The Blondes by Emily Schultz is a satirical apocalyptic thriller set in modern day NYC where a strange illness turns everyday people into killers; the catch: it only effects blonde women (available April 21, 2015).
Hazel Hayes is a grad student living in New York City. As the novel opens, she learns she is pregnant (from an affair with her married professor) at an apocalyptically bad time: random but deadly attacks on passers-by, all by blonde women, are terrorizing New Yorkers. Soon it becomes clear that the attacks are symptoms of a strange illness that is transforming blondes—whether CEOs, flight attendants, students or accountants—into rabid killers.
WOMEN HAVE STUPID DREAMS. We laud each other only to tear each other down. We are not like men; men shake hands with hate between them all the time and have public arguments that are an obvious jostling for power and position. They compete for dominance—if not over money, then over mating. They know this, each and every one. But women are civilized animals. We have something to prove, too, but we’ll swirl our anger with straws in the bottom of our drinks and suck it up, leaving behind a lipstick stain. We’ll comment on your hair or your dress only to land a backhanded compliment, make you feel pathetic and poor, too fat or too thin, too young or too old, unsophisticated, unqualified, unwanted. For women, power comes by subtle degrees. I could write a thesis on such women—and I nearly did.
Don’t get me wrong. I am one of them too. I’ve had stupid dreams, and you yourself are the result.
You: strange seven pounds of other.
Here you are, under my hand, swimming in blood, about the size of a turtle. I know my voice must sound far away, muted, like someone talking under water. Maybe it’s crazy that I’m nattering on, having a conversation with you when you aren’t even born yet, just tumbling and turning in the big cloud of my abdomen. You can’t possibly understand … Still, this is where I’ve got to. I’m here in this cottage in the woods and the snow—stuck here, really, because Grace has taken the car with gas and left me with the one on Empty, and how far can I walk in this state? To be honest, I don’t know what else to do. So I talk.
Let me tell you where we’ve been over the past few months, baby. You’ll never understand, but let me tell you.
Right now, I can see our neighbours outside the window and through the trees. They’re the only people other than Grace whom I’ve seen in nearly three months, always from a distance and only sporadically—perhaps they aren’t home all the time, or don’t go outside any more than I do. There are just the two of them. I can see the red of her coat and the blue of his. I only know who is who by their heights. I can smell the smoke that’s rising up, the stench of something singed. Even through the closed door and the window glass I can smell it. Like sulphur. I smelled it the first day I came here, but there was too much happening then for me to think to ask what it was, and Grace probably wouldn’t have told me anyway. She had her own troubles—and I … I was just looking for Karl.
Now I know it’s the smell of hair. Burned hair. It flares up quick and bright, and then it’s gone in a breath of dark smoke. Before Grace left she was shaving hers and flushing the trimmings down the toilet—although where does it go except to the septic tank? Our neighbours are even more cautious than Grace. If any of them had seen what I’ve seen, they wouldn’t worry. They’d know that disease comes or it doesn’t, and if it comes, there’s nothing you can do to prevent it.
Just as I can’t prevent you growing inside me, little baby, my skin bulging more around you each week. I can’t stop your growing, can only watch and wait. I’m sure that Grace has left me here all alone on purpose, that this is a power play in the ongoing sad tale of the fallout from my affair with her husband. She’s left me in this, their second home, with all their things—and still I have nothing. She must know that to be alone out here at this stage in the pregnancy is more dangerous for me than anywhere I’ve been.
* * *
It doesn’t seem that long ago I was in New York. I remember the day I found out about you: I lugged the weight of a suitcase behind me, down four flights of stairs at the Dunn Inn. There was no other way to move between rooms. So I had packed up everything I owned and taken it down to the check-in desk to check out—and then check back in again. I would have to heave the case up those stairs again when I got assigned my new hotel room. The stairs were steep, narrow and twisted, the green banister caked with paint from being retouched many times. My calves knotted as I descended. Forty pounds of suitcase behind me, handle sweaty, as I shifted my laptop bag on my shoulder. It was always with me then, like a growth, a clumsy but permanent part of me. Down I went, down, the wheels of the suitcase sticking on the fireproof carpeting. I lost a shoe on the landing and had to wriggle it on again before the suitcase bumped me down to the next step.
For a legal reason I didn’t understand, the hotelier wouldn’t let me keep the room for more than fourteen consecutive days. I hadn’t been in Manhattan long enough to know about squatters’ laws—that if they let me stay longer in one room I could deem it my permanent residence. I’d been in New York only fourteen days times two, and was moving for the third time already.
I had started out in an apartment—an old railroad flat, just a room for rent—but it was overrun with roaches and roommates. The bugs darted up along the shower pipe in the tub in the morning, and we rinsed them down before we stepped into it. One of the girls was a student, the other a stripper (although it was never said). How they knew each other—or even if they did—I have no idea. I had found the place online, sight unseen, a bad idea. All of our rooms were one after the other, with me in the middle, and not even a window. I didn’t sleep for the first two days—it was ninety degrees and the air in the room was so dense. Of course, the student had the least privacy of all: her space was not really a bedroom so much as a cot and a desk in a screened-off dining area that the stripper and I had to walk through. The third morning I saw two rats in the alley, scuttling from one garbage heap to the next. So I found the Dunn Inn in Chelsea. It was overpriced but clean. And now I was moving from one hotel room to another as if playing musical chairs at a birthday party. I’ve always hated birthday parties.
But the hotel was quiet, and I didn’t have to sign a lease, so I stayed. It was close to NYU, and I could go in and out at night as I pleased. I admit it was kind of thrilling to be right in Manhattan, even though I didn’t have many places to go. The courtyard that my rooms—plural—looked onto was still, as if not in the city at all. It made me meditative and I found it easy to think about my thesis, my excuse for being there.
I remember the landlady asked me, “What is it you’re workin’ on?”
She was really the concierge, but I preferred to think of her as my “landlady,” perhaps as some sort of dodge around the fact that I was living in a hotel, not an apartment. Was it even a real hotel, or just a flophouse? I wasn’t the only occupant, but the halls had a transient feel. A few tourists, a few students.
Bent over behind the desk, looking for my new key, the landlady wasn’t really waiting for an answer. I was about to try to explain “the study of looking,” also known as “aesthetology,” when I found myself staring at the top of her hair: a permed and dyed chestnut head. Redheads are an interesting group-ing, and one I’m quite familiar with. We’ve been labelled by society as cold but competent. A study back in 1978 found that 80 percent of those surveyed expressed a dislike of redheads; the same test group ranked the skin colour of redheads the least desirable of eight hues. Of course, 1978 was a long time ago—I wasn’t even born yet—but here was my landlady, who had chosen this colour of her own accord. A red-brown, really. The colour of squirrels. Her sister, with whom she ran the place, was dark and I was sure my landlady’s hair was naturally the same colour. She was bobbing around near an ancient computer she used for the bookings. Beside her was a stack of business cards that doubled as breakfast vouchers at the coffee shop next door.
“It’s an essay on what women look like and what we think they look like.” Aesthetology, or the study of looking, began when the Harvard School of Anthropology created an advanced course of studies in partnership with Empire Beauty Schools as a way to increase female enrolment in the sciences. It was still a buzzed about subject last year, and I selected it as a banner for my studies explicitly to attract a particular adviser. Also known as Professor Karl Mann. Also known as your father. Also known as Grace’s husband.
The landlady came up with the key. “Three-oh-five. Don’t forget to undo the tap lock with this one,” she said, holding up one of the two keys. She spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent even though we were at Seventeenth Street. She meant “top lock.” We’d had a funny exchange around that phrase the other time I switched rooms, where I said what? and sorry and pardon? and she kept repeating herself until something clicked and I figured it out. When I first arrived, she had also asked me if I needed to “pork” my car. I told her I didn’t have a car, then mulled over the phrase all the way upstairs to my room.
She handed the keys over the partition between us. I remember being relieved I wasn’t on the fourth floor anymore—there was no elevator in the place; it was a long, steep climb every day; and I suspected they’d put me there to give me the exercise. In spite of this, I’d lost no weight since my arrival. And every time I got to the top of those stairs, my chest would heave like an old engine.
“What we look like?” the concierge asked, a hint of distrust in her voice. “Like, you study advertising or something?”
“Yeah,” I said with some resignation. “Like advertising.”
“So you make ad campaigns?”
“No. It’s complicated. I just look at them.”
“They give you a degree for that?” she asked.
I nodded. “Communication Studies, PhD.”
That’s when she told me there was someone in three-oh-six. She told me that I’d hafta share the bathroom, that it was in the hall between our two rooms. “But it’s only for the one night. She’ll be out tomorrow.”
I said fine, and the landlady slid me a form. I printed my name, then signed it in cursive for her: Hazel Hayes.
A smile played across her lips when I passed the document back, and she said, not derisively but as if it had only just occurred to her: “Maybe I should go back to school.”
She was a decade or more older than me. I thought her name was Natalie, but couldn’t have said for sure. I still don’t know. Let’s say it was. I forced my lips up at Natalie as if I’d never heard that kind of response to my thesis before. “Maybe!”
It pays to be polite. Especially to someone who brings you clean towels.
* * *
It’s surprising what the mind remembers, and what it forgets.
My new room had velvet drapes, peach. The light came through, giving the white space inside a soft, womblike glow. It felt hidden, and I immediately liked that. The bed was the same as the one in my previous room, a double with an old gold frame and a quilt, and beside it was the same basic round table that would become my desk. I had bought my suitcase in Toronto’s Chinatown for twenty-two dollars before I left for New York, and now I unloaded it once again and placed my things into the dresser. The drawers were not deep, but I didn’t have many clothes, so it worked out. When I was done with the clothes, there was nothing left in the suitcase except the paper bag with the drugstore initials. I’m sorry to tell you I didn’t remove it. Not then.
Instead, I flipped the suitcase shut and unzipped the side pocket, where I had stashed some of my books and photographs. I had a fabric CD case, full of sleeves that contained DVDs people had given me or I had downloaded over the years. Schlock and art movies kissed inside the plastic sleeves. I wish I still had them, but the government seized them. They’re gone now, like everything.
I also had the journals. They contained articles with titles such as “Beauty’s Moral Majority: A Meaning-based Explanation for Complexions Used in Advertising,” “Barbie’s Secret Plan for World Domination,” and “Metaphor in the Microprint,” which was an examination of metonymic progression in beauty product ingredients—i.e., how to come up with a comforting phrase for “includes placenta” or “exactly like Preparation H but for facial use.” Things I hoped to reference in my own work. It’s strange to think how, only a few months later, they seem hopelessly archaic.
In the side pocket of that suitcase were two photographs. I hadn’t taken them out in my last room. Bringing the first was an accident—or at least, not my choice. My best friend, Larissa, had presented it to me when she drove me to the airport in Toronto. Presented is the only word for it. The way Larissa gave gifts always made them seem bigger and grander than they were. This photo had been housed in a cheap dollar-store frame but gift-wrapped in expensive Japanese paper.
“In case you need something to stare at in New York besides the brick wall of the building next door,” she’d said, which, I have to admit, turned out to be not inappropriate.
I peeled back the paper to reveal a photo of the two of us. Grinning, we were sitting on the same side of a booth in an upscale Toronto diner called the Swan. My eyes were slightly red from the flash. Hers were very blue. She had her hair in a slick ponytail that spilled gold threads over her shoulder, her face slightly turned toward me. It was last summer—oh god it was just last summer … I could tell because my hair was still four inches above my shoulders. In a white flowing tank top of Indian cotton, Larissa looked diaphanous. In a red-checked shirt I looked both lumpy and stunned. In spite of hair that is an obsessive, salon-created, middle-of-the-road mud brown, I’ve never been able to wear the colour red. I’m not sure why I persist in attempting it.
I’ve always wondered why people who love you do that to you—give you photographs where they look beautiful, you not so much.
I thanked her and reminded her that my place would have wireless: I could look at her photos online anytime I wanted. She squeezed my hand and kissed my cheek and said, “I know, but still,” and I thanked her again, shoved the photo in the side pocket, and didn’t pull it out again for twenty-eight days. It wasn’t that we weren’t good friends—she really was my best friend—it was just that she had no idea what was going on in my life, and I didn’t know how to tell her. We’d grown apart. She had her husband and toddler son, and I had—
What I’d do to have that photo back now. It was from a better time.
The second photograph was no accident. The image was of Karl. Just Karl. You’ll need to know about him—but what can I tell you? I took the photo on my cellphone camera and went to the trouble of printing it out—as if to convince myself he was real, tangible, could occupy physical space. It hurts me now to know the image is out there, somewhere in the world, but without hope of recovery. I imagine Karl’s face inside a file folder, or a box with my name and number on it, or buried in a recycling bin that hasn’t been emptied in months.
Karl’s photo had no frame, and I remember laying it over the glass of the one of me and Larissa, where it fit very well. I moved around the hotel room, holding the photo in one hand, yanking open the heavy peach curtains with the other so the daylight flooded in. In the photo Karl’s in his office, staring up at the crammed bookshelves, not at me. When I close my eyes, I see him there, as if he still inhabits that space. He had known I was snapping the picture, but at the last second he’d looked away, up, as if something of great importance had distracted him.
I lay down on the bed with Karl and, beneath him, the photograph of Larissa and me. The light was coming down on his face perfectly, which was why I had gone to the trouble of having the photo printed. There are many pictures of Karl here in Grace’s cabin—but not my Karl; they’re of a Karl I don’t really know, someone else’s Karl. In the photo I snapped of him, he looked thinner than usual, younger, his hair more brown than grey, chin pointier as he craned his face upward. He usually wore glasses, but he wasn’t wearing them in that shot. A white shirt, tucked in at the waist, concealed a body I knew by smell, touch, and taste, one that was whorled with small brown hairs, dotted with pockmarks, scented with sweat, semen. I shouldn’t say this to you, but all the way in New York, so far away from him, there flared in my nostrils a musky smell with an underlying tang of time and neglect. Just talking about it now I can almost smell it still, and … Why did looking at the photo conjure such a physical response? I felt panic rising in my throat like bile, and I swallowed it before it turned into a weird repulsion-desire. Karl was complex. My feelings for Karl could change quickly then. Now … well.
I placed the photo of Karl on the dresser and turned back to the suitcase. I couldn’t neglect that paper bag from the drugstore forever. I’d already avoided it for two days.
Clutching the paper bag, I opened the door to the hall. A black-haired, trench-coated woman was standing opposite, cursing under her breath and struggling with her room key, an immense backpack hunched on her thin shoulders. My neighbour in 306, the one the landlady had mentioned. I didn’t say anything, just shoved the bag behind my back and stood there, blinking. I hadn’t run into many guests in the twenty-eight days I’d been living in the hotel. When I had, it was usually in the stairwell or downstairs at the check-in desk. There were some foreigners who made apologies in stilted English as we shuffled past one another, and a gay couple returning from a night of clubbing, speaking too loudly then suddenly silencing their giddiness as they rounded a corner and realized they weren’t alone. This woman was different—our two rooms were joined by an intimate hallway, about the size of a closet. At the end of it sat the bathroom, which, now that she had arrived, we were to share.
“Didn’t mean to disturb you, just can’t quite…” the woman began, and then the top lock turned. “Oh!” She laughed. It was a guffaw that was almost musical. She leaned into the room, pack-first. “Let me—” There was a thud like a body falling. “There.”
“It’s all right,” I told her. She had a golden complexion and small dark freckles like someone had flicked black paint at her. She had a wide everything except for her frame: wide nose, wide mouth with dimples at the corners, thick lips, large eyes. Or perhaps it only seemed that way because her neck was so thin and her hair so dark, coiled, and choppy.
I told her I hadn’t known she was there and gestured to the open restroom door.
“Of course!” She grinned. It caught me off guard, and not just because of what I was about to do. “At least now there’s space for you to get by. I’m Moira, by the way.” She held out her hand.
I looked at it. I was holding the pregnancy test in my right.
Either she sensed my urgency or I struck her as weird, because she moved inside her own room, muttering, “Sorry, sorry, of course, of course.”
I tried to smile, but it was too late. I do that quite frequently, you’ll learn once you meet me: fall out of beat with others and respond too late. I’m not awkward, really. I just take an extra moment, that’s all. I hope it’s not a trait you’ll inherit.
Moira missed the smile. She’d bent down for the gigantic rucksack at her feet.
“I’m Hazel,” I said as I sidled by.
“Hazel, Hazel,” she repeated from inside the room, as if she were storing the name for later. “Hello, Hazel.”
I went into the bathroom and closed and locked the door. It didn’t take the full minute the pregnancy test promised—more like fifteen seconds. A little pink cross marked the place my life as I knew it ended.
* * *
Never had the colour pink so disturbed me. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but it was the colour of girlie drinks and girlie-drink puke, peeling sunburns, and Grandma’s bathroom. The pregnancy test was called First Response, as if an emergency were already waiting for me inside the pink box. Little pink firefighters with little pink ladders waiting to climb up me.
The oblong pink window of the test contained a plus sign. My urine had seeped across and revealed it, like some kind of secret code. I felt I had not been pregnant before that moment, although of course I had. I’d been exhausted and short of breath, falling asleep early, waking late, becoming increasingly greasy-skinned, and intent on chowing down New York bagels and pizza slices on every corner. My symptoms I had attributed to travel, to my new environment, and perhaps to “low-level depression,” a phrase of Larissa’s that felt more comfortable than labelling what I’d been feeling as heartbreak. At that moment, though, I realized my true label: wholly and undeniably pregnant.
How can I say this? And yet I am saying it—the thought of a fetus inside me clung to my mind like a brown swimming leech, which was probably about the size of you then. I thought about my body breaking open and tearing down, and something screaming and bloody the size of a football emerging, and I fell to my knees—yes, fell—and vomited into the toilet. I had just peed into it, and the smell of urine combined with regurgitated breakfast made me heave again, but this time nothing came up. I tapped the handle and flushed it all down.
I sat beside the toilet feeling nothing, hearing nothing, seeing nothing—because I was crying, although I didn’t compute that until a light rap came on the door.
It was my new neighbour.
“You all right in there?”
I scrambled up, wiped my sleeve across my face, looked at my watch but couldn’t make out the numbers. My glasses. I found them and pushed them back up my nose. How long had I been in the bathroom? Five minutes? Ten?
Another rap at the door.
“Hazel,” I corrected my neighbour through the door. My voice sounded shredded. “One minute.”
I began running water frantically—off with the glasses again—and splashed it on my face, grabbed the folded white towel from the bar. I looked terrible. This may very well be the worst impression I will ever make on anyone, I thought—which of course is hilarious now—and then, oh dear … I laughed. But it was, you know, like a hiccup, and I threw up again, right there in the sink. Bagel is not a nice food to barf.
When I came out, there she was, hovering in the little hallway, a narrow, pinched expression on her wide face. She had ditched the trench coat and wore this short-sleeved sweater that was the colour of an old tennis ball. It seemed tatty, but later I’d realize the texture was only because I’d left my glasses on the sink again.
“It’s—it’s not my business,” she stuttered. “I mean, I don’t even know you, but are you okay? Can I get anything for you?”
I shook my head. I could feel how dreadful I must look, how my eyes burned. “It’s all right. I’m just pregnant,” I said nonchalantly, shaking my hair back.
She looked past me toward the bathroom. “Why don’t I get someone from downstairs?”
“Sorry if you heard me in there. I didn’t mean to disturb you,” I said.
It was then that her gaze seemed to fasten on to something, and I turned and recognized the oblong shape: I’d left the pee stick sitting on the bathroom cabinet.
“Oh,” she said in a voice that was suddenly squeaky, and I realized for the first time that she was maybe a little younger than me. “Oh, Hann— Hazel. Hazel, why don’t you come in and sit down for a minute?” She gestured me into her room, and even though I had forgotten her name, strangely, I found myself stepping over the backpack and inside room 306.
* * *
The neighbours have finished burning the hair. I can still smell it, hanging in the air like a thick sheet. Brown; it smells like the colour brown. The smoke goes quickly but the odour lingers. I don’t see the man and woman now—not even from here at the kitchen window, which has the best view past the hill and that row of evergreens. They’ve gone back into their own cottage.
When do you develop your sense of smell? I think Larissa told me that babies practise breathing while they’re still in the womb. At his mid-term ultrasound Larissa’s son was also practising sucking, and had placed his small, transparent thumb up next to his mouth. She had a black-and-white image of that one taped to her fridge. But I don’t know if breathing and smelling are related in the womb.
You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go over to that neighbouring cabin tomorrow if Grace hasn’t come back, and I’m going to tell that couple my situation. A pregnant woman alone out here? How can I be a threat to anyone? They’ll have to help me. I did go banging on their door once before, but that was at night and they didn’t answer. I’ll try during the day, when they can see me from their window. They must have a car. If they have a car they’ll have to agree to drive me to a hospital when I go into labour. Ordinarily anyone would, right?
I FORGET WHERE I WAS. Oh, yes: I was telling you about the day I found out about you, which was also the day of the first attack.
I was telling you this hours ago, but it is night now and I feel so alone out here. Earlier you were very active, wriggling around under my skin, bumping under my hand, but now you’ve gone still inside me—as if you’ve fallen asleep. When you’re moving I feel less alone, as if you’re real, or almost real. These days, even though I haven’t met you, you feel more real to me than people I’ve known. Like Karl. Because I can feel your movements, can feel that you are here.
I hadn’t realized how much I’ve come to depend on Grace. I hadn’t realized how vulnerable night can make me feel. It helps to keep talking.
Moira wasn’t from New York either. After she invited me into her room and helped me onto the bed, she disappeared. She’d been gone about five minutes before I thought about getting up off her bed, which was quilted, like mine, and returning to my own room, but my head was like a weight suspended on fishing line, gently swaying, and I realized I shouldn’t budge for the time being. I closed my eyes. I felt a vague vertigo. Or maybe I was having a panic attack. I’d never had one before. I opened my eyes and found I was staring at Moira’s rucksack. I can still picture it. It felt very satisfying, stabilizing, to look at, slumped in the corner where it was, a metal frame extending from the top of it, buckles and zippers and pouches puffing out from the sides. It was khaki green, a nice calm shade in the dim room. My entire acquaintance with its owner had totalled about fifteen sentences strung out over ten minutes, and still Moira had left me, a stranger, with every item she possessed.
She’d run downstairs to alert someone that the bathroom needed cleaning and to fetch us cups of peppermint tea from the café, which she assured me would calm my stomach. She was buying the cups of tea from her own pocket, and meanwhile there I was with all her things in a bag. I couldn’t get over the trust Moira was showing me. It filled up my eyes, and when she returned I was still crying, the grey-green blur of the backpack swimming before my vision.
Moira set the cups on the bedside table and disappeared again. “Here,” she said, right before she vanished, as if I were supposed to take something from her even though she’d left the room. When she came back a few seconds later, she silently extended a roll of toilet paper with one hand. I could vaguely see my glasses, folded and held gently, in the other. I wiped my eyes with a few squares of the tissue and blew my nose louder than I meant to, then reached for my vintage tortoise-shell glasses and felt the frames perch heavily over my burning cheeks. Embarrassment had begun to set in.
“Drink this,” Moira told me.
I took the hot paper cup in both hands.
The cleaning person was opening the door to our little alcove to go into the bathroom. She was a petite German woman who spoke little English but would thump her breastplate heartily and proclaim, “My job!” dipping her grey-blonde bob, every time I had tried to apologize for the tub that wouldn’t drain properly upstairs on the fourth floor. Moira shut the door and we were alone in the room together.
“I threw it out,” she said abruptly. At first I didn’t know what she meant. Then she added, “The test.”
“It was positive, though?” I looked to her for confirmation. I couldn’t quite believe this stranger had touched something I’d peed on. She was still standing in front of the closed door, as if she wasn’t sure she should sit down with me, even though she had before she went to get the tea, had sat right there, hip to hip, a hand making slow circles on my back, saying, “It’s okay.”
Moira gave a vigorous succession of head nods, biting the bow of her lips, as if she feared I might shoot the messenger. Then she held her cup of tea in front of her face but didn’t drink from it, just kind of clutched it there as if for warmth, though it was certainly warm enough in the room. Her thick, dark eyebrows rose. “You have a boyfriend?”
I told her no. At forty-six, Karl was too old to be anyone’s boyfriend. “Well … sort of,” I amended. This was more than I’d told even Larissa.
“Where?” Moira asked, which in hindsight was a logical question considering we were in a hotel, but at that moment I got goosebumps from her seeming omniscience.
“Then that’s where you should go,” she said.
She came over and sat down beside me. She was tall but slender, and when she took up space on the bed, it was no more than if a cat had jumped up and perched on the mattress. She said I should phone the father, that I didn’t want to go through this alone.
I hunched my shoulders. “It’s kind of—” I stopped talking to drink more tea. The weight that I’d felt in my head had sunk to my stomach, and I realized it wasn’t anxiety but guilt. “Complicated. I would go through it alone there too,” I told her. “He’s…”
I fought the term married, weighing it in my throat, staring at the closed door of this stranger’s room. Attached sounded like a chemical compound. Like something bleachy, strong. Committed made me think of the mental hospital. Then there were other terms, like partner, husband, wife, that sounded like bondage. In the end, I just let my words trail away, and Moira didn’t seem to notice.
Eventually she deposited me back to my room. No—deposited is the wrong word. Moira said kindly—she was very kind—“Maybe you should go and give him a call.”
I figured this was code for “Get the hell out of my room.”
She walked with me to the door of my room, a foot outside her door, of course, and there she touched my elbow and said simply, “Don’t worry.” I remember those two words because they felt solid as stones gripped in either hand: Don’t and Worry. She turned and disappeared into room 306, and a second later I heard the backpack as it was heaved and dropped onto her bed, presumably to be unpacked.
I closed my door and sat down on my bed.
I meant to call him. I have to tell you, baby: I was going to. I want you to know that I did, at least, think about it. And then, there I was two hours later. I simply sat unmoving until feeling overwhelmed me and I knew I had to get out of that room.
* * *
There’s a map of New York inside my head. The streets are in white and the buildings are in yellow and the bridges with subway lines stretch red over the blue Hudson. But I also have a three-dimensional memory of the city. There are the stone buildings with small faces etched into them above doorways, and I remember the way the buildings cut the light six storeys up. There’s the black corsetry of fire escapes, a symphony of car honks, and the way all the florists and corner stores arrange their carnations and lilies on pedestals with bows, as if any given weekday is as important as prom night. There are the children at the nearby elementary school, dressed and styled like they are priming to be in indie-rock bands. There is a thin girl in a tank top, leaning out an apartment window, smoking her cigarette for all eternity. I can’t remember anymore the exact day I saw her—but the image is still there, lodged in my brain. The thing about going to a city not your own is that everyone looks like someone you know, but they can’t possibly be. There’s that sense of strangeness mingled with déjà vu. Then there are the people I would see standing on street corners—earbuds corded into cellphones that glowed in their palms—looking disconcerted and full of intent at the same time, as though waiting for directives to be beamed down so they could know where to go and what to do next. And after work, the streets would fill with the skinniest, most beautiful women—all teetering along, looking as if they might burst into tears, as if a morsel of food hadn’t passed their lips in twenty-four hours, as faint and sad as Shirley MacLaine in that 1960s Billy Wilder movie The Apartment. And truthfully, if it weren’t for the illness and the events that soon followed, I might have come away from New York with this floating, movie-inspired view of the city forever in my mind.
That day I found out about you, I headed out into those streets. I sat for a while in Union Square, which always seemed like more of a circle to me. I loved it best on weekends, when there were vegetable and fruit stands. During the weekdays it was just another park, with people sitting around its edges, stabbing at things in Styrofoam containers, and pigeons pecking at every speck on the sidewalk, and someone handing out flyers for the coming apocalypse, and skateboarders shooting down the steps in disregard of the tourists. Usually I took a perverse pleasure in watching the debt clock tallying what the nation owed so silently and with such dizzying speed, but that day I wasn’t seeing anything.
A couple on the bench next to mine had begun to quarrel. He was black and wore a fisherman’s hat. I remember the brim was turned down and I thought he looked fashionable. His knees were pulled up, his elbows draped over them, lanky, hands dangling, and his white sneakers were braced against the bench. I can see things like this, little moments, crisp and still like photographs, when I close my eyes. His companion was a chubby white girl with very black hair and red lipstick, and maybe a pair of striped leg warmers over her Converse sneakers, even though it was plenty warm out. I had stopped there to scroll through the numbers on my cellphone, and I paused at Larissa’s name, then at my mother’s, and finally at Karl’s, before flipping back to the menu screen. I’d been meaning to buy a New York cellphone, but I had so few people to call that I’d procrastinated on the expense, which meant my signal had to bounce all the way back to Canada. A mere three minutes of roaming fees could buy my dinner, I told myself.
“What you want?” the boy asked the girl. He repeated it several times and she wouldn’t look at him or answer, her arms folded across her stubby body. “I said, what do you want?”
“I don’t want nothin’,” the girl snapped, and she stood up and made a big production of straightening her cargo purse before she walked away, the skull patch on it bouncing off her hip. He looked at me, and I looked back, apologetic for women the world over. His mouth made a straight-line smile, as if saying he’d had better days. He had small acne bumps across his cheeks—and I realized neither he nor his girlfriend was more than nineteen. He lifted himself off the bench and loped after her like he wasn’t in any hurry to catch up but would eventually.
“Call me,” I said to the phone, quietly. “Call me. Call me.” I stared at that goddamn phone the way I used to stare at objects the summer I was eleven, the summer I thought I had telekinetic powers. It didn’t warble, burble, vibrate, or sing. Wouldn’t you know the cold black object just sat there in my palm, ticking off the time? I dropped it back in the side pocket of my bag and stalked off in the same direction as the young couple. With every step, I wondered where the fetus was located inside me. Did it slosh to the right or the left? Did it bob between my hips like a thimble in a tub of water? How big was it? Was it just a tadpole still?
I felt incredibly naive, unfeminine—unfemale—not automatically knowing these facts, and a wave of heat overcame me. I vaguely recollected a series of pink illustrations from some textbook, imagined a seahorse or dinosaur shape, with alien eyes, about the size of a cashew. I sat down again before I had crossed the park and swiped my short sleeve across my forehead to mop up the sweat. As you will eventually learn, I overheat when I’m in crisis. I added another shade of pink to my list of pet peeves: sex ed.–pamphlet pink.
Eventually, I got up off that bench and kept walking, and after a while I found myself in a hair salon in Midtown. By then I had decided I didn’t want you. How do I explain this? Especially if you can hear me. If you can understand. But you can’t understand, can you? I’m just a voice. A hum.
It’s a rational thing. I’ll tell you all my reasons. I didn’t want to be a single mother. I had no income. Sure, I had an MA in Culture and Communication Studies, but what did that really mean? I was a PhD candidate living on a ticking grant clock. I could probably find employ back in Toronto, something dull but for which I was qualified: a job in media or arts, copywriting, maybe the CBC. God, how we all wanted to work at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation! It was practically upper-middle-class welfare. I was qualified to teach, but even sessional college jobs were rare. I could get a job doing some kind of marketing, or maybe just secretarial work. But the idea of raising Karl’s baby when I wasn’t sure how I felt about Karl made me feel small, both as a woman and as a human. The idea of raising any baby was bewildering.
I’m not sure exactly how I came to my conclusion about you that afternoon. It just seemed that with each step one thought replaced another, and by the time I found myself sitting in the swivel chair of a stylist who didn’t speak a lot of English, I had run out of ambiguity.
“Fix it,” I instructed, pointing to my roots.
“What you want?” the stylist asked, cocking her head, oddly echoing the words of the teenager in the park.
What did I want?
The stylist was middle-aged, her own hair a lustrous black without a strand of silver, blown into a bob, smooth and straight around her face. She held up hanks of my hair and then let them fall again, watching. Then she watched in the mirror as she repeated the gesture. My hair was dull, she told me. This was a surprise to me because New York’s water was softer than Toronto’s, and I had thought my hair was healthier than usual. But she gazed at me like she had known me all my life and the way I had treated my hair was a true disappointment to her. She shook her head. “So dull.”
I thought I might cry.
I had heard a lot of hair tips over the years from my mom. I had followed none of them:
• “Put your leisure time to work on your hair!”
• “Before washing, brush your hair. The shampoo will not rinse out properly if your hair is a bird’s nest of tangles.”
• “Combat dry hair with a beer rinse.”
• “Your hair is your family’s crowning glory, so invest in a good conditioner.”
• “Rub mink oil into your hair to add shine and sparkle.”
• “A touch of olive oil will curb your dandruff problems.”
• “Head massages stir up circulation and improve the scalp for a healthier head of hair. If the skin is tight it usually means you are rundown or tense.”
• “Instructions for washing: Rinse with warm water. Rinse and rinse again. When you’re positive you’ve got all the soap out, rinse again. Rinse until your hair squeaks. If the hot water won’t last out through all these rinses, be brave: the last rinse can be icy cold—which gives more shine.”
I was never sure how an eco-girl was supposed to cope. As for scalp massages, if my head was any indication, it seemed I was always rundown and tense.
“Colour it,” I choked to the stylist. I took off my glasses and laid them over my knee. I wiped one eye with my fist, and some mascara came off on my knuckle. I wiped my knuckle on my jeans. I put my glasses back on. “Colour it,” I said again, stronger. I tilted my chin at the stylist as if daring her to object.
“Oh-kay,” the stylist said, as if thinking, It’s your funeral.
My hair has always been slightly bushy, with a coarse, brittle texture, and it was this, I thought, more than the colour, that she was reacting to. White people’s hair is supposed to be fine, like cornsilk. My hair came from my father’s ancestors, who, although I never knew them, were apparently as Scottish as border collies. It was sheepdog thick.
The stylist went to a cabinet and took out that book all salons have, the one with loops of hair in a myriad of colours: black velvet, ebony, sable brown, umber, chocolate, walnut brown, ash brown, mahogany. I used to love playing with them when I was a kid in my mother’s hair shop. The stylist flipped quickly through the browns. Then came auburn, orange-red, ginger, copper, radiant red, flame, deepest scarlet, merlot, purple orchid, violet, plum, indigo, azure, and even flamingo pink. And then there were the blondes. Though I’d never been one, I knew the names by heart: sahara, desert ochre, dark blonde, goldenrod, luminescent blonde, honey, chamomile, chardonnay, silver blonde, white blonde, and finally, platinum. Back and forth the stylist flipped the book.
“Brown,” I told her, sheepishly. “Just a mid-brown. This colour.” I showed her the ends of my hair. The roots, on the other hand, were the shade of spaghetti marinara.
I had never seen a woman over forty wrinkle her nose, but this woman did exactly that as she looked at me in the mirror. I watched her hold up the book and select a rusty strand to hold next to my roots. “This one,” she said, and nodded.
I craned my neck to look her in the eye. “Brown,” I insisted, but even I could hear some hesitation in my voice.
The stylist next to us looked over. She was younger than my stylist. She said something in Korean. Then she looked hard at me and said, “Go back to your natural colour. It’s right for you.”
I didn’t say anything more. The stylists had won.
The older woman whipped around and started mixing up the colour on a side counter. She threw a vinyl smock over me without even a glance at my face.
She was going to strip out the colour that I’d put in. At least the bleach burning my eyes meant I could cry in public if I wanted to. I had lots of reasons to cry: Karl Mann wouldn’t leave his wife. We had slept together only five times. Karl and his wife had slept together how often? Fifty-five times, three hundred and five, one thousand and five, ten thousand and five? I imagined them fornicating into infinity. I saw them floating nude through the chamber of their clean white bedroom, like astronauts untethered from gravity, stray limbs tangling like ribbons, indulging in upside-down acts of love-making.
It was just before Labour Day weekend, and the younger stylist had propped open the door of the shop. A fly came in and landed on my pant leg, then another. I jostled my knees and they lifted off, zipped around the salon, then returned, settling defiantly on me.
Karl and I actually slept together six times, if I counted the night in his Mini Cooper, when he had begged me to masturbate for him just once, then give him a hand job, just a hand job, then cried afterward while I rooted around in my purse for a package of Kleenex to clean up. I usually didn’t count that one. I had seen men cry before. My dad, when I was really young. But watching Karl cry was different. He was too tall for that car and the space felt small to begin with. He was a married man, and he wasn’t mine, and I wasn’t sure why I got crying Karl while she got stoic Karl. And he didn’t just tear up and hold his fingers across his eyes like my dad had. No, when Karl cried he blubbered like a hundred-and-seventy-pound baby. I had never seen anything like it. His whole forehead wrinkled up. There were more wrinkles there than I’d ever seen in one place, and Karl’s emotion seemed to surge upward through his whole body as if the cacophony, and his soul, would emerge out the top of his head in a big mess. A volcanic eruption. It was like watching someone orgasm, but uglier. Ours was an ugly affair. And now the flies were back, four of them, big black ones.
“Shoo,” I said, “shoo.” I shook my knees and they took flight, only to return a minute later. In the mirror, my hair looked positively white, fuzzy with the bleach. I had taken my glasses off, and they lay folded on the vanity. My stylist came over to check on me. She gave me a magazine to swat the flies away, but the flies kept returning.
If I were to try to guess when it happened—this thing, this strange thing, your conception—I would say the fourth time. And that’s what I sat there thinking about, in that hair salon, sweating under that smock. Even now, I still think it was that fourth time.
Karl had shown up at my place unexpectedly. It was close to eleven at night, a Friday, and suddenly he was at the alley door, standing on the fire escape, his drunken face on the other side of my window. I was straining Kraft Dinner for a late meal. I dropped the strainer and the pan together in my sink and sprang halfway across the room I was so surprised. Drops of hot water had splashed my wrists, and they burned, but I said nothing, just wiped my hands on my shorts. I don’t know if shock always leads to good sex, but in that case it did. That he’d come to me was thrilling. Watching him move through my space, touch my things, was more of a disinhibitor than alcohol or the weed no one ever shared with me.
That night, I felt as if I filled my entire body for the first time, was as present as I could possibly be. The only time I’d ever felt even close to that way before was in a women’s history elective in second year, when I’d sat behind a girl named Catherine Lee—I knew her name only because she raised her hand a lot, and the professor would call on her. And every time she raised her hand, her scoop-neck shirts would gap and I’d stare straight down her perfect back at her black bra straps. I don’t know why her, but when she did that, especially if she leaned forward to get the prof’s attention, I felt as if I would burst out of my own skin. It might have been the fact that she didn’t care if her bra showed, that she’d seemed to have a sexuality all her own—I certainly never felt like I had that. Even the couple of men before Karl that I’d messed around with had been like experiments in tactile sensation and physical mechanics rather than fulfilling contact. And until that night in my apartment, Karl had also been an experiment.
I fell on Karl and kissed him in the hallway. He was about to use my bathroom to urinate but somehow I pinned him against the doorway, and in spite of his condition, we began, right there, standing up. I remember I got the feeling almost right away. That feeling. It’s one where you feel limp and full of adrenaline at the same time, and your head is suddenly a black-and-white movie, and you can hear the ocean crashing a thousand miles away and radio static and snatches of songs at full volume, and there aren’t any words for it. It wasn’t exactly the sound of violins, but … I hadn’t felt anything like it before with Karl. Maybe he sensed it too, because he got nervous and stopped.
“We shouldn’t,” he said.
But then we went into my bedroom. Professor Karl Mann was in my room. He was breathing my air, and then his hands and his hair and his scent were in my sheets; he was leaving behind his skin cells; he was trailing a finger over my books and saying something innocuous, and out of the dresser drawer I pulled a condom—the only one I owned, procured two years before from the university women’s centre along with a safe-sex instruction kit. I threw the condom on him, and we finished what we had begun. But because I was still going, could have continued indefinitely, was having my first orgasm with him, he stayed inside me with the condom on after he’d already finished. That must have been when it happened.
In that Midtown hair salon, I shooed the flies away again.
Karl had always seemed delicate. He was tall and thin—much thinner than me. He had a long thin face, and long thin fingers, and a long thin penis, which I didn’t love but also didn’t mind. I had made a lot of noise that night, which I hadn’t done before. Because we’d never been anywhere where I could. Except the one time at the cottage. This cottage.
But that was early on in our relationship and I was too nervous to make much noise then.
At my apartment, it was different. It was mine and I was comfortable there. I couldn’t tell if he liked it, my being loud, or if it bothered him. He called having an orgasm “getting off,” which I found alienating, impersonal: Did you get off? I felt a little ashamed, and I remember I walked around my room, cleaning the place up, because I couldn’t look at him.
A little while after that, we mixed the cheese powder and milk into the Kraft macaroni and ate it cold. “This is just awful,” he said, laughing, and I hoped he meant the instant macaroni. I thought he did, but I knew he was upset with himself for coming over, for staying too long, though it had been only an hour or so. He said he was going to go. No, had to. Had to go.
He kissed me at the top of the fire escape, his clavicle against the top of my head when he hugged me. It was the second week of July. The smog of the city felt like a blanket on our shoulders as we stood in the open night air and said goodbye. Then he was going down the steep metal stairs out the back of my place, and because I knew his feet must not fit entirely on the slats, I watched him as he descended carefully from the second floor. I wanted him to look back, and when he got to the bottom he did. He grinned for a second, like a seventh-grade boy in spite of the wrinkles around his mouth, like he had accomplished something. His glasses were in his pocket, and he looked younger with the streetlight from the alley streaming across his face. The fragrance of the Magic Thai restaurant downstairs was belching out the back door into the heat. The moment felt perfect, reckless, floating, and I thought to myself: Remember this.
Remember this—and here we are, and I have.
And then he ruined that moment. “I wish you could be my girlfriend,” he called up, still grinning, as if he had said something profound or beautiful. As if he had said, “I love you.” He turned, and I watched his tucked-in blue shirt drift away through the dark. A large wooden bead tumbled in the back of my throat.
It was that time, then; that was when you happened. I was punished for my desire. (The fifth time, although it was the last, was lacklustre, unmemorable.)
In the salon, six flies stuck themselves to my jeans and I felt like a freak, like Pig-Pen from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip. The stylist came back, and the flies took off; they only wanted me. The ammonia climbed my nostrils, a scent that I could taste with each breath, it was so astringent. My eyes still burned and I still wanted to cry—and I would have, if I hadn’t already been cried out. Karl was old and pathetic and sad, and I had been attracted to all those things about him. I “got off” on them. I writhed against his sadness.
I remember the tug of the stylist’s hands as she checked my hair again, parting the sections and rubbing at them with latex-gloved fingers. Eventually I was done. She gestured me over to the shampoo chair, where I reclined as she washed out the rest of my disintegrated colour. Then she applied the dye almost tenderly with a brush, smiling at me and talking to the other woman in Korean. My stomach had a gaping feeling in it, but I couldn’t tell if it was nausea or hunger. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been around all those chemicals in my state.
When the stylist had applied the colour and rinsed it again, and dried and styled my hair, and it was all over, I looked like a self I hadn’t seen in a long time. Against my mother’s wishes, I had been dyeing since age fourteen. The stylist had taken an inch or so off and my hair was gently bobbed. It lay just below my collar: a brilliant orange, the colour of lilies. I didn’t know how I felt about it.
“Pretty,” she said, moving the hair around my face, adjudicating me.
I had staggered into the cheapest-looking salon I’d passed, but of course it still cost more than I had, this thing I hadn’t wanted, but that, well, filled the time. I pulled out my credit card and paid the woman.
It was just after three and I was on my way home—home being a relative term—when the first incident happened.
* * *
Businesspeople were striding along the sidewalk past me, weaving and streaking into each other, a blur of hosiery, patent leather, pinstripes. I felt bright as a Christmas ornament with my new hair, which was really my old hair. It wasn’t far back to the Dunn Inn, but I was walked out. I would ride home, and do what made the most sense: call Karl. The academic feminist part of me felt defeated: devastated by biology, I had run out to get my hair done as a balm. As I descended into the white-tiled corridors of the station for the F train, the gluten and cheese of a pizza slice shifted inside me, and I wondered, too late, if I should have opted for something less heavy.
My feet, the shape each made on the stairs as I descended: I remember watching them. I remember clinging to the rail as I tried not to be rushed by the impatient crowd behind me, a knot of hollering high school boys. I was about to sit down to wait on the one bench seat remaining when my guts roiled.
I put my hand out for one of the posts. I drew a quick breath—hold it down, hold it down—and stared at the ceiling, my eyes tracing the pipes. Aspergillus and peeling white paint. The dark station was hot and smelled of urine and sweat, which only made the closed-in feeling worse. I swallowed, and shuffled slowly between clusters of other waiting passengers, over to the trash receptacle. It seemed the logical place to be for what I thought—feared—might happen. I placed one hand on the bin. Where normally I wouldn’t have touched it, now I was leaning on it. If anyone noticed, no one seemed concerned. Given the time of day, almost everyone was young, oblivious. Nearby, some schoolgirls in kilts and sneakers were pushing each other’s shoulders and laughing. Upstairs, a lady busker with a karaoke machine was crooning into a microphone. The Supremes: “Baby Love.” Slightly off-tempo, a high, reedy voice tumbled down the stairs, the words just reaching us. My eyes watered. I swallowed. My newly coloured hair fell forward, forming a curtain between me and my surroundings. Through it, I saw her.
Something about her pace drew my eyes. She was ambling along the yellow stripe of the platform opposite. Under the fluorescents and through the wall of black posts that divided our two tracks, I watched her. My face was tilted almost sideways, so that everything seemed off, skewed, yet I couldn’t help focusing on her. She had a slight lumber, as if one side of her body were heavier than the other. Her left leg seemed to drag a little. She was wearing a red power suit, sneakers—puffy, bright white Nikes—and her Barbie-blonde hair touched her shoulder-padded jacket. She had the chiselled chin of an older woman who maybe had had some work done, though truthfully she was too far away for me to make this observation. Maybe I’m remembering pictures I saw later, when the whole story surfaced. A white bow was knotted at her neck. Again, I probably didn’t notice that at the time. What I did notice, though, was that her movement didn’t match someone so put-together, long strides that lagged as if her feet weren’t behaving. Maybe, I thought at the time, her odd gait came from wearing heels all day—except she wasn’t carrying any, and not even a purse. Then the truth dawned on me. I knew the insane well from my home in Toronto, a city that had a grand scheme of integration alongside gentrification; condo towers had been built practically on top of what was once called the asylum—all just a couple of blocks from my old apartment. Living there had taught me how to identify crazies from a distance. It’s funny but I was almost grateful to the strange woman in that moment, because she gave me something to think about besides myself, something to focus on as I fought the second wave of nausea. She had almost reached the end of the platform when it happened, quickly and—I hate to say it—almost gracefully.
A girl across the way, about the same age as the schoolgirls beside me, was holding a heavy backpack and corded to an iPod. She had turned to peer down the tunnel for the train. She was standing so close to the edge. The blonde woman loped up to her, seized her by her shoulders, brought her face into the girl’s hair, as smoothly and easily as if they were old friends embracing. The girl let out a shriek, and my head snapped up on my shoulders, my heart racing. By then the blonde was holding her at the edge, the girl’s body seeming to dangle there on the lip of the platform, her dark backpack and dark hair nearly hanging over those black tracks. Then the blonde businesswoman reared back, the white bow of her blouse suddenly blurred by blood. As she reeled she dropped the girl abruptly onto the tracks. The girl hit the metal with a frank thud, and the shrieking stopped. Just like that. The pack with its weight fell over the girl’s head.
Upstairs by the turnstiles, the karaoke lady kept warbling for quarters to an anemic music track, oblivious. It was some old show tune—maybe “Happy Talk” from South Pacific, I think now.
On the opposite platform, figures rushed away from the scene like a herd moving together from danger.
A woman on our side yelled for someone to get the attendant. All eyes were on the girl, though, and in contrast to those on the opposite platform, our crowd seemed frozen. I know I felt that way. For several heartbeats I just stood there.
Then cellphones came out into palms, and people punched into them, some reticently, some frantically. The punching continued for what seemed like forever, but no one lifted a device to an ear. Lack of reception. A couple of the high school kids didn’t even bother trying to phone; instead, they held up their devices and calmly filmed.
An older gentleman in a suit rushed forward from our platform, hand out. “Here, here!” he yelled. The girl on the tracks had pushed herself up on her hands now and was struggling to regain her feet. But she didn’t look in his direction. Her iPod. She still had her ears stopped with music. Behind her, the blonde was laughing, a kind of chortle that woke up my body and propelled it toward the tracks. The next thing I knew, I was kneeling beside the man in the suit, and both of us had our hands out. A third guy joined us. I could feel the LEGO-like bumps of the safety strip digging into my knees.
“Let them work it out,” a voice said behind us. “They probably know each other.”
I couldn’t freaking believe that. Farther down the platform, although I can’t say for sure, I thought I heard the words cat fight. The people behind me were muttering, rationalizing. I turned and—I’ll never forget this, although it was just a split-second glimpse—saw a barrel-chested guy about my age pushing an oversize hero sandwich into a mouth not large enough to encompass it. This guy, he stared at the scuffle, chewing as if he were at a main event. A pair of mirrored sunglasses hung from the collar of a T-shirt that said, in letters so large I caught them without trying, Just Pretend I’m Not Here. He kept chewing. It makes me shudder even now. I turned my head quickly back, heat prickling through me.
The girl, by this point, was limping across the rails, bleeding from her shins through her white socks, which were also streaked with dirt. Because I was the one on my knees, closest to her level, it was my hand she reached for, and as I leaned out, I felt one of the men next to me slip his arms around my waist to give me support and balance. The suited man reached out and grabbed her other hand. Her hands were small. Her eyes dark, full of fear. I could feel her breath wrench through her in small gasps, and I caught the tinny smell of her saliva. Then she kind of … Yes, she put one foot against the wall to spring up, but her fingers—her fingers were slick with sweat and slipped from mine, and she fell.
There was a stomping sound—the blonde had jumped onto the tracks. She was wearing those white trainers on her feet, so she crossed the gap quickly, and the girl too was now moving quickly. The girl grabbed the lip of the platform with one hand and the suited man’s hand with the other. She swung a leg up and her sneaker glanced the yellow safety stripe before it slid off. The blonde had her by her skirt’s waistband, and the girl was going from us—going, slipping away. We watched as it happened. The whole platform watched. The two women stumbled, tall and short, blonde and dark, old and young, struggling, over the closest tracks and onto the other set. The girl, she was fighting all the way, and she managed to jab a fist upward into the blonde’s throat, but the blonde had her now by the hair—I mean fistfuls of it—and was dragging her, a mad determination on her face.
Then there was a light in the tunnel, coming closer on our side.
One of the men still had his arm around me, something I didn’t realize until he pulled me back, hard, and we landed together on our butts on the platform. A huge simultaneous shout went up from the crowd on our platform, and I didn’t know why, except that the train had pulled in. The guy and I just sat there blinking at each other. He’d had his arm round me the whole time, but I hadn’t even looked at him before that moment. He was short but beefy, wearing a Mets ball cap.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I—I don’t know,” he said.
If I close my eyes, I can still hear his voice and see his face. He had clear brown eyes and a crewcut with a bit of gel at the front beneath the cap. He wore a white T-shirt with a small gold cross on a chain.
The train doors started opening and people were climbing off. We were lost in their legs, and they didn’t seem to understand, pause, or stop. It was such a mess. Someone stepped on my hand and it hurt, and I had to skitter backward, crab-style. Then we heard it. I could see it on this guy’s face the exact second I heard it: the thundering.
Somewhere behind our train, somewhere we couldn’t see, a train was coming from the other direction.
The guy beside me swore in Spanish. He and I both stared at the tracks. We could see windows through windows, the second train through our train. We could see the shapes of people riding on the train like an ordinary fact. Red shirts, blue jackets, white skin, brown skin, backs of heads, hands wrapped around poles.
“I had her,” the older man in the suit said as he regained his footing against one of the posts. “She was right here.” He held out his hand to us, peering at it. He looked like any businessman. He had silver hair on his knuckles and a thick gold ring with a tiger’s eye or topaz embedded in the middle. “I had her,” he said again, and he continued to say it, staring at the hand.
The young guy said something in Spanish again, then glanced around us. “My bag…” He became distressed. He must have put his knapsack down. It was gone, long gone. You wouldn’t think he would care at that point, but he got up and began to jog down the platform, weaving, glaring at those he passed as if he would recover his bag from them then and there. But the crowd—our original crowd—had meshed with the exiting passengers. Some were left, I guess, standing in shock, while others had already boarded the train. I could still feel the guy’s arm around my waist where he had grabbed me to try to help, yet there he went, already disappearing up the stairs, taking them two and three at a time.
Our train pulled out, and when it did, it left behind the train on the opposite tracks. At first I saw nothing—I guess I was looking for blood—then I saw the thin white string of wire, just a piece of it, twelve inches or so, the cord of the iPod headset lying nearly under the silver body of the train. I couldn’t help it. My gaze fastened to the small round earbud, no bigger than a penny, and the other severed end. That was when I threw up.
Maybe the acrid smell of human vomit had more effect than violence, because the platform cleared quickly. By then, two cops had swung down the stairs. Beside me, the older man in the grey suit was still saying, “I had her…”
He was going into what had already become a story. Some onlookers gathered in one area of the platform to talk over one another and continue to be part of the scene. Vultures. The high school girls were gone, I realized, in spite of wearing similar uniforms to that of the girl who had disappeared on the tracks. But the submarine sandwich guy was still there—although, wouldn’t you know, the sandwich had vanished.
A lady cop was bellowing, “If ya witnessed the incident and have something to report, please wait. Otherwise, we ask that ya go about your business!”
New passengers were arriving, coming down the stairs, people who had no idea and were impatient to get where they were going, asking what had happened—was it a flasher?—or slinking with skeptical glances away from the commotion toward the non-puke part of the platform.
And then I had a terrible thought: Eventually that train, that train right there, is gonna move. And probably not even eventually, but soon. I didn’t want to be there when it did. Every part of my body said, Go. I found that my purse was still strung over one shoulder, between my breasts, and before the officers even glanced in my direction, I stumbled up the stairs and out into the daylight, saying, “I need air. Excuse me, pardon me. Sorry. Excuse me.”
Someone said, “Ma’am!” behind me, and it might even have been the lady cop, but I just kept going as if the voice didn’t apply to me.
I remember walking so fast I was practically running, past dollar stores that sell postcards of the Chrysler Building and coffee cups with pictures of the Statue of Liberty. I stalked through rush-hour intersections like a seasoned pro, and cabs and limos burst forth from one-ways and honked. I flew up my street like a kid chased home after school, up the stairs to the fourth floor before I remembered I was now down on three, and finally managed to get my key into the door, and landed face down on my bed. Through the parted velvet peach curtains, evening bled a gentle stain of light. I must have lain immobile for an hour or more. Then I curled onto my side, and stared at the sky above the courtyard until it greyed and sleep crashed into me.
Copyright © 2015 Emily Schultz.
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Emily Schultz is the co-founder of the literary journal Joyland. Her previous novel, Heaven Is Small, was named a finalist for the Trillium Book Award alongside books by Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, as was The Blondes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Brian Joseph Davis. The inspiration for The Blondes was a Gucci ad featuring murderous looking blonde women in a Vanity Fair magazine. Emily's story about her masquerading as a blonde was featured in Elle Magazine. A blog post from Emily entitled “How I Spent the Stephen King Money” recently went viral.