Marcus said. “Do you like that?”
She realized he was making fun, and felt herself all the more at the edge of telling him everything. Let him make fun. She was going to bring her idea into daylight, even if it slipped irretrievably out of his apartment into the city.
“I’m thinking of starting my own little company,” she said.
“That’s unusual, isn’t it?” Marcus said.
“Oh, no. We’re like roaches.”
“I mean for a woman.”
Ellen’s face must have paused horribly, because Marcus smiled, and his bright cheeks made his eyes seem like small dark marbles seizing light.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m an asshole.”
“I’m not doing it alone,” she said.
“Maybe you should. What can I get you?”
* * *
His patio was cracked and patched with concrete. Knee-high walls of flat, unmortared stone separated neighboring patios to the right and left.
“I told my advisor, if I was on Wall Street, I would have made five times that last year. In bonus alone.” A man in a green Hawaiian shirt threw his arms up, scattering the bonus. “Five times. You know what he said? ‘Go to Wall Street, then.’”
The man looked at Ellen as though she’d disagreed. She realized she’d been staring. She emptied her wine glass. Inside, Abby paused refilling it.
“Have you been meeting people?” she said.
“A bit,” Ellen said.
“I’ll look around,” Abby said.
“Are you matchmaking?” Marcus smiled.
“Actually, I may take off,” Ellen said.
“I’m sorry.” Abby felt for Ellen’s shoulder. “I’m a bad friend.”
“No,” Ellen said. “No.”
Marcus walked her to the door. In the bedroom to the right, the shades were down, a woman on the bed, kneeling over a man.
“I think you’re admirable,” Marcus said in Ellen’s ear. He had more of an accent than she’d thought. She heard it now, the extra care with his consonants.
“I hope you do start a company,” he said.
“I’m going to,” she said. “I’ve decided.”
“Good.” He smiled and instead of reaching for the door reached behind and pulled her to him, so tightly her breasts hurt. His tongue was thick, gentle, brief. All the way to the subway she walked very aware of her spine and of expelling his air. When the train came she sat stomach in, back arched.
By the time Ellen clambered out her bedroom window, binoculars around her neck, Pearly dubious in her arms, Leif had three beach chairs set up on the roof. He and Caitlin were doing shots of Maker’s. The glass flashed back light from the street and river.
“The only reason anyone goes to New Jersey,” Ellen said, “is to have kids.”
“So don’t go,” Leif said.
“It’s not that easy,” Ellen said.
But it was. In the morning she called late enough so it was impossible to arrive as agreed, early enough so that Abby — Ellen hoped — wouldn’t be too far into preparations.
“I was out with Caitlin until two,” she said.
“So Caitlin took the room?” Abby said.
“My head feels like there’s an iron bar through it,” Ellen said.
“I bought bacon. But I can feed it to the kids. They’ll be happy.”
“We’re due for lunch. Next week.”
“Can’t do next week,” Abby said.
She and Marcus and the kids would be flying to London the day after June term ended. Marcus was lecturing, and it was a chance for the kids to see where he’d grown up.
“So, definitely when you get back,” Ellen said.
“When we get back. Definitely.”
* * *
“See?” Leif said.
“I could’ve been there and back by now.” Ellen was sitting in one of Leif’s chairs. Two p.m., her second pot of coffee. The sky was pink all along Manhattan. Leif had come up behind her, put his hand on her shoulder, drawn back when she tensed.
“Now you get to sober up nice and slow,” he said.
What had they talked about the night before? Leif had been telling Caitlin about beekeeping. “Can you imagine, having your own honey?” Caitlin had said. “Having” sounded like “heving.” Leif said they should buy a hive on the Pirate Bay. Ellen had stayed, listening stupidly. And in the morning she’d lied to Abby. Not literally, but by implication. Planning the conversation, Ellen had heard how it would go. “Oh, God, no,” Abby would agree. “Not the Turnpike with a headache.”
But there’d been no disappointment, no sigh or surge or dip in pitch. Only the briefest silence before Abby said O.K. As if prepared. As if canceling made as much sense as Ellen going.
* * *
After Marcus’s cookout, Ellen met up with Abby often. Wasn’t it convenient, Abby marveled, that neither of them was seeing anyone?
“I mean, not for all intents and purposes,” she said.
She’d canoodled a bit with Marcus after Ellen had left, after dinner, when she and Marcus were both stuffed with bratwurst, but there’d been no space on the couch and it had been awkward, standing up. And he had seemed shy, hesitant — kind of sweet, actually. Ellen thought she sounded disappointed.
Let’s do something, Abby would email. Ellen felt a new, pleasant responsibility. She hadn’t had a really close woman friend in New York, and she had no one left at work to meet. There were clients, Kendrick and Natalie, whom she enjoyed taking to dinner, but you had to keep to certain topics. You couldn’t go telling Natalie you were unhappy, or else she would bring you Ecstasy.
Now there was Abby. Abby hadn’t been out to the new back garden restaurants on Smith Street, or to Diner or the Indian restaurants in Jackson Heights. Abby suggested a hiking weekend, upstate in the mountains around West Point, before the semester began. She would do things like that, refer to the academic calendar, as if Ellen must be thinking about it, too.
They chose a Friday in August. Abby rented a little grey Ford sedan. “My FBI car,” she said. She picked Ellen up at her door. Marcus had told her about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, how late at night he could drive as fast as he wanted. Over the morning cobblestones, past brick former-factories with rainbow flag windows, past the steaming backs of bakeries and the dumpling factory with white vats of MSG by its roller door, they splashed through the wet intersection — it was always wet; Ellen didn’t know why — onto the expressway. From the high bridge over Newtown Creek, there wasn’t a cloud over the entire swell of Long Island: careening roofs, treetops, a cemetery, oil tanks, barges like tarry soap bars. The next week, Ellen and Neil and two artists from work were giving notice.
“Jesus,” Abby said. “Aren’t you terrified?”
“It’s such a relief,” Ellen said. “Even now, I have this fear it won’t happen and I’ll still be getting other people’s lunches.”
“But this is your idea, right?” Abby said. “You’ll always have that.”
“Do you know I get three-quarters the salary Neil did for the same job?” Ellen said. “Imagine our conversation.”
But Neil was restless, too. He wanted to do live action, shoot film, experiment with high definition video. Not oversee budgets. Ellen had said she, too, wanted to direct, until Neil explained that what I really want is to direct — the phrase — was a joke. But she needed him. He had clients and knew how to get them. He was a name. So she agreed.
“I need more of a business sense,” Abby said. “Marcus says I need to sell myself. He thinks you’re smart. He thinks there should be more women in business.”
“There are,” Ellen said. “A lot.”
“But they all leave to have babies. They leave or work half time, and they’re out.”
Ellen did have clients who worked from home several days a week to be with their toddlers. They had classic sixes on the Upper West Side or six bedrooms in Alpine, and nannies and caterers for parties that Ellen received gilt invitations to and realized when she arrived, underdressed and unattached, that she’d been invited to perfunctorily.
“I suppose people want this.” Abby gestured to the hills, low but steep and so thickly treed they seemed to bound away in a broccoli-colored wake. The Thruway lazed north between them, dotted with late morning windshields.
“Have you talked about it with Neil?” Abby said.
“God, no. Not yet.” Ellen was aware of measuring an answer she might hold herself to later. They all leave to go have babies. Why did that surprise her, like finding out someone was an Objectivist? Why hadn’t Abby said “we”?
Abby was going to stay in the city. No question. Ellen reclined her seat, onto the Tappan Zee Bridge, past yellow suicide hotline call boxes. Upriver was wide with white sails.
“One other thing,” she said.
Ellen had incorporated in her name only. Neil would be her employee.
“Fun!” Abby said.
Neil had been in California, his second week on the Lubriderm job, the day Ellen was filling out the papers. If you called the IRS before 8 a.m., they gave you an ID right then. The agent, Mrs. Drummond, had gotten a slight dip in her voice when Ellen said there would be two names on the certificate of incorporation.
“And if I decide to go alone?” Ellen had said.
“The IRS only cares about the number.” Mrs. Drummond said. “But you’ll want to know who you’re incorporating with before you file the certificate with your state.”
Ellen had told Neil the next day over the phone.
“I was thinking you’d want to be free to direct,” she said.
“Because that’s what men want,” he said. “Zero responsibility.”
“Don’t say that.”
“What is it then?”
It was something that, listening to Mrs. Drummond, Ellen had seen: her name, by itself, in large letters.
“Aren’t you scared?” Abby said.
“Not yet,” Ellen said.
It wasn’t fear she felt. It was as though Neil’s jokes and gum smacking were a previously recorded broadcast and she could hear the quiet that would come if she turned it off.
Ellen had pictured how, by chance, she and Caitlin would be cooking together in the longest sunsets of the year. Caitlin would tell about South Africa. They would plan shared meals. Ellen was fairly easy-going about anything but entrails or imitation meat.
“I think gents like Leif can only happen in the States,” Caitlin said. “Have you ever known anyone so relaxed?”
She was microwaving a frozen quiche. Ellen was slicing a yellow pepper.
“It’s easier for guys,” Ellen said.
“He’s easy about everything.”
Ellen wasn’t about to ask, on cue, what Caitlin meant. Then Caitlin was gone, back into her room. She stayed there most evenings that she was home, door shut. Ellen heard tinny beats from headphones. It turned out Caitlin was reading “The Golden Notebook” by Doris Lessing and “Momento Mori” by Muriel Spark, and short stories by Nadine Gordimer.
“You can read with music on?” Ellen marveled one night. She had gone to brush her teeth. Caitlin was in the narrow bathroom, flossing. It was nearly two. Caitlin smelled of baby powder. She waved Ellen in.
“It doesn’t bother you, does it?” she said.
“I’m just surprised. I can’t concentrate with music. I don’t mean that you’re not concentrating.”
“It’s O.K.; don’t worry.”
Why would Ellen be worried?
Other things. Three times now Ellen had reached into her kitchen cupboard and missed her skillet or two-quart pan.
“It’s just at Leif’s,” Caitlin had said. He was such a sweet gent. “He doesn’t have a fry pan. He gets these most amazing sausages—”
“Can you bring my pan back?” Ellen said.
“All you had to do was ask.”
“That’s what I am doing, is asking.”
The next morning Ellen was awake and done in the shower before Caitlin’s door opened. She made extra coffee, just in case. Caitlin stood blinking in the kitchen.
“I was going to ask,” Ellen said. “About Martel.”
“What about him?”
“He was making an independent movie.”
“An Internet movie.”
They were going to use the Hofmeister’s apartment. Martel just had to decide when.
“If he needs help arranging for lights—”
“He wants it to be spontaneous,” Caitlin said.
It wasn’t worth arguing. You didn’t shoot a party scene at an actual party. You blocked out shots, scripted exchanges, coordinated wardrobes. It wasn’t worth explaining that to a kid riding around Brooklyn asking women to be in his movie.
* * *
With Neil returning from California and Marcus finishing his new book, there was so much to celebrate. Abby made dinner reservations, her treat. “I shouldn’t,” she said. “But I want Neil and Marcus to meet.”
Marcus looked older than Ellen remembered, fatherly, almost. Maybe not fatherly. A military haircut, a few days’ grey stubble. He shook Neil’s hand, kissed Ellen’s. His smile struck her as pleased with itself rather than pleased to see them. He motioned her to sit opposite, so the restaurant could show her off to the sidewalk. The waitress brought wine for him to taste, a Mantinia Tselepos. Marcus offered it to Ellen.
“Round,” Ellen said. “That’s all I can ever think to say.”
“Let it sit on your tongue. Let it sit.” He tipped a short, slick cylinder from a seafood platter onto Ellen’s plate. “An octopus for the businesswoman.”
“How is it?” Abby grimaced.
Ellen tasted it. “Like a tentacle.”
“And how is that?” Marcus said.
“You want to know?”
“Like biting a rubber penis.” Ellen couldn’t have said what she meant. But everyone was laughing, even Marcus.
All through the rest of dinner he looked at her. She was sure. Then he and Neil got into an argument while they were waiting for the bill. Neil had said that Democrats and Republicans were the same, unless you were gay or wanted an abortion.
“And how many people would you say that is?” Marcus said. “More than a hundred? Less than fifty?”
“I didn’t say I was in favor,” Neil said.
“May I tell you something?” Marcus said.
“All you, professor.” Neil put his arm across the back of Ellen’s chair and spooled her hair around his finger. She could tell: he was amused anyone would think of after dinner conversation as anything except dessert.
“All I hear,” Marcus said, “is the American obsession with declaring independence, and a teenage boy obsession with making certain everyone knows that you’ve seen everything and fallen for none of it.”
“Jesus,” Neil said. “You really mean it.”
“Not much of a life if you don’t, is it, now?”
* * *
The cab bounced them down Bowery to Delancey and the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge.
“So that’s the famous Abby,” Neil said.
“I like her so.” Ellen felt herself blush, for being too emphatic, and for feeling that she had to be, and that Neil wasn’t interested in talking about Abby. Ellen couldn’t recall a thing Abby had said all night.
“Marcus, man,” Neil said. “With an American accent, there is no way he could get away with that shit.”
“He’s going to sleep with her, you know,” Ellen said.
“And she’s going to sleep with him.”
“Well, she knows what she’s doing.”
Across the main span of the bridge, Ellen saw Marcus looking at her through the downtown and Brooklyn lights. This is who you want to be with, he was saying. Aren’t you smarter than this? Maybe not. Maybe you only want to be comfortable. Look: Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Sinatra and Kelly dancing off on a day’s leave, what we came home from war to make, down the dark slope onto Havemeyer, Fifth and Roebling, the crooked way home to Ellen’s space, Ellen’s and Neil’s not-yet company. No clients had committed to them yet. Ellen leaned back into Neil’s soft tee shirt, his warm, hibernating coffee scent.
“Next trip to California,” she said. “It’ll be you behind the camera.”
“Yeah, making someone’s hemorrhoid ad.”
His tone more than his words made her look. Something new? Flicking in and out of streetlights, his face was hard to be sure of.
“Your hemorrhoid ad,” she said.
He put his arm lightly across her chest.
“Ours,” he said.
Ellen started giggling, but it didn’t obscure her reflection against the dark storefronts.
“The thing with hemorrhoids,” Neil said. “They can be chronic.”
Abby phoned the morning after she and Marcus got back from England.
“I realized on the plane: your birthday.” They needed to have Ellen out to visit. Marcus wanted to see her. “It must be years at this point,” Abby said.
Ellen should have mentioned his kiss right at the time — the next day, or on their weekend upstate. But even thinking about it had felt disloyal, an insult to Abby’s judgment, looks, her soul. When Abby phoned, barely able to announce that Marcus had slept over, what else could Ellen say but that she was happy for her? If Ellen said something now, that, and her reasons for it, would upset Abby more than Ellen’s years of saying nothing, or Marcus’ long-ago — and always after drinking — indiscretion.
Abby suggested the first Saturday in August. The day of Martel’s party. “It’d be fun if you get back early enough,” Caitlin said. What was early? Oh, eleven or so. Ellen would try. She would have said no to the party entirely, but then Caitlin could have said they were having it at Leif’s. Pearly could be locked in Ellen’s bedroom. Ellen would have brought him in his cat carrier if Abby’s kids weren’t allergic. “Arrive by three, or four; whenever you want,” Abby said, with a nonchalance Ellen didn’t remember from her.
The day was cloudless, wind burnt, just the kind of day to run around the reservoir in the park. They could have bought the kids ice cream, picnicked on blankets. Instead of taking one of the tunnels, Ellen drove up to the George Washington Bridge. Leaves on the light ends of branches were fluttering over the steep shadows of the Jersey side. Vacation leaves — you only noticed them when you were leaving town, stepping outside normal time, when even trees seemed strange.
By the time Ellen pulled into the driveway behind Marcus’s Audi, the neighborhood was visibly late afternoon. A wide deeply-treed street, most of the houses from the 1920s, slate roofed, small, colonial-style, similar to what Marcus and Abby must have torn down to build theirs. Marcus came out the front door, waving. More of a paunch now. He opened Ellen’s passenger side door and sat on her maps.
“Abby’s running down the rug rats. I need some things. Mind?”
What could Ellen say but no, not at all?
It was an easy town to get around, he said, still for the people who lived in it, not weekend gapers.
“You might think Americans would notice that they like sidewalk cafés and maybe build towns again instead of shopping plazas,” Marcus said. “You should buy down here.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to buy anywhere,” Ellen said.
“Here,” he said sharply. “Turn.”
They had come to an intersection. He had pointed, so slightly and far to his right that Ellen would have had to be looking at him instead of at the road for it to register as a gesture she was meant to follow. Just in time, she turned onto the state highway.
“I was thinking about you,” Marcus said. “I’ve been approached about a film.”
The highway became Main Street, parking metered in the mottled sun of plane trees. Houses had been converted to shops with plate glass windows.
“Park anywhere, Marcus said. “Stop!”
“What?” Ellen stamped the brake. She saw no sudden cars, no kids or bicyclists crossing.
“Back up,” Marcus said.
“There was a space.”
“I can’t back up,” she said.
An SUV, a chrome grille, was closing fast behind them.
“You could have made it,” Marcus said, “if you’d wanted.”
“I’m not going to back up the middle of Main Street.”
“Do what you want.” Marcus trigger-thumbed the release button on the parking brake. They passed a pizza joint, a laundry, a flowered café and an ice cream counter. Then a brick building, three stories, no windows, a long banner with Greek letters.
“Must be a theatre,” she said.
“You don’t like me very well, do you?” Marcus said.
“What kind of question is that?”
“You think I’m an arrogant bastard.”
“I can let you out right here.” Ellen tightened but didn’t brake or accelerate or look.
“Deep down,” Marcus said, “you know you envy me.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Ellen said.
Something was coiling, humming on line.
* * *
They were cordial through dinner. Marcus asked Ellen which wine to open first, red or white, what to start off the grill with, chicken, burgers, or bratwurst.
“Always with the bratwurst,” Abby said.
Ellen followed her into the kitchen. All that was left to do was to slice the tomatoes Ellen and Marcus had bought, but there was only counter space for Abby to work. Ellen sat at a high stool pulled up to a little peninsula behind her. Abby’s shoulders had a mounded shape Ellen didn’t recall. Her back was broader, her neck slanted forward.
“Do you ever see Neil?” Abby said.
“I found him, online.” He was in Santa Monica, a producer for effects shots on movies. Maybe there was some live action mixed in. Ellen hoped so.
“He was a good egg,” Abby said.
“He sloughed off, though,” Ellen said. “So much.”
“Sounds like it’d be refreshing.” Abby laughed. “Sometimes.”
* * *
The lawn projected a small green semi-circle into a dark audience of trees. Fireflies, moths, and the kids — Anders and Emma — played along its edges. Overhead a pair of bats darted across and under each other. Ellen sat on the patio steps, out of the smoke that poured from the grill when Marcus unlidded it. “Come count fireflies, Auntie Ellen,” Emma called, and Ellen walked out barefoot to meet her. Abby brought a cheese platter and pulled the screen door shut.
“Here we are, then,” she said. “Thank you for driving Marcus around, on his little errands. Especially after that awful drive to get here. We’ll have cornbread, and I was able to get the marinade done, and read to Emma a little.”
This, somewhere like it, was where Ellen would have said she saw herself at this age, if anyone had asked ten or fifteen years before. Not because she wanted it. Because it was the horizon; New Jersey seen from the West Side. You could forget it because you knew it was there. Some people, maybe Kendrick and Natalie, saw across different rivers, or none, but Ellen felt she and Abby and Marcus and Neil shared this one. Abby and Marcus had passed over it and for them it had vanished. Ellen hadn’t crossed it but she could feel a new space where it had been. It was dark now, almost uniformly, under the branches and across the lawn except where skin and clothing punched glowing holes, Emma darting, Anders running a simpler path after her, Marcus at the grill, Abby, hands on hips, smiling into the chirping darkness, neighbor children cycling past on unseen streets.
“I left Pearly with Caitlin,” Ellen said.
“I’m so glad Caitlin worked out,” Abby said.
“She’s having a party.”
“You should have told me. We could have rescheduled.”
“I wanted to see you.”
“I told Ellen about my movie,” Marcus said.
“Your movie.” Abby laughed.
“Ellen could make it happen.”
“Sure,” Ellen said. Despite herself, she felt grateful. In the lawn chairs they laughed and Abby and Ellen curled their legs underneath themselves and Abby said she never wanted to move again.
“I want to stay here, always. With all of you. Both of you.”
Marcus poured more wine.
“Can you imagine me doing my own narration?” he said. “The Nazi socialist communist.”
His book had become a phenomenon; if he truly wanted Ellen to make a movie of it, he would be doing her as much a favor as she would be doing him. Abby’s books had a more academic audience.
“People don’t get them,” Ellen said.
“That’s not it,” Marcus said. “People aren’t interested.”
Good. Same old Marcus. And Abby would never ask and Ellen would never tell about the conversation in the car, how she had wanted to hurt him.
“I envy exactly one person,” she had said. “I envy me ten years ago. End of subject.”
Marcus had looked at her, hands in his lap.
“All right,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
What did he mean? She wasn’t going to ask. She never would.
* * *
In the morning Ellen’s living room smelled of beer and her soles stuck to the floor. Bottles crowded the counter, pyramids of half-empty bottles stuffed with cigarettes. She’d been too tired to clean up when she’d gotten home. By that time all the noise and people had been at Leif’s, or on the roof. Kendrick had been there, and Delilah and Natalie.
“How’d you get their numbers?” Ellen said.
“My secret,” Caitlin said.
She had bought a cake. She had kept everyone from it until Ellen arrived. She had led Ellen by the hand out to the edge of the roof. Exhausted, still whirling from off-ramps and quick left turns, Ellen leaned on her.
“He’s asked me to move in with him,” Caitlin whispered.
Ellen understood. For Caitlin this would be the night we made the movie on the roof. Ellen felt words coming, though she knew how they would sound.
“As long as you feel safe,” she said.
“You can’t imagine,” Caitlin said.
As if they had been talking that way all summer.
* * *
Ellen wasn’t used to morning sun from Caitlin’s bedroom. She brewed her usual two mugs of coffee, microwaved milk and ducked out her window to the roof. Sunday morning — the city never quieter, expressways slunk down beyond the gravelly wash of the river. Her voice rose and rolled on its swell, filled and rosy with it — she was sure — when she called Abby.
“Garrison?” Abby said. “Have you even been up there?”
“We have. We went hiking, the summer we met.”
“I have no memory of this. How can I have no memory?”
“It was just a weekend. We never went back; I don’t know why. You know when you think something is the first of many and then it turns out to be the one?”
“Yes!” Abby said. “I know exactly what you mean.”