Excerpt from Other Women
I saw you for the first time at your girlfriend’s birthday party last September, two weeks after I dropped out of school. In the hallway outside the apartment you shared with her off Franklin Street, a boy with long hair and ugly tattoos pushed me up against a wall, pinning me by my neck with his forearm.
I could have kicked him, maybe, but the thought didn’t even occur to me. I was transfixed by the snake on his bicep, a skinny blue thing with bugged-out eyes. He looked as confused by the situation as I was, as if his arms had suddenly acted of their own accord. After a few seconds he let me go. “Sorry for that act of violence,” he said, and walked away.
If I was a different kind of person, I might have taken that as a sign from the universe and headed straight home. But I fixed my hair and rang the doorbell. My hands were shaking.
Inside, your living room was warm and loud and filled with smoke. Some people were squeezed onto a couch that looked like it had been stolen from someone’s prim grandmother’s house. The rest were on the floor, some leaning languidly against the wall, others trying to make themselves comfortable, resting their chins on their knees as they muttered their contributions to the conversation.
There were magazines on the coffee table, scattered among painted porcelain tea cups being used as ashtrays, empty cans of beer, and ratty copies of books by Badiou and Agamben. There was a Sol Lewitt print on the wall, some flimsy fabric draped over one window, and a couple half-dead potted plants giving off a rich, wet smell. You took my coat from me and placed it gently on a huge pile of other people’s outerwear.
You tugged gently on a lock of my hair. “You know, you look a lot like a Pre- Raphaelite painting.”
I had always thought that I looked more like a cartoon version of Anne of Green Gables, and longed to be delicate and mysterious and untouchable. You couldn’t have come up with a more effective compliment if you tried. You told me your name and kissed my cheek. I felt something inside of me flicker and go dark.
Kayla, who had invited me, was by the window, arguing with a tall boy, her posture as precise as a ballerina’s. At the time, she and I were both working at a jewelry store near St. Mark’s Place. She was friends with your girlfriend, Josephine, who came by the store occasionally. Once, she bought you a present there once, a tiny gun made of gold on a long string of leather. I never saw you wear it.
Josephine waved to me from the corner of the room, where she sat cross-legged on the floor, cradling a sleepy, malnourished black cat. She looked a lot like Monica Vitti, except happier. Her hair fell around her face, a fluttering blonde curtain. She wore an amethyst on a black cord around her throat, and it trembled slightly when she laughed.
I wanted to tell someone what had happened in the hallway, but I didn’t know how to describe it. I wondered if the boy was a friend of yours, and if he was coming back to the party. Maybe I should have been afraid of him, but really I just wanted to know why he had done it. I wanted to ask him how it felt. All night, I watched and waited, but he never arrived.
During the party, I thought carefully about which possession I should leave at your apartment. My phone would have made things difficult for me. My necklace was too obvious. A hair clip wasn’t urgent enough.
I sat on the floor of your bathroom and took everything out of my purse, deciding. The tiles of your floor were a garish greenish-blue. I wished I had brought my umbrella, which folded up to be only a few inches long and could easily be forgotten on the floor somewhere.
Eventually I took out one of my earrings – a silver hoop with glittery red beads dangling from it, a gift from my aunt – and placed it on the edge of the sink. The other I put in my pocket. Without them, I felt naked in a tiny, thrilling way.
I rummaged briefly through your medicine cabinet. Josephine was on the same brand of birth control that I was, I discovered, and she wore Clinique’s Happy perfume. There was nothing I wanted to steal, though I did squeeze a bit of your toothpaste onto my finger, rubbing it on my tongue before I returned to the party. It tasted of real peppermint, healthy and expensive.
I called the next day. Kayla gave me your number.
“This is probably really weird,” I told you, trying to keep my voice light and cheerful. “It has a lot of sentimental value, that’s all.”
“No, it’s fine.”
You sounded irritable. I’d waited until 1 o’clock to call, hoping to give you time to recover from your hangover. At the sound of your voice, I felt warm and tired with embarrassment.
“If you could just keep an eye out, that would be great. Maybe it got lost in one of the couches,” I said, brightly. “But it’s really not a big deal.”
“I’ll look, I promise.” The sudden earnestness in your voice surprised me. Were you just trying to get me off the phone? I thanked you and hung up.
A few days later, I received my earring in an envelope with my name on it. Kayla must have given you my address. It was nice to meet you, said the note on the back of an index card. Your handwriting was as fastidious and elegant as a girl’s.
Nicola Maye Goldberg is the author of Other Women and Nothing Can Hurt You. Her work has appeared in New York Tyrant, Vogue, Joyland, The Drunken Canal, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Columbia University.