Because I cannot stand to hear about Paige’s problems, I tell her about Vesna Vulovic, who fell 33,000 feet and survived. “Imagine!” I say. I feel a real swooping in my chest, but Paige doesn’t like the story, I can tell. What part is bad? Does the thought of all that tumbling through clouds give her nausea? Or maybe it’s the loneliness that makes her look so dreary, how Vesna was a sole survivor, wedged against the plane’s fuselage by a food cart while gravity tore everyone else into the sky. Paige! I want to say. Stop being an idiot, stop talking about your boyfriend, I know life’s hard and some women are luckier than others.
We come here sometimes, to this bar on Courtland Avenue, to be anonymous, because people know us at Jolene’s. We’re here now, drinking too much in the garden. Paige lights one of my cigarettes and says, “Shut up, don’t tell me this, I’m flying to Mexico in three days.”
“Well, sit in the back,” I say. “In a middle seat. It’s your best chance.”
“That sounds uncomfortable,” she says. “I’ll just die.”
She looks like she wants to die. I feel like dying, sort of. I think I should tell her a joke, try to make her smile, but maybe I’m not really interested in that, maybe it’s too late for that, maybe I’ve known her too long, over a year now, that’s way too long. So I just say, “Vesna didn’t remember falling. She woke up, days later, from a coma, an amnesiac, and the last thing she remembered was greeting passengers as they boarded the flight.”
“Can you please stop?” Paige says, and for the first time in a while, I look at her. Sometimes I forget to look at people when they talk, or at least I think so, because I don’t remember easily what anyone looks like. I don’t know how often Paige ever looks at me. Either we’re trading off, looking only when the other looks away, or else her eyes are always doing this, fixing on her drink, fixing on some point in the distance, never on my face. “I love to travel,” she says. “So I don’t want to hear about planes that get blown up.”
“Croatian nationalists. A briefcase bomb.” I take a slug of my vodka tonic, ice clinking against the glass. “Anyway, it’s fine,” I say. “We can talk about something else.”
But in truth, it’s not fine. In truth, I sometimes hate her. Last time she stayed over, she shook me awake late at night and said, “Lily, you’re talking in your sleep, you’re flopping around, you woke me up, who are you talking to, what are you dreaming about?” And at first my heart soared, she was asking about my dreams! I wondered if we were finally in love. I wondered if now she would leave Jonah, which is a stupid name for a boyfriend, a stupid name for a boy, whale food, runaway prophet, why did his parents name him after someone so unreliable, why did Paige give herself to someone like that? And as these thoughts flooded me, my hope drained, so I said, “Who do you think I’m talking to, dreaming about? Your boyfriend! He asked where you are, and I said, She’s at a sleepover with me, Lily, you know, her friend you haven’t met, we fucked half the night so she’s too tired to talk, but she’s doing great, don’t worry.”
In the dark, I couldn’t make out Paige’s features, but I figured she was glaring—not at me, but at the ceiling or wall, of course she wasn’t looking at me, right then I was looking at her and we never looked at the same time, that was the law. And the next time she came over, she refused to spend the night, leaving me alone with the moon. So I went to the window and asked, “Have you ever looked at a woman and felt immobilized? Dismantled by amazement?”
“Yes!” the moon said. “My god, yes.”
* * *
My father loved his bicoastal life, having offices in two cities, the man he got to be in New York. I know because I went with him once, when I was eight and Carson was eleven, but Carson was not invited, Carson could not go on a plane, he could not handle it, he was driving with our mother to Las Vegas for a conference on parenting autistic children, he was the autistic child, our mother was the parent. “Greg!” I had heard her yelling a few nights earlier, when I was supposed to be asleep. “Lily’s babysitter canceled, and I can’t chase two kids around Las Vegas, I don’t have the energy, you know Carson is hard work, I want to focus on the classes, I think they’ll help, just take Lily, please, your secretary can watch her, please, Greg, just do this for me, do something for me, I’m tired.” Then my father yelled back, and my mother yelled more, and I guess she won, because soon I was on an adventure, I was in New York City!
My father worked on the 4th floor of a very tall skyscraper, in a corner office, and on his desk were pictures of us, his family. In my picture I was six years old, I remembered having it taken, I wore a blue dress with a bow, which I’d hated then and still hated, and I had pigtails. Looking at it, I felt an odd surge of shame and touched my hair, which I’d hacked off myself a few months ago, without permission, in the bathroom at school, so that people would think I was a boy. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel like a girl, it was that boys could do whatever they wanted, and I craved that freedom, I thought I’d pretend, but my mother got mad and I didn’t know why. In Carson’s picture he was just a toddler, maybe two or three at most, my father had told me he was normal then, when I was too young to remember, that he let people touch him, that he’d look you in the eye, and it was true he seemed normal here, beaming at the camera.
Distracted by the pictures, I did not hear the strange man enter my father’s office, and I jumped when he boomed, “Allister!” My father and I were both Allister, he was Greg Allister and I was Lily, so we both turned. The man, who looked a lot like my father, tall and pale and wearing a suit, smiled at me and said, “You must be Carson.”
I stared back, insulted. How could anyone think I was Carson? Carson was not allowed here, Carson could not stand still as I was doing, Carson was always jumping and moving and flapping his hands, Carson could barely talk, Carson had not been invited. Then, when I glanced at my father, I noticed something different in his expression, which I realized with a jolt was shame, which I could recognize because I had just felt it, when I’d looked at the pictures on his desk, not that I could tell where any of it came from, just that it was there. My father laughed, but it didn’t sound like a real laugh, and said, “This is Lily, actually. She had a little mishap with some scissors. Carson’s at a baseball tournament this weekend.”
“A junior slugger, huh?” the man said. “What position does he play?”
“Third base,” my father said. “And shortstop, sometimes.”
Now, I was truly interested. My father was lying! I wondered why he was lying. And though I did not plan to contradict him, though I was curious and wanted to stay here, he looked nervous and ready to be rid of me, his Adam’s apple bobbing when he swallowed. “I’ll be at the meeting in a minute,” he told the man. “I’m just going to take Lily upstairs. Isabel said she’d watch her.”
The man grinned and winked. “You’ll like Isabel,” he told me. “She works on the very top floor.”
“Is that because she’s important?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
Cutting my hair hadn’t worked at school, no one believed I was a boy, they already knew I was a girl, there was no escaping it, so they called me a dyke. And though I hadn’t heard it before, though certainly it was spoken with meanness, I had an immediate sense that it was true, I figured it meant I was a girl who wanted to do the things boys did, and I was glad to have a word for that, a word that captured me, I even liked it. Still, I asked my mother if I could change schools so I could be a boy somewhere, in some people’s eyes, so I could get away with everything, whatever I wanted, murder even, but she sighed and shook her head and told me no, I was a girl, I would dress like a girl, I would act like a girl, I would grow my hair back to girl-length, she was sorry but I had no choice, I would have to do this forever or else people would be very, very cruel to me.
* * *
“Is that your psycho bitch?” Autumn asks, gesturing across the bar. I look up from my drink, and yes, that’s Paige, she’s beautiful, all blonde curls and smudged mascara and owlish glasses, I think I love her, also she’s terrible, oh well. The last thirteen months of my life walking through the door, that’s how it feels to see her. She looks around, like maybe she has somewhere better to be, like maybe she came to Jolene’s by accident, and then she slinks up to the bar.
“I thought you were in Mexico,” I say.
“With your boyfriend,” Autumn tacks on.
Paige’s not looking at either of us, she’s trying to catch the eye of the bartender, so I guess she doesn’t notice Autumn’s lip curling. I like this camaraderie, this venom on my behalf, though in truth I don’t deserve it, I blew off Autumn’s birthday last week, so overall I feel lousy, I need another drink. When the bartender looks at Paige, I pull out my wallet and say, “A shot of vodka and whatever she wants,” and Autumn looks at me like, Oh, I forgot, you’re stupid.
“I’ll get us blow soon,” I decide on the spot and tell her. “I owe you. I’m sorry I missed your birthday.”
Autumn looks pleased. Paige looks annoyed, which is annoying. “You guys do coke way too much,” she says. “That’s not good for you.”
“I haven’t for two weeks,” I say. “And I barely feel it now.”
“That’s also probably not good.”
“My dad does plenty of coke,” I say, “and he’s an executive.”
“Your dad left your mom for a woman half her age,” Paige says as the bartender pushes our drinks towards us. Seeing that I’ve told her far too much about myself, alarmed by this, I elbow her on purpose as I reach for my shot. “That’s such a cliché,” she adds, sipping her neon blue cocktail, delicately. I notice there’s a gummy shark as a garnish. “Maybe aim higher for yourself.”
I feel compelled to defend my father but I don’t know why, I think it’s just to disagree with Paige, for the sport of annoying her back, I don’t even care about this, I don’t want talk about him. When I realize it, my resolve diminishes, and I throw back my shot. “Dude survived 9/11,” I remind her. “That’s messed up.”
“It doesn’t count as surviving if you’re not there,” she says. “Anyway, I told you on Wednesday to stop talking about planes that explode. I’m going to dance.”
And just like that, Paige’s gone. I watch her walk away. So does Autumn. Then she asks, “Where does her boyfriend think she is when she comes here all the time?”
I shrug. Then I tilt my empty shot glass towards my lips, in search of droplets. “I haven’t asked.”
“Don’t fuck her tonight.”
“She doesn’t want to fuck,” I say. “Look. She’s ignoring me.”
“Right,” says Autumn.
We order new drinks. Then we spin around in our stools to watch the game of pool behind us, to look at different girls, there are so many here, I love them all, but in a quiet way, from across the room, I’m just glad they exist, I wish them the best. Paige was once like them, not even long ago, so good and anonymous, she could have been anyone, she could have been my true love! I remember that night, she wore a leather jacket over a blue sundress and drank a lot of tequila. “Why’s she not in Mexico?” I ask Autumn. “She’s supposed to be there.”
“Her flight was today?”
“I thought so.”
“Why do you tell her stuff you don’t tell me?”
I look at Autumn, surprised, and she gives me this look back like I’m a dumbass, like I’m just awful, which is probably true. “Like what?” I ask.
“Uh, your dad survived 9/11?”
“Oh god,” I say. “That’s nothing. I mean, it’s sort of something, but it’s so stupid. He wasn’t there, he was just supposed to be, and everyone in his office survived, but he still got really existential and ran off with some Puerto Rican woman he barely knew. Turned out to be his type, actually. Oh well. Whatever, Greg. I guess I’d do that too.”
* * *
At the top of my father’s skyscraper was a restaurant called Windows on the World, crammed with pale pink booths and white tables, tourists in “I Love New York” t-shirts, businessmen sipping coffee in their crisp suits. “The best view in Manhattan,” my father said, grandly, gesturing in the direction of the floor-length windows, but he was looking at a plump, dark woman carrying a tray. Trying to catch her eye, he said, “Let’s get you some pancakes, how about that, Lily? With extra whipped cream?”
“Are you gonna have breakfast with me?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I have my meeting, but I’ll come back for lunch.” He’d finally gotten the woman’s attention, I noticed, and he smiled at her, and she crossed to us. “This,” he told me, touching her shoulder, “is Isabel. She’ll keep you company.”
“You’re Lily?” Isabel asked, crouching down to meet me at eye level. She knew who I was. How? She had frizzy black hair and dark, tired eyes, but I thought she was pretty, too, in a tired way, like a mother, except she was way younger than my mother. “I’m your daddy’s friend,” she said, sticking out a hand, and we shook, which I liked, it made me feel grown-up.
“What am I supposed to do here?” I asked my father. “How long do I have to wait?”
“Just a few hours,” he said, and drew my yellow Gameboy from his pocket, bless him, I suppose, for that, he was abandoning me in a restaurant but he’d come prepared, he’d brought supplies. “Just don’t tell your mom I let you play video games all day. Now, you sit in this booth, and Isabel will bring you pancakes, and if you need anything, you just holler for her.”
I nodded, slid into the booth, and turned on my Gameboy. Onscreen, a pixelated Gengar battled a Nidoran, which was awesome, this game was the best, while nearby my father was still talking to Isabel. I glanced at them. He was touching her again and his voice was soft, just a murmur, really, but I could still hear him saying, “Thank you, baby, you know I appreciate this.”
“It’s fine,” Isabel said, shrugging, and then I think she noticed me watching them, or something else changed, because all of a sudden she looked very uncomfortable, and she took a step back so my father wasn’t touching her anymore.
He left, and I lost interest in the restaurant, turning to my game. Pokémon was great, it was my favorite, but honestly I sucked at it, I was lost on Victory Road and my stupid Clefairy couldn’t beat any of these Rhyhorns, I’d been trying to beat Red Version for over a year and none of the boys at school would trade Pokémon with me because I was a girl and it’s Gameboy, not Gamegirl, I shouldn’t be playing in the first place, they said. Thinking about this, I got irritated, and then I didn’t want to play anymore, so I saved my game and turned it off and glanced around for some other entertainment, and then Isabel walked by with fruit and coffee on a tray, and I wanted to talk to her, to anyone, so I said the first thing to pop into my head, “Hey, Isabel, are you Mexican?”
She stopped and looked at me, eyebrows arching. “I’m Puerto Rican,” she said. “You bored already, Lily?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And you look Mexican, are you sure you’re not? Do Puerto Ricans live in Mexico?”
“Some of them live in Puerto Rico,” she said. “And some of them live in New York, and some of them live in other places.” She glanced around the restaurant, then back to me. “I’m working,” she said. “I have to work.”
I shrugged and turned my game back on, lost a battle with an Onix, and turned it off without saving this time, there was no point in saving, I hadn’t gained any experience, I was useless, honestly, and then I didn’t know why but Isabel was back and sitting next to me, she smelled like flowers or something, it was nice, except she looked kind of nervous for some reason. “I want you to understand,” she said. “Your dad’s a really nice man. A really nice customer, here at the restaurant, you get me?”
“Yes?” I said.
“Um, okay,” she said. “Good.” But she didn’t leave, she just looked at me for a minute, pinching her chin.
“Does he talk about me?” I asked.
“Actually, yeah,” she said. “A lot. He’s very proud.”
“What does he say?”
“He says you’re smart and good at school and very independent.”
“That’s true,” I said. Then I thought back to the man in my father’s office, the things my father had said about my brother, how he’d lied and I didn’t know why, and I wanted to figure out this different place, this other coast. “What does he say about Carson?” I asked.
“Carson?” Isabel looked confused. “I don’t know. Listen, I have to get back to work.”
I don’t remember much more from that day. I remember feeling pleased, I remember feeling superior to my brother, I remember thinking I liked New York, I liked it more than California, I liked my father here, he seemed happier, I guess, and I was glad when he came back at noon and sat at my side and said, “How about cheeseburgers for lunch, kiddo? And a milkshake? Don’t tell your mom I’m feeding you all this junk, she’s scared you’ll get fat.” And then Isabel came to take our order and he looked at her for a long time, with real softness in his eyes, and what was that look, exactly? Why was he looking at her like that? I was too young to know that obviously he was fucking her, I didn’t know what fucking was yet, but later he’d come clean about everything and we’d get at least some of this story, how because of her he was absolved, because of her he could do whatever he wanted, there were no rules whatsoever.
* * *
Paige is getting smashed. So are Autumn and me, but we can carry it better, so we stay on our perches and watch her run amok. It’s past midnight now, and the crowd is thinning but the dancers are still on the bar, wearing fishnets and leather, and Paige jams a dollar bill into someone’s bra, throws back her head and laughs. I realize she has an amazing neck, not that I’m sure what makes a neck amazing, I guess I’m just thinking about how soft it is, how a face fits so nicely where neck meets shoulder, my face specifically, and then Autumn says, “Stop,” reading my mind somehow, so I do. She says, “Let’s get out of here, let’s have a cigarette.”
We step outside. The area around the bar is sort of industrial, boxy warehouses and storage units with dark windows, the air crisp with fog, and we watch the 22-Fillmore lumber by. “Tell me everything about you,” I say to Autumn. “We talk about me too much.”
“Sure,” she says. “No problem. I took molly and went to a cemetery last week? That was interesting.”
“What was most interesting about it?”
“Well, I was looking at all the tombstones, some really nice, some really simple, and then I started thinking about climate catastrophe, like, hurricanes and earthquakes and fires? And I thought, when we’re old, when the shit hits the fan, will there be enough people left to bury us? Then I realized, that’s so cool! We’ll see the end of the world. And I felt really great, kind of powerful, actually.”
I smile at Autumn because I like this way of looking at things, I think it’s hopeful and kind. And again, without fully registering the shift, I’m wanting to talk about myself. “I haven’t flown in an airplane since I was a kid,” I say. “Isn’t that kind of crazy?”
“Well,” says Autumn, “California is a solid place to be, but yes, that’s kind of crazy. There’s nowhere you want to go?”
“Not enough to die.”
“You know they don’t crash?”
“In my head they do.”
“You’re way more likely to die in that car,” Autumn says, pointing at a black car driving by, and then, as if on cue, the driver hits a guy on a motorcycle and there’s a bang and a screech and the guy falls to the street and screams and I’m like, whoa, holy shit, is Autumn a witch, is she a wicked witch who just made that happen? And then she’s running towards the crash and I’m following, stumbling a little, and she’s pulling out her phone to call 9-1-1 and I’m just standing there, staring down at this guy who’s writhing and groaning on the pavement.
“You okay?” I say, which is stupid, and kneel at his side.
“Don’t touch him,” Autumn says.
The driver gets out of his car, looking completely tortured, his eyes wide and his face ash white, but he doesn’t say anything, just leans against the door and takes deep breaths. When I look at him, I feel sorry, he seems like such a mess, I’m sure he didn’t mean to hit a person, and then I get an idea. “Excuse me,” I say. “Do you want to advise me on my problems?”
He opens his eyes. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I thought it might help you to take your mind off your own problems,” I say. “And I could use advice.”
“You’re really drunk,” he says. “Leave me alone.”
I shrug and walk back to the curb, feeling sort of embarrassed, like, why am I so obsessed with Paige? And why can’t I be nice to her? And why did I ask that stranger for help when he can’t even drive, when he’s so sad right now himself? And then I’m like, oh, wow, actually he’s right, I am pretty drunk, I drink a lot now, in fact, and I’m not sure when it started, and I’m not sure why, I guess I felt like there was nothing else to do, nothing better, I mean, and I guess it made life more interesting, less sad, and I guess I drink all the time now. And then the paramedics show up, and then Paige’s outside like, “Whoa, what happened here?” and I’m like, “Honestly I don’t even know,” and she’s like, “You’re so cute, I hate myself, take me home with you,” and she comes over and puts her arms around my waist and buries her face in my neck and I’m like, “Oh, sure, okay, definitely.”
* * *
It was early in California and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, it rang three times, but my mother ignored it, she was getting us ready for school, which was a lot of work, not me but Carson, who needed help with everything, showering, putting on his clothes, tying his shoes, which meant I had to be responsible and mature every morning, my mother’s words, it totally sucked. “Who the fuck is calling?” she said when it happened a fourth time, and I said, “You said the f-word, you have to give me a quarter,” and she said, “Lily, get the phone,” and I said, “Pay me,” and she said, “Get the phone!” so I did. I picked up and said, “These are the Allisters, Lily speaking.”
“Oh, god,” said the person on the other line, a woman, that was all I knew. “Lily, honey, are you watching TV? Is your mom watching TV right now?”
I thought to ask for a name but I was suddenly distracted by the indignity that this strange, persistent caller had brought up, for some reason, and then I started thinking about how my mother was so annoying, she was against fun, basically. “No,” I said. “She doesn’t let us watch TV before school, even though a lot of shows are educational in the morning.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“Who is this?”
“Oh,” I said. Joan was my mother’s friend from her support group, she also had a kid with autism, and like all my mother’s friends, she was boring. “Hi, Joan,” I said. “How much TV are your kids allowed to watch?”
“Lily, sweetheart, give the phone to your mom.”
I hollered for my mother and gave her the phone and stayed to eavesdrop, she didn’t stop me, there was no reason to stop me, she just brought the receiver to her ear and said, “Hey, Joan, what? Yeah, that’s where he works, yes, he’s in New York, why?” And then Joan said something, and the color drained from my mother’s face, and she said “What?” again and hung up the phone and ran to the living room. I followed, I was feeling excited now, clearly there was something interesting on TV that we were going to watch, but then my mother turned in the doorway and said, “Lily, get out of here, go keep an eye on your brother.”
“No!” I said. “I hate him and I don’t want to. I want to watch TV.”
She gave me this look that was actually really scary, I don’t think I’d seen it before, like, I thought my mother was awful most of the time, she was always stressed and always tired and only let me play for thirty minutes a day on the computer, but I was never scared of her. So that was weird and felt terrible and I decided okay, I’ll do what she says, and I went upstairs to my brother’s room, where I almost never went, I didn’t want to go there and no one usually made me.
The carpet was covered, entirely, with pages from pictures books that Carson had shredded into confetti. It was one of the things he did, sat on the floor and ripped up books our mother bought him from Friends of the Library. Another thing was watching Disney movies in fast-forward, and a third thing was jumping and laughing, a fourth thing was crying and hitting himself, and the last thing was asking a question, his only words, “And then?” I hated it, there was nothing in the world I hated more, these conversations, they went on forever, and he wouldn’t say anything else, even though it was obvious that he understood what he was asking, that he was following along. I knew I could avoid it by not saying anything, but what was I supposed to do, sit here in terrible silence? I wanted to talk to him, it just never worked, so I crossed my arms and glared at him and felt mad that he was so stupid, or maybe not stupid at all, maybe he was just mean, maybe he lived on a different planet, I had no idea, it made me so mad, and then I couldn’t stop myself, I said, “Mom’s watching TV so I’m stuck watching you.”
“And then?” Carson said.
“We’ll get in the car and drive to school.”
“I don’t know what you’ll do. I have a spelling test.”
“It’ll be recess, and Annie Spitzer will probably be a huge jerk, and I don’t know where you’ll be, I’ll probably read or something.”
“I don’t know, Carson. Shut up.”
“The world will end and we’ll all die.”
At this point, I felt I’d done my part, I was honestly so sick of him, I wanted to know what was on TV, and then I figured it still counted as watching him if I brought him along, so I said, “Come on, Carson, let’s go downstairs, it’s time to go.” He followed me to the living room, where our mother was slumped on the sofa watching two skyscrapers smolder, they looked cracked in half, sort of, smoke billowing, embers of brilliant red and orange, it was confusing, actually, I’d never seen anything like it, and then I thought, wait, I know those towers, I’ve been there! And after that, I didn’t know what to feel. I glanced at my mother, who looked kind of dazed, and at Carson, whose eyes were wide, he was making squeaking sounds and bouncing on his toes like he’d never seen anything so interesting in his whole life.
“A plane crashed into them,” my mother said, but she sounded unconvinced, like, how could that really be true? “Both of them, I mean. Two planes. They’re saying it was an attack, and now they’re evacuating people.” She frowned, her brow furrowing, probably thinking, Do I really have to keep talking about this? And then she must have decided yes. “This happened maybe two hours ago,” she finished. “I don’t know why your dad hasn’t called, so don’t ask. He’ll call when he can.”
I didn’t respond because at first I was stuck on this plane thing, like, wait, planes can crash, people can crash them into buildings on purpose? Who came up with that? Then I thought about my father and looked at the towers again, I didn’t remember which was his but I knew that his office was way below where the smoke was pouring out, so I figured he was fine, somehow it was effortless to believe that, the easiest thing to do, I felt better right away, but then I remembered Windows on the World and I didn’t think, I just said, “What about Isabel?”
My mother glanced at me and back to the TV. “Who’s Isabel?”
“She watched me while I was there.”
“Is she his secretary?”
“I think she’s his waitress?”
My mother looked at me again, differently this time, this time like she meant it, that same scary look from before, I’d seen it twice in an hour! I decided that Carson was right, today was interesting, and I wondered, all of a sudden, if we were missing school, had it started yet, were we still supposed to go? In a stiff, controlled voice, my mother asked, “What do you mean, his waitress?”
“She works at the restaurant on top,” I said, “and she’s not Mexican, and she’s really pretty, and they’re friends, I think? And he tells her about me, but not Carson.” I didn’t know why my mother was staring at me like this, like she was trying to burn holes in me, we hadn’t talked much about my trip when I’d gotten back, I hadn’t thought about it either, now months had passed, but out of nowhere I was remembering something, the most confusing thing, and I couldn’t resist asking her about it. “Mom?” I said. “Why does Dad tell people in New York that Carson’s normal and doesn’t have autism and plays baseball?”
“What?” she said. “He does that?”
“Yeah. Do you know why?”
“I guess because he hates him,” she said, slowly. She sounded sort of angry now, but she looked more confused, like she was trying to decide how to feel, trying out anger to see if it felt right. “And you hate him, of course, you make that very clear, so where does that leave me?” Her eyes roved back to the towers. “The restaurant, huh? At the very top?”
“Yes,” I said. “Windows on the World.”
My mother ran a hand through her brown hair, pushed her glasses up her nose, thinking hard, it seemed, and then something changed in her expression, like everything was fine all of a sudden, unimportant, even, like she had better things to do. “Well,” she said. “Let’s get going, you two. School started twenty minutes ago.”
* * *
Tonight the moon is something else! Magic must be real! Paige is here, her head is on my chest, my fingers are in her hair, and there’s the moon, like I said, outside, up there, and then she makes everything better, then I’m sure we’re in love, she says, “Okay, fine, I give up. Go ahead and freak me out, tell me the story about the lady who fell out of the sky.”
“No way!” I say. “Really? You want to hear it?”
“I said I give up.”
“Okay,” I say. “Well, as I was telling you, Vesna came out of her coma, and right away she was like, When do you want me back at work? But they didn’t want her on flights again, too much publicity, which I think she was sad about, you know, getting stuck with an office job, even though she was a Yugoslavian hero, which must have been cool, but I think she liked to fly, she missed it. Got into politics for a while, but that went nowhere. Died in poverty a few years ago, in Belgrade, where she was from. She was like, Why do you think I’m lucky? Life sucks.”
“Oh my god,” Paige says. “That’s so depressing. Why did you want to tell me that?”
She’s warm, the room is tilting, she smells so good, actually we both smell like cigarettes, I look at her and notice she’s looking out the window. I want to tell her that I like telling her stories, that when I hear a story, no matter what it is, as long as it’s interesting, I want her to hear it too, I like being heard by anyone but I like it best when she’s the one listening, I don’t know why, I just do. That’s a lot of words though, I don’t say them, I don’t say anything, I just shrug, and then she gets up.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“Mexico,” she says. “My flight leaves today.”
“I thought you changed your mind?”
“Why did you think that?”
“Weren’t you supposed to leave yesterday?”
She’s gathering her clothes and I roll onto my back thinking, wait, what, am I stupid, did I just count wrong? She said three days on Wednesday and now it’s Saturday morning, yes, I counted wrong. And for what reason had I imagined she’d canceled? None whatsoever, no particular scenario, I’d just been glad, I’d hardly asked questions. Now she’s walking out the door and I don’t mean to but I can’t help it, I say, “Paige?”
She turns. “What?”
“Am I, like, important to you?”
“Oh god,” she says. “Stop.” Then she blows me a kiss, then she leaves.
My father was one of the last people to leave Windows on the World. On that day, he was full of love for New York, where he could smoke as much as he wanted, be whoever he wanted, do whatever he wanted, he even grabbed Isabel’s ass when she brought him his check, right there in the restaurant, in front of everyone, because everyone liked him in New York, no one would rat on him in New York, I don’t know how I know this, I just do. Then he said something like, “Baby, let’s take the day off, I’ll pay you whatever you make in a day,” the idea just popped into his head, it sounded fun, why not, he was so free here, but Isabel said something like, “Greg, that would make me a whore,” and sauntered off. He stared after her for a moment, but not for too long, and left to get in the elevator. Isabel went back to the kitchen, feeling embarrassed, thinking about her problems, how she liked this man but also hated him, how was that possible, and then someone crashed an airplane into the building and suddenly she had bigger problems. Smoke filled the restaurant. She assessed the situation and realized that soon she would have no problems at all, ever again, which was hard to reconcile, this was so sudden, she was only twenty-six, but it was also a novelty, an incredible one, the absence of problems, she’d always had so many, and the scariest part of the day was when, in that brief instant, she felt relieved.
Sara Brody is a fiction writer and playwright from San Francisco, presently at work on a novel. Her stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, the Bellingham Review, the Adroit Journal, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere, and she holds an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University. She is represented by Akin Akinwumi at Willenfield Literary Agency and can be followed on Twitter, @sbbrody.