Susanna Salk



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Hearing Chuck
Sunday, February 10th, 2019

I first heard Chuck before I saw him. It was Sunday morning my freshman year of college and I was walking to my mail box hoping for a check from home that would fund more trips into Manhattan to escape the weekend parties full of warm beer in red plastic cups I hated. There was thumping gospel music in the atrium above me and a distinctive male voice was singing  alongside a soaring chorus of female voices. At one point his tenor broke free and pulled me upstairs. There he was: this  white kid from Minnesota with big ears.  His skinny frame was draped in red robes swaying and clapping as one with a dozen African American females. There was joy in his open face- it was perhaps the happiest I ever saw him again and I was about to see him a lot. No one danced like Chuck. In our college bar The Mug, funk was often the late hour choice and Chuck would be the last one out on the floor- unabashedly soaked with sweat, swiveling his hips until his whole body looked liquid. I went up to him and told him how much I enjoyed the gospel concert. In appreciation he simply took my hand and twirled me to Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out” until Poughkeepsie, New York felt like downtown Manhattan. Once The Mug closed and most of us went on to finally start homework, Chuck often went to obscure gay bars several towns over on his own. He’d knock on my door at sunrise and sit on my bed because he didn’t want to be alone. One time he played me Chaka Kahn’s “Roll Me Through The Rushes” and sang along. It was so beautiful I opened my window wide so that the whole quad could fill with his voice. When the song was over he looked out at my view- across to the gothic library bathed in eerie moon light and said: “Sometimes I think I could just jump.” I didn’t know how to answer that so I simply closed the window. 

I eventually ended up finding my tribe of people and became enveloped in the daily distractions that college brings. Chuck had always been one to skip classes but then weeks went by and I realized I hadn’t  seen him at The Mug, in fact I hadn’t seen him anywhere anymore. 

By spring an English teacher named  Mr Sneden – whom Chuck and I both admired for his wit and pressed bow ties- wrote me a letter cnviting me to dinner at his house with some other students. “Chuck will be there” he said in a pointed way. I RSVPd yes but as the date approached I canceled as I had been invited to a party by someone I had a tremendous crush on. As I was walking Into town the next day I saw Mr. Sneden drive by: in the passenger seat was Chuck. His face, pressed against the window, looked right past me, as if into another world. I knew it was futile even to wave.

I later learned that Mr. Sneden had taken care of Chuck for six months after he had all but dropped out of school. He had tried to help him try to stay sober but it wasn’t enough to help him stay alive several years after graduation. I could never find out the exact details of Chuck’s death and Mr Sneden could never tell me even after I wrote him an imploring letter.

The last time I saw Chuck was at a Spring Parents weekend- it was before he officially dropped out of school and he was walking across the quad with his family. We had drifted enough apart by then that I didn’t feel right running over to introduce myself. There was his younger brother – a mini ten year old Chuck. His innocent face was tilted up to Chuck’s so worshipfully I had the urge to run over and hug them both. Instead I watched as Chuck suddenly took the hand of the younger version of himself and began to twirl him around and around until the whole quad felt the joy.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

It was found in the trash near Yale University around the time de Kooning (Jackson Pollock’s close friend) taught there, by a service repair man who collected discarded art. He kept it until his death (never trying to sell it) and when his estate came for sale, a local auction house I frequent took it under its wing. It’s signed “Pollock” in the corner but no one will authenticate it, the blurred strands of its provinence are far too random and suspicious. Yet for me, briefly this morning, they felt serendipitous.  Of course it couldn’t have been a real Pollock yet there was something in its confident, dense strokes that demanded I pay closer attention. The auction house was asking $5000 as an opening bid. A pittance or a bargain? They were not claiming it was a real, rather just putting its journey to their walls “out there.”

Was this just another one of those indulgent stories about a supposed masterpiece being found in an attic  or was it something to be trusted and pursued, the ultimate pay off not just being monetary ( would I really ever sell it even if it was real?) but the reaffirmation that extraordinary things could somehow, sometimes, happen in the universe. 

If some student did it to mimic Pollock- whether as a fun prank or as intentional fraud – in a way that I still love it regardless of its creator, does that merit whatever price I am willing to pay and what am I willing to pay? Is the memorable story of my “discovering” it this morning: the enjoyment of the auctioneer’s tale while he tapped on a Newport light in the dusty preview room where it hung; my excited ensuing call to my husband (skeptical but willing) best friend (very skeptical) son (wanted it even if it’s not a Pollock) and the delightful hope I suspended myself in like a hammock for a glorious two hours until an art expert tells me it’s definitely NOT a Pollock, merit its place on my wall as much as if somebody told me it was a real Pollock? My pondering strangely never dips into the cynical, rather it seems to coat the canvas like another layer of paint.  As much as I wanted it either way now, I also know somehow it was already out of my hands.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

It’s the day after Christmas and already- to me at least- the wreaths and tree have a taken on a slightly melancholy air. I am taking out my umpteenth bag of garbage to the garage in the chilled night air, grateful it is full of the scraps from a bustling, family-fed holiday but somehow feeling very solitary in my unnoticed task. The sensor light pops on, as if expecting me, illuminating a lone unexpected package. After so many have been ordered, delivered and opened it ruffles me a little: what has been delayed or forgotten? It’s addressed to me, and the return label is from Karina Gentinetta, an artist I greatly admire but have only met in person a handful of times in my life. But Karina is someone you feel you know without knowing. There is a special weight to the package that dares me to not want to expect something and yet, can’t help but wish for it. It’s the first time I’ve been by myself in the house for a week and I am grateful for the solitude as I open it. The simple brown paper wrapping belies the framed color behind it. I hurry around the house clutching it, looking for the right spot yet I already know that it’s going by my bedroom bureau, a place only I visit day after day. I hang it without measuring. Its flecks of raspberry reds seem to dance next to my pink velvet curtain like old friends. Her note simply says “I am thinking of you.” There’s been no special occasion in my life lately good or bad, so how could she know? How could she know how much I needed this color in my room. Tonight.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

We met on a rainy night, somehow the only two people on the library path, neither intending to go to the library. I was bent over, searching for my contact lens. The lenses were hard in those days, often popping out of my eyes as if with a protective will of their own. I had no back up pair and I could already hear the eye doctor’s clipped query of “Is this better…or this one…” as he slotted in sample lens over the examination glasses in an endless loop.

“What are you searching?” Carlos’ South American accent made me look up, as if he would take my hand and we would glide away to a place where palm trees swayed under clear exotic skies. He was part of the sleek European set at my New England boarding school: people whose parents sent chauffered town cars to drop them off after breaks, who knew how to pronounce “Gstaad” and huddled in the Butt Room, sharing their red packs of Dunhill cigarrettes purchased at Duty Free on the way back to school. Carlos wasn’t good looking but his exotic swagger and cheerful confidence endeared him with everyone from jocks to Mrs Primm, a Science teacher who- as campus legend had it- had smoked the hashish he had smuggled back from his hometown of Venezuala in the heel of his cowboy boot.

“Oh…just a contact lens,” I stammered, pushing back the hood of the yellow rain coat my mother had insisted I pack even though the drizzle had accelerated to rain. He just smiled, as if not understanding. I pointed to my eye but he looked over my shoulder, thinking I meant the building behind us, which happened to be the Science Center named after my grandfather, surely the real reason I had been admitted here.  I was the sort of student who was pretty good at a lot of things yet never had excelled at anything. I was sloppy and social, strong willed yet unsure. 

I could make people laugh, but unsure how to use that power. I could write but had no intention of rewriting. I could act but didn’t know I could expect that as a profession. My sensible Yankee childhood stories felt as plain as the newspaper my parents read side by side every night, next to the glossily colored stories of people like Carlos.  He stared at my rain coat intently and then reached out to me. I anticipated his touch but he was only pointing to something on my shoulder blade: it was my lens, suctioned to the coat’s surface, its bent ends flapping slightly in the wind. I tried to maneuver myself to grab it but it was too precarious: one more errant rain drop and it would be gone.

As though picking up a butterfly by its wings, Carlos plucked it and handed it to me, the band of his gold watch, flashing briefly. It was still visitation hours, where the girls and boys schools could intermingle between dorms as long as you kept you door open and both feet on the floor.

A late arrival to school, Carlos lived in the small room on the third floor in of one the faculty houses. Its slanted ceiling was covered with black and white pictures of beautiful girls my age which he had taken. They stared back at him intimately, their names like Inga and Marika. One was clearly next to Carlos in bed, the top of the white sheet covering her entire face except for one glinting eye. Carlos took a Dunhill from a carton on the small wood desk, lit it with a gold lighter and handed it to me. “Who is that?” I asked, trying to exhale in a smooth plume. One photo stood out in particular: a woman wearing a chiffon turban and a plunging black  gown with a jewel in its V.  She seemed to gaze at me directly, her hand cocked back holding a cigarrette as if Carlos had just lit it for her, her long red nails fanned out so you could see the perfect tips of each one. I thought of the summer before, how I had bicycled to pharmacy in town to use my baby sitting money to purchase some Revlon red nail polish.  I had done such a poor job applying the red nail polish that I had bicycled back the next day to buy remover. “That….” Carlos said, blowing a perfect smoke circle, “Is my mother.”I let him take my rain coat off and suddenly there seemed nowhere to put it so I placed it in the wastebasket under his desk.

He laughed then, a wonderful laugh. It filled the tiny room and the chorus of all the faces pasted around us seemed to join in. He motioned for me to sit down next to him on the bed and I did. I wanted to tell him how my grandmother wore pearls around her wrist and how her beauty was so great that a man once had threatened to jump off a bridge to capture her attention. How all of her could somehow validate part of me now amongst all of the women gathered here in this disproportioned room.

Mrs. Forbes, his dorm parent, walked past the room and stopped to take us in. She smiled, observing how both our feet were touching the ground. I could just feel Carlo’s warm ankle bone against my own.

As I smiled back, my lens popped out and the world outside of it once again,  became a blur.

Sunken Treasure
Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

It was late and as I was approaching my car in the airport garage, I saw the blurry lines of him, more movement than human, his car parked in the slot next to mine, using the same urgency to unlock it to get home. In the dark cold, a ring I was wearing suddenly flew off my shrunken digit and settled somewhere below in the dark.
“Damn it!” I said aloud and used my phone’s flashlight to sweep the car’s underbelly. Meanwhile I could hear him nearby speaking in another language- Chinese?- gently to someone on his phone. The ring was nowhere and I was torn between my urgency to find it to my urgency to be gone from this netherworld. I imagine my husband sleeping on the sofa next to our dogs by the fire. The ring wasn’t at all valuable- a dear friend had given it to me after I had casually admired it- she had found it at a flea market for forty bucks the same day I had admired it and had simply slid it off her finger with the same detachment it had come off on mine tonight. At one moment my tepid iPhone beam scaled my neighbors’ tire. Suddenly his iPhone light joined mine: I saw his intent face, look up and down as if looking under a ship for a leak. “Just a ring!” I said and wiggled up my finger, not sure those two words
together made sense. Seeing I meant jewelry he responded something urgently in Chinese. “It’s OK,” I said after a few minutes more of us both searching, waving my hand to show it didn’t really matter after all. His phone rang but he refused to answer it. I got up and opened my car door to signal I had given up. But he remained hunched over. His devotion annoyed me and I felt shame. I turned on the ignition. He looked up surprised. I placed my hands together in the international gesture of thanks and apology. My wedding ring touched the finger that once held the other ring. He stood there not moving, until he saw I was ready to back out. He stepped aside. I waved and slowly pulled away. Then I felt a knock on my back window. I felt the vibration of it, like the back of my head was resting against that glass. I looked in my rear view mirror. In his free hand, he held up the ring, offering me to stop.

Hollywood Assistant
Wednesday, November 7th, 2018

“Josh Land is like a teddy bear with fangs,” Ray handed me cappuccino and escorted me up from Human Resources to my first day on the job back in 1992 at the biggest movie agency in the world. My new boss was one of its senior agents and Ray was a seasoned assistant at the desk right next to the one where I’d be sitting. I tried to take a sip of the cappuccino but Ray stopped me. “Not for you. For him.” He pointed upstairs. We were standing in the cavernous, sun drenched atrium accented with Mies van der Rohe and Cy Towmblys. Dangling above, twirling in the air conditioned breeze was an enormous Calder mobile. The perfect Los Angeles blue sky blanketed the domed glass roof. “Take it all in,” Ray paused.“Because until you leave here, this is the last time you’ll be standing still.” Then we sprinted up the ramped hallway towards the second floor. “My friend Mary over in TV got a urinary track infection because she didn’t have time to pee.” We passed a ladies room door as an assistant was coming out, wiping her eyes with a paper towel. Ray continued past the glass conference rooms, without breaking his stride. “Treat Josh the right way and he’s all hugs. A slip up and he’ll leave you to bleed on the sidewalk while he leaves early to pick his twin girls up from ballet.” “So what does he do again?” I asked, trying not to eye the celebrities- their smaller real life selves- strolling past me like travelers on an airport walk way. “He’s the creative think tank for the agency. They bring him in on the meetings with the older stars who they can’t find work for anymore but love having on their roster. He charms them, sends them scripts that’ll never get made. Only agent in Hollywood who wears bow ties.” We arrived at what was clearly my destination: an empty desk with a computer outside a giant office, its door closed. All the lines on the phone were ringing. I thought about my old office and assistant in the magazine business who I had left behind in the New York. “We basically pay you nothing,” Arlene in Human Resources had told me before handing me off to Josh. “But you’ll learn everything.” A small stickie was on the computer screen with the message: DONT WORK HERE

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

For some reason, every year I found myself checking the New York Times obit pages to see if Nadine had died. And today when I did I saw she had. We weren’t close but in the span of one year- during my 22nd and her 59th- she was my first boss. We shared a spacious office at Conde Nast International: her dominant side with a great glass desk overlooking Park Avenue, my smaller version tucked in the corner, filled by an incessantly ringing phone and a typewriter I slowly hunt and pecked at. It was because I knew the European editor for Vanity Fair from my childhood that impressed Nadine during our interview and smoothed over the current state of my shaggy French she said was “de rigeur”
even though she was American. Nadine was the point person for all the Conde Nast French design magazines: thick, glossy editions filled with homes I would never see produced by people thousands of miles away whom I only spoke to when they called first thing in the morning looking for Nadine who never seemed to be there when they needed her. You could practically see the smoke from the editors’ cigarettes coyly twist out of the land line as they chirped “C’est urgent!” When the publishers called with their clipped “Bonjour,” they hung up as soon as they heard it was me.
And finally she’d arrive, rarely before 10 am, plopping her many leather satchels on top of the stacks of phone slips that curled upwards, already a few hours old. “For the love of god WHO wants WHAT?!” she’d shout while squinting at the message over her tortoiseshell half glasses. “Francois says it’s urgent,” I’d repeat what I had written. She’d toss off her Dr Scholl’s sandals and in manicured bare feet start calling Paris, I’d half listening along as the initial pleasantries would soon percolate into boiling hot words ending in a hang up that rattled the glass on the corner of her desk. Nadine’s French was blunt, but elegant, like her. She was partial to wearing silk pant suits and always kept her many ringed fingers (stack rings from the Greek jeweler Lalaounis) slightly bent like a cat waiting to claw. Part Two:
Nadine was single and like so many successful working women of her generation, without children. Her ex-husband Philip, with whom she appeared still very friendly, would come into our office unannounced, with the humble acceptance of Eeyore. In his 70s, he always wore a suit complete with a pocket square and a heavy camera hung around his neck, hunching him further forward. He was a photographer and Nadine would send him out to scout pictures before he was even finished shuffling into our office. Clearly still in love with her, he did what she asked without complaint. Nadine had gone through many assistants before me and so conceded my flaws with a resigned annoyance like she had mistakenly been given a bad seat at the opera. When I took down a wrong number by a digit, she told me I had hearing issues and sent me off to a Park Avenue specialist who determined after charging me $500 that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my hearing. Sometimes she would treat me to a lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant where we had coupons after she bartered space in one of our regional issues. She’d saunter down the sidewalk ahead of me slightly breathless. “I hope you’re hungry! We have a lot of coupons to burn through!” No matter how much we’d order it always seemed like we could never break even $50. So Nadine would order food for her dog and as soon as we got back to the office she would give it to our lovable messenger Mike, for him to then walk it over to her doorman who in turn, would give it to the dog walker to give to the dog. We all adored Mike. The gentlest of souls, he stood over 6‘6“ and probably weighed almost 300 pounds yet he delivered all of our packages around the crazy New York City grid without fail. A few months after I started my job, an announcement was made that Nadine had been promoted to director of all of Conde Nast International and all of the US editors on our floor would now report to her. This did not go over well, and the floor soon buzzed like an angry UN meeting with overseas calls frantically dialed to complain. Nadine called me into her office and said that I was being promoted to her position. Cont’d Part Three As I walked home to my little apartment on East 76th street I passed the Lalaounis window and bought one stack ring even though I had nothing to stack it against.
That Christmas Nadine used her Doubles Club membership to treat us all to an office party. Some of us had bought Mike a tie to wear to the occasion and were dumbfounded when an hour before the lunch, Nadine had a mystery emergency package she needed Mike to deliver and therefore avoided bringing an African American male into the club on her membership. After the lunch all of the assistants from the Italian, German and French Vogues tearfully gathered in the kitchen where Mike had a stool for his rare down time to await his return. We each had a boxed dessert to give him. I threw out the pretentious meringue in mine and wrote him a note instead. One of the Nadine’s first request as director was to order a modern, red leather chair from Italy so that she could read the different magazines in her kingdom at the end of the day. (“Mais pas trop cherry red!” ) When it was finally delivered it looked about as home as a tropical parrot on an iceberg. I never saw Nadine sit in the chair and read any of those magazines in fact I never really saw her do much of anything when it seemed that she was always in the middle of doing everything.I slowly realized that what had seemed to take her hours of time at her old job, took me less than an hour in my new position. After six months, resistance against Nadine was too strong and we got a notice from headquarters saying how everyone would report back to their bosses overseas. I was called into her corner office where she was sitting in the red chair flicking her stack rings. Her voice slightly quivered as she told me she was getting her old job back. Personnel would help find me a new job at the American editions. As soon as I got out on the sidewalk, I took off the stack ring and tossed it into the trash.

Road Rage
Sunday, June 10th, 2018

It was around the time that this family picture was taken – posed for our upcoming Christmas card – that I used to see her. We had just moved to the lake full time and I was grateful for the faded but cautionary crosswalk that slowed drivers down as my then young boys would hop between our house and our dock. The first time I saw her was early in the morning as she was crossing over the yellow bars to take a look at the view before continuing on what looked like a devoted exercise routine, walking but with a kick in her step. From the distance as I approached, her attractive face looked serene and I gave her a quick wave and turned in my driveway to my busy life where there never seemed to be enough time nor sleep. Later that afternoon on the way to school pick up, I saw her further down on the lake walking with the same intention as she had that morning as though time had not passed. In my rearview mirror I could get a better look at her face which appeared to be fully made up, her bony arms and legs moving like obliging pistons in a well oiled machine. The next day I saw her again in the same outfit walking along the larger road that took me to yoga, Starbucks, CVS. Another night I was coming back from a dinner party and my beams caught a sudden movement along the road. At first I thought it was a deer until I recognized her shape. As my car momentarily illuminated her like a lighthouse beam she continued undaunted. l asked some of mothers gathered after drop off the next morning if anyone knew who she was: many have seen her over the past couple weeks in different places, always walking always alone, but no one knew anything about her. I remembered as a child looking out our station wagon window as a lone figure walked along the park wearing a full ski mask. It was summer. “I heard he’s crazy,” my brother said. “Vietnam.” I hugged my bare arms around myself as I craned to watch him fade. “Be careful,” my mother said but I wasn’t sure about what. The last time I saw her was during a tennis tournament. It had been weeks. I had run into the little bathroom of our club in between sets and suddenly there she was, applying lipstick in the mirror
(Cont’d: ) I could see all of her now up close: the faded nylon of her jogging shorts so worn you could almost see through them. Her legs and arms were brown in the way that suggested unrelenting sun exposure not leisurely tanning. Her eyes were coated in blue eye shadow and mascara and the outlines of her lips were blurred by so much pink. I stopped suddenly, shocked to have her so close, just her and I like girlfriends running into each other on a bright summer day. Her mouth broke open into a smile as though she were expecting me: “Tell me: who is winning?” she asked in a girlish voice, light with optimism. She waited for my answer, blinking, her lipstick poised. Here was my chance to ask her all my questions and yet, I couldn’t answer one single one of hers. “No one…yet,” I said and hurried into the stall.
“Well good luck!” she said merrily. and I could hear the click as she put her lipstick back in its case and then the sound of the door opening and she was gone. Where does she put her lipstick I wondered as I walked back to the match. She didn’t even have water. I lost that day, her voice bounced around in my head like a tennis ball whirling inside a hurricane. I searched the roads after that, expectantly at first as if she owed me her presence, then longingly then despairingly until my life coaxed me back into its demanding folds until she too became a memory. She had been removed from our landscape the way deer hit by a car are one day: at first a sorry accident, the next day their body a cautious reminder to slow down…. until one day gone and forgotten. “Whose job is it to remove the hit deer from the road?” my boys had asked me. I wasn’t sure. And now, after this week of so much unexpected loss, I want to shout: Why had none of us ever slowed down long enough to even ask her: “How are you?”

The Bureau
Friday, May 25th, 2018

It’s these kind of soft spun spring breezes bearing bird song and tipping bushes heavy with lilacs that make me think of Cindy’s room. It didn’t resemble a college dorm room the way the rest of ours did.
It had a metal cafe table with matching pair of chairs like you see in Paris gardens and a large mirror with a circular gold frame had banished the brown rectangular one that came with the room. Her bed was all pillows: two decorative pillows you’d find in a real home neatly propped against large floral shams that in turn were in front of neat white square pillows that always seemed freshly pressed. My two yellow pillows looked like I had brought them straight from summer camp and bypassed high school to arrive just down the hall from Cindy. Her door was always just open, just enough so you could see that a fresh bouquet of roses had been placed on the cafe table, replacing the ones from the week before. No one had ever sent me roses. And if they had I certainly didn’t own the kind of tall vase in which to put them. I owned some clothes, a typewriter and a warped bedside bureau which I lugged from my childhood room with me, to prep school, to this my final year of education, painting it whatever happened to be on hand when it needed freshening. It was filled with letters and mementos from friends, family and boys (even a few men) and all the magazine ads that inspired me that I had been tear sheeting from Vogue and the New York Times Sunday magazine since I was ten. I guess you could say that the bureau was my vase. Weeks before graduation, it was stuffed with a rich variety I had plucked from my four years at college: notes for the creative honor thesis I had been chosen to write, play programs for the shows I had acted in as my unofficial major, match books, photos curled at the edges of my best friend Holly and me on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard during a debauched summer of waitressing and driving her father’s truck barefoot. The bureau was testament that my life was young and thriving and messy with potential.
And here I was, cresting the wave of my senior spring with Laird, who had started out as a friend and then bloomed into a soul mate. We had careened those last few months from party to classroom to every cranny of our shared scenic campus with a kind of fervor that was fueled by the unstoppable belief that we were special, as though draped under a great cloak that we both held high yet protectively above our heads. I was so intoxicated by our power that I started to not see the signs of little tears forming around its majestic edges. The first warm April night outside Laird and I ran across the hills behind the quad that were dotted with thousand of sprung daffodils. There were so many, it was almost impossible not to step on their fragile bent heads but we tried, giddy with the task. It was so late when I returned to my dorm that the usually raucous hallway was entirely dark. Only Cindy’s door was ajar, a triangle of light almost as alluring as the moonlight had been outside. I didn’t know Cindy at all: she was a sophomore and who had time for sophomores? Sometimes I caught a glimpse of her long blue black hair in the shower when I went in to brush my teeth, its sleek beauty reminded me of both a seal and a siren. One time we passed each other in the hallway as she was carrying a bouquet of fresh roses in to her room while I came out of mine, holding a broom, having tried to rid the dust that constantly gathered under my bureau. We scurried past one another, giving a quick nod as if we worked in some royal household. But tonight I felt as if I needed to connect with Cindy, if only to reassure myself that the rest of the world was still spinning and that my good fortune within it did have a context. She was brushing her hair and turned almost as if she was expecting me. She waved with her brush for me to enter. In her domain now, I was struck by the fresh force of beauty and it gave me pause. She gestured with her brush for me to sit at the café table that contained a neat stack of paper. I felt like we were meeting for an ice cream sundae on a double date. “I hear you’re a fast typist,” she said. “I manage,” I said still not sitting.
“Well,” said Cindy unplugging a flat iron. “I am slow as shit. And this is due by eight AM.” She picked up the paper stack filled with her slender handwriting. The roses on the table quaked. I knew where this was going: occasionally people had asked if I would type for them and I always said no. “I’m fast,” I explained, feeling suddenly like the ice cream parlor was a courtroom. “But I make tons of errors.” But Cindy was already opening a long leather wallet and pulling out some cash that looked as ironed as her sheets. “Will one hundred work?” I was broke. My small allowance for this last month of school had already been spent and I longed to buy some new earrings to wear at the graduation party my parents were letting me throw for my friends in the Shakespeare Gardens.
“You mean tonight, right now?”
As she handed me her paper I could see her breasts through her T-shirt nightgown. Their enormity were much more legendary around campus than my typing and thinking of this made me smile which she interpreted as consent.
“Just slide it under the door when you’re done. Like by 7:45. AM.”
I never pulled all nighters. I was an eight hour sleep kind of girl even at my own slumber parties but tonight I put the typewriter on the white bureau while I sat in bed to give myself the illusion of repose while transposing Cindy’s paper. Somewhere by page two I came to the realization that I couldn’t just dismiss Cindy, that her analysis of Anna Karenina was compelling enough that I began to enjoy it as a reader and forgot my role as detached typist. By six in the morning I was done and slid it under her door. The next evening I was dancing with a group of friends and Laird when Cindy stormed into our circle. At first I thought she was joining us until I could see that her mouth was moving rapidly at me. “It sucked!” she called out like a greeting.
“It was actually excellent!” I countered. “You write so well-“
“Your typing sucks!” she yelled, just as the Chaka Kahn chorus ended. “I want my money back.” I had already spent the one hundred on a pair of earring at the one jewelry store in town and the change for beers tonight.
Laird stepped in like the county sheriff and handed Cindy two fifties. His grandmother had recently passed away and he had come into a great sum of money which had both enriched and paralyzed him.
As it got warmer, Laird’s grip on our cloak seemed to get looser until suddenly one day he just let it- us – go.
There was one week left before graduation. I had nothing to do but smoke and sleep and slide reams of outraged letters under his door as if in direct response to the negative chain Cindy had somehow started. When my words went unanswered, I begged his best friend to tell me Laird’s whereabouts: I had to see him in person. His eyes looked down and he said “Alumnae House.” This was a grand hotel and restaurant just off campus where my Grandmother, an alumnae, (as I would be soon) liked to go to have hot fudge sundaes with her white gloved classmates.
I approached the porch, the insides glowed with good times. In old sweats and unwashed hair I hovered in a lilac bush, waiting, feeling like I was not part of the living. The lilac smell was so thick I rubbed a blossom across my neck in case I encountered Laird. The purple undersides were already turning brown. The door then opened: a swell of laughter until a couple strolled out and then it was just the two of them, embraced by the soft spring darkness. I could see the distinct curtain of her long blue black hair as it joined the night and swell of her chest. She wasn’t touching Laird but they might as well have been lying on top of one another. I let the bush fold over me protectively as they passed close by. I walked back to my dorm and took the elevator to the third floor, too tired to walk. My room was at the end in the tower and now like a tunnel, I could only see my door at its end. I entered my room and looked out the window. My family was arriving the next day. I could already see my grandmother smooth down her skirt as she exited the car. This seemed more her place than mine now. I’d stare down at her head, all of their heads, like a bird flying above, unsure where to land. But first, I slipped my new earrings into the bureau.

Making Arrangements
Monday, May 14th, 2018

Right after college, a boyfriend hooked me up with one of Manhattan’s first star florists. I loved flowers and needed a job and as a favor to him, Carla hired me without even meeting me. Her tiny Upper East side shop was crowded with finches chirping inside faded Victorian cages, Oscar Wilde-worthy ferns, hundreds of paper whites, orchids and tulips, Mozart wafted from unseen speakers.
I was instantly enchanted but the fairy tale setting was soon shattered when Carla – part Blanche du Bois and part Fran Drescher- shouted from the back for someone to answer the god damn phone. I picked it up and gamely exclaimed: “Marla’s Flowers! “Toooo nice!” Carla shouted still unseen. “Hello?” purred a girlish yet aristocratic voice on the other end. Carla finally poked her head out of her nest-like office, the stub of a joint clasped between her teeth and gestured asking who it was.
“Who is calling?” I said in a tone which I hoped sounded less polite.
“Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.”
I mouthed dramatically who it was and handed her the phone but Carla waved it away and whispered. “Ask her what she wants.” It turned out Jackie wanted some flowers for a party at her apartment but wanted to be sure “it didn’t cost more than a car.” Clearly they had history.
It wasn’t long before I witnessed why Carla could charge what she did: she could make red carnations look sexy and, with one fell swoop of her sheers, cut thousand dollars of white tulips to the nub, plunking them effortlessly into a vase with a sly grin. “A bouquet is like a home,” she’d say over her blue glasses that swung forgotten on ribbons around her neck. “They should have secrets and mysteries.” We’d jump into the back of a van driven by her model-gorgeous husband and careen up Park Avenue to deliver to some of the poshest addresses in the city. I had never seen apartments like this: they stretched entire floors, had Titantic-sized staircases and were anointed with sumptuous velvets, chintz, tassels like frantic exclamation points, gleaming kitchens bustling with staff and hostesses the size of Twizzlers who greeted us in pressed jeans and Chanel jackets.
We went to Trump Tower once after a woman called – she had a read a profile on Carla in W- and asked if we’d decorate her Christmas tree as a surprise for her husband when he came home from a business trip. I put my hand over the phone and whispered to Carla how much it would be. “We don’t DO Christmas trees!” she puffed back. But the woman wouldn’t take no for an answer and to get rid of her, Carla quoted $10,000. The woman accepted without a hesitation. Once the word got out that Carla did trees, the phone didn’t stop ringing. We did a tree for a widow on Sutton Place and, as the coup d’etat, wrapped her mink coat around the base. The shop phone kept trilling like one of the finches. “I’m not heeeere!” Carla wailed. We went to a famous philanthropist’s apartment and filled it with dozens of arrangements that made the ones at the Metropolitan Museum seem like FTD. I snuck a peek at the calligraphed place cards in a dining room: “Henry Kissinger” was seated next to “Nancy Regan.” I touched the gilded tip of the chair and imagined it being held for me, while Nancy and Henry jockeyed for me to explain my senior thesis topic one more time. I imagined tucking the napkin the weight of my bedspread onto my lap, gazing at the massive white lilies and being served. But we were ushered away by the butler and down the service elevator we went. The shop van was gunning outside like a getaway car, its exhaust smoke mixing with the joint Carla’s husband already had waiting for her. As we sped away I recognized one of my parents’ friends entering the building. I was about to wave but it was too late. We were off to set up for another party and their evening was just beginning.